Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.


Every year as an educator I inevitably teach at least once a unit in Human Sexuality to a group of year 8 or 9 students.  As part of this program we explore the gender and the general differences in brain function between the sexes.  It never ceases to amaze students that in males the part of the brain which predicts unfavourable outcomes is less developed in teenage boys than their female counterparts.  Of course, as educators we know this too well, seeing this played out on a daily basis with the boys that we work with.

“Why did you do that?”

The subject, a year 10 boy shrugs his shoulders.

“What were you thinking?” We probe a little further.

“Nothing.” Comes the emphatic response.

Nothing is probably the best description of what was going through the adolescent brain the moment the chair (or fist or rock) was thrown through the window.  Impulsivity is characteristic of many teenage boys and the impact of such an episode is the core focus of Nova Weetman’s latest YA offering Everything is Changed.  The novel tells the story of Jake and Alex, best mates who, in a moment of spontaneity, make a mistake that will change the course of their lives forever.  Told in reverse the novel tracks back through events and documents how their lives, and those around them, literally fall apart.

Everything is Changed is suitable for use with students in the middle years of secondary school.  I imagine that grade 10 will be the sweet spot for this.  With engaging language and a cast of characters that students will easily identify with, this is a story that doesn’t preach.  The story speaks for itself and will no doubt evoke an emotional response in students while also providing rich content for debate and discussion. In light of this I would definitely flag this as a wonderful text for shared class reading.  Similarly, it would work well in smaller reading circles.  Of course, in terms of text construction, the story provides wonderful opportunities to discuss how the reverse telling of the story contributes to our understanding of the key themes and ideas.  Students might also appreciate comparisons with other film and prose texts that also challenge the convention of a linear and chronological narration; Pulp Fiction for example.

Everything is Changed is a compelling read with a grittiness that will strike a chord with adolescent readers.  I imagine that many of these readers will find its accuracy haunting, as they will no doubt draw parallels between Jake and Alex and their own experiences.

Tanya Grech Welden


The Leopard Princess is the second book in the series titled The Tales of Jahani by acclaimed South Australian author Roseanne Hawke.  Following on directly from Daughter of Nomads, I highly recommend that readers will continue with this only after reading the first book.    Unlike some series, which can be read in any order, I suspect that The Leopard Princess may fail to resonate if read in this way.  I assume that the publisher made the decision to separate what was one rather long book into two smaller ones as they feared a younger YA audience may feel overwhelmed by such a large book.  This was probably the right decision although I feel that both books could easily be bundled together in one volume and pitched successfully at an older audience.

Feel free to read my earlier review of Daughter of Nomads hereThe Leopard Princess picks up the story in the Autumn of 1662.  Jahani remains in hiding from her jilted fiancée, the cruel Muzahid Baig and the tyrannical Dagar Khan.  With the constant risk of capture and increasing fear of retribution upon the nomadic people who are hiding her, Jahani knows that she must travel through the mountains to the northern kingdoms in an effort to secure peace for the region and realise her destiny.  Continuing on from Daughter of Nomads, The Leopard Princess develops themes and ideas that explore good versus evil, triumph against adversity, in addition to the quest for one’s identity.  The Leopard Princess also asks pertinent questions about love, leadership, followership, courage and self-sacrifice.

With plenty of action, a sprinkling of romance and just enough magic to make things interesting, I imagine that this book will appeal to readers in the middle years.  Certainly, as Jahani moves further into adolescence, I envisage that older teens and many adults will also discover plenty to relate to.  As with, Daughter of Nomads, this story provides unique opportunities for Asian perspectives, particularly to a History unit focusing on the Middle Ages and Renaissance period (which is too often Eurocentric).  I imagine that students might appreciate the opportunity to compare the life of Elizabeth I with Jahani, contrasting the challenges and limitations faced by women in positions of authority at this time.

While The Leopard Princess neatly draws to a conclusion the quest begun in Daughter of Nomads, I will live in hope that Hawke will decide to write a third book in this series.  After all, there are still plenty of adventures to be had for Jahani and Azhar.  I’d also be keen to read a story written exclusively from the perspective of Azhar, especially one which explores a time before the events in books 1 and 2.

Tanya Grech Welden


As Religious Education teachers in Catholic or Christian schools, one of our greatest challenges is bringing the world of the Gospels to life in a way that makes sense to our students.  It seems to me that many children and young people struggle to really understand what life was like for people, specifically Jewish communities, living at the time of the historical Jesus.  How as educators are we best able to convey the complex nature of this culture and address ideas such as the roles of men and women, double standards and the impact of Roman imperialism on the Jewish people?  When working with adolescents I commonly look towards fiction as a means for fleshing out this context and addressing some of the more subtle understandings of this culture that will lead to a deeper investigation of scripture.

Many years ago I was introduced to a method of reading scripture called Lectio Divinia.  Essentially, the method requires a prayerful reading of the Gospels that requires one to emotionally invest in a story from scripture and process this in such a way that allows for you to be creatively present in the story. What we have with Chris Aslan’s book is a very sophisticated model of this. Having said this, I wish to emphasise that, from the outset, this is a story that can be enjoyed on many levels.  In fact, while it will be deeply appreciated by those coming from a Judaeo-Christian world view, this book will also be enjoyed outside this realm purely as a work of fiction.  Written in ephemeral prose Alabaster invites us into the world of a young Jewish woman Mariam (loosely identified as Mary of Magdala) who lives in a small village during the ministry of Jesus.  Having suffered the death of her mother to a fever, Mariam, also endures the tragedy of her father’s leprosy and final ostracism, rape (in the absence of a male protector) and marriage to an abusive man.  Of course many of these details, while being an accurate portrayal of the experiences of women during this time and context, are obviously creative imaginings when applied to the life of Mary Magdalene (for whom the Gospels only ever provide very general details of).   Interestingly, Aslan elects to limit Mariam’s experiences of the historical Jesus to a couple of episodes, taking place over a few days, and the story never delves into Jesus’ crucifixion or resurrection, for which Magdalene is the first witness.   Instead the story revolves around the origin of the alabaster jar and culminates in the moment of Jesus’ anointing with the precious oil by Mariam a few days before his death.  While Aslan permits Mariam to develops a special ‘connection’ with the historical Jesus, he falls short in delving into the range of legends relating to Mary Magdalene, of course those which have drawn her as a fallen woman (prostitute), the ‘loved disciple’ and even the spouse of Jesus.

Within the Religious Education classroom the story has application for use in small excerpts to flesh out specific ideas related to life in the time of Jesus.  Specifically, I would be keen to make use of the stoning scene or the chapter exploring leprosy.  Alabaster, would be an ideal novel for senior students to use in independent study with rich parallels easily being drawn with the likes of Anne Rice’s, Christ the Lord or Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.  The novel could conceivably work well as a class text with advanced English students in the senior years.

Alabaster is a gift for lovers of history and the Christian Scriptures.  It will certainly be finding a permanent place on my bookshelf as a wonderful resource for use with secondary students in the Religious Education classroom.

Tanya Grech Welden

Becoming Aurora.jpg

The thing which keeps drawing me back to YA fiction is its innate propensity to gently address the questions of the time through the medium of the ‘quiet story’.  These wonderful stories of ‘real people’ often have the ability to speak to a young audience in profound and lasting ways.  It is a style of writing that many Australian authors seems to excel at with writers such as Cath Crowley and Vikki Wakefield leading the way with on the international stage.  Elizabeth Kasmer’s debut novel Becoming Aurora is yet another example of YA fiction that will quietly serve to challenge and inspire our youth.

Sixteen-year-old Rory (Aurora) has herself in a real pickle.  Caught up with the wrong crowd, and following her involvement in a racially motivated gang attack on the local immigrant community, she finds herself the sole person implicated and charged for the crime.  Refusing to reveal the names of her accomplices, Rory takes the rap for the deed and spends her entire summer undertaking community service at the local aged care home.  It is here that she meets resident and ex-boxer Jack, an encounter that leads her to Essam, a young migrant boxer who will both challenge her prejudices and force her to address the mistakes of her past.

Becoming Aurora provides a brutally honest depiction of an Australia that is inherently racist.  Kasmer leads readers into a discourse surrounding how it is we currently define what it means to be Australian and how our understanding of this identity needs to evolve to encompass what is a growing cultural diversity.  Ultimately, however, this is a story about reconciling one’s past with one’s future, seeking and offering forgiveness and finding peace with oneself in the shadow of grief and loss.

Written with tremendous sensitivity in thoughtful prose, Becoming Aurora will both challenge and delight, finding its audience, with students in the middle to upper end of secondary school.   Becoming Aurora is one of those books which, while not making me proud to be an Australian; makes me feel hopeful about the direction we might go, should we be brave enough to accept the challenge.

Tanya Grech Welden

Cath Crowley

This is, pure and simple, ‘a love story’ (yep it says so right on the front cover).  YA Romance authors pay attention, your writing masterclass is now in session.  Rachel is grieving.  After 3 years living by the coast, and in the aftermath of her brother’s drowning, she returns to the city.  It is a homecoming not without significant protests.  After all, she has flunked year 12 and failed to get into university. More importantly it means facing up to her ‘best-friend’ Henry the guy she was in love with, and who rejected her in preference for red-haired Amy the day before she left.  Seemingly, when the worlds of Henry and Rachel collide once more, Henry is in a world of pain.  Amy (the girl who loves her reflection more than she does Henry), has dumped him (yet again).   As Henry pines away for his lost-love, readers will certainly be cheering for Rachel and wondering how this couple will find their way into each other’s arms.  Of course, and in true Crowley fashion, while Words in Deep Blue might be a love story, it is so much more.  This is a celebration of words, literature and the power of both to bind us together through the human experiences of love and loss.

It goes without saying that, told through switching first person narration interspersed with letters, Words in Deep Blue is beautifully written.  The final product is a rich tapestry, a powerful celebration of language and storytelling. While this is not something that I would explicitly use in the classroom, it is certainly something that I will promote and which will be deeply cherished by those wonderful and rare students who proudly refer to themselves as ‘book nerds’.  Such readers will appreciate Crowley’s numerous references to literary works of note.  In saying this, I personally found the multiple references to the likes of John Green a little amusing.  Does Crowley even realise that she is firmly in this league?  If anyone deserves to be in the ‘Letter Room’ it is she.

It is not all serious though.  In fact in many ways this is a joyous book, immensely comedic in places.  I mean, the notion of two guys being stripped down to nothing and gaffer-taped to a city street light should be horrifying.  Instead Crowley has me laughing along with her central protagonist (who also seems to see light of the moment).

Evidence that great things really do come to those who wait can be found within the pages of this book.

Okay, so I read this as a digital galley.  I’d have preferred a paper copy (feel free to send me one Pan Macmillan), since an e-version could never hope to do justice to this superlative piece of literature.  Then again, beggars can’t be choosers, and this is Cath Crowley after all.  It has been a while (has it really been 6 years since Graffiti Moon?) since Crowley blessed us with a story. I’m not complaining, Crowley is quite possibly a perfectionist and she can ferment (or marinate) her manuscripts for as long as she likes if this is the outcome.

Tanya Grech Welden

Little Wing cover

Frequently, as readers, we fall into the trap of assuming that picture books are just for younger children.  This is not always the case.  There are quite a few writers and illustrators, like Shaun Tan, who have built stellar careers upon the idea that picture books can be written for, indeed directed towards an older audience.  Of course, then there are these wonderfully creative people who manage to write for children, yet at the same time also address older audiences in ways that are nothing short of profound.  As a secondary teacher, when I come across these stories I always find a way to use them; either in my classroom or with staff.  Katherine Battersby’s latest picture book, Little Wing is one such book.  On the surface it is a charmingly illustrated picture book, aimed at pre-schoolers or junior primary students.  Indeed this is probably the way the most people will choose to use it.  However, when we delve beneath the surface we discover something with themes so universal that it not only speaks to adults but it serves as a tool that has the potential to transform that audience.

“On the smallest island, in the tallest tree, lived the world’s smartest animal.”  So begins Battersby in what is a deceptively simple tale about a bird, Little Wing, who, through his love of books and learning, becomes the smartest animal on the planet.  However, despite the great wealth of knowledge accessible at his fingertips, Little Wing fails to understand how he fits into the larger scheme of things.  Little Wing launches on a journey of self-discovery that takes him to a place beyond the wisdom stored inside books.  It is a place where he must discover on his own, through original and creative thought processes; the answer to who he actually is.

Battersby uses sparse, simple language in her telling of this story, a choice which makes this story accessible to young beginning readers.  However, it is the juxtaposition of the text alongside the delightful illustrations that really breathes life into Little Wing’s story.  Battersby uses a combination of media that includes watercolour, pencil and textiles along with scanned images to create a digital collage with an airy and whimsical feel.  I envisage that teachers will take inspiration from this and embrace the opportunity to explore this method in art lessons.

For teachers, the story of Little Wing reminds us that although the content of what we teach is important, our greatest imperative as educators is how we develop in our students skills that will lead to self-discovery and original thought.  Of course, when reading this story with my 4 year old daughter the message we shared was that learning is an exciting adventure, one that is life long and fun.  What a wonderful message to share with children at the very beginning of their learning journey!

Tanya Grech Welden

Mullet Town Cover

Most schools have that tricky English class; usually around year 10, often dominated by a group of rather disengaged boys for whom reading shares the same affection as teeth-pulling or bed-making.  Such a class presents a very real challenge, the lament of even the most dedicated educator.   Steven Herrick, with his uncanny ability to speak to the hearts of our disengaged students provides a real option for such classes.  As an added bonus he even delivers it in verse.  “Yes!” I can almost hear you shout, all your prayers have been answered.

Written entirely in verse, Another Night in Mullet Town, is a novel investigating the world of teenagers Jonah and Manx.  Living in the lakeside town of Turon, their lives are simple; hang out a little, fish a lot and expect to grow old living in one of the town’s dilapidated shacks. However, things are set to change.  The Property Developers and Real Estate Agents have moved in, setting upon the process of transforming the town into a haven for Sydneysiders dreaming of an idyllic getaway.  For Manx, son of the local servo owner, these new locals with their flashy houses, cars and cash are the antithesis of everything he despises; a direct challenge to his way of life.

Another Night in Mullet Town addresses a disenfranchised youth, who, bound by the ties of poverty, teeter on the verge of criminal activity.   With themes that explore the tragedy of family dysfunction and breakdown, identity, the highs of first love, along with the desolation of a future devoid of hope; Herrick’s novel will hold great appeal with students in the senior years of secondary school.  Used as a class text, teachers will embrace the opportunities to draw immediate parallels with other novels (SE Hinton’s The Outsiders, Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon) or film (The Breakfast Club).  A closer exploration of the novel’s verse structure will certainly yield strong opportunities for text production.

This is a deliciously woven tale told in tantalising language.   A gift for educators, it will speak to the realities of many of Australia’s youth.  Another Night in Mullet Town is a magnificent story for teens, and haters of Real Estate Agents, everywhere.

Tag Cloud