The New Zealand Wars by Matthew Wright

With New Zealand history being part of the curriculum from 2022, teachers and school librarians are going to be on the lookout for great resources for students. Oratia Books are one of the publishers that are leading the way with their NZ Series of books that focus on New Zealand history. The most recent book in this series is The New Zealand Wars by Matthew Wright.

In his slim, visually-appealing book Matthew Wright gives readers a concise introduction to the New Zealand Wars. Matthew talks about how and why the wars started, who fought the wars, and breaks down the individual conflicts. We learn about the major incidents, including the Battle of Gate Pā, and the figures involved from both sides, including Hōne Heke and George Grey. The information has been broken down in to short sections of text, with lots of illustrations, photographs and maps. Matthew has very effectively used boxes and sidebars to explain points or words in more detail. There is also a list of further reading and an index in the back, making it easier to find details about certain people.

The New Zealand Wars will be an invaluable resource in New Zealand schools. I loved studying New Zealand history at primary school and high school, as it was history that was relevant to me. The books on New Zealand history were few, and very text heavy. Matthew Wright’s book, on the other hand, is short, but concise, and it’s very readable. It will be appealing to students as they won’t get bogged down by text and will be able to find the information they need easily.

The thing that I like the most about this book is that it is packed with images. There are primary resources, like the photos and paintings from the time of the conflict, but there are also modern photos of pā sites, graves and monuments. As Matthew mentions in his book, these monuments help to remind us that history isn’t a boring list of things that happened, that ‘it is about the shapes and patterns of the past that made us what we are today.’

The New Zealand Wars is the kind of New Zealand history book that I wish had been around when I was in high school. This is a book that should be in all schools in New Zealand, especially in primary, intermediate and high school libraries. I will be looking out for the other titles in Oratia Books The NZ Series.

The Memory Thief by Leonie Agnew

Leonie Agnew is one of my favourite New Zealand authors because each of her books is so different. Leonie can write funny stories, stories about kids standing up for what they believe in, and stories with touches of magic and darkness. Leonie’s latest book, The Memory Thief, is unlike anything I’ve read before and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Seth is a troll. By day he is frozen in stone, but after the sun goes down he comes alive. His home is a suburban park, surrounded by an iron fence. Iron burns Seth, so he can’t leave the park. He can’t eat normal food, but keeps his hunger at bay by eating the memories of humans. The only one who understands life as a troll is Celeste, the other troll who lives in the park. One night, however, Seth meets Stella, a girl who lives beside the park. Stella becomes the closest thing to a friend that Seth has ever known, but their relationship changes when Seth confesses his secret. Stella has a lot of painful memories that she would rather forget, and she forces Seth to eat them. With each bad memory that Seth takes, both him and Stella change. Seth realises that he has caused so many troubles taking memories and that only he can put it right.

The Memory Thief is an amazing story that captivated me from start to finish. It is a story infused with imagination, wonder and magic. This is an ancient kind of magic though, that feels more dark than exciting. I loved every minute of this story, but I also feel haunted by it, days after finishing it. It is one of those stories that you keep thinking about and want to keep coming back to. Seth and Stella are complex characters, who you are constantly trying to figure out as the story progresses. Like a troll eating a memory, Leonie gives us tantalising details about the characters to keep us wanting more.

Leonie’s reimagining of trolls is fresh and brings them in to the present day. The trolls in Leonie’s story eat the memories of humans, turn to stone during the day and wake at night, and live in a city park. Seth and Celeste are both trolls who live in the park, but they have different outlooks. Celeste has no qualms with eating the memories of humans, whereas Seth doesn’t want to hurt anyone by taking memories. He knows that he has to take memories to stave off his hunger but he doesn’t like doing it. Seth gets forced to take Stella’s bad memories, which make him sick and starts to change him. Seth doesn’t remember much about his past, which adds to the mystery of the story. How did he come to be living in the park? Has he always been a troll?

Kieran Rynhart’s cover is absolutely stunning! It is the best New Zealand children’s book cover that I’ve seen for a long time. Kieran has perfectly captured the tone of Leonie’s story and brought her characters to life. The cover has a haunting feel to it and draws you in. I especially like the composition, with Seth staring out from the middle of the cover, and the way that his eyes catch the light. Kieran has also created some atmospheric illustrations that are spread throughout the book, and the trees and gate of the park weave around the chapter headings.

The Memory Thief is one of those New Zealand books that will have worldwide appeal and I hope it gets published far and wide. It would be a great read aloud or class novel for Years 6-8.

MerTales: The Best Friend Promise by Rebecca Timmis

Do you need a new series of books to hook the young mermaid lover in your life? Rebecca Timmis has exactly what you’re looking for! The Best Friend Promise is the first book in Rebecca’s new series, MerTales, and it’s out now.

Pearl the mermaid is turning nine and she’s super excited for her party. While escaping from a reef shark on her way to school Pearl sees a shooting star crash into the ocean, and everything changes. Pearl’s tail starts to glow and shimmer, and now she can talk to animals. Pearl tries to show her friends that she can talk to animals but none of her friends believe her. Pearl makes the most of being able to talk to animals, especially when it comes to riding her seahorse, Silverdust. When Pearl upsets another mermaid from her class, Pearl and her friends must venture into the Weeded Wood to rescue her. Pearl will have to hope that her magic power is enough to save them all from a hungry reef dragon.

The Best Friend Promise is a bright, fun story that will hook young readers on this series. It is bursting with Rebecca’s cute black and white illustrations, with splashes of colour, lots of sea puns, and short chapters, making it perfect for newly independent readers. The cover is bright and shiny, and it will make the book hard to resist. My 6 year old daughter loves mermaids and we loved reading this together. It was fun to read aloud.

MerTales is perfect for fans of Sally Odgers’ Pearl the Unicorn series and readers who love mermaids, magic and animals.

Win a set of Anh Do’s Wolf Girl series

The fifth instalment in Anh Do’s action-packed Wolf Girl series is out now. I love this series because it has hooked so many of the kids at my school on reading. One of my Year 3/4 teachers was looking for a great read aloud to hook her whole class last year, and I recommended the first Wolf Girl book. They couldn’t get enough of these books, so they ended up reading the other 3 books in the series throughout the year. Those kids still talk about Wolf Girl and they are going to be lining up to read the fifth book, Across the Sea.

In Across the Sea Gwen, Rupert and the dogs strike out across treacherous ice and freezing oceans. If they are to have any hope of survival, they must stowaway on a ship full of enemy soldiers. But sometimes help comes in unexpected forms. Someone new will join the pack … but who will leave? Deep in the frozen tundra, the danger is heating up! Also, look out for the bonus Wolf Girl story at the end of the book.

Thanks to Allen and Unwin I have a complete set of Wolf Girl 1-5 to give away.

Thanks to everyone who entered. The winner is Jackie Rassell.

Batkiwi by Melinda Szymanik and Isobel Joy Te Aho-White

It’s official – Melinda Szymanik is a genius! She has taken our most famous flightless bird, and an internationally recognised symbol of New Zealand, and turned it into a superhero. But we all know that the greatest superheroes can’t save the world alone. They need a super friend to help them. That’s where Bat comes in. Together they are Batkiwi!

More than anything in the world, Kiwi really wants to help others. When he hears the cries of animals in distress he races as fast as his little legs will carry him, to do what he can to help. He’s pretty fast, but never fast enough. When he arrives he’s either too late or he doesn’t have the abilities needed to help. After trying but failing to help, over and over again, Kiwi feels down. He slinks back to his cave, and it is here that he meets Bat. Two is always better than one, and Bat wants to help. Together they become the dynamic duo of Batkiwi, and they are finally able to help save the day.

Batkiwi is a gem of a picture book that proves what we can all do if we work together. My daughter summed Batkiwi up perfectly, saying ‘it’s a story about being kind.’ Kiwi is an incredibly kind creature who just wants to help others, but he gets quite deflated when he just can’t help. Being unable to fly and having short legs really sucks, especially when Kiwi sees what the other animals can do.

Melinda Szymanik’s story is filled with gorgeous language and lots of repeated phrases that will encourage children to join in. Each time a hero is needed, Kiwi runs ‘as fast as his sturdy legs could carry him. He was pretty fast…but he wasn’t fast enough.’ Isobel Joy Te Aho-White’s illustrations are evocative of the New Zealand bush, which comes alive in the moonlight. I love the way that she has given the animals real personality, while making sure they still look like those animals. Kiwi, for instance, looks determined and excited as he runs off to help, and Isobel has given him a koru design on his face. One of my favourite images shows Kiwi running (from front on) with a burst of colour behind him. You can almost imagine a superhero cape flapping behind him as he runs.

Another aspect of this book that I really love is the design. Although the story takes place at night, white space has been cleverly used. Sometimes this means the text drifts across the page on tendrils of mist or smoke, and on the second page, some of the text is on the moon. On other pages, Melinda’s text has been perfectly cocooned by Isobel’s illustrations.

Batkiwi is a picture book that will be enjoyed over and over again. It’s a must-have for the family bookshelf, preschools and school libraries.

The Cardboard Kingdom: Roar of the Beast by Chad Sell

The Cardboard Kingdom is one of my favourite kid’s graphic novels because it’s all about kids being their true selves. They build costumes and props out of cardboard and let their imaginations go wild. They can be a beast, a scientist or a sorceress. They are stories about acceptance but also having a whole lot of fun. I’ve been eagerly awaiting the second Cardboard Kingdom book and it has just been released. I loved returning to these characters that Chad Sell brought to life and seeing what they got up to next.

Halloween is approaching and the gang are planning their costumes. Vijay is excited to make The Beast bigger, better and scarier, but when the local teenagers crush his costume, they also crush his confidence. Nate is sure he’s seen a monster in his backyard, and when he tries to rescue his stepbrother, he falls down the stairs. No one believes him though, even his stepbrother. Nate is determined to prove that the monster is real. The monster shows up again and again, all over the kingdom, but no one knows why it is there or what it wants. They only know that it is super quick and super scary. Nate gathers the best scientists, heroes and villains from across the kingdom to track the monster and crack the case.

The Cardboard Kingdom: Roar of the Beast is the best kind of sequel. It reunites us with our favourite characters, builds on their stories, and has a mystery that brings them all together. Where the first book was more stand-alone stories that introduced each character, Roar of the Beast has a story arc that is woven through each of the characters’ chapters. Each chapter is written by a different author and focuses on a particular character or characters, with Chad Sell bringing the characters to life in his terrific illustrations.

I love everything that Chad Sell illustrates. I really like his style of illustration, as the kids are realistic and have great expressions. I particularly like how Chad draws the kids as their characters. You see how the kids see themselves in character. Elijah’s costume is pretty basic but he looks completely different as the character of the Blob, and Jack lets his true self shine as the Sorceress.

Although they aren’t named on the front cover, each of the authors have created wonderful characters that all kids will be able to relate to. The cast of characters is diverse in ethnicity and sexuality, which is one of the aspects I really love about the Cardboard Kingdom books. Thanks to Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, David DeMeo, Jay Fuller, Cloud Jacobs, Barbara Perez Marquez, Molly Muldoon and Katie Schenkel for giving us your characters.

If you haven’t discovered this series you need to hunt both books down. The first book has been a firm favourite in my school library since it was released, and I know kids who will be super excited when they see Roar of the Beast on the shelf. If you want to add some diversity to your graphic novel collection you need to have the Cardboard Kingdom series.

Alone by Megan E. Freeman

I love both survival stories and verse novels, so any story that combines both is a winner with me. Dusti Bowling’s The Canyon’s Edge was my top book of 2020 because of this combination of survival story told in verse. If you’re a lover of verse novels too then you need to read Megan E. Freeman’s latest book, Alone. It’s a story of a girl trying to survive on her own after everyone else in her town disappears.

Maddie is just your average 12 year old. She wants to hang out with her friends and is frustrated at having to spend her weeks between two separate houses. Maddie organises a sleepover with two of her friends at her grandparent’s vacant house. She gives her mum and dad two separate stories so that they won’t suspect anything. However, an unexpected event occurs that leaves Maddie abandoned and alone. Her whole town has been evacuated, leaving houses empty and personal belongings strewn across roads and footpaths. The bits of information that Maddie can gather make no sense, and there is no one around to ask what happened. Maddie’s only companion is George, her neighbour’s Rottweiler. They explore as far as they are able to, finding food, water and other essential supplies. What they don’t find are other humans. Without power for heating and cooking, Maddie must rely on other means to help her survive. The library becomes vital for helping her learn new skills and for keeping her sane. Maddie holds on to the hope that someone will come for her, but as the months go by, Maddie has to cope with changing seasons and wild weather that make survival hard.

Alone is an absolutely amazing read! It is a tense, gripping and, at times, terrifying story of survival against the odds. I was really torn reading this book, because the pace races along which kept me turning the pages, but Megan’s writing is just so stunning that I wanted to savour her words. There were quite a few times when I was holding my breath while I was turning pages, because I was generally concerned for the life of this fictional character. There were also parts where I wanted to throw the book across the room because something didn’t seem fair.

Maddie is the kind of character we all wish we could be. You hope that, if you were put in her shoes, you could find ways to survive. She is incredibly resilient, even when faced with terrifying circumstances, including a tornado. Maddie is used to relying on technology to answer her questions, but when the power goes out, she has to rely on information in books. She raids her local library to find stories to read as an escape, but also nonfiction books to teach her how to light a fires. Those who have control over the funding of libraries should be given this book to prove how vital physical libraries are. Maddie has grown and matured so much by the end of the story that I wonder how she would cope returning to normal society. Maddie’s relationship with George is adorable. They have each other’s back and keep each other warm when the weather changes.

The main reason I love verse novels is because they so perfectly capture the raw emotion of the characters. This is what makes Alone so stunning. In just a handful of words, Megan captures Maddie’s despair, loneliness or horror. We know how she feels, what she’s thinking and what she fears. Alone is an emotional- rollercoaster that leaves you feeling exhausted but satisfied.

Alone is one of my top reads of 2021. I will be recommending it to both the kids and teachers at my school. It’s a book that will spread like wildfire between the kids and is perfect for those teachers who ‘don’t have much time for reading.’ It would be a great read aloud or class set for Years 7-9.

Training guides for knights and ninjas

I buy a lot of the books for my school library online, but nothing beats browsing a bookshop and discovering a gem. While browsing the wonderful Scorpio Books in Christchurch a few weeks ago I came across two very appealing nonfiction books that I immediately knew I needed for my library. So You Want to Be a Knight? and So You Want to Be a Ninja? (both published by Thames and Hudson) have both been adapted from previously released books, into a new and exciting format.

Both books are highly visual, with heaps of comic-style illustrations. They are full of humour, both in the text and the illustrations. They are sure to hook even the most reluctant of readers because they are just so engaging. There are lists, quizzes and diagrams galore, and like the Horrible Histories books, the author and illustrator have left the gory and gross bits in. There are pictures of skulls being split open with battleaxes and faces being scratched with ring daggers. You get both the positives and the negatives of being a ninja or a knight, and the author and illustrator highlight how dedicated and disciplined you need to be to become one. They are the sort of nonfiction book that kids will read from cover to cover, but you could also look in the index to find specific information.

These books are going to be so easy to sell to kids in my library! Sharing a section or two with kids (like ‘How to Get Into Your Suit of Armour’) would be a great way to do this. Check out the covers and blurbs below for both of the books. There is also So You Want to Be a Viking? and So You Want to Be a Roman Soldier? in the same series.

So You Want to be Knight? by Hannah Pang, illustrated by Takayo Akiyama

Do you know how to wield a lance? Can you somersault into a suit of armor? Join Kate, Eddie and Angus as they travel back to the 14th century to see if they have what it takes to become a knight. Tutored by the original author of the Book of Chivalry, they discover the secrets of the chivalric code, receive vital weapons training and learn top tips on how not to die in battle.

So You Want to Be a Ninja? by Bruno Vincent, illustrated by Takayo Akiyama

With padded ninja shoes underfoot and ninja stars around their belts, our plucky newbie ninjas Kate, Eddie and Angus travel back in time to 1789 Japan to enrol in the Iga School of Ninjutsu. Under the guidance of the Grand Master, they learn the ninjutsu craft from two of Japan’s stealthiest ninjas – Hanzo, the ninja of many disguises (some convincing, some not so much…) and Chiyojo, a kunoichi (female ninja) who is so clandestine that they’re not entirely sure whether she actually exists. Finally, at their fingertips are the tightly guarded secrets of ninjutsu!

Freaky, Funky Fish: Odd Facts about Fascinating Fish by Debra Kempf Shumaker and Claire Powell

Children’s nonfiction books about fish are few and far between. I have a few in my school library, but none that I think kids will pick up and read when they’re browsing. An awesome new book, Freaky, Funky Fish, on other hand, screams ‘PICK ME UP!’ I guarantee that this book will leave kids and adults alike fascinated by fish.

Debra Kempf Shumaker and Claire Powell introduce us to fish of all kinds. Inside this book there are fish that zap, sting and sing, fish that can fly, climb and squirt, and fish that use their special abilities to survive. The simple text throughout the book and the entertaining illustrations makes this a book perfect for preschoolers right through to older children, and everyone will find something that fascinates them. Each fish has a freaky or funky rating (you find this throughout the book and in the ‘Fish Inventory,’ which makes up the endpapers). In the back of the book there is more information about the different types of fish, as well as books and links to videos where you can find out more. This book is a wonderful introduction to a wide variety of fish and the author has included these great suggestions for finding further information.

Freaky, Funky Fish: Odd Facts About Fascinating Fish is one of the most awesome nonfiction books for kids. It is a whole lot of fun to read and it’s packed full of quirky fish facts. The cover is absolutely fin-tastic, with the holographic foil that draws readers towards it like an anglerfish’s glowing lure draws prey. You’re drawn to its shinyness and then you need to know what is inside.

Debra Kempf Schumaker’s text is accessible to a wide range of ages, so it’s great for children to read by themselves or for an adult to read aloud. I love that it is the kind of nonfiction book that less-confident readers can pick up and read, and there are lots of visual cues about the traits of the fish in the illustrations. If a teacher or librarian was reading it to a group, you could just read the story first, then go back to look at the illustrations in more detail. I absolutely love Claire Powell’s illustrations! Claire has given each of the fish a different personality and they have some much character. I have read this book so many times, because I love going back to Claire’s illustrations. So many of her illustrations make me laugh (their expressions are hilarious!) but I think my favourite is the female anglerfish, with the male anglerfish attached to her.

Allen and Unwin should be applauded for the thought that has gone in to the production of this book. The design of the book is stunning, from the holographic foil to the endpapers, and it deserves to be published in hardback. The love that has gone into the writing, illustrating, and design of this book will make it a winner with its target audience.

Freaky, Funky Fish is a must-have book in any school library, and any lover of aquatic creatures should have a copy of their own.

Graphic novels to hook the youngest readers

For the past 3 years the graphic novel section of my school library has been the most popular part of the collection. I struggle to keep up with the demand of my readers, especially the kids who will now exclusively read graphic novels. There are heaps of great graphic novels being published, for all ages, and some of the most fun ones are aimed at beginner readers. As you can see from the book covers above, many of them feature two main characters, and the humour in these stories comes from the interactions of the characters. Here are some of my favourite graphic novels for young readers.

Kitten Construction Company series by John Patrick Green

The Kitten Construction Company series are some of the first graphic novels created by John Patrick Green (also the creator of one of my favourite graphic novel series, InvestiGators). In Meet the House Kittens, we meet Marmalade, a cute, adorable kitten who is also a trained architect. She is sick of not being taken seriously, and so with some new feline friends, she sets out to show those ridiculous humans what they’re capable of. In the second book, A Bridge Too Fur, Marmalade and her Kitten Construction Company are in hot demand. Their latest assignment is to build the new Mewburg bridge, but they are forced to get help from a demolition crew of dogs. This series is adorable and seriously funny! The panels are big, there are puns galore and the characters are super expressive. They also read aloud nicely so they’re good ones to share.

Pizza and Taco: Who’s the Best? by Stephen Shaskan

Pizza and Taco are best friends and they have a lot in common. They both love water slides, and they’re both friends with Hot Dog and Hamburger. They can’t decide who is the best though. Maybe they need to have a debate and get their friends to decide. The illustrations are colourful (and make you hungry) and the text is simple but full of humour. Like pizzas and tacos, this is a tasty morsel of a book that kids will gobble up. They’ll be begging for more stories about these two besties.

Narwhal and Jelly series by Ben Clanton

Narwhal and Jelly are two of my favourite best buds. Every time I read one of their stories I grin the whole way through because they’re so adorably silly. Narwhal is bursting with happiness and he’s always super positive (and he’s also rather obsessed with waffles). Each of their books has a handful of stories, as well as some facts about narwhals, jellyfish and other sea creatures. The stories is perfectly pitched for young readers, Ben’s illustrations are simple and fun, and his characters are full of personality. Once you read one Narwhal and Jelly book you won’t be able to stop!

Shark and Bot by Brian Yanish

I know what you’re thinking – a shark and a robot couldn’t be friends. Wrong! Shark has just moved to a new place, all the way from Australia. Being a shark, he has trouble making friends, as anybody he meets just runs away screaming. Bot has trouble making friends too, especially with a blade for a hand. These two unlikely friends become best buds. When some bullies take over the playground, Shark and Bot think like their heroes, the Glo-Nuts, and confront the bullies the only way they know how – with the power of dance. The thing I like most about this graphic novel is that it pokes fun at itself. Shark and Bot’s dance moves had me laughing out loud! Any graphic novel that has step-by-step instructions on how to draw the characters is brilliant in my books, and kids can learn how to draw both Shark and Bot in the back of the book.

Arlo and Pips: King of the Birds by Elise Gravel

I love everything that Elise Gravel has created, so I was super excited to see that she had created a graphic novel for younger readers. Arlo believes that he is the greatest bird in the world. Pips is here to try and prove him wrong. There are plenty of birds more beautiful than Arlo, and Pips can certainly sing sweeter than him. Arlo tries to win Pips over by showing Pips the clever things that he can do, using his larger than average brain. As well has being a fun story, with a bit of adventure and suspense, you learn lots of interesting facts about crows along the way. Elise’s text and illustrations are perfect for beginner readers and the story is full of humour.

Honourable mentions – The Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems and the Monkey and Cake series by Drew Daywalt and Olivier Tallec

While these two series aren’t technically graphic novels they are great stepping stones to graphic novels for beginner readers. In both the Elephant and Piggie series and the Monkey and Cake series, the authors and illustrators have two friends tackling a series of problems. There is no narration for these stories, rather it is the interactions of the characters that tell the story. The creators use speech bubbles for the conversations between the characters, there is lots of expression in the characters body language and the text, and the stories are hilarious. Both of these series are great to read together with beginner readers. My daughter and I take a character each and read or act out their parts. I also recommended this idea to a teacher at my school, who was looking for books to read with her 6-year-old son, and this worked brilliantly for her too.