N J Gemmell is one of Australia’s best-selling authors. Novels, essays and a regular column in The Australian are just a few of the places you may have come across the name. Or one of her names, as she also publishes under Nikki Gemmell and famously as ‘anonymous’ for one controversial novel, which sent the literary press into a tizz.
I’ve been a fan for many years; I studied some of her books in my own literary PhD, even attempting to read them in French! But just as Gemmell’s writing perspective has begun to swing towards a younger readership, my own relationship with Gemmell’s writing now has the extra dimension of my children loving her work too. ‘N J’ has just released the latest in her two popular children’s series following the larrikin Caddy kids and upbeat schoolyard hero Coco Banjo.
Coco Banjo Has Been Unfriended by N J Gemmell
Random House RRP:$14.99AUD
The second in the Coco Banjo series, this installment sees perpetual optimist Coco heading off on school camp. There’ll be backseat bus pranks, a crabby headmistress and a nasty case of head lice to deal with, but that’s just the start of Coco’s woes. Her best friend ‘N’ is sharing a cabin with the meanest of mean girls, Belle Pratt-Perkins, instead of her BFF – and for some reason, she seems pleased about it! Has Coco been unfriended?
The Coco Banjo adventures are pitched at readers 6+. They are illustrated (by Gemmell) to great comic effect, making them a handy transition book for children ready to move on to chapters and a fun, easy read for older children. Some of the playground politics and (in this episode) the experience of going to camp will be better understood by upper primary kids; but younger readers often like to read about protagonists just ahead of their own age as part of the important social learning that good books provide.
My kids like Coco Banjo because she’s funny and a bit of a non-conformist; she’s often in trouble with her teachers, but only because she willingly steps outside the rules occasionally to protect or support other children. They also love the high-energy nature of these stories, which radiates from Coco as a character and is exaggerated by the comic fonts used in the design with LOTS of CAPITALS and EXCLAMATION MARKS!!! Encourage the kids to read it out loud for a bit of family fun before bed!
Gemmell deploys the great children’s literature rule that parents must be (at least partially) absent from the story, so Coco lives mostly alone. But don’t feel sad – Coco never does! Her home is a wild adventure island secreted in Sydney Harbour; she has her mother’s friend, ageing rockstar Rick Ragger, keeping an eye on her when it matters; and she’s quite proud of her mum, Clem, the jetsetting fashion stylist. So, my girls (currently 7 & 8) revel in the way Coco sets the pace for her own life and is utterly resilient in the face of adversity.
Resilience and positivity are also the qualities I like most in Coco Banjo. The series has been likened to Wimpy Kid or Tom Gates, but I find both of those series slightly depressing in that the lead character is so often the butt of the jokes. While Coco is faced with many similar challenges to those other guys (around friendships, teachers, families and rules) she always comes out on top. Add to that the very Australian dialogue and nods to local flora, fauna and cultural issues and you have a winning combination for your little Aussie bookworms.
The Luna Laboratorium
Random House RRP:$16.99AUD
Gemmell’s other hit series follows the adventures of a displaced family of kids (The Caddys), thrown by circumstance out of the Australian bush and into a new life in central London. The Kensington Reptilarium (which I’ve reviewed here) kicked it off, followed by The Icicle Illuminarium last year. The third – and final – book pulls the pieces together in the mysterious family life of these children, whose (absent) parents have left a legacy of strange letters, curious caretakers and unanswered questions that drive the plots of the novels.
These books are for upper primary (and beyond) with some challenging vocabulary and concepts. They have all the British eccentricities of a good Blyton or Dahl romp – with grotesque villains and class-based snobbery – but with a clear Australian vernacular apparent in the language, the landscapes and the cultural subtexts.
Apart from being clever, fast-paced adventures for children, it’s the cultural observations that most attract me to Gemmell’s writing. This trilogy has a lot in common with her earliest adult novels (Shiver, Cleave and Love Song) in which the landscapes were as significant as the characters, and understanding different socio-cultural communities was the key to survival and personal development.
Gemmell wears her interest in art, history and classic literature on her sleeve and never shies away from intertextual references in her writing for adults. In the same way, this series seems to respect the intelligence of young readers, offering enough adventure to propel the narrative but forcing kids to rise to the challenge of a more sophisticated writing style in the sea of comic-based adventures so popular right now.
Head to Random House Australia for free chapter samples of both these books.
I received review copies of these titles, but all opinions are my own.