Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mr Chickee's funny money by Christopher Paul Curtis

We all dream about ways to get rich quick but what would you do if someone gave you a bank note with a one and fifteen zeros on it? It is a quadrillion dollar note. But is it real? Can Steven really cash it in?

There are some really fun little incidents in this terrific book. Early in First Grade Steven asks his teacher how big is a million. The teacher suggests the class collect bottle tops but she doesn’t realize the kids will all rise to this great challenge. After just six months they have collected 635,541 bottle tops. Their weight makes the classroom floor collapse! This causes the Principal to summon the teacher to explain… “The janitor assured me that the collapse of my closet floor into the Kindergarten room (unoccupied) has caused the death of at least two and a half million cockroaches. These disgusting and unfortunate insects have been using your project as an incubator for the past six months.”

Other terrific ideas in this story include a dictionary with attitude, very odd parents, an amazing vinyl record collection and the biggest dog with the biggest slobbery lick in the whole world.

Warning don’t read chapter 13 after eating a big meal. Zoopy the dog eats everything and I mean everything Steven can find in the kitchen and fridge.

Is the money real? Can Steven spend his fortune? The twists and turns of this plot will leave you breathless and like Agent Fondoo, from the treasury department, you might also be left trying to stick your tongue into your left nostril!

One other thing. Steven knows when he has pushed his dad too far because he has an excellent sass meter. I really like this idea.

I absolutely enjoyed the two other books by Christopher Paul Curtis that I read many years ago – The Watson’s go to Birmingham and Bud not Buddy but these are for very senior students. Mr Chickee’s Funny Money will be enjoyed by middle Primary readers especially those who aspire to become accomplished detectives.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

How to save your tail by Mary Hanson

Once upon a time …. and they both lived happily ever after…. These are the first and last words of How to save your tail.

Storytelling and fairy tales are at the heart of the quirky little book with the intriguing subtitle “If you are a rat nabbed by cats who really likes stories about magic spoons, wolves with snout-warts, big, hairy chimney trolls… and cookies too”. The only thing missing from this little gem is a few cookie recipes. Those butter cookies with cream cheese filling and a sinful blend of spice, mint chips and sugar, sound delicious.

When Bob, the rat, is caught by two huge cats it seems his life might be about to end but Bob is a resourceful rat blessed with a great talent for storytelling. Using his stories based wildly on well known but very mixed up fairy tales, Bob charms his captors and in turn saves his own skin. Each story has a link to a member of Bob’s family and there is a helpful family tree at the beginning of this book so the reader can identify Bob's ancestors.

This is a book for children who really know their fairy tales such as Jack and the beanstalk, The three little pigs, Cinderella and The three billy goats gruff. The illustrations and final map all add to the fun.

This would make a terrific read-a-loud for children in Years 2-4. You might also look for Seriously Silly stories by Laurence Anholt and our new series Happy Ever After by Tony Bradman if the idea of twisting fairy tales appeals to you.

The seven professors of the Far North by John Fardell

There are lots of great books about megalomaniacs who plan world domination and who are thwarted by kids (for example The Mysterious Benedict Society) and here is another one that certainly does not disappoint. The 7 Professors of the Far North are indeed a collection of seven professors – six have good intentions for the world and one is an evil mastermind planning world domination via genetic engineering. The location for his evil experiments is the far northern island of Nordbergen located somewhere near Scandinavia.

Our hero, eleven year old Sam Carnabie, gets caught up in this wild adventure when he goes to stay with Professor Ampersand and his great niece and great nephew – Zara and Ben. Professor Ampersand is an inventor with terrific ideas which are not always entirely successful. My favourites are his cooking inventions. “I’ll boil some peas in a wee while”. Ten minutes later Sam uses the bathroom.

“Sam wasn’t surprised to find that the bath was positioned on a raised platform, an arrangement that, as far as he could work out, enabled old bath water to be used to flush the toilet. Nor was he surprised to notice that the shower cubicle had six water nozzles and three mechanical brushes arranged up and down the inside walls (He stepped into have a closer look but stepped out again hurriedly as the brushes began to move automatically). But he was surprised, when he started to wash his hands, to find dozens of tiny green balls cascading out of the hot tap. He yelled and unlocked the door as Ben and Zara came running. ‘They’re peas!’ said Ben. ‘Uncle Alexander must have put them in the wrong compartment.’ They tasted one. ‘Well at least they’re cooked’."

After the six professors are kidnapped by men in combat suits wielding laser guns, Sam, Ben and Zara must travel to the far north. For the journey they use a variety of transportation and are assisted by some very helpful and likable people. The initial journey is by a secret underground railway which is accessed via a shop that sells shoe polish with the delightful name Bright and Buffwelle.

This book is such a rich and rewarding story. The adventure is fast paced, cold (it is the Arctic!) and thrilling. The friendships are strong and loyal and there is heaps of good humour along the way. I thoroughly recommend this book for students in Years 4-6. Read more about the author here. I will certainly look out for the sequel - The Flight of the Silver Turtle.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Billionaire's Curse by Richard Newsome

I think fans of Indiana Jones will love The Billionaire’s Curse even though it is quite a predicable story with a heap of loose ends and in spite of a fairly unappealing (to me) cover.

Our hero Gerald (awful name but it has an important family connection) suddenly becomes the richest thirteen year old on the planet when he inherits twenty billion pounds… a house in Chelsea, the manor near Glastonbury, shares in the family company – the inventors of the tea bag staple, an island, a yacht, an aeroplane and various artworks. Gerald also inherits two mysteries. He needs to find out who murdered his aunt Geraldine and who has just stolen the Noor Jehan, the most valuable diamond in the world, from the British museum.

This robbery forms the basis of the first chapter and then we switch focus to Gerald and his appalling mother and long suffering father as they prepare to fly to England for the funeral and more importantly the reading of the will.

The last third of the book is particularly like an Indian Jones thriller as our hero and his two friends solve a puzzle to find a missing casket which it seems is more valuable than the diamond. In fact the diamond is the key that opens this casket which is rumored to hold the Holy Grail. I guess we will discover more about this in the second installment.

There are some terrific descriptions in this book and I especially liked the Young Billionaire’s survival kit left to Gerald by his aunt. “He tore the flap and pulled out a small leather wallet. He flipped it open, let out a low whistle and counted out two thousand pounds in crisp new notes. He also pulled out a black American Express card, with a neat Gerald A Wilkins embossed on the front….. every young billionaire needs some walking-around money.” Page 79

The intrepid heroes find the clues lead them to an exclusive gentleman’s club in London. “The floor was an intricate parquetry in a pattern of roses and ivy. In the centre was an enormous green carpet with the letter R woven in red in the middle. Long-green-and-gold-striped drapes lined the tall Georgian windows, blocking all outside light…. The place reeked of a mixture of wood polish, stale cigar smoke and privilege.” Page 145

This book contains nothing new for readers of detective stories but it is still a terrific read, fast paced, funny at times, filled with coincidences and three very brave and resourceful kids who work really well as a team. There are also rats, some knife slashing, murders and a cast of characters most of whom are not trustworthy. I hope we can read more about the butler Fry in the second installment.

You can read more about the Australian author who I have just discovered won a huge prize for this first novel. The second book is not yet published but you should keep your eye on the author web site for more details. You can also read the background to the writing and character names.

You should read this book to find out about tea bag staples - this is such a hilarious idea but it is how the Archer family have made their fortune. This book will appeal to readers in Years 4-6.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Loudest Beagle on the Block by TT Sutherland

Here is a fabulous new series for all dog lovers. This book was such a huge surprise because the cover is so commercial looking and I don’t always have high hopes for books published by Scholastic but Loudest Beagle on the Block by TT Sutherland (Book #2 in the Pet Trouble series) is a terrific story.

Ella loves to sing and play the piano and has become so diligent about her practicing that she really has no friends and no other interests. Her elderly Great Aunt Golda dies and leaves Trumpet the Beagle to Ella. Trumpet is a really cute little dog with one incredibly annoying habit – he howls constantly and very loudly whenever Ella sings. Is Aunt Golda trying to tell Ella something? Is the arrival of Trumpet all part of a plan?

How can Ella solve the dilemma of Trumpet’s howls? She discovers her classmates are a wonderful source of help especially Heidi who is obsessed by dogs but alas does not have one of her own.

This is a perfect little chapter book for students in Years 2-4 especially those who love dogs. I will certainly look out for other titles in this series.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Honey Cake by Joan Betty Stuckner

When I am looking for simple and satisfying junior fiction I can never go past titles from the Stepping Stone series by Random House. Years ago I read O’Diddy by Jocelyn Stevenson and although this has long been out of print it remains a firm favourite.
I recently used Horn Book to identify junior novels for our children in Years 1-4 and ordered over twenty new titles for our library. One of these was Honey Cake by Joan Betty Stuckner. Set in Copenhagen just after the Nazi occupation, David is caught up in the work of the resistance when his dad who is a baker asks him to deliver a box of chocolate ├ęclairs. Through David’s eyes we see how this lovely city has been horribly changed as the Germans begin to exert their influence.

This book is very short and quick to read but it still manages to convey much of the history of that time and the fears and anxiety’s that would have been common experiences for young children living through these dangerous and confusing times. This book would make a good introduction to this subject for children in Years 3 and 4.

I would recommend reading this book along side The little Riders by Margaretha Shemin which is about the Nazi occupation of Holland and What about me? by Gerte Evenhuis which is also about the resistance.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix

I often find myself drawn to read books with a futuristic setting. I love this kind of book and Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix did not disappoint. In fact I sat down just two hours ago and swallowed down the whole book in one quick sitting.

Luke is the third child living in a world where only two children are permitted. The world has experienced severe famine and in response the totalitarian government have laid down numerous rules about food production, farm management and family size. They even have Population Police who supposedly monitor computers and televisions hunting out third children. The politics of this book is also intriguing as we gain insights into the enormous corruption of the government.

Luke lives a totally isolated life hidden inside his own house. The situation has been made worse when urban sprawl changes his neighborhood and a new housing estate is built right behind the family fence line. This is where the book opens, as we discover Luke will now have to stay inside at all times.

“There was a law against Luke. Not him personally – everyone like him, kids who were born after their parents had already had two babies. Actually Luke didn’t know if there was anyone else like him. He wasn’t supposed to exist.” Page 6

Then Luke’s world is turned upside down when he meets Jen, a third child, living next door. She gives him a new world view and the courage he will need to take his first steps into this frightening world.

Yes there are sequels in fact there are six more books but at only 150 pages each this is fine, in fact I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book Among the impostors.

Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

This book contains all the elements I dislike in a story – rats, underground cities, spiders and lots of crawling through thin spaces which make me feel totally claustrophobic and yet I absolutely gobbled this book right up it is such a fabulous story. Gregor the Overlander is the story of Gregor who slips into the underworld when his sister disappears behind a washing machine in the basement laundry of their apartment building.

Gregor’s father disappeared exactly two years, seven months and thirteen days ago and once Gregor and is sister slip into this underground world it is clear to the reader although not to Gregor himself quite yet, that these two children will find their father and reunite the family.
There is a puzzle to solve and great friends who help including of all things cockroaches and bats. I also loved the food, the ingenious clothes and the special medicines developed by the underlanders.
"an Underlander servant placed a half circle of small bowls around him. At least three contained what looked like various mushrooms. One had a ricelike grain and the smallest contained a handful of fresh greens. He could tell by the skimpy potion that the leafy stuff was supposed to be a big treat."

This is book one of the Underland Chronicles but I didn’t have my usual problem with sequels as this one does have a very satisfactory ending although I will certainly look out for book two and in turn book three. You can read more here.

Fans of Tunnels by Roderick Gordon and Skulduggery pleasant by Derek Landy will devour this action packed adventure.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Love that Dog (and) Hate that Cat by Sharon Creech

Verse novels feature very high on my list of favourite books. Titles like Dust by Karen Hesse, Farm Kid by Sherryl Clarke, Tom Jones Saves the World by Steven Herrick and Love that dog by Sharon Creech are among my most favourite books so I was particularly excited to see another title by Sharon Creech, Hate that cat when I recently visited a new local book shop.

Today was the first day of my holidays and as a treat I started the day by reading Hate that cat. It certainly did not disappoint. Following on from Love that dog, we again enter the marvellous English class of Miss Stretchberry – such a lovely name. Over the course of a term or perhaps a month or even a year, students read a wide range of poetry and we read Jack’s responses to this through his poetry but his responses are so much more than just a commentary on the poetry, through his writing Jack tells us so much about his family, his dog, his cat, his own emotional development and his view of the world. As in Love that dog the poems are presented in chronological order. I just re-read the poem from January 4th and it made me smile.

I have Love that dog as a tape and it is a treasured possession of mine. Sharon Creech also provides copies of all the poems that Miss Stretchberry uses in class and in this second book she also thoughtfully provides an extensive poetry reading list. I hope to buy some of these titles for our school library very soon.

I especially like the way Jack tries out the poetry forms after each lesson. The poems are also a conversation between Jack and his teacher :

And I think I understood
what you said about
and alliter-something
not HAVING to be
in a poem
and how sometimes
they ENRICH a poem
but sometimes
they can also make a poem
sound purple.

Ha ha ha.

Students in Years 4-6 will love these two fabulous books. I wish I had time to really explore both of these with a class because there is so much to read and enjoy. Look for all the books by Sharon Creech in our school library you will not be disappointed.

Tensy Farlow and the home for mislaid children by Jen Storer

“Tensy rocked thoughtfully, toe to heel, and looked towards the rising dawn. The dark sea pounded the cliff-face and a few gulls stirred. She smiled as she felt for Olive's biscuit. It had to be a sign that things were looking up. Chocolate was always a good sign.” Page 189

Tensy Farlow and the home for mislaid children by Jen Storer is an amazing book. It reminded me of Fearless by Tim Lott. In this book we meet a very special orphan called Tensy Farlow. She is given this name by Albie Gribble after he rescues her from the River Charon. Along the way we meet human characters and their guardian angels. Matron Pluckrose is an especially memorable character reminiscent of the headmistress in Matilda by Roald Dahl and the orphanage she runs is even worse than the one in Oliver Twist.

This is a complex novel but so rewarding. I just loved the characters and kept hoping for a happy ending. Is there a happy ending? Yes and no. I can only say you need to read this book to find out for yourself. The ending was certainly not as devastating as the one in Fearless.

I found a lovely book trailer. I have just read about the idea of making book trailers written by Anne Waver in my latest ASLA magazine.

I was pleased to see this book featured on the cover of Magpies July 2009 issue. I agree with the reviewer "over thirty three chapters plus epilogue, readers will have to keep their wits about them to keep track (but) Tensy Farlow is a thoroughly entertaining read with a memorable heroine, wit and an unsettling atmosphere likely to appeal to fans of Odo Hirsch."