The House on the Mountain by Ella Holcombe

The Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria on Saturday, 7 February 2009 were among Australia’s worst bushfire disasters.

Ella Holcombe grew up in Kinglake and The House on the Mountain was her childhood home that burnt down on Black Saturday.  

At the end of her book Ella has written an important message that she would like you to read with a grown-up.

Remembering Black Saturday
There is fire coming, and we need to move quickly. Mum and Dad start packing bags, grabbing woollen blankets, the first-aid kit, torches and then the photo albums. Dad puts Ruby on her lead and ties her up near the back door. My chest feels hollow, like a birdcage.

The House on the Mountain is told through the eyes of a young girl as she remembers the fiercely hot and windy day in February when her family drove down the mountain at Kinglake to escape a raging bushfire. When her family is allowed to return home, she is shocked to see ‘the hills are bald, with black spikes where the trees used to be’. In their street everything is silent and it’s like ‘stepping into a picture book after all the colour has been drained out’. It’s hard to make sense of what remains of their house.

It’s strange living at Nan’s house and returning to school to learn some teachers and kids will never come back because of the fire. Months pass before the family can move back to their block of land where they live in two caravans as they rebuild their house with help from friends. Slowly shoots of green start to appear in the trees and plants poke through the blackened ground as wildlife returns and life moves forward.

David Cox’s illustrations are a special part of this book in the way they capture both the power and destruction of the bushfire and the natural beauty of Kinglake that Ella remembers from her childhood days. David used photos so the house in the book looks exactly like Ella’s mudbrick family home. 

The House on the Mountain is a story of of resilience, healing and hope and a love letter from Ella to her parents.

Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee

Karen Foxlee, will take your feelings on a roller-coaster ride when you read Lenny’s Book of Everything as Lenny and her brother Davey burrow their way into your heart and remind you of the wonder and preciousness of life.

On the day Davey Spink was born his mum had a ‘dark heart feeling’ and felt ‘something’s not right’. Her feeling is right when Davey turns five and starts growing faster than he should. Davey is diagnosed with gigantism, a rare condition that causes him to keep growing. By the time Davey is seven he is man-sized and this is harmful for his health. Lenny is very protective of her younger brother, but she has her own challenges and it’s not easy being the sister of ‘the giant’. 

Lenny, Davey and their mum who works two jobs don’t have much, but they have each other. Their mum wins a free subscription to Burrell’s Build-It-At-Home Encyclopedia and Fridays become the highlight of the week when each new volume arrives. The encyclopedia transports Lenny and Davey to places beyond the walls of their tiny apartment and brings knowledge and the wonder of the world into their lives. 

The B volume fuels Lenny’s fascination for beetles and her dream to become a coleopterist and the bird section introduces Davey to golden eagles. He even invents his own imaginary eagle called Timothy who sits on his shoulder and he feeds him imaginary crumbs. When the C volume arrives they discover Canada. Lenny as ‘chief imagineer’ imagines them travelling to Bear Lake. Planning their adventurous trip there and the log cabin Davey wants to build, carries them through the ups and downs of Davey’s health until the day Lenny and Davey squeeze goodbye in Morse Code.

Karen Brownlee exquisitely weaves the story and its characters together using the volumes of Burrell’s Build-It-At-Home Encyclopedia with Lenny as the narrator. As you read, think about how Karen’s words make you feel, how she describes her characters or the images she creates in you mind with her carefully chosen words.

If you have read Wonder by R.J. Palacio or Ugly by Robert Hoge you might also like Lenny’s Book of Everything. Auggie, Robert and Davey’s stories give us an opportunity to walk in their shoes and help us to understand a little more some of the challenges of living with a disability. 

Click HERE to read this National Geographic Kids’ interview with Karen Foxlee.

Look closely at the front cover. How does the image connect to the story? Click HERE to see how the cover was created. This is a rare novel with endpapers. Why do you think they have been included?

Click  HERE to read an extract of Lenny’s Book of Everything.

Happy reading and a BIG TISSUE ALERT!

Teacher notes

Everything I’ve Never Said by Samantha Wheeler

Ava has Rett syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that leaves her unable to speak or walk and she needs help with moving and eating. She is a regular 11 year-old girl on the inside who hears, sees and understands everything, but Ava can’t communicate because she is trapped in her body that won’t work properly.

How do you say you want jam and not vegemite on your toast, that your favourite colour is pink not purple or tell your big sister that you don’t want to be an embarrassment and just want to hang out with her like sisters do?

Ava has a disability, but she is also strong, feisty and funny, and as the narrator of the story she gives us an insight into the challenges of every day life with Rett syndrome as well as the challenges it can also bring to a family.

One day I’ll talk like Aimee.
One day I’ll find a way.

Thanks to the encouragement of her new friend, Aimee and the determination and problem solving of Kieran, her occupational therapist, it is Ava’s eyes that provide the key for her to be heard at last. You are going to be cheering Ava on alongside her family when she communicates with them for the first time!

I didn’t know about Rett Syndrome until I read this book. Samantha Wheeler has written this story with so much heart and understanding because her own daughter Charlotte was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome when she was fourteen. 

If you enjoy books that give you an opportunity to walk in somebody else’s footsteps and experience a life that is different to yours then Everything I’ve Never Said is a perfect choice.

“Everyone has something to say, whether they communicate in a conventional way or not. We just need empathy and understanding” (Samantha Wheeler)

Happy reading!

The Mulberry Tree by Allison Rushby

The Mulberry Tree by Allison Rushby is mysterious, a little spooky and one of those books you can’t put down because you need to know how the story ends. 

When ten year old Immy and her parents move from Sydney, Australia to a small English village they shrug off the legend of the ancient and fierce-looking mulberry tree in the backyard of Lavendar Cottage that has cast fear over the village for years. The villagers believe the mulberry tree steals away girls living in the cottage on the eve of their eleventh birthday and they superstitiously cross the road to avoid the mulberry tree and Immy’s family. Immy struggles to make friends at her new school, her dad is still not himself after an incident and life is not working out as well as her family had planned. 

When Immy starts hearing a mysterious rhyme in her head she is determined to find out what happened to the two missing girls. Immy researches the legend at the local library and has help from her elderly neighbour Jean whose best friend Elizabeth was the second girl to disappear in 1945. Tension rises as Immy’s eleventh birthday draws closer when she notices changes in the mulberry tree outside her window. The tree no longer looks angry, but rather tired and weak and even sad. Immy begins to feel sorry for the tree and wonders what could have caused the vicious marks on its trunk. “You can trust me” she told the tree. “I won’t hurt you.” 

Can brave Immy solve the mystery of the mulberry tree before she too disappears on her eleventh birthday?

Happy reading!

Teacher notes

The Red Fox Clan by John Flanagan

They move silent as a shadow. They climb impossible heights. Their archery skills are unsurpassed. They are Rangers…

I have been a fan of the Ranger’s Apprentice series since John Flanagan wrote the first book in 2004. Yes, that’s a long time ago, but when you really like a series you stick with it!

The Ranger’s Apprentice series began as short stories John wrote for his son Michael to encourage him to read and now readers all over the world enjoy his books. John has also written a spinoff series called Brotherband and these two series combined have sold over 15 million books worldwide! In fact people have even organised Ranger’s Apprentice camps based on the books where participants can learn archery, horseback riding, tracking and survival skills and compete for a silver Oakleaf just like Rangers.

Rangers Apprentice is set in the Kingdom of Araluen. The story follows Will, a 15-year old orphan who becomes an apprentice to the mysterious Halt who trains  the small, agile, clever and courageous Will to become one of the secretive, highly skilled Rangers who protect the Kingdom of Araluen. Alongside Will is his best friend Horace who becomes a champion knight. Will, Halt, Horace and a cast of characters face battles and threats from invaders and traitors as they protect the kingdom. It’s not all about battles though and I really enjoy the friendship and humour shared between Halt, Will and Horace. They are loyal, brave and and skilled and you would definitely want them on your side. You can read about some of the other main characters here.

The Ranger’s Apprentice books are divided into The Early Years, Ranger’s Apprentice and The Royal Ranger.

In the latest Royal Ranger books, Will takes on his own apprentice. Maddie is the first female Ranger. Headstrong Maddie also happens to be Horace’s daughter and a princess, but she has to keep her Ranger training a secret. One month each year Maddie has to return home to resume her identity as Princess Madelyn and wear dresses, much to her disgust!

In The Red Fox Clan, when Maddie returns she discovers a plot against the crown led by a mysterious man in a red fox mask. Who is this man? Why does he believe he should be king? Sometimes the enemy is someone you least expect. Her father Horace has been lured away from Castle Araluen leaving her mother Cassandra to fight off the traitors and it’s up to Maddie to find out the truth about the man in the red fox mask if she is to help save her father’s forces and everyone at Castle Araluen.

Thanks to Penguin Random House, I was very lucky to meet John Flanagan during the school holidays. John is a born storyteller with a twinkle in his eye and great sense of humour. He is also a big fan of old Western movies! John shared many stories with us and I was interested to hear that John plans everything before he starts writing and carefully checks the smallest details to ensure his books are accurate and consistent. Like many other fans of Ranger’s Apprentice, I hope one day the series will be brought to life in a movie. 

Happy Reading!