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

Friday, 20 September 2019

Extract From 'Guardians Of Magic' by Chris Riddell

An extract from Chris Riddell's latest book 'Guardians of Magic', the first book in the new 'The Cloud Horse Chronicles' series:

Chapter 1: The Runcible Spoon

Zam Zephyr woke early and climbed out of bed, careful not to disturb the other apprentice bakers of Bakery No. 9, who were still fast asleep around him.

It was the day before the Grand Duchess of Troutwine's Tea Ball and Zam was too excited and nervous to stay in bed. Today, they would bake for the tea ball tomorrow. All twelve bakeries in the city competed for the honour of making the most delicious treats for the ball. If anything went wrong again, after last year's disaster that put Bakery No. 9 at the bottom of the heap, Zam and his friends would be sent home in disgrace. The thought of his father's disappointed face was too much to bear. No, Zam thought. He would do anything he could to make sure that his baking was perfect.

In the corner of the attic dormitory, his best friend Langdale the goat boy was gently snoring. Beneath the flour-sack blanket, his hooves twitched as he dreamed of chasing blue butterflies through the summer pine forests of the Western Mountains. In the other corner, the two Shellac sisters clutched the comfort shawl they shared. In the cots in between, the gnome boys from the Grey Hills slept soundless and still, five to a blanket, their small grey-tufted heads just visible.

Looking out of the window, Zam could see the golden roofs of the palaces glittering in the early morning sunlight. He gazed up at a billowing cloud and made a wish: 'To bake the best gingerbread ever, he whispered. 'Cloud horse, cloud horse, far from view, make this wish of mine come true.'

Zam took his apron and cap from the hook and crept out of the attic, leaving his friends to their dreams.

Zam ran all the way down the stairs to the basement, opened the door to the flavour library, and stepped inside. This was his favourite place. He loved how precise, tidy and ordered everything was here. He smiled to himself. With everyone asleep upstairs, it was the perfect time of day to practise without any interruptions.

Shelves lined the basement walls from floor to vaulted ceiling. Looking up through the glass paving stone, Zam could see the shadows of feet walking overhead as people passed the doors of Bakery No. 9.

The shelves around him were stacked with jars of all shapes and sizes, each clearly labelled.



Zam selected the jars he needed, opening each one in turn and taking pinches of the powders they contained. Carefully, he placed the spices on little squares of baking parchment, which he folded neatly and placed in different pockets of his apron. Satisfied with his choices, Zam crossed the stone floor to a large chest of drawers set in an alcove. He opened a drawer labelled 'Index of Crusts' and selected one with crinkle-cut edges and memorized the baking instructions written in small lettering on the underside.

‘For a crumbly texture, short, intense mixing and slow bake in quiet oven ... Zam read. The memory of the calm, reassuring sound of the head baker's voice filled his head, as it always did when Zam read his recipes. 'For a more robust biscuit, easeful mixing with broad, generous spoon and a short, fierce bake in busy oven...

‘Broad, generous spoon,' Zam repeated to himself, returning the crinkle-cut crust to the drawer and closing it. He looked up and was about to select one of the wooden spoons, which hung from the hooks in the ceiling, when he trod on something. It was a large spoon he hadn't noticed lying on the flagstone floor.

'That is so careless,' Zam muttered, picking it up. The spoon was broad and long handled, carved from a single piece of wood, by the look of it. Zam turned it over. It was a slotted spoon, full of small holes, with three large ones near the base of the handle.

‘Easeful mixing with broad, generous spoon,' the head baker's voice sounded in Zam's head.

‘Perfect,' he said, wiping the spoon on his apron before slipping it into a pocket.

He selected a favourite battered old book from a shelf: The Art of Baking. “There you are," he said happily and climbed the back stairs to the kitchen.

An hour later, the other apprentice bakers had been woken by the six o'clock gong and were filing in, putting on their caps and rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Balthazar Boabab, the head baker of Bakery No. 9, followed them into the kitchen smiling.

'Good morning, apprentices!' he said cheerfully, peering over the top of his half-rim spectacles. “As you know, the twelve bakeries of Troutwine are baking for the Grand Duchess's Tea Ball tomorrow, and we all have our parts to play.W

The head baker smiled again, a little ruefully this time. 'Bakery No. 1 is doing the first tiers. Bakery No. 2 the second and third tiers. Fillings are being produced by bakeries No. 3, 4 and 5. While No. 6, 7 and 8 are baking pastry shells and meringues. - Bakeries No. 10 and 11 are fruitcake and turnovers, and Bakery No. 12 is making floating islands...' Balthazar Boabab took a deep breath. 'This means, once again, Bakery No. 9 is picking up the crumbs…'

The apprentice bakers began to mutter. It wasn't fair. They had tried so hard, but they weren't being given a chance.

'I know, I know ...' said the head baker. 'It's not ideal, but after last year's cake collapse and exploding-eclair incident, Bakery No. 9 has a lot to prove ...'

'But that wasn't our fault,' protested one of the gnomes.

'The last head baker didn't pay off the League of Rats, said Langdale the goat boy, stamping his hooves, "and they ruined everything…'

'Nothing was proved,' said Balthazar gently. 'I am head baker now, and things are different, aren't they?'

Zam and the other apprentices nodded. It was true. Bakery No. 9 had changed since Balthazar Boabab had taken over: no more bullying, tantrums or random punishments. The kitchen was a happy place, and everyone was respected and baking beautifully. It was just as well. A year ago, after the disaster of the last tea ball, Bakery No. 9 had almost been shut down and everyone sent home. If Balthazar hadn't joined them from the fashionable Bakery No. 12, the apprentices would have had no future. None of them wanted to let him down.

"But what about the rats?' asked Langdale anxiously.

‘Let me worry about them,' said the head baker, doing his best to sound cheerful. ‘After all, we have heard nothing from the rats since I arrived.
Meanwhile, you have baking to do. We will be making the crusts as well as gingerbread and some spun-sugar decorations. And, at the tea ball itself –

Balthazar cleared his throat; even he couldn't sound cheerful about the next bit – 'Bakery No. 9 will be doing the washing-up.

The apprentice bakers groaned.

‘Langdale and the Shellac sisters are on shortcrust pastry shells,' Balthazar instructed. 'Gnomes are on glazed piecrust. Zam, are you confident to bake the gingerbread and help me with the spun sugar?'

'Yes, head baker,' said Zam excitedly. “I've already been down in the flavour library ...

‘Baker's pet,' muttered Langdale.

Balthazar gave the goat boy a stern look. But before he could say anything, an unexpected sound silenced them all.

In the shop, the doorbell had rung, and now they could hear the scritch-scratch of claws on the floorboards.

'I smell a rat,' said Langdale.
 


Publishing 19th September 2019 | Hardback, £12.99 | Macmillan Children’s Books | ISBN 9781447277972

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Children's Books Reviewed By Children #2

In our house we have recently revamped the bedtime routine to contain A LOT more reading. This was partly out of necessity - the nights are so light that they couldn't go to sleep as early as they do when it is dark. They were also doing some pretty wild stuff pre-bedtime which DID NOT make them at all calm or ready to sleep. The answer: you already know: reading, of course!

As a result, my three children have read a ridiculous number of books and now they have industriously written a whole host of comments about the books for you. Here are the books they've chosen along with a few of their thoughts on them:


When Tyler is sent to summer camp, she can’t resist packing one of her latest science projects – the Hologramaphone 3000. Problem is, some of the phone’s functions have EXTREME side-effects, the kind that can turn your best-friend into a ferocious werewolf!

But when Tyler, Dylan and Ashley band together, there’s no problem that they can’t solve – no matter how big, hairy, and terrifying.

You would definitely so love it! I would probably say ages from 6 -10. Well, maybe. Apart from that, I would still recommend it to friends and family. - A, 7

I liked the part where they sneak into Pipper's office to get Tyler's Hologramaphone 2000 because Courtney and Pipper suddenly come in and Courtney starts talking about how clever she is. There's a really funny bit where Courtney says: "You can't say werewolves are real until you've actually see one." That bit's soooo funny! This book is 10/10 is for 7-13 year-olds. My favourite character is Courtney because she is show-y-off-y and funny. Enjoy! - I, 8


A swimming lesson takes an exciting turn when Fliss is magically whisked away to the Indian Ocean! There she finds a young dolphin in trouble and she knows she has to help. But she’s scared of deep water, and who knows what other animals there might be out there! Can Fliss face her fears and save her new friend?

A beautifully detailed book. I liked the bit where Fliss swam right up to the tiger shark and bopped it on the nose, just to save Spinner. I think Fliss was very brave to swim out of her depths, right next to a whale shark! I liked how welcoming and kind the author made Izad. I also liked how the author explained about the reef and how beautiful it was. I would highly recommend this book to friends and family. I think it was a very good book! It was awesome!  - I, 8

The Flute by Ken Wilson-Max, Illustrated by Catell Ronca (Tiny Owl)

Hear the whisper of the flute and see how it floats like a butterfly or blows like cold, grey wind. Discover how music can make you move and feel!

"I like Tiny Owl - he's a good book owl, isn't he?"

This book is about playing the flute. The flute makes nice noises but the sounds are like colours. It makes me feel like I want to play the flute and make a nice song with it. I like the part at the end where is says 'And a lilac sigh' because it has lots of colours. I like the colours in this book. - J, 5

Click here to watch a video of Ken Wilson Max reading The Flute.

The Bolds' Great Adventure by Julian Clary, Illustrated by David Roberts (Andersen Press)

Fasten your seatbelts - it's a special adventure for World Book Day with Teddington's wildest family! Learn just how our intrepid hyenas managed to get from their African safari park onto the plane and off to their new home in England. It's quite a remarkable, and some would say, unbelievable tale - but there are many laughs along the way! 

The Bolds are Hyenas. One day, the find some safari clothes lying near a river. There they found clothes, keys and passports. So they decided to travel to England. When they get there, they get things so muddled up! Mum poops in the shower, eats a wooden fruit and other bad stuff!

I liked the jokes that Mr. Bold makes up - they are very extremely funny!

This book is all about trying hard and listening and it is very fun.

Thank you for making this book, Julian Clary and David Roberts! - A, 7

The Hideaway Deer by Holly Webb, Illustrated by James Brown (Stripes)

When Lola moves house she can’t help feeling sad to leave her old friends and life behind. She’s always been shy and worries it’ll be hard to make friends at her new school. It’s not all scary, though. Lola loves her new home with its rambling garden and the deer that sometimes wander in through the broken fence.

Then one day she comes across a fawn who seems to be in trouble. Lola is determined to do everything she can to help the terrified little deer, but will she be able to do it on her own?


This book is amazing! It's all about a deer who has lost her mum. Her name is Dapple.

This book is all about growing up, leaving your animal friend and moving places.

I liked the bit when Lola stands in front of her class and talks about freeing the deer. - A, 7

Aunt Amelia by Rebecca Cobb (Macmillan)
When Mum and Dad go away for the night, Aunt Amelia comes to look after one very cross little girl and boy. They do NOT want to be looked after and, even worse, Mum has left a list of boring instructions. But Aunt Amelia turns out to be rather different from expected . . . and a LOT more fun!

It's about Aunt Amelia coming to babysit the children. Mum and dad give her a list but they do everything wrong and they have loads of fun! They have fun swinging on trees; they have fun going on Aunt Amelia's back in the pond; they have fun eating loads of ice cream and they have fun eating sweets! At the end, they get ready for mum and dad coming back and they sweep and mop the house. I like everything about this book! - J, 5

My Babysitter Is A Robot by Dave Cousins, Illustrated by Catalina Echeverri (Stripes)

When Grandma creates a robot babysitter for twins Jake and Jess, chaos ensues!

Robin is embarrassing, clumsy and, worst of all, programmed to make them do their homework. They're also pretty sure he thinks their dog is a baby. The twins decide they have to do something before everyone realizes that Robin is a robot. But getting rid of their new babysitter will mean putting aside their sibling squabbles and working together, which might be an even bigger challenge...

My Babysitter Is A Robot is so good! This story is all about a robot who is very strict. I liked it when they were at the school fair and Robin did knock down the coconuts because the children found out that the coconuts were glued on! I also liked the part when they put salt in the sugar bowl for Olivia's party buns! - A, 7

Star Friends: Moonlight Mischief by Linda Chapman, Illustrated by Lucy Fleming (Stripes)

When the residents of Westcombe enter the Best Kept Village competition, they appear to have a helping hand – someone has tidied the village overnight! No one knows who has mowed the lawns and painted the fences but the town is looking neater than ever. Then pets and toys start to go missing. The villagers are upset and worried, and the Star Friends suspect that dark magic is involved. They're going to have to use all of their skills to solve this latest mystery...

In Star Friends: Moonlight Mischief someone's doing dark magic! There are shades in dolls and the dolls come alive! First, they do a good thing, then bad, good, bad.

This book is all about dark magic, powerful girls and trying hard.

I really liked it when they were having to fight the shades. Oh, the book is so good! - A, 7

The Nothing To See Here Hotel by Steven Butler, Illustrated by Steven Lenton (Simon & Schuster)

Welcome to The Nothing to See Here Hotel! A hotel for magical creatures, where weird is normal for Frankie Banister and his parents who run the hotel.

When a goblin messenger arrives at The Nothing to See Here Hotel, announcing the imminent arrival of the goblin prince Grogbah, Frankie and his family rush into action to get ready for their important guest. But it soon becomes obvious that the Banister family are going to have their work cut out with the demanding prince and his never-ending entourage, especially when it turns out the rude little prince is hiding a secret..

I liked the bit where Mrs V gobbles Grogbah up in her sleep. I also like how the Molar Sisters speak - 'Thith ith amathing!' - they speak like that because they have lost so many teeth! It's good when the pirates come and have a fight with the goblins! It turns out that Grogbah has the encrusted diamond aaaaaaaaaaaaall along! This book is 10/10 and is for 7s and over. My favourite character is Nancy because she is a very calm, lovely spider. This book is amazing. - I, 8

Action Stan by Elaine Wickson, Illustrated by Chris Judge (OUP Oxford)

Stan and his little brother Fred are off on a school trip to an outdoor adventure camp. Stan has been asked to keep an eye on Fred and his friends while they're away . . . what could possibly go wrong!?
Packed full of infographics, charts, and diagrams, this hilarious and visually-exciting book will have huge appeal for young readers.

Charts - WOW! I liked the bit where Stan joins the dogs and he wears all the funny clothes. This book is definitely 10/10 and I'd say it's for 8-13 year olds. My favourite character is Maddies because she is dressed in black and the only streak of colour is purple in her hair. She chews bubblegum and stands up for her sister Billie. I also like the bits where calls Jess Alaska. - I, 8

The Travels of Ermine: Trouble in New York by Jennifer Gray, Illustrated by Elisa Paganelli (Usborne)

Meet Ermine. She may be small but she’s on a BIG journey around the world.

Ermine the Determined is off to explore NEW YORK.

She can’t wait to visit Central Park Zoo, ride in a yellow taxi, and zoooom to the top of the Rockefeller building!

But when her suitcase is switched, Ermine finds some robbers are hot on her tail…

I really like how Barry does his burps and tummy rumbles - they're so funny! Also, all the time in the book Barry and Harry are trying to get the diamond all along and Ermine doesn't even know!

I like the accidental trick where Ermine scatters nails on the floor and puts glue on the floor. She also puts chili sauce on the hotdog and fizzymints in the Coca-Cola. I think think this book should be for 7-10s and it's definitely a 10/10! Enjoy! - I, 8

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Questions I Asked Myself When Writing Check Mates by Stewart Foster


I asked Stewart Foster to let us inside the mind of an author at work. One thing that potentially hinders us when we create their own writing is that they don't know the questions to ask themselves as they write. If a writer isn't asking these kinds of questions they could miss out on really ensuring their writing connects with its audience and fulfils its purpose. So, see what Stewart thought about whilst he wrote 'Check Mates' and use his questions as inspiration for your own as you write.

1. Is the beginning quick enough to hold readers attention? My answer to this is to go to dialogue as soon as I can.

2. Will the reader engage with the characters? This is not the same as ‘like’. Again, the answer is to go to dialogue. I find it the best way to ‘hear’ my characters.

3. Do I have Felix’s voice right? The funny thing about this, as with all my books, is that I only knew I had it right when I was no longer conscious of doing it.

4. Was Granddad too much of the perceived stereotypical German. The answer in the first draft was yes, so I dumbed down his accent, and simply had a key phrase ‘I am thinking…’ which I found endearing and quite funny.

5. Was I just writing a series of activities that I found funny, but didn’t move the story forward? Answer, yes, a little. So, I cut out the Go-Karting and car cleaning chapters. Maybe they will see light one day, as I really did like the Go-Karts, but as they say, ‘you have to kill your darlings.’

6. Was the Stasi section too much of an info-dump? I’m terrible about this when I think I spot it in other books, but the truth is, I’m a terrible reader, so I’m no judge at all. In this case I had my daughter read it, and she said it was fine.

7. After the ‘Fall out between Felix’s friend, Jake, and Granddad, how do I get them to make up, without having three chapters of people apologising? This was probably the bit I got most stuck on, and it stopped me for a few days. Then suddenly it came to me, and as with most writing problems, one solution can often solve three things. So, my favourite chapter in Check Mates is the scene with the chess board, under the tree.

8. Am I making it too sad? In order to address this, I broke a rule and went back and read a few chapters (I never go back and read as I write). Luckily, and perhaps vainly, I found myself laughing at my own jokes. Well someone has to! But this meant I knew it was a good balance of sadness and humour.

9. This wasn’t so much a question, as a problem, and that was how to avoid the cliché ending. Luckily the ending came to me when I was out cycling, and to be honest, the ending even surprised me. Of course, I can’t tell you it, as….well, it would spoil the fun!

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Book Review: 'The Adventures of Harry Stevenson' by Ali Pye

Adults love to recommend children's books. But what do kids actually think about them? For this review I decided to get my daughter's thoughts as well as give my own. And it only seemed right to let my daughter (who is in year 2) share her thoughts first:

Harry is a guinea pig who is always getting lost. Billy and Harry are best friends who always tell each other everything.

At Billy's birthday party Harry floats away and although he is scared he is determined to get back to Billy.

This book is about friendship, finding your feet and it talks a lot about a football team called 'The Sparky F.C'.

The illustrations of Harry are really cute and they are really interesting to look at.

It is simple enough for 7-11s to read but definitely entertaining.

Harry Stevenson is a really good book and it is very enjoyable to read!

And here's my review:

Harry Stevenson is a guinea pig - of course he is, what else would he be with such a name? Harry lives with Billy and is pretty much his best friend and confidant. In this new book from author and illustrator Ali Pye we get not one, but two of Harry's charming and barmy adventures.

In the first story, Billy and his family move house and in a bizarre twist of fate (or twist of the cage's latch) Harry gets left behind. Of course, he finds his way back but not without severely spooking a dog, having a close shave with a cat and ending up in a box of pizza (which he doesn't even eat as he sticks closely to a proper guinea pig diet).

The second story also sees Harry let loose in the outside, this time in an even more crazy set of circumstances - Ali Pye's illustration of a beat up VW van in hot pursuit of an airborne rodent is one I'd love to have a print of!

Speaking of the illustrations, their screenprint-style of limited, but bright, colour palette are what makes the book immediately appealing - so much so that when my copy arrived it was promptly removed from my shelf and read within a 24 hour period by my 7 year old daughter.

Once the illustrations have hooked in their readers young and old, all will delight in the warmly told stories of a boy and his guinea pig. Pye opens up the mind of a devoted pet and confirms what everyone who keeps an animal secretly hopes - that they completely understand their humans and their complicated lives and love them unconditionally. Harry's mixture of wisdom (when it comes to how Billy must be feeling about loving house, starting a new school and hoping that his football team win) and daftness (when he dreams he's eating spaghetti but is in fact chewing the strings of helium balloons) is quite delightful!

Unlike many books aimed at this age range (I'd say 6-9ish), it's one that will appeal to grown ups as well as children. It's funny without being silly, or rude, and far-fetched in such a heart-warming way that no one could dislike it! It falls into the category of 'great books to introduce children to reading chapter books', of which I've not yet read enough - thanks Ali for writing a good one!

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.