Write about what you know…

dietIn her first novel for young adults, Tamar Chnorhokian does exactly that; the Diet Starts Monday is set in Western Sydney and involves the mix of cultures you might expect to find there.

Zara (or Zaruhi, as her Armenian family wants to call her) is a typical western Sydney teenager, except for the fact that she is a size 22 girl with a crush on the hottest guy at school. Because of this, she decides yet again, to go on a diet – but with renewed determination this time, as the Year 12 Farewell looms at the end of the year.

Privy to Zara’s thoughts and anxieties, we can identify with her body image angst, and empathise with the things that trigger her poor eating habits. There are also little hints about what her friends think of her dieting efforts, and her fixation on Pablo Fernandez (after all he already has skinny girlfriend, and, what about his gross habits?).

There are times when you want to shake Zara back to her senses, and make her realise that as she loses weight, she is also losing the respect of her long term friends, Carmelina, Ramsi and Max because of how she is now behaving. I know I was also waiting for her new ‘friends’, Pamela and Holly, to turn around and trip her up on her self-discovery journey. And how was she now treating her own family?

The voices and characters in TDSOM are quite authentic, and the places they go are also real. As a member of Sweatshop, Western Sydney Literacy Movement, this is precisely what Tamar aims to do – to be real and provide an authentic reflection of the community she knows:

SWEATSHOP believes the best way for Western Sydney communities to identify issues that affect them, take control of how they are portrayed and perceived and build alternatives is through literacy.

(Tamar) was one of the original members of The Sweatshop Collective and has been collaborating with Michael Mohammed Ahmad since 2006. Tamar identifies strongly with her Western Sydney community and her Armenian background. [Sweatshop, Western Sydney Literacy Movement]

In an article in the SMH just before her book launch, it is clear how close to Tamar’s heart Western Sydney is:

I wanted to write a positive representation, because there are only negative representations in the media. Where I live, there are wonderful things that happen there, that is the thing I wanted to talk about.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/my-secret-sydney-tamar-chnorhokian-20141126-11to2k.html#ixzz3NpAX7qmw

Readers should easily be drawn in to The Diet Starts Monday (we all know that phrase) and will be keen to find out what happens over the HSC year for Zara and her friends. Writers will be impressed with the example set by Tamar as she sets our her commitment and contribution to Western Sydney literacy and literature development in this novel.

What might you change in TDSM to reflect the area you live in and the personalities you know in your school and community?

Indie Awards 2015 – shortlist

Each year, independent book sellers from around Australia nominate the best Australian books for a calendar year. The shortlists include choices for Fiction, Non-Fiction, Debut and Children’s literature.

As the people on the ground, and those with whom you can discuss your likes and dislikes in reading, their recommendations are valuable and inspiring to their customers. Thus, it is worth looking at this year’s list (announced January 29) and checking off some of the books they have considered for this year’s awards:

indie

Fiction

  • When the Night Comes (Favel Parrett, Hachette)
  • Amnesia (Peter Carey, Hamish Hamilton)
  • Golden Boys (Sonya Hartnett, Hamish Hamilton)
  • The Rosie Effect (Graeme Simsion, Text)

Nonfiction

  • This House of Grief (Helen Garner, Text)
  • The Bush (Don Watson, Hamish Hamilton)
  • Where Song Began (Tim Low, Viking)
  • Cadence (Emma Ayres, ABC Books)

Debut fiction

  • Lost & Found (Brooke Davis, Hachette)
  • Foreign Soil (Maxine Beneba Clark, Hachette)
  • The Strays (Emily Bitto, Affirm Press)
  • After Darkness (Christine Piper, A&U)

Children’s

  • The 52-Storey Treehouse (Andy Griffiths & Terry Denton, Pan Macmillan)
  • Pig the Pug (Aaron Blabey, Scholastic)
  • Withering by Sea (Judith Rossell, ABC Books)
  • Laurinda (Alice Pung, Black Inc.).

[List from: Books and Publishing ]

While obviously many of these books are not Young Adult literature, some could be suitable for a mature reader, and they certainly offer some interesting titles for teachers to consider.

The Children’s category is rather broad, and I am sure that there could be an argument for at least 2 sub-categories of this – especially when you compare Pig the Pug (picture book) with Laurinda (352p.).

The awards will be announced on March 25 – how many of these will you read before then?

For more about the awards, visit Indie Awards 2015.

Jackie French honoured

Source: http://www.childrenslaureate.org.au/laureates/jackie-french/

Source: http://www.childrenslaureate.org.au

Australia Day honours to Jackie French – named Senior Australian of the Year this week! Applause!!

What a great and well deserved honour for this prolific Australian children’s author. As author of over 140 books, named the Australian Children’s Laureate in 2014, and a bold force promoting the richness of children’s literature, Jackie has been a household name for many many years.

Her first book for children was Rain Stones, was published in 1991. This was in spite of the fact that she had dyslexia (a condition which makes it hard to read and understand words). Her wonderful imagination and determination to tell her stories, firstly to friends and family, must have pushed her beyond this difficulty, though her editors have commented that they did struggle with some of her early manuscripts. She is certainly a model for all aspiring writers and creative people!

As her popularity arose over the years, naturally, Jackie has constantly been called upon to talk about her books and how she gets her ideas. As many schoolchildren will attest, she is an entertaining and inspiring author. She also makes it clear that writing involves a great deal of effort and focus – and even picture books take an extremely long time to perfect.

Jackie is a perfectionist. When she wants to bring an historical event to life, it is usually because it is a period of time which she has already had a great interest in herself. From the realities of the Depression years in Somewhere Around the Cornerto the dramatic world of The Night They Stormed Eureka, Jackie aims to get the mix of history and fiction just right in her books. Her fun but informative non-fiction books also aim to either bring history to life, to excite children about nature and science, or to encourage kids (and adults) to get down and get dirty in the garden!

The many awards Jackie has received, span across the years of her writing, beginning with her first book, which was shortlisted for 3 awards. Another well known book, the Diary of a Wombat, is a classic which is in many home libraries, and has either won or been nominated for nearly 20 separate awards since it was first published in 2002!

Jackie’s passion is obvious when you hear her speak, and this was evident in her acceptance speech below:

To quote Jackie from this speech: “If you want intelligent children, give them a book. If you want more intelligent children, give them more books.” 

For more insights into the person of Jackie French, have a look at this 2009 interview, one of many you can find online.

How many Jackie French books have you read? If you haven’t, maybe it’s time to search them out?

Keeping fit

beachreadThe New Year has come and gone and by now many of your New Year’s resolutions may already be broken. Or you may be like me, and have only just decided to ‘get fit’.

It’s hard isn’t it – taking those first few steps after making a decision to do something? But with perseverance, you begin to see improvements. Have you ever thought about your ‘Reading fitness’?

An article in the Age (on December 15, 2014) ties in a little bit here. Summer holidays: down time or down to it? suggests that students (and parents) should keep up the reading habit in the holidays:

Catherine Scott, senior lecturer in education and cognitive psychology at the University of Melbourne, adds that, “… There is a well-known phenomenon of memory decay. Particularly when you first learn something, you have to practise it fairly regularly or the ability to retrieve it gets worse. If you are not using it every day, your brain makes a decision for those connections to weaken.” She says the six weeks of the summer holidays are certainly enough time to see a phenomenon such as summer slide. after a study in the States discovered a drop in students’ reading skills after a long holiday break.

Reading is a bit like that, isn’t it? Leave your text books alone during a holiday break, and some of the technical terms may be a little foreign when school goes back. For learner readers, it may be individual words or sounds that are temporarily forgotten.

Thus, researchers are suggesting that students need to keep up their reading practice, whether at infants level or within the senior school and beyond. We all need to keep up regular exercise to keep fit – and it seems reading is no different!!

What do you think? Are you a holiday reader or do outdoor activities get in the way? How could you squeeze a little more reading in your holiday time?

Graphic portrait – Vincent

imageThe 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 – Are You Seeing Me?

GrothTwins 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.

Groth proudly speaks of this in ‘A Dad’s Gift to his Neurotypical Daughter’, which is a very interesting prelude to the novel.

Groth’s tale is funny, informative and optimistic. The bond between Pez and Just Jeans is so lovable, it is a great tale for teens to enjoy.

N.B. I am also looking forward to reading ‘Kindling’, an earlier book by Darren Groth – which also deals with autism.

What’s your reality? ‘We Were Liars’

imageSummers 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?

(N.B. the video requires Flash.)

Brain Fit – how smarter thinking can save your brain

BRAIN-FIT---COVER for Smashwords 11-3-12

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.

Source: http://www.drjennybrockis.com/about/

‘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!

Remarkable journey – Born to Fly

born-to-flyWhat 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 the Teen World Flight site, 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.

Life choices – Level Up

Level UpGene 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. 

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