Saturday, 23 March 2019

Book Review: 'Ghost' by Jason Reynolds

What's to be said about this book that hasn't already been said? 'Ghost' was published in the US back in 2016 but UK-based publishing house Knights Of have brought it to these shores, opening it up to a whole new audience. It has garnered multiple rave reviews and mine won't be anything different.

This is not just a book about sports, although it sure will appeal to sports fans. For Ghost running is a way of life. He starts off running when his dad tries to shoot him and his mum (parental discretion advised - this isn't revealed at first) but when a running coach eventually notices his speed and ability, running becomes something so much more: it becomes a motivation to attempt to curb his bad behaviour at school; a distraction from the torments of a young, troubled life.

In Jason Reynold's portrayal of Castle Cranshaw (that's Ghost's real name) we see an impassioned plea for understanding and acceptance; a cry for the world to empathise with those whose life circumstances might translate into misbehaviour. Ghost's mum is great, so's his auntie. And coach really goes the extra mile in his attempts to better Ghost, both as an athlete and as a person, but Ghost's past still haunts him. This book gives just one possible back story, allowing the reader to see life through the eyes of someone less fortunate.

Alternatively, in the right hands, this could be the book that inspires a young person to really persevere, work hard and to nurture their talents and pursue their interests. This story is a great testament (albeit fictional) to the power of sports, hobbies and interests in providing a path to greater things when other doors appear to be closed.

This is an uplifting read, told with great humour from the point of view of a streetwise boy somewhere in an American city. The diverse cast of characters sprint off the page leaving the reader feeling like they know all of them, even the more minor players. Castle, even to someone who knows no one like him, is so convincingly real: he's the sunflower seed-sucking, world record obsessed, wise-cracking friend that you never had - a loveable rogue whose story you just have to follow.

Although there are some references to domestic violence, I'm not sure I'd have an issue with mature upper key stage two children reading this book. Perhaps reading it with an adult would be preferable, but then there are probably children out there who can relate to these issues for whom this would be a salve rather than a shock. Having said that, reluctant secondary-age readers would welcome the fact that an accessible writing style has been paired with more mature themes, as well as humour - this really is the type of book that could hook someone into reading for the first time.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

A Bike Crash

And that's when it hit me.

Main Street, usually busy at that time, was quiet. The residents' parked cars were, for once, not causing an obstruction to the traffic which had long since outgrown the narrow village road. On the morning run it's a long gradual ascent, meaning that at home time, on a day like today, you just let gravity do it's work. Always covering the brakes, mind.

She was waiting to turn in. A silver, boxy car. It says something about my mind state immediately post-accident that I don't know the make and model - he who can identify cars at night just by the position of the rear lights in relationship to the number plate recess.

There were two other cars behind her. One or two others waiting to turn onto the road that we all were, at that point, sharing in accordance with the normal rules and considerations. A good number of pedestrians around too: at the bus stop, going to the shop, clearing rubbish from a garden.

They all saw her turn. They all heard me shout - if they hadn't seen me coming before that, they saw me then. But she didn't. They all saw her turn. They all saw what happened.

I'd pulled on the brakes and had begun to turn the bike so that I wouldn't hit her head-on. I managed to unclip from the pedals and, to the best of my memory, neither I nor the bike hit the ground. I was stopped in my tracks but she wasn't sticking around.

I found the pavement, and a kindly passerby who checked I was OK. He chatted about his own similar experience and commented on how he liked my bike. No physical damage to me or bike so after a few minutes I got on my way again.

Down hill. Up hill. Up big hill. Down hill. Home. Grapes. Nuts. Sent informative and 'reassuring' text to my wife. Shower. Cuppa. I really am OK.

Later on, lying in bed with headphones on, listening to a favourite album, my eyelids began to droop. A pleasant drowsiness overcame me. My eyes closed.

The car sped towards me and there was nothing I could do. I jolted awake.

And then, as I settled down to make a good go of getting the night of sleep my body (always weary after even a accident-free cycling commute) needed, the vision repeated: again and again and again. Fragments of torment pierced the thin stuff separating subconscious imagination and reality. I woke. I slept. My brain, desperate to process, projected scraps of its footage: a turning wheel, slow-motion; a brake lever, depressed, but not by enough; the back end of a disappearing car (silver). I woke. And repeat all night.

And that's when it hit me: I wasn't OK. The car had left its mark. That's when it hit me.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

From The @TES Blog: 6 Ways To Get D&T Right At Primary


“Design and technology is an inspiring, rigorous and practical subject…”

But is it really, in your school? I mean, it could be. But how do we ensure in primary schools that it is?

Read the article here: https://www.tes.com/news/6-ways-get-dt-right-primary

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Frank Cottrell-Boyce - Reviewed By Children


To celebrate the new republished, redesigned versions of Frank Cottrell Boyce's well-loved books 'Millions', 'Framed', 'Cosmic', 'The Astounding Broccoli Boy' and 'Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth' I've gathered together some reviews from the people who really matter: the children who read and love them.

Steven Lenton (who illustrated the older versions) has designed new covers which are sure to give these modern classics a new lease of life and a brand new audience, but why should you and your children read them? Let's find out...

Cosmic - a review by Thomas Groves, age 13.

Everyone loves space don’t they?

Liam is a very, very tall boy for his age. He’s so tall in fact, that people often mistake him for a grown up. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Book Cosmic embraces this when he is mistaken for the new teacher at his new school and has to present an assembly and also when he later nearly gets away with test driving a new Porsche!

Things only get more laugh-out-loud funny when he is mistaken for his father by a woman who offers him the chance to take part in a very special competition that will make him ‘a hero in the eyes of his children’. He takes up the offer, wins and then ends up being launched into space with four other children. When things go wrong, can he save the day?

My favourite character is Liam because he is very plucky and easy to relate to and because he gets into lots of scrapes which only get more and more hilarious as the story goes on.

I like this book because it is very funny and moving and shows good and bad human qualities and a great plot.

I would heartily recommend it for all ages.


Broccoli Boy - a review by Jake Niemi, age 9

Broccoli Boy is an interesting, adventurous story about a boy called Rory Rooney, who is being bullied by a horrible bully called Grim Komissky. (That’s not his real name, Grim would be an odd first name.) One day, on a school trip, Rory turns bright green and is taken to the hospital. Imagine his shock and surprise when he finds out he’s there, and trapped, with none other than his bully! After believing turning green means he’s a superhero and he’s going to save the world he finds out he’s not actually the only one who’s green.

This book is brilliant, it’s cool, interesting and amazing. It has all the things that kids need: laughter, friendship and a reminder that adults don’t know it all even if they act like they do (in fact, adults should read this too!) I rate it 5/5 and think any child would love this book, in fact you’ll be wanting the whole collection of books! Hope you enjoy reading!

Remember, as the book says, ‘The thing that makes you different is the thing that makes you astounding.’


Sputnik’s Guide To Planet Earth by Shannon Finlan, age 14

Sputnik’s Guide To Planet Earth is a light-hearted fun tale of an orphan boy named Prez who has an encounter with a dog who is actually an alien, whilst living in the countryside in a foster home. Prez is a young carer to his Grandfather who has been dignosed with dementia. Caring for his Grandfather is a fun day-to-day chore for Prez, with laughter and games around the house... Or so it seems. 


As we delve deeper into the book however, we learn that the protagonists grandfather’s dementia is no longer a laughable silly matter and it’s actually quite heart breaking and sad. I could really relate to this with my personal experience of my Grandad’s dementia. With personal experience as a child seeing my Grandad’s memory deteriorate, I didn’t fully understand the severity of the condition at the similar age that Prez is in the book. Towards the end of the book as Prez begun to understand the condition more, I could relate to when I also began to understand that Dementia was more than silly jokes about things like forgetting about the rules of card games, getting names wrong, to forgetting completely those close around you.

Frank Cottrell Boyce uses an excellent ratio of light-hearted humour to sadness to make the book having you want to laugh and cry. This is an amazing viewpoint into a young carer's life to which Frank Cottrell Boyce has shown how a child, such as Prez, would interpret the situation at hand. I cried for hours after I had finished reading the book, it really pulled at my heart strings. I would highly recommend this book to children and adults alike.

Now head over to my Twitter to feed to take part in my competition to win a whole set! (Competition runs from 21/2/19 to 24/2/19 at 8pm)

Don't forget to look out for Frank's new book for World Book Day this March: The Great Rocket Robbery is a brilliant little story perfect for new and old fans alike.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Book Review: 'The Closest Thing To Flying' by Gill Lewis

If you're looking for a book to provoke conversation with children and young people, then this would be a good choice. Especially if you want to tackle, or just discuss, issues such as bullying, discrimination against women and human trafficking.

Semira, a refugee from Eritrea, discovers an old diary of a girl living at the end of the Victorian period. As she reads it, a bond spanning the chasm of time develops between her and Henrietta. Samira identifies with the plight of voiceless 19th century British women and is ultimately inspired by their courage to escape her own situation. Although this concept isn't original, it is certainly done well in 'The Closest Thing To Flying'.

I've read several books for children and young adults centring around the lives of refugees but this is the first one which truly takes on the theme of human trafficking. Robel provided safe passage for Semira and her mum when Semira was little but now, in the UK, he is controlling them, forcing Semira's mum into a sham marriage, taking all the money from the jobs she works and providing them with inadequate food and living conditions. Whereas many of us are aware of the term 'human trafficking', there is still little understanding of what this can incorporate, or how we can help.

But the diary isn't Semira's only lifeline. Thankfully she has school - another new one - where she meets and makes good friends, particularly with Patrick. Patrick has known life with an abusive father, however his mum's current partner provides the antidote to the other patriarchal (and just plain vile) male adults in the story. He up-cycles bicycles, bakes delicious cake and always has time to listen. Patrick's family's response to Semira's plight is a real example of how people can actually help those who are being trafficked.

Gill Lewis skilfully weaves the historical and present storylines together with various strengthening threads: readers will love spotting the links which focus on birds and bicycles. Henrietta is present at the formation of what is now known as the RSPB (all the names mentioned are actual historical people - lots of scope for further research and learning) and Patrick is an avid birdwatcher. The hat that Semira finds with the diary has on it a bird which she has memories of from her home country. Henrietta rides one of the first bicycles whilst delivering leaflets about the Society for the Protection of Birds and Semira discovers her own love of cycling. All of these links definitely mark this out as a work of fiction (a very well-realised one) yet they are what makes it such a joy to read, despite its tough content.

This would be a perfect read for children in upper key stage two, as well as children in key stage three. I'd totally recommend that parents and teachers read it if their children are reading it - not because the content is tricky, just because it would be such a shame to miss the opportunities for discussion that it affords!

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Book Review: 'The Dog Who Saved The World' by Ross Welford

'The Dog Who Saved The World' is Ross Welford's fourth book since 'Time Travelling With A Hamster' was published in 2016. In his latest novel for children Ross returns to the North East of England - Whitley Bay to be specific - and to the theme of time travel.

Except, there's a nice modern twist to the time travel aspect of the plot: Georgie Santos must travel forward in time in order to bring back a cure for a worldwide epidemic which is killing dogs and humans. Oh, and she doesn't actually need to really time travel - she's going to a virtual-reality 3D version of the future!

It all starts when Georgia and her best mate Ramzy meet the mysterious Dr. Pretorius when walking Mr Mash, the dog who will eventually go on to save the world. But before he does Georgie and Ramzy are going to wade through composting dog waste to rescue him, keep him secretly in a barn, evade the police in a rickety VW campervan, barricade themselves inside the Spanish City and nearly win the lottery. To begin with, the reader is left wondering how all the aspects of the story presented in the first half of the book will eventually entwine; this gives way to an adrenaline-filled sequence of events which results in triumph for the heroes of the story.

Once again bringing sci-fi themes to easily accessible children's literature, Ross Welford assembles a realistically diverse cast of well-drawn characters to embark on this barmy adventure set in the near-future. Along the way, Welford subtly causes readers to think. What was life like for Ramzy before he came to the UK if he had to slash the tyres of rebel soldiers without being shot? What's it like for children like Ramzy who don't have much money? How would I feel if my mum had died and my dad had a new girlfriend - could I grow to love her? How would we deal with a world-wide crisis?

The story is all told from Georgie's point of view and children will enjoy the chatty, informal style but will benefit from this being really well written. Although written from a child's perspective, perceptive readers will pick up cleverly placed clues and be one step ahead of Georgie at times - that feeling of being let in on secrets by the author is a very enjoyable one for children to experience.

A great holiday read for upper key stage 2 and key stage 3 readers, 'The Dog Who Saved The World'  will be enjoyed by girls and boys alike, and if its a shared read aloud, parents too will be happy to dig in and get involved.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Times Tables Fluency and the KS2 SATs

How important is times tables fluency for the KS2 SATs? I'd say quite important.

When we are fluent in speaking a language, we can speak it without thinking much about it. That kind of fluency will be useful for year 6 children to have when it comes to the tests in May.

I looked through the 2018 SATs papers to see just how many questions required some times tables knowledge.

Here's what I discovered:

  • In Paper 1 (Arithmetic) there are 19 out of 36 questions which definitely require children to have fluent times tables knowledge.
  • In Papers 2 and 3 (Reasoning) there are 18 out of 44 questions which also require children to have fluent times tables knowledge.
But why might fluency be important? Can't children just work out the times tables without knowing them by heart?

Well, yes, they could, but it would cost them time.

For Paper 1 children are given 30 minutes, meaning that they have less than a minute per question. For Papers 2 and 3 there are 40 minutes per question - this means children have about 2 minutes per question.


In a question where 8 different times tables facts must be recalled (see above), it is obvious that this needs to be done quickly so that children can focus on the procedure of answering the question. In the same questions accuracy is essential too: if children are fluent with the times tables facts they are less likely to make mistakes.

If children are spending too much time working out times tables facts they risk going over that l or 2 minute per question; in turn they risk not having time to finish the test.

But, looking at the 2018 tests revealed something else: most of the times tables facts that children needed to use to answer the questions were fairly easy: the sort of times tables that are learned in years 1, 2 and 3. The times tables grid here shows exactly which times tables facts are required. The hardest times tables facts (such as 7 x 8, 9 x 8, 11 x 11) weren't required. The most common facts needed were below 6 x 6 with majority of the additional facts coming from the 2, 3 and 4 times tables.

But children need to be able to do more than recall them quickly; they need to be fluent enough to use and apply them. It's not just about remembering the facts but being able to recognise relationships between numbers. For example, the questions below require children to spot related facts:



I've put together a PowerPoint presentation which contains all the questions that require some times tables knowledge. I've animated the working out and answers for each question too so that these can be used flexibly. The PowerPoint (which the images used above are taken from) can be downloaded here: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/powerpoint-to-demonstrate-the-need-for-times-tables-fluency-in-sats-12065667. I used it with year 5 parents who found it useful to know how important times tables were going to be for SATs.