Leila Austin reviews two new junior fiction titles with a strong sense of place.
Rarotonga (#4 Elastic Island Adventures), by Karen McMillan
The Elastic Island series follows the adventures of Kiri, Jed, Emma and Ethan, who travel via an ‘elastic’ island which flings them into all kinds of places. They’re joined by their pompous, elderly dog, Heathcliff, and their cat, Blong, who has a penchant for sleeping in inopportune locations and—instead of furballs—coughs out grumpy magical telegrams known as Blong-a-grams. As the title suggests, they’re in Rarotonga this time, where a thief has stolen all the black pearls on the island. The kids only have a few days to solve a series of clues and recover the pearls. They also have a new companion to watch out for: a grouchy gecko called Mighty Moko, who wants nothing more than to see them gone from Rarotonga as soon as possible (or so he thinks).
The Elastic Island series follows the adventures of Kiri, Jed, Emma and Ethan, who travel via an ‘elastic’ island which flings them into all kinds of places.
This concept had so much potential for delightful, wacky hijinks! And, seriously, find me a primary school kid who doesn’t love a story with a series of cryptic clues for the protagonists to solve! Unfortunately, however, this book fell very flat.
Despite the scale of the thievery, the stakes in this story are low. The clues are easily solved and the conflict is shallow and external, with little in the way of meaningful consequences for anyone’s actions. The main characters never grow or develop beyond a bunch of ‘types’: the sporty one, the bookish one, the scientist one and the one that likes singing, respectively. They frequently make nonsensical decisions and get distracted by stuff, mostly because the book would end too quickly otherwise. The pacing is uneven and the writing is clunky, loaded with unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, dialogue tags, and repetition of information the reader already knows. The descriptions sometimes seem less like descriptions from a children’s novel and more like marketing materials for the Pacific Resort in Rarotonga and local tourist attractions. This makes sense though because the book was, in fact, sponsored by the Pacific Resort in Rarotonga and officially approved by Cook Island Tourism. From the sounds of it, it’s a lovely place to stay but I couldn’t find any reason to care about anything that happened in this story. I’m not sure many kids will either.
…find me a primary school kid who doesn’t love a story with a series of cryptic clues for the protagonists to solve!
It’s also worth pointing out that while this story is set in Rarotonga, it tends to treat its Rarotongan characters as living scenery. The locals all flail helplessly when their pearls are stolen, leaving it up to the group of (mostly white) main characters to solve a series of simple, Rarotonga-specific clues any local could presumably have solved in five minutes. There are patronising moments, like when the main characters discuss local burial traditions: ‘It’s cultural,’ said Emma. ‘And I think quite lovely. It’s very respectful.’ (Emma is a kid, by the way, not someone’s great aunt.) In a later scene, a main character very abruptly mentions a particularly violent moment in Vanuatu’s colonial history. The conversation then moves on immediately, without further context or reflection of any kind. As the story continues, the Rarotongan characters increasingly fawn over the main characters’ efforts, writing glowing news headlines about them and dressing them up in traditional outfits to perform starring roles onstage in a Rarotongan show. How would this read to a Rarotongan kid, to see their culture portrayed as a costume for a bunch of non-local kids? I don’t know. I’m not sure the author does either.
It’s also worth pointing out that while this story is set in Rarotonga, it tends to treat its Rarotongan characters as living scenery.
As I pointed out earlier, this concept had plenty of potential. Also, given that Aotearoa publishes so few children’s chapter books set in Rarotonga, this was absolutely a worthwhile setting. But it’s also a sad reality that sometimes books get published before they’re ready. Elastic Island Adventures: Rarotonga was published in August 2023, but the research seems to be drawn from a trip the author took in late 2022. That’s an impressively short time frame to smash out an entire novel and get it off to press! I think this book could have really used a longer gestation period—more time, more drafts, more reflection, more chances for the author to hone her craft. It also could have used multiple sensitivity readers.
I think this book could have really used a longer gestation period—more time, more drafts, more reflection, more chances for the author to hone her craft.
The Elastic Island series is growing: the books have been optioned for the screen, and audiobooks narrated by Suzy Cato are in the works. Hopefully, given the increasing audience, future books in the series might get a little more polish.
Editor’s note: The author based research for this work on multiple trips to the Cook Islands, and Cook Island tourism employees, as well as local children and adults, were involved in drafts of the book. The author was hosted by the Pacific Resort on her most recent visit.
Rarotonga (#4 Elastic Island Adventures)
By Karen McMillan
Published by Duckling Publishing
Tumblagooda, by Suzanne Ingelbrecht
In a small coastal town in Western Australia, George—call her Georgina at your peril—lives an adventurous life, crowning herself king of imaginary kingdoms and slaying foes with her alfoil sword. But one day, in the aftermath of a devastating cyclone, George and her friend Mac discover a mysterious creature called Tumblagooda, a strange living fossil who has broken free from the rocks at the local beach. They must find out who Tumblagooda is and where she came from, and, as suspicion grows, keep her safe from discovery by those likely to do her harm.
Like Elastic Island Adventures: Rarotonga, Tumblagooda is a novel for primary school children from a small publisher. Also like Elastic Island Adventures: Rarotonga, Tumblagooda is a novel where setting is all-important. However, the similarities mostly end there.
Tumblagooda is a novel where setting is all-important.
Tumblagooda might be Ingelbrecht’s first novel for children, but she has written a lot of theatre and it shows. The sentences sing, especially the dialogue. I suspect this one would be especially satisfying when read aloud. A lot of research clearly went into nailing the details and vibe of a small town in West Australia in the 1970s. There’s some vivid descriptions, like when George looks out on the rotary clothesline in her garden as the cyclone sets in, ‘… standing like a lonely tin soldier in the backyard, whipped one way then the other, as if unsure what the dance steps were meant to be.’ While the story mostly moves at a pretty fast clip, a few weird and wonderful tidbits of local history sneak in too, enriching the narrative without weighing it down.
The sentences sing, especially the dialogue. I suspect this […] would be especially satisfying when read aloud.
The characters are all strongly drawn—even the thuggish school bully feels three dimensional—but especially our protagonist George, who has a strong presence from the very first page. She’s adventurous and independent enough to have escapades on her own, but she also feels like a kid. She might run away from home, but she still packs her toy sword. She makes reckless decisions at times but they feel very much in keeping with her character. Her relationships feel thorny and believable, especially with her father Seamus (who she calls by his first name), and her best mate Mac. George and Tumblagooda are clear parallels: both are misfits, frequently misunderstood, deeply curious, and doing their best to navigate a confusing world while yearning for lost family. I think a lot of kids will relate to George’s sceptical gaze on the adult world, which she frequently finds perplexing and ridiculous.
The characters are all strongly drawn—even the thuggish school bully feels three dimensional—but especially our protagonist George, who has a strong presence from the very first page.
Like Elastic Island Adventures: Rarotonga, Tumblagooda covers some troubling colonial history: it includes an accurate portrayal of a historical re-enactment which took place in the year and region the story is set, and involves blackface. There’s a content warning on the copyright page to give readers a heads up, and directions to teachers’ notes on the publisher’s website with discussion questions to prompt deeper examination. The re-enactment itself is portrayed from George’s perspective as weird, irrelevant and deeply tedious. She sneaks away partway through, leading to her first face-to-face encounter with Tumblagooda. I wonder if the re-enactment could have been delved into more deeply in the text, given that not every reader is likely to look up the discussion questions, but I acknowledge this would be challenging to pull off without getting didactic or weighing down the pacing. It’s also worth noting the author acknowledges the local Nanda people in the acknowledgements, but as far as I could tell from the descriptions and illustrations, the main characters are all white. This is the first in a series though, so we might meet a more diverse cast in future instalments.
This is the first in a series […] so we might meet a more diverse cast in future instalments.
My main critique, however, is that this book felt perhaps a little more like a beginning than a complete story in itself. The ending felt quite abrupt—even for a cliffhanger—and maybe left a few more questions unanswered than necessary. But Ingelbrecht has laid an intriguing foundation, with a lot of potential to grow in the sequels (there are two in the works, according to her bio). I, for one, am really looking forward to seeing where this goes next. I imagine quite a few kids will be too.
By Suzanne Ingelbrecht
Illustrated by Michael Inouye
Published by Dragonfly Publishing
RRP: $17.99 AUD (Approximately $19.50 NZD)
Formerly a children’s bookseller, Leila Austin can now be found working in the many weird and wonderful libraries of Central Auckland (she managed to find a job that takes her to all of them). She loves fantasy novels, fancy tea, and going for long walks in pretty places.