Frankie Fish and the Sonic Suitcase by Peter Helliar

Frankie Fish cover

 “You took too long getting ready for bed, so you only get that one chapter tonight,” I said to Mr 7 and Mr 9. It was the ultimate threat.  

“Noooo!!! Read more, read more!”

“Ohhhh, okay, just one more chapter.” I was too easily swayed, but I really wanted to read one more chapter too. The boys loved Frankie Fish right from the beginning and so did I.

Frankie Fish is a prankster, and after a prank goes wrong at school, he is forced to spend the school holidays with his grandparents – his grandmother and grumpy old fart grandfather, Alfie Fish. Frankie and Alfie don’t see eye to eye and Frankie quickly becomes bored. Before long, an experiment of Alfie’s goes awry, and Frankie and Alfie head off on a journey through space and time to save Frankie’s family.

Along the way the Fish men meet familiar faces from the past, and there’s a hook hand, a forbidden shed and even a villain to boo and hiss at. We also see a relationship blossom between a crusty old man and his cheeky grandson.

Many of the chapters in Frankie Fish end on cliffhangers leaving Mr 7 and Mr 9 to speculate as to Frankie’s fate as they fell asleep each night, desperate to know what happened next. Would they save Frankie’s family? Would they be trapped in another time? Would Frankie’s face become a bad knock-off of a Picasso?

With five chapters left, we headed to the coast for the Canberra Day long weekend with every other Canberran. The kids shared a bedroom and I read a chapter of Frankie Fish to them on our arrival. Miss 11 listened in and the next morning decided to read it too. She refused to leave the house until she had read up to our bookmark. When she finally did, we gathered around to finish the book, Miss 11 and Mr 9 on the edge of their seats, while Mr 7 read over my shoulder, bouncing up and down with each plot twist until the satisfying conclusion.

Frankie Fish and the Sonic Suitcase was full of laughs from the get-go, with some delights sprinkled through for the adults too. In the first chapter, I chuckled at a 90s reference that went right over the boys’ heads but they didn’t miss the Doctor Who references, as we’re a family of geeks counting the weeks until the new series comes out (FIVE WEEKS!).

Helliar’s writing style is a masterclass in the use of simile and given that many of his readers would be learning about metaphors and similes at school, he shows how much they can add to the colour and humour of a story when done well. One in particular amused me so much I kept quoting it to the kids., “her red hair flowed down her back like a waterless hairy waterfall.”

“Mum! Did you see, there’s a number one on the spine. That means there’s going to be more! Do you think the author is writing it now?” Mr 9 squealed. I was very glad to read that Frankie Fish is set to be a series. I love it when I find a book that appeals to all three of my kids and this one certainly did. We had such a fun time reading the book and can’t wait for the next instalment.

Post book activity – Prank-o-rama (aka “Let’s Prank Dad!”)

After reading Frankie Fish, Mr 7 asked me if I had ever played any pranks as a kid. Why, yes I did.

I once dressed my little brother in my clothes with an ash blonde wig to pose as my friend. He climbed over our side gate and knocked on the front door. When our Nana answered, he asked if he could come in and play with Holly. Nana fell for it hook, line and sinker! She later said, “I couldn’t get over what a strange looking little girl she was.”

When I was older, I phoned my Dad from another room, convinced him I was a client wanting to arrange a meeting. If I hadn’t told him the truth later that night, he was going on a four hour car trip the following week to meet the staff at my fictional winery.

In my first year of high school, I told my best friends, on April Fool’s Day, that we were moving from Perth to Sydney. They were rather upset. This one backfired a few months later when another member of our group told us she was moving to Melbourne. We didn’t believe her, we made her swear on a stack of lunchbox lids that she was telling the truth. She was! She moved to Melbourne, boohoo!

After sharing my fond memories of pranking, I did what any good parent would do and said, “Let’s prank Dad!”

The easiest option would be to tamper with his breakfast cereal, a hidden plastic spider, or a generous sprinkling of salt, perhaps? We could log into Netflix, delete his bookmarked shows and replace them with Fuller House, but I’m not a monster!

Dad is not easily fooled. He is logical, cynical and observant. Not like me, as after reading the book, we went to the beach where I sat on the water’s edge with my feet buried in the sand. Mr 9 convinced me my own toe was a seashell and I reached to pick it up. In the words of Bugs Bunny, “what an ultra-maroon.”

We were having churros with strawberries, melted chocolate and ice cream for dessert. Yummy. What could we do to the dessert? Pepper on the churros, yeahhhhh. So we served up everyone’s dessert and sat and waited…Dad tucked into the ice cream first, swirling the melted chocolate around his plate and started to dip in the churros and gobble them up. Four small churros on the plate…three…two…any minute now…one.

 

My own, non peppery, churros

My own, non peppery, churros

“So, what did you think?”

"It was alright.”

He didn’t notice. He didn’t notice that one of his churros was covered in black pepper! After all our anticipation, our prank was a total fail. Now we’re going to have to wait a long time to prank him again. He’s onto us now.

Have you played a prank on someone? Was it successful? Please let me know in the comments.

The Other Christy by Oliver Phommavanh

Miss 11 and I read The Other Christy last week after I heard Oliver Phommavanh interviewed on the So You Want to Be a Writer podcast.

The Other Christy is about family, school and the struggle to make friends when you are a bit different. Christy Ung lives with her grandfather and enjoys baking with her Aunty Mayly. At school Christy is in the same class as Christie Owens, an outgoing and popular girl who overshadows Christy and earns her the nickname The Other Christy.

Christy desperately wants to fit in. She and her family moved to Australia from Cambodia when she was in grade four. Now she’s in grade 6 and she wants a real friend, a best friend. Her approach to making friends is to try and win them over with her baking.

Miss 11 and I loved the parts of the book where Christy and her aunty bake treats together. Some of their creations sounded most appetising, such as the triple berry muffins and white chocolate chip cookies. Other food in the book, like bitter melon soup, sounded less appealing.

Christy spends much of her free time helping her grandpa to clean their house and her lunch breaks at school watching over the children like her, the others who can’t find their place in the social pecking order.

Oliver paints a realistic picture of an Aussie classroom and the struggles of fitting in when you’re a bit different. Plenty of kids will relate to Christy as she tries to balance her love for her quirky grandpa, with the fear of being embarrassed by him.

My children attend a school with many students from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Every year they celebrate Harmony Day and share food and activities from around the world. They have classmates from all over the world, but The Other Christy offered something else, it gave Miss 11 a chance to see an Aussie school through the eyes of a new Australian, in the way that some of her classmates might see it.
 

Post book activity

Blackberries, white chocolate chips.

Blackberries, white chocolate chips.

Our post book activity was to do a spot of cooking! I tend to bake more with the little brothers and it was lovely to get a chance to cook with Miss 11.

We made Blackberry and White Chocolate Muffins inspired by the triple berry muffins and white chocolate chip cookies Christy makes with Aunt Mayly in The Other Christy.

“How many chocolate chips?” asked Miss 11.

“About half a cup.”

“Oops…this much?” she asked, holding up nearly a full cup of white chocolate chips.

“Sure, chuck ‘em in!”

Muffin on plate

The batch of muffins came in handy as the school swimming carnival was the following day and Miss 11 needed an energy boost after her races. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of blackberries, but in this recipe they were yummy and much appreciated before my early morning walk.

Shall we make bitter melon soup next?

The Other Christy was written by Oliver Phommavanh and published by Penguin.

Film Review - Hidden Figures (PG)

I took Miss 11 and Mr 9 to see Hidden Figures last weekend. Hidden Figures tells the story of three trailblazing African American women working at NASA in Virginia in the 1960s: Katherine Gobel, a brilliant mathematician, Mary Johnson, an aspiring engineer and Dorothy Vaughn their unofficial supervisor.

The women work as human computers, performing calculations that were used to launch Friendship 7 in 1962, when John Glen became the first American to orbit earth.

We follow Katherine (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) in their careers and home lives and see how segregation in the southern states of the US impeded their chances for career progression. Even the tiniest things made their lives so much harder than their white counterparts. Segregation in basic amenities, access to education and opportunities for promotion and fair pay all stood in the way and they had to worker harder and achieve more than their counterparts just to be recognised.

If your kids don’t know about segregation, it would be a good idea to give them an overview before you go. My kids already knew that in parts of the US during the 1960s, African American people weren’t legally permitted to use the same bathrooms or restaurants as white people and were forced to sit up the back on buses. We had talked about it before the movie and they had seen a Horrible Histories segment about Rosa Parks.

Hidden Figures is a terrific family film with enough drama and humour to entertain and challenge people of all ages as well as great role models and touching performances. There isn’t anything in the film that I would consider inappropriate for kids, but the content might go over the heads of anyone younger than around 9 or 10.

If you have a child with an interest in the space race, take them to see Hidden Figures. If you have a daughter with an interest in STEM, take her to see. If you have a daughter with no interest in STEM, take her to see it, it might change her mind!

Post film activity

Hidden Figures had plenty of material to inspire post-film discussions, so we had a chat in the car on the way home about our favourite scenes and characters and wondered which scenes in the film were closest to the true story.

For kids who are interested in learning more about pioneering STEM women we can recommend the following books:

o   Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (the basis for the film – there is a young reader edition too)

o   Bessie Coleman’s Story by L.J. Maxie

o   I Am Amelia Earhart by Brad Meltzer

o   Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst

o   Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs

This is Banjo Paterson by Tania McCartney and Christina Booth

My kids read mostly chapter books these days but we’re still massive fans of picture books and this week we thought we’d try something a bit different. This is Banjo Paterson written by Tania McCartney and illustrated by Christina Booth is a unique biography of one of Australia’s best known and loved bush poets.

McCartney and Booth have turned a history lesson into a delightful story of a group of children acting out Banjo Paterson’s life in their backyard.

Our little Banjo rides around on his hobby horse, attends school and polo matches, works in an office, publishes poetry and even goes to war, without ever leaving his own backyard. We also learn how Waltzing Matilda came to be and how he earned his moniker.

I was surprised by how much I learned from the book but Tania McCartney never sacrifices the gentle rhythm of the text to share the information.

Christina Booth’s illustrations capture the essence of the Aussie backyard with a Hills Hoist, paddle pool and kids playing a game of totem tennis. She reflects Paterson’s gift for rhyme with speech bubbles of verse coming from the mouths of the children. Booth also does what all the best illustrators do, and gives us a story that goes beyond the text.

The book finishes with excerpts from Paterson’s best known poems and a biography displayed in the style of a newspaper article. The article makes excellent use of photos found in the National Library of Australia’s online catalogue.

Today (17 February) is Banjo Paterson’s birthday and Tania McCartney recorded an interview with The National Library. Watch the interview on the National Library’s Periscope page.

We thoroughly enjoyed This is Banjo Paterson and now will have to seek out McCartney and Booth’s offering from 2015, This is Captain Cook.

Post book activity

I remembered studying Clancy of the Overflow in high school history. I liked to raid my parents’ record collection as a teenager to create mix tapes for my best friend. These were not the look-how-cool-I-am mixtapes, but were cobbled together with songs that I found hilariously daggy or reflected an in-joke we shared or referenced something we had learned at school. When I found Dad’s record of Clancy of the Overflow, as sung by Wallis and Matilda, there was no doubt as to its rightful place on the next tape as it ticked two boxes, a school reference AND I thought it sounded hilariously daggy. I showed the video clip to the kids and, for something a bit different, we watched the mashup a recitation by comedian Adam Hills, as his wife, Ali McGregor, sings The Church’s Under the Milky Way.

After listening to the renditions of Clancy, we talked about the context of the poem: a man sitting in his city office yearning for life in the Australian bush.

We tried some other Paterson poems. The kids found The Man from Snowy River a bit long but were back on board for Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, which they’d read at school. Miss 11 also remembered reading We’re All Australians Now at school last year, so she read that aloud.

Magnifying The Man from Snowy River

Magnifying The Man from Snowy River

Our next activity was to find a $10 note (thanks to Mr 9 for raiding his piggy bank) and a magnifying glass. I told the kids that The Man from Snowy River was in microprint around Banjo Paterson’s face.

The three eager detectives took turns trying to read the words and could make out some of them. This was when I realised I was getting old, because I couldn’t make out a single one. Unfortunately it seems the new $10 notes, (to be released in September 2017) will no longer have this feature.

Now that we’ve learned all about Banjo, which Australian icon would you like to see Tania McCartney and Christina Booth take on next?

This is Banjo Paterson was written by Tania McCartney and illustrated by Christina Booth and published by NLA Publishing.

Countdown to Danger: Deadly Heist by Jack Heath

Countdown to Danger Deadly Heist

What do you do after school on a Friday when the mercury hits 41 degrees and the Canberra Times tells you to go easy on the electricity? You go to a book launch! So this week the kids and I popped into Dymocks Belconnen for the launch of the third book in Jack Heath’s Choose Your Own Ending series, Countdown to Danger: Deadly Heist.

Jack’s enthusiasm was infectious as he introduced the book to the crowd of kids, parents and grandparents. Deadly Heist was a dangerous adventure with disaster at every choice and this group of Canberrans was ready for the challenge.

With the audience keenly clutching their books, Jack sat down at his signing table covered appropriately in play money bookmarks and blocks of gold (edible of course).

I knew we were onto a winner with Deadly Heist when Mr 7 started reading the book in the queue so after we met Jack, who was delightful, and got our books signed we went straight home to sit in air conditioned comfort. The kids happily eschewed their Friday afternoon screen time for a literary adventure so I read the book aloud to Mr 7 and Mr 9.

Jack Heath at his book launch at Dymocks, Belconnen.

Jack Heath at his book launch at Dymocks, Belconnen.

We read the back cover. “30 minutes. 30 endings. You choose if you live or die.” The Countdown to Danger books are set in real time, so we began, there was no time to lose!  

You are waiting at the bank with your friend, Kye, when three people enter. You’re not sure why, but there’s something dodgy about them. Before long the ne’er do wells are robbing the bank and taking hostages and you have to work out what on earth to do about it.

Early on we chose our character, we had the choice of a boy or a girl. We chose our character and were soon crawling through air vents, wresting villains with laser pistols and falling from the top of a building to our doom on the concrete below.

Mr 9 started cheering when he was convinced we were safe only to perish at the end of the page. We tried again, this time choosing different options, crying out in disappointment when we died again and again, some deaths more gory than others. When we finally saved the day, the boys cheered before saying, “Now go back to the bit with the cable! See if we can survive another way!”

We survived twice in the end but the boys will be back another day, maybe in another guise, to enter the Deadly Heist and risk their lives in the face of a scarred redhead with a laser pistol.

It’s great to see so many authors nowadays writing for reluctant readers. Not every child is a bookworm, but every child deserves the chance to find a book that speaks to them. The Countdown to Danger books with their ‘real time’ pacing and action movie atmosphere have enough twists and turns to hook in even the most reluctant reader.

Jack Heath is a prolific writer with books aimed at children, teenagers and adults coming out in the next two years. The kids and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

A post-book activity

With the heist still fresh in our minds, we decided to have a game of modified Rob the Nest, renamed Rob the Bank. To play all you need are beanbags (moneybags) and a timer. If you don’t have those, appropriate substitutes would do like cups, pieces of Lego or even balled up socks (clean ones!).

·        Take a pile of beanbags each to a corner of the room.

·        Set a timer. We set ours for 2 minutes as we didn’t have the stamina to match the 30 Minutes of Deadly Heist.

·        Run back and forth stealing moneybags from each other until the timer runs out.

·        You may only steal one moneybag at a time, carrying more than one will see you sent to prison.

·        When the timer runs out, the robber with the most moneybags wins and the other players are arrested by the police and hauled off to jail until the next round.

·        If you’re playing with an even number of people, you can form two teams. The first team can be the robbers while the other team play police, grabbing the moneybags and returning them to the bank.

Beanbags

Rob the Bank was a fun game that had us shrieking and laughing. We managed to avoid long prison sentences and inadvertent head clashes. Wins all round!

Countdown to Danger: Deadly Heist was written by Jack Heath and published by Scholastic Australia.