Monday, December 31, 2018

The Mapmakers' Race by Eirlys Hunter

Advice from Pa
No rush; take care
Carry the longest rope you can
An expedition should never go faster than the speed of its slowest member
Be observant
Use your compass and your brain
Always leave markers
Don't forget to turn around often so you know what the journey back should look like

This story has so many elements that I enjoyed:
  • It is has a page turning plot (I galloped through the last 150 pages in one sitting)
  • It involves problem solving and team work
  • The ingenuity of the survival strategies employed by these plucky kids makes a for a terrific daring adventure - you will be hanging by your fingernails, clambering over rocks and shivering in freezing rivers
  • Even though their food supplies are short the food they create sounds delicious
  • Every person in their team has an important skill and these kids are so caring and kind towards each other
  • Maps are always fascinating
  • There are lots of wonderful words in this book such as doolally, comtemptible clotmongers, holygamoley and busticated
  • The illustrations of the maps are just perfect - I almost feel I need to copy all of them to create the full map the children triumphantly present to the race judges 

The story opens with the Santander kids on a train. Their mother has jumped off the train in search of Joe. He makes it back to the train in time but she does not. The group are on their way to the start of a huge race which will be held over twenty-eight days. Teams have to find a way from Grand Prospect to New Coalhaven. The winners will receive five hundred guineas but there is also an additional prize for the team that produces the best map which will then be used for a proposed railway line.

The Santander group are only young children but they have a splendid team. Francie can draw maps and she has a extra skill which allows her to fly, out of her body, to survey the landscape. Her twin Joe is an excellent scout he is also the optimist of the group. Sal, their older sister, is a maths genius so she can work on the surveying aspects of their map and Humphrey is an amazing four year old. He has the best observation skills of the whole group plus a terrific sense of humour. They also have a parrot called carrot. What they lack is transport but luckily early on they meet Beckett. He knows how to get the group some donkeys, and he is very keen to find this route because it will mean great prosperity for his home town of Grand Prospect. Luckily for the children Beckett is also a terrific cook!

This is no easy journey and they face some stiff competition. Roger Rumpledown and his Ruffians; Mr Cody S Cole and his team of Cowboys; the Solemn Team - Society of Logical Explorers, Mappers and Navigators; Montague Bassingstoke-Black leader of Monty's Mountaineers; and The Association of Women's Explorers.  The teams have all sorts of splendid equipment including mechanical horses and giant pillows lifted by birds. Our team have only their tent, some food supplies, and their precious altimeter.  They have to face a difficult landscape and worse survive the dastardly tactics of some of the other teams. You will certainly want to cheer them on right to the end.

I follow Gecko Press on social media. When I saw The Mapmakers Race mentioned I was curious but what really sealed the deal for me was the realisation that the author was known to me.  Years and years ago I read a slim early chapter book called The Astonishing Madame Majolica.  It is such a favourite of mine even though it has long been out of print.

Watch this little film where you can see illustrator Kirsten Slade at work and hear Eirlys Hunter reading part of the story. Here is a detailed review by The Book Bag. Read an interview between Eirlys and Julia Eccleshare.  In this post Eirlys talks about the ideas behind her story.

Adult readers might team this book with Fitzcaraldo the 1982 movie about pulling a whole ship across the mountains of Peru.

Younger readers could follow The Mapmakers Race with The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel. If you enjoy books about racing to a goal you might also enjoy Bartlett and the Ice Voyage by Odo Hirsch and The Mapmaker Chronicles series by AL Tait.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Crow's Tale by Naomi Howarth

The Crow's tale is a pourquoi story. It could have the title Why the Crow has black feathers? or Why Crows croak? This story of the crow was inspired by a Native American legend called The Rainbow Crow. For the Lenni Lenape Indians and for readers today it contains messages of perseverance, bravery, truth and friendship.

It is winter. It is freezing cold. The land is covered in a thick blanket of snow. The animals are tired, starving and frozen. The wise owl asks for someone brave to visit the Sun. The only one with the ability to do this is Rainbow Crow. The Sun, grumbles, but gives the crow a long branch of fire. As crow flies home he becomes:

sooty and croaky
scorched, singed and blackened,
Crow was unrecognisable from his beak to his backend.

Crow is so sad about this change in his appearance and voice. But the animals, who are now warm from the fire, remind him of something important.

"Pretty or ugly, slim, thin or fatter, your beauty inside is the heart of the matter."  

Is this a message for everyone? Perhaps this is a story with a moral as well as the story of how the crow became a bird with black feathers.

Image source:

The library I visit each week like to attach labels to their books. They have one special set of labels for books loved by the staff called "our picks".  I can see why this beautifully illustrated picture book has this accolade. Take a look at Playing by the Book where Zoe shares so ideas for using this book with young children and you can also see some of the wonderful illustrations. Here is the web site for UK illustrator Naomi Howarth.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Mysterious Librarian by Dominique Demers illustrated by Tony Ross

"For the first time in its history, the town of Saint-Anatole had a librarian. ... They had been advertising for the post for the last thirty years, but no one had ever shown any interest, because the library was not much bigger than a broom cupboard, and the few old books it had were covered in mouse droppings."

Here is a book to warm the heart of any librarian!  Actually it will warm the heart of any book lover. Miss Charlotte is a very special woman and thank goodness she has arrived in this small French town. She is given the job as librarian and she tackles the task of restoring the town library with determination, courage and a genuine love of books and readers.

The mayor does not care at all about the library.  All he wants is fat pastrami sandwiches. Miss Charlotte heads off to the library and she starts to read the books. She discovers, very quickly, that the stock is old and boring. She writes to the mayor but he won't give her any money so Miss Charlotte takes matters into her own hands.

Luckily Miss Charlotte is spotted by the town newspaper - publicity! Luckily this is an election year and the mayor is desperate for re-election. This situation could be embarrassing. The mayor knows he cannot get rid of Miss Charlotte. He needs the town people to like him so declares he always intended to give the library ten thousand dollars for new books.

Miss Charlotte buys heaps of splendid books, she finds a new premises above the town hall and fills it with comfortable cushions and quiet corners where readers can sit undisturbed. Then she heads over to the beautifully named Ampersand School. She sits in the playground and reads a book. The children are delighted. They flock to the library but one opinionated little boy does need some persuading.  He asks for a a dirty book with bare bottoms.  The book Miss Charlotte presents to Martin the next day is utterly perfect and it is sure to make you smile. You will also love the descriptions of this wonderful library which is now filled with garden chairs, beach umbrellas, torches and candles:

"Miss Charlotte had not arranged books by subject or in alphabetical order, like librarians always do. She had arranged them by colour: all the red books in one place, all the green in another."

Leo, who lives in Saint-Anatole, meets Miss Charlotte on her first day in the library. She comes into his family pet shop asking for spider food. He is certain she is the teacher his camp buddy Marie talked about last summer. I do need to explain at this point that The Mysterious Librarian is the second book in this series by Canadian author Dominique Demers. You can see the three titles below.

Leo writes to Marie asking her about Miss Charlotte but she does not answer his letters. When his three letters come back "address unknown" Leo is so sad and upset. He explains his problem to Miss Charlotte. She tells him to keep trying. There will be a way to find Marie.

The other delightful plot device in this book comes when Miss Charlotte becomes so absorbed in a story she goes into a trance.  The only way to revive her, Leo discovers, is to keep reading the book she is holding. This works every time until Leo discovers her reading Beauty and the Beast. Miss Charlotte has a 'massive crush on the beast'. Leo knows Marie can help and luckily he has found her and she is not living too far away but time is short.

You can read the first 12 pages on the publisher web site. The mysterious Librarian was originally published in French. I am so happy that Alma decided to translate it (translation by Sander Berg) and the addition of illustrations by Tony Ross top off a perfect package. Here is a review if you need more story details. I read this interview with Dominique Demers and I was excited to learn one of her favourite books is Secret Letters from 0-10 - a book I adore! She also mentions A solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt.

"She imagined fabulous books, books that make you laugh, cry, shiver and dance. Books that take you to far-flung corners of the earth. Books that tickle your brain, touch your hear and lift your spirit."

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

 No one in our town knew my brother existed. 

Nightbird follows in the tradition of Pie and A snicker of Magic.  It contains delicious food, a small town filled with secrets that relate to past events and a young girl who needs to find her place in her family, her school and her town.

Twig (Teresa) and her mother have moved from New York back to a small town in Massachusetts called Sidwell where generations of the Fowler family have always lived. Mum is a talented baker and this town is famous for their pink apples. It seems Johnny Appleseed once visited. As the seasons change Ms Fowler makes delicious treats such as Pink Apple Pie (recipe), Apple Cider, strawberry rhubarb pie and peach pie. Twig's older brother James is with them too but no one in the town has ever seen him. Twig lives a reclusive life because her mother is so afraid someone will discover the truth about James.

Four generations ago a witch, Agnes Early, put a curse on all men in the Fowler family.

"Let him fly even faster from me if that's what he desires! 
Let him have wings!"

A new family move into Mourning Dove Cottage. It seems this family have a connection with the curse. When James sees the elder daughter Agate Hall he falls in love just as Agnes and Lowell fell in love two hundred years ago. Can Twig and her new friend Julia Hall break the curse which in turn will set her brother free?

Adding to all of this there is a developer who has plans to build a housing development and a shopping mall in the beautiful woods beside the town. James, who loves to fly at night, has a affinity with birds especially owls, but someone is putting graffiti messages all over the town. There is a rumour about a monster. Things disappear from porches, kitchen tables and washing lines. Is the monster James? Are people in danger? Small town gossip is a dangerous thing.

Here are some reviews:
Kirkus - Enchanting
Kids Book Review
The Book Bag - "The prose is elegant and lyrical and it flows like a dream."
KidsReads - Compelling

You can read the first chapter of Nightbird here on the publisher web site. You can read an interview with Alice Hoffman.  I would follow Nightbird with The Girl who Could fly and Night Flying by Rita Murphy. If you also want to pursue the idea of saving a wilderness area and an endangered species you could compare Nightbird with Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.

Endling Book One - The Last by Katherine Applegate

An endling is the last known individual of a species or subspecies. Once the endling dies, the species becomes extinct. 
Source Wikipedia

If you want to say something about life to other people 
you should tell them a story - Manning Clark

Literature offers us images to think with - Aidan Chambers

There is a quote on the first page of this book:

In nature nothing exists alone.  Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962

The idea of existing alone is at the heart of Endling, The Last. Byx is a Dairne. She is the youngest member of her family. The smallest one, the runt. She sets out exploring one day but when she returns she sees a horrible scene. Her whole pack has been massacred. Does this mean Byx is now an endling- the last member of her species?

"Dairnes were often mistaken for dogs. We share many physical similarities. Dogs, however, lack opposable thumbs They can't walk upright. They aren't able to glide from tree to tree. They can't speak to humans."

Byx is convinced she is not the last. There must be other dairnes somewhere. But how will Byx find the others? Who will help her? And can she trust her companions?

One very special and important trait of the dairnes is their ability to detect lies. Dairnes are one of the six governing species along with humans, raptidons, felivets, terramants and natites. Every species is important. And so are the mezzitti - the lesser species such as wobbyks, starlons and gorellis. Below the mezzitti are  Inferritti - chimps, whales, crickets and so on.

"The six governing species may not prey on one another."

That is the decree but it seems this has been overturned. The dairne's ability to tell truth from falsehood is deemed a threat by the humans. They are determined to exterminate every member of this species.

Along with the beautifully created world of this book there are some brave and feisty characters who you will adore. Tobble - the wobbyk, Khara a human girl who is a poacher and Gambler - a felivet. Felivets are a type of giant cat "huge and sleek, his coat pure black except for a series of delicate white stripes on his face. His long, muscular tail reminded me far too much of a serpent."

I also love all the amazing animals in this book. There is a scene where our group witness a mass migration of land animals. We learn about garilans (deep crimson, six legs, spiral horns and golden tails), tirralopes and xia deer.

This book has been on my to read list all this year but I felt the hardcover copy was beyond my budget. I was so thrilled when I saw a paperback copy in a city book store last week. I read this book over two days very late into the night but then when I finished I had very serious withdrawal symptoms. I kept picking it up longing to go back into the world of Byx, Tobble, Gamble and Khara.

Here is a set of thoughtful discussion questions and a set of questions with Katherine. Before you read this book take a look at the trailer. It is perfect. I have already talked about several books by Katherine Applegate including Wishtree (my book of the year for 2018), The One and Only Ivan and Crenshaw.

"It's humans who hate your kind. ... 
They hate that you make it impossible for them to lie."

"These humans do not understand the balance in life. 
They do not understand that their will to dominate and control, 
to use and abuse, is destructive to all"

Read some reviews:

I am a little confused as School library journal said  "Illustrations and maps will help young readers imagine the rich setting filled with fantastical creatures that vie for power in Nedarra."
There was no map in my copy but perhaps this is a feature of the hardcover edition.

The second book of this trilogy -  Endling, The First is, as I write this page, over 130 days away! I can hardly wait.

It's been a wonderful year for fantasy books. Here are some I have adored:

Great news this is now available in paperback. I want to rush out and buy a copy for everyone this Christmas!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

12 Books of Christmas Bonus Post

 12 Books of Christmas 
Bonus Post

Here are 24 Christmas books I love to read. 
Click each title to read my thoughts.

Other Christmas Blog lists to check out:

Three Books a Night - 25 Days of Favourites. This blogger has presented Christmas advent lists in the past but this year she decided to share some other great books she enjoyed over this year. You will discover some read treasures here.

Book Illustration Art - Blog Christmas Books
This one has some beautiful Australian books selected by Natalia Bragaru

Fuse8 School Library Journal books by Elizabeth Bird. This is a very ambitions project with 31 books lists over 31 days including this list of Christmas favourites.

Read it Daddy - Booky Advent Calendar This one has lots of newer books many of which I have not yet read.

The Bottom Shelf with Barbara Braxton Christmas Countdown. This list has 106 books collected over many years. Some very new Australian titles are featured.

Christmas Must-reads Pinterest collection from my friend at Kinderbookswitheverything

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

How Winston delivered Christmas by Alex T Smith

Day 12
"Eventually Oliver found what he was looking for - an envelope. It wasn't too badly crumpled and he'd written the address on the front in his very best handwriting. He'd left it a bit late to send but he crossed his fingers and hoped it would get where it needed to go in time."

To Father Christmas
Mince Pie House
Just Past that Snowdrift
The North Pole


Oliver is distracted as he puts his Christmas letter in the tall red pillar box on a busy street in London. He has to rush to catch up with his mother and he doesn't see it tumble into the snow. Luckily for Oliver, his letter is found by Winston. Luckily for Oliver, Winston recognises this letter is important. Luckily for Oliver, Winston is a very determined mouse and he now has a mission. And what a mission it is. How will Winston find Father Christmas? It is so cold. It is snowing. The city streets are filled with busy shoppers and it is Christmas eve so he really only has one night to complete this task.

I have saved this new book (published in 2018) for my Christmas Day post because it is an Advent story in twenty-four-and-a-half chapters.  I have been reading one chapter each day this month so I only finished it today! Christmas Day is the day you read the last 1/2 chapter.  The chapters are all very short and each ends with a cliff hanger. I found myself wanting to read on several times. It actually took a lot of restraint not to 'cheat' because I was so anxious to make sure Winston was safe and that he still had a firm hold on that important letter. This would be a great book to own in a family so if you see it after Christmas (perhaps on sale) pick up a copy ready for December 2019!

You can see inside the book here.  The other bonus with this book are all the activities Alex T Smith has included. There are ideas for card making, cooking, puppets, decorations, a list of ideas for random acts of kindness and simple gifts to make. The whole book has a retro feel which seems perfect for a book that is sure to become a family favourite over many generations. The other delightful detail to notice are the stamps at the beginning of each chapter.

Take look here to see behind the scenes by Alex T Smith.

"It could be fun to read the story with a grown-up or even your whole family - get cosy and read your chapter together. Maybe have a biscuit at the same time. Books and biscuits go so nicely together, I think." Alex T Smith.

Alex has captured all the sights and smells of Christmas with the most delicious descriptions and sumptuous illustrations, the story is a feast for all senses.  Story Snug

Monday, December 24, 2018

A Letter to Father Christmas by Rose Impey and Sue Porter

Day 11
Charlotte loves to write, but since she cannot read, she just likes copy things written by other people - notes from the plumber, telephone messages, and shopping lists. As Christmas approaches she carefully copies the letter her mother writes to Father Christmas.

Dear Father Christmas
I am writing to tell you what I would like in my stocking. When you come to my house on Christmas Eve you mustn't look for me in my bedroom because Grandma and Grandad will be there. I will be in Ben's room (next to the bathroom). Ben is too small to write his own letter so I have put some things for him on my list. Also would you bring me a surprise? I like surprises best of all.
Lots of Love,
Miss Charlotte Ruth Hall x

There is a rush after the letter is done. Charlotte needs to get it into the envelope. She picks up a list thinking it is her Christmas list along with her letter and her father posts it up their chimney.  When Father Christmas reads the letter he admires the neat writing but the list puzzles him. "Why it looks more like somebody's shopping list,' he thought. And of course that's exactly what it was."

Hot water bottle

The day before Christmas is very cold and thick snow covers the area around the house. Charlotte is worried about the donkey who lives in the next field - she wishes she could bring him in out of the cold. She is worried about the cat. He looks hungry but Charlotte would be so sad if he ate the birds. The birds are hungry too and there are only a few berries left on the holly bushes.

Can you match each gift from the shopping list with her animal friends. The presents in her stocking are certainly a surprise but there is also a special gift for Charlotte - and it is perfect.

This is an old book - the newest copy was published in 1997 - but there are plenty of fairly cheap used copies still available. This book is also sure to be found in many school library collections.

Here are some other books with letters to Santa: