Sunday, August 27, 2017

How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

"Lessons start on the speakers. Urbs don't like that we farm kids are too busy to get educated, so lessons get played over the speakers while we work.  Today's lesson's just for us. It's about the history of the  bees.  Not us. The real ones they used to have thirty years ago before the famines."





First off here is another one of my predictions.  This book How to Bee just has to be shortlisted for our CBCA awards in 2017.  YES it is that good!

It is the future but Bren MacDibble leaves the reader to imagine just what has happened in our world. I adore this kind of intelligent writing where there are hints but the author does not feel the need to spell everything out.

Whatever has happened there are now no bees and so children live and work on farms and while they are still young and agile they climb the fruit trees and perform the pollination.  Away from the farms, city life is dangerous.  Society is completely stratified - there are the mega rich and the desperately poor.  The rich have retreated behind high walls with security guards.  The poor wander the streets hands outstretched hoping for money or food.  There is a strong undercurrent of violence.

Peony (what a perfect name for a child who longs to work as a bee) lives with her grandfather and little sister called Mags, short for Magnolia, on a fruit farm.  Her mother visits infrequently from the city where she works.  Peony longs for her mother to rejoin them on the farm so they can be a complete family but her mother has dreams of becoming rich and living in an idealized house with every comfort.

The story opens on a day when new bees will be selected.  Peony is too young but she is determined to be chosen.  She completes a trial run up the trees with her good friend Applejoy.  He is selected to be a bee but Peony slips and falls.

"I pull the end of the wand out from the branches and start along a branch. A stick jams in my legs and I trip and fall straight out of the tree. I land on my stomach on the dirt. Pomz (Pomegranate) sniggers and scrambles up her tree.  She's stuck the end of her wand into my legs!"

Peony's mother arrives to take her to work in the city in the home of a rich man who actually sells the fruit so carefully harvested and packed by the farm workers.  Peony is amazed to learn only three people live in this enormous house.  One is a spoilt but terrified young girl called Esmeralda. The two girls form an alliance.  Peony helps Ez overcome her fear of being outside and Ez helps Peony escape back to the farm.

I have listed How to Bee for Middle readers in Years 4 and 5 but I do need to give a warning.  There are some very violent scenes in this book when Peony is kidnapped by her mother and her mother's abusive boyfriend.  Sensitive readers may find these scenes distressing.

There are a set of teacher notes on the publisher web site.  Read this thoughtful review in Reading Time.

We have over thirty non fiction books in our school library about bees.  It seems to have become a bit of an obsession of mine.  You might like to read these reviews of The Book of Bees and Bee.

I would follow this book with Chance of Safety and older readers should look for the series Hidden Children which begins with Among and the Hidden.



Saturday, August 26, 2017

Dragonfly song by Wendy Orr

And so in a moment of madness, the chief defies the Lady, and the gods. He will make his daughter perfect himself. First left, then right: he holds the tiny arms and with his sharp bronze knife, slices away the useless thumbs. He pinches the wounds shut till the bleeding stops and rocks his baby till her crying stops, too.



Aissa is the first born child of the Lady but the Lady rejects her because of this deformity.  Her father dies the next day in a boating accident.  Is this fate or the gods?  Aissa is cast out.  Sent to live with a foster family.  She is a tiny baby and so Mama and Dada are her true parents in her eyes.  Then the raiders arrive when Aissa is just four years old.  Her Mama hides her in the hills with this warning :

"Don't make a sound,' says Mama, brushing her fingers over Aissa's lips. 'No matter what you see, no matter what you hear, you stay quite, still as stone till I come back."

Jump forward 8 years.  Aissa is now living in the court of the Lady.  Aissa does not know her heritage but she is coming to realise she has a special gift of communication with animals.

"The Bull King ... hears that your island is troubled by slaving raids and pirates. He promises that these will end from today. In return for his protection, each year you will pay twelve barrels of olive oil, twelve goat kids, twelve jugs of wine, twelve baskets of grain, twelve baskets of dried fish, twelve lengths of woven cloth - and a boy and a girl of thirteen summers"

"If they survive the year, they may return home and your island will be free of further tribute."

While Assia is desperate to be chosen as a bull dancer she is the lowest of the low. She is the slave who cleans the privies, she is the slave other slaves taunt and abuse.

She hates the spitting,
wet on her face
muck on her hair,
her clothes, her feet.

The selection of the bull dancer is done by lottery.

The guard holds out the basket of shards.
Aissa chooses:
a piece long and thin,
tapering down to a point
like a dragonfly tail.
She takes the charcoal,
draws the sign of her name,
and drops it in.

When Nasta's name is called my heart stopped beating for a moment such is the power of this writing.

In the second part of this powerful book you will read about Aissa's journey to the court of the Bull King, of her dancing lessons and position in the court as a priestess until finally it is her turn to enter the bull ring.

Dragonfly Song has nearly 400 pages. I found it took me a long time to settle down and actually read long sections and I am not sure why this happened.  I actually started this book three or four times.  I can now say I absolutely enjoed this book especially the last third.  I am so glad I persevered because the strong scenes in this book continue to linger with me especially the scenes in the bull ring and earlier in the book when Aissa is given a new tunic.  Twin slaves Half-One and Half-Two toss it into the privy hole.

"Servants are given their freshly washed, handed-down tunics for the next year.  Aissa's is neatly folded in a corner of the kitchen ... clean and almost white, with all the tears mended.  ... 'Your new tunic didn't stink the way you like it. So we threw it down the hole this morning."

This is so awful but the next scene is glorious.  Everyone is away.  Aissa goes into the Lady's bathroom. She finds a discarded tunic. She slips out of her own filthy rags and steps into the tub which is filled with luxurious hot water.  She washes her body and hair until the water runs clear and then she steps into the new tunic fully revived.

The combination of narrative and verse writing adds to the strong emotional impact.  Mature readers with stamina will be rewarded with a rich story, a wonderful heroine in Aissa and desperate scenes of rejection balanced with those showing deep human compassion.  There are some violent scenes in this book - you can preview one on pages 300-301.  I would follow Dragonfly song with Fearless by Tim Lott (a book I have mentioned on this blog previously which I plan to re-read in the coming weeks) and Wolf Hollow.

Read an extract of this award winning book on the publisher web site.  You will also find some teacher notes. I actually cheered when I saw Kirkus gave Dragonfly Song a star!  You might like to read the CBCA judges report too.

As mesmerizing as a mermaid’s kiss, the story dances with emotion, fire, and promise.  Kirkus star review


Powerful, eloquent and moving ....  Boomerang books Blog

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