Wednesday, February 29, 2012

With my knife by Andrew Lansdown

This is a slim book that packs a punch. There are books where dragons are the good guys and books where dragons are the face of pure evil. With my Knife falls into this latter category.

Colyn lives on a potato farm with his dad. His mum has died many years earlier. One day Colyn finds an old knife buried in a paddock. He uses the knife to whittle a potato and discovers the knife has an amazing power. The potato turns to stone and when discs of this stone are thrown up into the air a light as bright as the moon is emitted. This stone is also incredibly sharp.

In the shed there is a discarded box, a large box that once contained a refrigerator. Colyn decides to turn the box into a cubby. It needs a door and so Colyn cuts a large triangle into the front of the box. This is his first very significant mistake. The shape of a triangle is mysterious and ancient. Colyn also carves his own name into the bark of a tree. Luckily a dream warns him about the power of names and he is able to obliterate this before more troubles can be unleashed.

The triangle in the box has opened a doorway to Klarin. The dragons can now come through to our world. Colyn carves himself a dog companion called Kinzar and with the help of his dog, his knife and the army of Kinroan led by Wayth the dragons are defeated but not with out enormous casualties.

Colyn leap to his feet and thrust the knife up with both hands. The blade sank into the dragon’s throat. There was a gurgling sound and hot blood gushed down onto him.”

Meanwhile Colyn and his dad have been working on an old jigsaw puzzle. As the picture is finally revealed they see a scene involving his mother in Klarin with the dragons. This certainly opens the way for the two sequels.

If you love battles and dragons and you long to demonstrate your courage and compassion as Colyn our hero does then you must read With my Knife. You might also like the Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan, A wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin and the Dragon Keeper series by Carole Wilkinson. You should also look at books by Linda McNab.

With my knife is a book I have been recommending to my students for many years so I was happy to discover, when I re-read it this week, that it is such a powerful story. This book might be out of print but I am sure you will find a copy in most Australian school libraries. You can read the first chapter and some reviews on the author site.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Little Big Feet by Ingrid and Deiter Schubert

When I see the word pandemonium on the first page of a picture book I know it will be a winner. Here is an author who does not talk down to young readers. Even more wonderful is the fact that this book is a translation. It was originally written in Dutch.

Little Big Feet is a small witch. She has been teased once too often by the witches who live between the earth and sky and so she has left her home. Just like Pinocchio’s nose, every time a spell goes wrong for Little Big Feet her feet grow larger. Luckily for our little witch friend she has landed in the home of Maggie an eminently sensible girl who has perhaps also endured some teasing but Maggie has found a strategy to cope. “Everyone has something wrong with them,’ she said. ‘Look at my sticking out ears.” Maggie has a lovely idea. She paints the witch’s shoes and they look fabulous.

Little Big Feet has broken her broomstick. Maggie has a toothbrush that is just the right size but before flying home Little Big Feet gives her teeth a thorough brushing and her magical powers are restored. As a parting gift Little Big Feet gives Maggie the gift of flying.

My favorite part of Little Big Feet comes right at the end. The little witch sends a special letter to Maggie with no words just pictures. It is a delight to decipher. This book is almost certainly out of print but again you might be lucky and find a copy in your library.

Susie and Alfred in the Night of the Paper Bag Monsters by Helen Craig

Accidents do happen. Should you retaliate or forgive? This is one message at the heart of Suzie and Alfred in the Night of the Paper Bag monsters by Helen Craig. Yes you do know Helen Craig she is the wonderful illustrator of all those Angelina Ballerina books.

In Susie and Alfred the two friends are preparing for a fancy dress party. They are working together at Alfred’s house and in the shed they find some very large and very strong paper bags. These will make perfect costumes. As they begin to paint the bags disaster strikes and a paint can is overturned. A fight ensues and both children head off sulking. Back in their respective homes they make their costumes unaware that each is making a monster disguise. When they meet on the street, as they head off to the party, each gets a terrible fright until they recognize each other's voice. Needless to say Suzie and Alfred make up, have a wonderful time at the party and they even win first prize together as Mr and Mrs Monster. The really delicious twist is a visual joke. I will quote the line but you really need to see this illustration to understand what is going on. “Nobody knew the little person who came third. He must have come from the other side of town.”

Suzie and Alfred in the Night of the Paper bag monsters is one book in a series of three about these friends. You might also look for The Knight, the Princess and the Dragon and Susie and Alfred in a Welcome for Annie. This second title is a good one to use for a discussion about bullying. Luckily these books were all republished a few years ago. I also recommend trying a little paper bag craft. We have some terrific books with paper bag craft ideas in our school library.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Happy Birthday Moon by Frank Asch

I sometimes tell my youngest students if someone gave me just ten minutes to grab my favorite books this is a book would be at the top of my pile. Of course this is just a game but Happy Birthday Moon is an absolute favorite of mine.

Little Bear looks up at the Moon and wonders about his Birthday. “But bear didn’t know when the moon’s birthday was, or what to get him.” Frank Asch always includes a little hint (often with a science base) at the beginning of each of his books about Moonbear. If you look carefully inside Moon Game, Moon Cake, Skyfire and Bear Shadow you will see four boxes on the first page. In Happy Birthday Moon these boxes show the moon moving or perhaps the Earth is moving or both.

Bear decides the moon would like a hat. He makes this choice after climbing to the top of a very high mountain to have a little chat with the moon. “Tell me,’ asked Bear, ‘When is your birthday?’ ‘Tell me when is your birthday?’ replied the moon.”

Can you guess what is going on here? It is an echo but bear does not realize this of course. The delight is that every young reader immediately recognizes what is going on here. One of the funniest moments, where we see Bear still has no idea this is an echo, comes right near the end. Bear buys a lovely hat for the moon and places it in a tree. The moon appears to climb the tree and he tries on the hat which fits perfectly. During the night the hat blows and lands on Bears doorstep. He naturally assumes the moon has bought him a hat too. At this exact moment the lovely hat blows away. Bear climbs the mountain again. “For a long time the moon would not speak to him so Bear spoke first.” These lines always make me smile.

If you do not know about the talented Frank Asch and you are looking for books to read to your youngest child you must run into your nearest library and seek them out. Every single one is a winner! I have already talked about this author but I wanted to especially mention Happy Birthday Moon. The Weston Woods DVD is also a real gem!

Charlotte's Web by EB White illustrated by Garth Williams

At last Wilbur saw the creature that had spoken to him in such a kindly way. Stretched across the upper part of the doorway was a big spider’s web, and hanging from the top of the web, head down, was a large grey spider. She was about the size of a gumdrop. She had eight legs and she was waving one of them at Wilbur in a friendly greeting.”

Yes I have just re-read Charlotte’s Web and once again marveled at the story telling, the rich vocabulary and the precious words of wisdom this deservedly famous book contains.

Rather than talk about the plot for Charlotte’s web I thought I might quote a few of my favourite passages :

If Fern took her doll for a walk in the doll carriage, Wilbur followed along. Sometimes on these journeys, Wilbur would get tired, and Fern would pick him up and put him in the carriage alongside the doll. He liked this and if he was very tired, he would close his eyes and go to sleep under the doll’s blanket. He looked cute when his eyes were closed, because his lashes were so long. The doll would close her eyes too, and Fern would wheel the carriage very slowly and smoothly so as not to wake her infants.”

I’m very young. I have no real friend here in the barn …(then) out of the darkness, came a small voice he had never heard before. It sounded rather thin, but pleasant. ‘Do you want a friend, Wilbur?’ it said. ‘I’ll be a friend to you. I’ve watched you all day and I like you.”

Well,’ he thought ‘I’ve got a friend, all right but what a gamble friendship is! Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty – everything I don’t like.’… Wilbur was merely suffering the doubts and fears that often go with finding a new friend. In good time he was to discover that he was mistaken about Charlotte. Underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior, she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.”

Never hurry, never worry.”

The meeting is now adjourned. I have a busy evening ahead of me. I’ve got to tear my web apart and write TERRIFIC.’ Wilbur blushed. ‘But I’m not terrific, Charlotte. I’m just about average for a pig.’ ‘You’re terrific as far as I’m concerned,’ replied Charlotte, sweetly, ‘and that’s what counts. You’re my best friend, and I think you’re sensational. Now stop arguing and go get some sleep!”

Why did you do all this for me?” … ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. … By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

If you love Charlotte’s web you must read another book by EB White called The Trumpet of the Swan. You would also enjoy A rat's tale by Tor Seidler ….. and Mrs Fribsy and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C O’Brien.

Finally in as a delightful little example of serendipity as I was reading Charlotte's Web I chanced upon the list of 100 greatest children's books and Charlotte is number one!! I was quite pleased to see I had read about half of these although sadly only one Australia book is mentioned. Lists are always problematic. Who wrote the list? How did they select these books? Who is the intended audience? Lists are out of date almost as soon as they are devised. I know when ever I write a list it always contains the last two or three books I have read - kind of like a little time machine. There are endless references to Charlotte's Web on the internet if you need teaching ideas. Here is just one.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

Many years ago I saw a special hard cover copy of this classic with its Newbery Honor book sticker and a letter to readers by Helena Estes. I have always loved this book and so it joined my shelves at home.

My memory of this book was of a story about poverty but it is also an important book about bullying and discrimination all packed into a simple heart-warming story set in 1940s America complete with exquisite water colour illustrations by Louis Slobodkin.

Wanda is the outsider, the foreigner with a 'different' surname. She wears the same faded blue dress every day and this makes her the target for the 'cool' girls. When they ask about her dress Wanda declares she has one hundred dresses at home. How can this be true? Quite suddenly Wanda leaves the school but Maddie feels great guilt. She realises the teasing was cruel and now she may never have the chance to say sorry.

If you enjoy The Hundred Dresses you should also read Secret Friends by Elizabeth Laird, The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCarmillo and perhaps the picture book Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes.

Here is a set of lessons for this book and some deep questions which are excellent.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Taronga by Victor Kelleher

Last days had begun then …ships had stopped coming to Australia and no planes had landed for weeks. Everything was breaking down.”

Have you ever been to a zoo? The setting for this post apocalyptic book is our Sydney zoo Taronga which is located on the beautiful harbour. But there is nothing beautiful in the world now. This book presents a dystopian society where civilization has broken down and life is extremely dangerous. Survival is everything.

The story opens with the main character Ben using his talent to ‘call’ animals on a hunting expedition with a man called Greg. It is obvious right from the opening lines that Ben is being used by Greg. That somehow Greg is his master. Ben hates luring defenseless animals to their death. He has tried previously to escape from Greg. This time he is successful. He makes a dangerous journey across the Blue Mountains to Parramatta and on to Sydney. Victor Kelleher describes a landscape ruined beyond all recognition. Ben hopes to cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge and reach his old home in Coogee but his way is blocked by a violent gang and he is captured to be used as bait for the wild cats roaming the zoo. This gang do not know Ben has a gift of animal communication. He is able to warn and control the wild animals and can easily win their trust. All except for the tiger Raja. He will not be tamed.

Inside the zoo Ben discovers the garden of Eden but this illusion is quickly shattered when he realizes the people inside the zoo are just as crazy for power, at all costs, as the gangs outside.

Taronga is a violent and at times quite confronting book but it is not a book without hope. The friendship between Ben and Ellie slowly develops as does the relationship between Ben and the tiger Raja. Ben is a special boy and his humanity and compassion bode well for the future - the future of these two young people, the animals they have set free and perhaps for the new society that must emerge from these dark times. There are strong echoes of the Noah story in this book.

I first read this book in 1987 when it was short listed for our CBCA awards. If you want to read a thriller with a true Australia flavour then look for Taronga in your library. You might also enjoy Z for Zachariah by Robert C O'Brien, Tomorrow when the war began by John Marsden, Parkland by Victor Kelleher (also set in the zoo), Galax-Arena by Gillian Rubinstein and Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett. If you like to read about special heroes then you should look for The Giver and sequels by Lois Lowry.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The big Bazoohley by Peter Carey

Imagine you are in a competition to find the perfect kid. You need perfectly neat clothes, a suit perhaps. You need perfectly clean hair. You need perfect skills in walking, dancing and even eating. There are kids in this competition whose parents are determined to win but even though you are new to all of this you desperately need to win too.

You walk into the ballroom of a fancy hotel in your too tight shoes and suit. You dance with a beautiful girl who forgives your clumsiness. Finally you sit down to eat. All is well. The salad is easy but the next course is spaghetti!

The waiters swooped in with big plates of spaghetti and meat sauce… Sam put his fork into the spaghetti just the way he had practiced with the slimy string. He used a spoon and a fork … and it worked … he was, for a full ten seconds a champion, a winner.”

Sam’s dad is a gambler. They only have fifty-three dollars and twenty cents. The King Redward hotel in Toronto is not this kind of hotel. Sam’s mother is an artist who paints the most intriguing miniature scenes. She is scheduled to sell a painting (these take a whole year to create) to a wealthy recluse but renovations to the railway station mean Vanessa cannot find Mr Edward St John de Vere and time is running out. This family desperately need ‘the big bazoohley’ or the big payout. If Sam can win the Perfecto Kiddo competition then all their troubles will be over.

The Big Bazoohley is a marvelous romp. It is such a short novel with less than one hundred pages but all the twists and turns of the plot along with the splendid cast of characters will leave you gasping for air and cheering for our hero Sam.

This is another one of those books I have recommended for years and years. I sat down to read it and completed the whole book in just half an hour but in that time I had been to Toronto with Sam in the depths of Winter, I had stood in the lobby of a ritzy hotel and I had watched Sam maneuver that spaghetti with disastrous and surprising results.

This book is by Peter Carey and was based on a real incident when his son was locked out of the hotel room and stranded in the corridor. There are at least four different cover designs for this book. We have the one I have put here by Stephen Michael King in our school library. I give this book ten out of ten!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Pog by Lyn Lee illustrated by Kim Gamble

Did you know that right now you are older than you have ever been? Pog knows this and he is fond of reminding anyone who cares to listen. "I'm two metres tall and older than I have ever been ... I'm not afraid of anything."

It is true that he is two meters tall but Pog is afraid of one thing - he is afraid of children. Pog is the middle child of this monster family. There is his mum who is as busy as a dung beetle, his dad who is often away on mysterious business, his grandmother, a baby called Bedlam and the perfectly named older brother Vandal.

Pog has been enjoying life but now, like all young children, he must head off to school. His mum insists he must walk with Vandal. Pog is sure he can walk alone until his brother mentions they might meet children along the way. "Pog was shocked. He thought children only came out when it was dark, like a night mist, or a bad dream." Pog is in fact so shocked he sticks with Vandal all day. On the way home Pog hears a sound in the bushes. He tells Vandal it might be children. "Don't be stupid.' growled Vandal. 'There's no such thing." But this child is quite real and Vandal flees down the road leaving Pog to sort out the matter. On looking behind the bushes he finds a little boy who is having a bad dream and needs to wake up. Pog takes Tom home and puts him in the wardrobe (that is where children hide waiting to scare good little monsters!) then Pog goes to bed and dreams Tom back home.

This wonderful picture book Pog is a delight from beginning to end. Kim Gamble supplies perfect pictures of Pog and his family along with an amazing wardrobe and Lyn Lee gives her young readers the experience of a deeply rich vocabulary with words like crooned, pout, flummoxed and cowered.

If anyone has ever said "Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite" to you then you simply must read this joyous book tonight! I am sure you can tell it is a real favourite of mine. You could follow this up by reading I'm coming to get you by Tony Ross and the monster baby series by Pat Hutchins starting with The Very worst Monster then look for Where's the Baby.

When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

Just as I set out to re-read When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit I read a newspaper article about how this book had been given to a little six year old child in her school library. The parents were naturally quite upset. Firstly because this is not a book for such a young child and secondly because they were not yet ready to talk to their child about her devastating family connection with the holocaust. It makes me sad to read about school libraries that lend books without care. I am always so concerned to match children with books and I am not afraid to tell a child to wait until they are a little older if a book is meant for a more mature audience.

Anna is living in Germany in 1933. Hitler is on the rise so wisely her parents decide to move to Switzerland. Anna's father is a journalist and of course considered dangerous to the regime. Essentially this is a story of being a refugee, of the years leading up to World War II and the rise of Hitler. There are small references to the persecution of the Jews and one tiny paragraph that mentions a concentration camp but overall this is not a harrowing holocaust story certainly nothing like The Boy in striped pyjamas by John Boyne or Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli or the Once, Now and Then trilogy of Morris Gleitzman.

When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit is a quiet, personal and gentle and would be of interest to Senior Primary students. I would follow this up by reading The Little Riders by Margaretha Shemin, Dancing on the Bridge of Avignon by Ida Vos, Fredrich by Hans Peter Richter, and picture books such as Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti and Let the celebrations begin by Margaret Wild.

It is also interesting to discover Judith Kerr is the author of all the picture books about Mog the cat and that When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is really about her real life experiences. You can read more abou the plot and these connections here.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Secret letters from 0 to 10 by Susie Morgenstern

Everyone at some time in their life longs for the perfect friend - a friend who listens, who helps you unconditionally and who gives you the confidence to try new things. Victoria is this friend. Ten year-old Ernest is leading a strange life with his elderly grandmother, Precious, and an old lady called Germaine who comes in to cook and clean each day.

Ernest’s mother has died in childbirth and his father left when Ernest was just one day old and so he has been living all this time with his grandmother but because she has seen huge sadness in her own life she can only attend to his basic needs of food and shelter. There is no emotion in this austere flat in Paris. Life is about routines not real love and in addition time has stood still. There is no telephone, no television, no packaged food and Ernest is dressed like someone from another century. He is not even allowed to use the lift in his building and must climb 57 steps each afternoon after school.

All of this is turned upside down by the arrival of Victoria. She instantly “falls in love” with the handsome Ernest but more importantly she interprets so many aspects of his character correctly. In so many ways I wish she was my friend too! Victoria bounces into all their lives along with her madcap family of 13 boys and one girl.

Here are some things to think about. What would you do if you had never seen your father and then on your very first visit to a supermarket you see a book with his name on the cover? Several days later you see the man himself on television (one of the first programs you have ever seen) and finally a parcel of letters arrive from this father. Not just a small parcel – one letter for every day of your life so far.

Secret Letters from 0 to 10 was originally written and French and has received many awards. We have another book in our school library by Susie Morgenstern called A Book of Coupons – it is also a wonderful book. I give Secret Lesson from 0 to 10 a score of ten out of ten.

Finally I would like to show you the strength of this writing by sharing a few quotes

I have never been to a restaurant in my life. I have never been out on a Sunday. I have never eaten couscous. My grandmother has never been outside her apartment for as long as I have known her. It is a great day when a “never” is erased. But when three “nevers” are erased in one day and are replaced by three “first times”, that day is three times as great.”

Ernest eats the same bland food every day until Henrietta takes over from Germaine. “When Ernest arrived home for lunch, he was greeted by heavenly smells wafting through the door. Usually he wasn’t hungry, but today he followed his nose to the kitchen, where he wanted to plunge his entire head into the bubbling sauce.” You can read more about the food in this book here.

Ernest arrives home just as his grandmother has seen Ernest’s father on television (it has been newly installed by Henrietta). “Germs are contagious, and so are tears. Ernest flopped down beside his grandmother and sobbed as if he’d known how to all his life. They stayed there crying long enough to water the dried-up plains of their hearts.”


If you enjoy Secret Letters from 0 to 10 you should also look for Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, Extra Credit by Andrew Clements, Granny Torrelli makes soup by Sharon Creech, Callie and the Prince by Sylvia Johnson, all the books about the Silk Family by Glenda Millard. Younger students might like to read Freddie the Frightened and the Wondrous Ms Wardrobe.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Duck for Danger by Ann Grocott

Eyes can be a terrific way to identify the bad people in a book. Here are some examples : he had “eyes of palest blue (that) showed no warmth whatsoever” … and of another “his smile was as big as that of a crocodile … (his) peculiar cabbage green eyes were curiously blank.”

This book Duck for Danger is filled with gloriously evil characters and wonderful loyal friends. There should be a warning on the cover – be careful who you trust.

Micky, short for Michaela, and her mother have travelled to London to sort out some legal affairs since her dad has died. Both are excited about the trip but following a stopover in Bangkok Mrs Massey falls ill and on arrival in London she is rushed off the plane and taken straight to hospital.

The airport authorities are taking care of Micky when two people turn up claiming to be relatives. One of them is the man described above with the pale blue eyes and the other is a woman – “her pallid lips cracked into a mirthless smile, barring frighteningly large, very long and strong-looking teeth”. These people have the slightly abhorrent sounding name of Smalley-Hughes. Before Micky can ask any questions she is whisked out of the airport and put into the back of a vehicle that looks strangely like a hearse then on arrival at the home of the Smalley-Hughes’ she finds herself locked in an upstairs room containing a cupboard filled with human sized cloth dummies.

If you are able to find a copy of this wonderful book, at this point in the story I am sure you will be holding your breath like I was hoping Micky can escape this mad house. I can tell you that she does escape but her adventures are only just beginning. Micky is on the run in London. Luckily she finds a wonderful boy called Nizbo who knows this city like the back of his hand. The mystery is part of the title. Micky finds a duck in a box of chocolates. Showing great restraint, Ann Grocott does not reveal this detail until page 60. “Both of them stared the object in Micky’s hand. It was a small but exquisite work of art. A duck, made of gold and encrusted with jewels. Each wing glittered with the green fire of emeralds. The breast was a glory of sky-blue sapphires. The beak was showered with amber stones the colour of a tigress’s eyes. A sprinkling of icy flashing diamonds trailed from it jaunty tail to its neck and the eyes of the wonderful ornamental duck were two wine-red rubies.”

Micky and Nizbo know this treasure is extremely valuable. They know others are looking for it. Micky is desperate to find the owner so she puts a cryptic advertisement in The Times and waits for a reply. Mean while the villains seem to be staking out the hospital making it impossible for Micky to contact her mum. Micky herself also has several narrow escapes from their clutches.

My own bookshelves at home are crammed full of favourite books. With no access to my own school library for the next year I am working my way along these shelves re-reading favourites. Duck for Danger is a book I first read over twenty years ago and it is a book I often recommend as a great class read-a-loud. It is of course long out of print but you might be lucky and find this terrific action packed thriller in an Australian Primary School library. I can only say I hope you do. As far as I can discover Ann Grocott only wrote two books. I would love to know why. Duck for Danger is a book that has not dated even slightly and I know many middle and upper primary students would love this tension-filled tale.

Sorry the photo of the cover is a little strange. There were no images of this cover so I took my own photograph.