Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Posts tagged ‘University of Queensland Press’

Book Review: “Becoming Aurora”, by Elizabeth Kasmer, UQP (2016)

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

Book Review: “My Sister is a Superhero” by Damon Young illustrated by Peter Carnavas, University of Queensland Press (2016)


My Sister is a Superhero, arrived as an unexpected surprise on my doorstep on a hot, January day a few weeks ago. With three children on school holidays, and a mother on the verge of being ‘over it’, it was a welcome gift that couldn’t have been more perfect. “Here,” I said thrusting the package into the hands of my 12 year old daughter, “Go and read this with your sister. Tell me what you think.”
“What did you think?” I asked them ten minutes later. “Awesome,” replied the 12 year old. “My sister is a superhero!” echoed the 4 year old. “Can we read it again?”

With the book receiving top marks from its intended audience I was keen to read it myself and gauge how it might be useful as a resource for teachers.

Thematically, the story is a simple one that celebrates the diversity of sisters, with a general aim of fostering positive relationships between siblings. It would be a wonderful story for younger siblings to read or, alternately, a fantastic story for older sisters with a view to generating discussion about the responsibilities attached to this role.
Pitched at younger readers, My Sister is a Superhero is perfect for use in a variety of early learning settings and within the junior primary classroom. With a strong focus upon family it works well for sharing in the home. The simple language is accessible for even the youngest of children, while beginning readers will find enough challenge to be extended without being overwhelmed. The narrative makes use of simple alliterative language (repetition of s, d, p, c, t predominate) and the telling encourages participation, driven by a clear pattern and rhythm that is only broken on the last page. As an adult I appreciated the clever play with language that created vivid images (bench pressing trolls, chocolate cake digging dwarves), while bringing to life the diversity of activities undertaken by sisters who are all united by their shared brilliance.

I was captivated with Carnavas’ delightful illustrations rendered in primary colours in calming watercolour. The use of white space provides an excellent balance, complementing the text without adding unnecessary busyness to the page. My 4 year old had lots of fun finding the frog, koala and chicken scattered throughout the story. Of special note are the delightful sepia coloured illustrations found on the inside page of both front and back covers.

My Sister is a Superhero is the third book in a series of books celebrating family (My Nana is a Ninja and My Pop is a Pirate) . This, along with other books in the series will provide a perfect segue into discussions about family structures and diversity. It is a light, entertaining read that only improves with re-reading whilst fostering a love of language in young readers.

Teachers notes, based on the National Curriculum, are available here.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Mister Cassowary” by Samantha Wheeler, University of Queensland Press (2015)

mister-cassowaryA year after his Grandad’s death, Flynn travels with his father to Mission Beach on an assignment to prepare the family banana plantation for sale.  Understandably, Flynn anticipates that the trip will be dominated by the mundane chores of cleaning and repairing.  Understandably, he is taken aback when things get a lot more interesting when he happens across a pair of cassowary chicks and meets local girl Abby.  As Flynn quickly learns, the discovery of the cassowaries raises more questions than answers with the young boy keen to unravel the mystery of his Grandad’s death, his father’s anxiety and how this is all related to these unusual prehistoric birds.

With environmental studies top of the National Curriculum agenda, this text is a perfect choice for complementing or introducing the topic of endangered species.  With a manageable length and short snappy chapters, Mister Cassowary would be ideal as a shared class text for close analysis, or add on filler when read by the teacher.  The text itself provides a valuable segue-way into discussing general issues related to endangered species, whilst acting as a tangible case study, or model, for older students to undertake their own research on this or other animals at risk.  I was also pleased to note the inclusion of supplementary facts at the end of the task, along with websites and organisations to support extension activities.

Mister Cassowary is written in clear language and should be easily accessible and engaging by students ready to move on to more challenging chapter books.  Flynn and Abby are appealingly drawn characters with a wonderful natural inquisitiveness that mirrors many of the children in this age group.  I was less taken by the adult characters, some of whom I felt were a little one dimensional with dialogue that felt somewhat stilted.

Perfect for children in the Primary Years and edging into the lower end of the Middle Years, Mister Cassowary is a Heaven-sent gift for teachers wanting to teach across a range of curriculum areas and inspire the next generation to embrace an active role as stewards of this planet.  A wonderful novel that will surely become a favourite in schools by teachers, students and animal advocates alike.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “On Track” by Kathryn Apel, 2015, University of Queensland Press

ApelI am not often presented with verse-novels to review, and this is a shame since many teachers appreciate the opportunity to share them with students as a means to broaden their understanding of poetry and its relevance today.  Certainly, Steven Herrick’s scintillating verse-novel Lonesome Howl is appreciated at my school by senior students and teachers alike, who relish his economical use of language and vivid description.  Kathryn Apel’s verse-novel On Track addresses this same need albeit for a slightly younger audience.

Told in a switching narrative style, On Track tells the story of brothers Shaun and Toby.    Shaun, the athletic and academically gifted older brother, finds learning and life effortless.  Toby, on the other hand, is a struggler.  Clumsy and awkward, his tussles, both kinaesthetically and academically, place him at a huge social disadvantage at school.  Unlike his brother, whose attitude towards life and personal experience suggest that he has no reason to expect failure, Toby experiences lowered self-esteem.  His diagnosis with Dyspraxia, a learning disability that impedes gross and fine motor skills, means that he becomes the recipient of a series of accommodations to assist his learning; a computer and the provision of special coaching in athletics, specifically running.

From the outset, Apel’s novel, with its strong emphasis upon sport, is guaranteed to hold strong appeal with boys in the middle years from grades 6-9.  The frugal use of language (and ultimately length) will ensure that text it is an accessible choice for class and individual study.  Thematically, the investigation of disability, difference and the necessary requirement for curriculum differentiation, provides an appropriate segue into a broader discussion of disability and disadvantage in society.  Similarly, students will relate to other themes that include sibling rivalry, the pursuit of sporting excellence and, related to this, the struggle against self-doubt.  The novel will pair quite well with other novels with the theme of sport, Cath Crowley’s The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain, or, for a closer focus on the theme of disability, Wonder by R.J Palacio, or Cecily Anne Paterson’s Invisible.

Fast Track is a highly immersive and fast paced verse novel that is guaranteed to have middle-school students cheering as they turn each page.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Just a Queen”, Jane Caro (2015), University of Queensland Press

just a queenI have a special passion for Historical Fiction so it probably goes without saying, but I jumped (or more likely did a couple of virtual cartwheels) at the opportunity to get my hands on Jane Caro’s new novel Just a Queen.  As the sequel to Caro’s novel Just a Girl, this book provides an intimate insight into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  I haven’t read the first book and although I’m keen to read it retrospectively, it is important to note that this didn’t make any difference as the book operates well as a stand-alone text.

Overall I found this to be an enticing package.  I found the cover design appealing, striking the perfect balance between identifying the historical period whilst maintaining enough savviness to entice a youthful audience. I also found the gold decorative motif that backed the front and rear covers a delightful inclusion, serving as a suitable prelude for what was to follow.

Caro’s thoughtful prose consistently manages to engage her audience by being accessible yet maintaining a sense of faithfulness to the period explored.  The choice of first person narration, created a potent intimacy with the protagonist, allowing for an authentic and believable psychological portrait of Elizabeth to be drawn.  I did find the time shifts a little irksome at times.  Certainly, younger readers may find this a deterrent, although it added a narrative complexity that could be interesting to investigate with students in higher level English classes.

Just a Queen, was pitched to me as a Young Adult/Historical Fiction novel.  While I won’t argue with the latter, it became apparent to me early on, that this is a book which fails to conform to traditional notions of YA.  The story is narrated by rather distraught and significantly aged Elizabeth I, as a series of flashbacks occurring in the latter part of her reign.  The flashbacks, precipitated by the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, primarily hark back to a much younger Elizabeth, albeit one who is well into her twenties.  It did not take me too long to realise that the lack of an adolescent protagonist place this book out of YA and firmly into mainstream Adult Historical. Similarly, since the flashbacks involve mature reflection from that of an aging woman and, while not necessarily a criticism, I did wonder if a mainstream YA audience may perceive this as a little too preachy, or, even disregard the perspective as being irrelevant.  However, perhaps this is a little pedantic because Caro’s story is undoubtedly exquisitely crafted, while possessing a qualities that could easily make it an inspiring text to explore as a guided text with Senior English students or as an extension text in the Senior History classroom.Jane-Caro-photo-web

Jane Caro has managed to breathe new life into what is a well-trodden topic by novelists and filmmakers.  She is to be commended for her depiction of an Elizabeth who is not only flesh and blood, but whose portrayal will undoubtedly resonate with contemporary women, for whom the challenge of living in a man’s world, is as real today as it was in the Elizabethan world.

Tanya Grech Welden


Boomerang Book Winners for the Year 2014

Claire ZornI love books so much that it is nearly impossible for me to choose favourites.  However, I for the purposes of this blog (and because it may be useful for my audience of teachers and students) I am going to try very hard to play favourites.  Early January each year I plan to evaluate the books from the previous year, identifying those that I have found most enjoyable and, more importantly, the ones that are most useful in terms of their educational merit in the classroom.  I am going to call these the “Boomerang Awards”, since these are the titles which I am most likely to go back to time and time again as a teacher.

Overall “Boomerang Book of the Year 2014”

Without a doubt the best book I read in 2014 was an awesome title published by University of Queensland Press.  The Protected, written by Aussie author Claire Zorn is a gorgeous contemporary set in the rural setting of the Blue Mountains.  It tells the story Hannah, who struggles to  survive in the aftermath of her older sister’s death.  There is nothing I didn’t like about this story and if there ever was a book I’d be pleading to have in a class set,  it is this one.  A finely crafted story that is as beautiful as it is poignant, The Protected is suited to students in grade 9-10 for shared reading or, for older middle school students and senior school students through to year 12.

Runner-Up “Boomerang Book of the Year 2014”

Another book that I thoroughly appreciated was Zana Fraillon’s No Stars to Wish On.  Published by Allen & Unwin in 2014.No Stars to Wish On Fraillon’s story is told through the innocent eyes of 6 year old Jack, who is forcibly “removed” from his family and forced into a foster home as a Ward of the State.  In gorgeous prose we follow his mistreatment at the hands of the cruel Sisters and dare to hope that he will finally reunite with his family.  No Stars to Wish Upon is a uniquely Australian story that explores a dark episode in our history.  It is deceptively simple, however, the depths of its themes (and the darkness of the content) place it firmly within the Middle years.  I would have no hesitation in using it at year 9 as a shared text, for senior students in an independent reading program,  or as an extension text for independent reading by advanced readers in the latter part of primary school.

“Boomerang Best Series of the Year 2014”

These Broken StarsWith so many series appearing on book shelves across the nation (and “virtually” across the world), I felt it might be useful to highlight the one I  found most captivating for the year of 2014.  The Starbound Trilogy, written by Aussie author Amie Kaufman and American Meagan Spooner secures the title this year.  These Broken Stars and This Shattered World explore the Science Fiction universe where all is not as it first seems.  Where many series tend to follow the same protagonist for each episode, The Starbound This Shattered WorldTrilogy operates within the same world but with a different setting and different protagonist (the previous key characters seem to come back for cameo roles only).  For this alone I applaud the series, since each book will work as a stand alone book too!!!  I would not use this series as a class text (it is too long), however it is something to  share with your avid readers who are always looking for the next big thing.  This is it, bring on the film production!

That’s it for 2014.  If you like what you read please go back and read my longer reviews via the hyperlinks above.

by Tanya Grech Welden

“The Protected” by Claire Zorn, University of Queensland Press (2014)

Claire Zorn

I have three months left to call Katie my older sister.  Then the gap will close and I will pass her.  I will get older.  But Katie will always be fifteen, eleven months and twenty-one days old.  She will always have a nose piercing and a long curly knot of dark hair.  She will always think The Cure is the greatest band of all time.  She will always have a red band of sunburn on her lower back from our last beach holiday.

Forever. (p.1)

Every now and then you pick up a book and from the very first sentence you tingle.  Claire Zorn’s new book “The Protected” did just that and more.  Zorn reminded me what it was like to be an adolescent.  Through her eyes I was taken back to my own first day of high school.  I felt again the hopeful anticipation, the confusion and the pain of rejection.   When we meet 15 year old Hannah she is living a nightmare in the aftermath of her sister Katie’s tragic death.  Her parents, understandably are drowning in a sea of depression and despair and are consequently absent from her emotionally.  Instead, she is passed from one psychologist to another in an effort to help her to come to terms with the unthinkable.  However, Hannah’s problems run even deeper than first appears.  Hannah, the victim of particularly insidious bullying, was broken long before this.  Alienated at school and living in a mausoleum to her sister, a tiny glimmer of hope appears in the form of the new boy at school Josh, leaving Hannah to decide if she can trust him.

Beautifully crafted, Zorn’s prose shimmers as she takes her reader on a journey to a very dark place.  This text is appropriate for shared study with students in year 9 or 10, although teachers need to proceed with caution as this novel will undoubtedly evoke a strong emotional response from many students.  However, there is a richness of discussion to be had if you are brave enough to take it on.  “The Protected” explores a range of themes including the death of a young person and the impact on families and communities, the complexity of sibling relationships, the volatility of friendships and the devastating and long lasting psychological impact of bullying.

As a secondary teacher for 15 years I have taught a lot of Hannahs. I have been the one there to pick up the pieces and try to fight the war in a battle always waged just outside my earshot and often outside my control.  Unfortunately, I have also taught too many Katies; brilliant and vivacious souls that are taken from this earth too soon only to leave families and the broader community bewildered and asking why?  Some books ache, and yet “The Protected” did more than ache, it ground my heart to dust.  An outstanding work of fiction that deserves to be shared profusely and talked about.

Reviewed by Tanya Grech Welden

**UQP provided me with a free review copy for this book.  I have otherwise not been paid for any review or endorsement of this book and my opinions reflect my own unbiased view.***

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