Tag Archives: truth

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

The Ocean at the End of the World – Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman (YA and Adult)

Nobody looks like what they really are on the inside.  You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated  than that.

I’m going to tell you something important.  Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either.  Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they are doing.  Inside, they look like they always have.  Like they did when they were your age.  The truth is there aren’t any grown-ups.  Not one in the whole wide world.

This book is Neil Gaiman’s first novel for adults in eight years.  Some say it is his best novel yet.  I read and enjoyed the award winning Coraline (see awards for Coraline below), but this is another step up again. Expect to see it winning plenty of awards. It draws on the very best in storytelling, with Gaiman perhaps stating his game plan in the novel itself, when the seven and a half year old version of his narrator says:

I liked myths.  They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories.  They were better than that.  They just were.

In the same way, this story is ostensibly told by a very middle aged ‘handsome George’, who deviates from his journey to a funeral, to revisit where he used to live when he was seven.  His childhood memories begin very much like a 1960’s children’s novel.  He loves his bedroom in the attic, his books and his parents – not so much his little sister.  He has a kitten, and everything is good in his world.  But it all changes rather abruptly, when his parents suffer some financial misfortunes which mean they need to take in boarders.  George has to move bedrooms and share with his sister, which he takes quite philosophically. And then the boarder arrives, unfortunately killing the kitten as he does so.

The shocking lack of empathy the boarder has for the boy’s loss is the first indication that the story is going to become quite dark.  And then, quite suddenly, the boarder dies, which is how our narrator meets Lettie Hempstock, her mother and her grandmother.  Lettie is eleven, but she is also mysteriously ageless.

‘How old are you, really?’ I asked.


I thought for a while.  Then I asked, ‘How long have you been eleven for?’

She smiled at me.

When we are introduced to her grandmother , she has, ‘long grey hair, like cobwebs, and a thin face.’  The crone image is very clear, and that there are three of them is very mythical and magical.  The food in their farmhouse is the ultimate in comfort food.  It made me think of Enid Blyton picnics, or the good wholesome food that Colin and Mary are restored to health on, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.  There is something restorative about this food, beyond its nutritional value.

‘Nothing I had drunk had ever tasted like that before: rich and warm and perfectly happy in my mouth.  I remembered that milk after I had forgotten everything else.’

It is lucky that our young narrator has been fortified by the women at the farm, since things go from bad to worse very quickly.  Before we know it, his world is a very, very dark place, where no-one that he knows can be relied upon to protect him, except Lettie, her mother, and her grandmother.

Some of the cruelty that happens is very disturbing, and reminded me of Roald Dahl in his darker (darkest) writing, and the evilness permeates like the evil witch, Queen Jardis, in Narnia.  Beautiful and cold and wicked beyond belief.  The food is in distinct contrast to what the Hempstock’s farmhouse provides, much like the Queen’s hot chocolate and Turkish delight in Narnia.  (In fact, I would not eat Turkish Delight for years, after reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe!  It still feels like a very naughty dessert, to me.)

Neil Gaiman says, ‘Children are a relatively powerless minority, and, like all oppressed people, they know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them.  Information is currency, and information that will allow you to decode the language, motivations and behaviour of the occupying forces, on whom you are uniquely dependent for food, for warmth, for happiness, is the most valuable information of all.’

This story, like many fables, myths or fairy tales (I’m talking Grimm, not Disney, here) is a cautionary tale.  I think it perfectly captures the ideal Gaiman presents in the novel.  This is mythical; it is not an adult story, it is not a children’s story. It is better than that.  It just is.  It explores a child’s view of adults through an adult remembering the child he was.  Gaiman is expert at thrilling his readers with the terrifying, mysterious and strange.  And yet he writes so poetically that you want to read and reread each line as you go.

I think that this is a book that I would not necessarily present at school.  There is a lot of darkness. Josh Roseman puts it well, when he says: Note to Parents: While this book is written from a seven-year-old’s POV, it still contains disturbing imagery, nudity, scenes of child abuse, and discussions of corporal punishment. I’m not sure I can put an age range on this one; just read it first, and then decide if your kids are ready for it. Which, when you get right down to it, is what I always say – Read more at his website.

I highly recommend this book.  For me, it was a secure 5/5.

Read another review of this book here

Coraline – Neil Gaimain – Awards:

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Filed under fantasy, Five stars, Young Adult

Red Rocks – Rachael King

Red Rocks4/5 stars.  Good story.  Evocative setting with some really gorgeous writing.

‘Waves battered the beach, chattering to the stones as they receded.  Jake stood still, watching the rocks, waiting for a movement.  And there it was: a seal, with sleek, damp fur, launching itself into the water like a torpedo.  He looked for it amongst the floating islands of kelp, thought he spotted it at first but no, there it was, further away.  It’s head surfaced and it rolled onto its back, raised one flipper as if in a wave and was gone.’

Red Rocks WellingtonRed Rocks Reserve, Wellington, New Zealand.

And so begins the story of Jake, visiting his writer father in Owhiro Bay, Wellington.  Jake normally lives in Auckland with his mother, her husband Greg and their new baby, Davey.  He is spending two weeks with his father over the school holidays.  His father is busy writing a book, so Jake has quite a lot of freedom, and goes exploring on his bike.  When he is exploring the red rocks, he discovers a fissure, a small cave, and hidden in the depths of the cave is a seal skin.  For a reason  not quite fathomable to Jake, he takes it home.  Soon after, he sees a red haired woman roaming town, appearing to search for something.  Jake meets Jessie, a young girl, who is the granddaughter of an old man, Ted, who lives in a shack on the beach.  Jessie has something mysterious about her:

‘The little girl had piqued his curiosity.  The way she looked at him made him want to talk to her, to find out what was going on behind those dark eyes.  She was younger than him, so maybe they wouldn’t have much to say to each other, but maybe if she was cheeky, like Ted said, she could be fun to hang out with.  He hadn’t met many kids his own age here.’

The story develops, with some nice tension, and the windy, unpredictable and rugged coastline of Wellington being an additional character to the story.  We are introduced to the story of the Selkie when Jessie discovers that Jake has the sealskin.

‘Do you know what a selkie is?’ she asked.

‘A selkie? No. Should I?’

‘Selkies are seal people.  The seals come on land and they shed their skins so they can walk on the earth like humans do.  When they have finished their business, they put their skins back on and become seals again.’

But that’s just a fairy story,’ said Jake, who could remember something he had heard a long time ago.  A story, set in Ireland maybe, where his ancestors had come from.

Jessie stared at him, hard.  ‘It’s not a story.  It is real.  Jake, if you have stolen a sealskin, then whoever it belongs to will be stuck in human form.’ Jake was surprised to see tears form in her eyes. ‘You must put it back.’

Unfortunately for Jake, further complications arise when his father discovers the seal skin.  Stormy, stormy times…beautifully written.  Jake’s confusing age is probably OK since that is true of teenage hood!  Sometimes they want to be children.  Sometimes, independent adults.  His stormy and unpredictable relationship with his father is also quite believable.

Sadly, I felt that the story lost its path a little about two thirds of the way through.  Without going into any detail, the character focus changes, and I think to the detriment of the story.  However, by the end it is easy to forgive this, and the denouement is thrilling.

I’m going to try this out on some 11-12 year olds and see what their perspective of the story is.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to let you know!!


Highly recommended.  Readers of 10+.  Some mature readers of 9yrs may also enjoy it.


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

Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Summer Vacation – Tommy Greenwald

CJJ Guide to Summer Vacation

This is the third book in author Tommy Greenwald’s Charlie Joe Jackson series, and Charlie Joe is fast becoming a firm favourite, with me, and with my students.  Despite Charlie Joe Jackson’s best intentions, he is growing up into a fine young man! Previously, Charlie Joe has given us the Guide to Not Reading and the Guide to Extra Credits, both very entertaining and completely engaging.  However, I think that Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Summer Vacation might be the best yet.

In a ‘moment of weakness’ (you need to read the Guide to Extra Credits) CJJ has agreed to go to Camp Rituhbukee (pronounced read-a-bookie) and finds himself amongst kids who, bewilderingly, love reading.

And we all know how proud CJJ is that he has never completed a whole book, except under extreme circumstances.

Yep.  This camp is going to demand some extreme solutions from CJJ – but things get worse when he discovers that these very non-athletic book worms have an annual basketball challenge against a nearby ‘sports jock’ camp. CJJ decides there is something he can offer these bookworms after all – his ability to come up with a great plan!

Turns out that CJJ may just be in his element.  Or is he?

Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Summer Vacation is a witty, well paced, energetic and engaging read.  Without being preachy, characters are presented with all of their strengths and weaknesses and accepted for who they are. CJJ stays true to form and holds tight to his principles, while coming up with ever more creative solutions to life’s challenges.

Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Summer Vacation is ebing released in May.  Keep an eye out for it.  Meanwhile, I am looking forward to the newest book in this series, Jack Strong Takes A Stand.

Highly recommended for all readers, from about 9 years on. While this will appeal to everyone, I think that it will have extra appeal for reluctant boy and girls readers as a step up from the Wimpy Kid series.

Learn more about Tommy Greenwald here: http://tommygreenwald.com/

Review based on an Advanced Reader Copy.


Filed under Children 10+, Children 12+, humour

Monster – Walter Dean Myers


Written as a movie script, this book covers the trial of James King and Steve Harmon for the felony murder of a drugstore owner. King is accused of pulling the trigger and Harmon of being the lookout. As the trial proceeds, Steve takes notes in script style, being a keen and talented film club member.

Much of the story explores what truth is – who is telling the truth, what are their motivations, how fallible is their memory, what agenda lies behind the truth being told. Great questions. Steve reflects in jail, ‘we lie to ourselves here. Maybe we are here because we lie to ourselves.’

The line that really stuck with me, though, was from Mr Sawicki to the film club, about fancy camera shots, ‘There are a lot of things you can do with film, but you don’t have an unlimited access to your audience. In other words, keep it simple. You tell the story; you don’t look for the camera technician to tell the story for you. When you see a film maker getting too fancy, you can bet he’s worried either about his story or his ability to tell it.’

The film script is a clever device – using point of view metaphorically and ‘literally’ to position the viewer/reader. The quote above resonates – without wanting to give anything away – especially at the end.

I would think that most teenagers would find something fascinating in this book, and it should be a part of the core curriculum…there are so many things that are clever and thought provoking – especially morally, technically, legally, ethically, creatively, cinematically…

If you loved To Kill a Mockingbird; The Outsiders; That Was Then, This is Now… the list could go on
Highly recommended for 14+.
Everyone should read this book.

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Filed under Uncategorized, YA 14+