Reviews: Three More For Middle Grade

Claudine Tapsell reviews three recent middle grade reads from two well-known authors and one on-their-way to being well-known winner of the Storylines Tom Fitzgibbon Award. These pukapuka are spine-tingling, slow-burning, and heart-warming, with richly written and endearing characters.

Koro’s Star, by Claire Aramakutu (Scholastic)

In Claire Aramakutu’s award-winning middle grade novel, we are expertly drawn into 10-year-old Atama’s world as he adjusts to life in another army camp in New Zealand. Koro’s Star is an exciting adventure story with family, friendship and courage at its core. Clutching the star, Atama watches as an army truck rumbles down the road. It carries away his father and other Kiwi soldiers bound for the war in Vietnam. Atama knows he needs to be brave and keep his koro’s medal of honour safe until his dad returns. 

Atama enjoys spending time with his mother and little sister; however, he would love to make some friends his own age. After noticing him from afar, a trio of kids turn up at his house, curious about the new boy in town. Jace is the golden-haired leader of the Fear Crushers club. He is followed everywhere by Benny and Heera—his loyal recruits. Unfortunately, Jace has a nasty side, which erupts during a pea-knuckle game. Atama earns the group’s respect when he stands up to Jace, and they invite him to join the Fear Crushers. Desperate to avoid a dull and lonely summer, he accepts the frightening initiation challenge.

The novel has tense, spine-tingly moments that will thrill young readers.

The novel has tense, spine-tingly moments that will thrill young readers. Alone in an underground tunnel during one of the club’s midnight outings, Atama has a terrifying supernatural experience. Frightened that this may be a bad omen, his heart sinks. He is worried that, like his koro who was killed during the Battle of Crete, his father will not return from Vietnam. Aramakutu addresses the subject of losing loved ones in war with sensitivity. Readers will experience Atama’s desperate fears but in an age-appropriate manner. Another issue Aramakutu explores is self-doubt and insecurity. Atama worries about fitting in and being accepted by his peers. Fearing rejection is something that everyone has likely experienced at some point in their lives. It is beautifully resolved as Atama eventually recognises that he is a loyal and worthy friend.

This well-written book will capture the attention of all adventure lovers. It was wonderfully refreshing to read a book where devices aren’t central to young people’s lives and sticks are a crucial part of every childhood activity, from making kites to racing ‘boats.’  The story had me nostalgic for simpler times and evoked fond memories of riding around the neighbourhood on my yellow Raleigh 20. Aramakutu has crafted a meaningful story that, while set in the past, has enduring and engaging themes. A thoroughly enjoyable novel!

Koro’s Star

By Claire Aramakutu

Published by Scholastic

RRP: $21.99

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The Apprentice Witnesser, by Bren MacDibble (Allen & Unwin)

Award-winning Kiwi writer Bren MacDibble has written a novel that is alarming and beautiful in equal measure. Her middle-grade books explore climate change issues and describe future worlds where communities struggle to survive devastating environmental events. In The Apprentice Witnesser, 11-year-old Bastienne Scull lives in a world where global warming has caused the seas to rise and wash away whole cities. A fatal disease has swept through the land, taking boys and men with it. The remaining villages dotted around Australia are occupied mainly by women and girls as the surviving men cower in the wilderness, hiding from the disease that continues to sweep through the land. 

Village elder Lodyma Darsey saved Basti and gave her a home and a purpose. Lodyma is a ‘Witnesser’ to miracles, and Basti is her apprentice. Together, they document wondrous events by snapping pictures with a Polaroid camera and writing accounts of what they have witnessed. These miracles range from oddly sized eggs, two-headed dogs and a washed-up whale carcass. On Market Night, Lodyma enthralls people with her tales. As payment for her miracles, those who attend her shows give her coins or fresh produce. Basti has no idea how much her life will change when two boys come to town and ask them to witness a miracle.

It is a beautifully told story with family, biological and found, at its heart.

MacDibble creates truly endearing main characters. These are ones that readers can connect with, be charmed by, and ultimately love. Orphaned Basti yearns to be part of a family, and her vulnerable moments throughout the story make for emotional reading. The children in MacDibble’s novels also have simple insights about complex issues or situations that adults, with their weighed-down feelings and busy minds, tend to be too overwhelmed to see. The following is a stunning one made by Basti early in the novel:

“Life is strange like that, when your world collapses. Sometimes you lose everything and think that’s the end. But it’s not. It’s just the really sad horrible bit before a whole new life starts up. All you gotta do is hold on.”

The Apprentice Witnesser is very much a ‘slow-burn’ character-driven book. It isn’t the post-apocalyptic adventure-based survival story one might expect, given the target audience. Everything unfolded gently, and the big reveal wasn’t a surprise. The primary focus was the vulnerability, fear and confusion Basti faced as change loomed ominously. Mother’s guilt and grief plagued Lodyma, and I question whether young readers would connect with that element of the novel. However, Basti’s ability to unite people was genuinely miraculous and drew me to her. It is a beautifully told story with family, biological and found, at its heart. Lastly, MacDibble has made me wish I still had my old Polaroid camera to capture magical moments as Basti did.

“That’s what my photos are. Little moments. All the good moments, the kind moments, the moments of care and love that, if you add them all together, make a life sweet.”

The Apprentice Witnesser

By Bren MacDibble

Published by Allen & Unwin

RRP: $19.99

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Faelan the Fearless (#3 Faelan the Wolf), by Juliette MacIver (Scholastic)

Faelan the wolf must change. He has long been despised and ridiculed for his strange ways. After all, whoever heard of a vegetarian, harp-playing, tea-drinking wolf? With Weylin set to be the new pack leader, Faelan’s way of life will no longer be tolerated.  However, a war is brewing with a neighbouring pack and its leader, vicious Varg, has sworn to kill Faelan, destroy Weylin’s pack, and seize the better hunting grounds he covets. Faelan the Fearless is an exciting adventure story with a main character who is a loyal and loving friend.  

It is important to note that this is the third in the series, and reading the preceding books is essential. In book three, we learn more about Faelan’s dark family past and why Varg wants to end Faelan’s life. An unexpected family reunion brings Falean joy and clarifies his future role in the pack. 

MacIver has created a richly imagined world with quirky characters that younger readers will adore.

MacIver has created a richly imagined world with quirky characters that younger readers will adore. Avian, the freedom-fighting singing chicken, was a particular favourite of mine. The bonds between the younger wolves are heartwarming and a great example of accepting and celebrating diversity. We are not all destined to walk the same path or have the same values, and MacIver explores this idea beautifully by uniting different species with a common cause—saving the chickens! 

Some surprisingly gritty fight scenes had me on the edge of my seat. Claws and jaws were out for blood as the battle took centre stage. The wolves fight passionately, knowing the pack’s future is in their paws. However, young readers may be frightened by the injuries suffered during the fight. ‘Naughty’ language dotted throughout may elicit giggles, such as ‘What the fang’ or ‘No fanging way.’ I wonder, however, what some parents will make of this kind of play on words. This book will delight and excite younger middle school readers.

Faelan the Fearless (#3 Faelan the Wolf)

By Juliette MacIver

Published by Scholastic


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Claudine Tapsell

She champions the value of reading and developed a successful reading engagement programme. She was acknowledged by SLANZA and LIANZA with awards of recognition for her work in the area of reading engagement. She also loves the four C’s: cheese, chocolate, coffee, and cats.