And, we’re off…

The school year has now well and truly started. Hopefully the school administration gods have been kind to you, and the class lists and sizes, the yard duty roster, and the arrangements for out-of-school meetings have all worked out for you.

This month, the books I’m looking at cover those just beginning their reading journey, through to those going into their last year of school. Happy reading!

The Evie and Pog series is a great introduction to chapter books for students teetering on the edge of independent reading. The first two books in the series, Evie and Pog: Take Off! and Evie and Pog: Puppy Playtime! are both out now, with a third book to follow in May. Each book contains three stories, which features the adventures of Evie the human, who behaves a bit like a dog, and Pog the pug, who behaves a lot like a human. We also meet Granny Gladys, who hates all the mess, and friends Noah and Mr Pooch. These stories are so much fun, with catastrophe and mayhem galore, accompanied by wonderful illustrations. They will be devoured by younger readers. Teachers’ notes coming soon.

Here in the Real World is the latest novel from Sara Pennypacker, the undisputed queen of poignant middle-grade fiction. Ware is a ‘not-normal, outside-the-inside, antisocial’ eleven-and a-half-year-old. When his grandmother breaks her hips, his plans for a summer spent ‘off in his own world’ meet the real world in the form of Recreation Camp. However, his parents’ plans for him to have some ‘meaningful social interaction’ also take a bit of a left turn when he encounters Jolene, who is attempting to turn the garden of an abandoned church into a money-making venture to help her aunt pay their backlog of rent. By the end of the summer everyone has changed more than they could have imagined. This is a beautiful story about the power of being who you are, no matter what anyone expects, and how the people with the smallest voices can have the most to say, if only we learn to hear a little differently.

It’s very difficult to define Spellhacker, and that’s a large part of what makes this novel so absorbing, and will make it so popular with teenagers. Set in a futuristic world with magic (not quite fantasy, and not quite sci-fi), Diz is not really a heroine (actually, she’s a thief), who, along with her squad of disparate friends (who are really more like family), nonetheless has to save the world. Keeping up so far? While dealing with real world recognisable issues like grief, friendship and family, Spellhacker also makes subtle commentary on the possible consequences of a large-scale pandemic or global event. And all of this is explored during fast-paced action with laugh-out-loud funny dialogue and description. Put this one in the hands of teenagers far and wide.

Read of the MonthThe Van Apfel Girls are Gone

In the summer of 1992, the three Van Apfel girls disappeared into the bush during the primary school’s end-of-year concert. More than 20 years later, Tikka Molloy still thinks of the girls, who were good friends, and sees them everywhere. When she returns to her hometown after years spent away, she attempts to understand what happened.

The Van Apfel Girls are Gone works across two timelines: the years leading up to the disappearance of the Van Apfel girls, and the present day, where Tikka spends time with her family and reflects on her own small role in the disappearance of her friends.

Tikka’s memories of the Van Apfel family, particularly in the year leading up to the girl’s disappearance, are revealing to an adult in a way that eleven-year-old Tikka could not have understood. Theirs is not a happy home, and as Tikka reflects on the things that happened, she starts to put pieces of the puzzle together, just as the reader does. There is a sense of tension and dread that builds across the course of the book, so that the events of the Showstopper Concert, just before Christmas 1992, have a sense of inevitability to them. While much is revealed through Tikka’s reminiscences, there is also much which remains hidden.

While reading The Van Apfel Girls are Gone, I kept seeing a strange and nostalgic combination of images from my own childhood in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, along with those evocative scenes of the girls on the rock in Picnic at Hanging Rock. This was clearly intentional, and served to add to the sense of unease that permeates much of the novel (and the music from Picnic is just so unsettling!). The layers of complexity in The Van Apfel Girls are Gone kept me engaged, even when the fog refused to clear completely. The descriptions that Tikka gives of her childhood, particularly the ordinary everyday stuff like eating ice creams, walking to school and playing in the pool with her friends, were beautifully written, and Felicity McLean captures the voice, concerns and viewpoint of an eleven-year-old Aussie in the ‘90s so well.

It’s difficult to know if this book should be categorised as crime, literature or thriller, as it has elements of all; its incredible writing will keep you engaged up till the very end.

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