Saturday, January 21, 2017

Wendy by Gus Gordon

I am hoping Somewhere else will be short listed for our CBCA 2017 awards.  With this in mind we will explore all of the books by Gus Gordon with our classes this term.  I loved exploring Herman and Rosie with so many of our classes when it was short listed in 2013. Every reading revealed more and more details.  Wendy is an earlier book first published in 2009.

From the title page it is clear Wendy is no ordinary chicken - you can see scientific illustrations of these on the end papers. Wendy vaults through life.  Take a close look at this illustration.  I love the way Wendy is using a pogo stick.

Following the tradition of the "grass is greener" Wendy leaves the farm in search of fame and adventure. She really does run away and join the circus where she performs dangerous stunts which grow in size and scale until finally she crashes.  Lesson learnt?  Maybe...

Gus Gordon loves to include cheeky details in his illustrations.  Look here at Wendy's first performance - over a double-decker bus. You will see Martha's mouse pie, Harry's spiced frogs (slimier than most), Mrs McGinty's tinned roaches (they really stink) and the bus is going to Peckham.

I would pair this book with Daisy by Brian Wildsmith and Peggy by Anna Walker.  You can see a little more of Wendy here at the Storybox library.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Trash by Andy Mulligan

Start here listening to this interview on our 

"I was a trash boy since I was old enough to move without help and pick things up. ... Let me tell you what we're looking for.  Plastic, because plastic can be turned into cash, fast - by the kilo."

The dump workers are also looking for paper if it is white a clean, cardboard, tin cans, glass bottles, clothing and rubber.  No one would expect to find eleven hundred pesos in a wallet with a map, ID card, photos and a key.  This is an amazing thing to find but it will lead the boys - Raphael, Gardo and Jun Jun (known as Rat) - into places even worse than the dump itself.

A group of five police arrive that night asking if anyone has found a bag.

"I nearly raised my hand.  I nearly spoke up then and there."

Raphael does not reveal his find but his auntie says "Raphael found something, sir."  The police return and Raphael is arrested and brutally interrogated.  This scene is why I would suggest this book is for mature readers only.  It is very confronting.

Thank goodness our little group of heroes do survive and right the wrong and even, perhaps, make the world a better place.  The final chapters will have you cheering!

A couple of years ago a Grade Six boy asked me to buy Trash for our school library. I imagine he may have seen the movie.  I read some reviews and hesitated.  This is a book which might better suit a 12+ student but I decided to buy it and see.  Sadly I do not think this boy was able to actually read this book although he did borrow it and keep it for several months.

On the other hand I read Trash in one sitting and was absolutely gripped by the story.  One of the things that makes this book so compelling is the use of alternating voices.  Each of the three boys along with Father Juilliard who runs the Behala Mission school and Olivia, who works there as a volunteer, recount the events over the days after Raphael finds the money.

Here is a written interview with Andy Mulligan.  If you are using this book with a class of High School students you could make use of this web page from Andy himself where he visits 80 dumps.

Click each of these review to read more about Trash.

Kirkus  "It all adds up to a cracker of a thriller."
Kids Book Review "We clearly see the boys and their world in our mind's eye and not only that - we feel their pain and angst and determination in an almost visual way."
BookZone4Boys "Every now and then a book sneaks up on the unsuspecting public, with very little fanfare, and hits you where it hurts the most - in the heart."
Read in a single Sitting "These issues are explored with beautiful subtlety as the narrative takes a turn that while inevitable, is utterly welcomed by the reader."

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Haunting by Margaret Mahy

If you have been following this blog you may know I am a huge fan of Margaret Mahy.  We always include a selection of her picture books into our literature program each year.

I bought home some of our older books (and new ones too) to read over the summer and among them was The Haunting a novel for Middle Primary readers.  I did think I had read this many years ago but only sketchy parts of the plot seemed familiar.

Barney is the quiet child of the family. He is the youngest.  His mum died when he was born but he now has a wonderful step mother who gives him unconditional love :

"Claire had come as a wonderful surprise, giving him a hug when he came home from school, asking him about his day, telling him about hers, arranging picnics and unexpected parties and helping him with his homework."

Claire is expecting a new baby.  Barney has not told anyone but he does feel anxious and he is desperate not to upset Claire so when an apparition or ghost appears his certain Claire must not know. Coinciding with the appearance of the ghost the family receive the news that an older relative Great Uncle Barnaby has died.

As the 'ghost' comes closer and closer Barney becomes quite ill.  His sister Tabitha is determined to unlock the mystery about Barnaby but also about another long lost Great Uncle named Cole. He was the black sheep of the family who drowned when he was quite young. Troy, Barney's other sister watches all the family coming and goings and sees her brother is distressed but she also seems to be moving even further away from the family.

"Troy was the one who picked up, folded, straightened and brushed down - everyone in the family knew that. Yet today ... Troy's tidiness ... was shocking - something eerie and astonishing. The books in the bookcase were in exact order of size, pulled out to the very edge of the shelf and not a quarter of an inch forward to back."

Eventually everything comes to a head.  Misunderstandings are resolved and Barney discovers the truth about Cole and Barnaby and his sisters.  This little book is a terrific one to read but our copy has such small print - I know this aspect will not appeal to readers in  my school library. I may need to source a replacement copy.

Here is a very detailed and positive review in Kirkus.  In New Zealand they made a movie of this book which won the Carnegie Medal in 1983.  Here is a three minute audio sample from the first chapter.  Oddly this book is out of print but there is a new audio version coming soon.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Raven's mountain by Wendy Orr

"At the very tallest point there's a flat rock. I drop my pack in the snow and scramble up. Now I'm on the highest bit on the peak of the highest mountain for as far as I can see ... I can do my dance"

It is very easy to tell that Wendy Orr has climbed up and down a mountain or two and when I read the biographical notes at the back of Raven's Mountain this is indeed true.  Wendy was born in Alberta and when she was twelve she climbed Pike's Peak in Colorado.  You can see a picture here.

Raven, her sister Lily and step dad, Scott, set out to climb a mountain near Jenkins Creek.  The family, including mum who is working on this day, have moved and this is the area of Scott's childhood.  He keen to share his favourite spots with his new family.  The journey up the mountain goes smoothly but there is an undertone of animosity between Lily and Raven.  This comes from the loss of their father who abandoned the family and moved to Australia (Wendy herself now lives in Australia). Lily blames Raven, Raven is filled with confusion and now has also lost her closest friends because they have moved.

The group are well prepared for their mountain climb and Scott even teaches the girls how to use a bear repellent spray because bears live on this mountain.

When they reach the top Raven races ahead and does a little wild dance of joy.  This dislodges some rocks and causes a landslide.  Scott and Lily are trapped and so Raven must find her way, without her glasses, down the mountain to call for help.  Lily and Scott have most of the supplies, the phone and water bottles and this is a very remote area.

The disaster and Raven's courage help heal the rift between Lily and Raven and the hurtful comments of the past are explained and forgiven.

"The strange thing is Lily never has anything much wrong with her at all. Until she turned into a witch, she'd always been a kind of golden girl ... The problem with being three years younger is that I never catch up; by the time I can do something too, Lily's doing something else even better."

If you enjoy Raven's mountain I would look for The Honest Truth.  Raven's Mountain is not a new book it was first published in 2010 but it might still be in a library near you.  You could also look for other books by Wendy Orr including Nim's Island, Ark in the Park and her newest titles Dragonfly Song which is actually on my current 'to read' pile.  Here is an interview where Wendy talks about story and a life where 'stuff happens'.  In Canada this book has a different title and cover.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Apothecary by Maile Meloy

Here is a puzzle.  How are the following things connected with this book The Apothecary?

Here is the answer :

  • The School Library Journal reviewer Elizabeth Bird began her review by saying she loved the cover of The Apothecary.  This made me curious.  I really like the cover too.
  • Ian Schoenherr is the cover designer of The Apothecary so I read about him and discovered :
  • Ian Schoenherr is the son of John Schoenherr and :
  • John Schoenherr is the award winning illustrator of one of my most favourite picture books of all time Owl Moon.
  • Then I investigated the author Maile Meloy and discovered :
  • Maile Meloy is the sister of Colin Meloy author of Wildwood which I had already read and reviewed

Sometimes the world of children's books can feel like one big family.

Janie lives in California.  The year is 1952.  It is the McCarthy era and the cold war has begun. Benjamin lives in London.  His neighbourhood has been bombed during World War II and while he and his dad do survive his mum is killed. Mr Burrows, Benjamin's dad (the apothecary) explains :

"Your mum had nursing skills and worked for the Women's Voluntary Service. She was out after the air raid was over, helping to see who was hurt, when the bomb suddenly went off ... she was killed instantly."

Benjamin and Janie meet when Janie's family move to London to get away from appearing before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Benjamin does not want to follow his father and work in a pharmacy or Apothecary.  He would much rather be a spy but what he does not know is that he has been spying on men connected with is own father and his father is involved with trying to save the world from the atom bombs which are being developed by Russia and USA. Yes this is all quite huge.  Janie, Benjamin and another friend named Pip are now on a mission to save the world especially as Benjamin's father appears to have disappeared and the children stumble upon a murder and it seems their Latin teacher is really a Russian spy.  Added to all this is the alchemy.  As he is about to be captured his dad gives Benjamin an ancient book - the Pharmocopoeia.  It contains the formula for potions to turn into a bird, make people invisible, force others to tell the truth and wipe memory.

As you can see this book is a combination of history and magic.  Not quite Science Fiction but almost.  The final scenes are quite thrilling and open the way for the sequels.

I do highly recommend The Apothecary and I would follow this up with The Seven Professors of the far North.  Another book you will enjoy is Disappearing act.  If you want to read more about alchemy take a look at The Book without Words.

The Apothecary is the first of this trilogy as I mentioned so we now need to add the other two titles to our school library.  I have listed this book for Senior Primary but I also think it would appeal to a junior high school reader.  Teaching notes, an extract and authors details can be found on the publisher site. Here are some reviews :

New York Times
Kids Reads

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

An eagle in the snow by Michael Morpurgo

A what if story based on 'true events' - perhaps they are true perhaps they are not.  Either way the story telling in this book by Michael Morpurgo is quite compelling.  One other thing that makes this story easy to read is the white space and large font size - perfect for Middle Primary readers.

Barney and his mother are travelling away from Coventry which has been badly bombed during WWII.  Their home is lost :

"We found the world about us a place of rubble and ruin, hot with fires that were still smoldering everywhere...  Only the lamppost was left, the one outside where our house had been, the one that shone into my window at night-times."

In the train carriage with Ma and Barney there is a man who has a story to tell.  The story of a friend who served as a private in World War I. The train is bombed and the group are stranded in the dark in a tunnel.  The man has five matches and as each is struck he recounts the story of Billy Byron.

Michael Morpurgo based his story on the life of Private Henry Tandey who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the Military Medal and Victoria Cross. Only 628 of these were awarded mainly to officers.  Clearly he was a brave man but the myth or story is that he may also have spared the life of a young German solider who was actually Hitler.

"A little fellow, bareheaded he was, no cap, his uniform covered in mud. He stands there, looking back at us, staring. ... He pushes his dark hair off his forehead with the back of his hand ... 'Don't shoot him lads.  There's been enough killing done today."

If you read this book make sure you read the Afterword which explains the historical details.  You might also read this article from the BBC with a different point of view about this possibility.  One detail referred to in all versions of this story is the painting part of which you can see below of Private Tandey.  Hitler supposedly had a copy of this painting which he showed to the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

Listen to an audio sample.  Here is the trailer from the publisher.  I picked up An eagle in the Snow because it featured in our NSW School magazine Bookshelf titles for 2016.

I would also recommend When Hitler Stole Pink rabbit, Carrie's war, Vinnie's war, Hurricane Summer by Robert Swindells, Christmas in the trenches and another book by Michael Morpurgo An Elephant in the garden.

Michael Foreman has illustrated nearly all Michael Morpurgo books.  Here is one of the illustrations from this book.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Loblolly boy by James Norcliffe

Firstly here is a confession I have bought this book home to read several times over the last few years but it never makes the top of my pile and I keep returning it unread.  Then I noticed something important on the cover.  An endorsement by Margaret Mahy.

"Children's literature is about to be enriched with a new classic"

I didn't even realise this was a New Zealand book.  I have mentioned that we have been culling our shelves.  We purchased this book in 2010 and I don't think it has been borrowed very often. Perhaps it needed to be culled but I was not sure so once again I bought this book home. Oddly when I visited a city book shop this week they had a copy of this book which was published in 2009 so now it was certainly time for me to actually read The Loblolly Boy.

While I don't entirely agree with Margaret Mahy The Loblolly boy is a engrossing book with a couple of heart stopping moments and an interesting supernatural feel.

Michael is living in a children's home.  Life is brutal.  Michael has no knowledge of his previous life. He is a loner and one evening he meets a boy in a remote corner of the garden down by the high wall - it is a  boy who has wings and can fly.  This is a loblolly boy and he contrives to swap lives with Michael.  There are glorious things about being a loblolly boy.  There are also issues :

"It had not occurred to me that being a loblolly boy meant I might never eat food again."
Michael has no shadow, can't feel hot or cold and is also invisible except to exceptional people. Such as Captain Bass.  He explains :
"In your travels ...  you will come across people who can see you and who can speak to you. We call such people Sensitives. ... some will be ... young, innocent and harmless; some will be like me; old and not really of this world ourselves. ... But then there are others who will ... be very dangerous. ... These are the collections; they'll see you as a rare and exotic species and they'll want to keep you in a cage."

Michael sees his future through a mysterious telescope. He finds new friends who are connected to him in a very surprising way.  Things seem to be going well until a collector discovers him. Michael is captured.

"It was only then the true ghastliness of my situation began to sink in. ... I looked around the walls again, at the dead butterflies skewered onto their neatly labelled backing cards. A single pin through the middle of each of these beautiful creatures. ... And this was going to happen to me."

You can listen the whole novel - performed for Radio NZ.

I wonder why James Norcliffe used the name Loblolly.  I have discovered :

  • Loblolly is a type of porridge or gruel served to the sick on warships in 1700s
  • Loblolly is also a type of small evergreen tree grown in the US
  • A loblolly boy was an assistant to a surgeon on a war ship

Winner, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, Junior Fiction Category, 2010

The quote from Margaret Mahy is just an extract the whole comment says :

'The children in The Loblolly Boy find themselves caught up in a remarkable chain of events. Through an encounter with the fantastic loblolly boy they can become fantastic themselves. This is a rich fantasy - alive with original twists, surprises and mysteries which I dare not reveal. Children's literature is about to be enriched with a new classic.' Margaret Mahy

There is a sequel and the US edition has a different cover and a different title.