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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

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

Half Brother – Kenneth Oppel

Last year I bought a book called ‘The Discursive Mind’, which argued that the difference between humans and animals is, essentially, the ability to communicate. In parts, it talked about the experiments done with sign language and chimps in the 70’s, and the difference between speech and communication.  While it was a fantastic book, and challenged me to really think, ‘Half Brother’ asked me to do the same kind of thinking, without the need for ‘expert language’, wrapped in a story that progressively asks harder and harder questions.

Half Brother
Half Brother worried me for a start.  I felt the title was …well… twee.  I worried that it would be yet another story about the special love between a boy and his pet, that ended happily ever after.  I really worried that the parents were too two dimensional, and stereotypical.  I worried that we would get so caught up in the adolescent relationship thing that it would become a boy meets girl, boy learns to be in the right group, kind of story.  I worried that Mom would never complete her PhD.  I worried that Peter would lead Ben astray.  I worried so much, I couldn’t put  the book down.  Most of all I kept worrying for Zan.  It seemed to become less and less likely that there could be any kind of solution for Zan that was believable, ethical, hopeful or humane.

Ben is an only child. He is 13 years old.  His father is a researcher, in behavioural science, in the 1970s.  Which, of course, should ring some alarm bells.  Mom is also a researcher, but has put aside her study for now, or at least is trying to work it around family and all.  One day, Ben’s parents bring home Zan, an eight day old chimpanzee.
And I have to say, that despite all my maternal worrying for everyone and everything in the book, it grew up, and walked and talked and learned and ended in the most satisfying way it could; a finely tuned orchestration of events that didn’t excuse wrong decisions, but did pay some kind of recompense, imperfectly, as it is in real life.

I highly recommend this book.  It has so much to it that it deserves more than one read.  And it deserves a bit of background reading to learn about the behavioural scientists it talks about, animal experimentation, and chimpanzees.  Also, gender equality! 😉

 

For some information on the kind of research Ben’s father was undertaking, go here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/nov/24/can-chimps-converse-exchange/?pagination=false

To learn more about Kenneth Oppel, the writer, go here:  http://www.kennethoppel.ca/pages/biography.shtml

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Filed under Children 12+, humour