Meandering through Middle Grade: The Tale of Angelino Brown…

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David Almond is one of those authors that many people categorise as an “auto-read”; that is, such is the strength of his previous work, any new work that is published will be snapped up immediately by his fans.  It’s a bit that way for we shelf-dwellers.  We loved Skelling, A Monster Calls and Heaven Eyes, for instance, but found some of his other books like Clay and The Savage a bit too dark and depressing.  The Tale of Angelino Brown which we received from Walker Books Australia for review, felt like something new from Almond.  The magical realism and quirkiness were all still there, but oozing out of the pages was a sense of hope and a lightness in tone that we hadn’t encountered in Almond’s work before.  Before I say too much more, here’s the blurb from Walker UK:

A warm and witty tale from a master storyteller, author of Carnegie Medal-winning Skellig and internationally bestseller The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas

Bert and Betty Brown have got themselves a little angel. Bert found him in his top pocket when he was driving his bus. Bert and Betty’s friends think he’s lovely. So do Nancy and Jack and Alice from Class 5K. What a wonder! But Acting Head Teacher Mrs Mole is not so sure. Nor is Professor Smellie. Or the mysterious bloke in black who claims to be a School Inspector. Then there’s Basher Malone – big, lumbering Basher Malone. He REALLY doesn’t like Angelino. And it looks like he’s out to get him…

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There’s a real sense of joy that comes flitting through the text and images of this tome, from the opening lines of “Here we go. All aboard”, to the rosy-cheeked, golden-haired, flatulent angel of the cover.  This book felt quite uplifting to read throughout, which is not always the case with Almond’s work, and I couldn’t help but feel that this book would be a hit with both its intended young audience, and older readers who dared to venture into books for young readers.  The tone is generally light and humorous, without ever losing Almond’s signature sense of pathos directed toward certain of the more pitiable characters in the story.

The book opens on Bert Brown’s pondering about the deficiencies of the bus driving trade, when all of a sudden, Bert’s life is turned on its head by the discovery of an angel – a living, breathing, if somewhat flatulent and undersized angel!  The grumpy Bert brings the angel home to his wife Betty and the pair immediately become enamoured of the little creature and name him Angelino.  As the story moves on, Angelino becomes a treasured being among the children at the school at which Betty works as a lunch lady and with each passing connection, Angelino grows larger.  All is not well however, as unscrupulous and just plain unwise forces find out about Angelino and set into motion a plan to kidnap him for reasons nefarious.

This really is a delightful read, with lots of giggles to be had and a real sense of warmth about the quirky characters.  Almond has a way of making even the most odious of personalities at least pitiable, if not likeable, and there is much of that going on here with everyone from Kevin the Master of Disguise, to Mrs Mole the acting Headteacher and the truly monstrous Basher Malone.  Bert and Betty are the epitome of lovable however and felt like the true heart and soul of the book to me.

Themes of friendship, forgiveness and the forging of community can be found at various junctures of the story and Angelino, while never the most loquacious of characters, serves as a central focus around which unconnected characters come together.  The illustrations enhance the reading experience and wrap neatly around sections of text, giving extra life to the imagery generated by the writing.

I thoroughly recommend The Tale of Angelino Brown to current fans of Almond’s work as well as those who have never come across his work before.  I could see this being the perfect read aloud for a lower middle grade classroom, both for its humour and its gentle message of rallying around the vulnerable.

I’m going to submit this one for the Popsugar Reading Challenge, under category #47: a book with an eccentric character, because eccentricities abound in this one.  You can check out my progress toward my reading challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Meandering through Middle Grade: Running On the Roof of the World…

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Today’s book is one that was an unexpected winner for me and highlights once again the plight of those forced from their homes due to political unrest.  We received Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Join 12-year-old Tash and her best friend Sam in a story of adventure, survival and hope, set in the vivid Himalayan landscape of Tibet and India. Filled with friendship, love and courage, this young girl’s thrilling journey to save her parents is an ideal read for children aged 9-12.

There are two words that are banned in Tibet. Two words that can get you locked in prison without a second thought. I watch the soldiers tramping away and call the words after them. ‘Dalai Lama.’

Tash has to follow many rules to survive in Tibet, a country occupied by Chinese soldiers. But when a man sets himself on fire in protest and soldiers seize Tash’s parents, she and her best friend Sam must break the rules. They are determined to escape Tibet – and seek the help of the Dalai Lama himself in India.

And so, with a backpack of Tash’s father’s mysterious papers and two trusty yaks by their side, their extraordinary journey across the mountains begins.

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I was somewhat hesitant going in to this book, simply because stories about child refugees having to flee their homes are by their nature, sad and distressing, and given what’s going on in the world at the moment, I can get a bit hand-shy of books that are too real in that regard.  Thankfully, Butterworth manages the story of Tash and Sam with great control so that while the dangers and sadness are apparent at every step, they aren’t so prominent as to overwhelm the reader.  In fact, Running on the Roof of the World is a remarkably accessible book for young readers who are interested in real life events and what’s going on outside their own bubble, written in a tone that is both moving and dignified.

Tashi’s parents are part of the secret resistance against the Chinese occupation of their village in Tibet.  After seeing a man set himself on fire in protest of the occupation, Tashi is shocked and awakened to the danger that is coming toward her own family.  After a surprise visit from the Chinese police, Tashi and her best friend Sam find themselves in a desperate dash away from the village, carrying a coded message from Tashi’s father and the resistance…a message they don’t know how to read or to whom it should be delivered.

The beauty of the book is in the simplicity and authenticity of the children’s journey.  After leaving their home in abrupt and unprepared circumstances, Tashi and Sam have one goal – cross the mountain pass into India and reach the Dalai Lama.  The simple acts of avoiding patrolling soldiers, moving from one spot to another and deciding who they can trust, all against the background fear of what might have befallen Tashi’s parents, feel very immediate throughout the book and heighten the suspense of the story.  The chapters are quite short, which made it easy to take the “just one more” approach and dig deeper into the story.  I also loved the mandala-style illustrations that adorn each chapter heading.

While the story eventually has a happy ending, it’s not without loss and trial and Butterworth does well to capture the uncertainty of the life of those seeking refuge in a way that young readers can appreciate.  I feel like this is a story that will stay with me for quite a while and not least because it deals with an occupied territory that is somewhat forgotten or just accepted in the West.

I would highly recommend this book as a classroom read aloud or simply as an engaging and moving story of two children alone in a hostile environment.  Having passed some time between reading the book and writing this review, I think Running on the Roof of the World deserves to be a Top Book of 2017 pick, because of its authentic tone and relevance to world events.

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I’m submitting this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge in category #45: a book about an immigrant or refugee.  You can check out my progress toward my reading challenges for the year here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Meandering through Middle Grade: D-Bot Squad!

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It’s time for a change from my usual middle grade fare as today I will be bringing you the first four books in a new series for reluctant male readers.  We received D-Bot 

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Squad books one to four by Mac Park – author of the prolific and popular Boy Vs. Beast series – from Allen & Unwin for review.  Check out the blurb below:

A super-exciting series about DINOSAUR ROBOTS for first readers…

from the creators of the bestselling Boy vs Beast series. A world kids will love, using words they can read.

Dinosaurs are back, and on the loose!

It’s up to D-Bot Squad to catch them.

Hunter Marks knows everything there is to know about dinosaurs. But does he know enough to pass the computer game test and make it into top-secret D-Bot Squad?

*The first four books in the D-Bot Squad series will be released in July, with the remaining four books released in October 2017 and February 2018*

I’m going to be straight up honest here and say that series like this usually have me running in the opposite direction.  You know the ones.  The Zac Power and  Fairy Magic type series that seem to have a never-ending procession of books all with exactly the same formulaic story.  I know they’re designed to get kids reading.  I know they’re aimed at kids who are gaining confidence in reading independently.  But as a reader, they give me the shivers.

The eldest mini-fleshling in the dwelling however, who is six and in grade one, was immediately drawn to these books and he doesn’t even particularly like dinosaurs.  From the second the first chapter of Dino Hunter was read aloud to him, he was absolutely hooked.  He wanted to tell his friends about the books.  He wanted to bring the books to school so his teacher could read them.  He continues to be riveted by the stories and we are now onto Double Trouble, the third book in the series.

The plot is simple enough.  Hunter Marks loves dinosaurs but finds himself a bit on the outer as all his classmates prefer superheroes.  While working on a project in the library, he is shown a dinosaur cave display built by the librarian Ms Stegg, and Hunter’s adventure begins.  Drawn into a test by the D-Bot Squad, Hunter must design a robot to catch a pterodactyl that is on the loose, thereby earning his place in the Squad.  From this follows a range of adventures that see Hunter designing robots using his specialist knowledge of dinosaurs, to catch errant dinosaurs that are on the loose in present-day locations.

The books are cleverly designed to be non-intimidating to reluctant and new readers, so there are full page pictures every few pages and no more than 55 words on each page.  There is also some great continuity happening in each story.  Each book has six chapters (which the mini-fleshling somehow figured out by the start of book two) and each book finishes on a cliff-hanger that leads into the next story.  This may be a bit of a problem in that it might be more difficult to read the books out of order, but it drew the mini-fleshling in like nobody’s business and he could barely wait for the next bedtime so we could get cracking on the next book.

Each book also has one of those page-flipping animations in the top right hand page corner, that when flipped, animates a dinosaur.  The first two books featured pterodactyls – appropriately enough to the stories – that flap their wings as the pages are flipped.  The mini-fleshling had never seen these before and thought they were genius.

The best thing about the books for me was that the claim on the back of the book was actually correct.  The book features a sticker that shouts, “A world kids will love with words they can read!”  I’ve already noted that the mini-fleshling loves the world of the books, despite not being a particular fan of dinosaurs.  What about the second part of the claim? Can a six year old grade one student read these words?

Yes, He. Can.

At halfway through grade one, this mini-fleshling has mastered his Magic 300 sight words (or is it 200?).  He’s learnt all the sight words he needs to know for the year, anyhow.  And he is certainly able to read most of the words in these books with a little support.  This is an amazing revelation to me because it opens up more options for him for his own independent reading.  He need not be solely reliant on picture books anymore, but can develop his confidence on longer early chapter books with stories that he is interested in.

What a boon!

If you, or your mini-fleshling, is looking for a new series of books that really are accessible for younger kids and interesting for independent readers, I’d recommend giving D-Bot Squad a go.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Keep in a Cold, Dark Place: Good Advice for Potatoes and Monsters…

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Today’s middle grade creepy, action tale features a brilliant cautionary tale for those who like to keep unusual pets at home.   We received Keep in a Cold, Dark Place by Michael F. Stewart from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Reaching for her dream, Limpy unleashes a cute, fluffy, NIGHTMARE …

Keep in a cold, dark place. That’s what’s written like some ancient law on every bag of potatoes the family farms. And it’s where Limpy fears she will always remain.

It’s also carved on a box of spheres she discovers in the cellar. Spheres that hatch.

Cute at first, the creatures begin to grow. Then the chickens disappear. The cat is hunted. And something sets the barn ablaze. To survive, Limpy will need to face her greatest fear. The whole family will. Or they may end up in a cold, dark place indeed.

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Limpy is the only daughter in her family and was unlucky enough to have her mother die while giving birth to her.  Her father is so stricken by grief that he keeps a potato-sack effigy of his dead wife in their home, her brothers are alternately bullying and selectively mute and Limpy wants nothing more than to escape her dreary existence and go to art school far away from their failing potato farm.  After discovering a strange box in the potato cellar, Limpy begins to hope that maybe her impossible dream isn’t so unlikely after all…but at the same time, she may have just unleashed an unholy terror onto the farm that could be the end of her broken family.

I thoroughly enjoyed this original and layered middle grade horror-action story. Other reviewers have compared the story to the film Gremlins and there are certainly shades of that fun film in the parts of the book relating to the “pets” that Limpy discovers, but in addition to that, Stewart has crafted an emotional story about grief, moving on and coping with change that is forced upon you.  There’s a definite atmosphere of oppression and depression that emanates from the descriptions of the farm and the town in general and the reader can definitely understand Limpy’s deep need for escape.  The depictions of Limpy’s family life were, at times, difficult to read as the grief and anger of her father, particularly, is raw and toxic despite the passing of time.

When the creatures that Limpy discovers stop being so cute and fluffy in favour of being more scaly and rampaging, the book alternates between bursts of chaotic action and poignant personal discoveries, as Limpy and her family face their deepest fears in order to save themselves.  Part of the emotional draw at the end of the story, I think, depends on the fact that Limpy is the only girl in this part of the story, and it is her older brothers and father (as well as some male neighbours) that have to put aside their bravado and acknowledge those things that make them frightened and hold them back.

I love that the author has selected a monster that isn’t so common in children’s literature, or “monster” stories generally, so the book provides an opportunity for young readers to discover a legend that they may not have encountered before.  I would highly recommend this book to adventurous young readers who enjoy action and fantasy elements blended with real-life problems.

I’m submitting this one for the Colour Coded Reading Challenge 2017 in the brown category.  Check out my progress toward the challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Meandering through Middle Grade: Bear Grylls Adventures…

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It’s adventure time today as we take a look at the first two books in a new early middle grade series by ubiquitous wild man Bear Grylls.  Bear Grylls Adventures is a new series for primary school readers featuring survival skills, a magic compass and everyday problems and we received copies of the first two titles in the series, The Blizzard Challenge and The Desert Challenge from Allen & Unwin for review.  Here are the books and blurbs from Goodreads:

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Bear Grylls Adventures: The Blizzard Challenge by Bear Grylls.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th May 2017.  RRP: $9.99

The first thrilling adventure in the brand-new collectible series for young readers from survival expert and Chief Scout BEAR GRYLLS.

Olly isn’t enjoying activity camp. Why should he bother building a shelter or foraging for food with his teammates – he’d rather be at home in the warm and dry, where the sofa and the video games are.But then Olly gets given a compass with a mysterious fifth direction. When he follows it, he’s magically transported to a high mountain range where he meets survival expert Bear Grylls. With his help, Olly must learn to survive in sub-zero temperatures, including what to do if the ice cracks when you’re crossing a frozen lake, or a blizzard sets in . . .But can his adventure with Bear Grylls change Olly’s mind about teamwork and perseverance? And who will Olly give the compass to next?

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Bear Grylls Adventures: The Desert Challenge by Bear Grylls.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th May 2017.  $9.99

Sophie loves activity camp . . . but is terrified of insects. It’s so bad that she won’t go into the tent on her own, just in case something flies at her, or she steps on a creepie-crawlie. But when she’s given a compass by one of the other boys on the campsite, Sophie is magically transported to the desert on an adventure where they’re impossible to avoid!

With the help of survival expert Bear Grylls as her guide, she will learn how to withstand the extreme temperatures of the desert and how to spot mirages, encounter giant camel spiders, deadly scorpions and snakes . . . but will Sophie overcome her fear of insects back in the real world? And who will she give the compass to next?

I will be the first to admit that I know nothing about Bear Grylls except that he is an outdoorsy type whose real name probably isn’t Bear and appears, for all intents and purposes, to be one of those annoying people who is both talented and good-looking.  Thankfully, that is all one needs to know in order to enjoy these fast-paced and well structured tales.

The two books (and one assumes, the rest of the twelve-book series) follow the same format and are set around a group of children at a wilderness adventure school holiday camp.  Each book introduces the protagonist child and a few of their friends and highlights the protagonist’s particular personal growth issue that needs working on, before whooshing the child off, by means of a magical compass, to a survival-based adventure accompanied by none other than the Ursa Major himself.  The child is then magically transported back to the moment they left their normal life and puts the lessons learnt in their survival trek to good use before passing the magical compass on to the next unwitting victim.

These books are cleverly produced and will certainly hit the mark with their target audience.  They focus on problems that children working in groups are likely to have – Olly, protagonist of The Blizzard Challenge, tends to give up easily, while Sophie, protagonist of The Desert Challenge, has a mortal fear of insects that disrupts her enjoyment of outdoors activities.  The fact that by the end of the series, readers will have been introduced to all of the kids at the camp is a brilliant idea because it means the books are linked and will have familiar characters in them, but don’t necessarily need to be read in order.  The use of the magic compass injects a fun dose of fantasy into the tales and keeps them from being too dry (except for The Desert Challenge – geddit? Dry? Desert?) and also provides the protagonists the opportunity to learn from a real-life survival skills master in a way that doesn’t rely on basing things in reality.

The books are illustrated throughout in black and white and the font is big enough, and chapters short enough, not to be daunting to reluctant readers or those who struggle.  The books would also be a great option for read-alouds to younger children who don’t have the ability to read chapter books themselves yet, but are interested in longer and more varied stories.  It’s also encouraging to see that the characters in the books are of diverse cultural backgrounds and that this is reflected in the illustrations.

The only niggling problem I had with these books – and this is speaking from the viewpoint of one who has sat on the shelf of youth workers and  teachers alike – is the fact that these children are swept off to the company of a strange man in a deserted place and forced to follow him around and spend the night with him.  I realise that I might be being a bit hypersensitive here since it’s hinted at that these sections of the book may be dreams or magic or whatever, but I did get a little bit of the creep-factor while reading the first book, when the young lad has to build a snuggly little ice cave in which to spend the night tucked up with a grown man who he doesn’t know from Adam, without his parents’ knowledge or consent.  In the first book, the child also has to disrobe quickly in front of Bear after falling into icy water.  There’s also the slight weirdness of having a magic compass that brings him a new child every time.  From an adult’s point of view, there’s something not-quite-right about it all.

I don’t mean to throw shade on Bear – I’m sure he’s a perfectly upstanding guy and has his Blue Card – but I would have thought that someone in the editing or planning process would have picked this up and suggested some very basic and unintrusive changes to the story that could retain the adventure and survival aspect of the story while teaching a hugely important survival skill of childhood: be extremely wary of any adult who wants to spend time on their own with an unrelated child without their parents’ knowledge.  Surely the Scouts themselves would have Child Protection Policies that disallowed one on one adult to child sleep outs,  so I just find it a bit strange that the stories came out in this form.

Putting that aside for the moment though, the books are otherwise sure to be a hit with young readers who love “real-life” stories but aren’t necessarily drawn to nonfiction.

Until next time,

Bruce

Meandering Through Middle Grade: Life on a Bee-less Planet…

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It’s a question that’s been asked by everyone from your common-or-garden human to Doctor Who himself (tenth incarnation): Where are all the bees?  What is happening to our little black-and-gold buzzing pollination stations?  What will happen if the bees disappear for good?

All these questions and more are probed in the original and engaging mildly post-apocalyptic novel for middle grade readers, How to Bee by Bren MacDibble. I feel the need to point out before we go any further that the story contained within this book is far more down-to-earth and substantial than either its cover or title give it credit for.  We received our copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Allen & Unwin:

A story about family, loyalty, kindness and bravery, set against an all-too-possible future where climate change has forever changed the way we live.

Sometimes bees get too big to be up in the branches, sometimes they fall and break their bones. This week both happened and Foreman said, ‘Tomorrow we’ll find two new bees.’

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand. All Peony really wants is to be a bee. Life on the farm is a scrabble, but there is enough to eat and a place to sleep, and there is love. Then Peony’s mother arrives to take her away from everything she has ever known, and all Peony’s grit and quick thinking might not be enough to keep her safe.

How To Bee is a beautiful and fierce novel for younger readers, and the voice of Peony will stay with you long after you read the last page.

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Although this book is set in a post-bee world, the setting is far enough after the bee-pocalypse (or the time when the bees went extinct) that the world, or at least Peony’s part of it, has found a workable solution to the problem.  Children with poles now climb fruit trees to pollinate them and life in the cities depends entirely on the good work of the farms where fresh food is grown.  Peony dreams of being a bee and completing the important, prestigious work but her dream is ripped away when her mother returns from her city job and demands that Peony return with her to earn cash.  Peony is bewildered by this, because on the farm, they have everything they need – money is anathema when there’s no shops to buy things from.  In the city however, money is everything and the gap between haves and have-nots is illustrated by the hordes of raggy people who beg in the streets, with no jobs, homes or hope.

Along with an original slang, this story has unmistakable undertones of a Dickensian novel, with an urban environment characterised by the dichotomy of the rich and poor, in direct contrast to the happily barefoot children of the countryside.  Sure, life is hard on Peony’s farm, but at least the people there are a strong community and understand the importance of their work to the necessities of life.  The story moves through phases, with the early chapters introducing the reader to the farm and its processes, as well as Peony’s home life.  The central chapters of the story, set in a big house in the city, show a different side to this alternative future, and demonstrate the hostility of the “real” world, in which violence, struggle and want colour the lives of the majority of “urbs” – city residents.

These central chapters give rise to an unexpected friendship between Peony and Esmeralda, the young girl for whose family Peony works.  Although this section provided variety and interest, as well as a chance for both levels of the social strata to see each others’ good points, it seemed a bit out of place with the beginnings of the story.  This is a moot point however, because the tale twists again toward the end and although Peony will encounter despair, hardship and grief before the end of the novel, an unexpected jolt of hope is injected from two directions in the final chapter.

Overall, this is a family drama, an environmental warning and a portrait of the kind of society that we are sliding towards held together by an engaging and determined narrator.  I’d recommend this for middle-grade aged readers who enjoy books set in alternate worlds, as well as to older readers looking for a middle grade read that sits outside the expected.

Until next time,

Bruce

Meandering through Middle Grade: A Different Dog…

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I’m back with another Paul Jennings new release today, courtesy of Allen & Unwin.  A Different Dog felt like a big departure from Jennings’ typical work, despite the fact that the twist in the tale is still present.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The gripping and surprising story of a boy, a dog and a daring rescue from the bestselling, much-loved author of the Don’t Look Now series and The Unforgettable What’s His Name.

The forest is dense and dark. And the trail full of unexpected perils. The dog can’t move. The boy can’t talk. And you won’t know why. Or where you are going. You will put this story down not wanting the journey to end.

But it’s from Paul Jennings so watch out for the ambush.

One of the best. From one of the best.

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A Different Dog by Paul Jennings.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 26th April 2017.  RRP: $14.99

When you’ve read almost everything a particular author has written over many years and suddenly they do something with a story you don’t expect, it can be hard to measure it against your previous experiences of their work.  So it was for me with this story.  A Different Dog has a much more subdued and sombre tone that much of Jennings’ previous work and the magical realism that often colours his stories and provides the impetus for his famous twists in the tail of the tale is absent here.  Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – just different from what I would have expected.

The story revolves around a boy who has been a selective mute (or possibly an anxiety-induced mute) since a traumatic incident involving a beloved pet.  He lives with his mother in livable poverty and is disconnected from peers due to his lack of speech.  While on a mission to win a cash prize in a community fun run, the boy witnesses a vehicle accident and attempts to help – but instead ends up trying to find his way out of the hillside terrain accompanied by a highly unusual dog, who was a passenger in the crashed vehicle.  Along the way home, the boy makes a number of life-changing discoveries…but his greatest challenge comes later when his friendship with the dog is tested by fate.

I quite enjoyed the subtleties of this story as a change from the wackier antics that embody Jennings’ usual fare.  Even though it is a reasonably short read, this felt more like a story for older readers who could appreciate the themes of grief, guilt and shame that ring-fence the boy’s image of himself.  There is a pointedness in the story relating to the cruelty of others, whether between humans or from humans directed at animals, and this left me with a bit of a sense of the sinister when I think back to the story.

On the whole, I think I prefer Jennings’ lighter works but A Different Dog is a thought-provoking read that uses a remarkably small word count to effectively raise questions about ethics, choices and making recompense for past mistakes.  This would be a great choice for reluctant young adult readers or those who require high-interest, low reading level tales for struggling older readers.

Until next time,

Bruce