Friday, 1 May 2020

Being A Reading Teacher 2020


Back in the summer of 2016 I blogged about how I'd become a Reading Teacher (with a capital R and T, as Teresa Cremin says). I reflected on how prior to that year, and therefore for quite a huge chunk of my career as a teacher, I had not even been able to class myself as a reader, let alone a Reading Teacher. I went on to outline the benefits of being a Reading Teacher that I had experienced in the 8 months since I had taken up reading again.

I re-read that blog post today, maybe for the first time since 2016. So complete is my transformation that I was shocked to even recall that there was a time when I was not a reader, nor a Reading Teacher.

Back then, I recommended that anyone wanting to develop a reading habit should join Goodreads, and I'd echo that today as it has been a boon to my development as a reader. There's a part of my character that really likes the challenge of trying to read a certain number of books and another part which likes to document my own progress.

Over the years my reading interests have meandered but never waned. Sometimes I read a lot of picture books. Other times I read a string of Middle Grade novels. After that I often get MG fatigue and read something a little more grown up, a little more factual, a little different, at least.

I've tried to read outside of my comfort zone without running roughshod over my rights as a reader. I read what I want (but not when I want - life dictates otherwise) and I follow my fancy: the next book on my TBR pile is not always the next book I read. If I get into Viking-themed children's literature then the next few books might just have to be along those lines too. Invariably this kind of activity causes me to side-step into reading of adult non-fiction related to the subjects and themes of the children's books I've been reading. One book inspires the next in one way or another.

I'm writing this as a reflective and celebratory post, so I am sorry if it comes across as smug and showboaty. But I'm also writing it because in the intervening years I think I have noticed a problem.

I have been fairly vocal about my love for reading, not only on social media but in the schools I have worked at and have worked up a reasonable reputation as someone who loves reading (I won nerdiest teacher award the year I left my previous place and my #shelfie was easy for the children to guess because it contained many children's books). But I think I may have given a false impression: namely that I have always been a reader and that it comes naturally to me. Children and colleagues do not know that I consciously transformed myself into a reader. I suppose I suspect that this makes going from zero to being a full-on reader is unattainable - that in some ways my obsession and fervour is actually a stumbling block to others.

I need to rectify this. I need to be brave enough to share my story - to show that changes can be made to one's habits. I think those who feel like there is no time in life to become a reader might need to hear my experience of how changing habits can make more time for reading. Or perhaps I'm just assuming too much that I can change other people? Even if I don't need to explicitly share these things, I certainly don't want to act in a way that puts other people off finding their own obsession with reading.

Another point of reflection for me is that, since writing, I have become class-less. I now no longer have so many opportunities to speak to children about my love for books. Sure, every day that I sit in the canteen and eat with the children I ask them about the books they are reading and engage with them on the subject. I get down on my knees at the bookshelves when children are choosing books and pick out a few recommendations - some children even know to come and find me for this purpose.

If my school is to be one where Reading Teachers lead in the classroom then the school needs a Reading Deputy to lead it. A Reading Deputy who finds and creates more opportunities in the day to share the book love with the children. If you are a class-less teacher who still manages to do this I'd be very interested to hear from you - Simon Smith and Karl Duke, I'm looking to you guys as I know you are doing fantastic things. But I know that there will be many other SLT members and other non-class-based members of staff who manage to take a lead on reading - please get in touch with your tips and advice for me!

There is a part of me which is satisfied that I managed to bring myself on this journey, regardless of whether or not others join me. But there still remains the desire to share this passion - and it will be this desire, this passion, that wins over the satisfaction of knowing that I myself am a reader. I understand the benefits of reading and I want other people to experience them too - that's no bad thing. So forgive me once more if this post was just some self-congratulatory tosh, but I can't stop talking up reading and trying to get other people on their own journey as readers.

Must dash - there are books to be read.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Book Review: 'Survival In Space: The Apollo 13 Mission' by David Long

I've read quite a lot of children's non-fiction books about space, and whilst many are excellent, they can usually be put into one of two categories: easy-to-read but fact-light or fact-heavy but harder-to-read. This book, 'Survival In Space: The Apollo 13 Mission', sits very nicely in the middle: packed with astounding facts but extremely simply written - and that is by no means an insult. To be able to convey such information in such a way that young children (or older ones who struggle with reading) can understand it is a rare skill.

Beginning with a few chapters of background information - the space race, the Apollo 11 moon landings - the book then gets into the real story, one that is less often told to children: that of Apollo 13 (more recently of Tom Hanks film fame). The story contains everything that fiction has and more: the narrative non-fiction writing is woven with straight non-fiction, providing those amazing titbits of information that will make readers gasp aloud and then find someone to tell the fact to. For example, did you know that 'when a spacecraft re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it is travelling at nearly seven miles a second'? Wow! Perfect for information-hungry young minds.

David Long's story-telling takes a very conversational tone which will make the reader feel like they are talking to someone they are familiar with - an enthusiastic teacher or a knowledgeable relative. (example: You might think the easiest thing would be for them to just turn the rocket around and fly back to Earth, but things are never that simple when you’re this far out in space.) The writing prompts questioning and provokes a level of engagement that other books lack. What's for certain is that this is not a boring book.

The book is brilliantly illustrated by Stefano Tambellini. Some of the illustrations are in the form of diagrams, others depict events from the story - both serve to enhance to the text as well as to break it up, making this 80-pager a far less daunting read. The book is split into super-manageable chapters too and the story is well-paced to ensure that readers are nothing but gripped.

Perfect for KS2 readers, as well as some expert readers in KS1, the book is being published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 13 mission. This is a perfect time to learn about the bravery of the crew and the initiative taken by NASA staff, ultimately ensuring that no lives were lost - and as your children might be too young to watch the film, 'Survival In Space: The Apollo 13 Mission' by David Long is the perfect resource!

Read the first chapter now on Barrington Stoke's website: https://www.barringtonstoke.co.uk/books/survival-in-space-apollo-13/

https://issuu.com/barringtonstoke/docs/survival_in_space_the_apollo_13_mission_chapter_sa

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Book Review: 'Now or Never - A Dunkirk Story' by Bali Rai

It's hard to write an enthusiastic review about a story so terrible. Terrible because the horrific events which inspired this telling are true. Not terrible because it is told badly - not at all.

The evacuation of Dunkirk took place in the May and June of 1940. It saw the evacuation of over 330,000 troops to Britain as Nazi German forces closed in, however 68,000 men were captured or killed during the operation. Bali Rai's tale of Private Fazal Khan, a member of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, and his journey to Dunkirk is an enlightening but sadenning one. He, his company and their mules, under the leadership of the wonderful Captain Ashdown, trek across France, braving one of the worst winters on record and the constant terror of German airstrikes, not to fight but to flee.

However, despite the awful circumstances of that first year of the second world war, there are incredible moments of light in this brilliant book. The fact that this story is even being told - how men from all over the then British Empire signed up, feeling like they were doing their duty - is a major positive. There's also the flashbacks to a young Fazal's life when lessons he learnt from his grandfather come in handy as he deals with death and destruction at the hands of an enemy. Then, when you are expecting racist antagonism from all quarters, you read of kind, humane characters who accept the Indian soldiers as equals and who treat them with great respect.

There is, however, a realistic depiction of prejudice and discrimination coming from individuals and of systemic racism coming from the British government. Yet, again, there are some lovely moments where Fazal and his best friend Mush get the opportunity to teach the British soldiers a little more about the culture and religion (both are Muslims) giving this story a spiritual backbone that isn't always found in children's books.

This is a frightening story, one which doesn't avoid the horrors of the war. Nor is it gory, thus making it an appropriate read for children in upper key stage 2 and beyond. It is the sort of novel, however, which shouldn't be read lightly - there are serious issues to discuss here and I'd expect most children who read it would want to talk it through during and after reading. This would be ideal as a class read for those studying WW2 at school - especially as it presents a very different perspective of the war. A totally recommended read, just not an easy one.

This book is the first in Scholastic's Voices series. Click here to read my review of  'Empire's End - A Roman Story' by Leila Rasheed, the latest book in the series.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Book Review: 'Wink' by Rob Harrell

'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.

As main character Ross tells us about the present situation - the treatments and the trials and tribulations of school life and friendships - he intersperses it with flashbacks of the diagnosis, the medical decision-making process and how he shared his news with his family and friends. I'm not sure exactly if the voice that Harrell gives to Ross is realistic, but it certainly is brilliantly hilarious - full of sarcasm, often playing on stereotypical relationships between children and their parents, as well as with their peers at school.

Having said that, pretty much any stereotypes that exist in the story are smashed by the end - the bully, the grumpy old man, the embarassing dad, the scary-looking punk, the popular girl and the stepmum are all allowed to let their true colours shine. In fact, in a book about a boy who is scared about how his public image is affected by his cancer treatment, the focus is more on how he percieves others than one would expect.

The story provides a great case study in how to talk to someone who is going through a tough time. Ross is annoyed in equal measure by the constant questions about how he's doing and the total lack of engagement (as displayed by one of his best friends, Isaac). However, the tightrope is walked perfectly by his other best friend, Abby, who knows him well enough to know when to sit and listen, when to talk and when to challenge Ross for his own selfishness.

Inter-generational friendships abound in 'Wink' too - most notably as Ross gets to know his radiation technician and Jerry, a much older cancer patient who he bumps into every time he's at the clinic. Both storylines are heartwarming, but for different reasons. Frank, the guy who gives Ross his radiation therapy, introduces Ross to music - hard, angry music which speaks right into Ross' life and situation - and eventually becomes Ross' guitar teacher. Jerry, in his gruff old way, provides Ross with the grounding he needs - advice he can take from someone who has been through it.

The whole story ends in riotous, harmonious dischord - a true real life ending. Ross gets to rock out at the school talent contest, showing the real bullies what's what and who's who, sending his best friend Abby off to her new home and gaining a new true friend in the process. It truly is bittersweet.

Recommended for the upper end of the Middle Grade range (so, year 6 to 8 in English money), this is an story is one that needs to be heard. Navigating illness and the potential of death is a tricky topic for children of this age, and one that is dealt with pretty strangely sometimes in popular media. 'Wink' walks the line perfectly and could teach adults and youngsters alike a thing or two about how to come to terms with such difficult issues.

Oh, and there's also really cool comics throughout the book featuring Ross' own character, Batpig!

Wink was published in the UK on 31st March 2020 by Hot Key Press

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Book Review: 'Viper's Daughter' by Michelle Paver

I'll admit from the outset of this review that despite being an avid reader of children's books I'd never read a Chronicles of Ancient Darkness book before, not even 2004's 'Wolf Brother' which kicked off the whole series. Now, after an 11-year hiatus, Michelle Paver is back with 'Viper's Daughter', which, thankfully, I can confirm, works brilliantly as a standalone novel.

I'm often wary of children's books involving magic (although I do read a lot of them) but this one is different. The magic is deeply rooted in a spirituality which pervades all human life in the time period the story is set in - a pre-agricultural Stone Age. And it is spirituality which marks this book out as different to so many novels written for this age range: the idea that strongly-held beliefs could guide someone's life choices to such a degree as they do for those in Torak's world is alien to many children today. Making sense of how humanity interacts with the natural world surrounding it, the 'religion' followed may be fictitious but it could help children to empathise with and understand those who follow modern religions.

But I digress. The acknowledgement, worship and fear of higher forces lends credibility to the magic in this book. Those who are more open to understanding nature are more able to work with it and use it to bring about change - in this sense, the magical ability of some of the book's characters is believable,  and not just convenient to ensure the plot progresses. As for the plot, it's a classic good vs. evil, overthrow the villain type affair - and an exeedingly good one which is set in a vividly-painted world.

As he tracks his 'mate' Renn, Torak's epic journey with Wolf takes him from his native forest into the arctic regions, encountering different clans and a surprising and awesome array of wildlife (including an exciting encounter with a now extinct species) on his way. Despite depicting a very hard way of life, Paver's descriptions of survival in the great outdoors is inspiring. Releasing into a nation of people confined to their homes, this book will surely make the young reader re-assess their current way of living, and at the very least will ready young minds for exploring nature more deeply, either during their daily allowed exercise, or in more depth once the lockdown is over.

Equity between male and female is a surprising theme in the story. And whilst the topic is dealt with in a light-handed way, it is there nontheless - the contrast drawn between the parity and respect that Torak and Renn share and the way that one particular clan treats their womenfolk. And for one character it is a story of emancipation and empowerment - an important storyline for children living in a modern society which still has some way to go before fairness reigns.

Perfect for children in UKS2 and KS3, this is a fantastically unique fantasy story which speaks to heart, mind, body and soul. A story in the vein of the greatest and oldest adventure epics, and importantly, one that raises many pertinent questions for our own life and times. I shall certainly be seeking out the other books in this series, such was the excellence of this one.

Published by Head of Zeus/Zephyr books on 02 April 2020 * 256pp * £7.99 * 9781789542400

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Book Review: 'DustRoad' by Tom Huddleston

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. Huddleston, it appears, is a master of the set-piece - something that not many authors these days seem to even deem necessary. In that sense it harks back to the old days of serialised children's stories - the ones that were published a chapter a week and that probably would have been cut if readers lost interest. Whether it's a Mad Max-style car chase, a bull ring event (albeit without any livestock, only crazy cars) or a pirate attack on an ark, within a page or two the action is taken to boiling point by way of razor-sharp writing.

It's not just the action that is written with such precision - descriptions of post-apocolyptic places pull on the memories and ideas we have of cities and landscapes that exist somewhere in the world. Despite being so distorted by a world ravaged by rising water levels and the fall out of humanity, the locations of this all thriller, no filler adventure are as clear as day. It doesn't matter that none of us have ever seen a half-subemerged plexglass globe that acts as a parliament building, you'll know exactly what it looks and feels like when you read about it.

Whilst the first novel in this series, FloodWorld, seemed very bleak and devoid of hope, there is something about this one that seems much more optmistic. Sure, the odds are more than stacked against Kara, Joe and Nate as they travel thousands of miles, often apart from each other, in their attempt to bring about a little more piece in the fractured world they inhabit, but their determined outlook and their wiliness brings them through. Yet, not all is well, not by a long stretch. The book is punctuated by stabs of realism - in such utter brokenness, how could a few kids really make a difference?

Yet difference they do make - a powerful message to the young readers of this book. Joe, Kara and Nate may not be able to save the world in 309 pages, but they can make a sizeable contribution to what this reader hopes will be eventual salvation. But for that, we willhave to wait for book 3... that's assuming this is a trilogy!

The cast our heroes encounter on their way is brilliant too - an unearthly quintumverate of rebellious leaders, a scary but kind dump-dwelling artist, a gang of teenage petrolheads and some seemingly back-from-the-dead meglomanics (not all of whom have retained a full desire for power) all feature in this blockbuster of a novel.

If there's one book I've read this year that needs the Steven Spielberg treatment, it's this one - the hardwork of making it screen-ready has already been done. Recommended for fans of Philip Reeves' Mortal Engines and Fever Crumb sequences as well as for fans of high octane blockbusters.

Give that at the time of writing cinemas are closing and the world seems as dystopian as some of us have ever known it, it's the perfect time to self-isolate with a book that at least reminds us that things could perhaps be worse!