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The Nargun and the Stars by Patricia Wrightson

This Australian classic won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Award for Book of the Year in 1974, and its author, Patricia Wrightson, is the only Australian author to have been awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for lasting contributions to children’s literature. I found a copy of The Nargun and the Stars in the multitude of books that were donated to my library from a local private school’s discard pile, and I read it to see if it would be a good addition to my own library.

It’s a dark and perhaps humanistic, or even pagan, book, but I would say that it’s pagan in the sense of drawing on pre-Christian era mythology, in this case the mythology of the Australian aboriginal peoples. Just as C.S. Lewis drew on both Greek and Norse mythology for his depiction of Narnia and as Tolkien drew from Norse, Saxon, and Celtic myths to create the creatures and world of Middle Earth, Ms. Wrightson used the Australian aboriginal myths and legends to tell a story that speaks into our own time.

The novel begins and ends with the Nargun, a stone and earth creature, full of hunger and anger and “slow, monstrous coldness”. Over centuries, or millennia, the Nargun slowly moved across the Australian landscape and settles into Wongadilla, a place in the mountains of southern Australia.

The actual story takes place in the 1970’s, when the book was written and published. Simon, an orphan, comes to live with his second cousins, brother and sister Charlie and Edie, on a sheep run in Wongadilla. Simon begins to explore the strange place where he has landed, so to speak, and he finds and gets to know odd and mythical creatures in the swamps and forests and caves of Wongadilla. However, it is the Nargun that is a threat to the sheep ranch, to the humans who live there, and even to the Potkoorak of the swamp and the Turongs of the forest. Charlie and Edie and Simon become a family and a team as they work together to understand and to defeat the impersonal but powerful malevolence of the Nargun.

I can see why this book won the acclaim that it did. The writing is quite beautiful and evocative, and I am sure that the atmosphere of this book will become a part of my mental concept of Australia and all things Australian. The Nargun and the Stars won’t be a book for everyone. It might give some children (or adults) nightmares, and some parents could object to the idea that the evil Nargun is only confined by the end of the book and only by means of completely human ingenuity, but not finally defeated or destroyed. However, that ending reminds me of the book of Revelation (which I doubt was the author’s intent) when Satan himself is chained for 1000 years (Revelation 20). Perhaps the Nargun, from Australian aboriginal mythology, is really a demon, or at least that’s way I thought of it as I read.

According to Gunai/Kurnai tribal legends, the Nargun is a fierce half-human half-stone creature that lived in the Den of Nargun, a cave under a rock overhang behind a small waterfall in the Mitchell River National Park, Victoria, Australia. Aboriginal legend describes the Nargun as a beast that was all stone except for its hands, arms and breast. The fierce creature would drag unwary travellers into its den, and any weapon directed against it would be turned back on its owner.

As Shakespeare so aptly said via Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Stories like The Nargun and the Stars serve to remind us in our materialistic and naturalistic philosophical world that we don’t have it all figured out and that there are all sorts of “dragons” and enemies that have yet to be finally defeated and destroyed.

This novel also reminded me of G.K. Chesterton and his observation to the effect that “fairy tales do not tell children the dragons (Nargun) exist. Children already know that dragons (Nargun) exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons (Nargun) can be killed (or at least chained).”

One more impression: there is a definite affinity between The Nargun and the Stars and N.D. Wilson’s The Boys of Blur. If you liked Wilson’s take-off on Beowulf, I’d recommend Ms. Wrightson’s fantasy/horror story of Australian monsters and heroes.

Doctor’s Boy by Karin Anckarsvard


This Swedish import, published in the 1960’s, was a delight. The plot is a bit slow-moving for the internet generation, but if you can slow down long enough to enjoy the scenery of early twentieth century Sweden, the moral dilemmas of a boy who is learning about poverty and class distinctions for the first time, and a thoughtful, maturing kind of story, then Doctor’s Boy will be a good change of pace.

There is action: attempted robbery, health crises, of both human and dog variety, troubles at school, and the excitement of accompanying Father (the doctor) on his house calls every evening. However, the characterization of the doctor’s son, Jon, and his new friend, Rickard, a poor boy from the slums of this “little Swedish town of Soltuna”, is the centerpiece of this story. Jon learns to appreciate Rickard’s strengths and challenges, and Rickard learns to respect the doctor’s boy, who has grown up a lot while helping his father in his work.

In fact, a twenty-first boy or girl who reads Doctor’s Boy might be a bit jealous of the freedom and the interesting experiences that Jon and Rickard have. Ten year old Jon is allowed to walk to and from school by himself. He doesn’t like to tell his parents much about what happens at school, so he doesn’t. He goes with his father in the gig to his evening house calls and manages the horse while his father goes into homes with possible contagion or goes in with him to help when the cases are not dangerous. Later in the story, Jon and Rickard go out to an island where a man is deathly ill, along with father, but they get to stay and take care of the man while the father returns to get help.

Even though Jon attends a private school, along with Rickard who is there on scholarship, the story has a homeschooling feel to it as Jon is mentored by his father and initiated into the “family business” of doctoring. It would be a great read aloud for discussing Swedish life and culture or fathers and sons working together or the way to relate to people in poverty. If you can find a copy, you should definitely take a look. I first saw it recommended in Elizabeth Wilson’s Books Children Love, where she writes that “the story is full of lively events and portrays a warm, loving family with a consistent concern for the needs of others.”

Hola! Let’s Learn Spanish by Judy Martialay

I received this book for review from the author back in early December, but I’m just now getting around to looking at it. Ms. Martialay, a retired foreign language teacher, created her book and the accompanying online materials for children ages six to ten who don’t have access to foreign language classes in their elementary schools. The book uses the “English story with interspersed Spanish words and phrases” method of introducing children to the Spanish language. (There’s probably a formal name for this technique, but I don’t know it.) The story is a little bit silly, all about a jumping bean named Panchito and his adventures in the bean field, at the market and in the home of some children, but young children should enjoy listening and picking up a few Spanish words as they listen. There’s also information on Spanish culture, focused on Mexico, a craft suggestion for making masks, and a skit and a song.

The best part is the listening online, not the book which is $19.99 for a thirty page book(let) with some cute illustrations and the words and story and extras in print. Parents and teachers will appreciate the book. However, children/students, the target audience, will enjoy listening to the audio version of the book, available for free at the website polyglotkidz.com, with or without the book. Adults who don’t know any Spanish at all can still use this curriculum with their students by just playing the audio version, following along in the book, and watching the kids learn a little Spanish in a fun and pretty much effortless manner.

You do need to know that this book and audio do not make up a full elementary Spanish curriculum, just an introduction or a taste. If your children want to really learn Spanish, you’ll have to follow up with something more intensive: lessons with a native Spanish speaker or Spanish for Kids or MUZZY Spanish. Hola! Let’s Learn Spanish will serve to get the kids interested and give them a bit of vocabulary, but it will only take a week or two to exhaust everything that’s in the book and be ready to move on.

By the way, I wish I knew how to type Spanish punctuation, including the upside-down exclamation mark (!) that’s supposed to come before the word Hola! in the title of this book. Unfortunately, I don’t, and it annoys me to have it wrong. But it’s right on the cover of the book, and that’s the important thing.

Baker’s Dozen: 13 Books to Read from 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up

I’m part of a yahoo group that was formed to read through the books suggested by Julia Eccleshare in her book, 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up.

The following list gives some of the books that the group is going to be reading in 2016 and that I am going to try to read with them. The others are books from the 1001 list that I plan to read myself, apart from the group.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch.
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold.
The Adventures of Maya the Bee by Waldemar BOnsels.
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda and David Ermitage.
Platero y yo by Juan Ramon Jimenez.
What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge.
Why the Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo.
45 + 47 Stella Street and Everything That Happened by Elizabeth Honey.
The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren.
Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson.
The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie.
Jamela’s Dress by Niki Daly.

So many projects, so little time.

Baker’s Dozen: Books to Read for my Around the World Project

I’m planning a new project for 2016, an expansion of my Africa Project. This one is an around the world project in which I hope to read at least one children’s book from or related to each nation of the world. Some countries are easier than others to find books, available in English and written by a citizen of that country. I may have to settle for folktales retold by American or Births authors from some countries or even for books that are simply set in the target country, preferably written by someone who has at least visited the particular setting in the book.

So, here is the page for my Around the World Reading Project. Do you have any suggestions to add to my project list, especially for those countries for which I have no books listed? The books must be for children, available in English (translation or original) in the United States, and preferably written in and popular in the country of origin.

Here are thirteen of the books I already chose that I am planning to read this year:

Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall. (Australia)

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. (Canada)

Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson. (Finland)

The Horse Without a Head by Paul Berna. (France)

The Adventures of Maya the Bee by Waldemar Bonsels, 1912. (Germany)

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. (India)

The Shadow of Ghadames by Joelle Stolz. (Libya)

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer. (American author) (Mozambique)

The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. (Netherlands)

Platero y yo by Juan Jimenez. (Spain)

The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. (Sweden)

Go Ahead, Secret Seven by Enid Blyton. (England)

Jamela’s Dress by Niki Daly. (South Africa)

I chose these particular books from the list mostly because I have them or have access to them. Have you read any of them? Any recommended or not?

Venture at Midsummer by Eva-Lis Wuorio

I picked this book out of a bunch of ex-library discards because I had heard of the author somewhere. In fact, I have one of Ms. Wuorio’s books, To Fight in Silence, a fictional World War II story based on interviews with “hundreds of Norwegians who were training in Canada for the war, and dozens of Danish officials who were trying to explain their country’s predicament to the outside world,” on my To-Be-Read list. Someone, somewhere recommended the book to me, and I thought it sounded good.

So, Venture at Midsummer is set after World War II, maybe in the 1960’s; it was published in 1967. Lisa, a Finnish girl, has invited two boarding school friends, Gavin and Jordain, to spend the summer with her family in Finland, near the border with Russia, or the Soviet Union as it was called back then. The young people experience traditional Finnish customs such as a sauna bath and the celebration of Juhannis, Midsummer’s Day, and then they become involved in a dangerous journey across the border into Soviet Russia to help a new friend, Kai, pay a “debt of honor” to his guardian. The four teens kayak into a part of the country that used to be part of Finland, but was given to the Russians after World War II. There they find, of course, much more than they were looking for, and they learn to trust one another and work together as a team.

The setting in the borderlands of eastern Finland is particularly vivid and interesting since I didn’t know much about post-war Finland. I didn’t know that part of Finland was turned over to the Russians after the war or that thousands of Finns, given the option to swear allegiance to the Communist government of Soviet Russia, instead decided to leave their homes and make new lives within the new borders of Finland. In fact, I didn’t know much about Finland at all before reading this book, and now I know a little more.

I’m planning an around the world reading project, and I just realized that this book can be my first one for that project. I found this blog post about author Eva-Lis Wuorio and learned that she was a Finnish Canadian, having emigrated to Canada with her family when she was thirteen years old. I picked up another book by the same author from the same discard pile, Return of the Viking, and I’m looking forward to reading it. According to what I read, it’s a time travel book about some children who meet Norse explorer Leif Erickson.

Christmas in South Africa, 1902

From Cowboys and Cattle Drives by Edith McCall:

“He worked there until December. Then he was asked to drive a bunch of mules to the town of Ladysmith. On the way, he saw posters for Texas Jack’s Wild West Show. Such shows had becomes popular all over the world, beginning with Buffalo Bill’s show of the 1880’s and 1890’s, for all the world loved the riding, shooting, roping American cowboy.
Will could hardly wait to go to see Texas Jack and find out if he was really from Texas and above all, a true cowboy.
‘Sure am,’ said Texas Jack. ‘And who are you?’
‘My name is Will Rogers, and I’m a cowboy from Indian Territory,’ he said.
‘Is that so? Are you pretty good at riding and roping?’
‘Just fair as a rider, but I can handle a rope pretty well,’ said Will. He showed Texas Jack a little of what he could do, including the Big Crinoline, one of the most difficult tricks.
Then came the words that started Will Rogers on his career.
‘How would you like a job in my show?'”

To read more about Will Rogers and other famous cowboys, check out Cowboys and Cattle Drives or any of the following excellent children’s books, available in my library, Meriadoc Homeschool Library, and I hope in yours:

In the Days of the Vaqueros: America’s First True Cowboys by Russell Freedman.
Cowboys of the Wild West by Russell Freedman.
Cattle Trails: Git Along Little Dogies by Kathy Pelta.
Cowhand: The Story of a Working Cowboy by Fred Gipson.
Will Rogers: Young Cowboy by Guernsey Van Riper, Jr.
Will Rogers: His Life and Times by Richard M. Ketchum.

Christmas in Morocco, c.1950

The Secret of the Fourth Candle by Patricia St. John.

Aisha looked awestruck at the candles and then back at the presents . . . She knew at last why the little girl lit one more candle every week. It was in honor of a Baby called Jesus who was coming next week, and then all the candles would burn and the whole room would be white and radiant and the Baby would laugh and crow. She had never heard of Jesus before, for she was a Muslim girl, but she felt sure He must be a very important Baby to have the candles lit especially for His coming. And all those presents, too! She supposed they were all for Him and she wondered what was inside them—lovely little garments perhaps, and toys and colored shoes. She wanted to see Him more than she had ever wanted to see anything else in the world.

Patricia St. John spent over twenty-five years in North Africa and the Middle East as a missionary teacher and nurse. She wrote several books for children, both fiction and nonfiction, as well as an autobiography that Jan Bloom recommends in her book, Who Then Should We Read? I would absolutely love to have a copy of Ms. St. John’s autobiography, AN Ordinary Woman’s Extraordinary Faith. However, I will content myself with the children’s novels and stories that I do have in my library, including The Secret of the Fourth Candle, a Christmas story about a Muslim girl who discovers the true, true meaning of Christmas.

Other books by Patricia St. John in my library:

The Secret at Pheasant Cottage
Rainbow Garden
Star of Light
Tanglewoods’ Secret
Three Go Searching
Treasures of the Snow

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson.

“There is no way to write a biography of Shostakovich without relying on hearsay and relaying the memories of people who have many private reasons to fabricate, mislead and revise.” (p.141)

So, this biography of Shostakovich, the Russian composer who immortalized the siege of Leningrad during World War II in his Seventh Symphony, is sprinkled throughout with “perhaps” and “supposedly” and “it is not clear whether” and many, many questions. I was at first a little frustrated by all the “weasel words” with which author M.T. Anderson hedges his sentences and declarations and with all of the open-ended questions with which he ends many of his paragraphs and chapters, but I began to see these uncertainties and essays at truth as (perhaps) metaphorical. After all, Anderson is writing about the events of a composer’s life, many of which are shrouded in Communist propaganda and lies or in the half-truths of people who were trying to live under Communist oppression. But he’s also writing about Shostakovich’s music, which is also vague and uncertain and shrouded, as various experts disagree about the music’s message and meaning. So there are questions, and Anderson asks the right ones while also laying out the facts when those are available in a readable narrative form.

I don’t exactly see why this book is being marketed as a young adult book, unless it’s maybe because the author has written many fiction books for children and young adults. While it’s not a scholarly, academic biography, it is certainly well researched and documented and perfectly suited for adult readers. In fact, unless a person, young or old, is particularly interested in the Soviet Union during World War II or in Shostakovich’s music or twentieth century classical music in general, I doubt this book is going to hold much appeal. Conversely, if any of those interests are there, young and old will find it fascinating. So why is it a Young Adult book? I have no idea.

The details about the siege of Leningrad, taken partly from NKVD archives and records, are harrowing and disturbing (starvation, cannibalism, frozen and unburied bodies, etc.), so it’s not a book for children. The main text of the book is 379 pages and written in a literary, almost lyrical style, so I doubt anyone younger than fifteen or sixteen is going to attempt it anyway. I thought I knew a lot about World War II, but it turns out that I knew very little, aside from the bare facts, about the siege of Leningrad, and I had never heard of Shostakovich’s Leningrad (Seventh) Symphony, not being a music aficionado or a student of classical Russian music.

I was inspired by the book to listen to the Leningrad Symphony, a undertaking in itself since the symphony in four movements is almost an hour and half long. I’ll embed the youtube version that I listened to, but I’m sure that I got more out of it after having read all the historical background in Mr. Anderson’s book. I suggest, for those of you who, like me, are not musically educated, that you read the book first and then listen to the symphony.

Good book, but disturbing. Good music, but also disturbing, especially the relentless march in the first movement.

Hidden Gold by Ella Burakowski

I find Holocaust memoirs to be somewhat variable in quality and readability. Maybe the memoirist’s memories are not that detailed or reliable. Sometimes the person who has undertaken the task of writing the stories down is just not a great writer. Sometimes the reader may be the problem: I’m not immune to the chilling effect of a jadedness produced by too many horrific World War II stories, too many atrocities, too much suffering and starvation for a person to read and assimilate.

Hidden Gold is an excellent example of a Holocaust memoir that is sharp, well-written, detailed, and narrative. I was absorbed by the story of young David Gold and his family and their survival in hiding in Poland, written by Mr. Gold’s niece and based on Mr. Gold’s memories of 1942-1944 when he was twelve to fourteen years old. “David Gold’s memories of his formative years during World War II are as vivid and compelling under his niece’s pen as if they happened yesterday.” (from the blurb on the back cover of the book)

The Gold family–David, his two older sisters, and his mother–survived in hiding on a Polish farm because they were rich, because they were smart and initially healthy, and because they were lucky, or perhaps preserved by a miracle form God. Even though the memoir is woven from David Gold’s memories, David’s older sister Shoshanna, who later became the mother of the author, emerges as the heroine of the tale. Shoshanna is the one who negotiates with outsiders on behalf of the entire family because she has blue eyes and speaks Polish without a Yiddish accent. Shoshanna is the one who encourages the family not to commit suicide when it seems that choice is the only one left to them. Unfortunately, Shoshanna Gold Barakowski died at a relatively young age in 1972, while the author was still in her teens, and the other sister, Esther, also died (of cancer) in 1984, long before Ms. Burakowski began to write this book.

I did wonder how much the author embellished or assumed as she told of the thoughts and motivations of her family members, most of whom were not available to vet the text or give their own take on events. Still, most memoirs are a mix of fact and fill in the blank, and I give the author credit for filling in, if she did, in a way that reads as authentic, coherent, and literary. I read and believed, and I was reminded that hatred and prejudice and bravery and human endurance are all a part of our shared human history as well as evident in the present day “holocausts” that continue to be perpetrated on the innocent and the unprotected.

[T]he memoir as unfiltered actuality is a myth. Fickle and unreliable memories must be reconstructed and made coherent; a story’s assembly, style, and characterization will inevitably compromise any strict retelling. Emphatically, this does not mean the work is less autobiographically or historically valid—–only that it is never pure autobiography or history, and has to be understood and embraced thus. Truth isn’t synonymous with historicity, and infidelity to the latter isn’t necessarily betrayal of the former. ~”The Holocaust’s Uneasy Relationship with Literature” by Menachem Kaiser, The Atlantic, December 2010