Twenty years ago Jackie French and Bruce Whatley collaborated on what was to be the first of ‘the Wombat’ books, and you might say, the rest is history! To celebrate this milestone, this is an absolutely not-to-be-missed prequel to the entire series with the story of the rescue of Mothball – arguably the most famous wombat in history.
Following the immediately recognisable format of the first – and ensuing books – readers can trace Mothball’s journey from tiny furless solitary joey to rambunctious and bossy big girl, now grandmother. All of us who follow Jackie’s socials love to see the parade of wombats (and other creatures) who make themselves at home at her place. And some of us, such as myself, who have been fortunate to visit Jackie’s place (a couple of times) have been equally excited by significant wombat aspects as with chatting with Jackie :-).
I’m in love with Bruce’s illustrations as always, but the instantly recognisable adult humans (Jackie and Bryan) made me chuckle. If I had a library unit coming along with little people looking at Australian animals, I think I would dedicate the whole library unit to the Wombat books (and study of them), and am contemplating writing the unit up as a ‘just in case’ for next year.
As always with Jackie’s books, I feel completely superfluous giving my own humble recommendation – you know they are just a given for your order list – but seriously, how can you go past such an adorable insight into the ‘almost true’ history of Mothball.
My highest recommendation (I can’t wait to share it with a class!) for little readers from toddlers upwards. By the way, have you got your commemorative coin yet?? It’s a fine addition to my ‘bookish’ coin collection I must say!
A brand new series from Jackie French is always cause for great excitement, and this one is going to be a corker, given this fabulous start!
We have all been awed by Jackie’s wealth of historical novels and her indomitable female characters over the years. Now younger readers have the opportunity to examine and reflect upon the past, with its many, often hidden, layers while becoming fully immersed in an exciting and engaging narrative.
Young Ming Qong wonders why so much of history fails to mention girls and women, because surely they also contributed to the events that have shaped both Australia and the world. She imagines what it would be like to step back in time and forge destinies as an intrepid explorer or a wise ruler. When a strange purple-robed character appears and introduces herself as “Herstory”, Ming’s chance to see and experience the past is at hand, though not at all as she might have pictured it.
Instead of some grand setting, Ming is transported back to a drought-stricken, barren farm in the late 19th century where young Flo and her mother, try desperately to survive while the man of the family is largely absent – thankfully, as on the rare occasions he is home, it means drunken rages and beatings. When Flo’s mother is killed by snake-bite, Ming/Flo seeks refuge with her mother’s sister, Aunt McTavish, who lives ‘comfortably’ in Sydney. Her stay with her wealthy aunt introduces Ming to many new revelations about the past, especially of pre-Federation Australia: the long fight for both federation and women’s suffrage, the plight of the poor, the lack of education or indeed any other opportunities for betterment, and a far more diverse population than Ming has ever read about.
Can Ming help make a difference? She does her very best by helping Aunt McTavish in her mission to petition for a new referendum on the question of Federation but also, in her work with Louisa Lawson, for the advancement of women. As well, she instigates changes in her own right – teaching at the Raggedy School and rescuing orphaned Emily from dire circumstances.
It’s a cracking read all round. There is, of course, far more than the ‘big picture’ events enhancing this storyline, and Ming’s compassion, insight and empathy make for a terrific, positive example for readers – without any preachiness. The various characters who ably demonstrate that there are multiple aspects to anyone’s personality are memorable, and while we leave most of them behind at the end of the book, we do have the next one to deliciously anticipate, where Ming along with her brother, will be off on another time travel adventure.
This is eminently suited to your readers in Upper Primary up to Year7 or even 8, particularly your Mighty Girls, to whom I heartily recommend it. Congratulations Jackie on yet another fine series, again inspired by your own family “herstory”!
Jackie and Bruce are always a formidable team, and their picture books are always memorable and en pointe despite the setting, theme or plot. In this instance, while the narrative reflects a period past – one of many tough times in Australian history, when drought, lack of finances, insecurity over livelihood and home and challenges rise up to face ordinary people – the intent and message does not deviate from today’s uncertainties for many families.
After two years of increasingly worrying social circumstances, many are feeling the strain which is imposing on relationships, family bonds, workplaces and financial security (not wealth). It is hard to focus on the true meaning of life, and indeed the spirit of Christmas – and I do not refer to that in a religious sense – when you are afraid you won’t meet your next mortgage or rent payment or be able to buy groceries let alone gifts.
I don’t think I am alone when I think that for many children the wonder and magic of Christmas has diminished in our times, but I also believe that it is children who, more often than not, ‘get’ the message and import of what is meant by the Christmas spirit. I truly think that the majority of kiddos have an innate sense of generosity and also ‘fairness’ – that it is not fair for some to have much and others to have little. And that latter, in itself, is a relative concept.
For Joey and Ellie, in the drought of 1932, droving cattle with so little in the way of resources and what must be so sickeningly worrying for their parents, Christmas is still a special time. Ellie is old enough to realise that perhaps Christmas won’t happen as it should in normal circumstances but Joey has all the confidence of one who knows the secret of magic. And so it comes to pass, that the children meet with Bill Darcy, someone who has long ignored Christmas as often happens after tragic personal loss, and while by today’s often extravagant terms, their shared Christmas is modest, it is still a triumph of spirit and giving.
This, of course, is a must for any collection and will make its way to your list of top Christmas titles to share with your little folk, or to gift to small people in your circle. Another splendid offering from this remarkable pair of creators – to whom I wish a very Merry Christmas, with many thanks for all that you give us, as educators, and the children we teach.
Highly recommended for littlest ones upwards 5 years+.
If you’ve read this blog before no doubt, you have noticed my immense admiration for the talent of Jackie French and, in particular, her outstanding historical fiction. Her seemingly effortless recreation of the past always has the power to transport the reader into the time and place of the narrative, allowing one to be fully immersed in the lives, dramas, despair and fortunes of the characters. I say seemingly effortless but I know the depth and breadth of research, background reading and investigation Jackie undertakes for each of her works and it is that which enriches her exploration and teasing out of hitherto unknown or ignored aspects.
We share a love of colonial history and moreover, a fascination with the untold, forgotten or glossed-over facts of our nation’s, often, troubled past. Readers are well accustomed to the portrayal of white women in our early post-First Contact history and there is no doubt that there were many who deserve our respect and regard. Their resilience, stoicism, ingenuity as well physical and mental strength have earned their place in our canon. But those wives, daughters, and sisters managing a household on small holdings, supporting their menfolk (or possibly managing alone) or working for others in domestic service can surely not be the only types that deserve recognition.
In this magnificent saga we accompany three very different young women as they leave everything behind and travel to a robust and raw Sydney colony. Each of them so very different to the others in background and temperament and yet the friendship they forge goes deep, providing each other with the truest support and sustenance they all need.
Kat Fizhubert has been raised as the indulged and wealthy daughter of interesting and loving parents but when her father’s bankruptcy and ruin sends him over the edge and he first murders his wife, tries to kill Kat and finally suicides, Kat’s life is in tatters and her spirit in absolute black despair. Her kindly and astute aunt arranges a marriage for her – to a well-respected young landowner in the colony of New South Wales.
Titania Boots has never known real love or even affection, growing up with indifferent parents, married off to an old man who merely wanted an unpaid housekeeper and drudge. However, Titania has brilliant business acumen, and her management of her elderly husband’s affairs provides her with all the knowledge she could need. Widowed and left penniless, she becomes a paid companion on a voyage to the Australian colony.
Lady Viola Montefiore is young, elfin, intensely clever and caring and part of a well-placed noble family. She is also most noticeably not wholly of the family with her dark skin and Indian appearance. The obvious result of a love affair on the part of her mother means she is kept secluded from society, hidden not only out of a perceived shame but because of the general response from ‘polite society’. Learning a little of her birth on her mother’s deathbed, Viola is sent away to the colony to be put in charge of a cousin as a ward until she attains her majority. She is wealthy, in a way most of can only dream of, but also compassionate and generous.
On their shared voyage to Australia these young women bond together to comfort each other, share their sad circumstances, and voice their hopes and vow to retain their friendship – though essentially, no vow is necessary as they are now so attached each to the other.
Their ensuing stories as each faces the challenges, good and bad, friends and foes of their new surroundings makes for compelling reading and if, like me, you will find it hard not so say ‘just one more chapter’. I was completely enthralled and fully engaged, as if a bystander, throughout and read way past my bed time for the past few nights. As always though, when I reached the end I was incredibly sad to leave these wonderful and vibrant book friends behind, so I dare to hope that this could be the first of another of Jackie’s fabulous series.
No recommendation is ever needed for Jackie’s books but naturally I bestow my very highest on this new one. I do believe it has become my new best favourite 😊.
Again Jackie has crafted a narrative that combines fact and fiction to take readers back in time to colonial Australia where it was commonplace to meet diverse characters and perhaps even more commonplace not to know everything there is to know about those people. Though set in the 19th century much of the plot will resonate in today’s contemporary classroom as comparisons can be made around immigration, prejudice and race in particular.
Young Jem has been raised ably by his coach-driver father following the sad death of his mother, and has acquired many of the skills necessary to be a competent whip for Cobb & Co, but managing five horses, without help, on roads that are far from level or safe is not for the faint-hearted. The night run from to Goulburn to meet the Sydney train is always a race against time but when bad weather hits – and when your coach-driver is badly injured – it’s an almost impossible ask. Eleven year old Jem must gather up all his strength and courage to complete the journey as the six mysterious passengers each have their own special imperative for reaching the destination on time.
It’s a wild ride through the dark and dangerous country side between Braidwood and Goulburn and the suspenseful story will hold any reader fascinated until the very end. Jackie chooses to authenticate the narrative by using vernacular of the time and while this may challenge some readers, it is well-explained and completes the essential sense of being immersed in the moment.
Both boys and girls from around ten years upwards will relish this adventure from Australia’s past which, as with many of Jackie’s historical novels, is based on actual events. As someone who has read histories of colonial Australia, both factual and fictionalised since I was that same age, I can thoroughly endorse it and I recommend it enthusiastically for your middle primary to lower secondary readers.
I also particularly loved it as we have a strong Braidwood connection – and it was great fun to read of an incident from it’s past.
A year ago Australia was gripped by the raging fires that were sweeping through so many areas with ferocity causing so much devastation in their wake that the whole world was gasping as the scenes were broadcast. According to sources the destruction wreaked by Black Summer was unprecedented: 72 000 square miles burnt, 5 900 buildings destroyed (around half of these homes) and 34 people lost their lives. An estimated three billion land animals were impacted with some endangered species suspected to be now extinct. The Kid and I were visiting family in the Blue Mountains and the constant vigilance and state of alert around the fires that kept springing up across the ranges was both exhausting and stressful. Jackie French was just one of thousands evacuated when her home came under threat and given that the valley in which she lives is heavily populated with wildlife she was a firsthand witness to the dreadful impact on our native species.
With so many animals displaced and their food/water supplies destroyed an army of volunteers took on the role of providing fodder and clean water for thousands of creatures who otherwise would have succumbed as victims in the aftermath.
The Fire Wombat is just one of these and Jackie has crafted a beautiful testament in rhyme to illustrate the survival of our fauna, both with their own instincts and the compassionate help of so many.
One small wombat realises that bushfire is approaching and leads other animals to the shelter of her burrow, knowing that underground is the safest place to be. When the inferno has passed the creatures emerge and try to make their way out of the charred remains of their home territory, scalding their paws as they traverse the baked earth. But the fires have destroyed everything – grass, seeds, foliage, creeks and waterholes. If not for the legion of helpers dropping tons of carrots and other fodder as well as providing water, the decimation of our native wildlife would have been even greater. Jackie has captured this moving moment in our history beautifully and Danny Snell’s illustrations are a perfect accompaniment providing visual insight into the terrible destruction of the forests and mountainsides.
A truly beautiful book to both springboard discussions about supporting our fragile environment, caring for our wildlife and preparing for as well as recovering from bushfire season.
Watch Jackie’s video clip of the real Fire Wombat – now chubby and healthy after her recuperation.
You can find other images of animal rescue from Black Summer here at the Atlantic and an inspiring video of the work done by volunteers in saving animals.
I cannot recommend this highly enough – I would encourage multiple copies for your collection – and teaching notes are also available which will provide excellent scaffolding for use in your library or classroom.
In actual fact, I read the proof copy of this at the start of the term – hungrily devouring each page with intensity – as I do with every single one of Jackie’s books, particularly her historical fiction. All those who are faithful fans of the Matilda saga will embrace this new book with gusto as it precedes the series and takes the reader right back to the very early days of the European settlement in Australia.
I’ve said this oftentimes after reading one of Jackie’s Australian historical fiction books but I’m saying it again – I always discover new learning. I had absolutely NO idea that so many of the early immigrants (either convict or free) were directly connected to the Battle of Waterloo and this, apart from anything else, made for the most fascinating reading.
Henrietta Bartlett is the daughter of a battlefields surgeon and his very able assistant despite her youth. Motherless, Hen is in the forefront of the brutality and bloodshed of the Napoleonic wars and her gentle but efficient treatment of survivors earns her the epithet of ‘Angel of Waterloo’. It is one moment of extreme anguish saving a young man that Hen finds herself being married to her patient and although the union is contracted in extremis, for Hen it is the most real thing she has ever done. When she is told her new husband has died her grief is intense but she continues to work alongside her father until a time comes when she is on her own – without family, without spouse and must forge a new path.
That path takes her to the raw and raucous colony of New South Wales after the discovery that her husband has in fact survived the wars and is now living there. But more anguish is in store for Hen when she discovers that Max has ‘re-married’ and has a new family. With a spirit so indomitable that she can only be one of Jackie’s characters, Hen creates for herself a new reality becoming a landowner, farmer and woman of healing. To locals of the impoverished and disenfranchised status, she becomes ‘Auntie Love’ and her life rolls out with many twists and turns, ultimately being realised into a warm and fulfilling reward for her patience and generous nature.
With her customary dexterity Jackie references her other books and readers will delight in the ‘ah ha’ moments contained in this intriguing and exciting narrative.
I had moments of angst when I thought the story was not going to end the way I’d hoped but the denouement is just sublime – and I’m not the only one to think this. Naturally, I lent my proof copy to a couple of fan friends who whole-heartedly agreed with me.
I don’t know how she does it to be honest but she does with such complete authority and seeming ease – every single time!! I takes me hat off to you Jackie French – as always, this is the perfect read.
Do I need to ‘sell’ it? Probably not but if you are not sure, don’t hesitate! Put this on your reading list immediately!!
We know so well Jackie’s passion for and skill with historical fiction and when she combines it, as she has with this new novel, with her own family history the result is even more sensational.
Australia at the point of Federation: a new century, a new nation and a new and radical shift in the traditional society and expectations – for some.
Hannah moves, with her schoolmaster father, her liberally-minded mother and her young brother from rural NSW to far north Queensland, deep in the heart of cane country where long-held prejudices and practices exist.
When their ship founders and subsequently breaks up just off the coast of its destination and the men of the party foolishly trek into the unknown, Hannah along with her mother and brother are rescued by a young Islander boy named Jamie. In spite of the evident prejudice of their fellow female travellers especially when faced with Jamie’s clearly white mother, Hannah and Mama begin the first tentative steps towards what becomes a life-long friendship. They go even further when Hannah, denied any further education by her conservative father, and Jamie, denied education by virtue of his colour and birth circumstances, begin to take lessons with Mama, who flouts the convention of being subservient to her husband.
This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg as the new century and the progress towards the women’s vote and other liberations is undermined by the short-sighted government that threatens the very existence of any Islanders indentured to the cane-barons such as the man who employs Hannah’s father.
Family drama, threats by the hardened suspicious townsfolk, secrets long-held by neighbours all impact on the family, driving Hannah and her mother further and further towards an escape from the tyranny of both husband/father and their close society. It’s not just Hannah and Jamie fighting for their right to education any more, it’s about a true equality for all and Hannah’s mother is well-placed to act with courage and determination to free herself and her children at a time when such actions were almost unheard of in ‘polite society’. How very proud Jackie must feel to have the inspiration of the women in her family to create this fictionalised (but close to truth) narrative history.
This is fascinating and terrible, at times, as a very ugly side (yet another one) of Australia’s history unfolds and the depth of the struggles by the women who came before us is revealed.
Once more I was completely enthralled in and enriched by Jackie’s historical revelations – both the personal and the Australian aspects. In every book I learn things I’ve never known and in a way, that makes them vibrant and memorable. As always this is a superb way to introduce young (or older) readers to little-known (and very probably well-hidden) darker sides of a new nation and certainly to the very real and often tragic plight of women of the time.
As always, I cannot recommend this highly enough particularly for readers from around 13 years upwards.
When this arrived (and after all, I’d only been waiting for it impatiently since the moment of finishing book #3) I told myself I would not gobble it up like a kid eating lollies. *Laughs hysterically* As if! Three nights later…..
It is 1936 and Sophie, Dowager Countess of Shillings, has been living at her beloved Australian property, Thuringa, with her children and Miss Lily since the widely-reported death of her husband, Nigel Vaile.
The years have rolled by peacefully and all has been well although there are times when Sophie is concerned about Miss Lily’s frailty, the realisation that her dear friend Daniel, once known as John, is becoming increasingly fond of her and, if she admits it truthfully, often she feels bored.
In England and Europe a storm is rising as Hitler grows in power and begins to demonstrate his inherent evil. To complicate this England’s leaders refuse to re-arm and more worrying is the new King’s obsession with a divorcee called Wallis Simpson and the fascist views of the Nazi regime.
Sophie’s old friend James Lorrimer, as always, is in the thick of the intrigues and politics in the inner circle of cabinet and together with Churchill develops a plan to both thwart the King and provoke the Prime Minister into action. And so he enlists Sophie to ‘fascinate’ her old friend David, HRH King Edward VIII, to wean him away from the American predator and reluctantly she agrees taking all her precious family, as well as Daniel, back to Shillings and a world she thought she had left behind forever. Naturally they also take Mr Jones, Green and Violette along with them as this venture requires the skills and knowledge of all.
The evolution of the plan is complex and becomes fraught with complications which not only jeopardise England’s security but Sophie’s own personal safety. There are many tense moments in the unfolding of the plot which will have readers turning the pages as quickly as I did.
Interwoven with the main thread are the interactions and emotions of the main characters and a no-holds-barred interpretation of the man who has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons.
Readers will be, in turns, thrilled and dismayed as the events unfold but will relish their renewed acquaintance with familiar characters such as the indomitable Ethel, the elegant Emily and the duplicitous Hannelore along with the introduction of others new to the narrative.
Based on recently revealed documents from the German archives, there will be astonishment and shock in store for readers as the previously unknown machinations behind the King’s abdication and the extreme lengths to which some would go in the name of duty in this new work from the maven of historical fiction. For many this will be an eye-opening insight into one of the most turbulent times in British history and the monarchy.
There is never any need for me to recommend Jackie’s work – and indeed, there are many in my circle who have been practically panting for this next instalment – but I urge you to take this up with the highest recommendation I can offer. I remain optimistic that we have not yet seen the last of Miss Lily and Sophie and resign myself to waiting (somewhat) patiently for another chapter in their story.
As an aside, when my father was on his way to England as he transferred from the army to the RAF in 1941, he met the Duke of Windsor in New York and, in fact, shook his hand – he said forever after that he could tell just by that handshake and brief encounter that the man was completely spineless and had nothing but scorn for him all his life.