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.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

What Should Adults Be Doing When Children Are Working?

Years ago I was told that I should stop buzzing around the room so much and that I should settle down and spend more time with groups – that I should sit in a position where I could see the entire class (for behaviour management purposes), and get on with working with a small number of children (whatever that means). There is, I now believe, both wisdom and folly in this advice.

The wisdom is that there are benefits to both working with groups and taking a step back. The folly is that by basing oneself only with one group, the other children are missing out on important interactions with an adult.

A later piece of workload management advice – to give feedback during lessons – freed me from the bondage of only ever working with groups and helped me to understand more of the adult’s role in the classroom.

More recently, my increased understanding of early years practice (don’t get me wrong, I’m no expert), gained mainly through observation of really skilled practitioners at work, has helped me to see that there is so much to be gained from the ways that adults in classrooms interact with children.

Teachers as experts

This concept is one which should influence all our ideas about the adult’s role in the classroom.
One of the main things that teachers do as experts is to share what they know – this isn’t the place for going into very much about how that happens, but I will say that it is essential before children get to the point when they are positioned at whichever workstations are present in the classroom doing some sort of follow-up work.

In ‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?’ Doug Lemov writes: ‘Teacher-driven dissemination of material is critical at times. It’s one of the best ways to share knowledge, and not only is knowledge critical to learning in and of itself, but it’s the driver of rigour during more interactive applied activities.’ (p148)

In the article in ‘The Case for Fully Guided Instruction’, Clark, Kirschner and Sweller argue that ‘decades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices (comprising virtually all students), direct, explicit instruction is more effective and more efficient than partial guidance. So, when teaching new content and skills to novices, teachers are more effective when they provide explicit guidance accompanied by practice and feedback, not when they require students to discover many aspects of what they must learn.’

Rosenshine, in his article ‘Principles of Instruction’, says that before children begin the aforementioned period of follow-up work there should be a period of time he terms as guided practice time. He writes: ‘The more successful teachers used this extra time to provide additional explanations, give many examples, check for student understanding, and provide sufficient instruction so that the students could learn to work independently without difficulty.’

The near-myth of independent learning

Whilst most agree that independence is one of the goals of education, there are opposing views about how to go about achieving it. In their book ‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?’ Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson point out that ‘…independent learning might be a desired outcome, but paradoxically, it may not be the best way to achieve that outcome.’ (p203) There is no point in expecting a child to become independent by simply asking them to do something independently – imagine if swimming teachers did that!

Within any given lesson, though, there may be periods of time which we call independent learning – we’ve already mentioned how it is the time after a teacher has done their bit up at the front when the children are at their tables (usually). But what does this period of so-called independent learning look like?

In the previous quotation Lemov mentions that this time within lessons should feature ‘interactive applied activities’ and Clark, Kirschner and Sweller say it should contain ‘practice and feedback’. They also point out that a focus on explicit instruction ‘… does not mean direct, expository instruction all day every day. Small group and independent problems and projects can be effective – not as vehicles for making discoveries, but as a means of practicing recently learned content and skills.’

In ‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?’ Paul Kirschner also writes: ‘…they’re a student and you have to instruct them properly. And at certain points give them the leeway to make use of what you’ve taught them without you constantly standing in front of the class lecturing. (p216)
So, there should be a part in every teaching sequence where children are allowed to work on their own, or with a partner or a group, to tackle tasks related to the input from the teacher where they have the chance to practice, use and apply the content and skills that have been taught. At this point in the lesson or teaching sequence there should be interaction from the teacher, part of which should be the giving, receiving and acting upon of feedback.

The need for adult interactions

We are now assuming that the adults in the classroom are the experts, and that in each teaching sequence there will be a time when children are able to practice what they have been taught. We often call this independent learning to discern it from whole class-based activity, but if it follows teacher input of any kind, it is not truly independent.

During that practice time, then, the experts should be interacting with the children in the room, making judgements about when to get involved and when to stand back. But in a class of 30 children it would be rare for there to be a prolonged period of time when no child would benefit from some interaction with an adult.

Early Years staff understand this principle well. Back in the days of The National Strategies a practice guide entitled ‘Learning, Playand Interacting’ was published. It puts paid to misconceptions that some teachers of older children have about how children learn in Early Years settings – it’s not just all children playing and adults changing nappies and bringing out snacks, something much more is happening:

‘Adults have a crucial role in stimulating and supporting children to reach beyond their current limits, inspiring their learning and supporting their development. It is through the active intervention, guidance and support of a skilled adult that children make the most progress in their learning. This does not mean pushing children too far or too fast, but instead meeting children where they are, showing them the next open door, and helping them to walk through it. It means being a partner with children, enjoying with them the power of their curiosity and the thrill of finding out what they can do.’

Interaction is key, and whilst children in Key Stage 1 and above (right the way through to Further Education) are progressing on their journey to independence, if the content is new and challenging, they are still novices and will need quality interactions with experts to help them to learn. If that is the case, then what is written above about Early Years interactions should be applicable to all experts who are teaching novices.

The same document breaks down something which happens in a high quality interaction. It points out that in those spur-of-the-moment, reactive, responsive interactions, the whole cycle of teaching is happening, sometimes at lightning speed:

‘…young children, however, are experiencing and learning in the here and now, not storing up their questions until tomorrow or next week. It is in that moment of curiosity, puzzlement, effort or interest – the ‘teachable moment’ – that the skilful adult makes a difference. By using this cycle (observation, assessment, planning) on a moment-by-moment basis, the adult will be always alert to individual children (observation), always thinking about what it tells us about the child’s thinking (assessment), and always ready to respond by using appropriate strategies at the right moment to support children’s well-being and learning (planning for the next moment).’

In classrooms beyond the Early Years I’d suggest that excellent teachers are also doing these things and that these are things that all adults in the classroom should be aspiring to do.

Monitoring independent practice:

To be able to make the most of every teachable moment, adults in the classroom need to be vigilant and aware of what is going on in the 30 minds before them. In order to do this the independent practice time should be monitored. In the same article I have already quoted from, Rosenshine writes: ‘Research has found that students were more engaged when their teacher circulated around the room, and monitored and supervised their seatwork. The optimal time for these contacts was 30 seconds or less.’ He goes on to clarify that where these interactions were above 30 seconds the teacher hadn’t spent enough time at the guided practice stage.

This monitoring of practice should then lead the adult to make further decisions: is feedback necessary at this point, or do they need re-teaching, and are there other children who would benefit from that? Would some questioning or retrieval practice help at this point? Basically, once monitoring has led to understanding of how well the children are doing, there needs to be a response from the adult: what sort of interaction is appropriate at this point?

Sustained Shared Thinking

Again, many Early Years practitioners will be aware of Sustained Shared Thinking.
‘Sustained shared thinking involves two or more people working together to solve a problem, clarify an issue, evaluate activities, or extend a narrative. Key features include all parties contributing to the interaction—one aimed at extending and developing children’s thinking.’ (EEF Preparing For Early Literacy Guide

SST provides some good pointers for making decisions about appropriate interactions. Some of the following interactions would take above 30 seconds, but that would not necessarily be an indicator that the teacher hadn’t modelled the learning enough in the first place – some of these techniques, for example, are to extend thinking and further the learning.

Techniques that adults might use include:

         tuning in—listening carefully to what is being said and observing what the child is doing;
         showing genuine interest—giving whole attention, eye contact, and smiling and nodding;
         asking children to elaborate—‘I really want to know more about this’;
         recapping—‘So you think that…’;
         giving their own experience—‘I like to listen to music when cooking at home’;
         clarifying ideas—‘So you think we should wear coats in case it rains?’;
         using encouragement to extend thinking—‘You have thought really hard about your tower, but what can you do next?’;
         suggesting—‘You might want to try doing it like this’;
         reminding—‘Don’t forget that you said we should wear coats in case it rains’; and
         asking open questions—‘How did you?’, ‘Why does this…?’, ‘What happens next?’


The above points were taken from a presentation by Professor Iram Siraj-Blatchford, where she also included the following techniques:
  • using encouragement to further thinking: ‘You have really thought hard about where to put this door in the palace but where on earth will you put the windows?’
  • offering an alternative viewpoint: ‘Maybe Goldilocks wasn’t naughty when she ate the porridge’
  • speculating: ‘Do you think the three bears would have liked Goldilocks to come to live with them as their friend?’
  • reciprocating: ‘Thank goodness that you were wearing wellington boots when you jumped in those puddles Kwame. Look at my feet they are soaking wet’
  • modelling thinking: ‘I have to think hard about what I do this evening. I need to take my dog to the vet’s because he has a sore foot, take my library books back to the library and buy some food for dinner tonight. But I just won’t have time to do all of these things’



On listening

The first two points on the list of SST techniques are both about listening and hearing. If we do neither of these then any other interactions we have with children whilst they are working will be misguided.

Mary Myatt has this to say: ‘I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about the quality of professional listening. This is important, because I cannot expand on, probe and challenge pupils’ responses unless I am paying careful attention to what is being said. And when this close attention and response to pupils is in place, then I am more likely to shift towards cognitively challenging dialogue.’ (‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence’ p108-9)

If we want to question, check for understanding, have dialogue that moves children’s thinking on, and so on, we must begin by listening. Good Early Years practitioners know the power of standing back and listening in before they intervene in any way - teachers mustn’t be too quick to dive in and children should first be given the opportunity to grapple with what they are doing.

On questioning and checking for understanding

It is interesting to note that in all the techniques for interaction mentioned above, only 5 involve questioning. Questioning is a powerful tool, but is not the only one we have. Having said that, if an adult spends their time questioning whilst children are carrying out independent practice, they will be using their time pretty wisely.

In her book ‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence’, Mary Myatt writes: ‘It is through the ‘to and fro’ of questioning conversations in the classroom that I know not only whether pupils have completed something, but whether they have understood and are able to apply it in different contexts.’ (p55)

One of the principles of instruction that Rosenshine observed is that ‘effective teachers also stopped to check for student understanding. They checked for understanding by asking questions, by asking students to summarise the presentation up to that point or to repeat directions or procedures, or by asking students whether they agreed or disagreed with other students’ answers.’

Questioning is very much part of the monitoring that we have already looked at.

However, Martin Robinson mentions how it does more than that: ‘You ask questions of kids who you think need to be questioned at any particular point. You’re really testing out what they know and don’t know, looking for depth of knowledge, and also it is about creating some sort of atmosphere in which kids can ask each other questions that are interesting. This is what you want, over years you want this class of novices to become a classroom full of curious, interested and interesting students.’ (‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?’ p153) Teachers who use questioning are modelling to children that asking questions is an important and exciting thing to do.

Questions can be closed (good for assessment and clarification) or open (good for extending thinking and moving learning on).

On feedback and assessment

Once monitoring has taken place – often using questioning - the assessment process has begun. But there is more to it than just questioning: questioning is part of an overall conversation or dialogue between child and teacher, novice and expert.

As Mary Myatt points out, ‘the most effective way to consider progress is to look at pupils’ work and have discussions with them, over time.’ (‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence’, p62) To get a good idea of what that dialogue might look like the aforementioned Sustained Shared Thinking techniques are very useful. Not only does this give a real purpose to the adult’s time in the classroom, it also has the potential to eliminate ineffective written feedback which is given after the lesson has ended, thus decreasing workload.

On differentiation

The definition of what differentiation is and what it should look like varies depending on who you speak to. Recently there has been a backlash against the three-way differentiation that was popular when I began teaching. That kind of differentiation is limiting to children and often takes a lot of preparation time.

One of the ways adults can use their time in class is to support children with differing needs. Mary Myatt suggests that this ‘…support consists of live conversations and additional unpacking of the material during the lesson …the support comes through live conversations with those who haven’t grasped it or who are struggling.’ (‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence’, p69) Again, the Sustained Shared Thinking techniques play a part here.

In order for children to be motivated at all, they need to have experienced success. Teachers should ‘…provide an environment where students can genuinely see themselves being successful…it’s about what kind of support you can give that allows both individuals to perceive themselves as being successful.’ (Nick Rose,‘What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?’, p116) Adults in the classroom can make or break a child’s day, depending on the interactions they have – if nothing else convinces you of what you should be doing whilst children are working, hopefully this will!

Guided Interaction

The EEF’s Preparing for Literacy guidance (aimed at Early Years practitioners) gives us a good piece of terminology to use to sum up everything that has been discussed: Guided Interaction.

Whilst children are carrying out independent practice, the adults in the room can be judicially practicing guided interaction with particular children, or groups of children:

‘Guided interaction occurs when an adult and child collaborate on a task and the adult’s strategies are highly tuned to the child’s capabilities and motivations… Discussion is a key feature of this approach and the use of a variety of questions helps to develop and extend children’s thinking.’ (https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Preparing_Literacy_Guidance_2018.pdf)

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Book Review: 'Kick the Moon' by Muhammad Khan

This is a first for my blog: a review of a Young Adult (YA) title. I read a few YA books but so far haven't written reviews of them, although I have featured them in a couple of book round-ups and it is true that some of the books I review are also suitable for older audiences than the primary age range I have focused on previously.

What other books might centre on as main themes, this book sidelines, making them the very fabric that the story is woven from: growing up, racism, sexism, family, friendship, gang violence, mysogyny, masculinity, homophobia, culture, religion, love, sex, and so on. In fact, the main thrust here is one of ownership.

Some might dismiss stories such as this as encouraging sentimental slush about finding yourself and then being true to self. But 'Kick The Moon' is about more than that: it allows that sometimes the self you find isn't always that great. A pre-teenage Ilyas, the story's unlikely hero (but only unlikely because we're conditioned to think that way), joins a gang as a way of being protected from bullies, only he finds himself in the hands of another bully. This version of Ilyas' self is not the self he should be true to, although he has believed it for some time. No, there is more to Ilyas, but breaking out of the grip he's in proves difficult.

In this book so many of the characters are owned: Ilyas' dad by a warped view of what it is to be a man, his sister by social media followers and society's views of beauty standards, the supporting cast by a desire to be popular, scary, noticed, loved, clever... Ilyas' mum stands out as one who understands more of what it is to be free from the judgement of others and the constant seeking of approval but even Kelly, the seemingly strong, proud feminist, temporarily betrays the values she seemed to hold so confidently. A rich tapestry of characters makes the story hugely multi-dimensional, making for a very believable read.

'Kick the Moon' is not about becoming perfect - it deals in overcoming and mastering personal flaws - but it is about taking ownership of one's life. Yet it is anti-individualism: yes, we might take ownership of our lives but that needs to include having the right people around us. And to make that happen we need realtionships; we need the right people around is. Ilyas finds his tribe, but not in a tribalistic sense - he finds those who are positive, supportive and who have the same verve for life that deep down he has always had.

Bravely tackling issues such as revenge porn and gang affiliation whilst shedding light on British-Pakistani culture and life in a South London school, Muhammad Khan uses the protagonist's love of comic books and art to weave a compelling narrative that many teenagers will identify with and hopefully learn from. Stereotypes are drawn on only to be broken down in this great follow up to debut YA novel 'I Am Thunder'.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Book Review: 'The Peculiar Peggs of Riddling Wood' by Samuel J Halpin

'The Peculiar Peggs of Riddling Wood' is a great tale of the paranormal aimed at readers aged 10 - 14. Creepy enough to provide a pleasant thrill without having to resort to hiding the book in the freezer, this debut from Samuel J Halpin has just the right amount of darkness to intrigue readers looking for something a little more disturbing.

But Halpin doesn't resort to cliches to achieve the unsettling atmosphere of this story - it's that subtle subversion of what's considered as normal that does it. Poppy goes to stay with her grandma, but something's not quite right in her town. There have been mysterious disappearances, yet life goes on just as normal life does in the 21st Century. There are plenty of clues for the reader - enough to know that something isn't right, but not enough to be properly aware of what's going on. And there aren't enough clues as to whether the occurrences can be explained away as criminal activity or whether something more sinister, more magical is going on. Halpin certainly leaves the reader guessing, which is quite unsettling, even as an adult reader!

And, as a result, this is a tale of two parts. Once the stage has been set, and Poppy and her new friend Erasmus' investigations seem to have ground to a halt, things start to get very strange, and fairytale-like. Fairly suddenly the reader is swept into a world of ancient witches and legends of old - a place where evil goings on can only be halted by those with the quickest of wit. And for while it looks like the game is up for Poppy and Erasmus - there are no easily-won happy endings in this book.

There is wit in the other sense of the word here, too. The darkness of the tale is balanced by plenty of quips and amusing set pieces. There are also plenty of sub-themes running through which enrich the substance of this novel - the death of a parent, old age, bullying, alcoholism - which would make for interesting conversation starters with children who are beginning to observe the real dark side of life.

It's hard to find genuinely disturbing but child-friendly novels - this could just be the book that some children, unsatisfied by the funny books, the adventure fantasies and the grown-up-books-for-kids, have been waiting for.