Book Reviews: Three Junior Fiction Gems
Lily Max: Sun, Surf, Sea by Jane Bloomfield (Luncheon Sausage Books)
The irrepressible Lily Max is back, and on vacation. The family has driven north, to enjoy two months at the beach, thanks to Lily Max’s BFF Greer getting Lily and her mum costuming jobs on her screenwriter mum’s film set.
The friends have just caught up when Greer mentions that the film is delayed, which for Lily Max and her family means that they don’t have enough money to cover the cost of two months at the beach. ‘My family is a magnet for cash-flow crises’ says Lily Max.
Illustration by Guy Fisher from Lily Max: Sun, Surf, Action (Luncheon Sausage Books) Used with permission.
Luckily for the family, Greer’s mum Jemima has just been to India for a yoga retreat, and while she was there she and a fashion designer brought back some gear for Jemima’s new importing business. She has also been working with a women’s co-operative in India who have sent some kaftans and bikinis to sell. But they aren’t quite right - cue cutting, sewing and Lily Max-blinging out the costumes with the help of her sister and mum.
Author Jane Bloomfield has been pleasingly ambitious with the plot this time, pushing beyond the fashion-show trope, while still ensuring Lily Max has a chance to use her skills, and while maintaining the eye for fashion detail we know and love. Not only is Lily Max cutting and sewing this time, she is also on the trail of a ghost story, which is related to the film she gets to be a body double in.
Author Jane Bloomfield has been pleasingly ambitious with the plot this time, pushing beyond the fashion-show trope, while still ensuring Lily Max has a chance to use her skills ...
She has time to investigate this trail with her sister Angelica thanks to Greer taking off with her crush Ryder to a surf competition, creating a classic ‘three’s company’ situation. Lily Max comes up with a way to make Greer choose between them: put them under pressure by making them walk to a haunted lighthouse with her.
Bloomfield has a skill with characterisation, and each of the characters is pleasingly complex - Lily Max isn’t perfect either. The plot does get somewhat convoluted at times (there is a LOT going on, as you can probably tell from my description) but overall this is a rollicking beach read, which shows an author growing in confidence.
Bloomfield has a skill with characterisation, and each of the characters is pleasingly complex.
While I suspect most of us can’t relate to the lifestyle Lily Max and Greer live, I couldn’t relate to the lifestyle the girls in The Babysitter’s Club enjoyed when I was 8, and it didn’t prevent me from inhaling every one of those books. I would definitely recommend this one for fashion-loving kids who enjoy a good adventure. Age 8-13.
lily max: sun, surf, action
by Jane Bloomfield Luncheon Sausage Books RRP: $21.99
The Dragon Defenders: The Pitbull Returns, by James Russell
This is book two of a series, but I didn’t feel too disadvantaged by not having read the first one. We reviewed it here on The Sapling, and I had caught up with the picture books as they were published a few years ago. The general plot is included in the first chapter as our baddie The Pitbull recalls being made to feel silly by those wretched kids. Dragons exist - but just on one island. The plot of the full series is based on the tension between the rights of dragons (and children) to live a free and full life, and the rights of rich men to do whatever they want to whomever and whatever animal they want. Perhaps it is written at a level at which Trump might understand that animals have rights...but it may just be a little too complex.
The plot of the full series is based on the tension between the rights of dragons (and children) to live a free and full life, and the rights of rich men . . .
Flynn and Paddy swapped The Pitbull’s captured dragon egg for a stone at the end of the previous book, but the ‘egg’ hasn’t hatched. So The Pitbull takes matters into his own hand, eventually calling in the jackhammer to break the giant stone apart. He is livid to find no hatchling, and immediately arranges a ship and helicopters to go back to the island on which the boys live with their family and capture four dragons by hook or by crook, to add to his exotic and cruel zoo. The book overall is written in quite broad strokes, with not quite enough detail to be immersive, but enough plot and action to keep kids reading. The boys are stranded away from their family when The Pitbull’s men return, and once they catch wind (via their augmented-reality (AR) reading phones) of the bad guys’ plans for the dragon, they must come up with a plan to save them. The AR details are well-utilised and engaging, with an audio file, a couple of code-crackers and a video embedded the images. As the kids work out how they can save Elton and his friends from the dastardly Pitbull, we also see things from Pitbull’s point of view. I think this is one of the aspects that made the book feel too lightly drawn. I felt as though I was watching an episode of Inspector Gadget, with an occasional insight into the mind of Dr Claw, with even dumber sidekicks and buckets of money. I’m not sure the reader needs to hear as much as they do from Pitbull, as there is no grey area there – he’s bad, real bad, and there is no pathway for redemption.
I’m not sure the reader needs to hear as much as they do from Pitbull, as there is no grey area there – he’s bad, real bad, and there is no pathway for redemption.
Flynn and Paddy are quick-witted and have a cast of loyal animal friends. Their horse Clappers is particularly awesome: ‘Clappers hit them at full speed. Both men bounced off her chest as though they were nine pins hit by a speeding bowling ball. It was all Flynn could do to stay on her back.’ My son was jealous they had a falcon too, called Lightning. One of my biggest quibbles with Dragon Defenders as a book was how few female characters are in there. The heroes: little boys. The baddie: a man. Mum plays a traditional role (though Grandma is kick-ass). But Briar – The Pitbull’s niece – literally doesn’t speak. She helps them, but from the shadows. Why is this always the way? You'll be surprised to know that boys know girls are their equals, so let's see that reflected in stories. This is the type of book that will appeal to adventure story lovers. The writing could be stronger, but young readers don’t judge, and it is of a high standard for a self-published book. Recommended for ages 6-10.
The Dragon Defenders: the pitbull returns by James Russell Published by Dragon Brothers Books RRP: $22.00
Flying Furballs: Most Wanted, by Donovan Bixley
I am a huge fan of Bixley’s series, which pulls in aspects of every war and spy comic book that came before it. In Flying Furballs, the war is between DOGZ and CATs, and our hero is Claude D’Bonair.
The Red Setter has been spotted in the CATs airspace all alone, so the pilots are scrambled, sent to the air to catch the dastardly Dog who has taken so many CATs planes out. But it turns out to be a feint, with a lookalike leading the cats into DOGZ airspace to be bombarded by their enemy.
Image from Flying Furballs: Most Wanted, by Donovan Bixley (Upstart Press) Copyright Donovan Bixley, used with permission.
‘Two dozen planes opened fire on Claude. The tracer bullets lit up the sky like hundreds of shooting stars. Claude banked sharply, powering into a shoulder of cloud cover. When he emerged, his squadron had caught up and the sky was a mad melee of an air battle – a real flying furball.’
Luckily Claude has the reconstructed Kitty Hawk, with a specialty fit-out from engineering queen Manx and her helper-kittens Wigglebum and Picklepurr. C-for, the mad genius inventor who never quite gets to explain his inventions in full before his narcolepsy gets the better of him, has also included a special button to use when the need arises.
Though he doesn’t quite get away, that special button does come in handy when he has to crash-land in enemy territory. Once there, he is discovered by friendlies – a Dutch resistance of DOGZ called The White Paw, who are on the cats’ side. The leader, Rex, is leading the resistance on behalf of all dogs who like cats.
The illustrations throughout the book are effective and technically fantastic, with plenty to keep young minds engaged if the book is being read aloud to a non-reader. Donovan also extends the vocabulary of his readers cleverly, without talking down to his readers. I wasn’t as enamoured of the plot as I have been with previous books in the series – I think I was hoping for something more complex this time, but I suspect that is my adult-book-reader talking!
The illustrations throughout the book are effective and technically fantastic, with plenty to keep young minds engaged if the book is being read aloud to a non-reader.
Get Most Wanted for your young adventurer, and enjoy the work of an author who just keeps on adding new strings to his bow.
Flying Furballs: Most Wanted by Donovan Bixley Published by Upstart Press RRP: $15.00
Editor of The Sapling, and Media & Communications Manager at Booksellers NZ, Sarah has worked in the book industry for the past 11 years. She ran the Writers in Schools and other education programmes for the NZ Book Council for seven years, and knows exactly how awesome our Kiwi writers and illustrators are. Sarah is from the West Coast, and lives in Wellington.