Sunday, July 23, 2017

Little Oleg by Margaret and John Cort

First off this is a very old book (1965) - over fifty years old actually - but as you may have guessed it is new to me.  We are about to hold our annual library donate-a-book event. This is always so exciting as we display over 1000 new books and over the coming weeks students will begin to read the books they donate and then share other new books with their friends.  We have spent many months preparing for this important library event and one of our final boxes of new books arrived last week.  Inside was Little Oleg - a book I certainly needed to discover.

"Once upon a time there were two friends, called Eric and Oleg.  They lived in a northern country.  Eric's house was large and he had several acres of land. Oleg's house was small and all the land he owned was his vegetable garden."

Do you get a sense here of these characters?  Reading between the lines does one seem proud and perhaps selfish and the other humble and generous?

Eric's house burns down.  Oleg offers hospitality. He shares his limited food.  He even helps to rebuild Eric's house but nothing he does is good enough for Eric.  The house "looked quite splendid and Oleg felt proud as he had done most of the work. 'Of course', said Eric, it's not as grand as my old house, but it will do."

The truly special thing about Oleg, though, is that despite this criticism, despite the fact that he has gone into debt trying to feed Eric's enormous appetite, he continues to show kindness and caring towards his neighbour. Oleg's fortunes do change thanks to Eric who unwittingly gives Oleg a coat with valuable buttons.  Oleg hosts a party to celebrate a return to the good times but Eric cannot see through his own misery and pride.  He does not recognize the hand of friendship when it is offered to him and he simply retreats into his new home, alone.

This might look like a book for younger students but it does contain a deep message that you could share with older students.  I do think there would be lots to discuss here especially around the topic of decision making.

I would pair this book with Herbert and Harry by Pamela Allen.

Ms Bixby's last day by John David Anderson

"The truth is - the whole truth is - that it's not the last day that matters most. It's the ones in between, the ones you get the chance to look back on. They're carnation days. They may not stand out the most at first, but they stay with you the longest."

I have wanted to read this book ever since I saw the cover on a blog site last year.  I was not disappointed - this is another one of those books that I read right through in one sitting.  Yes it is that good but it does require a little concentration.

The story is told using three alternating voices. Each chapter is told by the boys who take turns to fill in the story events so it is important to read the chapter headings so you know which boy is the narrator. In each chapter the boys slowly reveal their relationship with their very special teacher Ms Bixby, the difficulties of their personal lives and also the importance of their relationships with each other.

A few weeks back the teacher had asked the students to describe their last day - on earth.  The students begin to talk but then one student asks Ms Bixby about her last day.  As it turns out this is quite prophetic as her last day is actually coming.  When Ms Bixby announces she has to go into hospital every one is devastated.  Tropher explains there are in fact six kinds of teachers.  I won't define them here for you but you may be able to guess what some are like.  Zombies, Caff-Adds, Dungeon Masters, Spielbergs, Noobs and "the last kind we simply call the Good Ones." Ms Bixby is one of the Good Ones.

Three of her students - Tropher (Christopher), Steve and Brand - decide to create Ms Bixby's last day on earth.  I cannot tell you everything here because it will spoil the story but there is some mention of cheesecake and after reading about this you may just want to go out a buy one and share it with your own favourite teacher.

I liked the way each boy has a reason to feel close to Ms Bixby and I imagine every student in her class would also have this connection.  I also liked the way each story is revealed slowly keeping you on your toes as you piece together the three back stories.  Ms Bixby herself is also an inspiration from her pink hair to her little daily sayings - Bixbyisms.  As for those carnations :

"Carnations get a bad rap, she said, because they are cheaper than roses, but she liked them better because they fight harder. Roses are quitters ... "

At its heart this is a book about kindness and that is a message I truly appreciate.  Take a look here at the author web site.  Ms Yingling, my blogging hero who does not like sad books,  also gives this book a glowing review.

Here is a little video promotion from the publisher and some excellent teaching ideas.  Here is a teacher made trailer.  Here is an audio interview with the author.  It is a long interview but worth spending time listening to the way the author developed this story but do this after you have read this book.

I would follow Ms Bixy's Last day with Because of Mr Terupt and if you like the structure of alternating voices take a look at Trash.  If you don't mind shedding a few tears you could also take a look at The Year Mrs Montague cried.

Sad and satisfying in just the right amounts.  Kirkus

But it is also a powerful journey of revelation, as each boy is able to offer up, like a blessing, the ways in which Ms. Bixby has brought hope and wholeness into the dark.   New York Times

VERDICT This story provides a full-spectrum, emotionally satisfying experience that will have readers laughing, crying, and everything in between. As Topher would say, this is one frawesome (freaking awesome) book. School Library Journal

Sunday, July 16, 2017

When friendship followed me home by Paul Griffin

"The answer is yes," my mother said.  I didn't even get a chance to ask her. She just saw the little varmint in my arms and said okay.  ...  "He picked you for a reason," she said.  ... 
"Life's a journey, Traveler."

One of the things I worry about when I read about new books is the way the suggested reading age given by publishers and reviews is often starkly at odds with my own view.

When Friendship followed me home is a truly tragic story.  Yes it does have uplifting moments but Ben Coffin has certainly packed a lot in to his twelve years.  Spoiler alert.  Ben is a foster child.  He is adopted at age ten by a wonderful lady Tess but she is 67 and not in good health.  The school bully is making life hard in his new school.  Ben finds a stray dog and he names her Flip.  This little dog is such a joy and through Flip, Ben makes a very important friend - Halley but Halley is very ill.  She is undergoing regular chemo treatments which are not really working.  Ben also finds refuge in the town library and in the kindness of the librarian but I am sure you can read between the lines here and see all the possible tragedies.

I read one review who said this book contains tough topics and that is certainly true but I do think this book will appeal to a very mature Primary student and students in High School.  I do know all readers will fall in love with Flip and deeply admire Halley for her bravery, storytelling ability and wisdom.

Listen to the author reading his book here.

Here are some reviews :

It left me with faith that people can feel discarded, as though everything they love will be taken from them, and still end up whole, if they are touched by love and friendship.   New York Times 

Entrancing, magical, tragic, and uplifting.  Kirkus

Ben wrestles with big questions in relatable, realistic ways, and his huge heart and optimism will win over even the most hardened skeptics.  Publishers Weekly

Friday, July 14, 2017

Thalia the failure by Robin Klein

"Hecate cast a spell on her pretty bracelet. All the silver charms turned into nasty things - a tiny silver hand grenade that really worked, a live silver spider, a silver rat-trap all set to spring, 
a silver dagger that would stab a bee, a tiny silver snake that wriggled and hissed."

We have a large audio book collection in our school library so I often borrow a few over holidays when I may be taking a longer car trip.

Thalia the Failure is a very old book.  It was published in 1984 but it is still a really great book to read or listen to, as I did with the audio book.

Thalia does not want to go to Madame Aquila's Academy for witches she would much prefer to go to Ferntree Primary with her friends Lyneve and Tracy Dodds but she is a polite girl and she does not want to cause a fuss so she sets off for her new school and tries really hard in every class but she just can't do any of the things her teachers expect and worse everything seems to go horribly wrong.

Magic with Ms Fizz
Broom handling with Madame Aquila
Crystal ball gazing with Fortuna the Gypsy
Cooking with Monsieur Diable

Madame Aquila keen to pass Thalia because Mrs Birtles has promised to gift the school a new planetarium.  The description of Madame Aquila is one you could use with a class :

"Madame was most impressive to look at.  Her gown was made of fine cloth spun especially by a whole colony of funnel-web spiders, and her fingernails had never been cut in her life. They were twenty centimetres long and curled like French horns."

Her classmates bully and tease Thalia.  Early on they send her to Coventry. Thalia knew this meant no one would talk to her but what it really means is they send her to the real city of Coventry.   At the final graduation everything comes to a head and Thalia explodes.  This is actually a good thing because it gives Madame Aquila the idea to say Thalia has skills beyond those of the academy "she'll have to change to a different school. With powers such as we have just witnessed, it would be much too dangerous to award her a diploma to practice magic."

The audio book is read by Caroline Lee. This little book should still be in most school libraries and would make a perfect read-aloud for Grades 2 and 3.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The blue cat by Ursula Dubosarsky

There is so much to enjoy about this intriguing historical novel set in Sydney.  I read it all in one sitting which is one way I measure my reading enjoyment.  Adding to this I have a family connection with Neutral Bay Public School where Ursula's father went to school and my grandmother lived at Kurraba Point - part of the setting for this story.

When I talked about Vinnie's war I made the comment that I enjoyed the inclusion of war time memorabilia but I wanted a list of credits.  Ursula Dubosarsky provides all the details for her authentic documents and I found I really enjoyed reading about the photos, posters, newspaper articles and letters which appear throughout the book.  This is a story which has obviously been very carefully researched.

The next aspect of this story that I really enjoyed was the recognizable setting of Sydney.  References to Taronga Zoo, Luna Park, Cremorne Baths and ferries on the harbour.  The block of flats where 'Ellery' lives with his dad sounded just like the block in Neutral Bay where my grandmother lived :

"a block of flats of mulberry-coloured brick, with stone balconies that faced the water across a stretch of rough, sloping bush. There was a double glass door at the entrance of the building and on either side of the door were stone flowers, built into the walls. ... There were tiles on the floor too, laid out to make patterns of squares and triangles, like Roman mosaics."

Told through the eyes of a child, Columbia experiences night time blackouts, air raid sirens, the fear of invasion by Japan and the bombing of Darwin but the most personal and puzzling thing is the arrival of a little boy from Europe.  He has no English and does not seem able to speak and while the school and children call him Ellery - this is not really his name.  Ellery fascinates Columbia.  She wonders about his mother.  Has she been taken by Hitler?  She wonders about the book he carries everywhere. She wonders about his perfect appearance and his very white skin.  While all of this is going on a blue cat arrives - a stray. It is taken in by one of the eccentric sisters who live next door. But like Ellery, the cat is also a figure of mystery.  Where did he come from?  What has he seen?

You will learn some fascinating things in this book such the use of daylight saving between 1942 and 1944. It was actually first introduced here in 1916.

"What are you doing?' I asked, leaning over, elbows on the table.  'Changing the time,' my father replied. 'Putting the clock forward.'  I was startled. Changing the time? You were not allowed to do that. It was like moving the stars in heaven or changing the days of the week."

Why did the time change? To save electricity according to the government but Columbia's father is a doubter - he does not change his own wristwatch - he just gives a sly smile.

Here is a review in the Sydney Morning Herald.  Ursula talks about her book to Kids Book Review and her own web site offers more insights into the inspiration and creation of this book.  If this book is short listed for our 2018 CBCA award (and it should be) then you will certainly want to explore this rich resource.  Here is the trailer narrated by Ursula herself.  I just read this interview with Ursula and have discovered her PhD thesis was about small people in children's book and she used Rumer Godden's doll books which are childhood favorites of mine.  Here are teachers notes for The blue cat.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A clatter of jars by Lisa Graff

"Singular Talents are understood as feats beyond standard human abilities and/or laws of physics."

A clatter of jars is the companion volume to A tangle of knots.  I like this concept of a companion novel.

Lisa Graff explains :
To my mind, the companion novel combines the best of both worlds. It integrates characters, settings, even plotlines from a previous novel, but is still completely its own book that can be read independently of the first.

I absolutely adored A tangle of knots but I did find A clatter of jars a more complex read. I think I now need to re-read the first book.  The Kirkus reviewer actually suggests you might need to read this second book more than once.! What I really wanted was a list of the Talents especially since some are quite obscure :

  • Pinnacle - the ability to lift objects
  • Scanner - the ability to read minds
  • Coax - "the ability to Wheedle Talents from one person to another and back again."
  • Mimic - the ability to duplicate the Talent of anyone for approximately one year
  • Recollector - able to transplant memories from one mind to another

The children have come to Camp Atropos.  Jolene Mallory, the camp director, does not have a Talent but she does have an artifact - a harmonica - which she uses to identify the Talents of others. She also collects and sells Talents in small jars which wash up on the shores of the lake beside the camp.  The reasons for this mystery are explained in the prologue (listen here) which links this book to the original story found in A Tangle of Knots.  Each of the campers - Liliana (Lilly), Charlotte (Chuck), Renwick (Renny) and Jo the director have complex family issues to resolve but not before some very chaotic scenes involving mixed up and lost Talents.

Here is the Horn Book review and one from Nerdy Book Club.

The fourteenth goldfish by Jennifer L Holm

Believe in the possible

The fourteenth goldfish was an interesting book to read after The Curious world of Calpurnia Tate because it is another story filled with science.

Again we have a scientist in the family - another grandfather. Ellie's grandfather Melvin  has been researching a cure for aging - the fountain of youth.  He has experimented on himself and as the story opens he has been bought home by Ellie's mother - his daughter - but he now looks like a 13 year old boy.

This book is quite a light read but there are some laugh aloud moments and you will enjoy the honest voice of Ellie as she negotiates Middle School, friendships and her 'young' old grandfather.

Here is a trailer from the publisher where you can hear the author talking about this book.  The title relates to a goldfish given to each child back in preschool.  "The goldfish will teach your child about the cycle of life ... goldfish don't last very long."

Somehow Goldie lasts right through to fifth grade but then Ellie's mother reveals the truth.  This is actually the thirteenth goldfish - she has been quietly replacing them at regular intervals.  This metaphor for life, though, is at the heart of this book.  There is a cycle for life and perhaps we tamper with it at our peril.  Through her conversations with Melvin Ellie learns about the scientific endeavors of Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Marie Curie and Isaac Newton.  "Newton, you mean like the cookie?'  'No Isaac Newton the father of modern physics!"

I do like the cover design, numerous endorsements, discussion questions and profiles of scientists which are included with this book along with a cheeky book review by Melvin after reading The Catcher in the Rye.  Here are a set of teaching notes from the publisher.

We can search for the fountain of youth, or sneakily replace our kid’s goldfish when it dies, or --- as Ellie and Melvin find --- we can face and embrace our mortality as a beacon of possibility.   KidsReads

Even as he helps Ellie recognize they are kindred spirits, bonded by their love of science, she helps him reconsider his priorities. Perhaps the most important prize is not the Nobel after all. Youth, old age, life, death, love, possibilities and — oh yes — goldfish all come together in this warm, witty and wise novel. New York Times