January 22

Loyalties – Two Wolves

Where do your loyalties lie? Would you do anything for your friends? your family? What if things didn’t seem to be quite right?

Ben is placed in a difficult situation. He and his sister are suddenly bundled into the car with their parents as they ‘head off for a holiday’. But it’s NOT school holidays, and they are NOT heading off to some exciting resort. And the way that dad is acting is downright crazy!

For instance, why do they have to swap from their old car into an even dodgier vehicle from Uncle Chris? And why on earth are they headed to his grandfather’s dark and dank old cabin, if they are supposed to be going on a holiday? Even his dad hadn’t been there for ages!

As he contemplates the answers to these questions, Ben collects strands of information together to try to make sense of things. After all, he’s always dreamt  of becoming a detective. Thus, he jots down in his notebook all sorts of things; like the surprise visit of police officers at their family home, the family’s rapid departure after this (still in their school clothes!), and all the other insane events which follow.

When his parents are evasive about the reasons for everything that is happening, Ben does his best to uncover the truth. In doing so, he continues to battle with his father and even begins to question his mother’s sanity. Should his parents really be dragging Ben and Olive into the dangerous situation seemingly on the run from the law?

Ben’s choices waiver as he thinks of those who will be impacted – including his pesky sister, Violet, and his parents. As he reflects on events as his circumstances rapidly change, he ponders how much he has inherited from his dad and where his loyalties should lie. Then he worries, is he simply a ‘chip off the old block’, destined to follow his father’s dodgy footsteps?

There are several twists and turns in Tristan Bancks latest book, which is due for release in March this year. Like his other ‘Mac Slater Coolhunter’ books, Bancks delivers a likeable main character, with choices to make, and consequences to consider from his actions.

Bancks is also very adept in using all sorts of media in his storytelling – which makes sense given his background in acting and film making. His skills include sharing some of these creative ideas via a multimedia story brainstorming app, Story Scrapbook, and lots of encouraging advice you can investigate at: http://www.tristanbancks.com/

October 16

the Kensington Reptilarium

the-kensington-reptilariumFor a long time, they were left to their own devices – able to run wild and free in the Australian outback. Then, sadly for the Caddy children, they receive news that not only their father is missing, but also that they are to be transported to London to live with their uncle because of this.

As they discover, postwar London is a vastly different place to their homeland. Also vastly different is the response of their uncle to their arrival as his family. Four grubby, wild kids from the outback are not what the reclusive Uncle Basti expects to house and care for in his London abode.

Then again, Uncle Basti’s London abode is not exactly what the four grubby children expected either. The fact that it houses a personal collection of snakes and other reptiles in the heart of London is also quite surprising.

As kids from the outback, who have been very much left to their own devices since their mother passed away, Kick, Scruff, Bert and Pin are bold and united – characteristics which see them overcome their uncle’s initial rejection when he flees his house.

As you would imagine, Uncle Basti is quite eccentric. Most of the characters in Nikki Gemmel’s first children’s novel are. Kick, as the nominal mother to her siblings, is wild and unruly – and her appearance reflects this; her character strong and protective. Pin, as the baby of the family, brings the elements of innocence and need to which his brother and sisters respond. The middle children, Scruff (Ralph) and Bert (Albertina), round-out or square-up the family as needed, while they endeavour to make the most of their strange situation in London. They provide important support to Kick when it almost becomes to much for her.

Family is important. What family means to the Caddy children is clear – yet while they don’t clearly state it, an adult figure in their life would make it even better. Uncle Basti’s family, however, is mainly of the reptilian variety – but for how much longer?

Gemmell’s book is fun and curious. Uncle Basti’s house is full rooms with surprises and challenges – intriguing to the imagination of readers young and old. Parts of it remind me of tales like Lemony Snickett, Nanny McPhee and others; with struggles, conflict and the hope of a happy ending. After all, when will Uncle Basti stop changing his mind about whether they are able to stay with him or be sent to an orphanage? And what will become of Perdita, Uncle Basti’s pet cobra, and the rest of his reptile menagerie? And how will they be able to celebrate Christmas in a strange city in a time of post-war rationing without their dad?

In a letter about her book, Gemmell explained that she wrote this book initially for her children to draw them away from screens, and because “the flame of reading passion just wouldn’t ignite”. Did she succeed? Yes, they loved it and I am sure there could be many others who might just have that flame lit for them, as they tumble along with the Caddy kids in their Kensington Reptilarium adventure.

July 23

Chopsticks and Roof Beams

chopsticks‘…she only managed to give birth to a handful of chopsticks and no roof-beam.’ I was struck by this way of referring to girls and boys. I had never heard it before, but it seemed to epitomise the manner in which the Chinese view the differences between men and women…

And so begins an explanation of why the narrator and her five sisters were only ever given a number as a name, and why their family faced much disgrace in countryside China – and why Three takes the opportunity as a young girl, to go to the city of Nanjing to find work when her uncle offers.

‘Miss Chopsticks’ is an interesting and unusual story which shows many contrasts between:
1. values placed on girls and boys
2. attitudes in city and rural areas of China
3. old and new ways

Xinran was born in China, but separated from her mother by the Cultural Revolution, and so grew up with her grandparents in Beijing. In China, after the Cultural Revlotion ended, she became a radio broadcaster whose program, “Words on the Night Breeze”, encouraged lots of discussion about true picture of the daily lives of Chinese women. Her high media profile ultimately lead her to leave China for England in 1997, where she began to carve out her current career in journalism and writing.

With this background, you can understand that her stories, including Miss Chopsticks, are well-informed and genuine  reflections of China as she knew it , and China as she hopes it is becoming today. Her girls, Three, Five and Six, are not tragic figures in ‘Miss Chopsticks’ but rather succeed in overcoming their birth consequences. They represent a new generation of Chinese girls. Unlike many other Asian tales, it is a more lighthearted. While it portrays some harsh values which still exist in parts of China, it does offer hope.

‘Miss Chopsticks’ is loosely based on many of the girls and women that Xinran has met –

“For a long time I have wanted to write down some of the stories of the girls I have met…”

Xinran gives an interesting insight to Chinese life and values. There is much to be learned from this tale. It would also be interesting to know how it might have been received in China…

For more detail about Xinran, there are many articles you can read from the Guardian.

November 21

Changing Perspectives – Pennies for Hitler

For Georg, life in Germany is just fine – with 2 loving parents and a settled homelife. As an 11 year old, he believes all that his teacher, Herr Doktor Schöner, tells him about Adolf Hitler and the differences between races – even if his (English) father’s views were not quite as adoring.

Things change rapidly when there is a demonstration at a university graduation ceremony that his family attends – an uprising against Jews, and his professor father is caught in the crossfire. Georg and his mother flee the scene, and he is literally ‘packed off’ to live with an English relative, without knowing his father’s fate.

Since his grandmother has Jewish blood, Georg’s mother fears for his safety. In England, of course, it is his German heritage that could put him at great risk, so for a long time he has little to do with anyone other that his aunt and the local librarian.

Life is lonely for Georg, who must now be known as George.  To try to develop an English accent, he spends time reading and listening to the radio. His aunt is kept busy, spending long days away from the apartment supporting the war effort. In fact, life is not normal for many in London, as the war makes food scarce and, for their own safety, many children are sent to the countryside. When the bombing of London increases, his aunt’s workplace also has to be relocated, but Georg cannot go with her.

Once again he is packed off – this time on a ship to Australia to live with a foster family. For a while, he develops new friendships with other children on the journey, responsible as an older child for several others. Soon he finds that these friendships are to be taken away by the relocation exercise, and wonders if he will ever be able to maintain any family ties or friendships.

Sadly, many of Georg’s experiences were very real (and worse) for children who grew up in the war years.

Jackie French has again provided a story that is both well-researched and realistic. Using Georg’s perspective in changing situations, she makes us ponder how men define and create enemies, and how the truth can be manipulated by propaganda. It also helps us think about the many impacts of war on families, and how we decide who we love and hate.

Through it all, Georg is unsure of whether his parents are still alive. Hiding his German/Jewish heritage becomes crucial, as he settles in several different situations. Will he finally with a loving foster family in Australia, find happiness within himself and among the country community?

For a sneak preview of the book, here’s a link to the first chapter.

June 4

Brothers – ‘When We were Two’ – Robert Newton

Dan’s had enough and takes off from home – the trouble is Eddie, his younger brother has decided to tag along too. What is he to do? Turn around to take him back? Send him back to a cruel and aggressive father – the one he is fleeing from himself?

Eddie is determined and refuses to go back anyway. So to make tracks , Dan has to encourage the marching activity Eddie loves, put up with his incessant chatter and humour him with stories and imaginings. And thus they march away from their old life in Gunnedah.

Along the road (to the distant Port Macquarie), Dan has to have his wits about him, as they encounter different people with different levels of interest in the pair. Dan is wary of the many of the adults they meet on the road; including one who shows an uncomfortable interest in young Eddie. (Eddie is a little slow following a childhood accident; Dan is hugely protective of him.)

Robert Newton has blended some endearing characters in this tale, and he takes you alongside on their march, with both humorous events and soulful accounts of the boys’ past. Each step they take becomes a triumph, as they overcome lots of hurdles along the way – both physical and mental hurdles, and you really want to cheer them on towards their goal.

Eddie is as delightful, as Daniel is dedicated – a terrific team of two. A group of would-be soldiers also finds Eddie endearing, when the boys join their march over the mountains to join up for the Great War. Together they become an interesting band, as Eddie’s childlike antics brings out the true nature of the men and boys around him, as they all move towards their own goals.

There are many changing moods in ‘When we were two’ – among them are periods of determination, anxiety, confusion, sadness and happiness. Dan and Eddie are searching for their lost mother, on a journey away from the past, towards an unknown future. It is the strength of their brotherly love and dedication that spurs them on, and it is indeed…

‘A powerful, heart-rending story’…

N.B. Shortlisted for CBCA Older Readers award. Is this one the winner?

May 29

the Dead I Know – by Scot Gardner

“In a curious way, I felt unburdened by the lack of hair. Something stirred in the pit of my belly and I wondered if the late Mrs Carmel Gray would like my shirt and my JKB tie and my new haircut. I wondered if I would be in the same room as the body. I wondered if I would smell the dead. Touch the dead.”

Aaron has just arrived to begin a new job. His new employer, John Barton, has already sent him to the barber, provided him with white shirts, a tie and measured him up for a suit! And Aaron has quietly accepted all this happening to him.

Strangely, the world he enters suits Aaron’s personal demeanour. He is told to watch and say nothing; so that’s what he does – he watches and observes. And he learns from John Barton, as he mimics the tasks he needs to perform at the funeral parlour, an unusual occupation for a teenage boy.

Back in his own personal world, things are less ordered and far more chaotic. He lives with Mam in a caravan park, as they have for many years, but things are changing. Often now, he has to rescue the burnt remains of Mam’s cooking, keep on the lookout for Westie and occasionally he finds himself waking in the strangest locations, pinned down by those who try to rouse him from his nightmares.

Little insights to Aaron’s past are revealed as the story progresses, but only as slowly as he cares to reveal details to the new people in his life. I love the way Mr and Mrs Barton deal with him, gently guiding and occasionally pushing him in certain directions. They are understanding adults, who avoid pressuring the somewhat troubled teen, without being too intrusive and making a subtle difference. This contrasts with those he sees at the hospital when his Mam has a broken arm. They feel she has others needs, and pressure him, but Aaron stands firm refusing further tests for her.

The Barton’s impudent and inquisitive daughter, Skye, asks many of the questions we would like to ask, and makes many wild assumptions also. Mostly, Aaron humours her, though occasionally she strikes a nerve. Piece by piece we discover more about Aaron’s life.

Scot Gardner has created another interesting world in ‘the Dead I Know’, and is able to portray the development of friendships across generations in a realistic manner. The quiet fondness of the Barton family for Aaron is accepted, though there is a slight sense of awkward reluctance from Aaron – a little reminiscent of when young Daniel begins to work for Eddy, an 89-year-old Dutch woman in ‘Burning Eddy’. (This book was on a previous CBCA shortlist in 2004)

‘The Dead I Know’ takes us into a different world, where death is all around, and the struggles of life are reduced to family memories and funeral services. Aaron fights past demons, at the same time as dealing with family concerns, and we are able to empathise with his quiet considerations of what is best to do for everyone concerned. Yet he faces his own shadows and personal doubts.

May 22

Who am I? ‘Red’ by Libby Gleeson

She rouses herself, caked in mud, covered in debris. Where is she? what has happened? Better still, who is she?

In a daze, her eyes finally focus on a boy ‘sitting on a kitchen table in a muddy pool’. As she babbles incoherently, he slaps her hard across the face – not a very auspicious beginning to a friendship. However, they do becomes friends, as Peri is a person she has to rely on, while the girl struggles to remember who she is and how she got there.

‘Red’ is set in Sydney, following the events created when a cyclone devastates the eastern suburbs. In survival mode, Red and Peri team up. Glimpses of memory return as they move about finding food and shelter amongst the devastation. Red, though she cannot remember, is sure she has a family who could be searching for her, and so they skirt around the shelters set up to help those impacted by the cyclone’s destruction.

Peri was a street kid before the disaster, and so his skills protect them. They want to avoid the authorities taking charge of them – a decision which comes mainly from Peri, though his reasons are unclear. Red accepts this, and together they move about in survival mode, until a discovery makes their anonymity even more important.

Libby Gleeson has successfully created a mystery which unravels slowly as ‘Red’ recovers her memory, bit by bit. A friend from the past fills some gaps, though lost contact between Jazz and Red leave an absent period in Red’s life. Objects and places they encounter jog her memory also – but only to suggest to her that she is in great danger.

There are some interesting devices in Libby Gleeson’s story:

1. I love that a safe haven for Red and Peri is the school library

2. Red carries a picture book from that library with her – the story of which brings hope and colour into her thoughts. (#Trying to guess which one – think this may be similar to a recent publication?)

3. The disaster hits Sydney with an impact that recalls our shock about the Queensland floods, while we were still able to carry on our daily lives here in NSW – in the story life carries on in the suburb of Burwood, and areas outside of the eastern suburbs seaboard.

There are also others that I won’t mention, as they may be spoilers, but needless to say, Libby Gleeson has created a tale which reflects the chaos caused by natural disasters and the inner resilience of people, woven into a thriller which has you guessing ‘what next?’.

As an extremely successful author, an advocate for quality children’s literature and a passionate teacher of her art, Libby’s talents provide another great read for enthusiasts from senior primary to lower secondary school – certainly one to promote interest and discussion.

Here’s a book trailer, released by to introduce ‘Red’ and a link to Libby’s website for more great writing:

May 21

Another world – ‘Mountain Wolf’ by Rosanne Hawke

‘Abdur-Razaq Nadeem felt the rumble in the earth, like a truck rushing underground.’ So begins the events which turn Razaq’s life upside down – an earthquake which wipes out much of his mountain village, including his family.

Set initially in a mountain village in Pakistan, Rosanne Hawke’s book , ‘Mountain Wolf’, reveals the precarious situations of many children following a natural disaster. The loss of his immediate family in the earthquake leaves 14 year old Razaq in the doubtful care of a lonely neighbour, Mrs Daud, who is experiencing her own shock and losses. In her disoriented state, she claims him as her son, then misguidely hands Razaq over to a stranger, who promises to help him find his uncle – in exchange for a paltry sum of money.

Thus, begins a tragic journey of  trading, as Razaq is taken to the city and sold into slavery. At first, he is a virtual slave to a restaurant owner; then from there he is exposed to an even more seedy side of life of child abuse and prostitution. His only hope remains in finding his uncle, who in a parallel story begins a relentless search for Razaq.

Rosanne Hawke writes from the heart. With the experience of participating in aidwork in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, her stories are informed and real. The reader can truly imagine the places she describes, and empathise with each of the young, abused children. And the children she portrays are also real. Razaq’s growing understanding of his situation reflects the innocence of many real children who are caught in child slavery; thus, the story opens our eyes to the tragic situation of many children caught in the web of the child trafficking in many places around the world.

In ‘Mountain Wolf’, Rosanne Hawke also successfully blends differing points of view, with muslim Razaq being exposed to the Christian beliefs of Tahira, a girl similarly entrapped and abused. Together, they give each other hope in the most desperate of times, and their friendship is a tiny glimmer of happiness which keeps them going. Their friendship is also Razaq’s Achilles heel, as his captor knows he can control Razaq via Tahira. Meanwhile, the strength of family ties is clear as Uncle Javaid continues to search for Razaq.

‘Mountain Wolf’ is a challenging story, since it exposes a subject matter many would rather not know about. It’s probably a bit uncomfortable and a little too descriptive for younger readers, but the confronting tale tells an important story for a mature reader. (The author acknowledged this at its launch at the 2012 CBCA conference in Adelaide.)  Graciously, Rosanne has donated proceeds from the book to help children whose lives have been traded, and there is a list of resources used by the author that readers might like to follow up. (#I was unable to find out more detail…)

Other books by Rosanne Hawke, such as ‘Marrying Ameera’, are also commended for their gritty realism and the strong determination of her characters. For an understanding about how her writing and her life interests see: http://www.rosannehawke.com/

May 15

Whodunit? What I saw and how I lied – Judy Blundell

As I began reading this story, I felt that I was in an old style of detective story – where someone hires the cheap inexperienced detective in smoke-filled rooms. With that tone, the tale of Evie and her family picking up the pieces in the post-war era began, reflecting a bit of shadyness, a mystery to be solved.

Evie is a young girl, struggling with the normal angst of teenage girls – is she pretty enough? why isn’t she beautiful like her mother? where does she fit into the family? how real are her friendships? Then one day, her stepfather comes home to announce that they are taking off on a spontaneous trip to Palm Beach, Florida. Their initial excitement wanes as the discomfort of their road trip from New York increases, and then when they arrive in Palm Beach, it appears holiday season is over.

In spite of this, Joe remains cheerful about their arrival, and they soon get into the holiday mode. They also meet up with some interesting characters, though some may not be quite who they pretend to be. As you read, lots of questions form in your mind – why do they stay in Palm Beach when it’s clearly not the normal tourist season? what does Joe have to hide? who is Peter interested in, and why? and, shouldn’t they take cover as hurricane season approaches?

Elements of the book were predictable, which is sometimes satisfying for the reader. But it wasn’t totally predictable, and even at the end, who did what and why, is not 100% clear. What is clear, is the strength of family relations, and the way our perceptions might be flawed at times by what we want to see…

An “elegant, detail-driven tales (that) smoothly segues into a whodunit page-turner.” quote from the blurb (Chicago Tribune).

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February 20

Perspectives – ‘Shooting Kabul’

There’s a lot to be learnt from putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. Immersed in a book, you can experience many different situations, and, depending on how it’s told, you can learn lots about different cultures, lifestyles and perspectives – and ‘Shooting Kabul’ is such a story.

Fadi’s family lived in America while his father, Habib, completed his PhD in Agriculture. Returning to Afghanistan, Habib’s dreams of improving things for his country’s farmers failed, as the Taliban imposed harsh rules and restrictions. Under threats from this ruling regime, the family finally takes action to flee from an increasingly difficult situation, before their life is torn apart.

The struggles they face include losing track of Fadi’s younger sister during their escape; an event which haunts him continually. Family support in America eases the transition into his new life; but as a refugee, there are issues for Fadi, which are heightened when the events of 9/11 unfold.

‘Shooting Kabul’ is told in an easy fashion, though the story is not easy to contemplate. Since it is based on the author’s husband’s  own experience of fleeing Soviet-controlled Afghanistan in 1979, there is a lot the reader can take from the story about what life is like for many refugee families.

Throughout the story, Fadi remains guilt-laden for not adequately looking after his younger sister. Thankfully, there are supportive and understanding people in his new life – when he decides to share his burden. His display of determination and youthful hope tug at your heart strings, as he endeavours to make plans to return to search for his lost sister. How his plans unfold, and what he learns of himself and others, fill out the pages with an interesting insight of hope, love and perserverance.

A realistic introduction for yrs 6-9 to the immigrant experience and refugee life.

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