Willa and Woof #2: Birthday Business – Jacqueline Harvey

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Penguin Australia

October 2022

  • ISBN: 9781761043321
  • Imprint: Puffin
Our newest favourites from JH are back in their second adventure – and just as delightful as when we first met them. Willa is a very sweet and very kind little girl who has several special friends. Most important of these are Woof, her large albino Irish wolfhound and Tae, her neighbour and best young friend, and, lastly, Frank, who lives in the aged care residence next door, can be a wee bit grumpy but is still Willa’s best old friend.

Willa happens to find out that it’s almost Frank’s birthday and it’s a super special significant one. She feels pretty sad when she knows that Frank’s family, son and his wife plus children, who live in England are unable to even be in touch on this special day so, of course, she decides to do something about it.

Determined Willa thinks a surprise party is just the right thing but organising it takes quite a lot of creative thinking as one obstacle after another is thrown up but finally, it’s all in place and despite Tae’s misgivings that they know Frank prefers ‘no fuss’ it seems like it’s going to just tick all the boxes. But the biggest surprise of all is even more exciting than a party – and that part has nothing to do with Willa at all!

Once again this is such a warm and feel-good narrative about family and friendships, kindness and thoughtfulness. I know that children really warm to Jacqueline’s stories and characters because of these recurring themes. And really, how badly are such values needed in modern society? It is so important that we try our very best to encourage our little ones to have such empathy and consideration for others.

Jacqueline’s knack for creating her engaging characters and making sure each adventure is new and fresh has deservedly earned her legion fans of all ages and this new series is certainly going to take it’s place alongside old favourites Clementine Rose, Alice-Miranda, Kensy and Max.

Be sure to add these to your collection, where they will be in constant demand I can promise you.

Highly recommended for your young readers, especially newly independent, from around 5 years upwards.

Huzzah! Special guest Q&A with the amazing Tania McCartney

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At the very first moment we met, around 11 years ago, the lovely Tan and I just hit it off and I, for one, have treasured this friendship and her astounding talent since.

Isn’t this just the most stylish and gorgeous woman? And the remarkable thing is she just as stylish and gorgeous inside as out!

Tania McCartney, welcome to Just So Stories- I have no idea why it’s taken this long to do a Q&A with you … not only one of my favourite author/illustrator people, but such a super human being! However, with your newest Plume adventure being released, it’s pretty perfect timing!

Let’s get into it!

Q. As someone once sang, “let’s start at the very beginning..”. Tell us about little Tania: growing up, family background, interests, good girl or naughty girl, studious or not? – you know what we want 😉.

Well, I was born on the small isle of Tasmania where I developed a loving relationship with raspberries. When I reached school age, it’s perhaps no surprise that art and English were my favourite subjects. My most treasured possession was a white exercise book crammed with stories and the whopping great glittery stickers Mrs Nicholas handed out for the tales she loved most. Oh, the glory to see a half- or even page-sized sticker in that book.

As a tween, we moved to Coffs Harbour where I morphed into a beach-loving surfer and wannabe fashion designer. At high-school, I was intermittently a rebel, enthusiast, swot or class clown, depending on the subject and the teacher (per: science, art, English, maths).

Q.  I know you started your writing career in the world of magazines and publishing. Could you tell us a little about that and what made you pivot to writing books for children?

Magazines have been quite the addiction. My first article was for Dolly magazine (at age 20) and when we moved to Beijing, I penned more than 250 tidbits, feature articles and columns for expat magazines like Time Out Beijing, The Beijinger, City Weekend, Beijing Kids and Little Star magazines.

Back in Australia, I worked for Australian Women Online, founded Kids’ Book Review, and contributed to various magazines and websites, including Maeve, Tickle the Imagination, HerCanberra and Boomerang Books blog. Roles included writer, feature writer, columnist, photographer, designer, editor, associate editor, contributing editor, copy editor and proofreader.

Including my reviews and articles for Kids’ Book Review, I probably have over 4000 articles in print or online. I also started my own magazine, called ‘little’ (there are some snippets of it on my blog), but kids’ books quickly snagged and dragged me away from this magazine thread.

Q. What other jobs have you done, if any?

Oh goodness, I’m the Jill-of-all-trades. My first job was in the milk bar at the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, around age 13. During high school, I worked part time at a newsagent, then at 18, I moved to Sydney where I spent 8 years in various roles – receptionist, executive secretary, marketing assistant, catwalk model, photographer’s model, promo girl in department stores.

Then it was various roles in Paris and London—mostly temp office work in London and secretarial/computer software training for the Australian Embassy in Paris. When I moved back to Melbourne, I spent four years as a flight attendant, pottered with magazine work and toyed with adult fiction.

It wasn’t until I met my husband that I was finally able to take on my dream role—a maker of books, mostly children’s books (sad that it so oft takes marriage for women to realise their dreams). When we lived in Beijing with our young family, I complimented my magazine work by producing my first picture book (Riley and the Sleeping Dragon). Then back in Canberra four years later, I founded Kids’ Book Review and immersed—with gusto—in our kids’ book community. That’s when things really took flight.

Q. When we first met, I think you had just published the second Riley book and I remember you talking about the illustrator for those. Now you illustrate your own books – and beautifully I might add! – how did that transition come about?

Ah, yes! The gorgeous Keiron Pratt illustrated those Riley books. Feels like a lifetime ago.

My own illustration journey began when ‘midlife crisis’ kicked in. I used to paint and draw prolifically as a child and young adult, but—like so many—lost the connection as adult life grew bigger. I’ve always loved art and illustration and was desperate to take it up again, so in early 2013, I founded the 52-Week Illustration Challenge as a way to challenge myself to regain non-existent drawing skills.

The Challenge Facebook group was a huge success—it grew to over 7000 members over three years and is absolutely responsible for my illustration journey. We had a weekly theme to inspire artists to create and post to the group, and no one was more surprised than me to see latent skills recover and blossom.

From my first woeful offering of a pair of eggs to a circus troupe and the first piece I was actually proud of, I went on to rapidly improve, eventually securing my first self-illustrated picture book contract for Australia Illustrated.

[I’m still so proud to have been noted in the credits for Australia Illustrated! 😊]

I’ve since gone on to illustrate a series of maps, puzzles, greeting cards—and 18 books. Most of these books were as author/illustrator but a small handful in cahoots with an author, including Australia’s Wild Weird Wonderful Weather with friend Stephanie Owen Reeder.

One thing I didn’t count on was how much time it takes to illustrate books, and how hard it is on a middle-aged body. So, half-way through my Evie and Pog chapter book series, I switched to digital illustration, using Procreate on the iPad. I do all my books digitally now and I absolutely love it.

It’s hard to believe I illustrate books now. I still pinch myself.

Q. You published work for adults before you turned to writing for kids. I particularly enjoyed Beijing Tai Tai with the insights into ex-pat life in China and loads of humour. Which is tougher – writing for adults or writing for children?

For children, without question. I think people have little idea how hard it is to get children’s books right, particularly picture books, where every word must earn its place, and where visual narrative is even more important that the text. It’s an intricate, delicate and nuanced dance.

Similarly, books for older kids have such firm parameters in terms of themes, language, vocabulary and construct. They are totally dependent on the readership age yet simultaneously the need to cover many literacy variables.

In truth, it takes deep skill, craftsmanship, experience and time to do children’s books well.

Q. You’ve now published many books and your picture books are just so glorious. Tell us about the process e.g.  How long does the process of writing and illustrating one of your PBs take on average? Which has been the most difficult to create and why?

It really depends. Smile Cry took 20 minutes to write (and was illustrated by Jess Racklyeft). Australia Illustrated took a year to write and illustrate. Mamie took over 3 years from concept to publication.

I don’t think any of my books have been ‘difficult’ to make but if I think in terms of hefty workload, it was likely Fauna: Australia’s Most Curious Creatures . It was a crushing amount of work because I crafted it in Adobe Illustrator—sitting at my Mac, using a mouse (I know!) and the result was not one but two frozen shoulders. I also did all of the research, writing, photography (for textures to use in the illos), scientific editor liaison, layout, design, typesetting, cover. It was HUGE.

And testament to effort = reward, Fauna is by far my most award-winning book. I’m so proud of that book … and my shoulders were worth it.

Q. I especially love your ‘travelogue’ type books as well as the biography-based ones, and there have been quite a few. These are obviously genres close to your heart. What lies behind that? 

It’s not till these past few years I’ve realised just how many of my books feature the Earth, nature, animals, travel, culture, diversity.

I’m a bit of a travel obsessive. I mean, who isn’t? But it started young with me—I’d read the atlas. Like, sit and read it, as a child. And I’ve always been obsessed with maps—again, I would sit and read street directories (back in the pre-GPS Dark Ages). A world globe has always been my idea of heaven.

Our planet and travel have always fascinated me and they still do, so you can only imagine how excited I was when Hardie Grant Explore contracted me to create my first —Australia, Illustrated Map and then the Plume series of travel picture books. Some of the biggest highlights of my career.

Q. Now would be timely to share Plume and his latest adventure with us! 😊

Ah, yes! Festival Seeker! Book three in the Plume series—what fun it was to create. In this episode, Plume gads about the planet experiencing some of the world’s most colourful and dynamic festivals. He flies, of course, on Ava of the Albatross Express, visiting kids in countries like India, Spain, Fiji, Scotland and Brazil.

From spectacular fireworks to puffs of rainbow powder and carpets made of blossoms to burning Viking galleys, Plume has an absolute blast experiencing these remarkable festivals. Each time he travels, he meets new children, and he brings their culture and traditions home to his black and white friends—i.e. the other Antarctic penguins.

This book, like the others, is all about diversity, kindness, colour, adventure, friendship, sharing. It’s a feel-good way for kids to voyage the world from their own home (so timely, with Covid!)—and to be enriched and uplifted in ways that only travel can muster.

[Stay tuned troops for the review of the delightful new Plume adventure! You probably have enough time to go make a cup of tea – or pour something else.]

Q. What does your writing space look (pictures always welcomed!)

It’s a light, bright studio at the front of our house—with a lovely nook for my Mac, lots of cupboards and space for books … and, of course, there are lots of books! There’s also artworks and toys and photos and knickknacks from our travels that inspire and uplift me.

I have a large trestle table right under the window for when I one day return to hand-rendered illustrations (and I will). Even though digital art is my thing now, I really miss watercolour and ink and printing. There’s something less convenient but much more magical about it.

Q. What does downtime for Tania look like? What else do you enjoy doing? (and I know you work long and hard, so hope there IS some downtime!)

Not much downtime these past ten years! But I’ve recently rectified that and I’m finally, FINALLY reading more. And not just kids’ books. Adult books, too. I’m also getting more walks and yoga in, and my hubby recently brought a spin bike into our lives – so that’s giving me quite the [much-needed] workout.

I also love playing dress-ups (quite the clothing obsession) which is a great excuse to meet friends for coffee. I enjoy gardening, interior design, crochet, visiting galleries and a little nature photography. In the coming years, we’ll be travelling a lot more, so planning trips will be back on the agenda. Bliss!

Q. Who are your personal favourites – authors, illustrators, books? (as a child/as an adult)

As a child, it was Blinky Bill and Dr Seuss and Enid Blyton and Archie comics, the latter much to my mother’s disdain (I now read Austen, so she needn’t have worried).

As an adult, I’m pulling the good old ‘how can I possibly choose’ thing, which is generally true, but what I can categorically say is that my favourite picture books of all time are the Miroslav Sasek This is… series

[I completely agree with you on Sasek’s books – I think I’ve bought them for at least five different school libraries now!]

I’m also a huge fan of non-fiction picture books, and faves include Animalium by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom, The Book of Bees and The Book of Trees by Piotr Socha and Wojciech Grajkowski, Mad About Monkeys (and ensuing series) by Owen Davey, and Suffragette by David Roberts.

Favourite children’s book creators include Anna Walker, Owen Davey, Chris Turnham, Isabelle Arsenault, Suzy Lee, David Roberts, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Gus Gordon, Jenni Desmond, Marc Martin and Jackie French.

[ditto to many of these favourites as well – don’t you just adore Owen Davey’s non-fiction? I truly relish each one I see.]

Q. What has been your greatest professional achievement or highlight to this point?

Touching the lives of children, uplifting and inspiring them, in any way I can.

Q. What is next up for the talented Tania? Is there a special project in the offing?

I’m actually scaling back my work from 2023. I have some life to live, you know? And I’m not 30 anymore (alas). So, there’ll be a much greater life balance and perhaps some deep gaps in between my books from now on. That both terrifies and thrills me.

I nevertheless have three books out in 2023 – the first in February – my beloved Dorrie (HarperCollins) on the life of Blinky Bill creator Dorothy Wall in February. Mid-year will be my Wildlife book with Hardie Grant Explore – which was a huge amount of much work – akin to I Heart the World. Really excited about it. Then in October, I have the fourth Plume book. Can’t tell you what it’s about yet, but it’s going to be soooo cute!

Q. Aside from your family and the memories they will carry in their hearts, how would you want to be remembered by the world at large?

Such a hard and confronting question. Okay, leaving out all the crappy parts, I’d like to be remembered as…

A good person. Warm. Generous. Helpful. Thoughtful. Thorough. Responsive.

Someone who heart-and-souled her career, even though her perfectionism and self-expectations were oft debilitating, sometimes even damaging.

Dedicated. Driven. Passionate. Innovative. Curious. Dynamic. Multi-faceted.

A founder, creator, artist, instigator, enthusiast, listener, adventurer, outsider. This last one is particularly important to me.

And, lastly, as someone who in any way uplifted and inspired and comforted even one child.

Tania, I can attest to all of the qualities above – you truly are an inspiration, and not just to children either. It is such a privilege to be your friend. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful insight into your life. I am looking forward to reviewing Plume: Festival Seeker – and more next year.

End of the holidays

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Well funsters, normally round about now, at the tail end of the second week of spring break, I’d be gnashing my teeth about the holidays coming to an end. But – oh my lordy! – the complete and utter bliss of NOT being fully employed (without the usual stress of that situation). The Kid and I have had a lovely two weeks with about half of that time spent up the coast with her surfing and skating, and me enjoying watching her, and both of us sharing some lovely time with our friend, her coach, and other friends.

I have actually done some ‘other’ work in that time – having had a couple of paid writing commissions – jobs which I hope will parlay into more of the same. I have read LOTS and now have at least ten books piled up – from PBs to adult bios – for which to write reviews. That’s on the agenda for the next few days. I’m already booked for one day’s relief work (in a close-by library at a tasty school – yayy!) when term starts next week, and have to also write up The Kid’s home school program but I’m sure it will all work out just fine.

So stay tuned for some upcoming reviews of some fabulous reads and if you are just starting out your new school year in the northern hemisphere, all good fortune to you – and for my Aussie colleagues happy 4th term!

Plume [#2]: Global Nibbler – Tania McCartney

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May 2022

Hardie Grant, Hardie Grant Explore, RRP $26.99

ISBN: 9781741177671

My friends are all very aware of my penchant for penguins. Surely, they are one of the cutest creatures in the world? Although, if you have ever participated in the penguin spotting research via live stream, you will appreciate that the little darlings are very hard to distinguish one from another…but now there’s Plume.  And there can be absolutely no doubt at all that Plume is most charming and delightful penguin ever to waddle the pages of a book.

Tania McCartney has a genius for creating picture books that not only engage young readers with their narrative and exquisite illustrations but which also teach, whether about geography or history, people, or places. To my mind she has an absolute gift for her unique style of ‘travelogue’ books and children of my acquaintance return to these over and over, and with Plume she takes this virtual travelling experience to a whole new fun and entertaining level.

Plume made his first appearance as a global traveller in the first book World Explorer and readers fell in love with this quirky little citizen of Antarctica, who is just a bit different to all the other penguins with his love of very non-PC (Penguin Culture) activities such as sky-diving, knitting and cooking. It is Plume’s great interest in cooking that sparks his newest adventure.

The little gourmet with the distinctive yellow feather has tried in vain to interest his fellow penguins in trying out new taste sensations as he savours his latest online purchases gathered from around the globe. Seemingly, his mates are far too set in their plain fishy ways so Plume conceives of an idea to tempt them.

Enlisting the assistance of the lovely Ava, from Albatross Express, after her super suggestion that he should host cooking lessons, Plume takes off for a round-the-world gastronomic experience that is bound to set your tastebuds tingling. From Japan to Italy, Iran to Mexico, Morocco to Sweden, Plume and Ava sample and savour tastes and treats. Some of these your little readers will know such as tacos or kebabs but others will be new words and dishes to roll around their tongues: torshi, kanelbulle, fika, meskouta or flautas are just a few.

As always, Tania’s illustrations are simply divine, and her characters completely charming, especially their facial expressions. Throughout her fun with wordplay, onomatopoeia and descriptive language will provide much rich and fruitful discussion. And – oh my goodness! – the gorgeous endpapers, frontispiece and the scrumptious textured cover elevate this to a work of real art.

I cannot wait to share this with some hungry little readers and would love to follow it up with a virtual trip around the world, concluding with a feast – of course!

This will easily be incorporated into a teaching program focused on geography or cultural awareness but makes for such a superb personal reading time share as well. I would highly recommend anyone to add Plume to their collection for readers as young as Prep right up to later primary, and I am definitely looking forward to Plume’s next adventure.

Bon appetit!

Stay tuned for Plume: Festival Seeker, out 5 October 2022 in Australia/New Zealand.

The Colourful World of Poppy Starr Olsen: A novel inspired by the life of the Australian Olympic skateboarder – Poppy Starr Olsen & Jess Black

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Penguin Australia

  • August 2022
  • ISBN: 9780143778837
  • Imprint: Puffin
  • RRP: $16.99

From the opening pages this is just a joyful experience and one that I binged in just two sessions. I’ll be honest here. I didn’t know of Poppy (I don’t watch or follow the Olympics) and I know – well knew – zilch about skateboarding so I didn’t really know what to expect. What I got is a delightful narrative (based on fact, presumably) that revolves around family and friends, following one’s dream, being adventurous, having self-belief and standing up for one’s rights and expectations.

Not only did I thoroughly enjoy Poppy’s story but I really did learn so much – as will readers – and not just via the interspersed facts, but also from the lively descriptions of skating and surfing. Of course, with The Kid now pursuing surfing, it was this connection between the two sports that really grabbed my full attention. Now Grom is the proud owner of a surf-skate carver skateboard and learning to use it is a priority in the agenda! And really it’s pretty fun when your surf coach demonstrates his own skateboard skills (notwithstanding the age he was turning the next day!)

sorry John, and you know you are the coolest guy we know! 😘😍

Poppy lives with her lively and adventurous family in beautiful Bondi and her passion is skateboarding, closely followed by surfing, along with art and craft, family adventures and hanging out with friends. She loves to skate and while she has entered competitions, they have been more about a fun one-off rather than serious events. But when her local skatepark is about to host an awesome comp, Poppy knows she wants to definitely be part of it and give it her best shot. Except it looks like she’s not allowed to compete! Feisty young Poppy is not going to let discrimination stand in her way and just as she wins that battle, another one looms when a local councillor tries to thwart the competition taking place.

It is totally engaging and exciting and the proof of that is that I did a first chapter read-aloud with my Year 6 relief class last week and even the ‘difficult’ boys were totally absorbed!!! WINNING!

I guarantee you will have just as much success promoting to your readers – from middle school right up to year 7 and as much fun doing so!

Highly recommended for kiddos from around ten years on.

Just watch this winning performance!

Guardians: Wylah the Koorie Warrior 1- Jordan Gould/Richard Pritchard

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Allen & Unwin

May 2022

ISBN:9781761180033

Imprint: Albert Street Books

RRP: $15.99

This is definitely something different and a series to be watched. These two creators have drawn their narrative from all quarters: speculative fiction in its broadest sense – fantasy, sci fi, larger than life events, incorporating adventure, humour, and drawing on First Australians culture, history and spiritual beliefs.

Wylah has many fine qualities. She is helping to teach the children of her tribe, she not only loves but tends the mega-fauna creatures of her world, she is kind, determined and brave but she knows well she is no warrior yet, not like her beautiful Grandmother.

When her entire family and people are captured by a frightening dragon army, Wylah must gather her courage, and use all her wits and skills to rescue them. As she undertakes this perilous quest, her culture and her people underlie the help she is given as she takes on the role of Guardian.

There is no doubt that it will take some getting used to. Realistically, none of us are used to reading stories where anyone keeps mega-fauna as pets! But I love that this bold new series is taking Aboriginal culture and story-telling to a new audience with new ideas, whilst incorporating traditional beliefs.

I, for one, am looking forward to the next instalment. Highly recommended for readers from around Year 5 upwards.

Astonishingly Good Stories – R. A. Spratt

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Penguin Australia

August 2022

  • ISBN: 9780143779261
  • Imprint: Puffin
  • RRP: $19.99
The freakishly fantastic, amazingly awesome, insanelycompletelybonkerscrazyasafox terrifically talented R. A. Spratt is one of my favouritest authors and purveyors of outrageous snortles*, and well she knows it. She has perhaps been wondering why it has taken me so long to write this review of her latest blisteringly brilliant collection but in my defence I have this to say. I read the entire book cover to cover quite swiftly after it’s arrival but since then I have had it in my ‘relief teaching’ bag whereupon it has made an appearance on several occasions to entertain, amuse and, more importantly, educate some of the finest young minds in Queensland (if not the country).

Now with a day off at my disposal, due to having no voice left with which to teach, I am trying to catch up with reviews, and really it is dead lucky I had already read this latest volume, because there is no doubt that strenuous laughing of the Spratt-induced kind would further reduce my vocal capabilities, so that it would be unlikely to recover them at all within the next week – – and really, where would that leave my adoring fans? (ok, I’m starting to sound like Nanny Piggins now – possibly overdoing the cold&flu meds).

This is a gorgeously galumptious smorgasbord which I can verify will appeal to a wide range of readers of discerning tastes (and as it happens, some who claim to be non-readers). Whether some Nanny Piggins (gosh, how I admire that porcine legend!) providing great insights into famous myths, legends and other historical tales, a mini Friday Barnes mystery or a completely bogus story about big sisters (which reeks heavily of the author’s own household), kiddos from around Year 4 will roll about on the floor with delight with the completely over-the-top antics and adventures herein. I am truly devastated that I no longer have my Year 9 terrorists -I mean, English classes – because after their unit of work on Romeo & Juliet, (their introduction to Shakespeare – now I could definitely write a book on that experience!) I would have loved to share with them the Nanny Piggins version of the Bard’s tragedy.

Honestly, you’d be mad to leave it off your orders list – so get cracking and buy it before the business manager cuts off your budget for the year! Highly recommended for all lovers of the absurd from around Year 4 upwards.

*snortle:  A hearty laugh that is punctuated by a snort on the inhale.

Enola Holmes and the Elegant Escapade: Enola Holmes #8 – Nancy Springer

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Allen & Unwin

August 2022

ISBN: 9781761066245

Publisher: A&U Children’s

Imprint: A & U Children

RRP: $16.99

As we all eagerly anticipate the new forthcoming Netflix adaptation, what better way to feed our love of Enola and her adventures than by reading this newest in the series? (In this house we are both fans of not only Enola but definitely Millie Bobby Brown!)

Nancy Springer’s series following the adventures of Sherlock Holme’s ferocious young sister has been a smash hit and created a huge following, mostly among girls from around Year 6 to Year 9. In this latest episode our favourite sleuth is determined to rescue her friend Lady Cecily Alastair, an unfortunate young woman who is being cruelly treated by her nasty and domineering father.

After the success of the initial ‘spring’ from her family home, Enola is relieved that she has secured Cecily’s safety but her relief is short-lived when Cecily disappears from the secret office Enola maintains. For many this would not be such a disaster but Cecily is hampered by her dual personalities – one left-handed, confident and resourceful and one right-handed which has been forced upon her and rendered her meek and helpless. With no money nor resources, no skills or friends to call upon – how can this young woman possibly survive the streets of London?

Of course, Enola’s adventures would not be complete without snarky intervention from older brother Sherlock (who always feels himself to be superior- wrong). The banter between the two is highly entertaining as always but Enola’s superior female intellect is more than a match for Sherlock’s rather more prosaic kind of intelligence.

This series hardly needs any ‘selling’ – suffice to say your kiddos from around Year 6 upwards will just gobble it up and just in time for the new Netflix adaptation!

The Golden Swift – Lev Grossman

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Bloomsbury

July 2022

ISBN9781526647634
ImprintBloomsbury Children’s Books

RRP: $14.99

A couple of years back I enthusiastically endorsed The Silver Arrow and I am very pleased to say that this second instalment is equally as enchanting for your middle school readers.

A year after they first encounter The Silver Arrow and begin their mission to save the world’s endangered animals via the Great Secret Intercontinental Railway, Kate and Tom are back on board as conductors, but this time things are different. The pair come across a very different train on the secret railway – The Golden Swift – which is also dropping off animals at stations. The problem is that these other conductors are delivering animals to the wrong stations and Kate is determined to find out the whole story.

The ensuing adventures range across the globe from the outback wilds of Australia to the depths of the Bering Sea in a magical submarine and once the identity of the rival conductors is known, Kate feels that they have formed an undeniably positive partnership – one which will change the course of nature for the better. But there’s a huge realisation coming their way – insights into themselves and their new friends, but also a deeper understanding of the complex intertwinings of the natural world – past, present and future.

Like the first, this is not simply about the exciting adventure and quirky characters (where else would you encounter a bossy cassowary who is the dispatcher for the railway or indeed a completely crazy wolverine?) but offers up much food for thought with rich discussions on ethics, brainstorming possible solutions to the terrible castrophe with which the world is faced, and strategies to avoid further damage.

Beautifully imaginative once again, this is a must to add to your collection and your astute readers from around ten upwards will adore it.

Spark – M.G. Leonard

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Walker Books

September 2022

Imprint:Walker Books

ISBN13:9781406389388

Australia RRP:$18.99

New Zealand RRP:$21.99

There is something quintessentially English about a group of children who are into bird-watching I think, especially when combined with all the other great things going on in this series. A diverse cast of characters, an appealing setting where the kids can roam in their own private forest at will, navigating the sometimes not clear-cut avenues of friendship, thrilling adventures and a mystery to solve, all combine to make this an irresistable read to middle school kiddos.

We know that mystery and crime stories for younger readers are booming at present but the point oif difference with the focus on children who care for nature and apply their knowledge in a positive way makes for a thoroughly charming twist.

When Jack comes across a badly hurt cat he suspects that the injury is deliberate – but who could be responsible for such a cruel act? He knows this is another opportunity for the Twitchers to do some investigating but there is soon even more to investigate when the expected arrival of one of the most rarely seen birds is threatened by a local wildlife poacher. The children rally their full force and put their minds to a well thought out plan that will, with any sort of luck, save both the local cats and the magnificent lammergeier.

This is a top notch adventure for readers from around Year 3ish upwards especially those that like their stories action-packed! It would be best read after the first so that your kiddos know the characters and backstory but this is not completely necessary.