Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Rat's Tale by Tor Seidler

This book could be called a rats tail. In fact as I read this book about rats and their lives on the edge of the human world found myself wishing I also had a tail, they are such useful and desirable appendages. Tails are also a good indicator of character. Our hero Montague has nice long tail. Randal Reese-Rat, on the other hand, does not. In a scene reminiscent of The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munch, we meet young Randal. “Although his tail was a bit on the scrawny side, Randall was a handsome young rat. His fur was always perfectly in place, never ratted, and he always smelled good.” Later when Isabel, his intended, arrives home in a very disheveled state we see Randal’s true nature. “Marry you! Are you crazy? Do you think a Reese- Rat would marry something like you!” Horray we know Montague is her one true love.

The rats need to raise money for their survival. Each year they present their human landlord with a barrel full of money but now the stakes have been raised even higher and the rats must find one hundred thousand dollars.

Together Montague and Isabel will save the day using their unique and special talents. Montague is an artist and Isabel is adventurous and the new rat vocabulary you will learn in this story is an extra bonus. The illustrations by Fred Marcellion are wonderful. A little like the style of Lemony Snicket and Chris Van Allsburg in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. We have a picture book by this illustrator in our library called I, Crocodile – check it out today. You can read more about the author too!

This book was first published in 1986 and so it seems amazing that it escaped my notice until now. If you loved The Tale of Desperaux, Tumtum and Nutmeg, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Borrowers, and the Travels of Thelonious then this is certainly the book for you! On the back cover one review says “I hugged this book to me when the final page was read.” Me too! Now I have discovered there is a second book Revenge of Randal Reese-Rat! Time to go shopping.

The Old Willis Place : a ghost story by Mary Downing Hahn

This is one of the books I bought home from my school library to read over the summer holidays. It was one we purchased in 2009 and right from the opening scene it proved an intriguing book. If you really like scary ghost stories this one might be for you but be warned this book really is very scary. In fact I think this plot will linger with me for a long time. Diana and her brother Georgie live near an old run down mansion. Quite regularly new caretakers arrive to guard the mansion but this time it is a man and his daughter and right away Diana is excited at the prospect of a new friend.

The mystery of Diana and Georgie unfolds very slowly and all the questions I had as a reader kept me glued to the page. Who are these children? Where do they live? Where are their parents? What do they eat? If you have read any of my other blog entries you will know food is often one of my favourite parts of a book yet there is no mention of any food eaten by Diana and Georgie in The Old Willis Place only strange references such as the one on page 13 “It would be so lovely to sink our teeth into hot juicy food again.” Then on page 81 “ ‘You haven’t drunk your lemonade’, I pushed the glass away. ‘I told you I wasn’t thirsty. In fact I don’t even like lemonade.’ " and page 150 “Before I could protest, Mr Morrison set down two bowls and fixed a third for himself. The fragrance reminded me of my mother’s soup…. ‘I really can’t stay. I’m sorry.’ ”. These are some of the tantalizing hints that Diana and Georgie might not be just a couple of children from the local housing estate who like play in the manor grounds. This is a ghost story after all.

This is a book for very senior readers. The fate of Diana and Georgie is truly awful and so this is not a book for very sensitive readers. This author has lots of other titles so take look at her web site.

Stuart’s cape by Sara Pennypacker

Stuart wants to have an adventure. He knows superheroes have great adventures but superheroes wear capes and Stuart has no cape until he finds a bunch of men’s ties in one of the unopened boxes in the hall way of his new home.

Stuart has lost all his good stuff – a mannequin arm, an oven door, a dead Christmas tree, a cracked toilet seat, a box of bent coat hangers, false teeth – all wonderful stuff that it had taken years to collect. These treasures were picked up by the trash collector and not the moving van but Stuart now has the perfect materials for a cape – ties, a stapler and one purple sock. One hundred ties makes a wonderful cape and the sock is a perfect secret pocket.

This is how Stuart’s adventures begin with lots of fun, puns (warm as toast) and one surprising good friend – the trash collector! All these events lead up to the second book Stuart Goes to School. Stuart has so many fears about school and it seems all of them might come true – trouble making friends, embarrassing situations in the classroom, being locked in the toilet or being the shortest kid in the class.

My favourite scene comes during show and tell which is called “Our big interesting world”. Stuart stands tall ready to show is marvelous cape. “Stuart whipped open his cape very dramatically. He had practiced this in front of the mirror a lot. He waited for the kids to say ‘Awesome!’ or ‘Wow!’ or 'Cool Stuart!’. He waited for a long time. The room was so silent Stuart wondered if his ears had stopped working. He felt an odd breeze. He looked down and froze in horror.”
I am once again sad to discover Stuart’s cape is out of print and our library copy is very worn. I guess I need to investigate the world of used copies because you certainly need to read these two books in the right order. Both would be enjoyed by younger readers in Grades 1-3. By the way we have our own Cape in the library made by a kind mum out of old ties. It is fabulous!

The graveyard book by Neil Gaiman

Many people have said to me how much they loved The Graveyard Book although perhaps loved is not quite the best word. This is simply a marvelous and compelling story. It says in the back that Neil Gaiman spent 20 years thinking about and writing this book and yet the highly skilled writing seems so effortless. Gaiman is such a descriptive writer and if you have ever visited a graveyard you will certainly be able to really see this one through the writing and your imagination.

Bod (Nobody Owens) lives in the graveyard with a colourful cast of characters from the past. This cemetery is no longer in use and so the ‘inhabitants’ are all from a bygone era. Bod is in real danger. His life has been seriously threatened and so the dead souls agree to offer their protection and they grant Bod the Freedom of the Graveyard. Luckily for Bod there is one nondead soul who dwells in the graveyard – Silas. It is Silas who will go into the world to get food and later clothes for Bod and it is Silas who will offer important advice and friendship to Bod as he grows to the teenage years.

Bod could have a surprisingly pleasant upbringing in the graveyard with all these souls to care for him but all through there is the underlying threat of danger from the one who wanted to murder him when he was just a tiny child. This man Jack literally stalks the pages of this gripping book constantly waiting for the right moment to strike.

With amazing illustrations by Chris Riddell this is a book to savor and enjoy, it is a book to read and re-read, it is a book I would not hesitate to recommend to a senior primary student as one of my top books of 2009. No wonder it was the winner of the Newberry Award.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Momo by Michael Ende

I promised I would talk about Momo when I started this blog last year. I decided to start my Christmas holidays with this favourite book. I am so happy to say I was not disappointed. It is about 25 years since I first read Momo on the recommendation of a young friend who had encountered the original translated edition entitled The Grey Men.

Momo is a modern allegory about TIME and it has certainly passed the test of time. For me this story was as fresh today as it was when I first read it.

The grey men are robbing people of their time. “They were experts on time just as leeches are experts on blood.”

2,207,520,000 that is the number of seconds in a life assuming you live to seventy. Agents as the Grey Men are called are able to convince people to give away their time on the promise that it is going into a bank. In reality the people loose this time. “People never seemed to notice that, by saving time, they were losing something else. No one cared to admit that life was becoming ever poorer, bleaker and more monotonous.”

With the help of Professor Secundus Minutus Hora and a special tortoise called Cassiopeia, Momo needs to thwart these time thieves but she only has one hour as measured by an hour lilly. “Momo had never seem so exquisite a flower. It was composed of all the colours in the spectrum – brilliant colours such as Momo had never dreamed of.”

If I could give one book as a gift to all the families in my school it would be this one. The Neverending story by Michael Ende is a terrific book but I think Momo is even better. Look for it at a library near you today.

I was amazed to discover a film was made of this book in 1986. This preview is in German but you might enjoy it anyway! You will see all her friends including the lovely Beppo the street cleaner and Guido the storyteller and the voice you can hear is Michael Ende himself.

I also found a web site with quotes from this book and a comment from Natalie Babbitt that Momo should have been recognised as a modern classic.

My new copy has a fabulous cover. As a final bonus if you read this very special book perhaps you will discover why my blog is called Momo celebrating time to read!

Knuffle Bunny and Knuffle Bunny Too by Mo Willems

Every little child will relate to the horror of losing a loved toy. Just like the lovely book A pocket for Corduroy, Trixie takes her special toy Knuffle Bunny to the Laundromat.

In a lovely combination of photos and drawings we see her Daddy filling the washing machine but of course he is not looking! Trixie realizes they have left Knuffle Bunny behind but what can she do? Trixie is not quite old enough to talk. She tries to explain. She points and gestures. She screams and goes boneless. Thank goodness for Mummy.

The whole family runs back to the Laundromat and Trixie says her first real words. Can you guess what they are?

In addition to the book we also have the DVD in all school library. This version has all the charm of the book and I can’t wait to share it with the children.

In Knuffle Bunny Too, Trixie can talk and is now off to pre school. This second book reminded me of Boris and Borsch by Robin Klein. Here we have the same basic plot of swapped toys with the addition of charming characters and illustrations. These two books about Knuffle Bunny will form part of a toy theme we will explore with Kindergarten in our read-a-loud session in the new school term.

Ruby and Little Joe by Angela McAllister

When we add books to our library collection we record, inside the front cover, the price and place of purchase so when I looked inside this unremarkable little picture book I was not surprised to see it came from one of my favourite children’s bookshops where the owner has such a passion and love for books and reading and children that her book choices are always a delight!

This is not an unremarkable little picture book. It is truly a gem. Ruby and Little Joe are toy kangaroos but they are not new. All the other toys are new and have never been loved. Their hearts are hard and so Ruby and Little Joe are not invited to sleep on the end of the bed and must sit on a hard shelf all night.

Ruby is so wise. She knows patience and perseverance will win the day but it is only when Little Joe finds himself in terrible peril, outside the house and inside the garbage bin, that all the other toys learn how to show kindness and each finds room for a heart to grow. This is the lesson Ruby has been quietly teaching them over the last few months.

I will certainly add this story to our read aloud list for Kindergarten along side I love you Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark and Corduroy by Don Freeman.

Cherryblossom and the Golden Bear retold by Pamela Freeman

We have been reading fairy tales to our younger students over the last term. This began with the Princess and the Pea then Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince and Cinderella. Two interesting things occurred during these sessions. When I asked the children who had heard each of these stories before there were a small group of children aged 6 in each class who had never heard these fairly tales – this makes me quite sad. My happiness was restored, however, as I retold and then read each of these famous tales. These young children just sat spellbound. Each week the children and I enjoyed that magical moment when everyone is so caught up in a story you can hardly hear any breathing.

Moving on from the fairy tales I have begun reading folk tales and fantasy stories to Year 3 students. I started with a few favourites from our library collection. Last term we all enjoyed The Moon’s Revenge by Joan Aitken, The Minstrel and the dragon pup by Rosemary Sutcliff and the Quiltmakers gift by Jeff Brumbeau and so next term we will read Cherryblossom and the Golden Bear. Just like the best fairy tales, this lovely story has the usual elements of magic and promises and trust. Cherryblossom makes a cloak of nettles and a dress of cherry blossoms. It is this unselfish act that sets the Golden Bear free revealing a golden haired prince in his place.

Pamela Freeman explains the origins of this story on her web site.

Miki by Stephen Mackey

Here is a Christmas story with a difference. “On midwinter eve when an icy wind blew the moon weaved her magic and wishes came true.” So begins this lovely book about Miki and her wish to decorate a little tree in an icy land.

Miki and penguin begin by wishing for pretty lights that tinkle and then to make it a tale for our times their wish for a power source brings a very modern looking windmill. Even though the polar bear is very strong he runs out of breath and so then Miki wishes for a star that can shine forever.

This is a moving story about perseverance and the unbreakable bonds of true friendship. The repeated refrain gives the narrative a song like quality and the softest of illustrations will be loved by the youngest readers. You can even see a little video of this book.

The flower by John Light

I am currently reading a selection of picture books that we added to our library this year. The Flower is an interesting allegory about the subversive information available in books. Brigg reads about flowers in a banned book. There are no flowers in his futuristic and bleak city. Wandering the streets Brigg sees a picture just like the one from the book he smuggled out of the library. He buys the picture and discovers it is a seed packet. Using dust collected from the streets he nurtures the plant and in time his room is filled with beautiful flowers.

In a scene reminiscent of Josephs Yard by Charles Keeping, one morning while Brigg is at work, the automatic cleaning system sucks his plant away.

Look for this special book in your library. The illustrations (here is a lovely web site for the illustrator) are perfect and so is the ending which is filled with hope for the future.