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Can Con: Rex Zero, King of Nothing

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Believe it or not, there is a lot more to Canadian children’s lit than Tim Wynne-Jones, but right now, he’s holding up my whole “Can-Con” category all by himself.  I suppose if there was ever an author to do it, it’s Mr. Wynne-Jones.

Rex is back!  He’s still settling into his new life in Ottawa.  He’s still crafting hare-brained schemes with his pals.  He still has a wacky family.  This time around, Rex faces more mysteries, secrets and challenges at home and around town.  Why is his father growing more distant and sad, and what’s the story behind the stash of photographs and letters written in German?  How will his class get through the school year when their teacher, Miss Garr, is about as mean as they come?  Will Rex be able to help a beautiful stranger find a way to escape her troubled marriage? 

The second book has the same charm as the first, with more darker elements woven throughout.  I like how Tim Wynne-Jones’s characters are not completely one-sided.  Even Miss Garr, hardly a likeable person, is rendered more sympathetic by the end of the story – but not in a way that seems “happy-ending” ish.  Wynne-Jones explores heroism and the challenges of everyday life in a way that kids and grown ups will relate to. 

A few teensy gripes – I wish there had been more crazy Annie Oakley in this one.  She’s there, complete with bow and arrows and cowboy pyjamas, but she’s not as present as in book one, and she is just so darn fantastic! I love how angry/dramatic she is all the time.  (Mr. Wynne-Jones, if you are reading this, will you please write us a story all about Annie and we will forgive you?)  I wish there had been a tad more of the humour offered up in the first book, although the chapter where Mr. Odsburg comes over for dinner pretty much makes up for this. Otherwise… perfection.

If you haven’t yet read Rex Zero and the End of the World it is your own fault. Read it, then read this. Right away.

Rex Zero King of Nothing by Tim Wynne-Jones is published by Groundwood, House of Anansi Press.

Elf Envy – Random Round-Up

Since I want to be spending my free time today reading the rest of the newest Rex Zero, here are some treats courtesy of other bloggers’ brains:

Pop over to 7imp’s lovely list of Best Picture Books of 2007.

Thanks to Jen Robinson for pointing me to a new happy place: Escape Adulthood . It is going to be a whole lot harder to face my mountains of grown up work now. Thanks… thanks a lot.

The Longstockings present a cool bookmark that might convince “too cool” teens to read something once in a while: Read for the Fun of It.

Educating Alice wonders about motives when Dahl beats out our dear Rowling as Most Popular Children’s Author.

Now for a completely non-blogging link! Last weekend, while wandering blissfully through my neighborhood outdoor art show, I happened upon these pretties:

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Go to Liz Kain for lots more bookish baubles. Hooray Canadian craftspeople!

P.S. By some miracle, until this morning, I have managed to avoid any and all HP7 spoilers… (I know that it is shocking that I am still reading, but since we are reading it together it takes a mighty long time). Then – oh the horror – I glimpsed a mention on Fuse 8 of a site called Hedwigisnotdead.com. (I will not even link to it because that would mean I might see something bad bad bad). It cannot be! Did she kill Hedwig? (Don’t answer that question… I don’t want to know).

Beatrice’s Goat

61m8sn5qgwl_ss400_.jpg I just finished planning my first mini reading unit with the theme: Books are a window to the world. I was looking for fiction and non-fiction advanced picture books that will enable my students to experience how books can provide insight into places they don’t know about, or have never really explored. I compiled a great list of titles (the tricky part was narrowing it down to only 10), and one of the final few is Beatrice’s Goat by Page McBrier.

There’s so much to like about this one. The illustrations are rich, bright and full of energy and life. The text is simple, but the message is powerful. It is based on the true story of a girl named Beatrice whose family received a goat through Heifer Project International. If you don’t know about how it works (though I’m sure many people have heard of this sort of program), this organization provides an animal to a family in a developing country, along with training in animal care and agricultural practice, and the animal becomes a source of income and food. The income creates many changes in families and communities: schooling, medical care, clothing etc. Beatrice’s Goat isn’t just a story whose sole purpose is to provide new perspectives to privileged kids with very different life experiences. It is a sweet family tale, worth reading for the thoughtful writing and illustration.

Teachers should visit Read to Feed for more information about Heifer Project International and many classroom resources. Another outstanding program for educators that I was involved with last year is Life in Action, associated with Free the Children. Free the Children has a program similar to Heifer Project International, called Adopt a Village.

OK.  Many, many links.  But every one of them is worth visiting, I promise.

Beatrice’s Goat by Page McBrier is published by Atheneum Books

Bootleg

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I just sped through Bootleg by Alex Shearer, because I was checking it out as a possible read aloud for my Grade 5 kiddies. So here’s the lowdown.

The Good For You Party is now running the country (the country being England I think, given the British lingo peppered throughout the book). The party is forcing citizens to lead healthier lives, and their first initiative is to ban chocolate consumption and production. Two kids, Smudger and Huntly (along with the majority of other British children and grown ups), are particularly horrified by this development, and decide to take matters into their own hands. The boys find a recipe for making chocolate, and conveniently, a hidden store of all of the necessary ingredients and they begin a bootlegging operation. The question is how long will they be able to keep things “under wraps,” since the Inspector, Trooper Police, and freaky little Young Pioneers (the junior branch of the party) are out to crush all who resist.

I think this story has a lot going for it, especially if you’re looking at it from a teaching perspective. The narrative moves along quite briskly, and the kids are enterprising and nervy which makes you want them to beat the bad guys. I can imagine many points of departure for interesting discussions (especially if you have to teach government / citizenship… even health). You could get into the whole underlying topic of chocolate production – its darker side and the associated social justice issues, fairtrade etc. Of course, you might make chocolate yummies, write imaginary letters to The Good For You Party or to chocolate/candy companies to find out about their production methods.

I found the characters a little thin, however. I think the two central figures needed to be more carefully drawn and more individual. I also wondered about exploring this kind of territory (oppressive governments and loss of personal freedoms) using chocolate as the framework. Does it offer lightness where it shouldn’t, or detract from the truly disturbing nature of the topic by making it a bit less serious? Or is this tactic desirable if you wish to begin to explore such ideas with kids? I haven’t really decided on that yet.

Anyway, I think many kids will eat this one up, and after I’ve finished reading them Spiderwick 1, I may just give it a try.

Courage

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As the sun goes down on the last day of my first summer as a teacher, this just seems like the perfect book for my current state of mind.  All day I’ve had this nervous, edgy, night-before-going-on-a-trip feeling in my stomach.  This afternoon I asked my Teacher-Husband, “Is it normal that I feel like I’m going to puke?”  He says yes, but that’s probably just because he doesn’t want to talk about it.  OK, so it’s nothing compared to last year.  This year, it’s “Let’s get this show on the road” type of nervous.  Last year, it was “Am I too young to be having a heart attack?” nervous.  I know it’s going to be a different journey this time, and I’m excited to see how it unfolds.

I love Waber’s book.  It’s honest and heartwarming and funny.  While there are lots of kiddies in this book, the sentiment works for grown-ups too.  Waber takes a look at all of the different forms of courage that are possible.  He writes:

There are many kinds of courage.
Awesome kinds.
And everyday kinds.
Still, courage is courage—
whatever kind.

Right now, I’m feeling a whole lot like that kid on the high diving board, wondering how I’m ever going to take the plunge.

Waber makes us see that courage can be of the heroic variety, but it can also happen in the simple actions we make in a day… like going back to school.

Courage by Bernard Waber is published by Houghton/Mifflin

The Year of the Rat

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Grace Lin’s The Year of the Rat is a lovely little book that is quietly compelling, funny and charming. It reminds me of the kind of foreign film I like best, the type that offers a perfect slice of real life – a little sadness and a little laughter with small epiphanies along the way.

It’s a continuation of the equally endearing The Year of the Dog, where we were introduced to Pacy and her family and friends. In this book, Pacy faces many challenges as the year of the rat is a year of change.  Her best friend is moving away, a new Chinese boy at school forces her to take a look at her own flaws, and she is still working hard towards her goal of becoming a writer and illustrator.  I like how Grace Lin’s story (because it is truly her personal history) really makes you feel like you’ve had a glimpse into aspects of another culture, without ever seeming forced or didactic.  This introduction to a different culture, along with the exploration of prejudice in the story, never overwhelms the reader, and so it will be an excellent book to get younger readers thinking about different experiences in the world. But beyond this, The Year of the Rat is simply a touching novel about facing change with hope and perspective.

Sadly, Grace Lin has recently experienced a profound loss in her family.  In 2004, she and her husband established an online auction called Robert’s Snow to fundraise for Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.  I am sure that many of her readers, and others, will visit the site to learn more.

The Year of the Rat is published by Little Brown.