Sunday, May 20, 2012

Secret Friends by Elizabeth Laird

Books should teach us things about ourselves.  Secret Friends is an honest account of how children react to bullying and the power of the peer group.  If you have read The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, Wonder by RJ Palacio or The Present Takers by Aiden Chambers then you might be ready to read Secret Friends but be warned this is another very sad and quite confronting book told in a very slim novel.

Rafaella does not fit in.  Her appearance is different and her name sounds odd.  From the first day she is teased and given the awful nick name of 'Earwig'.  "I don't know what got into me.  Perhaps it was the nervousness of starting a new school. Perhaps it was the way she looked down at me."

Lucy immediately regrets the nick name she has bestowed on Rafaella but it is now too late.  Others quickly adopt the name and Rafaella becomes an outsider.The dilemma for Lucy is that she becomes friendly with Rafaella - even visiting her home and meeting her lovely family but Lucy knows this friendship needs to be kept a secret at school.  "You were a social outcast if you were seen with Earwig and I didn't want to risk it."

After Christmas Rafaella does not return to school.  Something truly dreadful has happened. 

For younger children who want to explore this important theme of friendship and loyalty and bullying you might also look for Second Best Friend by Sally Rippin or Lady Long Legs by Jan Mark.

When I read a book I often think about who I will recommend it to.  I first read Secret Friends over ten years ago and I regularly recommend it to mature girls who are looking for a short book with strong emotions - a sad book yes but also a book well worth reading.

Lost Riders by Elizabeth Laird

When you step into a new book it is like holding the hand of the author. You have to trust that he or she will protect you from harm. Right from the first page I knew Lost Riders by Elizabeth Laird would be a harrowing journey and it was but thankfully Elizabeth Laird is a master storyteller with huge compassion. There were times when I almost stopped reading this book but now I am glad I persisted. Do not expect a trivial happy ending but our hero and his brother will at least be returned to their home and family. This is a powerful, emotional and important book suitable for a very mature Primary reader.

Rashid lives in Pakistan with his mother, baby sister and younger brother. Their father is dead and they are living in extreme poverty although as a young boy of eight Rashid has not yet realised the extent of his mother’s struggles.

One day a young Uncle arrives with an offer to take the boys to Dubai where they will have the best of everything “Clothes, toys, good education … rich Arabs bring little friends for them (their children) into their families. Treat them like their own. Give them bicycles and toy cars and all the food they can eat. They pay very well for them too.” This magical picture of life in Dubai is so far from the truth. The utterly horrible place where the boys are taken by people smugglers and the brutality of working as a camel jockey is, as I said, almost too awful to read but Rashid is a boy with a deep intelligence. He learns quickly which is partly how he survives but he also has an emotional intelligence well beyond his tender years.

I did not know anything about camel racing. Thankfully this practice is now banned. All of our reading is an experience and so although it was a difficult one I am glad Elizabeth Laird gave me the experience of meeting Rashid and other children like him.  I am really looking forward to hearing more from Elizabeth Laird at the IBBY Congress in London this year.

If you read this book you should also look for Ibqal by Francesco D’Adamo in our school library which is about a boy who is forced to work in a carpet factory.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Journey to Jo'burg by Beverley Naidoo

The next three books I will talk about in this blog contain extremely powerful stories of heroism and oppression yet all are very slim novels. These books make ideal reading for senior and middle Primary students. They show young children living in complex communities during times of injustice or war.

In Journey to Jo'burg we meet Naledi who lives in South Africa, the South Africa of apartheid. Her mother works in Johannesburg. This is three hundred miles from the family home. The three children are in the care of their grandmother. With their mother working so far from home it seems they rarely see her and her work for the rich white family is a mystery to the two older children until Dineo their baby sister falls ill. Naledi decided she and her brother Tiro need to get to Jo’burg and the only way to do this is to walk. Surprisingly, while the journey is long, they strike some good fortune firstly in the form of a place to stay the night near an orange farm and later when they are given a lift in a truck to a place quite near their mothers work place. This luck continues when they meet Grace Mbatha. Grace’s mother works quite near Mma.

There it stood, a great pink house with its own grass lawn and trees in front, even its own road leading up to the front door!” The Madam reluctantly gives Mma permission to go home to Dineo but she must work for one more night and so the children are returned to the care of Grace. It is at this point their journey becomes very frightening when the two children find themselves separated from Grace and stranded on a railway platform with police angrily checking for identity cards.

My copy of Journey to Jo’burg has an excellent introduction by Michael Rosen and this is made even more special because both Michael Rosen and Beverley Naidoo are speaking at the IBBY congress in London. There is also a "More than the story" section at the back with the letter that shows this book was once banned.  Read more here.  If you click this link you will also see the whole range of different covers which have been used for this book.  I find cover design a fascinating area - the appeal of covers to different groups of readers in different cultures.

Journey to Jo’burg was first published 1987. I do hope it might still be in print because this is such an accessible story which allows young readers to glimpse this oppressive regime and perhaps make some sense of this important time in world history.  I also found some excellent teaching notes.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Forbidden Memories by Jamila Gavin

In a few months I will attend the IBBY Congress in London so I am trying to read as many books as I can by some of the major speakers. I started this week with a book I have loved for years and years – Forbidden Memories by Jamila Gavin. Several decades ago there was a movie called Logan’s Run – Forbidden Memories has a similar theme as does The Giver by Lois Lowry and The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau.

The world has been destroyed and people have been forced to set up a new society underground or in a dome far removed from the surface of the earth. In Forbidden Memories, as in the other books I have mentioned, the government controls all aspects of citizens' lives. Babies are raised for specific occupations and roles in the community. In Forbidden Memories we read “The dome controlled everything; it decided who should be born, how, when and with what genes. From the egg bank, the determiners selected future citizens for the different zones and fertilized them to be thinkers, artists, wealth creators and operators, adding or manipulating genes as necessary.”

Sasha and Devi are twins.  They have been raised as an experiment and so they are under extra scrutiny. Devi will become a scientist and Sasha will be a dancer. The story opens on separation day. Their childhood is over and the girls will not meet again until Regeneration Day which happens every ten years but Devi has a plan. She has made sure the girls can still communicate via their thoughts. This is highly illegal and dangerous but they are desperate to stay connected. Chapter two opens one hundred years later. It is once again Regeneration Day and Devi is excited to be seeing Sasha. Regeneration is like a car service with all sorts of new parts added so that the aging process is all but eliminated in this world but this time the regeneration goes horribly wrong. Devi sees an image of the sky and she transmits it to Sasha during the process. Mind pictures are forbidden. Sasha is immediately taken away to be decommissioned. Devi must now race to save her sister and in the process she will discover the truth about the Dome and about the Earth outside.

This is an old book. It is a very short novel with only 80 pages but it is such a powerful and thought provoking story. It is in my school library and I do hope it is in yours.

Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti

At the end of every year for the last 25 years I have read Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti to my Grade Six students. I read this book because it contains an important story of courage and a view of war from the perspective of a child. Roberto Innocenti was a young child during World War II. He asked his father questions but received no answers. He knew something terrible was happening. This was the inspiration to write the story of Rose. She is a young German girl who observes changes in her community and instinctively knows some things need to remain a secret.

One day Rose sees a lorry break down in the street. A young boy jumps out but he is chased and roughly shoved back inside the lorry. Just as the door closes Rose sees other faces inside. She follows the lorry and discovers a place of unspeakable horror. “Dozens of silent, motionless children stared out at her from behind a barbed wire fence. They hardly seemed to breathe. .. One of them called for food and the others took up the cry. Food, food, please be our friend. Please give us something to eat, little girl."

Rose embarks on a dangerous mission to help these children. Each evening she walks to the fence and carefully hands over small amounts of food all the while being careful to avoid the electrified barbed wire.

The ending of this book is gently understated. In fact the first time I read this book I had to go back and re-read the last 4 pages so I could make sense of what happened to Rose. There are always one or two students who also need to go back a few pages.

Years ago I discovered a copy of Rose Blanche in a bookshop. I bought it for myself. I had copies in all my school libraries but when I sat down to look at my new copy I discovered it had a completely different text from the one I had been reading for years. This week I read a fairly negative review of the US edition of Rose Blanche. I must say the UK edition is a much better one and it is interesting to show children how translators interpret things working, in this case, from the same Italian text. Here is an example taken from the opening lines :

US edition “My name is Rose Blanche. I live in a small town in Germany with narrow streets, old fountains and tall houses with pigeons on the roofs. One day the first truck arrived and many men left. They were dressed as soldiers. Winter was beginning

UK edition “When wars begin people often cheer. The sadness comes later. The men from the town when off to fight for Germany. Rose Blanche and her mother joined the crowds and waved them goodbye. A marching band player, everyone cheered, and the fat mayor made a boring speech. There were jokes and songs and old men shouted advice to the young soldiers. Rose Blanche was shivering with excitement. But her mother said it was cold. Winter was coming.”

Seasons, as you can see, are also used as a story device. Of course the war was much longer than one year but Innocenti has this war starting in the Winter and ending in the Spring – a time of hope and renewal.

Look closely at the cover of this book. It is just so amazing. You can see Rose looking out through a window. In the glass window panes you can see the view outside – the scene that Rose can see. Then look again at her face and you can gauge her reaction to the tanks and wounded soldiers being driven down her street. The cover also gives you a hint of the richness of the illustrations all through this amazing book.

When I read Rose Blanche I also include Let the Celebrations begin by Margaret Wild, The Children we remember by Chana Byers Abells and the picture book edition of Anne Frank by Josephine Poole.