Category Archives: Historical fiction

A story can be a dangerous thing….Song for a scarlet runner by Julie Hunt

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Song for a scarlet runner by Julie Hunt. Published by Allen & Unwin, 2013.  Paperback, 324 pp. ISBN: 9781743313589. rrp NZ$19.99 (Also available on Overdrive ebook platform for libraries).

From the publisher:

The fantastic story of a young girl who must run for her life because she has brought bad luck to her village…Classic adventure-fantasy by an author with a fabulous and original storytelling voice.

Once, long ago and far from here, there were endless marshes, and in the marshes lived a marsh auntie, and that marsh auntie wore a coat with a thousand pockets, and in the pocket of that coat was a pouch, and inside that pouch was a nail, and that nail had the power to open a treacherous story…

Peat is on the run – forced to flee for her life when she’s blamed for bringing bad luck to her village. She heads for the endless marshes, where she’s caught by an old healer-woman who makes Peat her apprentice and teaches her the skill of storytelling.
But a story can be a dangerous thing. It can take you out of one world and leave you stranded in another – and Peat finds herself trapped in an eerie place beyond the Silver River where time stands still. Her only friends are a 900-year-old boy and his ghost hound, plus a small and slippery sleek – a cunning creature that might sink his teeth into your leg one minute, and save your life the next.

‘A gripping tale…Both magical and superbly true, this new world draws us into universal struggles of survival, loyalty and freedom, as secrets build and break around us like weather.’ ANNA FIENBERG

Book trailer:

About the author:

Julie Hunt lives on a farm in southern Tasmania and is fascinated by landscapes and the stories they inspire. This interest has taken her from the rugged west coast of Ireland to the ice caves of Romania. She loves poetry, storytelling and traditional folktales, and her own stories combine other-worldly elements with down-to-earth humour. Her picture books include The Coat (ill. Ron Brooks) and Precious Little (ill. Gaye Chapman). She’s written a three-book series called Little Else about a plucky young cowgirl (ill. Beth Norling), and a graphic novel called KidGlovz (ill. by Dale Newman, who did the Scarlet Runner cover).
In Song for a Scarlet Runner, Julie explores an idea that occurs in many traditional stories throughout the world – the ‘external soul’. A person’s spirit is taken from their body and hidden away so they can never be killed, but eventually time and the laws of nature catch up with them.

What did I think about Song for a scarlet runner?

I found this a highly original tale – it is beautifully written and children that love fantasy where the reader is totally immersed in a different world will love this. In many ways it reads like historical fiction, the story could easily be describing life in the dark ages, the fantasy element is gradually introduced.

Peat and her older sister Marlie live in isolation at the Overhang, a barren desolate place where three roads meet but no one ever travels along them. The nearest village or collection of dwellings is Skerrick from where they were banished on the day of Peat’s birth. Peat was born with flaming red hair and one brown eye and one green. Her father disowned her and banished her mother and sister along with her. The two girls have lived very simply, tending cattle, making cheeses and the only thing they have to look forward to is the infrequent visits from their Aunt Wim. Wim brings supplies and takes the cheeses back to Skerrick.

One day a stranger comes along the road and tells them about his part of the world, and although it is close to Skerrick Peat and Marlie had no idea it existed. Peat is curious and asks lots of questions. Unfortunately the stranger is suffering from  a plague like illness and after traveling on further to Skerrick, he infects the residents. This causes the wrath of Peat’s father to fall upon her again. Even though she has always longed for an adventure she is forced to go on the run into the badlands, leaving her sister behind. Peat meets a strange creature that she calls a Sleek. Despite the Sleek sometimes biting and hurting her and stealing the little food she has, he also helps her and becomes her traveling companion. Peat meets people along the way but she is unable to stay anywhere and has to keep moving further on, eventually into the marshes.

Once in the marshes Peat is fortunate to meet the Marsh Aunties, a group of strange, gifted women.  Eadie is a larger than life character, wearing an organic living coat with 1000 pockets, all containing the herbs and other materials she needs for healing and making remedies. Eadie, rescues Peat and encourages her to be her apprentice and pass on to her, the skill of storytelling. While the reader is being coaxed lovingly into this story by the warm characters and delicious prose, the characters are telling us about the power and magic of oral storytelling. Unfortunately Peat is tricked and without spoiling the story, let me just say that Peat has to use the power of story telling herself in order to escape and rescue her friend Stiltboy.

The whole book is a very satisfying, rich fantasy read without the usual layers of props (dragons, wizards and the rest!). I believe that both girls and boys 9+ should love this book. It would be great read aloud.

My thanks to Allen & Unwin for sending an advance copy of this book for review.

Historical fiction: ‘Queenie’ by Jacqueline Wilson

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Queenie by Jacqueline Wilson. Published by Doubleday, 2013. Paperback, 416 pages. ISBN13: 9780857531124.

It’s 1953, the year Elizabeth is to be crowned Queen of England. Elsie Kettle can’t wait to go to London with her beloved nan to see the Coronation Day celebrations. Then tragedy strikes. Nan and Elsie both fall ill with tuberculosis and Elsie is whisked away to the children’s ward of Miltree Hospital. Confined to bed for months, Elsie misses Nan desperately, and struggles to adapt to the hospital’s strict rules. But every night after lights-out she tells magical tales of adventure to the other children on the ward. For the first time, Elsie finds herself surrounded by true friends – including Queenie, the hospital’s majestic white cat.

Finally Elsie is well enough to leave the hospital. But before she does, she has one very special, very unexpected visitor …

Book Trailer:


What did I think about this book?

I loved this! Although the video trailer portrays a young girl, the story will be loved by my Year 5/6/7 Jacqueline Wilson fans. In my opinion, this is just as good as the Hetty Feather trilogy and I am loving the authors foray into historical fiction.

The characters are beautifully and fully portrayed. Elsie’s Nan reminded me so much of my own Nana who I spent a lot of time with when growing up in the 1960s and early 70s. Reading this instantly took me back to her working class kitchen, being made milky coffees with tinned evaporated milk and luncheon sausage sandwiches on white bread with tomato sauce. For many readers this period is so far removed from their lives it might as well be ancient history – it felt very familiar to me, bringing back memories of Humber cars, wearing ankle socks and patent leather shoes, handmade corduroy pinafores and knitted cardigans. It was really interesting to read about the treatment of tuberculosis in both adults and children. I still find viewing medical equipment from this period, especially “Iron Lungs” in museum displays, creepy and scary. Being taken away from the people you loved and hospitalized in the 1950s must have been very frightening for any child. Elsie suffers from Bovine Tuberculosis, which tended to affect the bones and joints rather than the kind that affects the lungs. She and her ward mates are subjected to long periods in plaster casts and other paraphenalia and are completely bedridden. The children were often taken out into the “fresh air” and weak English sunshine to aid their recovery.  I have just done a quick image search in Google looking for black and white photos of children in tuberculosis wards in this period and they are frightening. Eerily, many of the photos look exactly as I imagined the scenes when reading this book, right down to the matrons and nurses and their hospital corners, and the rows of beds outside.

Woven throughout the story is Elsie’s abandonment and dysfunctional relationship with her mother – another character vividly and realistically portrayed, revealing her unpleasant and selfish nature. There are the usual friendship issues; before diagnosis Elsie struggles to find friends (the stigma of having an unmarried mother and her poverty means she doesn’t make friends easily) and she takes time to find her way with the other children in the hospital – being a mix of ages, both genders and from different socio economic backgrounds. Through her friendship with Queenie the hospital cat, some kind nurses and eventually the real friends she makes in her ward, Elsie comes into her own. Even so, I found this one of the saddest books that I have read recently. The happy ending feels very hard won, but you can’t help but cheer alongside Elsie when it eventually comes.

Very highly recommended, and one I will promote outside the circle of usual JW fans.

AUTHOR WEBSITE: http://www.jacquelinewilson.co.uk (the books section contains a tab with a link to an extract from the book and other reviews).

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Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

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Navigating early by Clare Vanderpool.

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published  2013 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
 (ISBN13: 9780385742092)
From the publisher:

At the end of World War II, Jack Baker, a landlocked Kansas boy, is suddenly uprooted after his mother’s death and placed in a boy’s boarding school in Maine. There, Jack encounters Early Auden, the strangest of boys, who reads the number pi as a story and collects clippings about the sightings of a great black bear in the nearby mountains.

Newcomer Jack feels lost yet can’t help being drawn to Early, who won’t believe what everyone accepts to be the truth about the Great Appalachian Bear, Timber Rattlesnakes, and the legendary school hero known as The Fish, who never returned from the war. When the boys find themselves unexpectedly alone at school, they embark on a quest on the Appalachian Trail in search of the great black bear.

But what they are searching for is sometimes different from what they find. They will meet truly strange characters, each of whom figures into the pi story Early weaves as they travel, while discovering things they never realized about themselves and others in their lives.

What did I think about this book?

I LOVED THIS BOOK and thought about it long after I had closed the pages. The writing is beautiful and there is depth in the plot and characters…but I wonder if the story could have been developed even further and possibly published as an adult novel? This is a tricky review to write and I am thinking about how hard a “sell” this might be to my students (My oldest are Year 6 – equivalent to 5th Grade in the USA).

So many books these days have action from the start and many readers rely on that to get them hooked. Part of my role in developing readers is to get them to see the value of a strong build up in a story i.e. getting to know the characters, the setting, the back story – before reaching the action. I know that there will be students in my school community who aren’t mature enough readers to persevere past the first chapter or two. I found the start slow and whilst I am well aware that “good things take time” my reading enjoyment was punctuated with fears about whether or not I could get anyone to read this. Once Early and Jack have left the school and are on their adventure, the pace picks up considerably and there is action and adventure aplenty. Unfortunately it’s almost too much happening too soon and so many dangerous and unsettling things happen in quick succession.  Whilst the action and adventure ties in with the parallel story about pi, it did stretch credibility somewhat.

This isn’t a title I would book talk with a whole year level, however I believe this would be valuable and moving read aloud to a group from Year 6-Year 9. Some of my more thinking and mature students will want to read this, but I would prefer to show them the book and talk about it individually . It  is likely I will offer this copy to our Middle/Senior library for their collection as I am confident more of their students will enjoy it.  As Kirkus Reviews said “Navigating this stunning novel requires thought and concentration, but it’s well worth the effort.

Reviews – I’m pasting links to these, because all of them had insightful yet differing views on this book:

Travis Jonker 100scope notes:

Kirkus Reviews:

NY Times:

Publisher’s Weekly:

Teach Mentor Texts:

Come and marvel at the curiosities within – Hetty Feather trilogy

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Hetty Feather (2009)

Sapphire Battersea (2011)

Emerald star (2012)

All by Jacqueline Wilson and published by Random House Children’s Books, UK.

Book 1 Hetty Feather:

In London, 1876, tiny baby Hetty Feather is abandoned at the Foundling Hospital. She is sent to live in the countryside with two foster brothers, Jem and Gideon, helping in the fields and playing imaginary games. Together the three sneak off to the travelling circus, where Hetty is mesmerised by the show – especially by Madame Adeline and her performing horses! Hetty’s happiness takes a knock when she is sent back to the Foundling Hospital, with its awful uniforms and terrible food. All the same, now she finally has the chance to track down her missing mother. Could she really be the wonderful Madame Adeline? Or will the truth be even more surprising?

A heart-tugging story of secrets and surprises from the blockbusting Jacqueline Wilson, introducing a feisty heroine who lives in historical times. (Source: Scholastic Bookclub UK)

Book 2 Sapphire Battersea:

Hetty Feather is a Foundling Hospital girl and was given her name when she was left there as a baby. When she is reunited with her mother, she hopes her beautiful new name, Sapphire Battersea, will also mean a new life! But things don’t always go as planned…

Follow the twists and turns of Hetty’s adventure as she goes out to work as a maid for a wealthy man. She longs to be reunited with her childhood sweetheart Jem – but also finds a new sweetheart, Bertie the butcher’s boy, who whisks her away from her chores to experience the delights of the funfair! (Source: Google books).

But Hetty’s life may also take a darker path. Can she cope with the trials ahead?

Book 3 Emerald Star:

Since leaving the Foundling Hospital, Hetty has seen her fair share of drama, excitement, tragedy and loss. Hetty sets off to find a real home at last – starting with the search for her father.

But Hetty is no longer a simple country girl, and begins to fear she’ll never truly belong anywhere. And even when she is reunited with her beloved childhood sweetheart Jem, Hetty still longs for adventure – especially when an enchanting figure from her past makes an unexpected reappearance. Could a more exciting future lie ahead for Hetty? (Source Google Books)

What do I think about these books?:

Jacqueline Wilson titles are very popular with girls of all ages in our library, but believing that a lot her books were about dysfunctional families and relationships I hadn’t really explored them. As I received Sapphire Battersea here at home during the holidays I decided to try it. After reading the first chapter I was hooked – what a great story!  It didn’t seem to matter that I hadn’t read the first book.

The first book “Hetty Feather” has been ordered and is on it’s way to me and I will buy Emerald Star once the slightly smaller size paperback is available. These are a fantastic read for year 5/6/7/8 girls and they are similar to the popular “my story” series from Scholastic, but with more personality and life. These are great stories about growing up and being independent but in an interesting historical context. There are lots of bitter sweet moments about friendship, love and loss. Hetty meets some interesting characters along the way and her ability to empathize with all of these people, is delightful.