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The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore by William Joyce (Simon & Schuster Australia)

20 Jul

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing won best short animated film at the 83rd Academy Awards, based on his illustrated book. In reverse, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore won best animated short film at the 84th Academy Awards and has now been made into a picture book, probably mainly because of its huge success as an interactive app.

The loved characters, scenes and idiosyncrasies are re-visited in the picture book. Morris Lessmore is a profound character who loved words, stories and books. ‘His life was a book of his own writing, one orderly page after another. He would open it every morning and write of his joys and sorrows, of all that he knew and everything that he hoped for.’ It sounds idyllic until the intrinsic rule about a narrative needing conflict disturbs the peace as early as the second page – when the wind blew and blew. Morris Lessmore’s house flew like Dorothy’s in the Wizard of Oz and everything he knew was scattered, even the words of his book. He followed an amiable book to a wonderful library where he became immersed in books.  At one point Morris is lost inside the books and dangles from the letter ‘J’ because he is so intent on his reading. Students could be directed to these metafictive pages, where attention is drawn to story itself as an artefact to question the relationship between fiction and reality. This device is also used by Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer in Between the Lines and they use the letter ‘J’ as a hook for a character to hang from as well.

There are few books for children which successfully feature an adult main character. This book achieves this, partly because Morris Lessmore has child-like qualities. Read this poignant picture book which, along with the movie and app, celebrate and cherish stories and books.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

Surrealism for Kids by Queensland Art Gallery (Qld Art Gallery and GOMA)

26 May

Surrealism for Kids has been shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia 2012 awards in the Eve Pownall Information Books category.  It certainly deserves to be there. It also won the Bronze award in the international 2012 IPPY Awards (Independent Publisher Book Awards) for children’s interactive books. A number of important surrealist artists are showcased in this book in minimal, child-friendly text, and captivating art activities are also suggested. The authors from the Qld Art Gallery have devised very appealing tasks and even provide quality photocopiable pages to assist and inspire.

The Qld Art Gallery has also published two other books for children, both brimming with creativity and ideas. Drawing Life for Kids: My Art Journal is the scaffold for a personal journal where short suggestions and engaging background photos impel kids to put their mark on the page. For example, ‘Write a secret note to pass to your friend’ shows a paper aeroplane next to an unfolded and slightly crumpled plane template which is begging to be written on. ‘Draw the messiest spot in the house’ shows a doll’s house with empty rooms waiting to be filled by young artists. The book is structured around some information about artists including Margaret Olley, ‘Home Sweet Home’ and René Magritte, ‘My Imagination’.

Interesting artists are the focus of 21st Century Art for Kids. Australian and other contemporary artists and their work are shown in photos. There is also an activity for each artist. For example, Pierre Bismuth from France likes drawing onto the TV screen; following an actor’s hand or James Bond’s nose, to make a pattern. Children are encouraged, not to draw on the TV, but onto beautiful art (or other) catalogues. These catalogue backgrounds can possibly be the catalyst for ideas.

Upcoming books to look out for will be published with the gallery’s Prada exhibition in July and the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in December but the books do stand alone from the exhibitions.

These books could engender a life-long interest in the visual arts. They are aimed at primary school age (or younger) but will also appeal to teens and would be ideal to leave on coffee tables.

 by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

Tanglewood by Margaret Wild & Vivienne Goodman (Omnibus Books, Scholastic)

2 May

Tanglewood is the only tree on a remote island. In its lonely state it calls to the passing wildlife but no one answers or keeps it company. During a storm, a seagull fell into the heart of Tanglewood. Seagull could only stay for a day and a night and then it had to return to its family. ‘Family is love and friendship. Family is everything’, it said. Seagull promised to return but seasons passed and Tanglewood waited and waited. Tanglewood’s strong emotions of loneliness and hope make the reader long for it to find a friend. The written text is placed on the pages effectively, especially brief sentences alone on the page which make a dramatic impact – ‘But nobody ever came.’

The illustrations are almost photo-realistic but are more emotive because they have a slight other-worldly effect. Panels are used successfully; particularly the bleak panel in the middle of the page which shows Tanglewood’s roots when they stop searching for water. When Seagull leaves, there is a long panel of the sea which emulates the empty horizon. The slow passing of the seasons is shown by a grid of small panels. These panels also deliberately slow down the reading.

Tanglewood is aimed at children in primary school and is likely to be a CBCA Notable Book in 2013.

 by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

The Extraordinaires: The Extinction Gambit by Michael Pryor (Random House Australia)

31 Mar

Michael Pryor has cemented his place as one of Australia’s foremost writers of speculative fiction. His two recent series, the ‘Laws of Magic’, some of which have been CBCA Notable Books, and ‘The Extraordinaires’, which recently debuted with The Extinction Gambit,  resemble the excellent ‘Bartimaeus’ series by Jonathan Stroud.

Set in 1908, the London Olympics are looming – so 2012 is an ideal time to read this book with another London Olympics on the way.

Kingsley Ward has wolf-tendencies and wants to be a magician and escapologist. His first major performance is ruined but he is helped by albino juggler, Evadne, whose ‘quicksilveriness’ suggests that her name may derive from the word ‘evade’. Kingsley’s foster father disappears and his housekeeper is murdered. Kingsley and Evadne must escape to the Demimonde, a half-world of the dispossessed which they enter through a floor between the 4th and nominal 5th levels of an unobtrusive office building.

The Immortals are stealing children’s souls so Kingsley and Evadne must act to save humanity, otherwise all is doomed. They are followed by Rudyard Kipling. What is his interest in Kingsley?

Pryor has created a rich, sensory world. He uses language magnificently. There are many strands in this intricate story that readers in middle school and older will enjoy following.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy (Text)

24 Mar

Aimed at readers in the last years of primary school and up to about the age of 14 years, The Apothecary is an innovative title which straddles the real and imaginary worlds. Set in 1952 in a London still recovering from World War II and now in the throes of the Cold War, Janie is feeling homesick for Hollywood High until she meets the apothecary and, particularly, his son, Ben. Ben wants to be a spy and his training proves important when his father is kidnapped and he and Janie have responsibility for the apothecary’s book of medicines, the Pharmacopoeia. As they follow up clues, they discover that the gardener at the Physic Garden has been murdered and they are taken by the police to a Dickensian institution. They escape when an elixir in the Pharmacopoeia transforms them into birds. Trying to avoid Russian spies, they need to discover more of the book’s secrets, especially about the nuclear bombing of Japan.

It seems that another nuclear war is looming. Will the polymer net and quintessence from jaival blossom work to contain the radiation?

The unstable political climate of the Cold War – the war of spies and threats – is an ideal backdrop for the menace threatening, not just Ben and Janie, but the world. There are also some intertextual references to Dante and Anna Karenina.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

Murder at Midnight by Avi (Scholastic Press)

3 Mar

Set in Pergamontio, Italy, in 1490, Murder at Midnight by Newbery award winner, Avi, is a mediaeval mystery for upper primary and junior secondary readers. Think Umberto Eco for children. Fabrizio is an orphan who has started working for old magician, Mangus. Mangus doesn’t use spell-like magic. He uses illusion and is interested in philosophy and great thinkers such as Dante, Plato, Aristotle and Petrarch. Although Mangus is reluctant to employ Fabrizio, he gives him the opportunity to collect money after a performance. The situation goes awry and Mangus is soon accused of sorcery because widely distributed, identical papers which seek to depose the king are attributed to him. Although imprisoned, Fabrizio must find a way to discover the truth and save his master. Fabrizio is an interesting character, unable to read much but full of wisdom from aphorisms such as ‘fear most those who are fearful.’ He is also the source of much of the book’s humour. His new friendship with Maria is integral in providing an ingenious denouement. Even though it is set in the past, this novel has a lively, fresh tone, which should appeal to mystery, as well as historical fiction, readers.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

Picture Books by or about Australia’s Indigenous People

24 Feb

Magabala Books publish indigenous texts. Their 2011 title, Once There Was a Boy by Dub Leffler was probably the most beautiful Australian picture book published last year. Its tropical island setting, colour palette and exotic and nuanced story have achieved both Australian and universal appeal.

This year Magabala has so far published The Mark of the Wagarl and Dingo’s Tree. With the school curriculum’s emphasis on many aspects of Australia’s Aboriginal people, these books will have particular application for schools, as well as for Aboriginal communities. They are important for recording and honouring Aboriginal culture, and also being bridges to the wider community.

The design of The Mark of the Wagarl is simple but the full page illustrations by Janice Lyndon beckon the reader into the atmospheric river settings. Author, Lorna Little, tells the story of the Wagarl (rainbow serpent guardian of rivers in Nyoongar Country) with understanding and interest.

In Dingo’s Tree, the animals won’t share any of the space under their trees so Dingo draws a tree on a rock. It grows tall. As Country is despoiled by mining and there is no rain, the animals become dependent on the last tree. Although there is a strong moral about sharing, this book’s predominant message about the devastation caused by man is chilling and makes the book more suitable for readers older than the very young. The author, Gladys Milroy, is the mother of awarded writer, Sally Morgan.

Kick it to me is published by One Hill Day. Its author, Neridah McMullin, and illustrator, Peter Hudson, give a fascinating insight into the origin of Australian Rules Football; deriving from Marn-grook football played by the Djab Wurrung tribe in the Gariwerd Grampians. The picture book is based on the true story of important Australian sportsman, Tom Wills and his boyhood friendship with the tribe.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

Wonder by R.J. Palacio (Alfred A. Knopf N.Y.)

18 Feb

August is a ten year old boy who has always been home-schooled. He was born with a badly deformed face and tells us, ‘I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.’ His parents and sister, Via, don’t think of him as ordinary even though they love him very much. He is probably the only person who knows how ordinary he really is inside.

Now starting school, August has to contend with the staring and the mean kids. Julian is one of a small group who show him around before school starts. He is a kid who acts one way in front of adults but differently to kids and he leads the campaign to make life difficult for August. Jack sits beside him in most classes but what does he really think of August? Summer befriends him even though she is told she would be in the popular group if she kept away from him.

One of the teachers has monthly Precepts, many of which encourage the kids to be kind, such as ‘When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.’ (Dr Wayne W. Dyer) How far will the teacher and principal’s promptings help the school accept August?

The book begins with August’s point of view but diverts into those of other characters such as Via, Summer, Jack and some kids who don’t seem so friendly. These give interesting and enlightening insights into the whole picture.

The author has a light and affirming touch, especially considering the severity of August’s appearance and the book is an easy read which boys and girls in upper primary and junior secondary will devour. It is also a recommended novel for close study.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

Australian Series for Young Girls

18 Feb

Anna Branford has recently penned Neville No-Phone but she has also written one of the best regarded Australian series for young girls in recent times. Violet Mackerel’s Brilliant Plot (Walker Books) was a CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Reader shortlisted title in 2011 and its follow-up, Violet Mackerel’s Remarkable Recovery, is just as assured. Hopefully Branford can regain the high standard of these two books. Illustrator, Sarah Davies, plays an equally important role in creating Violet’s endearing vulnerability.

The ‘Walker Stories’ are of interest for the young as they can be read aloud to children, or reasonable readers in junior primary could read them alone or with some help. Each book contains three short stories or chapters and some are humorous, such as Mr Tripp Smells a Rat and Mr Tripp Goes for a Skate by Sandy McKay and Ruth Paul.

The ‘Billie B Brown’ (Hardie Grant Egmont) series of easy-to-read books for girls in junior to mid primary have large font and tap into the interests and feelings of girls in that age range.

More complex is the ‘EJ12 Girl Hero’ series (Lemonfizz Media, Scholastic). These secret agent stories take code-breaker specialist, Emma/EJ12 to exciting places in Australia and beyond but also cover realistic issues with her friends.  Technology is up-to-date and within the experience of the mid to upper primary girl readership.

Probably the most original of these series for young girls is ‘Kumiko’ by Briony Stewart, beginning with Kumiko and the Dragon and, most recently, Kumiko and the Shadow Catchers (UQP). Perfect for 2012’s Year of the Dragon, Kumiko blends east and west in an Australian setting with a fantasy element.

For girls in mid primary and up into mid secondary, Scholastic has released Raven Lucas: Missing, a Conspiracy 365 alternative for girls by Christine Harris. Raven’s father is missing and she thinks she sees either him or someone else wearing his coat and hat. Red herrings and dead ends litter the trail of suspects in this suspenseful mystery.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

Darius Bell and the Crystal Bees by Odo Hirsch (Allen & Unwin)

28 Jan

Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool deservedly won the CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Readers in 2010. It generated admiration and affection from both the judges and child readers.  We again meet ‘every boy’, Darius Bell, on his beloved Bell Estate. His father, Hector Bell, is a man of literary sensibilities rather than those of science. He is the eccentric figurehead of a subsistence community operating on the estate, where Mr Fisher the farmer gives a proportion of his produce to the Bells; the Deavers give honey and others barter labour and supplies. Science and the ingenuity of Darius, however, come to the fore when the bees disappear and die. In spite of outrageous treatment from his school principal and the mayor, Darius finds a way to scientifically and communally save the Bell Estate and its people.

Across his body of work, Odo Hirsch’s young characters are never afraid to tackle adult injustice with dignity, responsibility and persistence. Humour and imagination add appeal. This is a recommended resource for mid to upper primary science on bees and pollination, as well as an enjoyable and affirming read in its own right.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

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