Monthly Archives: March 2016

Elephant Man Mariangela Di Fiore, illustrated by Hilde Hodnefjeld, translated by Rosie Hedger




Publisher:Allen & Unwin

Imprint:A & U Children

Pub Date:February 2016

RRP $29.99

To be honest, when I received this in my review package a few weeks ago I was somewhat taken aback. I wondered how the sad story of Joseph Merrick could possibly be the subject for a picture book and I put it to one side for a while.

Then in one of those moments of synchronicity a recently made documentary which examined Merrick’s illness, life and death with the hindsight of modern forensic scientific research screened. My little granddaughter and I watched it and while she found it very sad it was also a good opportunity to talk with her about everyone being different and as she has an intellectual impairment and attends a special school, an even better chance to discuss the students who do not have ‘invisible’ disabilities.

That made me get the book off the review shelf and show it to her and I realise now that for older children this is actually a tremendous opportunity to learn something not only about the treatment of disabilities in past times but to foster that sense of compassion that so many of us strive to instil in young ones.

While this is a fictionalised account of Merrick’s life there is clearly the thread of authentic historical detail and cleverly interspersed with sensitive illustrations are facsimiles of original documents and photos.

This is not a picture book for younger readers but for readers around 8 and up or for use in conjunction with some classroom experience relating to disabilities, awareness and empathy I think it would be of huge benefit to many students.

Thank goodness that in general so much of society has moved from those ignorant Victorian attitudes, though we still have a long way to go. And also thank goodness that people like Frederick Treves had enough true humanity to make Merrick’s later life as happy as possible.

Recommended for readers from around Year 3 and up with careful debriefing where necessary.


Teaching notes are available from Allen & Unwin here.

Zeroes – Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti





Publisher:Allen & Unwin

Imprint:A & U Children

Pub Date:October 2015

Page Extent:496


RRP $19.99


When three highly respected authors collaborate on a novel, you might expect something extraordinary and Zeroes delivers just that. This is a slam-dunk in-your-face novel that brings something quite out of the box to readers.

Meet six unique teenagers:

Nate aka Bellwether – the ‘Glorious Leader’ has a power of persuasion which can bring others to his way of thinking. He is also super-organised and has disposable income.

Ethan aka Scam – with his ‘other’ voice is uncanny, all-knowing and completely uncontrollable

Chizara aka Crash – who can be driven crazy by electronics hammering her senses, can mentally dismantle any circuit and is slowly developing an ability to repair these

Riley aka Flicker – blind twin who can however see through the eyes of others

Thibault aka Anonymous – who is so mentally invisible to other people that even his own family has no memory of him

Kelsie aka Mob, the newcomer – who can infuse a group of people with whatever emotion she chooses.

With their disparate and not always advantageous powers the Glorious Leader has ambitions to blend this group into a force with which to be reckoned.

In just one week, their lives and their shared inexplicable skills are completely revolutionised when Scam becomes embroiled in both the theft of drug money and a bank robbery which has been undertaken by a group of men including Mob’s disreputable father.

This is exactly the kind of scenario for which Nate has been waiting – a chance to weld his unlikely and often unwilling friends into a team.

This is fast-paced and a real page-turner written with a real slickness that will engage teen readers both boys and girls.

Highly recommended for readers from around 13 upwards. Read an excerpt here.


Be Frank With Me – Julia Claiborne Johnson



Allen & Unwin Australia




Pub Date:February 2016

RRP $27.99

As  you know, I don’t seem to get around to reading grown up books often but there was something about the blurb for this one that begged me to read and review it.

Thank you thank you A&U for allowing me the unmitigated pleasure of doing so! Charming, funny, poignant, realistic and with a cast of unforgettable characters, this has been an absolute joy for my night time reading of the past week.

The reclusive and reputedly eccentric author M.M. Banning has been shamefully victimised by a fraud which has left her penniless. Her literary fame which rests on a single perfect novel now studied in schools all over America burns as brightly as ever but the funds have dwindled desperately.

Banning’s publisher, Isaac Vargas, despatches his most able young assistant Alice Whitley from New York to the East Coast to monitor Banning’s progress with a promised new novel. Despite having not published a word since The Pitcher, Banning’s contract for this new book is her financial salvation but the progress is not without obstacles. Alice’s mission is not just to deliver reports on the book’s progress but to ‘manage’ both Banning’s domestic life and her nine year old son, Frank.   If M. M. Banning is considered eccentric then her son Frank has not only inherited her genetic makeup but taken oddity to a whole new level.

A nine year old boy addicted to old movies, with a remarkable intelligence and a wealth of trivia hoarded away in his brain, Frank dresses in a range of outfits that transform him from a mini Teddy Roosevelt to a Clarence Darrow with equal ease and completely lacks any awareness of social mores. Needless to say, this does not stand him in good stead with other fourth-graders and indeed, many adults are taken aback by Frank’s rather unnerving personality.

Alice’s initial surprise as this strange household assaults her senses gradually turns to an unconditional acceptance of Frank and she becomes to a huge extent a surrogate parent for him.

Throw into this mix, the devastatingly attractive Xander whose presence throws Frank into paroxysms of joy, has a soothing effect on Mimi (M.M.) and thoroughly unnerves Alice.

This book has so much to offer the reader in terms of pure joy but has also a great deal to say about our acceptance of others, and society’s definition of ‘normal’.

You will not be disappointed if you look out for this one. While primarily aimed at an adult audience there is nothing in this that would prohibit being a delightful addition to a secondary library for discerning readers.

Read an excerpt here and an author interview is below (Allen & Unwin Australia).

BE FRANK WITH ME is your first novel. Tell us something about how you came to write it at this stage in your life.
Julia Claiborne Johnson: If you’re asking me why it took me fifty years to decide to write a novel, I’ll tell you this – I was a late bloomer in every way imaginable. I never had a boyfriend until I was in my twenties, didn’t have a decent job until I was pushing thirty, didn’t have children until I was almost forty and had almost no common sense whatsoever until sometime after that. Though I had made my living as a writer for most of my life, I didn’t try my hand at a novel before because I didn’t think I had a story to tell that anybody would be interested in reading.

What changed?
JCJ: I got old. I had children. Those two things may not be unrelated. By the time I topped fifty, my perspective on everything changed. For example: When my daughter was in the 6th grade, she read To Kill a Mockingbird for school. She lost her copy almost immediately, so I had to buy a second one to make the first one turn up. I hadn’t read that book since I was around her age, so when the other copy resurfaced, I read it. Oh, I thought this time around, Boo Radley has some form of autism. When I read the same book almost forty years ago, I just thought Boo was weird. Because nobody knew better in those days.

In that moment, a lot of things clicked into place for me. I went to school with a monosyllabic loner named Edgar who combed his hair straight down across his forehead and wore the same bright yellow polyester plaid sport coat to school every day. Edgar, I realize now, must have been on the spectrum. Who knew? Poor Edgar was pursued and tormented for being different, not by me; but I never stuck up for him, either. I can remember wondering what kind of mother let her son go out into the world in that stupid jacket every day. Now I know the jacket probably wasn’t negotiable. Edgar’s mother was doing the best she could. She had to pick her battles, just like me and every other mother on earth, but on an epic scale. I imagine she lay awake every night, wondering where she’d gone wrong with Edgar, worrying herself sick about what would become of her child. It hurts me to think about that now. Though I might have argued with you about this in my twenties, I have come to know that there’s no heartbreak like the kind that comes seeing your children suffer. If I’d maimed only a few of the people I wanted to for causing either of my babies a moment’s unhappiness, I’d be in prison for life.

For some time after I finished re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I couldn’t stop thinking about Harper Lee and Boo. One afternoon I was walking down my block, turning all of it over in my head again, and I thought, I bet it was hard for Harper Lee to write Boo’s character, but not as hard as it was for Edgar’s mother to raise him.

By the time I walked up my front steps, a novel I wanted to read had unspooled itself, beginning to end. The irritating thing about wanting to read it was that I’d have to write it first. Even more annoying, the beginning-to-end I ended up with wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined when I started. I wish I could tell you it didn’t take me much longer to write my novel than it did for me to think the thing up, but I would be lying. That sucker took me six years to wrestle down onto the page.

In your book, Frank is never given any kind of diagnosis. Is that on purpose?
JCJ: Look, all of us are puzzles. I grew up in the South, and there are more nuts in my family that you’d find in a holiday box of pecan brittle. Then I lived in New York City for more than a decade, a place that’s Mecca for the willfully eccentric. In California, I came to know lots of adults who couldn’t tell you the color of my eyes if their lives depended on it, who recoiled if you touched them or went on a little too long about their pet obsessions. Vintage breadboxes, anybody? But these were people who had brilliant careers anyway.

That’s why I didn’t want to stick a pin in Frank and say, Here’s what’s going on with him. The end. I wanted Frank to represent all the brilliant oddballs, real and fictional, diagnosed and undiagnosed.

Talk to us about Frank’s outfits.
JCJ: When I was young I worked as a fashion writer for magazines in New York. You wouldn’t know it to look at me – then as now, I looked like somebody who dressed in the dark from a random pile of clothes on my bedroom floor. I was awestruck by the people in the fashion department. So what if some of them couldn’t spell the same word the same way three times in the same sentence? They looked amazing. What they did with clothes and accessories was nothing short of brilliant. From them, I learned a valuable lesson: Academic achievement is not the only benchmark of genius. In fact, it’s about as common as hen’s teeth, and almost as interesting.

I suppose I could have made Frank a math whiz or a pint-sized expert on the Punic Wars, but it seemed more fun to give him sartorial flair – a look that Alice describes as “a peacock in a barnyard full of chickens” – to establish him as a kid apart from all the typical grade-schoolers on a California playground. So I dressed Frank as if he found his outfits in a pile of clothes on the dressing room floor at Brooks Brothers. Back in my fashion-magazine days, our offices were over their flagship store in midtown, so I knew that old-school haberdashery look inside out. That became Frank’s Fred Astaire aesthetic.

One last thing I ought to mention: On our first big family trip to Manhattan, my own seven-year-old son begged me to buy him a tiny three-piece pin-striped suit he unearthed in a kid’s store around the corner from our hotel. Forget surfers. My little Californian saw all those men striding through midtown in their closed-toed shoes and beautiful wool suits as titans, girded for battle. He wanted to be one of them. That tiny three-piece ensemble turns up in Frank’s story as the E.F. Hutton suit.

How did you come up with the ideas for the characters?
JCJ: Well, Mimi had to be a writer, since the whole idea was showing how much harder it is to live a situation you’ve only imagined before. I decided she’d written a book based on her eccentric brother who she’d turned her back on when they were young because she didn’t feel like her brother was her responsibility. Then I gave her a son of her own, one with similar issues. She couldn’t abandon her son because he was all hers and she was all he had.

From there, I needed to introduce an outsider who’d gradually unravel everybody else’s story. Hence Alice. I made her like a younger version of Mimi as a source of conflict. I have found in life there is nothing more annoying than seeing your worst qualities mirrored in other people. Those are the people you can’t help despising, no matter how hard you try to cut them slack. My daughter explained those two another way:  “Alice is nice you, and Mimi is mean you.” I prefer thinking of them as energetic me and exhausted me, but my daughter has a point.

After that, I wanted somebody to be the rock in the sea of crazy, so that character became Mr. Vargas. Then I needed somebody to guide Alice through the shoals of the glass house and the Dream House, so Xander was born. In my mind, Xander is twinned with Frank. Frank has too much knowledge and very little savoir faire; Xander is too handsome and too charming and too willing to skate by on that. Xander has squandered his talents; Frank may never figure out how to put his to good use. Either outcome is heartbreaking to me.

What were you thinking of when you had Mimi move into a glass house?
JCJ: If you want a literal answer, when I came up with Mimi’s house, I was thinking of the Stahl house in Los Angeles. In the end, Mimi’s house didn’t look much like that one – hers is stone out front but transparent from every other angle. But LA is full of all these amazing glass houses – between all the pricey hillside and oceanfront real estate, there are lots of views to maximize. But a glass house, when you’re obsessed with privacy? Madness, with a heaping side of hubris. Mimi’s so caught up in the trappings of success that she doesn’t stop to think, Hey, those views go both ways. Of course, by the time Alice is on the scene, every window in the house has floor-to-ceiling curtains.

On the heavy-handed metaphorical level, I confess: I liked the idea of a house that lets you see inside a life more than you might otherwise, the way a book reveals what’s going on in a writer’s mind.

Los Angeles seems like the sixth major character in your book. Do you feel that way, too?
JCJ: I do. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anyplace else – almost twenty years now – so on a practical level, it made sense to set Frank’s story here. But it’s more than that. Hollywood is the font of so much happiness in Frank’s life. It’s his Harvard and Yale and Oxford University all rolled into one. He uses them to learn how to be in a world where he feels shunned for his gifts. Movies are full of people who “know how to act.” Every time he watches a film, Frank gets a master class in the mannerisms of the actors pretending to be real people. Their conversations always play out the same way so there are never any surprises. This is enormously comforting to somebody like Frank, who goes through real life feeling like he never has his end of the script.

But I also think Los Angeles is just the sort of place Frank would pick to live in when he has to live someplace outside his head. Los Angeles is as varied and boundless as Frank’s imagination. Think about almost any place on earth, and the chances are pretty good that you can find some facsimile of it within a day’s drive of LA. A desert or a jungle, snow-capped mountains, the ocean, fake New York or Italy or Paris or Bavaria or the surface of the moon.  That’s what drew movie people here in the first place. That, and the fact that, Thomas Edison would send out flunkies to bust up your cameras if you tried to set up shop on the East Coast in violation of one of his thousand or so movie patents.

Why did you tell the story from Alice’s point of view? Why not Mimi’s, or Xander’s or Frank’s?
JCJ: Alice is the narrator because it is Alice who undergoes the most change in the “now” of the story. She arrives full of that Pollyanna attitude of hers, confident she’ll do a great job, with cheerfulness, efficiency and self-control. By the time she goes back to New York, she sees what an unpredictable mess life is. Her time in California has taught her that you can’t always control your elemental temper, children or other people any more than anybody controls an earthquake, floods or fire.

Why tell your story almost entirely in flashblacks?
JCJ: I’m not a deep thinker. I like my stories big. Tell me a big explosion of some kind is coming down the road, and I’m in.


The Stars at Oktober Bend – Glenda Millard




Publisher:Allen & Unwin

Imprint:A & U Children

Pub Date:February 2016

Age: 13 – 17


I am always in awe of those multi-talented writers who can turn their hand to such a wide range of text types. From picture books to novels for younger readers to such as this for young adults, Glenda Millard is one of those amazing talents.

Alice Nightingale is fifteen but twelve, trapped in an acquired brain injury following a violent and traumatising attack which tore her apart along with her family. Unable to cope with the rigours of ordinary life such as school she is protected and loved by her brother and her ailing grandmother. Isolated and lonely, Alice expresses her perfect thoughts through her broken speech poetry and her creativity by making unique and beautiful fishing flies.

Manny James is a refugee from a dark and turbulent warzone and is desperately trying to put ugly and terrible memories to rest. He lives with a kind older couple who are wise with their understanding of differences and staunch in their support of a sensitive young man.

He is intrigued when, on one of his night time runs, he sees Alice on her rooftop – hair streaming, arms wide – and then when he finds one of her poems he is driven to know her. Alice’s first sight of Manny similarly mesmerises her.

carved from ebony

polished with beeswax

a saint from the book of kells

a warrior

a dream with

embroidered-on hair

neat tight french knots

i wanted to

touch them

read them like Braille

run my fingers along

the lumpy scar that joined

shoulder to elbow

i wanted to

know why it was there

what had shaped this boy?


The story of Alice and Manny is haunting, touching and powerful.  They both have extraordinary obstacles to overcome not the least of which is the ignorant small town bigotry which seems to abound in so many places.

Told in two parts from these young people, the text is lyrical and full of beauty as Alice and Manny overcome the wrecks of their childhood lives and cleave to each other for strength.

This is a novel that will move you and I highly recommend it for discerning readers from around 13 years up.


Barney and the Secret of the Whales – Jackie French



ISBN: 9780732299446

ISBN 10: 0732299446

Imprint: HarperCollins – AU

On Sale: 01/02/2016

Pages: 144

List Price: 12.99 AUD


Is there any other author who has such a deft hand at bringing Australian history alive for young readers as Jackie French?

It appears this much –loved and well-respected writer is unsurpassed in this particular genre (not to mention all her other writing!).


The second instalment in the The Secret Histories series re-introduces the reader to young Barney. The boy’s mother was a convict but she sadly died like so many on the perilous journey of the First Fleet and Barney, being a free person but a child, would still be at risk if not for the generosity of the Johnsons who have taken him to their hearts.

In these early days of the colony, life for so many can be harsh and surviving can be fraught. Accruing any kind of wealth is almost unheard of as the newly founded settlement lumbers along.


Then an exciting visitor named Captain Melvill turns up and brings with him tales of great adventure and the lure of riches to be had from whaling.  Barney is not greedy by any means but he knows that one day the Johnsons will return to England and he along with his little friend Elsie will need to make their own way in New South Wales. If he can go whaling it would mean the opportunity to earn the stake money for a small farm for them.


Life on a whaling ship as a boy is tough and often hard but it is not that which makes Barney heartsick. It is the cruelty of the killing of one of the most magnificent animals he has ever encountered. The hunting of sperm whales with the riches they bring to men revolts Barney to a point of misery.  Fortunately after just one hunting expedition Barney is able to return to his peaceful home.


For lovers of history this examination of a little known aspect of the early European settlement in Australia is fascinating. For students who are inquiring into such history it is vital to my mind. No longer can we gloss over the less honourable events in our country’s history.

Highly recommended for all readers Year 4 and up.