Texts for the Australian curriculum

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Girl Saves Boy by Steph Bowe. Text Publishing, 2010. 9781921656590. 288 pp.

Steph Bowe is seventeen years of age in 2011 so it seems apt that her first novel, the first draft of which was written at the age of thirteen, should also be available in e-book form. She captures that jocularity that distinguishes Australian teenage attitudes at their best so it would be interesting to encourage student readers to compare this text with American and European representations of teenagers with problems.

The book opens when Jewel rescues Sacha, who almost drowns in the same lake where her younger brother died. It is gradually revealed that Sacha is dying with a recurrence of the leukaemia he thought he had beaten, but there’s no teenage angst here. Whatever; get on with it. The teenagers’ friendships and squabbles buoy them up and Bowe subtly represents the tentative growth of intimacy between her two narrators.

Although there are too many problems and deaths for me, the voices are convincing and Bowe gets the tone just right. The one sex scene obeys the conventions of old Hollywood and expletives are rare and in context. It’s good to see the parents prominent in the story in this easy-to-read novel that will attract teenaged readers.

Recommendation: For Years 9-10. Wide reading links: overcoming adversity; body image; coping with grief; images of adolescence; a question of gender.
The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky. Allen & Unwin, 2011. 9781742374710. 160 pp.

Dubosarsky always delights with her originality and her talent in creating worlds that are superbly imagined. In this case, the world closely mirrors the real world of 1967 at a private girls' school in Darlinghurst, but readers have commented on the fact that there is a dream-like quality about this world. I think this is because it is a world seen through the veil of memory, as the eleven little girls of the smallest class in the school remember the day that changed their lives. It is a seductive world, but it also quite claustrophobic. It was a time of huge social change, and yet these little girls are living a cloistered, privileged existence, ignorant of anything outside their cocoon.

On the critical day on which the story opens, the last man to be hanged in Australia has died. 'Is it right to take a man and hang him, coldly, at eight o'clock in the morning?' asks Miss Renshaw, their eccentric and lion-like teacher, as she tells them that they are going to the Memorial Gardens across the road to think of death. Death hangs over their lives: this significant year for their personal lives, 1967, is to end with the drowning of a prime minister. This particular day is to end with the mysterious and worrying disappearance of their teacher.

Comparisons with Picnic at Hanging Rock are obvious, but the whole novel resonates with allusions, even to the excited crowds gathering around the big black headlines on November 11, 1975 - headlines ignored by the girls who, about to leave school, try once more to explain to themselves what might have happened to Miss Renshaw.

Recommendation: This is a beautifully written mystery. Consider it for whole class use with a top-stream class of girls in Years 7 or 8.
Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley. Pan, 2010. 9780330425780. 244 pp.

Winner of the 2011 Ethel Turner Prize For Young People's Literature, this terrific novel follows events in the lives of several teenagers over one night. Lucy is coming to the end of Year 12 and is searching for the graffiti artist the Shadow, whose artwork she finds inspiring. Ed accompanies her on the search and wrestles with the fact that he has lied to her about the identity of the artist (it’s him!). As Lucy previously broke his noise on their first date, their burgeoning relationship is fascinating to follow. There is a darker side to the novel, as Ed is out of work and considers participating in a break in to his old school, but humour and honesty win out.

Recommendation: Use this with Years 9 -11 to explore issues of relationships, responsibility, honesty, love and loss, ethics and drug use.
I am Number Four by Pitticus Lore. Penguin, 2011 (2010). 978024195370. 400 pp.

The Mogadonians are coming for John. They have killed three of the gifted Loriens who fled to earth to escape their invasion and John is next on the list.

Recommendation: I am Number Four is a gripping fantasy novel and with the recently released film would be an engaging text for classroom study in Years 8 and 9. Issues include relationships and loss, power, and responsibility.
In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda. David Fickling Books, 2011. 9781846554766. 224 pp.

Enaiatollah Akbari, a 21-year-old Hazara Afghan, tells the true story of his successful quest for political asylum after his mother left him to people smugglers in Pakistan at the age of ten. Geda and the translator capture the innocence of the narration and support this mood with questions and comments from the writer as listener. The boy’s amazing story of survival from Pakistan to Iran, Turkey, Greece and Italy, during five eventful years, never loses that innocence and hope. The result is a triumph of the human spirit as the boy’s incredible optimism is nourished by the kindness of strangers and the resilience of the Afghans with their traditions of hospitality extended to the sharing of street knowledge, so that a boy knows that when - not if - he gets to Rome, he can find bus 175 and make contact with other Afghan refugees and find Payam, whom he hasn’t seen since the age of 9 but knows is somewhere in Italy.

Recommendation: For Years 7-12. A book to give to politicians, especially immigration ministers and party leaders, this engrossing, easy-to-read story is an excellent companion book for Gleeson’s Mahtab’s Story and Deborah Ellis’s No Safe Place and earlier stories of refugees. Wide reading links: re-tellings; asylum seekers; the big questions; children in war; hazards; living on the edge; other countries; overcoming adversity; overcoming fear; refugees; choices; journeys; narrative forms.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Walker Books, 2011. 9781406311525. 216pp. Hardcover.

This is very special – a book that will haunt you. Thirteen-year-old Conor is suffering a recurrent and terrifying nightmare, triggered by the fact – that he is attempting to deny – that his mother is dying. So when, just after midnight, Conor hears his name being called and finds that the yew tree from the graveyard on the hill has transformed into a huge and threatening monster at his bedroom window, Conor isn’t even frightened: this real-life monster is much easier to deal with than his nightmare. The monster is and does everything monsters are meant to do, roaring and threatening to eat Conor alive with its ‘raggedy teeth’, shattering glass and wood and brick, but Conor can cope with it. The dialogue between Conor and the monster is a joy. Over a series of nights, the monster tells Conor stories – stories that finally enable him to accept that his mother will die.

In this hardcover edition Ness’s beautifully written text is complemented by the evocative and scary black and white drawings. The story is totally absorbing and achingly sad, while at the same time providing that glow of satisfaction that a reader experiences when a story is perfectly told.

The origin of this book is equally sad. It was begun by Irish writer Siobhan Dowd, who died of cancer in her early forties. The publisher asked Patrick Ness, author of the brilliant Chaos Walking trilogy, if he could finish it. Ness makes it clear that he did not attempt to write the book that Dowd might have written; instead he used the ideas she had been developing to inspire his own story, which he dedicates to Siobhan.

Recommendation: I would love to read this aloud, over several lessons, to a class. Years 7 and 8 are the intended audience, although I think most classes would be mesmerised. It’s a great horror story. Kids love horror stories but really good horror is hard to find. But it’s also a powerful exploration of the pain of dealing with the death of a loved one. Make sure to leave time for some attention to the detail of Ness’s writing and his genius for finding the right word. The morning after that first encounter with the monster, Conor is getting his own breakfast, relieved that he doesn’t have to eat his mother’s health-food-shop cereal and bread: ‘It tasted as unhappy as it looked.’ Put your order in now for a class set as soon as this goes into paperback: it will become a classic.
Nicholas Dane by Melvin Burgess, Penguin Books, 2010. 9780141316338. 416 pp.

Burgess, as he showed in his novel Junk, has the fictional benefit of having been active in the street life and drug culture of an English major city. Here again he creates a tone of authenticity as his 14-year-old character, Nicholas, is thrust onto the streets of Manchester, without any protecting relatives, following the sudden death by heroin of his young mother. Nick is, to a certain extent, streetwise, through his friend Davey’s largely criminal family who are used to living on the edge, but Nick is easily locked up in a shockingly cruel ‘home’ for boys who have no-one to get through the bureaucratic walls of the welfare state. Here Burgess patterns his plot on Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and, despite the fact that it is 1984, the violence and sexual molestation from the staff is all too believable. Burgess writes with power and pace as Nick escapes from the ‘home’ and lives on the street. As an adult reader, I was glad that this is a YA text so that Nick does survive when my heart told me that he could not.

Recommendation: For Years 9-10 students in schools that really care. Wide reading links: living on the edge; the big questions; challenge and endurance; a question of gender; power; friendship; crime fiction.
Pig Boy by J. C. Burke. Woolshed Press, 2011. 9781741663129. 322 pp.

Burke transforms what looks like a bullied-in-school story to a tension stayed thriller that asks bigger questions about the nature of violence and revenge. Damon, aged 18, in his final term of school in a small Australian country town, is still followed by calls of ‘oink oink’, a reference to his size, his mother ‘the sow’ and his outsider status as a talented writer and computer games loner.

Burke moves her story back and forth from his expulsion on his eighteenth birthday, respecting her young adult readers by leaving gaps in Damon’s narration. Clearly the expulsion that follows the attempted censorship of Damon’s Year 12 major work writing had a long gestation before Damon’s final, raging interview with the school principal. What happened at the Year 10 camp? How did this lead his mother to believe that Damon had caused her boyfriend to leave? How did the bullies’ torture of a neighbour’s kitten lead to Damon’s lust for revenge? Did he see a murder in the bush? What frightening thing is in the bag, in his locked wardrobe? Why does he secretly choose to get work with the other town ‘psycho’, the ‘Yugo’ Pigman, who shoots pigs for a living, when Damon is sickened by hunting and cannot shoot away from the computer online games where he is in role as The Prophet of Doom?

Both Damon and Miro the pig shooter suffer night terrors. Revelations begin to emerge after Damon’s terror increases as a body is found in the creek and he buys a hunting rifle with telescopic sights. Burke skilfully develops the characters of the two outsiders and their mutual need for each other. Some readers may find the characterisation of Damon’s mother and his attitude to her offensive, but any parent who has had a difficult adolescent boy at home will recognise the truth in her representation of his chaotic, angry home life.

The violence, both in Bosnia and Australia, involving both humans and animals, is skilfully mediated and the few four-letter expletives should not worry those who understand the context. Why worry about these when Damon hurls the cutlery drawer across the kitchen and spits out slowly, ‘Get. Out. Of. My. Life. Woman.’?

Recommendation: This is suitable for readers in Years 9 – 12. Wide reading links: the big questions; living on the edge; unlikely friendships; multicultural Australia; personal values in a global world; identity; thrillers and mysteries; bullying; power; a question of gender.
Sensitive Creatures by Mandy Ord. Allen &Unwin, 2011. 9781742372167.304pp.

This off –beat and intimate collection of daily city life makes a refreshing change from the more usual fare for a graphic novel. The one-eyed narrator really draws you in to the mundane and minutiae of life from the scammer who takes over her email to the saga of the dead rat.

Recommendation: As a graphic novel study Sensitive Creatures has much to offer to Years 10 - 12.
Six by Karen Tayleur. black dog books, 2010. 9781742031562. 288 pp.

After the dramatic opening car crash, there is the tension of knowing that there were six teenagers in the car and only five seat belts. Who was flung from the car? Who died? Then there is the body found in the bush, and why are the friends reluctant to call the police? Australian writer Tayleur puts the opening story back into the past and, after the third-person narration, uses multiple and unequal narrators to piece together what happened and why, in that last summer before Year 12.

Recommendation: There is strong narrative drive and sustained mystery that makes this an easy read. For Years 9-10. Wide reading links: crime fiction; coming of age; friendship; identity; choices; thrillers and mysteries.
The Truth is Dead edited by Marcus Sedgwick. Walker Books, 2011. 9781406320039. 160 pp.

The editor, who is also a contributor, has chosen eight quality writers and asked them to provide stories that he calls ‘counterfactual’. The writers happily distort history and explore variations on the theme of ‘what if’? The stories are presented in chronological order, beginning with Jesus Christ and his desert temptations, Napoleon, Hitler, the lunar explorers, the year 2K bug and ending with the possible end of the world, as Frank Cottrell Boyce speculates about the consequences of an Aztec domination of the Americas and their belief that the world will end on 21.12.12. Other authors include Mal Peet, Linda Newbery and Matt Whyman. There is a helpful historical note for each story, revealing the orthodox historical events alluded to.

Recommendation: The engaging stories average only twelve pages and should be easy to read for boys who don’t read much. For Years 9-10. Wide reading links: science fiction; historical fiction; other countries; technology.
To Die For by Mark Svendsen. Woolshed Press, 2011. 9781864719314. 186 pp.

This is a gripping coming-of-age survival story. For his birthday, Christos is allowed to go out fishing on his own for the first time. He plans to fish and camp out overnight. However, his plans are overturned when the boat runs aground on a reef and he attracts the attention of a four-metre tiger shark.

The story is told in the third-person, interspersed with Christos's thoughts in the first-person as he reflects on his experiences. This technique is very effective during the account of that long, precarious night as the shark tries to kill him and he considers his options.

Recommendation: This is quite simply told, with comfortably large print. It's very much a boy's book: about doing things and solving problems and facing fear. The sequence involving the shark is quite terrifying, ensuring that the reader keeps turning the pages as fast as possible. Consider using this as a whole class text with boys in Year 7 or 8.
Tyranny: I Keep You Thin by Lesley Fairfield. Walker Books, 2011. 9781406331134. 119 pp.

This is a powerful graphic novel about the story of a young woman’s battle against eating disorders. Anna’s enemy is personalised as a demon named Tyranny – the alterego who constantly tells her that she is not thin enough. Graphically, Tyranny is a spooky skeleton. The graphics are black and white and quite simple and spare, almost naïve, and this contributes to the power of the storytelling. The inspiration for the story comes from the author’s own experience.

Recommendation: This is strongly recommended for all adolescent girls to read. The graphic-novel format could also be used as a model for students’ own life-writing.
Vampyre by Margaret Wild and Andrew Yeo. Walker Books, 2011. 9781921529221.

This is another twist on the vampire legend and this time it is beautifully conveyed in spare words and haunting illustrations. The vampire who lives in darkness longs for light and the ambiguity at the conclusion of this picture book will provide for much classroom discussion.

Recommendation: Use this with Years 7 and 8.
What Comes After by Steve Watkins. Candlewick Press, 2011. 9780763642501. 352 pp. Hardcover.

American writer Watkins shows his class with this very different YA novel about a foster mother from hell and the survival of sixteen year old Iris - although it’s not as good as his astounding debut novel Down Sand Mountain. The setting is the poor lands of North Carolina, and Watkins again captures the distinctive voice of his protagonist as she is plunged from a rural idyll in Maine with her veterinarian father to a goat farm in Craven County after her father’s death. Here, her only relative, Aunt Sue, and her football jock son Book fall upon her as their meal ticket and servant as Sue administers the father’s estate. In the dirt poor farm where the dog and the goats are habitually mistreated, Iris and Sue’s mutual hostility builds to a climax when Iris slashes the tyres of the new ute and, after being slapped, takes off with the young goats that she was ordered to slaughter.

Watkins goes a little over the top with the Southern Gothic suffering of Iris (for example, having the aunt torment her about her vegetarian meals) but he leaves suitable gaps for his teenaged readers, especially when the aunt and her son take Iris to the lake to punish her. The strongly represented characters are all believable and the selected detail about raising goats, the boorishness and the misogyny of the football jocks in the drunken chaos of a ‘field party’, the ‘Yes maam’ culture of parenting and American gun culture emerge into a thrilling account of Iris’s fight back. The best for me is Watkins’ understanding of the power of adolescent, irrational passion, whether it be about cruelty to animals or asserting their own independence, whatever the odds.

Recommendation: For Years 9 – 12. Note that there are sexual references. Wide reading links: images of adolescence; power; a question of gender; overcoming adversity; rural life; cultural diversity; friendship; living on the edge.

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