Cuckoo Song – Frances Hardinge

cuckoo songI don’t think I have ever read a book quite like Frances Hardinge’s YA novel Cuckoo Song. I am not much of a fantasy fan, you know – word building and that sort of thing, but I was totally enchanted by Hardinge’s story, which is as much about grief and loss, as it is a creepy story about…well, I can’t really tell you.

I can tell you that the story follows 13-year-old Triss, who wakes up after falling into the Grimmer – a pond near the cottage where she is vacationing with her family. Her mother comforts her, telling Triss that she’s “just been ill again, that’s all. You had a fever, so of course you feel rotten and a bit muddled.”

Triss’s younger sister Penny, Pen for short, doesn’t seem all that thrilled with Triss’s recovery. “She’s pretending!” she screams, when she comes to Triss’s bedroom. “It’s fake! Can’t any of you tell the difference?”

Things just get weirder for Triss because even she has to admit that something isn’t quite right. For one thing, she has a voracious appetite – never mind easing herself back into the world of food, as “soon as she saw the first bowl of soup arrive, great crusty rolls on the side of the tray, her hands started to shake.” Triss is horrified to discover that food is not the only thing that will sate her hunger; she’ll willingly eat just about anything and lots of it.

Other strange things begin to happen in Triss’s life.  Dead leaves in her hair when she wakes up. Dolls that move in her hands. Dolls that speak to her. And then what’s with all the letters from her brother, Sebastian? Those letters are impossible because Sebastian was killed in the war.

Hardinge has created a masterful, creepy and mysterious novel that is both exciting and kind of heartbreaking. I don’t want to spoil the novel’s surprises, but I will say this: you won’t forget Triss because she is brave, endearing and clever. Her desire to solve the mystery of what’s happened to her keeps the plot ticking along, but her capacity for self -reflection and self-awareness is what makes her a character who will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Highly recommended.

Thornhill – Pam Smy

Thornhill-HousePam Smy’s lovely hybrid novel tells the story (in words) of Mary and (in pictures) Ella – two girls separated by twenty-five years. Ella and her father have moved into a house that looks out onto Thornhill Institute which was “established in the 1830s as an thornhill orphanage for girls” and sold in 1982 “after the tragic death of one of the last residents, Mary Baines.” For the last twenty-five years, the house has remained vacant, although plans have been made to develop the site.

Through a series of diary entries, we meet Mary. She’s an odd, mostly silent girl who is virtually friendless. As Thornhill prepares to be fully de-commissioned, the few girls who remain are merely passing time, waiting for placement with a family. Mary’s chief tormenter has just returned from a situation which didn’t work out and Mary feels she must “lock myself away. Now that she’s back it is the only way I can keep myself safe.”

Up in her attic bedroom, she spends her time making puppets.

I often wonder what my life would be like without my puppets. …I love that I am surrounded by the things I have made. They sit on shelves above my bed, on my bookcase, suspended from the ceiling, balanced on my windowsill – my puppets are like friends that sit and keep me company..

thornhillellaIn the present day, Ella spends much of her time alone, too. Her father, who clearly seems to love her, is away a lot. Her mother is presumably dead. Ella is curious about the house she can see from her bedroom window and the girl she sometimes glimpses in the overgrown garden behind the walls

One day, she manages to creep into Thornhill’s garden and she discovers  a puppet head. As the days go on, she continues to see the girl in the garden and to discover more puppet pieces.  She becomes more curious about Thornhill’s history and who the girl might be.

Smy makes great use of Mary’s diary entries to round out the story. Her story is particularly sad because there is no one in Mary’s life to take her side against the terrible bullying she endures. The adults in this story are either non-existent or ineffective. Her housemates are cruel and manipulative. Even though it’s obvious that her story isn’t going to end well, you can’t help but root for her.

As for Ella, the monochromatic pictures tell her story as beautifully as Mary’s diary.  It will be impossible not to race through the pages to find out what happens.

Ultimately, Thornhill is a story of loneliness and friendship, and although there’s no happy ending, it’s a journey worth taking.

Two books for summer school

Every year for the past seven, I’ve transitioned from regular school to teaching a month of summer school. Why, you might very well ask? Mostly for the money – although this summer my paychecks hardly seemed like incentive enough.Obviously I can’t cover a year’s worth of curriculum in three and a half weeks, so it’s mostly trying to teach grade nine and ten students reading and writing skills that will help them be successful next year. We read some short stories and poetry and this year we read Lois Lowry’s The Giver (Grade 10) and Todd Strasser’s The Wave. I’d never read either of them, but I knew they were accessible, high interest and short enough to get through in the limited time we had.

the_giver_1.jpg.CROP.promovar-medium2The Giver takes place in a community that values Sameness. On the surface it might even appear like a Utopia. Eleven-year-old Jonas lives in a family unit lives with his younger sister, Lily, and his mother and father. None of them are biologically connected.  His life is structured around school and volunteering and ceremonies that mark the important moments in the lives of the citizens. He is apprehensively waiting the next ceremony. His mother tries to calm Jonas’s nerves by telling him

“Well, it’s the last of the ceremonies, as you know. After Twelve, age isn’t important. Most of us even lose track of how old we are as time passes, though the information is in the Hall of Open Records, and we could go and look it up if we wanted to. What’s important is the preparation for adult life, and the training you’ll receive in your Assignment.”

Feeling apprehensive is unusual for members of this community. Their lives are not complicated by hunger,  disease or even bad weather. Everyone has productive work to do. They share their feelings as part of a nightly ritual. They apologize immediately if they say something even remotely offensive to another member of the community. They start taking a pill as soon as they acknowledge “stirrings” of a sexual nature. The Elders make all the decisions and “Rules were very hard to change.” The very old, the very weak and those who commit crimes are “released.”

At the Ceremony of the Twelves, Jonas gets his assignment. He is to be the Receiver, which means he will work with The Giver, the community’s most important citizen. He alone holds all the memories and he will transfer them to Jonas. Suddenly the only home Jonas knows seems less like Utopia and more like a nightmare.

The Giver is a great book – suitable for all readers and filled with lots of opportunities to talk about what it is to be human, free-will and the value and importance of memory. I really enjoyed it and would definitely use it in the classroom again.

Todd Strasser’s novelization The Wave is less literary, but offers lots of opportunities to51MDeY-2CjL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_ talk, too.  The book is based on the true story of  California history teacher Ron Jones’ social experiment. (He’s been renamed Ben Ross in this book.) The year was 1969 and Ross had just shown his senior class a film about the Holocaust. When one of his students asked how the Germans could have just sat back and let the Nazis do what they did, Ross tried to think of a way he could illustrate the power of a fascist movement. He came up with “The Wave” and began to teach his students about discipline, community and action. Although the experiment was meant to be short-lived, it grew to include a salute, slogans and even a secret police force before it was finally dismantled due to complaints from parents and colleagues.

Virtually every one of my grade nine students really enjoyed reading The Wave. It was easy to read, so it’s perfect for struggling readers, plus it offered a lot of food for thought.


Bystander – James Preller

bystanderJames Preller’s middle grade novel Bystander does a good job of illustrating the school-yard bully.  Wikipedia describes that bystander effect, or bystander apathy, as “a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present.”

When thirteen-year-old Eric moves to a new town with his mother and younger brother Rudy, he meets Griffin, a boy with “soft features … thick lips and long eyelashes…pretty.”  Griffin travels with a pack and when the boys arrive at the basketball court where Eric is practicing foul shots, Eric wonders “if something bad was about to happen.” It doesn’t take him long to figure out that despite Griffin’s alluring charisma, there is something off about him, a fact reinforced when Griffin tells Eric “I’m a good guy to be friends with…but I’m a lousy enemy.”

Truer words. When Eric starts his new school he wants nothing more than to get along. He’s a decent kid, a little sheltered, perhaps (he doesn’t have a cell phone and his mother won’t let him use Instant Messenger). I’ve been the new kid and I know what it’s like to start a new school, so I felt for Eric as he surveyed the cafeteria that first day, wondering where to sit.

In a month, he assured himself, everything would be fine. He’d make new friends, sit with them, eat, joke, laugh. But right now, today, the first day of school, it all kind of sucked. But on another level, none of it really mattered. Eric could smell his meatball sub and he felt hungry. He wanted to eat.

When Griffin stops at his table, chagrined that Eric is alone and invites Eric to eat with him and his friends, Eric accepts. In some ways, it’s a bit like making a date with the devil and we all know what they say about the devil you know, right. It doesn’t take long for Eric, who is a smart kid, to figure out that Griffin just isn’t the kind of friend he wants to have, even if it means that he’s going to suffer for it.

Bystander is a straightforward novel about making choices. Bullying is a hot topic these days and something we talk about even at the high school level. Published in 2009, Bystander doesn’t really address the problem of cyber bullying; Griffin is a garden-variety thug (if you can actually be a thug at 13.) The thing about Griff, though,  is that he’s sort of sympathetic; Preller doesn’t paint him with a simple black stroke.

Despite the fact that the book is intended for a younger audience, I think I have some grade nine students who would enjoy this story. They are not so far removed from middle school that they won’t remember characters just like Griff and his ilk.

See You at Harry’s – Jo Knowles


I spend as much time reading about YA fiction as I do reading the books, it seems; I am always adding new titles to my list and often the same book will be recommended time and time again. That was the case with Jo Knowles’ book See You at Harry’s. It was waiting in my mailbox at school today – I’d ordered it from Scholastic before the March Break. I started reading it during my third period Grade Ten English class and just finished it a few minutes ago.

The happiest day of  Fern’s life was the day she “threw up four times and had a fever of 103 degrees.” It’s a day lodged in Fern’s (yes, she’s named after the little girl in Charlotte’s Web) memory because it’s the day she didn’t have to share her mother with her two older siblings Sarah and Holden (yes, he’s named after that Holden).

That day at home, my mom spent every minute with me. My older sister and brother were at school, and my dad was working at my parents’ restaurant. I was eight and had never been home alone with just my mom before, at least not all day and definitely not with her full attention.

Shortly after Fern’s recovery, her mom discovers she’s pregnant and instead of being the youngest, Fern suddenly has to contend with a new baby brother, Charlie.

When See You at Harry’s begins, Fern is twelve. Her sister is eighteen, Holden is fourteen and Charlie is three. Her world is chaotic because her family is chaotic…and while Fern might not always get the attention she craves, in that self-centered way all twelve-year-old’s crave attention, she is by no means neglected. She shares a close sibling bond with Holden and there is much to admire in their relationship. Things are little more complicated with Sarah and there’s Charlie.

“I wanna go to school,” he says.

“School is overrated.”


“Look. All little kids want to go to school. And kindergarten is pretty great. But it just goes downhill from there.”


“Enjoy your freedom, bud.”

Fern knows what she’s talking about, too. She’s just starting seventh grade and it starts to go downhill on day one. I think a lot of middle school kids will see themselves in Fern. She is, as her mother once told her, “a special soul.”

Fern’s parents run the family restaurant. Her mom is a little on the flaky side and her dad is always coming up with crazy  and embarrassing schemes to improve the business. In all the ways that matter, though,  this is a nuclear family. They aren’t perfect, but they are real. They’re distracted and selfish and  human and fragile.  It takes a  terrible  tragedy to  fill up their empty places.

While this book might not appeal to some of my  students (it is geared for middle school readers, after all), I think many of them will be quite moved by Fern’s family’s story. I was.