Tuesday, April 25, 2017

One photo by Ross Watkins illustrated by Liz Arbelli

Dad started doing more funny things, like putting things that belonged in the fridge in the cupboard, and things that belong in the cupboard in the fridge.



There are many difficult subjects that are explored through picture books.  Death of a parent or loved one would be one of the hardest followed closely by the subject of this book - dementia.



You can see some books from our library that deal with this topic but the difference with One Photo is that this is early onset dementia - a father not a grandfather.  The young boy who narrates this story watches as his dad takes photos on an old film camera.  The photos all seem to be of random objects and not the people in his life.



He displays the photos on the window of his study. The collection grows and grows.  Sadly "then, we lost Dad."

The boy and his mum take the final film to be developed - it is just one (important) photo.



I think the most poignant moment in the story comes when Dad has died and a box arrives in the mail with dad's handwriting on the label.  Inside is the camera.  Even through the fog of memory loss and dementia Dad has planned this special way to send a comforting message to the family he loves.  I also appreciate the honest of the emotions in this book for example when Mum becomes frustrated with the photo collection "she yelled at him".

One Photo has been shortlisted for our CBCA Awards.  You might like to read this review.  The illustrator Liz Anelli has made good use of the end papers.  The beginning images are all the usual family photos filled with people.  The final ones are the objects photographed by dad.  Another thing to notice is the tree outside their home.  At the beginning of the book it is covered in leaves - perhaps it is summer or spring.  By the end of the book the leaves have fallen and the garden is looking neglected but while this is a sad book is also a book about healing. There is a sense at the end that the boy and his mum will be okay - they will manage.

Here is an interview with the author Ross Watkins and here are a set of teacher notes.

When we explore this book with our students this term I plan to begin with the wonderful book Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge as a way to talk about memories.

If you want to explore this complex topic with older students here are some other short novels to read.


Lofty's Mission by Krista Bell illustrated by David Miller

Today is ANZAC Day here in Australia and I have been reading books to share with my classes. I have decided to focus on winners of the Dickin Medal and in particular pigeons.  We have two splendid books which look at the war service of pigeons.  Lofty's Mission and Flapper, VC.


There are extensive notes at the end of this book and I have now done a lot of reading.  The Dickin Medal began in 1943 and is named after Maria Dickin.  It has now been awarded 67 times to 32 pigeons, 31 dogs, 4 horses and one cat.  The cat was called Simon and you can read more here.

Taking a close look at the medal.

The PDSA Dickin Medal is a large, bronze medallion bearing the words “For Gallantry” and “We Also Serve” all within a laurel wreath. The ribbon is striped green, dark brown and sky blue representing water, earth and air to symbolise the naval, land and air forces.

Lofty's Mission begins with  the lines "No, Dad! Please don't take Lofty. I bred him to be a champion racer!' Tears trickled down Harley's cheeks."  Dad explains Lofty, or Number 371, is needed for war service in New Guinea. Lofty is taken to the jungle and given training. He is wounded but safely delivers his message across the battle lines.  Meanwhile little Harley contracts polio.  One day a parcel arrives containing the Dickin Medal.  Lofty is a hero. The ending of the book is so joyous as Lofty returns to his family in Australia and we see his son Nifty take flight.

Lofty's Mission has amazing paper sculpture illustrations by the talented David Miller.

Flapper, VC also explores the story of a brave Pigeon.

"Flapper, VC was inspired by the true story of Australian carrier pigeon D D43 Q879, who was awarded the Dickin Medal for 'Conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty'. It is the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery."

Here are the teachers notes for Flapper, VC and Lofty's Mission.  You might also enjoy the movie Valiant.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

The secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

Connections ..

At the end of last term a number of my classes and I shared the wonderful book The Talking Eggs. Blanche, the hero of the story, goes to the house of the old woman and encounters multicoloured chickens that sing like nightingales.  I like finding connections like this.  We don't have nightingales here in Australia but I found this little film of one singing and it certainly is a beautiful sound.   The famous fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and in particular The Nightingale  is another interesting connection with The secret of Nightingale Wood.  On the 2nd April we celebrated the birthday of Hans Christian Anderson and copies of this fairly tale were part of my display.



"I had always been Henry, even though my full name was Henrietta Georgina Abbott. Maybe my parents wanted two boys.  Now that my brother Robert had gone, they had two girls. Just me and Piglet."

Listen to an audio sample read by the author herself from Chapter 8.  Here is a review well worth reading.  In this video the author talks about her book.

Lets start by looking at the names in this book :

Hope House - Little Henrietta does not stop hoping her mother will recover
Nightingale Wood - a place of mystery and magic
Helldon - the old lunatic asylum and a place that terrifies young Henry.

I read one review with the word atmospheric - the perfect word to describe this mysterious story. Henry with her mum, dad and new baby sister (nicknamed Piglet) have moved to Hope House - a long way from their original home in London.  Clearly there has been a tragedy.  Her brother Robert is dead but readers have to be patient to discover how this has happened. These events are slowly explained in a style reminiscent of The Secret Garden and Tom's Midnight Garden.  Almost as soon as they arrive at Hope House, Henry's father leaves.  The children are left in the care of Nanny Jane and a village lady called Mrs Berry who comes each day to cook their meals.  Father has also enlisted the help of the local doctor - Doctor Hardy.  Henry is immediately suspicious about his motives and methods and her fears are further confirmed when the doctor declares he intends to send Mrs Abbott to Helldon and carry off little baby Piglet to his own house.

"Dr Hardy's hands were fat and crushing, but his wife's were cold and scaly and her fingernails were thick, yellow claws.  I felt as if I had just shaken hands with a giant lizard."

Throughout this book there are references to classic children's stories, poetry and famous fairy tales.  Perhaps reading this book might inspire young readers to seek out these classics.

Here are a few :

  • The Railway Children
  • The Secret Garden
  • Wind in the Willows
  • The Owl and the Pussycat
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • The Red Shoes
  • The Pied Piper of Hamelin
  • Peter Pan
  • Treasure Island
  • Little Women


Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Just about everything that happened to me that summer happened because of Winn-Dixie.





I am beyond excited that Kate KiCamillo will visit Sydney next month. And I am jumping up and down because twenty lucky students from my school will be able to hear her speak. I know I will be smiling right through the day just the way Winn-Dixie does in this book.

We are all reading (and in my case re-reading) as many of her books as we can squeeze in before this exciting Sydney Writer's Festival event.  If you cannot come to this event take a look at Kate's question and answers on her web site.

This morning I picked up Because of Winn-Dixie.  I first read this book 17 years ago and today I just loved it all over again.  This is a ten out of ten book!   I love books where lonely people are bought together and I can totally relate to Opal's relationship with her dog.  The name Winn-Dixie is so funny - I love to tell students in my library the origin of this name and I also mention the other funny American supermarket name The Piggly Wiggly which we read about when we talk about Rosa Parks.


There is so much quiet wisdom in this book.  Opal may be lonely and confused as to why her mother left when she was just three years old but her warmth, good humour, sense and gentle understanding of other people and herself work together to bring a group of other isolated people together.  In the end there is no need to be lonely any more and some true healing can begin.

Here are a few quotes from the book that I treasure :

"It's not hard to immediately fall in love with a dog who has a good sense of humor."

"All of a sudden, I felt happy. I had a dog. I had a job. I had Miss Franny Block for a friend. And I had my first invitation to a party in Naomi. It didn't matter that it came from a five-year-old and the party wasn't until September. I didn't feel so lonely anymore."

"Why don't you go on and tell me everything about yourself, so I can see you with my heart."

"He (the preacher) leaned way over and gave Winn-Dixie a kiss, too, right on top of his head."

Read some reviews
A 10-year old girl learns to adjust to a strange town, makes some fascinating friends, and fills the empty space in her heart thanks to a big old stray dog in this lyrical, moving, and enchanting book by a fresh new voice.
Kirkus

''Because of Winn-Dixie'' is a poignant and delicately told story of a dog as a child's much-needed best friend.
New York Times

...it is almost impossible not to fall in love with Opal, a little girl who doesn’t understand why her mummy went away; a little girl with a heart that is big enough to fit everyone she meets, even if she doesn’t think so at first.
Kids Book Review


Here are a set of discussion questions.

I have talked about other Kate DiCamillo books on this blog - clearly I am a huge fan.



Here are alternate covers for Because of Winn Dixie and the movie jacket.  I also thoroughly recommend the movie - just perfect.




Thursday, April 13, 2017

Loser by Jerry Spinelli




Books like Loser are very hard to read - emotionally - yet you will find yourself turning the pages perhaps, as I did, all in one sitting.  You will know early in the story, early in his life, Donald Zinkoff is destined to fail, to suffer awful bullying, to be utterly confused by other people. They even name him loser.  Zinkoff is almost oblivious to this pain but readers will feel it and feel it keenly.

"In many ways that teacher Biswell can see, the Z boy is a shambles.  ... He is even at odds with his own body. ... Hardly a day goes by when he does not fall flat on his face for no apparent reason."

Donald is not picked for sport teams, he accidentally ruins the class team's chance of winning on the school sport day, he is totally out of sync in the school band, he only scores low marks in class and he has nightmare handwriting but his parents love him unconditionally and, mostly, he does manage to embrace life despite the little chinks that appear from time to time.  I think many children should meet Zinkoff and perhaps walk a mile or two in his shoes - this might make our world a kinder place.

I think this is also an important book for teachers.  Spinelli paints a harsh picture of some teachers who cannot cope with this special boy but luckily in Year 4 he meets the wonderful Mr Yalowitz.

Loser is not a new book - it was first published in 2002.  I will share it with one of our teachers who is planning a unit of work around the book Wonder.  Loser seems better suited to her middle primary group.  You can read a sample of the story here.

I do like the honest writing style of Jerry Spinelli - especially Stargirl and Jake and Lilly.

Here are some reviews with more plot details :

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

All I want for Christmas is Rain by Cori Brooke illustrated by Megan Forward



All I want for Christmas is Rain is so obviously an Australian story.  We have Christmas in the Summer. Australia is one of the driest continents. Our farmers have to cope with such weather extremes - drought, flood, fire but eventually rain does come and the landscape revives.  This book is a celebration of the renewal and relief rain can bring.  The CBCA have selected this book for the Early Childhood award short list.




The text is told as a rhyme :

My mission was clear - I had hatched a great plan:
I would ask for help from the great bearded man.

I love the perspective in the illustration where we see Jane talking with Santa.  She looks so small yet so self assured.  Santa looks huge but somehow also soft like a pillow.  Make sure you show a class the end papers. Brown at the beginning and green at the end - a celebration of the change wrought by rain.  The illustrations are the real strength of this book.

When rain does come on Christmas morning the presents can wait. It is time for the whole family to run outside and dance.



Cori Brooke and Megan Forward both have web sites worth exploring. Perhaps not coincidentally they both live in Queensland.  Cori has had two books published and Megan has three.  You can watch a video of Megan and Cori talking about the way they approached this book.  You might like to read this review.

We will also look at some other fabulous books about rain.



When you read this book with a class it would be good to compare the illustrations and story line with two other Australian books on the same theme of rain at Christmas time.




The patchwork bike by Maxine Beneba Clarke and Van T Rudd

I found learning to ride a bike was very difficult.  I know this was because I am so uncoordinated. Huge thanks to my patient dad who spent hours 'holding on' while I wobbled down a traffic-free and straight wide road near our house. My bike was brand new unlike this bike made from bits and pieces of found materials.  Patchwork seems to be the perfect name.  Riding this bike is such a joy for these children who ride under the stretching-out sky and live near the no-go desert.




  • Their bike can shicketty shake over sandhills.
  • The wood-cut wheels winketty wonk through fields.
  • It can bumpetty bump through the village.


It will be fun to act all this out with our younger children riding our imaginary bikes around the library landscape.  With older children we will have discussions about poverty, recycling, wealth, material possessions, drought and developing nations.

The Patchwork Bike has been short listed for our CBCA 2017 awards.

The illustrations in this book have been painted on cardboard and then photographed.  I know the children will think they can actually feel the corrugated bumps.  I especially like the paint smudges on the end papers - they give a sense of movement, racing those bikes as fast as they can go.

The setting for this book is gently revealed.


  • The narrator lives in a village.
  • His home has mud walls.
  • There is just one tree in the no-go desert.
  • His mum looks like this :







It will be a joy this term to read books about bikes and bike riding. We have a good collection and I have this little bike made in Africa and sold at a Oxfam shops.  It is about 10cm long.

You can see more books about bicycles on this Pinterest Collection made by my friend from Kinderbookswitheverything.

If I was reading The Patchwork bike with a senior class or even a High School group we might also explore The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour.  With a younger group you might dip into the series about the No. 1 Car spotter by Atinuke and compare the setting.  With all classes we will also look at Galimoto by Karen Lynn Williams along with this video.

You can read more about the author in this article from The Australian newspaper.  Van T Rudd is a street artist - I wonder how he came to illustrate this book?  His web site would be good to explore with a High School class and yes he is related to our former PM Kevin Rudd.

Take a look at these reviews :

Kids Book Review
The Patchwork Bike is a keeper, not only for the sheer joy of story but also for the conversations it will trigger: about life in Africa, the irrepressible joy of children despite their lack of commercial possessions and the satisfaction of recycling.

Children's Books Daley
 the resolution of the printing is so sharp that after multiple readings I still run my fingers over the paint and corrugated card, sure that I’ll feel the texture.


Here are some of the books we will explore alongside The Patchwork Bike.