Friday, July 19, 2019

Something Absolutely Enormous by Margaret Wild illustrated by Jack Hanna

Margaret Wild is one of our Australia children's literature treasures. Something Absolutely Enormous was one of her very first books. It was published in 1984 which by coincidence was my first year as a teacher. That same year two other books were published - There's a Sea in my Bedroom and One Shoe On. I haven't ever seen the book One shoe on have you? There's a Sea in my Bedroom is still in print and it has been made into a stage show.

It is now 35 years since I first read Something Absolutely enormous and I am still reading this book aloud to groups of young children. Wonder of wonders I recently found a mint condition copy of this book in a book sale for less than $1.

Sally is given wool of every colour and so she starts to knit. She knits and knits and cannot stop. Her 'thing' grows so big it fills and house and spills out the window. It fills up the town and even ends up in the swimming pool.

Meanwhile the circus has come to town. Sally doesn't notice this. She also doesn't notice when a fire starts and the big top is burnt to the ground. Her wool runs out and Sally finally stops knitting.  "But what are we going to do with this thing that is smothering the town?"  Have you guessed?  Yes they can use it to make a new big top for the circus. It makes a fine tent and the circus people invite Sally to see her creation BUT Sally cannot come. She is too busy. She has discovered baking and now she has to bake, bake, bake. Once again this will be something absolutely enormous! Readers can use their imaginations to guess what she will make.

You can see the whole book here. Read an interview from 2011 with Margaret Wild. My friend at Kinderbooks has an excellent collection of books about knitting. This is such a fun theme to explore with children many of whom have not seen anyone knitting. I always take some knitting needles and wool in my bag when I share this book.

Check out some other titles about knitting on this blog:
Lester's dreadful sweaters
Mr Nick's knitting also by Margaret Wild

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Moon Landing 1969 Part 2

Before sending humans into space many countries sent animals as a way to check survival. Some of these stories are very sad but there are a number of children's books on this topic and these animals are truly heroes because without their 'work' we may not have been able to send men and women into space.

Many years ago we purchased a interesting little book series for our school library called Animal Heroes from the Orchard Crunchies range. All of these are now long out of print (published from 1997-1999) but I cannot think of any other books that meet the demand I had from young readers for a simple chapter book about animals that were based on real events. The titles included Pig Detective, Horse of the Year, Donkey leads the way, Dolphin SOS and Dog in Danger.  There was also a book about the monkey that was sent into space and, of the whole collection, this was one of the most popular.

I was listening to a radio program today about animals used to test space endurance prior to manned missions. In the Soviet Union dogs were sent into space. You may have heard of Laika. Sadly she did not return to earth but in 1960 two other dogs Belka and Strelka were the first animals to orbit earth and return.  The Soviet Union sent 57 dogs into space during the 1950s and 1960s. I have not seen these two books but they look like a perfect way to explore this topic further with Junior primary readers.

Meanwhile America used monkeys and chimps because their physiology more closely matched humans. You can read more about the huge variety of animals sent into space here.

On the radio program they mention that France sent a cat into space. I had no idea about this.  Here are two stamps commemorating Felicette. I wonder if any one has written a picture book about her. There are plans to erect a statue of Felicette in Paris.

My friend at Kinderbookswitheverything has a fabulous range of other titles on her Pinterest collection of true animal stories. Here is a site where you can do some background reading on the topic of animals in space.

Here are some more stamps celebrating animal space heroes.

Fir for luck by Barbara Harrison

This story switches between Strathnaver in 1814 and Ceannabeinne in 1841. While travelling in Scotland I chanced upon Fir for Luck. This is a story about the Highland Clearances and I found it was a good way to gain some understanding of these events. It is 1841and Janet is desperate to join the men and boys who will spend the day gathering thatch. This event is called Bent Day and girls are not allowed to be involved. What Janet does not know is that on this day a man will arrive with a writ.  Janet and the women know it is vital no one touch this writ - it is an eviction writ. The women bravely wrestle the messenger to the ground, they light a fire and force his hand and the writ into the fire.

"You'll regret this. Leave me be! He'll only send it again.' ... I grit my teeth as I pull his arm over the fire, clawing my nails into his skin so hard he yelps in pain. ... The writ fights the greedy flames; contorts and doges, but it is no use. The fire devours it. There is nothing left but ash."

This is, of course, only the beginning. Mr Anderson, the land owner, is determined to evict these people and claim the land for grazing sheep. The violence escalates and yet the people of the village really want a peaceful solution. This seems impossible. Janet observes the adults on both sides and bravely devises ways to thwart Mr Anderson and his accomplices.

The title refers to a small sprig of fir which Janet's Grandmother has requested. "Fir for luck, all the way from the woods of Strathmore. It's supposed to be wound into each new hearth chain."  Janet and her family, including her precious Granna will need to leave their village but perhaps the luck from this piece of fir is why this process will be delayed and not filled with violence and destruction as happened in Granna's childhood back in 1814.

Here is the author web site.

This is a pleasant read and children living in, visiting or interested in the Highland Clearances will no doubt gobble it up as the action just keeps on coming and new tensions built up; exactly what young people look for in a novel. The Wee Review

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Moon Landing 1969 Part One

I was in Grade Five when, I still find it hard to believe, actual people walked on the surface of the moon. This week in Australia we are enjoying a full moon - perfect timing as we head towards the 20th July - the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. I have been spending time just gazing up at the moon and thinking about that walk 50 years ago.

Hopefully in schools and school libraries next week there will be lots of displays of books about astronauts, space and the moon - Non-fiction and Fiction. Here are some picture books which would be perfect to share with your classes next week.

Papa Please get the Moon for me by Eric Carle
Watch the whole book here. The sound track is just perfect and Juliet Stevenson has such a gentle voice.

Happy Birthday Moon by Frank Asch
This is one of my most favourite books to read aloud and I would follow this with Mooncake and Moongame.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
Grab a torch and go outside to look at the moon and perhaps spot an owl

The Boy who loved the Moon by Rino Alaimo

Kitten's First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes
Watch this video of the whole book.

It would also be great to share some poetry about the moon. I have mentioned this beautiful poetry book in previous posts - I am the seed that grew the Tree

Here are two poems from this huge anthology.

June 17th
THE MOON Iain Crichton Smith
The moon is a boat that drifts in the sky
with nobody near but the stars that stand by
peering down as if they wished to say,
"Who pulled up the anchor and let you away?"

24th January
FLYING J.M. Westrup
I saw the moon,
One windy night,
Flying so fast -
All silvery white -
Over the sky
Like a toy balloon
Loose from its string -
A runaway moon.
The frosty stars
Went racing past,
Chasing her on
Ever so fast.

May B by Caroline Starr Rose

Ma and Pa want me to go
and live with strangers.

I won't go.

There are so many reasons why I was attracted to this book. It is a verse novel and I adore this genre. The setting is the prairie which is a place that fascinates me. I think this fasciation goes back to my childhood reading and enjoyment of the Little House on the Prairie. Finally this is an emotional story where the main character shows enormous resilience.

May B is sent away to live with Oblingers. Her family are so desperately poor that they accept money for her services. Mr Oblinger has a new wife.  "The brides not settled ... she's missing home." The new home is a soddy or sod house with dirt floors, thick walls and often only one window.

You can read more about the construction of a sod house here.

May B packs her few clothes, her only book and her slate. May B is desperate to learn to read. May B and her father travel the fifteen miles to the isolated home. Mrs Oblinger is not welcoming. It is clear she is desperately unhappy. Her treatment of May B seems almost cruel at times.  Then one day her demeanour changes. She asks for some biscuits and says she will take a walk. Later in the day May B finds a note:

Mr Oblinger,
You've been so kind,
but I can't stay.
I'm taking the train
back to Ohio.
Please understand.

Mr Oblinger leaves immediately to retrieve his young wife. May B waits and waits but the pair never return.  What will May B do? She is supposed to stay here until Christmas. It is late August. In every direction the prairie looks the same. If she tries to walk home she is sure to become lost. Winter is approaching and supplies are running out.

Here are a set of teaching notes. These would be useful if you wanted to read May B with a Book Discussion group. I especially appreciated finding a comprehensive list of all the vocabulary used in this book and some background reading about life on the frontier.

I would pair this book with Sarah, Plain and Tall and Black-eyed Susan by Jennifer Armstrong. If you want to explore the topic of dyslexia you might like to read The wild book by Margarita Engle.

Kirkus use the word "extraordinary" in their star review:

As unforgiving as the western Kansas prairies, this extraordinary verse novel—Rose’s debut—paints a gritty picture of late-19th-century frontier life from the perspective of a 12-year-old dyslexic girl named Mavis Elizabeth Betterly… May B. for short. Kirkus

May B. can and will succeed. If she fails, she knows that she'll get up, shake off her disappointment and move forward until she finds her own place where earth meets the sky. Clear Eyes Full Shelves

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Elizabeth and Larry by Marilyn Sadler illustrated by Roger Bollen

Tuesday Treasure

Elizabeth, aged 62, meets Ed who is 'pushing forty' when he arrives in a box of oranges from Florida. There is no mention in the text that Larry is an Alligator so I suggest reading this book without showing the illustrations perhaps.

There is a beautiful tone to this book:
"Elizabeth met Larry for the first time many years ago. He was delivered to her by mistake with the box of oranges she ordered from Florida. Elizabeth decided to keep Larry, and she gave him a room above the garage. She put the oranges in the refrigerator."

Larry loves his new home but he some problems with the size of the swimming pool. The pair settle into a comfortable life but there are problems, when they go out, with people staring at Larry and even throwing things at him.

"This was the first time Larry realized he was different. Up until then he had assumed he looked like Elizabeth."

The feelings of displacement come to a head when a large group of Elizabeth's relatives arrive. They all look exactly like Elizabeth.  Larry becomes despondent. Elizabeth knows he needs to go back to Florida so she buys him a one way plane ticket home. Over the coming days Elizabeth begins to feel sad. She knows she needs to be with her friend Larry so she buys herself a one-way ticket to Florida. Now the friends can continue to live happily together playing card games - poker and old maid,

This is a sweet story about a special relationship. There are themes of kindness, belonging, acceptance of difference all told with gentle humour. Here is a set of teaching ideas and questions. Roger Bollen is the illustrator of over fifty books including another series that I also adore by Marilyn Sadler, who was his second wife, about a boy called Alistair.

Here is the sequel to Elizabeth and Larry.  When you read this one you may need to talk to a group of children about the terminology associated with playing golf so that they understand the puns in this story which continues the relationship of Larry and Elizabeth but with the complication of a new, and very demanding friend called Ed. Sadly both of these books are now out of print but you might be lucky and find them in a school library.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Lighthouse stories

If you have been reading this blog you will know I am a huge fan of lighthouses.  On my recent trip I saw a sad little lighthouse under a modern bridge and it made me think of The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge by Hildegarde H Swift and Lynd Ward (1942). By chance just prior to my trip a good friend gave me a copy of the Caldecott Medal winner from 2019 - Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall so today I thought I would talk about these two wonderful books.

Here is the Kyleakin lighthouse under the bridge from mainland Scotland over to Skye. This is the lighthouse that made me think about The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.

Here are some details about the Kyleakin lighthouse:

"The 70 foot tall lighthouse, designed by David (1815-81) and Thomas (1818-87) Stevenson, was built in 1857. Thomas Stevenson was the father of the author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94).
When first built the light itself was fuelled by sperm whale oil, and displayed a central white beam flanked by a red and a green beam.
The lighthouse was finally decommissioned in 1993. The channel into Loch Alsh was then marked by the large red and green buoys that can be seen running east and west from the lighthouse. After decommissioning the lighthouse was denoted as a day mark, which means that it remains a landmark that it is used for navigation during the day, and must therefore continue to be kept in good condition."

The Little Red Lighthouse, in the book and in reality, stands on the Hudson River which runs beside New York City. Every evening the lighthouse keeper climbs the stairs and lights the lamp so the lighthouse can beam out a warning about the rocks just below the surface.  One day some men arrive and the little red lighthouse watches as they build a "strange new gray thing (with) huge towers that seemed to touch the sky."  This is the George Washington Bridge and it made the little red lighthouse feel "very, very small."

The little red lighthouse is worried. Perhaps it won't be needed any more. The lighthouse keeper does not come in the evening to light the lamp but that night their is a wild storm. A fat black tug boat crashes against the rocks. Finally the lighthouse keeper arrives. 

"And now beside the great beacon of the bridge the small beam of the lighthouse still flashes. ... And every day the people who go up River side Drive in New York City turn to look at it. For there they both are - the great gray bridge and the little red lighthouse."

Here is a vintage video of the whole story complete with a terrific sound track. I was thrilled to discover a musical was made in 2019 based on this story.

Now we jump forward to 2019 and Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall. The first thing to notice is the format of the book. It is long and tall like a lighthouse. On the end papers we can see a photo of the lighthouse keeper and his new bride, a piece of embroidery and a fragment of a letter to Alice. There is a also a pebble, some dried seaweed and a pen.  My copy of this book is a paperback so I cannot share the final end paper with you.

As the story begins we read about the daily routine of the lighthouse keeper. He enjoys his work but he is lonely. He is waiting for the arrival of Alice, his wife. The lighthouse beams out hello hello hello. There is fog and ice and illness and finally a baby is born. One day a letter arrives. It is time to automate the lighthouse and the keeper and his family will need to move on. 

This is a book to visit over and over again. There are so many beautiful details especially when Sophie Blackall 'slices' the lighthouse open so we can see all the rooms. Look for little details like the fabrics used on Alice's dresses, the floor rug that looks like the ocean and slippers worn by their child.

A fascinating, splendidly executed peek into both the mundane and the dramatic aspects of lighthouse life. Kirkus

Blackall’s gorgeous illustrations are a mix of homey detail (especially in the interior cutaways of the lighthouse) and spectacular scenery (as the seasons pass, we see stormy nights and foggy days; northern lights; icebergs and whales).  Horn Book

Using pictures to tell the story of a steadfast lighthouse and its faithful keeper, Hello Lighthouse is a gift for children. Amid this world’s stormy seas, it is a beacon of light shining bright with truth, goodness, and beauty. Horn Book

Check out these teaching ideas from The School Library Journal. Here is an interview with Sophie where she talks about her extensive research for this book. You can also see many of the illustrations and hear an interview with Sophie herself.

I have a Pinterest with art and craft ideas if you are exploring lighthouses. Here are some teaching ideas and ways to extend this text using other fiction and non fiction books.