Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Meet the Author: An Interview With Paul Collins

About Paul Collins

Paul was born on Canvey Island, England in 1954. He was raised in New Zealand and moved to Australia in 1972. His first published work was the Western novel 'Hot Lead-Cold Sweat' (1975).  To support himself so that he could write, Collins launched 'Void' in 1975, a science fiction magazine. This was the beginning of a successful publisher career that has sat alongside and supported his writing for many years.

Paul has written many books for younger readers. He is best known for his fantasy and science fiction titles within 'The Jelindel Chronicles' ('Dragonlinks', 'Dragonfang', 'Dragonsight' and 'Wardragon') and his contributions to 'The Quentaris Chronicles' ('Swords of Quentaris', 'Slaves of Quentaris', 'Dragonlords of Quentaris', 'Princess of Shadows', 'The Forgotten Prince' 'Vampires of Quentaris' and 'The Spell of Undoing'). His young adult books published in America are 'The Earthborn', 'The Skyborn' and 'The Hiveborn'. But he has many strings to his bow. He has written over fifty chapter books, around thirty non-fiction hardcover books for the education market (published both in Australia and the US), and two collections of his own stories. He co-edited four boxed sets of anthologies with Meredith Costain ('Spinouts' and 'Thrillogies'), edited twelve trade anthologies, and was the editor of 'The MUP Encyclopaedia of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy'. Paul pioneered the publishing of adult heroic fantasy in Australia and has done much to raise the profile of Australian fantasy and science fiction.

Interestingly Paul has black belts in both taekwondo and jujitsu, served in the commandos, was a kick boxer, trained with the Los Angeles Hell Drivers and has been a pub bouncer! This experience has been put to good use in his fast-paced cyber-oriented tales, which have culminated in the cyberpunk novel 'Cyberskin'.

Paul has published and written many anthologies, including the young adult anthology 'Dream Weavers' for Penguin, the first original Australian heroic fantasy anthology. This was followed by a similar book called 'Fantastic Worlds' and the 'Shivers' series of children’s horror novels from Harper Collins. Hodder & Stoughton published Paul’s next anthology, 'Tales from the Wasteland' in 2000. Collins has also written under the name Marilyn Fate and he and Sean McMullen have both used the pseudonym Roger Wilcox.

Collins’ recent output has been mostly for children. The success of his YA anthology, 'Dream Weavers', and its sequel, 'Fantastic Worlds' encouraged him to write and edit for younger readers. His latest books are: 'The Slightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler', 'The Glasshouse' (illustrated by Jo Thompson) and 'Mole Hunt', the first book in 'The Maximus Black Files'.

He has received a number of awards including the inaugural 'Peter McNamara' prize, the 'Aurealis' prize for fantasy, horror and science fiction. 'The Glasshouse' (illustrated by Jo Thompson) was chosen by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) as an outstanding book in 2011 and has been shortlisted for the Children's Book Council's Crighton Award for illustrators. He has also been shortlisted for many other awards including the 'Ditmar' for achievement in Science Fiction.

You can find a comprehensive outline of Paul's extensive works and achievements on his excellent websites 'The Worlds of Paul Collins' and a second site (here) and also at Ford Street Publishing where Paul is the publisher.

'Mole Hunt'

'Mole Hunt' is the first book in 'The Maximus Black Files'.  It is set in a world where cities can float, people can regenerate at will and humanity has invented new ways to destroy itself. The main character is eighteen year-old, Maximus Black. Maximus works for the Galaxy's law enforcement agency, Regis Imperium Mentatis (RIM). He is charming and brilliant and has a big future ahead of him. He has had a difficult past that included witnessing the murder of his parents when he was just six. He makes it his personal goal to avenge the wrongs he has suffered. He is a cold-blooded sociopath who has a plan that would ultimately plunge the universe into chaos permitting him to take control. There is only one person in his way, an equally clever agent, Anneke Longshadow. Who will triumph?

The story adopts two viewpoints, Black and Longshadow, and moves back and forth as they engage in their deadly encounters.  The plot has many twists and turns as they try to outsmart one another, while avoiding endless peripheral obstacles like assassins and alien bounty hunters. For children aged 11-15 who love science fiction it offers a knuckle ride and exciting adventure as they wage their intergalactic battle.

Interview with Paul Collins

1. What contributed most to your love of story in your childhood years?

Alas, I didn't read books as a kid. In fact, there wasn't a book in our house. To this day no one else in my family has read a book nor does anyone show much interest even in what I write. All very peculiar considering my career. I did however enjoy Marvel Group comics such as The Hulk, Spiderman, Daredevil, Captain America etc. All my pocket money went on these comics.

Is there a single reason (or two) that fantasy is so important to you?

When I finally did start reading I enjoyed Fritz Leiber's Fahryd and the Gray Mouser series, and Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian books. I think my earlier fantasy stories owe a lot to them.

2. Why does dystopian fantasy have so much appeal?

If I'm to be honest, I have a rather bleak view of the future. If the human race hasn't got it right yet, and we haven't, then it never will. On a lighter note, with dystopian fiction, young readers get to test out their own belief systems and moralities without getting too close to the real issues – because they get to empathise with the characters in the books instead. It’s commonly set in bleak or post-apocalyptic landscapes where resources are scarce, and features futuristic technology, mind control, violence and war. It's a very fertile medium within which to write. I also have a history of writing within this genre with The Earthborn Wars (The Earthborn, The Skyborn and The Hiveborn), and Cyberskin, a novel I wrote fifteen years before The Hunger Games, but with a strikingly similar plot.

3. Are there examples of childhood fantasy novels (other than those you’ve written or published) that for you broke new ground?

As mentioned, the Marvel comics greatly influenced me. reviewers often refer to my fiction as "filmic" and fast-paced, which of course is what all comics strive to achieve.

4. Do you have in mind a particular reader when you write fantasy?

Most of my work is for 10 to 18 year-olds. The Jelindel Chronicles were for 13+, but adults tell me they also enjoyed them. The same applies to Mole Hunt. A reviewer for The Fringe said he as an adult enjoyed the book, but he isn't the book's target audience.

5. Would your characters in books like Mole Hunt be possible for you to create without your particular lived experience? If you were an accountant, fascinated by growing native violets and who loved nothing more than watching ‘Dancing with the Stars’ each week, would Maximus have been a different character?

I've lived a rather active life, I have to admit. I have two black belts in martial arts, was a kickboxer and was enlisted with 2 Commando Coy for a brief spell in the 80s. A lot of this comes out in Mole Hunt. But if I were your suggested accountant, I doubt I'd have written such a book. Unless of course I was an extremely frustrated accountant!

6. Is your passion for writing or publishing? Are you a writer who edits and publishes, or a publisher who can write?

I started out as a self-published writer. That was a minor disaster, so I started publishing other authors' books and short stories in anthologies. Meanwhile I wrote as a hobby. My daytime job was owning bookstores and working nights in hotels as a bouncer. In the late 90s I began earning more from my writing than I did from the bookshop I had at the time. I realised I'd finally attained my dream job, that of writing full time. So I sold the shop in 2000 and became a full time writer. I'm currently more of a publisher than a writer, although I do have several books lying around that with a little attention will be very publishable.

7. On a long haul flight to London next week, which two books would you take?

One would have to be "How To Make This Flight Go Fast", and the other would be a much slimmer tome because I'm such a slow reader I doubt I'd get the chance to get to it. Maybe something like "101 Sleep Tips For A Long Flight".

8. What is the best response you've ever had to a book?

I've had some great quotes from people like Isobelle Carmody, Ian Irvine, Allan Baillie and Brian Caswell. I quite like Bookseller + Publisher's quote for Mole Hunt: "Bitingly clever and imaginative, a cross between The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Dexter and Total Recall".

"Thank you Paul for this wonderful insight into your writing, background and personality." TC

Other Posts

All posts in the 'Meet the Author/Illustrator' series HERE

All 'Author Focus' posts HERE

Friday, June 24, 2011

Reading to Lydia

Rebecca Reads To Lydia While Nanna has a first nurse
Our family had the great joy of welcoming the newest child to the family last week. Lydia Grace was born on the 17th June to great excitement. Lydia is my eldest daughter Nicole's 4th child and our 6th grandchild. We are very proud of them both! Just to prove that our children and grandchildren all love books I thought you'd like this photo of Lydia's big sister Rebecca reading her first book to her at the age of just 2 hours!! Rebecca is rarely without a book in her hand and so has begun to set some patterns for Lydia.

For those who are interested you can find more photos on my personal website (HERE).

A first look at baby Lydia

Four Girls now!

And a Big Brother (Plus Dad behind a camera like Grandad)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Writing that Matters

Maria Paula Ghiso has written an excellent article in the May 2011 edition of 'Language Arts' titled "Writing that Matters": Collaborative Inquiry and Authoring Practices in a First-Grade Class.  In the article Ghiso makes a number of important points about children's writing. Her work is based on observations of a classroom teacher who urged Year 1 children not just to write for the teacher. While she accepts that children need to accept the teacher's authority and write because they have been told to, she argues that this must never be the only reason. The teacher she observed demonstrated that authentic writing should be directed by the author's motivations, not those of someone else.

Many decades ago Donald Graves made this same point in his book 'Writing: Children & Teachers at Work' (1983) as a result of his extensive classroom research.  Prior to Graves, James Britton and other English researchers similarly stressed that authentic writing requires a sense of authentic audience; people who want to read the text to find out, be amused, be persuaded and so on.  But while the point isn't a new one, it would seem that some classrooms rarely move beyond assigned writing with the teacher as sole audience. Testing regimes and mandated curricula tends to reinforce this, with adverse consequences for children as writers able to produce diverse, interesting and effective writing that has a sense of voice.

Ghiso observed a classroom where great importance was placed on developing a community of writers. This was characterised by:
The use of a workshop format where students were viewed as writers who had a high degree of control of the choices they made.
The classroom had a 'critical orientation' with young writers made aware that their writing was socially and historically situated and that it should be about things that 'mattered'.
Questions asked of them as writers were not to be seen as a problem but as necessary for inquiry and growth as writers.
Writing was modelled not just as the demonstration of proficiencies in skills like spelling, but first and foremost as something 'making sense and worth doing' because it conveys 'ideas that matter'.

While I have some doubts about the average teacher challenging 6 years-olds to discuss social justice issues, civil rights, and political action, in this community-based school founded by activists from the 1950s, it seemed to have been well accepted by the parents.  While we could be distracted by the specific classroom that Ghiso's work is based on, the piece reminds us that authentic writing is important and that children need to be challenged to write things that matter to them, not just what they think the teacher wants.

This reminds me of a young African American student who I met while teaching a grade 6 in the USA. I team taught on this class for six months and met Chanda the first day. She was a likeable confident young 12 year-old but when we had writing she did nothing.  Many weeks went by with Chanda showing constant resistance to any attempt to get her writing. But one day there was a breakthrough. Just before school commenced I noticed that she was writing something. I asked her what it was and after a degree of coaxing she showed me a folder of songs, a personal folio of music. When I read some of the music I was amazed to see that this 'non-writer' was writing meaningful lyrics that had promise. For Chanda the music mattered but the school writing didn't.
Above: From 'Pathways to Literacy'

How do we encourage 'Writing that Matters'?

I have written elsewhere in detail about the essentials of a writing program that will lead to writers who care about the things they write (here), but the essential principles that will shape good practice are these:

a) Provide time - young writers need time to explore ideas, talk to other writers, note good writing topics, talk to other writers, conference with their teacher, revise their work.
b) Writers need some control over their writing topics - while teachers should assign some writing children need to be able to pursue their own interests and be encouraged as they explore new ideas.
c) Writers need readers who know how to helpfully respond - one of the tasks of any teacher of writing is to develop an environment in which children know how to respond to each other's writing. The teacher will model this but will also give explicit instruction and guidance. Ghiso provides some lovely examples of how Mrs Blanche models this.
d) Writers need to learn the crafts of writing - like a painter, potter or singer, the young writer needs to learn about the writer's craft including grammar and spelling, but also how texts are structured (genre, register etc), where to go to find help, how to research a topic etc.
e) Writers need to see good writing demonstrated - they need to read good writing (e.g. literature), hear good writing, watch good writers involved in the craft, be involved in joint construction of writing, see writers revising their work, hear writers talking about their writing and how they do it.
f) Writers need readers - all writers need people who will read their work, offer praise, simply respond to the content, and at times offer constructive criticism.

Related posts

All writing posts on this blog HERE

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Your Baby Can Read – Part 3

It’s almost 3 years since I first did a review of 'Your Baby Can Read' (YBCR) (here) and two and a half years since my second post on acceleration and 'hot housing' children (here). On each occasion the posts have been motivated by questions from readers of the type ‘What do you think of YBCR?' ‘Is it a good thing to do?’ There is significant interest in programs of this type and over 100,000 people have read the two posts and almost 200 have commented. Some of the comments have been helpful, some quite outrageous. I have rejected 50+ that were anonymous and simply product testimonials or inflammatory in their criticism of YBCR program. How do I feel about the program 3 years on?

I never had a vested interest (even a general interest) in the product, because I saw little of significance in the program. To be honest, my views haven’t changed much, because there is simply no evidence to change my original position and advice given. The YBCR promotional material and various websites have claimed that there is extensive research evidence to support the program. Dr Titzer’s own web page suggests that “Dr. Titzer has become a recognizable expert in the area of infant learning and his work has been published in scientific journals - including the prestigious Psychological Review”. This statement lacks evidence. He does have a single publication in Psychological Review (1999), but it does not even deal with literacy and learning and is unrelated to his product. I am yet to see a single published study that offers evidence in support of the YBCR claims that allay my original concerns expressed in both previous posts.

Like readers of this blog I have seen some of the videos of very young children who have used YBCR reading at a very young age. I have also seen videos that show the same children reading more complex books at later ages. However, many parents of gifted (or even average) children could show you children who are very precocious readers with no formal instruction prior to school entry and yet, just 12-18 months later are reading quite complex novels 6+ years beyond their reading level. The videos are not research evidence and do not counteract my original concerns and warnings as well as a few new ones. The videos are only remarkable in that babies are reading words very early. What is still unclear is whether teaching children to read words in structured (‘school-like’) situations leads to long-term benefit, or if it in fact could have adverse consequences emotionally, socially and cognitively.

1. Does YBCR teach children to read? NO. But, can YBCR teach very young children to read single words by sight? YES. But is reading individual words by sight and memory ‘reading’? No! Certainly not in the fullest sense that I understand reading. Reading involves a search for meaning and understanding derived from written symbols using knowledge of language and the world. Effective readers ultimately need to: learn the sounds of language and their correspondence with print; understand the structure of language and how it works; learn how to use language appropriately for specific purposes; and learn to comprehend, interpret, use, appreciate and critique written texts. YBCR cannot achieve this. Of course, as some supporters of YBCR have commented on my previous posts, many users of YBCR adopt other practices in addition to the product that they purchase (e.g. reading to their children, stimulating their language etc). Research evidence on early reading would suggest that many of the ‘other things’ are probably the reason for the high performance of YBCR ‘graduates’, building on their intelligence and general giftedness, not the ability to ‘bark at print’ or even videos. While I am not suggesting that learning sight words has no value (it does, see some of my previous posts listed below), I am suggesting that children need much more to truly learn to read, and the things they need cost little.

Above: Browsing through 50cent books at an Opportunity Shop

2. What are the long-term positive and negative benefits of YBCR and other programs like it (e.g. does it lead to superior lifetime performance, or even high school)? We simply don’t know, because there is no longitudinal research that addresses this question for this program.

3. Is there evidence concerning the benefit of accelerating children’s learning through instruction? Yes, there is some but it is primarily based on the acceleration of older learners (over the age of 6 years) and it is equivocal. It is inappropriate simply to extrapolate from these studies to the acceleration of preschool children. Even based on the studies of older children, there is evidence to suggest that any academic gains for children who are accelerated are greatest in the early years of schooling with the bulk of benefit disappearing over time. It’s also worth noting that the leading nation in literacy over the last 10 years based on the OECD funded PISA assessment of 15 year old literacy levels in over 70 nations is Finland (recently Japan and Korea have joined them at the top), where doesn’t school starts until age 7 and there are only 9 years of compulsory schooling.

One of my over-riding concerns with approaches like YBCR is that children at a very young age are being placed under the pressure to learn material using repetitive and structured learning, not usually encountered until years later within the context of formal education. I have concerns about unintended effects of ‘hot-housing’ (i.e. intense study to stimulate a child's mind) by parents at home with limited training and knowledge of language development and learning.

David Elkind devoted a whole book to these concerns in the 1980s, ‘The Hurried Child’ (1981) in which he warned against the tendency for some parents to want to accelerate their children’s progress prematurely with little knowledge of what they were doing. Elkind stressed that children need time and appropriate learning strategies to develop normally. He also warned against the temptation to pressure children with simplified learning tasks at a very young age which inevitably end up relying on lower-level cognitive processes such as memorisation, repetition and simple word and sound recognition that could ultimately be at the expense of activities with greater richness and complexity.

4. In an age where time seems limited for family life and interaction with young children, is YBCR valuable use of this limited time? I don't think so. In introducing a program like “Your baby can read!” you are essentially devoting time to structured repetitive learning of a limited type that would probably replace other forms of learning (like play, firsthand experiences, story reading, craft, music etc). I'd encourage any parent in this time poor age who is considering using this program to ask themselves two simple questions: What other things would I stop doing while I use this program? What would be the impact of the loss of this other activity for my children?

5. Would I suggest that you introduce this program to children under the age of 4 years? No.

6. Would I use the program to supplement things like play, story reading, craft, and firsthand experiences for children less than 4 years of age? No.

7. Would I recommend the use of the program with children aged 4-6 years, particularly if they have a disability or learning difficulty? Maybe, if as a parent I wasn’t capable of doing basic sight word drill, because that’s mainly what the program offers.

Summing Up

This blog’s various posts should indicate that I am not against structuring children’s learning from a young age, nor do I see that there is only one way to teach reading. What I do question is the type of instruction that the program Your Baby Can Read (YBCR) at the very young age that it is recommended. The look-say word recognition methods used in YBCR are used in many preschools and schools from the age of 4 onwards, but to start using them before children can even walk is what I continue to question. The benefits of doing this are not clear and require formal research. As well, the potential harm from programs like YBCR to children has yet to be assessed. There are too many good things that you can do with children under the age of 1 year to spend time in formal instruction. This blog offers advice concerning the many benefits of stimulating early learning through language, first-hand experience, the arts, story, play and so on. I would encourage parents with children under four years to concentrate on these things.

Note: While I haven't commented on Glenn and Janet Doman's work, most of my comments about 'Your Baby Can Read' could also be made about the materials and adaptations based on their book (here). Here's one example (click here).

Related Posts

'Stimulating Children's Imaginations' HERE
'What Motivates Children?' HERE
'Stifling Creativity' HERE
'Emergent Comprehension for Children Under Five' HERE
'10 Pointers for Developing Writers' HERE
'Deliberate Play' HERE
'The Importance of Simple Play' HERE
'Firsthand Experience, Literacy & learning' HERE
'Nurturing Creativity in Children' HERE
'Brain Development in Babies & Toddlers' HERE
'The Dangers of Television for Young Children' HERE
'When Do Children Start Writing?' HERE
'Reading With Children' HERE
'Is Phonics all we Need?' HERE
'Basic Literacy Support' HERE

Monday, June 6, 2011

Aussie Book Reviews (Older Readers) - June

This is another of my 'Aussie Book Reviews'. As I tend to share more picture books than novels and graphic novels, I thought in this post I'd stick to books for 10-16 year-olds.  There are so many great Australian books published each year that it isn't possible to keep up with all of them. I will group them in just two categories Graphic Novels/Picture Books and Novels.

1. Graphic Novels/Picture Books for Independent Readers (10-16 years)

'Playground' compiled by Nadia Wheatley, illustrations and design by Ken Searle

This is an unusual book that isn't quite a graphic novel, but then again, it isn't simply a reference book.  Drawing on the stories of 80 Indigenous Australian Elders, 20 Indigenous secondary students and with Indigenous Historian Dr Jackie Huggins as adviser and critical friend, Nadia Wheatley has created a unique collaborative work.  The book offers a wonderful insight into experiences of childhood for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from 1900 to the present. 

With stunning photographs and illustrations, take us into the daily life of Indigenous children (past and present) who are connected with their land from birth. The stories and drawings help the reader to understand Indigenous life in all its facets - learning, playing, understanding and respecting the earth, the first days of life, relationships in families, what 'home' was, languages, daily food gathering and hunting, the place of song, dance, art and ceremony.  Daily practices that changed little for thousands upon thousands of years. With the arrival of European people there have been adaptations, but Indigenous children remain embedded in their culture. Daily life is different, but Indigenous children are still learning from country and community.

'I am Thomas' by Libby Gleeson & Armin Greder

Libby Gleeson tackles a complex topic in a seemingly simple way. Her story could be described as a contemporary parable that brings traditional values and social issues into focus. How do children make their way as they pass from childhood to adolescence? Using a picture book format with minimal words, she touches on the challenges of a child trying to be their own person when immersed in a world that seems to be constraining him to conform. What is my identity, who am I? What do I believe about the world and myself? Armin Greder's crayon illustrations are simple and seem appropriate to the mood of the book and the larger format offers a good palette for her work.

It is an interesting work that tackles an important topic, but I can't imagine why a picture book seemed like the right way to do it. My reading of the book left me with lots of questions. I love Libby Gleeson's work but I kept wondering in such a stripped down telling of her story, why did she choose the life pressures that she did. Are these truly the greatest pressures that children face - school success, conformity to adult views, war and religion? What about sexuality? Substance abuse (particularly alcohol)? Fashion? Body image? Pressures from popular culture? And ideologies of all kinds?

While the excellent teaching notes from Allen & Unwin (here) do address a broader range of issues, the book doesn't do so directly. Granted school success is right up there as a pressure adults place on children. And war and religion might be issues for a small group, but again, are these the dominant issues for many 10-16 year-olds? This is a clever book, but it seems to me that while the topic of this book is important, the execution misses the mark. It feels like a blunt instrument being used when dealing with a very significant issue with so many subtleties and nuances that can't be portrayed in this format. I can't imagine who would buy this book except maybe teachers driven by a desire to help children not to conform, while potentially encouraging them to conform to their own worldview and prejudices.  An interesting book but I was left disappointed.

'Shakespeare's Hamlet' staged on the page by Nicki Greenberg

This is another innovative and ambitious work from Nicki Greenberg. It is an imaginative and epic 415-page graphic novel. Hamlet has become an expressive black inkblot whose form changes shape according to his circumstances and mood. This is not a kid's picture book! Rather, it is one more attempt to present Shakespeare in new forms. Not just to make it more accessible (for some might find some other word-only attempts less challenging) but to tell it afresh.

There is no doubt that Greenberg’s Hamlet is unique. At 400+ pages it is hardly an easy 'read'. But might it not help the young uninitiated reader of Shakespeare to see new things? I'm not sure, only readers 13+ will be able to help us to answer this question.

The language of Shakespeare is given new emphasis as the play is performed on paper. This is a play 'staged' in a book as the title suggests.  It is a very interesting book but I can't help but feel that a retelling like Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories is not a better way in. It is hardly stuff for the poor reader, but more likely the gifted who wants to experience Shakespeare with new depth and relevance. It might just do this for some.

Shortlisted for Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Picture Book of the Year 2011

2. Novels for Independent Readers (10-13 years)

'Surface Tension' by Meg McKinlay

Beautifully situated in the context of a small town flooded by a new dam and this story is told against the backdrop of the dislocation caused to a community. Cassie is born early in the midst of the final flooding as a town watches its past disappearing beneath the waters of a new dam.  From an early age she is fascinated by the town's history, but it is only when she begins to swim in the lake and she is joined regularly by Liam Price (a boy with a tragic past), that the story takes a critical turn.

In the heat of summer as a dry spell leads to rapid falls in the lake it begins to reveal something of its past and with it a strange and dark secret that is linked to Liam's past.  Will they solve the mystery and find the truth before the old town is flooded again? This is a gripping mystery that readers 9-13 will enjoy.

'The Valley of Blood and Gold' by Tony Palmer

It is 1854 and Ballarat is teeming with miners, dreamers and rebels. The goldfields are a place of unrest and strife as large numbers of immigrants flood in to make their fortunes. The Troopers there to protect them are domineering as they seek to keep the peace. Miners are stopped constantly to show their licenses and the local authorities are stifling freedom. It is the eve of the Eureka Stockade battle, and Fintan Donovan is fighting private battles of his own amongst the Irish immigrants. He is torn between his Irish heritage and a new friendship with an English boy named Matthew Ward. But Fintan must make choices. Will he allow his life to be dominated by the hatreds of the old country or is there a new way in a new country?

'Graffiti Moon' by Cath Crowley

Lucy has never met him, but she is sure she is in love with Shadow a mysterious graffiti artist whose work is scattered throughout the city. It is the last night of Year 12 she goes looking for him. Instead, she meets the last guy she would ever 'hook up' with, Ed.  After a disaster of a first date Ed says he knows how to find Shadow. They spend the night tracking down Shadow’s art and learning many things. And Lucy learns much about herself and Ed as they do so.

'Six Impossible Things' by Fiona Wood

"Fourteen-year-old nerd-boy Dan Cereill is not quite coping with a reversal of family fortune, moving house, new school hell, a mother with a failing wedding cake business, a just-out gay dad, and an impossible crush on the girl next door. His life is a mess, but for now he's narrowed it down to just six impossible things..."

This is a book about a boy experiencing first love.  It is loosely based on Cinderella (the main character's name is an anagram of 'Cinderella') but sits well with many traditional tales of rescue and arrival through love. The main character is beautifully developed and makes it easy to be drawn into the story and his highs and lows with his first brush with love. From captivation, to humiliation and all points in between before.....

'Vinnie's War' by David McRobbie

"Vinnie didn't want to be in this place, not with hundreds of miserable kids crowding around him. Everywhere he looked they were sobbing and carrying on as if their hearts would break...."

So opens the prologue of David McRobbie's story of a 12 year-old boy who's fractured life is about to be changed once again by World War II. Like many English children in war torn Britain Vinnie is sent away from the bombing of the London Blitz. What awaits him? With little more left of his old life than his trusty harmonica he is shuffled onto a train bound for who knows where? But here he meets fierce Kathleen, sweet Joey and gangly Dobbs. Three evacuee children find themselves thrown together in the country town of Netterfold, which seems beautiful and peaceful - until they meet the locals.

Vinnie and his new friends find they have their own war to fight as they face up to terrifying teachers, bad billets, and hostile neighbourhood kids who set out to make their lives as 'vaccies' miserable. And when things start to go missing, they discover that there are mysteries lurking in Netterfold's shadows, just waiting to be solved...

This is a beautifully written story as we have come to expect from David McRobbie. While the setting and broad storyline are not original, the particular tale is engaging and well told. Boys and girls 10-16 will enjoy this book.

'The Life Of A Teenage Body-Snatcher' by Doug MacLeod

The title of Doug MacLeod's new book is immediately engaging and the story that follows shouldn't disappoint its teenage readers. Thomas Timewell is sixteen and a young gentleman living in 1820s England. He has a mission, to fulfil his grandfather's dying wish to leave his body to science. He sets out to exhume his body and along the way meets a body snatcher called Plenitude. His whole life changes as he is pursued by cutthroats, a gypsy with a meat cleaver, and even the Grim Reaper.

It isn't every day that the reader is introduced to the fascinating and at times gross world of the resurrectionists; liberators of corpses for the purpose of medical research. But this isn't just a book designed to shock (Doug MacLeod is too good an author for that!); it is an hilarious tale with great suspense, excellent character development and even some love interest. Thomas as narrator is earnest, but always we are on the edge of farce as more bodies are uncovered.

Boys aged 13-16 will enjoy this book and many girls as well, who like grim topics with lots of humour.  The book is on the CBCA shortlist of best books for 2011, and deservedly so!
'The Midnight Zoo' by Sonya Hartnett

It is World War II in Eastern Europe and two gypsy brothers - Tomas and his younger brother, Andrej - have escaped Romany that has been overrun by the Germans. They carry Wilma, their baby sister, in a sack and reach an abandoned town where they discover a zoo. In it they find a wolf, monkey, bear, eagle, lioness, seal, chamois and llama with some surprising events as they contemplate what next. And then, an amazing twist, the starving animals tell the boys what has happened. The boys are scared but they grasped that animals, like people should not be imprisoned.

Sonya Hartnett’s story is a parable that brings into focus the greed and cruelty of people. And yet they learn that with hope and courage we can survive. Hartnett's character Andrej’s offers an insight into the hope, wisdom and resilience that can be found within the human spirit. This is a wonderfully different story that is well told.

The book is on the CBCA shortlist of best books for 2011

'The Piper's Son' by Melina Marchetta

Melina Marchetta, in this her 5th novel, offers us a wonderful story about a group of friends from her best selling, much loved book Saving Francesca. It is now five years later and Thomas Mackee needs to be saved.  But Tom seems to want oblivion instead. He seems to hate the world but deep down the secret is he hates himself. He is kicked out by his flatmates, finds himself in hospital and seemingly on a slippery slope to destruction, but his favourite Aunt Georgie offers slim hope. He pleads to stay with her and his life heads in a different direction.

Tom doesn’t only have his own life to worry about. His father is a former alcoholic whose drinking problem forced Tom’s mum and sister to relocate to Brisbane. He starts working at the Union pub with his old friends and ends up living with his grieving father again.  He realises that his family and friends need him to help them and that it isn't just his life that needs to be put back together.

The big question is will he be able to work out what's important and where he wants his life to lead before his messed up life ends in disaster?

The book is on the CBCA shortlist of best books for 2011. It is suitable for readers 14+.

Other related posts

2011 Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Shortlist (HERE)