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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.

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.

nankingOver the last two months, in quick succession I read two books, one the Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang and the second After the Heavy Rain by Sokreaksa S.Himm. Having bought the first book almost a year before and the added interest to know the history of China, fuelled by my recent holiday tour to the country, little did I imagine that the read of this book will set me on a journey ending with that of the second given to me by my writer friend Angeline Koh.

rainWhat astounded me were the stark similarities that the two events bore even though separated by a period of nearly forty years and happened in different parts of the world. These events have been compared to Nazis’ holocaust in Germany during the Second World War for their magnitude and intensity of destruction.

Both the books deal with the basic theme which could be very relevant in today’s context of widespread terrorism; mass execution of human beings by their own kind. The similarities go to show that what prompts people to go on killing rampage, the accompanying madness – the orgy, is irrespective of culture, nationality and transcends all boundaries of religion and nationalities.

In Rape of Nanking, which tells the gory details of an important of part of recent human history which otherwise probably would have never come to light- the Japanese invasion in 1936, on the then Chinese capital of Nanking city. Author has gone into macabre details that are beyond human comprehension- of the mass killing of Chinese the number that nearly touched a million – from fighting soldiers to ordinary and poor Chinese and their city which within days of capture by the Japanese turned, into a massive burial ground. Other than giving details of machinations of the Japanese army towards their actions she describes about the good Samaritans – mostly Westerners who had for many years made this Chinese city their home, in their midst who tried their best to protect the people.

One another aspect that the author deals which begs mention is what would have prompted the Japanese soldiers to act the way they did .She goes on to describe the beginnings of a Japanese Samurai and the circumstances in which a Japanese soldier would find himself while being trained to become a soldier .The sheer toughness and severity of the training that probably explains his molding to become a ruthless killer while facing an enemy .

While the author Iris Chang brings justice to the horrifying details of the relatively unknown part of history she doesn’t deal with the aftermath, in other words how the people left with many of the relatives dead would have faced their lives after the holocaust. What would have meant to them to live with the pain of losing their loved ones while they watched helplessly their fellow citizens being raped or murdered.

After the Heavy Rain exactly brings forth this facet of a person’s life as to what he underwent, psychologically after Khmer rouge in Cambodia in 1975 executed all his family members, his parents and his ten siblings right in front of his eyes. The thirteen-year-old author was also one to fall into the grave that the killers dug for his family but he didn’t die and could walk out of the grave alive. Come out of the grave alive he did- with a deep sorrow of having lost them and a promise to his dead parents and siblings to avenge their killings and save the family’s honour, but the pain that he bore and the extreme emotion of vengeance and hatred for the killers that he harboured in his heart made his life a living hell.

Like a prisoner, he lived in an imprisonment made of his own, unable to move on in his life, until Jesus God guided him to light by his gospel of forgiveness. After twenty years he went back to his village looking for his family’s killers just with one mission of forgiving them. As he embraced them with a hug of forgiveness irrespective of the fact that some of the killers didn’t acknowledge this, he set himself free of the decades of scourge of wrath and pain, to bring message of goodwill and education for the poor masses of his country Cambodia.

While the first book deals with the deep scar that was left by the Japanese on the history of mankind, the second deals with the scar and the wound that they could leave on a person’s psyche, disabling him for the rest of his life.

These books in a way are like eye openers to certain facts that are generally ignored, though commonly understood. Terrorist bombings and killings of ordinary people are very commonly happening in many parts of the world, it is in fact a staple news item in newspapers. It is indeed heartening to learn about the efforts being made to know and understand the psychology of the inflicting source and the steps being taken towards spiritual rehabilitation of terrorists in Singapore and other parts of the world. While the efforts are laudable, probably some listening ear is needed at the receiving end also – the scars or the wounds made on the victims and their loved ones.

After all it is not about just statistics and numbers but it is about ordinary people who aim solely to have a fulfilling personal and working lives till natural causes snuff away life from them. Having to become, in a split second victims of some unknown terrorist’s bombs and cut short their lives’ breaths- could lead to catastrophic damage of the soul, heart and mind. In the after math there could be many Sokreaksas who could be living in a hell unable to move on, waiting to be counseled and guided towards light of hope and optimism.

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.

by Louis Sachar

holesHoles is considered to be Louis Sachar’s best work. Written for teenage readers, it is a story about the underdog that ultimately comes out on top. Among its accolades were 2 notable American awards – the National Book Award (1998 ) and the John Newbery Medal Award (1999). This made Sachar the first author in history who had won both awards for the same book.

Stanley Yelnats is sent to Camp Green Lake as a punishment for a crime he did not commit. He is given only two options by the judge – go to jail or go to Camp Green Lake. Being without money or influence, there is nothing his family can do but choose the place that sounds less daunting and blame Stanley’s bad luck on the curse placed upon his great-great-grandfather.

Stanley’s first experience of Camp Green Lake is one of disappointment. Camp Green Lake is nothing like its name. There is no lake, and there is no greenery. All that exists are holes. That is what the inmates do at Camp Green Lake – dig holes.

After residing there for some time, however, he realizes that “digging to build character”, as Mr Pendanski his counsellor puts it, is just a cover-up. But Camp Green Lake is not a place where Stanley can talk freely about any suspicion, not even to his fellow inmates. The whole place is rumoured to be rigged with surveillance equipment, such as toenail-sized cameras in the shower. The wrong word or action can bring repercussion from both supervisors and fellow inmates. Stanley cannot even be called by his own name. Everyone there has to have a nickname. So Stanley becomes “Caveman”, living a less than decent life, with cuts and blisters, a creaky and smelly bed, perpetual heat and thirst, and adult supervisors who will not think twice about ill-treating the boys.

Stanley initially gets along just fine with his group from Tent D. Then he strikes up a special friendship with Zero, who is sullen and non-communicative. Zero starts to dig part of Stanley’s hole everyday so that Stanley can help him with a problem he faces. This creates a discord among the group and it ends up in a fight one day. In the midst of it, Zero knocks Mr Pendanski out with his shovel and escapes from the Camp.

Worried for his friend, Stanley too escapes from Camp a few days later. His search leads him not only to Zero, but to a discovery that ultimately paves the way for his freedom from Camp Green Lake as well as his curse.

From the very first page, Sachar successfully creates sympathy for Stanley Yelnats. One technique he uses is to reveal to the reader certain aspects of the story even before the key character (Stanley) comes to know of it.

For example, in Chapter 1:

There is no lake at Camp Green lake…it is just a dry, flat wasteland.

and then later in Chapters 2 and 3, after Stanley is found guilty by the judge:

Stanley was from a poor family. He had never been to camp before… Stanley and his parents had tried to pretend that he was just going away to camp for a while, just like rich kids do…. At least he gets to swim in the lake.

He continues to create reader sympathy in his description of Stanley’s experience of digging his first hole:

The shovel felt heavy in Stanley’s soft, fleshy hands…the blade banged against the ground and…the vibrations ran up the shaft of the shovel and into Stanley’s wrists, making his bones rattle…Using all his might, he brought the shovel back down onto the dry lake bed. The force stung his hands but made no impression on the earth….by the time Stanley broke past the crust, a blister had formed in the middle of his right thumb, and it hurt to hold the shovel…

Sachar also keeps the suspense and the excitement of wanting to read on. He dishes out key details, such as Stanley’s purported crime, in bits and pieces. I only got to know the full facts of what he was accused of and how he came to be arrested after twenty-five pages. Then there are other sub-plots which Sachar cleverly weaves into the main story of Stanley’s life at Camp – the Yelnat curse, a romance that took place over one hundered years ago and the yellow-spotted lizard. All these kept me wondering, What has this got to do with Stanley Yelnats? until towards the end, when the whole picture is finally revealed.

Despite the harsh and unjust conditions against which the story is set, Sachar is still able to inject humour and light-hearted situations. His development of Stanley’s special friendship with Zero is a touching surprise.

The author leaves a few unanswered questions at the end of the book. This is my only dissatisfaction. Telling the reader that: “You have to fill in the holes yourself” is like completing a jigsaw puzzle and being asked to fill in the missing pieces with your own artwork.

On the whole, though, this is an extremely fulfilling book, one where Stanley Yelnats remains with you long after the book is returned to the library.