Book Reviews: Three NZ junior fiction reads
From first readers to well-developed adventure stories, Tim Gruar finds a lot to admire in these three new Kiwi junior fiction books - great for newly confident independent readers.
Miniwings: Firestorm’s Musical Muck-Up by Sally Sutton and illustrated by Kirsten Richards (Scholastic) Daisy Meadows’ Rainbow Magic series was very popular in our household. My girls still have fond memories of the books and willingly admit that they were a gateway to their lifelong love of reading. So what made this series so appealing? A simple formula of easy-to-follow fantasy stories about fairies and magic, mixed with short punchy sentences, simple vocabulary, and clean, uncomplicated illustrations. For early readers, they are perfect.
So, with that in mind, it’s great to see a locally written series of books adopting a similar template. Author Sally Sutton and illustrator Kirsten Richards have created four books (so far) centred around two sisters, Sophia and Clara, who’ve six adorable tiny friends – the Miniwings. Each is a tiny flying horse. Cute, mischievous, brazen, naughty, unseen by everyone the girls, they are constantly getting them into trouble. Moonlight is an endearing but gluttonous purple unicorn; Glitterwing is pretty but vain; Whizz is 'pesky and frisky and fast, fast, fast'; Comet loves competitive showjumping but never loses; Firestorm (the hero of this story) is brave and strong but with a fiery temper; and Oceana, the water-horse, is the hippy, trippy one.
The Miniwings were gifted to the sisters by Nana. To anyone else they look like simple toy figurines. '“Plastic, harmless,” Sophia says, “Maybe a little bit boring.”' Definitely not. They are all loud and rumbustious, yet are only seen by the sisters, disappearing conveniently when any adults are about. It’s like looking after a cache of unruly, but lovable sprites from a Shakespeare play, complete with their own flamboyant vocabulary (keen readers can look up translations in a special dictionary at the back). Real, or figments of the children’s imagination, it’s unclear.
In Firestorm’s Musical Muck-Up, the story is simple, with a structure that has continued from others in the series: a scenario where the two sisters are trying to achieve something important before the Miniwings enter and unwittingly cause chaos, ruining it all.
This time, the girls are practicing for a concert with their music teacher’s orchestra. Sparked by an argument about musicianship (or lack thereof) the Miniwings stow away in the girls' instrument cases, only to unleash chaos on the concertgoers. Firestorm’s anger gets the better of him and he lashes out. The resulting drama brings the fire brigade, a scolding for the main procrastinator and, surprisingly, a matchmaking opportunity for Sophia.
Given that no one can see the Miniwings, it would seem inevitable that the girls would be blamed for everything but somehow they emerge unscathed - that's my only niggle with this story. How can the adults be so naive? Surely it’s the girls who are responsible for all of this? Why are there no consequences?
My seven-year-old found this book a breeze to get into. She loved Kirsten Richards’ adorable drawings of the Miniwings. They summed up exactly how she’d pictured them in her mind’s eye. It’s not hard to see how these might translate into animation, toys and other merchandise, either. Richards' illustrations of the children and adults are mainly shown in the singular, without backgrounds or complicated scenery, perfectly balanced with the text. I loved some of the expressions she adds to her faces and the vibrant colours she employs.
Richards' illustrations of the children and adults are mainly shown in the singular, without backgrounds or complicated scenery, perfectly balanced with the text.
Sally Sutton uses short sentences, popping in a couple of challenging words and occasional colloquial expressions to remind us that this is a Kiwi book. My daughter proudly told me that she didn’t want this read this to her. She wanted the book all to herself. She believed the Miniwings could be real - you just couldn’t see them.
She also identified with Sophia, rolling her eyes when reading our heroine’s little asides and comments about how ‘silly’ adults can be at times. The little subplot about Sophia finding her music teacher a boyfriend was not lost on her, either. She liked that little bit of mischief. In her own words, this was her book, one she understood and she was keen to read the others in the collection. She’s already reserved two at the library. Libraries buying books for 5+ readers might want to get extra copies.
Miniwings: Firestorm's Musical Muck-up
by Sally Sutton and Kirsten Richards Scholastic NZ RRP $14.99
The Short But Brilliant Career of Lucas Weed by Chrissie Walker (Scholastic)
Trouble. Trouble. Trouble. Looking for it. Getting into it. Getting out of it and finding more. That is the plot of this wonderfully witty and sometimes ‘earthy’ tale of a boy who turns his status as dull and ordinary into cool and revolutionary. But, of course, it’s a short-lived trajectory to planet ‘fame’ and back again. Meet Lucas Weed (aka Undie-Man), onetime loser, once dull, skinny and bland. Now ‘Prank-star Extraordinaire’. Kiwi author Chrissie Walker’s story of Lucas Weed is told in the first-person narrative as a dialogue between Weed and the reader. Weed treats the reader as his friend and confidante, divulging all manner of secrets, fears and weaknesses. It works well and makes the story instantly engaging as we are carried along by his tale of dares and pranks. Starting as a dare, these jokes start small, when Weed, in an effort to shake off his reputation as a puny nobody, hides a ‘jumpity’ frog in some learning materials kept in a velvet bag used by a teacher. A girl reaches into the bag to select what she thinks is a piece of paper for the class exercise. Instead she lays her hands on a croaking, slimy creature. She lets out a scream that would curdle the wall paint, and chaos is unleashed. The trick is a unmitigated success, much to the chagrin of the three bullies who’d originally dared Weed to pull the prank. From there the tricks snowball. Each is more elaborate than the last. Each is more daring and the stakes higher. One prank involves superglue resulting in viral videos and YouTube fame. Athletics day is sabotaged beyond repair. Then there’s the ‘red undies’ incident!
From there the tricks snowball. Each is more elaborate than the last. Each is more daring and the stakes higher. One prank involves superglue, resulting in viral videos and YouTube fame.
There is political intrigue, as well. The three bullies all try to grab success by claiming their association with the prank, without actually owning up to doing it. Through it all, Lucas Weed goes from zero to hero in his peers’ estimation. He is the talk of the playground. For a while. But, there’s a price. As with all good stories, it all builds up to a climatic ‘car crash’ of a plot. If I was writing in the book’s font, I would highlight that last expression in a cartoon style with three-dimensional shading. I won’t spoil the ending but let’s just say that Prime Ministers and projectile vomiting should never go together in the same sentence – ever again! My kids loved this book and made a point of shouting the illustrated words and expressions as loudly as possible when they read it. And there were a lot. Kids reading a story, particularly one like this, with lots of ‘gory’ and gross details, enjoy over-emphasising everything. This book is perfect for that kind of reader.
What I also enjoyed was the realism of the settings. These were classrooms and buildings and teachers that I know and see every day as I engage with my local primary school. When I read the book, I imagined specific classrooms, hallways and fields. The story could have been set right there at our school!
What I also enjoyed was the realism of the settings. These were classrooms and buildings and teachers that I know and see every day as I engage with my local Primary School.
It matters little that the story revolves around the shenanigans of mischievous boys. The story is universal enough to draw in any readers. Boys or girls. Just like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Fart jokes are funny. Vomit is, too. Especially when described in technicolour. The occasional throwaway line from the bullies about female teachers being prone to screaming was a little bit on the nose but I’ll let that one go for the plot’s sake.
Walker doesn’t shy away from using up-to- date expressions (like ‘stink’ or ‘gross’), stolen straight from the kids on the playground. My favourite, used around this house, is ‘Pretty Epic’. Which means worthy, of significance - even if only for a few seconds. And anyone that ever loses their cool is called ‘Completely Mental!’ Another common term. Walker also name-checks YouTube pop idols, like Harry Styles (who’s just broken away from One Direction) and gives her characters contemporary names like Hunter and Oscar. Very ‘now’.
Best of all, the stream-of-consciousness narrative, told by a now philosophical Lucas who’s looking back on his golden days, appears to be the language of a child. I think she’s got that voice just right. I can hear it like a narrator in a film version in my mind’s eye, blurting it all out. It sounds believable and personable. Underneath everything, she’s stealthily planned her story right down to the last detail. That’s a combination that will win over kids, their teachers, and their parents – especially if it inspires more reading. Well done, Chrissie Walker. Please write more.
This is Christchurch librarian Chrissie Walker’s first book. She was the 2017 winner of the Tom Fitzgibbon Award from the Storylines Children’s Literature Charitable Trust of New Zealand for a children’s novel manuscript by an unpublished writer.
the short but brilliant career of lucas weed by Chrissie Walker
Published by Scholastic NZ
Elastic Island Adventures – Jewel Lagoon by Karen McMillan (Duckling Publishing)
I’ve known author and publicist Karen McMillan for a number of years. Until this publication, she has written only for adults, across fiction and non-fiction. This is the first in children’s book series called Elastic Island, and for this, McMillan has created an entire parallel universe set in a fictitious part of the South Pacific.
Jewel Lagoon is the first location on an exceptionally bizarre and fantastical tiki-tour of three very little-known locations of the South Seas. It centres on the crazy adventures of two friends, Kiri and Emma, along with Emma’s twin brother, gadget-mad Ethan, and their new friend, Jed.
The trio meet Jed when he comes to their rescue when they are bullied by local beach thugs during a family day out at Brown’s Bay. The kids are chased across the sand to a remote track on the rocky cliff at one end of the beach. Suddenly, they have found their way on to the magical Elastic Island, which is a sort of transmorphic landmass.
The kids are chased across the sand to a remote track on the rocky cliff at one end of the beach ... they have found their way on to the magical Elastic Island ...
‘Driven’ by a strange man called Mr Jollybowler and his foul-mouthed parrot, the island can transform from an idyllic atoll into a fast and lucid speed boat. Mr Jollybowler warns the children to hold tight to a palm tree, to avoid being thrown overboard, while the island ‘pings’ them across the sea at high speed to a tropical destination. It seems the children must join in as reluctant visitors to one of four incredible locations: Gold Coin Port, Stinky Fish Reef, Whale Island or Jewel Lagoon on Trinity Island.
The children choose the last and soon find themselves wading in crystal blue waters, with sands studded with diamond and ruby dust. But that dreamy location has a dark side. They are captured, and their only hope of getting back home is to escape to the other side of the island. This is where the story really begins…
Jewel Lagoon rolls along at a manic pace, the story changing at the bottom of each page. Occasionally, McMillan’s breathless pace caused me to trip over myself and I had to go back a few pages and remind myself of the plot so far. It would be good to have a few recaps here and there to provide assurance as we go. However, that’s a minor point as this 208-page book could easily be completed in a couple of sittings. And what’s wrong with a good re-read if the story’s a good one?
McMillan has raided every good narrative from Lara Croft, to the Indiana Jones films, to the blockbuster Madagascar. Along the way she’s snuck in snippets of Harry Potter, Boy’s Own and countless Disney movies.
Ethan, who carries a bottomless backpack of inventions made from recycled junk, behaves a bit like Ron Weasley mixed with the hoarding dormouse from Peter Rabbit. Jed is a more straightforward, even slightly dull character – polite and macho at the same time. The girls are the real heroes of the book, using their innovation to get them out of trouble at the last minute. One can sing like an opera star; the other has insight beyond the Sandman’s reach. Both are quick-witted but still naïve enough to fall for every trap.
The girls are the real heroes of the book, using their innovation to get them out of trouble at the last minute.
One of my criticisms of the book is around the clichéd characterisations of the two men. The creation of a psychopathic Chief in a grass skirt, with tanned muscles and a bone necklace was just a bit much. I also couldn’t help drawing comparisons between Mr Jollybowler, who is a stickler for rules and regulations aboard his Elastic Island, and the time-obsessed Mr Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Yet, his aloofness at other times seemed a little bit out of sorts.
The whole point of this book is to take the reader on an adventure, throwing them around in a rollercoaster ride of thrills both familiar and unexpected. McMillan, I think, succeeds in doing that. I know not all her ideas are entirely original but does that matter? Perhaps a little nagging familiarity is useful, especially to younger readers. Either way, you can’t ignore the final searing question: will our heroes ever get back home again? If they do, will they want to return like the children in Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree, for new adventures? You bet they do.
The second book is due for release in September. The Elastic Island series has been optioned by Fuzzy Duckling Media, who are currently working to get an animated series on air. You get a taste for that in Dimitry Chizhov’s highly polished illustrations on the cover. Stay tuned for more.
Elastic Island adventures: Jewel Lagoon by Karen McMillan Published by Duckling Press
tim gruar Tim is a reviewer and freelance journalist, specialising in music, theatre and books. He currently writes for the Booksellers blog, arts and music site, www.13thfloor.co.nz and www.groovebookreport.blogspot.co.nz. He also works with local theatre groups designing posters and promotional materials. Occasionally, he’s even on stage, too. With three girls, who all love reading, he’s a father that really involves his children in anything he’s reviewing. After all, it’s their opinions that really count.