1. The Nine Lives of Montezuma by Michael Morpurgo
This chronicles the life of Montezuma, a ginger tom with a white patch on his throat. He has to fight for his life from the outset – as a newborn, he survives despite attacks from a barn owl, the attempts of a farmer to drown his siblings and abandonment from his neglectful mother. He is rescued by the farmer’s son, Matthew, and becomes a permanent and much-loved fixture in the household.

What follows are the many brushes Monty has with death. First, he gets his head stuck in a tin before hurling up a tree and falling in a pond. Then, he becomes involved in a violent fight with the farm dog, Sam, over Sunday roast left-overs. Next, he is stranded in a snowdrift and a brutal fight with a rival tom. He watches over Matthew who grows up and takes over the farm. But all creatures must face death and Montezuma dies, leaving behind fond memories…

2. Under the Hawthorne Tree by Marita Conlon-McKenna
I discovered this gem quite by accident and almost gave it a miss. I bought it for a mere 50 rupees (SG$1!!). This award-winning novel deals with the the Great Irish Famine that ravaged Ireland in the 1840s. The story centres around the O’Driscolls, the average Irish family who are tenant farmers, dependent on potatoes as their main source of food. Tragedy strikes in the form of “the Blight” – a disease that destroys the potato crops – and what ensues is extensive starvation.

Eily (who is 12), Michael (10) and Peggy (7) O’Driscoll have coped with heartbreak upon heartbreak. Their parents left to find work but have gone missing and their baby sister Bridget is dead and buried under the hawthorne tree. Their village is devastated and farmers are being evicted by the landowners. Surrounded by disaster and the threat of being sent to the workhouse, the children are determined to survive and stay together.

Armed with nothing but courage and love, they embark on a perilous journey across Ireland to find their great-aunts, Nano and Lena, whom they have only heard about in their mother’s stories. The children sleep in the open and forage for food in the wild and in the farms of dead tenants. They are confronted with death at every turn. They see bodies of those who died with no one to mourn or pray over them and they see the living dead – those so traumatised that they are but shells of their former selves.

When the O’Driscoll children arrive in Ballycarbery, they see the ships loaded with food bound for England. It is a painful and bitter pill to swallow – the landlords were making money while their countrymen were falling dead from starvation. And indeed, that is the irony of those horrific years – it was only the potato crop that failed; wheat, oats and meat were in excellent supply but they were shipped out to England. It is said that a million and a half people died during these dark years and another million emigrated.

Read about how Eily, Michael and Peggy push every fibre of their being to stay alive and find a better home. This book is part of a trilogy – the other books in the series are Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home. I haven’t read these, but if you have tell me about them! The book has also been made into a film and study guides are available at O’Brien Press.

Update: We found Wildflower Girl in a little bookshop in Islamabad! It is good… review later in shaa Allah…

3. The Akimbo books by Alexander McCall-Smith
Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe was educated there and in Scotland. A Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, he is a best-selling author of adults’ books but proves that he is equally adept with younger audiences. I was told about his books by a fellow homeschooler who adores books. We went on a hunt and were rewarded with a box set that was in perfect condition!

The set features Akimbo and the Elephants, Akimbo and the Lions and Akimbo and the Crocodile Man. (There is another book out there Akimbo and the Snakes that we have not read, so if you see it, give me a shout OK?)*

Akimbo is a young, adventurous African boy who lives in a large game reserve where his father is a head ranger. He is passionate about animal conservation and goes through great lengths to protect them. In Akimbo and the Elephants, Akimbo helps to bring down an elephant poaching ring. In Akimbo and the Lions, he helps to raise a lion cub and becomes attached to it. However he knows that Simba belongs in the wild. It is a heartbreaking moment when he releases Simba. (Oh how Ms M cried!) In Akimbo and the Crocodile Man, our resourceful friend is given the chance to accompany John the Crocodile man who is doing research on a batch of crocodiles. During a trip, John is attacked by an angry croc. It is a race against time as Akimbo braves dangerous waters to get help for his friend. Ms M loved the bit where Akimbo hotwires a truck, drives it and barely misses crashing into a tree!

I loved this series just as much as Ms M did. The descriptions are simple and yet incredibly detailed and will transport you to the beautiful African continent. We finished each book in one sitting and liked the charming black and white illustrations by Peter Bailey. I’d recommend this for both boys and girls who are getting into chapter books.

* Update: We have read Akimbo and the Snakes – nice stuff!

OK more in Part 3 – kids are hankering for breakfast!