Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Posts tagged ‘University of Queensland Press’

Book Review: “Because of You” by Pip Harry, University of Queensland Press (2017)

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Every year at the school I teach at, year 11 students are required to undertake 15 hours of Christian Service as part of their Religion Studies course.  It is easier extracting blood from a stone.  Not quite, but for many students, getting them engaged in an activity determined take them out of their comfort zone is a massive challenge.  Even those who are compliant with the program tend to lean towards selecting activities where there is a certain predictable safety.  Of course, those few students who do embrace the opportunity and take a risk get the most out of the program, something which is evident in their reflection report.  Pip Harry’s latest novel, Because of You explores the challenges and life changing experience that community service programs have the potential to provide.  The story follows the experience of Nola, a generally disengaged and reluctant student who is forced to undertake community service at a temporary homeless shelter.  Through her involvement in a creative writing program she meets Tiny, an eighteen-year-old girl, currently homeless, she has been sleeping rough on the streets of Sydney.

Tiny is a believable character with Harry skilfully revealing her to us, with appropriate breadcrumbing of her back story.  In a manner that mimics the core message of the story (don’t judge people without knowing who they truly are), we are able to understand how she came to be on the streets slowly, so that by the time we know her as a person we are open to her in a non-judgmental way.  Nola, on the other hand is portrayed realistically as a reluctant participant, apathetic about school and everything in general (short of her social life).  Readers can appreciate that Nola, while deeply flawed (and a bit spoilt) undertakes an impressive character arc from a place of ambivalence to compassion (the very same arc I hope all my 11 RE students will follow during their community service experience).

Pip Harry is a skilled writer and while I really enjoyed Head of the River, I strongly feel that this novel, as a story, has so much more to offer. Harry must be commended on tackling some really challenging issues that most Australians conveniently choose to ignore.  In truth, the only thing I didn’t like about this book was the cover.  I recall feeling the same way about another of Pip Harry’s covers (perhaps she has been let down again).  At any rate, I find the cover totally uninspiring as may many potential (and somewhat fickle) adolescent readers.  This is a shame because once I started the story, I literally couldn’t put it down.

While I’d really love to read this novel with my 11 RE class, realistically time will not allow this.  However, I might read excerpts to the class.  I am quite keen to investigate the possibility of introducing this as a text in the year 11 English curriculum, aligning it with the community service unit that is taught in Religion Studies at the same year.

Because of You is a deeply engaging story that while honestly exploring prejudice in contemporary Australian society, remains optimistic and hopeful about the kind of reality that we must continue to strive towards.

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: “The Elephant” by Peter Carnavas, University of Queensland Press (2017)

The ElephantOlive’s Dad is sad.  In fact, she can’t remember a time when he wasn’t this way, carrying a sadness that is so great that Olive can only imagine it as a heavy grey elephant.  With the assistance of her best friend Arthur and her grandfather, Olive is determined to chase away her father’s elephant and bring joy and light into all their lives.

Told in sparse, aching prose, The Elephant while primarily targeted at younger children, will speak to a broad audience on universal themes focusing on grief, loss and the heavy cloud that is depression.   Younger, more capable readers will appreciate the accessible language that is pleasantly interspersed with appealing images.  While the subject matter of this story is inherently dark the overwhelming message is one of hope.  That said, this is a story best used selectively (and cautiously) in the classroom with it best placed as a text for sharing in small intimate groups.

In many ways The Elephant needs to come with a warning. I’m talking of the kind of warning that alerts poor, unsuspecting parents to a need for Kleenex and the strong likelihood that you will fall apart at some point while reading this book to your child.  I don’t say this to be a negative Nancy.  In fact, it serves to highlight the success of what Peter Carnavas has achieved in this deceptively simple and captivating story.  The Elephant is a timeless and memorable tale that will deeply move and delight readers of all ages.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Too Many Friends” by Kathryn Apel, University of Queensland Press (2017)

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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

Book Review: “Becoming Aurora”, by Elizabeth Kasmer, UQP (2016)

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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

Book Review: “My Sister is a Superhero” by Damon Young illustrated by Peter Carnavas, University of Queensland Press (2016)

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My Sister is a Superhero, arrived as an unexpected surprise on my doorstep on a hot, January day a few weeks ago. With three children on school holidays, and a mother on the verge of being ‘over it’, it was a welcome gift that couldn’t have been more perfect. “Here,” I said thrusting the package into the hands of my 12 year old daughter, “Go and read this with your sister. Tell me what you think.”
“What did you think?” I asked them ten minutes later. “Awesome,” replied the 12 year old. “My sister is a superhero!” echoed the 4 year old. “Can we read it again?”

With the book receiving top marks from its intended audience I was keen to read it myself and gauge how it might be useful as a resource for teachers.

Thematically, the story is a simple one that celebrates the diversity of sisters, with a general aim of fostering positive relationships between siblings. It would be a wonderful story for younger siblings to read or, alternately, a fantastic story for older sisters with a view to generating discussion about the responsibilities attached to this role.
Pitched at younger readers, My Sister is a Superhero is perfect for use in a variety of early learning settings and within the junior primary classroom. With a strong focus upon family it works well for sharing in the home. The simple language is accessible for even the youngest of children, while beginning readers will find enough challenge to be extended without being overwhelmed. The narrative makes use of simple alliterative language (repetition of s, d, p, c, t predominate) and the telling encourages participation, driven by a clear pattern and rhythm that is only broken on the last page. As an adult I appreciated the clever play with language that created vivid images (bench pressing trolls, chocolate cake digging dwarves), while bringing to life the diversity of activities undertaken by sisters who are all united by their shared brilliance.

I was captivated with Carnavas’ delightful illustrations rendered in primary colours in calming watercolour. The use of white space provides an excellent balance, complementing the text without adding unnecessary busyness to the page. My 4 year old had lots of fun finding the frog, koala and chicken scattered throughout the story. Of special note are the delightful sepia coloured illustrations found on the inside page of both front and back covers.

My Sister is a Superhero is the third book in a series of books celebrating family (My Nana is a Ninja and My Pop is a Pirate) . This, along with other books in the series will provide a perfect segue into discussions about family structures and diversity. It is a light, entertaining read that only improves with re-reading whilst fostering a love of language in young readers.

Teachers notes, based on the National Curriculum, are available here.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Mister Cassowary” by Samantha Wheeler, University of Queensland Press (2015)

mister-cassowaryA year after his Grandad’s death, Flynn travels with his father to Mission Beach on an assignment to prepare the family banana plantation for sale.  Understandably, Flynn anticipates that the trip will be dominated by the mundane chores of cleaning and repairing.  Understandably, he is taken aback when things get a lot more interesting when he happens across a pair of cassowary chicks and meets local girl Abby.  As Flynn quickly learns, the discovery of the cassowaries raises more questions than answers with the young boy keen to unravel the mystery of his Grandad’s death, his father’s anxiety and how this is all related to these unusual prehistoric birds.

With environmental studies top of the National Curriculum agenda, this text is a perfect choice for complementing or introducing the topic of endangered species.  With a manageable length and short snappy chapters, Mister Cassowary would be ideal as a shared class text for close analysis, or add on filler when read by the teacher.  The text itself provides a valuable segue-way into discussing general issues related to endangered species, whilst acting as a tangible case study, or model, for older students to undertake their own research on this or other animals at risk.  I was also pleased to note the inclusion of supplementary facts at the end of the task, along with websites and organisations to support extension activities.

Mister Cassowary is written in clear language and should be easily accessible and engaging by students ready to move on to more challenging chapter books.  Flynn and Abby are appealingly drawn characters with a wonderful natural inquisitiveness that mirrors many of the children in this age group.  I was less taken by the adult characters, some of whom I felt were a little one dimensional with dialogue that felt somewhat stilted.

Perfect for children in the Primary Years and edging into the lower end of the Middle Years, Mister Cassowary is a Heaven-sent gift for teachers wanting to teach across a range of curriculum areas and inspire the next generation to embrace an active role as stewards of this planet.  A wonderful novel that will surely become a favourite in schools by teachers, students and animal advocates alike.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “On Track” by Kathryn Apel, 2015, University of Queensland Press

ApelI 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

Book Review: “Just a Queen”, Jane Caro (2015), University of Queensland Press

just a queenI have a special passion for Historical Fiction so it probably goes without saying, but I jumped (or more likely did a couple of virtual cartwheels) at the opportunity to get my hands on Jane Caro’s new novel Just a Queen.  As the sequel to Caro’s novel Just a Girl, this book provides an intimate insight into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  I haven’t read the first book and although I’m keen to read it retrospectively, it is important to note that this didn’t make any difference as the book operates well as a stand-alone text.

Overall I found this to be an enticing package.  I found the cover design appealing, striking the perfect balance between identifying the historical period whilst maintaining enough savviness to entice a youthful audience. I also found the gold decorative motif that backed the front and rear covers a delightful inclusion, serving as a suitable prelude for what was to follow.

Caro’s thoughtful prose consistently manages to engage her audience by being accessible yet maintaining a sense of faithfulness to the period explored.  The choice of first person narration, created a potent intimacy with the protagonist, allowing for an authentic and believable psychological portrait of Elizabeth to be drawn.  I did find the time shifts a little irksome at times.  Certainly, younger readers may find this a deterrent, although it added a narrative complexity that could be interesting to investigate with students in higher level English classes.

Just a Queen, was pitched to me as a Young Adult/Historical Fiction novel.  While I won’t argue with the latter, it became apparent to me early on, that this is a book which fails to conform to traditional notions of YA.  The story is narrated by rather distraught and significantly aged Elizabeth I, as a series of flashbacks occurring in the latter part of her reign.  The flashbacks, precipitated by the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, primarily hark back to a much younger Elizabeth, albeit one who is well into her twenties.  It did not take me too long to realise that the lack of an adolescent protagonist place this book out of YA and firmly into mainstream Adult Historical. Similarly, since the flashbacks involve mature reflection from that of an aging woman and, while not necessarily a criticism, I did wonder if a mainstream YA audience may perceive this as a little too preachy, or, even disregard the perspective as being irrelevant.  However, perhaps this is a little pedantic because Caro’s story is undoubtedly exquisitely crafted, while possessing a qualities that could easily make it an inspiring text to explore as a guided text with Senior English students or as an extension text in the Senior History classroom.Jane-Caro-photo-web

Jane Caro has managed to breathe new life into what is a well-trodden topic by novelists and filmmakers.  She is to be commended for her depiction of an Elizabeth who is not only flesh and blood, but whose portrayal will undoubtedly resonate with contemporary women, for whom the challenge of living in a man’s world, is as real today as it was in the Elizabethan world.

Tanya Grech Welden

 

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