April book reviews

By Kate Shepherd

This month Kate looks at new fiction for all ages from Saudi Arabia, Colombia and Portugal and a non-fiction text for upper primary and lower secondary that examines changes in rural Ghana brought about by creative economic initiatives.


The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour pb  9780141356686  $17.00  (2016)

I had heard that a young woman from Saudi Arabia had made a film called the Green Bicycle and that it had had glowing reviews.  I was pleased to see that she had also written a book of the story of the film.  It is excellent.  Wadja is a young 11 year old girl living in a town in Saudi Arabia.  She is mischievous, lively and intelligent and is struggling to retain some of her independence under the ever-increasing restrictions placed on her, especially at school.   Wadja earns some money by selling bracelets and music that she makes to the other girls at school even though this is not permitted.  However when she sets her heart on buying an expensive, beautiful green bicycle, she knows that this will require a very special effort, especially since the bicycle is forbidden by both her mother and father.  Wadja is a well-drawn believable, spirited character and we feel for her as she struggles against the rigid school regulations.  Through her story, we learn a lot about her family and we gain an insight into the very different positions of boys and girls, and of men and women and also of the role of religion.   Her mother has a lovely voice and loves to sing poetic love songs at home.  These are written out for us to appreciate and we are also introduced to verses from the Koran, some of which are disturbing but others are beautiful in their poetry.  This picture of the everyday life of one family in Saudi Arabia will be a revelation to many western students.  Her mother’s long commute with other women in a bus to the school where she teaches in the outer suburbs is especially disturbing.  Since women are not allowed to drive, the women depend on a surly and unreliable driver to get them to their work through the heat and dust of the chaotic traffic.  Wadja’s story is based on Haifaa’s own childhood in Saudi Arabia and also on the experiences of one of her nieces.  The story is vivid and is told with warmth and humour.  (10  – 15 years)

Picture Books

Juana & Lucas by Juana Medina pb 9780763672089 $25.00

Juana lives in Bogota, Columbia and speaks Spanish.  Juana is appalled when she is told that the class will be learning English.  It is so difficult.  How will she ever learn how to pronounce “th”?  As she chats about her life and its difficulties, her story is sprinkled with Spanish words, the meaning of which can mainly be guessed from the context.  Her complaints about learning English stop when she learns that her beloved grandfather will take her and her mother to visit Spaceland in Florida. That convinces her that there is a purpose to learning English and with the help of friends and relatives, her English quickly improves.  The exuberant cartoon style illustrations add to the humour and liveliness of this book.  I was very pleased to see two different languages used in an illustrated book for young children where there is also discussion of the difficulties and advantages of learning a new language.  Although many children learn a second language, it is very unusual to find this depicted in a book for children.  Juana is delighted when she can talk to people in Florida and understand more of what is going on and is determined to continue learning English and maybe more languages!  (7–9 years) 


Lines, Squiggles, Letters, Words by Ruth Rocha & Madalena Matoso (illus) hb 9781592702084 $25.00

Translated from the Portuguese, this picture book describes the puzzling world of signs and letters that Pedro sees but doesn’t understand when he goes into the city.  There is the sign for his street and on the bus and for so many shops and buildings.   But when Pedro starts school and he learns first the letter A and then D, to his amazement it is as though these letters have suddenly been miraculously included in the signs.  Soon to his delight, he can read whole words and then so many signs start to make sense.  Ruth Rocha and Madalena Matoso have created an innovative picture book which tries to help us understand how the world looks to a young child who cannot read and then how it must feel when letters and words gradually make sense.  It would be so interesting to read this engaging book to a group of young children just learning to read.  (3–6 years) 



One Hen: How one small loan made a big difference  by Katie Smith Milway Illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes  hb 9781554530281  $34.00 pb 9781408109816  $21.00

This is the story of how a small loan made to a poor family can enable that family to start a small business and how that can then lead to a much better life for them.  The lively and brightly coloured illustrations bring to life Kojo’s village in Ghana and show us how his life improves.  The story is based loosely on the life of Kwabena Darko who was born to poor parents in the Ashanti region of Ghana but who grew up to run a large chicken farm.  He set up Sinapi Aba (Mustard Seed) Trust which makes small loans.  In 2006, it provided loans to over 50,000 Ghanaians mainly to help them set up new small businesses.  A few pages of information at the end of the book give details about other micro-credit organizations around the world and how they can be contacted.   This is a very helpful book for introducing the concepts of sustainable development and social justice and for teaching global citizenship.  (8 – 12 years) 



Kate Shepherd
Kate has been reviewing books and making lists of recommended books for International Schools since she first set up Austral Ed in 1993.  Now Austral Ed is part of Gleebooks Education which is the Educational division of gleebooks, one of the oldest independent bookstores in Sydney.
Click on the bookshop to follow the link to the Gleebooks Education International Service and further information on how to place an order from overseas!


Gleebooks Education
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