Guest review: What matters?

Lauren Wolk has been able to capture many of the elements of To Kill a Mockingbird (and even some from Jasper Jones) as Annabelle has to deal with the prejudices against the town outcast Toby (a World War I veteran). Toby is the first to be accused when things go wrong and when he is accused of kidnapping Betty (the girl who terrorises Annabelle and her brother) it’s up to Annabelle to protect Toby from an unjust town.

More importantly, the ending is one that you just don’t expect.

This really is a moving story that will have you enthralled and captivated throughout.

Mr A. Balbi

Guest review: Passing judgement?

I think I like Robert Newton more and more (When We were Two was already a great favourite of mine) as this novel takes me on a rollercoaster ride to dream fulfilment.

Ok, so the start is very shocking but the relationship that forms between Lexie, Davey and Mr Romanov is so heart-warming and challenging that you tend to forget the shocks at the start.

All three live in a rundown housing project in Melbourne and all three have their reasons for wanting to leave and chase their dream in Surfer’s Paradise.

I found the twists… not all that we hoped for will come true in exactly the way we wanted to be a very life-affirming message.

I also found the courage to look beyond first impressions and to appreciate what lies below very heartening.

Lexie, Davey and Mr Romanov will enthrall and captivate you as they journey together, avoid the police and deal with disappointments in their life-changing journey to their dreams. – Alex Balbi

Big questions – the Honest Truth

Your friend has gone missing, and you have finally worked out where he is heading. The trouble is, you think he doesn’t want to be found. And he is trusting you not give him away. What should you do?

For most of his life, Mark has been battling to stay alive. When his cancer returns, he decides he wants to do what he wants to do – and not be dictated to by others such as doctors. In other ways, Mark is lucky – he has loving parents, a great friend in Jessie, and a loyal dog. These are his supports – but he has had enough. He wants to be a normal kid, but how can this happen if you spend your life in and out of hospital?

‘The Honest Truth’, by Dan Gemeinhart, is a gentle but emotional tale, dealing with big questions – of life and death, friendship and promises. It will have you in tears; then in the next minute, pondering what YOU might do if YOU were Mark’s friend.

For those who have loved books like ‘the Fault in our Stars’, or ‘Zac and Mia’, this tale presents the thoughts of a terminally ill protagonist who fights to achieve a personal goal. It intersperses these with the thoughts of his friend Jess, and how his parents deal with his choices. How this occurs, and the impact his disappearance has on others, make for a moving story with a powerful message about some of the important things in life.

A closing quote from the Honest Truth states:

“What Jessie said wasn’t a lie. It was just a better kind of truth.”

How this fits with the story is for the reader to discover; just like understanding “the mountain was calling me”, and why. Recommended read.

When life gives you challenges – Dandelion Clocks

Life already has lots of challenges when you are entering your teen years, right? Well, throw in an extremely challenging brother and a secret your parents are keeping from you, and that makes life difficult.

Olivia has this to deal with, as well as a growing infatuation with Ben, who she thinks her best friend is also keen on. How tragic can life be?

‘Dandelion Clocks’, by Rebecca Westacott, presents these, and many other typical ‘teen’ issues in an authentic voice – that of Olivia, as she deals with a major family event. How she copes (or not) feels very real, as the story deals with the ups and downs of a typical teenager – but with added complications.

Rebecca Westcott addresses many mother-daughter issues in this novel which has really strong and noticeable characters. Living with a brother with Asperger’s is challenging enough for Liv, but then it seems that her whole world falls apart.

How the family copes with a major event in their lives varies – dependent on who they are –  mother, father, daughter, son. But as the tale is told through Olivia’s (Liv’s) eyes, we watch her struggle with family responsibilities, friendship loyalties and young love.

You may need a box of tissues in some parts, or just be happy to laugh at the differences in the generations, as Liv compares her mother’s diaries to her own life experiences. Either way, Dandelion Clock has a lot to make you think about how relationships change and develop over time, and how we might consider what’s worth hanging on to in times of trouble and grief.

## Readers might also like Life on the Refrigerator Door’ by Alice Kuipers (previously reviewed), which also deals with mother-daughter relationships at a time of crisis.

How to write – Richard Harland

richardAt a Creative Writers’ camp recently, Richard Harland worked with students to demonstrate ways in which they might create and build a story. He drew on examples from some of his most popular stories, Worldshaker and Song of the Slums to inspire students to investigate the feelings and emotions of the characters, and how they might develop these ideas in their own writing.

One of the things he emphasised was that writing requires you to draw on your own experiences. However, he assured us that even if you haven’t actually experienced the particulars of an event, it is possible to transfer emotions from a similar event to develop an idea. So we then had a few “have you ever…?” moments to inspire ideas and discussion.

Early on, Richard spoke of his own writer’s block – his first fully published success was at the age of 45 even though he has written all his life! Discovery of your own writing style and talents is thus important, he stated. He encouraged students to seek comment from others – both positive and negative – so that they might work out what they write best.

Another idea he demonstrated in the workshop was that writers are all unique, drawing from different experiences and lifestyles to create their stories. As we shared our ideas, this was clearly  obvious, with many different scenarios developed around the group. “Ransack your memories…

The finale was when Richard demonstrated his SteamPunk guitar, which he encouraged a friend to create from his own imagination.


“Put yourself in the character’s shoes, and imagine how s/he would be feeling.”

In weeks to come, there should be some reviews or comments from those on the camp who purchased his book, Song of the Slums, so check back soon.

Banned Books

While on a recent holiday in the US, I visited a library with some interesting displays.

Outside Fairhope Public Library were colourful displays, as it was taking part in an arts festival. Shops and businesses were invited to ‘yarn bomb’ the streetscape. (See below).

img_4202 img_4201

Inside, to coincide with Banned Book Week, (September 25 − October 1, 2016), they had an interesting collection of books on display – books which had at one time or another been banned in America.

With this in mind, when I returned from holidays, we set up our own (quick) Banned Book Display in the High School Library. There were some interesting titles which came up in the searches library staff completed – including some books which are now considered ‘classics’ and others with a popular following among young readers.


Banned Books Display – Fairhope Public Library

These are some of the titles we found to include in our display:

Where the Wild things Are / The Lorax / Grimm’s Fairy Tales / Alice in Wonderland / The Fault in the Stars / To Kill a Mockingbird / Paper Towns / Tin-tin in America / Of Mice and Men / Charlie and the Chocolate Factory / Brave B=New World / Harry Potter / the Curious incident of the dog in the night-time / the Catcher in the Rye / Bridge to Terabithia / Little Brother / Lord of the Flies / the Absolute Diary of a Part-time Indian / the Hunger Games / Siddharta / the Diary of Anne Frank

Some questions to consider:

Can you think why some of these were banned? Who should decide? Does banning just make the book popular? do the bans reflect the times?


He’s a poet, who knows it! Steven Herrick

herrickWriters watch

and observe

and create. 

Scratchy notes

scribbled on a serviette 

or in a tattered notebook

become a story through their crafting.


This week, Steven Herrick shared his observations, transformed into poems, with students at school – in a time of performance art and great merriment. He explained the ways in which his ideas come together, from simple beginnings, daily events and everyday life, while the audience hung on his every word and action. (Thanks for your visit, Steven.)

‘Another Night in Mullet Town’ is also like that. In his typical form of verse novel*, Herrick portrays the life of friends, Manx and Jonah, as they move through days of school, and nights with friends, in a lakeside town facing change. As Manx bemoans:

People like you and me, Jonah,

we drag down the price of everything we touch.

Conflict exists in several predictable but realistic forms – between male student rivals, between rich and poor, and between the locals and new residents aiming to develop the town for ‘bigger and better things’. Friendships and evolving love interests are also handled genuinely and delicately, as are the sometimes strained relationships of Jonah’s parents, and thus, his family situation.

In simple but succinct language, Herrick wastes no words at all – and in his usual finely-honed manner, so this should appeal to many teens. Australian teens, in particular, will enjoy visiting the coastal town he depicts, acknowledge the school situations he describes and may even stop to ponder some of the community and family issues ‘Another Night in Mullet Town’ presents.

And, once you enjoy ‘Another night…’, there are many other award-winning verse novels from Herrick to read – ‘Love Ghosts and Nose Hair’, ‘A Simple Gift’ and more.

For a taste of Herrick’s poetry performance, watch ’10 things your parents will never say’:

*A verse novel is a type of narrative poetry in which a novel-length narrative is told through the medium of poetry rather than prose.


Magic disguises

NewtsEmerald.inddSometimes, authors have an idea for a book which takes a while to complete.

Garth Nix’ book Newt’s Emerald is an example of this – beginning its life (well, the first lines) 23 years before it was published! In a note at the back of the book, Nix talks about the first version of this book “which remains in a bottom drawer and there it will stay.” Thus, Newt’s Emerald represents the re-working of a past tale from Nix’ creative mind.

Within the story there is a mix of fantasy, love story and historical fiction, as Lady Truthful seeks to recapture an enchanted emerald stolen from her ailing father. To do so, she uses her own enchantments (along with those of her aunt), to follow a dangerous journey while disguised as a man.

Woven into the mix is her proposed introduction to society, as a young lady from a well-to-do family, turning eighteen.  Thus, Truthful switches between the roles of a well-bred young lady and a gentleman, known as Chevalier de Vienne (her own French cousin). Will she be detected?

Truthful herself, is a mix of personalities – able to act as a lady, but at the same time able to parry with the male cousins with whom she has grown up. These influences come into play as the story moves into dangerous situations, as Truthful calls upon both her instinct and undeveloped magical powers to recover the Newington Emerald.

Add into this, an evil sorceress, people who are not always who they say there are, and you have situations which can twist and turn as the pages turn.

Newt’s Emerald – ‘a regency romance with a magical twist’. Shortlisted in the CBCA Older Reader’s  category this year.

Will it pull off a magical award? Will it enchant Garth Nix fans? Will the mix of fantasy, romance and historical fiction bewitch young readers?

Perhaps Garth Nix describing his book might invite you into the tale?

Freedom Ride

freedomSue Lawson’s book, Freedom Ride, has previously been reviewed on this blog, so it is just to offer congratulations for its inclusion on the CBCA shortlist that this post is about. And to offer praise for a well-told historical fiction tale which is sure to make people stop and think.

In Lawson’s book, we are introduced to Robbie – a teenager in a fictional (but representative) country town in NSW. Through Robbie’s eyes, we quietly see the subtle segregation that was ‘accepted’ in Australian history. Naturally, Robbie’s youthful views are his family’s views, but these are slowly adjusted as he critically observes the practices and beliefs of different adults around him.

Since this time, Freedom Ride has already received several accolades, being included in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult Literature, and of course, the current CBCA shortlist.

Freedom Ride was actually released to coincide with NAIDOC week, an annual celebration of Indigenous achievement. It is another worthy choice which young adults will enjoy, even as it teaches us something (cringeworthy) about our past.

How powerful is it for us to learn history from fiction? Do you enjoy reading historical fiction?