Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

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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

stepping stones

In my first year of teaching I learned the value of a carefully chosen picture book for the purposes of introducing a topic or addressing tricky issues.  Seventeen years later, I have a growing stash of these that I continue to revisit with students in the secondary classroom across a range of subject areas.  As an English specialist, I continue to appreciate the accessibility of these texts, the many layers of reading they encourage as they engage captive audiences in a reading activity that nearly always harnesses a range of interpretative skills.  Picture books are a blessing for the time poor educator.  They tick many boxes and set the scene for a high level of student engagement.

First published in Canada, Stepping Stones, is a welcome addition to my personal collection and is one that I will draw upon for use in the English, HaSS and Religious Education classroom.  Told in both English and Arabic, and narrated by a young girl, Rama; we follow her experience of persecution, death and loss in their war-torn homeland, her families’ escape, journey by foot and their crossing of an unforgiving sea to their eventual, albeit bittersweet, liberation.  While clearly drawing from recent history with the story illuminating the experiences within the Syrian context, the tale might easily be supplanted into another setting.  Nizar Ali Badr’s artwork which utilises stacked stones to recreate scenes in the story, is culturally neutral, thus inviting a transposing of other refugee narratives.  Within the Australian context, I imagine that educators might specifically draw upon experiences of the Vietnamese and Cambodian ‘boat-people’.  Similarly, Christian communities would certainly draw parallels to Gospel narratives (Matt 2:13-14) concerning the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.

The provision of both English and Arabic text adds additional linguistic dimension to the story that could be readily exploited by students as an extension activity.  While I would use this text exclusively in the secondary classroom, it will appeal to older primary students and, with discretion, may be an effective tool for engaging dialogue with new arrivals in our school communities.  The story will certainly find its place in many of our Syrian and Middle-Eastern communities in Australia with many families likely to embrace it as a vehicle for intergenerational sharing and a celebration of language.

I commend Stepping Stones as a text that provides an authentic voice for educators who seek to promote cultural diversity, while engaging frankly with their students on issues related to refugees and asylum seekers.

Tanya Grech Welden

MY BROTHER IS A BEAST.jpg

Picture books, especially those targeted at pre and early readers, tend to be at their best when they are shared.  While for the most part reading to our five-year-old daughter is the responsibility of my husband and myself; I love it when I find a picture book that has other members of the family clambering to get in on the action too.  This was the situation when My Brother is a Beast appeared on my door step.  “Awesome!” proclaimed Master Eleven as he turned to his younger sister, “I’m reading this to you tonight.” Our youngest child, by way of positive reaction, promptly squealed with delight.

I firmly believe that books are meant to be shared, and that while parents are ultimately the key players in fostering a love of reading in children, there is nothing more powerful to this endeavour, than when the whole family (especially older children) get involved in the promotion of reading as a joyful activity.  You see, often it doesn’t matter how many books children have, unless the home is one where reading is the dominant culture for all, it can be difficult to engage children in this activity (or get them to think positively about reading as a form of leisure).   Indeed, Young and Carnavas’ series of books are exciting, in that they not only encourage the sharing of stories but they promote positive relationships between siblings (and other family members) with books as the vehicle.

My Brother is a Beast   is the fourth book in a series of books celebrating family (My Sister is a Superhero, My Nana is a Ninja and My Pop is a Pirate).  This, along with other books in the series will provide a perfect entry point for discussions about family structures and diversity.  Directed primarily towards children in the early years, My Brother is a Beast is appropriate for use in child-care, pre-school and junior primary settings.  Of course, with the strong focus upon family it will certainly become a favourite choice shared between siblings. As with the other titles in the series, the simple language is accessible for even the youngest of children, while beginning readers will find enough challenge to be extended without being overwhelmed.  Children will enjoy the rhythmic language in a narrative that makes use of simple alliteration and a clear pattern and rhyme that will encourage participation.

I was again enamoured with Carnavas’ delightful watercolour illustrations rendered in cheery colours. Text is clear and easy to read for beginner readers and children will enjoy following the words with their fingertips as they weave and move across the page. As with the other titles in the series, children will enjoy finding the various animal characters scattered throughout the story. Children will also appreciate exploring the sepia illustrations found in the inside of both back and front covers.

My Brother is a Beast is a light, yet deeply engaging read that demands to be re-visited, all the while fostering a love of language in young readers.

Tanya Grech Welden

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