Showing posts with label review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label review. Show all posts

Friday, 4 December 2020

22 Great Middle Grade Books From 2020 (Part 2)

Turns out that before lockdown (v1), and during much of it, I was pretty disciplined in my reading and reviewing of books. Many of the titles on this list were given a full review and so, I will quote myself a fair bit in this second part of my 22 Great Middle Grade Books From 2020 list. 

If you missed part one, then you may want to give that a read too: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/12/20-great-middle-grade-books-from-2020.html

Here goes with the second part of my list:
 
Talking To The Moon by S.E. Durrant (Nosy Crow)


I love S.E. Durrant's books - I am a massive fan of Little Bits of Sky so I jumped at the chance to read and review her latest: 'A mystery novel for children who don't like mystery novels. Usually, children's books which centre around some sort of mystery to be solved are full of high adventure and often verge on being scary - not for everyone. But 'Talking To The Moon' is different: it takes a family drama, one which many children will relate to and adds a dash of the unknown, enough to keep any reader pondering throughout the book.' (Read the rest of the review here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/03/book-review-talking-to-moon-by-se.html)

Talking To The Moon can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

DustRoad by Tom Huddleston (Nosy Crow)


DustRoad is one of those books that you don't really ever forget - it's cinematic scenes are etched into my memory as if I had been there as the events unfolded. I wrote similar things at the time of reading it: 'This book is so cinematic I ate popcorn as I read it, I kid you not. Every page sees the reader's retinas seared with images so lucid, if not a little hazy from desert dust, that it is impossible not to feel like you are living the action. And in 'DustRoad', action there is a-plenty.' (Click here for the full review: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/04/book-review-dustroad-by-tom-huddleston.html). And if you haven't read it's predecessor, then you'd better get hold of a copy of FloodWorld too.

FloodWorld and DustRoad can be found on my Children's Fiction - Dystopia & Sci-Fi bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-dystopia-sci-fi

Viper's Daughter by Michelle Paver (Zephyr)


I'd never read any of Michelle Paver's Wolf Brother books before but when this one dropped through my letter box I was more than willing to give them ago. I was immediately drawn into a prehistoric world where magic might just be real, and long-since extinct creatures certainly are. With an exploration of the arctic circle and tribalism, the story had a wonderful conclusion, which I just can't spoil for you but the awe and wonder check box was well and truly ticked. I've yet to return to the earlier books in the series, but I certainly intend to. Here's my full review of the Viper's Daughter: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/04/book-review-vipers-daughter-by-michelle.html

Viper's Daughter can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction

Wink by Rob Harrell (Hot Key Books)


From my full review of Wink: 

'Wink' by Rob Harrell tells the story of a pre-teen boy who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, one which has attacked the gland that produces tears. It is a book that made me both laugh and cry in equal measure and it deserves a huge audience. Imagine if you will, a less saccharine version of RJ Palacio's hit MG novel 'Wonder' - that's what this is. It's all very real and very raw which is not surprising since it is semi-autobiographical in a sense: the author was inspired to write the book after suffering the exact same cancer as the book describes, albeit when he was 37 and not 11. Here's the link to read the rest: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/04/book-review-wink-by-rob-harrell.html

Wink can be found on my Humorous Children's Fiction bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/humorous-children-s-fiction

Do You Know Me? by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott (Scholastic)


Can You See Me? was a massive hit in our house so we were all excited when the follow-up Do You Know Me? was published. It continues the story of autistic Tilly, and given that it is co-written by Libby Scott, a young autistic girl, it gave me a huge insight into what home and school life can be like for autistic children. As a father of a girl on the waiting list for an assessment I actually found both books to be quite difficult to read as so many of Tilly's characteristics are reflected in one of my daughters. However, the fact that much of the story felt close to home meant that I found the book immensely enlightening, both as a parent and a teacher.

Can You See Me? and Do You Know Me? can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

Mohinder's War by Bali Rai (Bloomsbury)


'Mohinder's War follows the story of Joelle, a French/British girl living in France during the Nazi occupation. She, her family and their friends are a part of the resistance and when a downed RAF pilot needs hiding, he is taken into the home of the Bretons and concealed in their cellar. The pilot is Mohinder Singh, a character based on a real life RAF pilot who flew in the Second World War. He and Joelle strike up a friendship - Joelle keeping him company and sharing her local knowledge, and Mohinder teaching her about his homeland and Sikh faith and opening her eyes to philosophies regarding life.' Read my full review before choosing to give it a child as there are some warnings: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/05/book-review-mohinders-war-by-bali-rai.html

Mohinder's War can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - World Wars bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction-world-wars

The Infinite by Patience Agbabi (Canongate)


The Infinite is an intriguing sci-fi adventure centering on time travel. Once you've got your head around the concepts that the book is based on, you are taken on a completely unique adventure, the likes of which I've never encountered before neither in film or in children's literature. Here's my full review of the book: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/08/book-review-infinite-by-patience-agbabi.html

The Infinite can be found on my Children's Fiction - Dystopia & Sci-Fi bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-dystopia-sci-fi

The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman (Pan Macmillan)


The first of two books in 2020 from the duo's Adventures on Trains, The Highland Falcon Thief had that Agatha Christie vibe that was oh-so-missing from the MG market. To be honest, they had me at 'Adventures on Trains' and I wasn't disappointed. There a plenty of train-y facts and details and the constraints that are placed on the narrative by the fact that the action has to take place (largely) on a train make for a really cleverly-written story. In fact, a story that I enjoyed so much that I was more than ready for the follow-up...

The Highland Falcon Thief can be found on my Children's Fiction - Mystery & Detective Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-mystery-detective-stories

Kidnap on the California Comet by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman (Pan Macmillan)


Everyone knows that American railways are very different from British ones, so a hop across the Atlantic made immediately for an almost entirely different story, except for there are still trains and there is still a crime to solve. Tension is ramped up (sorry, I know that has been one of the absolute worse phrases of 2020) by the fact that this time a child's life is in peril. As with the first book, the reader is kept guessing (even adult ones) in true crime mystery style. An absolute romp of a book with a brilliant cast of potential criminals to suspect of dastardly deeds.

The Highland Falcon Thief can be found on my Children's Fiction - Mystery & Detective Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-mystery-detective-stories

Empire's End - A Roman Story by Leila Rasheed (Scholastic)


I read the whole Voices series in 2020 and have nothing but high praise for them. This one is set in one of my favourite historical periods, and in one of my favourite places: Roman Britain. It's rooted in true history and in this respect is very eye-opening: 'The gripping and fast-paced story is all carefully interwoven with historical fact: a Roman emperor from Libya did live and die in York, archaeological research has shown that those with black African heritage did live in Britain during the Roman period and that people from all over the Roman provinces ended up marrying each other and having children. In 'Empire's End' Rasheed imagines how one such character may have ended up in Britain, despite having been born in North Africa.'

Empire's End can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction

Where The World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold (Stripes)

This is one of those books that you finish and immediately decide there needs to be a sequel. By the end of the story the reader is fully satisfied by the outcome but so invested in the characters and the world that they have no choice but to be left wanting more. Close to the bone for 2020, this story features a virus which has been deliberately released by environmentalists, a blight which wipes out half of the world's population in a bid to re-wild a concrete planet (this was certainly one of the conspiracy theories circulating back at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak). Nicola Penfold does a great job of navigating the ethics in this dystopian novel, celebrating both human life and the preservation of environment. I think this was one of my absolute favourites of the year.

Where The World Turns Wild can be found on my Children's Fiction - Dystopia & Sci-Fi bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-dystopia-sci-fi

The Mask of Aribella by Anna Hoghton


I'm casting my mind back on this one as I read it at the back end of last year, however, it is still crystal clear in my mind. Set in Venice and featuring a gondola-load of menace and peril, this story as an absolute magical belter. Check out my review of the book (here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/01/mask-of-aribella-anna-hoghton.html) and Anna's guest post about masks (here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/01/world-of-masks-anna-hoghton-aribella.html). Here's a reminder of one my most pretentious attempts at metaphor in a book review ever: 'The story skims along at a cracking pace, yet, just as with the wooden piles on which Venice is built, there are foundations that run deep - the power of friendship and family, trust and responsibility provide a solid base for this dark tale of good versus evil.'

The Mask of Aribella can be found on my Simon Smith's Favourite Longer Reads For Children 2020 bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/simon-smith-s-favourite-longer-reads-for-children-2020

Finally, if you've got this far, I'd love to hear your recommendations as to which other 2020 MG books are worth a read. Drop me a comment on the blog or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/thatboycanteach

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

22 Great Middle Grade Books From 2020 (Part 1)

I feel like this year I've read far fewer of the newly released middle grade books - I think I've read more grown-up books this year, particularly more adult non-fiction, and I've read a few older children's books too. 

However, I've read a decent number of really great books released for children in 2020 - enough to share a few in a round-up blog post. Now obviously, because I've not read all the books published in 2020, I can't call this a 'best of' list, so instead it is just a list of really great new books to add to your shelves or put under someone's Christmas tree.

In no particular order, here are the first 10:

The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery (Walker)

twitter.com/mossmontmomery

A historical, magical tale which sits so comfortably in a long tradition of children's literature and makes for an original but familiar-feeling read. Readers will feel the warm homeliness of such classics as the Narnia stories and The Wind in the Willows whilst recognising the gritty realities and family drama of war that they've read of in Goodnight Mr. Tom and Carrie's War. The Midnight Guardians brings together two worlds at war, weaving folklore, magic and oh-so accurate historical fact together into a truly engaging race-against-time tale of dark versus light.

The Midnight Guardians can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Fantasy and Magic bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-fantasy-magic

The Night Bus Hero by Onjali Q Rauf (Hachette)


After the huge success of The Boy At The Back Of The Class, and it's follow-up The Star Outside My Window, Onjali Rauf was back in 2020 with another modern tale of derring-do. Interestingly, this time it's the turn of a school bully to take the role of protagonist. As in all good children's stories, his transformation slowly takes place as he begins to understand more about the plight of homeless people: a bid to impress his mates with his unkindness leads to him both witnessing, and helping to solve, a crime. This modern mystery story is certainly a page-turner, and just like it's predecessors is a celebration of the difference children can make in the world.

The Night Bus Hero can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Mystery & Detective Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-mystery-detective-stories

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu (Old Barn Books)

twitter.com/a_reflective

Quite a few books have been published in recent years which portray the plight of refugees. Boy, Everywhere sits nicely between books aimed at older children, such as Boy 87 and Illegal (which have a slightly more graphic portrayal of the harsh realities involved in seeking refuge in another country) and The Boy At The Back of The Class and The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle (which don't go into as much detail but rather focus on the realities of life after making the often hazardous journey). Boy, Everywhere provides the modern parallel to books about World War 2 refugees such as The Silver Sword and Number The Stars, providing a realistic picture (which has been praised by people who have experienced similar circumstances to those portrayed in the book) without some of the more distressing, potentially age-inappropriate details that sadly are the experience of some refugees. A very compelling read.

Boy, Everywhere can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Refugee Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-refugee-stories

Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan by Sufiya Ahmed (Scholastic)

twitter.com/sufiyaahmed

Just before hearing about this book I had discovered Noor Inayat Khan during some research for a year 6 topic focusing on the role of women and children in the world wars, so when I did discover this I was very keen to read it. I was really pleased then to win a copy in a competition from charity Making Herstory. Sufiya Ahmed does a cracking job of retelling a well-researched, child-friendly version of the key events in spy Inayat Khan's life. As a woman of Indian descent and the first female radio operator sent to Nazi-occupied France by the British SOE, it is an incredibly important story to be told, one which exemplifies how people of many ethnicities played a part in World War 2. Great for children to read alone but equally suitable as a curriculum-linked read aloud.

Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - World Wars bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction-world-wars

The House of Clouds by Lisa Thompson (Barrington Stoke)

twitter.com/lthompsonwrites

A short story this time from Lisa Thompson for the ever-excellent Barrington Stoke (who specialise in books designed specifically for dyslexic readers). In this story of loss and hope, grief and guilt, Lisa blurs the lines between dreams and reality and ultimately leaves the reader questioning but willing to believe that there actually is just a little bit of magic present in this world. Tackling the difficult subject of losing a family member and the regret of not appreciating them enough in their lifetime, this story follows a girl's journey of discovery as she investigates the links between her grandad and a mysterious artist. A brilliant little tale for those who need a grown-up feeling book but don't always find reading the easiest thing to do.

The House of Clouds can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Short Reads bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-short-reads

The Invasion of Crooked Oak by Dan Smith (Barrington Stoke)

twitter.com/DanSmithAuthor

Chris King's cover illustration says it all, really. Bikes, supersoakers and an undead army is exactly what you get in Dan Smith's excellent short reader for Barrington Stoke. Opening up a market for books inspired by 80s movies that the kids of today probably haven't even seen but would love if they watched them, The Invasion of Crooked Oak will certainly appeal to adults of a certain age as well as children who just want an awesome, spooky, mystery adventure (and this is what plenty of children want). If you haven't got this for your class bookshelf, then do, and prepare for the next installment coming next year.

The Invasion of Crooked Oak can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Padraig Kenny (Pan Macmillan)

twitter.com/padraig_kenny

More spookiness now in this Adamms Family-esque thriller. A strange assortment of otherworldly beings are confined to the grounds and house of Rookhaven, supplied and kept secret by the local villagers. Two siblings, a brother and sister, stumble through a tear in the magic veil and find themselves involved in a cruel plot to rid the world of the kinds of people who call Rookhaven their home. With amazing black and white illustrations from Edward Bettison, this book feels like very few others I've read - darkness permeates the book, yet the more the reader becomes familiar with the family, the more they realise there is real light in them. A subtle call to respect and love those perceived as outsiders, this beautifully-written story should be widely read and loved. Read my review for more: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/08/book-review-monsters-of-rookhaven-by.html

The Monsters of Rookhaven can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

Eating Chips With Monkey by Mark Lowery (Piccadilly Press)


This was one of those books that you pick up in an idle moment, begin to read and then get totally hooked by. I loved the combination of serious subject matter and absolute hilarity - Mark Lowery takes sensitive content and treats it respectfully whilst allowing the reader to see the funny side of the events. After a traumatic accident, Daniel, an autistic 10-year-old, retreats into himself, only relating to his toy monkey and seemingly deaf to his family's attempts to help him. The narration alternates between Daniel (and the monkey) and his sister Megan as the family set off on a road trip to find the best fish and chip shops in the country in an attempt to help Daniel to recover. An uproarious read, one which one of my daughters has read cover-to-cover several times, which I would recommend to absolutely everyone!

Eating Chips With Monkey can be found on my Read By My LKS2 Daughter bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/read-by-my-lks2-daughter

After The War by Tom Palmer (Barrington Stoke)


Winning plaudits left, right and centre, Tom Palmer did it again this year with his portrayal of how children liberated from Nazi concentration camps learn to live again in the reviving surrounds of the Lake District. Based on careful research and focusing in on three friends Tom writes with such care and verve, bringing true events to life for a new, young audience. Back in March, just before we went into lockdown I reviewed the book and had this to say in summary: 'A tale of hope, friendship and altruism that is all too relevant in the current times we are living through.' Little did I know how those current times would turn out!

After the War can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - World Wars bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction-world-wars

Crater Lake by Jennifer Killick (Firefly Press)


Another spooky mystery story - it's been a good year for them! This one reads like a comedy horror movie aimed at children, taking the year 6 school residential as its inspiration. It's probably a good thing that residentials were cancelled this year as any 11-year-old who'd read this would probably have a few nightmares about going away for a couple of nights. It's enough to put off any teacher planning a residential too, especially since the book basically features a virus - albeit an alien-induced one - that rips through the participants and staff with great efficiency. Anyway, I raved about it in other ways in my review, so have a read of that if you need further convincing: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/03/book-review-crater-lake-by-jennifer.html

Crater Lake can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

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.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 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, 23 January 2018

Book Review: 'Night Speakers: Sleepless' by Ali Sparkes


The Breakfast Club meets The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, but for a slightly younger audience. An unlikely trio of youngsters are drawn together by a mysterious commonality: they all wake up at exactly 1:34 am every night. Something strange is going on, and they're desperate to discover exactly what. Together, meeting secretly in the dead of night whenever they can, they are drawn into an adventure as supernatural elements of the world around them are revealed.

A heady mix of the regular teenager's everyday struggles - problems with parents, troubles at school, awkward friendships - and ancient superstitions, beliefs and beings, Night Speakers: Sleepless is an incredibly moreish book. Ali Sparkes expertly tantalises the reader with a gradual release of information that often allows the reader to feel like they are just one tiny step ahead of the book's protagonists. Sparkes lets the reader believe the reality of what is happening before the characters do, making for a very satisfying read. Although this is true, there is enough suspense left too - not every event can be expected; a perfect mixture from a skilful author.

The beauty of nature is brought alongside the clamour of urban life as the three young people discover they have powers and abilities which allow them to communicate with nature. Although pegged as appealing to animal lovers, this is not your typical animal story. In fact, the fauna concerned in this story act quite as they should where other books might have had them too anthropomorphised; this treatment of the animals in the story makes for an almost believable fantasy. 

With the classroom in mind, Night Speakers: Sleepless would be a fantastic book for character study, setting description and creating tension. There are excellent passages which would stand alone as short texts for a variety of different teaching purposes. Year 6, 7 and 8 children and their teachers would enjoy making comparisons between this and other fantasy adventures set in the real world.

A hugely climactic, cinematic ending brings brief calm before a nosedive into an unsettling cliffhanger as the book's surprise fourth main character speaks menacingly, suggesting that the business of this book, the first in a series of five, is not yet done. Sparkes has certainly created an intriguing enough world for the follow-up tome to be highly anticipated by readers of Night Speakers: Sleepless.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Book Review: 'Make Me Awesome' by Ben Davis

In this hilarious send up of self-help guides and larger-than-life celebrity life coaches Ben Davis introduces Freddie, gamer and son of a failed antiques dealer, and Chuck Willard, 'inspirer and giver of dreams'.

Things aren’t going too well for Freddie Smallhouse. His dad left his successful job to set up his own business which failed and now they’re living at Uncle Barry’s but he’s about to kick them out. Freddie enrols on Chuck’s Complete Road To Awesomeness programme and sets about trying to make the family’s fortune. One failure after another doesn’t perturb our hero, not when he’s got Chuck’s AWESOME tips and advice to hand.

In this laugh-out-loud tall tale Freddie learns about friendship, integrity and true success as he muddles his way through his response to his dad’s despondency. Amongst the hilarity (the headteacher is called Mr. Bümfacé – pronounced ‘Boomfachay’) there’s a really touching story of how a not-quite-yet teenager might try crazy things in an attempt to deal with a difficult home situation.

‘Make Me Awesome’ is an easy read yet the age of the protagonist (he’s at secondary school), and a couple of the jokes (reference to the rude channels on TV and perverts, for example), mean that this would be really suitable for reluctant KS3 readers as well as KS2 children. With better, slightly more sophisticated jokes than a David Walliams and more plausibility than a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, ‘Make Me Awesome’ will go down very well with those children looking for a funny, quick read.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Book Review: 'The Light Jar' by Lisa Thompson

The Light Jar by Lisa Thompson That Boy Can Teach Review
Very early on you know something is not right - the nighttime escape with hastily packed bags, the feverish glances in the rear view mirror; Nate's mum's paranoia seeps through the pages. And 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.

Once again displaying her knack for weaving intriguing mystery into a story about terrible real life events - one that still has many blindingly bright and brilliant moments - Lisa Thompson leaves the reader in a quandary: they want to know more, but they're scared of what they might discover. Where has mum gone? Why did they leave home in the dead of night and turn up to this decrepit cottage? Why does Kitty avoid her own home? These questions and more make 'The Light Jar' a one-sitting type of book - the urge to read on and on is overpowering.

Brimming with clever imagery and metaphors 'The Light Jar' will get minds young and old alike thinking about the significance of Nate's favourite book, of the chicken and the light jar and the magic fortune telling ball toy. Readers will experience the satisfaction of solving the mystery of Nate's new friend Kitty's treasure and will be left wondering just how real Sam and his friends are. This finely-crafted multi-dimensional story will introduce children to the necessity (and joy) of flicking back through previously-read pages to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

'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.

Serious, uplifting, mysterious: a combination I've not found served up quite like this before. 'The Light Jar' is a special book and is certainly a must read for 2018. I can confidently say that not much will top it this year.

'The Light Jar' was published in paperback on 4th January 2018 by Scholastic (9781407171289 £6.99)