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Toad Rage
by Morris Gleitzmann

Morris Gleitzman is an Australian writer whose books cater mainly to children eight to twelve years old. His writings, though humorous, have dealt with serious issues such as death and AIDS. This story focuses on the issue of hatred through the adventures of a young cane toad, Limpy. It also illustrates the political side of human nature, which is one sad explanation as to why the good or the diligent are sometimes overlooked.

Toads are being killed intentionally by vehicles zooming along the highway each day. Limpy wonders why humans detest toads so much, but his family has no idea. They boil it down to “that’s the way it’s always been”. Such an answer, however, is unsatisfactory and Limpy decides to find out the truth from humans themselves. He learns that the only way to them is to make a daunting journey up north to the gas station where they congregate. Leaving behind the love of his parents and sister, Charm, he undertakes the task on foot.

Upon reaching his destination, Limpy sees other animals and is surprised at how affectionately they are treated by humans. That same treatment however, does not extend to him. He decides that humans will only treat toads well if they become popular, just like the platypus, kookaburra and the echidna. These animals are loved so much that humans even dress up to look like them and make stuffed toys in their likeness. He gets the idea of being a mascot and decides to latch on to a truck heading south, where the Olympic Games are taking place.

Limpy’s quest for popularity is not without its dangers. He gets harassed by teenagers, security guards and even dogs. But some good things too happen along the way. Prey become pals: fruit flies tell him about opportunities at the Olympic Games and a mosquito shows him the way to the stadium. He also gets the surprise companionship of his cousin Goliath, who gets accidentally stuck in the same truck that Limpy is on. Although he does get the coveted mascot role, Limpy finds unexpected stardom through his friendship with an Olympic athlete. His euphoria, however, is short-lived as he realizes that being in the limelight around humans has its own disadvantages.

Limpy’s quest for an answer does not end with this book. He continues his search for how to live in harmony with humans in sequels such as Toad Heaven and the most recent, Toad Surprise

Toad Rage won the Young Australian Best Book Award (Older Readers) in 2001.

P.S – Just a little general knowledge about cane toads: They were first introduced into Australia from Hawaii in 1935 in the hope that they would prey on cane beetles, which were pests to sugar cane plantations. What happened instead was an over-multiplication of cane toads which in turn became a problem to the ecosystem. Cane toads can squirt out a poisonous milky substance when threatened and even its skin is lethal when ingested by most predators.

Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach was first published in 1961. As in many of his books, this story contains characters who, because of their dominant position, are able to subjugate or ill-treat the child. Such a trend in Roald Dahl’s plots is not surprising if one gets to know of the author’s own unhappy experience with British schooling.

This particular story is about how a miserable little boy gains peace and freedom with the help some unusual friends and a peach.

James loses his parents when he is four years old and since then, has to live with two very mean aunts.
When he is seven, a mysterious old man appears in the garden and promises James that he could get rid of his misery forever. He produces a paper bag full of “crocodile tongues”, gives James instructions on what to do with them and then disappearing just as mysteriously. In his haste to rush back into the house, James trips and falls down. The contents of the paper bag spill out, sink into the soil and completely disappear. In the next instance, James and his aunts are filled with amazement when they notice that their once barren peach tree has suddenly borne a fruit. The fruit swells up until it is “almost as big as a house”. James aunts decide to make a profitable venture out of the peach tree by allowing the public into the garden to view the giant fruit.

The next night James is sent out to clean up the garden after all the visitors have left. He discovers a hole in the peach, big enough to climb through, which he does. Thus starts his adventure. He finds the most unlikely of friends there, insects as big as himself. With them, James gets to experience two things which he never did in the three years with his aunts – laughter and the ocean. The giant peach takes them on a voyage from one country to another, first by land, then by sea and finally through the air. James adventure brings out in him strengths that was never apparent before – intelligence and courage.

This book is listed in the American Library Association’s “The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books” and it has been criticised for reasons such as crude expression (the use of the word “ass”), being too scary (James’ oppressive life and the way his aunts died) and containing a racist remark (“I’d rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican”). Also, some of the poetry that the Centipede composes may seem crass. But to me, these are issues that parents can discuss with the children and set right what is acceptable and what’s not. Such gliches aside, the book is just great fun, made even more so by the creative twist given to the characters of the insects.

The book was made into a film in 1996 and won Best Animated Feature Film at the French Annecy International Animated Film Festival. The film was also nominated for the Academy Awards.

Ramona and Her Father
by Beverly Cleary

“Ramona and Her Father” is part of the Ramona Quimby series by American author Beverly Cleary. It is a story of how a second-grader copes with her father’s unemployment and her hopes of getting her father off the smoking habit.

Ramona and her older sister Beezus are expecting their father to bring them out for burgers as it is his pay day. Ramona is also excited about Christmas (which is three months away) and decides to prepare a Christmas wish list in advance. The girls’ hopes are dashed when Mr Quimby comes home with the news that he has been laid off work.

Changes have to be made. For one, Christmas gifts need to be dropped from their list of priorities. More pressing needs such as groceries and loan repayments are necessities that force Mrs Quimbly to move from a part-time to full-time job. Mr Quimby takes on the role of stay-at-home dad. Part of the effort to save costs involves having to put up with many days of dreary dinners, prepared from a huge pumpkin that was part-eaten by Picky-picky the cat.

The mood of the family also changes. Mr Quimby’s sense of humour diminishes as he waits daily for the phone to bring good news of a successful job interview. Mrs Quimby is always tired from the rigours of her new job. Even Picky-picky the cat becomes picky about its downgraded cat food. Beezus, as usual, gets the periodic mood swings which Ramona’s mother attributes to “that age”. Ramona’s insecurity stems from not being able to help out financially as none of the options in her mind seem to be viable. Then one day, she sees a child in a television advertisement and that brings possibilities of making a million dollars. Now in good spirits, she attempts to unsuccessfully lift the family’s spirit as well. Her father gets even crosser when he has an argument with Beezus one night and she criticizes him for his smoking habit. This incident pulls Ramona back into a state of insecurity which is now rooted in concerns for her father’s health rather than the family’s financial situation.

Through the dark days of financial uncertainty up to Christmas, Ramona learns that a “happy” family does not mean a family that is constantly in a good mood. She realizes that her family members will have good days and bad, just like her.

I like how symbols are used in the story as a form of expressions eg. crayon colours which represent Ramona’s feelings and the crown of burs that show how something initially attractive can have undesirable consequences. This book is excellent for discussions with children on how to manage difficult situations and to distinguish between conflicts and the commitment to love.

The Ramona Quimby series has been translated into many languages as well as into a television series. The character has, in fact, been “immortalised” in the form of a bronze statue in The Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden for Children situated in Grant Park, Portland.

ivan2by Anne Fine

Do not be mistaken. Ivan the Terrible, which won the 2007 Nestle Children’s Book Silver Award, is not about the 16th century tyrannical Russian ruler. It is instead about Ivan, the new boy at St Edmund’s, a Russian who does not speak English. Boris, who understands Russian, is requested by the Principal, Mrs Blaizely, to be his interpreter. He unwittingly agrees and thus starts the fiasco.

The humour in the story stems from Boris’ desire to be a model “civilized” student, an attitude ingrained in him by Mrs Blaizely’s constant emphasis on good manners and positive attitude. For Boris, this means understanding Ivan’s insecurities during his first day in school and looking after his welfare.

But Ivan proves to be more than what Boris can handle. His first shock comes when Ivan is introduced by Mrs Blaizely to all the students during assembly. After Ivan addresses the students very rudely in Russian, Boris is caught between translating the truth and preventing Ivan from becoming an unpopular new student. In the spirit of having “good manners and a positive attitude”, Boris decides to protect his new friend and this decision sets the stage for a very unsettling day.

As they move together from one lesson to another, Boris begins to regret his role as interpreter. He realizes that the little white lies he created during his translations have given all the staff and students a very good impression of Ivan . Nobody will believe Boris now if he were to speak the truth. Despite this, he continues to cling on to having “a positive attitude” and hopes that some of his own “civilized” behaviour rubs off on Ivan to make him a more pleasant person.

Soon, however, Boris’s disdain for the new boy becomes so overwhelming that he decides chucks his positive attitude aside and starts giving Ivan a taste of his own medicine. He dreads the thought of being stuck with Ivan for more than a day and starts to think of a way to relieve himself as interpreter. This, of course, will involve more lies.

Anne Fine has formed a successful plot of mistaken impressions with Ivan the Terrible. You can’t help feeling sympathy for Boris, for the unanticipated web of deceit he spun came out of the honest intention of looking after Ivan’s well-being. You will also empathize with Ivan when a possible explanation for his conduct emerges towards the end of the book.

While the language is geared towards the six to eight-year old reader, there are a number of British expressions that may be baffling, such as “a brilliant spoof” and “feeling a bit of a wally”. Also, a few sentences were so long (one containing as many as sixty words) that they needed re-reading several times. Despite these glitches, the book is still an enjoyable read.

By Sid Fleischman

ugly1Throw in a case of stolen diamonds, a missing father, a traveling theatre group and a gun-toting bounty hunter, and you have a 19th century western adventure you would not want to miss reading.

The story focuses on Jake, a twelve-year old boy grieving for his recently deceased father. Adding to his predicament is Jim Ugly, a dog that is “part elkhound, part something else, and a large helping of short-eared timber wolf”. Jim Ugly was close only to Jake’s father. Now that his father is no longer around, Jake has to take care of Jim Ugly, a situation which disturbs the boy but doesn’t bother the dog.

Jake is unconvinced that his father was guilty of stealing diamonds, and also that he is dead. But if Sam Bannock is still alive, why did he run away without telling Jake in advance? The only way to find out is to go looking for him, and the first place to start is where Jim Ugly always seems to be hanging out – at Smoketree Junction. From there, Jake travels from one place to another, with Jim Ugly by his side and bounty hunter D D Skeats at his heels. Mid-way through his search, he inadvertently clinches a small role in a play. He travels with the theatre group, performing at various towns while still on the lookout for his father.

The first chapter is a little slow-moving, but the pace quickens from the point Jake decides to run away from his cousin’s home, with whom he is staying since his father’s burial. The subsequent pages start to build up an expectation of an ending with a big bang. But the conclusion however does not meet that expectation and it somewhat deflates the excitement initially created by the story.

On the positive side, the similes and metaphors used to describe characters and situations make various points in the plot amusing. When Jake first sees Wilhelmina, he muses about her crying: “Who was this woman sobbing up a flash flood?” He finds D D Skeat’s hair “short and matted like the fur of a dead cat”. In describing Jim Ugly to the baggagemaster of the train, he says, “He’s got a disposition about like barbed wire.”

The reason for the boy’s wary respect for the dog and the reluctance to get too friendly with it is obvious from the vivid description of the dog’s attitude towards Jake and everything around it. It is this relationship between boy and dog that has a more interesting twist at the conclusion.