Hooray for a new quality series of chapter books for newly independent readers! It is no secret that I am a huge fan of Melina Marchetta since I fell in love with Looking for Alibrandi, a YA novel which so beautifully and honestly portrayed the Italian family in Australia experience, and the rawness of adolescence, in a way nobody had done before.
And now Marchetta has produced a new series for younger readers (5-7 years) about the high-spirited Zola, who lives with her mum and Nonna Rosa. Her cousin Alessandro lives in the house behind. Marchetta shows us a diverse family unit – three generations of females living together, highlighting the reality that all families are different. I love how Zola and Alessandro communicate by signalling through their bedroom windows with solar lanterns, prompting a beautiful image of lights flickering across the dark, connecting Zola with her young cousin.
The strength of this story is in its sensitive handling of grief and loss. The almost tangible presence of Nonno Nino weaves throughout the story – he is gone, but his presence lives on through the memories of him that his family carry.
This is also a story about the power of gardening to heal and bring community together. Zola initially doesn’t enjoy gardening in the same way her Nonna does as Nonna Rosa has "soooo many rules” about gardening. Then one day Nonna Rosa asks Zola and Alessandro to help her plant some ‘special seeds.’
But what unexpected mishap will occur to make Nonna Rosa sad? And how will Zola fix things and make her Nonna smile again?
This is a story bursting with warmth, family love, troublesome dogs, and growing things. Young readers are gently introduced to the concept of the way in which our loved ones can live on through memories and the things they leave behind, which keeps them alive in our hearts. Young readers will also develop an awareness of the cycle of life: the community garden at school has been neglected, but with care and attention is able to flourish again.
The final two pages provide instructions on how to grow tomatoes just like Zola did, by saving tomato seeds. Hopefully this book will instigate in its audience an interest in growing organic food and preserving water from showering - and other household activities - to water our plants with. It is never too early to highlight these concepts to our children if we want to raise a generation who are aware of the need to protect our environment and its resources. This story also demonstrates how communal gardens have the power to join community together through a shared goal and space.
This book is perfect for beginning readers who are ready to try reading chapter books on their own or aloud to an adult. Alternatively, the book is also perfect for a caregiver to read aloud to a child who is not quite ready to read independently but still enjoys a story with a little more heart and solid storyline. There is definitely a gap in the market for quality series aimed at this particular age group. Even slightly older readers would enjoy these books because Zola is such a delightful, thoughtful, and slightly mischievous character.
The text is broken up with Deb Hudson’s charming black and white illustrations, which add warmth to the story and depict a diversity of characters.
I look forward to seeing what Zola does on the other days of the week when these books are released!