Disclaimer because this is an Australian book: I don’t know the author and have no connection to the publisher.
I absolutely loved Leanne Hall’s Iris and the Tiger, a charming, funny story about Iris, a twelve-year-old Australian girl who is sent to stay with her eccentric Great-Aunt Ursula in Spain. Iris’s parents want Iris to ensure Ursula leaves her sprawling country estate to them, but Iris falls under the spell of Bosque de Nubes, a surrealist Wonderland with its own special type of magic and plenty of mysteries. Were her late great-uncle’s famous paintings of tennis-playing sunflowers, five-legged dogs and giant costumed insects based on his surroundings, or is life imitating art? Why is a pair of leather boots shaped like human feet following Iris around? How can her ancient aunt look so youthful? Who is trying to destroy Bosque de Nubes? And most importantly, what happened to the original Iris, painted by her husband in an enigmatic portrait that now seems to be missing a tiger?
Iris is a wonderful heroine – thoughtful, compassionate and braver than she believes. She’s helped in her quest by her new friend Jordi, the gardener’s son, who relishes the danger (“‘I think this could be a very dangerous mission.’ He looked extremely happy as he said it.”). I enjoyed watching Iris grow in confidence and understanding, and although the novel contains some familiar messages (‘Be True to Yourself’, ‘Part of Growing Up is Realising Your Parents are Flawed’, and so on), it’s all done with a light touch and plenty of humour. Iris also happens to be Chinese-Australian, which is never treated as an Issue, although there was a spot-on ‘You look so exotic, where are your family from?’ conversation, which made me laugh and groan in recognition. I also liked the imaginative setting and all the fantastical creatures (Señor Garcia and the Exquisite Corpse were particular favourites). Young readers will enjoy the magic and the adventures, although there are plenty of layers for more advanced readers to dig into (for example, involving surrealist art, the history of Spain, and women being valued as models and muses but not as artists in their own right). The Australian paperback has a gorgeous cover and some charming black-and-white illustrations (and I would love to see this republished as a glossy hardcover with colour illustrations of all the surrealist paintings). It’s been a while since I’ve read such an endearing children’s book. Highly recommended!
EDITED TO ADD: You can see some of the book’s illustrations at Sandra Eterovic’s blog.