The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf, adapted by Kochka & Olivier Latyk

By Maureen Tai, 10 February 2022

During a recent trip to my hometown in Malaysia, I visited the shamelessly Instagrammable BookXcess @ Kong Heng and my browsing was rewarded with a gorgeous picture book, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (ages 6+). I confess to not knowing at the time that the fable-like story was over a century old, and that its author, Selma Lagerlöf (1858 – 1940), is legendary in her native Sweden, being the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature (as she did in 1909). I had been attracted primarily to the book’s exquisite paper-cut pages and how cleverly they overlaid the whimsical illustrations on the cover and inside of the book. A blatant case of judging a book by its cover.

Continue reading

Flash Review: Dog by Daniel Pennac, translated by Sarah Adams

By Maureen Tai, 16 January 2022

Published almost two decades ago, Dog (ages 10+) is a funny, charming and absorbing coming-of-age, middle-grade novel about an unattractive mongrel dog’s search for a human owner he can train. After surviving death by drowning as an infant and the tragic loss of Black Nose, his adoptive mother, heartbroken Dog leaves the rubbish tip that has been his puppyhood home and heads into town for the first time. Dog is so intoxicated by the new sights, sounds and smells that he forgets to be cautious and ends up in the dog pound. All seems lost until a tiny, strong-willed, red-headed girl sweeps into Dog’s life with the force of a hurricane. Plum, as the little girl is christened by Dog, is the owner of his dreams. Little does Dog know that his adventures are just beginning …

Dog is a well-paced, whimsical tale peppered with colourful characters that will keep younger and older readers alike – and in particular, animal lovers – riveted from start to finish. Proving that, with a little bit of canine (and feline) ingenuity, even the hardest of human hearts can be trained to love.

Flash Review: Where The Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin

By Maureen Tai, 9 January 2022

In the middle-grade realistic fiction novel, Where the Watermelons Grow (ages 10+), twelve-year-old Della bears the weight of the world on her shoulders. Pest infestations and an unseasonal, prolonged drought are causing the crops on her father’s farm – including their legendary watermelons – to wither and die. Della’s baby sister, Mylie – aptly christened “a pistol” by Miss Lorena, a kindly newcomer to the family’s small North Carolina town – is a handful, and then some. But by far, the young girl’s biggest worry is that her beloved Mama’s schizophrenia is back, and boy, is it back with a vengence.

With evocative and unflinchingly honest prose, Baldwin tells the heart-rending story of a girl desperate to find a solution to a very grown-up problem, all by herself. None of the complicated emotions – sadness, frustration, fear, anxiety – that come from having a parent with a mental illness are downplayed, none of the challenges sugar-coated. Ultimately, our charming and likeable heroine learns how to better carry her burdens, realising that there are times when you need a little help from family and friends, some poetry from Emily Dickinson, and perhaps, just perhaps, a touch of bee-honey magic.

Unusual for this genre, but similar to some other middle-grade books we have previously reviewed such as the breathtaking Wolf Hollow, the story doesn’t end in tidy, magical, Disney-esque fashion. For me, this is where the real strength of the storytelling lies: in the ability to paint a vivid, realistic and compelling picture for younger readers that is hopeful as it is bleak, and healing as it is heartbreaking.

Flash Review: Tofu Quilt by Ching Yeung Russell

By Maureen Tai, 31 December 2021

It seems fitting that the last book review for the year is Tofu Quilt (ages 8+), a thoughtfully written and heartfelt autobiographical verse novel about a young girl growing up in 1960’s Hong Kong. Yeung Yeung dreams of becoming a writer, despite the discouraging societal norms of the time and the disapproval of her wider family. Bolstered by the unwavering support of her headstrong mother, Yeung Yeung perseveres with her education and with her writing, her ambition also fuelled by her love for “dan lai“, a mouthwatering, steamed milk-egg-dessert still enjoyed by many in Hong Kong today. Yeung Yeung’s empowering story is one of hope and resilience, and refreshingly, is about a Chinese girl finding her own way in her Asian home rather than discovering herself by escaping from it. Tofu Quilt is an authentic, gorgeously written story that will resonate deeply, in particular with young readers of Chinese descent.