Interview with Leonie Agnew

Leonie Agnew’s amazing new book, The Memory Thief, is a story infused with imagination, wonder and magic. It has just been released by Penguin Books NZ and it is a book that everyone should have on their TBR pile. You can read my review here on the blog.

The Memory Thief captivated me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There were so many aspects of the story that I was curious about and I was lucky enough to get to ask Leonie my burning questions. Check out my interview to find out how Leonie adapted the idea of trolls for her story, how Dunedin inspired the story, and which of her memories Leonie wouldn’t want a troll to eat.

  • You wrote the first draft of The Memory Thief while as the Children’s Writer in Residence at the University of Otago College of Education. What was it about being in Dunedin that sparked this story?

I was alone in Dunedin and spent many hours wandering through the local botanical gardens, which was close to my writer’s cottage. I’ve never started a story based on a setting before, but the place felt so atmospheric, especially around twilight. I was also inspired by the name of a park in Howick called the Garden of Memories. Also, while staying in Dunedin, I would often drive to Christchurch and visit family. At my aunt’s house I saw a statue in their neighbour’s garden. At first glance I thought it was a person, which got me thinking about writing a story where statues comes to life.

  • Both Seth and Stella are intriguing characters who have a complex relationship. Did you know from the start how their relationship would develop?

I think so, yes. (Sorry, the first draft was years ago.) Some of the ideas come together in the first draft, but I knew before I started.

  • We’ve seen trolls in fairy tales and stories before but never quite like the trolls in your story. How did you develop the idea of trolls?

Great question! I was googling different books and came across the subject of Scandinavian trolls.  It was almost eerie. Straight away, I read trolls turned to stone, were allergic to iron, could appear human and only came out at night. Perfect! The Dunedin Botanical Gardens had a sign which said ‘Open from dawn until dusk’. (It’s been taken down since, I know because I tried to get a picture.) I loved that because there’s no time, which suggests the original gardeners knew there was something dangerous in the gardens and people’s safety depended on daylight, rather than specific times. Also, the gardens have many statues and a troll could pass for one. Finally, there were iron fences, so I knew my main character would be trapped inside.

There was one problem – trolls were also carnivorous. I felt this was a little boring but, luckily, I had been playing around with the idea of memories and gardens. So I changed the idea, making Seth feed on human memories, rather than actual bodies.

  • What is one of your memories that you wouldn’t want a troll to eat?

Any memory of my mother.

  • The Memory Thief has the best book cover for a New Zealand children’s book that I’ve seen for ages. Kieran Rynhart seems to have captured the characters and the tone of your story perfectly. How did you feel seeing Kieran’s illustrations for the first time?

The same way you did. Kieran hit the tone perfectly and captured a sense of the city, too. The atmosphere of the novel was definitely portrayed on the cover. I’ve had some great covers, but this one is my favourite.

  • How did you manage to score a cover quote from the one and only Chris Riddell?

A lot of people ask me that one! We were on stage together at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. Chris and I got talking and went out for a drink. He wanted to know what I was working on, then asked to read the manuscript. He sent me pictures of the characters, too, which was lovely! He is an extremely collaborative and generous man. I also have some pictures he drew of me on stage.

  • As a School Librarian, I see how hard teachers work and how busy they are. How do you juggle teaching and writing?

It’s very hard and I wish we had more children’s residencies like the one at Dunedin University. School holidays are my golden time, but this year I have a study grant to do a Masters in Creative Writing. I am getting lots of writing done!

  • Do you share your stories with your students before they are published?

No because they’re too young! My books (so far) have been nine and up.

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.

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.

2021 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults Finalists

The finalists for the 2021 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults were announced early this morning. The judges have done an excellent job of selecting the best New Zealand books for children and teens, published in the last year. I’m so excited for the finalists, especially since many of my recent favourite NZ books have made the shortlist.

I’ll be highlighting the finalists on My Best Friends Are Books over the next few months, but in the mean time, here is the press release about the finalists:

From a field of 166 entries, the 28 finalists in the 2021 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults are announced today. Across six main categories, these books offer the nation’s young readers a tasty smorgasbord of titles, packed with meaty themes and addictive plot lines.

“The diversity of ideas in this year’s entries really stood out,” says convenor of judges Alan Dingley. “It’s clear that our authors truly credit kids and young people with having the emotional intelligence to deal with complex themes, issues and feelings.”

Whether that’s celebrating Māori culture or dealing to the injustices of inequality, seeing a reflection of their own small-town community or exploring issues around body image, disability and adversity, no topic is off-limits. But, says Dingley, big ideas are delivered in a way that also entertains.

“Dystopian futures, ecological battles and immersive fantasy all take the reader into new worlds, something that has been so important of late, after so many have been trapped in their homes,” Dingley adds.

And while kids will find no shortage of reading material on the finalist list, Dingley thinks adults will discover plenty of treasures too.

“It’s a really accessible selection. If a child brings any one of these books home, I guarantee an adult will enjoy reading it also.”

This year’s Picture Book Award shortlist beautifully combines delicate illustrations that connect to and enhance sometimes delicate themes. There are laughs, tears, sighs (both contented and wistful) to be had in equal measure.

Picture Book Award Finalists

Hare & Ruru: A Quiet Moment, Laura Shallcrass (Beatnik Publishing)

Hound the Detective, Kimberly Andrews(Penguin Random House NZ)

Kōwhai and the Giants, Kate Parker (Mary Egan Publishing)

The Hug Blanket, Chris Gurney, illustrated by Lael Chisholm (Scholastic New Zealand)

This Is Where I Stand, Philippa Werry, illustrated by Kieran Rynhart (Scholastic New Zealand)

The books vying for the Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Junior Fiction Award presented the judges with eclectic plot lines and endearing characters and they struggled to narrow down to a shortlist from the well-crafted titles.

Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Junior Fiction Award Finalists
Across the Risen Sea, 
Bren MacDibble (Allen & Unwin)

Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea, T K Roxborogh, illustrated by Phoebe Morris (Huia Publishers)

Red Edge, Des Hunt (Scholastic New Zealand)

The Inkberg Enigma, Jonathan King (Gecko Press)

The Tunnel of Dreams, Bernard Beckett(Text Publishing)

The top contenders for the Young Adult Fiction Award speak to the power of young people to profoundly influence the world around them, and don’t shy away from topics such as environmental destruction, oppression and injustice.

Young Adult Fiction Award Finalists

Draw Me a Hero, N K Ashworth (Lasavia Publishing)

Fire’s Caress, Lani Wendt Young, (OneTree House)

Katipo Joe: Spycraft, Brian Falkner (Scholastic New Zealand)

The King’s Nightingale, Sherryl Jordan (Scholastic New Zealand)
The Pōrangi Boy, Shilo Kino (Huia Publishers)

The judges found the Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction a particularly strong category this year, stating “to say there is something for everyone is an understatement, this list has everything, for everyone”.

Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction Finalists

Egg and Spoon: An Illustrated Cookbook, Alexandra Tylee, illustrated by Giselle Clarkson (Gecko Press)
Mophead Tu: The Queen’s Poem, Selina Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press)

New Zealand Disasters, Maria Gill, illustrated by Marco Ivančić (Scholastic New Zealand)

North and South, Sandra Morris (Walker Books Australia)
You’re Joking: Become an Expert Joke-Teller, Tom E. Moffatt, illustrated by Paul Beavis (Write Laugh Books)

The judges faced an outstandingly strong and large pool of entries for the Russell Clark Award for Illustration. The finalists are characterised by a diversity of styles and media, but the books all have in common an expert use of colour and line to communicate emotion and pace and skilfully add texture to the narrative.

Russell Clark Award for Illustration Finalists

Hare & Ruru: A Quiet Moment, Laura Shallcrass (Beatnik Publishing)

I Am the Universe, Vasanti Unka (Penguin Random House NZ)

Kōwhai and the Giants, Kate Parker (Mary Egan Publishing)

Moon & Sun, Malene Laugesenwritten by Melinda Szymanik (Upstart Press)
Te Uruuru Whenua o Ngātoroirangi, 
Laya Mutton-Rogerswritten by Chris Winitana (Huia Publishers)

The finalists in the Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award for books written entirely in te reo Māori will appeal to a broad range of abilities. Te reo in its simplest form will lift the language for beginners, while there are also titles with a depth of language to send the imaginations of confident speakers soaring. The judges were pleased to see a marked increase in the number of books written in te reo Māori, rather than translated from English.

Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award Finalists

Aroha Te Whai Ora, Rebekah Lipp, illustrated by Craig Phillips and translated by Karena Kelly (Wildling Books)

Mihi, Gavin Bishop (Gecko Press)

Pīpī Kiwi, Helen Taylor, translated by Hēni Jacob (Penguin Random House NZ)

Ngake me Whātaitai, Ben Ngaia, illustrated by Laya Mutton-Rogers (Huia Publishers)
Te Uruuru Whenua o Ngātoroirangi, Chris Winitana, illustrated by Laya Mutton-Rogers (Huia Publishers)

Finally, the finalists for the Best First Book Award left the judges reassured that the future of children’s literature in New Zealand is in good hands. In fact, the standard is so high, that four of the books are also finalists in one or more of the main categories.

Best First Book Award Finalists

Laura Shallcrass for Hare & Ruru: A Quiet Moment (Beatnik Publishing)

Kate Parker for Kōwhai and the Giants (Mary Egan Publishing)

Jonathan King for The Inkberg Enigma (Gecko Press)

Amy Haarhoff (illustrator) for The Midnight Adventures of Ruru and Kiwi, written by Clare Scott (Penguin Random House NZ)
Shilo Kino for The Pōrangi Boy (Huia Publishers)

The winners of each of the six main categories – Picture Book, Junior Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Non-Fiction, Illustration and te reo Māori – take home $7,500 and are then in the running to be named the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year, with a further $7,500 prize money. In addition, the judges will award a Best First Book prize of $2,000 to a previously unpublished author or illustrator.

The New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults are the preeminent celebration of publishing for young people in Aotearoa. As well as acknowledging the best and brightest in books for children and teens, a core aspect of the Awards’ mission is to foster literacy and a love of reading amongst New Zealand’s children and teenagers.

This includes administering the ever-popular HELL Reading Challenge, which has encouraged children to read close to 12 million books since its inception, and running a programme of popular Books Alive events, which see authors and illustrators interact with Kiwi school children.Following the success of the online programme in 2020, Books Alive will have a strong virtual component again this year, in partnership with the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA). In addition, hundreds of Wellington school children will also be able to enjoy a very full programme featuring many of the shortlisted authors and illustrators in person on the day of the Awards ceremony.

After Covid made a virtual presentation necessary last year, this year finalists and publishers plan to celebrate in person, at a ceremony to announce the winners at Tiakiwai Conference Centre at the National Library in Wellington on 11 August.

The formidable task of narrowing the field to a list of finalists was met by this year’s experienced judging panel: Alan Dingley (convenor) has over 20 years of experience working in children’s/youth libraries; Mary Sangster, a specialist children’s bookseller; Nicola Daly, a senior lecturer in Children’s Literature at the University of Waikato; Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith, an author, educationalist and director of Mīharo Murihiku Trust; and Stephen Clothier, a librarian, composer and performer.

They were joined by a panel appointed by Te Rōpū Whakahau, the national body that represents Māori engaged in Libraries, Culture, Knowledge, Information, Communication and Systems Technology in Aotearoa, to judge te reo Māori entries. Anahera Morehu (convenor), is the Kaiārahi at the University of Auckland Faculty of Business and Economics; Ruki Tobin, the Poutiaki Rauemi National Manager Māori for Services to Schools at Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, National Library of New Zealand; and Te Paea Paringatai, is a Library and Information Advisory Commission Commissioner, and a Library Manager at the University of Canterbury.

The New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults are made possible through the generosity, commitment and vision of funders and sponsors: Creative New Zealand, HELL Pizza, the Wright Family Foundation, LIANZA, Wellington City Council, Nielsen Book and The National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa. The Awards are administered by the New Zealand Book Awards Trust.

To find out more about the shortlisted books, go to https://www.nzbookawards.nz/new-zealand-book-awards-for-children-and-young-adults/2021-awards/shortlist/

Takahē Trouble! by Sally Sutton and Jenny Cooper

The real-life antics of animals often inspire fictional stories. The escape of a pair of takahē from a predator-free sanctuary in Auckland inspired Sally Sutton and Jenny Cooper to create a picture book about their adventures, called Takahē Trouble. No-one really knows what the takahē got up to in the ten days that they were missing, but Sally and Jenny have woven a hugely entertaining and beautifully illustrated story about what might have happened.

Walter and Manaaki are teenage takahē who are the best of friends. They live behind a fence and life is pretty boring. Manaaki dreams of adventure. She wants to see a rat and a car, and she wants to nibble foreign food. Walter just wants to stay at home, with the smell of salt and the sweet-eating grass. The two friends escape and have the adventure that Manaaki dreamt of. However, now that they’ve experienced some of those things, Manaaki has changed her mind, and it’s Walter that loves the adventure. They decide to let themselves be caught and go back home…until next time.

Takahē Trouble is a funny tale of two friends toddling off on an adventure. The combination of Sally Sutton’s rich language and dialogue and Jenny Cooper’s delightful illustrations that are bursting with personality, make Takahē Trouble a perfect picture book. This is a picture book that children will be asking you to read again and again (I’ve read it half a dozen times already because my daughter keeps asking for it). Sally uses her signature onomatopoeia style throughout the book (my favourite is ‘munch-crunch-scrunch’) and lots of repetition, which makes the story a whole lot of fun to read aloud.

The thing I love the most about this book is the personalities that Sally gives Walter and Manaaki and the way that Jenny highlights their personalities in her illustrations. Manaaki has a very distinctive voice and I found my voice instinctively taking on her personality as I read the story. I especially love Jenny’s illustration of Manaaki standing at the fence, ready to break out. She has perfectly captured Manaaki’s mischievousness. At the start of the story Manaaki is really confident and is desperate for adventure, while Walter would rather stay home than seek adventure. However, as the story progresses, and they experience life outside the fence, their perspectives change. I also really like how Jenny has given Walter and Manaaki different hairstyles, which looks natural, but means that you can tell them apart easily.

The bonus section at the back of the book, The Truth About Takahē, taught me some things that I didn’t know about takahē, and it is sure to inspire young readers to want to find out more.

Grab a copy of Takahē Trouble and go on an adventure with Walter and Manaaki.

Interview with Belinda O’Keefe

Belinda O’Keefe is a New Zealand author, whose picture book, The Day the Plants Fought Back, was a finalist for the Best First Book Award at the 2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Belinda’s first novel, Partners in Slime, won the 2020 Tom Fitzgibbon Award and is released by Scholastic NZ this month. Partners in Slime is one of favourite NZ children’s books this year and you can read my review here.

I caught up with Belinda to ask about her inspiration for Partners in Slime, which of her relatives has helped her out of a jam, and what awards mean to her.

• What inspired you to write Partners in Slime?

My youngest son Dylan has always been fascinated with science, constantly experimenting with all sorts of things. For about a year, he and his friends were obsessed with making slime, and it was after tearing my hair out at the state of my slime-splattered bathroom that I had a brainwave for the plot of Partners in Slime!

• Did you have to do a lot of slime experimentation as research for the story?

I left all of that up to Dylan, and yes, he experimented with all different types of glue, shaving foam and other kitchen ingredients to get the perfect recipe. It was a heap of fun seeing what he came up with!

• Jake and Cooper start their slime business to earn some money to get tickets for the opening of the Steel Beast rollercoaster. What can you remember desperately saving your money for when you were a kid?

I don’t remember saving my money for anything big when I was a kid. I used to love going to school fairs though, and I remember doing a heap of jobs to earn a bit of extra pocket money so I could spend it on things like candy floss and treasures at the white elephant stall.

• Cooper’s Uncle Ivor is a scientist who helps Jake and Cooper when things get a bit messy. Do you have a relative whose skills or knowledge has helped you out of a jam?

My dad always helped me out of a jam growing up. He was really good with his hands, and could fix just about anything. Uncle Ivor has a lot of the same traits as my Dad – he was always running around with the kids at birthday parties, joining in all the games and acting like a big kid. He had big bushy eyebrows too!

• How different was it writing a novel to a picture book?

It was completely different. I found it more of a challengewriting the novel – there’s a lot more editing involved, and ittakes a bit of planning getting the chapters to flow. Having said that, I found it more rewarding when I finally finished my first draft! I was also able to let my imagination run wild, as I didn’t have to think about how illustrations would fit onto each page. I love the fact that every reader will have a slightly different picture in their heads when they read it.

• Partners in Slime would be a great read aloud for Years 5-8. Do you read your books to your sons before they are published?

Yes, I always read my books to my sons (and my husband too). I usually read them each chapter as I write them, to make sure I’m on the right track. They’re brutally honest, and tell me if it’s good or not. We sit at the dinner table and I have a pen handy to make any changes they suggest – they’re a huge part of my editing process.

• The ending of Partners in Slime is fantastic and leaves the story open for sequel. Are you planning to write more books featuring Jake and Cooper?

I’m actually in the middle of writing a sequel – I just had to do something with that cliff-hanger ending!

• Your first book, The Day the Plants Fought Back, was shortlisted for the Best First Book prize at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and Partners in Slime won the Tom Fitzgibbon Award. What do awards mean to you as a writer?

Awards are a huge deal for me – it validates my writing and gives me encouragement to keep at it. I had seven years of rejection letters before I got my first book published, so I think it’s a great lesson for my kids, and for other kids (and adults too!), to never give up if it’s something you’re passionate about. I still have to keep pinching myself!

• What books are you and your family enjoying at the moment?

My boys haven’t had much time to read lately as they’ve been super busy with after-school stuff, but some of their favourite books have been the Harry Potter series, and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. As for me, I’m never without a book to read – I always have to have the next one lined up as soon as I’ve finished the last page. I read a real variety – thrillers, comedy, tragedy, YA. One of my favourite junior fiction novels I’ve read recently is Lizard’s Tale by Weng Wai Chan.

Partners in Slime is released in June by Scholastic Books NZ.

Win Partners in Slime by Belinda O’Keefe

Belinda O’Keefe’s latest book, 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. Read my review of Partners in Slime here.

This competition has now closed. Thanks to everyone who entered.

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.

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.