Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Fourth King by Ted Sieger

We have celebrated Christmas in our school library by announcing a book of Christmas every day for the last twelve days - The Twelve Books of Christmas.

One book I sent out to a lucky class was The Fourth King.  Our narrator is the Fourth King himself who has been watching the stars for "the sign that would herald the birth of the King of Kings."  Finally one night King Mazzel (the Fourth King) sees this star so he grabs two special presents - the royal star map and the royal star crystal - and he rushes off to catch up with the other three kings - Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar.

Just as he is getting close a huge storm rages across the desert and Mazzel and his faithful camel Chamberlin are blinded by the sand.  As the winds die down they hear the cries of a young girl.  Our intrepid heroes rush back into the storm to rescue her.  "We headed back into the storm, and there, in its heart, we found a little nomad girl - sand-stung and frightened,. her name blown away by the wind."  They find her family and set off again only to discover they have missed the Three Kings by minutes.

This next part of their journey sees them meeting up with a merchant caravan - hundreds of camels travelling through the desert, lost and with no map.  Naturally Mazzel stops to help "it was quite a detour to their hometown,.  In slow procession, we led the caravan safely out of the desert.  My heart soared: I could still see the star; perhaps we would meet up with the Three Kings after all."

On the third part of the trip as they are resting for the night they hear a sound of tinkling.  It is coming from a small thirsty plant.  Mazzel gives the plant the last of his water. "To our amazement, the plant began to flower, then dropped into my palm a little round fruit that sounded like a bell."

The next obstacle is a huge wall which is being built by child slaves.  Mazzel offers his gift that was intended for the newborn king in exchange for the children's freedom but the rich man takes the star crystal and he will not free the children.  So Mazzel and Chamberlin stay on and help the children with the building.  As a way of saying thank you a  little girl gives them a wooden toy lamb. "It made me smile.  I hid the lamb in my tunic and promised her, that somehow, we would all be free."

This is a religious Christmas story but surely Christmas is a religious time.  The ending will make you smile along with the time you share exploring the joyous and detailed illustration.

Here is a web site about the author with some funny comments about camels.  Here is a detailed review. An animated film was made of this book but it seems to be unavailable.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Escape from Mr Lemoncello's library by Chris Grabenstein

"These twelve children have lived their entire lives without a public library.  As a result they have no idea how extraordinarily useful, helpful, and funful - a word I recently invented - a library can be. This is their chance to discover that a library is more than a collection of dusty old books.  It is a place to learn, explore and grow!"

Today was a rainy day.  I thought I would just spend half an hour dipping into this new book.  Three hours later I lifted my head with an enormous smile on my face.  Saying I loved this book is not enough!  I LOVE THIS BOOK!

If you are a fan of Charlie and the Chocolate factory, Jumanji, The Mysterious Benedict society, any books by Blue Baillett, or The Mixed up files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler you will love this book.  Rush out and grab it now!

Just like Willy Wonker, Mr Lemoncello sets up a competition and the winners (there are twelve of them) will spend the night in the new library in the town of Alexandriaville.  Yes you should make your first connection.  Have you heard about the famous library at Alexandria?  Our hero Kyle almost misses the competition because he did not listen when it was announced but Kyle knows in any good game you sometimes get to roll the dice again and so he works furiously and writes his essay entry.  The teacher will not accept his work but Kyle decides to email directly to Mr Lemoncello himself.

The twelve lucky winners enjoy a wonderful night in the new library but the real surprise comes the next morning when they have the chance to play a far more exciting game.  They must find a way out of the library (it used to be a bank), they have only 24 hours and  "the way out is not the way you came in.  You may not use any of the fire exits. .. Creating an incident that requires evacuation will not count as having discovered a way to exit the library."  The children have three lifelines each and they can also participate in extreme challenges but while the rewards will be great failure means elimination.  The library is filled with holograms, amazing technology and rooms organised using the Dewey decimal system.

Here are a set of questions to use with your class.

I have made a list of some of the books Chris Grabenstein cleverly mentions in his story either in a sentence or as a pun:

"The correct answer is - and not just because of Winn Dixie - D"
"something wicked this way will probably come"
"there's no place I'd rather be on my big day than inside a library, surrounded by books. Unless, of course, I could be on a bridge to Terabithia."
"And thus ends the story of Andrew and the terrible, horrible, no good very had day."
"Fail ... and ... you will be eliminated from the game, and your team, due to a series of unfortunate events, will be forced to struggle on without you."
"Well, it's cloudy with a chance of meatballs and I had nothing better to do."

There are two books on each of the children's library cards - No David!; One fish, two fish, red fish, Blue fish; Tales of a fourth grade nothing; Olivia; Scat; Where the sidewalk ends; I love you, Stinky Face and The Napping house are a few examples.

Read this review if I have not convinced you that this book is wonderful.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Little Riders by Margaretha Shemin illustrated by Peter Spier

This is one of those books I mentioned where our school library copy is old and needing replacement so I bought it home to re-read just to be sure it was worth buying a new copy.

I read this book over twenty years ago and yes it has stood the test of time.  Actually The Little Riders was first published in 1963.

Johanna is sent to the safety of her grandparents in Holland during World War II and for four years she has enjoyed helping her grandfather care for the little riders.  The riders are a set of figures that live in the town clock.  Each hour, on the hour, music plays and the little riders emerge from the clock.

"They would ride up to each other, lift their swords in a salute and then go in the opposite door. In and out as many times as the clock had struck.  While they rode in and out of the doors, the carillon of the church played old Dutch folk tunes."

One day the German soldiers march in to the town.  The little riders are no longer safe.  "Grandfather started to think again about a safe hiding place for the little riders because now, more than ever, the Germans needed every scrap of metal for ammunition."

The real crisis is not long in coming.  A German soldier has moved into the house and even into Johanna's room.  In this same room there is a hidden space inside the cupboard.  When her Grandfather and Grandmother are taken by the soldiers Johanna has only minutes to hide the precious riders.  Will she dare to hide them in this cupboard which is filled with German uniforms?

You can watch the movie here.

My father's dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett ilustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett

My Father's dragon (1948) seems to appear on so many beginning reading lists I was very pleased to discover we have an almost new copy in our school library.  Today I had a spare twenty minutes so I picked up this book and read it from beginning to end.

This is absolutely my kind of book!  It truly is a timeless classic and yes it would make a fabulous read-a-loud for a young class.

I loved this book because it is so very tidy.  Our hero sets off to free an enslaved dragon.  Under the guidance of a cat he has befriended he packs :

  • chewing gum
  • two dozen pink lollipops
  • a pack of rubber bands
  • a tooth brush and toothpaste
  • six magnifying glasses
  • a comb and hairbrush
  • seven hair ribbons

As his adventure unfolds each of these 'supplies' is used in different and quite inventive ways to save him from a number of life threatening situations involving tigers, a rhinoceros, a lion, an itchy gorilla and some very fickle crocodiles.

I recommend you read this book with a supply of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a huge pile of tangerines.

Here is a set of teaching notes.

The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood

I have loved this book The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear for a long time so you can imagine my delight when I discovered a copy with a CD - this adds another dimension to this deceptively simply story.

Someone is talking to the little mouse - warning him about the big hungry bear and the desperate need to protect a yummy ripe red strawberry that the mouse is just about to pick.  I think the charm of this off stage narrator works in a similar way to the extra voices we hear in Spot.  See below for my favourite page where we see the mouse trying to disguise the strawberry.  This is a book I never tire of reading and I know my kindergarten students have really enjoyed reading it with their teachers this term too.

In addition to the book and CD I also have the mouse, the strawberry and even the knife in my toy collection.

This book is a timeless classic for our youngest children.  Look for it in your library today.

Here is a video of the book.  Here is a detailed lesson plan.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Is it too early to review a Christmas book?  The shops are already filling with trees and decorations and today I saw my first fruit mince pies so perhaps I can talk about this very special Christmas book even though it is only early November. The story of Holly and Ivy is very old.  It was first published in 1957 but we have bought a beautiful new copy for our school library.  I remember an elderly relative gave me a book by Rumer Godden when I was about four or five - Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.  I still have my precious old copy.

The story of Holly and Ivy is a Christmas book that should be read with a young child beside you.  It is a long story which could be enjoyed over several nights.  Here in Australia you would be reading this book in the Summer but it would be even better shared on a cold winter evening with snow falling softly around your home.

This story is slightly reminiscent of The little match girl by Hans Christian Andersen but it does not have the same tragic ending - in fact the ending here is miraculous and this is part of the charm and delight of this story.

Holly is a doll in a toy shop.  The time is Christmas eve. Nearly all the toys have been sold but the little Christmas doll in her red dress, red shoes and green socks has been overlooked.  In a scene like the one in Toy Story 3, there is an evil toy who also remains unsold - an owl.  He is the voice of doom.  His name is Abracadabra and he seems determined to make Holly's life miserable.  He even tries to stop the shop boy Peter from giving Holly to Ivy the little orphan girl who has spent the night sleeping near the toy shop after looking all day for her 'Grandmother.'

"Peter said that Abracadabra must have toppled, for a toy owl cannot fly, but it seemed for a moment that Abracadabra was right in his face; the green eyes were close, the spread of wings, the hooked beak, and the claws."

Ivy has left the orphanage when no one offers to take her over the Christmas holiday.  She is supposed to travel to an infant home but instead stays on the train and arrives in Appleton.  Ivy is convinced her grandmother lives there.  "I must look for a house with a tree and no children,' said Ivy.

Meanwhile Mrs Jones is longing for a child to share her Christmas. She tells her husband 'Christmas needs Children.'  I am sure by now you have joined all the dots here just as Rumer Godden did when she wrote this book over fifty years ago.

I love the sentiment of this quote :  "Dolls are not like us, we are alive as soon as we are born, but dolls are not really alive until they are played with."

Here is a link to the television movie of this book.  I am also including one illustration here.  As far as I can work out Barbara Cooney is the third person who has illustrated this classic Christmas Story.  The Christian Birmingham one looks lovely too but it is long out of print.  

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Flora and Ulysses -The illuminated adventures by Kate DiCamillo illustrated by KG Campbell

I hardly know where to begin with this amazing book Flora and Ulysses.  If you have not met Kate DiCamillo she truly is a master storyteller.  I have adored every book she has written and yet each book is entirely unique.  If I gave you a tiny extract of each book and you were unfamiliar with this writer I am sure you would never guess each piece of writing is by the same author.  Read my review of The Magician's Elephant, and The Tale of Despereaux.

Flora and Ulysses is such a unique and special book.  Read this review in the Boston Globe and this one in the NY Times as both explain this madcap adventure between a squirrel, a special girl called Flora and a cast of odd ball characters - some evil and some really good.  Reading this book you will also gain insights into superheroes, poetry, huge donuts and wonderful advice books such as "Terrible things can happen to you", "The illuminated adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!" and "The criminal element." The warm intelligence of a temporarily blind boy and a socially clumsy father will also add to your enjoyment but it is Flora herself that I am sure you will love.

Here is a terrific book trailer from Candlewick press.  The quote below comes from an amazing review in the SLJ.  I do hope this book wins some major awards - even perhaps the Newbery!  Teachers should grab this book with both hands and read it to their class.  The vocabulary is splendid and the way this book stretches the reader is just wonderful.  You and your class will be richly rewarded.

Flora and Ulysses does precisely what I always want in a book. It lures you in with the ridiculous and then when you least expect it gets you in the gut with a bolt of pure, uncut, unadulterated meaning. Rare fare.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Wild Wings by Gill Lewis

It is thanks to one of my younger students that I took the time to read Wild Wings.  I did start this book months ago but did not get past the first few chapters.  My student in Grade 2 renewed this book several times and, when she finished, it was clear she really enjoyed it.  I did think this book looked a little beyond a Grade 2 level so I was curious to read it for myself.

This book does require some reading stamina.  The first section is quite slow then everything changes in chapter 18. Callum and Iona  become close friends.  Iona shows Callum the nest of an osprey, which is an endangered bird, living on Callum's farm in a remote part of Scotland.  They watch these birds every day for months as the nest is built, the female osprey they name Iris arrives and eventually the eggs hatch into chicks which rapidly grow into independent adults.  Sadly Iona becomes suddenly very ill.  Callum is determined to keep his promise to care for Iris but how can he do this when she flies away to The Gambia in Africa. Luckily, with the help of a local wildlife ranger, they attach a tracking device to Iris.  As they track her migration the signal suddenly stops.  Callum is desperate to find Iris so he sends off a series of emails to strangers in The Gambia near where the signal was last transmitted.  He is contacted by Jeneba, a young girl who has been hospitalized following a bad accident.  Jeneba finds Iris but she herself needs urgent medical attention and so Callum enlists the help of everyone in his Scottish village to the raise the funds to support this young girl.  In the final scenes Jeneba arrives in Scotland and Callum takes her to see the osprey which have once again migrated to this remote part of Scotland.

"And suddenly it was as if Iona were with us, there on the mountain.  It was as if she had always been there.  I curled my fingers around the locket and held it in my hand.  My eyes burned hot with tears that wanted to come.  'Here,' I said.  I put the locket into Jeneba's palm. 'My friend would have wanted you to have this."

I have now discovered this book has a different title (Sky Hawke) in the UK so I have put both covers here.  I do hope the title and cover picture is all that has been changed as we have the US edition.  This book has won five awards including one from Kirkus - see the quote below.  If you enjoy this book you might also enjoy Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.

Here is the author web site.

With universal themes of life and death, friendship and respect for the natural world, this is still quite particular, a powerfully memorable story of a boy’s grief and determination to keep a promise.

The year of the perfect Christmas tree by Gloria Houston pictures by Barbara Cooney

I was chatting with a friend and fellow children's literature blogger about our favourite Christmas picture books.  I have lots I love but The Silver Christmas tree by Pat Hutchins is near the top.

My friend mentioned The Year of the perfect Christmas tree and I knew I would love this book. This is a Christmas story for a slight older age group - Grades 2-4.  I would follow this wonderful Christmas story with The Angel with the Mouth Organ (sadly long out of print).

The setting for this story is the Appalachian Mountains.  The Great War is raging across the oceans but Ruthie and her Mama and Papa live in a valley of peace.  Following a local tradition, Ruthie and her Papa set off in the Spring to find the Christmas tree that will be their gift to the church next Christmas.

"We shall have a balsam Christmas tree, my pretty young'un,' said Papa.  'The balsam grows up the rocky craigs where only a venturesome man may go.  The balsam is a perfect tree.  It grows up high, near to heaven."  Don't you love the word 'venturesome'.

Sadly, not long after they mark the tree, Papa is called away to be a soldier.  On Christmas eve Ruthie and her Mama visit the church.  The preacher explains that he has asked another person from the town to supply the Christmas tree this year.  Mama won't allow this to happen so she and Ruthie undertake the cold and dangerous journey up to the mountains to find the special balsam tree.

Here are some lesson notes.  Here is the review which includes the illustration below.  I am looking forward to adding this beautiful book to my Christmas reading list in 2013 which coincidentally marks the 25th anniversary of this book.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff

Have you ever stopped and thought about how important a book title can be?  Pictures of Hollis Woods is the perfect title for this book.  Hollis loves to draw pictures but at the same time she has pictures in her mind of her ideal family and pictures of people she has met, pictures of experiences from the past and imaginings of how these same people might interpret her present circumstances.

Hollis has been abandoned as a tiny baby :
"My name ...,' I began ... 'Hollis Woods is a real place.' I shrugged a little.'Holliswood,' I said. "One word, I think.'  When the old man spoke, I jumped.  'It's where they found you, as a baby?' 'An hour old,' I said in an I-don't-care voice.'No blanket. On a corner. Somewhere.' Didn't a baby deserve a blanket? 'And just a scrap of paper: CALL HER HOLLIS WOODS."

Hollis has lived with a succession of foster families until she comes to live with the Regans.  They seem perfect but then something goes dreadfully wrong and Hollis runs away.  Her next foster home is with Josie - a retired art teacher.  Josie and Hollis form a special bond but Hollis can't stop thinking about Steven and his mum and dad - the true family she left behind.  Then Josie starts to lose her memory and the welfare lady becomes suspicious so it is time to run again.  Taking Josie with her, Hollis seeks refuge in the Regans summer house. She is sure no one with think to look for them there.

Pictures of Hollis Woods is not a new book (2002) but our copy is so worn out I thought I would read it again before purchasing a new edition.  Here are some ideas you could use with students for responding to this book.  I have discovered a television movie was made of this book in 2007. I wonder what it was like?  Here are a set of book talks you could use to promote this terrific book and some teaching ideas.  If you enjoy a sensitive story with a wonderful main character I highly recommend this book.  After reading Pictures of Hollis Woods make sure you look for Dicey's Song.

This touching story will leave readers pleasantly drained, satisfied with the happy ending, and eager for more about Hollis’s future.

The year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

A few weeks ago I watched a video of a literary event in Boston featuring Kevin Henkes talking about his newest book The Year of Billy Miller.  As a part of this hour long event Kevin read the second chapter of his book and I held my breath.  I have been holding my breath all this time waiting for my copy of this special book to arrive.  It came on Friday and last night I sat down and read the whole thing - now I can breathe again.

Kevin Henkes has written my book of the year!  The structure of this book is perfect.  There are five parts and each part has five chapters.  Within each part something happens to young Billy that will make you gasp but then in the careful and skilled hands of Kevin Henkes each disaster or potential disaster is gently resolved.

In part one, Billy is heading off to school for the first day of Grade 2.  He is excited but also filled with awful doubts about his own abilities.  Over the past summer Billy had a bad fall and while unharmed he did score a huge lump on his head. In an unfortunate twist of events Billy overhears his Papa and Mama talking :

"I'm worried about him,' said Mama.
'He's fine,' said Papa.  Everyone said he's fine. And he seems fine. He is fine.'
'You're probably right,' said Mama. "But I worry that down the line something will show up. He'll start forgetting things."

There is a shadow hanging over Billy. He enters his new classroom, meets his new teacher Ms Silver (she is wonderful.  Read this book and find out why I love her) and finds his new seat.  His seat is beside an awful girl called Emma Sparks but Billy is so distracted with worry that he when she says her nick name is Emster he hears Hamster.  This earns him a scowl from Emma and so begins one part of his year where Emma will take every chance to dent Billy's happiness.  The first instance comes shortly after they meet.  Ms Silver has two red chopsticks holding up her hair.  Billy thinks they look cool.  When Billy gets mad with Emma he picks up two red markers from his table and holds them above his head staring at Emma with the "meanest expression he could manage".  At that moment Ms Silver walks by.  Billy had intended the markers to look like devil horns but he immediately realises what he has done :

"Ms Silver thought he was making fun of her.  She thought the two red markers were meant to be her two red chopsticks. She thought the ugly face he'd make at Emma was an imitation of her, Ms Silver.  Billy didn't know what to do. What he wanted to do was run and run and run around the playground.  Running always made him feel better.  But he couldn't do that, so, in his journal, he drew a picture of a hamster and wrote: Hamsters small bad."

This is the part of the book that Kevin Henkes read.  I was so worried for Billy.  I wish I could tell you what Billy does to fix his mistake but I can only say read this book.  Actually I am going to say that again.  Read this book.  Every part of this book is brilliant especially the final section entitled Mother.

Kevin Henkes is famous for his picture books like Chrysanthemum, and novels like Junonia.  If you know any of his previous books I am sure you will be able to make links between them.  I am a huge fan of Kevin Henkes and this newest book is such a joy to read.  You could read this book aloud with your family.  When you read the part called Father try to find a copy of Sloppy Kisses by Elizabeth Winthrop - the perfect picture book to accompany this section.  I am so impressed by this book I am going to ask our NSW School Magazine bookshelf editors to include it for 2014.

If you need to read more of the plot here is a review in the New York Times. Here is the Kirkus review. The quote below comes from the SLJ.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Missing May by Cynthia Rylant and A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith

At this time of year we start to review our library collection and "weed" out the older books that are beyond repair, or have not been borrowed or books that just look too old to appeal to our students.

Our library copies of these two classic books are so old the paper has turned brown so last week I bought them home to re-read before I purchase replacements.

I do remember A taste of Blackberries (1973) as a very sad book but oddly on this re-reading it did not seem quite so sad.  I imagine on my first reading I missed some of the signposts that Doris Buchanan Smith includes that give a hint of Jamie's mortality.  He loves a challenge - especially one that pushes his physical limits into dangerous situations and he is not scared that the farmer might shoot him for stealing apples.

The idea of collecting Japanese beetles from Mrs Houser's yard seems quite simple but no one could anticipate that bees lived there too or know that Jamie would have such a violent and ultimately deadly reaction.  I did enjoy re-reading A taste of Blackberries but I think the resolution of grief is a little simplistic.  That said, this is an important story and I will buy a new copy for our library.

Missing May (1992) is a better book with the same theme of how we cope with grief.  Summer has lost her parents and after being sent to live with a succession of family members is taken in my May and Ob.

"That first night ... with Ob and May was as close to paradise as I may every come in my life.  Paradise because these two old people - who never dreamed they'd be bringing a little girl back from their visit with the relatives in Ohio - started from the minute we pulled up in Ob's old Valiant, to turn their rusty, falling-down place into a house just meant for a child. ...  I was six years old and I had come home."

Missing May is such a special book. (Newbery winner 1993)  Every word is carefully chosen and the insights into Summer herself along with her love and care of Ob are profound.  If you enjoy a sad and thoughtful book Missing May is perfect. You might also enjoy the books in the Silk series and Dicey's Song.  Here are some teacher notes for Missing May.  You might also like to read the Kirkus Review.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The King of the Copper Mountains by Paul Biegel

It really is a coincidence that this next book in my blog is also an old book.  The King of the Copper Mountains was first published in 1965.  It is famous and is even listed in 1001 Children's books you must read before you grow up.  It also won Children's Book of the Year in Holland.

Wikipedia likens this book to the Arabian nights and I agree.  The king is dying.  The wise Wonder Doctor must travel to a distant place to gather a special plant that will restore the King to good health. In the meantime  "The kings heart should beat soundly and evenly once a day."

To achieve this the Wonder Doctor sends a succession of wonderful storytellers to the King. "I only hope there will be enough stories for all the days I'll be away."  And so, under the careful watch of his faithful friend the hare, one by one each evening a different storyteller arrives - a ferocious Wolf, a lovesick Donkey, the fire-breathing, three headed Dragon, a Horse with golden shoes, a Rabbit of the dunes, the Sheep, ten bumble bees, two Mice, a Swallow and a Dwarf.

If you are looking for a set of short stories to read to a class The King of the Copper Mountains would be perfect. The old King is wise and generous, his castle is fabulous and Biegel weaves all these different stories together in a way that made me gasp out loud at the end.  I put this old cover here too - I like it. Do you?

Return to gone-away by Elizabeth Enright

People sometimes ask me about old classic stories read during a childhood in the 1950s or 1960s. Do children today still read these books?  Well the answer is usually no either because the plot line is too slow for the modern child or because the vocabulary is too complex.

Return to gone-away was first published in 1961.  I did not read this book in my childhood but even though it has the traits I listed above - a slow meandering plot and complex vocabulary - this is a terrific book.  I loved the pace, the children, the happiness of their elderly friends and all the complex words.  Here is a description of the old houses :

"To the right lay the broad swamp, shorn by winter of its reeds; to the left stood the old houses in their neglected yards. They were a tatterdemalion lot, with shutters hanging from hinges, font steps skewed crooked, porches sagging."

Having enjoyed a summer adventure at Gone-away lake the family have now bought one of the old houses and over the next summer everyone works hard to make Villa Caprice a home.  As they work together the children strengthen their friendships with their cousin and neighbours and the house itself reveals some wonderful treasures left by the eccentric and extremely wealthy Mrs Brace-Gideon.

This is a warm old fashioned story a little like reading Enid Blyton's famous Five or Secret Seven.  Enright is brilliant at descriptions.  You can see the scene.  Here is a description of the bathroom :

"very large with two high-up diamond-shaped windows, a frieze of mildewed swans above the molding and many pictures on the wall of young ladies wearing pompadours, shirtwaists, and long skirts... The hand-basin made of Delft china, was patterned with blue carnations. Swan-necked faucets drooped above it, and on each side there was a broad slab of marble, veined and gray as Roquefort cheese."

Return to Gone-away is the second book featuring this intriguing setting of an old abandoned town and the lives of the Blake family.  I have not read Gone-away lake (Newbery Honor 1958) but I think this second book easily stands alone. You should read more about the first book here especially after reading Return to Gone-away because this excellent and very detailed review will fill in the gaps for you.  I am excited to also read that Jen Robinson (who is a prolific and famous blogger of children's books) also loves Return to Gone-away.  This book might be one to read aloud as a family each evening.

Portia herself sums up this book when she says : "Sometimes a story can open a world for you: you step into it and forget the real one that you live in.  Evidently this was such a story."

One final thing - I have put a three covers here because I think it is interesting to see how book designs change over time. Our copy is the one at the top.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

As simple as it seems by Sarah Weeks

There is nothing really simple about growing up, about exploring your identity, about friendships or about the way we sometimes misinterpret the motivations of others.

Verbena Ellen Cotter was born in New York but has spent her whole life with her mum and dad in a small town called Clydesdale.  Verbena knows the story of her birth - why she was born in New York and the fact that she was only four pounds and seven ounces.  She also knows her family history.  The story of her much loved and respected grandfather Colty who died on the same day she was born and also all about her Uncle Mike who was the family rebel.  Verbena thinks she knows everything but in reality there is a lot to discover.

"Lots of people are adopted.  I know it's not that big a deal.  My birth certificate said that Tom and Ellen Colter were my biological parents, and even though I don't look like either one of them, I had no reason to suspect it wasn't true."

My blogging friend Mr K gave this book four stars out of five and I absolutely agree with this.  Up until the last thirty pages I might have even said five out of five but in the end Sarah Weeks didn't quite allow Verbena to reach out to her mother or to see things from her parents point of view but perhaps this is an unrealistic expectation.  You can read a little of this book here.  Here is a detailed review with more of the plot.

I highly recommend As simple as it seems and after reading this you might like to look for Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, Everything on a waffle by Polly Horvath, Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan or Ida B by Katherine Hannigan.  Another terrific book by Sarah Weeks in our school library is Pie.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Inside out and back again by Thanhha Lai

Poignant, moving, sad, honest, emotional - these are some of the words I would use to describe the verse novel Inside out and back again.

Over the course of a year this book relates, as a diary, the conflict in Vietnam of the 1960s, the journey by Ha's family to the US and her first months adjusting to this new and very foreign life.

Ha is a very smart girl.  In this extract she explains her shopping routine when her mother sends her to the market.

"Last September
she would give me
fifty dong
to buy one hundred grams of pork,
a bunch of water spinach,
five cubes of tofu.

But I told no one
I was buying
ninety-nine grams of pork,
seven-eights of a bunch of spinach,
four and three-quarter cubes of tofu.
Merchants frowned at
Mother's strange instructions.

The money saved
a pound of toasted coconut,
one sugary fried dough,
two crunchy mung bean biscuits."

As a contrast here is a description of Ha's packing.

"Into each pack;
one pair of pants,
one pair of shorts,
three pairs of underwear,
two shirts,
toothbrush and paste,
ten palms of rice grains,
three clumps of cooked rice,
one choice.

I choose my doll,
once lent to a neighbour
who left it outside,
where mice bit 
her left cheek
and right thumb.

I love her more 
for her scars."

This is a brilliant book for mature senior primary students and  a worthy Newbery honor recipient.  After reading this book you might also enjoy Onion Tears by Diana Kidd, Silk Umbrellas by Carolyn Marsden and Almost Forever by Maria Testa.

You can read an extract from this book here.  Here are some lesson plans and teaching resources.  You might like to watch a trailer.

I have put two covers here because we have the one with the half face here in Australia but I much prefer the US cover below.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Molly's organic farm by Carol L Malnor and Trina L Hunner illustrated by Trina L Hunner

As I have already mentioned we are adding books with a sustainability theme to our library collection and so I selected  Molly's organic farm.  This book is perfect for the youngest students as a way to gently explain the principles of organic gardening, the joy of involvement in a community garden and seasonal change.

All of this factual information (and there are more details at the back of the book) is told as a narrative with Molly as the central character. Molly is a large ginger cat who arrives as a stray but she is soon adopted by the gardeners.  She watches the crops grow, sees the little helpful insects at work, smells the compost and travels to the market where all this delicious produce is sold.

More than the text I really like the illustrations in this book.  They are colourful and I like the way the perspective keep changing.  You can read a good review here which includes some of the illustrations.

The secret life of Ms Finkleman by Ben H Winters

"Mr Melville was a large man of late middle age, with a wild mane of thick white hair, a thick white beard, and thick white eyebrows that were forever arching upward to express sarcasm, mock bewilderment, or scorn.  The Eyebrows of Cruelty, as there were know to all at Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School, weren't the only remarkable things about Mr Melville."

Mr Melville is famous for his eyebrows, for never speaking to other teachers, for giving a huge test once each semester which is only announced the night before and most importantly for his Special Project.

"Special Projects were totally random assignments that had nothing whatsoever to do with the approved Social Studies syllabus.  They were invented by Mr Melville personally ... Special Projects were weird, cool, and interesting."

This year the Special Project is to find a mystery and solve it.  It takes only a few seconds for Bethesda to decide on the perfect mystery.  She is going to investigate the school music teacher Ms. Finkleman.  As with all good detectives, Bethesda hunts out primary sources, conducts various interviews and she follows up all leads but the mystery that she uncovers will impact on every student in seventh-grade music fundamentals in ways no one could ever predict.

This book is filled with terrific characters - Principal Isabella Van Vreeland who seems like a maniac, her Assistant Jasper Ferras who knows how to jump when the Principal says jump!, Kevin McKelvey the piano kid, Ms Finkleman who thinks of herself as an agouti - a shy nervous rodent from the jungles of South America.  "The agouti's only hope of survival ... was to be at all times as small and still and plain and dull as possible." and perfect Pamela Preston who needs to maintain her position at the centre of the universe.

If you are a fan of Andrew Clements then you will love this book.  I highly recommend The secret Life of Ms Finkelman, I read it all in one sitting. Go to your library and grab this book.  When you have read it you should look for Adam Canfield of the Slash, The fabled fourth graders of Aesop Elementary and I put a spell on you.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The boy on the page by Peter Carnavas

This book The boy on the page looks, at first glance, like a very simple picture book for a young child but when you read it you will discover it contains a deep philosophical question - the boy asks this question early in the book "Why was he here?"

The boy has a  life filled with activities - Some are fun, some are heroic while others are creative involving music and art and occasionally he even has an adventure or two. Over the course of the book we see him change from a boy into a man. One day the man falls in love. A new baby is born and his life experiences expand.  We see the man assisting the homeless, building a house and vegetable garden and raising his family.

"But every now and then, as the moon rolled through the deep, blue sky, he still wondered why he had landed on the page."

I won't spoil the ending but it is absolutely perfect.  I highly recommend The Boy on the page for all ages. Here are some teacher notes.  You might also enjoy The Man who loved boxes by Stephen Michael King.

Compost Stew by Mary McKenna Siddals illustrated by Ashley Wolff

It might seem a little difficult to imagine liking a picture book about compost but this is one that will make you smile and it might even inspire you to make your own compost stew. We are collecting books for our library on the theme of sustainability and that is why I am sharing this book.

Compost Stew is told in a rhyme with simply gorgeous collage illustrations.  Here is a sample of the text :

"Environmental chefs,
here's a recipe for you
to fix from scratch
to mix a batch
of Compost Stew.
Apple cores
Bananas, bruised
Coffee grounds with filters, used.

Can you see a pattern here?  This book is an A to Z of compost.  While a few of the ingredients may be unfamiliar to an Australian child I like to think this might lead to lots of discussion.

If you want to be inspired to make compost, if you want to introduce this idea to a young child, it your class have a garden then you should grab this book.  Here is a web site with three brilliant videos, teaching ideas and more details about composting with children.

Iris's Ukulele by Kathy Taylor

This book was a winner of the Tom Fitzgibbon Award so I should have expected it to be good. I loved 2007 winner Why I hate School by Kris Stanhope.  Iris's Ukulele is the 2011 winner - this is an award for a previously unpublished writer.

This book is really good and it raises a lot of issues about bullies, gender and the ups and downs of friendships.  The biggest stumbling block for me is the cover.  This book has been on my reading pile for 10 months.  I know that because I bought it home in January.  The cover made me think this title might be better suited to an older audience.  That was wrong - this book is perfect for a middle primary reader.

Iris and Sidney are best friends.  They both love to perform and so when the local shopping mall announces they will host a talent competition is seems obvious that the friends will team up and even win but this possibility is derailed when Iris tells Sidney she wants to perform her Vampire Rap.  Sidney has wild ideas for a glam rock opera about an intergalactic space traveler called Yendis and a fashion designer called Siri. Take a close look the these names - Iris is Siri backwards.  The two best friends have the most horrible fight and leave to prepare their own acts.

The other conflict in the book involves a bully called Che.  Sidney is a boy who bounces to his own beat. He is eccentric but his classmates have known him since Kindy and so have no problems with his love of sewing and dressing up.  "Sidney is wearing his three-quarter length red tartan pants, his black lace up boots, and a white T-shirt with a drawing of the Eiffel tower." Che is new and aggressive and seems determined to ridicule and hurt Sidney and there is nothing Iris can do to stop him.  Meanwhile Morgan seems so perfect and Iris just want Elijah to notice her.

You can read about the author here.  Here is a good review - I agree I would like to read another book about Sidney and also about Elijah and his brother - "I think how gracefully he (Zac) moves; how he sways his hips from side to side just like a dancer.  And as he get closer I see he looks just like a bigger, older version of Elijah ... But then I notice he's also very different.  Zac is wearing eyeliner, and his nails are painted with black fingernail polish.  ... Zac is dressed like a male model ready to stroll down a fashion runway."

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Smooch and Rose by Samantha Wheeler

I have said this many times before but I really do not like covers like this one we see here for Smooch and Rose.  The little strawberries are important as is the koala but I there is no reason to have a photo of little girl lying on the grass. I wonder if a cover like this will appeal to the target audience.

Rose has lost both her parents and now lives with her elderly gran on a strawberry farm.  Times are becoming tough and suburbia is encroaching on her rural environment.  One evening they find a koala that has been attacked by a pack of dogs.  Sadly the koala dies after they take her to the vet but he tells Rose that there must be a baby.  "There was milk in the pouch.  I think she might have had a baby riding on her back when the dogs attacked her.  ... A baby won't stand a chance out there on its own,' said Craig. 'If you do find it, wrap it up warmly and bring it straight back in."

They do find the baby koala and Rose learns about the work of wildlife carers.  Meanwhile Gran has been forced to sell the farm.  The koala habitat and unique gum trees are threatened.  Rose must find her political voice.  She learns about activism, petitions and overcomes enormous shyness to present a moving a persuasive speech to the council which ultimately changes the development plans and the koala colony is saved.

Here is a review with some good web links.  Here is the author site with a sample chapter.  This is a fairly simple book but it has a good heart as does Rose who you are sure to be cheering for right to the end.

Rachel Carson and her book that changed the world by Laurie Lawlor illustrated by Laura Beingessner

We are collecting books for our library on the theme of sustainability for our new English Syllabus.  You may have read my review of Rachel the story of Rachel Carson.  Here is another simple biography of this important woman written for a younger audience.

Rachel Carson and her book that changed the world adds more detail to the story by exploring Rachel's love of writing and her work as a marine biologist.  I would hope that reading both these books might inspire young students to read her famous book Silent Spring as I did when I was young.

Here is a page from the author and an illustration from this book.

Birdsong by Ellie Sandall

Even though I work in a library which is supposed to be a quiet environment I adore noisy books - books that demand a level of participation by the reader and listener.  Birdsong is a book like this.

This book arrived in our school library last year while I was on leave.  I was shelving some books this week and it caught my eye.

Told in rhyme one small bird lives in a tree and he sits on his branch and sings his song "Kitcha, kitcha, kee kee kee."  He is joined by another bird with his unique song and then two more colourful birds arrive and so the branch fills with colour and song.  In the style of Who sank the boat a huge bird flies in and all the other scatter.  The branch begins to crack and a little butterfly softly lands.  "Oh. The biggest bird, the loudest call ... but whatever could have made him fall?"

If you enjoy Birdsong you should also look for Feathers for Phoebe by Rod Clement, Igor the bird who couldn't sing by Satoshi Kitamura and Peeka-boo, the smallest bird in all the world by Eliza Feely.

Here is a terrific review which will explain some of the reasons why I also loved this book including the idea that it would be perfect for a performance.

Building our house by Jonathan Bean

Building our house is a wonderful picture book written from the heart and based on the family life of the author/illustrator.

Mum, Dad and the two children move from the city and begin the adventure of building a new house way out in the country - building the whole house themselves from scratch.  We watch as Dad hammers in four posts.

"On a clear, cold night Dad sets the corners of the foundation by the North Star.  One wall will face north to ward off the wind, one east to welcome the morning, one south to soak in the sun, and one west to see out the day."

I love all the little details in the illustrations.  You will see a white cat join the family and as time goes on she has a litter of kittens.  Towards the end mum is visibly pregnant and then we see her holding a little baby on their new veranda.  I also love the way mum is wearing glasses.  It is interesting that we don't see characters wearing glasses very often in picture books.

Along with the family the other character in this book is the weather and seasons.  Jonathan Bean does a brilliant job to show the warm summer days with the children splashing in a little paddling pool.  After the community and family come for a splendid day to raise the house frame you can see the autumn leaves changing colour in the background.  Then as the house is almost complete the rain, wind and winter snows arrive.

I have two favourite pages in this book.  There is a double spread showing the floor plan for the house complete with pencil shavings, nails and a hammer along with a set of paint colour cards and a steaming cup of coffee.  I also love the final scene where the family (now with three children) are sitting together on the lounge, mum and the baby are asleep and dad is reading a story to the little girl.  "Once the moving is done everyone goes back to their homes, but my family stays right where we are.  It's our very first night in our new home."   I am sure you have noticed the word HOME! Yes they built a HOUSE but now it is their home.

Everything about this book is special.  It will be enjoyed by children of all ages and by their parents too. Here is the author web site.  Take the time to look at some of his terrific illustrations.  If I have not convinced you to read this book then take a look at this review.  Here is an interview with the author - he looks so young!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Secret Hen House Theatre by Helen Peters

You know that feeling when you read a brilliant book and you just want to rush out and share it!  A book friend of mine read The Secret Hen House Theatre and ever since (this was months and months ago) every time she sees me she mentions this book with such enthusiasm.

Why did it take me so long to read this book?  Well unlike many reviews that I have read I don't really like the cover and I think it is a poor reflection of the tone and even genre of this book.

My second issue with this book now seems quite odd.  When I began to read this book many months ago I had the idea that it was American.  Why does this matter?  Well it doesn't matter but it meant I approached the story with a particular mind set and for some reason I just couldn't relate to this family of four children and their dad living on a run down farm.  This week I sat down to try once again to read The Secret Hen House Theatre and I had a light bulb moment - this book is from England.  This helped the whole setting to make sense.  I read one reviewer who said this book reminded her of Noel Stretfeild and I can see why.  I also reminds me of I Capture the castle by Dodie Smith.

Six years earlier Hannah's mum has died.  Rebecca was a keen thespian and has a wonderful book collection about stage craft and set design and theatre management. Hannah loves to write plays and she has the most fabulous friend called Lottie who supports her every step of the way. Lotte is brilliant at making costumes and graphic arts and is unfailingly positive.

Hannah tries to explain her feelings about acting and the theatre :
"How could she describe the joy of it?  The fun of rehearsals.  The magic of creating a world from wood and words and fabric and sound effects.  The buzz backstage, the butterflies in your stomach, the dazzle of the lights-"

Alongside her passion for the theatre Hannah also longs for her father's approval.  In his grief he seems to have distanced himself from the children and even though he is passionate about his farm animals the farm itself is slowly falling apart.

Lottie tells Hannah about the Linford Arts Festival.  There is a youth drama competition and the prize is 500 pounds.  Hannah begins to imagine all sorts of wonderful possibilities but first she needs a performance space.  Her dad refuses to let Hannah use the loft in the barn but then she stumbles on the old hen house - the perfect venue.  She is able to enlist support from her younger siblings and their preparations begin. Sadly, though, these happy moments are fleeting as they receive news that the rent for the farm has been doubled. Mr Roberts begins to sell of the antique farm equipment and when this does not raise enough money he sells his beloved cattle and calves.  Hannah is distraught.  Now she must win the competition then she can give the money to her dad and their wonderful farm will be saved.

This is a book you will enjoy but you need staying power.  I started this book yesterday and read a few chapters but I was not completely hooked.  It was not until I reached page 188 I just had to abandon everything and keep reading through to the end.  The events of Chapter 25 will leave you gasping and just hoping everything will turn out alright for Hannah and Lottie even though their problems now seem insurmountable.

If you enjoy The Secret Hen House theatre you might also enjoy Ballet Shoes by Noel Stretfeild.   You might also like to read the first chapter.  Here is an interview with the author.  This is a special book which will be enjoyed by thoughtful readers who are prepared to let this story unfold slowly.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Cloud Road by Isobelle Carmody

Before you read this book it is essential to begin by reading The Red Wind and then I guarantee you will be desperate to get your hands on The Cloud Road.

I don't give books stars but if I did then I would give The Cloud Road five out of five.

Bily and Zluty have been forced to leave their little home and make a long and perilous journey firstly across a burning desert and then into the snow covered mountains.  Adding to their burden they have loaded the Monster onto their cart - a large cat like creature who seems dangerous and wise at the same time.

In this second book we learn a little more about the strange world where Bily and Zluty live and also the brothers themselves grow.  Bily gains enormous courage and Zluty grows in his compassion towards others.
I knew I was in safe hands with Isobelle Carmody but I must say as our heroes find themselves in series of incredibly dangerous situations I just held my breath and hoped they would be safe.

"He heard the sound of something metallic falling to the ground and the Monk gave a growl of interest.  Zluty thought of the metal egg he had found in the Northern Forest and he must have made some slight sound, for suddenly the Monk gave a snarling growl and great long claw-tipped fingers closed around his ankle. Zluty cried out in fright as he was hauled roughly from this hiding place and lifted into the air."

You can read a detailed review here.  I hope I do not have to wait too long for the third book in this exciting fantasy series.

The boy with lightning feet by Sally Gardner

All the books in this Magical Children series have such appealing covers although I will say the colour here is not quite as bright as my copy.  The boy with lightning feet is such a happy book (although there are some awful bullies) and a story that will be enjoyed by all sport fans especially children who play football (soccer).

"In that moment something in Timmy clicked, like a light being turned on in a dark room.  He stood up and it seemed everyone on the pitch had disappeared. He rubbed his eyes.  There next to him was the lad he had met my the canal.  'Timmy Twinkle, I've told you already.  You've got lightning in your feet. Use it."

Just like the Billy in The boy with magic numbers, Timmy has lost one parent - in this case his mum. He has been raised by his grandparents but as the story opens we read that his precious grandmother has recently died.  Gramps had been a baker and after the death of wife Timmy is the only customer and so over the weeks and months Timmy has been packing on weight eating cakes and scones and not much else.  In an old photo album Timmy sees a photo of his Great Uncle Vernon known as Twinkletoes and from that moment we know Timmy's life is set to change.

The Boy with Lightning feet is a terrific book for readers who enjoy a satisfying story that is quick to read with lively characters and a very happy ending.  You might also enjoy Extra Time by Morris Gleitzman which is also about soccer and the determination of one boy and his very special younger sister to play and enjoy the game.  I was interested to read Morris Gleitzman actually met families in the UK of young boys who had been selected as football rising stars.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale problem by Mac Barnett illustrated by Adam Rex

When I saw the cover of this book Billy Twitters and his blue whale problem I immediately thought of one of my most favourite picture books Billy's Bucket.  In addition to the main character called Billy there are a lot of things that could link these two books.  The main thing is that these boys both have gumption.

Billy's parents constantly threaten him :  "clean up your room ...brush your teeth ... finish your baked peas or we're buying you a blue whale."  Billy our narrator is, however, a very smart boy.  He knows this is impossible since a blue whale is the biggest animal in the world.  "It's not like you can just have one delivered to your house overnight" or can you?  The next page has no words just a double spread showing an enormous delivery truck arriving from the company called "Fedup delivering punishments worldwide." The delivery guy even has Fedup on his cap and in the distance you can see another man with two large flashlights directing the truck which contains the blue whale.

Mum and dad explain the blue whale is Billy's responsibility and this includes taking the whale to school. Billy tucks his skateboard under the whale and tows him with his bike up the hill.   When he arrives the science teacher is delighted.  Even though Billy enjoys talking about his whale he has to endure a hard time among his peers.  On the way home the bus breaks down but the whale saves the day.

Billy arrives home but his torture is not complete.  Dad gives Billy the blue whale owner's manual and Billy sees all the instructions for washing, waxing and checking the whale for barnacles but his biggest problem is how can he feed the whale.  He needs krill and ten thousand gallons of sea water.  How will Billy solve this problem? The ending is such a terrific twist this is a book you will want to read over and over again.

One more thing you must look closely under the dust jacket and at the marvelous end papers which reminded me of an old fashioned newspaper.  You can read about the process of illustrating this book here. Here is the web site for the author.  Extra Yarn also by Mac Barnett is a very special title which I will review in coming weeks. Here are some lesson ideas.