Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

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Book Review: “Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow” by Jessica Townsend, Lothian (2017)

nevermoor

Eleven-year-old Morrigan Crow is a cursed child.  Born on the last Eventide, she is fated to a short life, and one in which she is blamed for any (and every) unfortunate event to occur.  She lives an equally miserable existence, rejected by her family and waiting for her death to arrive with the next Eventide.  When Eventide does arrive (a year earlier than predicted), a saviour, Jupiter North, appears to whisk her safely away to the mysterious and magical city of Nevermoor.  However, the sanctuary of Nevermoor is only guaranteed for Morrigan if she can discover her knack, pass a series of trials, and join the Wunderous Society.

I must confess to not being much of a Harry Potter fan.  Sure, I enjoyed the books (well the ones I read), but with so many amazing stories about, I just never really made the time to gorge on the whole series.  After all, J.K Rowling was hardly ever going to miss my review and, to be totally frank, my real passion is novels by Australian writers.  Having stated this from the outset I want to be clear about a couple of things:

  • Fantasy, the likes of Harry Potter, is not really my thing, and,
  • (Probably because of the first point) I wasn’t really enthused about reading this title.

Consequently, when writing this review I can’t really be sure how Harry Potter enthusiasts will receive this story.  I really, really, hope they love it.  For all I know, they may hate it for all the reasons that I felt it was the most remarkable and engaging read of 2017.

While this story draws obvious comparisons with the likes of Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland, Townsend seems to have taken inspiration from literature well beyond these stories.  For instance, the eccentric Jupiter North was curiously reminiscent of the Doctor and the trials conjured up vague (albeit PG rated) references to the Hunger Games. That said, while being a textbook example of good versus evil, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow is very much its own story, is utterly surprising and  is entirely original.

 

While I probably would not use this text as a class novel, I would certainly be pitching it to my Potter obsessed readers (especially the ones who really need to get with it and move on).  Nevermoor will read well aloud, and accordingly, with accessible characters and themes, will operate as a wonderful go-to for shared reading in the classroom from middle primary and beyond.

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow had me giddy with excitement.  Not the kind of excitement that had me turning pages in fevered haste; more the kind that found me savouring every word (it is beautifully crafted) and feeling the urge to appreciate the unfolding story at a leisurely pace.  In fact, more than once during my reading I found myself wishing silently “gee I wish I’d written this.”  If I am correct, Townsend’s riveting debut will find her a place in the hearts of children (and fantasy loving adults) the world over.  I really hope she doesn’t let it go to her head though, as I need her to get cracking on the next episode in the amazing world of Morrigan Crow.

Tanya Grech Welden

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

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

Book Review: “Bertha and Bear”, written and illustrated by Christine Sharp, University of Queensland Press (2017)

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

Book Review: “Wombat Warriors” by Samantha Wheeler, University of Queensland Press (2017)

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

Book Review: “That Stubborn Seed of Hope: Stories” by Brian Falkner, University of Queensland Press (2017)

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

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: “Love, Ghosts & Nose Hair” and “A Place Like This” by Steven Herrick (2017), University of Queensland Press

Steven Herrick is a dead-set legend.  Seriously; if writing awesome books for adolescents was grounds for canonisation, he’d be a living Saint.

Okay, so that is a bit of a stretch; but Herrick is all about the stuff that We English teachers dream about.  Appealing characters and themes that resonate with teens; check.  Language that oozes with all the delectability of the purest honey; check.  Settings that are uniquely, and refreshingly, Australian; yes please.  Add to this that the man does it in verse (although his prose is particularly splendid also).  Excuse me while I swoon; I may be in urgent need of a Bex and a lie down.

I came to the magic that is Steven Herrick somewhat recently; jumping on board in 2011 with the release of his novel Black Painted Fingernails.  Having now officially surrendered to his spell, I welcomed the chance to read a reissue of a couple of his older books. Love, Ghosts and Nose Hair and its sequel A Place Like This, were originally released in 1996 and 1998 respectively.  Examining the story of Jack and Annabel, both stories, told completely in verse, remain as fresh as if they were only written last week.

As with many of Herrick’s stories, both novels explore the experiences of youth set against the unique backdrop of Australia (be it in suburbia or in the bush).  While primarily ‘coming of age’ tales, both travel the somewhat clumsy, often giddy, joy that is first love.  Herrick’s world is one where the ride through adolescence collides head-on with reality.  His characters are insecure, frequently searching and battle with a world that has often dealt them a hand that is unfair.  For Jack, this reality is one where he must reconcile his own ghosts and the grief associated with losing his mother to cancer.  It is a place where Annabel must define her own future, even though doing so may cause conflict with the future her parents (and Jack) have envisioned for her. Finally, there is Emma; sixteen and pregnant, she must come to terms with her life, that of her unborn child and the unfairness of a single night that changed everything.  You see, while humour is a tool that Herrick employs with great finesse; beneath this is a gritty world that is unfair and filled with characters whose hearts ache with pain certain to resonate with its audience.

Both Love, Ghosts & Nose Hair and A Place Like This, are beautifully crafted using the sparse descriptive language now synonymous with Herrick.  The stories will have broad appeal with older adolescents and will sit well in the English curriculum from year 10 upwards.  As with most of Herrick’s verse novels, these stories are as accessible as they are engaging.  While suitable for use with accelerated English students, they will be deeply appreciated by less reluctant readers in the senior years.

Tanya Grech Welden

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