Posted in Junior Fiction

Book Review: Stories from Stella Street

Stories from Stella Street

By Elizabeth Honey (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $19.99     ISBN 9781760292256

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

It has been 21 years since readers were first captivated by 11-year-old Henni Octon’s friendly narrative voice, as she told us about 45 and 47 Stella Street and everything that happened. The 1996 CBCA Honour Book for Younger Readers is about the arrival of some lavish, rude and snobby new residents to 47 Stella Street, who disrupt the friendly, down-to-earth culture of the neighbourhood. When their actions start affecting the happiness of the much-loved residents at number 45, the Stella Street kids band together to discover a solution … and also wind up discovering what their new neighbours are hiding.

The sequel, Fiddle-back, is about the Stella Street gang’s summer. Budding writer Henni, types up the story of what happens when they discover an untouched paradise out in the bush … then realise they aren’t the only ones who know about it. The story beautifully demonstrates the importance of preserving our environment and how nature can help people connect and find their place in the world.

A third story in the series, The Ballad of Cauldron Bay, tells of their Easter holiday at a remote beach location. Henni uses her new computer to type up what happens when moody Tara gatecrashes their holiday. Elizabeth Honey beautifully captures the emotions Henni feels at the difficult age of 13. It’s a wonderful story about growing up, about giving people the benefit of the doubt and about helping people change the course of their lives.

Readers aged 8–12 years will love seeing how Henni constructs her novels, playing around with fonts on her computer and interrupting the story with her amusing, handwritten prayers to God. Henni is self-conscious about her writing, often interrupting herself to draw attention to principles of the craft, or to pay homage to her writing idols (such as Gillian Rubinstein and Roald Dahl). The novels are also scattered with Elizabeth Honey’s detailed black and white sketches, adding further humour to the whirlwind events of the stories.

Stella Street fans, new and old, will love this 21st anniversary edition, featuring three books in one. (And those who feel sad upon its completion can always track down a fourth novel featuring Henni –To the Boy in Berlin. Phew!)

This review was originally published on the Buzz Words website:

Posted in Children's Activity Books

Book Review: Doodles Activity Book

Doodles Activity Book 

By Ludo Studios (Allen and Unwin)
HB RRP $16.99     ISBN 9781760295448

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

‘Draw, Snap, Send, Laugh’ … simple, right?

This interactive activity book is a fun accompaniment to the Australian, Emmy-Nominated TV show, Doodles, currently screening on ABC ME. The idea is that kids use the prompts in the book to draw a picture, take a photo of their creation, and upload it to the Doodles website. If their picture is chosen, Ludo Studios (creators of the show) will turn it into a micro-movie and screen it on TV.

With 176 pages of activities, divided into various topics, there is bound to be something that sparks the imagination of budding artists. Sections are titled: Monsters, Aliens and Space, Robots and Technology, Magic and Fantasy, Dinosaurs, Superheroes and Make Your Own Movie. There are also blank ‘Whatever-You-Like’ pages for freeform drawings.

All pages with the ‘Draw, Snap, Send, Laugh’ icons at the bottom can be uploaded to the website if desired. In and around these drawing activities are plenty of other tasks too. There are find-a-words, join-the-dots, fill-in-the-blanks and spot-the-differences. There are those with a modern flavour, for example tasks requiring kids to use emojis to complete a text message. There are some wonderful creative writing exercises included as well.

The design of the book is fantastic and sure to appeal to the target age group (5–12). The front cover is a collage of real drawings by kids, labelled with their names and ages. The activities, by Daley Pearson, are written in a very kid-friendly voice and are quite funny. For example:

‘Robots need a place to live too! Build a house for this robot to live in … unless you want this robot to be homeless. Wait! Do you want this robot to be homeless?’

The amusing activity prompts are perfectly complementary with the whimsical outlined pictures by Francis Stanton, begging for some colour.

It is not necessary to upload pictures to the website, of course. However, kids of all ages and abilities are encouraged to have a try, with an introductory note reassuring them that ‘there are no good or bad drawings’!

This review was originally published on the Buzz Words website:

Posted in Young Adult Fiction

Book Review: The Beginning Woods

The Beginning Woods

By Malcolm McNeill (Murdoch Books)
PB RRP $16.99     ISBN 9781782690900

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

‘Who am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here? What is the best way to live?’

These are ‘Accursed Questions’ and, in the sinister world built up by debut author Malcolm McNeill, searching for the answers to them might just make you Vanish.

Max Mulgan, abandoned in a bookshop as a baby and raised by foster parents, is plagued by these questions. He has vivid dreams of his real parents, and is consumed with the thought of finding them. Around him, adults are randomly Vanishing, much to the bewilderment of leading scientists. Only one, Boris Peshkov, comes close to solving the mystery.

He connects the Vanishings to a place called the Beginning Woods (a dark, fairytale, parallel version of the current ‘World’) and he knows Max’s background is somehow related. Max, meanwhile, immerses himself in Storybooks, desperate to learn more about his past. When the powerful Professor Courtz calls for book burnings, Max’s anger and thirst for self-identity grows and he finds a way to cross over to the Beginning Woods. Finally! He can try and figure out where his birth parents are … only it seems his destiny requires him to complete another quest first. And it involves hunting a dragon.

The novel would suit young adults (and adults) with an advanced, sophisticated passion for fantasy stories. It is unique, highly original, and deeply analogous with life itself, taking a strong stance on the importance of imagination. (As if in affirmation of this, the novel itself demands a generous imagination on the reader’s part!)

McNeill has built a detailed, complex fairytale world with an array of familiar archetypes (witches, dragons and wolves) combined with not so familiar (Shredders, Kobolds and Wind Giants). The story is not fast-paced, requiring some perseverance on the reader’s part. Those that follow the story through from start to finish will be rewarded with a truly satisfying ending though, which presents a wonderful sense of order being restored and life moving forward.

This review was originally published on the Buzz Words website:

Posted in Young Adult Fiction

Book Review: Lisette’s Paris Notebook

Lisette’s Paris Notebook

By Catherine Bateson (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $16.99     ISBN 9781760293635

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

Paris ‘heals all wounds’ in this coming of age tale about an eighteen-year-old girl who is trying to find herself. Lise is angry. She’s angry about her break-up with Ben. She’s angry that her mum never allowed her to get to know her father (and now it’s too late). She’s angry about being forced to live out her mother’s dreams instead of her own. And she’s angry that she doesn’t know what her own dreams are anyway. When Lise’s mum arranges a 3-month solo trip to Paris for her, Lise mainly agrees to it just to get away from her. (Plus because, well … Paris!)

Lise’s mother arranges accommodation for her with Madame Cristophe, a clairvoyant, who likes to dictate her daily agenda in accordance with what her mother would want for her. Part of this includes advancing her French by arranging lessons for her with a group of art students. Lise (or Lisette, as she’s called in Paris) falls for fellow student, the handsome Anders. Her friends know it, Madame Cristophe knows it, and the reader knows it … he’s a player. Then Hugo, a British antiques dealer, appears on the scene and Lise needs to learn where her heart lies … not in love, but in life itself. And before she can know who she really is, she needs to start learning about who her father really was.

This is a heartwarming romance (written for readers aged 13–17) by CBCA award-winning writer, Catherine Bateson. She has written the book in recognition of two of her favourite childhood novels – For Love of Seven Dolls and Ripening Seed. Paris, the city of love, is portrayed in all its glory – for its artwork, patisseries, public gardens, pampered pooches and haute couture. (I loved the way Bateson used Parisienne locations as places where her character could think and grow, rather than as tourist attractions!) The novel is also a celebration of fashion, especially vintage style. Lisette’s supreme knowledge of fashion history is evident in her quirky notebook excerpts that introduce each chapter, cleverly analogous with the events that follow.

The ending is hugely satisfying, with the moral being:

 ‘… if you are going to listen to other people, listen to them all. Assemble the arguments. Then make your own decision.’

This review was originally published on the Buzz Words website:

Posted in Junior Fiction

Book Review: The Unforgettable What’s His Name

The Unforgettable What’s His Name

By Paul Jennings and Illustrated by Craig Smith (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $14.99     ISBN 9781760290856

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

Imagine a boy so terrified of being noticed, that he has the chameleon-like ability to blend in with his surroundings. Imagine his fear escalating so greatly, that he can change how he looks entirely. Now, imagine that you have Paul Jennings’ imagination … and send that boy on a two-day series of madcap adventures.

When our narrator, ‘What’s His Name’, finds himself running from thirty, angry, tough-looking bikies, his fear generates a physiological response that allows him to camouflage. Throughout the story, the boy’s pursuers constantly change and he constantly tries to evade them. For every chase, the reader is treated to an interactive ‘look-and-find’ double-paged colour spread by the talented Craig Smith (who teamed up with Jennings for The Cabbage Patch Fib series). Jennings cleverly connects these drawings to the story using language to create smooth segues. For example:

They started to laugh … They fell about wetting themselves. What? What? What? What did they see?

At that point, the reader turns the page and searches for the boy in the picture. The illustrations are cleverly drawn, in Smith’s award-winning, recognisable style. Readers will enjoy the challenge of spotting the boy in the pictures and can use the clues in the text to help them. Also appealing to the age group (7–12 years) is the large font, and the numerous black-and-white sketches complementing the story throughout. (Almost every double page features a picture.)

It’s a highly amusing story that is lots of fun to read. The zany tale includes a couple of new friends called Fearless and Banana Boy. There’s an altercation with the leader of a pack of escaped monkeys, The Big Pee. There’s a charming girl called Gertag. And a huntsman spider quite possibly saves the day. But, in amidst the craziness, it really is a heartwarming story of a lonely boy who just wants his dad back. Jennings has written it for children who shy away from the spotlight, stating that the story:

‘… tells the quiet people that their lives can be exciting and successful without having to ceaselessly promote themselves.’

Oh, and we do learn the boy’s name eventually … and it’s much nicer than Gertag!

This review was originally published on the Buzz Words website: