Monday, January 30, 2017

How the library (not the Prince) saved Rapunzel by Wendy Meddour illustrated by Rebecca Ashdown

How the library (not the Prince) saved Rapunzel looked like the perfect book to begin our library year so I bought it home to read tonight. Told in rhyme Rapunzel is on the sixteenth floor on a tall apartment building. She ignores the milkman, the postman, the baker (she has a tray of delicious treats), her aunt and the Prince.

"To think,' said her aunt, 'that she's all alone, on the sixteenth floor, as thin as bone.
Rapunzel has patience. She doesn't move. 
She has nowhere to go. She has nothing to prove.
But to sit on your own all day and dream - 
well, it's not really good for one's self-esteem."

There is a problem.  Now we need a creative and co-operative solution.  The real remedy, though, is inside the letter the postman had tried to deliver.

"I've got a new job at the library."
"For along with her hair and her ravishing looks,
she loved nothing better than reading good books!"

When you read this book go back and take some time to notice all the extra and delicious details in the illustrations.  On the end papers you can see many cats enjoying the delights of the library.  Even though Rapunzel supposedly doesn't move she keeps changing her hat. The Prince arrives on his moped. I love the different faces too.  The baker is a lady and the postman wears a turban.

Here is the Prince - he is never seen again.

There is only one little problem with the rhyme for an Australian audience - moan and scone.

"So don't just wait for your prince to show.
He might turn up, but you never know.
Pop down to your library and borrow a book - 
there's SO MUCH to find out if only you look."

Here is an excellent review.

It takes two to T'wit T'woo by Paula Knight illustrated by Guilianno Ferri

I have a new display in my library with some cute owls and so when I saw this book I thought I might read it at the start of the year.

I love the way birds use answering calls to locate each other and for checking on their safety as they feed especially early in the morning.  I am often woken by this dawn chorus but I did not know tawny owls use this method too.  The female calls t'wit and the male answers with t'woo.  This information is supplied at the end of It take two to T'wit T'woo.

This is a perfect little book for Kindergarten as it involves making lots of noise and uses simple repetitive pattern.  Olive can only say t'wit. She calls out with and listens with her "pointy ears" but all she hears is a frog, a duck, a bear and many more animals making their own noises :

hee haw

Olive asks for help.  "Together, they all took a deep breath and shouted at the tops of their voices".

Far away, in another wood, in another tree, Albert hears something.  Yes you have predicted the ending - well not quite - there is a little twist which will make you smile.

Here is the Italian book cover.  Here is a video of the whole book.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Lost treasure of the Emerald Eye Geronimo Stilton

The Philosophy of Geronimo Stilton :


Sometimes Geronimo feels like as though he’s the victim of the unfortunate circumstances he finds himself in. His job absorbs him completely and he feels suffocated by his responsibility to his co-workers, his friends and his family. But at the end of every adventure Geronimo has the feeling of being in complete harmony with himself and the world, because life is beautiful and he is happy to have so many friends and a family as special as his.

This quote comes from the Geronimo Stilton web site - there is a huge section about the "philosophy" of this amusing series.

The Geronimo Stilton series of books are very popular in my library but apart from a quick flip through a few pages I confess I had not read one until a few weeks ago.  Actually I did not read Lost Treasure of the Emerald eye - I listened to the audio version.  I laughed and laughed. Then I wondered about the children who read this series.

Here are a few samples from the text of lines that might make an adult smile but perhaps are lost on younger students :

I'm really not a morning mouse.
One day we're going to end up sipping cheese through straws at Mouse General
Slimy Swiss balls! Someone got up on the wrong side of the hole today!
That night ... I listed to my squeaky sounds sleep tape, and counted grilled cheese sandwiches.
Trap led us into a library filled with books on every subject. Cats. Cheese. Cats who eat cheese and the mice who love them.
The sun sat on the ocean like a cherry on top of a piece of cheesecake.
You know I'm not awake until I've had my cup of steamed cheese (two sugars, hold the milk).

I like the use of graphics which illustrate the words in this book but I imagine it might be a little distracting for some beginning readers.

In this first adventure Thea finds a map. She convinces Geronimo, their cousin Trap and little Benjamin (who stows away) to travel across the oceans to find the Treasure.  There are adventures at sea, a ship wreck, the dangerous journey across the island and of course .... Did they find the Emerald Eye?  You need to read the book to find out.

Geronimo Stilton was originally published and written in Italy.  Scholastic took over producing the series in English and now there are so many extras - television series, an app, online newspaper, audio books and so many spin off series.

Series Statistics
Geronimo Stilton - 66 books
First book Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye
Kindgom of Fantasy - 10 books
Journey Through time - 4 books
Thea Stilton series - 25 books
Creepella von Cacklefur series - 8 books
Cave Mice series - 14 books
Spacemice series - 10 books
Thea Stilton the Mouseford Academy  - 10 books
Graphic novels - 26 books

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Bartlett and the ice voyage by Odo Hirsch

I am a massive fan of Odo Hirsch and I often recommend his books to the students who visit my school library.  I am such a fan that when people talk about inviting six authors to an imaginary dinner party Odo Hirsch is always at the top of my list.  Read his book Hazel Green to see why I would bake Chocolate Dippers.

I bought home the audio book of Bartlett and the Ice Voyage which I first read in 1998. There have been times over the last weeks when I just could not get out of my car because I needed to listen to a little more of this engrossing story.  I can see why this book was short listed for the Blue Peter Award in 2001.

The Queen is given every treasure you can imagine for her birthday from every part of her extensive kingdom but the one thing she desires is a melidrop.  They grow in a far away land and spoil one day after picking.

"People sent melidrop seeds, but they failed to shoot. They sent melidrop trees, but their leaves curled up and died. Then the people tried sending melidrop fruit, but no matter how early they picked them, the fruit always spoiled in the box. The Queen would open the packing case to find a disgusting, smelly pile of darkened melidrop skins."

The Queen is desperate to taste this exotic fruit but she is unwilling to travel the vast distance needed. One of her advisers, Sutton Pufrock, introduces the queen to  Bartlett and his friend Jacques le Grand. Sir Hugh Lough is not impressed :

"this famous Bartlett was about as dashing a milkman. He had freckles on his face and his hair was obviously not very friendly with his comb. His fingers were knobbly. He came to see the queen in a plain shift, patched trousers and a pair of worn leather boots ... creased and creviced as a turtle's neck."

Bartlett does find a way to transport the precious melidrop.  You need to read the story for yourself but his method is quite inventive and perhaps surprising.

There is so much to discuss as you read this book.  How can Bartlett bring back a melidrop? Should he try to bring a large quantity?  Will the Queen even like the fruit and will this satisfy her desire for unusual gifts? Odo Hirsch is a master of description - so many parts of this book could be used as writing models for your class.

My favourite scenes involve food (as usual).  When Lord Roland of Tull visits the Queen each Thursday he enjoys eating her little butter cakes and sipping tea. After months of waiting Bartlett has not returned with the precious melidrop. The Queen is impatient and furious and she now shuns Lord Roland but one day he does come for tea. "He stared. There were lemon slices on the plate. Where were the butter cakes? What had the queen done with the butter cakes?"  You are sure to grimace as he is forced to do more than take a dainty bite of this bitter slice.

Here are my reviews of two other Odo Hirsch titles - Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool, Darius Bell and the crystal bees.

Our copy of Bartlett and the Ice Voyage is in very bad shape so once again I have searched a second hand seller and found a copy.  It is on the way.  Here is a five minute audio sample from page 10 onwards describing the giraffe which the Queen is given as one of her multiple gifts.  This book is also available from itunes.  Here is the Kirkus review.

I would pair this book with The Greatest Treasure of Charlemagne the King and The quiltmakers gift.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Wendy by Gus Gordon

I am hoping Somewhere else will be short listed for our CBCA 2017 awards.  With this in mind we will explore all of the books by Gus Gordon with our classes this term.  I loved exploring Herman and Rosie with so many of our classes when it was short listed in 2013. Every reading revealed more and more details.  Wendy is an earlier book first published in 2009.

From the title page it is clear Wendy is no ordinary chicken - you can see scientific illustrations of these on the end papers. Wendy vaults through life.  Take a close look at this illustration.  I love the way Wendy is using a pogo stick.

Following the tradition of the "grass is greener" Wendy leaves the farm in search of fame and adventure. She really does run away and join the circus where she performs dangerous stunts which grow in size and scale until finally she crashes.  Lesson learnt?  Maybe...

Gus Gordon loves to include cheeky details in his illustrations.  Look here at Wendy's first performance - over a double-decker bus. You will see Martha's mouse pie, Harry's spiced frogs (slimier than most), Mrs McGinty's tinned roaches (they really stink) and the bus is going to Peckham.

I would pair this book with Daisy by Brian Wildsmith and Peggy by Anna Walker.  You can see a little more of Wendy here at the Storybox library.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Trash by Andy Mulligan

Start here listening to this interview on our 

"I was a trash boy since I was old enough to move without help and pick things up. ... Let me tell you what we're looking for.  Plastic, because plastic can be turned into cash, fast - by the kilo."

The dump workers are also looking for paper if it is white a clean, cardboard, tin cans, glass bottles, clothing and rubber.  No one would expect to find eleven hundred pesos in a wallet with a map, ID card, photos and a key.  This is an amazing thing to find but it will lead the boys - Raphael, Gardo and Jun Jun (known as Rat) - into places even worse than the dump itself.

A group of five police arrive that night asking if anyone has found a bag.

"I nearly raised my hand.  I nearly spoke up then and there."

Raphael does not reveal his find but his auntie says "Raphael found something, sir."  The police return and Raphael is arrested and brutally interrogated.  This scene is why I would suggest this book is for mature readers only.  It is very confronting.

Thank goodness our little group of heroes do survive and right the wrong and even, perhaps, make the world a better place.  The final chapters will have you cheering!

A couple of years ago a Grade Six boy asked me to buy Trash for our school library. I imagine he may have seen the movie.  I read some reviews and hesitated.  This is a book which might better suit a 12+ student but I decided to buy it and see.  Sadly I do not think this boy was able to actually read this book although he did borrow it and keep it for several months.

On the other hand I read Trash in one sitting and was absolutely gripped by the story.  One of the things that makes this book so compelling is the use of alternating voices.  Each of the three boys along with Father Juilliard who runs the Behala Mission school and Olivia, who works there as a volunteer, recount the events over the days after Raphael finds the money.

Here is a written interview with Andy Mulligan.  If you are using this book with a class of High School students you could make use of this web page from Andy himself where he visits 80 dumps.

Click each of these review to read more about Trash.

Kirkus  "It all adds up to a cracker of a thriller."
Kids Book Review "We clearly see the boys and their world in our mind's eye and not only that - we feel their pain and angst and determination in an almost visual way."
BookZone4Boys "Every now and then a book sneaks up on the unsuspecting public, with very little fanfare, and hits you where it hurts the most - in the heart."
Read in a single Sitting "These issues are explored with beautiful subtlety as the narrative takes a turn that while inevitable, is utterly welcomed by the reader."

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Haunting by Margaret Mahy

If you have been following this blog you may know I am a huge fan of Margaret Mahy.  We always include a selection of her picture books into our literature program each year.

I bought home some of our older books (and new ones too) to read over the summer and among them was The Haunting a novel for Middle Primary readers.  I did think I had read this many years ago but only sketchy parts of the plot seemed familiar.

Barney is the quiet child of the family. He is the youngest.  His mum died when he was born but he now has a wonderful step mother who gives him unconditional love :

"Claire had come as a wonderful surprise, giving him a hug when he came home from school, asking him about his day, telling him about hers, arranging picnics and unexpected parties and helping him with his homework."

Claire is expecting a new baby.  Barney has not told anyone but he does feel anxious and he is desperate not to upset Claire so when an apparition or ghost appears his certain Claire must not know. Coinciding with the appearance of the ghost the family receive the news that an older relative Great Uncle Barnaby has died.

As the 'ghost' comes closer and closer Barney becomes quite ill.  His sister Tabitha is determined to unlock the mystery about Barnaby but also about another long lost Great Uncle named Cole. He was the black sheep of the family who drowned when he was quite young. Troy, Barney's other sister watches all the family coming and goings and sees her brother is distressed but she also seems to be moving even further away from the family.

"Troy was the one who picked up, folded, straightened and brushed down - everyone in the family knew that. Yet today ... Troy's tidiness ... was shocking - something eerie and astonishing. The books in the bookcase were in exact order of size, pulled out to the very edge of the shelf and not a quarter of an inch forward to back."

Eventually everything comes to a head.  Misunderstandings are resolved and Barney discovers the truth about Cole and Barnaby and his sisters.  This little book is a terrific one to read but our copy has such small print - I know this aspect will not appeal to readers in  my school library. I may need to source a replacement copy.

Here is a very detailed and positive review in Kirkus.  In New Zealand they made a movie of this book which won the Carnegie Medal in 1983.  Here is a three minute audio sample from the first chapter.  Oddly this book is out of print but there is a new audio version coming soon.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Raven's mountain by Wendy Orr

"At the very tallest point there's a flat rock. I drop my pack in the snow and scramble up. Now I'm on the highest bit on the peak of the highest mountain for as far as I can see ... I can do my dance"

It is very easy to tell that Wendy Orr has climbed up and down a mountain or two and when I read the biographical notes at the back of Raven's Mountain this is indeed true.  Wendy was born in Alberta and when she was twelve she climbed Pike's Peak in Colorado.  You can see a picture here.

Raven, her sister Lily and step dad, Scott, set out to climb a mountain near Jenkins Creek.  The family, including mum who is working on this day, have moved and this is the area of Scott's childhood.  He keen to share his favourite spots with his new family.  The journey up the mountain goes smoothly but there is an undertone of animosity between Lily and Raven.  This comes from the loss of their father who abandoned the family and moved to Australia (Wendy herself now lives in Australia). Lily blames Raven, Raven is filled with confusion and now has also lost her closest friends because they have moved.

The group are well prepared for their mountain climb and Scott even teaches the girls how to use a bear repellent spray because bears live on this mountain.

When they reach the top Raven races ahead and does a little wild dance of joy.  This dislodges some rocks and causes a landslide.  Scott and Lily are trapped and so Raven must find her way, without her glasses, down the mountain to call for help.  Lily and Scott have most of the supplies, the phone and water bottles and this is a very remote area.

The disaster and Raven's courage help heal the rift between Lily and Raven and the hurtful comments of the past are explained and forgiven.

"The strange thing is Lily never has anything much wrong with her at all. Until she turned into a witch, she'd always been a kind of golden girl ... The problem with being three years younger is that I never catch up; by the time I can do something too, Lily's doing something else even better."

If you enjoy Raven's mountain I would look for The Honest Truth.  Raven's Mountain is not a new book it was first published in 2010 but it might still be in a library near you.  You could also look for other books by Wendy Orr including Nim's Island, Ark in the Park and her newest titles Dragonfly Song which is actually on my current 'to read' pile.  Here is an interview where Wendy talks about story and a life where 'stuff happens'.  In Canada this book has a different title and cover.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Apothecary by Maile Meloy

Here is a puzzle.  How are the following things connected with this book The Apothecary?

Here is the answer :

  • The School Library Journal reviewer Elizabeth Bird began her review by saying she loved the cover of The Apothecary.  This made me curious.  I really like the cover too.
  • Ian Schoenherr is the cover designer of The Apothecary so I read about him and discovered :
  • Ian Schoenherr is the son of John Schoenherr and :
  • John Schoenherr is the award winning illustrator of one of my most favourite picture books of all time Owl Moon.
  • Then I investigated the author Maile Meloy and discovered :
  • Maile Meloy is the sister of Colin Meloy author of Wildwood which I had already read and reviewed

Sometimes the world of children's books can feel like one big family.

Janie lives in California.  The year is 1952.  It is the McCarthy era and the cold war has begun. Benjamin lives in London.  His neighbourhood has been bombed during World War II and while he and his dad do survive his mum is killed. Mr Burrows, Benjamin's dad (the apothecary) explains :

"Your mum had nursing skills and worked for the Women's Voluntary Service. She was out after the air raid was over, helping to see who was hurt, when the bomb suddenly went off ... she was killed instantly."

Benjamin and Janie meet when Janie's family move to London to get away from appearing before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Benjamin does not want to follow his father and work in a pharmacy or Apothecary.  He would much rather be a spy but what he does not know is that he has been spying on men connected with is own father and his father is involved with trying to save the world from the atom bombs which are being developed by Russia and USA. Yes this is all quite huge.  Janie, Benjamin and another friend named Pip are now on a mission to save the world especially as Benjamin's father appears to have disappeared and the children stumble upon a murder and it seems their Latin teacher is really a Russian spy.  Added to all this is the alchemy.  As he is about to be captured his dad gives Benjamin an ancient book - the Pharmocopoeia.  It contains the formula for potions to turn into a bird, make people invisible, force others to tell the truth and wipe memory.

As you can see this book is a combination of history and magic.  Not quite Science Fiction but almost.  The final scenes are quite thrilling and open the way for the sequels.

I do highly recommend The Apothecary and I would follow this up with The Seven Professors of the far North.  Another book you will enjoy is Disappearing act.  If you want to read more about alchemy take a look at The Book without Words.

The Apothecary is the first of this trilogy as I mentioned so we now need to add the other two titles to our school library.  I have listed this book for Senior Primary but I also think it would appeal to a junior high school reader.  Teaching notes, an extract and authors details can be found on the publisher site. Here are some reviews :

New York Times
Kids Reads

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

An eagle in the snow by Michael Morpurgo

A what if story based on 'true events' - perhaps they are true perhaps they are not.  Either way the story telling in this book by Michael Morpurgo is quite compelling.  One other thing that makes this story easy to read is the white space and large font size - perfect for Middle Primary readers.

Barney and his mother are travelling away from Coventry which has been badly bombed during WWII.  Their home is lost :

"We found the world about us a place of rubble and ruin, hot with fires that were still smoldering everywhere...  Only the lamppost was left, the one outside where our house had been, the one that shone into my window at night-times."

In the train carriage with Ma and Barney there is a man who has a story to tell.  The story of a friend who served as a private in World War I. The train is bombed and the group are stranded in the dark in a tunnel.  The man has five matches and as each is struck he recounts the story of Billy Byron.

Michael Morpurgo based his story on the life of Private Henry Tandey who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the Military Medal and Victoria Cross. Only 628 of these were awarded mainly to officers.  Clearly he was a brave man but the myth or story is that he may also have spared the life of a young German solider who was actually Hitler.

"A little fellow, bareheaded he was, no cap, his uniform covered in mud. He stands there, looking back at us, staring. ... He pushes his dark hair off his forehead with the back of his hand ... 'Don't shoot him lads.  There's been enough killing done today."

If you read this book make sure you read the Afterword which explains the historical details.  You might also read this article from the BBC with a different point of view about this possibility.  One detail referred to in all versions of this story is the painting part of which you can see below of Private Tandey.  Hitler supposedly had a copy of this painting which he showed to the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

Listen to an audio sample.  Here is the trailer from the publisher.  I picked up An eagle in the Snow because it featured in our NSW School magazine Bookshelf titles for 2016.

I would also recommend When Hitler Stole Pink rabbit, Carrie's war, Vinnie's war, Hurricane Summer by Robert Swindells, Christmas in the trenches and another book by Michael Morpurgo An Elephant in the garden.

Michael Foreman has illustrated nearly all Michael Morpurgo books.  Here is one of the illustrations from this book.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Loblolly boy by James Norcliffe

Firstly here is a confession I have bought this book home to read several times over the last few years but it never makes the top of my pile and I keep returning it unread.  Then I noticed something important on the cover.  An endorsement by Margaret Mahy.

"Children's literature is about to be enriched with a new classic"

I didn't even realise this was a New Zealand book.  I have mentioned that we have been culling our shelves.  We purchased this book in 2010 and I don't think it has been borrowed very often. Perhaps it needed to be culled but I was not sure so once again I bought this book home. Oddly when I visited a city book shop this week they had a copy of this book which was published in 2009 so now it was certainly time for me to actually read The Loblolly Boy.

While I don't entirely agree with Margaret Mahy The Loblolly boy is a engrossing book with a couple of heart stopping moments and an interesting supernatural feel.

Michael is living in a children's home.  Life is brutal.  Michael has no knowledge of his previous life. He is a loner and one evening he meets a boy in a remote corner of the garden down by the high wall - it is a  boy who has wings and can fly.  This is a loblolly boy and he contrives to swap lives with Michael.  There are glorious things about being a loblolly boy.  There are also issues :

"It had not occurred to me that being a loblolly boy meant I might never eat food again."
Michael has no shadow, can't feel hot or cold and is also invisible except to exceptional people. Such as Captain Bass.  He explains :
"In your travels ...  you will come across people who can see you and who can speak to you. We call such people Sensitives. ... some will be ... young, innocent and harmless; some will be like me; old and not really of this world ourselves. ... But then there are others who will ... be very dangerous. ... These are the collections; they'll see you as a rare and exotic species and they'll want to keep you in a cage."

Michael sees his future through a mysterious telescope. He finds new friends who are connected to him in a very surprising way.  Things seem to be going well until a collector discovers him. Michael is captured.

"It was only then the true ghastliness of my situation began to sink in. ... I looked around the walls again, at the dead butterflies skewered onto their neatly labelled backing cards. A single pin through the middle of each of these beautiful creatures. ... And this was going to happen to me."

You can listen the whole novel - performed for Radio NZ.

I wonder why James Norcliffe used the name Loblolly.  I have discovered :

  • Loblolly is a type of porridge or gruel served to the sick on warships in 1700s
  • Loblolly is also a type of small evergreen tree grown in the US
  • A loblolly boy was an assistant to a surgeon on a war ship

Winner, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, Junior Fiction Category, 2010

The quote from Margaret Mahy is just an extract the whole comment says :

'The children in The Loblolly Boy find themselves caught up in a remarkable chain of events. Through an encounter with the fantastic loblolly boy they can become fantastic themselves. This is a rich fantasy - alive with original twists, surprises and mysteries which I dare not reveal. Children's literature is about to be enriched with a new classic.' Margaret Mahy

There is a sequel and the US edition has a different cover and a different title.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Fly Away by Patricia MacLachlan

One of the books that 'made me' such a huge fan of children's books is Sarah Plain and Tall because of the emotional impact it had on me.  There is a link, too,  between Sarah Plain and Tall and this new book - the power of singing.

When I saw a 'new' title Fly Away (2014) by Patricia MacLachlan mentioned on a list of books for our younger readers I knew I wanted to get my hands on it straight away so yesterday I traveled to a bookshop in the city.  I read the whole book straight away and it did not disappoint me.  This is a short book but it explores huge emotions in a lyrical and truthful way.

One of the connections I made with this book Fly Away was the mention of a Dutch Belted cow. We have a picture book in our library called Clancy the Courageous Cow.  Clancy is a Belted Galloway. I thought they were 'made up' for the book until I was on a bus tour in Massachusetts and the guide told us to look out the window because we were passing a farm with heritage livestock included Belted Galloways.  Sadly I did not see them that day but the following year I did see some in UK and I was very excited.  I now discover that the Dutch Belted is a milking cow and the Belted Galloway is a beef cow which comes from the cross breeding of Galloways with the Dutch Belted. Here is a Dutch Belted.

Lucy and her family need to travel across Minnesota to visit Aunt Frankie.  "She lives by a big river that floods in the rainy season.  It is now the rainy season ... "  The family consists of Lucy and her two younger siblings Grace aged six and Teddy aged two.  Mum is called Maggie and Dad is called Boots "because he wears them."  Dad is a opera and poetry fan and mum loves Langhorne Slim.  I had not heard of him but he is a real singer (see below).

Lucy and Teddy have a very special relationship. Teddy is not yet talking but Lucy knows he can sing.  Teddy calls Lucy "See" and each night just before they fall asleep Teddy sings to Lucy.  Lucy cannot sing in tune but she has other talents including writing poetry.

Here are a few quotes from the story :

"I have known for a long time that Teddy can sing perfectly in tune even though he not yet two. We all know he doesn't speak words yet. But only Teddy and I know that he sings."

"Here is my secret: I am planning to be a poet. ... When I get to be a poet Boots will be pleased. He will be proud. And one day, for him, I will write a poem as beautiful as a cow."

"Sometimes I think Teddy knows everything."

Here is a list of the music in this book :

Friday, January 6, 2017

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

New York Times : The book’s narrative builds suspensefully toward an ending that’s wrenching and true, and in its final pages, Annabelle learns to abide by life’s complexities.

Kids Book Review : Gripping, heart-breaking, thought-provoking, profoundly moving and ultimately uplifting, Wolf Hollow is a book that I know I will read again.

Early in Wolf Hollow there are two scenes that will linger with me for a long time.

"Betty picked up a stick from along the path. It was dead wood, but I could tell from how she held it that it was still heavy. 'Tomorrow you bring me something or I'm going to beat you with this stick."

I rarely do this but after reading about Annabelle's first encounter with the bully Betty I just had to skip to the last chapter to make sure everything 'turned out okay'. I am happy to report the reviewer from the School Library Journal Elizabeth Bird did the same thing. I recommend reading the SLJ review now as it makes all the points I planed to raise but far more eloquently.

Back to the bully and her actions.  I knew there would be several possibilities for the ending of this book. The bully could be reformed and even make friends, the bully could leave, someone might die or worse - there might be no resolution. I won't spoil the ending but having glanced at the last few pages I then had the 'strength' to keep reading.

The other scene that worried me, enough to make me stop reading yesterday, was when I read that Annabelle had decided not to tell her mother, or any other adults about her vicious tormentor, at least at first.

"If I told her she'd have to go to her friends, the Glengarrys, and tell them their granddaughter was a hooligan ... And despite the face that she'd been able to fix nearly every broken thing in our lives, mother could not promise me that Betty would not come again, even angrier - or, worse, go after my brothers - if I tattled on her."

The time is 1943.  Fear of others bought about by the war has begun to permeate this remote rural community.  Annabelle is eleven and her carefree childhood is about to be shattered.  Her family are loving, hardworking and compassionate people. Toby is a loner - wounded in body and mind by his experience of the First War.  Annabelle sees beyond the scars and shyness.  She follows the example of her mother offering kindness to this man.  This will be both lucky for Annabelle but have devastating consequences for Toby who quietly observes the serious harm inflicted by Betty.  This is a story about betrayal, hidden lives, truth and lies.  Listen here to the first ten minutes of the story.

You can read more about vicious bullies and the reactions of children who are forced to cope with their violence in books such as Fearless by Tim Lott and The Present takers by Aidan Chambers.   I would also link this book with The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter.

Read more review comments here.  Horn Book have published an interview with the author.

"If life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how I could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?"

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Hating Alison Ashley by Robin Klein

Hating Alison Ashley was first published in 1984 and that is the year I read it.  We have packed up our school library for new carpet and at the same time culled some of our older books.  Our copy of Hating Alison Ashley is in bad shape and it has the unappealing movie cover so before adding a new copy to my shopping cart I thought I should re-read this classic story.  This book was so famous in the 1980s that it became a movie (it received a great deal of criticism) and a play.

Hating Alison Ashley is 32 years old and if you need to find evidence of the way our lives have changed this book can provide so many examples - here are few :

  • At the camp rain forces them inside for "an evening of projected colour slides."
  • The school secretary uses a golf-ball typewriter
  • Valjoy, Erica's sister, works at a milkbar
  • School worksheets are made using a spirit copying machine
  • Clag Glue, Quick Eze, Letraset
  • Library borrowing using cards
  • Prisoner on TV
  • Mums with rollers in their hair and smoking
  • Film cameras and a school dark room
  • Record albums "I can't play any for you right now, ... the stereo needs a new needle. I'm terribly fussy about scratching my records."
  • Making a phone call from a public phone costs 20 cents

There are some moments in this book where the writing just sparkles.  Teachers who read this book will smile when they read :

Four teachers take the Year six kids to camp.  "(Miss Lattimore) hadn't wanted to come along to the camp.  From the sick bay I had heard her having a fight with Mr Nicholson ... She'd threatened to quit the Education Department and earn a living making macrame flowerpot hangers ... But since none of the other teachers on the staff, except Mrs Wentworth, wanted to come to the camp, Miss Lattimore had to give in. Mr Kennard didn't have any choice. He was straight out of teachers' college."

Erica shows Alison around Barringa East Primary School and takes her to the library. "Mrs Cheale took a real shine to her straight away. She showed Alison the new books that hadn't been processed yet.  Usually if someone dared lay a finger on any uncovered books, she changed from a patient teacher into a monster with fangs and a black velvet cloak. ... Alison ... was telling Mrs Cheale that her aunt was a librarian. Librarians always seem fascinated if you know someone else who is a librarian."

"It was funny none of the teachers' kids were enrolled at our school.  You'd have thought it would be more convenient for them."

Also Robin Klein creates such masterful contrasts between the glamour of Alison and the grungy, messy chaos of Erica (Yuk, Erk or Gherkin),

"She was wearing this soft blue skirt, and a shirt the colour of cream, with not a crease nor a wrinkle nor a loose thread anywhere ... Long, pale-gold hair caught back with a filigree clasp, and tiny gold roses, the size of shirt buttons, in her ears."

ALISON "... she had a chicken drumstick wrapped in foil ... a stick of celery with the tips curled, a tiny perfect tomato like a ruby ... and a smart white drink bottle with a gold lid filled with orange juice.  She also had a straw in a cellophane wrap."
ERICA "I'd ordered a meat pie, an ice jam donut, and this lovely yellow banana, just begging to be unzipped and eaten."

"The coat hangers she'd bought along weren't the old wire ones from dry cleaning; hers were all padded and crocheted."

Even though the story feels dated I still really enjoyed reading this book again.  Erica is such a funny character but she is also real girl who needs a true friend.  Listen to this little audio sample.   Here is an assignment to use with this book.

Sadly Robin Klein became ill in 2005 and is no longer able to write.  Her final books were fabulous.  I especially loved Came back to show you I could fly, People might Hear you and Games.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

She cannot chain my soul.

We have had Chains in our library for over a year but oddly I kept bringing home the sequel.  As is my usual pattern I thought I might read a chapter or two before bed.  At 3am I was still reading and by 11am the next day (after a little sleep) I finished this breathtaking book.  I don't give ratings but this is a ten out of ten book.  I can hardly wait to read the rest of the trilogy.

Before you read my thoughts about Chains click on this podcast and listen to the first section where four US students talk about their reactions to this book and you can also hear from the author.

Coming from Australia I am largely ignorant about the American revolutionary war of 1776 and I knew nothing about the events in New York city.  Thanks to Laurie Anderson I not only feel I know a lot more but I feel as though I have truly been transported back in time as a witness. More importantly I have 'walked in the shoes' of a slave gaining a little insight into these events from her point of view.  Laurie Anderson is able to touch every sense with her writing.  I could hear, see and even smell every scene.

Isabel and her very young sister Ruth are slaves.  Their mistress dies and the pair are sold to a couple from New York City.  The wife, Mrs Lockton, is a cruel mistress.  The scene where they are taken from Newport is heart wrenching. Isabel must leave her dead mother behind knowing she cannot follow :

"Momma said that ghosts couldn't move over water.  That's why kidnapped Africans got trapped in the Americas. ... All of Momma's people had been stolen too, and taken to Jamaica where she was born. Then she got sold to Rhode Island, and the ghosts of her parents couldn't follow and protect her"

You can listen to a little of the first chapter here.  You can read more details of the plot here.  The author web site has excellent teaching notes.

Isabel is made to work so hard in the Lockton house but she makes one very important friend.  A young boy named Curzon.  He never gives up on Isabel and when events conspire against him, Isabel shows her own deep loyalty.  Both have been lied to and double crossed but they will find freedom.

Here is a scene where Isabel has been sent to fetch water.

"The cut on my left hand pained me too much to use it, and my right hand was not big enough, I journeyed in a crow-hop fashion - carrying one bucket for twenty strides, setting it down, then returning to fetch the second bucket and carrying it forward to meet its partner.  ... Curzon joined me. He would not look at me.  Didn't say a word, neither. He simply carried the buckets to the Locktons' gate for me, then walked away."

Chains is at times quite a violent book and so I would recommend it for experienced readers aged 11+ and all adults.  There is a harrowing scene where Isabel is branded, she is regularly beaten and her visits to the prison are filled with threats and horror.  On the other hand it is clear so much research has gone into this carefully crafted book. I loved all the little domestic details such as the opulent dinner given when the British arrive.

"The cook had prepared enough to feed a battalion : pheasant stuffed with figs, stewed oysters, potted larks, greens cooked with bacon, pickled watermelon rind, and buttered parsnips."

"... the dessert tray - rice pudding, lemon biscuits, two creamed pear tarts, and an iced cake"

Here is a review from the School library Journal - well worth reading.  Click the links at the bottom of this post to read two more reviews.

Chains disproves the notion that a children’s book written for the middle reader set can’t have complexity and interesting characters. Best of all, it’s a great read.

This is a lovely novel - about big issues and big stories, but never losing its focus on individual people. Isabel is a captivating central character, treated abominably and reaching depths of sadness today's children are unlikely to ever experience, but she never loses her spirit. She's enslaved in every possible way, but never stops being her own impulsive and sometimes hot-tempered self, and somehow ... she manages acts of kindness and generosity that are utterly heroic.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Horribly Haunted School by Margaret Mahy illustrated by Robert Staermose

I am a huge fan of Margaret Mahy and she doesn't disappoint with this junior novel.  Brilliant language, a laugh aloud plot, perfectly shaped storytelling and a very satisfying conclusion.

Monty Merryandrew is a conventional boy, well sort of, but he has very unconventional parents.  His mother is a champion jigsaw contestant and his father works as a government philosopher at the Department of National Despair.  In their backyard is an old car inhabited by a ghost called Lulu.   I love the way Margaret Mahy leads the reader into the realisation that Lulu is a ghost.  Listen to this scene.

"I'm never hungry"
"I miss the idea of breakfast"
"I loved eating when I was alive"
"It's so boring haunting a car that's never going to be driven ever again."

His mother does not believe in ghosts and she is sure sending Monty to a new, more sensible school, will cure him of this idea.  That very day Monty arrives at the Brinsley Codd School for Sensible Thought.  As he enters the office of the school principal - Ms Margiold Principal, he begins to sneeze. This is a sure sign there are ghosts in this school but of course no one believes him.

After a disastrous morning with his new and awful teacher, the aptly named Mr Sogbucket, Monty finally meets the ghost.  It is none other than school founder Brinsley Codd.  Brinsley sets a task for Monty.  He wants to know the fate of three precious school students.  Scrunley Filcher, Avery Crispins and Jessica Frogcutlet.  These naughty children were sent to him to be punished but instead "I would talk to the naughty children in a sympathetic but sensible way, and then I would ... tell them to pretend to cry, so everyone would think they had been punished for their misdeeds."

Here is a Kirkus quote :

Here are some of the wonderful words :

squidlets, sausosnack and nipkin - these are foods
Prang Street, Impact Drive and Bowled-over-backwards Boulevard - street names near Monty's home
Triumph Podmore and Neroli-Pompas - vintage cars
Firkins of Jigjag Fizz "a wholesome drink much loved by jigsaw puzzle champions"

I was pleased to see the word horrakapotchkin.  Margaret Mahy uses this delicious word in her book The Three Legged cat.

Here is an alternate cover for a newer edition of The Horribly Haunted School but (yes you have guess this) of course this marvelous book is out of print!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Falcon's egg by Luli Gray

When I travelled to NYC several years ago I was keen to find all the places mentioned in books such as Eloise, From the mixed up files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, The cricket in Times Square, When you reach me and Stuart Little.  I completely forgot this little book Falcon's Egg even though it is one I often recommend to my students.

New York City references :
Emily Falcon Davies known as Falcon finds an egg in Central Park
"The scarlet Egg lay hidden in the long grass, and though the day was misty and full of rain, the air around it shimmered with heat."

Falcon lives at 16 West 77th Street and from her friend Ardene's apartment she can see The Museum of Natural History.  Aunt Emily knows a man there called Freddy who is an ornithologist.  There is a disused aviary on the museum roof above Freddy's apartment.  "It was like an old castle, with tall battlements all around and narrow slits for shooting arrows through."

Falcon's mum is a book illustrator and she becomes very distracted when working towards a 'deadline' so the kids often eat take away food. "All they ate was take-out from the Korean deli on 77th and Columbus."

Central Park is where Falcon finds the Egg and where she takes her young dragon to fly during the night.   "In New York City, the streets are cleared of the last grey slush.  People open their coats to the April wind and catch the smell of lilacs from the Conservatory Garden at 105th Street."

Central Park is also the setting where her Friends of Egg gather for the final release of her dragon friend.  "Please come to the Rite of Passage for Egg.  4am. Meet inside park entrance west 77th Street."

One of my favourite ideas in this book is the way the Egg heats itself maintaining a temperature of 127 degrees Fahrenheit.  I also like the idea of keeping the egg snug in an old Russian fur lined hat.

Our copy is very worn and this book is long out of print so I am going to suggest you might read the ebook version.  Falcon's egg was first published in 1995 and arrived in our school library in 1997. I am considering buying a second hand copy as a replacement.  There are only one or two references which date this story.  Early on someone mentions a VCR for example and Falcon's dad sends postcards from Australia and Africa with no mention of email of course.

Researching this post I now discover there were two sequels. Both are also out of print.

Here are some reviews :
Publishers Weekly  An imaginative and meaningful tale, told with flair. 
Kirkus  Engaging, intelligent, and well-wrought:
School Library Journal Best book of the Year and an ALA Notable book

You might also enjoy Hatching Magic.  I would also suggest the trilogy about Kumiko.

Nooks and Crannies by Jessica Lawson illustrated by Natalie Andrewson

A plucky amateur detective, secret passages, exaggerated characters, concealed identities, and dastardly villains equal a swell mystery.

Readers will delight in the unexpected twists and turns at every junction.

Three cheers for Nooks & Crannies, a book that elevates misdirection to an art form. When you think you’ve settled into familiar plot lines, think again. What fun!

Nooks and Crannies is a long (315 pages) and quite complex book but avid readers with perseverance will be rewarded when they discover, on the final pages, what is really happening at country estate of the reclusive Countess of Windermere and what are her motives for gathering together these six eleven year olds.

Tabitha and five other children, a total of three girls and three boys, all receive an invitation which says in part :

"No response is required as all children/parents are fully expected to attend.  I look forward to your presence and trust that it will be a profitable weekend for all.  Your discretion is advised, assumed and appreciated."

Tabitha Crum has a life like Matilda (Roald Dahl) - her parents seem to find her an irritating inconvenience.  In fact they have plans to send her to an orphanage but then this mysterious invitation arrives. Why are these children summoned by Camilla Lenore DeMoss, Countess of Windermere?

"Twelve years ago my son Thomas ran off and eloped with a woman of no education ... a little over a year later they both died in a boating accident.  Their six-month-old child was .... sent to an orphanage."

Camilla has discovered the name of the orphanage.  These six children were also dropped off there in May 1895.  None of the children know they are orphans but which one is the grandchild and heir to the Countess?

Oliver Appleby
Viola Dale
Frances Wellington
Barnaby Trundle
Edward Herringbone
Tabitha Crum

You will feel as though you are reading a book from England perhaps even an Agatha Christie mystery but Jessica Lawson is an American author.  The butler is of course not to be trusted and why does the 'Countess' wear gloves?  The house also has mysterious locked rooms and secret passages with spy holes.  One of the quirky aspects of this book comes from the little chapter headings taken from a fictitious detective book series with alliterative titles such as :

The case of the Speckled Spyhole
The case of the Galley Ghosts Gumption
The case of the bilious Banker
The case of the Enigmatic Encumbrancer
The case of the Maudlin Mariner

Each chapter also begins with a quote which links neatly with the chapter contents.

You can also see from this list of book titles that Jessica Lawson is not afraid to include quite complex words into her writing.  Here are a few examples from the first chapter :

Reading this book you may be reminded of The Mysterious Benedict society, The truth about Verity Sparks and  The mystery of the Clock Work Sparrow.

You can listen to a five minute audio sample here.  Take a look at some of the illustrations by Natalie Andrewson.  Each of the quotes at the top of this post will take you to reviews with even more plot details.