Natural Disasters: Fire Fire

This cluster of picture books and middle grade novels has been on my desk since last summer, the advent of winter extinguishing the heat of urgency to share them. It’s hard to feel the desperation of draught and the destructive fear of fire when it’s eight degrees outside and rain is pummelling against the window panes like it will never end. But it has ended and here, in Queensland like many other parts of Australia, the draught which never ended has ignited more anguish and despair. The beauty of these titles though is their ability to transcend sadness and instil hope. Natural disasters will always be a major part of Australian life. Giving kids the ability to understand and manage this is paramount to survival. These commemorative releases do so with candour and compassion.

Bentley's absolutely captivating illustrations will stir heartstrings into dust-devils of delight as they depict Ella's story of isolation and wonder.

Ella lives in the red-dirt country, presumably outback Australia which is stricken by unquenchable drought. In all her young years, she has barely known the feeling of rain, never mind seen the ocean which is a source of great wonderment for her.

To salve her curiosity she approaches each of her family members in turn, quizzing them on the ocean's characteristics; its nature, colours, habits. But her mother, father nor brother Ben are able to supply enthusiastic's been too long since they experienced its magic; they can barely remember what it sounded like or looked like. They are all too preoccupied with their daily battles with the bitter dry, the red, red dust, the starving livestock...

Gran however has never been to the seaside but, like Ella, she has dreamt about it and as with all dreams, sometimes they must be seen to be believed. And so, despite the grudging despondency of the rest of the family, Ella, Gran and the others make the long pilgrimage to the ocean and of course, are transformed.

It is marvellous how a new dream can re-germinate hope and make untenable situations more bearable. Tanner utilises Ella's yearning and childlike curiosity as the lifebuoy that saves her destitute farming family. This is a story of harsh realities and fragile hope, exquisitely portrayed in prose and picture. And a beautiful ode to our unsung heroes of the bush; our ever-resilient farmers, who I hope one day get to wet their toes in our great oceans, too.

Title: Ella and the Ocean
Author: Lian Tanner
Illustrator: Jonathan Bentley
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Children’s, $24.99
Publication Date: August 2019
Format: Hardback
ISBN: 9781760633691
For ages: 4 – 6
Type: Picture Book

Buy the Book: Boomerang Books

Through the Smoke
The wind was the breath of a sleeping dragon. Three children set out across the scorched parched wheat fields of their country home on a quest to reach the ancient castle of Everdell; haven of adventure. They are so consumed by their energetic dust battles that they barely notice the sleeping dragon awaken.  

Suddenly the terror of a raging bush fire bears down on them, forcing them to flee for their lives. Caught in the grips of this cruel beast, the children make a lucky escape thanks to their quick thinking and the gallant arrival of some true saviours, their knights in hi-vis coats, the volunteer fireries.

Cumming’s metaphoric text is nimble and engrossing. Playtime abandon balances terrifyingly with imagination and the dread of realisation; the dragon they fantasise about conquering nearly defeating them. McLean’s watercolour illustrations heighten the ambiguous colours of the outback and fire front with fierce intensity. A gripping almost-tragic scenario for pre-schoolers.

Title: Through The Smoke
Author: Phil Cummings
Illustrator: Andrew McLean
Publisher: Scholastic Press, $24.99
Publication Date: February 2019
Format: Hardback
ISBN: 9781760274702
For ages: 4+
Type: Picture Book

Buy the Book: Scholastic, Boomerang Books

The House on the Mountain

This intensely poignant story could have been a mere reflection of author, Ella Holcombe’s own tragic experience of the Black Saturday bushfires that devastated much of Victoria in February 2009. Ten years on however, Holcombe as created a tale bigger than a memory, larger than loss because as she states, ‘Family and home are bigger than that.’

Beautifully illustrated by David Cox, The House on the Mountain depicts a small girl’s bush mountain life during one indescribably hot summer. It tells how she and her brothers roam the bush in search of adventure and to shake off the stillness of the oppressive heat with their faithful dog, Ruby.

It chronicles the lead up to the family’s wild car ride down the burning mountainside to outrun the fire that threatens to consume them all. It highlights the unmitigated waves of humanity expressed by the community to help the family rebuild, readjust and recover. And above all, it’s a heart wrenching testimony to the resilience of regional Australians, their tenacity and refusal to submit to darkness.

This is a grown-up, middle grade kind of picture book, that weeps with atmosphere and emotion yet also breathes hope from every word. Highly recommended to all those who may have experienced similar natural disaster trauma and to encourage reflection and discussion among those who thankfully have not.

Title: The House on the Mountain
Author: Ella Holcombe
Illustrator: David Cox
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Children’s, $24.99
Publication Date: February 2019
Format: Hardback
ISBN:  9781760636968
For ages: 7 – 11
Type: Picture Book for older readers

Buy the Book: Allen & Unwin, Boomerang Books

Bushfire: Surviving Black Saturday

Sally Murphy's narratives, whether prose or verse, promise an emotive experience and this fictional account of one of the worst natural disasters in Australian history is no exception.

Although much of the first half of this book was utilised as the set up for young Amy's story, the second half ripped along at heart-stopping speed all the way to the arresting end, Black Saturday.

Amy's father is a vollie fire fighter. Her older brother Aaron has just left for a gap year in Europe, closely followed by her scientist mother for a climate change symposium, leaving Amy to face her new school year in the middle of a blisteringly hot Australian summer virtually alone. Thankfully Gran is on hand to keep an eye out for her and introduce her to a new friend in the small township of Marysville. Unfortunately, it's this same town that, like many others on that fateful day in February 2009, succumbs to the horrific fury of the Black Saturday bushfires. It is completely obliterated.

Despite the despairingly bleak subject matter, Murphy injects a strong undercurrent of hope and positivity throughout the tale via Amy's backstory about feeling meek and cowardly and then finally harnessing her fear and transforming it into courage when it's needed most. A touching experience for middle grade readers to undertake.

Title: Bushfire: Surviving Black Saturday
Author: Sally Murphy
Publisher: Scholastic Australia, $16.99
Publication Date: February 2019
Format: Hardback
ISBN: 9781742994307
For ages: 10 – 14
Type: Middle Grade Fiction

Buy the Book: Boomerang Books


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