Monday, August 31, 2015

How About a Literature Unit on Cats? 20 books & ideas to get started!

I've written many posts about Key Themes in children's literature. While cats haven't taken over the children's literature field quite as much as they've seized the Internet, there are MANY books about them. Here is a sample. I'd love to hear of some of your favourites as well.

A unit on cats would be a lot of fun. There would be so many angles. You could consider:
  • the adventures of cats
  • ways cats 'change' our world
  • the many personalities of cats
  • cats from many nations
  • their relationship to people
  • the world through the eyes of cats

1. 'Sam, Bangs & Moonshine' by Evaline Ness

Sam (short for Samantha) is a fisherman's daughter who dreams wonderful dreams, Her father calls them moonshine. But when her 'stretched' stories bring a disaster to her friend Thomas (and her cat Bangs). Sam learns finally to judge the difference between reality and moonshine.

Sam, Bangs & Moonshine was the winner of the 1967 Caldecott Medal

2. 'Moses the Kitten' by James Herriot and illustrated by Peter Barrett

James Herriot is well known to us as a storyteller. 'Moses the Kitten' is a story about a tiny and scruffy kitten found beside a frozen pond. It is nursed back to health on a nearby farm.

3. 'The Cat in the Hat' by Dr Seuss

Dick and Sally are stuck inside on a cold and wet day with nothing to do. That is until a very large cat in an absurd hat turns up. This transforms a dull day into a crazy adventure that almost wrecks the house while their mother is out.

'The Cat in the Hat Comes Back'

This is a follow on from 'The Cat in the Hat'. It’s a snowy day and Dick and Sally are stuck shovelling . . . until the Cat in the Hat arrives to liven things up (to say the least!).

4. 'The Tale of Tom Kitten', Beatrix Potter

This Beatrix Potter classic tale is set in the cottage garden Beatrix created herself at Hill Top, the farm she owned near the village of Sawrey. It is the 8th book in her well-known 23 book series of little books. Tom and his sisters look so smart in their new clothes. But when their mother sends them outside, she couldn't possibly guess what a mess they will get themselves into.

'The Tale of Ginger and Pickles'

Ginger (a dog) and Pickles (a ginger cat) have a very popular shop. Their customers loved to buy their provisions there, but they don't like to pay and are always after credit. The Tale of Ginger and Pickles is book 18 in Beatrix Potter series.

5. 'Catwings' by Ursula K. Le Guin and illustrated by S.D. Schindler

Mrs Tabby can't quite explain why her four kittens were born with wings. But she is grateful that they use their flying skills to soar away from the dangerous city also have its difficulties.

6. 'Slinky Malinki' by Lynley Dodd

Slinky Malinki is a character that first appeared in Dodd's famous story of 'Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy'. This rascally cat gets up to lots of mischief.  At night he turns into a thief.  There have been a number of other Slinky Malinki stories from Dodd (here).

7. 'Where Is Catkin?' by Janet Lord and illustrated by Julie Paschkis

Catkin jumps off Amy's lap and heads out for his daily hunt. He hears the creatures hidden in the yard cricket, frog, mouse, snake but cant find them. But the hunter becomes the hunted before Catkin gets safely back home.

8. 'My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes' by Eve Sutton and illustrated by Lynley Dodd

The Internet is filled with cats from around the world that do exciting things. This simple picture book tells of some of the many and simple adventures cats can have. This ordinary house cat, likes to hide in boxes. This is a wonderful rhyming story that is perfect for beginning readers.

9. 'The Boy Who Drew Cats: A Japanese Folktale' by Arthur A. Levine and illustrated by Frédéric Clément

This is a mystical traditional Japanese tale. In it, we follow Kenji on a journey to a mysterious mountain, an eerie, abandoned temple, and the threat of the terrible Goblin Rat. The beautiful illustrations (paintings) add greatly to drama of the story.

10. 'The Church Mouse' written and illustrated by Graham Oakley

This was Oakley's first book in the series of books about the life and adventures of some mice that live in an old church and get up to many adventures and was written in 1972. Since this many have followed including 'The Church Mice Adrift' and 'The Church Cat Abroad'. In the initial book Arthur the church mouse is living in the Wortlethorpe church vestry, but he gets very lonely with only Sampson the church cat for company. So he decides to search for some new companions.

11. 'Come down, cat!' by Sonya Hartnett and illustrated by Lucia Masciullo

The day is ending, night is falling, and Nicholas's cat won't come down from the roof! She licks her paws while he worries about her. How will he coax her back to his safe and warm house?

12. 'Madeline and the Cats of Rome' (from the Madeline series) by John Bemelmans Marciano

This is one of the well-known Madeline books. The Paris skies are grey, so Miss Clavel and the twelve little girls are leaving for the better weather of spring in Rome. As well as the great sites of Rome Madeline has an unexpected adventure, that involves a thief, a chase, and many, many cats.

13. 'No Kiss for Mother' by Tomi Ungerer

Tomi Ungerer is a genius as an author and illustrator. This book might not be as well known to some as some of his other works, but it is a wonderful book. The central character is Piper Paw, a feisty and mischievous cat. Hi rebellious ways are a challenge to his parents with some interesting outcomes.

14. 'The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch' by Ronda and David Armitage

I've always loved this book, and so does every child who hears it or reads it. It's a simple plot, The lighthouse keeper gets his lunch every by flying fox that holds a basket that his wife has prepared for him and sends down the wire from home on the cliffs to the lighthouse. But the seagulls begin to steal it so serious steps need to be taken to solve the problem. This includes one with Hamish the cat.

15. 'Dog In, Cat Out' by Gillian Rubinstein and illustrated by Ann James

This delightful word concept book is as simple as its title suggests, but there is linguistic complexity in the words and depth to every illustration. Cat and dog jostle for favour and precedence in this family. So, if Dog is out, Cat will slip in. And on it goes. The book has just four words. 'Dog in, cat out', with just one variation, on the last page just one is in. You'll need to read the book to see who it is.

16. 'John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat' by Jenny Wagner and illustrated by Ron Brooks

This is one of my favourite picture books by a star team. Rose lives alone with her faithful dog John Brown, but one day things change when Rose sights a black cat out side and wants to invite it in. John Brown doesn't think Rose needs a cat and so resists her efforts to bring it in. Once day Rose just refuses to get up. This is a story with many levels of meaning that will suit readers from 4-8 years.

17. 'Mog the Forgetful Cat' written and illustrated  by Judith Kerr

Mog is always in trouble because she is very forgetful. She forgets that she has a cat flap, and even when she has already had dinner. One night when an uninvited visitor turns up her forgetfulness is helpful. In every book that has followed, Mog gets into a different situation with another new character. 
Judith Kerr wrote her very popular 'Mog' series over a period of 42 years. She finally killed off this delightful little cat in 2002 ('Goodbye, Mog') as she neared the age of 80. In her final Mog book she dies of old age and goes to heaven. She based her illustrations on her own family home in London. The two children in the books were named after her middle names.

18. 'The World that Jack Built' by Ruth Brown

This wonderful book draws on the well-known rhyme and gives it a significant twist and an ecological theme. We follow a cat as it chases a butterfly across a section of its world and as we do so we see a transformation in the ecology of the world 'that Jack built'. In stark contrast to the beauty at the start is a world polluted and degraded by the end of the book.

19. 'Crikey and Cat' by Chris McKimmie

This is a story centred on a cat that speaks of the centrality of creativity and friendship to life. It is an intriguing and captivating book. When the stars don't come out, sometimes all you need to fix it is a ladder, some friends and a hardware store.

20.  'Millions of Cats' by Wanda Gag    

There was an old man and an old woman who were lonely. They seek a cat, but the old man finds not one cat, hundred and thousands, millions and billions and trillions of cats. How can he decide which one will be the best pet? He brought them all home. A tale about an old couple and how they came to have just one cat to call their own. This is classic story that has been loved by many generations. Winner of the Newbery Medal in 1929.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Children's Book Council Awards for 2015: Winners & Honour Books

The Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Awards were announced on the 21st August. This event always marks the beginning of Children’s Book Week. As usual, the winners and honour books are a fabulous collection. But for every book that wins or is an honour book, there are many more worthy books. Thankfully, the CBCA publishes a set of category lists for approximately 100 notable books each year. You can find the lists HERE.

This year we have superb books and memorable successes.  Perhaps the stand out is the success of illustrator Freya Blackwood in winning not one but three awards. Readers of this blog will recognise that her talent was spotted long ago on this blog and that I have featured many of Freya Blackwood's beautifully illustrated books, including My Two Blankets written by Irena Kobald, which I reviewed in my last post. This of course has now been named Picture Book of the Year. Amazingly, Freya has no formal training in art and took up illustrating while she was working on The Lord of The Ring's film trilogy as an effects technician.  Freya began a collaboration with well known author Libby Gleeson on the book 'Amy & Louis' that won Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year in 2007. This was published as 'Half a World Away' in the USA.

As well as best picture book, Blackwood won in two other categories with Libby Gleeson. In the Early Childhood category for Go to Sleep, Jessie! In the Younger Readers category Gleeson's wonderful story and Blackwood's beautiful pencil and watercolour illustrations are magical in 'The Cleo Stories: The Necklace and The Present'

1. Older Readers


'The Protected' by Claire Zorn (University of Queensland Press)

This is the story of one girl Hannah who lost her sister Katie in a terrible car accident. Her family is torn apart by grief and guilt and such wounds can take a long time to heal. "I have three months left to call Katie my older sister. Then the gap will close and I will pass her. I will get older. But Katie will always be fifteen, eleven months and twenty-one days old."

Hannah's world is in pieces and she doesn't need the school counsellor to tell her she has deep-seated psychological issues. With a seriously depressed mother, an injured dad, and a dead sister, who wouldn't have problems? Hannah should feel terrible but for the first time in ages, she feels a glimmer of hope and isn't afraid anymore. Is it because the elusive Josh is taking an interest in her? Or does it run deeper than that?"

Honour Books
'Nona & Me', by Clare Atkins (Black Inc.)
'The Minnow' by Diana Sweeney (Text Publishing)

2. Younger Readers


'The Cleo Stories The Necklace and the Present', by Libby Gleeson, Illustrator Freya Blackwood (Allen & Unwin)

This is a wonderful collection of stories about Cleo a little girl with a giant imagination and curiosity. She is a wonderful character that five to six-year-old emerging readers will love. The situations and characters will be well known to these young readers. The stories cover friendship, life's frustrations and patience when waiting for special times, giving and receiving, being accepted.

Beautifully illustrated by Freya Blackwood with her characteristic watercolour images. A wonderful book for 'first' readers.

Honour Books

'Two Wolves' by Tristan Bancks (Random House Australia)

'Withering-by-Sea: a Stella Montgomery Intrigue', by Judith Rossell, Judith (ABC Books, Harper Collins Publishers)

3. Early Childhood


'Go to Sleep, Jessie!', by Libby Gleeson, illustrator Freya Blackwood (Little Hare, Hardie Grant Egmont)

Why can't Jessie go to sleep? She stands in her cot, and protests. Her sister can’t sleep either, why does she have to share a room with her anyway? This is a familiar situation with a more significant deeper layer. It isn't just about sisters cohabiting. This book taps into the theme of sibling rivalry and love.

Freya Blackwood’s illustrations once again help to produce a memorable book. Her watercolour, and pencil images give an insight into the frustration of the big sister. Her work with Gleeson is a wonderful collaboration.

Honour Books

'Scary Night' by Lesley Gibbes, illustrator Stephen Michael King (Working Title Press)
'Noni the Pony goes to the Beach', written and illustrated by Alison Lester (Allen & Unwin)

4. Picture Book of the Year


'My Two Blankets', illustrator Freya Blackwood, text by Irena Kobald (Little Hare, Hardie Grant Egmont)

This is the story of a young girl called Cartwheel. She leaves her war-ravaged country and heads for somewhere seen as safe. But the new country is so strange and foreign that she is confused and wonders who she is. She finds comfort in a metaphorical blanket. This is a blanket of blue-grey words and angular sounds. A young girl offers her friendship and teaches her some words. Cartwheel takes these words and begins to create a new blanket. And from these words and sounds she learns new things. At first it is all too hard, but over time her angular world develops a smoother and more comfortable form and is as warm and familiar as her old blanket.

Freya Blackwood is a brilliant illustrator and she takes this complex text and weaves her magic to create a very special book. In the illustrator's words:

"The metaphorical blanket was a difficult concept to illustrate and took me a long time to solve. But I was really attracted to the idea of a visual interpretation of feelings, sounds and words."

Honour Books

'One Minute's Silence', illustrator Michael Camilleri, text David Metzenthen (Allen & Unwin)
There were many books about war and conflict in the shortlist this year, one in which we remembered that it is 100 years since the Gallipoli landing that is such a significant part of Australian, New Zealand and British history. As such it was fitting to see 'One Minute's Silence' named as an honour book. I suspect that this wonderful book might have won but for the brilliance of 'My Two Blankets'.

'The Stone Lion', illustrator Ritva Voutila, text Margaret Wild (Little Hare, Hardie Grant Egmont)

5. Eve Pownall Award for Information Books


'A-Z of Convicts in Van Diemen's Land', author/illustrator Simon Barnard (Text Publishing)

This is a wonderful book that many primary aged readers will love. In the early days of white settlement in Australia 70,000 convicts were transported to Van Diemen’s Land (which we know today as the Australian state of Tasmania). These dislocated and damaged people played a key role in the building of Australia as a nation.

Simon Barnard’s 'A–Z of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land' is a wonderful account of the lives of men, women and children who were transported to a strange land for varied crimes. The details of their lives are fascinating, including their sentences, punishments and achievements.

Barnard's illustrations are also memorable with intricate details that will have young readers returning again and again to the book.

Honour Books

'Tea and Sugar Christmas', by Jane Jolly, illustrator Robert Ingpen (National Library of Australia)

'Audacity: Stories of Heroic Australians in Wartime', by Carlie Walker, illustrator Brett Hatherly (Department of Veterans' Affairs)

Friday, August 14, 2015

Race, Racism & Equality: Children's Books for all Ages

It is difficult to grow up in any urban area within any open society without being confronted by people different from yourself. Whether it's social class, race, ethnicity and language, we can all feel isolated and different. In fact, even different cultural and social practices as basic as fashion and popular culture, can make us feel unequal.  I've written previously on racism, civil rights and also 'The Other' because these are critical themes for children to tussle with. I suspect that while schools have been good at stressing and celebrating multiculturalism, there is potential and perhaps an imperative to push the boundaries to more explicitly address racism and equality. We need to do more than just make children aware that other races exist, there is a need to encourage them to understand people and gain some sense of what it might mean to live in their shoes. As I've suggested in various previous posts on this blog literature can do many things including serving as "a vehicle to other places", "a source of ideological challenge", "a mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances" and a means for the "discussion of social issues" (here).

Below I look briefly at some books that offer the potential to consider these issues. Many of them have appeared on this blog at some earlier stage and some are new. I hope that as a collection they will be a good resource. At the end of the post I offer some ideas for how the books might be used. I have included a range of books from simple picture books to adolescent novels.

1. Young Readers (aged 4 to 8 years)

'My Two Blankets' written by Irena Kobald and illustrated by Freya Blackwood (Little Hare Books)

This is the story of a young girl called Cartwheel. She leaves her war-ravaged country and heads for somewhere seen as safe. But the new country is so strange and foreign that she is confused and wonders who she is. She finds comfort in a metaphorical blanket. This is a blanket of words and sounds. A young girl offers her friendship and teaches her some words. Cartwheel takes these words and begins to create a new blanket. This is a blue-grey blanket of angular sounds. And from these words and sounds she learns new things. At first it is all too hard, but over time her angular world develops a smoother and more comfortable form and is as warm and familiar as her old blanket.

Freya Blackwood is a brilliant illustrator and she takes this complex text and weaves her magic to create a very special book. In the illustrator's words:

"The metaphorical blanket was a difficult concept to illustrate and took me a long time to solve. But I was really attracted to the idea of a visual interpretation of feelings, sounds and words."

'The Sneetches' by Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss has written a number of stories that deal with the difficult topic of racism. 'The Sneetches' is an obvious one that tells of two types of creatures (Sneetches) one with a Star on their bellies and the other without. Needless to say one felt superior and the other inferior. One day a man arrives with the perfect solution, a machine that can add a star to the belly. But without the stars how could the 'superior' group differentiate itself? The man had the solution; his machine could take the stars off (!) the Sneetches who were the original 'Star Belly' kind.

But perhaps an example even closer to the theme is 'What was I scared of?' a funny story about a small creature who while walking at night is confronted by a pair of pale green pants that are out walking by themselves. He is terrified when on each walk he sees them. But of course it turns out that the pants were just as scared of him and finally all is resolved.

'Henry's Freedom Box', by Ellen Levine & illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Henry 'Box' Brown lived in 19th century America and was a slave who escaped to freedom by mailing himself to some northern Philadelphian Abolitionists who were against slavery. This brilliantly illustrated picture book for readers aged 5 to 8 years is a retelling of the true story. Henry Brown doesn't know how old he is because nobody keeps records of slaves' birthdays. He dreams about freedom, but that dream seems farther away than ever when he is torn from his family and put to work in a warehouse. When Henry grows up and marries, he is again devastated when his family is sold at the slave market. Then one day, as he lifts a crate at the warehouse, he knows exactly what he must do: He will mail himself to the North. After an arduous journey in the crate, Henry finally has a birthday — his first day of freedom.

The book was a 2008 Caldecott Honour Book.

'The Resurrection of Henry Brown' Wiki Commons

Let the Celebrations Begin!”, Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas (1991).

This wonderful Australian picture book was inspired by some simple toys made by Polish women held in the Nazi prison camp of Belsen. It tells of the life in Hut 18 and the planning of celebration as they anticipate their liberation from the camp towards the end of the Second World War. This is a narrative with a setting that is so specific that the narrator (Miriam) identifies her bed number (Hut 18, bed 22). This powerful story could not be told without the place, and yet, the place (or setting) is very much secondary to the story told.

'Where the Buffaloes Begin' by Olaf Baker and illustrated by Stephen Gammell

This is a mystical story that is a retelling of an old North American Blackfoot Indian legend. It was originally published in 1915 and retells a Blackfoot Indian tale. A young boy is curious about Nawa, the wise man, who tells a story about the origins of sacred buffaloes from the centre of a nearby lake. The fearless young boy, Little Wolf, sneaks away in the middle of the night to keep watch over the lake. He waits with his pony for the buffalo to appear from beneath the waters. As he does, he contemplates the fate of his tribe if the enemy Assiniboins should attack. As he watches, the myth of the buffaloes becomes a reality and he runs as the buffaloes stampede towards him. Little Wolf tries to outrun them, but notices that suddenly the buffaloes surround him; he has become part of the stampede.
Stephen Gammell's illustrations are wonderful. The use of lead pencil sketches of great detail adds greatly to this mystical tale.

The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles

When Ruby Bridges was 6-years-old, she was the only African American student to attend a newly desegregated school in Louisiana.  Her extraordinary ability to withstand a hostile environment while viewing her tormentors (adult and child) with forgiveness makes her an inspiration to us all. I devoted an entire post to this story as well as books about this remarkable life that demonstrates how racism can be conquered. My post on Ruby Bridges and civil rights can be read HERE.

'The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights' by Carole Boston and illustrated by Tim Ladwig

Since the earliest days of slavery, African Americans have called on their religious faith in the struggle against oppression.  In this book the Beatitudes -- from Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount -- form the backdrop for Carole Boston Weatherford's powerful free-verse poem that traces the African American journey from slavery to civil rights.

Tim Ladwig's stirring illustrations showcase a panorama of heroes in this struggle, from the slaves shackled in the hold of a ship to the first African American president taking his oath of office on the steps of the United States Capitol. 

This is a remarkable picture book that can be read at many levels. Tim Ladwig's stunning images of the oppressed African Americans in the 18th century as they clung to all that they had, life and a faith based on love and hope are set against the famous text of the Beatitudes. Carole Boston takes the beatitudes and addresses them to African Americans of these dark times:

I was with Harriet Tubman when she fled slavery.
As she led others out of bondage,
I was the star guiding them north.....

Suitable for readers aged 6 to 12 years

2. Independent Readers (aged 9 to 12 years)

'Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles. America’s First Black Paratroopers' Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick Press, 2013)

This is a true story that has been a long time coming. It tells in a fair but powerful way of the racism that has often existed in armed forces around the world. Americans may well have heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, but few would know of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion - the Triple Nickle. These were the first US black paratroopers. They showed that black soldiers could do anything their white counterparts could do. The text and over 100 carefully labelled photographs in this 150 page book offer us an insight into how some brave and persistent African American men paved the way for others to be a full part of the US armed forces.

Tanya Lee Stone (author of 'Almost Astronauts') has done extensive research to tell her true story for readers of all ages. Boys in particular will love reading and looking at the historic photos. The work took Stone almost 10 years and the meticulous care and passion shows in this wonderful book. This amazing story will challenge all readers irrespective of age, race or ethnicity. The book recently won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. It is a very worthy winner.

'The Burnt Stick' (1995) by Anthony Hill & Mark Sofilas (illustrator)

This novel for younger readers (8-10 years) is set in Australia prior to the 1960s.  It is the story of a young Australian aboriginal boy named John Jagamarra, who had been taken (like thousands of other Indigenous children) from his family. John was taken from his mother by the Welfare Department of the day, and sent to live with his white Father at the Pearl Bay Mission for Aboriginal Children. He grew up in this beautiful place, but he knew it was not like being home with his mother and his people.  He remembers how the 'Big Man from Welfare' had come and taken him away. His story illustrates how well intentioned government policy at the time failed to deal with the problems of Indigenous communities and failed to understand the full needs of people 'other' than themselves. While the story positions us as reader to see the tragedy of the 'Stolen Generation' through John's eyes, at the same time it offers child and adult readers the chance to consider the issues of racial difference and how we understand, live with and when necessary, reach out to people other than ourselves.

Mark Sofilas' wonderful charcoal images add a haunting and powerful additional dimension to the story. The Children's Book Council of Australia named it Book of the Year for Younger Readers in 1995.

'The Jacket' by Andrew Clements & illustrated by McDavid Henderson

A white boy (Phil) wrongly accuses an African-American boy of stealing his brother's jacket. He realises that he is racist and asks his mother the question: "How come you never told me I was prejudiced?" This incident forces Phil to confront his inner prejudices and ultimately leads to a great opportunity to learn for the sixth grade boy. He recognises that there is prejudice in his neighbourhood, his family and even himself. In the process he finds a new friend in the process and is changed. The book is suitable for children aged 8 to 12 years.

'Peaceful Protest: The Life of Nelson Mandela' by Yona Zeldis McDonough & illustrated by Malcah Zeldis

This is a biography written for upper primary children (aged 8-11) that tells the story of Nelson Mandela. It commences with his childhood and ends with his retirement in 1999. It covers the major events you would expect, including his imprisonment for opposing apartheid, his election as the first black president of the Republic of South Africa, and his award of the Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle against racism and apartheid.

Mother and daughter Malcah Zeldis and Yona Zeldis McDonough have worked together to create a wonderful and challenging tribute to Nelson Mandela's “long road to freedom” that helped to free an entire nation. The illustrations by McDonough are striking and unusual, using gouache on watercolour paper. 

'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit', by Judith Kerr

Anna was only 9 years old in 1933 when Adolf Hitler emerged in the Germany of her youth. But as a Jewish girl she was soon to find that her world had changed when her father went missing. With a leader filled with hatred for an entire race of people, and determined to see them eliminated Germany is transformed.  Anna's father is a well-known Jewish writer, and someone warns him, just in time that he might soon lose his passport. Her father leaves by night for Switzerland and Anna, her brother and mother are left behind in Berlin. He sends for his family to meet him in Switzerland and they escape just a day before the German elections. Hitler sweeps to power all Jewish property is seized in Berlin and they are now refugees in Switzerland, with no way back. This wonderful story tells the story of the horror of Germany in the reign of Hitler through the eyes of a little girl.

3. Older Readers (Aged 12 to 14+ years)

'Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice' by Phillip Hoose.

This multi-award winning book - including being named as a Newbery Honour book in 2010 - is about Claudette Colvin. On March 2, 1955, this inspirational teenager, fed up with the daily injustices of Jim Crow segregation, refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Instead of being celebrated, as Rosa Parks would be just nine months later, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin found herself shunned by her classmates and dismissed by community leaders. Undaunted, a year later she dared to challenge segregation again as a key plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that struck down the segregation laws of Montgomery and swept away the legal underpinnings of the Jim Crow South.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

This is a wonderful work of historical fiction written by Christopher Paul Curtis in 1995. It was republished in 1997. It tells the story of an African-American family living in the town of Flint, Michigan that goes to their grandmother’s home in Birmingham, Alabama. This middle-class black family move to Grandma's because she's strict and they hope she will sort him out over summer. But they happen to be in Birmingham when Grandma’s church is blown up, the 16th Street Baptist Church.

The book was Curtis’ first novel, and was named as a Newbery Honour book and won the Coretta Scott King Award. Curtis is also the author of the Newbery Award winner Bud, Not Buddy. 

It was released as a film in 2013 HERE

'Requiem for a Beast' by Matt Ottley

Another more recent exploration of this theme is Matt Ottley's epic picture book 'Requiem for a Beast' (which I have reviewed in full here). Essentially, Ottley wrote, drew, and composed a work that uses the Australian Stockman’s life as the centrepiece of a work that offers a different story of this much romanticised figure in the Australian psyche. In his own words, shared just after the award announcement when responding to some of the controversy surrounding the choice of the book, he suggested that:
"We have a romanticised view of what a stockman's life is like, a Man From Snowy River-view, and I wanted to present life in a stock camp as it really is, in all its grittiness."
And ‘gritty’ it is. As he explores the parallel lives of a young man working on an outback station coming face to face with a rogue bull, the story of his childhood, and the stories of dispossessed Aboriginal people. Within this narrative he explores other significant themes - the stolen generation (international readers might need this link), conquering one’s demons, loss, separation, guilt and forgiveness, separation and loneliness, family and community.

The book is in four parts, each with a title in Latin. Part one is Dies Irae (Day of wrath), presumably tied intertextually with the 13th Century hymn about the day of God's judgement. The opening pages, with its five magnificent oil paintings of the Australian landscape and three haunting statements, offer some clear clues to the reader:
It’s our memories that make us
This country, these hills you see; this is my mother’s country, and her mother’s too.”
I’m supposed to be a fully initiated woman, but that knowledge, that memory, is gone. Aboriginal Elder”
Ottley's ambitious work is set against the backdrop of Indigenous suffering and alienation. Ottley weaves multiple narratives of the boy’s life and Indigenous memories. This work is a riot of rich visual and verbal imagery.

The book won the 2008 Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards for a Picture Book. 

'Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry' (1976) by Mildred Taylor

This book won the 1977 Newbery Medal Award, tells the story of a poor African American family living in Mississippi during the Great Depression. This novel is set in the Depression-era in Mississippi and centres on the lives of the Logans, an African-American family Logan family. The Logans are fortunate compared to many African-Americans and own their own land when many black and white Americans are working as sharecroppers on plantations owned by others. It is a time when racially-motivated crimes are common. The 'Berry Burnings' mentioned the first chapter and the act of tarring and feathering Mr Tatum were incidents that were sadly not uncommon as 'nightmen' took the law into their own hands at the expense of African-Americans. It is a novel that traces the life of young Cassie Logan as she learns the hard realities of life for African-Americans.  This is a moving and confronting novel.

The book has a sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, which was released in 1981. It also has a prequel written in 1975, Song of the Trees and a related prior book The Land that tells the story of the Logan grandfather who purchased the land that is central to this novel. It is suitable for readers aged 11-14 years.

'Somehow Tenderness Survives: Stories of Southern Africa', by Hazel Rochman

This South African book is about the reality of Apartheid and the impact on real people. It shows the ugliness of racism played out in the stories of people who suffered and experienced violence. It includes ten stories and autobiographical accounts by a range of writers from southern Africa writers of various races (five black and five white). It includes well-known writers like Nadine Gordimer, Mark Mathabane and Doris Lessing as well as writers who mostly won't be known outside South Africa. The stories together and individually are a moving and challenging set of narratives that do not hide the ugly side of racism. At times they offer a shocking and powerful portrait of life under the oppression of racism that is sustained by the law.

'Sounder', by William H. Armstrong

This is the story of an African-American boy who lives with his family. The boy's father is a sharecropper and the family is struggling through hard times. He has a dog, named 'Sounder', mixed a coon/bulldog. Sounder goes out hunting with the boy's father each and every night they come back empty handed. But one morning, to his amazement the boy wakes to the unfamiliar smell of his mother cooking a hambone. Everyone is overjoyed, but a few days later the joy is shattered as three white men arrive and take his father for stealing a ham. The sheriff cruelly shoots Sounder who chases the cart that takes his father away and life suddenly becomes even harder. But he hungers for an education and his resilience and perseverance is remarkable.

'Sounder' won the Newbery Award in 1970, and was made in to a motion picture in 1972.

'The Slave Dancer' by Paula Fox

This book tells the story of a boy called Jessie Bollier who witnessed first-hand the savagery of the African slave trade. The book not only includes an historical account, but it also touches upon the emotional conflicts felt by those involved in transporting the slaves from Africa to other parts of the world. The book received the Newbery Medal in 1974.

'Number the Stars', by Lois Lowry

This fictitious story recounts the real life salvation of 8,000 Danish Jews who escaped to Sweden by sea. It is 1943, during the German occupation of Denmark, and ten-year-old Annemarie learns how to be brave and courageous when she helps shelter her Jewish friend from the Nazis. Annemarie and Ellen are best friends. Their life is ordinary. Annemarie is Christian and Ellen is Jewish and they are good friends. But there is a great threat from the Nazi soldiers who have invaded and are on their streets. The girls believe that the Danish King Christian will protect them. One night their families learn that all Jews of Denmark are about to be sent to concentration camps. With the help of Danish Resistance Annemarie’s family hides Ellen and attempt to get her to safety in Sweden. This is a gripping tale that will be enjoyed by 10-14 years old children.

Using the books in the classroom

The major purpose of the post is to show that there are many good books for children of all ages that focus on the theme of racism. My aim in presenting such books is straightforward.

a) I want children to experience books that offer narratives that deal authentically with the issue of racism.  The initial aim is simply for children to enjoy the books as good stories.

b) I also want children to engage with the story at a deeper level and be able to see the characters as authentic and at times to even to identify with them. This might be as a victim, or as someone who struggles to understand and deal with people other than themselves.

c) My aim is not to indoctrinate, but I do want to raise the issues, provide historical and factual details as appropriate as supplementary material.

d) I want children to have an opportunity to respond and discuss the literature as narrative and in relation to the themes and issues raised.  This might involve a variety of formats for response:
  • Structured and guided response in discussion groups
  • Free written response
  • Aesthetic response through drama, music, drawing (see for example 'Sketch to Stretch' here)
  • Opportunities for further research on time periods, events and people
One final comment. All literature needs to be experienced as narrative not as enabling material for lessons on topics that may or may not be related to the author's story and intent. I always want to trust the story to teach and try to avoid turning a wonderful narrative, with an authentic treatment of an important issue, into a series of decontextualised lessons. Such lessons can easily destroy the enjoyment of the story and fail to engage children at the deep level necessary to grasp and deal with complex life themes.

Other related resources

All previous posts on 'Key Themes in Children's Literature' HERE

Ann M. Neely (2011). Literature of Social Transformation: Helping Teachers and Students Make Global Connections. Language Arts, Vol. 88, No. 4, pp 278-287.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

'Hiroshima' (70 years today): Remembered with Children's Books

On the 6th August 1945 the first of two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. The first was on Hiroshima and led to the death of an estimated 140,000 people. A second was dropped on Nagasaki on the 9th August that is estimated to have killed 80,000 people. However, it is difficult to estimate numbers as people are still dying from the effects of the two explosions. Debates rage still about the justification for the bombing and its use to end WWII. Irrespective of our views on this, today at the very least, we should consider the impact of such weapons and their potential to do even more catastrophic things given their even greater power today.

To mark this anniversary I would suggest the following four books are worth sharing with children aged 6-11. The first is a picture book that tells the story of Junko Morimoto who stayed home from school on the 6th August 1945 and lived, while many friends died. The second is a picture book by Toshi Maruki that recounts a story that a woman told her when she visited an exhibition of Maruki's atomic bomb paintings. The third is a short novel for younger readers that tells the story of a nine year-old girl who died just seven years after the explosion from Leukaemia as a consequence of the bombing. The fourth tells the story of how Aboriginal Australians living in remote parts of Australia died as a result of atomic testing in the 1950s. I share this because it shows that in spite of the catastrophic impact of the atomic bombs on Japan, efforts were still occurring to develop weapons of this kind by Britain with the support of Australia. All offer opportunities to reflect on these powerful stories and the challenge of achieving peace. 

1. 'My Hiroshima' by Junko Morimoto (1987)

This is the true story of how one little girl survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th 1945. Junko Morimoto narrates the story of her family, her early life and memory of life in Japan during the second World War, and the day she was hit by a “thunderous flash and an explosion of sound” and the miracle of her survival. This moving simple retelling of that day in word, family photographic record and illustration, uses the place and her experience to recall an event that changed her life and that of the world.

2. 'Hiroshima No Pika' written and illustrated by Toshi Maruki

Toshi Maruki (1912-2000) was born in Hokkaido and studied Western art. In 1950 she began painting significant works about the impact of atomic weapons. With her husband and fellow artist Iri Maruki they produced the 'Hiroshima Panels'. Later paintings also focussed on wartime atrocities such as Auschwitz, the Nanking Massacre, and also environmental disasters. The Marukis received a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize as a result of their pacifist work. Toshi produced many children's books with vivid and colourful illustrations.

The story was motivated by a woman who entered an exhibition of her atomic bomb paintings in Hokkaido one day and seized the microphone to tell her emotional story of the day the bomb dropped on her home town of Hiroshima. The book is based largely on this woman's story. The story tells of the heartbreaking experience of seven-year-old Mii and her parents that began at 8:15 a.m. on the 6th August 1945, when the atomic bomb "Little Boy" was dropped on their city.

3. 'Sadako and the Thousand paper Cranes' by Eleanor Coerr and illustrated by Ronald Himler

This amazing and moving book is based on the true story of an 11-year-old Japanese girl diagnosed with leukaemia as a consequence of the bombing of Hiroshima. Sadako Sasaki was just 2 when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. For a number of years she is a normal child and the star of the school running team. But one day there are dizzy spells and eventually, a telling diagnosis. This true story tells how a little girl faces her future bravely by drawing on the encouragement of a Japanese legend. The legend suggests that if a sick person folds one thousand cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again.
This is a story of extraordinary courage that made one young woman a heroine in Japan

4. 'Maralinga: The Anangu Story' written and illustrated by the Yalata and Oak communities with Christobel Mattingley

This is the story of the British atomic testing of the 1950s in Central Australia. It is told and illustrated by Indigenous Australians who are the traditional owners of Maralinga that was used for the testing.  In words and pictures the community members, describe what happened in the Maralinga Tjarutja lands of South Australia before the bombs and after. This is an important and tragic account of human folly and its consequence for a people who were there first, but whose needs counted for little.

The book was an outcome of the collaboration of well-known Australian author Christobel Mattingley's collaboration with these two remote Aboriginal communities in South Australia.