Akissi, Tales of Mischief by Marguerite Abouet and Mathieu Sapin

By Maureen Tai, 20 August 2018

“With that square head, you look just like a gecko.”  – Akissi

IMG_7519It is hard to miss the copy of Akissi, laid out on the table at Daunt, a bookshop in London. The cover is a startling yellow and has a picture of a little girl the colour of warm cocoa, with an oversized head, large oval eyes and wide toothy grin.  She lives with her mum and dad, older siblings Victorine and Fofana in a square, yellow brick house with blue shuttered windows in the Ivory Coast.

Akissi is full of life, full of ideas and full of mischief – that trait which endears certain book characters to the youngest of readers (think Pippi Longstocking, Matilda, Peter Rabbit and Tom Gates to name a few). Akissi is irresistible. Continue reading

Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate

By Maureen Tai, 17 August 2018

“I shake my head. 
I say, This America is hard work.”  – KekHome of the Brave

Kek is a Sudanese boy adrift in the world. He witnesses the murder of his father and brother. His mother’s whereabouts are unknown. A bewildering stint at a refugee camp is followed by an even more unsettling relocation by “flying boat” to America. Burdened by his losses, Kek learns to keep his hope alive as he adjusts to life in America.

Home of the Brave is Kek’s story.  Continue reading

small things by Mel Tregonning

By Maureen Tai, 30 July 2018

IMG_6731How does one review a wordless picture book, when the illustrator has already decided that words are insufficient, and ineffective in the storytelling?  Do I say that in small thingsthe illustrations are achingly exquisite and hauntingly beautiful? Or that I felt, understood – to the core – and found familiar, the sadness, loneliness and depression experienced by the small boy in the story? Or that this is probably one of the most profound, and important, picture books on childhood anxiety that I have had the good fortune to discover? All true words, but strangely insufficient, and ineffective.  To truly appreciate this wonderful picture book, you need to hold it in your hands and absorb every frame as you turn the pages.  Continue reading

The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams

By Ben, 27 July 2018

IMG_6358B: Are you going to write about The Boy in the Dress on the blog?
M: Do you think it’s bloggable?
B: Yeah, it’s good.
M: Ok then. It was fun reading this together, wasn’t it? Actually, I read this with your sister four years ago, and it was pretty good then too.
B: So you’ve read this two times now? You must really like it.
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Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

By Anna, 23 July 2018

Maybe the others would have believed me. Maybe not. But I wasn’t going to tell them. This was just for me.  – Vera

Every summer, all of Vera’s friends go off to camp. She never has. Now she is.IMG_6364 2

Vera is Russian, and as much as she tries to fit in with her American friends, she still feels like the odd one out. After a bit of a disaster with her birthday sleepover, Vera hears about a Russian camp called O.R.R.A. from a girl at her church, and she is determined to go there. She thinks that she won’t be that left out, because everyone else would be Russian, like her. She isn’t prepared for the camp ahead of her.

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Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

By Maureen Tai, 6 July 2018

img_5678.jpg“There is always something to miss, no matter where you are.” – Sarah

Anna and Caleb live in a lonesome house in the prairies back in the days before electricity and piped water and telephones. They pine for their Mama, who died a day after Caleb was born, and their Papa silently longs for a wife. So Anna and Caleb’s father, Mr. Jacob Witting, decides to put an advertisement in the newspapers for such a companion. And Ms. Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton responds.

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A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

By Maureen Tai, 2 July 2018

“To the pond and back – to the pond and back – nearly a full day of walking altogether. This was Nya’s daily routine seven months of the year. Daily. Every single day.”

img_4151In A Long Walk to Water, not one, but two Sudanese children fearfully and desperately endure the worse conditions conspired by humans and nature.  Nya lives where water is scarce and seasonal, and access to this life-giving elixir is dictated by the vagaries of an ancient tribal war.  Twenty years earlier when Salva was Nya’s age, he fights for survival in his war-racked country.  Sudanese of one faith are aggressors, using violence to oppress, extinguish even, the lives of the non-believers and the less powerful.

Based on true events, these are stories that attest to the strength and resilience of the human spirit. These are stories about our common humanity.   Continue reading

Where The Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

By Maureen Tai, 26 June 2018

“It was planting season, which was especially gruelling. The mud stuck to their feet like glue and each seedling had to be painstaking planted by hand.  When the hot sun burned overhead, Minli’s knees shook from weariness.” 

IMG_5384Minli lives a hand-to-mouth existence in a dusty brown village, nestled in the shadows of the aptly named Fruitless Mountain. The little girl is barely nourished by the grains of rice that her parents coax from the poor land.  However, her spirit is sustained by the stories that her father regales her with each evening.  These stories have been handed down like precious family heirlooms from so many generations before that they sparkle with magic and the fantastical, and surely, must be ancient figments of an overactive imagination.

Or perhaps not.

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Giants Beware! By Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre

By Maureen Tai, 18 June 2018

“Violence is not just efficient, it feels good too.” – Claudette

Ah, such words of wisdom from Claudette, the ferocious, intrepid and sassy ginger-haired heroine of Giants Beware! She may be pint-sized – like her pet pug Valiant – but she has bucketloads of chutzpah (one of my favourite Yiddish words that loosely translates into “ballsy attitude”).  Moreover, she’s intent on slaying the baby-feet eating giant that is holding her village psychologically hostage.

Hold on to your hats, folks! We’re in for a rip-roaring ride.

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Mr McGee and the Biting Flea by Pamela Allen

By Maureen Tai, 15 June 2018

“Mr McGee went out to play, down to the beach one windy day.”  

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Reading aloud to, and with, my children must be one of the best perks of being a parent.  Rhyming picture books are the most fun to read aloud, bar none. And Mr McGee and the Biting Flea has male frontal nudity to boot.

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Real Friends by Shannon Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Phamo

By Anna, 11 June 2018

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“Once upon a time there was a girl with red hair who believed her destiny was to ride alone. But an old evil was rising in the north lands. At the final moment, when all seemed to be lost, she cried out for help. The many friends she had made on her journey heard her call. And they came running. After all, no one’s destiny is to ride alone.” – Shannon

In kindergarten, Shannon meets Adrienne and they become best friends. Shannon thinks that she and Adrienne will be friends forever.

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The King of the Copper Mountains by Paul Biegel

By Maureen Tai, 8 June 2018

 “King Mansolain had a beard that spread about his feet like a rug, and on it slept a hare, the only creature that still cared for him now that King Mansolain was almost forgotten.”

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My beloved copy of The King of the Copper Mountains bears teeth marks made by my first ever pet dog.  Patches was a Shih-Tzu with one blue and one brown eye. She had the unsavoury habit of tracking down cockroaches and stifling the blighters by rolling over them.  If she could have talked (and as a child, I fervently wished that she could have), I suspect she’d have had many engaging stories to tell.  Like the animals in Paul Biegel’s classic tale who come to the copper castle to keep King Mansolain alive.

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Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell

By Maureen Tai, 4 June 2018

IMG_3875“Ottoline had two collections that were all her own. One was her Odd Shoe collection, of which she was very proud.  Whenever Ottoline bought a pair of shoes, she would wear one and put the other in her collection.”

Ottoline is too young to accompany her remarkably prescient absentee parents on their world wanderings.  But she is not too young to spend her days by herself in an artifact-filled apartment in the company of a hairy Norwegian bog person called Mr. Munroe.  As outlandish as it sounds, Ottoline is an extremely relatable character.  Continue reading

Mr Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown

By Maureen Tai, 2 June 2018

“Mr Tiger was bored with always being so proper.”

IMG_3950All the inhabitants in Mr Tiger’s world are animals who have snooty expressions on their faces and who stand upright.  All of them – including deer, brown bear, fox, buffalo, monkey, hedgehog, horse and ibex – are dressed to the nines in top hats and bonnets, suits and bow ties, solemn skirts and long sleeved blouses.  They walk sedately from place to place, or if they must, ride stiffly on penny farthings and normal bicycles. Everything is calm, quiet and so very proper. Everyone has a stiff upper (and lower) lip.

Except Mr Tiger.

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Do not lick this book* (it’s full of germs) by Idan Ben-Barak & illustrated by Julian Frost

By Maureen Tai, 31 May 2018

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If you are a parent of young children like I am, you will have, at one point or another, yelled at them to stop eating their nose poos or licking elevator buttons because “FOR HEAVENS SAKE, THOSE THINGS ARE FULL OF GERMS!” And your progeny would not have given a monkey’s because, well, let’s face it, no one can see germs can they?

Do not lick this book* (it’s full of germs) attempts to remedy this situation by magnifying some common microbes (by some hundreds of thousands of times), giving them faces, limbs, attractive hues, cute names and quirky personalities, and inviting readers to whisk them off on adventures. Sounds fun? It is! Continue reading

Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel

By Maureen Tai, 28 May 2018

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“It was all built by one man, a mysterious Tuskegee airman named Joe.  He made every mountain you see, laying one chunk of sand at a time. He stacked every brick in Ghostopolis so that ghosts would have a place to live.”

An unscripted poke-about in an indie comics store in Toronto last summer led me serendipitously to what is now one of my favourite graphic novels, Ghostopolis. If you’re looking for a riveting, action-packed story that combines realistic fiction with elements of fantasy and the macabre, features compelling characters and concludes with multiple satisfactory endings, then this book is for you. Continue reading

The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton

By Maureen Tai, 25 May 2018

“In a kingdom of warriors, the smallest warrior was Princess Pinecone.”

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We all know someone like Princess Pinecone. Heck, we’ve all BEEN someone like Princess Pinecone. You know the feeling? When you’re seven years old, and convinced that you’re small, uncool, and insignificant while everyone else is smarter, stronger, and so much more accomplished.  On top of that, you never, ever get the specific thing that you ask for. EVER. Especially from your parents (and in particular at Christmastime). Do I sound bitter?

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Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

By Maureen Tai, 18 May 2018

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“Like God in the Bible, they looked at what they had made and found it very good.”

The setting is a small rural community outside Washington in the 1960s. On the outside, Jesse Aarons is a hen-pecked, cow-milking, God-fearing, quietly anxious but otherwise normal fifth grader. On the inside, Jess is much more than that. He is an artist, a creator of pictures, with fragile sensitivities and complicated emotions. It takes an extraordinary friendship in the magical kingdom of Terabithia, and a tragic loss, for Jess to discover, to become, and to be accepted for the person he truly is.  Continue reading

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky & illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

By Maureen Tai, 13 May 2018

“Louise’s mother was her best friend. Deliberate…patient, soothing…subtle, indispensable…and as useful as an araignée (spider).”

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Every mother leaves an imprint on her child.  For French artist Louise Josephine Bourgeois (1911-2010), known best for her impressive metal sculptures of spiders, that imprint is achingly deep, lasting her entire life. Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois is a gorgeously illustrated non-fiction picture book that tells the moving story of a daughter’s love for her mother, and of the artist – and the art – that emerges from it.  Continue reading

Town Boy by Lat

By Maureen Tai, 10 May 2018

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“And so…there we were – my family and I … beginning a new life in this new place. We have become town people…”

On this first day of a new era for my home country, it is fitting that I should pay tribute to one of my favourite comics from my youth.  Malaysia’s much-loved cartoonist, Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid (fondly referred to as Lat, short for bulat or round) wrote Town Boy almost three decades ago.  It is an semi-autobiographical tale, set in the 1960’s, of a young Malay boy growing up in a small town.

It is my childhood too. And it is the childhood of several generations of Malaysians. Continue reading

The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary

By Maureen Tai, 7 May 2018

“Ralph was eager, excited, curious, and impatient all at once. The emotion was so strong it made him forget his empty stomach. It was caused by those little cars, especially that motorcycle and the pb-pb-b-b-b sound the boy made. That sound seemed to satisfy something within Ralph, as if he had been waiting all his life to hear it.”

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I was likely 11 or 12 when I first read The Mouse and the Motorcycle.  A bit late to the ballgame.  I still have my original Yearling copy, with the mouse mounted on the vehicle, whiskers back and tail tucked under and around his arm. The pages are yellowed and spotted with age and threaten, with each turn, to detach from the spine. I’m surprised none did back then, I read and re-read this book so often.

I adored Ralph – the mouse – and still do.

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Eric by Shaun Tan

By Maureen Tai, 4 May 2018

“Some years ago we had a foreign exchange student come to live with us. We found it very difficult to pronounce his name correctly, but he didn’t mind. He told us to just call him ‘Eric.'”

IMG_2155I have a soft spot for exchange students. I was one myself over two decades ago.  I still acutely remember the feelings of anxiety, excitement, fear, homesickness and nervousness, all mixed up in a gigantic ball in my gut as I landed in Narita Airport, Tokyo, unable to speak or read a word of Japanese.  It was 1989, and a few days later, Emperor Hirohito would pass away, marking the end of the Showa era.

I have a soft spot for Shaun Tan as well, but that is because he is an absolute genius.  Continue reading

Violet Mackerel’s Personal Space by Anna Branford and illustrated by Sarah Davis

By Maureen Tai, 2 May 2018

“On the last morning of the holiday, everyone puts all their things back in their suitcases.  Violet takes the sheet down from the bunk bed and folds it up. One minute it looks as if her family actually lives in the beach house, and the next minute it looks as if they have never stayed there at all.”

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I had the pleasure of meeting and supping with the delightfully scintillating self-taught illustrator, Sarah Davis over a year ago when she was in Hong Kong. Sarah also ran an illustration workshop that my daughter Anna attended and loved, and that’s when I too, fell in love with her work.  Sarah’s beautiful drawings subsequently led me to Violet Mackerel, a charming early reader series that has similarly stolen my heart.

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Pax by Sara Pennypacker

By Maureen Tai, 1 May 2018

“So which it is? You going back for your home or for your pet?”
“They’re the same thing,” Peter said, the answer sudden and sure, although a surprise to him.

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My interest was piqued by the author’s name.  And the illustrations are gorgeous, as you’d expect from the maestro of minimalism, Jon Klassen.  The cover captivated me – the back profile of a red fox, ears pricked and alert, watching the egg yolk of a sun sink into the horizon.

A word of warning though. Despite being easy on the eye, Pax is not an easy book to read.  Continue reading

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

By Maureen Tai, 30 April 2018

“I tried to look more closely at the angel in front of me. Her head alone seemed as big as me. It was a bit like standing before that huge stuffed lion at the museum, except the mane and whiskers were all light, and the eyes were huge, and the mouth never moved.  She was magnificent, and I wasn’t sure she had a mouth at all, but I was aware, every time she spoke, of something grazing my face, and of the smell of freshly mown grass.”  – Steven

The Nest

 

I met Kenneth Oppel before I read The Nest.  Canadian, living in Toronto, a graduate of Trinity College (my own alma mater), a husband and father, and a writer.  An amiable fellow, with a dry sense of humour and smiling eyes. So his book – illustrated by Jon Klassen, another Canadian and celebrated children’s book writer and illustrator – would be a gentle, calming read with hints of sarcasm.  Right?  Continue reading

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small

By Maureen Tai, 28 April 2018

“All the seeds and roots are sprouting. I can hear you saying, ‘April showers bring May flowers.’ ” – Lydia Grace Finch

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It is the mid-1930s in small-town America.  Even though Lydia Grace and her grandmother’s garden is bountiful and overflowing with vegetables and flowers, there is no work for Papa nor for Mama. Times are hard for the Finches.

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Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea by Ben Clanton

By Maureen Tai, 23 April 2018

“Jellyfish: You’ve never heard of a jellyfish?!”
Narwhal: Nope! You don’t look like any fish I’ve ever seen, but you do look kind of jelly-ish. I sure have an amazing imagination.”

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If I could describe the main character in Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea, in one single word, it would be EXUBERANT.

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The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

By Maureen Tai, 20 April 2018

“It’s pretty weird. Maybe it doesn’t belong to anyone. Maybe it doesn’t come from anywhere. Some things are like that … ” … ” … just plain lost.” – Pete

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I can’t remember how I came across The Lost Thing, or what compelled me to flip through the ochre and sepia-tinged picture book pages.  Perhaps it was the small print on the cover that said “A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to.”  Perhaps it was the oddly ethereal yet somewhat dystopian world that spread out before me.  Or perhaps it was just luck.

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Mysterious Traveller by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham

By Maureen Tai, 16 April 2018

“Issa’s old eyes had watched thousands of dawns, but still it seemed to him that each one was a miracle. Each time, it lifted his heart.”

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Some books entice because their authors are celebrities.  Many books call out with their intriguing titles. And there are those books such as Mysterious Traveller that ensnare you with their magnificent cover illustrations.

 

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Bake Sale by Sara Varon

By Maureen Tai, 15 April 2018

“I’m in a baking rut. I got up early to make a new recipe but I just made a mess. I wish I could make something besides the usual baked goods.” – Cupcake

Several years ago at a writers convention, I discovered that a charmingly soft-spoken children’s book historian (I’ll call him Mr. M) and I shared a common love – reading comics and graphic novels.

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We talked excitedly about the comics of the past – Beano, Dandy and Richie Rich – and the exciting graphic novelists of the present – Kazu Kibuishi, Raina Telgemeier and the incomparable Shaun Tan.  In an embarrassing flash of hindsight, it was probably me who gushed excitedly while Mr. M – whom I found out afterwards is one of the world’s pre-eminent authorities on children’s books – kindly indulged me.  Bake Sale was his parting recommendation, and Sara Varon’s endearing novel found a home in my library not long after that chance encounter.

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The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

By Anna, 14 April 2018

“There was a Before Dunkirk version of me and an After Dunkirk version. The After Dunkirk version was stronger, less afraid. It had been awful, but I hadn’t quit. I had persisted. In battle I had won.” – Ada

In The War That Saved My Life, the main character is a ten-year-old girl called Ada who lived with her little brother Jamie and their cruel mother.

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The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

By Maureen Tai, 31 March 2018

“N is for NEVILLE who died of ennui.” – Edward Gorey

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The Gashycrumb Tinies has black and white pictures of children in it and sparse, rhyming text ordered alphabetically, so I suppose it could be categorized as a child’s alphabet picture book. Except it describes, with a hint of delicious glee, the unexpected ways in which 26 small defenceless children come to their (sometimes macabre) ends.  Continue reading

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

By Maureen Tai, 13 April 2018

“I honor you,’ whispered Despereaux. “I honor you.” He put his paw over his heart. He bowed so low that his whiskers touched the floor. He was, alas, a mouse deeply in love.

IMG_1149At its core, The Tale of Despereaux is a love story.  But in typical Kate DiCamillo fashion, it is SO many love stories, all expertly and magically weaved into a rich and colourful tapestry that wraps around you and envelopes you within its folds.

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Ghost by Jason Reynolds

IMG_1756By Maureen Tai, 2 April 2018

“I don’t know a whole lot about sunflowers, but I know they’re pretty and girls like them, and I know the word sunflower is made up of two good words, and that man ain’t got two good words in him, or anything that any girl would like, because girls don’t like men who try to shoot them and their son.”  – Castle “Cas” Cranshaw

Life-changing childhood events are universal, some benign, some momentous. Castle’s is pretty extreme.  As a result, he is an exceptional voice in middle-grade fiction.  Continue reading

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt & illustrated by Adam Rex

By Maureen Tai, 31 March 2018

“Long ago, in an ancient and distant realm called the Kingdom of Backgarden, there lived a warrior named ROCK.”

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And so begins the story of the genesis of the most elementary and universal of playground games – Rock, Paper, Scissors.  While I normally view with disdain and dismay the deployment of “pants” and other such underwear humour in children’s books, the challenge by Scissors to Rock to don his “Battle Pants” has us guffawing with hilarity.   Continue reading

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

By Maureen Tai, 26 November 2017

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“It took me some time to recognise all those human sounds, to weave words into things. But I was patient. Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape.  Gorillas are as patient as stones. Humans, not so much.”     – Ivan

Ivan is a silverback gorilla. When we meet him in The One and Only Ivan, he has already been captive in a cage for a staggering 9,855 days, equivalent to 27 years.

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The Great Hamster Massacre by Katie Davies

By Maureen Tai, 17 November 2017

IMG_5781“You can do most things in Sunday school, like colouring and singing and dressing up, as long as you don’t dress up as Jesus on the cross, because Graham Roberts did that once, just in his pants, and Mrs Constantine didn’t like it.”   – Anna

Anna is the nine-year old through whose eyes we relive her eventful summer holidays.

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