Children and young adult books February 2012

by Fiona Rae / 04 February, 2012
Ann Packer's monthly round-up of books for younger readers.
What an extraordinary achievement is Margo Lanagan’s SEA HEARTS (Allen & Unwin, $24.99). The acclaimed Australian writer’s second novel brings to utterly convincing life the selkie, that part-seal creature of Celtic myth, in a haunting realisation of an island community with a devastating secret at its heart. Her prose is achingly beautiful, bringing to life the dumpy sea-witch Misskaella – whose ability to draw “mere-maids” out of seals keeps a whole generation in thrall – and evoking other voices, whether red-headed or bearing the dark locks of their selkie mothers, to contribute to the exquisitely constructed tale. The sea hearts of the title are heart-shaped beans, carried by ocean currents, which are often used medicinally by inhabitants of the islands whose beaches they wash up on; the book is published in the US and UK as The Brides of Rollrock.

A different kind of spellbinding features in Suzanne Selfors’s MAD LOVE (Bloomsbury, $19.99), which plays out during an unseasonably hot summer in Seattle. Alice Amorous, the daughter of a romance writer who’s taking time out in an expensive spa to recover from a bipolar episode, is holed up in their apartment replying to her mother’s fan mail and staving off publisher’s pleas for the next bestseller. She glimpses love herself in the form of a real-life boy who skates past her window each day – but is also being stalked by a Gothic character called Errol, who may or may not be Cupid (Eros) come to life. Laced with often-hilarious good humour, the novel also deals deftly with serious issues of mental illness. Think Jacqueline Wilson in a more upbeat setting and with a happier outcome.

Sarah Crossan’s first novel is another love story, set in an English tower block. New immigrant Kasienka rises above her dreary environment as she survives her first months in the city of Coventry, where her deserted mother has decamped in pursuit of her father. In blank verse, THE WEIGHT OF WATER (Bloomsbury,  $21.99) succinctly sketches Kassie’s journey from a culturally rich past in Eastern Europe to a wobbly but promising future in Britain. Her mother’s stolidness, the meanness of her new surroundings, the bitchiness of her classmates and the camaraderie of fellow immigrants are laid down in eloquent lines that give equal weight to a swim meet and the discovery of her father’s new family setup. A writer to watch.

Who knew that under the trendy Sydney harbour-side suburb of Balmain there were once coal mines? Novelist Jennifer Walsh builds on this foundation in THE TUNNELS OF TARCOOLA (Allen & Unwin, $19.99), an old-fashioned fantasy-free mystery set in her own community, in which a group of young friends pit their wits, Blyton-style, against a bunch of property developers. Take one derelict mansion, a box of missing documents, a labyrinth of tunnels, a budding romance – it’s a bit of a mishmash, but it works. Throw in a dollop of social consciousness and structure the plot around a school history project and you’ve got a guaranteed success.

Regardless of whether Steven Spielberg’s film War Horse is a hit, it’s bound to send readers back to English author Michael Morpurgo’s original 1982 story of the same name – which was also made into an award-winning stage play, using life-sized puppets. A slender sequel, first published in 1997, has been reissued to coincide with the movie. FARM BOY (Harper Collins,  $14.99) stands alone as a charming evocation of a world now gone, starring Joey the ex-war horse in his role as a working animal, along with his ploughing partner Zoey. Michael Foreman’s black-and-white illustrations will keep younger readers turning the pages in the same sure and steady way the pair plough their furrows to victory over an arrogant landowner’s new-age tractor. For readers wanting more, the sole New Zealand horse to return from World War I is commemorated in Susan Brocker’s Brave Bess and the Anzac Horses.

Ann Packer is a writer and journalist.
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