BooksforTopics Reading for Pleasure Recommendations
This week sees the publication of Call Me Alastair, a middle grade novel about a fierce parrot, a big-hearted boy and a spirited elderly widow, all learning to live fully-fledged lives. The novel combines poetry and narrative.
Read on for a review of the book, a giveaway for a copy of Call Me Alastair and an exclusive guest post from author Cory Leonardo, who discusses the importance of children's stories in providing hope to their readers.
Book Title: Call Me Alastair (available here)
Author: Cory Leonardo
Publication Date: February 2019
Most Suitable For: Upper KS2
Review By: Julie Wells, Y5/6 Teacher
The first novel by this American author is an entertaining, unconventionally told tale, narrated by three voices; a boy, an elderly lady and a bird called Alastair. Their emotional stories twist and turn, cleverly intertwining and showing how beautiful different friendships can grow to be (despite difficulties along the way). Throughout the book the characters grow and alter – particularly in their opinions of each other – reminding us we should never judge a book by its cover. The trials and tribulations experienced by the three are described with empathy and detail, endearing them to the reader as more about their characters is uncovered.
Loneliness, difficulties with fitting in and the responsibility and challenges of having siblings are all covered through the narrative; which is equally humorous and emotional throughout. Alastair’s experiences in the pet shop are filled with comedic touches, sharp wit and an eagle-eye for detail – the pets he shares his world with are definitely an unusual crew!
In addition to the three way narrative (told through diary and letter as well as traditional story) the book includes Alastair’s poetry, something he loves to write, particularly after chewing a tasty poetry book for inspiration! The classic poems used for inspiration add even more to the value of this excellent book; modelling how we can all find inspiration from the writing of others, and showing how we can deal with feelings and emotions using poetry to express ourselves.
There are so many reasons to read and enjoy this story, not least the satisfying tale resolved within its pages. My Year 5/6 class are queuing up to borrow from the new reads shelf now I’ve shared my review with them. This is definitely a book I will be using with my class; for teaching poetry and compassion and for exploring the relationships between human and animals. I think we can learn a lot from our pets – especially Alastair!
Guest Author post
by Cory Leonardo, author of Call Me Alastair
In some ways it felt inevitable, but when it finally happened this year, I can’t say I was shocked. Heartbroken, but not shocked. After more than a decade of listening to the stories—the daily happenings of disorder, abuse, neglect, and anger and pain so pervasive—brought home by my husband, a school guidance counselor in a large poverty-stricken city, the day he came home and said one of his students had been charged with murder, it was a punch to the gut. But one I’d been bracing for.
There was an argument, the newspapers said. A fifteen-year-old girl was stabbed and died. The perpetrator, my husband’s student, had been arrested.
He was thirteen.
Just now, I hear my own thirteen-year-old a few feet away in the other room. He spends his days plugging away at schoolwork, practicing violin and video games (an art, apparently), reading, and wandering about the house, tossing a set of juggling balls—his current quirky obsession and one much easier on the ears than his last: dice-stacking. He dreams of being an actor one day, but if that doesn’t work out, he’ll stick to the plan he’s had for most of his precocious life: law school.
Two boys. Two very different stories.
I’ve thought a lot about this young man in the last months. There are no easy answers and too many factors at play, and yet, one question keeps coming to mind: What story was this boy believing?
I believe the stories we tell ourselves have more power than we know. As parents and teachers, we can provide education, opportunity and support, but if we cannot make our children believe in those things, trust them, if they can’t entertain the possibility of something different than what they’ve seen on a daily basis, if they have no vision or language for a better future, then all we’ve given them is a vehicle with no engine.
Boiled down, that engine, the thing that drives us toward the possibility of something greater, is hope. And it’s what the best stories—the true ones, even the fantasies—offer us.
In her speech entitled “A Good Story is Worth a Thousand Pictures,” Madeleine L’Engle, author of the beloved children’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time said, “A story says, ‘Yes, but what if . . .?’ . . . and ‘This is how I feel now, but my next story might be different.’”
The youngest of children know this intuitively. Future knights, princesses—a friend’s daughter thought she’d grow up to be a dog for a while. But in time, when a hardened “reality” sets in, when life’s burdens and disappointments begin to take their toll, it’s all too easy to take on the stories around us or accept the ones spoken over us. Too often, for our most vulnerable little ones, those stories read like tragedies.
It’s through books that we’re able to suspend reality and walk in a different set of shoes. Through watching characters face obstacles, battle demons, and live to tell about it, we become participants—we practice living their stories as they unfold within the safety of a book’s cover. And because story lives in the land of possibility, no matter what our circumstances, we get to practice living in possibility too.
More than ever, in a world where life’s gritty realities are blasted in constant succession over every news channel and feed as click-bait, we owe it to our children to give them stories like candles in the dark, stories that celebrate the power of hope, stories that make us all ask ourselves: What if?
What if heartbreak doesn’t kill you?
What if the battle’s there to be won?
What if no matter how washed-up and finished you feel, the last thing you’ll ever be is done?
What if your future is brighter than you ever thought possible, child? What if?
My hope is that the readers of Call Me Alastair will walk away thinking, like Fritz or Bertie, maybe our next stories can be better than our last. I hope they see that a happy ending like Alastair’s is possible, even if it doesn’t look like what we expect.
Above all, I hope its pages whisper, “Your story? I think it’s going to be a great one. I believe it. Come now—
Believe with me too.”
For more from Cory, follow @_CoryLeonardo on Twitter.
Thanks to the publishers at Scholastic, we have a copy of Call Me Alastair to give away to one of our followers!
Many thanks to the publisher for sending us a review copy and to Julie for reviewing it, as well as to Cory for writing the guest post.