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.

Missing by Sue Whiting

I could not put this book down!

When I read the first three chapters of Missing to a Year 5 class, they were hooked from the first line…‘In the dead of the night we ran away.’

Mackenzie da Luca’s mother is missing. Maggie da Luca is a scientist who specialises in bats. When visiting the small town of Boquete in Central America she vanishes without a trace in the jungles of Panama. After her mother has been missing for 114 days, Mackenzie’s dad is still desperate for answers and sneaks off at night with Mackenzie in tow to Panama to find the truth. Mackenzie however has her own theory about her mother’s disappearance and is not sure if she wants her dad to find her mum.

The story alternates between ‘Then’ in Sydney as 12 year old Mackenzie and her family attempt to adjust to life without her mother and ‘Now’ in Panama where Mackenzie is reluctantly searching for clues with her dad. By weaving together the family’s life before and after Maggie’s disappearance, Sue Whiting gradually reveals the pieces of this mystery puzzle.

Mackenzie is a resilient girl, but it’s not easy beginning secondary school without your old primary school friends and the support of your mother. She finds comfort in her sketching and is befriended by the rebellious Billie who takes her under her wing.

When she arrives in Panama, Mackenzie finds it confronting to be wandering the streets of Boquete where her mother was last seen and finds herself wondering…

Did she walk along here? Did the people in the shops and on the street see her? Speak to her on her last day here? Am I walking right past someone who might have seen her get on the bus back to David, leaving Boquete? Or someone who actually knows what happened to her?’ 

A chance meeting with a wildlife worker sets Mackenzie off doing her own risky detective work and asking herself…Is it is better to know or not know the truth about her missing mother?

If you’re in Year 5 and 6 and like a mystery with twists and turns and a roller coaster ride of emotions then Missing is the book for you.

Happy reading!

Teacher notes

Dr Boogaloo and The Girl Who Lost Her Laughter by Lisa Nicol

Can you imagine what your life would be like without laughter?

Dr Boogaloo is no ordinary doctor. Strange disorders and unusual complaints are his specialty. Dr Boogaloo is the doctor you see when you have Talks In Slow Motion Syndrome or You Can Only Sleep Hanging Upside Down Syndrome. Dr Boogaloo and his family use the most powerful medicine of all to cure patients…music! The Boogaloo Family Clinic of Musical Cures has never had a complaint that couldn’t be cured until Blue arrived. Ten-year-old Blue hasn’t laughed for 712 days!

Dr Boogaloo suspects Blue has No Laughing Syndrome and sends her to The Snorkel Porkel Crumpety Worpel Laughter Clinic to be sure. Unlike you and I, Blue doesn’t laugh or even giggle at the Tickle Machine, blooper reels, hula-hooping cats in bikinis, YouTube videos of epic fails, or even at Gassy Gus who can blow up balloons with his bottom.

Dr Boogaloo has two weeks to compose an urgent cure for Blue before she loses her laughter forever. Blue needs the right dose of the right music, but there’s no point listening to a jive if you’re in need of some boogie-woogie, and you can’t just substitute a toot for a blow! Blue patiently listens to talented musicians playing music and instruments she didn’t know existed and even summons the courage to swim with Leonard the Blues singing humpback whale in an attempt to help her laugh again. It isn’t until Dr Boogaloo has almost given up in despair that he finds the cure he needs for Blue in an unexpected place.

One of my favourite parts of the story is the daily ride Blue takes to the clinic on Bessie’s extraordinary iBike. This strange contraption looks like it has an entire orchestra collapsed on it and plays over a million tunes that change with the landscape as you ride along. It would be fun to draw or make your version of the iBike (and even include music and a matching landscape) after reading the fabulous description on pages 41-42.

This is a quirky, funny and sometimes sad story that celebrates laughter, friendship and the power and magic of music.

“Not everyone hears the right music – or knows how to listen. And they suffer terribly… if you don’t let your heart fly, your tune gets right out of whack. It’s a bit like spending your whole life indoors – it’s just not good for your health.” (Bessie)

Happy reading!

Teaching notes