Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn. Hodder.
Book 1 is Across the Nightingale Floor (9780733621291); Book 2 is Grass for His Pillow (9780733619878); Book 3 is Brilliance of the Moon (9780733619892). A prequel, Harsh Cry of the Heron (9780733621901), was added in 2007.
Written by one of Australia’s most eminent writers for children and published as adult books, these texts contain nothing that would worry teachers and librarians: the violence is effectively conveyed with carefully selected details entirely appropriate to the setting around the sixteenth century in Japan.
The opening of Book 1 is the most violent part, but it is superbly narrated in the persona of Timasu, a boy on the cusp of manhood and a member of the group known as The Hidden, who are ‘forbidden to kill and taught to forgive each other’. He finds his village in flames and his people massacred. Worse for him, in his attempt to escape he caused Lord Iida of the Tohan clan to lose face. When he is pursued through the forest, Lord Shigeru of the Otori clan saves his life. Several of the pursuit group are killed, but one wolf-faced man loses an arm in his escape. Thus revenge is set up as one future development.
Lord Shigeru is in grief for the loss of his brother at the hands of the Tohan clan in the feudal anarchy of the times. He is also separated from his love, the lady Maruyama, from another clan and they are both entangled in the web of inheritance vows, traditions and arranged marriages.
Travelling incognito, Shigeru takes the boy to the Otori clan castle, renaming him Takeo as his Hidden name is too dangerous. There, Lord Shigeru declares that he will adopt the boy. Takeo is much too old now, at sixteen, to become accomplished in either the representational, literary or martial arts, but he will become a mimic who can attain a useful standard of practice. ‘A mad hunger for learning’ emerges in Takeo but something else will also transform his life, something unknown which ‘goes back to the time when magic was greater than the strength of arms’.
In Book 2, Grass for His Pillow, Hearn changes to a third-person narration that quickly draws the reader into the world of the warring clans of Japan and the parallel stories of Takeo and Kaede. Both characters are faced with apparently insurmountable conflicts that give exciting tension to the narrative. Kaede will either follow the traditional path and marry according to her father’s selection of a suitable lord to prop up his failing estates or take up the more complicated inheritance which she legally can demand and rule in her own right. Takeo is strung out by the tension of his two inheritances: as the adopted son of Lord Shigeru and as the lower-class son who has inherited the mystic powers of the Tribe.
The Brilliance of the Moon brings the trilogy to a close, perhaps in a darker mood. Takeo is predicted to face success after fighting five battles - four to win and one to lose - and will be safe from all except his own son. ‘Death comes suddenly and life is fragile and brief … It was the fragility of life that made it so precious.’
Recommendation: While you will probably regard these as suitable for good readers in mid-secondary upwards, keen younger fantasy readers will also devour them for the tension and action. The series is read enthusiastically by fantasy fans of all ages. Consider using them as part of a fantasy selection of Asian-based titles for a wide reading unit for Years 9 or 10, as suggested in the Wide Reading Suggestions section below.
Tamburlaine’s Elephants by Geraldine McCaughrean. Publisher: Usborne, 2008 (2007). 9780746090930. 208 pp.
McCaughrean transports the reader with effortless ease to fourteenth-century Delhi, where the Hindus surprise the Mongols’ leader Tamburlaine by attacking with an army led by terrifying, unknown giant beasts. Rusti, a twelve-year-old, is ordered to take a young elephant prisoner: such is the arrogance of emperors! McCaughrean conflates the terror of Rusti and Kavi, the Indian boy mahout, with the terror of the young elephant Mumu, who lifts up both boys with her trunk and runs into Tamburlaine’s camp. There, amid the swirling dust of the plain and the wails of one hundred thousand prisoners, ‘life was as worthless as a fly in a jug of milk’. Rusti, now in charge of the emperor’s elephant, needs to save Kavi to teach him to look after Mumu. In the next attack on Delhi, Kavi, in turn, saves Rusti. Their interdependence gradually becomes friendship.
Rusti disguises Kavi as a girl (a Mongol boy would rather die) and the two have happy days, as Kavi teaches Rusti the skills of a mahout. Further adventures come when the emperor’s chronicler discovers Kavi’s disguise. However, the chronicler is conspiring to assassinate Tamburlaine, and all their lives are threatened. There is a wonderful climax when the elephants perform for Tamburlaine’s latest marriage amid the chaos of the assassination attempt.
McCaughrean is unafraid to comment on the different cultural values of the racial and religious groups. Kavi escapes attention because foreigners ‘all look the same’. When Rusti’s brother dies, his wife has to marry him. Finally, Samarqand is a city where all nationalities live, and Rusti learns from the chronicler the inter-racial secret of his birth.
Recommendation: This superb writer has won every major award for children’s books. The continued pace and tension of the Mongol wars and Kavi’s endangered life in disguise, set against the personal intrigues of Rusti’s family and the chronicler, ensure that the ideas in the text are always accessible but do not ever detract from the action. The book is almost an easy read for reluctant readers, who may well be drawn into the reading by their enchantment with the elephants. It is a great Year 7 class set. Use it with related texts about children from very different cultures learning to understand each other, as outlined in the Wide Reading Suggestions section below.
A Taste of Cockroach by Allan Baillie. This is currently out of print.
This is a terrific collection of Baillie's stories, almost all set in South-East Asia. They are all fiction, apart from the introductory story about Baillie's trip as a young man, recently disabled, into the mountains of Nepal and his dilemma when offered by a village elder, as a welcoming courtesy, a drink of water that he knows is highly likely to be quite dodgy.
Recommendation: This collection is a great resource for this cross-curriculum priority and is worth looking for. You will use the stories across Years 7 to 10.
Thai-riffic! by Oliver Phommavanh. Puffin Books, 2010. 9780143304852. 191 pp.
Lengy (Albert Lengviriyakul) is of Thai heritage but it’s not something he boasts about. He’s underwhelmed by the clever name his parents have given to their restaurant (Thai-riffic!), by the fact that he is the main guinea pig for Dad’s curry recipes (when he would much rather eat pizza), by the need to help out in the restaurant each night and to spend weekends letterboxing the district with promotional flyers. He tries to sabotage the Year 7 feast to celebrate cultural diversity by adding so much chilli to the dishes his parents cook that he is sure no Aussie will be able to eat them. It’s only when he is persuaded to help his friend Rajiv with a school project about Thailand that he realises that being an Aussie Thai can be cool.
Recommendation: This is a high-interest title for readers in the Year 4-7 age group. Boys especially will enjoy the humour. It’s a warm story about family, friendship and community and a celebration of Australian multiculturalism.
Three Cups of Tea (young readers’ edition) by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin. Puffin Books, 2009.
This is an inspirational account of the successful establishment of schools in some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Recommendation: This is suitable for Years 7-8 non-fiction class study.
Throne of Jade by Naomi Novak. HarperCollins, 2008, 97800072588727. 512 pp.
This is the second book in the magnificent Temeraire series, set in an alternate world based very closely on that of the Napoleonic Wars. In Book 1 the strong bond between Captain Will Laurence and the dragon Temeraire is established, and together they have been part of an army of dragons defending Britain against Napoleon. But the dragon's egg had been intended by China as a gift to Napoleon, and in the second book Laurence and Temeraire are forced to travel to China, to the imperial court of the eighteenth century. Although this is fantasy, there is much to fascinate the reader in the depiction of the court and in the Chinese worldview, so different from that of the British. The British, for example, have never been able to accept that the dragons' intelligence is superior to their own: in China, dragons - especially the rare Celestial dragons like Temeraire - are treated with proper respect.
Recommendation: This is a great read for mature fantasy fans, Year 9 upwards. You could use it as part of a fantasy wide reading unit, as outlined int he Wide Reading Suggestions below.
Trash by Andy Mulligan. David Fickling, 2010. 9780385619028. 211 pp.
This impressive novel is a perfect class set text for Years 7-9. Set in the Philippines, it is narrated by multiple voices, including those of three young boys who make a meagre living scavenging on a huge tip in Manila. The tip is their home as well as their workplace. One day one of the boys discovers a bag, containing an identity card, a key and some money. The money is very welcome, but it soon becomes clear that the bag is much more valuable than it appears, when hordes of police descend on the tip offering large rewards for its recovery. The bag holds a deadly secret and the boys’ decision to solve the mystery propels them into a very dangerous situation.
This is a breathtaking thriller with wonderfully appealing characters. The surprising ending is astonishingly right.
This will give students insight into the lives of the very poor in third-world countries and the impossibility of social justice in corrupt regimes. It will also give them an appreciation of the possibilities of multiple narration.
Recommendation: I would use this with a Year 8 class, but it will work with bright Year 7s and it would be a satisfying text for those Year 9 students who might not cope with something longer and more difficult. It is a fairly easy read. It begs to be accompanied by some research into the lives of children growing up in intense poverty. It also lends itself to an investigation of the consequences of stereotyping people: these kids have been labelled ‘trash’. This is an outstanding novel, ideal for use with the Australian curriculum.
Treasure Hunters by Allan Baillie. Puffin, 2002. 978014300076. 218 pp.
This is vintage Baillie: an exciting adventure story set against the background of a troubled South-east Asian country – in this case an Indonesian island where the army is ruthlessly suppressing the local independence movement. Pat has joined his father in a search for treasure in the many wrecks off the coast. The action is exciting and the danger deadly but this is much more than just a boys’ adventure story. Baillie’s characteristic narrative technique is perfect for the exploration of what motivates people to take life-threatening risks. He moves backwards and forwards from third-person narration into a kind of stream-of-consciousness style that allows the reader to slip into the mind of the main character. There is also a strong sense of history and its influence on the present, with Pat’s vividly imagined stories of what might have happened to the people on board the ancient wrecks.
Recommendation: This is an excellent class set novel, especially with boys in Years 6-9.
Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung. Black Inc, 2006. 9781863951586. 282 pp.
Always entertaining and often humorous about the migrant experience, Alice Chung’s memoir contributes to our understanding of the Chinese experience in Australia. ‘This story does not begin on a boat’, she insists in the opening sentence, and the reader is plunged into the Footscray markets in Melbourne, ‘the loudest and grottiest in Australia’. Alice represents her mother as a shouter rather than a talker and enjoys telling comic stories against her in her role as the constant harbinger of doom and the amused observer of the ‘white ghost’ European Australians, like a scientist observing slides under a microscope, exclaiming ‘Wah!’ at their ‘vomit food’ and the ‘round red-headed demons’. Pung often uses present tense liveliness to dramatise family events and tensions. She uses italics to give the reader her thoughts about her very mild rebellion in getting a ‘skip’ boyfriend. ‘You’re like his third world trip … his substitute exotic experience.’ Does he like her, just to spite his parents? She feels like ‘Woody Allen in a black wig.’ However, there are more tender reminders about adjusting to life in ‘paradise’ after surviving Pol Pot’s rape of Cambodia. Her mother suffers black clouds of depression, boredom and frustration about learning English and being dependent on her daughter. Alice becomes the go-between in the war between mother and grandma. This role leads to some time leaps and compressions, as old wounds from the past are revealed. Mum finally finds that her fierce bargaining instincts can be reversed to help her become a successful salesperson in her husband’s white goods franchise.
Alice, too, suffers depression, being mute at school and adopting her ‘rubber mask of a face’. Fearful of her end of school results, she wins a Premier’s Prize and heads for Law study. After her brief rebellion, there is a tender scene where she breaks up with her boyfriend to resume her role as ‘dutiful daughter’.
Recommendation: This is a prescribed text for HSC, but that should not prevent you from using it at Year 10 level. Both European Australians and those with Asian parents enjoy this entertaining and humorous memoir. It is a valuable book written from the Chinese point of view and one that is brave enough to go beyond memoir into not so gentle satire.
The Vermonia series by Yo-Yo. Walker Books UK.
Titles in reading order:
Quest for the Silver Tiger
Call of the Winged Panther
Release of the Red Phoenix
The Rukan Prophecy
The Warriors’ Trial
To the Pillar of Wind
This is an authentic manga series of adventures, presented in unique hardcover formats. They are graphic novels to be read, as in Japanese, from the back to the front and, on each page, from right to left. There are full colour inserts and gateway foldouts that provide teasers to following episodes. Doug, Jim, Naomi and Mel are faced with a series of life-threatening challenges which they can overcome only by releasing their inner warriors. The series has web support, including online games with clues to be found in the stories.
Recommendation: Students in Years 5-8 who have become fans of anime movies will embrace these with enthusiasm.
Walk in My Shoes by Alwyn Evans. Penguin, 2004. 9780143002314. 360 pp.
Strongly based on the author’s research into the real experiences of asylum seekers in Australia, this is the fictional story of teenager Gulnessa and her family, who flee Afghanistan after their father is taken away by the Taliban. The family spends years of boredom and uncertainty in a remote detention centre in Western Australia before finally being granted temporary protection visas.
The story is told in the first person by Gulnessa, a courageous and empathetic voice. The nightmarish memories of the family’s experiences in Afghanistan and of the traumatic journey to Australia are told in flashback. The book gives real insight into the experience of asylum seekers and can be disturbing. How many Australians, for example, knew that the guards in Australian detention centres were instructed to address the inmates by number, not name?
Recommendation: Sadly, this will be read mainly by girls, because of the female protagonist, or by boys who are already politically aware. It is perhaps a little too long for use as a class text in mixed ability classes, but be sure to read it as extension reading in Years 7-10 for any unit of work on refugees or on other cultures. See the Wide Reading Suggestions below.
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston. Picador, 1989 (1975). 9780330264006 192 pp.
The Woman Warrior is a semi-autobiographical text, based on Kingston’s life and her family’s experiences in China and America and interspersed with Chinese myths and legends. The stories in the book weave between the real and the surreal, beginning in China with the tragic suicide of Kingston’s aunt after bearing an illegitimate child, and ending with Kingston’s childhood experiences in California. As the first child born in a new land, she struggles to reconcile her home life with life outside its confines. The inspiring tale of Fa Mulan, a legendary Chinese woman warrior, is adapted by Kington as she places herself in the mythical account of the woman who raises an army to overthrow a corrupt regime. We also hear the story of Kingston’s mother’s training as a Chinese doctor and another aunt’s journey to America to find a separated husband.
Recommendation: While The Woman Warrior has been traditionally taught to Years 11 or 12, it is worth considering for a class of mature girls in Year 10.
The Young Samurai series by Chris Bradford. Penguin Books UK.
This is an exciting series of action novels that appeal especially to boys in Years 7 and 8 – particularly boys who are interested in martial arts. They are set in seventeenth century Japan and, while they make no claims to historical accuracy, they are based on some real people and events. The main character, Jack Fletcher, is a British boy stranded in a country that is deeply suspicious of strangers. His survival depends on the warrior training he has received. The fight scenes – and there are plenty of them – are superbly described and the action moves at a breathless pace. The books have a note on sources (including some quite sophisticated quotations and many haiku), a Japanese glossary and a guide to pronouncing Japanese words.
Recommendation: These are substantial reads that may tempt some readers to stretch themselves. Add them to a wide reading selection of action adventure novels for Years 7 or 8.
Titles in the series in reading order:
The Way of the Warrior 9780141324302
The Way of the Sword 9780141324319
The Way of the Dragon 9780141321288
The Ring of Earth 9780141332536
The Ring of Water 9780141332543
Wicked Warriors and Evil Emperors by Terry Denton. Puffin Books, 2010. 9780143304340. 204 pp.
What a fantastic introduction to ancient Chinese history! Alison Lloyd and Terry Denton are a great team and this account of the real (and bloody) first emperor of China (258 -210 BC) will have no trouble engaging students in Year 7.
The Wild by Matt Whyman. Hodder Children’s Books, 2005. 9780340884539. 184 pp.
This is a compelling and disturbing read. It is set in Kazakhstan, in a vast toxic desert that was once the Aral Sea and the home of a thriving fishing community. Dams built for irrigation in Russia have destroyed the sea and consequently the community. Most people are unemployed, living desolate lives in crumbling Soviet-era blocks of flats. Sixteen-year-old Alexi survives by recovering the metal from the booster rockets that fall back into the desert after being launched from a distant cosmodrome. It is dangerous work, the rival gangs even more lethal than the radioactivity to which boys like Alexi are exposed. Many of the inhabitants are ill, like Alexi’s young brother Misha. A nurse at the inadequate local clinic tells Alexi that he must get Misha away from the deadly environment. They journey to Moscow, in search of medical help, and find the urban desert even more desolate and deadly than the environment they have fled.
The story is told in the first-person by Alexi and we come to care deeply for the brothers and the tragedy of their lives. Alexi’s courage and resilience are impressive. Many of the scenes, especially early in the novel, are very exciting and will hold readers’ attention. Few Australian young people will have any idea that children elsewhere are living lives as desperate as this. Few will have encountered examples as stark as this of the consequences for human lives of environmental degradation.
Recommendation: This could be used as a class set in Years 9 and 10, especially as the core of a unit of work on the environment, but I think it is too sad for that: opening students’ eyes to the reality of others’ lives is one thing, but focussing on it day after day for several weeks might be too much. Instead, include the novel in wide reading selections on themes like the environment, other cultures, or survival. Make sure that students have opportunities to talk about the book.
Wrong about Japan by Peter Carey. Faber and Faber, 2005 (2004). 9780571228706. 128 pp.
In his delightful mix of travel story and information, Carey is frustrated by his ‘inability to even break the skin of this culture’ but his perceptions are sharpened by the ease with which his reticent twelve-year-old son, Charlie, moves with the electric culture of Japan. Living with his son in New York, he thought of himself as chaperone but, in Tokyo, the roles are reversed. To sharpen this change, he adds a fictional Japanese friend for Charlie, Takashi, aged fifteen, and the Japanese equivalent of Charlie’s NY cool.
Takashi lends Charlie a mobile phone and immediately he is texting away with an alarming rapidity to organise their visit. Charlie is able to master the incredibly dense Tokyo subway map and guide his father through threatening ticket machines. Charlie’s fascination with manga and anime is his connecting powerline to Takashi who reveres the animator Tomino.
Takashi dresses in a pristine way that reminds Carey of an anime character and the ‘visualists’ who dress up and cruise the streets. He observes that a manga frame continues the Japanese tradition of the art of the moment such as in a haiku.
The visit ends with Carey concluding that he cannot access Japanese culture but Charlie seemed much happier.
Recommendation: This brief trip to Japan should be very popular and useful for your students and should assist them to develop their visual literacy. Manga loving boys will painlessly gain more substantial understanding by enjoying this book. As a bonus, the book’s elegant design and illustrations pay tribute to Japanese traditions: anyone who has hesitated to open an exquisitely packaged Japanese present will know what I mean. A recommended companion text is Nine Hours North, an Australian verse novel about living in Japan.
Ziba Came on a Boat by Liz Lofthouse, illustrated by Robert Ingpen. Penguin Viking, 2007. ISBN 9780670028610.
This picture book is a beautifully told story of a little Afghan girl taking the perilous journey that so many others have taken in the hope of finding freedom. The story moves from the frail fishing boat to Ziba’s memories of home, giving the reader a rich picture of the world that she has come from, including the fear and danger. There are warm memories of her father but it is only her mother on the boat with her. Did he perish in the fighting, or has he gone on ahead of them? Ingpen’s paintings are as always stunning, capturing the warm ochre tones of the Middle Eastern background, the huge expanse of the sea and the wonderfully expressive faces.
Sadly, people like Ziba and her mother are still being demonised in this country. That is only possible if they are thought of as being alien and different – ‘the other’. This succeeds in enabling the reader to see the world through Ziba’s eyes.
Recommendation: Use this as a related text in units of work about the migrant experience or about refugees.