Choices for English
Friday 20th November 2015 F4.1
Presented by Helen Sykes and Deb McPherson.
Although Deb was unable to present on the day, she contributed greatly to the preparation for this session and she wrote detailed notes on many of the titles we selected. Below you will find annotations on the titles that I presented, plus many more that I couldn't manage to cover. The titles are presented in alphabetical order, but we've given you first here an overview. If you are looking for something specific, such as fiction for class set use, poetry or non-fiction, you can find the titles in the overview and then go to the alphabetical list.
Our use of a 'class set' category begs the question, of course. Obviously most texts can be used for whole-class sharing, and there will be all kinds of reasons for choosing a particular title: it's set in your local area; it explores a particular concept that is the centre of a unit of work you want to teach; it just seems to resonate with this particular class at this particular time. Traditionally, however, English teachers have searched for that magic 'class set' title that will work with most classes. I complain constantly that I can't find enough of them - but I never could. They are not necessarily the books that win the awards, because there are practical concerns: they can't be too long, too difficult, too idiosyncratic. Very popular books may not be a good choice: half your class might have read them already. There is no magic formula, but they need to be very well-written and they usually engage the emotions strongly - we want to laugh or cry (and sometimes both at the same time). They mostly have protagonists that we empathise with, and they mostly deal with life's big issues. Some will be ongoing classics; others have great relevance just for the moment, but may not stand the test of time. We've included a short list of some recent possibilities here, but please don't ignore the other fiction titles we've recommended for wide reading. One of them might be the perfect 'class set' for you. You can skim the 'recommendation' at the end of the annotations to find what you need.
After the alphabetical list of annotations, we have a separate section on recommended series fiction. Young adult series fiction has been particularly good in recent years - plenty of variety to appeal to different kinds of readers and some very good quality writing. A wide reading unit based on contemporary series fiction would be a good way of engaging your students with reading and of encouraging them to read more.
We also have a final, short section where we've listed six novels published in recent years that are really good class-set value - titles that you might have missed. It's a diverse list, published between 2010 and 2014. Not all are immortal classics, but all are very useful bookroom acquisitions. We've reproduced the notes we wrote for them for previous conferences. -HS
Class set novels Years 7-8
A group of novels about 'the Wall'
The Crossing by Catherine Norton. Omnibus.
The Cat at the Wall by Deborah Ellis. Allen & Unwin.
The Wall: A Modern Fable by William Sutcliffe. Bloomsbury.
The River and the Book by Alison Croggon. Walker Books.
A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay. Walker Books.
Nona and Me by Clare Atkins. Black Inc.
The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie by Kirsty Murray. Allen & Unwin.
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead. Text Publishing.
The Sound of Whales by Kerr Thomson. Chicken House.
Two Wolves by Tristan Bancks. Random House Australia.
Class set novels Years 9-10
Freedom Ride by Sue Lawson. black dog books.
The Truth about Peacock Blue by Rosanne Hawke. Allen & Unwin.
Prince of Afghanistan by Louis Nowra. Allen & Unwin.
I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. Walker Books.
Inbetween Days by Vikki Wakefield. Text Publishing.
Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman. Walker Books.
Great YA literature - but possibly not class set
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. Walker Books.
The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty. Pan Macmillan.
A Prince without a Kingdom by Timothée de Fombelle. Walker Books.
Graphic novels/picture books/illustrated books
Flight by Nadia Wheatley and Armin Greder. A Helen Chamberlin Book.
Mysterious Traveller by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, illustrated by P. J. Lynch. Walker Books.
Baba Yaga's Assistant by Marika McCoola, illustrated by Emily Carroll. Candlewick Press.
The Cat with the Coloured Tail by Gillian Mears, illustrated by Dinalie Dabarera. Walker Books.
Kidglovz by Julie Hunt, illustrated by Dale Newman. Allen & Unwin.
The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan. Allen & Unwin.
Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy. Allen & Unwin.
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains: The Graphic Novel by Neil Gaiman. Headline Publishing, 2014.
The Marvels by Brian Selznick. Scholastic.
Atmospheric: The Burning Story of Climate Change by Carole Wilkinson. Walker Books.
Steve Jobs: Insanely Great by Jessie Harland. Random House.
Island Home by Tim Winton. Penguin.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by David Hare. Faber & Faber.
Seventeen by Matthew Whittet. Currency Press.
The ABC Book of Australian Poetry: A Treasury of Poems for Young People compiled by Libby Hathorn, illustrated by Cassandra Allen. ABC Books.
A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry edited by Czeslaw Milosz. Mariner Books.
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them by Anthony and Ben Holden. Simon & Schuster.
Poetry by Heart: Poems for Learning and Reciting edited by Julie Blake, Mike Dixon, Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland. Viking.
3 Idiots directed by Rajkumar Hirani.
X+Y (also known as A Brilliant Young Mind) directed by Morgan Matthew.
Fiction for wide reading, Years 7-8
The Astrologer's Daughter by Rebecca Lim. Text Publishing.
Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella. Doubleday.
The Forgotten Pearl by Belinda Murrell. Random House.
I Am Juliet by Jackie French. Angus & Robertson.
Newt's Emerald by Garth Nix. Allen & Unwin.
The Ratcatcher's Daughter by Pamela Rushby. Angus & Robertson.
Fiction for wide reading, Years 9-10
Laurinda by Alice Pung. Black Inc.
Tigerfish by David Metzenthen. Penguin Books.
The Colours of Madeleine series by Jaclyn Moriarty. Pan Macmillan.
Every Breath/Every Word/ Every Move by Ellie Marney. Allen & Unwin.
Man Made Boy/This Broken Wondrous World by Jon Skovron. Allen & Unwin.
Vango series by Timothée de Fombelle. Walker Books
The Tribe series by Ambelin Kwaymullina. Walker Books.
The Last Girl/The Last Shot/The Last Place by Michael Adams. Allen & Unwin.
City of Orphans series by Catherine Jinks. Allen & Unwin.
The Ship Kings series by Andrew McGahan. Allen & Unwin.
Great choices you might have missed
Butter by Erin Lange. Faber and Faber.
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey. Allen & Unwin.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Walker Books.
Trash by Andy Mulligan. Definitions.
The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic by Allan Wolf. Candlewick Press.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Allen & Unwin.
Alphabetical list of annotated titles
directed by Rajkumar Hirani. 2009. Rated M.
In Hindi and English. When Hindi is used, there are English sub-titles.
Screening time: just under 3 hours.
This is by no means a recent film, as you can see from its release date, but I only discovered it earlier this year when I was searching desperately for Asian films suitable for use with junior secondary students. This was a recommendation from Karen Stapleton from AIS, and I am grateful to her for the discovery. If you're not already familiar with it, it's really worth exploring.
This is a glorious way to introduce Stage 5 students to the joys of Bollywood. 3 Idiots is a laugh-out-loud comedy with some gut-wrenchingly sad moments and an underlying tenderness. It explores perceptively some very important values, especially in relation to education. While very clearly made for traditional Bollywood audiences, it provides a fascinating insight for Western viewers into the world of aspirational middle-class Indians.
The film is rated M because there are a few confronting scenes - particularly a suicide - and the humour is often quite vulgar. Your students will love the vulgarity. If they haven't seen Bollywood films before, they may be rather surprised by the inclusion of song-and-dance sequences, but these are just so much fun that your main problem could be keeping them in their seats. I wanted to get up and dance myself, and the songs stayed with me for hours afterwards.
Best friends Farhan and Raju graduated ten years previously from one of India's most prestigious engineering colleges. They join fellow-student Chatur who is anxious to keep a commitment he made on graduation to catch up with Rancho, the extraordinary non-conformist who topped their graduating class but then disappeared. The film is part road trip, with some stunning cinematography of aerial shots following the car through magnificent landscapes as they set out on their search.
The story flashes back from the search for Rancho to their college years. Farhan, Raju and Rancho were close friends - the three idiots, although Rancho was always the leader of the group, flouting authority and challenging them all to question the status quo. Chatur was a sycophantic teacher's pet, determined to achieve his idea of success: lots of money, a fancy house and car, and a trophy wife. We have already seen that ten years on, Chatur has - in his own terms - succeeded. He is confident that he will find that the supposedly brilliant Rancho is a failure.
Much of the film focuses on college life and Rancho's refusal to conform to its demands. The Dean, known to all students as ViruS, is arch-conservative: he prides himself on the exclusivity of the college and its supposed rigour, which consists mostly of mindless rote-learning. As Rancho points out at one stage to the enraged Dean:
You have the best college in the country, yet none of your students has ever invented anything of note.
There is a very funny scene where ViruS asks students to define a machine. Rancho does so beautifully, in very clear and simple language, and is rubbished by the teacher. Chatur knows what's wanted and he mouthes the following gibberish, to great praise:
Sir, machines are any combination of bodies so connected that their relative motions are constrained and by which means, force and motion may be transmitted and modified as a screw and its nut, or a lever arranged to turn about a fulcrum or a pulley about its pivot, etc., especially, a construction, more or less complex consisting of a combination of moving parts, or simple mechanical elements, as wheels, levers, cams etc.
ViruS tells Rancho that if he wants simple language he should join an Arts and Commerce college, not a superior engineering establishment. Rancho is thrown out of class but returns a moment later because he has forgotten something. What has he forgotten? With wonderful fluency he explains:
Instruments that record, analyse, summarise, organise, debate and explain information; that are illustrated, non-illustrated, hardbound, paperback, jacketed, non-jacketed; with foreword, introduction, table of contents, index; that are indented for the enlightenment, understanding, enrichment, enhancement and education of the human brain through sensory route of vision - sometimes touch.
He has, of course, forgotten his books.
The values of the education establishment are heavily satirised, particularly in a wonderfully funny (if rather rude) scene where star student Chatur delivers a prestigious speech. He has corruptly had the librarian write it for him and, as Rancho guesses, he then learns it by rote, not understanding very well the traditional Hindi in which it is written. Rancho has inserted some very rude words into the speech the librarian wrote. The student body rock with laughter; the school administration and the government representative are horrified; Chatur is at first oblivious - and then humiliated.
The satire is at times harsh. The suicide sequence involves a student who has been mercilessly bullied by ViruS. A later very dark moment has a desperate Raju jumping from a third-floor window and almost killing himself. But this darkness is balanced by a joyous optimism, summed up by Rancho's assurance:
Whatever the problem in life is ... just say to yourself 'Aal Izz Well'. This won't solve your problems but it will give the courage to face it.
There are a couple of false moments in the film, particularly the improbable scene when Rancho's inventive genius saves the day and delivers a baby, but my interest never waned, despite the great length of the film. I also guessed the ending some time before the surprise reveal, but that didn't matter either. This is basically a wonderful celebration of life and of values like Rancho's pronouncements: 'Chase excellence and success will follow' and 'Life is not about getting marks, grades but chasing your dreams'.
Students who are familiar with Bollywood films will notice that, while this is celebrating Bollywood conventions, it is also parodying them. The song-and-dance sequence in the college bathroom is a great example. Even what appears at first to be a more traditional love sequence, like the wonderfully addictive 'Zoobi doobi' song, is very inventive in its use of the camera. This is anything but stereotypical.
Oh, and I forgot to say, it's also a rather sweet love story.
Recommendation: This is obviously a suitable text for Asia and Australia's Engagement with Asia.
I was delighted with this film and would love to share it with kids. It probably needs to be Stage 5, because of the M rating, although most Year 7 kids would love the toilet humour. Like all Bollywood films it seems ridiculously long but there is so much variety of tone and the pace is so fast that I didn't really notice. Of course you can't afford to show all three hours in class time, but it seems to be freely available online, although it has disappeared recently (for Australian viewers) from YouTube. I'm too old-fashioned to download films and I rarely watch them online, so I confess that I don't understand the legality of this. But the fact that it is available online means that you can ask students to watch much of it for homework, allowing you to focus in class on key scenes. Make sure to send a note home to reassure parents that movie-watching is indeed homework; in some schools you may want to explain that it is rated M. Make sure too in class to ask students to explore some of the imaginative ways in which 3 Idiots has been filmed. -HS
The ABC Book of Australian Poetry: A Treasury of Poems for Young People
compiled by Libby Hathorn, illustrated by Cassandra Allen. ABC Books, 2012 (2010). ISBN 9780733320194. 192 pp. Hardcover.
Despite its rather young cover this is a fine anthology for the secondary poetry book box. Poet Libby Hathorn says she was concerned about some classic works slipping away from our consciousness and took the opportunity in this anthology to ‘invigorate classic works and highlight contemporary Australian voices’. The use of the metaphor of a river to connect each section works very well as we start at the beginning and move through the mountains, forests and plains to then head for the city on the coast and the sea.
The anthology is a beautifully produced hardback. There are clever, colourful illustrations by Cassandra Allen and paper that is beautiful to the touch. C. J. Dennis and Steven Herrick are represented, as are Gilmore, Lawson, Paterson, Murray and Archie Roach. John Tranter and Peter Skrzynecki (although there is a slip up in the spelling of his name as Skryznecki) are there, as well as poems by Peter McFarlane and Randolph Stow.
Recommendation: This anthology should touch some hearts in classrooms from Years 7 - 10 and at $25.25 it is a good investment for the box book. -DM
The Astrologer's Daughter
by Rebecca Lim. Text Publishing, 2014. ISBN 9781922182005. 321 pp.
This is thrilling and unusual crime fiction, a genre that is very much under-represented in young adult literature. Set in Melbourne's China Town, it is about the search for a missing person - the protagonist's mother, Joanne. Because Joanne is an astrologer, the key to her disappearance probably lies with one of her clients. Avicenna has her mother's powers but has always refused to use her talent to read the stars. Now she must examine her mother's journals to find the clues that elude the police. Her quest leads her into a dangerous and seedy world where the greatest threats come from highly respected establishment figures who are not what they seem. Avicenna's attempt to piece together the clues is complicated by her increasing recognition that her mother had consistently lied to her about her past.
While it is Avicenna who pieces together the clues, the police are represented positively. They are sceptical at first about Joanne and Avicenna's astrological powers but they are also dogged in their determination to find out what has happened to Joanne. The wonderfully cynical Detective Wurbik becomes a father-figure to Avicenna, despite the fact that like most typical teenager daughters she frequently rejects his advice. After arranging an interview with Avicenna by one of her mother's former clients, a very wealthy businessman named Kircher who believes his family intend to kill him, Wurbik thanks Avicenna for her time and explains: 'Well, he wouldn't take no for an answer. Who'd want to be rich, eh? Whole different set of problems.' Avicenna reads the charts and predicts that Kircher will die shortly, at the hands of someone close to him. A little later Avicenna suffers a panic attack when she sees a television news item reporting on Kircher's violent death in an explosion on his yacht.
As well as being crime fiction, The Astrologer's Daughter is also a classic love story, with an unlikely romantic hero. As in all good romances Avicenna and Simon detest each other to begin with, and there are major misunderstandings to be overcome; Avicenna is as unjustly prejudiced against Simon as Jane Austen's Lizzie was against Mr Darcy. But life is more complicated these days. The Mr Wickham character, to whom Avicenna is attracted against her will, is the repulsive Hugh - very, very rich, very, very handsome and powerful because of his family connections with the Melbourne establishment. When Wurbik warns Hugo not to give Avicenna any trouble, Hugh - confirming how repulsive he is - says, 'almost like he's thinking out loud, "I could have that man seriously inconvenienced."' (It's very satisfying to see at the end Detective Wurbik in control of the fate of those establishment figures, including Hugo's relatives, whose evil has been unmasked.) I must say that I find Avicenna's reluctant attraction to Hugo unconvincing: the Avicenna we get to know is just too bright and sensible to fall for Hugh's superficial charms.
The unlikely Mr Darcy character, Simon, is a striking contrast to Hugh: from a seriously dysfunctional family, Simon is sleeping rough in a battered old car that 'looks like a low-rent drug dealer's ride on its second go round the odometer' and that 'smells like stale hash browns'. Simon becomes, however, both a great help in Avicenna's search for her mother and also a witness in his own life to the violence and deprivation that lie beneath the veneer of our civilisation. As readers we are satisfied when the right man eventually gets the girl.
Early in the novel we learn that Avicenna had been severely burned as a child in a household fire - a fire in which her father died rescuing her:
[The police] recoil when I answer the door, and my hand rises to my ear. But, of course, it's too late. The young woman's eyes narrow thoughtfully on the melted, stumpy thing that is all that remains of my left ear, then on the waxy-looking pattern burnt into my left cheek that pulls my eye down a little at the outer corner.
Avicenna is, not surprisingly, acutely sensitive about her appearance. The importance of body image and of its relationship to self-esteem is one of the issues that the novel explores perceptively.
One of the strengths of The Astrologer's Daughter is the first-person narration; the persona revealed by the colloquial language reflects at first Avicenna's toughness, but we soon see too her vulnerability:
I swing my pack onto my shoulder, already backing away from the two of them, seated in awful tableau. The roaring in my ears seems to grow louder. Jesus, I don't even know where I am. I'm so far out of my narrow comfort zone, it's like I'm in a parallel universe ...
And I nod once, sharply, before fleeing the room, and the howling old woman in her bright, jewel-box house, who will never find peace. It's like looking into my own future.
This novel received several awards: it was on the CBCA Older Readers' Notables list, 2015; it was shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards, Best Young Adult Novel, 2014; it was longlisted for the Gold Inky award, 2015; and it was shortlisted for the Davitt Awards, Best Young Adult Novel, 2015.
Recommendation: Good crime fiction for teenagers is hard to find. Crime fiction with both an intriguing plot and interesting, credible characters is even rarer. This is an appealing read for Years 8-10. -HS
Atmospheric: The Burning Story of Climate Change
by Carole Wilkinson. Walker Books, 2015. ISBN 9781925126372. 253 pp.
Carol Wilkinson is better known for writing fiction and for her wonderful Dragonkeeper series, but here she draws on another area of her life as a climate action group member and a campaigner for sustainable living and a safe climate.
Her introduction is clear and acknowledges the global debate. Anecdotes from young people preface the thirteen straightforward chapters setting out the science of climate change. These short reminiscences really are engaging ‘tasters’, capturing as they do such varied personal, political, cultural and historical perspectives. We hear from people from the past and the present, from individuals in places such as England, Persia, China and Denmark. Vincent Dwyer is fifteen when he gets caught up in a climate change rally in Melbourne on his way to play a game of chess. Billy Low, aged ten, is a coal ‘putter’ (or puller of the coal tub and collector of coal) from Newcastle England in 1843 and Torben Tranberg is an eleven-year-old Dane watching his family’s wind turbine make their electricity.
Wilkinson is an appealing writer and her well set out chapters are interspersed with clear headings and useful graphs, tables, images and inserts. The reader is introduced to human activities over time that have influenced climate change, to the history of fossil fuel and scientific research, the study of ice cores, the ozone hole, the growing international response and the opposition to taking action on climate change. Her final chapters contain good advice on what individuals can do to live sustainable lives and outlines actions available to us all. A glossary, timeline, list of websites, list of sources and index further support the reader to take their explorations further.
In the last chapter, in a fitting finale, we return to Vincent Dwyer, now a sixteen-year-old and a much more informed individual who is committed to reducing the carbon footprint of his family. We seem to have come full circle on our exploration on climate change and Wilkinson ends with a challenge to the young people who will inherit our planet:
You have a job to do. Yes, you. You are the most important person in the campaign to fix our climate. You can make a difference. (p. 230)
Recommendation: This is a welcome addition to our choices for non-fiction for sharing with students in Years 7 and 8. It of course also fills the gap for a text that meets the cross-curriculum requirement, Sustainability. -DM
Baba Yaga's Assistant
by Marika McCoola, illustrated by Emily Carroll. Candlewick Press, 2015. ISBN 9780763669614. 127 pp.
This graphic novel from the States uses the witch of Russian folklore to tell a story of a teenage girl who, unlike others, refuses to run away terrified and seeks, instead, adventure, thanks to a beloved grandmother who taught her the value of stories. Masha, unhappy about her father's intention of remarrying, answers an advertisement for an assistant to Baba Yaga. Memories of her loving grandmother's advice and her own good sense stand her in good stead as she faces a series of tests, to be ultimately rewarded by a Baba Yaga who is much less terrifying than expected.
The story of Masha's encounter with Baba Yaga - and, most importantly, of how she saves the children Baba Yaga has imprisoned and intends to eat - is interspersed with flashbacks that tells Masha's family story. Most significant is the death of her beloved grandmother, an event that has left her unable to trust life. Ultimately, this work is a celebration of courage and self-knowledge.
The brightly coloured graphic frames are slightly cartoonish, an appropriate style for a story that looks at mythical beings through the lens of modern teenage life.
Recommendation: This is aimed at the young adult market. Many students will find it absorbing. It's a useful addition to a unit of work on traditional stories, anywhere from Years 7-10. -HS
Behind the Beautiful Forevers
by David Hare. Faber & Faber, 2014. ISBN 9780571312412. 129 pp.
This playscript is based on journalist Katherine Boo's compulsively readable non-fiction text, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death and hope in a Mumbai slum (Scribe Publications, 2012. ISBN 9781921844638. 288 pp.). Boo is an American journalist and the book is based on years of first-hand research in the Annawadi slum that is adjacent to the Sahar International airport in Mumbai. The slum is hidden from the airport by a wall of advertising for expensive Italian floor titles that promise to remain 'beautiful forever'. The juxtaposition between the extravagant lifestyle promised by the advertising and the fragile shacks of the slum, with their dirt floors, in many ways sums up the Mumbai Boo is reporting on.
Boo chose to present her research by telling the story of three families who live in the slum. The first is the family of Abdul, who is possibly sixteen, possibly nineteen, and the family breadwinner; Abdul has become a skilled recycler, scavenging through 'the things that richer people threw away'. The second is the family of the ambitious and ruthless Asha, who aspires to be the next slumlord; her daughter, Manju, is the only college-going girl in Annawadi but regrettably (from Asha's viewpoint) does not share her mother's pursuit of material gain at all costs. The third is that of Fatima, universally known as One Leg, who is desperately jealous of Abdul's family's relative prosperity. In a self-destructive rage, Fatima burns herself grievously in a fire and blames Abdul. Much of the narrative of the book centres on this incident and its consequences.
David Hare follows Boo's book closely, focusing too on the story of the three families and giving them a vivid presence on stage. Both Boo and Hare supplement the main characters with a large supporting cast, especially of road boys, scavengers that Abdul knows, and corrupt officials. In the world that Boo and Hare present, corruption is endemic at every level, especially amongst the police, lawyers and court workers, from the highest to the lowest. Innocence is useless in the justice system; money and influence are everything. The conditions in gaol are even worse than those of slum existence.
It is not surprising that Hare was attracted to Boo's text: he has written for years about globalisation, inequality and injustice. But even such a skilled dramatist must have been daunted by the task of adapting Boo's huge canvas for the stage. Hare has risen magnificently to the challenge. While the cast is huge and at first confusing, Hare gives us a clear narrative that allows us to share in the fragility of this makeshift world. He seems too to have picked up on Boo's comment about goodness. One of the highlights of the play is the moment when Abdul reacts with rage to yet another corrupt government official demanding a bribe:
Look at us. You're like dogs. Licking at us, taking what's left of our blood. You've already taken our lives. All right, so we let you do it. But there's a limit. And my mother's reached it. Do you understand? She's paid the police, the people in the prison, in the courts, the neighbours, anyone who held out their hand. And tell you what? This is a great day. Because this is the day we stop. We stop.
There is violence in the play: the scene, for example, in which street boy Kalu is tortured and killed by two dealers is distressing. There is bad language, especially - and amusingly - from the mouth of Abdul's mother Zehrunisa, who is constantly being berated by her children for her swearing. There is the uncomfortable exposure that for many life is cheap; like the people in the hotels near the slum who complain that 'every night the ash from our cow-dung fires drifts across and lands on the swimming pools', we would really prefer not to know. But Hare has also given us humanity at its best, especially in the young people, Abdul and Manju.
Recommendation: This is obviously a suitable text for Asia and Australia's Engagement with Asia. It is a sophisticated text that you probably won't use with students younger than Year 10. Even then, you will use it with top stream classes. It would also be a great text for Year 11. If you can find a suitable class, it is wonderfully rewarding: an unforgettable insight into the lives of the poor in contemporary India. The issues that are raised, both in the book and in the play, are hugely relevant.
You could use the playscript on its own with a class, or alongside Boo's book. The play had a triumphant season in London in 2015. The National Theatre Live program filmed one of the performances. While I don't believe the film is available on DVD, several independent cinemas - like the Dendy and Palace chains - screen the National Theatre Live performances from time to time. -HS
A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry
edited by Czeslaw Milosz. Mariner Books, 1998. ISBN 9780156005746. 344 pp.
How to resist a title like this? Thankfully no resistance is required as the Nobel Prize Winner for Literature presents a magnificent collection of poems. I fell in love with Milosz’s rationale for this anthology. It was to select poems, whether contemporary or a thousand years old, that were ‘short, clear, readable and … realist, that is loyal toward reality and attempting to describe it as concisely as possible.’ The poems are gathered under intriguing headings: 'Epiphany', 'Nature', 'The Secret of a Thing', 'Travel', 'Places', 'The Moment', 'People Among People', 'Women’s Skin', 'Situations,' 'Non Attachment' and 'History'. They all benefit from their erudite introductions. Some poems are contexualised while others stand alone. It was wonderful to re-read Herbert’s 'Elegy of Fortinbras' and to discover so many new and piercing poems from poets and places never encountered before. The calm delight of Robert Morgan’s 'Honey', the guilt of Roethke’s moss gatherer, the wisdom of Mary Oliver’s 'Wild Geese' and Ch’In Kuan’s river journey 'Along the Grand Canal' are representative of a once in a lifetime collection.
Recommendation: This is truly an anthology of gems that sparkle in the mind long after the book has been closed. Don’t just buy it for your students; get one for yourself. -DM
by Tanya Landman. Walker Books, 2014. ISBN 9781406314595. 368 pp.
This brutal and powerful novel asks the question: what does it mean to be free? Charley, a young Afro-American, is the narrator of the story set during the period of the United States’ Civil War and the Indian wars. Her daily life as a house slave is all too vividly captured, from the abuse and bigotry of her owners to the cruelty of the overseer’s son. When the Yankees burn down her plantation, it frees her and others but leaves them to find their own way to food and shelter. After following the army as cooks for a while Charley, Cookie, and Amos (her closest friends) return to the ruined plantation. When they enter the nearby town, they invite suspicion and hatred from disgruntled whites. When the lynch mob comes calling Cookie and Amos hide Charley, but in a terrible and violent act Cookie is raped and both she and her husband are killed. Charley is left to wander on in despair. She disguises herself as a boy and finally signs up for the US Army as part of the Afro-American Buffalo soldiers' unit, a group that was sent to the west to fight the Indians and help the settlers.
As readers we travel over a lot of territory in this story and it’s not just geography. Prejudices, attitudes and philosophies are all explored. Charley may have a rifle and a job but she is not free from the bigotry of her times and neither is her unit. Mocked as inferiors by their contemptuous fellow soldiers, the poorly provisioned Company W always work hard to demonstrate their capability as soldiers. Charley initially sees the Indians they same way other soldiers see W Company, but over time her sympathies change. She begins to see what the Indians are fighting for, as she witnesses the genocide being practised by the US Army. When Jim, an Indian-Mexican scout, enters her life, she is more than ready to leave her army life and follow him.
There is no escaping the violence and savagery exposed in this novel. As an account of a desperate life in terrible times it is riveting. While some plot twists are contrived, the overall impression is a powerful one. Charley is often close to despair but her determination and resilience are formidable. Buffalo Soldier won the CILIP Carnegie Medal for fiction in 2015.
Recommendation: Year 9 or 10 could find much to explore in this novel. While some of the horrors it exposes are shocking and confronting, such details represent the reality of the times, and it is a novel that you are compelled to keep on reading. -DM
The Cat at the Wall
by Deborah Ellis. Allen & Unwin, 2015. ISBN 9781760112448. 142 pp.
Deborah Ellis has set out in this book to do what she has done so many times before: to bring to life for a young audience the conditions faced by children living in less privileged countries. Often, as in this case, she writes about children living in conflict zones. She has a talent for creating credible and sympathetic characters with whom young readers can empathise, and she also has a gift for informing readers about the real dangers and difficulties of a situation without traumatising them.
In The Cat at the Wall, Ellis focuses on conditions on Israel's West Bank - behind the Wall. The plot is based on 'Straw Widow operations' in which Israeli soldiers commandeer a Palestinian family home so that they can spy on the neighbours. In this case the soldiers are Simcha - a brash prejudiced ignoramus 'fresh off the boat from America' - and the older, more experienced and less judgmental Aaron. But the house is not empty as they first thought: a terrified little boy is hiding there. Much later, we discover that the boy is alone because his parents have been killed by other Israeli soldiers in a misunderstanding at a checkpoint.
Ellis needs a narrative point of view - an independent observer. She needs someone who will describe what would seem odd to a Western reader: the smallness of the house, with its minimum of furniture; a kitchen consisting of a kerosene stove, a small sink and a shelf with a few plates; a pantry consisting of nothing more than a jar of chickpeas, a few small jars of spices, and a couple of old sprouting onions. Western observers would notice that there were no children's toys - none of the ubiquitous plastic of their own homes: just an elaborate home-made cardboard town. But there is, of course, no way that a Western child could conceivably be placed in the setting to provide the necessary narrative viewpoint. So Ellis gives us a stray cat as narrator - but a stray cat that is the reincarnation of a spoilt North American thirteen-year-old girl. The cat tells us what is happening in the little house; in between times, the cat reminisces about her life and death as a girl.
I'm all for suspension of disbelief as a reader, but there were times while reading The Cat at the Wall where Ellis was asking too much of me. Children might be more forgiving - and this novel is for child readers, rather than for young adults. The main story itself is great. Ellis is particularly good at capturing the tension - the tension between the two Israeli soldiers; the anxiety when they find their radio dead and their spare batteries missing; the suspense when the boy's teacher and class knock on the door, calling for him; the increasingly dangerous escalation of the situation as local boys start stoning the house. Personally, I resented leaving this story to learn about the not-very-nice Clare's problems with her mean teacher, and I didn't much care that Clare achieves at the end a kind of redemption.
Despite my reservations, this novel has a lot to recommend it. It highlights in particular the problem with 'the Wall': the people on either side do not know or understand each other, so tragic misunderstandings are inevitable. The scene in Chapter 18 when the boy's father is shot at the checkpoint is distressing; the Israeli soldiers - frightened boys - shout commands in Hebrew; the man shouts back explanations in Arabic. They have no way of communicating with words and fear leads to misinterpretation of actions:
Omar's father backed out of the taxi. In his hands was something long and black.
'He's got a rifle!'
I heard one shot. And then another.
And then there was silence. A terrible, terrible black silence.
The 'something long and black' is a violin case (the cat had noted, disapprovingly, the violin lying on a window sill 'gathering dust without a case') - the only thing the man had to hold his identity papers and his wife's medical information when he left home so hurriedly with his wife in labour. He had explained that to the soldiers, but they were unable to understand. Similarly, a fatal incident - possibly involving even more deaths - seems likely at the climactic ending of the novel. As the cat sees it, there is 'a colossal mess' of misunderstanding and fear as Palestinians demonstrate and a heavily-armed Israeli helicopter hovers overhead:
The Israeli army moved forward. The rioters moved forward.
'Back off!' warned the army over the loudspeaker.
'You back off!' the crowd yelled back.
A weird silence fell on the area like a fog. I saw soldiers aim their rifles. I saw teenaged boys pick up rocks.
It looked like all hell was going to break out right over us.
I never disclose endings, and I won't do so now. There is a resolution, but it's not very satisfactory. The Wall remains and hell will break out again.
Recommendation: The Cat at the Wall is a fairly easy read for Stage 3 and 4. Offer it to Year 7 students alongside Sutcliffe's The Wall and Norton's Crossing (both reviewed here). All three books are about physical walls separating people, but - more importantly - all three explore the idea that physically separating people leads to dangerous misunderstandings. Norton's Crossing is also fairly accessible, while Sutcliffe's novel is more demanding. Encourage students to read more than one of the books so that they can compare the very different ways the authors deal with the concept.
In some schools discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian situation can lead to problems. In such a case, make up a wide reading box of stories about children living in difficult situations around the world. Include The Cat at the Wall, Crossing and The Wall. Other possible titles by Deborah Ellis include Parvana, Parvana’s Journey, Shauzia and Parvana's Promise, all set in Afghanistan; The Best Day of My Life, about a homeless Indian girl suffering from leprosy; The Heaven Shop, about children who have been orphaned by AIDS in Africa; Diego, Run! and Diego’s Pride, about a boy whose parents have been wrongly imprisoned in Bolivia for drug smuggling; and No Safe Place, the story of three adolescent asylum seekers from very different backgrounds who are at the mercy of people smugglers as they try to cross the English Channel. Sally Grindley has written a number of books about children in non-Western countries, including Bitter Chocolate, about the conditions of child cocoa workers in Africa, Torn Pages, about AIDS orphans in Africa, and Spilled Water, about child factory workers in China. Other titles that give Australian readers insight into the lives of children in other countries include Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan, about the plight of young widows in India, Trash by Andy Mulligan, about the lives of children scavenging in the rubbish tips of Manila, Eoin Colfer’s Benny and Omar, set in Tunisia, and The Wild by Matt Whyman, the grim story of two brothers growing up in the poisoned wilderness of Kazakhstan. Allen & Unwin's 'Through My Eyes' series is also very worthwhile: Rosanne Hawke's Shahana, set in Kashmir; J. L. Powers' Amina (Somalia); John Heffernan's Naveed (Afghanistan); Sophie Masson's Emilio (Mexico); Robert Hillman's Malini (Sri lanka) and Prue Mason's Zafir (Syria). -HS
The Cat with the Coloured Tail
by Gillian Mears, illustrated by Dinalie Dabarera. Walker Books, 2015. ISBN 9781922077400. 74 pp. Hardcover.
While this is aimed at the mid- to upper- primary school age group, like many good stories it has a fairly universal appeal. For kids it has lots of fun ingredients: an icecream truck that produces delicious icecreams, a magic cat that senses unhappiness, and Mr Hooper, the icecream vendor who so wants the world to be a happier place. The fable-like story is interspersed with the cat's songs about the heart of the world, songs that to human ears sound like purring. The story has the structure of a quest: Mr Hooper and the cat with the coloured tail bring help and happiness to a series of individuals but, at the end - and with great difficulty and personal danger - they rescue the 'heart of the world', which has become black, damaged, sad and bitter-smelling.
Fables always, of course, have a moral. This one is a celebration of the healing power of friendship, love and kindness.
This is an illustrated story and the illustrations complement the text beautifully. Dabarera's sketches are mostly black and white with blobs of colour, but the magic icecreams are fully coloured and background colours are used behind the print to reflect the changing mood of the story. There is a delightful sketch of the lonely, sad old lady who discovers a new spring in her step when she tastes her magic pink icecream: the icecream, the only colour on the page, looks almost like a rose in bloom. The joy in the sketch reflects the joy in the words:
Under her tongue, it was delicious and cool. Each sweet lick that the old lady took put more and more life into her walk, until she was skipping home, even as she licked.
To eat a moon-cream was like licking love and happiness both at once. After a moon-cream, life would always be luckier.
Recommendation: Include this in a unit of work on traditional stories. Ask students to compare it to traditional fables and have them consider the extent to which it follows the quest narrative. -HS
The Cracks in the Kingdom
by Jaclyn Moriarty. Pan Macmillan, 2014. ISBN 9781742612874. 526 pp.
This is Book 2 of The Colours of Madeleine, a sequel to A Corner of White. A third book to complete the trilogy is still to come.
This is totally and wonderfully original. It is challenging, thought-provoking, constantly surprising, frequently very funny. It's a huge read and it makes lots of demands on its readers, but like many difficult books it offers great rewards.
Moriarty's originality and inventiveness were evident in her first book - Feeling Sorry for Celia - and its sequels, but The Colours of Madeleine is on another level. The language is so perfect that it is almost a distraction; open the book at almost any page to discover a delight:
The mood, which had been flying, abruptly took a seat and put its feet up.
Over the next couple of weeks, Elliot got himself so tangled in busy he couldn't see his way around the knots.
There was a long pause, minutes passed, then there was a thud, the air itself seemed to tumble and Princess Ko tumbled with it.
She was gone.
In her place was a kind of empty space of panic: a smearing of glassy streaks and smudges in the air, as if unseen figures were frantically splashing dirty water at windowpanes.
Moriarty's imagination is outrageously inventive. This is the story of two worlds. One of them is our world, although not one that our students will be very familiar with: the university town of Cambridge, England. In Book 1 we come to know fourteen-year-old Madeleine Tully who is being home-schooled with a couple of friends. They are bright, inquisitive, interesting young people. Madeleine is, however, troubled. She and her mother are desperately poor, and her mother is ill. In the other world, the fantasy world of the Kingdom of Cello, we meet Elliot Baranski. Elliot seems quite like teenage boys in our world, and the people in his world behave much like humans here, but his world itself is bizarre. Seasons can change at any moment - it is quite normal to have three different seasons in a day. 'Colours' are 'living organisms: a kind of rogue subclass of the colours that we see when we look at a red apple or a blue sky', and some of them are deadly, attacking without notice. Elliot is troubled too: his father has inexplicably disappeared.
Madeleine in Cambridge (our world) finds a note sticking out of a parking meter; she writes a reply. Elliot (in the Kingdom of Cello) finds her reply poking out of an old broken television that has been used as part of an art installation in his school playground. They begin to correspond. Elliot knows a little of the World, as World Studies is a compulsory subject at school, although Madeleine has never heard of the Kingdom of Cello. According to Elliot, there was a time when the two worlds were in contact, but all contact has been forbidden for the past three hundred years. There are still some cracks between the worlds (Madeleine's parking meter and Elliot's old television represent one of the cracks), but anyone in Elliot's world must report a crack immediately to the authorities so that it can be closed up. Elliot, however, has no intention of reporting what he has discovered.
One of the joys of Moriarty's fantasy is how random it is. I've read so many fantasies set in other worlds that have been elaborately created by the author so each strange creature or phenomenon can be explained in detail. Moriarty doesn't bog us down in tedious explication. The Kingdom of Cello just is. She describes it and its people with such vividness that we never doubt for a moment its existence. We never doubt that Madeleine and Elliot have found a crack, and we delight in discovering their growing friendship.
While Book 1 concentrates on the characters of Madeleine and Elliot, Book 2 is concerned with the terrible plight of the royal family of the Kingdom, all of whom have been kidnapped by traitors. Only the young Princess Ko is left, and she has to hide from her people the fact that the rest of her family is missing. The very feisty princess is just one of a number of fascinating new characters introduced in Book 2, as Madeleine and Elliot try to work out what has happened to the royal family and then how to rescue them.
The plot is terrific. There is plenty of suspense and action and lots of surprises. But it is the rich, complex characterisation that impresses me most. This is high-quality fiction.
The Cracks in the Kingdom won the Ethel Turner Prize for young people's literature at the NSW Premier's Literary Award in 2015 and was listed as a CBCA Older Readers' Notable book in the same year.
Recommendation: This is long and challenging, and many of your students will find it daunting. It reminds me a little, in its intelligence and effortless artistry, of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights' trilogy. For some of your students, reading this (and its prequel) will be a life-changing experience. Like me, they will anxiously await Book 3. -HS
by Catherine Norton. Omnibus, 2014. ISBN 9781742990286. 181 pp.
This well-written and accessible novel is narrated in the first person and in the present tense by Cara, who has grown up in the shadow of the Wall. All that she can see from the windows of the apartment where she has grown up is the blankness and greyness of the Wall.
Norton paints a compelling picture of an authoritarian regime where the overblown rhetoric about Equality tries to disguise the reality of a failed state. Food shortages are acute, and the variety of food available very limited. Long queues for bread and milk begin before dawn. Energy supplies are erratic. State censorship is strict: home internet connections are forbidden and there are many empty shelves in the library, where books have been removed. Despite the rhetoric about Equality, it is obvious that party officials live very different lives from those of the masses.
Cara's situation is especially bleak because both her parents work for the Department of National Security. They are entitled to little privileges - Cara and her sister, Lilith, have separate rooms, unlike most siblings - but they can also be called away on duty for days at a time. This time they will be gone for a month; twelve-year-old Cara and nine-year-old Lilith will be on their own, with only an emergency phone number to someone they don't know as backup. The Co-op is short of food as usual: the best that their parents have been able to do in the way of supplies for a month is eggs - all 92 of them.
The present-tense narrative is interspersed with past-tense flashbacks as Cara reminisces about the events of the previous year. Cara had become friends with Leon and his older sister Ava, who live on the top floor of the apartment building with a view over the Wall. Cara had never questioned her life; she had always been a compliant and obedient child, eager to please; but her acquaintance with Leon's family disturbs her. Unlike her own parents, who are cold and distant, Leon's parents are warm and welcoming. Their balcony has a flourishing vegetable garden and Leon's father, Marco, cooks nutritious and appetising meals. Marco even bakes a birthday cake for Ava; Cara did not even know that people celebrated birthdays.
Cara's sister Lilith is academically precocious and was away the previous summer at a special children's camp. Cara spent a wonderful summer with Leon and Ava. Part of their time was spent in the wilderness along the canal, a dangerous, forbidden area. Ava had made for herself a bow and arrow and the children hunted rabbits in the bushes along the canal - a valuable contribution to Marco's cooking. But Cara had been successfully indoctrinated by the regime and she began to suspect Ava of committing Suspicious Acts. Her report to her parents led to the children's mother, Gretel, being arrested and taken away for re-education. A year later, Cara feels deeply guilty for her betrayal - and increasingly sceptical of everything she has been brought up to believe. Her re-connection with Leon's family transforms her life.
Norton's Wall is obviously very like the Berlin Wall, and the regime has lots in common with that of East Germany, but the novel is not set in Berlin. The setting is more contemporary: the internet exists, even if citizens of the regime have limited access to it. Norton's Wall is symbolic of all attempts to divide people. It is also symbolic of all authoritarian attempts to control people. As Ava says to Cora: 'Don't ever let them wall up your mind.' Cora finally recognises that that is what almost happened to her.
This won the Patricia Wrightson Prize for children's literature at the NSW Premier's Literary Awards in 2015.
Recommendation: Norton's characters are engaging and the plot is tense. This is an accessible text that will broaden the horizons of Stage 5 readers. It will work well as a class set. It could be used too alongside two other books about walls - Sutcliffe's The Wall and Ellis's The Cat at the Wall (both reviewed here).
Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean
edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy. Allen & Unwin, 2015. ISBN 9781743319789. 227 pp.
In late 2012, in both Australia and India, women were attacked in a series of violent crimes. This anthology is in part a response to that violence and also an opportunity to use speculative fiction to explore feminism and gender issues. The editors have drawn together a stellar cast of authors and illustrators from India and Australia who have collaborated via skype and email on six graphic novels, ten short stories and a play script. The editors chose the title because it suggested ‘impossibilities, dreams, ambitions and a connection to something larger than humanity alone’. This anthology represents fiction of a high calibre and with an inclination to explore the collaborative and collective action of women and girls rather than the more conventional actions of a single protagonist.
Some of the stories are grim but most hold out hope in diverse futures that are often dystopian and degraded. Coming of age and rites of passage are central. I loved Margot Lanagan’s ‘Cat Calls’ and Justine Larbalestier’s futuristic retelling of Little Red Riding Hood in ‘Little Red Suit’. The wolves in both stories are all too human. In ‘Cat Calls’ a young woman is harassed daily on the street as she passes a group of men at the tea shop. In implementing a clever strategy to rebuff the men she finds that collective action leaves her, and her companions, more powerful and better able to deal with such crudities in the future.
The future in ‘Little Red Suit’ is bleak too as Poppy seeks to leave the crowded, underground city of Sydney to visit her grandmother on a close island. Her mother and others are reluctant to let her go but Poppy leaves and crosses the desolation of the outside. She becomes aware of a human wolf, a hacker who invades the integrity of her suit and taunts her. Poppy makes the terrible discovery of the death of her grandmother but, when attacked by the hacker, she fights back against him and prevails.
The graphic ‘Swallow the Moon’ by Kate Constable and Priya Kuriyan which opens the collection has a different perspective on the detritus from the past, as a group of young women go through their own rite of passage as they travel down to the sea. In Anarkali, another graphic story, a spirited woman fights back against the Emperor’s entombing of her for loving the Prince.
The anthology canvasses many issues including body image, gender equality, the environment and social justice. The anthology also provides an insight into the creative and collaborative process that formed the stories. A sixteen-page section allows the writers and illustrators to narrate their individual journeys and there is detailed biographical information about each contributor.
Recommendation: This anthology is already being used in classrooms in NSW and should delight and inspire students in many other Year 8 and 9 classrooms. It also meets requirements for cross-curriculum content such as Asia and Australia's Engagement with Asia and Sustainability. -DM
by Sophie Kinsella. Doubleday, 2015. ISBN 9780857535490. 280 pp.
This British novel is first-person narration in the voice of a teenage girl who has had some kind of breakdown as a result of bullying at school. The exact nature of the bullying is never specified; all we know is that it involved three girls, who were eventually expelled - despite the head teacher's initial reluctance to believe Audrey's version of the events. For many months Audrey has been having counselling and taking medication, while being home-schooled. She is agrophobic but also intensely uncomfortable about making eye contact with anyone, except her little brother. She finds conversation with Linus, who comes to play computer games with her older brother Frank, almost impossible. Linus recognises her distress and begins to communicate with her by writing notes. The contact leads to a growing friendship and the beginning of Audrey's recovery.
While Audrey is mentally disturbed, her mother is crazy - what Audrey herself describes 'Not normal Mum-insane. Serious insane.' Mum is addicted to the Daily Mail and its lifestyle advice. In the opening chapter Mum throws son Frank's computer from the upper-storey window because she has been unable to break his addiction to computer games - and the Daily Mail has told her that computer games are bad for kids. Mum's dependence on the Daily Mail provides quite a lot of the novel's humour, as does Audrey's videotaping - on her counsellor's advice - of unguarded moments in her family's daily life.
While Finding Audrey deals with mental illness and bullying, it is not another teenage-angst just-reading-it-makes-me-want-to-slit-my-wrists title. Kinsella's touch is light: the emphasis is on recovery, not the trauma itself. We do discover, through Audrey's experience, the terror of a panic attack, but we also share with her the triumph of her gradual overcoming of her fear, as she and Linus set themselves amusing challenges where they take it in turns to confront a complete stranger with a bizarre request.
Recommendation: Girls in the Year 5 - 8 age group will enjoy this. It could be considered as a class set for a girls-only class in Year 7, but it may be a bit young - and, perhaps, a little lightweight. You could make up a diverse and interesting wide reading selection of books about bullying with Pat Schmatz's Bluefish, Tony Palmer's Break of Day, Erin Lange's Butter, Simon Rich's Elliot Allagash and Gordon Reece's Mice. -HS
by Nadia Wheatley and Armin Greder. Windy Hollow Books, 2015. ISBN 9781922081483. Hardcover.
The cover is dark - a black sky above a vast expanse of grey-brown desert. To one side are the tiny figures: a woman on a donkey, a baby in her arms, and a man leading the donkey. At the right-hand top of the page, in white capitals against the black is the title: 'Flight'. Anyone with a Bible background can't help but think of the flight out of Egypt, when Joseph and Mary sought refuge for the baby Jesus when Herod gave orders to kill all Jewish newborns. The genius of Wheatley and Greder is that this is both the story of that flight and of all the other flights since, including the ones that are happening right now. Joseph was advised in a dream by an angel; this family has 'been tipped off that the authorities are after their blood' so: 'Tonight is the night. The family has to flee.'
'The air is bitterly cold, and the wind shrieks across the sands, as if to warn of the long, hard journey ahead.' The words appear on the right-hand page, again against a totally black sky, beneath which is the huge expanse of desert and just the silhouettes of the tiny figures on the far left. I googled images for 'flight from Egypt' and the tiny figures here and on the following page are similar to many of the traditional representations of Jesus, Mary and Joseph fleeing Herod. But this is the contemporary story as well. A double-page spread reproduces the cover image, but this time we can see why the two adult figures are staring, alarmed, at the horizon: 'The night's bombardment has started' and the black is broken with the reds and oranges of fiery explosions. The figures are shown for the first time in the foreground, a little larger, huddled together fearfully, the mother wrapping both arms around the baby protectively, as 'the rumbling is coming closer, closer ...' The next very dark double page has indistinct black forms in the shape of tanks.
That this is a story about contemporary refugees in the Middle East is confirmed with the image of the man kneeling on a prayer mat, his shoes placed a little behind and aside, but the Christian reference is constantly present too. As the little family continues through jackal country, where the howling makes the woman's 'blood run cold', Greder's faintly sketched bare trees look like crucifixes. This is not just the biblical story of the flight out of Egypt, nor is it just the contemporary story of Muslim refugees being forced to flee countries like Syria. It is both; we are confronted by the fact of our common humanity.
The refugee camp evokes every image we've ever seen of such places on our television screens. Wheatley's text emphasises the endless, dreary waiting. On the final page, the baby has grown into a little boy. With the optimism of childhood, he reassures his mother that they will find a new home. Mother and child look out at us from the page, but can we meet their gaze, knowing as we do how few new homes are available and how great the numbers are who need them?
Recommendation: This is a very powerful picture book for young adults from two of our national treasures. It must be used in our classrooms and is suitable for use anywhere, from Year 7 to 11. It has the advantage of not being about 'boat people', so that we can avoid confronting the terrible stereotypes ('queue jumpers', 'economic migrants') that so many Australians, sadly, believe. We can have a discussion about the human problem without needing to engage with the political issues. And we can explore with our students the artistic skill of these two creators and their ability to create, with words and pictures, such an unforgettable story. -HS
The Forgotten Pearl
by Belinda Murrell. Random House Australia, 2012. ISBN 9781742753690. 289 pp.
This is a very readable historical novel set in World War II. It begins in 2012 with Chloe telling her grandmother that she has a school assignment to interview someone about their experiences during the war. Grandmother Poppy has never before spoken about her experiences as a teenager in World War II, but she decides that it is time to put her past on the record. The narrative about Chloe frames the main story. Murrell uses Poppy's story to provide a comprehensive picture of Australian civilian life in World War II.
Poppy's narrative begins in Darwin in October 1941, two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. She not only witnesses the first air raid on Darwin, in which more than 200 people are killed, but she is actively involved at the hospital, helping her parents who are treating the injured. Evacuated from Darwin, Poppy is on a Sydney ferry the night the Japanese submarines attack Sydney Harbour. The fate of her brother Edward, captured in Singapore, is unknown. Her older sisters join the war effort, discovering new lives that they could never have imagined pre-war.
Murrell's research is comprehensive and the picture she paints includes the impact of the war on the Murata family, Japanese pearl fishers who arrived in 1880 but who are interned as enemy aliens after the attack on Darwin. There is the story too of Daisy, the household help in Darwin, who was once a 'drover's boy', and of Jack and his family on a huge Northern Territory cattle farm. It's a satisfying insight into a former Australia.
Recommendation: This is a rewarding read for girls in Years 7 and 8. Include it in a selection of Australian historical fiction for Stage 4. Other titles could include Pamela Rushby's The Ratcatcher's Daughter (reviewed here), Robert Newton's Black Dog Gang, Jackie French's The Night They Stormed Eureka, Kerry Greenwood's Journey to Eureka, Zana Fraillon's No Stars to Wish On, Felicity Pulman's A Ring through Time, Robert Newton's Runner, Jackie French's The Road to Gundagai, Kirsty Murray's The Year It All Ended and Kate Constable's Crow Country. -HS
The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie
by Kirsty Murray. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN 9781743317020. 216 pp.
Christmas is cancelled and Lucy McKenzie has been sent to stay with her Aunt Big while her mother flies to Paris to help her sister Claire who has had a serious accident. Aunt Big, an artist, lives at an old house called Avendale, deep in an isolated valley near Broken River. It’s a mysterious place of qualities. In the dining room Lucy finds four giant murals, one for each of the seasons, and the size and intensity of the paintings is unsettling. One night Lucy hears a shout and stumbling into the dining room she sees the spring wall glowing, as if it was a sunny day with the yellow flowers moving, and hears a small figure calling her name and waving at her. Lucy walks through the walls into the past. She meets April and her brother Tom in an Avendale from the 1930s. The paintings become a magic portal for Lucy to explore the past and her role in helping to save Avendale becomes clearer and her friendship with April, Tom and Jimmy Tiger develops. She becomes closer to Aunt Big as well, as their somewhat cranky relationship warms, especially in their flight from a modern day bushfire.
Recommendation: This delightful time travel novel should have strong appeal for Year 7. The lightness and elegance of the writing and the clever plotting make this a very enjoyable book to read. The characterisation rings very true and the novel provides a gentle focus on the power and magic of art to inspire and transport us to other places and times. The subtle enchantment of this novel really stands out. -DM
by Sue Lawson. black dog books, 2015. ISBN 9781925126365. 367 pp.
As the blurb on the back cover reveals, this novel is 'based on true events' - the 1965 Freedom Ride when a bus load of university students visited country towns in New South Wales to draw attention to the prejudice and discrimination against Aborigines in those towns. Even though people and places have been fictionalised, the novel does an excellent job of telling the story of that important event - an event that young Australians should know about. While kids might regard 1965 as ancient history, it is worth pointing out to them that many of their grandparents were relatively young at the time and that the deplorable conditions so well depicted here are actually quite recent.
Lawson says that her fictional town of Walgaree has been 'cobbled together from many towns throughout not only New South Wales but the entire country'. It is hot, dry, dusty and spiritually bleak. Aborigines live in settlements on the outskirts, ranging from the Anglican and government mission to 'the Tip'. Handwritten signs saying 'No Abos!!!' can be found in the front window of shops and pubs. Aboriginal men who served in World War II are excluded from the RSL. Aboriginal women wait submissively in shops, to be served only after all white customers - including children - are satisfied. Aboriginal children are forbidden to swim in the local pool when white children are there.
While the novel narrates the events of the Freedom Ride and exposes conditions in country towns of the time, its centre is the personal story of a young boy and his seriously dysfunctional family. This is the story that engages readers. Robbie lives a joyless existence with Nan and Dad, both of whom are brutally racist and emotionally stunted. From the beginning, he is an outsider, an easy victim of the town bullies. Robbie's limited world broadens when he is offered a holiday job by Barry Gregory, who has returned to the town from overseas to take over the caravan park on the death of his father. Barry and his mother, Mrs Gregory, are warm and life-affirming and Robbie blossoms emotionally in their company. Robbie is amazed when Barry tells him that in London he saw: 'Black people eating, drinking, shopping, even living with white people'. Robbie is even more amazed when Barry hires an Aboriginal boy, Micky, to help with the work in the caravan park - and even invites him into the house to share a meal! 'The only Aborigines I'd heard who went inside a white person's home worked for them, doing cleaning and washing. And I was just about certain they didn't eat with their bosses.'
Robbie's personal journey hinges on his relationship with Micky. He is furious with himself for not defending Micky:
I shouldn't have called Micky a boong.
He is ashamed that he failed to warn Micky that some white boys intended to beat him up, and he is miserable that he pretends to his father that he and Micky never work together at the caravan park. But there is nothing like getting to know someone to dissipate prejudice. By the time Robbie hears about the Freedom Ride on the television, he reacts to Dad's racist comments by thinking of Micky:
... there was nothing useless or dirty or stupid about him. He was funny and worked hard. He was smart too. Actually, he was just, well, normal. And that man on the television, Charles Perkins, spoke better than half of Walgaree.
It is of course the arrival of the Freedom Bus in Walgaree that brings issues to a head, especially when Barry and his mother offer the students accommodation at the caravan park. Lawson reproduces incidents that actually occurred, such as the one where the president of the RSL is desperate to keep an Aboriginal returned soldier out of the RSL Club, as happened in Walgett, and the one concerning the demonstration outside the swimming pool, as happened in Moree. For Robbie, his discovery of the unfairness of racial discrimination is complicated by his recognition of his father's appalling hypocrisy. He finally finds the courage he thought he didn't have.
The other discovery that Robbie makes is purely personal. His father and grandmother have been lying to him for years. For the reader, the revelation is shocking but it makes sense of the suffocating family tension that Lawson evokes so well. As Robbie struggles to come to terms with his trauma, it is his new 'family' - Barry, Mrs Gregory and Micky - who provide him with support.
While I think this novel has a great deal to offer young readers, I don't think it is Lawson's best work. It is trying perhaps a little too hard to make sure that readers get the point. I think Jackie French is sometimes guilty of the same thing, but it's perhaps forgivable in a novel that you are going to use for class discussion, one that is exploring issues to which many students will bring their own prejudices and stereotypes. One consequence of this concern to make the issues clear to students is a tendency towards caricature: the contrast, for example, between the terrible Nan and the lovely Mrs Gregory is just too stark. On the other hand, the Aboriginal boy Micky comes over just as Robbie describes him - funny, smart and decent.
Recommendation: This is obviously a suitable text for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' Histories and Cultures.
This would work well as a Stage 4 class novel. Certainly, it gives an excellent picture of the Freedom Ride and of racial discrimination in Australia at the time, but that is not the reason to use it in the English classroom. We are English teachers after all, not social science teachers. What Freedom Ride does well is use first-person narration to follow a young boy's personal journey of discovery on several levels, including his journey from ignorance to understanding about racial discrimination and his recognition of the need to stand up for what he believes. -HS
This powerful and impressive novel focuses on the prejudice against Aboriginal people in the 60s, when Charlie Perkins organised the first freedom rides in rural Australia.
It is 1965 and sixteen-year-old Robbie is growing up in Wagaree, a country town in NSW where he lives with his distant dad and cranky Nan. When he gets a holiday job with Barry Gregory and Barry’s mother at the local caravan park, the contrast between their warmth and welcome and the coldness of his home environment is stark.
Barry is a man who has returned to Wagaree after many overseas experiences and he is appalled by the discrimination against Aboriginal people. As Robbie gets to know Barry and his mother and works alongside Mikey Menzies, a local Aboriginal teenager, he too becomes troubled by the way the Aboriginal people are treated in the town. His attitudes begin to shift. He sees them served last in shops or not at all, and knows that the town always blames them for any trouble. Some of the local boys he knows are involved in vandalizing the Aboriginal mission and in beating up Mikey. Robbie is increasingly isolated from them. When the freedom riders come to town he has the opportunity to stand up for what he really thinks.
Lawson writes well and really captures small town life. Robbie’s appalling Nan is a wonderful piece of characterisation, but it is Robbie who stands out. His struggle with prejudice and his growing courage and independence are powerfully portrayed and there is a wonderful twist in his personal life as well. The racially abusive terms used at the time are reproduced here and have a visceral impact as ignorance and xenophobia are fully exposed in the confrontation between the townsfolk, the freedom riders and the Aboriginal people at the swimming pool.
In a guest post on Kids Book Review Sue Lawson explained why she wrote her novel and what she hoped to achieve. She said:
We need to know about our past and remember it, so we can ensure that [such] treatment and behaviour never occurs again. And we must remember the courage and passion of not only those students on the Freedom Ride, but others who have taken a stand when staying quieter would have been easier.
And if we know our past, we have a better understanding of the present - the importance of Reconciliation, the Stolen Generation and land rights. For me, Freedom Ride is about fostering empathy and starting a conversation.
Recommendation: This novel would be an excellent choice to explore a range of issues associated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' History and Culture with Year 9 or 10 students. -DM
by Rebecca Stead. Text Publishing, 2015. ISBN 9781783443192. 304 pp.
Rebecca Stead has a fine publishing record with When You Reach Me and First Light both notable for their intriguing content and remarkable plot twists. In Goodbye Stranger Stead ventures into the vexed area of photo texting, and, in this case, the matter of increasingly revealing photo texting between school students.
Bridge (never call her Bridget), Tabitha and Emily are best friends; they made a pact never to fight and have kept to it. Emily is the school star and getting lots of attention from Patrick. Bridge had a bad accident a few years ago. She has taken to wearing cat ears, is shy and more prosaic and starts to enjoy time talking with Sherm. Tabitha is a powerhouse out to save the world. They go to school and talk and learn and make mistakes and get on with growing up. But when Patrick sends Em a photo of his knee and asks for a selfie back the reader can see there may be trouble ahead. There is a twist as well with an unidentified person voicing in the second person some of the chapters. It doesn’t appear to be any of the main characters so who is it and why is she skipping school? How the three friends work out their problems and how the unidentified voice is brought into the picture are deftly handled.
Recommendation: This novel covers issues many Year 7 and 8 students will find pertinent in their lives. Friendship and love are mixed up with growing sexuality, the use of technology and making sense of relationships. It’s a potent mix and well controlled by this composed and compassionate writer. -DM
I Am Juliet
by Jackie French. Angus & Robertson, 2014. ISBN 9780732297985. 207 pp.
French has told Shakespeare's story of Romeo and Juliet from Juliet's point of view. Most of the novel is first-person narration in Juliet's voice. Juliet's voice as written by French is appealing: she is a strong and perceptive character, frustrated by the limitations placed upon her by her gender and her social status. Like Shakespeare's Juliet, French's Juliet is mature beyond her years and has huge courage, well aware of the dangers of taking the Friar's poison; but French is able through the first-person narration to provide insights into Juliet's motivation that the play-format cannot offer. French's Juliet is inspired not just by her love for Romeo but by a conviction that their marriage will unite the warring families and heal Verona.
The first-person narration works well, but the novel is given greater depth because Juliet's narrative is framed - in the first and last chapters of the novel - by that of Rob Goughe, 'youngest apprentice actor of lord Hundson's men', who has been cast as Juliet in Master Shakespeare's new play. Rob is astounded that the playwright has given so many speeches to a mere girl: 'So many words! And yet, what words.' Initially sceptical about how the audience will respond, he is captivated as he first reads and then performs Master Shakespeare's script. (Actors - even lead actors - weren't given the whole script in Shakespeare's day, only those scenes in which they participated. But that's a minor quibble and, in the context, totally excusable as poetic licence.) The framing narrative is an obvious invitation for students to explore the nature of Shakespeare's theatre. French has provided some useful notes at the end of the novel to help in such an exploration.
French draws on those marvellous words in Juliet's narrative, at times like the first meeting with Romeo, in the balcony scene and at dawn after their wedding night. She also gives perceptive insight into the life of an Elizabethan thirteen-year-old girl from a wealthy family. Juliet knows that she will always be her father's daughter and her husband's wife: there will be no opportunity ever to be herself. There are several scenes where we see her serving women laboriously dressing her, as if she is a doll. We see her play her role at her father's banquet: 'My face and heart ached from smiling.' Her only purpose in life is to make a good marriage that will enhance her family's wealth and status. Shakespeare captures unforgettably Juliet's joy in falling in love, but French shows that it is also a liberation: for the first time, she can be herself. She is the one who proposes - so different to her life until then of submission and obedience.
French has fleshed out the characters of Tybalt and Paris. Tybalt, a swaggering, lecherous bully, had always assumed he would become Juliet's husband and her father's heir. There is a sickening moment when, after the announcement of her betrothal to Paris, she finds the pet lovebird Tybalt had given her dead at the bottom of its cage, its neck snapped. Paris is dealt with rather more kindly, showing true compassion to Juliet, although he mistakenly believes her grief is for Tybalt, not for Romeo. There is some interesting background, too, for the Friar - one of the few friars who had stayed, after the King had ordered the monasteries disbanded, 'bound to the new church now', but aware that their existence is fragile: 'The friar's eyes were uneasy. He would break God's law if he married me to Paris. If he did not, he faced death or exile.'
Despite the nominal location of Verona, French - like Shakespeare - sets Juliet's story firmly in Elizabethan London in the 1590s. As always, French's research has been meticulous, and she vividly evokes the setting. Juliet is carried to the Friar in her sedan chair. Modesty requires that she keep the curtains closed, but she can smell London - 'the sawdust and vomit stink of the tavern, the stench of chamber-pots, the blood smell of the butchers' row', and she can hear the shouts of the street-sellers. When she arrives at the church she is accosted by beggars of all kinds. Later, in a scene that has no parallel in the original, Juliet tries to run away to find Romeo in Mantua: she is robbed and assaulted; even the woman who saves her from rape strips her of her clothes.
Please note that, although there is nothing in French's text that could be described as sexually explicit, French - like Shakespeare - does not shy away from Juliet's sensuousness and her joy in lovemaking. While I regard that as one of the great strengths of the novel, there may be some in your community who find it offensive.
This was listed as a CBCA Older Readers' Notables book in 2015.
Recommendation: This is an enjoyable novel for girls in Stages 3 and 4. It's a great addition to a Stage 4 unit of work introducing Shakespeare, especially as the framing narrative leads straight into a study of the theatrical conventions of the time. Use as well French's excellent Macbeth and Son, which asks the troubling question: does it matter if Shakespeare was telling deliberate lies, out of self-interest?
In her notes at the end, French talks about students' reluctance to read Shakespeare because of 'all those words', and how their attitude changes when they see a good film version. It would be wonderful while introducing students to Shakespeare at Stage 4 to show them Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, but as it is rated M that won't be possible in most schools. However, you may get permission to show carefully selected excerpts - and enterprising students who enjoy them may well source a copy of the film for home viewing. -HS
I'll Give You the Sun
by Jandy Nelson. Walker Books, 2015. ISBN 9781406326499. 429 pp.
This is a powerful young adult novel that is so superbly written that the writing almost gets in the way of the story. You want to stop and re-read - and perhaps write down that perfect paragraph or exactly-right image. Half the story is told by Noah, who is a highly original and creative artist: he sees the world in sharply realised images, like this:
I can't lie awake in bed for another minute, so I put on some clothes and climb onto the roof to see if the new kid's on his. He's not, which isn't totally surprising since it's not even six in the morning and barely light yet, but I kept thinking while I was tossing around in bed like a caught fish, that he was awake too, that he was up on his roof shooting electric bolts out of his fingers through the ceiling and into me and that's why I couldn't sleep. But I was wrong. It's just me up here with the fading fathead moon and every screaming seagull from far and wide visiting Lost Cove for a dawn concert. I've never been outside this early, didn't realize it was so loud. And so dreary, I think, taking in all the gray huddled-up old men disguised as trees.
Noah is gay and he's just fallen totally in love at first sight with the boy who has just moved in next-door. But his town is seriously homophobic and his father is constantly berating him for his lack of assertive masculinity, so coming out is not an option. When Noah and Brian take a selfie of their heads together on the pillow the reader knows that disaster is not far away.
Noah's love for boy-next-door Brian is just one of the difficult relationships that Nelson explores. The most important is Noah's relationship with his twin sister, Jude. For thirteen years they have been inseparable. They can communicate without speaking. But there is an uncomfortable shift in the first chapter, when it becomes clear that their mother - a noted art critic - has recognised that Noah's artistic talent is special. One of the games Noah and Jude play is this:
If we were drowning, who would Dad save first? (Jude.) For thirteen years, Mom's stumped us. We had absolutely no idea who she'd dredge out of the water first.
And without sharing a glance, we both know it.
Perhaps their relationship could have survived this, if it hadn't been followed by a shocking, totally random tragedy, for which they both feel responsible. As we read, we don't know for some time what that tragedy has been. We just know that, between the opening chapter - 'This is how it all begins' - in Noah's voice and the next section - 'The History of Luck', narrated by Jude, there has been a three-year gap and everything has changed.
This is a young adult book, not a children's book. The language may confront some readers. The frankness of the sex scenes may concern others - although I found Jude's awkward coupling with the older Zephyr much more difficult to read than the love scenes between Noah and Brian. This is a young adult book too because it deals with big, difficult issues, and it knows that ethical questions are complex. It is also a serious book about art and the power of creativity. The novel explores the importance of art in the lives of Noah, Jude, and their mother. All three connect in different ways with the mysterious world-famous sculptor Guillermo Garcia.
Big issues, big emotions, characters that you care deeply about ... This is an important young adult novel.
Recommendation: This won't work as a class set everywhere. In some schools the language will be unacceptable. With some classes it will be too long and complex. But if it is right for the class you are teaching, you will find plenty to talk about - including the clever use of the alternate narrators and the skilful plotting that keeps the reader turning the pages avidly. Try it from Year 9 - 11. -HS
by Vikki Wakefield. Text Publishing, 2015. ISBN 9781922182364. 352 pp.
Stuck in between is a hard place to be and seventeen year Jacklin is well and truly stuck. It’s 1994 and she’s stuck in the small town of Mobius, the gateway to a popular suicide forest. She’s stuck by sex with Luke who doesn’t love her while she loves him. She’s stuck living with her older sister Trudy and estranged from her parents, working at the roadhouse at a job she could lose and feeling out of control. She counts to stay in control. When Jeremiah, the boy next-door, returns to help his mum, Jack is given another choice to consider.
As Wakefield says this is a ‘story about love, choices, change and moving on’ and you couldn’t have a better novelist to help explore them. Everyone makes mistakes in this novel and Jack most of all, as she navigates that perilous time between adolescence and adulthood. The small town where everyone knows your business and no-one new stays is perfectly captured, (‘people drove in by accident and left on purpose’) and yet, as the experiences of Pope, the solitary camper in the Nula State Forest, point out, many townspeople have a heart and they do care.
Families are not easy and neither is communication in Jack’s family. Her parents rarely speak to each other and even less to their two girls. Christmas is a disaster and yet you get the feeling something is going to be salvaged here. Wakefield also charts the course of the relationship between Jack and Jeremiah with delicacy and wryness. There’s growing up to do for both of them and, because Wakefield's characters are nuanced and real, the reader has hope that change is possible.
Recommendation: This rites of passage novel is a perfect fit for Year 10 or 11 students. Be aware of expletives and restrained sex scenes but enjoy the humour, the realism, the dog, the friends, the old drive-in, the whale, the awkwardness and the anger as well as the vicarious experience of capturing what’s running around in Jack’s head. I loved this book and relished reading it. It’s a fine addition to the best of Australian young adult fiction. -DM
by Tim Winton. Penguin, 2015. ISBN 9781926428761. 256 pp.
I have three editions of Tim Winton’s first non-fiction memoir, Land’s Edge, subtitled ‘a coastal memoir’. Three copies because each one was so different, with contrasting covers and illustrations, and because I loved the book.
I only have one copy of Island Home. But I was hooked early by its Gerson /Getty image which looks like a realistic Fred Williams on the dust jacket cover and the beautifully designed John Canty endpapers picturing a surf (seen from above) rolling in on a nearly deserted beach. But there are a few people in this landscape and that’s part of the point of the text.
The memoir begins with two epigraphs. Judith Wright’s iconic line from her poem ‘The Surfer,’ is first: ‘Turn home, the sun goes down; swimmer turn home’. This is followed by Neil Murray’s line ‘My island home is waiting for me’ from his song ‘My island home’. Incidentally, that home is Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. These two lines are the perfect introduction to this text. Winton has been a passionate surfer all his life and a keen observer of the Australian landscape around him. More lately he has been a strong advocate for paying attention to our surroundings and taking notice. By the end of the memoir, he concludes: 'This earth is our home, our only home. And if home and family aren’t sacred what else can be?' (p233).
In so many Tim Winton novels and short stories the landscape has been positioned as another character, the natural and urban world intruding on and shaping the story and the lives within it. In this memoir Tim Winton explores his relationship with the Australian landscape. The structure is interesting. He divides the text into short observations and memories of specific landscapes; for example, County Offaly 1988, Freemantle 1999 and Northam 1995. These are interspersed with longer, more reflective chapters such as ‘The island seen and felt’, ‘Settlers at the edge', ‘Barefoot and unhurried’ and the wonderfully evocative ‘The corner of the eye’. Just the titles alone would be great starters for creative writing exercises for students. Winton want us to re-observe what’s around us, to value and protect what we can. Understanding and appreciating the Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the land is critically important in his eyes:
People were chanting and dancing and painting here tens and tens of thousands of years before the advent of the toga. This is true antiquity. Few landscapes have been so deeply known. And fewer still have been so lightly inhabited. (p. 15)
There is a strong argument running through the book that equates the landscape with part of our family. First sounded in ‘The island seen and felt’:
The country leans in on you. It weighs down hard. Like family. To my way of thinking it is family. (p. 23)
It re-emerges in other chapters, particularly in the last one, ‘Paying respect’, and in the poem found there by Kakadu elder, Big Bill Neidjie, the father of Kakadu National Park, from Story about Feeling a part of which appears below.
… that tree, grass…that all like our father
Dirt, earth, I sleep with this earth.
Grass… just like your brother.
In my blood in my arm this grass.
This dirt for us because we’ll be dead,
We’ll be going this earth. This the story now.
Recommendation: Island Home is a wonderful memoir and a powerful text to engage students in Stages 5 or 6. An exploration of both Land’s Edge, the 1993 memoir, and Island Home and a discussion about the merits and differences between the two texts and what they represent in the life of one of Australian’s best writers could be profitable in the classroom. A Winton novel or short story could be added to the mix to examine Winton's statement in Island Home that “I persisted with place as a starting point for my stories.’ (p. 137) -DM
by Julie Hunt, illustrated by Dale Newman. Allen & Unwin, 2015. ISBN 9781742378527. 271 pp.
This is an intriguing graphic novel about a child prodigy known as Kidglovz whose passion and talent for music become a curse; he is imprisoned by a harsh guardian named Dr Spin who is interested only in the child's capacity to make money. Dr Spin advertises himself as a musical impresario, although there is a rumour that he was once a snake-oil salesman. Dr Spin even starves the child, so that he will remain small: child prodigies need to be children, the smaller and cuter the better. Kidglovz's music teacher, Lovegrove, loves him and wants him to live a normal life but she is Dr Spin's sister and powerless against him. Life changes when a child thief, Shoestring, breaks into Kidglovz's room. A plot to rescue Kidglovz is hatched but things go badly wrong and both Kidglovz and Shoestring face strange and terrifying ordeals.
The setting is never specified but it is European and probably nineteenth century. The black and white drawings are harshly realistic but there is a framework of mystery and magic. The introductory page sets the scene:
There is a town in the mountains not far from here where people lock their pianos on the night of the full moon. It makes no difference - the keys move up and down and the air is filled with wild music.
This is followed by eight pages of wordless images telling a story about a young woman who is robbed of something precious by a travelling salesman. The story does not make much sense at this stage; it is only much later that we realise that it is a flashback, providing vital information about Kidglovz's origins. These eight pages precede the title page, which is followed by the first of five parts telling the story in graphic-novel format.
Like most graphic novels, the illustrator uses a variety of frames. No two pages are alike, and much of the detail is very satisfying: an unframed image reaches up the page to accommodate a boy climbing a ladder; a series of six frames of different sizes shows the two boys following a dog, Hugo, through a scary underground tunnel, with the first frame almost filled with the dog's head as he sniffs out a trail; a double-spread has four rounded frames (and no text) summing up peasant life in the mountains during winter, like glimpses through a window. The written text is at all times minimal; it is the pictures that mostly tell the story.
Recommendation: This is well worth studying as a class text, probably in Years 8 or 9. It will be hugely popular with students who are already fans of the graphic-novel format, but the narrative is so compelling and the characters so interesting that most will be won over. Make up a wide reading selection of graphic novels, including Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which has some similarities to Kidglovz. Encourage students to read more than one and to compare the different storytelling techniques, including the different use of images. -HS
by Alice Pung. Black Inc, 2014. ISBN 9781863956925. 336 pp.
This novel has strong autobiographical elements. Like Pung, the protagonist, Lucy, is Asian Australian, raised in a bleak outer suburb of Melbourne. Like Pung, she moves out of the world of her family and friends to attend a posh private ladies' college (on an 'Equal Access Scholarship') where she feels alienated, powerless and angry. She falls under the influence of the power group at school - the 'Cabinet' - bitchy rich girls who are ruthless to anyone vulnerable, including their teachers. Her introduction to the world of the wealthy girls at Laurinda makes Lucy angry, too, with her background, intensely embarrassed by her parents' poverty and their ethnicity. This is a coming-of-age story where the protagonist's search for identity involves both ethnicity and class.
The story is told in a series of letters to Linh, who appears to be a friend from her previous school. This narrative device is clever, allowing Lucy's point of view to dominate. Linh seems to be rather different from Lucy: much more assertive, confidently part of her lower-class suburb. It is a shock to discover that 'Linh' is Lucy's middle name: that she is writing the letters to her other self.
One of the strengths of the book is its depiction of the long, hard struggle of newly arrived migrants to carve out a life for their children in the new country. Lucy's mother is an outworker, slaving for hours in her garage sewing clothes. Her father works long hours for little pay in the local carpet factory. Lucy herself has to take on most of the domestic chores, including caring for her little brother, as both her parents are always working. There are lots of little details of family life, such as the habit of eating dinner sitting on the floor with old newspapers as a tablecloth. Such family habits become an embarrassment to Lucy as she realises how they would be perceived by her fellow students at Laurinda.
Much of the book is about the day-to-day life of school. While the depiction of Lucy's family life is realistic, school life has almost a cartoonish quality, as have the scenes involving the wealthy mothers who regard Lucy as 'your little Pygmalion project'. Lucy's bitterness distorts the picture:
There was something creepy about the femininity at Laurinda, something so cloistered and yet brimming with stifled sex that it reminded me of the Victorian whalebone corsets we once saw at the Werribee Park Mansion, which kept everything cramped tight, until the stitches unravelled and out poured mounds of naked pink and white. It was the femininity of tiny éclairs and teacups, crocheted collars and little pearl earrings, the young-girl-to-old-woman transition that skipped sexuality altogether ...
This was how 'niceness' was policed - not through directives about virtue, but through conformity in dress and manners. The result was that anyone who was slightly different, who had a heartbeat that didn't race at the latest Laura Ashley creation but at George-with-the-one-eyebrow in the Auburn Academy soccer team, anyone who liked her colours bold and not pastel, who loved her jokes explicit and not coy - any of those types were automatically cast as sluts, and so became pariahs.
Pung has a strong satirical eye, and satire exaggerates and distorts. The backcover blurb describes the book as 'funny, feisty and moving', and there is certainly plenty of humour. However, the humour is often bitter, even black. The writing is vivid and precise, but it is at its liveliest when it is skewering someone. John Marsden has described the writing as 'sharp as a serpent's fangs', not a bad description of the author's satire:
Stanley is a place where many people work in banking and advertising - that is, their mums clean banks and their brothers put Safeway ads into mailboxes. It's a place where people have four cars in their driveways - but only one that is working. It's a place where the bogan and the bogasian sometimes coexist peacefully, but more often don't.
That's funny, but it's also bitter. I sometimes found the humour uncomfortable and the anger off-putting.
This was a CBCA Older Readers' Notables list 2015.
Recommendation: This novel resonates with many teenage girls who identify with Lucy's search for self, especially girls who have grown up in ethnic communities. Lots of readers compare it to Looking for Alibrandi, although most acknowledge that it does not have the warmth of Marchetta's novel. It is, like Looking for Alibrandi, an interesting historical document. Wealthy girls' schools in our capital cities are very different today. -HS
by Brian Selznick. Scholastic, 2015. ISBN 9781407159454. 640 pp.
Spanning over 200 years and moving between graphic and text representation, this marvellous novel (how could I resist?) asks questions about the nature of stories and invites the reader/viewer to try and work out the connections between the graphic and text sections of the book.
At over 650 pages this novel seems a big ask for Year 7 or 8 students but, like The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, over half the book is narrative illustration.
The first section starts in 1766 and tells the story of the Marvel brothers. They are putting on a performance on the ship Kraken when a terrible storm shipwrecks them. The younger boy, Billy, survives but Marcus, the older brother, dies. Billy and his dog, Tar, are rescued, and Billy goes on to work at and write for the Royal Theatre. His adopted son begins four generations of actors at the Royal Theatre until Leontes, an artist rather than an actor, runs away. But flames at the Royal draw him back to try and rescue his deranged grandfather and the first part of the novel ends in flames with a blank page to follow.
The prose section of the novel opens in 1990 with Joseph Jervis lost in London. He’s run away from school and is looking for his uncle Albert Nightingale, who lives in number 18 Folgate Street. He is helped to find the house by Frankie, a young person looking for a dog. Joseph receives an unfriendly welcome from his uncle but Joseph becomes sick and gets to stay in an amazing house, full of wonders and old fireplaces and tales and history. He begins to piece together the story of the house and of his uncle, which seems related to the Marvel family and the Royal Theatre. He and Frankie become a team to puzzle out the answers. But surprises await them and the resolution of the two is tested. There are dark moments in the story, AIDS rears its horrible head and there is loss and sorrow as well as joy, but the overwhelming feeling is one of wonder and a desire to explore and understand.
The production of this book is wonderful, with Selnick’s beautifully detailed drawing, often in extreme close-up. The magical blue cover is detailed in gold, echoed in the gilt edges of the pages. There are many connections, both pictorial and prose, between the two sections and the short final graphic section which takes us to 2007.
Selnick says much of the inspiration for this novel came from Dennis Severs’ House at 18 Folgate Street, a famous brick and motor ‘time machine’ which is one of London’s most popular tourist attractions. Dennis’s obituary can be read at the end of the novel. Dennis created the Jervises, a fictional family to inhabit his house, and Selnick used aspects of Dennis’s life, and that of his partner David Milne, to inhabit his novel.
Recommendation: The Marvels is a rare book and a challenging one but there will be students in every school who will fall in love with it. At $34.99 it is not cheap but it is a wonderful read and should be in classrooms and libraries everywhere. Students in Years 7 and 8 will be especially drawn to it. -DM
by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, illustrated by P. J. Lynch. Walker Books, 2014 (2013). ISBN 9781406354528. 48 pp.
This beautiful story has the aura of a traditional legend. It is an illustrated short story in picture-book format. It begins with a thrilling pursuit through the desert:
There were five riders but six camels, travelling fast. Desperately fast. They were being chased, hunted. But because of the fading light, and the dust thrown up by the camels' feet they could not tell how close their pursuers were.
But an even deadlier threat awaits the riders: a huge, overwhelming desert storm. Only the riderless camel, Jin-Jin, survives - and the woven basket it had been carrying. The old man Issa, famous as the region's most skilful guide, finds Jin-Jin protecting the basket, in which there is a baby girl. Issa names the child Mariama and brings her up as his grandchild. She accompanies him everywhere and, when he loses his sight, she becomes his eyes, enabling him to continue to guide people through the desert.
In traditional stories lost babies always have a fascinating past, and Peet and Graham do not disappoint. Few traditional stories, however, are told quite a lyrically as this:
She learned that for a guide everything had a meaning. The shape of a thorn tree, the way sand swirled from the crest of a dune, the length and colour of a shadow, the call of a bird, the height of a cloud.
The prose brings to life this strange desert world and the simple lives of Issa and Mariama. The relationship between them is a delight. For me it recalled vividly Silas Marner and his Eppie: a very, very different world, of course, but a story with many similarities. It's a celebration of love, wisdom and goodness.
Lynch's illustrations are perfect. There are many full-page paintings, boarded by Arabic tiles. The colours are mostly muted, Mariama's blue cloak contrasting with the desert colours of the landscape. Towards the end, there is a glorious double-page spread in vivid blues and browns, depicting the landscape of mountains and valleys - 'so beautiful, so magical' - that Mariama sees from the top of the cliff when she and Issa are searching for lost travellers: a landscape of 'peaks that were flat-topped and grooved like huge and ancient teeth. Others were bent and twisted like goats' horns, while others were slender and pointed like minarets.'
This is a delightful work in its own right, but it's also a boon at the present time to have such a wonderfully positive story from the Middle East.
Recommendation: Use this in a unit of work on traditional stories, at any level. Consider using it as a class-set text in Years 7 or 8. It has the depth and quality to allow whole class exploration. -HS
by Garth Nix. Allen & Unwin, 2015. ISBN 9781760112653. 232 pp.
This is utterly silly and deliciously enjoyable. It is very, very different from the Garth Nix we are familiar with, except for the skill of the writing. In an afterword Nix explains that this is based on a very early, rejected work, in which the Regency romance story was embedded clumsily within a contemporary thriller structure. Thankfully, Nix never threw away the original and he has transformed it here into a wonderful romp. The front-cover blurb alerts us to the fact that it is 'A Regency romance with a magical twist', but that's too simplistic. It's a clever over-the-top riff on Georgette Heyer. The pomposity of the opening paragraph is superb:
Of all the birthdays she'd had, Truthful decided her present one was the best and most exciting. It seemed very fine to be eighteen years old and to finally be on the brink of being launched into fashionable society in London. Not that she was dissatisfied with Newington Hall and its beautiful gardens and lawns that sloped down to the widely envied cliff walk bordering the vast perspective of the English Channel. Nor was she in any way exasperated by living with her sole surviving parent, Admiral the Viscount Newington, even though she might well have been, since he had come late to fatherhood, was past sixty, and was inclined to be curmudgeonly when he suffered from the gout.
I love the inversion of the opening sentence and the use of the passive in the second. I love the old-fashioned structure of the 'not ... nor' structure of the third and fourth sentences, to say nothing of the complexity of clauses in that final sentence, or the magnificent use of the adjective 'curmudgeonly'. I knew immediately to expect what Graham Greene would have called an 'entertainment'.
In the first chapter Lady Truthful's precious heirloom emerald, which may be capable of powerful magic, is stolen. In her quest to recover the emerald, Lady Truthful is not only launched into London society but is forced to disguise herself from time to time as her male French cousin, so that she can venture into places no young lady could ever go. Disguised, she has a confrontation in the street with a young man - 'his features, if not set in anger, could be described as handsome. He had a particularly fine shock of jet-black hair' - and every romance reader knows that she has met the man of her dreams. Of course, this is page 54 and there are almost 200 to go, so there are many obstacles to overcome: he hates women, having been betrayed by one; they are both nearly killed several times by the evil sorceress, Lady Amelia Plathenden, who has stolen the emerald; he may already have a fiancee, and - most concerning of all - he may be fairly poor and of ordinary (non-aristocratic) stock.
This is a rollicking adventure story, with some highly entertaining sequences, such as the episode where the pair are kidnapped by pirates in Lady Plathenden's service and the handsome if angry hero is lashed to the bowsprit, slowly drowning, while Lady Truthful saves the day - and his life - by using the sheets and blankets from the pirate captain's cabin to construct a sea anchor. The finale of the Masquerade Ball in the Brighton Assembly Rooms is splendid, with even the prince regent's life threatened by the tsunami that the sorceress has called up with the powers of Lady Truthful's emerald. As we always knew it would, finally love conquers all.
Recommendation: Some of Garth Nix's fans will be disappointed, and even bewildered, but this is a great opportunity to introduce him to readers who might have been daunted by the Old Kingdom quartet or the Keys to the Kingdom series. Such new readers may not be ready to tackle his other works immediately after reading this, but they may explore Georgette Heyer - and, later, when they are ready to explore the works that have made Nix's reputation, they might hopefully also venture into Jane Austen and even Patrick O'Brien, as Nix recommends in an after-note.
Feel-good books for young adults are rare. Genuinely funny books are even rarer. Boys, sadly - unless they can be tempted to try it because they are Garth Nix fans - will be reluctant, but girls in Years 6-8 will enjoy this thoroughly.
Wide reading suggestions: Make up a book box of feel-good romance for your Stage 4 girls. Include such diverse titles as Kate Constable's New Guinea Moon, Shirley Marr's Preloved, Karen Wood's Rain Dance and Under the Flame Tree, Lili Wilkinson's The Zigzag Effect and A Pocketful of Eyes, and Kristen Chandler's Girls Don't Fly. Forego the temptation to set an assignment on their reading; just let them enjoy. Newt's Emerald is, also, of course, an alternative history. Make up a collection of alternative histories, such as Richard Harland's Song of the Slums, James Roy's Ichabod, Eoin Colfer's Airman and Kenneth Oppel's Airborn, Skybreaker and Starclimber; include as well some of the very popular steampunk titles, such as Richard Harland's Worldshaker and Liberator, and Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series. -HS
Nona and Me
by Clare Atkins. Black Inc, 2014. ISBN 9781863956895. 288 pp.
There are many readable novels about fifteen-year-old girls coping with problems with friends, family and first boyfriends. Most, like this one, are first-person narratives. But this is far superior to most of them. Atkins has succeeded not only in giving us an insightful view into Rosie's life, but also in providing an informative, comprehensive and memorable picture of life for a whole community - both Indigenous and non-Indigenous - in contemporary Arnhem Land.
Rosie is the granddaughter of missionaries who (atypically) not only made an effort to learn the Yolŋu language but encouraged the people they worked with to preserve their language and culture. Rosie's missionary grandmother was adopted into a Yolŋu family and her dad grew up as brother and best friend to a Yolŋu boy. Rosie herself, until age nine, was inseparable from her adopted Yolŋu sister, Nona. They were both devastated when Nona moved away from Yirrkala to live on Elcho Island with her immediate family but, inevitably at that age, soon lost touch. By the time they see each other again, Rosie is in Year 10 and desperate to retain her status as best friend to the bitchy and superficial Selena. To acknowledge her close relationship to Nona - bare-footed and possibly illiterate - seems impossible.
The novel opens in 2007, with Rosie in Year 10 and Nona tentatively returning to school. The narrative of Rosie's year - her desperation to please Selena, her crush on Selena's good-looking brother Nick, her tense relationship with her mother - is interspersed with flashbacks: warm scenes of Rosie and Nona as children together, from 1995 to 2001. Most of the flashback scenes are set in the Yolŋu community, experiences shared with the wider extended family - sitting around a campfire, finding honeycomb in the bush, wriggling their feet to find mud mussels in the sand, hunting wallaby in Mum's old troopie. They are joyous times, in stark contrast to Rosie's uncomfortable relationship with Selena and Nick and their often blatant racism.
Atkins sets the story against some major landmarks in Australian history, such as Cathy Freeman's Olympic victory in Sydney, John Howard's Intervention and Kevin Rudd's Apology. The privileged lifestyle of the non-Indigenous community at Nhulunbuy, where Selena and Nick's father earns big money at the bauxite mine, contrasts starkly with the rundown, overcrowded houses at Yirrkala, where Rosie and her mother live in a predominantly Yolŋu community. The impact of the Intervention has an immediate impact on the community, with many Indigenous workers losing their jobs. The psychological impact is even more severe. There is a spate of deaths among the young Indigenous men - road accidents and suicides. Nona, deeply hurt by Rosie's rejection, leaves school and, at fifteen, marries the young man to whom she has been promised since childhood.
Presenting the narrative through Rosie's eyes works very well. She knows the Yolŋu people well, but she is also apart from them. Her parents might be ageing hippies but they have implanted some solid middle-class values. Rosie aspires to finish school and go away to art school. She is horrified that Nona has become pregnant at fifteen. She sees the destructive drinking and petrol-sniffing in the community, but she also experiences the sense of belonging and the respect for tradition. Rosie's Dad explains it to her:
Everyone shares everything here. It's gurrutu - you know, kinship. The best and worst thing about Yolŋu life. You can always ask for things, but you're always being asked for them too. It drove your Mum crazy when we first moved to Yirrkala.
To some extent, this novel is a polemic. I don't use that word pejoratively. Atkins has a point to make: that the Yolŋu lifestyle is different from that of middle-class white Australians, but - as her Dad also says: 'Everyone's different - the Tongans, Africans, Iraquis ...' She wants too to make it clear that the imposition of a middle-class white Australian lifestyle is not an option.
Nona and Me was a CBCA Older Readers' Honour Book in 2015.
Recommendation: This moving and perceptive novel is ultimately very positive. It makes a very important contribution to the literature we have available to give non-Indigenous young adult readers a realistic and sympathetic understanding of Indigenous lives. This would make a worthwhile class set text for Years 7 - 9, especially for girls. It is of course a suitable text for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' Histories and Cultures. -HS
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them
by Anthony and Ben Holden. Simon & Schuster, 2015. ISBN 9781471134906. 336 pp.
Men from twenty nationalities ranging in age from their early twenties to their late eighties talk about the poems that moved them and shook and haunt them to this day. What a wonderful idea for an anthology and what great appeal it should have for boys in our classrooms. Here are men from a range of backgrounds and occupations, some suffering the loss of a child, others transformed by the power of nature or a sense of mortality. There are writers and comedians, architects and actors, other poets and scientists, all explaining why the poems they choose moved them so. You will find Alexi Sayle choosing Edwin Muir’s ‘The Horses’, Ken Loach selecting John Clare’s ‘I am’, Julian Fellowes on the comfort of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember’ and Christopher Hitchens on ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. Each poem is prefaced by the reasons it was selected and followed by a brief biography of the man concerned.
Recommendation: This is a great addition to your poetry book box. -DM
Poetry by Heart: Poems for Learning and Reciting
edited by Julie Blake, Mike Dixon, Andrew Motion and Jean Sprackland. Viking, 2014. ISBN 9780241185544. 576 pp. Hardcover.
This selection of over 200 familiar and unfamiliar poems from Beowulf to Wendy Cope and Carol Ann Duffy is based on the UK secondary school recitation competition with an emphasis, naturally enough, on poems that delight the ear as well as the eye. A full-page note on each poem can be found at the back of the book and more than 100 poems have a QR code next to them. If you have this code app on your mobile phone or tablet you can scan the code and find yourself listening to the poem.
The poems are organised chronologically; the editors say this is to allow students to see poems as conversations across time and to engage with the influences, connections and arguments spanning a thousand years.
Recommendation: This is a great collection to browse through. While it is expensive at $35, a few copies in a book box would have many students engaged by the printed words and the opportunity to use their smart phones to hear them instantly. -DM
Prince of Afghanistan
by Louis Nowra. Allen & Unwin, 2015. ISBN 9781743314821. 173 pp.
It’s wonderful to see another young adult novel by Louis Nowra. Into that Forest was one of my favourite books in 2013 and Prince of Afghanistan is a terrific read, especially for those less engaged boys in Years 8 and 9.
Nineteen-year-old Mark and Prince are alone in Afghanistan after a combined Australian/American mission goes badly wrong. The three kidnapped doctors are safely helicoptered away but Mark sees his friend Casey killed as the second helicopter sent to pick up the remaining soldiers explodes under Taliban fire. Casey’s dog Prince is alive but wounded and Mark decides to find a way back to base through enemy territory for both of them.
Prince is a Doberman pinscher who has been trained to detect buried mines and he and his handler Casey had a close relationship. The explosion deafens both Mark and Prince and Mark must use touch to try and bind Prince to him. Their journey back under cover of darkness will take days and, as they are both wounded and have few rations, it will be difficult and dangerous as well.
Nowra is a wonderful writer and the tension and drama of Mark and Prince’s story never slackens. Mark’s memories provide flashbacks to his growing up and teenage years. The death of his mother, his own adolescent drug addition to marijuana and the retreat of his father are succinctly conveyed. Nowra captures the tough life, despair and daily rituals of people in a war-torn country and his ability to create such a convincing setting adds verisimilitude to the tale. This is traditional storytelling at its best as Nowra charts the growing bond between the wounded man and his dog. Evocative full-page photographs of Afghanistan introduce most chapters and there is one of Prince that is very appealing.
Recommendation: From its opening line, ‘I am falling from the sky’, to its powerful ending, this is a text Year 9 students will be happy to explore in most classrooms. It could also be used towards the end of Year 8 and would meet the cross-curriculum priority of Asia and engagement with Asia. -DM
A Prince without a Kingdom
by Timothée de Fombelle, translated by Timothée de Fombelle. Walker Books, 2015. ISBN 9781406360028. 448 pp.
This impressive, intelligent work is the second and final book of the Vango series. I have not read Book 1 - but I will! I had read de Fombelle's previous books, Toby Alone and Toby and the Secrets of the Tree, wonderful fantasies about the struggle for survival in the world of a great oak tree. This is very different, although both series display the author's talent for creating breathtakingly scary situations in which his characters struggle to survive.
The series tells the story of the protagonist's quest for identity: in 1918, at age three, he was washed up on a Sicilian beach with Mademoiselle, his nanny. All he knows for sure about his past is that he has many dangerous enemies. His only friend, other than Mademoiselle, is a mysterious priest, Zefiro, living in a hidden monastery. When, at fourteen, Vango announces that he wants to join Zefiro's order, the priest sends him out to experience the world before making a commitment. He is pursued across a divided and conflict-ridden Europe by his enemies and also, after a false accusation, by the French police.
It is the huge scope of de Fombelle's canvas that is so impressive. Book 2 opens in New York in 1936, with an immediate flashback to Vango's time aboard the Graf Zeppelin in 1929 and his meeting with the delightful and unusual Ethel. His time on board the Zeppelin ended abruptly, with a violent attempt on his life. Now again, in 1936, unknown enemies are trying to kill him:
Vango didn't understand what was going on. From the age of fourteen, there had always been dangers and dramas trailing in his wake. The world exploded when he passed by. Ashes were all he left behind.
The reader doesn't understand what's going on, either. We are taken on an intoxicating ride that includes Sicilian mafia, European gunrunners, Nazi thugs, the French Resistance of World War II, Russian gangsters, an execution in Sing-Sing prison, an aristocratic Scottish estate on the banks of Loch Ness and the complex internal politics of the French police. There is an astonishing connection with Stalin and his family. There is an even more astonishing connection with the Romanovs. The first half of the twentieth century and its most significant events are the setting, against which we become acquainted with a large, diverse and sharply realised cast. The plot moves swiftly through time and place, revealing unlikely links between characters and their fates. The tension is intense, as Vango survives the most dangerous of attacks. It's an amazing achievement on de Fombelle's part to bring all this together in a story that never loses its main focus: the puzzle of Vango's identity.
Recommendation: This is a beautifully written book that would be a delight to explore with a class, but the reality is that it is too long and too complex to work as a class set with most classes. It is also very different from what most of our students are reading. While thrillers and action novels are popular, they are not usually about political history. The characters, too, are very different from the adolescent protagonists of most young adult fiction. You may need to coax your better readers to try this, but it's worth doing so. This is superior writing from a master storyteller. -HS
by Claire Zorn. UQP, 2014. ISBN 9780702250194. 254 pp.
Hannah's life has been torn apart by the death, almost a year earlier, of her older sister, Katie. Her mum has virtually stopped living, spending most of her days sleeping; Hannah refers to 'Mum's walking-dead status'. Her father is suffering from both the physical injuries he received and his guilt that he was driving the car in which Katie died. Hannah, who received relatively minor injuries in the crash, cannot remember what happened. As a witness, she is under great pressure to remember and knows that she will soon be questioned in court.
While Hannah herself is totally isolated and barely functioning, in some ways she is better off than before: she had 'spent most of my high school career feeling like a freak' and 'my social life is booming now that I don't get pelted with bits of food during recess'. The merciless bullying she had experienced for four years stopped when she returned to school after Katie's death. As she remembers that time, we get to know Katie too. From Hannah's perspective, Katie is totally confident and successful - 'She could wear a garbage bag and it would look like a well-executed fashion statement', a constant reminder of Hannah's own failure. Katie not only failed to help or defend her younger sister, she frequently sided with the bullies and contributed significantly to Hannah's misery. Katie comes across at first as a total bitch, but Zorn's characterisation is subtler than that. It's school counsellor Anne who suspects that Katie was more vulnerable than she seemed. She had warned Hannah that she would be on her own at high school: 'I have worked hard to establish myself and I don't need you coming and screwing it all up.' A moving subplot about Katie's secret relationship with an older boy, Jensen, underlines her vulnerability.
Hannah has been resistant to counselling. School counsellor Anne, desperately trying to kick her smoking habit, is different. And so is rebellious and popular new boy Josh, who first speaks to Hannah when she has accidentally left her book, Jane Eyre, behind: 'Isn't that the one where the chick gets it on with her boss?' Both Anne and Josh are genuinely funny, empathetic human beings. The presence of humour is a huge relief in a novel like this that is about human trauma. Zorn offers the reader hope - hope of personal recovery, of new friendship and of family healing.
Like Zorn's previous book, The Sky So Heavy, this is set in the Blue Mountains area of New South Wales. The novel will have special resonance for students who are familiar with that region. Right at the beginning, the scene is evoked:
A fire is burning somewhere, across a gully, gums and leaf mould are smouldering, the eucalypt oil is hissing, tree-flesh twisting. The smoke drifts in a thick, putrid mass, up from the gully, over the ridge. It clings to the air, that acrid scent.
Zorn's first novel, The Sky So Heavy, was shortlisted for several awards. This, her second book, was named the 2015 CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers and won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Young Adult. It was also shortlisted for the 2015 Gold Inky Award.
Recommendation: This is a beautifully written novel that deals sensitively with difficult issues. It will be much loved by girls in Years 7 - 9. -HS
The Ratcatcher's Daughter
by Pamela Rushby. Angus & Robertson, 2014. ISBN 9780732297138. 227 pp.
Although she loves school, thirteen-year-old Issy has no choice but to leave and begin contributing to the family finances, just as her sister Kate who would have loved to be a nurse has had to take a job as a housemaid at the same age. Their father's work as a labourer on the docks is uncertain, although he makes a little extra money catching rats. The year is 1900 and, suddenly, there's lots of extra work, as the authorities offer twopence a rat to ratcatchers, aware that the bubonic plague has reached Sydney and will, inevitably, also come to Brisbane.
Rushby has vividly recreated the times, including lots of small details that contemporary readers will find intriguing. Before beginning work, for example, Issy washes her only dress (in the copper, of course) - a dress that is too short for her and that has been let down as far as possible. 'Even let down it was barely decent: my stockings showed halfway up my knees.' Gran's solution is that Issy should bend her knees a little, so that the dress looks a bit longer. (And, no, Issy doesn't have a wardrobe full of jeans and tops that she can wear instead of the one dress.) Teenager Albert, next door, where there are lots of kids, has to sleep under the house, in a space where there is an earth floor, next to where his father stores the chook food. Even relatively wealthy families have their toilets 'way down the backyard, with a rampant honeysuckle vine climbing all over it.' Toilets are emptied once a week by 'the dunny man', and girls like Issy and Kate empty and clean for their employers the family china chamber pots each morning.
Not surprisingly the chook food next to Albert's sleeping area attracts rats and Albert is one of the first victims of the plague. Albert's family, Issy and Kate's family, and the neighbours on the other side are all forcibly evacuated to a quarantine facility that isn't ready to receive them. There are humiliating supervised antiseptic baths and hasty burials - no funeral ceremonies - for the plague victims. There is government incompetence and public panic, and no long-term plans by the authorities for those who have been quarantined.
When the family is finally released from quarantine, they find that 'cleansing gangs' have been through the house and every bit of fabric - clothing, linen, mattresses - has been burnt. There is of course no compensation. They are dependent on the charity of neighbours who are themselves bitterly poor. Issy goes back to her work as a housemaid for a family that is in the undertaking business. Kate works for a couple of doctors. The girls become aware that not everything is as it seems. The authorities knew that the plague was coming but failed to take preventative action. Poor people who die of the plague are buried immediately without ceremony; exceptions can be made for the rich. The poor who display symptoms or who are exposed to the disease are quarantined in miserable conditions. Doctors looking after the wealthy find ways of concealing the nature of the disease, so that the patients can remain comfortably in their homes. Issy and Kate finally realise that what they are seeing is corruption and that their employers 'could be in this up to their necks'. The young doctor whom Kate so admires falls victim himself to the plague; Issy's timely warning about the way the infection spreads probably saves the lives of her undertaker employers.
When her father becomes very ill - fortunately, the often deadly influenza and not the Black Plague - Issy, who detests rats, is forced to take over his ratcatching business. There are some wonderfully grisly scenes:
I heard the clerk shout, 'Rats! Look at all the rats!' I heard the dogs yap, the rats squeal, the horrible soft squelches and thuds as their bodies hit the ground. I didn't look. I couldn't. Not until the growls and yelps and squeals and thuds had stopped did I open my eyes.
The floor of the warehouse was littered with bodies. The dogs were prowling, sniffing, scratching around the walls. The clerk was rather green.
This was listed on the CBCA Notables list for both Older Readers and Younger Readers in 2015.
Recommendation: The Ratcatcher's Daughter is a glimpse of a period of Australian history that will intrigue readers. Girls in Stages 3 and 4 will empathise with Issy, the narrator, and her sister. Make up a box of Australian historical fiction. Include in the selection Robert Newton's Black Dog Gang, which is also about the Black Plague at this period but is set in the Rocks in Sydney. The narrator is a boy who teams up with his mates to raise rats when they realise how much bounty the government is prepared to pay. A diverse selection of Australian historical titles for this age group could include Jackie French's The Night They Stormed Eureka and Kerry Greenwood's Journey to Eureka (both, of course, telling the Eureka story); Zana Fraillon's No Stars to Wish On, about conditions in orphanages early last century; Felicity Pulman's A Ring through Time, a timeslip novel that looks at life on Norfolk island when it was a convict prison; Robert Newton's Runner and Jackie French's The Road to Gundagai, both set during the Depression; Kirsty Murray's The Year It All Ended, looking at the immediate aftermath of World War I and the devastation of influenza; Kate Constable's Crow Country, which also uses the timeslip format to explore injustice to Indigenous Australians in the 1930s; and Belinda Murrell's The Forgotten Pearl, which paints a comprehensive picture of civilian life during World War II. -HS
The Rest of Us Just Live Here
by Patrick Ness. Walker Books, 2015. ISBN 9781406331165. 343 pp. Hardcover.
Patrick Ness remains my favourite author for adolescents and his new book offers new opportunities in the Year 9 or 10 classroom. This is a more playful novel than those that have come before, and Ness is having some fun at the expense of those adolescent titles that focus on zombies, vampires, gods and warriors and ‘the chosen one’.
The beginning chapter summaries (reminiscent of the heading in period texts like The Coral Island) forecast the supernatural tale of Immortals and indie kids who battle them. Such battles have been going on for years and provide the backdrop to the much more fascinating and realistic lives of the ordinary American teenagers who are just getting on with life. Mikey is the seventeen-year-old narrator and his sisters (Mel and young Meredith) and friend Henna are important players in the novel. Mikey is in love with Henna but can’t tell her. He is worried about all the usual adolescent anxieties and a bit more. His father drinks, his mother organises, his sister was anorexic and he just wants to graduate and go to college. His mate Jared rather bridges the gap between the ordinary and the extraordinary, being revealed as a quarter god and gifted with the ability to heal people. Jared is such an engaging character and his position between Mikey and the new boy on the block, Nathan, is beautifully judged.
Ness has lost none of his ability to capture intensity and action and the description of Mikey’s car crash with a zombie deer is equally as riveting as the drowning scene in More Than This. As the supernatural battles play out at the margins, the business of loving and learning and growing up is centre stage for this intriguing group of teenagers who find out so much about themselves and the nature and meaning of their own relationships.
Recommendation: The Rest of Us Just Live Here is smart and clever and sometimes profound and deeply interested in what adolescents are thinking and feeling. It should give students the opportunity to discover that their own lives are much more absorbing than a fantasy cycle. -DM
Recommendation: This would make a satisfying class set for Years 9 - 11, especially alongside a wide reading unit on series fiction. There is a problem, however, with writers as talented as Ness: we don't really want to end up with a program in which there is a Ness title on the class set list every year. My first choice would have to be A Monster Calls, but I would also be tempted by the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy and the absolutely mesmerising More Than This. So I've crossed The Rest of Us Just Live Here off my list of potential class set titles purely because it's less wonderful than some of his other writing. -HS
The River and the Book
by Alison Croggon. Walker Books, 2015. ISBN 9781925081725. 136 pp.
Alison Croggon is a noted Australian poet and author and this slender and moving novel will only enhance her reputation.
Simbala, a young woman, is the narrator. She is one of the Keepers of the Book, a treasure of the village in which she lives. The other treasure is the river on which the village sits. The river provides life and food to the village people. The mystical Book, protected by generations of keepers, provides answers to people’s questions, although ‘there was no guarantee that anyone would understand it’. But war and cotton upstream are draining and poisoning the river and gradually the village sees their way of life changing irrevocably.
When Jane Watson, a white woman, ‘who looked clean and sharp like a steel blade’, comes to the village she says she is working to stop the exploitation of the river people and Sim befriends her against her grandmother’s advice. Jane lives with the people, gathers information and when she leaves she steals the Book, a theft that was a ‘wound that went too deep for pain’.
Sim leaves the village to see if she can find Jane and reclaim the book. Her journey is difficult and she ends up living in the city far from her village but with friends who love her and respect her. With the help of the poet Ling Ti she does find Jane and confronts her. A two-faced woman is revealed: a fighter for justice for the river people but also a cultural vandal who robbed the village of what it valued most.
Recommendation: The power of this simple tale is considerable, the language is deft and lyrical and the message is profound. I found it a dazzling narrative that was accessible and memorable and it could be a great text to explore with Year 7 or 8, especially in the context of sustainability. -DM
I think The River and the Book could also be worth considering for Year 9 or 10. Yes, it's a simple read, but - as Deb says - the message is profound, perfectly appropriate for older students to explore. It has almost the quality of a fable. -HS
by Matthew Whittet. Currency Press, 2015. ISBN 9781925005462. 54 pp.
The last day of school has arrived and Tom, Mike, Edwina, Sue and Ronny are ecstatic. Their school shirts (all except for Ronny’s) are covered in texta colour names and they are counting down the seconds. They erupt in excitement when school is over. The swearing starts on the first page. They make plans (all except for Ronny) to meet in the park that night for celebrations.
The night involves a lot of drinking and coarse language. There are revelations about relationships and challenges for all the characters from the vulnerable Ronny to the tightly wound up Edwina. Cocksure Mike with his truth or dare game leads them into difficult territory. No-one leaves the park quite the same, but the human qualities of trust and love are there at the finale.
The Belvoir production was notable for the fact that theatre elders played these seventeen-year-olds. Peter Carroll, Maggie Dence, John Gaden, Genevieve Lemon, Barry Otto a and Anna Volska (any one of whom could light up a stage on their own) joined forces to deliver characters that were passionate and full of the strains of youth. Genevieve Lemon actually played a fourteen-year-old, Tom’s sister Lizzy who watches over him even when he is drunk and disorderly.
During rehearsal the director invited real seventeen-year-olds into the theatre to improvise the content of the play and was delighted with their energy and insight. She is clear that adolescents could play the roles but makes the point that it is that mix of knowing and innocence that the older actors bring that enhances the performance.
Recommendation: Seventeen would be a wonderful drama to examine towards the end of Year 10 or in Year 11. All those anxieties and fears and hopes and sillinesses of youth, as director Anne-Louise Sarks says in her valuable Director’s note, are there to explore. Issues of identity and belonging jostle with humour and boundless energy. In the script for the Belvoir production there is a Q & A section with fascinating answers from seventeen-year-olds from a variety of schools to the following questions:
· What matters to you most right now is …
· What or who do you want to be when you are older?
· Can you imagine life at 70? What might it be like?
· The advice I would give to my older self would be …
· What do you daydream about?
· What does love mean to you?
· Regrets - do you have any? If you are happy to, can you share what these are?
· The message I would send to the rest of the world right now is …..
Such questions would make a great start to a unit on transitions that focused on this text. -DM
The Singing Bones
by Shaun Tan. Allen & Unwin, 2015. ISBN 9781760111038. 185 pp. Hardcover.
Shaun Tan's picture books have become an essential part of our classrooms: The Rabbits, The Lost Thing, The Arrival, The Rules of Summer and other texts by Tan are widely taught. However, if you were hoping that Tan's latest book would be a further addition to your bookroom or booklist, you will be disappointed. Tan constantly surprises, constantly reinvents himself. The Singing Bones is very different from what we have seen before. It has been described as an art book for adults, one that will become a collector's item. It's handsome and heavy enough to be a coffee table tome but, unlike most examples of the genre, it demands to be picked up. Each time you browse, you will find something new to delight, startle and unsettle you.
The frontispiece explains that The Singing Bones has been 'inspired by Grimms' fairy tales'. The genesis of the book was a request from Tan's German publisher for him to illustrate Grimms Märchen, a collection of Grimms' fairy tales that had been retold by novelist Phillip Pullman. Tan decided to represent the tales by a series of small sculptures (from 6cm to 40cm high), primarily made out of papier-mâché and clay. The three-dimensional figures were then photographed. For Pullman's book, Tan created fifty sculptures but, after that project was completed, he continued to explore the world of the Grimm brothers. He has brought together the original fifty sculptures with another twenty-five to create The Singing Bones. However, this is not a fairy tale anthology like Pullman's 512-page work; rather, it is an art book inspired by those tales. Each double page displays the title of an original Grimm fairy tale, a key extract from the story (each only about 6 to 12 lines long) and a full-page coloured photograph of Tan's sculpture. Many of the sculptures are vividly coloured, like the glowing orange-red of the golden bird; most are so tactile that you want to reach out and touch them, like the dozens of nails that make up the spikes on the head of Hans the hedgehog; all have that surreal quality that is so characteristic of Tan's work. There is something ancient and primitive about them, reflecting raw, primal emotions. Human figures are instantly recognisable but slightly caricatured; animal figures are uncomfortably human. Like the stories themselves, the illustrations are dark and disturbing: seven identical, shapeless hanged men swinging from the gallows for 'The Boy Who Left Home to Find out about Fear'; a grotesquely grinning witch looming from behind a lolly-studded house in 'Hansel and Gretel'; a manic dancing Rumpelstiltskin. Pullman, in his foreword to The Singing Bones, writes of 'the power and the strangeness, the sheer uncanny presence of the little sculptures Shaun Tan has created.'
You can't browse through these glimpses into the world of the Grimm brothers without wanting to re-read the original stories. Tan has provided an appendix that gives a brief summary of each of the seventy-five fairy stories, to provide context to his pictures, but most readers, like Tan himself, will want to explore further. A good place to start is Jack Zipes' introduction to The Singing Bones: 'How the Brothers Grimm made their way into the world'. Tan recommends that the next step should be a reading of Zipes' translation of all 279 stories in The Complete Fairy Tales (Vintage Classics, ISBN 9780099511441).
Recommendation: Most English programs contain units of work on fairy stories or, more broadly, traditional storytelling. The Singing Bones is a great resource for such a unit of work. You can use it at any level, from Year 7 to 11. However, the value of a book does not lie only in its usefulness in the classroom. For some students, this exciting work could be life-changing, broadening their aesthetic horizons. Make sure that your library has several copies and that they are prominently displayed - and find lots of opportunities to recommend it. -HS
A Single Stone
by Meg McKinlay. Walker Books, 2015. ISBN 9781925081701. 271 pp.
In this memorable and compelling novel Australian author McKinlay has created a totally convincing unique world and, in Jena, a courageous and inspiring heroine. The novel opens with a claustrophobic account of Jena leading six other girls through narrow crevices and tiny tunnels deep into the mountain to harvest precious flakes of mica, on which their community depends for both lighting and heating. It is dangerous work, work that Jena loves - to be part of what is known as 'the line'. We learn that many generations before it had been easier to harvest the mica, but it is now scarce and almost inaccessible. There are hints in the first chapter that the community has adapted to change over time: 'These days, the girls who made up the line were leaner; years of painstaking management had seen to that. And they were more careful, too, being sure to show respect to the mountain.'
As the narrative continues, we learn about Jena's world. There is only the valley; once it had been part of a larger world with people coming and going freely, but then an earthquake blocked off the pass and those villagers not killed by falling rocks were trapped. The land is unproductive and the winters are bitter - often, fatally so. Over the generations a mythology has developed to explain the disaster: it was the action of men, in mining the mountain, that caused Rockfall. The Gash is there as a constant reminder of men's failure to respect the mountain, as is the blocked Pass. The villagers must never again disrespect the mountain by blasting or using pickaxes; in fact, men - who were the perpetrators of the disaster - must never again be allowed inside the mountain. Only women can harvest the mica - and, as it becomes increasingly inaccessible, only the smallest and thinnest of prepubescent girls.
As the mythology developed, the community came under the control of a matriarchy - the Mothers, former members of the line, who train the young girls of the community to harvest the life-saving mica. To have daughters who can become part of the line is essential. Families with daughters who are part of the line receive larger quotas of mica and food and a better chance of surviving the harsh winters.
Gradually, we learn of the cruelty of the training of the girls: starvation from babyhood, the tight wrapping of limbs to inhibit growth, even the breaking of bones. Jena has always taken these for granted, but her accidental discovery of another method the Mothers use to produce tiny females shocks her to the point of rebellion.
The story is mostly limited third-person narrative, from Jena's point of view, but at the end of the first chapter, there is a second intriguing viewpoint, that of another girl called Lia. Lia seems to be in the same landscape as Jena but she clearly does not belong to Jena's strange community. We learn that her people came to the area some time after the rockfall, driven from their island home by a wild sea that had swamped their land. Tantalising glimpses of Lia are interspersed through the narrative about Jena: perhaps most tellingly, the contrast in Chapter 6 between the hungry premature baby that Jena's community deliberately deprives of food and Lia contentedly accepting a second large helping of stew - 'Ripe tomatoes have coloured it a deep red and Father has added juicy chunks of orange and yellow peppers'. The sensuousness of the bright colours of Lia's meal contrasts starkly with the grey bleakness of Jena's world. Gradually the connections between Jena and Lia - and their very different worlds - become stronger, leading to a satisfying conclusion.
This is a very readable adventure with an empathetic main character. It is also a thoughtful exploration of gender and body issues and of the nature of oppression. The world McKinlay has created does not exist anywhere in time or space, but it reflects perceptively our world, including our capacity to make sense of our experiences by mythologising them and our willingness to trust accepted hierarchies simply because they have always been there.
Recommendation: This is a great Stage 4 class novel. You may have some difficulty persuading boys to read a story where the protagonists are female, but it is probably worth the effort to try. McKinlay's narrative technique deserves close attention: suspense is beautifully created by the use of the second narrative viewpoint, but also by the gradual revelation - in short flashback scenes, distinguished by italic font - of Jena's past. The novel obviously begs to be used as a springboard for a study of body image, a topic that is increasingly important for boys as well as girls.
McKinlay reveals on her website that she did not know, when she wrote the novel, that mica is mined in India by child labour. Mica is a real metal, although McKinlay gave it in the novel properties it does not have in the real world. The coincidence about oppressed children is another possible avenue for exploration.
Anorexia is of course one of the worst consequences of poor body image. Introduce students to Lesley Fairfield's amazing graphic novel Tyranny: I Keep You Thin; suggest they use it as a model for their own writing about an issue that concerns them. Of the many young adult novels that explore the issue of body image, some of the best include Butter by Erin Lange, The Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught, Scott Westerfeld's four-book series Uglies, James Moloney's A Bridge to Wiseman's Cove, Brigid Lowry's With Lots of Love from Georgia and Dorian Cirrone's Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You. -HS
The Sound of Whales
by Kerr Thomson. Chicken House Ltd, 2015. ISBN 9781910002278. 320 pp.
There are two dead bodies on a beach – one is that of a pilot whale and the other is a man with a knife slash across his stomach. Their stories become entwined with those of the Dunbar brothers – fourteen-year-old Fraser, who helps marine biologist Ben McCraig with his work, and reclusive Dunny, the elective mute who seems to have a strange connection with the whales in the area. New arrivals in Nin, Americans Sarah Risso and her daughter Haley, also become involved in the local troubles and a tempestuous relationship begins between Fraser and Haley.
This novel has a magical setting on the wild Scottish island of Nin and it’s not easy to pick the villains as the brothers try to work out what has brought death to their shores and how the whales are involved.
The Sound of Whales won the Times Children’s Fiction Prize in 2014.
Recommendation: This would be a good text for Year 7 or 8 to consider in a wide reading unit with an environmental focus. It would go well with Blueback, The River and the Book and the climate change book, Atmospheric (both reviewed here). -DM
Steve Jobs: Insanely Great
by Jessie Harland. Random House Australia, 2015. ISBN 9780857988560. 216 pp. Hardcover.
If you are looking for a biography about an individual who changed the way we live, you can’t really go past this graphic hardcover by Jessie Hartland on Steve Jobs. In accessible words and pictures Hartland charts Jobs life from college drop-out to techno geek and ultimately iconoclast who placed an unforgettable stamp on our social media and the technology we use everyday. Jobs is portrayed as the perfectionist he was, as socially maladroit and nearly impossible to work with and as a genius, so there is much for students to discuss about this undoubtedly controversial figure.
Recommendation: Why the publishers placed a photograph of Ashton Kutcher on the cover (I know he played Jobs in the film) instead of Steve himself puzzles me, but perhaps they believe they will sell more copies with the movie star rather than the business man. It does seem at odds with the non-fiction status of the text but again could provide an interesting discussion in the Year 9 classroom. The title could be debated as well. -DM
by David Metzenthen. Penguin Books, 2014. ISBN 9780143568421. 248 pp.
The real protagonist of this novel is Templeton, a fictional bleak working-class suburb on the fringes of Melbourne, where in summer 'the Western Highway shimmers like stainless steel' and in winter 'the wind blows through the place like a vampire spirit on the hunt for body heat'. There is a sense of menace hanging over the place, exemplified in the narrator's comparison with the dangerous tigerfish that he has seen on a favourite television documentary. Like the predatory tigerfish 'hiding just out of sight in the dirty river, waiting to tear into people as they wash their clothes or bathe their babies', there are vague, unsettling threats: memories of the dead girl found many years ago out in the waste ground at the back of the houses, under the long grey powerlines; three greyhounds with their throats cut; more recently, a huge lurking figure - 'an odd dude' - who prowls the wasteland.
The only life to be found in Templeton is at the huge, air-conditioned shopping mall - Sky Point Mall, known to the locals as Knifepoint Mall. It is there that Ryan meets Ariel, a luminous figure who doesn't seem to belong. She's working in the surf shop, even though she's never seen the sea. Ariel is a good example of Ryan's insight that 'it strikes me life isn't that cruisy for anyone.' Fate has been cruel to her, her captivating stepsister Kaydie, who has stopped talking, and her bewildered stepmother. Fate has been cruel too to the dangerous school bully Elmore and his suicidal sister Eden. And even in Ryan's own family, happier and more functional than most, older brother Slate is drifting through life, working a mind-numbing day shift at the local pipe factory while being beaten up as a security guard at night.
There is a plot of sorts - the mystery about the prowler is solved and Ariel's life gets back on track - but this is largely a series of scenes: Ryan and his mate Evan taking Ariel and Kaydie to see the sea; Evan and Elmore fighting at school; Ryan and Ariel travelling back to the farm where Ariel lost everything. It is narrated in Ryan's voice - surprisingly tender and optimistic from someone raised in such a bleak environment. Tigerfish is ultimately life-affirming: there are no miraculous easy answers, no sudden rescues from reality, but there is hope and there is potential. The final sentence, as Ryan realises that Ariel has been able to return to school as she had so much wanted is: 'And just like that, the new year begins.'
This was listed as a CBCA Older Readers' Notable book in 2015.
Recommendation: Recommend this to boys in Years 8 and 9. They may find it a little slow, but they will recognise the authenticity of Ryan's voice and the basic decency of his character. For boys from backgrounds not unlike Templeton, this will be a revelation; for those whose lives are more fortunate, perhaps it will widen their horizons a little. -HS
The Truth about Peacock Blue
by Rosanne Hawke. Allen & Unwin, 2015. ISBN 9781743319949. 253 pp.
The Truth about Peacock Blue is an engaging and moving novel for young adults that will appeal strongly to girls. Hawke has used first-person narration to allow readers to share the experiences of Pakistani teenager, Aster. While many of the details of Aster's life in her family home and little rural village are very different from the lives of Hawke's readers, most young people will empathise with Aster and discover how much they have in common with her. Readers share first her shock and grief when her much-loved only sibling, Ijaz, dies in his sleep at age fifteen, and then her apprehension and difficulties as she faces the unfamiliarity of a large government high school, very different from the little village school where she has had her primary education.
Aster is Christian in a country where Christians are a three per cent minority. The government school is of course Muslim, but Aster's father is assured by the principal that her constitutional right to freedom of religion will be respected. However, most of the girls are hostile to her and the teacher of Islamic studies and Arabic, Mrs Abdul, believing she has a mission to convert Aster, begins to regularly harass and abuse her. Readers share Aster's shock and horror when she is accused by Mrs Abdul of committing blasphemy in her examination; Aster never knows what error she is supposed to have committed that is seen to be blasphemous - perhaps a spelling mistake - and Mrs Abdul claims to be so appalled by the obscenity that she felt forced to burn immediately the offending exam paper, so there is no evidence. The lack of evidence, however, is inconsequential in a society where just the charge of blasphemy taints lives forever. Aster is dragged away in a police van surrounded by angry men calling for her death into a nightmarish world of a prison system that is brutal and inflexible and of a justice system that moves painfully slowly and that is evidently corrupt.
Hawke uses Aster's story to explore not only the injustices of the Pakistani blasphemy laws but to canvass a wide range of human rights issues, from freedom of religion to Australia's treatment of asylum seekers. She particularly looks at issues involving girls and women: the extraordinary injustice that women who are raped must find four independent male witnesses to prove they were forced or else be accused of adultery; limited opportunities for girls' education; the powerlessness of women in prison. Hawke uses a blog, set up by Aster's Australian cousin, Maryam, to expose readers to diverse opinions about such issues, some of them quite extreme. Maryam, in her blog posts, argues for justice, for freedom of speech, for freedom of religion and for religious tolerance; the messages posted on her blog from teenagers from all around the world debate her arguments.
The story follows Aster through three years of imprisonment to a court judgment that sentences her to death and then an endless wait for an appeal. Recommendation: Hawke writes from a Christian perspective and her protagonist finds peace and strength in her Christian religion, but this is not a Christian polemic. Hawke argues strongly for freedom of religion and religious tolerance. The book will be very welcome in Christian schools but its use may be more difficult in some areas where the subject of blasphemy arouses strong views. While the purpose of the novel is unquestionably to promote tolerance, discussion of it may lead to intolerance if not handled very carefully. That said, it is a book that needs to be widely read. Use it as a class set with girls in Years 8 or 9 if you can; otherwise recommend it strongly. -HS
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains: The Graphic Novel
by Neil Gaiman. Headline Publishing, 2014. Headline Publishing Group, 2014. ISBN 9781472221070. 80 pp. Hardcover.
Neil Gaiman never disappoints and this fascinating picture book/graphic novel is by a master storyteller. The subtitle is ‘A Tale of Travel and Darkness with Pictures of All Kinds’ and Gaiman said that the Isle and Syke and the legends and history of the Inner and Outer Hebrides inspired the text.
A wee man has been searching for ten years for news about his daughter, Flora, a red-haired girl he believed to have run away while looking after his cattle. The trail is cold but he seeks Calum MacInnes as a guide to the cave on the Misty Isle where much gold is meant to rest. Calum is a wolfish man with a long face and he agrees to guide the unnamed dwarf. He has been chosen for a reason. They travel through the mountains where ‘the summer winds have winter on their breath, where they howl and whip and slash the air like knives’, and a fortune teller reads them riddles about their past and the future. The two men reach the isle and camp at the Man and Dog Rock where MacInnes, mistrusting the dwarf, holds a dirk to his neck. The dwarf defends himself and persuades MacInnes to remove the dagger. As they travel towards the cave, a tale unwinds about a young woman whose cattle Calum stole and whom he tied by her long red hair to a thorn bush. The reason the dwarf approached the man becomes clearer, as his real purpose in travelling to the isle is revealed. What passes in the cave and afterwards I leave to your own discovery, but the haunting words and images will lead you to a compelling conclusion.
Recommendation: This dark tale of revenge and regret is wonderful and the setting is vividly realised by both prose and picture. The gripping first-person narration adds brilliantly to the force of the novel. This would be an excellent text to use as part of a wide reading in fantasy/horror genre unit with a Year 9 class or with a collection of graphic novels. -DM
by Tristan Bancks. Random House Australia. ISBN 9780857982032. 288 pp.
The title comes from a Cherokee Indian story quoted on the frontispiece. Each of us is torn between two wolves - different sides of our character. The quotation signals that this novel is more than an exciting adventure. It is also, for the protagonist - thirteen-year-old Australian boy, Ben - a moral and ethical journey.
Bancks sets the scene beautifully. Ben is making another clay animation movie - his seventh. All of them star a super detective who just happens to be also named Ben. He and his little sister Olive are home alone, in a home that we understand is anything but wealthy. When two police cars pull up outside and the police ask for his parents, Ben knows enough to guess that they are there on serious business. Minutes after the police have left, his father's 1967 Valiant - 'the Green Machine' - comes to a screeching halt and his parents rush Ben and Olive to the car. They are going, they say, on a surprise holiday. They have never been on holiday before. There are other oddities: Mum says that they will buy clothes, as they don't have a change of clothes with them - 'That's what you do on holidays.' Both Mum and Dad turn off their phones; Ben and Olive have never seen Mum turn off her phone before. At Uncle Chris's place, they swap cars, trading an old station wagon for Dad's beloved Valiant. In a rundown motel Mum cuts first Ben's long curly hair with nail scissors, then Dad's and her own - 'a holiday haircut'. It's pretty clear to both Ben and the reader that something suspicious is going on.
Ben wants to be a detective when he grows up, and he has endless curiosity. He has seen Uncle Chris give Dad a grey nylon sports bag with black handles. He catches Dad hiding the bag in the roof cavity of Grandad's old deserted cabin, where they are to spend their 'holiday'. He can't resist climbing on an old table and looking to see what's in the bag. It is cash - a huge amount of cash - and Mum's explanation is anything but convincing: 'He was sick of being treated like a child. He was going undercover. He would find the truth.'
This is a fast-moving thriller with interesting characters. Ben's curiosity gets him into serious trouble but he does win the battle between the two wolves of his nature.
This was named an Honour book in the CBCA children's book awards for 2015.
Recommendation: Thirteen-year-old Ben is someone that your Stage 4 students can relate to. They will enjoy the humour, Ben's relationship with his feisty little sister, and his moral dilemma. The book will appeal especially to boys - and boys' books suitable for whole class study are fairly hard to find. -HS
The Wall: A Modern Fable
by William Sutcliffe. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014 (2013). ISBN 9781408838433. 304 pp.
We presented this title in 2014 but we have reproduced our notes here because it goes so well with two more recent titles: The Crossing by Catherine Norton and The Cat at the Wall by Deborah Ellis. Ellis specifies that the wall she is writing about is the barrier on the Israeli West Bank. Norton and Sutcliffe are not so specific; both are interested in the broader question of the consequences of forcibly separating human beings.
Notice that, like John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Morris Gleitzman's Once, Sutcliffe has called his novel a 'fable'. That signals immediately that it is a made-up story - made up to teach us a lesson. While the setting of the story is very like the Israeli West Bank and the people who live behind the wall are very like the people we know as Palestinians, Sutcliffe is careful never to suggest that the story is set in a real place.
Joshua is a troubled boy who lives with his mother and stepfather in a divided city, where a wall and soldiers separate two communities, and the rubble-strewn residue of their broken world gives hints of the old life before the wall was built. Joshua discovers a manhole, which leads to a tunnel, which leads in pitch darkness under the wall and across to the other side. Forbidden territory, dangerous territory, violent territory, which a boy like him - visibly different - shouldn't stray into. An act of kindness from a girl saves his life but leads to a brutal act of cruelty and a terrible debt he's determined to repay. And no one, no one must find out that he's been there - or the consequences will be unbearable.
Our first view of Joshua reveals the arrogance of the bright adolescent, contemptuous of the security guard who 'is probably a bit stupid'. 'David is my best friend in Amarias, even though he's extremely annoying. Amarias is a strange place. If I were living somewhere normal, I don't think David would be my friend at all.' When he discovers the manhole he is torn between excitement - 'the best adventure playground, the best climbing frame, the best secret hideout I've ever seen' - and 'a feeling I can't quite understand ... something to do with the obvious suddenness with which this place was transferred from a home into a heap of junk'.
Joshua hates his step-father Liev ('my anti-father'), who is a religious fundamentalist with very narrow ideas. He hates living in Amarias: 'All the houses in Amarias are the same. You see new ones going up all the time: first the concrete, sprouting metal bars like a dodgy haircut, then the red roof and the windows, and finally the cladding of stone slapped on like a paint job. This one's different. There's no concrete. Just proper lumps of solid stone.'
On one level this is a boy's adventure story: 'Maybe I ought to work out the risks, remind myself of everything I've been warned about, take stock of what I have to lose ... but that's not the kind of person I am, and it's not who I want to be, either. Mysteries are for solving, walls are for climbing, secret hideouts are for exploring. That's just how things are.'
Joshua's meeting with Leila and her father is transformative. In an attempt to make some restoration for the harm he has caused them, Joshua begins to tend their olive grove, owned by their family for generations but now inaccessible to them, except on the rare occasions when they can get a permit to cross the wall. The arrogant teenager becomes a compassionate human being as he tries to nurture the dying olive trees.
Recommendation: This is a beautifully written novel. It is a book for children - a boy's adventure into a dangerous new world. But it is a book for intelligent children, like Joshua himself - children who can learn that they share a common humanity with people who at first appear to be different. It is unquestionably a pro-Palestinian book, in the sense that it portrays these people who happen to be in circumstances rather like those of the Palestinians as decent human beings, oppressed by their more powerful neighbours. For that reason, it may be a difficult choice for class use in some communities. But its 'lesson' about tolerance and common humanity is very important. If you can, share it with bright kids in Years 7 and 8.
Consider using The Wall alongside The Crossing and The Cat at the Wall (both also reviewed in these notes). In my opinion, The Wall is by far the best of the three novels, but The Crossing is a fine novel and more accessible. I personally found The Cat at the Wall a little disappointing - not Ellis at her best - but it will appeal to students who will find The Wall difficult. You could offer all three titles to students and let each of them choose which to read. Hopefully, some will read all three. -HS
(also known as A Brilliant Young Mind) directed by Morgan Matthew, 2014. Rated M.
Nathan (played by Asa Butterfield) is a teenager who loves Maths but is socially challenged and on the autism spectrum. He had a close bond with his father and was in the car when his dad was killed in an accident. He struggles to connect with anyone, including his mother, Julie (played by Sally Hawkins). When Nathan is given a new, rather unconventional maths mentor, his love of mathematics is given a powerful impetus.
He is soon selected as a representative in the United Kingdom squad for the International Maths Olympiad. He travels to Taipei and finds mixing with other gifted students who don’t bully or harass him a revelation. There is another surprise too; he finds he has a strong connection to his female exchange partner, Zhang Mei.
Nathan’s rational mind has to grapple with love as well as numbers and his mother’s explanation of love is rather neatly constructed for a mind such as his:
When somebody says they love you it means they see something in you they think is worth something ... It adds value to you.
Recommendation: This is a tender and perceptive film with fine performances and a number of issues for classroom discussion. Difference and diversity, the gift and burden of talent, the nature of communication and relationships are all on offer in an engaging, sometimes funny and charming film. Year 10 students may identify with Nathan’s difficulties and come to a better understanding of the differences that are in all of us, as well as the common humanity that connects us. -DM
In recent years series fiction has been hugely popular with teenagers. Series like Twilight (and its imitators) and The Hunger Games have not only had huge sales but have also attracted large audiences for the film versions. In The Rest of Us Just Live Here (reviewed here) Patrick Ness mocks the obsession of series fiction with supernatural beings who just happen to find themselves in an American high school setting. We began with vampires but we've had werewolves, zombies, sirens, faeries and, most recently, lots of angels. Angels are an especially inspired choice as they have to remove their shirts to release their wings, thus exposing their oh-so-impressive abs.
This flood of popular but formulaic writing has disguised the fact that some of the best quality writing for young adults in recent years has been series fiction. Worse, books from series are often overlooked by literary prize judges, who seem to prefer stand-alone titles, so that some of this quality fiction does not get the publicity it deserves. (The NSW Premier's Literary Award has refused to go along with this trend, awarding Books 1 and 2 of The Colours of Madeleine the top young adult prize in 2013 and 2015.)
We've listed below just eight recent series - six of them Australian - which would make an excellent basis for a wide reading unit for Years 8 or 9. Have multiple copies of the first book in each of the series you choose and make sure that your library has copies of the sequel. You could supplement the titles we've suggested with older series - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for those who've missed it; Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings; Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy; Act of Faith and The Sultan's Eyes by Kelly Gardiner; Brian Caswell's Deucalion trilogy; Philip Pullman's Northern Lights trilogy; Reboot and Rebel by Amy Tintera; Isobelle Carmody's The Obernewtyn Chronicles.
The Colours of Madeleine series by Jaclyn Moriarty. Pan Macmillan.
Book 1: A Corner of White. 2014. ISBN 9781742612607. 432 pp.
Book 2: The Cracks in the Kingdom. 2014. ISBN 9781742612874. 526 pp.
Book 3: A Tangle of Gold will be published early in 2016.
Moriarty has produced a fantasy series of unusual quality. Her books are startlingly original and beautifully written. The idea of alternate worlds and the possibility of communication with them is not new, but no fantasy writer has created a fantasy world as magical, strange and intriguing as the Kingdom of Cello. Moriarty's strength, however, is that she sets her story also in our world - or, at least, the world of Cambridge, England, and she creates that world just as vividly as the fantasy one. The Kingdom of Cello is aware of the existence of our world but all contact has been forbidden for three hundred years. Cracks open up occasionally between the two worlds, but any resident of Cello knows that a crack must be reported immediately to the authorities so that it can be closed up.
Elliot, living in Bonfire, the Farms, the Kingdom of Cello, does not report the crack that he finds. Instead he begins a correspondence with Madeleine, living in Cambridge, England. Madeleine has found a note sticking out of a parking meter in Cambridge. She answers the note, pushing her reply into the parking meter. Elliot, in Bonfire, finds her reply, poking out of an old television in his school playground. The utter randomness of this 'crack' that allows communication between their worlds is typical of Moriarty's fantasy. It is quirky and highly entertaining.
These are big, complex books. There are plot strands that seem to be going nowhere but are expertly brought together. There are lots of surprises and a great deal of suspense. There is a huge cast of characters in both worlds, all so sharply realised that the reader has no trouble keeping track of them. And there are Madeleine and Elliot themselves, two of the most appealing characters I have met in young adult literature.
These are challenging reads but enormously satisfying. They appeal strongly to both heart and head. Recommend them to good readers of any age. -HS
Every Breath/Every Word/ Every Move by Ellie Marney. Allen & Unwin.
Book 1: Every Breath. 2013. ISBN 9781743316429. 335 pp.
Book 2: Every Word. 2014. ISBN 9781743316511. 334 pp.
Book 3: Every Move. 2015. ISBN 9781743318539. 338 pp.
These are exciting murder thrillers from a new Australian writer for young adults. At the centre of the books is the uneasy relationship between the protagonists: sixteen-year-old country girl Rachel, still mourning the loss of the family farm, and the boy-almost-next-door, Mycroft. Mycroft, originally from the UK, lives a bleak life with an unsympathetic aunt. At seventeen he seems to be a misfit and a loner, but he has a passion for and deep knowledge of forensic science. In Book 1 Mycroft's forensic knowledge eventually solves the murder of a homeless man; in the process both Rachel and Mycroft are almost killed when the murderer, desperate to avoid detection, succeeds in trapping them in the lion's cage at Melbourne Zoo.
Book 2 takes Mycroft to London to use his forensic skill to solve a murder. Rachel, concerned for him, follows, and finds herself in deadly trouble. In Book 3 they return to Melbourne, but so does the criminal mastermind who tried to kill them in England. The final tense drama is played out in country Victoria, near the farm at Five Mile where Rachel grew up.
Throughout the series there is the tension of the relationship. Rachel is very insistent that they are just friends, but the sexual tension between them is obvious early on. Mycroft is not, however, your typical teenage boyfriend. Being a nerdy genius and a domestic slob is one thing, but being deeply troubled by the deaths of his parents seven years earlier - deaths he is increasingly sure were not accidental - is another. Mycroft is erratic and troubled, obsessed by his past.
These compulsive reads are much enjoyed by readers in Years 8 and 9. -HS
Man Made Boy/This Broken Wondrous World by Jon Skovron. Allen & Unwin.
Book 1: Man Made Boy. 2013. ISBN 9781743315132. 368 pp.
Book 2: This Broken Wondrous World. 2015. ISBN 9781743315972. 365 pp.
In this two-book series American writer Jon Skovron combines a variety of genres. They are firstly breathtaking and highly inventive thrillers, with plenty of fast-moving action. They are coming-of-age stories, following the fate of a seventeen-year-old as he ventures out into the world for the first time. There is a charming offbeat romance. There are sci-fi elements, as the protagonist is a talented computer hacker and a pioneer of virtual reality. There is constant humour, some of it rather black. And there is an amazing use of intertextuality as we meet an array of creatures from literature and mythology: the Siren from The Odyssey, the Minotaur, Madame Medusa, Lord Ruthven from The Vampyre, Charon the Ferrymaster, H. G. Wells' Doctor Moreau, as well as assorted satyrs, harpies, ogres, trolls, faeries and werewolves. Then, of course, there are Boy's parents - Frankenstein's Monster and The Bride - and his girlfriend: Sophie Jekyll and Claire Hyde.
Boy is both monster and normal teenager. He passionately hates Frankenstein for having created the Monster and the Bride, but he does not realise that in experimenting with virtual reality he is replicating Frankenstein's experiment - bringing a new creation to life that will not only be beyond his control but that can adapt endlessly. In Book 1 Boy's creation is enormously destructive; in Book 2 it becomes a force for good.
These are original and intelligent books that will win a devoted readership. Introduce them to students in Years 8 and 9, especially boys. -HS
Vango series by Timothée de Fombelle. Walker Books.
Book 1: Vango. ISBN 9781406354010. 432 pp. Hardback.
Book 2: A Prince without a Kingdom. ISBN 9781406360028. 448 pp.
This two-book series, translated from French, is an impressive and demanding read. The books are thrillers, set against the major events of the first half of the twentieth century: the fall of the Russian Tsars, the Russian Revolution, the Sicilian mafia, gunrunning in Europe in the years between the wars, the rise of Nazism, the Occupation of France and the French Resistance. The action moves across Europe, into the Scottish highlands, and to the United States. It's a huge canvas. Against this backdrop Vango, who was washed up on the Sicilian coast at age three, tries to discover his identity - and why so many people want to kill him.
This is very different from what most of our students are reading, but it has a great deal to offer to those who will take a risk with it. Recommend it strongly to those in Years 8 - 10 who are interested in world history. -HS
The Tribe series by Ambelin Kwaymullina. Walker Books.
Book 1: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf. ISBN 9781921720086. 400 pp.
Book 2: The Disappearance of Ember Crow. ISBN 9781921720093. 400 pp.
Book 3: The Foretelling of Georgie Spider. ISBN 9781921720109. 441 pp.
The publisher describes this exciting three-book series as eco-dystopian. Set many centuries into the future, after humanity was almost wiped out in an environmental catastrophe, these books describe an authoritarian society where those that do not conform are eliminated. In this case, the misfits are teenagers who begin to develop diverse and fantastic 'abilities'. Each of the three books focuses on one of the teenagers: Ashala, Ember and Georgie, as they struggle against destruction.
The author comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region. What sets The Tribe aside from the many other recent young adult post-apocalyptic novels is the author's decision to draw on her heritage. An adaptation of the Dreamtime legend of the rainbow serpent is an important part of the narrative of Book 1. Ashala seeks advice from her ancestral spirit, the giant Serpent. The Aboriginal understanding of country underpins the whole series.
This series has been very successful with readers in Years 8 and 9. -HS
The Last Girl/The Last Shot/The Last Place by Michael Adams. Allen & Unwin.
Book 1: The Last Girl. ISBN 978174331638, 400 pp.
Book 2: The Last Shot. ISBN 9781743316733. 416 pp.
Book 3: The Last Place. ISBN 9781743316740. 407 pp.
This post-apocalyptic fiction for young adult readers is sensationalist, violent and compulsively readable. The world ends in a moment: when The Snap occurs, almost everyone is suddenly telepathic, able to hear the thoughts of those around them. The result is devastating, leading to brutal conflict. Only a handful of people like sixteen-year-old female protagonist Danby are immune. She is plunged into a terrifying world. Initially, there is the threat from those who have become insane but, later, there is the much more chilling menace of a huge army of clones, all sharing the consciousness and working in the interests of the dictatorial Jack. In the battle to survive, one of the most interesting features is the difficulty of knowing whom to trust. There are two young men in Danby's new life - Nathan and Jack. They have very different visions for the future. Both claim to care for Danby.
This is mostly set in Sydney and the Blue Mountains behind the city; in the third book the setting shifts further up the New South Wales coast. Local readers enjoy the familiarity: there is a special frisson in reading, for example, the scene of a bloody siege in the quiet and picturesque town of Leura, or of watching Danby and Nathan try to bring back to life the catatonic figures littering the streets of Parramatta.
Full of explosions and dead or catatonic bodies, these read like a blockbuster movie. They are popular with readers in the Year 9 and 10 age group. -HS
City of Orphans series by Catherine Jinks. Allen & Unwin.
Book 1: A Very Unusual Pursuit. 2013. ISBN 9871743313060. 360 pp.
Book 2: A Very Peculiar Plague. 2013. ISBN 9871743313053. 376 pp.
Book 3: A Very Singular Guild. 2014. ISBN 9871743313091. 360 pp.
This fast-paced three-book series by one of Australia's most talented writers is both historical fiction and original fantasy. It is set in Victorian England and is very Dickensian, full of underfed and poorly housed street children who have lived precarious lives. The series is also seriously scary: there are dangerous child-eating monsters in London's dark places, and only the singing of a child can lure them out to be killed. Monsters in this world take many forms: there are human beings preying on orphaned children too, and they are even more difficult to defeat. The darkness of the world is countered by the courage and decency of the child characters themselves. Jinks's use of contemporary Victorian slang, including criminal cant, provides a sense of authenticity and will appeal to readers who love words for their own sake. She has provided a glossary of slang terms at the end of the book, although the meaning of most expressions is evident from the context.
This is compelling reading for good to average readers in Years 7 and 8. -HS
The Ship Kings series by Andrew McGahan. Allen & Unwin.
Book 1: The Coming of the Whirlpool
Book 2: The Voyage of the Unquiet Ice
Book 3: The War of the Four Isles
Book 4 (the final book) is due for publication in September 2016.
This is great writing for young adults from an Australian author who has won major awards for his adult writing. This is an epic adventure series with an impressive young hero, Dow Amber. Fantasy elements blend seamlessly with classic seafaring tales. There are mighty sea battles, feats of great courage, love and betrayal, politics and intrigue. There is plenty of action adventure, wonderful characterisation and a superb sense of place: some of the landscapes McGahan creates, such as the huge ice world of book 2, are unforgettable.
This series will challenge and excite your good readers in Years 7 and 8. The books are long, complex and compulsively engrossing. We tend to associate action adventure with boy readers, and there is no doubt that boys who are fluent readers love this series, but girls too have become addicted. This is intelligent writing for intelligent readers. -HS
Great choices you might have missed
This is a very short list of titles (only six of them) from recent years that we regard as very good value for the classroom. Each of them has earned their place on the list for different reasons. The Australian novel Jasper Jones, as Deb predicted so accurately in 2010, has become a 'must buy'; not only is it used alongside To Kill a Mockingbird in Year 10, it has replaced it in many cases. It is also being widely used for whole class study in Year 11. It is frowned upon, however, in some schools - the language, while often very funny, can be a little confronting in those schools where this is still an issue. Note, by the way, that Kate Mulvany has adapted Jasper Jones for the stage and that it will be performed in January 2016 at Belvoir Theatre.
A Monster Calls we also predicted would be a classic; our affection for this title increases over time. It was in hardcover when we first reviewed it, but we've updated the information to a paperback edition. The paperback we've chosen has the wonderfully haunting illustrations of the original, and we think these enhance the text beautifully, but there is another unillustrated paperback edition if you prefer (ISBN 9781406361803).
The Watch That Ends the Night is a superb example of the power of the verse-novel format in the hands of a skilled poet. Your students will forgive the fact that it's in verse to begin with because they're interested in The Titanic. Many of them will come away from their study of this book with a real understanding of poetry. The review for this title was written by Ernie Tucker, who presented with us in 2012 when the AATE conference was held in Sydney.
Although there have been many excellent books about life in Asia published in recent years, Trash is still our favourite: a perfect class-set text with a thrilling plot, engaging characters, diverse narrative voices and a terrific ending.
Butter and We Were Liars may not be of the same literary quality as some of the others on this shortlist, but both are very contemporary and guaranteed to engage those students in Year 9 who really don't want to read much at all.
by Erin Lange. Faber and Faber, 2013 (2012). ISBN 9780571294404. 345 pp.
Some of the best class set novels over the years have been books about bullying. Nothing quite get kids so fired up as injustice. Every kid knows what it feels like to be bullied, and quite a few know what it's like to bully others. This novel asks them to think about another situation: what's your position if you don't actually participate in the bullying, but you are aware of it and just look on?
What makes that question especially relevant is that this is a very contemporary novel. It is set in the world that adolescents actually inhabit these days but that few writers of adolescent novels have yet fully caught up with: a world lived online. This is the world of non-stop text messaging and of Facebook. We've had a few books about cyberbullying, and there has been considerable discussion about the effects of anonymity on behaviour. But this goes a lot further. This is a world in which a lonely outcast can have an online romance with a girl from the popular set and where the school freak can be transformed overnight into a media star on the web. It's a world where spectacle dominates to the extent that normal moral conventions and human empathy are lost in the excitement of the moment. It's a world in which ordinary, good kids can condone evil.
Butter is narrated in the first person by a very intelligent, self-deprecating voice. Butter is his nickname, one that was conferred on him by the bullies in a very cruel moment that is one of the memorable scenes of the novel. It's not until the last line of the novel that we discover his real name. In his teens, Butter is excessively obese - about 420 pounds or 190 kilos or more than 28 stone. His doting mother fluctuates between plying him with food as a token of her love - 'pecan waffles, Canadian bacon, and poached eggs' for breakfast - to trying to persuade him to try one of the latest diets. His father seems defeated, probably not even aware that it is a very long time since he has spoken directly to his son. Butter's conviction that he is an embarrassment to his father is just one of the bitter facts of his life. At school he is a freak and a loner. His only consolations are his music - he is a talented saxophonist - and his online, anonymous relationship with Anna. Anna and Butter have never spoken; she is falling in love online with the charming and witty, 'JP', the pseudonym Butter has adopted. He has built up a profile for his online identity: a popular and sporty boy from the private school across town.
We learn a lot about Butter from his relationships with some of the adults in his life, particularly Doctor Bean, the doctor who manages his diabetes, and the Professor, the music teacher at his college. As readers, we like and care for Butter, sympathise with his hopeless infatuation with Anna, appreciate his humour and intelligence. His fellow students see only his size.
In a moment of despair Butter sets up a website and declares that, on New Year's Eve, he will eat himself to death on webcam. That declaration transforms his life. Students are divided about whether he is serious or not but all of them are fascinated. Butter, from being a complete loner, is adopted by the in-crowd and is caught up in a social whirl. There is huge interest in what Butter will eat at his final meal. As a diabetic, Butter realises that he actually can kill himself by eating the wrong things; a severe allergy to strawberries is an added bonus.
The tension in the story depends of course on whether or not Butter will go through with his threat - and whether any of the students who have followed him on his website will try to prevent the suicide.
Recommendation: This is a high-interest, well-written novel that keeps readers turning the pages. Like a lot of the best books, it's both very funny at times and heart-wrenchingly sad. It's a great class set novel for Years 8-9, raising a wealth of ethical questions about bullying and about social values. While it will be a success with any class, try it with one of those lower-stream classes where most kids don't really want to read: this will get them in. - HS
by Craig Silvey. Allen & Unwin 2010 (2009). ISBN 9781742372624. 394 pp.
What a glorious book this is – savage and thoughtful, funny and profound, it explores the lives and secrets of many people in the small mining town of Corrigan. I was riveted from Charlie and Jasper’s opening trek to the secret glade, where Laura Wishart is hanging, through to Jeffrey Lu’s triumphant cricket debut and the revelations about Laura’s death.
Jasper Jones is set in a small Australian town in the 60s. The Vietnam War is on, the draft is happening; racism and fear of the unknown permeate the town. Three ‘veg’ and meat are on the table, except at Charlie’s best friend Jeffrey’s place, where his mother cooks delicious Vietnamese food. Jeffery Lu is a remarkable creation – optimistic, ebullient and undefeated, even by the ignorant and bovine racism he encounters.
As an Indigenous boy, Jasper knows only too well that the police will regard him as the obvious suspect in Laura's death, and both Charlie and Jasper have little confidence in how the justice system would treat him.
Recommendation: Jasper Jones is one of the ‘must buy’ books for any English Department. It would make a great companion text to study in Year 10 with To Kill a Mockingbird. -DM
A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness. Walker Books, 2012 (2011). ISBN 9781406339345. 240 pp.
This is a very special – a book that will haunt you. Thirteen-year-old Conor is suffering a recurrent and terrifying nightmare, triggered by the fact – that he is attempting to deny – that his mother is dying. So when, just after midnight, Conor hears his name being called and finds that the yew tree from the graveyard on the hill has transformed into a huge and threatening monster at his bedroom window, Conor isn’t even frightened: this real-life monster is much easier to deal with than his nightmare. The monster is and does everything monsters are meant to do, roaring and threatening to eat Conor alive with its ‘raggedy teeth’, shattering glass and wood and brick, but Conor can cope with it. The dialogue between Conor and the monster is a joy. Over a series of nights, the monster tells Conor stories – stories that finally enable him to accept that his mother will die.
Ness’s beautifully written text is complemented by the evocative and scary black and white drawings. The story is totally absorbing and achingly sad, while at the same time providing that glow of satisfaction that a reader experiences when a story is perfectly told.
The origin of this book is equally sad. It was begun by Irish writer Siobhan Dowd, who died of cancer in her early forties. The publisher asked Patrick Ness, author of the brilliant Chaos Walking trilogy, if he could finish it. Ness makes it clear that he did not attempt to write the book that Dowd might have written; instead he used the ideas she had been developing to inspire his own story, which he dedicates to Siobhan.
Recommendation: I would love to read this aloud, over several lessons, to a class. Years 7 and 8 are the intended audience, although I think most classes would be mesmerised. It’s a great horror story. Kids love horror stories but really good horror is hard to find. But it’s also a powerful exploration of the pain of dealing with the death of a loved one. Make sure to leave time for some attention to the detail of Ness’s writing and his genius for finding the right word. The morning after that first encounter with the monster, Conor is getting his own breakfast, relieved that he doesn’t have to eat his mother’s health-food-shop cereal and bread: ‘It tasted as unhappy as it looked.’ This will become a classic. -HS
by Andy Mulligan. Definitions, 2014 (2010). ISBN 9781909531130. 224 pp.
This impressive novel is a perfect class set text for Years 7-9. Set in the Philippines, it is narrated by multiple voices, including those of three young boys who make a meagre living scavenging on a huge tip in Manila. The tip is their home as well as their workplace. One day one of the boys discovers a bag, containing an identity card, a key and some money. The money is very welcome, but it soon becomes clear that the bag is much more valuable than it appears, when hordes of police descend on the tip offering large rewards for its recovery. The bag holds a deadly secret and the boys’ decision to solve the mystery propels them into a very dangerous situation.
This is a breathtaking thriller with wonderfully appealing characters. The surprising ending is astonishingly right.
This will give students insight into the lives of the very poor in third-world countries and the impossibility of social justice in corrupt regimes. It will also give them an appreciation of the possibilities of multiple narration.
Recommendation: I would use this with a Year 8 class, but it will work with bright Year 7s and it would be a satisfying text for those Year 9 students who might not cope with something longer and more difficult. It is a fairly easy read. It begs to be accompanied by some research into the lives of children growing up in intense poverty. It also lends itself to an investigation of the consequences of stereotyping people: these kids have been labelled ‘trash’. This is an outstanding novel, ideal for use with the Australian curriculum. -HS
The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic
by Allan Wolf. Candlewick Press, 2013 (2011). ISBN 9780763663315. 480 pp.
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. [This review was written in 2012.]
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 nine 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.) -ET
We Were Liars
by E. Lockhart. Allen & Unwin, 2014. ISBN 9781760111069. 225 pp.
This is very contemporary, very compelling and rather uncomfortable reading. The setting is a private island just off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, summer playground of America's wealthy aristocracy. The Sinclair family who have owned the island for generations are the epitome of the beautiful people: 'The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive.'
And under no circumstances must anything threaten that beautiful image.
The family have built four substantial homes on the island - one for parents, Harris and Tipper, and one for each of their married (and divorced) daughters and their offspring. All family members spend every summer on the island. There are increasing tensions among the daughters, as it seems that their trust funds may be inadequate to maintain them in the manner to which they have become accustomed, but life on the island is paradise for the children: a group of littlies and the four older children - Cadence, Johnny, Mirren and the outsider, Gat. To the family, the four older children are known as the Liars.
Gat, the outsider, first came to the island when the Liars were all eight. He is the nephew of Ed, boyfriend of the divorced Carrie, and of Indian heritage - a striking contrast to 'our white, white family'. Of course they are all too well-bred to be racist, but Gat's otherness becomes a threat the summer they all turn fifteen, when it is obvious that Cadence - the eldest of the generation and presumably the heir - is falling in love with Gat. It is Gat who tells Cadence that to her grandfather, the patriarch, he is Heathcliff: 'There's nothing that Heathcliff can ever do to make these Earnshaws think he's good enough.'
Cadence is the narrator. Her narration opens a little before the year in which she will turn seventeen, and we learn everything in flashback. However, it is confusing flashback, as Cadence has had a terrible accident that has left her with selective amnesia. She has no memory of the accident and only flashes of memory of that fifteenth summer.
The novel is very tautly written. The reader is as eager as Cadence is to find out what it is she cannot remember. The truth, when it hits us, is deeply, distressingly shocking. This is a novel whose ending must never be revealed to anyone who has not yet read it.
As well as a structure that so cleverly conceals the truth - despite the fact that all the clues are there, if we hadn't been too blind to see them, there is much to admire about the writing. The first-person narration in Cadence's voice gives us an incisive look at the life of privilege and the thin veil of normality that must always be kept in place. Cadence describes emotional situations in extreme terms. She watches her father get into the Mercedes and drive away, out of her life and her mother's life, and she explains the pain like this:
Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down into a flower bed. Blood gushed automatically from my open wound,
then from my eyes,
It tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house, the bricks of the path, the steps to the porch. My heart spasmed among the peonies like a trout.
Mummy snapped. She said to get hold of myself.
Be normal, now, she said. Right now, she said.
Because you are. Because you can be.
Don't cause a scene, she told me. Breathe and sit up.
It's a technique that Lockhart uses frequently through the novel, especially when Cadence is describing the terrible migraines she suffers as she tries to remember.
The other narrative technique that Lockhart uses with great effect is the insertion throughout the narrative of versions of a fairy story about a rich and powerful king with three beautiful daughters.
Recommendation: This is a high-interest novel that will thoroughly engage readers in Years 9 - 10. Consider it too for less academic Year 11 students. Its only flaw as a class-set novel is that you will have to threaten your students with something very dire indeed if anyone discloses the ending before everyone has finished reading.
This would also be a great text for Area of Study: Discovery. Discovery is occurring on two levels: you have the process of Candace trying to remember, to overcome her selective amnesia. That is a process of the slow reveal, as piece by piece glimpses of that fifteenth summer on the island come back to her. But there is another process of discovery - that of the reader. We share in Candace's gradual revelation, but then there is the sudden, terrible shock of the truth. -HS