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To and Fro

To and Fro

To and Fro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To and Fro

Anton Clifford-Motopi

A&U Children’s, 2024

304pp., pbk., RRP $A17.99

9781761180378

For twelve years, it has just been Sam, his mum and his Nanna (and Grandad when he was alive) and Sam has been okay with that.  He has survived his mum’s cooking, passion for second-hand things and dreadful driving; he visits his nanna often and copes with her religious beliefs, ornaments on every surface and gallery of photos of dead people on the mantelpiece; he fits in well at his school, has friends although they make fun of his Afro haircut especially Lachlan Bott, manages to rub along with his teacher Mr Peacock whose antics mimic his name and like most in Year 6, is counting down the days till primary school is over.  He has a dog called Trevor who has a haircut similar to his own, and altogether, he is just like everyone else he knows.

He has never met his dad although he knows he was a Black African who apparently left his mother when she was pregnant, and even that is unremarkable these days when family structures are so diverse.  But what he is not ready for is his dad suddenly appearing in his life, and his having to make the decision about whether he will meet him with all the ramifications that that will have. 

Most kids meet their parents when they’re born. All they need to do to impress them is poop, sleep and make goo-goo ga-ga sounds. But I’m twelve. None of that is going to impress my father.

And given that Mr Peacock has set the class a major investigation into “who am I and where do I come from?’ so Sam’s focus is already on his origins, it is a dilemma that only he can decide.  He does go ahead with the meeting but that just sets up more questions than answers – deep-seated questions that will shape his identity – but which provoke a lot of turmoil within and without.  Is he a white kid with a black dad? Or a black kid with white skin? Or half-black and half-white? How can he make his outside match his insides if he doesn’t know who he is?

This is an engaging novel for independent readers, many of whom may find themselves in Sam’s predicament whether the conflict be based on race, culture, religion, gender or something else.  As kids move through puberty, even those in the most “standard” of families, question who they are as they try to find and establish their place as independent individuals in the scheme of things, so it is going to have broad appeal.  Told by Sam himself, and being somewhat akin to the author’s own experience, the reader is drawn into Sam’s confusion from his perspective, rather than that of a narrator imposing their interpretation.  It’s funny, has a certain amount of toilet humour that appeals to the age and gives it authenticity, but more than anything, it is a compelling read that tackles deeper issues than just constructing a family tree because it takes that to the next level of looking at the relationships on it and their impact on the current generation.

While many modern stories for that upper end of primary often feature fantastic creatures, superheroes and good vs evil in some shape or form, my experience is that these readers also love contemporary realistic fiction like this – stories where they see themselves or put them in a position of asking what would they do, giving them an opportunity to work through genuine life issues at arm’s length.  They like being respected as intelligent, thoughtful readers, and through both the characters and the storyline of this one, the author has nailed it.  

Heather Has Two Mummies

Heather Has Two Mummies

Heather Has Two Mummies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heather Has Two Mummies

Lesléa Newman

Laura Cornell

Walker Books, 2016

32pp., pbk., RRP $A16.99

9781406365559

Heather’s favourite number is two – she has two arms, two legs, two pets and two lovely mummies, Mama Kate, a doctor, and Mama Jane, a carpenter, plus dog Midnight and cat Gingersnap.  But when Heather goes to school for the first time, someone asks her about her daddy … and Heather doesn’t have a daddy! But then the class all draw portraits of their families, and not one single drawing is the same. Heather and her classmates realize – it doesn’t matter who makes up a family, the most important thing is that all the people in it love one another very much.

In the international bestseller, Lessons in Chemistry, which focuses on the attitudes towards women in the 1950s and early 60s, Teacher Mudford asks her Year 1 class to fill in a diagram of their family tree including a photo, but not only does she share what she learns about some of the diverse families of her students with other parents, but she persecutes those children who don’t have the stock-standard, mother-father-child/ren arrangement that was the only accepted model of the times.

Fast forward 30 years to the 1990s and the original version of Heather Has Two Mummies is published, despite many rejections from mainstream publishers because it was considered too controversial because attitudes had scarcely changed, and is challenged, banned, the subject of public debate, attacked by clergy and politicians alike. By the end of the decade it was the 9th most challenged book in US literary history.  

Now, another 30* years on, the self-published first editions have become collectibles, and reprints are common in school libraries because diverse family structures are mostly more acceptable and children have both the right and the need to read about themselves. While as recently as 2015 teachers in some US states faced dismissal for sharing such stories, a situation that has become even more dire in some US states since the extreme right-wing presidency of Donald Trump with books with any sort of reference to sexual diversity being pulled from shelves and banned in state-sponsored legislation, nevertheless this book has persisted and has not been out of print for 35 years, indicating that there is clearly a demand for these sorts of stories that address the tricky topics that children live daily, that cause both confusion and anxiety, and which have to be shared if we are to normalise anything that is not the norm. 

For those for whom such stories might be problematic because of the ethos of their schools, I invite you to read both the discussions that were generated in 2015 when I wrote the tricky topics hat for my 500 Hats blog and how it has been addressed in the Sample Collection Policy under Diversity and Inclusion. The mental health of our students is more prominent now than it has been in the past and much stems from feelings of being different, excluded, not belonging and so, IMO, we as educators have a responsibility to embrace diversity, to show that there is so much more that includes rather than divides. As the wise MS Molly in the story says, “each family is special, The most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love one another.”

Kevin the Sheep

Kevin the Sheep

Kevin the Sheep

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kevin the Sheep

Jacqueline Harvey

Kate Isobel Scott

Puffin, 2024

32pp., hbk., RRP $A17.99

9781761048951

Shaun, Shauna, Sheryl and Shane are sheep – and are as predictable in their sheepish behaviour as the alliteration of their names.  Along with the rest of the flock, they are happy doing the same things over and over day after day in their fields of green grass and clover.

But Kevin is different.  To start with, he’s allergic to grass and would much prefer a bowl of soup (sprinkled with chives) and instead of subjecting himself to the regular shearing, he prefers to keep his locks long, and have painted purple hooves!  And if that’s not enough, he’s into drama and dance, is learning to knit (from a Ewe-Tube video), and is mastering kung fu, among other things. Sadly for Kevin, the other sheep don’t approve and ostracise him, make him feel like an outcast and he gets sadder and sadder.  Until one night…

There are many stories for young readers about being yourself, embracing the things that make you unique and standing up to those who would prefer you to be one of the flock, but few that I have read have been as LOL funny as this one, and as appealing.  Living as I do in sheep country, sheep behaviour is a common sight and both the author and the illustrator have captured that brilliantly. A paddock of sheep is a paddock of sheep is a paddock of sheep… So to have a Kevin to rock the flock is a masterpiece, particularly as his differences span all sorts of attributes from physical appearance to food allergies to sporting prowess to hobby choices… No matter how a little one in your realm stands out from the crowd, they will be able to relate to Kevin and draw strength from his determination to accept his differences (even though it takes some sleepless nights to understand that he has the inner strength to do so) so that they, too, can revel in who they are, what they look like and what they can do. 

Teachers’ notes include some pages to colour that could become the centrepiece of the reader’s own story or they might even like to use Kate Scott’s illustrations as a model to draw Kevin doing what they like to do most, then making up their own story to go with that. 

Definitely one for both the home and school library.

 

Grandad’s Pride

Grandad's Pride

Grandad’s Pride

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grandad’s Pride

Harry Woodgate

Andersen Press, 2023

32pp., hbk., RRP $A29.99

9781839132667

Milly and her family, including Gilbert the dog, are back for their annual summer holiday with Grandad, and while she is rummaging in the attic to build a pirate fort, Milly discovers a beautiful rainbow flag.  It sparks a discussion about how Grandad used to march in the Pride parades, celebrating the diversity of the community and sharing the message that regardless of who they love or their gender, everyone should be treated with equality and respect. 

When Milly suggests going to a parade in the old camper van, and Grandad tells her his partying days are over, she has an idea… and Pride comes to Grandad and the village!

Not only is this a joyous celebration of Pride and all that it means, it is also a down-to-earth explanation that young children can understand immediately, and many will delight in seeing children just like them portrayed in the illustrations as the villagers come together to make this a brilliant celebration.  Like its predecessor, while gender diversity is at its core, it is more about relationships and communities and connections regardless of differences like skin colour, beliefs or living arrangements.  After all, we are all humans striving to be loved and treated with dignity and respect.  

Dear Unicorn

Dear Unicorn

Dear Unicorn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Unicorn

Josh Funk

Charles Santoso

Viking, 2023

40pp., hbk., RRP $A32.99

9780593206942

It is the beginning of the school year and Connie’s art class is partnering up with pen pals. Both Connie and Nic’s teachers encourage them to to ask their pen pals questions, to talk about their own lives, to be creative, share their likes and dislikes and to enjoy themselves. Even though Connie is a little reluctant to start with, soon both love exchanging letters despite the two of them seeming so very different. Connie takes her art seriously and thinks things like kittens are nothing more than a distraction, while Nic has a more whimsical approach to painting and knows the value of a good cupcake. Both are eagerly awaiting the end of year pen pal art festival where their two classes will finally meet, but what is the surprise that is in store for both of them?

Building on the original concept of Dear Dragon, the story has some clever wordplay (like Connie’s surname summing up her pessimistic outlook) that leads to some misunderstandings that carry both the letter-writing and the story along, and young readers will immerse themselves in the fantasy particularly as, through the illustrations, they can see what Connie and Nic don’t.  What would it like to have a friend such as Nic? Can we be friends with those who seem to be so different from us (even if that is not as extreme as this relationship?)

As well as being useful for exploring the essential give-and-take nature of relationships, and how we can learn from those around us to seek common bonds despite being unique individuals, the book also opens up the almost-extinct concept of penpals, letter-writing and the anticipation of a letter in the mailbox.  Perhaps it will be the spark for building some new connections between classes in this new school year, 

 

Say My Name

Say My Name

Say My Name

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Say My Name

Joanna Ho

Khoa Le

HarperCollins, 2023

40pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99

9780063205338

There is an old riddle that goes, “What is yours alone but used by everyone else? Your name”. 

There is so much embodied in a person’s name that it can be (and was) one of the most popular units of work that I did with my students at the beginning of each year.  They loved to discover why they had the name they did, its history and significance within their family, its meaning, its cultural connections  and how it shaped their own identity. They enjoyed having conversations with family members about why it was chosen, seeing their birth announcements and sharing their stories.  But most importantly, they wanted to teach us how to say it properly because that demonstrated that we respected them, cared enough about them,  to make the effort to learn it and use it and acknowledge that they were not invisible.  Even though some chose to use a more common “European” name, there was always a spark in their eyes if their birth name was used and pronounced correctly.

In this new book by Joanna Ho, whose stories  Eyes the Kiss in the Corners and Eyes that Speak to the Stars embody and celebrate diversity in a perception-changing way, six children of Chinese, Tongan, Persian, Diné, Nahuatl, or Akan descent share the meaning and history of their names. Names that are “full of tones and rhythms, melodies and harmonies, chords and cadences, Each syllable, each sound, is a building block in an architecture constructed over oceans and across generations.” (And there is a pronunciation guide and other material included in the final pages to help you out.)

Accompanied by stunning illustrations that are rich in the symbolism of the culture of the child, the lyrical text shows us how important it is to each child, indeed each person on the planet, to say their name correctly because “My name is a window to my world, a door to my destiny, a key to unlock the dreams of my ancestors, the hopes of my family and the divine that lives within. Anything less is not me.”

Sadly for some children having someone say their name and smile is the only positive acknowledgement that they will get in a day and it is that affirmation that they exist that is enough to bring them back to school for one more day.  If ever there was a book that demonstrates just how important your name is and how we each cling to its uniqueness, this is it.  With a pronunciation guide and other material included in the final pages to serve as a model for each child’s story, here, embedded in this literary treasure,  is your program for the first few weeks of Term 1 2024 sorted…

The Concrete Garden

The Concrete Garden

The Concrete Garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Concrete Garden

Bob Graham

Walker Books, 2023

32pp., hbk., RRP $A27.99

9781529512649

At last, winter is over, lockdown is lifted and the children spill out of the large apartment block ” like sweets from a box”.  Last out is Amanda and she is carrying a large box of chalks because she has an idea. Choosing green first, she draws a large circle with some smaller circles radiating from it – and from there the fun begins… Firstly, Jackson made a dandelion from Amanda’s circle, and then Janet added a mushroom and then the twins added flowers and then…

This is Bob Graham at his best offering the reader so many ideas to explore as the book is read and re-read.

Firstly, there has to be that glorious feeling of being free to connect with others, including those whom you have never met, when isolation has been imposed on you. The reader can hear the shouts of delight of the children and the babble of busyness as they get to be kids again, and imagine that their new and renewed friendships will spread to those of the adults in their lives too, meaning that there will be a greater sense of community in the apartments once inside beckons again.  But what if that isolation isn’t COVID related?  What if there is a child confined to a hospital bed, or isolated by language or being new to the area or… How might the reader reach out to them?

And while many will resonate with living in an apartment building where there is no opportunity to have the sort of gardens that feature in In My Garden , that doesn’t mean the children are oblivious to Mother Nature and the colour and magic and togetherness that she brings.  As so many of the young artists add natural elements to the drawing, there is an unspoken acknowledgement of what is missing from this hemmed-in concrete jungle, perhaps inspiring something more than a transient chalk drawing to be done. And, as with In My Garden, there is much to explore about the connectivity of gardens, real and imagined, in “The picture crossed deserts and mountains and oceans and cities.  It bounced around the world, returning to fill the screens in all the dark rooms over the concrete garden”. 

Others might like to explore why it is the seemingly simple activity of drawing a picture with chalk that brings so much imagination, friendship, co-operation, optimism and joy rather than the more formal, organised, prescriptive activities that seem to be such a part of children’s lives.  They might be let loose with chalk in their playground, or start a chain picture to which everyone contributes in the classroom, or even work together on a physical project to beautify their school or local community.  The possibilities are endless.

This is not only Bob Graham at his best but also the picture book at its best.  The links between text and illustration are woven so tightly together, one can’t stand without the other and each thread of the tapestry offers something to explore and ponder.  Expect to see this one up there in all the awards in the coming year.   

I am Lupe

I am Lupe

I am Lupe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am Lupe

Sela Ahosivi-Atiola

Yani Agustina

Lothian, 2023

32pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99

9780734422538

Unlike her classmates, Lupe has curly black hair just like her dad, deep brown eyes just like her mum and the coconut oil her mum lathers into her brown skin each day makes it glisten in the sunlight.  And her friends ask about those differences, making Lupe feel awkward because she doesn’t know what to say.  And her mother’s answer shows that in reality, Lupe is just like every other kid – she is a daughter, a big sister, a friend, fearless and funny… she is who she is and that is enough.

This theme of a child being physically different from their peers is common  among picture books for young children such as the magnificent Eyes that Kiss in the Corners as is the revelation that despite our appearances, we share more similarities than differences.  Written by a Tongan-Australian writer this story opens up a different part of the world for many because Lupe is of Tongan descent – “I was born in … the first place on earth to see the sunrise each day” – and stories that have children from the Pacific Islands as their lead characters are rare. From the teachers notes we learn that the fish dish her mother is preparing is ota ika, a raw fish salad, offering the opportunities to not only investigate the traditional foods of Tonga, but also the traditional ways that fish is prepared in other cultures – it’s not always fried and served with chips.  And that can lead to all sorts of investigations about our Pacific neighbours allowing our students from those countries to share their stories and have their heritage acknowledged.

Over my 50+ years of working with children, I have never worked in a classroom where there were only “white Anglo-Saxon” children as Lupe’s class appears to be,  and there would be few nationalities I haven’t encountered, and the greatest joy has been not only seeing the children all meld together as one getting on with the business of being a child and learning and playing together, but all that they have taught me over the years.  And while I’ve not directly experienced the sort of open conversation that Lupe has with her peers, I do know that often kids see their own differences as being bigger than they really are and that this can lead to self-consciousness and anxiety, so the more we share these sorts of books and reassure them that regardless of red hair, wheelchairs, purple skin or knobbly knees, who they are is enough and welcome, the better. To have one in which our Pacific nations kids can see themselves, is a bonus. 

 

Amazing Dad

Amazing Dad

Amazing Dad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazing Dad

Alison Brown

Farshore, 2023

32pp., hbk., RRP $A 19.99

9780008555474

Dads can be busy, whizzy, caring, sharing . . . and so much more. But there’s just ONE dad who gives the best hugs of all. Can you guess who it is?

This is a companion to Amazing Mum and like that, it features all sorts of anthropomorphic dads  doing all sorts of things with their little ones with rhyming captions that really encourage young readers to examine the pictures so they can predict the text. Often these sorts of books focus on actual activities that kids and dads can do together but this one is more diverse and includes acknowledgement of dads who have taken on others’ children, dads who live apart and may only be weekend dads, and even dads who can  only live on in the child’s heart.  So there is something for almost every child to relate to and to share about their own dad.

As well as being a tribute to dads and helping the young reader focus on all the things their dad does, it encourages the development of a lot of essential foundation literacy skills not the least of which is that print is fun.  

Dolly Parton’s Billy the Kid Makes it Big

Dolly Parton's Billy the Kid Makes it Big

Dolly Parton’s Billy the Kid Makes it Big

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dolly Parton’s Billy the Kid Makes it Big

Dolly Parton

MacKenzie Haley

Puffin, 2023

40pp., hbk., RRP $A19.99

9781761342837

French bulldog Billy the Kid was born with an ear for music. And not just any music. He loves barking to the beat of country music! So Billy sets out to Nashville to sing his heart out.

But when he meets some big bullies at the Battle of the Bow-wows, Billy worries he’s barking up the wrong tree. But when they start to pick on one of his new friends, one much smaller than all the others, he knows it is up to him to stand up and call out the bad behaviour.  But he knows he will need the help of his new friends, and so he comes up with a clever plan…

Based on the theme of one of Dolly Parton’s own songs, Makin’ Fun Ain’t Funny, based on her own life experiences, the anti-bullying message is strong as young readers are encouraged to celebrate differences rather than mocking them, a theme underlined in the illustrations which show dogs of every shape, size and colour. But as strong as that message is, there is  an equally strong one about following your dreams, believing in yourself and persevering to make them happen as Billy the Kid faces adversity and rejection before he finds his niche. 

Parton, herself, is well-known for her Imagination Library, a free book gifting program devoted to inspiring a love of reading in the hearts of children everywhere (including in some parts of Australia) with over 211 million books given to young children to help foster a love of reading and encourage them to dream. “The seeds of these dreams are often found in books and the seeds you help plant in your community can grow across the world.” So this copy will find its way into the local community as part of the hidden books initiative that is growing daily.