The Brockenspectre

About the Author and the Illustrator

As a child, Linda Newbery was a secret writer, filling exercise books with stories which she hid in her wardrobe. Now she is a published author of over forty books, mainly children’s and teenage fiction. She has been shortlisted for many prestigious literary prizes and has won the Costa Children’s Book Award. Linda lives in an Oxfordshire village and enjoys yoga, gardening, walking and the cinema.

Pam Smy says, ‘I fell in love with drawing at the age of 19. That was a while ago. Since then hardly a day has gone by without drawing something I have seen or imagined. Drawing has given me the ability to capture stories and characters I see all around me, and I love that illustrating gives the opportunity to translate these everyday observations into recreating imagined worlds for authors.’

About the Book

Tomas’s father loves the mountains and spends as much of his time as he can climbing. He resents the times when the weather prevents him being outside, and becomes restless and depressed. One day Pappi leaves and doesn’t return. After a year’s absence Tomas is so racked with guilt that he sets out to find his father, terrified that the Brockenspectre – a mountain monster – has attacked him.  The story is divided into Four Parts. Throughout the story there are short pieces of first person writing, which add a different perspective to the story. The narrative is largely focalised through Tomas’ eyes.

NOTE The Brockenspectre: a magnified shadow often surrounded by a glowing halo. It can appear on a misty mountainside and looks like a giant figure. Don’t share this information too early in the story, as it will destroy the suspense.

Before Reading

Setting

The story is set in the Alps, a mountain range across eight countries: Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Lichtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia and Switzerland. Have any of the group been to the Alps or visited other mountain ranges? Create an alpine display with information about flora and fauna (including, marmots, wolves which are mentioned in the story). Include pictures of mountaineering equipment and some geographical features such as glaciers and crevasses. Briefly talk about mountain rescue and the role of the St Bernard dogs.

First encounters

The story opens with 3 illustrations. Take time to look at each one and pose some questions:

  • How do you think the women and children are feeling?
  • How can you tell?
  • Why do you think the woman is looking at the boy?

Make the point that body language, gaze and gesture help us interpret the relationships in the illustrations.

Now look at the second picture. What can you see here? Who do you think the figure walking towards the mountain might be?

Now look at the illustration at the beginning of Part One. What words can you use to describe what you see here?

During Reading

Part One

Pappi

Who do you think Pappi is? And who do you think he is addressing (‘talking to’) in this section?

Pappi says, ‘Fear everything and you’ll do nothing.’ Is that true? Is fear a good thing or a bad thing? Or is it both?

Niklas Rust

Read the introduction from ‘ Tomas’s father was a big, handsome man‘…’ to ‘ The house felt so different when Pappi was with them.’ What are your first impressions of Niklas Rust? In pairs, ask the children to reread and share their first impressions of Pappi. Do they think he would be a friendly character? Would he be a good father?

Johanna’s Birthday

Why is everyone except Johanna unhappy at the birthday party?

Together

In what ways is the story of Wilhelm Tell similar to Niklas relationship with his son Tomas?

Gone

After reading this chapter, consider how Linda Newbery creates tension For instance, ‘The kettle was boiling with a long, rising shriek.‘ is a reflection of the way  that Tomas’s mother is feeling. The rainy weather also emphasises the mood in the Rust’s house.

Review what you have learnt about Niklas Rust in Part One. What do we learn from his actions? Discuss and complete this table as a group. On the left write down one of Pappi’s actions and on the right, decide what this tells you about his character. You can start after reading the first few chapters, but will need to come back and revisit it later in the book, when you have further information.

Some points to include:

  • the way Pappi lifts Johanna in the air
  • the way he talks to his son, ‘I was hoping to make a mountaineer of you’
  • the times that Tomas enjoys in the mountains with his father
  • Pappi’s stories about the mountain
  • his attitude towards the tourists
  • his lack of care in the woodwork shed
  • his response when Mama cooks his favourite sausages
  • the way he treats his own mother

Make explicit the point that we can often infer character traits from the way a character behaves.

ACTION TRAIT
It wasn’t unusual for him to be away for a month at a time He is a loner.

What do we learn about Niklas Rust from the way other people think about him?

  • Mamma
  • Father Gerard
  • The old woman
  • Tomas

 

Part Two

Talk

Who is talking in this section?

Why do you think this section is written in italics? Is this similar to another section that you have already read?

The Schritterhorn

In this chapter, we learn more about the Brockenspectre stories: ‘The Brockenspectre followed you‘. ‘You couldn’t be sure what creatures lived up there in the snowy heights.’  Talk about any legends that the children may have heard about creatures that live in the mountains or other remote areas e.g. Big Foot (American forests), Sasquatch, Yeti, (Himalayas), Loch Ness Monster. Why might these legends have arisen?

What do you think it means when is says, ‘Tomas never asked, because he could see that it pained her to answer.‘ Most children will know the word pain but may be unfamiliar with the verb, ‘pained’. Encourage them to look for words that they know within the word. Make explicit the point that this is a useful strategy to employ when reading unfamiliar vocabulary.

Reread the paragraph, ‘At home, there was a big gap where Pappi should have been. And a silence, a silence of waiting. A silence in which nothing could really change until Pappi came home or…until they found out what happened.‘. What effect is created by the way Linda Newbery has structured these sentences? Consider the effect of the repetition and the ellipsis. What is the ‘big gap where Pappi should have been.’?

Man of the House

What does the phrase, ‘man of the house’ mean?

One definition states: the male family member who has the most responsibility for taking care of and making decisions about the household. This phrase would have been more commonly used in the 1950s. Why do you think it is less well used today?

Reread from, ‘When he’d finished his work…‘ to the end of the chapter. In pairs, discuss how you think Tomas is feeling at this point in the story. Remind the children to use evidence from the story to support their thinking.

Encourage the children to think about the complexity of Tomas’s emotions. He might feel angry, sad, numb, hopeful, envious, embarrassed, fearful, guilt, at different times. Can you find examples to show the range of feelings?

Write ideas in a thought cloud and share with the class. Discuss the thought clouds.

 

Glacier

Has anyone in the class every visited a glacier? Use the internet to search for images of Alpine glaciers.

How do glaciers shape the landscape.? Use a range of sources to find out.

Narration

Most of this story is told in the third person and shifts from an omniscient viewpoint to being focalised the Tomas’s eyes.

This is varied with some sections of text at the beginning of chapters which are written in italics. These passages change the narrative viewpoint. In ‘Talk’ we gain an insight into the views of the villagers. Other sections such as ‘Glacier’ and ‘Mountain’ are first person pieces. Choose one of the first person sections, for example, Glacier, for closer analysis.

Read the passage that you have selected aloud to the group. Do they notice anything different about the way this passage is written? Why do you think Linda Newbery might have chosen to write it like this?’

Choral speaking

The sections of the book written in Italics lend themselves to choral speaking.

Choral speaking is an opportunity to explore the ‘voice’ of the text. Through reading aloud children learn how they can manipulate text to reveal nuances of meaning. It also trains them visually and aurally to the patterns and rhythms of language.

The choices that can be made when reading a text include:

  1. Volume – how loud or how quiet should a word, phrase, line be read
  2. Pace – how quickly or how fast. Should it speed up or slow down in places. Should some words be dragged out like a long meandering river, or said quickly like a lid snapping shut?
  3. Pause – silence is an important part of music and choral speaking. Are there places where you need to pause? A short pause or a long pause?
  4. Pitch – are there parts of the text that can be read in a high pitch or deep pitch?
  5. Tone – what mood/emotion do you need to convey?
  6. One voice or many? Decide how many speakers read each part. The contrast between single and groups of speakers can make a reading more dynamic, especially if groups of speakers are positioned in different parts of the room.
  7. Repeating words, phrases and lines – you can play with the words in the text. You might want to repeat some words, or have some words whispered in the background while the rest of the text is read.
  8. Voice percussion – the voice can be used as an instrument. You might want to create a sound collage to accompany your reading. Perhaps to set the scene and create an atmosphere before your reading commences?

Encourage the children to think about some of these decisions. Use a code to mark up the text. For example, an arrow pointing upwards might mean louder. You can devise and agree a code with the class.

Experiment by trying out different ideas before settling on your preferred reading.

Rehearse a few times, as long as the children are still interested.

Perform – why not read your text in a school assembly. Or you could visit other classes with a poetry bomb (agreed with teachers in advance, of course).

Johanna’s Bedtime Story

The story wanted him to carry on, even though he saw the dismay in Johanna’s face.’ Why do you think Tomas tells Johanna the scary story? And why doesn’t he stop when he sees that she is upset?

Prediction: ‘An idea slipped into his mind – a stupid, senseless, irresistible idea.‘ What do you think the idea is? Use clues in the text to help you predict. Why is the idea stupid?

The Son of Niklas Rust

What does Tomas mean when he says, ‘I’m the son of Niklas Rust and I’m going to prove it‘?

Conscience Alley: to stay or to go?

Consience Alley is a drama technique.  A ‘thought tunnel’  is created to provide the opportunity to explore a decision, problem or dilemma. A useful strategy for exploring any kind of dilemma faced by a character.

  • Invite the class to think about the reasons that Tomas should stay at home with his mother and sister.
  • Now ask them to think about reasons that he might have to go and search for his father.
  • Organise the class in two lines facing each other.
  • The two lines represent the different sides of Tomas’s conscience.
  • Ask for a volunteer to be Tomas. Thye need to walk slowly through the alley. As they pass, each side calls out their reasons.
  • When they reach the end of the tunnel. Pause to reflect. Ask the volunteer, which arguments did you find most persuasive? Why? Ask them to reach a decision, to stay or go.
  • You can repeat this with another child volunteering to be Tomas.

Part Three

Mountain

Who or what is speaking the words in this chapter? Who is being addressed (spoken to)? See notes about choral speaking above.

Busy Bustlers, Sleeping Dog

There had been times when the bitter wind drummed his ears and beat his brain into confusion. There had been times when he thought that if only he could get home safely, he’d never go near a mountain again.‘.

Making connections: can you remember a time when you faced a challenge? It could be a sporting challenge. Did you feel like giving up? Did you carry on? What kept you going? Talk about the qualities of resilience and persistence.

Sleepwalking

What sorts of things do people need to think about when they go walking in the mountains?

Why does Pappi say, ‘Don’t ever take the weather for granted.’?

Is ‘sleepwalking’ a good title for this chapter? Why do you think that?

Hut

Visualising: reread the section from,  ‘The plashing of water…‘ to ‘ continued on his way.‘ What image do you have in your mind’s eye of this scene? Provide a range of art materials and have the children recreate this scene. Encourage them to read the text for clues

Would you like to live alone in the mountains? What would you most enjoy? What would you most dislike?

Old Woman

How do you feel about what the old woman tells Tomas? Are you surprised or shocked by what she says?

Vocabulary: use a dictionary to find definitions for ‘hermit’ and ‘tarn’. Reread the passage to check if these definitions make sense in context.

Part Four

Rant

What is the ‘white blindness’?

Why do you think Nikalas Rust decides to leave his family? Why do you think he takes the bird that Tomas made for him?

Reread the last two lines:

‘The old woman stared. ‘Did you know my son, then? Niklas – Niklas Rust?’

Only a little,’ he said. Perhaps that was true.

Why does Tomas say that he knew Niklas  ‘only a little‘? And why does the narrator comment that ‘Perhaps that was true‘?

Monastery

What sort of place is the monastery?  Identify words that show that the monastery is a place of safety or healing: e.g. embrace, ease, soothe, quiet, calm.

What effect is created by the repetition, ‘I am here.’?

Introduce the word ‘sanctuary’, if it is not already familiar. Look the word up in a dictionary:  ‘refuge from pursuit, persecution or other danger‘. Does this word apply to the monastery? The children may be familiar with wildlife sanctuaries. Ask them to think about what the monastery and these other sanctuaries have in common.

Use a thesaurus to find synonyms for sanctuary e.g. refuge, haven, shelter, safe house, asylum.

Vocabulary: what does the word ‘keenly’ mean in this passage? Check in a dictionary to see if your ideas are confirmed. Can you find another word in this passage with a similar meaning? (sharply)

Above the Clouds

On his return from the mountain Tomas visits the monastery. Why does Tomas decide to knock on the monastery door this time?

Father Gerard offers him advice. He tells Tomas that his father, ‘was false and true. He was foolish and wise. He was cowardly and brave.’ Do you think this is a good description of Niklas Rust? Is it possible to be all of those things at the same time?

Father Gerard tells Tomas that he is like his father but also like his mother. Do you think children are always like their parents?

Home

Tomas: an emotional journey

When the old lady asks Tomas if he knew Niklas Rust, he answers, ‘only a little’. Is that surprising?

When Tomas sees his painted bird in the old lady’s cabin he thinks, ‘It seemed now that a different boy had painted it, a simpler and a younger boy.’ Why does he think that? How has Tomas changed since he left home to search for his father?

Use a Feelings Chart to show the different emotions that Tomas experiences as the story progresses. Find evidence to support the feelings that you identify.

Beginning of the Story Middle of the Story End   of the Story

 

Do you think Tomas will keep his promise to visit his grandmother in the spring?

 

 

After Reading

Research

Find out about the Brockenspectre phenomenon. Why does it occur?

Dangerous pursuits and extreme sports

Mountaineering can be treacherous. What do you learn about the dangers from this story? What is Pappi’s attitude towards the danger?

Text to world discussion: Apart from mountaineering, what other dangerous or extreme sports do you know? Why do you think people participate in activities that they know can be dangerous? What are the rewards?

Writing in Role

Improvise the scene at the beginning of chapter 4.

Hot seat each of the characters to probe their thoughts and feelings.

When hot seating a character is questioned by the group or class  about his or her background, behaviour and motivation. It is an excellent way of fleshing out a character.  The technique is additionally useful for developing questioning skills. Model questioning so that the children learn to ask relevant and searching questions. It is helpful if the teacher takes on the role of facilitator to guide the questioning in constructive directions.

After hotseating, invite the children to rewrite this scene in role either as Pappi, Mamma or Tomas.

 

If you liked this this book, you might enjoy…

  • Linda Newbery – Lob another emotional story by the same author
  • Johanna Spyri – Heidi a classic story about friendship and family set in the Alps.
  • Eva Ibbotson – The Abominables a story about a family of ‘not so abominable’ yetis from the Himalayas.