Book Reviews: New Fiction For 8–12s
It's a middle readers kind of a day! And so, we bring you five reviews of recent fiction releases for the 8-to-12-year-old bookworms in your life, courtesy of librarian and NZCYA Awards judge – and convener of those judges for 2021 – Alan Dingley.
Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea, by T. K. Roxborogh (Huia)
What would you do if you found a mermaid washed up on the beach? Charlie and his brother Robbie have to answer this question, and in doing so they awaken storms, earthquakes, and general ancient god-related chaos.
A ‘mermaid’—Pō-nuia, a ponaturi picks Charlie as her kaitiaki (guardian) as she tries to escape Tangaroa, and in doing so, Charlie discovers that he is not simply a boy from the East Coast.
T K Roxborogh has given us a brilliantly Kiwi adventure story set in the beautiful Tolaga Bay that deals with family, disability, and legend. Charlie has many challenges to face, even before the discovery of the mermaid sends what he knows about his family, and his own history, into upheaval. He has a prosthetic leg, but he literally never lets that slow him down, as he is drawn into a battle to save his family, and the very land itself.
T K Roxborogh has given us a brilliantly Kiwi adventure story set in the beautiful Tolaga Bay that deals with family, disability, and legend.
It struck me as I was reading that I was learning about Māori lore and legend, craftily woven throughout the story. We learn how the brother gods Tangaroa and Tāwhirimātea still blame Tāne for the separation of Rangi-nui and Papatūānuku, and they plan to destroy Tāne’s domain as retribution.
Earthquakes, storms and the threat of tsunami all batter Charlie as he navigates communicating with Pō-nuia, trying to avert the impending destruction. The descriptions of landscape, flora and fauna are spot on, and I felt myself desperately wanting to follow Charlie through the forest as he seeks answers to his growing pile of questions.
Charlie learns that the father he never got to know was not who he believed him to be, creating conflict in the story. To further complicate things, his half-brother Robbie has a completely different father issue happening, with his army officer Dad turning up mid-story after being an infrequent presence. The brotherly dynamic is written well, with equal amounts of rough-housing, spite, and love. Anyone with siblings will see themselves in their relationship.
The brotherly dynamic is written well, with equal amounts of rough-housing, spite, and love. Anyone with siblings will see themselves in their relationship.
The environment is front and centre for this story, and an extra subtle layer is added in by the addition of American visitor Jenny and her family. We learn that Jenny’s Dad is part of the planning team for a new port development that may bring jobs to the region, but with an unknown environmental impact. Jenny becomes embroiled in Charlie’s journey, adding a nice balance to the New Zealand flavour of the book. My favourite Jenny line is: ‘What’s happening now? This is the bit in the stories where all hell breaks loose, isn’t it?’
One thing I struggled to connect with were the illustrations of Phoebe Morris. I love her picture books (especially Cleo & Rob), but I believe this book needed bolder, more graphic-type illustration. The soft pencil sketches just didn’t really evoke the power of warring gods or earth-shattering storms. I would love to see a graphic novel of this book!
My favourite Jenny line is: ‘What’s happening now? This is the bit in the stories where all hell breaks loose, isn’t it?’
I could continue to wax lyrical, but I will leave you with a thought from Charlie that shows how much Roxborogh gives us to ponder in this book.
‘….it became clear to me that, though we were wrestling with Māori gods and the forces of nature, it was going to be reason and the logic of justice and compensation that would bring about an end to this chaos.’
I like that.
Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea
By T.K. Roxborogh
Published by Huia RRP$25.00
The Forever Horse, by Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins)
I love horses.
There, I said it. A 46-year-old male librarian who was excited to read Stacy Gregg’s latest offering The Forever Horse is perhaps unusual in NZ, but here we are.
We are introduced to Maisie in the middle of a glamorous auction for one of Paris’ most exclusive art schools, where her painting is soaring up in price. Seemingly this is all too much and Maisie flees, leaving to be with the inspiration for her painting, police horse Claude.
Seemingly this is all too much and Maisie flees, leaving to be with the inspiration for her painting, police horse Claude.
We jump back a year and Maisie describes how her love of horses began when she saw a portrait of a horse named Whistlejacket—she then discovered her own passion for drawing horses.
To be fair, we as readers must pop on our ‘suspension of disbelief hats’ around Maisie’s rise to art stardom. She draws and paints only horses, and after her Dad sends one picture off to The School of Arts in Paris, she receives an all-expenses-paid scholarship. I forgive Stacy Gregg, though, because she writes beautiful adventures.
Maisie struggles to connect with her classmates and teacher, but her experience is changed as she discovers the journal of the artist who created the school and founded the scholarship she is there on. This sees us depart on one of Gregg’s time-hopping adventures, back to 1852, where we join Rose Bonifait, an aspiring artist who battled the oppressive gender roles to become a noted artist.
This sees us depart on one of Gregg’s time-hopping adventures, back to 1852, where we join Rose Bonifait, an aspiring artist who battled the oppressive gender roles to become a noted artist.
A riding accident befalls Rose, and she is left paralysed, confined to a wheelchair. Our story jumps back and forth, with Rose rediscovering her passion after encountering the Camargue horses with her aunt. Rose is trapped in a storm with the wild horses, but she must save a birthing mare, a brilliantly written scene. This experience inspires her to create Grignons de Camargue, a giant canvas that in turn inspires Maisie.
Maisie’s equine muse is Claude, a police horse who, along with his rider, thwarts a terrorist attack at the Louvre by riding in front of the bomber’s van. The terrorism angle is only lightly touched on but was definitely a reminder of our current time and place. Claude is gravely injured and Maisie tends to him night and day, and this process draws her to paint him. Her portrait garners attention, enough for Claude to be saved and nursed back to health as he is now a ‘French National Hero’. And then, we must pop our suspension of disbelief hat back on as Maisie is allowed to buy Claude with her painting winnings, and take him back to England.
And then, we must pop our suspension of disbelief hat back on ...
As a boy I was a fan of Willard Price’s ‘Adventure’ series, as it was rollicking adventures with animal themes, but, as an adult, I find Stacy Gregg takes it to new places with historical and locational descriptions that transport you, in the middle of your own equine adventure.
The Forever Horse
by Stacy Gregg Published by HarperCollins RRP $25.00
Red Edge, by Des Hunt (Scholastic)
I was born in Christchurch and my heart still lives in that city—so reading Des Hunt’s tale set in the Red Zone was a powerful reminder of what the city went through—and is still going through.
We find Cassi on her daily run; she and her father moved to the edge of the Red Zone only days before. Cassi’s mum and brother have moved away, vowing never to return to the fractured city. Hunt hits the nail on the head straight away: ‘Not only buildings were broken apart when the earth moved’.
Hunt hits the nail on the head straight away: ‘Not only buildings were broken apart when the earth moved’.
With many houses still not rebuilt, the haunted house angle is a good one. Whilst exploring the derelict house next door, Cassie finds scientific equipment—and some wētā.
Teaming up with her fellow snooper, the much teased Quinn, she sets in motion a modern-day Aotearoa Nancy Drew or Ruby Redfort investigative mystery. The interesting interplay between Quinn and Cassie around their weight issues makes for an interesting comment on today’s blurred lines of what is ‘acceptable’ when talking about weight. Quinn is looking to lose weight, but he realises Cassi needs to potentially gain weight as she is displaying anorexic tendencies. I was a bit taken aback when our heroine called Quinn ‘Fat boy’, especially as she was displaying her own body issues, but Hunt deals deftly with it when he introduces their pact of a ‘Mass Transfer Programme’. Cassi gains weight that Quinn wishes to lose.
Teaming up with her fellow snooper ... she sets in motion a modern-day Aotearoa Nancy Drew or Ruby Redfort investigative mystery.
Their snooping leads them to Raven Black and her crooked cronies as they seek to profit from stealing wētā from native bush. Adding to that, they have to navigate the treacherous landscape of being teens amongst unlikeable bullies. Believe me, we all know Harmony Robinson—or at least we think we do.
Teaming up with a veteran reporter, they delve into the dark web, discovering that a natural remedy company is a front for the smuggling of Giant Wētā. Cell phones, hidden microphones, drones and more show that Des Hunt likes his technology.
Our villains are regularly named but not focused on in-depth, leaving time for our heroes to take centre stage. One feature of Hunt’s story arc was that the parents were in on the mystery, avoiding the ‘lying to the parents’ trope. It was good to see parents championing mischief for once.
One feature of Hunt’s story arc was that the parents were in on the mystery, avoiding the ‘lying to the parents’ trope.
From the Christchurch Red Zone to the wilds of Kaikōura, we are treated to a Des Hunt clinic of environmental champions, technical wizardry, and a good old-fashioned 2020 Famous Five-type escapade. Red Zone leaves the reader satisfied that once again it’s proven that adults should never, ever underestimate Kiwi teens!
by Des Hunt Published by Scholastic RRP $19.99
Fantastic Mr Bean, by Mary-anne Scott (OneTree House)
This short and sweet children’s book will delight fans of Roald Dahl’s classic Fantastic Mr Fox.
We find Lachie deciding he wants to play the title character in his school’s production, and after some innovation from his brother Frank, he scores the roles. But can he deliver the smooshy, soppy lines to Mrs Fox?
Apparently not, as he gives up his main role in order to play the gross Mr Bean. This is a role Lachie can get his unbrushed teeth into!
This is a role Lachie can get his unbrushed teeth into!
‘I get to carry a gun and drink apple cider!’ he trumpets.
Unfortunately, his ‘method’ acting wins him few fans at home, as his grumpy attitude wears thin fast.
The performance night comes and the description of the small school production is a heart-warming reminder that even small schools and communities love to pull together for a school show.
... the small school production is a heart-warming reminder that even small schools and communities love to pull together for a school show.
Lachie nails his performance, until the fateful moment he spies a bee crawling out of the bottlebrush tail, alighting on Areta’s bonnet. Knowing that his classmate is allergic to bees, Lachie grasps the bee, getting stung in the process but saving the day!
Mary-anne Scott has obviously intended this book for the classroom. Fantastic Mr Bean explores Ideas of resiliency, confidence and selflessness, and there’s also a useful ‘words you may want to explore’ list in the back of the book.
A lovely wee read-aloud novel that fans of the Dahl classic will enjoy.
Fantastic Mr Bean
by Mary-anne Scott, illustrated by Lisa Allen Published by OneTree House RRP $20.00
SS Penguin SOS, by Adrienne Frater (OneTree House)
‘Most kids live in the now but I live in the then’
Jack is a daydreamer, especially since being sent to stay with his Aunt Ida after his father’s death in the influenza epidemic. Aunt Ida isn’t the cuddling type, but one stormy night Jack finds her in need of a hug during the storm’s fury. She is holding an old photograph of an upturned lifeboat, and so begins Jack’s journey of discovering Aunt Ida’s heroic past. At school, he must write an essay on a hero or heroine, and his cousin Wally suggests that he could ask his aunt about her story.
She is holding an old photograph of an upturned lifeboat, and so begins Jack’s journey of discovering Aunt Ida’s heroic past.
That story involves a ship called the Penguin – ‘the pride of the Union Steamship Company’ –and the ill-fated journey that Ida and her family took onboard.
Frater draws her characters simply, but very effectively. The hawkish Ida, the bookish Jack, and the rougher rugby player Wally are all clearly developed characters.
The iconic Pelorus Jack is mentioned, but not as the usual beloved seaside sight, but as a portent of what is to come.
Ida tells the story in nightly chunks, so our dread is drawn out as details begin to emerge: the creaking of the ship, the driving wind and rocking of the Penguin as the storm gathers strength.
Black and white photos from the event add weight and sombre reality to the tale, as Ida painfully recounts the moment the lifeboat lurches, and three of her four children are swept away. Despite that loss, Ida assists some ladies back into the lifeboat, and then holds Ruby with one arm, while bailing with the other. Jack believes she is too modest to say, but he reckons she did everything, from offering to row when the men grew fatigued, and talking to the lifeboat crew to keep their spirits up.
...he reckons she did everything, from offering to row when the men grew fatigued, and talking to the lifeboat crew to keep their spirits up.
The harrowing story is broken up by snippets of the boy’s school life in Whanganui, of rugby and chores, paper runs and bike rides. As with her characters, Frater keeps things simple, but vividly effective. And the Durie Hill elevator is still going strong!
It’s a well-crafted tale focused on a New Zealand disaster that I previously knew nothing about. I thoroughly enjoyed Adrienne Frater’s family history and the way the story unfurled much like a calm wave on a shore.
SS Penguin SOS
by Adrienne Frater Published by OneTree House RRP $25.00
Please note that between writing these reviews and their publication, Alan was named the convener of the 2021 NZCYA Awards judging panel – these reviews do not represent any official stance besides Alan's views at the time of reading these specific books that we sent to him for review.
Alan has over 15 years of experience working in Children’s/Youth libraries, formerly as youth librarian at Palmerston North City Council’s City Library Youth Space, and currently as librarian at Palmerston North Intermediate Normal School. He has a background in theatre and enjoys using his theatre skills teaching story-building workshops, where he tries to give children, young people, and even adults the confidence to tell their stories, their way. He was a member of the NZCYA Awards judging panel in 2020, and will be convener of the 2021 judging panel.