Saturday, December 31, 2011

What my senior students are reading - a list!

One of my annual tasks, and it is a joyous one, is to take a close look at the books recommended by Grade 6 students as they leave our school. This is a part of their Year Book entry along with friends, food, movies and nicknames.

For a change this blog entry (my final one for 2011) is simply a list. I think this list is interesting for several reasons. There is a great mix of titles here. Nearly every child talked about a different book and this makes me smile because so many of these books were titles I enjoyed too. I am always happy to see the students make such great choices from the abundance of our wonderful school library. I feel proud that nearly all of these books are in our library because of me. At a time when there is talk of taking away the position of Teacher-Librarian I wonder if the children (in a school with no teacher-librarian) would produce such an eclectic list. There are only two titles on this list which were read as class novels – The Phantom Tollbooth and Nips XI.

Here is the list in no particular order :

Deltora Quest series by Emily Rodda
Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis
Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Nips XI by Ruth Starke
Locket of Dreams by Belinda Murrell
Charlie Small Journals
Harry Potter series
Varjak Paw SF Said
Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech
Alice Miranda series by Jacqueline Harvey
Eragon by Christopher Paolini
EJ12 series by Susanah McFarlanne
UFO in USA by Dave Hackett
Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Anastasia’s Album by Hugh Brewster
Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz
Treasure Fever by Andy Griffiths
Spook’s Apprentice by Joseph Delaney
Hugo Pepper by Paul Stewart
The Gizmo by Paul Jennings
Cherub series by Robert Muchamore
Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah
Marley and me by John Grogan
The day my bum went psycho by Andy Griffiths
Darren Shan series
High Rhulain (Redwall) by Brian Jacques
Hocus Pocus Jellypoo Blues by Laura Milligan
Silk Umbrellas by Carolyn Marsden
Red Dog
Just Annoying by Andy Griffiths
A dog called Grk by Joshua Doder
Holes by Louis Sachar
Raven’s Mountain by Wendy Orr
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth
The invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Misadventures of Bartholomew Pif by Jason Lethcoe
Conspiracy 365 January by Gabrielle Lord
Percy Jackson series
The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens
Guardians of G’Hoole series by Kathryn Lasky
Runaway Train by David Belbin
Unfinished Angel by Sharon Creech
The amazing adventures of Chilly Billy by Peter Mayle
Spy Dog by Andrew Cope
Dark Materials series Philip Pullman
A long walk to : a novel by Linda Sue Park
Ingo by Helen Dunmore
Mr Gum series by Andy Stanton
Tins by Alex Shearer
Boom! by Mark Haddon
Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo
Ivory Rose by Belinda Murrell
Gone by Morris Gleitzman

In addition to these titles which are all in our school library some more sophisticated students cited Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Tomorrow when the war began by John Marsden, Twilight by Stephanie Meyer and a number of surfing biographies. Why not add a comment to my blog and let me know which titles you have read on this list or which titles you might add.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Robe of Skulls by Vivian French illustrated by Ross Collins

This book is like a very fizzy drink. It is effervescent. The plot just gallops along filled with fabulous evil characters and special heroes all leading to an ending that is totally satisfying.

A Grade 5 student raved about this book and the other three in the series so I was keen to read this one over the summer. This afternoon I thought I might just read the first chapter. Three hours later I finished the whole book! If you have been reading my blog you will know this means I thoroughly enjoyed The Robe of Skulls.

The story opens with Lady Lamorna preparing an order for the dress of her dreams. Black velvet, red petticoats, rows and rows of skulls along the hemline and embroidered with spiders and poison ivy. Does Lady Lamorna sound evil? Of course she does but surprisingly she is by no means the most evil character in the kingdom. That role falls to Foyce “when you looked into her eyes it made your bones go icy cold.” You can read part of the first chapter here.

Foyce and Mange, another evil character, have taken Gracie as a slave. One day, when she is desperately trying to make a meal out water, a little bat arrives with the promise of freedom, adventure and a better life.

Correct me if I am wrong,’ said the bat, ‘but would the main ingredient of water soup be water?’ Gracie nodded. ‘I do use hot water and cold water. It doesn’t make much difference to the taste, though.’”

Meanwhile two young Princes are living in a nearby castle and are training to take on their royal duties. Prince Arioso is studious and compliant but his twin brother Marcus, just ten minutes younger, is bold and desperate for adventure. Mysteriously their tutor Professor Scallio seems to have plans for Marcus which involve a forbidden map.

Our little bat, called Marlon, draws these characters together and, along with the three Ancient Crones, everyone arrives at a very satisfactory place except perhaps Foyce and Mange.

If you enjoy Robe of Skulls you will need to read the three sequels and then find Which Witch by Eva Ibbotson and The Starkin Crown by Kate Forsyth. I rarely say this but Harry Potter fans will enjoy this book too.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Junebug by Alice Mead

Junebug has only 100 pages and yet it packs in a powerful story of growing up African American, poor, in a single parent family and in “the projects”. Luckily Junebug is living near water. I looked on Google maps to see New Haven, Connecticut and now I understand about the ferry trip he takes with his mother and little sister Tasha.

More on that ferry trip in a moment. Junebug has a big dream. The dream to go sailing. As the story opens we hear Junebug's thoughts as he imagines he is on a small yacht trimming the sails and following the breeze. Reading this book at this time in Australia feels quite serendipitous as the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race is just concluding. While it is wonderful Junebug has such a magical dream by contrast he is living in such a dreadful environment. It almost makes you cry out in pain for him and his sister. His neighborhood is dominated by poverty and drug dealers.

There’s just a wall of old, smashed-up windows rising up to the sky. The embankment is piled high with dead leaves and trash stuck up against the fence … burned out cars sit in the lot, with no tires on them.”

There is one small glimmer of kindness in the form of a library run by volunteers and housed in a small space in the basement of his apartment building. One truly special lady comes each day and she has begun to teach Tasha to read. I love the way she uses Peter Rabbit to do this. Then in an awful heart wrenching scene violence erupts outside the door of the library and Mrs Swanson, an elderly lady who works as a volunteer running the library declares “That’s it … as of today, the library is closed. I refuse to stay here any more. I’ll tell the church. The reading program is over.”

Turning ten will mean Junebug will be forced to participate in a gang and this is something he dreads but can see no way to avoid until his mother mentions she has the chance of a new job in a different part of town, a new job of living in and caring for elderly people so Junebug and Tasha would live in a new home and attend a different school.

Now back to the dream of sailing. Junebug has a fabulous plan. He has been collecting bottles and he plans to write notes to place inside each one. For his birthday he has told his mother all he wants is corks. Can you make a connection between the bottles, corks and the ferry ride?

I now discover there are two more books about Junebug so I will need to investigate these for our library. I have also discovered that Oprah has book lists for children and that this title once appeared on her list. I don't usually give books a rating but I would give this one ten out of ten!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mrs Frisby and the rats of NIMH by Robert C O'Brien

Quite by accident I seem to be reading Newberry Winners at the moment. The real reason these books are bubbling to the top of my huge reading pile is that in early December we did a huge cull of our school library shelves – this is called weeding. We weeded out over 1400 old fiction books. A few of the titles we removed are important books like the one I am about to discuss Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH so we will of course purchase new copies. The sad thing about paperback books is the way, over time, the pages discolor. The other sad thing is that quite a few of the books we need to replace are long out of print. Luckily this is not true for Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

I know I must have read Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH sometime long ago (it was first published in 1971) but I really had only a very scant memory of the plot and so it has been a delight to sit down today and read the whole book in one sitting.

Timothy, the youngest child of Mrs Frisby and her late husband Jonathan, is very ill and while Mrs Frisby has been able to obtain some medicine from Mr Ages he has also warned her that Timothy must stay in bed for many weeks to recuperate and that it is vital he stay warm inside their home. Unfortunately our family of mice live under a field that is due to be ploughed any day now as Spring has just begun. Normally the family would move to their Summer residence but this seems impossible when Timothy is so ill. When Mrs Frisby returns from her visit to Mr Ages she stops to help a young crow that is caught in a fence. This simple act of kindness means Jeremy, the crow, promises to repay the favor. He suggests Mrs Frisby should ask the local owl, considered a very wise animal, about the dilemma of moving. As Mrs Fribsy says “All doors are hard to unlock until you have the key.”

The key is this case involves requesting assistance from a group of rats who live under a thorny rose bush near the farm house. All travel around the farm is made more treacherous by the presence of the farm cat, aptly named Dragon. Mrs Frisby is determined to save her family and so, on the advice of the owl, she visits the rats. It is here that she discovers the true identity of these remarkable rats, their connection to her husband and her role in the saving of more than one life.

We do have the two sequels to this book in our school library which were written by Robert C O’Brien's daughter but right now I am content to leave the ending to my own imagination.

After reading Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH I have many suggestions for where to go next :

  • If you love mice, rats and other small creatures you should read the Redwall series by Brain Jacques, The cricket in Times Square by George Selden or for younger readers take a look at Tumtum and Nutmeg by Emily Bearn.

  • If you would like some terrific books to read aloud to the whole family look at The Gerander trilogy by Frances Watts

  • If you are interested in science experiments involving animals and the moral dilemma associated with this practice take a look at A Pig called Francis Bacon by Stephen Measday and the two sequels.

  • If you like the way the rats and mice outwit the farmer then pick up Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl or Charlotte’s web by EB White.

  • If you love rats then read A rat’s tale by Tom Seidler.

  • If you love owls read Guardians of Ga’Hoole by Kathryn Lasky.

  • If you want to continue the theme of kindness towards others you should read The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz.

I was amazed when I put "Mrs Frisby" into Google to see nearly 2,000,000 hits. There is a wealth of material out there if you want to use this book with a class. Here are two examples. There is also a animated movie but the small part I previewed seemed to be a poor interpretation of an important book.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Snow by PD Eastman illustrated by Roy McKie

I am in Australia and we do not have snow at Christmas but I picked this book up off my shelf today because I was feeling quite nostalgic (Christmas does that to me) and because this is a very old book I fondly remember from my childhood. First published in 1962 Snow is book number 27 in the Beginner Book series. PD Eastman wrote and illustrated quite a few of these famous books including another favorite of mine Are you my mother?

Beginner books were/are special because they are very simple to read, they rhyme and yet they also manage to tell a story often with humor which is something you average class reader could never do. I was sad to hear a teacher comment in my school the other day that a Grade 5 boy in her class had not heard Cat in the Hat and further dismayed to realize this same teacher did not immediately send up to our library for a bundle of Beginner Books – we have nearly all of them.

Reading this book today I found I remembered all the little scenes such as the snow fort, the dog sliding down the snow on his tail, the melting snow man and most importantly, the attempt by the children to save some snow in their refrigerator.

When I first read this book around age four I had not seen snow and yet the lively text and joyous illustrations gave me a good grasp of the cold and the fun.

PD Eastman met Geisel (Dr Seuss) when they were in the army together. In 1958 PD Eastman wrote his first beginner book Sam and the firefly. This is another Beginner book I loved as a child and it probably explains my fascination with fireflies (Eric Carle The Very Lonely firefly) even though we do not have these in Australia.

If you enjoy Snow you might also look for Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats which is in our library and Snowballs by Lois Ehlert. As a bonus both of these also have fabulous illustrations. For a full list of the the PD Eastman books take a look at the web site.

Snow! Snow!
Come out in the snow.
Snow! Snow!
Just look at the snow!
Come out!
Come out!
Come out in the snow.
I want to know
If you like snow.
Do you like it?
Yes or no?
Oh yes! Oh Yes!
I do like snow.
Do you like it
In your face?
I like it any place.
What is snow?
We do not know.
But snow is lots of fun
We know.
What makes it snow?
We do not know.
But snow is fun
To dig and throw.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The 13th floor a ghost story by Sid Fleischman

I first read this book in 1995 and today I re-read it and was surprised just how much of the plot I remembered.

The 13th floor a ghost story is a terrific action packed adventure filled with pirates, witch hunts and humor. Buddy is twelve and, following the death of their parents, he is living with his sister, a young lawyer. Liz and Buddy come from a family who settled in Massachusetts in 1910 but the family history goes back even further to a Captain Crackstone a pirate from 300 years ago. Legend has it that the Captain buried some treasure which has never been found and that his real name was John Stebbins is thus related to our hero Buddy Stebbins.

Money is short and it seems Liz will need to sell the family home. She heads off to work one morning and never returns. The evening before someone left a cryptic message on the answer machine. It is from a girl called Abigail Parsons. Her language and instructions are very strange, almost old fashioned. Searching for this sister leads Buddy to the Zachary Building where he finds the non existent 13th floor and is transported onto a pirate ship in 1695 where he meets the real Captain Crackstone. Luckily Buddy has his school back pack with him. It is fun to discover how many items in this bag prove useful along the way.

Liz has also been transported via the 13th floor but she arrives as Abigail is about to be tried for witchcraft. Liz is a passionate advocate and is ready to fight the case but 17th century Boston is not ready for an outspoken young woman to speak at the trial. I think this part of the plot and the references to the Salem witch trials are my favourite parts of the story.

If this all sounds complicated that is true but it is also a beautifully crafted, fast paced and occasionally very funny story which I do think middle Primary students can easily follow. Buddy needs to find his sister, Liz needs to save Abigail, and of course our 20th century family need to find a way to restore their fortune and keep their house. There is a very neat little twist at the end.

I am sad to discover Sid Fleischman died in 2010 but he does have a useful web site. Look for many of his books in our school library. I also enjoyed The whipping boy and Jim Ugly. You can read The 13th floor a ghost story book online here. I should also mention the excellent full page illustrations throught this book done by Peter Sis. Look for his picture books in our library too!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Black-eyed Susan by Jennifer Armstrong

Here is another old book which we have had to take out of our library due to wear and tear. Black-eyed Susan is a mix of Little House on the Prairie and Sarah Plain and Tall.

Susie lives on the plains of Dakota. Even though I am not at all familiar with this landscape, Armstrong is such a lyrical writer I have a vivid picture in my mind from her words. “There wasn’t a tree within twenty miles of us, just some twisty box elders and cottonwoods along the creek … we shared the view again seeing how the land lay about us and fell in swells and rises, the movement of the wind visible in the movement of the grass.”

Susie lives in a sod house made from the earth with her mother and father but while Susie celebrates life every day by standing on the roof, arms outstretched to welcome the sun, her mother is living in the fog a deep depression. She can no longer leave the house and seems unable to smile or enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

Susie and her father travel to town. Susie sees a piano for the first time and has fun interacting with the owners of the local general store. On the way home they meet up with a family of eight from Iceland who are moving west to start a new life. Susie and her father invite them to stay the night and this encounter becomes a turning point for Susie’s mother. She can now move on with her life and she might even bake a pie!

The title comes from the flowers her father plants each year on the roof of their sod house. “Every spring he planted them thick on the roof .. and when they bloomed in summer you could see our house standing out from the green prairie from just miles away.”

I probably should not have reviewed this book since it is no longer in our school library but perhaps you will be lucky and find one somewhere. If not you must read Sarah Plain and Tall and you might also enjoy Hill Hawke Hattie by Clara Gillow Clark.

Jennie's Hat by Ezra Jack Keats

Jennie’s Hat was one of my top one hundred picture books which were my focus last term. This is a simple story which demonstrates the rewards a simple act of unselfish kindness to others can bring.

Jennie longs for a new hat but when it arrives from her aunt it is so plain. Jennie can hardly hide her disappointment. Then she remembers it is three o’clock and time to go and feed the birds as she does every Saturday afternoon.

Coming home from church in her plain hat the next day she notices the birds are following her. Then the birds swoop down onto her hat and when they fly away Jennie now has the most magnificent hat complete with a nest of chirping birds.

Ezra Jack Keats uses vibrant collage illustrations to show the joy Jennie feels as her new hat is created. We have a lovely new copy of this picture book in our library. If you love hats you must read this book and check out the endpapers where Keats has created a lovely fabric design. You might also enjoy the Daisy Dawson series especially the first book Daisy Dawson is on her way. You can hear the whole story here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Heartbeat by Sharon Creech

As usual I love to begin my holidays with a good book and for the start of this Summer break I picked out a book I read quite a long time ago. It is one I often recommend to my senior Primary students.

Heartbeat is a verse novel and as I have mentioned in other review of verse novels this genre always seem to pack a very emotional punch.

Annie and her friend Max love to run. For Annie running is a release, a joy, fun! For Max running is a competition, an obsession, the way to forge a new destiny. Being twelve and thirteen their lives are changing. Annie will soon have a new sibling. Heartbeat is a chronicle of the development of the new baby from just a few cells “little tiny cells multiplying every second” through to delivery. At the other end of life, Annie and her parents share their home with her elderly grandfather. He was also once a runner but his life is slowly drawing to a close and his memory is failing. “He says he is falling to bits little pieces stop working each day and his brain is made of scrambled eggs.” These two aspects of Annie’s life lead her to think very deeply about life and relationships.

Max also reminds me
that when I was ten
I suddenly jumped of a swing
and said
‘Why are we here?’

Am I supposed to do something
It doesn’t seem enough
to merely take up space
on this planet
in this country
in this state
in this town
in this family

I do not yet know
what I should be

The other truly special moments in this book come as Annie works on an art project. We have an art room in our Primary school and I would love to think there might be children who treasure this room the way Annie does : “Twice a week at school we have art class with Miss Freely in a room I’d like to live in.” The art project is to draw apples for 100 days. This simple idea provides a beautiful metaphor for the evolution of life Creech explores though this book.

If you enjoyed Don’t breathe a word by Marianne Musgrove and all the books by Sherryl Clarke and Sally Murphy (Pearl verses the world), Heartbeat is even better. Sharon Creech is a master writer of the verse novel. You might also enjoy an old but very special picture book we have in our library called A Rabbit named Harris by Nan Hunt. Take a look at my reviews of Love that Dog and Hate that Cat. (Sharon Creech made a comment about this review and it is one of my proudest blog moments!).

I often muse about the way a book reaches me. Earlier this year a senior student lost our copy of Heartbeat. After quite a long period we purchased a new copy and then about four weeks ago the old copy was unearthed in a different classroom. This original copy is in fairly poor shape so we have withdrawn it from our collection and thus I bought it home to read. My holidays are off to a fabulous start with the reading of this sensitive and affirming story. You can read some notes here by Sharon Creech and an extensive set of questions for teachers who might like to use this book with a class.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I am not sure if I actually read The Secret Garden when I was a child but I do remember reading it at University. As I was working on our library stock take I discovered we had the CD of this classic read by Helena Bonham Carter so for the last week I have listened to this magical story driving to and from school.

Helena Bonham Carter has the perfect voice for this story especially the parts for the characters with Yorkshire accents. When Ben Weatherstaff encounters Colin, Mary and Dickon in the secret garden it is a moment of high emotion which made me cry.

There was Ben Weatherstaff’s indignant face glaring at them over wall from the top of a ladder! He actually shook his fist at Mary.” He begins a tirade of abuse that Mary has betrayed his trust when he suddenly stops. Dickon has wheeled Colin over to the wall and Colin confronts Ben. Ben recognizes Colin as he has his mother’s eyes but also exclaims that he cannot imagine how a crippled boy like Colin could have made it out into the garden. This puts Colin into a rage and he stands up, supported by Dickon, and shows that he has neither a crooked back not crooked legs. Ben “choked and gulped and suddenly tears ran down his weather-wrinkled cheeks as he struck his old hands together.”

If you do not know this famous book it all begins when Mary, an only child of busy and disinterested parents, is caught up in a Cholera outbreak in India. When both her parents die she is sent to England into the care of her Uncle, a recluse who lives at the beautifully named Misselthwaite Manor which is located on the edge of the moor. I have never seen a moor but books like The Secret Garden and of course Wuthering Heights have given me a lasting impression of this landscape. At the manor Mary must amuse herself and so she wanders around the extensive gardens and discovers there is a mystery -a secret garden that has been locked up for ten years and the key is lost. Mary, with the help of a friendly robin, finds a way into the garden and she begins to tend and nurture it. She also discovers Colin.

Often I have to advise parents that ‘classics’ of their childhood memory may not appeal to modern children but I do not think this will ever be the case for The Secret Garden first published in 1912. The joy of watching the garden grow, of seeing Mary and Colin transformed into happy, healthy and friendly children and the care and love shown by Dickon and his mother are timeless threads.

I seem to always talk about food in this blog but another favorite scene of mine is when Mrs Sowerby, Dickon’s mother, sends along food for the growing children. “Dickon … bought forth two tin pails and revealed that one was full of rich new milk with cream on the top of it, and that the other held cottage-made currant buns folded in a clean blue and white napkin, buns so carefully tucked in that they were still hot.” The image of the blue and white napkin is such a lovely one.

We have several copies of The Secret Garden in our school library – an abridged version for younger readers, a beautiful illustrated large text illustrated by Robert Ingpen and the audio CD. Look for this wonderful story in our library soon. If you enjoy The Secret Garden you might also look for books by Rumer Godden especially Miss Happiness and Miss Flower and books by Noel Stretfeild which I have already talked about in this blog.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

From the Mixed up files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

I first read From the Mixed up files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler in 1969 just after it won the Newberry medal. I was in senior Primary school and I can even remember the look and feel of the hard cover edition in our school library complete with its special gold sticker. I remember I also loved the long title and the author who only used her initials.

I recently read Wonderstruck and all through the book I kept thinking of From the Mixed up files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler and then I read that Brain Selznick also had this book in his mind. Selznick says there are clues from the Mixed up files to be found in Wonderstruck but I have yet to discover them. This will take further careful study. Which leads me to today - I read this wonderful book once again all in one sitting and I loved it but I am also amazed at the parts I remembered and the parts I had forgotten and the parts I had invented.

I remembered the running away, the bed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art used by Claudia and Jamie, the fact that they had very little money, seeing the Angel statue for the first time and their attempt to solve the mystery. I did not remember the lovely relationship that forms between these siblings, their swim in the restaurant fountain nor the real reason Claudia needed to run away. In my distorted memory I thought part of the story happened in the basement of the Museum and I had the impression Mrs Frankweiler was a far more mysterious figure.

This is such an old book but we have a lovely new edition in our library with a heart felt afterword by E.L. Konigsburg. Even though a few really minor details are reflective of the time this book was written such as the cost of things and the use of typewriters, this book has really stood the test of time. I am certain any middle Primary reader in my library would enjoy it.

I imagine visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art who have read this book often try to find all the special places these children explore over their week of adventure. Konigsburg mentions this in her afterword. I also liked the way Konigsburg provided ways for the children to really live in the museum – washing their clothes, cleaning teeth, following school tour groups, eating at the cafeteria and even leaving the museum to do research in a real library.

Teachers looking for a way to explain the true purpose of learning should look no further than this timeless quote from Mrs Frankweiler

“But Mrs Frankweiler, you should want to learn one new thing every day.(says Claudia) … No … I don’t agree with that. I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but you can never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.”

Here is a link to the 1995 movie.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Darius Bell and the Crystal Bees by Odo Hirsch

Mrs Simpson was making walnut cakes … Darius counted ten cooling on the kitchen bench and suspected there were more in the oven. Mrs Simpson was icing one of them. She slapped the thick white cream on with a spatula and then rapidly spread and smoothed it with the skill that came from having iced thousands of cakes over the years…. ‘I don’t suppose any of you would like a piece,’ she said. Darius smiled. He didn’t suppose any of them needed to answer. Mrs Simpson cut three large pieces from the cake.”

When you pick up a book by Odo Hirsch you can be sure of several things. There will be delicious cakes, you will be in the hands of a master storyteller and at its heart any book by Odo Hirsch will ultimately be a celebration of community. Darius Bell and the Crystal Bees fulfills all these promises.

Darius Bell and the Crystal Bees is the sequel to Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool but it can stand alone. In this installment the bees have all mysteriously died throughout the district and this will have disastrous consequences for fruit and vegetable production for the coming year especially on the Bell estate. Mr Fisher, the gardener, has an enviable reputation as a master grower but with no bees his crops will not be pollinated and so the fruits will not form. His family will have to find work elsewhere. The Deavers, who are the estate bee keepers, can offer no solution so Darius attends a meeting of apiarists at the town hall. They suggest bringing in bee hives from other areas and it seems all will be well but the mayor George Podcock sabotages this plan. He loathes the Bell family. What can Darius do to save the crops and stop his friends Mr Fisher and his daughter Marguerite from leaving?

The answer comes unexpectedly from several sources involving his classmates, his mother and brother, his ambitious and hideous school principal, Mrs Lightman and his dedicated science teacher, Mr Beale.

I read this book in one sitting. Just like those cakes, I cannot help but devour books by Odo Hirsch. Look for this one in your library today and be prepared to cheer as our hero wins the day once again!

Read more about Odo Hirsch here.

The museum of Mary Child by Cassandra Golds

Have you read Coraline by Neil Gaiman? I found that to be a very disturbing book so be warned The Museum of Mary Child is also oddly disturbing. I discovered this title during our library stocktake and as it was one I had not read and because I loved The Three loves of Persimmon by Cassandra Golds (and her other title Claire du Lune which also lingers in my book memory) I picked it up to read.

I found the first two thirds of The Museum of Mary Child very difficult to put down but then the final scenes were so disturbing and yet I was somehow drawn to keep reading.

Heloise is an orphan who lives in austere and controlled environment with her harsh godmother. There is no colour in Heloise’s life. Even her bible has been censored so she cannot read large sections. Heloise spends her days sewing drab clothes for the neighboring orphanage and she herself is dressed in these same tones. Heloise does however, have a dream. She longs for a doll both as a plaything but more importantly as something to love. Finding a doll hidden under the floor of her room puts Heloise in great danger and sets her on an amazing adventure in search of her identity.

If you have read Fearless you will certainly want to read The Museum of Mary Child. Be warned though, this is not a book for a very sensitive reader. There are girls in our senior Primary classes who I think would enjoy The Museum of Mary Child. You might also enjoy People Might Hear you by Robin Klein (long out of print but in our library) and The Emerald Atlas. One final thing you might like to take a look at the alternate cover because I think it does show the sinister tone of this story in fact this review calls this book Gothic which is a term I did not think of but it is absolutely correct.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood illustrated by Renata Liwska

A few months ago a friend, who is also a bookseller, told me about The Quiet Book. The title only partly tells you about this special book. Inside it is truly magical.

It is a series of little scenes from early morning until late at night showing all the times we experience quiet and all the ways we experience it too.
Here are some :

Coloring in the lines quiet
Last one to get picked up from school quiet
Making a wish quiet
Best friends don’t need to talk quiet

Before the concert starts quiet
Story time quiet
Bedtime kiss quiet
“What flashlight?” quiet
Sound asleep quiet

The illustrations depict quirky little animals like bears, a porcupine, moose and rabbit all done in soft brown and grey tones with an occasional tiny touch of colour.

This book would make wonderful gift for a young child and it is a perfect book to share with that same young child either quietly or with some gentle conversation about each scene.

It is in our school library along with the companion volume The Loud Book. You might also enjoy The Important book and Another Important book by Margaret Wise Brown and If you listen by Charlotte Zolotow.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Spies of Gerander by Frances Watts The Gerander Trilogy Book Two

There are so many wonderful little details in this second book of the Gerander Trilogy I hardly know where to start. Here is one example that made me laugh out loud. Two of our heroes, Alex and Alice have been sent as spies to the palace in Cornoliana, headquarters of the Sourian army in Gerander. Following heaps of adventures and mishaps they arrive at the palace and are to be taken to the notorious Lester. The sentry leads them through the huge palace and although he claims to have a photographic memory they soon become quite lost.

“They descended some stairs, and came to a halt in front an inconspicuous wooden door. The sentry tapped on it then, at the occupant’s command, opened the door. A tiny mouse with nearly combed grey fur and enormous pearl earrings looked up from her desk with an impatient expression. ‘Who are you?’asked the sentry in obvious astonishment. ‘I am the Undersecretary Assisting the Head of Floral Arrangement in the Department for Banquets,’ she replied loftily. ‘Who are you?’” I think it is the earring that really set this scene for me.

The Spies of Gerander picks up where The Song of the Winns ended with Alistair and Tibby Rose reunited with Alistair and Alice. Before you read on I recommend reading my review of the first in the series just so you have an idea of the plot so far.

Along with their Aunt Beezer and Uncle Ebenezer the group arrive at FIG headquarters only to be sent on new missions the very next day. Alistair and Tibby Rose, along with Slippers Pink and Feast Thompson, need to find the secret paths through Gerander which they now realize are part of the pattern on Alistair’s scarf, knitted by his mother who was captured four years ago, and they need to find the triplets parents Emmeline and Rebus. Along with this all members of FIG are working with the blessing of Zanzibar, who has escaped and is now in hiding, to free Gerander. Alice and Alex meanwhile have been sent as undercover spies to gather information on just what the Sourians are planning.

If you loved Toby Alone you must read the Gerander Trilogy. It contains the same political elements and acts of bravery and extreme adventures. Take a closer look at the cover. You will see a cupcake. Yes there is once again plenty of delicious food in this book but more importantly three cupcakes, along with some flower beds, show that resistance fighters have already infiltrated the palace so I am sure in the next book FIG will once again outwit and ultimately defeat the Sourians. I highly recommend this series. Look for them in your library today.

The third book will be published in 2012. While you wait you might also enjoy The Redwall books by Brian Jacques or if you are up for a challenge try Guardians of Ga'Hoole series by Kathryn Lasky.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Trouble-Maker by Andrew Clements

There is always a wonderful sense of anticipation when a new Andrew Clements title arrives in our library. If you have been following my blog then you might have read my review of Extra Credit for example.

Trouble-maker is not quite at the level of Frindle, Extra Credit or The Landry News but it is nevertheless a good read. If you have read The Janitors boy then you have met a character like Clay who is the central character in this newest book. Clay cannot help creating mischief. He rumbles with his friends, sabotages his classmates, starts food fights in the cafeteria and regularly challenges authority figures especially the school Principal Mr Kelling. Here is a good example of Clay’s strategies when the class have a substitute teacher.

The woman looked like she as about seventeen. She was all nervous and chatty, trying to be way too friendly with the kids. It would have been so much fun to mess with her head – maybe act like he only spoke Russian … or maybe he could start crying and tell her how his pet skunk died yesterday … or maybe pretend he was allergic to her makeup, see if he could get her to scrub all of it off her face. He could riff and goof and tumble her head around until she ran screaming out of the room … like some other subs had.”

The turning point for Clay comes when his brother Mitch arrives home after a short stint in jail. For Clay, Mitch is his hero. Clay thinks Mitch will be impressed and proud of his school mischief but the reverse is true. Mitchell’s experience in jail has been profound. He is determined his younger brother will never go to jail. Mitch makes Clay promise to reform. He organizes a new tidy hair cut and new school clothes for Clay and makes sure Clay is not out late with his friends.

This is all fine until Halloween. The home of the school Principal is vandalized and everything points to Clay.

This is a very short book but it shows the power of our thoughts and the power of an individual to change his or her outlook on life and relationships with others. I think middle Primary boys in particular would enjoy Trouble-Maker by Andrew Clements. You might also enjoy Adam Canfield of the Slash by Michael Winerip, The Janitors Boy or Small steps by Louis Sachar (read Holes first). Slightly older students might also take a look at Wringer by Louis Sacher.

One final thing I loved the character of the school secretary Mrs Ormin – she is perfect!

Here are some discussion questions, an audio file and a good review if you need to read more about this book!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Picture books for Older students from my Top One Hundred list

As a part of our one hundred book project I have been reading books on the theme of conflict with Grade 5. We started with War and Peas (Michael Foreman) which is about conflict but equally about wealthy nations and the developing world and our responsibilities to each other. The illustrations by Michael Foreman in War and Peas are quite scrumptious. The land belonging to the Fat King is depicted using cakes, biscuits and huge milk shakes. The final lines are so important when King Lion from the poor nation suggests they should now live in peace. The fat king replies “Peace … never heard of it. What’s the recipe?”

Our next book was Tusk Tusk by David McKee. I love to read the Elmer books to my Kindergarten students so it is good to revisit this talented author/illustrator with senior students. The elephants are at war. The issue is colour. The peace loving elephants flee into the forest and are never seen again. The black and white elephants annihilate each other and no elephants are left on earth until many, many years later some grey elephants emerge from the forest. Once again in this book it is the ending that is so important. I am sad to tell you the elephants with the small ears are looking at the elephants with the large ears and it seems conflict might once again be on the horizon.

Herbert and Harry (Pamela Allen) go fishing and catch a ‘treasure’ chest. Harry falls overboard and Herbert claims the treasure but with this comes the terrible burden of fear. Someone might try to steal his ‘treasure’ and so Herbert cannot sleep and he takes the ‘treasure’ to the top of a mountain far away and he buries it deep into the hillside and he sets up an enormous fortification to keep the ‘treasure’ safe. The heart of this story once again comes as a conclusion. Harry swam back to shore and has lived a long, happy life with his extended family. Years later Herbert still cannot sleep, ever watchful in case someone comes to steal his ‘treasure’. So who has had treasures in their life – Herbert or Harry?

Next we read The Butter Battle book by Dr Seuss. This is a book you could share with senior High School students but it is also accessible to Upper Primary even though the references to the Cold War are too abstract for them. The issue under conflict here is perfect and really demonstrates how sometimes we disagree over such trivial things. Do you put butter on the top or the bottom of your bread? The two sides in this conflict embark on an arms race to wipe each other out. The weapons and uniforms grow bigger and more outlandish as we turn each page until both sides develop a bomb. Neither can drop this bomb and so we have a stalemate. We also own the video of this story which is filled with lively songs.
Other titles we will explore over the next few weeks on this theme include Fox by Margaret Wild, Grumpy little King by Michael Streich, Clancy the Courageous cow by Lachie Hume (Notes), The General by Janet Charters illustrated by Michael Foreman, The Conquerors by David McKee and The bear with the sword by Davide Cali (Notes).

Saturday, November 5, 2011

"One Hundred books" meets The Large Family by Jill Murphy

This week our Kindergarten children met the delightful, and ever expanding, Large Family. Recently a friend gave our library a plastic moulded elephant display piece that had been used in a bookshop to promote these books by Jill Murphy so it seemed like a good time to revisit these old favourites.

We began with Five Minutes Peace where Mrs Large just needs five minutes to herself something we can all identify with. Lester, Laura and the 'little one' have different ideas, though, and as Mrs Large tries to relax in her warm bath each child visits her and offers entertainment. Lester wants to play his recorder, Laura wants to read her book and the 'little one', who in a later book we learn is really named Luke, wants to share all is toys. In the end they all get into the bath with the 'little one' still in his pyjamas.

Later in the week we read A Piece of Cake, All in one Piece, Mr Large in Charge and A quiet night in. We were also able to enjoy the audio versions and it was terrific to see the children engrossed in listening as opposed to looking at a video.

Look for all the wonderful books by Jill Murphy in your library soon. They are perfect for sharing.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Celebrating 100 books and Bob Graham

As part of our 100 books to 100 classes project we have spent the last week exploring all the wonderful Bob Graham picture books in our collection. The week began with his newest title A bus called Heaven and ended with one of his first books Pete and Roland.

The celebration of community is an important theme in many Bob Graham picture books. It is little Stella who sees the real potential of an old bus which has been abandoned outside her house. Everyone comes together from the streets nearby to clean up the old bus, move it into Stella’s driveway and create a communal space inside for games, friendship and fun. Even the graffiti boys rise to the occasion by painting the bus with a glorious design after their night of tagging is discovered by Stella’s mum. As with any great story, however, there needs to be a moment of crisis. The local council are not happy to have the old bus partially over the footpath and so a tow truck arrives to take the now restored bus to the wreckers. Stella is a quiet, shy little girl but she bravely steps out to meet this challenge head on.

Stella reminded me of other wonderful young, yet strong, girl characters in Bob Graham’s books like Rose Summers in Rose meets Mr Wintergarten , Dimity in Dimity Dumpty and Kate in Let’s get a pup and The Trouble with dogs. In a way all of these characters are like Max – a small hero doing quiet deeds – the world needs more of those.

We read all of those Bob Graham titles this week along with Oscar’s half birthday, Crusher is coming, Buffy and Greetings from Sandy Beach. Given more time we should also have looked at The Wild, Pearl's place, First there was Frances and Queenie the Bantam.

If you have not explored the wonderful books of Bob Graham take a look in your library soon. These are books that can be read over and over again and they are books that are best shared sitting side by side with a friend or an adult as together you explore all the tiny little details Bob Graham lovingly includes in each illustration.

Teaching notes for A bus called Heaven and for Max.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Everything about this book is wonderful! All the way through I kept thinking of one of my favourite childhood books – From the mixed up files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler (Newberry winner 1968) and now, when I have finished Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, I was delighted to read in the acknowledgements that he also loved this book and has actually put in many references to this story by EL Konigsburg so now I need to re read From the mixed up files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler and then re read Wonderstruck to find the connections.

A few years ago I read The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Caldecott winner 2008) and was swept along by both the written story and the amazing visual images. In Wonderstruck we now have a second outstanding story in words and pictures by the gifted creator Brian Selznick.

Wonderstruck is an innovative dual narrative. There is Ben, a boy living in 1977 in Minnesota. His world has been turned upside down with the death of his mother and the discovery of mysterious details about his unknown father. Along side this we see the story of Rose who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey fifty years earlier. The story of Rose’s childhood is told through illustrations that move swiftly like a silent film. The idea of silent motion pictures as a way to tell stories is important to the author especially as a way deaf and hearing people in the past were able to enjoy this shared experience.

This is a massive book with over 630 pages but just like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the two alternating stories speed along. I found myself wanting to slow down my reading so I could make the experience of reading this inspiring book last longer. I also kept hoping there would be a link between Rose and Ben but I am not going to tell you about this beautiful and emotional part of the book.

Working as a Teacher-Librarian I love references to libraries. Here is one I will now treasure : “The next morning, Ben headed to the wolf diorama. He read the sign on the wall over and over again … he wished that he were with his mom in her library, where everything was safe and numbered and organized by the Dewey decimal system,. Ben wished the world was organized by the Dewey decimal system. That way you’d be able to find whatever you were looking for, like the meaning of your dream, or our dad.”

This is one of those very, very special books that I can't wait to put into the hands of my students. At times like this I feel very privileged to collect, read and share the reading treasures that abound in our world.

If I ever get to New York I would love to visit all the special places that are included in this story. Here is another detailed review. Here is a very detailed interview.

Finally I gasped out loud when I read the dedication on the last page – "To Maurice Sendak" a perfect way to link these two outstanding talents!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Garry Keeble's Kitchen by Errol Broome illustrated by Maya

Here is another one of those older books in my library that I have just re-read prior to culling our collection. This is a book I have been recommending to students for years and years and once again I must say it has stood the test of time (first published in 1992) but alas it is also out of print.

Garry Keeble’s Kitchen is the story of Garry who becomes so fed up with the situation at home particularly in relation to his mum’s new boyfriend that he decides to leave home in the hope that he can find some peace and better food.

Garry is a fabulous cook and so with suitcase in hand he heads for the park. Once there he meets Karen who hates cooking. Karen has a spare shed out the back of her home where her granddad once lived. Karen needs help as she is expected to cook for her family each night so she makes a deal with Garry. In exchange for cooking dinner he can stay, rent free, in her shed. The arrangement seems ideal especially since Karen even provides money to go shopping.

There are 28 real recipes in this book including main courses, snacks and yummy desserts. Garry has no paper and so the illustrator, Maya, cleverly presents each recipe on an interesting scrap of recycled paper. She uses everything from packaging labels to bus and tram tickets.

We have two copies of this book in our library but the one I have been reading is in very poor shape. It will need to be culled. I hope our other copy is able to be saved. If you love to eat and you have a spare hour or so look for this funny and poignant story of “how one boy left home and survived with 28 recipes that anyone can cook and everyone will eat.” This book was originally published by Random House and selected by Mark Macleod – he no longer has this role but Mark always managed to select terrific books. One last caution do not read this book if you are feeling hungry!

Monday, October 17, 2011

One Hundred books continued

Over the next seven weeks I plan to read one hundred books to one hundred classes. So far it has been very exciting to see the reaction of different groups of children to some of my cherished favourites.

In addition to the titles mentioned in the last post about this project by the end of last week we had read Where's the Baby by Pat Hutchins - there are four books in this series, Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, The Mouse with the too long tail by Banni McSpedden and Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole. The search of identity within a family seems to be a link.

Pat Hutchins has created a delightful cast of characters in her monster series staring the wonderful Hazel and her little monster brother Billy. In the first book little Billy is lost. Hazel can see all the mischief he has been up too but the true delight comes from the reactions of the grownups - Grandma and Ma who, blinded by love perhaps, think all these horrible things show how marvelous Billy truly is. He paints the walls, spreads the chimney soot all over the white carpet, floods the bathroom and even cuts up a new dress Ma has been making. For Hazel the worst is yet to come when Billy attacks her room but the final scene is the one all children love. Where did those eggs come from?

Chrysanthemum is loved by her mother and father and life is happy and filled with warmth until the day she goes to school. Her beautiful name becomes a torture and each day is harder than the one before until the wonderful Mrs Twinkle turns things around in an unexpected way. We also have the Weston Woods video of this story and it was very special to see how the children were caught up in the plight of Chrysanthemum and how the actions of the bullies enraged them.

Years ago I read The mouse with the too long tail to a group and one little boy who had a fairly severe physical disability declared at the end that it was the best book he had ever heard. I could see him cheering for "Mouse with the too long tail" - the fifteenth child of Mr and Mrs Mouse. Our little hero has to discover that sometimes differences can be an advantage. At first he hates his tail but after a special dream everything is turned around. "The only difference was how happy he was - now that his tail was some thing everyone looked up to." Once again this is a very old book long out of print but well worth looking for in your library.

Finally we read Princess Smartypants to a group of Grade One children. I think parts of it may have been a little too difficult for this group although one child loved listening to this story as it was clearly a personal favourite. Babette Cole does not water down the vocabulary so the teacher needed to do quite a lot of talking all the way through. I have always loved defiant princesses and Smartypants is a wonderful example. There are two sequels to this book in our library.

Where to next? I think we should continue this theme by reading The very worst Monster by Pat Hutchins, Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes, Trixie the witch's cat by Nick Butterworth and The paperbag princess by Robert Munch.

Next post I will talk about some longer picture books we are sharing with Grade 3 and the next in my series of holocaust picture books for Grade 6.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Junonia by Kevin Henkes

We read to know we are not alone (CS Lewis). I wish I had read Junonia when I was a Primary school child, Alice Rice and I have so much in common. Alice is a quiet, compliant and well mannered child. As an only child with older parents she spends a lot of time in the company of adults. She travels to the same special holiday house in Florida year after year and Alice especially loves celebrating her birthday with the most special food, presents and happenings that she can imagine. Finally Alice has a little mole on her face which she has very mixed feelings about.

Each year as this group of three, mother, father and Alice, arrive at their holiday destination they have a little competition. Who will spot the first pelican, dolphin, heron, ibis and seagull? But as they approach the familiar holiday house Alice is overcome by a feeling of dread. It seems things are destined to be different this year.

One thing that that has not changed though is her room :

The sun-bleached bedspread was printed with a pattern of a seaside Chinese village. Alice ran her fingers over rooftops and archways, over billowy swarms of butterflies and blossom-covered tress…. Here and there the bedspread was threadbare but Alice hoped it would never be replaced. She often fell asleep imagining that she was part of the village, wandering the twisted streets among the butterflies, collecting armfuls of fallen blossoms.”

Alice loves to collect shells and Henkes has thoughtfully included an illustration of all the shells that are found in this part of Florida. One shell that has alluded Alice is a junonia. She hopes that this year, the year she will turn ten, she will find this special shell washed up on the beach. Living near the beach I also find shells absolutely fascinating. Here is a video of the author talking about his book.

One of the biggest differences for Alice this year is the composition of the fellow holiday makers. Her holiday friends Colin, Chad and Heather are not coming and her beloved Aunty Kate is bringing a new friend called Ted and his young six year old daughter, Mallory.

Alice has to adapt to all this change but at least, it seems, her birthday celebration will be perfect :

“The hot dogs were perfect. The potato chips were perfect. Even the carrot sticks were perfect; they were sweeter than ever, and crunchy, and the most pure orange colour imaginable. Can food somehow know it’s your birthday and change to become more delicious? Underneath it all lay the faded red-and-white-checked tablecloth that Alice’s mother had found in the back of the cupboard. It was perfect too.”

You will hold your breath I am sure as the magic of this celebration crumbles around Alice.

My list of favourite books constantly changes and expands and now I am happy to add the gentle and emotional book Junonia. By coincidence we read Chrysanthemum to our Grade One classes this week and now that I think about it I can see lots of links between this very special picture which is essentially about identity and this novel by the same author, Junonia.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

One Hundred Books and One Hundred classes

My one hundred books in one hundred lessons project has just begun. When I look at all the wonderful books in my library I have very mixed feelings. There are so many wonderful books that I love to read to classes and so many other wonderful books that I just don’t have time to read to classes so I have invented the one hundred book project. This term I will read a different book to nearly every class of the 33 I see each week. My usual pattern is to read the same book 4 or 5 fives times to each class in a grade. In this way no child misses out on my carefully chosen books but this also means I can only cover a limited selection of titles each term. For a change this term I will read different books to as many classes as I can. I have only seven weeks to complete this challenge which means I need to share fifteen different books with the children each week.

Our first week began with Kindergarten. I am not able to resist themes so this week I have selected my favourite Teddy Bear and other toy stories. First off I choose Corduroy by Don Freeman and the sequel A Pocket for Corduroy. This is such an old series. The first title was written in 1968 and the sequel ten years later but both continue to have a strong appeal to young children. Corduroy is special but he has lost his button. The Department Store where Corduroy lives is filled with wonder for the young bear. When he goes exploring he discovers the furniture department and luckily he finds beds with mattresses and these are sewn down with buttons. Corduroy has found his button but wrestling it off the mattress will alert the night watchman on duty that night in the store. You can sometimes hear young children gasp when they realize this guard might discover Corduroy and he might be in real trouble. The other exciting way to enjoy this story is by viewing the Weston Woods video.

In A Pocket for Corduroy our Teddy Bear is taken to the local Laundromat and accidentally left behind. During the night his adventures continue all because he now needs a pocket!

Continuing our theme of toys and Teddy Bears we also read Arnold the Prickly Teddy by Kym Lardner, Felix and Alexander by Terry Denton, Dougal the garbage dump bear by Matt Dray (this has a terrific combination of art work and photographs and lots of extra marks on the pages made by coffee cups, flies and dog paw prints) and finally today I read Boris and Borsch by Robin Klein. This last one is a long book, almost a junior novel, so it was exciting to see how the young children were engrossed and able to make lots of predictions.

Other books in my One Hundred Project this week have been Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport (here is a video of the whole book), Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti, Herbert Binns and his flying tricycle by Caroline Castle and Little Bo Peep’s Library book by Cressida Cowell. I looked at Little Bo Peep with Grade Four students as a way to begin our exploration of the Dewey Decimal system.

It is only Wednesday and we have read ten of my top books. Keep your eye on this blog as my students and I explore more wonderful picture books over the coming weeks. Next week Grade Five will continue the topic of African American rights and Grade six will discuss a range of picture books about the Holocaust. I will explore these in detail in my next blog entry.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Seekers Book One The quest begins by Erin Hunter

This book is a little frustrating because you know from the outset that the lives of these four bears will need to collide but by the end of this book one only two have met.

A student in my school asked me to buy the books in this series by Erin Hunter. She is a new author to me but I see she is actually quite famous and prolific. Her series called Warriors consists of eighteen titles plus two specials!

In this series, Seekers, the characters are four bears. Two are brown, one white and one black. Each have different life circumstances and hardships to endure and all are equally confused about humans or flat faces and their firebeasts.

Kallik is a polar bear growing up with her brother Taqqiq and their mother Nisa. As the weather is warming the group attempt to reach land moving from one iceberg to another but when Nisa is taken by a killer whale Kallik must continue the journey alone ever hopeful that one day she will be reunited with her brother.

Lusa is a zoo bred black bear who longs for the forests and freedoms she hears about from other bears. After months of careful observation an opportunity arises and Lusa escapes from the zoo to begin the long journey to find Toklo. Lusa has met Toklo's mother. She has been captured and placed in the zoo in the next enclosure. Oka is a mother in mourning. Her son Tobi has recently died as have many other cubs before him. This last death is too much for Oka and so she has abandoned Toklo.

Toklo is a brown bear. He is wild born but he has been left on his own before his mother has taught how to hunt and fish and survive.

We meet the fourth bear in this saga right at the end. He is called Ujurak and he is a shape shifter.

If you enjoy books about animals and survival this might be a series to look for. Each chapter has an alternating focus between the first three bears and in this way Erin Hunter firmly establishes the personality and strengths of each bear.

The Glass Tower by Margaret Beames

I recently visited a school library where the new Teacher-Librarian had thoroughly culled the collection and this made the library so appealing with plenty of space on the shelves. This year we are due to stock take (inventory) our fiction including novels and picture books and as always I do need to do some culling. While it is easy to cull some older worn out books and popular books that were never great stories and that are no longer popular, I always struggle with one group of books when I cull. I find it hard to toss out books that I have loved. I guess if the copy is worn out or the cover is uninviting or the print is too small then the book needs to go.

This leaves me with obscure little books like The Glass Tower. Here we have an older book (published in 1991). It is in very good condition and I think the cover is still quite appealing. The print size could be bigger but it is not too small. I loved this book when I first read it ten years ago so today I re-read it and it has stood the test of time. There is only one outdated reference to video cassettes but it is so incidental I don't think a modern child would even notice it.

The setting for this story is a post apocalyptic Earth in the year 2300. Humans have fled our planet and set up space colonies but now the time has come when Earth is seen as safe and so small groups of space dwellers have returned. Meanwhile on Earth the survivors (ancestors of those left behind) have carved out their own simple society based on trade, crafts and a simple leadership hierarchy. As is often the way in books of this kind, over time the leadership has become corrupt – I am thinking of Toby Alone for example.

Rowan, a boy from Earth, meets up with two of the space dweller children and embarks on a race across the land. Rowan needs help for his mother who is gravely ill, and Astra and Drew need to find their family. The journey is filled with hazards, natural and man made, but the children never loose sight of their goal, the Glass Tower. This is a mysterious building that somehow survived the cataclysm that befell Earth. The glass tower is the scene of the Summer solstice and hence a gathering place for many of the Earth dwellers. It is the perfect place for the people of the two worlds to meet and hopefully move forward in friendship.

The Glass Tower by Margaret Beames is an action packed adventure of friendship and survival. This book would be an excellent way to introduce a young reader to Science Fiction. Of course this is another title that is out of print as are so many of the books in my blog but take a look in your library – you might be lucky! Finally I like to think the glass tower itself might have originally been a lighthouse and lighthouses are among my favourite things. The idea of a lighthouse as a place to show the way to safety is an appropriate metaphor for this book.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

No passengers beyond this point by Gennifer Choldenko

One of the highest accolades a student can bestow on a book is to ask his or her teacher to read it to the class. When I overheard a student at my school telling her teacher that she must read No Passengers beyond this point to her Grade 5 class I just knew I had to grab this book for myself.

The first thing I enjoyed about this book is the way each chapter is presented as from the point of view of each of the three children. You might remember I talked about this in I put a spell on you. Another series that does this is the Blossom books by Besty Byars. In No Passengers beyond this point Gennifer Choldenko gives each child an authentic voice which helps the reader to quickly identify their individual strengths and weaknesses. There is India the selfish teenager, Finn the family worrier and the delightful six year old Mouse.

I have had a strange reaction to this book. I found the ending a little disappointing but at the same time I need to say I was thoroughly engrossed in the first 22 chapters. I also had some problems with the way the author seemed to want her characters to grown and change and learn about themselves or even learn some big life lessons but in the end I think this only really happened for the older girl India. On the upside I loved little Mouse. She is quirky and highly intelligent and all the way through I wanted only the best for Mouse. The scene when Mouse arrives at the airport and sets off the security system with her exploding volcano is one of my favourite parts of this book.

Finn, India and Mouse are forced out of their home when their mother defaults on the mortgage. Mrs Tompkins or Mom cannot go with the children. She is sending them across the country to their Uncle Red with the plan that she will join them when the school term ends. Mom is a teacher and she must complete her contract and then she will need to obtain accreditation to teach Colorado.

The plane hits terrible turbulence and on landing the children find themselves in a disconnected place filled with children masquerading as adults, loudspeakers and strange warnings about time.

All three children are taken into the town of Falling bird. They are welcomed like returning heroes and on arrival they are each taken to the house of their dreams. India's for example is filled with all those wonderful clothes teenagers love. Finn finds a dad who loves to shoot hoops and for Mouse "my home is yellow with white trim, a porch swing, pots with flowers, and clouds of butterflies and hummingbirds and fireflies everywhere... in the doorway is a lady with red curly hair like mine. She has a science book in one hand, a plate of peanut-butter-chocolate chip cookies in the other. I can smell them."

I have just read the comments of one reviewer who, like me thought the cover was a jar. A closer look reveals it is an aeroplane window. I will be very interested to hear what the Grade 5 class think about this surreal, fantasy adventure. You can hear the author here. You might also want to read a good review which gives a little more of the plot. Finally here is a splendid review by my 'friend' Mr K. I have only just discovered that he totally enjoyed this intriguing book.