Picture Book Perusal: The Rabbit-Hole Golf Course

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Today’s book is the perfect pick for the depths of winter, when you need a bit of sunshine and dry, parched desert in your life.  We received The Rabbit-Hole Golf Course by Ella Mulvey and Karen Briggs from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from A&U:

A warm and funny story about a unique Australian experience with a fantastic rhythmic read-aloud text.

In the big old ute, on the long red road, in the desert of my home, we all set off for the rabbit-hole golf course. It’s the best place around here to find rabbits.

We sit by the holes, we dig, we wait …

Thump tick, thump tick, thump tick

Where are all the rabbits?

A warm and funny Australian story.

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The Rabbit-Hole Golf Course by Ella Mulvey & Karen Briggs.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 28th June 2017.  RRP: $24.99

From the moment we picked up this tome, we were positively disposed toward it, because we are actually acquainted with a family whose number plate is USMOB, so there was something familiar about the book before we even started reading.  The familiarity soon wore off however, as this is one story that depicts an event that no doubt only a small percentage of the population have ever experienced.

The story follows a group of kids who live in the Australian outback and go on a quest to find a pet rabbit.  Rabbits being plentiful in the wild in their part of the world, the kids begin digging in the dirt to uncover a rabbit hole and its inhabitants, but the rabbits are too wily and the kids go home empty-handed.  Happily though, they have such a good time digging and scraping and sleeping under the stars, that the absence of a rabbity pet doesn’t smart too much.

The strength of this book is in the repetition and rhythm of the text.  It is a “noisy” book, as I like to think of them, of a similar ilk to books like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, that invites readers to join in the repeated refrains.  As the day wears on, the cries of “Where are all the rabbits?” are expanded upon with noises relating to different activities – the bump-click of a ride in the ute, the shake-hop of bushes rustling with kangaroos, the pinch-pop of honey ant tucker – and little ones will no doubt love joining in with the different sounds.  The beautiful ochre tones of the illustrations evoke the desert country perfectly and provide an homage to free range children and the joys of being outdoors.

The mini-fleshlings in the dwelling did have a little trouble following the story, simply because, being city-dwellers, it seemed so foreign to their experience.  The fact that kids could just dig in the dirt and come up with a new pet was baffling to the oldest one, and he joined in the perplexity of the protagonists regarding the distinct lack of rabbits in the vicinity.  Where were all the rabbits?  How come the kids couldn’t find a single one?  And why wasn’t anyone wearing a hat in that blinding sun?  I suspect this story will be a bit of a sleeper; one that will require a few re-readings before the mini-fleshlings really warm to it.

Nevertheless, The Rabbit-Hole Golf Course is one that will fire the imaginations of city kids and have them yearning for an outdoor adventure.  This would be a fantastic pick for illustrating concepts about diversity in living environments.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Meandering through Middle Grade: Bear Grylls Adventures…

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It’s adventure time today as we take a look at the first two books in a new early middle grade series by ubiquitous wild man Bear Grylls.  Bear Grylls Adventures is a new series for primary school readers featuring survival skills, a magic compass and everyday problems and we received copies of the first two titles in the series, The Blizzard Challenge and The Desert Challenge from Allen & Unwin for review.  Here are the books and blurbs from Goodreads:

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Bear Grylls Adventures: The Blizzard Challenge by Bear Grylls.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th May 2017.  RRP: $9.99

The first thrilling adventure in the brand-new collectible series for young readers from survival expert and Chief Scout BEAR GRYLLS.

Olly isn’t enjoying activity camp. Why should he bother building a shelter or foraging for food with his teammates – he’d rather be at home in the warm and dry, where the sofa and the video games are.But then Olly gets given a compass with a mysterious fifth direction. When he follows it, he’s magically transported to a high mountain range where he meets survival expert Bear Grylls. With his help, Olly must learn to survive in sub-zero temperatures, including what to do if the ice cracks when you’re crossing a frozen lake, or a blizzard sets in . . .But can his adventure with Bear Grylls change Olly’s mind about teamwork and perseverance? And who will Olly give the compass to next?

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Bear Grylls Adventures: The Desert Challenge by Bear Grylls.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th May 2017.  $9.99

Sophie loves activity camp . . . but is terrified of insects. It’s so bad that she won’t go into the tent on her own, just in case something flies at her, or she steps on a creepie-crawlie. But when she’s given a compass by one of the other boys on the campsite, Sophie is magically transported to the desert on an adventure where they’re impossible to avoid!

With the help of survival expert Bear Grylls as her guide, she will learn how to withstand the extreme temperatures of the desert and how to spot mirages, encounter giant camel spiders, deadly scorpions and snakes . . . but will Sophie overcome her fear of insects back in the real world? And who will she give the compass to next?

I will be the first to admit that I know nothing about Bear Grylls except that he is an outdoorsy type whose real name probably isn’t Bear and appears, for all intents and purposes, to be one of those annoying people who is both talented and good-looking.  Thankfully, that is all one needs to know in order to enjoy these fast-paced and well structured tales.

The two books (and one assumes, the rest of the twelve-book series) follow the same format and are set around a group of children at a wilderness adventure school holiday camp.  Each book introduces the protagonist child and a few of their friends and highlights the protagonist’s particular personal growth issue that needs working on, before whooshing the child off, by means of a magical compass, to a survival-based adventure accompanied by none other than the Ursa Major himself.  The child is then magically transported back to the moment they left their normal life and puts the lessons learnt in their survival trek to good use before passing the magical compass on to the next unwitting victim.

These books are cleverly produced and will certainly hit the mark with their target audience.  They focus on problems that children working in groups are likely to have – Olly, protagonist of The Blizzard Challenge, tends to give up easily, while Sophie, protagonist of The Desert Challenge, has a mortal fear of insects that disrupts her enjoyment of outdoors activities.  The fact that by the end of the series, readers will have been introduced to all of the kids at the camp is a brilliant idea because it means the books are linked and will have familiar characters in them, but don’t necessarily need to be read in order.  The use of the magic compass injects a fun dose of fantasy into the tales and keeps them from being too dry (except for The Desert Challenge – geddit? Dry? Desert?) and also provides the protagonists the opportunity to learn from a real-life survival skills master in a way that doesn’t rely on basing things in reality.

The books are illustrated throughout in black and white and the font is big enough, and chapters short enough, not to be daunting to reluctant readers or those who struggle.  The books would also be a great option for read-alouds to younger children who don’t have the ability to read chapter books themselves yet, but are interested in longer and more varied stories.  It’s also encouraging to see that the characters in the books are of diverse cultural backgrounds and that this is reflected in the illustrations.

The only niggling problem I had with these books – and this is speaking from the viewpoint of one who has sat on the shelf of youth workers and  teachers alike – is the fact that these children are swept off to the company of a strange man in a deserted place and forced to follow him around and spend the night with him.  I realise that I might be being a bit hypersensitive here since it’s hinted at that these sections of the book may be dreams or magic or whatever, but I did get a little bit of the creep-factor while reading the first book, when the young lad has to build a snuggly little ice cave in which to spend the night tucked up with a grown man who he doesn’t know from Adam, without his parents’ knowledge or consent.  In the first book, the child also has to disrobe quickly in front of Bear after falling into icy water.  There’s also the slight weirdness of having a magic compass that brings him a new child every time.  From an adult’s point of view, there’s something not-quite-right about it all.

I don’t mean to throw shade on Bear – I’m sure he’s a perfectly upstanding guy and has his Blue Card – but I would have thought that someone in the editing or planning process would have picked this up and suggested some very basic and unintrusive changes to the story that could retain the adventure and survival aspect of the story while teaching a hugely important survival skill of childhood: be extremely wary of any adult who wants to spend time on their own with an unrelated child without their parents’ knowledge.  Surely the Scouts themselves would have Child Protection Policies that disallowed one on one adult to child sleep outs,  so I just find it a bit strange that the stories came out in this form.

Putting that aside for the moment though, the books are otherwise sure to be a hit with young readers who love “real-life” stories but aren’t necessarily drawn to nonfiction.

Until next time,

Bruce

Picture Book Perusal: The Patchwork Bike

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Today’s picture book is an homage to all the creatives out there who can’t see a bit of household flotsam without imagining how it could be better used in the pursuit of fun.  We received The Patchwork Bike by Aussie Afro-Carribean author Maxine Beneba Clarke and street artist Van T Rudd from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb:

What’s the best fun in the whole village? Riding the patchwork bike we made! A joyous picture book for children by award-winning author Maxine Beneba Clarke.

When you live in a village at the edge of the No-Go Desert, you need to make your own fun. That’s when you and your brothers get inventive and build a bike from scratch, using everyday items like an old milk pot (maybe mum is still using it, maybe not) and a used flour sack. You can even make a numberplate from bark, if you want. The end result is a spectacular bike, perfect for going bumpity-bump over sandhills, past your fed-up mum and right through your mud-for-walls home.

Now doesn’t that bike look like every bored kid’s dream machine?!

This is a wonderfully fast-moving picture book that celebrates the rebellious, the inventive and the just plain entertaining spirit of kids who are left to, rather than on their own devices.  There is not a screen in sight here, yet the girl and her brothers seem to have plenty of ways to make their surroundings a fun place to be.  There’s the sandhill for sliding, the tree for climbing and jumping and, of course, the epic bike they have patched together from bits and pieces that have been left unattended.  The bike may not be the prettiest creation ever (although the tree-branch handles certainly have an earthy design charm all their own), but it does the job and deftly delivers the three adventurers from one end of the village to the other in style.

The text features plenty of rhythm perfect for reading aloud, as well as some fantastic examples of onomatopoeia that bring the bike and the riding experience to life.  The illustrations are so unusual; a cardboard-looking background with bits of printed text glinting through thick smears of coloured paint and old bits of sticky tape suitably reflect the patchwork nature of the bike (and perhaps even the village?), while our proud protagonist is so super-cool in her reflective shades that it would be impossible to be unmoved by stirrings of envy on seeing her fly past on her fantastic creation.  The other characters are also beautifully fleshed out in the illustrations, with the “crazy” brothers first seen dancing on what appears to be a police car, while the mum really does look fed-up, although perhaps not necessarily at the antics of her children.

One can’t fail to notice that this story is not set in an urban environment and this will no doubt arouse some curiosity in young readers.  The exact location of the village (in terms of country) is never mentioned and this might open up conversations about how others live and what non-urban living might be like.  This would also be a great pick for early years classes looking for inspiration around creating functional objects out of unexpected materials.  I can picture the classroom creation station or cardboard box and bits tub suddenly becoming hugely popular after a class reading of The Patchwork Bike.

All in all this is a fun and engaging story that will speak to the adventurer in all of us and have younger readers planning, designing and rummaging through your recycling bin before the back cover is closed.

Until next time,

Bruce