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SS Penguin SOS by Adrienne Frater



SS Penguin SOS is based on the true story of a devastating New Zealand maritime disaster. In 1909, seventy-two crew and passengers perished when the steamship, the Penguin, sank off the rugged south-western coast of the North Island of New Zealand during a severe storm.


Ada Hannam was the sole woman to survive the disaster, and despite losing her husband and four children she showed great bravery. It is believed that she saved the life of the only child to survive the sinking.


Author Adrienne Frater is a descendent of Ada Hannam, and the character of Jack in the book is based on her father.



The story is told through Jack's eyes, as he researches the sinking as part of a school project.


Jack lives with Ada after his father died in the influenza epidemic. Tasked with writing a project about a hero, he dives into his aunt's life and convinces her to tell him her secret.


The book includes elements that Jack may have discovered during his research, including photographs and newspaper articles of the sinking. Jack's story is set in 1920s Taranaki, so also includes historical details about life at that time.


The sinking of the Penguin is one of New Zealand's worst maritime disasters, yet many, including myself, had never heard of it. Frater is sure to include lots of information both within the text and in the acknowledgements to aid understanding. Aimed at the upper primary school aged reader, the facts of the sinking are hard to read, Frater does it in an age-appropriate way.


Despite the differences in time, younger readers will surely recognise young Jack within themselves or their peers. Those standard concerns of school, chores and parental oversight are issues that bond the generations.


This historical novel will be a welcome addition to a classroom, either as a read-aloud or as a class study. There have been a few historical novels released by New Zealand authors this year, which is wonderful to see. By placing our stories within the pages, our younger readers see themselves and can build a connection with the story on a deeper level. This use of history to inform a fictional novel also inspires our younger writers.


Frater sadly died in February and it's sad that she won't be able to see the support this book will surely receive. She has left a great legacy of stories for our younger generation to read and enjoy. SS Penguin SOS is one of her finest.

Reviewed by: Rebekah Lyell

OneTree House, RRP $24

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