Category Archives: Children 8+

Dunger – Joy Cowley

DungerDunger – Joy Cowley

At first I wasn’t quite sure, when I started reading Dunger. It is a story told in two voices. There is 11 year old Will, and there is his 14 year old sister, Melissa. Like any brother and sister worth their salt, they argue – a lot! Will is a bit of a brain, and enjoys using big words, whereas Melissa has three brain cells. One for fashion, one for boys and one for texting all of her friends who also have only three brain cells. Obviously this is Will’s perspective on the issue, and he doesn’t mince words:

‘The world is full of calamity: famines and wars, birds choking to death on oil spills, earthquakes, tsunamis, and Melissa – my disaster of a sister. Reading this, you’ll probably say, what’s wrong with this kid? Is he a bit paranoid? My response is that all tragedies are relative to their context and as far as domestic upheavals go, this one is about eight on the Richter scale.’

I’ve had to work hard to get my young Des Hunt fan to move beyond that, I can tell you. In fact, the first time I read it, I put the book down, poured myself a wine, and wondered what I should read next.

Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right place for a clever, challenging 11 year old demanding my attention…because it’s worth persisting. It really is. I think ‘Dunger’ could well be a great class read aloud, and I’m going to try it out. The writing is sensational because it has an ease to it, as well as a truth and simplicity. And there is plenty of room for fun with characterisations, if you’re going to read it aloud. I can’t help thinking that the grandparent characters are some of the best grandparents I’ve read: funny, grumpy, wise and a little bit dangerous and unpredictable.

Will and Melissa are slightly conned by their parents into staying with their grandparents at the bach. This is a real Kiwi bach, the like of which very few exist anymore. We’re talking no electricity, no shops, postal services twice a week, no cell phone reception and a long drop, complete with possums and spiders, out the back. They are two and a half hours away from the closest town.

The track takes us down to the edge of a bay that is half in sunlight and half in dark shadow. On the shadowed side there’s a stand of old macrocarpa trees. Grandpa pulls over and stops. Neither he nor Grandma says a word.

‘Are we here?’ I ask.

I already know it. Inside the circle of trees is a wooden hut with a brick chimney, a verandah, a water tank and a corrugated iron garage. The grass and scrub around them have grown almost as high as the hut’s windows.

This is the famous bach of my father’s childhood.

It’s a bit much for these two modern young things. But with good old hard work, no useless praise, bread baking, recipes that remind me of my mother’s (how much?  A slosh. What’s a slosh? You know, when it looks right. What does right look like?) fishing and swimming, they start to learn a few life lessons. And a more generational perspective of their family.

Grandpa says his grandfather was only the second man in town to own a car, a Buick, he says, shiny black with big running boards and velvet seats, really posh except that he was accustomed to his horse and cart. So when Grandpa’s grandfather drove to church with the family he forgot it was an automobile he was driving, and to stop it he called out, “Whoa! Whoa!” and pulled on the steering wheel. The Buick stopped alright, halfway through the wall of the shop next to the church.

“Does Dad know that story?” I ask.

“Yep, he’s heard it.”

”Why hasn’t he ever told it to us?”

“People remember what they need to remember,” says Grandpa, rubbing his chin exactly the way Dad does. “The rest slips through, which is just as well or our brains would self-destruct. Your Dad was always quiet. Me and your grandma wanted a whole heap of kids but we just got this one boy, kind of gentle, always thinking. Don’t know where he got that from.”

I’m about to agree with him but I’m not sure how he’ll take it, so I just nod. Besides, I wish he’d say more about the flattened grass that looks like newly cut hay.

Their grandparents are just as good at bickering as they are, which Will and Melissa find uncomfortable.

‘I never said there were sharks!” she glares at Grandpa. “He probably told you. Silly old fool, he’ll say anything for a laugh.”

“Be blowed if I did!” he said.

“Be blowed if you didn’t,” she replied.

He leaned over the table towards her. “Woman, you’ve got a tongue in you so long, the back doesn’t know what the front is up to.”

I look at Will who shuts his mouth tight, glaring at me to remind me that I’ve started one of their useless arguments.

And this is one of the real strengths of the book. One of the reasons it’s worth a read. However, rather suddenly, something happens which means everybody needs to work together to prevent disaster.

‘Dunger’ is a satisfying read. It’s impossible to read without bringing to mind ‘Bow Down Shadrach’, since there are elements that are very similar: Marlborough Sounds, parents glossing over truths, adventure and mayhem. My initial reaction was that I enjoyed ‘Bow Down Shadrach’ more, but ‘Dunger’ does have lovely moments, I suspect especially for the parents, or indeed grandparents, of the target readers. However, the subtle strength of this book is how enduringly it has stayed with me. The characters are vivid and real, and the Marlborough Sounds setting is so well drawn I feel as though I visited and remember the bach, rather than read about it. In the end, it doesn’t matter which is the better, since I think both are an important part of the New Zealand Children’s Literature landscape.

 

Read other reviews here:

The Book Bag

Bobs Books

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, Boys' Reading, Children 8+, Five stars, Joy Cowley, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Read Aloud

New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards – 2014

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And the nominations are…
Junior Fiction
* A Winter’s Day in 1939 – Melinda Szymanik (Already well read and loved in my classroom)
* Dunger – Joy Cowley (Doing the rounds at the moment)
* Felix and the Red Rats – James Norcliffe (Must get!)
* Project Huia – Des Hunt (Popular with the boys)
* The Princess and the Foal – Stacey Gregg (Well loved by more than just the horse book readers)

Young Adult Fiction
* A Necklace of Souls – Rachel L Stedman (Won the 2012 Tessa Duder Award for a work of fiction for Young Adults 13 and above)
* Bugs – Whiti Hereaka (Superb – have already reviewed)
* Mortal Fire – Elizabeth Knox
* Speed Freak – Fleur Beale (Consistent – Can see it in a Year 10 English Class replacing Slide the Corner – maybe)
* When We Wake – Karen Healey

Very exciting to finally have the short list and see that many of these books are already well known and loved. I am particularly pleased to see ‘A Winter’s Day in 1939’ by Melinda Szymnaik, and ‘Bugs’ by Whiti Hereaka, both of which I have really enjoyed.
I still have some reading to do, as I haven’t read ‘Felix and the Red Rats’ by James Norcliffe. Shame on me. But I have never been able to get ‘The Loblolly Boy’ or its sequel ‘The Loblolly Boy and the Sorcerer’ to take flight in the classroom. I will need to retry, perhaps.
This year, to try something a little different, I am going to try to post book reviews of the children who have read the books, as well as my own thoughts, before the Grand Announcement of the winners on Monday 23rd June.

I am slightly disappointed by the lack of male authors in the Young Adult Section, but as I think the judges have done a great job of selecting a range of fresh and interesting titles, as well as including some tried and true, I’ll suspend judgement on that for now.

Just for fun, I came back into my classroom this afternoon to see written on my whiteboard…
summons…lovely!
Good reading, everyone!

Leave a comment

Filed under Children 10+, Children 12+, Children 8+, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Uncategorized, Young Adult

Rooftoppers – Katherine Rundell

RooftoppersRooftoppers – Katherine Rundell.

On Monday one of my students came rushing up to me because she had finished the book she was reading and needed another one just as perfect. Scariest moment in the book recommendation game! This thirteen year old reader loves speculative fiction, and is very picky, in a good way. She’s a clever girl. ‘How about a differently perfect book?’ I ask with some trepidation.

Sometimes introducing new kinds of books to readers is like introducing new vegetables to babies and toddlers. You might be lucky, and they’ll view it suspiciously, but let you put the spoon in their mouth, taste it, widen their eyes, and open their mouths for more. Or they might spit it out, perfectly aiming for any new or white clothing, and never let that vegetable within high chair reach again. I’m a believer in persistence though. Let a little time pass and try again. And again. And again.

And so it is with this young reader. For the last year I have been working very hard to get her to try something new. Something with a texture that is a little different, with a flavour that is novel (I know, but an irresistible pun – right?), and most of all something that is nutritious. Because she is a clever girl, and she needs to digest a wider range of food groups in her reading.

I pull ‘Rooftoppers’ out of my back pack. I have the advantage here. All of the children want to read Mrs OW’s newest books. And this one is beautiful. It has a smoky cover with gorgeous silver embossed writing, a mysterious moonlit skyline of rooftops, and the silhouette of a character sitting on the rooftops, playing a cello. Everyone wants to hold it. Even a few of the boys are standing a row or two back, trying not to look too interested. I read the blurb, (something like) ‘On the morning of its first birthday, a baby is found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel.’ What’s a rooftopper? Why a cello case? What’s a cello? (sadly), are questions that are flying around the room.

After making a quick mental note that I must do something about their musical education, I pull the silver arrow out of my quiver, and draw the bow. ‘Listen to this…’

And I read the first few pages. Audible gasps echo around the room like Mexican waves as I read lines like, ‘Think of night-time with a speaking voice. Or think how moonlight might talk, or think of ink, if ink had vocal chords. Give those things a narrow aristocratic face with hooked eyebrows, and long arms and legs, and that is what the baby saw as she was lifted out of her cello case and up into safety.’

And chuckles ripple to, ‘The baby was almost certainly one year old. They knew this because of the red rosette pinned to her front, which read ‘1!’ ‘Or rather,’ said Charles Maxim, ‘the child is either one year old, or she has come first in a competition. I believe babies are rarely keen participants in competitive sport. Shall we therefore assume it is the former.’ Charles names the baby Sophie and takes her home, because she is his responsibility now.

Charles Maxim is a beautifully eccentric character, who is both entirely unconcerned about propriety and entirely determined to fight for what is proper. When the Child Services want to take Sophie into care, Charles reluctantly agrees to their visits:
‘Certainly, please do come,’ said Charles – and he added, as if he couldn’t stop himself, ‘if you feel you absolutely can’t stay away. I will endeavour to be grateful. But this child is my responsibility. Do you understand?’
‘But it’s a child! You are a man!’
‘Your powers of observation are formidable,’ said Charles. ‘You are a credit to your optician.’

These are lines worthy of Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde or Stephen Fry!
Before I have even finished reading this, the title of the book is on the whiteboard, and names have been listed underneath, of those who want to read the book. Bulls eye! But I have one more arrow quivering. My student is starting to look a little anxious that she may not have this book first, after all. Others are clamouring for it. They all have good reasons for why they should have it first. But I know this book is meant for her. Her name is Sophie. When I hand it to her she literally strokes it and clasps it to her chest. Others mutter, ‘well, at least she’s a fast reader.’

Katherine Rundell’s ‘Rooftoppers’ has been referred to as luminous, and extraordinary, and poetic. It has an ending controversial enough to argue over. It is not so perfect that you can’t disagree over what you like about it – some of it feels a little overworked, and some of it feels a little bit precious. But that’s good. It gives the book its character.

In the end, though, the truth is in the reading. The very next day Sophie brought ‘Rooftoppers’ back in to school, having finished it already. She wasn’t keen to let it go, but reluctantly handed it over to the next reader on the list, who has also already finished it and passed it on to the next. I had to buy a kindle version, so that I could write this review. But I would recommend the hard copy, hardcover for preference. It is a book you need to hold, to feel the heft of it.

Proper reviews of the book can be read here:
The Guardian Review 
The Goodreads Page 
The Book Monster’s Review
Enjoy!

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, Children 8+, Five stars, Uncategorized

Fortunately the Milk – Neil Gaiman

17758805

Fortunately the Milk – Neil Gaiman (Ridiculously bestselling author) and Chris Riddell (Illustrator)

Young Fiction, 7+ years, UK Author

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZFSbGY7L7g

This is a partnership made in heaven, I think. A little bit like Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake – quite a lot like that, in fact. There is an energy between the story and the drawings that means the sum is more than the parts. This book is a must have for every book shelf home and school – even if your kids are big (My 15 year old chuckled his way through it in one sitting). Or they’ve left home. Or they’re a cat and a dog. Or a goldfish. Anyone who’s been a child living with adults will enjoy this book.

I loved recognising Gaiman as Dad in the illustrations, and one of the things I liked about that was that it made the story even more believable – well – perhaps authentic is a better word…

Mum has to go to a conference, and Dad is left looking after the kids. Dad can be a bit distracted at times. We know this because a) Mum checks a list of instructions with him AND leaves them pinned to the fridge b) defrosting a frozen dinner ends up a bit of a mess and it’s Indian for dinner instead and c) well, we just know.  He’s the kind of Dad who can make a spoon sound new and exciting:

‘We can’t eat our cereal,’ said my sister sadly.

‘I don’t see why not,’ said my father. ‘We’ve got plenty of cereal. There’s Toastios and there’s muesli. We have bowls. We have spoons. Spoons are excellent. Sort of like forks, only not as stabby.’

‘No milk,’ I said.

‘No milk,’ said my sister.’

I’m not sure why, but as I read it, I heard Ardal O’Hanlon reading it – I’m pretty sure that’s the perfect voice for this book (although there is apparently a very good version of Neil Gaiman reading the book, which would be excellent, too.)  It’s a born read aloud for parents, or in the classroom – there is plenty of room to play with funny voices, ridiculous accents, spectacular pauses, and even the odd loud, scary noise.

The story is really a riff on why Dad took so long to get the milk from the corner shop, and it is story telling at its best. Most of us have someone in the family who spins a good yarn – kissed the blarney stone, so to speak.  And Dad really does tell a fantastic adventure involving flying saucers inhabited by globby snot green aliens, a professorial stegosaurus, several wumpires (or possibly vampires), and more…

Potentially a modern classic – buy or ‘borrow’ it now!

Click on the link below to see Neil Gaiman introduce the book, and watch Chris Riddell draw Professor Steg.

http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/fortunately-the-milk–9781408841761/

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Children 8+, Classics, Five stars, humour, Uncategorized

Journey to the River Sea – Eva Ibbotson

Journey to the River SeaJourney to the River Sea – Eva Ibbotson (2001)

I found this book because I was looking for something for my Year 7 classes to read that sat well with their Humanities topic, Source to Sea.  Last term their Humanities topic was Rainforests.  So, being about a girl who moves from London to the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil, this seemed to fit the bill quite well.  Sure, the main character’s a girl, but, oh well, if it turns out to be a bit girlie – the boys will just have to cope with it.  After all, they have read Boy Overboard and Kensuke’s Kingdom so far this year.  Both have boy protagonists.  So it’s time for the girls.

Mind you, the boys are not going to be impressed when they see the cover.  It’s apricot with two butterflies on it.  And it has a gold sticker, which means it’s won an award, which means it’s a ‘good’ book.  How many signs does a boy need?

And the first line’s not going to lug them in, either. ‘It was a good school, one of the best in London.’  Oh dear.  Not exactly, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’ is it?!  I know they are going to look at me with big eyes, thinking, ‘really, Mrs OW…’  They will howl, ‘It is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day!  We’re going to move to Timbuktu.’

And I will have to say, ‘Be still, wild things,’ just to mix up the picture book allusions a little, and convince them that even though this book is set (initially) in the Mayfair Academy for Young Ladies, in 1910 London, and even though the main character is a girl who is an orphan, whose best friend is called Hermione, who is about to meet her twin girl cousins Gwendolyn and Beatrice, they will love this book.  Even though she has a Governess.  Called Miss Minton.

I will have to remind them that they thought they were too big to enjoy ‘Eeyore’s Birthday,’ and yet when I read it to them they begged for more.  And when we were talking about The Indian in the Cupboard the other day, they suddenly realised that Omri was just like Eeyore putting the popped balloon into the empty honey jar, when he put his plastic Indian into the cupboard.

They will have to trust me, even though in their hearts they will be wondering why I am using their valuable reading time for this when they could be reading Percy Jackson, or Artemis Fowl, or for those boys who love realistic fiction, a good Des Hunt adventure!  But, like The Little Train That Could, I think I can, I think I can…

And I think I can because this is a wonderful book.  It is a real, not-old-fashioned adventure.  Maia turns out to be gutsy and intelligent, and Miss Minton, her governess does a nice turn in wryness and dryness, with enough sceptical tolerance of those too wealthy for their own good, to make her very likeable indeed.  Thank goodness there are some great boy characters in Clovis King and Finn Taverner, as well.

Essentially, the plot goes something like this (without too many spoilers, I hope).  Maia is at boarding school in London, but her guardian has been looking for family to take care of her, since her parents died in a train crash two years before.  Finally, he locates distant family living in Manaus, in the Brazilian Rainforest.  Maia is the kind of girl who tries to make the best of things, but is very human, too.  When she meets her governess and leaves school with her friends waving goodbye:

‘Doesn’t she look fierce?’ whispered Melanie.

‘Poor you,’ mumbled Hermione.

And indeed the tall, gaunt woman looked more like a rake or a nutcracker than a human being.

The door of the cab opened.  A hand in a black glove, bony and cold as a skeleton, was stretched out to help her in.  Maia took it and, followed by the shrieks of her schoolmates, they set off.

For the first part of the journey Maia kept her eyes on the side of the road.  Now that she was really leaving her friends it was hard to hold back her tears.

She had reached the gulping stage when she heard a loud snapping noise and turned her head.  Miss Minton had opened the metal clasp of her large black handbag and was handing her a clean handkerchief embroidered with the initial ‘A’.

‘Myself,’ said the governess in her deep, gruff voice, ‘I would think how lucky I was.  How fortunate.’

‘To go to the Amazon, you mean?’

‘To have so many friends who were sad to see me go.’

‘Didn’t you have friends who minded you leaving?’

Miss Minton’s lips twitched for a moment.

‘My sister’s budgerigar, perhaps.  If he had understood what was happening.  Which is extremely doubtful’

And so begins the peculiar friendship of Miss Minton and Maia.   We know they are like minded, because at the end of chapter one, when a porter goes to pick up Miss Minton’s trunk,

‘You’ll need two men for that,’ said the governess.

The porter look offended.  ‘Not me. I’m strong.’

But when he came to lift the trunk, he staggered.

‘Crikey, Ma’am, what have you got in there?’ he asked.

Miss Minton looked at him haughtily and did not answer.  Then she led Maia onto the platform where the train waited to take them to Liverpool and then the RMS Cardinal bound for Brazil.

They were steaming out of the station before Maia asked, ‘Was it books in the trunk?’

‘It was books,’ admitted Miss Minton.

And Maia said, ‘Good.’

The pacing is perfect.  We learn so much from what is not said.  Miss Minton is not your average governess and Maia is not your average Young Lady.

On the boat to Brazil, Maia makes friends with Clovis King, a young actor heartily homesick for London.  On arriving in Brazil she discovers that things are not quite as she had hoped they would be, and while not quite Cinderella, there is enough reference for even young children to see the twins as the ugly sisters.  But Maia is no Cinderella, waiting for a fairy godmother to fix everything for her.

Maia meets a mysterious young boy, when she is exploring the forest near her new home, and a wonderful adventure begins, with as many twists and turns as any good river may be expected to have.   As Books for Keeps says, ‘This is a thoroughly enjoyable yarn, veering between farce and tragedy, and peopled with highly quixotic but believable characters  It revels in the joy and the danger of exploration…Very highly recommended.’

And for someone who enjoys books to reference other literature, this one surely does.  Little Lord Fauntleroy is the play that Clovis is in.  Macbeth is also put on by the acting company on the boat, in another example of the pithy Miss Minton:

‘Mrs Goodley was Lady Macbeth of course and Maia thought she was very stirring, tottering about all over the place and muttering ‘Out damned spot’ with a terrible leer.  So she was rather hurt when Miss Minton, who had been reading, closed her book and got ready to go below.

‘Don’t you like Shakespeare?’ asked Maia.

Miss Minton gave her a look.  ‘I rank Shakespeare second only to God,’ she said. ‘Which is why I am going to my cabin.’

Later, when Maia is at her cousins, the Carters, there is a lovely scene where Mrs Carter, who loathes insects with a passion and a flit gun is chasing around in the early morning:

In the corridor, wearing a dressing gown and a turban to protect her hair, was Mrs Carter.  She had the flit gun in her hand and was carefully squirting every nook and cranny with insect killer.  Then she disappeared into the cloakroom, fetched a broom, and began to thump and bang on the ceiling to get rid of possible spiders.  Next came a bucket of disinfectant and a mop with which she squelched across the tiled floor – and all the time she muttered, ‘Out!’

It is hard not to remember Lady Macbeth, and particularly Mrs Goodley’s interpretation, and of course the foreshadowing of madness to come.

This book was second in running for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year (2001) and the Guardian Fiction Award (2001).  As judge Anne Fine says: But we all (the judges Anne Fine, Jacqueline Wilson and Philip Pullman) fell on Eva Ibbotson’s perfectly judged, brilliantly light to read, civilised Journey To The River Sea, in which we are shown how, as one of the characters reminds us, “Children must lead big lives… if it is in them to do so.” Oh, please let her write another book as fine as this, because, in any other year, we would have handed her the prize without a thought.

Read the Guardian article here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/oct/09/guardianchildrensfictionprize2001.awardsandprizes18

This is a book well worth a read by children and by their parents!

Leave a comment

Filed under Children 8+, Five stars, humour, Prize winners, Read Aloud

Boom! Mark Haddon

boom

boom! – Mark Haddon

This is a fun story by Mark Haddon, of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time fame.  Don’t expect anything like The Curious Incident, though, with this book.  Its target market is much more in the 8-12 year range.  Although, to be fair, there are several curious incidents, and some of them at night.

The origin of this book is explained by the author in an introduction to the book (which almost feels like an explanation for why the book came to be, an apology, maybe…)  ‘This book was first published in 1992 under the title Gridzbi Spudvetch! It was a ridiculous thing to call a book. No one knew how to pronounce it.  And no one knew what it meant until they’d read the story.  As a result only twenty-three people bought the book.  Actually, that’s an exaggeration, but not much.  It rapidly went out of print.’

Haddon was persuaded to update and rewrite ‘Gridzbi Spudvetch’, and the outcome is ‘boom!’.

I wish I could have read the first version.  It appears to have had a cult following I’m not sure its ‘slicker’ version will get.

I have talked before about how an author needs to ‘believe’ in what they are writing.  Okay – a big ask for Science Fiction maybe, but at least they should not be mocking it.  You get the feeling Haddon sees this book as a somewhat unruly child that he has a passing interest in, but could do without.

The book has a very teenage tone to it; it is an adolescent.  It has a confidence it hasn’t earned, an underlying ‘whatever’, and a slight impatience with having to tell the story.  It has a couple of pimples –undeveloped characters, and a thin plot.

BUT… it is a fun read.  Kids may well enjoy it for a quick read.  There are some great lines, and some quirky humour.  It would do no harm on the class library shelf.

Leave a comment

Filed under Children 8+, Read Aloud, Three stars

The Unforgotten Coat – Frank Cottrell Boyce

the unforgotten coatThe Unforgotten Coat – Frank Cottrell Boyce (2011)

  • Winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, 2012.
  • Shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Awards, 2011.

Short, short, short review: Odd, strangely compelling, mysterious, beautifully written, gorgeous production.  Absolutely worth a read for the story, the message and the images. 5/5 stars.

Longer review:

Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote this book in response to a true story from his first author visit to a primary school, Joan of Arc Primary, in Bootle, England.  He says:

‘The thing I remember most is meeting a girl called Misheel.  She was a refugee from Mongolia and she just lit up the room…Then one day the Immigration Authorities came and snatched her and her family in the middle of the night.  Misheel managed to get one phone call through to Sue Kendall before one of the officers grabbed her phone.  And of course she has not been seen since.  I don’t know much about immigration policy or the politics of our relationship with Mongolia.  Maybe there is some complicated reason why a depopulated and culturally deprived area like Bootle shouldn’t be allowed generous and brilliant visitors.  I do know that a country that authorises its functionaries to snatch children from their beds in the middle of the night can’t really be called civilized.’

He also wrote this book to support The Reader Organisation www.thereader.org.uk.  50 000 copies of this book were given away in the UK.  “It wasn’t a commercial book at all – it came from a very different place,” he said. “The Reader Organisation promotes reading to all kinds of different groups, from kids with difficulties to alcoholics, and they were looking for a book which would cross all the groups. They found it very difficult to find, so I wrote this as a gift.”  And what a gift it is.

I read and loved ‘Millions’, which won the Carnegie Medal in 2004.  Cottrell Boyce has a gift for telling a great story, and his children’s voices are utterly believable.  He does have seven children aged between 8 and 27, the youngest of whom are homeschooled, so I guess that there is plenty of opportunity for hearing the way children say things.

In ‘The Unforgotten Coat’ Julie tells the story of two Mongolian boys who arrived at her school rather mysteriously, when she was in Year Six.  Now working, she visits her old school, because it was about to be knocked down, ‘and there at the back of our old classroom was a big blue plastic tub with LOST PROPERTY written on it.  Mostly trainers and socks and a few books, a lockable Miffy diary, a couple of In the Night Garden lunchboxes. And the coat.

The unforgettable coat of Chingis Tuul.’

(The contents of the lost property box are so authentic, I wonder if the author went and inspected a real one!!)

Julie finds some pictures from an old polaroid camera in one of the pockets, and it brings back memories. ‘It was the second week of the summer term.  During morning break, Mimi spotted two kids – one big and one little, the big one holding the little one’s hand – staring through the railings of the playground.  The little one was wearing a furry hat and they had identical coats. Mad coats – long, like dressing gowns, with fur inside.  But any coat would have looked mad.  The sun was beating down.  The tarmac in the car park was melting. Everyone else was wearing T-shirts.’

The children go into class and the teacher, Mrs Spendlove, tries to get the little one to take his hat off.  Stig-like, the little brother does not speak. Chingis, the big one, does the talking to the teacher.

‘I take off his hat,’ he continued, ‘maybe he will go insane and kill everyone.’

He was definitely threatening her . Threatening all of us.  With his little brother.

‘Chingis…’

‘When you need your eagle to be calm, what do you do?’

‘I don’t know.’ She looked around the class.  Did anyone know?  Why would anyone know?’

‘Of course,’ he said, ‘You cover its eyes with a hood.  When you want the eagle to fly and kill, you take off the hood. My brother is my eagle.  With his hood on, he is calm enough. Without his hood, I don’t know what he will be like.’

Year Six.  We had been at school for six years and until that moment I thought I had probably learned all I would ever need to learn.  I knew how to work out the volume of a cube.  I knew who had painted the ‘Sunflowers’.  I could tell you the history of St Lucia. I knew about lines of Tudors and lines of symmetry and the importance of eating five portions of fruit a day. But in all that time, I had never had a single lesson in eagle-calming.  I had never even heard the subject mentioned.  I’d had no idea that a person might need eagle-calming skills.

And in that moment, I felt my own ignorance spread suddenly out behind me like a pair of wings, and every single thing I didn’t know was a feather on those wings.  I could feel them tugging at the air, restless to be airborne.’

The quality of writing is poetic, and entertaining.  I love the irony here, with what Julie thinks is important to know, and the discovery that other kinds of knowledge might be even more important.

Chingis is one smart cookie, serious and inscrutable.  He asks Julie to be their Good Guide, to help them make their way in this place.  Julie is completely caught up in his thrall.  They boys are exotic and mysterious and she wants to know more. She researches Mongolia and lobbies for the class assembly to be ‘All About Mongolia’, thinking Chingis might join in or even be pleased.  But he did nothing.  Later she realises that she had been wanting him to turn her into ‘some kind of Mongolian Princess but instead he was turning into a Scouser*.’ Julie is desperate to find their Xanadu, in Bootle. But, every time she comes up with a plan to find out more, Chingis neatly sidesteps.

He tells Julie and her mum that Nergui believes he is being chased by a demon.  ‘It’s in disguise. It looks like an ordinary man.’

Adults are beginning to get the idea.  Children may still be just enjoying the telling of the story.  But there is beginning to be a more foreboding tone to it – slightly less gentle.  But still humorous.

The production of this book is something beautiful, too.  It is printed on lined pages, as if it were the pages of a notebook.  There are Polaroid photos ‘stuck’ in the book, worthy of some time spent looking at them.  I can imagine some great photography club work coming out of them. The cover of the book is textured, like cloth, and the title is embossed (if that’s the right word), so there is a lovely feel to it.  I think that children of about 8-12yrs could manage to read this easily on their own, however, I do think they would benefit from reading with an adult.

Some reviews by children can be read here.

And some information about Frank Cottrell Boyce can be read here.

*Scouser – stereotypical inhabitant of Liverpool,

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Children 8+, Five stars, Prize winners, Read Aloud, Uncategorized