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Book Review – Playground by Nadia Wheatley

Hi everyone and welcome to my fifth book review. Since I have just been on holiday in Australia, I decided that reviewing an Australian author would be a cool thing to do. Not knowing which book to review, I rocked up to the counter at a local bookshop and asked the assistant for a favourite picture book by an Australian author. She duly presented one to me.  The front cover held lots of promise, including a gold sticker proclaiming it as a short-listed book in the Australian Children’s Book of the Year award a few years ago, so I purchased it with some excitement and without opening it.

My philosophy is to always give an honest review. Unfortunately, while I love the quirky illustrations in the book I purchased, I can’t ignore the two very bad examples of forced rhyme and the cliché around which I suspect the whole book was built.

So, I have abandoned that review and have decided to review instead Playground, a collection of indigenous stories from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people compiled by Nadia Wheatley, an Australian writer with an extensive publishing background in picture books, novels, biography and history.

Playground isn’t a picture book, it’s a book with pictures. The pictures are illustrations or photographs interspersed throughout the text. The text is dense but engaging. The title refers to the notion that playing and learning are one: “As kids journeyed with their families from place to place, it was often impossible to tell the difference between playing and learning” (from the Introduction). And from the section The right way of learning: “Older kids also pass on knowledge to the younger ones, especially in the playground of the bush.”

The book is divided into sections that roughly follow a child’s learning journey. Nadia’s introduction to each section and each storyteller is in a rust colour to differentiate it from the actual stories. The stories themselves are written in the voices of the storytellers. There are stories from elders who remember the old ways, stories from the stolen generation and stories from young people growing up in the twenty-first century; some of them don’t make for easy reading. The connection to land, family and tradition is a strong thread throughout the book. In the introduction Nadia writes, “The culture that underlies these narratives is holistic: everything connects no matter which way you come at it.”

While the suggested audience for this book is upper primary, secondary and adults, the stories are accessible for younger children, especially if read aloud by a parent or caregiver.

I appreciate that this blog has a primarily US audience and this book may seem far removed from America. However, I believe that books like this are crucial for all of us who live in a land first occupied by indigenous people. Nadia Wheatley, while not Aboriginal nor a Torres Strait Islander, has compiled these stories with care and empathy, allowing the voices and emotions of the storytellers to shine.

Footnote: Except for the cover, the images on this page are general images from Australia intended to give a feel for the book but they are not from the book itself.

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Book Reviews

Book Review – The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown

“Here and now, we say to Barnett and Jacoby: We SEE what you’ve done. You’ve paid tribute to a woman who changed picture books. Forever.”  —Kirkus Reviews

Margaret Wise Brown by Consuelo Kanaga 

The important thing about The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett and Sarah Jacoby is that it’s a book. It is one of the most interesting and unusual picture books I have read. If you pick it up expecting to read about Margaret Wise Brown’s life in chronological order, prepare to be surprised. If you pick it up expecting to read a fully formed snippet of one aspect of Margaret Wise Brown’s life, prepare to be surprised. If you expect this to be a book just about Margaret Wise Brown, prepare to be surprised.

This book is in chronological order – sort of. We are told the date of Margaret’s birth, what she did as a child, a bit about her as an adult, what she did as an author and how her life ended, all in order. In between, there are tangents and side stories. You never know quite what you’re going to get on the next page: perhaps it’s Margaret Wise Brown swimming naked in cold water or having a tea party with Ursula Nordstrom on the steps of the New York Public Library. Or perhaps it’s something that doesn’t seem to be about Margaret Wise Brown at all.

It has a pick-and-mix feel; it can be opened at almost any page and the event savored, much like Margaret Wise Brown’s own books. Nothing is what it seems. From the first page the reader is set up to be told a list of important things about Margaret Wise Brown, but turn the page and there is more about books in general than there is about Margaret Wise Brown. Turn the page again and there is more about writers in general than Margaret Wise Brown. There is a quick summary of Margaret Wise Brown’s childhood focusing on her pets and particularly her rabbits, short précis of three of her books, a bit about her dog Crispin’s Crispian and other short snapshots of her life. There are three double-page spreads devoted to the librarian Anne Carroll Moore and another three devoted to Margaret’s interactions with Anne and the New York Public Library in general, including her tea party on the steps with Ursula Nordstrom.

A surprising thing about this book (or perhaps it is an important thing) is that it is about more than Margaret Wise Brown. It’s about books and writers and challenges. It’s about taking risks and being free to explore storytelling in unusual and unexpected ways, just as Margaret Wise Brown did. This book pushes picture book boundaries. Perhaps you can only do this if you’re Mac Barnett but I hope not.

Barnett and Jacoby, I also see what you have done. And the important thing about The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown is that it’s a book.

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Book Review – The Diamond and the Boy by Hannah Holt

Welcome back to the book review section of The Wonder of Words. For those who don’t know me, I trained as a chemical engineer before I started writing. I also have a science-obsessed daughter who had us read The Natural History Museum Book of Dinosaurs to her when she was four, and who was receiving adult books on astronomy, science and nature for her birthdays from an early age. My favourite of her birthday books is The Elements by Theodore Gray. It is visually spectacular and the text is very readable, challenging and, at times, funny. The page on carbon is fascinating.

Which brings me to the non-fiction picture book, The Diamond and the Boy by Hannah Holt (who, incidentally, is also an engineer). The Diamond and the Boy is a remarkable book about graphite (aka carbon), diamond (aka carbon) and Tracy Hall (the man who created the first diamond-making machine). The book is popular in review circles and Hannah has also discussed her process on a number of blogs, so I will try to bring something new to the discussion.

Creating non-fiction picture books that engage the child is no easy task. There are facts you can’t fudge for the sake of a story and in the past, those facts have been presented in a relatively dry manner – facts must be boring, right? Thanks to the wonderful selection of non-fiction children’s books on the market this has changed and we are seeing books that stay true to the facts and also present an engaging text for children. I could have chosen any number of remarkable non-fiction books to review, so why The Diamond and the Boy?

The Diamond and the Boy appeals to the engineer and the parent in me. It’s a book that humanises science. It’s a book I wish I’d had for my science obsessed daughter so I didn’t have to wade through dry facts each night. The lyricism creates evocative reading. The parallel narratives set up a metaphor for Tracy Hall being as tough as diamonds without being clichéd. But it also shows that you don’t have to be tough to succeed. It demonstrates key attributes parents would like for their children: curiosity, determination, patience, perseverance and resilience.

The Diamond and the Boy is also a book about grandparents. Tracy Hall is Hannah’s grandfather. This isn’t apparent in the main text, however, the back matter on Tracy’s life shows the relationship they had and the relationship Hannah wanted. In fact, all the back matter in this book is excellent reading. Hannah doesn’t shy away from the issue of blood diamonds and she presents the history of diamonds and Tracy Hall’s legacy in a timeline.

The incorporation of science, engineering, biography, history and human relationships and traits in one short picture book is a marvel. To present it in a way that feels authentic and natural is what makes this book remarkable.

Book Reviews

Book Review – The Mapmakers’ Race by Eirlys Hunter

Welcome back to the Wonder of Words book review section. Last time I reviewed Once Long Ago and talked about the importance of traditional tales as part of a child’s book collection. This time I am reviewing New Zealand author, Eirlys Hunter’s middle-grade novel, The Mapmakers’ Race.

Sal, Joe, Francie and Humphrey Santander’s father hasn’t returned from his latest expedition. Worn out with worry and with no money left, their mapmaking mother chooses to enter the family in the Mapmakers’ Race. Contestants have 28 days to find and map the best route through the unchartered wilderness from Grand Prospect to New Coalhaven. With a prize pool that will solve almost all of their problems what have the Santanders got to lose? Unfortunately, a lot. When the children’s mother is left behind at a train station en route to the start line, the children are stranded in Grand Prospect not knowing what to do. Finally, they decide to embark on the race by themselves, hoping their mother can catch up.

What ensues is a madcap adventure as the Santander children do their best to make their parents proud in spite of dangerous terrain, terrifying beasts, villainous adults and each other. Every day provides a new challenge for the children and they overcome each one through quick thinking, experimentation and perseverance. While not set in our world, the story is not completely fantastical either: perhaps the best way to describe it is magical realism set in a world similar to our own with just a splash of steampunk. Some of the scenes could be a little scary for younger children but I am a firm believer that in the safety of a book children need to see dangerous and scary scenarios worked through and overcome.

Eirlys Hunter has devised a strong cast of characters and an engaging plot to create a true adventure story where overcoming obstacles to meet the final goal is key. Not only does she write adventure with skill, but in the story’s down moments she also has a beautiful way with words. Here is a taste:

The moon hung so big and bright that he could barely make out any stars until he turned his back to the moon and looked towards the dark horizon where there were tens, then hundreds, then thousands of stars pulsing silently – chips of ice in an infinite, frozen world.

Alongside Hunter’s rollicking text are illustrations by Kirsten Slade whose map drawings add shape to the story.

If you are interested in investigating further, there is the Look Inside feature on Amazon plus an extract in the New Zealand online magazine The Sapling. The Mapmakers’ Race can be purchased at Amazon or the Book Depository. If you are in New Zealand please support your local bookstore or order online at The Children’s Bookshop, Wellington.

Book Reviews

Book Review – Once Long Ago

Once Long Ago, the book I read as a child until it fell apart, is the book I have chosen for my first review.

Once Long Ago: Folk and Fairy Tales of the World, first published in 1962 by Golden Pleasure Books, is a collection of 70 traditional tales from 49 different cultures retold by Roger Lancelyn Green and illustrated by Vojtěch Kubašta.

As well as compiling myths, legends, and fairy tales from around the world, Green was a biographer of children’s writers and a member of the Oxford literary group, the Inklings, along with J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.  In Once Long Ago, Green’s writing retains the fairy tale format of earlier versions while creating a magic that appealed to me as a child, and still does as an adult. My old favourites, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Snow White, are all included and I quickly gained new favourites: the Australian tale, The Bunyip, the Flemish tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and the Norse tale, Why the Sea is Salt.

I have read questions online about how accurate Green may have been in writing stories from cultures other than his own. We have to remember that this book was published in 1962 and to have a volume of such diverse tales from a wide range of cultures is to be commended. I am choosing to believe that Green researched these stories thoroughly and took due care and time when creating his versions of them. The English story, The Three Bears, does support this view since there is no Goldilocks in sight. Instead, the original character, a little old woman, is the antagonist.

Not only is this book a fine example of great storytelling, it is also a work of art. Born in Vienna, Kubašta moved to Prague when he was four. He studied architecture and civil engineering but soon moved into his life-long career as a commercial artist and book designer. He is perhaps most famous for his pop-up books. His illustrations in Once Long Ago are bold, bright and filled with emotion: the image of the old witch on her raft of snakes in the Armenian tale Zoulvisia is impressively evil, the arrogance of the chicken in the Spanish tale The Half-Chick is cleverly depicted, and my favourite image of all, that of the girl in the English tale Coat of Rushes accepting her new silver dress from the fairy, is hauntingly beautiful.

A few years ago, for a significant birthday, I treated myself to my own copy of the book to the tune of $NZ500 ($US330). It may seem odd that I am reviewing a book now classed as “hard to find” and costing a fair penny to buy should you find a copy. What I want to illustrate is the need for children to be exposed to traditional tales, and not just those of their own culture but stories from all around the world. I learnt about people different to me through these tales and I would like to think this created a strong foundation for fairness, acceptance and tolerance. I encourage you to find a modern collection of traditional tales from around the world; one filled with stunning illustrations and magical stories, preferably one where the stories are written and illustrated by people who grew up with them. Since this is such a personal choice I can’t recommend what volume you buy, but I can say that if your children read it until it is faded and frayed then it is a book well-loved and one they will carry with them forever.

About

Welcome to The Wonder of Words

Welcome to our blog, The Wonder of Words. We are a team of writers focused on children’s literature. We are excited to explore various features that encourage readers and writers of all ages to explore more children’s books. Postings will be on the first and third Saturday of every month. Feel free to review our bios and learn more about us and our focus. Thanks for stopping by!

Candice Marley Conner

An avid reader of fairy tales, Candice takes turns with her Mermaid Girl and Dinosaur Boy on who plays the villain. Evil cackles have been mastered by all. She and her family love exploring any sort of watery, magical place, be it beaches, swamps, rivers, and even mud puddles.

Candice is a member of SCBWI and an officer for the Mobile Writers’ Guild. Her debut picture book Sassafras and her Teeny Tiny Tail will be published in 2019 with Maclaren-Cochrane Publishing. You can find her work in collections such as Pieces: A Mobile Writers’ Guild Anthology, Fireflies & Fairy Dust: A Fantasy Anthology, Chicken Soup for the SoulBabybug Magazine, and online at Mothers Always WriteMamalode, and The Good Mother Project.

She adores discovering how books go from a wispy spark to something you can hold in your hands, so her posts will focus on finding creativity and interviewing authors on how their books came to be.

Gabrielle Schoeffield

When she isn’t conjuring up ways to embarrass her teenager, Gabrielle enjoys travel, exploring, and researching new book ideas. If you need her, try looking in the cornfields where you may find her listening to the wind rustling through the corn or the thunder of horse hooves on the wind as they engage in a battle at Gettysburg over 150 years ago.  Her passion for writing is reflected in her weekly newspaper column and her blog, Butterfly Kisses and Silly Wishes, where she shares her thoughts on life, love, and the pursuit of a writer’s dream.  Gabrielle is an active member of SCBWI, Maryland Writers Association, and graduate of Children’s Book Academy.

Gabrielle will blog an A to Z mashup of writing ideas, from alliteration to the zany journey to publication, and everything in between.

Katharine Derrick

Katharine loves reading books until they fall apart. The first book she read like this was a huge volume of folktales, called Once Long Ago. Unfortunately, it was on loan; she hopes that when her mother returned it to the original owners, they understood just how much that book was loved.

Once Long Ago started a life-long search for story.  Katharine’s first published work was a fifty-word micro; more recently she has been published in Takahē magazine with her short story ‘The Auburn Trail’. She has had numerous pieces of flash fiction appearing online in Flash Frontier, one of which gained her a Pushcart nomination. She is a key organizer for writing events in Northland, her local district in New Zealand, and teaches applied writing at a local polytechnic. Her current works-in-progress are picture books and a YA novel.

Katharine will be reviewing children’s books from picture books through to young adult novels to find out what makes them spark.

Sandra Sutter

Sandra doesn’t know any dragons, bears, werewolves or yellow-bellied marmots, but she loves to write about them. A wife, mother, and master finder of silver linings, she fuels her creativity with coffee, craft beer, and an extra-helping of vacations.

You’ll find Sandra happily learning more about her craft in online courses, conferences and critique groups. She is also an assistant for the Children’s Book Academy writing and illustration courses. Her debut picture book, The REAL Farmer in the Dell, a humorous, modern retelling of the popular children’s song, is set to arrive spring 2019 with Clear Fork Publishing. Sandra focuses primarily on writing fiction and nonfiction picture books with heart and humor, as well as fun and adventurous chapter books. There is also a good versus evil, suspenseful and somewhat romantic young adult project just waiting for her to finish one day. Stay tuned, and read more about her writing at: www.sdsutter.com.

Look for Sandra’s blog posts under the title “Pitch It to Me”. For each post, she will select one picture book pitch to review and share alongside her alternative pitch for that story and a third, guest contributor’s pitch for readers to vote on a favorite. May the best pitch win! And hey, no matter what, the lucky writer will end up with feedback on three fantastic pitch ideas and a complimentary critique from yours truly on the full manuscript. Submitting your pitch for the next post is easy!

  • At least two (2) weeks prior to Sandra’s next post, send your pitch to: sandra@sdsutter.com;
  • Write “PITCH IT TO ME” in the subject line and keep the pitch to 70 words or less;
  • Place the pitch in the body of the email (attachments will be disqualified);
  • Sandra will email the winner with instructions for sending the full picture book manuscript (<700 words fiction; <1000 words non-fiction);
  • After the contest, Sandra will send the winner a complimentary critique on the manuscript.

Tina Shepardson

Tina was that child who wrote pages and pages of stories and tied them together with ribbon and yarn. Those paper-tied books opened doors to many babysitting jobs and eventually her teaching career. An award-winning teacher for over 29 years, Tina has shared thousands of books with children. Now she’s a Debut Picture Book Study Group Admin, a Children’s Book Academy graduate and course assistant, and an active member of 12×12 and SCBWI.  Find her in Upstate New York with her family, walking their Akitas, teaching, and enjoying the latest snowstorm. Learn more at http://www.tinashepardson.com/.

Look for Tina’s blog posts under the title “Best In Show”. Each post will center on the art of showing versus telling. She will provide strategies and interviews from authors on how they find just the right words to show their story.

Yvona Fast

Yvona began writing at age ten when she won a $25 bond for her essay, My Favorite American—despite the fact that she was an immigrant and had only been speaking English for a little over a year. In 1993, she contacted the editors of Christian Single magazine with a one-line query. ‘Happenings in Siberia’ was her first published piece.

She’s gone on to publish many more articles, poems, and essays on topics ranging from health and cooking to disabilities and careers. Her weekly column, ‘North Country Kitchen’ has run each week since 2005 in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. Her books include Employment for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-Verbal Learning Disability: Stories and Strategies (2004), My Nine Lives (2011), Garden Gourmet (2013) and Different (2017).

Yvona has taken numerous writing classes, participates in several critique groups, and is an active member of SCBWI and the Adirondack Center for Writing.

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The Journey Begins

Welcome

We are a team of writers aiming to engage readers, young and old alike, in children’s literature.

Candice, Gabrielle, Kathy, Tina, Sandra and Yvona.