Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Guest Post: My Favourite Children’s Books to Read Aloud by P. G. Bell

As a father of two boys, I've had lots and lots of practice at bedtime stories, and it's still one of my favourite parts of the day. 

Smelly Bill by Daniel Postgate
This picture book about a determinedly dirty dog's attempts to avoid bath time has been a favourite with both of my boys over the years, and it's one of mine too. Fantastically illustrated and dripping with character, the best thing about it is Postgate's wonderful ear for rhythm and cadence. Funny, snappy and lively, the evolving rhythms keep the reader engaged as much as the listener - a must for multiple bedtime reads! 

The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak
When reading aloud to children, grown-ups are bound by the words the writer puts on the page. It's a simple conceit, but Novak uses it to full effect, essentially holding the reader hostage and making them spout increasingly silly and bizarre statements. I love this book, because it can only work when read aloud by one person to another. And though it may have no pictures, it has so much fun with its text and interior design that you'll hardly notice.

Fox in Socks by Dr Seuss
A giant tongue-twister designed to challenge the reader, I've never made it more than half way through without getting tied in knots. Dr Seuss is always a joy to read aloud, but with Fox in Socks, he really forces the reader to think about the sounds the words make, laying them out like an obstacle course to be scrambled over. This isn't one to attempt when half asleep.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
This was always one of my favourite Dahl books, and it's become one of my son's favourites as well. The story is so familiar to many of us by now, that it's easy to forget just how many buttons it can press deep in a young reader's imagination. The chocolate factory is part Narnia, part fairground fun house, and the characters are among some of Dahl's most memorable. When it comes to the actual reading, Dahl's prose is typically direct, but he never fails to take the chance to have fun with it. His invented words have slipped into the national vocabulary for a reason, after all.

When my son and I had finished reading this together for the first time, he asked me to invent a new bedtime story that would be just as good. The Train To Impossible Places was my answer, and while I've got a long way to go before I'd ever consider comparing myself to Dahl, I'm still very chuffed that my son thought I was up to the task.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Guest Post: Five Magical Children's Books That Influenced Me By Amy Wilson, Author Of Snowglobe

I asked Amy Wilson, author of Snowglobe, which children's books most inspired her own writing. Fantasy fiction seems to be an evergreen genre within the world of children's publishing; Amy's answer to my question will provide inspiration to parents, teachers and children to explore beyond the more recent and obvious contributions to introduce some classic titles to their to be read pile. 

The magical books I read when I was younger put wonder in my veins when I needed it the most.  They gave me friendship and family when I was lonely, and they showed me that one small, isolated person has the power to change so much. They gave me hope. Here are five that had the most impact:

The first, and the one always on the tip of my tongue, is The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne Jones. I read it shortly after my father died, when I was eleven and just about to start secondary school. It wasn’t an easy time, and this book was such comfort. It swept me up and gave me the warmth of family, and showed me that true friendship was possible, even if we feel our own differences make us somehow unlovable. And it had magic, and a version of Italy that I still adore now.

The second would be The Horse and His Boy, by CS Lewis. I loved that story. I loved everything about it, and was devastated when, aged about nine, I realised I was terribly allergic to horses. I had imagined myself so many times on wild adventures with my beautiful companion, but after about five minutes in a stable I knew that was never going to happen. I have quite a lot of allergies but I think that might be the one that caused me the most sadness as a child. I’m sure my books would have a lot more horses in them if I’d been able to have those adventures of my own!

The third is Mort, by Terry Pratchett. Discovering his books in my twenties was such a gift. It brought me back into reading. I loved most the humour that accompanied all the magic, the warmth of the characters and their relationships, the sheer audacity of a world carried by four elephants on the back of a turtle. It reminded me that in fiction, anything is possible. Which I still need reminding of now, every so often! Mort had a big impact on Snowglobe especially; I think that image of a house full of snowglobes, and of a shadowy figure stalking the corridors, owes something directly to Death and his house of timers, and I’m very grateful to Terry Pratchett for the inspiration.

The fourth would be The Belgariad, by David Eddings. I got lost in that series for weeks! There were so many of them, and the truly wonderful thing about them was, again, that warmth of friendship and family, the sense of possibility. I especially loved the friendship between Barak and Silk, I can still hear their banter now.

The fifth is actually the first I encountered, which is a collection of Hans Christian Anderson stories. They were creepy and vivid and magical and I loved them, even as they haunted me. They’re a good reminder now, too, that children’s stories can have dark and twisty bits, that what scares us isn’t always bad for us.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Book Review: 'Snowglobe' by Amy Wilson

When a girl's already swirling world is shaken even further she discovers a world of magic that had been hidden from her, and for very good reason.

Amy Wilson's latest book Snowglobe is family drama but not as you know it. When a school bullying incident leads Clementine on a journey of self-discovery she gets involved in more than she bargained for - strange powers, disappearances, and an adventure in a previously-invisible house full of mysterious and macabre snowglobes.

As Clementine untangles her past she embarks on a quest for freedom, not only for herself, but for those whose only hope is her. In order to complete her quest Clem has to wrestle with family alliances, making difficult decisions about friendship and the greater good. The reality of life is never straightforward, especially not for young teenagers and pre-teens, so this book is a great sympathetic exploration of what it is to grow up and to begin to truly get to know oneself.

This adventure really picks up the pace as Clem, Dylan and Helios the dog search a network of enchanted snowglobes where hundreds of people with magical abilities are being held captive. This clever little device allows Wilson to explore a world of settings without the characters ever really leaving the room.

Upper Key Stage 2 children are sure to love the concept of this thrilling tale, and many will identify with Clem's struggles, albeit in a less magical way! A fairly dark tale ending in an explosion of light, this will have readers in its icy grip. A perfect winter read for those long dark days.

Guest Post: Introducing Poetry to Primary School Children by Ana Sampson

By the time we leave school, some of us have been rather put off poetry. Actually – confession time, now – I was. Picking it apart and poring over the meanings throughout my education had sucked some of the simple joy out of poetry. I became paralysed by the thought that I must understand every element, rather than just enjoying it – I had to learn to love poetry again.

Primary school children, however, don’t have any of those associations. The earliest things we hear and learn are usually songs and nursery rhymes: from the sun putting his hat on to the little piggies of our toes. We often read rhyming books with our children: my five year old is word perfect on everything from There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly to Room on the Broom, and woe betide me if I try to skip a verse to get to bedtime quicker! Children are at home in rhyme before they learn to talk, so they don’t have any of the associations some adults have of poetry being intimidating and difficult.

So, my advice on sharing poetry with young children is just to get started! Here are three ideas for how:

Share Classic Nonsense Poetry

I love Lewis Carroll’s inventive and whimsical poems. Even though today’s children won’t be familiar with the Victorian rhymes many of them parody (though they might enjoy Mary Howitt’s ‘The Spider and the Fly’, which is one of them) the nonsense and fun of ‘The Lobster Quadrille’ or ‘You Are Old, Father William’ will tickle them. Edward Lear’s poems are wonderful too. Ask them to draw a Jabberwocky, the Jumblies in their sea-faring sieve or the Pobble who has no toes, and watch their imaginations soar. There are lots of great modern collections of poetry aimed at children that continue this imaginative tradition.

Read Poems Aloud (Dramatically!)

Reading poems aloud, in as dramatic and over the top a way as possible, is a brilliant way to bring them to life to children. My daughter loves A A Milne’s ‘Disobedience’ with its rapid, building rhythm and repetition of ‘James James Morrison Morrison William George Dupree’. If you feel they’ll respond well to a touch of goriness, Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children will appeal – try Jim, who was eaten by a lion.

Read Poems That Appeal To Their Experiences

Researching She Is Fierce I came across some wonderful, lesser known poems by women that even young children will – I hope – enjoy as much as I did. Liz Lochhead’s ‘A Glasgow Nonsense Rhyme for Molly’, and Katherine Mansfield’s playful ‘When I Was A Bird’ are bound to delight younger readers. For slightly older children, the chatty, encouraging tone of ‘God Says Yes to Me’ by Kaylin Haught will appeal. Jan Dean’s ‘Three Good Things’ could inspire a discussion about the three best things to choose from their day. Jean Little’s ‘Today’ – like the poems in Allan Ahlberg’s much-loved 'Please Mrs Butler' – speaks directly to the experience of school-children, and they will be delighted to find themselves reflected there – and with the poem’s rebelliousness!

You’re never too young for poetry and I’d love to hear what poems young readers (and listeners) enjoy! You can tweet me and let me know their favourites at @Anabooks.

She Is Fierce
Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women
Edited by Ana Sampson
ISBN 9781509899425
Publishing 6th September 2018 |£12.99 |Hardback

Monday, 24 September 2018

Reading Roles PLUS Generic Activity Exemplified

In my blog post Reading Roles PLUS Generic Reading Activity I presented a reading activity which focuses on some of the widely-accepted reading comprehension strategies. Where possible I like to exemplify things that I write about, so that's what this blog post is.

Context: A small group of boys (not sure why, just was), end of year 3 but working below age related expectations, reading Fantastic Mr. Fox (their choice).

Session 1 (Chapter 1 of Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl):

A written record of session 1
We began with the Student Reading Role which matches the reading comprehension strategy of clarifying. After reading through the text the children wrote down words and phrases they didn't know the meaning of. This felt like a bit of a dry start, but without understanding key vocabulary it isn't easy to comprehend a text.

The children identified some words but missed many other words which in later discussion they admitted to not knowing the meaning of. Part of training children in this seems to be allowing them to be honest, or encouraging them to think more deeply rather than just skipping over words they don't know.

I then shared a pre-made PowerPoint which contained the words I anticipated the children wouldn't know. Some of the words (mainly nouns) were accompanied by pictures, others had a child-friendly definition.

We then moved on to the Quiz Master Reading Role. I modelled some of the sorts of questions they might want to ask whilst reading. We then read the text again giving the children another exposure to the text and allowing them to focus on the new strategy. Not all the questions generated were that insightful but others were: How come they were mean men? Are they rich? I'd say these ones were because they are linked to main principles of the story. The answers to some questions were perhaps best avoided: Why does he drink so much cider? It was clear that the children were not used to asking questions of the text - all the more reason to make them aware of this strategy.

After that we thought about the prior knowledge they had that helped them to understand parts of the chapter: the Professor Reading Role. The children found it quite easy to identify things that they already knew about. The potential and intended impact of this is that children begin to search their own memory banks when they come across something that they don't understand in their reading: hopefully they will begin to ask themselves 'what do I know already that could help me understand this?'

The fourth part of the session was to focus on the Movie Director Reading Role. This required children to draw or write about what they saw in their heads as they read. I quickly realised my mistake in asking them to do this: you can't draw or write about what you visualised whilst reading a whole chapter! The children focused on parts of the text that were not main points of the story.

Lastly, we looked at the Editor Reading Role which focuses on summarising. Together we developed 4 points which we thought might be important to remember as the story moved on. We discarded facts that we thought might not be crucial to the narrative.

Session 2 (Chapter 2 of Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl):

For the second session I decided to head the session up with something a little lighter, and a little more engaging to ease the children in. After recapping the summary from the previous session, we started with the Movie Director Reading Role but this time focused on just three sentences which described the setting. In doing so I discovered why in fact it might be a good idea to always start with visualising:

One child drew a rectangular piece of wood instead of a wood
I gave them a three-sentence quote describing the chapter's setting: "On the hill above the valley there was a wood. In the wood there was a huge tree. Under the tree there was a hole." Had this activity not have come first, I wouldn't have discovered that one child didn't know what a wood was. Actually when he read the word wood, he imagined a rectangular piece of wood (see the picture, left, where you can make out his rubbed out rectangle of wood which is incorrectly placed in the valley rather than on the hill). This probably wouldn't have come out in the Student/clarifying activity as he believed he knew what a wood was (although if he was properly clarifying he would have realised that in this context the sort of wood he had in mind didn't make sense).
My modelled drawing

Once the children had done their own I completed my own drawing as a model to them and used it to explain any inaccuracies (particularly relating to positional language/prepositions) in their own drawings.

A written record of session 2
We then read the chapter again and the children made a note of words that they didn't understand (Student Reading Role: clarifying). As well as the pre-made PowerPoint (see session 1) we did some quick vocabulary activities: can you put that word in your own sentence? Can you act that word out e.g. Can you approach me? With the word plump, we also had a chance to discuss an inference question: why would the farmer want a plump chicken?

Completing the Professor Reading Roles this time made me realise the need to reconsider how this section is tackled. Children worked at quite a basic level saying that they knew what things were e.g. hill, valley, geese, turkey. The way the prompt was worded did not really engage children in thinking about wider concepts of the text, or facts that they already knew beyond word meanings. On reflection this is an area of practice that I need to think and read more about. My question: how do we go about helping children to activate their prior knowledge? Does it need to focus more on when there is something they don't understand?


When working on the Quiz Master Reading Role the second time round I noticed that my modelling and prompting was centred around a more generic overall question: what do I want to know? Many of the questions the children asked were surrounding information that the author had chosen to leave out as it wasn't important enough to the story: how did Mr Fox get the animals? How did the farmer find the fox hole? The questions that I guided the children towards asking were more about things that might happen as the book progresses: how will Mr Fox get his food now? Will the farmers succeed in killing the foxes? These kinds of question are the kind that skilled readers ask all the time as they read. Other questions may also link to the act of clarifying in the case of information that is included in the text but is not understood on the first reading. It may be worth creating a list of exemplar questions to help teachers and children to practise this strategy.

Completing the summary activity (Editor Reading Role) after doing the other sections of the activity certainly seemed to help the children - after reading the text several times, clarifying their understanding and engaging with the narrative by asking their own questions about it and visualising parts of it the children readily picked out the main points and sequenced them. In my experience children don't always find it easy to prove in this way that they have good comprehension of a chapter as a whole.

Session 3 (Chapter 3 of Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl):

Children recorded far more words in session three
The children completed the visualising (Movie Director Reading Role) task quite slowly during this session but it did provide lots of opportunities to discuss the text which is always welcome as it is the discussions more than what is recorded that demonstrates and develops the knowledge and understanding. However, on the whole, this is probably a part of the session that should eventually happen quite quickly.

Rather than have the children record words individually for the clarifying activity (Student Reading Role) they all added to their lists as we read together, often as a result of prompts from me or another child. I found that asking if they understood particular words made them more honest about words that they didn't understand. As a result of this, we discussed a lot more vocabulary than we had in previous sessions, sharing new definitions and images of nouns on the pre-made PowerPoint, using the words in sentences and so on. It is this that is so crucial: if children do not understand the meanings of individual words then they will struggle to make meaning of text constructed using those words.

On clarifying: it is important that children feel like they are allowed to ask, and that it isn't a bad thing to not know what a word means, if they are to begin to automatically clarify when they read. Too often I suspect that children skip over words they don't understand simply because they are afraid to admit it. A culture of 'it is O.K. not to know yet' must pervade if children are to improve.

As we read I noticed that the children were beginning to ask questions of the text (Quiz Master Reading Role) without the prompt on the sheet. As they asked, I reminded them to record them on their sheets, and we discussed the possible answers to their questions before moving on. During these discussions we were also able to bring in snippets of prior knowledge which helped us to answer our questions - it may be that the Professor Reading Role doesn't benefit from any sort of recording but just needs to be brought in to discussions.

In summary:

It would seem that even after only three sessions the children began to use the strategies more readily: they were particularly more open to questioning a text as they read it and they became more enthusiastic about learning what the words meant. It was as if in practising the strategies and as a result understanding the text better, they became more keen to use the strategies again - perhaps because it helped them to understand and enjoy the story better. They certainly improved their ability to write a summary - this probably as a result of such a deep dive into the chapter with repeated reading.

The main area that needed improving was how they activated prior knowledge: it wasn't that they didn't as it was clear that they were all bringing and using knowledge of what farms were and so on, but this is at quite a basic level. Of course, there are two main potential issues at play when it comes to background knowledge:
  1. Do they actually have relevant background knowledge in the first place?
  2. Are they deliberately searching their background knowledge when they come across something they don't understand?
If you have any experience of working with these strategies, or even have tried out the Reading Roles relating to them, I'd love to find out what you've done to help children develop their use. Please point me towards relevant reading or share some examples from your own practice, either in the comments section, or on Twitter or Facebook.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Book Review: 'Goth Girl and the Sinister Symphony' by Chris Riddell

As with many of Chris Riddell's books it would be a real shame if Goth Girl and the Sinister Symphony was only ever read by children. The appeal to adults and children is equal, making this a great one for parents and teachers to share with children.

Firstly, don't let the Goth part put you off (if you are the sort of person who might be put off by that): yes, there are light gothic undertones, but there are also dryads, garlands and baby lions. I say gothic undertones but if you don't like entire orchestras of the undead then perhaps it isn't for you. Such is the intriguing range of influences that Riddell, one suspects, gleefully brings to the mix.

Speaking of inspiration and adults reading children's books, this one is full, I mean full, of nods towards pop culture and current affairs as well as plenty of references to the history books (The Frying Scotsman, Joseph Haydn-Seek, Thomas Ripplingdale (the shirtless furntiure maker!)) and classic literature (Pilgrim's Progress, Narnia, Under Milk Wood, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner off the top of my head). There are times when Riddell's illustrations for this latest Goth Girl book might easily be mistaken as one of his political cartoons for The Guardian (only the lack of colour mark them out as being deliberately drawn for ...the Sinister Symphony): the depiction of Donald Ear-Trumpet (with his tiny hands and his cry of 'fake shoes' was one of my favourite parts! I certainly look forward to exploring the many links as I read this with my children.

The language Riddell injects into his work is playful, providing more entertainment for grown-ups and children who love exploring words. I've used quirky to describe his books before but the more I read, the more I believe this should just be normal for books aimed at Key Stage 2 children. Children at that age love a bit of humour in their books but often books fulfilling that criteria are very one dimensional - Riddell's Goth Girl books are anything but.

And that's a lot to say for a book whose illustrations, quite obviously, are its finest point. As ever, the pictures are liberally applied throughout, intriguing and entertaining with their wry humour and visual perfection. There are some marvellous double-page spreads - the one of The Disinterred Ghastlyshire Orchestra is a favourite as zombiefied Saxons, Victorians and everything in between rub decaying shoulders as they clutch their assortment of instruments.

Although this is ostensibly about how Ada Goth's father Lord Goth puts on a music festival, it's really a parody of aristocratic life where family, historically inaccurate classless friendships and love take centre stage (seemingly a recurring theme in Riddell's children's books: Beauty and Beast in Once Upon A Wild Wood; the foxes in Ottoline and the Purple Fox, for example). In fact, this really is quite a heartwarming tale when all is said and done - one which brings smiles and laughs along the way. A real lighthearted read with plenty to inspire children to find out more about what goes on in the world around them, and what has happened in the past.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Reading Roles PLUS Generic Reading Activity

Reading Roles PLUS is a resource designed to aid children’s metacognition when reading. Metacognition can be defined simply as ‘thinking about thinking’. Reading Roles PLUS takes familiar job titles and assigns them to reading strategies and skills thus giving children an easy-to-refer-to system for being more deliberate with their thinking during reading, with the ultimate goal of being able to comprehend texts. Alongside the job title (or role) there is a symbol which can be used as a further way to prompt certain kinds of thinking – some children may find these easier to remember.

For more information about Reading Roles PLUS please visit my blog post 'Reading Roles PLUS: Teaching Metacognitive Reading Comprehension Strategies'.

The Reading Roles focused on in the below activity are:
  • Director The director uses words and makes them into pictures and moving images. Focus: visualising. Pupils make mental images of a text as a way to understand processes or events they encounter during reading.
  • Student The student knows that they don’t yet understand everything and they work hard to make sure they understand new things. Focus: clarifying/monitoring. Pupils identify areas of uncertainty, which may be individual words or phrases, and seek information to clarify meaning.
  • Professor The professor thinks about what they already know and uses the information to help them understand new things. Focus: using background/prior knowledge. Pupils think about what they already know and make links. This helps pupils to infer and elaborate, fill in missing or incomplete information and use existing mental structures to support recall.
  • Quiz Master The quiz master asks lots of questions. Focus: questioning. Pupils generate their own questions about a text in order to check their comprehension.
All of these Reading Roles are based on widely-accepted reading comprehension strategies. For example, they are featured in the EEF's Improving Literacy in Key Stage Two Guidance Report where research supporting this way of teaching is judged as being extensive.


Reading Roles PLUS Generic Reading Activity

The aim of this activity is to help children gain a better understanding of a text. It focuses on using 5 of the main widely-acknowledged reading strategies. Although the activity itself has a goal of enabling understanding of one text, the cumulative effect of doing several of these activities is intended to be that children begin to use these strategies automatically when they read any text.

The activity and guideline sheet can be downloaded for free on the TES website.

Using the activity

There are no rules as to how this is used although there are some guidelines:
  • This activity is probably best used with a small portion of text: probably no more than 4 pages, but more ideally, in a longer novel particularly, a double page spread.
  • Children unfamiliar with the roles of Director, Student, Professor, Quiz Master and Editor will need these explaining to them one by one. It might be a good idea to focus on one role/strategy per reading session to begin with to help children to understand the different reading strategies.
  • Once children are familiar with the different roles/strategies it would be a good idea to read the text, complete the first box (Director) then discuss before reading the text again and completing the second box (Student) and so on. The first times of doing this may take quite a while!
  • As the children get more familiar with the format they may cope with fewer readings of the text and may remember to make a note of, for example, questions they have (Quiz Master) or words they don’t understand (Student) whilst reading for the first time. This is desired, showing that children are probably beginning to internalise the strategies of checking, questioning and so on.
  • The activity could provide a format for a group activity where teacher records under the headings and children don’t have their own copy – this would promote lots of discussion. Equally, children could complete their own. Children could also complete these about their own book, or about a class book individually as part of an independent session. The activity is versatile.
  • Before running the session it is worth going through the text and making a note of all the potential words and phrases that children might not know – a PowerPoint of pictures and definitions, for example, could then be created to share with the children if they identify those words and phrases as being ones they don’t understand. There will always be surprises though: things you thought the children would know but don’t.
  • Use of this should probably be short term – once the strategies have been practised explicitly in this way, or in other ways, children should be using them automatically. Once embedded, deliberate repeat practise of strategies such as these is thought not to have any further impact. If children don’t appear to improve in their reading comprehension then they made need further intervention of another kind, potentially focusing on deeper issues such as decoding, fluency, vocabulary or background knowledge.
With regards to these guidelines, and the intention of using activities like this, the guidance report has this to say:

'These strategies can be introduced in isolation, but pupils should also be taught how to integrate combinations of strategies to develop effective comprehension of different texts. The effectiveness of teaching pupils to integrate multiple strategies is well supported by research evidence, and this approach is likely to be more effective than relying on single strategies in isolation. Ultimately, the aim is for pupils themselves to take responsibility for automatically using these strategies to monitor and improve their reading comprehension.'

Click here to see this activity exemplified.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Diary of a Deputy - Week 3: Happy Tired


On Wednesday night I had the realisation that starting at a new school in September is way more tiring than returning to a school you've been working at for a while. I checked in with people on Twitter to see if this was a common experience and yes, it seems that it is:
After an accidental lie down and after being uncharacterisitcally useless at the children's bedtime (bless my wife for her understanding) I did some reading (finished off potential The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe replacement: Pier's Torday's There May Be A Castle and cried a fair bit at it) and then fell asleep half way through catching up on the Bake Off.

Many of the good folk over on Twitter pointed out that the cognitive overload that comes with starting at a new place of work can indeed be quite exhausting.

There are so many new people to meet and get to know: colleagues, children and parents. And it is more than just meeting them - I want to make a good impression too, and trying to be that aware of oneself all the time appears to be mentally draining. But in a job that I do believe has so much of a foundation on relationships, it's so important and worthwhile to make that effort.

And then there's all the new routines, strategies and systems to get used to: playtimes, schemes of work, the way that finance works, who does what, how to log into this, that and the other... the list would go on and on. Couple that with the fact that as a senior leader you're supposed to be the one who knows everything and you find yourself saying the same things a lot of times:
The other tiring thing is that when you enjoy a job so much you work hard at it. The whirlwind of senior leadership in a primary school is an exhilarating ride. It certainly makes me appreciate all the senior leaders I've been under before - it's as if the backdrop has fallen and I can suddenly see all the behind-the-scenes work that goes on. And for teachers taking the main stage with the children this is exactly what is needed - they need to be unhindered in their most important task. Certainly a learning point for me this week: I'll be donning the all black outfit of the stagehand and doing my best to make sure the show goes on uninterrupted.

I also must mention my last school - it has been nice to bump into old colleagues as a few of them have been at my new place this week. I also received word of a mention of me in their staff meeting this week:

Teacher 1 (new literacy lead): So obviously you all use the Reading Roles which was started up by Aidan, who's no longer with us.
Teacher 2: May his soul rest in peace. Amen.

Gone (even if slightly cruelly killed off) but not forgotten, which is always nice to know. I walked past there this afternoon on my way to a meeting at another school and the familiar sight of the place where I spent the best four years of my career to date did warm my heart. Although I'm rather too busy to think about it very much at the moment I know I will never forget what I learned and acheived alongside a really brilliant team whilst there.

Nostalgia over; back to now. It's Thursday night - one more day at school containing PPA with the year 5 teachers and then coaching/mentoring with them in the afternoon whilst they take their NQT/leadership time. Must remember not to overload them - they're new too AND have a full teaching timetable so are bound to be even more tired than I am!

---

The end to the week was great. A good friend of mine has started working at a school just down the road so we arranged to meet to catch up and debrief about new jobs, summer hols and building work. Between us we visited three cafes (all closed) and a pub (no card machine) before finding somewhere that was neither closed nor living in the past. It's this sort of thing that helps to make sure that work and life are balanced.

Plus, on the way home three of my most favourite songs were on the radio: Concrete Schoolyard by Jurassic 5, Goddess on a Hiway by Mercury Rev and Tell Me A Tale by Michael Kiwanuka. That makes for real good feels, even when you've just done a £50 shop in two hand baskets because you forgot a trolley pound. Music is my aeroplane.

The working week rounded off nicely with more socialising at our friends' house down the road - food, friendship and an ongoing game of guess the 90s tune and artist. After a tiring week being with people I love is as restful and revitalising for me as stopping at home.

Saturday morning breakfast is being cooked, the tunes are on (our summer anthem Saturday Sun by Vance Joy) and the Yorkshire Dales are calling us.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Diary of a Deputy Week 2: On Track

Friday again! There was no time midweek to catch up with any thoughts - evenings were filled with preparing for my littlest daughter's fifth birthday (wrapping all the presents family had ordered from the Internet),  making a presentation about year 5 for the parents and finishing of a piece entitled Metacognition and Primary Maths for the October issue of Teach Primary - perhaps it will appear in print with a more snappy title, but hopefully it will be a useful piece for the readers. I also managed to squeeze out a blog post here on my own blog which details an approach to writing characters that we have been trialling in year 5. I also managed to finish reading the forthcoming 'Powering Up Children' by Guy Claxton and Becky Carlzon - a really thought-provoking book with lots of implications for the approach to teaching and learning my new school has.

Days followed my official schedule - teaching afternoons in year 4 and 5, carrying out learning walks in the mornings, as well as co-planning with teachers in year 4 and 5. Wednesday evening saw me delivering training to the school's support staff on giving feedback (a favourite subject of mine, see herehere and here) before dashing off to celebrate with my daughter. On Thursday and Friday mornings I ran parent workshops for the new year 5 parents which, according to the feedback forms were recieved really well. There was lots of positivity surrounding the learning environment - particularly about the studio area we have set up where children have continuous access to a range of creative supplies, books and construction materials. We are still waiting on two bespoke woodwork benches, some shelving and some more general decorative items in order to complete the area - once that's done I'll be certainly sharing pictures of it and writing about how we use it, how we timetable for it, and so on. For now, check out the working Lego model of the earth and the moon that I've been working on in advance of a lesson next week:

I also discovered yesterday, and it was confirmed today, that the children have already done a unit on The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe back when they were in year 2 - they even went on the same trip I was planning. Whilst redoing the whole book in greater depth and at a year 5 level wouldn't be a bad idea, it's probably a better idea to replan the unit. Having spent a lot of money already on supporting non-fiction texts about woodlands, castles and mythical creatures I'm looking for something that covers those bases. We have a few ideas - one strong possibility I will set about reading this weekend once I've finished Ross Mackenzie's very exciting The Nowhere Emporium.

But, a positive to end on. And a big positive: I love my job. What a privilege to work in a school where children love to be and where parents are so involved and supportive of their child's learning journey. It has been so good to spend more time with the children, staff and parents this week - I feel there is a real community vibe and it makes me very excited (and dare I say, passionate) about working at what I believe to be a really unique and special school. I have to say though, I am rather tired.

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p.s. Just had an email to confirm that we have secured transport to take us on the trip we were supposed to go on last week (if you haven't read the first installment of my diary, you won't have read about how we turned up to the venue and we weren't booked in).

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Writing Characters In Key Stage 2

My new year 5 team and I sat down to plan together for the first time last week. Our class novel is Cosmic by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and the teachers decided they were going to focus on character both in reading and writing lessons. With a view to having children write their own piece of narrative involving a character of their own invention we set about planning how we would teach them to introduce their character to the reader.

I have lost count of the number of times I've taught children to write character descriptions but I know that every time I've done it there has been a niggle. A paragraph describing what a character looks like and what they like is not something we come across that often in the books we read. I have seen numerous requests from teachers for passages from books which contain good character descriptions and whilst there are some out there, I haven't noticed it to be that common, especially not for a main character,.

So, my team and I discussed how we might teach children to write about their characters in the way a real author might. Looking at Cosmic we found that information about Liam's character was scattered throughout the first few chapters. To begin with, the information about his character is explicit, then the information becomes more implicit, then, crucially, no new information about his character is given - all his actions, thoughts and feelings for the rest of the book are congruous with the character that has been introduced in the first few chapters, apart from instances of the events of the story changing an aspect of his character. I don't know if that's how Frank Cottrell-Boyce planned it to be, but that's certainly how it seems to have panned out.

I suppose what we were looking at teaching was characterisation - how a writer portrays their character. In Cosmic we found examples of both direct and indirect characterisation but what we didn't find was a big chunk of direct characterisation, which is what children are often taught to do (which is probably fine at an earlier age).

Our first port of call was to read the book in order to be inspired both by the character and by the organisation of the text. Reading lessons focused first on retrieving information about the characters (as well focusing on the all-important vocabulary that is foundational to understanding how characters are being described). They then moved on to being focused on inferring information about the character based on their actions. Examples of these comprehension questions can be downloaded from my TES resources page. These, and the accompanying book talk (discussion), gave the children the chance to see how authors pepper the text with carefully-placed pieces of information about their character.

Next came the task of developing characters for their own stories. This was done in the usual way - nothing too innovative or fancy here - if it ain't broke, why fix it? Children drew their characters and annotated them with phrases that they wanted to use to describe them.

It was the next part that was going to be difficult. How were we going to get children to use the information about their characters in a piece of narrative without writing up as one paragraph of character description? We decided to focus on one thing at a time: the inclusion of descriptive phrases and not the creativity that would have had to go into writing a piece of narrative. To achieve this, one of the teachers wrote a short piece of narrative devoid of any description, direct or indirect, of the characters mentioned. She double-spaced it and provided a copy for each child. The children then edited the piece to include, in relevant and suitable places, phrases of description of their character.

An example of the provided narrative and the edits made in an attempt to add character description.
At the point of writing this children have had a first attempt at completing this activity. After reviewing a few books it would seem that the children need to revisit their original characters, develop some more details and then ensure that when they edit the narrative that they have included the information that conveys to the reader what their character is like. For example, one child's character is a snail, but nowhere has he mentioned its shell, its tentacles (yes, apparently that's what they actually are) or its single, slimy foot. All children have also missed the opportunity to add a direct piece of description after the character catches sight of their reflection in the control panel - this will be a simple, whole-class starting point to modelling how they might further include character description in the narrative.

What Do Authors Say About This?

But what do I know? I've only read a load of books. So I asked a few people who've actually written books how they go about describing their characters. Their replies provided food for thought for further lessons (bring on PPA!).

Writing Dialogue To Convey Character

Lisa Thompson, author of The Goldfish Boy and The Light Jar, says that she has 'never written a character description', which is pretty much why I've written this blog post - published authors don't really seem to do it.

She advocates conveying the character's personality through the things they say - how they 'speak, their mannerisms and gestures'. This is definitely a good starting point for an interesting sequence of key stage 2 writing teaching.

Lisa also talks about how she just writes and the character appears - I'm not sure this would happen naturally with less experienced young writers.

Writing a Letter From The Character To Discover Characteristics

Author of both Bubble Boy and All The Things That Could Go Wrong, Stewart Foster, found, when writing his second book, that he got to know one of his main characters when he wrote (in first person) a letter (click here to see the letter in a Twitter thread from Stewart) from the boy to his brother. This would be an excellent exercise for children to undertake in order to help them think like the character would think. As in ATTTCGW this letter could be included as part of the narrative, making for a more varied and interesting text. Cosmic begins with Liam speaking (from space) a monologue to his parents - this is very similar in style to the letter.

Compare And Contrast Instead Of Direct Description

Victoria Williamson, the author of The Fox Girl And The White Gazelle, mentions the idea of sprinkling bits of description 'through the first few paragraphs or pages... so it's not just an info dump. She also mentions avoiding the use of any direct description, instead she chooses to point out similarities and differences between two characters in order to bring them to life. Perhaps a technique to try out with greater depth writers in upper key stage 2.

As well as this Victoria suggests that writers can describe a character through another character's eyes, which works especially well when writing in first person. As she wrote in her guest post on my blog though, this can lead to a skewed perspective on 'reality' because characters see things only from their point of view.

Describe Interactions With Other Characters

As we explored in our reading sessions on Cosmic we can often infer lots about character by the way they act and behave, particularly, as Tom Palmer (whose book Armistice Runner is published today) points out, the way they interact with other characters. This might include their gestures and stances as well as the things they say and do.

I think that to help children to do this in their writing it might be useful to go back to a text and analyse how authors have done this themselves. Children could make a list of what a character does and make inferences about what this tells us about their character. Again, another skill perhaps for the children who write fluently already.

In addition to this, more confident writers might want to use character description to signify something important in the story - a turning point in the plot, or to show how a main event has affected and changed a character. I can imagine teaching this to a small group and modelling how this might be done.

Click here to read about how Tania Unsworth, author of The Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was A Mermaid, writes her characters. Tania Unsworth mentions many of the techniques already covered - her answer to my question would be a great one to study with the children.

Hopefully our attempt to do something a little different, and the hugely helpful insights from the professionals might inspire one or two of you to try some new things out when you next teach characterisation. I'd love to hear from you if you've tried something like this before - please leave a comment here or on Twitter!

Tania Unsworth On Conveying Character

Tania Unsworth, author of the wonderful The Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was A Mermaid describes the process she goes through when writing her characters:

For my main characters, I try not to present a physical description, unless it's important for the story or it reveals something significant about them (perhaps they have bitten nails, for example). I think leaving the physical description somewhat vague allows the reader to conjure up a much richer, more flexible image in their mind's eye, and thus involves them more fully in the creative process. Hopefully it makes the character feel personal to each reader. The kind of writing I admire and aspire to is what I think of as 'generous' - it leaves as much as possible to the imagination of its readers. I have a different approach to minor characters, often describing their appearance in detail - they tend to be more two dimensional as a whole, mostly seen through the lens of the main character.

So how do I convey character? I try and do it in terms of their reaction to things. I aim to put them as quickly as possible into a situation where their responses begin to reveal how they see the world, their fears, hopes etc. Dialogue is another useful way of doing this. I love dialogue! How they talk, how they respond to the person they're talking to. As an exercise, it can be fun to take a chunk of dialogue from a book and without knowing anything else about the story, try to see what can be deduced about the protagonists simply from their conversation.

I tend not to start a book with a very clear idea of my main character. I learn about them as I go along, through their responses to things that are happening in the plot. By the end of course, it's turned the other way around - the character has formed to such an extent, that THEY are shaping the story.

It's a strange sort of paradox that I can never quite get my head around - how my characters grow out of the needs of the story, but at the same time how they ARE the story itself...does that make any sense?

In terms of teaching character writing - you are the expert! I'm not sure I can offer anything new that you haven't thought of. I suppose I would suggest as an exercise that pupils not start with a character at all, but with a situation. Something has happened to someone. Then perhaps they could simply ask themselves a series of questions. How does that person respond? Why? Is it different from how other people might respond? What are they thinking? What do they feel? I do think that just like the reader, the writer has no idea of their own characters at the start - they must find out by asking a lot of questions. Sometimes it's only at the end of writing a story that the writer achieves an understanding of their own characters...which means more often than not, that they have to write it all over again!

For more on teaching character writing click here for my blog post Writing Characters in Key Stage 2.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Diary of a Deputy - Week 1: False Start?

It's Friday, I'm on the coach on the way back from year 5's first trip - the first trip I've organised as Deputy Head. We are coming back early because it happened. That thing we all fear will happen did happen.

I booked this trip back in June. But when we turned up today they didn't know we were coming. In fact all of the staff who work at the facility were on annual leave. The facility in question is housed within a local college building and, hats off to a variety of college staff, we managed to make something of the morning. Whilst I tried to work out what on earth had gone wrong and how we were going to make it all right the children had an enjoyable hour and a half learning. Next job: reschedule and work out how to explain it to the parents of the class who certainly won't be making the afternoon visit. Oh, and work overtime to remind myself that this wasn't my fault.

- - -

I'm now sitting in the waiting room of the doctors' surgery. It's Friday afternoon. This week promised to be difficult from the off, I suppose. 

I set off on my bike on the first day and, two minutes away from home, realised that cycling one-handed on account of a shoulder problem I developed on holiday was not going to cut it. These Yorkshire hills require a whole-body approach to cycling. 

I headed back home (where my wife was busy broadcasting live baking on BBC Radio Leeds) to think through my options. I couldn't take the car - the lease company were picking it up later that day. We weren't getting a replacement until the day after. Public transport requires multiple vehicles and lots of walking and a journey time of over an hour (it takes 15 minutes in the car). Taxi it was. After setting off in the wrong direction I set the driver on the right course and once I'd handed over the princely sum of £13 I was through the school gates for my first day as deputy head.

After 12 minutes on hold to the doctors' (during which time I was informed that I'd moved from caller number 6 to the heady heights of caller number 5) I walked into a dead zone (the HR office) and lost my connection. My lovely wife, now finished with her brush with radio stardom, then spent a further half hour on the phone to secure me a physio appointment, hence my current location.

But, looking back, it's not at all been doom and gloom. In fact, I've been able to see the 'amusing' side of the less desirable events of my first week in post. It's been a brilliant week.

The first day, once I'd managed to get myself there, kicked off, predictably, with a whole staff meeting. My new school is a through school: nursery to 6th form = huge student body and a large staff. One apparent tradition is to welcome new staff at these well-attended meetings. When my name was called (and I wouldn't usually share this kind of thing for fear of sounding arrogant) the whole of the primary staff gave a huge cheer - louder than they had for any other. So, as long as they weren't taking the mick, and this wasn't some cruel joke, that welcome meant more to me then they might have intended. And the feeling of belonging it gave me has carried me through the week, even providing comfort when I turned up with 30 children and 4 members staff to a trip that wasn't even booked (wasn't my fault).

And it's not just that that means I'm finishing my first week as a Deputy Head feeling elated. My new year 5 team is showing all the signs of gelling and the children arrived glowing and smiley on Thursday morning, positive and ready to learn. We are trying out some new things: an out-of-class studio area where children have permanent access to a wide variety of resources, ways of teaching and timetabling that respond to the exact needs of the children and a holistic approach to learning that goes beyond the typical upper key stage two focus on maths and English, and beyond a focus on academic results. And the children have responded really well, particularly in how well they have used the studio to practise and demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a variety of ways. The teachers too have demonstrated adaptability, filling me with confidence that we will absolutely make a success of this year.

- - -

False start? Not really. Barely even bumps in the road. It'll take a lot more than that to make me downhearted! Plus I now have a long piece of stretchy stuff, a suite of exercises for my possibly torn supraspinatus and a follow-up appointment in three weeks - hopefully I'm on the mend.

Lessons to be learned?

Phone ahead to make sure the trip venue know you're coming, preferably a few days in advance.
Don't be too optimistic about health - you might actually just need to admit you can't do certain things and that the advice of a professional needs to be sought (this is a told-you-so moment for my wife).

Monday, 27 August 2018

Book Review: 'Dave Pigeon' by Swapna Haddow, Illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Funny books. That's what our children get these days when they move off the reading scheme books at school and begin to read whole chapter books themselves. And thankfully when the books are as good as 'Dave Pigeon' that's more than OK.

Swapna Haddow has balanced the funniness with good quality writing in a way that perfectly introduces young readers to the concept of reading a longer book. The story is engaging (and funny - did I mention that?) and in this way reading stamina is really encouraged. The accompanying illustrations contribute to this - some pictures take up most of the page, allowing children to experience the feeling of having read a decent chunk of a book. The speech bubbles included in the pictures are also bound to be loved by young readers - children will feel great accomplishment as they read the text and the pictures together.

Dave and his mate Skipper are taken in by a kind human lady when Dave injures his wing. Unfortunately she also has a mean cat who, of course, must be got rid of so that the pigeon duo can live in the lap of luxury in the house, rather than the shed. Their catbrained schemes are, predictably, wildly unsuccessful until, accidentally, one of their plans does work. Even then they are faced with a further dilemma - they have to share their bounty with all the other birds in the neighbourhood. This amusing story of perseverance and resilience is a great way to introduce young children to the concept of never giving up and always trying again - who'd have thought two daft pigeons could be such good role models? 

Another huge plus for this book is that it is the first in a series. So if it hooks your child in, you can build on the momentum by getting the two follow-up books for them to read too. And as Tom Fletcher picked this for his WH Smith Book Club 2 you should have no problems getting hold of this excellent (and hilarious) book.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Book Review: 'Armistice Runner' by Tom Palmer

The World Wars have provided many an author with fodder for their fiction and there are some truly brilliant books out there as a result. The best are the ones that take a slightly different angle and explore one of millions of individual lives that were affected by those conflicts. 'Armistice Runner' is one such book. Tom Palmer focuses in on one soldier, Ernest, originally a fell runner from the Lake District, and lets him tell his story of running messages between British army positions in the lead up to the signing of the Armistice in the Great War.

This isn't just historical fiction, though. Palmer has skilfully woven in a modern story of a young girl, also a fell runner, who is a descendent of the World War 1 soldier. Lily is fighting her own battles - Abbie, her rival, always seems to beat her, and her beloved Grandma has Alzheimer's.

On a visit to her grandparents' in the Lakes, and in the run up to a very important race, Lily is given a box containing some of Ernest's things. In the box are some running logs which, Lily discovers, contain much more than just details of her great-great-grandfather's exercise regime: she discovers a commentary of Ernest's time in France and she's desperate to find out what happens.

However, things keep preventing her from reading more - like the disappearance of her Grandma. Through both stories Palmer brilliantly brings together and draws parallels on the themes of family, friendship, rivalry, revenge and loss. The mirrored issues never seem forced - both stories are believable. Many children will identify with Lily's love of her sport, how annoying her little brother is and how worried she is about her grandma. At the same time they will be introduced to the horrors of trench warfare at the beginning of the twentieth century - without going over the top (pun not intended) Palmer describes the smell of a rotting flesh wound in a way that will make the reader physically recoil. For teachers looking for a story set in World War One, this book provides a good starting point to explore both the bigger picture of the war, as well as how individual lives were changed as a result.

The story concludes optimistically with a strong but implicit moral message about putting aside differences and showing kindness to others. In fact, all the way through there is much to develop empathy in the reader, making this a great book to share and discuss with children. The fact that a book with sports and war themes centres around a female character is also a plus point - too often these topics see males take centre stage.

But this isn't only a book about sports or war - it's a just a great story, expertly told, and one that every child should have a chance to read. As with all truly great children's books it's one that adults will enjoy sharing too, potentially prompting grown-ups to share their own family's history and involvement with the World Wars with their children, thus preserving those stories for another generation.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Book Review: 'The Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was A Mermaid' by Tania Unsworth

I'm just going to come right out and say it: this is a perfectly told story which twists fantasy into reality in an oh-so satisfying way. Dealing with themes of loss, grief, friendship and discovery this book, I would go so far to say, is a must read.

The pain experienced by a grieving husband, the love and wisdom of a grandparent with alzheimers, the way that a child tries to deal with memories of a lost parent, the desparation of an abused employee, the delight of new friendship, the terror of being kidnapped, the bitterness and cruelty of someone who can't let go, the rushing sensation of elation when a remarkable discovery is made - this book has all the feels. Who'd have thought all of that would come from a tale about mermaids?

After the death of her mum Stella sets out on a dangerous voyage of discovery to find out more about who her mum really was. She makes brave and daring decisions but finds herself in grave trouble as she seeks to find the truth behind her mum's past. So compelling is the story, and so believable, I found myself reading the whole book in the space of day - Tania Unsworth draws in the reader with her beautiful writing and intensity of plot - an intensity that nevertheless still feels perfectly paced.

With the mention of mermaids in the title, this very well may get left on the shelf by some who assume its going to be too girly, but this real-world fantasy is far from it - it's a thrilling adventure which I would have no qualms about reading with, or recommending to, anyone (including boys). Sometimes books can really be a very pleasant surprise - 'The Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was A Mermaid' is very much one of those books.

Book Review: 'Once Upon A Wild Wood' by Chris Riddell

There are many, many retellings and rehashings of popular traditional fairy tales, but this isn't one of them. Children who love fairy tales will love this but they will enjoy it in its own right. And that's because Chris Riddell, with his own inimitable sophisticated and dry humour, has told a new story, albeit with a whole host of favourite characters.

Know a child who's stuck on their favourite Disney princesses, and only ever wants to read those quite terrible picture book versions of the movies? This book could very well be the book that turns them onto some reading material of a little higher quality. The writing is wonderful, with seemingly more text than the average picture book, and, as is usual with Riddell, it never seems like he is talking down to his younger readers - he treats them in a grown-up way and gives them opportunities to think about new words and new concepts.

Existing fans of Riddell's books for younger readers, such as the Ottoline books, will recognise the style of storytelling and the kind of characters that are portrayed. The story's protagonist is a young girl, vastly more sensible and practical than the traditional Little Red Riding Hood, prone to solving problems but also demonstrating kindness and thoughtfulness - a great role model, in other words.

The illustrations, it really goes without saying, are incredible: the sort children pore over and return to again and again. Amusing details and such accurately drawn facial expressions provide excellent opportunities, along with the text and the plot, for adults and children to discuss the book at great length, making this a perfect book for parents or teachers to share.

Children will love spotting their favourite fairy tale characters, and may even be introduced to new ones, giving opportunity to explore classic tales which Disney haven't yet (to my knowledge) got their hands on. Rather like the Ahlbergs did with The Jolly Postman and Each Peach Pear Plum, Chris Riddell has brought new life to old stories and characters in this fantastically illustrated new tale.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Book Review: 'Secrets of a Sun King' by Emma Carroll

There's not been a prominent children's novel set in Egypt for a while, so when I heard that Emma Carroll's latest book was to have an Egyptian theme I was keen to read it - especially with curriculum planning in mind.

The story simultaneously follows the adventures of Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb, a young girl's receipt of a cursed canopic jar and an ancient Egyptian girl's account of Tutankhamen's last days. These are expertly woven into a story exploring friendship, family, trust and secrets. Beginning in London, but, unsurprisingly, leading to Egypt, the mystery of the curse unravels as Lily, Tulip and Oz daringly arrange to return the jar to where it should be, following clues from an ancient writer and relying on local knowledge (and of course camels) to help them navigate the dangers of the desert.

Although 'Secrets of a Sun King' can be classed as historical fiction, it has a very contemporary feel. Carroll uses the post-Great War political landscape of women's rights to thrust strong female leads into the limelight, a father in the book even voicing his opinion that girls are 'the future'. With gender issues being very much in the limelight, the fact that females take centre-stage in this exciting adventure story seems only right. Whilst some of the language used by the children seems a little anachronistic (it might not be at all, it just sounds very modern) the exploration of the role of women seems to be retrospectively in-keeping with the time.

Also adding to the modern feel is the fact that many of the co-protagonists are very definitely not white, signalling perhaps that representation of ethnic diversity in children's books might be beginning to improve. The recent CLPE publication Reflecting Realities reported that in children's books published in 2017 only 4% of the characters were black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME), so the publication of this book, with its mixed-heritage and Egyptian characters (both ancient and relatively modern) comes at a time when readers might be prompted to seek out some non-white representation.

In fact, Carroll has gone beyond this: there is also an acknowledgement of the historical tendency of the (white) British to act with superiority, including to the point of robbing another country of their treasures. Lil, the main character, realises: 'Being English didn't give me the right to sort out other people's problems, not when they could solve them themselves.' And the characters of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon are not portrayed positively - this is a challenge to our general view of archaeologists and explorers as infallible gentlemanly heroes.

All of these issues make this a great reason to read this with children, especially as part of history work in school. The potential exploration of moral issues surrounding Carter's discovery and working practices will certainly make for a more in-depth way of learning about the ancient Egyptians - particulary good for older primary children who are tackling the topic.

Having said this, teachers may want to be aware of one particular scene in the book where the children use a Ouija board. The scene seems unnecessary and doesn't seem to fit with the idea that the pharaoh's curse may or may not be able to be explained by natural phenomena, or at least that the children are sure of the curse without such overt messages. The fact that the children do not seem scared or shocked by the fact that a spirit communicates with them using the board is strange. Given that this scene is not referred to again in the book, teachers could choose to skip this part if reading aloud.

'Secrets of the Sun King' is a fantastic up-to-date novel for key stage two readers and, far from being a curse, is a gift to any teacher or parent hoping to hook their children into an exploration of the ancient Egyptian times, as well as into a historical period where archaeological discovery made headlines. Superbly written and fast-paced, children will love in equal parts the characters and plot of this excellent book.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Book Review: 'Ottoline and the Purple Fox' by Chris Riddell

Two of my daughters (year 1 and year 3 currently) became instafans of Chris Riddell's Ottoline character after I picked up a hardback copy of 'Ottoline at Sea' on a whim. I then borrowed a copy of 'Ottoline and the Yellow Cat' from the school library (must take that back before I leave this summer) which they subsequently devoured. 'Ottoline Goes to School' was purchased with pooled pocket money and enjoyed just as much as the others.

Then came 'Ottoline and the Purple Fox' - time for me to really see what the fuss was all about. Published recently by Pan Macmillan in paperback, you soon forget it doesn't have the fancy covers and extra bits and bobs (Bog Goggles, school badge collection, postcard collection) - the richly illustrated pages draw you in that much. Chris Riddell fans will just revel in the sheer volume of his wonderful images.

A story told just as much in the pictures as in the text, Ottoline and Mr. Munroe's latest adventure is as zany and quirky as one might expect. In actuality, this is a love story, complete with poetry - it's Ottoline's task to discover who the mysterious poet is and who they are in love with. On the way we meet a crazy cast of characters including shy gorillas, library flamingoes and the bear who lives in the basement (not to mention a dream sequence featuring one of Chris Riddell's other characters, Goth Girl).

Every now and then Riddell includes a page of drawings too intriguing to skim over quickly - the richness of the pictures are sure to prompt lots of conversation between an adult and child reader. In fact, reading activities abound within the pages of this book - this one should be on the shelves of all teachers in lower key stage two.

And Ottoline is such an adorable, non-typical girl character that I'd say it's pretty important for boys and girls to get to know her. She's strong-minded, independent but also thoughtful and kind. Her inquisitive mind and penchant for problem solving makes her a great role model, albeit a fictional one.

Now excuse me whilst I go and read the others - this one has certainly whetted my appetite!

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Book Review: 'The Spiderwick Chronicles (Books 1 - 3)' by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black

It's no wonder these international bestsellers are being republished. There's something special about them; perhaps something magical.

These are books about faeries. Not pink, glitzy, glittery fairies, but proper badass faeries: boggarts, brownies, goblins. Magical creatures come thick and fast in these short, little bitesize stories: The Phooka, wood elves, dwarves, trolls, griffins and more besides.

There's no messing about when it comes to getting into the story in each of these little books. At around the 100 page mark each, with a good few of those dedicated to the classic yet lively illustrations, the plot comes thick and fast. Where a longer book might faff around, these ones just get straight to the point. This characteristic would make these books perfect for reticent readers - ones who would benefit from the experience of finishing a whole, proper-looking book quickly. And the fact that there's a whole series of further books to read would automatically provide a reluctant child with another book to read - they can even read the first chapter of the next book at the end of their current book to really get them hooked.

In fact, some of these readers might even identify with main protagonist Jared Grace who, since his father's departure has struggled with his behaviour at school. Taken off to live in a strange old house with his twin brother and older sister he soon discovers that there is more to his world than first meets his eye, and, once he has the sight, he and his siblings find themselves embroiled in a faerie battle to wrest ownership of a mysterious tome of faerie world knowledge from their own hands.

Whilst the stories are short and the illustrations are plentiful, there isn't a simplifying of the text. Readers will still be exposed to creative vocabulary and the most exciting of content. Small but perfectly formed these reissues are sure to find themselves to be firm favourites of a whole new generation of children.