Tag Archives: humour

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

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

Dead End in Norvelt – Jack Gantos

13541514Dead End in Norvelt – Jack Gantos

Winner of the Newbery Medal 2012, Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2011.

Middle Grade – Readers 10 – 13+

When Jack Gantos was seven, his favourite game was to pretend he was on fire and roll down a hill to put the flames out – and that explains a lot, really. There’s not a lot of time to reflect, in his novels. Usually, you’re on fire and rolling down the hill before you’ve really decided whether or not you’re going to play the game. Things happen at break neck speed, with the odd pause to get yourself back up to the top of the hill, ready to roll for your life again. (This game, by the way, never seems to wear out. I watched a group of 8 year olds playing it the other day. Do you remember the sheer pleasure of seeing how fast you could roll, how many kids you could bump into on the way, and the smell of the grass – especially if it was damp and had just been cut.)

This novel has more than an element of the ‘do you remember’ about it. It is nostalgic for  1962, small town, America. Norvelt has a special history in that it was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt (hence Norvelt) for families who were struggling financially. To be honest, at times it does feel a little self-conscious about ensuring you know when it is set – for example, ‘It was a good thing John Glenn had orbited the earth back in February.’ And, of course, JFK is still alive. But it does well to introduce a version of the early 1960’s small town America to today’s young readers. ‘My uncle who had painted the pony claimed he had seen a UFO come down over that very same hill before the drive-in was built. He was in the newspaper and said he had ‘touched’ the UFO and that it was ‘covered in a strange Martian language that looked like chicken feet.’ My dad called my uncle a nut, but it wasn’t so nutty when the army sent troops and a big truck to take the mysterious UFO away and afterward military police went door-to-door to all the little towns around here, warning people not to talk about ‘the fallen object’ with any strangers as they might be Russian spies.’ Without going into the politics in depth, the reader gets a sense of the cold war, space as the next frontier, and a more censored world, possible in a less technological era.

It is the golden rule of middle grade fiction that, if you haven’t killed off the parents, they must be incredibly unfair, and unwilling to listen to reason. Certainly they will be misguided. Maybe they are even a bit mad.  Probably they are so busy in their own lives that they barely notice the antics of the hero, who has the mindboggling challenge of needing to put the world to rights, without anyone noticing that it wasn’t right in the first place. No one must know anything is wrong, because usually it is the fault of the hero, who had a misguided moment of klutziness, whilst doing something forbidden. Things get worse before they get better, despite the best intentions of our hero, but in the end… well, I’d hate to ruin a good story, so I’ll stop right there.

Jack is not so much a klutz, as a bit day dreamy, ‘because my mind wanders in the morning my feet are always a few steps ahead of me…’ When we first meet him he is on a picnic table in his back yard, with his father’s WW2 Japanese war souvenirs, watching a drive-in war movie, using the Japanese binoculars. Jack also has his father’s sniper rifle, and the movie enemies are for target practice, ‘because Dad said I had to get ready to fight off the Russian Commies who had already sneaked into the country and were planning to launch a surprise attack.’ Jack doesn’t realise that the rifle is loaded and one thing leads to another, which leads to Miss Volker dropping her hearing aid down the toilet, and the town plumber, who is also the local ambulance driver, roaring up to Miss Volker’s house in the ambulance to help.

Mom now has Jack over a barrel, so to speak, since Dad will blow a fuse if he knows Jack has been playing with his war souvenirs, and especially that he broke the rifle safety rules. Jack is mystified as to how the gun came to be loaded, but accepts the error of his ways, and the inevitability of a severe consequence. Mom grounds him until his father returns, with the only exception being that he is allowed to leave the house to help out their eccentric octogenarian neighbour, Miss Volker. It turns out that Miss Volker needs him because, due to her severely arthritic hands, she is unable to write anymore. She has Jack scribe the obituaries of the elderly townspeople, who suddenly seem to be dropping like flies.

Unfortunately for Jack, when Dad comes back he has an agenda of his own that involves Jack mowing down Mom’s cornfield. Dad says Jack must mow it down. Mom says Jack mustn’t. The reader knows Jack can’t win this one, and feels the injustice. Jack mows down the corn and is grounded for the rest of summer, by his mother. Jack’s adventures might well make a great read aloud – if you can stand all the blood and gory bits – Jack’s nose bleeds constantly, his best friend’s father owns a funeral parlour, a Hell’s Angel motorcycle club member is flattened by a truck, and several elderly residents are found dead. Jack’s errands for Miss Volker are often dubious, if not downright dangerous and law breaking. He dresses up as the grim reaper to break into a house where Miss Volker suspects a senior citizen lies dead. She needs him to check, so that she can write the obit. He drives her car round town at break neck speed, and buys 1080 poison from the hardware store to kill the rats in her basement. There is also the mystery of why the town’s elderly are suddenly dying…

I have a couple of boys lined up to read this one over the next couple of weeks – they have already read the blurb and are keen. I’m keen to see what they think. I think it’s a great read, but I’m interested to know if there’s just a bit much history tucked into the book. As any parent knows, there are only so many green things you can hide in something yummy before it is spotted for the vegetable that it is.

Speaking of which, here’s a titbit for the Kiwi’s. Jack is reading about Kennedy during WW2.  Apparently, ‘Kennedy and his torpedo boat crew were on night patrol in the sea around the Solomon Islands when a Japanese destroyer came roaring at full speed out of the mist and sliced their boat clean in half. Eleven men survived the collision but some were burned badly from the fuel fire that took place after the crash. Kennedy had been hurled across the deck and fractured a vertebrae in his back but he could still move.

Kennedy tied one end of a belt onto the most wounded man’s lifejacket and put the other end of the belt in his own mouth and swam the breaststroke for five hours before he got the man to the island. There was no food or fresh water…(lots of things happen and many days pass but…) But just before the men lost all hope, the native islanders tracked them down. They were friendly and wanted to help so Kennedy scratched a rescue note on a coconut and gave it to the islanders, who paddled their war canoe to an Allied base. More days passed, and just when Kennedy and his men thought they all would die, they were rescued by soldiers from New Zealand.’

There is a sequel to this book, ‘From Norvelt to Nowhere’, so if this goes down well, then I may buy it.

Read some other reviews here:

Betsy Bird’s Review

Book Browsers Review

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Filed under Boys' Reading, Children 10+, coming of age, Five stars, Historical, humour, Middle Grade Fiction, Prize winners

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

Journey to the River Sea – Eva Ibbotson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Poor you,’ mumbled Hermione.

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

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

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

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

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

‘To go to the Amazon, you mean?’

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

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

Miss Minton’s lips twitched for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It was books,’ admitted Miss Minton.

And Maia said, ‘Good.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Uncle Trev and his Whistling Bull – Jack Lasenby

Uncle Trev and his Whistling Bull

Finalist: New Zealand Children’s Book Awards, Junior Fiction, 2013.

For as long as I can remember, Uncle Trev stories have been around.  Uncle Trev’s a bit of a ratbag.  He’s always getting himself into some kind of trouble or another.  Set in small town New Zealand, in the early 1930’s, the wide-eyed, all believing narrator is a young lad (let’s call him Jack – I’m not sure we ever find out his name), bed-ridden for six weeks.  Uncle Trev pops in now and then, usually just after Mum has gone into town for something.  Mum and Uncle Trev don’t get along so well.  To be fair, Mum’s pretty scary, with ears so sharp she can hear the echoes of conversations, and eyes so sharp she can read the lino like a book.  Young Jack tells Uncle Trev that he’s afraid of the dark, and Uncle Trev replies, ‘Don’t go telling her I said so, but I think the dark’s probably scared of your mother.’ Mum’s also a pretty good baker, and Uncle Trev can’t help himself getting into the cake tins, even knowing Mum’s probably going to find out…

Uncle Trev spins a pretty good yarn, and each chapter in this delightful book is yet another tall tale to entertain both the child listener and the adult reader.  The tales get a little taller and a little more fantastic each chapter, until even very young children can realise that Uncle Trev might just be a little bit lenient with the truth, now and then.  Oh, how wonderful to be wiser than the boy in the book, who believes everything his Uncle Trev tells him.  I can imagine this as a wonderful read-aloud, either in the classroom, or at bedtime each night.  There’s a warm, affectionate and reassuring tone to the stories, that assures children that the adults in their lives care about them very much.  There’s also a nice amount of sheer silliness to have fun with – what a great intro into telling tall stories of your own, about your childhood.  It has the alive feeling of a story told, rather than a story read.  I always imagine a Barry Crump kind of voice for Uncle Trev.

While I really do love this book, and it is extremely entertaining, consistently well-written and just the right mix of sincere, slapstick and a tiny bit scary, for me it reads best as a series of short stories.  I have had children read it, and enjoy it, but I have also had children read a few stories out of it, put it aside and say they will come back to it later.  I think both kinds of readings are fine.

Highly recommended!

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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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The Queen and the Nobody Boy – Barbara Else

The Queen and the Nobody Boy

This is the second book in the Tales of Fontania, with The Travelling Restaurant: Jasper’s Voyage in Three Parts, being the first.  The Queen and the Nobody Boy continues with the irreverent humour of The Travelling Restaurant, and expands our knowledge of Fontania into Um’Binnia, an underground city threatening war against Fontania.  The greedy and awful Emporer Prowdd’on, is trying to capture the Golden Dragon-Eagle, who is necessary to the passing on of magic to young Queen Sibilla, 12 years old and not quite magical yet.

This story is Hodie’s story.  Hodie is the ‘nobody boy’ who has no parents and is an unpaid odd-job boy at the palace.  He becomes disgruntled with life at the palace, not surprisingly, and makes the decision to move on:

‘Hodie’s eyes turned watery.  He was utterly sick of the Grand Palace and all its gossip. “Oo, babies not sleeping safe? We need stronger magic.” “Oo, Fontania needs a royal family that pays more attention to its magical abilities.” “Oo, what can the king be doing in his workshop? I hope it’s magical experiments.”

Magic! he scoffed to himself.  How could magic exist in a world where a boy’s father was here one day but gone the next without a word? How could it exist in a world where a boy didn’t know a thing about his mother? Well, he’d learned to live without parents, and he didn’t need the Grand Palace either – especially if the palace didn’t need him.  It was high time he left here.  He would go south.’

Only, as he is leaving, he hears footsteps behind him. ‘Hodie didn’t want company and strode faster.  The boy caught up, puffing. “Boy!” said the boy. “I knew I’d catch you!” Hodie’s mouth dropped open.  It was the Queen.”

Sibilla is fed-up with everybody watching and waiting for her magic to appear, and has decided she will leave with Hodie, whether he likes it or not.  Along with Murgott, the pirate chef from the Travelling Restaurant, who has become Corporal Murgott in this book, Hodie and Sibilla travel to Um’Binnia, overcoming danger along the way, and discovering new strengths.  Sibilla is also forced to consider a few home truths about how her subjects view royalty.

‘Sibilla kept both hands on her cap. “How would democ-ra-what improve the Emporer?”

Hodie put his hands over his eyes.  Any moment she would give herself away.  They’d all be in trouble.

“Democracy,” muttered the ogre, “is even better than having lazy King and little girl Queen.”

Murgott drew in a sharp breath and glanced at Sibilla.  The ogre continued. “Democracy is when people spend time arguing about what is best, not just say Hoorah for Emporer to his face and heaven-save-us-all-especially-ogres behind his back.”‘

The story is told with a very present authorial voice – almost a ‘story telling’, with authorial asides such as,

‘Hodie also heard that the King and Queen’s mother, Lady Helen, actually said the Royal Swear Word. (It’s in very tiny letters at the end of the book.  Nobody must see you look at it.)’

For my own part, I wonder if the tongue-in-cheek humour throughout detracts from the wonderful fantasy and fantastical inventions and settings in the book.  The reason that fantasy worlds can work is because they become utterly believable, in a suspend-disbelief kind of way.  The author’s presence in the story reminds you that she is making it all up, and the irreverent tone undermines her world a little.  This is different to the asides, for example, of Bartimaeus in the Jonathon Stroud series, where the teller of the story is a character from the story, and therefore his irreverence is entirely convincing.  But, this is just a pondering…

This book is great fun, and appropriate for children from about 8 years and up.  While it is not necessary to have read ‘The Travelling Restaurant’ to enjoy this story, it does help you to understand the characters of Jasper, Sibilla and Murgott a little more.

Nominated for the Junior Fiction Section of this year’s NZ Post Children’s book awards.

Links to Teacher Resources and an interview with Barbara Else, the author.

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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