Friday, July 19, 2019

Something Absolutely Enormous by Margaret Wild illustrated by Jack Hanna

Margaret Wild is one of our Australia children's literature treasures. Something Absolutely Enormous was one of her very first books. It was published in 1984 which by coincidence was my first year as a teacher. That same year two other books were published - There's a Sea in my Bedroom and One Shoe On. I haven't ever seen the book One shoe on have you? There's a Sea in my Bedroom is still in print and it has been made into a stage show.

It is now 35 years since I first read Something Absolutely enormous and I am still reading this book aloud to groups of young children. Wonder of wonders I recently found a mint condition copy of this book in a book sale for less than $1.

Sally is given wool of every colour and so she starts to knit. She knits and knits and cannot stop. Her 'thing' grows so big it fills and house and spills out the window. It fills up the town and even ends up in the swimming pool.

Meanwhile the circus has come to town. Sally doesn't notice this. She also doesn't notice when a fire starts and the big top is burnt to the ground. Her wool runs out and Sally finally stops knitting.  "But what are we going to do with this thing that is smothering the town?"  Have you guessed?  Yes they can use it to make a new big top for the circus. It makes a fine tent and the circus people invite Sally to see her creation BUT Sally cannot come. She is too busy. She has discovered baking and now she has to bake, bake, bake. Once again this will be something absolutely enormous! Readers can use their imaginations to guess what she will make.

You can see the whole book here. Read an interview from 2011 with Margaret Wild. My friend at Kinderbooks has an excellent collection of books about knitting. This is such a fun theme to explore with children many of whom have not seen anyone knitting. I always take some knitting needles and wool in my bag when I share this book.

Check out some other titles about knitting on this blog:
Lester's dreadful sweaters
Mr Nick's knitting also by Margaret Wild

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Moon Landing 1969 Part 2

Before sending humans into space many countries sent animals as a way to check survival. Some of these stories are very sad but there are a number of children's books on this topic and these animals are truly heroes because without their 'work' we may not have been able to send men and women into space.

Many years ago we purchased a interesting little book series for our school library called Animal Heroes from the Orchard Crunchies range. All of these are now long out of print (published from 1997-1999) but I cannot think of any other books that meet the demand I had from young readers for a simple chapter book about animals that were based on real events. The titles included Pig Detective, Horse of the Year, Donkey leads the way, Dolphin SOS and Dog in Danger.  There was also a book about the monkey that was sent into space and, of the whole collection, this was one of the most popular.

I was listening to a radio program today about animals used to test space endurance prior to manned missions. In the Soviet Union dogs were sent into space. You may have heard of Laika. Sadly she did not return to earth but in 1960 two other dogs Belka and Strelka were the first animals to orbit earth and return.  The Soviet Union sent 57 dogs into space during the 1950s and 1960s. I have not seen these two books but they look like a perfect way to explore this topic further with Junior primary readers.

Meanwhile America used monkeys and chimps because their physiology more closely matched humans. You can read more about the huge variety of animals sent into space here.

On the radio program they mention that France sent a cat into space. I had no idea about this.  Here are two stamps commemorating Felicette. I wonder if any one has written a picture book about her. There are plans to erect a statue of Felicette in Paris.

My friend at Kinderbookswitheverything has a fabulous range of other titles on her Pinterest collection of true animal stories. Here is a site where you can do some background reading on the topic of animals in space.

Here are some more stamps celebrating animal space heroes.

Fir for luck by Barbara Harrison

This story switches between Strathnaver in 1814 and Ceannabeinne in 1841. While travelling in Scotland I chanced upon Fir for Luck. This is a story about the Highland Clearances and I found it was a good way to gain some understanding of these events. It is 1841and Janet is desperate to join the men and boys who will spend the day gathering thatch. This event is called Bent Day and girls are not allowed to be involved. What Janet does not know is that on this day a man will arrive with a writ.  Janet and the women know it is vital no one touch this writ - it is an eviction writ. The women bravely wrestle the messenger to the ground, they light a fire and force his hand and the writ into the fire.

"You'll regret this. Leave me be! He'll only send it again.' ... I grit my teeth as I pull his arm over the fire, clawing my nails into his skin so hard he yelps in pain. ... The writ fights the greedy flames; contorts and doges, but it is no use. The fire devours it. There is nothing left but ash."

This is, of course, only the beginning. Mr Anderson, the land owner, is determined to evict these people and claim the land for grazing sheep. The violence escalates and yet the people of the village really want a peaceful solution. This seems impossible. Janet observes the adults on both sides and bravely devises ways to thwart Mr Anderson and his accomplices.

The title refers to a small sprig of fir which Janet's Grandmother has requested. "Fir for luck, all the way from the woods of Strathmore. It's supposed to be wound into each new hearth chain."  Janet and her family, including her precious Granna will need to leave their village but perhaps the luck from this piece of fir is why this process will be delayed and not filled with violence and destruction as happened in Granna's childhood back in 1814.

Here is the author web site.

This is a pleasant read and children living in, visiting or interested in the Highland Clearances will no doubt gobble it up as the action just keeps on coming and new tensions built up; exactly what young people look for in a novel. The Wee Review

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Moon Landing 1969 Part One

I was in Grade Five when, I still find it hard to believe, actual people walked on the surface of the moon. This week in Australia we are enjoying a full moon - perfect timing as we head towards the 20th July - the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. I have been spending time just gazing up at the moon and thinking about that walk 50 years ago.

Hopefully in schools and school libraries next week there will be lots of displays of books about astronauts, space and the moon - Non-fiction and Fiction. Here are some picture books which would be perfect to share with your classes next week.

Papa Please get the Moon for me by Eric Carle
Watch the whole book here. The sound track is just perfect and Juliet Stevenson has such a gentle voice.

Happy Birthday Moon by Frank Asch
This is one of my most favourite books to read aloud and I would follow this with Mooncake and Moongame.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
Grab a torch and go outside to look at the moon and perhaps spot an owl

The Boy who loved the Moon by Rino Alaimo

Kitten's First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes
Watch this video of the whole book.

It would also be great to share some poetry about the moon. I have mentioned this beautiful poetry book in previous posts - I am the seed that grew the Tree

Here are two poems from this huge anthology.

June 17th
THE MOON Iain Crichton Smith
The moon is a boat that drifts in the sky
with nobody near but the stars that stand by
peering down as if they wished to say,
"Who pulled up the anchor and let you away?"

24th January
FLYING J.M. Westrup
I saw the moon,
One windy night,
Flying so fast -
All silvery white -
Over the sky
Like a toy balloon
Loose from its string -
A runaway moon.
The frosty stars
Went racing past,
Chasing her on
Ever so fast.

May B by Caroline Starr Rose

Ma and Pa want me to go
and live with strangers.

I won't go.

There are so many reasons why I was attracted to this book. It is a verse novel and I adore this genre. The setting is the prairie which is a place that fascinates me. I think this fasciation goes back to my childhood reading and enjoyment of the Little House on the Prairie. Finally this is an emotional story where the main character shows enormous resilience.

May B is sent away to live with Oblingers. Her family are so desperately poor that they accept money for her services. Mr Oblinger has a new wife.  "The brides not settled ... she's missing home." The new home is a soddy or sod house with dirt floors, thick walls and often only one window.

You can read more about the construction of a sod house here.

May B packs her few clothes, her only book and her slate. May B is desperate to learn to read. May B and her father travel the fifteen miles to the isolated home. Mrs Oblinger is not welcoming. It is clear she is desperately unhappy. Her treatment of May B seems almost cruel at times.  Then one day her demeanour changes. She asks for some biscuits and says she will take a walk. Later in the day May B finds a note:

Mr Oblinger,
You've been so kind,
but I can't stay.
I'm taking the train
back to Ohio.
Please understand.

Mr Oblinger leaves immediately to retrieve his young wife. May B waits and waits but the pair never return.  What will May B do? She is supposed to stay here until Christmas. It is late August. In every direction the prairie looks the same. If she tries to walk home she is sure to become lost. Winter is approaching and supplies are running out.

Here are a set of teaching notes. These would be useful if you wanted to read May B with a Book Discussion group. I especially appreciated finding a comprehensive list of all the vocabulary used in this book and some background reading about life on the frontier.

I would pair this book with Sarah, Plain and Tall and Black-eyed Susan by Jennifer Armstrong. If you want to explore the topic of dyslexia you might like to read The wild book by Margarita Engle.

Kirkus use the word "extraordinary" in their star review:

As unforgiving as the western Kansas prairies, this extraordinary verse novel—Rose’s debut—paints a gritty picture of late-19th-century frontier life from the perspective of a 12-year-old dyslexic girl named Mavis Elizabeth Betterly… May B. for short. Kirkus

May B. can and will succeed. If she fails, she knows that she'll get up, shake off her disappointment and move forward until she finds her own place where earth meets the sky. Clear Eyes Full Shelves

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Elizabeth and Larry by Marilyn Sadler illustrated by Roger Bollen

Tuesday Treasure

Elizabeth, aged 62, meets Ed who is 'pushing forty' when he arrives in a box of oranges from Florida. There is no mention in the text that Larry is an Alligator so I suggest reading this book without showing the illustrations perhaps.

There is a beautiful tone to this book:
"Elizabeth met Larry for the first time many years ago. He was delivered to her by mistake with the box of oranges she ordered from Florida. Elizabeth decided to keep Larry, and she gave him a room above the garage. She put the oranges in the refrigerator."

Larry loves his new home but he some problems with the size of the swimming pool. The pair settle into a comfortable life but there are problems, when they go out, with people staring at Larry and even throwing things at him.

"This was the first time Larry realized he was different. Up until then he had assumed he looked like Elizabeth."

The feelings of displacement come to a head when a large group of Elizabeth's relatives arrive. They all look exactly like Elizabeth.  Larry becomes despondent. Elizabeth knows he needs to go back to Florida so she buys him a one way plane ticket home. Over the coming days Elizabeth begins to feel sad. She knows she needs to be with her friend Larry so she buys herself a one-way ticket to Florida. Now the friends can continue to live happily together playing card games - poker and old maid,

This is a sweet story about a special relationship. There are themes of kindness, belonging, acceptance of difference all told with gentle humour. Here is a set of teaching ideas and questions. Roger Bollen is the illustrator of over fifty books including another series that I also adore by Marilyn Sadler, who was his second wife, about a boy called Alistair.

Here is the sequel to Elizabeth and Larry.  When you read this one you may need to talk to a group of children about the terminology associated with playing golf so that they understand the puns in this story which continues the relationship of Larry and Elizabeth but with the complication of a new, and very demanding friend called Ed. Sadly both of these books are now out of print but you might be lucky and find them in a school library.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Lighthouse stories

If you have been reading this blog you will know I am a huge fan of lighthouses.  On my recent trip I saw a sad little lighthouse under a modern bridge and it made me think of The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge by Hildegarde H Swift and Lynd Ward (1942). By chance just prior to my trip a good friend gave me a copy of the Caldecott Medal winner from 2019 - Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall so today I thought I would talk about these two wonderful books.

Here is the Kyleakin lighthouse under the bridge from mainland Scotland over to Skye. This is the lighthouse that made me think about The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.

Here are some details about the Kyleakin lighthouse:

"The 70 foot tall lighthouse, designed by David (1815-81) and Thomas (1818-87) Stevenson, was built in 1857. Thomas Stevenson was the father of the author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94).
When first built the light itself was fuelled by sperm whale oil, and displayed a central white beam flanked by a red and a green beam.
The lighthouse was finally decommissioned in 1993. The channel into Loch Alsh was then marked by the large red and green buoys that can be seen running east and west from the lighthouse. After decommissioning the lighthouse was denoted as a day mark, which means that it remains a landmark that it is used for navigation during the day, and must therefore continue to be kept in good condition."

The Little Red Lighthouse, in the book and in reality, stands on the Hudson River which runs beside New York City. Every evening the lighthouse keeper climbs the stairs and lights the lamp so the lighthouse can beam out a warning about the rocks just below the surface.  One day some men arrive and the little red lighthouse watches as they build a "strange new gray thing (with) huge towers that seemed to touch the sky."  This is the George Washington Bridge and it made the little red lighthouse feel "very, very small."

The little red lighthouse is worried. Perhaps it won't be needed any more. The lighthouse keeper does not come in the evening to light the lamp but that night their is a wild storm. A fat black tug boat crashes against the rocks. Finally the lighthouse keeper arrives. 

"And now beside the great beacon of the bridge the small beam of the lighthouse still flashes. ... And every day the people who go up River side Drive in New York City turn to look at it. For there they both are - the great gray bridge and the little red lighthouse."

Here is a vintage video of the whole story complete with a terrific sound track. I was thrilled to discover a musical was made in 2019 based on this story.

Now we jump forward to 2019 and Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall. The first thing to notice is the format of the book. It is long and tall like a lighthouse. On the end papers we can see a photo of the lighthouse keeper and his new bride, a piece of embroidery and a fragment of a letter to Alice. There is a also a pebble, some dried seaweed and a pen.  My copy of this book is a paperback so I cannot share the final end paper with you.

As the story begins we read about the daily routine of the lighthouse keeper. He enjoys his work but he is lonely. He is waiting for the arrival of Alice, his wife. The lighthouse beams out hello hello hello. There is fog and ice and illness and finally a baby is born. One day a letter arrives. It is time to automate the lighthouse and the keeper and his family will need to move on. 

This is a book to visit over and over again. There are so many beautiful details especially when Sophie Blackall 'slices' the lighthouse open so we can see all the rooms. Look for little details like the fabrics used on Alice's dresses, the floor rug that looks like the ocean and slippers worn by their child.

A fascinating, splendidly executed peek into both the mundane and the dramatic aspects of lighthouse life. Kirkus

Blackall’s gorgeous illustrations are a mix of homey detail (especially in the interior cutaways of the lighthouse) and spectacular scenery (as the seasons pass, we see stormy nights and foggy days; northern lights; icebergs and whales).  Horn Book

Using pictures to tell the story of a steadfast lighthouse and its faithful keeper, Hello Lighthouse is a gift for children. Amid this world’s stormy seas, it is a beacon of light shining bright with truth, goodness, and beauty. Horn Book

Check out these teaching ideas from The School Library Journal. Here is an interview with Sophie where she talks about her extensive research for this book. You can also see many of the illustrations and hear an interview with Sophie herself.

I have a Pinterest with art and craft ideas if you are exploring lighthouses. Here are some teaching ideas and ways to extend this text using other fiction and non fiction books.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher illustrated by Sam Usher

"Without mistakes, your life will never know adventure."

You can judge a book by its cover.  Well that’s exactly how I selected this book in a London bookstore last month.  I already knew the work of Sam Usher. His picture books Snow, Rain, Sun and Storm are truly special.

The Umbrella Mouse is Anna Fargher’s first book.

Pip Hanway, a young mouse, lives in an umbrella shop in London.  Generations of her family have lived inside an antique umbrella at James Smith and Sons on Bloomsbury Street. Jonas Hanway was the first man to use an umbrella in London in the 1700s. Pip’s ancestor adopted his name when his antique umbrella was donated to the store one hundred years ago.  The time now is 1944 and bombs are dropping on London. Early in the story disaster strikes when a bomb destroys the shop and Pip’s mum and dad are killed.  Pip must now find her way in the world. She is determined to take the umbrella which has been the family home to Northern Italy where her mother was born.

What Pip doesn’t know is that groups of animals, called Noah’s Ark, are working along side the humans as resistance fighters hoping to sabotage the enemy and prevent Germany invading Britain.  This group of rabbits, mice, rats, pigeons, beavers, squirrels have a hedgehog leader named Madame Fourcade.

"They were inside a large hollow underneath a fallen oak tree. Its thick, leafy boughs created an oval chamber and the morning light dappled the crisp ground with a rippling white honeycomb. A bullfinch, wearing the same headphones and holding the same triggers Pip had seen in Bernard Booth's hideout in London. Directly beneath them stood a hedgehog with little brown eyes that creased at the sides with wisdom. She was surrounded by a crowd of wild rabbits, squirrels, rats, field mice, three beavers and a stag."

I love the way Anna Fargher names the first animal hero, a rescue dog who helps Pip, Dickin.  This name is significant because of the Dickin Medal which is awarded to animals who serve in the military. This group of animals will help Pip and she in turn will show true courage and heroism. I loved the scene where Pip travels (by umbrella) across the English Channel.

Another creative idea involves invisible ink!

"Bring me a grape!' She turned to a squirrel, who dashed away at once to burrow in the ground a few paces away. Included with the original scroll was another blank sheet of paper Pip had not seen. As the hedgehog laid it flat on the ground the squirrel returned, handing her a wrinkled green bulb. Tearing the fruit open, Madame Fourcade rubbed it against the paper, revealing hidden instructions and diagrams."

This is an action packed story as explained by this reviewer at More About Books: “Pip's mission is relentless and dangerous, seemingly with no respite. Death is around every corner and I found this shocking and saddening. There's no charmed existence for these animals as they do their bit for Europe at war.”

This is the first story in a series so while things are resolved somewhat at the end there is plenty of scope for the next story.  Early on in the first book a mysterious man enters the umbrella shop. Pip nicknames him “the spy man”. He is there to collect three custom made umbrellas. One has a blade in the pole, another has a pull out poison bottle and the final one has button that makes the canopy burst out.  I do hope we find out more about this man in book two. 

I highly recommend this book for readers aged 10+. There is a brief mention of concentration camps. This book would also be a terrific class read aloud which is why I am suggested an older group. Aspects of World War II have been carefully researched and cleverly incorporated into the plot. 

My holiday reading pile

During my short holiday over the last month I visited bookshops, charity shops and libraries. Here are some of the books I enjoyed reading. Some are very new and some are older classic titles. I will talk about most of these in greater detail over the coming weeks.  My "to blog" pile is growing taller every day.

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell
Why did I select this book? I have read nearly every book written by Katherine Rundell. She spoke at the recent Sydney Writers Festival and like Michelle Paver who I heard many years ago I was excited to learn how deeply Katherine researches the activities of her characters. Her broken toes testify to her attempts at tight rope walking. She even ate a tarantula!

The Railway Children by E Nesbit
(first published magazine serial 1905, book 1906)
Why did I select this book? This is one of those classic books that I thought I had read but perhaps I had only seen the movie.

Sweep, the story of a Girl her Monster by Jonathan Auxier
Why did I select this book? Colby Sharp raved about this book many months ago. It has been on my to read list and so I purchased an ebook version for holiday reading.

A handful of stars by Cynthia Lord
Why did I select this book? I have read two other titles by Cynthia Lord - Rules and Half a Chance. I am often drawn to books set in Maine, US.

Sweeping up the Heart by Kevin Henkes
Why did I select this book? I am a HUGE fan of Kevin Henkes - especially of his middle grade novels. I recently re-read his wonderful book Junonia. Sweeping up the Heart is Kevin's newest title.

The Dolls' House by Rumer Godden
Why did I select this book? I am working my way through all the children's books by Rumer Godden. Miss Happiness and Miss Flower is a book I absolutely adored as a child. Doll houses also fascinate me.

Jubilee by Patricia Reilly Giff
Why did I select this book? I have read other books by Patricia Reilly Giff. The plot of Pictures of Hollis Woods lingers with me nearly two decades after my first reading.

No Ballet shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton
Why did I select this book? The cover and the blurb grabbed my attention. I am so glad I picked up this book - it is absolutely a ten out of ten read! If you are reading this post and are wondering where to start - begin with this book - you will not be disappointed.

Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher
Why did I select this book? Every Waterstones store in the UK had this book featured in a window display. I saw it in London, Edinburgh and Inverness. Sam Usher is the illustrator and that added to my curiosity. 

The Garden of Lost Secrets by AM Howell
Why did I select this book? This is also a book with a cover and blurb that appealed to me.

Fir for Luck by Barbara Henderson
Why did I select this book? I was travelling through rural Scotland when I spied this book. I find history so much easier to digest when it is presented in a narrative. Fir for Luck, a Young Adult title, was a good way to gain some understanding of the Highland Clearances of 1750-1860.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The mice next door by Anthony Knowles illustrated by Susan Edwards

Tuesday Treasure

At its heart this is a book about quiet persuasion. The Hardy family move in next door. Dad is convinced they should live in holes not houses. He calls them pests and he declares their "house is not in keeping with the neighbourhood." He uses words like smelly, greedy, stupid, noisy and rude. Dad keeps threatening to "call the council."

Meanwhile the Hardy's quietly get on with their lives. It is persuasion through deeds not words. Their house is beautiful, their garden is well tended and flourishing and mum makes friends with Mrs Hardy and her children, Frankie and Susan. Dad keeps up his criticism until one day Mr Hardy offers to help with a blocked drain.

"Dad said he doubted a rodent could do what a man couldn't, but when Mr Hardy managed the job in a way that only he could, Dad was very grateful. In fact, by the time he'd finished, Mr Hardy had us all laughing - including Dad."

Through this story we see the evolution of tolerance and friendship. The stereotype labels and prejudiced thinking gradually fade away. This story is not just about the mice who live next door.

Take a look at this review by Books for Keeps. Notice it begins with the word BRILLIANT.

Brilliant. In the most deadpan, funny manner, Anthony Knowles explores the possibility that a family of mice would build a house next door to an ordinary suburban family and be accused by Dad of 'lowering the tone of the neighborhood'. Everyone knew that mice were smelly, noisy, only interested in having a good time, wouldn't get planning permission or teach their youngsters how to behave. What's more the smell of cooking from next door is an unpleasant nuisance. Yes, it is a satire on racial intolerance, but done with such charm, wit and jollity that even the youngest child will absorb the 'moral' while having a wonderful time. The illustrations are exceptional and I can't suggest too strongly that you read it for yourself and for your children. A sane, humane and very, very funny book.

This book is a treasure. It is high on my list of favourite books. If you find this book in a library make sure you read it and keep it. Of course The Mice Next Door (1988) is long out of print but I do hope one day it might be republished for a new generation of children.

"Just before lunch Mrs Hardy came round with a cheese pie for us all. She said it was to make up for us not coming to the party."

"The day Mr Hardy painted his front door Dad said it was time to sell our house and move to a more respectable neighbourhood."

I am happy to discover a companion volume - Christmas with the Mice Next Door (1990).  Of course it is also out of print but perhaps one day I will track down a copy.