Monday, January 22, 2018

The moon over High Street by Natalie Babbitt

I picked up The Moon over High Street because I read Tuck Everlasting in my very first school library and it is a story that has lingered with me for over 30 years.  If you have an ambition to be a writer (perhaps for children) I would recommend looking for this book also by Natalie Babbitt.  What struck me as I read The Moon over High Street were all the decisions I seemed to hear Natalie Babbitt making about her characters - the path seemed to divide for them so many times.

Joe has lost both of his parents but he was so very young when this happened it is not really a source of sadness.  He has a loving Gran who has cared for him for his twelve years.  They had planned to travel to see their only other relative Aunt Myra in Midville but Gran has broken her hip and will need time to recover so Joe travels to Midville alone on the bus.  Living in this same town is a self made millionaire named Anson Boulderwall.  He is originally from Poland and his name is really Anselm Boldivol.  Mr Boulderwall is concerned about succession planning.  His only daughter (now an adult and married) has no interest in his business.  He invented the "swervit" which is used in engines all over America and this has made his millions.  When he meets Joe and hears his name Casimir he hatches a plan.  Casimir is a Polish name.  Joe is an orphan and he seems to be a very bright boy.  Without talking to Joe, Mr Boulderwall plans an education for Joe and a life journey filled with money and prestige but is this what Joe himself would choose?

Looking at those plot decisions:

  • Joe expects to feel uncomfortable with Aunt Myra - instead she has his perfect room ready and on the first night they eat pizza and ice cream followed by breakfast the next day: "Pancakes and bacon, Joe ... Hope you like them.' Like them! Who didn't? ... There was orange juice, too, and butter and maple syrup and they sat down and began to eat as if they'd been together every morning of their lives."
  • Joe expects to miss his friends especially Emily Crouse - instead there is a huge friendly family living next to Aunt Myra and Beatrice is just his age.  She takes him on a town tour on the first day and the two become instant friends.  Beatrice provides a fresh view in the face of Joe's reticence to talk about his future plans.
  • I expected a disaster.  Gran is sent a letter from the lawyers of Mr Boulderwall outlining his plan for Joe. She quickly organises to come to Midville and meet him face to face.  I thought oh no, there will be a car accident and Joe will have to face these adults alone but no Gran arrives safely and she takes a tough stand with the presumptuous millionaire.  "My grandson is not for sale. Not now, not ever. ... Joe's dream is to learn things. Discover things. ... No, my grandson is not for sale. And neither, by the way, is the moon.  Goodbye."

I love the little touches in this writing such as this description of the hall mirror in the big house :
"On the wall behind the table, an immense and heavy mirror framed in fussy gilt curlicues frowned out at them as if to say they should keep their reflections to themselves."

Here is a book talk from Scholastic.  Here is an interview with Natalie Babbitt about her book. Read an extract from Chapter 2 here.  Sadly Natalie died in 2016 so this is her last book.

Read some reviews
Book Page
Jen Robinson's Book Page

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Cody and the fountain of happiness by Tricia Springstubb illustrated by Eliza Wheeler

As I keep mentioning I am constantly on the hunt for 'good' easy chapter books for our younger students.  Here is a brilliant one I just found in my local public library and I am so happy to discover there are three in the series.

First off the endorsement on the back cover from Sara Pennypacker caught my eye. Then I read the first page and I was hooked!

In this life, many things are beautiful:
100% on your spelling test
Turtles with their cute thumb shaped heads
But if Cody had to name the most beautiful thing in the world, it would be ...
The first day of summer vacation.
Which was today.

Cody lives in suburban America with her mum who sells shoes in a large store, her father who is a truck driver and her brother Wyatt who wants to be a surgeon. He is also in love with Payton Underwood so things become interesting when Mum hires Payton to babysit Cody.

Cody has a loving family. I really like the way this is explained :

"Wyatt put her in his famous, escape proof headlock. As anyone with a big brother knows, this is what they do when they really, truly, in their heart of hearts, they want to hug you."

"Some grown-ups give so much advice, you don't need to listen. ... But not Dad. His advice was rare and precious as golden coins."

"Dad's talent was giving magic hugs. When you were in the middle of one, you magically felt kind toward the whole world."

"Cody scooted close and rubbed her mother's back in steady circles, the way the earth goes around the sun. She'd learned how to do this from Mom herself."

Mum is working and dad is away all week so Cody will need to go to Summer Camp but at the last minute the camp is cancelled. Cody is so happy especially now she has met a new friend named Spencer.  He is visiting his grandmother, he has lost his cat, he is unhappy, lonely and desperately in need of a friend - Cody is perfect for this role.

Listen the first chapter on audio here. Read this review for more plot details.

It’s hard not to cheer for Cody, with her sunny disposition and penchant for optimistic similes. Kirkus

Monday, January 15, 2018

Candy Floss and Impunity Jane by Rumer Godden

Several months ago I talked about a book called Everything I need to know I learned from a children's book.  I then talked about one of the books that 'taught' me things Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden.  In the book Everything ... by Anita Silvey she mentioned Impunity Jane also by Rumer Godden and so I was keen to read this.  None of the libraries I have visited recently held this title so I purchased an second hand copy which arrived this week.

Published in 1954 Impunity Jane is a very old book as is the companion story Candy Floss is from 1957. My edition contains both stories in one slim volume published in 1992.  I was not able to find a cover image but here are a few old copies to give you some idea.

I did enjoy both of these stories but it is Candy Floss that will linger with me the longest.  I can see exactly where Rumer Godden found her idea for Belinda in Miss Happiness and Miss Flower (1961) because in Candy Floss she has a very similar character named Clementina.

Here is the tune Jack's music box plays :

Candy Floss

Candy Floss is a special little doll who lives with a carnival man who runs a coconut shy.  I think I must have read about this game when I was a child because I know it has always fascinated me.

Along with Candy Floss, Jack has his friends Cocoa a little dog who sits on a stool beside the shy and Nuts, a little wooden horse who sits on a music box.  Candy Floss sits on the horse's back and she turns around and around.

Jack is kept busy with his shy but when all the coconuts are won he covers over Nuts and pops Candy Floss in his pocket where "there was a hole handy so she could see out."  Together with Cocoa they enjoy all the fun of the fair - rides, games and food.  Then they spend their nights in an old van.  If Candy Floss is looking a little worn out or "when she needed a new dress Jack would soak the old one off with hot water, fluff up a new one and stick it on with glue." Life is happy for our little group moving on from one fair to another until the day Clementina comes to visit.  She is an unhappy and indulged little girl who has been given the most amazing toys and treats but nothing is ever good enough until she sees Candy Floss.  Jack patiently explains Candy Floss is not for sale so when Jack is busy with a customer Clementina snatches her.  Candy Floss cannot speak but she knows dolls can send wishes to receptive children.  Eventually Candy Floss does get through to Clementina and she returns the precious doll to Jack. A lesson is learned and a new friendship forged.

Impunity Jane

"This little doll is very strongly made ... Why, you could drop her with impunity. ... Impunity means escaping without hurt."

Impunity Jane's name is a self fulfilling prophesy.  Over fifty years she has so many owners Effie, Elizabeth, Ethel and Ellen.  None of these girls are even sightly interested in Impunity Jane and she languishes at the bottom of the dolls house but one day Ellen's cousin Gideon comes to play "and suddenly Impunity Jane knew she could make Gideon feel. 'Rescue me,' wished Impunity Jane as hard as she could."

Gideon slips Impunity Jane into his pocket and her wonderful adventures begin but there is a complication - Gideon is a boy with a toy doll.  Think about the exploration of this idea in 1954!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate illustrated by Charles Santoso

Please, before you read my thoughts on Wishtree,  watch the publisher trailer - it is just perfect!  Now pick up this book and peel back the dust jacket. You don't want to miss the carefully embossed leaves underneath.

Be patient. Read this book slowly.  Let Katherine Applegate introduce the narrator Red (a tree) and his friend Bongo (a crow).  I hope when you get to page 52 you will have the same reaction I had - I gasped.  Such is the power of just one word.  The tone of this book flips right over :


Red has been growing in this place for over two hundred years. Red is exactly two hundred and sixteen rings old.  Red has watched human families grow and change, Red has sheltered hundreds of small animals and Red has listened to secrets and wishes.  One of the newest residents is Samar and her family. She loves to sit under the tree, being still and gradually the small creatures who shelter there gather around her. Samar writes her wish to tie to the tree - it is for a friend.  Why is this an issue :

"A few months ago, a new family, Samar's family, rented the blue house. They were from a distant country. Their ways were unfamiliar. Their words held new music. ... Our neighborhood had welcomed many families from faraway. What was different this time?"

A few weeks ago I received an invitation from a Goodreads book group to join a discussion about Wishtree.  I put this book on my list and yesterday made a special trip into the city to pick up a copy. Today I read it all in one sitting but really I didn't want the magic to end.

Names are a source of humor in this story.  This lightness of touch balances the heavy themes of intolerance, violence and prejudice.  There are also moments of  wisdom and odd ball jokes shared by Red.

  • Trees - all have the same name red oaks are called Red, sugar maples are called Sugar, junipers are called Juniper and so on.
  • Crows - some have human names, some are named after manoeuvres and the crow in this story Bongo is named after the bongo drums played by a band in this neighborhood - this is a sound she likes.
  • Skunks - all named after pleasant scents such as FreshBakedBread. 
  • O'Possums - named after things they are afraid of such as Flashlight.
  • Owls - take sensible names like Harold.
  • Raccoon mothers are not good with names so all their offspring are called You!

Katherine Applegate talks to Nerdy Book Club and shares her thoughts and hopes for Wishtree.  You can read the first twelve pages here but then please find the book because the most important parts happen after page 52!  Here is a long video with Katherine where she talks about her book.

This is my new favourite book! I give it a ten star rating.  It is right up there with Because of Winn Dixie Sarah, Plain and Tall and all books by Patricia MacLachlan I have talked about on this blog.  I do hope Wishtree wins some big prizes so then it can come to the attention of book buyers and libraries everywhere.

Wishtrees are real and come from Ireland and here is a photo of one.  They are usually hawthorn trees.  I expect to see lots of school library with wish trees for everyone to fill.

I was excited to discover Charles Santoso is Australian and he lives in Sydney and he also illustrated the precious book Ida Always.

A deceptively simple, tender tale in which respect, resilience, and hope triumph.  Kirkus Star review

Another stunning effort from Applegate. This thoughtful read is a top choice for middle graders.  School Library Journal

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd illustrated by Levi Pinfold

"It was late summer when I first arrived at Briar Hill.  Sister Constance took me straight to her office and removed the identification tag pinned to my coat. While she made notes in a ledger, I tried to smooth my tufts of hair in the mirror above her desk. Then completely out of nowhere, completely without warning, a winged horse clomped straight through the mirror-doorway, prim as anything, tail held high, as though Sister Constance's office was the exact place he was looking for."

Some things to notice in the quote above - pieces of this story puzzle.

  • Sister Constance - she is a nun and these women are caring for the children who have been sent far from their homes. They are efficient but also distant.
  • Identification tag - yes think of World War II and the evacuated children.
  • Tufts of hair - Emmaline is ill but there is something more - she has other injuries which I won't explain here lest I spoil the story.
  • The winged horses - no one else it seems can see them - why do they show themselves to Emmaline?

Emmaline sees the winged horses in all the manor house mirrors but she also finds one in the garden and this one has a broken wing.  She gradually gains the trust of this magnificent creature and in one exhilarating scene is even able to ride her.  Emmaline receives a note from the mysterious Horse Lord.  He warns Emmaline that Foxfire is in great danger.  She must be protected from the Black Horse.  The only way to do this is to surround Foxfire with all the colours of the rainbow.

"These objects will create a spectral shield that will hide her from him even during the brightest full moon. I beg you to accept this mission of utmost importance."

Now the race is on.  The full moon is only weeks away.  Emmaline is growing weaker.   Emmaline and all the other children have 'stillwaters' or tuberculosis.  The seriousness of their illness is indicated with a series of tags which are attached to the doors of their rooms.  Blue for patients who are well enough to go outside for exercise and fresh air.  Yellow for those who must stay indoors and Red for those too ill to leave their beds.  Emmaline is given a yellow ticket by Dr Turner but she is desperate to get outside.  She must visit Foxfire.

Her movements are restricted.  The air is filled with fear of the war.  It is now Winter and the world is cold and grey.  It seems almost impossible to find all the colours.  Emmaline has a true friend at Briar Hill.  A girl named Anna.  Anna has a set of pencils and these colours become a guide for Emmaline.  I love this list :

245 - Carmine Red
348 - Blush Pink
479 - Tangerine Orange
563 - Canary Yellow
656 - Emerald Green
781 - Sea Turquoise
868 - Lapis Blue
935 - Heliotrope Purple

Emmaline also needs to befriend the lonely man who works at Briar Hill. He has lost an arm and is quiet and withdrawn. The other children have invented horror stories about Thomas but Emmaline observes him and she is able to uncover the truth. He can also see her horses.  Tension builds as she adds each colour to the bushes surrounding Foxfire.

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill is a complex book with wonderful illustrations. Huge thanks go to a young reader in my school library who shared this book with me.  An interesting discussion point might be all the references to colour in this book which contrast with the gentle black and white pencil illustrations. An older student with reading stamina will be richly rewarded when they step into Emmaline's world at Briar Hill Hospital.   You might also enjoy The Loblolly boy by James Norcliffe,  Angel Creek by Sally Rippin or The unfinished Angel by Sharon Creech.

The right readers will love this to piecesKirkus

Does Emmaline really see the horses, or are they in her imagination? Shepherd effortlessly weaves together fact and fantasy in this poignant novel. Kids Reads

Emmaline is a brave child with a fierce imagination and a formidable strength of character. Misunderstood and alone, she tugs at our heart strings as she battles against her illness. The Book Bag

"She tears through the gate. Her muscles are rippling beneath my legs, her quicksilver hooves pounding the frozen ground. I gasp with the thrill of it. The fields streak around us and I lean into the bitter cold wind. If she is this fast running, what must she be like flying? I think she could outfly the Germans if she wanted to. She could certainly outfly the Black Horse."

Friday, January 12, 2018

Lighthouse family series by Cynthia Rylant illustrated by Preston McDaniels

On my recent trip to Seattle I stumbled across the Lighthouse Family series by Cynthia Rylant.  I picked out The Storm because I adore lighthouses, I am always on the look out for simple chapter books with satisfying stories and I really appreciate the writing of Cynthia Rylant with books like Mr PutterHigh-rise Private Eyes, Missing May and the Henry and Mudge series.  There are six books in the Lighthouse Family series and while they are available they are not new - the first was published in 2002.

Pandora, a kindhearted cat, has lived alone at the lighthouse for the last four years. She is very lonely but she knows this is an important job and she has saved many lives. She has occasional visitors such as a whale called Atoll and a tern called Henry.  We meet these two again in subsequent books.

Seabold is an old seafaring dog who is caught in a wild storm. His boat is wrecked near the lighthouse and Pandora rescues and cares for him.

"For he found himself in a little wooden bed under a cheerful gingham quilt, and he was no longer in the sea, but looking out at the sea, through a small window by his side. A daisy stood in a jar on the windowsill."

Seabold eventually rebuilds his boat and it seems Pandora will be lonely all over again.  But is has taken a long time to repair the boat, it takes a long time for his leg to heal and somehow the seasons pass. Seabold is surprised he enjoys being on land and he admires the importance of Pandora's work. One day in the Spring the pair spy a drifting crate with a flag. Seabold rows out to investigate and inside are three little mice - a boy, a girl and a tiny baby.  In fact the baby is named Tiny.  His brother  Whistler and sister Lila have escaped from an orphanage.  Now Seabold will stay - he loves Tiny, Pandora has a family to care for and the three little mice have found a true home.

"Seabold grew quite attached to Tiny. He put her in the soft roll of his knitted cap and she went everywhere with him, seeing all that he saw."

Here is a review of The Storm.  Take a look at this video of Cynthia's first book When I was Young in the Mountains.  There are some audio samples of The Storm and The Whale here.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Song from Somewhere Else by AF Harrold illustrated by Levi Pinfold

First of all a warning. The Song from Somewhere else is a book for a very mature reader in my view - I found the bullying scenes raw and confronting. I remember when this book was released in 2016 I was unsure whether to purchase it for my school library.  Having at last read this powerful story I do think it is suitable for a Primary library but I would restrict the loans to Grade 6 students.  I found these comments by one reviewer which confirm my feelings :  a palpable sense of dread, mystery and growing up ...

Francesca, known as Frank, has been having awful confrontations with a bully called Neil Noble and his two henchmen although she has no idea why they keep attacking her. There is also a boy at school called Nick Underbridge.  He is the outsider. He is shunned by the other children. They think his size is odd and his smell strange but it is Nick who bravely comes to her after an especially horrid attack by Neil.  Now Frank is torn.  Can she be friends with Nick? What will the others say? Then when she visits his home she hears the most beautiful music :

"No piece of music she'd ever heard on the radio or in the background of a tv show had ever made her feel so special, had made her feel so cared for, so improved.  ... that music. There was something in it, ... that lifted her spirits, that made her feel light and hollow and almost happy."

Frank is so curious about this music that she overcomes her inner voice and visits Nick again. Discovering the source of the music is a shock. There are connections to another world and now she has knowledge of a deep secret that must not be revealed.  The cruelty of Neil becomes extreme and to her horror Frank is forced to reveal Nick's secret. The battle between good and evil cannot be avoided but will Nick survive, will he forgive her, will Frank forgive herself?

The action in this tightly constructed story takes place over just five days and you will be on the edge of your seat and, perhaps as I was, also filled with horror as Frank endures the physical torture inflicted by Neil and her own personal torture as she struggles with her conscious.

You might like to read my review of The Imaginary another book by AF Harrold. There is a strong connection between these two books especially in the scenes of battles between good and evil.  For readers who want to explore other books which explore the violence inflicted by bullies you might look for The Present Takers by Aidan Chambers, Benjamin Dove and Wolf Hollow.  You might also look for an old book called Under the Mountain by New Zealand author Maurice Gee which has this same concept of other worlds.

The publisher web site has a first chapter extract and teacher notes.  You can see some of the brilliant art from this book below and on Levi Pinfold's web site.  I was excited to read he is from Australia. By chance the next book on my reading pile is also illustrated by Levi - The Secret Horses of Briar Hill.  Here is a Q&A with Levi.

Here are some reviews and it is interesting to see all have listed a younger recommended age group :