Tag Archives: Australia

Review: The Black Balloon

I watched an excellent Australian film tonight called The Black Balloon.

Plot description from IMDB: All Thomas wants is a normal adolescence but his autistic brother, Charlie, thwarts his every opportunity. Will Thomas, with the help of his girlfriend, Jackie, accept his brother?

If you like coming of age stories or portraits of complicated but loving families, you should seek it out. The subject matter is serious but the film is never depressing because Down & Jack’s script expertly balances humor with pathos. I know I’ll remember many scenes for a long time, perhaps forever. Down is a director to watch! (I want to track down her first film, Pink Pyjamas. Has anyone seen it?)

I loved the way the romance between the teen leads, Jackie and Thomas, was handled. It’s sweet and naive in an authentic way that’s rarely captured in films (with the exception of last year’s Flipped). Above all, I loved that Jackie and Thomas were simply good for each other. Jackie is a great character, in general, and a bit of a rarity for a love interest. She’s a spunky, fun girl that you’d love to know but she isn’t a dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s the laid back cool girl I wish I’d been in high school.

All in all, a touching and fun story.

How did this not get more buzz? Was I just under a rock?

Appropriate for older teens.

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Review: Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar

The Visconti House
by Elsbeth Edgar
Candlewick Press
$16.99
304 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5019-3
Ages 8 – 12
U.S. shelves: February 22, 2011 (Originally published July 2009, Walker Books, Australia)

Today Elsbeth Edgar’s The Visconti House is released in the United States.

After living in Melbourne, Laura and her parents move into a fantastic old mansion, located in a small town. The house is gorgeously built. There’s a ballroom (which Laura’s mother, a sculptor, uses as a studio) and one of the bedrooms features a faded mural of a garden. But Laura doesn’t care about the house. She’s lonely and she hates her new school. She wishes her parents would move back to Melbourne, where their lives were more comfortable. Then suddenly things begin to change. A strange boy named Leon moves in down the street and soon after Laura learns that her house has a name – The Visconti House – after the enigmatic Italian immigrant, Carlo Visconti, who built it. Laura and Leon are convinced that The Visconti House harbors a secret and they are determined to uncover it.

The Visconti House is a middle grade mystery that will please any amateur sleuth. Its pacing is a perfect blend of baffles and excitement. Answers aren’t revealed too easily but there aren’t any frustrating wild goose chases either. Personally, I found the ultimate reveal a little tame but I don’t think children will have the same problem. This is an excellent book to recommend to children who enjoy mysteries but aren’t ready for the more mature elements present in adult titles. Do children still read Harriet the Spy? If so, this is a good follow-up. It’s likely to spark an interest in genealogy or local history.

I must give Edgar credit for portraying a great child-parent dynamic. On the whole, parents are problematic in children’s books. If parents are too present they can slow down the action, or worse yet, stop anything exciting from happening at all. Not the best for plot development. I suspect that’s why parents are so often absent in children’s literature. If parents are too busy to notice their children are waking the ancient dead, there can be hijinks aplenty and everyone’s happy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that model necessarily, it just becomes a little rote.

Fortunately, Edgar has managed to dodge the absent parent stereotype. Actually, make that two stereotypes that she sidesteps. Even though Laura’s parents are artistes, they act like reasonable adults. At one point Laura is all ready to tear down a boarded up wall when her father steps in and says, “You know, I’m not exactly comfortable with you smashing holes in our house to satisfy your curiosity.” I think we can all relate to that conversation from both sides. I also appreciated that although Laura’s parents are eccentric and have quirky artist friends, they are still involved in her life and make her do things she isn’t too keen about, like attending school. Weirdly, that’s not as common in fiction as you’d think it’d be.

One thing to note: Laura is supposed to be in Grade 8 (high school) but she and her classmates act much younger, closer to 5th or 6th graders, I’d say. This causes the romance plot to feel forced, although Leon and Laura have a charming friendship. Given the emotional immaturity of the characters, I think this book would appeal to tweens more than young adults.

For reference, here is the original Australian cover.

Australian cover

I prefer the U. S. version, don’t you? I think it has more shelf appeal. Also, the Australian cover looks a little too Wait Till Helen Comes, which isn’t this book’s vibe at all.

Review copy provided by publisher.

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Review: Mirror by Jeannie Baker

Mirror
Written and illustrated by Jeannie Baker
Candlewick Press
$18.99
ISBN 9780763648480
For ages 2 and up
On shelves now

When I was a kid I was fascinated by photographer Peter Menzel’s book Material World. Menzel arranged for a team of photographers to visit 30 different countries, live with a “statistically average” family for one week, and then, at the end of the week, take a photograph of the family standing outside their home, with all their possessions surrounding them. As you’d expect, the images vary quite a bit. Somewhere along the way my parents acquired an interactive CD-ROM atlas that exhibited all of the project’s images. (I have a hunch it was part of our Encarta* suite but I’m not sure.) I loved that CD-ROM. I spent dozens upon dozens of hours, flipping through it, fascinated, trying to imagine what my life would be like if I’d been born in Iceland or Mali or Texas.

I mention this because collage artist and author Jeannie Baker’s Mirror puts me very much in mind of Menzel’s work. The book actually is two picture books in one. On the left side, we witness a day in the life of a young family in Sydney, Australia. To the right, the same day in the life of a Moroccan family is shown. The book is bound so that both sides can be viewed either together or independently. As the two families go about their lives, their experiences are paralleled. Both families eat breakfast, go shopping, and gather together in the evening when the day is done. Except for a brief introduction, the book is wordless and the story is told through Baker’s stunning paper collages, full of texture and life.

It’s a stunning effort. Flipping through, I felt like I was simultaneously present in a Sydney family room, under the hot North African sun on market day, and in my parents’ family room, using that old CD-ROM and discovering the world for the first time.

Highly recommended. This book is not only a work of art, it’s a great discussion starter.

Reviewed from library copy.

___

* Gasp. Do they not make Encarta anymore? I feel so old!

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A unique coloring book

While perusing the Australian/New Zealand divison of Walker Books’ (sister of the American Candlewick Press) website I found

the Yves Saint Laurent Colouring Book.

I can just see toddlers dressed in slimming black gathered around the pages of this book, arguing over who gets to color the evening gown.

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