Showing posts with label children's literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label children's literature. Show all posts

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Book Review: 'The Longest Night of Charlie Noon' by Christopher Edge

Thinking back on this book there are certain things which I'm really unsure of: when was it actually set? I'd assumed here and now, but as I've thought about the mind-bending events of the story I'm now not so sure. Did some of it occur in the imagination or were there actually slips in time? A book that keeps you thinking long after you've read the last page has got to be a book worth reading.

In fact, the questions it leaves you with really give you no option but to read it again. As someone with a To Be Read pile that takes up an entire bookshelf (and that's just the children's books) re-reading is not usually an option, but in this case I think I'll have to. The knowledge that Christopher Edge has put together one of his playlists to accompany the book is another point in favour of picking up this excellent novel again, especially as it contains The Cure, Paul Weller, Beastie Boys, James, The Kinks... the list goes on.

Charlie and Dizzy are lost in the woods, looking for some strange symbols that they think might be clues as to who lives in the woods - is it spies, or is it monsters? Or is it Old Crony? And Jonny, the school bully, has ended up with them too. But as night falls (or does it?) things begin to get strange. Trippy even. And suddenly the book is kind of a World War 2 novel - but not one like you've ever read before.

The children experience strange things which are genuinely quite scary - nightmares become a kind of questionable reality where neither the characters or the reader can quite understand what is going on. However, Edge has written it cleverly enough for readers to begin to build up a picture of what might be going on - especially those who have some background knowledge of theories about time, Greek mythology and World War 2. But for those who don't know what's going on, nearly all is explained - perhaps that second read-through will reveal all, though?

And it's not just the intrigue of the plot that makes this such a captivating read - the writing itself is so evocative. I would defy anyone not to feel transported to those woods with those children on that night:

"Above our heads comes a sudden hushing of leaves, the treetops swaying with a leathery creak... Beneath the tunnel of leaves, dappled light swirls along the path like reflections on a river, but beyond this, the thick ferns and bushes straggle into shadow."

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon takes a look at how, with the benefit of understanding the bigger picture of life, some things which once seemed so important become trivial - what's the point in being at enmity with those around you when the world holds much greater enemies and threats? But it does the opposite too: if you can change the small things in life, then perhaps you can change the big things too - once one has changed one's own world, maybe they can go on to change things in the wider world.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Book Review: 'Lubna and Pebble' by Wendy Meddour & Daniel Egnéus

There are plenty of books out there that tell the story of how a child befriends an inanimate object, but none are as pertinent or as substantial as 'Lubna and Pebble' by Wendy Meddour & Daniel Egnéus.

The title page gives the adult reader a good idea of the story's context: a beautiful illustration of a boat, laden with passengers, Arabic script on its hull, is seen from below the waves as sunlight pierces the water's surface. The boat is painted with flowers - this is a story of hope, yet it is the story of a small girl running from the certain horrors (never explicit) of her home land. Children will need to read the story to understand all that this image depicts.

Lubna and her Daddy are searching for safety. But where are her brothers? And where is her mother? And how will she and her father weather the winter in the camp? Pebble will help. And Daddy. Young children will identify with Lubna as she speaks to her pebble but the surprise they find in her not having a cuddly toy to provide solace will spark conversations, allowing empathy and understanding to grow.

The comfort that is afforded Lubna allows her to pass the kindness on when she meets Amir. With illustrations that are rich in imagery and simple but powerful text, even the youngest readers will feel the emotions at play here. Not only should they begin to understand, at an appropriate level, of the plight of other children in the world, they are also shown that kindness costs nothing.

Although there are plenty of picture books out there that aim to open the eyes of more privileged children, there are few which manage to achieve that with this level of simplicity and implicitness. Egnéus' imagery cleverly weaves motifs of hope - glowing light and blooming flora - with a use of colour that speaks to children's hearts. The text nearly always leaves the reader wanting to know more: why did they arrive on the beach at night? Why were Daddy's arms salty? What was the World of Tents? Why did they have to stay in the tent during winter? In this way, Meddour sensitively allows the difficult answers to be discussed between the adult who knows the child reader best, never presuming to be the one who knows how best to tackle the issues.

In a culture of entitlement, books like these are so important for our children. Although this could be read alone, I'd recommend that it is one that adults take the time to read with children. If you are struggling to explain the plight of refugees to your children then this book is a brilliant starting place.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Cross-Curricular Links in 'The Longest Night Of Charlie Noon' (Blog Post by Christopher Edge)

One of the joys of writing for children is seeing the inspiration that young readers take from a story you have written. I’m often contacted by teachers via Twitter showing me the amazing creations their classes have produced after reading one of my novels and when I visit schools I get to see this inspirational work first-hand, from Möbius strip sculptures inspired by 'The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day' to playground rocket launches straight out of 'The Jamie Drake Equation' and fabulous creative writing where young authors have taken Albie Bright into many more exciting new worlds.

The 'Longest Night of Charlie Noon' is a story about three children who get lost in the woods, and at its heart it’s a mystery story. As Charlie, Dizzy and Johnny make their way through the woods they find strange dangers and impossible puzzles lurking in the shadows, and I hope the excitement and intrigue readers will find in the story will get them reading closely to find the clues they need to solve the mystery. As readers, they can make inference and predictions as they follow Charlie’s path through the woods, with the twists and turns of the story also maybe challenging assumptions they might make and showing them the rewards of close reading.

The puzzles in the story can also be used to help develop children’s problem solving skills. From decoding ciphers to building circuits to create their own Morse code keys, 'The Longest Night of Charlie Noon' shows how stories can be used to connect subjects across the school curriculum. As Charlie tries to use the stars to find a way out of the woods, links can be made to the topic of ‘Earth and Space’ in the science curriculum and the movement of stars across the night sky, whilst other science topics such as the life cycles of trees, plants and flowers and how fossils are formed are also touched on in the story. Connections could be made to Geography too, with children learning about changing environments and carrying out nature audits in their own local area, whilst there are also links to History too.

As someone who’s never been much of an outdoor type, writing 'The Longest Night of Charlie Noon' has helped me to connect to the natural world in a way that has fed my imagination. From mentions of 'The Wind in the Willows' to echoes of 'Brendon Chase' by ‘B B’, there are opportunities to make connections with classic works of children’s fiction and nature writing. A vocabulary of the natural world is woven through the story and I hope that young readers take these words and make them their own, enriching their vocabularies and using this wild inspiration to create their own art and stories.

Teaching resources for 'The Longest Night of Charlie Noon' are available from my website (https://www.christopheredge.co.uk/resources) and if you read the book with your class, I’d love to hear about the inspiration they find in the story. And please tell them to keep reading and change the world.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Book Review: 'D-Day Dog' by Tom Palmer

If you've read any of Tom Palmer's other historical novels - Over The Line, Armistice Runner, for example - then you will not be disappointed by D-Day Dog at all. In fact, you'll be blown away and left pondering whether, in fact, this is actually his best one yet.

Reading 'D-Day Dog', you'd be forgiven for thinking that what you are actually reading is an accurate retelling of real life events, so thorough is the historical research that has informed this story. But that makes this brilliant book sound far too cold and clinical - here we have a story full of heart, warm and so tenderly handled.

As with Armistice Runner, stories of past and present intertwine, only this time there are several threads running through: Jack's love of war simulation computer games, his dad's desire to fight with the TA in Afghanistan, a Falklands veteran's story, a Syrian refugee's experience of war and the story of Emile and his dog, Glen, who both parachuted into France on D Day during the Second World War.

Jack loves his dog and when he has to do a project on a war hero prior to a school visit to Normandy he learns more about the part that animals, especially dogs, played in the World Wars. But things aren't great at home - his parents don't see eye to eye on his Dad's potential deployment - and Jack's perception of war is changing. What's the point? Why would a soldier choose to go into battle knowing he might be killed, or have to kill others?

The crowning glory of this book is that Tom Palmer sensitively answers those questions - questions we've all turned over in our minds at some point - all through the perfect and powerful medium of story. Tom's inclusion, and positive treatment of, marginalised characters - a child who has a 1:1 learning support, a shell-shocked survivor of conflict in Syria, a boy caught in the middle of family tensions, a grizzly, grumpy old ex-soldier-turned-bus driver - is so natural - there is no shoehorning here.

In fact, cohesion is the name of the game: all the strands mesh together perfectly to promote diversity, inclusion and understanding. What's more, published by Barrington Stoke's Conkers imprint for 7 to 10 year olds, this book is readable by design, allowing such serious subject matter to be accessed and explored by younger children - it's dyslexia-friendly too.

With so much packed into a short read, there is ever reason for this book to be devoured left, right and centre. Get it on your bookshelves - at the library, at school, at home. The children need this.

Here's Tom telling us a little more about the dogs featured in the book:


Book Review: 'The Middler' by Kirsty Applebaum

I knew nothing about 'The Middler', nor Kirsty Applebaum, before I decided to read this book. Yet I was drawn to it. Perhaps it was the fact that I hadn't seen everyone raving about it before I read it - I'm not much of a fan of being part of the herd.

But now I am. I am now just adding to the many voices who are singing the praise of Kirsty Applebaum's debut novel. It would seem that I was not the only one to be drawn by the magic of a book which gives very little away at first glance.  It's funny that I should mention magic, actually. This isn't yet another MG book relying on magic to provide all the answers, but it is a magical book. Not only was I unable to resist this book when came the time to start something new, I was also in thrall to it throughout - I read it at an unnatural pace.

Gently unsettling, at least to begin with, the reader is drawn into the mindset of a small town, a town which could be anywhere, who appear to venerate their eldest children above all others. Things begin to appear gradually more menacing as it is revealed that no one is allowed outside of the town, that any outsiders (or 'wanderers') are regarded with deep suspicion, worse even: hatred. And then there's the matter of all eldests being sent off to fight the silent war.

The depiction of family life within a close-knit, closed-minded community is reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird; the air of mystery is akin to that in Holes. And when you find out where the eldests are supposedly going, one can't help but think of The Hunger Games. Now I don't usually make comparisons in reviews and honestly, I'm not making comparisons here, either. Truly, The Middler stands tall amongst the aforementioned tomes and in no way is a derivative of anything else. Despite my making links between this and other books, I would happily claim that this book is unique, something else - a new experience.

When Maggie, a quiet middle child, meets Una - someone she's been indoctrinated to hate - she battles internally with her feelings about the developing friendship. Her heart tells her there is no reason for her to despise her - her head, fed with songs and lies about outsiders, tells her otherwise. If this story line isn't a lesson in empathy that most of us could learn from, then I don't know what is.

Perhaps this is a deeply political novel with themes for children and adults to unpick together, and to relate to current affairs or historical events. Perhaps it's a perfect introduction to post-apocalyptic literature. Or maybe it's really a story about family, friendship, loyalty, curiosity, challenging the status quo and doing the right thing, even when everyone else seems to think it's wrong.

Whatever it is, however we might choose to define it (we, because you will read it - you must), its absolutely certain that 'The Middler' deserves all the praise it gets. Kirsty Applebaum is certainly a name to watch out for in the world of children's books - I'm already looking forward to the next one. Perhaps I'll just read this one again.

Kirsty Applebaum has written a blog post for me entitled Showing Instead of Telling in The Middler which gives advice to budding writers about how to make sure the reader know what characters are like without telling them.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Children's Books Reviewed By Children #1

Well, ever since I wrote TES's best children's books of 2018 article I've been inundated with books. I'd love to be able to keep up with full reviews of each and every one but with a full time deputy headship to occupy me, as well as a family to be a part of, it's just not possible.

However, the fact that I have a family means that I also have some extra readers and reviewers. I (8), A (7) and J (5) are all pretty avid readers and book-lovers who have recently shown interest in beginning to write reviews of what they read. So I thought I'd try harnessing their powers to provide some extra coverage on my blog. And after all, surely, it is their voice that counts the most - these are children's books, written for children, so if they love them, then they must be good!

Without further ado, the first 6 titles that they have turned their attentions to:


The 39-Storey Treehouse is a very good book. I liked the bit where Andy and Terry flew to the dark side of the moon and found professor Stupido so that he could uninvent the once-upon-a-time-machine but instead he uninvented everything. The whole plot was to keep on building storeys onto the tree.

It’s funny how they’ve got a ‘top 5 disgusting things Terry does’ list. Examples of things on the list are sneezing snot into Andy’s face and washing his underpants in the shark tank! Andy and Terry have lots of fun things in the treehouse e.g. the world’s scariest roller-coaster, a bowling alley, a not-very-merry-go-round and a baby dinosaur petting zoo. It’s awesome!

I would recommend it to friends and family. I’m sure I’ll like all the Storey Treehouse books. I think people who like The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton would like this book.

- I, 8

The 39-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths, illustrated by Terry Denton, was published by Pan Macmillan on 30th July 2015 (ISBN: 9781447281580)


Captain Cat and the treasure map will entertain you! It is very funny when Cutlass the parrot poops on the cursed treasure map. This is a great book for any age 1 2 3.... just any age! This is a great book, Sue Mongredien and Kate Pankhurst! Great example of a creative book! 👍 High five? ✋😉✔️

- A, 7

Captain Cat and The Treasure Map by Sue Mongredien, illustrated by Kate Pankhurst, was published by Pan Macmillan on 7th February 2019 (ISBN: 9781509883905)

Isadora Moon Has A Sleepover by Harriet Muncaster

Even the first bit of "Isadora Moon has a Sleepover" is fun! (literally like 1000000% fun!) It was really good when Isadora and Zoe were making a massive five layer cake but then, in the morning, they made a different little cake but on Monday, Zoe brought the 5 layer cake that they agreed not to bring in! So Oliver and Bruno won the a competition instead! So kind! Awww!❤️😍😘

- A, 7

Isadora Moon Has A Sleepover by Harriet Muncaster was published by OUP on 7th March 2019 (ISBN:978-0-19-276711-0) 


The first story of Dirty Bertie '' Spider'' was so good. Bertie actually brought a spider into class! "Nitwit" was one million trillion% good because he ripped his sweater and it unravelled in half and granny got him a new one. In "Gold" he found a Canadian 10p in the park with his friends.

These are some of the best books ever in the UK and these books are suitable enough for any age..... 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 or even grown ups!

- A, 7

Dirty Bertie: Spider! by Alan Macdonald, illustrated by David Roberts, was published by Stripes on 7th March 2019 (ISBN:9781847159465)


Matisse's Magical Trail by Tim Hopgood, illustrated by Sam Broughton

At first all the walls were grey and black and boring and at the end they were really colourful. In the middle, Matisse the snail wanted to draw and draw and draw. First, I was feeling bored. At the end I was feeling really colourful.

- J, 5

Editor's note: I particularly enjoyed the fact that the creators had taken inspiration from Henri Matisse's artwork entitled 'The Snail' which was then referenced in the artwork. It led me and J on a mini journey of art discovery as we looked at Matisse's work and compared it to the drawings that Matisse the snail does in the book.

Matisse's Magical Trail by Tim Hopgood, illustrated by Sam Broughton, was published by OUP on 4th April 2019 (ISBN: 978-0-19-276726-4) 

Meet the Penguins by Mike Brownlow

First I felt really sad because the animals didn't let the penguins play. At the end a little cute bear came and he asked 'Can I play?' and the penguins said 'Yes!' and then I felt happy. At the end all of the animals want to play!

- J, 5

Meet the Penguins by Mike Brownlow was published by OUP on 4th April 2019 (ISBN: 978-0-19-276867-4)

The next reviews are in the pipeline and I intend to work with my little reviewers to improve their reviewing technique - one step at a time!

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Frank Cottrell-Boyce - Reviewed By Children


To celebrate the new republished, redesigned versions of Frank Cottrell Boyce's well-loved books 'Millions', 'Framed', 'Cosmic', 'The Astounding Broccoli Boy' and 'Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth' I've gathered together some reviews from the people who really matter: the children who read and love them.

Steven Lenton (who illustrated the older versions) has designed new covers which are sure to give these modern classics a new lease of life and a brand new audience, but why should you and your children read them? Let's find out...

Cosmic - a review by Thomas Groves, age 13.

Everyone loves space don’t they?

Liam is a very, very tall boy for his age. He’s so tall in fact, that people often mistake him for a grown up. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Book Cosmic embraces this when he is mistaken for the new teacher at his new school and has to present an assembly and also when he later nearly gets away with test driving a new Porsche!

Things only get more laugh-out-loud funny when he is mistaken for his father by a woman who offers him the chance to take part in a very special competition that will make him ‘a hero in the eyes of his children’. He takes up the offer, wins and then ends up being launched into space with four other children. When things go wrong, can he save the day?

My favourite character is Liam because he is very plucky and easy to relate to and because he gets into lots of scrapes which only get more and more hilarious as the story goes on.

I like this book because it is very funny and moving and shows good and bad human qualities and a great plot.

I would heartily recommend it for all ages.


Broccoli Boy - a review by Jake Niemi, age 9

Broccoli Boy is an interesting, adventurous story about a boy called Rory Rooney, who is being bullied by a horrible bully called Grim Komissky. (That’s not his real name, Grim would be an odd first name.) One day, on a school trip, Rory turns bright green and is taken to the hospital. Imagine his shock and surprise when he finds out he’s there, and trapped, with none other than his bully! After believing turning green means he’s a superhero and he’s going to save the world he finds out he’s not actually the only one who’s green.

This book is brilliant, it’s cool, interesting and amazing. It has all the things that kids need: laughter, friendship and a reminder that adults don’t know it all even if they act like they do (in fact, adults should read this too!) I rate it 5/5 and think any child would love this book, in fact you’ll be wanting the whole collection of books! Hope you enjoy reading!

Remember, as the book says, ‘The thing that makes you different is the thing that makes you astounding.’


Sputnik’s Guide To Planet Earth by Shannon Finlan, age 14

Sputnik’s Guide To Planet Earth is a light-hearted fun tale of an orphan boy named Prez who has an encounter with a dog who is actually an alien, whilst living in the countryside in a foster home. Prez is a young carer to his Grandfather who has been dignosed with dementia. Caring for his Grandfather is a fun day-to-day chore for Prez, with laughter and games around the house... Or so it seems. 


As we delve deeper into the book however, we learn that the protagonists grandfather’s dementia is no longer a laughable silly matter and it’s actually quite heart breaking and sad. I could really relate to this with my personal experience of my Grandad’s dementia. With personal experience as a child seeing my Grandad’s memory deteriorate, I didn’t fully understand the severity of the condition at the similar age that Prez is in the book. Towards the end of the book as Prez begun to understand the condition more, I could relate to when I also began to understand that Dementia was more than silly jokes about things like forgetting about the rules of card games, getting names wrong, to forgetting completely those close around you.

Frank Cottrell Boyce uses an excellent ratio of light-hearted humour to sadness to make the book having you want to laugh and cry. This is an amazing viewpoint into a young carer's life to which Frank Cottrell Boyce has shown how a child, such as Prez, would interpret the situation at hand. I cried for hours after I had finished reading the book, it really pulled at my heart strings. I would highly recommend this book to children and adults alike.

Now head over to my Twitter to feed to take part in my competition to win a whole set! (Competition runs from 21/2/19 to 24/2/19 at 8pm)

Don't forget to look out for Frank's new book for World Book Day this March: The Great Rocket Robbery is a brilliant little story perfect for new and old fans alike.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Book Review: 'The Closest Thing To Flying' by Gill Lewis

If you're looking for a book to provoke conversation with children and young people, then this would be a good choice. Especially if you want to tackle, or just discuss, issues such as bullying, discrimination against women and human trafficking.

Semira, a refugee from Eritrea, discovers an old diary of a girl living at the end of the Victorian period. As she reads it, a bond spanning the chasm of time develops between her and Henrietta. Samira identifies with the plight of voiceless 19th century British women and is ultimately inspired by their courage to escape her own situation. Although this concept isn't original, it is certainly done well in 'The Closest Thing To Flying'.

I've read several books for children and young adults centring around the lives of refugees but this is the first one which truly takes on the theme of human trafficking. Robel provided safe passage for Semira and her mum when Semira was little but now, in the UK, he is controlling them, forcing Semira's mum into a sham marriage, taking all the money from the jobs she works and providing them with inadequate food and living conditions. Whereas many of us are aware of the term 'human trafficking', there is still little understanding of what this can incorporate, or how we can help.

But the diary isn't Semira's only lifeline. Thankfully she has school - another new one - where she meets and makes good friends, particularly with Patrick. Patrick has known life with an abusive father, however his mum's current partner provides the antidote to the other patriarchal (and just plain vile) male adults in the story. He up-cycles bicycles, bakes delicious cake and always has time to listen. Patrick's family's response to Semira's plight is a real example of how people can actually help those who are being trafficked.

Gill Lewis skilfully weaves the historical and present storylines together with various strengthening threads: readers will love spotting the links which focus on birds and bicycles. Henrietta is present at the formation of what is now known as the RSPB (all the names mentioned are actual historical people - lots of scope for further research and learning) and Patrick is an avid birdwatcher. The hat that Semira finds with the diary has on it a bird which she has memories of from her home country. Henrietta rides one of the first bicycles whilst delivering leaflets about the Society for the Protection of Birds and Semira discovers her own love of cycling. All of these links definitely mark this out as a work of fiction (a very well-realised one) yet they are what makes it such a joy to read, despite its tough content.

This would be a perfect read for children in upper key stage two, as well as children in key stage three. I'd totally recommend that parents and teachers read it if their children are reading it - not because the content is tricky, just because it would be such a shame to miss the opportunities for discussion that it affords!

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Book Review: 'The Dog Who Saved The World' by Ross Welford

'The Dog Who Saved The World' is Ross Welford's fourth book since 'Time Travelling With A Hamster' was published in 2016. In his latest novel for children Ross returns to the North East of England - Whitley Bay to be specific - and to the theme of time travel.

Except, there's a nice modern twist to the time travel aspect of the plot: Georgie Santos must travel forward in time in order to bring back a cure for a worldwide epidemic which is killing dogs and humans. Oh, and she doesn't actually need to really time travel - she's going to a virtual-reality 3D version of the future!

It all starts when Georgia and her best mate Ramzy meet the mysterious Dr. Pretorius when walking Mr Mash, the dog who will eventually go on to save the world. But before he does Georgie and Ramzy are going to wade through composting dog waste to rescue him, keep him secretly in a barn, evade the police in a rickety VW campervan, barricade themselves inside the Spanish City and nearly win the lottery. To begin with, the reader is left wondering how all the aspects of the story presented in the first half of the book will eventually entwine; this gives way to an adrenaline-filled sequence of events which results in triumph for the heroes of the story.

Once again bringing sci-fi themes to easily accessible children's literature, Ross Welford assembles a realistically diverse cast of well-drawn characters to embark on this barmy adventure set in the near-future. Along the way, Welford subtly causes readers to think. What was life like for Ramzy before he came to the UK if he had to slash the tyres of rebel soldiers without being shot? What's it like for children like Ramzy who don't have much money? How would I feel if my mum had died and my dad had a new girlfriend - could I grow to love her? How would we deal with a world-wide crisis?

The story is all told from Georgie's point of view and children will enjoy the chatty, informal style but will benefit from this being really well written. Although written from a child's perspective, perceptive readers will pick up cleverly placed clues and be one step ahead of Georgie at times - that feeling of being let in on secrets by the author is a very enjoyable one for children to experience.

A great holiday read for upper key stage 2 and key stage 3 readers, 'The Dog Who Saved The World'  will be enjoyed by girls and boys alike, and if its a shared read aloud, parents too will be happy to dig in and get involved.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

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.

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

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.