The Fault in Our Stars and other novels by John Green (Penguin Books)

21 Apr

Fault in Our StarsHazel is only 17 but dying of lung cancer. She watches lots of America’s Next Top Model and attends a cancer support group for teenagers. Half-blind Isaac brings his mate, Augustus, along to the meeting before his only sighted eye is removed. Augustus had recovered from osteosarcoma cancer so seems to be in a good place but doesn’t stop staring at Hazel. In anyone but such a hot guy it would be creepy. They become friends and then even closer but it is difficult to see a future with Hazel’s condition. Her favourite book is An Imperial Affliction but it has no ending. She has futilely contacted the author to discover what happens to the characters but Augustus uses his cancer-sufferer ‘wish’ to take her to Amsterdam to meet him. The story then takes unexpected and poignant turns.

Author, John Green, enjoys exploring metaphors here and particularly also in his 2009 novel Paper Towns. He also uses many references to other texts, such as the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Francois Rabelais and T.S. Eliot.

His novels seem to feature male main characters who are usually skinny and desperate for a girlfriend and sex. The Fault in Our Stars is different because an intelligent female, Hazel, is the protagonist. In the other novels, Green’s young men often obsess after attractive, strong, unpredictable girls who seem to be seeking death, particularly gorgeous Alaska in Looking for Alaska. Alaska, like Green’s early important female characters, is wildly original, outrageous and able to keep boys, especially Miles who is new to boarding school, slathering. She is a match for Margo Roth Spiegelman in the superbly plotted, keep-you-guessing Paper Towns who keeps Q (Quentin) chasing her from one paper town to another when she disappears.

Green’s writing, considering its weighty issues, is still humorous and he writes stories which keep his crossover audience of older teens and adults thinking and wondering. It is impossible to stop at reading only one of his books.

The Fault in Our Stars (Penguin Books) 2012

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (Text) 2010 With David Levithan

Paper Towns (Harper Collins) 2009

An Abundance of Katherines (Penguin Books) 2006

Looking for Alaska (Harper Collins) 2005

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

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The Extraordinaires: The Extinction Gambit by Michael Pryor (Random House Australia)

31 Mar

Michael Pryor has cemented his place as one of Australia’s foremost writers of speculative fiction. His two recent series, the ‘Laws of Magic’, some of which have been CBCA Notable Books, and ‘The Extraordinaires’, which recently debuted with The Extinction Gambit,  resemble the excellent ‘Bartimaeus’ series by Jonathan Stroud.

Set in 1908, the London Olympics are looming – so 2012 is an ideal time to read this book with another London Olympics on the way.

Kingsley Ward has wolf-tendencies and wants to be a magician and escapologist. His first major performance is ruined but he is helped by albino juggler, Evadne, whose ‘quicksilveriness’ suggests that her name may derive from the word ‘evade’. Kingsley’s foster father disappears and his housekeeper is murdered. Kingsley and Evadne must escape to the Demimonde, a half-world of the dispossessed which they enter through a floor between the 4th and nominal 5th levels of an unobtrusive office building.

The Immortals are stealing children’s souls so Kingsley and Evadne must act to save humanity, otherwise all is doomed. They are followed by Rudyard Kipling. What is his interest in Kingsley?

Pryor has created a rich, sensory world. He uses language magnificently. There are many strands in this intricate story that readers in middle school and older will enjoy following.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy (Text)

24 Mar

Aimed at readers in the last years of primary school and up to about the age of 14 years, The Apothecary is an innovative title which straddles the real and imaginary worlds. Set in 1952 in a London still recovering from World War II and now in the throes of the Cold War, Janie is feeling homesick for Hollywood High until she meets the apothecary and, particularly, his son, Ben. Ben wants to be a spy and his training proves important when his father is kidnapped and he and Janie have responsibility for the apothecary’s book of medicines, the Pharmacopoeia. As they follow up clues, they discover that the gardener at the Physic Garden has been murdered and they are taken by the police to a Dickensian institution. They escape when an elixir in the Pharmacopoeia transforms them into birds. Trying to avoid Russian spies, they need to discover more of the book’s secrets, especially about the nuclear bombing of Japan.

It seems that another nuclear war is looming. Will the polymer net and quintessence from jaival blossom work to contain the radiation?

The unstable political climate of the Cold War – the war of spies and threats – is an ideal backdrop for the menace threatening, not just Ben and Janie, but the world. There are also some intertextual references to Dante and Anna Karenina.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

Murder at Midnight by Avi (Scholastic Press)

3 Mar

Set in Pergamontio, Italy, in 1490, Murder at Midnight by Newbery award winner, Avi, is a mediaeval mystery for upper primary and junior secondary readers. Think Umberto Eco for children. Fabrizio is an orphan who has started working for old magician, Mangus. Mangus doesn’t use spell-like magic. He uses illusion and is interested in philosophy and great thinkers such as Dante, Plato, Aristotle and Petrarch. Although Mangus is reluctant to employ Fabrizio, he gives him the opportunity to collect money after a performance. The situation goes awry and Mangus is soon accused of sorcery because widely distributed, identical papers which seek to depose the king are attributed to him. Although imprisoned, Fabrizio must find a way to discover the truth and save his master. Fabrizio is an interesting character, unable to read much but full of wisdom from aphorisms such as ‘fear most those who are fearful.’ He is also the source of much of the book’s humour. His new friendship with Maria is integral in providing an ingenious denouement. Even though it is set in the past, this novel has a lively, fresh tone, which should appeal to mystery, as well as historical fiction, readers.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

Picture Books by or about Australia’s Indigenous People

24 Feb

Magabala Books publish indigenous texts. Their 2011 title, Once There Was a Boy by Dub Leffler was probably the most beautiful Australian picture book published last year. Its tropical island setting, colour palette and exotic and nuanced story have achieved both Australian and universal appeal.

This year Magabala has so far published The Mark of the Wagarl and Dingo’s Tree. With the school curriculum’s emphasis on many aspects of Australia’s Aboriginal people, these books will have particular application for schools, as well as for Aboriginal communities. They are important for recording and honouring Aboriginal culture, and also being bridges to the wider community.

The design of The Mark of the Wagarl is simple but the full page illustrations by Janice Lyndon beckon the reader into the atmospheric river settings. Author, Lorna Little, tells the story of the Wagarl (rainbow serpent guardian of rivers in Nyoongar Country) with understanding and interest.

In Dingo’s Tree, the animals won’t share any of the space under their trees so Dingo draws a tree on a rock. It grows tall. As Country is despoiled by mining and there is no rain, the animals become dependent on the last tree. Although there is a strong moral about sharing, this book’s predominant message about the devastation caused by man is chilling and makes the book more suitable for readers older than the very young. The author, Gladys Milroy, is the mother of awarded writer, Sally Morgan.

Kick it to me is published by One Hill Day. Its author, Neridah McMullin, and illustrator, Peter Hudson, give a fascinating insight into the origin of Australian Rules Football; deriving from Marn-grook football played by the Djab Wurrung tribe in the Gariwerd Grampians. The picture book is based on the true story of important Australian sportsman, Tom Wills and his boyhood friendship with the tribe.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

Wonder by R.J. Palacio (Alfred A. Knopf N.Y.)

18 Feb

August is a ten year old boy who has always been home-schooled. He was born with a badly deformed face and tells us, ‘I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.’ His parents and sister, Via, don’t think of him as ordinary even though they love him very much. He is probably the only person who knows how ordinary he really is inside.

Now starting school, August has to contend with the staring and the mean kids. Julian is one of a small group who show him around before school starts. He is a kid who acts one way in front of adults but differently to kids and he leads the campaign to make life difficult for August. Jack sits beside him in most classes but what does he really think of August? Summer befriends him even though she is told she would be in the popular group if she kept away from him.

One of the teachers has monthly Precepts, many of which encourage the kids to be kind, such as ‘When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.’ (Dr Wayne W. Dyer) How far will the teacher and principal’s promptings help the school accept August?

The book begins with August’s point of view but diverts into those of other characters such as Via, Summer, Jack and some kids who don’t seem so friendly. These give interesting and enlightening insights into the whole picture.

The author has a light and affirming touch, especially considering the severity of August’s appearance and the book is an easy read which boys and girls in upper primary and junior secondary will devour. It is also a recommended novel for close study.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

Australian Series for Young Girls

18 Feb

Anna Branford has recently penned Neville No-Phone but she has also written one of the best regarded Australian series for young girls in recent times. Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot (Walker Books) was a CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Reader shortlisted title in 2011 and its follow-up, Violet Mackerel’s Remarkable Recovery, is just as assured. Hopefully Branford can regain the high standard of these two books. Illustrator, Sarah Davies, plays an equally important role in creating Violet’s endearing vulnerability.

The ‘Walker Stories’ are of interest for the young as they can be read aloud to children, or reasonable readers in junior primary could read them alone or with some help. Each book contains three short stories or chapters and some are humorous, such as Mr Tripp Smells a Rat and Mr Tripp Goes for a Skate by Sandy McKay and Ruth Paul.

The ‘Billie B Brown’ (Hardie Grant Egmont) series of easy-to-read books for girls in junior to mid primary have large font and tap into the interests and feelings of girls in that age range.

More complex is the ‘EJ12 Girl Hero’ series (Lemonfizz Media, Scholastic). These secret agent stories take code-breaker specialist, Emma/EJ12 to exciting places in Australia and beyond but also cover realistic issues with her friends.  Technology is up-to-date and within the experience of the mid to upper primary girl readership.

Probably the most original of these series for young girls is ‘Kumiko’ by Briony Stewart, beginning with Kumiko and the Dragon and, most recently, Kumiko and the Shadow Catchers (UQP). Perfect for 2012’s Year of the Dragon, Kumiko blends east and west in an Australian setting with a fantasy element.

For girls in mid primary and up into mid secondary, Scholastic has released Raven Lucas: Missing, a Conspiracy 365 alternative for girls by Christine Harris. Raven’s father is missing and she thinks she sees either him or someone else wearing his coat and hat. Red herrings and dead ends litter the trail of suspects in this suspenseful mystery.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant