The Silence that Binds Us – Johanna Ho

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Harper Collins Australia

October 2022

  • ISBN: 9780063059344
  • ISBN 10: 0063059347
  • Imprint: HarperCollins US
  • List Price: 34.99 AUD

Many of us fell in love with Joanna Ho’s exquisite writing with Eyes That Kiss in the Corners and Eyes That Speak to the Stars. Now it becomes apparent that her talent is not confined to lyrical picture books. This, her first YA novel, is searingly beautiful, poignant and powerful. Exploring themes of mental health, racism and class distinctions. Maybelline Chen is an American Chinese Taiwanese girl who goes against the norm for her background. Her dress, appearance and interests completely confound her traditional mother who seems to find no pride or joy in her only daughter. May’s older brother, Danny, however can do no wrong it appears. Until, that is, Danny freshly accepted to Princeton, stands in the path of an oncoming train, unable to withstand his depression any longer.

In the shockwaves that follow, which engulf the entire community, May and her parents struggle to regain any kind of equilibrium, and those of us who have experienced this deep and unexpected grief will relate to their brokenness. More than that, there are voices raised against May’s parents specifically, but all Asian families in general about the perceived academic pressure put upon their offspring. Those who can see the truth know it is not just Asian parents in this community heaping the expectations on the heads of their young people, and along with this racist attitude, is the realisation that students of colour are facing discrimination of a different kind.

Ignoring her parents’ advice to ‘keep her head down’ May fights back to take charge of her own ‘narrative’ through her writing and galvanises other students into action at the same time.This is a story of courage and perseverance, and the often difficult path to truth telling in the face of sometimes real intimidation. I found it utterly captivating and powerful, and read it with real urgency to know the outcome. Ho’s writing is just sensational. She captures the voice of her various characters beautifully and explores these difficult issues with subtlety and sensitivity.

I highly recommend it to you for your mature readers. While lower secondary kiddos could manage it, I think it better suited to your mid-to-upper readers as it can be quite confronting at times. I feel it will rouse their righteous indignation and would give rise to some deep discussions around the themes.

*This is my ‘give away’ title for February so if you would like to win it, comment on the post and your name will be in the lucky draw at the end of the month* (Australian readers only, sorry)

Well, That Was Unexpected – Jesse Q. Sutanto

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Harper Collins Australia

November 2022

  • ISBN: 9780008501464
  • ISBN 10: 0008501467
  • Imprint: Electric Monkey
  • List Price: 19.99 AUD

In actual fact, this is hands down the most enjoyable YA novel I’ve read in a long time. Coincidentally, it is one of a posse of recent YAs that are Asian-focused in one way or another. Even more interesting perhaps is that it’s the second with an Indonesian setting I’ve read in a relatively short space of time, and given Indo is our very near neighbour – plus, also because I have a very dear Indo friend (Hello Miss Lily!), it’s great to learn some more about this country and the culture, even the difficult or unpleasant parts. I love all of the background to this one: the backdrop of Chinese Indo family dynamics, the Indonesian culture with the strict (and yes, to our sensibilities) sometimes brutal restrictions, the exploration of more than just the tourist sites (which is the knowledge extent of most Aussies I’d say), the focus on topics that have run hot, particularly in the past year or so, such as toxic masculinity, slut-shaming and gender diversity. That is to say, they have run hot in much of the Western world with much positivity arising from strong advocacy – not so much in Indonesia where the religious implications and traditional family values are paramount.

But more than all of this – I love that this is, at its heart, an utterly adorable and engaging rom com with a hetero couple. {Don’t shoot me. I have many gender diverse friends and have always actively supported the LGBQT+ movement – but seriously, it was getting harder and harder to find a YA Romance that had a boy/girl relationship – and you know what? they do still exist!} Sharlot has been raised in LA by her single Indonesian mother without ever having contact either with the country of her heritage or her extended family. When she decides that she will sleep with her (secret) boyfriend after much careful consideration, she’s quite unprepared for the reality and backs out at the last minute – no awful consequences from the b/f but her mum walks in to discover a very compromising scene and in a kneejerk reaction, has Sharlot hustled onto a plane pronto ,and they are both bound for Indonesia and traditional family. Meanwhile, in Jakarta George Clooney Tanuwijaya (yes, that is correct) is caught by his father in an equally compromising, albeit solo, situation.

So what would any concerned, traditional Chinese Indo parent do? They would try to find their child a ‘suitable’ romantic interest. And so, begins a complete comedy of errors – with George’s dad, along with his 13 year old sister, and Sharlot’s mum ‘catfishing’ on the local social media app with a view to sparking a relationship. Their feeble attempts to be hip and attractive to the other person are highly entertaining, but become even more so when George and Sharlot finally meet via the engineering of their respective families.

Those families are far more complex than first imagined. Sharlot’s mum and George’s Eighth Aunt are long-lost best friends – in fact,much more than that. Their sapphic friendship was the impetus for Sharlot’s mum leaving Indo, although not in and of itself. Add into this mix, George’s attempts to please his father by being more interested in the family business – they just happen to be the second wealthiest family in Indonesia!- by creating an app called OneLiner aimed at educating and encouraging young men to shed their toxic attitudes and behaviours. There’s a lot going on but, trust me, it’s really not as complicated as it sounds – and it totally is hilarious. The secondary characters are just as quirky as the plot and there is plenty of diversity (both gender and cultural) to offset the main couple and the main plot. I loved it very much and read it very quickly. I especially love that Sharlot has as fine a command of the Anglo-Saxon vernacular as I do and her conversations are literally peppered by expletives. On that note, the publishers have a 12 years suggested age for it but, conservatively and mindful of all my library cohorts, I would not be handing it to anyone under Year 9. Lots of swearing and sexual references which would easily rouse the ire of not-so-tolerant parents (or admins).

Highly recommended for your older or suitably mature readers.

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile: the junior novelization – Bernard Waber

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Harper Collins Australia

September 2022

  • SBN: 9780063256477
  • ISBN 10: 0063256479
  • Imprint: Clarion Books
  • List Price: 12.99 AUD

To be perfectly honest, until the trailers for the movie came out, I had never really heard of this series, although I think I’ve had at least one of the picture books (the original one?) in my collection at some point. Maybe because sometimes American children’s books are eclipsed, for me at least, by our own kids’ lit (especially older ones) or maybe I’m just unobservant. *grin*

Whichever, Waber‘s series of Lyle books has been a staple favourite of US kids for some time, and it is easy to see why. This is the sort of nonsensical story that young children like with an absurdist titular character combined with family and neighbourhood interactions. There are some great themes of being your best self, regardless of who – or indeed, what – you are, which will make for some great discussion points with kiddos.

I am sure that many of your readers will have been to the movies to see this one over the Xmas break and as we know, the movie tie-in is always a great way to tempt those reluctant readers, particularly when the book is an easy read such as this.

Recommended for your kiddos from around Year 2 upwards, who would particularly enjoy it as a read-aloud (with subsequent classroom chats).

Friday Barnes 11: Last Chance – R. A. Spratt

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Penguin Australia

  • Published: 31 January 2023
  • ISBN: 9780143779247
  • Imprint: Puffin
  • RRP: $16.99

Oh Friday, you just get betterer and betterer! Readers will remember my anecdote of the dismay felt by my coterie of Friday fans, when the ‘last’ in the (original) series was announced, and was confirmed by my (then) recent conversation with Rachel over afternoon tea. Subsequently – and by then in a different school library – the kiddos went wild when they found out Friday’s adventures were off and running again. I now have some readers in university who still hang out for the latest update on Friday, her friends, her mishaps and successes – and of course, her love life!

Friday, Melly and Ian, along with Uncle Bernie and a few assorted newcomers to the quirky cast of characters, are once again embroiled in an art crime. As special consultants to Interpol, the teens are undercover as art students, as they try to establish the veracity of a supposedly genuine letter which reveals the famous Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre, is a highly successful fake – and has been displayed as the real thing for a hundred years. This is a cold case with a difference it seems – or is it?

The trio’s investigations not only have Spratt’s hallmark idiosyncratic humour stamped all over them but raise current topics such as digital theft and art ‘terrorism’. It’s another action-packed instalment from our favourite teen detective, with the added bonus of the slowly evolving romance between Friday and Ian to bring smiles to readers’ dials.

Releasing with perfect timing to kick off a new school year, you would be wise to get this one on your shelves ASAP because those Friday Fans will be clamouring for it. Highly recommended for your readers from mid-primary upwards. I know I can’t wait to see what happens next!! (and seriously, this has, at least, Netflix series written all over – does it not??)

Signs of Survival: a memoir of the Holocaust – Renee Hartman with Joshua M. Greene

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Scholastic

November 2021

  • ISBN: 9781338753356

RRP: $28.25

I found out about this book via Mighty Girl about a week ago and was so pleased that not only had my local library acquired it very recently but that it was available. I read it last night in one sitting (just over 100 pages is all) and, trust me, this is one you want in your collection for sure. I know how many kiddos I’ve had over the years with a deep interest in the Holocaust and preserving memories – quite a number of them who had family members murdered or impacted.

Renee and her younger sister, Herta, were little girls in Bratislava when the terror began. Their story of survival despite incredible odds, and the horror of Bergen-Belsen became part of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. From there, Renee developed their history into this very easily read version for younger readers with the supplementary material from Joshua M. Greene.

From the vantage point of their present day as American citizens, having been transplanted there after the war and finding out their parents had been among those killed by the Nazis, Renee and Herta share their extraordinary and terribly poignant story. It’s amazing because not only did two little girls survive despite all odds, Herta’s deafness marked her out as inferior in the eyes of the Nazi regime and their butcher-doctors, and Renee was mere hours away from being dead of typhoid when Bergen-Belsen was liberated. Do yourself a favour and hunt it out and read it but, more importantly, acquire it for your collection and promote it to your children. We all have a moral responsibility let alone a compassionate impetus to ensure that the history of this most heinous episode in human history is neither forgotten nor repeated.

Herta, aged 9 on the left and Renee, aged ten and a half on the right.

Lockwood & Co – Jonathan Stroud

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Penguin Australia

  • 7 February 2023
  • ISBN: 9780241613122
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • RRP: $18.99

Ten years ago I reviewed The Screaming Staircase and wrote: This new series from Jonathan Stroud is the first since the Bartimaeus Sequence which sold over six million copies, and was translated in over 35 languages. The fact that Universal Studios has already picked up the film rights to Lockwood & Co. is an indicator of the enthusiasm this new series should generate. And now this terrific series is set to become the next Netflix sensation for kiddos.

After a decade it was just as enjoyable to re-read in it’s new dress and, once again, I have every confidence that your avid readers from about mid-primary upwards to secondary will thoroughly enjoy it – provided they’re not too squeamish about some pretty fearful ghosts *grin* and love some humour, even if it is a little grotesque at times.

If you still have not read this fab series, I ask ‘why not?’. Stroud’s writing is always classy and original so very much worth your own time as well as some solid promotion for your readers. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what’s been made of it for a viewing audience. Bring it on Netflix I say!! Australian release on 27th January! yay!

Highly recommended for your readers from around 10 years up.

Willa and Woof 3: Grandparents for Hire – Jacqueline Harvey

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Penguin Australia

January 2023

  • ISBN: 9781761043338
  • Imprint: Puffin
  • RRP: $12.99

It makes me very happy that my first review for 2023 is for my lovely friend, and über-talented creator, Jacqueline Harvey for #3 in her latest sensational series. Jacqueline has a sublime knack for creating character with whom readers can immediately connect, empathise and love, and Willa – along with her ensemble cast – is no exception.

I particularly love that in this latest, Jacqueline addresses an issue that many schools have finally begun to realise can be problematic and upsetting for children – the ubiquitous Grandparents’ days and events. To be sure, the intention behind these functions originally was very sound: a desire to embrace the older generation and include them in their grandchildren’s lives. But as time goes on, it is more and more apparent that many kiddos are living quite removed from their grandparents, whether physically, or in other ways.

Clever little Willa conceives of a plan for her own school Grandparents Day to solve this problem for her fellow students and, at the same time, draws attention to situation at the local retirement village whereby the residents’ outings are threatened due to lack of funding. I love that Willa’s is constantly inventive and problem-solving – to be sure, sometimes she encounters obstacles but always she remains optimistic and positive. Along with the whole dearth of available grandparents, outings at risk, Willa also has a mystery to solve about her beloved four-legged friend, Woof. The lovable wolfhound has developed a very out-of-character habit of running away, not to mention stealing food and it is quite a conundrum to Willa and her family for some time. Astute little readers will pick up on the doggy vibe and predict the reason for Woof’s naughtiness, I am sure. The course of canine true love does not always run smoothly!

I’m sure smart librarians and teachers will already have clued up to this new series but for those who haven’t – or if you are looking for new books at this start of the year to tempt a newly emerging reader in your circle – you cannot go wrong with these. I also had quite the giggle with the reference to Willa’s teaching reading the class one of the Kensy & Max books – well played Jacqueline! also I think this is my favourite cover so far!

Goes without saying – my highest recommendation – what are you waiting for? Go buy it now!

Such a fun night back in 2021!

Happy 2023 and 10 years of Just So Stories

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Greetings one and all !! Why yes, I have been AWOL while it’s been the school holidays. After a pretty shitty year, and still many unresolved issues I needed some recharge time. I’ve done a LOAD of reading – just haven’t actually written the reviews but now it’s looking like it could be time to get cracking. I am also undertaking a course of study this year, plus trying to find some part-time work besides the grind of relief teaching so posts will likely be a bit haphazard :-).

That being said this year marks a decade since I started the blog. I had been writing a few reviews in a small way after being asked to help out a professional colleague – and that started a whole new hobby with publishers approaching me on a regular basis. So I decided to start collating the reviews. Thus, not all of the reviews I’ve ever written are found here but I’m going to dig around to see if I can find some of the old ones – which might be interesting I think.

Last year my stats were about 10.5k views for the year which was great and I’m hoping that the figures will continue to rise (HINT HINT -tell your friends!). To celebrate the 10k+ and the 10th year I’m going to give away a book (at least one) each month of the year. Given I’m unemployed and still got The Kid to raise, these will only be posted within Australia but if you’d like to be in the running – just message me on the post/s as they come up.

In the meantime, I hope everyone had a good Xmas and New year as did The Kid and I – quietly at the beach with our adopted family. 2023 is the Year of Good Things – we all need that I think!