Monday, 5 May 2014

ETANSW Conference November 2013 Part 2

Presentation at ETANSW Conference November 2013 Part 2
Text Choices for the Australian Curriculum
This is the second section of my notes from my presentation at the NSW English Teachers' Association Conference: Innovation on 23rd November 2013.
I presented with Deb McPherson. Some of what we presented was inspired by Ernie Tucker.
Deb's reviews are followed by - DM. There is one review from Ernie - ET. Mine are -HS.

by Brian Falkner. Walker Books, 2011. ISBN 9781921529801. 272 pp.
Maddy West and the Tongue Taker
by Brian Falkner. Walker Books, 2012. ISBN 9781921529801. 256 pp.
Both Northwood and Maddy West and the Tongue Taker are clever, funny books and that’s great news for Year 7 readers (and Year 6 as well). In Northwood Cecilia Undergarment, a young girl who can talk to animals, finds herself in the dangerous dark forest where lions roam and from which no one ever returns. But Cecilia is an enterprising girl and when she discovers a hidden community controlled by a tyrant calling himself a king, she starts planning to escape and to free the people from their despot.
Maddy West has an amazing ability: as soon as she hears a language she can speak it and understand it (oh, what bliss that must be), but it’s also a dangerous talent. Maddy is soon embroiled in translating ancient scrolls, and trying to outwit a nasty witch who seeks to manipulate her talent for evil purposes. Maddy West and the Tongue Taker is full of humour, surprising and dangerous moments and is thoroughly enjoyable.
Recommendation: Brian Falkner is known for his thriller texts for older years and he also writes really well for younger readers. These are accessible and entertaining books and they would be excellent additions to any wide reading unit focused on fantasy and humour - and there are plenty of close calls and action sequences as well. - DM

Past the Shallows
by Favel Parett. Hachette, 2013 (2011). ISBN 978073363049. 320 pp.
‘Out past the shallows, past the sandy-bottomed bays, comes the dark water - black and cold and roaring.’ This mesmerising sentence begins Parett’s tale of three brothers and a bitter father set in the south coast abalone fishing areas of Tasmania. It is a deeply moving story of fraternal bonds and the instability of life.
Joe, Miles and Harry look out for each other. When Joe moves away to his grandfather’s house after his father breaks his arm, it’s harder for thirteen-year-old Miles and young Harry. Their mother died in a car accident and their father seems to direct his anger at Harry. The boys are often scared and hungry. When an accident at sea injures one of the crew, Miles is expected to join the boat with the sadistic Jeff and his often-angry father. He must watch and control the air pump as the men dive to collect the abalone and sort the catch when they bring it to the service. It’s cold, tough work and Jeff makes it more dangerous as well. Harry, left at home alone during school holidays, makes friends with George Fuller, a scarred and ostracised neighbour, and his dog. Harry is a wonderful creation, a character everyone can love (somewhat akin to the young boy PS, in Carl Schultz’s film of Sumner Locke Elliott’s Careful He Might Hear You) and Miles fights to protect him with all his power.
The Australian review said Parrett’s ‘prose is as powerful as a rip’ and I wish I had thought of that description: you are really pulled along in this book by the narrative and the language and the force of the sea. The vivid descriptions of Joe and Miles surfing reflect Parrett’s own experiences. The novel is full of simple pleasures and gestures: the tea shared by Harry and George, the cup of Milo Harry makes for Miles because he knows he will be tired and cold after working on the boat, the shark egg Miles finds for Harry and the warmth and love between the brothers. But their closeness is contrasted with the often-malevolent figure of Steven Curren, their father, who is twisted by a horrifying secret, as he drinks and hits his way to a terrible conclusion.
Recommendation: Past the Shallows is deceptively simple, sometimes violent and yet life-affirming. Parrett depicts with lyricism and precision realistic characters and the choices they make as well as the events over which they have little control. Year 10 or 11 students will find much to explore and discuss in this wonderful novel. - DM

Pookie Aleera Is Not My Boyfriend
by Steven Herrick. UQP, 2012. ISBN 9780702249280. 214 pp.
This warmly funny verse novel is a celebration of dusty little Australian towns and, especially, of
little country schools. Herrick uses his familiar method of telling the story through a range of voices, mostly those of the children of Class 6A. Plot is virtually non-existent but characterisation is strong and appealing. Herrick's skill is impressive in developing character so vividly through these short pieces where the voices narrate mostly fairly ordinary everyday happenings. Mick, a natural leader who becomes school captain, is quite often in trouble, especially when he smashes to pieces Charlie's new cricket bat; bit by bit we discover - and the adults in his life discover - that Charlie was slaughtering butterflies with the bat. Mick's younger brother Jacob really is trouble; one of the early incidents in the novel tells of eight-year-old Jacob's attempt to fly off the roof of the groundsman's shed. Mr Korsky, the groundsman, is elderly, and a bit battered when he breaks Jacob's fall. His is one of the voices we hear and, like many of the people who work around a school, he knows a lot about the kids. He is the one who realises how lonely Laura is: the rapport between the old man and the lonely little girl is touching. Cameron is the opposite to Laura: loud and confident, the class clown. Popular Selina is a great admirer of Cameron's pranks. Pete is sad about his grandfather's recent sudden death. Each character is built up beautifully as we listen to what they say and to what others say about them. The funniest voice is that of Constable Dawe, who visits Class 6A at intervals to deliver talks on safety. The constable's monologue creates a very clear picture of what's going on in the classroom, as the kids give the poor, humorless cop a bad time. The constable's poems are great examples of the way dramatic monologues work.
Recommendation: This is one of Herrick's verse novels for younger readers, aimed at a primary school audience. You could use it as a class set text in Year 7, although I would choose other titles by Herrick ahead of this one for an extended unit of work. However, especially as it is such a quick read, it could be interesting to have students in any year look at it to analyse how it is Herrick so successfully creates character; it would be good for students to use it as a model for some of their own experimental writing. - HS

The Rainbow Troops (Laskar Pelangi)
by Andrea Hirata, translated by Angie Kilbane. Vintage Australia, 2013. ISBN 9781742758589. 304 pp.
Laskar Pelangi
directed by Riri Riza, 2008.
The Rainbow Troops is a clear winner if you are looking for a text about Indonesia for students to explore. The novel is a bestseller in its country of origin and Andrea Hirata’s tale has a simplicity and honesty that will win over most students. Autobiographical in nature and set in the 1970s, it tells the tale of ten students at a poor Islamic school in Gantong village on the farming and tin mining island of Belitong, off the east coast of Sumatra.
The two teachers - Ibu N. A. Muslimah Hafsari (Bu Mus), a sixteen-year-old first timer, and Pak Harfan, an elderly  gentleman - are hoping ten students will turn up to class, because if they don’t the school will close. When the last student finally arrives long after the start of the school day, the reader applauds. The novel is about the poorest people and their dreams and aspirations and the power of education to make a difference in their lives. The
contrast with the nearby wealthy private school is dramatic and, when the ragtag students win the drama festival and the scholastic quiz, celebrations are definitely in order. However the mathematical hero of the quiz, Lintang, cannot continue at school, as the death of his father means he has to take responsibility for the rest of his family. While the narrator, Ikal, earns a scholarship to the Sorbonne in Paris, Lintang stays rooted in poverty. The ending of the novel is harsher than that of the film and the novel certainly raises the issue of corporate greed and government corruption.
The novel written by Andrea Hirata in 2005 was made into a film in 2008.  Laskar Pelangi, the film version of The Rainbow Troops, is an engaging movie, filmed on the Indonesian island of Belitong. It became the highest grossing film at the box office in Indonesian history.
Recommendation: I would probably use the film in Years 7 or 8 while the novel is better suited to study in Year 9. However, many schools may use them in different years. Both are a wonderful introduction to a part of Asia that will have a lasting impact on life in Australia in the coming decades. - DM

by Katherine Rundell. Faber and Faber, 2013. ISBN 9780571280599. 278 pp.
This quirky and original novel is an unexpected delight. The setting is eccentrically old-worldy but the narrative is very contemporary, almost post-modern.
The novel's opening gives a good taste of what is to come:

On the morning of its first birthday, a baby was found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel.
It was the only living thing for miles. Just the baby, and some dining-room chairs, and the tip of a ship disappearing into the ocean. There had been music in the dining hall, and it was music so loud and so good that nobody had noticed the water flooding in over the carpet. The violins went on sawing for some time after the screaming had begun. Sometimes the shriek of a passenger would duet with a high C.
The baby was found wrapped for warmth in the musical score of a Beethoven symphony. It had drifted almost a mile from the ship, and was the last to be rescued. The man who lifted it into the rescue boat was a fellow passenger, and a scholar. It is a scholar's job to notice things. He noticed that it was a girl, with hair the colour of lightning, and the smile of a shy person.
Charles, the scholar, adopts baby Sophie, despite the disapproval of the National Childcare Agency. Their domestic arrangements are unconventional but completely rational: Sophie as a child has a propensity to break plates, so for some years Charles and Sophie eat their meals off the many old books in the house. They write messages for each other on the wallpaper in the hall. Sophie by age seven knows a great deal of Shakespeare but not much about the way nice Victorian young ladies are expected to behave. She insists on wearing trousers, which are much more suitable than skirts for one of her favourite occupations, tree-climbing. Trousers for little girls are not available in the shops so 'Charles sewed four pairs himself in brightly coloured cotton and gave them to her wrapped in newspaper. One of them had one leg longer than the other. Sophie loved them.' Miss Eliot, from the National Childcare Agency, does not, insisting that girls don't wear trousers. She's even more incensed when Sophie - who lost her mother on her first birthday - insists that she remembers her mother wearing trousers. Miss Eliot is not convinced by Sophie's argument that wearing trousers is better for tree-climbing because otherwise people below might see the climber's pants: Miss Eliot 'was not the sort of person who admitted to wearing pants'.
I fell completely in love with Charles. His eccentric and loving relationship with Sophie is a joy, but we are not surprised when the National Childcare Agency announces that the twelve-year-old Sophie is to be taken from Charles and placed in an orphanage. Sophie, who has always insisted that her mother did not drown, finds a clue that her mother may have been French and Charles and Sophie escape - at great danger to Charles for defying the authorities - to Paris.
In her attic bedroom in the cheap little hotel in Paris, Sophie forces open a skylight and finds a whole new world on the rooftops, including the homeless children who prefer the rooftops to the streets. Rundell's representation of the lives of the rooftoppers is wonderful. This is of course fantasy but it is grittily, credibly realistic, and it has the ability to shock us into seeing afresh the tragedy of child homelessness. We've read all about it before - the lives of poor children in Victorian England, homeless teenagers in contemporary western cities, slum children in Asia - and to some extent we've become immune through familiarity. Rundell's success is using her fantasy world of the rooftoppers of Paris to enable us to feel the hunger, the fear, the pain and the cold.
It is the rooftoppers - the extraordinary Matteo and his friends - who help Sophie to look for her mother. Charles remains totally endearing; readers always remark on Sophie's courage but it seems to me that Charles is the bravest character in the novel because, unlike the children, he knows the consequences if things go wrong:

I suggest, Sophie, that you don't mention this to the educational authorities. Throwing children across rooftops is frowned upon, I believe.

Rundell has a wonderful way with words: her descriptions constantly surprise. The following sentence tells you all that you need to know about Charles' room in the cheap Paris hotel:

There were two spindly chairs, on which a succession of bottoms had left their mark, and two rugs, on which a good deal of expense had been spared.

Sophie's first reaction to Paris is captured like this:

It was ten minutes' walk; ten minutes through cobbled streets, and window boxes full of red carnations, and children eating hot buns in the road; ten minutes in which Sophie's heart looped the loop and danced a jitterbug and generally behaved in a way entirely out of her control.

Some of the best lines come from Charles, who describes the grey, disapproving men from the welfare agency as 'moustaches with idiots attached' and Sophie as 'bright enough to start a forest fire'. The coffee at police headquarters tastes 'like liquidated carpet'.
A lot of writing for young people is rather bland. We avoid giving them books that might be difficult and editors make sure that the reading level is appropriate. We need more novels like this that stretch readers' emotions and imaginations and that teach them that language is a joy to play with.
Readers will differ about the novel's resolution. I find it totally satisfying. I don't need an epilogue telling me what happened next. I have come to love these characters and I trust them to make good choices.
Recommendation: Girls who are good readers will love this from about Year 4 upwards. It would be entirely appropriate as a class set for Year 7, although you will need to work hard at first to get the boys engaged. Make sure to include it on any reading lists for gifted Year 7 readers. - HS

The Scorpio Races
by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic Press, 2013 (2011). ISBN 9780545224918. 400 pp.
Maggie Stiefvater, well-known for her werewolf series that started with Shiver, has moved to new territory with remarkable success, using a Celtic mythical source for her novel, The Scorpio Races.
On the little island of Thisby an annual race takes place. The beach race involves the capture of horses from the sea - the capall uisce: startlingly beautiful savage killers who fight to return to their home but are pressed into racing. In this event death is ever present and even skilful riders die. Sean Kendrick is the champion rider, a young man of few words whose passion is the seahorse, Corr, a horse he does not own but rides for a wealthy owner. Puck Connelly is a young woman orphaned by the savagery of the horses but circumstances force her decision to participate in the race on her ordinary horse, Dove. She is the first woman to do so and many attempt to stop her. An uneasy awareness between Puck and Sean grows incrementally as the race day approaches, and in small, often near silent, conversations, their relationship becomes closer.
Recommendation: The Scorpio Races is exhilarating, it’s well written, often lyrical and explores relationships, death, despair and friendship in a powerful way. The horses are unforgettable. Year 9 girls should love it. - DM

The Selfish Giant
by Oscar Wilde, illustrated by Ritva Voutila. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN 9781742376509. 32 pp. Hardcover.
Most schools do a unit of work some time on traditional stories and this is a great addition to your
collection. This is a handsome reproduction of Oscar Wilde's fairy story 'The Selfish Giant', beautifully illustrated by Finnish-Australian Ritva Voutila. Of course this, first published in 1888, is not a traditional fairy story, but the way in which Wilde has appropriated the characteristics of the fairy tale tradition is one of the joys for the reader to discover.
When the giant comes home to find children playing in his beautiful garden, he has a wall built around it to keep them out. His selfishness is punished by eternal Winter; Spring returns only when he welcomes the children back to his garden. The story is overtly about Christian redemption, with the figure of a Christ child welcoming the dying giant into Paradise.
Recommendation: Some readers have always found this story confronting for young children, but it is perfect for older readers. Voutila's paintings of the timeless European village that is the site of the giant's castle and garden are perfect. Use it, as suggested, in a unit of work on traditional stories but consider it as well as a title to include in a wide reading selection of picture books. - HS

by Rosanne Hawke. Through My Eyes series. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN 9781743312469. 206 pp.
This is the first title in an exciting new series from Allen & Unwin called the 'Through My Eyes' series, novels about children living in conflict zones. There could not be a better author than Rosanne Hawke to write the first book. Rosanne worked for ten years in the Middle East, mainly in northern Pakistan, and she has written extensively about the lives of young people from that part of the world.
Shahana lives in the area known as the Line of Control, the border that divides Kashmir in two. Her tiny village is on the Neelum River that runs along the border on the Pakistani side. It is an area of ongoing conflict involving not only Indian and Pakistani soldiers but also militia who have their own agenda. Shahana has lost her mother and older brother in a militia attack on the village. Her father has been killed trying to cross the river to sell his goods on the other side. For a year or so Shahana and her young brother Tanveer lived with their grandfather, but he has died the previous winter. Shahana and Tanveer now survive alone in their tiny isolated house on the side of the mountain, some distance from the village. Shahana's grandfather had left her a valuable legacy: the ability to embroider, a skill usually confined to men. She earns enough to buy them food but is aware that the trader, Mr Nadir, is exploiting her; worse, she knows that Mr Nadir's carpet factory depends on the slave labour of young boys from penniless families and that Mr Nadir is plotting to get Tanveer to work for him.
Shahana and Tanveer's lives change when they rescue a fifteen-year-old boy, Zahid, from wild dogs. Zahid comes from the other side of the Line of Control. He is looking for his father who, like so many men, has disappeared, possibly victims of the militia.
While there are several very exciting incidents, including a chilling scene when Mr Nadir tries to auction Shahana as bride to the highest bidder, the strength of the novel is in the characterisation and in the depiction of the lifestyle. Students may well be shocked by a world in which a thirteen-year-old girl is left to raise her nine-year-old brother, where children can be exploited by evil, greedy men like Mr Nadir, where homes have no running water or electricity and where food almost never includes meat. They may well be impressed by Shahana's perseverance, resourcefulness and resilience.
Recommendation: This is strong enough to be used as a class set novel. It will work best with girls in Year 7-8. It is a great title to add to the resources available for exploring the cross-curricular perspective, Asia. Add it to a wide reading selection of titles about children in Asia - or, more broadly, children around the world. - HS

Song of the Slums
by Richard Harland. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN 9781743310052. 370 pp.
Harland is a master of the genre that has become known as 'steampunk'. Song of the Slums follows
the success of Worldshaker and Liberator, set in an alternative nineteenth century England. King George IV is on the throne and the country is dominated by the plutocrats, who have made enormous fortunes from their industrial enterprises that leave cities like Brummingham choking in foul smog and millions of people living in slums. After many years of war with Europe, peace has come to England - and that is not good for the plutocrats, many of whom have factories designed to produce military hardware.
While this is steampunk, it is also, as Harland admits, 'gaslight romance'. Both genres are beautifully combined in Chapter 1 of Part 1 when Astor, her stepfather and her mother arrive in an airship at the aerodock of the monstrous Swale House to be greeted by the hugely powerful Swale brothers. Astor has been led to believe that she is coming to Swale House to be betrothed to the youngest Swale brother, Lorrain. She is shocked and horrified to discover that her stepfather has virtually sold her to the Swales as governess to their three revolting children.
While Astor has some hope of winning the love of the very handsome Lorrain, everyone who is an experienced romance reader knows that her true love will be - after many obstacles - the mysterious servant, Verrol, who acts the part of the perfect servant but soon demonstrates that he has hidden qualities. Verrol whisks Astor away in a breathtaking escape as she is being escorted to the dungeons by the vindictive children. They are given temporary refuge in the slums by Granny Rouse and her gang but must earn their place by proving their worth as musicians.
Harland's decision to shift the invention of rock and roll back a century is outrageous and wonderful. Astor's musical background has consisted of the harp and classical piano but her survival depends on her becoming a rock and roll drummer. To her surprise, she becomes addicted to the new sound and, with the other band members, works day and night to get it right. The descriptions of the band's performances when they win over audiences that are initially indifferent or hostile are compelling reading, more exciting in my opinion that the many action-packed encounters where Astor, Verrol and their friends fight thuggish militiamen, evil plutocrats or corrupt parliamentarians.
Recommendation: This is a terrific, fast-moving read, crammed with action and imagination. It will be enjoyed by readers from Years 7-10, of both sexes. Make up a wide-reading selection of alternative histories or of steampunk and gaslight romance, or simply make sure that it is in selection of fantasy novels. - HS

by Carole Wilkinson. black dog books, 2013. ISBN 9781922077585. 289 pp.
This is an amusing, feel-good school story. Velvet is appalled that, because her father has lost his job
as a merchant banker, she has to leave her posh private girls' school for the local comprehensive, multicultural state school. First impressions are as negative as she expects. One of the worst discoveries is that the entire school, including the tracksuit-wearing principal, is sports mad. Mr Kislinski is determined to find Velvet's special sporting skill, but she's a match for him, failing spectacularly at everything he gets her to try. She's delighted when he finally admits defeat and allows her to join the only non-sports option for Thursday afternoons: the cultural studies class. But cultural studies is not quite what she had expected. The class is a very funny caricature of everything that's wrong with a bad secondary school: a teacher who doesn't want to be there and an assorted group of misfits, stuck down the back of the school in an old portable that is basically a storeroom.
The farce continues when Mr Kislinski decides that the class must produce an end-of-year performance for parents and the decision is made to work on their own version of Shakespeare's Richard III. As they struggle with the incomprehensible text, their mutual dislike, the cynicism of their teacher and the total lack of resources, Velvet discovers that her classmates are real people, not caricatures, and the process - while continuing to be very funny - is ultimately a positive experience for them all. Their eventual performance to a packed hall is a triumph. Velvet even falls in love with the most unlikely of romantic heroes, the talented musician, Taleb.
This is an updated version of a novel that Wilkinson was commissioned to write in 1996 for Rave, a series of teenage novels for schools.
Recommendation: I'm always grateful for some humour for adolescent readers. While there are some serious messages here about not judging people by stereotypes, this is basically just a lot of fun. Add it to wide reading selections for girls in Years 7-9. - HS

The Telling
by Leah Giarratano. Book 1 of Disharmony. Penguin Books, 2012. ISBN 9780143565680. 245 pp.
Like many adolescent novels since the huge success of the Twilight series, this combines realistic characters and settings with paranormal elements. I didn't notice any vampires, but there are definitely elves (in this case, the good guys) and ninjas with exceptional powers (bad guys). There is also a very complicated backstory that I'm not quite sure that I mastered: a witch has given birth to three children - a psychopath,
an empath and a genius - who are destined to save the world. The children, of course, do not know their origin or their fate. One of them is locked up in a juvenile detention centre out the back of Windsor in Sydney; the other has been brought up by the gypsies in Romania and is showing great talent as a fortune teller. The third - the genius - makes a brief appearance only towards the end of the book but seems destined to have a starring role in the second volume of the planned trilogy.
While in my opinion the plot is a bit clunky, the realistic parts of the narrative are well written. It's a relief to escape the usual American high school setting. The sections of the story detailing Luke's experiences of brutality in the detention centre are gripping: we share his hatred for the bullies and, especially, for the sadistic warden, Mr Holt. Similarly, the sections about Samantha's life in the Roma camp with her extended adopted family are absorbing and unusual. There is an array of well-drawn characters. The transitions, however, from realism to the paranormal world are sometimes awkward.
Recommendation: This is not a great book by any means, but the writer has talent. It will appeal to students looking for something new in the paranormal genre. Include it in a fantasy wide reading selection for Years 7-9. - HS

The Testament of Jessie Lamb
by Jane Rogers. Canongate Books, 2012 (2011). ISBN 9780857864185. 320 pp.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a polarising novel. Jessie Lamb is sixteen and tied to a radiator.
That’s how the novel starts. The context is that humanity appears doomed.  Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS) has affected women all around the world – if women get pregnant they die.
No cure for MDS has yet been found. Society is crumbling and the young are particularly affected. One short-term solution seems possible: ‘sleeping beauties’. If adolescents, around sixteen or seventeen, agree to be implanted and then put into a drug-induced coma, their foetuses have a chance to survive. The virus destroys the females’ brains, not their bodies or the foetus. Single-issue groups spring up. Some are for the scheme and some, such as FLAME (Feminist Link against Men), emphatically opposed. But volunteers do present themselves.
After much thought, Jessie decides to be a Sleeping Beauty. She thinks that the news will be a comfort to her parents. Her father after all works at the clinic where the procedure takes place. However, both parents are appalled and do everything to persuade their daughter not to volunteer. Her father in a desperate effort to save his daughter resorts to abduction. He hopes, by isolating Jessie, he can persuade her to change her mind.
Jane Rogers has created a protagonist with a strong, individual narrative voice. The novel is Jessie’s testament and the chapters alternate between the opening imprisonment and her memories as she describes the onslaught of MDS and the reactions across the generations. At the end of Chapter 29 she escapes from her father and retreats to the clinic to pursue her goal.
Some will see Jessie as a self-centred adolescent, others will support her right to decide her own future. Many older readers may empathise with her parents; others will see Jessie as heroic and her testament for her daughter as inspiring:

I want you to know my story - our story, your beginning. So you understand everything I’ve thought and felt, and so no one can tell you I was a silly brainwashed girl, or a puppet of Iain’s. I don’t want anyone trying to claim you for a movement or an idea. You’re free, and whatever you want to do with your life, the thought of it makes me glad. Above all I want you to know that I’m glad. I’m glad this is happening. (page 296)

Recommendation: My response to the novel was ambivalent, which is really a compliment to the author, as I desperately wanted to talk about the book to other people who had read it. The novel will undoubtedly provoke discussion and debate in the classroom. It would combine well in a genre study with the futuristic film, Children of Men, inspired by P.D. James’ novel of the same name. In Children of Men a startling pregnancy occurs in a world were children are no longer conceived. There is also Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaiden’s Tale, in which women are forced to bear children for their fundamentalist oppressors. - DM

To Brave the Seas: A Boy at War
by David McRobbie. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN 9781743313077. 230 pp.
This is an interesting World War II story, told in the first-person by fourteen-year-old Adam, who joins the merchant navy when war breaks out. McRobbie served in the merchant navy (although not during World War II) and he brings to life the world on board, its rituals and its language, as well as a range of different characters, including the Australian, Diggy, and the Scotsman, Archie, who take Adam under their wing.
McRobbie points out in an Afterword that, on a percentage basis, more merchant sailors died in World War II than in any other branch of the services. Adam's ship is torpedoed and only a few of the crew make it to the lifeboats. Some of the more remarkable incidents in the story are based on real wartime events, such as the discovery by shipwrecked sailors of an abandoned oil tanker in mid-Atlantic, which they board and, with some difficulty, sail home. The triumphant scene towards the end of the book where Adam's captain decides to ram a U-boat in neutral Portugal is fictitious but satisfying.
This is a celebration of the courage and decency of ordinary men, whose behaviour is contrasted with that of the bosses. When Adam's ship is torpedoed, for example, his pay is immediately stopped; his employers take no interest in his fate from the moment when he is unable any longer to work the ship. Similarly, when Adam and his mates bring home the valuable oil tanker and its cargo, the owners, initially, intend to charge them for the clothing and food they have taken from the ship's shop. When a clever lawyer wins compensation for the men for salvaging the ship, they pass the money on to the families of the tanker's dead crew, demonstrating a compassion and selflessness that is very different from the rapaciousness of the shipowners.
Recommendation: This very readable historical novel gives young readers an insight into a world very different from their own. It will be enjoyed especially by boys in Years 7-8. Make sure to include it in wide reading selections for that group. - HS

Tufff ...
by Bille Brown. Phoenix Education, 2012 (1990). ISBN 9781921586545. 47 pp.
Written more than 25 years ago, this was the first play written by actor and playwright, Bille Brown.
It toured schools in Queensland at the time and was followed by a season at the Royal Court Theatre in London, leading to Brown's first commission to write a play for the Royal Shakespeare Company. This edition has been slightly updated but few changes were necessary: issues to do with friendship and bullying have changed little in 25 years.
The play has only three characters - boys aged between 11 and 13 - but Brown was insistent that it could be played by adult actors just as well as boys. The truth of the relationships and the skill with which the relationships develop will transcend the actual physical appearance of the three people on stage.
The play opens with a superb monologue by Rosebury, sitting in his wheelchair on a beach facing the ocean, listening to the whispers from a cowrie shell, and thinking about the way his brain compensates for the weakness of his body: 'My mind can run and I do all my walking with my mouth.' Rosebury is at first anxious when he realises two 'tufffs', Springle and Blackburn, have come down to the beach. Springle and Blackburn are typical bogans, boasting of their bullying, their smoking and drinking, and general misbehaviour, while threatening Rosebury. But Rosebury uses his brain - his wit and his ready tongue - in a contest that leads to bonding and friendship.
This is a very funny play, with lots of clowning and physical action, but it is the dialogue that is so delightful.
Recommendation: It is very, very difficult to find original plays for the classroom. Most of the ones that are worth reading are adaptations of novels, so this is great to have. Best of all, it is simple enough to use with Years 7 or 8, where there is the greatest dearth of good material. Keeping in mind, however, Brown's advice that it could be played by adult actors, it could be used at any level. While you will probably want to begin with a reading in class, make sure that you give students opportunities to experiment with some of the very funny sequences that depend on actions rather than words, such as when Springle and Blackburn throw stones at the tramp offstage or Blackburn acts out his father coming home from the pub. As only three characters are involved, this can be done in small groups, so that everyone is involved. - HS

The Vanishing Moment
by Margaret Wild. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN 9781743315903. 183 pp.
Set in contemporary Australia, The Vanishing Moment focuses on the lives of two young women
whose fates are transformed by a single significant moment. We follow the stories of these women in separate chapters. For about a third of the novel, it is not clear how their lives are connected. There is a third perspective - a man called Bob who is remembering unhappy childhood experiences. His connection to the two young women, Arrow and Marika, is even less clear. Gradually pieces of the puzzle come together: Wild has constructed an intriguing plot that keeps the reader turning the pages until the heart-wrenching resolution.
Bob's story is about the past, leading to homelessness and gaol. Arrow's story is about the present, although her present is influenced strongly by a terrible trauma in her past. Marika's story is completely in the present. Her happy and successful life has been shattered by one single shocking moment.
Arrow and Marika are engaging characters with whom readers identify. Arrow, who has recently finished school, is just a little younger than Marika, who has been immersed in a tertiary-level art course for a couple of years. Both are bright, personable and attractive, but they become paralysed by sudden misfortune: in both their lives an unexpected and unforeseeable moment has changed everything. Both girls have loving and supportive families but the trauma each experiences causes great strain on family relationships. The coincidence of their meeting leads to a friendship that promises to bring healing to them both, until the shock of the climax of the novel.
The novel explores the way in which a moment in time can change lives. Margaret Wild also raises the possibility that there may be multiple universes and that it may be possible to choose, at a significant moment, to live an alternate life. The difficulty, as the novel reveals, is that there is no way of knowing whether that alternate life would be better.
Margaret Wild is a highly regarded Australian writer known mostly for her picture books and her verse novels. Although this novel is written in prose, Wild's experience in those media influences her writing in The Vanishing Moment. The writing is extraordinarily economical, each word having earned its place on the page. Wild's images are a joy, original and often surprising. The description of place is so vivid that each scene could be drawn with great accuracy. The style is so accessible and effortless that it is only on a second reading that the reader realises just how perfect the word choice is and just how well the text sounds read aloud.
Recommendation: This is strongly recommended as a class set novel for Year 8-10. You can use it at any level. More sophisticated readers will appreciate the skill of the narrative and the quality of the writing, but all readers will be intrigued by the mystery that surrounds the characters and the connections between them. - HS

The Voyage of the Unquiet Ice
by Andrew McGahan. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN 9781742378220. 400 pp. Hardcover.
The Voyage of the Unquiet Ice is the second novel in McGahan’s Ship Kings series and follows The
Coming of the Whirlpool (ISBN 9781743312056), reviewed in English in Australia Vol 42 Number 1 2012. Dow Amber’s island was on the losing side in the Great War but he proved his worth in Book 1 as a sailor. While still viewed as an outsider and enemy, he is given a berth on a vessel of the victors – the Ship Kings’ Chloe.
In Book 2 after a revolt Chloe is recalled to report to the Sea Lord who lives on The Twelfth Kingdom, a ship so vast it seems more like an island. Dow finds intrigue and treachery swirl around the court. Chloe is sent north into the frozen ice to seek news of the Sea Lord's son Nadal, who disappeared five years previously on a quest to find a passage through that ice to the southern ocean; Dow goes too.  Dow has already acquired a mysterious link to an enormous Ice-Albatross that alights briefly on the ship. His enemy, Lieutenant Diego, persists in his efforts to humiliate Dow while a growing rapport with Ignella, the ship’s scapegoat, complicates Dom’s life further. It is Dow and Ignella who discover the secret of the warm currents of the north and the true nature of Nadal’s expedition, but their return to The Twelfth Kingdom is shattered by betrayal and war.
McGahan is a fine world builder and the Ship Kings' universe is believable and engrossing, while his icy north owes something to the journeys south of Shackleton and Mawson and to Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.


The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

Recommendation: Year 8 students will find much to enjoy in this quite complex novel and it would be fascinating to compare the details of this fantasy journey with that of the Mariner in Coleridge’s great narrative poem. I’m looking forward to Book 3, The War of the Four Isles. - DM
Although it's Book 2 in a series, I agree with Deb that you could use this as a Year 8 class novel because it is so powerfully written and could be read as a stand-alone title. Make sure that you include both The Coming of the Whirlpool and The Voyage of the Unquiet Ice in any fantasy wide reading unit for Years 7-9. - HS

War Horse
by Michael Morpurgo. Egmont, 2007 (1982). ISBN 9781405226660. 182 pp.
Despite all the publicity that accompanied the advertising for the stage performance of Morpurgo's novel, War Horse was not a bestseller when it was first released. In fact, it took two years to sell as many copies as Morpurgo's new titles now achieve in a matter of weeks. However, I've always liked it. I thought it was a good class set novel in 1982, and it's even better now, with a much better cover, the support of the app dedicated to the book (see the notes below in the section on apps) and some terrific video available online of the development of the stage production.
This is a very moving war story, told through the experiences of farm boy Albert and his beloved horse Joey, which is commandeered by the British army at the beginning of World War I. Morpurgo has based the story on meticulous research: many thousands of farm horses crossed the Channel to be used in the war effort and most of them were injured and killed by the deadly new weapons of war. Morpurgo is very successful in evoking the terrifying atmosphere of the battlefield.
The most interesting feature of this novel is Morpurgo's decision to use first-person narration - in the voice of Joey, the horse. It shouldn't work; it should seem clunky, or cute, or sentimental. But it's exactly right, and very powerful.
Interestingly, the ending of the stage performance is a little different from that of the original novel and, I think, an improvement. That's a question that you could explore with students.
Recommendation: Consider this as a class set novel for Year 7. - HS

The Watch that Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic
by Allan Wolf. Candlewick Press, 2013 (2011). ISBN 9780763663315. 480 pp.
Ernie Tucker recommended this at ETA Conference last year, but at that stage it was only available in hardcover and wasn't a practical possibility for whole class use. It's now in paperback and it's so interesting that we decided to include it again.
Who would write a story in which everyone knows the ending? Who would expect success with such a venture? We all know the Titanic goes down, so what was Wolf thinking when he planned a verse novel on the final days of this doomed ship?
Well, The Watch that Ends the Night is a triumph, a wonderful array of voices from different decks and various backgrounds that convey the majesty of the ship and the horror of the sinking and the humanity of the people who built the Titanic, sailed in it and survived or died when it sank. There are even voices for the iceberg and for the ship rats! As you read through the blank verses you find favourites whose story you follow with particular care. For me it was Fredrick Fleet in the lookout, Thomas Andrews the ship builder on Titanic’s maiden voyage, Jamila Nicola-Yarred the refugee, Harold Spark the wireless operator, E.J. Smith the captain and John Snow the undertaker, who put to sea off Nova Scotia to retrieve and document the bodies of the drowned passengers and crew.
Wolf has meticulously researched the background to the sinking of the Titanic. Particularly pleasing are the notes at the end of the book that include biographies of all the people mentioned, so that you can find out what happened to the survivors later in their lives and read the details of those lost at sea. Other material includes Morse Code messages, a miscellany of Titanic details and a comprehensive bibliography.
Recommendation: In NSW, English Extension 1 and 2 students could benefit from exploring this collection of narrative voices that builds to a memorable climax. - DM

by Hugh Howey. Arrow Books, 2013. ISBN 9780099580485. 576 pp.
Wool is one of the very best of the post-apocalyptic novels pouring on to the bookshelves. It is fitting that this futuristic text was originally published online as a series of novellas. The collected version was published as a novel by Century and will be followed by other instalments.
Wool is set in a silo, a vast structure that sinks down into the earth and in which the last of humanity reside. The community is focused and committed to keeping the rules that allow life to continue. A stratified society exits over a hundred storeys, including the ‘mids’ and the  ‘deeps.’ Porters travel up and down the thousands of steps, taking produce and trade throughout the silo. If individuals break the rules they will be sent to the barren and devastated land outside that is viewed from the silo through mounted cameras. The punishment is called a ‘cleaning’. They will be sent to ‘clean’ the lens of the cameras with wool pads before they succumb to the biological ravages of the air outside. It’s a mystery why the people so sentenced do clean the lens, but as the novel progresses the web of deceit and lies in the silo begins to be exposed and the IT branch leader is suspect. When Sheriff Holston elects to follow his wife outside to certain death, the search for a new Sheriff begins. Mayor Jahns and Deputy Sheriff Marnes descend many levels to interview Jules, a candidate from Mechanicals.
Howey creates such a remarkable setting that it’s impressive to realise his characters are equally striking. The shy relationship between the ageing Mayor and her Deputy Sheriff is explored gently and Jules’ tenacity, intelligence and vitality are fully revealed when she takes on the Sheriff’s position and tries to discover the mystery at the heart of the silo. Jules has the respect and affection of the Mechanicals' section and it is with their help that she faces her own cleaning and the revelations that follow. Porters, farmers, workers of all descriptions populate the pages and come with a real sense of humanity and disparity.
Recommendation: I was so impatient to read more about the silo I downloaded the prequels First Shift and Second Shift from Amazon but I recommend you read Wool first. Volumes 2 and 3 of the Wool trilogy - Shift and Dust - were published in 2013. Students in Years 10 and 11 will relish an exploration of this alternative future with so much to discover and discuss about sustainability, morality, power and control and the way people struggle to live good lives, even in the claustrophobic setting of the silo. - DM

Some iPad apps for the English classroom
Some apps are amazing and can be used in the classroom on individual electronic devices or through a single device linked to a smart board or projector. Deb reviewed Our Choice, one of the very best apps, in English in Australia Volume 46, Number 2, 2011. Here are some more wonderful gems. We've provided the prices we paid.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
produced by Penguin Viking, 2011. $10.49.
The Diary of a Young Girl for iPad shows how a print version of a text can be enriched and enhanced by an interactive framework. The app opens on a desk and the diary awaits you. A conventional reading of the text has the added attraction of some words being underlined. Clicking on the underlined words provides you with pictures, maps and historic documents, and additional information is available to supplement the text. In addition there is a video introduction and the opportunity to ‘read’ the diary through different story trails such as Anne as a Writer, Fear, Resistance and Life in Hiding. There are also over 40 audio extracts read by Helena Bonham Carter and an illustrated dual time line that allows you to see the events of World War II alongside the events in Anne’s life. The app allows for shared readings in the classroom and for individual explorations when a class set of tablets is available. - DM

The Artifacts
by Stace + Hare Slap Happy Larry. $2.99.
The Artifacts is about story telling and the imagination. Asaf loves to collect interesting things, but his family does not appreciate his passions, especially for caterpillars! When he is thirteen, Asaf returns home to find his parents have removed all his collections and moved to a bare house that he is expected to keep tidy. It is only in his imagination that Asaf can escape and in his room his mind takes him to distant destinations. He collects shadows and strings them across his bed, words fall from his bathroom tap and at school he reads avidly in the library. One day Asaf leaves home; he takes little with him but an inquiring and clever mind. This short story is beautifully produced with a high level of interactivity as the reader must touch the screen repeatedly to reveal all that is on the page. Sound effects and music enhance this tale of individual thought and the power of the imagination. The app could be used with students from Years 4-10 to explore the idea of the imagination. - DM

The Disappearing
produced by The Red Room Company. Free.
The Red Room Company at are in the business of creating, publishing and promoting poetry in unusual ways. One of their ways is The Disappearing app, which creates a poetic map of Australia in which hundreds of poems have associations with particular settings. You can read the poems yourself and see the place associated with that particular poem; sometimes there are videos of poets reading their work and interviews with poets. Students can upload their own poems as well. In this way the Red Door Company say ‘they can preserve ideas, emotions and experiences about their own environment that vanish over time.’ The Disappearing could be a useful app to support the exploration of Australian poetry with Years 9 and 10 students. - DM

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore
by author/illustrator William Joyce and co-director Brandon Oldenburg. $5.49.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore is both a short animated film, a picture book and an interactive app. Morris loves books and the reader/viewer joins him as he is swept away on a journey of discovery about books and reading. The app invites us into a fantastical world where books come alive and Morris becomes a curator who tries to deliver a special book to each and every reader.
My favourite part of this app is when I get to paint the sky blue but there are other wonderful moments when you can play the piano or watch books select their readers. The app is a fascinating mixture of the old-fashioned and the new; it seems to evoke the silent era of films as well as use computer animation and interactivity to place it in the twenty-first century as a text. - DM

Instant Poetry
produced by Razeware LLC. $1.99.
With this app you and your students can reproduce the fun you had using magnetised words on the fridge to make up poems. In addition you can use your own photos as background and select a theme to generate the words that will be available to you to make up your poem. Once you have created your verse you can save it and send it as a picture to your photo collection and print it or display it. - DM

Poems by Heart
produced by Inkle.
The Poems by Heart app helps you to learn a poem and test your memory of it against five different difficulty levels. While the app is free, the poems (mainly classics) have to be purchased separately and the cost of the five sets – Love, Adventures, Gothic Tales, Early Innovators and Romantic - does add up (somewhat strangely different sections of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ appear in all the categories). You can hear and learn a range of poems from ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ to ‘The Raven’ or ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and you can read brief biographies of each poet. This app might be useful to motivate students in Years 7-10 to learn a poem by heart. - DM

The Sonnets
produced by Touch Press. $14.99.
The Sonnets delivers one hundred and fifty-four sonnets by William Shakespeare in an interactive digital edition. The sonnets can be read and listened to as well as viewed, as a cast of well-known actors present beautifully nuanced readings direct to the camera. Actors include Patrick Stewart, David Tennant, Fiona Shaw and Stephen Fry. As you watch their performances, you can also see the synchronised text highlighted as they speak the lines. There are also notes with commentary and insight on the sonnets. If you come across an unfamiliar word you just touch it and an explanation appears. Wow! And all for $14.99! - DM

War Horse
produced by Touch Press. $9.95
This is a rich resource to support the study of Michael Morpurgo's novel War Horse, but it would be valuable as well for any work on World War I. It includes an ebook version of the novel, which also has audio, the text read by author Morpurgo while the lines he is reading are highlighted. There is an engaging eighty-minute performance version of the novel, presented by Morpurgo accompanied by two musicians. There is a detailed World War I timeline; readers can browse the entire timeline or they can follow one of a long list of 'themes', such as horses, the war at sea, civilians, particular theatres of war and particular battles. There is also a section in which various experts talk about the role that horses played in World War I and their fate. - HS

Text Classics
I admire enormously Text Publishing's decision to bring back into print a wide range of important Australian titles, fiction and non-fiction. There are easier ways to make money in publishing but, in tribute to their wonderful founder, Diana Gribble, Text decided to make a significant contribution to our cultural heritage. If you haven't explored the Text Classics list yet, please do so. They are inexpensive and they include some iconic texts that should never have been allowed to go out of print, plus some less-known gems that are a joy to discover.
Now Text has added to the range with a selection of children's classics. Consider giving these to your gifted and talented kids as an introduction to the concept of a 'classic' text. Ask them to consider why they think these books have been given the status of 'classic'. Ask them to consider how they differ and how they are similar to best-selling books published for young people today.
Here are the children's classics that Text Publishing has published so far in 2013:

Hills End by Ivan Southall. ISBN 9781922147004. 312 pp.
This is the gripping survival story of children in a little country town cut off from the outside world by a massive storm. There are only two adults left behind: one is killed by the storm and the other - their teacher - gravely injured. Survival depends entirely on the children's own resourcefulness. This was first published in 1962 and was widely used as a class set novel in schools.

I Own the Racecourse! by Patricia Wrightson. ISBN 9781922147028. 177 pp.
First published in 1968, this story still resonates. Andy is not like the other boys; he really does believe that the old tramp has sold him Beecham Park racecourse for three dollars. It's probably twenty years since I last read this novel. I taught it many times and I remember it well. But I re-read as if I'd never read it before, revelling in the characters and the setting. Wentworth Park racecourse is no longer there, but many of the little houses and the narrow streets are. In many ways it's quite contemporary, except that none of us let our kids roam the streets freely any more.

They Found a Cave by Nan Chauncy. ISBN 9781922147196. 201 pp.
This was published in 1948. It was made into a film in 1962 and won best children's film in 1962 at the Venice Film Festival. The characters are four English war evacuees sent to Australia to stay with an elderly aunt. The most interesting character is the Australian boy Tas, who has had no schooling but who is a skilled bushman. Tas's very nasty parents work for Aunt Jandie and are quick to exploit the situation when the seriously ill woman has to go to hospital, leaving the children in her care. The children run away, to survive in a cave high up in the mountains.
The Watcher in the Garden by Joan Phipson. 9781922147011. 240 pp.
The garden is almost the protagonist in this novel, first published in 1982. It is one of those magnificent gardens around the Blue Mountains township of Leura, and for Kitty it is a refuge from family life and her sense of her own inadequacies. There is, however, a menacing presence: Kitty is being watched. This is full of suspense and a celebration of the beauty of the natural world.

Ash Road by Ivan Southall. ISBN 9781922147493. 258 pp.
This was for many years one of the most popular novels in English Department bookrooms. It was published in 1965 and tells the story of children in life-threatening danger on a terrible day when bushfire sweeps uncontrollably through Victoria. Southall's strength was in exploring his characters' inner worlds. For three of the children - three teenage boys who had set off the day before on a hiking trip, there is the terrible knowledge that their camp fire started the blaze.

The House That Was Eureka by Nadia Wheatley. ISBN 9781922147189.
288 pp.
This was first published in 1985. Nadia's protagonists live in Newtown in the early 1980s, at a time of high unemployment, especially youth unemployment. Newtown at that time was still a rundown, working-class suburb. Evie's house has a fascinating history as the centre of the anti-eviction campaign of 1931, in the darkest days of the Depression. While the other titles published so far are strictly speaking children's classics, this is a classic for adolescent readers. It is as compelling a read today as it was almost thirty years ago. - HS

The Telling

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