Monday, July 16, 2018

The Dog with Seven Names by Dianne Wolfer

It is so interesting when real life and the book you are reading coincide. On the weekend I attended the Top Dogs film Festival and at the same time I had been reading The Dog with Seven Names.

If you enjoy reading Historical Fiction then this is a perfect book especially if you are a dog lover. There were many aspects of the impact of World War II on Australia that I did not know about. Luckily this book does contain a timeline and set of facts on the final pages.  Dianne Wolfer explains her research process on her web site.

Dog arrives on the farm in October 1939. He is the runt of the litter but Elsie begs her dad and by Christmas she is allowed to keep Princess.  The pair spend two happy years together.  This is an important bonding time for Princess because she is destined to be separated from Elsie. Their friendship needs to be strong so that this bond is never broken even though Princess goes through many owners and, as the title suggests, many names.

One of the joyous moments in this story comes when the dog, now called Flynn, flies with Doc. He works for the Royal Flying Doctor Service and for me he was one of the heroes of this story.  This quote will give you a sense of the first 'person' narrative.

"Doc let me sit with him in the hole on top of Fox Moth, instead of in the cabin between the top and bottom wings. That was my favourite place. If I balanced carefully I could look over the side and let my ears flap in the breeze. As we soared into the sky, cool air blew across my nostrils and I shivered."

Here is a review with more plot details.  I would follow The Dog with Seven Names with A Dog's Life and Everything for a Dog both by Ann M Martin. To follow this historical time period you might also look for books by Michael Morpurgo such as War Horse.  For an Australian flavour look at My Australian Story series which includes The Bombing of Darwin. From the Our Australian Girl series look for the four titles about Pearlie. I would also recommend looking for other books in your school library by Dianne Wolfer such as Lighthouse Girl, Light Horse boy and In the Lamplight.  Lamont Books list The Dog with Seven Names as a secondary title but I think it will appeal to mature Grade 6 students.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Mulberry Tree by Allison Rushby

"It was more like her dad was balancing - balancing on top of a log, with his arms out, trying to keep steady. She had to hold his hand and help him to get to the other side. She knew from experience that the funny thing about balancing on logs was that most of the time you didn't even need that hand. It was enough to know it was there. Just in case."

Do naught wrong by the mulberry tree or she'll take your daughters - one, two, three

The Mulberry tree is indeed a mystery story but it also about healing and forgiveness. A small family are experiencing profound grief.  Immy's dad is a GP in Australia. He recently refused to allow an elderly man to renew his driving licence but this man, called Bob, drives on anyway and then, he is the cause of a terrible accident and a mother and baby are killed. Andrew (dad) is wracked with remorse, guilt and grief so the family of three have moved away - a long way away - to a small village in Cambridge in the hope this change can help them all heal.

After a morning spent looking at 'suitable' properties, Immy spots Lavender House. From the front it looks perfect:

"Her eyes were fixed upon a house of creamy white with the prettiest canary yellow door. Thatch coated the roof like a thick icing and the cherry on the top was a straw pigeon who strutted about on the roof as though he owned the place. The garden heaved with lavender ... "

Moving to the back garden things couldn't be more different:

"Everything was dark and drenched in shadow because of what lay to the left - a gigantic tree that loomed over the entire garden and the house itself. ... Halfway up, arm-like branches began to shoot out threateningly, dividing into stout, black fingers which poked and taunted the house cruelly. It was summer, yet the tree displayed no green. Not one leaf."

This is the mulberry tree of the title. Mystery and superstition abound. Two girls have disappeared. One, a girl called Bridget, in 1795, and the other, a girl called Elizabeth, on VE Day, 8th May, 1945. These disappearances or abductions happened on the eve of each girl's eleventh birthday. Adding to the mystery two knots appeared on the mulberry tree when the girls disappeared.  Immy will turn eleven in just a few days. Is it safe to live in this house in the shadow of this cursed tree?

It will take a determination and courage for Immy to discover the truth about the tree and about herself and these discoveries may help her father on his road to recovery. Her discoveries may even help the people in this village too.

I kept thinking I needed to know more about mulberry trees as I read this book. The tree takes on all the emotions that Immy is feeling but I wanted the family to care for the tree, to feed it, prune it, to ask an expert why it no longer bore fruit, to find out how long these trees live, does the mulberry need a partner tree to fertilize the flowers? Of course the tree itself is a metaphor but I did do some reading and discovered these mulberry tree facts:

  • Mulberry trees can grow, if left alone, to 10 metres
  • Mulberry trees grow in full sun
  • There are four main varieties - Black English, Hick's Fancy, White Shahtoot and a variety that is  purely ornamental called the White Mulberry
  • The fruit can be used in pies and preserves or just eaten straight from the tree but the fruit is fragile and the season is short so they are rarely grown commercially

I am excited to discover that this book was only released into shops 14 days ago! I will make a prediction that it will be one of the 2019 CBCA Notables and perhaps even reach the prestigious short list of six titles for our Australian award - Book of the Year Younger Readers. I think this is a book that will be enjoyed by older students who have a well developed level of emotional intelligence.

Here is a review with lots of plot details. You can also click the review quote below.  I think this book has a perfect cover by Rovina Cai. I do hope it is not changed for other markets in the US or UK. The story itself is certain to be enjoyed by readers beyond our Australian shores. Here is a link to Allison's web site.

On a personal note there was an old mulberry tree in my neighborhood but it was in a back garden. One day my friends and I decided to raid the tree for leaves because we were growing silkworms. It was clear that the home owners were absent so we crept up the side path and climbed the tree. Just as we started pulling off the leaves the family arrived home. I still tingle with the fear we all felt as we inched along high back yard fences, scrambling away, hoping not to be caught. We were safe but had dropped all those precious leaves. I wonder how we fed those poor little silkworms.

A strong, stubborn and compassionate protagonist, Immy takes charge of solving the mulberry mystery – as well as saving injured hedgehogs. As she rides the anxiety and angst that come with change and growing up, her innate empathy for others allows her to not only befriend kids in her class, but the lonely tree in her garden. The Reader The Booksellers New Zealand Blog by Rosalie Elliffe.

The Legend of Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood illustrated by David Watt

"Stories belong to the teller', says the bard. 'At least half of them do. The other part belongs to the listeners. When a good story is told to a good listener, the pair of them own it together."

"Stories aren't all about fighting and revenge,' says the bard. 'You have to have a bit of character development in there as well. Some suspense, some atmosphere. A little bit of romance."

Podkin is the son of Lopkin, the chieftain.  He has a sister called Paz and a brother called Pook. Life in Munbury longburrow is good and this is an especially happy night because it is Bramblemas eve and tomorrow there will be presents! Then, in the space of a few minutes, this warm scene explodes into one of violence and death. The Grom have arrived. They are after a small dagger called Starclaw. It is one of twelve special gifts given to the first tribes at the start of time.

Who are the Grom? Once they were small grey rabbits but something in the river got into their veins or perhaps they tunneled too far down and "came across something cursed and poisonous. ... They turned into something else. Something evil and unnatural."

Pook, Paz and little Pook are now on the run and it is winter, it is bitterly cold and while Starclaw is indeed a special weapon it is powerless against the metal bodies of the Grom.

The power of this writing comes from the atmosphere created by Kieran Larwood. You will see, hear, smell and touch every scene and person in this vividly created world.

It is the bard who tells this ancient tale. He has arrived on a different Bramblemas eve with a story to tell to the eager listeners in Thornwood warren.  It is an evening of storytelling, legends and turnip soup.

Here are some text extracts to give you a sense of this writing.

Scramashank the Gorm Lord "This wasn't a rabbit any more. If it ever had been, it was ow something else entirely. A walking slab of metal and meat, pierced through with rusty thorns and nails. Its armour overlapped in sheets of jagged, dented iron; mottled with rust and splashes of dried crimson that looked very much like blood."

Lady Russet - she has been enslaved by Scramshank. "Before, she had been a plump, bristling bundle of life, with zinging fur, a bubbling giggle and eyes that sparkled like glimmers of summer sunlight. Now her skin hung off her face in folds. Lines of worry creased her brow; her eyes were hollow, haunted, red-rimmed, as if she'd been crying. Crying for a long, long time."

Bridgit's home.  Paz describes this wonderful place of safety and comfort where Podkin's wounded ear receives tender care. "She saw lots of clay pots and jars, all labelled in with neat Ogham writing, some overflowing with herbs and bulbs: wild garlic, rosemary, foxglove, rosehip and lots of mushrooms, like ink cap, blusher, penny bun, brittlegill and angel's bonnet." I was excited to discover these are all real mushroom names.

The Legend of Podkin One-Ear has been published with many different covers. Which one appeals to you?

You can listen to chapter one here.  Here is an interview with the author.  I would follow The Legend of Podkin One-Ear with Varjak Paw, Mouseheart, and the wonderful Redwall series by Brian Jacques. The evil Gorm that we meet in Podkin reminded me of the Creeps in Ollie's Odyssey.

The Legend of Podkin One-Ear was the winner of the Blue Peter Award in 2017.  Here is a set of reviews by young UK students and you can read other reviews with more plot details by clicking on the review quotes below.  I highly recommend The Legend of Podkin One-Ear - for me it is absolutely a ten out of ten book and I am rushing off to pick up the sequel - The Gift of Dark Hollow. The third installment (The Beasts of Grimheart) will arrive later this year.

An original fantasy with warrior rabbits, fierce foes, sibling loyalty, riveting adventure, and genuine storytelling.  Kirkus

A wonderfully told tale of adventure and adversity, packed with courage, heart and hope. Kieran Larwood has created a rich fantasy world in a time long after humans have left the world, complete with it’s own religions, superstitions and traditions.  Miss Cleveland is reading

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Thing by Simon Puttock and Daniel Egneus

When I saw this book on a display in a K-2 library I was intrigued by the cover, title and possible subject matter since the book was one title in a display for refugee week. Four strangers see a strange thing. Their names are Cobble (an owl), Tummler (a fox), Hummly (a hippopotamus) and Roop (a small indeterminate creature).

"The thing lay where it had fallen, not moving at all, not making a sound.
'What is it?' said someone passing by.
'And what does it do?' asked another
A third shrugged 'Maybe it just is.'
'Whatever it is,' said a fourth, 'it's beautiful"

Here we have curiosity, pragmatism, philosophy and aesthetics all conveyed through four seemingly simple questions. This is my interpretation:

What is it? - curiosity.
What does it do? - the pragmatic approach - objects must have a purpose and function
Maybe it just is? - this is philosophical thinking
It is beautiful - looking for aesthetic value or perhaps giving an emotional response.

This fourth stranger, who is called Roop, continues his emotional and sympathetic thought by saying "We could stay and keep it company."

So the four gather round the Thing and sleep through the night. In the morning they try some communication with words such as hello, greetings, we come in peace. When there is no response they decide to build a shelter for themselves and for the Thing. Curiosity about the Thing draws a crowd and with the crowds come food stands, souvenir sellers with buttons, balloons, postcards, mugs and flags and even some funfair rides.

"Someone set up a camera so that people could watch it from the comfort of their homes."

At this point reactions take a nasty turn. Someone in the crowd suggests the Thing does not belong, that it has to go. With an older group of students, you could raise themes of prejudice and the plight of displaced people.

"All over the world, people began to argue for and against the Thing."

Then one day the Thing quietly leaves without a sound. Simon Puttock uses a brilliant word to describe this - it had somehow un-fallen itself.

I totally agree with  reviewer Anne Thompson who says she keeps coming back to this book.

While it seems obvious I would pair The Thing with The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan and Beegu by Alexis Deacon. You might also look at a book I talked about recently - Hattie and Hudson. Take a look at Simon's web site where you can see his list of over forty books.

Definitely a book to savour rather than rush through. BookBag

This truly captivating story will hold many different meanings to varying audiences. Picture books Blogger

This captivating picture book will be many things to many people: a story about thoughtfulness, an adventure in friendship and an intriguing and gentle social commentary on the search for meaning in modern life. Reading Zone

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Classic Australian books

Later this year (October 2-4, 2018 Canberra, Australia) there will be an important exhibition of IBBY (International Board on Books for the Young) Honour Books including 48 Australian titles. Each of the titles will be displayed with an abstract and today I worked on six of the picture book titles. I thought I would share my writings here. You may be familiar with these books but perhaps it is a while since you shared some of them with a child.

Lizzie Nonsense by Jan Ormerod

Lizzie lives with her mama, papa and baby brother on a remote farm in the Australia bush. Papa leaves the family for weeks on end while he delivers wood to the distant town leaving Lizzie, her Mama and baby alone in the bush. Lizzie is a lively girl with a vivid imagination. Her brother in his bath is floating in the ocean, a fallen log is her brave steed and flowers in the garden become a bridal bouquet. Lizzie is such a happy girl. She finds delight in the smallest of things and her buoyant outlook and positivity help her Mama during these difficult days. Even though she dismisses Lizzie’s ideas as nonsense Mama has her own daydreams too. On Sundays they put on their best clothes and pretend they have walked to church. Finally, after all the long weeks, they hear a sound. Is that harness jangling or just sounds in their imagination? No it is papa!

Lizzie Nonsense is dedicated to the memory of Jan Ormerod’s grandmother and her life in the 1890s. It is a tale told with warmth, tenderness and humour. The images are built up from pencil drawings. Watercolour and ink are used to evoke the light of the Australian bush and the simple candle light of their home. Several illustrations are presented as an oval similar to a framed picture placed on a dresser or mantle.

The Old Woman who loved to Read by John Winch

The old woman does love to read, she has gathered an assortment of farm and native Australian animals who share her passion, she has a large collection of books, a comfy chair and she appears to be living alone. When she arrives in the Australian outback from the city, the farm is in disarray. The windows are broken, animals have made nests inside and the woodwork is falling down. Through hard work the old woman restores order inside and outside. In spring a lamb arrives. The old woman studies her books to learn about feeding and shearing. Her harvest has been successful and she has pumpkins, apples, sunflowers and plenty of wood stacked outside. In summer she harvests her fruit trees and makes preserves. It is hot and very dry which means it is bushfire season. In the autumn the rains come and she rescues several animals caught in the rising flood waters. The rains continue leaving little time for reading but finally, when all the chores are done, her larder is stocked and her animals are safe, the old woman can once again settle down to read a good book or two. You can see some of the titles on a handwritten note found on the last page. 

The colours chosen by John Winch follow the seasons and the landscape. He turns a spotlight on the face of the old woman with her creamy complexion, rosy cheeks and finally contentment. The size and close-up illustrations allow the reader to feel and smell the ripe fruit, the heat of the sun during the drought and even the juice of her pears. The Old woman who loved to read is the partner book to The Old man who loved to sing.

Possum Magic by Mem Fox

Grandma Poss makes bush magic, such as turning wombats blue and kookaburras pink. But her best magic was to make her granddaughter Hush invisible to keep her safe especially from snakes. Being invisible, Hush can do all sorts of playful things with other bush animals. She loves to ride down the tail of the kangaroo. The time comes, however, when Hush wants to be visible again. Unfortunately Grandma Poss has forgotten what magic to use. She knows it has something to do with food – people food. So the pair set off on a journey around Australia nibbling all kinds of iconic Australian foods such as vegemite sandwiches, minties, mornay and luscious pavlova until they find the right foods to make Hush completely visible once more. 

Using tiny brush strokes, Julie Vivas gives a sense of fur for her possums along with the fur of the blue wombat and the koala. To show Hush is invisible she uses a light sepia outline which stands out against the white background. Adding to this idea, when Grandma Poss and Hush lean over the river bank, Hush herself has no reflection. Magic pours out of Grandma Poss in the form of multi-coloured shimmering stars. Grandma Poss wears an apron but all of the other Australian animals in this book are painted in their natural state. This is a delightful book full of humour about Australia’s lovable native bush and suburban creatures – possums.

Who Sank the Boat? by Pamela Allen

It is a sunny day so the cow, donkey, sheep, pig and mouse decide to go for a row on the bay. The narrator anticipates a disaster when she asks, even before we see the friends boarding the boat – do you know who sank the boat? The reader, at this point, does not know the boat is going to sink although a closer look reveals it is a tiny wooden row boat perhaps not suited to such a large and in some cases heavy set of passengers. If weight is the issue then surely the fault lies with the cow, the donkey or the pig, who is described as being as fat as butter. Meanwhile the sheep has been sitting on the dock calming knitting a pink and white scarf. She slides carefully aboard and sits right in the middle. At this point, while the boat is indeed lower in the water, it is still floating. Now it is the turn of the little mouse. He is the lightest of all. He jumps aboard and the catastrophe we had anticipated ensues. In the final wordless scene our troop of wet and dripping adventurers trudge up the beach followed by the dry mouse with his mischievous grin. The boat, oars and umbrella are all left behind in the bay. The almost identical images of the first and last pages neatly bookmark the tale. 

This story is ideal for reading aloud to young children. The body shapes and facial expressions of each animal convey emotion and personality. The use of sepia gives a sense of time or a potential outcome. The facing pages are outlined with a frame like the pages from a photo album. The rhyming text and repeated refrain make this a text young readers quickly learn to recite.

A Year on our Farm illustrated by Andrew McLean

As the title and various tree images on the front cover suggest this book covers a year on an Australian farm. A family consisting of mum, dad and three children along with a collection of pets and other animals from the ‘chooks’ to the new spring lambs, populate this farm in rural Australia. There are hardships such as drought and the rush to bring in the harvest. Pleasures such as the arrival of new kittens, hand rearing a lamb and the usual tasks of hand-milking and shearing that connect farm lives everywhere around the world.

The simple text is complemented by the watercolour and crayon illustrations, through which McLean evokes the changing seasons. His characters have expressive faces finding delight in the smallest of tasks. The first image gives a birds-eye view of the whole farm. The following pages use small vignettes to show the incidental aspects of everyday life on the farm. Everyone in the family has a job to do including the animals. The story uses a chronological and seasonal framework beginning with Summer in January and ending with the return of Summer and Christmas in December. There is the promise of special gift. Andrew McLean repeats his illustration of the family group we saw at the beginning of the book but this time with the addition of a new pony.


Where the forest meets the sea by Jeannie Baker

A father takes his son by boat to a place where trees have grown for millions of years. It is a remote place near a coral reef with few visitors. While the father relaxes, the son explores the rainforest. His father’s remark that the forest has been here for over a hundred million years resonates with the boy. As he wanders the boy pretends that it is long ago when dinosaurs lived and aboriginal forest children played amongst the ancient trees. He takes time to sit still and listen to the sounds of the forest and marvel at the size of the majestic trees wondering how long each took to grow from a tiny seedling. Sadly the day ends too quickly as does the boys reverie. “But will the forest still be here when we come back?” 

Imaginatively constructed relief collages evoke the past along with the present and also alert the reader to the possible demise of the Daintree Rainforest in North Queensland. The collages are created from a combination of natural and artificial materials and where she can Jeannie Baker uses the actual material portrayed in the illustration such as bark, earth and fabric.

Children of the Dragon Book One The Relic of the Blue Dragon by Rebecca Lim

"This was not a movie. There was no conveniently placed garbage skip down below filled with large pieces of soft foam to land on. It was an empty alley lined with cobblestones, broken glass and old spew. That was it."

Harley Spark's dad Ray is a "major (unconfirmed) underworld crime figure." Harley and his mum, Delia, live away from Ray but Harley still sees him each month. Harley, until now, has been an law abiding boy but when he sees an interesting large Chinese vase outside an antique shop he decides to snatch it. Is this a case of like father like son?

"The vase wasn't very big or very heavy; it was maybe thirty centimetres high with one very long azure-coloured Chinese dragon looped and coiled around and around the body and new of the vase. ... (it had) two golden, stag-like horns and two burning gold eyes with black centres ringed in a thin line of blue ... the painted dragon seemed almost alive."

Harley grabs this precious object and hides it in his school and rushes home. The vase seems to take hold of him and later when his mum comes into his room he begs her to smash it. Just like the genii in the bottle doing this sets free a girl. She is clearly from a different time.

"She had a triangular face with high, pronounced cheekbones ... the tunic she wore, plain black but crawling with the looping body of six coiled dragons." 

Even her slippers are embroidered with gold and azure dragons. She takes up a defensive stance similar to ones Harley knows from his Tae Kwon Do lessons. Who is this girl? Where did she come from? Delia and Harley are buzzing with questions. Luckily Delia knows a few words in Chinese but real communication does not begin until this mysterious girl breaks into the State Library where she rapidly reads a series of ancient books and somehow learns English in just one night. I know all of this sounds utterly fanciful but it actually makes sense in this fast-paced plot and the rush through the night time streets of Melbourne make for a thrilling series of scenes.

The crux of the story relates to an ancient Chinese legend of five dragons. All were daughters of the First Dragon. Their names match their colours - Vermilion, Yellow, Azure, White and Black.  The Second Dragon had nine sons. He considered himself greater than the First Dragon so he had his five nieces abducted and a magician cast each into a plain porcelain prison. Harley and his mum have accidentally set the Azure daughter free and now the race is on to reunite these girls.

Harley asks his father for help. Ray has powerful connections in the underworld. Harley is whisked off in a plane to a museum which holds a precious ancient Chinese vase but no one seems to check and this might be the wrong vase.

You will need to wait to read The Relic of the Blue Dragon from the new series Children of the Dragon by Rebecca Lim because it is not due for publication until August 2018 but do pop it on your to read list because this is a terrific story which middle primary students are sure to enjoy. This might seem strange but I was so pleased this book only had 171 pages. This meant I could read it all in one sitting. This made it easier to keep track of the rapid fire twists and turns that make this an enjoyable story. The plot has the feel of a highly charged action movie - one you don't want to end.

Take a look at this ABC Splash interview with Rebecca Lim. Rebecca Lim is new to me but we do have four books from her series Whiffy Newton in our school library. She is also an acclaimed Young Adult author and she received an impressive STAR review with Kirkus for the YA title The Astrologer's daughter.

If you enjoy action and crime thrillers I would follow this book with Loot by Jude Watson.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Most Beautiful place in the World by Ann Cameron

An "absorbing narrative, careful use of authentic, concrete detail intrinsic to the story as well as illustrative of the culture portrayed, and sympathetic understanding of a child's world--all in a story that will be enjoyed by younger children"  Kirkus

In 1992 our CBCA slogan was Windows into Worlds.  This slim book (54 pages) The Most Beautiful Place in the World fits that theme perfectly. Even though this is a short story I think it would best suit readers of 9 and older.

Juan lives in Guatemala. Through no fault of his own, life is very hard for Juan. His father leaves the family when Juan is a tiny baby. He moves with his mother into his grandmothers house but when his mother remarries she leaves Juan behind. When Juan is five his grandmother decides he needs to earn money so she sets him up as a shoeshine boy. Juan works hard but he feels resentful when he sees other city children heading off to school. By asking questions he learns the basics of reading and finally when he is seven and a half he gathers enough courage to ask his grandmother to send him to school. He greatly fears she will say no or worse she will also reject him as his mother and step father have already rejected him. Thank goodness he is wrong on both counts.

Here are a few story quotes to give you a flavour of this really special writing:

"But best of all, my grandmother owns her house and the land it's on. She keeps the papers that prove it in an iron box under her bed, and she's sure of what they say because somebody she trusts read them to her ... "

"It got bad when I saw kids who were going past me on the way to school. I was sitting in the dust all smeared up with shoe polish, and they were all neat and clean, with their pencils and their notebooks, going to school."

"School?' She said it like I'd said I wanted to go to Mars. 'You can't go. ... you're too young, you're five.' 'Grandma,' I said, 'I'm not five, I'm seven!"

"And she looked at me as if I were a man already, and said that maybe by studying I could find out why some people were rich, and some were poor, and some countries were rich, and some were poor, because she had thought about it a lot, but she could never understand it."

I first discovered Ann Cameron through her book Banana Spaghetti which features the characters found in her book series about Huey and his brother Julian. I also loved Spunky tells all - take a look at my review.

I would pair this book with The Paper House and for older students Figgy takes the City.  You could use The Most Beautiful place in the World with older students when discussing the Rights of the Child.

Finally from his description Juan does convince me Guatemala is one of the most beautiful places in the world - green hills, lots of flowers, flocks of birds and a happy evenings spent strolling and storytelling.