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!

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?


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’.

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?

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?

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!

Through their eyes…

shahanaShahana is the first of several books in a series Through My Eyes, with a focus on children living in conflict zones around the globe.

Life for Shanana is difficult; even more so with the death of her father, mother and older brother – victims of militant fire in the borderlands of Kashmir. With her younger brother, Tanveer, in her grandfather’s mountain village home, she ekes out a living daily by sewing and haggling for their basic necessities.

As if life isn’t hard enough already, when Shahana and her brother come across a half dead boy being attacked by wild dogs, they rescue him. Not only is he another mouth to feed, his Indian family background is in conflict with their heritage in a zone of great political conflict. Add to that the problems of a 13 year old Muslim girl living with an unrelated male in her house, and you begin to understand the complexities in the life of Shahana and her younger brother.

In this tale, Rosanne Hawke cleverly reveals ways in which life unfolds for many young girls like Shahana; when they are orphaned, or their families face the challenges of poverty in a land of war and strife. Each day is a test of survival. Each day also brings the challenges of testing friendships and relationships – determining who one can trust, and which people you should rely on.

Shahana is a strong character, bound however by the traditions of her sex. Many of her decisions are taken in the light of this, as we see her modify her choices because she has to ‘take her place’ and be wary of overstepping her role. However, her fate is to challenge the idea of being submissive – to avoid suffering at the hands of others just because she is orphaned and female.

There is lot to be learned about Shahana’s Kashmiri culture, and the story is sprinkled with the language and traditions of her family and those around her.

Tragically, there is also truth in the fictional lives of the people who populate Shahana’s world:

  • Zahid, the child soldier
  • Mr Nadid, the opportunistic carpet-maker
  • Amaan, the Indian militant
  • Rabia, the half-widow – mother of Ayesha, Shahana’s best friend

In many ways, these are the critical elements of the tale – revealing as they do a world apart from our own western experience. A world in which a 13 year old girl has to feed and care for her younger brother, and keep him from the clutches of a greedy businessman. A world in which unknown people are feared, and known people change according to their unfortunate circumstances. A world where a young girl has great responsibilities, beyond her tender years. A world all too common in many parts of the world today.

In this clip, Rosanne Hawke talks about how and why she wrote Shahana, and what she hopes readers take from the story:

Shahana is the first book to be published in this series; with others by renowned authors (including zones of ongoing conflict such as Somalia, Afghanistan and Mexico) to be published soon. For future details see: http://throughmyeyesbooks.com.au/

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the series will be donated to UNICEF.

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.

Classic – a Lesson Before Dying – E. Gaines

A_Lesson_Before_Dying_novelShades of many past novels here – dare I say ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’? But then, that’s one of the things that make reading interesting.

‘Lesson before Dying’ begins with a young man caught up in an assault and robbery in a liquor store. The trouble is, the white owner and his 2 black assailants are killed in a shootout, and Jefferson, the only survivor, is found guilty of murder simply because he was there.

From the beginning, Jefferson is a condemned man. In fact, his godmother Miss Emma barely listens to the proceedings of his trial, since she knows that he will be found guilty—at this time, black man accused of killing a white man always was.

During the trial, Jefferson remains in a state of hopelessness; even as his defense lawyer speaks of him as a cornered animal, who simply struck out instinctively out of fear. It is this label, “Called him a hog..”, that Miss Emma wants removed before he dies in the electric chair.

The narrator of the tale is Grant Wiggins – a  disillusioned African-American schoolteacher. Gradually, Grant is compelled by his aunt and Miss Emma to begin visiting Jefferson to teach him how to go to his death with the dignity of a man. In doing so, he comes to evaluate his own pathetic existence.

There are many issues raised in ‘Lesson Before Dying’ arising from its setting in the States’ South, before the Civil Rights Movement; a time when African American people were still treated poorly, oppressed and helpless to rise above their downtrodden status. Even as an educated man, Grant Wiggins remains confused and disheartened about his status, and often considers leaving it all behind him – running away with his girlfriend, Vivian.

However, Grant has a lot to learn as he is ‘gently’ persuaded to visit Jefferson by Tante Lou, to try to fulfil Miss Emma’s wishes. Along the way he learns things about himself, his community and family loyalties. Does he have the skills to make a difference to Jefferson’s life (and death)? And what impacts might he and Jefferson ultimately have on the whole community – both black and white? And what will be the impact on Grant Wiggins, teacher, nephew, man?

What lessons did you learn from this powerful tale?

Like many great stories, there is a film version – here’s a trailer:

Face value? ‘Wonder’ by R.J.Palacio

After many years of home schooling, August Pullman is facing his first year at school. Like any new student, he is not sure what to expect and how he will fit in. His parents are unsure whether it is the right time for him to start school – they have protected him from the cruelty of the outside world up until now. All of them have been to the school before it starts in order to prepare him for this next step in his life, and buddies have been set up to help out.

The trouble is, August will stand out, due to a facial deformity he was born with. In spite of many operations, he has faced many years of taunts and stares from strangers, and he now faces exposure to a much bigger group of people on a daily basis. Students who don’t ven know him will judge him harshly, call him names and some, even bully him.

The story is told from a number of different points of view – that of August; his sister, Olivia; her boyfriend, Justin; and a school friend, Jack. This helps to show the struggles of people who care for August, along with the joys they have of knowing the boy behind the face. August’s thoughts and reactions in the story are the ones that really make you think.

Problems of fitting in, and the bullying associated with being different in a new situation, are among the issues to be dealt with in ‘Wonder’. The impact on others around Auggie is also one of the key elements of the story. His sister, school mates and others all reflect their position in his life – what they see and how they act to the way others treat Auggie.

Though ‘Wonder’ is probably written for a younger age group (set in grade 5, and with an 11 year old protagonist), there is great value in older students reading this tale. With the different perspectives shared, and the simple way which August expresses his point of view, there are lots of things to wonder about. Do we treat others fairly? Do we too often judge others based on their appearance? How many people are handicapped, not by their own physical disabilities, but instead by the way others label them?

For some, the ending will be wrapped up too warmly – the years of staring and laughing that August has faced being swept under the carpet. However, some of the precepts in the final ‘Appendix’ chapter are worth dwelling on. And if a book like ‘Wonder’ can make people think about life from a different perspective, then that makes it a worthwhile tale to recommend!

For an insight to what inspired the author to write ‘Wonder’, her debut novel, see: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/authorinterviews/9086974/Interview-with-RJ-Palacio-author-of-Wonder.html

The Fault in our Stars by John Green

“I went to Support Group for the same reason that I’d allowed nurses with a mere eighteen months of graduation to poison me with exotically named chemicals: I wanted to make my parents happy. There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer.”

Obviously, Hazel doesn’t think much of her Support Group. But as an only child and the concentrated focus of her parents’ life since her cancer diagnosis, she succumbs to their wishes. What else can she do? Her illness has meant that she no longer attends school regularly, she has to sleep a lot, while her mother tries to encourage her to have a normal life. How normal can it really be when you know you have a terminal illness?

This is not a ‘happy-ending’ story. Very often in real life children and families fighting cancer do not have a happy ending. This is not a book to make you feel good, or to tell you how to be when someone you know experiences the illnesses associated with cancer. But it will make you think.

This fan-made book trailer gives some insight into the thoughts within ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ – a story of what happens when teen cancer patients fall in love.

In an interview, author John Green makes the statement:

“It’s important to note or remember that people who are sick and people who are dying aren’t dead. They’re still alive. And sometimes we forget that, and we treat the sick and the dying so gingerly and so carefully, when often what they most want is to be alive while they are alive.” ‘Star’-Crossed: When Teens With Cancer Fall In Love

That is why he wanted his book to be realistic, and not a sugar-coated tale ready for Hollywood to take to film. The kids in ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ want to live and make their mark on the world.

What sort of impression have they made on you, the reader?