Sunday, May 31, 2020

Skycircus by Peter Bunzl

Skycircus is book three in the Cogheart series. I will confess I often start series but rarely keep going. Clearly this is not true for the Cogheart books. They are wonderful. When I spied book three in a store late last year I didn't even look at the price sticker (who cares how much it cost I needed to read this book) and this week, with great anticipation, I dived back into the steampunk world of Lily, Robert, and their mechanical fox Malkin.  Here the four book in the series:

As the title suggests the friends end up at the circus but this is a sinister circus where the acts are hybrids - half human half machine. Lily is tricked into attending the Skycircus which is being held near her home. It is the night of her fourteenth birthday and she is in a bad mood because it seems her father is distracted with other matters and her birthday celebration has been overlooked. When a mysterious invitation arrives in a parcel Lily does not hesitate. She does not think about consequences. She does not smell a trap - but you will! She asks her friends Robert and Tolly and her mechanical fox Malkin to come too.

Here is the invitation:

This all seems okay BUT on the bottom is a message for Lily:

"This VIP ticket entitles Lily Hartman and three friends to visit us and receive answers. 
PS Angelique would like to meet you after the show."

Answers? Also included with this circus invitation Lily has been sent a diary written by her late mother. This is so wonderful because Lily's father doesn't talk about Grace since her death seven years ago.  There is a letter with the book and this is why, as a reader, I was yelling at Lily NOT to go to the circus.

"We have a simple question, and it's one that's not a trick:
Some us are wondering what it is that makes you tick?"

Lily has a cogheart - a mechanical heart. Her heart is supposed to be a secret. It somehow never needs winding and it will never stop - a perpetual motion machine. Others would love to know the secret that makes this device tick.

The three friends do go to the circus along with Malkin and YES it is a horrible trap and the plan by the circus boss Madame Lyons Mane is truly dreadful.

Skycircus can stand alone but I highly recommend you do try to read the preceding books -  Cogheart and  Moonlocket  - The strength of this writing comes from the team work of the friends, the determination of Lily to help others and the way Peter Bunzl gives the reader hints which are rather like the background music you might hear in a movie or television program. Think of the music track that lets you know something bad is about to happen but you are powerless to prevent it. This book also made me think of The Greatest Showman - the movie.

Here are a few text quotes to give you an idea of this idea - one word or two can turn an simple sentence into something quite sinister:

"In the sky, the grey scudding clouds were rimmed with gold, like sweat-stains on the silk lining of an old hat."

"His ghostly face was white with powder. A black make-up snake squiggled round one eye and a painted teardrop fell from the other, making him look positively frightening."

"When she'd leaned in close to whisper, the aroma had cut through the sawdust and animals smells of the circus ring. It lingered like a memory Lily couldn't quite place, faint and out of reach."

"The grey murk descended again ... he shivered at the odd slimy feeling of it against his footpads."

In this video Peter talks about Skycircus. Click here to see the cover come to life!

Here are some books I would suggest you look for after reading Skycircus:

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Keeper of Wild Words by Brooke Smith illustrated by Madeline Kloepper

Words disappear if we don't share them when we talk.
If we don't write them in our stories.
If we don't read them in our books.
If we don't use words, they can be forgotten.
And if they're forgotten ... they disappear.

Take a look at these images:

If you read a picture book about a otter then, especially if you are an Australian child, you will discover a new animal. If someone shares the brilliant Margaret Mahy book The Pumpkin Man and the crafty creeper with a child they might talk about ivy as an example of a plant that creeps. Perhaps you have willow pattern china - of course you would want to share the famous story of the willow pattern.  Otter, Willow and Ivy are just three of the words that the Oxford Junior Dictionary decided to delete a few years ago.  Here are some others:

acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, and willow. Source Listen and Learn

These deletions, Brooke Smith explains, made her feel  "disillusioned and ultimately very sad." Especially when compared with the replacement words: chatroom, voicemail, conflict, database and vandalism.

When we read a book, especially as a child, we often find new words. If you find an unfamiliar word I'm not sure I would think to grab a dictionary - perhaps a child will ask an adult or a friend, or they will 'skip' the word. Do writers use dictionaries to find inspiring words? Probably not. BUT somehow it seems wrong to remove words from a dictionary. Oxford said these words were removed because they were not in current use. These were mainly words that give names to things in nature. They argue that urban children don't use these words. Certainly an Australian child is unlikely to encounter an otter, a lark or a conker in real life but then again an Australian child is lucky because he or she can read books in English and discover these animals and plants in stories. I have fond memories of a childhood book that contained a conker. I had no idea about this but from the text (and perhaps an illustration) I could make some sense that it was a tree nut and that it was very tough and good to use for a 'smashing' game. As you can see the controversy around deleting words from a junior dictionary raises so many questions and viewpoints.  Here is what Oxford University Press said about their decision.

In this story young Brooke visits her grandmother Mimi. Mimi is a writer. She invites Brooke to come outside and help with her task as Keeper - The Keeper of Wild Words. The pair explore the countryside with a plan to find 19 words which Mimi has on her list such as doe, drake, poppy, porcupine, willow and wren.

On each page they make a new discovery. They taste blackberries, smell mint, blow a dandelion, and watch a flock of starlings high in the sky. 

By the end of the day they have found every word on the list but Mimi has one more surprise.  Remember there were 19 words on the list.

"You know my favourite wild word is not on the list ... It's standing right in front of me."  It is a BROOK.  "You were named after this tiny stream that your mother always cherished."

At the back of the book there is an envelope which you can use to keep your own 'wild words". My copy of this book came from a wonderful school library but I am quite tempted to put a few words into the envelope for the next young reader to discover.

Brooke Smith says: "Nature has always been a crucial part of my life, and my daughter Mimi’s, too. We were fortunate enough to raise her on our property in Bend, Oregon with many of these wild words naturally present. I wanted to write a book that would allow children everywhere to experience the beauty of nature and feel what it’s like to wander and explore." Nerdy Book Club

By coincidence here The Keeper of Wild Words another book which celebrates Grandmothers and it is one where we see them as young and vibrant. I talked about this in My Forever Dress earlier today.

The Keeper of Wild Words comes from the US with a Canadian illustrator Madeline Kloepper. In the UK another book inspired by the removal of words from the dictionary is the award winning The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane illustrated by Jackie Morris. The Lost Words won the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2019 and the Beautiful Book Award in 2017.

I would pair The Keeper of Wild words with these books:

My Forever Dress by Harriet Ziefert illustrated by Liz Mrurphy

Did you watch the ABC television series here in Australia called "The War on Waste"? The episode that resonated most strongly with me was the one that focused on fashion waste. We have become, in the Western world, people who treat clothing as though it were fast food.  Here is an excellent segment from our ABC Television series BTN (Behind the News) which explains this issue to Primary students. Here is a set of activities to use with this video.

This is such an important topic and this book provides a perfect way to raise awareness of recycling our clothes for a very young reader. It is also a beautiful book that shows a grandmother sharing her skills and love with her grand daughter.

As the story begins our narrator is six years old and her beautiful (young looking) grandmother offers to make her a dress. I well remember my mum measuring me for the dresses she made. This new dress is splendid and the little girl enjoys wearing it to a party for her cousin.

One year later her grandmother suggests they should modify the dress.

"We need to do our part, ... we should use new material only if we have to. You're no wider, just taller, so let's start with what we have and add to it."

The new (modified) dress is perfect and especially comfortable when worn with pink leggins.

Another year goes by.

"Now I am eight. Grandma offers to make me a new dress, but I don't really want one. I like my old dress ... and I live helping the environment."

Grandma is a skilled seamstress. She pulls the dress apart and changes it again.

This time she also knits a sweater from wool purchased a "long long time" ago. The new outfit is perfect for her ninth birthday party (it's the one on the front cover) but:

"Now I am early ten. My shape is changing. I am growing all around. I ask Grandma to measure me for a new dress."  Her old dress with not go to waste, though. She offers it to her little cousin.

Here is a video of the whole book although sadly they did not include the glorious end papers. My forever Dress was published in 2009 so it is now out of print. I really love the art in this book but I haven't found many other books illustrated by Liz Murphy.

You could use My forever Dress as a focus for Earth Day or any unit of work on the environment. Here are some other books about recycling clothing.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Let the Celebrations Begin by Margaret Wild illustrated by Julie Vivas

Miriam lives in Hut 18, Bed 22. In her hut there are adult women and young children. Miriam is sad because two of the children - Sarah and David think life in the camp is normal but Miriam remembers all the beautiful things from her life before this horrible time. She especially remembers her toys - her teddy bear, her doll with eyes that blink and her soft pink elephant.

"in this place there are no toys."

The women decide to plan for the party which they will hold when their freedom comes. Freedom must come soon - they are sure. At the party they will present the children with toys. These will be hand made toys made from any bits and pieces the women can scrounge. Buttons, thread, scraps of fabric from their own clothes.  All of this is a secret. Miriam cannot tell Sarah and David. Finally the day arrives. The allies arrive to liberate the camp:

"They are here! Everyone, everyone, the soldiers are here! See their guns, their tanks and the big gates swinging open."

"That night at our party, our very special party, the women and I bring out the toys. ... and so the celebrations begin!"

I found this perfect quote on a blog called Books My Kids Read:

"There are many truly amazing books for younger readers about the Holocaust. While a number of them are what you might consider middle grade fiction, and sometimes non-fiction, there are also some picture books that tell the story very well. It is a difficult topic to touch on, so all good books have to tread somewhat lightly and focus on the resilience and perseverance of a nation of people rather than on the tragedy itself."

Let the Celebrations Begin is a book I have read (and cried) every year to my Grade Six classes since it was first published in 1991. In 1992 the CBCA short listed Let the Celebrations Begin, The winner that year was Window by Jeannie Baker.

An outstanding book, filled with reverent awe at the nobility of the human spirit. Kirkus

The final page contains words from the diary written by a survivor:

"We ran out of the barracks and saw ... a British army car with a loud speaker on top going through the camp and repeating the same message over and over again. Within minutes, hundreds of women stopped the car, screaming, laughing, and crying, and the British soldier was crying with us."

If you are unfamiliar with this book take a look at this very detailed and deeply thoughtful review from Tablet.

Let the Celebrations Begin is now sadly out of print. I hope the publisher  (Walker Books) will consider a reprint in 2021 - the 30th anniversary of this important, courageous, and powerful book. Here are the teachers notes they produced in 2013.

Why did Margaret Wild write this book? I heard her talk about it once and she said she had seen a tiny newspaper reference to toys made in Belsen.  In her book Let the Celebrations Begin she shares her inspiration:

"A small collection of stuffed toys has been preserved which were made by Polish women in Belsen for the first children's party held after the liberation."  From the book Antique Toys and their background by Gwen White 1971.

I also know Julie Vivas spent a long time thinking about this book and drafting and redrafting the images.

When I read Let the Celebrations Begin with Grade 6 I also share each of these books - one each week.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

What is part this, part that? by Harriet Ziefert illustrated by Tom Slaughter

A hug is part squeeze and also part hold.

Read the title slowly - What is part this, part that?  Perhaps these examples will help:

Just like a bee is part buzz and part sting,
a rap song is part talk and part sing.

An empty glass is part empty or is it part full?
Is this swing part push or is it part pull?

Here are some other lines from What is part this, part that? which resonate with me:

When you talk to a friend it's part listen and part say.
What time of day is part wash and part play?

A rocking chair goes part back and part forth.
When you stand on the equator you're part south and part north.

At the back of the book there are twenty part this and part that ideas presented as puzzles. Can you solve these:

What's the word that means part yes and part no?
What beaked animal is part swoop and part "whooo"?

Harriet Ziefert is the author of over 300 books. Here are some I would like to read:

What is part this, part that? works so well because the graphic illustrations are brightly coloured, and often surprising.  Here are some other examples books illustrated by Tom Slaughter.

You can read a tribute to Tom Slaughter by clicking this quote about his work. Tom illustrated twenty books for children.  He sadly died in 2014.

If you are reading my post and not too much time has passed an Australian online bookshop has this book for a greatly reduced price ($35.99 down to $7.99).  This is probably because this book was published in 2013 and is now out of print. If I had a young friend aged 4-6 I would rush out and buy this book quickly. I should mention this book does contain flaps which are always SO popular with young children.

I do enjoy concept books, especially when they can be equally enjoyed by young readers and adults alike.  Here are two other examples: