Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Mozart Question by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Michael Foreman

The Mozart Question is a short illustrated novella, suitable for pupils in Years 5 and 6.

It is the story of a young journalist, set in Venice in approximately the year 2000. She has been sent to interview the world renowned violinist Paolo Levi with strict instructions not to ask 'the Mozart Question'. During her visit, we learn not only of Paolo's life but that of his parents who were prisoners in Auschwitz during the Second World War. Secrets which have been kept for almost 50 years are revealed as Paolo recalls being told that all secrets are lies, and now 'the time has come...not to lie anymore'.

The book would make an excellent class read for any year 5 or year 6 class who are studying World War II or as part of a class collection of books linked to the topic such as A Candle in the Dark, Goodnight Mr. Tom, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and Carrie's War. Taken as a group these stories each provide a slightly different perspective on World War II. This allows children to vicariously experience the war through different eyes.

The story ends up being 3 stories in one, a little like a set of Russian dolls. We begin with Lesley's story: the young journalist who is given the assignment of interviewing Paolo. Next we hear Paolo's story as told to Lesley and finally the story of Paolo's parents as told to Paola. This makes the structure of the story an interesting one to examine as it involves two specific time slips as the different stories are told. We are never throughout the story told what the actual 'Mozart Question' is, although we can infer what it might have been by the end of the book.

Despite its short length, this book may still prove to be a challenging read for some pupils in year 5 and 6 due to the vocabulary that is used such as machinations, incongruous, obsequiousness, reticent and tutelage. This though, makes it ideal for developing pupils vocabulary, particularly during small group discussion such as guided reading.

The book is set in three different places: London ,briefly at the beginning, Venice and Auschwitz. The latter two settings contrast starkly and these are depicted beautifully in Michael Foreman's illustrations. Pupils could use these detailed images as stimuli for descriptive writing.

The book does not contain Lesley's newspaper article and this would make an interesting follow-up piece of writing for the children. Lesley has been given a great deal of detail in her interview with Paola and pupils will need to decide what to keep and what to discard. This would necessitate a careful examination of the difference between newspaper reports and biography/narrative.

At the end of the book Michael Morpurgo includes an Author's Note. This provides a brief factual summary about how some Jewish prisoners were selected to play music in the concentration camps and a short paragraph about his stimulus for the story.

Publisher: Walker Books 
Publication Date: 2015 (this edition)
ISBN: 978-1406366396

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Winnie in Winter by Valerie Thomas and illustrated by Korky Paul

Winnie the witch and her cat Wilbur are fed up with feeling frozen and sick of the sight of snow. Winnie casts a spell and turns everything into summer. That is a big mistake. Her neighbours invade her garden and Winnie realises summer’s shortcomings. So she decides to cancel her spell and bring back the winter.

Winnie is a loveable witch who lives with her cat Wilbur. Children will enjoy reading about her antics and as there are so many titles about her, these make a great resource for an author study.

In this particular story, the contrasts are made between winter and summer in terms of clothing, weather, flora and fauna. References are made to animals who are hibernating and flowers that only grow in Spring/Summer. This makes it a good story to read aloud to any class who are studying the Seasons. There is also an interesting PHSE lesson in the story about respecting other people's property.

In terms of English, the story is simply told, making it ideal for those children who have successfully achieved phase 5 phonics. The text can also be used as a stimulus for a number of the spelling, punctuation and grammar objectives identified for year 2; in particular, apostrophes for omission, adjectives, noun phrases, the use of commas for separating words in a list, commands and sentence structure.

Korky Paul's illustrations give a certain charm to the story. Wilbur's facial expressions are wonderful and the detail in each of the full page spreads means there is always plenty to talk about. 

In Year 2, children will be able to explore the similarities between this story and other Winnie stories and will enjoy composing their own Winnie story, which they could illustrate in the style of Korky Paul.

A lovely, picture to share with children aged 3-7 as a read aloud book and as a literacy resource in year 2. Every Key Stage 1 library should have these on their shelves.

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 1996
ISBN: 978-0-19-273689-5


Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Operation Eiffel Tower by Elen Caldecott

Operation Eiffel Tower is a modern day, family drama. The story and characters are all believable and as a reader you very quickly get drawn in and involved in the family that is at the heart of this story and the events that unfold. 
In the first chapter we are introduced to the family, who live in a seaside town, where, Jack (the main character) helps out at the crazy golf course. The story opens as Jack hits his golf ball triumphantly into the final 18th hole, right between the feet of the Statue of Liberty, whilst his older sister Lauren sits nearby, engrossed in Teen Thing magazine. Caldecott's style in this opening chapter lulls you into thinking that this might be a likeable, lightly amusing tale of a family with little money to spare. However,  the final sentence though suggests otherwise 
“Her shift was officially over. She smiled and waved at Jack and Ruby. Now they could all go home. Jack felt his heart sink.”
We soon learn that the children's parents argue. Sometimes it's so bad that Ruby gets afraid and goes to sleep in Jack's bed. In fact it becomes so bad that Dad moves out. Then, the four children fear that Dad will never come home and so they launch Operation Eiffel Tower - a surefire plan to get their parents back together...
Jack's email correspondence with Paul and the concluding events in the story make some interesting points about conflict and reconciliation.
The story itself is beautifully told. Caldecott really does use her style of language to create mood and emotion. As a reader, through the writing you can at one minute be relaxed and enjoy the gentle and often touching scenes between brother and sister, next you are jolted into a sudden foreboding much in the same way as a film watcher anticipates events through the music. For example, in chapter 10 Caldecott creates a light, fun-loving atmosphere, in her description of Jack.
'Jack Froze. He was stiller than a moon rock. He was more frozen than a moon rock in a fridge-freezer. He was more silent than a sulking moon rock in a fridge-freezer.'

Next, when the children return home, the use of the short sentence - 'Then Jack stopped' - creates a sudden and abrupt change in mood. At this point, and throughout the whole book, Caldecott uses style of language to echo Jack's emotions. This makes the book ideal for using in years 5 and 6 not only for guided/independent reading but also as a model for children's own writing when looking at varying sentence length for effect.

This book is just so brilliantly observed. Each of the children react slightly differently to the crisis in their parents' marriage. Jack, the central character, is old enough to fully understand the implications for the family and he is in denial. He wants his parents to stay together at all costs and he'd do anything to make that happen. Ruby, on the other hand,  is much younger and still jealous at being supplanted by Billy as the baby of the family. So her idea to raise cash for the trip to Paris is simply to sell Billy to a prospective adopting couple. Again, the characterisation throughout the book lends itself to whole class and/or group discussions. As a read, the book is accessible and a relatively easy read but this is what makes it the ideal text to use when discussing more complex issues such as author's use of language, themes and characterisation.
It is easy to read and it is funny at times and desperately sad at others: a real roller coaster for the emotions. Eventually though, despite a change of plan, the book arrives at what is probably the best ending possible;a note of realistic hope for everyone.
The cover of the book includes a booksellers caption ' perfect for Jacqueline Wilson fans'. Whilst I do not disagree with this, there is a chance that children who are not Jacqueline Wilson fans (and many boys aren't because the protagonists of most of her stories are female) might be put off. This book will appeal to a wider range of readers, boys and girls alike, as the protagonist is male; the drama is fast paced and there are references to the army as well as themes that many contemporary children will be able to relate to.

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4088-0573-2