Meandering Through Middle Grade: Life on a Bee-less Planet…

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It’s a question that’s been asked by everyone from your common-or-garden human to Doctor Who himself (tenth incarnation): Where are all the bees?  What is happening to our little black-and-gold buzzing pollination stations?  What will happen if the bees disappear for good?

All these questions and more are probed in the original and engaging mildly post-apocalyptic novel for middle grade readers, How to Bee by Bren MacDibble. I feel the need to point out before we go any further that the story contained within this book is far more down-to-earth and substantial than either its cover or title give it credit for.  We received our copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Allen & Unwin:

A story about family, loyalty, kindness and bravery, set against an all-too-possible future where climate change has forever changed the way we live.

Sometimes bees get too big to be up in the branches, sometimes they fall and break their bones. This week both happened and Foreman said, ‘Tomorrow we’ll find two new bees.’

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand. All Peony really wants is to be a bee. Life on the farm is a scrabble, but there is enough to eat and a place to sleep, and there is love. Then Peony’s mother arrives to take her away from everything she has ever known, and all Peony’s grit and quick thinking might not be enough to keep her safe.

How To Bee is a beautiful and fierce novel for younger readers, and the voice of Peony will stay with you long after you read the last page.

how to bee

Although this book is set in a post-bee world, the setting is far enough after the bee-pocalypse (or the time when the bees went extinct) that the world, or at least Peony’s part of it, has found a workable solution to the problem.  Children with poles now climb fruit trees to pollinate them and life in the cities depends entirely on the good work of the farms where fresh food is grown.  Peony dreams of being a bee and completing the important, prestigious work but her dream is ripped away when her mother returns from her city job and demands that Peony return with her to earn cash.  Peony is bewildered by this, because on the farm, they have everything they need – money is anathema when there’s no shops to buy things from.  In the city however, money is everything and the gap between haves and have-nots is illustrated by the hordes of raggy people who beg in the streets, with no jobs, homes or hope.

Along with an original slang, this story has unmistakable undertones of a Dickensian novel, with an urban environment characterised by the dichotomy of the rich and poor, in direct contrast to the happily barefoot children of the countryside.  Sure, life is hard on Peony’s farm, but at least the people there are a strong community and understand the importance of their work to the necessities of life.  The story moves through phases, with the early chapters introducing the reader to the farm and its processes, as well as Peony’s home life.  The central chapters of the story, set in a big house in the city, show a different side to this alternative future, and demonstrate the hostility of the “real” world, in which violence, struggle and want colour the lives of the majority of “urbs” – city residents.

These central chapters give rise to an unexpected friendship between Peony and Esmeralda, the young girl for whose family Peony works.  Although this section provided variety and interest, as well as a chance for both levels of the social strata to see each others’ good points, it seemed a bit out of place with the beginnings of the story.  This is a moot point however, because the tale twists again toward the end and although Peony will encounter despair, hardship and grief before the end of the novel, an unexpected jolt of hope is injected from two directions in the final chapter.

Overall, this is a family drama, an environmental warning and a portrait of the kind of society that we are sliding towards held together by an engaging and determined narrator.  I’d recommend this for middle-grade aged readers who enjoy books set in alternate worlds, as well as to older readers looking for a middle grade read that sits outside the expected.

Until next time,

Bruce

Meandering through Middle Grade: A Different Dog…

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I’m back with another Paul Jennings new release today, courtesy of Allen & Unwin.  A Different Dog felt like a big departure from Jennings’ typical work, despite the fact that the twist in the tale is still present.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The gripping and surprising story of a boy, a dog and a daring rescue from the bestselling, much-loved author of the Don’t Look Now series and The Unforgettable What’s His Name.

The forest is dense and dark. And the trail full of unexpected perils. The dog can’t move. The boy can’t talk. And you won’t know why. Or where you are going. You will put this story down not wanting the journey to end.

But it’s from Paul Jennings so watch out for the ambush.

One of the best. From one of the best.

a different dog

A Different Dog by Paul Jennings.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 26th April 2017.  RRP: $14.99

When you’ve read almost everything a particular author has written over many years and suddenly they do something with a story you don’t expect, it can be hard to measure it against your previous experiences of their work.  So it was for me with this story.  A Different Dog has a much more subdued and sombre tone that much of Jennings’ previous work and the magical realism that often colours his stories and provides the impetus for his famous twists in the tail of the tale is absent here.  Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – just different from what I would have expected.

The story revolves around a boy who has been a selective mute (or possibly an anxiety-induced mute) since a traumatic incident involving a beloved pet.  He lives with his mother in livable poverty and is disconnected from peers due to his lack of speech.  While on a mission to win a cash prize in a community fun run, the boy witnesses a vehicle accident and attempts to help – but instead ends up trying to find his way out of the hillside terrain accompanied by a highly unusual dog, who was a passenger in the crashed vehicle.  Along the way home, the boy makes a number of life-changing discoveries…but his greatest challenge comes later when his friendship with the dog is tested by fate.

I quite enjoyed the subtleties of this story as a change from the wackier antics that embody Jennings’ usual fare.  Even though it is a reasonably short read, this felt more like a story for older readers who could appreciate the themes of grief, guilt and shame that ring-fence the boy’s image of himself.  There is a pointedness in the story relating to the cruelty of others, whether between humans or from humans directed at animals, and this left me with a bit of a sense of the sinister when I think back to the story.

On the whole, I think I prefer Jennings’ lighter works but A Different Dog is a thought-provoking read that uses a remarkably small word count to effectively raise questions about ethics, choices and making recompense for past mistakes.  This would be a great choice for reluctant young adult readers or those who require high-interest, low reading level tales for struggling older readers.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Meandering through (Aussie) Middle Grade: The Turnkey…

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Today I’ve got the final book in my recent run of World War II related reads, with The Turnkey by Aussie author Allison Rushby.  We excitedly received this one from Walker Books Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Flossie Birdwhistle is the Turnkey at London’s Highgate Cemetery. As Turnkey, Flossie must ensure all the souls in the cemetery stay at rest. This is a difficult job at the best of times for a twelve-year-old ghost, but it is World War II and each night enemy bombers hammer London. Even the dead are unsettled. When Flossie encounters the ghost of a German soldier carrying a mysterious object, she becomes suspicious. What is he up to? Before long, Flossie uncovers a sinister plot that could result in the destruction of not only her cemetery, but also her beloved country. Can Flossie stop him before it is too late?

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The Turnkey is a solid, original and intriguing tale that has the perfect blend of mystery, history and paranormal activity.  Flossie is the Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery in London, a job which involves ensuring that the dead interred in the cemetery remain – for the most part – peacefully at rest.  With the Blitz causing chaos every night, Flossie seeks solace in visiting some of the other Turnkeys in London’s major cemeteries.  On a midnight sojourn to St Paul’s Cathedral – a favourite thinking spot – Flossie encounters a ghost who shouldn’t, by the laws of the afterlife, be there (never mind that he’s dressed in the uniform of a Nazi SS Officer) and is drawn into a mystery that could tip the scales of the war in favour of the Nazis.

Flossie is an immediately likable character and throughout the story demonstrates her resilience, courage in adversity and compassion for those in difficult situations.  The Nazi officer, who we discover has an unexpected link to Flossie herself, is suitably evil and frightening, and each of the Turnkeys that we meet has his or her own personality, quirks and in some cases, secrets.

I always love books for young readers that aren’t set in schools.  Apart from the fact that being school-less allows the author to neatly avoid all those boring, repetitive, school-bully-based tropes, the non-school setting also makes books for young readers more accessible and interesting for grown up readers.  Such was the case with The Turnkey.  In fact, I kept forgetting that Flossie was meant to be twelve years old – albeit a reasonably long-dead twelve years old – such was the adult appeal of the novel. I love a good set-in-the-Blitz story also and the mix of bombed out London with the atmospheric cemeteries really worked to give a sense of the never-ending clean up and rescue operations that coloured that particular time in London’s history.

The pacing of this story was spot-on, with no filler material included to slow things down.  Reveals came at regular intervals with just enough new information to spur the reader on to discover the next twist in the ghostly Nazi’s plans.  I was impressed with the way the author managed to maintain all the threads of the story without losing the quality of each along the way.  By the end of the book the reader gets to experience the paranormal aspect of the Turnkeys working together (plus some patriotic and enthusiastic ghostly members of the Chelsea Pensioners Hospital), a journey into Churchill’s war rooms and the war rooms of the Nazis, a glimpse into the reality of those living and dying in the rubble and shelters and hospital wards of London during the Blitz, and a fantasy element featuring ancient artifacts.  None of these separate plot threads felt forced or tacked on and taken together they added greatly to the originality and atmosphere of the novel.

The only thing that could have made this book better – as I say with pretty much every book, everywhere – would be pictures.  I remember seeing a documentary or something on the Chelsea Pensioners and their red jackets and it would be awesome (and instructive for younger readers) to see some images of these iconic characters, as well as some images of the actual cemeteries or London during the Blitz for example.  There is a little author’s note at the back with some historical information and it was nice to see that the author had also consulted that seminal of cemetery-related tomes, Katherine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead.  **I read this ages ago and thought I was amongst a select few, but it keeps popping up as a reference authors have used for lots of fiction books that I’ve come across.  Give it a read if you feel inclined.**

 

I’m fairly sure that this is intended as a standalone novel but I would be interested in seeing what happens next for Flossie.  Given that she’s dead and doesn’t have to age or experience the changes of growing up, it would be cool to see a progression of historical/fantasy/mystery novels featuring the Turnkeys of London’s major cemeteries in different time periods up to the present.  I’d read them, anyway!

If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly World War II fiction and you can’t go past a paranormal twist I would definitely recommend hunting down The Turnkey.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Meandering Through Middle Grade: The Blue Cat…

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It’s another book set in World War 2 today, this time set in Australia (and I’ve got ANOTHER World War 2 story for you next week – it must be something in the air), and this time aimed at a middle grade audience.  We received The Blue Cat by prolific Australian author Ursula Dubosarsky from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A boy stood in the playground under the big fig tree. ‘He can’t speak English,’ the children whispered.

Sydney, 1942. The war is coming to Australia – not only with the threat of bombardment, but also the arrival of refugees from Europe. Dreamy Columba’s world is growing larger. She is drawn to Ellery, the little boy from far away, and, together with her highly practical best friend Hilda, the three children embark on an adventure through the harbour-side streets – a journey of discovery and terror, in pursuit of the mysterious blue cat …

the blue cat

The Blue Cat is told from the point of view of Columba, a young girl whose world is slowly being encroached upon by the war.  Everything that her headmaster assures the children could never possibly happen, seems to be coming about.  Her friend’s brothers are stuck as prisoners of war.  Air raid sirens interrupt otherwise lazy afternoons.  The spectre of lost mothers and lost homes looms large in the figure of Ellery, a German boy who has come to attend Columba’s school.

There is certainly an atmosphere of anticipation seeping through this novel and I was constantly poised for some significant action to take place.  Rather, the story unfolds gently through Columba’s interactions with her brash, larger-than-life friend Hilda and the silent Ellery.

Atmospheric as Dubosarsky’s writing may be, I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing from this book.  The first candidate for the MIA label is the titular cat – he makes the briefest of brief appearances and doesn’t seem, as the blurb suggests, to be keeping any secrets at all. Rather, he seems to be acting like an ordinary cat: flighty, unpredictable and completely indifferent as to whether humans pay attention to him or not.

The second thing I felt that was missing here was some significant event to provide a point around which Columba or one of the other characters could experience some growth or change or…something.  Columba, as a narrator, is more of a bystander than an agent in her own life and while there are plenty of us who live through certain historical events without having them touch us in a significant way, I’m not sure that this perspective is the most effective upon which to base a protagonist.

One thing I did love about the book was the inclusion of primary source materials.  Instead of illustrations, every few pages a newspaper article, photograph or advertisement from the time pops up and I found these far more interesting and engaging than the actual story.  I also adored the poem by Friedrich Ruckert that was included (with a translation from the original German) as an afterword.

As I mentioned before, I spent the whole book waiting for something to happen and then…it just finished.  There is a certain amount of pathos in Columba’s growing understanding of loss and change, but I’m not sure that young readers would necessarily pick up on the subtleties of this.  I finished the book not hating it, but wondering why I had bothered, because none of the characters seemed to have undergone any significant change in outlook or personality by the end of the story.  It just felt like a way of passing the time.

I’m going to submit this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge under category #10, a book with a cat on the cover.  You can check out my progress toward the challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Meandering through Middle Grade: The Hounds of Penhallow Hall

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We’re back with what is arguably my favourite reading age-group today – middle grade, with its boldly imagined worlds and indomitable characters.  Today I have a story we received from the publisher via Netgalley.  The Hounds of Penhallow Hall: The Moonlight Statue by Holly Webb and illustrated by Jason Cockcroft is a classic tale of a new home, loneliness and finding friends in unexpected places.  Here’s the blurb from Netgalley:

For Poppy, moving to Penhallow Hall is the fresh start she’s been longing for since the death of her father. Her mum has got a job managing the stately home and once the last of the visitors leave for the day the place is all theirs! One night, Poppy sleepwalks into the garden and wakes to find her hand on the head of one of the stone dogs that guard the steps down to the lawn. Then she feels him lick her cheek! The dog introduces himself as Rex, an Irish Wolfhound who lived at Penhallow many hundreds of years earlier. And he is not the only resident ghost – Poppy has also glimpsed a strange boy around the place. With Rex’s help she finds herself unravelling the story of his beloved master, William Penhallow, who was killed in the First World War aged only 17.

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Having a quick browse on Goodreads, it became apparent that Holly Webb has written quite a significant back catalogue of cutesy books about puppies, kittens, fairies and princesses for the younger end of the middle grade age bracket.  While there is a definite whiff of the cutesy about The Hounds of Penhallow Hall, the story overall fits nicely into the typical tropes about moving to a new, unexpectedly magical home with which the middle grade fantasy genre is replete.

There is really nothing new or particularly original about this story – a girl moves to a Big House with her mother, gets very lonely, discovers a fluffy magical companion and solves the mystery (such as it is) of a boy haunting the house.  There are no major problems to  overcome, no sense of particular danger or suspense and everything gets wrapped up quickly and easily with little struggle or fuss.  For that reason, this is one of those middle grade books that will appeal much more to younger readers than it will older readers of middle grade.

The story itself had a bit of an old-timey feel, probably due to the oft-used content, but Polly is instantly likable, Rex is the kind of companion anyone would love to have, and the ghost boy, William, caves quickly enough from his stroppy mood to make us like him too.  I will admit that reading this book did strengthen my already quite strong desire to make a wolfhound part of the Shelf family, however impractical that may be.

I would have liked to see a bit more conflict in this book; conflict in the sense of a problem that Polly has to solve or overcome to give the narrative a bit of oomph or suspense.  As it is, the story arc is basic and there didn’t seem to me to be enough of a hook to keep independent readers engaged, unless they particularly love dogs.

Overall, this is one that fell short of my expectations, but should appeal to the younger end of the middle grade audience and those who would love the idea of a magical doggy companion.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Meandering through Middle Grade: Spy Toys

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As a kid, did you have a teddy bear whose ears were slightly nibbled at the edges?  Or a doll whose hair would never quite sit flat?  Then today’s book is for you, and all the kids out there who appreciate toys that aren’t exactly how they are depicted on the box. Today I bring you Spy Toys by Mark Powers, which we received for review from Bloomsbury Australia and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The world’s leading toy manufacturer makes playthings for the rich and famous, and every toy they create contains a tiny computerised brain and a unique personality. These toys are seriously awesome! But every so often there’s a faulty toy …

Dan is a Snugliffic Cuddlestar bear – he should be perfect for hugging. But because of a faulty chip, Dan is so strong he could crush a car. Thrown on to the rejects pile, he meets Arabella, a Loadsasmiles Sunshine Doll, who has a very short temper and is absolutely NOT good with children. Soon Dan, Arabella and Flax (a custom-made police robot rabbit gone AWOL) are recruited by Auntie Roz, the ‘M’ of the toy world, and together they make up THE SPY TOYS.

Their first mission: to protect the prime minister’s eight-year-old son from being kidnapped ..

 

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Spy Toys by Mark Powers.  Published by Bloomsbury Australia, 12th January, 2017.  RRP: $12.99

 

We on the shelf, being a little bit not-quite-right ourselves, thoroughly enjoyed this original, fun, fast-paced, funny early middle grade offering.  Dan is a teddy bear designed for hugging but could crush a child with his malfunctioning strength chip.  Arabella is meant to bring sunshine into a little child’s life, but has a snappy comeback that could burn your ears off.  And Flax…well, he’s a bunny with a problem with authority.  These three toys, after managing to save themselves from the reject pile, are charged with the job of protecting the Prime Minister’s son – what better way to hide bodyguards in plain sight, than to disguise them as toys? – and so the intrepid trio become…Spy Toys!  While it’s a steep learning curve for our sharp-clawed, sharp-tongued and sharp-eyed friends, they must do all they can to protect the Prime Minister’s son from a criminal gang run by an elephant-human hybrid ex-circus clown, or perish in the attempt.

This early chapter book is pure, unadulterated fun from beginning to end, with oodles of line drawings throughout to add zest to the action.  There’s no mucking around with boring filler either: from the moment Dan is singled out as a defective toy it’s non-stop action, escapes and chases until the thrilling (and quite dangerous!) finale.  Clearly the author isn’t afraid to throw in a bit of silliness – the human-animal hybrid gang being a case in point – but there are also some nicely touching scenes in which the Prime Minister learns a bit about being an attentive parent – awwww!  The Snaztacular Ultrafun toy factory also had something of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory about it – I can imagine kids desperate for a golden ticket to visit such an exciting place!

The three heroes are loveable, in a defective sort of way and I can’t wait to see where this series goes next.  As an early chapter book, it’s the perfect length for newly independent readers who love action, adventure and comedy all rolled into one.

For the device-happy reader, the book also has an accompanying app, in which the user must help Dan the bear leap over barrels and boxes on a conveyor belt to avoid being dumped down the reject toy chute at the Snaztacular Ultrafun factory.  The game is almost embarrassingly simple, but the eldest mini-fleshling in the dwelling (at six years old) proclaimed it the “best game ever” and got far more mileage out of playing it than I would have expected.  It’s also a satisfyingly small download so you don’t have to worry about it taking up too much space on your phone or device.

Spy Toys is definitely an intriguing opener to the series and I can’t wait to join Dan, Arabella and Flax on their next spy-tastic adventure!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Meandering through Middle Grade: Night of the Living Worms…

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Today’s little gem is an illustrated early chapter book that will have all those mini-fleshlings who are ready to move on from such favoured duos as Elephant & Piggie clamouring for more.  We received Night of the Living Worms: A Speed Bump & Slingshot Misadventure by Dave Coverly from PanMacmillan Australia for review, and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

What’s a bird to do when his sibling is a big-time celebrity? It’s a question Speed Bump has to deal with every single morning, because his brother happens to be the one and only Early Bird. You know, THE Early Bird, who ALWAYS gets the worm! Unfortunately, Speed Bump is a sleepy little bird with a big head and tiny wings who’s worried he’ll never live up to his brother. But he has a great buddy, the ever-hungry Slingshot, who knows how to lift his spirits. Together, they end up on an adventure deep in the nighttime forest, where they’re forced to confront something more terrifying—and slimier—than they’ve ever imagined. It could all go horribly wrong . . . or it could just change Speed Bump’s luck for good.

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If there’s one thing that draws me back to “children’s” books again and again, it is the unashamed acknowledgement that illustrations and text are made for each other.  Night of the Living Worms sits in that category of books between picture books and chapter books, wherein the author knows that for beginning readers – and indeed, for any reader who enjoys more context around their text – illustrations are essential.  This book is a bit of a combination between chapter book and graphic novel, with no more than a paragraph of text on each page, some of which is encased in speech bubbles, and every page is adorned with eye-popping line art to bring the story to life.

Speed Bump is a good sleeper who lives in the shadow of his older brother, Early Bird.  As we all know, Early Bird gets the worm and for this reason, Speed Bump has to content himself with nuts and berries for snacking on, until such time as he can beat his seemingly unbeatable brother to that elusive worm.  Slingshot is Speed Bump’s best friend and a more stalwart and supportive companion a bird could not wish to find.  When the two decide to take up a foolproof strategy to beat Early Bird to the worm, things don’t go as planned.  There are worms available for the plucking alright, but it turns out that maybe these worms have a plan all their own to defeat Early Bird!

Helped by a collection of forest creatures, Speed Bump and Slingshot must find courage they didn’t know they had and find a way to save the day, before Early Bird meets a nasty, worm-driven end.

This book was heaps of fun to read and the characters are vivid and full of personality.  The nightwalker worms were actually pretty creepy when viewed all together, but there are plenty of laughs throughout the story that will please reluctant readers and those who just want to have fun in their reading.  As an early chapter book, it’s a quick read for an accomplished reader, but for those just starting out on longer books it should provide just enough challenge, as well as plenty of support through the illustrations and use of white space and speech bubbles.  I quite enjoyed a selection of illustrated punny goodness early on in the tale, with various birds making various punny comments to elicit a guffaw or two.

The ending of the book is both exciting and quite fitting for the trouble that Speed Bump and Slingshot went to – as well as for the trouble they got themselves in!  This book also contains a preview of the second book in the series, Night of the Living Shadows, to further hook in young readers and create anticipation.  I’d say this intrepid duo are definitely one to watch if you have a mini-fleshling in your dwelling who is just beginning to tackle longer books, or indeed one that just loves a good comic adventure story with larger than life protagonists.

Until next time,

Bruce