By Georgina Gye
The Calling of Jackdaw Hollow is the prequel to Kate Gordon’s two other books set in Direleafe Hall — The Heartsong of Wonder Quinn and the Ballard of Melodie Rose. Jack Hollow is orphaned as a baby when his parents were killed by a lightning strike and he is taken in by Mrs Beekman, the current head mistress of Direleafe Hall.
Jack doesn’t mind being the only boy in an all-girl school. Mrs Beekman loves and provides for him and Angharad, an apprentice cook at the hall, is his friend who tries to teach him how to cook pies. But Jack is not happy, he believes it’s his fault his parents died and he can’t understand how he survived. He feels as though he should do something special with his life to justify his existence. He needs to find a “calling”. Something that he can do that will make a difference.
Jack thinks long and hard but comes up blank. This is when the three resident ghosts, Florence, Lucy and Nell, urge Jack to help a girl called Angeline. Jack is not sure if a girl is a “calling”. Angeline is a maid at a grand house not far away and is severely treated by the housekeeper. Angeline practises handstands, somersaults and all things acrobatic in the moonlight so that one day she can escape to the circus. Jack sees his chance and decides saving a girl could be his calling. But will this wild girl allow him?
Kate Gordon has given readers another wonderful story about finding your place in the world, the folly of measuring your self-worth and how sometimes a calling can be something not large at all. One of the things I enjoy so much about Kate Gordon’s Direleafe Hall stories is the rich language she uses. Her turns of phrase are all poetic and conjure up all sorts of pictures that encourage the reader to dwell just a little longer within the covers of her books.
For Ages: 9 - 12 years
Number of Pages: 208
Published: March 2022 University of Queensland Press
Themes: Belonging, self-belief and letting go.
Purchase here: https://www.uqp.com.au/books/the-calling-of-jackdaw-hollow
The Bravest Word follows the story of Matty, a nearly 12-year-old Year 7 student. Matty is having problems, his internal thoughts are so different from those he had in Year 6. Before, everything was easy, now absolutely everything is bad. He can’t concentrate in class, doesn’t hand in his homework, is teary and angry and confused. So many emotions clamour inside him that he’s exhausted all the time. It’s crazy, why is this happening to him? Matty is struggling to keep it together and when he starts to really dread his once-loved footy games, his world crumbles around him.
On a bush walk one day with his sympathetic dad, Matty tries to keep it together under the concerned gaze of his father. They hear something whimpering in the bushes and discover an abandoned dog. It has been very cruelly treated and they take it to a vet. Matty is deeply upset about the small dog he has called Cliff. He is determined to save him and nurture him back to health. He prays that his no-nonsense mum will let him keep Cliff, but the wait and the pressure get to him, and he falls ill. He believes he is letting down his best friends, his footy team and his parents. Self-doubt and his painful thoughts are dragging him closer to the edge. No one would understand him if he could even put into words what was going on inside him.
Will Cliff be allowed to come home with him? And will Matty be able to keep him safe and protected? How will Matty deal with what is going on, and is there any way he can fix it?
Kate Foster’s novel is a roller coaster ride through the strong emotions that tumble around her protagonist’s mind. Depression and anxiety are scary and exhausting things, and her descriptions of what Matty is experiencing are a great insight into this insidious condition. The themes of mental health, love, friendship, bravery and family run throughout this remarkable novel. It is a great introduction to inside the mind of someone who is suffering depression. Middle Grade readers will enjoy this story, because, although it deals with a frightening and sometimes crippling condition, it is ultimately also about deep love and caring.
P.S. You will need a box of tissues beside you.
For Ages: 9 - 12 years
Number of Pages: 240
Published: May 2022 Walker Books
Themes: Depression, Anxiety, Family, self-belief.
Purchase here: https://www.walkerbooks.com.au/book/9781760654719/
Marion Roberts’ new novel follows keen boogie-boarder Alberta Bracken through a summer holidays that are not going to plan. Her mother is the author of the best seller “Tammy Bracken’s Guide to Modern Manners” and the pressure of success and a looming Ted Talk gig make things in the Bracken household even more tense than usual. Alberta’s summer gets worse when she breaks her arm after a nasty encounter with the local bully. Add to this the fact that her friends seem to have abandoned her and then the final blow comes with her parents splitting up.
Alberta however, is saved from an awful summer by Mikki Watanabe whose passion for filming nature becomes a welcome escape. Alberta learns about “Shinrin-yoku” or Forest Bathing from Mikki and together they explore the nearby National Forest and create their own YouTube channel, Mikki and Me and the Memory Tree. When they discover a grove of pine trees are about to be destroyed they take action.
Marion Roberts’ middle grade novel is a wonderful mixture of pathos and joy. The descriptions of how to communicate with nature and talk with trees are like a slow meditation coming to life. The themes of friendship, family relationships, forgiveness and environmental issues are all beautifully crafted into this exciting narrative. Her characters are real and Alberta’s ‘voice’ is engaging and authentic. As she deals with all that’s going on around her, we see Alberta grow in confidence and her convictions. Her little sister Clementine has a natural comic relief element to her which helps lead the story line to its conclusion. Marion Roberts has created a story that deals with the issues middle grade readers are interested in and tucked them neatly into an enjoyable experience.
For Ages: 9 - 13 years
Number of Pages: 320
Published: April 2022, Allen & Unwin
Themes: Family, friends, environmental issues and resilience.
For Ages: 9 - 11 years
Number of Pages: 336
Published: May 2022 Penguin Random House
Themes: Disability, Domestic Violence, Friendship and Family
Nat Amoore’s latest book is a great combination of road-trip and friendship adventure. Maki, Jed, Tommy and Sticks are best friends and are the Lockett Squad. They share a passion for a comic series called Screen Savers, with each of them taking on one of their heroes’ personas. Jed is HiSpeed, Maki is SkyDrop, Tommy is Wiki and Sticks is Filter. The story is told through Stick’s eyes and we are quickly drawn into their world.
Life is not perfect on Locket Street. Sticks has a violent older brother, Maki’s parents must move every two years for his father’s work, Tommy lives with his loveable but aging grandma and Jed feels the pressure from over protective parents – he accepted his disability years ago and nothing holds him back.
When tragedy strikes one of the group and their close-knit friendship is threatened with being torn apart, the team come up with a plan and, so begins their amazing road-trip. Together they make their way to the Gold Coast to attempt something so audacious that it may actually be achievable.
Nat Amoore’s narrative is cleverly interspaced with graphic comic portions that help carry the story along. They parallel not only their Screen Saver heroes but also the characters’ own battles. Mike Barry’s art cohabitates this novel as a perfect hybrid and the combination will appeal to many readers. The themes of friendship, domestic violence, disability and family revolve seamlessly through the novel, giving the reader not only a great adventure but a heart-warming, friendship affirming experience.
For Ages: 11 - 13 years
Number of Pages: 256
Publisher: Walker Books Australia
Themes: Racism, Family, and Isolation
Purchase here: https://www.walkerbooks.com.au/Books/Interned-9781760653071
Interned follows the story of 13-year-olds Greta and Tilly during World War I. Both girls come from German backgrounds. Greta and her parents lived a life of privilege in Singapore while Tilly’s father was a baker in a suburb of Brisbane. When WWI breaks out, Germans from surrounding areas and within Australia are taken from their quiet lives and imprisoned as enemy aliens.
Greta dreamt of returning to Germany to study music and continue her violin lessons. When her family arrive at the internment camp she discovers her precious violin has been stolen which compounds her anger and feelings of alienation. Tilly’s father is interned and her mother insists the family follow and join him. Her mother’s fragile mental state crumbles further and Tilly and her younger brother Franz, must always look after her.
The girls and other detainees are not welcome in the small country town they have been taken to and must suffer insults and hardships because of the war being fought thousands of kilometres away.
Pamela Rushby’s middle grade novel fictionalises a part of Australia’s history that is not commonly explored. Seeing the families’ experiences from the German perspective gives readers an insight into the cruelty of war and how blind prejudice can be so harmful. Government bureaucracies do not seem to recognise individual circumstances and so many people were treated in confusingly, illogical ways. There are many parallels to our world today, including the worldwide spread of the deadly Spanish Flu.
The themes of tolerance, racism, fortitude and isolation run through this compelling novel. Interned would be a useful tool for students studying WWI and political conflict and its effect on non-combatant civilians.
For Ages: 12-14 years
Number of Pages: 288
Published: March 2022 Puffin
Themes: Friendship, teamwork, co-operation
Athena Strange is intrigued by the idea of reanimation. And that’s where this great adventure begins. After trying to bring a neighbourhood cat back to life and nearly burning down her home in the process, Athena is offered a place at an exclusive school. Prometheus High is housed on a crumbling ocean liner, the SS Unbound. As she has always had trouble fitting in, Athena worries that this school will be no different. But at least she’ll be learning all the things that really interest her – reanimation, robotics and magic.
Teachers like Dr Singh (robotics), Mx Hollybow (earth magic) and Monsiuer Renaitre (reanimation), along with some helpful drones, a golem and a living marble statue, all create a vibrant if somewhat chaotic learning atmosphere. Athena, however is falling back into her old habits, and believing herself more advanced than her fellow students, starts working secretly on her own project. While navigating her way through school relationships she and her fellow students, experience an increasing number of unexplained mishaps. Can Athena survive her first semester at Prometheus High? Can any of them?
Stuart Wilson’s debut middle grade novel is so much fun. The SS Unbound is practically a character in its own right. Inhabited by a rich assortment of quirky characters, the narrative barrels along at a great pace. Wilson’s world building and those who inhabit it, make the reader want to jump aboard and join the fun. Working throughout the novel are the themes of co-operation, teamwork and friendship. Readers will enjoy this high-seas adventure and begin a relationship with this offbeat cast.
For Ages: 6-9 years
Number of Pages: 240
Published: March 2022
Themes: Family, being yourself and following your dreams
Mim and the Woeful Wedding is the second in Katrina Nannestad’s wonderful Travelling Bookshop Junior Fiction series. Mim Cohen, along with her younger brother Nat and their Dad, Zedekiah (commonly known as Zeddy), travel from place to place in their wagon full of books. Flossy the Clydesdale horse takes them wherever she knows a special book is needed. Along with the family menagerie, Daisy the sheep and Coco the cockatoo, they have arrived on a small Greek island.
There they are welcomed by friendly families and soon learn of a wedding that is about to take place. Anjelica is marrying Stavros but when Mim meets them, she feels there is something not quite right. Are they really in love? Is Anjelica being forced into a marriage by their two families who want to join businesses? Mim is concerned that Anjelica is happier being alone designing tiny houses than she will be when she’s married.
Katrina Nannestad’s characters are beautifully portrayed. Mim’s small family is filled with optimism and a love of adventure. The reader is introduced to a number of characters who are all searching for something, and when visiting the bookshop, leave with the thing they actually need. The theme of staying true to your heart runs throughout the narrative and is aided by a delightful collection of quirky creatures. Mim’s little brother Nat is a particularly unconventional child who follows whatever his interests are without any negative parental judgement. Accepting what life throws at you seems to be the guiding rule of the Cohen family and because of that, their lives and the help they give to others, creates a world of easy going cheerfulness.
Cheryl Orsini teams up with Nannestad again for this adventure, just as she did with The Girl and the Dog series. Her illustrations are delightful and capture the joy and sense of wonder for all the magical encounters the characters experience.
Young readers will adore this story and the others in the series. It’s a beautiful thing to find a book that is so happy.
For Ages: 10+ years
Number of Pages: 269
Published: March 2022
Themes: resilience, fighting for beliefs and how a small act may change the world
Ming and Flo Fight for the Future is the first in a new series called Girls Who Changed the World, by award winning author Jackie French.
The story opens with Ming Qong sitting in a history lesson wondering if there had ever been a girl who changed the world. There were plenty of stories about men, but she couldn’t think of a girl who played an important role at any time.
When the class quietens Ming realises there is someone else in the room. A woman in purple with a mauve umbrella is sitting on the windowsill. She is “Herstory” the sister of “History” and she is there to help Ming travel into the past to witness a girl changing the world. Ming argues that she wants to be a girl in the past and steals more “time drops” before Herstory can stop her.
Ming is drawn into Australia in 1898. She becomes Florence, the daughter of a Chinese woman and an absent, drunken, British shearer. Her circumstances become dire and she is rescued by an aunt who lives in Sydney. There, Ming becomes part of the movement to petition for another referendum that will unite all the colonies and create the Australia we know it today. She also meets Henry Lawson’s mother who played a huge role in the Suffragette Movement.
Jackie French’s novel delves into Australia’s past. It highlights the poverty and hardship suffered by rural communities and the inequality of life in the city, particularly for women and children. The descriptions of places and different lifestyles from this Victorian era are fascinating and detailed. We see all this through Ming’s eyes and readers will be able to join her in this adventure. The idea of making a difference no matter how small is seems, is an underlying theme. Small acts can have huge consequences as Ming finds out. Readers are left with a surprising cliff-hanger at the end of the story and will definitely want to read the next instalment.
For Ages: 9-13 years
Number of Pages: 244 Hardback
Published: September 2021
Themes: Family, mental illness and finding your place in the world
Julia and the Shark is a book about family love and loyalty, and finding your place within it. Julia, with her mum and dad travel from their home in Cornwall to a place called Unst, a small island in the Shetlands, right at the other end of the country. Julia’s dad has a job fixing a lighthouse there and making it work online. Her mum is a marine biologist who hopes to find a rare and elusive creature called a Greenland Shark. Julia, along with the family cat, Noodle, must endure eight weeks away from friends and home.
Julia has always been fascinated by the stories and facts her mother tells her about life under the sea. They are close and Julia knows she can always rely on what her mother tells her. The first night they are in the lighthouse Julia explores the view from the top of the building. She meets a boy looking at the stars but he runs away before she can talk to him. She meets him the next day in the village and finds that Kin is a stargazer who doesn’t fit in at school. He is being bullied by a boy called Adrian and is frightened to be by himself. Together they form a rocky friendship as things at the lighthouse begin to unravel. Julia’s mum is obsessed with finding the Greenland Shark and is becoming more and more unpredictable.
Julia dreams the shark is coming to get her and her parents and her holiday in the Shetland Islands begins to sour. Could it be her fault that her mum is unwell? Julia has to navigate her way through the complexities of the adult world and tries to interpret what is happening between her parents. Her life is turned up-side-down by her mother’s sudden illness and she believes she must try and make amends.
Hargrave’s novel confronts the themes of family, finding yourself and mental illness. Bundled together with insights into the natural world and humankind’s impact on its future, it creates a wonderful novel of self-awareness and strength. Illustrations by Tom de Freston are so beautifully intermingled throughout the novel that just looking at them draws the reader further into the narrative. Julia and the Shark is a remarkable story that will be enjoyed by many in the years to come.
For Ages: 10 - 14 years
Number of Pages: 320 Hardback
Published: October 2021
Themes: Family, love, fear and belonging
Katrina Nannestad’s second novel set in World War II follows 6-year-old Sasha, a boy orphaned by the cruelty of the conflict. Her 2020 novel, We Are Wolves, shows the German perspective, this time we see the war through the eyes of another child, this time Russian.
The books opens with Sasha in a Berlin hospital shortly after the end of the war. He has been silent and wary since he woke, only taking time to steal objects that for some reason, he knows he desperately needs. As he is encouraged by the hospital staff and his fellow patients, Sasha recalls his past with the help of the stolen objects.
This beautifully crafted book sweeps between Sasha’s present and his past. Each story he tells paints a picture of what he has endured. Young Sasha’s personality shines throughout the tale. His kindness, love and optimistic outlook earn him many friends and protectors. As he travels across Russia’s vast countryside with the Red Army and its group of extremely loveable characters, he encounters hardships, skirmishes and moments of pure joy.
Katrina Nannestad’s novel again shows the reader that the world is multifaceted and that sometimes seeing it through the perspective of the young, can make it a better place. It’s not only a place that is torn apart by hatred and greed and contains only fear and tragedy, it can be a place where the flowers that grow on the wasteland are sometimes the best thing in the world. Based on the real story of a young boy called Sergey Aleshkov, Nannestad brings to life another side of war. Themes of family, loyalty belonging and the power of love run seamlessly through this fabulous novel. Any reader, young or old, will be enthralled by this tale of bravery and love.
For Ages: 11 - 14 years
Number of Pages: 352
Published: July 2021
Themes: Friendships, obsession and finding yourself
Purchase here: harpercollins.com.au/9781474978484/girl-in-real-life/
What do you do when your entire life is put on YouTube, even the really embarrassing bits, and you’ve had enough? Eva Andersen is in Year 8 and that is hard enough. Even when she asks her parents to stop Vlogging and Instagraming they don’t get the message.
Eva’s life is a mess of filming, wearing and using products supplied to her brand. Her bedroom and wardrobe and what she eats are all curated by her parents and every day they think up more things to post. They are getting more intrusive and more embarrassing by the day. At school Eva’s grades are suffering as well as her friendship with Hallie who now prefers to sit with Gabi. The only friend who sticks by her is Spud, the science geek from next door.
When a new girl, Carys, joins her class, Eva volunteers to buddy her. Carys has been excluded from her last school for some unspecified cybercrime and Eva finds in her, a friend who understands her problems.
Together they come up with a plan to show Eva’s parents that she’s not happy. Can they get away with infiltrating the family Vlog site? Will it be enough?
Tamsin Winter’s novel is a wonderful modern-day tale. It sheds light on how the internet and the glamour of fame are not all they claim to be. The insights into the damage caused by a life exposed on the worldwide stage are humourously told and give the reader another angle to see the consequences of constant exposure. Winter’s characters are real and Eva’s best friends, endearing. The themes of friendship, Internet obsession, finding oneself are all interwoven through this light but heart-felt novel.
For Ages: 8-12 years
Number of Pages: 208 paperback
Published: May 2020
Themes: Belonging, self, acceptance and inner strength
Purchase here: walkerbooks.com.au/Books/Worse-Things-9781760651657
Worse Things is a story about perspective. Three students, Joelene, Blake and Amir all have something to worry about. Joelene is an ace hockey player who is struggling under her mother’s relentless ambitions for her. Blake is an avid footy player who is shut out from the major part of his identity when he breaks his arm. Amir is a recent refugee who has seen the awful things that can happen in war and is trying to settle into his new life with his aunt. He is also the one who sees things that Joelene and Blake don’t see about themselves.
How can Joelene tell her mother she doesn’t want to play hockey and that she misses her dad who is a doctor overseas helping people in dire situations?
Blake is stuck on the side lines of the footy field and his life. Football has defined him as a person and now he has lost this, he doesn’t know what to do.
Amir dreams of acceptance and family as he watches fellow pupils engage in school life. No one seems to know how to help him. His teacher can’t even pronounce his name.
Sarah Davis’ illustrations, especially the front cover, give the novel a dynamic, contemporary feel that hits the target audience just perfectly.
Sally Murphy’s verse novel is an exploration of self, belonging and fortitude. The easy to read stanzas hold a depth that readers will find engaging and thought provoking.
For Ages: 8-12 years
Number of Pages: 272 pages
Published: February 2020
Themes: Friendship, loyalty and family
The Chicken’s Curse is a wonderful tale of adventure set in the time of Julius Caesar. Felix is the servant of General Fabius Maximus Porcius – a man who ignores bad omens. Everyone knows (especially in ancient Roman times) that to ignore bad omens will only ever end in disaster. The night before a huge battle the General has ignored so many bad omens Felix feels he has no choice but to slip from the camp and head back to Rome and his mother. As he escapes, he meets up with Livia and a talking Sacred Chicken, both of whom want to go to Rome too. Livia needs to see her brother before he is killed by Caesar in his Triumph Games and the Sacred Chicken has heard that he will be fed on cake there – something he especially adores.
Their journey must be made in secrecy as Livia is a slave who has escaped her master. There are troopers looking for her and the trio are in constant danger. Their escape takes them in all sorts of directions – often away from Rome. The soldiers and baddies they encounter are ruthless and extremely unkind. What follows is one of the best road trips ever.
Frances Watts’ main characters are all loveable. Felix is kind and thoughtful and Livia brave and determined. Both of them are very loyal. Their fortitude in the face of so many set-backs is endearing and admirable. The themes of family, loyalty and friendship are strong and are approached with a lovely underlying humour. This book will be loved by all who read it.