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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

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

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

The Best Day of My Life by Deborah Ellis (Allen & Unwin)

28 Jan

Deborah Ellis has carved a significant niche as an author of well researched and written issues-based books for children and young adults set in some of the world’s hotspots. She is most well known for the ‘Parvana’ (or ‘Breadwinner’) trilogy, based in Afghanistan; and other stand-outs are The Heaven Shop and Diego, Run!; both for older readers.

Valli is a child who picks up coal in Jharia, India, to survive. On the best day of her life she discovers that the people she believed to be her family had been given money to take her in when her real parents died. She is free, now, to change her life and so leaves. She gets a ride in a truck and is taken to a brothel in Kolkata but the prostitutes recognise something disturbing about her and throw her out quickly. Valli becomes a street kid, although finds joy in life, particularly when she has something she can pass on to help someone else. She has the opportunity to get treatment for her ‘magic feet’ from a kind doctor but she prevents her own path from running smoothly.

Aimed at middle school readers (upper primary or junior secondary), although primary school teachers should perhaps read the allusions to prostitution in Chapter 3 first, this is an easily-read novel with a thinking protagonist and insight into a very different society from that of mainstream Australia. Deborah Ellis is right when she states that her books reflect ‘the heroism of people around the world who are struggling for decent lives, and how they try to remain kind in spite of it.’

 by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby (Scholastic Press NY)

20 Jan

IcefallIcefall is an exemplary original Norse tale. It is a highly recommended psychological thriller, set on an icy piece of land which is bordered by the impassable mountains and the frozen winter sea. The young heir, Harald, and his two Norse princess sisters have been sent to this harsh place for safety by their father, the King, but things start to go wrong and it seems that their sanctuary has been infiltrated by an enemy. The king had sent them with a small team of guards and his bezerkers arrive just before the ice freezes for the winter, so there are multiple suspects even within their own group, let alone outsiders. A skald, Alric, arrives with the bezerkers and he sees talent in Solveig, the second and overlooked sibling, as a bard. He begins her training, where her background as a storyteller helps her because she is familiar with many of the old Norse tales about Loki, Asgard and Odin. When her goat, Hilda, is killed by the bezerker leader, Hake, he tries to makes amends by giving her a raven and its presence on her shoulder while weaving her stories gives her confidence and authority. Solveig is a very well-drawn character, whose doubts about her place in her father’s affections and about her ability; position this book above being simply being a riveting story. As soon as it is available in paperback it would be an excellent class novel or title for literature circles for both boys and girls in middle school. In the meantime, libraries and homes must have it.

by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (University of Qld Press)

20 Jan

Linda Sue Park won the prestigious Newbery award for A Single Shard in 2002. I read it then and always remembered it as an important, original and reflective story. UQP have reissued this tale about Korean orphan, Tree-ear (named after mushrooms that grow without parent seeds) in the 12th century. He was fascinated by master potter; Min’s, work and, after inadvertently breaking one of his creations, begins labouring for him to pay back the debt. The work is hard but Tree-ear longs to make pots himself. Will Min ever allow someone other than his son to learn his tightly-held skills? When his acclaimed celadon pottery has the chance to earn Min a royal commission, Tree-ear embarks on the journey to court with two faultless vases. Will they all arrive safely? Tree-ear’s friendship with one-legged Crane-man provides opportunities for the philosophical questions that enhance the fable-like qualities of the novel. The writing is apt for this thoughtful style. UQP has also recently published Linda Sue Park’s novel, A Long Walk to Water, set in Sudan, and both of these fine books are highly recommended for close study in upper primary or junior secondary classes.

 by Joy Lawn, Children’s Literature Consultant

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