Wednesday 13 December 2017

The duck in the gun by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Robyn Belton

The duck in the gun by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Robyn Belton (Walker Books, 2009; first published 1969)

32 pages with delightful colour illustrations

Subjects: peace, ducks, animals, picture books (Year 2-6)

Image result for The duck in the gun by Joy Cowley

For the last post of the year, it seems appropriate to feature a book about peace -
“The General and his men are about to fire on a town they are at war with. But the Gunner has bad news for the General – they can’t load the gun as there is a duck nesting inside it! Determined to not let a single duck stop an army, the General visits the Prime Minister of the town he is preparing to fight to resolve the situation. Can one duck put an end to the war?” (Outline from Walker Books)

This book won the NZLA Russell Clark Award and was also one of ten children’s books selected for the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. You can see the 1984 Shortland Educational Publications edition online at the International Children’s Digital Library.

Lots of good classroom ideas here.

There are some very good questions in Walker Books’ list of classroom ideas (shown above), including these ones:
“What does ‘peace’ mean to you? 
Do you have a favourite place that makes you feel at peace, or a person that makes you feel peaceful? 
Draw a place, person (this can be imaginary or real) that makes you feel this way.”

About the author
One of New Zealand's best-loved writers, Joy Cowley needs little introduction. 

About the illustrator
RobynBelton is also well known for her many prize-winning children’s books. 

I love the illustrations in this book. One of my favourites is the picture of the General  relaxing over his newspaper while his men are painting houses in the town (that's the town they are supposed to be at war with!)

Other books you might like:
Other anti-war books for children include The story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, The general by Janet Charters, illustrated by Michael Foreman, Bravo! by Philip Waechter and Moni Port and Thebutter battle book by Dr Seuss.

Things I didn’t know
In the brief bios at the back, Robyn Belton says she added a dog that wasn’t in Joy’s text, to act as a “mirror” - “amplifying the gestures and expressions of the girl”. 
Joy says that the book grew out of her “feelings of distress” about the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, combined with a heart-warming news story about a duck that made its nest on a building site in Chicago and halted construction for three weeks.   

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Monday 30 October 2017

The war that saved my life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The war that saved my life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial Books, 2015)

46 chapters; 316 pages

Subjects: World War Two, London, evacuees, family, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

Image result for The war that saved my life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

I’ve always been fascinated by stories about World War Two evacuees, as it’s not part of the New Zealand war story at all. This author takes a different approach. The main character Ada is already damaged by a childhood of emotional and physical abuse by her mother, who seems to hate Ada for her disability (a clubfoot, which could have been easily fixed) and never lets her go outside. (The local children, who only ever see her waving from their window, think she is simple, not disabled.)

Ada is about ten years old, although she doesn’t know for sure. Despite being kept indoors for her whole life, she is smart and determined, and she gets her chance when her little brother Jamie comes home from school and announces that they are being sent to the country because of the war. Ada manages to escape to the train with him and as nobody else wants the two of them, they are reluctantly taken into the home of a childless woman, Susan Smith.

WW2 forms a backdrop to the story, with the neighbouring airfield and the danger of spies, and it provides several important plot points, especially at the end. The book traces the developing relationship between Ada and Susan, but also Ada’s growing sense of her own self-worth, which has been almost destroyed by her mother’s treatment of her.

Because she has lived such a restricted life up until now, Ada has never been to school, and can’t read or write.  The fact that she doesn’t know what everyday things like shops or banks are, or the meaning of many common words, is potentially tricky for a writer but Kimberly Bradley handles the challenge very skilfully.

This is a memorable story and I especially liked Susan as a character. Her life story is only hinted at, never fully described, but enough is hinted at to make it understandable, at least for older readers.      

I didn’t find Ada’s mother quite as convincing. She was so utterly malevolent that she seemed less believable, although the scene when Jamie finally realised the truth about her (which he had always been shielded from before) is very sad.

There are many glowing reviews of this book, such as this one on NZBookgirl
Kidsreads calls it “an unforgettable gripping story, one that is not only earmarked to be an award-winning novel, but also has the potential of becoming an all-time classic.”
The School Library Journal describes it as “Anne of Green Gables without quite so much whimsy” in which “hope, in whatever form it ultimately takes, is the name of the game.” “Enormously satisfying and fun to read, Bradley takes a work of historical fiction and gives the whole premise of WWII evacuees a kick in the pants.”
And this from Kirkus Reviews: Set against a backdrop of war and sacrifice, Ada’s personal fight for freedom and ultimate triumph are cause for celebration.”
You can also find lesson plans here

About the author
You can find Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's website here
In this review on book reporter, she describes how she was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, studied chemistry at college and married her high school sweetheart, and now lives on a 52-acre farm, with ponies, dogs, cats, sheep, goats, and lots and lots of trees in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains.

Other books you might like:
Other books about evacuees include: Lord of the nutcracker men by Iain Lawrence, When the siren wailed by Noel Streatfeild, Ronnie’s war by Bernard Ashley, The dolphin crossing by Jill Paton Walsh, Carrie’s war by Nina Bawden and Uprooted: a Canadian war story by Lynne Reid Banks.

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Thursday 12 October 2017

Hiroshima no pika written and illustrated by Toshi Maruki

Hiroshima no pika written and illustrated by Toshi Maruki (translation of the same Japanese title; New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1980)

48 pages with colour illustrations, sometimes full page double spreads

Subjects: World War Two, Hiroshima, atomic bomb, anti-war books, Japan, picture books (Year 6-8)

Image result for Hiroshima no pika


This is based on a first-person account that the author heard when he was holding an exhibition of pictures about the atomic bomb in a small town in Hokkaido.

It begins with a cloudless blue morning in Hiroshima, with streetcars picking up people on their way to work and the seven rivers flowing quietly through the city. Seven-year-old Mii and her parents are breakfasting on sweet potatoes “brought in the day before by cousins who lived in the country” when the bomb falls at 8.15am on August 6, 1945. Mii’s mother carries her injured husband on her back across the city, across rivers and all the way to the coast, where they stay for days until he is taken into a makeshift hospital: “no doctors, no medicine, no bandages – only shelter.” 

The illustrations are stylised but portray a powerful sense of the horror of the event, and the consequent suffering, partly through the lurid and unnatural colours of the skies and surroundings.

This is a terrible event, and parts of the text would be upsetting to younger (or even older) children: the mother carrying a dead baby, the floating bodies, the wasteland of the city, Mii’s father’s death, the glass slivers that poke their way out of her scalp in years to come.

Look out for the red chopsticks that Mii clutches for days after the Flash, until her mother manages to prise them from her grip. It’s a clever way to identify her on each page, but also hints at the hidden trauma she has undergone.

The book feeds in some factual details about the atomic bomb and ends with the lantern memorial service held each year on the seven rivers. I couldn’t see a translation of the title anywhere – maybe I missed it – but it means The Flash of Hiroshima.  

An entry in Kirkus reviews is always prestigious. “Japanese artist and antiwar activist Maruki manages to avoid the opposing perils of giving children nightmares and belittling the horror.”

About the author
Toshi Maruki (1912–2000) was born in Hokkaido and studied Western art at the Joshibi Women's School of Art and Design.
“I am now past seventy years old. I have neither children nor grandchildren. But I have written this book for grandchildren everywhere. It took me a very long time to complete it. It is very difficult to tell young people about something bad that happened in the hope that their knowing will help keep it from happening again.”

Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels, established by husband and wife Iri and Toshi Maruki, "is famous for its message for peace all over the world". The artist couple went into Hiroshima city just three days after the bombing and spent 30 years painting the 15 panels.

Other books you might like:
Sadako by Eleanor Coerr, illustrated by Ed Young, also tells of a young girl in Hiroshima. 

Things I didn’t know
I didn’t know that other Japanese cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya had already experienced air raids, so the people of Hiroshima were readying for them by storing water and making evacuation plans. There is a sad poignancy in the statement that “Everyone carried small bags of medicine and when they were out of doors, wore air-raid hats or hoods to protect their heads.”

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Thursday 24 August 2017

A winter’s day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

A winter’s day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik (Scholastic, 2013)
24 chapters; 285 pages
Subjects: World War Two; Poland; family; evacuees, refugees; junior fiction (Year 7-10)
Image result for A winter’s day in 1939

I should have reviewed this book before, because it is so good and has collected lots of awards and shortlistings: Storylines Notable Book 2014, Finalist 2014 NZ Post Book Awards, Finalist 2014 LIANZA Esther Glen Junior Fiction Award, Winner Librarian's Choice Award 2014 LIANZA Children's Book Awards

Melinda explains in the foreword that A winter’s day in 1939 is based on the story of her father, Leszek Szymanik, who was 12 when the Soviet Red Army invaded his homeland of Poland in 1939. His family was transported from Poland to a Russian labour camp in 1940.

The family in the book are Adam, his parents, older brother Tomasz and younger sisters Zofia and Maria. They live on a small farm, growing crops (tobacco, potatoes) and raising cows, pigs and chickens. Tragedy strikes the family at the very start of the story, followed by uncertainty and worry as Germany invades Poland – and then the Russian tanks arrive. Their farm is requisitioned (taken over by the Russians) and they are given a week to leave and find a new home - one room in a house  in a village 15km away.  

Things get worse, not better, and more long hard journeys, and much sadness, lie ahead of them.

Melinda includes a historical note, a map of the family’s journey, glossary, bibliography and a postscript about what happened next. Her foreword ends: “The past is filled with stories like these, of people who suffered terrible conditions and overwhelming sadness but remained hopeful and survived, despite everything. It is up to us to honour their memories and remember this stories to make the world a better place.”

I’m lucky to have a signed copy, and Melinda has written this in the front of my book: “We have to know the past to make a better future.”

Booksellers NZ comments that “Melinda is a very skilled observer of family relationships, and this is what really brings the book to a higher level”.
Hooked on NZ books has links to a whole collection of reviews.
Teacher notes from Scholastic here.
About the author
Melinda has a great blog where she talks about all sort of writing issues and the writing life. In this blog post, she talks about how she came to write the book.
You can read more about Melinda here  
Other books you might like:
Stefania's dancing slippers by Jennifer Beck tells another story of a Polish refugee family in picture book format. 
New Zealand connection
Of course there is a very real NZ connection in this case, because Melinda’s father ended up here, and so did over 700 Polish children who came out by ship and went to the Polish children’s camp at Pahiatua. It’s hard for us as an island nation to imagine what it must be like to live in a country that is surrounded by other nations and has been the site of conflict for centuries.
In November 2014, there was a series of events to mark the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Polish children at Pahiatua. You can read more about the "Polish Week" anniversary here.    
Have you read it?

Have you read this book? Let me know what you think.

Sunday 6 August 2017

Three books by Mark Wilson

Angel of Kokoda (Lothian Children’s Books, 2010)
Vietnam diary (Lothian Children’s Books, 2013)
The Afghanistan pup (Lothian Children’s Books, 2014)

All similar format: hardback, 32 pages with full colour illustrations

Subjects: World War Two, Papua New Guinea, Pacific, Vietnam, brothers, Afghanistan, animals, dogs, mascots, picture books (Year 3-6)

A Papua New Guinea boy helps a wounded Australian soldier along the Kokoda Track. A young man goes off to fight in Vietnam, despite the protests of his brother. A dog is rescued from the ruins of a bombed school and becomes a soldier’s pet. 

These three books are part of the Children in War series which explores children’s experiences of, and reactions to, four different wars involving Australians:  World War One, World War Two, the Vietnam War and the war in Afghanistan. The texts are clear and not too detailed (apart from the Vietnam one, which includes handwritten diary entries).

They are well-produced books that cover lesser known aspects of war, although I would have liked some more context for each story (perhaps because they are very Australian - oriented). 

Reading time (from the Children's Book Council of Australia)
reviews The Afghanistan pup here and admires the way that Mark Wilson "skilfully weaves narratives that tell stories of tragedy and hope with his extraordinarily evocative illustrations", while "snippets of newspaper clippings, reports, poems and letters enrich the stories and add layers of meaning."

There are teacher notes and activities - 
for The Afghanistan pup here 
for Angel of Kokoda here
for Vietnam diary here.

About the author: 
Mark Wilson's website shows his prolific and impressive output and also talks about his interesting life and varied career!

Other books you might like: Also by the same author is My mother’s eyes: the story of a boy soldier.  Mark Wilson illustrated A day to remember: the story of Anzac Day by Jackie French.

Have you read it? Have you read these books? Let me know what you think!

Friday 14 July 2017

A present from the past by Jennifer Beck; illustrated by Lindy Fisher

A present from the past by Jennifer Beck; illustrated by Lindy Fisher (Scholastic, 2006)

32 pages with colour illustrations

Subjects: World War One, France, Christmas, nurses, women in war, grandparents, family, picture books (Year 1-4)


It’s nearly Christmas time. Emily is waiting with her parents at the airport for her Aunt Mary whom she’s never met before. Aunt Mary has come all the way from England, bringing a special gift: a small oblong parcel, with a note saying “Best wishes from Princess Mary”. Inside, to Emily’s disappointment, is nothing but a small brass box with a damaged lid. But as Aunt Mary tells the story behind the box, Emily comes to realise that it is indeed a precious family heirloom.

These boxes, containing items such as sweets and tobacco, were the idea of Princess Mary, the 17-year-old daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, who wanted to give every serving soldier, sailor and nurse a Christmas present in December 1914 as a personal thank you for their sacrifices and hard work. You can read more about them here and here.

These Christmas boxes make a lovely story on their own, but the box in this book played an even more important role.

Don’t miss the dedication: “In memory of women in wartime”. There is also a fact sheet at the end.

A review on Perfect Picture Book Friday says the book "would be a great resource in History classes enticing conversations about war, troops overseas, and families dealing with loved ones during war time in the past."

There's another review on Momo celebrating time to read (great title for a blog!) 

About the author
You can read an interview with Jennifer Beck on the Christchurch City Libraries website, or learn more about her on the Book Council Writers files

About the illustrator
Lindy Fisher is profiled on the Book Council and Storylines sites. She has also had over 75 stamps published by New Zealand Post! You can see some of her artwork on her website.

Other books you might like:
Jennifer Beck is the author of the much-loved picture book The bantam and the soldier. She and Lindy Fisher have worked together on other books, including Stefania’s dancing slippers and Remember that November (about Parihaka).

NZ connections:
When I was researching for my Anzac Day book, I got to see one of these tins. It belonged to Hami Grace, an old boy of Wellington College, and is now held in the College Archives.

Things I didn’t know
I didn’t know that Princess Mary was born on 25 April (1897) – the day that later became Anzac Day! What a lovely connection!

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Friday 30 June 2017

War girls: a collection of First World War stories through the eyes of young women

War girls: a collection of First World War stories through the eyes of young women (Andersen Press, 2014)
Nine stories by Theresa Breslin, Melvin Burgess, Berlie Doherty, Anne Fine, Adele Geras, Mary Hooper, Rowena House, Sally Nicholls and Matt Whyman.
259 pages
Subjects: World War One, women in war, short stories, junior fiction (Years 6-10)

The back blurb says that “this collection of short stories explores how the First World War changed and shaped the lives of women for ever… Some of today’s leading writers for young people present moving portraits of loss and grief, and of hope overcoming terrible odds.” (There isn’t any other information inside about how the authors were chosen, and what inspired them in turn to choose their topic.)

Everyone will have their own favourites, but these are the stories:

Shadow and light by Theresa Breslin
Merle, an aspiring artist, and her friend Grace join the British Red Cross to drive ambulances for the Scottish Women’s Hospital for Foreign Service – staffed entirely (doctors, nurses, cooks and ambulance drivers) by women. She has some spiky run-ins with a golden-haired English captain who doesn’t realise she can understand his comments in French about women in war. Together they get caught up in the middle of the German advance near Albert.

Ghost story by Matt Whyman
Some Allied soldiers said they came under fire from female Turkish snipers at Gallipoli – could that be true?

Storm in a teacup by Mary Hooper
16 year old Harriet isn’t old enough to be a nurse and doesn’t want to work in a factory, so she gets a job as a waitress at the Lyons’ Corner House on the Strand in London and stumbles across a spy ring. This seemed a little far-fetched, but I liked the setting because my mother lived in London as a young woman and always had a soft spot for Lyons’ Corner Houses.

The marshalling of Angelique’s geese by Rowena House
Angelique is 14 and lives in a French village; her father has just been killed and her brother is away at the war as well.  She goes on a long and adventurous journey (with the geese!) trying to raise money to pay off her father’s debts. Her journey is also linked to the spread of Spanish flu – or one theory about its possible origins.

Mother and Mrs Everington by Melvin Burgess
Effie’s brother Robbie signs up underage and comes back with shellshock. She learns to drive and forges a letter so she can get to France as a nurse and driver, thinking he is just a weakling, but then finds out for herself - in an unexpected way - how terrible it is to be caught under shellfire.

Sky dancer by Berlie Doherty
Kate’s young man Fred joins the Royal Flying Corps and goes to France. Obviously that’s not going to end well (and it doesn’t). Kate wants to follow him - “just to breathe the air that Fred breathed” - and, despite her shyness, signs up for a concert party to entertain the troops. I found this to be an unusual, sad and memorable story.

Piercing the veil by Anne Fine
During the war, there was increased interest in spiritualism as people (especially mothers) tried to get in contact with the dead - but Alice’s father is a minister and doesn’t believe in such things.  

The green behind the glass by Adele Geras
Sarah and her sister, a fiancé and a forbidden love and a ghostly warning.

Going spare by Sally Nicholls
Set in 1977; the 14 year old narrator finds out from Miss Frobisher upstairs about what life was like (quite exciting, in her case) for the "leftover women" who never married after WW1.

The review in the Guardian says: “War Girls is like no other WW1 fiction I have read before. It does not focus on the trenches, the tragic battle of the Somme nor the brave men who fought. The book combines a mixture of exceptionally written, heart-wrenching short stories into a book about the lives of the women left behind.”
The Bookbag says it is an “utterly engrossing” anthology with “not a weak story among them”.  
About the authors
Author biographies at the end tell you a bit about each author.
Some interesting backstory here by Theresa Breslin about the writing of her contribution.
Other books you might like:
Other books by Theresa Breslin that I have reviewed on this blog are Ghost soldier and Remembrance. Another  good short story collection is The Great War: stories inspired by objects from the First World War, which also has a piece by Adele Geras. 
New Zealand connections:
The NZ soldiers get mentioned among the others at the training camp at Etaples that Angelique is travelling to - that's the only reference I spotted! 
Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Saturday 10 June 2017

Dreaming the enemy by David Metzenthen

Dreaming the enemy by David Metzenthen (Allen & Unwin, 2016)
47 chapters; 292 pages
Subjects: Vietnam, Australia, conscription, veterans, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), young adult fiction (Year 11-13)

Johnny Shoebridge has come home from fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. It’s hard to readjust to ordinary life with his parents and the girl he used to know. He is haunted by memories of all the things he has seen; literally haunted, by a Viet-Cong ghost fighter called Khan who won’t leave him alone.

He is still young and can't understand how he has ended up in this position: “How had he gone from a kid swinging a stick as a Samurai sword, the star of a flickering home movie, to a nineteen-year-old digger on ambush, prepared to shoot someone in the side of the head?” He has lost good mates in battle and is trying to summon up the courage to go and visit their families. (These eventual encounters make for heart-wrenching scenes.) Even though he was a conscript with no choice about going, he’s assailed by anti-Vietnam war protesters, with people coming up to say “I just hope you’re happy… with what you did.”

“There was an awful lot of stuff that he wished he didn’t know.”

The story jumps back and forth in time and place. In the present, Johnny is back home again, heading off on a road trip. In the past, he is getting to know his new mates Baz and Lex; they start training together, go out on patrol, and fight side by side in battle. Another parallel story is that of Khan, Trung and Thang as they hide in the jungle, crawl through tunnels and fight on the other side.

I found the parts where Johnny somehow knows or imagines what Khan is doing a bit confusing, perhaps because of the distance imposed by having Johnny comment on what he sees. What worked best for me were the scenes between Johnny and his mates, and their convincing teenage-boy speech as they get to know and rely on each other. Johnny “knew himself to be one corner of a triangle, the strongest shape of all. He knew Lex and he knew Barry like he knew no one else on the planet.”

Of course you know that’s not going to end well. They’re going to get caught up in some terrible fighting and you suspect that at least one of them won’t make it home again.  

Booksellers NZ calls it “a poignant novel, posing meaningful questions about the effects of war”. It acknowledges “some might suggest the book is difficult to keep up with as it flicks from past to present to imagination “, but suggests that “this is in keeping with Johnny’s head and the confusion that follows him”.
A very good review in The Australian too: this final paragraph is worth quoting in full:
"Senior secondary students, especially boys, (and their teachers) might be grateful if Dreaming the Enemy were set for study. It is a sophisticated work — substantial, powerful, highly readable and with key characters close to their age. It touches on many issues: the aftermath of war, including how returned fighters were and are treated; the effects on mental and physical health and on families and relationships. It looks at conscription, the politics of wars, the destruction caused by the bombing and napalm, the attitudes of Americans, the contribution of Australians, and much else. The story is infused with humanity and embellished by Metzenthen’s flair for language and flashes of dry Aussie humour."
And on Reading time, David Metzenthen has some very wise words about the book:
"I wanted strongly to present something of what young Australians went through in this war, at the orders of their Government, and the great toll it took on them, their families, friends, and futures. In Dreaming The Enemy, I hope to have shown what happens to people, that what we do or is done to us, stays with us for a long time and must be met with compassion and understanding."
About the author
David Metzenthen lives in Melbourne. He is a keen environmentalist and was an advertising copywriter and a builder’s labourer before turning to fiction. He has written another war-related YA novel, Boys of blood and bone, as well as the thought-provoking picture book One minute’s silence.
Other books you might like:
There aren't nearly as many books about Vietnam as about World Wars One and Two. One book that I have reviewed is The battle of Messines Road.
Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Friday 2 June 2017

From Billabong to London by Mary Grant Bruce

From Billabong to London by Mary Grant Bruce (London: Ward Lock, 1915)

About 320 pages with a few full page illustrations

Subjects: World War One, Australia, England, London, ships, family, junior fiction (Year 8-10)

I had to borrow this book from the Dorothy Neal White collection at the National Library, and it’s the earliest book that I’ve yet reviewed. It’s number 4 of the 15 books that make up the Billabong series; others include Jim and Wally and Captain Jim (1916 & 1919).

Billabong is the house and the station, 2 miles from the nearest road and 17 miles from the nearest town. No other home is visible, “only peaceful paddocks”. The main characters are gradually introduced, but readers of the series would already know them: David Linton, the widowed station owner, and his children Jim (19) and Norah (nearly 15); their friend Wally (17); Mrs Brown, the housekeeper; the station hands, and Black Billy, the “native boy”.

The first quarter of the book is taken up with station life: a tame wallaby, snakes, a bullock stuck in a swamp, breaking in a new colt, as shown on the cover. But two topics overshadow everyone’s thoughts: the drought, and the war in Europe. Many of the local young men have already signed up. Wally (who is still underage) and Jim are desperate to go as well. A fortuitous inheritance calls Mr Linton “Home” to deal with the paperwork in England, and the decision is made that they will all go – Jim and Wally, so they can sign up there, and Norah so she’s not left on her own.

By pg. 91, they are on board the Perseus in some degree of comfort, about to leave from Port Melbourne. Their 6-week journey takes them via Adelaide and across the Indian Ocean to Durban, Cape Town, then Las Palmas to arrive in Falmouth, Cornwall, from where they take a train to London. Ordinary shipboard pursuits such as deck quoits, boat drill, whale and porpoise spotting and listening to the Captain’s gramophone life are enlivened by the capture of a German spy (not really a spoiler as it’s so heavily foreshadowed), an alarming passage through the fog and their own capture by a German warship. Not surprisingly, they are rescued in time and make it to England safely.

This is a well-written story with lively dialogue and warm family relationships, but reading it 100 years after publication, it’s hard to overlook the book’s treatment of Aboriginal and black South African characters. The Zulus are viewed either as picturesque rickshaw-pullers, or as dangerous robbers. The Aboriginal people are dismissed as “useless, shifty, lazy” and “thieving”. Black Billy is ridiculed for his use of English, rather than admired for having learnt another language, and there is no acknowledgment of the original inhabitants of the land. The writing is of course a product of its time, but the attitudes jar today.

Here you can read a contemporary review from the Port Fairy Gazette of 15 October 1915, which compares Norah’s stories to that of Little Women in their widespread appeal.

About the author
Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958) worked as a journalist after leaving school and started the Billabong stories as a newspaper serial; she became a best-selling and much loved Australian children’s author. In WW2 she wrote patriotic talks and sold her autographs at charity auctions for the war effort.

Here's my favourite part of her bio from the official website: “Mary began writing when she was six and, from age 16, she entered and won the annual examinations of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society three times in a row whilst still a schoolgirl.”

You can read more about her here in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, which says that she was known as Minnie but "Mary" was thought to be a "more marketable" name. It also points out that "Australians, and not only children, looking at Billabong, could see themselves as they wanted to be - mates in fortune and adversity, sturdy, decent and fearless inheritors of a tough, but rewarding land."

About the illustrator
The Port Fairy Gazette review above credits them to Fred Leist, “an Australian artist now in London”.

Other books you might like:
The Belgian twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins (1917) and Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (1921) are two other books written during or just after WW1.

New Zealand connections:
Does NZ get a mention? Possibly not - anyway, I didn't spot any!

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!