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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

Into the River – Ted Dawe – R14

Into the RiverM – Readers 15+, Classified R14

Winner Young Adult Category, and Overall Winner, NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, 2013

It is illegal for this book to be sold to children under 14 years of age.

This book is the prequel to Ted Dawe’s Thunder Road (2003), which won both the Young Adult and Best First Book awards in the 2004 NZ Children’s Book Awards.  Having read ‘Into the River’, I am very keen to read ‘Thunder Road’.  One of the things about a prequel is that it is always leading to a thoroughly told beginning, and so there is an inevitability to the story. Even though I haven’t read Thunder Road, I could really feel the inexorable drive of this story.  I think this is a real strength of the book.

Preview of Into the River

The story beings with young Te Arepa and his best friend Wiremu eeling.  This is beautifully written, with the friendship between Wiremu and Te Arepa having real legs.  The dialogue and interaction have a truth to them that draws the reader ‘Into the River’ with them, as they catch a monster eel:

He’s a monster!’

‘He’s the taniwha of the river!’

The eel made his leisurely way downstream, the hook projecting from the side of his mouth.  The boys trotted along, keeping pace.  After fifty metres, the river changed course and crossed a shallow ridge of river boulders.

‘We can get him when he crosses the rocks,’ yelled Wiremu.

As if it heard, the eel immediately made for the bank.  It nuzzled its way into the reeds immediately above the rapids.

Now’s our chance,’ said Te Arepa.  ‘We might be able to drag him over to the rocks.’

They let the line go slack and ran to where it was shallow enough to cross.  Once they were halfway across, they began to pull together.  At first it seemed pointless.  Nothing would shift this monster.  But then his head appeared and he made a dash straight past them over the rushing rocks.’

However, as the back of the book says:

‘Some rivers should not be swum in.  Some rivers hold secrets that can never be told.

When Te Arepa Santos is dragged into the river by a giant eel, something happens that will change the course of his whole life.  The boy who struggles to the bank is not the same one who plunged in, moments earlier.  He has brushed against the spirit world, and there is a price to be paid; an utu to be exacted.’

As you may have noticed, Te Arepa’s last name is Spanish.  The telling of the story of Diego, the ancestor who gave Te Arepa his last name, is a fantastically wrought tale told over three nights to Te Arepa and his younger sister Rawinia, by their grandfather, Ra.  All of this tale weaving lulls you into a false sense of security.  You feel, as a reader that, when Te Arepa is offered a place at an elite Auckland Boarding School for boys, he has the strength to cope and to hold on to who he is.

But it doesn’t quite work like that.

As Paikea drives him to Auckland in her courier van, Te Arepa becomes transfixed with her driving – the way that she seems at one with the vehicle.  He has his first lesson (despite being 13 years old).  At school, he is given a new name – Devon – and makes he friends with the worldly and world weary Steph, athlete and petrol-head Mitch, and farm boy Wingnut.  Progressively, Devon separates himself from everything that identifies him as Maori, because of the consistent and persistent bullying from the older boys and even the masters.  His first year at school reveals some cracks, but his second year is relentless.

While there may seem to be some similarities between ‘Snakes and Ladders’ (another NZ Post Children’s Book Awards nominee) and ‘Into the River’ (small town boy is moved to elite Auckland boarding school, where he needs to learn to deal with the super rich and the bullies, as well as the eccentricities of elite boarding school life) in reality, there are few.  This tale is an absorbing, relentless, addictive read.  The characters are well drawn and three dimensional  – although not always likeable.  There is an inevitability to the story that feels real, even though you don’t want it to be that way.

This book is definitely 14+ in my view, as sex, drugs, alcohol etc feature relatively prominently – but not gratuitously (at least most of the time…it does occasionally slip into 14yr old fantasyland…IMO)  Recommended.  4/5 stars.

Read more about Ted Dawe here:

Ted Dawe

Read another review of Into the River here:

Bobs Books Blog

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Filed under Four stars, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Ted Dawe, YA 14+

My Brother’s War – David Hill

Dulce et decorum est

‘This item is from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © [Copyright notice]’.

    My brother's War

So, I finished on Anzac Day, which seemed appropriate – and here are my thoughts.

I did really like this book.  Quite a lot. If I could give a 4.5…..

This book is an amazing journey.  Set in New Zealand, in 1917, it is the story of two brothers, and the choices they make once the  1916 Conscription Law is passed.  Older brother, William, enlists and younger brother, Edmund, is a conscientious objector.  (After two years of having their young men go to war, never to return, there were plentiful objectors to conscription, as can be seen in this  Te Ara photo and article ) Because of their disagreement, the two brothers have not spoken for over a year.

William is treated as a hero by many of the townsfolk, and Edmund as a coward – although there are people along the way who quietly sympathise with his view and support him.  Their mother and sister, left at home, have to cope with this view of the boys, and there are a few allusions to how difficult this could be, at times.

There are seven sections to the book: At First, Before Sailing, On Ship, Getting Ready, The Trenches, First Attack, Second Attack.  The boys’ parallel journeys are told in each section both with an authorial bird’s eye view from each character, and through letters from Edmund and William, home.

Something I really did like about the book was the length of time it took for the characters to begin to question their views about wars and the army.  There’s no sudden revelation, and in the end there is not one right view.

In the trenches, Edmund has been refusing to obey any army commands.  The trouble is, it is hard to decide what is a command and what is humanity and compassion.  Edmund, unlike Archie, decides that he will choose to be humane and help the stretcher bearers bring in the wounded from No Man’s Land.   One of the men asks Edmund which ‘lot’ he is with:

Edmund shook his head. “I’m a conscientious objector.  The army put this uniform on me.” The soldier who’d offered him the cigarette glared. “So why are you doing this, if you’ve got such high and might ideas about war?”

“My ideas aren’t high and mighty,” Edmund told him. “They’re just mine. And I’m doing this to try and save lives, instead of destroying them.” The man who’d challenged him was silent. 

What a time to be having a discussion like this, Edmund thought.  He almost laughed, and felt a shudder run through his aching body.  He was close to breaking point.  he and most of the others around him.  How much more of this could a human being stand?

The descriptions of the trenches and life in the army for both William and Edmund are heartbreakingly realistic.  Anyone who has read Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks – will understand the true horror of the Battle of the Somme.  And, of course it brought to mind ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ – Wilfred Owen.

David Hill says he was inspired to write this book after reading ‘We Will Not Cease’ – Archibald Baxter.  I feel the need to go and read that now.

This book will provoke some intense discussion in classrooms, no doubt, alongside the opportunity to really do some research into those who went to war, or those who stayed behind, using primary source and secondary source material.  I know it will enhance the understanding of ANZAC day for many of the people who read it, as well as encouraging some critical and reflective thinking about war.

anzac poppies

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Filed under Children 10+, Children 12+, Four stars, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Uncategorized

The Nature of Ash – Mandy Hagar

The Nature of Ash

Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask/your heart what it doth know. Measure for Measure – William Shakespeare. (Epigraph to ‘The Nature of Ash’)

‘It’s so bloody unfair.  If those sabre-rattling douches shut the country down, we’ll be sent home.  And once you drop out of uni, it’s damn near impossible to get back in. So much for my grand plans of doing good: there’s no way I can be a speech and language specialist if I don’t complete the full three years.  With nearly half the working population unemployed already, and all the decent jobs reserved for those who have the right contacts – the stinking rich – chances are we’ll end up slaving in some sweat shop – or, worse, signed up against our wills to fight another no-win war.  But, worst of all, back to a life as boring and predictable – and hard – as it was before.’

This is ‘the nature of Ash’ at the beginning of this action-packed, dystopian, political thriller.  As well as representing the journey of Ash from self-absorbed teenager, revelling in the boozed life of a uni hostel, to Ash – political activist, hero and provider for all – (hmmm…) the title is resonant, because ‘ash’ brings to mind so many literary allusions that is has real depth as a metaphor.

This novel is set in an unspecified future in Wellington and Whanganui.  While we are not ever directly told it is the future, we make that assumption because of the referral to relatively new buildings (Te Papa and the Cake Tin – Westpac Stadium Wellington) as being the ‘old’ museum and the ‘old’ stadium.  Kowhai Park in Whanganui is, sadly, a wreck as well.  The political world is a mess, with an evil Bill Chambers as Prime Minister, and the Western Alliance – aka WA (USA, UK, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysian Federation, Republic of Indonesia, Peru) and the United People’s Republic – aka UPR (China, East Russia, United Korea, Japan, Republic of Indochina, Fiji and Chile) being the big boys that little New Zealand is squeezed between.   There are also State-siders – citizens of the USA.  The only State-siders  referenced in the book are evil manipulators of Muru – an activist group that has been taken over by WA secret service agents (aforementioned state-siders) for their own wicked purposes.

These acronyms dehumanise those involved to the extent that they become paper-thin manipulators and manipulated, according to the needs of the plot.  Shaun McCarthy, of the CTU (Combined Trade Union) is the face of the good guys – and the book is littered with his pithy aphorisms, reminding us of exactly what a good guy he was – Freedom has a very thin veneer if you look too closely.  He is Ashley’s dad, and is killed in a bombing of CTU headquarters at the beginning of the story – but who did the bombing – and who did the manipulating become the question.

New Zealand is effectively in a state of war.  Ash has to get his younger brother Mikey, who has Down Syndrome, to a safe place, and along the way collects together a somewhat eccentric band of followers.  There is Jiao, a Chinese student whom he is initially suspicious of, since he assumes her allegiance to the UPR.

‘How the hell can they get away with this?  It’s an outright act of war.’

‘They?’ Jiao’s eyebrow lifts.

‘Come on.  Even you must see that it’s the UPR.’

She tucks the collar of Dad’s dressing gown under her chin. ‘Jumping to conclusions never helps.’

‘Conclusions?’ I bark it out before I can switch down my volume.  ‘It’s pretty bloody obvious.  They’ve been screwing with our politics for years.’

As you and every country in the Western Alliance have screwed with theirs.’

However, Ash develops trust for Jiao as he sees Mikey’s devotion to her.  And there is Travis – alcoholic and would be drama student, son of Police Officer, Jeannie Smith, who takes an initially unfathomable maternal role in the story.  And Erich, neurosurgeon turned ‘green’, and (handily) benefactor and Lucinda Lasch, dad’s lawyer, who to Ash’s surprise and admiration – Fuck me, she really is a porn star! All she needs is fishnets and a whip, was possibly his father’s girlfriend as well.  Ash is very hormonally driven – although maybe this was a little over done.  Having said that, it wasn’t unbelievable, just tiresome.

The story moves along at a cracking pace.  There is always another twist to the plot, another character flaw or strength to be revealed and another of Dad’s pithy aphorisms ‘Note to self: Dad was right. Irony is just hypocrisy with style.’  Certainly Ash is a well drawn character, and this story is exactly as self-absorbed and black and white as his character should be.  And I think that this is appropriate.  Very few of the other characters in this story are really fleshed out to any degree at all, except with their relevance to Ash, although there are a few attempts, ‘Note to self: nobody is as straightforward as they first seem – even pissheads (and big busted girls originally from the UPR)’.

There are some real strengths to this book – the plot is complex and relatively unpredictable.  There are no zombies or vampires – which is a relief.  Ash is a believable character, in many ways.  I can  see it appealing to a wide readership.  The political stance and eco-politics asks readers to reflect on how our society could end up, if we are not vigilant and thoughtful.

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

(Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare).

It is certainly no hardship to read.  I read it in two sittings, in under a day.  I found myself comparing it to other titles – for example, Tomorrow When the War Began.  I vastly prefer Ellie to Ash as a character, but as I reflected on the similarities and differences between the two, I realised that The Nature of Ash doesn’t brush over the politics, the politics drive the book, possibly to the detriment of character.  It kind of makes Tomorrow, When the War Began feel a little lightweight in comparison.  It is good to have provocative literature.  There were strongly  espoused beliefs in here that could do with exploration.  This should bring about many a lively discussion – I really hope so.  I give this about 4/5 stars, because there is so much that is worthwhile in it.  I see it as best suited to readers of 13+.

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Filed under Children 12+, Five stars, Four stars, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, YA 14+

The ACB with Honora Lee – Kate De Goldi and Gregory O’Brien

The ACB with Honora Lee

A while ago now, I was driving home when I noticed an elderly man leaning against a sign post, not too far from my house.  He looked a little confused, and so I went to see what was going on.  It turned out that he had gone for a walk, he wasn’t quite sure when and he wasn’t quite sure where to.  He knew his wife would be missing him, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember his address.  I took him in, gave him a cup of tea and searched the phone book.  There was no phone number listed under his name so I ended up having to ring the police.  They found that he had gone missing from a local rest home.  His wife had died the year before.  The police asked if I would mind having him there until someone from the rest home came to pick him up.  We had a delightful conversation, especially when he saw my husband’s collection of very old matchbox cars.  He told me about how he used to race motorbikes on the same beach as Burt Munro, of the World’s Fastest Indian, in Invercargill.  He told me about how as kids, they would go and watch him but he was a ‘grumpy old buggar’ so they never really got to talk to him.  Eventually, someone from the rest home arrived.  The gentleman graciously thanked me for his ‘cuppa’, and left as though he was about to step into a limousine, until the care worker started to growl at him for escaping – telling him what a naughty boy he was, and he wasn’t to do it again.  I could have cried, as what had been a beautiful smile turned into confusion, concern and then sadness.  Heart breaking.  My son asked why she bothered growling…it seemed obvious to us that he wasn’t going to remember.  Why couldn’t he have just had a lovely afternoon out?  My son later asked if I thought he really had been on the beach with Burt Monro?  Who knows…

The ACB with Honora Lee is a beautifully told tale of Perry, a somewhat unconventional 9 year old girl, with an ‘eccentric sense of rhythm’ according to her Music and Movement tutor.  She attends the Ernle Clark School because, ‘her parents said that was the best place for someone like her.’

What was someone like her like? Perry often wondered.  But she said, ‘Why? Why? Why? Why is it the best school?’

‘Because,’ said her mother. ‘Be…Cos…’ She was driving the car, she couldn’t think at the same time. She had to wait for the lights to turn red. ‘Because it asks a lot of you.’

Actually, at school, it was Perry who asked a lot, though some of the teachers wished she would not.  The Special Assistance teacher, Mrs Sonne, said it would be much better for everyone if Perry tried to listen.

Perry’s mother also believes that children should be kept busy, so there are daily after school activities, except for Friday’s with Nina and Claude – Nina is her nanny and Claude is Nina’s two year old son, ‘Claude followed Perry all around the house.  He liked everything Perry did but he especially enjoyed her making violent hunting noises on the clarinet or playing Black Magic on the piano.  Black Magic was Perry’s best piece.  She had composed it herself. ‘On Saturdays, Perry and her father visit Honora Lee, ‘So far, all Perry knew about Gran was her name – Honora Lee – and her age – seventy six years old – and that she didn’t have a husband or much memory any more, which is why she lived at Santa Lucia and could never get Perry’s father’s name right.’

Only, suddenly Perry’s Thursday after school activity becomes unavailable when the tutor puts her back out and needs time to think about her options.  Despite Perry’s mother’s best intentions, no other Thursday afternoon activities are available.  Perry suggests she should visit Honora Lee. And so she does, with lovely baking from Nina each week (What is it with baking and the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards this year?? She even took Ginger Crunch – my favourite.  I’m beginning to wonder if there is an ironic wink being given to the Edmonds Cookbook being the only NZ book on the Whitcoulls Top 50 list…hmmm…)

On her walk to Santa Lucia each week she notices dead and dying bumble bees.  They are a mystery, and she begins to collect them.  Gran doesn’t ever recognise Perry, of course.  But Perry never lets that get her down.  She looks for the bits in Gran that make sense, and meets her halfway.

‘Gran stopped whistling for a moment and squinted at Perry.

“What is your name?”

“Perry,” said Perry, Very Patiently. “P is for Perry.  And don’t say it’s a boy’s name.”

Gran began whistling again.  It wasn’t really a tune.  It was more like a breathy birdcall.

“You have a most eccentric sense of melody,” said Perry.

That was when Gran had laughed, a sudden rat-a-tat, like gunshots on the tv.’

Gran used to be a teacher, and she loves teaching and organising.  So Perry begins to make an ABC book, using the people and ideas from Santa Lucia.

out of order

On the way home Perry told Nina and Claude about the first day of ABC.

‘It’s not really ABC,’ she said. ‘It’s ADV, so far.  Gran does it out of order.’

The book is broken into sections, using headings that can seem quite random, but always make beautiful sense by the end of the section.  Also, scattered throughout are Gregory O’Brien’s gorgeous illustrations that are quirky enough to seem just exactly right, with letters and words roaming the page seemingly at will, and dead and dying bumble bees randomly littering the pages.

The ACB is a quick read, but it could stand many readings.  I’m not sure whether it is a children’s book, though.  Although I am sure that there are children who would love the gently paced story of Perry collecting her ACB.  However, this is a story about identity and relationships.  I think it is a book I would give to adults.

Read this article from The New Zealand Herald, where Kate De Goldi talks about her inspiration for The ACB with Honora Lee.

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Filed under Children 8+, Five stars, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer

Reach – Hugh Brown

Reach

Firstly, I would like to say that there is not ‘a way that teenagers talk to each other’, as some reviewers have commented.  I have heard a few that actually sound quite literate – so, for me, the teenage conversation was fine.  (Perhaps I could read it as a translation of what they actually said!) The thing I found most surreal about this book was that there was not a cellphone, facebook page or electronic device involved.  Technologically speaking, this book was set in the 70’s. Evocatively.  And I liked that.

Will is a Year 12 boy who lives with his grandparents since his mother left to join a commune 5 years ago.  His father, Bill, (and yes that can get a bit confusing) parents a bit like a hawk – Will says, ‘Dad’s like that – circles around in the hills by himself most of the time, then every now and then he lands nearby, stares at you, silent and fierce, then he’s up and gone again.’  Will sees himself as a nerdy bookworm, and this is further verified when Woody (a rugby player of course) starts to bully Will at school.  At about the same time, Will meets Conway, a new girl at school, and the daughter of a Guidance Counsellor that he has a bit of an unfortunate conversation with when she queries his lateness to school each day.  In typical teenage fashion he decides to play with her a little, because he can, without further thought to how the mother of a girl he likes might interpret what he says.  Also, Will’s mother is now back in the country, and Will, having idealised her to bits, wants to visit her, feeling that she would understand him better than anyone, and help to put things right.  (We all know how that’s going to turn out, right?)  Conway appears to show interest in Will, and then backs off (mysteriously to Will, but obvious to the reader), Will learns martial arts and then one day Woody turns up…and – you get the picture.

This book is not about the plot.  It’s about the telling of the story. It celebrates language and plays with it all the time. Perky, Will’s best friend, speaks like a thesaurus, ‘A miniscule sun, a tiny luteous orb’ is how he describes a ball of earwax plucked from his ear.  When he flicks the wax, it lands on the board between red and wheelbarrow – William Carlos Williams.  Perky is quirky – no doubt about that, but as he says himself, it’s a pose – a defence mechanism, ‘Don’t worry, the dean’s very nice.  We’re great friends, though of course she is somewhat concerned about my extreme attention-seeking behaviour.  But hell, people who live in glasshouses shouldn’t shoot skeet.’

Young Will is inclined to a bit of verbal virtuosity himself, for example, when milking Hex, the cow (an hilarious scene), sounding almost Shakespearean, ‘set your foot, a hex on you, set your foot, poxy cow,’ he crooned.  In maths, a parabola turns into a poem

Why
equals rain, squared
plus sun? Cloud mountains
roil and mound.
Why equals
rai…

This book is such an interesting mix of ideas that every time I think about it, something else comes to mind.  Of course it brings to mind Atwood’s ‘The Blind Assassin’, having a novel within a novel, but also, ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’, with the dystopian, repressive society represented in Will’s journal.  Narcissus, from Greek mythology who turns into a daffodil, staring into the beautiful reflection of himself in the pond, is the tongue-in-cheek way Brown shows Will’s self-absorbed mother.  In a more ‘boy’ way, though, how can we not think of the Marvel comics – Clark Kent being brought up in the country, on a farm, with his ‘grandparents’.  It’s interesting that it is Conway, a girl, who is obsessed with the graphic novels – most books would have the boys reading the graphic novels and the girls being the book worms. But then Conway is an artist.  At times, Conway is drawn as a character from a graphic novel – when she mimics the finch-like behaviour of her mother, ‘she pursed her lips, put her head on one side and made her eyes round and glassy’ makes her sound more like a Manga than a person, or a finch!

Maybe this is a new form of fantasy writing – set in the here and now – but in a parallel universe where we still drive Valiants and Vdubs, listen to Elvis and have grandmothers who bake endless delectable delights – some of which I haven’t tasted for years.  Reading this nearly made me run for my other great Kiwi classic – the Edmonds Cookbook – to bake an Albert cake – whatever that is…and some ginger crunch (not mentioned in this book, but the best thing my mum used to bake on Saturday mornings, while Dad and my older brother were mowing the lawns.)  And this book does evoke that time.

Is it too removed from reality – I’m not sure.  After all, as this book points out in so many different ways, what is reality?  Is it what we experience, is it what people experience of us, is it the reality we build to protect ourselves, is it the reality that dawns on us piece by piece as we put the bits of the puzzle together.  This book is perhaps a meditation on life, ‘the point of meditation isn’t to get to a place where you have no thoughts, but where you aren’t involved in them.  Where you’re separate, able to observe them, or not, at your leisure.’

This book has been shortlisted for the Young Adult Section of this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, and also won the inaugural Tessa Duder  Award for Young Adult Fiction.

I’m off to offer it as a possibility to my RR, without telling him any of this, of course.  I’m pretty sure he’ll just enjoy the story.

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Filed under Children 12+, Five stars, humour, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Prize winners