Tournament of the Books Update

So the WINNER of the inaugural ToB is...... The Hunger Games. It was a pretty universal choice in the end. And rightly so, it's a page turner, there's a feisty female and a movie in the wings.

The Tournament was a success. I'll never forget the cheers and high-fiving that went on over BOOKS!

The Tournament of the Books

While this is a departure from the stock standard review entry for me, I just needed to get this idea down while it was still fresh in my head.

In the last few weeks of the term, my year eights and I have held a tournament of the books, modified on the Morning News ToB which I avidly followed this year.

So we began with 16 books that the majority of the class had read this year:
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
  • The Declaration
  • The Hunger Games
  • Holes
  • Chinese Cinderella
  • Once
  • Gone
  • Parvana
  • The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas
  • My Sister's Keeper
  • Shopaholic
  • Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging
  • Fallen
  • Twilight
  • Shiver
  • Tomorrow When The War Began
Then pitted book against book for the first round where one student would review the book, and another would judge between the pairings. The reviews went up on the class wiki page. Here is an excerpt from a particularly cute one:

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a war time book set in Germany about a nine year old boy named Bruno. His world is turned upside down when his father a newly promoted Nazi officer moves the family from central Berlin to a far away country house. Bruno misses all his friends and feels lonely every day, until he meets a  "farmer" called Shmuel who wears his striped pyjamas all day every day. Bruno befriends him an the book is all about what they do together from opposite sides of the fence.

I liked this book because it tells you that not all Germans knew what their soldiers were doing and that they weren't all to blame. It is also a bit of a coming of age novel even though Bruno is only nine. It shows him having the maturity of an adult but the common sense and naivite of a child. His sister also grows up a lot more, throwing out her adored dolls to try and land a young soldier. The book made me laugh and cry which makes a really clever book.
So then we had eight winners from round one. As the rounds progressed, there were fewer books that all the class had read, so this made the decision making quite hard. When I revisit this next year, I'll think about the text choices a bit earlier and get more of the class to have read the selections.

To solve this problem, I decided to let the original nominees of the books choose an excerpt to read out loud and let the listeners choose whose book sounded better. This was the most enthralled I have seen this class for a long while. They listened intently and deliberated over their choice. Some of the decisions were really tough; all the top eight were well written and their chosen excerpts were sad, clever, funny and engaging. They sat quietly and listened last period on a Friday! A teaching miracle!

The final four were Once, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging.

For the next stage I got the class into "teams"; Team Harry, Team Katniss and so on. Then I posed some hypothetical questions about their characters such as:
  • How long would your character last in the Australian outback?
  • What is your character's most treasured possession?
  • Is your character afraid of anything? 
  • What is your character's strength?
  • What would your character's axiom or life motto be?
  • Is your character likely to appeal to teenage girls?
  • Does your character have any flaws?
  • If the country was ruled by a King and he was a bad man, what would your character do about it?
  • What is your character's greatest skill?
  • What would your character give as a Christmas present?
And then decided between their answers as to which character deserved a point. This was hilarious! They treated it like a debate, interjecting and making each team elaborate with examples. At one point two girls high fived each other when they thought of a particularly winning answer. So much fun!

The two victorious books are The Hunger Games and Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging. The winner will be voted on today in our regular library lesson. Can't wait!

H00t #45 All I Ever Wanted

When I started reading Vikki Wakefield's All I Ever Wanted, it was just after the Wall Street Journal article about darkness in YA fiction, and the subsequent response to this. I confess I spent most of the first half thinking, well this is a perfect example of a text that would further the 'YA books are too dark' argument. How wrong I was. And what a great lesson in perceptions this book offers.

The book starts with nearly seventeen year old Mim retrieving a package for her mother. The implication is that there are drugs in the package. She desperately wants to escape her (literally) wrong side of the tracks, suburban life, and has created a set of rules that will help her achieve this:

I will finish school.  I will not take drugs. I will not get tattoos. I will not drink alcohol. I will not say ‘fuck’ all the time. I will not have sex. I will not be like everybody else. I will only trust myself. One day I will leave this place and never come back. I will not turn out like my mother.
When Mim's best friend Tahnee breaks one of their agreed pacts, Mim's rules start "clacking over like dominoes" and it seems everything is about to change.

Wakefield writes some excellent minor characters, the neighbours are especially memorable. The Tarrant family with alcoholic Mick, his wife Donna and dog Gargoyle make for much of the menace just outside Mim's front door. In fact the street seems like something out of Underbelly or Animal Kingdom, sides of Australia that are not commonly represented.

In contrast, the love interest, Jordan and his sister Kate  live  seemingly in a different world where there are shade trees and "...the trucks don't forget to pick up the rubbish and their recycle bins aren't raided for cans or bottles. They have fences that keep people out and dogs in. Perfect little lives." However we learn Mim's perception of their lives is incorrect. Their parents don't ever seem to be around or to care when Kate gets a tattoo or that their son is involved with criminals.

So, all in all this coming of age story is a really interesting look at suburban Australia and at ourselves; the judgments that we make and just how wrong we can be.

4 hoots from 5

Happy tales,
Barking Owl

B00k H00t #44 The Golden Day

Ursula Dubosarsky's The Golden Day is beautifully written and the story will haunt you for quite a while.

It opens with a class of eleven small girls being led by their teacher, Miss Renshaw into some gardens for a spontaneous excursion. The book is set in the late sixties, and opens on the day that Ronald Ryan was hanged. The girls and their teacher go to the gardens ostensibly to 'think about death'. Miss Renshaw is clearly a bit of a hippie:
She wore a drooping crimson dress with a geometrical pattern of interlocking squares and triangles in green and purple. Around her neck on a string of leather swung a tear-shaped amber bead that glinted in the sunlight.
They go to the gardens quite often, at least twice a week, so that they can write poetry and listen to Morgan the gardener/ poet/ conscientious objector who Miss Renshaw is interested in. But this excursion is different. Morgan leads them to some caves by the sea and what happens next, (which I am not going to spoil) affects them all.

Charles Blackman's Floating Schoolgirl
The narrative is multi-layered and is rich because of this. Each of the chapters is titled after one of Charles Blackman's "Schoolgirl" series. Dubosarsky writes that this painting, Floating Schoolgirl was one of the inspirations for the novel, but there are also autobiographical, musical and film references and sources of inspiration. Picnic At Hanging Rock is probably the film that I was reminded of the most while reading.

The young narrative voices in the text are engaging, if naive and sometimes a bit frustrating. Cubby and Icara are the two main characters. There are some scenes where I was genuinely frightened for Cubby, so that tells you how engaging and cleverly written they are.

Finally, as a teacher there were moments that made me snicker; at the freedom of the teacher to take the girls wandering through the gardens, to the school's response and the letters sent to parents. In schools, the more things change, the more things stay the same. 

One more thing! The cover is lovely and the inside front and rear covers are fabulous. They are yellowing newspaper articles that provide context for the historical periods. In the front cover there are articles about Ronald Ryan, and in the back cover the drowning of Harold Holt and the sacking of Whitlam. The author's website has some excellent resources for further investigation.

So, definitely get your hands on this clever and haunting novel. Enjoy the mysterious ride.
Five out of five hoots!

Happy tales,
Barking Owl

H0oT #42 Surface Tension

Cassie is more than a little obsessed with Old Lower Grange, the town which was submerged on the day she was born, eight weeks premature. Her parents and two older siblings have memories and tell stories of their old house and the old town, but Cassie feels left out, missing out on history. 

Because of her premature arrival, Cassie's lungs aren't great and she swims laps in the local pool to help them strengthen. But the floating bandaids and other kids doing bombies don't make for peaceful swimming. Her preoccupation with the "Atlantis" nature of Old Lower Grange and disgust for the pool combine to drive her to the lake. There she certainly finds much more than a place to swim in peace.

Meg McKinlay constructs Cassie and the narrative skillfully, drawing together her bravery with the symbolism of the drowned town and submerged secrets. The descriptions of the lake and drowned town are poetic, and quite eerie in places.

I like that there is the potential for romance between Cassie and Liam, a boy whose tragic past is connected to the secret in the lake, but that their friendship is what is concentrated on here.

There are the usual problems in New Lower Grange; as a small town most people know everyone else and their history. There are suggestions of covering up the past in rewriting history to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the town, leaving out the protests about the flooding for example.
There are also some lovely connections in the sub-plots with Cassie's father's art and her sister's job on the local council both having a direct influence on the outcome. McKinlay uses the motif of problems simmering just beneath the surface throughout the text:
"A heavy red glaze could cover a network of tiny hairline fractures that would shatter something utterly if you struck it hard enough in just the right spot.”

Readers who enjoy a bit of mystery and suspense will race through to the satisfying finish, just as I did. Cassie is a gutsy, believable character, you'll find yourself cheering her on.

Four hoots from five.

Happy tales,
Barking Owl


H00t #41 Anastasia (My Royal Story)

This series is all the rage in the school library at the moment, perhaps the relentless media coverage of the royal wedding has something to do with this. But, as I was just reading on a friend's blog we all know that being a princess is not easy. Especially if you are a Romanov and your people are turning against you.

Anastasia is told in diary form. In the beginning the entries are about teasing her sisters, the boring nature of her lessons and food. She is a carefree thirteen year old whose major concerns are the matching outfits she and her sisters wear. Of course this is all about to come crashing down with the start of World War One. 

There are other problems in the royal family which also provide some interest in the first part of the book. The youngest Romanov, the long-awaited heir to the throne Alexei, has hemophilia. Like all boys, he is prone to accidents, but in his case those are dangerous and incredibly painful. Alexei's pain is the author's way of introducing Rasputin, or Father Grigori as he is known to the family. When the boy has an injury which causes him internal or external bleeding, Alexandra the Tsaritsa calls on Rasputin, and Alexei gets better. (For me every time Rasputin is mentioned I had the Boney M song stuck in my head.) His role in the downfall of the dynasty is certainly hinted at in Anastasia's diary; she never trusts him.
In the second half of the book, the mood certainly changes leading up to that fateful night. Anastasia is growing up and she becomes aware that not everyone loves her father as much as she does. As things become worse in Russia, the family stay close and their mood is ever hopeful. This makes the ending all the more poignant for the reader, especially I would imagine for those who don't know the history.

Carolyn Meyer includes some historical notes at the end of the narrative including a family tree and some commentary about the conspiracy theories surrounding Anastasia. 

All in all this is a moving story of the end of the royal family. It could certainly act as a gateway text to other historical novel or learning more about history which can only be good.

Three hoots from five.

Happy tales,
Barking Owl

Book h00t #40 Dash and Lily's Book Of Dares

While I'm waiting for David Levithan's The Lover's Dictionary, I snaffled this from the school library before it was even processed! For me, the e-book will never replace the joy of a brand new book, with perfectly smooth spine.
The book was co-written with Rachel Cohn, like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. They alternate between the points of view of Dash and Lily and apparently emailed each other the chapters as they were done. Clearly they are in synch because it works well. 

In the lead up to Christmas, Lily is looking for adventure and love, even though she doesn't realise it. She is left in the care of her older brother while her parents are in Fiji. Dash is also alone, because he has manipulated his parents into believing that he is spending Christmas with the other one of them when in fact he is looking forward to some solo time in New York. Dash comes across a red Moleskin notebook in The Strand where there are 18 miles of books! Heaven! Inside there are clues and dares that he can choose to follow. Of course, he is the perfect boy for just such a task.

This is a funny and beautifully written book. I loved the references to poetry sprinkled throughout. And I especially loved both characters joy in words. Apart from this, I thought that there were some important ideas about teen relationships. Dash comes to realise that his relationship with his ex was forced and that they're better off as friends. She wisely says:
...when people say right person, wrong time or wrong person, right time it's usually a cop out. They think that fate is playing with them. That we're all just participants in this romance reality show that God gets a kick out of watching. But the universe doesn't know what's right or not right. You do.
 I see this book is being made into a film. Excellent news!

Five hoots from five.

Happy tales,

Barking Owl

Book H00t #39 Triple Ripple

Brigid Lowry has three flavours in her latest book for early teen readers. First, there's the fairytale which forms the backbone of the novel. Glory comes to the castle to work as a maid to Princess Mirabella, but finds her destiny is not as simple as she thinks. Interrupting this narrative are comments made by The Reader and The Writer.

In The Reader section, we meet Nova. She is struggling with friendship problems and some tensions at home. She uses the fairytale book as an escape from her 'real' world. I'm sure this is something most teen readers can identify with.

Then there is The Writer who makes mistakes, struggles with creativity and comes up with sparkly good ideas. I really enjoyed this section with its tension between the pressures to write and the desire to give yourself over to the 'muse' and characters. Having been to a couple of Lowry's creative writing workshops, I could hear her voice clearly.

Younger teenage girls will love this book. Some of them might find the narrative incursions frustrating, others will enjoy the commentary, the overlapping and the decision making that goes into the writing process.

Four hoots out of five.

Until next time, happy tales.

Barking Owl

H00t #38 Fruitloops and Dipsticks

What would you do if you're the new girl at school and the teacher mistakes you for a boy? Would you have the guts to go along with it? Simone is going through quite a transition, so you can understand her reasons for the deception. Her mother has a new partner and she and Simone have moved in with him. She has lost her dog and her grandfather has announced he would prefer to spend his last days living with them. Then of course there are the problems pretending to be a boy!

This is a lovely coming of age story. I particularly enjoyed the Scandinavian names and landscape. It is part of the Gecko Press collections of "Seriously good books from around the world."

Julia Marshall translates Ulf Stark's original text. He has written around 30 books for children and young adults. Also he has won many prizes in Sweden and internationally, including the German Youth Literature Prize, the Astrid Lindgren Award and the August Prize. Books by Ulf Stark have been translated into more than 20 languages and he has twice been nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen prize.

Stark writes Simone's grandfather beautifully. He has some sage advice for her, but also for the reader:

We're all filled with forces we don't know about,' Grandpa said. 'Like the sea, which is full of fish and algae and currents and life and all kinds of strange things. The dipsticks carefully build thin, ugly bridges over these unknown waters. They're afraid of getting wet in case they ruin their shoes. We fruitloops like to crawl around amongst it all. We put ourselves in the path of the currents and let them carry us along. Even though it's risky; and even though the dipsticks may sometimes look at us with fear and loathing.' 'Be careful of the bad winds,' Grandpa whispered in my ear before he hobbled out into the dark and disappeared up the stairs.

 So if you're feeling a bit displaced, or just a bit fruit loopy, see if you can find a copy of Fruitloops and Dipsticks. I can promise you'll enjoy the ride.

Four hoots/ five.

Happy tales,
Barking Owl