AATE Conference Sydney - October 2012
Choices for English: Great texts for the Australian Curriculum
Session T6-13. Presented by Deb McPherson, Helen Sykes and Ernie Tucker
Deb was unfortunately ill on the day but was involved in planning this session and in writing many of the annotations below. In the session Helen and Ernie presented some of the best recently published texts for secondary English classrooms. Our selection includes titles that meet the requirements of the cross-curricular priorities of the Australian Curriculum but it also includes a range of other quality texts that will engage students working on that curriculum.
As usual, there were too many titles to cover in the session, so we have included annotations on all the titles we should have liked to cover, not just those that we spoke about during the presentation.
The notes below have been arranged in alphabetical order. You can browse the 'Recommendations' headings if you are looking for texts to suit a particular year level or type of reader.
The 'Wide reading links' heading lists themes, topics and genres to which each title belongs. These links are those that are used in the presenters' teacher reference book, Choices for English: books, films and other texts that work, published by Nelson Cengage Learning.
Please note we have reluctantly inserted a dash or two in place of the vowels in a few words that might have been caught up by your school internet filter. We like to quote directly from the texts we talk about and to give you a feel for the language used, but we have had problems before with our notes being rejected when teachers have tried to download them.
If you have any queries about this list, you can email Helen Sykes on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Antipodes: Poetic Responses
edited by Margaret Bradstock. Phoenix Education, 2011. ISBN 9781921586392. 163 pp.
This very useful anthology focuses on poetry that is about the relationship between blacks and whites in Australia. There is an excellent introduction by Elizabeth Webby outlining the changing attitudes of white Australian writers and the eventual appearance of Australian Indigenous voices. Many of the poems published here, especially those of recent writers, are ones that you won’t find in other anthologies. There’s an exciting selection of contemporary works, as well as some classics. Poets represented include W. C. Wentworth, Mary Gilmore, Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Rex Ingamells, Douglas Stewart, James McAuley, Francis Webb, Les Murray, Geoff Page, Anita Heiss, Samuel Wagan Watson, Tony Birch, Jeff Guess, Judy Johnson, Chris Mansell and John Mateer.
Recommendation: You will draw on this regularly in your teaching, from Years 7 - 12. A class set would be a good investment, especially given the Australian Curriculum requirement for Indigenous texts. There is also a teacher's book that provides information about the poets and the poems and activities using individual poems and groups of poems. - HS
by Stasia Ward Kehoe. Penguin, 2011. ISBN 9780143566595. 468 pp.
Small town farmer’s daughter from Vermont, Sarah, is the narrator of this verse novel about arriving in New Jersey on a classical ballet scholarship to finish her final year in high school. She is both excited and afraid of looking like a hick next to the slick city girls with their fashionable clothes and tight bodies. She endures the silence of strangers until her talent is recognised and she is promoted following the admiration of Rem, the principal male dancer who has ambitions as a choreographer. When Sarah shines on tour, Rem’s public kisses lead to his apartment where they develop his dance together and the dance ends in his bed.
Kehoe knows the big-city sophistication of the dance scene intimately, with convincing detail of the perils of dieting, blisters, muscular aches, jealousy, intense competition, loneliness and the grinding boredom of the routine classes, balanced with the thrills of successful performance and sexual initiation. The choice between Sarah as a dancer and Sarah as a woman with other possible futures is well portrayed. There is no Hollywood ending, although the abruptness of the end is not quite satisfying.
Recommendation: If your school can cope with the virgin sex scene, this well-written verse novel will be a valuable antidote to those that romanticise both the sexual and the dance experience. I worked in a performing arts school for nine years, so believe me. This is an easy read for Years 9 – 10; despite the page length, the word count is much lower and the unexplained literary, dance and music references fit the context well.
Wide reading links: a question of gender, body image, challenge and endurance, coming of age, choices, music. - ET
by Libba Bray. Allen & Unwin, 2011. ISBN 9781742377070. 396 pp.
The cover features the bikini-clad torso of a blonde with a ‘Beauty Queens’ sash diagonally across one side and a bandolier across the other. But wait, the bandolier contains not bullets, but lipsticks. You’ll understand why I kept placing this book lower in my pile of books to review. However, as it is written by Libba Bray, the brilliant writer of Going Bovine, I had to succumb.
It’s a satire, not just of beauty contests but of most things I think are unfortunate American practices, such as reality TV, shock jocks, Christian hypocrisy, corporate secrecy and exploitation of emerging nations, support for dictators, oil and gas exploitation and attitudes to sexuality. Thirteen state finalists in a national Teen Dream Beauty Contest are placed in a Lord-of-the-Flies, desert-island scenario, except that the island is also occupied (I use the term advisedly) by a US corporation corruptly supporting an Elvis-Presley-fan president so that the oil and gas found there can be brought to America where those ‘comforts’ belong.
There’s lots of fun with the literary references, a baton not a conch, and the two teams, not tribes, call themselves ‘The Sparkle Ponies’ and ‘The Lost Girls’. Many text types are used, including footnotes, commercial breaks, ‘Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts’ and TV program transcripts. It’s so over the top in its satire that I wondered how far Libba Bray was prepared to go, until I gave up when a crew of hunk pirates from a film crew land on the island and a depilatory cream ‘Tache Off’ proves to be explosive.
Recommendation: It’s too funny to miss unless you have the misfortune to be in a school where references, however satirical, to sexuality (one of the girls turns out to be a boy who hopes to win the contest to pay for his transgender surgery), ‘Christian Pole Dancing’ and chastity or ‘purity rings’ put this book, as the Americans would say, ‘off limits’. This would be great fun to do with Years 10 or 11, either after Lord of the Flies or as an introduction to satire, and as those girls have to live off the land, you can add this book to the few that approach the sustainability cross-curriculum area.
Wide reading links: satire, body image, power, other countries, a question of gender, the role of the media, narrative forms. - ET
The Best Day of My Life
by Deborah Ellis. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN 9781742379142. 168 pp.
The opening sentence reads: ‘The best day of my life was the day I found out I was all alone in the world.’
Valli doesn't know how old she is - probably nine or ten. Her job is to pick up coal, any stray lumps that she can find. She has to be quick about it, as the bosses regard this as stealing. She is not allowed to go to school, although she hangs around the open-air classroom when she can and has taught herself to write in the dirt with a stick. On this particular day she learns that the family she lives with are not her relations, as she has always believed; they had been paid to take her as a baby after her unmarried mother died in childbirth. The discovery sets her free in a way: there is no reason to stay in Jharia, scavenging for lumps of coal. So she hides in the back of one of the coal trucks.
This is an easier read than some of Ellis's other novels, such as the Parvana series, but some teachers may worry whether it is too dark for primary or junior secondary students. When the truck drivers find Valli hidden in their load, they try to sell her to a brothel. She is saved when the madam recognises that Valli is showing signs of leprosy. Valli becomes one of the many homeless street kids struggling to survive on the streets of Kolkata.
The novel exposes with Ellis's usual perceptiveness the plight of lepers and of street children in India, but it is not depressing. Valli is a wonderfully resilient and engaging character, funny and bright. As always, Ellis provides young readers with a positive and inspiring ending.
Jharia is a real place. Just as a study of Trash can be enhanced by looking at photos of the huge garbage dumps in Manila, a study of The Best Day of My Life should include some of the images of Jharia that can be found on the internet: the women in their brightly coloured saris carrying on their heads huge baskets of coal as they toil up the narrow steep trails that Ellis describes; the children blackened by coal dust; the air thick with choking dust.
Recommendation: This is well worth considering for class set use in Year 7. Yes, it is dark - but it is also a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit, and a demonstration of our common humanity, no matter how different our circumstances. Consider as well an author study of Ellis's impressive body of work.
Wide reading links: homelessness, living on the edge, resilience, stories with an Asian setting or Asian characters. - HS
by Doreen Rappaport. Candlewick Press, 2012. ISBN 9780763629762. 228 pp.
This is currently only available in hardcover.
Rappaport succeeds in her aim to tell the mostly unknown stories of those Jews who resisted the Nazi Holocaust and those righteous gentiles who supported them. These non-fiction accounts use photographs and personal accounts of survivors, supported by the poems written by the Theresienstadt inmates. Rappaport counters the preconception that the Jews acquiesced in their capture, incarceration and slaughter and provides the research evidence from all over Europe to support her position. Most of our students know about Anne Frank and Oscar Schindler, but here are many other, unsung heroes. Moreover, we know about the famous people who escaped in time, and several novels have been written about the kindertransport where parents had the terrifying task of sending their children off into an unknown future. However, we don’t know about the ordinary people who endured or resisted or contributed in essential services, such as the forging of papers, or the many others who hid Jews in their cellars and attics. Many of these endured the hatred of their countries’ patriots because they had to assume attitudes of pro-Nazism to cover their secret activities.
The text is divided into five parts: the realisation, saving the future, in the ghettos, in the camps and partisan warfare. The most striking account for me was the successful flight and long-term establishment of a secret shtetl village in a Belarus forest that sheltered 1 230 people. The numerous photographs of the camps and the survivors are both enlightening and disturbing, especially the one of a peephole into a gas chamber.
Recommendation: Use this graphic book to support the large body of Holocaust fiction for years 9 – 12.
Wide reading links: the Holocaust, refugees, the migrant experience, World War II, resilience, overcoming adversity, friendship across cultures. - ET
Black Painted Fingernails
by Steven Herrick. Allen & Unwin, 2011. ISBN 9781742374598. 210 pp.
Herrick, Australia's best-known writer of verse novels for children and young adults, uses prose this time with multiple narrations from four different points of view but beginning in familiar territory with a first-person present-tense narration by another of his large gentle boys - James, who is driving from the city to his first practice teaching session in a small country town. Naïve James is a sucker for exotic Sophie, twenty-two-years old and supremely confident, who tosses a coin with him to win a hitch in his new car. Sophie is the country girl returning home to Hillston in western New South Wales and Herrick moves the narration into the third-person past tense to tell her back story from the age of fifteen when her mother left Sophie with a thirteen-year-old brother, an older brother and her father. Meanwhile, Herrick switches again briefly from the road trip to bring in James’s parents, who worry about their only child’s absence and the silence of his mobile, keeping the immediacy of the present tense before reverting to the past tense of Sophie and the crisis with her younger brother that caused her to leave home abruptly.
The stories move back and forth as the two drive west, with an amusing interlude when they share a motel room, until the relationship has grown to the point where Sophie’s secret is revealed and James, with this abrupt initiation into the harsher realities of Sophie’s life, decides that he can phone his parents and be surprised by their acceptance of what he fears was his disappointing news for them.
Recommendation: As usual with Herrick, this is an easy read with short chapters and high interest levels for young adults who aren’t reading most fiction that they are given at school. He flirts with the sentimentality of the story but, to me, he always has something to say about young adult life in Australia. The brief sexual and drug references should not cause any problems for those schools who need these alerts. Use this story in an author study of Herrick, with a series on life in rural Australia fiction or as an easy introduction to multiple narratives. Years 9 - 10.
Wide reading links: brothers, families, challenge and endurance, coming of age, generations, identity, choices, journeys, rural life, a question of gender, narrative forms. - ET
by Alison Croggon. Walker Books, 2012. ISBN 9781921977480. 287 pp.
This is a wonderfully rich, compulsively readable, transformation of Wuthering Heights. Australian writer Alison Croggon has set her story in a landscape just as bleak and hostile as that of the Yorkshire moors, but it is a country that exists purely in the imagination: characters have names like Damek, Lina, Kush and Hammel. And whereas Brontë allows - but never confirms - the possibility of the supernatural, Croggon's world is full of dark magic, wizards and witchcraft. Croggon has retained Brontë's dual narrators: the outsider, Hammel, is just as self-deluding and pompous as Lockwood, while the housekeeper, Anna, is in many ways a salt-of-the-earth type like Nelly Dean. The narrators frame a story of passion, obsession, cruelty and vengeance, in language that frequently echoes that of Wuthering Heights.
Croggon’s plot is as fascinating as much for its departures from that of Wuthering Heights, as for its similarities. The persecutor of the Cathy and Heathcliff characters (Lina and Damek) is not Hindley, Cathy's brother and heir to their father's estate, but a brutal outsider, Emerek Masko, who takes over the estate after Lina's father’s death. There is a younger Lina, as there is a younger Catherine, but there is no Hareton character, meaning that the resolution that is so significant in Wuthering Heights is impossible in Black Spring. There is also no Isabella so that, astonishingly, the Heathcliff character (Damek) marries and mistreats the younger Lina, daughter of his great love.
Some readers do not enjoy transformations of much-loved texts, just as some are reluctant to watch film versions, but I saw Croggon’s novel as a huge tribute to a great work, as well as a very intriguing novel in its own right. While I admired very much Croggon’s achievement, reading Black Spring has impressed me even more of Brontë’s genius, especially her extraordinary control as a writer.
Recommendation: It would be a pity to have students read this before they have read Wuthering Heights. There is no reason why you can't use Brontë’s novel with bright kids in Years 9 or 10, especially girls. A comparison with Black Spring would be excellent preparation for the kind of transformation study that is already a requirement in NSW for Advanced students and is likely to be a requirement for all students in a senior national curriculum.
Wide reading links: retellings, horror, love stories. - HS
by Carole Wilkinson. black dog books, 2012. ISBN 9781742031897. 367 pp.
This is Book 4 of the Dragonkeeper series. It is currently only available in hardcover.
After the success of the first three books, Wilkinson has moved her setting 400 years forward to the chaotic period of the warring kingdoms that followed the destruction of the Han dynasty and its capital Luoyang. Here the story moves back and forth from the ruins of the city into the mountains where the Buddhist monks shelter in a poor, secret monastery. Tao, the central character, is fifteen and a novice from a formerly rich family who now shelter in their summer house in the hills. Tao is learning Sanskrit from an elderly monk and is copying rare sutras to preserve them from the invading barbarians (or nomads, as Wilkinson chooses to call them).
So once again I enjoy Wilkinson’s research and her convincing historical setting, which now supports the story of the Buddhist period in which Tao sees a statue of the Buddha for the first time, is appalled by the un-Buddhist behaviour of a charlatan abbot who wants to build a golden pagoda and get the support of the barbarian leader.
And of course, there are dragons, especially Kai, who at 466 years old is in a petulant, adolescent stage. He has chosen Tao to be his dragon keeper but at first they cannot talk to each other and Tao, being a novice in a remote monastery, has no social skills. Enter, from the ruined cellars and cisterns of the city, a twelve-year-old girl, Pema, who rescues them from the nomad attack and is bent on a very un-Buddhist revenge.
I enjoyed Wilkinson’s closely woven carpet of a story in which the violence of the nomads, the magical powers of the dragons and the pacific precepts of the Buddhists are kept in constantly interesting patterns of action. As usual, the dragons are totally believable and fascinating, especially with the conceit of Kai’s adolescent mood swings.
Recommendation: Years 7 - 8 will enjoy this easily read fantasy, turn the pages with the action and absorb a good introduction to one of the pillars of Asian culture.
Wide reading links: stories about China, historical fiction, fantasy, children in war, friendship, identity, cultural diversity. - ET
by Pat Schmatz. Candlewick Press, 2011. ISBN 9780763653347. 226 pp.
This is currently available only in hardcover.
This is a very impressive American novel about three teenage misfits. The characterisation is terrific: each of the three is an outsider for quite different reasons. They are thrown together by circumstances and the unlikely bond they form is transformational in all their lives. Travis is new to the school and desperate to hide the fact that he is unable to read. The title word 'bluefish' is the name of the reading group to which Travis was assigned in the early years of school - the group who failed to learn to read. Travis has come to believe that the bluefish defines him - ‘smiling because it was too stupid to know it was stupid.’
Most of the novel is third-person limited narration, with events seen through Travis’s eyes. We come to know him intimately - his loneliness and isolation, his prickly relationship with his difficult grandfather, his low self-esteem and his essential decency. Through his eyes we also get to know Bradley, the nerdy middle-class black student who is constantly victimised by the school bullies, and the mysterious Velveeta. The third-person narration is interrupted from time to time by brief letters from Velveeta to someone called Calvin - someone whom we realise is dead. Velveeta’s bubbly, confident manner is a facade. She is as desperate to conceal the realities of her life in the caravan park with her dysfunctional mother and abusive stepbrother as Travis is to conceal the truth about his reading.
The hero of the novel is to some extent the English teacher, Mr McQueen. I’ll admit to a soft spot for books that show the difference that good teachers can make to the lives of young people. There’s also a terrific local librarian who provides a sanctuary for Velveeta when she can no longer take refuge in Calvin’s caravan.
This novel is quirky, funny and moving. It’s a book about friendship and resilience, about healing, about accepting loss, about standing up to the bullies and about the importance of self-belief. But most of all it’s a great read, with a wholly satisfying resolution.
Recommendation: Most of the really successful class-set books are ones that engage kids’ emotions on quite a deep level. Bluefish is such a book. Travis’s grief for his dog, Rosco - his only friend - will ring especially true to young readers. Most will identify with the struggles that all three characters face to find meaning in their lives. Although the plots are very different, Bluefish reminds me of Sachar's Holes: fairly accessible text, not too long, with short, easily digested chapters. I wouldn’t choose it if there were kids in my class who couldn’t read at all, as the subject-matter would be too sensitive, but I think it would be a great success with most classes in Years 7 and 8.
Wide reading links: school life, friendship, bullying, coping with grief, resilience. - HS
Children of the King
by Sonya Hartnett. Penguin, 2012. ISBN 9780670076130. 266 pp.
This is currently available only in hardcover.
Hartnett writes her extraordinary books for a diverse audience, from picture books for young children to novels for adults and older teenagers. Children of the King, like The Silver Donkey and The Midnight Zoo, is written for readers in the Year 5 to Year 8 group. All three novels are strikingly individual, each quite unique. All are complex narratives that weave together different plot strands and draw on different literary traditions in a way that Hartnett makes to appear effortless. All are explorations of significant periods of the past.
The Children of the King is on one level a story about the London children who were evacuated during World War II, although Cecil and Jeremy are very different from the children of the slums that we know about from Goodnight Mister Tom. Cecil and Tom are privileged and wealthy; they travel by first-class rail with their self-indulgent and morally bankrupt mother. In persuading her mother to take in one of the evacuees, Cecil is entirely self-interested: she treats May as a new toy and is offended when May makes it clear that she has a mind of her own. Jeremy, aged fourteen, is angry at being evacuated; eventually he runs away and returns to London, where he finds himself in the middle of a night of bombing and has his life changed forever.
On this level alone, the novel is very satisfying. The characterisation is superb, especially the character development. But this is only one small part of this intriguing work. Embedded within the children's story is the story Uncle Peregrine tells in serial-form about the nearby ruins of Snow Castle and King Richard III, including the story of the young princes. And the young princes have their own special place in the narrative, because Children of the King is - among other things - a great ghost story.
Hartnett has huge respect for her readers. She knows that they can cope with ‘cruel’ stories - stories about war and death - and she knows that reading about a world that can be cruel is one way of learning to cope.
Recommendation: This would be a wonderful book to share with gifted readers, but it would work best at Year 5 or 6, perhaps shared by a small group of readers within a class. It has always been difficult to find books that challenge good readers in the Year 5 to Year 8 age group - books that challenge them intellectually by the quality of the ideas explored and by the sophistication of the writing. Hartnett is perfect for this purpose. Her breathtaking prose is a joy.
Wide reading links: historical fiction, fantasy, children in war. - HS
by Marissa Meyer. Penguin, 2011. ISBN 9780141340035. 387 pp.
This is Book 1 of an intended 4-book series, The Lunar Chronicles. It’s unashamedly chick lit - and I loved it. It’s wonderfully intelligent chick lit, playing deliciously with genre. It is a clever re-telling of the Cinderella story, transposed to some future time in New Beijing. It is also great sci-fi. After centuries of war the world's political landscape has been considerably altered but, not surprisingly, the Chinese empire is a major power. Earth is under threat from the inhabitants of the moon, humans who have evolved over time to acquire special powers. The Lunar leader, Queen Levana, is spookily evil - and the Lunars are the probable cause of the terrible plague that is indiscriminately killing humans, including Cinder’s young stepsister. Cinder herself is a cyborg, despised by her nasty stepmother and one of her two stepsisters. She is an engaging character and it is not surprising that there is a growing attraction between Cinder and the handsome Prince Kai, a budding romance threatened firstly by the fact that Kai does not know that Cinder is a cyborg and secondly by Queen Levana's determination to marry the prince for political reasons. The plot twists and turns delightfully as Cinder fights to save her prince and Earth itself, at the same time uncovering some unexpected secrets about herself.
Of course, as it’s Book 1, the reader is left up in the air. I will admit to considerable frustration that Book 2 wasn’t immediately available. This is great fun and I look forward to reading the rest of the series as it is published.
Recommendation: Make sure that girls in Years 8 and 9 discover this. They will recommend it strongly to each other once they find it. Although boys are unlikely to want to read it, it has a place in a unit of work on fairy tales: in particular, have students explore the clever way in which Cinder's foot (an artificial one, one of her cyborg parts) is featured in the story.
Wide reading links: fairy stories, science fiction, love stories, choices. - HS
by Maureen McCarthy. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN 9781742375045. 419 pp.
I’m sticking my neck out to declare that this is Maureen McCarthy’s best novel. It’s written in her typically expansive style with memorable characters that are brought together by their association with a Melbourne convent which has now been converted into commercial and arts and crafts spaces. From 1915, when Sadie’s three-year-old child Ellen is taken away one morning from her home by a policeman and a social worker, to the present, when Perpetua (Peach) is found by Ellen, her grandmother, and her mother, a former nun, Cecilia, McCarthy weaves her story through time changes and multiple narrations to achieve my complete engagement.
The story moves to 1926 when Ellen aged 14 has been returned to the Sacred Heart convent because of her ‘bad blood’. Then we are transported to 1964 and the fascinating bride of Christ ceremony as Cecilia, aged 19, is inducted into the closed order of the convent. We learn about the arcane disciplines of the order and empathise with her brother Dominic and her father who oppose her ordination, ‘cooped up like a bloody chook’. The only light touch is Breda, a fellow novice who has a healthy disregard for regulations and shockingly disappears the night before her final vows. Then to Peach, in the present time, a first-year physiotherapy student and an adopted child not interested in learning about her biological parents, with her sixteen-year-old sister Stella, conceived soon after the adoption. Her friend Det, an artist with a studio at the former convent, persuades her to apply for a part-time job serving at the coffee shop there. Det, after two abortions, reveals her pregnancy but surprises all by deciding to have the baby. Other complications are with Peach’s ambivalence about her boyfriend and her sister’s obesity.
The stony presence of the convent buildings, including the notorious laundries where the forced adoption girls slaved many hours to wash and iron the linen for hotels under the harsh regime of the elderly nuns and the naïve compliance of the novices, dominates the story. Key scenes are Cecilia, surprised by her grief about giving up her baby, conceived with a revolutionary priest, and Breda’s escape over the wall with a twenty-three-year-old inmate. Breda nurtures Cecilia many years later, when she returns to Australia after her flight to France.
After the various dramas about convent life and the exploitation of the adopted girls in the laundry, it was refreshing to read of Peach’s lack of interest in finding her birth parents. There are no longeurs in this gripping story and even Catholic schools could not disapprove, as the women keep their faith in prayer and their need for a god. The short chapters and clear designation of time, place and narrator facilitate easy reading.
Recommendation: The contemporary story has a few expletives and there are sexual references and birthing details that are totally contextual and should cause no concerns in schools that worry about these things. The strengths of the many convincing characters and the dramatic force of their stories moved me swiftly through the 419 pages. Use this in Years 9 - 11 as a class text or for author study with Maureen McCarthy’s other fiction.
Recommendation: The contemporary story has a few expletives and there are sexual references and birthing details that are totally contextual and should cause no concerns in schools that worry about these things. The strengths of the many convincing characters and the dramatic force of their stories moved me swiftly through the 419 pages. Use this in Years 9 - 11 as a class text or for author study with Maureen McCarthy’s other fiction.
Wide reading links: the big questions, choices, identity, belonging, power, families, historical fiction and generations. - ET
The Dream of the Thylacine by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks. Allen &Unwin, 2011. ISBN 9781742373836.
This is a hardcover picture book.
This is a visually stunning picture book about the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger. Brooks has incorporated images from the film footage of the last caged and miserable tiger, contrasting with glorious paintings of the animal in its natural environment. Wild’s text is haunting and evocative, especially when set against the ageing wooden bars of the cage and the faint images of the thylacine behind the dominant image of the wire.
Recommendation: This elegy to the loss of a species is suitable for class study at any level. Ask students to consider how the story might have been told differently as a stepping stone to their exploration of the choices the composers have made. This is a masterpiece. It is an excellent choice for the Sustainability cross-curriculum requirement of the Australian Curriculum.
by Allan Baillie and Wayne Harris. Walker Books, 2012 (1996). ISBN 9781921977848.
Walker Books has been republishing, in paperback format, some great Australian picture books that had gone out of print. I was delighted that Dragonquest was chosen as one of these, as it has always been one of my favourites. The quest is of course the oldest of all stories: a journey of adventure in which the hero proves himself by overcoming a series of obstacles and achieves manhood. Originally told in epic poems, the quest is the basis of many fantasy and adventure stories, in both books and films. In this case, the boy joins the famous Dragon Fighter and they go in quest of the last dragon. Baillie’s words echo the epics - ‘deeds so daring that songs/ will be sung for a thousand years’. It’s a joy to read the text aloud as the travellers overcome the terrible dangers in their way: a desert inhabited by deadly desert snakes, scuttling scorpions and banded wasps, a tangled forest and the ‘witchery of the trees’, ‘a whispering abyss’, and hills patrolled by two-headed trolls. The words are supported by Harris’s elaborate, detailed paintings, images that are a delight to explore. The climax comes with a glorious disconnect between the words and the pictures, as the boy realises that a true hero does not need to be a killer.
Recommendation: This is a superb text for exploring the nature of masculinity. The text is suitable for use in primary schools, but find excuses to use it as well with secondary students. It’s a terrific example of writer and illustrator working together to create meaning, rather than of an artist just illustrating a writer's words. It offers readers the opportunity of questioning the assumptions about heroism behind the traditional quest stories. - HS
Edge of the World
by Ian Trevaskis and Wayne Harris. Walker Books, 2012. ISBN 9781921150210.
This is a hardcover picture book.
The setting is a fishing village on the edge of the world. The setting is unspecified, although there are clues that evoke the far north of the British Isles: the name ‘Toby McPhee’, the ‘cobbled streets’, ‘the breakwater’, the snowdrifts, the women and children huddled close to their ‘hearths’. The time too is not specified, but it is not contemporary: the clothing of the villagers is old-fashioned, as are the fishing boats. No one smiles in this dreary world, until the day Toby McPhee finds a tiny pot of colour. The reason for Toby's sadness is revealed on the final page.
This is a richly imagined story about grief and healing.
Recommendation: This fine picture book can be used from upper primary through to secondary school. There is quite a lot of printed text, set out as free verse. - HS
by Ursula Poznanski. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN 9781742379531. 432 pp.
‘Enter, or turn back. This is Erebos.’ Now who could resist that invitation, couched in terms of: ‘Are you brave enough or a coward?’ I certainly couldn’t. Erebos drew me in with all the addictive and suspenseful qualities of an online game, which is not surprising as a computer game is a central ‘character’ of the novel.
Nick Dunmore sees people in his school, including his best friend, Colin, acting strangely, and he starts to connect it with a mysterious package that is being offered to selected individuals. When he finally gets offered the CD and finds it’s a fantasy role-playing game called Erebos (named after the Greek god of darkness), he is eager to play and agrees to the rules - you must play alone and not talk about the game with anyone (some echoes of Fight Club there!). As Nick’s character/avatar, Sarius, rises through the levels of the game, he finds that help is available but that he has to reciprocate in the real world. Initially asked to undertake seemingly innocent tasks, he soon discovers that the line between fantasy and reality is blurring, he loses friends and his sense of right and wrong is imperilled. Erebos is a dangerous game and Nick and others are being manipulated for some other purpose outside of the game. When Nick refuses an order to spike his teacher’s drink, his character is kicked out of the game. His anguish, and that of other rejected devotees, is akin to withdrawal. But when Nick joins Jamie, Emily and Victor in an investigation of the true purpose of the game, the reader can start to see some good in this arrogant and obsessive character.
Recommendation: Erebos was first published in Germany in 2010 where it won the Youth Literature prize in 2011. Judith Patterson translated it for this English edition. Students in Year 9 could explore the methods of manipulation and the nature of addiction – and not just of games but also of other obsessions. Pozmanski has captured the sometimes competitive and insular world of the adolescent very well and the behaviour of the school gamers is all too realistic.
Wide reading links: fantasy, thrillers and mysteries, technology, choices, school life, hazards. - DM
by David Levithan. Text Publishing, 2012. ISBN 9781921922954. 304 pp.
There have been a number of ‘wake up in someone else’s body’ books but, in the hands of a writer like David Levithan, this one may well become a classic.
A, as he calls himself, the sixteen-year-old main character in every day, has moved into a new body every day of his life and each chapter in this novel is another day in that life and that of the various bodies that host him. We begin on Day 5994 and end on Day 6034. A has to work out, when he wakes up, who he is today: he can be in the body of a boy or a girl, or a transgendered person; he can be heterosexual or homosexual; he can be fat or thin, nerdy or athletic, rich or poor. He can be in a body recovering from drug abuse. His host could be mean or generous, depressed or happy - and each day it changes. A seems to have come to terms with his terrible predicament but everything changes when he meets Rhiannon. As Justin, her boyfriend, he has a day in which to watch her and appreciate her grace and kindness as well as her vulnerability. Despite all his lessons in not intervening in the lives of his hosts, A takes her to the beach and falls in love. Desperate to see her again he visits her in other bodies and finally decides to try to explain his situation – unbelievable as it is. During this unconventional courtship one of A’s hosts who suspects he was ‘possessed’ begins an online campaign to seek A out, which begins to take the form of a dangerous witch-hunt.
Recommendation: Levithan provides wonderful characters in A and Rhiannon and a powerful and poignant ending. One of the strengths of the novel is the way the everyday lives of so many teenagers are explored. Use this story with Year 9 students to consider issues of identity and perhaps compare and contrast it with Flip reviewed below.
Wide reading links: fantasy; thrillers and mysteries; identity. - DM
by Anne Brooksbank. Puffin Books, 2011. ISBN 9780143305682. 261 pp.
Brooksbank knows twelve-year-old boys, as demonstrated by this engaging and accessible domestic story of a boy in a small country coastal town saving up for a tinny and the adventures that follow on the lagoon and river. Sam sometimes resents the discipline meted out by his Hungarian born father, Joe, who works from home as a cabinet maker. His mother, Teresa, is the younger wife in a blended family in which Sam has an adult sister and brother and a younger brother. The children are happily bonded until Sam discovers that Joe is not his biological father. His real father disappeared to London before knowing about Teresa’s pregnancy but now is back in town and creates a family crisis by paying money into Sam’s bank account to enable him to buy the tinny and outboard motor.
The resultant strains on the family following the jealous actions of both fathers are skilfully woven into the more typical adventure story of the boy, his first girlfriend, his best mate, the boat and three school bullies artfully named ‘The Cane Toads’. Moreover, this is another good story in which the parents, all three of them, play significant roles.
I guess the editor had fun arguing that the title should read ‘Fathers’ Day’ but that would have given too much away.
Recommendation: This is an easy read for Year seven with attractions for both boys and girls.
Wide reading links: family, brothers, bullying, friendship, identity, belonging. - ET
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green. Penguin Books, 2012. ISBN 9780143567592. 313 pp.
Narrated by sixteen-year-old Hazel, who has been living with incurable cancer for more than three years, this is a compulsive read. The narrative voice is hugely appealing: this is a very bright and very funny girl who knows the inevitability of her fate and is determined not to be maudlin. Her greatest concern is for her parents: she describes herself as a ‘grenade’ that will some day explode, destroying their lives.
There have been a number of excellent YA books in recent years about teenagers facing death, but this is in a class of its own. It is unrelentingly realistic about the nature of illness - and the sometimes worse nature of treatment. Hazel's thyroid cancer has spread to her lungs and, although a wonder drug has stopped the tumours growing for a while, she needs an oxygen tank to breathe - something that accompanies her everywhere. Not surprisingly, she has very little energy and her appearance has been affected by her treatment, particularly the bloated cheeks caused by steroids. Hazel describes herself as ‘a normally proportioned person with a balloon for a head’. She’s hardly the usual heroine of an achingly tender love story.
The title, of course, comes from Cassius’s words to Brutus. The Romans believed they could overcome their fate, but the lives of Hazel and Augustus are more like another Shakespeare quotation - ‘As boys to wanton flies/ Are we to the gods/ They kill us for their sport.’ Courageous fighting makes no difference. What happens seems cruelly arbitrary.
The title is one of many examples of intertextuality. An important aspect of the narrative is Hazel’s favourite book, a story about a girl with a terminal illness. Hazel is desperate to know what happened to some of the characters at the end of the story. Her search takes her to Amsterdam, where the author lives, and to a beautiful scene with Augustus in the Anne Frank house.
It’s impossible to say too much about the story without revealing important plot twists. Sufficient to say that most adolescent readers will love the characters and the plot twists and be torn between hilarity - there is some incredible black comedy - and grief.
Recommendation: This is one of the great books of recent years. It has the qualities of a classic. Buy a class set and use it for many years to come. It will be a huge success with Years 9 or 10. It is accessible for most students, but the use of intertextuality means that it has as well a great deal to challenge more academic students. There are a few sexually explicit references, but it would be a very narrow-minded person indeed who would object to them in their context.
Wide reading links: love stories, the big questions, coping with grief, challenge and endurance, overcoming adversity, resilience, journeys. - HS
by Martyn Bedford. Walker Books, 2011. ISBN 9781406329896. 296 pp.
This is another ‘wake up in someone else’s body’ book but Martyn Bedford achieves something quite dramatic and different in Flip. When fourteen-year-old Alex wakes up one morning he’s not just in the wrong room but in the wrong body with an unknown and completely unfamiliar family, school and friends. Philip Garamond is athletic, good at cricket and girls while Alex is asthmatic and a clarinet-playing chess nerd. It is to Philip’s body that Alex’s mind flees after a near-fatal accident. Both boys were born on the same day and inexplicitly linked; while Alex lies in a coma his mind inhabits Philip’s body. He finally learns he is a ‘physic evacuee’ - one among other PEs on the internet.
Bedford carefully and incrementally assembles the details that show the terrible trauma that Alex is going through as he struggles to understand his situation and the personality and reputation of the identity he has assumed. He softens the hard edge of Flip, as Philip is called; he helps clear the table to his sister’s astonishment, apologises to his ‘mother’ for his behaviour and rejects Flip’s two girlfriends at school for another, unpopular girl. He is desperate to return to his home and family but when he skips school and enters his real parents’ home in his new body his efforts are misunderstood with terrible results. Meeting up with Rob, another evacuee, provides a lifeline but Alex must find a way back into his own body and that means forcing Flip out of it.
Recommendation: There is much to discuss in the text, the different personalities, the pressures on people, family life, the nature of identity, the humour and peril of life in a different body and the appropriateness of the appendix of other evacuees stories. Students in Year 9, particularly boys, should explore this book with relish. - DM
Bedford begins with a humorous narrative reminiscent of Freaky Friday: fourteen-year-old Alex, skinny, chess-playing, clarinet-playing London boy wakes up in the muscular body of Philip, aka Flip, cricket star, school stud, disruptive, uninterested student and living in Yorkshire. And it’s six months later. Supporting this is a splendidly acerbic older sister, Teri, who provides more fun with her commentary on her even more hopeless than usual brother. There are humorous events associated with food preferences, the chaos of faking his way at school and finding his new Yorkshire family posh in contrast to his working-class and altogether tougher London life. Only the family dog suspects that Flip is no longer the consciousness inside his body.
Next the interest lies in how Alex investigates what happened to him (he’s lying in a London hospital in a vegetative state after a hit-and-run accident). His parents’ phone is now a silent number, his mother’s work colleague threatens him with the police and his best chess-playing friend David also calls the police when Alex, with Flip’s body and Flip’s voice, runs away to London to see his real parents and persuade his friend to help him.
The mood is skilfully changed as Flip’s parents, concerned about the changes to their son, attempt to support him through his increasingly bizarre behaviour, which deteriorates into increased nightmares and rages. After internet searches, Alex finds that he is suffering from ‘Psychic Evacuation’ (PE) and meets a man in his twenties, Rob, who attempts to teach him how to live in his new body. The tensions grow as Alex/Flip vacillates between the two personalities, especially when he is attracted to Cherry, who shares his musical interests but is reviled by Flip’s male and female admirers.
Recommendation: The pace of the story is well sustained towards a conclusion that kept me wondering how the writer was going to get out of his own trap. The ending will create much discussion, especially as the writer managed to successfully overcome my disbelief throughout most of the story. Years 9 - 10.
Wide reading links: science fiction, humour, identity, body image, families, friendship, living on the edge, school life, a question of gender. - ET
by Vikki Wakefield. Text Publishing, 2012. ISBN 9781921922701. 334 pp.
Vikki Wakefield’s second novel is as gripping as her debut book, All I Ever Wanted, and invites comparison with Sonya Hartnett’s All My Dangerous Friends with its psychological force and gothic characters. In a prologue, Friday, the seventeen-year-old narrator, takes me back to the eleven-year-old whose mum told her that all her family’s women were cursed to die in watery circumstances and, although her mum dies of cancer, it is pneumonia that finishes her. In her unexpressed grief, Friday leaves her wealthy grandfather’s house where her mother was nursed, refusing his money, and taking her swag and the only photo of her unknown father, she hitchhikes as a reminder of how she and her mum were always on the move.
However, the predictable search for her father is drastically stopped when, sheltering exhausted in a railway station waiting room, she meets a mute albino boy, Silence - ‘part feral child, part old man’. From being the centre of her mother’s life for sixteen years, Friday needs help to survive on the streets and Silence is her tutor and also a bag snatcher. He takes her to an overgrown house where she meets a ‘family’ of adolescent squatters who are ‘all really f-cked up’ but under the care and discipline of Arden, female, dreadlocked and powerful, who doubts that Friday is damaged enough to fit in. Arden’s lover, Malik, a drug dealer, is the only one who appears to be physically attractive to Friday’s eyes. Arden, however, is attracted to Friday and, Fagin-like, gives her an induction break-and-enter robbery test to be accepted into the family, each of whom must contribute $200 a week to Arden in rent.
Arden’s family and their power games move the novel into more of a mystery thriller mode as the victim of the robbery, Wish, turns out to be a previous member of the squat and charms Friday, who wonders whether she has inherited her mother’s man obsession.
When the squat is burnt down in suspicious circumstances, Arden takes them all bush and the pace quickens as Arden’s control begins to fail and Friday is the only one with the knowledge and experience for them to survive when the creek flash-floods. Only Silence is close to Friday when jealousy and rivalry peak and the novel takes its darkest turn in a thrilling climax.
Recommendation: Years 9 - 12 will find this novel hard to put down and Wakefield provides plenty of talking points about structure and characterisation, even relating to the Sustainability item in the national cross-curriculum area of learning. An author study or class set reading or use as part of a unit on psychological thrillers would all be attractive alternatives. There are few expletives in the terse dialogue and the violence is mediated with emphasis on threat and fear rather than depiction.
Wide reading links: crime fiction, thrillers and mysteries, body image, coping with grief, gangs and cliques, homelessness, living on the edge, unlikely friendships, power, outsiders, overcoming fear and a question of gender. - ET
Holier than Thou
by Laura Buzo. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN 9781741759983. 291 pp.
Laura Buzo confirms the talent she showed in her first book, Good Oil. The glimpse she gave there of adolescents working with adults is now extended to writing about young adults in their twenties. Holly, the narrator, is a new graduate social worker, renting an inner city flat for the first time with her partner, Tim. Nick is the experienced social worker and partner in the field. Buzo takes the story back and forth in time as Holly fills the readers in on the formation of her friendship group that went back to Year 3 with Daniel and high school with Abby, Lara and the unattainable Liam whom she lusts after.
Holly fascinates me as the ‘woman of steel’. Her inner doubts and trials as she experiments with men and her cheery exterior gradually reveal the grief that lingers too long after the harrowing death of her father, witnessed at home where her mother cared for him during a long decline with cancer. Holly, like Buzo, is an astute observer of life and her witty repartee makes for an entertaining read.
Recommendation: Years 9 - 12 students will enjoy this and have opportunities to think about entering the work place and how easy it might be not to care about the disadvantaged. If your school can cope with the occasional four-letter word in some of the dialogue and a few drug and sex references, this book will prove very popular.
Wide reading links: the world of work, a question of gender, the big questions, coping with grief. - ET
directed by Marin Scorsese. 2012. Rating: PG.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
by Brian Selznick. Scholastic Press, 2007. ISBN 9780439813785. 533 pp.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is only available in hardcover.
While The Invention of Hugo Cabret was published in 2007, I thought a new review would be useful in the light of the wonderful Martin Scorsese film adaptation. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the story of a young boy in Paris in the 1930s and a homage to an early pioneer of film. Twelve–year-old Hugo lives in the walls of the railway station. When his uncle, the station clockmaster, does not come home, the boy is left to look after himself and to attempt to keep out of the hands of the grasping Station Inspector. Hugo keeps the clocks running and steals to keep himself alive. The ill-tempered owner of the station toyshop takes his father’s notebook when he catches Hugo, and the boy tries to buy it back by fixing a mechanical mouse. He makes friends with Isabelle, the toymaker’s godchild, and together they try to solve the mystery of the automaton Hugo had found in the rubble of the fire that killed his father. The toymaker is revealed to be film-maker Georges Méliès and his despair and anger at the loss of his films turn to joy as his craft and art are re-discovered.
Selznick uses pages of pictures to tell the story, not just illuminate it. He moves the narrative from print to pictures and the reader follows, moving seamlessly from reading to reading and viewing. The pictures are wonderful: charcoal sketches that propel the reader/viewer into Hugo’s life and life in Paris in the 30s. The book appears massive, and yet reading time is short as the pictures carry so much of the narrative. Students who are daunted by reading large books may find some inspiration in how easily they will read this one.
In the film, Hugo, Martin Scorsese has magnificently extended Selznick’s visual homage to the pioneering film-maker, Georges Méliès. His film delivers a glorious opening sequence that moves across Paris and into the grand railway station, and then rushes down the platform to swoop into the face of the station clock to discover an eye looking out. It’s Hugo’s eye of course, and we join him in the labyrinthine tunnels and stairs behind the walls of the station as he winds the clocks. The cinematography is quite extraordinary. Asa Butterfield is arresting as Hugo and Chloe Grace Moretz as Isabelle shows warmth and intelligence. Ben Kinsley captures both the rage and the genius of Méliès. Sacha Baron Cohen plays the Station Inspector with some comic menace.
Recommendation: Students in Years 7 and 8 will be able to explore the origins of film and compare the different techniques the director and the author/illustrator employ to tell the same story. While students may not gain the 3D experience in the classroom, a close study of book and film will be illuminating.
Wide reading links: historical fiction, technology, resilience. - DM
The Hugo Movie Companion
by Brian Selznick. Scholastic Press, 2011. ISBN 9780545331555. 256 pp.
The Hugo Movie Companion by Brian Selznick provides excellent background material for the study of the adaptation of the novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, into the film Hugo. Lavish historical illustrations, extracts from the novel and film stills make this look behind the scenes an engaging production. Background information on the author’s original book and interviews with the director and cast members, as well as information on the various aspects of filming - including set construction, art direction, stunts, special effects and cinematography - provide a wealth of material to support the close study of this film in Years 7 or 8.
Recommendation: Highly recommended for your professional library if you intend to teach the book and/or the film. - DM
I Am Thomas
by Libby Gleeson and Armin Greder. Allen & Unwin, 2011. ISBN 9781742373331.
This is a hardcover picture book.
I Am Thomas is a wonderfully insightful exploration of the character of a young man who is leaving childhood behind him but who fails to meet the expectations of his family and his society. Both the words and the images are frequently ugly: images of harsh, hostile faces in black and white accompanied by words like ‘spitting angry words across the empty spaces’. Greder has made interesting use of different font sizes and types and the hateful words leap off the page, as Thomas is urged to ‘think like us’, ‘be like us’. Most of the story is told by Thomas himself in the first person, until the climactic ‘But Thomas would not.’ The following three openings are image only, with Gleeson using the same technique as she did with The Great Bear, also illustrated by Greder, where she recognises that sometimes pictures can be more powerful than words. The images in the resolution use colour again - colour that has not been seen since Thomas abandoned his childhood toys.
Recommendation: This is being widely used as a related text in New South Wales for the Area of Study: Belonging. It would be useful too in Victoria as a text to look at for the Exploring Issues of Identity and Belonging Context study. But it can be used in any English classroom, preferably with students from Years 8 or 9 upwards. Students will understand the pressure on Thomas to conform and the deep sadness that comes with his insistence on resisting that pressure. They will argue passionately about what happens at the end. They will also have the opportunity of exploring a wide range of visual literacy techniques and how such things as framing, positioning, the use of colour and the use of fonts make meaning. - HS
Inanimate Alice represents an epiphany of sorts for me: a turning point in my understanding of the amazing appeal of the digital text. Many thanks to Prue Greene, the Senior Curriculum Support Officer English K-12 at the NSW Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre, who let me know about this remarkable site.
Inanimate Alice was created to be read and viewed online. This interactive novel was created as a story that unfolds over time and on multiple platforms. As the website says it ‘uses text, images, music, sound effects, puzzles and games to illustrate and enhance the narrative.’ Education Services Australia, Bradfield Company Productions, Promethean Planet and Everloop are some of the players involved in its creation.
Inanimate Alice is the story of Alice at different times in her life as she travels with her parents around the world. Her story is told over four (at this stage) increasingly interactive and complex episodes. As Alice grows older the story duration becomes longer and more sophisticated and the interactivity becomes more demanding. In episode one, set in China, Alice is eight and the episode lasts five minutes. Alice’s father has gone missing and she and her mother set out to find him. In those five minutes you share Alice’s anxiety about her father, you travel in the four wheel drive with her mother through confusing and intimidating landscapes, your sense of time is challenged and you too can seek refuge in the games and puzzles Alice plays as the journey continues. In episode two, set in Italy, Alice is ten and the viewing time is longer. In episode three, in Russia, Alice is growing up. She is thirteen and hiding in an apartment from some sinister figures who are making trouble for her father. It feels as if you are in the closet with her. It takes at least fifteen minutes to participate in this episode. In episode four Alice is fourteen and the reader/viewer finds her in Great Britain. In this thirty-minute episode Alice is settled in a school and delighted that her school has boys, lots and lots of boys! As I read, viewed, listened to (and participated in) the episodes I really felt drawn into this new medium for storytelling.
Recommendation: Inanimate Alice is a sure fire way to engage and stimulate students. Students will enjoy and be challenged by the text that will also support their literary, cinematic, and artistic literacies. With really edgy music, mesmerising video and graphics, embedded puzzles and games, and an invitation to participate in the story, how could it miss? The artistry and production values in this digital text are of a very high quality. I particularly liked the paintings by Alice’s mother, but I suspect students may prefer the games and puzzles. This digital text comes with extensive teaching ideas and materials that are freely available online. Set aside some time to read, view and experience Inanimate Alice and you won’t be disappointed. Neither will your students. - DM
The Ink Bridge
by Neil Grant. Allen & Unwin, March 2012. ISBN 9781742376691. 288 pp.
This new Australian novel is a compelling read. It has a great deal to offer for whole-class study, with a particularly memorable representation of the experience of Omed, a young Hazara. The narrative has three main parts: the story of Omed in Afghanistan under the Taliban and his desperate – and unsuccessful – attempt to find asylum; the story of a traumatised Australian teenage boy, Hector; and a final section in which Hector goes to Afghanistan to try to search for Omed. The first two parts are limited third-person narrative, the world seen first through Omed’s eyes and then through Hec’s. But the third part is first-person narration in Hec’s voice – the voice of a writer who is telling both Omed’s story and his own. This is metafiction: the narrative makes clear that other story pathways and other resolutions are possible, and readers will disagree about the choices the author has made. The third-part also includes the introduction of a new character, an American woman of Afghan heritage, who has returned to the country to help establish schools. Her function in the narrative is to explain the world of Afghanistan to Hec and some scenes, in which he sees the country through the eyes of a tourist and has to be corrected by Arezu, are rather clunky.
The boys Omed and Hec are linked: both suffer trauma and lose the power of speech as a result; both have lost the ability to trust others but, when thrown together in a soul-destroying candle-making factory in Dandenong, they recognise a kinship. This is essential to the structure of the novel but telling the boys’ stories as parallel lives does have some problems: Hec has indeed been through a terrible experience but it is scarcely on the same scale as Omed’s pain. Hec’s trauma is a domestic and personal tragedy; Omed suffers even greater family tragedy but his trauma is shared with his whole nation.
A great strength of the novel is the sense of place. Grant spent time in Afghanistan and the evocation of the landscape and people is superb. The Melbourne setting is just as detailed and precise, with the Westgate Bridge and its tragic history as focus.
A further strength is the disturbing representation of the ugliness of Australian racism, through the voice of a poisonous foreman at the Dandenong factory who rants against those of his workers who ‘don’t even speaka de lingo’ and are as ‘dumb as dogsh-t’. Read his rant on pages 138 and 139 and shudder. If you think this is an overstatement of racist attitudes, just have a look at the bile that is spilt in responses to right-wing blogs such as that of Andrew Bolt. Grant has sadly got this particular Australian voice just right.
Recommendation: This is a great text to use with a mature Year 9 or 10. Parts of it are unforgettable: beautiful, strong and disturbing writing. It forces readers to confront the conditions in Afghanistan and the horror of the refugee experience. It forces them as well to consider Australian responses to these problems. There is much to argue about, including the author’s narrative choices.
This is in a completely different league from other titles available about Afghan refugees. Gleitzman's Boy Overboard and Girl Underground, Gleeson's Mahtab's Story, Evans' Walk in My Shoes and Hawke's Soraya the Storyteller are children’s stories, designed to educate young readers about the refugee experience. The Ink Bridge is a complex and sophisticated young adult novel, flawed in some ways, but deeply disturbing. The crude language may cause problems in some schools.
Wide reading links: asylum seekers, the big questions, challenge and endurance, friendship across cultures, coping with grief, other countries, overcoming adversity, refugees, stories with an Asian setting or Asian characters, journeys, multicultural Australia. - HS
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf
by Ambelin Kwaymullina. Walker Books, 2012. ISBN 9781921720086.
This is Book 1 of The Tribe.
Ambelin Kwaymullina is a Western Australian lawyer from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region. In this first novel she has created a believable future world in which much of the world has been destroyed by an environmental catastrophe called the Reckoning. Three hundred years after this event people with psychic abilities such as sleepwalkers, firestarters and skychangers are appearing. They are called Illegals and are banned and persecuted, or in rare cases granted an exemption so the government can use their skills. Ashala is a sleepwalker, which means she can move about undetected when asleep, and she leads a group called the Tribe who are hiding out in the Firstwood. The novel opens with a captured Ashala about to be interrogated by Chief Administer Neville Ross, who uses a machine that detects victims’ memories and displays them on a screen. Justin Connor, an Enforcer who tricked his way into the Tribe, has betrayed Ashala, or so it seems. The story proceeds through memory flashbacks interspersed with real-time action to a surprising conclusion. Kwaymullina has provided plot clues along the way and the story unfolds in an intriguing and compelling manner. Tribal members such as Georgie, with her ability to see into the future, and Ember, who manipulates memories, add to the mix, as does the enigmatic Justin.
Recommendation: The pace and excitement in this novel are impressive and the strong environmental themes and connections to Indigenous lore make this text an absorbing one for Year 9 classroom study. The arresting cover will attract students and there is a website at http://www.thefirstwood.com.au with a book trailer, author details, press release and reviews and downloads. The book trailer could be used as a model for the promotion of other texts the class is reading.
Wide reading links: action adventure; fantasy; thrillers and mysteries; utopias and dystopias, indigenous Australia. - DM
Into That Forest
by Louis Nowra. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN 9781743311646. 184 pp.
Into That Forest is a mesmerising account of two girls living with thylacines in Tasmania in the 1830s and it is going to find a swift place in many Australian classrooms. In this novel Louis Nowra has created a completely believable story of wilderness survival and civilisation conflict.
When Hannah’s parents take their six-year-old Hannah and Becky, her eight-year-old friend, out for a boat ride and river picnic they are unaware of the storm that is approaching. After the boat breaks up and Becky and Hannah are thrown into the river, they are pulled out by a thylacine. They are the only survivors and appear certain to die of starvation and exposure when, in desperation, Hannah follows the female thylacine (whose cubs have been shot) back to her den. Hannah takes suck from the thylacine while the older Becky at first tries to cling on to the remnants of civilisation. The male and female thylacines help the girls to survive. Hannah and Becky come to relish raw meat, they communicate as tigers and they help the tigers herd and hunt wallabies and other fauna. As a pack, they make the journey to the sea to feast on mussels. They pass the shack of the human who makes a living out of killing tigers and, as the seasons pass, they even steal and kill his sheep. The girls lose their language and their culture, until Becky’s father coming looking for her. Their recapture and Mr Carson's attempts to pacify them and bring them back to the human world make for painful and engrossing reading. When Hannah proves more recalcitrant, she is packed off disguised as a boy on a whaling ship, while Becky is sent to school. Becky suffers from the taunts of others and a disastrous appearance in the school play when she reverts to animal behavior sends her running back to the wild. The attempt to recapture her involves Hannah and has tragic consequences.
Hannah tells this story as a seventy-eight-year-old woman whose language skills are still poor. This tale is disturbing and challenging but Nowra’s skilled writing allows the story to ring true.
Recommendation: Some school communities may find some aspects of the novel confronting. However, the tale could not have been told without the vivid depiction of human life as animals. Year 9 and 10 students will find much to discuss and examine in this powerful novel about the nature of humanity, civilisation and wilderness survival. Make sure to have copies as well of the picture book, The Dream of the Thylacine (see review above).
Wide reading links: the big questions. - DM
Liar & Spy
by Rebecca Stead. Text Publishing, 2012. ISBN 9781921922947. 225 pp.
Newbery medal winner, American writer, Rebecca Stead is fast becoming the inheritor of those classic writers Louise Fitzhugh and E L Konigsburg, who had such insights into that age around eleven to thirteen where children, as Shakespeare put it, are ‘like standing water’ between child and adolescent, between unconscious naivety and knowing presumption. This is the age that Stephen King beautifully encapsulated in his short story and the subsequent film, Stand by Me: the age of lost and changing friends, the last age before games and pretend become lost to peer group pressure and conformity.
Like The Mixed Up Files … and Harriet the Spy, Liar & Spy is a brilliant evocation of this age but also a page-turning spy club adventure involving smart, isolated, inner-city kids who enjoy playing detective using the very qualities of imagination and observation that the school bullies declare weird and freaky. Like Konigsburg, Stead has established a tradition of using scientific information in her stories. This time, it’s the Year 7 science teacher’s notorious series of lessons on taste that reach a climax with the taste test that is certain to be further proof that the narrator, Georges, taunted as ‘gorgeous’ and ‘the freak’, is again isolated while the vast majority of the class rush for the water tap and carry on about the terrible taste. However, both Stead and her science teacher character have a philosophic attitude to what he calls ‘the taste of human experience’ and the results of the taste test prove that the close observation and especially the people watching of the spy club game do change the social balance of the classroom and give a bittersweet victory to the uncool players.
Recommendation: This will make an excellent class set book for Year 7: although easy to read, it has barely hidden depths that will involve all in a mixed-ability class and challenge those who pick up more of the clues to why Georges and his new friend Safer are social isolates. Along the way, young students will also be learning about more advanced ways of reading to pick up the clues, as well benefit from the other social and scientific bonuses that Stead supplies. Otherwise, a box of the child spy genre stories will be popular.
Wide reading links: thrillers and mysteries, bullying, families, friendship, gangs and cliques, identity, power, other countries, and overcoming fear. - ET
Life an Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet. Walker Books, 2011. ISBN 9781844281008. 413 pp.
Mal Peet’s humorous narration is sharp in intent but always entertaining as he adopts the character of Clem, born in 1945, named after Clement Attlee, the Labour Party Prime Minister, after his mum was terrified into labour by a maniac Nazi flying a kamikaze mission against the nearby Norfolk air base. As Peet confesses later, in an author’s note, this memoir-like account is ‘reality through the twisted lens of fiction’.
Clem’s father, George, was one of those lads from the nine thatched houses in the village who, finding no work in 1932, joined the army engineers and survived Dunkirk, unlike his father in World War I who died in a French field in his ‘manure coloured uniform’. George returns as a complete surprise to his wife, Ruth, who is living with his flinty mother, Win, in the same house in the traditional farming village. George works as a mechanic on the new farm machines that are transforming the landscape, gets a new council house and is appalled that Win assumes that she will also live there - and even more appalled when Ruth cannot face preventing her.
Peet distances the narration by placing Clem in New York many years later. The details of the traditional farming life and the changes that came after the war, the flinty Norfolk accent and Win’s Norfolk peasant-tough attitude give the narration authenticity and strength. Woven into the back stories of the parents and grandparents in chapters that vary, rather than alternate, is Clem’s story. He takes the eleven plus exam in 1956 and, to his and the family’s horror, he and his best friend Goz win scholarships to the ancient, stuffed-shirt, tie-and-stupid-cap Newgate College, where they are guaranteed to ‘get some stick’ from both the college seniors Gestapo and the local boys from the estate. However, Peet as Clem declares, ‘I am not going to bang on about teen novel “My School Hell” and he succeeds, the key moment being provided by Goz, who responds to the seniors’ description of them as either maggots or worms with splendid, if over-optimistic repartee, ‘P-ss off, you great p--fter.’
The focus shifts into the wider world of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, with satirical comparison between the madness of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) policies on nuclear warfare, his first love affair with sophisticated Frankie who will not die a virgin and Ruth’s conversion to the Brethren, ‘1950’s Taliban’ who shave their heads, put on their white gowns for the rapture of the end of the world and scandalise the town. This delicious blend of tragedy and farce produces a most enjoyable climax. However, the denouement taking the story of the lovers further into the future is, in Peet’s own words, ‘a little too neat’ for the ending of this unreliable memoir.
Recommendation: Use this very accessible and engaging black comedy in Years 10 or 11 to contrast with other war fiction, with biographies or with Peet’s own dramatic account of World War II Holland in his earlier novel Tamar. Use it as part of an author study of Peet's consistently impressive work. The sexual references, including occasional ‘phallicism’, are mediated with typical humour and the few coarse language usages (as seen above) do not have any of the four-lettered variety. I’d liaise with the history teachers and teach this novel as the students study World War II, and there would be a prize for those who find the occasional historical error.
Wide reading links: historical fiction, love stories, satire, war stories, children in war, families, generations, choices, other countries, rural life, a question of gender, narrative forms. - ET
by Julia Lawrinson. Penguin, 2012. ISBN 9780143205654. 247 pp.
After Melvin Burgess published Doing It in 2003, no one else has been game enough to write about adolescent sexual experiment, let alone writing from the girls’ point of view. Enter West Australian writer, Julia Lawrinson. Like Burgess, she achieves the right balance between serious information and humorous events. The characters can laugh about these later but the reader has a good laugh at the time.
Four Year 12 girls decide to call themselves ‘The GeeGees’ and make a pact to lose their virginity before the Year 12 formal but to keep the drama of it secret until then. They believe that deliberate action is preferable to doing it drunk and unremembered on a beach during schoolies week. Lawrinson gives each girl character a first-person narration of the adventures and misadventures involved, with flashbacks to explain their individual ways of seeking and using a suitable male partner. What could go wrong does go wrong, but all four do succeed in finding their own sexuality.
Recommendation: If your school can cope with orgasm, Lawrinson has chosen her dialogue carefully so that the only four-letter word occurs in Philip Larkin’s notorious poem, ‘They f--k you up, your mum and dad’. Your students should have access to this informative and amusing book, especially so that the protected ones find out, as does the religious family girl, ‘So this is what teenagers were supposed to be like’.
Wide reading links: a question of gender, coming of age, friendship across cultures, identity. - ET
by Denis Martin. Walker Books, 2012. ISBN 9781921977541. 285 pp.
New Zealand writer Martin moved me straight into his mystery thriller with his filmic opening as the narrator, sixteen-year-old Australian, Cully, new to the New Zealand Coromandel coast and a veteran of many schools, waits for the ferry while observing a man in a fierce confrontation with a beautiful girl who wrenches herself out of his grip to jump onto the ferry as it departs. Cully is fascinated by the girl, Kat, who seems determined to be alone, but when he makes the mistake of attracting attention from Burger the school bully, the two loners gradually learn to trust each other.
I hate boxing but there is an interesting and detailed interlude about training and tactics in a match, in contrast with some wise advice from a teacher about how to deal with bullies.
Martin gets the psychology right and then moves the events swiftly from the mystery of Kat’s fear and secrecy to a dangerous entanglement with criminals who do not hesitate to abduct and kill anyone who gets in their way. He writes with the psychological realism and tension that makes a mystery thriller so much more engaging.
Recommendation: Complete with cliff-hanger chapter endings, coincidences, casual slaughters and fight or flight conflicts, this story rates highly for ease of reading comparable with the best of Horowitz and would go very well with books by him and Muchamore, David Keren’s When I Was Joe or its sequel, Almost Time, and Gordon Reece’s Mice in a unit of work on mystery thrillers. Otherwise, as an easy read it would make a popular book for a class set in years 8 to 10.
Wide reading links: action adventure, crime fiction, thrillers and mysteries, bullying, challenge and endurance, hazards, living on the edge, other countries, overcoming fear and school life. - ET
by Rosanne Hawke. Angus & Robertson, 2012. ISBN 9780732293871. 213 pp.
Set in contemporary Pakistan, in the mountainous tribal regions, this is a gripping story of how fourteen-year-old Razaq, who looks young for his age, is the only survivor in his family of an earthquake. However, his beauty betrays him into the evil child abduction traffic when his wish to search for his uncle in the city is exploited by unscrupulous men and women who gain his naive trust. It is only when he is locked in a small room by the madam of a brothel that he begins to understand what she has planned for him to pay off the ‘debt’ of his ‘rescue’.
The girls and boys have been taught to dance and now he is to learn massage. The madam has locked him up because, as the younger girl victim explains, ‘she needs to be sure that you will cooperate’. ‘She stumbled over “cooperate” and Razaq frowned.’
The girl has already begun to work and danced with the other women and girls in the hall then ‘danced for a man’ in her room.
With similar euphemisms and sensitivity for both her characters and her teenaged readers, Hawke does not avoid damning the child traffickers. Young readers, like Razak, are allowed to slowly perceive the realities. When Bilal, an older worker warns him to be careful because of his beauty, he explains cryptically, ‘Some people cannot understand beauty, and what they don’t understand they destroy.’ Bilal has been castrated.
Hawke succeeds with her project because she knows, as a former aid worker, the country and the society very well. Moreover, she’s a good writer so her story is not only convincing but eventful and suspenseful. While Razaq tries unsuccessfully to find his uncle and avoid his fate, his uncle is searching the city to find him, and, with the aid of an international child protection agency, he rescues him.
Recommendation: Use this book along with recent others by Deborah Ellis and Libby Gleeson so that our Australian children may understand that refugees are more than the ‘boat people’ of the headlines in the mass media.
Wide reading links: stories with an Asian setting, asylum seekers, the big questions, body image, hazards, homelessness, living on the edge, power, resilience. - ET
Never Fall Down
by Patricia McCormick. Harper Collins Publishers, 2012.
There are terrible images, sounds and smells in Never Fall Down; they stay with you long after you have finished reading the book. There are murders, betrayals and beatings and an overpowering sense of hunger and fear as genocide claims nearly two million lives in Cambodia. Never Fall Down is a story of survival and courage amidst a great evil.
Patricia McCormick’s novel is based on the real experiences of Arn Chorn-Pond, who as a boy of eleven lived through the killing fields of Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over the country from 1975-79. It is a chilling book in so many ways. The early pages show a normal village with markets and commerce, with kids playing and family squabbles. Then the black-clothed Khmer Rouge come and force the people out of the village. Arn and his family are marched into the country. People die on the march; they fall by the wayside, shot and beaten by the soldiers that guard them. Minorities, families with soft hands, doctors and teachers, musicians – all are initial targets of the guns and the beatings, and the mass graves accumulate. Arn is separated from his family. He survives through guile and luck. He learns to play the new songs for the Khmer Rouge (the others are all forbidden) on the khim, a Cambodian musical instrument. His group often plays to mask the sounds of the prisoners being killed. When the Vietnamese army invades Cambodia, Arn becomes a different sort of victim, a Khmer Rouge boy soldier who picks up a gun and becomes part of a group called the Little Fish. The boy soldiers are used as bait to catch the bigger fish of the opposing army. Weakened by hunger and guilt, Arn finally staggers over the border to Thailand and into a hospital. An American man, Peter Pond, adopts Arn and two other boys and takes them to America.
In the author’s note at the end of the book McCormick explains that she added to Arn’s ‘recollections with her own research – and my own imagination – to fill in the missing pieces’. She realised that she had to tell the story using Arn’s own syntax, to capture its simplicity and clarity. She says it was like ‘trying to bottle a lightning bug’. McCormick travelled to Cambodia with Arn to visit the places his story happened and to verify his recollections.
The title is the advice Arn took to heart - never fall down because, if you do, you will die. He survived to speak in St John the Divine Cathedral in New York in 1984 about his country and his life. This cathartic experience helped him to deal with his nightmares and his guilt. He went on to found ‘Children of War’, an organisation that aids children held hostage by war and violence and started ‘Cambodian Living Arts’, a group that helps preserve the traditional arts of Cambodia. Arn has been the recipient of the Amnesty International Human Rights Award and the Spirit of Anne Frank Outstanding Citizen Award.
You can hear Arn Chorn-Pond and Patricia McCormick discuss the book on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-A_Y1kjJww and read an interview with Patricia McCormick at her website http://patriciamccormick.com/never-fall-down/
Recommendation: This powerful and disturbing novel does end with a sense of optimism that McCormick puts down to Arn’s belief in the power of forgiveness and his own efforts to support his fellow Cambodians. However, you may wonder whether this savage material is appropriate for your adolescent students. I can only say they are the lucky ones, to be able to read about such terror and not have to live through it. To know there is such evil in the world is to be armed against it.
Wide reading links: life stories, refugees, war stories, overcoming fear, stories with an Asian setting or Asian characters. - DM
by Kirsty Eagar. Penguin, 2012. ISBN 9780143206552. 315 pp.
Kirsty Eagar reminds us that she knows her beach and surf, with a brilliantly evocative opening scene on the crunchy beach sand after winter rain. Her narrator, Abbie, working on her art project for Year 12, feels the links between the mysteries of artistic creation and the moods of the weather and the sea. The local surfers want to keep the waves to themselves and, led by bullyboy Greg Hill and ‘the committee’ of older surfers who should have grown up, are vicious to outsiders. Abbie is almost an outsider in this misogynistic culture and her older step-cousin Kane, a semi-professional surfer just returned from making a film in Indonesia, is mysteriously blackballed by the Board Riders’ Club by the boys ‘with the right dads’. Something went wrong on a remote island in Indonesia and one of his surfing mates has not returned. Kane is paranoid with guilt and has sudden mood changes, but Abbie also feels vulnerable as Year 12 pressures grow and her divorced parents seem no longer to care for her. Only the sea feels like home.
The narrative grows increasingly surreal as Abbie loses the relics she has kept from her dead grandfather, the locked store-room door beneath Kane’s bedroom has a mysteriously powerful attraction, dogs gather in the night and the rip in the surf reverses while the surf bullies become increasingly violent. Eagar uses short chapters to drive the pace and the mood towards a gripping climax.
Recommendation: If you have surfers in your class, as I have had, I know that this is the only book they will read. They’ll fake it for the other titles, so you need this one. Use it in Years 9 - 10 with other mysteries and/or sporting stories such as Eagar’s first surfing novel, Raw Blue. You should not be surprised to hear that there are some drug and sex references and some expletives, all suitably mediated for the readership.
Wide reading links: thrillers and mysteries, horror, the sea, sport, gangs and cliques, a question of gender. - ET
by Gillian Cross, illustrated by Neil Packer. Walker Books, 2012. ISBN 9781406303674. 176 pp.
I suspect this will always remain in hardcover. It is a large, heavy book with beautiful paper - a work of art in itself, an object to be treasured. As one reviewer has noted, this has to be a book, not an ebook.
I have always admired the writing of British author Gillian Cross so I was keen to sample her re-telling of Homer’s epic. What I didn't expect was that I’d become hooked on the story and find myself compulsively turning the pages, eager to discover the next episode in Odysseus’s spectacular adventures, as if I’d never heard the story before. Cross has retained the famous Homeric phrases like ‘wine-dark sea’ but the narrative is also delightfully modern:
But it was too late to escape. She called Antiphates and he came charging out of the palace, licking his lips. He snatched up one of the sailors in a huge fist and grinned horribly.
‘Supper!’ he said.
The consequences are terrible: Odysseus’s sailors are shown ‘sobbing with grief and shock’ as they pull away desperately from ‘the hateful shore’. One chilling adventure follows quickly on another. In the Land of the Dead thousands of souls ‘came fluttering up from the underworld, with hollow, eerie cries’. This is great stuff - much more spine-tingling than the animated monsters of the movie screen.
Cross’s compelling narrative is supported by Neil Packer’s boldly elaborate and detailed illustrations. Some are lavishly coloured, with stylised figures that seem to have stepped off a Grecian frieze into the contemporary world; others are brooding, black silhouettes. They are unlike anything I’ve seen before in a children’s book; one commentator has used the word ‘edgy’ to describe them, and that’s a good choice of adjective. They are endlessly intriguing, a perfect companion to the words.
This is a brave book. Some critics have harshly rejected it, but young readers will love it - for the pace of the narrative, the delicious thrill of fear at the monsters, the final satisfying resolution and those endlessly fascinating illustrations. I intend to buy a copy for my nine-year-old grandson, but it will work as well for secondary school students.
Recommendation: What to do about it? A class set would be a great investment but would put a big hole in your budget. Half a class set - one between two - would work, or a half-dozen copies so students can read it in small groups as part of a study of myths and legends, with the book passed from one group to another during the course of the unit of work. Cross’s narrative is worthy of being read aloud, but the experience of this book requires that the reader can explore the pictures while reading the words, so one read-aloud copy won’t work. If it is quite beyond your budget, make sure that the library has more than one copy and that it is heavily promoted.
Wide reading links: action adventure, thrillers and mysteries, myths and legends, challenge and endurance, overcoming fear, journeys. - HS
by John Bell. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN 9781743311738. 414 pp.
This is an admirable addition to any English teacher's professional library. It is about Shakespeare - and only, quite occasionally, about John Bell and his distinguished career as Shakespearean actor, director and scholar. Bell does draw on his experience of playing a role or directing a play from time to time to add insight to his discussion, just as he remembers other productions he has seen, but this is a solid reference work about Shakespeare, not a memoir.
There are useful chapters on the histories, the tragedies, the comedies, the Romans and the romances, as well as insightful essays on some individual plays. There is a particularly perceptive discussion of the sonnets, including an overview of different theories about whether they are autobiographical. I suspect that there is very little that has been written about Shakespeare that Bell has not read, and his exhaustive knowledge informs the text. He does not subscribe to any of the theories that Will Shakespeare from Stratford was not the author of his plays, and he produces a wealth of evidence to support the belief that only a man with Will Shakespeare's background could have written the body of work that we have.
Of particular value are a number of fictional pieces, the best of which for English teachers is the first four pages of the introductory chapter ‘The great Globe’. This is written from the perspective of a young and nervous actor who is about to go on stage at the original Globe in ‘the new play, Hamlet, by Master Shakespeare’. He’s playing the role of the soldier Barnardo, so his job is to shut the audience up by shouting the first words of the play: ‘Who’s there?’ These few pages give a terrific picture of what Shakespeare's theatre was like. I recommend strongly that you use it with your students. There are also fictional interviews with Robert Greene (the rival playwright who called Shakespeare ‘an upstart crow’), with Ben Jonson (another contemporary playwright, who called him ‘the wonder of our stage’) and with John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare's theatrical colleagues to whom we owe the publication of the First Folio.
Recommendation: I’ll admit to something of a weakness for collecting good reference books on Shakespeare, but this one has a worthy place on my shelves. It is very comprehensive and readable. - HS
by Simon French. Walker Books, 2012. ISBN 9781921720833. 244 pp.
French’s characterisation is outstanding. His kids are always totally believable. No one in your class is likely to think that in Other Brother, Kieran, the eleven-year-old narrator, Bon his cousin, their friend Julia or Kieran’s little sister Gina would not do the things they do and say the things they say. For example, French cleverly begins two years before the main action when Kieran is only nine, so that his annoyance and resentment with his parents for making him play with Bon, his hitherto-unknown cousin, is more believable than it would have been two years later, when his feelings quickly fester into jealousy and bullying when this weird kid with a long plait of hair and a silly knitted hat with bobbles dangling comes to stay and Kieran is forced to share his bedroom. Kieran’s aloofness is writ large by the open friendliness shown by Gina, the little sister.
Even the best of characters are useless without a good story to tell. French’s characters drive the story: kids will want to turn the pages. Tension rises. Why is Bon here? Why did Kieran’s exotic aunt Renee take Bon to live in the Dodge City caravan park and why has she now gone and left him to be shared between Nan, who cannot cope with him for more than a few days at a time, and Kieran? When his friend Julia talks down to him like an adult and tells him that Bon needs him to be his friend, it is completely believable that the normally well-behaved middle-class Kieran is embarrassed to be seen at school with Bon and joins in stomping on Bon’s hat and tripping him up in the corridors. Why are Julia and her mum also living in Dodge City when they obviously don’t belong there? What is disturbing Bon’s dreams? Where does Bon go when he disappears out the bedroom window at night?
Adult readers sometimes object that children’s and young adult writers narrow their field to focus on social issues, but I think that this is unfair to writers like French who are game to risk this label and the fatal accusation of being didactic by leading young readers to think about the big questions. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ ‘How do I cope with the Other? ’
However, readers also need to be entertained, and French achieves the realism of happy family life and school friendship without the boring predictability that is found in many children’s fiction books. Kieran strains to overhear his parents to discover the mystery of his aunt and the chaotic life she leads. Dad and Kieran escape to the shed when they don’t want to deal with the complications raised by mum, aunt and nan. Six-year-old Gina is always likely to blurt out the truth that Kieran doesn’t want told. And the parents are kept in the focus of the story, not shuffled off over the border.
I found the ending very satisfying: I do like writers that achieve an ending.
Recommendation: I’m confident that Other Brother will get good responses from students in Years 5 - 7 because Simon French is one of the few writers I know who writes quality literature that is accessible to all in a mixed-ability class.
Wide reading links: the big questions, bullying, families, friendship, belonging, outsiders and school life. - ET
by Sue Lawson. black dog books, 2012. ISBN 9781742032061. 346 pp.
Pan (Pandora) is a very angry teenager dressed and made up as a Goth, hiding a scar under her hair fringe and beneath threatening eyes. She is taken by a social worker into middle-class suburbs which she scorns as Legoland, where she is cared for by plastic people, experienced foster parents Rose and Ian, who also have two other foster children, Livia, the same age, and Nate, who is in Year 6.
Lawson gives her story the immediacy of Pan’s first-person present-tense narration, varied with her brief letters to her older sister Morgan, which link with a third-person narration of Pan’s memories of her chaotic life with her mother, Kylie. The mystery of Pan’s anger develops with problems in the new school, where she seeks to hide herself between angry outbursts triggered by mistrust and misinterpretation of peoples’ motives. This links with her intelligent responses to Romeo and Juliet, with which she is familiar from her previous school but she can only see that she is fated to always stuff up her life.
Her talisman is a soft toy cat with a zippered pocket, into which she has put the few toys and photos that had not been lost in the many house moves that her mother Kylie made in her manic-depressive mood swings. Lawson controls the pace of the revelations by making her character suppress most of her past so that clues given to the reader emerge from the various crises she suffers at school and in foster care. Detention with the art teacher, who is painting the backdrops for the school production of West Side Story, becomes the main support for her rehabilitation as younger readers might not recognise the skilful patience of the foster parents. Hunter, a talented musician in her class, was too good a character for me but he provides another character who is rejected then gradually trusted and befriended.
Lawson mediates the chaos and violence of Pan’s past life and the final crisis that took her away from her mother and older sister and into care.
Recommendation: This I found totally believable and convincing, as it encourages readers to interpret the younger Pan’s experiences as she is protected by her older sister from Kylie and the men in her life. The result is an accessible text that would appeal to most students in Years 8 – 10.
Wide reading links: families, kids as carers, living on the edge, friendship, outsiders, school life. - ET
by Deborah Ellis. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN9781743312988. 201 pp.
This is the fourth book in the Parvana series, a sequel to Parvana, Parvana's Journey and Shauzia. It is the most powerful and disturbing book in a series that has been widely used in secondary school classrooms. While Ellis as usual provides readers with an inspirational resolution, the overwhelming impression that this book leaves is of the ongoing devastation in Afghanistan, including the brutality of the American military.
The book opens in an American military prison in Afghanistan, where a teenage girl has been detained as a possible terrorist. Despite intense pressure, the girl refuses to answer any questions. As the reader realises that the girl is indeed Parvana, the story moves to flashback - returning, at intervals, to the interrogation room or Parvana's prison cell. We learn that Parvana's mother had established a school for girls just outside the village near the refugee camp that the family ended up in in Parvana's Journey. Older sister Nooria and Parvana's friend Asif were on the staff. While Parvana's mother had had some success in attracting financial donations for the school, there was constant opposition and threatened violence from some of the village men, who disapproved strongly of education for girls and women.
Ellis exposes the enormous difficulties faced by girls and women in Afghanistan today. She pulls no punches with her representation of the American military: they are not in the business of winning hearts and minds; they are actively and rightly feared. The book is both a condemnation of western interference and a celebration of strong and courageous women. It could be argued that Ellis is positioning her readers quite deliberately to share her views of the situation in Afghanistan today, but personally I think she should be thanked for doing so. This book will make many readers angry and a little less likely to dismiss the sufferings of women in Afghanistan because they are ‘the other’, not like us.
Recommendation: This will work especially well with girls in Years 8 - 10, although it would be great if you could get boys to read it too. It is certainly powerful enough to consider for whole-class study. While there is additional meaning and poignancy for those who have read the previous books in the Parvana series, it can stand alone.
Wide reading links: war stories, refugees, children in war, challenge and endurance, resilience. - HS
Pennies for Hitler
by Jackie French. HarperCollins, 2012. ISBN 9780732292096. 311 pp.
The publisher calls this a ‘companion piece’ to Hitler's Daughter, but they really have little to do with each other, except that both are stories about Hitler's Germany and both are written for a Year 5 to Year 8 audience. This is longer and more difficult than Hitler's Daughter but it is a compelling read, impeccably researched as always by French. The novel opens in 1939. Georg's father, an English academic, has lived and taught happily in Berlin for fifteen years. Like many English people of Jewish origin, he has never identified as a Jew and cannot see that Hitler's campaign against Jews has anything to do with him. He has ignored warnings from his English sister that he should get out of Germany, convinced that his considerably academic reputation will protect him. The book opens with a terrible scene as the university graduation scene turns ugly as demonstrators attack students suspected of being Jewish - and Georg's father is thrown to his death from the window. The narrative follows the boy's frightening escape to Aunt Miriam in London and then his eventual evacuation to New South Wales.
The success of the book depends at first on the fast-moving action but then the focus is on Georg's character, as he struggles to understand that everything he had been taught was wrong. He struggles too with the fact that he feels that he must hide his German identity in wartime Australia, even from the family who have taken him in and given him so much love.
The resolution is very satisfying.
Recommendation: I still prefer Hitler's Daughter for class set use - partly because it is shorter and a little simpler, but also because of the interesting use of the narrative framework. But this is a great read. Recommend it to students as a follow-up to Hitler's Daughter.
Wide reading links: war stories, children in war, the Holocaust, refugees, journeys. - HS
by Oliver Phommavanh. Puffin Books, 2012. ISBN 9780143306511. 193 pp.
This is just as funny as Phommavanh's previous novels, Thai-riffic! and Con-nerd, but its main characters are also quite a lot older - Year 10 students at Fairfield High School, making this a more suitable text for secondary students. It accurately reflects the diverse community of Fairfield. The protagonist, Johnny, is of Laotian background and the love of his life, Josie, is Australian-Cambodian. Johnny's dad acts as MC for weddings and birthdays in the area and there is a delightful picture of the culture of the Fairfield region. Johnny's ambition to be a stand-up comic is helped by his English teacher, who encourages several students to take part in a student competition, culminating in finals at the Sydney Opera House.
This is a warm and positive story with a strong basis in supportive family life.
Recommendation: This is a fairly easy read and would be fun to share with students in Years 7 or 8, especially those from a community such as the one represented here. There is still very little YA literature reflecting the diversity of Australian society.
Wide reading links: humour, multicultural Australia, school life, families, friendship. - HS
by Ali Cobby Eckermann. Magabala Books, 2012.
Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight is a series of interconnecting poems that starts with the massacre of an Aboriginal family by white settlers on Ngadjuri land in South Australia. The sixteen-year-old girl is the only survivor. She grieves for the dead and slashes her skin, a mark for each deceased family member. She moves away, living off the land until she encounters Miner Jack, living a solitary life in a shack in the bush. She observes his behaviour and finally joins him at his fire. Friendship grows slowly until they become lovers.
Ruby (as Jack named her) slips away when other whites arrive with their bigotry and demands. She has the opportunity to join the passing Cloud mob and the older dancer who desires her. Jack sees her ‘joy in belonging’ at their fireside. Ruby stays this time, but the tryst cannot last. When vicious whites come hunting her and Jack, she leaves with the returning dancer and his warriors.
This delicate shared history of a white man and a black woman in ruthless times is a lyrical pleasure. It confronts brutal issues often with direct description and contemplates nature and relationships with grace and beauty.
Recommendation: This is short and accessible and could be used in classrooms from Years 8 - 12. Ruby Moonlight is the winner of the 2011 indigenous writing fellowship from the State Library of Queensland. - DM
by Margo Lanagan. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN 9781742375052. 360 pp.
In Sea Hearts Margot Lanagan takes the myth of the sea-wives and turns it into a mesmerising tale of an island where men turn to magic to obtain beautiful, compliant wives from the sea. The author of this magic is Misskaella Prout, a plain child who grows to womanhood on Rollrock Island with the knowledge that she can charm human bodies and souls out of the seals and so revenge herself on the men and women of the island who mocked, exploited or spurned her. As more and more men turn to the witch to procure them sea-wives the island women gradually leave their men to return to the mainland. The abducted sea-wives yearn to return to the sea with their children, and one boy is prepared to help them recover their seal coats and plan an escape.
Margo Lanagan charts the human heart through two generations, in all its desires and love, its anguish and despair, with exquisite prose and devastating revelations about the nature and limits of humanity. Her ability to create a divergent or alternative landscape and domain is extraordinary.
Margo Lanagan won the CBCA Book of the Year Award for Older Readers for Red Spikes in 2006 and her Black Juice collection has hypnotic short stories, including the unforgettable ‘Singing My Sister Down’.
Recommendation: This novel presents a fine opportunity for Year 9 or 10 students to look at myths and legends and how they can be appropriated and to appreciate the compelling enchantment of Lanagan’s style and the issues of gender, power and prejudice that she raises.
Wide reading links: fantasy, the sea, love stories, myths and legends, a question of gender, outsiders. - DM
Stoner & Spaz
by Ron Koertge. Candlewick Press, 2011 (2002). ISBN 9780763657574. 169 pp.
As the title implies, two sixteen-year-old American high school students, Colleen, a drug addict, and Ben, who has cerebral palsy (CP), are the central characters of this story narrated in the present tense by Ben. It’s been a long time since Eleanor Spence and Ivan Southall created characters with CP and these two are memorable for the witty repartee of their ‘telling it like it is’ dialogue. Ben: ‘you throw up a lot’; Colleen: ‘I’m practising for the Olympics’.
Ben has retreated into his private world of the movies, ‘a bit player in the movie of my life’, while his wealthy grandmother guardian over-protects and dresses him such that the school students interpret this, and his silence, to mean that he thinks he is better than everyone else.
Colleen, a notorious easy lay when she’s high, takes up Ben in revenge against her jock boyfriend: ‘This is not a date, I’m helping the handicapped.’ Colleen helps Ben undress and introduces him to sex, and Ben, with the help of a sympathetic neighbour, makes a documentary movie and becomes a Lazarus to his amazed fellow students. However, there is no Hollywood ending and in 2011, the writer, Koertge has produced a sequel, Now Playing, Stoner & Spaz II.
Recommendation: For Years 9 - 11. Obviously, there are drug and sex references but little or no coarse language worries for schools with those concerns. Otherwise an essential book for every high school.
Wide reading links: living on the edge, body image, humour, identity, unlikely friendships, outsiders, overcoming adversity, school life. - ET
The Taste of River Water
by Cate Kennedy. Scribe Publications, 2011. ISBN 9781921844003. 96 pp.
Poetry that is intelligent, compassionate and accessible is always to be welcomed and Cate Kennedy’s poems have the added advantage of taking ordinary experiences and illuminating them with wisdom and understanding. Images range from a farmer’s portrait of her children seeing rain for the first time in the rural photography competition of ‘8 by 10 colour enlargements $16.50’ to eating a guava, experiencing motherhood or tasting river water.
Recommendation: Kennedy’s poems will enable students in the Year 9 or 10 classroom to empathise and identify with a broad range of Australians. Kennedy’s rural insight should prove particularly valuable in introducing urban students to regional concerns, allowing rural students to see representations of their own areas and experiences and allowing all to explore the universality of honest and graceful insight and reflection. - DM
Tea with Arwa
by Arwa El Masri. Hachette, 2011. ISBN 9780733627835. 368 pp.
Arwa El Masri makes an important point about the texts available in schools when she was growing up in the 1980s:
Some of the English novels we read about migrant stories, like Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, were of other cultures finding their way in Australia but we read none about my culture. (page 110)
Thankfully in 2012 there are now some books available like The Glory Garage and Does My Head Look Big in This? to represent Islamic culture, and El Masri’s own book will make a contribution to greater cultural understanding and tolerance. She writes well about the difficulties and joys of growing up in different countries (Saudi Arabia and Australia), the daily life in a Muslim home and her experiences as the wife of a celebrated footballer. Arwa El Masri explains her decision to wear the hijab while acknowledging that her two sisters do not wear it.
Recommendation: This non-fiction text would prove a good resource for teachers to use in Years 9 and 10 to explore knowledge about life in Australian for Muslim families and about the practices of Islam. - DM
There is No Dog
by Meg Rosoff. Penguin Book, 2011. ISBN 9780141327181. 243 pp.
The front cover quotes from Anthony Horowitz: ‘Genius’, but there is no question that some readers will find this quite offensive. It is unquestionably blasphemous. For those who are not offended, it is also very, very funny and further proof of Meg Rosoff's extraordinary versatility as a novelist. Each of her five novels is totally and utterly unlike the others.
Rosoff has begun with the premise: if God created the world, what kind of God must he be - given the state of the creation? She comes up with the interesting premise that God must be a teenage boy - very intelligent and creative, capable of bursts of genius, but easily bored, lazy, self-indulgent and over-sexed. Rosoff’s ‘God’ is called ‘Bob’ and he is one of a pantheon of gods whose temperaments are not unlike those of the Greek or Roman deities. Most of them preside over much more interesting and functional worlds than little Earth - ‘miles off the beaten track in a lonely and somewhat rundown part of the universe’. Bob’s mother actually wins the job of God of the Earth in a poker game and gives it to her teenage son. For centuries Bob has been harassed by his assistant, Mr B, who tries to get him to take his responsibilities seriously. But Bob is much more interested in falling in love and Lucy, the new assistant at the zoo, is exactly the kind of human female that attracts him. As was the case with the Greek and Roman gods, love affairs between gods and mortals never end well, and Bob’s passion for Lucy has disastrous consequences for the weather.
This novel is totally ridiculous and great fun. Rosoff shows her hand as a superb social satirist, with a gallery of amusing minor characters.
Recommendation: It's unlikely that you would be able to use this as a class text, although it would be a great way to introduce kids to satire. In fact, even putting it on a reading list might call down the wrath of parents on your head. However, do introduce selected students to Meg Rosoff. - HS
This is Not My Hat
by Jon Klassen. Candlewick Press, 2012. ISBN 9780763655990.
This is a hardcover picture book.
This is a picture book that delights quite young children. There is minimal text and the story is told mainly by the images. A cheeky little fish speaks directly to the reader. He boasts that he has stolen the cute little hat that he is wearing from a much larger fish who was asleep at the time and knows nothing of the theft. The little fish is heading for the thick grasses so that he can hide.
Recommendation: This is delightful, but it is not something that you will use as the centre of a unit of work. However, I am always looking for picture books in which the words and the images tell different stories, and this is a superb example of such a text. The little fish’s narrative is contradicted by the pictures. The tiniest details, such as the shape of the big fish’s eye, tell us all that we need to know.
You only need a teacher copy of this but I can't think of a better text to illustrate the point that words and pictures do not always complement each other. - HS
by Judith Clarke. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN 9781742378275. 252 pp.
Set in rural Australia in the 1960s, this may shock your girls who mostly have no understanding of how limited options were for young women just a few decades ago. Ruth is unusual in so far as her grandmother has brought her up with the expectation that she will go to university, unlike her best friend Fee who, like most of the other girls in her year, marries and has her first baby immediately after leaving school. When Ruth gets the high exam marks and a scholarship to go to the University of Sydney, her priest - and her grandmother's friend - is so shocked that he preaches against her decision, warning of the moral perils of the big city and the evil world of academia.
This is only one aspect of a story that is part love story, with Ruth's yearning for the wealthy and attractive ne’er-do-well Tam Finn, and part celebration of friendship as Ruth and Fee remain close friends during their very different lives.
As always Judith Clarke creates real and credible characters, as well as evoking a strong sense of time and place. The novel is made up of three unequal parts. By far the longest section - more than half the book - is set in the 1960s, in the small country town that Ruth has grown up in. For me this was by far the most interesting and the strongest section of the novel. Part 2 is quite short, outlining Ruth’s life in London as a successful academic and Fee’s limited but contented family life at home. Part 3 sees Ruth at sixty returning to Australia, fostering a difficult teenage girl who reminds her of the boy Tam that she yearned for so many years earlier.
Recommendation: Offer this to your girls in Years 8 and 9. It is a strongly feminist book, grounded in memories of how limited the choices were for girls not so long ago.
Wide reading links: historical fiction, friendship, rural life/urban life. - HS
It is very difficult to find good plays for the junior secondary English classroom. Almost all the ones that work are dramatisations of novels, so I was delighted to learn that Phoenix Education had decided to issue a new edition of this accessible original playscript. The setting is an Australian beach on a wintery morning with an engaging monologue by a teenage boy sitting at the water’s edge in his wheelchair. Rosebury is very bright and very self-aware, accustomed to pity from adults because he is wheelchair-bound but completely accepting of his situation. He jokes about doing ‘all my walking with my mouth’ and being ‘a paralympian talker’. Nevertheless, he is wary when he hears other boys coming down to the beach, knowing that they will probably bully him.
This is a great story of friendship that develops between three boys and what it means to be ‘tufff’. There is lots of humour and lots of warmth in a short play in a familiar idiom.
Recommendation: This fills a gap. It’s obviously a play for boys, although girls will enjoy it. However, you can’t turn the three boys’ parts into girls’ parts - this is very much about masculinity, especially Australian masculinity. You could use this alongside a novel like Mo Johnson's Boofheads and the picture book Dragonquest. - HS
Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon
by Brenton E. McKenna. Magabala Books, 2011. ISBN 9781921248313.
This is a wonderful contribution to the range of Indigenous texts available for use with secondary students. Firstly, and most importantly, it is the work of an Indigenous Australian. Secondly, it is a richly inventive and beautifully presented text that will engage many of our students, including some who have been reluctant to engage with what has previously been offered to them in the classroom. This is the first volume in a planned trilogy. It is a fantasy graphic novel that is set in Broome and draws on the lives and stories of both the Indigenous peoples of that area and the many newcomers from around the world who have made Broome such a fascinating multicultural community. This has some links to manga but its style is ultimately its own. Ubby is a tough streetwise Indigenous girl who is the leader of ‘a rag-tag group of misfits who make up the town’s smallest gang’ and who, against all the odds, triumph over the bigger, nastier gangs who constantly challenge them. Ubby’s Underdogs fight their assailants with the help of the entrancing character Sai Fong, a tiny sickly little girl recently arrived from China who discovers that she has awesome powers.
This is an action movie with terrific special effects presented in comic-strip format and with authentic Australian voices, including Aboriginal English.
Recommendation: Use this anywhere from Year 7 - 10, especially with those students who love graphic novels. - HS
by Tohby Riddle. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN 9781742379722. 128 pp.
This is currently available only in hardcover.
Unforgotten is a haunting text that begins and ends with the phrase ‘nobody knows’. White angels, like carved stone statues, come to earth to guide, warm and support people, but one angel is overcome by the task and weakened, falls to the ground. With help from ordinary people the angel is able to soar again. Tohby Riddle’s graceful text captures beautifully the wistful, fragile nature of these ‘impossible birds’.
The structure of Unforgotten is interesting. The text is divided into three sections. The first shows an industrialised landscape and the visitation of the angels. The second chronicles the fall of one of the angels and the third shows us its recovery, aided by the people who support it. The pages are full of appropriated and often layered photographs, pictures of falling and flying angels and a diverse collection of humanity shown realistically and in sketch form. It is as if we are peering through a telescope with darkened edges at familiar and yet altered landscapes that are sometimes presented as collages that can be stretched or scratched and distorted. Another aspect of this beautifully produced picture book is the reproduction of the printed text on one of the last pages so the reader can reflect on the words in total after viewing the whole text.
Recommendation: This evocative and poignant picture book is well worth discussing in classrooms from Years 7 - 10. The small red leaves that feature in the book and on its cover share a visual link with Shaun Tan’s A Red Tree. Both books would make a powerful impression in the classroom. - DM
The Unforgotten Coat
by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Walker Books, 2011. ISBN 9781406341546. 99 pp.
Boyce, the writer of Millions has done it again with this gem of a book that shines with the warmth of his humour and indomitable human spirit. Julie, the narrator, tells this story of the Mongolian coat still in the school lost property many years later. In the coat pockets there are Polaroid photos that take the adult Julie back to that last summer in Year 6 when Chingis and his inseparable little brother Nergui join her class in the Liverpool area of northern England. Two kids with ‘mad coats and hats’ in the heat of summer.
Chingis takes over, appoints Julie as the ‘Good Guide’ that all nomads need, as Boyce entertains me with his humorous account of the power struggle inevitably won by Chingis, bearing the name of the great Khan as all Mongol males do. His favoured response is, ‘No, we are nomads.’ If you’ve ever taught newly arrived ESL students, you’ll smile at the bossy sound of his language. Chingis is a totally enchanting character, protecting his little brother from the demon that makes people vanish and inducting him into the mysteries of Liverpool football as the boys are ‘learning themselves ordinary’.
Julie and her friends of both sexes enjoy researching Mongolian life led by Chingis who still has the sand from the desert in the pockets of his grandfather’s coat along with the Polaroid photos of his homeland. The tone of the story changes when Chingis swaps his brother’s coat for Julie’s Everton football kit and her mother insists on driving to the menacing tower block flat to return it to his tearful and clearly fearful mother.
When the boys run away, leaving one coat at the school, Julie goes after them (as they expect no less from their ‘Good Guide’) and discovers the poignant secret of the photos. She brings them back home only to feel that she has betrayed them when they vanish as the ‘demon’ from immigration has them deported. Boyce adds an author’s note explaining the gestation of his fiction and expressing his despair that ‘a country that authorises its functionaries to snatch children from their beds in the middle of the night can’t really be called civilised.’
The story is much enhanced by the presentation with pages ruled and margined like a school exercise book, supported with many Polaroid photos.
Recommendation: Use this engaging, easy-to-read story in any year. Younger students will enjoy the humour and appreciate the contrasting pathos while older students will be intrigued by Boyce’s sophisticated language skills that leaven the humour and nostalgia with the force of fable.
Wide reading links: fables, asylum seekers, the big questions, brothers, friendship, living on the edge, cultural diversity, the migrant experience, stories with Asian characters. Years 5 - 11. - ET
The Watch that Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic
by Allan Wolf. Candlewick Press, 2011. ISBN 9780763637033. 466 pp.
This is currently available only in hardcover.
From the immense data collected by historians and ‘Titaniacs’ (those hobbyists obsessed with the story), Wolf has written a fascinating and gripping verse ‘faction’ that focuses on twenty-two selected passengers but extends to the iceberg itself and even a ship’s rat, having begun with the sombre account from John Snow, the undertaker, at sea for five days after the sinking to collect the numerous bodies. The verse varies from the more formal rhyme and rhythm of the ice to the lively dialogue of the passengers resurrected in the present tense. And these are cleverly selected from the 2 207 passengers and crew aboard. Although John Jacob Astor the millionaire, Margaret Brown (later dubbed the unsinkable Molly Brown), the captain E. J. Smith, the lookout Frederick Fleet and Harold Bride, the radio operator, might be obvious choices, Wolf constructs the personal fabric that clothes the well-known events of the disaster, using the evidence found on the bodies to draw out the ironies and mysteries to fictionalise the known facts. The other voices are from the gambler, the baker, the second violinist, Jamila the young refugee, Lolo the tailor’s son, Frankie the dragon hunter and, most intriguing of all, Thomas Hart, the stoker, a fictionalised character that turned out to be a fiction based on a fiction that the newspapers of the time had reported as fact. The sources used are explained in the easy-to-read notes that support the large bibliography of books and websites that many readers will want to consult in this year of the centenary of the disaster.
The voices ring true and the poems, mostly in single or double pages, stretching to four pages at most for the more dialogic ones, are easy to read and give the personal accounts of the voyage from Southampton to Cherbourg to Queenstown to The Grand Banks and then the fatal meeting with the iceberg - which was tiny as icebergs go, barely reaching the height of the Titanic’s forward well deck. The two hours of the sinking and the stories of that night for both victims and survivors, being told through the voices, convey the humanity of the events without sensationalism or melodrama.
The beauty of the book’s design and the quality of the production is a further bonus.
Recommendation: I expect that a new generation of ‘Titaniacs’ will be produced in schools that buy this book, as it will be an easy read for Years 9 upwards. (Younger readers might need a warning about the undertaker’s final and frank description of bodily decomposition - ‘embrace this fact and learn to love it’ - on pages 404-5.)
Wide reading links: historical fiction, life writing, re-tellings, challenge and endurance, families, technology, cultural diversity, power, the migrant experience, refugees, the sea, a question of gender, the role of the media, narrative forms. - ET
When We Were Two
by Robert Newton. Penguin Books, 2011. ISBN 9780143566830. 193 pp.
This much-awarded novel focuses on an aspect of Australian history that young people probably know little about. During World War I, recruits from country towns marched to the coast to join up. The two boys who are the protagonists of this story are taken under the wing of such a group of would-be soldiers, marching across the mountains from Walcha to Port Macquarie. The boys have already made a long journey from Gunnedah, where they have fled an abusive father. The older boy, Dan, hopes that they might be reunited with their mother, who had left home some time before. Younger brother Edie is brain-damaged, after a near-drowning accident.
This is an episodic novel that follows the stages of Dan and Edie's journey. Along the way they encounter and get the better of a pedophile, meet a girl to whom Dan is strongly attracted, and travel with a Chinese hawker who is subjected to racist violence. Dan feels heavy responsibility for his disabled brother, who becomes the recruits’ mascot and flag-bearer. The novel is ultimately a bildungsroman, with Dan developing into manhood as a result of his experiences.
Recommendation: This is a deeply moving book that offers rich possibilities for class study in Years 7 and 8.
Wide reading links: journeys, war stories, brothers. - HS
by Colin Meloy, illustrated by Carson Ellis. Viking, 2011.
Wildwood engages the reader from its opening line: ‘How five crows managed to lift a twenty-five pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries.’ Prue and her friend Curtis follow the murder of crows into the Wildwood (the Impassable Wilderness outside Portland USA), to rescue her baby brother, Mac. In doing so they cross into a clandestine world of dangerous creatures and mystical figures engaged in a violent conflict. The evil Governess and her coyotes are struggling to gain control of the Wildwood and Prue and her brother are pivotal pieces in her plan. Secrets about Prue’s parents’ dealings with the Governess provide a vital revelation as the two sides converge at the Plinth: one group determined to save Mac, the other to destroy him.
Recommendation: This complex and entertaining adventure, with its richly detailed landscape and culture (the maps and illustrations by Carson Ellis are wonderfully complementary) would provide Year 7 and 8 students with opportunities to consider Meloy’s diverse characterisation and explore aspects of the fantasy genre.
Wide reading links: fantasy, action adventure. - DM
by R. J. Palacio. Bodley Head, 2012. ISBN 9780370332291. 313 pp.
This is currently available only in trade paperback.
This is an easy and engaging read. Don't be discouraged by the page count: the font is of a comfortable size and the chapters are short. The story grips the reader from the first. August was born with severe facial deformities and, despite many operations, still causes strangers in the street to gasp with horror. Because of his disfigurement, he has been home-schooled. Now, at Year 4 level, his family has reluctantly decided to take the risk of sending him to school.
The novel is narrated in August’s voice - and it is the voice that engages the reader. The fact that August is only ten would normally be a disadvantage for high school readers, but there is nothing childish about this voice. August is bright and cheerful and accepting of his situation. He is also acutely aware of how others react to him and is extremely courageous. As he struggles to make his way in the hostile school environment, the reader cheers him on.
It has been said that books about characters with a disability should first and foremost be great stories that just happen to have a disabled character, rather than stories that focus on the disability. But good books often break the rules. Yes, this is a book that is basically about August's disability, but readers everywhere are responding to it with great enthusiasm. I think the reason for the novel's success is that the real focus is on August's courage and resilience.
Recommendation: This will work very well as a Year 7 class set novel, but check with your primary feeder schools, as it is already being widely read by primary school readers.
Wide reading links: challenge and endurance, living on the edge, resilience, school life, overcoming adversity, families. - HS
The Wrong Boy
by Suzy Zail. black dog books, 2012. ISBN 9781742031651. 256 pp.
I thought I could not bear to read another story of the Holocaust, but Melbourne writer Suzy Zail uses her Hungarian father’s wartime experience to tell a gripping fictional account of what happened to the Budapest Jews who were sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Because, I hope, that no Australian reader is ignorant about the general history of the Holocaust, Zail uses the dramatic irony of this knowledge to heighten tension. For example, the first shower is undergone with water, not gas, and the twins are flattered by the interest of the nice Dr Mengele.
Hanna, the fifteen-year-old narrator, benefits from being blue-eyed and fair-haired, unlike her sister Erika, and her talent as a pianist saves them both. Her gentile music teacher has been also imprisoned for teaching Jews, so she asks the commandant to audition Hanna for the camp orchestra which she leads. Thus Hanna is taken from her filthy environment, cleaned and dressed in good clothes (we know where they came from) to compete with a girl she knows to be the better player in the audition. However, the commandant’s son, sixteen-year-old Karl, is also in the room, resentful of his father keeping him in the camp mansion instead of being in Berlin at university. When his father asks him who the better player is, Karl chooses Hanna and so he becomes ‘the wrong boy’ of the title.
Hanna feels like a traitor every time when she rehearses and performs and guilty when she is able to snatch some food from the kitchen garbage, until she learns that Karl supports the survival methods of the inmates, and she joins them to smuggle food to others. Prior to this revelation, there is fear, tension and ambiguity about Karl. As Erika says about the will to survive: ‘the point is, to stay human.’
Zail mediates the details but does not avoid many, especially with the character of the hut kapo, a tough Jew selected to keep order there. When the Russian army approaches, the few able inmates hide. Hanna hides on a cess pit as the Nazis burn records and march out as many prisoners as they can. Then what was suspected about ‘the factory’ with the tall chimney is revealed.
Unusually for this genre, Zail chooses to continue the story back to Budapest and ends hopefully with Hanna’s letter to the Russian general, pleading for Karl’s release.
Recommendation: This is a good text to use with Holocaust fiction and non-fiction with students in Years 8 – 10, where it should provoke lively discussion on matters such as why the concentration camp officers wanted to listen to classical music and if it did anybody any good.
Wide reading links: the Holocaust, children in war, World War II, choices, refugees, music. - ET