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New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults

I can’t believe it’s the 23rd of June already! How did that happen? Tonight the awards will be announced at a ceremony beginning in less than three hours from now! So I am quickly going to say what I have to say about each of the books I have read in the Young Adult and Junior Fiction sections, and then see how that pans out with the judges choices!
Results will be posted at this link, I am sure: FACEBOOK for NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Junior Fiction

Such a difficult category to pick a winner from, with each having their own strengths. Certainly the favourite with the students has been ‘Project Huia’ by Des Hunt. And it is a great adventure. My pick of the bunch?  This is a tough one, but I think it has to be ‘The Princess and the Foal’. The book captures a voice that feels unqiuely ‘Haya’s’ and tells a powerful story. Gregg’s knowledge of horses and descriptions lend an authenticity to the telling that sets it apart.

Dunger by Joy Cowley

This is an interesting one. Joy Cowley writes beautifully, as always. There is a retro feel to the book that is quite appealing to adults, I think, but is not really capturing my students yet. Several have finished it, but it has become one of the ‘in-demand’ books in the classroom. There are great relationships to explore between siblings, grandparents, parents and grandparents, children and parents, and children and their grandparents. It describes the Marlborough Sounds evocatively. I am just about to finish reading ‘Because of Winn-Dixie’ to the classes I teach, and will have a go at ‘Dunger’ next, to see if it fares better as a read-aloud.

Felix and the Red Rats by James Norcliffe

David’s great uncle Felix comes to stay, although David’s older siblings, Martha and gray, are not all that fussed. It seems that Great Uncle Felix is a bit weird. He is an author who wrote several books about a mysterious land called Axillaris, many years back. The main character in these books was called Felix. Gray and Martha can barely give him the time of day, ‘They each said ‘Hi’ to Uncle Felix, now on his second cup of coffee, but in a perfunctory way just this side of being rude, and left the living room as soon as they were able. I saw Mum and Dad exchange glances, and Dad’s lips were pursed in annoyance. Gray and Martha were able to turn unwelcome into such a fine art.’ During the telling of the story, David is also reading one of Uncle Felix’s books, Into Axillaris. However, things start to become very strange indeed. David has so many questions that he wants to ask Great-Uncle Felix, and the mysteries build and build. Again, this books has a ‘retro’ (for want of a better word) feel about it. The setting and language are modern, but the plot devices and events have a ‘times past’ ring to them, almost Narnian – but not at all Narnian:

Still in a daze, I followed Uncle Felix and Bella down the path. If anything, the fact that the cobblestones were so hard and very real made everything stranger, more unreal.

When we entered the terminus I looked around with wonder. The lttle red cable-car was polished and gleaming just as it had been in Into Axillaris; its little mullioned windows made it an interesting mix of technology and romance.

No sooner had we entered than a twerp hurried down the platform towards us.

He smiled amiably and, once he’d ascertained that Uncle Felix and Bella were indeed Uncle Felix and Bella, said, ‘The Princess is expecting you. Please follow me.’

I love the writing, but I struggle to see it connecting with a wide range of young readers.

A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

I enjoyed reading this story of a Polish family’s experience during World War 2. Author, Melinda Szymanik has based many of the events on experiences her father had, which lends the book an authenticity. It adds another persepective to what is becoming a huge literary genre, for children. Many of my students have been avid readers of books like ‘Number the Stars’ by Lois Lowry, ‘The Boy in Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne, ‘I am David’ by Anne Holm, ‘Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes’ by Eleanor Coerr, and of course the ‘Once’, ‘Then’, ‘Now’ and ‘After’ series by Morris Gleitzman. There are so many other great stories, too, each offering a slightly new perspective of events. In some ways, ‘A Winter’s Day’ made me think of ‘The Endless Steppe’ by Esther Hauzig.  I remember, vividly, reading this when I was much younger, and feeling the cold and the hunger, and the injustice of the tragedies. ‘A Winter’s Day’ is more approachable for younger readers, I think. For me, the book was a little uneven. I loved the first two thirds, and then, as refugee lives are wont to do, it started to feel a little bit like a list of place names. I have had several of my students read and positively review the book, passing it on to friends to read, with postive recommendations.

 

Project Huia by Des Hunt

‘It had suspense – it had the bad guys and the good guys trying to get the same thing, lots of action, it’s just an all round, great book,’ so says Hamish, a 12 year old boy of the good, keen man variety. Singlehandedly, he has persuaded many of the other students to pick up ‘Project Huia’ and other Des Hunt books to read. He has now read all the Des Hunt books we can find, and can talk about each almost evangalically! Thank you Des Hunt, because you have helped Hamish to discover reading. He has since read ‘Juggling with Mandarins’ and ‘Shooting the Moon’, by VM Jones, and loves them as well. Grandpop Jim and Logan investigate the mystery of what happened to the last huia, a now extinct New Zealand native bird.  Everything a young reader could want is in the story, with a jinx, motorbikes, bullies, crashes and a great ending. Another really positive grandparent/child relationship represented. Des Hunt really appears to understand what a young, particuarly boy, reader requires, and to deliver it with applomb.  Humour, real-life issues and realistic relationships and dialogue make his books very readable. I have had to buy three copies for my classroom, and I haven’t seen one sit on the shelf for more than a lesson.

The Princess and the Foal by Stacey Gregg

This book has a very distinctive cover, with its bright pink background, black silhouette of a girl and a horse, and sparkly (I think) stars. I have to try to remember, since I haven’t seen my copy for weeks now!  The girls from Y6 and up have been very much enjoying this unexepectedly good book. When I say unexepectedly, that may sound unfair, but I have never really been a reader of Stacey Gregg’s Pony Club Secrets books. I can give them out to girls who like horses, and those who like a positive tale of overcoming odds to compete successfully are various horse events.  ‘In floods of tears, Issie rounded the corner of Storm’s loose box. She slid the door open and then shut it again behind her and collapsed down into the straw on the floor at Storm’s feet, sobbing her heart out.’ (from Pony Club Secrets: Nightstorm and the Grand Slam).

But, in ‘The Princess and the Foal’ Gregg shows us that she can develop an altogether more sensitive, and elegantly told story of the relationship between a girl and her horse. ‘I am trembling as I write these words to you and I tell myself it is not fear, it is excitement. In all the history of the King’s Cup there has never been a girl rider. But I am not a girl. I am a Bedouin of the Hashemite clan and I was born to ride. Thousands of years ago the women of my tribe sat astride thier horses in battl and fought side by side with men. Well, I do not want to fight – all I want to do is win.’

The story is inspired by the early life of Her Royal Highness Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein and will provoke some thoughtful discussion about current events, as well as give a great read to any young girl who loves horses (and even those who don’t!) I guess my main quibble is that the cover is so emphatically girly – pink and horses. Really?!  However, it does attract them and is very sought after in the classroom. Yet another book I had to buy a kindle copy of so that I could refer to it!

Young Adult

Wow! What a variety in this section. I thought these books were all very exciting. I am completely torn bewteen ‘When We Wake’ by Karen Healey, and ‘Bugs’ by Whiti Hereaka. I found ‘Mortal Fire’ superbly constructed in terms of the settings and mechanisms of the magic, but the characters were difficult to engage with. ‘Bugs’ won me over immediately, when I read it. And I was inclined to think it would be a sure fire winner, until I read ‘When We Wake’. This specualtive fiction novel had me hooked. In the end, I think ‘When We Wake’ would be the student choice, but my favourite is still ‘Bugs’.

The Necklace of Souls by RL Stedman

When We Wake by Karen Healey

Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox

Bugs by Whiti Hereaka

Speed Freak by Fleur Beale

Can’t wait to see the winners tonight!

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New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards – 2014

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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!

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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!

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

Fortunately the Milk – Neil Gaiman

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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/

 

 

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NZ Rugby World – Issue 164 – Massive respect!

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I had an epiphany the other day. It all began when I was at the bookstore browsing and I caught sight of the lovely Richie McCaw – not in person unfortunately – but on the cover of NZ Rugby World. It reminded me that I hadn’t bought the younger son one of these in a while, and so I handed over nearly $10, thinking ‘oh well, at least he’ll read it’ and took it home.

The day passed, and, pretty much as normal, I hadn’t heard a lot from the younger son – 15 year olds prefer cave dwelling to hanging out with the mortifying fellow house mates called family. So, I went down to explain that it was time he got off the play station and got outside for a while – when I got to the whatever room it is since we’re not allowed to call it the play room anymore – braced for battle, I poked my head in the door, and saw him engrossed in the new magazine. Wouldn’t want to stop a boy reading now, would I? So I quietly snuck away to celebrate.

A while later I called the 15 yr old for lunch. No answer. Nothing unusual there, what was more unusual was that pretty soon he was trailing into the kitchen… reading…! I politely didn’t comment and we all sat down to eat. His father reminded him it was rude to read at the table, and the 15 yr old grunted and eventually put the magazine to one side. Open.

This is when the neurons started working in my brain – it can take me a while – and synapses were firing. I’d seen this behaviour before. Somewhere – but where. As lunch continued, I glanced out of the corner of my eye at the 15yr old.  Uh huh! There it was. He was discretely reading his magazine while he ate.

Lunch ended. And it was his older brother’s turn to load the dishwasher. The 15yr old headed straight to the pantry (it’s in their DNA even when they’ve just been fed) grabbed an apple and took off back to his cave.  Nothing unusual in that. Except it was all done with his head stuck in the magazine.  Occasional snorts also emanated.

Later, when more snacks were required, he emerged again. This time slightly more sociable. Still with magazine in hand. Now, though, he was in a lighter part of the reading, and laughing, and reading aloud bits to the rest of us – which I tried to understand, and see the point of, but mostly failed miserably.

Dinner time, and he emerges, looking a little more part of our world, but still holding the magazine. Closed. But there. Next to his dinner plate.  He kept glancing at it, and I could see he was thinking about what he had read, reflecting, remembering… After dinner the retreat to the cave.

I wandered down, curious. Surely he wasn’t still reading? Half hopeful I poked my head into the cave. No – the PlayStation was on. But, what was this, the boy sees me and speaks to me, pausing his game to do so.  The world is indeed a funny place today, I thought. I’m replaying the (who knows which) game, he told me. You know, the one where…(my mind goes fuzzy at this point)…I snuck out, leaving him to it.

My epiphany, when I finally got there in the middle of the night, was that I had seen his behaviour before. In me! When I am reading my favourite, or just about any good, books. I am so lost in their world, that everything else is sideline. I reluctantly put it aside for meals, I read parts aloud to the family (and they nod in the same half interested, mostly bemused way I had earlier in the day). I carry it round the house with me. I glance at the cover and rethink.  In my mind I rewrite parts of it.

I am subscribing to NZ Rugby World, and I can’t think why I haven’t before now. I know that it is reading he loves. I understand that it is worthwhile reading. It’s just that, in my heart, I guess I still wanted his reading to be more like my reading. Until this day, when I saw that it was his reading. And not bad reading either. There is some quality writing and reporting in this mag! Funny, intelligent, carefully composed, reflective and engaging writing. I think, once he’s read them, they might make their way into my classroom – except his favourites, which are stacked up on his bedside table…. hmmm – where have I seen that before?

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New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards – 2014

untitled (2)The New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards – 2014

Positives: Good to see Zac Harding on the panel – a real children’s book enthusiast and connected to the real target audience – children! Also good to see Ant Sang there. Graphic novels might gain some ground…

Negatives: How come there is still no Middle Grade category – picture book, junior fiction, young adult fiction and non-fiction. This really matters! This important age group, between 11ish and 14ish, are beginning to decide about themselves as readers. They have a very specific set of reading needs and parameters (usually set by the adults around them, because they are still young enough to have no power – see the great passion aroused by last year’s Young Adult winner – Into the River).

We know children often start to drop off their recreational reading at this age if they are not presented with great books that meet their needs as readers. Teachers, school librarians and parents need to feel as though they are not floundering around in a great unknown when they are trying to keep the reading flame alight!

Other countries have recognised this reading category as important, and having its own specific needs – isn’t it time we did?

Australian Children’s Book Awards

However:

‘John Beach, associate professor of literacy education at St. John’s University in New York, compared the books that adults choose for children with the books that children choose for themselves and found that in the past 30 years, there is only 5% overlap between the Children’s Choice Awards (International Reading Association) and the Notable Children’s Books list (American Library Association).’

Interesting…I would like to do some research, and see if that is the same here…

Back to the book awards: (For detailed information click here)

And the judges are…

  • Barbara Else – children’s author and former nominee
  • Ant Sang – cartoonist, graphic novelist and more…
  • Zac Harding – children’s librarian and mybestfriendsarebooks blogger

The timeline for the competition is something like this:

New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards finalists are announced on Tuesday 8 April 2014
The New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards national Festival of book-related events will run from 17 – 25 May 2014
New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards ceremony will be held in Auckland on Monday 23 June 2014

 

 

 

Don’t forget there is a Children’s Choice Award in each section as well.

What books do you think should be in the short list?

What do your kids think?

I am going to do some research and think about the books I think should be there, and ask some of my fellow Book Loving Kiwis at Goodreads. I’ll be interested to compare short lists on 8 April 2014! Help me out by commenting below…

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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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LIANZA Children’s Book Awards – 2013

Finalists were announced on May 24th.  Winners will be announced August 5th.

Awarded by Librarians for outstanding children’s literature in New Zealand, the LIANZA Awards are for excellence in Junior Fiction, young adult fiction, illustration, non-fiction and te reo Maori.

To read more about the LIANZA awards click here.

There are quite a few titles represented here, that were also nominees for the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards.

LIANZA Junior Fiction Award – Esther Glen Medal

The Queen and the Nobody Boy: A tale of Fontania, by Barbara Else (Gecko Press)

Drover’s Quest, by Susan Brocker (HarperCollins Publishers (NZ) LTD)

When Empire Calls, by Ken Catran, (Scholastic NZ Ltd)

Red Rocks, by Rachael King, (Random House New Zealand)

The ACB with Honora Lee, by Kate de Goldi (Random House New Zealand)

Lightning Strikes: The Slice, by Rose Quilter, (Walker Books Australia)

 

LIANZA Young Adult Fiction Award

My Brother’s War, by David Hill (Penguin NZ)

The Nature of Ash, by Mandy Hagar (Random House New Zealand)

Marked, by Denis Martin (Walker Books Australia)

Earth Dragon, Fire Hare, by Ken Catran (Harper Collins Publishers (NZ) Ltd)

Snakes and Ladders, by Mary-anne Scott (Scholastic NZ Ltd)

 

I am disappointed not to see ‘Reach’ by Hugh Brown on the YA list.  I thought this book was well deserving of its Best First Book Award at the NZ Post Children’s book awards, because it was courageous enough to be something quite different – no dystopia, no fantasy, no elite boarding schools or wars.  Well done, Mr Brown!

To be honest, I’m also a little surprised ‘Into the River’ is not here.  While I appreciate the controversy surrounding the book, the writing is of much better quality than many of the nominees in the YA category.

My mission now, is to go and read the books that I haven’t yet.  I will try to post reviews as soon as I can.

 

 

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Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Ready Player One

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

I have to admit that I would not have picked up this YA novel to read, optionally.  It was set as homework for me by one of my students, at school.  While I’m not sure I think it was, ‘completely fricking awesome,’ (Patrick Rothfuss) and I admit that I don’t know if it is ‘pure geek heaven,’  (Chris Farnsworth) or not, and I am usually suspicious of any novel that uses three pages to quote recommendations for the book in its beginning (less is more, in my opinion) I found this a very readable, engaging 4/5 star novel.

If you’re not drawn in by the futuristic real and virtual world (the teenager), then you are likely to be hooked in by the 80’s references (the parent).  Basically, the novel is set in 2044.  Things in the real world are pretty bad, what with there being no oil, weird climactic conditions, over population and terrible extremes of poverty and wealth.  Most people choose to spend most of their time in a virtual world called OASIS, developed by James Halliday.  When Halliday, who becomes super wealthy, dies, he has no heirs.  The book begins…

‘Everyone my age remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the contest.  I was sitting in my hideout watching cartoons when the news bulletin broke in on my video feed, announcing that James Halliday had died during the night.’

Of course, with no heirs, who will inherit the huge dynasty, virtual and real, that he has built?  Inevitably, he sets a challenge, a quest, ensuring the winner will be someone truly worthy of his fortune, and suitably qualified to manage his world.  The quest is presented through a video message, ‘actually a meticulously* constructed short film titled Anorak’s Invitation’ (Anorak being Halliday’s Avatar).  As an aside, I can’t help but think that Anorak is a slightly unfortunate name for a socially reclusive computer geek – worrying, even.  But this classic quest is worthy of a Greek Legend.

“before I died,” Anorak says, speaking in a much deeper voice, ‘I created my own Easter egg, and hid it somewhere inside my most popular videogame – the OASIS.  The first person to find my Easter egg will inherit my entire fortune.’

Another dramatic pause.

‘The Egg is well hidden.  I didn’t just leave it lying under a rock somewhere.  I suppose you could say it’s locked inside a safe that is buried in a secret room that lies hidden at the centre of a maze located somewhere” he reaches up to tap his right temple – ‘up here.’

‘But don’t worry.  I’ve left a few clues lying around to get everybody started. And here’s the first one.’  Anorak makes a grand gesture with his right hand, and three keys appear, spinning slowly in the air in front of him. They appear to be made of copper, jade, and clear crystal.  As the keys continue to spin, Anorak recites a piece of verse, and as he speaks each line, it appears briefly in flaming subtitles across the bottom of the screen:

Three hidden keys open three secret gates

Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits

And those with the skill to survive these straits

Will reach the end where the prize awaits.

Five years go by, and none are able to crack the bad poetry – I mean – super clever code!  Enter Wade Watts, poor orphan neglected by his evil stepmother – I mean – drug addled, mean-as aunt, having to make his own way in the world.  Wade Watts navigates the straits with the kind of light bulb moments his name suggests.  Talk about the anti-hero.  Wade Watts is an overweight, super geeky, social recluse who deals with his life by withdrawing almost permanently into the virtual world Halliday created, becoming a ‘gunter’ (geeky Easter egg hunter).  With all the time he has on his hands, Wade becomes an expert on the 1980’s and Halliday.

Miraculously (Yes – I do have a slightly raised eyebrow here):

‘on the evening of February 11, 2045, an avatar’s name appeared at the top of the Scoreboard, for the whole world to see.  After five long years, the Copper key had finally been found, by an eighteen-year-old kid living in a trailer park on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.

That kid was me.

Dozens of books, cartoons, movies, and miniseries have attempted to tell the story of everything that happened next, but every single one of them got it wrong.  So I want to set the record straight, once and for all.’

I’m no technology geek.  I have two teenage sons for that.  But, I was completely engrossed in most of this story.  The plot is complex.  I love a mystery – and the clues (if not the verse) got better.  It was possible to work things out – especially if you lived through the 1980’s.  I remember when the Commodore 64 was flash.  We had a machine we plugged into the TV and I remember coding in Basic for hours to watch dots move across the screen, using IF/THEN to make things a little more exciting.  So, this book was fun to read from that perspective.

But   it also has all of the necessary elements for any great quest – the under dog/pauper seeking a fortune and perchance a princess, the arch nemesis and his army (in the form of Sorrento and the Sixers), success, defeat, Monty Python, The Tempest, Castles, Sir Lancelot and more.  It’s almost as though the author wrote down everything he knew, and somehow incorporated it into the novel.  By the way – Ernest Cline – the name is a worthy pseudonym, and I suspect he is an avatar…really…an earnest geek, a cline… (a continuum with an infinite number of   gradations from one extreme to the other)…Visit his very cool website here:   http://www.ernestcline.com/blog/about/

There were moments when the plot had too many easy answers.  There were moments when it was just a bit too geeky for me.  There were moments when I was confused by the sheer amount of information I was given.  However, this really is a good book.  A serious 4/5 stars for me.  I recommend it.  Even if there are parts you read once over lightly – a bit like a technical manual, there are other moments you will connect with and take delight in.  You might even go and watch an 80’s film or two, and reminisce.

Age group: 13+ (complex)

* meticulous   may be a slightly over used adjective, in spirit if not in actual word, in this novel.

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NZ Post Children’s Book Awards – 2013

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Congratulations to all finalists and Prize Winners in this year’s NZ Post Children’s Book Awards.

There were some surprises in this year’s winners, and some books that I felt deserved more recognition than they got.  I am only commenting on the Junior Fiction and Young Adult Fiction categories, as these are the ones for which I have read all of the finalists.  For the results click here

My prize list would have looked something like this:

The book I enjoyed the most and would like to pick up again:

Reach – Hugh Brown.

The book that has been most read and passed around by children in my three English classes:

The ACB by Honora Lee – Kate de Goldi

and

Honours in this category to

Red Rocks – Rachael King

The book that had the most compelling narrative:

Into the River – Ted Dawe

The book that is well written and informative, with a fresh perspective, but is it really written for kids (it won Junior Fiction):

My Brother’s War – David Hill

NZ Post childrens book awards

Some thoughts I have about the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards.

* Are three judges enough? Many judging panels for book awards are larger.  Does five sound unreasonable?

* Should there be more judges who are in touch with what children are actually reading? (This year’s panel were a very fine team of pe0ple, with Bernard Beckett – high school teacher and writer of Young Adult novels; Eirlys Hunter – writer, writing tutor at Victoria University and in Wellington Schools, and Lynn Freeman – wonderful host of National Radio’s The Arts on Sunday – which is always worth a listen).  My quibble is not with them, but where are the representatives for younger readers, and particularly those at the challenging ‘tween’ stage (specifically, Year 8, 12 and 13yrs)?

* Do we need a category for Middle Readers?  Young Adult, as a category, seems to have evolved into a beast of its own, important, but not relevant to most teachers and librarians who will not be able to put the books on their shelves, or in their classrooms, because of the explicit content.  Middle readers are very different to Junior Readers, in that they are wanting to read dystopian fiction that challenges the status quo and explores the separation from families that begins to happen at this age.  But, they don’t particularly want or need the serious relationship, drug and alcohol, and other stuff explored in young adult books.

* What really makes a great book?  For example, in my classroom of late, a series that has caught the imagination of the children and has been devoured by most of them is, ‘Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading’, ‘Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Extra Credits’, and ‘Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Summer Vacation’.  I have waiting lists for these books – with boys names on them!  Lots of names.  They are humorous.  They are full of action.  They deal with real issues in a very matter of fact way.  They are getting kids who haven’t been readers enthusiastically recommmending them to their friends.  I know this doesn’t make them great books necessarily, but they are well-written and they have a witty, current voice.

* Have we done the war theme now?  I kid you not…go back through the last few years of the NZPCBA and you will find acres of material on the war (WW1, WW2 – mostly).  Let me illustrate (in case I exaggerate, and have to eat my words).

2013:  My Brother’s War category winner– (1914-1918 – conscientious objectors, and war), Earth Fire, Dragon Hare finalist (1948 – 1954 Malayan Emergency)

2012: Nice Day for a War Overall winner and category winner (WW1)

2011: Zero Hour: The Anzacs on the Western Front category winner (WW1)

2010: Dear Alice Category winner (WW2)

…You get the picture.  I admired Mandy Hagar’s ‘The Nature of Ash’ to some extent, and Jane Higgins’ ‘The Bridge’ very much, for being New Zealand stories that place themselves in possible futures.  I’d like to see a little more dystopian, speculative fiction out there and being taken seriously.  I think also of Joy Cowley’s ‘The Hunter’, which plays with time in a uniquely New Zealand way.   Let’s get some real variety into the book award finalists lists.  Where’s the humour and fun edginess of Melinda Szymanik’s ‘The Were-Nana’?  I ramble, but I’m looking for diversity here.  Other favourites from the past, for me, include ‘The 10pm Question’ – Kate de Goldi, and ‘Juggling with Mandarins’ – VM Jones.

Next year is the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of the 1914-1918 Great War.  I am sure that has not slipped the mind of publishers, and I’m guessing a flurry of ANZAC books, but we really do already have some great ones, and some not so great ones.  If there is a flurry, I do hope that quality wins through and we find some new narrative persectives (as David Hill did, this year).

The most important thing to me is that the books that win their categories, and the overall prize, are books that children and young adults will read, and that will encourage them to read more.  I am sure that this years ‘Into the River’ could have an audience in the 15+ age groups, and ‘Reach’ falls well into the YA category.  I also felt that ‘The ACB with Honora Lee’ and ‘Uncle Trev and his Whistling Bull’ are well pitched as Junior Fiction.  ‘My Brother’s War’ is an excellent book, which, in my opinion would be best represented by a Middle Years category.  Congratulations to all writers in this award.  It was a fine vintage!

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