Book Reviews: Fantastic Female Protagonists
What a treat to be handed three titles with wonderful female protagonists. While they all sit comfortably in the junior fiction or middle grade category, they are all very different reads. Hazel and the Snails is a gentle tale of mortality, Bullseye Bella is a gold-suited, fully televised, humour-laced, action adventure story, and Koolio the Problem Pony is the next instalment in the real-life adventures of the Wilson sisters which will delight equestrian lovers young and old.
Hazel and the Snails, by Nan Blanchard with illustrations by Giselle Clarkson
Snails are good companions. They don’t bite, or stamp their feet, or slam doors. They don’t even complain about their one-note cabbage diet. And the best part is that when you collect them carefully, you can carry them with you everywhere.
Hazel is a big fan of snails. She has 10 of them, placed gently in a cardboard box. With a light touch, new writer Nan Blanchard creates a warm, familial world where we learn with Hazel about the harsh realities of mortality, helping the reader to feel both her pain and her growing compassion.
With a light touch, new writer Nan Blanchard creates a warm, familial world where we learn with Hazel about the harsh realities of mortality, helping the reader to feel both her pain and her growing compassion.
I have read almost everything Kate De Goldi has written, so I recognised the guidance of her delicate fingertips in the editing of this book. But Blanchard definitely has her own voice. The writing is clean and very sparse. This is not a book for those looking for high stakes and hijinks, as Hazel’s is definitely an internal journey and the plot doesn’t provide any big twists and turns. But the simple story is matched by the simple language so that when little nuggets of thoughtfully described action appear, they shine all the more clearly. A stranger pats his stomach ‘lovingly as if it were a cat…’ and ‘her ouch was a small explosion like the puff of Henry’s blue asthma inhaler.’
...the simple story is matched by the simple language so that when little nuggets of thoughtfully described action appear, they shine all the more clearly.
It’s a good fit for the junior fiction category in both tone and content, and deals with the questions younger children face when experiencing the death of a loved one with quiet grace. It’s only when her dad passes for example, that Hazel is able to let go of her snails, releasing them into the vege garden to gorge themselves on cabbage.
I’d suggest it is a good read for around 7-10-year-olds, especially those dealing with loss. Despite him being younger, I read this book aloud to my five-year-old as he has had lot of question around life and death lately. He is still enthralled with picture books and usually wouldn’t accept anything with this much text on the page. But the addition of Giselle Clarkson's tiny snail making its way gradually over the pages, along with the slow but delicate story, kept his attention.
A gentle story from a first-time author, told with heart and presented with quirky visual treats, Hazel and the Snails makes a sensitive addition to the canon of children’s books dealing with mortality.
hazel and the snails by Nan Blanchard, illustrated by Giselle Clarkson Published by Annual Ink RRP: $22.00
Bullseye Bella, by James T. Guthrie
Darts are not just for boys. Bella knows it. Her brother and mother know it. Her dad knew it. The darts lovers at the pub down the road… not so much. But faced with the possibility of her brother having to leave his special school if they don’t raise a thousand dollars, Bella enters a local darts contest and eventually comes second. It’s an event that leads her on a madcap adventure with lights, cameras, school-yard fame and sequin-covered walk-on girls.
Where Hazel and the Snails was a quiet, meandering story, Bullseye Bella, by Tom Fitzgibbon Award winner, James T. Guthrie, is more of a classic action adventure. It has a driving plot, a heroic lead who must overcome increasingly difficult odds, a dastardly antagonist, and a triumphant finale.
But both books have a strong protagonist, left to navigate the difficulties of fractured families. And both heroes do it with fierce determination and aplomb – three cheers for that. Bella’s focus and talent are a wonderful addition to the lexicon of stories that inspire and empower girls to do anything they set their mind to.
...both books have a strong protagonist, left to navigate the difficulties of fractured families. And both heroes do it with fierce determination and aplomb – three cheers for that.
I didn’t get a chance to read this one to my kids after I’d read it, as my neighbour’s nine-year-old daughter snapped it up and her reaction is a great testament to the inspirational, but not didactic tone. When I asked her what she thought of it after she’d devoured it, her face broke into a big grin and she said it was ‘cool and Bella was cool and it was a good adventure.’ We were in her garage, where there happens to be all manner of games, including a dart board. She rummaged for a second and then, triumphant, pulled out a dart, promptly hitting an 18 on her first shot.
Bella’s family dynamics play a major role in the plot, with her mother struggling to make things work after Bella’s father has (under apparently amicable circumstances) had to leave them. Her mother works hard, and a lot, and it falls on Bella to look out for her little brother. It’s a big job sometimes, but Bella manages remarkably well.
My adult brain questioned whether it was a good idea to be modelling ideas like the kids walking down to the pub on their own, despite the care taken by the author to note that helpful strangers put up their hands to look out for them. But my nine-year-old reader was convinced that ‘they probably should have gone down with a parent but they were playing darts with all those people, and it’s only a book, not real life.’ Clearly a quick conversation about fiction being bigger than real life sorted that one out for her.
Clearly a quick conversation about fiction being bigger than real life sorted that one out for her.
When it comes to secondary characters there is a lot to like. I have to admit that again my adult brain wasn’t convinced that Bella’s brother would be able to convincingly keep up his pirate character. But my nine-year-old reader threw cold rum on my concerns. ‘It was fun,’ she assured me. Fun throughout, and when he changed his persona to that of a trainee astronaut, she liked that too.
As for the antagonist, in Frankie ‘Goldfinger’ Philips, we encounter a classic but very contemporary villain. Frankie wears a gold jacket, sports a vacuous smile and his underhanded techniques almost undermine Bella’s focus and confidence. He even calls Family Services on the family. The result is the arrival of Miss Peacock, a pretty one-note, stern woman, who threatens to take the children away from their mother. This of course tips the family into turmoil, and does give a rather simplistic depiction of the complexities of state responsibilities towards minors. But Frankie himself is drawn with more finesse. His attempts to subvert Bella are sneaky and physiological, and a nice way of creating depth for his character in what could otherwise have led him to be stereotypical.
I would recommend this for slightly older readers. Readers in the 8-14 age group will enjoy the action and antics, and my nine-year-old reader would like to suggest that Guthrie keeps up the good work writing about girls in slightly different situations. Apparently, ‘it would be good if he wrote a book about a girl who likes to swim.’
by James T. Guthrie Published by Scholastic NZ RRP $17.99
Koolio, the Problem Pony, by Kelly Wilson
I confess I was never pony mad as a child and while my children have been on pony rides, they are definitely not the equestrian focused readers this book is aimed at. But I found plenty to love in this book, regardless.
This is Kelly’s story, and like the other books in the Showtym series, it’s a love letter to the ponies she and her sisters rode as youngsters. It follows the girls being asked to give up the ponies they’d trained for years so that the family could afford a bigger horse truck and attend more events. Kelly draws the short straw and has to part with her beloved pony. Luckily, she spots Koolio, a gorgeous grey in her price range who has the potential to be a real show stopper. But Kelly’s skills aren’t quite developed enough to handle Koolio’s temperament and she starts to lose any interest in riding.
We feel her heartbreak and despair, a real testament to Wilson’s telling of the events here. It’s only when her sister Vicki offers to trade ponies that Kelly finds her love for riding again. All the sisters learn some lessons about the importance of hard work before Kelly starts to win competitions. But it’s Koolio that comes through for Vicki when she takes out contest after contest. It’s a lovely addition to see the sisters' genuine love for each other shine through on the pages rather than the jealousy that could have eventuated.
The Wilson sisters are a true phenomenon. Smart, gorgeous and crazily talented. The stories in the Showtym Adventures series take us through events that occurred to the girls some years ago but with Kelly’s photographic memory, they are brought to life with vigour and attention. I initially questioned the incredible maturity of the characters in their ability to accept the hard decision to give up their ponies, but having learned more about this amazing family since reading the book, this does seem feasible.
Because of my lack of experience with horses I asked a friend who grew up with ponies and her kids to read it. Her 7-year-old son was engaged throughout and full of questions about how the girls must have lived. He was upset along with the Wilsons when they had to give up one of their ponies so it certainly created the emotional connection the author was looking for.
This will have huge appeal to children involved in pony club and show jumping from ages 7-12 years and as a read aloud for even younger children. It makes a wonderful addition to the growing catalogue of titles about the Wilson sisters adventures.
Koolio, the Problem Pony
by Kelly Wilson Published by Penguin Books
Michele has been a dancer, producer and writer across the globe. She is the mother of two loud boys, who seem equally obsessed with creating new worlds (mostly under their beds). Her writing has been published widely and broadcast for radio both in New Zealand and the UK. Her latest book, When We Remember to Breathe, co-authored with Renee Liang releases 1 May 2019.