Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Storm Whale by Sarah Brennan illustrated by Jane Tanner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cat on the island by Gary Crew illustrated by Gillian Warden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related texts include :

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

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Stone Mouse by Jenny Nimmo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Prisoner of ice and snow by Ruth Lauren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sydney City Trails by Helen Greathead

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

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

Things I did not know :

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

Places on the North side of Sydney :

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

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

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

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Goldfish boy by Lisa Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The extremely inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty illustrated by Kelly Canby

"... you have bravery deep within your heart."
"But when important things happen between new friends - winning a treasure hunt, getting in trouble for walking on railings, ... the friendship stretches and billows, and dives deep into your heart."

I have something odd to tell you about this brand new book.  I attended the launch last night having rushed to read 494 pages and 91 chapters over just 2 days.  Reading this book I was certain Jaclyn must have used miles of planning sheets perhaps pinned up all over her walls with the names of each of the ten aunts that Bronte needs to visit to fulfill the requirements of her parents' will. In my imagination there would be huge diagrams and lots of crossing lines showing the connections between the aunts, the gifts they receive from Bronte (another condition of the will) and the adventures/incidents/disasters which Bronte faces during each visit.  I was entirely wrong about all of this.

Jaclyn Moriarty did not talk for long last night (there was special cake waiting for her attention) about her newest book but she did say three interesting things.

1. Usually her books involve an enormous amount of planning but reading the now very famous Big Little Lies by her sister Liane Moriarty she marveled that such a complex book could be written with out detailed plans and in fact her sister said the revelation of the killer in Big Little Lies was as much a surprise to the author as it is for all readers.  I imagine you have guessed I was totally wrong about the planning for The extremely inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone.  Jaclyn told the audience at Mosman Library that she did not plan out this book.

2.  Where did the cloudberry tea idea come from?  Jaclyn received a letter from a fan many years ago and lady mentioned sipping cloudberry tea while enjoying one of Jaclyn's books. Jaclyn promised herself she would one day include cloudberry tea in a story.

3. Jaclyn comes from a large family and if you add them all together there are ten aunts.  Her childhood relationship with some of these aunts showed her every one has a 'back story' - children only see one moment in time or one aspect of a relative - often there is so much more going on.  When you read The extremely inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone you will see how Jaclyn carefully gives tiny insights into each aunt - personality, life changing moments, desires and more.

When she is a tiny baby Bronte is left in the lobby of her aunt Isabelle's building.  Inside her pram there is a note (sadly lost), a bottle of milk and a "canister of cloudberry tea."  I love this moment from Chapter One :

"So for a while I carried about a little notebook and took down the favourite hot and cold beverages, fruits, sweets and ice-cream flavours of everybody I encountered.  That way, when I myself grew up and abandoned my only child ... I would be sure to add a sample of  their preferred treat to the pram."

When Bronte is ten she and Aunt Isabelle receive the new horrible news that her parents have been killed by pirates. They visit the lawyers and hear the terms and conditions of their complex will.  Bronte must journey across the kingdom, alone, delivering small gifts to each of her ten aunts.  If she fails to follow any instruction her home town will be destroyed.

Now take a look at the publisher trailer.

It will spoil the story if I go into any more plot details so I just want to draw out aspects of this book that appealed to me.   I loved the discovery that Jaclyn wrote her book sitting in different cafes around Sydney.  In their will, her parents, tell Bronte where to eat and what to eat and this part of the story made me smile.  It was a light diversion during times of struggle as Bronte journeyed across the lands to visit her quite eccentric aunts.  Here are some of Bronte's cafe experiences :

Aunt Sue - The Dishevelled Sofa - Today's Special and house-made lemonade
Aunt Claire - Visiting Gainsleigh - the Arlington Tea Room - lemonade and cakes
Aunt Nancy - Mountain View Cafe - order Hot Chocolate
Aunt Alys - diner next to the Stantonville Post Office - cheese and ham sandwich, a fruit frosty and a slice of cheesecake

The trailer and blurb talk about dragons as though they are frightening.  When you read Chapter 31 and meet Aunt Sophy the dragon veterinarian you will absolutely change your ideas about this.

"I soon forgot to be afraid.  It helped that some of the dragons cold speak human language. Once you start chatting with a monster about the weather, you begin to forget that it's a monster."  In fact  it is the dragons who help Bronte escape when the confrontation between good and evil reaches it's terrifying climax towards the end of her long journey.

I am going to finish with a few thank goodness moments :

  • Thank goodness Bronte had "a small sack of silver coins 'for expenses' on my journey"
  • Thank goodness for beautiful words like skedaddle, exuberantly, tiff, impenetrable, resonant and appraise.
  • Thank goodness for scrumptious picnic food - salmon fish cakes, a cheese and bacon tart, roast chicken drumsticks, potato salad and chocolate cake and this is just a small sample of the delicious food eaten during this adventure.  You will want to eat Ricochet oranges - I am sure they are amazing.
  • Thank goodness for Bronte's commendable work ethic for example when she sorts out Aunt Carrie's dark sad home and when she puts everything back at Aunt Emma's after it has been ransacked by The Chief Detective.
  • Thank goodness for great friends and fun loving cousins.
  • Thank goodness for resourceful librarians!

"I make too much noise' she confided. 'But I love it when people want to research! Do it! Dear child, you will love it! The catalogue is over there!'  Her voice rose to a shout at the end. ... I found a great stack of books on the subject that I wanted, and sat down to read."

The extremely inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone is a long book with nearly 500 pages and 91 chapters but the action does not ever falter and you will find yourself turning page after page as you race towards the ending which has surprises and lots of smiles.  You can see some of the terrific illustrations by Kelly Canby here.

Moriarty’s world-building is wonderfully imaginative and uniquely hers, while Kelly Canby’s energetic illustrations are a delight. This jam-packed, chunky novel is ideal for book-devouring readers in upper primary school.  Readings Melbourne

And the plot pulls together its many threads into a neat and satisfying climax. It will appeal to middle and upper primary readers who are happy to tackle long books as long as they have some pictures. Books and Publishing

This ambitious and clever novel seems geared towards younger readers, but I believe anyone will love it. I think everyone should read it, actually.  Trish Talks Text

Friday, November 17, 2017

My reading pile

I visited a local book shop near my school this week and picked up a huge pile of middle grade novels which I will read in preparation for a Christmas talk I am doing there in a few weeks.

I will be talking about many of these on this blog over the coming weeks but here is a sneak peek.

The Extremely Inconvenient adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty

From the blurb : "... armed with only her parents instructions, a chest full of strange gifts and her own strong will, Bronte must journey forth to face dragons, Chief Detectives and pirates ..."
I have actually finished this and it is a splendid book with interesting characters, a hero you want to help and encourage and lots of excellent problems to solve.

The Wonderling by Mira Bartok

From the blurb : "Welcome to the home for wayward and misbegotten creatures, run by the evil Miss Carbukle, a cunning villainess, who believes her terrified young charges exist only to serve and suffer."

The Rogues by Lian Tanner

From the blurb "The devious Lord Rump and his granddaughter Duckling need a disposable boy, and Pummel, a farmboy looking for work int he city, fits the bill perfectly. Duckling is happy to tangle him in her grandpa's web as long as Grandpa keeps his promise - that this will be his very last Scheme."

Whimsy and Woe by Rebecca McRitchie

From the blurb : "After being abandoned by their thespian parents, Whimsy and woe Morduant are left in the care of their austere Aunt Apoline.  Forced to work in Apoline's boarding house, slaving at the beck and call of outlandish and demanding guests, and sharpening the thorns of every plant in the poisonous plant garden, Whimsy and woe lose all hope that their parents will ever return. Until one day, quite by accident, the siblings stumble upon a half-charred letter that sets them on a course to freedom and finding their parents."

Prisoner of ice and snow by Ruth Lauren

From the blurb : "Valor is under arrest for the attempted murder of the crown prince. Her parents were cast out from the royal court. Her sister was banished for theft of a national treasure. Now Valor has been sentenced to life at Tyur'ma a brutal prison built form stone and ice."

Diego and the rangers of the Vastlantic by Armand Baltazar  Book One in the series Timeless

From the blurb : "In New Chicago, Diego's middle school hall ways buzz with kids form all eras of history ad from cultures all over the world. The pieces do not always fit together neatly, but this is the world he loves. There are those, however, who do not share his affection."

Smoke by Cao Wenxuan illustrated by Yu Rong

I really enjoy reading powerful picture books to older students especially those that focus on conflict resolution.  Smoke would be an excellent book to use with any Primary class.

Mr Shou and Mr Pang live in nearly identical houses on different sides of the river.  An argument on a bridge sets off their feud.  Each father returns home :

"From now on, you aren't to go over to the west of the river to play with Beanpole! That whole family are so ugly, thin as rakes, all of them."
"From now on, you aren't to go over to the east of the river to play with Butterball! That whole family is so ugly, fat as pigs, all of them."

The two fathers also ban the dogs from playing so Pointy Ears and Floppy Ears are forced sit on each side of the river desperate to have fun.  Eventually the dogs just need to play and so they jump in and frolic before returning to sit under the apple trees.  Time passes until one day both families are cooking near the river. One uses wet firewood and so the smoke is black and the other uses dry firewood and so the smoke is white.  As the smoke drifts into the air it intermingles.

"they hugged like two friends meeting. They twirled happily in the sky ... like two ribbons of silk, one black, one white."

The dogs chase the smoke, the boys then jump into the river and climb into a boat to chase the plumes of smoke. Finally everything settles down, the smoke disappears out of sight and the boys return to their respective sides of the river.  Now comes the important turning point. Mr Pang compliments Mr Shou about his apples and Mr Shou compliments Mr Pang. Apples fly from one side to the other.

This is the third Cao Wenxuan book that I have featured here.  Bronze and Sunflower is a novel and Smoke and Summer are picture books but all have philosophical undertones reflective of the authors own passion for this subject.  Smoke actually feels like an ancient folk tale filled with wisdom. It would be good to link this with books by Demi.

Take look at the illustrator's technique - the video is in Chinese but you can see her skillful papercuts and the music track is especially haunting.  You can read more about Yu Rong and see her work here.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Colin the cart horse by Gavin Puckett pictures by Tor Freeman

This appealing junior novel Colin the cart horse is so funny. It is told in rhyme, there are complex words which appeal to me and lots of bottom burps which will appeal to young readers.  It also has colourful and appealing illustrations.

Colin happily lives on the farm, working hard and eating hay but one day he discovers three other delightful foods.  The pigs are eating pellets, the chickens are eating corn and the cows are eating a trough of mixed vegetables. Colin eats a large amount of each until he is full.  Nothing goes to waste on this farm.  His manure is used to grow vegetables on the farm.  Eating a new diet changes the manure. The farmer sees an immediate change :

"He looked at his veggies and gasped with surprise
As they grew and developed in front of his eyes.
The pumpkins expanded to three times their size
His beanstalks grew tall and continued to rise."

The farmer can see fame and fortune coming from this so he provides Colin with an abundance of these new foods.  Unfortunately there are disastrous, smelly and exploding consequences.  The solution is ingenious.

Here are some examples of the rich vocabulary used by Gavin Puckett :

  • yield
  • grafted
  • conjunction
  • astray
  • mused
  • gorged
  • palpitations

There are three books in this series and I think they would make an excellent addition to any Primary school library.  Here is a review worth reading.

Juana & Lucas by Juana Medina

Peppered with Spanish words Juana & Lucas is a delightful romp inside the world of Juana a young child living in Bogota, Colombia, South America.  Juana is a very forthright girl and early on we find out the things she likes including, of all things, Brussels sprouts (repollitas).

Take some time now and read this splendid review by Elizabeth Bird of Juana & Lucas in the School Library Journal.

I am always looking for simple easy to read books for our youngest students.  I have a 'box' full of criteria which include a good story, an attractive book, and a story with humour (done with a light touch) and Juana & Lucas more than meets my criteria. 

Brightly coloured illustrations are scattered throughout the book, there are words that pop out of pages either by size or font.  I especially like the pages with character diagrams - you can see one her about Juana's mother.

Juana reminds me of Clementine, Daisy Dawson and Anna Hibiscus.   She loves her city of Bogota, she loves reading and often reads late into the night and the best part of her school day is playing futbol.  Juana does not like her school uniform (boys can see her pink underpants), her hot classroom and most of all having to learn "the English."

I really appreciated the way Juana Medina weaves Spanish into her story and that she is not tempted to offer translations.  She allows her readers to use their intelligence and work out any unfamiliar words.  Of course Spanish speaking children will delight in knowing all these words.

Here are some examples :

"I can't stop pnesando about my crushed lunch box all morning."
"chances are you'll find me in bed with a book .. or dos, or tres!"
"Sitting with Juli is always good because we have mucho to talk about."

I also want to share some of the humour - and show how Juana Medina has such a light touch.

"I love my furry amigo Lucas.  He is the smartest and most amazing perro every born.  ... He is my absolutely-no-single-doubt-about-it best amigo.  Some say Lucas is neurotic. I do not think so.  He is actually quite calm, especially while sleeping."

Lucas "eats math homework like a pro.  The harder the homework, the faster he'll eat it."

"Juli is a very good friend. ... She has two brothers, one older and one younger. She's in a brother sandwich!"

Juana & Lucas is the 2017 winner of the Pura Belpre award which is  is "presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth."

Here is an audio sample to give you an idea of this story.  Here is a video of Juana Medina showing her art processes.

I believe the book is a great choice for students who are seeking a new or greater understanding of global cultures as well as students whose experiences are similar to Juana’s, such as having to learning a new language yet maintaining a strong sense of cultural identity.   Mr J The Librarian

Summer by Cao Wenxuan illustrations by Yu Rong

Globalisation should mean children across the world have access to book treasures in every language.  Sadly this is not the case.  There are gate keepers who make choices about which books to translate and of course economic barriers which mean only a tiny fraction of all books published across the world reach us here in Australia.   If Cao Wenxuan had not won the Hans Christian Andersen medal in 2016 I am sure his book Summer would not have arrived in a local school library that I visited yesterday.

The cover of Summer is complex and perhaps makes more sense after reading this book.  Begin with the end papers.  The opening spread shows morning in a dry landscape with distant mountains and sparse straggly trees.  On the final spread the heat of the day has passed and it is the cool evening.

The story opens with a description of a cool environment near a river where animals and humans rest in the shade.  This contrasts with the next scene.

"In the meantime, on the parched grassland a group of animals desperately searches for shade."  The animals see a tree in the distance and race off to claim the shade. But "the tree is barely alive."   The elephant claims the shade but when he chases off his rivals everyone realises there is no shade. There is laughter but it is not directed at elephant - just the collective realisation that the shade they sought was not even there. Then a boy and his father walk across the grassland.  "The father's shadow completely covers the little boy. Calmly they walk under the blazing sun."

There is a lesson and a solution here for the animals and using graduated pages each animal makes shade and then invites another to rest.  Lynx, jackal, leopard, brown bear, rhino, elephant, field mouse and beetle - everyone wins! And there is one more surprise.  This is a book that should be in every school library.

You can find more books by Cao Wenxuan from Twinkling Books.  I am waiting to see the book he shared at the recent USBBY conference - Lemon Butterfly.  I hope this one also comes to the attention of a publisher and translator very soon.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Pat Hutchins

School Library Journal Mary Hazelton

I was so sad to hear this week that Pat Hutchins died.  Her books have always been special to me.  This week I visited my local public library and was amazed to discover they only had one of her fabulous books.  I would have thought holding every Pat Hutchins title would be an essential part of any picture book collection.  I continued to search other public library catalogues but could only find a few of her famous books - Rosie's Walk, Titch, Don't forget the bacon and Goodnight owl.

Today I visited a very well stocked school library and borrowed a good selection. Pat is the author of nearly fifty titles but I particularly enjoy the woodland animal series.

  • The surprise party (1969)
  • The Silver Christmas Tree (1974)
  • What game shall we play (1990)
  • Shrinking mouse (1997)
  • We're going on a picnic (2002)

I enjoy these books because each has a affirming message about team work, friendship and making sense of the world.  I also really like her decorative style showing fur and feathers using contrasting patterns.  We see this illustrating style for the first time in her famous book Rosie's walk.  Here is the clumsy fox who never manages to catch the oblivious chicken.

The surprise party is very similar to another Pat Hutchins classic Don't forget the bacon because it is about muddling up language.  Rabbit whispers to owl that he is having a party but owl mishears and thinks "Rabbit is hoeing the parsley tomorrow."  As the news spreads the information becomes more and more complex and sightly ridiculous.  "Rabbit is riding a flea tomorrow."  When Rabbit finally catches up with his friends they reject his silly ideas because they have the wrong information.  Luckily rabbit decides to yell and not whisper "I don't know what YOU think I'm doing, but I'M HAVING A PARTY." 

The Silver Christmas Tree is an old favourite of mine.  Squirrel decorates his Christmas tree and just as he finishes a beautiful silver star appears on the top but then it disappears.  He goes off to ask his friends if they have seen his star but each friend is very secretive and each appears to be hiding a present.  Squirrel thinks they might be hiding his star but a keen observer will see the shapes of these various gifts are very odd.

In What game shall we play? the animals search for each other asking "what game shall we play?"  Every child will recognise they are already playing - hide a seek - and so we smile when Owl suggests this exact game.  The other aspect of this book which would be very useful for ESL teachers is the way Pat Hutchins uses prepositions such as across, among, over, in, near and around.

Shrinking Mouse tackles a more complex concept.  If something is some distance away is it in fact smaller?  The 'joke' her works when children know the animals are not actually shrinking and they most certainly will not disappear altogether.

If you have read Handa's surprise you will also enjoy We're going on a picnic.  The three friends fill the picnic basket with their favourite treats - berries for Hen, apples for Goose and Pears for Duck but as they walk along deciding on the best spot to sit a small team of thieves are at work. The final illustration is sure to make you and your young audience smile.

Finally I should mention Pat's newest title - the sequel to Rosie's walk (1968) entitled Where, oh where, is Rosie Chick?  This is the perfect book to read to a very young child and it contains the same visual jokes she included all those years ago.

If you want to explore Pat Hutchins books you should also look for her monster series - The Very worst Monster, Where's the Baby, Silly Billy and Three Star BillyWhere's the Baby is particularly clever in the use of rhyme of humour.  Students in my school always enjoy the antics of naughty Billy and his long suffering sister Hazel.  This book is a joy to read aloud.

Hutchins said of her writing, “I like to build my stories up, so the reader can understand what is happening and, in some cases, anticipate what is likely to happen on the next page. I think one can get quite complicated ideas across to small children as long as they are presented in a simple, satisfying way.”

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

Do you love a fast paced adventure?  Do you enjoy train travel?  Would you like to visit the circus? Do you wonder about creatures like the Sasquatch?  Do you enjoy books where you cheer the hero and hiss the villain?  If you answered yes to any of these questions then The Boundless is absolutely the right book for you.

The year is 1887 and the Boundless, the most amazing train in the world, the longest train in the world with 987 carriages holding 6,495 passengers, measuring seven miles is making a maiden voyage from Halifax in Easter Canada right across to Victoria in the west.  This exciting and unique train becomes one of the characters in this story of murder, circus performers and the eternal quests for gold and immortality.  In each chapter we read about the incredible and splendid facilities provided on the train.  I don't want to spoil things for you because the train is filled with wonders including a billiards room and an amazing post office.  Here are a few descriptions :

"before him is a luxurious parlor with armchairs and sofas and side tables and electric lamps and fresh flowers in vases."

"Entering the Vancouver car, he finds himself in a cozy library, with long reading tables and green shaded lamps and floor-to-ceiling walnut bookshelves between the windows."

"Our rolling city comprises first class, second class, third class, colonist class, and behind these several miles of freight cars ... (and) a string of eighty carriages belonging to the world-renowned Zirkus Dante."

In chapter one we learn that Will's dad has been working on the railway.  Will is invited to visit his father up on the line but on the way the train is attacked by a sasquatch. The owner of the line Mr Van Horne has organised a ceremony featuring the installation of the last rail spike.  To mark the occasion this spike is gold and encrusted with diamonds.  Will is given the honor of hammering in the spike but the celebratory gun fire sets of a huge avalanche.  Will, his dad, Mr Van Horne and Brogan are among the survivors as the snow engulfs the scene.  Three years later the train is now ready to set off but Brogan still has his sights set on that spike.  He will stop at nothing, including murder, to win this prize.  Also seeking a prize is Mr Dorian the circus manager.  He wants a painting owned by Van Horne but it seems the owner will not part with this 'treasure'.  Sadly now Van Horne is dead but he is on the train in a special carriage.

The train is speeding through the countryside and so is Will because Brogan wants the key to Van Horne's coffin rail car and Will is now holding it after the guard from the funeral car is killed.  Helping him with all of this Will has a wonderful friend - circus performer Maren.  Her skill with locks, her tightrope expertise and her courage all help Will escape certain death more than once.

I have been a fan of Canadian author Kenneth Oppel for many years.  I highly recommend you look for the trilogy which begins with Airborn and the quartet which begins with Silverwing.

You can hear part of Chapter Two here.  This book would make a splendid class read-aloud for a senior Primary group and Kenneth Oppel has a set of teaching notes to get you started.  If I have not convinced you to read The Boundless here is an enthusiastic review with more plot details and some ideas to use for a book talk.  If you enjoy train stories you could also look for On the Blue Comet by Rosemary Wells.  I was excited to see my fellow blogger Mr K also loved this book - he said This is one of my favorite books of the year, and an excellent adventure story for boys and girls alike.  It is the best book Mr. Oppel has written (and he's written some real winners), and a book I'll recommend to everyone.

Canadian railway history, fantasy, a flutter of romance—and a thoughtful examination of social injustice—collide in this entertaining swashbuckler ... Kirkus

Kenneth Oppel weaves history with alternative technology and a real landscape with creatures from native folklore: sasquatches roam the forested mountains, wendigos haunt the northern wastes and a muskeg hag lures unsuspecting travelers into her bog. The fully-realized setting outside the train is detailed and realistic, with avalanches and forested mountainsides galore, but the train is the most compelling element of the setting. KidsReads

Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Blinding Light by Julie Lawson

The biggest explosion of the pre-atomic age, a catastrophe of almost 
biblical proportions

I just spent four very cold days in Vancouver so I headed for a bookshop downtown.  Browsing the shelves I looked for a Canadian book and found A Blinding Light.  This book was a perfect book for me in several ways.  I had just been visiting Victoria on Vancouver Island and this is where Julie Lawson lives.  I have visited Halifax twice in recent years and A Blinding Light is set in Halifax during a major historical incident from 1917.  Knowing the layout of the city helped me to visualize many of the important scenes.  This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion which happened on 6th December, 1917.  I did not know anything about this event until I read this book.

Will and his sister live in Halifax which is a busy sea port during the turmoil of World War I ships travel across the Atlantic ocean to war torn Europe.  Two ships collide in the harbour, one is filled with a "lethal assortment of explosives."  Over 2000 people were killed, 9000 people were injured and 6000 people were left homeless but these are just statistics.  A Blinding Light gives this enormous destruction a human face.  Will is a witness to the events and Livy is caught inside a house which collapses.  Their mother is badly hurt while out doing her charity work and it seems everything in their lives and in the lives of those associated with their family will now change in ways no one would have imagined.

You can read more about the inspiration for this story on the author web site.   Here is a review with more details of the plot.

Here is a short film which explains these events.  Julie Lawson has also written No Safe Harbour - the Halifax Explosion - the Diary of Charlotte Blackburn for the Dear Canada series.  Readers who enjoy historical fiction and who want to learn more about events in other parts of the world will enjoy A Blinding Light which is also available as an ebook.

The town was literally ablaze, the dry dock and dockyard buildings completely demolished and everywhere wounded and dead. The theatres and suitable buildings were all turned into hospitals or shelters for the accommodation of the homeless. Naval and Military pickets were patrolling the streets endeavouring to keep order. Poor little kiddies homeless, their parents having perished, were crying piteously and anxious relatives were inquiring for their dear ones.”  From the Diary of Frank Baker sailor 1917.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Beautiful blue world by Suzanne Lafleur

Over the last few weeks I have visited many bookshops in the US and Canada.  On my last few days I needed to grab a few books to read on the journey home and so I visited Kidsbooks in Vancouver.  This is a fabulous book store set out over two large shop spaces with an enormous collection organised into ages.

It is odd that I find selecting books quite difficult. I can easily buy books for my school library and Kidsbooks had hundreds I would have gladly bought but browsing the Middle Fiction section looking for a book to read myself took a long time.  One of the young staff was very helpful but nearly every title he recommended I had already read. We both ended up laughing about this. I finally picked up this book -  Beautiful Blue world and another simply splendid one by Canadian author Kenneth Oppel which I will talk about later.

Suzanne LaFleur is a US author and Beautiful Blue World is her fourth book.  I am so glad I have discovered her writing because I devoured Beautiful Blue World in just one sitting (well before my long travel day).  I made this choice based on the cover and the words on the blurb "kindness can be a weapon, and children have the power to see what adults cannot."

Beautiful Blue World is set during a time of war in an invented world with fantasy names such as Tyssia, Sofarende and Eilean, but this book is not a fantasy.  As the story opens Mathilde and her family have to take shelter from bombing and air raids (look closely at the cover and you can see images of planes called aerials).  There are posters around their town asking for young recruits :


The family of children who are recruited will receive a large amount of money and regular payments "you would be provided with room and board for the duration of your service and, at eighteen, your university education."  The catches are - the children cannot return home, they cannot send or receive letters and if they are successful with the test they are then committed to serve.  All of this is a huge dilemma for the family.  Father does not want Mathilde, who he calls Big, to go but this might give her opportunities far beyond what the family can provide.  Mathilde is called Big because she has two younger sisters.  I love this idea :

"I used to be Little, a long time ago, before Kammi came, but since she was born when I was four, I have been Big. When Tye came, Kammi became Middle.  Little, Middle, Big."

Mathilde and her friend Megs sit the test.  The questions are very strange and complex.  Megs is one of the smartest girls in the school but she is not chosen instead Mathilde is given the news that she has been selected - the only student from her school.  She travels by train to a strange old house where she finds other children working on solving puzzles.  The military people are using the children to make predictions about bombing patterns and raids by the enemy.  Mathilde feels she has no skills for this.  She is set a different assignment.  Talking with a captured soldier.  Over many weeks she forms a relationship with this young man and makes an important discovery about human frailty and kindness.  Take a look at this review for all the plot details.

I absolutely loved this book.  Mathilde is a deep thinker, problem solver and most importantly she has a deep emotional intuition.  I rarely give ratings but this is a five out of five book.

Listen to an audio sample of the first pages here.  There is also a map at the front of the book which will help with your understanding of the threats facing Sofarende.

Deeply emotional, compelling, and brilliant. Kirkus

Writing in the first person, LaFleur crafts a protagonist who is compassionate and resourceful, in a war-ravaged world in which children are, by turns, exploited and empowered. The tension is high and danger ever present.   School Library Journal

Mathilde is one of those characters whose resourcefulness you want to teach your children, whose loyalty is unsurpassed, and whose penchant for kindness is one we all should model. Happily Ever Elephants

Good news there is a sequel - Threads of Blue. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Wing and Claw Book One Forest of Wonders by Linda Sue Park

"For as long as Raffa could remember, he had possessed a keen instinct for apothecary. At times, combining botanicals felt to him like mixing colour, adding ingredients until the hues in his mind matched or complemented each other."

Forest of Wonders is on my reading list for the USBBY conference and I am so happy because this book is utterly engrossing and I am so excited to be meeting Linda Sue Park at the conference. 

I have mentioned in previous posts that I enjoy books with political threads.  In Forest of Wonders the city ruler summons two apothecaries to come and work for her and she will provide a well equipped laboratory and comfortable lodgings. Of course this offer is not as good as it seems but to Raffa it seems like a dream job.  He has found an injured bat which he names Echo.  Raffa is able to nurse the little bat back to health using a rare red vine that he finds in the forest.  An interesting side effect of using this means Echo can now speak but there are also other more dangerous effects.  Raffa realises his cousin Garith has taken some of the plant to the city called Gilden and so he decides to run away to the city so he can warn his fun loving and impetuous cousin. 
Arriving in the city he is swept up into the chaos, he is nearly imprisoned and he makes two new and important friends.  He also discovers the truth about the work of his Uncle and Chancellor. By the end of this first book all four new friends are on the run accompanied by Echo (he has such a great sense of humour) and a huge bear.  This cliff hanger ending means you will be desperate to find book 2. 

Another very important and appealing aspect of Forest of Wonders is the rich vocabulary used by Linda Sue Park.  Here are some examples :


There are also some beautiful invented words like sunpeak, sleepydeep, and sunfall along with sayings like "steady morning".

Here is the trailer from Harper Collins.  The second book in the trilogy is called Cavern of Secrets.  You can see a longer interview with Linda Sue Park here.  You can read a sample and listen to a audio excerpt here.

Take time to read my thoughts about other wonderful books by Linda Sue Park she is such a talent!

With its engaging hero, talking animals, arcane magic, moral issues, and unresolved plot, this first of a proposed trilogy promises more exciting forest wonders. Kirkus

As in life, the choices are never black and white as Park’s realistically flawed characters struggle between looking out for the greater good or for themselves.   Publishers Weekly

It is a fantasy novel, yes, but it is also a provocative moral tale about the relationship between humans and animals. An Aesop’s fable turned ­inside out. New York Times