Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Book Review: 'The Perfect Parent Project' by Stewart Foster

I keep wondering whether I should stop reviewing children's books at all - it is time-consuming and sometimes the desire to wax lyrical about something that has been lovingly crafted by a real writer just doesn't present itself. However, since my blog gets a respectable number of hits, and people do read my reviews,  I suppose I feel duty-bound to continue writing them. The urge to actually read the books in the first place rarely deserts me, and hardly do I ever choose to read one which disappoints. In fact, most of the time the books I read really are worth talking about. 

So here I am, ready to enter into another year of reviewing children's books, and kicking things off with the latest book from, I will admit, a favourite children's author of mine: Stewart Foster with his 'The Perfect Parent Project'.

'The Perfect Parent Project' is in the vein of Stewart's previous books in that it centres on a character who represents a potentially marginalised group of children. Sam is a foster kid, and although he loves his support worker, Rock Star Steve, he dreads the day when he'll bring the news that he is moving on from his current foster carers. Avid readers of Foster will have come to expect an absolute spot-on rendition of the child's voice, and this one is no exception: the reader is put well and truly in the shoes of Sam as he searches beyond his current foster family for his perfect parents.

And the heartache feels real. Sam plots with his friend Leah to find his perfect parents, not realising how well things are going with Reilly and his mum and dad. After spying his perfect parents and contriving to get to know them, Sam finds himself spinning a web of lies that eventually ensnare him. Unable to keep up the pretense Sam jeopardises all his closest relationships in his bid to make new ones. Readers, adults and children alike, will recognise that Sam's happiness really lies closer to home than he thinks; the downward spiral Sam creates for himself is sure to generate a sadness in readers of all ages.

Yet, this isn't purely a sad book. Again, Foster's writing is full of humour - a perfect antidote to the emotion of the main storyline. Sam remains upbeat for the majority of the story and his optimism carries the reader onward: although I knew what ending I wanted, I genuinely wasn't sure if I was going to get it. Given that this is a story that contains no real dramatic set-piece moments, it is full of drama, and as a result is extremely compelling - the desire for Sam to stop digging himself into deeper holes hooks the reader in.

As well as being an enjoyable story, this is one of those books that should get children thinking. Orphaned children are a staple of stories for children - many Disney movies, for example, rely on children having no parents so that they can get up to all sorts of mischief. But here we have a much more realistic interpretation of what it is like not to know one's birth parents, and to be seeking a loving home. Here we have a window into a world that, for many children, will be one that they have no experience of. And perhaps, for some children, this will be the opportunity to see something of themselves represented in story form. Either way, it feels right to have this experience acknowledged rather than fantastically exploited.

 Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's UK (January 21, 2021)

'The Perfect Parent Project' is available on my Children's Fiction 2021 book list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Monday, 28 December 2020

My Corona: A Christmas with Covid

As the 18th of December drew closer, the fear inside me grew: what if we had to send a bubble, or more than one, home in those last few days of the school term? What if holidays were going to be ruined by isolation for scores of children and staff?

There was a selfish fear too, of course: what if I come into contact with someone who tests positive and have to isolate? Or what if one of my own children gets sent home from their school?

My fears were, inevitably, pretty quickly realised: my middle daughter came home on the penultimate Friday, destined to self-isolate until Friday 18th. But that didn’t touch Christmas, but it meant a huge burden on my wife, working at home fulfilling Christmas baking orders. I hurried back from school every day in order to try to provide some relief. Every day, that is, until Thursday.

Because, of course, it was the unthinkable that actually happened.

Rewind to Wednesday night:

Wednesday night was a tough one: I had an inexplicable pain across my lower back – I couldn’t get comfortable in bed and, along with the accompanying nausea, it kept me awake most of the night.

I ‘woke up’ the next day feeling slightly unwell, in my own words. Thursday was to be the last day in school, and not thinking that back ache and tiredness should stop me from enjoying the last day of school, off I went.

Thankfully, I spent the day ensuring, as usual, that I was social distancing, was in well-ventilated places, keeping my hands washed regularly and so on. The day was a great way to end what had been a fantastic term – yes, a challenging one, but a challenge I had relished. I was glad to leave by the end though, as, due to a lack of sleep, or so I thought, I was flagging somewhat.

At home I caught up a little with the DfE’s newly-revealed plans to ask secondary schools to test pupils as of January. I fired off a quick commiseration email to our principal (I work in an all-through academy) and thought I’d forget about it. With one more work-from-home morning left to go, I retired to bed that night, although not before a heated discussion with my wife regarding whether or not I should get a Covid test: when my symptoms are definitely those of Covid, was my stance; tomorrow, regardless, was hers – so that we knew for certain whether or not our Christmas plans would be affected.

But my subconscious brain clung on to the evening’s thoughts, weaponising them and torturing me all night. I dreamt of having to set up a testing centre at school – one of those looped dreams consisting of bright colours (the testing booths were decorated with red and white Christmas string), repeated phrases and nothing at all very tangible other than the feeling of dread. I woke at 4:10 am and headed downstairs to book myself a Covid test, the fever being such that the virus was becoming a more certain possibility.

***

Just before lunchtime on Sunday the test result came back. I’d all but convinced myself it would be negative, mainly on account of an easing temperature and the presence of phlegm: it was a chest infection, it must be.

Dear Aidan Severs

Your coronavirus test result is positive. It means you had the virus when the test was done.

I went downstairs to break the news. By now, of course, the rules for Christmas had changed, all our plans involved people now marooned in tier 4, so my corona was not going to be the cause of spoiled Christmas plans. However, there were plenty of other consequences.

I have to admit I cried. Many times. Everything set me off. The thought of potentially ruining so many other Christmases. The fact my wife had to cancel and refund all her Christmas orders. Knowing my mother-in-law, who is in our bubble, would not be able to spend Christmas with us meaning that she may face it alone. The knowledge that my children, who have soldiered on through the country’s toughest restrictions, living as we do in Bradford, and not even an area of Bradford that got out of local lockdown for a while, would have to endure more time indoors with only each other as company. Heightened emotions may be a symptom – then again, its legitimate for it to be that upsetting without that as an excuse.

I completed my Test and Trace information, and the academy’s counterpart. Thankfully it was deemed unnecessary to ask anyone else to isolate, due to the mitigations in place and my keeping to them. That was a weight off my mind, although I spent each day of the holiday waiting to hear that someone else from work had come down with it because of me. At the time of writing, I have heard only of one very tentative transmission, and am hoping that when I speak to my colleagues again in the new year, all will report a healthy Christmas holiday.

And the thing just left me weak, wheezy and a waste of space. Unable to go out, incapable of doing anything of any value. I par-watched a film, and an episode of a series. Reading, writing, music had very little draw – besides the initial headache that came with my Covid prohibited these activities. I slept on and off. I mostly just felt guilty – I know it wasn’t my fault - and sad that my wife was having to take on everything. My muscles ached, my skin felt like it was on fire, my head felt like it was sunburnt.

At some point, it robbed me of my sense of smell, leaving me with only a partial sense of taste. All that Christmas food! Would I be able to taste it? That was if I even had the appetite for it – usually ravenous the whole time, I certainly experienced some fluctuation in my desire to eat.

It felt unfair. We’d stuck to all the rules. I’d survived the term, always being there at work, covering when others thought they might have had it, or indeed, when others did have it, plugging away finding never-ending solutions to all the latest Covid problems. We’d ridden wave after wave of the UK’s harshest restrictions, very rarely losing hope.

Even after a week, I was still dog tired. I woke up on the 23rd feeling a bit brighter, a little more energised, but as the day wore on, that wore off. If there’s one thing this virus does well, it’s robbing its host of their vitality. Perhaps the exhaustion was due to my body fighting of the illness effectively enough for me to remain at home, instead of being hospitalised? I suppose if that was the case, then I am thankful for the tiredness.

Of course, friends and family rallied round. Many a kind message was received, people picked stuff up for us, dropped it off. Entertainment for me and the children was sent. My wife did a cracking job of keeping the morale high despite everything.

Christmas Eve was merry – I was feeling a lot better and managed to join in with all the day’s activities – still inside the house, isolating of course. Just before we headed out for a drive around to look at the Christmas lights loads of my family members came to the street and sang to us – a lovely, heart-warming moment, and a chance to sample some of my dad’s Covid Carols live! But we weren’t only going to see the Christmas lights, we also made a second trip to the test centre: my wife had begun with a cough -  a cough which by now was plaguing me to the point of perceived pain in my lungs.

And on Christmas morning, whilst preparing the meal, her text came through: positive.

And the so the saga continues. Thankfully by Sunday 27th (my official release date) I was feeling normal enough again to do a decent job of having a good time with the children, feeding the family and keeping the house in some sort of semblance of order. I took the kids out for a brief walk in the woods and it did us good. At the time of posting, my wife is still ill in bed, experiencing her version of all the symptoms I had.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

From @HWRK_Magazine: Staring At Snowflakes (Real Behaviour Management)

 

Having a bit of a laugh with students can actually be a great behaviour management technique in and of itself. 

If we’re honest, many behaviour management strategies kind of squeeze the enjoyment out of being in a room with 30 or so children. It’s easy for a teacher to assume that when children express their personalities and visibly enjoy each other’s company, that they aren’t in fact learning. 

But there’s quite a simple thing you can do to begin to work out whether or not learning is going on, regardless of how much enjoyment they might be having: you ask yourself the question ‘Are they learning?’.

Friday, 4 December 2020

22 Great Middle Grade Books From 2020 (Part 2)

Turns out that before lockdown (v1), and during much of it, I was pretty disciplined in my reading and reviewing of books. Many of the titles on this list were given a full review and so, I will quote myself a fair bit in this second part of my 22 Great Middle Grade Books From 2020 list. 

If you missed part one, then you may want to give that a read too: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/12/20-great-middle-grade-books-from-2020.html

Here goes with the second part of my list:
 
Talking To The Moon by S.E. Durrant (Nosy Crow)


I love S.E. Durrant's books - I am a massive fan of Little Bits of Sky so I jumped at the chance to read and review her latest: 'A mystery novel for children who don't like mystery novels. Usually, children's books which centre around some sort of mystery to be solved are full of high adventure and often verge on being scary - not for everyone. But 'Talking To The Moon' is different: it takes a family drama, one which many children will relate to and adds a dash of the unknown, enough to keep any reader pondering throughout the book.' (Read the rest of the review here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/03/book-review-talking-to-moon-by-se.html)

Talking To The Moon can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

DustRoad by Tom Huddleston (Nosy Crow)


DustRoad is one of those books that you don't really ever forget - it's cinematic scenes are etched into my memory as if I had been there as the events unfolded. I wrote similar things at the time of reading it: 'This book is so cinematic I ate popcorn as I read it, I kid you not. Every page sees the reader's retinas seared with images so lucid, if not a little hazy from desert dust, that it is impossible not to feel like you are living the action. And in 'DustRoad', action there is a-plenty.' (Click here for the full review: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/04/book-review-dustroad-by-tom-huddleston.html). And if you haven't read it's predecessor, then you'd better get hold of a copy of FloodWorld too.

FloodWorld and DustRoad can be found on my Children's Fiction - Dystopia & Sci-Fi bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-dystopia-sci-fi

Viper's Daughter by Michelle Paver (Zephyr)


I'd never read any of Michelle Paver's Wolf Brother books before but when this one dropped through my letter box I was more than willing to give them ago. I was immediately drawn into a prehistoric world where magic might just be real, and long-since extinct creatures certainly are. With an exploration of the arctic circle and tribalism, the story had a wonderful conclusion, which I just can't spoil for you but the awe and wonder check box was well and truly ticked. I've yet to return to the earlier books in the series, but I certainly intend to. Here's my full review of the Viper's Daughter: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/04/book-review-vipers-daughter-by-michelle.html

Viper's Daughter can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction

Wink by Rob Harrell (Hot Key Books)


From my full review of Wink: 

'Wink' by Rob Harrell tells the story of a pre-teen boy who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, one which has attacked the gland that produces tears. It is a book that made me both laugh and cry in equal measure and it deserves a huge audience. Imagine if you will, a less saccharine version of RJ Palacio's hit MG novel 'Wonder' - that's what this is. It's all very real and very raw which is not surprising since it is semi-autobiographical in a sense: the author was inspired to write the book after suffering the exact same cancer as the book describes, albeit when he was 37 and not 11. Here's the link to read the rest: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/04/book-review-wink-by-rob-harrell.html

Wink can be found on my Humorous Children's Fiction bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/humorous-children-s-fiction

Do You Know Me? by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott (Scholastic)


Can You See Me? was a massive hit in our house so we were all excited when the follow-up Do You Know Me? was published. It continues the story of autistic Tilly, and given that it is co-written by Libby Scott, a young autistic girl, it gave me a huge insight into what home and school life can be like for autistic children. As a father of a girl on the waiting list for an assessment I actually found both books to be quite difficult to read as so many of Tilly's characteristics are reflected in one of my daughters. However, the fact that much of the story felt close to home meant that I found the book immensely enlightening, both as a parent and a teacher.

Can You See Me? and Do You Know Me? can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

Mohinder's War by Bali Rai (Bloomsbury)


'Mohinder's War follows the story of Joelle, a French/British girl living in France during the Nazi occupation. She, her family and their friends are a part of the resistance and when a downed RAF pilot needs hiding, he is taken into the home of the Bretons and concealed in their cellar. The pilot is Mohinder Singh, a character based on a real life RAF pilot who flew in the Second World War. He and Joelle strike up a friendship - Joelle keeping him company and sharing her local knowledge, and Mohinder teaching her about his homeland and Sikh faith and opening her eyes to philosophies regarding life.' Read my full review before choosing to give it a child as there are some warnings: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/05/book-review-mohinders-war-by-bali-rai.html

Mohinder's War can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - World Wars bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction-world-wars

The Infinite by Patience Agbabi (Canongate)


The Infinite is an intriguing sci-fi adventure centering on time travel. Once you've got your head around the concepts that the book is based on, you are taken on a completely unique adventure, the likes of which I've never encountered before neither in film or in children's literature. Here's my full review of the book: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/08/book-review-infinite-by-patience-agbabi.html

The Infinite can be found on my Children's Fiction - Dystopia & Sci-Fi bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-dystopia-sci-fi

The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman (Pan Macmillan)


The first of two books in 2020 from the duo's Adventures on Trains, The Highland Falcon Thief had that Agatha Christie vibe that was oh-so-missing from the MG market. To be honest, they had me at 'Adventures on Trains' and I wasn't disappointed. There a plenty of train-y facts and details and the constraints that are placed on the narrative by the fact that the action has to take place (largely) on a train make for a really cleverly-written story. In fact, a story that I enjoyed so much that I was more than ready for the follow-up...

The Highland Falcon Thief can be found on my Children's Fiction - Mystery & Detective Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-mystery-detective-stories

Kidnap on the California Comet by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman (Pan Macmillan)


Everyone knows that American railways are very different from British ones, so a hop across the Atlantic made immediately for an almost entirely different story, except for there are still trains and there is still a crime to solve. Tension is ramped up (sorry, I know that has been one of the absolute worse phrases of 2020) by the fact that this time a child's life is in peril. As with the first book, the reader is kept guessing (even adult ones) in true crime mystery style. An absolute romp of a book with a brilliant cast of potential criminals to suspect of dastardly deeds.

The Highland Falcon Thief can be found on my Children's Fiction - Mystery & Detective Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-mystery-detective-stories

Empire's End - A Roman Story by Leila Rasheed (Scholastic)


I read the whole Voices series in 2020 and have nothing but high praise for them. This one is set in one of my favourite historical periods, and in one of my favourite places: Roman Britain. It's rooted in true history and in this respect is very eye-opening: 'The gripping and fast-paced story is all carefully interwoven with historical fact: a Roman emperor from Libya did live and die in York, archaeological research has shown that those with black African heritage did live in Britain during the Roman period and that people from all over the Roman provinces ended up marrying each other and having children. In 'Empire's End' Rasheed imagines how one such character may have ended up in Britain, despite having been born in North Africa.'

Empire's End can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction

Where The World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold (Stripes)

This is one of those books that you finish and immediately decide there needs to be a sequel. By the end of the story the reader is fully satisfied by the outcome but so invested in the characters and the world that they have no choice but to be left wanting more. Close to the bone for 2020, this story features a virus which has been deliberately released by environmentalists, a blight which wipes out half of the world's population in a bid to re-wild a concrete planet (this was certainly one of the conspiracy theories circulating back at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak). Nicola Penfold does a great job of navigating the ethics in this dystopian novel, celebrating both human life and the preservation of environment. I think this was one of my absolute favourites of the year.

Where The World Turns Wild can be found on my Children's Fiction - Dystopia & Sci-Fi bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-dystopia-sci-fi

The Mask of Aribella by Anna Hoghton


I'm casting my mind back on this one as I read it at the back end of last year, however, it is still crystal clear in my mind. Set in Venice and featuring a gondola-load of menace and peril, this story as an absolute magical belter. Check out my review of the book (here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/01/mask-of-aribella-anna-hoghton.html) and Anna's guest post about masks (here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/01/world-of-masks-anna-hoghton-aribella.html). Here's a reminder of one my most pretentious attempts at metaphor in a book review ever: 'The story skims along at a cracking pace, yet, just as with the wooden piles on which Venice is built, there are foundations that run deep - the power of friendship and family, trust and responsibility provide a solid base for this dark tale of good versus evil.'

The Mask of Aribella can be found on my Simon Smith's Favourite Longer Reads For Children 2020 bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/simon-smith-s-favourite-longer-reads-for-children-2020

Finally, if you've got this far, I'd love to hear your recommendations as to which other 2020 MG books are worth a read. Drop me a comment on the blog or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/thatboycanteach

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

22 Great Middle Grade Books From 2020 (Part 1)

I feel like this year I've read far fewer of the newly released middle grade books - I think I've read more grown-up books this year, particularly more adult non-fiction, and I've read a few older children's books too. 

However, I've read a decent number of really great books released for children in 2020 - enough to share a few in a round-up blog post. Now obviously, because I've not read all the books published in 2020, I can't call this a 'best of' list, so instead it is just a list of really great new books to add to your shelves or put under someone's Christmas tree.

In no particular order, here are the first 10:

The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery (Walker)

twitter.com/mossmontmomery

A historical, magical tale which sits so comfortably in a long tradition of children's literature and makes for an original but familiar-feeling read. Readers will feel the warm homeliness of such classics as the Narnia stories and The Wind in the Willows whilst recognising the gritty realities and family drama of war that they've read of in Goodnight Mr. Tom and Carrie's War. The Midnight Guardians brings together two worlds at war, weaving folklore, magic and oh-so accurate historical fact together into a truly engaging race-against-time tale of dark versus light.

The Midnight Guardians can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Fantasy and Magic bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-fantasy-magic

The Night Bus Hero by Onjali Q Rauf (Hachette)


After the huge success of The Boy At The Back Of The Class, and it's follow-up The Star Outside My Window, Onjali Rauf was back in 2020 with another modern tale of derring-do. Interestingly, this time it's the turn of a school bully to take the role of protagonist. As in all good children's stories, his transformation slowly takes place as he begins to understand more about the plight of homeless people: a bid to impress his mates with his unkindness leads to him both witnessing, and helping to solve, a crime. This modern mystery story is certainly a page-turner, and just like it's predecessors is a celebration of the difference children can make in the world.

The Night Bus Hero can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Mystery & Detective Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-mystery-detective-stories

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu (Old Barn Books)

twitter.com/a_reflective

Quite a few books have been published in recent years which portray the plight of refugees. Boy, Everywhere sits nicely between books aimed at older children, such as Boy 87 and Illegal (which have a slightly more graphic portrayal of the harsh realities involved in seeking refuge in another country) and The Boy At The Back of The Class and The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle (which don't go into as much detail but rather focus on the realities of life after making the often hazardous journey). Boy, Everywhere provides the modern parallel to books about World War 2 refugees such as The Silver Sword and Number The Stars, providing a realistic picture (which has been praised by people who have experienced similar circumstances to those portrayed in the book) without some of the more distressing, potentially age-inappropriate details that sadly are the experience of some refugees. A very compelling read.

Boy, Everywhere can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Refugee Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-refugee-stories

Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan by Sufiya Ahmed (Scholastic)

twitter.com/sufiyaahmed

Just before hearing about this book I had discovered Noor Inayat Khan during some research for a year 6 topic focusing on the role of women and children in the world wars, so when I did discover this I was very keen to read it. I was really pleased then to win a copy in a competition from charity Making Herstory. Sufiya Ahmed does a cracking job of retelling a well-researched, child-friendly version of the key events in spy Inayat Khan's life. As a woman of Indian descent and the first female radio operator sent to Nazi-occupied France by the British SOE, it is an incredibly important story to be told, one which exemplifies how people of many ethnicities played a part in World War 2. Great for children to read alone but equally suitable as a curriculum-linked read aloud.

Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - World Wars bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction-world-wars

The House of Clouds by Lisa Thompson (Barrington Stoke)

twitter.com/lthompsonwrites

A short story this time from Lisa Thompson for the ever-excellent Barrington Stoke (who specialise in books designed specifically for dyslexic readers). In this story of loss and hope, grief and guilt, Lisa blurs the lines between dreams and reality and ultimately leaves the reader questioning but willing to believe that there actually is just a little bit of magic present in this world. Tackling the difficult subject of losing a family member and the regret of not appreciating them enough in their lifetime, this story follows a girl's journey of discovery as she investigates the links between her grandad and a mysterious artist. A brilliant little tale for those who need a grown-up feeling book but don't always find reading the easiest thing to do.

The House of Clouds can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Short Reads bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-short-reads

The Invasion of Crooked Oak by Dan Smith (Barrington Stoke)

twitter.com/DanSmithAuthor

Chris King's cover illustration says it all, really. Bikes, supersoakers and an undead army is exactly what you get in Dan Smith's excellent short reader for Barrington Stoke. Opening up a market for books inspired by 80s movies that the kids of today probably haven't even seen but would love if they watched them, The Invasion of Crooked Oak will certainly appeal to adults of a certain age as well as children who just want an awesome, spooky, mystery adventure (and this is what plenty of children want). If you haven't got this for your class bookshelf, then do, and prepare for the next installment coming next year.

The Invasion of Crooked Oak can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Padraig Kenny (Pan Macmillan)

twitter.com/padraig_kenny

More spookiness now in this Adamms Family-esque thriller. A strange assortment of otherworldly beings are confined to the grounds and house of Rookhaven, supplied and kept secret by the local villagers. Two siblings, a brother and sister, stumble through a tear in the magic veil and find themselves involved in a cruel plot to rid the world of the kinds of people who call Rookhaven their home. With amazing black and white illustrations from Edward Bettison, this book feels like very few others I've read - darkness permeates the book, yet the more the reader becomes familiar with the family, the more they realise there is real light in them. A subtle call to respect and love those perceived as outsiders, this beautifully-written story should be widely read and loved. Read my review for more: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/08/book-review-monsters-of-rookhaven-by.html

The Monsters of Rookhaven can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

Eating Chips With Monkey by Mark Lowery (Piccadilly Press)


This was one of those books that you pick up in an idle moment, begin to read and then get totally hooked by. I loved the combination of serious subject matter and absolute hilarity - Mark Lowery takes sensitive content and treats it respectfully whilst allowing the reader to see the funny side of the events. After a traumatic accident, Daniel, an autistic 10-year-old, retreats into himself, only relating to his toy monkey and seemingly deaf to his family's attempts to help him. The narration alternates between Daniel (and the monkey) and his sister Megan as the family set off on a road trip to find the best fish and chip shops in the country in an attempt to help Daniel to recover. An uproarious read, one which one of my daughters has read cover-to-cover several times, which I would recommend to absolutely everyone!

Eating Chips With Monkey can be found on my Read By My LKS2 Daughter bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/read-by-my-lks2-daughter

After The War by Tom Palmer (Barrington Stoke)


Winning plaudits left, right and centre, Tom Palmer did it again this year with his portrayal of how children liberated from Nazi concentration camps learn to live again in the reviving surrounds of the Lake District. Based on careful research and focusing in on three friends Tom writes with such care and verve, bringing true events to life for a new, young audience. Back in March, just before we went into lockdown I reviewed the book and had this to say in summary: 'A tale of hope, friendship and altruism that is all too relevant in the current times we are living through.' Little did I know how those current times would turn out!

After the War can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - World Wars bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction-world-wars

Crater Lake by Jennifer Killick (Firefly Press)


Another spooky mystery story - it's been a good year for them! This one reads like a comedy horror movie aimed at children, taking the year 6 school residential as its inspiration. It's probably a good thing that residentials were cancelled this year as any 11-year-old who'd read this would probably have a few nightmares about going away for a couple of nights. It's enough to put off any teacher planning a residential too, especially since the book basically features a virus - albeit an alien-induced one - that rips through the participants and staff with great efficiency. Anyway, I raved about it in other ways in my review, so have a read of that if you need further convincing: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/03/book-review-crater-lake-by-jennifer.html

Crater Lake can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

What The Headlines Didn't Tell You About Ofsted's Latest Covid-19 Report

Ofsted published a new report about the impact of Covid-19on education and here’s what you know: kids are back in nappies, they eat food with their fingers and they’ve played too many online games and are now falling out about it.

Here’s what, if you haven’t read the full report, you probably don’t yet know: some children have been more exposed to domestic violence, there has been a rise in self-harm and some children have become more involved in crime. But those are just some of the most concerning, negative outcomes of the pandemic for some young people.

Here’s what else you might not know, according to Ofsted: the vast majority of children have settled back into school, are being taught a broad curriculum and leaders and teachers are doing an excellent job of adapting necessarily with positive results.

But that sort of stuff does not a headline make, does it?

Wellbeing

When it comes to wellbeing of pupils, the report is clear: ‘leaders said that their pupils were generally happy to be back, and had settled in well.’

The report also records that ‘leaders in most schools continued to report that pupils were happy to be back. Pupils were described as confident, resilient, calm and eager to learn. There was a general sense that they appreciate school and each other more. Many leaders noticed that behaviour has generally improved… Many emphasised that fewer pupils were needing additional support than had been anticipated.’

Imagine the headlines we could have had: Pupils return to school with confidence and resilience! Children eager to learn as they get back to school! Students defy expectations in calm return to education!

In addition, Ofsted identify that schools are going above and beyond in their response to ensure that pupils are happy and able to deal with the changes the pandemic has brought: ‘Many schools of all types reported a greater focus than usual on their personal, social and health education (PSHE) curriculum to develop aspects such as resilience and independence and to reinforce or improve learning behaviours, but also to address pupils’ anxieties. Some schools were also strengthening their PE provision to support pupils’ physical and mental well-being.’

And it’s not only children who have got back to school and got on with doing a great job, it’s the staff too, according to the report: ‘Leaders said that their staff have generally adapted well to various changes, and are working hard to make these work. They attributed this to frequent and effective communication with staff as well as to a stronger sense of team spirit that has emerged over the last few months.’

Further potential headlines for your delectation: School staff working hard to adapt to changes! Strong sense of team spirit seen in schools!

And perhaps being at home hasn’t been such a bad thing for children anyway; perhaps it isn’t just the fact that they are finally back at school which has made for such positive changes: ‘Many leaders spoke positively about pupils with SEND returning to school. In a couple of schools, leaders noted that additional time spent at home had been positive for pupils with SEND, who had returned with confidence.’

Attendance

One of the fears of school leaders in the summer was most certainly around what attendance would look like come September. Fears have been allayed, according to Ofsted’s report: ‘Around three quarters of the schools visited reported having attendance that was similar to, or higher than, this time last year… where attendance had improved, leaders often attributed this to the work that they had done to build families’ trust during the first national lockdown, and their continued efforts to inform and reassure parents about the arrangements they had made to keep pupils safe in school.’

More headlines: Home-school relationships improve: attendance rises! 2020 Attendance higher than ever!

And Ofsted even acknowledge just how thoughtful and flexible school leaders are being in their commitment to children: ‘Leaders described how they were working closely with parents and offering flexible arrangements if these were needed to help pupils to return as soon as possible.’

Curriculum and Remote Learning

Much was said during lockdown regarding ‘gaps’ that would appear in learning. I’m sure many school leaders considered whether or not to slim down their curriculum, providing what might amount to an insubstantial education which did not develop the whole child.

However, what Ofsted have seen is that leaders are ambitious to return their schools to their usual full curriculum as soon as possible, that most of the secondary schools were teaching all their usual subjects and that many of the primary schools they visited were teaching all subjects.

Another favourite subject of lockdown discussion and thought was remote learning. Public figures weighed in with their ideas, as did parents, teachers and students. Would schools be able to truly provide remote education to a suitable standard?

Well, Ofsted have found that ‘almost all schools were either providing remote learning to pupils who were self-isolating or said that they were ready to do so if needed’ and that most schools ‘were monitoring pupils’ access to the work provided or attendance at the remote lesson.’

They also report that leaders are responding well to their findings, particularly that ‘during the first national lockdown, pupils reacted very positively when there was live contact from teachers, so want to build on that when needed.’

And again, leaders are adapting well to the new circumstances, thinking outside of the box and ensuring that staff wellbeing is a priority: ‘Leaders in a few schools explained how they were trying to mitigate the additional demands on staff of providing remote learning, for example through the help of teaching assistants, or having staff who took a particular role in leading or modelling remote education.’

A further possible headline: Schools found to be providing full curriculum and good remote learning!

CPD

Remember how teachers were all lazy during lockdown and should have been back at work? Well, turns out, they were actually working really hard (surprise, surprise), not only providing aforementioned remote learning but also taking the opportunity to sharpen their skills en masse: ‘staff in many schools seized the opportunity for training and development during the months when most pupils were not physically in school.’

Now that certainly won’t make the headlines: Teachers work hard despite perception of journalists!

Learning ‘Loss’

And finally to the big one: have children fallen behind? Are their gaps in their learning? Academically, has Covid-19 set children behind where they should be?

Well, much is said in the report regarding this, however a key takeaway should certainly be the following:

‘In the mainstream schools visited, there was no real consensus about the extent of pupils’ learning loss as a result of the disruption to their education.’

Correct headline: No consensus on Covid learning loss!

This is where the main criticism of the report might come: it is written in such a way that the negative is the focus.

For example, the report makes it clear that some leaders commented that writing was also an issue for some pupils, including writing at length, spelling, grammar, presentation, punctuation and handwriting.’ And it is this that then hits the headlines, with the ‘some’ removed, of course. Such a statement becomes ‘Children forget how to write during lockdown’ when it is headlinified.

Indeed, the inverse statement surely is equally as true: ‘Most leaders commented that writing wasn’t an issue for most pupils, including writing at length, spelling, grammar, presentation, punctuation and handwriting’ or even ‘Most leaders didn’t comment on writing being an issue for most children.’

Yes, it is right for schools to identify the negative impact of the pandemic so as to make progress with children who have been affected, but at the same time the positive impacts and the huge amount of work that has already been done in this vein should surely be celebrated more widely.

Not just for the benefit of hardworking school staff either – as a parent I want to be reassured by both Ofsted and the media that schools are doing a great job with my children. Thankfully, I don’t have to rely on them to form my opinion: I know for certain my children’s school is doing a fantastic job, and I know the school I work in is too.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Tonight Matthew, I'm Going To Be... A Director

This COVID has certainly put a spanner in a few works; one such spanner being year 6 open evenings at secondary schools. 

A parent of a year 6 child myself, this is a huge concern for me - how do we pick the right school for her, especially given that this is the first time we are sending a child off to big school? With my responsibilities across both KS2 and KS3 I wanted to help to make sure that what our school offers to prospective children and parents would help them to understand better what our school is like.

So, on top of the content that was already being produced for online viewing (virtual tour, promo video, message from the principal etc), I decided to give both year 6 and new year 7s a voice - after all, they're the ones its all about. It's all very well having members of staff present information, but children want to hear from their peers too - they're the ones who will tell them what it's really like.

And that's why this morning I was directing, alongside our tech-savvy media guy, an extra bit of video content where year 6 children got the chance to ask year 7 children some of their own questions. With bubbles we couldn't get them in the room together so we had to film the year 6s asking their questions first and then the year 7s answering the questions (with me asking the questions this time). Hopefully once it's all edited together we will have a seamless FAQ video for children and their parents to watch in order to get a more rounded picture of what's on offer.

The year 7 children presented confidently, embodying our values and showing that in just a few short weeks they have really settled in well and got to know the ropes. They were able to articulate positively much about their experience so far -  a testament to the hard work of the team of staff leading and teaching in year 7. And all this in spite of all the difficulties surrounding transition and the return to school that COVID has presented us with.

Teachers and leaders play many roles under normal circumstances - the positive view of COVID is that it is most certainly providing us with further strings to our bows!

Monday, 28 September 2020

Tonight Matthew, I'm Going To Be... A Gallerist

It's a fairly well accepted concept that a teacher is so many more things than a teacher - that a teacher puts on many different hats even during the course of one day. I think the same is true for school leaders too.

For a part of today I found myself acting as a gallerist, or a curator.

We have, as many primary schools probably do, many, many display boards around school. Too many, perhaps. And what happens to display boards when teaching staff are getting on with teaching and doing the important stuff? The content sometimes gets a bit old. That or teachers have to spend time out of class, or out of hours, putting up displays - something that, in my opinion, really should be minimised if we care about our children and staff at all.

So there I was double-sided taping the large art prints I'd order to black paper, gluing the accompanying information I'd collated and trimming it as perfectly as I possibly could. I was in 'the studio' overlooking 'the heartspace' off which many of our classrooms are situated. I could see and hear school going on all around me - I noticed this because I suppose I was desperate to legitimise the time spent gluing and cutting and stapling. I could almost feel the calm, purposefulness of what was going on through each of those doorways and in all honesty I wondered if what I was doing was worthwhile.

Afterall, I'm a deputy head - shouldn't I be doing something else? Did these Eric Ravilious, Georgia O'Keefe and Jacob Lawrence prints really need backing and putting up by me? Yes, I told myself, they did - because this is one of the many problems of being a perfectionist: you learn very quickly that there are some things you just have to do yourself. And yes, because for all intents and purposes, I am the art lead in the school and it is my job to educate staff and children in matters relating to the arts. 

And actually, yes, because I have to balance out some of the other less desirable things I have to do with things that are actually enjoyable - this for my own mental wellbeing. Besides, what was I actually thinking about all that time? Well, many confidential things that can't be repeated on my blog: I was providing myself with time and space to think through the issues of the day - the things that were on my mind over the weekend, the difficult conversations that need to be had, the logistical problems that need working through. 

On the outside I was cutting and sticking, on the inside I was doing what I'm really paid to do: lead.

If I were to go from one high pressure situation to another, never allowing myself down time doing jobs that seem a little more menial, would I really be properly ready for the next meeting, the next time someone brings a problem to me or the next time I have to deal with a behaviour issue? I think not.

So, some thinking got done - hopefully preparing me for the future - and some nice (I think) displays were created in the process.

Yeah, I'm OK with being a gallerist.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Questions To Guide Teacher Reflection


As part of the researchEDHome 2020 CPD series, David Weston, CEO of Teacher Development Trust, presented under the heading 'Schools that unleash teachers' expertise and how to lead them' - that's the video embedded above.

As he spoke, outlining for the first 20 minutes what it is that expert teachers do, I began to jot down some questions that a teacher, or a coach working alongside a teacher, might ask to prompt reflection on their practice.

I imagine these being used post-lesson, either by a teacher wishing to reflect on their own, or by a coach and a teacher - it could be that the coach has seen the lesson, but that might not be necessary. 

Where lesson observations are concerned, David Weston made it clear that many of the things that make an expert teacher an expert cannot really be seen by an observer. Later on he pointed out that SLTs often try to glean information from lesson observations (as well as book and data scrutiny) which they can then use to direct CPD - a fairly ineffective practice. Although he only touched on this, there was the suggestion that far more information about teaching and learning can be gained from a discussion-based approach to pedagogical coaching - this information can then inform CPD planning.

So, the questions that I began to jot down became perhaps more pertinent: these questions (not an exhaustive list by any means, but based on the effective practices of an expert teacher) could be used to develop how well teachers reflect on their own practice in order to gain insight and develop perception. In turn, via coaches, school leaders then might be able to gain a better insight into teaching and learning in their schools, allowing them to provide more pertinent CPD opportunities.

The purpose of using questions such as these would be to gradually develop independence: teachers might begin to naturally reflect on such questions before, during and after teaching, removing the need for such a set of questions to be asked in any structured way.

I've loosely grouped the questions - in this way, discussions might be guided by coaches, or self-guided, towards a particular aspect of the lesson. It might be useful to use some of the whole session reflection questions to begin with, before moving onto specifics. Obviously, when reflecting on a lesson no one would attempt to answer all the questions below - they just represent the broad range of reflection points that expert teachers think about subconsciously as they work.

Reflecting on the whole session: 

What were the main things you noticed happening during the session? Did you notice anything that wasn’t happening? Should it have been? What was the story of that session? What did you notice about the whole session? What was the main focus of the session? Does that match to the intended focus? Which parts of the session had the most impact? What was the cause of the successes in that session? What was the cause of any lack of success in that session? How were you feeling during the session? Did your feelings change? How did you deal with your change in feelings? 

Reflecting on specific identified incidents: 

When have you come across a similar situation? What did you do then? Reflecting on outcomes: What did you see that showed you they were learning? Which was the most effective part of that session? How much of the time did you spend doing the most effective things? Which parts of the session had the most impact? What was the cause of the successes in that session? What was the cause of any lack of success in that session? 

Reflecting on behaviour: 

What happened before that behaviour issue? Were there any signs that it was going to happen? How could it have been tackled earlier? Were children complying? Did this mean they were learning? 

Reflecting on questioning: 

What was your questioning like in that session? How and why did you adapt your questioning? What was the impact? 

Reflecting on differing needs: 

What variations in understanding did you notice? Which individuals did you notice? What do you know about them already? What did you do to address differing needs? 

Reflecting on responsiveness: 

At which points did you go off-script? Why did you do it? Did it help? Did you have to give extra explanations? What made you do that and did it help? How did you adapt the session as you went along? 

Reflecting on sequencing: 

How did that session link to prior and future learning? Where did that session fit in the sequence of learning? What did the children already know that helped? What didn’t they know that would have helped?

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Finding Your True Teacher Persona

 In Mary Myatt's ResearchEd training video she reminds those working in education that they are 'human beings first, professionals second'. It's a theme I've touched on before when I wrote about how we might avoid allowing judgments about our teaching define us as people.

However, there are other benefits to remembering what Mary so neatly sums up. If we are human beings first, then our professional selves should take our cues from our 'human' selves.

Many teachers spend a chunk of their career trying to work out how to present themselves in the classroom. Back in my early years it was seeing other teachers in action that most influenced this, as well as taking feedback from them when they observed me. There was also the notion of an 'Ofsted-lesson': a checklist (often a physical, literal checklist) of things that should be included to get a Good or Outstanding grading. In addition to this, many teachers, some who have harboured a desire to be in the profession since the days of lining up their teddies and taking the register, have pre-conceived ideas of what a teacher should do, and how they should act, in the classroom - often based on their own experiences of being a child at school. Most of these are great places to draw inspiration from, yet they are not enough.

Nowadays, I suspect much influence comes from social media: what the teachers of Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook are doing can cause a teacher to believe that they too should be doing those things. However, the nature of the medium means that the influence is largely aesthetic: what might a display/book corner/work outfit/art activity look like? Social media communicates little of how a teacher might act within the visually rich (or otherwise) environments they've created. This has the potential to fool us into thinking that because someone possesses a classroom we admire, they must also have it all sussed out in the actual teaching department - there is very little way of knowing whether or not this is the case.

In both scenarios - whether we watch our colleagues teach or scroll through Twitter looking for creative ideas - we potentially miss out one of the most important influencing factors: ourselves - our true, human being selves.

Who are you? 

What are your interests? 

How do you interact with the people you feel closest to? 

How would you describe yourself in three words?

What makes you tick in real life?

It's these things that should form the greatest part of your teaching personality, or persona. If you think your defining characteristic is how humourous you are, then use humour in your classroom - even if it sarcasm that you major in. If you're not that funny, don't try to be in the classroom as it won't come across as genuine. If you know that its your quirkiness that makes you tick when with your friends, transport that into the classroom and allow the children to see the true you. If you know that actually, in real life you are really introverted, you don't necessarily have to create an extroverted teacher persona - a quiet and thoughtful teaching style will benefit children too. 

The last thing you want to do, and I'm afraid I probably tried to do this for far too many years, is try to be someone else in the classroom. Whether that's trying to ape the teacher who has been on the job for years, your super-dynamic year group partner, your favourite TV/movie teacher or just the idea of the ideal teacher that you've pieced together after years of being taught by teachers. If those teachers as human beings are different to how you are as a human being, why should your teaching personas appear to be the same?

I believe it is a good thing for children to experience a range of personalities in their classrooms as they move through school. After all, it hardly prepares them for the big wide world that they are already abroad in to only experience one kind of person. Teachers are hugely significant adults in children's lives and it is part of our job to share with them the diversity that exists in the world: everyone is different, and (cheese alert) the best person to be is yourself. Children need to see this example set. They need to be able to transition from working with an extroverted, larger-than-life year 1 teacher, to a more introverted, calming year 2 teacher, to a hilariously wacky year 3 teacher, to a nurturing but minimalistic year 4 teacher, and so on. 

Children need teachers to be who they really are. Yes, there are many times when teaching feels like a performance - a time when we don the theatrical costume and step outside of our comfort zone - but at the same time, for long-term impact there must be a defining element of authenticity in what we do. Relationships are key when it comes to teaching and relationships based on falsehoods, I'm sure I don't really need to point out, are doomed to fail. Children are often very perceptive, too: they, unwittingly, are looking for real connection, and will sense when a teacher is having to try too hard to be something they are not. 

If a teacher is putting much of their effort into hiding who they really are, instead applying it all to generating a facade, children may well pick up on this. Children aren't looking for the next TV entertainer, they aren't looking for a replacement of Miss So-and-so from last year, they aren't looking for a new mate - they are looking for a teacher who they can be sure and certain of. They are looking for someone who is transparent who they can trust, someone who they feel safe with. When a teacher feels safe with their human being self, that confidence will exude and children too will feel safe.

And your you-ness is never static - you are probably constantly adding strings to your bow: taking up new hobbies, exploring new reading material, visiting new places, making new friends - all these things subtly change us as human beings. I am certainly a very different person to who I was when I was an NQT - my life experiences have changed me significantly (and hopefully for the better). 

If you took some time to answer the questions above - and I suggest that at some point you do - and felt yourself lacking (I hope you didn't, because no-one is lacking in their own personality) then some self-discovery (sorry - bit of an icky phrase) might be useful: spending some time in reflection about what makes you you, writing about your life experiences or speaking to friends, family or colleagues about how they might answer those questions about you could help.

Whatever you do this year, however Pinterest-worthy your classroom is, however many children's books you read, however many weekend CPD events you attend, make sure that you prioritise allowing your true, genuine, human being self to be the armature onto which you build your teacher persona. With The Current Situation, and All That's Being Going On in these Unprecendented Times, children will be returning to school after the summer looking for security -  a security which they will easily find in a teacher who is secure in themselves, confident that they are presenting a true version of themselves in the classroom.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Book Review: 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' by Pádraig Kenny

As a pair of down-on-their-luck siblings, Jem and Tom, stumble through a tear into the hidden grounds of an eerie manor house, the reader is drawn through the closed doors of Rookhaven and into a world of intrigue. In fact, the reader almost becomes Jem as the story focuses less on her and more on what she discovers as she spends more time with The Family.
With great skill Pádraig Kenny sets to work, in the subtlest of ways, weaving motifs and feelings seemingly drawn from classic and contemporary literature and film. The effect of this is highly successful - in an instant the reader will feel a comfortable discomfort as intertextual synapses spark reminiscences and remembrances of other stories they have experienced. The magic that Kenny weaves is all in the fact that despite the nods and references, 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' feels like a highly original piece of work - indeed, one that had me on the edge of my seat.

Perhaps the reason for this is that 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' turns some of the most common classic horror* tropes on their head. Like Shelley's Frankenstein, the 'monsters' are misunderstood and there is more to them than meets the eye. One particular character, Piglet, who is a key player in the events of the book, is a monster who, locked up for years, never seen even by the others in The Family, has a secret weapon and it is most certainly not what you think it is. And it is this secret weapon which brings the story to a beautiful, healing, albeit highly dramatic, conclusion.

The illustrations in this book more than warrant their own paragraph in this review: the black and white woodcut print-style illustrations of Edward Bettison are something else. The images lend real gravitas to the story, giving 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' a real classic feel and making the cover stand out from the current pack of more contemporary-looking children's books. The double page spreads are excellent, providing a feast for the eyes yet not revealing unnecessary details which are best left to the reader's mind's eye - this really is a masterclass in illustration for books aimed at this age range.

One of the enjoyable aspects of this book is that it is just a brilliantly told adventure with just enough magic to be believable and exactly the right amount of elaboration to keep a reader guessing whilst feeling like they get it - I enjoyed reading a children's book that didn't appear to be moralising as I read it. However, once finished, I was left with an understanding: empathy is the enemy of division. I hadn't realised as I read that here was a tale of how communities can be divided, and how certain influential characters can use this division to their own ends, to the point where they provoke and stir up dissension - certainly a tale for our times. And I applaud Pádraig Kenny for this, his ability to leave the reader be as they read but to leave them with life-changing message.

*although this book is influenced by some classic horror and sci-fi it is not at all too scary for its intended audience of Middle Grade readers.

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny and Illustrated by Edward Bettison is out on 17 September 2020 (ISBN: 9781529031492)

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Book Review: Diver's Daughter by Patrice Lawrence

I've previously reviewed two other books from Scholastic's Voices series (here and here) and, after reading the first, I did not intend to stop there. 'Diver's Daughter' by Patrice Lawrence was next on the list.

Not exactly based on a true story, but involving one very real and pivotal character, this book is rooted in the true, often untold history of Black people in Tudor England. Having read the section in David Olusoga's Black and British that dealt with the Tudor period I had recently become more aware of the fact that there were hundreds of people from Africa or of African descent living in Britain in the 16th Century.

Eve is a Black Londoner, living, at the beginning of the story, a poor life in Southwark with her mother, a Mozambican by birth. Moving around, getting work where they can, they dream of a better life. Eve's mama is a diver and, faced with a chance to earn some real money in Portsmouth where the Mary Rose has sunk, they make a perilous journey in order to attempt to make their fortune, or at least in search of a better living. Along the way they are beset by illness, untrustworthy companions and ultimately, by their poor circumstances.

Upon arrival, things seem to look up for while, but not for long. The pair struggle to find work, and even the famous African diver Jacques Francis (historically significant not only as being lead salvage diver on the sunken Mary Rose, but also as the first Black person recorded to have given evidence in an English court) doesn't want to help them. They suffer the rejection of the townsfolk, betrayal by supposed friends before the racist viewpoints of the time lead to the kidnap of Eve's mama.

As well as being a thrilling, albeit sad, adventure, the book also evokes many other details of a time gone by - descriptions of living conditions, architecture and every day life as well as explanations of royal lineage and the tussle between religion and politics all ensure that young readers might even learn a thing or two as they read.

Providing, as I believe is the purpose of this range of stories, a way into Black British history for Key Stage 2-aged readers, this book is a great starting point for more learning around the ethnic diversity of Britain in Tudor times. Expertly written and exceedingly evocative, Patrice Lawrence's compelling narrative reveals, in a palatable way, the harsh realities of living in historical England as someone who is part of an ethnic minority group. A must for bookshelves at home, at school and in libraries.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Book Review: 'The Infinite' by Patience Agbabi

'The Infinite' by Patience Agbabi felt like a very unique read. What made it unique, I asked myself as a I read it - it was clear right from the beginning that this was something else.

Well, perhaps, it is the fact that you are plunged headlong into a world which at first, you do not understand. And there are layers to this world.

Perhaps the one layer is to do with the fact that Elle lives with her Nigerian grandmother - beautiful snippets of Nigerian culture are scattered throughout the story. Obviously some readers will understand and identify with this, but for this White British reader it was a great opportunity to learn more. I was, however, able to identify with Elle's grandmother's strong Christian faith - another thread that runs through the book.

The next layer to the world that the reader enters upon opening up 'The Infinite' is that Elle has some un-named additional needs. Given that the story is told from a first person perspective, this comes into play a lot. As such, characterisation is strong: the reader really gets to know Elle. We know she needs to sit under tables in certain situations; we know sometimes she spends days without speaking as she deals with trauma. And in this way, understanding of the world Elle inhabits grows as progress is made through the book. It's not only the protagonist who is characterised well - Elle's first person narrative is open and honest - she speaks the truth about the people she encounters in the story meaning that the reader builds up a great picture of the diverse cast of Elle's friends and acquaintances.

And then there is the fact that Elle is a Leapling - one who is born on the 29th of February - who has The Gift - specifically, the gift of being able to time travel. It takes some time to adjust to what is actually a very well-thought-through concept of time travel, and it is this that will draw any curious reader further into this book. Essentially, this is crime fiction, but very much complicated by the fact that crime can happen across time if perpetrated by others with The Gift. The story concludes satisfyingly and logically - a testament to the fact that the parameters of Agbabi's concept of time travel are very well-communicated throughout the book.

'The Infinite' is a really inventive, imaginative and innovative book - I've certainly never read anything quite like it. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Book Review: 'Spaghetti Hunters' by Morag Hood

Writing children's picture books that are loved by both adults and children can't be easy. But there is one avenue, open only to the most skillful of writers and illustrators, which, if nailed, is a sure-fire way to appeal to both parties in the pre-bedtime reading session: surreal comedy.

Morag Hood combines her bold illustrations with limited wry text to hilarious effect. From the zany story line (a duck has lost his spaghetti and is aided in its attempted retrieval by a character called Tiny Horse, who is, indeed, a tiny horse) to the seemingly-incidental props (duck lives in a teapot, Tiny Horse's lecture on the finding of 'the trickiest of all pastas', the peanut butter which forms part of their hunting equipment) every word, every image has been selected for humourous purposes. 'Spaghetti Hunters' is (age appropriate Reeves and Mortimer-style frivolity in picture book form. When this is featured on Cbeebies Bedtime Stories it would only be right for Noel Fielding, or someone of that ilk, to read it.

'Spaghetti Hunters' is a celebration of more traditional pastimes - reading books, going fishing and home cooking are all on the table here - and is a gentle challenge to children (and perhaps some adults) as to where our food comes from. And whereas many books for children of this age focus on a harmonious, friendly relationship, Duck and Tiny Horse's friendship is a little more strained. During the story Duck, although clearly agitated (the eyebrows give it away, and the mental image of a duck trying to stomp off) by Tiny Horse's seemingly-pointless antics, demonstrates the patience needed when your friend has different ideas to you.

Morag Hood more than understands the necessity for images to mesh seamlessly with the words - the greatest outcome of this in this book is that the characters are so well portrayed - you know Duck and you know Tiny Horse within a few pages and, by the end, despite Tiny Horse's misplaced enthusiasm and single-mindedness, you feel like they are your friends. The rich but uncluttered illustrations make re-reading an extra pleasure - why do they need matching hats for spaghetti hunting?!

A perfect launch pad for some back catalogue delving (I'd heartily recommend 'The Steves'), 'Spaghetti Hunters' is a great bit of fun and has been a hit in my household with children across the primary age range. Books that are supposed to be funny are easily come by, but books which genuinely are don't come along all that often: Morag Hood's quirky style shines again in this one - a necessary addition to your child's bookshelf, for sure.