Monday, May 22, 2017

The evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

"It turned out to be not a book at all but a wooden box trickily carved and painted to look like a calf-bound volume. Strange, I fiddled with it and found the catch and the box opened. Inside was a waxed paper parcel containing a thick roast beef sandwich. ... Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life really."



This is a description of a gift to Callie (Calpurnia Virginia Tate) by her Grandaddy.  None of her six brothers have even dared to talk to him but over the summer of 1899-1900 Callie ventures into his world - his workshop, his scientific endeavours and discovers her own passions and curiosity.  She reads the work of Darwin and her grand father shows her how to record her observations in her notebook - how to observe the world.

In 1899, though, a young lady is expected to learn sewing, knitting, cooking and housekeeping. Callie is eleven, almost twelve, and she has no interest in these things.

"My biscuits were like stone, my samplers askew, my seams like rickrack. ... My mother's life was a never-ending round of maintenance. Not one single thing she did ever achieve but that it had to be done all over again, one day, one week or one season later. Oh the monotony."

Callie does her best to rage against her mother's expectations so she can follow her desire to study plants and animals.  She has a warm relationship with her brothers but they do not share her interest. The title is simply perfect as we watch Callie evolve into a different girl aided by the gentle and wise encouragement of her precious grandfather.  Each chapter also begins with a quote from Darwin's famous book The Origin of the Species.

You can see this book is a Newbery honor book. I read all 338 pages in one day - yes it is that good!

Here is an excellent and very detailed review in the School Library Journal.  Read about Jacqueline Kelly and the sequel to The evolution of Calpurnia Tate.  Take a look at the Kirkus star review.  here is an interview with Jacqueline Kelly well worth reading.  Listen to this audio sample taken from page 14.

As an added bonus there are some wonderful words in this book :

quadroon
pestiferous
chivvied
repose
citadel
tenuous
perspicacious

I would follow this book with Chains and of course the sequel - The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges illustrated by Sophie Blackall

I mentioned in a previous post that we have been exploring picture books with an Asian focus with our senior classes.  One of the first books we looked at was Ruby's Wish and it certainly generated some deep discussions.



Ruby is living in China in the early nineteenth century.  Her grandfather has made his fortune on the Gold Fields or "Gold Mountain.   That was what the Chinese called California when many men left to join the Gold Rush there."  As was the custom of the time, Grandfather has many wives and many sons who also have many wives and they all live together in a magnificent home.  "So at one time, the house was filled with the shrieks and laughter of over one hundred children."

Life is good for Ruby. She like to wear red but this is traditionally meant for celebrations.  This does not deter Ruby who adds a red ribbon to her jet black hair when her mother insists she must wear somber colours.  Grandfather is generous and so all the children are provided with lessons.  In spite of this, though, things are not always equal for boys and girls.  Ruby observes that girls are expected to learn cooking, keeping house and embroidery while the boys are free to play after class.

Ruby is careful with her calligraphy and is noticed by her grandfather.  One day she uses her calligraphy skills to write a heart-felt poem.

Alas bad luck to be born a girl; and worse lucky to be born 
into this house where only boys are cared for.

Her grandfather is given the poem and Ruby is summoned to his office. This is where the real skills of Ruby shine.  Her grandfather asks for examples of this inequality.  Her first example is small and unimportant. The boys get better cakes, Her second is also fairly minor. The boys have splendid lanterns in the shape of goldfish and dragons while the girl's are plain. Finally she makes her most important point :

"the boys will get to go to university, but the girls will be married."

How will her grandfather react?

Here are a set of teaching notes, Kirkus review and illustrator web site.  A note at the end of the book explains that this story was inspired by the author's mother - the real Ruby who did indeed attend university as one of the first female students.  You can see the whole book here.

Diva and Flea by Mo Willems and Tony DiTerlizzi



The cover of this book says
Diva and Flea a Parisian Tale
As told and shown by Mo Willems and Tony DiTerlizzi

On the last page it says (this made me laugh)
"Some names and places in this story have been altered to protect the privacy of the animals involved."

These two tiny details really set the tone for this a terrific book :

  • You will not predict the plot
  • You will not predict the relationship between Diva (dog) and Flea (cat)
  • You will enjoy the setting right beside the Eiffel Tower
  • You will learn new words such as 'flaneur'
  • You might marvel that Mo truly did meet little Diva in Paris


Diva lives in a Paris apartment.  "Diva took her job very seriously...   And if anything ever happened, no matter how big or small, Diva would yelp and run away. Diva was very good at her job."


Flea is a large cat.  "Flea did not have a fixes occupation ... he was a flaneur. A flaneur is someone (or somecat) who wanders the streets and bridges and alleys of the city just to see what there is to see. A great flaneur has seen everything but still looks for more, because there is always more to discover."

Flea and Diva will of course meet in this story but how their relationship unfolds will astonish you. When Flea first sees Diva she yelps and runs away.  This amuses and intrigues Flea and so for several days he plays the game.  He walks past the courtyard of 11 avenue Le Play and Diva yelps and runs away. Then one day Diva stops and asks "are you trying to hurt my feelings?" The next day Flea leaves Diva a dead mouse as a peace offering. Diva would prefer a ribbon and so the two share their first laugh.

I love their developing relationship.  Diva has things to learn from Flea about being brave and stepping outside and also about the wonders of the city of Paris.  Flea has things to learn from Diva about patience and friendship and life in a human home.

Look closely and you will see a picture of Mo Willems himself by Tony DiTerrlizzi near the end of the story and make sure you read the final pages about their inspiration for this warm story.

Here is the cover in French.  Read this review for more details.  Now take nine minutes out of your busy day and watch this video where Tony and Mo discuss their collaboration.



Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Junkyard wonders by Patricia Polacco

"Mrs Peterson showed us how to shine."



"In my old school ... all the kids knew that I had just learned to read ... that I used to be dumb. Everyone knew that I was always in special classes."

Sadly Trisha finds herself in the special class in her new school and even worse this class is called The Junkyard.  Luckily this class has the  best teacher!  Her name is Mrs Peterson and she looks at her class and sees a group of wonderful individuals.

Genius is neither learned not acquired.
It is knowing without experience.
It is risking without fear of failure.
...
It is imagination without boundaries.
It is creativity with out constraints.

The class form tribes.  I love the way this is done using scents - vanilla, almond, lemon and cinnamon. The talents of each child emerges.  Jody loves poetry, Gibbie loved to building things, Thom made everyone laugh and Trisha can draw. Mrs Peterson tells them the junkyard is a place "full of wondrous possibilities! What some see as bent and broken throwaways are actually amazing things waiting to be made into something new. Something unexpected. Something surprising."

The Vanilla team find an old wrecked model airplane and so their project begins - to get this plane into the air and make it fly to the moon.  They raise money for a motor and prepare for the school science fair.  There are obstacles of course.  Some of them seem insurmountable and totally unfair but this tribe keep persevering right up to the big launch day.

If the ending does not move you to tears the final page will.  Here you can read that this book was inspired by a real class of wonders and a real teacher called Mrs Peterson and yes the author Patricia was in her class.

This is a truly special and important book which I would like to share with all senior classes.  We have purchased this book to support a class unit on the book Wonder and it seems to be the perfect partner.  Take a look at Patricia Polacco's web site.  She is the author of 115 books!  You can see some books below which also feature wonderful teachers like Mrs Peterson.









Bee illustrated by Britta Teekentrup text by Patricia Hegarty


The art in this book is simply stunning.  Our students are so lucky to have access to books like Bee. Begin with the end papers - on the first spread you will see a few white and yellow flowers against a green background.  At the end the background is totally obscured by hundreds of flowers of all colours.  Such a celebration. Why?  Well the bees have been at work of course.



I have talked about bees in a previous post.  This book is a simple rhyming text and yet somehow the wonder and complexity of bees comes through.

"Carrying pollen from place to place, Bee always leaves a tiny trace."

On each page there is a hexagonal cut out as you can see here.  You can see some children's art here inspired by this book.



Thursday, May 11, 2017

Applesauce weather by Helen Frost illustrated by Amy June Bates

I am not sure how I came to find this little verse novel but I am so glad I did.  This is a gentle story about a brother and sister - Peter and Faith and their Uncle Arthur.  Each year Arthur and his wife Lucy arrive at the farm in time to harvest the first apples but this year is different.  Sadly Aunt Lucy has died and Faith wonders if her precious Uncle will feel he is still able to come.

Faith

All day, Mom's been saying, Don't expect
him, Faith. Try not to get your hopes up.
Chances are, he won't come this year.

But where
         did this gingerbread come from,
                with the warm lemon sauce
                            he loves?

It's not it could magically appear
the minute Uncle Arthur
came walking through the door.
Mom had to buy the lemons
           and bake the gingerbread
                    so she could cut this piece
                    for Uncle Arthur
                    and he could ask for more.


Take the time to read this interview with Helen Frost where she explains the real life connections which inspired her story.  Here are a set of teaching notes.  Take a look in our library for another special poetry book by Helen Frost called Step Gently out.  Read this star review in Kirkus.

I would follow this book with books like Sarah Plain and Tall,  Pearl versus the world, Little dog, Lost, and  Missing May.  Here are some more verse novels you might try to find.

Hug this book by Barney Saltzberg illustrated by Fred Benaglia




Later in the year we will gather in the library with all our new Pre-school children and their parents for a night at school.  I am always on the look out for books to read on this night.

One is for 1 is always a winner and so is Tap the Magic Tree and Press Here. Now I have Hug this book!  Here is a little piece of the text :

You can read this book to a hippo
You can read this book in the bath
If you read this book being tickled
I dare you not to laugh!

This is a noisy joyous rhyming book with retro illustrations by French illustrator Fred Benaglia.  The final message is the most important one.

Even though this book is over
it isn't really the end.
You can start at the beginning
and read it to a friend!

I really love the writing of Barney Saltzberg.  Read my review of Crazy Hair Day.  One more thing - when you find this book make sure you look under the dust jacket - there is a lovely surprise.  Barney Saltzberg is also a musician.  I have one of his CDs.  Watch this trailer and hear this book as a song.



Sunday, May 7, 2017

White fur flying by Patricia MacLachlan

Beautifully told, quietly moving and 
completely satisfying.



A friend recently said to me that in our role as a Teacher-Librarian it is difficult to think about writing a book because we have the works of too many wonderful writers to compare with.  I understand how true this is when I read books (just a few names I could list more) by Kate Di Camillo, Isobelle Carmody, Odo Hirsch, Avi, Karen Hesse, Sharon Creech, Glenda Millard, EB White, Michelle Paver and the author of this book Patricia MacLachlan.

The quote above comes from Kirkus and I was thrilled to see they gave White Fur Flying a star review.

Phillip has moved in next door to Lena and Alice.  Their mother rescues Pyreenes dogs.  Phillip has stopped speaking.  His mother and father have left him with an aunt and uncle but they are not used to small boys and seem cold and distant although this is not their intention.  Lena and Alice invite Phillip over to their house and there is an immediate bond between the boy and the huge gentle dogs that live in their house. Phillip also meets a talking bird who is a new addition to the household recently bought home by their father who is a vet.

"Phillip laughed suddenly.  It was the only sound we'd heard from him. It had burst out of him, somehow, like music.  ... He reached out and patted May. She sniffed his face, making Phillip close his eyes happily."

Two new dogs arrive in the house and one, called Jack, is quite young.  A gate is left open.  It is night. The weather is wild.  Jack escapes. On this same name Phillip disappears.

This is one of those short books (112 pages) with a powerful story about kindness, healing and the importance of acceptance.  I loved White Fur Flying.  Look for it in our library today.

You might also enjoy Belle and Sebastien.  I also recommend every book by Patricia MacLachlan.  I recently talked about The Poet's Dog and Fly away.



Firegirl by Tony Abbott

"It wasn't much, really, the whole Jessica Feeney thing. If you look at it nothing much happened. She was a girl who came into my class after the beginning of the year and was only there for a couple of weeks or so."

"As horrible as a I thought the girl would look, when I imagined what burned people looked like, it was nothing compared to what stepped into the room.  ... Was she in pain right now? It seemed like she must be. As if being in that skin would make you want to scream and scream and scream until you died"




As you can see from these quotes Firegirl is a confronting story.  It is the story of a boy called Tom and his class in Year Seven.  Through Tom's eyes, the reader pieces together the story of Jessica - the new girl.  She has been badly burned in a accidental fire and the family have relocated to be near the hospital where she is undergoing regular and painful treatments.  Tom is horrified by Jessica's appearance but his humanity and kindness take over and gradually he comes to see Jessica as a real person and not just a damaged face.  In contrast Tom's friend Jeff is simply brutal.  He will not hold Jessica's hand for the class prayer time, he makes harsh comments about her and about Tom's relationship with Jessica.

Listen to an audio sample.

Tony Abbott is the author of Secrets of Droon - a fantasy series for younger readers.  Oddly we now have two books in our library called fire girl.  The other is a fantasy book which I do highly recommend.  We purchased Firegirl by Tony Abbott for a class who are planning to study Wonder. Firegirl would make a good comparison novel for a very senior class.  The themes are reactions of the class are too confronting for middle primary readers.  Another book you could use with Firegirl is the verse novel Motormouth. Firegirl is a previous winner (2007) of the Golden Kite Award.

Jessica Feeney joins their class. She’s a burn survivor who’s in town for treatment. The students don’t know how to act around her.  Kirkus

This powerful, emotional novel told in first person will touch readers' hearts. Some situations come only once in a person's lifetime, but they are enough to change that individual forever. Don't miss the opportunity to be moved by FIREGIRL.  KidsReads

Though fleeting and fragile, Tom's connection to Jessica changes his perspective on himself, his peers and friendship, and underscores the reward of reaching out to another—of getting "out there." Publisher's Weekly


Saturday, May 6, 2017

The white fox by Jackie Morris

I adore the cover of The White Fox and I think this is why I picked out this little book (84 pages) on a recent shopping expedition.
.



Originally I thought we would put this book in our junior fiction section but now I have read it I will put it with our main fiction section because this is such a sensitive story which middle primary readers are sure to enjoy.

A white fox is seen down near the docks in Seattle.  Sol is more than curious.  He feels a desperate need to save this wild creature.  He knows in the past cats living down at the docks are caught. "His dad told him they took the cats to animal shelters where they were re-homed but Sol wasn't sure. No one would want these crazy stunted spitting wildcats. He had his own ideas of what happened to them."

Each week Sol receives a letter from his grandparents who live in the Arctic.  While it is never stated in the text you can see below that Sol and his family are Inuit people.  Sol hears that 'his white fox' has been captured.  He begs his dad to take him down to the docks.

"And I know I can't have a fox, and it's not yours to give anyway. But he needs to go home. ... he doesn't belong here. He belongs to the wild."

Their journey from Seattle to Alaska takes six days and gradually Sol talks to his dad about his unhappiness at school and he dares to ask about his mother who died in a car crash when he was just two.  Sol and his dad form a new bond. When they arrive, the grandparents give the father and son space and time to settle in.  Sol's grandmother shows him the carvings made by his mother. Sol feels comfortable and at home for the first time in his life. Now he needs to convince is father that this is the place they need to be.  This is truly their home.

Take time to read this review.  We have several other books in our school library illustrated by Jackie Morris.  She is such a skilled illustrator.


Miss Hazeltine's home for shy and fearful cats by Alicia Potter illustrated by Birgitta Sif

"Then there was Crumb, the most timid of all. 
He dashed through the door ... and hid."

Miss Hazeltine opens a home for cats.  Shy cats and fearful cats arrive with their owners and alone. Gently she cares for each one. Teaching new skills such as climbing, pouncing and making new friends.  She also offers reassurance explaining to little Crumb that she too has her fears - of mushrooms. owls and the dark.  One day Miss Hazeltine leaves to collect a bucket of milk.  When she fails to return it is little Crumb who overcomes his fears and organises everyone into a search and rescue mission.

I am not really a cat person but the illustrations and warm resolution of this story made me smile. Birgitta Sitf is an illustrator from Iceland.  Watch this little video where she explains her creative process.  I love the name of her little daughter Soley which means Buttercup in Icelandic.

Look for another book by Birgitta Sif in our library called Oliver which was short listed for the prestigious Kate Greenway Medal.   We also have a fabulous book in the biography section of our library by Alicia Potter called Miss Harkness and the Panda.  Here is a set of teaching notes for Miss Hazeltine's Home for Shy and Fearful cats.

I would follow reading this book with The Adventures of Miss Petitfour.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Fabish the horse that braved a bushfire by Neridah McMullin ilustrated by Andrew McLean


Fabish the horse that braved a bushfire has been short listed for our 2017 CBCA awards.  It is in the section for Non Fiction called the Eve Pownall Award.

This book is a true story and so I would have liked to read more about this remarkable horse.  The setting for this story is explained on the final page :

"The Black Saturday bushfires occurred in Victoria on the 7th of February, 2009. The series of fires burning across the state became a firestorm, causing destruction that rivalled that of an atomic bomb. It resulted in Australia's highest ever loss of life from bushfire."

Fabish has finished his racing career and is now living in a paddock with seven yearlings.  "The youngsters were a wild bunch. With their tails up high, they pranced and tossed their heads, and sped around the paddock."  The summer is an especially hot one and one afternoon Fabish smells smoke. The trainer opens the gates and Fabish and the yearlings gallop away.  Meanwhile the trainer gathers the precious racehorses into the stables.  He works hard to keep the fire away and keep the horses calm. In the morning he steps outside to confront the devastation. Surely Fabish and the yearlings didn't stand a chance. "Yet he thought he heard something."

The illustrations in this book are perfect. You can almost smell the charcoal blackened trees and every horse lover with appreciate Andrew McLean's skill.

Neridah McMullin read about Fabish.  I found this article in Thorough Bred News.  Here is an item about other brave horse called Jeune Mark.

Here are a set of teaching ideas.

Bushfires are a harsh reality in Australia.  Here are a selection of books we will read on this topic.


A book of coupons by Susie Morgenstern



This is one of those really precious books (first published in French 1999, US English edition 2001) that I have been recommending for many years.  The terrific thing about internet shopping is the way you can now find copies of long out of print titles often in mint condition.  I did a little shopping the other day and found A book of Coupons and my copy arrived last week.

In just 62 pages Susie Morgestern gives us a picture of this little class of students in their last year of Primary school.  The new teacher is a disappointment - or is he?

"There he was, sitting behind his desk like some unmovable tree trunk ... Could all those wrinkles be real?"

Mr Noel (some people call him Santa) then surprises the students by presenting each of them with a book of coupons.  "I love giving presents, and I am going to give them to you every single day. I'm giving you the whole year of lessons for free. I'm giving away books. I'm giving away penmanship and spelling. I'm giving away math and science. ... I'm even throwing in the cataclysms."

Some sample coupons :


  • One coupon for sleeping late
  • One coupon for skipping a day of school
  • One coupon for being late for school
  • One coupon for getting out of trouble
  • One coupon for dancing in class
  • One coupon for clowning around
  • One coupon for giving the teacher a kiss on the cheek
Later that day he gives the students a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

"My gift to you is the story, the characters, the words, the ideas, the style, the emotions. Once you have read the book, 
all these things will be yours for life."


The angry school Principal keeps visiting the classroom at the 'wrong' times. She sees dancing the first time she calls in.  She is determined to get rid of this inappropriate teacher.  The next time she enters the room she sees a real cataclysm.  The kids have decided to use the same coupon at once. Then there is a day when all the kids stay home. Except for Charles who used his stay home coupon earlier in the year.  Charles and Monsieur Noel write a new set of coupons for the aptly named Principal - Madame Incarnation Perez.

  • One coupon to tell a joke
  • One coupon to take a bubble bath
  • One coupon to go on a picnic
  • One coupon to make up a poem
  • One coupon for a spin on a merry-go-round

At the end of the year all of the students have a special coupon for Mr Noel himself.  Yes he does have to retire and sadly the Principal did not get to read or enjoy her coupons and yet somehow the ending is just perfect.

If you are looking for a little book that will warm your heart read A book of Coupons.  If you are looking for a joyous book to read aloud to a middle Primary class read A book of Coupons.  If you want to share a book about kindness with a young reader - grab hold of A book of Coupons.

You might like to read my review of Sally Morgenstern's other book Secret Letters from 0-10.  I also recommend watching the French movie To be and to Have after reading A book of Coupons.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

We're all wonders by RJ Palacio



Several years ago we had a disabled boy in our school. He had fingers missing on his right hand.  His school friends did not comment on this because they had known him since Kindergarten but children in other classes would often stare or ask questions or worse.  One day I read The Mouse with the too long tail to his class.  I will never forget the way this boy responded to this book.  For the mouse  his tail begins as a burden but then he changes his outlook and realises it is an asset. The little boy smiled at me and said he felt the same way about his hand.



I wish I could show We're all wonders to my student.  He would be all grown up now but I think it would make him smile.  Wonder by RJ Palacio is a moving book which is very popular with our senior students.  I feel it is a book that is the perfect way to demonstrate the importance of the saying "walk a mile in my shoes."

We're all wonders is written for a younger audience.  The boy is not named but it is Auggie from Wonder. even though the text is quite spare the power of the message is retained.   "Sometimes they stare at me. They point or laugh. They even say mean things behind my back."

This is the third book in the series which began with Wonder.  Here is a teaching idea.




Tuesday, April 25, 2017

One photo by Ross Watkins illustrated by Liz Arbelli

Dad started doing more funny things, like putting things that belonged in the fridge in the cupboard, and things that belong in the cupboard in the fridge.



There are many difficult subjects that are explored through picture books.  Death of a parent or loved one would be one of the hardest followed closely by the subject of this book - dementia.



You can see some books from our library that deal with this topic but the difference with One Photo is that this is early onset dementia - a father not a grandfather.  The young boy who narrates this story watches as his dad takes photos on an old film camera.  The photos all seem to be of random objects and not the people in his life.



He displays the photos on the window of his study. The collection grows and grows.  Sadly "then, we lost Dad."

The boy and his mum take the final film to be developed - it is just one (important) photo.



I think the most poignant moment in the story comes when Dad has died and a box arrives in the mail with dad's handwriting on the label.  Inside is the camera.  Even through the fog of memory loss and dementia Dad has planned this special way to send a comforting message to the family he loves.  I also appreciate the honest of the emotions in this book for example when Mum becomes frustrated with the photo collection "she yelled at him".

One Photo has been shortlisted for our CBCA Awards.  You might like to read this review.  The illustrator Liz Anelli has made good use of the end papers.  The beginning images are all the usual family photos filled with people.  The final ones are the objects photographed by dad.  Another thing to notice is the tree outside their home.  At the beginning of the book it is covered in leaves - perhaps it is summer or spring.  By the end of the book the leaves have fallen and the garden is looking neglected but while this is a sad book is also a book about healing. There is a sense at the end that the boy and his mum will be okay - they will manage.

Here is an interview with the author Ross Watkins and here are a set of teacher notes.

When we explore this book with our students this term I plan to begin with the wonderful book Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge as a way to talk about memories.

If you want to explore this complex topic with older students here are some other short novels to read.


Lofty's Mission by Krista Bell illustrated by David Miller

Today is ANZAC Day here in Australia and I have been reading books to share with my classes. I have decided to focus on winners of the Dickin Medal and in particular pigeons.  We have two splendid books which look at the war service of pigeons.  Lofty's Mission and Flapper, VC.


There are extensive notes at the end of this book and I have now done a lot of reading.  The Dickin Medal began in 1943 and is named after Maria Dickin.  It has now been awarded 67 times to 32 pigeons, 31 dogs, 4 horses and one cat.  The cat was called Simon and you can read more here.

Taking a close look at the medal.

The PDSA Dickin Medal is a large, bronze medallion bearing the words “For Gallantry” and “We Also Serve” all within a laurel wreath. The ribbon is striped green, dark brown and sky blue representing water, earth and air to symbolise the naval, land and air forces.

Lofty's Mission begins with  the lines "No, Dad! Please don't take Lofty. I bred him to be a champion racer!' Tears trickled down Harley's cheeks."  Dad explains Lofty, or Number 371, is needed for war service in New Guinea. Lofty is taken to the jungle and given training. He is wounded but safely delivers his message across the battle lines.  Meanwhile little Harley contracts polio.  One day a parcel arrives containing the Dickin Medal.  Lofty is a hero. The ending of the book is so joyous as Lofty returns to his family in Australia and we see his son Nifty take flight.

Lofty's Mission has amazing paper sculpture illustrations by the talented David Miller.

Flapper, VC also explores the story of a brave Pigeon.

"Flapper, VC was inspired by the true story of Australian carrier pigeon D D43 Q879, who was awarded the Dickin Medal for 'Conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty'. It is the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery."

Here are the teachers notes for Flapper, VC and Lofty's Mission.  You might also enjoy the movie Valiant.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

The secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

Connections ..

At the end of last term a number of my classes and I shared the wonderful book The Talking Eggs. Blanche, the hero of the story, goes to the house of the old woman and encounters multicoloured chickens that sing like nightingales.  I like finding connections like this.  We don't have nightingales here in Australia but I found this little film of one singing and it certainly is a beautiful sound.   The famous fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and in particular The Nightingale  is another interesting connection with The secret of Nightingale Wood.  On the 2nd April we celebrated the birthday of Hans Christian Anderson and copies of this fairly tale were part of my display.



"I had always been Henry, even though my full name was Henrietta Georgina Abbott. Maybe my parents wanted two boys.  Now that my brother Robert had gone, they had two girls. Just me and Piglet."

Listen to an audio sample read by the author herself from Chapter 8.  Here is a review well worth reading.  In this video the author talks about her book.

Lets start by looking at the names in this book :

Hope House - Little Henrietta does not stop hoping her mother will recover
Nightingale Wood - a place of mystery and magic
Helldon - the old lunatic asylum and a place that terrifies young Henry.

I read one review with the word atmospheric - the perfect word to describe this mysterious story. Henry with her mum, dad and new baby sister (nicknamed Piglet) have moved to Hope House - a long way from their original home in London.  Clearly there has been a tragedy.  Her brother Robert is dead but readers have to be patient to discover how this has happened. These events are slowly explained in a style reminiscent of The Secret Garden and Tom's Midnight Garden.  Almost as soon as they arrive at Hope House, Henry's father leaves.  The children are left in the care of Nanny Jane and a village lady called Mrs Berry who comes each day to cook their meals.  Father has also enlisted the help of the local doctor - Doctor Hardy.  Henry is immediately suspicious about his motives and methods and her fears are further confirmed when the doctor declares he intends to send Mrs Abbott to Helldon and carry off little baby Piglet to his own house.

"Dr Hardy's hands were fat and crushing, but his wife's were cold and scaly and her fingernails were thick, yellow claws.  I felt as if I had just shaken hands with a giant lizard."

Throughout this book there are references to classic children's stories, poetry and famous fairy tales.  Perhaps reading this book might inspire young readers to seek out these classics.

Here are a few :

  • The Railway Children
  • The Secret Garden
  • Wind in the Willows
  • The Owl and the Pussycat
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • The Red Shoes
  • The Pied Piper of Hamelin
  • Peter Pan
  • Treasure Island
  • Little Women


Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Just about everything that happened to me that summer happened because of Winn-Dixie.





I am beyond excited that Kate KiCamillo will visit Sydney next month. And I am jumping up and down because twenty lucky students from my school will be able to hear her speak. I know I will be smiling right through the day just the way Winn-Dixie does in this book.

We are all reading (and in my case re-reading) as many of her books as we can squeeze in before this exciting Sydney Writer's Festival event.  If you cannot come to this event take a look at Kate's question and answers on her web site.

This morning I picked up Because of Winn-Dixie.  I first read this book 17 years ago and today I just loved it all over again.  This is a ten out of ten book!   I love books where lonely people are bought together and I can totally relate to Opal's relationship with her dog.  The name Winn-Dixie is so funny - I love to tell students in my library the origin of this name and I also mention the other funny American supermarket name The Piggly Wiggly which we read about when we talk about Rosa Parks.


There is so much quiet wisdom in this book.  Opal may be lonely and confused as to why her mother left when she was just three years old but her warmth, good humour, sense and gentle understanding of other people and herself work together to bring a group of other isolated people together.  In the end there is no need to be lonely any more and some true healing can begin.

Here are a few quotes from the book that I treasure :

"It's not hard to immediately fall in love with a dog who has a good sense of humor."

"All of a sudden, I felt happy. I had a dog. I had a job. I had Miss Franny Block for a friend. And I had my first invitation to a party in Naomi. It didn't matter that it came from a five-year-old and the party wasn't until September. I didn't feel so lonely anymore."

"Why don't you go on and tell me everything about yourself, so I can see you with my heart."

"He (the preacher) leaned way over and gave Winn-Dixie a kiss, too, right on top of his head."

Read some reviews
A 10-year old girl learns to adjust to a strange town, makes some fascinating friends, and fills the empty space in her heart thanks to a big old stray dog in this lyrical, moving, and enchanting book by a fresh new voice.
Kirkus

''Because of Winn-Dixie'' is a poignant and delicately told story of a dog as a child's much-needed best friend.
New York Times

...it is almost impossible not to fall in love with Opal, a little girl who doesn’t understand why her mummy went away; a little girl with a heart that is big enough to fit everyone she meets, even if she doesn’t think so at first.
Kids Book Review


Here are a set of discussion questions.

I have talked about other Kate DiCamillo books on this blog - clearly I am a huge fan.



Here are alternate covers for Because of Winn Dixie and the movie jacket.  I also thoroughly recommend the movie - just perfect.




Thursday, April 13, 2017

Loser by Jerry Spinelli




Books like Loser are very hard to read - emotionally - yet you will find yourself turning the pages perhaps, as I did, all in one sitting.  You will know early in the story, early in his life, Donald Zinkoff is destined to fail, to suffer awful bullying, to be utterly confused by other people. They even name him loser.  Zinkoff is almost oblivious to this pain but readers will feel it and feel it keenly.

"In many ways that teacher Biswell can see, the Z boy is a shambles.  ... He is even at odds with his own body. ... Hardly a day goes by when he does not fall flat on his face for no apparent reason."

Donald is not picked for sport teams, he accidentally ruins the class team's chance of winning on the school sport day, he is totally out of sync in the school band, he only scores low marks in class and he has nightmare handwriting but his parents love him unconditionally and, mostly, he does manage to embrace life despite the little chinks that appear from time to time.  I think many children should meet Zinkoff and perhaps walk a mile or two in his shoes - this might make our world a kinder place.

I think this is also an important book for teachers.  Spinelli paints a harsh picture of some teachers who cannot cope with this special boy but luckily in Year 4 he meets the wonderful Mr Yalowitz.

Loser is not a new book - it was first published in 2002.  I will share it with one of our teachers who is planning a unit of work around the book Wonder.  Loser seems better suited to her middle primary group.  You can read a sample of the story here.

I do like the honest writing style of Jerry Spinelli - especially Stargirl and Jake and Lilly.

Here are some reviews with more plot details :

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

All I want for Christmas is Rain by Cori Brooke illustrated by Megan Forward



All I want for Christmas is Rain is so obviously an Australian story.  We have Christmas in the Summer. Australia is one of the driest continents. Our farmers have to cope with such weather extremes - drought, flood, fire but eventually rain does come and the landscape revives.  This book is a celebration of the renewal and relief rain can bring.  The CBCA have selected this book for the Early Childhood award short list.




The text is told as a rhyme :

My mission was clear - I had hatched a great plan:
I would ask for help from the great bearded man.

I love the perspective in the illustration where we see Jane talking with Santa.  She looks so small yet so self assured.  Santa looks huge but somehow also soft like a pillow.  Make sure you show a class the end papers. Brown at the beginning and green at the end - a celebration of the change wrought by rain.  The illustrations are the real strength of this book.

When rain does come on Christmas morning the presents can wait. It is time for the whole family to run outside and dance.



Cori Brooke and Megan Forward both have web sites worth exploring. Perhaps not coincidentally they both live in Queensland.  Cori has had two books published and Megan has three.  You can watch a video of Megan and Cori talking about the way they approached this book.  You might like to read this review.

We will also look at some other fabulous books about rain.



When you read this book with a class it would be good to compare the illustrations and story line with two other Australian books on the same theme of rain at Christmas time.




The patchwork bike by Maxine Beneba Clarke and Van T Rudd

I found learning to ride a bike was very difficult.  I know this was because I am so uncoordinated. Huge thanks to my patient dad who spent hours 'holding on' while I wobbled down a traffic-free and straight wide road near our house. My bike was brand new unlike this bike made from bits and pieces of found materials.  Patchwork seems to be the perfect name.  Riding this bike is such a joy for these children who ride under the stretching-out sky and live near the no-go desert.




  • Their bike can shicketty shake over sandhills.
  • The wood-cut wheels winketty wonk through fields.
  • It can bumpetty bump through the village.


It will be fun to act all this out with our younger children riding our imaginary bikes around the library landscape.  With older children we will have discussions about poverty, recycling, wealth, material possessions, drought and developing nations.

The Patchwork Bike has been short listed for our CBCA 2017 awards.

The illustrations in this book have been painted on cardboard and then photographed.  I know the children will think they can actually feel the corrugated bumps.  I especially like the paint smudges on the end papers - they give a sense of movement, racing those bikes as fast as they can go.

The setting for this book is gently revealed.


  • The narrator lives in a village.
  • His home has mud walls.
  • There is just one tree in the no-go desert.
  • His mum looks like this :







It will be a joy this term to read books about bikes and bike riding. We have a good collection and I have this little bike made in Africa and sold at a Oxfam shops.  It is about 10cm long.

You can see more books about bicycles on this Pinterest Collection made by my friend from Kinderbookswitheverything.

If I was reading The Patchwork bike with a senior class or even a High School group we might also explore The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour.  With a younger group you might dip into the series about the No. 1 Car spotter by Atinuke and compare the setting.  With all classes we will also look at Galimoto by Karen Lynn Williams along with this video.

You can read more about the author in this article from The Australian newspaper.  Van T Rudd is a street artist - I wonder how he came to illustrate this book?  His web site would be good to explore with a High School class and yes he is related to our former PM Kevin Rudd.

Take a look at these reviews :

Kids Book Review
The Patchwork Bike is a keeper, not only for the sheer joy of story but also for the conversations it will trigger: about life in Africa, the irrepressible joy of children despite their lack of commercial possessions and the satisfaction of recycling.

Children's Books Daley
 the resolution of the printing is so sharp that after multiple readings I still run my fingers over the paint and corrugated card, sure that I’ll feel the texture.


Here are some of the books we will explore alongside The Patchwork Bike.