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BooksJuly 5, 2023

The Unity Books children’s book review roundup for July


Each month booksellers from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington review a handful of children’s books that will inspire and delight readers of all ages.


Reviews by Roger Christensen, Una Ryan, Elka Aitchison and Daniel Devenney, booksellers at Unity Books Auckland.

Annie Lumsden: The Girl from the Sea by David Almond, illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna (Ages 8+)

This is an “aquatastically” enchanting tale about Annie and her Mam who live in a “wooden, white and salty shack” on the coast of England. Not a lot makes sense to Annie apart from her Mam’s sea-shanties and swimming in the ocean. Annie’s not wired like the other kids and it’s in the sea that she feels most at home, weaving magical tales of her own about where she came from. She should have been a fish, her Mam tells her, and the impressionist style of the illustrations by Beatrice Alemagna perfectly capture the watery mystery that is Annie Lumsden. This is a beautiful, lyrical “fish out of water” tale of finding your place in the world. (Reviewed by Roger)

Galapagos: Scientists in the Wild by Helen Scales, illustrated by Romolo D’Hipolito (Ages 7+)

Children’s books, with their vibrancy and lucidity, always manage to capture science for what it is: fascinating, bizarre and inquisitive. Galapagos: Scientists in the Wild is the epitome of this. Set in a paradise of the natural world, it’s full of creatures as strange as dragons or centaurs. Ever heard of giant whales with a Galapagos accent? Pink iguanas? Or iguanas that dive deep underwater? Imagine coming across a giant lizard while swimming! Accompany a party of seven scientists as they carry out their research, learn about the methods and equipment they use to trace and understand the Islands’ strange inhabitants. The illustrations bring the entire archipelago to life with vivid colours and animated characters. Any lover of nature or discovery should read this book. It’s fun, enchanting, and a rather affecting reminder of everything worth saving. (Reviewed by Elka)

Completely Normal (and other lies) by Biffy James (Ages 15+)

Stella Wilde is the best character I’ve encountered in a YA novel in ages. She’s the sarcastic quick-witted misfit you wish was your bestie in high school. And she’s completely baffled when Isaac Calder, the school heartthrob, takes an interest in her. She’s even more surprised to learn that Isaac is complex, sweet and nothing like she imagined. There’s just one problem: he’s already dating the most popular girl in school, Grace Reyes. As things heat up, Isaac tells Stella he’s going to break up with Grace. But he’s killed in a car accident that same night. Confused and overwhelmed with grief, Stella inadvertently becomes besties with Grace. What could possibly go wrong? Will the truth set Stella free or destroy her?  Shortlisted for the Ampersand Prize, this page-turner is a beautiful exploration of mental health, female friendship and loss. Perfect for fans of Adam Silvera and John Green. (Reviewed by Daniel)

Tyger by S F Said, illustrated by David McKean (Ages 9+)

Inspired by William Blake, Philip Pullman and Alan Garner, S F Said has written a page-turning adventure that is equal parts fable and dystopian fantasy set in an alternate 21st century London stuck in the 1800s. In a cruel historical twist the British Empire continues to rule over the world, upholding strict rules of race and class division. It is in this destructive environment that young Muslim duo Adam and Zadie come across a wounded tyger who needs their help. And from here the young adventurers are really put to the test, asked to look deep within themselves to find solutions to the torment and disquiet taking over the city. The black ink on white paper illustrations by Dave McKean perfectly pair with the beautiful, vivid, descriptive text. All the magic and mystery of the story leap from the page in this dark, thrilling and hopeful read. (Reviewed by Roger)

How My Koro Became a Star by Brianne Te Paa, illustrated by Story Hemi-Morehouse (Ages 4+)

A young boy’s Koro teaches him about Matariki and the traditions associated with acknowledging it. When the boy’s Koro dies before the Matariki rises the following year, the boy is determined that those traditions are fulfilled. How My Koro Became a Star is a beautifully illustrated rhyme that highlights the importance of generational bonds and how a disconnected family is brought together by practising the customs that have been passed down. Coming from Ireland I was brought up with lore surrounding the Pleiades (Matariki) that was taught to me by my grandparents. Brianne Te Paa’s story, deservedly shortlisted for this year’s Children’s Book Awards, demonstrates an experience that crosses cultures and how this needs to be continued for future generations. (Reviewed by Una)

And the Unity Books Auckland children’s bestsellers for June:

1 Counting Creatures by Julia Donaldson & Sharon King-Chai (Two Hoots, $25) 3+
2 Atua: Maori Gods and Heroes by Gavin Bishop (Puffin, $40) 5+
3 How Do I Feel?: a dictionary of emotions for children by Rebekah Lipp & Craig Phillips (Wilding Books, $40) 5+
4 Matariki around the World: a cluster of stars, a cluster of stories by Rangi Matamua, Miriama Kamo & Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Scholastic $35) 4+
5 Lego Games Book: 50 fun brainteasers, games, challenges and puzzles! (Dorling Kindersley, $37) 7+
6 All of the Factors of Why I Love Tractors by Davina Bell & Jenny Lovlie (Hardie Grant, $20 boardbook) 3+
7 Sleepy Kiwi by Kat Quin (Tikitibu NZ, $20) 0+
8 Midnight Adventures of Ruru and Kiwi by Clare Scott & Amy Haarhoff (Puffin, $21) 3+
9 Colours, Colours Everywhere by Julia Donaldson & Sharon King-Chai (Two Hoots, $30) 3+
10 Where Is It: a wildlife hunt for Kiwi kids by Ned Barraud (Potton Burton, $22) 4+


Reviews by ​​Rachel Pilois, Jess Mills and Eden Denyer, booksellers at Unity Books Wellington.

Gwen & Art Are Not in Love by Lex Croucher (Ages 14+)

Gwen & Art Are Not in Love is a medieval queer teen romcom that is delightful from beginning to end. Set a few hundred years after the reign of King Arthur, his descendant Art is betrothed to Gwendoline, a quick-witted and short-tempered princess of England. Unfortunately the only thing they can agree on is hating each other. When they’re forced to spend the summer together in Camelot to prepare for their upcoming nuptials, they realise they have more in common than they thought they’re both queer. Deciding to be allies instead of enemies leads to an interesting summer, as Gwen falls for the kingdom’s only lady knight and Art takes interest in Gwen’s royal brother. Packed full of sword-fighting, tournaments and romantic shenanigans, this book will make readers laugh and sweep them off their feet. (Reviewed by Rachel, children’s book buyer)

Around & About Aotearoa by Dave Gunson (All ages)

I’ve been waiting for a book like this for years! Author and illustrator Dave Gunson has written a phenomenal book that explores New Zealand’s past and present, and answers some fascinating and wacky questions about our beautiful country. Covering topics of New Zealand’s history, politics, culture, flora, fauna, people, places and more, this is the book I wish I had when I immigrated to New Zealand as a kid. Truly a book that gives you the full lowdown, this is the ultimate NZ infographic that you can enjoy at any age. (Reviewed by Rachel, children’s book buyer)

Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta (Age 14+)

It’s been 30 years since this book was first published and it still holds up as one of the best contemporary YA novels. My teacher read this to us in Year 12; we related to it then, and I think teenagers, especially young women, will relate to it now. The pressure of exams, parental expectation and fitting in. How are you supposed to know what you want to do for the rest of your life? Josie is a spitfire, a wildcard, someone who simultaneously needs to prove her worth and is crushed by the expectation of it all. Looking for Alibrandi covers several topics including racism, prejudice, suicide, politics, friendship and sex with a smart, clear voice. A classic. (Reviewed by Jess, bookseller)

It Fell from the Sky by The Fan Brothers (All ages)

The Fan Brothers have done it again, Eric weaving a beautiful story of community between Terry’s whimsical and monochromatic illustrations. The splash of colour in this book is The Wonder from the Sky, a marble that Spider decides to charge the other insects leaves to see. A gorgeous story that includes themes of community, selfishness vs generosity and patience which everyone will love. (Reviewed by Jess, bookseller)

Deltora’s Quest by Emily Rodda (Ages 9+)

Emily Rodda is the empress of children’s fantasy, and the Deltora Quest series is a shining jewel in her crown. Their bite-sized nature makes them a great first step for budding readers, but there’s enough to chew on for the already voracious book muncher. The series takes place in the world of Deltora, a land full of magic and mystery with danger around every corner. Deltora itself is so fantastically realised; inhabited by a variety of different cultures with their own customs and history – not to mention the plethora of fascinating and terrifying creatures that our heroes must face in their quest to save the world. There’s also codes and puzzles woven into the narrative for the reader to solve. I haven’t even gotten to the plot twists yet because boy does this series take you for a ride! They are such fantastic imaginative and creative fodder – I was all over them when I was younger and they absolutely still stand up today. The stunning 21st anniversary edition compiles the first 8 books, and you should pick it up for your young person at your earliest opportunity. (Reviewed by Eden, bookseller)

And the Unity Books Wellington children’s bestsellers for June:

1 The Sun & the Star: A Nico di Angelo Adventure by Rick Riordan & Mark Oshiro (Puffin, $30) 10+
2 Matariki Around the World: a Cluster of Stars, a Cluster of Stories by Rangi Matamua, Miriama Kamo & Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Scholastic, $35) 4+
3 The Adventures of Mittens: Wellington’s Famous Purr-Sonality by Silvio Bruinsma (Penguin, $20) 3+
4 Pearl in a Whirl: How One Fluffy Cat Braved the Floods by Catherine Robertson & Fifi Colston (Puffin, $21) 3+
5 Kuwi & Friends: Maori Picture Dictionary by Kat Merewether & Pānia Papa (Illustrated Publishing, $35) 4+
6 Hairy Maclary & Friends Off for a Walk: A Colouring Book by Lynley Dodd (Puffin, $10) 5+
7 Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy Board Book by Lynley Dodd (Puffin, $16) 0-3yrs
8 The Sparrow by Tessa Duder (Penguin, $22) 12+
9 The Boy, the Mole, the Fox & the Horse by Charlie Mackesy (Ebury Press, $40) All ages
10 If I Had a Dinosaur by Gabby Dawnay & Alex Barrow (Thames & Hudson, $17) 3+

Keep going!