Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

jehan-and-the-quest-of-the-lost-dog

As a prolific author of more than twenty-five books, Roseanne Hawke has cemented her place as one of Australia’s best-loved writers for children.  Her work as an aid worker for many years in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates continues to inspire many of her stories, and has effectively given her Western audience exposure to the rarely heard voices of children living in the East.

In Jehan and the Quest of the Lost Dog, Hawke breathes life into the catastrophic flood that devastated parts of Pakistan in 2010.  Originally inspired by a photograph that the author came across while researching the tragedy, it tells the story of Jehan, a nine-year-old boy, who, when separated from his brother Amir and parents, must fend for himself and survive dangerous flood-waters.  Lost and alone, hope arrives in the form of dog Lali, and together the pair form a special bond that will drive their quest to be reunited once again with their families.

Written in sensitive, descriptive prose, Jehan and the Quest of the Lost Dog, is simple enough to be accessible for younger readers, yet with a narrative that will certainly allow for high-levels of engagement with older children and more sophisticated readers.  In the classroom, the story could operate effectively as a class text with strong cross-curricular links to Geography and issues relating to social justice.  For older students, the novel would pair well with the likes of Andy Mulligan’s 2010 novel Trash, and likewise the 2014 film of the same name.

Jehan and the Quest of the Lost Dog, is a simple, yet beautifully told story of hope and survival.  It will certainly inspire students in the primary years, while deepening their cultural awareness, understanding of the world, its geography and how this environment interacts with humans.

Tanya Grech Welden

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Bertha

With nature play being a growing focus in many of our primary schools and early learning centres, educators are always seeking new stories to complement this curriculum.  Bertha and Bear tells the story of Bertha, a bee scout, commissioned with the responsibility of locating a new hive for the bee colony when the safety of their existing home is compromised during a storm.  Fearing failure, Bertha is forced to travel deep into the woods where she meets Bear and the pair collaborate in an unlikely friendship that guarantees success in her quest.

Bertha and Bear is sparsely told in vivid language.  The author employs rhyme and alliteration to drive the narrative forward to its optimistic conclusion.  Christine Sharp’s whimsical illustrations and friendly cast of characters will appeal to younger readers.  Her colourful drawings, situated in nature, may even inspire young artists to capture the beauty of the environment in their drawings and paintings.  Sharp’s story will certainly provoke rich discussion in classroom about the role of bees in our planet’s ecosystem and the concerns regarding their survival.   In line with nature play curriculums, I envisage that children will appreciate opportunities to address some of these concerns through practical activities with a sustainability focus.

I must confess that, while delightfully illustrated and beautifully told, this title never quite had that special magic that will take it to the next level.  Furthermore, I can’t help but feel disappointed that the book’s creator failed to contextualise the story within an Australian setting.  After all, we have numerous species of native bees and surely there is a tale to be discovered about the relationship of these fascinating insects to the fauna they live in (and possibly our indigenous people too).  That said, Bertha and Bear remains a story that will effectively operate as a starting point for children in the early years as they learn about the unique role of bees in our ecosystem.

Tanya Grech Welden

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Every year at the school I teach at, year 11 students are required to undertake 15 hours of Christian Service as part of their Religion Studies course.  It is easier extracting blood from a stone.  Not quite, but for many students, getting them engaged in an activity determined take them out of their comfort zone is a massive challenge.  Even those who are compliant with the program tend to lean towards selecting activities where there is a certain predictable safety.  Of course, those few students who do embrace the opportunity and take a risk get the most out of the program, something which is evident in their reflection report.  Pip Harry’s latest novel, Because of You explores the challenges and life changing experience that community service programs have the potential to provide.  The story follows the experience of Nola, a generally disengaged and reluctant student who is forced to undertake community service at a temporary homeless shelter.  Through her involvement in a creative writing program she meets Tiny, an eighteen-year-old girl, currently homeless, she has been sleeping rough on the streets of Sydney.

Tiny is a believable character with Harry skilfully revealing her to us, with appropriate breadcrumbing of her back story.  In a manner that mimics the core message of the story (don’t judge people without knowing who they truly are), we are able to understand how she came to be on the streets slowly, so that by the time we know her as a person we are open to her in a non-judgmental way.  Nola, on the other hand is portrayed realistically as a reluctant participant, apathetic about school and everything in general (short of her social life).  Readers can appreciate that Nola, while deeply flawed (and a bit spoilt) undertakes an impressive character arc from a place of ambivalence to compassion (the very same arc I hope all my 11 RE students will follow during their community service experience).

Pip Harry is a skilled writer and while I really enjoyed Head of the River, I strongly feel that this novel, as a story, has so much more to offer. Harry must be commended on tackling some really challenging issues that most Australians conveniently choose to ignore.  In truth, the only thing I didn’t like about this book was the cover.  I recall feeling the same way about another of Pip Harry’s covers (perhaps she has been let down again).  At any rate, I find the cover totally uninspiring as may many potential (and somewhat fickle) adolescent readers.  This is a shame because once I started the story, I literally couldn’t put it down.

While I’d really love to read this novel with my 11 RE class, realistically time will not allow this.  However, I might read excerpts to the class.  I am quite keen to investigate the possibility of introducing this as a text in the year 11 English curriculum, aligning it with the community service unit that is taught in Religion Studies at the same year.

Because of You is a deeply engaging story that while honestly exploring prejudice in contemporary Australian society, remains optimistic and hopeful about the kind of reality that we must continue to strive towards.

Tanya Grech Welden

wombat warriorsSamantha Wheeler’s latest novel for younger readers, Wombat Warriors, follows on from the conservation theme she introduced in her last book Mister Cassowary.  Set in regional South Australia, Mouse is a reserved girl from Brisbane who comes to stay with her Aunt Evie when a family emergency forces her parents to take an unexpected trip overseas.  Life down south is a change for Mouse who must not only contend with the colder climate but with her somewhat eccentric Aunt whose household includes a duck and a wombat!  While she is initially threatened by the idea of sharing her home with a wombat, the pair form a special bond that challenges Mouse to find her voice.

As a proud South Aussie, I was somewhat horrified (and a little confronted) to read about the plight wombats in this part of the country.  I must confess that prior to reading this story I had no idea about the environmental challenges facing our state emblem.  Indeed, particularly for children in this part of the country, this story has a wonderful relevance that will make it a valuable addition to the classroom environment.  With accessible language, children in the lower to middle years of primary school will enjoy reading this story independently.  Similarly, it could be shared with a class group as part of the HASS curriculum.   I did feel that the immaturity of the protagonist may alienate a few slightly older readers who might have otherwise appreciated the conservation theme of the book.

Wombat Warriors will sit neatly alongside Mister Cassowary as an engaging story that will inspire children across to find their voice and work actively for the conservation of threatened species.

Tanya Grech Welden

stubborn seed of hopeIs it just me or do decent short story anthologies always seem to be in short supply?  At least they have in every school I have ever worked in.  At my current school, the one we presently use is well-thumbed, dog eared and nearly beyond repair.  The fact that it is now out-of-print means that it is impossible to replace, although to be fair we probably need a break from the stories anyway.  Since every English teacher uses short stories we always seem to be on the look-out for something fresh.  We want something that not only our students will relate to, but something with that unique Australian flavour.  I was therefore pretty chuffed to find Brian Falkner’s new book appear in my mailbox.

My first impression of the package was positive.  With a monochromatic cover, littered with graffiti scrawl and pops of vibrant yellow, this is an edgy book that will appeal to the current YA market.  I must confess though, that the front-page quote by James Roy, did lead me to suspect (or hope?) that this collection might move into the realm of speculative or perhaps gothic fiction.  It doesn’t generally do this. Instead, the darkness that Roy refers to is that which evolves from a very contemporary context.  After all, some of the best contemporary YA is dark, a little menacing, with a good dose of gritty.

Overall, I found the stories in the collection highly readable.  The reality that many stories are hinged on the fears of many young people (fear of death, growing old, disease) will be sure to provoke engagement and discussion in the classroom environment.  I especially appreciated the endnotes relating to the origin of each of the stories.  Students, particularly our aspiring writers, always seem to enjoy hearing about what inspires great writers.  In this light Falkner’s message was clear, when writing stories (as our students almost always do after reading an anthology such as this one) it is best to draw inspiration from one’s own experience.

That Stubborn Seed of Hope is a captivating collection of beautifully crafted stories that will entertain and inspire Young Adults aged 14+.

Tanya Grech Welden

The ElephantOlive’s Dad is sad.  In fact, she can’t remember a time when he wasn’t this way, carrying a sadness that is so great that Olive can only imagine it as a heavy grey elephant.  With the assistance of her best friend Arthur and her grandfather, Olive is determined to chase away her father’s elephant and bring joy and light into all their lives.

Told in sparse, aching prose, The Elephant while primarily targeted at younger children, will speak to a broad audience on universal themes focusing on grief, loss and the heavy cloud that is depression.   Younger, more capable readers will appreciate the accessible language that is pleasantly interspersed with appealing images.  While the subject matter of this story is inherently dark the overwhelming message is one of hope.  That said, this is a story best used selectively (and cautiously) in the classroom with it best placed as a text for sharing in small intimate groups.

In many ways The Elephant needs to come with a warning. I’m talking of the kind of warning that alerts poor, unsuspecting parents to a need for Kleenex and the strong likelihood that you will fall apart at some point while reading this book to your child.  I don’t say this to be a negative Nancy.  In fact, it serves to highlight the success of what Peter Carnavas has achieved in this deceptively simple and captivating story.  The Elephant is a timeless and memorable tale that will deeply move and delight readers of all ages.

Tanya Grech Welden

Too Many Friends Cover

Quite a few years ago, a close friend of mine recounted what she had learned that day in her university tutorial. As a pre-service Early Childhood educator, they had been learning about the importance of seeing the world through the eyes of children.  “You must remember what it is like to hug trees again,” her lecturer had told her, “smell dirt, taste bark”.  It was an idea that has remained with me since.  The idea that, as teachers we must always be attuned to the way that children perceive things.  In essence, get down to their level and attempt to experience the world through their eyes.   Kathryn Apel’s verse novel Too Many Friends reminded me of this, or, more precisely she allowed me to recall the challenges I experienced navigating the complexity of childhood friendships.

Tahnee has lots of friends.  She is one of these precious souls who, naturally inclusive by nature, appreciates the giftedness of those around her, valuing them for their talents while forgiving them where they fall short.  It is a demeanour that, while ensuring that she has a constant stream of playmates, often leads to heartache and complications in the schoolyard.  You see, when Tahnee reaches out to Lucy, the new (and rather shy and withdrawn) girl, she is drawn into a direct conflict with close friend Roxie, who, feels displaced by what she perceives as rejection.

Written in simple verse Apel draws her readers into the world of the playground.   It is a place where small things matter, where harsh words are often spoken and hearts are broken.  Too Many Friends captures the purity of our first friendships that are, so often, tarnished with bullying.   With strong thematic appeal for readers in the lower to middle years of primary school, the story will be enjoyed by confident readers independently.  Similarly, the story will certainly be embraced by teachers for group sharing, ticking many boxes and encouraging discussion in the area of resilience education and bullying prevention.

Tanya Grech Welden

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