November 26

Launching ‘the Godwits’

godwitsWhile this blog is mainly dedicated to reviewing Young Adult fiction, after attending the book launch of ‘the Godwits’ recently, I knew I had to write about it.

This is a tale that connects two worlds – and shows how they impact on one another, in spite of great distances and differing perspectives.

In one place, Gao Wei, the young son of Gao Da and Gao Shu, celebrates his birthday on the shores of the Yellow Sea in China; his new binoculars in hand. Many thousands of kilometres away, Gowie, a migratory bird also celebrates a birthday, as he awaits a momentous occasion.

Wei is passionate about birds, in much the same way as author Bruce Pickworth describes his own long-term passion for writing. Wei’s passion moves him to oppose a development which his father, Da, is meant to support in his work, and the battle begins. (Bruce’s has finally produced a picture book!)

In the other ‘world’, Gowie personifies the life of a Bar-tailed Godwit – an amazing bird which annually migrates between Australia/New Zealand and Alaska, via mainland China. We learn about the instincts these birds need to call upon, and the behaviour of the flock and who controls it. We are reminded that the power of the individual is not determined by size, but by attitude and relationships, when it comes to achieving leadership.

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As the tale develops, page by page, events in Wei’s life sit alongside those of Gowie; as each becomes stronger, and better acknowledged by others.

Dr Meredith Burgmann, who launched ‘the Godwits’, reminisced her own battles against developments threatening the environment. She also identified with many other aspects the book touches on like freedom of speech, feminist issues and family relationships. And then she wondered if it was time again for her to protest – in front of a grader about to start a demolition like Wei does in the story!

Author, Bruce Pickworth has combined a life-long passion for writing with a family interest in bird-watching, adventuring and natural discoveries. The result is a delightful tale which both entertains and informs, as Wei and Gowie overcome struggles put before them. Illustrator, Lorraine Robertson, provides gloriously detailed scenes to contrast the two worlds (as well as informing the astonishing fact pages). Authentic support from Birdlife Australia and their own personal histories bring Bruce and Lorraine together in achieving a wonderful project.

Once the story itself is finished, it is complemented by pages of amazing facts about Godwits, and actions that have been taken to ensure their migration path remain accessible  as the industrial world encroaches on these sites.

Here is another book to join those like Jeannie Baker’s ‘Circle’ to both entertain and inform our younger readers – and stun and amaze older readers, by presenting great visuals, and an appealing story for important environmental issues we must all consider. (It may be interesting to use them as comparative texts?)

* Copies of the book and teachers notes are available from Bullawai Books. The trade and school distributor is INT BOOKS – intbooks.online

August 11

History meets fiction

I thought of Micky – there was nothing useless or dirty or stupid about him. He was funny and worked hard. He was smart too. Actually he was just, well, normal. And that man on the television, Charles Perkins, spoke better than half of Walgaree.

freedomThis quote comes from Sue Lawson’s book, Freedom Ride; a fictional tale tied into the real events of the 1965 Freedom Rides which occurred in NSW. (Their aim was to draw attention to the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing.)

In Lawson’s book, we are introduced to Robbie – a teenager in a fictional (but representative) country town in NSW. Through Robbie’s eyes, we quietly see the subtle segregation that was ‘accepted’ in Australian history. Naturally, Robbie’s youthful views are his family’s views, but these are slowly adjusted as he critically observes the practices and beliefs of different adults around him.

With little previous exposure to the plight of Aborigines in his community, Robbie only begins to question community values when a holiday job sees him working side-by-side with Micky.

Historic events litter the tale, setting it in a real time and place in Australia. For a brief history about the time in which it is based, see BTN Freedom Ride

Was this how things really were in country towns in the 60’s? Some would argue this was not the case. But Sue Lawson has taken a pocket of humanity to illustrate the racist attitudes which promoted the Freedom Ride movement. Many who lived in similar locations would agrue that these emotions were not rampant in their mind’s eye – but for those suffering racist taunts and restrictions, it would have felt this way.

An interesting tale to put young adults in another person’s place and time in history.

October 24

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.

August 19

Struggle to be free – the Invention of Wings

inventionofwingsxI 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.

 

March 25

After ‘Fault in our Stars’… Zac and Mia!

imageZac is condemned – to spend an insufferable number of days, confined to a room, in the cheerful company of his mother. Not that he hates his mother’s presence – he just hates that she feels she has to be here. Or that he has to be here. But that’s what the medical system recommends. For treatment of his disease. And Zac accepts this.

Mia, on the other hand, resists. In the room next to Zac’s, she shouts, argues with her mother, and plays Lady Gaga on repeat, repeat, repeat.

Confined to his room, Zac wonders about the girl next door. Why is she so angry? Why does she argue with her mother? Why doesn’t she realise that the odds of her survival are so much higher than others on the ward? He knows all this – he has spent plenty of time googling for that kind of statistic. And her stats are good…

A.J.Betts  spent quite some time with kids in hospital. That fact is obvious. Her story is woven with mundane but realistic facts about living and dying with cancer. Without being boring, she tells of the ‘day-to-day’ experienced by families impacted by serious childhood illness, and the different ways they might cope.

Some have compared ‘Zac and Mia’ to ‘the Fault in Our Stars’. Some reviewers have criticized it as a copy, but having been written around the same time in a different continent it simply relates a similar focus – of young people dealing with cancer.

Having read and enjoyed both, and investigated the timing etc. needed to publish a book, I would say to the reader just ENJOY BOTH stories, since they have unique qualities to share. Zac and Mia do not go through the same therapy programs (as Hazel and Augustus). Zac and Mia finally meet after talking on Facebook and through hospital walls! Under different circumstances, their paths may never have crossed.

Strangely, the differences in their lives is what draws them together. The support Zac has in his family and friends is sadly lacking, for much of the story, for Mia. Their sameness is the struggle they face with a potentially lethal disease.

Zac and Mia is a thoughtful story, filled with astute observations and discreet comments from an author who has spent time on a hospital ward, supporting young adults in dire times. There is lots to absorb and think about – especially for those trying to understand some of the struggles faced by teen cancer patients.

A little bit extra:

In weeks to come, there will be a list of other books for those who have enjoyed  both ‘the Fault on Our Stars’ and ‘Zac and Mia’.

For those who can’t wait, there is another book worth reading – This Star Won’t Go Out’ by Esther Earl. This is a real life journey, said to have inspired John Green’s story, ‘the Fault on Our Stars’ – this video introduces Esther’s book. (Comments here from John Green and Esther’s sisters.)

That there are a number of books with a focus on young adults with life threatening illnesses at the moment is probably more a reflection of the openness of the medical profession, and more education from the media, than duplication or copying of an idea. What do you think?

March 11

History lessons – Orphan Trains

orphanSometimes we learn things from books which we never knew about. For me, I had never heard of the concept of ‘orphan trains’ until I read the book ‘Orphan Train’ by Christina Baker Kline.

Here is some information about ‘orphan trains’, according to Wikipedia:

The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. which took young children into the countryside to be adopted by country families of the USA.

Baker Kline’s tale personalises this experience, and makes us consider what it might be like to be relocated and adopted as a young girl, at this time in history, in a foreign land…

A young Irish girl, Niamh (pronounced “Neeve”), who immigrated from Ireland during the Great Depression, loses her entire family when a fire rips through their apartment building in their new homeland. The authorities see fit to send her on an orphan train for fostering by a family in the countryside – this deemed to be her only choice.

Orph-Train.photo1_Niamh’s tale is told by Vivian – an elderly woman living alone in a large house full of untouched possessions. Her possessions in the attic begin to be sorted with the arrival of Molly – a wayward teen, on her last chances in the foster care system. A community service position helping the elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvenile detention.

Molly is reluctant to take part in the activity – since she is beyond expecting to get anything positive out of her life; but her boyfriend persists and encourages her to ‘do her time’ this way.

As Molly helps Vivian sort and revisit possessions, Vivian’s story plays out and they find they have more in common that might first be apparent.

In ‘Orphan Train’ Baker Kline provides characters and families to history, as well as presenting the emotions that could be felt by orphans and ofster children of the modern day. It is a story of both desperation and hope; of upheaval and settling; of desertion and friendship. Within it pages, both Molly and Vivian learn from one another, and the gap between generations dissolves. Past experiences shape us, but the present is how we learn and grow from these.

What things in the past have shaped how you are today?

Is there anything in ‘Orphan Train’ that surprises you? or anything you might question?

NB. Listening to this tale was a great experience as each character spoke in a different accent, as it jumped between differing locations and times!

March 9

Before and After – ‘After’ by Sue Lawson

afterCJ is sent to stay with his grandparents in the countryside. It is in the middle of the school year. He is not happy. Neither are they.

Life in the country is also quite different from the city life he is used to. There’s a lot of different jobs to do on the farm. Many different animals to get used to. And then, there’s a whole lot of new ‘animals’ and other stuff to adapt to at a new school.

The trouble for CJ (Callum) is that the town of Winter Creek knows more about him than he does. Nobody has told him anything about his background. What is worse is that Jack Frewen knows a whole lot more about him than he would like him to know. On top of this, Callum also has aspects about his recent past that he would like to forget – if only his nightmares and daytime flashbacks would allow him.

Sue Lawson has packaged some great characters into ‘After’. Why? Because they are realistic and believable. They could be your best mate, your worst (bullying) enemy, or your long lost grandparent. Look left or right, Jack or Ella or Tim may be one of your schoolmates. Nic or Benny may be much like your best friend. Or least, someone you know at school.

Since Callum strives to be a loner at his new school – private and solitary, it is interesting that along the way, he buddies up with Luke; a ‘special’ boy at school, victim of taunts and teasing. Someone who used to be someone great until….

Callum’s quiet acceptance of all that is dished out to him at school, bubbles under the surface through most of the story, at a time when he is struggling with why his mother has sent him away. He doesn’t dob on those who bully him. He doesn’t want to talk about his past. He doesn’t want to sort things out with his mother or his grandmother. How many of the people you know at school and work might be feeling much the same? [Quietly troubled.]

Events traipse along in ‘After’, loosely connected along a line of sporting and school activities. Favours and favouritism raise their heads, as old alliances are paid out with blind acceptance of the way things just play out in a country town. But Callum’s arrival begins to challenge the old order. And some, like Jack Frewen, aren’t happy about that.

Old hurts, anger, blocked memories and misinterpretations are some of the key things Callum has to deal with – which becomes clear to us as we move between the ‘Before’ and ‘After’ elements of this story.  Little by little, bits of Callum’s past are revealed – many of which are new to Callum himself. When some are revealed in an antagonistic manner, how will he react?

‘After’ is a story of hurt, rejection and reconciliation. A story of contrasts and differences.  A story of acceptance and friendship.

What do you think?

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See: http://www.suelawson.com.au/books/young-adult/ for more.

* For more great books by Sue Lawson see: http://www.suelawson.com.au/books/young-adult/ – including ‘Finding Darcy’, ‘Allie McGregor’s True Colours’ and ‘Pan’s Whisper’.

February 24

The human side of August 6, 1945

yokoThere have been many books written covering the impact of World War (both I and II), but are they as touching as this one?

Many years after her death from the release of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Yoko Moriwaki’s brother was encouraged to publish her childhood diary.

As a twelve year old, Yoko kept a simple diary in which she recorded daily events in her life, from the time when she was admitted to the prestigious, First Hiroshima Prefectural Girls’ High School in April 1945. It may have been a project set by her teacher, but within its young prose, Yoko has captured the essence of life for many school children in Japan at this time.

In this edition, interspersed with her entries, are explanatory notes which help the non-Japanese reader to understand many of the cultural aspects which impacted her young life – their religion, celebrations, customs and expectations of young and old. It also adds to the mundane action of daily tasks and routines Yoko kept to as a child of the 1940’s.

It is a record of a young girl, her hopes and dreams, and her feelings about life in Japan as major battles were played out both worldwide and on the homefront. Though it is a little repetitive at times, and hardly an exciting journey, it does reveal the way in which ordinary  life goes on at home during wartime, both in spite of and because of wartime needs.

It also shows how, slowly, wartime rationing and the government’s efforts to rally national pride impinge on the ordinariness of her life. As school students, Japanese children were gradually employed in the war effort, to the point of clearing areas that had been bombed, and with minimal time for proper school classes,; these reducing as the war extended.

Throughout, as reflected in Yoko’s commments, students were made to think that Japan would soon win the war, and were taught to blame the American and British for all their discomforts. Yoko’s diary constantly remarks that she needed to do her best, in spite of discomforts or shortages, since it was nothing “compared to what our soldiers are going through.” She records that the deputy headmaster said: “We must work hard because the fate of our country, Japan, rests on our shoulders.”

Many of the days have similar entries.About long days of travel to and from school, along with the constant interruptions of the air raid signals. Yoko’s days are long – with home duties combined with unexpected changes to her normal routines. Visits to family, absences of her mother, anxiety about her father on the war front are all revealed through her innocent childhood diary entries.

What makes this story different are the additional explanations by the editor alluded to earlier and the trbutes to Yoko, gathered by her brother, from those who knew her at this time. Survivors reflect on Yoko, and the ordinariness of life before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Yoko’s diary brings home the harsh reality for the innocent victims caught up in war – and hopefully gives humanity a moment to think of the need to find better ways to resolve global conflict.

Can stories such as this make a difference to our thinking? If we better understood different cultures around the globe would there be less conflict? Do such stories change our points of view?

February 3

I am who I am – Dying to Know You

dying‘Dying to Know You’ begins with a young man knocking on the door of an author asking for help.

Karl has a girlfriend. Fiorella wants him to prove how much he likes her by writing answers to a set of questions she poses for him. The trouble is, Karl is dyslexic. He is also rather unsure of himself, after year of failure at school, and is certainly uncomfortable writing down his feelings.

His solution to the problem is to enlist the help of one of Fiorella’s favourite authors.

The (unnamed) author is decidedly reluctant at the start. After all, he is getting on in years, seventy-something, so why should he bother? However, for some reason, Karl gets under his skin, and he decides to help him compose the replies.

Along the way, the pair discover a little more about each other – though both have personal issues they hide. Unfortunately, they can’t hide the fact that it is not Karl who is writing the answers to Fiorella’s questions, even though the author does his best to interpret what Karl means to say.

Aidan Chambers is seventy-something himself. It is often said that you should write about what you know. Aidan Chambers does. Since the book is written from the (seventy-something) author’s perspective, you get a different view of young people, and it is hopeful and sympathetic.

There isn’t the usual criticism of Gen Y and their failings, or disrespect of the older generation. It is a sensitive story dealing with a young man’s attempt to find love and purpose in his life, while unintentionally connecting and impacting a much older generation.

Early in the story, Karl is the one keen to maintain the connection. As it continues, it is the author who begins to feel the need to stay in touch with the teenager – for his sake as much as Karl’s. The unexpected friendship develops naturally through the ups and downs of their emotional lives.

Several key events arise – some of which have had people questioning whether the issues dealt with in DTKY are suitable for teen readers. An answer to this is provided by Patrick Ness in a review in the Guardian:

So is this a book for teenagers? Why on earth not? It features two fully realised, complicated teenagers at its centre, viewed with a clear-eyed compassion by an observer who could have tipped towards the alien but remains fully human. It is perfect for that cloudy expanse between older teenager and younger adult, a novel that doesn’t pretend to advise, but merely sees its characters for who they really are. No one appreciates that more than a teenager does. Source: Patrick Ness, Dying to Know You by Aidan Chambers – review – an unexpected and unusual friendship, the Guardian,

Do you think Chambers portrays the complexities of teenage life decisions realistically? Is it effective to have a seventy-something year old telling the tale? Have you ever had a special friendship develop from surprising circumstances? Is that something we all need?

Aidan Chambers shares a lot on his website. And here are a few thoughts from him when asked ‘who would you like to read your books?’:

I’m not interested in readers who read quickly just to pass the time. I’m not in the entertainment industry. Of course, I want my books to be enjoyed, to give pleasure. But that’s a different matter. I get pleasure from working hard, when it’s work I want to do. As a reader, I enjoy reading books that make me think and that are so rich and generous that I have to reread them to get all I can from them. So I suppose I want to write books of that kind and want to be read by people who read the way I do. Source: Aidan Chambers, Frequently Asked Questions, http://www.aidanchambers.co.uk/faqs.htm

Will ‘Dying to Know You’ be a book that you will reread?

October 8

Memoirs – Unpolished Gem

untitledOne of the great values of ‘reading’ an audiobook occurs when there is a distinct accent that knits the story together. This is certainly the case for Unpolished Gem, which I have been enjoying recently on my way to work.

The story is the memoir of Alice Pung’s immigrant family – their heritage including past lives in Vietnam and in Cambodia under the regime of Pol Pot. Alice, now a successful writer and lawyer, recounts her impressions of life as a child living across two very different cultures in suburban Melbourne.

Her family arrives in Australia and is in awe of all it has to offer – so different from their homeland experiences, and indeed, so different from the current migrant experience. For them, the suburban streets, shops and government support systems provide so much. In fact, every day her grandmother blesses ‘Father Government’ for giving old people money.

As refugees from the Pol Pot regime, her parents have great expectations of their new homeland, not the least of which is the value of education for their family. The family works hard – her mother as an outworker, while her father eventually becomes a ‘business entreprenuer’ embracing the miracle of franchising.

Naturally, though they embrace the Aussie dream, theirs is tempered by many strong cultural ideals. Insights into the Chinese culture are given with snippets of family conversations revealing their thoughts on how things should be done, must be done, as Alice struggles at times to bridge both cultures.

Listening to Unpolished Gem was fun – to hear Chinese expression, and the repetition and patterns of stilted Chinglish. The frustrations and struggles of Alice’s childhood also feel very authentic in the audio version, as her voice switches from recounts of the things she needed to learn, and things she needed to help her parents (particularly her mother) understand. Pung also loves language and Unpolished Gem is full of quirky sayings, and vivid playful language, so also dipping into the physical book was immensely satisfying.

Published in 2006, Unpolished Gem received much acclaim, and I imagine it would be an interesting contrast to the refugee experience of today. With the authentic insights it gives of a cross-cultural childhood, it is an unforgettable story with moments of tenderness, humour and bittersweet struggles well worth revisiting.

In an interview Writers Talk, Pung reflects on her family, inspiration for writing the book and the migrant experience:

A great book for concepts of belonging, cultural identity or journeys. Or simply a great read!