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.

The truth about Verity Sparks by Susan Green

There is a fascination with orphans. I am not an orphan and I don’t really know any but I do enjoy books that feature intrepid orphans who set out to discover their true destiny often using one or two little treasures left with them as infants.

Verity Sparks lives in the London of 1878 and yes of course she is an orphan. As the story opens Verity is working as an apprentice milliner. Verity is sent to deliver a hat to a wealthy client but on her return later that same day she is accused of stealing a valuable jewel. Verity has been framed and is quickly cleared of the crime but the vindictive and aptly named Lady Throttle enacts her revenge by ordering that Verity be dismissed from her employer, Madame Louisette.

Luckily for Verity, Lady Throttle has employed a private detective by the name of Saddington Plush. Verity herself has a special gift for finding lost things. Her itchy fingers tell her the jewel is hidden in Lady Throttles own purse. Young Mr Plush or SP and his father the Professor are really interested in matters of the mind and so they are immediately drawn to Verity and her amazing teleagtivism. When she is thrown out of her home at the millinery shop Mr Plush, the Professor and their sister Judith take her under their wing offering a home, education, clothes and an immediate elevation in society. While all this is happening, though, there is the ongoing mystery of Verity’s own identity. All she has is a medallion with strange engraving, a ring and a small patch work quilt.

I started The Truth about Verity Sparks last night and finished it this morning. Susan Green has written a really good romp of a mystery story. There are heaps of characters – good and bad, lovely food, snakes and wonderful descriptions of the streets of London. The cover is perfect and this is one book I am looking forward to recommending to my middle primary students. You can read some thoughts by the author here.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Drawn from the heart a memoir by Ron Brooks

There are so many reasons why I wanted to read this book. I have always loved John Brown Rose and the midnight cat and reading The Bunyip of Berkeley's creek is such a moving experience I try to include in our library sessions every year. I do like to attend children's book conferences because this is the way I can hear and sometimes meet my favourite authors and illustrators. One CBCA conference in Hobart had Ron Brooks as a presenter (along with the wonderful Bob Graham) so naturally I had to attend. The session with Ron in a little room on a lower level of the Hobart casino is a memory I treasure. Then this book, Drawn from the Heart, received a fabulous review in Magpies by Robin Morrow (a reviewer I really admire) and finally Drawn from the Heart was short listed for the CBCA awards and it was an honour book in the Eve Pownall category. It is easy to see I had to read this book!

In fact I have read it through twice so that should show you that I was totally engrossed in exploring the creative processes of the very talented Ron Brooks. Today I bought a copy of The Macquarie Bedtime story book from my local second hand book seller. It felt quite serendipitous to find it on the shelves of this large well stocked shop. There is a whole chapter devoted to the creation of this book (in New York) along with chapters about John Brown, the bunyip, Fox, Motor Bill and the lovely Caroline, Old Pig, and the little books about his son Henry.

I recommend Drawn from the Heart for all picture book lovers. If you can I suggest you might try to have a complete collection of Ron's books in easy reach so you can look closely at each illustration as it is mentioned and explained. I love the passion of this illustrator and the insights in to every decision from font, cover, end papers, text placement and more.

As Ron says this is a "story about books, about bookmaking, about my life - a series of illustrations ..... it has been an interesting process for me."

Claude on holiday by Alex T Smith

We have a little boy called Claude, with a lovely smile, in Kindergarten this year so when I saw Claude on Holiday I knew firstly that I wanted to read this book and secondly that it would be fun to put this into Claude's hands and see his reaction.

Claude is a crazy, but well organised dog who longs for a holiday. His owners Mr and Mrs Shinyshoes leave for work every day on the dot of 8am. While they are gone Claude and his best friend Sir Bobblysock embark on wild adventures.

On the day of this story Claude packs his suitcase with underpants, a tambourine, suncream, squirty cream in a can, a lampshade, sticky tape and slightly squashed sandwiches. He is heading to the beach for a holiday.

Every one of the things in his suitcase will be put to good use at the beach even the squirty cream!

This book is a winner. It has joyous illustrations, crazy characters and is certain to put a smile on your face. Claude even has his own blog. There are two books about this quirky little dog and his special side kick Sir Bobblysock with one more to come next year. Claude in the city is the first in the series and Claude at the circus will hit our shelves soon.

Yin's magic dragon by Lau Siew Mei

Here is a terrific junior novel. It will take you only minutes to read this slim book but I am sure all Dragon lovers will enjoy this lively little story.

I think it was the gold cover that first caught my interest and then I saw the endorsement from Carole Wilkinson - she has written a fabulous series of books about dragons - I knew this would be a little gem.

Yin has a pet dragon and she calls him Dragon. He looks fierce and he does try to breathe flames but really he is just a very special friend to Yin who has busy parents and no siblings. Yin also has a wonderful grandmother called Po Po. She cooks the most delicious treats to Yin. Trouble comes when Yin's mother becomes jealous of the special relationship that has formed between Yin and Po Po. Mother send Po Po away and on that day Dragon also disappears. Yin has now started school which should be exciting but Yin is just miserable. There are plenty of tears each evening. Mother has some lessons to learn about love and sharing and even communication and of course there is a very happy ending all round.

I do find it exciting when I find a satisfying story like Yin's Magic Dragon that is also just perfect for beginning readers.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

An elephant in the garden by Michael Morpurgo

A few weeks ago a parent walking past me mentioned she was trying to buy a book for her son called An elephant in the garden. I had not heard of it so I was very curious. When I looked up this book I discovered it was by the famous author Michael Morpurgo. I clearly remember the very first Michael Morpurgo title I read called Why the whales came. It had a big impact on me so I was keen to buy An elephant in the garden for our school library.

This is a terrific story set in Dresden during World War Two. Lizzie, now nearly 90 and living in a Nursing Home in Canada, recalls the events of her early life when her mother worked at the Dresden Zoo. Bombs had been dropping all over Germany and the zoo authorities had taken the heart wrenching decision to shoot all the dangerous animals in the zoo so the people of Dresden, and perhaps the animals themselves, would not be put in any danger in the event of an attack.

Lizzie’s mum or Mutti convinces the zoo authorities that she can take care of one young elephant, Marlene. Mutti has cared for Marlene since her birth, indeed it was Mutti who named her Marlene after Marlene Dietrich. The family bring the four year old elephant home and all goes well until the fateful day the bombs begin to fall. Lizzie, her young brother Karli and Mutti all need to flea the city with Marlene in tow. Along the way they meet a Canadian airman whose plane has been shot down and they also acquire a whole choir of children as they travel across the country looking for refuge and help from the Americans.

Just as they reach this help Marlene runs off. I held my breath. It seemed they might never find her again.

I keep hoping to read that this was all based on a true story – it all seemed so plausible and real. Alas I have not found anything to prove or disprove this. This is a terrific adventure story and one that will be enjoyed by middle primary students. It was good to read a story about this period in history from the point of view of ordinary German citizens. A good alternative to the many holocaust novels for younger readers.

As with nearly all Michael Morpurgo books, this one has perfect and evocative illustrations by wonderful Michael Foreman.