Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

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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

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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)

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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: “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

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

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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

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