Thursday, November 30, 2017

Our very own dog by Amanda McCardie illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino

Kirkus Star review

Our very own dog is an excellent book for young children who have a new dog.  It is a combination of story and facts - Sophie, the Jack Russell, comes to live with a new family after they rescue her from the dog's home.  The new owner, a little girl aged four, has a lot to learn but she is very sensible and shares her knowledge with readers though little captions scattered on each page in a different font.

Here are a few facts - some I knew, some I appreciated hearing again :

  • Training works best when it is kind, patient and the same every time.
  • A shy or nervous dog may feel threatened if you look too closely into her face.
  • A dog's sense of smell is ten thousand times more sensitive than a person's.

Sophie is not perfect and Salvatore Rubbino's illustrations perfectly show her joyful antics - stealing sausages, rolling in the mud and shaking the mud off all over the parents!  The end papers might inspire a young artist, the index is useful and there is also a reading list on the last page.  This would be an excellent book for a school or pre school library.  Take a look at this review.

The real boat by Marina Aromshtam illustrated by Victoria Semykina

Lyrically told and with illustrations that are arresting and demand exploration for their artistry and technique, this modern fable is a thoroughly rewarding read. Red Reading Hub

Some picture books just astonish me.  I sigh with happiness at the beautiful story and exquisite illustrations we can share with our children.  Books about ocean travel, ships and under sea locations are always popular in my school which is located near a beach.

The Little Boat by Kathy Henderson has been a favourite of mine for a long time and now I have found The Real Boat and together these will make a perfect pair.

"The pond seemed very big and deep to the little boat."

But then he talks with a frog and a duck.

"Real boats sail on the ocean. I want to sail there too ..."

And so the journey begins.  The little origami boat sails along the stream and into a wider stream where he meets an old row boat. The stream joins other streams and eventually the paper boat is in a river.  There he sees a motor boat and a riverboat, a barge and a tug boat.  The tug shows him the way to the harbor where there are passenger liners, container ships and lots of seagulls.  Tall cranes are loading the shipping containers and one even contains two giraffes. He sees a car ferry and a huge passenger liner which "shone like an enchanted city."

After a long day and a long journey the little paper boat falls asleep and so he misses the departure of the ocean liner.  A fish trawler offers to show him the way to the ocean but disaster arrives in the form of a huge thunder storm.  "The paper boat was now completely filled with water, and he had started to sink."  Will the little paper boat ever be found?  Where will this journey end?

Take some time to look at the art of Victoria Semykina - it is wonderful.  She is a Russian illustrator who lives in Italy.  You can see more pages from this book and a little film here.

The Real Boat was originally written in Russian.  It always makes me happy when I see books from around the world making the journey into English and then arriving here in Australia.  This is a longer format picture book which you should explore slowly.  This book would make a beautiful gift for a young boat enthusiast and together you might be inspired to make a sail your own little origami boats.

One Christmas Wish by Katherine Rundell illustrated by Emily Sutton

In just one week I have been invited to talk to a group of parents and their children about some of the books I have been reading.  I wanted to include a Christmas book and when I saw this one - One Christmas Wish by an author I adore (Katherine Rundell) I was keen to add it to my huge pile.

I wish this blog was tactile because you need to run your hand over the cover.  It is embossed and covered with gold embellishments.  It would also be good if I could show you under under the dust jacket and reveal the other beautiful cover.  Again this is gold and highly tactile.

The illustrations are one of the stand out features of this delightful book.  Emily Sutton also illustrated another one of my favourite Christmas books - The Christmas Eve Tree. Take a look at some of the art work at The Illustration Cupboard in London.  You might know also her from the book Clara Button and the magical hat day.

As this story opens Theodore is struggling to open the box containing Christmas decorations.  He finds four old decorations in very poor shape.

  • a rocking horse - the rockers had been part eaten by woodworm
  • a robin - with a bald patch
  • an angel - with moulting wings
  • a tin soldier - with a rusty drum

Theo hangs them low on the tree.  There is no one to help him reach higher.  His parents are at work and have no time - they have not even bought presents just vouchers.  His babysitter is asleep "with her nosed pressed against her phone."  Perhaps this is a sad indictment on the modern family.

Theo looks out of the window and he sees a star "shooting across the sky, blinking red and green."  Like any sensible boy he makes a wish "I want not to be alone. ... to be un-alone."

You may have guessed each of the decorations now comes to life.  Each needs restoring in a different way and as Theo attends to their needs they show him a magical Christmas eve.

They way the parents are absent and the careless babysitter might worry adult readers.  The reviewer in Books for Keeps explains this in her review (spoiler alert).  I do think, however, the magic of the ending, where Christmas is restored, will make revisiting this book part of your family Christmas tradition.   Listen to an audio sample here.  One thing to watch as you are reading.  The rocking horse keeps eating and eating anything and everything.  Why?  So he can grow big enough to give Theo a ride across the town.

You might also enjoy The Magic Saddle (sadly long out of print) illustrated by Patricia Mullins and some of the other books listed here.

Ballerina dreams by Michaela Elaine DePrince pictures by Ella Okstad

I am on the hunt for easy to read beginning chapter books WITH a worthwhile/good/engaging story.  I have found one here.  This little book ticks quite a  few boxes

  • Ballerina Dreams is a true story (read more at the back of the book)
  • Ballerina Dreams is about ballet which is a popular subject with young students
  • Ballerina Dreams is very easy to read but does not use simplified language
  • Ballerina Dreams has perfect and colourful illustrations
  • Ballerina Dreams contains real emotions

Michaela lives in Sierra Leone. Blowing in the wind one day she finds a magazine picture of a beautiful ballerina :

"She wore a short pink dress that stuck out around her in a circle. She had pink shoes on her feet and stood on the tips of her toes. She looked very happy."

Michaela now dreams of ballet. But she lives in an orphanage in one of the poorest countries in the world and worse she has a skin condition called vitiligo which means she has white marks on her brown skin.  The wonderful thing is the way none of these things matter.  Michaela is adopted by Elaine DePrince in America.  She attends ballet classes and through hard work and determination achieves success at the highest level.  You can read more about this here.  Adult ballet fans might also enjoy the book Hope in a Ballet Shoe.  My friend at Kinderbookboard has a good selection of other ballet stories for you children to enjoy.

At its heart is the core message that hard work and determination are the keys to making any dream come true.   Kirkus

Ballerina Dreams is a wonderfully uplifting story about what must have been a truly difficult upbringing. Yet, it is told in such a gentle manner that always leaves room for hope and understanding.   Read and Seek

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Ollie's Odyssey by William Joyce

"... homemade toys ... within their stitching and fabric, bits of their makers past can be felt or heard like an echo."

That was a very big word.  In the realm of toys, 
being favorited was a special distinction. It was a yum as it got."

When Billy is born the doctor explains there is a small hole in his heart.  To cope with this agonizing news his mother makes Billy a very special toy.

"This toy that Billy's mother was sewing was already special.  It was made of various kinds of deliciously comfortable fabric, which she had chosen with great care.  ...  (then) she gently sewed into its chest a small heart. The heart was made from a scrap of fabric ... " and a tiny bell from a toy she had loved as a child - a doll called Nina.  Billy recovers and Ollie becomes his best friend and most loyal companion.

"Keeping Billy safe was Ollie's favorite thing to do. He'd put his head on Billy's chest and listen to his heart."

William Joyce uses alternating chapters in Ollie's Odyssey setting them decades apart to give us the 'back story' about Nina and her fun fair companion Zozo.  Both are toys in a games booth where contestants throw soft balls at suspended toys trying to knock them down.  It actually sounded quite brutal to me.  Zozo enjoys his 'job' because he can see the beautiful Nina nearby but one day she is taken away and adding to his heart-break the carnival gradually falls into disrepair and ruin.  Zozo's own heart changes.  He wants to take revenge and he targets the 'favorites'.  To execute his plan he makes new creatures called Creeps. He plans to destroy all of the favorite toys.  And be warned the Creeps will really give you the creeps.

At times this is a very dark story especially when Zozo's heart becomes bitter and furious but this is balanced by some funny moments.  Here a couple I enjoyed :

"Since Billy carried Ollie with him everywhere, when Billy got too stinky it usually meant that Ollie got something called 'P.U.' ... and P.U. always meant 'a trip to the wash."

"Once 'in trouble', it seemed to take forever to get out of it. Trouble time went 50 times slower than regular time and 377 times slower than fun time, which went faster  than any other time."

"But then suddenly the lady and man up front were kissing.  'Whoa, lots of slobber ... Major slobber alert."

Now I have done some further reading about William Joyce and I can perhaps see his trajectory culminating in this wonderful story.  In 1995 William Joyce created two of the major characters in Toy Story. When his daughter was gravely ill she took comfort from her Big Teddy - her talisman. Adult readers should click the link to read more.

One interesting aspect of this book is the use of coloured paper.  The dark scenes involving Zozo have a brown sepia tint and the scenes with Ollie are on bright white.  I also like the concept of patchpaw as a way to define left and right but I will leave you to read the story yourself to more fully understand this idea.  You also need to discover the importance of fireflies - a little insect that utterly fascinates me.

William Joyce :  "I’m very interested in the humanity we bestow upon our favorite stuffed animals and blankets from childhood — the emotional force that these pieces of fabric and stuffing have for us, and how that emotion echoes through our entire lives. It’s very powerful and poignant.  I hate clowns and have always wanted to have a scary clown villain."

I read this book in two sittings and I did not draw breath.  Yes it is THAT good!  Huge thanks goes to a Grade 3 class at my school - their excitement made me rush out and buy this book for myself. Watch this YouTube review and then read some comments by Grade 3 children :

Ollie's Odyssey is a magnifcent book!!! It has adventure, feeling and a sizzling start with the first sentence being "When Billy was born he was nearly lost." It involves a favourite toy, a boy called Billy and a heartwarming adventure. I highly recommend you read this book.

Ollies Odyssey is a beautiful book about a toy, a boy and their imagination. If you like adventures this is the book for you. I think it deserves a 100 stars.

Ollie's Odyssey is a wonderful book with great adventures in it. Every time I read it I can't put it down it is now my favourite book. I am so glad you wrote this book.  Did you know about half my class has bought it so they can read it over and over again and there are 28 people in my class.

Ollie's Odyssey is a beautiful book. Ollie was made by Billy's mum the day Billy was born. Billy was born with a hole in his heart which was scary for Billy's parents.
There is a lot of A-ventures (adventures)
And a lot of Super sneaking and Ninja moves.
But there is a down side. There are bad guys called "THE CREEPS". There is creep 1,2,3,4, Super Creep and their leader Zozo. Zozo was once happy but you have to read Ollie's Odyssey to find out about this story.
Do you want to read Ollie's Odyssey now? I hope I have persuaded you.

I would follow Ollie's Odyssey with : 

Here is a teaching guide from the publisher.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Pip Street A brotherly bother by Jo Simmons illustrated by Steve Wells

"They understood that this was their last hope; their final chance to save Mr Keiths and keep Walter off Pip Street. They were on a quest. ... A thrilling, noble, car-boot-sale-to-fix-a-mobility-scooter quest. And that's the best kind of quest there is!"

When I wrote my comments about the first book from the Pip Street series the author (yes yes the author) wrote a comment!! This is so thrilling for me.

I really enjoyed the first installment and now I jump forward to book four - A Brotherly Bother  I think you might understand the premise, setting and characters if you take the time to read the other titles in this series.

Once again we have a serious problem which will impact the lives of the people living on Pip Street and once again it is up to Bobby and his friends to "save the day".  A stranger arrives riding a "chariot-sleigh-thing" pulled by five malamutes.  He is on the hunt for oil and gas and he intends to start digging under number 8 - the home of Richard Keiths.  Our intrepid friends visit Mr Keiths and discover another disaster.  His trusty mobility scooter named Pegasus has broken down.

"It's an apostrophe, isn't it, Bobbby?' said Imelda  "Catastrophe," said Bobby."

The scooter can be repaired but the price is so high - way more than Mr Keiths could ever pay - 500 pounds! Adding to this series of issues Mr Keiths explains that his bother, Walter, can claim number eight for himself under the conditions of his mother's will which specified Mr Keiths can only keep the house if he lives there but without his Pegasus he will be forced to move.

So now Bobby needs to raise 500 pounds and save their street from the excavators.  A little hint about how this might be achieved comes in chapter 3 entitled "How Much?"  This is the name of a television program where people bring items to be valued and when they hear the amazing amount everyone shouts 'how much?'

Since he may have to move Mr Keiths begins to clear out his garage.  Wait a minute though I know you are anticipating a treasure worth a fortune will emerge from this clutter and perhaps it will but in the meantime there is some serious money raising to be done involving the cat Conkers, a bake and car boot sale and even some time spent in a dressing gown!

Here are a few of the chapter opening sentences which will show you just how very funny this little book is :

"The next day was Wednesday, the day that almost always follows Tuesday."
"The next day was Friday, one of the most popular days of the week."

Imelda will make you smile too with her quirky vocabulary mishaps.

"What in the name of spangles was he on about?"
"Bobster ... you have a heart made of silver and gold and extra-sweet jam."
"You have caused so much trouble since you first mushed onto this street."

Jo Simmons has a terrific web site where you can play games and learn more about the characters in this series.  You can listen to some audio samples of titles from this series here.  If you have trouble finding this series you can buy ebook versions.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Rabbit and Bear - The pest in the nest by Julian Gough and Jim Field

"Wow,' said Rabbit very quietly. 'I thought the world was Small, 
and full of Me; but it is Big and not full of me at all.' 
'Yes,' said Bear. 'Yes yes yes,' said Woodpecker."

Winter is over.  "Spring has sprung!"  Time for Rabbit to move out of Bear's cave and get on with spring cleaning his burrow.  He ejects a slow tortoise and settles down in the sunshine when

Bang! Bang! Bang!

There is a woodpecker in the tree near his burrow and she is making such a racket.  Rabbit it furious but Bear makes an excellent suggestion.

"What are you looking for?' said Bear. 
'A rock. A big one. To throw at that Woodpecker menace.' 
'Why don't we help her, instead?' said Bear.  
'Help her?'
'Yes, help her.'
"Help her DRIVE ME CRAZY?' said Rabbit. 'What kind of friend are YOU?'
'No,' said bear. 'Help her finish her job faster, so she doesn't drive you crazy."

Even though Rabbit calls Bear a traitor, Bear climbs the tree (he's had a lot of practice looking for honey).  He discovers the view is spectacular and so he gives Rabbit a lift up to the top of the tree so he can share this wonder.  Rabbit changes his outlook on life but on returning to the ground there are still things that infuriate him.  As Bear explains - "Maybe you could just think about the world differently ... Maybe you could accept it."

I love the way this book shows young readers how we can all make choices about our reactions to situations and to one another.  This book also talks about taking responsibility for these reactions and actions but not in a heavy 'teacher-talk' way.  This is little book is a true gem which will warm your heart and make you smile.  It might also make you want to climb a tree to see the mountains behind the mountains behind the mountains.

I adored the first book in this series about rabbit and bear and so I was exited to discover the second one.  I have been spending some time recently looking for junior chapter books which I can recommend.  Both books in this series are on the top of my list.  Here are some of the pages from this book.

Good news early next year you can read the third book in this series.  If you click this quote you can read a more detailed review of The pest in the nest.

Warmth, tenderness and humour fill every page of this enchanting story. Simply written and utterly engaging, it effortlessly exemplifies the way to wisdom and wellbeing. Children's books for Keeps

The Creakers by Tom Fletcher illustrated by Shane Devries

"Impossible isn't real.  It's just in your mind!"

After reading a few long and intense books over the last week it was good to take a little break yesterday with The Creakers.  Tom Fletcher is famous for his book The Christmasaurus but I will confess I have not read this.  He is also the author of the popular picture book series 'The Dinosaur that pooped'.

When you see this book you may think it looks quite long but the 330+ pages have a largish text size and plenty of illustrations and this combined with a fast paced story means you will (if you are a reader in Year 2 or 3) look very impressive because you reading a 'long/fat' book but in fact you will be able to read this romp quite easily (and the grown-ups will never know!)

Lucy Dungston's dad has disappeared. Mum thinks he has left the family but Lucy is sure he will return.  One morning Lucy wakes up to discover her mum has gone too!  When she steps out onto Clutter Avenue it appears she is not alone with this issue - all the parents and other adults are gone. Overnight they have all disappeared.

At first this seems fabulous to the children.  Freedom to play, eat junk food, watch movies rated higher than PG and make lots of mess but Lucy and her friend Norman realise this is actually a crisis.  The pair investigate and discover hidden tunnels under all the beds in Whiffington. These tunnels lead to the home of the Creakers - a place called the Woleb - and it is these smelly, ugly creatures who have stolen all the parents.  But why?  And how? And what can Lucy, Norman and little Ella do?

With thirty short chapters and funny little asides** by the author I am sure this light-hearted fantasy will make you laugh and also cheer as Lucy sorts out this mess with her can do attitude, boundless energy and common sense problem solving.

Here are a few quotes from the text to give you an idea of this writing :

Lucy finds herself in the Woleb
"It was the strangest thing she'd ever stepped on. It felt warm, damp and squelchy, like standing on a giant tongue.  Yuck! thought Lucy. I wish I'd worn my slippers. That's the thing about having adventures in the middle of the night. You can never be fully prepared for them."

Lucy and Norman decide to use Ella in their plan to capture a Creaker.
"Now it's not very nice to use little girls as live bait to catch monsters, but, if you do ever have to, then it's always best to use an annoying little sprog like Ella, just in case they do actually end up getting snatched."

There is also an audio version of this book which would make a fun listening activity for any junior class.  Here is a review with more plot details.  Finally take another look at the word 'woleb' - have you discovered the truth.  This little trailer from Penguin makes The Creakers look a lot more scary than it actually is - take a look.

**"Ok, we're about to dive down into the Woleb with Lucy. Are you ready? You might want to go to the loo before reading this chapter. I'd hate you to have a little accident. No? Ok, don't say I didn't warn you. By reading on, you agree that the author accepts no responsibility for any toilet-related mishaps you may have as a result of being scared by the following chapter(s)."

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Shooting at the stars the Christmas Truce of 1914 by John Hendrix

"Every man on the front, no matter what his uniform, was cold, fearful, and with out hope of returning home anytime soon. Although these soldiers were at war and spoke different languages, the English, French, and Germans shared much - songs, faith, and a deep love of Christmas. This is the true story of what happened one cold winter evening."

This is the perfect to pair with Christmas in the Trenches and with the anniversary of the end of WWI next year I am sure there will be renewed interest in books set at that time. This pair of books are also good to share at Christmas with older students - giving them a different and important perspective about war.

Shooting at the stars takes the form of  a letter written in a rough hand printed style.  "Was I really finishing school only a few month ago?"  The young soldier, Charlie, describes the trenches, the rain, the mud and the rats. Then he goes on to talk about Christmas eve 1914.  "When we stepped outdoors we heard the sounds of singing."

"I didn't know what was happening, but it wasn't war! For one glorious Christmas morning, war had taken a holiday."  And so the men bury their dead, talk to each other, take photographs and exchange small gifts.

Even though they were ordered back to the fighting and events like this were never repeated.  You can read more here on the BBC web site.  Also in this book you will find detailed historical notes and an excellent prologue which sets the scene.

Charlie writes :

"Altogether it was splendid day with our foes. Tomorrow I suppose we will all fight for our countries. And when the major returns we will have to follow his orders. But I suspect our side will spend the rest of the night aiming high above their trenches, shooting at the stars."

Here is a review where you can see some of the excellent art from this book.  Take a look at the author/illustrator web site to see more of his books.  Here is a set of teaching ideas to extend your students' understanding of these events.

Timed with the centenary of World War I but a lesson for always, Hendrix’s tale pulls young readers close and shows the human side of war.  Kirkus

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Wonderling by Mira Bartok

He looked down at the small disk in his red furry hand.  The number was nearly worn off. Who would he have become, he wondered, had he remained Number Thirteen and not escaped? 'I have a real name,' he said under his breath. 'My name is Arthur."

Number Thirteen or Arthur, as he is now named, is a Groundling - part animal part human.  He has been sent to the Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures.  Take a minute to re-read these words wayward - the implication is that they are bad or in need of instruction and misbegotten - conceived by mistake.  Miss Carbunkle rules this school with an iron fist and the oppressed youngsters are forced to endure long hours 'education' followed by even longer hours of tedious factory work and desperate living conditions.  From the moment we meet Arthur, though, it seems he has a special destiny.

"He looked like a young fox but he stood upright like child and had no tail to speak of. His eyes were a lovely chestnut brown and flecked with gold. But there was something about them that gave one the sense that, although he had not been in this world very long, he carried within him some inexplicable sorrow."

"He'd reach beneath his pillow and pull out something soft and blue: a fragment of his baby blanket. ... Wrapped inside the scrap of blanket was a tiny gold key. ... the only things remaining from his very first home."

Arthur has some great skills one of which is acute hearing and he also longs to sing.  Perhaps this is part of his destiny.

"Silence was what was expected of him anyway, for it was the first and most important of Miss Carbunkle's Golden Rules. Noise, including conversation, was barely tolerated. ... Singing, humming, or making music of any kind whatsoever was also prohibited."

He is also very kind so when a tiny creature is being used as a plaything by three bullies who live in the Home he rescues her - a tiny bird called Trinket. She tells him wonderful stories of life outside and convinces Arthur they can escape and forge new lives.  Everything is new to Arthur.  Perhaps one day he will taste a pie.  When you read page 176 you will just gasp knowing how much he longs to taste this delicious treat.

"Pies are the best of all ... They are buttery, sweet, and filled with every kind of delicious thing imaginable.  But it's not the sort of thing one can actually describe. You just have to taste it."

"Except for the top of the birch tree and the sky, he had never seen the Outside, or rather he couldn't recall what it looked like, for he had been at Miss Carbunkle's Home for all of his remembered life."

"There was so much he wished to know.  And so much he realized he wish for.  ... he wanted to know if he still had a family somewhere. And he wanted to know why he had no name, and why he had one ear. And who had sung that beautiful song when he was but a wee pup, and why he could hear things others couldn't and why and why and why."

I made a list of some of the utterly delicious and special words used by Mira Bartok.  Here is a video where she talks about her book.  Here is a detailed question and answer session.

  • formidable
  • panoptic
  • capricious
  • peevish
  • cruciferous
  • demeanor
  • miscreants
  • pugent
  • bindle
  • malodourous
  • daguerreotypes
  • conundrum

I enjoy books filled with senses and because Arthur is a fox his sense of smell is strong and so many smells are graphically described in this book. As mentioned his sense of hearing is also amazing even though he only has one ear.  Both of these attributes are more than just useful as Arthur finds himself in confronting and extremely dangerous situations. I love these words "the air was his library, and it was rich with sound."

Food is scarce in the orphanage and on the streets of Lumentown which means I love this breakfast scene near the end of the book - being provided with food like this is so reassuring that Arthur is now heading for happiness.

"The table was set for breakfast: scrambled eggs, fried mushrooms, toast with butter and gooseberry jam, goat cheese tarts, sliced apples - and a little bowl of seeds for Trinket."

All the characters in this book have perfect names.  Arthur, Miss Carbunkle, Sneezweed, Mardox, Mr Bonegrubber, Wire, Trinket, Peevil, Quintus, Baby Tizer and Linette.

The Wonderling is a long book but you will be richly rewarded when you take the time to read it.  The first part just flew past for me as did the final chapters where good does triumph over evil as expected but perhaps with a twist or two that you will not anticipate.

Take time to read this review by 12 year old Jazzy.  I would follow The Wonderling with A Very Unusual Pursuit, The wolves of Willoughby Chase, The girl who drank the moon and Gregor the Overlander.

Captivating and with great potential as a read-aloud. Kirkus Star review

In stunning prose, set in three parts, we accompany the two friends on their journey out of the Home, and meet the most surprising characters.  Kids Book Review

Mira Bartók's world of The Wonderling is strikingly complex: sounds, tastes, colors are all described so vividly that the world practically sparkles  Shelf Awareness

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Storm Whale by Sarah Brennan illustrated by Jane Tanner

Dark as a demon, dull of eye,
Waiting in silence to drift ... or die

Whales and sharks are fascinating creatures and since I work in a school beside the sea these are topics which each fill entire shelves in our school library.

Storm Whale is a beautiful book told in verse.  I would use this with an older group so I find it curious that the publisher lists ages 4-8.  I do hope to see it on the CBCA short list or Notable list for 2018.  I am excited to see Storm Whale on the nomination list for the Kate Greenaway Medal.  Also on this list you will find several other Australian titles including Home in the rain by Bob Graham.

The in Storm Whale imagery is confronting at times and also beautiful :

"Hair flew wild like a brumby's tail ...
And there, on the beach, lay the stranded whale."

"Casting prayers to the wild wet air,
Which wouldn't listen and couldn't care."

The children make a desperate attempt to save the stranded whale but eventually darkness forces them back to their holiday house.  After a restless night, when no one sleeps, the morning brings calm and happy news.  I love the way words like golden peach can so beautifully lift the mood.

"Morning rose like a golden peach,
Glowing over the wide white beach."

Here is a set of teachers notes from the publisher. I would pair this book with The snail and the whale by Julia Donaldson, The storm whale by Benji Davies, The whales' song by Dyan Sheldon and Stranded by Jan Ramage.

I have been a huge fan of Jane Tanner ever since I saw her books Drac and the Gremlin and Wolf.  Looking at all the books I have mentioned in this post I can see there are several books I need to talk about in the coming weeks including this really special one The Whales Song which also features an exquisitely lyric text.

Cat on the island by Gary Crew illustrated by Gillian Warden

"The island rose out of the ocean like a blue-green jewel. Covered in forest, it was.  And there were all sorts of birds - 
I never saw so many birds."

This will seem odd but I have been searching for a Public Library.  I need one with up to date stock and a good selection of old favourites especially picture books.  After trying three in my area I have found one.  While I was browsing I spied this book and I recognised the title and author.  I had seen it mentioned on a book list as a text to support the study of Geography in our Primary curriculum.

I had thought this book was out of print but I now discover there is a paperback edition.  This is very significant book and it should be part of every school library collection.

The setting for this book is Stephens Island New Zealand.  Prior to 1894 this tiny island of just 150 hectares was home to many bird species especially the Traversia lyalli - the only flightless wren in the world.  By 1896 it was extinct.  Here is a painting by John Keulemans on Wikipedia.

Building the lighthouse meant cutting down the trees.  The arrival of the builders and lighthouse keeper with his family meant the arrival of a cat.

"Yes, my mother bought a cat to the island. ... Tibbles, the cat's name was. Had kittens as soon as we landed. And once they were off her milk, they shot through. Had plenty of birds to eat, they did. ... And 'cause the wrens couldn't fly, they were easy targets."

The illustrations in this book are so important.  They have the softness of water colour but show the violence of the cats.  Gillian Warden has included all of the pages on her web site.

Related texts include :

  • The Tin forest by Helen Ward
  • The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
  • Window by Jeannie Baker
  • Joseph's Yard by Charles Keeping

Here is a set of excellent teaching notes and this title (as I mentioned) is recommended as a support text for the NSW Geography syllabus.  We have an extensive collection of book by Gary Crew in our school library but somehow we missed this important book.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Stone Mouse by Jenny Nimmo

Elly and Ted have come to stay in Aunt Maria's seaside house.  She leaves her little stone mouse to take care of the family.  When they arrive they don't seem to notice him :

"The stone mouse felt a little knife of ice strike through him. The cold crept right into his tiny feet and ears and froze them. He was terribly afraid he might be turning back into a stone again."

Luckily Elly does see him.  She smiles and "he knew that his soft coat, his ears, eyes and whiskers were all in place, and that his heart was beating."

Ted has arrived at the house but he is filled with anger.  He needs to lash out and the stone mouse becomes the object of his rage.  He takes the mouse down to the beach and throws him into the ocean.  This is utterly terrifying but little mouse eventually washes into a rock pool.  Just as Elly is about to find him, Ted grabs him again and hurries off to bury him in the garden. 

The wise cats know something is deeply troubling Ted.  Ted hides in his room but the cats follow him and "They didn't budge, didn't even flick their tails, just glared at him; bored into him with a deadly, penetrating gaze. It was like being eaten from inside."

Yes this book is out of print but you may find a copy in a school library or from a used book supplier.  This little gem is well worth finding.  Jenny Nimmo has written a large number of books including series novels and picture books.

In just 61 pages The Stone Mouse is a powerful emotional story dealing with anger and disappoinment.  Communication is at the heart of this story.  If everyone had slowed down and talked to Ted before his rage became such an explosion much of the pain felt by Elly and the little mouse himself could have been avoided.  The Stone Mouse would be an excellent book to share with a class and you can find some discussion ideas here.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Prisoner of ice and snow by Ruth Lauren

"For the crime of attempted murder of a member of the royal family in the realm of Demidova, I sentence you to life in prison, beginning in Tyur'ma"

I have said this on previous occasions but I just marvel at the inventiveness of authors and the power of words to take the reader right inside a scene.  Prisoner of Ice and Snow is simply a splendid and utterly engrossing book. I actually gasped out loud at one point when Valor faces yet another terrible danger.

Political stability in Demidova relies on the return of an elaborate music box to the rightful owners from the neighboring kingdom of Magadanskya.  The treasure has been stolen and Valor's twin sister Sasha has been found guilty and sent to the notorious prison built to hold children under 16 called Tyur'ma.  This is a terrifying place with huge tattooed guards and no one has escaped in 300 years but Valor knows she must commit a crime, be captured, be sent to the prison and then she will rescue her sister.

Valor picks the state occasion when the music box is to be returned (it has been stolen but the ceremony is proceeding) to attempt an assassination of the Prince.  She is such a skilled archer she actually has no intention of killing him and her arrow strikes just to one side but this is enough to send every guard in a race across the city to capture her.

Once inside the prison Valor discovers it is far worse than she imagined. 

"You will work in the mines, or anywhere else in the prison we tell you to.  You will eat when you are told to, you will sleep when you are told to, you will work when you are told to. If you reach the age of sixteen ... you will be transferred to the adult prison ... If you are caught with contraband items you will be punished.  If you cause trouble ... you will be punished."

Valor is punished over and over again.  The worst is when she and her sister are both placed inside ice domes.  The cold is unbearable and the writing so powerful I felt frozen too.

Valor does manage an escape but the real tangle in this book comes from decisions about who to trust and who is an informer.  I really had no idea about this until quite near the end and so, early on in the story, I decided to trust no one.  Valor does not follow this advice and so she and her sister are placed in dangerous and distressing situations over and over again.

Here is an alternate cover and the one from the German edition.  It is always interesting to see how different book designers approach a text.

Take time to read the Kirkus review which mentions the promise of a sequel.  I now discover the sequel it will be available early in 2018.

One real strength of this book comes from the vivid descriptions of people and places.  Here are a few examples :

"The queen sat highest on a silver throne inset with pearls and backed by a huge fan of hundreds of peacock tail feathers. She wears her official robes of justice, deep blue with gold brocade on the cuffs and collar."

"The prince's cloak is clasped at the throat with a golden fist, revealing the high-collared peacock-blue tunic her wears underneath ... gold embroidery covers the front of it all the way up to the collar, which stands stiffly around his neck."

"The doctor takes my hands and smears the contents of another bowl over my skin.  It tingles, then soothes, taking the fire out of the burns. ... She wraps soft white bandages  around my palms and each of my fingers."

I rarely give ratings but this is a five out of five, ten out of ten, totally perfect book which all avid readers should rush out and grab today.  Prisoner of Ice and Snow is Ruth Lauren's debut novel which excites and amazes me. I eagerly await more books form this talented UK author.  Here is an interview with Ruth.

I would follow Prisoner of ice and snow with Fearless by Tim Lott and The wolf wilder by Katherine Rundell.

This fresh and exciting middle-grade debut effortlessly melds an unforgettable protagonist, a breathless plot, and stunning world-building—and is impossible to put down. Night Owl Book Cafe

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sydney City Trails by Helen Greathead

Some time ago I did a series of little walking tours in my own city and I enjoyed all the stories the guide told and discovered many things - large and small - that I did not know.

When I saw this book Sydney City Trails from Lonely Planet I was interested to see what aspects of Sydney they included.  This book was published in 2017 so it is very up to date.

Things I did not know :

Every ten years they replace the road surface on the Sydney Harbour Bridge
SS Ayrfield is a ship wreck in Homebush bay and it has mangrove trees growing out of it
We have a seed bank in Sydney (Mount Annan) with 10,400 seeds
HMAS Endeavour was sold after Cook's expedition and re-named the Lord Sandwich

Places on the North side of Sydney :

Quarantine Station Manly
Manly Beach
Dog day at Scotland Island
Lavender Bay and Wendy's secret garden
Barrenjoey Lighthouse
Erosion of the beach from Collaroy to Narrabeen

One of the many special places mentioned in this book that you must visit is  - Angel Place - forgotten songs

This book is easy to read and it is perfect for both visitors and locals.  The only thing I would have liked to see was a detailed city map but I guess you can easily access this yourself from any smart device.  You can preview some pages here.  There are many other cities in this series - Rome, London, Paris, New York, Washington and Tokyo.  I would combine reading this book with Alphabetical Sydney and right now you could also visit The Sydney Museum which is hosting an interactive display based on this book.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Goldfish boy by Lisa Thompson

It might sound strange but I miss the brother I never met.  The one who died because of me.

Matthew is trapped.  He is trapped in his room.  He is trapped in his fear of germs.  He is totally freaked out by the number 13. He is trapped in his guilt.  Matthew is suffering. He constantly needs to wash his hands.  He cannot touch any surface because he is so afraid of becoming ill and making other ill.  Matthew spends his long days looking out the window and making detailed notes about life in his cul-de-sac street. 

The man next door is also quite obsessive. Mr Charles cares for his roses with great precision.  When his daughter drops his two grand children off for an extended visit his world is turned upside down.  Matthew is the only person who sees the truth about Casey the six year old.  Teddy throws her doll in to the fish pond and she retaliates :

"Stretching her arms as if she were about to do a conjuring trick, the little girl ran at her brother. Her hands hit him with such force his little head jolted back, then he toppled forwards, straight into the pond."

Sadly for everyone involved no one, not Matthew, not the police, not Mr Charles, link this event with the disappearance of Teddy aged 15 months. Meanwhile Matthew continues to suffer. He has not been able to share his guilt about the death of his brother five years ago.  The counselor tries to help and she does make some progress towards the end of the story but the real healing is provided by Melody - a girl who also lives in his street.  They need to band together to solve the mystery of Teddy and while they do this their friendship is forged. Everything is not solved at the end but it is reassuring to know Matthew can recover.

Here is a review with more plot details.  I would follow Goldfish boy with Counting by 7s, The curious incident of the dog in the night time, My life as an alphabet and The naming of Tishkin Silk.

Here is an alternate cover which I actually prefer.  I think it matches the complex themes of the book and may appeal to an older reader.

The extremely inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty illustrated by Kelly Canby

"... you have bravery deep within your heart."
"But when important things happen between new friends - winning a treasure hunt, getting in trouble for walking on railings, ... the friendship stretches and billows, and dives deep into your heart."

I have something odd to tell you about this brand new book.  I attended the launch last night having rushed to read 494 pages and 91 chapters over just 2 days.  Reading this book I was certain Jaclyn must have used miles of planning sheets perhaps pinned up all over her walls with the names of each of the ten aunts that Bronte needs to visit to fulfill the requirements of her parents' will. In my imagination there would be huge diagrams and lots of crossing lines showing the connections between the aunts, the gifts they receive from Bronte (another condition of the will) and the adventures/incidents/disasters which Bronte faces during each visit.  I was entirely wrong about all of this.

Jaclyn Moriarty did not talk for long last night (there was special cake waiting for her attention) about her newest book but she did say three interesting things.

1. Usually her books involve an enormous amount of planning but reading the now very famous Big Little Lies by her sister Liane Moriarty she marveled that such a complex book could be written with out detailed plans and in fact her sister said the revelation of the killer in Big Little Lies was as much a surprise to the author as it is for all readers.  I imagine you have guessed I was totally wrong about the planning for The extremely inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone.  Jaclyn told the audience at Mosman Library that she did not plan out this book.

2.  Where did the cloudberry tea idea come from?  Jaclyn received a letter from a fan many years ago and lady mentioned sipping cloudberry tea while enjoying one of Jaclyn's books. Jaclyn promised herself she would one day include cloudberry tea in a story.

3. Jaclyn comes from a large family and if you add them all together there are ten aunts.  Her childhood relationship with some of these aunts showed her every one has a 'back story' - children only see one moment in time or one aspect of a relative - often there is so much more going on.  When you read The extremely inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone you will see how Jaclyn carefully gives tiny insights into each aunt - personality, life changing moments, desires and more.

When she is a tiny baby Bronte is left in the lobby of her aunt Isabelle's building.  Inside her pram there is a note (sadly lost), a bottle of milk and a "canister of cloudberry tea."  I love this moment from Chapter One :

"So for a while I carried about a little notebook and took down the favourite hot and cold beverages, fruits, sweets and ice-cream flavours of everybody I encountered.  That way, when I myself grew up and abandoned my only child ... I would be sure to add a sample of  their preferred treat to the pram."

When Bronte is ten she and Aunt Isabelle receive the new horrible news that her parents have been killed by pirates. They visit the lawyers and hear the terms and conditions of their complex will.  Bronte must journey across the kingdom, alone, delivering small gifts to each of her ten aunts.  If she fails to follow any instruction her home town will be destroyed.

Now take a look at the publisher trailer.

It will spoil the story if I go into any more plot details so I just want to draw out aspects of this book that appealed to me.   I loved the discovery that Jaclyn wrote her book sitting in different cafes around Sydney.  In their will, her parents, tell Bronte where to eat and what to eat and this part of the story made me smile.  It was a light diversion during times of struggle as Bronte journeyed across the lands to visit her quite eccentric aunts.  Here are some of Bronte's cafe experiences :

Aunt Sue - The Dishevelled Sofa - Today's Special and house-made lemonade
Aunt Claire - Visiting Gainsleigh - the Arlington Tea Room - lemonade and cakes
Aunt Nancy - Mountain View Cafe - order Hot Chocolate
Aunt Alys - diner next to the Stantonville Post Office - cheese and ham sandwich, a fruit frosty and a slice of cheesecake

The trailer and blurb talk about dragons as though they are frightening.  When you read Chapter 31 and meet Aunt Sophy the dragon veterinarian you will absolutely change your ideas about this.

"I soon forgot to be afraid.  It helped that some of the dragons cold speak human language. Once you start chatting with a monster about the weather, you begin to forget that it's a monster."  In fact  it is the dragons who help Bronte escape when the confrontation between good and evil reaches it's terrifying climax towards the end of her long journey.

I am going to finish with a few thank goodness moments :

  • Thank goodness Bronte had "a small sack of silver coins 'for expenses' on my journey"
  • Thank goodness for beautiful words like skedaddle, exuberantly, tiff, impenetrable, resonant and appraise.
  • Thank goodness for scrumptious picnic food - salmon fish cakes, a cheese and bacon tart, roast chicken drumsticks, potato salad and chocolate cake and this is just a small sample of the delicious food eaten during this adventure.  You will want to eat Ricochet oranges - I am sure they are amazing.
  • Thank goodness for Bronte's commendable work ethic for example when she sorts out Aunt Carrie's dark sad home and when she puts everything back at Aunt Emma's after it has been ransacked by The Chief Detective.
  • Thank goodness for great friends and fun loving cousins.
  • Thank goodness for resourceful librarians!

"I make too much noise' she confided. 'But I love it when people want to research! Do it! Dear child, you will love it! The catalogue is over there!'  Her voice rose to a shout at the end. ... I found a great stack of books on the subject that I wanted, and sat down to read."

The extremely inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone is a long book with nearly 500 pages and 91 chapters but the action does not ever falter and you will find yourself turning page after page as you race towards the ending which has surprises and lots of smiles.  You can see some of the terrific illustrations by Kelly Canby here.

Moriarty’s world-building is wonderfully imaginative and uniquely hers, while Kelly Canby’s energetic illustrations are a delight. This jam-packed, chunky novel is ideal for book-devouring readers in upper primary school.  Readings Melbourne

And the plot pulls together its many threads into a neat and satisfying climax. It will appeal to middle and upper primary readers who are happy to tackle long books as long as they have some pictures. Books and Publishing

This ambitious and clever novel seems geared towards younger readers, but I believe anyone will love it. I think everyone should read it, actually.  Trish Talks Text