Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Disappearing act by James Maloney

Disappearing Act.  This book has it all!  An intriguing plot.  A very recognizable Australian setting. Magic and mystery. History and flashbacks. Love and loathing. Alchemy and science. Greed and the urgent search for truth and justice.  All of this is contained in just 181 pages!

Matt Cooper finds a book in a language he does not recognize with detailed drawings showing the process for a series of magic tricks. Matt tries out the tricks, simple ones at first, and discovers he has a talent.  When he visits a city dentist with his mother he sees an old man writing phrases in chalk on the footpath.  He has no idea what this writing says but he recognizes the letters from his magic book and so he takes a piece of chalk and completes the phrase (see below).  The old man is ecstatic.  "I've waited so long - a whole lifetime."

The next chapter of Disappearing Act sees the action switch to 1946.  We meet Mattheus Coperneau, a magician who has been given the honour of presenting a special performance before the royal family of Montilagus.

"Europe is not one country, but dozens of them.  Everyone has heard of Germany and France and Italy, but if you study the map closely you will see tiny specks among the larger ones, like pebbles in a rock wall.  These countries were never important enough to deserve a king and so they make do with princes.  That's why they are called principalities."

In a grand finale to his magic show Mattheus makes the Royal Sceptre disappear.  Naturally the second half of this trick should mean the sceptre reappears to the sound of great relief and applause but on this occasion the trick has failed and the sceptre is gone.  Magic is not to blame.  This is a crime but with no one else to accuse Mattheus is sent to the dungeon.  Chapters in this book now alternate between Australia 2011 and Montilagus in 1889.  At this earlier time Prince Edvord of Montilagus sees power coming from gold.  He enlists the help of a scientist called Joachim Tassisalus and an alchemist Augustine Rey.  Joachim knows alchemy is just trickery but the prince is determined there must be a way to turn ordinary metals into gold.

Look closely at these names Matthew Cooper and Mattheus Coperneau.  The story of Joachim and his love of Princess Agneta is also linked with Matthew Cooper but I don't want to go into these details and spoil the terrific twist at the end of this complex and highly rewarding read.

I will make one of my predictions that this book will be short listed for our CBCA awards in 2015. I do hope I am right!

Here is a set of teaching notes.  If you enjoy this book you might also look for The book without Words by Avi,   This book also reminded me of The Medici Curse. You can read more about James Moloney here.

Only the heart knows magic is real.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A snicker of magic by Natalie Lloyd

"A snicker?"
"That's magic leftover," Jonah explained.  
"Not good for much, not as fancy as it used to be - but enough to make it special."

There are some books, the best books really, that are so beautifully told that you just feel as though you are really there - in that town or school or home.  I have just spent three days in Midnight Gulch, Tennessee with my new friends Felicity Juniper Pickle, her best friend Jonah Pickett, her wise little sister Frannie Jo and all the other wonderful people of this magic town who are connected in ways you just need to discover.  I have also fallen in love with the idea of collecting words.  Felicity sees words hovering over people - real words and invented words but always true words.  This is such a terrific idea and by the end of A snicker of magic I wanted to collect all these words and put them in a jar for myself. This is a bit like the idea behind Donavan's word jar and the magic reminded me of A Tangle of Knots and Savvy.  The other lovely ingredient in this book comes from the town ice cream factory. You will want to eat huge spoonfulls of :

  • Andy's snickerdoodle sucker punch
  • Day's chocolate orange switcheroo
  • Marsh-Mallory Mocha Delight
  • Jim's just-vanilla's-all-I- want

But be very careful before you dip into Blackberry Sunrise.  "People buy it by the gallon because it helps them remember.  The problem is that you don't know what kindof memory this ice cream's going to dredge up.... if the blackberries taste sweet, you remember something good. But if you take a bite and the blackberry are sour, well ... "

A gulch is a narrow valley with deep sides.  This makes it perfect for a small community and perhaps for a place where you can feel safe and at home. Midnight Gluch is a town with a long history and with citizens famous for many different types of magic.  Sadly years ago magic seems to have left the town when two famous brothers, Stone and Berry Weatherly, known as the Brothers Threadbare held their famous duel in 1910.  When Stone lost the duel, after three days of frantic music, magic left the town and worse a curse descended.  It is now nearly a century later and Felicity feels she is cursed. Her mum is a wanderer.  The little family of three never stay long in any one town but as our story begins they arrive back in Midnight Gulch - the town of her childhood.

Here are some words from this book :
apple fritter

Read this splendid review in the New York Times.  This reviewer loved A snicker of Magic so much she is predicting it will reach the Newbery for 2015.  "Every so often a book comes along where you say to yourself, “I feel privileged to know that I live in a world where books like this exist.” They are books that are forever imprinted upon your heart, a heartprint book if you will."

Apart from the books I mentioned above after you read A snicker of Magic you should look for Waiting for Normal and Pie.   Here is a blog site for the author who actually has a dog called Biscuit. Activities for this book from Scholastic.  Below I have included covers from the Italian and German editions of this book. You can listen to part of the story here. I do hope I have convinced you to read this magical book - I promise you will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Masterpiece by Elise Broach illustrated by Kelly Murphy

Masterpiece - one boy, one beetle, one BIG adventure made me gasp out loud not just once but several times as our hero Marvin, a beetle, tries desperately to help his best friend James.

James is given a set of artist inks and pens for his eleventh birthday from his dad.  James lives with a very hyperactive mother and stepfather.  His party has been a disaster just as James expected but what James does not know is that Marvin has been watching the whole event.  Marvin lives with his loving family in "damp corner of the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink.  Here a leaking pipe had softened the plaster and caused it to crumble away.  Just behind the wall, Marvin's family had hollowed out three spacious rooms, and as his parents often remarked, it was the perfect location.  It was warm, moist and ... best of all, the white plastic wastebasket that loomed on one side offered a constant littler of apple cores, bread crumbs, onion skins and candy wrappers."

Marvin loves James and so he really wants to give his friend a special birthday present.  Late at night he climbs up to his bedroom and discovers the ink and pen.  He dips his legs into the ink and begins to draw the scene outside the window. His art work is an exquisite miniature.  When James's dad sees this work he insists on taking James to see a special art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  On display is a tiny work by Durer entitled Fortitude.  It is part of a set of four but the other three have been stolen.  The scene is set for a major art crime.

Ever since I read The Borrowers the idea of little creatures inhabiting our homes has fascinated me. I especially enjoy the way simple human things are adapted for use by these smaller house dwellers. Marvin and his family use an old eraser as their table, a contact lens for a fruit bowl and Marvin him self sleeps on a soft cotton ball.  I love the idea of a tea bag used as a parachute and dried macaroni turned into a tuba.The feasts the beetles enjoy from the crumbs dropped by the Pompaday family are also a delight.

Here is the author web site. Here is the review in the New York Times.  Here is a useful set of teaching notes. You might also enjoy The Medici Curse, Chasing Vermeer and From the Mixed up files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler if art crime, mysteries and museums interest you.  If you are fascinated by little animals or people who might live in the walls of your home pick up Tumtum and Nutmeg Bless this mouse or the wonderful book Walter.  For more about Albert Durer look at Run Hare, Run which is a terrific picture book in our library.  The wisdom of Marvin also reminded me of Humphrey.

I have included a different cover design below - which do you prefer?

Operation Bunny by Sally Gardner illustrated by David Roberts

An orphan baby is found in a hat box at a railway station.  Most readers will know that Emily Vole, the baby, will suffer some hardships (her adoptive parents are rich and cruel) but that after some suffering Emily will find her true destiny and some wonderful friends and she might even save the world from an evil power.  If you need to know more then I strongly suggest reading Operation Bunny.

Daisy Dashwood wishes to adopt the baby that has been found in the hatbox.  "Five years later, Daisy Dashwood had to admit that Emily Vole wasn't exactly what she had had in mind when she'd made her one and only wish.  What she really wanted was a baby girl with blue eyes and blonde hair, ideally the same colour as her own strawberry-blond hair extensions."

Poor little Emily is forced to wear a blond wig (Daisy is a hairdresser) and blue contact lenses.  Then things get even worse.  When Emily turns five Daisy falls pregnant with triplets.  Ronald Dashwood knows they can't send Emily back so he decides Emily can be the family servant.  She will now live in the laundry room and her bed is the ironing board.

Luckily for Emily the lady next door, Miss String, is really a fairy in disguise.  She and her huge cat companion befriend Emily and are able to assist her with the enormous amount of housework each morning and then provide brilliant lessons each afternoon. "Within a year Emily could read, write, do maths and speak fluent French and German.  Plus another strange language called Old English."

When things are going well in a story you just know things are probably destined for disaster and so it is not really a huge surprise that by Chapter eight disaster does indeed fall.  Miss Ottoline String is accidentally killed when Mr Charlie Cuddie is distracted by a witch on a broomstick.  This witch is the evil Harpella and she is desperate to get hold of a set of keys that Emily now holds.  At this point the plot becomes very complex and quite tense as Emily and her best friend Fidget (the giant cat) try to stay one step ahead of Harpella.  They need to prevent her getting hold of these special keys and also stop her turning humans into bunnies and zombies.

This is the first book in the series Wings & Co and as you can see it is quite a madcap adventure.  We will to add the next two to our library collection soon.

Here is the publisher web site which includes a generous audio sample.  Here is an excellent review from the New York Times.

You might also enjoy Emmy and the incredible shrinking rat and Mr and Mrs Bunny, detectives extraordinare, and you should also look for all the other books by Sally Gardner in our school library.

References to fairy tales add depth to the story and make a clever backdrop to this series kickoff, in which a Circe-like witch turns people into animals and lures fairies to their doom in a magical lamp.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Mouse Cookies and more - a Treasury by Laura Numeroff illustrated by Felicia Bond

Every now and then a new book arrives in our school library that makes me almost jump for joy. Mouse Cookies and more - a Treasury is one of these books.

I have been a fan of Laura Numeroff and her 'circle' stories for many years and love to read If you give a mouse a cookie and many others to our Kindergarten students each year.  I bought little cassette tapes of these stories but the tapes are now quite worn out and it can be difficult to find an old cassette player.  Mouse Cookies and More - has it all.  The full text and illustrations for four Numeroff stories, a CD with readings by people like David Hyde Pierce, recipes, craft ideas, teaching activities and even the music for the mouse cookie song.

Here is a list of some recipes :
Mum's old fashioned Oatmeal cookies
Uncle Sydney's Snickerdoodles
Pop's peanut butter Munches
Ice Cream pancakes with Strawberry Sauce
Corny Corn muffins
Chocolate mud muffins
and more

I have talked about this series previously.  This treasury would make a lovely gift for a young child - especially if you own a piano and can enjoy the songs too.  You can see some sample pages here.

In Japan they even have a Mouse Cookie Bus.

Fizzlebert Stump the boy who ran away from the circus (and joined the library) by AF Harrold illustrated by Sarah Horne

Fizzlebert Stump the boy who ran away from the circus (and joined the library) is a huge romp from page one through to page 251!  I almost read the whole book in one sitting but such awful things happen to our hero Fizzlebert Stump known as Fizz that at several points I just had to stop reading.  In fact the author advised this himself - he talks to the reader right through this story in a similar way to Lemony Snickett in A series of Unfortunate Events.

Fizz has lived his whole life with a travelling circus.  His mum is a clown and his dad is the strong man and they enjoy their life and simple small caravan.  Sadly for Fizz there are no other children in this circus so his main friends are a sea lion called Fish and an old toothless lion.  Fizz does have to attend school but this is provided by the assorted adults from the circus and so while Fizz knows quite a lot about clowns, acrobats and circus tents he is extremely ignorant about things from daily life including the workings of public libraries.  One night some boys hang around after the circus talking with Fizz.  He is delighted to meet some children his own age but sadly the conversation turns to taunting when Fizz tells them his name.  As the boys run off one drops his library book and so the next day, under instruction from Dr Surprise the circus's "Mysterious Magical Mind Reader, Horrendous Horripilating Hypnotist and Incredible Invisible Illusionist", Fizz visits the town library to return the book.

"The room was full of more books than he'd ever seen in his life.  Brilliant! Amazing! Just looking at one shelf at random and reading the titles, it seemed that every single book was different."

Fizz finds a special book and he goes to the counter to buy it because the lending process is new to him.  The Librarian Miss Toad explains Fizz can join the library.  No need for money.  There is one catch. Fizz will need an adult to sign his membership form.  As he sadly leaves the library two people walk up with the seemingly innocent offer of help.  They pretend to be his grandparents and Fizz can join the library and borrow the book "The Great Zargo of Ixl-Bolth and the Flying death Robots of Mars." Clearly another thing missing from Fizz's upbringing was "he'd never learnt that, as a general rule, it's not a good idea to talk to strangers in the street."

If you are already a fan of Roald Dahl especially The Twits or the Mr Gum series then rush (and I do mean rush) into your library and ask for Fizzlebert Stump.  There are three books in this series and yes we do have all of them.  If your library does not have this series make sure you ask the lovely Teacher-Librarian to buy it.  Other children will thank you and so will teachers who pick up this book as a read-a-loud for their class.

I have to thank a Grade five student (and his mum) from my school who alerted me to this terrific book.  I am off to borrow the second one today. You can read reviews by other students here.

I will finish with a little quote which may give you an idea of the tone of this wacky book.  For reasons I won't explain this is from the scene where Mr Stump (he is a weightlifter remember) picks up the town librarian Miss Toad.

"he grabbed her (gently) by the collar and lifted her up.  Her fat ankles paddled the air, as if they were still walking.  He lifted her higher, with one arm, which was a remarkable feat since she was not the slimmest or slightest of creatures, and turned her so they faced each other.  She was, as you can imagine, a little startled by this, but as a trained librarian she did not let it show."

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Our Village in the Sky by Janeen Brian illustrated by Anne Spudvilas

Picture book readers will know the best examples of this genre often feel like poems. Our Village in the sky really is a set of poems which together share the daily life of a small group of children who live in a remote village in the Himalayan mountains.

I am so tempted to quote extensively from this text - every page contains tiny writing jewels.  Here are a few lines to tempt you :

"I am a drummer.
My hands make noise
that echoes through the village.

Sometimes my fingers flutter
like small, brown butterflies
and the sound is their heartbeat."

"Hands can 
pitch stones
grab cows' tails
wave to friends
tie scarves
shake mats
and tickle!

Feet can
chase goats
jump puddles
kick dust
dance anyhow
and run away!"

You can listen to a very special reading of the whole book here.  Children from Immanuel College in South Australia bring these touching poems to life. Here is a very comprehensive set of teaching notes including ideas you can use for Visual Literacy.

I will make an early prediction that Village in the Sky will be short listed for the CBCA prize in 2015 it certainly deserves this honour.  This book would be an excellent way show how children from other lands follow their daily routines, routines which are very different to those of children from suburban Australia.  We see the children at work washing and drying clothes, preparing dung for burning, breaking rocks, caring for animals and most of all having fun with games, dance and music.
The illustrations are especially beautiful showing the landscape and warm smiles of the children. This is a book to treasure and it is a book that will enrich the lives of all readers.

Bag in the wind by Ted Kooser illustrated by Barry Root

"One cold, windy morning early in spring, a bulldozer was pushing a big pile of garbage around a landfill when it uncovered an empty plastic bag."

Thus begins the journey of a plastic bag over the fence where it is eventually found by a girl collecting cans.  She leaves the bag with the lady at the gas station who has paid for her recycling but the bag blows away again and is found by a homeless man.

"A tall man with long hair and a beard came limping along the side of the road, using a metal crutch. The bag came rolling along the shoulder toward him and he caught it with the tip of his crutch.  He leaned down and picked it up and wadded it into his pocket"

The bag 'escapes' again and is found by several more people until finally it returns to the little girl who had been collecting cans.  She has saved her money and has come into a second hand store to buy a baseball glove and ball.  Bag in the Wind is a lyrical exploration of an important environmental topic.  Here is some background reading about the problems with plastic bags.  The setting for Bag in the Wind is American but there is an Australian campaign to reduce or eliminate the use of bags which is also worth exploring with your students.  Bag in the Wind is in our Picture book collection but it could also be placed in Non Fiction because it does have excellent pages of factual information at the back.  Here is an excellent Q&A with Ted Kooser and a poster you could use to promote this special book.

You might like to also read my review of House Held up by trees also by Ted Kooser.

Missy's Super Duper Royal Deluxe Picture Day by Susan Nees

In spite of the very long title - Missy's Super Duper Royal Deluxe Picture Day is a simple junior book. It will only appeal to girls in Grades 1 and 2 and the plot is quite predictable but it did make me smile.

Missy has big plans for class picture day.  She will wear wonderful clothes.  "Missy could not wait until Friday.  Friday was picture day at school.  And Missy was going to dress up Super Duper Royal Deluxe.  She was going to razzle and dazzle! She was going to shimmer and shine!"

Missy is really called Melisa Abigail Rose but everyone calls her Missy.  She has a cat called Pink and everyone calls him "Pink."  On school picture day Missy tries twelve different crazy outfits until she finally settles on the perfect combination which includes all her favourite things - sparkly bag, plaid skirt, dynamite boots and her super duper fuzzy hat.   Missy's mother takes one look at her daughter and their battle begins.  Mum has organised a far more conservative and sensible Picture Day outfit. Mum wins the battle and a very angry Missy heads off to school.  In class Missy sits beside Oscar. Missy is so busy feeling furious and comparing her plain clothes with the sparkles of her class mates she does not really look at Oscar.  He is wearing a plaid vest and a huge green bow tie.  As the two of them wait for their turn Oscar explains his brilliant plan to Missy.  The ending will make you smile.

Here is the web site for the author where you can peek inside other books from this series.  We have all of them in our school library. You might also enjoy the Fancy Nancy series and Eloise.