Showing posts with label reading for empathy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reading for empathy. Show all posts

Monday, 23 September 2019

Book review: 'The Boy With The Butterfly Mind' by Victoria Williamson

Family politics are never easy. Especially not when you're a kid with ADHD.

Family politics are never easy. Especially not when you're a kid who is trying everything, including being absolutely perfect, to make things how they used to be.

When Jamie and Elin's parents get together, and Jamie has to move in with Elin, things do not look good. With step-siblings, American boyfriends, new schools, changes in medication and school bullies to contend with, things get (realistically) messy. In 'The Boy With The Butterfly Mind' Victoria Williamson turns her forensic but empathetic lens on life for children when their parents split up. Those who haven't experienced it will get a glimpse into the lives of those who have, and those readers whose parents have split will be quietly glad to see themselves represented in the pages of a book.

Williamson manages to convey the agony of having to live with all the complications of medical conditions and broken families with enough sensitive humour to keep the reader wondering how things will all resolve. Will Jamie and Elin ever learn to get along? Will therapy and medicine help the children through their confusion and anger? How does friendship figure in such a tense family situation? Through a sequence of immersive set pieces the story romps along, not always joyfully, but always full of heart, driven by the well-painted characters and the believable plot lines.

Joining Lisa Thompson's 'The Day I Was Erased' and Stewart Foster's 'Check Mates' and 'All The Things That Could Go Wrong', this book serves as an insight for children and adult readers alike into the potential reasons behind the actions of children who at school get labelled as 'the naughty kid'. It's not often that other children are given reason to empathise with these children making this an important read for youngsters. Although fiction, this story serves as a powerful illustration of how acceptance and understanding can help others to manage the impact of their experiences and medical conditions.

Employing a dual narrative technique, with each chapter alternating between Jamie and Elin's point of view, 'The Boy With The Butterfly Mind', is a moving and compelling read. Capable of triggering an emotional response, Victoria Williamson's latest book is a brilliant follow-up to her debut novel 'Fox Girl And The White Gazelle', giving her fans something else equally as brilliant to get their teeth, and hearts, into.

https://discoverkelpies.co.uk/books/uncategorized/boy-with-the-butterfly-mind-2/

Monday, 16 September 2019

The Right Book for the Right Child (Guest Blog Post By Victoria Williamson)

I remember very clearly when my love affair with Jane Austen began.

It was the summer between fifth and sixth year of high school, when I was seventeen. I’d picked up Pride and Prejudice for the first time, but not because I actually wanted to read it. It was a stormy day despite it being July – too wet to walk up to the local library. It was back in the nineties before the internet, Kindle, and instant downloads were available. I wanted to curl up on the sofa to read, but I’d already been through every single book in the house. All that was left unread at the bottom of the bookshelf was a row of slightly faded classics belonging to my mother. I only picked the first one up as there was clearly a book-drought emergency going on, and I was desperate.

The reason I didn’t want to read it, was because I already knew it was going to be totally boring.
Well, I thought I knew it. I’d already ‘read’ the classics you see. When I was ten or eleven, thinking I was very clever, I branched out from my usual diet of fantasy and adventure books, and opened a copy of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I can’t remember why now – it might have been another rainy day and another book emergency situation, but whatever the reason, I spent several miserable hours ploughing through page after page of unintelligible drivel about Lincoln’s Inn, Chancery, and a bunch of boring characters who said very dull things, before giving up in disgust.


I ‘knew’ from that point on that the classic novels teachers and book critics raved about were the literary equivalent of All Bran instead of Sugar Puffs, and I wasn’t interested in sampling any more.

I didn’t pick up another classic until that rainy day at seventeen, when I sped through Pride and Prejudice in a day and a night, emerging sleepy-eyed but breathless the next day to snatch Emma from the shelf before retreating back to my room to devour it. That summer, after running out of books by Austen, the Brontes and Mrs Gaskell, I tried Bleak House again. And what a difference! Where before I had waded thorough unintelligible passages without gaining any sense of what was going on, I now found an engaging, and often humorous tale of a tangled court system far beyond the ‘red tape’ that everyone was always complaining about in present-day newspapers. Where before I’d only seen dull characters who rambled on forever without saying anything at all, I discovered wit and caricature, and a cast of people I could empathise with.

That was when I realised that there wasn’t anything wrong with the literary classics – it was me who was the problem. Or rather, the mismatch between my reading ability when I was ten, and the understanding I had of the world at that age. I could read all of the words on the page, I just didn’t understand what half of them meant, and I thought the problem was with the story itself.

I was reminded of this little episode in my own reading history recently when I spent the summer in Zambia volunteering with the reading charity The Book Bus. One afternoon we were reading one-to-one with children in a community library, when I met Samuel. Samuel had a reading level far above the other children, and raced through the picture books and short stories they were struggling with. I asked him to pick a more complicated book to read with me for the last ten minutes, and after searching through the two bookshelves that comprised the small one-roomed library, he came back with a Ladybird book published in 1960, called ‘What to Look for in Autumn.’

He did his best with it. He could read all of the words – the descriptions of wood pigeons picking up the seeds to ‘fill their crops’, the harvesters – reapers, cutters and binders – putting the oats into ‘stooks’ and the information about various ‘mushrooms and fungi’, but he didn’t understand anything he was reading. Needless to say I looked out a more appropriate chapter book from the Book Bus’s well-stocked shelves for him to read the following week, but the incident reminded me of the importance of getting relevant books into children’s hands if we’re to ensure they’re not turned off by the reading experience.

This is a problem often encountered in schools when teachers are looking for books to recommend to children. A lot of the time we’re so focused on getting them to read ‘good’ books, the ones we enjoyed as children, or the ones deemed ‘worthy’ by critics, that we forget that reading ability isn’t the only thing we have to take into consideration. We have to match the child’s level of understanding to the texts that we’re recommending – or in the case of that Ladybird book, get rid of outdated books from our libraries entirely!

Children often find making the leap to more challenging books difficult, and comfort read the same books over and over again – sometimes even memorising them in anticipation of being asked to read aloud with an adult. If we’re to help them bridge this gap, we must make sure our recommendations are not only appropriate for their reading level, but match their understanding too, introducing new words and ideas gradually in ways that won’t put them off.

Samuel and I were both lucky – we loved reading enough that one bad experience wasn’t enough to put us off, but other children might not be so fortunate. Let’s ensure all children have the chance to discover the joy of reading, by getting the right books into the hands of the right child.

Victoria Williamson is the author of Fox Girl and the White Gazelle (click here for my review) and The Boy with the Butterfly Mind, both published by Floris Books.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Empathy: A Superpower by Sita Brahmachari

"Reading helps young minds to imagine lives beyond their own: how they would cope in a crisis, if they were a refugee, or had just lost someone they loved. Books are scientifically proven to help us develop empathy.

Empathy Day is catching fire because in these divided times, our partners share our belief that empathy is a beacon of hope. Story-based strategies offer a concrete way of helping us understand each other better."

- Miranda McKearney OBE, founder of EmpathyLab

Now here's Sita Brahmachari to tell us more about her experience of Empathy Day and of writing books which develop empathy in their readers: 

For Empathy Lab last year I worked in Sheffield Libraries and met families at Empathy cafés. We read from my stories 'Worry Angels' (Barrington Stoke) and 'Tender Earth' (Macmillan Children’s Books) and I held Empathy workshops with young people including those from Beck School in Sheffield.

We explored joining hands together, meeting new people and building empathy within the community. Many wonderful interactions were formed and afterwards a young family sent me a letter (left). When I first met Tanisha and Nawzad and their mother the girls had silky hair down to their calves. At the second meeting the girls had cut their hair and sent it to children with cancer who needed children’s downy hair for their wigs. They said after the workshop they wanted to do something that meant a lot to them. They were so proud of their empathetic action telling me that their hair would grow and they were happy to think that a child they would never meet would find some comfort from their healthy hair.

As with all truly empathetic actions their kindness and generosity moved me. In my forthcoming story ‘Where The River Runs Gold’ (Orion Books) Shifa (meaning healing in Arabic) cuts her hair too in an act of empathy towards her family. Feelings of empathy once seeded grow more empathy.

Empathy is the golden treasure to be discovered in fiction and in life and I think of it as the superpower that can be quietly ignited in the minds and hearts of readers as they discover characters in worlds they may not yet have travelled to, or indeed may never, in reality, have access to. I believe that stories can open children’s empathy portals and offer them a life-long exploration of what it is to be human.

At a recent event at Shropshire Book Award with wonderful authors and human rights activists Liz Laird and Beverly Naidoo a student asked a question that was hard to answer: How do you write such humane books?

It set me thinking that it’s often hard for authors to talk about their process because to do so there is a temptation to make writing in empathy ink seem much neater and tidier than it ever is. Communication is complex; to truly meet another human being requires time, care and space. As Amy May in ‘Worry Angels’ says: ‘If you have a friend and you don’t share much of the same language you have to put spaces between things when you talk to each other. … I like that space when you can rest. I think if I could have that space with everyone, no matter what language they speak , where I have time to read people’s body language and look in their eyes and time to take in their words, then I wouldn’t worry so much.’ ( p77 ‘Worry Angels’)

In this story Amy May makes friends with Rima who has recently arrived from Syria with her family. Through play, art and observing each other closely Amy May and Rima discover that they have much in common though they come from very different worlds. Amy May discovers something truly precious: ‘When I sit with Rima I understand that most of the things we want to build in the sand are the same’ (p75)

Through my work with Jane Ray at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants in London I know this to be true and when presented with stories that open the empathy portal in them, children recognise it too.

When I think of Amy May’s and Rima’s interaction the words of the late MP Jo Cox are never far from my mind and heart. Amy May’s words echo Jo Cox’s call for unity in a time in which we are seeing unprecedented racially motivated attacks.

Taneisha’s and Nawzad’s empathetic action of hair cutting seems to me to be deeply connected to what writing for young people is all about.

The question How do you write such humane stories? can only be answered when I think of a book in the hands of young readers: the circuit of empathy is only completed when the reader roams in the space that Amy May speaks of and feels deeply enough to allow the story to impact on their lives and interactions.

As I return to Sheffield to spend the day with the children of Beck School on World Empathy Day 2019 I feel the importance of this work in our world today. In a whole school empathy focused day we plan to create a river of golden empathetic words on an art wall at the school… as well as an empathy ‘Graffitree’ like the trees artists paint across a dystopian city where children’s imaginations and storytelling is under threat in ‘Where The River Runs Gold’.

 The narratives we share with young people matter deeply. Golden words hold within them the power to open empathy portals in children’s imaginations and impact on their lives and communities. I’m so happy to be part of Empathy Lab’s children’s book community who understand the need to nurture this golden empathy river.

Although many of Sita's books are suitable for older primary aged children, her book Car Wash Wish is featured in Empathy Lab's 2019 Read For Empathy Guide for young people aged 11-16 which can be accessed here. Click here for the Read For Empathy Guide for primary aged children.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Empathy Day Reading For Empathy Guide 2019

This year's Empathy Day falls on June 11th. Today EmpathyLab has revealed the titles in its Read For Empathy Guide. The day focuses on using books – and talking about them – as a tool to help people understand each other better. As regular readers of my blog will know this is something close to my heart.

Something I was particularly interested to find out about was the selection process for the books included in the guide. Below are the empathy angles used in the judging process. A book that can support Reading for Empathy...:
  • Has powerful characters you care about, whose emotions you feel and which challenge and expand the reader’s own emotional understanding
  • Builds perspective taking – e.g. through different characters’ points of view
  • Gives the reader real insight into other people’s lives and experiences
  • Builds empathy for people in challenging circumstances (e.g. disability, migration, bereavement)
  • Deepens understanding of human experience at other times in history
  • Can help expand young people’s emotional vocabulary/recognition of emotions
  • Motivates the reader to put empathy into action


Having a look down the list of books there are several I have read but plenty more for me to get hold of during the coming months. Here are a few I've read and would like to recommend from the list:

Sweep by Louise Greig, illustrated Júlia Sardà (Egmont Books) - this one I included on my Top Children's Books of 2018 list for TES. It's a great extended but simple metaphor for dealing with anger and other negative emotions - one that children can really connect with. This book, which parents or teachers can share with individuals and groups alike, is certainly worthy of recognition and use at home and in the classroom.

Peace and Me by Ali Winter, illustrated by Mickaël El Fathi (Lantana Publishing) - this is another one I included on my Top Children's Books of 2018 list for TES. It is good to see a non-fiction title on the list - many children prefer reading books such as this. This one focuses on several notable Nobel Peace Prize winners, giving a potted history of who they were and why they won the prize, all accompanied by beautiful illustrations.

The Bubble Boy by Stewart Foster (Simon & Schuster Children’s Books) - whilst one of my favourite #ReadForEmpathy books is Stewart Foster's 'All The Things That Could Go Wrong', 'The Bubble Boy' is another great choice. In it the reader really gets to walk in the shoes of a child confined to a hospital bed - I can't think of many other books that offer this experience to young readers.

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf, illustrated by Pippa Curnick (Orion Children’s Books) - I read this one after I had submitted my list of the best books of 2018 but if I'd read it before I would definitely have included it. Empathy is exemplified by the main character as they embark on an ambitious (if not a little crazy) adventure to try to find the family of a refugee who has started at their school.

The Light Jar by Lisa Thompson (Scholastic) - when this was published in January last year I reviewed it here on my blog: "As soon as you hear of Nate's dad leaving and mum's new man Gary you marvel at Lisa Thompson's bravery: tackling a subject like domestic abuse in a story aimed at 9 to 12 year olds? But she does it so beautifully. And it is important that she does - books should tell all stories."  I also included it on my Top Children's Books of 2018 list for TES saying that it "blurs the boundaries between reality, imagination and the supernatural."

The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle by Victoria Williamson (Floris Books) - yet another book I included on my Top Children's Books of 2018 list for TES and in my piece for TES on books that take children out of their comfort zone and one which is very possibly my favourite book of 2018. In the review I wrote of it here on my blog I wrote: "'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."



Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman (Penguin) - this classic is one I included in my TES piece 13 books to take pupils out of their comfort zone: "Blackman flips the script on race wars, provoking thought with this painful account of how systemic discrimination ruins lives". I read it for the first time whilst on holiday this summer - I found it so distressing that I had to have a break from it to read something else. I am still steeling myself to read the follow-up books.

Running on Empty by S. E. Durrant (Nosy Crow) - EmpathyLab have included this on their secondary list, but I think it is fine for older primary children too: I included it on my Top Children's Books of 2018 list for TES. AJ, the book's protagonist, navigates life's already difficult roads with the added pressure of worrying about his parents who both have learning difficulties; again, this is not a perspective I've come across before in a children's book.

Boy 87 by Ele Fountain (Pushkin Children’s) - this one features on the secondary list as it is a pretty harrowing telling of a young boy's escape from an African totalitarian regime. With the recent so-called migrant crisis hitting the news this is possibly one of the most important books on the list - if only our right-wing politicians would give it a read.

Follow EmpathyLab on Twitter: @EmpathyLabUK and search the hashtag #ReadforEmpathy for more. Visit their website at www.empathylab.uk.

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.

Friday, 8 June 2018

More Books That Encourage Children To #ReadForEmpathy

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

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

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

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

Coming To England: An Autobiography - Floella Benjamin

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

Dear World - Bana Alabed

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

Malala Yousafzai - Claire Throp

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

And now for some fiction:

The Kites Are Flying! - Michael Murpurgo

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

Skeleton Tree - Kim Ventrella

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

The Light Jar - Lisa Thompson

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

Sky Song - Abi Elphinstone

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

The Wonderling - Mira Bartok

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

How To Bee - Bren MacDibble

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

The Phantom Lollipop Man - Pamela Butchart

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

The Fox Girl And The White Gazelle - Victoria Williamson

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

The Mystery Of The Colour Thief - Ewa Jozefkowich

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

Illegal - Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano

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


Max and the Millions - Ross Montgomery

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

Thursday, 7 June 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

From the very beginning we knew that we wanted to tell the story of ILLEGAL as a graphic novel rather than a more traditional prose novel. One of the many reasons for this was that we wanted to avoid telling the readers how our characters felt. We wanted to show our readers the situations that Ebo and Kwame find themselves in and invite our readers to imagine how the brothers might be feeling. We wanted to ask our readers to empathise with them and to imagine how they would feel in their place.

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

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

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

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

Monday, 21 May 2018

Guest Post: Who Gets to Tell the Story? Empathy vs Exploitation by Victoria Williamson


In today's guest blog post, and as part of her blog tour, Victoria Williamson, author of 'The Fox Girl and The White Gazelle' (see my review), discusses how stories can help children to understand things from the perspective of others. In her own book the story is told by two characters, each with their own point of view on the same events - this device is a helpful way into exploring how different people see and interpret the same events differently.

In a world of competing twenty-four hour news channels, adverts and infomercials that stretch the definition of truth, scientific data sponsored by self-interested corporations, and ‘fake news’ pedalled on Facebook and Twitter with countless celebrity ‘likes’, how do we separate the fact from the fiction, the objective reality from the subjective opinion?

Learning to sift through all of the available sources and select the most reliable ones is a vital skill for students to learn. One of the best ways to introduce them to this is through fiction. Children’s books are full of unreliable narrators, characters who see the world only from their point of view and get things wrong as a result. Caylin and Reema in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle are no exception. Seen though Reema’s eyes, Caylin is a mean school bully, a talentless thug and an untrustworthy thief with no redeeming qualities. From Caylin’s point of view, Reema is a foreigner who speaks a strange language and eats weird food, an outsider she couldn’t possibly have anything in common with. At first their own prejudice colours every interaction, to the point where they experience the same events in completely different ways.

In Chapters 16 and 17 Caylin and Reema race each other in gym class, and both come away with a very different opinion of how that race turned out. Reema thinks:

I have won. I have proved to them all that I am the White Gazelle, and I am fast.
Caylin may be faster than me over a short distance, but that is alright, because I am stronger.
I will always outrun her in the end.

While Caylin says:

I totally beat her. If Miss Lindsey hadn’t made us run a stupid marathon instead of a straight race then I would’ve crossed the finish miles ahead of Reema.
It wasn’t a fair contest.
            [...] As long as I know I can outrun Reema, that’s all that matters.

It’s only when the two girls overcome their initial mistrust and start to work together to look after the family of foxes in the back yard of their apartment building that they realise they’re not so very different after all. It’s only by sharing their experiences with each other, and looking at the world from the others’ point of view, that they come to see the whole picture.

When discussing refugee issues in the classroom, the ‘whole picture’ exercise is a very useful one to get students thinking about who is being allowed to tell the story, and whose point of view is being left out entirely. I ask groups to look at a picture that is half covered with paper, and ask them to describe what they think the other hidden half looks like. The most useful picture for this exercise is the Reuters photograph by Jose Palazon showing golfers on an expensive course in Spain on one side, while migrants attempting to make it across the Spain-Morocco border to start a new life in Europe are seen climbing the high fence in the background. When the background is covered and we only see the point of view of the golfers, it looks like a beautiful, tranquil scene on a plush course lined by palm trees. Only when it is seen from the point of view of the migrants perched precariously on top of the fence does the difference in wealth, situation and life chances become clear.

This exercise is a great introduction to further activities looking at newspaper headlines and news stories. Who is telling the story? Is it written from the point of view of a resident of that country or a displaced person seeking a refuge? Is it sympathetic or hostile? Is the story being told with empathy, or is it exploitative, full of click-bait headlines and inflammatory phrases to draw readers in, regardless of the dehumanising effect this has on the people being described?

As teachers we need to ensure that students have access to a wide range of sources in our classes that describe historical and current affairs events from all points of view, not just the mainstream or ‘accepted’ version. As authors, we have a duty to represent a range of different characters and voices in our books, and not always default to writing characters just like us whose life experiences mirror our own. The ability to empathise with others may be something we are all born with, but like most skills, it has to be nurtured and practised. It’s only by seeing the world through the eyes of others that we get to exercise this important skill fully, and reading fiction with a diverse range of characters and voices is one of the best places to begin.

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

Monday, 26 February 2018

Book Review: 'The Children of Castle Rock' by Natasha Farrant

‘The Children of Castle Rock’ is a daring new adventure story in the tradition of all good boarding school novels. Lovers of Harry Potter, Malory Towers and The Worst Witch will immediately find something in this new story that they identify with. The boarding school setting allows for the all-important parentlessness that so often sets up the protagonists of children’s books to have rip-roaring escapades that their parents would never allow. Farrant brings Famous Five-style adventure right up to date with mobile phones and various other trappings of modern life.

Except in Natasha Farrant’s latest book it is some mysterious communication from Alice’s largely-absent dad that prompts her and her friends to abscond from school to embark on a crazy adventure across remote areas of Scotland. The fact that the Stormy Loch’s behaviour management ethos doesn’t follow the normal strictness found in other fictional schools makes matters worse… or better… depending on which way you look at it.

The main theme of this book really is children’s relationships with adults: Alice’s mum has died, her dad is pretty useless, and she’s actually closest to her Auntie, the aptly named Patience. Fergus’ parents have split up and are not amicable and Jesse lives in the shadow of his older brothers and is desperate initially to win his parents’ favour with his violin playing. The teachers at the school are a rag tag bunch headed up by the Major who is quirky, to say the least – a rather progressive ex-army man who challenges all stereotypes of head teachers in children’s fiction. The book crescendos with some unexpected outcomes where children’s relationships to adults are concerned – I won’t spoil it, but this isn’t your typical children’s book ending.

The book has a very strong narrator presence making it unlike any other children’s book I’ve read. Farrant often hints at things are to come, referencing future parts of the story that are relevant to events that are happening at the point of narration. The narration is where the playfulness of this story comes leaving the characters largely to get on with the serious business of embarking on their quest to subvert the orienteering challenge in order to transport a secret package to a rendezvous with Barney, Alice’s shady father. Along the way the children experience the joys of wild swimming, fishing and camping, torrential rain and storms, breaking and entering, food poisoning and being chased by proper baddies, not to mention the highs and lows of pre-teen friendship.

The book is aimed fairly and squarely at children of a similar age to the children in the book – upper key stage two and lower key stage three children will love this story. There are some starred out expletives which give it a little edge, and leave little to the imagination – something to consider when using the book in school or recommending it to children. With a diverse set of characters, themes that are relevant to the lives of many children and a main character who loves writing, there is also definite scope for this being used in the classroom as a stimulus for discussion. A recommended read.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Revealed: Read For Empathy Guide from EmpathyLab

Those of you who've been reading my blog and interacting with me on Twitter will know my passion for the transformative power of books. One particularly powerful aspect of books is there ability to develop empathy in the reader.

The new Read For Empathy Guide from EmpathyLab is introduced with these brilliant paragraphs:

"Empathy is a human super-power which helps us all understand each other better. It is also an essential social and emotional skill, crucial if children are to thrive.

"We’re not born with a fixed quantity of empathy – it’s a skill we can learn. Excitingly, new research shows that books are a powerful tool to develop it, because in identifying with book characters, children learn to see things from other points of view. So when you read with children you can build their empathy skills at the same time."

At this year's Reading Rocks conference I ran a workshop entitled 'The More-Ness Of Reading' (click the link for a blog version of it) in which the attendees and I explored how books can help us to become more empathetic. I've also written several blog posts on the matter:

Changing Hearts, Minds, Lives and the Future: Reading With Children for Empathy
The Best RE Lesson I Ever Taught (Spoiler: It Was A Reading Lesson)

Many of my book reviews focus in on ways that children's books might be used in the classroom to encourage children to develop empathy:

'The Goldfish Boy' by Lisa Thompson
'All The Things That Could Go Wrong' by Stewart Foster

I'm something of a fan of reading for empathy. So I was excited to find that EmpathyLab have published in their guide a list of 30 books to build children’s empathy and all in good time for Empathy Day on 12th June - we teachers and parents can get reading the selection of books now in time for then.


So far, of this list, I've only read 'Grandad’s Island' by Benji Davies, 'My Name is Not Refugee' by Kate Milner, 'Can I Join your Club?' by John Kelly and illustrated by Steph Laberis and 'The Island at the End of Everything' by Kiran Millwood Hargrave although there are a few there I've had my eye on for a while. With having read only 4 out of the 30 so far I've got a lot to be getting on with. I think I will make it my aim to read all the picture books first - hopefully my excellent local library will have them in.

The guide itself contains mini reviews of each of the books, all of which give an idea of how the book might support the development of empathy. The books which have been chosen explore themes of displacement and migration, experiencing and managing emotions and facing challenging circumstances, such as deafness, autism or bereavement.

EmpathyLab Founder Miranda McKearney OBE says: "It’s time to make far more systematic use of books’ power to tackle society’s empathy deficit. This 2018 Read for Empathy Guide is part of an empathy movement to help us understand each other better. We’re seriously delighted to be working with authors, publishers and Peters to launch it in the run up to Empathy Day on 12 June."

Have you read any of the selected books? How would you use them with children to develop empathy?
Which of the selected books are you particularly looking forward to?
I look forward to hearing from you!

Monday, 13 November 2017

Book Review: 'Here We Are' by Oliver Jeffers

When you spot J.M. Barrie's quote "...always try to be a little kinder than is necessary..." tucked away at the beginning of a book you can almost be certain it's going to be a must-read for children. Especially in world where we seem to see so much unkindness.

But that's not the world Jeffers focuses on in 'Here We Are'. In fact he looks at humanity and our planet positively and hopefully, encouraging his readers to re-envision what they see around them. Of course, these 'notes for living on planet earth' are inspired by the author's son so the optimistic standpoint is one of childish naivety, and that's OK. Adult readers will understand the negatives behind the positive statements - the book provides a stimulus for adults to discuss world events and issues with children at an age-appropriate level.

The book has excellent Science and Geography links - Jeffers, in his inimitable style, illustrates the solar system, the night sky, the human body and species of animals providing engaging starting points to several areas of the national curriculum. In fact, so good are these that you'll be crying out for an Oliver Jeffers 'How Things Work' style non-fiction book to use in all aspects of the STEM curriculum.  

First, 'Here We Are' is celebration of the planet on which we live; it encourages awe and wonder as we notice and learn about the world around us. Second, it gently urges its readers to look after the things around them - the environment, others and themselves. A double page spread beautifully illustrated with an impressive variety of different-looking people serves as a great talking point alone - how should we treat those who look different to us? Even though we look different, are there similarities? These are such important questions for young children to be discussing if our societies are ever to be more empathetic.

C.S. Lewis said "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest" and Oliver Jeffers never fails at this. Adults reading this book will be reminded about what life is really about and will be inspired to ensure that in all the areas the book touches upon that they are good role models to the children in their life. 'Things can sometimes move slowly here on Earth. More often though, they move quickly, so use your time well.' is definitely advice needed by adults more than by children. 

If there were to be one overarching theme I'd say it was wellbeing. And not that selfish kind that only says look after yourself, but the type that celebrates the positive impact of caring for the wellbeing of others. In fact, the five ways to wellbeing are clearly all celebrated in this book: Connect ('You're never alone on earth'); Be Active ('...when the sun is out, it is daytime, and we do stuff' accompanied by a gorgeous yellow-tinted illustration of all kinds of activity); Take Notice ('There is so much to see and do here on Earth...'); Learn (the whole book is about learning new things); and Give ('just remember to leave notes for everyone else.'). What parent wouldn't want wellbeing for their children?

Basically, this is essential reading and needs to be a staple on library shelves and in schools and homes. Books do have the power to change perceptions and this one is something like a manifesto for how children will need to operate in order to change the way things are going in the world. But, I'd even recommend this to adults who might never read it with a child - it could be the gentle reminder they need to adjust their lives for their own wellbeing's sake.

Book Review: 'Balthazar the Great' by Kirsten Sims

'Balthazar The Great' is a simple story about belonging. Balthazar the bear is freed from the circus but must find his way home, but where does he belong? The striking illustrations, alongside minimal text, tell of discovery and explore issues such as animal rights, friendship, loneliness, regret and relief.

This book would be a great place to start conversations with younger children about any of the above topics. So many questions for discussion spring to mind: Should circuses be allowed to feature animals? Where do polar bears come from? Do we only belong with people who are like us? What makes family so important? Is it possible to be friends with someone who looks different? What does it feel like to be alone in a foreign country? It's easy to forget that young children are able to engage with these ideas and picturebooks like this are a great safe space for them to begin to grapple with life's big questions.

Kirsten Sims' colourful gouache and ink illustrations and quirky typeface will appeal to fans of author/illustrators such as Oliver Jeffers, but that's not to say they are too similar. This artsy approach to picturebook creation should mean that this pleasant little story stands out on the shelves and is read by many.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Book Review: 'Skeleton Tree' by Kim Ventrella

When a book with the word 'skeleton' in the title is published close to Halloween, if you're anything like me, you're more than likely to write it off as some Goosebumps-style horror story for children. But Kim Ventrella's 'Skeleton Tree' is not that kind of book. In fact, it is so not that kind of book that it really caught me off guard.

'A beautiful, bittersweet tale of family, love and loss' it says on the back. And the blurb isn't lying. Stanley's dad has left, his sister is seriously ill, his mother is struggling with medical bills (it is set in the US, so no NHS) and, at a guess, mental health issues (although this is not explicit) and his best friend has OCD (not a main factor as it is in Stewart Foster's 'All The Things That Could Go Wrong' and Lisa Thompson's 'The Goldfish Boy'). And then a skeleton grows out of the ground in Stanley's garden and comes to life.

The skeleton, to an adult reader, is a metaphor for death, but Ventrella cleverly explores the very real experience of how mixed emotions come into play during the loss of a loved one. The skeleton is funny (there are laugh-out-loud moments) and he brings some light relief to what is otherwise a very sad story. Because this book deals so explicitly with death I would recommend that adults read it first and then make a decision about whether or not it is suitable for their child, or for a child in their class. The book may help some children to explore the emotions felt during a bereavement, for others it may not reflect their experience and might be unhelpful.

Many books about death which are aimed at children attempt to provide some sort of explanation as to what happens to someone when they die - this book doesn't really do that, and is better for it. Beliefs differ widely on this matter so is best left to parents to explain.

'Skeleton Tree' is a clever and emotionally-charged children's novel which will be enjoyed by children and adults alike although I acknowledge that it may not be for everyone. It blurs the boundaries between what is real and what is a coping mechanism in a convincing way - the reader only has to suspend disbelief on a couple of matters, and for children that comes naturally. Not many books make me feel as emotional as this one - based on that alone I'd say this book deserves to be on a good number of home, library and classroom bookshelves!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Book Review: 'The End of the Sky' by Sandi Toksvig


It's no secret that one of my favourite books for children is 'Hitler's Canary' by Sandi Toksvig, so when her agent offered to send me a copy for every one of my workshop delegates at Reading Rocks I could hardly say no. In fact, I also asked for an extra copy so I could read it myself.

'The End of the Sky' picks up on many of the themes that Hitler's Canary covered, albeit in a completely different historical setting. The story tells of a family fleeing Ireland in the 1800s, hoping to make a new life on the west coast of America. The story chronicles the terrible journey that many of the pioneers would have made on the Oregon trail and doesn't shy away from the loss and sadness that was experienced by them.

As I read I kept reaching for Google to find out more about the book's contents: Choctaw 'Indians' sent foreign aid to Ireland; the John Bull was a steam engine made in England and shipped in pieces to the US without any instructions as to how to put them together; the Allegheny Portage Railroad really did carry canal boats up and over the mountains. This book really is an education, especially for children living in the UK who will have very little idea about the journeys people made as they looked for a new life.

The book's main theme is family, and how others might become part of a family. It deals with loyalty, loss, resilience, racism and probably must crucially, feminism. The female characters really shine in this book, but never in a forced way - it just celebrates a variety of achievements and abilities from holding a family together to leading a whole wagon train safely across a desert, to preventing a buffalo stampede to cooking delicious food. Toksvig's gift lies in highlighting and exploring current issues in an accessible and non-threatening way, as well as providing plenty of opportunities for her readers to learn historical facts.

The book is a little on the long side and unevenly paced: at times the story seems to be a little too drawn out (perhaps deliberately as it does give a sense of the journey west taking a long time) and at other points, particularly towards the end, the book feels rushed. When compared to 'Hitler's Canary', 'The End of the Sky' is not as well written and has a more sombre mood overall - there are fewer light, hopeful moments which help the reader to keep going.

If you're looking for a book with a strong female lead for upper key stage 2 readers then this would be a worthy addition to a growing selection of books in that category - it has the potential to change the perceptions of both boys and girls when it comes to gender stereotypes. It also provides a fascinating insight into a significant part of UK and US history, times and events which are generally ignored by the UK primary curriculum. Overall, 'The End of the Sky' is worth a read, but prioritise 'Hitler's Canary' if you've never read any of Sandi Toksvig's books for children.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The More-ness Of Reading

A blog version of my Reading Rocks 2017 workshop:

The purpose of reading

What is the purpose of reading? Most people would say that we read for enjoyment and to learn. There will be those who think some books are for enjoying, and some are for learning from. Other folk will agree that the act of reading in order to learn something is enjoyable. Some readers will only do it for one reason or the other.

Children’s novels are ostensibly written so that children gain pleasure from them, and from the act of reading. But if we actually considered some of the books that children read, and if we scratch beneath the surface, we will find that children’s books are for so much more than pleasure and enjoyment. In fact, they are for learning.

Reading is for more than enjoyment and learning

Learning about what? What can made up characters in made up places doing made up things be possibly teaching children? Well, when it comes to making my point, quotations abound – from researchers, authors and children who read:

https://wherereadingrocks.wordpress.com/2017/10/14/the-more-ness-of-reading-by-thatboycanteach/

Friday, 18 August 2017

Book Review: 'All The Things That Could Go Wrong' by Stewart Foster

This book isn’t about Dan. And it isn’t about Alex. It’s a book about bullying and friendship. Dan is angry about his brother and Alex has OCD and worries about everything; Alex is an easy target for Dan. But their mums are friends and they force them to finish off building Dan’s raft together – neither of them relish this prospect to begin with, but as they work together, things begin to change.

There are often two sides to every story and Stewart Foster tells both equally well in ‘All The Things That Could Go Wrong.’ Over 61 short chapters Dan and Alex take it in turns to tell the story from their perspective giving the reader an inside track into the mind of both a child with OCD and a child who is channelling their feelings about their own difficulties into bullying someone else. Children can often be very black and white about bullying - this book will help teachers and parents explore with children the possible causes of a bully’s behaviour. It could also encourage children who are expressing their emotions in a negative way to talk to someone about how they are feeling.

The tension between the two boys is held throughout the book, making for an exciting read – children and adults alike will not want to put this book down as they end up rooting both for Dan and Alex. The book would be great to read aloud to the class but individual chapters could be used equally well to link to other texts that focus on similar themes (such as ‘Wonder’ by RJ Palacio and ‘The Goldfish Boy’ by Lisa Thompson) – particularly the ones which give an insight into why Dan bullies Alex.

A thoroughly enjoyable read for readers aged 9-13 who love to read exciting stories about real life issues.