Saturday, August 19, 2017

Children's Book Council of Australia 2017 winners

Well I was wrong again.  Nearly every book I thought would win - didn't!  We gathered our 900+ students together on Friday and announced the awards for 2017.  Every student knew I was hoping for Gary and so there was a huge cheer when this book received an honour.

At least I had blogged one winner or honour book in each category so we will start there :

Picture Book of the Year
Winner - Home in the Rain by Bob Graham
Honours - Patchwork Bike and Mechanica

Book of the Year for Younger Readers
Winner - Rockhopping by Trace Balla
Honours - Captain Jimmy Cook discovers Third Grade and Dragonfly Song

Early Childhood Picture book of the Year
Winner - Go Home Cheeky Animals by Johanna Bell
Honours - Nannie Loves and Gary

Eve Pownall Award (Non Fiction)
Winner - Amazing Animals of Australia's National Parks
Honours - A to Z of endangered Animals and Genes

I will be talking about Dragonfly Song in a future post.  I am happy to see this book has gained an Honour.

From the short list the books which were popular with our students and the books which generated the most discussion over the last few months were :

Chip by Kylie Howarth
This one worked really well with students in grades 1 and 2.  The students enjoyed the problem solving, airshow tricks and final scene when chips are replaced by fish.  My school is near the beach so the students easily related to the issue of seagulls and chips.

Fabish by Neridah McMullin
We read this book to students in Grades 2-6.  Use of a narrative as a factual recount was very popular and students were interested to see how hard the trainer worked to save his horses.  The illustrations in this this book are just perfect and all classes gasped when we turned to the page filled with flames.

One Photo by Ross Watkins
I was concerned about reading this book with our students.  We do have children who have grand and great grand parents who have dementia.  I shared my own family photos with each class and we read this spare text very slowly with students in Grades 4 and 6.  Their quiet attention showed me this important story touched their hearts.  It was also interesting to explain old technology of film cameras.

Out by Owen Swan
Our senior students spent several weeks exploring other picture books about the refugee experience. We linked Out with Ziba came by boat and an excellent new photo essay Where I live by Rosemary McCarney. After exploring many different text all four classes voted for The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman as the best book on this topic.

My Brother by Dee Huxley
I was concerned this book might be too complex but when I shared it last week with my Grade 6 students our discussions were so deep and insightful.  Students recognised the journey the brother makes through his grief and the quiet acceptance of the ending illustration. As with One Photo we read this minimal text very slowly and I lingered over each illustration. I am sure there are many things I still need to discover about the complex cross referencing in this moving book.

Gary by Leila Rudge
Yes this was my favourite in the Younger Readers selection.  We shared this book with all our K-2 students.  I think this book had an excellent balance between illustrations and text.  The other pigeons explained their adventures to Gary and we see their conversation as a set of symbols which later appear on Gary's map.   We even had some students talking to pigeons in the playground and calling them Gary!

Mechanica by Lance Balchin
The premise for this book is wonderful.  I am a huge fan of dystopian fiction and Mechanica was a good way to introduce this genre to my Grade 6 students.  This is a book that would work well with a class for an in depth exploration of Darwin and the complex vocabulary used throughout the book. We will pass this book onto a couple of our classes now that the Book Week announcement has been made.

Finally I am so happy to see Bob Graham as the Winner for 2017 having been a fan of his books since I first started working in school libraries back in 1985.  I treasure my copy of Pete and Roland and enjoy the way Bob explores tiny but meaningful events in our lives.  We spent two sessions with each class lingering over the details in this book and this week I am looking forward to sharing it with our older students.  Take a minute to read this article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The shop at Hooper's Bend by Emily Rodda

There is a tantalizing idea in this book that people come from stars.

"So some people get made mostly of the dust of one star, and other people get made mostly of the dust from other ones ...  And that's why some people are your friends straight away and some aren't."

Quil (short for Jonquil) calls her own star Palaris.  The others are :

Aginoth - people who are practical and confident
Broon - cheery but boring
Kell - prickly but interesting
Derba - calm and reliable with no sense of humour
Olmadon - generous and fun
Vanna - vague and dreamy
Fiskin - self-absorbed, manipulative bullies.

Quil has been left in the care of her aunt after the death of her parents.  Her aunt is busy and so Quil is sent to boarding school except this is the school holidays.  She is supposed to be heading to a four week camp in the Blue Mountains.

As the story opens Quil and Maggie (her aunt's personal assistant) are waiting for the train.  They are wandering through a market when Quil finds a china mug painted with her name.  Quil is such an unusual name where did this mug come from, who made it.  Quil needs to solve this mystery.

Meanwhile there is a little old disused shop in Hooper's Bend now owned by a business woman called Bailey.  There are also some shifty property developers who want to get their hands on this valuable site so it can be 'redeveloped'. Quil steps off the train at Hooper's Bend - she has seen this name on her mug.  She is befriended, almost immediately, by a small dog called Pirate.  In a jigsaw style plot each of these elements will come together leading to a most satisfying ending for all concerned including the reader.

I read this book many months ago when I was given an advanced reader copy at a conference.  I wanted to talk about it straight away but the copy said it was not for review.  The final published book arrived in our school library last week.

Time for one of my predictions.  I do think this book will be short-listed for our CBCA award in 2018.  Emily Rodda is a prolific and very talented Australian author and I enjoyed her return to realism after all those fantasy series such as Deltora.

this is a story about coming home when you didn't even know that was where you belonged.  Harper Collins

The Shop at Hooper’s Bend is a story with a distinctively Australian flavour, infused with eucalyptus smells, cicada sounds, and nostalgia for simpler times.  Reading Time

There are no dragons or mythical realms in this book; the magic here is about following your instincts and finding a place where you belong.  Books and Publishing

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Strictly no elephants by Lisa Mantchev illustrated by Taeeun Yoo

I remember years ago we had a little book in our library called But No Elephants.   Reading Strictly no Elephants tonight I thought about this older book.  I also remembered a little junior chapter book called The pocket Elephant by Catherine Sefton.

All three books deal with the unlikely, but somehow delightful idea, of having an elephant as a pet and even better having an elephant as a friend.

A young boy has a pet elephant.  It is the day for a meeting of the Pet Club at Number 17.  Sadly when the boy and his elephant arrive there is a sign on the door "Strictly No Elephants."  As they travel home they meet a girl with a pet skunk.  The pet club members don't want to play with skunks even though this little skunk does not stink.

The solution - start your own pet club with a sign that says All Are Welcome.  And yes they all come.  Such a variety of animals and their friends meeting in a wonderful tree house.

I love this line from the book which comes as the boy and elephant make their journey to the club meeting :

"He doesn't like the cracks in the sidewalk much.  I always go back and help him over. That's what friends do : live each other over the cracks."

That's what friends do is a repeated refrain in this story which is about so much more than having an elephant as a pet.

There is even a song to go with this joyous book.  Here is a reading of the whole book.

Sweet and affirming. Kirkus

In “Strictly No Elephants,” a sunny, smart, tongue-in-cheek tale written by Lisa Mantchev, friendships are born out of mutual respect for the idiosyncratic choices of others.  New York Times

I absolutely adored seeing all the non-traditional pets. But my favorite part is the HEART of this book about fitting in. It’s a theme that any aged reader can relate too.   Nerdy Book Club

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Ada's violin by Susan Hood illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

Everything about this book is important.  The wonderful vision of one man to form an orchestra, the making of instruments from materials found in the garbage, the possibility of a different life for these young orchestra members and the simply stunning illustrations.

Start with this little film.  You will hear the wonderful sounds these children can make using instruments made from an amazing assortment of recycled materials.  Here is a report from US Sixty Minutes.

Ada's grandmother sees an advertisement for music lessons.  There are no music instruments.  There are so many children who want to learn.  Favio Chavez is not defeated.  He enlists help to make instruments from the junk dropped daily at the dump near their town and so the orchestra begins.

This book is based on the true life story of Ada Rios and the children in her town of Cateura in Paraguay.  You can read more about this at the back of the book along with further reading and web links.

I would pair this book with Magic Trash, The paper house and the senior novel Trash by Andy Mulligan.

Giving thanks illustrated by Ellen Surrey

Giving thanks - the subtitle says "more than 100 ways to say thank you."

"Hi I'm Andy. When I was asked if there was anyone I would like to thank, these are the people I thought of."

I love the retro style of this book and the lovely message of simply saying thank you.  Each double page poses a question.

  • What would you like to say thank you for?
  • If you could give them a gift, what would you give?
  • If you could do anything for them, what would you do?
  • If you could share an afternoon with them, what would you do?
  • If you could give them a feeling what would you give them?

The final two pages give ideas for thank you cards and gratitude jars.

Thank you are two simple words but they can be so powerful when expressed in a truly meaningful way.

This is a book to share with a young child or use with a class.  Take time to see what Andy does with his dad on each page.  It will warm your heart.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Beyond the bright sea by Lauren Wolk

"What's wrong?" I asked him.
"Not a thing," he said.  "I'm just looking at you.  Exactly as you are right now. And not because you'll change, though you will of course. ... But because if I could have built a human being, I would have built you.  Just so."
Nobody had ever said anything that good about me.

I seem to be locked on an island at the moment.  This is the second book I have read recently with an island setting.  I adored Lauren Wolk's previous book Wolf Hollow.  Beyond the Bright sea is a slightly more gentle book as Crow, a little girl who washed up on Cuttyhunk, the outermost of the Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts, struggles to make sense of her origins and identity.

Crow is found in a boat, all alone.  She is taken in by the reclusive Osh.  He has moved to this remote island many years previously to escape has past.  While we never really know what happened to Osh it is very obvious that his love for little Crow has made a huge contribution to his healing.  On a nearby island Maggie watches this man and little child and she gradually gains his trust and joins in with the care of Crow.  She is also an excellent cook and is able to provide delicious and nourishing meals exactly when they are needed.

Across the water from Cuttyhunk is the island of Peikese which has previously been the location of a leprosy hospital. The hospital has closed but the people on Cuttyhunk are suspicious that Crow might carry this frightening disease.  She is shunned by the islanders but this just fuels her own curiosity about Peikese and it's history.

Crow convinces Osh and Maggie that she needs to visit the island and see the hospital for herself. Osh does not want to go there. He feels their life is settled.  No need to go looking for the past but he does eventually agree to sail over.  While the three of them are exploring, Crow hears a thud.  She is suspicious that someone might be trapped in a building on the island.  They meet a man who they think is the bird keeper but he seems odd and hostile and the three of them rush back to their boat and sail home.  Crow cannot get this thud out of her mind.  The three of them will need to make a return visit to the island and quickly.

The intrigue builds when Osh gives Crow a small collection of objects that came in the boat when she washed up all those years ago.  There is a fragment of a letter, a ruby ring and her feather shaped birth mark.  On the island there is a grave for a baby and also a carving of this same feather.

Here is an interview with Crow herself  - it is sure to make you smile and you can read an interview with Lauren Wolk too.  Here is a review with more plot details.

I feel lucky that I have visited Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket so I do have some sense of the setting for Beyond the Bright Sea.  If you enjoy the idea of island life or you want to read a good mystery look out for Beyond the Bright Sea.

This book will make people want to run away to the Elizabeth Islands. Kirkus

Leprosy, pirate gold, orphans, shipwrecks, lost messages, they all crowd the pages and leave you coming back for more. Wolk actually knows how to write for kids, and not just that, write beautifully. SLJ Betsy Bird

Monday, July 31, 2017

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

I hardly know where to begin with this very different, deeply thought provoking book, Orphan Island, which for me seems to be exploring what might happen if we go against our destiny.  Or perhaps it is about the external forces that control our lives.  Or maybe it is about taking steps into the unknown when the time is right. It is also a book about our human strengths and weakness.  Then there is the important lessons about responsibility and the power of kindness.  I will give one warning here.  Please do not be tempted to skip to the end and see 'what happens'.  Be patient and let Laurel Snyder take your hand and lead you carefully to an ending which will probably raise more questions than answers.

Nine children live on an island.  They are each one year apart in age.  The island somehow provides all their needs and over time the children have developed their own rules and so have a fairly good life.  Each year, as adolescence, looms a boat arrives to deliver a new child and take away the eldest. This is called The Changing.  Today Deen will leave and Jinny will take over as the leader.  She is expected to take care of the new child (her Care) who is called Ess and teach Ben his Elder lessons so he will be ready when his turn comes next but already Jinny is begun to question the status quo.  She misses her friend Deen terribly and initially resents the arrival and burden of this new child.

The first part of the book you will be in paradise. The children gather food - eggs from wild hens, honey from hives. They have a library filled with old books. The catch fish and wash in the beautiful waters on the shore line.  Ben is an excellent cook and seems to be able to provide just the right amount of food for each meal using everything the children have foraged.  They have even learnt to dry fruit and eat this as a type of candy.  High on the cliff top the lightest children can float on the updrafts.

"One by one Jinny and Joon set the dark green-skinned fruits out on the dry rocks. If they were lucky, and the birds didn't steal too many of them, the sunshine would shrink and sweeten the firm globes into rich bits of chewy deliciousness.  In about a dozen sleeps, they'd come back and collect them again."

Jinny begins to notice a change in herself.  As adult readers we might recognize the beginning of adolescence.  She seems to need to spend time alone.  For the first time ever she takes up the habit of marking the days.  Finally a year passes and the bell rings again signalling The Changing.  Spoiler alert - Jinny does not step in the boat.  She picks up the new child called Loo and now, with ten children not nine,  the island balance is disturbed.

Small things happen at first but you just know a tragedy or catastrophe is close.

Here is an interview with the author.  I highly recommend Orphan Island for any mature senior primary student.  I am sure it is a story that will linger with me for a long time.

Orphan Island is a metaphor, an allegory, a work of magical realism, a fantasy, a post-apocalyptic work of quiet science fiction. It’s for kids. It’s for adults who think they think like kids. It’s for adults that don’t think they think like kids at all. What’s the true story here? What is this book and who is its audience? Orphan Island is a book that leaves you with more questions than answers.  SLJ Elizabeth Bird

This charming, engrossing tale set in a vividly realized world is expertly paced and will appeal to fans of wilderness adventure stories and character-driven relationship novels alike.  Kirkus

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Mouseheart by Lisa Fielder

"What this mouse and this pretty rat were telling him was simply unbelievable. He didn't think they were lying, but perhaps they misunderstood the purpose of the camps and the conditions of Titus's treaty. Titus had responsibility to all who entered the gates of Atlantia. Atlantian citizens were safe. Titus cared about his subjects."

This is the great deceit.  Prince Zucker, son of Titus needs to be convinced his father is committing genocide against the mice and other small rodents as part of a corrupt peace treaty with the cats who are led by Felina.  Yes this is a violent story.

"Felina was, in a word, gorgeous. Pure white, with enormous tilted eye - one gray-green, the other the clearest icy blue. ... The queen had a perfect little pink nose, her ears were proudly pointed, and her fur looked almost too soft to touch. The gem-studded band that encircled her throat was proof of her pampered background."

The deal with Felina is for the supply of mice as food and entertainment for her subjects the cats. Lost mice and other rodents are taken to camps where they are fed and cared for prior to moving to resettlement areas.  Zucker believes "my father chooses rodents from his refugee camp and sends them out to colonize and build new cities in the tunnels."  This is not true but it will take two utterly dreadful events to show Zucker the truth.

Meanwhile three young mice have recently escaped from a New York city pet shop.  They are swept away down a storm water drain and are separated.  There is a legend among the mice who live along the subway train tunnels that their savior will be a mouse with a white circle marking around his eye. Hopper has this mark but so does his sister Pinkie.  Luckily for Hopper he makes friends with Zucker and together they are able to defeat their mutual enemy but before this can happen Hopper needs to sort out exactly who is telling the truth in a world filled with lies and deceits.

Here is a web site for this book series which includes an audio sample, games and teacher notes.  I did not feel the need for a sequel at the end of Mouseheart but I now discover there are two more titles so I will be happy to dive into the world of these mice again some time soon.  I was totally engrossed right through Mouseheart.  Little Hopper is a wonderful if naive hero and Firren, leader of the rebels, is inspirational.  I do enjoy books about mice and also books with a political layer. I should also mention the excellent illustrations which are scattered throughout the text.  One more thing - yes there are violent scenes but this is balanced with moments of true courage and warm humour.

If you enjoy Mouseheart you should then look for all the books in the Redwall series and I would also recommend Guardians of Ga'hoole if you are a fan of political intrigue.

Another stalwart mouse with a brave heart will win fans in this captivating underground adventure. Kirkus

Hopper is an easy enough protagonist to like. He cares about his siblings, even the one who doesn't deserve it, and he always tries to act selflessly. And of course, he's an adorable little mouse, so how can one not like him? The Reading Hedgehog

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

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The curious world of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

"I thought about it and realized that I, too was an explorer.  Hadn't I crossed the wide ocean to England with Mr Dickens? Hadn't I drifted down the great Mississippi with Huck? Didn't I travel in time and space every time I opened a book?"

I adored The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate so I waited a little while before beginning this second installment.  I was worried it might not be as good as the first.  There was no need to worry at all. The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate is just as good as the first book.  You could actually read this one without reference to the first because Jacqueline Kelly includes just the right amount of recapping and back story but because I loved the first book I recommend you try to start from the beginning.

In some ways Calpurnia (Callie Vee) has a small life.  She has never traveled beyond the nearby town, she has not been to the ocean and she is expected to learn the ways of a lady.  Luckily Callie is a curious girl who sees so much potential and wonder in her world.  With the support of her very well read Grandfather, Callie is able to ask lots of questions and receive guidance in how to explore the answers.  Her grandfather has an extensive library which Callie is able to use and in this second installment she is also able to explore the wonderful book collection owned by a local veterinarian  Dr Pritzker.  We see Callie make an astrolabe, a barometer and begin a series of animal dissections beginning with a grasshopper then a frog.

Callie has learned to observe her world in a scientific way but sadly she is also living at a time when girls are not given any credit for their intellect.  Callie, for example, is given only $5 when her father returns from assisting with the Galveston Hurricane while her brothers are given $10.  Worse though, is the way her expectations of university study are totally crushed.

"I suddenly realized that the moment and the stage were mine.  ... 'Well, Calpurnia, we might be able to, uh, send you to college for a year. That should be long enough for you to  earn your teaching certificate, I should think.'  I couldn't believe what I was hearing. One year. Not two. .... the injustice of it overwhelmed me.  Then what popped into my head was the question that ... I'd be waiting to ask my whole life.  ... 'How is that fair?"

The year is 1900.  There is change in the air.  Callie discovers the wonders of the typewriter thanks to her older cousin who has come to stay with the family following the hurricane.  Travis is still obsessed by animals and so Callie is able to learn more about armadillos, a blue jay, a black-spotted newt and a dog named Scruffy that is half coyote.  Callie also opens her first bank account and in this scene her father redeems himself.

"Everything is fine, Father. ... I have come to open an account.' ... 'Why on earth do you need that?' I thought quickly.  'You're always telling us to save our money, so I thought this would be the best place to do it' ... 'it's an excellent idea, and you shall set a good example for them (the boys). Come, I'll introduce you to the president, and we'll get you started."

Callie deposits $7.58 - her life savings but there is a promise of more money to come.  She is now working for the vet and he his paying her to type is labels and accounts, she has her weekly allowance and some of the farmers give her small payments when she makes deliveries for Dr Pritzker.

Instead of giving up, Callie Vee comes up with a plan to prevail, teaching the readers that, no matter the circumstance, you can achieve more; try harder and let those nay-sayings fall on deaf ears.  Kinderlit

But not to worry….Callie, the witty and sincere narrator, is “smart as a tree full of owls” and won’t be denied her dreams of being a veterinarian or anything else she puts her mind to.   Kirkus

Kelly seeds the story with enough small, stinging incidents of gender discrimination that when eventually Callie stops weeping over “the hard fact of being a half citizen in my own home” and determines to find a way to fulfill her ambition, it’s both believable and cheer-worthy.   Horn Book

Monday, July 3, 2017

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban illustrated by Lillian Hoban

With our Kindergarten classes we have been exploring some books about food and eating.  Everyone enjoyed Oh no, Monster Tomato and The Disgusting Sandwich.  I remembered a teacher long ago told me her favourite picture book was Bread and Jam for Frances so I decided to explore this classic book (1964) this week.

First off there was the unintentional connection with The Disgusting Sandwich because both books feature a badger.  This is a cute animal but one that would be unknown to my Australian students which is why I adore sharing picture books from around the world.  We were able to look at some photographs of badgers and discover a little about their habits. The second thing was a link to music. We had sung the songs in Oh no, Monster Tomato and Wombat Stew.  Even though there is no actual music I enjoyed making up little tunes for the various songs Frances sings all through Bread and Jam for Frances.  My favourite song comes near the end when she is quite sad and certainly tired of eating bread and jam :

Jam for snacks and jam for meals
I know how a jam jar feels - 
FULL ... OF ... JAM!

I especially loved the lunches in this book.  Albert makes the lunch come out even - he has a cream cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread, and a pickle to go with it. A hard-boiled egg with salt, a thermos of milk, grapes, a tangerine and "a cup custard and a spoon to eat it with."

Frances also has a wonderful lunch after her week of just bread and jam - a thermos bottle of tomato soup, a lobster-salad sandwich, celery and carrot sticks, black olives, salt, plums, cherries "and vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles and spoon to eat it with."

Bread and Jam for Frances contains a story that will be familiar to young children and their paretns. Mother and Father are patient, wise and kind and the language of the story is beautifully crafted with gentle touches of humour.

Gloria "had already eaten her dinner ...but she liked to practice with a string bean when she could."

This reminded me of the wonderful food in Where's Julius by John Burningham.

Here is an audio version of the whole book where you can hear the narrator singing all the songs. Here is another older version. Something I did not realise - all the titles about Frances begin with B. Bedtime for Frances, A baby sister for Frances, A birthday for Frances, Best Friends for Frances and A bargain for Frances.  Russell Hoban wanted to maintain the good luck from his first book.  Read details of the whole series here.

There is a television series about Frances.  I am not sure it quite has the charm of the original.

Here is an illustration from the book by Russell Hoban's wife Lillian.  Garth Williams illustrated the first book then Lillian took over.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The elephant by Peter Carnavas

"All the lightness fell away as thought about the elephant. 
The big grey elephant that shadowed her father.
It hung over him at breakfast.
It trudged beside him when he left for work.
At night, it lay by his side, weighing everything down."

The presence of this elephant means her dad is sad.  He cannot talk to Olive or really listen to her.  He has promised to fix her bike - the bike that once belonged to her mum - but so far he has not even started to repair it.  Olive needs to get rid of this elephant - but how?

She confides in her best friend - Arthur.  He is a very wise boy.

"Your dad won't fix your bike - until you fix your dad.'  ... 'How do I do that?' 'Easy,' said Arthur ... 'Get rid of the elephant.'  She laughed because she suddenly realised three important things :
Arthur was weird.
Arthur was right.
Arthur was the best friend in the world."

Meanwhile at school the class are working on a project to celebrate the 100th birthday of their school. The children have to bring old things to school, prepare a talk and then share their old things at the end of term birthday party.  Olive talks to her Grandad and he shows her some wonderful old things - a typewriter and a record player but these are not quite right for Olive.

Grandad is the person who is keeping Olive's family afloat.  He has restored the wild garden, he cooks delicious food, he tucks her in each evening and every day he picks Olive up for school. If he is carrying his purple backpack she knows they will be setting off on a small adventure. I love the idea of this purple backpack and also the way this pair mark distances by singing "Side by Side".  For example when they walk to the gassy hill beside the oval it takes five renditions of the song to reach the right spot.

This book is so very special.  It reminded me of the quite wisdom found in Tishkin Silk and the whole Silk series.  I sat down to read a few pages of The Elephant last night and lifted my head about an hour later having read the whole book.  The final pages are truly special and while you will be expecting Olive to succeed with the elephant issue I promise the ending will astonish you.

Here is the author web site with a very special trailer for The Elephant.  I will make a prediction that this book will surely be on our CBCA Short list for 2018 and when it does I recommend you have the whole school join in and sing Side by Side.

I would pair The elephant with any of these books :

Friday, June 30, 2017

The truth of me by Patricia MacLachlan

The truth of me
About a boy, his grandmother,
a very good dog

There are so many aspects of this story that I loved. The boy, his dog, the grandmother, her neighbor, the music, the woods, the food and most off the powerful emotions which are explored here.  I just sighed with happiness when I was reading this slim (114pages) volume.  It was an easy decision to feature this book as my 1000 post.

Robbie is a young boy who possesses amazing wisdom especially about the adults in his life.  His mother is the leader of a string group called the Allegro Quartet.  I imagine they might look like this group who you will see here playing Schubert String Quartet 14 - Death and the Maiden.  This music is very well known by Robbie - it is a piece his mother regularly performs.

"My parents are musicians. My mother, I think, likes her violin better than she likes me. At least she spends more time with her violin than with me."

Robbie is really named Robert.  In his family all the men have been named Robert.  Thank goodness for his precious grandmother who calls him Robbie and her friend Henry who calls him Kiddo.  With his grandmother, Robbie finds the love he needs for himself and for his dog.  His mother seems cold and distant as though Robert is a issue or a nuisance to be dealt with and perhaps less important than replacing musicians in her quartet.

Robbie and his dog Ellie are sent to stay with Maddy (his grandmother) while his mother and father travel for a concert tour.

"Maddy's house is like the house in Little Bear, one of my favorite books when I was little. It is a cottage with whitewashed plaster walls, big colorful braided rugs, lots of bookshelves, a fireplace and overstuffed chairs."

Henry, the local doctor, lives nearby.  Henry watches over Maddy because she is becoming a little forgetful.  Henry seems to have taken over the cooking for Maddy.  Robbie knows she also tells stories about her relationship with the wild animals of the forest but he is wise enough not to share this with his parents.

"There are many things I don't tell my parents. Many things I don't say out loud. That means there are many things rolling around inside my head."

Henry explains to Robbie about small truths.  He tells Robbie he will have his own small truth by the end of the summer. "He reaches over to tap my hand.  It's only a small tap, but it's comforting."  This beautiful image will linger with me a long time.  The truth Robbie discovers is not small - it is important and it gives him a way to understand his mother.  In the final scene Robbie can finally tell his mother, out loud, that he loves her.

You can and should read a chapter sample here.  I don't usually talk about this but if you cannot find a print copy of The truth of me it is available on iTunes.

You might like to read other books by Patricia MacLachlan - I highly recommend all of them.

I would follow The truth of me with The boy on the Porch by Sharon Creech and Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Robbie’s quietly affecting observations will feel like truth  Kirkus

This poignant story celebrates how our unique “small truths” make each of us magical and brave in our own ways.  Kids Reads