Toffee – sweet & hard

“I like the idea of being

sweet and hard

a girl with a name for people

to chew on.

 

A girl who could break teeth.” Toffee.

When Allison flees from home and seeks refuge in a shed (in what she thinks is an abandoned home) her life takes an unexpected turn. The home is where Marla lives – an elderly woman, lonely, confused and neglected by her family.

Written as a verse novel, ‘Toffee’ (by Sarah Crossan) is physically easy to read, but somewhat hard to deal with – it raises issues about family violence and elder abuse/neglect. However, each of these is slowly and softly revealed, as we learn about Allison’s family situation and her feelings about those she left behind. There are also parallel revelations about Marla’s family.

Gradually Allison becomes ‘Toffee’, gaining a feeling of safety. She is slowly accepted in Marla’s home, as Marla thinks she is her friend from the past. For Allison, a new identity and friendship are welcome; especially given the comforts of Marla’s home, where her father’s ways can be forgotten.

Along the way, Crossan shows the complications of life for both Allison and Marla…

Allison longs to have a normal family life, and can’t understand what tips her father’s moods. Is she to blame? Should she be a better daughter?

Marla also longs for a happy family life, and the life she remembers from long ago. At times, she is forgetful and confused, which Allison/Toffee learns to manage.

What does it mean to be ‘family’? What are real friends meant to be like? Who can you trust? These are some of the ideas explored in ‘Toffee’, as Sarah Crossan* shows that not all family situations are reliably the same.

In this video, Sarah outlines why she likes to write verse novels like Toffee – made up of a “series of snapshots” for the reader, rather than the “film” version of a prose book.

*Other books by Sarah Crossan include ‘Apple & Rain’ and ‘The Weight of Water’

** Sarah Crossan is currently the Irish Children’s Laureate for 2018-2020.

 

What does family mean to you?

Do money and wealth lead to happiness?  (consider Lucy’s situation)

What do you really value in life?

Recommended 13+

The Unadoptables

Five children left at the Little Tulip Orphanage, Amsterdam – all in strange circumstances. Fast forward 12 years and the same five children are still there – seemingly unadoptable. That is, until a strange and sinister man comes to visit; to take them away.

In ‘the Unadoptables’, Hana Tooke’s characters are wonderful individuals, each with their own unique qualities. These talents come to serve them well as they flee from Matron Gassbeek and Meneer Rotman.

Even though Rotman offers them a home on his ship together, Milou feels there is something foreboding about his manner and the deal he strikes with Matron. Thus, she convinces the other four –  Sem, Lotta, Egg, and Fenna – that they need to escape from the orphanage into the icy streets of Amsterdam and beyond.

Amsterdam, its canals and the surrounding countryside are features of the tale as the children flee. The city is dark and threatening as they hide from Rotman, much like the grim orphanage they are glad to leave behind. The canals, though icy and challenging, aid their escape. And the countryside of polders and windmills may offer a safe haven.

Using some of their individual skills and the strong belief of Milou that they can find her parents, they venture towards a better life. But can five orphans really track down a notional home, with very limited clues, then survive the suspicion of local residents? Their combined resourcefulness will be tested and their skills will become crucial.

Readers of Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snicket and Jessica Townsend (Nevermoor) will love this.

# What would life be like as an orphan? 

## Do you enjoy reading stories set in other countries?

Disclaimer: I have a personal love of the Netherlands (as a tourist) and can relate to so many aspects of the setting – canals, windmills, polders and of course, stroopwaffels! I was also lucky to receive a review copy ahead of publication now in July.

Hear me – Being Jazmine

‘Being Jazmine’ is the third book featuring Jazmine Crawford – part of the Invisible series by Cecily Paterson. That said, it was also a good read as a stand-alone title.

This story challenges readers to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else, as Jazmine struggles with the demands of high school. She is finding it increasingly hard and very, very tiring.

Alongside the usual teenage angst, she faces a change to her family life as her mother remarries and they plan to move out of her old family home. Even though it’s been five years since her father died, and even though her mother’s boyfriend is really nice, it’s a hard and unfathomable adjustment for Jazmine.

Even with good support from her school friends, certain school teachers and her grandmother, Jazmine still finds it all a bit too much. Why is she so tired all the time? How is she meant to accept this new phase of her life? With the added complication of being deaf, she feels caught between different worlds and the expectations of family and friends.

This story is one to make you think about the things we often take for granted, and things we don’t really see clearly. It highlights the importance of having understanding adults – parents, teachers and grandparents in particular. A book about belonging (or not), and seeing things from the perspective of others.

Recommended 12+

# Other titles in this series are Invisible and Invincible

More on Atticus… (Book 2) – Younger Readers

There was a clear indication at the end of the last book that there would be more adventures for Atticus – are you ready to follow?

In ‘The Map of Half Maps’ Atticus and his motley crew continue their journey in search of treasure – “with a new map and a new plan…” and lots of comradery along the way.

The misfit crew make you wonder how their ship could actually function, but there’s a lot of fun in that too. Let your mind drift away on the high seas as they sail about trying to find their way to treasure.

The dangers they face on the sea are unknown. The perils they may meet are scary – who should they fear most, the Vikings or the crew of Pegasis? What battles will they have to overcome?

Once again, there are many interesting additions to the story. These include inventions such as Atticus’ way to communicate to the crew (his version of morse code), and the illustrative skills of Buttface (which enables the capture of a map – from a deadman…).

Author & illustrator – Source: the inside cover of Book 2

Throughout, the comical illustrations of Stephen Michael King continue to boost the fun in the story – as do the adventures of Stowaway Puppy. (Have you been watching these? will he make an impact in the story?)

Also throughout the story are the developing relationships of the crew, as they come to know and appreciate one another’s talents and foibles. (What’s it like to have a twin sister? Does Wrong Way Warren actually have the right way of looking at things?)

There are also some fun introductions like the Viking group of Bjorn, Benny, Agnes and Anna-Firdi (ring a bell?). Will they be able to continue to sing together if Atticus defeats Bjorn Ironhead? And there are so many other questions to be answered:

  • Will Bjorn ever sing again?
  • What happens when pirates confront one another on the high seas?
  • Will they eventually find the missing treasure map?
  • Will there be another book in this series? (Yes, ‘the Treasure of Treasures’ follows soon!)
  • “How good is pirating”?

Once again, recommended sharing with the family. And readers 9+ (who will want to share with their family).

Derek Dool Supercool (Younger readers)

With so many great YA books about, it’s not often I pick up and review something for younger readers. However, I have just chuckled my way through the first book of ‘Derek Dool Supercool’ series – ‘Bust a Move’.

Young readers will love Derek, as he tries to convince everyone else at his school that he is as cool as he thinks himself. Especially if he can win the dance-off at Rutthill’s school disco!

Even though Derek often has other kids laughing at him (they get points if they doink him on the head in their handball games), and he is on permanent litter duty at lunchtime, he somehow still believes he is the COOLEST, FUNNIEST and most HANDSOME kid at school!

This book is full of fun characters – including Derek who’s ego is bigger than most, his “friends” Booger and Big Denise, and his arch-enemy, Carmichael Cruz. Author Adrian Beck brings them all to life through their over-exaggerated actions and emotions. We learn little things about them in short sections within the story – e.g. how Booger gets his name.

Characters Big Denise, Derek and Booger from the back cover.

Add to this wildly entertaining illustrations from Scott Edgar, and you have a great book for a relaxing but fun read. Even the text and page layout are enjoyable. Words jump out at you. Dad Jokes appear. And special characters, Gilbert and Gertie, make sarcastic comments about what is likely to happen in the story.

This is probably a book for 8+ age group, but who’s going to stop anyone older investigating what younger readers are laughing about? A fun book for the family/class to share.

# The good news is that Derek, Booger and Big Denise return in ‘Derek Dool Supercool – Going Viral’ book very soon! 

Collaborative writing: Take Three Girls

How great is it to get a book which is written by, not one, but three renowned authors!

‘Take Three Girls’ deals with the complexities of teen life, set mainly in a boarding school situation, but dealing with many of the day-to-day issues for young adults, wherever they are.

Focussing on three girls – Clem, Kate and Ady, it weaves their lives together – in spite of some strong differences among them.

Clem, a previously competitive swimmer, is struggling to come back to her part in the elite school swimming team after injury. Quiet Kate is trying to determine where her future lies – is it in an academic or musical direction? And Ady, who is not a boarder, is dealing with where she stands, as her family begins to struggle both financially and personally, for the final years at St Hilda’s private school. What choices will they each make?

The weft of the book begins with the school’s wellness program, which ties them together as partners. As it aims to have students consider things (like identity, self-image, friendship and bullying), the story reflects issues which may well arise for many teenagers.

The warp happens when online sledging appears via vicious social media posts, aimed at girls at St Hilda’s – and ultimately, including the names of Clem, Kate and Ady. (Who is behind it, and how can they deal with it?)

There are parts of the book which will be confronting for some readers – particularly the PSST posts. Some of the situations in which the girl find themselves are not wonderful either, and their choices are not always ideal. But this is not Pollyanna, nor is it set in Pollyanna days. Today, teenagers are susceptible to anonymous cyber-bullying. Schools are not perfect places. And so, this book is both gritty and challenging, as it explores these issues and:

friendship, feminism, identity and belonging. (from the blurb on the back cover).

As already noted, it is also a collaboration between three talented Australian authors – Cath Cowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood – and is soooo well done.

You might expect it was a hard thing to do. However, each of the authors has stated how much they enjoyed their part in writing the book. That the book is so complete reflects this, and it sounds like a fabulous thing to create together.

# For more discussion on the collaboration, and how they worked together, see this post from Writing NSW which followed ‘Take Three Girls’ winning Book of the Year in the CBCA Awards 2018.

## Recommended 15+

### Available as an ebook.

It Sounded Better in my Head

It’s Easy Being Teen. Right? Not always…

Natalie has never been one of the beautiful girls at school, and for much of her teen years has suffered with chronic acne – which has caused her to be very withdrawn. Fortunately, she does have 2 close friends (Zac and Lucy) and so she looks ahead to sharing her post-school future with them.

As they await their Year 12 results, all things seem to unravel when Natalie (who tells her story) is faced with the news of her parents impending divorce. At the same time, she begins to feel like the third wheel when Zac and Lucy ‘hook up’, adding another layer of angst for Natalie.

Natalie voices a lot of her problems – but in her head – she doesn’t say them out loud. We know how she’s feeling and what she would like to say, but she lacks the confidence to follow through. This, of course, leads her to some places and situations where she would rather not be.

There are other relationships for Natalie to negotiate in this, the last summer before university, when she experiences a number of firsts. She tries to rise above her personal insecurities, while her safe world crumbles around her…

Filled with authentic characterisation, this is a great debut novel from Nina Kenwood, and has already won the 2018 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing. It is also one of the nominees for the 2020 Young Adult Indy Awards.

* Do any of Natalie’s thoughts echo what you have sometimes thought or experienced?

** Can reading help us to empathise with others who may live different lives to our own?

*** Here’s Nina’s website – all very new.

**** Available as an ebook.

Cloud and Wallfish

Imagine how you would feel if your parents picked you up from school, and whisked you away to a foreign country? No time to say goodbye to friends, unable to pack your favourite things – in fact, having many of your school possessions dumped in a bin, never to be seen again!

On top of this, imagine they expect you to change your name (just as they have), and to ‘remember’ where you went to school as somewhere you have never heard of – and to forget where home is. This is what happens to 11-year-old Noah Keller when his parents take him to the ‘other’ Germany to support his mother’s research studies. They even tell him his birthday isn’t really in March but in November.

‘Cloud and Wallfish’ by Anne Nesbet is an interesting tale which follows Noah/Jonah and his parents at a climactic time in history – as change begins in East and West Germany – nearing the end of the Cold War.

As Noah adjusts to a confusing new home, his mother deals with her studies, and his father ‘writes his novel’ while acting as the house-parent. There are lots of rules to take on board too – it seems that East Germany isn’t very accepting of Americans, who they label as brash and opinionated. Thus, Noah stays quiet and alone for some time, acceding to his parents’ requests to stay ‘under the communists radar’.

In telling Noah’s story, ‘Cloud and Wallfish’ outlines some of the historical changes happening at the time his family are there – based on the author’s personal experiences having lived in East Berlin in 1987, and again in 1989 just before the Wall came down.

Peering over from East Berlin – website details the history of the Berlin Wall – click on image

Noah’s struggles (loneliness and his own ‘Astonishing Stutter’) are buoyed in the story when he meets Cloud-Claudia; though he still also remains eager to go to school. However, that is not an easy thing to do.

Those who love a bit of history, or even just learning about other ways to view the world*, will enjoy ‘Cloud and Wallfish’. Episodes in Noah’s life are followed with some explanations, in ‘Secret File’ pages which provide an historical understanding of events.

It raises a lot of questions about the past, world politics and rules. It will also have you thinking about when it is wise to keep a secret – about yourself or others. And whether there is a time you need to reveal all you know – even if it may impact on others, because that’s what Noah has to consider time and again.

# Do you like historical fiction?

## Do Noah’s experiences and actions ring true for you? (i.e. do you think this is the way an eleven-year-old would really act?)

Recommended 10-14 years

For details about the fall of the Berlin Wall see: Fall of Berlin Wall: How 1989 reshaped the modern world

*considering a ‘worldview’

# Available as an ebook.

Dumplings, anyone?

When I first began reading ‘the Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling’ it made me recall ‘Front Desk’ by Kelly Yang (reviewed here). Both stories deal with families of Asian heritage, and their struggles to assimilate in a Western culture and daughters battling with their parents’ expectations of their school achievements. However, as a novel for an older reader, SPOAGD has more layers and detail.

As the eldest sibling, Anna has a lot of responsibility – especially since there are times when her mother won’t get out of bed for weeks on end. Her father seems more focussed on the operation of the family restaurant, and even spends overnights there since it is some distance from home. Thus, Anna, Lily (her younger, smart sister) and Michael (her kindergarten brother) are left to cope as best they can.

Though they recognise that their mother’s behaviour is not ‘normal’, the children are unable, or unwilling to seek help – family pride – and their father appears too weak to act.

Family struggles arise. Michael’s teacher wishes to see his mother. Anna’s teachers push her to lift her game, as she nears the senior years of school. Previously-loyal employees leave the restaurant for better opportunities. Their father spends even more time away from home, seemingly ignoring his wife’s health issues and their impact on the family.

When she goes to help out at the restaurant in the school holidays, Anna meets Rory, who begins work as their delivery boy. Slowly, a vital friendship grows, and Anna is confronted by the struggles that others around her also face.

Dealing with mental illness, SPOAGD highlights how hard it is to take action and get help. In the layers of the story, bullying, suicide, stress and depression are carefully exposed. As a reader, you anticipate some of the key characters opening up to each other, as they identify with similar problems.

But, credit to author, Wai Chim, there is no easy path for Anna, Rory, or others like school acquaintance, Wei. However new friendships and old loyalties form a comforting base for Anna and Rory, as they work through their individual struggles.

The story subtly points out some of the tiny ways in which different cultures critique and antagonise one another – sometimes without even understanding their impact. At the same time, it shows that the nuances of each family’s cultural background is important.

As Wai Chim states, the power of own voice stories is important, and books like ‘the Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling’ provide some interesting insights into different cultures, without lecturing. It’s a coming of age story, with lots of ups and downs to keep you emotionally connected to the very end.

Recommended 13+

# Other books by Wai Chim include ‘Freedom Swimmer’, ‘Shaozhen’ (a CBCA Notable book for Younger Readers for 2018, set in China) and a number of picture books in the Chook Chook series.

# How important is it that authors represent or write about their own culture?

## As someone who now lives in Australia, born in the USA, does Wai have the credentials to write Chinese ‘own voice stories?

Liars – capturing your imagination

The Truth App is the first in the Liars series, written by Jack Heath – author of Replica, reviewed here previously. Like 300 /400/500 Minutes of Danger, it is written for readers about 10-14 years old, and should entice even the most reluctant reader.

It introduces young Jarli, the inventor of an app which can identify when people are lying. Imagine that! You would expect this to be a good thing, but certain events which occur in Jarli’s hometown of Kelso suggest that might not be the case.

As in most Jack Heath novels, the action starts early, with Jarli and his father involved in an attack on their car – no accident, but the police don’t want to believe him. As his father recovers in hospital, Jarli tries to work out what actually happened.

Meanwhile, he has other issues with his Truth App. He releases it free online to have others help him perfect the coding. The unexpected fame which results is both a blessing and a curse, including attacks from fellow students – those who don’t want their lies uncovered.

But there are bigger things at stake, which are revealed as Jarli and his friends work through what is happening in the sleepy little town of Kelso. Soon, Jarli has to decide who he can trust, and who will best help out in the dire consequences he faces.

The Truth App is not totally resolved at the end – with much more to come in the series – followed by No Survivors (and now at book 5, the Armageddon). To decide if this action-packed book for you, there is an extract available here – you won’t be sorry!

# Have a look at Jack Heath’s website for even more intriguing information about him and his writing.