Reviews: Two Middle-Grade Stories

Two international novels with links to New Zealand: one rooted in Aboriginal culture, the other with Russian folklore, both filled with adventure. Fiona Giles reviews these middle-grade reads.

A Wolf for a Spell, written by Karah Sutton and illustrated by Pauliina Hannuniemi

Set in the vast forests of the Russia of fairytale, A Wolf for a Spell is an atmospheric, spell-binding read centered on three women: a girl, a wolf, and a witch, whose lives intersect with powerful consequences. The engaging characters, rising tension, and intriguing story will hook readers in from the first line. 

A Wolf For A Spell’s author is an American living in New Zealand who delved into her Russian heritage to write this enthralling tale of the three women, each of whom are the well-drawn protagonist of their own stories. 

For wolf Zima and her family, the forest that is always dangerous has suddenly become treacherous. Zima is young and untried but fiercely loyal to and protective of her family. In the face of impending peril, a terrible choice is before her: should she help the pack by working with the witch Baba Yaga—and face inevitable banishment—or should she follow her brother’s plan?

The engaging characters, rising tension, and intriguing story will hook readers in from the first line

Orphan Nadya also faces a difficult choice. Her frequent forays into the forest and her tenderness towards the wolves puts her at risk of ever finding a respectable home. The only person who loves her, Katerina, is to marry the Tsar, but Nadya has not proven herself worthy of accompanying Katerina to her new life of grandeur. She must brave Baba Yaga to beg a favour.

And Baba Yaga? Whose story has terrified and enthralled children around hearths across Russia for generations? Who is said to be wicked, eat children, and who has a magical walking hut? Both wicked witch and fairy godmother, villain and good guy, depending on who you ask? 

In A Wolf for a Spell, Baba Yaga is still the cunning, clever, powerful witch of lore, but she is also old, tired of life and reluctantly forced out of her hut to face the Tsar. Her plan requires a wolf, and when a desperate Zima arrives serendipitously, her plan can roll into motion. Leaving Zima in her body, Baba Yaga leaves the hut, just as Nadya arrives. 

And so the threads of the story weave together into a satisfying whole; an intricately laced tale of friendship, family, and doing the right thing. Short, snappy chapters and varying points of view keep the pace rolling along merrily. The tale unfolds tidbit by tidbit like a breadcrumb trail, keeping the reader engaged, and the story finds room to touch on big themes of bravery and fear, trust and deception, isolation and belonging.

The tale unfolds tidbit by tidbit like a breadcrumb trail, keeping the reader engaged

While all three protagonists are well-drawn, flawed and realistic, Zima is particularly relatable. She fights to make her voice heard, thinks things through before acting, and is determined and loyal. Her embarrassing struggles to pass as believably human were a delight to read.  

The stark, beautiful illustrations peppered throughout the text by Finnish artist Pauliina Hannuniemi  are in themselves reason enough to buy the book. They have a fairy-tale quality to them: the long lines and bold, Gothic-esque style put me in mind of Disney’s iconic Sleeping Beauty. With wonderfully expressive figures, the richly detailed and dynamic illustrations are always a snapshot of the action and complement the text beautifully.

Strongly descriptive and written in clear, eloquent prose, this book is just-right to read aloud or read alone. A Wolf for a Spell is a character-driven, engaging tale of finding courage, the power of kindness and the urge to have a family (or pack) to call home. 

A Wolf for a Spell

Written by Karah Sutton

Illustrated by Pauliina Hannuniemi

Published by Penguin Random House 

RRP: $18.00

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Custodians: Wylah the Koorie Warrior 2, written by Jordan Gould and illustrated by Richard Pritchard

The second book in the revolutionary new series that aims to unite broad appeal with fantastical adventure and Aboriginal culture is a mixed bag. Mythical creatures litter this fast-paced adventure, which is packed with imaginative crises and high drama. Heroine Wylah will appeal to both boys and girls. However, there are so many characters vying for attention, it’s impossible to do them all justice. 

Wylah (Pronounced Wee-La) is a Peek Whurrong girl from the Gunditjmara nation in southwest Victoria. Her world is half fantasy, half alternate history. Talking kangaroos share the page with vultures, oversize emus, and a range of mythical creatures including dragons and Yara-ma-yha-whos. Wylah is brave, artistic, smart and resourceful. But is she warrior material? She isn’t certain yet.  

Mythical creatures litter this fast-paced adventure, which is packed with imaginative crises and high drama

For those like me who haven’t read the first book, we learn as we read that Wylah’s tribe was captured by men from the Dragon Kingdom. In book one, Wylah’s grandmother appointed her the tribe’s Koorie Warrior. Having successfully united the five great tribal Guardians and their sacred Totems—a club, a spear, an axe, a shield, and a boomerang—Wylah is now ready to rescue her tribe, which is where the action of book two starts. 

Throughout all their adventures, Wylah’s integrity shines through. She delays their journey to help those who need her—even an ungrateful emu. But Gould and Pritchard have been careful to make her a flawed, relatable heroine: for all that she is a good leader, she also struggles with jealousy, suspicion and her belief in herself, things many readers will relate to.  

The cleverly-done Guardians are perhaps my favourite element of Wylah’s world. They are enormous megafauna, including a yellow-tailed black cockatoo (Pippy to you and me) large enough to ride on, and the massive Tulna, a now-extinct marsupial, whose large posterior proves helpful in saving the day. Their super-size and super-powers will appeal to lovers of Pokémon and Power Rangers.

Throughout all their adventures, Wylah’s integrity shines through

Without having read the first book, the large number of characters is difficult to follow. The great tribal Guardians were re-introduced in chapter one,and I would have liked a similar re-introduction to the other characters. With Wylah and her five totems—each with its own Guardian—are her three friends and five animal friends. Add in the members of her tribe, the Dragon Kingdom leaders, and the indomitable Alinta whom she meets on her journey, and that’s a lot to keep track of. There is a glossary at the end of the book, which does help a little. 

A New Zealand-born Samoan, Richard Pritchard’s illustrations are richly detailed and  large, on occasion spreading across two pages. With the vibe of graphic novel illustrations, they invite the eye to linger. They do a fabulous job of highlighting the action and describing all the characters and creatures, and are full of expression—sometimes comically so.  

Seamlessly woven into the story is indigenous culture. We learn how to make bread and then bake it in a marii or bush oven, what grass to make baskets from (Poonyart), and the importance of sacred ochre. Helpful footnotes provide context and translations for those unfamiliar with Aboriginal culture and the Peek Whurrong language. It’s a wonderfully immersive way to teach readers about Peek Whurrong culture without lecturing them.

Custodians: Wylah the Koorie Warrior 2 is a fast-paced, rollicking read that never lets up. Packed with adventure, danger and a great sense of humour—youngsters will love the bottom and fart jokes— a shame the story couldn’t be equally packed with characterisation. This is a great pick for fans of fantasy, adventure, and plot-heavy stories for readers aged 10 plus, who will, I’m sure, be eager to get their hands on book three.

Custodians: Wylah the Koorie Warrior 2

Written by Jordan Gould

Illustrated by Richard Pritchard

Published by Allen & Unwin

RRP: $18.00

Buy now

Fiona Giles

Fiona is a freelance writer from Ireland, now based in New Zealand. She enjoys tea, chocolate and dancing. She lives in Canterbury where she can be variously found working on her novel, reading books and walking her dog.