SWSETA meeting May 2014
I was invited to speak to a meeting of the South-west Sydney branch of the English Teachers' Association of New South Wales. The meeting was held in Campbelltown on Tuesday 13th May 2014.
I was asked to talk about new titles that would work in the English classroom, as well as to say something about the new prescribed text list for HSC. The annotations below cover a wider range of titles that I was able to cover in the meeting.
You will notice that there is a recommendation at the end of each annotation. You can skim the recommendations if you are looking for a text of a particular type.
by Michael Pryor. Woolshed Press, 2012. ISBN 9781742753768. 229 pp.
This is a clever and very accessible anthology of ten linked short stories. Each story is set at a different time in the future, allowing Pryor to explore a fascinating range of 'what if'? scenarios in the best science fiction tradition. The stories are dated from 2020 to 2120 (the year 2110 is missing), but they are not organised chronologically. The anthology opens with the story '2100', one of the most positive futures represented. It ends with the nightmarish world of '2060', a grim picture of severe rationing and narrow lives where the countries of a seriously overpopulated world have been at war with aliens for more than twenty years.
In the world of 2100, robot technology has been developed to such an extent that daily life is managed by household robots. These robots, such as the much-loved Portia, are not only unfailingly efficient and knowledgeable but have developed pleasant human-like personalities. But what if the artificial intelligence they have acquired has evolved to the point where the machines have become human? As well as Artificial Intelligence, Pryor explores in this anthology such issues as the consequences of a global financial collapse, of global warming and of overpopulation, the impact of a pandemic, the ethical dilemmas arising from cloning and genetic selection, and even the mixed blessings of medical science ensuring vastly increased human longevity.
The stories are linked by the use of the same protagonists in each story. This is an original and interesting idea. There is no suggestion that Tara and Sam, who have 'been best friends forever', live for more than a century. In every story they are approximately the same age. Pryor is signalling that he is writing metafiction: not only is he asking 'what if?' about his science fiction scenarios, he is asking: 'What if I place these two characters that I have imagined in each of these very different worlds?' Not only does this use of the characters provide the anthology with a satisfying sense of unity, it offers the reader an opportunity to empathise, as these are warm and engaging characters. Tara is bright and feisty, a thinker, prepared to challenge authority if necessary, at some cost to herself. Sam is more cautious but loyal and protective; much quieter than Tara, he is an artist who loves working with his hands.
This is not the kind of science fiction that proposes lots of wacky future technological inventions. These future worlds are firmly based in our world today and simply explore the consequences if certain current trends develop further. Every story throws up ethical questions. For example, if human life is reduced to subsistence living after a global financial collapse, what do you do with a member of the community who is not doing his share? If neighbours with young children beg you to take them in but they may be carrying the virus that has killed billions around the world, how do you respond? If your life and the life of your best friend depend on betraying an innocent man, what do you do? These are unquestionably worthwhile questions for readers to explore.
These are well-written stories, not all with neat endings. There are interesting motifs repeated throughout, adding further to a sense of cohesiveness, such as Sam's casual use of expressions from both Mandarin and Hindi, in the same way as twentieth-century teenagers adopted Americanisms. Readers can learn a lot about the nature of the short story by looking closely at what Pryor has done here.
Recommendation: Most people seem to be recommending this for class study in Years 9 and 10, but it is well within the reading capacity of many students in Years 7 and 8. As always, it depends on the abilities of the class you are teaching. Wherever you use it, it will allow you to tick off the Australian Curriculum requirement for a text that explores the concept of 'sustainability'. In fact, I can't think of a better text for this purpose. As suggested above, it covers as well the 'ethical understanding' general capability and it would be easy to cover as well 'critical and creative thinking'.
The new syllabus recommends that students experiment with others' imaginative texts by changing aspects such as place and characters (Stage 3 Objective C). This text provides them with an excellent example of characters being transposed into different settings. As well as providing a model for students' own writing, Pryor provides opportunities for in-depth discussion of the nature of fictional characters.
Short story anthologies that work well in the classroom are fairly rare. This is a very welcome addition to the resources available to the secondary English classroom. It is highly recommended.
by Kate Hendrick. Text Publishing, 2013. ISBN 9781921922855. 260 pp.
This is both a thoroughly engaging novel, perfectly pitched at its intended audience, and a very sophisticated piece of writing from a first-time writer. I was hooked by about page 3. The first of the
The second voice is that of Will, also in Year 12. Will feels completely overshadowed by his much more assertive sisters - older sister Lauren and younger sister Morgan. Mum, a writer, has effectively withdrawn from family life after her husband walked out on the family. The children mostly fend for themselves. Will is concerned but helpless about the family dysfunction and especially worried about the uncommunicative Lauren, who has recently and unexpectedly returned home, after having left abruptly some time previously.
Eliat, the third voice, is the eighteen-year-old mother of two-year-old Tash. Eliat, who has spent her entire life in a series of unsatisfactory foster homes, has been taken in by Rose-Marie and Terry, a childless well-to-do couple, who are supporting Eliat at school and taking on most of the burden of raising Tash. Eliat, who is anything but the stereotypical teenage mother (one of her Year 12 subjects is Maths Extension 2), has learnt not to care about people. She is often impatient with school, bored that she already knows everything covered by the Biology syllabus, and resents Rose-Marie, who is irritatingly perfect. Torn between love for Tash and an addiction to risk-taking behaviour, she rebels against Terry and Rose-Marie's attempts to restrict her wild social life.
All three characters are complex and interesting, and they are supported by a cast of minor characters who also come to life. Part of the success is Hendrick's skill with dialogue, including the representation of the first-person voices. The voices are quite distinctive: Sarah describes her Art teacher as 'reassuringly scatty', while Eliat calls her Biology teacher 'a cow'. Will, who wants to be a writer, is much more self-reflective than the other two. The story is told in 33 short chapters, alternating from Sarah's voice to Will's and then Eliat's. But it's more complex than that. Each chapter is headed:
and, each time, one of the words is in bold type. Each chapter is not only a different voice but it's in a different time - before, after or later than the pivotal accident. Sarah and Will are both doing Year 12 at the same school, but Will's is the 'after' story and Sarah's is 'later': Will is in Year 12 the year before Sarah changes schools. Sarah never meets Will, but she becomes friends with his sister Morgan as they work together in the darkroom in the school's art department. There is a further connection: Will's other sister Lauren had been in a relationship with the doctor that saved Sarah's life on the night of the accident - the night he and Lauren ended their relationship. We know from Will's story that Lauren is troubled; it is in Sarah's story that we learn why. So there are both several connections between Will and Sarah, and yet at the same time no direct connection. The connection between Sarah and Eliat is in contrast very direct and totally random: Eliat just happens to be on the scene on the night of Sarah's accident and helps the doctor to stop the bleeding.
Hendrick begins the novel with Sarah's voice. We find it easy to identify with her but, initially, Will is less sympathetic and Eliat is antipathetic. We hardly notice as we read but gradually Hendrick shifts our perceptions, so that by the end of the novel we understand Will and our heart bleeds for Eliat. One of the strengths of the novel is undoubtedly the characterisation, but I was even more impressed with the narrative structure. Hendrick pulls together the different strands of the narrative and the different time frames with an effortlessness that is impressive.
Recommendation: This is highly recommended for class set use for a comprehensive Year 8-9 class. Students will engage with the very different ways Sarah, Will and Eliat deal with the difficulties in their lives. It's ultimately a very positive book, offering glimmers of hope while shunning easy happy endings.
by J. L. Powers. Through My Eyes series. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN 9781743312490. 192 pp.
This is the second title in Allen & Unwin's valuable new series 'Through My Eyes', novels about children living in conflict zones. The first book was Rosanne Hawke's Shahana, set in Kashmir.
Amina is set in 2011 in Somalia, at a time when the streets of Mogadishu were still controlled by the militant Islamist rebel group, al-Shabaab. The second series of the SBS documentary Go Back to Where You Came From (2012) featured Mogadishu, claiming that it was one of the most dangerous places on earth - but it was worse in 2011. Amina's house has sustained a grenade attack that has destroyed most of the upper storey. The streets nearby are full of abandoned and destroyed houses. Many residents have fled to refugee camps in Kenya. No one dares to speak freely and al-Shabaab soldiers are everywhere. Venturing out to the local market - where there is little food, because of drought - is full of risks.
Amina's father is targeted and kidnapped by al-Shabaab because he is an artist. Her brother Roble is snatched off the street by a truckload of rebel soldiers looking for new recruits. Amina is left alone with her seven-month-pregnant mother and her frail grandmother. Neighbours are frightened or unwilling to help; the neighbour most able to offer support is suspected of having betrayed Amina's father to the rebels. The family have no income. Amina and her grandmother make one perilous journey to the market to try to sell one of her father's paintings, only to be ripped off by a conman who steals the painting.
The story is told in the third-person, through Amina's eyes. Amina is an interesting character. Like her father, she wants to be an artist and she wants her art to make a statement about the future of Somalia. At great risk, she draws with charcoal on the walls of abandoned buildings, including lines of her own poems. She leaves in the ruins what would be called in Sydney 'art installations', created from a variety of found objects. All her work is signed. Before he is kidnapped, her brother Roble had argued that her artwork was putting all their lives in danger. She replies: 'Our lives are always in danger.'
This is a survival story. The family suffer near-starvation and there are grave fears for the expected baby. Young readers are given a satisfying resolution, as the situation improves for the family and Amina's artistic talent is recognised, but it is no cheap happy ending. Amina's father is almost certainly dead and brother Roble's whereabouts are unknown.
Recommendation: As well as allowing students to see the world through the eyes of someone living daily with danger and starvation, this gives worthwhile insights into the life of a devout Muslim family, whose values conflict with those of the extreme fundamentalists who control the streets. This novel is strong enough to be considered for whole class use. It would work best with Year 7, preferably a girls' class. It is also a terrific title to include in a selection of titles about children in other countries.
Australians All: A History of Growing Up from the Ice Age to the Apology
by Nadia Wheatley, illustrated by Ken Searle. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN 9781742370972. 281 pp. Hardcover.
Aimed at an upper-primary lower-secondary readership, this is a magnificent achievement. Wheatley
Wheatley chose to tell Australia's history through the stories of individual children and adolescents. Some are people who grew up to have a place in more traditional Australian histories but many are unknowns, offering a diverse range of insights. The diversity is important: this history includes the lives of women, the lives of Australia's Indigenous people and the lives of some of the many migrants who have built this nation. The stories are mini-biographies, most just a page long. They are illustrated with Ken Searle's paintings, as well as historical photographs and drawings.
The greatest strength of the history in my opinion is the story of our Indigenous peoples - especially of the traditional way of life that 'provided a healthier diet and much more leisure time than the lifestyle endured by the peasant farmers of Europe'. Wheatley records the stories of a number of Indigenous children whose families returned each year to homes that provided a rich supply of food in the right season.
Wheatley suggests that the way to approach this book is to browse at random. I began that way but was so impressed with the quality of the writing and the amount of information that I did not know that I soon turned back to the beginning and read the book, including the introduction, from beginning to end. I read quite slowly, savouring the insights. I can see myself re-reading quite soon.
The book has an appendix that gives us information about what happened to the children and their families in later life. There is also a glossary.
If you are buying Christmas presents for 8-14-year-olds, put this on your shopping list. I'm not claiming that their eyes will light up in the same way as if you give them the latest Wimpy Kid or teenage paranormal title, but this should be in every home. Many kids who begin to browse will be drawn in as I was.
Recommendation: You probably won't use this directly in your English classroom but make sure that there are several copies in the library and send students to it regularly for research purposes. There is much here that is relevant to the national curriculum cross-curricular priorities.
Note: Wheatley conducted a great many interviews during her research for Australians All. She collected her interviews with Indigenous Australians in a book called Playground (Playground: Listening to stories from country and from inside the heart compiled by Nadia Wheatley, illustrated by Ken Searle, with Jackie Huggins as consultant. Allen & Unwin, 2011. ISBN 9781742370972. 97 pages). It is an excellent resource for study of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.
The ABC's Hindsight program recently recorded an interview with Nadia Wheatley, where she talks about ten of the stories she collected. We hear directly from some of the people whose childhood stories appear in the collection. The interview can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/children-in-history27s-page/5188998.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death and hope in a Mumbai slum
by Katherine Boo. Scribe Publications, 2012. ISBN 9781921844638. 288 pp.
This beautifully written and fascinating book is factual text but the reading experience is very much like that of reading a novel. Boo is an American journalist and the book is based on years of first-hand research in the Annawadi slum that is adjacent to the Sahar International airport in Mumbai. The slum is hidden from the airport by a wall of advertising for expensive Italian floor titles that promise to remain 'beautiful forever'. The juxtaposition between the extravagant lifestyle promised by the advertising and the fragile shacks of the slum, with their dirt floors, in many ways sums up the Mumbai Boo is reporting on.
Boo chose to present her research by telling the story of three families who live in the slum. The first is the family of Abdul, who is possibly sixteen, possibly nineteen, and the family breadwinner; Abdul has become a skilled recycler, scavenging though 'the things that richer people threw away'. The second is the family of the ambitious and ruthless Asha, who aspires to be the next slumlord; her daughter, Manju, is the only college-going girl in Annawadi but regrettably does not share her mother's pursuit of material gain at all costs. The third is that of Fatima, universally known as One Leg, who is desperately jealous of Abdul's family's relative prosperity. In a self-destructive rage, Fatima burns herself grievously in a fire and blames Abdul. Much of the narrative of the book centres on this incident and its consequences.
These people are real people that Boo met in the slum, but she writes about them as if they are characters in a novel, so that they come vividly to life, and she informs us about them by telling their stories. Boo supplements her main characters with a large cast, especially of road boys, scavengers that Abdul knows, and corrupt officials. In the world Boo presents, corruption is endemic at every level, especially amongst the police, lawyers and court workers, from the highest to the lowest. Innocence is useless in the justice system; money and influence are everything. The conditions in gaol are even worse than those of slum existence.
At the end of the book, Boo contemplates the situation where the pressure of survival is so great that people simply cannot afford compassion for others:
It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in undercities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be ...
Recommendation: This text is written for adults and it is a sophisticated and fairly demanding read, but as mentioned earlier it is beautifully written and offers unforgettable insights into the lives of those who are forgotten in the huge societal changes brought about by globalisation. It could work very well as the non-fiction choice for a mature Year 10 class.
by Anne Brooksbank. Puffin Books, 2013. ISBN 9780143567165. 256 pp.
Nat is crazy about surfing, like his dad, Luke. The beach has always been there for him, as he lives on
There are lots of novels about kids living in dysfunctional families or in difficult social circumstances, but novels about kids from comfortable backgrounds suddenly being plunged into a quite different lifestyle are rare. Brooksbank depicts very well the increasing strains on the family, especially when Luke's mother decides to take the children to live for a time with her parents in Tasmania. Nat misses his best friend Sam, the girl he likes - Grace, and the surf, but most of all he worries about his father's state of mind. Brooksbank gives us a resolution that offers some hope but no easy answers.
Recommendation: If you have kids that love surfing, this is a must-read for them. There are two terrific sequences where Nat and Luke fight the ocean. If you are located on the northern beaches of Sydney, this is also a terrific choice: there is something special about a book set in a familiar location. For other readers, this is a satisfying story of a boy facing difficulties in his life. It would work as a Year 7 class novel. Add it to wide reading selections of titles about families or about father-son relationships.
The Black-bearded Bai and Other Plays from Asian Folklore
by Richard Baines. Phoenix Education, 2013. ISBN 9781921586699. 168 pp.
This is a collection of six short plays, all based on traditional tales from Asia and all written to be read and performed in secondary English classrooms. The tales are from Vietnam, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan and India. The stage adaptations have been made with an eye on students' tastes: these are very modern adaptations, with lots of action, some wicked - and often black - humour, and plenty of visual gags. There are detailed stage directions, both at the beginning of each script and throughout, and some suggestions for classroom discussion and follow-up at the end of each play.
My favourite is the title story, 'The Black-hearted Bai', described as a play about 'the triumph of intelligence over brute force'. The brutish bully gets his comeuppance very satisfactorily, but there is an amusing twist at the end where the triumphant good guy reveals nefarious plans. When 'The Director' - one of the cast - complains that that's not the proper ending, he is told that this is the modern version. The play uses in an exaggerated way the sort of distancing techniques characteristic of Brechtian theatre: students who perform 'The Black-hearted Bai' will never have problems understanding Brechtian theatre.
The last play in the collection - 'Harisarman' - has sequences of the kind found in Bollywood musicals. It would be great fun exploring examples of Bollywood film with students as preparation for their staging their own version.
Recommendation: These plays offer a good balance of action, excitement and humour, as well as an introduction to the folktales of Asia. They are practical scripts that students will be able to perform. They will have most fun if they can perform them on a real stage with lighting, but they will work in the classroom too. They would be best with students in Year 9 or 10, as some references are a little too mature for younger classes. They are also a great springboard for students working to turn other traditional tales into playscripts.
by Erin Lange. Faber and Faber, 2013 (2012). ISBN 9780571294404. 345 pp.
Some of the best class set novels over the years have been books about bullying. Nothing quite get kids so fired up as injustice. Every kid knows what it feels like to be bullied, and quite a few know what it's like to bully others. This novel asks them to think about another situation: what's your position if you don't actually participate in the bullying, but you are aware of it and just look on?
What makes that question especially relevant is that this is a very contemporary novel. It is set in the world that adolescents actually inhabit these days but that few writers of adolescent novels have yet fully caught up with: a world lived online. This is the world of nonstop text messaging and of Facebook. We've had a few books about cyberbullying, and there has been considerable discussion about the effects of anonymity on behaviour. But this goes a lot further. This is a world in which a lonely outcast can have an online romance with a girl from the popular set and where the school freak can be transformed overnight into a media star on the web. It's a world where spectacle dominates to the extent that normal moral conventions and human empathy are lost in the excitement of the moment. It's a world in which ordinary, good kids can condone evil.
Butter is narrated in the first person by a very intelligent, self-deprecating voice. Butter is his nickname, one that was conferred on him by the bullies in a very cruel moment that is one of the memorable scenes of the novel. It's not until the last line of the novel that we discover his real name. In his teens, Butter is excessively obese - about 420 pounds or 190 kilos or more than 28 stone. His doting mother fluctuates between plying him with food as a token of her love - 'pecan waffles, Canadian bacon, and poached eggs' for breakfast - to trying to persuade him to try one of the latest diets. His father seems defeated, probably not even aware that it is a very long time since he has spoken directly to his son. Butter's conviction that he is an embarrassment to his father is just one of the bitter facts of his life. At school he is a freak and a loner. His only consolations are his music - he is a talented saxophonist - and his online, anonymous relationship with Anna. Anna and Butter have never spoken; she is falling in love online with the charming and witty, 'JP', the pseudonym Butter has adopted. He has built up a profile for his online identity: a popular and sporty boy from the private school across town.
We learn a lot about Butter from his relationships with some of the adults in his life, particularly Doctor Bean, the doctor who manages his diabetes, and the Professor, the music teacher at his college. As readers, we like and care for Butter, sympathise with his hopeless infatuation with Anna, appreciate his humour and intelligence. His fellow students see only his size.
In a moment of despair Butter sets up a website and declares that, on New Year's Eve, he will eat himself to death on webcam. That declaration transforms his life. Students are divided about whether he is serious or not but all of them are fascinated. Butter, from being a complete loner, is adopted by the in-crowd and is caught up in a social whirl. There is huge interest in what Butter will eat at his final meal. As a diabetic, Butter realises that he actually can kill himself by eating the wrong things; a severe allergy to strawberries is an added bonus.
The tension in the story depends of course on whether or not Butter will go through with his threat - and whether any of the students who have followed him on his website will try to prevent the suicide.
Recommendation: This is a high-interest, well-written novel that keeps readers turning the pages. Like a lot of the best books, it's both very funny at times and heart-wrenchingly sad. It's a great class set novel for Years 8-9, raising a wealth of ethical questions about bullying and about social values. While it will be a success with any class, try it with one of those lower-stream classes where most kids don't really want to read: this will get them in.
by Kate Constable. Allen & Unwin, 2011. ISBN 9781742373959. 252 pp.
No one likes to be uprooted from a familiar and comfortable home and taken to another environment.
This time-slip novel has echoes of Playing Beattie Bow. Kate Constable is the author of the powerful Chanters of Tremaris trilogy. Crow Country was the winner of the Children's Book Council Australia, Book of the Year (Younger Readers) 2012 and of the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children's Literature in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2012.
Recommendation: The Indigenous relationship to country is an important theme in this novel. Students in Year 8 should enjoy exploring this well-crafted novel and the text lends itself to addressing the cross-curriculum priority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ histories and cultures.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
adapted by Simon Stephens, based on Mark Haddon's novel. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013 (2012). ISBN 9781408173350. 100 pp.
This playscript of Haddon's famous novel was first performed in London in August 2012. A slightly adapted version was transferred to the Apollo Theatre in March 2013. The play has played to rapturous audiences in London and has won more Olivier awards in 2013 than any other previous play, matched only by the musical Matilda.
As English teachers know, a play that is a huge success in performance does not necessarily translate into a script that works in the classroom, especially for students who have limited experience of live theatre. It is obvious from accounts of the 2013 London performance that the director has made innovative use of both visual and sound techniques, but the script stands up very well on its own, read silently or read aloud collaboratively in the classroom. Nor is a knowledge of Haddon's novel necessary; while some teachers will want to use the novel and the play side by side, to explore the ways in which different media tell the same story, the play can be read and appreciated on its own.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time tells the story of Christopher, a teenage boy with behavioural difficulties. While his behaviour has many similarities to that of people who suffer from Asperger Syndrome, Mark Haddon has always insisted he is no expert in mental illness and the play is not about any particular condition. Rather, it is about difference, about seeing the world quite differently from most other people. The novel used first-person narration with disconcerting success to allow the reader to view the world through Christopher's eyes. The triumph of the play is that it uses all the resources of theatre to achieve the same effect. The play is a powerful emotional experience, capturing Christopher's bewilderment in a world that makes no sense. It is both very, very funny and achingly sad.
The play is non-realistic in style. The stage directions at the beginning inform us that all actors remain on stage throughout, unless prescribed otherwise. They go on to inform us that:
There is also a dead dog. With a fork sticking out of it.
As with the novel, the language is often offensive, reflecting the violent frustrations of the adults in Christopher's life. The first few lines of the play, as Mrs Shears reacts to the sight of her dead dog, are shockingly offensive. Students need probably to be forewarned, but it would be sad if students in Years 10 and 11 are not mature enough to cope with the use of such language in context.
Scenes run into one another at a very fast pace, making this an enthralling read (and, I'm sure, a compelling theatrical experience). You will want to read it straight through with your students first, just for the story, even if they know the novel. The emotional impact is strong. Later, you can experiment with ways in which certain scenes could be presented. One of the most interesting is the scene when Christopher goes to the railway station when he decides to seek out his mother. There is a painful speech in which he explains the laborious way in which he gets there and then we have five voices, which the stage directions tell us should be pre-recorded:
Voice One Customers seeking access to the car park please use assistance phone opposite, right of the ticket office
Voice Two Warning CCTV in operation
Voice Three Great Western
Voice Five Cold beers and lagers
Voice Two CAUTION WET FLOOR
Voice Four Your 50p will keep a premature baby alive for 1.8 seconds
Voice Three Transforming Travel
Voice Five Refreshingly Different
Voice One It's delicious it's creamy and its only £1.30 Hot Choc Deluxe
It's an aural and visual bombardment of station announcements, spruikers outside some of the shops at the station and the many, many advertisements, signs and notices. It runs on for two pages of script. It's appalling over-stimulation, a panic-inducing nightmare. In amongst it all there comes the announcement:
Voice Three Dogs must be carried
and then again:
Voice Three Dogs must be carried at all times
Christopher interprets everything with terrible literalism. Will he panic because he doesn't have a dog to carry?
The mindless litany ends by repeating:
Voice Three Dogs must be carried at all times
It's no wonder at this point that a policeman, alerted by the lady at the cafe, comes up and asks Christopher if he is all right.
Students can have fun experimenting with the way this scene, which runs for a couple of pages, would be played and how the sense of intense panic is created. They might like to consider as well what the effects might be of lighting (perhaps strobe lighting) and sound.
Just as a scene like this is non-realistic, there are lots of moments in the play when the illusion is deliberately broken. For example, Christopher objects that the policeman is too old - 'too old to play a policeman'. The illusion is completely broken at the end, where Christopher - who is an extremely talented mathematician - is not allowed to explain his mathematical proof:
Siobhan You don't have to tell us how you solved it.
Christopher But it's my favourite question.
Siobhan Yes, but it's not very interesting.
Christopher I think it is.
Siobhan Christopher people won't want to hear about the answer to a maths question in a play.
Look why don't you tell it after the curtain call?
When you've finished you can do a bow and then people who want to can go home and if anybody wants to find out how you solved the maths question then they can stay and you can tell them at the end.
So the final scene, after the curtain call, is 'A Maths Appendix' - which the stage directions say is to be delivered: 'Using as much theatricality as we can throw at it.'
Recommendation: This is highly recommended for use with Years 10 or 11. The play itself is highly engaging, but I love the fact that it allows lots of opportunities for exploring the fact that a playscript is a skeleton to be fleshed out in performance. The Bloomsbury edition of the play includes quite extensive teaching ideas. There is a youtube clip showing the cast at the National Theatre in London working on the play at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2bV75ITXJw. A performance of the play was filmed and has been shown in some Australian cinemas under the National Live program.
The Debt series
by Phillip Gwynne. Allen & Unwin, 2013.
Catch the Zolt: 1. ISBN 9781742378442. 275 pp.
Turn off the Lights: 2. ISBN 9781742378435. 265 pp.
Bring Back Cerberus: 3. ISBN 9781742378596. 279 pp.
Fetch the Treasure Hunter: 4. ISBN 9781742378602. 349 pp.
Yamashita's Gold: 5. ISBN 9781742378619. 388 pp.
Take a Life: 6. ISBN 9781742378626. 467 pp.
This six-book thriller series is, in my opinion, Phillip Gwynne's best writing since Deadly, Unna.
The story is based on an improbable premise about an ancient Calabrian feud that resulted in 'The Debt' - a deadly dangerous obligation that must be met by each elder son as he turns fifteen. The Debt cost the protagonist's grandfather, Gus, a leg - which put a definite stop to his promising career as a runner. The representative of the next generation, the protagonist's father, seems to have paid the debt and has become an extremely wealthy businessman. His son, the protagonist, Dom Silvagni, lives a spoiled and expensive life in Halcyon Cove, a gated community on Queensland's Gold Coast. He attends the exclusive Coast Boys Grammar, which I hated immediately, where he is an indifferent student but a star of the running team.
For me, one of the strengths of the writing is the social satire. Gwynne is merciless in his attack on the idle and corrupt rich and on the pretensions of elite schools. For the intended audience, the strength that they will appreciate is the black humour, which includes what can only be called the 'yuck factor'. There are lots of pooh jokes as well, but there are also stomach-churning details such as the requirement that, as each instalment of the debt is paid (there are always six), the teenager is branded on the inner thigh with a hot branding iron, spelling out progressively the letters of the word PAGATO, meaning 'paid'. Dom's father has the full word branded into his flesh; his grandfather's branding is incomplete. Dom will have to accept at each stage of a successfully completed instalment a similar branding; the only alternative, if he fails like his grandfather to deliver the payment, is that he will lose a pound of flesh.
Each instalment of the debt presents a different and seemingly impossible challenge. In the course of accepting each challenge, Dom finds himself in a variety of extremely risky situations in a range of different locations, accompanied by some very odd characters, including a very dodgy private detective, a couple of street kids, a seventeen-year-old escapee from the law known as the Facebook bandit, and a South American taxi driver who mysteriously turns up over and over again just in the nick of time. There are countless shoot outs, car chases, breathtakingly dangerous boat trips, helicopter rescues and landings in light planes with unqualified pilots. Most of the locations are on the Gold Coast or in northern Queensland but Instalment Four involves a trip to Rome and a very scary excursion to Calabria.
You may have noticed that the page count increases with each book or 'instalment'. This series is designed to get kids hooked as readers, and I think it will work well with some. The plot is compelling, with some major surprises reserved until Instalment Six.
I usually read the first book in a series and then sample one or two others, but it's rare for me to read my way through a series. I'll confess that I enjoyed these enough to read all six of them.
Recommendation: Include these in a wide reading selection of action adventure thrillers for Years 7 and 8.
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green. Penguin Books, 2012. ISBN 9780143567592. 313 pp.
Narrated by sixteen-year-old Hazel, who has been living with incurable cancer for more than three
There have been a number of excellent young adult books in recent years about teenagers facing death, but this is in a class of its own. It is unrelentingly realistic about the nature of illness - and the sometimes worse nature of treatment. Hazel's thyroid cancer has spread to her lungs and, although a wonder drug has stopped the tumours growing for a while, she needs an oxygen tank to breathe - something that accompanies her everywhere. Not surprisingly, she has very little energy and her appearance has been affected by her treatment, particularly the bloated cheeks caused by steroids. Hazel describes herself as 'a normally proportioned person with a balloon for a head'. She's hardly the usual heroine of an achingly tender love story.
The title, of course, comes from Cassius's words to Brutus. The Romans believed they could overcome their fate, but the lives of Hazel and Augustus are more like another Shakespeare quotation - 'As boys to wanton flies/ Are we to the gods/ They kill us for their sport.' Courageous fighting makes no difference. What happens seems cruelly arbitrary.
It's impossible to say too much about the story without revealing important plot twists. Sufficient to say that most adolescent readers will love the characters and the plot twists and be torn between hilarity - there is some incredible black comedy - and grief.
Recommendation: This is one of the great books of recent years. It will be a huge success with Years 9 or 10. There are a few sexually explicit references, but it would be a very narrow-minded person indeed who would object to them in their context.
The film is about to be released and is predicted to be a great success.
The First Third
by Will Kostakis. Penguin Books, 2013. ISBN 9780143568179. 248 pp.
This celebration of family is great fun - and at times quite sad. Billy's grandmother has explained that life is made up of three parts: 'In the first third you're embarrassed by your family; in the second, you make a family of your own; and in the end, you just embarrass the family you have made.' Billy's Yiayia, who has held the family together for so many years, is getting old and frail. She gives Billy her bucket list - things he must do for her before she dies, all involved with bringing the family together.
The book opens with a traditional Greek family lunch, a copious spread with much too much food, just like so many other family celebrations - except that, on this occasion, the banquet is spread out on Yiayia's hospital bed. As Yiayia is in that bed and inclined to move suddenly when excited, quite a lot of the food ends up on the floor.
Billy is devoted to his grandmother and takes her bucket list very seriously, impossible though it seems. There is much hilarity in his attempts to find a new partner for his mother by impersonating her on internet dating sites and some sadness as he tries to work out how to help his two brothers, both of whom are leading miserable lives. Billy is aided in his project by his best friend, Lucas, who is one of the great characters in the novel. Lucas is irrepressible; he takes his cerebral palsy in his stride but finds it harder to deal with the fact that, as a gay man, he might never find a partner because of his disability.
There are lots of jokes in this novel, including the ones Billy composes when he has an unexpected stint as a stand-up comic. A lot of the jokes are aimed at Billy's Greek ethnicity, including his grandmother's poor English, but they are jokes that celebrate and unite, not jokes that denigrate.
Recommendation: This is a great read for both boys and girls in Years 7 and 8. Humour is always welcome, as are titles that reflect our multicultural society.
The First Voyage
by Allan Baillie. Penguin, 2014. ISBN 9780143307679. 184 pp.
Set thirty thousands years ago, this novel explores what it must have been like for Australia's first peoples to make the journey from what is now Timor to the shores of what we call Australia. The stretch of water to be crossed was narrower then than it is now, but it was still substantial, given the fragility of the boats that were used and the total ignorance of the boat people as to what might lie at the end of the journey.
The story is told through the eyes of a teenage boy, Bent Beak, from the tiny Yam tribe. Bent Beak's people have been on the move for some time: they had lived previously on Long Island, with its huge mountains and 'the jungle that roared at night', but that had been only a short crossing, made on a calm day, to an island that was visible across the water. The Yam tribe's enemies, the much larger tribe - the Crocodile people - had also come from Long Island, and more of them cross over to Bird Island every day. Bent Beak's father and other members of the Yam tribe have been killed by Crocodile warriors, whose spears have sharp flint stones that are superior to the spears the Yam tribe use for hunting and fishing. The Yam tribe Elder, Eagle Eye, knows that the only way to save his people is to move on again - to follow the birds that fly south. In a postscript, Baillie identifies Long Island as the Indonesian islands where Flores, Lembata, Pulau Alor, Ataura and Palau Wetar can be found today.
We share Bent Beak's journey, as the warriors cut the tall black bamboo that they will use to construct their fragile rafts, as they struggle against the attacks of the Crocodile people, and as the women and children gather food and water to take with them on the voyage. As their food and water dwindle, their greatest threat is the unknown: they have no idea how far away the land that Eagle Eye insists must be there might be. There are five rafts in the beginning, but they are separated in a terrifying storm. Bent Beak's raft finally breaks up on rocks on the shore of a land that is bountiful in some ways - an abundance of oysters and fresh water - but threatening in others, occupied by giant animals unlike anything the Yam tribe has seen before.
While The First Voyage can be categorised as historical fiction, it is also a kind of fantasy. This is a superb imaginative adventure on the part of the author, as he uses his knowledge of the landscapes and of the sea to picture what the journey might have been like for Bent Beak and his companions.
We come to know well each member of the tribe on Bent Beak's raft. Bent Beak himself is an engaging character and we share his concern for the safety of the girl he loves, The Wind, and of the orphaned Waterlily. The old man, Eagle Eye, who had the courage to persuade his people to venture into the unknown, dies almost in sight of land, but a new life, Moonlight's baby, is born. Distant smoke even suggests that other rafts have survived the journey.
I don't usually reveal as much as that about the ending of a novel, but the ending is not what is most important here. We know this is a story about the first peoples coming to Australia, so we are not surprised that some of them make it. The interest is in the journey - the fascinating detail of the getting there. Baillie brilliantly imagines those details, especially the construction of the bamboo rafts.
While the link is never made specifically, the reader can't help but think of other boat people making perilous voyages in fragile craft to escape their enemies, as the Yam people fled the Crocodile tribe.
Recommendation: This short, fast-paced novel offers young people a fascinating insight into what might have been. It deserves a place in our selection of titles to explore Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures. It will work well as a class set title with Years 7 and 8. It would be interesting to use the opening sections of Wheatley's Australians All alongside a reading of this novel. Wheatley presents the history as we know it, with some insight as to where our knowledge has come from; Baillie has drawn on this knowledge but has shaped it with his imagination to give us a sense of the lived experience.
by Pamela Rushby. Ford St, 2013. ISBN 9781921665981. 238 pp.
Flora has been visiting Egypt for years, accompanying her archaeologist father. This year she is
It is the setting - so beautifully researched - that is the novel's great strength. There are detailed descriptions of the work that is being done to uncover the tombs from the time of the pharaohs, as well as superb pictures of the wealthy hotels and the comfortable mansions inhabited by the ex-pats. The descriptions of the overflowing hospitals and the conditions on the trains carrying the wounded are just as well researched. Perhaps most memorable is the account of the ward for men who have been mentally damaged by their experiences.
Recommendation: This is a satisfying coming-of-age novel and a useful addition to young adult fiction about World War I. It is for readers in Years 7 and 8.
Forget Me Not
by Tom Holloway. Currency Plays, 2013. ISBN 9780868199696. 80 pp.
Whenever I go to the theatre, I am looking for plays that might work in English classrooms. Sadly, very few are appropriate, even when they're good. This one, which was performed at Belvoir Theatre in 2013, will, I think, work in Year 10 or Year 11 classrooms.
The language is a bit confronting but appropriate to the context, and I think most senior classes will cope with it. It tells the terrible story of a child taken from Liverpool when he was aged three and sent with many other children to a new life in Australia. It is based on detailed research about the more than 3 000 children who were shipped to Australia from England as orphans between the end of World War II and 1970. Gerry, now around 60, has always believed he was an orphan. He was brought up in a brutal Australian institution and was severely damaged by the experience. His life has been unhappy and often violent. It is his daughter, Sally, who insists that he contacts the authorities and try to find out who he is.
The play is non-realistic in style and is not arranged chronologically. The most gripping scenes are those between an inarticulate Gerry and the frail old woman, Mary. It is a while before we realise that Mary is, in fact, Gerry's mother, mourning for the child she gave up because she was persuaded by the authorities that he would go to a better life. It takes even longer to realise that the scenes between Gerry and Mary are imagined. By the time Gerry and Sally get to Liverpool, Mary is dead.
I try as often as possible not to disclose endings, so I apologise for that. However, I don't think it will spoil your appreciation of the play.
There are of course a lot of other resources about these stolen children, including documentaries, some fictionalised accounts written for young adults, and David Hill's autobiographical account.
Recommendation: If you are wanting a new play for Years 11 and 12, this might be worth considering. This could also be an excellent related text for the Area of Study, Discovery, as the whole plot pivots on the realisation or discovery that those scenes between Gerry and his mother are imagined, not real.
by Simmone Howell. Pan Macmillan, 2013. ISBN 9780330426176. 294 pp.
This is a confidently written, very contemporary thriller. The protagonist, Sky, is anything but confident: she is the 'girl defective' in a seriously unconventional family. Her mother has left them some years previously to follow her career as an offbeat artist in Japan; her father lives in a world of his own, making a precarious living selling old vinyl records; and her little brother, Gully, has serious emotional problems. Sky herself feels inadequate and immature, especially when she's in the company of her friend, Nancy. Nancy, who is four years older than Sky, is worldly and world-weary, making Sky feel very naive and inexperienced. The novel is at heart a sympathetic coming-of-age novel as Sky struggles to come to understand herself, her family, the boy Luke she falls in love with, and the world around her.
While the plot is intriguing, it is the characters who make this novel so powerful. Howell is especially convincing in portraying Sky's immediate family. Gully, who is ten but seems younger because of his hang-ups, is the star: he hides from the world behind a pig snout mask that he refuses ever to take off. The reader shares Sky's worry about how vulnerable he is. Dad, who drinks too much and is generally pretty hopeless, begins a bumbling but rather sweet relationship with one of the local cops, a woman from his past. Sky comes to share Luke's obsession with finding out what happened to his sister, Mia, who has been found dead in the canal.
The setting of the novel is Melbourne's St Kilda, and it is the gritty side - the homelessness, the prostitutes, the drug trade - behind the tourist glamour that Howell focuses on. Sky lives in an area where it is unsafe to walk home alone at night. Teenage parties are broken up by police. Girls like Mia and Nancy get caught up in the apparent glamour of the pop music seem, and some of them end up dead.
Howell writes beautifully, with great economy:
She put on her mirrored shades even though it was night. For a moment I saw myself reflected. I looked like a small, dark thing. Like a possum or a raisin. I'd never been kissed, never had a boyfriend. I didn't even know any guys other than Dad and Gully. Before Nancy I never smoked or drank, what I knew about sex you could ice on a cupcake.
With the lights soft and everyone's faces all shiny happy I felt flooded with warmth - it was like we'd been infected with a buzzing, shaggy, loveliness that I guess meant the best kind of family.
The Scenic Railway would have qualified as an old St Kildan. It had been around since 1911. Its white wood lattice lassoed the park and made all the other rides with their Day-Glo and bad murals look crass and eighties. From the highest point I could see St Kilda's up-down streets, her patches of green, her apartment blocks like computer monitors stacked on top of each other.
Recommendation: I can't say that I enjoyed this novel, but I admired it. I wouldn't use it as a class set, but I would certainly recommend it to girls in Years 7-9.
The Girl from Snowy River
by Jackie French. Angus & Robertson, 2012. ISBN 9780732293109. 343 pp.
The time is 1916-1919 and the setting is a rocky farm on the high slopes of the Snowy Mountains. Flinty sees her brothers and neighbours go off to war. Some, such as Flinty's brother Jeff, never return; others, such as older brother Andy and the boy she loves, Sandy, have changed markedly and refuse to talk of their experiences overseas. Flinty's mother dies of a heart attack when she hears of her son's death and her father succumbs to the influenza that swept the world post-war. Rather than staying to look after the family when he gets out of the army, older brother Andy has gone a-drovin' in Queensland. So Flinty, at seventeen, looks after younger siblings, Joey and Kirsty, and tries to eke a living out of trapping rabbits.
French brings together a wide variety of different elements to tell Flinty's story: stories of the soldiers of World War I and of the traumas they brought back with them; stories of the nurses on the battlefields; the very different experiences of Australia's Vietnam troops; Banjo Paterson's ballads, including the legend of Clancy of the Overflow and of a wild ride to round up mountain brumbies; the struggles of small farmers in a bleak environment; French's own personal experience of crippling back injury. Part of me believes that it shouldn't work, but French is a magic storyteller and as usual she engages her readers. The element that is most unlikely is the presence, in 1919, of the ghost of a Vietnam veteran; Nicholas, who has lost both legs in Vietnam and is in a wheelchair, belongs fifty years into the future and - most oddly - is acquainted with the rather formidable old lady Flinty will become. Nicholas (from the future) and the seventeen-year-old Flinty become friends and confidants; she encourages him to try the artificial limbs that might allow him to walk again and he reassures her that, while life will be hard, happy times are ahead. By juxtaposing Nicholas's experience as a Vietnam veteran alongside the experiences of returned soldiers from World War I, French is able to explore ideas about the wastefulness of war.
This is a grand, sweeping story with some nail-biting moments, especially the two terrifying horse rides. It's an excellent historical novel, vividly evoking both time and place, but its strongest appeal is the character of Flinty. Girls will empathise with her courage and resilience and will rejoice in the eventual happy ending when Sandy admits that he has never stopped loving her.
Recommendation: Like so many of French's novels, this could work as a class set - for girls in Years 8 or 9, although it would not be my first preference from the very impressive body of work that French has produced. Make sure to introduce it to your girls; add it to a selection of historical fiction, or love stories, or stories about resilience.
Greek Myths: Stories of Sun, Stone and Sea
by Sally Pomme Clayton and Jane Ray. Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2013 (2012). ISBN9781847804938. 77 pp.
This is a lavishly illustrated collection of some of the best-known Greek myths, including that of Pandora, Perseus and Medusa, and Orpheus and Eurydice. The narration is very accessible and would be great to read aloud. There are brief notes at the end of each story, linking the myth to the modern world: the Temple of Delhi is still there; you can walk through the Lion Gate at Mycenae, just as Agamemnon did; Mount Chimera in Southern Turkey still burns. There is also an appendix with a useful list of Greek gods and goddesses.
Recommendation: This is an excellent addition to your collection of traditional stories. In paperback, it could be worth considering as a class set purchase, allowing a unit of work specifically on Greek mythology.
Hate is Such a Strong Word
by Sarah Ayoub. HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. ISBN 9780732296841. 246 pp.
Sophie is in Year 12 in a school in Sydney's Bankstown where nearly all the students are Lebanese. She is uncomfortable at the prejudice being shown to a new student, Shehadie, because he has an Australian father and is not considered to properly belong. She is also stressed by what she sees as the restrictive demands of her parents on her social life. She is aware that her parents are clinging to the ways of the village that they left behind in the 1970s, and she knows that in modern Lebanon cultural practices have changed, but she cannot get her father in particular to see reason.
Every chapter begins with 'I hate ...' The constant litany is that she is an outsider, partly because of her parents' restrictions but also because of who she is. Her fellow students, for example, think that she's strange because she has decided to research the experience of asylum seekers for one of her school subjects. A lot of the 'hating' is about the trivia of teenage girls' existence, but the larger questions about stereotyping and discrimination are there as well.
This is a well-intentioned book that makes a contribution to the small group of young adult novels that reflect our multicultural society. Ayoub has chosen to make Sophie a Lebanese Christian, and the Lebanese-dominated school she attends is a Catholic one. Sophie's own values (despite railing against her parents' old-fashioned views) are conservative: she intends, for example, to remain a virgin until she marries. The novel is in many ways a celebration of the success of Australian migration and of the contribution of Lebanese migrants to Australian society.
The novel ends on a very positive note: 'Hate is such a strong word ... But I LOVE the fact that I'm going to find myself, so that someday I'll stop using it.'
Recommendation: This is a good coming-of-age story for girls in Years 7 and 8.
The Incredible Here and Now
by Felicity Castagna. Giramondo Publishing Company, 2013. 187 pp.
This is first-person colloquial narrative in the voice of fifteen-year-old Michael from Parramatta. In very short chapters that are more like vignettes, it tells Michael's story during the most difficult summer of his life, the summer his older brother Dom, whom he hero-worships, kills himself driving recklessly. Dom's death devastates his family and Michael is left bewildered and directionless.
While this is clearly about the effects of loss and about coping with grief, it is also specifically about growing up in Sydney's multicultural western suburbs. It begins by suggesting that 'West' is something despised by some other Sydneysiders and sets out, I think, to prove that 'West' is full of real human beings. I had some problems with this. I feel in some ways it confirms the stereotypes about the western suburbs, but others disagree. This has been shortlisted for the CBCA Older Readers' Awards for 2014.
Recommendation: While it would not be my choice, this is something that should be looked at if you are teaching in the western suburbs.
by Fabio Geda, translated from Italian by Howard Curtis. David Fickling Books, 2012 (2011). ISBN 9781849920988. 224 pp.
Translated from Italian, this is based on a real-life story. When his village in Afghanistan was taken over by the Taliban, ten-year-old Akbari was taken across the border into Pakistan by his mother and then abandoned. She had to return to look after the rest of the family but felt that, by smuggling her son into Pakistan, she was giving him at least a chance at life, whereas she felt that, as a Hazara, he had no possibility of survival in their valley in Afghanistan. Akbari, who eventually gained asylum in Italy, told his story in detail to Italian novelist Fabio Geda. Geda insists that the account he has written should be read as fiction. He has recreated Akbari's experience as truthfully as possible, while acknowledging that no one can remember every detail of a traumatic five-year journey. From time to time, the narrative is interrupted by Geda's voice, questioning Akbari.
Geda tells the story beautifully, beginning with the voice of a ten-year-old child trying to come to terms with the fact that his mother has abandoned him amongst strangers. The boy is remarkably resilient and resourceful but his story is full of heartbreak. At home the boy's Hazara people had been hated by both the Pashtuns and the Taliban. The Pashtuns had forced the boy's father and other Hazaras to drive illegal trucks across the Iranian border; the father had been killed by bandits on such a trip. The boy and the rest of his classmates witnessed the Taliban shoot their teacher, because he had refused to obey a decree to close down the school. At one stage Akbari makes a perilous crossing of the mountains from Iran to Turkey, walking for many days in deep snow and watching many of the group die from hunger and cold. On another occasion he is smuggled in a tray underneath a truck, crammed in with some fifty other asylum seekers, suffocating in the dark. That is one of the most difficult sequences of the story to read. Geda recreates the crush, the stench, the utter darkness, and the panic. The boy was imprisoned under the truck for three whole days.
By the time he is eleven and a half, the boy has managed to get to Iran where he does a man's work on a building site. After four months during which his pay goes to the people smugglers, he is able to save - money that is needed when he is twice repatriated by the police. Herat, the town closest to the Iranian border, 'is full of traffickers waiting for people to be repatriated. You barely have time to get beaten by the police before the traffickers pick you up and take you back.' He has three years in Iran but tires of living in constant fear - not of repatriation but of being incarcerated in the infamous detention centres. It is for that reason that he eventually risks the terrible crossing into Turkey.
Illegal work was plentiful in Iran but it is hard to find in Turkey and the boy joins three other Afghan boys in a nightmarish sea trip to Greece. The boat that the people smugglers supply them with is a dinghy - an inflatable dinghy. They have no navigation equipment. None of the boys has any sailing experience; none of them can swim. Their voyage is another frightening sequence.
Akbari was fortunate to arrive in Greece just as the Greek government was desperately trying to finish the venues for the Olympics. Illegal workers were in great demand and it was possible to make some money. Eventually he smuggles himself into Italy in a container in the hold of a ship.
The novel is quite short, told in brief, understated episodes. It's easy to forget as the journey precedes that the boy is still just thirteen, fourteen or fifteen years old, facing on his own the most terrifying ordeals.
Recommendation: This is an important exploration of the reality of life for asylum seekers. It is an accessible read, appropriate for students in Years 7 and 8, but it also has that timeless quality that means that adults will read it too. It could be used at any level in secondary school, either for whole class sharing or as one of a group of books about the asylum seeker experience.
I Was Only Nineteen
Words by John Schumann, pictures by Craig Smith. Allen & Unwin, 2014. ISBN 9781743317235. 32 pp. Hardcover.
This picture book begs for a place in the classroom. Schumann has drawn on the words of the famous Williamson song to tell the story of a young Australian who was sent to Vietnam. Craig Smith's illustrations do more than just illustrate the story. It is from the end papers that we get the context: at the front of the book, we see a child and an old man looking at photographs; at the end of the book, they are marching together in what seems to be an Anzac Day march. Their story continues to be told by the pictures throughout the book: as the old man asks the doctor about his health on the right-hand page, we see the boy waiting for his grandfather in the doctor's waiting room on the left-hand page. Other illustrations are of the grandfather's memories of his time in Vietnam.
There is an epilogue, which is a letter from John Williamson, explaining the significance of the song and how it came to be written.
Recommendation: This is a great way to introduce the history of the Vietnam War to students. The book will work with any class, from Year 7 to 10. It would be a great related text to use with the film, The Sapphires.
Jamie Reign: Last Spirit Warrior
by P. J. Tierney. Angus & Robertson, 2013. ISBN 9780732295196. 385 pp.
This rollicking adventure for readers in Years 5 - 8 is set in Hong Kong's New Territories. The setting
Jamie is a huge fan of the legendary kung fu expert, Master Wu, but has always assumed that he is not Chinese enough to ever participate in the ancient rituals of the Way. Jamie's world is turned upside down by the arrival of Mr Fan, an old man with surprising powers. To Jamie's astonishment, the last spirit warrior whom Mr Fan seeks - and who is needed to save the world - could just possibly be Jamie himself.
Jamie's adventure takes place in the company of an engaging cast of characters - the indomitable Wing, who is even worse at kung fu than Jamie, the mysterious and highly skilled Jade, and the obscenely wealthy Lucy. The presence of such strong female characters ensures that the book is as appealing to girls as boys. For girls, there's an extra bonus in the discovery of Jamie's mother's extraordinary story as a warrior.
There is plenty of action and the novel moves swiftly, against the well-realised setting of the fishing village and the dangerous waters around it. Some of the most exciting sequences occur on the remote island of Chia Wu that is the site of Mr Wu's warrior school. Jamie at first seems an unlikely hero, but, as the reader becomes better acquainted with his courage, his selflessness and resilience, we cheer him on.
The fantasy elements, including the spirit powers that Jamie discovers, are blended seamlessly with the realistic details of the setting.
Two sequels are on the way: Jamie Reign: The Hidden Dragon and Jamie Reign: The Lost Soul.
Recommendation: This is a great addition to a Year 7 - 8 action adventure or fantasy box of wide reading titles. It would work well too as one of a selection of action adventure titles with Asian settings, alongside titles such as The Young Samurai series by Chris Bradford, A Ghost in My Suitcase and The Hidden Monastery by Gabrielle Wang, the Moonshadow series by Simon Higgins, Tales of the Otori trilogy by Lian Hearn, Eon and Eona by Alison Goodman, Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society and Chinese Cinderella: The Mystery of the Song Dynasty Painting by Adeline Yen Mah, the Vermonia series by Yo-Yo and the Dragonkeeper series by Carole Wilkinson.
by Mark Greenwood and Terry Denton. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN 9781742375700. 48 pp. Hardcover.
This picture book is a great retelling of the story of Aboriginal warrior Jandamarra. Greenwood's very accessible text emphasises the intelligence and resourcefulness of the young man torn between conflicting loyalties. After being chained and imprisoned, Jandamarra decides to fight for his people. His unmatched knowledge of the area and his skills enable him to continually evade pursuit. Eventually, badly wounded, he is shot by an Aboriginal tracker, who cries as he takes aim.
Greenwood's text is beautifully supported by Denton's watercolours. The focus here is on the magnificent Kimberley landscapes. Denton's paintings are presented in various ways. They range from a dramatic two-page spread of cattle being driven along the Lennard River into the huge, rocky ranges to comic-strip style frames, one group of three showing Jandamarra, standing on the edge of a cliff, shooting the hat off a startled trooper below. The variety works very well. The paintings are not just illustrations: they reward close reading.
Recommendation: This is aimed at an upper primary-junior secondary audience but you could use it with any year. It's a worthwhile addition to the resources available for the Indigenous cross-curriculum priority.
Joyous and Moonbeam
by Richard Yaxley. Omnibus Books, 2013. ISBN 9781862919877. 170 pp.
This short novel for young adults is an engaging read. The story is told mainly through the voices of the two characters, Joyous and Moonbeam, interspersed with a series of letters to Joyous written by his Mamma. Joyous tells his story to an unknown 'mister'; it is only right at the end of the novel that we guess, not the specific identity, but the likely profession of the man questioning Joyous. Joyous, a big man aged thirty-three, works in a sheltered workshop. I was a little unsure of his unconventional use of language at first: 'doopy-do', 'truesome, 'a swish-wash of beer and stinks', 'honkingly', 'kookity'. But the language is wonderfully expressive and flawlessly maintained by Yaxley, so that it becomes inseparable from the character. Joyous is visited in the workshop by an unhappy teenage girl, Ashleigh, whom he names Moonbeam. Moonbeam's family is falling apart after the birth of a stillborn baby and she is acting out her sadness by lashing out at home and at school. Moonbeam is recording her story, on the advice of the school principal who is about the only adult she still respects. Her voice is very, very different from that of Joyous and completely authentic. As well as their two voices and the letters from Mamma, there are some scenes between Joyous and Moonbeam that are told entirely in dialogue. There are no speech marks, no 'he said' or 'she said', but the voices are so distinctive that there is never any confusion.
Yaxley skilfully reveals the stories of each of the characters. Joyous's story is dark: he has been brutally bullied at school, abused physically and mentally by his thuggish stepfather, wrongly accused of theft in the shop where he loved to work, confined to pointless craft work in the sheltered workshop. But Joyous lives up to his name. His whole life is infused with love for his Mamma and dedication to the philosophy of the father he never knew: 'All life is joyous. The good bits are naturally joyous but even the bad bits can be too. You just have to work them around a little.'
Mamma's letters reveal a number of secrets: Joyous's story is not quite as he believes it to be. But his philosophy triumphs over all.
This is a book that lifts the spirits, despite the brutishness of stepfather Sammy-K and the cruelty of school bullies like Matthew Berrings. The style - especially the sections in Joyous's idiosyncratic voice - might seem strange to readers at first, but they will enjoy exploring Yaxley's success in using distinctive voices to create his characters. The book is short, with many short chapters, and it moves at a fast pace. I've seen reviews from some young readers who are disappointed with the ending - perhaps because they missed some vital clues. The book demonstrates very well the importance of close and attentive reading.
Recommendation: This could be an interesting choice for class set use in Years 7 or 8, or even with a less academic Year 9 class.
by Sean Williams. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN 9781743315866. 396 pp.
This is Book 1 in the intended trilogy, Twinmaker. It will be followed by Crash and Fall.
This is a complex science-fiction thriller that has been much praised by sci-fi fans. It is set in a post-
Clair's best friend, Libby, is seduced by a promise that she can use d-mat to achieve Improvement - to change her body so that she will be perfect. Clair becomes concerned that Libby has suffered serious personality change, and she sets out to investigate what is going on.
Clair's quest takes her to all kinds of locations and into great danger. In the company of Jesse, regarded as a freak at school because he and his father will have nothing to do with modern technology, she survives bomb explosions, gun fights and endless chases. Her only guide is the mysterious voice of Q, who speaks to her through her personal communicator and provides her with information that saves her life on many occasions.
The novel has a cliffhanger ending that will ensure readers will want to read the next volume.
Recommendation: This is well-written and well-executed and no doubt deserves the huge amount of praise that has been lavished on it by sci-fi fans. I personally found it difficult to read.
Light Horse Boy
by Dianne Wolfer, illustrated by Brian Simmonds. Fremantle Press, 2013. ISBN 9781922089137. 119 pp. Hardcover.
This is a handsome hardcover volume, a companion volume to the previously published Lighthouse Girl. It's a fictional story, firmly based in research, of a young man from the country who joins the Light Horse Regiment at the beginning of World War I and sails off to war. His ship picks up German survivors from the Emden; he discovers that the Emden's captain shares his rapport with horses and confesses, in a letter to his sister, to feeling uneasy about his perception that the 'enemy' is not all that different from friends and family back home.
Jim serves at Gallipolli, where he sees his best friend Charlie blown to bits, and then on various battlefields in the Middle East, in both the medical corps and the veterinary corps. He is severely wounded in Palestine and returns to Australia believing that he will probably be blind for life.
The story is told mostly in letters between Jim and his sister Alice, supported by other documents, and interspersed with some short passages of conventional historical narrative. The text is enhanced by the dramatic black and white sketches and by many photographs from World War I.
Recommendation: This will work as a class set text in Years 7-9. It could be used as a companion text to Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, as both are well-researched fictional accounts of the part played by horses in World War I, or it could be used alongside Lighthouse Girl. Lighthouse Girl uses the same narrative technique of telling the story through a range of different kinds of text, both written and visual. There are a number of direct connections between the two books, including the fact that it is Fay's lighthouse on Breaksea Island off Albany that is the first thing that Jim sees when he tentatively removes the bandages from his eyes. Both are beautifully told, exciting and often moving stories of the experiences of Australian young people in World War I.
Midnight: The story of a light horse
by Mark Greenwood and Frané Lessac. Walker Books, 2014. ISBN 9781921977718. Hardcover.
This is based on the true story of Guy Haydon from the Hunter Valley who joined the 12th Light Horse Regiment, taking with him the horse, Midnight, that he had raised and trained from birth. It tells the story of their trip to war, their separation when Guy spent four months at Gallipoli, and then their reunion, serving in the desert. Guy and Midnight were among the eight hundred men and soldiers who stormed the ancient town of Beersheba, held by three thousand Turks. Guy was wounded but survived but Midnight was killed in the attack.
The story is told in bold and fairly simple paintings that represent the vivid colours of the desert. Mark Greenwood's text is spare, with a lot of use of short powerful sentences: 'Guy braces for the bullet', 'Hours quiver by' and 'Shrapnel kicks up dust'. There is also frequent use of evocative incomplete sentences such as: 'A jostle of horses and buckling straps' and 'Weeks in the saddle'. The refrain - 'Coal black. Star ablaze. Moonlight in her eyes.' - occurs at the beginning, at Midnight's birth, and is then repeated at the end of the book as she dies.
Recommendation: This would be a great support to a unit of work based on Michael Morpurgo's novel, War Horse. It could be used at any level.
A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness. Walker Books, 2012 (2011). ISBN 9781406339345. 240 pp.
This is very special – a book that will haunt you. Thirteen-year-old Conor is suffering a recurrent and terrifying nightmare, triggered by the fact – that he is attempting to deny – that his mother is dying. So when, just after midnight, Conor hears his name being called and finds that the yew tree from the graveyard on the hill has transformed into a huge and threatening monster at his bedroom window, Conor isn’t even frightened: this real-life monster is much easier to deal with than his nightmare. The monster is and does everything monsters are meant to do, roaring and threatening to eat Conor alive with its ‘raggedy teeth’, shattering glass and wood and brick, but Conor can cope with it. The dialogue between Conor and the monster is a joy. Over a series of nights, the monster tells Conor stories – stories that finally enable him to accept that his mother will die.
In this hardcover edition Ness’s beautifully written text is complemented by the evocative and scary black and white drawings. The story is totally absorbing and achingly sad, while at the same time providing that glow of satisfaction that a reader experiences when a story is perfectly told.
The origin of this book is equally sad. It was begun by Irish writer Siobhan Dowd, who died of cancer in her early forties. The publisher asked Patrick Ness, author of the brilliant Chaos Walking trilogy, if he could finish it. Ness makes it clear that he did not attempt to write the book that Dowd might have written; instead he used the ideas she had been developing to inspire his own story, which he dedicates to Siobhan.
Recommendation: I would love to read this aloud, over several lessons, to a class. Years 7 and 8 are the intended audience, although I think most classes would be mesmerised. It’s a great horror story. Kids love horror stories but really good horror is hard to find. But it’s also a powerful exploration of the pain of dealing with the death of a loved one. Make sure to leave time for some attention to the detail of Ness’s writing and his genius for finding the right word. The morning after that first encounter with the monster, Conor is getting his own breakfast, relieved that he doesn’t have to eat his mother’s health-food-shop cereal and bread: ‘It tasted as unhappy as it looked.’ This will become a classic.
Murder at Mykenai
by Catherine Mayo. Walker Books, 2013. ISBN 9781922077943. 389 pp.
This is a lively and entertaining story about the friendship between teenage boys, Odysseus from Ithaka and Menelaos from Greece. Set a decade before the beginning of the Trojan War, it's a fast-moving account of weapons training, wrestling, chariot racing and general teenage-boy risk-taking, against a dangerous political background that includes the assassination of Menelaos's father. Odysseus is a particularly appealing character, bright and mischievous, with that self-confidence that comes from knowing that you are loved and supported by your family: his parents, Laertes and Antikleia, are positive, forward-looking characters. Menelaos's life has been much less fortunate: well into adolescence he has been confined to the women's quarters because of tragic family secrets. He is forced to flee Mykenai when his father is assassinated and ends up in the brutal care of a tutor, Palamedes, who both rapes and flogs him. Menelaos survives largely because of the loyalty and persistence of his friend, Odysseus.
This is a terrific action novel from a first-time author from New Zealand. There are some very funny scenes, including the opening sequence when a runaway and very angry ostrich disrupts a ceremonial procession, but there are also some dark moments. Odysseus and Menelaos find themselves in a violent and treacherous world. Menelaos is so despairing of his humiliation by Palamedes that he deliberately puts himself in the way of a spear when hunting with Odysseus.
Recommendation: Most students in Years 7 and 8 study Ancient Greece and it's surprisingly hard to find good fiction that helps students to visualise the world they are learning about in their history classes. You could use Murder at Mykenai as a class novel, especially with a class of boys, in Year 8 while they are studying Ancient Greece. Be warned, however, that the rape and violence might be disturbing to some readers. It would be fun to explore the way the author combines knowledge about Ancient Greek life in the bronze age with Greek mythology. It would also be fun to explore connections with Homer's telling of the Trojan War. I especially enjoyed the young Menelaos's infatuation with the beautiful young Helen.
by John Heffernan. Allen & Unwin, 2014. ISBN 9781743312483. 197 pp.
This has been published as part of an excellent new series, 'Through My Eyes', stories about children living in conflict zones. Heffernan has written an engaging story about a resourceful and courageous teenage boy living close by Bagram Airfield, the huge American airforce base in Afghanistan. Naveed is the sole supporter of his widowed mother and his irrepressible younger sister, Anoosheh, who - like so many others in countries that have been battlefields - has lost both her legs after stepping on a landmine. Naveed makes an uncertain living finding work wherever he can - making deliveries and stacking the shelves for shopkeeper, Mr Waleed; helping with the lunch time orders at Mr Hadi's chai house; washing cars. When desperate, he scavenges at the tip, but the gangs that control the trade there are dangerous, and he cannot afford a beating that would disable him to the extent that he could not work. The landlord who rents the family their one-room hovel will not wait for the rent, and Naveed's mother and sister are dependent upon him for their next meal.
Naveed occasionally shares the little food he has with a stray dog. She is a big dog, although starving. His kindness to the dog saves his life when she defends him against the gangs. From that moment on, Naveed and Nasera are inseparable.
While the story is told mainly from Naveed's point of view, there are occasional chapters from the point of view of Jake, an Australian serving as a dog handler with the military. It is the dog, Nasera, that Jake first notices; he is looking for Afghans who can become dog handlers and continue the work of detecting explosives after the Australians and the other westerners leave Afghanistan. While Naveed is much younger than the recruits he was wanting, he and Nasera prove to be a formidable team. The opportunity of a real job and a regular income transforms Naveed's life.
This very readable story gives great insight into the lives of ordinary Afghans living in desperate circumstances.
Recommendation: This is a great novel for class study in Years 7 and 8. Students will relate to Naveed and enjoy the story of his dog, Nasera, and Jake's dog, Stingray. There is plenty of action and danger, as well as some hope for the future.
Use this alongside other titles about the lives of Asian children such as Spilled Water by Sally Grindley, about child factory workers in China; Parvana, Parvana’s Journey and Parvana's Promise by Deborah Ellis, about conditions for girls in Afghanistan under the Taliban; Ellis’s companion story, Shauzia, about an Afghan girl refugee in Pakistan; The Best Day of My Life by Deborah Ellis, about a homeless Indian girl suffering from leprosy; Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan, about the plight of young widows in India; Trash by Andy Mulligan, about the lives of children scavenging in the rubbish tips of Manila; The Wild by Matt Whyman, the grim story of two brothers growing up in the poisoned wilderness of Kazakhstan; Mahtab's Story by Deborah Ellis, about a girl and her family forced to flee Afghanistan and Shadow by Michael Morpurgo, about life in Afghanistan.
Never Fall Down
by Patricia McCormick. Harper Collins Publishers, 2013 (2012). ISBN 9780552567350. 224 pp.
This is an intensely disturbing novel, firmly based on a real-life story. It begins with an eleven-year-
Patricia McCormick’s chilling novel is based on the real experiences of Arn Chorn-Pond, who somehow survived when more than two million of his fellow-countrymen were starved or slaughtered. The title is taken from the advice Arn was given - 'never fall down', because, if you do, that will be the end of you.
Arn survives on his wits and through sheer luck. He is protected because he plays the khim in an orchestra performing the new songs for the Khmer Rouge. Often they are forced to play to mask the sounds of killing. Later, he becomes a child soldier, used as a bait to trap the invading Vietnamese. Arn's experiences are vivid: the sounds, the smells and the images stay in the reader's mind long after the book is closed.
Arn Chorn-Pond survived to become a peace activist.
Arn Chorn-Pond and Patricia McCormick discuss the book on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-A_Y1kjJww. There is also an interview with Patricia McCormick at her website http://patriciamccormick.com/never-fall-down/.
Recommendation: Never Fall Down is both powerful and disturbing. Some people will argue that young people should be protected from stories as grim as this; others will insist that it essential to know such history, in the hope that it may not be repeated. McCormick is an extremely talented writer for young people and has managed a delicate balancing act between presenting the truth of Arn's experiences but providing readers as well with some sense of hope about human resilience.
Consider using the book as a class novel with Year 9.
Wide reading links: overcoming adversity - physical, mental, environmental; war stories; children in war; stories with Asian characters or as Asian setting.
New Guinea Moon
by Kate Constable. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN 9781743315033. 288 pp.
The time is December 1974, nine months before Papua New Guinea gained independence. After an argument with her mother, sixteen-year-old Julie finds herself at Port Moresby airport on a visit to her father, Tony, whom she has not seen since she was a toddler. Tony is a pilot based at Mt Hagen.
The novel is about Julie and Tony getting to know each other, but it is also about Julie discovering Papua New Guinea and its people, including the Australian ex-pat community. The ex-pats are divided about independence: many who have lived in the country for years want to stay but others intend to leave, convinced that the locals will be unable to govern successfully. Some ex-pats are patronising and contemptuous of the locals. Constable exposes the ugliness of colonialism. But Julie is fortunate to meet Simon Murphy, who has a Papuan mother and an Australian father, and she becomes very uncomfortable with the colonial attitudes. For a while, she is torn between Simon and her father's boss's son, Ryan, but Ryan's racist arrogance alienates her.
Constable grew up in Papua New Guinea, where her father was a pilot, so she is writing from real knowledge. The setting is vividly recreated.
Recommendation: This is a gentle romance and an engaging coming-of-age novel that will appeal to girls in Years 7 -8 .
by Deborah Ellis. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN 9781743312988. 201 pp.
This is the fourth book in the Parvana series, a sequel to Parvana, Parvana's Journey and Shauzia. It is the most powerful and disturbing book in a series that has been widely used in secondary school classrooms. While Ellis as usual provides readers with an inspirational resolution, the overwhelming impression that this book leaves is of the ongoing devastation in Afghanistan, including the brutality of the American military.
The book opens in an American military prison in Afghanistan, where a teenage girl has been detained as a possible terrorist. Despite intense pressure, the girl refuses to answer any questions. As the reader realises that the girl is indeed Parvana, the story moves to flashback - returning, at intervals, to the interrogation room or Parvana's prison cell. We learn that Parvana's mother had established a school for girls just outside the village near the refugee camp that the family ended up in in Parvana's Journey. Older sister Nooria and Parvana's friend Asif were on the staff. While Parvana's mother had had some success in attracting financial donations for the school, there was constant opposition and threatened violence from some of the village men, who disapproved strongly of education for girls and women.
Ellis exposes the enormous difficulties faced by girls and women in Afghanistan today. She pulls no punches with her representation of the American military: they are not in the business of winning hearts and minds; they are actively and rightly feared. The book is both a condemnation of western interference and a celebration of strong and courageous women. It could be argued that Ellis is positioning her readers quite deliberately to share her views of the situation in Afghanistan today, but personally I think she should be thanked for doing so. This book will make many readers angry and a little less likely to dismiss the sufferings of women in Afghanistan because they are ‘the other’, not like us.
Recommendation: This will work especially well with girls in Years 8-10, although it would be great if you could get boys to read it too. It is certainly powerful enough to consider for whole-class study. While there is additional meaning and poignancy for those who have read the previous books in the Parvana series, it can stand alone.
Past the Shallows
by Favel Parett. Hachette, 2013 (2011). ISBN 978073363049. 320 pp.
This is a compulsive read. It is the story of three brothers, Joe, Miles and Harry, and their difficult relationship with an angry and brutal father. It is set on the remote south coast of Tasmania, where the boys' father makes a precarious living as an abalone fisherman. Perhaps the major character is the sea: a wild, dangerous and threatening sea that is both an exhilarating challenge for the older boys when they are surfing and an indomitable power that takes the lives of fishermen.
The narration is third-person limited. We move between the viewpoint of the enchanting nine-year-old Harry, an innocent narrator, and that of his fourteen-year-old brother Miles, who tries to protect Harry from his father's wrath. At the beginning of the story Miles is reluctantly helping his father on the boat during school holidays but an accident to a crewman means that Miles will have to work full-time in the job he hates so much, alongside his irrational father. While other abalone fishermen make very good livings, Dad is a failure who, in desperation, fishes illegal grounds.
Older brother Joe has had to leave home after Dad broke his arm. Harry is left on his own for many hours a day while Miles and Dad are away at sea. He builds a relationship with a mysterious recluse, whose gentleness and care contrast sharply with his father's neglect and violence.
At the heart of the story is a dreadful secret from the past.
Recommendation: I recommend this highly for class set use in Years 10 or 11. It is beautifully written. The sense of place - including the evocation of the sea - is superb and the characters are well realised. Harry and Miles wring the reader's heart and the tragedy - inevitable in so many ways - is a shock.
This could be well used as a related text for Area of Study, Discovery, as the sudden discovery of the secret from the past is pivotal.
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,
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.
by Oliver Phommavanh. Puffin Books, 2012. ISBN 9780143306511. 193 pp.
This is just as funny as Phommavanh's previous novels, Thai-riffic! and Con-nerd, but its main characters are also quite a lot older - Year 10 students at Fairfield High School, making this a more suitable text for secondary students. It accurately reflects the diverse community of Fairfield. The protagonist, Johnny, is of Laotian background and the love of his life, Josie, is Australian-Cambodian. Johnny's dad acts as MC for weddings and birthdays in the area and there is a delightful picture of the culture of the Fairfield region. Johnny's ambition to be a stand-up comic is helped by his English teacher, who encourages several students to take part in a student competition, culminating in finals at the Sydney Opera House.
This is a warm and positive story with a strong basis in supportive family life.
Recommendation: This is a fairly easy read and would be fun to share with students in Years 7 or 8, especially those from a community such as the one represented here. There is still very little young adult literature reflecting the diversity of Australian society.
by Cassandra Golds. Penguin Books, 2013. ISBN 9780143204275. 189 pp.
The first chapter -'The Dream' - is a prologue: a boy dreaming the same disturbing dream every night, of being a knight desperate to rescue the damsel in distress. In the second chapter the knight and the damsel come face to face and we begin to assume that they are a real boy and girl in a real, harsh world, but they are presented to us in a kind of magical mist.
Although there is a very strong bond between Deirdre and Gal (Galahad, yes, really), Deirdre believes that they have met only twice in their lives: when they were five and then again at twelve. Together at age five they shared an experience that was so traumatic that neither can remember it, although they both believe it is vital that they do remember. Their time together at age twelve was just as unsettling. Deirdre, who had been home-schooled until age twelve, finds school an alienating place, especially as rumours are rife that the grandmother with whom she lives is a witch. Gal rescues Deirdre from a terrifying incident where bullying gets out of hand. That is the last day at school for both of them: Deirdre returns to home schooling and Gal is expelled. She believes, wrongly, that that was the last time she saw him, although she is aware of how strong the bond is.
This is a confident blending of realist fiction with a fantasy world in which an old block of flats becomes a nightmarish magic maze. While on one level Pureheart is a celebration of love, the story is very dark and makes uncomfortable reading at times. At its heart is the character of the Grandmother, who has said:
Justice has to be done. Or revenge. It doesn't matter. It has to happen. It's built into the scheme of things. But the funny thing is ... it usually doesn't happen to the person who deserves it. That's just the way it goes. Little girls cannot pay their fathers back. They don't have the power. But then little girls grow up and get some power of their own. So the revenge happens to someone else, someone they have power over, someone who wasn't even born when it all happened. Someone innocent, like you.
The 'you' refers to both Deirdre and Gal, on whom the Grandmother tries to wreak vengeance. She is a terrifying larger-than-life character who has Deirdre totally in her thrall. Her words are full of poison:
And although you will long for it, you will never have my total love again. Neither will you win the love of anyone else. Some things are unforgivable, Deirdre. This is one of them. You are unforgiven, and love is denied you, for the rest of your life.
Love triumphs in the end, but at terrible cost.
Recommendation: This is a compulsively readable, beautifully written, dark fairytale, drawing on the traditions of Arthurian legend. It will be captivate fantasy readers in the Year 7 - 8 age group.
The Rainbow Troops
by Andrea Hirata, translated by Angie Kilbane. Vintage Australia, 2013 (first published in Indonesian9781742758589. 304 pp.
The title in Indonesian is Laskar Pelangi. The novel was a record-breaking bestseller in Indonesia and has been translated into many languages. Based closely on the author's childhood, it tells the story of a very poor community on the Indonesian island of Belitong, a place where some people at the time were very wealthy as a result of the huge tin-mining operation. The wealthy mining executives live comfortable lives on The Estate, but the daily paid laborers, like the narrator's parents, live a precarious existence. Fishermen, like the parents of the narrator's best friend, Lintang, are even poorer. For such parents, sending their children to school is a huge sacrifice, not just because of the unaffordable school fees but because even the youngest children can be employed for a pittance as coolies or as shop assistants.
Ikal, the narrator, is one of a small group at Muhammadiyah Elementary, a school so poor that the teachers aren't even paid, surviving at a subsistence level on work that they do outside school hours. The school and its students are despised by the privileged, who attend the PN School, a centre of excellence. Ikal's school has trouble even buying chalk, and survival seems unlikely. Against all the odds, the devout old man, Pak Harfan, and the fifteen-year-old girl, Bu Mus, not only keep the school
This is an inspirational story of great charm and occasional sadness. It is also a fascinating insight into a way of life very different from our own.
Recommendation: The Rainbow Troops is written for adults. While it would probably be best as a senior text, it may be suitable for an advanced Year 10 class. Use it as well as a source of related material; many of the most charming scenes are relatively self-contained. The quality of the writing is superb.
A film based on the novel was released in Indonesia in 2008. Laskar Pelangi, directed by Riri Riza, broke all box-office records for Indonesian films. It is rated PG in Australia and is perfectly appropriate for showing to students in Years 7 and 8. The film is available, with English sub-titles, on YouTube. Be warned, however, that it is two hours long and, while delightful, it is not action-packed. Selected scenes may work better - and be just as useful in exposing students to an unfamiliar way of life - than showing the film in its entirety.
by Jackie French. HarperCollins, 2013. ISBN 9780732296179. 272 pp.
This is very different from the many novels about the refugee experience that I have previously read. The backcover blurb does, I think, give some clues that it is different, but I read this in ebook where there is no backcover blurb to consult, so it was a wonderful surprise as the story unfolded. It begins much as I had expected: teenager Faris and his grandmother Jadda are on a small crowded boat on a grey sea under a grey sky. We learn something of their story: the flight of Faris's father from home five years earlier to avoid arrest, their need to move to much poorer accommodation, the warning that they too were about to be arrested, the sale - piece by piece - of family jewellery to buy them the smugglers' help. Like so many others who have come to Australia by boat, Faris experiences a terrible storm that is too much for the fragile boat. Chapter 1 ends with Faris and Jadda being swept overboard by a gigantic wave.
The surprise begins with the opening of Chapter 2. Faris wakes in a soft bed in a beautiful bedroom in a luxurious house. Breakfast, with a smiling Jadda at the top of the table, is a buffet of everything he could dream of. Gradually the reader becomes suspicious that all is not quite as it seems: the pet koala gnawing a chicken leg is a pretty good clue.
French has made the transition seamlessly from the grim realism of the first chapter to a fantasy world - an Australia that Faris had imagined, based mostly on tourist websites. He leaves his fantasy house for his fantasy beach but discovers a different beach altogether:
This wasn't his beach! He had never seen this beach before.
It was a small beach, ending in two jagged cliffs of tumbled black rocks at either end. Six great stones rose like giant's teeth across the small bay, with a few metres of rippled blue water between each of them. Small waves purred a little way up the beach, then slipped back, leaving the shine of water on the sand.
Faris discovers children playing on the beach. Again, there are little clues that this is not what it seems. A boy of about Faris's own age wears 'a strange woollen suit, with short pants and long grey socks'. An older girl wears a head shawl, with bright green pants and a long shirt. An older boy describes Faris as 'a new cove'. Descriptions of clothing and the type of speech characters use usually give us clues to context - time and place, but the clues we pick up here are all contradictory.
French is not just telling us Faris's story. She is telling us the stories of all the children who have come by boat to Australia over the centuries. Even the First Australians came by boat, and they are represented in the character of Mudurra, who fishes with a spear on the beach. French mentions in the novel twenty-five children who have played on the beach, including those from Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and French ships that predated Captain Cook. But she concentrates on a handful: Susannah, who came from Ireland in the 1920s; the little Greek boy Nikki, who arrived in the 1950s; fifteen-year-old Billy, the convict boy who grew up to become an important citizen and the patriarch of a large family; Afghan teenager Jamila, who arrived in the early 1990s; and David, also thirteen, a Jewish boy from Austria. In the fictional biographies French provides at the end of the book, each of these children - like Faris - passes from the real world in which he or she was dying to the fantasy world of the beach and then returns to reality, to live a productive life in modern Australia. Only the First Australian, Mudurra, and the Sudanese girl Juhi who falls in love with him, remain in the past, perhaps 60 000 years ago.
Faris remains the main character. Not only do we have much more detail about his past, before he boarded a boat in Indonesia, than we have about any of the other children, we also learn a great deal more about what happens to him after he arrives in Australia. But French has been careful not to tell us too much: Faris's nationality or religion are never mentioned. He could be from any one of quite a large number of countries. Because the detail is not there, any stereotypes the reader might be inclined to bring to the text are not relevant.
This is an awesome task that French has set herself - to tell the story of all of Australia's peoples - and it works beautifully. The transition between fantasy and realism is completely credible, and the novel becomes a celebration of nationhood.
Recommendation: This is a superb choice as a class novel for Years 7 or 8. It is also an excellent text to tick off both the Asian and Indigenous cross-curricular priorities.
You could use Refuge alongside Gleitzman's Boy Overboard and Girl Underground, Gleeson's Mahtab's Story, Evans' Walk in My Shoes and Hawke's Soraya the Storyteller. All of these are about asylum-seekers coming to Australia, as is the beautiful picture book, Ziba Came in a Boat.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid. Penguin Books, 2008 (2007). ISBN 9780141029542. 209 pp.
This is a superb text for senior study. It is short enough and easy enough to be accessible to less academic streams, but the ideas explored will challenge your most talented students. The whole novel is a dramatic monologue. The speaker is a young Pakistani who has spent a lot of time in the United States where he had great success, first as a student and then as a businessman. But 9/11 changed everything for him. Here he is in a cafe in Lahore, talking to a stranger. Over the course of the afternoon and evening we learn his story, as he tells it to the stranger. We never hear the stranger directly, although we can guess at some of what he says and what he does from the narrator’s comments. The stranger is probably an American, possibly a military type, and he becomes an increasingly sinister figure as the afternoon progresses. Is it a wallet or perhaps a gun that is in his inside coat pocket? What is his purpose there in Lahore? The tension mounts, climaxing in a violent but ambiguous ending.
Recommendation: I have had very positive reports of the success of this in the classroom. It allows for an intelligent exploration of issues raised by the ‘war on terror’: the simple good/evil, black/white dichotomies are questioned. It is mostly being used in Year 11, and in Victoria it is set for study for Year 12, but it is within the capabilities of a good Year 10 class.
This could also be a valuable related text for the Area of Study, Discovery. The whole point of the very skilful use of the dramatic monologue is a gradual reveal - a gradual discovery of who the stranger is and what his presence there in Lahore may be. There is also the use of a moment of sudden discovery and self- discovery as a pivotal plot moment: that shocking recognition when the young man realises, just for a moment, that he is in some ways glad about the 9/11 attack on America.
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
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.
directed by Wayne Blair (2012).
The Sapphires: The Screenplay
by Tony Briggs. Phoenix Education, 2013. ISBN 9781921586712.
Even the best of Australian films have a hard time with the Australian box office, but this lively, upbeat film was enthusiastically embraced by local audiences when it was released in 2012. It is based on the highly successful stage musical that was also written by Tony Briggs, telling the real story of four young Aboriginal women who meet Dave, a feckless Irish musician, who is looking for a new act to revive his career. The girls love music, by which they mean Country and Western; Dave introduces them to Soul Music, so that they can perform in Vietnam for the American Marines.
Part of the appeal of the film are the many musical numbers and the great sense of fun, at times interspersed with real black-and-white television of the war in Vietnam. While the film touches on the futility of the Vietnam War and the reality of racism in Australia in the 1960s, the issues are not pursued in any great depth.
Recommendation: The Sapphires can be used to meet both the Indigenous and the Asian cross-curricular perspectives. The film is usefully rated as PG, making it available at any level, from Years 7-10. The existence of the filmscript is a bonus for class study.
Bran Nue Dae, directed by Rachel Perkins (2009) is also rated PG and would be a useful comparison to The Sapphires. Music, humour and a great sense of vitality are common to both. The picture book I Was Only Nineteen is a worthwile companion text.
by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Christian Birmingham. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2010. ISBN 9780007339600. 288 pp.
This is a moving story about the refugee experience from one of the UK’s best writers for children. Morpurgo was inspired by the story of the Australian sniffer dog that went missing in Afghanistan for 14 months. The dog he writes about was used by the British to detect explosives, but it disappeared after an attack and was presumed to have been killed. The dog turned up months later many hundreds of kilometres away in the caves where Aman, his mother and grandmother are trying to survive.
Aman and his mother make the terrible journey from Afghanistan to try to join relatives in England, including several days locked in the back of a truck with many others without food or water. The story is narrated by 15-year-old Matt, who becomes Aman’s best friend at school and who is horrified when, after six years living in the UK, Aman and his mother are denied refugee status, are arrested and are about to be deported. Matt’s narration is interspersed with Aman’s story, told to Matt’s grandfather in the visiting room at the detention centre.
Recommendation: Morpurgo achieves admirably his purpose of allowing young readers to understand that boys like Aman are just like them, not ‘the other’. This would make a great Year 7 class set. However, you may have to struggle against students’ initial assumption that the book looks a bit young for them. The font is a comfortable size and there are Birmingham’s wonderful illustrations, so that the format seems to be that of a book for younger readers. However, the characters are in their mid-teens and the content is perfect for junior secondary.
This is a great book to use alongside John Heffernan's Naveed.
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
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.
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.
A Taste of Cockroach; Stories from the Wild Side
by Allan Baillie. Penguin Books, 2014 (2005). ISBN 9780143003373. 192 pp.
This terrific collection of Baillie's stories, mostly set in South-East Asia, has just been reprinted. They are all fiction, apart from the introductory story about Baillie's trip as a young man, recently disabled, into the mountains of Nepal and his dilemma when offered by a village elder, as a welcoming courtesy, a drink of water that he knows is highly likely to be quite dodgy. It's a typical humorously self-deprecating Baillie story, recording a typical Baillie moment in which his natural courtesy and kindness cost him.
There is an excellent range of stories in the collection. One of them is a short story version of the picture book Rebel! (see annotation above), set at the time of the generals in Burma. 'The Pencil' is the story of a young girl intercepted by the Taliban on her way to her forbidden school. My favourite, 'Only Ten', has as its protagonist a boy from Lebanon rather than from one of the countries of Asia, but it is telling the universal story of a refugee child viewed with some suspicion by his new Australian classmates. Baillie's decision to tell the story in the first-person plural, so that we are exposed to the group-think about the strange new arrival, is masterly.
Recommendation: This collection is a great resource for Asia and Australia's Engagement with Asia. You will use the stories across Years 7 to 10.
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
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.
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.
This is obviously a play for boys, although girls will enjoy it. However, you can’t turn the three boys’ parts into girls’ parts - this is very much about masculinity, especially Australian masculinity. That doesn't mean, of course, that girls can't play boys.
Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon by Brenton E. McKenna. Magabala Books, 2011. ISBN 9781921248313. 160 pp.
This is a wonderful contribution to the range of Indigenous texts available for use with secondary students. Firstly, and most importantly, it is the work of an Indigenous Australian. Secondly, it is a richly inventive and beautifully presented text that will engage many of our students, including some
This is an action movie with terrific special effects presented in comic-strip format and with authentic Australian voices, including Aboriginal English.
The sequel, Heroes Beginnings (9781922142139) has now been published.
Recommendation: Use this anywhere from Year 7 - 10, especially with those students who love graphic novels.
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
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.
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
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. Use it as the centre of a unit of work that explores the stories of horses in World War I in a variety of forms, including the app listed below, the picture book Midnight: The Story of a Light Horse, the illustrated story Light Horse Boy, and Morris Gleitzman's forthcoming novel Loyal Creatures. There is also a hardcover edition of War Horse illustrated with images from the magnificent stage musical.
War Horse app
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.
The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic
by Allan Wolf. Candlewick Press, 2013 (2011). ISBN 9780763663315. 480 pp.
This superbly researched account of the sinking of the Titanic is told in verse-novel form, using
Despite the fact that we know the ending, this is an absorbing read. The tension builds as the inevitable disaster comes closer, and we don't know in most cases which of the voices we have come to know will survive. The verse is superb, with a skilful use of different verse forms to suit different characters.
There are very detailed notes at the end, providing biographical information about each of the characters.
Recommendation: This is highly recommended for class set use in Years 10 or 11. It will work with most students, because the verse is accessible, but it could be a particularly interesting text to study with potential Extension 1 and 2 students.
by R. J. Palacio. Corgi Children's, 2013 (2012). ISBN 9780552565974. 320 pp.
This is an easy and engaging read. Don't be discouraged by the page count: the font is of a comfortable size and the chapters are short. The story grips the reader from the first. August was born
The novel is narrated in August’s voice - and it is the voice that engages the reader. The fact that August is only ten would normally be a disadvantage for high school readers, but there is nothing childish about this voice. August is bright and cheerful and accepting of his situation. He is also acutely aware of how others react to him and is extremely courageous. As he struggles to make his way in the hostile school environment, the reader cheers him on.
It has been said that books about characters with a disability should first and foremost be great stories that just happen to have a disabled character, rather than stories that focus on the disability. But good books often break the rules. Yes, this is a book that is basically about August's disability, but readers everywhere are responding to it with great enthusiasm. I think the reason for the novel's success is that the real focus is on August's courage and resilience.
Recommendation: This will work very well as a Year 7 class set novel, but check with your primary feeder schools, as it is already being widely read by primary school readers. This has also been published in a format designed for the adult market (Black Swan, ISBN 9780552778626). It could be an interesting choice to use with less able older readers, even in Years 10 or 11.