Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Magrit by Lee Battersby

Sometimes books come along to test boundaries 
Magpies Volume 31, issue 2, page 32.

When I read a book from our school library my mind often wanders to thoughts of which student might enjoy it. Magrit is almost impossible to categorise.  While I did enjoy Magrit it is such an odd book and at times feels quite harsh and dark.  Some reviewers suggest age 10 but I think this is really a book for a very senior primary student and certainly one who has read quite widely.

The setting for Magrit is a cemetery.  Magrit lives there with her 'friend' Mister Puppet.  Magrit herself created Mr Puppet.

"Magrit had pieced him together from elements she had found in every corner of the graveyard : a bone here, a stick there, a tin can in one corner and rotten twine from a garbage bag in another. Now he sat at the apex of the roof, with his long arms wrapped around the stone cross, and kept vigil."

Mr Puppet is the voice of doubt, the voice of reason perhaps the voice of authority.  He gives Magrit advice which is presented in a bold hand drawn font.

When a stork drops a tiny baby into the graveyard Mr Puppet orders Magrit to kill it but she does not.  Instead she nurtures and cares for the tiny infant.  She finds ways to feed, clothe and wash her new 'friend' and gives him the name Bugrat. Through care of this child Magrit discovers love and finds happiness. There is, however, one dark corner of the graveyard Magrit never visits.  Everything changes when Bugrat learns to walk and sets of exploring.  He wanders over to the forbidden place and finds the skeleton of a young girl and Magrit is distraught.

"It was a small skeleton, obviously a child, curled up on its side as if sleeping, with its legs drawn up towards its chest and arms folded as if hugging a non-existent teddy ...  Magrit realised that the whole world had fallen silent ... The murmur and hum that always emanated from the surrounding buildings, so prevalent that she never really noticed, was painful in its absence ."

You can read more of the plot here.

Watch this short video to hear the author Lee Battersby from Western Australia talk about Magrit.  I am not sure that I would read this book with a class but here are a set of teacher notes from Walker Books which might give you some further insights into this complex and yet compelling book.

Magrit is a unique book but it does have some links with The Graveyard book, The Unfinished Angel and perhaps Skellig.

You can read some reviews here by clicking these quotes:

Themes include resilience, responsibility and independence, wrapped up in a suspenseful and fantastical mystery. 

Magrit has plenty of soul, sadness, despair, and hope. It’s a delightfully dark fairy tale, full of Battersby’s whimsy and charm.

Magrit is a wonderfully crafted story that is magical, unusual, strange and captivating.  I haven’t read anything quite like it before.  

Oliver and Patch by Claire Freedman and Kate Hindley

In our school library we have over 650 books about dogs and over 1100 books about friendship.  Our new library online catalogue allows me to create lists so today I combined these two terms and narrowed my search to just picture books and I now have a more manageable list of 22 titles but I am sure I could add a lot more.  Oliver and Patch is one of these titles.

Oliver has moved to the big city.  He is lonely.  On a rainy day he ventures outside and  "suddenly he saw it, bright as a poppy in a cornfield ... a small, soggy, white ball of a dog trailing a streak of red leash.  He was all alone, just like Oliver."

Oliver knows Patch must belong to someone but since no one is nearby he and Patch have a brilliant day together playing in the park, enjoying a huge icecream sundae (see the illustration below) and splashing in a fountain.  It is only at night, when Patch becomes sad, that Oliver knows he must take some action and find the real owners.


Days slip by and no one calls.  This is where you need to look more closely at the illustrations. Oliver and Patch catch a train and the commuter sitting beside them is reading a newspaper with a headline HAVE YOU SEEN THIS DOG?  Then on another rainy day Oliver and Patch are out exploring. Patch takes off, breaking free of his lead, heading for a tiny hidden park.  "A girl was sitting on the swings, sad and alone.  Oliver looked at her red coat and red boots - and he knew."

I adore books with emotional highs and lows.  What will happen now?  Oliver will have to hand over his new friend.  I am sure the icecream sundae on the last page will give you a huge smile.

Claire Freedman is the author of over fifty books including the hugely popular Underpants series. You should also take a look at the illustrator web site.

The disgusting sandwich by Gareth Edwards and Hannah Shaw

I called into school this week to pick up a set of books for holiday reading and among them was The Disgusting Sandwich.  Such a funny book.  I will definitely add this to my Kindergarten read-a-loud collection.

"One day a boy came to the park.
He had a sandwich with him.
It had fresh white bread and peanut butter.
It was a beautiful sandwich."

But not for long.  In a cumulative tale badger watches this delectable treat as it is covered in sand, goop, squish marks, ants, feathers, slime and worse.  Finally, though, badger has the sandwich in his paws. Yum!

The back cover says :

A gloriously yucky story, 
with a wicked twist in the tale.

Teachers might be able to use this detailed analysis of the illustrations, text and list of related books.
Celebrate Sandwich Day with great ideas from my friend at Kinderbooks.

Take a look at the beautiful web page by the illustrator.  I certainly need to add more of her titles to our library collection.

Here is a page from The Disgusting Sandwich.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll

From time to time school libraries and Teacher-Librarians debate the pros and cons of changing the organisation of fiction collections to reflect genre rather than using the traditional arrangement by author surname.

In Darkling Wood is a book that shows the complexity of using genre to classify fiction.  In Darkling Wood has historical elements, it is a fantasy with fairies, there is a strong environmental message and it is also a story about family relationships.  Not one of these themes or genres would adequately categorise this engrossing book.

Alice's brother needs a heart transplant.  Theo is only seven years old. Dad has moved away and started a new family so it is up to Alice and her mum to get Theo to hospital when they receive the late night message that a compatible heart has become available.  Alice cannot stay at the hospital so she is picked up by her grandmother - a reclusive and angry lady she has never met.

Nell lives two hours from London down a remote track.  Her home is called Darkling Cottage taking the name from the surrounding Darkling Wood.  The trees become a metaphor for the darkness in Nell's life.  Her younger son died when he was only eleven, she is estranged from her older son, Alice's father, and her efforts to remove the woods which endanger her home seem to be constantly thwarted.  Running alongside this story we read letters sent to a young soldier serving in World War I. Alfred's sister writes from Darkling Cottage in 1914 sharing her excitement.  She has found and even photographed fairies in the woods.

Meanwhile Alice meets a young girl called Flo.  "She looks about my age, only smaller than me.  And she's wearing the weirdest outfit.  Her boots make me think of ice skates without the blades, and she;s got on what looks like a petticoat.  Over the top of it, her red coat reaches almost to the ground."

Here is a ten out of ten review and one from Love Reading 4 Kids.

Emma Carroll is a wonderful storyteller and with In Darkling Wood she has taken quite a gallop of different aspects- the past and the present, the real world and a magical alternative- and blended them seamlessly into Alice’s story.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Alice Jones : The impossible clue by Sarah Rubin

The front cover says :

Alice Jones - Code maker Crime breaker

I would add :

Alice Jones - Mystery solver Extraordinary mathematician
Alice Jones - Logical thinker Problem solver

Alice Jones The impossible clue is a terrific detective/mystery/crime story for middle to upper primary grade students.  It is quite a long book (285 pages) and the the print is small (a little too small in my view) but the action of the story, the determination of Alice to solve this crime and the driving mystery meant I read the whole book in one sitting this morning.

"Ladies and gentlemen. I'm afraid the unveiling of the latest scientific breakthrough which Delgado industries made in December cannot go ahead as scheduled. ... our top scientist and lead researcher on this project, Dr Adrian Learner, has disappeared."

This disappearance is made all the more mysterious because Dr Learner was working on invisibility and security cameras show him walking in to his laboratory at 4pm but not walking out.  His assistant goes into the room the next morning at 7am and Dr Learner has disappeared. Has he invented a cloak of invisibility?

Alice is drawn into this case by her classmate Sammy - the son of Mr Delgado. After the press conference, quoted above, Alice and her dad who is a journalist meet privately with Mr Delgado and he enlists her help.  He even gives Alice a case file he had intended to give a firm of private investigators and permission to visit his high security building to look at the laboratory where Dr Learner had been working.

Running parallel with this whodunit mystery is the messy home life of Alice,  Mum lives in Italy, her twin sister Della is home for the summer and dad is a highly distracted journalist.  Della is an aspiring actress with her sights set on the lead role in Annie.  I actually found this part of the story much less interesting than the race to solve the crime.

Here is a sample of the way Sarah Rubin describes the action so well you can see it all unfolding in front of you.  In this scene Alice and her friend Kevin are getting close to the truth so have been captured and tied up.  They manage to cut through the tape using a sharp ended pot plant.  Help is on the way but all of this is taking too long and Alice sees the police driving away. She grabs a red blanket from the lounge and waves it from the rain soaked balcony :

"I put one foot on the lowest bar of the railing and hoisted myself up, leaning over the side of the balcony so that I could hold the red blanket over the edge.  The worn threads of my shoes slipped worryingly against the metal ... I just couldn't hold on any more but my fingers slipped on the wet metal ladder rung.  The weight of the soaking red blanket in my other hand tipped me forwards, and I pivoted on my shins over the edge of the balcony and arced a perfect circle into the air."

You can read some reviews here by children from the UK. click the quotes below or read another one here.  You can also read the first chapter.  This is another terrific book from Chicken House.  I do find their books are always worth reading.  In 2017 the second Alice Jones book will be published. You can see the cover below.

Rubin has an engaging tone which makes the book an easy read and more importantly makes Alice the kind of kid you’d be happy to sit with in school – and not just because she’s really good at maths. Like, really good.

The Impossible Clue has just the right mixture of laughs, tension and danger, dastardly deeds and red herrings and a good, classic mystery trope of the locked room. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling bee by Deborah Abela

A few years ago a young student from my school won the NSW State Spelling Bee final.  I was in the audience, it was broadcast on the local radio and the whole event was thrilling.  In this book - The Stupendously spectacular spelling bee - India is also a champion speller but so far her talents have been limited to spelling in front of the television.

"India Wimple could spell.  Brilliantly. On Friday nights, she and her family would huddle in front of  the TV in their pyjamas, in their small house in Yungabilla, and watch the Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee."

As the story begins the family are watching the finals of the spelling bee on television.  The finals are held at the Sydney Opera House.  When the winner is announced the compare seems to look straight at India when she says the next spelling bee champion could be you!  And so their journey begins.  India competes at the district level, regional finals and on to the grand final at the Sydney Opera House.

The Wimple's are battlers.  Dad has lost his job and is working as a the town handyman.  The town of Yungabilla has hit hard times and so dad is mostly paid with baked goods and IOUs.  Mum has left her job to look after Boo, India's brother, who suffers from very bad asthma.  Nanna Flo has also moved in with the family.

When the family reach Sydney everything seems to fall into place.  Checking into the aptly named Hotel Grand the family are upgraded at no extra cost to the Grand Plaza Suite.  "There were four bedrooms with king-sized beds, a kitchen stocked with food and a spa the size of a small pool."  The contestants and their families are taken on a tour of Sydney which ends at Kirribilli House where they meet the Prime Minister.

"Outside, waiters were putting the finishing touches on an equally long table filled with trays of sandwiches and cupcakes and, in the centre, a bubbling chocolate fountain surrounded by strawberries and marshmallows."

India has two main rivals in the bee.  A boy called Rajish who knows he wants to be friends with India and a girl called Summer.  Summer is a lonely rich girl.  She is despicable to India and yet India finds a way to show amazing kindness.

Every chapter features a spelling word and definition.  Here are a few of them :

tremulous, disconcerting, valorous, endeavour, disquietude, perspicacious (one of my favourite words) and splendiferous.

I think I smiled from page one to page 232 reading this book.  This whole story is like a fairy tale - so many absolutely perfect things happen to the Wimple family and their talented daughter India. Yes there are some disasters - the car breaks down on the way to the regional final, Boo has an extremely bad asthma attack and has to be taken to hospital, India arrives at the grand final in her pyjamas - but magically everything works out.  The other feature of this book that I really enjoyed was the totally authentic Australian flavour.  When the family step out onto the balcony of their grand hotel room this is the view :

"It's like being on top of the world,' Boo said.  And it was.  For the Wimples at least.  They'd never been anywhere so high or so grand.  Dad pointed out all the famous landmarks. 'There's the Harbour Bridge, and the Royal Botanical Gardens and ... Luna Park!"

Here is a set of teaching notes.  This book would make an excellent class read-a-loud especially if your class are participating in a spelling bee.  You might also enjoy Bungawitta, The Big BazoohleyFortune Falls, and Speechless.

Click each of the quotes below to read more reviews.

This is a fast-paced and engaging book. Abela wonderfully captures the caring spirit of family and community. 

Striving for a dream, using the support of those around you, taking one step at a time, believing in yourself and allowing obstacles to become opportunities

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Margaret Mahy Treasury audio book read by Margaret Mahy

Our Grade Two classes are currently exploring some of my favourite books by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy.  Every year or two we revisit her work and I continue to marvel at her story telling and rich vocabulary.  Last week we read The Pumpkin man and the Crafty Creeper and in past weeks we read Jam and Beaten by a Balloon.

This week as I drove to work I have been listening to The Margaret Mahy Treasury audio book.  This CD contains six stories all read by the author herself :

The Witch in the Cherry tree
A Summery Saturday morning
The boy with two shadows
The Three Legged Cat
The boy who was followed home

We do have all of these books in our library (we have 42 of her books in total).  Margaret Mahy wrote over 120 books not to mention her huge output of short stories.

Listening to Margaret Mahy reading her own stories this week really allowed me to appreciate her very special talent of narrative inventiveness.  The witch in the story of The Witch in the Cherry tree is so cunning, she tries a host of ploys to get her hands on those cakes but the little boy is not fooled.  You can almost smell the fresh cupcakes and feel the warmth of their kitchen. The Three Legged Cat contains such delicious words - rascally roving swagman, revolting moulting Russian hat, chinwag. dot-and-go carry and Cardamon Street. This is such a satisfying story.  Mrs Gimble gets the perfect "cat",  Cyril has the perfect travelling companion and the cat is able to see the wonders of the world.

I have previously review The man whose mother was a pirate, The Rattlebang picnic, and Jam

Today I was browsing through our new NSW School Magazine anthology.  As I flipped the pages I saw several stories by Margaret Mahy. I can't wait for our copy to arrive so I can explore these stores further.

Margaret Mahy was much talked about and missed at the recent IBBY Congress in New Zealand.  It was good to see displays of her books, her huge chair (Down the Back of the Chair) and listen to other acclaimed NZ authors celebrate her enormous achievements.  I kept thinking how much she would have relished participation in the congress - a celebration of the wonderful world of children's books.

Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller

"I have always paid attention to words and the way they fill my ears. There are words I could hear over and over again, like seashell.  And there are other words, like custard, 
that make my stomach flip."

As this story opens Elizabeth is on a train with her father Henry Murmur and Zenobia.  They are travelling to Witheringe House.  This is the house where her father had lived as a child.  Father is a plant scientist. He is distracted and remote.  Elizabeth would love to have a close relationship with her father but since mother left he has become even more distant.  Elizabeth's only friend is Zenobia.

"Zenobia is not imaginary at all. It is true no one except me can see or hear her, but that doesn't mean I dreamed her up. Besides, as she so often likes to point out, it's unlikely that someone as dull or as timid as I could ever imagine someone like Zenobia."

Zenobia has an obsessive personality.  Right now she is following her passion for clairvoyance, prior to this it was fortune telling and in the following weeks she will become obsessed with poisonous plants.  It is Zenobia who makes Elizabeth explore this old house and including the forbidden areas. Late at night they find a room where the plants on the wallpaper appear to be moving.  When the rain finally stops and they explore the neglected maze they meet the gardener who seems intent on grafting strange plants in an almost maniacal way.  Then Elizabeth stumbles upon a mystery - the disappearance of Tourmaline. Here is her gravestone :

Tourmaline, aged seven years.
Beloved daughter of Edward and Lydia
Adored sister of Henry.

For middle primary students Elizabeth and Zenobia will be an absorbing read with slightly Gothic overtones.  The ending is a odd but I think readers just need to accept the 'happy ending' and not question how this is totally at odds with the gravestone quoted above.

In 2013 Elizabeth and Zenobia was short listed for the Text prize from 350 entries.

Here is a set of teaching notes.  You can preview some of the story here.  You might also enjoy The Old Willis Place, The Visconti house, The Haunting of Charity Delafield and The Humming Room.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Vinnie's war by David McRobbie

When I read The War that saved my life I was browsing through our school library catalogue exploring the subject headings we had assigned to this excellent book.  I clicked on the subject World War, 1939-1945 - Evacuation of civilians - Fiction.  I know this is quite a narrow subject but it was worth exploring because it led me to twelve books in our library including Vinnie's War which is the perfect book to read after The War that saved my life.  I read Vinnie's war yesterday all in one sitting.  One of the things I enjoyed in this book is the inclusion of posters, ration cards, advertisements and newspaper articles from this period in history at the start of each chapter. Oddly I could not find any further details about these pages such as a reference or source list. I have included one at the end of this post.

Vinnie lives in London with him mum - "there had been no father in Vinnie's life."  When he was eleven Vinnie's mum died.  Vinnie is taken in by Aunt Vera but she is not his aunt and life in her home is unbearable.  Vinnie finds himself a job in a local pub and there he finds the family he has longed for.  The Rosen's take in a Jewish boy called Isaac.  Vinnie fears he will be kicked out.

"It was settled over breakfast.  Vinnie would keep working in the pub, but better still, he and Isaac could share the spare bedroom upstairs."

Isaac becomes a truly wonderful friend to Vinnie, especially when he teaches Vinnie to play the piano then one night the unspeakable happens.  Vinnie is away on an errand for Mr Rosen.  Bombs are falling all over London and one destroys the pub and his new family.

Vinnie is now sent to the small country village of Netterfold.  On the train, Vinnie makes three important friends.  Sister and brother Kathleen and Joey and Dobroslaw Szsczepanski better known as Dobbs.  Vinnie is sent to live with a reclusive former concert pianist.  Kathleen and Joey are placed with a greedy woman who just wants their ration cards. Dobbs finds a place in the local shop.  You can probably guess the happy experiences in store for Vinnie and you will cheer as Kathleen and Joey find a way to put a stop to mean and criminal ways of Mrs Watney and her son Dennis.

Here is a detailed set of teaching notes from the publisher.

If you want to do some wide reading about the experiences of evacuated children here is a selection of titles in our school library.

Oddfellow's orphanage by Emily Winfield Martin

If you need action and adventure, mystery and mayhem this might not be the book for you but if you need a gentle story of kindness and delicious food with sweet illustrations then this book will be perfect.

There are fourteen chapters in Oddfellow's Orphanage and as the story opens a new resident is set to arrive.  Her name is Delia.  "She didn't speak, but fished a yellow pencil and a scrap of paper from her pocket." Delia has arrived in the middle of the night.  She has been bought to the school by the headmaster Oddfellow Bluebeard and a teacher called Professor Stella in a carriage drawn by bears.  Oddfellow Bluebeard is a distant and opposite relation to the original Bluebeard of fairytale fame.  "He spends his days reading in his study, or minding his honeybees, or sewing beautiful suits the way his mother, a dressmaker, taught him."

We never learn why Delia cannot speak but she seems to settle in to her new home very quickly. I mentioned kindness,  On her first day at Oddfellow's orphanage Professor Stella gives Delia a "pocket sized red notebook on a long loop of string ... She turned to the first page of the notebook and wrote on it Thank You." Each chapter focuses on a different student from this wonderful school/orphanage.  Each chapter is also a celebration of some event or lesson over the year such as a field trip to find the Great Green Lake Monster, a summer picnic, a visit to the circus and Christmas.

My favourite part is the food!  Here are some samples :

"Breakfast was little stacks of pancakes that the cooks had made into different shapes, hearts, stars and tiny rabbits."

"Bunches of little sandwiches were heaped in baskets lined with red-and-white-checked fabric. Pies filled with apple, cherry, blackberry and strawberry lined the tables ... Sparkling pitchers sat filled to the brim with fizzy lemonade and sweet iced tea."

You can see some of the characters here and yes one is a hedgehog.

There is a web site for Oddfellow Orphanage.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The twenty-elephant restaurant by Russell Hoban illustrated by Quentin Blake

This gem of a book was first published in 1978.  I remember having a tiny copy from the Pocket Puffin series in my first school library.  I am glad to say this new copy, recently republished, is  much larger and so will be easier to read with a group.

Have you ever been sitting at a restaurant and noticed you table had a wobble. This book offers a solution.  Make a new table.  Make a table  that is "really strong. It's steady as a rock. No matchbooks under that table. Elephants could dance on that table."

Elephants.  More than one.  More tables are needed and elephants!  The solution - advertise.

This book is perfect to read aloud and the riotous scenes are bought to life by the perfect illustrations from Quentin Blake.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Book Week 2016

Book Week 2016

We had another huge week in our school for Book Week which we celebrated one week later than the official dates because I was attending the 35th IBBY Congress.

Here is a list of some of the ways we celebrated :

  • Our teachers were sent 10 Australian and book/reading related poems to share each day
  • We prepared a set of Book Week songs using lyrics written by our students and well known simple tunes
  • On Monday the library hosted a games lunch for card games and board games
  • On Tuesday we held one of our popular movie lunches. This movie has no connection with the Book Week slogan but I knew it would be a new one for the children and we do have the book in our library so we watched Q Pootle 5 by Nick Butterworth .
  • On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday groups of young students came to the library to complete craft activities linked with the 2016 slogan Australia : Story Country
  • Our youngest students participated in a 'Name the Kangaroo' task.  Winning name "Blueroo".

Over 400 students participated in our thinking challenges

1.  Puzzle me a puzzle - the winner here is a game with tiny books which you toss into those score cups.  You can also see a find-a-word.

2.  We need a new icon to replace Vegemite.  Gum mite is made from gum nuts and essence of wattle.

3.  Prepare some pages for an Australian A to Z (Animals or plants)

4.  Draw a story map using our school and adding your imagination or design the cover and blurb for a story book about an animal that visits our school.

Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen

"One minute I was twelve years old and wondering where I could get enough money for an inner tube for my old used ten-speed. I didn't have any money and my parents didn't have much either ... The next minute, it seems, I've got a business of my own, with employees, and I'm rich."

This is such a terrific and very short book and it is an excellent way to learn about economics oddly enough.  Lawn Boy is given a old ride-on mower for his birthday.  When a neighbour sees him mowing the family front lawn he asks Lawn Boy (as the narrator we do not learn his name) to mow his yard and so the business begins.  One day, as he is mowing, a man called Arnold comes over and makes a deal. He cannot pay Lawn Boy but he can invest money in the stock exchange.  " ... if the company does well the shares go up in value and you sell the to someone else and make money."  I did panic at this idea of course.  I imaged our hero would be left with no money at all.  I think I need to tell you by the end of the summer, working with a great team including a boxer, he makes close to $480,000!

Take a look at some of the chapter headings in this book :

  • The Principles of Economic Expansion
  • The Growth of Capitalism
  • The Law of Increasing Product demand versus Flat Production Capacity
  • Labor acquisition and its effect on Capital Growth
  • Business and the art of Creative Misrepresentation

The character I really like in Lawn Boy is Grandma.  She seems to speak in riddles but really she is a voice of wisdom.  The final sentence is Lawn Boy will confirm this but meanwhile here is how our narrator introduces her :

"My grandmother is the kind of person who always thinks that no matter how bad things might seem, everything will always come out all right.  Her hair could be on fire and she'd probably say, "Well, at least we have a light to read by."

Lawn Boy would be a terrific book to read to a Grade 5 or 6 class.  Our senior students have read Hatchet so they are familiar with Gary Paulsen.

Here are some reviews you might like to read
Literary Lady
The Big Bad Book Blog

Listen here to an audio sample.  Here are some ideas teachers might use as a way to present a quick book talk about Lawn Boy thanks to the wonderful Nancy Keane.  Here is an extensive set of teaching notes.

My copy of Lawn boy has a very appealing double cover which you can see here.  You lift the green flap to reveal the full cover as seen above.