Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Tag: junior fiction (page 3 of 3)

Review: Diary of a Would-Be Princess – Jessica Green

Diary of a Would-Be Princess book coverDiary of a Would-Be Princess is an enjoyable work of junior fiction with a personable and realistic protagonist. Jillian is spirited and headstrong, but she’s also extremely kind – a trait that becomes more and more apparent as the book goes on and she gathers her growing group of grade five outcasts. Her voice is very strong and is pleasantly consistent throughout the novel.

The book is structured as a year-long journal that Jillian and her classmates are required to keep as an ongoing assignment in school. This allows for my favourite part of Diary of a Would-Be Princess – the short comments from Jillian’s teacher, Mrs. Bright, at the end of most weeks. These are perfectly reminiscent of the type of comments I used to receive on similar journals that I wrote back when I was in school, and offer a good additional perspective on events.

The downside to the structure is that I felt like the book was one term too long. By the end, it felt a little like the same territory was being re-covered, just with a slightly different focus, and this coloured my overall opinion of the book somewhat.

Nonetheless, it remains a likeable work, with a message of acceptance and friendship that is capably hidden beneath accounts of everyday life in grade five. Jillian has grown in herself by the end of the novel, but she has also helped those around her to achieve their own successes, something that sets Diary of a Would-Be Princess aside from many other books with similar themes.

Review: Escape from Year Eight – Anna & Mary K Pershall

I picked up Escape from Year Eight when I saw it in the library because I remembered reading the second book in the series and not hating it. I also didn’t hate this book – but I’m afraid I can’t really say that I liked it either, unfortunately.

I could deal with the wishy-washy plot and supporting characters, but there were a few messages here that I didn’t find appropriate for the young readers it’s aimed at. Firstly, there’s a pervasive anti-fat thread within the novel. Kaitlin’s mother used to be overweight, but now seems obsessive about staying extremely thin, to the point of not having anything remotely fattening in the house. Kaitlin herself freaks out at the idea of eating anything fattening at all, to the point of pushing aside a lunchtime cheeseburger after only a few bites. What’s more, one peripheral character, Simone, is present in the book only to be mocked for her weight and dedication to her study.

There’s also ample use of terms like “spaz” (including have the love-interest do “a jerky little dance like a spastic person”) and “retard”. I’m not trying to suggest that year eight students (or eighth grade students, in this case) don’t use terms like that, but I don’t think that kind of obnoxious and insensitive behaviour needs to be presented in fiction as being normal and okay.

Finally, the authors touch upon the topic of mental illness. Leon’s mother is portrayed as having ongoing issues that mean she struggles as a parent and talks to inanimate objects. She is fairly sympathetically portrayed – although this is limited by the way the kids all talk about her – and it is more the exploration of Leon’s own issues that struck me as a little naïve. We’re presented with a boy who doesn’t talk for a couple of years, who seems to have suicidal ideation, who points guns at people and who hears voices, and then we’re told that being sent to an alternative school in a big city is the only way his parents and the authorities are trying to help him.

Ultimately, though, Escape from Year Eight wasn’t for me because I just couldn’t like its protagonist. Kaitlin is petty and shallow and often downright cruel. She goes along with bullying and even participates in it, without showing any real signs of learning from her mistakes. She is probably quite realistic, in this sense, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about her. So no, I didn’t hate this book, but unfortunately I didn’t really enjoy it, either.

Review: The Tunnels of Tarcoola – Jennifer Walsh

The Tunnels of Tarcoola book coverWhen Allen & Unwin announced the release of The Tunnels of Tarcoola, I knew I needed to read it, because it sounded just like a modern, Australian version of all of the Enid Blyton adventure and mystery stories I adored as a kid and still gain a great amount of pleasure from as an adult. Luckily, once I got my hands on a copy, I wasn’t disappointed at all. Jennifer Walsh has done a great job of taking a tried and true format for children’s mystery fiction and updating it to make it her own.

One of the great things about The Tunnels of Tarcoola is the way that it has such a strong sense of place. Set in Sydney, it has a very Australian feel with a solid historical foundation. Much of the mystery in the novel concerns events that happened during the Second World War, and Walsh does an admirable job of explaining the basics of the war to young readers without it feeling too didactic at the expense of plot or action. I was particularly impressed by the appropriately age-targeted Holocaust discussion.

While the mystery that the friends stumble upon has its roots in the past, the novel remains relevant to modern readers due to to its engaging characters. It takes a little while for the reader to get to learn about the cast’s individual quirks, but the characters are well distinguished both in terms of personality and their interactions with each other. There’s a very small amount of romance here, but it’s at an age appropriate level and doesn’t detract at all from the main focusses of the novel.

I did feel a little uneasy about the use of the term ‘slutty’ at one point, particularly as it was used to describe a group of twelve-year-old girls. It’s misogynistic at the best of times and, given its meaning, I don’t think the word has a place in a middle-grade novel. Likewise, the recurring theme of the police being dismissed as an option because they wouldn’t do anything about crimes against children struck me as being a dangerous opinion to be put forward in a book for young people – especially when it is a parent figure expressing that point of view. That said, I understand why this stance was taken in terms of plot advancement.

All in all, however, The Tunnels of Tarcoola was an extremely enjoyable read, with a great mystery and characters that are easy to become invested in – from Kitty, David, Andrea and Martin right through to the elderly Clarissa Woolf. There’s plenty of action and exploration, too, which ensures that it really is a worthy addition to the children’s mystery genre.

I would have no hesitation in recommending The Tunnels of Tarcoola to middle grade readers – or, indeed, to people of all ages who love the Famous Five books and other Enid Blyton series.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Hot Ticket – Tracy Marchini

Juliet Robinson feels like the only sixth grade student at John Jay Junior High who is yet to receive a hot ticket – a card awarded for doing something judged to be cool by the anonymous ticket dispenser. Determined not to be remembered for that dubious distinction, she embarks upon a quest to discover and reveal the student (or teacher!) behind the tickets and to stop their distribution for good.

Hot Ticket is an extremely fun novel for younger readers. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that has felt so perfectly pitched towards an audience. I would have lapped this up in upper primary school – and loved every moment of it as an adult as well.

One of the things that makes Hot Ticket work so well is its great cast of characters. In Juliet, Tracy Marchini has created an entertaining, and yet realistic, protagonist. She is clumsy, overly-spontaneous and often thoughtless, but it is such fallibility that makes her so easy to identify with. She’s also creative, tenacious and quick to attempt to right any wrongs she may become aware of, and I think it would be difficult for any reader not to like her. She has an incredible energy that’s very well portrayed.

The supporting characters are similarly well drawn. Lucy is the perfect foil to Juliet’s bold nature, providing a little calm where needed. She is definitely given a personality of her own, however and, although she isn’t as large on the page as her best friend is, she’s very likeable nonetheless. Crammit is great as the former victim of Juliet’s loud mouth turned friend (and possibly more). Any hint of romance is perfectly played out for the young audience of the book, which I definitely appreciated. I’m not a fan of junior fiction that shows kids acting like teenagers or adults when it comes to romance.

The best thing about Hot Ticket, however, is the plot. It’s a mystery concerned with exactly the kinds of things that its audience cares about. It explores ideas of popularity and exclusion, of peer influence and self-esteem, and does it in a way that can’t help but hold the reader’s attention. There is no obvious moralising here, but there are good messages to be gleaned amongst the humour of the situations that Juliet gets herself into. Young readers will love Hot Ticket because they’ll care about its storyline and will be able to fit it into their own world. They’ll be able to understand Juliet’s frustration and anxiety because they’ll have experienced similar situations themselves.

The only negative for me was the fact that there were a few grammatical errors and typos within the text. The book wasn’t full of them, by any means, but there were enough for it to be noticeable.

Despite this, I would have no hesitation in recommending Hot Ticket to young readers. It’s wonderfully age-appropriate and just so much fun.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Moon Coin – Richard Due

The Moon Coin book coverGrowing up, Lily and Jasper loved to listen to their Uncle Ebb’s tales of life in the Moon Realm, a fantastic universe filled with such creatures as horse-sized, cat-like Rinn, giants, merfolk and dragons. When Ebb goes missing, however, Lily discovers and accidentally activates his pendant, transporting herself to another world. As she quickly learns, the Moon Realm is not only an uncle’s bedtime story – and is also not as safe and happy a place as Ebb had always depicted it.

The Moon Coin is a fantasy novel for junior to young adult readers. It boasts a richly envisioned and detailed universe and a strong plot that perfectly complements the novel’s genre and setting. Although Richard Due’s Moon Realm debut is long for the middle grade market, the fast moving action found in the latter three quarters of the novel should ensure that younger readers remain engaged despite its length.

In fact, one of the things I particularly enjoyed about The Moon Coin was the way that Due does not talk down to his young readers. The book employs a rich vocabulary, giving its audience opportunities to learn new words in context. Despite this, the language is not pitched too high to be age-appropriate.

Due to the vastness of the universe depicted in The Moon Coin, it is not surprising that the reader is introduced to a good number of characters within the pages of the novel. As a protagonist, Lily is certainly easy to identify with, as an outsider thrust into a fantastic realm. My difficulty lay in the fact that she seemed a little too ordinary, once shown against the more-interesting inhabitants of the Moon Realm, and I tended to be more interested by their stories than her own. I imagine, however, that she (and Jasper) will become more rounded as the series unfolds.

There is certainly no shortage of intriguing characters in the novel, from Ebb himself through to the mysterious Ember. I personally loved the Rinn; they fit right into one of my favourite fictional archetypes. In particular, I greatly enjoyed the noble Nimlinn and the dedicated Roan, and hope that they will both feature more in later Moon Ream books. For those who aren’t quite as interested in giant cats, the moon of Dain provides such intriguing characters as master swordsman Dubb and the cursed Tavin.

It would not be right to review The Moon Coin without at least a brief mention of Carolyn Arcabascio’s lovely illustrations. As well as illustrating the cover of the novel, she has provided images at the beginning of every chapter. They are rather wasted on my Kindle but, luckily, I was able to view them on my computer as well, and they add a great deal to Due’s work. I particularly appreciated having a visual reference for the appearance of the Rinn. (That’s one on the cover, for those who aren’t in the know.)

While I enjoyed The Moon Coin once Lily was in the Moon Realm and I had grown accustomed to the universe, I did struggle a little to get into the novel at first. The chapters leading to the discovery of Ebb’s pendant felt a little drawn out to me, and I had a little difficulty understanding all of the unusual creations within Ebb’s house. It is once the setting changes, however, that Due’s true abilities as a storyteller become evident, and the intricately described universe of the Moon Realm is the highlight of the book.

Young fantasy lovers should greatly enjoy The Moon Coin – and adult fans of the genre might be well-served by picking it up as well.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Solstice Conspiracy – Lee Rawn

The Solstice Conspiracy book coverWhen Beth and her family move into a run-down house, she expects her greatest challenge to be leaving behind her old friends and trying to fit in at a new school. Instead, she discovers a magical secret in the house’s overgrown garden, leading to her making some unexpected new friends and a cultural revival for the garden’s oldest inhabitants.

The Solstice Conspiracy is a fantasy novel for young readers that breathes new life into the old idea of fairies living at the bottom of the garden. Although it draws a lot from the tradition, it is firmly placed in the present, meaning that readers will be better able to identify with the challenges faced by the protagonist, Beth, and her brother, Chris. Beth, in particular, finds it difficult to make friends at her new school, and also struggles with a family who still views her as a child, despite her feeling as though she is becoming quite grown up.

Beth herself is a very likeable protagonist. Caught between life stages, she occasionally experiences frustration, but never comes across as being whiny or petulant. She is generally kind and empathetic, but will stand up for herself when necessary, meaning that she never becomes annoyingly ‘good’. Chris, as seen through his sisters eyes, can occasionally be a little less sympathetic, but he experiences growth as the book progresses and his character is elevated through the changes in his and Beth’s relationship.

The fairies, imps and other magical beings within the novel will be familiar to readers of Enid Blyton and other masters of the genre. Of the individual characters, Maeve is the most memorable, and her personal story provides a strong dramatic counter to the good deeds being carried out by the children.

While The Solstice Conspiracy is a fun story that should prove engaging to young readers, I would have liked to see the situations that Rawn introduces being expanded upon a little more, to truly carve a niche within the genre. Several times, the reader is presented with the possibility of danger, only for it to prove easily overcome. In particular, I felt that the climax of the book moved a little too swiftly – so much so that I became confused due to the suddenness of certain events. Of course, brevity is the key when it comes to junior fiction, so there is an understandable struggle to balance content and length.

The Solstice Conspiracy was introduced to me as a novel for young adults, but I would personally recommend it for a younger audience. The plot and issues faced, along with the age of the protagonist, will possibly lack appeal for teenage readers – especially those who like their fantasy in the form of paranormal romance! As a junior fiction offering, however, I think it hits its mark perfectly, and primary school-aged children should find a lot to like in Rawn’s novel.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Railway Children – E. Nesbit

I’ve always loved E. Nesbit’s stories, but somehow missed reading this one until now. Just as lovely and old-fashioned as the rest.

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