Category Archives: Read Aloud

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

 

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

Keeper – Mal Peet (2004)

Keeper Keeper – Mal Peet (2004)

Awards: Branford Boase (2004); German Youth Literature Award (2007).

 

I bought this book because I had recently heard Mal Peet and his wife, Elspeth Graham, interviewed on Saturday Mornings with Kim Hill, NZ National Radio: http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio/player/2558762

I remembered having read Tamar, his Carnegie Award winning book, and loving it.  I also have a young man in one of my English classes who is football/soccer mad.  He has finished reading the ‘Goal!’ series and I was looking for something that might capture his imagination (and have more to follow).  And the reality is that a lot of books that are specifically written for kids who love sports but don’t love reading, are of a pretty poor quality – which is frustrating.  I believe that to get children to love reading, they need to be exposed to quality writing.  Just like you can’t expect to get a beautiful sound out of a poor quality instrument, why would someone who only gets to read pedestrian writing learn to love reading!

This book certainly didn’t start out the way I had expected.  Faustino is a sports journalist interviewing El Gato, goalkeeper of the winning World Cup team.  This is to be a front page story, and Faustino knows exactly how he wants it to go.  He wants the story of El Gato’s journey from poverty to fame and fortune.  The only trouble is, El Gato doesn’t seem to want to play the game Faustino’s way.  He starts telling the story of how he came to be the one of a kind goal keeper, with seemingly superhuman powers, that he is, and it’s a story that’s hard to swallow.  It seems that this mythical goal keeper might not quite have a secure grip on reality.

I shared Faustino’s concern, initially.  I was completely taken by surprise.  I was sceptical.  I was anxious.  Faustino was worried about the sanity of his football hero.  I was worried about the credibility of this author.  Like Faustino, I decided to play along with the story – to hear El Gato out.  Certainly I was enjoying the language.  Mal Peet writes evocatively – he draws you right into a story:

Standing there, with its back to the trees, was a goal. A soccer goal. Two uprights and a crossbar. With a net. A net fixed up like the old-fashioned ones, pulled back and tied to two poles behind the goal. My brain stood still in my head. (Don’t you just love that image?  My brain stood still in my head…Wow!)  I could hear the thumping of my blood. I must have looked like an idiot, my eyes mad and staring, my mouth hanging open. Eventually I found the nerve to take a few steps toward this goal, this quite impossible goal. The woodwork was a silvery grey, and the grain of the wood was open and rough. Weathered, like the timber of old boats left for years on the beach. It shone slightly. The net had the same colour, like cobwebs, and thin green plant tendrils grew up the two poles that supported it.

It seemed to take an age, my whole life, to walk into that goalmouth. When I got there, I put out my hands and held the net. It was sound and strong, despite its great age. I was completely baffled and stood there, my fingers in the mesh of the net and my back to the clearing, trying, and failing, to make sense of all this.

Peet says that he has long since got tired of categorising by age or genre.  And this is apparent in ‘Keeper’.  There is enough about football in this book for any avid football fan to love.  But I don’t love football – at all.  And I really loved this book.  I highly recommend it.  Somehow, the weirdness works and becomes fantastically believable…Read Jan Mark’s review at the following link:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/nov/15/featuresreviews.guardianreview3

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Filed under Children 12+, Five stars, Prize winners, Read Aloud, Young Adult

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!

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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.

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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,

 

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

Chains – Laurie Halse Anderson

ChainsChains – Laurie Halse Anderson (2009).

National Book Award Nominee for Young People’s Literature (2008), Scott O’Dell Award (2009), Cybils Award for Middle Grade Fiction (2009), An ALA Notable Children’s Book for Older Readers (2009), Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award Nominee (2011) …more

South Carolina Book Award Nominee for Junior Book Award (2011), TAYSHAS High School Reading List (2010)

Laurie Halse Anderson is not a writer I had read before this book.  The book was recommended to me by a young reader in one of my English classes.  Since it was the 4th of July that day, and since I don’t know an awful lot about the Revolutionary War for American Independence, I thought I would give it a go.

‘Chains’ is the story of Isabel (13) and Ruth (5), slaves to Miss Mary Finch, 1776.  Isabel narrates the story, with an intelligent, observant and challenging voice.  At the beginning of the book we are at the funeral of Miss Mary Finch, with the Pastor and Mr Robert Finch, Mary’s nephew.

[Mr Robert] had showed up a few weeks earlier to visit Miss Mary Finch, his aunt and only living relation.  He looked around her tidy farm, listened to her ragged, wet cough, and moved in.  Miss Mary wasn’t even cold on her deathbed when he helped himself to the coins in her strongbox.

The first sense we get of the terrible lack of empowerment for slaves is when Isabel wants to run ahead of the coffin to visit the grave of her mother.  The Pastor has to ask for permission for her to do this, since Isabel does not even have the right to speak to a white man.

‘The child wants to run ahead,’ Pastor explained to him.  ‘She has kin buried there.  Do you give leave for a quick visit?’

Mr Robert’s mouth tightened like a rope pulled taut.

What an image – the rope – symbolic not just of the tethering of slave to the white man, but the implicit image of a man’s right to make a decision about a girl’s life, and, of course, hanging.  In just one line, the author demonstrates vividly the power the white man has and the threat of danger for Isabel, or any slave, in the smallest of actions.

At first, Isabel believes that she and Ruth are now freed.  After all, Miss Mary Finch had freed the girls in her will and the will was with her lawyer.  And again, here are some of the profound truths of slavery.  There are so many people in this book who are in a position to help Isabel, but they either can’t summon the energy, or are too afraid for their own position.  Here, Pastor Weeks, whom we should assume perhaps as a man of the cloth, is a good man, listens to Isabel, and initially tries to reason with Mr Robert.

Pastor Weeks held up his hand. ‘It’s true.  Your aunt had some odd notions.  She taught the child [to read] herself.  I disapproved, of course.  Only leads to trouble.’

I spoke up again. ‘We’re to be freed, sir.  The lawyer, Mr Cornell, he’ll tell you.  Ruth and me, we’re going to get work and a place of our own to sleep.’

Unfortunately for Isabel and Ruth, the lawyer left for Boston before the blockade.

‘The girl is lying, then,’ Mr Robert said. ‘She knows the lawyer is absent and her cause cannot be proved.  The sooner I’m rid of her, the better.’

…Pastor Weeks fumbled with the latch on his Bible.  ‘You and your sister belong to Mr Robert now.  he’ll be a good master to you.’…The minister placed the Bible in his leather satchel and pulled it up over his shoulder.  He studied the ground, his hands, Mr Robert’s horse and the clouds.  He did not look at me.  ‘You’ll be wanting to bring their shoes and blankets,’ he finally said. ‘They’ll fetch a better price that way.’

Essentially Ruth and Isabel are treated as possessions, and not even possessions of value.  They end up being bought by Mister and Missus Lockton, supporters of the King, and are taken to New York.  Mr Lockton is not as cruel and malicious towards the girls as Missus Lockton, but he is apathetic towards the girls’ care.  Missus Lockton addresses her lack of power and the cruel behaviour of her husband towards her in her treatment of the girls.

Several dreadful incidents occur.  Isabel decides that she needs to take action, and becomes a spy for the Patriots.  How dangerous this was cannot be underestimated.  And you really feel the danger in this book, illustrated through the writing:

I had only to open the gate latch and step out.

My hand would not move.

If I opened the gate I would be a criminal. Slaves were not allowed out after sunset without a pass from a master. Anyone who caught me could take me to the jail. If I opened the gate, a judge could order me flogged. If I opened the gate, there was no telling what punishment Madam would demand.

If I opened the gate, I might die of fright.

I leaned my head against the gate.  I could not open the gate, but I had to open the gate.

I learned a lot about the Revolutionary War and the treatment of slaves as I read, although, not being American, it could get confusing at times.  I suspect children reading this might need some background knowledge to help with their comprehension.

The quotes at the beginning of the chapters were interesting, and helped me to contextualise events a little, although I did still have to do a little bit of online research to get my head around some critical dates.

I highly recommend this book, although with some of the violent acts in it, I feel it needs to be read with a parent or teacher if the children are younger, providing opportunity to discuss the context of these actions, or children from about 10+yrs could read it independently.

There is a very good summary of the book, and the violent acts in it as the following link: Parental Book Reviews – Chains

Betsy Bird, of fuse8productions also reviews the book here.

Now, I am off to watch ‘Lincoln’ in the hope that it furthers my American History education somewhat.

 

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Filed under Children 10+, Five stars, Historical, Prize winners, Read Aloud

The One and Only Ivan – Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan – Katherine Applegate

Newbery Medal (2013), School Library Journal Best of Children’s Books (2012), Kirkus Reviews Best of Children’s Books (2012)

Hello

I am Ivan.  I am a gorilla.

It’s not as easy as it looks.

Ivan is a silverback, to be more specific.  His story is told in a series of short chapters, or maybe ‘concepts’ is a better description (Hello, Names, Patience, How I Look…and so on).   As the Awards list at the top of this review suggests, this is a critically acclaimed book.  More important to me is that it was referred to me by an 11yr old boy, who claims he does not like reading all that much*.  If he only reads books as good as this one, I’m a happy teacher!

The One and Only Ivan is told from the perspective of Ivan, the silverback Gorilla.  Ivan communicates to the reader through verse, which act as a sort of series of mind moments, in that each verse sentence presents an idea.  Because it is written in verse, the effect is as though each sentence is a complete thought that a flashlight is shone upon for a moment, so that we can see it.  They are visual, apparently simple, and yet they say so much more than what is said:

‘In my domain, I have a tyre swing, a baseball, a tiny plastic pool filled with dirty water, and even an old TV.

I have a stuffed toy gorilla too.  Julia, the daughter of the weary man who cleans the mall each night, gave it to me.

The gorilla has empty eyes and floppy limbs, but I sleep with it every night.  I call it Not-Tag.

Tag was my twin sister’s name.

Julia is ten years old. She has hair like black glass and a wide half-moon smile.  She and I have a lot in common.  We are both great apes, and we are both artists.’

The power of presenting each of these ideas in this way is that there is no judgement.  Ivan simply tells us his truths, and as the reader we draw our own conclusions.  You feel, as a reader, that there are acres of ideas between each statement.  The ideas need white space around them because the truths they tell are much bigger than the words used to tell them.

We also enjoy old western movies.  In a western, someone always says, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us, Sheriff.” In a western, you can tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and the good guys always win.

Bob says westerns are nothing like real life.

Ivan was captured as a baby and sold to Mack as a pet.  Mack tries to care for him, but in the end Mack’s wife leaves him and Ivan grows too big to be kept at home.

Mack grew sullen. I grew bigger.  I became what I was meant to be, too large for chairs, too strong for hugs, too big for human life.

So Mack moves him to a cage in a shopping mall. Ivan’s companions in the Mall are Bob, a dog of indeterminate heritage, and Stella, an elephant.  He also gets to know Julia and her dad, George who is the Mall caretaker.

When I saw my new domain, I was thrilled, and who wouldn’t have been? It had no furniture to break. No glasses to smash. No toilets to drop Mack’s keys into.

It even had a tyre swing.

I was relieved to have my own place.

Somehow, I didn’t realise I’d be here quite so long.

Unfortunately the animals are not pulling in the people as they used to.  Stella is unwell, with a bad foot, and Ivan is not a cute little gorilla anymore.  Mack brings in Ruby, a baby elephant that he bought from a circus. Ruby’s arrival and talk of her capture brings memories back to Ivan, and he realises, with Bob’s help, that he needs to be The One and Only Ivan, as he is billed, to make sure Ruby does not live the life that he and Stella have.

‘Ivan?’ Ruby says in a voice so low I can barely hear her.  ‘I have another question.’

I can tell from the sound of her voice that this will be a question I don’t want to answer.

Ruby taps her trunk against the rusty iron bars of her door. ‘Do you think,’ she asks, ‘that I’ll die in this domain someday, like Aunt Stella?’

Once again I consider lying, but when I look at Ruby, the half-formed words die in my throat. ‘Not if I can help it,’ I say instead.

I feel something tighten in my chest, something dark and hot. ‘And it’s not a domain,’ I add.

I pause, and then I say it. ‘It’s a cage.’

The writing in this book is superb.  Single words have a huge impact because of the space the author allows around them.  Look at the pause after ‘do you think’ created by putting ‘she asks’ there, instead of more conventionally at the end of the question.  Little repetitions, like the ‘it’ in the last sentence above, are subtle and clever.  They help the reader to linger on important ideas.  Not only does this book have a great plot, and an unusual perspective, but the writing is something to be savoured.

This is a good companion book to Half-Brother, by Kenneth Oppel (Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee (2012), YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults (2011), CLA Book of the Year for Children Award (2011)), in that both books – without being preachy – lead the reader into profound areas, questioning the way humans treat and use animals, including the primates most genetically close to us. Half-Brother is more appropriate for older readers, as the YA award would suggest, about 12+, I think.

‘The One and Only Ivan,’ is a great read-aloud for parents and teachers.  It introduces some very interesting ideas about ethics, and reminds us that no one is all good, or all bad.  There’s a lot in here about compassion and taking the time to really understand things from another perspective.  It’s also just a great story.

Most children from about 8+ would understand and get a lot from this story. Highly recommended.  5/5 stars.

*Kylene Beers, in talking about Middle Graders who don’t read, talks about aliteracy.  These are children who can read perfectly well, but choose not to.  We sometimes call them reluctant readers, which is probably not a fair term.  They’re not exactly reluctant, they’re just very discerning.  Beers prefers to call them ‘dormant readers’.  They have very clear ideas about how they want to spend their time.  As ‘Steve’ says, ‘I still like to read.  I just can’t find any good books anymore.’ (Beers, K.  2005. Choosing not to read: Understanding why some middle schoolers just say no.  Retrieved from: https://webfirst.uark.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Beers-Choosing-not-to-Read.pdf)

Cool little song, ‘Gotta Keep Reading’:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfB2ar-AH0Q

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