Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BooksMay 10, 2023

The Unity Books children’s book review roundup for May

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

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, Daniel Devenney and Elka Aitchison, booksellers at Unity Books Auckland.

​​October, October by Katya Balen (Ages 9+)

This is a great read. October and her dad lead a simple life in the woods, living off the land, gazing at the stars and swimming in the nearby lake. They are wild, and free, hidden away and forgotten about, until the year October turns 11, when all she knows is about to be taken away from her. The story deals so well with a young child’s hopes and dreams and the frustrations and anger that present when things must change. It’s an award-winning achievement of story and character development wrapped in an enticing cover design. All that you would want in a novel. Do check out Balen’s other superb titles while you’re at it. (Reviewed by Roger)

Esther’s Notebooks: Tales from my eleven-year-old life by Riad Sattouf (Ages 10+)

If you’ve ever wanted a window into the mind of an 11-year-old then this is it. In these beautiful graphic novels (spanning Esther’s life from ages nine through 12), cartoonist Riad Sattouf edits the true anecdotes of a Parisian preteen. He conveys a child’s point of view with unmatched authenticity; it’s brilliant.

Esther is outspoken and headstrong, everything she says is uncensored and half of that is utterly outrageous. While her judgment of people is often naive or misguided, she edits her perspective with the subconscious flexibility and open-mindedness unique to childhood. We are privy to her brash musings on the ugly, charming, political, and complex; everything she observes in bustling contemporary Paris. Esther, from her earnest love for French rap to her nonsensical theories, delighted and infuriated me. The combination paints an affecting and hilarious portrait of the start of teenagehood, one I wish I could’ve buried my nose in at the awkward age of 11. (Reviewed by Elka)

Zombabe by I. S. Belle (Ages 13+)

Who says a zombie can’t fall in love and live happily ever after with his boyfriend?

Wellington-based author I. S Belle has certainly turned the zombie genre on its head. The synopsis says this one is “perfect for anyone who wanted Stephen King but teenage and gay, or for Jennifer’s Body to have a happy ending.” That was all the encouragement I needed to snap this one off the shelf. Zombabe has it all: a relatable band of misfits, a sleepy town steeped in rich lore, a creepy monster, a pinch of mystery, a splash of gore, and a friends-to-lovers romance. The world-building is top-notch. The town of Bulldeen leaps off the page. You’ll be enchanted and aghast by its dark history and colorful cast of characters. Sign me up for the next installment. “Pet Semetery” meets “Love, Simon” in this deliciously camp YA horror. (Reviewed by Daniel)

An example of Julia Sardà’s stunning illustrations.

The illustrated picture books of Julia Sarda (Ages 3+)

Spanish freelance children’s book illustrator Julia Sarda’s name appears on some of my favourite picture books. Illustrations full of whimsy and movement evoke eye-popping textured details out of a Pedro Almodóvar film. There is a darkness and depth to the illustrations that appeal to an adult reader but also have a busy playfulness that will capture a child’s imagination. Sarda has perfectly reimagined characters and scenes for classics like Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, as well as capturing the screwball Gothic feel of The Lizts by Kyo MacLear and the rich botanical texture of the folkloric tale The Wolf’s Secret by Miriam Dahman and Nicolas Digard. I was sorely tempted by the illustrations for sale from the artist’s website and a new book with David Eggers is soon to be released. (Reviewed by Roger)

The Gobbledegook Book: A Joy Cowley Anthology illustrated by Giselle Clarkson (Ages 3+)

I’m a sucker for a superbly illustrated book and have kept picking this one up since it hit the shelves in 2019. Giselle Clarkson’s colourful, freewheeling Quentin Blakesque drawings paired with some of our fave stories, nonsense, and rhymes from Joy Cowley result in a vibrant and fun treasury. One look at the enticing jaunt of the Jumbaroo on the cover and we open to the antics of Mean, Robber and Greedy cat alongside Uncle Andy’s Singlet and Goggly Gookers, plus much more. Sure to bring a smile to kids of all ages, this book oozes visual appeal and makes a great gift to introduce young ears to an iconic NZ wordsmith. (Reviewed by Roger)

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

1 Maui & Other Legends: 8 Classic Tales by Peter Gossage (Penguin $40) 5+
2 Big Ideas for Curious Minds by School of Life (Affirm Press $45) 10+
3 Robodog by David Walliams & Adam Stower (Harper Collins $23) 6-11 yrs
4 Hello, New Zealand! by Megan McKean (Thames &Hudson $20) 3+
5 One Weka Went Walking by Kate Preece (Bateman $25) 2-5 yrs
6 Wildlife of Aotearoa Colouring Book by Gavin Bishop (Puffin $13) 4+
7 Transported: 50 Vehicles that Changed the World by Matt Ralphs (Nosy Crow $40) 4-8yrs
8 Marvellous Margot: A Story about Kindness and Cake by Lou Peacock & Ingela Arrhenius (Nosy Crow $28) 2-4 yrs
9 The Earth Book by Alice Hannah (Allen & Unwin $25) 2-6 yrs
10 The Good Girl’s Guide To Murder by Holly Jackson (Hardie Grant $23) 12+


Reviews by ​​Rachel Pilois and Eden Denyer, Children’s Book Buyers at Unity Books Wellington.

Lulu and the Dance Detectives: Mystery at the Hotel Español by Sally Sutton & Illustrated by Lily Uivel (Ages 6+)

This is a fantastic new junior chapter book by beloved New Zealand children’s author Sally Sutton. Wonderfully illustrated throughout, this book has easy vocabulary and is a great step-up for young readers. The first book in this new series follows Lulu and her dance team, the Silver Star Dancers, as they prepare to perform at the glamorous Hotel Español. Amid a huge costume catastrophe, a mysterious robbery occurs! Can the Silver Star Dancers crack the case and put on a dazzling show too? Full of flamingos and flamenco dancing, this book is perfect for young fans of dancing and detecting! (Reviewed by Rachel)

The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera (Ages 8+)

Winner of the Newbery Medal 2022, this is an absolutely stunning middle fiction novel. When Earth is destroyed by a comet, Petra Peña and her family are among the chosen few who will journey to a distant sun and new planet to call home. Awoken hundreds of years later and half a galaxy away, Petra finds that Earth has been forgotten and that she alone holds the stories of the past – and with them all the hope for the future. An enchanting tale that blends science fiction and Mexican folklore, The Last Cuentista truly shows the importance of remembering the past and the power and beauty of storytelling. (Reviewed by Rachel)

Different for Boys by Patrick Ness (Ages 14+)

Highly illustrated and poetic in its prose, Different for Boys is a thoughtful and exceptional exploration into identity, masculinity and friendship. Protagonist, Ant, is a young man exploring the idea of virginity and whether it’s different for boys who like boys. He’s determined to figure out who he is and what everything means, whilst balancing his ever-changing friendships with three very different boys. Patrick Ness uniquely uses black boxes to redact swear words and inappropriate content, providing an interesting take on censorship, while keeping with the realistic and occasionally coarse vocabulary of modern teenagers. Truly one-of-a-kind in its storytelling this is one of the most beautiful and poignant books I’ve read in years. (Reviewed by Rachel)

The Honeys by Ryan La Sala (Ages 15+)

Maybe the real horror was the gender norms we made along the way… Nope it was BEES! Gender fluid protagonist Mars must navigate a cliquey elitist summer camp to uncover the truth that led to their sister’s death. Nothing and no one is what they seem and Mars struggles to stay grounded under the sweltering sun, stiflingly sweet air and strict pressure to conform. Even Mars’ own memory becomes suspect. How can they find closure if they can’t even trust themself? Starting with a crack and building slowly to a truly terrifying end, this contains some of the most creative and skin-crawling scenes I’ve read in a while. (Reviewed by Eden)

The Tree and the River by Aaron Becker (All ages)

A touching wordless tale about the enduring power of nature. Following a single tree’s growth over centuries this stunningly illustrated book paints a picture of humanities strengths and follies as a city grows and dies around it. Its beauty is in its subtlety, inviting the reader to ponder and explore. I could’ve spent hours poring over the illustrations of the tiny people living their lives, and loved the evolution of architecture and technology throughout the ages. So much care has been put into this and it really shines. (Reviewed by Eden)

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

1 Twenty Thousand Fleas Under the Sea (Dog Man #11) by Dav Pikley (Scholastic, $22) 7+
2 Iris and Me by Philippa Werry (The Cuba Press, $25) 9+
3 Uppish Hen & Other Poems by Robin Hyde, ed. Juanita Deely (The Cuba Press, $25) (all ages) 5+
4 The Adventures of Mittens: Wellington’s Famous Purr-Sonality by Silvio Bruinsma (Penguin, $20) 3+
5 Moon Rising: The Graphic Novel (Wings of Fire, Book Six) by Tui T Sutherland & Mike Holmes (Scholastic, $22) 8+
6 Robodog by David Walliams (HarperCollins, $23) 7+
7 Project Nought by Chelsey Furedi (HarperCollins, $30) 13+
8 Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy Board Book by Lynley Dodd (Puffin, $16) 3+
9 Lizzy and the Cloud by Eric Fan (Frances Lincoln Children’s, $28) 3+
10 Fun Math 4 Kids of All Ages with Mazmatics vol 1 by Maz Hermon (Mazmatics, $24) 7+

Keep going!