The sky is everywhere by Jandy Nelson

May 20, 2010

the-sky-is-everywhere(Walker Books; ISBN 978 1 4063 2630 7)

Who is for? The publishers say 12-15 year olds, but some of the content may make it more suitable for 15-16 year olds if being used as a class reading book

What’s it about? After the sudden death of Bailey her older sister, seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker is left struggling with her grief. She refuses to pack up her sister’s belongings and spends many hours alone and writing poems about Bailey, poems which she leaves scattered around her home town. In the midst of her grief, Lennie is smitten by good-looking new boy, Joe Fontaine. Their developing relationship is complicated by Lennie’s seemingly inexplicable attraction to her dead sister’s boyfriend, Toby – an attraction that seems to be returned. Along the way, Lennie makes some moving discoveries about her absent mother and Bailey.

Is it any good? It’s hard to summarise the story without it making it sound somewhat sordid or silly. In fact, with a few minor reservations, this is one of the best and most moving teen books I’ve read in quite a while. For a start, it’s physically pleasing to read: the flexiback cover with blue elastic gives it the feel of a journal; the inside font is blue; and there are colour plates and poems throughout the book. More than that, it is well written. Although a first person narrative from the point of view of Lennie, the language is a nice balance of authentic-sounding colloquial teen and more poetic passages with some lovely use of imagery, including metaphor and simile. Like Shark Girl reviewed previously,  this is a novel with a hopeful and realistic, but not overbearingly positive ending. My reservations? While the book is generally nicely paced, there are a couple of chapters where the love-triangle sub-plot becomes a tad annoying. However, more aggravating is the character of Joe – he’s just too damned good to be true. Okay, I don’t want to deny anyone the right to fantasise a bit, but how high are we setting expectations when the perfect guy is not only a gifted musician and is stunningly handsome, but his father makes guitars, he has two equally good looking brothers, and he’s French! Pleeaase, give us a break. Finally, there is some coarse language used in the book and Lennie’s sexual awakening is dealt with fairly frankly (e.g. there’s talk about boys’ boners), although this is done with sensitivity. Teachers should certainly preview the novel carefully.

What can I do with it? The sky is everywhere would be a welcome addition to units exploring the way teenagers are represented or for issues-based units (e.g. relationships education or dealing with grief). Like many books reviewed on this blog, extracts could be used as models of effective, literary writing. This is also an interesting example of an author (and publisher) pushing the bounds of the book with its use of multimodality. Finally, the book includes references to a range of classic literature and, in particular, very interesting use is made of Wuthering Heights. So, the novel could be used as a gentle introduction to the ‘classics’ and a critique of traditional romantic fiction such as and Pride and Prejudice. Overall, this book is highly recommended.

The secret adventures of Charlotte Bronte

May 14, 2010

the-secret-adventures-of-charlotte-bronte-by-laura-joh-rowland1The secret life of Charlotte Bronte by Laura Joh Rowland (Pier 9; ISBN 978 1741969139)

Who is it for? Well read teens

What’s it about? After success with the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte is accused of breach of contract and travels to London with her sister Anne to clear her name. On the train, she meets a governess, Isabel White, who is subsequently murdered brutally (of course!). Against her will, Charlotte is drawn into events that could change the course of English history, and brings danger to her beloved family in Haworth.

Is it any good? This was a really enjoyable tale set in Victorian England. Although completely fictional, Rowland does draw on knowledge of the times and the life of the Brontes in a way that adds authenticity and believability to a suitably melodramatic plot. One of the best features of the book is its tight editing – so rare in much contemporary fiction. Consequently, the story moves along at a brisk pace that rarely flags. While the writing attempts to capture Charlotte’s style, it is a bit clunky at times. This is more than made up for by the rich picture painted of Victorian life, with its sense of both promise and hypocrisy. A particularly admirable aspect of the novel is the way that it ties together the history of Europe at the time into events transpiring far away in China. A writer of Korean and Chinese descent, Rowland manages to keep the reader well entertained while encouraging them to reflect critically on English history. Like most books in the espionage and adventure genres, credibility is stretched at times, but for readers willing to suspend disbelief, this is a really enjoyable novel.

How might it be used? There is a growing number of novels in the market that take the classics and have fun with them. This is more serious than most and explores issues of gender, class and race. The Secret Adventures would serve well as an accompaniment to Charlotte Bronte’s work, and could even be used a way into the works of all three Bronte sisters. The multi-generic storytelling technique used may be worthwhile as a model for students’ own writing. Overall, a worthwhile book to use with students – although certainly not to everyone’s taste. Check out Rowland’s website:

Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham

May 9, 2010

sharkgirlPublished by Candlewick Press; ISBN 978 0 7636 4627 1

Who is it for? Teenagers (12 years and up)

What’s it about? Jane Arrowood is fifteen years old when she loses her arm to a shark attack. The incident receives nationwide media attention thanks to video of the attack shot by a by-stander. The public is swept up in the dramatic events and, while recovering in hospital, Jane begins to receive (unwanted) mail from strangers offering their sympathy, support and prayers. Overhwhelmed and grieving the loss of her arm, a promising artistic talent and her previous life, Jane eventually returns home and begins school again, continuing the journey towards recovery; frustratingly, she has to relearn even simple tasks such as doing up shoe laces and buttering toast. Even more, with her dreams of artistic success seemingly shattered, she must search deep inside herself to discover who “Shark Girl” really is.

Is it any good? This is a novel that deals in the psychology of loss and, in one sense, there is not a lot of ‘action’. However, the novels moves briskly, helped in part by the choice of Bingham to write in prose poetry. I’m not a big fan of the genre, but it works very effectively here, focussing as the story does on the innerworld of Jane. Moreover, Jane’s first person reflections are interpolated with news articles and letters from concerned strangers, giving the reader public and private perspectives on Jane’s brush with death. In fact, one of the strengths of the novel is to encourage the reader  to see the way that intense public interest in private tragedies can affect victims – for better and worse. Finally, while the novel moves towards a hopeful ending, it is, all the same, an uncertain future that Jane faces when the story finishes; Bingham avoids a happy-ever-after ending and opts, instead, for nuance and an air of authenticity. This was, apparently, an Oprah’s Book Club Kids Reading List Selection – and who would argue with Oprah?

How could it be used? This is an easy to read, but well-written novel likely to appeal to many teens. The horrible events of the shark attack are never described explicitly, but that starting point is a great hook. As well as being used as a text that explores grief of a particular kind, the novel can also be used to demonstrate the use of prose poetry for narrative and the use of multiple genres to provide different perspectives. Overall, this is a good book with positive, realistic messages  – recommended.

The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare

April 16, 2009

city-of-bones-coverClare, C (2007). City of bones. Great Britain: Walker Books.

Clare, C (2008). City of ashes. Great Britain: Walker Books.

Who’s it for? Older teens (including those who loved the Twilight series)

What’s it about? It’s present day and fifteen year old Clary Fray is at a local New York nightclub with her best friend, Simon, when she witnesses a fight in which a boy is knifed by three good-looking teens– but no-one else appears to have seen the incident. Shortly after, Clary’s life is thrown into turmoil when her home is broken into and her mother ends up in a coma. She discovers that it the work of demons – and the teens (Jace, Alec and Isabelle) from the nightclub were, in fact Demon Hunters. Naturally enough, she is caught up in this world and, as readers would expect with this kind of story, an evil genius, Valentine, is bent on basically taking over the world. Things become more complicated when Clary discovers that Valentine is actually her father – and her comatose mother was his wife. Moreover, Jace, with whom she has fallen in love, turns out to be her brother! In the midst of all this, there are vampires, werewolves, warlocks, not-so-friendly faeries, and plenty of magical tattoos and sinister weapons. At their hearts, these novels explore notions of family, loyalty and trust.

Is it any good? The series moves along at a brisk, entertaining pace, and is enhanced by regular flashes of humour. Characters are fleshed out, believable and sympathetic. Clare even manages to make Valentine more than a stereotype of the crazy, evil genius. Most welcome of all, though, is the quality of the writing. It is rich and evocative; Clare uses similes particularly well, e.g. ‘When he smiled at Clary, a thousand small lines rayed out from around his eyes, like the cracks in an old painting.’ On the negative side, the ideas behind the story are derivative – Clare borrows elements freely from dozens of previous tales, including Harry Potter and Star Wars. However, she brings these elements together in an original enough way. The advantage of not creating an entirely original world is that most readers will find it easier to immerse themselves in Clare’s world – it is at once familiar and new. Overall, these urban supernatural fantasies will appeal to many teenagers; the fact that Twilight series author, Stephanie Meyers, has endorsed the series won’t hurt either. However, as an adult, I can’t wait to read book three, The City of Glass, which has just been released.

How can they be used? These are an obvious inclusion on any library shelf for general reading – especially for those wanting a follow-up to the hugely popular Twilight series. Happily, they avoid swearing (like the Harry Potter books, readers are told simply that a character ‘swore’) and there is nothing overtly sexual. The books will not be to the liking of some parents and other adults, though; teachers should be aware that there is a strong supernatural element. In addition, Clarke deliberately plays up the relationship between Clary and Jace, and the struggles they face knowing that they love each other romantically even though they are brother and sister. One of my daughter’s friends thinks it’s a really stupid story line, but while it is somewhat (unnecessarily?) sensational , I think there are plenty of clues dropped in the second book that Jace and Clary are not, in fact, siblings. Finally, this is another excellent book to draw extracts from in order to model the use of figurative language and imagery. Overall, with its strong, inclusive characters (including great female parts) this is a series with which teachers really should familiarize themselves. And don’t forget to check out the books’ website:

Bright ideas for English teachers

March 13, 2009

Bright sparkOver many years of teaching English, I’ve discovered numerous books that have helped me grow as a teacher. Listed below are some of the more practical – books which are overflowing with good ideas and which have a sound theoretical and/or research basis.

(On another occasion, I’ll list some good ‘theory’ books.)

Anderson, M., Hughes, J. and Manuel, J. (2008). Drama and English teaching: imagination, action and engagement. Sydney: Oxford University Press.

[Want to spice up your English class and do something a bit more interesting (and challenging) than set another worksheet? Then this is the book for you – lots of ideas for using drama to teaching novels, plays, poetry and more. As you’d expect, there’s even advice on teaching the Bard through performance.]

Dean, D. (2008). Bringing grammar to life. Newark: International Reading Association.

[A really interesting practical book on grammar that will appeal to traditionalists as well as those who are more interested in a functional or rhetorical approach.]

Ellery, V. (2005). Creating strategic readers. United States: International Reading Association.

[A balanced approach to reading, this is the book for you if you want ideas how to help teach phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Even better, the activities are designed to be appropriate for different levels of reading competence.]

Fisher, D., Frey, N and Lapp, D. (2009). In a reading state of mind: brain research, teacher modeling and comprehension instruction. Newark: International Reading Association.

[These well respected academics provide practical advice on using think aloud modelling to teach students how to comprehend more effectively. The book even comes with a DVD so that you can see teachers working with students in classrooms. Particularly relevant to Middle School teachers.]

Frangenheim, E. (2006). Reflections on classroom thinking strategies. Loganholme: Rodin Educational Consultancy.

[While this book is meant to be used across the curriculum, English teachers will find many practical ideas to help students develop higher order thinking while undertaking studied of language and literature.]

Ludwig, C. (2000). Why wait? A way into teaching critical literacies in the early years. Queensland: The State of Queensland (Department of Education).

[Fully developed units – with activities and worksheets – that can be used to help students become Text Analysts. This is particularly designed for teachers of early primary classes.]

Poston-Anderson, B. (2008). Drama: learning connections in primary schools. Sydney: Oxford University Press.

[If you are a primary teacher who is interested in using drama to enhance your teaching in all subject areas (not just English), you’ll find a great deal of useful advice in this practical book. It includes plenty of snapshots of the activities being used in real classrooms.]

Williams, L. (2007). Secondary English teaching: a survival manual Volumes 1 and 2. Rochedale South, Queensland: Wordsmart Consulting.

[These books provide over a hundred practical activities to use in the Before, During and After Stages of Reading and Writing. There are also group work strategies, ideas for getting off to a good start with new classes and much more. I know I wrote these books, but they are good!]

Keep an eye out for more suggestions of books that will help you become an even better teacher.

The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

January 25, 2009

Who is it for? Middle and Senior school students; adults

What’s it about? Thirteen years old Miles O’Malley is small for his age, but has an encyclopaedic knowledge about the ocean and its multitudinous life forms. While beachcombing one night on Skookumchuck Bay (part of Puget Sound) where he lives, he makes a remarkable discovery – a giant squid with an eye the size of a hubcap. Marine biologists are baffled; the squid is out of its usual territory. The media is mesmerized and, overnight, Miles becomes a minor celebrity. From that point on, strange things continue to happen around Miles, he gains the attention of a local cult, struggles with his passion for his ex-babysitter and, in the midst of all this, his parents announce their separation. Everything appears to be changing.

At its heart, this is a coming of age story. However, through the story of one boy’s adolescent “stürm und drang”, Lynch explores the wonder and mystery of the natural world, the beauty of science and the limits of human knowledge. The main message seems to be: pay attention.

Is it any good? Highly recommended. An award winning first novel, this is a fast paced yet lyrical novel suitable for a range of readers. Most readers should warm to Miles who is something of a science nerd, but is also presented as a pretty typical teenager, struggling with his own identity and trying to find a place to belong. Cleverly, Miles’s innocence is balanced by the other teen character Kenny Phelps, his cigarette smoking, breast-obsessed, foul mouthed friend. In fact, the novel is inhabited by a number of well-rounded, interesting characters who add interest and variety to the story and are treated respectfully by the author. In other words, Lynch is able to shift beyond the common stereotypes you’d find in many novels and present the characters and actions in all their complexity. There are no easy morals to be drawn here. This is also one of those books where the setting is as much a character as geographical location, and it is described with a lyrical beauty by Lynch. In fact, imagery and the use of figurative language are real strengths of this novel.

Probably what really lifts The highest tide above the usual crop of novels given the young adult label is Lynch’s ability to blend the hormonal self-interest of teenagers with reflections on the natural world and the role of science in helping us understand our world. Moreover, he achieves a nice balance between the use of teen colloquialisms and much more lyrical, reflective language. This is helped by the fact that, while written in first person, the narrator is an older Miles looking back on his life from the viewpoint of age and experience.

Finally, a warning. Read this carefully if you intend using it with students. The f-word is used from time to time (especially when Phelps is around) – although it helps define his character and, in my opinion, not used gratuitously. In addition, there is an indirect reference to male masturbation, a bit of talk about the size and shape of women’s ‘hooters’ and male penises, as well as the location and function of the g-spot. All of this is handled with sensitivity and humour, and is generally less explicit than I’ve seen in some other books, such as the Lockie Leonard series by Tim Winton. There are also some drug references and one eighteen year old, bi-polar character almost overdoses. All of these matters are just a small part of a well-written, life affirming novel and wouldn’t stop me using The highest tide with students. However, some of the content may cause discomfort for some teachers and school communities.

How can it be used? By all means buy copies for the library, but this is also a novel that would lend itself to close study by small groups and even whole classes. Easy to read and yet exploring challenging ideas, it is a perfect way to introduce students to how literary novels are constructed and read. Excerpts from the book could be studied during writing workshops to model how effective descriptions and images can be composed, and how to establish and maintain characters and relationships. Finally, composing stories in first person can be a trap for the unwary – it often results in the use of very informal, colloquial language that research shows is not highly valued by markers of demand writing tasks. Lynch’s work shows how a balance can be achieved between creating believable characters who use language authentically, while also maintaining the sort of lyrical and reflective prose that is valued. Part of the trick, of course, is choosing a narrator who recounts their life from the point of view of being an adult.

The 2008 Bloomsbury paperback edition contains a useful map at the front, as well as a ‘Reading Group Guide’ at the back. The latter includes a Q&A with Jim Lynch, a set of discussion-starter questions, and a helpful list of further readings. In addition, the book’s website can be found at:

Stormbreaker and Point Blanc: the graphic novels

July 31, 2008

Stormbreaker: the graphic novel (ISBN 1-84428-111-6) and Point Blanc: the graphic novel (ISBN 978-1-84428-112-1) by Anthony Horowitz, Antony Johnston, Kanako and Yuzuru (Walker Books, ISBN)

Who are they for? Middle school students

What are they about? These two graphic novels are based on Horowitz’s very popular Alex Rider series. Stormbreaker tells the story of how 14 year old orphan, Alex, is recruited into M16 after his Uncle is killed in a car crash. In Point Blanc, Alex is reluctantly brought into M16 again to investigate strange goings-on in a school in Switzerland – a school that costs ten thousand pounds a term and takes boys who have been expelled from other schools. More titles in the Alex Rider series are on their way.

How can they be used? Besides the obvious use as a substitute for reading the full prose versions, these graphic novels can be used even more effectively to study:

  • adaptation
  • translating a story from one medium into another
  • the use of visual and gestural resources.

For students new to visual design elements, graphic novels are an engaging and accessible resource. They also form a nice intermediary between studying still and moving images – many of the features distinctive to films (e.g. camera movement, performance, editing etc) are evident – with the advantage that the graphic novel doesn’t have to be stopped and rewound. Finally, graphic novels such as these provide the opportunity to discuss one of the significant differences between graphic novels and films – the representation of time. In films, movement through time is suggested by the projection of a quick succession of still images onto the same space. As a result, the viewer can (normally) only see the present (in terms of what’s happening on the screen). In graphic novels, the reader can see the present, past and future at one glance. Very good audiobooks of each volume in the Alex Rider series are also available – useful for comparing the way language adapts for yet another medium.

Futurama and March of the Penguins in the classroom

July 30, 2008

Who are they for? Middle School English teachers of SOSE, Science and English

What are they about? Futurama is the comic creation of Matt Groening of The Simpsons fame. This classic ‘fish out of water’ story is about a twentieth century delivery boy, Fry, who wakes up in the year 3000AD after an unfortunate accident in which he is cryogenically frozen. The particular episode of interest here is the black comedy satire of ‘The birdbot of Ice-catraz’ from Disc 1 of the Third Season. Fry (with other characters) visits a distant planet which has been established as a sanctuary for the last, living penguins. The sanctuary is magical and the penguins cute – until, through a mistake by one of the humans, the penguins obtain guns and turn them on each other…

March of the penguins is the spectacular, Academy Award winning documentary about the lives of the Emperor penguin in Antarctica. This ‘serious’ and ‘scientific’ documentary follows the penguins from arrival at their nests through to the birth and raising of the chicks. Through the narration spoken by Morgan Freeman, the viewer is told what penguins can teach us about family values, love and monogamy (more on that later).

How can they be used? Along with George Miller’s Happy Feet which is reportedly based on research and science, these two films are engaging and fun resources for introducing students to the way language choices shape and are shaped by the social world. Furthermore, there is the opportunity to explore a range of important issues, including the effects of anthropomorphism and the use of the penguins’ stories as vehicles for promoting particular moral and political points of view. Michael Adams in his Empire magazine (April 2006) review of March of the penguins stated: ‘God forbid-literally-that the film should talk about the birds’ extraordinary evolution or the immediate threat to their environment from rising sea levels caused by fossil-fuel based economies. No wonder this is a hit in family-values, pro-Life, Creation-centric, wilderness drilling, SUV-driving America. What’s most galling is that the French filmmakers…have conceded that they believe in evolution and global warming but wanted the broadest audience possible for their movie…’. So, have some fun with your students while at the same time exploring issues with implications for the portrayal of the world in every subject area.

Deogratis: a tale of Rwanda – review

July 6, 2008

Deogratis: a tale of Rwanda by Jean-Phillipe Stassen (First second, ISBN 9 781596 431034)

Who is it for? Senior students and adults

What is it about? This moving graphic novel tells the story of the Rwandan massacre through the eyes of a teenage boy, Deogratis. Told in flashback, the reader gains a devastating insight to this appalling time in African and world history. A preface provides useful background for the reader and certainly positions the western reader to see the Rwandan genocide as much the fault of inaction by Western governments and the United Nations as internal, racial and ethnic conflict.

How can it be used? The subject matter and some of the language means that it should be restricted to the Senior school. Evocative and sophisticated graphics do most of the storytelling work in this text creating the opportunity to undertake quite complex work on the interaction of visual and written language resources. In addition, it would be highly effective used in conjunction with texts dealing with inhumanity, violence and racism, e.g. Lord of the Flies, 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Audacity website – review

July 4, 2008

Who is it for? Teachers and students

What is it about? This site exists mainly to provide web users with a portal to download some excellent and absolutely free software, ‘Audacity’. This is a sound recording and editing program. Easy to download and use, it allows users to lay down and mix various audio tracks – sound recording, music, sound effects etc. For a complete list of features, see: The only extra equipment (besides a computer) that you need is a microphone – but many computers have these built in these days and mobile phones and some MP3 players, of course, can be used to record voice digitally.

How can it be used? This is the twenty-first century solution for teachers wanting students to ‘record an oral’. These type of mediated tasks have always been popular in English, but have required specialist equipment for a professional sounding result. This program will allow students to produce their own sound files and experiment with the blending of various tracks to produce desired results. For instance, a student could record a the vocal for a poetry reading on their mobile phone while sitting in their bedroom, upload it (with ease!) to ‘Audacity’ and locate and add sound effects and music in order to position listeners in particular ways. This is an excellent piece of software highly recommended for use in schools.

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