Saturday, 20 October 2018

Book Review: Red and the City by Marie Voigt

Retellings of fairy tales are not exactly few and far between: whilst some of them take the original route there are others which add something of a twist to the tale. And plenty of these retellings are great and are genuinely enjoyable. But ‘Red and the City’ by Marie Voigt doesn’t quite fall into either of the aforementioned categories – it is something else.

On one level it is a retelling where, instead of going through the woods to grandma’s house, Red goes through a city. But it’s actually deeper, and arguably far darker, than the original story. In Voigt’s version there is no literal wolf – the wolf is the allure of the city, or, more accurately, the potentially-damaging attractions and dangers of real life.

Spotting the wolf in each picture provided great amusement when reading this with my own children. But enjoyable isn’t all this book is – it is also highly thought provoking: why has Voigt decided to make billboards, fast food outlets, ATMs and so on into the big bad wolf in her version of the story? You’d be surprised at how easily children understand the metaphor with a little discussion.

In fact, it’s the brilliant illustrations, and the red, white and black colour palette, that really helps children to understand how dangerous some of life’s pleasures can be when they are given too much importance. The fact that Red is temporarily drawn in by these things instead of visiting her grandma is not lost on children and the red heart-shaped flowers that lead the way to grandma’s are a hint at what the author thinks is truly important in life.

There is an awful lot to talk about with this book but it can be read and enjoyed without doing so. Because of this it’s a book that could easily be read and understood by a wide age range, not excluding adults. It stands up admirably to repeat readings – readers will notice new details in the text and the pictures each time they open it. Reading it alongside others reveals further interpretations too making ‘Red and the City’ a great talking point. A must read.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 October 2018

Book Review: 'Snowglobe' by Amy Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: Introducing Poetry to Primary School Children by Ana Sampson

By the time we leave school, some of us have been rather put off poetry. Actually – confession time, now – I was. Picking it apart and poring over the meanings throughout my education had sucked some of the simple joy out of poetry. I became paralysed by the thought that I must understand every element, rather than just enjoying it – I had to learn to love poetry again.

Primary school children, however, don’t have any of those associations. The earliest things we hear and learn are usually songs and nursery rhymes: from the sun putting his hat on to the little piggies of our toes. We often read rhyming books with our children: my five year old is word perfect on everything from There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly to Room on the Broom, and woe betide me if I try to skip a verse to get to bedtime quicker! Children are at home in rhyme before they learn to talk, so they don’t have any of the associations some adults have of poetry being intimidating and difficult.

So, my advice on sharing poetry with young children is just to get started! Here are three ideas for how:

Share Classic Nonsense Poetry

I love Lewis Carroll’s inventive and whimsical poems. Even though today’s children won’t be familiar with the Victorian rhymes many of them parody (though they might enjoy Mary Howitt’s ‘The Spider and the Fly’, which is one of them) the nonsense and fun of ‘The Lobster Quadrille’ or ‘You Are Old, Father William’ will tickle them. Edward Lear’s poems are wonderful too. Ask them to draw a Jabberwocky, the Jumblies in their sea-faring sieve or the Pobble who has no toes, and watch their imaginations soar. There are lots of great modern collections of poetry aimed at children that continue this imaginative tradition.

Read Poems Aloud (Dramatically!)

Reading poems aloud, in as dramatic and over the top a way as possible, is a brilliant way to bring them to life to children. My daughter loves A A Milne’s ‘Disobedience’ with its rapid, building rhythm and repetition of ‘James James Morrison Morrison William George Dupree’. If you feel they’ll respond well to a touch of goriness, Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children will appeal – try Jim, who was eaten by a lion.

Read Poems That Appeal To Their Experiences

Researching She Is Fierce I came across some wonderful, lesser known poems by women that even young children will – I hope – enjoy as much as I did. Liz Lochhead’s ‘A Glasgow Nonsense Rhyme for Molly’, and Katherine Mansfield’s playful ‘When I Was A Bird’ are bound to delight younger readers. For slightly older children, the chatty, encouraging tone of ‘God Says Yes to Me’ by Kaylin Haught will appeal. Jan Dean’s ‘Three Good Things’ could inspire a discussion about the three best things to choose from their day. Jean Little’s ‘Today’ – like the poems in Allan Ahlberg’s much-loved 'Please Mrs Butler' – speaks directly to the experience of school-children, and they will be delighted to find themselves reflected there – and with the poem’s rebelliousness!

You’re never too young for poetry and I’d love to hear what poems young readers (and listeners) enjoy! You can tweet me and let me know their favourites at @Anabooks.

She Is Fierce
Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women
Edited by Ana Sampson
ISBN 9781509899425
Publishing 6th September 2018 |£12.99 |Hardback

Monday, 24 September 2018

Reading Roles PLUS Generic Activity Exemplified

In my blog post Reading Roles PLUS Generic Reading Activity I presented a reading activity which focuses on some of the widely-accepted reading comprehension strategies. Where possible I like to exemplify things that I write about, so that's what this blog post is.

Context: A small group of boys (not sure why, just was), end of year 3 but working below age related expectations, reading Fantastic Mr. Fox (their choice).

Session 1 (Chapter 1 of Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl):

A written record of session 1
We began with the Student Reading Role which matches the reading comprehension strategy of clarifying. After reading through the text the children wrote down words and phrases they didn't know the meaning of. This felt like a bit of a dry start, but without understanding key vocabulary it isn't easy to comprehend a text.

The children identified some words but missed many other words which in later discussion they admitted to not knowing the meaning of. Part of training children in this seems to be allowing them to be honest, or encouraging them to think more deeply rather than just skipping over words they don't know.

I then shared a pre-made PowerPoint which contained the words I anticipated the children wouldn't know. Some of the words (mainly nouns) were accompanied by pictures, others had a child-friendly definition.

We then moved on to the Quiz Master Reading Role. I modelled some of the sorts of questions they might want to ask whilst reading. We then read the text again giving the children another exposure to the text and allowing them to focus on the new strategy. Not all the questions generated were that insightful but others were: How come they were mean men? Are they rich? I'd say these ones were because they are linked to main principles of the story. The answers to some questions were perhaps best avoided: Why does he drink so much cider? It was clear that the children were not used to asking questions of the text - all the more reason to make them aware of this strategy.

After that we thought about the prior knowledge they had that helped them to understand parts of the chapter: the Professor Reading Role. The children found it quite easy to identify things that they already knew about. The potential and intended impact of this is that children begin to search their own memory banks when they come across something that they don't understand in their reading: hopefully they will begin to ask themselves 'what do I know already that could help me understand this?'

The fourth part of the session was to focus on the Movie Director Reading Role. This required children to draw or write about what they saw in their heads as they read. I quickly realised my mistake in asking them to do this: you can't draw or write about what you visualised whilst reading a whole chapter! The children focused on parts of the text that were not main points of the story.

Lastly, we looked at the Editor Reading Role which focuses on summarising. Together we developed 4 points which we thought might be important to remember as the story moved on. We discarded facts that we thought might not be crucial to the narrative.

Session 2 (Chapter 2 of Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl):

For the second session I decided to head the session up with something a little lighter, and a little more engaging to ease the children in. After recapping the summary from the previous session, we started with the Movie Director Reading Role but this time focused on just three sentences which described the setting. In doing so I discovered why in fact it might be a good idea to always start with visualising:

One child drew a rectangular piece of wood instead of a wood
I gave them a three-sentence quote describing the chapter's setting: "On the hill above the valley there was a wood. In the wood there was a huge tree. Under the tree there was a hole." Had this activity not have come first, I wouldn't have discovered that one child didn't know what a wood was. Actually when he read the word wood, he imagined a rectangular piece of wood (see the picture, left, where you can make out his rubbed out rectangle of wood which is incorrectly placed in the valley rather than on the hill). This probably wouldn't have come out in the Student/clarifying activity as he believed he knew what a wood was (although if he was properly clarifying he would have realised that in this context the sort of wood he had in mind didn't make sense).
My modelled drawing

Once the children had done their own I completed my own drawing as a model to them and used it to explain any inaccuracies (particularly relating to positional language/prepositions) in their own drawings.

A written record of session 2
We then read the chapter again and the children made a note of words that they didn't understand (Student Reading Role: clarifying). As well as the pre-made PowerPoint (see session 1) we did some quick vocabulary activities: can you put that word in your own sentence? Can you act that word out e.g. Can you approach me? With the word plump, we also had a chance to discuss an inference question: why would the farmer want a plump chicken?

Completing the Professor Reading Roles this time made me realise the need to reconsider how this section is tackled. Children worked at quite a basic level saying that they knew what things were e.g. hill, valley, geese, turkey. The way the prompt was worded did not really engage children in thinking about wider concepts of the text, or facts that they already knew beyond word meanings. On reflection this is an area of practice that I need to think and read more about. My question: how do we go about helping children to activate their prior knowledge? Does it need to focus more on when there is something they don't understand?


When working on the Quiz Master Reading Role the second time round I noticed that my modelling and prompting was centred around a more generic overall question: what do I want to know? Many of the questions the children asked were surrounding information that the author had chosen to leave out as it wasn't important enough to the story: how did Mr Fox get the animals? How did the farmer find the fox hole? The questions that I guided the children towards asking were more about things that might happen as the book progresses: how will Mr Fox get his food now? Will the farmers succeed in killing the foxes? These kinds of question are the kind that skilled readers ask all the time as they read. Other questions may also link to the act of clarifying in the case of information that is included in the text but is not understood on the first reading. It may be worth creating a list of exemplar questions to help teachers and children to practise this strategy.

Completing the summary activity (Editor Reading Role) after doing the other sections of the activity certainly seemed to help the children - after reading the text several times, clarifying their understanding and engaging with the narrative by asking their own questions about it and visualising parts of it the children readily picked out the main points and sequenced them. In my experience children don't always find it easy to prove in this way that they have good comprehension of a chapter as a whole.

Session 3 (Chapter 3 of Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl):

Children recorded far more words in session three
The children completed the visualising (Movie Director Reading Role) task quite slowly during this session but it did provide lots of opportunities to discuss the text which is always welcome as it is the discussions more than what is recorded that demonstrates and develops the knowledge and understanding. However, on the whole, this is probably a part of the session that should eventually happen quite quickly.

Rather than have the children record words individually for the clarifying activity (Student Reading Role) they all added to their lists as we read together, often as a result of prompts from me or another child. I found that asking if they understood particular words made them more honest about words that they didn't understand. As a result of this, we discussed a lot more vocabulary than we had in previous sessions, sharing new definitions and images of nouns on the pre-made PowerPoint, using the words in sentences and so on. It is this that is so crucial: if children do not understand the meanings of individual words then they will struggle to make meaning of text constructed using those words.

On clarifying: it is important that children feel like they are allowed to ask, and that it isn't a bad thing to not know what a word means, if they are to begin to automatically clarify when they read. Too often I suspect that children skip over words they don't understand simply because they are afraid to admit it. A culture of 'it is O.K. not to know yet' must pervade if children are to improve.

As we read I noticed that the children were beginning to ask questions of the text (Quiz Master Reading Role) without the prompt on the sheet. As they asked, I reminded them to record them on their sheets, and we discussed the possible answers to their questions before moving on. During these discussions we were also able to bring in snippets of prior knowledge which helped us to answer our questions - it may be that the Professor Reading Role doesn't benefit from any sort of recording but just needs to be brought in to discussions.

In summary:

It would seem that even after only three sessions the children began to use the strategies more readily: they were particularly more open to questioning a text as they read it and they became more enthusiastic about learning what the words meant. It was as if in practising the strategies and as a result understanding the text better, they became more keen to use the strategies again - perhaps because it helped them to understand and enjoy the story better. They certainly improved their ability to write a summary - this probably as a result of such a deep dive into the chapter with repeated reading.

The main area that needed improving was how they activated prior knowledge: it wasn't that they didn't as it was clear that they were all bringing and using knowledge of what farms were and so on, but this is at quite a basic level. Of course, there are two main potential issues at play when it comes to background knowledge:
  1. Do they actually have relevant background knowledge in the first place?
  2. Are they deliberately searching their background knowledge when they come across something they don't understand?
If you have any experience of working with these strategies, or even have tried out the Reading Roles relating to them, I'd love to find out what you've done to help children develop their use. Please point me towards relevant reading or share some examples from your own practice, either in the comments section, or on Twitter or Facebook.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Book Review: 'Goth Girl and the Sinister Symphony' by Chris Riddell

As with many of Chris Riddell's books it would be a real shame if Goth Girl and the Sinister Symphony was only ever read by children. The appeal to adults and children is equal, making this a great one for parents and teachers to share with children.

Firstly, don't let the Goth part put you off (if you are the sort of person who might be put off by that): yes, there are light gothic undertones, but there are also dryads, garlands and baby lions. I say gothic undertones but if you don't like entire orchestras of the undead then perhaps it isn't for you. Such is the intriguing range of influences that Riddell, one suspects, gleefully brings to the mix.

Speaking of inspiration and adults reading children's books, this one is full, I mean full, of nods towards pop culture and current affairs as well as plenty of references to the history books (The Frying Scotsman, Joseph Haydn-Seek, Thomas Ripplingdale (the shirtless furntiure maker!)) and classic literature (Pilgrim's Progress, Narnia, Under Milk Wood, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner off the top of my head). There are times when Riddell's illustrations for this latest Goth Girl book might easily be mistaken as one of his political cartoons for The Guardian (only the lack of colour mark them out as being deliberately drawn for ...the Sinister Symphony): the depiction of Donald Ear-Trumpet (with his tiny hands and his cry of 'fake shoes' was one of my favourite parts! I certainly look forward to exploring the many links as I read this with my children.

The language Riddell injects into his work is playful, providing more entertainment for grown-ups and children who love exploring words. I've used quirky to describe his books before but the more I read, the more I believe this should just be normal for books aimed at Key Stage 2 children. Children at that age love a bit of humour in their books but often books fulfilling that criteria are very one dimensional - Riddell's Goth Girl books are anything but.

And that's a lot to say for a book whose illustrations, quite obviously, are its finest point. As ever, the pictures are liberally applied throughout, intriguing and entertaining with their wry humour and visual perfection. There are some marvellous double-page spreads - the one of The Disinterred Ghastlyshire Orchestra is a favourite as zombiefied Saxons, Victorians and everything in between rub decaying shoulders as they clutch their assortment of instruments.

Although this is ostensibly about how Ada Goth's father Lord Goth puts on a music festival, it's really a parody of aristocratic life where family, historically inaccurate classless friendships and love take centre stage (seemingly a recurring theme in Riddell's children's books: Beauty and Beast in Once Upon A Wild Wood; the foxes in Ottoline and the Purple Fox, for example). In fact, this really is quite a heartwarming tale when all is said and done - one which brings smiles and laughs along the way. A real lighthearted read with plenty to inspire children to find out more about what goes on in the world around them, and what has happened in the past.