The troubled life of Vincent Van Gogh is cleverly portrayed in Barbara Stok’s graphic novel, ‘Vincent’.
Van Gogh’s struggles, inspirations and family support are revealed as Barbara focuses on the ‘brief and intense period of time that the painter spent in the south of France.’
In simple ways, ‘Vincent’ also brings to life the way in which artists of the time influenced, and were influenced by Van Gogh, such as Paul Gaugin.
The idea of artist colonies/houses /communities springs up, as does the need for many talented artists to be sponsored by someone – in Vincent’s case, by his dedicated brother, Theo. The good times and the bad are pictured, as Stok reveals the character of Van Gogh, his ‘pursuit’ and ‘purpose’ of painting, and his artistic intensity and drive.
Fans of Van Gogh will recognise the natural elements which inspired the artist at this time – haystacks, starry nights, sunflowers. Within this time, however, there are also periods of mental illness, including when he cuts off his own ear. Ultimately even though family support comes through, Van Gogh’s tortured existence continues.
In many ways, Van Gogh’s art both drives him, and demonises him. The ability to paint sees him through many tough times, but the need to paint also divorces him from many aspects of normal life.
Reading ‘Vincent’ makes you ponder the life of an artist – and offers a little understanding of the life of Van Gogh; the difficulties he faced, the sacrifices and the troubled existence of an infamous Dutch artist and his colleagues.
N.B. I am not an art student, and found this an interesting reflection of an artist introduced to me by a teacher in year 3!
Twins think and act alike, right? Even fraternal twins do many things the same, right?
Yes, to some degree. I can speak from personal experience of fraternal twins who would often pick the same birthday cards for relatives, and scheme together against the other siblings in the family – often in their own personalised language.
However, as many twins (both identical and fraternal) scream – they are still individuals! The twins in ‘Are You Seeing Me?’ are certainly individuals – both of whom scream for different reasons…
Perry screams when his world gets out of hand. At times when he is faced by the unfamiliar, “Perry has trouble with people – mixing with them and communicating with them – and it sometimes results in inappropriate behaviours.”
This is the spiel that Perry’s sister regularly rolls out to explain her twin brother’s unusual behaviour. As his twin, she is determined to protect him from the judgemental gaze of others. When Justine screams, however, Perry isn’t the cause – it’s the interfering concern of others, like her boyfriend, Marc.
In ‘Are You Seeing Me?’ much of the journey for Perry and Justine takes place as they travel to Canada, to seek out their estranged mother, Leonie. She left the twins in their father’s care when they were 4, unable to cope with twins – especially since Perry has a ‘special needs’ tag. Unfortunately, in their nineteenth year, Perry and Justine are left alone as their doting father dies of cancer.
There is also an emotional journey for them as they attempt to re-establish links with Leonie – and she has much to learn about Perry. A chance for her to re-connect.
I love the characters Darren Groth has created. They are authentic and believable. The communication between Justine and her father occurs through a diary he kept from birth, and it provides her strength, understanding and support as she strives to support her brother as he tenuously begins to negotiate the adult world. Perry’s comments and insights provide a ‘look inside’ as he struggles to find independence and ‘free’ his sister of her twin commitment.
Finding out that Groth’s own twins were the inspiration behind this book cements the authenticity and appeal of this book. While it has been aligned to Mark Haddon’s ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, it tells a completely different tale. The relationship of twins shows how the Autism Spectrum Disorder impacts the whole family – and how they adapt and deal with it.
Summers for Cadence were idyllic – spent on her family’s island with her cousins, aunts and grandparents. Then, when she is 15, (Summer 15) Gat arrives at the island sparking a bit of interest, kindlings of love… and a bit of tension, as he doesn’t quite meet the ‘Family’s’ standards.
“Wait a minute”, you say – “The ‘Family’ owns an island?”
Yes, the Sinclair Family is somewhat well-off – and well-respected because of this, it seems. But inside the family, things are not so perfect.
However, Cady’s memories of ‘Summer 15′ are vague – and there is mystery behind tragic happenings at this time. Things Cady would rather forget, it seems – or things her mind and body won’t let her remember; even though her mother has explained it to her numerous times. Now, the doctors say, it is better if Cady remembers in her own time…
After a summer away from the island, Cady returns in search of answers and explanations:
What really happened to her?
Why can’t she remember anything?
Why are her friends/cousins so distant?
Does she still have any chance of romance with Gat?
Why isn’t ANYONE telling her ANYTHING?
For a taste of ‘We Were Liars’, you can view the author, E. Lockhart, reading the opening here:
‘We Were Liars’ is intriguing – and has you guessing all along the way – but still has surprise in store. Can you anticipate the ending?
Progressing slowly through my holiday-reading book pile, I decided I needed something I could dip in and out of – and something to get my holiday brain thinking again! That’s when I reached for ‘Brain Fit’!
Do you know the right foods to keep your brain healthy?
Do you know how to keep your mind sharp?
What problems with modern life can we seek to avoid as we care for our brain health?
‘Brain Fit’ is a compact book loaded with information about our grey matter. In a non-threatening manner, Dr Jenny Brockis explains clearly and succinctly how we can best look after one of the most important organs in our body. There are no lectures – just simple factual information stemming from the most recent thinking in brain health.
In eight chapters, ‘Brain Fit’ guides us through these and many other questions – including the things that are good for our brain (and it even includes chocolate!), things we should avoid, and ways to fire up our brain with new and different challenges. Broken into easy to read parts, each chapter includes lots of clear explanations and diagrams for the visual learner.
Throughout the book there are constant referrals to scientific studies which support the ideas presented, most of which, though challenging, are not difficult to include in our busy lifestyles. There is lots of food for thought for busy students, teachers, families and their extended family.
‘Smarter Thinking’ boxes punctuate the book and we are reminded of the key points in each chapter – e.g. Planning regular time off is an invaluable way to provide your brain with the breathing space it needs… Simple suggestions and checklists are also dotted throughout, which make the ideas bite-size and palatable.
Clearly, Jenny knows what she is talking about, since she spends time…
…with individuals and organisations to develop leadership, improve collaboration, and increase productivity and efficiency. Her approach is based on practical neuroscience, which allows us to understand why we think or behave the way we do, and how implement effective behavioural change.
‘Brain Fit’ is the first of 2 books Jenny has written, easily available in both physical and Kindle editions. The second ‘Brain Smart: getting more done faster’ looks at how we can better shape our activities to make the most of our brain – and no, this does not endorse multi-tasking. A third book, ‘Future Brain’, is also in production.
There are lots of great ideas in each of Dr Brockis’ books, but there is also more to be discovered at her blog, where she shares her observations about issues such as mental health, mindfulness, leadership, exercise and brain health, and stress management. In the video below, Jenny explains the importance of becoming Brain Fit:
Clearly, the concept of brain fitness is well worth further investigation!
What was your childhood career dream? Fireman, racing car driver, ballet dancer, astronaut? How many of us actually followed through on our childhood dreams? Ryan Campbell was passionate about his, and has begun the path to achieving his dream career:
‘I loved our holiday in Vanuatu, but I just could not wait to get back on that aeroplane… Not to go home, just to go flying. That was the day when I decided I would be a jumbo jet pilot when I grew up.’ (He was 6 at the time.)
On June 30, 2013, Ryan took off on a journey to circumnavigate the globe, solo – and with the aim to be the youngest person to ever achieve this. However, as his book Born to Fly details, his departure on this day was the result of a great deal of planning and persistence – with many hurdles to overcome before his journey was to become a reality.
Just exactly how would you begin to plan a circumnavigation around the world in a light aircraft? Where would you begin? Indeed what would even inspire such a massive endeavour? How could a young adult even consider doing it?
Ryan’s passion and determination are evident in Born to Fly – and some credit for this must come from his uncle and grandfather, both passionate aviators. It is also clear that, while he is very much an average young adult in some ways (he admits that he was a fairly non-motivated student at times, a day-dreamer too), once he set his sights on achieving goals related to flying, he became very focussed.
With lots of research, he began to discover what he had to do to learn to fly, ways to supplement his earnings at the local supermarket to pay for lessons, and also how to meet academic standards for aviation qualifications. Achieving his first solo flight on his fifteenth birthday was just a small indication of things to come!
Soon, with the confidence from his achievements, Ryan began to dream of bigger challenges, which culminated in his record-breaking solo flight. There is great detail included in his story – the flying challenges, communication challenges, daily revision of decisions and insights to what it is like to undertake such a mammoth journey. He also acknowledges his many mentors and supporters – including Ken Evers, Jim Hazelton and Dick Smith.
There is much to be taken from this story – for both aviation enthusiasts, and others seeking inspiration to achieve their life goals. Born to Fly speaks not only about the challenges and difficulties he faced on this venture, but the ways in which he overcame events and situations that could test even the most experienced aviator. I am sure, Ryan would be the first to admit that he might have done a few things differently, but his courage and determination shines through.
Born to Fly is not the end of Ryan’s story. He is not yet a ‘jumbo jet pilot’. However, he aims to use his influence to encourage other young people to follow their dreams. And he will continue to work on his dreams, stepping towards his ultimate goals while encouraging others to find theirs:
I am proud to have learnt at a young age, proud of my achievements so far and excited at the prospects the future holds for me. I live for aviation, and I know that it is this passion, along with my dedication and commitment that will determine the successful outcome of my next endeavour. (Source: http://www.teenworldflight.com/my-achievements.html)
(Lots more detail is given at theTeen World Flightsite, with of course a great focus on aviation.)
N.B. This would also be a great related text for ‘Journeys’ and ‘Discovery’ – a remarkable journey by a young adult, out to discover the world and himself.
Gene Luen Yang is a clever writer of graphic novels – though this is probably not the career path his parents would have chosen for him. This insight is given in an interesting dedication at the beginning of the book:
Dedicated to our brothers Jon and Thinh, both of whom work in the medical field, for being good Asian sons.
Dennis Ouyang is the main protagonist in Level Up, and his parents have high expectations for their only son – that he should be a gastroenterologist. Dennis, on the other hand, would rather be playing video games. His struggle with meeting his parents wishes or following his own interests would be familiar to many young adults, particularly those with strong cultural influences on how a child should respect his/her elders.
Yang, and illustrator Thien Pham, have used some interesting techniques in this graphic novel:
# The early pages are shaded blue as we are introduced to the potential conflict of ideas of Dennis and his parents.
# Colour also plays an interesting part in depicting some of the unsavoury choices Dennis takes, the visitations he has (in his mind) from his father, stronger colours are used during normal day-to-day situations.
# Symbols like angels and feathers link events to the past, and video game characters haunt Dennis till he overcomes certain issues.
# The novel is sectioned like a video game with new levels being achieved as the novel develops and Dennis’ choices take effect. As in videogames, Dennis does not always ‘finish the level’ and his path is sometimes bumpy.
As Dennis struggles to work out which is the right path for him to take, his mind begins to play tricks on him and he has visitations – from his father, from an angelic chorus (his conscience?) and from the ghosts of an old computer game. Though he at first happily drops out of medical school, and achieves fame and fortune in the videogaming world, there are more changes to come. Will he ultimately discover who he really is? Whose expectations he will meet in the future - his dead father’s? His ill mother’s? his own?
Yang himself may have faced the same struggles in his youth. While it is said his parents tried to instill in him a strong work ethic and traditional Asian culture, they also told him stories. It is clear that this combination inspired his creative skills with a will to achieve – though not in the medical field.
With Pham’s quirky but expressive illustrations, he has created a clever and humorous story, which also makes you wonder about which is the right direction to take in life. Being built around a videogame-style concept makes it appealing and quick to read. However, it is worth a closer look once you finish to find all the little elements we may gloss over in a graphic novel.
Another thought-provoking novel from the author of award-winning American Born Chinese.
Michael is a typical school boy living in the suburbs of Western Sydney. For him, life has a rhythm and routine which is closely bonded to his older brother’s. That is until tragedy strikes, and he decides that:
‘my life isn’t my life any more: It is like a movie, it’s the place where I enter the scene again and again and everything is different.’
From the time that Michael regains consciousness after the accident, his thoughts are fragmented. Indeed the nature of Felicity Castagna’s book, ‘the Incredible Here and Now’, is that it, too, is a whole story slowly pieced together. Gradually, chapters reveal little insights into the lives of people in Michael’s world, as the picture develops describing his life with family, school and his mates, and how life can suddenly become distorted and troubled.
Without his older brother, Dom, the form of Michael’s life has changed. At home, his mother grieves and (has) ‘slipped out of our lives’. His father, though acting calm and together, ‘walks (him) to school for the first time since I was 10′. In his own way, Michael disconnects from school and other aspects of his old life. He constantly wonders ‘how can someone be there one day and not the next?’
However, ‘the Incredible Here and Now’ is not a sombre tale, but a thoughtful one. As a coming-of-age story, we are taken through the neighbourhood streets where Michael is growing up and dealing with the first throes of love and conflict. Through his eyes, the tapestry of different immigrant lives are illustrated; with their particular features and foibles. Teenage lives are interconnected not only through school, but through sport and other hangouts.
Castagna’s little vignettes capture many different things about Michael’s family, friends and acquaintances. For most people around him, life goes on as before – but how can things remain the same when someone important is lost from your life. Castagna also captures the differing cultures which permeate Michael’s life, and the unique mix of his neighbourhood. This will provide some ‘aha’ moments to those readers who can identify with some of the locations described, and an interesting insight to others from different social backgrounds.
Teen readers will also love the short chapters which collect the thoughts of Michael fairly concisely. As he dips in and out, his thoughts seem somewhat fragmented but are also part of the whole – as he attempts to deal with his now fragmented world.
The Incredible Here and Now does not tell us how to deal with the loss of a family member. Neither does it come up with a solution to everyday teenaged angst. What it does is provide great realistic fiction which should appeal to many teenage boys; they could easily identify parts of themselves in many of the characters, and the situations in which they act.
In Felicity’s words, The Incredible Here and Now:
… is about being an absolute insider in a place you know as well as the back of your own hand. It’s a young adult’s novel told through the eyes of Michael whose life changes dramatically in the summer he turns 15. Michael knows everything about the community he lives in and through his stories, he lets the reader in; to the unsettled lives of his family members, the friends he meets in the McDonalds parking lot at night, the swimming pool where he meets the one girl who will acknowledge he’s alive and the classmates who spend their mornings drooling at the Coke Factory on their walk to school. (Source: the NSW Writers Centre, Felicity Castagna Talks Writing a Sense of Place, http://www.nswwc.org.au/2013/05/felicity-castagna-talks-writing-a-sense-of-place/)
# The Incredible Here and Now was shortlisted for this year’s CBCA awards, and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2014 – and is Felicity’s first novel.
I hereby certify that on this day, 26 November 1803, in the city of Charleston, in the state of California, I set free from slavery, Hetty Grimke, and bestow this certificate of manumission upon her.
Sarah Moore Grimke.
So begins Sarah Grimke’s attempts to free her personal slave, Handful – a gift from her parents on her eleventh birthday. As the middle daughter of a wealthy and prominent family in Charleston in the American Deep South in the 1800′s, she struggles to act in the way society expects of her. Sarah is unable to turn a blind eye to the brutal treatment of slaves – both those in her household and in society at large.
From an early age, witnessing the harsh treatment/punishments meted out (to keep the slaves in line) has a massive impact on Sarah. A troublesome stutter, which she struggles with at times of angst, in fact has its roots in a vicious flogging she viewed. The reality and pain of this urged Sarah on to fight for the abolition of slavery, but also provided a stumbling block to her ambitions – that, and the fact that she was a girl in a male-dominated society. Though she is known as ‘the daughter her mother calls difficult and her father calls remarkable’, there is nothing remarkable planned for her future.
The Invention of Wings is also told from the perspective of Hetty, otherwise known as Handful. Through Handful, the daily struggles of a slave are told, along with the coping mechanisms they use to survive. Handful’s mother, Charlotte, tries to weave hope into their pitiful existence, as she tells her about her family and their traditions – aiming to foster pride and courage in her daughter. As a talented seamstress, Charlotte is also clever in teaching Handful valuable life skills and worthy talents to make life a little easier.
The story is actually founded on actual historical figures, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, American abolitionists, and members of the women’s suffrage movement. Much of the detail about Sarah is based in fact, while Handful’s story comes from research into slave narratives and personal childhood experiences of Sue Monk Kidd with African American voice.
Both Sarah and Handful ache for wings to free them from the fetters of their lives – one captured by slavery, the other with the sentence of being female at a time when women had few rights. While Sarah’s key purpose is to promote the abolition of slavery, and fulfilling a promise to Charlotte to try to free Handful, her own ‘slavery’ as a female also gives rise to the fight for women’s rights (which was also the case in history).
The Invention of Wings follows the success of The Secret Life of Bees, and would also make a great movie.
To get an insight into the writing process, there are several interviews with Monk Kidd online – including one hosted on her own website. It is a really interesting read, as she talks about the characters coming alive on the page over the 3 1/2 year writing period!
# I ‘read’ this book as an audiobook, which provided a great cast of voices also – though as usual I still needed the actual book when I became impatient to see the words on the page.
The winner is announced Friday August 15 in the ‘Older Readers’ category, which includes the following books:
Shortlisted Older Readers Titles 2014
The Incredible Here and Now, Felicity Castagna
The First Third, Will Kostakis
Life in Outer Space, Melissa Keil
Fairytales for Wilde Girls, Allyse Near #HONOUR BOOK
Wildlife, Fiona Wood #WINNER 2014
The Sky so Heavy, Claire Zorn #HONOUR BOOK
Each of these titles is available from the Senior School Library for you to judge yourself.
Of course, you may not agree with the judges’ selections, or even wish to pick up any of these titles. There are many other worthy titles included in this year’s CBCA selection of notable books by Australian authors for Australian children. These can be viewed at the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s website in each of the following categories:
Right from the beginning, I have to confess that I haven’t read the previous books in John Flanagan’s Brotherband series. However, this hasn’t impacted on my recent enjoyment of ‘Slaves of Socorro’ – no. 4 in the series.
After the introductory comments, explaining sailing terms, the tale begins with the fun and frolics of the seafaring community of Skandia. Bjarni is anxious about his boat rebuild, Hal is anxious about his recognition as a master boat builder and Lydia is seeking a way to flee an aspiring lover. Thus, some of the Heron Brotherband are reintroduced and the scene is set for future adventures.
Fortunately, John Flanagan’s storytelling ability enabled me to understand not only the concept of the Brotherband, but also to understand some of the quirks and talents of Hal and his intrepid crew. In this, the fourth of the series, their ship (Heron) becomes the Skandian duty ship to the Kingdom of Araluen – a ship at the disposal of King Duncan ready to move people and things quickly if necessary.
Fans of the Ranger’s Apprentice will appreciate the time and the world in which the Brotherband books are set, though these adventures take place in seafaring communities. Flanagan brings a mixture of characters to this series, and Slaves refers seamlessly back to events from the past books, without sounding like he’s on repeat. Indeed, there is also a Ranger who joins Hal’s crew to fight a common foe.
There are many likable characters in Brotherband and plenty of action for them take on. In the video below, John Flanagan talks about some of his ‘Brotherband’ characters:
If you are already a fan of the Ranger’s Apprentice series, then you would definitely enjoy the Brotherband series – just ask the author! (This is but one of the comments he makes in SIX THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT BROTHERBAND.)
If you are like me, and yet to catch up with the previous books in the series, they are: the Outcasts, the Invaders and the Hunters – and all 4 books including Slaves of Socorro are available in our library.
For those who are already fans, Brotherband no.5 Scorpion Mountain is due out in November!