Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Archive for the ‘Middle Years (Grade 6-9)’ Category

Book Review: “Stepping Stones” by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr, University of Queensland Press (2017)

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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

Book Review: “Everything is Changed” by Nova Weetman (2016), UQP

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Every year as an educator I inevitably teach at least once a unit in Human Sexuality to a group of year 8 or 9 students.  As part of this program we explore the gender and the general differences in brain function between the sexes.  It never ceases to amaze students that in males the part of the brain which predicts unfavourable outcomes is less developed in teenage boys than their female counterparts.  Of course, as educators we know this too well, seeing this played out on a daily basis with the boys that we work with.

“Why did you do that?”

The subject, a year 10 boy shrugs his shoulders.

“What were you thinking?” We probe a little further.

“Nothing.” Comes the emphatic response.

Nothing is probably the best description of what was going through the adolescent brain the moment the chair (or fist or rock) was thrown through the window.  Impulsivity is characteristic of many teenage boys and the impact of such an episode is the core focus of Nova Weetman’s latest YA offering Everything is Changed.  The novel tells the story of Jake and Alex, best mates who, in a moment of spontaneity, make a mistake that will change the course of their lives forever.  Told in reverse the novel tracks back through events and documents how their lives, and those around them, literally fall apart.

Everything is Changed is suitable for use with students in the middle years of secondary school.  I imagine that grade 10 will be the sweet spot for this.  With engaging language and a cast of characters that students will easily identify with, this is a story that doesn’t preach.  The story speaks for itself and will no doubt evoke an emotional response in students while also providing rich content for debate and discussion. In light of this I would definitely flag this as a wonderful text for shared class reading.  Similarly, it would work well in smaller reading circles.  Of course, in terms of text construction, the story provides wonderful opportunities to discuss how the reverse telling of the story contributes to our understanding of the key themes and ideas.  Students might also appreciate comparisons with other film and prose texts that also challenge the convention of a linear and chronological narration; Pulp Fiction for example.

Everything is Changed is a compelling read with a grittiness that will strike a chord with adolescent readers.  I imagine that many of these readers will find its accuracy haunting, as they will no doubt draw parallels between Jake and Alex and their own experiences.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “The Leopard Princess: The Tales of Jahani” by Roseanne Hawke (2016), University of Queensland Press

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The Leopard Princess is the second book in the series titled The Tales of Jahani by acclaimed South Australian author Roseanne Hawke.  Following on directly from Daughter of Nomads, I highly recommend that readers will continue with this only after reading the first book.    Unlike some series, which can be read in any order, I suspect that The Leopard Princess may fail to resonate if read in this way.  I assume that the publisher made the decision to separate what was one rather long book into two smaller ones as they feared a younger YA audience may feel overwhelmed by such a large book.  This was probably the right decision although I feel that both books could easily be bundled together in one volume and pitched successfully at an older audience.

Feel free to read my earlier review of Daughter of Nomads hereThe Leopard Princess picks up the story in the Autumn of 1662.  Jahani remains in hiding from her jilted fiancée, the cruel Muzahid Baig and the tyrannical Dagar Khan.  With the constant risk of capture and increasing fear of retribution upon the nomadic people who are hiding her, Jahani knows that she must travel through the mountains to the northern kingdoms in an effort to secure peace for the region and realise her destiny.  Continuing on from Daughter of Nomads, The Leopard Princess develops themes and ideas that explore good versus evil, triumph against adversity, in addition to the quest for one’s identity.  The Leopard Princess also asks pertinent questions about love, leadership, followership, courage and self-sacrifice.

With plenty of action, a sprinkling of romance and just enough magic to make things interesting, I imagine that this book will appeal to readers in the middle years.  Certainly, as Jahani moves further into adolescence, I envisage that older teens and many adults will also discover plenty to relate to.  As with, Daughter of Nomads, this story provides unique opportunities for Asian perspectives, particularly to a History unit focusing on the Middle Ages and Renaissance period (which is too often Eurocentric).  I imagine that students might appreciate the opportunity to compare the life of Elizabeth I with Jahani, contrasting the challenges and limitations faced by women in positions of authority at this time.

While The Leopard Princess neatly draws to a conclusion the quest begun in Daughter of Nomads, I will live in hope that Hawke will decide to write a third book in this series.  After all, there are still plenty of adventures to be had for Jahani and Azhar.  I’d also be keen to read a story written exclusively from the perspective of Azhar, especially one which explores a time before the events in books 1 and 2.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Becoming Aurora”, by Elizabeth Kasmer, UQP (2016)

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The thing which keeps drawing me back to YA fiction is its innate propensity to gently address the questions of the time through the medium of the ‘quiet story’.  These wonderful stories of ‘real people’ often have the ability to speak to a young audience in profound and lasting ways.  It is a style of writing that many Australian authors seems to excel at with writers such as Cath Crowley and Vikki Wakefield leading the way with on the international stage.  Elizabeth Kasmer’s debut novel Becoming Aurora is yet another example of YA fiction that will quietly serve to challenge and inspire our youth.

Sixteen-year-old Rory (Aurora) has herself in a real pickle.  Caught up with the wrong crowd, and following her involvement in a racially motivated gang attack on the local immigrant community, she finds herself the sole person implicated and charged for the crime.  Refusing to reveal the names of her accomplices, Rory takes the rap for the deed and spends her entire summer undertaking community service at the local aged care home.  It is here that she meets resident and ex-boxer Jack, an encounter that leads her to Essam, a young migrant boxer who will both challenge her prejudices and force her to address the mistakes of her past.

Becoming Aurora provides a brutally honest depiction of an Australia that is inherently racist.  Kasmer leads readers into a discourse surrounding how it is we currently define what it means to be Australian and how our understanding of this identity needs to evolve to encompass what is a growing cultural diversity.  Ultimately, however, this is a story about reconciling one’s past with one’s future, seeking and offering forgiveness and finding peace with oneself in the shadow of grief and loss.

Written with tremendous sensitivity in thoughtful prose, Becoming Aurora will both challenge and delight, finding its audience, with students in the middle to upper end of secondary school.   Becoming Aurora is one of those books which, while not making me proud to be an Australian; makes me feel hopeful about the direction we might go, should we be brave enough to accept the challenge.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Daughter of Nomads: The Tales of Jahani” by Roseanne Hawke (2016), University of Queensland Press

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In all honesty, I couldn’t wait to crack the spine on this one.  When a book arrives on my doorstep with the name Roseanne Hawke attached to it, I just know that I am about to start what is guaranteed to be an amazing journey.  Daughter of Nomads didn’t fail to disappoint.  In fact, it lived up to every whisper of a promise hinted at in the rich teal cover.

Australian readers are no doubt very familiar with Hawke’s work.  I first encountered her writing as a beginning teacher working in Port Augusta when I was ‘told’ to teach her contemporary novel The Keeper to my energetic group of year 8 students.  The students were captivated and so began my first introduction to a writer whose work is as prolific as it is diverse.  More recently I had the opportunity to read and review the immensely absorbing and gut wrenching story of Aster, a Christian Pakistani girl in her book The Truth About Peacock Blue (you can find my review for that title here).  Daughter of Nomads, the first book in the series The Tales of Jahani, is also set in the world of the middle-east.  However, Hawke explores this setting as it might have been in the summer of 1662, and adds a sprinkling of magic for good measure that is certainly reminiscent of the tales of Scheherazade.

Fourteen year-old Jahani lives with her mother in the village of Sherwan. Unfortunately, the violent world of tyrants and war lords is always close, with conflict constantly simmering and threatening to shatter the peace.   One day, while shopping in the bazaar Jahani and her friend are attacked.  With the help of Azhar, Jahani escapes certain death and so begins an adventure to discover the truth about her family and her real identity.

Daughter of Nomads will engage readers from in the middle years of secondary school.  It will especially hold appeal with students that have an interest in religion and history and might be a useful text to explore middle-eastern cultures.  While I personally would not use this as a shared text within my coeducational classroom, the accessibility of the language, make it a good choice for extending students into texts that are more culturally diverse.  That said, the story has the potential to work really well with single sex female classes, providing a unique Asian perspective with historical connections that could easily complement the Year 8 HaSS National Curriculum focusing on the Mediaeval Period.

Daughter of Nomads was a captivating read that I found utterly immersive.  I can’t wait for the release of the second book in the series The Leopard Princess.

Book Review: Jo-Kin Vs Lord Terra – Super Space Kids 2, by Karen Tyrrell, Karen Tyrrell (2016)

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I have a lot of admiration for writers of middle grade fiction and chapter books.  As a writer of YA fiction I easily draw from memories from my own time as an adolescent and integrate these experiences into my work.  It does help being a secondary teacher too.  Unfortunately, I don’t recall so well what I liked to read as an 8 year old, or indeed what I was like at this time.  So far as writing middle grade books, I wouldn’t know where to begin.  It probably makes sense then, that I choose to review very few books of this genre and, when I do, I like to get the second opinion of my target audience.  Such was the case last year when set about reviewing Jo-Kin Battles the IT.  My initial reaction to the story was lukewarm (to say the least).  It didn’t speak to me at all which, to my surprise, was not the case with my son.  He loved it.  Tyrrell had successfully managed to harness that mysterious thing that ten year old boys love.  Such a thing, in my eyes is a massive achievement.  This said; it seems that Tyrrell is on a roll, because she has done it again.

Jo-Kin VS Lord Terra, follows on where book 2 left off.  Our hero Josh Atkins, fresh from saving the world against the IT, is back to his life as a normal kid living with his parents and attending school.  However, as Josh himself explains, the situation has him ‘lying low’.  He is, moving through life incognito while hoping that his planet saving skills won’t be required again.   However, this is not to be with Josh required immediately for an urgent mission to save the Junior Space Kids Team from the clutches of the evil Lord Terra.

Jo-Kin VS Lord Terra, is a highly accessible read for students, especially boys, in the middle years of primary school.  Following on from the first book, Tyrrell continues to develop themes of resilience, problem-solving, team work and overcoming self-doubt.   Tyrrell has not only constructed an appealing story for children of this age, but everything, from the language,  font size, to the quality and quantity of the images, has been selected with care and an acute awareness of the intended audience.  However, it is her understanding of the ‘obsessions’ of children in this age group, which left me wondering if Tyrrell is in fact a ten year old boy simple masquerading as an adult!

I commend this book, and its predecessor, as a valuable addition to the school library.   I anticipate that as the series continues to grow in number it may fulfil its potential and join the likes of Jennings and Andy Griffiths as ‘go-to’ staples for boys in the reading lesson.

Tanya Grech Welden

PS For resources and other cool stuff to support reading of this book click here.

Book Review: “One Would Think the Deep” by Claire Zorn, University of Queensland Press (2016)

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I commenced reading Claire Zorn’s novel One Would Think the Deep from a strange little place I like to call ‘fearful anticipation’.  Zorn’s last book The Protected was a multi-award winning novel.  Having had the opportunity to read an advance copy of this I was not surprised.  I honestly believe that what Zorn penned in this book was nothing short of a masterpiece; in fact it is a story with the kind of longevity that will entertain YA readers for a very long time.  It follows then, that I was both excited and fearful about the opportunity to review her latest offering.

As a piece of retro fiction, Zorn begins her story New Year’s Day 1997.  Perhaps I am just getting old but this really doesn’t seem all that long ago.  Of course, I do remember this rather nostalgically as being that wonderful time before the internet had really taken off and before mobile phones were commonplace (and if you did have one you were either really rich or a drug dealer).   Like Zorn, I remember the time for its music.  It was a period when cd’s were expensive and you waited with bated breath for the latest import from your local indie record store.

Sam Hudson, a skater from inner city Sydney, moves to live by the coast with his Aunt Lorraine and cousins Minty and Shane following the sudden death of his mother. He brings with him an understandable amount of emotional baggage which too often manifests itself as violence.  This is a sensitive story about love, the fragmentation of family and the pain of grief.

As with Zorn’s other novels, the narrative is driven by sensitively composed language and a cast of memorable characters.  In fact, the real strength of this story is in the unforgettable cast of minor characters, especially Aunty Lorraine, who feels like she might be straight out of an episode of Struggle Street, the deeply complex and equally troubled Ruby and his surfie, slash bogan, cousins, Minty and Shane.  There is certainly enough material here for another three or four novels should Zorn wish to explore them.

One Would Think the Deep is a skilfully crafted novel that will resonate with readers from the upper end of the middle years through to senior students.  While it was an engaging read, and while I applaud Zorn again for her mastery as a storyteller, unlike The Protected, it never quite took me to that exceedingly rare place that truly remarkable novels do.

Tanya Grech Welden

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