Sunday, July 23, 2017

Little Oleg by Margaret and John Cort

First off this is a very old book (1965) - over fifty years old actually - but as you may have guessed it is new to me.  We are about to hold our annual library donate-a-book event. This is always so exciting as we display over 1000 new books and over the coming weeks students will begin to read the books they donate and then share other new books with their friends.  We have spent many months preparing for this important library event and one of our final boxes of new books arrived last week.  Inside was Little Oleg - a book I certainly needed to discover.

"Once upon a time there were two friends, called Eric and Oleg.  They lived in a northern country.  Eric's house was large and he had several acres of land. Oleg's house was small and all the land he owned was his vegetable garden."

Do you get a sense here of these characters?  Reading between the lines does one seem proud and perhaps selfish and the other humble and generous?

Eric's house burns down.  Oleg offers hospitality. He shares his limited food.  He even helps to rebuild Eric's house but nothing he does is good enough for Eric.  The house "looked quite splendid and Oleg felt proud as he had done most of the work. 'Of course', said Eric, it's not as grand as my old house, but it will do."

The truly special thing about Oleg, though, is that despite this criticism, despite the fact that he has gone into debt trying to feed Eric's enormous appetite, he continues to show kindness and caring towards his neighbour. Oleg's fortunes do change thanks to Eric who unwittingly gives Oleg a coat with valuable buttons.  Oleg hosts a party to celebrate a return to the good times but Eric cannot see through his own misery and pride.  He does not recognize the hand of friendship when it is offered to him and he simply retreats into his new home, alone.

This might look like a book for younger students but it does contain a deep message that you could share with older students.  I do think there would be lots to discuss here especially around the topic of decision making.

I would pair this book with Herbert and Harry by Pamela Allen.

Ms Bixby's last day by John David Anderson

"The truth is - the whole truth is - that it's not the last day that matters most. It's the ones in between, the ones you get the chance to look back on. They're carnation days. They may not stand out the most at first, but they stay with you the longest."

I have wanted to read this book ever since I saw the cover on a blog site last year.  I was not disappointed - this is another one of those books that I read right through in one sitting.  Yes it is that good but it does require a little concentration.

The story is told using three alternating voices. Each chapter is told by the boys who take turns to fill in the story events so it is important to read the chapter headings so you know which boy is the narrator. In each chapter the boys slowly reveal their relationship with their very special teacher Ms Bixby, the difficulties of their personal lives and also the importance of their relationships with each other.

A few weeks back the teacher had asked the students to describe their last day - on earth.  The students begin to talk but then one student asks Ms Bixby about her last day.  As it turns out this is quite prophetic as her last day is actually coming.  When Ms Bixby announces she has to go into hospital every one is devastated.  Tropher explains there are in fact six kinds of teachers.  I won't define them here for you but you may be able to guess what some are like.  Zombies, Caff-Adds, Dungeon Masters, Spielbergs, Noobs and "the last kind we simply call the Good Ones." Ms Bixby is one of the Good Ones.

Three of her students - Tropher (Christopher), Steve and Brand - decide to create Ms Bixby's last day on earth.  I cannot tell you everything here because it will spoil the story but there is some mention of cheesecake and after reading about this you may just want to go out a buy one and share it with your own favourite teacher.

I liked the way each boy has a reason to feel close to Ms Bixby and I imagine every student in her class would also have this connection.  I also liked the way each story is revealed slowly keeping you on your toes as you piece together the three back stories.  Ms Bixby herself is also an inspiration from her pink hair to her little daily sayings - Bixbyisms.  As for those carnations :

"Carnations get a bad rap, she said, because they are cheaper than roses, but she liked them better because they fight harder. Roses are quitters ... "

At its heart this is a book about kindness and that is a message I truly appreciate.  Take a look here at the author web site.  Ms Yingling, my blogging hero who does not like sad books,  also gives this book a glowing review.

Here is a little video promotion from the publisher and some excellent teaching ideas.  Here is a teacher made trailer.  Here is an audio interview with the author.  It is a long interview but worth spending time listening to the way the author developed this story but do this after you have read this book.

I would follow Ms Bixy's Last day with Because of Mr Terupt and if you like the structure of alternating voices take a look at Trash.  If you don't mind shedding a few tears you could also take a look at The Year Mrs Montague cried.

Sad and satisfying in just the right amounts.  Kirkus

But it is also a powerful journey of revelation, as each boy is able to offer up, like a blessing, the ways in which Ms. Bixby has brought hope and wholeness into the dark.   New York Times

VERDICT This story provides a full-spectrum, emotionally satisfying experience that will have readers laughing, crying, and everything in between. As Topher would say, this is one frawesome (freaking awesome) book. School Library Journal

Sunday, July 16, 2017

When friendship followed me home by Paul Griffin

"The answer is yes," my mother said.  I didn't even get a chance to ask her. She just saw the little varmint in my arms and said okay.  ...  "He picked you for a reason," she said.  ... 
"Life's a journey, Traveler."

One of the things I worry about when I read about new books is the way the suggested reading age given by publishers and reviews is often starkly at odds with my own view.

When Friendship followed me home is a truly tragic story.  Yes it does have uplifting moments but Ben Coffin has certainly packed a lot in to his twelve years.  Spoiler alert.  Ben is a foster child.  He is adopted at age ten by a wonderful lady Tess but she is 67 and not in good health.  The school bully is making life hard in his new school.  Ben finds a stray dog and he names her Flip.  This little dog is such a joy and through Flip, Ben makes a very important friend - Halley but Halley is very ill.  She is undergoing regular chemo treatments which are not really working.  Ben also finds refuge in the town library and in the kindness of the librarian but I am sure you can read between the lines here and see all the possible tragedies.

I read one review who said this book contains tough topics and that is certainly true but I do think this book will appeal to a very mature Primary student and students in High School.  I do know all readers will fall in love with Flip and deeply admire Halley for her bravery, storytelling ability and wisdom.

Listen to the author reading his book here.

Here are some reviews :

It left me with faith that people can feel discarded, as though everything they love will be taken from them, and still end up whole, if they are touched by love and friendship.   New York Times 

Entrancing, magical, tragic, and uplifting.  Kirkus

Ben wrestles with big questions in relatable, realistic ways, and his huge heart and optimism will win over even the most hardened skeptics.  Publishers Weekly

Friday, July 14, 2017

Thalia the failure by Robin Klein

"Hecate cast a spell on her pretty bracelet. All the silver charms turned into nasty things - a tiny silver hand grenade that really worked, a live silver spider, a silver rat-trap all set to spring, 
a silver dagger that would stab a bee, a tiny silver snake that wriggled and hissed."

We have a large audio book collection in our school library so I often borrow a few over holidays when I may be taking a longer car trip.

Thalia the Failure is a very old book.  It was published in 1984 but it is still a really great book to read or listen to, as I did with the audio book.

Thalia does not want to go to Madame Aquila's Academy for witches she would much prefer to go to Ferntree Primary with her friends Lyneve and Tracy Dodds but she is a polite girl and she does not want to cause a fuss so she sets off for her new school and tries really hard in every class but she just can't do any of the things her teachers expect and worse everything seems to go horribly wrong.

Magic with Ms Fizz
Broom handling with Madame Aquila
Crystal ball gazing with Fortuna the Gypsy
Cooking with Monsieur Diable

Madame Aquila keen to pass Thalia because Mrs Birtles has promised to gift the school a new planetarium.  The description of Madame Aquila is one you could use with a class :

"Madame was most impressive to look at.  Her gown was made of fine cloth spun especially by a whole colony of funnel-web spiders, and her fingernails had never been cut in her life. They were twenty centimetres long and curled like French horns."

Her classmates bully and tease Thalia.  Early on they send her to Coventry. Thalia knew this meant no one would talk to her but what it really means is they send her to the real city of Coventry.   At the final graduation everything comes to a head and Thalia explodes.  This is actually a good thing because it gives Madame Aquila the idea to say Thalia has skills beyond those of the academy "she'll have to change to a different school. With powers such as we have just witnessed, it would be much too dangerous to award her a diploma to practice magic."

The audio book is read by Caroline Lee. This little book should still be in most school libraries and would make a perfect read-aloud for Grades 2 and 3.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The blue cat by Ursula Dubosarsky

There is so much to enjoy about this intriguing historical novel set in Sydney.  I read it all in one sitting which is one way I measure my reading enjoyment.  Adding to this I have a family connection with Neutral Bay Public School where Ursula's father went to school and my grandmother lived at Kurraba Point - part of the setting for this story.

When I talked about Vinnie's war I made the comment that I enjoyed the inclusion of war time memorabilia but I wanted a list of credits.  Ursula Dubosarsky provides all the details for her authentic documents and I found I really enjoyed reading about the photos, posters, newspaper articles and letters which appear throughout the book.  This is a story which has obviously been very carefully researched.

The next aspect of this story that I really enjoyed was the recognizable setting of Sydney.  References to Taronga Zoo, Luna Park, Cremorne Baths and ferries on the harbour.  The block of flats where 'Ellery' lives with his dad sounded just like the block in Neutral Bay where my grandmother lived :

"a block of flats of mulberry-coloured brick, with stone balconies that faced the water across a stretch of rough, sloping bush. There was a double glass door at the entrance of the building and on either side of the door were stone flowers, built into the walls. ... There were tiles on the floor too, laid out to make patterns of squares and triangles, like Roman mosaics."

Told through the eyes of a child, Columbia experiences night time blackouts, air raid sirens, the fear of invasion by Japan and the bombing of Darwin but the most personal and puzzling thing is the arrival of a little boy from Europe.  He has no English and does not seem able to speak and while the school and children call him Ellery - this is not really his name.  Ellery fascinates Columbia.  She wonders about his mother.  Has she been taken by Hitler?  She wonders about the book he carries everywhere. She wonders about his perfect appearance and his very white skin.  While all of this is going on a blue cat arrives - a stray. It is taken in by one of the eccentric sisters who live next door. But like Ellery, the cat is also a figure of mystery.  Where did he come from?  What has he seen?

You will learn some fascinating things in this book such the use of daylight saving between 1942 and 1944. It was actually first introduced here in 1916.

"What are you doing?' I asked, leaning over, elbows on the table.  'Changing the time,' my father replied. 'Putting the clock forward.'  I was startled. Changing the time? You were not allowed to do that. It was like moving the stars in heaven or changing the days of the week."

Why did the time change? To save electricity according to the government but Columbia's father is a doubter - he does not change his own wristwatch - he just gives a sly smile.

Here is a review in the Sydney Morning Herald.  Ursula talks about her book to Kids Book Review and her own web site offers more insights into the inspiration and creation of this book.  If this book is short listed for our 2018 CBCA award (and it should be) then you will certainly want to explore this rich resource.  Here is the trailer narrated by Ursula herself.  I just read this interview with Ursula and have discovered her PhD thesis was about small people in children's book and she used Rumer Godden's doll books which are childhood favorites of mine.  Here are teachers notes for The blue cat.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A clatter of jars by Lisa Graff

"Singular Talents are understood as feats beyond standard human abilities and/or laws of physics."

A clatter of jars is the companion volume to A tangle of knots.  I like this concept of a companion novel.

Lisa Graff explains :
To my mind, the companion novel combines the best of both worlds. It integrates characters, settings, even plotlines from a previous novel, but is still completely its own book that can be read independently of the first.

I absolutely adored A tangle of knots but I did find A clatter of jars a more complex read. I think I now need to re-read the first book.  The Kirkus reviewer actually suggests you might need to read this second book more than once.! What I really wanted was a list of the Talents especially since some are quite obscure :

  • Pinnacle - the ability to lift objects
  • Scanner - the ability to read minds
  • Coax - "the ability to Wheedle Talents from one person to another and back again."
  • Mimic - the ability to duplicate the Talent of anyone for approximately one year
  • Recollector - able to transplant memories from one mind to another

The children have come to Camp Atropos.  Jolene Mallory, the camp director, does not have a Talent but she does have an artifact - a harmonica - which she uses to identify the Talents of others. She also collects and sells Talents in small jars which wash up on the shores of the lake beside the camp.  The reasons for this mystery are explained in the prologue (listen here) which links this book to the original story found in A Tangle of Knots.  Each of the campers - Liliana (Lilly), Charlotte (Chuck), Renwick (Renny) and Jo the director have complex family issues to resolve but not before some very chaotic scenes involving mixed up and lost Talents.

Here is the Horn Book review and one from Nerdy Book Club.

The fourteenth goldfish by Jennifer L Holm

Believe in the possible

The fourteenth goldfish was an interesting book to read after The Curious world of Calpurnia Tate because it is another story filled with science.

Again we have a scientist in the family - another grandfather. Ellie's grandfather Melvin  has been researching a cure for aging - the fountain of youth.  He has experimented on himself and as the story opens he has been bought home by Ellie's mother - his daughter - but he now looks like a 13 year old boy.

This book is quite a light read but there are some laugh aloud moments and you will enjoy the honest voice of Ellie as she negotiates Middle School, friendships and her 'young' old grandfather.

Here is a trailer from the publisher where you can hear the author talking about this book.  The title relates to a goldfish given to each child back in preschool.  "The goldfish will teach your child about the cycle of life ... goldfish don't last very long."

Somehow Goldie lasts right through to fifth grade but then Ellie's mother reveals the truth.  This is actually the thirteenth goldfish - she has been quietly replacing them at regular intervals.  This metaphor for life, though, is at the heart of this book.  There is a cycle for life and perhaps we tamper with it at our peril.  Through her conversations with Melvin Ellie learns about the scientific endeavors of Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Marie Curie and Isaac Newton.  "Newton, you mean like the cookie?'  'No Isaac Newton the father of modern physics!"

I do like the cover design, numerous endorsements, discussion questions and profiles of scientists which are included with this book along with a cheeky book review by Melvin after reading The Catcher in the Rye.  Here are a set of teaching notes from the publisher.

We can search for the fountain of youth, or sneakily replace our kid’s goldfish when it dies, or --- as Ellie and Melvin find --- we can face and embrace our mortality as a beacon of possibility.   KidsReads

Even as he helps Ellie recognize they are kindred spirits, bonded by their love of science, she helps him reconsider his priorities. Perhaps the most important prize is not the Nobel after all. Youth, old age, life, death, love, possibilities and — oh yes — goldfish all come together in this warm, witty and wise novel. New York Times

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The curious world of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The elephant by Peter Carnavas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would pair The elephant with any of these books :

Friday, June 30, 2017

The truth of me by Patricia MacLachlan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robbie’s quietly affecting observations will feel like truth  Kirkus

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

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Post 999 What I am reading

I excited to report that I have almost reached my goal of 1000 blog reviews.  In late 2008 when I started this blog I set a target of four reviews each month and thought I might reach 1000 by the end of 2018 - so you can see I am ahead of my target.

I am so glad I started this blog as a way to record my thoughts about the books I read, as a way to focus my reading, and as a way to gather associated resources to support teachers and students who might read a post and then want to explore a title a little further through audio samples, reviews or teaching ideas.  It is also a great memory jogger when I forget a title.

One exciting part of this blog (for me) has been the occasional comment from a real author - Sharon Creech, Barbara O'Connor, Elizabeth Winthrop, Kate Wilkinson, Uma Krishnaswami, Susan White, Raewyn Caisley, John Light, Frances Watts, Hazel Hutchins, Adam Selzer, Lian Tanner, Melissa Thomson and Pamela Freeman.

It is also very special when I meet a colleague or acquaintance and they tell me they enjoy reading this blog.  One special friend has greatly helped when she tells me I seem to have been a little quiet. This spurs me on to get writing.

My reading pile is always huge as I work in a well resourced school library here in Australia. The students and teachers in my school are also lucky to have access to an extensive and very rich library collection.  I was listening to Leigh Hobbs (Mr Chicken etc) today and he talked again about the vital importance of school libraries.

"I'm appalled at the continuing disappearance from schools of Libraries and Librarians as well the diminishing presence of art and music from the primary (in particular) school curriculum. As Australian Children's Laureate 2016-2017 I am passionate about, and convinced of, the value of School Libraries and fully trained Librarians, and art and music as being an invaluable part of a child's life at school." Leigh Hobbs

Here are a few of the titles on my current reading pile :

The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

I was so completely absorbed in the first installment The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.  I have been waiting to open this sequel because I was a little worried it might not be quite as good but now I have read the first two chapters and I am once again immersed in the world of Callie Vee.

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox

Kirkus say this is a page turning adventure.  It is a long book with small print so I will need a long stretch of time to tackle this one but luckily our school winter holiday is about to begin.

Here is a quote from the blurb "Twelve-year-old Katherine Bateson believes in a logical explanation for everything. But even she can't make sense of the strange goings-on at Rookskill Castle, the draft old Scottish castle-turned-school where she and her siblings have been sent to escape the London Blitz."

Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr

I will confess this has been on my reading pile several times and then I feel guilty and take it back to school.  Now that it has been shortlisted for our CBCA awards for 2017 I do need to settled down and read this one.  I have started this book a few times but others tell me it is a gripping read.

Here is a quote from the blurb : "The firstborn daughter of a priestess is cast out as a baby, and after raiders kill her adopted family, she is abandoned at the gates of the Great Hall, anonymous and mute. Called No-Name, the cursed child, she is raised a slave, and not until she is twelve does she learn her name is Aissa: the dragonfly."

When Friendship followed me home by Paul Griffin

Kirkus says magical and uplifting.  The covers of this book are covered in endorsements and it was featured on a number of prestigious reading lists in 2016.

Here is a quote from the blurb : "Ben Coffin has never felt like he fits in. ... All that changes when he finds a scruffy abandoned dog named Flip."

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L Holm

When I read Turtle in Paradise I wanted to stand at the top of a mountain and tell everyone about this wonderful story so I am looking forward to another book by Jennifer L Holm.

Here is a quote from the blurb : "Ellie has never liked change. She misses fifth grade She misses her old best friend. She even misses her dearly departed goldfish. Then one day a strange boy shows up. He's bossy. He's cranky. And weirdly enough ... he looks a lot like Ellie;s grandfather, a scientist, who's always been slightly obsessed with immortality."

My 1000th post will feature a beautiful and heartwarming book by Patricia McLachlan - The truth of me.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Beetle Queen by MG Leonard

I don't want to live an ordinary life. I'm not good at it.  ... 
Adventures are tough but that's the point of them isn't it?  - Virginia

It is absolutely essential to read the first installment Beetle Boy before you pick up Beetle Queen.  I read Beetle Boy in April but I did need to really concentrate and draw on my memory as I read this second book.  There is very little opportunity to recap the past because MG Leonard dives straight into the action.

Lucretia Cutter has a shocking plan to conquer the earth.  She will make her big announcement at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.  The attention of the crowd will be caught by two very special gowns she has made for two nominee actresses.  When you read about them, though, you will quite rightly be very suspicious.  These are not just glamorous dresses :

"I call my creation Snow White because it is made from the purest white substance to be found in the natural world. ... it's made of beetles ... The extreme whiteness comes from a thin layer of reflective photonic solid on its scales."

Have you guessed about these beetles? The actress leaves having agreed to tell no one about the gown she will be given on the day of the awards.  Read on :

"The dress, hanging in the open trunk, shimmered and vibrated like it was coming apart, suddenly exploding into a whirlwind of movement as thousands of specially bred Cyphochilus beetles flew out of their fastenings and swarmed around Lucretia ... "

The dress deception is only the beginning.  Lucretia has huge plans using the beetles she now controls.  Our heroes Darkus, Virginia, Bertolt and Uncle Max know Lucretia is up to no good.  They discover she is planning to burn down beetle mountain and they race to save their friends but sadly the friends are too late.   They arrive and witness the death of thousands of beetles.  These scenes will leave you as heart-broken as Darkus but this also makes them all the more determined to stop this evil 'woman'.

In this second book you will also discover more about Novak and again some of this is quite awful. When you pick up this book read pages 165-168.

You can read the first chapter here or listen to the author reading here. Here is a very detailed review.  Playing by the Book have some good ideas to take this book even further.

One of the things I loved about Beetle Boy was the edge of the pages which were covered with beetles. I now read the first 2000 copies of Beetle Queen had yellow ladybirds on the edge - wish my copy had this :

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The storm whale in winter by Benji Davies

Noi could not forget his friend.

My countdown has begun.  The Storm Whale in Winter is post 997!  I am close to my target of 1000 reviews.

The Storm Whale in Winter is the companion book to The Storm Whale so you might like to start by reading my thoughts.  Then find this first book so you understand the sequel.  I love the work of Benji Davies and this new book is just as perfect as the first.  We have nine books illustrated by Benji in our school library.  Read an interview here.

Winter has come. Noi's dad sets off on hist last trip of the season but he fails to return home. The sea is frozen hard so Noi walks out onto the ice holding only a tiny lantern with snow falling all around. It seems all is lost when he glimpses his father's boat but it is empty. Noi climbs on board and falls into an exhausted sleep. What Noi does not know is that his old friend is close by - under the sea. The storm whale and his friends work together to push Noi back to the safety of the harbour.

Something to discuss with a class.  Look at the little boat and then look at the changes that are made in the Summer.  This would be a great book for a father and son to share.  You can see more art from this book here.

The bookshop girl by Sylvia Bishop illustrated by Ashley Bishop

"You have in your hands the story of Property Jones. I hope your copy smells of something nice - like crisp paper, 
or that churchy second-hand-book smell ... "

Property Jones is The Bookshop Girl but how did she get such a strange name?  This little girl, with special talents, was left in a bookshop when she was five years old.  Michael Jones, who was ten at the time, found her and put her in the lost property cupboard. She ended up staying with Michael and his mother Netty - the owner of the bookshop and so this story begins.  Oh and yes the name stuck.

The biggest secret you need to know about Property is that, while she does love her family and her life in a bookshop, she cannot read.  Michael and Netty do not know about this.  The family enter a competition to win a new bookshop!  Amazing.  The prize shop is called Montgomery Book Emporium.  It is filled with rooms which reflect the books inside.  This is such a great idea.  Here is the space adventures room :

"painted all over in deep indigo, speckled with twinkling lights. The books hanging from fine threads to that they almost seemed to be floating in mid-air."

Here is the room of woodland tales :

"which had a pine needle floor, and kept its books in trees, where there were actual living mice and birds."

The mystery -  why has Albert Montgomery given away such an amazing shop.  The answer comes the very next day with the arrival of a criminal called Mr Gimble, his accomplice Eliot Pink and a group of henchmen called the Wollups.  It seems Mr Montgomery owes money them money, forty-three million pounds, for a play actually written by the hand of Shakespeare.  Property will need to get to the bottom of this.  It is true she cannot read but she has extremely well developed powers of observation.  Something is not quite right. The writing and ink look fine but the paper and smells are wrong.  This crime is just the tip of an iceberg.  Michael and Property uncover the whole scam and everyone spends a delightful evening modifying these supposedly original manuscripts.  Here is an example of their additions :

  • Sacred book of 12th Century monks containing the opening scene from Star Wars
  • Ancient philosopher Aristotle claims the meaning of life is a deep-pan pizza
  • Cleopatra had a pet T-Rex called Nigel

Here is a review from The Guardian and a five star review from Books for Keeps.  I also need to mention the illustrations in this book are perfect.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

What do you do with an idea? Written by Kobi Yamada illustrated by Mae Besom

What do you do with an idea? Especially an idea that's different or daring, or just a little wild?  Do you hide it? Walk away from it? Do you pretend it isn't yours?

These are two very special books you could use with any class from the youngest to oldest children. In the first book What do you do with an idea? we see a little boy and his growing idea.

"I was afraid that if people saw it, they would laugh at it. I was afraid they would think it was silly."

This is a gentle book with themes of mindfulness, problem solving, resilience, perseverance, and the power of the individual.  Here is a set of excellent discussion questions.  This book is would also be useful for class work on visual literacy as we watch the colours gently progress from sepia to warm sunshine.

What do you do with a problem? is a more complex book.  You could pair this with Mr Huff.

"I worried about what would happen. I worried about what could happen. I worried about this and worried about that."

When the boy finally confronts his problem he discovers it was not what he thought.  He reverses his view and sees the problem as an opportunity and again the final pages are filled with warm colours.

Here is a detailed review and a video of What do you do with an idea?  and a Nerdy Book Club review. Here is the Kirkus review of the companion volume What do you do with a problem?

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Vegetable Thieves by Inga Moore

First off I do need to give a little warning here.  You probably won't find a copy of The Vegetable Thieves.  It is long out of print and unlikely to be held in a public library or even a school library.  All of this makes me sad but I do want to share this book with you.

One of the wonders of the Internet is book shopping and especially second hand book shopping. From time to time I have thought about The Vegetable Thieves (1983) which I first read and enjoyed in 1985. I decided to see if I could find a copy somewhere in the world.  Tonight my copy (in mint condition) arrived.  It even smells good.

Inga Moore was born in England, lived in Australia and then moved back to England.  A very popular book in our school library is Six Dinner Sid by Inga Moore and I still read two of her earliest books occasionally - Aktil's big Swim and Aktil's bicycle ride.  I also really love The truffle hunter. More recently Inga Moore has illustrated Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden.

Des and Letty work very hard in their market garden.  It is successful but the personal price is high.  Every night they collapse exhausted - there isn't even time for a stroll home after the movies.

"Then one night, thieves came.  ... By the end of the week they'd taken two cauliflowers, six swedes, a string of onions, a sack of potatoes, leeks, parsley and a very large savoy cabbage."

Can you guess the recipe?  Can you imagine the identity of these thieves.  I do think you will get a surprise and since you probably won't be able to find this book I will tell you.  Des and Letty try to keep watch but after another hard day they fall asleep.  When they wake up they see a trail of empty broad bean pods.  They follow the trail and discover a group of mice eating broad beans, "done up nicely in leek and parsley sauce!"

Des and Letty are outraged.  They burst in with their sticks raised.  Only to discover the thieves are actually children.  They have no parents and they uncle has run off to join the circus.  The children's money has run out so they have been pinching things.

Letty makes a plan.  Rona, Reggie, Ronnie, Sid and Rita come to the market garden the next day after school.  They help with all the garden chores and Letty cooks a lovely dinner of pumpkin pie, bean hotpot and (I love the sound of this) steamed strawberry pudding.  The four little mice go home but the next day they turn up again on the doorstep with all their belongings.  The final illustration shows the whole group enjoying an evening game of shuttlecock - just charming.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The girl of glass by Holly Webb

The Girl of Glass is such a difficult book to categorize.  It is a story about the use of magic. Mariana's father is able to add magic to the glass pieces he makes.  This is also a story about family relationships and deep grief.  Some reviews I have seen say age 9+ but I think this book would suit a more mature senior primary student who is ready to cope with the final scenes which I won't spoil here.  It is also a story about loyalty, gifts and talents and family expectations.

Mariana lives with her father, step mother and little sister  Eliza. Sadly Eliza is gravely ill and no remedy, and they have tried so many, seems able to cure her.  Mariana loves her tiny fragile sister but one day she dies :

"Eliza smiled again, and then the awareness faded out of her eyes, leaving them lifeless, emptier than the shards of blue glass in the spoils bin downstairs.  Marina's father leaned over, and held the bubble of molten glass to Eliza's mouth, in time to catch her last faint sighing breath."

This breath is then used to give life to a glass doll made to look exactly like Eliza.  This doll, however, is not Eliza and so she is rejected by Mariana's mother.  There are several violent scenes where Bianca, in her grief, lashes out at this strange glass creature.  Mariana, however, loves her glass sister.  She is not really a copy of Eliza.  She is a creature with her own needs and opinions. Their father finally realizes he has been cruel when he made this creature and so he sells the glass doll to a wealthy neighbour.  Now it is up to Mariana to rescue her new sister.

I did enjoy The girl of glass but I also found it oddly disturbing.  It seemed difficult to imagine how this book might end.  Being made of glass means Eliza is surely destined to break.  Again I don't want to spoil the ending.  I do find books about dolls are often quite disturbing.  I am thinking of books like Doll Bones, The Doll (After Dark series) and Coraline.  The Girl of Glass reminded me of Tilt which is a book I read quite recently.  Mariana has huge artistic abilities but her father will not accept this.  In his view only boys can work with glass.  This issue of sex-role stereotypes was also a theme of Tilt but with a more positive outcome for Netta.

This book is one of four set in Magical Venice and I am now keen to read the other titles : The maskmaker's Daughter, The water horse and The mermaids sister.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Too many friends Kathryn Apel

Not for lunch

'Maybe Lucy
would like to sit
with us
for lunch today,'
I say 
as we collect lunch boxes
from our schoolbags.
'She always seems so

Yes Too many friends is a new verse novel (I adore them) but before I tell you about this brilliant book I am going to make a big call and say surely this book will be short listed for our CBCA awards in 2018.  Yes it really is that good.

Tahnee is in Year Two. She has lots of friends and enjoys school but she is also keenly aware of the different personalities in her class and is especially sensitive to the feelings of outsiders like Lucy.

The class have a most wonderful teacher with the perfect name Miss Darling.  "She smiles a lot and wears colourful clothes with spots and stripes and swirly patterns. ...  (She) smiles as she moves around the room like sunshine chasing rainbows. Miss Darling makes school exciting."

You will read about class relationships, projects, team work and a wonderful whole class writing idea. Meanwhile Tahnee has a birthday to plan and she hopes Lucy will come along.  The birthday theme is The Show.  Dad is such a good sport allowing the kids to throw wet sponges - Duck Dad.  The food is perfect too - hotdogs, pizza, fairy floss, slushies, hot chips, popcorn, corn on the cob and cupcakes along with little old fashioned party games like pass the parcel and pin the tail on the donkey.  Things are not perfect all the time, though.  Making new friends can mean old friends feel left out or worse they reject their friends. Tahnee has to find a way to bring everyone back together.

Read this review for more details.  I rarely give ratings but I give this book five stars out of five.  I would follow this book with Where I live by Eileen Spinelli, Sixth Grade Style Queen Not! by Sherryl Clark and Pookie Aleera is not my boyfriend by Steven Herrick.

Too Many Friends is realistic—a finely nuanced story that gently reminds us of the positive effects of openhearted kindness and compassion. A welcome addition to our Australian fiction, it is credible and uplifting with nary a trace of didacticism.  Gleebooks

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wisher and the runaway piglet Georgie Adams

I have just spent the last week listening to the audio book of Wisher and the Runaway piglet the first book in the series Railway Rabbits.  It was such a delight to listen to this story briefly each day. Kate O'Sullivan does an excellent narration and seems to easily change so many character voices. Listen to an audio sample here.

Last year one of our students read Wisher and the Runaway piglet and she recommended it to me. I love it when this happens.  The young reader wondered if there were more books in the series. Together we looked inside the back cover and discovered there are eight more books so we have now added them to our library.

As this first story opens Barley is anxiously waiting for the arrival of his new babies.  Mellow has sent him off and while he waits looking at the river various animals from the woodland community pass by and offer their advice and good wishes.  Barley returns home to the news five babies (3 boys and 2 girls) have arrived.  They name them Bramble, Bracken, Berry, Fern and Wisher.

Close to their burrow there is a terrifying beast - the Red Dragon.  It "roared along the valley every day - up and down, up and down - whistling loudly and belching clouds of smoke.  Although it looked a terrifying beast Barley had never once seen it stray from its tracks."  Have you guessed what this really is?

After several weeks spent in the safety of their burrow the five little rabbits are allowed to explore the world outside - but not stray to far.  Wisher keeps hearing a little song in her head :

I whisper a song like the wind in your ear
Wisher, beware. Wisher take care.

While she does take care, Wisher somehow manages to become caught up in a race to find a tiny runaway piglet. Luckily she has made a good friend Parsley the mole.  Together they find Foster the piglet and restore him to his family.  One fun aspect of this is watching the spread of rumours about the fate of Foster.  First it is one dog, then two or three, then a pack of wild dogs - five or six.  This aspect of the story would make for an interesting class discussion.

I have included the new and old covers.  Read an interview with the author here.  I am sure younger readers will eagerly seek out this whole series which would also make a good family read-aloud.

The chocolate touch II by Patrick Skene Catling

A teacher in my school returned The Chocolate Touch this week and happily explained how much her class had enjoyed this quirky little story first published in 1952 (yes it is based on the idea of the Midas touch).  I was quite amazed to discover this first installment even has a Wikipedia page. Begin by reading this so you can catch up on the story.

I mentioned to the class teacher that there was a sequel with a funny scene involving Mickey Mouse and then I discovered our copy was long gone. Thanks to the wonder of buying second hand books from around the world I have been able to find a copy of The Chocolate Touch II (1997) and it arrived tonight.

Here is the scene that made me laugh out loud.  Mary Midas and her family are visiting Disneyland.

"What's bothering you?' Mickey kindly enquired.  Although he was an international star of motion pictures, television and comic books, he had always remained a decent, down-to-earth, practical mouse. ...   'Well,' Mary said, looking from Mickey to Minnie. ... I turned the water in the pool at the hotel .. into chocolate.  ... Mickey put his arm round Mary's back and gave her a friendly Uncle Mickey sort of hug - and a quick kiss.  It all happened suddenly.  Somehow, Mary's lips brushed against his cheek. Mickey Mouse instantly turned into a chocolate statue."

This is a minor book and long out of print but I just wanted to share this funny section with you.