Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What do you think, Feezal? by Elizabeth Honey

“Where will I put my books?’ asked Bean. ... ‘Watch’ said Dido and she pressed the wall in a place where the wood grain was slightly darker and looked like a wizard’s face. Silently, a door swung open and a light came on to reveal the most wonderful hidden library. It was lined with shelves high and low, deep and narrow, just waiting for her books. It smelt like a forest.” “She spent a glorious morning unpacking and arranging her library. It was so satisfying, as it is when you have just the right place to store a treasure. …Favourites. Dogs. Very large. Funny. Small. Information. Once up a time. Real life. Animals. Scary. Then Bean found she had funny favourites, and some of the dog books were big, and some animal books scary and information books small. She put little books up high, heavy books down low, favourites on the shelf that was easiest to reach, scary books in the darkest corner, bird books up high sprinkled in the tree books, worm books down low. Riddle and joke books upside down. Mouse books and bird books well away from cat books, well away from the very large collection of dog books.”
Bean loves dogs. In fact she matches nearly everyone she meets with a dog breed. Her succession of babysitters make for some hilarious comparisons. Bean sadly is not allowed to have a dog because the family have just moved into one of the most expensive and impressive penthouse apartments in Sydney. When I read this book I thought of the building near the Sydney Opera House which we colloquially call “The Toaster”.

The plot of What do you think, Feezal? is a wild ride. If you have read One dog and his Boy by Eva Ibbotson or Too small to Fail by Morris Gleitzman, then you will love What do you think, Feezal? As you read this book you should also look for a book called Princess Beatrice and the rotten robber also by Elizabeth Honey. There are clever cross references to this little picture book embedded into the plot of this longer novel. Other popular books also get a mention which added to my enjoyment.

Bean is not allowed to leave the penthouse so she arranges her books, reads and plays with her whimsical collection of toys. Feeling bored she studies her surroundings through the enormous glass windows. The building caretaker is a particularly curious character. One day Bean sees him in a nearby café talking with some men. Little does she know this is all part of a conspiracy against her wealthy father. He has created a sealed office in the heart of the apartment where he works on computers crunching numbers and building his successful business. Luckily Bean suspects something is about to happen. That she might even be kidnapped so she prepares so very special survival undies.

This book was published in 1997 and it is great to see there is only a tiny reference to a floppy disk that is slightly dated. Reading the imprint information I was fascinated to see just how much input Elizabeth Honey put into her book. She is the illustrator (they are perfect), she designed the cover (the back cover is a reading adventure itself) and she even did the typesetting.

Finally one note of caution. I am sure this wonderful book is out of print so you will need to check your library. I found this copy at my local council library and we do have one in our school. This book was made when the paper was much better in paperback books so hopefully it has not been culled from the library you use – the paper has not gone yellow – the copy I have here is in fabulous condition. You should also look for other books by this talented Australian author. Some might be in the poetry section of your library. Also your copy of What do you think, Feezal? may have a different cover but I prefer this one.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Violet Mackerel's Natural Habitat

Violet Mackerel is a determined, honest, helpful little girl with a lovely view of life. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two installments in this series and so when I saw Violet Mackerel’s Natural Habitat at the local public library I grabbed it with both hands and when I arrived home I read it all in one quick gulp. I was not disappointed.

In this third book Violet is focused on the natural world although oddly enough this interest starts in the food court of a large shopping centre where she sees a little sparrow flying up near the ceiling. While Violet is thinking about birds and small creatures her sister Nicola is struggling with a school project where she has to make a natural science display.

Saturday is the day this family travel to the local market to sell Mum’s knitting but this week Nicola and Violet are left at home. The previous evening Violet has created a jar habitat for a small ladybird she has seen in the garden. Into her jar she places a flower, silver tinsel, a few tiny drops of water and a small, clear, rainbow pebble. She names the little beetle Small Gloria and falls asleep happy that she has a new friend in a jar beside her bed.

Violet needs to learn some things about habitats but out of her sadness comes the discovery that Nicola, with Violet’s help and good ideas, can make something absolutely unique for the science display.

Walker books have been very clever with this series. The cover designs are charming and the little hardcover editions very appealing. The US ones are nothing like our Australian ones. I now see from Violet’s own web site book four has been released too! These books are perfect for younger readers who are ready for short chapter books. The illustrations add a special vibrancy to the stories. I will now hunt for book four.

Scat by Carl Hiaasen

Scat – let’s look in the dictionary. Scat can mean go away. A scat is also an animal dropping. Unrelated to this book it is also a type of fish and a form of singing.

Scat by Carl Hiaasen is a collection of threads which the author skillfully weaves into a most satisfying story about corruption, endangered animals, oil drilling, fathers and morality.

Nearly all of the adult characters in this book are an anomaly. Mrs Starch, the biology teacher, treats Duane very cruely in class when she demands he write a five-hundred word essay about pimples. Later she and Duane form a vital alliance to save an endangered panther cub that has been brutally separated from its mother. Duane’s father, Duane Scrod Sr, seems content to live in squalor with his abusive parrot but he also likes to listen to classical music and deep in his heart he only wants the best for his son. Twilly Spree acts like a gruff loner, content to work alone behind the scenes fighting environmental causes but he does have a soft side which is revealed by his parting words to Nick at the end of the book.

Drake McBride is a fool through and through but his offsider Jimmy Lee Bayliss is completely two-faced. He knows his boss is brainless but plays along with him and his plans in the hope of a big payoff when they find oil under their illegal exploration of Section 22.

Then there are the other adults such as Nick's dad who has been wounded in Iraq and the way Nick and his dad cope with this awful time is inspirational. It is of course the two middle school kids who are the true heroes of this story as they refuse to give up on their quest for the truth. Mrs Startch has vanished and Nick and Marta are convinced she is not just home attending to family issues.

I do not want to tell you the plot for Scat. You need to read this one for yourself. It is such a complex and satisfying tale but if you would like to know more look at this review in the NY Times. Also Carl Hiaasen has a fabulous web site with a detailed Q & A about Scat and here are some teacher notes.

If you enjoy this book take a look at Flush and Hoot by the same author along with Jigsaw bay by John Merson and this web site which lists other good crime adventure stories. One final thing. In Scat you might like to look out for the wacky substitue teacher Mr Wendell Waxmo. He has some very funny ideas about classroom teaching!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Man whose Mother was a Pirate by Margaret Mahy illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain

The little man could only stare. He hadn’t dreamed of the BIGNESS of the sea. He hadn’t dreamed of the blueness of it. He hadn’t thought it would roll like kettledrums, and swish itself on to the beach. He opened his mouth and the drift and the dream of it, the weave and the wave of it, the fume and foam of it never left him again. At his feet the sea stroked the sand with soft little paws. Farther out, the great, graceful breakers moved like kings into court, trailing the peacock-patterned sea behind them.”

These lines continue to ring through my ears years after the first time I read The Man whose Mother was a pirate by Margaret Mahy to a class of Grade One children. The imagery and alliteration are perfect. I always include this book in my story bag when we explore this talented writer from New Zealand.

Margaret Mahy is a true master of language. This is one of the reasons I often ponder our good fortune of speaking English in Australia and sharing this with so many countries in the world. This gives us enormous quantities of quality children’s books from which to find our favorites.

The little man in this story has never seen the sea even though is mother is a pirate. One day he decides to dispense with his sensible brown suit and shoes, his books of figures and routines and along with his mother travel to see the sea. His boss gives him two weeks leave with the threat that if he fails to return he will be replaced by a computer! This is especially funny when you realize this book was first published in 1985.

Loading his mother into a wheelbarrow they set off for the sea. His mother tries to tell the little man about the sea but her words cannot fully prepare him for the wonder of it. There are of course some obstacles along the way. At one point they need to use a kite to fly over a river. Then they meet a pessimist who warns “The wonderful things are never as wonderful as you hope they’ll be. The sea is less warm, the joke less funny, the taste is never as good as the smell.” But they are determined to travel on. Suddenly as they come over the hill the little man sees the sea.

They join a rosy sea captain and the little man finally discovers his true destiny and his real name – Sailor Sam. Needless to say he does not go back to the office. In the final scene Sam sends a letter to his boss in a green glass bottle. “Having a wonderful time … Why don’t you run off to sea, too?” We have a huge collection of books by Margaret Mahy in our school library - why not borrow one today?

Jeremiah in the dark woods by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Names can give such a wonderful insight into characters. Think about the name Jeremiah Obadiah Jackenory Jones. A boy with such a impressive name must be a determined type of fellow don’t you agree? Jeremiah is on a quest. Nothing will deter him. His grandmother has just baked some jam tarts with crisp pastry edges and strawberry jam all dark and delicious from the baking. While the tarts are cooling on the kitchen windowsill they are stolen. Grandma “was the cleverest and bravest lady of her age for many miles around. She could add up numbers faster than a blink, climb trees like a squirrel and flight wolves and crocodiles with her bare hands and a handbag, when she had to. But her strength was mostly in her arms; she wasn’t good at walking and she couldn’t really run at all.” Thus the task of tracking down the no good robber falls to young Jeremiah and so he sets off through the woods his boot crunching on the dry leaves.

Along the way Jeremiah meets three bears, five gorillas, a frog prince, a wolf, a dinosaur, a Mad Hatter and a crocodile with a clock in it. Some of these characters are helpful while others have their own motives. Jeremiah must be brave and astute if he is to sort out this mystery.

Every year for the last twenty years I have read Jeremiah in the Dark woods by Janet and Allan Ahlberg to classes of young readers. This book is perfect to read aloud. I adore doing all the character voices along with hearing children identify the fairy tale references and often solving the mystery before Jeremiah does so himself. My most favourite scene is when Jeremiah meets the crocodile. He is a laconic figure intent on luring Jeremiah to come closer. “Come and sit beside me here and we will discuss the matter. But Jeremiah did no such thing; he knew all about crocodiles.”

The other very special character is the dinosaur – he is a loyal friend to Jeremiah and he plays a vital part in solving the crime. Being a book by the Ahlbergs the illustrations are filled with warm details. A good example of this is the front cover but you might also take a look at the scene where Jeremiah sits beside the river cooling his feet. You can see his boots, socks, peaches from a nearby tree and two little hedgehogs holding hands and wearing their best hats!! The hedgehogs are not mentioned at all in the text and nor is the little mouse hiding in the rushes at the side of the river!

Read this book with a special friend and a plate of warm jam tarts. This is quite simply a delicious story. Then look for other books by the Ahlbergs along with Jam by Margaret Mahy.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Tender Moments of Saffron Silk by Glenda Millard illustrated by Stephen Michael King

the skill of capturing a tender moment is the most wonderful thing…. It is more like magic than almost anything else in the universe, except perhaps reading hearts or books or seeing things that other people cannot.” Nell, grandmother of the Silk family has this gift – the skill of capturing tender moments.

At the naming ceremony for Saffron everyone hopes the pages of her book will be filled with tiny tender moments “those that make the soul tipsy with ordinary happiness.”

From the first pages of this next installment in the lives of the Silk family, Glenda Millard gently weaves her magic reminding her readers about the hopes and wishes of each member of the Silk family as we have come to know them through five previous books. Saffron is the fifth rainbow girl. She is a lover of history and individuality. Each of the children in this family have special talents. In The Tender Moments of Saffron Silk Glenda Millard gives us a close look at Saffron but something has gone wrong. She has been seeing firebirds but has not yet told anyone. Then one day, as they are all gathered together baking apple pies, Saffron collapses.

Each family member expresses concern in his or her own unique way as Saffron is taken to the Doctor Larsson – the wise local GP. Griffin confides his fears to Layla and as usual she is able to reassure him. Layla is good at asking questions and as Griffin reflects “questions are tools for discovering the truth. They can be used like a sledgehammer to smash things open, or like a candle to lighten the dark.”

Saffron needs to go into the city for tests at a hospital. It is Perry who gives the two most precious gifts of all along with something truly magical from Nell.

If you have not yet met the Silk family you should walk quietly into your nearest library and seek them out. Begin with The naming of Tishkin Silk, and follow this with Layla Queen of Hearts, Perry Angel’s suitcase, All the colours of Paradise and finally Plum Puddings and Paper Moons.

As I jumped off a city bus yesterday I spied a bookshop across the street. I quickly crossed the road, headed down to the children’s section, scanned the shelves and pulled out a copy of The Tender moments of Saffron Silk. because I had discovered there was a new title in this series. I began reading over lunch, read all the way home on the bus and then sat up late into the night. The writing of Glenda Millard is so special it feels like nourishment for my soul.

Here are some teaching notes.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Wonder by RJ Palacio

When I sat down to review this book I opened at a random page and read “sometimes you don’t have to mean to hurt someone to hurt someone.” This is the kind of hurt that August has lived with for his whole life of ten years.

I first heard about Wonder at the end of last year when a panel of reviewers were discussing Christmas books on a radio program. Kate Colley of Bloomin books said to look out for Wonder in 2012 so I wrote down the name and waited. Now it seems this book is everywhere. It was even reviewed in my local newspaper. So a couple of weeks ago I bought a copy of Wonder and that same day I sat down and read it. I read the whole book in just one sitting. Yes it is that ‘good’. Good is not the right word. This is such an important and moving book. It deals with a difficult subject using humor and just the right amount of emotion. It also a book that uses a story device I really enjoy where each chapter or section tells us about the same events from different viewpoints. Oddly though, it has taken me quite a few weeks to include this book in my blog. I think this might be because I am unsure about the audience. Certainly adults will be moved but I am not entirely sure how upper primary students will react. The cover, it must be said, is eye catching.

August himself does not tell you about his face as he makes the enormous move from homeschooling to Middle School so I am not going to reveal these details nor am I going to try to retell the plot. I can only say if you want to know more you should read this very thoughtful and detailed review which also includes a video of the author reading one chapter. You might also read an interview with the author. One thing that should happen as a result of reading this book is that we all might try to make the world a kinder place.

Mature readers in Upper Primary classes who have enjoyed the books of Andrew Clements or EL Kongisburg (The View from Saturday) should look for Wonder by RJ Palacio. This book also reminded me of Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli and Sally Marshall is not an alien by Amanda McKay. If you read Wonder and are moved by it then read Secret Friends by Elizabeth Laird but be warned for this one you will need a box of tissues.

The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson

How wonderful to read a school story where the school (a boarding school no less) is celebrated. Delderton Hall, the imaginative creation of Eva Ibbotson, embodies everything a good school should be. The philosophy is to encourage the gifts and talents of each child through kindness, creativity and excellent teachers in a wonderful environment.

Twenty years earlier a very rich couple from America came and build a school on the ruins of Delderton Hall … they believed that only the best was good enough for children and they were as idealistic as they were wealthy. …Each child had its own room… The common rooms had well-sprung sofas, the pianos in the music rooms were Steinways and the library housed over ten thousand books… Delderton was to be a progressive school - a school where children would be free to follow their instincts and develop in a natural way. There would be no bullyings or beating, no competitive sports … no exams – just harmony and self development in the glorious Devon countryside. A school where teachers would be chosen for their loving kindness and not their degrees.”

As World War Two is about to begin Tally, short for Talitha, is sent by her loving father Doctor Hamilton to Delderton Hall. Dr Hamilton is a wonderful practitioner who is loved by his patients and one has arranged a scholarship to Delderton for Tally.

At its heart this is a book about friendship. Tally makes wonderful friends among the teachers and students at Delderton Hall but her most precious friend, Karil, comes from the tiny European country of Bergania. Tally finds she has a connection with this country after seeing a short documentary film at the cinema. Quite by chance just after she sees the film her school receives an invitation to a folk dance festival in Bergania. Tally is a girl with determination and charm and so it is arranged that four girls and four boys will travel from England to Bergainia to perform at the festival. Sadly this beautiful country is in the sights of Hitler. He has sent his henchman Reichsgruppen Fuchrer Anton Steifelbreich to carry out the take over which will involve an assassination.

As with all books by Eva Ibboston I loved The Dragonfly pool and am happy to say a new copy will arrive in our school library very soon. At nearly 400 pages this looks like quite a long book but the plot moves along at a frantic pace with some surprising and delightful twists and turns. You might find the opening chapter a little odd and fragmented but just keep reading and you will find things will quickly fall into place.

If you enjoy books by Odo Hirsch especially Dairus Bell, or the Taspestry series Henry Neff by then you must grab The Dragonfly Pool soon. Children interested in the events of World War Two might also look for The Little Riders by Margaretha Shemin which also features a determined heroine just like Tally.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

My dog Sunday by Leila Berg

This is a little old book (1968) which I have kept on my shelf for many years and even after several house moves when I needed to cull out my book collection I have held onto this one. Now I know why. If you have read my review of One dog and his Boy by Eva Ibbotson you will know I am a big fan of dog books. In this slim junior novel by Leila Berg we have three children, Kathy, Ben and Jimmy who live in small flat with a policy of no dogs.

As the story opens we see Kathy kicking a ball in a rather strange way. This is because she is pretending the ball is in fact a dog. These three children long for a dog of their own. As they walk past the Battersea dogs home Ben decides to take a risk and try to claim a dog as their own. Unfortunately the plan fails miserably. The children arrive at the park to meet their older sister and all are feeling sad and dejected. Then along comes a lovely huge Old English Sheepdog and he is ready to play and be their friend and for a few glorious hours these children have a dog. In the late afternoon the dogs owners arrive. They are happy ‘Sunday’ has found some children to play with and they promise to return to the park again next Sunday.

Here is an interview with the author. My copy of this book has quite a different cover but this was the only one I could find. After reading this little book, if you can find a copy, you might look for other old books about dogs such as Desperate for a Dog by Rose Impey and A dog so small by Philippa Pearce. Also take a look at the two Nibbles I reviewed last year.

Rose meets Mr Wintergarten by Bob Graham

Rose meets Mr Wintergarten is quite simply a perfect picture book. Rose is a compassionate and brave little girl who takes a small step into the unknown which leads to miraculous changes in her neighborhood.

The open scene for this book comes on the end papers. Bob Graham is a master of this. He does not waste one page in his picture books. On this spread we see two houses side by side. One is large, grey and imposing with huge barbed wire fences, a cactus garden and dark foreboding windows. The other is a little friendly yellowish house with green window shutters, freshly mown lawns and large trees in the back yard. A new family are moving into the little house. The moving van has a rainbow on the side (we all know there are good things at the end of a rainbow!) and among the furniture and family members you can see a sheep and a chook!

On the title page the For Sale sign now says Sold and the whole family are posing for a photo outside their new front gate. Once they have settled in, the family begin to plant out their garden with a wondrous array of colorful flowers. Every morning our new family climb on to the roof of their lovely house to celebrate the sunrise. Even the sheep and the chook participate in this lovely ritual.

But what of the neighbor? Rose discovers from the local children that he is a monster with a dog like a wolf and a saltwater crocodile. While playing football in the garden Rose accidentally kicks her ball over the fence and thus her quest for the ball and the truth begins.

The final scenes of this story are again played out on the last end paper. The fences and gone, the rainbow van is back to collect the barbed wire and Mr Wintergarten himself can be seen playing a friendly game of football with the neighborhood children. Rose has accomplished so much. How did she do this? Read Rose Meets Mr Wintergarten to find out. Then you should look at The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde and A bus called Heaven also by Bob Graham.

Here are some teaching notes .

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Firework Maker's daughter by Philip Pullman

Fireworks are fascinating. Lila has been raised as the Firework Maker's daughter and she has developed wonderful skills. Now she feels ready to become a firework maker in her own right but her father will not reveal the final steps in this process. Lila enlists the help of the young elephant keeper Chulak. He talks with Lalchand, Lila’s father, and discovers firework makers have to “travel to the grotto of Razvani, the Fire-Fiend, in the heart of Mount Merapi, and bring back some of the Royal Sulphur." When Chulak tells Lila about this she sets of immediately but there is one important thing Lalchand has neglected to reveal. Lila will need a flask of magic water from the Goddess of the Emerald Lake. Without this she will perish.

This information means Chulak must now rush to assist his friend. Chulak takes with him the white talking elephant called Hamish. Along the way our heroes will meet some wonderful and oddball characters, Hamish will be painted with slogans and everything will conclude with a spectacular fireworks display – a display that could mean life or death for its creators.

You might know Philip Pullman for his wonderful Dark Materials trilogy. The Firework Maker's daughter is also a fabulous story intended for a younger audience and containing unpredictable twists and turns and perfect illustrations.

If you enjoy The Firework Maker's Daughter you should look for Where the Mountain meets the moon by Grace Lin, The Magnificent Nose by Anna Fienberg and the Sarindi series by Janine Fraser.

Here are some notes for The Firework Maker's daughter.