History to mystery, Barbara Murison

Juggling with Mandarins
V M Jones
HarperCollins, $16.99,
ISBN 1869504623

The Serpents of Arakesh
V M Jones
HarperCollins, $14.99,
ISBN 1869504771

My Story – Journey to Tangiwai
David Hill
Scholastic New Zealand, $15.95,
ISBN 1869434994

Aunt Effie’s Ark
Jack Lasenby
Longacre Press, $16.95,
ISBN 1877135844

Evil Fred
Kylie Begg, illustrations Jacob Leaf
Scholastic New Zealand, $13.95,
ISBN 1869435583

Fred the (Quite) Brave Mouse
Murray Ball
Scholastic New Zealand, $24.99,
ISBN 1869435982

This collection of children’s books is an eclectic one. Their characters range from canine to murine, from feline to human, and the genres take in history, mystery, fantasy, evil and straight-out over-the-top wackiness. Four were shortlisted for the New Zealand Post Book  Awards – Children and Young Adults 2004.

V M Jones is a rising star. Her first book Buddy won both the junior fiction category and Best First Book in last
year’s New Zealand Post awards, and this year she had two titles shortlisted in the fiction section. It is probably not surprising that the mother of two sons writes about boys. These are always basically nice guys but with a major problem to work through. Pip, in Juggling with Mandarins, has a real difficulty with his father. He’s one of those unhappy dads who push their children into a sport then stand on the sideline at Saturday soccer issuing instructions and challenging the ref’s decisions. At home there’s an older brother, brilliant at sport of course, who is at pains to keep his younger sibling in his place. Then Pip discovers he has a talent of his own – he is an ace at indoor rock climbing.

Vicky Jones cleverly constructs this whole scenario so that the reader is brought from crisis to crisis, willing Pip to win, for his father to keep his self-esteem which is rapidly flagging, and for big brother Nick to get the comeuppance he deserves. The book ends with a series of almost unbearably nail-biting tensions and plot twists.

Adam, in The Serpents of Arakesh, Book One in The Karazan Quartet, also by Vicky Jones, does not have family problems as he is an orphan. His self-esteem has also dropped to zero and he can only look forward to a bleak future without friends or prospects. Then by a fortuitous twist of fate, he finds himself taking part in an assessment of a new and highly sophisticated computer game. If this reviewer has a least favourite genre it must be books of fantasy, but this is addictive writing and I couldn’t stop reading.

A clever plot, a group of disparate characters who visibly develop as the story evolves and a believable story make this and Juggling with Mandarins books 10 to 12 year olds, boys and girls, will really appreciate.

Another boy, Peter Cotterill, is the diary keeper in David Hill’s Journey to Tangiwai, one of the titles in Scholastic’s My Story series. Peter, a boy of the 1950s, appears quite a square guy who goes to Scouts and Cadets, has a paper run, feels puppy love for the girl next door, worries about the way he looks but all the time, as he records in his diary, is aware of a menace which will change his whole life slowly creeping closer as the months go by.

Journey to Tangiwai is full of everyday details of reality in 1953 – Sunday closing, caning in schools, Saturday night dances – all intensely interesting to adults who lived through the period but I wondered how much it would appeal to today’s young readers. However, Andrew, a Year 9 student from Tawa College in Wellington said, “Peter wrote his diary in such a way that it spurred me to read on as the crisis rose.” That crisis is covered in the last 30 or so pages of the book and although it does not step out of the narrator’s character, it is written, as Andrew suggests, in the succinct way that David Hill manages so well. We are given a close-up window on a night of unforgettable horror, although through it all, Peter never loses his sense of humour. This is a book that will have appeal over a wide age range from around 10 years up.

Jack Lasenby’s Aunt Effie’s Ark is the only book in this group not shortlisted for this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. However, his awards in the past include the Esther Glen Medal in 1989 for The Mangrove Summer (Oxford), the AIM Junior Fiction Award in 1996 for The Waterfall (Longacre), and in 1999, the New Zealand Post Senior Fiction Award for Taur (Longacre).

Jack Lasenby began his writing career in quite a modest manner with books about New Zealand birds and animals. However, students at the, then, Wellington Teachers’ College who heard him, on many occasions, tell and elaborate the story of “Saucy Nancy” (never, as far as I know, appearing in a published form) should have realised there was a torrent of wit and talent about to be released on the world.

Aunt Effie’s Ark, a sequel to Aunt Effie  (Longacre 2002) is set mainly in the Vast Untrodden Ureweras. Aunt Effie herself makes only a small appearance right at the beginning of the story as she realises a cold and unpleasant winter is about to hit the country, dresses herself in green canvas invalid’s pyjamas and goes to sleep. It is over to her 26 enterprising nephews and nieces to ensure they and their barn full of animals survive the storms. This is a story for readers from around eight to 12, although many much (much) older readers will appreciate the richness of the banter and comedy.

Two Freds end this cluster of children’s books. The first, Evil Fred by Kylie Begg, with appropriately nasty illustrations by Jacob Lea, is about a small dog being trained in wickedness by his scheming and truly awful family, the Rancids, whose life-style is behaving as badly as possible. Fred, however, does not have a bad bone in his body, is more a candidate for Guide Dog selection. He manages to thwart the wicked schemes that are put his way by saving photo albums, a whistling canary, and a screaming baby from a burning house deliberately set on fire by Mr Rancid, bringing a small boy out of a three-week long coma when the Rancids are set to sabotage the hospital, and by rounding up a flock of wandering sheep let loose on the road by the Rancids, of course.

This is a book many adults will approach with a small shudder as they view the revolting ploys of the Rancids well-documented in detailed illustration. But it is a story where good and evil battle it out to a satisfying conclusion, although the Rancids are not totally vanquished. Because of Fred’s heroic actions they, his owners, are offered a contract worth several million for him to appear in an on-going dog food commercial. With the profits, and having given Fred to the small boy now recovered from his coma, they open a school teaching Rudeness and Bad Manners – but in the seediest part of the town. For boys and girls around eight to 10, but also a bonanza for those who find the whole reading thing a bit of a bore.

In Fred the (Quite) Brave Mouse, written and illustrated by Murray Ball, the reader is introduced to characters as far removed from Dog and his friends from Footrot Flats as it would be possible to imagine. Fred, orphaned after his mother is eaten by a passing owl and his father drowned in a bowl of cornflakes, sets off, somewhat timidly, into the world. His mission is to find love from someone who will be willing to share his mouse hole. Within minutes he has met Matilda, a small mouse with a long beribboned pigtail falling down her back, who is determined to accompany him.

At first he rejects the idea that she may be the one he is looking for. One suspects this is because she is just that little bit brighter and more intelligent than he is. After many adventures, which give Fred a chance to prove his courage, fortitude and simple problem-solving skills, the plot neatly turns back on itself and allows the now-contrite owl to save the lives of the two about-to-be lovers. “We’ll live happily ever after,” says Fred, his tail entwined with Matilda’s. “OK,” she says, then adds, “but after what?” This is one of those satisfying books that can be read with enjoyment by anyone with a sense of humour from around eight years up.


Barbara Murison is a children’s book specialist from Wellington.


Juggling with Mandarins won the Junior Fiction Award of the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults 2004.


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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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