Sunday, 22 July 2018

Book Review: Ollie and the Starchaser by Tanya Southey

It is often acknowledged that children’s literature is devoured just as hungrily by the adult purchasers as the intended young readers. I became another proof-point to this widely accepted “truth” last week when I found myself lazing on the couch by the fireplace on a wintry Sunday afternoon as the wind and rain howled outside, riveted to a copy of “Ollie and the Starchaser”, aimed at 8 – 12 year olds.

Written by debut author Tanya Southey, it is a book with just the right mixture of fantasy and fact, fiction and realism, magic and adventure. It opens with Ollie being put to bed by his grandmother Nanoo.

Nanoo was not a usual gran who sat knitting scratchy jumpers and drinking tea. She was an astronomer who had discovered a new planet. She wasn’t much of a cook but she had one biscuit recipe that never failed. Ollie is also not the usual little boy. He finds school hard sometimes, other boys tease him about the books he read or about dropping the ball in footy.

Nanoo and Ollie spent time together with the biscuits, her stories and her telescope. Nanoo taught Ollie about the universe, the planet she had discovered and more importantly to love adventure and to imagine. As Ollie looked through her telescope, he marked things he could see. He also marked things he couldn’t see but imagined were up there and hoped he might discover, just as Nanoo had done.

One day when Ollie comes home from school, his dog does not run up and welcome him in the usual way. Inside he finds his mum crying, dad standing by with a grave look on his pale face. Nanoo is missing. Ollie’s life is turned upside down, he cannot believe this is happening. Grumpiness replaces laughter in his family.

Ollie’s luck changes when his friend Starchaser turns up in his garden one day. Together, Ollie and the Starchaser go on an epic adventure to find Nanoo. They explore vistas beyond the comfort zone, take risks and make brave choices. But does it lead them to Nanoo in the end? You have to read to find out.

This is a book that will provoke some rich conversations with the young ones in your life. About gender bias, self esteem, resilience, accepting those that are different, family and friendship. It also gives you a scaffolding to talk to children about dealing with loss and grief. The writing itself is incredibly visual, imaginative and fun. Gum trees look like tiny broccoli on a dinner plate from the sky. The sun pulls a blanket of waves over its head as it sinks into the ocean. The illustration by Jess Southey then pushes it to a whole new level. You can actually make it a game to see how many clues your young reader (or you) can find in the illustrations. Like the number plate for Nanoo’s car being NAN000. Or busy astronomer Nanno owning a cookbook named “COOKING 123” and a snakeplant, a houseplant notoriously hard to kill. Illustrations of Ollie’s bedroom or treehouse with its astronomy themed curtains and posters would be any adventure-loving kid’s dream.

The book is not without its little faults. The introduction to Starchaser (outside of Nanoo’s stories) is somewhat abrupt. Some of the references like a 10-57 police code seem American rather than Australian. The first few chapters used to build context are slow to being with and risks losing some young readers before they get to where the fun starts. But once the adventure gets going, this is a book that is hard to put down. It is also a book that lingers in your mind long after you have turned the last page. Overall, an amazing effort from a first time writer and a book that would make a fabulous gift for any pre-teen in your life.