Tansy Rayner Roberts

The Lost Shimmaron, book 1

ABC Books (2007)

ISBN: 9780733320262

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack (this review was first published in July 2007)

This is a simple and charming children’s book, well pitched for the young readers it’s aimed at. I enjoyed it too, and adults in the mood for a very straightforward story which will only take them a couple of hours to read could do much worse than pick up Seacastle.

Nick has been sent out to find his annoying little brother, Thomas, who’s managed to wander off somewhere just before dinner. Thomas is sitting on the edge of Lake Shimmer, thinking about why he can’t seem to learn to swim well. After Nick finds him, he throws himself into the Lake to test a theory. Nick of course has to leap in to save him, and the next thing the brothers know, they’re in an underwater world. Habitat is plagued by increasingly dangerous seaquakes. Nick and Thomas need both to save Habitat and find a way back to their own world.

This is the first book in a series of (at least) seven, each written by a different Australian author. All are fairly well known in Australia, experienced and talented, and it’s likely the other books in the series will be of similar quality to Seacastle. I suspect each will be a stand-alone story, like this one, tied together by the over-arching theme of the series: when their spaceship crashed on earth, the Shimmaron were thrown into different worlds and times, and were forced to take on different shapes. They’re trying to re-gather in Lake Shimmer, in Australia, as they need to be together to rebuild their spaceship and escape. And only young children can hear their pleas for help.

I’d guess the story is pitched at readers of about ten years and up. Younger readers are likely to enjoy it as well, but many would need help with some of the vocabulary. Roberts uses direct and uncomplicated language, but doesn’t talk down to her readers. The language flows well, and even readers who need to ask about the meaning of some words should find it a fairly easy read, largely due to the smoothness of the narrative. The story has a few twists and turns, and will keep the intended audience engaged without being hard to follow. Adult readers won’t find it particularly surprising, but the story moves along at a good pace, and you won’t be bored. If you’re reading it to or with a younger reader, there are both plenty of moments of drama and plenty of breaks in the text to give you a logical place to stop for discussion/dinner/bedtime. These breaks may also make the novel a less confronting prospect for slower or more reluctant readers. In addition, like many novels aimed at younger readers, it’s considerably shorter than an “adult” novel. And it’s presented in a way to make it more attractive to younger readers – a slightly larger than usual font, wider spacing between lines, and an attractive cover and simple line drawing at the start of each chapter.

It’s not a story that preaches, although there are some strong underlying values – the way Nick looks after Thomas, for example. At the same time, it’s very realistic in its depiction of the constant low level squabbling between the brothers. These are very real characters, and most children will identify with them. Because the story takes place over a relatively short period, it’s also easy for Roberts to make sure that few adults interfere in Nick and Thomas’ activities – their parents don’t appear until the last pages of the novel, for example. Roberts has also wisely limited the number of characters in what is quite a short novel, allowing her to more fully develop her three or four main characters. Because the bulk of the story takes place in the alternate world of Habitat, it doesn’t really have a strong “Australian” flavour about it, but it does have a strong sense of place. The alternate environments, and the challenges they present to the characters, are realistic and vividly drawn.

The themes in the novel are also well chosen for the age group. It’s essentially a straightforward adventure story, and doesn’t touch on any of the sometimes controversial themes popular for slightly older readers (such as relationships, sex, parental divorce, drugs, violence). That’s not to say it’s a shallow book; it does reflect on themes such as honesty, doing the right thing, loyalty, and looking after your friends and family. But it’s an escapist story, which primarily entertains. Few parents or guardians would have reservations about their child reading this novel.

I’d strongly recommend this novel for younger readers, and for adults looking for novels to share with younger readers. It’s probably least suited for teenagers, many of whom would find it too “easy” for them, and who wouldn’t yet be sharing novels with pre-teens.