You’re never too old for picture books : Part 2

De la Peña, M., & Nelson, K. (2013). A nation’s hope: The story of boxing legend Joe Louis. New York, NY: Puffin Books. [Sophisticated picture book, non-fiction, biography]


There is a section of my clientele who will read anything boxing related, so I got this one for them. Matt de la Peña’s text is written in verse, which lends a satisfactory rhythm to the story. However, it is the illustrations that make this a much enjoyed book. The double page spreads add atmosphere and tension with their composition and use of colour. And the detail is stunning.  My favourite is the back cover.


Suitable for upper primary and above, though historical context (eg, Jim Crow laws) may need explaining.

Themes: race, heroes, resilience, perseverance, hope

Find out more about A Nation’s Hope here.


Mizielinska, A., & Mizielinski, D. (2014). Maps. Scoresby, VIC: Five Mile Press. [Sophisticated picture book]maps

Maps is larger than your average book. It is beautifully crafted with lovely, thick pages. And its double page spreads of countries and continents just beg to be poured over with a friend. Each country’s map contains main cities, famous landmarks, native animals, facts and other points of interest. The quirky illustrations are a perfect accompaniment to the out-of-the-ordinary information. The boys at my school love to gather round this book in groups and discuss the things they find. They find the New Zealand map particularly controversial and argue about what they would include if they made the editorial decisions.

Suitable for all ages.

Themes: N/A

Read more about Maps here.


Szymank, M., & Bixley, D. (2016). Fuzzy doodle. Auckland, New Zealand: Scholastic. [Sophisticated picture book]


Aaaaargh! I love this book so much it makes me speechless! It is quite new into the library so I haven’t had a chance to observe the students with it yet, but I love it on so many different levels. Firstly, the story, which is told in verse. It can be read in two ways: as a straightforward caterpillar transformation story, or as a metaphor for the creative process. Fuzzy Doodle is the idea that must be feed.

But my main love for this book is the illustrations. They are divine! The illustrations demonstrate various artistic styles and use different interesting media as well. The printing process is a mystery to me, but whatever shiny black material is used just begs to be touched. I shared this book with our HOD of Art and she loved it almost as much as I did – it’s always nice to have your opinion backed up by an expert! And I haven’t even told you about the different text styles that have been used and how they convey meaning. This is one of those books that I know that I would use a lot if I was still teaching in the classroom.

Suitable for all ages.

Themes: creativity, growing, metamorphosis, transformation

Find out more about Fuzzy Doodle here and there is a teacher resource here.

You’re never too old for picture books : Part 1

I have loved picture books my entire life. I still have all my childhood picture books. And I used picture books regularly in the classroom when I was teaching. Since becoming a high school librarian I have really missed keeping up with the latest titles.

This year I decided it was time to update my school’s sophisticated picture book section (though I call them “illustrated texts” to keep them free of teenage stigma). I’ve spent a bit of time, money and National Library loans looking for the best books to add to our collection.

These books will never show their worth with issuing statistics, but they are browsed heavily and there is nothing I enjoy more than seeing teenage boys surrounding a picture book and enjoying it together. Here are some of the boys’ and my favourites.

Tregonning, M. (2016). Small things. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. [Sophisticated picture book]


This is a wordless picture book about a young boy struggling with anxiety and a whole lot of worries. The black and white illustrations are breath taking. That such detail and expression can be shown in two-dimensions will never cease to amaze me. New detail emerges with each re-reading of the book and this is a book that demands to be re-read. This is a sad story, however, it ends on a note of hope. Suitable for upper primary and above.

Themes: friendship, loneliness, anxiety, worries

Find out more about Small Things here.


Munroe, R. (2015). Thing explainer: Complicated stuff in simple words. London, UK: John Murray. [Sophisticated picture book, non-fiction]


This book does exactly what it says on the cover: it explains things, complicated things, in simple words. What it doesn’t tell you on the cover is that it’s FUNNY! Every day things, like elevators (aka “lifting rooms”) and batteries (aka “power boxes”), are explained in diagram form and labelled with everyday language. My personal favourite is the explanation for water rooms, or bathrooms as they’re more commonly called! Brought to you by the xkcd guy.

Themes: N/A

Read more about Thing Explainer here.


Säfström, M. (2016). The illustrated compendium of amazing animal facts. New York, NY: Ten Speed Press. [Sophisticated picture book, non-fiction]


This is a beautiful book full of random animal facts. The illustrations are black and white and add a touch of whimsy to the fascinating facts. My favourite one is of these adorable sea otters:


A great book for dipping in and out of.

Themes: N/A

Find out more about The Illustrated Compendium of Amazing Animal Facts here.


Feel free to suggest other great titles to me in the comments!


Review: Dear Vincent by Mandy Hager

Hager, M. (2013). Dear Vincent. Auckland, NZ: Random House. [Realism]

rsz_dearvincentTara’s life is not so good at the moment.  She’s had to stop going to school in the afternoons so she can work part-time at an old folks’ home.  Tara’s mum needs her help to pay the mortgage on the over-priced house that is slowly rotting around them.  Her dad is housebound by the stroke that paralysed him six years ago, and when Tara’s not at school, or work, she’s caring for him and running the house so her mum can work night shifts.  On top of this, Tara had to move to a school that her mum could afford and she hasn’t made any friends.  And after recently discovering the truth behind the death of her troubled older sister five years ago, it has all become a bit much.

If this all sounds a bit bleak – it is.  However, there are brushes of light in the story: the growing friendship with Max, one of the old folks Tara cares for, and his grandson; the introduction of philosophy to her life; the connection with her family back in Ireland; and, perhaps the greatest cause for hope, Tara’s talent and passion for painting.  Through her art, Tara is able to express the emotions that she feels unable to verbalise – and those around her are able to see the pain she’s in and offer the help that she is incapable of asking for.

I got a bit frustrated with Tara at times.  Yes, she’s got it tough, but when others try to reach out and help her she shuns them.  And then when some of the girls at her school offer her sympathy and share some of their troubles, she thinks that must be unpleasant for them but no one has it as bad as her.  However, Mandy Hager is such a good writer she walks this thin line really well.  The book is bleak, but not too bleak; Tara is a bit frustrating, but you still care about what happens to her and wish her well.

I won’t be putting a ‘seniors only’ sticker on this book in our school library, however, I will be lending it with care.  It needs to be read by students who are robust enough to hear the bleak story, but not be seduced by the idea of suicide.  It should give students food for thought about how destructive suicide can be on a family.  And hopefully make them be a bit more forgiving towards the adults in their lives – you don’t always know the full story of those people closest to you…

Review: Trouble in Time by Adele Broadbent

Broadbent, A. (2014). Trouble in time. Auckland, NZ: Scholastic. [Fantasy]

rsz_trouble_in_timeTwelve-year-old Ben is grumpy that he has to move out of his bedroom into a caravan in the backyard.  In fact, he’s almost as grumpy as the 91-year-old great-grandfather that has displaced him from his room.  Ben knows right away they are not going to get along.

But then Ben gets a bit of a fright.  One day, after school when no one else is home, the old man is not moving in his chair – and he doesn’t respond when Ben calls out to him.  Could he be…dead?  When Ben goes to shake his great-grandfather to check his status, he suddenly finds himself transported back to 1935, and face to face with 12-year-old George, his future great-grandfather!

The two relatives begin to enjoy their time slipping for different reasons: Ben enjoys participating in the rural activities that are not available to him in his modern city life, while George enjoys reliving his youth and his body feels younger when he returns to the present.  However, it is not all positive when time travel is involved.  The two quickly learn that what they do in 1935 has consequences in 2014; they need to take care with what they do, limit the visits they make – and they certainly shouldn’t tell anyone else what they’ve been up to.

There soon develops an understanding, respect, and friendship between the two generations.  Especially when they discover that someone else is time slipping – and that their intentions may not be so benign…

I really enjoyed the interplay between Ben and George.  The time travel has a neat explanation, and timey-wimey plot holes are avoided.  This book really makes me hope that when my 94-year-old grandmother appears to be dozing, she has actually time slipped back to Mackford Farm up the Mokau River and is having a grand old time making mischief with her sisters.  Thanks for this, Adele 🙂

I got my copy of Trouble in Time from Napier Boys’ High School Memorial Library.

If you’re not allowed to take our books out try Napier Libraries.

Review: Monkey Boy by Donovan Bixley

Bixley, D. (2014). Monkey boy. Auckland, NZ: Scholastic. [Historical fiction]

rsz_monkeyboyposter1I’ve said Monkey Boy is a historical novel, but in reality Donovan Bixley has created a genre-defying book.  It’s part history, part war story, part ghost story, part coming of age story, part graphic novel and all action!

Jimmy Grimholt is the youngest and smallest sailor aboard the warship HMS Fury, as it heads out into the English Channel to fight off Napoleon Bonaparte and his army.  Jimmy’s job is to be a powder monkey to the gun crew of Blasting Betty, a 32-pound cannon.  The powder monkey’s main task is to run to the magazine store, the most dangerous place on the ship, and retrieve bags of gunpowder to enable his gun crew to charge their cannon.  A dangerous enough task when walking, but a potentially deadly duty while running during the heat of battle and the ship is being peppered with enemy cannon shot.

The main action of the novel revolves around the warship’s wait for the inevitable battle with Napoleon.  However, there is added action through the use of time slip, as we learn more about how Jimmy ended up in the Royal Navy at such a young age.  There is also conflict with the other powder boys on board, his superior officers, and a ghost or three lurking on the ship.

This book should appeal to a wide range of kids, with its humour, historical fact, gross out moments, great cast of characters and Bixley’s perfect use of illustration – which add tension and detail to the story without a lot of extra text.  Recommended for ages 10 and up.

monkey boy inside

Review: Reboot by Amy Tintera

Tintera, A. (2013). Reboot. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. [Fantasy]

rsz_reboot-au-coverWren is a Reboot.  She was dead for 178 minutes before she ‘rebooted’.  Wren came back to life stronger, faster, with a self-healing body, and less emotional.  The longer Reboots are dead, the less human they are – and Wren 178 is the deadliest Reboot of all.

All Reboots are collected up by a private medical facility called the Human Advancement and Repopulation Corportation.  In exchange for feeding and housing the Reboots, HARC use them as their own private army and laboratory rats.  Of course, all this is for the greater good.

Wren never questions the status quo, life is easier inside HARC than it ever was in the slum where she grew up.  But then she meets Callum, a new Reboot trainee, who was only dead for 22 minutes – he is practically still human.

This meeting sparks a series of events that causes Wren to question everything she knows: about HARC, being a Reboot, and what it is to be human.

This is a fast-paced, action-packed page turner.  Being an old cynic, I rolled my eyes a bit at all of the darting looks and brushing kisses; however, most teens should enjoy this better-than-average zombie apocalypse novel.

And who could resist those awesome page edges?!


Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

Green, J. (2005). Looking for Alaska. New York, NY: HarperCollins Children’s Books. [Realism]


Miles Halter has decided to move schools.  He’s heading to Culver Creek, a co-educational boarding school in another state, in search of the Great Perhaps.  Miles seeks a world where things are possible and finds this world opened up to him when he meets his roommate the Colonel.  Along with the Colonel and his friends, Alaska, Takumi and Lara, Miles becomes involved in illicit smoking and drinking, acts of revenge against other students and the greatest prank that Culver Creek has ever seen.

And then it happens.  One of the friends dies.  This causes Miles to ask big questions about love, life and suffering.  He obsesses over how this death happened and the part he played in the tragedy.  Miles questions his friendships and what happens once you’ve gone.  He questions his interest in collecting people’s last words and what the point of the Great Perhaps is.

This book doesn’t shy away from the tough things in life.  It explores friendship, love, grief, redemption and hope without flinching, but it does it with humour and without patronising or belittling young people.  There is some coarse language and sexual content in this book.  It is not gratuitous or explicit in nature, however, it may shock more sensitive readers.  Recommended for ages 15 and up.

I got my copy of Looking for Alaska from Napier Boys’ High School Memorial Library.

If you’re not allowed to borrow books from them you could try Napier Libraries.

Review: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Riordan, R. (2005). Percy Jackson and the lightning thief. London, UK: Puffin Books. [Fantasy]


Percy Jackson has trouble at school.  He’s dyslexic, has ADHD, and is attending his sixth school in six years.  Things just seem to happen around him; like in the fifth-grade when Percy accidentally shot the school bus with a cannon during a field trip, or the time in fourth-grade when his entire class ended up swimming in a shark pool.  What could possibly go wrong with Percy’s latest school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

It turns out quite a lot.  When Percy’s maths teacher attacks him in a quiet spot of the museum he is forced to protect himself and accidentally vaporizes her.  With a ballpoint pen.  This sets off a chain of events in which Percy discovers that he is a ‘half-blood’; his mother is human but his father is one of Ancient Greece’s great gods – it’s just no one’s quite sure which one.  Percy is soon sent on an important quest.  If he is successful he will stop a giant battle being waged between Zeus and Poseidon.  But if Percy fails, it will be disastrous for the whole planet.

This is a fast-paced adventure that plunges straight into action in the first chapter.  Percy tells his story with great humour and lashings of snark.  The short chapters will attract less confident readers, while the inclusion of Greek gods and their mythology will appeal to those more able and knowledgeable readers.  Recommended for ages 9 and up.

I got my copy of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief from my nephew.

If your nephew doesn’t have a copy you can grab one from Napier Libraries.

Review: The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton

Blyton, E. (1978). The enchanted wood. London, United Kingdom: Beaver Books. [Fantasy]


This book was a favourite of mine during my early primary school years.  I think I was first exposed to it as a class read-aloud in Standard 1 (Year 3) when my mother was my teacher.  Once the class had finished listening to The Enchanted Wood I quickly went off to read the rest of the series independently.

The Faraway Tree books focus on three children who have lived in town all their lives, but now find themselves transposed to the countryside due to their father’s job.  The children find their new surroundings idyllic, and are soon exploring the Enchanted Woods close to where they live.  Inside the woods they feel magic all around them, and discover whispering trees, brownies meeting on toadstools and talking rabbits.

The children are soon led to the Faraway Tree where a strange mixture of creatures have made their homes.  And at the to of the tree a ladder leads to different fantasy lands, which are hidden inside large, fluffy clouds.  It is these lands that add the adventure to the books; they change at irregular intervals, sometimes with little warning, and are not always pleasant places for the characters to be.

There are many fairytale qualities to The Faraway Tree books.  There is plenty of action, the stories move quickly, and are often humorous (McCahon, 1999).  There are also spells, magical creatures, and a threshold to cross to get the characters into new lands (McCahon, 1999).  There are multiple conflicts in each book, usually centering around the land at the top of the Faraway Tree; depending on which land it is, it will either create or solve the problem the characters have.

The Enchanted Wood appealed to me in middle childhood for a number of reasons.  I liked the idea of a magical place being hidden in such an ordinary, accessible place – I lived on a farm surrounded by bush, could there be fantastical lands at the top of one of our trees?  I liked the atmosphere of excitement and suspense (The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, 2011) that the ever-changing lands created – would the children end up in the Land of Birthdays with all those delicious things to eat, or would they find themselves in Dame Slap’s school where the sticky buns turned into stale bread and you got slapped if you couldn’t answer the nonsensical questions correctly?  There is also great humour in these books, from the names of the magical creatures to the ways in which the children outsmart the mean adult-types they find at the top of the tree.

Enid Blyton’s book was first published in 1939 and I have recently spotted newly jacketed copies at the bookshop.  I guess this illustrates The Open Polytechnic’s (2011) point that fantasy stories do not date as quickly as realistic fiction.  Though I did notice that Fanny’s name has been changed!


I got my copy of The Enchanted Wood from my bookshelf.

You can find a copy at Napier Libraries.


McCahon, R. (1999). Fantasy, folklore, myth and legend. Lower Hutt, New Zealand: The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand.

The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. (2011). Module 1: Children and young people – developmental stages, literacy, and literature. In 72276 Literature and information resources for children and young people. Lower Hutt, New Zealand: Author.

Review: The Big Tidy Up by Norah Smaridge

Smaridge, N. (1970). The big tidy up. New York, NY: Golden Press Book.


I loved this book as a child, especially if one of my parents was reading it to me.  It’s physical condition today shows that it was obviously in the “high rotate” pile; despite being mended several times, the pages are no longer attached to the cover.

From memory, the main reason I loved this book was that Jennifer, the protagonist, was not your stereotypical, neat little girl (probably why George was my favourite character in the Famous Five too!).  Jennifer lived in squalor and was quite happy to do that even after she had been told off by her mother – who doesn’t love a rebel?  I also loved the illustrations, despite never having been a fan of the colour pink; I liked the bright colours, the chaos of Jennifer’s bedroom, and finding where the cat was hidden amongst her mess.  There is also a humour in the illustrations that matches that of the text.  The story is told with rhythm and rhyme, which is why it makes such a great read-aloud.  And I can still remember the first page verbatim (as can both parents!), even though I have read this book only five or six times in the last 30 years.  I also remember being extremely disappointed when Jennifer gave up her life of scruffiness and turned into the neat little girl her mother wanted her to – the first half of the book was always my favourite!  And who could resist those endpapers?!


I think the humour, rhythm and rhyme of the book still work today.  I do wonder about the illustrations though.  They are sort of an odd mix of stylised people, and accurate and detailed objects.  I think if the style was more consistent, with all objects being more stylised, the illustrations would probably work better for a modern audience.  I’m also quite torn about the themes of the book.  Yes, it’s important for children to know that they have the security of being loved and accepted in their homes, and that there comes some responsibility with being a member of a family.  But the way that Jennifer is turned from a messy, active, jean-wearing girl into a tidy, dress-wearing girl who waits patiently on the end of her bed just doesn’t sit well with the adult me.  And I don’t even know if changing the genders of either the parent and / or the child in this story would fix that feeling.

I got my copy of The Big Tidy Up from my bookshelf.

It’s not available from the library – way to make me feel old!