Book Reviews: NZ Junior & Middle Fiction
Teacher Rachel Moore reviews five New Zealand junior fiction titles, including the first two in a new series by Maureen Crisp, the first in a series by Rhys Darby, a new title from Tom Moffatt, and another fabulous horse adventure book from Stacy Gregg.
Monsieur Charles’ Circus Quest, #1 The Playbill, #2 Magician’s Moustache, by Maureen Crisp, illustrated by Irina Burtseva
The first two books in Maureen Crisp’s Monsieur Charles’ Circus Quest will delight puzzle-loving 7-9-year-olds. Skye and Kestrel, two friends in a travelling circus community, are charged with solving a puzzle challenge that will determine the future of the circus and its performers, and solve a mystery about Kestrel’s missing mother along the way.
Crisp’s writing is full of show, not tell; great for making children think a little deeper about the book. Readers do need to be paying attention, as the solutions to each puzzle will not be handed to them on a platter, they’ll have to work at it a bit. There’s lots of detail about circus life and performances to intrigue readers, and some interesting character name choices (for example, the sons of the Falcon family are Peregrine and Kestrel).
Crisp’s writing is full of show, not tell; great for making children think a little deeper about the book.
The illustrations and overall book design are well done and will engage younger or less-confident readers who are not ready to transition to straight-text chapter books. At 78 pages each they won’t overwhelm a reader with their length, which is really important as children develop their confidence. These would be great to slip into a Christmas stocking next month.
Monsieur Charles’ Circus Quest, #1 The Playbill by Maureen Crisp, illustrated by Irina Burtseva
Published by Marmac
Monsieur Charles’ Circus Quest, #2 magician's moustache by Maureen Crisp, illustrated by Irina Burtseva
Published by Marmac
The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty, by Rhys Darby This is the first book in what looks like it will be a rollicking good series for readers aged 8 and up. 12-year-old Buttons McGinty has had his parents disappear on him in suspicious circumstances, and next thing he knows he’s on a ship to an educational fortress on a sub-Antarctic island. And life just gets weirder and more mysterious from there.
Rhys Darby will be well known to adults for his comedic screen talents. I have possibly been over-exposed to him, as I had to fight hearing his adult voice narrating the book as I read. Younger readers will likely not have this problem though, and they’ll find Button’s narrative funny, engaging and chatty. Darby captures the voice of a 12-year-old extremely well.
Darby captures the voice of a 12-year-old extremely well.
This is another book to delight puzzle lovers – Morse Code runs through the book, and I can imagine children trying to work out the clues and then transferring their new skill to their own lives, and writing in Morse Code to their friends.
Page spread from The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty, by Rhys Darby, reproduced with permission
There are lots of funny illustrations, kooky characters, madcap adventures and a good pace to keep readers engaged for the duration. I found the last 50 pages or so gripping, as Darby amps up the action and suspense and takes the story in a direction that I really wasn’t expecting. Readers will be eagerly awaiting the next edition in Button’s story once they get their hands on Notebook One.
The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty
by Rhys Darby
Published by Scholastic NZ RRP: $17.99
Mind-Swapping Madness, by Tom E. Moffat, illustrated by Paul Beavis
Here is a book that does what it says on the cover – Bonkers Short Stories indeed! There are seven of them, each of them around the theme of mind-swapping, but each totally different.
A faulty fly swat causes a young boy to mind-swap with a fly. A twisted take on the Princess and the Frog fairy tale. An alien body snatcher, a soul-stealing great aunt, a horse with a lesson to teach. A legitimate mind-swapping machine with unintended consequences, and a synchronised sneeze that causes a sibling switch. Each of them is funny, and some of them have a subtle but valuable moral message.
Illustration of a horse with a lesson to teach, illustrated by Paul Beavis
My favourite short stories were Soul Beneficiary, Croak! and Bless You. All three were clever, made me laugh, and had an unexpected twist. The illustrations by Paul Beavis throughout the book are amusing and compliment the stories perfectly.
There aren’t many short story books around for readers of about eight up,, but they’re a perfect medium for younger, reluctant or struggling readers. They offer a good plot arc, a feeling of accomplishment as each story is completed, and the ability to put the book down without losing the thread of a longer narrative. I’d recommend this book for any reader 8+upwards with a good imagination and an even better sense of humour.
mind-swapping madness by Tom E. Moffatt
The Fire Stallion, by Stacy Gregg
I’m not a “horsey”-person, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Fire Stallion, having not read any of Stacy Gregg’s work, apart from her fashion columns in the newspaper a long time ago! She had me won over within three pages.
The Fire Stallion is the modern day story of Hilly, a New Zealand girl who ends up on a movie set in Iceland after a tragedy. Hilly becomes interested in the Icelandic legend of Brunhilda, which is the story being depicted by the movie that being made. Through an intervention that I won’t describe for fear of ruining the plot, Hilly gains special insights into Brunhilda’s story, and these colour her attitude to the movie, leading her to try to influence the script, which has repercussions for her new friendships.
While this is a book with the relationship between a girl and a horse (two girls and two horses, actually) at the centre of the narrative, the story offers much more. The unusual location of Iceland offers an entry to a new world, somewhere readers are unlikely to be familiar with. The twin settings of a modern-day movie set and a Viking village 1,000 years ago are interesting and engaging, and the plot device that link the two was unexpected and enjoyable. And there’s a definite thread of female self-empowerment woven into both stories, which I really enjoyed.
The twin settings of a modern-day movie set and a Viking village 1,000 years ago are interesting and engaging, and the plot device that link the two was unexpected and enjoyable.
The Fire Stallion is so well written that for a lot of the time, I forgot that I was reading a book pitched at a much younger audience. I don’t think I can give much higher praise than that. The dialogue was believable, and the pacing kept the story moving along. The ending was (to 40-something me) a bit predictable and “Hollywood”, but 10-year-old me would have loved it.
I’d definitely recommend this book for readers aged 10 and up, as it feels quite sophisticated to me – and it’s certainly not just for the horse lovers. It’s a really good read.
the fire stallion by Stacy Gregg Published by HarperCollins NZ RRP $25.00
Rachel Moore is a experienced primary school teacher who lives on the Kāpiti Coast. Some of her earliest memories are of bedtime stories read with her dad, and she has made it her mission to try to pass on her love of books to every child she meets. Her childhood literary heroes are Jo March, Lucy Pevensie, Matilda Wormwood and Elizabeth Bennet. When she grows up, Rachel hopes she'll be able to live in a house big enough for all her books.
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