Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Recommended Books for Older Readers 2018

Reviewed by Susan Stephenson,

Here are some fantastic new books for older readers I have read, and believe are worthy of your consideration. Far below you’ll find a novel for adults that I also adored. If you’d like your children to respond to one of these books, consider downloading my free PDFs described in Respond to Literature - 3 Book Response Templates.

So Wrong 2 - Inappropriate by Michael Wagner, with doodles by Wayne Bryant, published by Billy Goat Books (2017.) RRP: $Au 14.99 PB.

From the publisher:

It’s Mad magazine meets Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton with the irreverence of Pippi Longstocking and the subversiveness of Roald Dahl – so right for young readers, especially those who haven’t quite learned to love books. Yet.

I reviewed the first So Wrong in 2016. The creators have returned with a second book, and it’s crazier even than the first.

Just when kids thought it was safe to venture outside their cubby houses, along comes Mitey Mikey, “the smartest and bestest lyfe coach for kidz in the werld.” In So Wrong 2, Mikey provides illustrated instructions for really useful stuff, like how not to shave - don’t use a whipper snipper, don’t use whipped cream instead of shaving cream. “And that makes yoo empowerd.”

But the book is not all about Mikey. The magazine style format allows free reign to two crazy creators who were once reluctant readers themselves. There are gags galore, lashings of looniness, and suspect spelling. My favourite segment was the twisted tale, Big Red Riding Hood, so much more satisfying than the original version. Kids not yet sold on reading may well also be tempted by ad breaks for Body Parts R Us, comics about Nan the Forgetful Nudist, or Steve McSpleen who writes poems like Hey Diddle Diddle, I need a piddle. Kids who’ve read the first So Wrong - Uncensored will no doubt be clamouring for this second book, or you could offer it to kids of any age who need a light-hearted romp of a book that’s fun and easy.

Short is a chapter book by Holly Goldberg Sloan, published by Scholastic (2017.) RRP: $Au 16.99 PB.

From the publisher:

Julia is very short for her age, but by the end of the summer run of The Wizard of Oz, she’ll realise how big she is inside, where it counts. She hasn’t ever thought of herself as a performer, but when the wonderful director of Oz casts her as a Munchkin, she begins to see herself in a new way.

As Julia becomes friendly with the poised and wise Olive–one of the adults with dwarfism who’ve joined the production’s motley crew of Munchkins–and with her deeply artistic neighbour, Mrs Chang, Julia’s own sense of self as an artist grows. Soon, she doesn’t want to fade into the background–and it’s a good thing, because her director has more big plans for Julia!

Here’s a heart-warming, realistic middle grade novel that I just know children will enjoy. Julia is one of those wonderful characters who feel like a friend, and who stay with you a long time after the book is finished. She is observant, notices things about her family and the people she meets, and has a way of sharing what she learns that kept me in a constant ripple of laughter.

Children will understand that it’s rare to find someone who has nothing to feel bad or worry about. Whether it’s wearing glasses, having freckles or as in Julia’s case, being vertically challenged, we all have dents in our armour of self-confidence. Or as Julia would put it, something inside us that causes heartache. I love that reading this book will not just be pleasure and fun for kids, but also help them understand more about themselves and the world they live in.

Sloan’s books are great. If your kids like Short, be sure to suggest Counting by 7s to them.

Ban this Book is a novel by Alan Gratz, published by Lothian (2017.) RRP: $Au 15.99 PB

From the publisher:

It all started the day Amy Anne Ollinger tried to check out her favourite book in the whole world, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, from the school library. That's when Mrs. Jones, the librarian, told her the bad news: her favourite book was banned! All because a classmate's mum thought the book wasn't appropriate for kids to read.

Amy Anne decides to fight back by starting a secret banned-books library out of her locker. The battle of the books escalates when she engineers a campaign to challenge every book in the school library. Because once you ban one book, you can challenge them all under the most ridiculous of pretexts: The Lorax portrays the timber industry in a negative light! The mouse in the room in Goodnight Moon is a health code violation! And let's not even start on the safety concerns raised by The Magic Treehouse.

Soon, Amy Anne and her friends find themselves on the front line of an unexpected battle over book banning, censorship, and who has the right to decide what they can and can't read.

There’s a great message here that kids need to absorb. Not just about banning books, but about people who want to silence others, and how it’s important to stand up against them and be heard. Amy Anne is a strong female protagonist, although at the beginning of the story she certainly doesn’t speak her mind. There’s lots of humour in the contrast between what Amy Anne thinks and what she actually says! Gratz knows and understands kids, and that is particularly evident in the characterisation and dialogue which are both very believable.

This is a great novel that I would definitely recommend to children 7+ who enjoy stories about school with drama, humour, snappy dialogue and tight, active writing.

Laugh Your Head Off, Laugh Your Head Off Again and Laugh Your Head Off Again and Again are three books of short stories by various Australian children’s authors, published by MacMillan Australia (2017.) RRP: $Au 19.99 HB

There is no doubt that humour sells. And no doubt that humour sells kids on reading. The creators of these short stories read like the Who’s Who of humour. For starters: Andy Griffiths, Frances Watts, Andrew Daddo, Tristan Bancks, Meg McKinlay, Morris Gleitzman, R.A.Spratt and Deborah Abela. Each book contains nine short stories. With topics like a busting moment, a halloween chicken, organic rodent pies and a face that’s stuck, children will immediately understand that nonsense beckons.

Careful reading will help children discover many different styles of writing and of humour in these three volumes. Some are downright subversive - in fact Bancks’s story, Nitplan, should probably come with a warning in case it inspires copy-cat mischief! Some, like Greenhouse Gas, make us smile, but then stop and think about the implications. All are funny, well-written and dotted with occasional cute cartoon-style fluoro illustrations by Andrea Innocent.

These sturdy hard cover books would make an excellent choice as short read-alouds for kids 7+ who think they’re too old for picture books. They’ll also appeal to children who are short on time, but need a read they can relax with, something to make them giggle or guffaw. Students could certainly use them as models of the short story style, and perhaps be inspired to write their own stories.

Beatrice Zinker Upside Down Thinker is a junior novel by Shelley Johannes, published by Lothian (Hachette in Australia) (2017.) RRP: $Au 12.99 PB.

From the publisher:

Beatrice is looking forward to a year of pirate adventures, zombie battles and upside-down mysteries with her fellow-tomboy best friend, Lenny. But on the first day of year three, Lenny doesn't come to school in a ninja suit like they'd planned - instead she's wearing something pink and sparkly and ruffled. She doesn't seem interested in their old games any more, and worst of all she's found a new friend. It will take Beatrice's best upside-down thinking to find a way to fix this problem.

Here’s a chapter book that’s perfect for newly independent readers. It has lots of white space, large font and attractive quirky sketches to help comprehension. It’s a fun, easy-to-read story about an eight-year-old girl who thinks outside the box. She actually likes to be physically upside-down too. Beatrice Zinker is different, and her differences appeal to some and not others. Back in Year Two, her teacher, Mrs Walker, warmed to Beatrice and gave her a best upside down thinker award. But her new grade 3 teacher, Mrs Tamarack, warns Beatrice she must conform or be punished. Beatrice has another big problem that kids will relate to - her best friend Lenny seems to have completely changed over the holidays. How Beatrice resolves her problems is told in an entertaining and light-hearted way.

I think Beatrice is a heroine worthy of our admiration. Not only does she demonstrate creative thinking but as the story progresses, she shows she can compromise too. Beatrice Zinker Upside Down Thinker will appeal to kids 7-10 who enjoy humour and real life stories set in schools.

Finn Family Moomintroll is a special collector’s edition of the children’s novel written and illustrated by Tove Jansson, translated by Elizabeth Portch and re-published by Profile Books (2017.) (Originally published 1948.) RRP: $Au 19.99 HB

From the publisher:

In case you didn't know, the Moomins are kind, loyal and welcoming creatures with smooth round snouts, who live in a tall blue house shaped like an old stove in a valley in the forests of Finland. They love sunshine and sleep right through the winter, when the snow turns their house into a great snowball. In spring they wake up, clamber down the rope ladders hanging from their windows ready for fresh new adventures.

And so this classic story begins, full of fun and excitement and the most unexpected happenings. Such as when Moomin and his friends Snufkin and Sniff find a Hobgoblin's hat that casts a spell over the whole of Moominvalley...

There’s a delicious old-fashioned feel to this new-to-me novel. I loved the chapter descriptions (you know the kind: “Chapter XXX - In which we meet …” ), AND the author notes with their wry, understated humour. I loved the characters, especially the unflappable and always prepared Moominmamma. Kids will adore the adventures they have. In some ways Finn Family Moomintroll reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books. As a reader, you grow to trust that while you have no idea what the next chapter will bring, it will definitely be FUN! I cannot imagine any child not wanting to read about magical clouds that are rideable and operate a bit like dodgem cars. Or strange electrical creatures called Hattifatteners!

There’s a fold out map at the start that is a lovely touch, and the black and white sketches add lots of gentle humour. Most of all I loved the creativity, the imagination and humour. I’m very glad to have discovered the Moomins at last, and hope a new generation of readers will embrace what are true classics.

Teacher note: Students could compare the novel with an animated version called The Moomins (on Youtube.) Finn Family Moomintroll would also be a great choice for activities like mapping, finding out about other countries through their literature, creating a diorama, and using craft and art to bring the characters to life.

I Swapped My Brother on the Internet by Jo Simmons, with illustrations by Nathan Reed and published by Bloomsbury (2018.) RRP: $Au 12.99

From the publisher:

I can get a new brother? On the internet?' Jonny muttered. 'Oh sweet mangoes of heaven!'

Everyone has dreamed of being able to get rid of their brother or sister at one time or another – but for Jonny, the dream is about to become a reality with! What could be better than someone awesome to replace Ted, Jonny's obnoxious older brother.

But finding the perfect brother isn't easy, as Jonny discovers when Sibling Swap sends him a line of increasingly bizarre replacements: first a merboy, then a brother raised by meerkats, and then the ghost of Henry the Eighth! What's coming next?! Suddenly old Ted isn't looking so bad. But can Jonny ever get him back?

I know kids will make connections to their own lives with this junior novel. Anyone with a sibling will understand the dream of replacing that brother or sister with a different one. A kinder one. One that is certainly more fun to live with. So when Jonny goes for it, and swaps his brother Ted via website, Sibling Swap, at first it seems like his life has hugely improved. But then…

Once drawn in by the premise, there’s lots to keep kids reading in this chapter book. They’ll find humour in the zinging dialogue and cartoonish illustrations. Ten-year-old Jonny is someone they will definitely relate to. And the wacky plot is written in such a way they’ll suspend disbelief. In fact, I’ll bet there will be numerous tentative but hopeful internet searches for! Find an activity pack and more details here.

Peanuts for the Soul is a compilation of Peanuts comic strips by Charles M Schultz, published by A and U Cannongate (2017.) RRP: $Au 19.99 HB.

From the publisher:

The kids (and canines) of Peanuts know a thing or two about how tough life can be. But with a philosophical approach to the trials and tribulations of growing up - from not being able to talk to the girl you like, to having an idiot brother who won't take your flawless advice - they're never short of the small comforts, and the great wisdom, that can help us get by.

The collected black and white strips of Peanuts for the Soul are nicely bound inside a sturdy hard cover. They are divided into themes of seven chapters: Life, Love, Family, Friendship, Back to School, At Play, and Happiness. The book itself is a perfect size for slipping into a pocket or a backpack.

Last year I stated that every family needs a Where’s Wally book. Today I am proclaiming the same about a Peanuts book or two. Kids can learn a lot from the wisdom of Snoopy, Lucy, Charlie Brown, Linus, Schroeder and co. The strips are also funny, helping children associate books with pleasure. And they are short, making them non-threatening to reluctant readers, or ideal when you only have a couple of minutes before the bus comes. For younger kids, some of the humour might need to be explained, but that makes for a perfect family learning opportunity!

Dr Boogaloo and the Girl who Lost her Laughter is a middle grade chapter book by Lisa Nichol, published by Penguin Random House (2017.) RRP: $Au 19.99 HB

From the publisher:

Dr Boogaloo was no ordinary doctor. Not at all like the one you might visit if you had a sore tummy. No, Dr Boogaloo was a very different type of doctor. He treated folks who suffered from rather unusual complaints. And how did he treat them? Why, with the most powerful medicine known to mankind . . . Music!

Blue was no ordinary girl. For starters, her name was Blue. But what was truly extraordinary about Blue was the fact that she hadn’t laughed for 712 days. Not a hee hee, a ho ho or even a tiny tee hee.

According to Dr Boogaloo, music can cure anything. (Of course, you need the right dose of the right music. No point listening to a jive if you’re in need of some boogie-woogie, and you can’t just substitute a toot for a blow!) But no laughter was definitely a case for alarm.

Can Dr Boogaloo compose a cure before Blue loses her laughter forever?

Children will certainly understand the seriousness of Blue’s problem. Her inability to laugh is accompanied by a feeling that she is ever so slowly being wrapped in a cocoon. Her mother is obsessed with decorating her house and unable to express affection for Blue. Her father kills animals and seems useless. So the advent of Dr Boogaloo, Bessie and the Boogaloo Family Clinic of Musical Cures into Blue’s life brings colour, warmth and most of all the wonder of music.

There is lots of humour that will enchant young readers. I would recommend it to children who want a middle grade chapter book that is different, heart-warming, and full of quirky characters and imaginative situations.

The Wizards of Once (1) by Cressida Cowell, published by Hodder Children’s (Hachette) (2017.) RRP: $Au 19.99 Trade PB.

From the publisher:

This is the story of a young boy Wizard and a young girl Warrior who have been taught since birth to hate each other like poison; and the thrilling tale of what happens when their two worlds collide.

Perfect for boys and girls who love fantasy adventure...
Once there was Magic, and the Magic lived in the dark forests. Until the Warriors came...
Xar is a Wizard boy who has no Magic, and will do anything to get it. Wish is a Warrior girl, but she owns a banned Magical Object, and she will do anything to conceal it.
In this whirlwind adventure, Xar and Wish must forget their differences if they're going to make it to the dungeons at Warrior Fort.
Where something that has been sleeping for hundreds of years is stirring...

There would not be many kids who hadn’t heard of Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series, or movies. Here’s book one of a new Cowell series, The Wizards of Once. It’s a fantasy filled with quirky characters and magical creatures. Apart from the hero and heroine mentioned by the publisher, above, there’s a rather lovely giant called Crusher, an assistant bodyguard who keeps falling asleep, a talking raven called Caliburn, a magical spoon, an enchanted sword, assorted sprites, snowcats, wizards and warriors. Stir those ingredients with lashings of magic, inevitable conflict between warring tribes and the huge problem that is the truly nasty and villainous Kingwitch, and you have a recipe for an entertaining and at times hilarious tale. It seems to be set loosely in the Dark Ages, but the dialogue and character thoughts are crisp and up to date.

Cowell’s sketches add such a lot to The Wizards of Once (1). They are intriguing and atmospheric. There is a real darkness to the novel at times, and the sketches certainly contribute to this. There is also creative use made of different font size and style, providing suggestions to someone reading aloud, or a young reader who wants to “hear” the dialogue and story in his head.

If your kids 8+ enjoy fantasy, tales of magic and thrilling adventures, and want a chapter book written by one of the masters, The Wizards of Once makes a fine choice. The fact that it is the first in a series will certainly cement the deal.

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty, published by Allen and Unwin (2017.) RRP: $Au 22.99 HB.

From the publisher:

Bronte Mettlestone's parents ran away to have adventures when she was a baby, leaving her to be raised by her Aunt Isabelle and the Butler. She's had a perfectly pleasant childhood of afternoon teas and riding lessons - and no adventures, thank you very much.

But Bronte's parents have left extremely detailed (and bossy) instructions for Bronte in their will. The instructions must be followed to the letter, or disaster will befall Bronte's home. She is to travel the kingdoms and empires, perfectly alone, delivering special gifts to her ten other aunts. There is a farmer aunt who owns an orange orchard and a veterinarian aunt who specialises in dragon care, a pair of aunts who captain a cruise ship together and a former rockstar aunt who is now the reigning monarch of a small kingdom.

Here’s a fantasy novel targeting kids aged 10 - 14. Bronte is a strong-willed heroine who lives in a world which has magic. This is not ho-hum magic, but wonderfully detailed and imaginative magic. We read of Dark Mages like radish gnomes, of faery cross-stitch that is incredibly binding, of a baby taken by elves that needs to be rescued, of katamanchi kelp growing in the secret forests of the water sprites - and on and on we read, immersed in a strange, almost dream-like world as Bronte follows her parents’ instructions.

Moriarty is an elegant writer who carefully chooses words for maximum impact, creating word pictures that slowly but inexorably pull a reader into the story. Characters are nuanced and likeable. I was in a constant ripple of humour while reading this book. I recommend it for capable readers of 10+ who are undaunted by 400+ pages.

Supersaurs 1: The Raptors of Paradise is a chapter book by Jay Jay Burridge, published by Bonnier (2017.) RRP: $Au 16.99 PB

From the publisher:

Imagine a world where dinosaurs have survived and evolved as... SUPERSAURS. This is the world that Bea Kingsley lives in, a world where humans live side by side with supersaurs, sometimes in peace but often in conflict.

Bea is the daughter of explorer parents who went missing when she was just a baby. So when her grandmother suddenly takes her on a trip to the remote Indonesian islands of Aru, Bea starts asking some big questions. But the more questions Bea asks, the more trouble she and her grandmother find themselves in. Was the journey to the islands a big mistake?

Supersaurs 1: The Raptors of Paradise is the first of a six book series set in a world where dinosaurs are not extinct. It will appeal to young readers who enjoy adventure, and prefer getting to know worlds and characters over several books. Bea is a strong female protagonist, and there are quirky adult and child secondary characters. The Supersaurs themselves are brought to life in vivid detail.

The exciting black and white illustrations really enhance the text, but don’t be fooled - this is a meaty middle-grade read, targeting 9 - 12 year-olds. I know there will be young dinosaur enthusiasts who will be truly excited about this series. However, I found it quite wordy, even heavy going at times, and would recommend it only to capable readers. There’s an associated website, an interactive supersaurs app, and UK curriculum-aligned teacher notes (that require you to sign up.)


A Skinful of Shadows is a YA fantasy novel written by Frances Hardinge, and published by Macmillan Children’s Books (2017.) RRP: $Au 24.99 PB

From the publisher:

This is the story of a bear-hearted girl...

Sometimes, when a person dies, their spirit goes looking for somewhere to hide.
Some people have space within them, perfect for hiding.

Twelve-year-old Makepeace has learned to defend herself from the ghosts which try to possess her in the night, desperate for refuge, but one day a dreadful event causes her to drop her guard.

And now there's a spirit inside her.

The spirit is wild, brutish and strong, and it may be her only defence when she is sent to live with her father's rich and powerful ancestors. There is talk of civil war, and they need people like her to protect their dark and terrible family secret.

But as she plans her escape and heads out into a country torn apart by war, Makepeace must decide which is worse: possession - or death.
This novel is definitely not for the faint-hearted. It’s quite a dark historical fantasy, set in the time period of the English Civil War. Makepeace’s life seems one of unrelenting misery, with more terror and conflict arising at each page turn. And yet, we slowly see her grow and change. And like Makepeace, we are sustained and comforted by her relationship with the spirit of Bear, inside her.

Hardinge’s writerly craft is admirable. It is evocative, drawing the reader in from the start, and maintaining tension throughout the novel. In Makepeace she has created a not-to-be forgotten, strong heroine. I believe A Skinful of Shadows will appeal to teens who enjoy paranormal fiction and dark fantasies.

La Belle Sauvage is a fantasy YA novel by Philip Pullman, published by David Fickling Books (Penguin Random House Australia) (2017.) RRP: $Au 32.99 Trade PB.

From the publisher:

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them; a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua . . .

I really enjoyed Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, which consisted of Northern Lights (The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. So I was keen to read La Belle Savage, the just-published prequel to that story. La Belle Sauvage is volume one in the The Book of Dust.

Pullman is what I call an elegant writer. You’re not really conscious of his writing craft because you’re swept inexorably into the story, but later reflection and enjoyment makes you appreciate his skill. His characters are believable and likeable, especially young Malcolm. The world is a parallel Universe to our own. It’s well-built and fascinating - kids will love the daemons and the steampunk vibe. I loved the perspective of seeing Oxford from its waterways and flooded landscape, and I also liked the emphasis on some of the villains being those who would stamp out free thought and discussion. Ring a bell for anyone?

This prequel might be a great way to introduce kids to His Dark Materials, but I think it works well when read the other way around too.


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a novel for adults by Gail Honeyman, published by HarperCollins (2017.) RRP:$Au 32.99 HB

From the publisher:

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she's avoided all her life.

Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than… fine?

I honestly resented having to put this novel down. It has a supremely elegant construction, is beautifully written and is above all a great story. Eleanor has probably had one of the strangest urban upbringings - it has led her to be in society, but not part of it. She exists. But deep inside she wants more, and slowly she makes changes. I loved (and share!) Eleanor’s bemusement over many societal norms, and was often in a ripple of amusement over her observations. At other times, I was crying inside on Eleanor’s behalf.

If you’re looking for a novel that will move you to both tears and laughter, will make you nod in wry recognition as well as wipe away heart-felt tears, I hope you’ll read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

If you’d like to discover more recently published books specifically for older readers, you will find some here, and here.

Find even more Children's Book Reviews on The Book Chook by clicking Reviews in the right sidebar.

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