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 You see, when Tahnee reaches out to Lucy, the new (and rather shy and withdrawn) girl, she is drawn into a direct conflict with close friend Roxie, who, feels displaced by what she perceives as rejection.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
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
Most schools have that tricky English class; usually around year 10, often dominated by a group of rather disengaged boys for whom reading shares the same affection as teeth-pulling or bed-making. Such a class presents a very real challenge, the lament of even the most dedicated educator. Steven Herrick, with his uncanny ability to speak to the hearts of our disengaged students provides a real option for such classes. As an added bonus he even delivers it in verse. “Yes!” I can almost hear you shout, all your prayers have been answered.
Written entirely in verse, Another Night in Mullet Town, is a novel investigating the world of teenagers Jonah and Manx. Living in the lakeside town of Turon, their lives are simple; hang out a little, fish a lot and expect to grow old living in one of the town’s dilapidated shacks. However, things are set to change. The Property Developers and Real Estate Agents have moved in, setting upon the process of transforming the town into a haven for Sydneysiders dreaming of an idyllic getaway. For Manx, son of the local servo owner, these new locals with their flashy houses, cars and cash are the antithesis of everything he despises; a direct challenge to his way of life.
Another Night in Mullet Town addresses a disenfranchised youth, who, bound by the ties of poverty, teeter on the verge of criminal activity. With themes that explore the tragedy of family dysfunction and breakdown, identity, the highs of first love, along with the desolation of a future devoid of hope; Herrick’s novel will hold great appeal with students in the senior years of secondary school. Used as a class text, teachers will embrace the opportunities to draw immediate parallels with other novels (SE Hinton’s The Outsiders, Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon) or film (The Breakfast Club). A closer exploration of the novel’s verse structure will certainly yield strong opportunities for text production.
This is a deliciously woven tale told in tantalising language. A gift for educators, it will speak to the realities of many of Australia’s youth. Another Night in Mullet Town is a magnificent story for teens, and haters of Real Estate Agents, everywhere.
I am not often presented with verse-novels to review, and this is a shame since many teachers appreciate the opportunity to share them with students as a means to broaden their understanding of poetry and its relevance today. Certainly, Steven Herrick’s scintillating verse-novel Lonesome Howl is appreciated at my school by senior students and teachers alike, who relish his economical use of language and vivid description. Kathryn Apel’s verse-novel On Track addresses this same need albeit for a slightly younger audience.
Told in a switching narrative style, On Track tells the story of brothers Shaun and Toby. Shaun, the athletic and academically gifted older brother, finds learning and life effortless. Toby, on the other hand, is a struggler. Clumsy and awkward, his tussles, both kinaesthetically and academically, place him at a huge social disadvantage at school. Unlike his brother, whose attitude towards life and personal experience suggest that he has no reason to expect failure, Toby experiences lowered self-esteem. His diagnosis with Dyspraxia, a learning disability that impedes gross and fine motor skills, means that he becomes the recipient of a series of accommodations to assist his learning; a computer and the provision of special coaching in athletics, specifically running.
From the outset, Apel’s novel, with its strong emphasis upon sport, is guaranteed to hold strong appeal with boys in the middle years from grades 6-9. The frugal use of language (and ultimately length) will ensure that text it is an accessible choice for class and individual study. Thematically, the investigation of disability, difference and the necessary requirement for curriculum differentiation, provides an appropriate segue into a broader discussion of disability and disadvantage in society. Similarly, students will relate to other themes that include sibling rivalry, the pursuit of sporting excellence and, related to this, the struggle against self-doubt. The novel will pair quite well with other novels with the theme of sport, Cath Crowley’s The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain, or, for a closer focus on the theme of disability, Wonder by R.J Palacio, or Cecily Anne Paterson’s Invisible.
Fast Track is a highly immersive and fast paced verse novel that is guaranteed to have middle-school students cheering as they turn each page.
Tanya Grech Welden