A Glasshouse of Stars

Exploring the 2022 CBCA Short List: Younger Readers 

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Author & Illustrator  Shirley Marr

Publisher: Penguin Random House Australia

Unit writer: Jennifer Asha

Synopsis: Meixing Lim and her family have arrived at the New House in the New Land. Everything is vast and unknown to Meixing – including the house she names Big Scary. She is embarrassed by her second-hand shoes, has trouble understanding the language at school, and is finding it hard to make friends. Meixing’s only solace is a glasshouse in the garden, which inexplicably holds the sun and the moon and the secrets of her memory and imagination. When her fragile universe is rocked by tragedy, it will take all of Meixing’s bravery to find her place of belonging in this new world.

ThemesMigrant experience, fitting in, grief, friendship, culture, belonging.

Year levels: Australian Curriculum: English, Year 5 & 6; HASS (History), Year 5 & 6; Arts (Drama), Year 5 & 6. 

 Why use this book? This book deals with themes that are relevant to many young Australian readers. The main character uses imagination and tenacity to cope with very difficult situations. This example of magical realism is told through second person in present tense that provides a model of this genre and unusual story telling mode. 

Focus passages: 

The following pages have been selected for closer analysis throughout the teaching unit:
House’ pp. 1-10 (Introduction to Big Scary)
‘Oranges’ pp. 66-72 (First encounter the magic of the glasshouse)
‘Olives’ and ‘Wolfberries’ pp. 121-143 (The glasshouse working to help Josh and grow the relationship between him and Meixing)
Boots’ pp. 251-261 (Heightened tension and turning point for Mama)

Reading and appreciating the book

Book introduction (big picture)

  • Visit Shirley Marr's website to investigate the author's influences and reasons for writing stories. AC9E5LE01 
  • Explore the features of magical realism: realistic settings, magical elements, limited information about the magical elements, the use of the elements to give a critique of society, and possible unique narrative structure. Use examples of literature such as Ting Ting the ghost hunter by Gabrielle Wang, The travelling bookshop by Katrina Nannestad or Dragon Skin by Karen Foxlee to compare to The glasshouse of stars. Assign each of the features of this genre to small groups of students and ask them to gather information about the feature as The glasshouse of stars is read.  AC9E5LE03, AC9E6LE02, AC9E6LE03 
  • Share migration stories and migrants’ experiences in Australia through dialogic collaborative reading strategies such as literature circles. Some books to accompany The glasshouse of stars could be The boy in the back of the class or The lion above the door by Onjali Q. Raf, Boy overboard by Morris Gleitzman, Worse things by Sally Murphy, My two blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood, Thai-riffic by Oliver Phommavanh, or Pie in the sky by Remi Lai. AC9E6LE02AC9E5LE03, AC9HS5K03, AC9HS6K03
  • Discuss the way Shirley Marr has used her choice of voice, second person, to actively give voice to those who don’t have one and put the reader in the shoes of the main character. Share the example on pg. 122 that highlights the difficulties of wanting to speak English clearly and express yourself well. AC9E5LE03, AC9E5LE02
  • Speculate on Shirley Marr’s reasons for naming each chapter ahead of reading them. Share predictions and subsequent confirmation or rejection of predictions.  AC9E5LY05, AC9E6LY05 

Close reading 

  • Explore the magical elements of the personified house and enchanted glasshouse. Compare these features to magical elements in fantasy stories such as The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst by Jaclyn Moriarty or Seven Wherewithal Way by Samantha Ellen Bound. Use examples of stories from the Realism genre as a contrast, such as The right way to rock by Nat Amore or My brother Ben by Peter Carnavas to help discuss the way that The glasshouse of stars has realistic characters and setting and a significant message that is relevant to contemporary readers and their experiences. AC9E5LE03, AC9E6LE02, AC9E6LE03
  • Conduct close reading of the extracts and pages such as pgs. 7, 9, 124, 133, 137, 185, 240, 257 to allow for an examination of the characteristics of Big Scary, as well as the use of action and sensing verbs and noun groups to create the description. How is the house described and personified? What is the effect of this technique? How does this magical element help to engage the reader and convey the message of hope and resilience? AC9E5LE04, AC9E6LA03, AC9E6LA06, AC9E5LA06
  • Examine the way Shirley Marr uses interactions between characters and the reactions of Kevin and Josh to Meixing to develop characterisation. Look closely at pgs. 147, 188, 225. Notice the role of sharing food in forming friendships and establishing bonds as shown on pgs. 131, 238, 250. Help students to make connections to their own experiences and cultures. AC9E5LE01, AC9E6LE01, AC9E5LA01
  • Discuss the way Meixing strives to be a ‘good girl’. Consider the cultural context of needing to live up to family expectations. Use pgs. 61, 136, 139, 222, 258 to help examine this concept. AC9E5LE01, AC9E6LE01 
  • Investigate the use of the symbolism of seeds, plants and flowers to represent character growth, learning to cope, renewal and the ability to see the past in a new light. Look particularly at the ‘Olives’ chapter and pp. 200-204. Use drama routines such as 3D living pictures or hot seating to respond to these sections of the text and aid student understanding of the symbolism. AC9E5LY03, AC9E6LY03AC9ADR6E01AC9ADR6D01AC9ADR6C01
  • On pg. 139, Meixing uses a metaphor of staying afloat to describe the fact that she is barely coping with her new situation. Share other turns of phrase related to life’s struggles: 'Keeping your head above water', 'In over your head', 'Staying afloat', 'Swimming against the tide'. If students have a background in languages other than English, ask them to contribute turns of phrase or idioms related to struggling or resilience in their first language. Are there similarities in theme? AC9E5LA01, AC9E6LE02, AC9E5LY01 

Word recognition, phonic knowledge and spelling

  • Investigate the meaning of students’ names. Meixing means ‘beautiful star,’ and Xinxing means ‘new star’, while Ailing means ‘clever love’. Discuss the relevance of these definitions to the characters (pgs. 270, 271). AC9E5LY09, AC9E6LY09
  • Investigate the word building associated with the names used in the text to show respect. The morpheme ‘mei’ means younger and ‘jie’ means older, as in the example of the older and younger cousins Biaojie and Biaomei. What can we infer about the meaning of ‘Biao’? Connect to the end of the book where Meijing is referred to as ‘jiejie’ or older sister and the new baby is referred to as ‘meimei’ or younger sister. AC9E5LY09, AC9E6LY09
  • Investigate the suffix associated with adverbs seen in the ‘Olives’ chapter: carefully, deeply, genuinely, painfully, gracefully, cautiously, forlornly. AC9E5LY09, AC9E6LY09
  •  Conduct morphological word analysis and building using some other words from the ‘Olives’ chapter: optimism, spontaneous, particular, replacement, loneliness. AC9E5LY09, AC9E6LY09

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Using the book for listening, speaking, writing and creating


  • Encourage students to engage in storytelling and sharing of personal and family migration stories, remembering to be sensitive to students whose families may have had difficult journeys and who may not want to share.  Use prompts such as: How and why did your family come to Australia? What hurdles did your family members experience? What differences between the old country and Australia stood out for you and/or your family? How did your family and friends help with the transition to a new country? AC9E6LE01, AC9E5LY02, AC9E6LY02, AC9HS5K03, AC9HS6K03 
  • One of the themes of The glasshouse of stars is the importance of giving everyone a voice. Encourage students to use their voice in varied ways. Students may like to read aloud favourite sections of the book. They might like to share their personal response to parts of the text in paired, small group or whole class discussions. They might choose to write and read aloud poetic responses to the themes of the book or articulate the themes of the story as they see it. Provide opportunities for students to create artworks that recreate magical elements of the story and then explain their artwork to the class. Play Barrier Games using descriptive noun groups to build mental pictures of characters in the story. AC9E5LY02, AC9E5LY07, AC9E6LY07, AC9E6LY02 
  • Use descriptions of Big Scary and the glasshouse to inspire students to create their own magical place. It may help students’ creativity to have them talk and/or draw before writing about their magical place. AC9E5LE05, AC9E6LE05, AC9E5LA06, AC9E6LA06
  • Use sections of the text that have been closely read and rewrite them in first or third person. Discuss the difference in impact on the reader. Then use second person and present tense to give virtual tours of your magical place. AC9E5LE05, AC9E6LE05 

Relevant resources and links

  • Genre: Information about the characteristics of magical realism 
  • Immigration resources and stories: Sydney’s Sea Museum has a collection of online learning resources and immigration story videos. A series of lessons for learning about immigration can be found here. Melbourne’s Immigration Museum has a range of online resources and ideas that explore immigration to Australia.
  • Cultural traditions: The Visit Singapore website has some information about the Hungry Ghost Festival which may be useful background for understanding some of the beliefs and traditions about death and the afterlife that are mentioned in the book.

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