Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Dollmaker of Krakow – R. M. Romero

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Penguin Random House

Sep  2017 | 336 Pages | Middle Grade (8-12)

ISBN: 9781406375633
ISBN-10: 1406375632
RRP $24.99

krakow

 There is war.

There is pain.

But there is magic and there is hope.

I’ve read many books both fictional and non-fiction concerning World War II and particularly the horror of the Holocaust but never have I read one that blends historical fiction with fairytale and folklore. Think a mixture of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Hans Christian Andersen and ancient Polish folktales for this unusual and intriguing book.

Basically two narratives run together, sometimes parallel and sometimes interwoven. Karolina is a little wooden seamstress who lives in The Land of Dolls. Her homeland is beautiful and filled with joy, sweetness and all good things. Until that is, the Rats from across the sea invade (perfect allegory!). The filthy contemptuous rats bring every bit of their cruel, mean-spirited and arrogant ways to bear on the inhabitants of The Land of Dolls, terrorising all from the highest to lowest with equal dispassion. Eventually forced to escape her little cottage, Karolina finds refuge in the woods and also a wooden soldier called Fritz, formerly of the Royal Guard. The two make their way to find the gentle warm wind called Dogoda which reputedly can transport toys to the human world.

Karolina fetches up in the shop of the Dollmaker of Krakow, a kindly but troubled man who unknowingly possesses a special magical gift which has brought Karolina to life in the human world, as she was in her own land.  There she and the Dollmaker find solace in each other’s company and after some time also find true friendship with Jozef, a widowed Jewish symphony violinist and his little girl, Rena. When the Nazi rats invade Poland just as they did The Land of Dolls, the cruelty begins and death, destruction and despair envelop beautiful Krakow. By some mystical fate, a young and arrogant SS officer who begins a remorseless campaign of persecution against the four, who now consider themselves family, has a frightening connection with Karolina and the Dollmaker.

The poignancy of this tale tinged with its mystic reality is every bit as heartbreaking as any piece of ‘straight’ historical fiction. With beautiful illustrations reflecting the folkloric nature of the piece and similar borders which define the Land of Dolls narrative this is a work of art in more ways than one.

The fact that it took me only two sittings to consume this at the end of a long and tiring term is a testament to its power to enthral.  This is a powerful debut novel which resonates with the themes of hope, compassion and the strength of the human spirit and love.

 

I would highly recommend it for readers from around 12 years upwards.

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Bill Baillie: The Life and Adventures of a Pet Bilby – Ellis Rowan

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billbaillie

Publisher:   National Library of Australia
Edition:   1st Edition
ISBN:   9780642279200
Publication Date:   01 March 2018

RRP: $24.99

 

Aptly in time for Easter (Bilbies not Bunnies!!) this is a beautiful abridged adaptation of Ellis Rowan’s fictionalised account of the little orphan bilby she raised and kept as a pet. The original was published in 1908 as simply Bill Baillie and included beautiful colour plates of some of Rowan’s wildflower paintings. Her extraordinary travels around Australia and to Papua New Guinea marked her as an unusual woman of her times and her prowess as a painter of wildlife, though she had no formal training was remarkable.

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During an extended stay in tiny Goongarra on the Western Australia goldfields in 1906, wildflower painter Tabitha is given an orphaned bilby, blind and hairless, rescued from its dead mother’s pouch. With painstaking patience she raises the little creature and takes it on many travels with her. With so little known about these tiny animals at the time, Bill Baillie became a fascination for all who came into contact with him, earning him the soubriquet of His Highness Master Bill Baillie. His quirky antics and endearing personality make for engaging reading.

This lovely edition also features some of Rowan’s wildflower plates in colour, comprehensive information about bilbies and advice for wildlife rescue. A glossary is also included to assist young readers in an understanding of language of the period.

A delightful hardback of almost pocketsize, this is just a truly beautiful book which would make a lovely gift as well as a fine addition to a primary collection.

Highly recommended for readers from around 8 years upwards.

Click here for more information about the Easter triplet bilbies and the work of the Save the Bilby Fund.

 

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Libby in the Middle – Gwyneth Rees

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Bloomsbury Australia

Published: 01-01-2018
ISBN: 9781408852774
Imprint: Bloomsbury Children’s Books

RRP $12.99

 

As my Kim would tell you being the middle of three girls is not a piece of cake for much of the time.  Libby is finding this truer than ever. Her older sister Bella, who used to be great company, is now a snarly, rebellious teen completely rapt in her boyfriend (of whom Dad disapproves strongly). Little sister Grace is sweet but too young to be a playmate more of a chore when both Mum and Dad are working.  And to make matters worse, the whole family is moving from the city to a tiny village where Dad grew up. Aunt Thecla has offered to pay the girls’ tuition at the local posh girls’ school and there will be work for both parents, a quieter lifestyle and no unsuitable boyfriend hanging around.

However tree changes don’t always go to plan. First there is the first rental house which is more of a ramshackle disaster than a home. Then there is Bella secretively escaping to make phone calls or something else that remains unexplained. Then there is Aunt Thecla, who actually isn’t as bad as Libby had imagined but is still kind of bossy and single-minded.

Libby has to deal with scornful local girls, a family at odds with each other and a dismaying escalation of secrets each more complicated than the last.

This is a terrific tale for readers from around ten years upwards as it explores many nuances of family life and issues that often confront children such as the disruption of moving house and familiar locations.

Its conclusion proves that family relationships are never just black and white. There are always shifting guidelines, compromises, mistaken judgements and understandings of another’s perspective to be negotiated and worked through.

A highly recommended read for upper primary or lower secondary students.

The Thunderbolt Pony –Stacey Gregg

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Harper Collins Australia

  • ISBN:9780008257019
  • ISBN 10: 0008257019
  • Imprint: HarperCollins – GB

September 2017

RRP $26.99

 

Stacey Gregg’s series of which this is the fifth has been a stellar hit with my ‘horsey girls’. And though I’m not particularly horsey myself (aside from paying for Miss Small’s passion) I have thoroughly enjoyed them as well as each weaves some excellent factual and historical information into the narratives.

In this newest book it is not only the devastating impact of the Christchurch earthquakes which form a dramatic part of the plot but the little-explored incidence of mental illness in children. Although society is becoming more open about such illnesses, rarely I have seen references or certainly novels which take on such concepts.

Evie is 12, her father is gravely ill with cancer and she and her mother are dealing with this trauma as best they can. For Evie, her anxiety over her father has manifested into OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) which is having significant impact on her everyday life. When her tiny town of Parnassus is evacuated due to the severity of earthquakes, Evie refuses to leave without her beloved pony. Her mother has been injured so does not know that Evie has rejected the evacuation plan and has, instead, set out cross country with Gus, her pony, plus Moxy the cat and Jack the dog. Facing many situations which require initiative and daring, Evie’s mental health is tested to its limits.

This is a thrilling adventure for girls and one which will offer them real insight into the acuity that mental pressures/ill-health can impose on children just like themselves.

Highly recommended for readers from around ten years upwards.

 

Teaching Guide here

My Brigidista Year – Katherine Paterson

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brigidista

Penguin Random House

Candlewick  Press

October 2017

RRp $16.99

ISBN 978-0-7636-9508-8

Winner of the Newbery Medal on two occasions, Katherine Paterson is a superb writer for children and now turns her hand to a historical narrative born out of personal interest.

For many outside of America, including me, there is a scant knowledge of Castro’s Cuba. This account of 13 year old Lora Llera echoes the actual actions of many of Cuba’s young people who willingly volunteered to become literacy tutors to the country’s peasant population in remote country areas. Castro’s plan to have the entire country literate within a year of launching of his program seemed impossible and implausible but the selflessness of these many teenagers achieved that remarkable goal.

These youngsters worked alongside their country compatriots during the day often in very primitive conditions and taught them at night. For those as young as Lora leaving their families, relative comfort and security was a huge undertaking but done with open though somewhat naïve attitudes.

While avoiding political comment, Paterson interweaves much history and social commentary on the overthrow of the Batista regime and the rise of Communism in Cuba.

Personally I found it quite fascinating though written quite simply it covers or at least suggests many large-scale concepts and throws new light on a little known historical period.

I would recommend it highly for readers both boys and girls from around ten years upwards.

My Australia – Julie Murphy/Garry Fleming

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myaustralia

National Library of Australia

April 2018

9780642279163

RRP $24.99

Those of us of a certain vintage will have vivid memories of learning off by heart Dorothea MacKellar’s famous poem My Country at school. For many I guess it may have been a trial but for me it was a joy, not least of all because it was my father’s favourite poem.

This beautiful new picture book is, to my mind, a new incarnation of that joy in our amazing country with its incredible diversity of landforms and wildlife. Lyrically realised in the most wonderful use of imagery and figurative language this is pure pleasure to read.

This visual feast of a journey moves from wetlands to forests, mountains to oceans and gardens to bush with a mesmerising flow. As well as the native fauna and flora there are glimpses of other features of our country’s wealth such as cattle, cities and cottage gardens.

To complete the poetic text lavishly illustrated with marvellous resonant images, the book concludes with several pages of factual information about the wealth of our natural habitats. With a Year 2 unit around People & Places coming up next term and my focus on using Australian picture books which illustrate our diverse nation, this will be a perfect addition.

I can highly recommend it to you for the same reason or just for its sheer beauty.  Highly suitable for use with primary children in particular from as young as prep to upper grades, this is a fine addition to your collection.

Barney and the Secret of the French Spies – Jackie French

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Harper Collins Australia

ISBN: 9781460751305

ISBN 10: 1460751302

On Sale: 22/01/2018

List Price: 14.99 AUD

Another gripping episode in the story of Barney and Elsie, providing readers with more insight into the early days of the European colony in Sydney and NSW and I’m so excited that next term I’m using Birrung the Secret Friend with my Year 4s in preparation for their ‘First Contact’ unit. My experience from last year informs me that the children love this as a read-aloud and are intrigued and stirred to discussion and debate on its themes.  I love knowing that those who are ‘ hooked’ will continue to read in the series and now that there are four will be able to satisfy their curiosity on a number of points.

This narrative takes up Barney’s story now that he is grown and becoming a successful farmer and still in love with Elsie. But who is Elsie really? How is it that this girl neither a convict nor daughter of a soldier came to be in the colony?

When Elsie becomes ill with a fever, her delirium reveals her native tongue of French and speculation becomes even more urgent as a war half a world away rages between the British and Napoleon’s France.  The true reason for Elsie not speaking all the previous years since Barney found her starving and cold is out in the open. Will it make any difference to Barney? More urgently will it put Elsie in danger with the authorities?

Once again Jackie French has uncovered history long ignored or forgotten including that of the first female botanist to sail around the world and achieve great things.

As usual the research is impeccable and the writing accessible even for children as young as 7 or 8.  Barney’s story has become special for many readers and I dare to hope this is not the last of history’s secrets Jackie will share with us.

Highly recommended for readers from around Year 3 upwards.

Sweet Adversity – Sheryl Gwyther

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Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd

ISBN: 9781460755105
ISBN-10: 1460755103
RRP : $17.99

 

In her new historical novel Sheryl Gwyther takes  readers on a dramatic, sometimes tense and often poignant adventure to a grim time in Australia’s past – the Great Depression. While the Wall St collapse impacted all around the world, Australia suffered terribly because of a variety of factors; huge loans from England, over-supply of our trade goods and the sponsorship of both returned soldiers and immigrants among them. For many it was a precarious time of minimal survival.

Adversity McAllister, only child of theatrical parents, is among those for whom this was a heart-breaking and dangerous time. Her parents know that their livelihood is in jeopardy as travelling thespians so think their best action for their beloved daughter, along with her clever cockatiel, is to have her in a home where she will be well-cared for and protected. Little do they know that the vile Matron in charge is not only far from the kindly woman she presents to outsiders but a ‘crook’ who skims off the government funding and worse, has an arrangement to sell useful or promising children off as nothing more than indentured slaves to an extremely odious co-conspirator.

Addie is not a docile child by any means (love her Mighty Girl sassy attitude) and when she believes that her parents have perished in a drowning accident in their travels and then Macbeth, her Shakespeare quoting bird, is likely to be killed, she takes action. Escaping the Emu Swamp Children’s Home with Macbeth via a borrowed gypsy caravan Addie first lands with a camp of ‘lost children’ all of whom are fending for themselves.  At least Addie makes one true friend here who proves to be a lifesaver.  But this respite doesn’t last long as the vile Matron and villainous Scrimshaw catch up with her and she is dragged back to the home. Aided by an unlikely ally she and little Jack, whom she has protected during her time at the home, are bundled off to Sydney where Addie is to be sold to a theatre where her acting and singing talents will bolster the failing performances. Addie has discovered the perfidy of Matron Maddock and she is determined not only to extricate herself and Jack from their predicament but to find the pair of them a safe haven.

Depression times Sydney is a dangerous place for many but especially vulnerable children but Adversity demonstrates her intellect and spirit as she contrives a safe escape for herself, Macbeth and little Jack.

This is a tale of courage and resilience set against a backdrop of extraordinarily difficult times and seemingly insurmountable odds. Addie is an impressive hero. Despite her youth and her troubles, she refuses to bow to the immense pressures and evil predation put upon her.

A narrative which explores a seamy side of our history but celebrates the triumph of one young girl, this is a must for your shelves and your avid historical fiction readers.

Highly recommended for readers from around 11 years upwards.

Read the story behind the story here. Thank you Sheryl for sharing this!

 

I am Sasha – Anita Selzer

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Penguin Random House

April 2018

9790143785743

RRP $17.99

Some triumphant recounts of survival against all odds have come out of the horror of the Holocaust. I am always humbled in admiration for those who endured such deprivation, suffering, cruelty and pain with courage and dignity and who rose from the basest of treatment to resume living – raising families, contributing to communities, sharing their accounts, ensuring those lost are not forgotten.

To be a single mother at any time is not easy. To be so and a Polish Jew at the outbreak of World War II must have been terrifying. For Sasha and his mother Larissa the war which creeps up almost imperceptibly is, as it was for so many other Polish Jews, a litany of abuse, hate, starvation and constant fear. Fortunately, these two by divine fate and a few truly good people, both Jew and Gentile, somehow managed to keep one step ahead of the feared aktion raids by Nazis and discovery of their hiding places and identity.

Their most singular salvation however was Larissa’s inspired decision to trade her most valuable piece of jewelry for Arayan papers for a mother and daughter – whereupon her son Sasha became Sala, a teenage girl. Hidden in plain sight thus, Sasha spent three years and half of his teenage years impersonating a girl (obviously because of the Nazis’ practice of telling boys to take down their trousers checking for circumcision).

When the war ends this indomitable mother and son are able to relocate to spend some time in safety and adjusting to a new normality in some of the many European displaced person camps. Finally Sasha is able to resume his own teenage masculine self and joyously meets his future wife Mila and her family in the camp.  Both families immigrate to Australia where Sasha’s adult daughter now writes non-fiction including this account of her grandmother and father based on Larissa’s own hand-written memoirs.

Truly compelling reading with an intensity that will capture readers both male and female, this memoir also includes photographs.

This is a not-to-be-missed book and definitely an addition to your upper primary and secondary shelves.