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The What on Earth Institute of Wonder by Lisa Nicol

Title: The What on Earth Institute of Wonder

a blue and turquoise ombre cover with shadows of an elephant, a tree, a girl, a boy with a boombox and a younger boy walking along under a white title The What on Earth Institute of Wonder by Lisa Nicol.

Author: Lisa Nicol

Genre: Magical Realism

Publisher: Puffin

Published: 31st August 2021

Format: Paperback

Pages: 288

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: A mind-boggling expedition into the secrets of the Animal Kingdom with only an invisible map of the human heart as a guide. (Unless, of course, you count the talking parrot.) What on Earth could possibly go wrong…?

Sal has always had an affinity with animals – especially the lost kind. But when two rare and endangered creatures appear out of nowhere, life takes a detour into strange and uncharted territory…

One elephant, one kakapo, one unlicensed teenage driver, one boy waiting for the world to end and a twelve-year-old girl with a very special gift.


Sal and Roy live alone with their mother in a small town called Larry, until one day, they are whisked off on an adventure with a kakapo called Hector, a teenager called Bartholomew and an African forest elephant. Together they will go on a journey into a magical world populated by animals and wonders that they never imagined living in Larry, where nothing ever seems to happen, and everything seems to be hopeless. Yet as Sal, Roy and their crew go on a journey to the Elephant Safari Park, and to get Hector and the beautiful elephant home, they will discover that there are wondrous things about the most mundane places and people who feel as though they are the most ordinary as well.

Sparkly purple shadow of Miles Franklin with the words 2021 Australian Women Writer's Challenge written on it.

This delightful book from Lisa Nicol traverses a magical, animal-filled landscape, that brings anxieties and fears to life in a gentle way, that allows readers from ages eight and older to see that it is okay to be worried, that not everything is perfect. It gives a voice to the kids that might not necessarily fit in. Sal and Roy do things a little differently to other kids, and that’s what makes them special – what gives them life.

In this book, the kakapo talks, and guides them through their journey, where Sal uses her gift that allows her to understand animals to complete their task and get home to Mum and their hometown of Larry. The adventure is gentle, yet Roy, who fears everything and worried about the end of the world. He carries a gasmask around with him – and this adds tohis character, showing that he is aware of history, of potential disaster, and in a way, is a reassuring figure because his character allows kids to express the fears that they have about what is happening in the world today.

Books like this are gentle and wise, and tackle anxiety and depression, as well as loneliness and a sense of feeling like you don’t belong in powerful and evocative ways. It allows kids and readers of any age to explore their feelings safely and in a way that makes sense to them, free of COVID worries. I’m quite enjoying COVID-free books – we get enough of it in the news, our fiction is one place we can escape it. Though it may be inevitable we see it creep in, the current books I’ve been reading show that stories can be contemporary and timeless and set in a good place without COVID and lockdowns. Some genres may lend themselves more to including COVID too, as an observation. I loved that Lisa didn’t refer to it and allows her readers to put themselves in these characters’ shoes and enjoy a rollicking story.

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