Prince of Ponies by Stacy Gregg

2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults Junior Fiction Finalist

Stacy Gregg is NZ’s answer to Michael Morpurgo. Stacy is a captivating storyteller who weaves the plight of animals and humans together with history, adventure and suspense. Prince of Ponies is one of her best.

Prince of Ponies has a duel storyline, one in the present and one in Poland during the Second World War. Mira is a Syrian refugee now living in Berlin. She is bullied at school and her mother appears to be busy working (she is not mentioned much). However, Mira’s life is changed when she meets a spirited pony while walking in the woods. The pony leads her to Zofia, an old woman with an astounding story to tell. Mira agrees to write down Zofia’s story in exchange for riding lessons. As we discover more about Mira and watch her bond with Zofia and her pony Emir grow, we also discover Zofia’s past and her childhood in a Poland ruled by the Nazis. Mira’s skill as a rider grows to which leads to her competing in her first competition.

There is something in this story for all readers – princely ponies, daring escapes, nail-biting competitions, history, and characters who you are routing for. Having read and loved The Princess and the Foal I really liked the cameo of Princess Jana. This was a nice connection between Stacy’s books. I also love the epilogue which connects the story to the history behind it. Stacy always makes this information accessible to her readers.

My only niggle about this book is the cover. Much like Stacy’s other books I really wish the covers were more neutral to encourage boys to read them.

Time Machine and Other Stories by Melinda Szymanik

2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults Junior Fiction Finalist

Like a lolly mixture or a surprise toy you never know what exciting things you’ll discover in a short story collection and this one has something for everyone. In this collection from Melinda Szymanik there’s a magical soup to help with maths, a messy monster under the bed, an extraterrestrial mum, a mysterious crocodile tooth, and a boy who gets kidnapped by pirates. There is a really good range of stories that kids could read themselves or a teacher could read them aloud to a class.

I like how Crocodile Dreaming and Time Machine II are separate stories but also interconnected and they gave me a classic Paul Jennings vibe. They reminded me of watching Round the Twist growing up. My absolute favourite story (and the one I keep thinking about) is The Gift. It’s a haunting story about the lengths a sibling goes to for their sister. It’s one of those perfect short stories that I know I’ll remember and come back to again and again.

Lizard’s Tale by Weng Wai Chan

Lizard’s Tale by Weng Wai Chen is a story filled with mystery, intrigue, spies and secret missions, that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Set in Singapore in 1940 the story focuses on Lizard, a boy who steals a package that dangerous people want to get their hands on. Lizard is just a boy who steals to make ends meet but this latest job leaves him mixed up in Japanese plans to invade Singapore. Lizard’s friend, Lili, is secretly a special agent who is tasked with uncovering more about the Japanese plans. With the help of Lizard and his contacts, and a British girl staying at the Raffles Hotel, they set out to uncover the truth. The gunjin (Japanese military) are known for their ruthlessness and Lizard and his friends discover this first hand.

Lizard is a character who is very resourceful. He lost his parents at a young age and has been brought up by his uncle. His uncle disappeared suddenly several years ago so Lizard has to survive on his wits and the kindness of others. The girls in the story are quite resourceful too – Lili is a fearless secret agent and Georgina doesn’t live the sheltered life her parents believe she does.

Weng Wai Chan gives readers an interesting insight in to Singapore at the start of the Second World War. There are so many different nationalities in the city, from Chinese and Malay to British and Japanese. This is a period of history I didn’t know much about and I found it fascinating.

Lizard’s Tale is a very engaging story perfect for ages 10+. It’s a very worthy finalist in the 2020 NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Mind-Swapping Madness by Tom E. Moffatt

New Zealand’s answer to Paul Jennings is here! Tom E. Moffatt’s collection of wacky short stories will have kids in hysterics.

If you’ve ever thought you might like to swap minds with someone these stories will make you think again. Tom shows us how funny, scary, crazy and totally embarrassing it would be to swap minds with a toad, an evil auntie, a flea, your baby sister and more.

In Mind-Swatting George switches minds with a fly after his brother seats him with an electric fly swat, Ari learns you should never kiss a toad in Croak, and a synchronised sneeze causes Emily to end up in nappies in Bless You.

These stories are perfect for reading aloud, especially to ages 10 and up. I can just imagine a whole class cracking up as the teacher reads it aloud. My favourite story is Soul Beneficiary, where Robert inherits more than he bargained for. It is clever and twisty with a hint of spookiness.

If you enjoyed Tom’s first book, Barking Mad, you need to read Mind-Swapping Madness.

Summer Days: Stories and Poems Celebrating the Kiwi Summer

The days are getting warmer and it’s starting to feel like Summer is just around the corner.  When you think of a Kiwi summer you think of days at the beach, hokey pokey ice cream, pohutukawa trees, jandals and lots of family time.  New Zealand stories and poems that encapsulate a Kiwi summer have been gathered together in a gorgeous new collection by Puffin.

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Summer Days is a gorgeous collection of New Zealand stories and poems that the whole family will enjoy.  Authors, illustrators and their stories have been carefully selected to showcase our Kiwi summer.  Inside these bright covers you’ll find stories from Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley, Pamela Allen, Sandra Morris and Dot Meharry, interspersed with poems by Peter Bland, Fiona Farrell and James K. Baxter.  Each story and poem is beautifully illustrated by some of our best illustrators including Gavin Bishop, Jenny Cooper and David Elliot.

So much attention has been paid to the production of the collection.  It’s hardcover, with a summery design that is stamped into the cover, the page edges are bright yellow,  and it has a ribbon bookmark.  My favourite part of the design though is the ice cream endpapers.  It’s just one of those books that anyone would be happy to get. It leaps off the shelf and begs you to take it home.

Summer Days is the perfect collection for the whole family as there are stories for everyone.  Get a copy for your family this Christmas and spend the summer reading it again and again.

NZ wildlife on show in three gorgeous new books for children

Potton and Burton are the New Zealand publishers who really showcase the beautiful country that we live in.  Not only do they produce wonderful coffee table books full of stunning photographs of our country, they also produce some of the best children’s books in the country.  Their children’s nonfiction and picture books are top quality and introduce kiwi kids to our native wildlife.

Three wonderful new children’s books have just been released from Potton and Burton – Up the River: Explore and discover New Zealand’s rivers, lakes and wetlands, Watch Out for the Weka, and It’s my egg (and you can’t have it!).

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Up the River is the latest book by Gillian Candler and Ned Barraud in their popular Explore and Discover series.  I love this series because it gives children a perfect introduction to different parts of our land and sea and the wildlife that make these environments their home.  Like the other books in the series, Up the River uses simple language, small chunks of text and realistic illustrations to engage young readers.  In this book children are introduced to creeks, rivers, lakes and wetlands and the wildlife that they will find living there.  For most children these environments will be familiar but they may not have thought about what lies beneath the water or who nests in the reeds. Up the River is a fantastic addition to the series and is a book that children will come back to again and again, whether just out of curiosity or for school work.

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As well as illustrating nonfiction books, Ned Barraud also writes and illustrates his own picture books.  Watch Out for the Weka is Ned’s latest picture book and it tells the story of a mischievous weka who steals a DOC hut warden’s watch as he is taking a swim.  Ned takes us to Awaroa Inlet in Abel Tasman National Park, a gorgeous part of the country that lots of birds call home, including herons, oystercatchers and weka.  Weka are always on the lookout for food and something shiny, and one hot, sunny day, while Alf, the hut warden is cooling off in the stream, a weka steals his watch.  Alf gives chase in the nude but quickly loses the weka in the thick bush.  That night Alf comes up with a plan to tempt the weka and get his watch back.  Ned’s style of illustration is quite different from the Explore and Discover books, but the cartoony style matches the humour of the story.  Ned has made the weka look very cheeky indeed and he is sure to make kids laugh.  It is a fun picture book that is based on a true story.  Ned even includes weka facts in the back of the book.

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Heather Hunt’s stunning illustrations of kiwi have featured in several books, including the award-winning Kiwi: the real story.  Her illustrations jump right off the page in her latest book, written by Kennedy Warne, It’s my egg (and you can’t have it!).  This gorgeous picture book highlights the reality of life for a kiwi trying to hatch an egg in the wild.  After laying the egg the female leaves the nest to go and build up her strength, leaving the male to look after the egg until it hatches.  It is not just a lot of sitting around for the kiwi dad though as he has to fend off attacks from predators, including cats, dogs and stoats.  The cat and the stoat look especially menacing as they creep up to the nest in the hope of a meal.  The kiwi fends off each attack though, repeating the line ‘It’s my egg, and you can’t have it!’  I love Heather’s illustrations, especially the way that she creates texture, making the kiwi look fluffy.  This is another picture book that is ideal to share with preschoolers through to the upper end of primary school.

Each of these wonderful books from Potton and Burton are available now in all good bookshops.

 

The Thunderbolt Pony by Stacy Gregg

Imagine that a huge earthquake strikes, destroying your home and leaving your mother badly injured.  You could take the easy (and safe) way out, joining your mother on the rescue helicopter to the hospital.  This would leave your beloved cat, dog and pony to fend for themselves for who knows how long.  You decide that you will do anything to get your animal family to safety, which means a treacherous journey over mountainous terrain and rugged coastline to a ship that will take you to safety.  Not only do you have to cope with aftershocks and a landscape that is forever changing, you also have to deal with the OCD that has taken over your life.  This is what faces Evie in Stacy Gregg’s powerful, emotional new story, The Thunderbolt Pony.

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When a devastating earthquake hits Evie’s hometown of Parnassus on New Zealand’s South Island, she and the rest of the town are forced to evacuate. Evie’s injured mum is one of the first to be rescued by helicopter and Evie will be next. But when realises that she will be forced to leave her beloved pony, Gus, her dog, Jock, and her cat Moxy behind, she is determined to find another way. Before the rescue helicopter returns, Evie flees with Gus, Jock and Moxy in a race against time across difficult terrain to reach the port of Kaikoura, where she has heard that people will be evacuated by ship in three days’ time. Surely there will be space for her, Gus, Jock and Moxy there?

But the journey is harder than Evie could ever have imagined, and with aftershocks constantly shaking, Evie will have to draw on all her bravery, strength, and resilience to bring her and her animals to safety . . . and hope that they reach the boat in time.

I feel that The Thunderbolt Pony is Stacy Gregg’s best story yet.  It is a heart-racing story about a girl who will do anything to save the animals that have become her family.  It is a very emotional story that so many readers will relate to.  You can’t help putting yourself in Evie’s shoes and thinking ‘what would I do if I was told to leave my family behind?’ Although the cover, with the flowery design, gives you the impression this is a story for girls it is in fact a story for everyone.  Girls and boys alike will be absolutely gripped by the story and, like me, will hungrily read it to find out how it ends.  It would be a fantastic read aloud, especially for Years 5-8, as it will keep everyone engaged.

As someone who has lived with constant earthquakes this was an especially emotional story for me.  Stacy Gregg has perfectly captured the feeling of constantly being on edge and not knowing whether the next shake will be a big one or a little one.  Evie knows when there is another shake coming by the way that her animals react (ears back and growling or howling).  Stacy really gives you an insight in to how animals are affected with earthquakes as it’s not always something you think about.  Even the little details like the cows still needing to be milked, even though there was no power to make the pumps work.  When they do get the cows milked using the back-up generator they end of having to pump the milk through the irrigation system because the milk tankers can’t get through on the roads.

Evie is a fascinating character who has a lot to deal with in the story, but she overcomes any obstacles that come her way.  Not only does she lose her home and see her badly injured mother fly off in a helicopter, she also has OCD which causes her to go through different rituals to protect those she loves.  Her OCD was triggered after her father became sick with cancer.  It started with her double-closing doors and got worse after she blamed herself for her father’s death.  Dealing with OCD mustn’t be easy at the best of times, but throw in a huge earthquake and a trek across the mountains and it’s a whole lot to deal with.  Overcoming her condition is a huge part of the story.

Whether you are a pony person, a dog person or a cat person there is a character in this book to please you.  Gus (the pony), Moxy (the cat) and Jock (the dog) are Evie’s family and they are fiercely loyal right to the end.  I loved each of them as much as Evie and I hoped that they would all make it to the end.  There sure are enough incidents in the story that would make you think they might not all make it.

The ending of the story is absolutely perfect and made me want to go right back to the start and read it again.  I would put The Thunderbolt Pony alongside Michael Morpurgo’s stories as Stacy is a fantastic storyteller who tugs at your heart-strings. Whether you are a long-time fan of Stacy Gregg’s books or have never read one of her books you absolutely must read The Thunderbolt Pony.

 

 

Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story by Gavin Bishop

I think the biggest growth in New Zealand publishing for children has been in nonfiction.  There have been some outstanding nonfiction books published by both big and small publishers in New Zealand in recent years, including Anzac Heroes by Maria Gill and Marco Ivancic and the ‘Beginner’s Guide to’ series published by Penguin Random House.  Gavin Bishop’s latest book, Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story, has blown all of these out of the water.  I don’t think there has been another book for children about our history and culture that is as important as this book, and every home, school and library in New Zealand needs to have a copy.

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Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story is a huge book, not just in size but also in the content that Gavin Bishop covers.  Just about anything that a New Zealand kid has ever wanted to know about our country is here in this book, from the asteroid that destroyed most of the life on earth, to the first Polynesian explorers who visited and gave our land the name of Aotearoa, the birds and creatures that first lived here, the arrival of the Pakeha, and the development of transport, education, food and clothing.  Gavin introduces children to famous New Zealanders, famous places, natural attractions and disasters that shook our country.  Not only does Gavin take children in to the past, he also deals with the threats to our future, including pests, pollution and politicians (who don’t listen).  The book is a large format hardback, so it is perfect for opening out on the floor and poring over.

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This book is a taonga, a book to be treasured and read until it falls apart.  It is a book that will keep children and adults occupied for hours and you are sure to notice something new every time you look at it.  Every time I open this book I am amazed at the information and illustrations that fill every page.  It must have taken Gavin Bishop years to create this book but you can really tell that it has been a labour of love.  So much care and attention to detail has gone in to making this book the taonga that it is.   It is a book that the whole family will enjoy as the information is in small chunks and the layout is visually appealing.  Every classroom in every school in the country should have a copy because each age group will get something different from the book.  Gavin explains the history and culture of our country so that anyone who picks it up will be able to understand and absorb it.  All New Zealand children will be able to see themselves and something familiar in this book, from the famous New Zealanders to the food and famous landmarks.

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Penguin Random House New Zealand should be applauded for publishing Gavin’s book and for the care that they have taken to ensure the high standard of production.  Not only does the book look stunning, it also feels and smells like nothing has been spared to publish this important book.

Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story is certain to win the coveted Margaret Mahy Award for New Zealand’s best children’s book next year. If you buy one book for your children this Christmas make sure that it is this one.

 

Scarface Claw, Hold Tight! by Lynley Dodd

Like most kids in New Zealand I grew up with Lynley Dodd’s books.  I got read the Hairy Maclary books and My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes so much when I was younger that as an adult I know them off by heart.  It’s really wonderful being able to share these stories with my daughter now too, especially when she can almost read Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy to me.  It’s great to see that Lynley Dodd is still writing stories starring these familiar loveable characters, and her latest book features that crotchety moggie, Scarface Claw.

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Scarface Claw, Hold on Tight! starts off with old sleepyhead, Scarface Claw sunning himself on the roof of the car.  The next moment though he finds himself holding on for dear life as Tom zooms off down the driveway.  As the scar speeds off down the motorway they go past a trailer of dogs, a logging truck, a school bus full of boys and many other people who try everything to get Tom’s attention. When the Policewoman finally manages to get Tom to stop, Scarface tumbles down from the roof, very unhappy indeed.  He yowls and scowls like the Scarface Claw we know, and Tom takes him, double quick, all the way home.

Scarface Claw, Hold on Tight! will be loved by young and old.  As soon as I got the book my daughter asked me to read it three times in a row and it has certainly become one of our current favourites to snuggle up together and read.  Lynley Dodd certainly hasn’t lost her touch in the 30 or so years she has been writing these stories.  Scarface Claw hasn’t mellowed with age either.  He still seems the same old grumpy cat that he was when my grandmother first read me Caterwaul Caper when I was young.  I remember that story so well because she always used to trip over the word ‘cacophony.’ It’s one of my favourite words and it’s all because of Lynley Dodd.

The story is a joy to read aloud, especially with Lynley Dodd’s language.  There is some wonderful alliteration in this story.  I especially like ‘a lumbering logging truck loaded with logs.’  The illustrations are delightful, especially when you see poor Scarface hanging on to the top of the car.  My favourite illustration is the one of Scarface sliding off the roof of the car.  Scarface is seriously unimpressed and Tom looks quite shocked too.

One question that I’d love to ask Lynley Dodd if I ever do meet her is ‘how does Miss Plum manage to always be in the right place at the right time?’ If you look carefully at the illustrations you’ll also see another of Lynley’s characters trotting along the street.

Grab a copy of Scarface Claw, Hold Tight! to add to your Lynley Dodd collection.

Broken Silence by Helen Vivienne Fletcher

I’ve read my fair share of adult thrillers.  Authors like Dean Koontz and Stieg Larsson have had me on the edge of my seat, reading as fast as I can to find out who did it and why.  I haven’t seen many YA thrillers though, especially not a New Zealand thriller for teens.  When Helen Vivienne Fletcher, a New Zealand author from Wellington, contacted me about reviewing her book I read the blurb and was immediately intrigued.  I needed to read this book about a teenage girl, coping with an abusive boyfriend (among other things) and the stranger on the end of the phone who offers to help.  Helen’s story absolutely lived up to the intriguing blurb and she had me hooked from the very first page.

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A stranger just put Kelsey’s boyfriend in a coma. The worst part? She asked him to do it.

Seventeen-year-old Kelsey is dealing with a lot – an abusive boyfriend, a gravely ill mother, an absent father, and a confusing new love interest.

After her boyfriend attacks her in public, a stranger on the end of the phone line offers to help. Kelsey pays little attention to his words, but the caller is deadly serious. Suddenly the people Kelsey loves are in danger, and only Kelsey knows it.

Will Kelsey discover the identity of the caller before it’s too late?

Broken Silence is a pulse-pounding thriller, full of twists that keep you guessing.  Helen makes you second-guess yourself as you try to figure out who the mysterious caller is.  I can’t think of another book recently that has had me thinking about the story and the characters constantly.  When I wasn’t reading it I was worrying about Kelsey and what would happen next.

Kelsey doesn’t have an easy life.  Her dad walked out on the family, her mum is in a care home with dementia and her boyfriend, Mike, is abusive.  He talks down to her and can turn violent quickly, but will then come back apologising the next day.  He has the worst role model in a violent father who is most often drunk.  Kelsey lives with her brother, Pete, and his flat mates, Aiden and Ben.  One day Kelsey starts getting prank calls, with the person breathing heavily and not saying anything.  The calls escalate to the stage that it’s not just on the home phone and her cell phone, but also on the phone at Mike’s place.  When Mike gets violent after a party the person on the end of the phone offers to help Kelsey.  She tries to break up with Mike but he won’t let this happen and so he attacks Kelsey, leaving her with multiple injuries and unconscious.  When she wakes up in the hospital she learns that someone else attacked Mike and he is in a coma.  Things get even worse for Kelsey as the phone calls keep coming and she tries to figure out the identity of the caller.  As she found out with Mike, those closest to her are in danger unless she keeps quiet.  But how do you keep quiet when you just want the violence to stop and your life back?

Helen really knows how to build the tension and keep you guessing.  There are so many different possibilities of who the mysterious caller could be and I think this is because of the skillful way that Helen builds the characters.  As the story progresses we get to know more and more about the people in Kelsey’s life and this leads you to suspect that it could be this person or it could be that person.  Helen would make me think the caller was one particular character just by something they said or did, but then I would think it couldn’t possibly be them. I have to be honest and say that I didn’t see the ending coming.  The ending is pretty traumatic but there is still a touch of hope that things will get better.

Broken Silence is not the sort of story we see much of in YA fiction but I’d certainly like to see more.  It’s perfect for teens who want a gritty, edge-of-your-seat story but I also know that adults will love it too.  I’d love to see Broken Silence on book awards lists next year as it is certainly a winner with me.  I can’t wait to see what Helen Vivienne Fletcher writes next!

To find out more about Broken Silence or to purchase the book check out Helen’s website – helenvfletcher.com