July 28

Feeling historical – the Blue Cat

SYDNEY 1942 – what was it like to live during this period of time? In her new book, the Blue Cat, Ursula Dubosarsky provides insight from a child’s point of view.

Even though the adults try to keep things as normal as possible, Columba can sense that something is awry. Even as they paste black paper over the windows of the front room, her parents reassure her that the war is a long way away. Her teachers also echo this belief, while fostering national pride at every opportunity.

But then things ARE different. There is a sense of foreboding as people listen to news broadcasts, and begin to promote ways to help the ‘war effort’. Even Columba’s young friend, Hilda, is caught up with a desire to raise money after her brother becomes a prisoner of war overseas.

The arrival of Ellery, a refugee from the fighting in Europe adds further to the puzzled life Columba faces, as war impacts more and more in Australia. Why doesn’t he speak English? Where is his family? Should she be friends with him?

‘The Blue Cat’ centres on how children try to make sense of things they aren’t fully aware of, even while life attempts to go on as normal. Throughout the tale, snippets of history are captured, using historical photographs, newspaper clippings and letters:

…the sorts of things that Columba, Hilda and Ellery might have seen and read themselves as they roamed the streets of Neutral Bay in 1942. (Ursula Dubosarsky commenting on the picture sources.)

Told from the perspective of young children, ‘the Blue Cat’ raises questions like:

how much should parents protect their children from world events? (would this even be possible today?)

can children even understand the impact of war at a distance?

what was it like for a child refugee from WWII? (especially a German Jew)what was it like when Australia was under the threat of air raids and bombs?

what was it like when Australia was under the threat of air raids and bombs?

how might we react today?

Dubosarsky chats about what inspired her to write ‘the Blue Cat’ in this guest post on Kids’ Book Review. With an ongoing interest in interpreting and portraying Australia’s past, this follows similar/perhaps stronger tales like ‘the Red Shoe’ and ‘the Golden Day’ which also reflect Australian life in another time. And yet another nomination for the Children’s Book Council of Australia awards for 2017. Will it get your vote?

(Click on titles to see past reviews of these.)

February 24

the Mozart Question – Michael Morpurgo

Renowned author, Michael Morpurgo, deals with yet another challenging issue in this short tale – how can we discuss trials and tragedies of the past? How do we heal the impact of extreme and damaging situations which haunt survivors – things their descendants struggle to understand?

When a young reporter is thrust into an important interview with a famous violinist, she is warned not to ask ‘the Mozart question’. Thankfully, she is unaware of what this means and in her innocence of this, she is able to develop an extremely meaningful and significant conversation with a descendant – of a survivor – of a Nazi concentration camp.

Morpurgo has written several stories related to the impact of war  – most famously, War Horse, which has been made into both a global stage play and a movie. ‘The Mozart Question’ tackles the silence many families have faced, post-war, and gives younger readers a hint of discussions that never happened after major wars. What were the things that no-one wanted to discuss? How hard was it to have been a survivor? What were the impacts on life after survival?

‘The Mozart Question’ represents many of the unasked questions we have for survivors of war. In this story, we might ask:

  • Why doesn’t Paulo’s Papa play his violin anymore?
  • Why did his mother never reveal that she also played violin?
  • How will they react to Paulo’s violin lessons?

Morpurgo offers one type of resolution to come through an extreme wartime experience –  what can we learn from this? Can it reflect real life? and what can we learn about human resilience in the face of historical tragedy? Can stories like this show us what people have faced in times of war and beyond? Yes, yes!

# Listen to Michael Morpurgo (2010) discussing where his stories spring from:

August 12

Magic disguises

NewtsEmerald.inddSometimes, authors have an idea for a book which takes a while to complete.

Garth Nix’ book Newt’s Emerald is an example of this – beginning its life (well, the first lines) 23 years before it was published! In a note at the back of the book, Nix talks about the first version of this book “which remains in a bottom drawer and there it will stay.” Thus, Newt’s Emerald represents the re-working of a past tale from Nix’ creative mind.

Within the story there is a mix of fantasy, love story and historical fiction, as Lady Truthful seeks to recapture an enchanted emerald stolen from her ailing father. To do so, she uses her own enchantments (along with those of her aunt), to follow a dangerous journey while disguised as a man.

Woven into the mix is her proposed introduction to society, as a young lady from a well-to-do family, turning eighteen.  Thus, Truthful switches between the roles of a well-bred young lady and a gentleman, known as Chevalier de Vienne (her own French cousin). Will she be detected?

Truthful herself, is a mix of personalities – able to act as a lady, but at the same time able to parry with the male cousins with whom she has grown up. These influences come into play as the story moves into dangerous situations, as Truthful calls upon both her instinct and undeveloped magical powers to recover the Newington Emerald.

Add into this, an evil sorceress, people who are not always who they say there are, and you have situations which can twist and turn as the pages turn.

Newt’s Emerald – ‘a regency romance with a magical twist’. Shortlisted in the CBCA Older Reader’s  category this year.

Will it pull off a magical award? Will it enchant Garth Nix fans? Will the mix of fantasy, romance and historical fiction bewitch young readers?

Perhaps Garth Nix describing his book might invite you into the tale?

June 13

Freedom Ride

freedomSue Lawson’s book, Freedom Ride, has previously been reviewed on this blog, so it is just to offer congratulations for its inclusion on the CBCA shortlist that this post is about. And to offer praise for a well-told historical fiction tale which is sure to make people stop and think.

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. https://crewsreviews.edublogs.org/2015/08/11/history-meets-fiction/

Since this time, Freedom Ride has already received several accolades, being included in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult Literature, and of course, the current CBCA shortlist.

Freedom Ride was actually released to coincide with NAIDOC week, an annual celebration of Indigenous achievement. It is another worthy choice which young adults will enjoy, even as it teaches us something (cringeworthy) about our past.

How powerful is it for us to learn history from fiction? Do you enjoy reading historical fiction? 

February 27

One Thousand Hills – Remembering Rwanda

One Thousand HillsFor Pascale, life had a predictable routine which included regular chores at home, regular teasing by his older brother and a pattern to the week. As a child in Rwanda, life was simple, but set in a loving and supportive family. He knew the happiness of running around with his friend, Henri; the pestering of a (lovable) little sister, Nadine, and the warmth of his loving parents.

But things were set to change, as events with catastrophic impact on the country of Rwanda ignited.

James Roy has set his novel ‘One Thousand Hills’ in April 1994, in the days leading up to, and during, the first of 100 days the genocide in which eight hundred thousand Rwandans were slaughtered. Through the eyes of Pascale, we view some of the horror and the impact of civil strife on innocents – innocents who are caught ‘hiding or running in fear’ when they should be running around in the playful games of childhood.

Through the voice of Pascale, we slowly learn of the whispers and hushed tones that alert him to something being amiss. His neighbour, Mrs Malolo released her chickens, explaining to them:

We can’t take you with us… I hope you lay your eggs somewhere peaceful and safe.

Things were even noticeably different at church on Sunday, in what was usually a joyous occasion in the week. The sermon was ominous, and afterwards people were less cordial to one another. ‘An uncomfortable heaviness hung in the air.’ Pascale notes. He also noted glances and nods  between his parents, as if there was something secret they were sharing.

As a 10 year old boy, the explanation of events Pascale is able to give is cloudy, fragmented and incomplete. Interjected in between these descriptions, however, is the record of counselling sessions with Pascale as a 15 year old – a 15 year old dealing with a traumatic past. But waht we read is enough to imagine the horrific times.

The ugly divisiveness of cultural differences between the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda is introduced in several ways, including the tearful break-up of his teacher, Miss Uwazuba and her boyfriend – ‘A Hutu Romeo and a Tutsi Juliet’. Many others with whom Pascale had friendships within his village Agabande, end up rejecting him – and slowly, with increasing uneasiness, he begins to understand the radio news about ‘crushing the cockroaches’.

In ‘One Thousand Hills’ James Roy tackles an enormous event in world history, in partnership with Noel Zihabamwe, who actually lived through these events as a ten year old. Their reasons are clear:

We wanted to tell this story because we believe it’s only by understanding the terrible and tragic events of the past that we can prevent similar events happening again in the future. (Author’s Note)

A challenging read. While ‘One Thousand Hills’ is not a happy tale, it reminds us of a bleak part of world history which has had far-reaching consequences (including two decades of unrest in neighbouring DR Congo, which have cost the lives of an estimated five million people) – something we cannot simply brush aside or ignore.

Sometimes we need to take on challenging reads like this, or those listed below. What do you think?

Further reading

Rwanda genocide: 100 days of slaughter (BBC News) explains more.

For an older (biographical) perspective on Rwanda, read:

February 7

Light and Dark

all the lightA young blind girl living in Paris. A poor German orphan. A mystical precious gem, the Sea of Flames. And the ominous background of World War II.

These are the characters to be blended together in ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ – a novel 10 years in the  making, a novel awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015.

Marie-Laure, who has been blind since the age of 6, lives with doting father, a locksmith who works at the Museum of Natural History of Paris. Building a small wooden model of their neighbourhood, her father has cleverly encouraged her to use all her other senses to get about. Time spent at the museum has also alerted her quick and curious mind. When trouble looms from the German occupation of Paris, Marie and her father flee to refuge with relatives in Saint Malo, a walled city by the sea. [See image below]

In another world, Werner seems doomed to follow in his father’s footsteps, working in the mines which ulitmately killed him. However, fortune shines on him (though lightly), when he is discovered as a clever young boy capable of fixing radios; saved from the mines, but caste into the Hitler Youth.

‘All the Light We Cannot See’ tells their tales in parallel for some time, slipping backwards and forwards through times from 1934 – 1944, and on to 1974. Through their eyes, we experience the conditions in 2 different countries before, during and after WWII, and can begin to understand the dark condition of Europe and its inhabitants, during these times. Like many war stories, we are exposed to many grim situations and many dark personalities. The presence of the young, through whose eyes this is ‘seen’, makes it all even more chilling – especially if you multiply by the millions of children they might actually represent in real events.

Anthony Doerr plays with light and dark in many ways. That Marie-Laure spends her life in darkness, but brings some lightness to the story, is one. She ‘sees’ quite a lot in the story – sensing a lot about people, even just from the way they walk or speak. Her ability to move about her home town, and her new home and village (at Saint Malo) are what her loving father wisely prepared her for. It is not surprising, however, that ultimately darkness pervades her tale.

city-of-st-malo2

The walled town of Saint Malo

Werner’s story has little light to it. His options are dark mines, or dark enlistment to the Hitler Youth and WWII. As an orphan, he has lived somewhat happily with his sister in a children’s home. Taken from this to work ‘for the Fuhrer’, he experiences and witnesses many dark events and situations. Reading these experiences is harrowing and upsetting; through the study of history we know too well that they are quite true reflections of what happened for many – though perhaps we don’t always consider it from the point of view of children.

Other light plays into the story with the legend of the ‘Sea of Flames’ – a precious diamond which is said to be both valuable and a curse – a diamond which has 3 replicas made to keep it safe. And the light we cannot see – radiowaves – impacts them all.

As you might expect, the storylines don’t remain parallel, and events (and the Sea of Flames) draw their lives together, though perhaps not as truly expected.

Here’s a short video you might like to watch before you read the book – Anthony Doerr discusses the inspiration for ‘All the Light You Cannot See’. Or read this interview.

November 12

Mists and memories

imageAxl and his wife Beatrice cannot understand why they can no longer have a candle in the darkness of their modest home at the edge of their village warren – but that is what had been decided. Struggling also with the taunts of unruly, undisciplined children and the vagueness overcoming other villagers, they decide to embark on a journey to see their son.

Even though, for an elderly couple, such a journey looms as an ominous unknown venture, they feel compelled to attempt it  – and so Ishiguro weaves a veil of intrigue over their travels, and they move amongst differing villages and cultural contexts.

Others they meet along the way include warriors out for revenge, misguided monks upholding tradition and rituals, outcastes of various types, and a brave, though elderly, knight – all with passions of their own, and ideals conflicting with one another.

The world Ishiguro has created has mystical elements, including a mist of forgetfulness, dragons, pixies and ogres. Within this, human spirit battles historical conflicts, myths of the past and present, and that ‘which-may-be-remembered-but-probably-shouldn’t’.

A powerful mist has robbed many of their memories – both good and bad – and Axl and Beatrice had seen evidence of this occurring more and more before they left on their journey. They too, strugged to recall much of their past, but in their hearts they sought to find their son, and so their journey begins.

‘The Buried Giant’ recalls parts of history – the conflict between the Saxons and the Britons, but talks of a time of forgetting when they live peacefully side by side. Niggling memories are what haunt those like Axl and Beatrice, Master Wistan and Sir Gawain, and suspicion and cultural beliefs hunt young Edwin from his native home.

Their fragmented journey together, where loyalties are tested time and again, make for a challenging tale of love, life and destiny. Yet another well crafted tale from Master Ishiguro, including a beautiful portrayal of love and marriage.

For a bit of a taster, listen to this audio excerpt. This is definitely a great book for an audio version – I really enjoyed hearing the different voices, so well expressed by David Horovitch.

For another, more extensive review read: http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2015/mar/04/kazuoishiguro-fiction

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.

July 21

A10567 – just a number?

altmannAs I read Alexander Altman A10567, I recalled Suzy Zail’s earlier book the Wrong Boy – and it made sense that this book should follow. It made even more sense, when I read an interview where she spoke of wanting to tell her father’s story of surviving Auschwitz.

As Suzy stated in this interview:

There were history books and photos in the library, but not all children liked to read history books. Not all of them were ready for graphic images. I’d been to schools and libraries and talked to children about their holocaust reading and knew that the best way I could help them understand the holocaust was by giving them a character to care about.

In Alexander Altman A10567, she certainly gives young readers someone to care about (primarily 14 year old Alex). And as she describes the trials and desperation of those in concentration camps, there is also lots to think about on a personal scale. In doing so, Zail has not protected young minds from the brutalities of war, but causes you to think about the dark things that have happened in the world’s history, and the powerful instinct of survival.

Alexander’s world is understandably turned upside down as his family trudges towards the Jewish concentraion camp of Auschwitz. The alone, in survival mode, his wits are sharpened and his trust in others switches off. He sees too much, and questions everything in his efforts to survive. Truly a reflection of the brutal experiences and suffering which Zail researched – but there is hope and humanity to be discovered – somehow.

As another reviewer stated:

Alexander Altmann A10567 is not for the faint-hearted. People die horrendous, senseless deaths between its pages. However, Alexander Altmann A10567 is not to be missed if you can manage to push through. The power of one simple act of kindness truly can change the world.

pic-A-U-Auschwitz concentration camp gate

Auschwitz Concentration Camp Gate

With the character of Alexander Altmann based on the experiences of a real Auschwitz survivor (Fred Steiner), Zail has personalised history, shared the atrocities of war and made history accessible to young readers. Many will identify with the changing emotions of Alexander – even though it might be really hard to imagine being in his place. Certainly, it provides another way to understand some of the impacts of the Holocaust on the Jewish people – fitting well alongside other books such as the Book Thief, the Boy in Striped Pyjamas and of course, the Wrong Boy.

# One of the 21 CBCA Book of the Year Awards Notables for 2015.

April 30

Guest post: Listen to the Moon

Listen-to-the-Moon-jacketFrom the author of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo, this is an intriguing tale full of warmth and friendship set against the backdrop of World War 1.

It includes an injured girl washed up on a rocky island off the end of England, Mozart’s music, a cranky school teacher, the German U-boat campaign, a kindly doctor, a boy who prefers sailing to going to school,  a mystery, islanders who swing between suspicion and compassion for the stranger in their midst, a floating piano, a family who were determined to do what was right, a horse, the Lusitania, and courage and resourcefulness, all of which is true. To say any more would be to spoil the story.

 Morpurgo says that he wrote it because this is ‘the most unlikely and unbelievable story I have ever heard.’

You too will be amazed. Highly recommended. (M.Cayzer)

N.B. If you visit this link, you will see what sort of things inspired Michael Morpurgo to write ‘Listen to the Moon’. You can also hear from Morpurgo in the video below as he answers FAQs.