Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

December 7, 2008 by


Set in Arizona, Stargirl arrives at Mica Area High School to a curious bunch of onlookers. The students cannot believe she is for real. Stargirl’s eccentric attire includes 1920s flapper dresses, kimonos and a pet rat that rides on her shoulder. Her ukulele strumming at lunchtimes in the canteen, the way she knows when it is everyone’s birthday and her love of life and concern for the welfare of others gives everyone the jitters. They do not understand her; cannot define her. One night when Stargirl cheers and acts so wildly for the school’s under performing football team, she gains a following; as does the football team. The team is popular again and Stargirl’s popularity rises too. Her unusual antics, once thought of as bizarre, are now endearing.After the football season, Stargirl joins the cheer squad for the basketball team. All of a sudden the Mica team, the team that never wins, is on a roll. Stargirl cheers for both teams, wanting everyone to be happy and it is not long before she is seen as a traitor. Her purely good motives are not accepted and the students see her as an evil presence in their midst.

 Told through the eyes of Leo, a shy junior (equivalent to Year 11) at Mica High, we see the student body join together in shunning Stargirl. Leo encourages Stargirl to change and to please Leo she does. Somehow, this makes Stargirl even more unpopular and it certainly makes her unhappy.

 This is a wonderful novel; a great read. Sad, funny, poignant, addictive and always moving, Stargirl focuses on peer pressure to conform and bullying by exclusion. I was a little disappointed to see such little teacher/parent intervention, assistance, concern or even awareness of events. But there is so much to discuss in this novel, I feel that it is worthy of a class set. Although written for upper secondary students, the language and themes are accessible to a much younger audience. The themes of lost opportunities, doing what you believe in, standing up for your friends, peer pressure and the consequences of that peer pressure are just some of the issues that could be studied. There are a few terms that are so American that Australian readers may not understand them (especially those relating to the desert of Arizona), but do not let them put you off this amazing book which deserves a wide readership. Highly recommended.


Unpolished gem by Alice Pung

December 7, 2008 by


Melbourne lawyer Alice Pung’s first published book is a stunning memoir of growing up in a Chinese-Cambodian family in Melbourne’s western suburbs. As the blurb says,               

This story does not begin on a boat. Nor does it contain any wild swans or falling leaves.

Yet Alice’s parents and grandparents were forced from China to Cambodia to Vietnam and finally Australia due to the regimes and wars that tore those countries apart some years ago.

 We meet Alice’s parents and grandparents as newly arrived immigrants in Australia. Their astonishment at escalators, the old age pension and traffic lights is amusing and the listener is invited to laugh along with the story.

 The story follows Alice from birth to a coveted university place, all the while depicting the struggle, hardship, aspirations and eventual success of her extended family to accept and be accepted into the community, to give their children a good education, to succeed in business and to save enough money to build their dream home.

 An unpolished gem is told in the first person, often with flashbacks used to depict parts of her parents and grandparents lives back in Asia. The style of the story should enable teenagers to become engaged in what is essentially a tale of finding your place; in your family, in your country, in yourself. I am sure that many people will identify with that developing sense of self, even if the cultural expectations are not what they have personally experienced.

 An unpolished gem is an accessible and charming book and although a true story and probably aimed at the adult market, it reminded me of the raw power and emotion of Looking for Alibrandi.

Mimus by Lilli Thal

December 7, 2008 by


Translated from German, Mimus is an incredible rollicking and gripping tale set in imaginary lands in the Middle Ages. Crown Prince Florin and his father King Philip of Moltovia are unwittingly captured by the forces of King Theodo of Vinland.

 Florin is given to the court jester, Mimus to learn how to be a jester. Florin is livid, but his pride soon gives way to his hunger and his fears about his father; for if Florin misbehaves or tries to escape, it is his father who is physically punished.

 Over time, Florin learns his new trade and Mimus shows some compassion to the former prince. But is it enough for Florin to count on? Will Mimus help him escape a certain death, or will the wily old jester only worry about himself?

 This is a fantastic book that fits in very well with the new VELS in Victoria at least. This book could be studied at year 8 (or wherever in secondary schooling that students study Middle Ages).  It should be studied in conjunction with humanities as Mimus gives students a real insight into how life was lived, for both the upper and lower classes in medieval times.  

 Mimus is well written story that could not fail to engage students.

Mahtab’s story by Libby Gleeson

December 7, 2008 by


This is an inspiring and emotional story based on real life events.

 Mahtab and her family live in Afghanistan. Life is no longer free and fun as the Taliban increase their power over the Afghani people. One night when Mahtab’s granddad does not return home, Mahtab’s parents make the decision to flee Afghanistan and try to make it all the way to the far off and much dreamed about Australia.

 A nail-biting, long and difficult journey faces the family. Mahtab, her mother and her brother and sister must remain hidden in the truck that is their escape vehicle. Bribes for border guards are only part of the frightening journey. Each time the truck stops, there is the fear that they truck may be searched; the children must be silent and still.

 On arrival in Pakistan, Mahtab’s father goes on ahead to Australia. But after almost a year without word of his safe arrival, Mahtab convinces her mother that they must follow him to Australia immediately. A nightmare journey including false passports, leaky overloaded boats and detention centres follows. Will it be a happy ending for Mahtab and her family? Will they be reunited with her father or will they be deported from Australia as they have been labeled ‘queue jumpers’?

 A wonderfully engaging and moving novel that grips the reader from the first page to the last.

Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

December 7, 2008 by


It was eight years ago that we first met  Stargirl. In Stargirl, the story was told through the eyes of Leo, student at Arizona’s Mica High. He and the other students were surprised and amazed at the new girl (and her name), who had been previously home schooled. Stargirl’s warmth, caring and individuality was her strength, but ultimately Leo and the cohort at Mica High made her lack of her downfall.

 In this long-awaited sequel, Love, Stargirl, Stargirl is now the narrator. She has moved interstate to Pennsylvania and is back in home school. The story is written as one year-long letter to Leo, who it is clear despite his betrayal of her, Stargirl is still madly in love with.

 Stargirl has changed in some ways and not in others. She is still caring and warm and of course, different. But now she seems a little more guarded and not so impetuous or impulsive. She still manages to reach out to people who are hurting, even though she herself is suffering. Her creative ways of healing eventually leads to her own healing.

 With a cast of wacky but interesting characters, Love Stargirl, in written in the conversational style of a year long letter/diary. The plot moves slowly but firmly towards the resolution, but is it the one that we are all hoping for? 

 Although I loved meeting up with Stargirl again, I did feel that the sequel was not as strong as the original book. Saying that though, Stargirl was an incredible book and Love, Stargirl is still very good. Recommended.

Love Shelley by Kate Seksana

December 7, 2008 by


Love, Shelley is 10 months in the life of a 14 year old girl living in London.  With an alcoholic mother, a new school, a father that has a new wife and baby, Shelley’s is doing it hard.  She decides to write to Ziggy, the lead singer of the band Arctic Zoo.  She tells Ziggy in letters she sends twice a month, about her life.  Ziggy sends her a postcard back every time, with a short message to cheer her up and keep her going.  Fortnight by fortnight, the reader discovers more and more about Shelley and the life that she has to endure.  As time goes on, Ziggy’s messages become more and more important to Shelley.  It is clear by his responses that Ziggy does read her lengthy letters and his support of her through the good times and the bad is very helpful to her. 

 We see Shelley find friends, a boyfriend and support from family.  She grows in responsibility towards her little brother Jake and her mother, who tries to be a good mother, but her addiction to alcohol sometimes is more powerful than the instinct to be a good mother.

 When it appears that Shelley may be excluded (expelled) from school after she was set up by some bullying girls, her father goes to extreme lengths, not only to prove his daughter’s innocence, but to demonstrate to her that even though he doesn’t love with her, Shelley is very important to him. 

 It seems that Love, Shelley might have a happy ending, but will bullying Janice let Shelley be free?

 Love, Shelley is a nice, easy to read book that I am sure will appeal to those in year 7 and above.

Life and times of Gracie Faltrain by Cath Crowley

December 7, 2008 by


This is the Australian answer to Bend it like Beckham.  Gracie just wants to play soccer.  She always has and she probably always will.  It means so much to her that sometimes she gets a bit selfish and forgets to pass the ball to the other players in her team.  This makes the other members want to dump her from the team.  One of the other reasons they probably want to dump her is that she is a girl.  On the boys team.

 The novel also deals with issues such as bullying, single parent families, divorce and the struggle of growing up gracefully (or at least without your undies tucked into your school dress!)

 Written in the first person from the point of view of lots of different characters (at least 15), The life and times of Gracie Faltrain keeps the action moving.  It is nice to see events from several points of view, however, I think that there are just a few too many voices used in the novel.  I do like the varying length of the chapters, with many that are less than a page.  It makes for quick and easy reading and the text is not in the least bit intimidating.

It’s not all about you, Calma!

December 7, 2008 by


It’s Not All About YOU, Calma! is the hilarious sequel to The Whole Business With Kiffo and the Pitbull. Calma is in trouble again and she again uses her intelligence and investigative skills to solve two mysteries, with very different outcomes to the investigation involved in The Whole Business With Kiffo and the Pitbull. This time, the reader finds Calma in love and having to deal with some big issues, including the return of her father and her mother having a relationship.


The reader is introduced by Calma to the concept of an unreliable narrator, however, I found this to be an endearing way of getting to know Calma better and seeing things from her perspective.


The writing is again inventive, laugh-out-loud funny, original, cynical and absolutely brilliant.  Written in the first person, I am not sure how author Barry Jonsberg has got so well and truly inside the head of a teenage girl, but however he does it, the results are remarkable. These two books are some of the best young adult literature that I have had the privilege to read in some time.


Calma is led through poetry writing by her brilliant new English teacher and as such could be used in class as part of studying this text: Sonics, iambic tetrameter, free verse, and improvisation are some of the aspects of poetry that could be studied.  The concept of an unreliable narrator could also be studied.


These titles are for older readers.

Gracie Faltrain takes control

December 7, 2008 by


Gracie Faltrain takes control is the sequel to The life and times of Gracie Faltrain. This time we see Gracie struggling with discrimination, relationships and the foibles of her personality.


Gracie’s school soccer team is now good enough to play in the ‘firsts’. This means that the grand final will be televised and soccer scouts for the state team will be watching. It’s make or break time for the whole team, but for Gracie in particular. For more than one reason. Of course soccer is in Gracie’s blood. But there are other more important things at stake, like friendships and relationships.


Written in the first person, Gracie can be a trial at times. She can be arrogant and thoughtless, but it is her fall from grace with three of her friends that really connects with the reader. Finally Gracie sees that she has done the wrong thing by her best friends and the implications could be serious. This changes Gracie for the better and sees her take a much healthier view of her relationships as well as of winning and losing.


I did find the school principal’s backflip over allowing Gracie to play in the firsts a little too convenient and expected a large battle of the sexes with accompanying media coverage, to no avail.


Again I liked the short and engaging chapters and Crowley’s concentration on Gracie’s voice makes this sequel more successful than its predecessor. The use of quotes from other characters at the beginning of each character gives us an insight into their thoughts without them crowding Gracie’s story. An action packed story with lots of significant time given to the importance of relationships.

The Falconer’s knot by Mary Hoffman

December 7, 2008 by


The Falconer’s Knot is a lively tale of murder and intrigue set in Italy during the Middle Ages.


Teenagers Silvano and Chiara meet under difficult and dangerous circumstances. Silvano is accused of murder and Chiara has been turned out of the family home by her heartless brother. Both seek refuge with the Church in a neighbouring friary and convent respectively.


As time passes, there are more murders and Silvano could go from suspect to victim. Can Silvano and Chiara solve the crimes before any of their friends, or indeed themselves, come to harm?


The characters, clothing, setting, religion and philosophies of the time are all well documented. The description of the frescoes by Giotto and Martini are so delicious that while reading I actually wanted to travel to Italy to see them for myself.


I’m sure students will find it a real page-turner.