Showing posts with label book reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book reviews. Show all posts

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Book Review: 'The Day I Was Erased' by Lisa Thompson

As a relatively new author on the children's publishing scene Lisa Thompson sure has made a splash. 2017's 'The Goldfish Boy' immediately caught the attention of readers and the follow up, 'The Light Jar', was eagerly anticipated and devoured by all who had read her debut. Exactly a year later Lisa is back with 'The Day I Was Erased'.

And first of all, it is definitely her funniest yet. The humour matches Mike Lowry's cartoonish illustrations making this a perfect pickup for children who are into the Diary Of... style books. They will certainly laugh along, but I'd like to think that they will get a little more from Thompson's writing.

Maxwell's parents are not happy - to an adult reader it's pretty obvious they're 'staying together for the kids' - and Maxwell's behaviour, particularly at school, is affected by it. For many children, this will be their reality and it is important that they see this reflected in the books they read. It's also a huge lesson in empathy for children who come from more stable homes, and who don't present challenging behaviour - here Thompson draws back the curtain and provides an insight in to the struggles of a naughty boy.

In fact, the whole book is about how one aspect of our character need not define us. Maxwell is a deeply caring, loving child - he loves the dog he rescued, he provides great comfort to his sister when she is bullied and he has befriended a forgetful old man, Reg.

The story really gets going when our main man Maxwell outdoes himself by ruining a huge school event which is being televised. With nowhere else to turn he heads to Reg's house where he wishes he'd never been born. Maxwell's wish comes true... in a way: he's still alive and so are all the people in his life, but none of them know him and their lives are very different.

This simple concept introduces children to the concept of the butterfly effect and is a perfect vehicle for exploring the positive impact that even the naughtiest of boys has had on the people in his life. Maxwell discovers that he has worth, he has value and that the people in his life really do need him - a fantastic thing for readers to realise about themselves, especially at moments when they are feeling underappreciated.

For Maxwell, this awakens in him a desire to return to his old life and to repent of his former ways (quite A Christmas Carol-esque, in that respect). But he doesn't really know how to get back. Thus, we have an adventure on our hands. Maxwell somehow convinces his sister and best friend (both of whom don't know him at all) to help him find out how to get back, which thankfully, they do. The ending is suitably bittersweet yet ever so satisfying.

Here we have another fantastic book from Lisa Thompson - probably my absolute favourite new author of the last few years. Fans of her previous work will love this and I suspect it will win over some new converts too. If you are a serious lover of children's fiction, don't hesitate to get hold of it. I already know who I'm going to lend my copy to - I think he'll get it.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Book Review: 'Football School Seasons 1, 2 and 3' by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton

Knowledge-rich curricula are all the rage in schools at the moment, and rightly so. And what better than knowledge-rich books to supplement what's being taught at school? I'll tell you: really interesting, really fun knowledge-rich books. Such books as Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton have written together: the Football School books.

The front cover of each of the three books carries the tagline 'Where football explains the world'. And although on each book the word 'explains' is crossed out and replaced (by 'rules', 'saves' and 'tackles') it really isn't just rhetoric. These books truly transcend football by using it as a conduit through which to explore a whole world of general knowledge as well as the football trivia.

The three books all follow the same format, kicking off with a contents page designed like a school timetable covering traditional subjects such as PSHE, History, Geography as well as some more specialist ones like Psychology, Philosophy, Business Studies and Computer Science.

Football lovers will devour the wealth of facts about football teams, players, team strips and will enjoy picking up playing tips too: there's a whole section on the psychology of taking a penalty, for example!

But the books' really majesty is in the fact that they are full of general knowledge that is unrelated to football. From sections about World War 1 to profiles of famous footballing countries such as Brazil readers will come away knowing about much more than just football. Book 3 even has a whole section about sleep which introduces its readers to terminology such as 'transitional phase' and 'circadian rhythm'.

And, just to make sure that some of the information is remembered, each section (or lesson) ends with a quiz about the chapter. With a multiple choice format these quizzes don't just focus on the football information but also on the general knowledge featured in the books.

But this sort of book wouldn't get a look-in without illustrations - Spike Gerrell's cartoon style makes for that winning formula of facts plus funny pictures; that format made popular by the Horrible Histories books. Children who love those and who are fans of books such as Diary of the Wimpy kid will be immediately drawn to these books. And it's not just the illustrations and the texts that appeal - the layout keeps things fresh with every page has its own interesting layout. Boredom will not be an issue whilst children (or adults) read these books.

With their simple yet engaging language the Football School books are pretty much an essential for any school bookshelf. Not that they would stay on the shelf for long - these are the exact sort of books that non-fiction lovers will be queuing up to borrow.

Book Review: 'Roy of the Rovers: Scouted' by Tom Palmer

This isn't just another football book to hook reluctant boys into reading. And it most certainly isn't a poor spin-off of the Roy of the Rovers comic strip which first appeared over 60 years ago in British comic Tiger. No, this is so much more and Tom Palmer has more than done justice to the Roy Race of old.

As a non-football fan I approached the book somewhat hesitantly thinking that maybe it wasn't for me. However, that hesitance was tempered by the knowledge that Tom Palmer really does write a good book - if there was any football novel I was going to like, it was going to be this one.

What this book, and its follow-up 'Kick-Off' (a graphic novel by Rob Williams and Ben Willsher), has made me realise is that one of the reasons why people love football so much is the narrative, the story, that goes along with it. It isn't just 22 players kicking a pumped up bit of leather around a piece of grass - it's everything that happens in between as well: the pre- and post-match analysis, the news stories about signings and finance, the drama of a game as seen from both the pitch and the stands, the rivalry between fans, the common ground it provides. It is the individual and interweaving human stories that make football the world's favourite sport - and Tom Palmer portrays that so well.

But 'Roy of the Rovers: Scouted' goes much further than just the football. Roy's dad's brain tumour operation went wrong and now he's paralysed down his left side and can't speak. Roy's mum is trying to work enough to provide for the family and lots of the caring falls to Roy and his sister. This theme is explored sensitively throughout as Roy's loyalty to both his game and his beloved dad are tested. Themes of love, bullying, friendship and commitment are weaved throughout the whole plot making this such a rich, emotional text.

There's also very strong female representation in the book - both Roy's sister, Rocky, and his new friend, Ffion, are excellent footballers and die-hard football fans - there's a great part near the end where Ffion calls Roy on his ignorance of women's football right before Rocky discovers that there is a team she can play for.

Football-lovers will love the description of on-pitch action which is pacy yet satisfyingly detailed. Lisa Henke's stylish illustrations, in particular cases are works of art - it's a shame her bold and stylised images didn't make it onto the front cover.

This is a book that I am looking forward to putting on the shelves at school - I know already that it will be a popular title amongst our football-loving children (not just boys!). The fact that is part of a growing 'saga', published by Rebellion, is another plus point - those who are hooked by the first two books will hopefully have more to access afterwards, not to mention Tom Palmer's own back catalogue of sport-related books.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Book Review: 'Little Bits of Sky' by S.E. Durrant

If I were to be lazy I'd describe 'Little Bits of Sky' as an emotional rollercoaster of a story about two children in care. But I have to do better than that - this book really deserves a review that does it justice.

In any case, it's not truly an emotional rollercoaster because S.E. Durrant so accurately depicts how life, even in tough circumstances, runs on the parallel tracks of opposing emotions. Siblings Ira (real name Miracle) and Zac live in a children's home and they know only too well how any given moment can be both joyful and full of sorrow. Readers of this book will experience just that - within a paragraph they will likely feel the urge to laugh aloud but be stopped from doing so by the lump in their throat.

And it is Durrant's beautiful prose that makes this possible. The writing is supremely believable as the thoughts of a child, recorded in a semi-diary form. The authenticty comes as a result of the inclusion of the small details that an optimistic child wanting to make the best of their life would focus on. Surprisingly it is these small details that keep the reader hooked - the storyline itself is slow-moving allowing plenty of space for a realistic portrayal of the world Ira, Zac and their fellow housemates live in: the coming and going, the behaviour of other children, school days, the relationships with social workers, siblings, teachers, friends, the coping mechanisms, the questions about parents.

What this everyday-ness ultimately achieves is a real feeling of empathy towards the children and a sense of mounting elation (and some dashed expectations) as the children go away to stay with Martha, a retired teacher who lives in a town outside of London. The story also contains some great twists as well as a surprising amount of history: the previously unchartered waters (in children's fiction) of the Poll Tax Riots in the late 80s are the setting for this brilliant novel.

Old or young, this moving story prompts reflection on the need for love and a sense of belonging, and the human ability to overcome adversity. Quite frankly, I wish every book I read were like this one - its gentle exploration of what it is to be a child, to be a person, is stimulating and somehow satisfyingly enjoyable. Substance, meaning and authenticity flow out of every page of 'Little Bits of Sky'. Do read it - everyone I've recommended it to so far has not been disappointed.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Book Review: Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me by Eloise Greenfield and Ehsan Abdollahi

In this heartwarming book of poems from Tiny Owl, poet Eloise Greenfield and illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi have collaborated to entertain and educate their young readers.

Veteran author Elosie Greenfield convincingly occupies the mind of both a young boy (Jace) and his puppy (Thinker). The majority of the poems in ‘Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me’ – kind of a book version of a concept album – are written from the perspective of the puppy, and the results are far better than that makes it sound. The naïve and innocent view point of the dog will cause young readers to stop, wonder and to consider the world they live in – adults too.

“tell me, why cold, cold water turns to ice, why some folks are mean and some are nice…”

And this isn’t just a collection of poems. They are sequenced in a chronological order so that a story is told: the puppy arrives, he is named, he gets to know his family, he wants to go to school with his boy but can’t, he stays home with his boy’s little sister, then triumph! he is allowed to go to pets day at school – the proud crescendo of this lovely little book.

As children read they will be unwittingly exposed to a wide range of poetry – much of it free verse, but not exclusively. There’s also a haiku, a rap and other forms which are intriguing to explore and possibly emulate with children (Birds Fly has a 2/3/4/4/3/2 syllable structure). Greenfield herself leaves a short comment on poetry at the end of the book helping children to understand a little more about what they have just read or heard.

Abdollahi brings a great deal to the table here too. Tiny Owl’s mission to bring a “greater awareness of the diverse and colourful world we live in” to their readers is helped massively by the vibrant pictures which accompany the text, and sometimes occupy whole double-page spreads. This is an impeccably-presented book making it seem more than the sum of its already considerable parts – in fact, it feels like a gift, something to be treasured.

Children and adults alike will love the inspiring philosophical playfulness of this beautiful tome: it’d make a perfect family present – one which will allow all generations to share in the joy of these poems.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Book Review: Red and the City by Marie Voigt

Retellings of fairy tales are not exactly few and far between: whilst some of them take the original route there are others which add something of a twist to the tale. And plenty of these retellings are great and are genuinely enjoyable. But ‘Red and the City’ by Marie Voigt doesn’t quite fall into either of the aforementioned categories – it is something else.

On one level it is a retelling where, instead of going through the woods to grandma’s house, Red goes through a city. But it’s actually deeper, and arguably far darker, than the original story. In Voigt’s version there is no literal wolf – the wolf is the allure of the city, or, more accurately, the potentially-damaging attractions and dangers of real life.

Spotting the wolf in each picture provided great amusement when reading this with my own children. But enjoyable isn’t all this book is – it is also highly thought provoking: why has Voigt decided to make billboards, fast food outlets, ATMs and so on into the big bad wolf in her version of the story? You’d be surprised at how easily children understand the metaphor with a little discussion.

In fact, it’s the brilliant illustrations, and the red, white and black colour palette, that really helps children to understand how dangerous some of life’s pleasures can be when they are given too much importance. The fact that Red is temporarily drawn in by these things instead of visiting her grandma is not lost on children and the red heart-shaped flowers that lead the way to grandma’s are a hint at what the author thinks is truly important in life.

There is an awful lot to talk about with this book but it can be read and enjoyed without doing so. Because of this it’s a book that could easily be read and understood by a wide age range, not excluding adults. It stands up admirably to repeat readings – readers will notice new details in the text and the pictures each time they open it. Reading it alongside others reveals further interpretations too making ‘Red and the City’ a great talking point. A must read.

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.

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.

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.

Friday, 8 June 2018

More Books That Encourage Children To #ReadForEmpathy

Last year for Empathy Day, organised by Empathy Lab UK, I recommended 6 books that encourage children to read for empathy: 'The Unforgotten Coat' by Frank Cottrell Boyce; 'Oranges in No Man's Land' by Elizabeth Laird; 'The Goldfish Boy' by Lisa Thompson; 'My Dad's A Birdman' by David Almond; 'Tall Story' by Candy Gourlay; and 'Noah Barleywater Runs Away' by John Boyne.

Back in October I led a workshop at the Reading Rocks conference entitled 'The More-ness Of Reading'. In it I provided a more extensive list of books that are great for developing empathy as well as whole host of quotes and research explaining why reading for empathy is such a good idea: https://wherereadingrocks.wordpress.com/2017/10/14/the-more-ness-of-reading-by-thatboycanteach/

Since then I've read rather a few more books that easily fall into the category of books that develop empathy in their readers. And with the second Empathy Day taking place on June 12th 2018 it seemed right to produce another list.

Given that my last list contained no non-fiction, I'd like to begin by highlighting a few titles, which, whilst still narratives, tell the stories of real life people.

Coming To England: An Autobiography - Floella Benjamin

Although open and honest about the difficult experiences of a child moving to a new country, this book is written in such a simple way that it is very accessible for young readers - I'd recommend it for emotionally ready year 3 children and upwards. It is fairly hard-hitting - younger readers will definitely benefit from being able to discuss their reading with an adult - but is a great gateway to helping children understand how others feel when they arrive in a strange place where they experience prejudice and hardship. Given that this is a live issue for the UK it is important that children up and down the country understand as they help their new classmates to settle in.

Dear World - Bana Alabed

Another autobiography, this time written by then 8 year old Syrian Bana Alabed. Whilst still in Syria and experiencing firsthand the terrors of civil war in Aleppo Bana took to Twitter in order to share her story - her first tweet read 'I need peace'. As with 'Coming To England' this book is written in a simple way making it accessible to children the same age as Bana and upwards. It is a truly moving account - I admit to crying several times - and is the book I remember more than any others when I consider what I can do to help those fleeing such crises. People who seek refuge in the UK need to be welcomed by open arms, especially the children, and it is books like this that will help our children to resist the racist rhetoric that can be so pervasive and instead show kindness to those who are fleeing their homes.

Malala Yousafzai - Claire Throp

Presented in the usual non-fiction format that you'd typically find in a school library this informative book tells Malala's life story. It's both eye-opening and inspiring, and whilst being an obvious heroine for Muslims and girls there is encouragement to all our young people in the account of Malala's life. As with the previous two books, this volume explains carefully another reason why people might leaving their country in search of another life - to learn about the prejudice and oppression Malala faced from the Taliban in her own country should prompt children to assess their own attitudes towards women and minority groups.

And now for some fiction:

The Kites Are Flying! - Michael Murpurgo

Set in the West Bank this short story explores how Jewish and Palestinian children live in the shadow of the wall and the war that divides them. Contains such a tingle down the spine moment that this is absolutely essential reading. This is a story that will begin to give children an idea of the unrest that goes on overseas, as well as an idea of how this affects children such as themselves. This is 'The Kite Runner' for children.

Skeleton Tree - Kim Ventrella

Death. A tricky, tricky subject for children's books. From my review: "Ventrella cleverly explores the very real experience of how mixed emotions come into play during the loss of a loved one. The skeleton is funny (there are laugh-out-loud moments) and he brings some light relief to what is otherwise a very sad story... The book may help some children to explore the emotions felt during a bereavement."

The Light Jar - Lisa Thompson

This book tackles a rare subject in children's literature: domestic abuse. From my review: "'The Light Jar' is a book that digs deep into human emotion, validating the gamut of thoughts and feelings that children the world over will feel on a day-to-day basis. And with all the current news of young people's mental health issues, books like these are crucial in normalising and validating the responses our children have to difficult life circumstances; 'The Light Jar' will provide illumination in the darkness of some of its readers' lives."

Sky Song - Abi Elphinstone

From my review: "Sky Song is an important lesson in why tribalism, whilst comfortable, will not save the day - a political message that might give children a starting point to thinking about what their role on the world stage might be. Flint's character provides hope that people can change their ideological views in order to become more mindful of others. The character of his sister Blu, based on Elphinstone's own relative who has Down's Syndrome, is also a possible discussion starter for readers to explore and change their thoughts about those with genetic disorders and resulting learning difficulties."

The Wonderling - Mira Bartok

The Wonderling is an Oliver Twist-style adventure with, er... a twist. It is set in a world inhabited by humans, animals and humanoid mixed-breed creatures - foundlings - who are despised by the others. It focuses on the adventures of one such orphan foundling as he escapes the workhouse in order to discover who he really is. This book is a great starting point for empathising with children of the Victorian era who suffered in poverty but it also has modern parallels to children still living in similar situations all over the world.

How To Bee - Bren MacDibble

This difficult yet compelling read is a great dystopian exploration of the gap that exists between rich and poor and as such would be a good way to help children feel empathy for children and adults les fortunate than themselves. From my review: "The subject of domestic abuse – both physical and emotional, towards adults and children – makes this a tough read in places, particularly for the aforementioned age bracket. I would suggest that this book is better suited to teenage readers for this reason."

The Phantom Lollipop Man - Pamela Butchart

From my review: "Despite this looking like a funny book, it actually tackles quite a serious subject matter – so much so that I actually almost had a little cry at the end... It ends up as an exploration of loneliness and old age and is a gentle reminder to any reader to value all members of society, especially those at risk of becoming marginalised. This aspect of the book makes it fully rounded and a perfect read for anyone in lower key stage two..."

The Fox Girl And The White Gazelle - Victoria Williamson

Featuring a Syrian refugee and a girl experiencing severe domestic issues this book is a must-read for upper key stage two children. From my review: "This is a book that I wish every child would read. Politically and socially our children need to be living the out the story in this book if the world is going to have any sort of peaceful future. The book's dual message that differences ought to be celebrated and common ground should be sought is too important for this generation to miss out on. Books such as this are a safe space in which to explore the everyday issues that children might face - we must get these books into their hands."

The Mystery Of The Colour Thief - Ewa Jozefkowich

This is book about how a child deals with the illness of a parent. It also features a positive-thinking wheelchair user and a whole lot of kindness and hope. From my review: "In this beautifully-written story debut author Ewa Jozefkowicz deftly explores issues that young children may well come up against in real life. 'The Mystery of the Colour Thief' will bring comfort to those with similar experiences to those portrayed and will help those who haven't to be that little bit more understanding of those who have."

Illegal - Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano

As Andrew Donkin explains in his guest blog post for me: "We wanted to show our readers the situations that Ebo and Kwame find themselves in and invite our readers to imagine how the brothers might be feeling. We wanted to ask our readers to empathise with them and to imagine how they would feel in their place." From my review: "Rather than seeking to cash in, as the media did for a while, Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano seek to humanise the stories from the news reports. Human beings respond well to narratives and by telling the story of Ebo and Kwame, two brothers attempting to make it from Africa to Europe, the creators of 'Illegal' succeed in making real two of the nameless, faceless victims of whom we read in our newspapers."


Max and the Millions - Ross Montgomery

From my review: "Max loves making models; he’s also deaf. This representation of a ‘minority group’ is important in children’s literature. Montgomery writes sensitively and convincingly about the trials a deaf child might face making this an important lesson in empathy for young readers... [children will] be caused to think about how first impressions don’t always count, how kindness and selflessness are key characteristics to develop in oneself and how forgiveness is an essential ingredient for peace and friendship."

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Book Review: 'Illegal' by Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin & Giovanni Rigano

Every now and then a graphic novel appears which pushes itself into the consciousness of the mainstream. Readers unaccustomed to reading pictures and text together suddenly find themselves exercising a muscle that has been resting since their childhood. It would seem though that it takes something pretty special to break this boundary. And 'Illegal' is special.

The death of Alan Kurdi in 2015, and the heart-rending photo of him that shocked the world, brought a crisis to light: those escaping war and poverty were being trafficked in unseaworthy vessels resulting in many lives lost. The media began to report further stories of similar tragedies, but as is the way, these stories soon became old news. But it is still happening. Google 'migrant boat sinks' and you'll see much more recent instances of these horrific events.

Rather than seeking to cash in, as the media did for a while, Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano seek to humanise the stories from the news reports. Human beings respond well to narratives and by telling the story of Ebo and Kwame, two brothers attempting to make it from Africa to Europe, the creators of 'Illegal' succeed in making real two of the nameless, faceless victims of whom we read in our newspapers.

As is the way with graphic novels, readers need to exert some effort into imagining the characters' feelings - with an economy of words comes more work for the reader. However, Rigano's bold illustrations, simultaneously classically-styled yet original and contemporary, do an exceptional job of conveying meaning - a picture really is worth a thousand words when its as carefully drawn as this. The storytelling of the combined text and pictures is accessible even to those who might normal find graphic novels too visually stimulating and busy - the illustrations are clean, detailed yet uncluttered, and colour palettes for each sequence are carefully chosen to evoke a sense of place, atmosphere and mood. Here, engaging with the images is crucial if the reader is to empathise with the plight of the world's humans in flight.

Although the demands of the text are low, the subject matter is emotionally involving making this book a certificate PG. Teachers, librarians and parents should consider how they present this book to their child - it is one that should be framed by good conversation with trusted adults. For anyone desensitised by the news, or for one who has a hard time knowing how to respond to terrible events in the world, this book will provide an alternative way into grappling with the issues.

In 'Illegal' horror and hope sit side by side, necessary bedfellows in a book which portrays the world we live in as it really is. Essential reading.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Book Review: 'The Mystery of the Colour Thief' by Ewa Jozefkowicz

If you're a regular reader of my book reviews then you'll know there is one quality above all others that I look for in children's novels: the potential for it to develop empathy in the reader. This book has that in spades.

Izzy blames herself for what happened to her mum. Since the incident her relationship with her best friend has suffered and despite many well-meaning adults offering support, she is finding life difficult to cope with. And it doesn't help that her recurring nightmare features a shadowy man who begins to steal the colours, one by one, from her life.

But then she meets Toby - a wheelchair-user who has moved in up the road - and he introduces her to Spike, a young swan and the runt of the litter. She and Toby strike up a friendship and in their dedication to saving the starving cygnet, Izzy finds hope and purpose. She also finds inspiration in straight-talking Toby who, through the wisdom gained from his own experiences, helps her to solve the mystery of the colour thief.

Imagery abounds in this wonderful short novel aimed at Key Stage 2 and 3 children. The gradual loss of colour in the mural of her life that her mum painted above her bed is a sensitive metaphor for the creeping onset of depression. The improving wellbeing of Spike causes and provides parallels with Izzy's improving mental health - in both cases the injured party allows others to help them. The feather Izzy gives to her mum as she lies in a coma is a symbol of optimism and freedom -  a freedom which Izzy eventually gains as she discovers she is guilt-free.

In this beautifully-written story debut author Ewa Jozefkowicz deftly explores issues that young children may well come up against in real life. 'The Mystery of the Colour Thief' will bring comfort to those with similar experiences to those portrayed and will help those who haven't to be that little bit more understanding of those who have.

A must for any library, classroom or home bookshelf - books like this position the current generation  to begin to work for a better, kinder future.

Perfect Partners:

'The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle' by Victoria Williamson - another story in which an unlikely duo bond over caring for an injured wild animal
'My Dad's A Birdman' by David Almond - aimed at a younger audience, and a little zanier, this story also explores how a young girl and her dad feel after the loss of her mother
'A Monster Calls' by Patrick Ness - aimed at an older audience, this book also explores the feelings of a young person experiencing the illness and loss of his mother

Look out for a guest post from Ewa Jozefkowicz on how growing up in her father's bookshop inspired her to write 'The Mystery of the Colour Thief' - coming to www.thatboycanteach.co.uk soon!

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Book Review: 'The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle' by Victoria Williamson

'The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle' deserves to be one of 2018's most lauded books. Tackling racism, discrimination and bullying head-on in a book aimed at upper primary children is no mean feat, but Victoria Williamson does it with great sensitivity.

Reema and Caylin both have their back stories. One is a refugee from Syria, the other lives with her alcoholic mum and is the school bully. Reema pines for home, is worried about her missing brother and is having to start a new school and learn a new language. Caylin looks after her mum, wishes her mum would look after her and feels like she is no good at anything. But they happen to be neighbours and an unlikely friendship develops. But Williamson writes the slowly-flourishing relationship in such a convincing way that 'unlikely' becomes 'blindingly obvious'.

This is achieved by the back-and-forth nature of the story's narration. The girls take it in turn to tell their side of the story, the reader in the middle willing them both to discover their commonalities: they are both unknowingly looking after the same injured fox; they both love, and excel at, running; more importantly, they both desperately need a friend.

With some very stark and honest passages, this book pulls no punches. Clearly Williamson believes that children can hack the reality - a racist criminal setting his dog on Reema for wearing her hijab is not just a fictional occurrence. For children to really grasp the desperate plight of those subject to racism in the UK, such parts of the book are essential. However, the book almost glows with hope and optimism, even at the moments when it seems like things can't get any worse.

And it is not just empathy for Reema as a refugee that is important. Caylin's character is written in such a way that light is shed on the background of a child in need; a child whose needs manifest in bad behaviour. Children with a more privileged upbringing need to empathise with children less fortunate than themselves just as much as they need to empathise with those fleeing violence and oppression (and so do teachers).

This is a book that I wish every child would read. Politically and socially our children need to be living out the story in this book if the world is going to have any sort of peaceful future. The book's dual message that differences ought to be celebrated and common ground should be sought is too important for this generation to miss out on. Books such as this are a safe space in which to explore the everyday issues that children might face - we must get these books into their hands.

Perfect Partners:

'All The Things That Could Go Wrong' - Stuart Foster - another story narrated in turn, this time by two boys, one with challenging life circumstances and one with OCD, who eventually become friends
'Dear World' - Bana Alabed - this autobiography of a Syrian refugee will help children get a feel for what Reema has escaped
'Oranges In No Man's Land' - Elizabeth Baird - a fictional account of life as a child in a war zone; another opportunity for children to consider the horrors of war that refugees flee

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Book Review: 'The Phantom Lollipop Man' by Pamela Butchart

I’m always dubious of the quality of books aimed at the 7 – 9 age bracket, especially ones which feature lurid cartoonish illustrations and crazy typesetting. It can sometimes seem like funny books are the only thing available to children who are just getting into reading longer books, especially when it comes to newly-published material.

And so it was with a degree of forced open-mindedness and some trepidation that I embarked on my reading of ‘The Phantom Lollipop Man’ by Pamela Butchart, illustrated throughout by Thomas Flintham. But, spoiler alert, I loved it and you will too.

I immediately devoured half the book, even laughing out loud in places where Butchart has clearly written with adults in mind. The fact that the author is a teacher and the book is set in a school (as are the other books in the series) makes for some hilariously insightful gags, all delivered with a touch of real affection – everyone who knows schools will identify with the deputy head who thinks they’re the head teacher, the office ladies who know everything and the teacher who spends lunchtime secretly eating sweets in their classroom.

As is usual with children’s books school life is a touch exaggerated – the children have a den under the stairs in school which they seem to find plenty of time to visit during school hours, Zach carries a smartphone at all times and the group of friends seem to spend a lot of time haring around the corridors. But it is exactly this that children will love; it’s what makes the story more exciting. And after all, Izzy and her friends are getting up to nothing like the Famous 5 and Secret 7 used to – they’re just having adventures that children can relate to more as the setting is so familiar. I quickly introduced it to my children – taking a book to read to them on a train journey was a stroke of genius, I must say – they told me they imagined the whole thing taking place in their own school.

Reading the book aloud was a little bit of a challenge: Izzy’s breathless and tangential narration means assuming the character of an excited year 4 child is a must. But it is this writing style which makes ‘The Phantom Lollipop Man’ an endearing read, particularly as a parent of three girls and the teacher of many more primary-aged children.

Despite this looking like a funny book, it actually tackles quite a serious subject matter – so much so that I actually almost had a little cry at the end. The story involves a group of children trying to solve the mystery of where their normal lollipop man has got to. They misinterpret information from the office ladies and believe him to be dead; sightings of him lead to their conclusion that he is dead, has come back as a ghost and has unfinished business that they must help him with. Adults reading the book will understand their blunder, but children might not. It ends up as an exploration of loneliness and old age and is a gentle reminder to any reader to value all members of society, especially those at risk of becoming marginalised. This aspect of the book makes it fully rounded and a perfect read for anyone in lower key stage two – vocabulary-wise it is perfectly pitched for this age group too with enough new words to explore without it becoming too much.

As a family we’ve already begun reading the only other Pamela Butchart book in the house – her World Book Day offering ‘The Baby Brother From Outer Space!’ – such was our collective love for ‘The Phantom Lollipop Man’. I suspect that next time we visit a bookshop/library we shall be purchasing/borrowing a few more! I will also be less suspicious about brightly-coloured books with words written in bold surrounded by clouds and flashes – lesson learnt.