Partners in Slime by Belinda O’Keefe

For a long time slime was everywhere. It was the thing to make and kids were obsessed with it. The hype has passed but I still have heaps of kids, every week, asking for books about slime. It’s a fascinating substance for kids and there are so many different types. In Partners in Slime, Christchurch author, Belinda O’Keefe’s new book, friends Jake and Cooper create cool new slime that is in hot demand. However, when they add a new ingredient, things get out of hand.

An amazing new roller coaster, the Steel Beast, is opening in Jake and Cooper’s town in just over a month. They are desperate to ride it on opening day, but they need $110 each and their parents won’t give them the money. They need to make some fast cash but they can’t think of any good ideas. When Jake’s sister, Paige, takes his hair gel for making slime, Jake realises that slime is the key to making some easy money. If they give it their own unique name and market it right, they can sell heaps of it to the kids at school. After some experimentation, Gloopy Gloop is born. They have some early success with sales but Paige starts to sell a superior product and their sales drop rapidly. Jake and Cooper know they need something that will blow their competition away, and Cooper’s scientist uncle, Ivor, has just the solution. Their new products prove hugely popular, so to keep up with the demand, they add a secret ingredient. Adding this to their slime has unexpected consequences, and before they know it, things are seriously out of control. They need to find a solution, and fast.

Partners in Slime is a spectacular story filled with schemes, sibling rivalry, slime and silliness. It’s a story that is entertaining from beginning to end and you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. It reminds me of Paul Jennings’ stories, because there’s an element of weird and wacky, but it’s also really funny. I especially enjoyed the part where Dave the turtle is walking down the street, between the shady and sunny parts.

Belinda’s characters are very relatable for kids. Jake and Cooper are determined to make the money they need for their ticket for the Steel Beast. Just when you think things are looking up for Jake and Cooper though, something happens to bring them back down to earth. The sibling rivalry between Jake and Paige is really strong, and Jake will do anything to beat his sister. I enjoyed Uncle Ivor, because he’s just a little mad (I mean, who keeps a mysterious space rock in their house?).

Illustrator, Minky Stapleton, and cover designer, Erin Nicol, have created a slime-tastic cover that will grab readers’ attention. The cover oozes green slime, and the turtle with stuff stuck to his shell makes you curious about the story.

Partners in Slime is one of my top NZ reads this year and it will be easy to sell this book to kids. I love the ending, which certainly leaves the story open for more adventures with Jake and Cooper. It would be a fantastic read aloud, especially for Years 5/6. It is sure to hook the whole class and keep them begging to read another chapter.

Magnificent Mabel and the Egg and Spoon Race by Ruth Quayle and Julia Christians

Whether I’m looking for new and interesting books for the newly independent readers at my school or for books to read aloud to my 6-year-old daughter, I want a book that is going to be engaging. It’s got to have relatable characters, fun illustrations, and an eye-catching cover. Ruth Quayle and Julia Christians’ series, Magnificent Mabel, has all of these things and more. I read the first book in the series, just called Magnificent Mabel, to my daughter and we both immediately loved it. Mabel is a funny character who she really liked and I easily found the character’s voice. My daughter wanted me to get more Mabel stories, so thankfully they are being released pretty quickly. Magnificent Mabel and the Egg and Spoon Race is the latest in the series to be released here in NZ.

Like the other books in the series, Magnificent Mabel and the Egg and Spoon Race contains three short stories – the title story, Magnificent Mabel and the Class Play and Magnificent Mabel and the Dog Show.

Mabel is not a fan of sports day and things get even worse when she gets partnered with Edward Silitoe, a boy in her class who is always in a rush. Edward thinks that Mabel will ruin his chances of winning, but then comes the egg and spoon race, and Mabel is determined that no unhatched chicks will die because of her.

Mabel’s teacher is mad about acting so her class does a different play each term. Mabel loves acting, but she doesn’t like that some people (not her) get all the good parts. This term her class is doing a play about William Shakespeare and Mabel is very keen to be Shakespeare, especially because she would get to wear an interesting beard. Mabel is upset when she doesn’t get the part but she still finds a way to wear the beard.

Mabel thinks that dog shows are more fun than going on holiday. Her friend Lottie Clark goes to dog shows all the time, but Mabel has never been to one. Instead, her family drags her on holiday in the countryside. When Mabel discovers a dog show happening just down the road, her dad agrees to take her along. Mabel trains hard with her toy dog, Dermot, and when the day of the dog show arrives, she takes Dermot with her. Mabel and Dermot enter the dog agility competition, with surprising results.

I absolutely love the Magnificent Mabel series! Ruth Quayle has perfectly captured the voice of a 5 or 6 year old. Mabel is full of personality and has a view of the world that so many young readers will relate to. She gets fixated on certain things, like the Shakespeare beard, and can’t stop thinking about them. The humour is spot on, and both my daughter and I were chuckling our way through each of the stories. We couldn’t stop laughing reading the part where Mabel wears the beard everywhere!

Julia Christians has brought to life Mabel’s personality in her illustrations. She highlights how happy Mabel is and how much she likes to have fun. She also captures Mabel’s frustrations, especially when she has to do something that she doesn’t want to (like go on a boring holiday) or she doesn’t get what she wants (like a real dog of her own).

The Magnificent Mabel series is perfect for newly independent readers, as the stories are short but engaging and very relatable. They are also great to read aloud, either to a Year 1/2 class or to snuggle up and enjoy with your 5-7 year old. Magnificent Mabel and the Egg and Spoon Race is out now in NZ.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes by Ben Brooks

Ben Brooks is a surprising author. I say surprising because I never quite know what he is going to write next. His first book was Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different, a book like Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, with one-page stories about males who have achieved incredible things. He has also written two children’s fiction titles, The Impossible Boy and The Greatest Inventor, both of which are fantastic stories. Ben’s latest book, Not All Heroes Wear Capes, is an inspiring read that shows you how you can be a hero.

In this book Ben Brooks shows us ten things we can learn from ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Ben opens his book by defining a hero as ‘someone who wants to live in a better world and decides to do something about it.’ This book is full of people just like this and Ben shows readers the difference that they could make by taking small steps. Some of the people mentioned in this book are inspired by what they have read in books, others by what they have learnt at school, or just by the injustice they witness in their own homes. Ben shows us that dreams are important, that no act of kindness is too small, that every talent can be a superpower, and that we should stand up for what we believe in. We should discover everything that we can, but also share what we know with others. We should look for others who need our help, and if there’s something that you wish exists but doesn’t yet, then you should try and make it a reality.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes is a fascinating book that will inspire readers to make the world a better place. It is a positive book that makes you consider what small changes you could make that would make a big difference. Ben Brooks’ writing style is really engaging and he makes you want go out and do something extraordinary. As well as using lots of examples of real-life extraordinary people, Ben also makes the ideas relatable, so you can see how you can use them in your own life. Ben has included some great quotes from people throughout history, but there are plenty of pearls of wisdom in Ben’s writing too.

This is a nonfiction book that you want to read from cover-to-cover, rather than dipping in and out, and I found that I had read half the book before I even realised. It is the sort of book that you could use with Years 5-8 and plan a whole unit of work around it, thinking about the ways that you could make your community a better place.

One of the things I really like about this book is the way that Ben keeps coming back to the way that books can inspire people to do great things. I love his idea of dreams drifting in ‘through eyes and ears, like seeds looking for places to grow.’

Nigel Baines’ illustrations are the perfect match for the book and they break up the text nicely. Nigel has created cool, short comics to illustrate the stories of the extraordinary people who feature in the book. I especially like his illustration of Captain Sir Tom Moore giving the thumbs up.

Not All Heroes Wear Capes is a book that will inspire both kids and adults, and would be the perfect book for older children and their parents to share together.

Interview with Brian Conaghan

Brian Conaghan is the author of such award-winning books as The Bombs That Brought Us Together, We Come Apart (a verse novel co-authored with Sarah Crossan) and The Weight of a Thousand Feathers. Brian’s latest book, Cardboard Cowboys, is destined to become another award-winner. It’s an unforgettable read, with characters that stick with you long after you finish their story. You can read my review of Cardboard Cowboys here on the blog.

I caught up with Brian to ask about the importance of music in his stories, his characters and how he ensures readers connect with them.

– What inspired you to write Cardboard Cowboys?

I simply had the idea for this 12 year-old character, who evolved into Lenny. However, like all my books, my inspiration is always the same: find an engaging story with an interesting set of characters, chuck some obstacles in their way and tell their story in the most entertaining manner I can think of.

– Music plays an important role in the story, especially in the connections between people. It’s what Lenny’s Mum holds on to when Frankie goes away and what gives Lenny confidence. Does the music featured in the story hold some significance to you?

​Music plays a huge part of every book I write. I feel that it can provide an additional layer to certain characters; in many ways it galvanises Lenny and Bruce’s relationship. The music featured in the story is exactly the music my own mother was listening to when I was Lenny’s age so it’s hugely significant for me. Plus it still sounds amazing!

– Do you play music as you write to help you get in to the characters heads and set the tone for the story? If so, what did you listen to as you wrote Cardboard Cowboys?

When I want to capture a particular moment or tone within what I’m writing I tend to listen to music that corresponds to that mood. It helps to place me in that emotional space that is required. Music has been hugely important in my life for as long as I can remember, I always listen to it when I’m working. For the past few months it seems all I’ve been listening to is Vikingur Olafsson, Kevin Morby, Waxahatchee, Arab Strap and Mogwai…and always Bob Dylan.

– Lenny is a character that I immediately connected with. His voice sounds really authentic. Did he come to you fully formed or did you have to spend time fleshing his character out?

He came to me in many guises throughout the past few years, and his voice kept getting layered as these years trundled on. He is an amalgam of three things: my imagination, students I taught when I was a teacher and one of my closest school friends.

Cressida Cowell has said that ‘empathy is a vital skill, and books are the best, and most fun way to learn it.’ Cardboard Cowboys is a story that will teach readers a lot about empathy. How do you ensure that readers will connect with your characters and what they’re going through?

I always want my characters to be honest with how they are feeling, and how they might express themselves. Emotion manifests itself in many ways, be it laughter, sadness, silence, self-harm etc. Most of my characters over the course of my books have demonstrated such feelings and more. I think readers will always recognise snippets of my characters’ lived experiences, be it relationships with parents/peers or environmental.

– Lenny and Bruce are one of those fictional duos that are really memorable. Who are your favourite fictional duos?

​My favourite fictional duo, by a mile, is Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting For Godot. Beckett shows the possibilities of language through these two characters, and how dialogue functioned beyond anything I had ever read previously (and since). I know it’s essentially an absurdist piece yet the communication between the duo is so fluid and emotional, which is something I always try to aim for in my own work. Although, I’m certainly no Samuel Beckett. 

Pawcasso by Remy Lai

Have you ever told a little white lie that has snowballed into a huge lie? What starts off as you not correcting something false becomes a whole string of untruths that you can’t keep up with. This is the situation that Jo finds herself in in Remy Lai’s first graphic novel, Pawcasso.

Jo thinks that she’ll spend the summer bored out of her mind, until she spies a dog, with a basket in its mouth, stroll past her house. She follows the dog to the shopping circle in town and discovers that he is doing a spot of shopping. The dog visits some of the shops and buys the things on the list in its basket. When Jo follows the dog to the bookshop, called Dog Ears, she gets mistaken for the dog’s owner. She tries to correct them at first, but the thought of making new friends and getting free books tempts Jo, and she goes along with the lie. The kids from the art class at the bookshop call the dog Pawcasso, as he becomes their model, and the name sticks. Each Saturday, Pawcasso comes into town, and Jo waits for him to walk past. As the people of South Redhart fall in love with Pawcasso, Jo’s chihuahua-sized lie becomes Great Dane-sized. It becomes harder and harder to tell everyone the truth. Even when Pawcasso rolls in poo Jo can’t bear to lose him. When Pawcasso’s real owners show up in town one day, Jo’s lies unravel and she must explain the truth, even if it means losing her friends.

I love Pawcasso so much! It is the most adorable kid’s graphic novel ever and it will make you grin from ear to ear. Whether you’re a dog-lover or not, you can’t help loving Pawcasso. Sure, he loves to roll in poo, but he makes the lives of everyone he meets just a little bit brighter. Kids and adults alike can relate to Jo and her little lie getting out of control, and everyone will wish they had a Pawcasso in their life. As with her previous books, Remy captures the funny moments but also the anxiety, sadness and frustration of her characters.

I have loved each of Remy’s books, especially the comic sections of her stories, Pie in the Sky and Fly on the Wall. I was super excited when she announced she was creating a graphic novel. Pawcasso is every bit as wonderful as I hoped it would be. Remy’s artwork is outstanding! It is so colourful and vibrant, and her characters are full of emotion and personality. I love that Jo wears the same outfit throughout the story, but with different colour combinations. Remy and her colourist, Samantha Bennett, must have had a lot of fun choosing colours for Jo’s clothes. I love Jo’s character and the way that Remy shows her range of emotions throughout the story. I cracked up laughing at the illustration of her, with her face smooshed against her window, when she first sees Pawcasso. My favourite parts of the book were the wordless panels that just featured Pawcasso. These are the bits that perfectly capture Pawcasso’s personality, whether it be his head wrapped in a towel after a bath, rolling in poo at the park, or laying upside down on a beanbag, wagging his tail. Pawcasso is such a loveable goofball that people become smitten with him. I also love how, at the back of the book, Remy has drawn the people she wants to thank as dogs, cats and other creatures.

Remy has written the story and created the illustrations, but it is the whole team that has worked on the book that makes this graphic novel stand out. Samantha Bennett’s colouring makes the illustrations jump off the page, and Colleen AF Venable’s design work helps the story to flow and look good on the page. It’s great to see Allen and Unwin publishing more graphic novels from our part of the world too. Please sign Remy up for many, many more graphic novels.

Pawcasso is one of those graphic novels that will spread like wildfire between readers. I preordered multiple copies for my school library because I was that confident it would be a winner. I can’t wait for kids to meet Pawcasso. It is perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeier, Victoria Jamieson, and Kayla Miller.

My Elephant is Blue by Melinda Szymanik and Vasanti Unka

When a child is full of worries it can be tricky for them to process how they feel and explain it to those around them. This is where picture books that focus on mental health are hugely valuable. They can explain to a child how they are feeling, using words and images, and show them some ways that they can shake off that feeling and start to feel happy. Melinda Szymanik and Vasanti Unka’s latest picture book, My Elephant is Blue, is about a child and and the big, heavy feelings that take over their life.

The child in the story wakes up one day to find an elephant sitting on their chest. It’s so heavy that it is difficult for them to breath or talk. The elephant, called Blue, is very comfortable sitting on the child and doesn’t want to move. Mum and Dad are worried and do what they can to help, including reading lots of books about elephants and calling an elephant specialist. The child’s sister even tries to help push the elephant off, but nothing helps. Dad suggests that exercise might help, so the child and Blue go for a walk around the block. This is just the start of getting the elephant to move, and with some nice family time, Blue starts to change colour. Together, they discover that they quite like other colours too.

My Elephant is Blue is a magnificent picture book about mental health, that is bursting with empathy and positivity. This is the kind of book that every family should have on their bookshelves, for those days when anyone feels a little blue. We all have those days and it’s good to remind ourselves that they don’t last, and that by doing things we enjoy, we can have a brighter day. This is a book that is great for so many ages, whether you’re reading it to preschoolers or intermediate-age children. The concept is simple enough for younger children to understand, but it will also resonate with older children (and adults).

Vasanti Unka’s illustrations are delightful. For most of the book her illustrations are quite subtle and sparse, but as the child starts to become happier, the illustrations are busier, brighter and more colourful. They become more full of life, especially on the page with the picnic. Vasanti captures the emotions of the child perfectly, using facial expressions that the youngest readers will understand.

One of my favourite things about this book is that the child is gender neutral. Melinda hasn’t used any pronouns or given the child a name, and Vasanti has drawn them so that they could be any gender. This makes the story really accessible to all children. I want to thank Melinda and Vasanti hugely for this.

Cat Taylor has done a wonderful job of the design, especially the front cover. Blue the elephant has been raised on the front and back covers, so you can feel the groves and bumps of his skin. This little touch makes the book really tactile, and I love running my hands over it. You just know that kids will love this too.

My Elephant is Blue is a must-have for schools and families. It will create some good conversations and help children to understand their emotions. It will also give them some strategies to try when they are feeling blue. It will help children to become more empathetic, as it will help them to understand how others feel.

My Elephant is Blue is due for release in NZ on Monday 17 May.

Cardboard Cowboys by Brian Conaghan

Cardboard Cowboys is one of those books that you want to keep reading, so that you can find out how the story ends, but you desperately don’t want the book to end and have to say goodbye to the characters. I knew, as soon as I read the blurb for this book, that I would love it, but I underestimated how much it would work its way into my head and heart.

Lenny is 12 and has just stated big school. He hates almost every minute of it because he is bullied because of his size. Lenny hates his body and the way that he gets treated because of it. He doesn’t get much attention at home and he thinks that his parents hate him, because of what he did. His brother, Frankie, was sent away as a result and his mother is struggling to deal with this. Lenny’s father is a lorry driver, so he is often away for long periods of time. With things the way they are at home and at school, Lenny often skips school and goes to his bench beside the canal. When he throws his Irn Bru can into the canal one day he meets Bruce, an old guy in a red bobble hat who lives in a cardboard house beside the canal. Lenny is intrigued by Bruce and he returns to the bench more often to talk with him. Bruce is the only person in Lenny’s life who will listen to him and Lenny finds himself opening up about his life and what happened to Frankie. Lenny knows that the only way to make things right is to go on a road trip to talk to his brother. Lenny can’t tell his parents about his plans so he has to convince Bruce to come with him. First though, they’ll have to earn some money to help them get the 177.3 miles to Frankie. Lenny isn’t even sure that Frankie will want to see him, but he has to try.

Cardboard Cowboys is an incredible, unforgettable story about two unlikely friends and the bond that grows between them. I loved every minute that I spent with Lenny and Bruce, whether it was watching them busking together or opening up to each other. Brian portrays two male characters, of completely different ages, dealing with complex emotions, whether it be guilt, shame or love. This is a story that helps you become a better person because you can’t help but feel empathy for these characters. You worry for Lenny and the guilt that he holds on to, and wonder what has happened in Bruce’s life that means he now lives in a cardboard house. Both Lenny and Bruce are complex characters, and Brian drip-feeds us details about them throughout the story. What is it that has happened to Lenny’s brother, Frankie, that means he isn’t at home anymore? And where has he gone away to? Why is Bruce living by the canal and where does he get his fancy clothes from? All these questions make you want to keep reading to get answers.

I love Lenny and Bruce’s friendship and the way that Brian addresses the strangeness of their relationship. They get on like a house on fire and have some great banter. In Bruce, Lenny finds someone that understands him, but also someone who just lets him talk. Lenny knows that Bruce will listen and offer advice, unlike his parents who don’t talk about their problems. Bruce sees the good inside Lenny and tries to bring it out. Bruce also does what he can to help Lenny out, including pretending to be his dad at an interview at his school. I loved watching their relationship develop throughout the story.

Music plays an important part in the story too, especially in connecting people. Lenny’s Mum clutches on to her favourite song and plays it on repeat after Reggie goes away. Thanks to Brian I now have Billie Jo Spears’ song ‘Blanket on the Ground’ on repeat in my head as I write this. Lenny and Bruce share a love of country music and go busking together to earn the money for their road trip. While they perform they comfort others with their music.

Lenny and Bruce are going to be hanging out in my head for a long time. Cardboard Cowboys is a book that I’ll be recommending to anyone who wants to listen. I highly recommend it as a read aloud or class novel for Years 7-9.

Wow in the World: The how and wow of the human body by Mindy Thomas and Guy Raz, illustrated by Jack Teagle

I love children’s nonfiction books that present their information in a fun and fresh way. These are the books that I know will inspire kids to learn about something new. It might be the design of the book, that breaks the information in to small chunks, or the format in which the authors present the information. Wow in the World: the how and wow of the human body, by podcast hosts Mindy Thomas and Guy Raz, is one of these great nonfiction books. It is sure to teach kids heaps of interesting facts about the human body and have them laughing out loud while they read.

My eyes were drawn towards this book in my local bookshop, with its bright yellow cover, the title exploding off the front and the cartoon images of the authors. As soon as I picked it up and flicked through it, I knew I needed it for my school library. It’s the most visually appealing book about the human body that I’ve seen and it looks funny. This makes it a great book for dipping in to as you could just pick a section that you’re interested in. I started reading from the start and just kept on reading, because it’s so interesting and entertaining.

Like all human body books, this one is split in to different sections. There’s a welcome to your body section, where Mindy and Guy tell you the different ways you could experience this book (read it out of order and share interesting facts with your friends and family) and things you shouldn’t do with this book (barf over it when you read the gross parts). We then go on a tour of the human body, including the stuff on the outside (like hair, skin and nails) and the stuff on the inside (like the skeleton, heart and digestive system). Each section is jam-packed with info about how each part works and why it’s important. That is accompanied by Jack Teagle’s diagrams, comics and other visual gags that will make you chuckle. There are also heaps of Fact Snacks, quizzes and Bonus Body sections. The Fact Snacks are quick facts that are easy to remember and share with your friends and family.

This is one of the coolest children’s nonfiction books ever! I love that it is so visual, because this makes it both super fun and very re-readable. There are lots of comics throughout the book, like the Body Parts Awards and Muscle Mania, which will make this book appealing to those kids who love comics and graphic novels. The Bonus Body sections are hilarious! They tell you about the body parts you (probably) don’t need and all about your butt. There’s a good glossary and index at the back of the book, along with a bibliography, and books and websites for recommended reading. The book is based on a podcast by the authors, so there are also QR codes linking to each episode of Wow in the World.

Wow in the World: the how and wow of the human body is a must-have for all primary and intermediate school libraries and would make a great gift for inquisitive 8-12 year olds.

Skydragon #2: Fly Free by Anh Do

A new book by Anh Do is like Christmas in my library. The kids are always excited, whether it’s a new Hot Dog, a Ninja Kid or a Wolf Girl. It has been especially his Wolf Girl series that has hooked the kids at my school, with one teacher reading aloud the first four books to her class last year. That same teacher decided to try Anh’s latest series, Skydragon, with her class this year and they are hooked on this series now. Having just read the first book myself, I can see why. Anh Do certainly knows how to hook readers – lots of action, tension and cliff-hanger endings. I didn’t expect to enjoy this series as much as I did but book I was at the end of the book before I knew it. Luckily it wasn’t too long to wait until book two, Fly Free, which releases this week.

Fly Free picks up straight after the end of book one, so you’re thrown right back into the action again. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry, and Agent Ferris is REALLY angry! Skydragon has evaded him and the National Service, but he’s determined to track her down. Readers are allowed a minute to catch their breath, before Amber is running for her life and trying to hide from the agents. After falling from a tree, Amber injures her ankle, but luckily her insect friends have her back. Amber can’t shake the thought that Firefighter is someone she knows, and she returns to her adopted family in search of answers. It isn’t long though before she is on the run again. While the National Service are tracking down Amber, Reggie (also known as the Firefighter) is being forced to carry out dubious missions for Agent Ferris. Skydragon and Firefighter’s paths cross but will they discover the truth about each other?

Fly Free keeps you on the edge of your seat, wondering whether Amber and her insect friends will defeat the bad guys. The story jumps between Amber and Reggie, so we get their different perspectives. The pace of the story is swift, so young readers certainly won’t get bored.

James Hart’s illustrations are a really important part of what makes this series so engaging and appealing. His illustrations are on just about every page and show readers how epic Amber’s powers are. James and the design team have done a fantastic job on the cover for Fly Free too. It will certainly jump off the shelf! I especially love the foil used for the insect wings.

I have kids queuing up to get their hands on Fly Free and I know they won’t be disappointed. This book has another cliffhanger ending, which leaves you desperate for book 3!