Book Review: The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

In my last Children and Young Reader’s round up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I challenged people to read and review more picture books. As we’ve been visiting the library more regularly, I thought it was an excellent chance to take up my own challenge.

treasure box

The Treasure Box
Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood

2013, Library copy

This is, quite simply, a beautiful book. Over the last year I have been falling head over heels in love with Freya Blackwood’s artwork, and this book is another example of how she tells stories through pictures. From the endpapers with their fragments of pages, to the beautiful way the use of colour changes through the book, the first thing that strikes you is how attractive this book is.

Then you read the story. At the heart of it, it’s a simple story of displacement. But, with a closer look you see that it’s much more. The library in Peter’s city is bombed and the only book that survives is held by his father. When they need to leave the city, the book is carefully packed up and Peter’s father tells him that it is a treasure, a record of their people. They undertake a long journey to safety, enduring hardship and loss, until eventually Peter needs to leave the treasure in a safe place until he can retrieve it again. It’s a story that explores loss and hope at the same time.

Interestingly, this book has made me think about how we ‘allocate’ picture books to different ages. When I borrowed it from the library, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it as a book Squirm would enjoy. I picked it up because I’d read a wonderful review of it and was interested in it myself. I don’t think you’d see this book on any lists of ‘books for 2 year olds’.

But Squirm loves it. He looks through it on his own, he requests it by name. When we read it he points out familiar things in the illustrations and is just starting to talk about what happens. This afternoon we talked about ‘cupping hands’ and what that looks like (the people in the book cup their hands to catch the fragments of books which fall from the sky). Obviously he doesn’t understand about war or enemies or the history of people being forced to move from their homes. But he understands the part about the book being treasure and about them keeping it safe – he builds his story from that point.

It reminds me of my experiences with reading The Red Tree (by Shaun Tan) with children of different ages. I’d read it with children between the ages of 7 and 12 and noticed that their thoughts and reactions were different depending on their age. They borrowed from what they knew – their schema – to make the book work for them. And no matter what their age, they all enjoyed it and made it meaningful to them.

I think in our need to classify things we can be too quick to move picture books (and other books) into age groups and by doing this we can also be too quick to say ‘no, you shouldn’t read that, it’s too old/young for you’. We forget that comprehension is more fluid than test writers would like to believe, completely built on our own experiences. The reader who is two will have a different experience of a book from the seven year old, the twelve year old, the eighteen year old or the thirty year old. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the chance to experience the book at all.

This thought also applies to older readers who can read novels reading picture books, or competent readers who are reading adult books going back to read Young Adult or children’s novels. Earlier this year I reread some Robin Klein books which I enjoyed as a child. It was amazing how many things I saw in them that I hadn’t seen before, how many themes I now understood better from the benefit of adulthood. I can’t help but think that it’s important to give our children those experiences as well.

I really recommend The Treasure Box to readers of all ages. It’s a beautiful book for talking about language, for talking about books and stories and how stories are important to our history. It’s a beautiful book for talking about war and displacement and keeping promises as much as you are able to. It’s a beautiful book about hope.

Book Review: Lone Wolf by Robert Muchamore

lone wolf

Lone Wolf by Robert Muchamore

This is the fourth book in the second CHERUB series, but the first one not connected to the Aramov clan. Instead this one, which concentrated on drug dealers, served as a bit of a cleanser after the intensity of the first three. It also served as an introduction to James Adams: Mission Controller.

Although I enjoyed the Aramov storyline, I did find it a little dense at times – I would spend a fair bit of time trying to remember which character was which and who was aligned with who. (Part of this was because I wasn’t rereading the books like I might have in the past.) I’m not sure Muchamore’s at his strongest across multiple books, though. In this story our agents are in position to engage with a highly organised drug ring, and a teenaged girl who used to work with her mother and then her aunt in opposition to the ring.

James as a mission controller works for me – he’s younger (I believe) than other ones we’ve seen, but there’s an element of his behaviour which makes me think of Zara or Ewart from the early books. Some of the reminders about his past as a CHERUB agent were a little over-laboured in the writing – even those who haven’t read the first series would be able to pick that up before the last couple of chapters when we’re reminded of it, yet again.

I still don’t feel like Ryan has been completely fleshed out the way characters were in the first series. Maybe because I haven’t reread them as much, but he often just feels like James v.2 – which is kind of boring since a) we’ve read those books and b) James is right there. Ning is a much more fascinating character, but this was a plot heavy book rather than a character development one, so we didn’t see a huge amount of that.

The plot was downright fun. It’s hard not to compare it to Class A, but this felt like it was amped up to a higher level. It feels like Muchamore is happier to hurt his characters now, and they seem to engage in riskier behaviour. There were points where I wondered whether James would get a dressing down for allowing his agents to get into such dangerous situations – there didn’t seem to be the same evaluation of the risk as in the first series.

This is a series I used to recommend to my students a lot – it was a ‘gateway’ series for a lot of students who weren’t really into reading. The characters feel realistic, they fight, swear, drink and get together. The plots are usually tightly written, but there’s not a huge amount of inference required. The action scenes are particularly good – I’d imagine a lot of readers can ‘see’ them when they’re reading. As this later series gets into the life of an adult James and with the riskier behaviour, I’d say it’s definitely better for teenagers and up, while the early books of the first series are better for the younger readers.

Project Based Learning: Beginning a Year of Exploration

Now that Squirm has turned 2, we’re starting to explore the world of project-based homeschooling (PBH). That’s a name which feels really heavy and loaded, especially when it’s used in regards to a 2 years old, but basically it’s about committing time and resources to explore a child’s interest and helping them find ways to investigate, create and share what they know.

At 2, Squirm isn’t ready to develop a full on project like some older children do. At the moment we’re at a pure exploration stage – we’re exploring his interests (things which move), we’re exploring different ways of playing and we’re exploring different mediums of creating.

This has been surprisingly easy to organise – I bought a fabric cube for keeping things together, plus a range of art supplies (as well as ones we already had) and different kinds of paper. The most important thing we got was a journal – just an art journal – which Squirm has fallen in love with.

It was the journal which taught me my first lesson about PBH.

As a teacher, one of the hardest challenges for me was letting go of control. There are definitely times when control is essential in a classroom. But there are also times when it’s ok to let the children take control – and when I did, there were often some amazing results. But it’s easy to fall back into the old habits, and when I presented the journal to Squirm, I had definite ideas about how it was going to ‘work’.

Squirm had his own ideas.

I glued in a photo of him building a tower out of blocks. He loved seeing that in the book and talked about it and drew next to it. But then he saw some pictures of vehicles which I’d printed and cut out for him to play with. And he wanted them in his journal too. And not just on the next page, but the next 6 pages. And he’d like to use the glue stick himself.

And after a bit of panicking (he’s not following ‘the plan’!), I remembered that it was his journal, not mine. That something which he had control over would mean more to him than something which I kept under strict control. So I let go.

So far, Squirm has drawn, added stickers, glued in pictures, asked me to glue in pictures, drawn on the pictures, added colour to old drawings, skipped pages and generally had a brilliant time. I add dates and notes where I can, and participate if he asks me too (mostly with sticking), but it’s his creation. And you can see him trying out different things when he draws – he moved from scribbles, to spirals, to trying to make shapes in a couple of days. He went back and looked at old pages and added to them. He spent time just looking through the journal.

It’s going to be a challenge to curb my teacher-control impulses – but I can definitely see the benefits of doing so. And I think this is going to be a fun year.

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Sporadic Linking: Being Creative

Ok, I admit it. I love blogs which have regular link round ups. I love link round ups. I like it when people point out things I might have missed on the internet. So every now and then, I’m going to put together a bunch of links which I’ve found interesting/thoughtful/cool, possibly with a theme. Probably not on a regular day/time . . .

  • One of my lovely Twitter friends has just launched her blog – Mama Finch. She’s planned a regular series interviewing people about combining parenting and creativity. Her first interview, with Penni Russon, is here
  • I’ve spent a significant amount of time poking around Amy Hood Arts the other day. I found her Art Together page – which offers an ezine as well as links to the blog series – a good place to start.
  • A friend linked to this post  – it inspired me enough to get us out of our sick room/house and in to the fresh air for some art
  • We’ll be doing some (within our state) travelling soon – I want to keep art available for Squirm because he enjoys it so much, so I’m looking at travelling art kits. I enjoyed this one, then I got derailed and fell in love with the art kit and the whole blog post over here.
  • My cousin does some urban sketching and I love seeing her work on Facebook – I was happy to find a blog for Australian Urban Sketchers
  • Finally, here’s the blog of one of my all time favourite Australian children’s illustrators – Freya Blackwood. We borrowed The Runaway Hug from the library recently, which is one of those picture books where the story is told twice – once through the words and again through the illustrations. (I think I need to buy some of her prints too)
From The Runaway Hug, written by Nick Bland and illustrated by Freya Blackwood

From The Runaway Hug, written by Nick Bland and illustrated by Freya Blackwood

Letters to Squirm: Now You Are Two

Dear Squirm,

I missed writing you a letter on your second birthday earlier this month. It’s been another busy one – filled with birthday visits for you (and your grandfather) and unfortunately with illness – we’re only just getting back on track again.

The last six months have been difficult as a family. Your dad has been working overseas for four or five weeks at a time, then coming home for a week. You miss him lots, especially right after he goes, but we talk with him on Skype every morning and try to spend lots of fun times together when he’s at home.

You’re speaking a lot now. You have a pretty big vocabulary and put sentences together regularly. You have a few favourite sayings – ‘whoopsie daisy’ and ‘carry up’ among them. You use your vocabulary to ask for things, but you’ve also learned how to say please and thank you regularly.

Your sleep has changed dramatically during the last 6 months. You now sleep through the night in your own bed and have just started putting yourself to sleep which feels revolutionary. Your naps have also become longer which seems counter-intuitive as you are getting older. You still eat a lot of food, though you have become pickier and I need to be more aware of offering a wide range of foods so you get all your nutritional needs.

You like to go for walks a lot – you love holding my hand or daddy’s hand and heading out somewhere. You also love helping, especially when it comes to cooking. You helped make biscuits the other week and did a wonderful job.

Trains and trucks and cars are still big interests. You love watching Mighty Machines, though you change your favourite episodes regularly (from Firetrucks to Ferries to Roadwork). You also enjoy Thomas and Friends, Pocoyo, Peppa Pig and Postman Pat. You have lots of favourite books, and you also rotate though these. You sometimes ‘read’ along with us and love cuddling in for your bedtime read. You’re starting to sing more – mostly with music but there’s a few songs you sing without accompaniment – Twinkle Twinkle, The Alphabet song (though only ABCD – then the last line!) and Down by the Station. You’re starting to count too and love it when we find things to count.

We had a wonderful day for your birthday, heading to the Rail Workshop Museum at Ipswich. It was a weekday, so the museum was quiet and you had a wonderful time exploring, driving trains, colouring and playing. You began to understand how birthday cakes worked too – and spent a lot of time calling out for them!

You’re a wonderful, energetic, creative, thoughtful boy and we’re loving getting to know your interests and thoughts and preferences. We’re looking forward to watching you grow over the next year.

Love

Mum

2YrsOld 1 2YrsOld 2 2YrsOld 3

Slipping Back Into Blogging

2014 has been kicking my butt.

Mr Pilot has been doing FIFO work overseas this year, and it turns out that all those things that we do in our family are a lot harder when you’re doing them on your own. And when he’s home we do tonnes of family stuff, so I have less time to do things like blogging (and exercising). When I have had blogging time and motivation, I tend to write book reviews or write over at the sewing blog.

But I miss writing. And I have stuff I want to say and don’t feel like I have places to say it. So it’s obviously time to start blogging a bit more. I doubt I’ll be a prolific blogger any time soon, but it’s nice to maintain some space that’s mine and to keep my writing ‘eye’ in. And hopefully there’s still a reader or two around :)

Boys at the Park 23

Book Review: Showtime by Narrelle M Harris (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here. However, after reading Alisa Krasnostein‘s brilliant post at the Australian Women Writers’ blog, I resolved to go back and read some of the Twelve Planets series which I had previously bought, but not yet read. This was the perfect kick back into the Australian Women Writer’s challenge

Showtime by Narrelle M Harris

Showtime by Narrelle M Harris
(2012, Twelfth Planet Press)

Own copy

Vampires, zombies, ghosts. We all know them. We’ve all seen the movies, read the books, developed complex theories about them based on the imagination of one creator (thanks, Joss). So, when I opened Showtime, I knew what I was getting into, of course . . .

Except these aren’t quite the stories we’re expecting. They respectfully nod at the stories we know, and then twist and turn them around and add some Royal show cakes for good measure. We open with Stalemate – the story of Helen and her mother Olivia who are revisiting old arguments and frictions with an energy which is both familiar and urgent. This is followed by Thrall which was probably my favourite out of the four stories. Here we meet the traditional vampire, Dragomir who is finding it harder and harder to thrive in the modern world. I love the part where Dragomir expresses his frustration with the way popular culture has messed with the way people look at him:

“All these ridiculously tall and handsome fictional vampires, with their glowing eyes and their impeccable fashion sense. They gave people unreasonable expectations.”

The third story, The Truth About Brains is a fabulous funny story about siblings and childhood relationships. And zombies. Amy decides to leave her brother Dylan behind while she heads out swimming . . . with some rather terrible consequences. The final story, Showtime, is another vampire story set in a modern day setting. Though, this time, instead of the traditional Europe we expect (as in Thrall), we get Melbourne. At their Royal Show.

On the surface, Showtime is a fairly light hearted romp alongside some of our favourite speculative fiction creatures. Underneath that, though, it is a collection of stories about families – the families we would do anything for and they families we would do anything to escape. The families we create and the families which are thrust upon us. The families we love – and the very same families which drive us around the bend.

The other thing that struck me about Showtime was that you know that there’s something you don’t know about each story. But you’re perfectly happy for the story to play itself out – you’re enjoying the world, the characters, the descriptions – and for the twists to come to you. I actually stopped reading for a few minutes after each story, just so I could enjoy them and let them sink in fully before reading the next one.

I often say that I’m not a ‘speculative fiction reader’. I’m starting to question that now. While I don’t read as much speculative fiction, or in some of the same areas of speculative fiction as my friends, I really do enjoy books like this which take the things I think I know and twist them in a beautifully gleeful fashion. Showtime is a really lovely, highly readable collection of stories, and I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy to enjoy.

Book Review: Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

peeling the onion

Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr
(1997, Holiday House)

Own copy

Peeling the Onion is the story of Anna in the aftermath of a horrific car accident. We first meet Anna in the hospital where no one really seems to know how badly injured she is, and we follow her as she – and the people around her – come to terms with her injuries, their effect on her preferred future and the circumstances of the accident itself.

The title of the book refers to a poem Anna writes and rewrites throughout the story, but it could easily refer to the story itself. As the book progresses, you peel off layer after layer, revealing more of Anna’s life, her feelings about the accident and her resulting injuries and her relationships with the people around her.

This is a really lovely book and one which deserves to be better known than it is. Young people may not go through the horrific event Anna goes through (hopefully), but it would be easy to relate to her changing world and her growing acceptance that things are not going to work out the way she once planned them. I would thoroughly recommend this book to teenaged readers – but also to adult readers. I really hope that its availability in digital form (I bought it on Kindle) means that young people will continue to enjoy it into the future.

Book Review: The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Claire Wright (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here. However, I am taking a short break from them to read some of the books from the Stella Prize Longlist. Read more about that here

forgotten rebels of Eureka

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Claire Wright
(2013, Text Publishing)

Own copy

Even thought the Eureka Stockade is supposed to be one of those events ‘everyone’ learns about at school, I must admit that I learned very little about it during my 12 years of schooling. Maybe it’s a Queensland thing. So, I approached The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka with just a little bit of background knowledge – which turned out to be a great way to appreciate this history.

Claire Wright has compiled a vast and impressive history of the situation around and events leading up to the Eureka Stockade. She (successfully) challenges the long held myth that the gold fields were a ‘place of men’, introducing us instead to the many women and families who lived around the gold fields of Victoria- as diggers, shop keepers, theatre owners and writers.

The social history – often including primary sources written by women – of the time is particularly interesting. For so many this was a time of change, with women taking more freedoms than they’d ever had before – freedom from far away families and social expectations, freedom to make money as shop keepers, freedom to take part in the emerging political atmosphere.

With this background, Wright brings us through the chaotic chain of events leading to the Eureka Stockade, showing us that women were there – not just as wives – but as agitators, financial supporters and spies. At times there feels like the point is laboured a bit (the ovulation speculation feels a little out of place) but it is incredibly clear that Eureka is not the ‘men’s story’ so often repeated – that women were both there and vital to the events.

This history is the culmination of 10 years odd work, and it really is impressive. It is strongest when we follow individual women and their circumstances at the goldfields. At times the author moves from a historical/academic style language to a current affairs tone – which pulled me out of the narrative a bit – but the book as a whole is an amazing piece of work and a valuable edition to Australia’s history.

 

 

Book Review: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

saving-francesca

Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta
(2003, Viking Childrens Press)

Own copy

This was another reread for me. While I don’t have the same fondness for Saving Francesca as Looking for Alibrandi (there’s always something special about the books you love as a teenager) I always find myself engrossed in Francesca – and staying up to all hours to finish it.

Francesca is starting her second term as one of thirty Year eleven girls at a formally all-boys school. That’s hard enough, but on top of that her formerly energetic and passionate mother can’t get out of bed. Suddenly Francesca is tackling adult tasks in order to protect her mother and dealing with the complete change in her family, all while trying to work out who she is and where her place in the world is supposed to be.

There was an eleven year gap between Alibrandi and Francesca, and you can see the growth of the author in both the quality of the writing and the subtleties of the story. Francesca is a sympathetic narrator and it’s easy to like her. Supporting characters are a real strength of Marchetta’s and you can see that here – from the giggly ‘big-boy’ worship of Francesca’s little brother Luca, to the brisk, but sympathetic supervisor at her mother’s university, to the other students and teachers at her new school.

There are still lots of misconceptions and prejudices around mental illness, and we see a lot of them discussed or put forward here. These misconceptions often makes it harder for Francesca to comprehend her mother’s illness – especially when she doesn’t feel like she’s getting the full story and her father – relentlessly positive – keeps reiterating that everything will be fine – even when it’s clearly not.

Unlike Alibrandi, which now has a lot of outdated references, Francesca is pretty low key with just some references to game shows (which no longer exist) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This means you’re very rarely pulled out of the story, and it’s still very readable and relevant now. It would probably make an excellent substitute for schools and teachers who are tired of teaching Alibrandi. It might be a quieter and less applauded book from Marchetta (who went on to write other incredibly popular books after Francesca was published) but I think it’s one worthy of our recognition.