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.

Across the Risen Sea by Bren MacDibble

A new book by Bren MacDibble is a cause for celebration. Each of her books are unique but you always know it is going to be a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. You also know that you are going to meet kids who are trying to get by in an environment that has been dramatically altered by human neglect. Pollution has caused the bees to die off or noxious weeds have spread causing crops to die. In Bren’s latest book, Across the Risen Sea, sea levels have risen hugely, sending cities under water and humans scrambling for hills and mountains that are now islands.

Neoma and Jag live in a small community on what was once the high ground and that is now their island. They live a gentle life, taking little from the land and scavenging what they need from things that remain of the old world. The risen sea provides them with fish and tinned food can be found in the wrecks of skyscrapers. Their peaceful existence is shattered when strangers from the Valley of the Sun arrive one day, installing a strange electrical device on the hill. Soon Neoma and Jag find themselves caught up in secrets and lies and Jag gets taken away as punishment. Neoma knows that it is up to her to rescue Jag and find the truth that will save her village.

Across the Risen Sea is a captivating adventure story set in a version of our world that is scarily possible. It’s a story of survival against the odds, of justice, of friendship and family. It’s also a mystery, as you try to figure out who the Valley of the Sun are and what their technology does.

While not explicitly stating it, Bren shows us what our world could become if global warming carries on its current course. In her story, massive storms have destroyed cities and the sea levels have risen to cover them, leaving only the higher ground for people to live on. Technology still exists but on a much smaller scale, and is often scavenged from what is left of the old world. Neoma’s little corner of the world is relatively peaceful, with small communities living on the surrounding islands, but the existence of the Valley of the Sun shows us that there are other communities that exist.

One of the things I love most about Bren’s stories is that she shows how strong and resilient kids are in the face of terrible circumstances. Neoma sees injustice in what happens to her friends and family so she sets out to make it right. She has grown up on her island so knows how to survive but she is out of her depth when she sets out to rescue Jag. She faces a cranky crocodile, a massive (and very hungry) shark, an angry pirate and the Valley of the Sun. Even after she has faced huge challenges she is still determined to find the truth and save her village.

I have loved each of Bren’s stories and can’t recommend them highly enough. Across the Risen Sea would make both a great read aloud and a novel study for Years 7-9.

Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling

Dusti Bowling just gets better and better. Each of her books have been totally different but they’re all completely gripping. 24 Hours in Nowhere used to be my favourite of hers but Dusti’s new book, The Canyon’s Edge, has blown the others out of the water. You will need to have a spare few hours to read this in one go because you won’t want to put it down!

Eleanor and her father are emotionally scarred from a shooting that occurred a year ago, taking her mother’s life. Eleanor and her father have been hiding away from the world and have not been able to move on. As a family they spent a lot of time in the desert and were experienced climbers. A year after the incident Eleanor and her father leave civilisation to trek a canyon in the middle of the desert. Things start fine but a flash flood in the canyon leaves Eleanor scrambling to escape the waters and her father washed away. Scraped, bruised and with no supplies Eleanor must brave the heat, the plants and wildlife of the canyon to try and find her father and get out alive.

I read an early copy of Canyon’s Edge back in lockdown (thanks to Edelweiss+) but it’s a story that I keep coming back to. I know this will be one of my top books of 2020. This is Dusti’s first novel in verse (although it does start and finish as a traditional novel) and she absolutely nails it. I love verse novels because of the emotional power of this storytelling and Dusti’s story is perfectly suited for verse. The story is raw, gut-wrenching but ultimately full of hope. I devoured this book because I needed to know that Eleanor was going to be alright. Like Eleanor dying for water I was dying to get back to the story when I had to put it down. It is the kind of story that will grab all kids and I know it will make a fantastic read aloud for Years 7-9 (11-13 year olds). Eleanor faces so many challenges, and just when you think things can’t get any worse they do.

If you haven’t discovered Dusti Bowling you need to read all of her other books before this releases in September.

Lark by Anthony McGowan

I can absolutely see why Lark won the Carnegie Medal. It is a perfect novella that packs an emotional punch and keeps you on the edge of your seat. By the end of the story I felt like I knew Kenny and Nicky intimately.

Lark is the story of the boys’ visit to the moors which becomes a life-changing moment. What starts out as a ‘lark’ or a bit of fun soon turns in to a fight for survival. A blizzard closes in and both boys and their dog are ill-prepared for such conditions. Just when things couldn’t possibly get worse they do and you don’t know if they will make it home again.

Published by Barrington Stoke the book is dyslexia friendly so the chapters (and the book itself) are short. I think it would be perfect for those Year 7-9 boys who are reluctant readers

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.

 

 

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

I loved Dan Gemeinhart’s first book, The Honest Truth. It was heartbreaking but such a great story. I was curious to read his new book, Scar Island (which came in the Scholastic Standing Orders). Wow, this book is amazing!  I’ve just finished it (thankfully my toddler had a long nap today!) and it kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time. 


The story focuses on Jonathan who has committed a terrible crime that he doesn’t speak about. He has been sent to Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys, a crumbling island fortress that was once an insane asylum. Jonathan is here with 15 other boys who have created various crimes and we meet them through the course of the story. The place is cold and wet and the boys get treated horribly, until something happens to the adults, leaving them to fend for themselves. There are no rules – they can eat what they like, sleep where they like and do whatever they want. However one of them decides that he is in charge and things start to get out of control. When a huge storm heads for the island their world starts to crumble and the only way they can survive is if they work together.
Scar Island is like Holes and Lord of the Flies rolled in to one. It is one of those books you just don’t want to put down. When you’re not reading it you’re wondering what will happen next. It’s an adventure story and a survival story with a dash of darkness.  It’s an immersive story too because you can feel and smell the damp, cold fortress, hear the click of the rats scurrying paws and feel the fear and dread of these boys who are trapped.

Dan keeps you guessing the whole way through. Although most of the boys explain why they are at Slabhenge Jonathan keeps dodging the question. Dan drip feeds you details but doesn’t reveal everything until near the end.  You have to keep reading to find out if everyone survives until the end of the story. 

Scar Island is sure to be the perfect book to hook reluctant readers and it would make a great read aloud for Years 7 and 8.

The Road to Winter by Mark Smith

Sometimes you get that feeling when you start reading a book that you know you are going to love it.  Something about it, whether the characters or the tone of the story just clicks with you.  Mark Smith’s debut novel, The Road to Winter, is one of those books for me.

9781925355123Since a deadly virus and the violence that followed wiped out his parents and most of his community, Finn has lived alone on the rugged coast with only his loyal dog Rowdy for company.

He has stayed alive for two winters—hunting and fishing and trading food, and keeping out of sight of the Wilders, an armed and dangerous gang that controls the north, led by a ruthless man named Ramage.

But Finn’s isolation is shattered when a girl runs onto the beach. Rose is a Siley—an asylum seeker—and she has escaped from Ramage, who had enslaved her and her younger sister, Kas. Rose is desperate, sick, and needs Finn’s help. Kas is still missing somewhere out in the bush.

And Ramage wants the girls back—at any cost.

I absolutely loved The Road to Winter, from the first page to the last!  It’s a thrilling story of survival in the aftermath of a virus that wipes out the population.  There’s lots of action and twists to keep you reading, but there are also some lulls in the action that give you a chance to breath and prepare yourself for the next part.  It’s a story that I couldn’t stop thinking about either.  When I wasn’t reading I was wondering what was happening to the characters and how the book was going to end.

Finn’s story takes place in the aftermath of a virus that has wiped out a huge percentage of the population.  The virus affected females mostly so it is mostly males that have survived.  Gangs of men, called Wilders, wander the countryside and control the north where Finn lives.  With a lack of females around to keep them in check these men have lost their humanity and have become violent and ruthless.  You certainly don’t want to bump into them!  Finn has hidden himself away in his house, with a secret store of food, gas, and other supplies, and he and his dog, Rowdy, have survived by themselves fine.  However, when Rose turns up, she brings trouble to Finn’s door and his quiet life is disturbed.  Being the kind of guy that he is though, Finn has to help Rose, both to help her hide and recover and to help her find her sister, Kas.

The Road to Winter reminded me of other books that I’ve really enjoyed, including one of my favourite books, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go.  The tone of the book felt quite similar, as Finn has to try and help the girls escape the clutches of the violent men who want to harm them.  There is the suspense of them evading capture but not really knowing if they’ll be able to outrun them.  The other similarity to The Knife of Never Letting Go that I really liked was the relationship that Finn has with his dog Rowdy.  Rowdy is his constant companion and is incredibly loyal, much like Todd and Manchee.  The story also reminded me of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet because it’s all about Finn’s survival on his own, becoming aware of the land and the ocean to find hidden trails to get around and hunt for food.

I loved Mark’s characters too, especially Finn.  While the other males have lost their humanity, Finn has held onto his and leaves the safety of his home to go out and try to find Rose’s sister.  He cares for the girls and is willing to do anything he can to protect them and keep them alive.  I loved the special moments of hope that Finn shared with the females in the story.  Even with everything that was happening to them they still managed to laugh and enjoy having full stomachs.

My only complaint with The Road to Winter is that now I have to wait to find out what happens next.  I need to know what happens to these characters and whether they can find some peace eventually.  The book comes with a money back guarantee but you are certainly guaranteed a great read and I highly recommend The Road to Winter.

Hang in There Bozo by Lauren Child

You’ve heard of Bear Grylls and James Bond, right? Well they have nothing on ever-resourceful spy Ruby Redfort.  For this year’s World Book Day, Lauren Child (creator of Ruby Redfort and Clarice Bean) wrote Hang in There Bozo: The Ruby Redfort Emergency Survival Guide for Some Tricky Predicaments.  It’s the cheapest and most accessible survival guide you’ll ever read.

Ruby Redfort: secret agent, detective, thirteen-year-old kid. And now… survival expert.

It’s not always possible to skip around smelling roses, ’cos sometimes you’re too busy gripping onto the cliff edge by your fingernails. But 99 times out of 100 it’s worth hanging in there bozo: just as things can get worse so too can they get a whole lot better. In this handy pocket-sized book, Ruby will give you the low-down on how to survive a whole bunch of tricky situations. So long as you keep a cool head, buster, you can make it out of there alive …

Hang in There Bozo is the ultimate survival guide, packed with tips and tricks from Ruby Redfort herself.  If you you’d like to know how to survive in the wild, but can’t stand Bear Grylls, you need to read this book, written in Ruby’s unique voice.  If you’ve read any of Lauren Child’s Ruby Redfort books you’ll know that Ruby likes to use the words ‘bozo’ and ‘buster’ a lot, and there are rules that she lives by.  This is all here in this book, along with heaps of really great survival tips like:

  • How to stay calm in a life-and-death situation
  • How to make a fire and find water
  • How to navigate using the stars or a compass
  • What to do if you’re lost in the desert or marooned at sea
  • How to charm a snake – ‘Don’t even go there buster’
  • What to do if you should meet a bear – ‘Wish you hadn’t’
  • Dealing with individuals who you know are dangerously dull

The best thing about this book is that it’s pocket sized so you can take it everywhere (especially when you go camping) and it’s only $4.99.  It has to be the cheapest, but most awesome, survival guide ever!

Guest Author: Melinda Szymanik on A Winter’s Day in 1939

Today I’m joined by the wonderful Melinda Szymanik, author of the powerful new book, A Winter’s Day in 1939.  Based on her father’s experiences during World War II, A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a story of family, the harsh realities of war, and the fight for survival against the odds. Melinda has written a really interesting post for My Best Friends Are Books about why and how she wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939.

Why and How I wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939

When the Soviet soldiers come and order them out, Adam and his family have no idea where they are going or if they will ever come back.  The Germans have attacked Poland and the world is at war. Boarding a cattle train Adam and his family embark on a journey that will cover thousands of miles and several years, and change all their lives forever. And mine too. Because Adam’s story, the story told in my new novel A Winter’s Day in 1939, is very much my Dad’s story.

I often heard fragments of this story from my dad when I was growing up.  It was shocking, and sad, and amazing.  My Dad’s family was forced out of their home and taken to a labour camp in Russia. It was freezing cold, and many people died from disease or starvation. Even when the Soviets finally let them go, they spent weeks travelling around the USSR , were made to work on Soviet farms and were still hungry and often sick, with no idea of where they might end up next.  As a child growing up in a peaceful place like New Zealand it was hard to imagine the real dangers and terrible conditions my father experienced.

I didn’t get to know the full story until I was grown up with children of my own and was regularly writing stories for children.  I wrote a short story, also called A Winter’s Day in 1939, based on a single event I knew fairly well  from my Dad‘s childhood – when Soviet Soldiers first come to order them off their farm, the only home my father had known up till that point in his life. The story was published in The Australian School Magazine.  I showed the short story to the publishers Scholastic who liked it too. They wondered if I could turn it in to a novel.  This was a chance to tell my father’s story. By now I knew it was an important story that should be shared

Luckily my Dad had made notes about his life during World War Two; about twenty pages all typed up.  However I know people’s real lives don’t always fit into the framework of a novel and I knew I would have to emphasize some things and maybe leave other things out.

I read and researched to add the right details to the story. And asked my parents lots of questions. How cold was it in Poland in January 1940? Who or what were the NKVD? What were the trains like? What are the symptoms of typhoid? How do you make your own skis? Some information was hard to find. Some of the places that existed in the 1940s aren’t there anymore. And people didn’t keep records about how many people were taken to the USSR from Poland or what happened to particular individuals. But what I wanted to give readers most of all was a sense of how it felt to live that life.  So this then is the story of a twelve year old Polish boy in the USSR during World War 2 that all started on A Winter’s Day in 1939.