Friday, November 24, 2017

The Wonderling by Mira Bartok

He looked down at the small disk in his red furry hand.  The number was nearly worn off. Who would he have become, he wondered, had he remained Number Thirteen and not escaped? 'I have a real name,' he said under his breath. 'My name is Arthur."




Number Thirteen or Arthur, as he is now named, is a Groundling - part animal part human.  He has been sent to the Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures.  Take a minute to re-read these words wayward - the implication is that they are bad or in need of instruction and misbegotten - conceived by mistake.  Miss Carbunkle rules this school with an iron fist and the oppressed youngsters are forced to endure long hours 'education' followed by even longer hours of tedious factory work and desperate living conditions.  From the moment we meet Arthur, though, it seems he has a special destiny.

"He looked like a young fox but he stood upright like child and had no tail to speak of. His eyes were a lovely chestnut brown and flecked with gold. But there was something about them that gave one the sense that, although he had not been in this world very long, he carried within him some inexplicable sorrow."

""He'd reach beneath his pillow and pull out something soft and blue: a fragment of his baby blanket. ... Wrapped inside the scrap of blanket was a tiny gold key. ... the only things remaining from his very first home."

Arthur has some great skills one of which is acute hearing and he also longs to sing.  Perhaps this is part of his destiny. 

"Silence was what was expected of him anyway, for it was the first and most important of Miss Carbunkle's Golden Rules. Noise, including conversation, was barely tolerated. ... Singing, humming, or making music of any kind whatsoever was also prohibited."

He is also very kind so when a tiny creature is being used as a plaything by three bullies who live in the Home he rescues her - a tiny bird called Trinket. She tells him wonderful stories of life outside and convinces Arthur they can escape and forge new lives.  Everything is new to Arthur.  Perhaps one day he will taste a pie.  When you read page 176 you will just gasp knowing how much he longs to taste this delicious treat.

"Pies are the best of all ... They are buttery, sweet, and filled with every kind of delicious thing imaginable.  But it's not the sort of thing one can actually describe. You just have to taste it."

"Except for the top of the birch tree and the sky, he had never seen the Outside, or rather he couldn't recall what it looked like, for he had been at Miss Carbunkle's Home for all of his remembered life."

"There was so much he wished to know.  And so much he realized he wish for.  ... he wanted to know if he still had a family somewhere. And he wanted to know why he had no name, and why he had one ear. And who had sung that beautiful song when he was but a wee pup, and why he could hear things others couldn't and why and why and why."

I made a list of some of the utterly delicious and special words used by Mira Bartok.  Here is a video where she talks about her book.  Here is a detailed question and answer session.


  • formidable
  • panoptic
  • capricious
  • peevish
  • cruciferous
  • demeanor
  • miscreants
  • pugent
  • bindle
  • malodourous
  • daguerreotypes
  • conundrum


I enjoy books filled with senses and because Arthur is a fox his sense of smell is strong and so many smells are graphically described in this book. As mentioned his sense of hearing is also amazing even though he only has one ear.  Both of these attributes are more than just useful as Arthur finds himself in confronting and extremely dangerous situations. I love these words "the air was his library, and it was rich with sound."

Food is scarce in the orphanage and on the streets of Lumentown which means I love this breakfast scene near the end of the book - being provided with food like this is so reassuring that Arthur is now heading for happiness.

"The table was set for breakfast: scrambled eggs, fried mushrooms, toast with butter and gooseberry jam, goat cheese tarts, sliced apples - and a little bowl of seeds for Trinket."

All the characters in this book have perfect names.  Arthur, Miss Carbunkle, Sneezweed, Mardox, Mr Bonegrubber, Wire, Trinket, Peevil, Quintus, Baby Tizer and Linette.

The Wonderling is a long book but you will be richly rewarded when you take the time to read it.  The first part just flew past for me as did the final chapters where good does triumph over evil as expected but perhaps with a twist or two that you will not anticipate.

Take time to read this review by 12 year old Jazzy.  I would follow The Wonderling with A Very Unusual Pursuit, The wolves of Willoughby Chase, The girl who drank the moon and Gregor the Overlander.

Captivating and with great potential as a read-aloud. Kirkus Star review

In stunning prose, set in three parts, we accompany the two friends on their journey out of the Home, and meet the most surprising characters.  Kids Book Review

Mira Bartók's world of The Wonderling is strikingly complex: sounds, tastes, colors are all described so vividly that the world practically sparkles  Shelf Awareness



Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Storm Whale by Sarah Brennan illustrated by Jane Tanner

Dark as a demon, dull of eye,
Waiting in silence to drift ... or die




Whales and sharks are fascinating creatures and since I work in a school beside the sea these are topics which each fill entire shelves in our school library.

Storm Whale is a beautiful book told in verse.  I would use this with an older group so I find it curious that the publisher lists ages 4-8.  I do hope to see it on the CBCA short list or Notable list for 2018.  I am excited to see Storm Whale on the nomination list for the Kate Greenaway Medal.  Also on this list you will find several other Australian titles including Home in the rain by Bob Graham.

The in Storm Whale imagery is confronting at times and also beautiful :

"Hair flew wild like a brumby's tail ...
And there, on the beach, lay the stranded whale."




"Casting prayers to the wild wet air,
Which wouldn't listen and couldn't care."

The children make a desperate attempt to save the stranded whale but eventually darkness forces them back to their holiday house.  After a restless night, when no one sleeps, the morning brings calm and happy news.  I love the way words like golden peach can so beautifully lift the mood.

"Morning rose like a golden peach,
Glowing over the wide white beach."

Here is a set of teachers notes from the publisher. I would pair this book with The snail and the whale by Julia Donaldson, The storm whale by Benji Davies, The whales' song by Dyan Sheldon and Stranded by Jan Ramage.

I have been a huge fan of Jane Tanner ever since I saw her books Drac and the Gremlin and Wolf.  Looking at all the books I have mentioned in this post I can see there are several books I need to talk about in the coming weeks including this really special one The Whales Song which also features an exquisitely lyric text.


Cat on the island by Gary Crew illustrated by Gillian Warden

"The island rose out of the ocean like a blue-green jewel. Covered in forest, it was.  And there were all sorts of birds - 
I never saw so many birds."


This will seem odd but I have been searching for a Public Library.  I need one with up to date stock and a good selection of old favourites especially picture books.  After trying three in my area I have found one.  While I was browsing I spied this book and I recognised the title and author.  I had seen it mentioned on a book list as a text to support the study of Geography in our Primary curriculum.


I had thought this book was out of print but I now discover there is a paperback edition.  This is very significant book and it should be part of every school library collection.

The setting for this book is Stephens Island New Zealand.  Prior to 1894 this tiny island of just 150 hectares was home to many bird species especially the Traversia lyalli - the only flightless wren in the world.  By 1896 it was extinct.  Here is a painting by John Keulemans on Wikipedia.



Building the lighthouse meant cutting down the trees.  The arrival of the builders and lighthouse keeper with his family meant the arrival of a cat.

"Yes, my mother bought a cat to the island. ... Tibbles, the cat's name was. Had kittens as soon as we landed. And once they were off her milk, they shot through. Had plenty of birds to eat, they did. ... And 'cause the wrens couldn't fly, they were easy targets."

The illustrations in this book are so important.  They have the softness of water colour but show the violence of the cats.  Gillian Warden has included all of the pages on her web site.

Related texts include :


  • The Tin forest by Helen Ward
  • The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
  • Window by Jeannie Baker
  • Joseph's Yard by Charles Keeping


Here is a set of excellent teaching notes and this title (as I mentioned) is recommended as a support text for the NSW Geography syllabus.  We have an extensive collection of book by Gary Crew in our school library but somehow we missed this important book.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Stone Mouse by Jenny Nimmo

Elly and Ted have come to stay in Aunt Maria's seaside house.  She leaves her little stone mouse to take care of the family.  When they arrive they don't seem to notice him :

"The stone mouse felt a little knife of ice strike through him. The cold crept right into his tiny feet and ears and froze them. He was terribly afraid he might be turning back into a stone again."

Luckily Elly does see him.  She smiles and "he knew that his soft coat, his ears, eyes and whiskers were all in place, and that his heart was beating."

Ted has arrived at the house but he is filled with anger.  He needs to lash out and the stone mouse becomes the object of his rage.  He takes the mouse down to the beach and throws him into the ocean.  This is utterly terrifying but little mouse eventually washes into a rock pool.  Just as Elly is about to find him, Ted grabs him again and hurries off to bury him in the garden. 

The wise cats know something is deeply troubling Ted.  Ted hides in his room but the cats follow him and "They didn't budge, didn't even flick their tails, just glared at him; bored into him with a deadly, penetrating gaze. It was like being eaten from inside."

Yes this book is out of print but you may find a copy in a school library or from a used book supplier.  This little gem is well worth finding.  Jenny Nimmo has written a large number of books including series novels and picture books.

In just 61 pages The Stone Mouse is a powerful emotional story dealing with anger and disappoinment.  Communication is at the heart of this story.  If everyone had slowed down and talked to Ted before his rage became such an explosion much of the pain felt by Elly and the little mouse himself could have been avoided.  The Stone Mouse would be an excellent book to share with a class and you can find some discussion ideas here.



Monday, November 20, 2017

Prisoner of ice and snow by Ruth Lauren

"For the crime of attempted murder of a member of the royal family in the realm of Demidova, I sentence you to life in prison, beginning in Tyur'ma"




I have said this on previous occasions but I just marvel at the inventiveness of authors and the power of words to take the reader right inside a scene.  Prisoner of Ice and Snow is simply a splendid and utterly engrossing book. I actually gasped out loud at one point when Valor faces yet another terrible danger.

Political stability in Demidova relies on the return of an elaborate music box to the rightful owners from the neighboring kingdom of Magadanskya.  The treasure has been stolen and Valor's twin sister Sasha has been found guilty and sent to the notorious prison built to hold children under 16 called Tyur'ma.  This is a terrifying place with huge tattooed guards and no one has escaped in 300 years but Valor knows she must commit a crime, be captured, be sent to the prison and then she will rescue her sister.

Valor picks the state occasion when the music box is to be returned (it has been stolen but the ceremony is proceeding) to attempt an assassination of the Prince.  She is such a skilled archer she actually has no intention of killing him and her arrow strikes just to one side but this is enough to send every guard in a race across the city to capture her.

Once inside the prison Valor discovers it is far worse than she imagined. 

"You will work in the mines, or anywhere else in the prison we tell you to.  You will eat when you are told to, you will sleep when you are told to, you will work when you are told to. If you reach the age of sixteen ... you will be transferred to the adult prison ... If you are caught with contraband items you will be punished.  If you cause trouble ... you will be punished."

Valor is punished over and over again.  The worst is when she and her sister are both placed inside ice domes.  The cold is unbearable and the writing so powerful I felt frozen too.

Valor does manage an escape but the real tangle in this book comes from decisions about who to trust and who is an informer.  I really had no idea about this until quite near the end and so, early on in the story, I decided to trust no one.  Valor does not follow this advice and so she and her sister are placed in dangerous and distressing situations over and over again.

Here is an alternate cover and the one from the German edition.  It is always interesting to see how different book designers approach a text.

Take time to read the Kirkus review which mentions the promise of a sequel.  I now discover the sequel it will be available early in 2018.

One real strength of this book comes from the vivid descriptions of people and places.  Here are a few examples :

"The queen sat highest on a silver throne inset with pearls and backed by a huge fan of hundreds of peacock tail feathers. She wears her official robes of justice, deep blue with gold brocade on the cuffs and collar."

"The prince's cloak is clasped at the throat with a golden fist, revealing the high-collared peacock-blue tunic her wears underneath ... gold embroidery covers the front of it all the way up to the collar, which stands stiffly around his neck."

"The doctor takes my hands and smears the contents of another bowl over my skin.  It tingles, then soothes, taking the fire out of the burns. ... She wraps soft white bandages  around my palms and each of my fingers."

I rarely give ratings but this is a five out of five, ten out of ten, totally perfect book which all avid readers should rush out and grab today.  Prisoner of Ice and Snow is Ruth Lauren's debut novel which excites and amazes me. I eagerly await more books form this talented UK author.  Here is an interview with Ruth.

I would follow Prisoner of ice and snow with Fearless by Tim Lott and The wolf wilder by Katherine Rundell.

This fresh and exciting middle-grade debut effortlessly melds an unforgettable protagonist, a breathless plot, and stunning world-building—and is impossible to put down. Night Owl Book Cafe



Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sydney City Trails by Helen Greathead



Some time ago I did a series of little walking tours in my own city and I enjoyed all the stories the guide told and discovered many things - large and small - that I did not know.

When I saw this book Sydney City Trails from Lonely Planet I was interested to see what aspects of Sydney they included.  This book was published in 2017 so it is very up to date. 

Things I did not know :

Every ten years they replace the road surface on the Sydney Harbour Bridge
SS Ayrfield is a ship wreck in Homebush bay and it has mangrove trees growing out of it
We have a seed bank in Sydney (Mount Annan) with 10,400 seeds
HMAS Endeavour was sold after Cook's expedition and re-named the Lord Sandwich

Places on the North side of Sydney :

Quarantine Station Manly
Manly Beach
Dog day at Scotland Island
Lavender Bay and Wendy's secret garden
Nutcote
Barrenjoey Lighthouse
Erosion of the beach from Collaroy to Narrabeen

One of the many special places mentioned in this book that you must visit is  - Angel Place - forgotten songs

This book is easy to read and it is perfect for both visitors and locals.  The only thing I would have liked to see was a detailed city map but I guess you can easily access this yourself from any smart device.  You can preview some pages here.  There are many other cities in this series - Rome, London, Paris, New York, Washington and Tokyo.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Goldfish boy by Lisa Thompson





It might sound strange but I miss the brother I never met.  The one who died because of me.

Matthew is trapped.  He is trapped in his room.  He is trapped in his fear of germs.  He is totally freaked out by the number 13. He is trapped in his guilt.  Matthew is suffering. He constantly needs to wash his hands.  He cannot touch any surface because he is so afraid of becoming ill and making other ill.  Matthew spends his long days looking out the window and making detailed notes about life in his cul-de-sac street. 

The man next door is also quite obsessive. Mr Charles cares for his roses with great precision.  When his daughter drops his two grand children off for an extended visit his world is turned upside down.  Matthew is the only person who sees the truth about Casey the six year old.  Teddy throws her doll in to the fish pond and she retaliates :

"Stretching her arms as if she were about to do a conjuring trick, the little girl ran at her brother. Her hands hit him with such force his little head jolted back, then he toppled forwards, straight into the pond."

Sadly for everyone involved no one, not Matthew, not the police, not Mr Charles, link this event with the disappearance of Teddy aged 15 months. Meanwhile Matthew continues to suffer. He has not been able to share his guilt about the death of his brother five years ago.  The counselor tries to help and she does make some progress towards the end of the story but the real healing is provided by Melody - a girl who also lives in his street.  They need to band together to solve the mystery of Teddy and while they do this their friendship is forged. Everything is not solved at the end but it is reassuring to know Matthew can recover.

Here is a review with more plot details.  I would follow Goldfish boy with Counting by 7s, The curious incident of the dog in the night time, My life as an alphabet and The naming of Tishkin Silk.

Here is an alternate cover which I actually prefer.  I think it matches the complex themes of the book and may appeal to an older reader.