Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

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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

Cath Crowley

This is, pure and simple, ‘a love story’ (yep it says so right on the front cover).  YA Romance authors pay attention, your writing masterclass is now in session.  Rachel is grieving.  After 3 years living by the coast, and in the aftermath of her brother’s drowning, she returns to the city.  It is a homecoming not without significant protests.  After all, she has flunked year 12 and failed to get into university. More importantly it means facing up to her ‘best-friend’ Henry the guy she was in love with, and who rejected her in preference for red-haired Amy the day before she left.  Seemingly, when the worlds of Henry and Rachel collide once more, Henry is in a world of pain.  Amy (the girl who loves her reflection more than she does Henry), has dumped him (yet again).   As Henry pines away for his lost-love, readers will certainly be cheering for Rachel and wondering how this couple will find their way into each other’s arms.  Of course, and in true Crowley fashion, while Words in Deep Blue might be a love story, it is so much more.  This is a celebration of words, literature and the power of both to bind us together through the human experiences of love and loss.

It goes without saying that, told through switching first person narration interspersed with letters, Words in Deep Blue is beautifully written.  The final product is a rich tapestry, a powerful celebration of language and storytelling. While this is not something that I would explicitly use in the classroom, it is certainly something that I will promote and which will be deeply cherished by those wonderful and rare students who proudly refer to themselves as ‘book nerds’.  Such readers will appreciate Crowley’s numerous references to literary works of note.  In saying this, I personally found the multiple references to the likes of John Green a little amusing.  Does Crowley even realise that she is firmly in this league?  If anyone deserves to be in the ‘Letter Room’ it is she.

It is not all serious though.  In fact in many ways this is a joyous book, immensely comedic in places.  I mean, the notion of two guys being stripped down to nothing and gaffer-taped to a city street light should be horrifying.  Instead Crowley has me laughing along with her central protagonist (who also seems to see light of the moment).

Evidence that great things really do come to those who wait can be found within the pages of this book.

Okay, so I read this as a digital galley.  I’d have preferred a paper copy (feel free to send me one Pan Macmillan), since an e-version could never hope to do justice to this superlative piece of literature.  Then again, beggars can’t be choosers, and this is Cath Crowley after all.  It has been a while (has it really been 6 years since Graffiti Moon?) since Crowley blessed us with a story. I’m not complaining, Crowley is quite possibly a perfectionist and she can ferment (or marinate) her manuscripts for as long as she likes if this is the outcome.

Tanya Grech Welden

Little Wing cover

Frequently, as readers, we fall into the trap of assuming that picture books are just for younger children.  This is not always the case.  There are quite a few writers and illustrators, like Shaun Tan, who have built stellar careers upon the idea that picture books can be written for, indeed directed towards an older audience.  Of course, then there are these wonderfully creative people who manage to write for children, yet at the same time also address older audiences in ways that are nothing short of profound.  As a secondary teacher, when I come across these stories I always find a way to use them; either in my classroom or with staff.  Katherine Battersby’s latest picture book, Little Wing is one such book.  On the surface it is a charmingly illustrated picture book, aimed at pre-schoolers or junior primary students.  Indeed this is probably the way the most people will choose to use it.  However, when we delve beneath the surface we discover something with themes so universal that it not only speaks to adults but it serves as a tool that has the potential to transform that audience.

“On the smallest island, in the tallest tree, lived the world’s smartest animal.”  So begins Battersby in what is a deceptively simple tale about a bird, Little Wing, who, through his love of books and learning, becomes the smartest animal on the planet.  However, despite the great wealth of knowledge accessible at his fingertips, Little Wing fails to understand how he fits into the larger scheme of things.  Little Wing launches on a journey of self-discovery that takes him to a place beyond the wisdom stored inside books.  It is a place where he must discover on his own, through original and creative thought processes; the answer to who he actually is.

Battersby uses sparse, simple language in her telling of this story, a choice which makes this story accessible to young beginning readers.  However, it is the juxtaposition of the text alongside the delightful illustrations that really breathes life into Little Wing’s story.  Battersby uses a combination of media that includes watercolour, pencil and textiles along with scanned images to create a digital collage with an airy and whimsical feel.  I envisage that teachers will take inspiration from this and embrace the opportunity to explore this method in art lessons.

For teachers, the story of Little Wing reminds us that although the content of what we teach is important, our greatest imperative as educators is how we develop in our students skills that will lead to self-discovery and original thought.  Of course, when reading this story with my 4 year old daughter the message we shared was that learning is an exciting adventure, one that is life long and fun.  What a wonderful message to share with children at the very beginning of their learning journey!

Tanya Grech Welden

Mullet Town Cover

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.

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Tanya Grech Welden is a mother of three, writer and secondary English teacher.  Her career has taken her to Liverpool (UK), Port Augusta and back to her home town of Adelaide where she has taught in primary, tertiary and secondary schools.  She is a passionate advocate for literacy and likes to dabble in business marketing and fiction writing for adolescents. 

As a teacher and a mother it is well known that I have some fairly strong opinions about the decision of CESA to implement the integration of year 7 into secondary settings.  The State Minister for Education, Susan Close insists that “there is no evidence that where a 12 year old is educated makes much difference, if any difference at all.”  Clearly the current government is choosing to ignore the continual slide in academic performance of students in this state as reflected in NAPLAN.  Some would think that this is evidence enough.  Now while I personally don’t place too much faith in NAPLAN, if you speak to many teachers (both primary and secondary), they will identify a growing concern about the ability of primary teachers to deliver a curriculum that meets the social, academic and emotional needs of early adolescents.  It also follows that, the phasing in of the National Curriculum has exacerbated the effect of this tenfold and was probably the final straw for Catholic Education who then decided to throw caution to the wind and make the transition (with or without the support of the State government).

It makes sense then that many parents are asking what is the difference between educating a year 7 (or 12 year old) in primary school or high school?  Is there even a difference in what can be offered in these settings?  The simple answer is yes, there is a difference and that difference is massive.  In order understand this one must first appreciate the ways in which primary and secondary teachers are trained.  Primary teachers, while being experts in pedagogy, are trained as generalist teachers.  In other words, most primary teachers teach across all learning areas, from Numeracy to Literacy and everything in between.  The mind boggles as to the diversity of content that they manage and as such they are experts in the art of integration.  Secondary teachers on the other hand are specialists.  That is to say that they will most often have an undergraduate degree with a major in one or two learning areas (Maths & Science or English & Humanities) along with an additional qualification in the field of education.  These differences while having an impact on the amount of knowledge teachers bring to the classroom, also alters the way in which specific subjects are approached.

Currently too many students in South Australia are commencing high school with large gaps in learning.

For South Australian students in year 7 this suddenly became increasing significant with the phasing in of the National Curriculum a few years ago.  Prior to this South Australian schools existed happily within their own little ‘bubbles’.  While we knew that our interstate counterparts commenced high school at year 7 (aside from some erratic grumbling about the challenge for the occasional student moving between states), we didn’t really think too much about what other states were doing.  The National Curriculum landed in teachers’ ‘pigeon-holes’ along with the assumption that the year 7 curriculum would be taught in a secondary context by a specialist teacher.  For primary teachers of year 7 this presented two main challenges.  Firstly, how they might go about teaching a subject effectively without the resourcing and facilities normally available to students in high schools.  Secondly, these same teachers had to deal with the reality that the curriculum assumed they had an undergraduate degree (and understanding of) every subject area.  The latter, remembering that our primary teachers are generalist teachers, was frankly unreasonable and requires nothing short of superhuman abilities.  Secondary teachers, particularly those in the middle years, bear the brunt of the inevitable failure of this when they inherit these students in year 8.  Currently too many students in South Australia are commencing high school with large gaps in learning.  While some of this missed content can be pushed aside, the skills and fundamentals must be mastered before teachers can move on with more sophisticated concepts.  This inevitably leads to time spent in ‘catch up’ with gaps continuing to appear well into high school.  These gaps might be what we are starting to see in our NAPLAN results.

Of course, even understanding the curriculum side of things parents will still ask, “How will my child cope with the demands of high school as a 12 year old?”  As a mother of three I understand these concerns.  After all, we spend a great deal of time worrying about the social and emotional well-being of our children.  While each child is unique, and individual experiences will vary, most 12 year-olds will cope well with the demands of secondary school.  It is important to remember that the rest of Australia has been doing this for a long time as have our counterparts in the United Kingdom and in other places across the globe.  In fact, in many schools across this state students from R-12 already share campuses and in these situations students not only survive but thrive.  Furthermore, there is a strong argument to suggest that the social and emotional needs of 12 year-olds are more akin to 14, 16 and 18 year-olds than 5 or 8 year-olds.  I witnessed this level of mismatched needs first-hand while working as an Assistant Principal of a Catholic primary school in Adelaide’s east.  Here I observed the daily struggles of primary principals as they tried to make sense of the ‘teenage’ behaviours exhibited by students in their schools.  Make no mistake, year 7’s were as ill fitted to this context as I was (A high school teacher trying to lead 5 year-olds in Godly play).

While the move of our year 7’s to high school comes with some degree of apprehension, it is no doubt the preferable option for enhancing the educational outcomes of students in this state.  In light of the reality that, for the time being, year 7’s will continue to be funded as primary students, one can only applaud Catholic Education SA for their move which, while not only brave, is undertaken without financial assistance from the current state government.

* To view Channel 9’s coverage of the story click here.


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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.

Jo-Kin Book 2 Cover

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.

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