One Year at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks

I absolutely love Faith Erin Hicks’ art so I will read anything that she has illustrated. When Faith writes the story as well as illustrating it I know that it will be an absolute winner. Her Nameless City Trilogy are some of my favourite children’s graphic novels. One Year at Ellsmere is Faith’s latest graphic novel but also one of her earliest. She has redrawn all of her original illustrations and they look amazing! Open the covers and step inside this boarding school that is hiding a dark past.

Juniper is the first scholarship student to attend the prestigious Ellsmere Academy, a boarding school for girls. As the only student who doesn’t come from a wealthy family Juniper is already on the outside. It’s not long before she finds herself the target of queen bee, Emily. Juniper becomes friends with her roommate, Cassie, who helps her navigate life at Ellsmere. While working on their assignment near the forest they see a strange creature moving through the trees. Cassie tells Juniper the story of the family who originally lived at Ellsmere and the mysterious disappearance of the two brothers. Cassie explains that there is something in the forest ‘that hates bad people.’ Emily continues to harass and intimidate Juniper and when Cassie attempts to help her friend, Emily corners her in the forest and threatens her. However, the creature in the forest is watching.

I absolutely loved One Year at Ellsmere! It’s a story about family, friends, bullies, anger and a mystical creature watching over it all. Told over the course of twelve chapters (or months) we experience the ups and downs of Juniper’s year at Ellsmere. As well as the confrontations with Emily that see Juniper almost expelled there are funny moments, like building a snowman or Juniper trying to paint a self-portrait.

Faith’s artwork is so amazing in this book! The colour palette is dark, with lots of brown and green (their uniforms and the style of the old building) but her characters jump off the page. Faith’s style is so distinctive (it’s changed quite a lot over the years, looking back at the original comic). I especially love the way that Cassie’s big doe eyes shine and sparkle. My favourite spreads in the book are those where Cassie is telling the story of Lord Ellsmere and his family. I love the way that the images are framed and give different perspectives of characters on one spread. Shelli Paroline has done a stellar job of colouring the book too (especially when you consider how many school skirts she’s had to colour!). It was also fascinating to see Faith’s illustration process at the back of the book.

I know my senior kids are going to devour One Year at Ellsmere. It’s a great addition to any intermediate and high school graphic novel collection (but also suitable for keen Year 5/6 readers).

Avis and the Promise of Dragons by Heather McQuillan

Dragons are creatures of myth, but imagine if there was a dragon in your neighbourhood. This is exactly what Avis discovers when she takes a job as a pet-sitter for the local ‘witch.’ Heather McQuillan introduces us to Avis and Humbert the dragon in her latest book, Avis and the Promise of Dragons.

Avis is having a hard time at home and school. The school bully, Drake, is making her miserable and her dad and brother have changed since her mum left and shacked up with an ex-All Black. A ray of light appears in her life just when she needs it – Dr Malinda Childe. Avis dreams of working with animals and Dr Malinda offers her a job as her pet-sitter. These are no ordinary pets though. These pets are special and unusual and Avis makes a promise to keep them a secret. This isn’t the only promise that she will make over the course of a weekend and soon Avis finds herself bonded to mythical creature. A mythical creature that just happens to love chocolate. If Avis is to keep her promises she will need to shake her brother and father out of their funk because she is going to need their help.

Avis and the Promise of Dragons is a magical adventure that you want to gobble down, like a dragon with a block of chocolate. Heather takes a story of a family who have fallen apart and throws a mischievous dragon into the mix. There is lots packed into the story, from family issues and bullying to conservation and the impact of the media. Avis’ Dad is a broken man after Avis’ Mum walked out on her family to start a new life with ex-All Black Aaron Miller. He takes little notice of what is happening with his kids, instead wallowing in his self-pity. Avis’ brother Bruno hides away in his room constantly, eating rubbish food and just generally being unpleasant. Avis is the only one in the family who is showing any responsibility, but she is also bearing the brunt of Drake the bully’s torment. The pet-sitting job for Dr Malinda gives her something positive in her life. The dragon coming in to her life helps to mend her family too.

Heather will make you wish you had a dragon all of your own. I really liked Heather’s take on the dragon myth and how her little dragon evolved. This dragon may love chocolate but but he’s certainly not sweet. Humbert is a wild creature who could burn you if you don’t keep your promises. He needs more food than just chocolate and will gobble up a dove or twenty when he’s hungry.

I loved Avis and the Promise of Dragons. It would make a fantastic read aloud for Years 5/6 as it will have the kids hanging on every word.

Heather McQuillian has just been announced as the University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Children’s Writer in Residence Fellow for 2021. Congratulations Heather! I look forward to reading what you create during your time in Dunedin.

Mr. Wolf’s Class: Field Trip by Aron Nels Steinke

Aron Nels Steinke’s Mr Wolf’s Class series of graphic novels have been hugely popular with the kids at my school. With their quirky cast of characters, relatable storylines and awesome art, it’s not hard to see why kids love them. I always look forward to another story of loveable Mr. Wolf and the antics of his class. The latest book in the series, Field Trip, has just been released by Scholastic’s Graphix imprint and I think this is the best book yet.

Mr. Wolf’s class are going on an overnight field trip in the mountains. They get to sleep in log cabins, come up with camp names, build huts and see things they’ve never seen before. Before they even get to camp though, Randy and Aziza have a falling out, which leads to some awkward moments on camp. Competition with another class staying at the camp leads to new friends, but Randy and Aziza must learn to work through their argument too. There is so much to do, see and learn outside the classroom.

In Field Trip, Aron throws his characters into a completely different environment and we see them thriving in the outdoors. There is plenty for both kids and adults to enjoy in this story. Kids will bring their own experiences of field trips to the story and relate to the good and bad that happens. There are plenty of laughs too, like the kids staying up late talking and farting just when everything is quiet. As an adult I really love seeing how Mr Wolf copes with everything that comes his way. His thought bubbles are especially hilarious as he’s often thinking something different than what he’s saying to the kids.

I really like the way that Aron uses lots of visual storytelling. There are several parts of the story where there is little or no text, letting the reader interpret what is happening in the story through the illustrations. I especially like the parts where Aron shows the kids all doing different camp activities, almost like a little montage.

There are a few cool references dotted through the story for readers to pick up too. Randy and Aziza are obsessed with Hazelton the Musical (a nod to Hamilton). The other reference I really liked was Fawn reading the Sky World series, a series of books that she says are all being adapted into graphic novels (a nod to Tui T. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series).

If you’re new to Mr. Wolf’s Class this is a great introduction to the series. You’ll want to go back and read all of the others in the series.

Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm

I read Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm way back in Level 4 Lockdown but I’ve been reminded of it a couple of times lately. It was just what I needed to help me get away from pandemics. Alastair rocketed me into deep space with this mystery that had me on the edge of my seat.

Orion Lost is a twisty, nail-biting space adventure that will hook kids on sci-fi. I loved every minute of it!

The ship Orion is travelling from Earth to a new home on Eos Five. The ship has to make a series of Jumps through space time to shorten their travel time and when these jumps happen everyone is put to Sleep and woken after the Jump. The human crew aren’t the only ones in the depths of space – there are the mysterious alien race, the Videshi, and the vicious Scrapers, space pirates who will rip a ship apart to scrap it. When danger lurks the ship’s crew and passengers are all sent to Sleep, but when Beth and her classmates are the only ones woken it is up to the kids to run the ship and try to figure out what went wrong. As they look for answers they discover that someone has been lying to them.

I hope Alastair Chisholm has more adventures planned for the Orion crew because I’m eager for more.

Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep by Victoria Cleal and Isobel Joy Te Aho-White

The Colossal Squid has long been one of Te Papa’s main attractions, especially for young children. Now, thanks to Victoria Cleal, Isobel Joy Te Aho-White and Te Papa Press we now have a wonderful children’s nonfiction book all about this creature.

Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep takes us on a journey with Whiti, from an ant-sized egg under the ice of Antarctica to the dark depths of the ocean, from the hunted to the hunter, finding a mate and having babies of its own, and finally to a carcass that feeds the wildlife of the Antarctic. Along the way we learn about the colossal squid’s bioluminescent karu (eyes), its hooked tentacles, its beak and its doughnut brain. We also learn about other creatures in the Ross Sea, including the parāoa (sperm whale), the dumbo octopus, the snailfish, and Kākahi (killer whales). New Zealand’s role as kaitiaki (guardians) of Antaractica is also explained.

Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep is a fantastic exploration of this incredible creature that has fascinated so many people. The format of the book, with small chunks of information, a conversational text and stunning illustrations make this a nonfiction book for readers of all ages. Readers can follow the story of Whiti’s life, learning about the squid’s life cycle and the environment in which it lives, while also discovering more about how the squid came to be on display in Te Papa. The double page spreads that fold out in several places in the book make this book feel extra special. I know that children are going to love discovering these and taking in the scenes. Isobel’s illustrations bring Whiti to life, with detailed diagrams showing us the various parts of the squid. I especially love the image of Whiti’s waru shining out in the depths of the ocean.

One of my favourite aspects of this book is the way that te reo Māori and te ao Māori have been woven into both the text and illustrations. Victoria explains that ika means fish at the start of the book and continues to just use ‘ika’ throughout the book. She does the same with ngū (squid), wheke (octopus) and other te reo Māori words. I love this because it helps those words to become part of your vocabulary. The importance of us being kaitiaki of the moana shines through in this book too. A koru motif follows Whiti as it travels through the book, having a similar appearance to Whiti’s arms and tentacles.

Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep is a must-have for all school libraries and would make a wonderful gift for any children who are fascinated with wildlife. It is one of the best New Zealand nonfiction books for children this year.

Pea, Bee and Jay series by Brian “Smitty” Smith

Three unlikely friends become besties in Brian “Smitty” Smith’s new graphic novel series for younger readers, Pea, Bee and Jay.

The first two books in the series have been released simultaneously (I love it when publishers do this, so thanks Harper Alley!) so we get a double dose of this funny team. In Pea, Bee and Jay: Stuck Together these three first meet. Pea lives on his farm and he loves to roll. When a mean strawberry dares him to roll all the way to the big tree, Pea knows that he can do it. Unfortunately it’s a lot further away than he thought and then a storm strikes, bouncing him off course. He bounces right into a bee named Bee, who is hiding from her responsibilities, and a bird called Jay, who doesn’t know how to fly. These three unlikely friends band together to help Pea find his way home.

In the second book, Pea, Bee and Jay: Wannabees, Bee would rather play with her new friends than perform her queenly duties. When she leaves the hive to see her friends a coup takes place and Lenny declares himself Queen of the hive. Pea and Jay must disguise themselves as bees and help Bee infiltrate the hive and get back what is rightly hers. Add in some daring acrobatics and a vegetable dispute and you have a seriously funny adventure.

Pea, Bee and Jay is a series that constantly cracks me up. Each book is full of laughs and super-silly puns. The argument between the corn and the potatoes in Wannabees had me cackling with laughter (it’s a graphic novel that adults will appreciate as much as the kids). Coming in at just over 60 pages each, they’re short and snappy, and I just know that kids (especially boys) are going to read them over and over again. I’m sure it won’t be long until I’ll be hearing fruit and vegetable puns in my school library. The illustrations are super cute and not highly detailed which makes them especially great for younger readers.

These first two books are the start of a series that is just going to keep getting better and better. I know my kids will be begging me to get the next ones as soon as they’re released. These are a must-buy for school library collections as I guarantee they will fly off the shelves. They’re a great read-alike for James Burke’s Bird and Squirrel series.

Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea by Tania Roxborogh

Kids love reading about myths and legends. Greek myths and legends are always popular with kids and authors like Rick Riordan have hooked kids on mythology. Tamariki in Aotearoa grow up reading and hearing stories of Māori mythology, but you’ve never seen them like this before. T. K. Roxborogh has just released her latest book with Huia, Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea, that brings the Māori gods to life. I’m certain that this book will do the same for Māori mythology as Percy Jackson did for Greek mythology. You’ll want to clear a few hours though because once you start Charlie Tangaroa you won’t want to stop.

Charlie has grown up not knowing much about his father who disappeared at sea when he was younger. He does know that he feels at home in water though. He lives with his mum, his brother and his grandfather in Tolaga Bay. While exploring the beach one day Charlie and Robbie find what they believe is a mermaid. They rescue her and take her home, and Charlie discovers that he can communicate with her. Pō-nuia is a ponaturi, a sea goblin, who is trying to flee from Tangaroa’s domain, the sea. Pō-nuia tells Charlie that he is special and that his missing leg is a sign. Tangaroa doesn’t care about this though. He just wants revenge on Tāne for the careless actions of humans who pollute his domain. He will send Rūaumoko with earthquakes and Tāwhirimātea with winds, rain and hail to punish Tāne and his people. It’s up to Charlie, with the help of Robbie and Jenny, to make the gods see sense and end their squabble before it’s too late.

Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea is an action-packed adventure story that had me hooked from the first page. This is quite simply one of the best Kiwi children’s stories set in New Zealand. Personally, this is now my favourite New Zealand fiction book for kids. It is such a fantastic read that I read the whole thing in a day and was reluctant to put it down to spend time with my family.

Tania’s writing is superb and she sweeps you up in the story straight away. You can feel the tension in the air and the sense of impending doom, so you just need to keep reading to find out what happens. Charlie’s voice is so authentic. He feels like your best friend talking to you and telling you the story. Charlie has a disability but he doesn’t let this rule his life. He is thrown into the middle of this fight between the gods but is determined to make things right. All of the characters are nicely developed, from Charlie’s brother, Robbie, to their new friend Jenny, and their grandfather. Tania has also woven an environmental theme through the story, with Tangaroa being angry because of the way humans pollute his domain. Charlie and Robbie regularly try to clean up the beach but there’s also mention of whales being washed up and dying because of the plastic inside them. Jenny’s father is over from America checking up on the new port that is being built and the characters talk about the affect on the oceans being just as much from logging and transporting the logs as an oil spill.

The book has a real New Zealand feel to it, from the landscape of Tolaga Bay that Tania conjures up in your head, to the wildlife that inhabit the domains of Tāne and Tangaroa, and the Te Reo Māori and Te Ao Māori that is an integral part of the story. Te Reo Māori is used throughout the story in such a way that those with a basic knowledge of the language will recognise some words but also learn new words. Waiata play an important role in the story and Charlie’s grandfather has taught them to him since he was very young. Māori gods wreak havoc in the story, with Tāne, Tangaroa and Tāwhirimātea going head to head. I really liked the way that the gods manifest in the story, using the aspects of their domains (birds or the ocean) to show their physical form.

Phoebe Morris’ cover is stunning and really draws you in. I’m a huge fan of Phoebe’s illustrations and they are such a perfect fit with the story. I have to admit to not even noticing Charlie’s leg until it was mentioned part way into the story.

I implore everyone to read this book! I will be recommending it to everyone and encouraging both kids and teachers to read it. It would be a perfect read aloud for Years 6-8 because it would hook every kid. Thank you Tania for writing this story and to Huia for publishing it. We need more stories like this for our tamariki.

Ballet Bunnies by Swapna Reddy and Binny Talib

What do you get when you combine one little beginner ballerina and bunnies in tutus? You get the most adorable chapter book series for young readers ever! Swapna Haddow (author of the Dave Pigeon series writing as Swapna Reddy) and Binny Talib have joined forces to give readers a series full of friendship, mischief and tutus.

The first three books in the series have been released together, which is fantastic as young readers can really fall in love with Millie and her bunny friends. In The New Class we meet Millie, who has dreamed of going to Miss Luisa’s School of Dance for months. On her sixth birthday her Mum surprises her with lessons and she’s so excited to go. Unfortunately things don’t start smoothly. Perfect Amber is mean to Millie and she just can’t get the moves right. When she most needs a friend she discovers the Ballet Bunnies – Dolly, Fifi, Pod and Trixie. With the help of the Ballet Bunnies and her new friend Samira, Millie starts to improve her ballet skills and have fun while doing it.

In the second book, Let’s Dance, Millie is preparing to perform for the first time in her ballet school’s gala show. While Millie is excited at first to perform, once she sees the stage she becomes very nervous and worried. Luckily Millie has her Ballet Bunnies to give her some tips and help her prepare.

In the third book, Millie’s Birthday, Millie is getting ready for her birthday. All her friends and family are going to be there but Millie gets a funny feeling in her tummy when she thinks about all those people. The bunnies decide to sneak home in Millie’s bag so that they can be there for Millie’s party. They will have a lot of fun together, but they’ll have to keep hidden from Millie’s mum and the party guests.

I love absolutely everything about The Ballet Bunnies series! From the moment young readers see these books glittering on the shelf they are going to be smitten with the Ballet Bunnies. I read all three books to my 5 year old daughter and we giggled our way through each book. As soon as she saw the books she squealed with excitement and we had to read them one after another over three nights. She couldn’t pick a favourite bunny but I love Trixie because she keeps falling asleep. We both love Millie though and we had some good discussions about what happened to her in the stories.

The covers are loaded with glitter and Binny’s illustrations make your heart melt. The bunnies are absolutely adorable (I totally wanted to cuddle them all) but they all have a different personality. There are illustrations on almost every page.

I really love that each of the stories is quite different and doesn’t feel formulaic. So often with series for younger readers the stories can feel the same in each book. In each Ballet Bunnies book Millie is dealing with different emotions, whether it is sadness and frustration about not knowing the ballet moves, nervousness and worry about performing, or feeling anxious at her party. I love the way that Swapna includes strategies to help Millie cope with her emotions. These are all situations that kids find themselves in so kids will be able to relate easily to Millie and these strategies will maybe even help them in a similar situation.

If you have a young reader in your life, especially a girl, you must get them The Ballet Bunnies series. They are perfect for newly independent readers to read themselves or to read aloud to 5-7 year olds. There are more books to come in the series next year and my daughter and I can’t wait!

The Wolves of Greycoat Hall by Lucinda Gifford

Wolves have a pretty bad rap in stories so I’m sure you’ve never met wolves who are sophisticated and have impeccable manners. In her new book, The Wolves of Greycoat Hall, Lucinda Gifford introduces us to the Greycoat family who return to their Scottish roots.

Boris Greycoat lives with his mother and father, Leonora and Randall, in Greycoat Hall in Morovia, a popular place for respectable wolves to live. When Randall reads that wolves are being reintroduced to Scotland the family decides to travel to their ancestral home. However, not everyone is used to seeing wolves walking around, so they get their fair share of dirty looks and accusations sent their way as they travel to Scotland. Most people in the seaside town of Portlessie are welcoming. Mr Vorstad on the other hand is a nasty, money-grabbing man who doesn’t like the wolves interfering in his plans to get rid of Drommuir Castle. Boris is a very smart wolf whose research into his family history just might save the day.

The Wolves of Greycoat Hall is a wild romp of a story that will leave you howling with delight. You’ll wish you were a part of the Greycoat family as they travel back to Scotland to discover their roots, tasting all the cakes and treats that they can and enjoying a fun-filled family holiday.

Interspersed with the story are extracts from A Guide to Morovia which gives you little details about life for wolves in Morovia, fashion for wolves and what is required for a successful wolf walk (lots of refreshments). Boris brings along his book, The History of the Scottish Greycoats which teaches him about his family history. We learn about his ancestors and the battles and feuds that took place.

Lucinda tells a great story and her illustrations are fabulous. The book is chock-full of her illustrations of the Greycoat family, their ancestors and the other characters they meet on their journey. I especially like Mr Vorslad who looks particularly vile. I also really love the production and design of the book. The hardcover and design make it look like an old-fashioned book, similar to the History of Scottish Greycoats that Boris carries around.

The Wolves of Greycoat Hall would be a fantastic read aloud. I hope that there are more adventures of the Greycoats to follow.

For activities that link to The Wolves of Greycoat Hall and Lucinda’s other books check out her website. There is a fantastic printable mini-book on Lucinda’s website that you can create.

The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

I love trains and I love stories set on trains. I love mystery stories and I love books by M.G. Leonard (author of the wonderful Beetle Boy Trilogy). All of these things are smooshed together in the latest series by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman – Adventures on Trains. I’ve had the first book in the series, The Highland Falcon Thief, sitting on my shelf for a while now and keep meaning to read it. The second book has just been released so what better time to start the series. I was immediately swept up in this journey that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Hal’s Mum is due to have a baby so he gets whisked away on a special train journey with his Uncle Nat. They are taking the final journey of the Highland Falcon, Britain’s most famous steam train. Uncle Nat is a travel writer who has been on some of the most interesting train journeys in the world, but nothing will compare to the drama that unfolds on this journey. Hal, at first, thinks the journey will be kind of boring but he couldn’t be more wrong. An item of jewellery goes missing and the accusations start flying. This is just the beginning of a string of thefts that include a large jewel belonging to the royal family. Hal and his new friend Lenny start to investigate the thefts and try to discover who the thief is. They’ll need to pay attention to the little details and find the culprit before they reach the end of their journey.

The Highland Falcon Thief is a captivating mystery that has you guessing right up to the end. There are shifty characters, a stowaway, stunning scenery, delicious meals, and some very clever kids who put the police to shame. The story is action-packed, with plenty of sneaking around, and a particularly nail-biting scene on the outside of the train. The descriptions are so fantastic that you can hear the rush of steam through the engine’s whistle and smell the soot. You can clearly picture the lavish details of the carriages. Every detail of this story made me desperate for a train journey like this, with my own compartment. You can tell that both M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman have had a lot of fun writing this book and have both brought their interests and knowledge of trains to the story.

One of the things that I love about M.G. Leonard’s books is the depth of her adult characters, especially those related to the main characters. I especially loved Uncle Nat as he clearly wants to share this unique and wonderful experience with his nephew. He always listens to Hal and tries to help him work through his problems or theories. You’re never really sure who the thief is until it’s revealed at the end, so the authors do a really great job of making you believe it could be nearly anyone. Uncle Nat himself even suggests that it could be him as he has no alibi.

Elisa Paganelli adds extra class to the story with her superb illustrations. Her cover makes the book jump off the shelf and her interior illustrations really bring the characters alive. Elisa’s illustrations also show us the interior and exterior of the Highland Falcon. Hal is an artist who loves to draw so Elisa puts herself into Hal’s shoes by drawing what he sees.

I can’t wait for more Adventures on Trains with Hal, Lenny and Uncle Nat! The second book in the series, Kidnap on the California Comet, has just been released so I won’t have to wait long to board the next adventure.