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:

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 1

Boys – Stories of war

boyBack in 2006, John Boyne released ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ – a tale about a nine-year-old boy growing up during World War II in Berlin. Despite being the son of a Nazi Commandant, Bruno sees the world through the eyes, of a child, which provides an interesting slant on this passage of history.

Once again, Boyne has written a novel set in this time period, and again from a child’s focus – ‘The Boy at the Top of the Mountain’.

This time ‘the boy’, Pierrot, has a mixed heritage, being the son of a French mother and a German father, living initially in Paris. Sadly, this doesn’t remain the case, due to the gradual disintegration of his family:

Although Pierrot Fischer’s father didn’t die in the Great War, his mother Emilie always maintained it was the war that killed him. (opening sentence)

Thus, life changes for Pierrot and he has several relocations and events in a very short time, all set against the background of WWII.

Once again, Boyne’s writing brings the young adult reader some understanding of what life could have been like for young children. It would help to have a knowledge of European geography, as well as what was meant by the Berghof (a home of Hitler), to gain some understanding of the significance in this story – but maybe that’s a challenge for YA readers to reach!

Hear John Boyne talk about his novels:

I didn’t find ‘The Boy at the Top of the Mountain’ as engaging as ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. Perhaps the mystery of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ (released without a blurb or much detail about the story from publishers) intrigued readers to begin with? Bruno’s loneliness certainly captured my heart, and I definitely sobbed at the end.

This new tale has similar elements, though it doesn’t feel as complete, but is definitely worth reading as it asks questions of loyalties vs the power of indoctrination. Pierrot faces many choices and changes in his life – some with tragic consequences. No doubt, there will be criticism of some aspects of this story, but its value remains as a way to take a different view of history, and to consider how those, other than the people ‘in power’, were affected by the catastrophic decisions of war – the young, the subservient, those of the ‘wrong’ religion or background.

[For me, this has also been an interesting companion read to ‘All the Light We Cannot See’, another novel set in occupied France during World War II, but at 529 pages of course with a lot more research and detail.]

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July 14

55 years later…

New novel from Harper Lee

New novel from Harper Lee

Today marks the release of a long awaited book – the second written by Harper Lee, finally published 55 years after her first published book, To Kill a Mockingbird! (TKMAB)

Many thought this day would never come, so the book’s unexpected discovery has readers in a fervour to see how it unfolds.

Early reviews have indicated that the book is told from Scout’s point of view as a 20 year old, and also that it reveals (surprising?) bigotry of Atticus Finch. The explanation of this may be that Go Set a Watchman was actually written before TKAMB, and that it was not what her editor wanted at the time:

Go Set a Watchman was written in the mid-1950s, before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960. She set it aside when her editor suggested that she write another novel from the young Scout Finch’s perspective. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_Set_a_Watchman

Naturally, there has been lots of fanfare preceding the book’s publication:

Go Set a Watchman review – more complex than Harper Lee’s original classic, but less compelling, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/12/go-set-a-watchman-review-harper-lee-to-kill-a-mockingbird

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman goes on sale  http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-33510168

Go Set a Watchman: Eight things reviewers say about Harper Lee’s new novel: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-13/go-set-a-watchman-reviews-latest-harper-lee-story/6615050

There’s only one Atticus Finch: why I won’t be reading Go Set A Watchman – http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-14/barnes-why-i-wont-be-reading-go-set-a-watchman/6617508

Author Harper Lee

Author Harper Lee

There have also been releases of the first chapter to entice readers in… which you can either read, or listen to a Reese Witherspoon narration here.

What are you thinking? Do you want to read the rejected manuscript? Can you handle characters who may not be the same as you remember them? Does it change the way you view TKAMB?

Do you wonder what Harper Lee thinks of all the promotion happening right now? Is it (the publication) authentic?

November 1

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!

April 30

Circus Star! the Sequin Star

sequinEver wanted to run away to join a circus? Or just wanted for a time to run away from your daily life? Is life perhaps more glamorous somewhere/ anywhere else?

As Claire ponders her chances of being chosen for the next ballet concert, she is also starting to ache for a bit more freedom to just ‘hang out with friends’. Some of her friends’ parents seem to be less controlling; according to Amy, her mum “let’s me do pretty much whatever I want”, while Claire has to fall in with her mother’s plans and wishes.

However, Claire’s life is turned upside down when firstly her dear grandmother has a fall at the ballet, and then Claire herself is knocked out in an accident. When she returns to a conscious state, none of her surroundings make sense – especially the monkey peering down at her!

Befriended by two young circus performers, Rosina and Jem, she is slowly introduced to a different world in a different time – far removed from the leafy northern suburbs of Sydney she has known. As her displacement slowly dawns on her, Claire has to adjust to not having everything at her fingertips. Things like her mobile phone, her modern wardrobe and a regular family meal just don’t appear in her new environment – that of a travelling circus.

Gradually, Claire gets a sense of place and time as she takes in the colours, activities and odours of circus life in 1932. Learning more about her new friends, she is also exposed to a lifestyle far removed from her own.

Author Belinda Murrell paints an interesting picture of life of the Great Depression, when many families struggled to survive in tight circumstances. Often, when the travelling circus arrived, it would transport families to a world away from their daily cares and worries, if only for a short but grand time.

For some like Jem, it provides an income to share with his large but destitute family; and for others like Rosina, it provides her family. And for Claire it provides an intriguing link to her past.

Within the circus confines, Murrell weaves an exciting and entertaining story about circus performers. Outside of the circus, she alsoBelindaMurrell adds in some notes of history, including celebrations for the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and political intrigue of the times. Mixed in with this are questions about class differences and how we often unfairly judge people. All of which make the Sequin Star a great adventure story, inspired by the stories of young women who grew up performing in Australian circuses. (Published: May 1, 2014)

I have always been fascinated by circuses. One of my earliest memories is visiting The Great Moscow Circus with my father and being entranced by the performing bears. (As a vet, Dad was called out to treat one of the Russian bears when the circus first came to Australia.) I remember as a teenager trying to teach myself bareback circus tricks on my pony and getting thrown off multiple times. Over the years I managed to break several bones attempting fancy tricks on horseback. (A comment from Belinda Murrell, in notes available from Random House)

Were you surprised by the actions of any particular character in this story?

Would you like to run away to join a circus?

## For more details about the other (20 or so) books written by Belinda Murrell, check out her website: http://www.belindamurrell.com.au/

Image source: http://www.randomhouse.com.au/

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.

September 13

Congratulations, Jackie French!

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Source: SMH, September 12 2013

Accolades once again to Jackie French’s writing talents! She has been awarded the Young People’s History Prize at NSW Premier’s History Award for 2013.

Extraordinarily, Jackie had 2 chances to win, as 2 of her books were shortlisted for the prize – Pennies for Hilter and Dingo: The Dog Who Conquered a Continent. A third book, What are the Mysteries of Lake Mungo? by Timothy Gurry and Robert Lewis, made up the shortlist for this section of the History awards.

Jackie is well reknowned for her writing – especially historical fiction; and has won many awards over the years as children’s author. As a prolific researcher and writer, she collects her inspiration from around her, including comments from fan-mail. Pennies for Hitler is a fine example of this:

After reading French’s first book on the fraught topic, Hitler’s Daughter, the boy was moved to write his first note, observing: “I have learnt to be wary of anyone who makes you angry”.

French says: “I had been wondering how did Hitler do it. How did he get people to believe that people because of their race and religion should be exterminated? And a 14-year-old boy gave me the answer. Anger is contagious.” From SMH article below.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/jackie-frenchs-pennies-for-hitler-wins-young-people-prize-at-nsw-premiers-history-award-20130912-2tmnd.html#ixzz2eizC2ZWU

# Also see our previous review on Pennies for Hitler. Congratulations once again, Jackie!

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: