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:

January 18

Pieces of Sky

skyAs I read this book, I felt as though I had read it already. Was it purely because I had started it a while ago and come back to it? or were the flavours of it similar to others I had read? or did it just resonate teen thoughts to me? I think ‘yes’ to all.

Trinity’s writing is authentic in voice, real for her audience and true to the age group. Like many adolescents, Lucy is seeking real friendships, questioning past and future friendships, while dealing with a major crisis in her life – why did her brother die?

‘Pieces of Sky’ will create discussion – of issues, family relations, dealing with death and how we remember the past.

For me, it was unclear which time period the story was set (memories seemed to fluctuate across different times) and Lucy’s perception of Cam seemed too idealistic – or is that how we like to remember others?

Lots of options to consider : themes of friendship, truth and family relationships. Well worth a read, though I don’t think the author has all the answers. But then, who does?

‘Pieces of Sky’ is a debut novel for Trinity Doyle, who has  also worked as a music photographer, graphic designer, among other things. To find out more about how Trinity thinks, visit her blog : Trin in the Wind – including her details about getting that first book published!

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August 6

Thirst by Lizzie Wilcock

thirst-21Imagine:

  • a car accident in the desert
  • driver (probably) dead
  • 2 foster kids stranded
  • one totally disenchanted with foster care
  • the other a young boy

This is the way Thirst begins, and, as we learn a little about the stranded kids, 14 year old Karanda and 8 year old Solomon, it seems that there is little chance their luck is likely to improve in a hurry.

Karanda’s emotions are mixed – angry, perhaps privately scared, but she is determined to get away from her miserable existence as a foster child, passed from family to family. On the other hand, Solomon simply wants to tag along, as Karanda begins to storm off who-know-where, but away from the car-wreck (which is probably their one chance of discovery and rescue). What other option does he have, really?

In her anger, Karanda is uncaring; suspecting that it would be easy for searchers to eventually find sweet little Solomon near the car wreck. However, he is persistent, and keeps up as she marches away from the wreck and her old existence. Thus their circumstances ends up binding them together in a struggle for survival; which would challenge anyone of any age.

Thirst, by Lizzie Wilcock, is peppered with great descriptions of the Aussie outback, and many unique survival tips from the wise-for-his-age Solomon – lucky for Karanda that he follows along.

Karanda’s anger and struggles are palpable throughout, while Solomon’s quiet perserverence is far beyond his years – making much of Karanda’s action seem quite immature and thoughtless.

The physical situations they face are a good reflection of the harshness of the outback; and their emotional battles give the reader lots to pause and think about. But whether it is a realistic story has been questioned – there have been mixed reviews. It is a good survival story, if you just go with the flow.

In the end, is it worth the struggle? What do we learn? What really challenges us the most from this tale?

November 20

The Sky So Heavy

sky so heavyLife has changed dramatically for Fin and his younger brother Max. Their dad has not returned home since he followed Kara, their step-mum, when she fled their house after a disagreement. Their mother is away in the city, looking into what has happened. One day life is normal, the next it is dark and desolate and desperate.

I read ‘The Sky So Heavy’ around the time of experiencing the bushfires in the Blue Mountains, and so readily identified with many aspects of the story:

  • – the isolation which comes when normal communication lines  is lost
  • – the worry about friends and family in a time of chaos
  • – the anxiety felt when you don’t know what is really going on in the community around you

Fortunately, however, I did not experience the ongoing loss of power and communication which occurs for Fin, Max and their neighbourhood. For them, the trauma lasts much longer and they are forced to seek out food, fuel and other options to keep themselves alive. Also unlike the bushfire experience, their community is not cohesive and caring, since people begin to fight for their own survival, food becomes scarce and knowledge of what is going on around them is limited.

Much of what I liked about the book had to do with its setting; so I spent a lot of time considering where things were taking place, enjoying Zorn’s descriptions, while trying to imagine the mountains community cloaked in a nuclear winter coat.

Her characters also rang true, without being over-the-top in their actions. They behaved in ways that I could accept teenagers under immense pressure might – brave though still children, caring for one another while still wanting care for themselves, strong at times of importance but soft enough to feel for the plight of others. Other readers might ponder if they would act the same in similar circumstances.

‘The Sky So Heavy’ makes you think about many things – including what it might be like to be thrust into nuclear devastation. As we consider what life must be like for those caught up in the ravages of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, it helps us think about what actions we might take to survive a global catastrophe, and what lengths we might go to for family and friends.

 

June 11

the Wrong Boy by Suzie Zail

13338887“The point is to stay human.” Erika bent over a bowl of brown water and splashed her face. “We musn’t become animals, Hanna. That’s what they want.”

“It’s the only way to beat them, ” Erika said… “Survive, and when you do, tell everyone what you saw – “

If life in Budapest in 1944 had been difficult before, it was only going to get worse for Hanna’s family – they are moved out of the Jewish ghetto that had been their home. Uprooted from their modest home and sent packing with few belongings, they are transported by rail to an uncertain future in Birkenau – a place we now know as a Nazi concentration / extermination camp.

Since the story is told from the point of view of a young (15 year old) girl, the reader is not exposed to the whole extent of the Jewish holocaust. Initially, Hanna and her family naively anticipate that they are simply being relocated temporarily. Hanna’s dreams of becoming a famous concert pianist linger for a while, and she clings to the hope of her family staying together.

The reality of their eventual separations dawns slowly, as Hanna’s mother loses her sanity and her will to survive. Her older sister, Erika, begins as the stronger one, but as their dismal living conditions impact on her health, it is Hanna who looks after them. Hanna’s saving grace is her ability to play the piano and the opportunity to escape Birkenau daily, gives her a marginally better existence than the others detained there.

Music gives Hanna an escape route – both physically (since she leaves the camp to play for the Commandant) and mentally (as she loses herself in her music as she plays). It is also how she connects little by little with the Commandant’s son, Karl – a music student and a Jewish sympathiser. But we do not escape the grim and devastating situation that millions of Jews faced during WWII – the desperation and suffering faced before atrocious deaths.

For Suzy Zail, this children’s book follows on from her father-daughter memoir The Tattooed Flower, published in May 2006. Both tackle a hard subject, about which many tales have already been written. Her own personal connections (her father being a survivor of Auschwitz) have enabled an authentic voice to come through in ‘the Wrong Boy’, as we see things from the point of view of a displaced young teen facing a future far removed from her dreams.

When asked about her book, Suzy made the following comments:

“Writing this book allowed me to revisit my father’s story and remember him and the millions of other children and teenagers who didn’t survive”, Suzy says.

“It was also the perfect way to pass on [my father’s] warning, because only by remembering can we prevent the past from fading. By reading about the Holocaust and trying to understand it we can make sure it never happens again.”

http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1359375.Suzy_Zail

Let’s hope that we do learn.

# Selected for CBCA awards 2013 – see previous post on CBCA awards 2013

March 10

Blizzard Lines by Tim Hawkes

In a moment of stupidity, John’s life changes course. His happy self-indulgent existence, as a school boy enjoying a comfortable home and cruising along at school, comes to an abrupt end. He is expelled from school and will face criminal charges – all over a few photos he shared with his mates.

Understandably, his parents are horrified by the prospect of their son being sent to gaol. They both question where they may have failed to reach him and guide him as a teenager. The difficulty for his dad is that he, Peter, is at work at Mawson Station in the Antarctic – and not likely to be heading home for some time.

From the icy and challenging environment of the ice station, Peter Harvey writes to his son in an effort to try to advise his future choices as John’s trial looms closer. Interesting parallels are drawn of the challenges faced by early explorers to South Pole, as well as the daily challenges faced by those at Mawson, and are reflected within the episodes occurring in John’s life at home, as the consequences of his actions become real.

No longer attending a private school with his mates, John starts work as a labourer for a bullying boss, Ben’s dad, and begins to realise what he has lost. He continues to party hard and seek quick thrills. He admires Ben’s slick car and the status it offers, and dreams of owning something similar. But dreams can sometimes turn into nightmares. (Indeed, Ben’s life isn’t as rosy as John first imagined.)

Away from home, his father continues to struggle with his absence from his family at this time of need, and calls on significant others to help his son. Uncle Geoff, and JJ, his grandfather, provide John with physical presences and seek to help him make sense of his predicament. In his own world, Peter seeks help and advice from his work colleagues – all of whom share differing perspectives, which Peter in turn shares with John in his stream of regular emails.

Blizzard Lines (as noted in its blurb) slips between two worlds. John’s world, once comfortable and easy-going, has become a place of stress, angst and danger. Peter’s world is isolated and distant from this, while the people he works with provide insight, comfort and concern.

As things change for both of them, we view conflict and peace, mistakes and choices; and nod knowingly to the feelings experienced by the many of people impacted in this tale. Tim Hawkes has developed real characters, tied them all together in situations which today’s teenagers could very well face. Added to this, he cleverly mixes in some interesting snippets of history, and facts about contrasting worlds in which people live and work. And he describes how different people cope in these different worlds.

Reading Blizzard Lines, you should wonder: Who will grow in character from their experiences? what can be learned? and importantly, who will listen? (and what might the reader take from this book?)

October 26

Another worldview: Trash

Smoky Mountain. Piles of trash. Kids as young as 3, sifting through rubbish, to retrieve anything of value. Life, as it is for many poor children from developing countries around the world, is grimly portrayed in Andy Mulligan’s tale, Trash.

The story is told from varying perspectives, dependent on whose point of view is most valuable at the particular stage of the story. There’s Raphael, a dumpsite boy who scours the trash to help support his extended family, since he lives with his aunt’s family and, of course, cousin Gardo. He is fairly street smart, with good survival skills, but not as confident as Gardo.

Gardo is Raphael’s best friend, and outwardly much bolder, though far more serious. They share everything, so of course, Raphael has tell Gardo of his discovery at the dumpsite. When the police come questioning the dumpsite kids about whether they had found anything unusual, they both know something sinister is afoot, and they seek help among their own.

Rat (or Jun-Jun) is their unlikely hero. Younger than both boys, he is infinitely more streetwise, and incredibly adept at detecting dangerous situations – as he moves effortlessly and invisibly about the slums of Behala.

Banded together with the discovery of the small leather bag in which the police are obsessively interested, they become engaged in an adventure of mystery, intrigue and danger. But together they are determined to right past wrongs and overcome some of the elements which rule their miserable existence in the slums.

Andy Mulligan has worked as a teacher in a school near the dumpsite in Manila, and has thus experienced the sounds, smells and squallor of the nearby slums, and reflected these in his book, Trash. At no time in the novel is it specified that it is set in Manila, however, and as he has pointed out, there are many such squallid locations found around the world. And in these dumpsites, there are thousands of children living the life portrayed in ‘Trash’ – collecting rubbish to survive in poverty.

Thus in this adventure, the reader has to struggle with the knowledge that though this a fictitious tale, it is based in what is a reality for many young children around the globe, through no fault of their own. Their daily struggles and how they cope is far removed from our own existence, told as it is through the eyes of young yet resilient children, simply after a better life.

As food for thought, it may also have great impact in the form of a movie, (which is meant to happen) and would be great reading for any young teen searching for challenge and adventure. For now here’s the book trailer… or listen to the author speak here.