Showing posts with label books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books. Show all posts

Monday, 21 January 2019

Book Review: 'The Girl With Shark's Teeth' by Cerrie Burnell

Cerrie Burnell (of CBeebies fame), author of picturebook 'Snowflakes' and 2016 World Book Day special 'Harper and the Sea of Secrets', has broken into the middle grade fiction world with style: 'The Girl With The Shark's Teeth' is a brilliant adventure story set in a fantasical but oh-so-immersive world.

And it's immersive in two senses of the word. Not only does the plot take place above and under water, it is also so well written that you don't doubt that this magical sub-marine kingdom could actually exist. Although the above-surface parts of the story draw on the reality of places such as Brighton, Reykjavik and Barbados, as well as the Carribean sea and the Atlantic Ocean, a huge portion of the story takes place in the Wild Deep - a well-imagined underwater world where all manner of seafolk live.

Right from the very beginning the reader is clued into the fact that there is more to Minnow than at first meets the eye. And when her mother, Mercy, is kidnapped, she begins a voyage of discovery, finding out along the way that her heritage is more amazing than she could ever have imagined. After a frosty first meeting with Raife, the two children set out to outwit the Greenland shark who guards the gate into the Wild Deep, leading them into a place where they aren't exactly welcome, and to an adventure they weren't quite expecting.

The convincing world building is aided by the fact that the story we read is rooted in a seemingly comprehensive mythology - I for one would quite happily read a real-life version of 'The Book of Sea Myths: Tales of the Sea', if Burnell fancied doing a JK Rowling Tales of Beedle The Bard-style spin-off volume. Not only are there stories, there are also songs - crucial for a novel so tied up in seafaring - I'd also love to hear them set to music.

Family, friendship, trust, betrayal, courage and discovery are all central themes to this wonderful, convincing book. And it's not just for fans of mermaids, or for girls - give this to your boys and they will be drawn in to this world of intrigue. I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up this book and I'm so glad that I did: here's to a sequel!




Friday, 28 December 2018

On the @TES Blog: Top Children's Books of 2018


I had the immense pleasure and privilege of putting together a list of some of the best primary children's books of 2018. I ended up selecting 25 out of a huge number of excellent books that I'd read out of an even huger number of books actually published. I'm absolutely certain that all of my choices rank among the best, but there may be some that I didn't get a chance to read that should be there too.

A couple of such books which I read after submitting the piece were The Boy At The Back Of The Class by Onjali Q. Raúf and A Darkness of Dragons by SA Patrick.

Follow the link to find out what I chose as my favourite books of 2018: https://www.tes.com/news/top-childrens-books-2018

Friday, 30 November 2018

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.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Reading For Displeasure: 13 Books To Take Children Out Of Their Comfort Zone


Reading for pleasure is all the rage in schools, but how often do we, and the children we teach, read for displeasure? Or, perhaps more accurately, for discomfort?

Ask any number of readers what they like about reading and there will be plenty of replies on the theme of escapism. Internet memes carry lines such as "Books: a cosy doorway to paradise".

Actually, for many, it should be that books are a doorway out of a cosy paradise.

Click here for more, including 13 recommendations of books for a range of ages which will take children out of their comfort zone and into the shoes of others: https://www.tes.com/news/13-books-take-primary-pupils-out-their-comfort-zone

Note: This article does not cover the whole range of uncomfortable life situations that people find themselves in. I have focused in this article on issues such as loss (of a loved one, of a sense of safety, of a sense of community) as well as racism. It is by no means a definitive list. I would suggest that there could be plenty more articles submitted to the TES highlighting books that will help children to understand other life circumstances.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 October 2018

Book Review: 'Snowglobe' by Amy Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Tania Unsworth On Conveying Character

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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."

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Guest Post: 'Illegal': Reading For Empathy by Andrew Donkin


Our new graphic novel, ILLEGAL, started life with a desire to make our readers feel empathy for people in a very unusual and terrible situation.

Andrew Donkin
It was about four years ago and my co-writer, Eoin Colfer, and I were following postage stamp-sized reports about the sinking of boats full of would-be migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The reports were short, impersonal, and just carried an approximate number of people thought to be missing or dead. It made for grim reading.

We followed the story and dug deeper. When you read a report that says “It’s believed that 217 people died in the sinking” it’s very easy to get lost in the numbers. What do 217 people look like? How many classrooms would they fill? Or how many double decker buses? It’s easy to forget that each one of those 217 is a person just like me and just like you.

These days, everyone has seen the photographs of the so-called “cathedral boats” where every single inch of deck space is packed with a human being desperate to escape their old life or to begin a new one. As I said, it’s easy to get lost in the sheer numbers, and what we wanted to do with ILLEGAL, was to take one person on that dodgy, unseaworthy boat and tell their story. We figured that if we could make our readers feel empathy for one person in the boat, then that would perhaps change the head-numbing statistics into human beings.

ILLEGAL follows the story of two brothers, Ebo and Kwame, as they leave their home and attempt to travel across the Sahara Desert towards the northern coast of Africa where they eventually put their lives in the hands of people traffickers on a boat to Europe.

From the very beginning we knew that we wanted to tell the story of ILLEGAL as a graphic novel rather than a more traditional prose novel. One of the many reasons for this was that we wanted to avoid telling the readers how our characters felt. 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.

My friend and co-writer, Eoin Colfer wrote recently that “travel broadens the mind, but books broaden the heart.” That’s never been truer of a book than the experience of reading ILLEGAL. Nobody would want to undergo the terrible journey that our characters undertake, but by reading the book in the safety of your own home or school or library, a reader can perhaps take away a small piece, perhaps if we’re really lucky, one-millionth of the real life experience.

Giovanni Rigano
Eoin Colfer
In many ways the job of a writer is feeling empathy for a living. How else could writers get inside the head of their many and varied characters to pen their tales? Writing fiction is a strange alchemy of sometimes transposing your own experiences into the head of other characters, but more often putting your characters in situations you’ve never experienced yourself.

For ILLEGAL, Eoin, myself and our artist Giovanni Rigano did more research than for any other book that we have ever published. Although the story is fictional, every single bit of it is true. Every bit of it happened to someone – usually to many people. Meeting and listening to the survivors of such journeys was a moving and humbling experience as we worked on the book.

The last few years have seen several very divisive political events and movements sweep across the west. It seems to me that books and graphic novels with their ability to transport you not just across time and space, but more importantly into the experiences of another human being are more vital than ever.

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.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Book Review: 'How To Bee' by Bren MacDibble

Children’s publishing seems to be experiencing a time of growth; the shelves of book shops are bursting with newly-published books for kids – so much so that it can be hard to choose which books to read. Some seem to garner much attention whilst others arrive quietly, waiting to be picked up and discovered.

‘How To Bee’ is new to the UK market but has already been doing very well in its native Australia. And it would be a real shame if it did not take off here too. Set in a future Australia where honey bees are all but extinct, this is a book about family, friendship, courage and survival and features an extremely strong, but not invincible, female lead character.

Despite being pegged as a dystopian novel, the story portrays a world not dissimilar to the one we live in now. And this is what makes this book so disturbingly successful. Although the story is a chain of largely dismal events, the reader is sucked into Peony’s life – Bren MacDibble makes it impossible for the reader not to be rooting for her as she pursues her dream of becoming a bee – a hand pollinator. But ‘How To Be’ is not without its moments of light and hope – it would be a hard read if it wasn’t. However, with an ending that is weighted more towards the bitter end of the bittersweet scale, it is an important read for those who only ever experience happily-ever-after endings.

Peony’s abduction by her mother and her cruel partner sees her removed from the countryside and placed into a rich household in the city. There Peony is witness to a way of life far removed from her simple, often harsh, but enjoyable life of sleeping in a shed and working amongst the fruit trees. The author cleverly contrasts these two lifestyles in such a way that merit can be seen in both – in the home of the Pasquales Peony experiences a loving marital relationship – a far cry from the relationships her mother has been in; but she also sees how the poor are exploited in order to provide a lavish lifestyle for the rich – there are several other such contrasts. As with any good dystopian fiction, current affairs are explored and commented on in the context of a fabricated domain.

Although sold as a children’s book, with an age recommendation of 9-12, 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.

There is no reason why this challenging read shouldn’t be celebrated – it is well-written, introduces children to other ways of life (and a new dialect) and despite being brutal in places is told with a very gentle touch. With its well-formed and believable characters – some loveable, some hateable – ‘How To Bee’ is a book really to get into – I found it hard to put down, such was the grip it had on me.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Book Review: 'To The Edge Of The World' by Julia Green

When it comes to evoking a sense of place Julia Green has done an excellent job in her latest book 'To The Edge Of The World'. The islands and seas of the Outer Hebrides are conjured in the mind of the reader as they read of the journey Jamie and Mara’s friendship takes. With the island setting and a dose of sailing jargon readers of Morpurgo and Ransome will find something they’re at home with here.

Jamie lives on the island with his family although he misses Dad who works away on the mainland during the week. Mara lives on the island too, but away from other people. Mara’s mum is suffering from mental illness (this is hinted at throughout the story) and she too misses her father whom she hasn’t heard from in years. An unlikely pair, Jamie and Mara become friends, but always with a difficult, awkward relationship, and embark (accidentally on Jamie’s part) on a daring and dangerous adventure. Along with the well-developed settings, the fact that Julia Green tackles real-life issues that many young people face is a strength of this book.

Although the story has the reckless voyage to St. Kilda, the Outer Hebrides’ furthest islands, and the friendship dimension to commend it, readers might be left wishing for a little more: compared to other similar stories it isn’t as well-rounded and has the potential to fall a little flat. Also, the story is narrated by Jamie and as such the writing is clipped: the short sentences characterise a young teenage boy well, but aren’t always easy to read.

Having said this, ‘To The Edge Of The World’ will certainly appeal to readers who love reading about friendship or who particularly enjoy stories about island life and seafaring – certainly those who have been charmed by Morpurgo’s tales about the Isles of Scilly. In the classroom, ‘To The Edge Of The World’ might be used to great effect alongside other similar books, particularly as a source of descriptive passages for children to use as inspiration for their own writing.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Book Review: 'The House With Chicken Legs' by Sophie Anderson

Taking a mainstay of Slavic folklore and re-imagining it for a generation who are most likely ignorant of its origins turns out to be a clever move for ‘The House With Chicken Legs’ author Sophie Anderson. And to write a debut novel for children which is all about death is brave – but Anderson triumphs.

Marinka lives in a house with chicken legs with no one but her grandmother, Baba Yaga, and a Jackdaw for company. Apart from, that is, the dead people who visit her house every night. And she has no chance to make any other (living) friends because every time she gets settled somewhere the house literally ups sticks and pelts across the world to find a new location.

Then there’s her destiny: to be the next guardian of The Gate between life and death. A destiny she does not want at all. She hates the thought of guiding the endless stream of dead visitors into the afterlife for the rest of her living days.

I said the book was all about death, but actually ‘The House With Chicken Legs’ is all about life. It’s about not getting what you want, growing up, learning about other people, making friends, experiencing the pain of loss, making mistakes, making the same mistakes again, finding joy in the little things, regret, seeing the beauty of the world, loyalty, betrayal, love, kindness… see what I mean? It’s about life and it will make any reader thankful for theirs and those they share it with.

To read this book, and to journey with Marinka, both around the world and through her life, is to understand her every thought and feeling, such is the quality of Anderson’s compelling writing. The book will provoke thought and conversation about life and death, regardless of your beliefs on the matter – in the classroom, or at home, it will provide a good starting point for exploring and understanding traditions and beliefs from around the world.

‘The House With Chicken Legs’ is a beautifully human book that has the potential to draw young readers into the world of literature where real life themes are explored in great detail. Readers who are, like Nina, growing up and beginning to better understand the increasingly adult world around them, will love this coming-of-age story and will no doubt benefit from the lack of clichéd modernity that clogs up other books of the genre. Highly recommended.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Book Review: 'Max and the Millions' By Ross Montgomery

As with all good children’s books these days, this isn’t just a straight yarn. ‘Max and the Millions’ by Ross Montgomery begins by introducing one of the unlikely heroes of the story - a school caretaker with more than just a knack for building intricate models of anything and everything. Next we meet Mr Pitt the typically unlikeable headmaster. And then we encounter the story’s other (full-size) hero: Max, who is hiding in a cupboard. 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.

Although this is a story about how a warring society of magically created microscopic people are rescued by a seemingly improbable pair of pre-teen boys and a hoard of pony-obsessed 5 year old girls on a sugar-bender, it is also a story about friendship, fitting in, integrity and small things mattering. Whilst Lower Key Stage 2 children will enjoy the miniature adventures of King Luke and his trusty flea as he fights the Bin King and the Red Queen, they will also 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.

The story’s absolute highlight comes when (slight spoiler alert) the tiny Luke becomes king of the united people of The Floor (the minute kingdom the small people inhabit). The power goes to his head and, despite his friend Ivy’s warnings, he forgets the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you with disastrous consequences. Even if no other part of the book is used as a talking point between adults and children, this part should be; it opens up a safe space in which to discuss politics and has parallels to current situations that are playing out on the world stage. The headmaster’s despotic antics throughout the book also provide opportunities to discuss similar issues.

This well-written book is a great choice for parents and teachers of children who have expressed interest in world affairs but who might be too young to fully understand the complexities and unpleasant details of the situations. It’s also recommended for fans of stories such as Terry Pratchett’s The Carpet People stories – those young but capable readers who are quite at home in stories with impossibly fantastical settings.