Monday, June 6, 2011

Aussie Book Reviews (Older Readers) - June

This is another of my 'Aussie Book Reviews'. As I tend to share more picture books than novels and graphic novels, I thought in this post I'd stick to books for 10-16 year-olds.  There are so many great Australian books published each year that it isn't possible to keep up with all of them. I will group them in just two categories Graphic Novels/Picture Books and Novels.

1. Graphic Novels/Picture Books for Independent Readers (10-16 years)

'Playground' compiled by Nadia Wheatley, illustrations and design by Ken Searle

This is an unusual book that isn't quite a graphic novel, but then again, it isn't simply a reference book.  Drawing on the stories of 80 Indigenous Australian Elders, 20 Indigenous secondary students and with Indigenous Historian Dr Jackie Huggins as adviser and critical friend, Nadia Wheatley has created a unique collaborative work.  The book offers a wonderful insight into experiences of childhood for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from 1900 to the present. 

With stunning photographs and illustrations, take us into the daily life of Indigenous children (past and present) who are connected with their land from birth. The stories and drawings help the reader to understand Indigenous life in all its facets - learning, playing, understanding and respecting the earth, the first days of life, relationships in families, what 'home' was, languages, daily food gathering and hunting, the place of song, dance, art and ceremony.  Daily practices that changed little for thousands upon thousands of years. With the arrival of European people there have been adaptations, but Indigenous children remain embedded in their culture. Daily life is different, but Indigenous children are still learning from country and community.

'I am Thomas' by Libby Gleeson & Armin Greder

Libby Gleeson tackles a complex topic in a seemingly simple way. Her story could be described as a contemporary parable that brings traditional values and social issues into focus. How do children make their way as they pass from childhood to adolescence? Using a picture book format with minimal words, she touches on the challenges of a child trying to be their own person when immersed in a world that seems to be constraining him to conform. What is my identity, who am I? What do I believe about the world and myself? Armin Greder's crayon illustrations are simple and seem appropriate to the mood of the book and the larger format offers a good palette for her work.

It is an interesting work that tackles an important topic, but I can't imagine why a picture book seemed like the right way to do it. My reading of the book left me with lots of questions. I love Libby Gleeson's work but I kept wondering in such a stripped down telling of her story, why did she choose the life pressures that she did. Are these truly the greatest pressures that children face - school success, conformity to adult views, war and religion? What about sexuality? Substance abuse (particularly alcohol)? Fashion? Body image? Pressures from popular culture? And ideologies of all kinds?

While the excellent teaching notes from Allen & Unwin (here) do address a broader range of issues, the book doesn't do so directly. Granted school success is right up there as a pressure adults place on children. And war and religion might be issues for a small group, but again, are these the dominant issues for many 10-16 year-olds? This is a clever book, but it seems to me that while the topic of this book is important, the execution misses the mark. It feels like a blunt instrument being used when dealing with a very significant issue with so many subtleties and nuances that can't be portrayed in this format. I can't imagine who would buy this book except maybe teachers driven by a desire to help children not to conform, while potentially encouraging them to conform to their own worldview and prejudices.  An interesting book but I was left disappointed.

'Shakespeare's Hamlet' staged on the page by Nicki Greenberg

This is another innovative and ambitious work from Nicki Greenberg. It is an imaginative and epic 415-page graphic novel. Hamlet has become an expressive black inkblot whose form changes shape according to his circumstances and mood. This is not a kid's picture book! Rather, it is one more attempt to present Shakespeare in new forms. Not just to make it more accessible (for some might find some other word-only attempts less challenging) but to tell it afresh.

There is no doubt that Greenberg’s Hamlet is unique. At 400+ pages it is hardly an easy 'read'. But might it not help the young uninitiated reader of Shakespeare to see new things? I'm not sure, only readers 13+ will be able to help us to answer this question.

The language of Shakespeare is given new emphasis as the play is performed on paper. This is a play 'staged' in a book as the title suggests.  It is a very interesting book but I can't help but feel that a retelling like Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories is not a better way in. It is hardly stuff for the poor reader, but more likely the gifted who wants to experience Shakespeare with new depth and relevance. It might just do this for some.

Shortlisted for Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Picture Book of the Year 2011

2. Novels for Independent Readers (10-13 years)

'Surface Tension' by Meg McKinlay

Beautifully situated in the context of a small town flooded by a new dam and this story is told against the backdrop of the dislocation caused to a community. Cassie is born early in the midst of the final flooding as a town watches its past disappearing beneath the waters of a new dam.  From an early age she is fascinated by the town's history, but it is only when she begins to swim in the lake and she is joined regularly by Liam Price (a boy with a tragic past), that the story takes a critical turn.

In the heat of summer as a dry spell leads to rapid falls in the lake it begins to reveal something of its past and with it a strange and dark secret that is linked to Liam's past.  Will they solve the mystery and find the truth before the old town is flooded again? This is a gripping mystery that readers 9-13 will enjoy.

'The Valley of Blood and Gold' by Tony Palmer

It is 1854 and Ballarat is teeming with miners, dreamers and rebels. The goldfields are a place of unrest and strife as large numbers of immigrants flood in to make their fortunes. The Troopers there to protect them are domineering as they seek to keep the peace. Miners are stopped constantly to show their licenses and the local authorities are stifling freedom. It is the eve of the Eureka Stockade battle, and Fintan Donovan is fighting private battles of his own amongst the Irish immigrants. He is torn between his Irish heritage and a new friendship with an English boy named Matthew Ward. But Fintan must make choices. Will he allow his life to be dominated by the hatreds of the old country or is there a new way in a new country?

'Graffiti Moon' by Cath Crowley

Lucy has never met him, but she is sure she is in love with Shadow a mysterious graffiti artist whose work is scattered throughout the city. It is the last night of Year 12 she goes looking for him. Instead, she meets the last guy she would ever 'hook up' with, Ed.  After a disaster of a first date Ed says he knows how to find Shadow. They spend the night tracking down Shadow’s art and learning many things. And Lucy learns much about herself and Ed as they do so.

'Six Impossible Things' by Fiona Wood

"Fourteen-year-old nerd-boy Dan Cereill is not quite coping with a reversal of family fortune, moving house, new school hell, a mother with a failing wedding cake business, a just-out gay dad, and an impossible crush on the girl next door. His life is a mess, but for now he's narrowed it down to just six impossible things..."

This is a book about a boy experiencing first love.  It is loosely based on Cinderella (the main character's name is an anagram of 'Cinderella') but sits well with many traditional tales of rescue and arrival through love. The main character is beautifully developed and makes it easy to be drawn into the story and his highs and lows with his first brush with love. From captivation, to humiliation and all points in between before.....

'Vinnie's War' by David McRobbie

"Vinnie didn't want to be in this place, not with hundreds of miserable kids crowding around him. Everywhere he looked they were sobbing and carrying on as if their hearts would break...."

So opens the prologue of David McRobbie's story of a 12 year-old boy who's fractured life is about to be changed once again by World War II. Like many English children in war torn Britain Vinnie is sent away from the bombing of the London Blitz. What awaits him? With little more left of his old life than his trusty harmonica he is shuffled onto a train bound for who knows where? But here he meets fierce Kathleen, sweet Joey and gangly Dobbs. Three evacuee children find themselves thrown together in the country town of Netterfold, which seems beautiful and peaceful - until they meet the locals.

Vinnie and his new friends find they have their own war to fight as they face up to terrifying teachers, bad billets, and hostile neighbourhood kids who set out to make their lives as 'vaccies' miserable. And when things start to go missing, they discover that there are mysteries lurking in Netterfold's shadows, just waiting to be solved...

This is a beautifully written story as we have come to expect from David McRobbie. While the setting and broad storyline are not original, the particular tale is engaging and well told. Boys and girls 10-16 will enjoy this book.

'The Life Of A Teenage Body-Snatcher' by Doug MacLeod

The title of Doug MacLeod's new book is immediately engaging and the story that follows shouldn't disappoint its teenage readers. Thomas Timewell is sixteen and a young gentleman living in 1820s England. He has a mission, to fulfil his grandfather's dying wish to leave his body to science. He sets out to exhume his body and along the way meets a body snatcher called Plenitude. His whole life changes as he is pursued by cutthroats, a gypsy with a meat cleaver, and even the Grim Reaper.

It isn't every day that the reader is introduced to the fascinating and at times gross world of the resurrectionists; liberators of corpses for the purpose of medical research. But this isn't just a book designed to shock (Doug MacLeod is too good an author for that!); it is an hilarious tale with great suspense, excellent character development and even some love interest. Thomas as narrator is earnest, but always we are on the edge of farce as more bodies are uncovered.

Boys aged 13-16 will enjoy this book and many girls as well, who like grim topics with lots of humour.  The book is on the CBCA shortlist of best books for 2011, and deservedly so!
'The Midnight Zoo' by Sonya Hartnett

It is World War II in Eastern Europe and two gypsy brothers - Tomas and his younger brother, Andrej - have escaped Romany that has been overrun by the Germans. They carry Wilma, their baby sister, in a sack and reach an abandoned town where they discover a zoo. In it they find a wolf, monkey, bear, eagle, lioness, seal, chamois and llama with some surprising events as they contemplate what next. And then, an amazing twist, the starving animals tell the boys what has happened. The boys are scared but they grasped that animals, like people should not be imprisoned.

Sonya Hartnett’s story is a parable that brings into focus the greed and cruelty of people. And yet they learn that with hope and courage we can survive. Hartnett's character Andrej’s offers an insight into the hope, wisdom and resilience that can be found within the human spirit. This is a wonderfully different story that is well told.

The book is on the CBCA shortlist of best books for 2011

'The Piper's Son' by Melina Marchetta

Melina Marchetta, in this her 5th novel, offers us a wonderful story about a group of friends from her best selling, much loved book Saving Francesca. It is now five years later and Thomas Mackee needs to be saved.  But Tom seems to want oblivion instead. He seems to hate the world but deep down the secret is he hates himself. He is kicked out by his flatmates, finds himself in hospital and seemingly on a slippery slope to destruction, but his favourite Aunt Georgie offers slim hope. He pleads to stay with her and his life heads in a different direction.

Tom doesn’t only have his own life to worry about. His father is a former alcoholic whose drinking problem forced Tom’s mum and sister to relocate to Brisbane. He starts working at the Union pub with his old friends and ends up living with his grieving father again.  He realises that his family and friends need him to help them and that it isn't just his life that needs to be put back together.

The big question is will he be able to work out what's important and where he wants his life to lead before his messed up life ends in disaster?

The book is on the CBCA shortlist of best books for 2011. It is suitable for readers 14+.

Other related posts

2011 Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Shortlist (HERE)


PlanningQueen said...

Great list Trevor. I find it difficult to find books that aren't all junior spy type stuff.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Nicole, and thanks for the tweet too. It is hard to find varied books that are suitable for boys 10-16 but there are some around.