Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bye Bye Baby by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Do you remember the little book called "Are you my mother?" by PD Eastman? Every young child knows the baby bird will find his mum of course but the real fun comes from all the odd characters he encounters along the way.

This is exactly the premise of Bye Bye Baby. Our little hero has lost (or misplaced) his mother. Along the way he meets a cat, a teddy, a clockwork hen and an old uncle. All join him on his quest until disaster strikes. The baby crumples into a heap and calls out "I want my mummy!" At that very moment a mummy appears from around the corner and she is pushing a pram. With the rain falling everyone travels home to enjoy a warm bath, a dry nappy and a pot of tea with a ginger biscuit.

As they all sit by the fire the old uncle begins to read a story. "There was once a baby who had no ... daddy!" And off we go again.

The illustrations are so special. You can feel the cold of the rain, the roughness of the pavement and the warmth of home along with all the lovely little details that Janet Ahlberg adds to her scenes just like the ones in The Jolly Postman, Peepo and The baby's catalogue.

This joyous picture book should be shared over and over again with your little baby. The lines that match with the cover illustration are delightful : "There was once a baby who had no mummy. This baby lived in a little house all by himself. He fed himself and bathed himself. He even changed his own nappy." I do fear this book might be out of print but look in your library today you are sure to find it. My favourite character is the clockwork hen (cluck)! I also love the subtitle "A sad story with a happy ending."

Frindle by Andrew Clements illustrated by Brian Selznick

There are some books that I talk to students and teachers about every year or perhaps even every week! One of these is Frindle. As I have now said goodbye to my school library for a whole year I am working my way along my own home library shelves and last night I picked up this old favourite.

Surprisingly I have only read this outstanding book once but my memories of the teacher, the classroom, Nick the hero and of course the heartwarming ending have are still so vivid even after fifteen years.

Chapter two opens with the ominous words “Fifth grade was different. That was the year to get ready for middle school. Fifth grade meant passing classes. It meant no morning recess. It meant real letter grades on your report cards. But most of all it meant Mrs. Granger.”

Let’s begin with Mrs Granger. Just like my third grade teacher, Mrs Granger has two outfits – one is gray, one is blue. She never wears pants and even when the weather is extreme she does not sweat but it is her eyes that I especially love. “She was small as teachers go… but Mrs. Granger seemed like a giant. It was her eyes that did it. They were dark grey, and if she turned them on full power, they could make you feel like a speck of dust.”

Andrew Clements clearly loves Mrs. Granger and when he describes her reactions to the ‘war’ between this special teacher and Nick, it is her eyes that give the reader a real insight into what might unfold.

Mrs. Granger is a huge fan of the dictionary. Not as a book but as a place to expand our knowledge of words. As is often the way with my reading this has a link with my real life. Over the Summer I clipped a newspaper column about words from the Sydney Morning Herald by David Astle. He challenges his readers to gain a word each week (Oxford or Wordsmith).

When Nick tries to distract Mrs. Granger by asking where do all the words come from, he does not expect to land himself a homework assignment. He does manage to sidetrack the next lesson with his oral presentation but this is just the beginning of the battle. Nick is an ideas person and this idea seems brilliant. Invent a new word. The new word is Frindle. It is not in the dictionary (yet!) and so Nick finds himself going head to head with the formidable Mrs. Granger but along the way he will learn quite a lot about himself, discover new loyalties including the loyalty of his parents, gain a better understanding of the power of words, and he will even begin to realize the news media can have a huge impact on our lives.

If you have been reading my blog you will know I am a huge fan of Andrew Clements. One more coincidence. I saw the movie Hugo based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret last week – the author/illustrator Brian Selznick did the art work in Frindle – I like connections like this. It is also quite odd and yet very exciting to discover Frindle warrants its own entry in Wikipedia. I will admit that when I finished reading Frindle last night I almost reached for my newest dictionary just to see if it contained this memorable word!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

City of Lies The Keepers Book Two by Lian Tanner

How do you feel about trilogies and quartets? Ever since Harry Potter it seems so many authors feel compelled to write Book One, Book Two, Book Three and so on. In some cases the second book can be disappointing so I have been holding on to this book, City of Lies, The Keepers Book Two, for about five weeks. I was very keen to revisit the world of Goldie Roth and her friend Toadspit but I was fearful of being disappointed.

Let me tell you right now this second book is even better than the first. I adore Goldie Roth. She is such a strong girl with a warm heart and an indomitable spirit.

When we left The Museum of Thieves Goldie had been asked to become the Fifth Keeper of the Museum of Dunt but this seems impossible after the hardships endured by her loving parents. Goldie sets out one evening to visit the museum to explain that she cannot become the fifth keeper. She is joined by her friend Toadspit and his sister Bonnie but a short distance into their journey Bonnie is kidnapped. This is not a random incident but part of a huge plan by the dreaded Fugleman as he plots to regain power in Jewel.

Lian Tanner has created an entire world in her book so vividly that the reader is swept up into the dangers, smells, and strange customs. Corruption and deception abound.

There were so many parts of this story that I enjoyed. The food of course. There is a scene when people throw food at a band of musicians including sausages, cheese, pies, a goose, cakes, oranges and a leg of roast mutton. “The meat was still hot, and dripping with rosemary and olive oil. It smelt better than anything Goldie had ever smelled in her life.”

I also love the voice Goldie hears in her head. Advice, as a reader you know she must follow, but which she sometimes ignores at her peril. For me this gives the book an element of reader participation as I found myself ‘talking to Goldie’ urging her to listen.

Lian Tanner introduces an important new character in this book. A young boy called Mouse who is unable to speak. He tells fortunes using twelve mice who deliver scraps of paper that the boy assembles into a message. This idea seems so inventive. As does the idea of the ‘Imitation of Nothingness’ that Goldie and Toadspit used in the first book and now use again to save the life of Mouse when Cord, a mercenary, threats to throw the little boy to the sharks. There are times when I would like this skill. “I am nothing. I am the wind in the rigging… I am the smell of the sea. I am the taste of salt water… I am nothing. I am the memory of nothing. I am the smell and taste of nothing.”

The plot for this book is so rich and complex I know I have not told you even a tiny fraction of it. All I can say is grab this book quickly and read it. You will not be disappointed. Also take a look at the web site which adds to the richness of this series. One thing I have not talked about is the title. Lies play a central role in this story and the way these lies help Goldie and her friends is another wonderful aspect of this highly imaginative narrative.

Here is a great idea. Lian Tanner has a link on her web site of other books you might enjoy. I have read nearly all of them and thoroughly agree with her choices. You might also enjoy The rescue of Princess Althena by Kathryn England, the Bartlett series by Odo Hirsch, Sun Sword Trilogy by Belinda Murrell or the Percy Jackson books.

Lian Tanner also has a competition one for kids and one for adults… take a look but note entries close on 19th February.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Twenty Thousand hits

Just wanted to say thank you for reading my blog - whoever you are?

Today I passed twenty thousand hits.
I started this blog in 2008 but I wish I had begun it so much earlier.
Why I love blogging about children's books :

It helps me to clarify my thoughts

It is so exciting when real authors read my comments and comment back

This is a fabulous way to keep a record of all the books I read.

I love to share books and so I now direct my students, staff and other people to my blog.

It is terrific to find all the things that relate to a book such as web sites for authors, pages of questions and videos.

With my Feedjit widget I can see that there are visitors from all around the world and this acts as a great incentive to keep blogging plus it makes me feel connected to the world and makes me proud of my little blog.

I use my blog to make other reading suggestions and this is useful for me too as I make connections between books.

I do think my critical eye has become sharper through blogging and I am certainly aware that I read in quite a different way as I think about how I might comment on a book as I am reading it.

Finally this is one way I can express my passion for all the amazing children's books available in our world today! And indirectly say thank you to their creators who have given me such riches.

I put a picture of Momo at the top of this blog because it is an allegory about time. We all need to make time for reading. I also put this because my blog is called momotimetoread!!

Thanks again for reading my blog


Monday, January 23, 2012

The Heart of Glass book three in Tales from the Five Kingdoms by Vivian French

I am not going to write very much about The Heart of Glass Tales from the Five Kingdoms by Vivian French. If you have read the first and second books then you will already be hooked on this series and I probably do not need to convince you to read on. If you have not read the first two books you should do this before you pick up this book.

The Heart of Glass is another highly imaginative story. I marvel at the way writers like Vivian French can conjure such terrific characters, adventures and scenes.

In this third installment Marcus and Gracie have travelled to the Unreliable Forest of Flailing on a dwarf-spotting expedition. This should not be dangerous except that they have set out at a time of high activity in the dwarf world. Princess Fedora is about to marry Prince Tertius and the dwarfs have a huge order for gold. They are having some difficulty reaching this gold because time is short so the dwarfs have called on the trolls for assistance. In particular the dwarfs have called on King Thab and a bargain has been made. King Thab wants a Princess in exchange for supplying one troll as a laborer for the dwarfs. King Thab also wants power but so does Mullius Gowk who is in an Old Troll. Mullius is the last of the Old Trolls. “The High King of the Old Trolls had never known the meaning of the word mercy. He had lived for hundreds of years and had never once done a good deed. … after his death there had been stories … of his unrelenting cruelty and unceasing quest for domination.”

There is also a prophecy about power involving a Trueheart :

When Trueheart’s life in ended here
The High King’s heart will beat once more
And power come to those who reign.
A King of Kings will rule again

Trolls, dwarfs, Gracie (a Trueheart), bats, underground tunnels, greed, bargains and silly royalty are the perfect ingredients for a rollicking adventure. Good will of course triumph over evil but you will be so absorbed in the characters and twists and turns of the plot that by the end this hardly seems to matter.

As with the first two books in this series I read The Heart of Glass in just one sitting. It is good to see Vivian French has included a character list this time so you can keep track of everyone. I highly recommend this series for Middle Primary readers. Read an extract here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Little Fur Book One from The Legend of Little Fur by Isobelle Carmody

This book has been our library shelves for quite a long time. I do recommend this series to our students from time to time but until now I had not actually read any. (I am never sure I should do this but it is impossible to read every book and I once heard Nancy Pearl say it is fine to recommend books you have not actually read yourself). By chance I found the CD of book two from this series at a sale and so today I decided to read Little Fur so A Fox called Sorrow on CD will make sense.

I love the writing of Isobelle Carmody and if you have read The Red Wind then you will be sure to make lots of connections with this earlier book Little Fur from the series The Legend of Little Fur.

From the opening lines the scene is set of a human world filled with destruction and a small forest of seven precious trees called the Old Ones. Little Fur is an elf troll and therefore of mixed blood. She is also a healer and protector of the trees. Various animals come to Little Fur for healing and she has a collection of poltices, salves and tisanes for this purpose. News reaches Little Fur that the humans are burning the trees. She realizes her precious Old Ones are in great danger. Little Fur needs to seek advice so she undertakes an extremely dangerous journey to talk with Sett Owl the wisest creature of the area. She is accompanyed by a crow and two cats. The owl advises her to find a mysterious creature living deep in a crevasse. So Little Fur has to continue her awful journey through the desolate human landscape. Making all this more difficult is Little Fur’s need to stay in contact with the earth at all times. She cannot walk on man-made surfaces like roads or concrete. Her powers and connection to the Old Ones will be lost if she breaks this contact with the earth.

I love three aspects of the story – the illustrations by Isobelle Carmody herself, the moments of extreme tension when Little Fur is attacked by dogs, trains, and trolls, and I especially like the vocabulary used by Isobelle Carmody. She certainly does not talk down to her audience with words like abide, craned, haughty, revulsion, befallen, interrogated and braided.

One of the best scenes is when Little Fur reaches the human cemetery. She has no real understanding of what she sees and cannot understand human speech but she is always in touch with the emotions of any situation. “All of the humans began to sing. The sweetness and beauty of their song took her breath away, but more than that, she was astonished to smell that, as they sang, their grief was gentled and lightened. It was as if their singing was healing them.”

Here are two quotes from newspaper reviewers which I think get close to the heart of Little Fur :

'Isobelle Carmody's Legend of Little Fur books evoke a dreamlike sense of warmth and tenderness.' Sydney Morning Herald

'Isobelle Carmody's impish, environmentally passionate character is completely convincing, taking readers into a world that's familiar, and yet in Carmody's hands, refreshingly original.' Sunday Age

Little Fur is a wonderful book. It is a fantasy but it is also a love story. Little Fur loves the Old Ones and this is what drives her desire to help her world. As in Max by Bob Graham – Little Fur is a small hero … and the world needs more of these.

There are four books in the Legend of Little Fur series and I look forward to continuing my journey knowing I am in the safe hands of a wonderful storyteller. I highly recommend Little Fur for Middle and Upper Primary readers.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Babymouse Queen of the world by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

If you love Olivia, Eloise, Junie B Jones and Billie B Brown then you must meet Babymouse. There are more than ten Babymouse graphic novels beginning with Babymouse Queen of the world! We currently have four from the series in our school library.

Babymouse is the quintessential outsider but she has big dreams. Once you realize her dreams are the pink sequences in these junior novels you will be able to sit back and enjoy the ride.

In Babymouse Queen of the world, Babymouse is desperate to be cool, to be like Felicia Furrypaws. Babymouse discovers Felicia is having a slumber party. How can Babymouse obtain an invitation? She tries food – cupcakes, she tries giving Felicia a brand new book, she tells Felicia a joke but none of these things work. Then comes the day the students need to hand in their book reports. We already know Babymouse is a keen reader, she has a huge pile of fabulous books beside her bed, she would prefer to read than do her homework and Babymouse is a library user as evidenced by her late library book which is trapped inside her locker – the door keeps getting stuck. Babymouse is faced with a dilemma similar to the one we read about in Billie B brown The second Best Friend. She can hand Felicia her book report and gain an invitation to the slumber party but what will she say to Wilson her best friend? He is expecting her to come over for a movie night.

My favourite scene in Babymouse Queen of the world is when Babymouse tries to decide what to wear to the slumber party. “She had to find the perfect outfit”. It made me think of Olivia trying on all those clothes.

I have read so many glowing reviews of the Babymouse series. The are filled with gentle humor and perfect endings. I think adults and younger readers would enjoy reading the Babymouse books together. There are so many references to movies, fairytales, everyday life and these are sure to make you smile.

My favourite in the series so far is Babymouse cupcake tycoon because it is about the library! Babymouse accidentally causes a huge flood and so all the students need to get on with some fundraising to replace the books by selling cupcakes. The student who sells the most cupcakes will win a fabulous prize. If you are interested in exploring a wide variety of advertising techniques with your students you should look no further than Babymouse Cupcake tycoon.

You can see a fabulous little video about the creators of Babymouse. Also Babymouse has a great web site but be warned the music might drive you crazy. I think students in Grades three and up will enjoy the Babymouse books. You can also read a great review here of another title from the series.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Bag of Bones by Vivian French

There is trouble stirring in the five kingdoms with the arrival of Truda Hagnail and the Deep Magic she practices. Deep Magic has long ago been outlawed but Truda has ambitions to become the Queen of Waddington or even the ruler of all five kingdoms. We first met Gracie Gillypot in Robe of Skulls. When we left that story Gracie had moved in with the Crones along with her faithful friend a troll called Gubble. For the first time in her life she found kindness and good food.

As Gracie begins her newest adventure Gubble finds some berries. “Gracie stopped and picked a handful … she was pleased to find the berries tasted of chocolate cake. She had eaten them before, and knew they had a delightful habit of tasting exactly like her favourite foods. The first time she had taken the journey to the House of the Ancient Crones she … had the same kind of berries to eat – but at that time Gracie had only eaten potato peelings or porridge skin, and the glories of the berries had almost passed her by.

Gracie has set off because early one morning a quill pen starts writing messages on the wall of her room and even the house itself seems intent on sending Gracie on a mission to find the source of the Deep Magic and thus save the Kingdom.

Gracie cannot do all this alone, of course. Once again she is assisted by the bat Marlon and his nephew Alfie, along with Prince Marcus and another trueheart girl called Loobly. It is Loobly who has a very special destiny which I will not disclose except to say you might like to think about Cinderella when you are reading this second installment in the Tales from the Five Kingdoms.

This is a series that you need to read in order but I did enjoy The Bag of Bones and now look forward to reading Heart of Glass. In the third book I am sure there will be a little more of the developing romance between Gracie and Marcus. The other aspect of this series which I have enjoyed is the way Vivian French has alternating plots and viewpoints in each chapter. This device certainly keeps the reader on his or her toes and means, for me at least, that I need to read these books quite quickly so I can keep track of all the characters - good, evil, human and animal.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Midnight is a place by Joan Aiken

So how you can you teach people not to worry?’ ‘You ask some large size questions’ .. ‘You can do it in two ways. … Either you make their lives so much better that they don’t have to worry – or you teach them that worrying doesn’t help, but is only a waste of time.’ … ‘I think both ways together would be best,’ said Anna-Marie. ‘For some people will always be worrying – if only about whether the soup is going to be thick enough or the milk will go sour. So you make them comfortable and you tell them not to unquiet themselves.”

Wisdom like this abounds in Midnight is a Place by Joan Aiken. This is another old book from our library collection. We have disposed of this copy but re-reading it over the last two days has convinced me to purchase a new copy. It was first published in 1974 but Joan Aiken is such a skilled writer this book must be considered a classic.

If you are an adult reader who loved Oliver Twist and other novels by Charles Dickens then you will want your child to read Midnight is a Place. The only difficulty for a young reader might be the phonetic spelling Aiken uses for the various English and French accents but I am sure with a little perseverance a young reader will manage these. The Secret Garden is one possible way to introduce this way of writing.

Lucas has lost both his parents and has been sent to live with his guardian Sir Randolph who is a drunken gambler. Sir Randolph fraudulently won the estate of Midnight Court following a wager many years earlier. As the story opens Lucas has been living in this house for two years with only his tutor, Mr Oakapple, for company. It is Luc’s birthday tomorrow and as he looks forlornly out the window he sees a carriage arrive containing a young French girl. Before Lucas can discover why this girl has been sent to Midnight Court or exactly how she is connected to the family, he is taken down to the mill.

The mill is a carpet factory. It is an incredibly dangerous place. “It was not so much that the sights were frightening, though some were that; but they were so strange, so totally unfamiliar compared with anything that he had ever seen before; the shapes and movements of the machines were so black, quick, ugly, or sudden; the noises were so atrociously loud, the heat was so blistering, the smells so sickly, acid or stifling.” The most awful part is the pressing machine. The carpets are spread out under a great metal slab. Very young children work as snatchers. They must quickly run onto the carpet before the press falls to remove any fluff or dirt. Just prior to Lucas’s arrival a young child has been killed.

The grimy town, factories, unions and poverty are reminiscent of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell and Lyddie by Katherine Paterson or Bread and Roses, too.
Lucas and Anna-Marie do have a special destiny but before this can be fulfilled both will be in great danger. Lucas will be forced to work as a tosher looking for treasure in the underground sewers. These scenes are so vividly explained you will feel the claustrophobia, smell the stench and hear the rats and hogs as they charge after human flesh. Meanwhile Anna-Marie will go to work at the carpet mill where she will experience some of the horrors I just described first hand. Luckily both children will find some true friends and their good sense, kindness towards one another and ingenuity will save the day.

I highly recommend Midnight is a Place. You can read more of the plot here. Also there was a television series.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Angel Creek by Sally Rippin

Angel Creek is a very powerful book. No part of the plot developed as I predicted. Sally Rippin made me feel as though I was down at the creek. "They crept through Nonna's vegetable patch, ducking between the tomato plants lined up like rows of watchful soldiers.... on the other side of the fence it was dark... the party seemed miles away, drowned out by the rushing water and the whispering of the peppercorn trees... There had been rain in the last few days and the creek was flowing fast. All the rubbish from the suburbs was pushed up onto the banks or caught up in the reeds."

As the three cousins explore the creek in the early evening they discover an angel. "There in the shallow depths was a pale, pale, child with glass-like eyes ... and long white hair that billowed like clouds. It rocked gently under the water, a thin white dress caught up around its knees. And it had wings."

One of these wings is badly damaged and so the children decide to move the angel to the shelter of an old shed on the school grounds. Their journey is made more hazardous by the presence of local bullies and the threat of discovery.

The next day is Christmas Day, it is Summer, it is very hot but the children's elderly Nonna has been rushed to hospital. Life has been turned upside down. With no presents and no celebration the three cousins are left to fend for themselves. There is something strange going on. A series catastrophes seem to befall the family - a smashed car, the baby becomes ill and an old loved tree crashes to the ground.

This book is mainly a story about transitions and the focus is on Jelly. She is in Grade Six and about to head off to High School. She has had to leave her Primary school friends behind as the family have moved into a new house in a different part of town. Jelly also needs to make sense of her extended family and think about relationships especially with her cousins.

It is not often I specify an audience for a book but I do think Angel Creek is really only suitable for girls in senior classes. Take a look at this review. After reading Angel Creek you must read Skellig by David Almond (and then see the movie) and Unfinished Angel by Sharon Creech. Then look at books by Catherine Bateson which are about growing up such as Being Bee and The Wish pony. Also take a look at Cicada Summer and Junonia which are also books about growing up and change.

If you want to know more about Angel Creek here is another detailed review.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Library Lil by Suzanne Williams illustrated by Steven Kellog

In my last two blog entries I talked about how Maisy finds the book she needs, Nicholas discovers the wonder of books and now in Library Lil by Suzanne Williams we read about the importance of libraries in a community.

As a child Lil is a keen reader and library user. When she grows up she becomes a librarian but the people of Chesterville are not avid readers. Television is their favourite form of entertainment. Then one night a massive storm destroys all the power poles. Lil pushes her bookmobile up and down the streets and by the end of the night everyone is reading a book by candle light. The electricity is off for two weeks – just long enough for everyone to become hooked on books. Now for the twist. Bust-em-up Bill and his motorcycle gang ride into town. Bill likes to watch television on Tuesday nights but there is no television in the bar. This obviously means Lil and Bill are headed for a confrontation.

Steven Kellogg adds wonderful illustrations to this book. I have been a fan of his work ever since I read The Rattlebang Picnic by Margaret Mahy.

There are two little videos here about using library shelf markers and book care along with some lesson ideas.

Nicholas at the library by Hazel Hutchins illustrated by Ruth Ohi

A few things happened when I read (re read actually I bought this book in Canada in 1994 and my copy has an author signature) this book. Firstly I have been thinking about the culling or weeding we recently did in our school library. While I know we need space and bulging shelves are not attractive I also hate the idea of removing gems from our collection. While I was thinking about this I heard a radio program about the culling that recently occurred in a University library. The speaker described how libraries are places where it is fun to simply discover things. If everything is in a stack or only available if you know the title then you cannot serendipitously stumble upon treasures. His arguments related to research but I think this is equally true for fiction and for young library users.

This is the process described in Nicholas at the Library. Nicholas and the head librarian randomly search through the library discovering all sorts of wild tales.

Nicholas is not keen on the library at all. He loves to build forts so while his mother is occupied in a different part of the library, Nicholas piles up books from the A, J and O sections. As he moves twelve books from the O section he spies a little chimpanzee “the kind that could ride in a pencil case or bathe in a cereal bowl.” Nicholas tell his mother but she takes no interest, he tells the check-out man but he cannot deal with items that do not have a book card so finally Nicholas tracks down the head librarian.

She is sitting on a pile of books on top of her desk reading a book. What a delightful image. The head librarian immediately recognizes that this is a lost story-kind of chimpanzee. She shows Nicholas a magic ring and together they embark on a wild adventure through the pages of books like Robinson Crusoe, Goldilocks, and more. “They raced through Christmas books. They climbed mountains and drove trucks and rode in covered wagons. They sailed through ocean books. They sped through books of colour and shape. They traversed whole alphabets and went to bed 127 times. Some books felt scary the moment Nicholas jumped into them, and others were like a hot summer day, or a song, or the smell of pepper.

It seems they might not be able to find the right book in time. Nicholas even wonders if the book they need has been checked out or discarded! Naturally enough they do find the right book which they then settle down to read together. Thank goodness it had not been discarded.

Maisy goes to the library by Lucy Cousins

At this time of year my thoughts turn to school and the return of the children to our school library. I have my own little collection of ‘library’ related picture books.

Maisy goes to the library by Lucy Cousins tell us three things about libraries. In a library you can, of course, find books but more than this you can find THE book to perfectly match your interest. You can find your book because libraries are organized in a special way! Libraries are great places where you can do so many things. Maisy and her friends attend a uproarious storytime. Finally, when you have a book, you need a quite place to sit and read. I especially love the description of the book Maisy finds. “Aquarium? That’s it! So Maisy looked by the aquarium … and that’s exactly where she found a book about fish …and it was sparkly!”

If you would like to find other books about libraries take a look at this list.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

I am having a great time re-reading titles I have recommended for years. Today I read Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson first published in 2001. I find it interesting the way the human brain works. My memory of this book mostly related to the journey along with Amazon River on the Arabella but that happens right near the end of the story. I had completely forgotten about Maia’s time with the awful Carter family.

Maia has lost both her parents which is really a sad beginning but she is not a penniless orphan. Her guardian is managing her money, there is plenty, and she is attending a prestigious and comfortable boarding school so all is well but as the story opens all this is about to change. Mr Murray, her guardian, has found some distant relatives. Adding to this shock Maia is told this family live in Brazil on the Amazon River near the town of Manaus. The family, the Carters, consist of a mother, father and twin girls called Beatrice and Gwendolyn. Maia imagines exotic adventures, wild animals and fun with two friendly girls. For the reader, though, Eva Ibbotson has put in some subtle warning signs and we know her imaginings are about to be shattered.

The twins are diabolical, the father is reclusive with a repugnant hobby collecting false eyeballs and the mother is obsessive about insects and disease. Eva Ibbotson is such a powerful writer I felt at times I could even smell this house in the Amazon with all the insect sprays and perfumes. “All the windows were covered in layers of mosquito netting and the shutters were kept partly closed so that the rooms were not only hot but dark. .. There were no pictures, no flowers. The smell of Lysol was overpowering.”

Maia is a friendly girl and her ability to make loyal friends is an important key to her survival and ultimate success. Her companion is a mysterious lady called Miss Minton but once again Eva Ibbotson gives the reader just enough little hints that we know Miss Minton is kind and very wise and if she is keeping secrets from Maia it is for a very good reason. Maia also makes friends with a young boy called Jimmy or Clovis who has been kidnapped in England and forced to join a troupe of travelling show people. Her other important friend is Finn Taverner. His father has recently died. Finn’s mother was from an Indian tribe called the Xanti. All these characters and others are connected and that is the part of this story I enjoyed the most.

Reading this splendid book again I am very happy I have been recommending it for over ten years. If you love adventure, you love stories where all the little pieces neatly fit together at the end but in ways you simply would not have guessed then this is a book you must read. I do not rate books but I would give Journey to the River Sea ten out of ten. I was interested to read President Obama gave this book as a gift to his daughters (it is a book boys can read too). I now need to read Little Lord Fauntleroy to make even more connections.

I have put two covers on this post because I really like the butterfly one but our library copy is the blue one. If you want to see a really cute video about this book click here. Here are some discussion questions for teachers. If you need to see more of the plot or read some reviews click here.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Con-Nerd by Oliver Phommavanh

There are some very funny moments in Con-nerd by Oliver Phommavanh :

I sit down and serve myself a bowl of bran thingies. Mama only bought them because the box said they have vitamins to make you smarter. You don’t have to be smart to know that they taste like cardboard sprinkled with wood chips. My brain’s craving Coco Pops.”

Connor’s brain is at the heart of this story. His brain wants to draw cartoons his mother wants his brain to study for the Selective High School entrance test. His coaching clinic tutor wants his brain to answer multiple choice questions quickly. His friends want Connor to use his brains to impress a special girl in his class. This creates, as you can imagine, some huge clashes and dilemmas for Connor or Con-nerd as he is nicknamed by a neighbour. Will Connor be able to draw his cartoons? Will he honor his family and become a doctor? Can he ever be happy, have friends and please his demanding mother at the same time?

I did enjoy Con-nerd but perhaps for all the wrong reasons. I enjoyed all the little insights into schools and teachers and the subtle and no subtle way Oliver Phommavanah (who is himself a teacher) pokes fun at this. In a moment I will quote a few examples. There were two parts of this book that frustrated me. I wanted to see the cartoons that Connor was creating and I had some problems understanding why one of the ‘cool’ kids, a major school trouble maker, wanted so badly to be friends with Connor – especially since he is or was a major nerd! Proof of this comes from his awards from school such as quite achiever, best library borrower of the year four years in a row, and more.

Here are some of the scenes to make teachers laugh:

Last year, Ms Fermanis had a ‘fast finishers’ folder full of brain teasers and exercises. I finished the whole folder in a month. After that Ms was just happy letting me read and draw.”

The selective schools also look at our reports. I’ve got no problems there. The teachers cut and paste the same comments. ‘Connor is a focused student who excels in all his subjects ..’ ‘Focused means extra-nerdy and is another way of saying I have no friends.

We’re saved from a boring afternoon by a Year Six meeting at the undercover sails. These meetings are a great bludge because the teachers always run out of things to say and they just let us talk until the home bell rings.”

I usually go to home sport and wait for the rejects to arrive. Home sport teachers are rejects too. They take us outside for a game until we’re hot and tired, which is usually about three minutes. Then we head into a classroom and I get to draw until home time.”

I often talk in my blog about life imitating art or perhaps art imitating life. I recently read the newsletter from a Primary school like the one Connor is attending and the Principal wrote something very profound about after school coaching and extra home work :

I will not name the school or the Principal but here are two paragraphs from the school newsletter

I am also aware that in recent times there has been an explosion in coaching clinics for students and cannot accept that a student could not do his school homework because he had not finished his coaching clinic homework. The coaching industry is not regulated and in my opinion the educational outcomes and value of many of these companies may be questioned. …

That being the case I have decided that from 1st December there will be no homework given to students at our school. It will give the students, parents and teachers a well-deserved break from “homework”. (Parents could also consider giving their child a break from coaching as well!)

You may consider this decision an early Christmas or Birthday present or forty years of educational experience speaking on behalf of children. However, if you really feel the need to give your own child your own “homework” you could try reading or listening to them.

The last sentence is quite curious. Does this Principal mean listening to the children when they talk to their parents or does he mean listening to them read?

If you enjoyed Thai-riffic look for Con-nerd and follow this with The Punjabi Pappadam by Robert Newton and Nips XI by Ruth Starke. You can read heaps more about this book at the author's site. When you look deeply into the internet you can see Oliver Phommavanh has had quite a lot of media exposure with this book. On ABC radio (Life Matters), Sydney Morning Herald, Channel 9 and Penguin kids tv.