Book Reviews: Lively New Books for Young Readers

October 6, 2019

When the review titles arrived this month, my kids called me the Book Queen and hugged the pages to their chests, eyes wide, already imagining what was inside. Book Queen? I said, I am the Queen of all the world and they laughed and told me I was right, people who buy books should rule the world. Then they curled up and devoured the stack over a weekend.

 

Digging through the two anthologies and two short translations, we’ve had a blast deciding who are our favourite characters, from Zanzibar birds to Gobbler Magoo, and even clever kids with mathematical stew. It’s clear that as always, there is much life and vigour in junior fiction publishing in New Zealand.

 

Time Machine and other stories, by Melinda Szymanik, with illustrations by Theo Macdonald
Melinda is a firm favourite in our household with her picture book Fuzzy Doodle sitting well-thumbed on the bookshelf. This collection of short stories and one novella will be an excellent resource for teachers and librarians as evidenced by my two immediately drawing pictures of where they’d take the titular Time Machine if it lived in their basement.

 

Time Machine and other stories is a collection of predominantly contemporary stories. My two enjoyed seeing portraits of their peers written without any artifice or exaggeration. These are kids you might know. Friends you might have. Enemies you have to work on. A particular favourite story was Smart Soup, where Amelia 'cut and diced and chopped and weighed and measured and poured…sizzled, stirred and simmered'. The result is a mathematical soup formula that both tastes delicious (eventually) but more importantly teaches Amelia and readers about how real-life activities and school lessons are sometimes directly connected. And how persistence and practice make for success.


My two enjoyed seeing portraits of their peers written without any artifice or exaggeration.
 

There are a scattering of black and white illustrations which are a nice way to break up the text for younger readers. For teachers, librarians and parents looking for a way to provide short stories for kids to dip into, or perhaps to spark ideas for budding writers, this is a great resource.
 

time machine and other stories

by Melinda Szymanik, with illustrations by Theo Macdonald
Ahoy!
RRP $25.00

 

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Zanzibar, written and illustrated by Catharina Valckx, translated by Antony Shugaar

This book is an uplifting story for newly independent readers about a crow learning to believe in himself, and, importantly, discovering the extraordinary in everyone. This is a super quick read that leads the reader gently towards the moral without ever feeling didactic or schmaltzy. It’s a similar length to the novella in Time Machine and other stories, but is presented in single book format and the lovely, kooky illustrations do bring a sense of it being a story that stands alone.

 

Snubbed by the local media, Zanzibar is singularly focused on his task of doing something important so as to be less ordinary. He methodically chooses his quest, works out the logistics and sets off into the desert to lift a dromedary using only one wing. The outlandishness of the task is told with a clean, matter of fact tone, so readers roll with the idea and get to enjoy the dead-pan humour running throughout the story.


The outlandishness of the task is told with a clean, matter of fact tone, so readers roll with the idea and get to enjoy the dead-pan humour running throughout the story.
 

But by the time everyone gathers to revel over Zanzibar’s new found media acclaim, he has learned that kindness and being there for his friends is more important than fame, and that his mushroom omelettes really are something worth celebrating. In a world steeped in concerns about how social media effects children, this is a gentle story that reminds readers that quiet, modest achievements outside the public eye, can still be incredible.

 

zanzibar

written and illustrated by Catharina Valckx, translated by Antony Shugaar
Gecko Press
RRP $19.99

 

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The Runaways, written by Ulf Stark, illustrated by Kitty Crowther and translated by Julia Marshall
My two loved this story and it prompted great discussions over the legitimacy of lying for the greater good. Told with clear-eyed simplicity, grace and heart-warming characters, this is a book that joins Gecko’s other wonderful title, Death, Duck and the Tulip, in providing valuable discussions about the end of life in a way that is accessible and relatable for children. It’s accompanied by pencil drawings in vivid colours which break up the chapters in just the right spots.

 

The story follows Gottfried Junior (although no one other than Grandpa calls him that) as he helps his beloved Grandfather through his end of days. Grandpa is a crusty curmudgeon, disliked by almost everyone except for his loyal grandson. Gottfried isn’t blind to Grandpa’s foibles, 'Grandpa was short and round and seemed to have just one feeling in his body: crossness. When he was angry you could hear it.' Between the two of them they hatch a plan to spend more time together and let Grandpa live a little.


'Grandpa was short and round and seemed to have just one feeling in his body: crossness. When he was angry you could hear it.'
 

Employing local altruistic-helpmate, Ronny, Gottfried concocts an elaborate plan to steal Grandpa away. This is where my boys really started digging into the morality of the story. 'He lied,' declared my youngest. 'But only because he was trying to help someone,' replied my eldest. 'It’s not okay to lie, but it’s good to help people.' As we continued reading, they kept coming back to whether it was okay to lie or not, and by the end, my youngest, who is a big storyteller, declared that 'lies that don’t hurt anyone and that make sad people really happy are probably okay.'

 

It was quite the conversation around risk and responsibility, but couched within the context of this lightly written tale, we could talk about it without getting bogged down with blame or fear. However the jury is still out on whether it’s okay to lie about sneaking lollipops out of the cupboard when your brother is feeling bad…


It was quite the conversation around risk and responsibility, but couched within the context of this lightly written tale, we could talk about it without getting bogged down with blame or fear.
 

The crux of the story is, of course, Grandpa’s looming mortality. He struggles and puffs up Rocky Mountain but when he gets to the house he built for his wife, he is able to see her everywhere. Grandpa had looked at everything he’d seen so many times that he’d forgotten what it looked like. And he offers up his chair to local Matt because 'he’s finished sitting in it after today.' The subtle notes about Grandpa’s fading health lead the reader towards the inevitable conclusion with a gentle hand. By the time Gottfriend has given Grandpa the gift of redemption by showing him how to speak kindly, we feel Grandpa’s life ebbing from the pages. Gottfried is sad, but instead of being buried by the grief of losing his favourite grandparent, his adventure allows him to see Grandpa’s death as a type of freedom. 

 

This is a lovely inter-generational story about family, mortality and a willingness to change, told with lyrical, pared back elegance.

 

The RunAways

written by Ulf Stark, illustrated by Kitty Crowther and translated by Julia Marshall

Gecko Press
RRP $19.99

 

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The Gobbledegook book, written by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Giselle Clarkson
What is not to love about a huge, bright anthology of Joy Cowley writing with effervescent, brilliant pictures by Giselle Clarkson? Perhaps only that there isn’t a volume 2 (yet). This is a collection of big words, brilliant rhythm and rhyme, and wacky stories that will undoubtedly be a huge hit when it appears in Christmas stockings across the country.


This is a collection of big words, brilliant rhythm and rhyme, and wacky stories that will undoubtedly be a huge hit when it appears in Christmas stockings across the country.
 

My eldest has read (and read) Greedy Cat, but was led back to it again by Clarkson’s irreverent illustrations before dipping back through the other pages of the book. This is one of the book’s strengths I think, allowing the familiar to lead readers to find new treasures.

 

A mix of poetry and story, this book brings together some of Cowley’s best known creations: Nicketty, Nacketty Noo Noo Noo, The Little Tractor, The Jumbaroo and many more. My two especially liked the section part way through the book, of a selection of cat poems that scratched and bit and spat enthusiastic word play all over the page.

 

This is a timeless, joyful romp through words, brilliantly coloured characters and ideas. The pages are alive with cats and birds, elephants in capes and humans of all shapes and sizes, all in Clarkson’s loose-handed, lively, and brilliant style. A book to feed the imagination of generations of kiwi kids.
 

 

The gobbledegook book

written by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Giselle Clarkson

Gecko Press
RRP $40.00

 

Buy Now

michele powles

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 was released in May

 

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