Review – Home of the Cuckoo Clock

‘There’s a sad sort of clanging from the clock in the hall and the bells in the steeple too. And up in the nursery, an absurd little bird is popping up to say, “Cuckoo, cuckoo!”’

So marks the passing of time as decreed by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Time, we often complain about its restraints and resist its ravages but to ignore it completely results in chaos. At least it does for the village of Schoenwald in Home of the Cuckoo Clock.

Home of the Cuckoo Clock is Robert Favretto’s first venture into the picture book world, one he makes with considerable assuredness and aptitude along with illustrator, David Eustace. Together they navigate the difficult yet supreme landscape of telling stories in pictures against the stunning backdrop of Germany’s Black Forest region.

Schoenwald is caught in a peculiar metaphysical time warp, in other words, frozen in time. It’s not a bad thing ignoring the passing of time however complete deprivation of any time keeping results in some devastating situations for the villagers: children are late for school, the shops do not open on time, and cows are not milked. The problem? No clocks.

Continue reading Review – Home of the Cuckoo Clock

Doodles and Drafts – Nick Earls reveals his Top Secrets

word-hunters-and-nick-earlsA few years ago, I had the supreme pleasure of joining a world of word nuts who allowed me to accompany them on hair-raising adventures through time and reason; I discovered the Word Hunters – a trilogy of etymological enigmas by author Nick Earls and illustrator, Terry Whidborne. I carry on a bit about the awesomeness of their series, here. Although Word Hunters is more than satisfying and a dozen other superlatives to boot, I was left wanting more as many exhilarating experiences are wont to make you feel. And so, the trilogy has expanded with the launch of the Top Secret Files.

Top Secret Files is a sort of compendium of loosely connected thoughts and verbal exploration. It’s a journal of notes and taste bud temptations. It’s an explanation of even more philology through brief crisp narrative and pages of eye-catching sketches, drawings, and diagrams. It’s the journal of the great word hunter, Caractacus entrusted to the ancient librarian, Mursili who perhaps a little misguidedly assigns it back to our dauntless duo, Earls and Whidborne.

Today we have the auspicious pleasure of welcoming Nick Earls to the draft table to learn a little more about the custodian of the Word Hunters and how he is dealing with his Top Secret Files.

nick-earls-2017Welcome Nick!

Who is Nick Earls? Describe your writerly self.

Twenty-six books into the job, he’s an unkempt work in progress, growing into the thought lines etched deep into his forehead and still trying to get better each time he writes.

In a former life, your quest was to serve and protect or at least, make people feel better. How does your current occupational goal as a writer compare?

I now wear my underpants on the inside and don’t have a cape. Each job hinges on a connection with people. In medicine, it’s getting to understand them on their terms, so that the story they tell makes as much sense as possible. In writing the kind of fiction I mostly do, it’s about tapping into characters who, when read, feel as though they can’t have been made up. With Word Hunters there are other objectives too – there’s an adventure to be had and a world of mind-blowing words facts to play around with. My goal as the writer of this series is to entertain, but also be part of opening minds to the possibilities of history and the fascinating workings of the language. It’s too easy to fall into the habit of saying that English is a crazy language that makes no sense, but the more you grasp its 1500-year history (plus some back-story) the more sense it ends up making. And the more powerfully you can use it. ‘Night’ and ‘light’, for instance, aren’t spelled that way by chance, or because someone threw darts at a board – there’s a reason for it, and a really interesting one (featuring a now-lost letter), so we wrote about that in the new book.

wisdom-tree-novellasName three titles you have created that you are particularly proud of and why.

It’s not a thing I feel about anything I write. Which doesn’t mean I think it’s all awful – it’s just that ‘pride’ isn’t really the feeling. I love the process of exploring the story and its characters, and how they’ll all work, and then the job of working hard to get the details right and delivering them in a compelling way. If someone gets it, I feel good. It feels as if all that work was worth sharing. Okay, one example: Gotham, the first novella in the Wisdom Tree series. I had two story ideas that I wanted to give to one character, and I thought I could make them work together in an interesting way. So, the first two acts are essentially one of those story ideas, with seeds being sewn for the third, then act three really takes you somewhere, delivers something (I hope) you’re not expecting, and also casts new light on the earlier part of the story. It’s worked just as I hoped it would for quite a lot of people now, and I have to admit that’s gratifying, since I love it when fiction works that way in my head.

top-secret-files-word-huntersIt’s been nearly three and a half years since the Word Hunter series hit our bookshelves. Was a follow up compendium like Top Secret Files always on the cards? If not, what evoked the idea and need for it?

It was Terry’s idea, and he put it to me when we were driving between two schools, doing our live Word Hunters show when the third book came out in 2013. He wanted to do something more visual and less dependent on a big new narrative, and he wanted to explore some of the gadgets we’d included. In that conversation, I realised I’d found some excellent word stuff that I hadn’t been able to include in the other three books, and we came up with the idea of a kind of manual, or ‘a compendium of devices and methods’ as Caractacus rather self-importantly puts it. Living in the Dark Ages and seeing the consequence of knowledge loss, Caractacus puts a premium on knowledge and, unlike the rest of us, has a pipeline to the future. So, this is him trying to keep track of the info future word hunters bring back to him, some of which he adapts for use in his own time. Some of that presented a fascinating challenge. In book three, he’s created lightweight 21st-century ceramic armour for the hunters to fight in, and for Top Secret Files I had to work out how it was made, then work out how to adapt that to processes someone could use on a Dark Ages pig farm. I have to say, that stretched me. Then we paired that with the fun activity of making your own medieval armour from cardboard, using the fascinating terms for each piece.

What can Word Hunter fans expect from Top Secret Files?

Expect the unexpected. You’ll come out of this dressed in armour from the 15th century, making bread from 3000 years ago and able to navigate using the Ancient Phoenician alphabet (or, more correctly, abjad). And who doesn’t want that set of awesome skills? You’ll also understand why we score tennis the way we do, where cricket fielding positions got their names, and how our alphabet found twelve new letters and lost nine of them!

Top Secret Files reads as a combination of loose jaunty exchanges and solid historical fact. At times if feels even more revealing and fantastical than the Word Hunters storylines. (Are all those words that couldn’t be saved as part of the English language real? Sorry had to ask; I’m too lazy to research every groke, fudgel, and curglaff) Why did you choose this style of delivery over straightforward narrative?

Some of the most improbable things in the book are true including, yes, those words that couldn’t be saved (even the one that involves doing a distinctly weird thing to a part of a horse that’s best left alone …). When I was tunnelling around for material, I wanted the facts to be weirder than the fiction, so that the fiction seems all the more plausible.

We had this kind of style in mind from the start, for two reasons. First, not having to build a massive narrative to slip in one brilliant word fact gave us licence to include lots more stuff and focus on it. It would have taken several more of the original books and a lot of complicated storytelling to have created opportunities to use everything we got to use here. Also, Terry was very mindful of creating a different way into the word hunters’ world. This was deliberately compact, really visual and in short sections (with an overarching concept but not an overarching narrative) to provide a way into the world for kids not immediately drawn to 40-60,000 words of narrative.

We wanted to make the original three books accessible by telling the most engrossing time-travel adventure story we could, but this book is designed to increase the accessibility even more. We wanted to create something for, say, 9-10-year-old boys not yet hooked by reading big stories (while at the same time offering fascinating content for people who are). If they get into this, maybe they’ll pick up book one, and then book two and book three. And by the end of that, maybe they’ll have felt that buzz in their head that only books can put there, and they’ll want more. I got into reading as a kid, but Terry didn’t, and this is Terry coming up with the kind of book he thinks might have made a difference to him at that age.

word-hunter-sketchesIllustrator, Terry Whidborne receives equal airplay alongside you, Lexi and Al throughout this journal. What was the dynamic like working with him? How did it influence and or benefit this production?

Terry’s great. We met working on an advertising campaign in 2002. We’re friends and I’m also in awe of his skills as an artist – another reason to do this book: I want publishers and others to see just how talented Terry is.

We each bring very different things to a book like this, and I think that helps make us a great team. We also had a very clear shared vision of what we wanted the end result to be. And it was always clear that we would have the freedom to suggest possible topics to each other, and throw in ideas to get the other one thinking. Terry would say things like, ‘I reckon there would be some kind of portal-sniffing device,’ and I’d have to rummage around for the science to sort-of back it up.

And I’d often say, about something I was working on, ‘I don’t know what this looks like – could you show me?’ and he would. Or I’d say, ‘here’s some great content I want to use, but how do we make it visual?’ and Terry would say, ‘How about a map?’

And he’d hide small things and see if I’d find them. Once you find, say, the ink smudge that’s also a map of Iceland – in context – you realise this book has more Easter eggs than Coles in March. It’s a slim book, but there are about a zillion tiny details in there, and they reveal themselves in different ways.

What inspires you to include or exclude words for discussion in the Word Hunter books? What external forces such as travel for example, influence your writing direction?

This time, I got the chance to use things that had amazed me, but that I wasn’t in a position to devote 20,000 words of narrative to. So, that was fun.

It was very interesting plotting the big story that runs across the first three books, and that create the world that the Top Secret Diary lives in. I needed each of the first three books to be an entire satisfying story, but also part of a whole, and I knew each one would feature three word quests. I also knew I wanted to follow a bunch of different pathways – English is what it is because of that – so I needed a mix of Germanic and Norman French/Latin words and words with very different origins. And I needed to get the characters to certain places at certain times to tell the big story we were telling. That was an awesome puzzle to try to solve. In the case of the last word in book three, I decided I needed something that would take us to the earliest-known book in English, link with an epic Dark Ages battle and get there via Shakespeare and one other interesting step. No easy task. I got there though.

Whose genius was it to include the interactive app, LAYAR for kids to utilise? Do you think this is the way of future storytelling?

That was Terry. The moment he discovered LAYAR, I got fanatical about it. It’s perfect for this book. Perfect. Again, it’s a great way in for someone not rushing to read lots of text, but for whom the idea of using a gadget to reveal hidden content appeals. And no one had more potential hidden content than me. I instantly knew it’d add massively to the reading experience, and I’d get to use a lot more great stuff.

Is it the way of future storytelling? It’s part of it, I’m sure. Technology gives us more tools than we’ve ever had. We just have to be smart enough to use them judiciously. LAYAR would be a gimmick or a distraction for some things, but it’s ideal for this.

On a scale of Never-Do-It-Again to Most-Exhilarating-Audience-To-Write-For-Ever!, how do you rate writing for tween readers? What is most appealing about writing for this age group?

I’m still learning, I think. I’m maybe a more natural writer for adults, but with the right material, time and smart editing, I can end up with something that works for the tween brain, and I’m getting closer to some of the techniques becoming instinctive. Two things are massively appealing about this age group. It’s a huge buzz when a kid comes up to you and raves about their Word Hunters experience and starts sharing some great etymology they’ve dug up. There’s a 9, 10, 11, 12-year-old whose grasp of English, you know, has been altered for the better. I love that. The other thing I really love is going round the schools and doing Word Hunters events. We’ve come up with a show that we can do together or solo that includes loads of visuals, props, games and a lot of noise, and It’s way more fun doing it than I ever thought. Every time I front up to a school with all my Word Hunters’ gear, I’m excited.

word-hunters-the-lost-huntersNow that you and Terry have been entrusted with Caractacus’ archive of Word Huntery (and really really interesting recipes!) thanks to Mursili, and blatantly ignoring all warnings to the contrary, have exposed it to the world, what plans do you and Terry have for the journal? Are more copies likely to appear? In short, what is on the draft table for Nick?

I have a PhD to finish, so no new fiction this year, but in the meantime, I want to make the most of the new material we’ve added to our show and take it around the place. I know that’s technically part of the job, because it might sell some books, but I actually want to do it because of the fun we can have and because of the way it opens a roomful of minds to the prospect of actually looking at our language and how it works, understanding it better and ultimately using it with greater power than most of us grew up being able to. I’ll also be putting in some effort to avoid the wrath of Caractacus. He’s not one to understand that this stuff was just too good to keep hidden.

Just for fun question (there’s always one): Describe a guilty pleasure (of yours) incorporating three words that did not exist before the last century.

Brilliant question. I’ll go as recent as I can. I regularly google (2001, as a verb) idle factoids (1973, invented by Norman Mailer, though the meaning has evolved since) using Bluetooth (1997).

Super! Thanks Nick.

If you reside in Queensland,  you can catch Nick and Terry putting in some effort to avoid Caractacus’ wrath and share their Top Secrets at one of this year’s Book Link QLD’s Romancing the Stars events during March. For details on where they will be appearing (there are Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast venues), and how to book, visit the Book Links site, here.

The Word Hunters Series including the Top Secret Files is available, here.

UQP December 2016

Getting Serious about Series # 3 – Word Hunters

Word HuntersAll right, so it’s taken me a few years to share these ones but here are three of my favourite books of all time. I can’t even properly explain why but when a tale ticks multiple boxes so satisfyingly and engrosses you so completely whilst doing so, you can’t help but be muted into humble reverence. Ok, perhaps I’m trumpeting up the Word Hunters trilogy somewhat and confusing my metaphors but I reckon this series by charismatic collaborators, Nick Earls and Terry Whidborne deserves a little repeated airplay.

Therefore, from their cloistered position on my bookshelf, I reach for Word Hunters, The Curious Dictionary, the first in this divine trinity. Although in paperback, the book(s) has an alluring, timeless quality to it thanks to the cleverly designed leather-look cover and gilt bordering. But enough about aesthetics. Delve inside and you are immediately met with poetic riddles, dares, and definitions. You get the feeling you are entering hallowed ground, a place where time might lose itself, history may be rewritten and anything you say or do could alter anything you’ll end up saying or doing.

Nick Earls 2Confused yet? Well fear not, for Earls has enlisted the help of 12-year-old twins, Lexi and Al Hunter; to help save the English language and make sense of the fascinating etymological expedition they unwittingly embark on.

The Curious Dictionary, an ancient dictionary created by a chap called Caractacus and used for the last 1500 years by word hunters to protect word history, is the twins’ new Lonely Planet guide. With it they zip back and forth through the ages, hunting down words at risk of disappearing from the language and carefully tracking every step of their evolution in the past in order to keep them alive in the present (the words that is). The time travelling alone is enough to cause a bad case of chundering (the first new fact of many I learnt about time travel) and continually upset Doug, Al’s pet mouse. However, the sharp focus on the at-risk-words is what truly commands attention.

Word Hunters PegThe Dictionary’s definitions of endangered words are benignly simple as are some of the proffered words, hello and water for example. Thankfully (although at times regrettably), we are not over-flooded with threatened vocabulary which allows Lexi and Al plenty of time to visit ancient cities, meet great inventors and survive harrowing situations like the Battle of Hastings. In short, experience a really ripper world tour full of lumps and bumps and strange old men and curious gadgety golden peg things.

These books are pure essence of adventure for tween readers, enticing them into an historical literary experience they might not even recognise being in; the journey is so littered with quintessential Earls’ irreverent wit it is hard to believe we are learning something so vital, at least I felt I was. The historical detail is phenomenal. Moreover, it’s not just about the words.

As Lexi and Al hone their hunting skills and learn to cope with the time-slipping nausea, we are drawn into the engrossing world of UPPER and lower case, the timeline of printing, letter formation and so much more relating to etymology and philology. Now colour me dull, but I found this anything but dull!

Word Hunters Lost HuntersThe Lost Hunters involves more words, more battles, and alarmingly, a search for their grandfather who it turns out, is the lost hunter. Fortunately Whidborne’s beguiling illustrations heavily featured throughout the twins’ travels serve to lighten the mood, and push Earl’s acerbic historical observations (and some very gory situations) merrily along, albeit not so merrily for Doug the rat who firmly entrenches himself in my list of favourite characters in this volume. His contributions to sensory detail are Terry Whidbornepure brilliance.

By the third and final instalment, War of the Word Hunters, Al and Lexi are in full training mode owing to their impending battle with the armed and dangerous grey-robes, rogue hunters determined to thwart word history and so alter its course and irreversibly undo people and their cultures.

Word Hunters War of the Word HuntersThe Word Hunters series is not just a collection of etymological explanations and revelations, (although this was enough to captivate me long into the night), it is a gripping, exhilarating quest through time that at times makes your guts churn with dread and discomfort. The rest of the time, they’ll be dancing because you’re laughing so hard.

I loved all the characters: the good, the bad, the alive, the dead and the ones with unpronounceable names. I loved Earls’ wry union of our sometimes-inglorious past and our social-media ridden present. I loved Whidborne’s flamboyant execution of whimsy (and rats). And I loved the serious provoking of thought Word Hunters conjured and the passion for preserving words it stirred up in me. As Grandad Al said, ‘Every one of us is the consequence of a million flukes of history Word Hunter sketches– who met whom and where they went and what they did.’

It is kind of mind boggling but then, so is the Word Hunters series. Perfect for history buffs, word nerds, 9 – 13 year-olds and rat lovers.

Find all books, here. #ByAustralianBuyAustralian

UQP July 2013

 

 

Queensland Literary Awards 2015 – still time to vote

After its recent tumultuous history, the Qld Literary Awards are growing from strength to strength under the banner of the State Library of Queensland and a bevy of eminent sponsors.

The 2015 shortlists have just been announced and the winners will be revealed at the Awards Ceremony on Friday 9th October in Brisbane.

Some categories showcase Queensland authors. These include the Queensland Premier’s Award for a Work of State Significance

Shortlisted authors are:Heat and light

The impressive Ellen van Neerven  for Heat and Light  (University of Queensland Press)

Zoe Boccabella  Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar  (Harper Collins Publishers)

Mark Bahnisch  Queensland; Everything you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask  (NewSouth Publishing)

Anna Bligh  Through the Wall: Reflections on Leadership, Love and Survival  (Harper Collins Publishers)

Libby Connors  Warrior  (Allen & Unwin)

Emerging Queensland Writer – Manuscript Award

Imogen Smith  Araluen

Elizabeth Kasmer  Aurora

W. George Sargasso

Kate Elkington  Wool Spin Burn

 Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Awards

Andrew McMillen

Megan McGrath, Program Coordinator at the Brisbane Writers Festival

Michelle Law

Rebecca Jessen

Sam George-Allen

It is impressive how these state awards nurture and promote Qld authors.

The Qld Literary Awards are also notable for their support of Indigenous authors with the David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writer –

Andrew Booth  The First Octoroon or Report of an Experimental Child

Mayrah Yarragah Dreise  Social Consciousness Series

Patricia Lees with Adam C. Lees  A Question of Colour

Other categories celebrate the finest Australian writers (and some illustrators) across the country.

These include the

Griffith University Children’s Book AwardNew Boy

Meg McKinlay  A Single Stone  (Walker Books Australia)

Tasmin Janu  Figgy in the World  (Omnibus Books)

David Mackintosh  Lucky  (Harper Collins Publishers)

Nick Earls New Boy (Penguin)

Rebecca Young and Matt Ottley Teacup (Scholastic Australia)

There was a strong selection of novels, picture books and others to whittle down into a shortlist this year.

Griffith University Young Adult Book AwardAre You Seeing Me

Darren Groth  Are You Seeing Me?  (Random House Australia)

Justine Larbalestier  Razorhurst  (Allen & Unwin) This won the Aurealis spec fiction award for Horror Novel.

Diana Sweeney  The Minnow  (Text Publishing) This was a CBCA Honour Book.

John Larkin  The Pause  (Random House Australia)

Jeri Kroll  Vanishing Point  (Puncher and Wattman)

I have read these except for Vanishing Point and so am now keen to read this also. It’s great to see a publisher I know for its poetry publishing YA.

University of Queensland Fiction Book AwardSnow Kimono

Amanda Lohrey  A Short History of Richard Kline  (Black Inc)

Joan London  The Golden Age  (Random House Australia) Reviewed here

Mark Henshaw  The Snow Kimono  (Text Publishing) Reviewed here

Malcolm Knox  The Wonder Lover  (Allen & Unwin)

Rohan Wilson  To Name Those Lost  (Allen & Unwin)

University of Queensland Non-fiction Book Award

Brenda Niall  Mannix  (Text Publishing)

Don Watson  The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia  (Penguin)

Anne Manne  The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism  (Melbourne University Press)

Annabel Crabb  The Wife Drought  (Random House Australia)

Karen Lamb  Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather  (University of Queensland Press)

University of Southern Queensland History Book AwardCyclone

Carolyn Holbrook  ANZAC, The Unauthorised Biography  (NewSouth Publishing)

Angela Woollacott  Settler Society in the Australian Colonies: Self-Government and Imperial Culture  (Oxford University Press)

Christine Kenneally  The Invisible History of the Human Race  (Black Inc)

Agnieszka Sobocinska  Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia  (NewSouth Publishing)

Sophie Cunningham  Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy  (Text Publishing)

University of Southern Queensland Australian Short Story Collection – Steele Rudd Award

Nic Low  Arms Race and Other Stories  (Text Publishing)

Nick Jose  Bapo  (Giramondo)

Ellen van Neerven  Heat and Light  (University of Queensland Press)

Christos Tsiolkas  Merciless Gods  (Allen & Unwin)

J.M. Coetzee  Three Stories  (Text Publishing

State Library of Queensland Poetry Collection – Judith Wright Calanthe Award

Susan Bradley Smith  Beds for All Who Come  (Five Islands Press)

Robert Adamson  Net Needle  (Black Inc)

David Brooks  Open House  (University of Queensland Press)

Lucy Dougan  The Guardians  (Giramondo)

Les Murray  Waiting for the Past  (Black Inc)

Thanks to the State Library of Queensland and supporters, including those who sponsor and give their names to specific awards.

And vote now until 5pm Friday 18 September 2015 for

The Courier-Mail 2015 People’s Choice Queensland Book of the YearNavigatio

 Nick Earls Analogue Men

Patrick Holland Navigatio

Inga Simpson Nest

Kari Gislason The Ash Burner

Zoe Boccabella Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar

John Ahern On the Road…With the Kids

David Murray The Murder of Allison Baden-Clay

Mary Lou Simpson From Convict to Politician

Review – This is Captain Cook

This is Captain CookHistory can be a hard pill to swallow. It’s easy to choke on a diet of dried up, dusty old facts about dried up, dusty old people. Trouble is, what those folk did in our not so distant pasts was often fascinating and ground-breaking and well worth exploring. So how do you find the right sweetener to tempt young people to try a nibble of the past? You dish it up as a school play, garnish it with luscious imagery, and call it a picture book, of course!

This is Captain Cook by Tania McCartney and Christina Booth, is exactly how I like my history served up and, as it turns out, how my Miss 9 likes it too. The fact that she was able to recognise that these adventurous events occurred, ‘way before you were born Mummy’ at the time when the First Fleet began arriving, indicated that this fact-based picture book struck accord with her and her current class room learning.

Tania Mc McCartney skilfully navigates the reader through a carefully considered chronology of James Cook’s life. Miss 9 was keen to point out that the opening act is clear and clever, introducing us to Cook’s beginnings and the start of the school play in which his life is being portrayed.

Christina Booth 2Rather like a one-take shoot on a film set, This is Captain Cook retains the same illustrative perspective throughout the book. The reader has (second) row seats in the audience and is thus privy to not only the terrific parallel visual narrative of the audience members, but of every action that takes place on stage too. You may think this would have the potential to dissolve into dreariness but it definitely does not thanks to McCartney’s spirited narrative and Booth’s charming drawings.

Captain Cook illo spreadIf Miss 9 had more thumbs, she would hoist them as high as a top sail because she enjoyed the lively comedy used to gently reveal Cook’s personality (as it may have been) and his penchant for shiny buttons rather than just focusing on his noteworthy exploits and achievements. She found the latter much easier to ingest because of the humanisation of his story. Sitting through another telling of the ‘show’ was not problem either although she is quick to add that perhaps a life at sea would not be for her as it seems Cook was never ever able to have a pet dog; at least not in this particular production! An ubiquitous chook and comical cast of other avian members however, make a delightful reoccurring appearance throughout the performance, earning a standing ovation from me too.

Captain Cook illo 2There is a raft of exquisite subtle details in this tale about one of the most accomplished mariners and adventurers of our time all served up with just the right amount of frivolity and wit guaranteed to keep youngsters 3 – 8 years old and beyond tucking in. And, just like eating a bowl of vegies in the guise of Spaghetti Bolognese, they will hardly even realise that it’s good for them.

Before you get to the utterly endearing end pages (Bok Bok!), walk through Cook’s Gallery to view some of the real pictures and maps sections of this story are based around. You are invited to discover more through links by the National Library of Australia who announces that this picture book is not so much about ‘the questionable outcomes of exploration and settlement for indigenous peoples’ rather a focus on ‘the life of Captain James Cook as a mariner, father and adventurer.’

With the help of one cheeky chook, and McCartney and Booth, I think this objective has been admirably achieved. Somebody give these chooks a bouquet of flowers. Brava!

NLA March 2015 Available here, now.

This review was kindly supplemented by Miss 9 Powell, who surprisingly now likes history.

 

 

 

Review – iF… A non-fiction picture book with punch

iFI love science. I love theories. I love natural history. But, loving something doesn’t always equate to ‘getting it’; just ask my husband. With the escalated advance of technology allowing our newer generations the most informed and complete exposure to their existence on this planet than ever before, how do we encourage them to appreciate the big picture and understand their place within it? David J. Smith and Steve Adam’s, iF…is one new way of looking at ‘big ideas and numbers’ cleverly crafted into a picture book that won’t send you into an information overload stupor.

NorDavid J Smithth American based educator, Smith uses this picture book to scale down overwhelming statistics and concepts into run of the mill, everyday thinking for the everyday, future thinkers of Generation Z. He tames ponderous topics such as the Galaxy, the history of the Earth, and the physiology and biology of our planet, reducing the incomprehensible into facts that lie down and make sense.if the Galaxy

For instance, did you know that you spend about four slices out of your typical twelve-slice pizza-life getting ready to sleep and sleeping? Seems a big waste of cheese to me, but it is precisely these sorts of mind-bending approaches that invite readers to learn more and crucially, remember more. How handy would that be for your next session of Trivia Pursuit! It’s a bonus that many of these concepts are National Curriculum based for primary-schoolers.

steve AdamsI love the organic layout and design of this picture book. Non-fiction is dressed up and delivered in the most appealing way thanks to the artwork of award winning illustrator, Steve Adams. Adams matches Smith’s out-of-the-box thinking and information-packed text with vibrant, eye pleasing illustrations that promote a repeated look or two.

Thought provoking images together with some truly left of field, incredibly plausible downscaling allows everyone, especially school aged children six to twelve years old, to grasp the colossal enormity of the world around them and beyond.if the continents

iF…is an invaluable resource not only aiding a better understanding of the social sciences and numeracy but is also an entertaining commentary that pre-empts further studies in an imaginative way.

Don’t try to take it in all at once. There is a natural chronology beginning with the Galaxy and flowing on to humanity, however, you could just as easily pick it up and launch into discussion at any point. Take time to read the note for parents and teachers too; it explains the concept of up and down scaling in more detail and suggests activities to reinforce the use of this tool in the classroom. The awe-inspiring, Earth: The Apple of our Eye, which compares Earth to a sliced apple is mind busting.if the planets

So, we may have only existed in the last 0.2 seconds of the history of life on Earth, relatively speaking, but boy, what a full 0.2 seconds they have been. If you would like to ponder on this further, simply read iF…

New Frontier Publishing February 2015if spread

Originally published in Canada and US by Kids Can Press 2014

 

One of the most fascinating and brutal social experiments in human history

9780141021874

Review – Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum

I am a big reader on The Second World War but my reading has never taken me past 1945. Earlier this year I finally read Anna Funder’s Stasiland and was fascinated by what life was like in East Germany so when I saw this book I jumped at the opportunity to read about Eastern Europe in the direct aftermath of World War Two.

Most Cold War histories contend that the Iron Curtain was a reaction to the Marshall Plan of 1947 however Applebaum shows that Soviet plans for an Eastern Bloc were instigated the moment they swept through Eastern Europe in 1944, before the Second Wold War had ended.

Iron Curtain focuses on three Eastern European countries; East Germany, Poland and Hungary. It details their transition from the end of the war to becoming part of the so-called Soviet Bloc. Anne Applebaum has chosen these countries as they each had different experiences and roles in the Second World War which influenced their transition to Communism and in particular Stalinsim.

The transition to Soviet Communism was swift and total. Applebaum details how the Soviet Union literally took over and dominated absolutely every part of society from youth groups to the media, political parties to schools and universities and even art and architecture. The Soviets were systematic and relentless. They initially thought they could win power via elections but when their propaganda and rhetoric failed to capture a majority of votes they turned to vote rigging and the literal crushing of any opposition.

It is hard to believe, almost 70 years later, how the people of Eastern Europe in some cases supported, in others tolerated, the Stalinization of their countries. But Applebaum also explains in depth people’s different reactions to this process. There was much misplaced optimism and hope that a better, utopian Europe could be built from the rubble and ashes of the Second World War. In some cases there was a strident need and desire to position themselves as far from the Nazis as possible. In other cases there was simply exhaustion from being at war for 6 years. Capitalism was also seen as having given rise to Nazism so an alternative was sort. And though opposition was quickly stamped out, people found ways to protest which included wearing particular shirts and ties and even colourful, striped socks.

However following Stalin’s death in 1953 a spell seemed to be lifted and Eastern European countries began to try and exert some autonomy over themselves and to develop their own form of communism. Again this varied from country to country and culminated in the uprising in Hungary which was brutally crushed. Despite appearances that the citizenry of Eastern Europe had fallen into lockstep with Soviet communism and the assumption that the totalitarian regimes had stamped out all opposing views these uprisings showed that the human spirit and its desire for freedom and individual identity can never be completely crushed. Unfortunately The West stood idly by and it would be more than 40 years before another mass movement of resistance to Societ control bubbled to the surface.

This is a highly readable history of a time that has been mythologized by both sides of the Cold War. Applebaum sets the record straight as well as explores one of the most fascinating and brutal social experiments in human history.

Buy the book here…

Bitter Chocolate

Bitter ChocolateI’d like to say that I was being considerate of you by not writing and posting this blog before the chocolate binge fest that is Easter, but in truth it was because I couldn’t stomach it myself.

Carol Off’s Bitter Chocolate charts the unsavoury history of chocolate, dating back from the early days when indigenous peoples knew it was the bomb but Europeans (who hadn’t yet discovered that combined with sugar it was heaven) couldn’t fathom the interest. It follows it through to the present-day big-business bullies who continue to turn a blind eye to child slavery and other awfulness in order to keep their supply of cocoa beans cheap.

It’s sickening stuff, and appears at odds with the delectable flavours of the chocolate and the slick packaging and marketing campaigns that have us salivating over it and hankering for ever more. And it’s kind of ironic that the people—read: children—whose forced labour brings this goodness to our shelves and our tastebuds don’t know about and never get to eat the chocolate fruits of their labour. I’m feeling particularly guilty given that I ate enough Red Tulip rabbits in the lead-up to and over Easter to be the eating equivalent of Myxomatosis.

Ever since reading Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (twice now, actually), I’ve been unable to shake the sense that everything that’s wrong with the world can be traced back to the West. It’s just that, as the adage notes, history is written by the winners, and for that reason so we rarely glimpse anything but the wholesome projection they’d like us to.

Which is why they’re nervous about journalists poking around and documentaries being filmed—both reveal a seedy side to cocoa bean production, which includes enslaved children working for no money and almost no food, the unethical farmers being crunched themselves by militia and corrupt officials who expect payoffs, fights over land that has been in families for generations due to new laws refuting immigrants’ rights, and wars and genocide as a direct result of this land and wealth scrabble.

Meanwhile large chocolate companies and governments stand back, actively turn a blind eye, and let this play out before pouncing on low prices and desperate people. And then they cry poor to governments when these governments try to make a move to ensure all chocolate must be human-slavery free. They can do this; they just don’t want to.

Perhaps saddest of all is that children from Mali, the poorest of the poor African nations, often go to Cote D’Ivoire to work because they heard about a boy who went and came back with a bike. If they do come back to their families, they are broken boys who’ve experienced all manner of abuse and horror. They certainly don’t come back cashed-up and sporting a shiny new bicycle.

I’m not selling this book well, and that’s perhaps because I’m disillusioned that the apparently oh-so-tasty chocolate that is marketed and sold to us as innocuous, feel-good treats are anything but that. I’m shocked and saddened that the low shelf costs comes at a high human one.

I’d recommend reading Bitter Chocolate to understand what’s involved with that tasty treat we enjoy, often mindlessly. I’d also recommend applying pressure to big chocolate manufacturers to change their ways through letters and the like. And I’d recommend voting with your dollars and your feet and buying only chocolate that is organic and fair trade.