Anzac Day: The New Zealand Story by Philippa Werry

Why do we celebrate Anzac Day?  Why were donkeys used at Gallipoli?  Why do we wear poppies on Anzac Day? Why is the last post played at the Dawn Service?  Why do we have Anzac biscuits?  All these questions and more are answered in Philippa Werry’s new book, Anzac Day: The New Zealand Story – What it is and why it matters

Anzac Day: The New Zealand Story – What it is and why it matters is a fascinating, beautifully designed, thoroughly researched, and very accessible book for New Zealand children about Anzac Day.  It’s one of those non-fiction books that is both great for teachers to use in the classroom or for children to delve in to by themselves.  Philippa has written it in such a way that it is accessible for children of different ages, from 8 years and up, with lots of images to break up the text.  This book is different from other non-fiction books about Anzac Day and New Zealand’s involvement, as it looks at not only the past, but also the present and how we commemorate today.

Everything you would expect to find in a book about Anzac Day is here – what it is and why we celebrate it, a timeline of the Gallipoli campaign, profiles of key New Zealanders who played a part, and statistics of casualties and deaths.  However, it’s the focus on why Anzac Day matters and how we celebrate it now that really makes this book stand out.  There is a whole chapter about how we remember the war dead with poppies and war memorials, and another chapter on Anzac Day commemorations both in New Zealand and around the world.  There are also lots of fact boxes with tidbits of information about the animals at Gallipoli, Anzac biscuits, the New Zealand flag, and why the New Zealanders had ‘lemon-squeezer’ hats.

There are lots of primary resources in the book (which makes it great for teachers), from photos and newspaper clippings, to soldier’s diaries and paintings.  Philippa has created some incredibly helpful material at the back of the book too, including a glossary, bibliography, a list of helpful and authoritative websites, and a list of ‘More things to do’ to extend children’s understanding of the topic.

Anzac Day: The New Zealand Story – What it is and why it matters should be in every home, school and library in the country.  It’s a book that will be well-used and well-read.

Guest Author: Melinda Szymanik on A Winter’s Day in 1939

Today I’m joined by the wonderful Melinda Szymanik, author of the powerful new book, A Winter’s Day in 1939.  Based on her father’s experiences during World War II, A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a story of family, the harsh realities of war, and the fight for survival against the odds. Melinda has written a really interesting post for My Best Friends Are Books about why and how she wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939.

Why and How I wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939

When the Soviet soldiers come and order them out, Adam and his family have no idea where they are going or if they will ever come back.  The Germans have attacked Poland and the world is at war. Boarding a cattle train Adam and his family embark on a journey that will cover thousands of miles and several years, and change all their lives forever. And mine too. Because Adam’s story, the story told in my new novel A Winter’s Day in 1939, is very much my Dad’s story.

I often heard fragments of this story from my dad when I was growing up.  It was shocking, and sad, and amazing.  My Dad’s family was forced out of their home and taken to a labour camp in Russia. It was freezing cold, and many people died from disease or starvation. Even when the Soviets finally let them go, they spent weeks travelling around the USSR , were made to work on Soviet farms and were still hungry and often sick, with no idea of where they might end up next.  As a child growing up in a peaceful place like New Zealand it was hard to imagine the real dangers and terrible conditions my father experienced.

I didn’t get to know the full story until I was grown up with children of my own and was regularly writing stories for children.  I wrote a short story, also called A Winter’s Day in 1939, based on a single event I knew fairly well  from my Dad‘s childhood – when Soviet Soldiers first come to order them off their farm, the only home my father had known up till that point in his life. The story was published in The Australian School Magazine.  I showed the short story to the publishers Scholastic who liked it too. They wondered if I could turn it in to a novel.  This was a chance to tell my father’s story. By now I knew it was an important story that should be shared

Luckily my Dad had made notes about his life during World War Two; about twenty pages all typed up.  However I know people’s real lives don’t always fit into the framework of a novel and I knew I would have to emphasize some things and maybe leave other things out.

I read and researched to add the right details to the story. And asked my parents lots of questions. How cold was it in Poland in January 1940? Who or what were the NKVD? What were the trains like? What are the symptoms of typhoid? How do you make your own skis? Some information was hard to find. Some of the places that existed in the 1940s aren’t there anymore. And people didn’t keep records about how many people were taken to the USSR from Poland or what happened to particular individuals. But what I wanted to give readers most of all was a sense of how it felt to live that life.  So this then is the story of a twelve year old Polish boy in the USSR during World War 2 that all started on A Winter’s Day in 1939.

A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

When I was a teenager I went through stages of reading nothing but war stories.  I was fascinated by them because I couldn’t believe how people, especially children, could survive such a horrific event.  These stories put me in the shoes of teenagers in another time, taught me empathy and taught me a lot about the survival instinct of humans.  The thing that always gets me with war stories is that you know these horrible things happened, but you struggle to accept that anyone can be that cruel.   In her latest book, A Winter’s Day in 1939, Melinda Szymanik introduces us to a Polish family who do everything they can to stay together and stay alive.

Taken from their home, forced to leave their country, put to work in labour camps, frozen and starved, Adam and his family doubt that they will ever make it out alive. Even if they were to get away, they might freeze to death, or starve, or the bears might get them. For the Polish refugees, the whole of the USSR becomes a prison from which there is seemingly no escape.

 

A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a story of family, the harsh realities of war, and the fight for survival against the odds.  Adam and his family are ripped from their safe, comfortable life in Poland and transported to prison camps in Russia, in freezing conditions and with little to eat and drink.  They get transported in dirty, stinking train carriages with a stove and a pipe as a toilet, live in cramped barracks with many other families, and are forced to work for the good of Russia.  People die of exposure to the freezing conditions and disease is rife.  In these conditions you need to have to will to survive, and for Adam and his family, this is what is keeping them going.

The story is narrated by Adam, so you see everything through his eyes.  You feel how much he wants to survive and how important his family is to him. You get a real sense of how desperate their situation gets as time goes by, especially when it comes to food.  When a clerk at one of the evacuation centers apologizes to Adam for the lack of food, Adam says ‘He sounded sorry about it but that was no help to us.  You couldn’t eat ‘sorry.” You want so much for Adam and his family to survive the war and be able to return home, but you don’t know if their story will have a happy ending.

One of the things that stands out in Melinda’s story is the sense that Adam, his family, and the other refugees around them, hadn’t done anything wrong, yet they’re treated the way they are.  Adam says this himself, ‘We were being punished but I hadn’t done anything wrong.  None of us had.’ These people have been thrown out of their homes and sent to prison camps for no reason what so ever.

A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a great addition to any home or school library.  It’s a war story that hasn’t been told before and it will have an affect on readers of all ages.  Stories like Melinda’s help us to remember all those people who died during this horrific period of history and I’ll certainly remember Adam’s story for a long time.

4 out of 5 stars

Cover Reveal – The Extraordinaires: The Subterranean Stratagem

The theatre can wait. First there’s a mystery to solve, not to mention a world to save . . .

Kingsley Ward and Evadne Stephens are the Extraordinaires and they should be the toast of the town – but their juggling and escapology act is failing, and Kingsley is to blame. His wolfish side is breaking free, ruining performances and endangering those around him. The secret to controlling this wildness lies in his mysterious past. Was he really raised by wolves? Who were his parents? What happened to them?

The discovery of Kingsley’s father’s journal promises answers, but when it is stolen the Extraordinaires uncover ancient magic, a malign conspiracy, and a macabre plot to enslave all humanity. What begins as a quest to restore Kingsley’s past becomes an adventure that pits the Extraordinaires against forces that could shatter the minds and souls of millions.

I’m a huge fan of Michael Pryor.  His Laws of Magic series was brilliant and his latest series, The Extraordinaires is set to be even better.  I reviewed the first book in the series, The Extinction Gambit here on the blog and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the second book.

The Subterranean Stratagem is out 2 April from Random House Australia.

Back to Black Brick by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald

Sometimes a story can come along at exactly the right time.  It can mirror something that is happening in your own life and really strike a chord with you.  Back to Black Brick is a story about a grandfather who has Alzheimer’s Disease and his grandson, Cosmo, who tries everything he can to stop him losing his memory.  My nan has early stage dementia so I can completely understand how Cosmo feels.  Cosmo, however, does something that I can’t do – he travels back in time to meet his grandfather as a young man.

Cosmo’s brother Brian died when he was ten years old. His mum hides her grief and Cosmo lives with his grandparents. They’ve been carefree days as Granddad buys him a horse called John and teaches him all he knows about horses. But the good times have to come to an end and although he doesn’t want to admit it, Cosmo knows his Granddad is losing his mind. So on one of the rare occasions when Granddad seems to recognise him, Cosmo is bemused that he gives him a key to Blackbrick Abbey and urges him to go there. Cosmo shrugs it off, but gradually Blackbrick draws him in… Cosmo arrives there, scared and lonely, and is dropped off at the crumbling gates of a huge house. As he goes in, the gates close, and when he turns to look, they’re rusty and padlocked as if they haven’t been opened in years. Cosmo finds himself face to face with his grandfather as a young man, and questions begin to form in his mind: can Cosmo change the course of his family’s future?

Back to Black Brick is a captivating story about families, the secrets that they keep, and the pain they hold inside.  Sarah Moore Fitzgerald wraps this all up with plenty of mystery, a dash of history, and time travel.  It’s a time-slip story but quite different from similar stories I’ve read.  When time travel is involved the characters generally have to think about how their actions in the past will affect the future, but Cosmo does everything he can to try and change the future.  He wants to try and stop his grandfather’s memory from fading when he’s older, so he tells him about things that he’ll need to remember for later in life.

As soon as I heard Cosmo’s voice I knew I would really like this character.  Cosmo is a loner who has been affected by the death of his brother, the abandonment of his mother, and his grandfather’s worsening condition.  From the first few paragraphs you know how much Cosmo loves and admires his grandfather.  He wants to do everything he possibly can to help stop his grandfather losing his memory and would hate for him to have to go into a home.  So when Cosmo gets the chance to meet his grandfather as a young man he believes this is his chance to change the future and make things right.

There were several things that I really loved about Back to Black Brick.  I thought the characters were very well developed and you felt like you were part of their gang.  I especially liked the way that you could see the personality traits mirrored in both the young and old version of Cosmo’s grandfather, Kevin (like the ‘Ah, fantastic’ when he’d drink tea).  The other thing that I loved about the story is the way that Sarah explains how the time travel happened and the way that Cosmo’s visit to the past affected the future.  I like the way that this explanation rounds off the story but still leaves you with a sense of mystery.

4 out of 5 stars

Christmas 2012: Horrible Christmas by Terry Deary and Martin Brown

Do you love history with all the horrible bits left in?  Have you ever wondered where Christmas carols came from or why we have Christmas trees?  Well all your Christmases have come at once with the latest edition of Horrible Christmas by Terry Deary and Martin Brown. 

Horrible Christmas is a fantastic book from the pair that have brought us the Horrible Histories series.  It’s a book ‘filled full of the foulest facts you can find on this festive folly.’  Terry and Martin dispel the myths about Christmas and give you the cold, hard, horrible facts.  You can discover:

  • the truth behind some popular Christmas carols
  • who invented the Christmas cracker
  • what people used to eat for their Christmas dinners
  • the things they never tell you about Santa
  • Christmas entertainment from the past
  • Christmas customs from around the world

There is so much in this book that I didn’t know about Christmas.  Did you know that Father Christmas comes in down the chimney because Saint Nicholas was the saint of chimney sweeps or that Christmas pudding in the Middle Ages was spicy porridge?  There are also lots of quizes and a game so that readers can test their knowledge about the different topics.  Martin Brown’s illustrations always make me laugh and this book is chock-full of his Christmasy characters from through the ages.  I especially like the illustration of a very fat Father Christmas trying to figure out how to squeeze back up a very small fireplace.

Horrible Christmas is a great addition to the Horrible Histories series that boys just seem to gobble up.  They’re hugely appealing because they’re interesting, funny and gross.  If you know a kid that says they don’t like reading, put  Horrible Christmas under the Christmas tree for them and they’ll be hooked on this fantastic series.

The Boy in the Olive Grove by Fleur Beale

Fleur Beale has written some great novels, both for children and young adults.  My favourite books of hers are the award-winning Juno of Taris series.  Fleur’s latest book, The Boy in the Olive Grove, is a about a girl living in present day New Zealand, whose past lives resurface and turn her life upside down.

On the night of her seventeenth birthday Bess Grey sees images of a witch-burning unfold in front of her as if in a movie. She also sees images from a different time — lovers, and the girl, she’s sure is — was – herself. When she meets Nick she recognises him as the boy. There’s an immediate connection. However when her father nearly dies from a heart attack there’s no time to brood as Bess tries to save her father’s business. She falls in love with Nick but her difficult mother interferes, forcing Bess to make the hardest decision of her life. She must decide whether to lose her mother or the boy she loves.

The Boy in the Olive Grove is a really unique story about a girl who is navigating the minefield of her family life, while trying to deal with the lives she has lived in the past.  In the present Bess has a horrible mother who doesn’t seem to care for her at all, a protective brother who has just up and left her, a father who is ill, and a step-mother who she feels awkward around.  When she has a visions of herself burning a witch at the stake and of a mysterious boy who she has strong feelings for, she gets drunk and nearly kills herself on the road.  This only seems to be the beginning of her troubles, as she gets expelled from her boarding school and sent home to live with her mother.  Her dad falls ill and Bess gets left to look after his struggling furniture business.  She continues to have the visions and her step-mother sends her to a psychiatrist who helps her to understand these and come to terms with what they mean.

I found the story quite unusual (it’s quite different in a way from Fleur Beale’s previous books), but the more I read, the more intrigued I became and wanted to find out how it would end.  Fleur Beale always gets inside her characters heads so we know everything that they’re thinking and feeling.  Bess has so much to deal with, from her visions, to taking over her father’s business, and dealing with her horrible mother, but she deals with everything extremely well.  I know I wouldn’t have been able to handle all that at her age!  I love the relationship that Bess has with the men that work for her dad.  After some initial skepticism they warm to her and she helps to boost their confidence.  I love the way they call her ‘boss.’

The only thing I didn’t really like about the story was the scheming, vindictive bitch that was Bess’ mum.  I don’t think I’ve met a character that I’ve hated quite so much as her, and she didn’t seem to have any redeeming characteristics.  I’d really like to know if there are mothers out there that are really like her, because I couldn’t quite imagine a mother that could be as cruel and uncaring as she was.

If you like contemporary Young Adult fiction that stands out from the crowd, The Boy in the Olive Grove, get a copy now.  If you’re a fan of Fleur Beale then this is one not to be missed.

4 out of 5 stars

You can read an extract of The Boy in the Olive Grove on the Random House New Zealand website.

The Infinity Ring: A Mutiny in Time by James Dashner

A Mutiny in Time, the first book in Scholastic’s new interactive series, The Infinity Ring is released today. Like the hugely popular 39 Clues series, the story doesn’t stop when you close the book.  It’s one of those books that comes with extra bits and pieces so that you can find out more about the story and the characters.  The Infinity Ring series is all about time travel so you follow the characters through different time periods.  Each book comes with a Hystorian’s Guide, a collectible map that includes a special code to unlock exclusive content on the Infinity Ring online game.  The multi-dimensional game on http://www.infinityring.com allows readers to play as the main characters from the books, as they travel back in history to fix the “Great Breaks,” key events that have gone wrong, altering history as we know it.  Players can interact with characters and explore key events in history alongside Christopher Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, and other figures featured in the books.

Book 1 is called A Mutiny in Time  and it’s written by one of my favourite authors, James Dashner (author of The Maze Runner series).

History is broken, and three kids must travel back in time to set it right!

When best friends Dak Smyth and Sera Froste stumble upon the secret of time travel — a hand-held device known as the Infinity Ring — they’re swept up in a centuries-long secret war for the fate of mankind. Recruited by the Hystorians, a secret society that dates back to Aristotle, the kids learn that history has gone disastrously off course.

Now it’s up to Dak, Sera, and teenage Hystorian-in-training Riq to travel back in time to fix the Great Breaks . . . and to save Dak’s missing parents while they’re at it. First stop: Spain, 1492, where a sailor named Christopher Columbus is about to be thrown overboard in a deadly mutiny!

Reserve your copy of The Infinity Ring: A Mutiny in Time at your library now or grab a copy from your bookshop.

Enter my competition to win one of two copies of The Infinity Ring: A Mutiny in Time.

Scholastic NZ are also running a really cool competition to celebrate the release of the series.  All you have to do is register and play the Infinity Ring game on http://www.scholastic.co.nz/assets/pdf/tileE.pdf and you go in the draw to win iPods and iPads.

Ransomwood by Sherryl Jordan

Every now and again a book comes along that surprises you.  I find myself reading a lot of Young Adult science fiction because I like the sound of the story and I love the different versions of society that authors can create.  A completely different type of story caught my eye recently, one by a New Zealand author who I love.  That book is called Ransomwood, by award-winning New Zealand author, Sherryl Jordan.

Spurned by her lover, and with her uncle threatening to marry her off to his odious widowed brother, Gwenifer is almost relieved to be sent away to escort the magistrate’s old, blind mother to Ransomwood, where the tears of the statue of the Holy Mother are said to have healing qualities.

Together with Harry, the village halfwit, who is escaping a sentence of hanging for being in charge of an ox that trampled a child almost to death, they embark on a perilous journey … each of them looking for a different kind of healing.

Ransomwood is a story of gossip, friendship, loyalty, suffering, acceptance and identity.  It’s the story of three very different people thrown together to go off in search of a cure for their ailments and medicine for a dying girl.  There is Halfwit Harry, the village idiot, whose fault it is that a little girl was trampled by oxen; Mother Dorit, an old crone who is thought to be a witch and is hoping to cure her blindness; and Gwenifer, who was caught with another boy who was betrothed.  Each of the pilgrims is hoping to achieve something by journeying to Ransomwood to collect the tears of the Holy Mother.

As we follow the pilgrims on their journey, you learn that there is more to them than the other villagers have assumed.   One quote from Mother Dorit that I love is about the gossip that flies around the village.

“If every word of gossip in Grimblebury was a bumblebee, the buzzing about the village would be enough to deafen the Good Lord Himself.  And if every gossip word were true, I say there’d be a blessed silence, and not one drop of honey to be had.  Nor anyone stung, for that matter.”

Mother Dorit is much more than the witch that others believe she is.  She’s a wise, kind soul who cares for Gwenifer and Harry and reassures them that everything is going to be alright.  Gwenifer is far from the girl of loose morals that others believe she is either.  She wishes to escape the clutches of her uncle and his horrible brother, and make a life for herself, where she can decide where life takes her.  Mother Dorit encourages her to follow her dreams by saying “If you have a dream, pick it up in both hands and shake it in the face of fate, and fight till you make every bit of your dream come true.”  She grows incredibly throughout the story and even puts herself in danger to help her friends.  My favourite character by far though has to be Harry.  Although everyone (even Gwenifer at first) believes him to be a half-wit and should be treated like one, he is probably the wisest of the pilgrims.  He truly regrets the awful thing that happened to Tilly and wants to make things right.  He is incredibly loyal to both Gwenifer (who he affectionately calls ‘Gwennie’) and Mother Dorit and will do anything to protect them on their journey.  One of my favourite parts of the book is when they are attacked by a group of men and Harry fights back with his pilgrim’s staff.  He’s also incredibly gentle and loving, and adopts a bantam along the way that he nurtures.  Harry actually reminded me of a bulkier version of Forrest Gump (think ‘I love you Gwennie’).

Sherryl Jordan’s writing is absolutely beautiful and she had me hanging on every word.  She transports you to an England of long ago, where everyone lived off the land, you slept on the hard ground or scratchy straw, you cooked over a fire, and it took you days or weeks to get to where you wanted to go.  Ransomwood will certainly be a finalist in next year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, if not the winner of the Young Adult category.

5 out of 5 stars

Win The Drover’s Quest by Susan Brocker

Susan Brocker is a New Zealand author whose books keep getting better and better.  Her love of animals and history are obvious in her stories, especially her latest book, The Drover’s Quest.  The story is set in 1860s New Zealand and tells the story of Charlotte who joins a drove from Christchurch to the West Coast to find out what has happened to her father.  You can read my review here on the blog.

Thanks to Susan’s wonderful publishers, HarperCollins NZ I have 2 copies of The Drover’s Quest to give away.  All you have to do to get in the draw is enter your details in the form below.  Competition closes Monday 25 June (NZ only).