Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Archive for the ‘Religious Education’ Category

Book Review: “Jehan and the Quest of the Lost Dog” by Roseanne Hawke, University of Queensland Press (2017)


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

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

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

Book Review: Alabaster by, Chris Aslan, Lion Fiction (2016)


As Religious Education teachers in Catholic or Christian schools, one of our greatest challenges is bringing the world of the Gospels to life in a way that makes sense to our students.  It seems to me that many children and young people struggle to really understand what life was like for people, specifically Jewish communities, living at the time of the historical Jesus.  How as educators are we best able to convey the complex nature of this culture and address ideas such as the roles of men and women, double standards and the impact of Roman imperialism on the Jewish people?  When working with adolescents I commonly look towards fiction as a means for fleshing out this context and addressing some of the more subtle understandings of this culture that will lead to a deeper investigation of scripture.

Many years ago I was introduced to a method of reading scripture called Lectio Divinia.  Essentially, the method requires a prayerful reading of the Gospels that requires one to emotionally invest in a story from scripture and process this in such a way that allows for you to be creatively present in the story. What we have with Chris Aslan’s book is a very sophisticated model of this. Having said this, I wish to emphasise that, from the outset, this is a story that can be enjoyed on many levels.  In fact, while it will be deeply appreciated by those coming from a Judaeo-Christian world view, this book will also be enjoyed outside this realm purely as a work of fiction.  Written in ephemeral prose Alabaster invites us into the world of a young Jewish woman Mariam (loosely identified as Mary of Magdala) who lives in a small village during the ministry of Jesus.  Having suffered the death of her mother to a fever, Mariam, also endures the tragedy of her father’s leprosy and final ostracism, rape (in the absence of a male protector) and marriage to an abusive man.  Of course many of these details, while being an accurate portrayal of the experiences of women during this time and context, are obviously creative imaginings when applied to the life of Mary Magdalene (for whom the Gospels only ever provide very general details of).   Interestingly, Aslan elects to limit Mariam’s experiences of the historical Jesus to a couple of episodes, taking place over a few days, and the story never delves into Jesus’ crucifixion or resurrection, for which Magdalene is the first witness.   Instead the story revolves around the origin of the alabaster jar and culminates in the moment of Jesus’ anointing with the precious oil by Mariam a few days before his death.  While Aslan permits Mariam to develops a special ‘connection’ with the historical Jesus, he falls short in delving into the range of legends relating to Mary Magdalene, of course those which have drawn her as a fallen woman (prostitute), the ‘loved disciple’ and even the spouse of Jesus.

Within the Religious Education classroom the story has application for use in small excerpts to flesh out specific ideas related to life in the time of Jesus.  Specifically, I would be keen to make use of the stoning scene or the chapter exploring leprosy.  Alabaster, would be an ideal novel for senior students to use in independent study with rich parallels easily being drawn with the likes of Anne Rice’s, Christ the Lord or Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.  The novel could conceivably work well as a class text with advanced English students in the senior years.

Alabaster is a gift for lovers of history and the Christian Scriptures.  It will certainly be finding a permanent place on my bookshelf as a wonderful resource for use with secondary students in the Religious Education classroom.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “The Truth About Peacock Blue” by Rosanne Hawke, Allen & Unwin (2015)

9781743319949I have long been a fan of Rosanne Hawke’s gentle approach to story telling. Her latest release The Truth About Peacock Blue, does not disappoint. In fact, in this novel we see Hawke at her very best, leading readers into vividly drawn worlds in which her characters, despite being small of voice, manage to speak loudly and poignantly to her audience.

The Truth About Peacock Blue tells the story of Aster, a fourteen year old Christian girl who lives with her parents in a small village in Pakistan. Following the death of her brother, her parents decide to invest in her education only surviving child, Aster. The decision to educate a girl is an unusual one for families from rural areas in Pakistan, but is one which is is tentatively embraced by Aster, who had anticipated an early arranged marriage. As the “hope” for her family, and a girl of a minority faith, Aster must navigate her way through a minefield of challenges wrought by the largely Muslim context of her school and country. She prevails with dogged determination, until the worst happens. She is accused of blasphemy.

From the very first page this is a story which quietly aches. Aster may live a deceptively simple existence as a girl in a small village in Pakistan, yet her life is far from simple. Politically and socially, Pakistan is revealed as a beautiful, yet complex nation where life for women and those of religious minorities is rarely trouble free. Even before the issue of blasphemy appears ,this is a tale of great loss. The story begins with the loss of her brother and rape of a close friend and continues to unfold with additional stories that readers will find most harrowing. While the issues explored in this narrative are sensitive and deeply complex, Hawke succeeds in crafting a story with straight forward language that will be highly accessible to her YA audience.

I anticipate that teachers will readily find use for this novel across a range of curriculum areas with students from year 9 upwards. In the English classroom it would be suitable as a shared class text where a close analysis of the themes and broader context of the story could be fleshed out even further within the HaSS curriculum. The story would pair well, holding its own, along the likes of Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird. The Asian context and perspectives presented in the story fulfil current ACARA requirements at grade 9. Furthermore, in schools where Religious Studies is taught, the story could be a powerful segue way to a discussion on the topics of religious diversity, tolerance, and the various issues emerging within contemporary societies both at home and abroad.

The Truth About Peacock Blue, is a timely novel highlighting with immense sensitivity the reality of the turbulent times we now live in. Rosanne Hawke engages with these issues honestly, in a manner that will incite open discussion, whilst communicating a hope-filled message that uplifts and will frequently inspires positive engagement in today’s youth.
Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review “My Baddass Book of Saints: Courageous Women Who Showed Me How to Live” by Maria Morera Johnson, (2015) Ave Maria Press

cover70314-medium15 years teaching Religious Education in a Catholic high school has shown me that students, particularly girls, love to hear stories about inspiring women.  It is a shame then, that many of the female heroes of the Catholic Church, our Saints, are introduced to children in books as caricatures; one dimensional characters that most ‘normal’ people struggle to get close to.  In fact, too often the virtues of the Saints are celebrated to such an extent that it is difficult to relate to them in their humanity.  As a consequence, ask any student to do a research task on a Saint and you tend to get a fairly bland recount of what they did (rather than who they were).  Furthermore, too often students, when reading the lives of the Saints, will struggle to make sense of the relevance the life they are reading has for their own spiritual journey.

Maria Morera Johnson’s book My Baddass Book of Saints, has written a book about Saints with a difference.  Gone are the one dimensional caricatures, instead are depictions of real women, living real Christian lives (often in difficult times and circumstances).  While Johnson provides accounts of traditional Saints, such as Saints Teresa of Avila, Joan of Arc, Catherine of Siena, Rose of Lima, she juxtaposes these lives, contrasting them with that of lesser known Saints and women who, while not always canonised, lived notable lives in the same spirit.  From this category I was thrilled to see the life of more modern Saints, such as Gianna Beretta Molla along with the lives of women, who while not canonised are worthy comparisons, especially Sr Blandina Segale (whose story could easily have been interchanged with our own Saint Mary MacKillop), Audrey Hepburn, Edel Quinn and Nancy Wake.  However, what makes these lives really come alive, is how Johnson identifies common themes for their achievements and, in doing so, connects these to experiences from her own personal story.

My Baddass Book of Saints is not the first book of this type to reach publication in recent years, however, it is a solid example.  I came across a similar book a few years ago and the experience of this had a profound effect on me and the way in which I now approach Saints in the classroom.  While many middle school students may struggle independently to connect with some of the complex ideas in the book, senior students should find the ideas fairly accessible.  For teachers, this is a wonderful resource, the perfect starting point for building a broader unit of work exploring notable Christian lives.  Similarly, it is a wonderful resource for teachers and school leaders, to deepen and challenge their own spirituality and the provision of reflection questions for each chapter, allow for easy adaptation to professional development and group discussion.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review Pray With Me: “Seven Simple Ways to Pray With Your Children”, by Grace Mazza Urbanski, (2015) Ave Maria Press

Pray With MeAlthough specifically targeted at parents, Grace Mazza Urbanski’s book Pray With Me: Seven Simple Ways to Pray With Your Children is perfect for use by teachers with strong application for the classroom, or, as part of a professional development program.  Told in an inviting and conversational style, Urbanski uses personal anecdotes to engage her audience with her topic, while providing practical strategies for praying with children in 7 main ways:

  • Spontaneous Prayer
  • Praying from Memory
  • Praying with Scripture
  • Praying with Song
  • Praying with Silence
  • Praying with Reflection
  • Praying with the Apostleship of Prayer

While many of these strategies may be appropriate for those working within a Protestant setting, it is important to note that Pray With Me approaches the content through the lens of Catholicism.  In this manner Urbanski has been faithful to the Catholic understanding of prayer, with her insights grounded in contemporary theology.  As a Religion teacher with 15 years’ experience in the classroom, I did not find the content of this book particularly ground breaking.  However, I did find its exploration of topic both thorough, thought-provoking and with an abundance of easy-to-implement strategies.  I especially enjoyed her clear approach to Lexio Divinia and she makes an excellent case for children learning prayers from memory within the contemporary educational setting (which values students accessing information rather than memorising it).  Furthermore, the provision of questions at the conclusion of each chapter, allows the text to be easily adapted for use in staff meetings or professional development sessions with teachers.

Urbanski highlights the crucial role that parents have as the first and most fundamental educators of faith for their children.  While this is true, in many cases (at least in Australia), the role of spiritual education has fallen mostly to the teacher in the Christian or Catholic school.  It follows then that Urbanski may find a broader (and more eager) audience with teachers from these settings. Pray With Me would be a fantastic resource for those working within the Catholic educational context.  I would especially recommend it as an introductory text for new or beginning teachers, experienced teachers new to Catholic Schools, or, for school leaders wanting to lead staff in professional development on the topic.

Tanya Grech Welden

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