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

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.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Going Deeper With Dahl


Recent research shows that many teachers have an over-dependency on Dahl. Indeed, his books are excellent so he is certainly a best-selling children's author, and one who everyone is aware of: it's no surprise that he continues to be well-loved and well-read. And whilst I would be the first to advocate promoting a wider range of authors and books, I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bath water.

We often read Dahl books with young children (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the first 'proper' book I remember reading to myself at the age of 7) because the plot lines are easy to follow, the characters are wild and wacky and the stories are exciting and funny.

So, when reading with younger children, we can easily skip over the more horrific details and focus on the heart-warming stories and crazy words. But it is in these details that we have the opportunity to explore so much more: sadness, tolerance, difference, poverty, neglect, bullying, abuse, evil, animal cruelty, safety, unrequited love - all of these in his most-popular children's titles without touching his lesser-known books, or his publications for adults.

With this in mind, anyone who is familiar with Dahl would be able to mentally flick through their library of his books and identify how the stories could be used to help children understand the world and themselves a little better - especially with those trickier issues that we don't always know how to broach with children.

Five ways to go deeper with Dahl:

Family

I've always been fascinated with the fact that so many stories for children are about children with no parents (nearly all Disney films, for example). The Witches, James and the Giant Peach and The BFG all fall into this category. Why do story tellers do this? Do young readers fantasise about having adventures, and if so, do they get the impression they can only have them if parents are out of the picture? That would certainly be an interesting discussion to have with children. These books all provide great opportunities to discuss how many children all over the world are not brought up in a traditional family unit - an opportunity for our young people to empathise with others.

Abuse

Even where parents are present, as is the case in Matilda, relationships might not always be as they should be. Reading as an adult it is quite shocking how the Wormwoods treat their daughter, and indeed how the Trunchbull treats Miss Honey and the children in her school. Work here could go beyond the identification of good and bad characters to discuss right and wrong, looking at human rights for children and what is and isn't safe for children to be exposed to. Opportunities to study intertextuality are available here too: James' aunts’ treatment of him could be studied alongside.

Poverty

Poverty is a recurring theme too - most prevalent in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl paints a bleak picture of Charlie's family's lack of means, and again, this can be used as a starter point to discuss how many people in the world, including in our own country, our own towns, are less fortunate than ourselves. Another opportunity to link texts lies here with the depiction of Miss Honey's simple lifestyle in Matilda. In both stories we actually see the nicest characters being the poorest - perhaps a good debate topic can be derived here: Is it better to be rich and unkind, or poor and kind? Or something along those lines to help children to assess what the most important things in life are.

Difference and Diversity

What Dahl book doesn't deal with difference in some shape or form? The BFG's a friendly, vegetarian giant in a world full of vicious, human-eating brutes, and when he's not in giant country he's still a giant, making him very different to the humans he meets. Willy Wonka is quite something else, as are his Oompa Loompas, not to mention how different each one of the children are. Matilda has special powers. Danny lives in a caravan and poaches pheasants. The bugs inside the peach are a very diverse bunch. It might seem contrived to use these characters to explore difference and diversity but actually, to children, these things matter, and make sense - in the context of these stories they will be able to explore ideas that they would find difficult to begin to understand from real-world examples.

Consequences of Choices

Finally, Dahl's books provide fertile ground for discussing choices and how consequences can affect us. Again, in the safe space of fiction children can discuss the negative effects of meddling with prescription drugs (George's Marvellous Medicine), the possible outcomes of contravening safety rules and not listening to adults (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) or the potential results of being unkind (The Twits). Whilst discussing the actual events of the books (which are quite ridiculous), it would be easy enough to open up more general discussions that relate more to real-life scenarios that children might encounter.

Next time you pick up a Dahl book, think twice before you pass over it and decide to use something else. Consider the themes mentioned above; even if you don't use the whole book (many children are familiar with the stories anyway), consider how you might link a Dahl novel to another story you are reading. And next time you read Roald Dahl remember that there are opportunities to go deep with the content - perhaps you'll find further ways to get children thinking and empathising as they read the magical and wonderful adventures of Dahl's colourful characters.

And if you're a Roald Dahl fan, look out for ReadingWise's free Roald Dahl pack in July. It includes extracts from The Witches and George’s Marvellous Medicine and will focus on teaching 12 ‘mini-skills’ comprehension strategies allowing the children to explore the extracts and make meaning – great for struggling readers. It also includes a SATs-style ‘challenge test’ for each extract. This will be followed by an available-to-buy pack including extracts from a further eight Roald Dahl stories.

http://readingwise.com/dahl

Monday, 12 June 2017

6 Books That Encourage Children To #ReadForEmpathy

empathy
noun
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

"Reading allows us to see and understand the world through the eyes of others. A good book is an empathy engine." - Chris Riddell

If our wonderful former children's laureate is right (he is), every good book can help it's reader to understand and share the feelings of another because every good book introduces us to new and different characters. Whenever a reader immerses themselves in a new world, fictional or firmly based in reality, they open themselves up to the thoughts, feelings and ideas of another. For children, whose life experiences are limited by their years, books are the portal to limitless experiences that their short lives couldn't realistically provide.

And that's why EmpathyLab, a new organisation with a mission to use stories to help us understand each other better, have set up Empathy Day on June 13th. As well as encouraging everyone to share their favourite books which develop empathy with the hashtag #ReadForEmpathy they will be publishing their Read for Empathy guide for 4-11 year-olds - a selection of 21 books which help to build children's empathy.

In the wake of events such as the London Bridge and Manchester Arena attacks and their surrounding media attention, children need safe spaces to explore the issues they are faced with - that safe space can be found within the pages of a book.

With that in mind I'd like to share with you 6 children's novels that, as they feel empathy for book characters, will develop children's empathy for people in real life:


The Unforgotten Coat - Frank Cottrell Boyce

As featured in the Read for Empathy guide, this simple but wonderful story will leave you questioning where the line between reality and imagination lies. The reader joins Julie as she remembers how, as a year 6 child, she was brought into the fascinating world of two Mongolian brothers seeking refuge in Liverpool. The journal-like presentation and its Polaroid pictures bring the story squarely into the realms of a 10-year-old and provide children with the chance to understand from a child's perspective what it's like to be on the run from the authorities.

Oranges in No Man's Land - Elizabeth Laird

Set in Lebanon, this short novel introduces children to the life of an orphaned girl who, whilst in charge of her siblings and grandmother, navigates the bombed-out streets of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. The horrors of being a child in a war-torn country are laid bare as Ayesha attempts to cross no-man's-land into enemy territory to find a doctor. At a time when children may very well be living alongside those displaced by war it is so important that books like this exist to help children understand what it is so many are fleeing. Elizabeth Laird's 'Welcome to Nowhere' features on the EmpathyLab Read for Empathy guide.

The Goldfish Boy - Lisa Thompson

One of my favourite books this year, The Goldfish Boy, is also featured in the Read for Empathy guide. Set in a typical street in a typical English town is this mystery thriller for kids. It features no refugees, foreign countries or racism but it does feature a boy house-bound by his obsessive compulsive disorder. Whilst in the grips of a brilliantly-told whodunnit, children will gain a unique insight into the mind of someone who suffers from a mental illness. Read my full review here.

My Dad's A Birdman - David Almond

My 7-year-old daughter loved this short book by Skelling author David Almond. It's a whacky tale describing a father-daughter relationship which is attempting to cope with the loss of a wife/mother. I suspect adults and children will read into this very differently but it is a great starting point for helping children to think outside of the box when it comes to dealing with grief and loss. The fact that this is also a very funny story is testament to Almond's ability to perfectly walk the fine line between contrasting emotions.

Tall Story - Candy Gourlay

This easy-to-read story for year 6 - 8 children tells the tale of how a half-brother and sister meet for the first time, and how they learn to love one another despite their differences. Teenagers Andi and Bernardo meet for the first time when Bernardo, who at 8 feet tall is affected by gigantism, travels from the Philippines to come to live in London with his mum. The story weaves folk tales of giants into a story of modern life in two very different parts of the world and would be a perfect accompaniment to RJ Palacio's 'Wonder'.

Noah Barleywater Runs Away - John Boyne

Blurring the boundaries between fairy tales and real life, John Boyne, author of 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas', invites his reader to explore the escapist world of a boy struggling to come to terms with (spoiler alert) what turns out to be his mother's terminal illness. Written from an innocent point of view the adult reader will understand more than a child, yet it is entirely accessible to children at their own level. For those who long to use Patrick Ness' 'A Monster Calls' in the primary classroom but feel it is too grown up, this is the book you are waiting for.

I've chosen my #ReadForEmpathy books - what would yours be? Please share on social media using the hashtag.

To find out more about EmpathyLab's experimental work in primary schools, go to: http://www.empathylab.uk/empathylab-school-trial

And remember:

“Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.” – Malorie Blackman

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Book Review: 'Cogheart' by Peter Bunzl


I must admit that I was skeptical about reading 'Cogheart' in the way that I'm skeptical about most popular things. That attitude probably comes from the regular confusion I feel when I hear the music that gets into the charts - how can so many people be so wrong?

However, I laid aside my misgivings, trusted the scores of teachers (on Twitter) who actually bother to read children's books and picked up a copy of Peter Bunzl's debut effort.

With its oh-so-en-vogue strong female lead (Lily will be held up as a role-model for my three girls) this rip-roaring adventure travels through a steam-powered, alternative-history Victorian landscape which is largely signified by the plethora of airships and steam-powered vehicles. Oh and the automatons.

And it's the book's wonderful 'mechanicals' and 'mechanimals' who steal the show. They are clockwork machines, robots essentially, who have been created largely to perform menial tasks - cook, butler, chauffeur and so on. Malkin, a mechanical fox and one of the book's most integral characters, is a little different - he was created as a companion. 

As a teacher I'm always on the look-out for books with the potential to provoke discussion and exploration of contemporary issues. In 'Cogheart' it's the relationship between humans and mechanicals that provides the most scope for developing empathy in children. The book provides a safe space to discuss why people use difference as an excuse for hatred. The fact that the book portrays the automatons to display more feelings than some of the human characters leaves the reader thinkingthat the machines really should be treated equally - children would enjoy debating this issue, and without belittling issues such as slavery, racism, sexism and so on, they could easily be introduced to the arguments and ideas behind the need for equality.

Without spoiling the story too much there are also multiple opportunities to explore moral dilemmas as the characters have to make decisions where neither option is particularly inviting.

Key stage 2 children will love the pacy action and the danger at every turn but you might want to be careful who you recommend it to - it deals a lot with death of family members. All in all, 'Cogheart' is a brilliant story of good triumphing over the considerably stronger evil of some truly fearsome criminals and is a portrait painted especially for children of how greed and desire corrupts. Definitely worth a read - I'm glad I followed the crowd!