Tag Archives: morals

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

Bull Rider – Suzanne Morgan Williams

Bull Rider

I did wonder, initially, how I was going to connect with this book – not knowing anything about Bull Riding, or caring much
about Skate Boarding, and not coming from Nevada, or even the United States. However, I do know 14 year old boys, and however much they try to hide it with grunts and bad haircuts, there are sensitive hearts and undeveloped amygdalas making their lives very confusing and difficult to navigate. Especially when other family stuff is going on – and other stuff is often going on. The author
describes this well. The teenage desire to be the centre of the universe, while being left well alone; the conflict of needing to be different and needing to belong; the distancing from the intensive parenting of earlier years, while still desperately needing to be parented. This is some of what I take from the book.

Cam is fourteen, and he loves boarding – or that is what he tells us. I’m not entirely sure that it ever quite rang true for me. It doesn’t take a lot to distract him from boarding. To me it was the classic avoidance passion. He was determined not to be a bull rider because he was worried he would never be as good as Ben – his big brother, whom he idolises. Boarding really represented his need to be different and his need to find his own passion. Of course, inevitably bull-riding does become an important part of his life, as he struggles with the results of a devastating family event.

Cam feels powerless to help, until he hits on the idea of riding a particularly large and nasty beast, called Ugly, to win 15 000
dollars, but to do this he has to use a little bit of subterfuge.

Along the way, Cam faces friendship issues, fallen idol issues, battles with his parents and his own self-confidence.  A strong relationship with two of his grandparents helps him along the way.  This is a great book that I think many boys will enjoy.  I have put it in the 12+ category mostly because I think the content is more appropriate for slightly older children, but it is not a difficult read at all.

I would rate this at about a 3.5 / 5, perhaps getting closer to a 4 than a 3.  Definitely worth a read!

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Filed under Children 12+, Four stars

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles – Fabio Geda

In the sea there are crocodiles

In the Sea There are Crocodiles – Fabio Geda

Translated from Italian by Howard Curtis

‘If you hold a wish up high, any wish, just in front of your forehead, then life will always be worth living.’

I’m not really sure what I expected from this story.  Initially, I was seduced by the cover of the book – whether that was the colour, or the gorgeous eyes of the young person – I am not really sure.  Then I read that it was the story of a young boy who had journeyed from Afghanistan through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Greece to get to Italy, after his mother had left him on the border of Pakistan.  This journey took him five years, in total, from when he was 10 years old, to when he was 15 years old.

And then, with a flurry, the book starts.  Now, I love a great first sentence.  And this is absolutely a great first sentence, but then it is followed by an even more remarkable sentence that lasts for almost the whole first page.

The thing is, I wasn’t really expecting her to go.

                Because when you’re ten years old and getting

                ready for bed, on a night that’s just like any other

                night, no darker or starrier or more silent or

                more full of smells than usual, with the familiar

                sound of the muezzins calling the faithful to

                prayer from the tops of the minarets just like

                anywhere else…no, when you’re ten years old

–          I say ten, although I’m not entirely sure when

              I was born, because there’s no registry office or

             anything like that in Ghazni province – like I

             said, when you’re ten years old, and your mother,

            before putting you to bed, takes your head and

            holds it against her breast for a long time, longer

           than usual, and says, There are three things you

           must never do in life, Enaiat jan, for any reason…

           The first is use drugs.

This is clever.  It almost has a fairy tale quality.  The reader knows the main ‘character’ has a quest.  His mother abandons him. He is only ten, and an innocent, relatively speaking.  She leaves him with three (that magical number) wishes, or gifts, to live by.  And then we are hurled into the reality of the story with her first wish being for him to not use drugs.  From then on, the hardships endured are unimaginable for most children who will read this book.

The book is written in the style of an oral history.  The author talks about trying to catch the ‘voice’ of Enaiatollah Akbari, and he really means voice – not some esoteric voice we talk about writers having, but his literal talking voice.  Does he manage that?  Well, I can’t be entirely sure.  It feels at times as though the voice is coming from behind curtains.  Firstly, the curtain of time; the story is told well after it happened.  Secondly the double curtain of language – Enaiatollah speaks in a language that is not his mother’s – and as the author points out, this means that some of his language is idiosyncratic.  He will describe being, ‘as tired as a meatball’ in one sentence, explaining the tradition of rolling and rolling meatballs in the palm of their hands for a long time, and he felt like a meatball because he felt as though a giant had taken him in his hands: ‘my head hurt, and my arms, and another place, somewhere between my lungs and my stomach.’  And then, not much further down the track, someone’s face looks like a McDonald’s hamburger.  Additionally, reading in English, we have the translator curtain. Using authorial asides written in italics, the author does also distinguish between when he and Enaiatollah Akbari are talking.

I found this book moving and challenging to read.  I absolutely recommend it, especially for those wanting to understand another perspective of Afghanistan.  There is a wonderful mixture of beautiful writing juxtaposing terrible ideas and events, ‘The samavat Qgazi so much a hotel as a warehouse for bodies and souls, a kind of left-luggage office you cram into and then wait to be packed up and sent off to Iran or Afghanistan or wherever, a place to make contact with people traffickers.’  There is also humour, such as in the one and only footnote in the story, explaining languages.  However, the enduring feeling I was left with was how stark the story was, even told in such a beautiful way.  The story is mostly bereft of people and relationships.  People are only a means to the next step.  In themselves they are not important, because they are temporary in the story of Enaiatollah.

This story is  a story of courage and endurance.  But, it is still a tragedy.  Please read it.

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Filed under Children 10+, Children 12+, Uncategorized

Wonder – R. J. Palacio

Wonder

There is no doubt about it, this book is a tear jerker.  I have to say that I really am struggling with rating it.  My initial reaction is that it was a four star book – I really liked it.  Then, when I come to write down what I liked and what I struggled with, I realise that there was a lot that I struggled with in this book, but there was a lot I liked too.  So, I am going to be kind and stick with my initial four stars, and I’ll explain why it could have been three stars.

August is 10 years old.  He has a terrible facial abnormality, which has meant serial surgical procedures for most of his short life.  Because of this, he has been homeschooled up until now.  August lives with his Mom, his Dad, his sister Via and his family dog, Daisy.  At the beginning of the book Auggie finds out that his Mom and Dad have been going through the process of enrolling him at a school, because Auggie needs to learn more than his Mom can teach him, and she’s not just talking about fractions:
‘”We can’t keep protecting him,” Mom whispered to Dad, who was driving. “We can’t just pretend that he’s going to wake up tomorrow and this isn’t going to be his reality, because it is, Nate, and we have to help him learn to deal with it.  We can’t just keep avoiding situations that…”
“So sending him off to middle school, like a lamb to the slaughter…” Dad answered angrily, but he didn’t even finish his sentence because he saw me in the mirror looking up.’

EVERY parent who reads that is going to be thinking about their own ‘letting go’ challenges.  All of us have had those moments where we are sending our children into the unpredictable and not necessarily kind world.  We know the instinct to protect, for just a little while longer, even as we know that we should let go.  How much harder is that choice in this case?

Readers in their early teens will know how hard it is to start a new school, wanting to get things just right, wanting to make the right impression.  How many books have been written about just that?!

Doesn’t it make us all feel a little bit ashamed of the days we haven’t wanted to go out in public because it’s a fat day/a big zit day/a bad hair day/an I said a stupid thing yesterday day…We all know that moment when we have to brace ourselves, be a bit more courageous than we want to be, and get on with it.  Most of us are dealing with something much less significant than Auggie, and yet we recognise an element of it.

That’s where this book has it over us.  Because, ‘whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.’  We are, like Via, on the moral back foot.  Via is four years older than Auggie, and she can only remember glimpses of time without him being around.  Her story is equally as compelling as Auggie’s.  Via tells the story of what it is like to be Auggie’s sister.  It is hard for her to admit that she has needs, when – always – Auggie’s needs are greater. But moments of self-pity, and let me say that self-pity is normal for a teenager, when she sees Mom standing outside Auggie’s door late at night just looking in and wonders if Mom has ever done that at her door, paint a realistic picture of feeling a little bit less loved than her brother, of getting less time and attention.  However, when she gets to go to a new school, where the kids don’t know about her little brother, she revels in her anonymity.  She becomes Olivia, and makes some new friends, including a boyfriend.  None of this is without some fairly normal teenage challenges like learning to cope with not being in the popular group, and how friendships change.  All of which have been the MAIN storyline of many a book, but are peripheral in this one.  As Via says, ‘August is the Sun.  Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun.  The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun…But this year there seems to be a shift in the cosmos.  The galaxy is changing.  Planets are falling out of alignment.’  Hmmmm…a useful, but well-worn, metaphor.

The story of Auggie’s settling in to school has its highs and lows, as might be expected.  Some fairly predictable plot devices are used, like the quirky girl who could be in the popular group, but chooses to sit at Auggie’s lunch table, the boy who struggles between peer pressure and conscience, and the boy who fakes nice in front of the adults.  I felt that the age of these kids was really indeterminate…they wandered from sounding between 8 – 10years (for example, Auggie often calls Mom and Dad Mommy and Daddy) and 12 – 14years.

I’m not sure, either, about some of Mr Browne’s ‘precepts’.  They felt contrived, and I’m not sure they entirely worked as a plot device.  Subtlety would have been better than smacking us in the face with the morals of the story.  And I didn’t even know how many of them I really agreed with, or felt like they were worth a month’s scrutiny.  For example, ‘When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.’  Ummm…since when could you be unkind and be right???  So then, are we supposed to be ‘kind’ (read patronising) to Auggie.  Since when is that kind?  Doesn’t he deserve true kindness, which would always be right.  For that matter, don’t we all?  I’m still struggling with that one.  So, maybe it is worth a month’s scrutiny!

Another plot device that seems to be popular at the moment, is the multiple perspectives device.  This works when all the voices are unique.  Books like ‘Bluefish’, by Pat Schmatz and ‘Because of Mr Terupt’, by Rob Buyea, do this really well.  In ‘Wonder’ the voices just don’t feel significantly well characterised, although it does allow the reader the chance to review scenes in the book to learn a little more.

But a good book provokes, doesn’t it?  And this book did provoke thought.  And I am sure it would be a great book to use in class, although it is somewhat clumsy with its morals.  Great discussion could be had over so many elements of the story.  So long as it doesn’t slip into being patronising, or over simplified.  This book had some heroic attempts at reminding us that we are all human, and we struggle to make the best decisions we can with the resources we have, and that we won’t get it right all the time.  And that’s a great message to remember.  I wish that had been a Mr Browne precept.

So, all in all, I liked the book.  Maybe I even really liked the book, but it wasn’t without its challenges.  Ultimately, though, I am still inclined to err towards a four star rating.

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Filed under Children 10+, Children 12+, Uncategorized