Thursday, January 31, 2019

Just Dance by Patricia MacLachlan

If you want to find the love of your life, go to the Hideaway Cafe in Cheyenne, Wyoming. When a tall cowboy with a ponytail comes up to you and takes your hand, you don't have to speak. It's better not to speak, actually. 
Just dance.

Mum was an opera singer (see music list below) but then she fell in love with a cowboy who loves Willie Nelson and Roy Orbison. The family live on a farm in Wyoming. There are two kids - Sylvie and her brother Nate. Now mum sings to the chickens and cows and she sings every day in the shower. Sylvie worries her mum is missing her stage career. This has become especially concerning as her mum's old opera partner James is coming to perform and he has invited Sylvie's mum Melinda to come to the show. Sylvie worries her mum might want to leave and return to her stage career leaving them all behind.

Sylvie loves to write. It is the summer holidays so her teacher, who is married to the town sheriff, suggests Sylvie could write a column for the town newspaper. It is called Ludolf's Log and is usually written by Sheriff Ludolf. Spelling and writing are not his forte.

Here are parts of their conversation:

"This is a contract to hire you to write Ludolf's Log this summer."
"You're going to pay me? For writing?"
"Yes. You'll cover the town, like a reporter. You can ride your horse sometimes. Or ride with me."
"You can write the log any way you want."
"Could I write poetry?
"You can do whatever you want. Do it your way. Maybe we can call it Sylvie's Summer Log. All righty then!"

All righty then is a trade-mark saying of the Sheriff. I love it! His real name is Rudolph Ludoff. His mother called him Luddy Buddy. Sylvie decides the best name is Bud and there are smiles all round. And yes Sylvie does write poetry. One day doing their rounds of the area she and the Sheriff come across some boys lighting a fire:

Boys too young to say
Build a fire on windswept day
Sent home, ponder deeds

Have you ever thought to look for threads in the books by Patricia MacLachlan?

Music - Just Dance; Fly Away; The Truth of Me; Sarah Plain and Tall
Dogs - The Poet's Dog; White fur flying; The Truth of Me; Waiting for the Magic; Just Dance
Poetry - The Poet's Dog; Just Dance; Fly Away
Farms and rural communities - Fly Away; Just Dance; Sarah Plain and Tall
Seeking answers to questions - Just Dance; The Truth of Me; Sarah Plain and Tall
Family relationships - Sarah Plain and Tall; Just Dance; The Truth of Me; Fly Away

It is truly special to have a book that deals with small and very personal concerns in an honest way.
In this book, as with all her titles, you will find the lyrical language we've come to expect from Patricia MacLachlan. Here is an example. One of the people Sylvie meets is Tinker. He has a pet coyote and he also writes haiku. They become instant friends.

Tinker: "His eyes were sharp and steady. And a blue I had no name for."
Bernie the coyote: "I slowly turned my head and looked into the very close, yellow eyes ... There were black spots like marbles in the middle of the yellow. He was so close."

The family and community relationships in Just Dance are warm and reassuring. There are no big plot moments or catastrophes. This is just a beautiful quiet book. Sylvie observes her community, makes new and surprising friends and discovers something important about her mother and about love.

Music in this book:
Un bel di by Puccini  Page 7
Caro Nome by Verdi  Page 16
Casta diva by Bellini  Page 22
Plaisir d'amour  Page 86
Con te partino  Page 97

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Yark by Bertrand Santini illustrated by Laurent Gapaillard

The Yark loves children.
He loves the crackle of their little bones between his teeth, and to suck on their soft eyes which melt like chocolate truffles.
He adores their tiny fingers, their tiny feet, their tiny tongues, which he chews with a sprig of mint for a sweet and deliciously sticky treat.

The Yark eats children BUT the children must be very good. Bad children upset his stomach. "When children do something wrong, their hearts ferment a violent poison and their flesh becomes more toxic than a vipers venom." But where are all the good children? The world has changed and they are hard to find. Wait a minute Santa has that list of good boys and girls. The Yark needs that list!

He fights with Santa but somehow the list sticks to his bottom as he is thrown out into the snow. Now he has the names. Charlotte from Provence in France and Lewis in London.  Sadly for Yark, in each case, things go horribly wrong. In Chapter 6 for example, he eats Jack, twin brother to Lewis. Jack is a bully and a horrible child and so the Yark becomes violently ill.

"His legs are trembling, his stomach is gurgling, his ears are buzzing and his buttocks are starting to itch. He coughs, he drools, he suffocates, he breaks out in pimples, pustules and blisters."

Yark flees and crashes near a lighthouse.  A lonely child called Madeline rescues him. She showers him with kindness. Yark cannot bear the idea of eating Madeline even though she smells delicious:

"Violet and anise are the heart notes that reveal an underlying melancholy. The base notes of cotton and fresh rice attest to her goodness. Last, the Monster discerns a blend of blood orange and milk sugar, top notes that emanate only from the  purest souls."

Now we have a dilemma. Yark cannot eat Madeline but he worries he might not be able to resist her so he leaves even though Madeline begs him to stay. In the forests of France there are hundreds of abandoned children. The number is estimated at sixty-thousand. They have turned into wild creatures. When they come upon Yark they don't kill him. Instead they torture him with knee scabs, torn toenails and nose boogers. This is a disgusting scene but it has a wonderful effect on the Yark. He gains immunity from bad children. Now he can eat them without side effects. He escapes knowing he can return to his new friend Madeline. Yes there is a happy ending.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. Children are eaten by the Yark. There is no reprieve. Don't expect all the children to be regurgitated at the end. They are GONE! His final meal consists of one hundred and sixty-two of those bad forest kids.

On the other hand if you read this book with your funny bone switched ON then this romp is great fun.

The Yark is published by Gecko Press in New Zealand. They source books from other languages. The Yark was published in Italy as Le Yark. You can read the first chapter here. If you read this book first, and consider it fun, I think it might make a good class read-aloud for Grade 4 or 5. Here is a set of excellent teachers notes from the publisher. It might be fun to compare this text with books like George's Marvellous Medicine or The BFG by Roald Dahl.

Here are some reviews:
Read the Kirkus review for a different and more critical view of this book.
Book Worm for Kids loved this book.
Kids Book Review acknowledge this is an unusual book which they did enjoy.

Listen closely!
He's turning the handle on your door...
And even if it's locked, his hooded nails are all he needs for keys.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Button War by Avi

I should have heeded the warning that came with this book that it was like Lord of the Flies. When I started this blog I said it would be for books I enjoyed reading. The Button War is a very powerful story and I think it will appeal to boys who might be reluctant readers so I am including it here even though it is a book that deeply disturbed me. I read it in one day but I had to keep stopping to take a breath as each horrible situation arose.

The term ego is one you could apply to this book. Jurek lives in poverty. His parents are dead. His sister is hostile. Jurek needs a forum where he feels powerful. Where he can be king. Jurek needs to feed his ego. For Jurek the perfect audience is a group of other boys. They are all aged twelve and live in a small village in Poland. The boys enjoy hanging out together around the town water pump but none of them feel able to stand up to Jurek and his cruel dares and regular taunting.

Jurek finds a button in the forest. He declares that he is the true King. Jurek sets the boys a dare to find a better button. In this new game Jurek says the "winner" will be their King but Jurek himself is determined to win at all costs, He keeps changing the rules. His main rival for leadership is Patryk. Patryk knows this button challenge is silly, then later he knows it is dangerous but he also needs to put an end to the power wielded by Jurek. He just cannot seem to find a way to stop all of this. He needs to find the best button.

It is 1914 and this small Polish village is caught up in the events of World War One. After finding his first button Jurek wants another. He decides the best prize would be a button from a Russian army uniform. The village has been invaded by Russian soldiers. Jurek's sister, in need of money, takes in their washing. Jurek takes a button from a coat on the clothes line late at night and then insists Patryk attempt this too.

Meanwhile the war is impacting the village. A German plane flies over head and drops a bomb on the school. German soldiers now invade their town forcing the Russians to retreat but the Russians don't run away they gather reinforcements and prepare for another battle to regain control of the village.

This is no longer just a game for a group of boys. It has now become very, very dangerous. The story began with seven boys. How many will be left at the end? Things now spin out of control with life and death consequences. I think this is a book for very mature readers 11+.

Read some reviews:

Here are some text quotes to give you a flavour of this writing:

"I took another step. Once near the end of the bed, I sank to my knees. From there I reached out to the soldiers tunic, grasped a button with the fingers of my left hand, and pulled."

"In the middle of the area lay another soldier's body. He was all twisted, like a cloth doll that had been tossed away. He was on his back, face up, brown jacket in tatters, skin exposed, torn and bloody. I stared at him but didn't feel much emotion. I was getting used to the dead."

Take a look at Avi's web site. Here is an excellent video where Avi talks about the inspiration for this book and his own exploration of war buttons.

Here is the US cover.

Hotel Flamingo by Alex Milway

I adore books where a mess is cleaned up. Where order is restored out of chaos. Where everyone works together to transform a house, garden or in this case a hotel.

Anna has inherited The Flamingo Hotel. Sadly its glory days are long past. A new, more glamorous, hotel has opened on Animal Boulevard. Hotel Flamingo has no guests and all the staff have left. When Anna arrives there are only two employees left - a bear called T. Bear who works as the doorman and a ring-tailed lemur called Lemmy who works on the reception desk.

There is dust and dirt everywhere. The pool is broken, the sign outside has fallen down and the manager's office is filled with so much paper Anna can't even find a desk or a seat.  Every floor is wrecked.

"The tour started on the ground floor in the lobby. There was a restaurant which was filled with old crooked tables but no chairs. Next up was the Piano Lounge, with a carpet so dizzily patterned that it made Anna's head hurt. The piano was missing three keys and was out of tune, but at least there was a piano, thought Anna."

Anna puts out an advertisement for new staff.  She takes on:

  • Stella Giraffe an expert handy woman
  • Madame Le Pig a world-famous chef
  • Eva Koala waitress
  • Squeak a old mouse who works as the bellboy
  • Hilary Hippo the cleaner - she is allergic to dust and fanatical about cleaning

This new crew transform the hotel but of course a disaster might be just around the corner especially when the health inspector arrives and when you have asked a group of flamingo's to perform in the piano lounge.

Guests begin to arrive including a group of cockroaches. Just like Mona from the Heartwood Hotel, Anna welcomes all guests. Later when pool water pipes are blocked Mr Roachford and his group come to the rescue as only cockroaches can. I love the fact that the cockroaches are heroes.

Hotel Flamingo will be be available from 7th February.

I can see this book will be the beginning of a series. The  cute map at the front of the book shows Fort Rhino, Zoozoo Theme Park, Lizard Beach and LeChat Shopping Mall. Perhaps each of these will be the setting for future installments. I highly recommend Hotel Flamingo as a terrific addition for all school library collections and as a gift for a newly independent reader. For me it is a ten out of ten book!

The obvious pairing for this book is the Heartwood Hotel series by Kallie George. If the size and format of this book appeals you could also look at the Claude series by Alex T Smith, Violet and the Pearl of the Orient by Harriet Whitehorn and Mango and Bambang by Polly Faber.  Alex Milway has made a trailer celebrating the cockroaches with a fabulous song you could teach your class. Here is another trailer without the song.

It’s full of joie de vivre, and I loved its story line of a little girl who creates jobs, works hard alongside her staff, welcomes the downtrodden, and triumphs in the face of adversity. Lil Blue Bottle

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Dog Runner by Bren MacDibble

In her earlier award winning book How to Bee the premise was a dystopian world without bees. The Dog Runner continues this same genre imagining another dystopian future this one where ALL grass crops in the world are killed by an invasive fungus.

Take a moment to think about grasses:

Now think about the consequences of this. No food for grazing animals means no meat. No wheat means no bread and other products from flour such as pasta. No rice means this crisis has international consequences I can hardly imagine.

In the city there is a constant threat of violence. Bren MacDibble takes a close view by focusing on one small family living in an Australian city. Infrastructure is breaking down. Government promises of food are just empty words. Looting and extortion are rife. Ella, her older brother Emery and their dad are living in their apartment but they don't feel safe. Ella's mum, Jackie, has not returned. She has been gone for 8 months supposedly restoring essential services but now all the electricity has failed. Ella thinks mum will return any day but she doesn't. Then dad leaves to find Jackie and he does not return. Emery knows it is time to take action. His mother (not Jackie) and grandparents live in a remote outback region. The journey will take many days and it will be dangerous but staying in this city is also dangerous. Emery knows there will be food if they can just reach his Grandmother who is growing mushrooms in hidden caves.

Living with Ella and Emery are three huge dogs. Early in the story, Emery adds two more to the team. The dogs are attached to a set of harnesses and the kids are able use a dogsled with wheels. The race is on. Not against time but against the violence of desperate city gangs who are moving further away from the city in search of food. One really sinister aspect of this is the use of electric bikes. In one harrowing scene Ella and Emery very narrowly escape a gang of thugs who arrive on these silent vehicles.

The journey is made more difficult by their lack of food for themselves, the need to keep feeding five huge dogs and their daily need for water on our dry continent. I won't explain why but I may never look at a tin of sardines in quite the same way after reading this book.

The strength of this writing comes from the way Bren MacDibble allows her readers to 'join the dots'. You will need to notice every tiny detail so you can work out these family relationships. Reaching the farm will mean there is hope for the future, for Ella and her family and perhaps for everyone but just how this will happen is sure to surprise you.

I would follow The Dog Runner with an old book that you might find in a school library - Chance of Safety. There are some violent scenes in The Dog Runner so I would recommend it for readers aged 11+. For teachers it might be a good exercise to compare some of the more violent scenes with an old book called Angie's Ankles by Gary Hurle.

You can read over twenty pages on the publisher web site. I was lucky to have an Advance Reader Copy and I actually read it twice which is something I very rarely do. The Dog Runner will be published in February, 2019. I am a huge fan of How to Bee (CBCA Book of the Year Younger Readers 2018) and so I am happy to see these two books have related cover designs by the same illustrator Joanna Hunt.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Crossing Ebenezer Creek by Tonya Bolden

Crossing Ebenezer Creek is a Young Adult title. I am just putting that here as my first comment because this blog usually focuses on Picture books, Junior novels and Middle Grade fiction.

Many years ago I read Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen. It is a story that deeply affected me. More recently I read Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is also a very powerful novel. I find I am fascinated by the years of slavery in American history. I read Crossing Ebenezer Creek in one sitting - yes it is that good.

Crossing Ebenezer Creek is based on real events. The story opens with freedom. Mariah has suffered so much at the hands of her white masters. She has witnessed the death of her parents and extreme cruelty to those around her. Mariah is a beautiful soul. She deeply cares for others and she has a dream for the future.

The group of slaves begin their difficult and dangerous march to freedom. Mariah and her group are joined by a young man called Caleb. He is kind to the group and especially caring of Mariah. It is clear he is falling in love with this special girl but Caleb has horrors in his past too. The fate of this group is in the hands of Union soldiers and not all of them are sympathetic to the plight of the slaves.

The final scenes are truly terrible. There is no happy ending in this important Young Adult title but the truth of the emotions and the raw descriptions of their experiences make this a gripping read.

Read this SLJ review for more plot details.

What makes this story memorable is the strength and clarity of the many narrative voices that weave their way through its pages. The rough dialects of Mariah, Caleb and the host of other characters breathe life into their stories, giving them a voice and a presence that defies the silence of history. Children's Book Review

A poetic, raw, and extraordinary imagining of a little-known, shameful chapter in American history. Kirkus Star review

Saturday, January 26, 2019

All about my reading pile - January/February 2019

Image source:

Today I visited my local bookstore and picked up eight books including some Advanced Reader Copies, I bought two books for myself (of course) and then at home I reviewed my existing "to read" pile and saw another six books. In addition to this I know there are two more new titles waiting for collection from the post office. SIGH!

Here are some of these - the total above is 18 just in case you were wondering. We are having a heatwave in Australia right now so staying inside with books to read does seem like a good option - it's just the quantity here that is a bit overwhelming.

Fruitloops and Dipsticks by Ulf Stark
I picked this up at the Children's Hospital from the library where I volunteer. Why? Because I enjoy books that have been translated from other languages, Ulf Stark is Swedish and that's my heritage, and we do have a couple of his books in my school library.
From the blurb: "Simone is twelve. When her teacher mistakes her for a boy called Simon, the trouble really begins. ... Simone just wants to be normal but it's hard in a world of fruitloops and dipsticks!"

Too Small to Fail by Morris Gleitzman
This is a re-read for me. For some reason I forgot to talk about it here on my blog but I have mentioned it on several other posts. I am not a huge fan of Morris Gleitzman but I really loved reading this one about a boy and his dog and his wacky parents. I saw a used copy of this recently and decided to bring it home.

Where the world Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean
Geraldine McCaughrean is the author of several books I read long ago and loved. The Kite Rider, Stop the train, A pack of Lies and The Orchard book of Greek Myths.
From the blurb: "Every Summer Quill and his friends are put ashore on a remote sea stac to hunt birds. But this summer no one arrives to take them home. Surely nothing but the end of the world can explain why they've been abandoned - cold, starving and clinging to life, in the grip of a murderous ocean. How will they survive?

The Button war by Avi
This one has been mentioned on several web sites and podcasts. I am a huge fan of Avi (especially his Poppy series) but this one will be quite different.
From the blurb: "The first button they found. The second they stole. Twelve-year-old Patryk has never left his Polish village and doesn't know much about the outside world. Then one August, with the clatter clatter of an aeroplane, the Great War explodes into his village."

The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan
This is not a new book but I purchased it because the reviews were so compelling. Bookbag said "This is an amazing and poignant book, that is so beautifully written that I didn't even realise I had finished it until I had turned the last page."
From the blurb: "Armed with a suitcase and an old laundry bag, Kasienka and her mother head for England. Life is lonely for Kasienka. At home her mother's heart is breaking, at school friends are scarce. But when someone special swims into her live, Kasienka learns that there might be more than one way to stay afloat."

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
One of our big city bookstores had a promotion in January where books were 20% off the retail price. An offer too good to miss. Sadly I couldn't find any of the books on my 'want to read' list but I did spy this one which looked interesting. I do enjoy an occasional dip into historical fiction.
From the blurb: "Twelve-year-old Nisha doesn't recognise her country anymore. It's 1947, and India, newly freed from British rule, has been divided into two countries: Pakistan and India. Hundreds of thousands are killed crossing borders as the tensions between Muslims and Hindus flare. ... Nisha and her family become refugees and embark on a journey by train and foot to reach their new home."

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E.L. Konsgsburg
This is a favourite book of  my local bookseller and she showed me a beautiful hardcover edition last year.  Today when I spied a cheaper paperback copy I grabbed it.  This is a very old book - first published in 1973. The opening sentence certainly sounds good: "During her lifetime, Eleanor of Aquitaine had not been a patient woman, While she had lived, she had learned to bide her time, but biding one's time is a very different thing from patience. After she had died, and before she arrived in Heaven, it had been necessary for Eleanor to learn some patience."  You will know EL Konigburg from her famous book From the Mixed up files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler.

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer
Holly Goldberg Sloan is the author Counting by Sevens which is a book that left me breathless.
On first glance this book looks quite odd because it consists of a series of emails between these two girls. I think reading this book I could be in for an emotional roller coaster.

Advanced Reader copies with release dates which will help me pace my reading.

  • Hotel Flamingo by Alex Milway due for release 7th February
  • Sherlock Bones and the Natural History mystery by Renee Treml due for release 1st April
  • 52 Mondays by Anna Cidor due for release 4th March
  • A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison due for release 7th February
  • Hapless hero Henrie by Petra James due for release 1st April
  • Swimming against the Storm by Jess Butterworth due for release 4th April
  • Starfell - Willow Moss and the lost day by Dominique Valente due for release 2nd May
  • Costa Banana the gruesome general by Jozua Douglas due for release 26th March (this book was originally published in Dutch)

Over the coming days and weeks watch this space for my thoughts about some or all of these books. Now for the big decision - where to begin? This cover might give you a hint. You may already know I adore Alex Milway - his Pigsticks and Harold books are truly special.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Melody Trumpet by Gabrielle Tozer

Melody should be the perfect name for the daughter of two famous musicians - Viola Trumpet and her conductor husband Barry T Trumpet but of course it isn't. From her first new born cries it is obvious Melody is not musical. That might not be a problem in a normal family but Mr and Mrs Trumpet are far from normal. They are famous and very rich and they want to stay that way. The hire an acclaimed music teacher with the delightful name Mr Pizzicato to teach their daughter. He does try. He tries for ten years but Melody simply cannot play any musical instrument and her singing is simply awful.

Melody has been attending The Battyville Elite School for Musically Gifted Children but she has been doing so in secret. One of the few people, apart from Mr Pizzicato and a handful of staff, who knows she works in a hidden part of the school each day, is the school Principal. She has a delightful name - Principal Sharp. 

After ten years of study all students at the school are expected to perform at the Debut Gala which this year will be attended by The Prince and Princess of Zanjia.

Things are now desperate. Melody cannot perform. Mr Pizzicato comes up with the perfect plan. To use another girl who looks like Melody but who can of course sing, to take her place. Melody and Mr P. audition over 100 girls but after an exhausting day they can't find anyone to fit this role.

Melody has been isolated by her cruel parents who worry that her failures with music will be revealed. Her one solace is her notebook where she writes her thoughts as poems. In a moment of fury her mother throws the notebook away. This is a terrible moment in the story but also a turning point because the notebook is found by a young girl who can sing, a young girl who likes to compose her own music which she then performs as a busker. There are a lot more twists to this plot before everything is resolved all of which just add to the fun and mayhem.

I have a huge pile of Advance Reader copies from my local bookstore at the moment but I kept putting this one back. The cover did not appeal to me. I thought it would just be another fairly silly story. Boy was I wrong! This book is terrific. I read the whole book, all 240 pages, in one sitting! I read this book in early January. It is due for publication in February, 2019. I think this book will be enjoyed by readers aged 8+ and it is sure to be a book that is passed between friends at school. Gabrielle Tozer is the author of several Young Adult novels.

This book reminded me of two stories with similarly awful parents - Too Small to Fail by Morris Gleitzman and What do you think, Feezal? by Elizabeth Honey. You could also pair this book with The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman.

- Deb Abela, award-winning author of The Most Marvellous Spelling Bee Mystery

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads by Bob Shea illustrated by Lane Smith

Drywater Gulch had a toad problem. 
Not the hop-down-your-britches kind of toad. 
Not the croaking-all-night kind of toad. 
The never-say-thank-you outlaw kind of toad.

I just love the word 'gulch'.  I have talked about this previously. A gulch is deep, narrow, steep sided ravine. In this book we are truly in cowboy country.

This book also has such a great cast of characters.
The Toad Brothers - who would "steal your gold, kiss your cattle, and insult your chili. Hootin', hollarin', and cussin' all the while."
The Mayor with the perfect name Mayor McMuffin
Ryan, the hero and new sheriff who rides into town (slowly) on his tortoise.

Can you handle a shooting iron?
Ride a horse?
Know any rope tricks?
Stay up past eight?

Ryan does, however, know a lot about dinosaurs.

When the bank is robbed Ryan knows the culprit is T-Rex. When the stagecoach is robbed, Ryan can see a Velocripator at work. The Toad Brother are outraged. They want credit for their crimes. Ryan, the Sheriff, explains he needs to put the criminal dinosaurs in jail.

"The Toads fought their way through the door of the jail, slamming it shut behind them. 'HA! You can blow them dinersores out your nose, Sheriff, this here jail of full up of real bonafide criminals.!"

Ryan has solved the problem, the gang are now in jail and everyone is happy. The question is did Ryan really know what he was doing? Did he understand reverse psychology at the tender age of seven and what adventures await his attention over the horizon?

Did you notice the word dinersores.  It is one of many delicious example of word play in this book.

Every school library should have picture books for older students. Some I especially love are Mr Maxwell's Mouse, Grandad's Gifts by Paul Jennings and The Stranger. You can see my full list by clicking the subject link on my sidebar and here in my Pinterest collection. Here is a list with other ideas of picture books for older kids and adults too.

You can see nearly all of the illustrations from this book on the publisher web site.

This is a book from 2014 but it is a new discovery for me. I found it in my local public library and knowing other wonderful books by Lane Smith I was keen to read this one.  Take the time to read this interview with Bob Shea and Lane Smith - it is so funny just like this hilarious picture book. Take a look at this review on Nerdy Book Club.

Coming from Australia I am not sure I can do the right accent needed when you read this book aloud. Luckily I found a video. Take a look and a listen here to this piece by Storybook Theater. It is just perfect.  You could also use this book for a discussion about visual literacy concepts. There are some excellent ideas about this in Horn Book.

A crowd-pleasin’ knee-slapper that’ll have ’em rolling in the aisles, yessirree. Kirkus Star Review

Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads is extraordinary in tone, humor, slang and physical beauty, and surely belongs on any Caldecott short list.  It is a picture book masterpiece. Sam Juliano Wonders in the Dark

A great read aloud, this picture book is silliness through and through with a western twang. Waking Brain Cells

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

I am not going to retell the plot of this book. If you click the review links above you can read them for yourself.  Instead here are my random thoughts about this book - a book I loved reading.

This book made me think of a series of threads which might begin as separate strands. Gradually a skilled person joins them together in a pattern. One thread, however, is short and disappears into the design very early. Another thread is totally wrong. It is the wrong texture, wrong colour and feels rough and damaged. It cannot be part of the pattern and yet it is now tangled and will be difficult to remove from the final design. One thread also feels wrong but by the time this weaving it finished the maker sees that it is just perfect adding an important dimension to the whole effect.

"The world is made of patterns. The rings of a tree. The raindrops on the dusty ground. The path the sun follows morning to dusk." (Chapter 65)

When you read this book I hope my thread analogy makes sense. To start you off the Calico Cat is the short thread.

Major Characters:
Calico Cat - her life is short but she is essential to the rescue of Ranger
Her twin kittens Sabine and the aptly named Puck
An old hound dog called Ranger
The man named Gar Face whose life is fueled by revenge and hate. "Hatred, like sweat, coated his skin. ... Do not cross his angry path. Do not."
Grandmother Moccasin the old snake trapped for a thousand years "a creature even older than the forest itself, older than the creek, the last of her kind."
The Alligator King - he is patiently waiting for the man to make a mistake.

I adore all the references to trees in this book. "Trees are the keepers of stories." Here are some which I love the sound of. Coming from Australia nearly all are unfamiliar to me. As Elizabeth Bird says through this beautiful writing:

Loblolly Pine
Water Oaks
Longleaf Pine
Weeping Willow

Kathi Appelt is also so skilled with her words on the actions of cats.
Sabine sees her brother step into the sun.  "She had awakened just in time to see her brother step into the sun's dim light, see him roll onto his back, see the beams of sun float onto his tummy. She had seen him smile up at the lovely light, seen his coat glow in the shimmery gold."

Puck is given a freshly killed mouse by the hawk. "Even though the mouse was already dead, he decided to kill it again, just to make sure. So he fluffed up his fur as much as he could ... arched his back to its full kitten height, and pounced on the lifeless body with all four paws. He battered it from side to side and tossed it into the air."

Sabine : "Soon she was completely absorbed in her personal bath, concentrating fully on licking every strand of her silver fur. She cleaned her paws, including between her toes. She reached over and licked her narrow back. She tucked her head and cleaned her soft-as-velvet belly. And every few minutes, she stopped and licked Ranger's long ears. He loved it when she did that."

One aspect of this book that I really enjoyed was all the tension Kathi Appelt created. I knew it would all be resolved and I could hardly wait to find out how.  One tiny example is when Puck finds himself on the wrong side of the river. His fur is coated with mud which hardens in the sun. Finally after many adventures Puck falls into the river. He can swim. He is okay. He sadly finds he is still on the wrong side of the river. "The only good thing to come out of his experiment in sailing was this: The cold water had loosened the last of the old mud, and his coat, though completely wet, was now completely clean."

I volunteer in a small library at a city Children's Hospital and last week I discovered I am allowed to borrow their books. I spied The Underneath by Kathi Appelt and I remembered reading her book Keeper. I am late in my discovery of The Underneath. It was first published in 2008 and won a Newbery Honor but I am very happy to report it is still available. One important point - make sure you read this book yourself first before giving to a young reader. As you can see from my set of labels it is violent and some scenes with Gar Face and his treatment of Ranger and the kittens are extremely cruel. I would suggest this book is for readers aged 10+. You can listen to part of Chapter one here.  Read this review for more story details and a different perspective. Here is the trailer.

Here is a very detailed review by Middle Grade Ninja. I was interested to read the way his review likens the story line to juggling plates. Here is an excellent interview by Uma Krishnaswami author of The Book Uncle and me.

The Underneath, as I said, is a violent story but it is also a love story and a story about loyalty, perseverance and promises. I would follow or pair this with Sounder by William H Armstrong, Shiloh by Phyllis Naylor Reynolds, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls and for a book with a similar setting look for Chomp by Carl Hiaasen or Skink no surrender also by Carl Hiaasen. The evil of Gar Face reminded me of Zozo from Ollie's Odyssey.

Here is one more beautiful phrase from this book:
"And then, as if the lightning were a zipper in the clouds, it opened them up and let the water out. Buckets and buckets of cold rain, sheets of it. Rain that had traveled for thousands of miles."

Sunday, January 20, 2019

My Lazy Cat by Christine Roussey

What did you do today?

I think picture book authors and illustrators walk a fine line when they create a picture book with "a message". This is not a new trend but the topic of mindfulness is new and so many picture books have jumped on this popular bandwagon. I do agree we all need to slow down, we all need to stop and see the tiny things around us, we all need moments of stillness but I don't need a picture book that lectures me, or a child, about this.

My Lazy Cat works because, for me, the message (I guess there is one) is delivered with humour. This book truly made me smile.

I should have known something was up with this little girl when I read:

"I don't have a minute to waste. I have judo, swimming, yoga, painting, and pottery. Knitting, soccer and biking with my friends. I have a full day and I can't be late."

Boomer the cat is huge. His days are slow.

He's a slug,
a sloth,
a slacker.
A lounger,
a loafer,
a lazybones.
He snoozes and slumbers, dozes and drowses. No one does it better.

Luckily one day the little girl is forced to slow down and see the world as Boomer sees it. She trips over him in her rush and this is where the story becomes interesting or could lead to an interesting discussion. How will she react? Anger, impatience, frustration or perhaps she can just laugh?

My favourite page shows them both lying on the grass watching the clouds. I would be great to compare this with the illustrations by Kazuo Niizaka from the book Clouds by Peggy Blakeley.

I picked this book out in the public library the other day because it is a translated book. It was originally written in French with the title 'Mon Chat Boudin'.

Christine Roussey is the illustrator of a number of very special books especially the series by Jo Witek. You can see some below. I will try to find My Stinky Dog, which looks like a companion volume to My Lazy Cat, and share it with you here soon.

Kirkus says My Lazy Cat "presents a portrait of a friendship and a celebration of slowing down. Her goofy, bright illustrations are childlike in their simplicity but full of details to search through during a quiet read."

Kids' Book Review says: "The message Roussey gives readers in her story My Lazy Cat is profound. She reminds us of the importance of making time in our over busy lives to have fun doing 'lazy things' with the ones that we love. During this slow time we are able to be more mindful about our environment and what our body and soul really needs."

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Hannah and Sugar by Kate Berube

There are lots of books about adding a puppy or dog to a family and the joy that can bring. Some children, and adults, however, are afraid of dogs. Perhaps because of a previous incident or just because dogs can seem large and boisterous.

Hannah is afraid.

"Every day after school, Hannah's papa picked her up at the bus stop. And every day after school, Sugar was at the bus stop waiting for Violet P. Every day after school, Mrs P. asked Hannah if she wanted to pet Sugar. And every day after school Hannah said, 'No, thank you."

The illustrations show how this scene is repeated day after day, season after season. One day, though, Sugar goes missing. Everyone looks everywhere but as night falls Sugar is not found. Hannah thinks about this situation from Sugar's point of view. She knows Sugar will be sad and hungry. As she sits outside she hears a small sound. She follows it and finds poor Sugar's lead has become entangled on some branches. This is a huge moment for Hannah. What will she do? She is terrified of Sugar but right now Sugar needs her help.

Image source:

Take a look at this page - there is so much to discuss here if you are talking about the power of an image.

You can see more of the illustrations from Hannah and Sugar and read an interview with the author here. In this article by Seven Impossible things before Breakfast Berube shares her preliminary sketches. In 2017 Hannah and Sugar was short listed for the Klaus Flugge Prize. She inside Kate Berube's studio. You can even learn a song after reading this book. While they have some reservations about the story line it is also interesting to read the Kirkus review.

You can see some of the awards given to this book on the author web site. I love the idea of pairing books. Misty by Christine Dencer would be the perfect partner for Hannah and Sugar.  I also found a list of books which encourage children to be brave.

Exciting News! A book for all ages - Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

One of the best books I read last year was Wishtree by Katherine Applegate.  I am excited to say the publishers have now released an adult edition. It is exactly the same book just with a different cover.

You can read an extract here. Wishtree has been on the New York Times best seller list for 57 weeks. YES I just said 57 weeks! Read some review quotes here.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Quicksand Pond by Janet Taylor Lisle

"I wanted to come down and speak to you girls. 
I know what you're doing. ... I give my raft to you."

I know this is an odd way to begin my review but this book has 240 pages and for 239 pages I was entranced. Then I reached the last page and well, I don’t like to say this, but I felt confused. Perhaps I need to read the final chapters again.

Ms Yingling said: “The ending was a bit odd. It didn’t really wrap things up in any successful way. I don’t like it when I get to the end of a book and expect there to be more pages when there aren’t.”

Putting the ending to one side I absolutely loved the atmosphere created by Janet Taylor Lisle. I felt as though I was on this pond, watching Jessie and her new friend Terri, repairing their raft and lazing in the sunshine. 

Jessie, Jonathan and Julia are staying in an old rundown cottage for the summer. Their father Richard Kettle has memories of his summer job and summer friendships in this New England beach side town. Mum has stayed behind in Pittsburgh working hard in her legal practice.

The scene and long summer should mean lazy days and easy living but we learn early in the story this town has a past and this past continues to have a devastating impact on the present.

Many decades ago, when Miss Henrietta was a small girl, two men arrived late one night. They entered the old and grand family home near the pond intent on robbery and murder. Henrietta is the only living witness to this horror. The wrong man is accused. This man languished in jail for many years and eventually he dies there. He is Terri's grandfather, Eddie Carr, and the town has never forgotten or forgiven.

Henrietta has returned to the old home. She is now very elderly, frail and dependent on others. To her carers it seems her mind is muddled but she remembers every tiny detail of the events leading up to the murder of her parents. She also remembers her happy times rafting on the pond when she was a child. She is delighted when she spies Jessie and Terri on her raft. It needs repairs but that is not a problem. Her father's workshop still has all the tools and lumber the girls will need.

Jessie knows her friend Terri is connected with the murder from long ago and she wants to believe her grandfather is innocent. Terri's mother has died, and her father, Mitch Carr, is now very violent and often drunk. Life is so hard for Terri. Jessie wants to help but has no idea how. Then there is a fire. Henrietta's workshop and garage burn down and suspicion once again falls on the Carr family. Jessie needs to be sure there is justice for her friend and justice for the events of the past.

Here are some examples of the wonderful descriptions by Janet Taylor Lisle:

Arriving at the holiday cottage:  "They lugged in duffels, scrubbed out the gangrenous fridge, sponged off the counters, and emptied drawers littered with mouse droppings."

Julia: "was beautiful, everyone said so. She had a heart-shaped face, unblemished skin, and chocolate-brown eyes with thick brown lashes that curled up naturally at the ends. She would never in her life need a drop of mascara."

Terri "She could be quiet. Sometimes she didn't speak for an hour or more. She kept apart during these spells. She'd walk away and sit by herself, fingering the name charm on her throat and looking at the pond."

The setting of this book reminded me of The small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis.  I would follow this book with Half a Chance and Return to Gone-away.

Here is an interview with the author Janet Taylor Lisle. I plan to hunt out more of her books very soon. Read this review for more plot details. Listen to part of Chapter One here. Quicksand Pond began as a short story by Janet Taylor Lisle. My copy of this book also included a set of discussion questions.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

A Good day for Climbing Trees by Jaco Jacobs

I have said this in the past but I need to say it again. I love the discovery of books translated into English. The process is so serendipitous. Just think about the way these books pass through so many gate keepers before reaching a different language audience.

A good day for Climbing Trees was originally written in Afrikaans (see covers below). The English translation is by Kobus Glendenhuys. I don’t remember where is saw this book mentioned but I had it on my to read list and recently I added it to a book order. I am so glad I did.

Leila is an activist. She wants to save a tree in the local park. Manus, who feels invisible in his family, is drawn into her passion. Both of them sit in the tree refusing to move when the council bulldozers arrive. Manus is patient with Leila but her true reasons for wanting to save this tree seem hard to unravel. Leilia’s Mum is supportive but Leila barely acknowledges her.  The bowling club caretaker is kind, he brings coffee and drinks and keeps his eye on them although we don't discover why until the final scene. Mrs Merriman, who lives nearby is also very supportive. She believes people should fight for important causes such as saving this tree. Then the media and local greenies get involved and things begin to go badly wrong.

This book will surprise you. It is packed with real emotion, real honesty and two very real kids.  Take a look at the trailer. This would be a terrific book to use with a middle grade class studying government. Here are some teacher notes.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove by James Moloney

2018 marked the 40th Anniversary of A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove (I am a bit late) and reading it this week I am happy to say it has totally stood the test of time. A year ago I was helping a friend in her Primary School library. We were culling the older books when I saw this one. It is a Young Adult title and so, even though it is an important and terrific book, I knew we had to move it out of her library. I bought it home to read.

Last week someone was talking about Displaced Person by Lee Harding. This book was published at about the same time and it won the CBCA Book of the Year in 1980 and I still had my old copy which I then read. Looking along my shelf I spied A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove.

I read A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove in just one sitting. Yes it it that good. In this book you will find strong characters, a wonderful setting and a powerful emotional journey.

Carl, Harley and older sister Sarah have the same mum but different dads. Sarah is often left alone looking after the younger boys when mum takes off for a week or two but this time mum is gone and so is Sarah. Carl, aged 16, and his brother Harley aged 9 are sent to live with Aunt Beryl. She is not welcoming and when people in the town learn the boys carry their mum's surname of Matt they are treated with open hostility. Carl desperately misses his mother. He does not know why everyone despises him. He has to take care of Harley and that is not easy because Harley is running wild - shoplifting and worse.

Beryl tells Carl he has to earn money to support the family. He finds work as a deck hand on a barge which travels to Wiseman's Cove. Joy and Skip, owners of the barge, have their own sadness and reasons to dislike anyone with the name Matt but they give him a chance and Carl's hard work and problem solving make a huge difference to their profits but the old wounds go deep and there are many things that still need to be resolved.

If you can find a copy of A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove it would make a great Summer read for 12+.

You can read more plot details (spoiler alert) in this Wikipedia entry.

A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove won the CBCA Book of the Year in 1997. You can listen to an audio sample here.  You might find other books by James Maloney in a school library. He has a huge range of books from Aussie Nibbles, Aussie Bites, Aussie Chomps up to other Young Adult titles. I loved his middle grade titles - Swashbuckler and The Disappearing Act.

I was pleased to read A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove was one of Megan Daley's favourite books when she was a teenager. Here is a set of very detailed teachers notes. In an interview with James Maloney he lists a few of the books that influenced him - some of these are certainly favourites of mine - Homecoming Cynthia Voigt, Missing May Cynthia Rylant and Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian. Here is a more recent cover.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Great War Stories inspired by objects from the First World War

Each story, lovingly crafted, shows a different facet of war in the same way that each artifact reflects something different about the time. Kirkus Star review

This is a brilliant anthology of short stories about World War One penned by a range of talented authors from around the world such as Michael Morpurgo, Ursula Dubosarsky, Adele Geras, David Almond and Timothee de Frombelle. Every story has a different tone and perspective. All of the writing is outstanding.

I discovered this book when I read Captain Rosalie. Reading the publication details I saw a mention of this book - The Great War. A few weeks ago I purchased a copy and each day I have been reading one story from this collection of eleven.

The objects are fascinating.  I would like to know if the authors were given and object, if they had a choice of object of if perhaps each author 'found' an object themselves.

  • Victoria Cross - Captain Rosalie by Timothee de Frombelle
  • Princess Mary gift fund box - When they were needed most by Tracy Chevalier
  • Sheet Music - A Harlem Hellfighter and his horn by Tanya Lee Stone
  • The War Time Butter Dish - Maud's story by Adele Geras
  • Nose from a Zeppelin bomb - Don't call it glory by Marcus Selgwick
  • Brodie Helmet - Our Jacko by Michael Morpurgo
  • Verner's Pattern Compass - Another Kind of missing by AL Kennedy
  • Recruitment poster - The country you called Home by John Boyne
  • Soldier's writing case - A World that has no War in it by David Almond
  • French Toy Solider - Little Wars by Ursula Dubosarsky
  • School Magazine - Each Slow Dusk by Sheena Wilkinson

Apart from Captain Rosalie, which is my favourite short story from this collection, there were two stories that affected me deeply. The first is When they were Needed Most by Tracy Chevalier. Jack's mum is working to packing the tins which are Christmas presents from Princess Mary to soldiers on the front lines.

"Jack's mum prised opened the tin and removed a small envelope which she set on the table. Underneath, side by side and snug in the space, were two bright yellow packets: one of cigarettes, one of loose tobacco." There is also a small pencil and a card in the tin. When this tin is sent away one cigarette is missing.

You could link this story with Present from the Past.

The other story I enjoyed was Maud's Story by Adele Geras. I had no knowledge of  war time butter dishes which were made to encourage people to be economical with food. Propaganda on a dish!

You can listen to part of the second story Another Kind of Missing by AL Kennedy. Here is a video review by a US High School History Teacher. The illustrations in The Great War by Jim Kay are perfect. Take a look here for an example.


Kirkus Star review - Extraordinary
The Historical Novel SocietyThe stories are very diverse in scope, tone and treatment.
Kids ReadsThis unique anthology provides young readers with a personal window into the Great War and the people affected by it, and serves as an invaluable resource for families and teachers alike.

This book would make an excellent (even essential) addition to a High School library or as a gift to a mature Primary school student with an interest in history and war. Stories from the Great War is published by Walker books. Paperback and Hardcover editions are available. 
Here is hardback cover :