Inside the CBCA Shortlist
Emily Rodda is one of Australia’s most-loved and read authors. Her fantasy writing for children sits alongside the best in the world. She was recently awarded a ‘Companion of the Order of Australia’.
His Name Was Walter (HarperCollins) is a quality hardcover novel shortlisted in the CBCA Younger Readers category. It is equal to Rodda’s best books. It may be her best. It is conceptually and structurally sophisticated, forming a riveting and satisfying read.
It is a haunted house story but is utterly original. It starts by consummately building the ghost story and develops into an imaginative allegory, rich with metaphors.
It includes powerful themes of entrapment, change, the homeless, threat of war, guilt, forgiveness and truth.
The narrative is structured as two stories in one and unfolds within both: the first is in a ‘real-world’ setting and the second unfolds inside a story in a book. The storybook is “written as a fairytale, but it’s a book of secrets too. Secrets about this house!” p148. It is also “based on something real” pp180,223.
The writing incorporates brilliant characterisation, which is insightful, subtle and makes us care.
In the fairytale, Walter is quiet and modest but with a shell around his heart. Even though he grew up as an orphan in a beehive and at fourteen started work in a counting house, he is kind and helps people. After discovering the truth about his past, he left the city and worked for a kind witch for three years. She prophesied his future. As a young man he fell in love with Sparrow.
In the real world, Colin is the new boy from the country who is stranded with three other students and a teacher in a house where he senses that something bad has happened. Tara is the other protagonist. She is quiet but complex, intuitive and “more interesting than she seemed”. They read the book they find hidden in a desk in the house.
I recommend reading this great fantasy alone or aloud – like the characters do.
Emily Rodda’s website is http://www.emilyrodda.com/
Using the book with students:
Title The title, His Name Was Walter is intriguing, partly because we do not ever learn the name most people knew him by. Walter only had his name, p17 but “His name was Walter”. The title is unexpectedly in past tense. After reading the book, students discuss how the title is important to the story.
Foreshadowing and Foreboding As well as in the title, foreshadowing and foreboding are created by the witch’s prophesy of Walter’s life: that he will Find true love. Free a prisoner. Champion the weak. Save a life. Keep faith 93 be killed by an enemy, pp 63,108; and, at the end of Chapter 16, when Walter feels pure happiness without knowing that “a chapter of his life had ended” p158.
Shadows also add to the atmosphere: “a shadow looming over the land” p92, “shadows [of war] were massing around him” p178. Use some of these elements in the following task, Writing for Book Week.
Writing for Book Week Narrator Colin remembered the few children’s authors who’d made the long trek to his primary school for Book Week, p129 and explained that “Writers often use things out of their real lives when they’re making up their stories, even when they’re writing fantasy”. Students write a short fantasy piece with real-life elements ready for Book Week in August. Include some foreshadowing, as Emily Rodda does.
Storybird, the online writing platform could be used https://storybird.com/ .
Printed copies of students’ writing could be bound inside covers as described in the following task, Hidden Book.
Hidden Book Colin found the book, His Name Was Walter hidden in a secret drawer. The book “was covered with paper painted in a marbled pattern of blue and green … Pasted on the front … was a white label with a border of feathery green leaves enclosing a beautifully hand-lettered title”, page 11. Students use or adapt this description to make covers for their own stories (see Writing for Book Week above).
Debate or Discuss one or more of the following ideas suggested in the book: “Change just happens. We can’t always choose” p77; “… sometimes you have to give up things you love because they’re stopping you from moving on” p185; bullies cause war, pp 69,259; “Truth is like a sword that cuts through fear and lies” p210; “The truth has a way of coming out in the end – if journalists and historians do their jobs properly” p229; “artists can only produce great work if they put their heart and soul into it” p239.
Storm Valley The novel opens (and ends) with the storm. At the start, Colin wishes he had his phone to photograph the approaching storm, which sets the scene for the novel. Students read the descriptions on pages 1 and 271 and paint the scene, as Colin hoped to do and eventually did.
Read other novels by Emily Rodda, such as The Shop at Hoopers Bend.