Archive for the ‘Middle Grade Books’ Category

Week-end Book Review: Water Stories from Around the World (Tulika Books)

Sunday, January 29th, 2012


Edited by Radhika Menon and Sandhya Rao, illustrated by Nirupama Sekhar,
Water Stories from Around the World
Tulika, 2010.

Ages 5-11

An international assortment of water stories converge in this beautifully presented anthology, with tales from India, Botswana, Spain, Nigeria, China and Greece, as well as the Australian Aboriginal and Native American traditions, and “The Green Man”, a “story from many myths”.  This was the first one I turned to, since I’ve always been curious about him – and I loved the way the story was narrated wholly as a reported experience within the context of the here and now, making the Green Man relevant to contemporary children as a metaphor for looking after our water, whether or not we believe the story to be true.

Each of the nine storytellers represented here has a very distinctive voice but the one thing they all have in common is that they grip the reader right from the first sentence. And among the stories themselves, there’s something for everyone: magic, retribution, monsters, dragons, giants, deities, misunderstandings, humor, pride… Within so much variety, the only the thing they all have in common is water.  Perhaps my favourite story is “House of Sun and Moon”, where water herself is personified.  Water gathering up “all her children” in her skirts – and that means “oceans, seas, glaciers, rivers, streams, brooks, lakes, ponds and puddles” – plus everything plant and animal that lives in them, is just the kind of image to capture readers’ imaginations. Another story, “A Well is Born”, set in India, brings the book right up to date.  Told in verse, it reveals how the observation of a farmer saves the day for an engineer drilling for water.  Even so, the origins of the ballad go back to a traditional myth from the Ivory Coast.

Helping to bring the stories together as a collection are Niruoama Sekhar’s colourful illustrations.  Her style shifts to allow each story some individuality but certain motifs are carried through the whole book. Water splashes energetically in a pleasing variety of pattern and tone; and in those places where she incorporates the white background of the page, there is a batik-like quality to her painting.

Two double-page spreads at the end add to the educative possibilities of this excellently presented book.  Firstly, a “Water Timeline” from 10,000 BC to the present day, with an information box that asks us to ponder the question “Where have we gone wrong?”, faced as we are “with the threat of a world with less and less water”, and it suggests the relevance of creating a timeline of water for our own neighborhoods.  And secondly, a “Water Facts” spread that centers on India and will be of equal interest to readers both within and outside the country.  This is followed by an immensely readable introduction to all the contributors that connects each of them with their parts of the book. Tulika have also created a website to accompany the book, and it’s well worth a visit.

All in all, this is an excellent anthology that is likely to become a firm favourite in homes and schools alike.

Marjorie Coughlan
January 2012

Books at Bedtime: The Mouse and His Child

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Late 2011 marked the passing of writer, Russell Hoban.  I was familiar with Hoban’s childrens’ books, mostly the Frances ones, but when I read his obituary I discovered he’d written a novel for children called The Mouse and His Child (text, 1967, illustrations by David Small, 2001, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2001.)  Curious about this book, I went to the library and got it out.  The novel is about a wind-up mouse and his child bought from a shop, enjoyed for a few Christmas’ and then abandoned.  It is at the point of the toys’ abandonment that the story really begins — the toys’ must fend for themselves in a rather cruel and forbidding environment outdoors.

The Mouse and His Child  (previously reviewed by Marjorie a few years ago) is one of those novels that operates on several levels at once.  For my daughter, listening to the story as I read it aloud on our long drive westwards for our Christmas holidays, the story was essentially about a toy mouse and his child, trying to reunite with the original ‘family’ of their toy shop days and evading the devious trickery of one particularly villainous rat.  This basic plot kept my daughter engaged in listening even as other tempting devices like the IPad and the portable DVD player vied for her attention.  For my husband and I, the story was so much more.   Irresistibly existential in its peregrinations, unpredictable in its outcome, brilliant in its characterization, The Mouse and His Child was a deeply satisfying read-aloud for us.  It’s one of those books ostensibly for children, but also very much for adults.  It’s a book well worth re-reading perhaps at different stages in a child’s life.  I’d certainly be willing to revisit its pages again.   The book was made into a movie in 1977 but I’d try the novel first before going to its film version.  The Mouse and His Child is a true children’s literature classic and I highly recommend it.


Week-end Book Review: Painting out the Stars by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, illustrated by Michael Foreman

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, illustrated by Michael Foreman,
Painting out the Stars
Walker Books, 2011.

Ages 8-11

Three magical stories make up this beautifully presented middle-grade book: “The Mysterious Traveller”, “Night Sky Dragons”, and “Cloud Tea Monkeys”, from which the collection takes its name. Set in unspecified times and countries, they transport readers to the desert, the steppe and a tea plantation respectively.  What links them is that they all hinge on inter-generational relationships that will resonate with today’s young readers.

“There were five riders but six camels, travelling fast.  Desperately fast.” So opens the first story, “The Mysterious Traveller”.  The sixth camel and his precious cargo, a baby girl with a mysterious necklace, are the only survivors following a sandstorm.  She is found and adopted by Issa, the most respected guide locally, who calls her Mariamma and teaches her all he knows.  The years pass and Issa goes blind, but is still the best guide in the area, with Mariamma’s help.  Their lives could have continued along this path, had not some strangers required a guide to take them safely over the mountains…

In “Night Sky Dragons”, young Yazul would rather make kites with his grandfather than follow the path of travel and trade, business and money that his father advocates.  He is fond of mischief too, and one day his antics cause untold, if unintentional damage.  Yazul despairs that not only will his father never love him, but he’ll never again feel the happiness of flying kites – but when bandits lay siege to their fortified han, Yazul has an idea to save them that could just reconcile both…

In the last of the three stories, a tea-picker falls ill.  Her daughter Tashi understands the grinding wheel of poverty: no work, no money, no medicine.  “The problem went round and round.  It was like a snake with its tail in its mouth and Tashi was frightened by it.” She tries unsuccessfully to pick the tea herself.  Despairing, she seeks out the shady spot where she has always shared her lunch with a large monkey family, little realising that they will now repay her kindness and friendship in the most extraordinary way…

It is perhaps no surprise that “Cloud Tea Monkeys” has previously been published as an acclaimed picture-book (illustrated by Jean Wijngaard), and that there are similar plans for the other two stories.  Michael Foreman’s black and white illustrations accompanying this edition are charming and add atmosphere, deftly conveying the atmosphere of each story, including the underlying humor in “Cloud Tea Monkeys”.  Readers of these great stories will find themselves cheering on the protagonists, while feeling complicit in the storyline by being able to anticipate enough, though not all, of each ending.  While the atmospheric description and details beg to be read aloud, the depth of characterisation and the relationships explored make this just the kind of book that independent readers will want to pick up again and again.

Marjorie Coughlan
December 2011

Week-end Book Review: Drawing from Memory by Allen Say

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

Allen Say,
Drawing from Memory
Scholastic Press, 2011.

Ages 10+

Before even opening Allen Say’s latest book, the play on words of the title, Drawing from Memory, gives the reader a frisson of anticipation, enhanced by the simple cover illustration, a self-portrait of a young Allen Say floating, perhaps, in contemporary consideration of what has now become past. By the time we meet the illustration again in its context of an elated twelve-year-old Say having moved into his own one-room apartment, we are well and truly engrossed. Both before and after that defining moment in Say’s life, drawing is central to his existence. His childhood was not straightforward but Say recounts it with a lightness of touch in both words and pictures that is perfectly attuned to his readership. My favourite is perhaps the juxtaposition of a very small Allen drawing, drawing, drawing. Next along, a small boy walks away from his latest work, as his parents look in anger (father) and horror (mother) at the wall that has been turned into an artist’s canvas. The accompanying text, meanwhile, gives his father’s veto of art as a career for his son. This balance of humor and underlying tensions continues through the book, which ends with Say’s departure for America at the age of fifteen, “ready to start a new life with what I could carry on my back.”

Devotees of Say’s work will find vignettes linking to his previous books: however, the greatest parallels can be drawn with Say’s autobiographical novel The Ink Keeper’s Apprentice, for which Drawing from Memory is an absolutely must-have companion. For here at last is a full portrait of the real Sensei Noro Shinpei, the famous cartoonist to whom Say rather precociously and wholly pivotally apprenticed himself. Included in the narrative are photographs, nuggets of wisdom, and absorbing examples of Shinpei’s work. These include two cartoon characters that were Say and his fellow-apprentice Tokida, getting out of all sorts of scrapes. How wonderful is that! Further background about his later contact with Shinpei, who died in 2002, is given in Say’s moving Afterword.

Throughout the book, Say provides many vivid portraits: as well as his family, Sensei and Tokida, there is his art teacher Miss Goldfish, and her former pupil Orito-san, who taught Say karate as well as drawing from classical sculpture. And through it all is the self-portrait of a young man: his determination to be an artist no matter what, set against a complex family background and the cultural context of post-war Japan.

The story of Say’s childhood is a compelling one. It is fitting that, as an artist, he should tell it through pictures as well as words: and indeed, Say’s skilful combination of illustration and writing renders this account a masterpiece of graphic storytelling.

Marjorie Coughlan
December 2011

Week-end Book Review: A Stranger at Home by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, as told to author Christy Jordan-Fenton; illustrated by Liz Amini-Holms

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, as told to author Christy Jordan-Fenton; illustrated by Liz Amini-Holms,
A Stranger at Home
Annick Press, 2011.

Age 8-12

A Stranger at Home, sequel to the authors’ award-winning 2010 Fatty Legs, is the story of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s return to her Inuit family in northwest Canada after two years in a Catholic boarding school, where she learned English, ate different foods, and became unrecognizable even to her own mother. A collaboration between Margaret and her daughter-in-law, Christy Jordan-Fenton, the book captures the process of re-entry faced by anyone returning from life-changing experiences in another culture. In this book, those challenges are framed in terms of losses to the Inuit community when young people are educated in faraway boarding schools.

Unlike aboriginal Australians, who underwent similar difficulties, Margaret was not forced to leave her home on Banks Island. In fact, her father, who also had a boarding school education, had voiced reservations about her desire to leave home and learn English. He understood better than his wife how hard the transition back home would be for their daughter. Time does its healing for Margaret; she is aided by observing the alienation of another outsider in the village and by her growing compassion for his situation. In the end, she bravely agrees to return to the school to accompany her younger sisters so that she can protect them and ease their adjustment to the wider world.

Liz Amini-Holms has done the story a great service with her evocative paintings of the Inuit people in their traditional clothing and native landscape. Her soft, dark palette and slightly blurry images give an exotic yet emotionally intimate feel to the scenes she illustrates. Margaret’s family photographs add further visual documentation in an appealing presentation. Each is referenced alongside the relevant text by a small icon and a page number that indicates the corresponding full-size image in the back matter. Also included are a map of the Northwest Territories and brief biographies of the authors and illustrator. Where the text uses Inuit words, a colored box at the bottom of the page defines the term.

Young readers will find Margaret’s story both historically informative and heartbreakingly poignant.

Charlotte Richardson
November 2011

Books at Bedtime: The Phantom Tollbooth

Monday, November 14th, 2011

Right now for our bedtime reading, my daughter and I are revisiting an old classic — The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (illustrated by Jules Feiffer), Yearling Books, 1961.   I encountered this novel when I was in grade five;  it was recommended to me by a friend.  I remembered reading it and loving it.  It’s a witty and clever book by halves, and I don’t think I ‘got’ everything in it at the time I read it, but following the adventures of this idle and bored schoolboy protagonist Milo “who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always”  was compelling.   In reading it now with my daughter, I am enjoying the story again with so much more gusto — this time getting, of course, all the many puns and double entendres throughout the book.  My daughter is less enthusiastic.  As she puts it herself, “I like listening to it because it puts me to sleep.”   (Mind you, this fact alone makes it a worthy bedtime read for the parent!)  But while she dozes off, I often continue reading aloud for the sheer pleasure of the story — a pleasure which speaks to the book’s attractive charm and longevity.

The Phantom Tollbooth celebrated the 50th anniversary of its publication this year.   There’s a Youtube video I watched recently of Norton Juster and Jules Pfeiffer talking about the genesis of the book.   A commemorative annotated edition of the book is now available, and a  documentary film, The Phantom Tollbooth Turns 50, is currently being produced, set for release in 2012.   I didn’t discover all this information, until after I’d selected this book for our bedtime reading ritual, so I was quite surprised by the serendipity of my choice and hope that my daughter might remember this book fondly herself when she begins reading to her children in the future.  (If she doesn’t, Grandma certainly will!)

Week-end Book Review: The Garden of Empress Cassia by Gabrielle Wang

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

Gabrielle Wang, author-illustrator,
The Garden of Empress Cassia
Kane Miller, 2011 (first published in Australia, 2002).

Ages 8+

In illustrator Gabrielle Wang‘s debut as a writer for middle-grade girls, she introduces her heroine, Chinese-Australian Mimi, with a distinctly off-putting description: the girl smells bad. Her father, it turns out, runs a Chinese herb shop. Between his concoctions and her mother’s cooking, Mimi’s clothes and body are infused so distinctively that she’s known at school as Stinky Loo.

Not surprisingly, Mimi is ashamed of her parents and her heritage and resentful of their strictness. Wang’s story takes her on a journey of discovery in which she and her parents become reconciled, she stands up for herself with a mean girl who taunts her, and she discovers her true talents as she grows into a more sensitive and fully realized character.

Mimi’s path is through art. A teacher gives her a beautiful box of Empress Cassia pastel crayons with the mysterious caution that they are powerful and she must not let anyone else use them. Taking the sidewalk outside her parents’ shop as her canvas, Mimi draws a miraculous garden that literally pulls people in. After their visits to the magical Garden of Empress Cassia, they return to normal reality with no memory of their trip but with a more appreciative sense of life and a more generous attitude toward others. It’s a healing garden, Mimi discovers.

Mimi’s mother takes advantage of the crowds the garden attracts to open a little tea house for visitors. Dad returns from attending his brother’s last illness and death a kinder, gentler man. A popular boy becomes Mimi’s friend. When the mean girl tricks Mimi and steals the pastels, the garden she draws sweeps her into a dark experience from which Mimi and her friends save her.

All’s well that ends well in this fantasy, but teachers and parents may have objections beyond Wang’s smelly introduction. Throughout the text, adult Chinese are quoted as speaking in pidgin-like English; a few initial quotes or scattered examples could do the job as well, without modeling muddled grammar. Wang‘s illustrated map of Empress Cassia’s garden in the back matter helps readers imagine Mimi’s adventures. While thoughtful readers may wish for better editing, The Garden of Empress Cassia nevertheless offers an exciting tale for young girls from any culture.

Charlotte Richardson
November 2011

Week-end Book Review – J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa

Sunday, October 16th, 2011


Shogo Oketani, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa,
J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965
Stone Bridge Press, 2011.

Ages 9-12

J-Boys describes the life a Japanese boy, Kazuo Nakamoto, living in Tokyo in the mid-1960s.  The book is laid out in chronological segments over a year starting in October.  Kazuo is nine years old and lives with his brother Yasuo and his parents in West Ito, a district in Shinagawa Ward in Tokyo.  Set in an interesting period in Japan’s more recent past, this account of a boy’s life in mid-’60s Japan touches on a wide range of social topics relevant to the time.  For example, the book discusses the issue of migrant labor used to develop the rapidly growing city of Tokyo, the racism against resident Koreans, and pervasive American cultural influences present on TV and in music.

There is nostalgia for this lost world prevalent in Japan at the moment – a period roughly corresponding to the latter part of the Showa era; and J-Boys is really a book that celebrates that Japan from a child’s perspective.  But at the same time as the book is nostalgic, it also explains the culture of the day to an English-reading audience. Alongside the main text are side-boxes explaining cultural items such as the names of foods, or the terms of reference for certain holidays or traditional art forms, which help contextualize Kazuo’s world for the reader.  I found these more or less helpful; with a book like this, it’s always difficult to ascertain what or what not to include as extra information for the reader.  However, using the side-boxes I think was a good device.

J-Boys is a great read that brings a certain slice of Japanese life to life, without making the culture seem like an artifact.  Yes, this is an account of a Japan of the past, but of a recent past that contains many elements of interest to readers, from the once ubiquitous urban phenomenon of the bath house to the gathering spot of Kazuo’s friends in the empty lot.  I appreciated the fact that this book is a translation of a Japanese author, Shogo Oketani, who lived through the period described. Stone Bridge Press and translator Avery Udagawa should be credited for taking on a book like this to give young readers an insightful look into Japanese society from the perspective of a young boy growing up in the ’60s. Alongside the book, one can consult the very helpful J-Boys website for information on the author and on Japan, as well as resources for teachers.

Sally Ito
October 2011

Books at Bedtime: Chee-Lin by James Rumford

Monday, October 10th, 2011

A chee-lin is a Chinese mythological creature, “a horned beast with the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, and the hooves of a horse”. When a giraffe was brought to China from Africa in the 15th century it was considered to be a chee-lin, bringing good fortune. We learn this at the beginning of James Rumford’s beautiful picture-book Chee Lin: A Giraffe’s Journey, alongside a beautiful ink drawing by Shen Du (1357-1434) showing a contemporary portrayal of the chee-lin/giraffe. What follows is Rumford’s interpretation of Tweega the giraffe’s story, from his birth in East Africa, through his incredible journey to China and his long life in the imperial palace gardens, including the visiting artist painting his portrait, to his mysterious disappearance on a summer’s day.

You can read more about the book in Charlotte’s review for PaperTigers- I totally concur with her concluding words: “Chee-lin is superb.”  The book is visually stunning, with bordered paintings in casein on the right hand page and text on the left, set against a rich array of backgrounds reproducing “African baskets and cloth, Persian tiles and India rugs, Chinese brocades, porcelain, and cloisonné.”  At the end, there is a fabulous map showing Tweega’s journey, and an Author’s Note giving more information about Shen Du’s painting and poem, including Rumford’s own calligraphy and translation.

Chee-Lin is also one of those precious picture books written for older children.  It would make a perfect bedtime book for sharing, where children and grown-ups are taking it in turns to read; or if you’re looking for a longer readaloud to last a few days but don’t want to forgo quality illustrations: each double-page is like a chapter with its own heading and separate episode in the story. It’s also just the kind of book that children will then pick up to read again on their own.  That’s what’s just happened in our home!

Another of Rumford’s books, Rain School has recently been selected as one of our 2011 Spirit of PaperTigers book set.  Do also read our wonderful interview, in which you can find out more about Chee-Lin, and find some of the illustrations in our Gallery.

Books at Bedtime: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

My Books at Bedtime read this week probably needs little to no introduction.  The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, 2007) has won the Caldecott Medal and has received wide acclaim for its ground-breaking style of presentation of text mixed with graphic novel style illustration.   I’d been lent the book sometime ago by a teacher friend, and it was only recently that my daughter and I embarked on a reading of it.  The book completely charmed her.  A recalcitrant reader at the best of times, she enjoyed the fact that some of the narrative was entirely pictures, but on the other hand, the story in print was so engaging, she would read aloud the pages with text without her usual grumbling.  (We take turns reading aloud the pages — I read one page, she reads another.)  In fact, I think she crossed a major threshold in her reading ability with this book insofar as she was now actually comprehending what she was reading textually rather than reading aloud to get  the right pronunciation of the words (only!) without fundamentally understanding the content of what she had read.   No doubt having the narrative driven by the cinematic series and sequences of drawings between textual portions helped this process along.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret for those unfamiliar with the book is about an orphaned boy, Hugo, who lives in Paris of the 1930’s in a train station where he fixes the station’s clocks.   Hugo is fascinated by all things mechanical and in particular, is in possession of a notebook containing a curious drawing of an automaton.  One day while attempting to steal a mechanical mouse at the train station toy shop, he is caught by the old man proprietor who makes Hugo surrender his precious notebook to him.  However, the proprietor’s god-daughter Isabelle saves the notebook in exchange for finding out a little more about the mysterious boy hiding and living in the train station.  Thus begins an awkward friendship and relationship between these three characters who have more in common than they know.   The story, as I noted before, is told in a combination of words and pictures, and really is a paean to the days of early cinema.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a wonderful, cross-genre book and I do recommend it highly as an innovative bedtime read for your middle-years child.