02 July 2009

Readers wanted!

Feeling bereft without the take-home readers? Need absorbing info or trusty tales to take away in the school hols? Or perhaps you just can’t imagine the dreary depths of winter without good books to curl up with.
Fear no more – the CCPS library has a range of NEW fiction, junior fiction, short fiction and non-fiction ready for borrowing, with something for all ages, interests, reading levels and literary tastes. And best of all – they’re free!
Check them out by clicking here.

01 July 2009

The First Dog - by Jan Brett

I blame Red Riding Hood. Or The Three Pigs. Or possibly the Boy Who Cried Wolf. One way or another, wolves entered and then colonised my nightmares as a child. Yet their doggy descendents are among the animals with whom we have the closest relationships – everything from working cattle dogs to pampered poodles are descended from prehistoric wolves.

I’ve always wondered about how wolves and humans ever found the courage to take the first, fraught, faltering steps towards trusting each other, many millennia ago. This story tells a compelling version of that encounter in the Pleistocene between one hungry wolf and one vulnerable young boy.

It’s illustrated in a textured style that evokes stone-age art materials: wood, rocks, fur, skins and animal bones. Many pages have a satisfying complexity with glacial moraine backdrops and cave art borders. There are clues to each new encounter the children enjoyed spotting ahead of cave-boy Kip. I think a particular strength was the absence of sentimentality in this reconstruction. It was not affection, but necessity that brought them together in a harsher, crueller world.

It also leads me to chuckle that most dogs I know could be justified in sporting a certain smugness; a belief that it is they who successfully domesticated us. We continue our side of the evolutionary bargain (food, shelter) long after we have dispensed with our need for theirs (protection).

Click here to go to a web page with learning activities related to this book.

03 June 2009

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great - by Gerald Morris

This is part of a Series called Knight's Tales.

There are a lot of books with allegedly humourous takes on the traditional tales of knights and days of yore.  And having been obsessed with all things chivalry for nigh on three years, my boys have seen them all.  Ballerina knights, dragons who eat only tinned pineapple, pirate grandmas - you name it and we've read the book.

At first I thought they were a useful antidote to the conventional - especially for littlies who needed gentle nudges to think beyond strict gender-roles, brawn over brains, battle-based climaxes and other cliches of childhood.  But it started to seem a bit lazy when authors relied only on such zany twists to tell a tale.  We wanted more depth, more engagement with the characters. And anyway, all this variation didn't really even seem particularly funny to them; they weren't familiar enough with the basics of the story.

What we needed was a well-told tale of the gallant knight.  Heroic, and honourable, but also humble, humourous and human. While the first chapter did not bode well, in which Lancelot presented as a preening peacock, his character develops with each new chapter, and Lancelot first out-lances, then outwits and finally outdoes the kindness of others, and eventually seeks a quiet retirement.

It was perfectly pitched for reading aloud to the youngsters, and managed a nice balance of non-preachy morals as well as humour that had them laughing out loud.  In bed.  In a most unsleepy manner.

We are on the lookout for others by this author.  I understand he has a series called Squires Tales for slightly older readers.

19 May 2009

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid - series by Jeff Kiney

Reviewed by Varun (age 9)

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid by series by Jeff Kinney is one of the funniest books I’ve read. It is full of many funny jokes and pictures. The main characters are Greg Heffley, Rowley, Mum, Frank Heffley (Dad) , Rodrick and Manny. Greg is the main character. Rowley is his best friend and sidekick. The books are written in a child’s writing and have lined pages. It is written in the form of a diary. It describes Greg’s life in high school and his wimpy way and troubles.

A light and funny read for ages 7-10 (even if you’re not a wimpy kid!)

The book titles are (in order)
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid-a novel in cartoons,
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid-Rodrick Rules,
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid-The last Straw and the
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid;Do-it-yourself book.

13 May 2009

Top five for 9-year-olds

A list of favourites by Varun (aged 9) with descriptions added by his mother!

5. Aussie Angel series by Margaret Clark - great for anyone who loves animals. They are set in Victoria and centre around the family of a wildlife ranger, their pets (which include a slighty crazy cockatoo and camel) and the adventures they have.
4. The Phredde series by Jackie French
3. George and the Secret to the Universe and George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt - Stephen and Lucy Hawking
2. The Wimpy Kid series - Geoff Kinney
1. The Story of a seagull and the Cat who taught it to fly - Lius Sepulveda - absolutely gorgeous story set in a North Sea port featuring of course a seagull and a cat as well as a pair of mad Italian cats.

Wiggy and Boa - by Anna Fienberg

Review by Manert (aged 8)

This is a great adventure story by Anna Fienberg (Tashi Fame) of two best friends and one Grandfather, set in New York.

Boadicea (Boa) is the granddaughter of Admirable Bolderack. She is an energetic, fast girl but she also loves to sit and listen to her Grandfathers stories of life at sea. Wiggy is Boa’s best friend.

There is a mean boy, Sam Busby, who has a gang; they don’t like Boa and Wiggy. Sam is always sharing his Mum’s cakes with his gang but never Boa and Wiggy.

The pirates in this story are mean, nasty, a little bit fat and don’t have many teeth. Oh yeah – they have a lot of scars. One of the pirates, Scarface Pete, saved his arch enemy, Admirable Bolderack, accidently when Thick Mick tried to lance him with a sword. These pirates want revenge for being deserted by Admirable Bolderack on a deserted island.

Things get a little hairy when Boadicea accidently summons four of the pirates, Scarface Pete, Garbage Can Dan, Tiger and Thick Mick from the deserted Island.

There is a great resolution but you will have to read the book to find it out.

07 May 2009

Picture books that do more

I think of "concept books" as ones where the format of the book adds something to the reader's experience, beyond the text and the illustrations.   Here are our family's favourite illustrated concept books.  I'd love to hear of yours.
  • In The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, holes in the pages are used to depict the holes the caterpillar makes when he eats through things.

  • Holes in the pages also feature in Peepo! by Janet and Allan Ahlberg.  Each new page obscures and then reveals the next scene - just like being in a baby's game of Peek-a-Boo. I especially love the detailed domestic scenes in an untidy 1940s household.   

  • In Hubert Horatio Bartle Bobton Trent, author and illustrator Lauren Child uses text formats to help tell the story. Words ripple through the swimming pool, change direction as they explain the route to his parents' room, or bounce around the page during a game of table tennis.  When you read that "his parents called him for short," the curlicues on the H (which differ from the surrounding font) add an affectionate flourish to the way they say it, softening your response to the rest of the sentence "because they could never quite remember the whole thing." They are loving parents, the font seems to tell us, contradicting the content, they're just vague.

  • In Emily Gravett's Wolves, the title and text belong to a non-fiction book about - you guessed it - wolves. But the satisfying pictures tell an entirely different story, in which a rabbit absorbed in a book about wolves fails to notice how close a wolf really is, until it's too late. With a functioning book pocket and other nifty library touches, the format of the book teases the reader into thinking they too, might be too complacent. I'm not sure my description really does this multi-layered book justice, but it is truly clever.  Convincing enough, actually, that I felt I had to skip certain pages with my faint-hearted littlies.

  • The Red Book by Barbara Lehman looks deliciously interactive.  But I haven't been able to buy or borrow a copy anywhere (I know I really shouldn't include that).
What are your favourite books where the medium contributes to the message? Can chapter books or novels do this in a different way?

06 May 2009

What is it about that Hungry Caterpillar?!?

It's the 40th anniversary of Eric Carle's book "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."

In preschool, I loved poking my fingers through the pages.  These holes transform the book from a mere vehicle for words and pictures, into an object that has its own part to play in the telling of the story.  I still love books that do that.

In Infants school I enjoyed the counting: "On Monday, he ate through one apple...On Tuesday, he ate through two pears."  I got more and more anxious with every bite and by Saturday's excesses my head was spinning.  His subsequent stomachache appealed to my juvenile sense of justice.  

To this day I  feel cleansed and relieved when I hear (or read) the words "nice green leaf."

When at primary school I read the book to my younger siblings, I was fascinated by the metamorphosis (though still confused by the science).  How could a big, dense, mostly monochromatic caterpillar become so fabulously coloured and so ethereal? How did it learn to fly if it was cooped up for two weeks with no wriggle room?  And what would coccoon taste like if one had grown accustomed to cherry pie?  

In high school, I read it aloud when babysitting, and found myself inwardly critical of the narrative.  One apple, I calculated disapprovingly, was certainly as filling as four strawberries.  And "gherkin" rather than "pickle" would seem to the be right term in Australia.  And I simply could not see a caterpillar tucking into highly processed food - salami indeed!  And surely caterpillars were vegetarian!

There was a lull while I was pretending to read Chomsky and Plato and Freud, and actually reading Bill Bryson and Maeve Binchy.  Either way, it was a long time before I even picked up an illustrated book.

And then my own children were born and Caterpillar came back into my life.

You transcend the text when you read the same book every night for fifteen months. "Read" isn't even the right word when you recite it without looking, so often that the words have been scrubbed of all meaning.  Fast and slow.  Quiet and loud.  With and without expression. Uncoupled from the right pictures.  Repeated twice or three times.  With variations (nope, no variations permitted).  Before, during and after kids had finally fallen asleep.

For the first time, I looked - really looked - at the pictures.  The varied brushstrokes and hues that make up Caterpillar's body.   The ripped-paper browns and scissor-angled fruits that remind the viewer that it's collage.  The expression of mild trepidation on Caterpillar's face just before he undergoes his metaporphosis - how do you do that with cut out bits of paper?!?

And decades later, I find myself marvelling at this book all over again.

10 April 2009

Schools and creativity

Castle Cove's A Day Assembly for Term 1 recognised creativity in many different areas, but Sir Ken Robinson claims that most school systems around the world do not promote creativity.  

With its excellent music program, art lessons and dance groups, Castle Cove shows schools can find a balance, but I think it's also true that there are many wonderfully creative approaches to teaching and learning in literacy, science, and even in mathematics!

Nonetheless Sir Ken is an excellent speaker and the online video is worth watching.  I find it difficult to resist an entertaining speaker who makes an important point well.

What does creativity mean to you?

08 April 2009

The Mouse and the Motorcycle - by Beverly Cleary

This book is a lovely tale, which combines gentle, humourous real world observation (hotels, vacuum cleaners) with just enough fantasy to keep younger children tantalised (a talking mouse! who rides a motorbike!)

But most appealing of all, especially for the adult reading aloud, are Cleary's fully three-dimensional characters - which for me echoed down the decades from my own earth-shattering discovery of Ramona Quimby decades ago.  

You can't help but relate to a mouse who feels envy, shame, and guilt - and has a real-world humanity absent in so many other books written for this age group (5-8). More than adding to our enjoyment of the story, I loved seeing the young listeners reflecting (I like to think) on the universality of their foibles, and the ever-present possibilites for redemption.  

Or maybe I was just projecting.  

What I am sure they enjoyed was the action. The machine-centric obsession, the necessity of speed and bravery, the heroic climax to the story and the hair-raising near misses - all the theatrics close to many young boys' hearts, but in just the right doses so it didn't give them nightmares.

We're looking forward to the sequels.