Blog 21

Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

“Every summer Quill and his friends are put ashore on a remote sea stac to hunt birds. But this summer, no one arrives to take them home.”

I have read some fine books since the start of the year but this is going on my pile of books that I would keep in my soul forever. This extraordinary telling of a true story is beautiful and is unrelenting in its confrontation of what it means to stay alive. It was so hard for me to put it down that last night I was reading well beyond midnight, desperate to get to the end. Desperate for a happy ending that is not quite what I expected.

So what is the story all about. Well, living on a remote Scottish island in the 1700s must have been pretty harsh to say the least, particularly as the St. Kilda Archipelago sits off the western coast of some of Scotland’s larger islands. Now these tiny islands are the homes of wildlife, humanity has left nature to its own devices. However, the crofters and farmers that lived there in the 18th Century relied on sheep, fish and the birds to live. Fowlers, as the men and boys in this story are called, were shipped off to a remote rock and spent a few weeks capturing the birds that nested there. They effectively farmed them for the food, oils and feathers. In fact, pretty much all of the bird was used. However, what this group of 9 people didn’t expect was to be left behind. Why they were left is not revealed until the end of the tale but it’s worth the wait.

The main character is wonderful Quilliam. He is a young man, not quite adult but not a boy. He is wise beyond his years and suffers awfully at the hands of one of the men, Col Cane. But Quill is sensitive and has great empathy and it is thanks to him that this small group survive their 9 months on a rock with 3 caves. His dreams of returning to Hirta (the island where they live) and being with his beloved, Murdina, keep him alive and he believes her spirit is with him throughout the ordeal. And what an ordeal. You are living on a rock. There are no comforts, just rock. You live off the birds that you are supposed to be taking back to Hirta and the fish you can catch. There is no real warmth and your clothes are tattered and torn, saved only by constant repairs. Every day you venture out a slip could result in your death or worse an injury that leads to death. The whole experience can be summed up as horrific. Yet, somehow despite everything that takes place, the loss, the hope, their stubborn refusal to die, there is such spirit in the boys.

What I found most moving was the relationships between each of them. The tenderness, the hatred, the love and the jealousy. All human spirit seemed to be encapsulated in 9 months isolation. There are villains, Col Cane being the worst. A supposed religious man who uses his position to manipulate the boys and maintain his lazy disposition. He gets his comeuppance, however. Mr Farris who without Quill would have never made it home and Davie, wonderful Davie, who I just wanted to hug. The landscape itself is living and breathing through the beautiful writing. McCaughrean captures every moment through the tiny details and at times, I was literally hanging on a cliff’s edge wondering how on earth the next moment could possibly be resolved. It’s a stunning read.

Who should read this book?

Heartily recommended for Year 7 & 8. This book would open up wonderful cross-curricular opportunities for history and geography and would be a brilliant text for looking at context. It’s also a really good introduction to Lord of the Flies if you were thinking of using it at GCSE. There’s some wonderful opportunities to talk about gender identity here. What makes a boy or girl? How do we create gender? So perhaps this might work in Year 9 too. As an adult, this is one of the stories that lives with you and I am so glad I read it. Well worth its Carnegie nomination and more.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2ko2kBr

Blog 20

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

“This is a story about an eagle huntress, an inventor and an organ made of icicles.”

This is a book EVERYONE should read. I haven’t loved a book like this for a very, very long time. Of course, there had been a huge buzz around it and I was unusually sceptical, perhaps because of my love of the Northern Lights trilogy, and I had only just read the Polar Bears Explorers Club. So I had resisted this particular text. However, I was absolutely gripped from the start to the finish and in fact, I slowed down to saviour every chapter as I simply did not want it to end. I was both uplifted and saddened that I had come to the final pages. I feel I am mourning the loss of Eska and Flint … I want them back!

So what was it about this novel that I loved? Firstly, the landscape. If ever there was a story that demonstrated how far the landscape becomes a character in the story this was it. The hostile environment that envelops you at the start is so beautifully captured and really I was there. I was on the ice, watching the stars, in the caves, in the forests. I was lost to the mood of the environment. Secondly, the three leading characters: Eska, Flint and Blu. Eska starts the story a captive of the evil Ice Queen who has her locked in a music box. The Ice Queen tortures her and wants to steal Eska’s voice before the rising of the midnight sun because, if she does that, she will rule not only Erkenwald (where the story is set) but she will bring down the Sky Gods who have overseen the land and the tribes for centuries. It’s a classic story of good versus evil but Eska can’t remember her life before being taken prisoner. She has no idea why her voice is important or how she has been touched by the Sky Gods.

Flint is the inventor and, despite everything that has happened, he is enchanted by the long lost magic that the tribes abandoned under the rule of the evil Ice Queen. He knows the old ways and invents clever machines and gives power to objects throughout their adventures. He is also mesmerised by Eska. Something about her gets inside him and it is thanks to Flint that Eska escapes the clutches of the Queen. However, without Eska, Flint would never have believed that his inventions would work, so they need each other. But I am not telling you anything else, as that will give away the fantastic story that unfolds as Eska and Flint journey across Erkenwald to save themselves, their parents and their tribes. Blu is Flint’s little sister. She is a delight.  Both intuitive and clever in ways that even her brother doesn’t realise until it’s in front of him. Blu recognises Eska’s goodness the moment she meets her and instantly embraces her as a friend. Where others dismiss her, Eska listens and Flint will defend Blu to end of the world.

I was overwhelmed by the feelings brought about by this text. Whether it was the idea that we need to remember to protect our environment or that nature is a powerful or that community is far more powerful than one dictator, I was so taken aback that I am still emotionally there with Eska. I want to be her. I want an eagle as a friend and I really, really want to meet an Erkenbear! They must be real, as I read them here and believed. Truly wonderful. There is so much more to this story but I don’t want to spoil it’s twists and turns. I just want you all to go out and read it.

who should read this Book?

Well in my humble opinion: EVERYONE! I guess it’s aimed at the middle grade audience of 8 – 12. It would be a wonderful Year 6 text. It will stretch vocabulary, enchant both girls and boys and I am sure most of the teachers will enjoy it too. There is a fantastic opportunity to explore the arctic and the peoples who live there. Some lovely work could be done across the curriculum with Geography and considering climate change. But maybe look at the Inuit people too or some of the reindeer herders of Finland etc. There are fantastic opportunities to talk about voice  and who has the most power: the quiet and thoughtful one or the loud dictator. Finally, diversity and difference and why we should not judge people because of their differences through talking about Blu.

Honestly, I am not going to be moved by a text like this again for a very long time.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2vnnVCE

 

LBF 17

The London Book Fair or “how to be lost in a sea of books”!

“What are all those people doing on the stands?”

Well … a very long day in good old London town but I have to say a thoroughly enjoyable experience at the London Book Fair and thanks to some wonderful ‘Scoobies’, I learnt all I need to know about visiting in the future. It was a bit like being a kid in a candy store or, in my case, being at Harry Potter World.

Some of the stands were stunning and I took quite a few images of things that caught my eye. The first was this amazing artwork on the Bloomsbury stand … there were images all the way round but this really spoke to me and I kept wondering what her story was.

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Beautiful images on the Bloomsbury Stand

There was a great deal of discussion going on on this stand which had an eclectic mix of books but I was intrigued by Big Foot!

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Bigfoot Challenge from Fox Chapel

Now the Knights Of folks were tied into another stand but when I saw the Moomins I was immediately staring at all the wonderful books and stationery that was available. There are very few images that have stayed with me from my childhood but the Moomins have great longevity.

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My beloved Moomins

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Another gorgeous stand Image

One of the key areas that, if I had realised had presentations for free (well included in the price of your ticket), was the fabulous Children’s Hub. There were some amazing people there and I was gutted I missed Chris Riddel, who was drawing as a number of writers read from their books. But the stand was surrounded by wonderful drawings by Quentin Blake from Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Was lovely to see the traditional amongst the new (if you can call Roald Dahl traditional).

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Quentin Blake’s fabulous images

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Matilda – Roald Dahl

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Matilda considering reading – Roald Dahl

I did spot ‘Barry Chicken’ on my way around the Chicken House stand … and it was pretty amazing to see so many of the books that have been on my reading list and blog all in one place. For a small publisher, they carry an enormous weight with the MG community.

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So many familiar texts here!

Now back to my original question, what were all those meetings about? In my naivety, I had no idea that book deals and meetings with agents would be taking place. I know, I know, what did I think they were all doing there, having tea and cake! I was also blissfully unaware that the publishers didn’t want random pretend authors (like me!) wandering across their stands with a big backpack on bashing everyone on the head. But ignorance is bliss and not once did anyone really stop me looking at the books due to be released this year.

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Some of the World’s Biggest Publishers

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So many meetings

Continue reading

Blog 19

A Place Called Perfect by Helena Duggan

“Who wants to live in a town where everyone has to wear glasses to stop them going blind?”

This is a fantastically creepy story! Violet is a bright and clever girl who moves to the town of Perfect, when her Dad is given a seemingly fantastic new job. However, anywhere called Perfect is bound to be an illusion right?

Violet quickly finds herself blind after spending just one night in the town. Given a pair of spectacles she can then see her surroundings and its inhabitants again but something is not quite right and she knows it. Everything seems just too ‘perfect’, immaculate houses, streets and the people seem to be possessed by a false kindness. Violet also has a sense that she is being moulded into a different kind of person, someone who is submissive and does what everyone else does in Perfect. Violet is also aware that someone seems to be watching her and eventually she meets with the mysterious, “Boy”. Boy lives within the town but in an area called No-Man’s land. No-Man’s Land is populated by all those who did not fit the ideal model citizen of the main town and somehow they have been forgotten and lost.

The tension builds incredibly quickly in this story, as Violet finds her world falling apart. Her mother becomes more and more consumed by making cakes and book groups, something that she had never done before. She starts trying to turn Violet into a model citizen by drugging her with concoctions given to her by the brothers who run the town’s opticians, the Archers. And her father … he has vanished and her mother doesn’t seem to realise. However, Violet can see that behaving just like anyone else and not being an individual is wrong and with the help of Boy, she starts to unravel the goings on in the town.

This is such a clever mystery. There are so many twists and turns and the brilliant linking together of the characters is superb and had me gripped. There’s also some really disturbing dystopian features, eyeball plants and stolen memory jars that are right out of a John Wyndam novel. How are they pulled together? Well you will just have to wait and read the story yourself but needless to say, the Archers are not what they seem and the mysterious lady in the ghost village is far more important than she initially seems!

Who should read this book?

This is a cracking text for Years 5 – 7. With appealing central characters in a world that seems not too remote from our own, I think it will intrigue boys and girls alike. Violet’s strong character is a delight and she will appeal to young girls and boys, as she shows both her determination but also her fear. In terms of using this in a classroom, I think there’s some fantastic opportunities for exploring the idea of ‘rose tinted spectacles’ and imaginative writing. There’s also some great stereotyping here and questions around why women bake cakes and men go to work. Definitely something you could use to challenge perceptions in Years 6 and 7.

Loved it! Sure you will too.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2JMyBgY

Blog 18

This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada

“My darling girl, if you are reading this, it means I am dead. I know you want to grieve, but there is something that I need you to do.”

I chose to read this after it was on the nominated list for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. It’s a Young Adult novel, although I think any adult would love this. Set in a dystopian future, where a lethal virus is gradually killing off the human race, we find a young girl Catarina living a life in an isolated cabin with her father and his assistant, Dax. Why are they living in this splendid isolation? Well it appears that Cartaxus, an organisation that sounds rather too close to being Sky television for my liking, with a number of sinister divisions attached to it is trying to prevent the virus from spreading. But it’s not just a case of giving everyone an injection, oh no, in this dystopian future every single person on the planet has a panel in their arm that controls their bodies. This panel is connected to a series of wires that travel through the body focused on key organs, bones and the brain. It’s incredibly powerful and the technology … it’s been created by Cartaxus.

Now, if you are not a sci-fi fan, it really doesn’t matter. It’s the relationships and how each individual is connected that makes this such a compelling read. Catarina’s life is ripped apart. Firstly, her father and Dax are abducted by Cartaxus and she is left to fend for herself. She could choose to go into a bunker run by Cartaxus, where she will be safe until a vaccine is found. But her father has told her to stay away from them. So, she is surviving on her own out in the wilderness with a network of friends. Food is scarce and the virus is getting closer all the time. She then finds herself at the mercy of a young man who has come to take her to a lab in Canada to unlock the cure for the virus stored inside her. He is from Cartaxus. Does she trust him or kill him?

Catarina is a strong young woman of 16 or 17. She is a fighter and a survivor. At times, she is broken by the lies she seems to face from everyone, even those she thought loved her. She’s bright too, she can hack the code that is running the panels in people’s bodies and the code that seems to control every bit of technology she is surrounded by. Her relationship with Cole, the young man who abducts her is complex and again full of twists and turns. She saves him as much as he saves her. This is the strength of the story: she’s clear thinking in dangerous situations, she does the right thing even when she knows it is bad for her, and she is capable of killing, if it’s in the interests of the safety of mankind. Pretty amazing qualities for our leading lady. Cole is attractive and very much made of the stuff of heroes but he’s also vulnerable and needs Catarina.

I couldn’t put this book down. The more I read, the more I was drawn into this world and I went running after every red herring Suvada could throw at me! Although I did guess the twist in the tale towards the end (Thank goodness! I was beginning to feel like I’d never read another novel!). The door has been left open for the next book and I am looking forward to it’s release and seeing what will happen to the virus … and I still need to understand the pigeon poem because I still don’t quite get it. So feel free to enlighten me, if you can.

Who should read this book?

Well I would recommend this for any teenager who enjoyed the Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. It’s not exactly the same genre but the recognisable strong characters would appeal to those who have read that. It’s definitely a book for aged 14+ and would be a very interesting addition to school libraries or classrooms. I’d definitely want to talk to students about what they see in their future. How would they feel about being controlled by say Rupert Murdoch or a pharmaceutical company like GSK? Would they allow a company to implant technology in them, if it meant they could be instantly healed? The discussions would be good. You could create some great opportunities for writing to argue too.

Well worth reading!

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2HOVnmT

Blog 17

Kid Normal by Greg James and Chris Smith

“Murph has a problem. His new school is top secret and super weird.”

Oh how I laughed my way through this book. I was so wary, after all it’s written by a BBC Radio 1 DJ and a news presenter. I tend to avoid books by people who have the privilege of celebrity over those who have struggled to get their books noticed. But this had been selected for a few children’s book prizes and my curiosity got the better of me. What it means to be ‘normal’ is something all children and adults struggle to understand. What is a normal boy/girl? What is a normal family? Kids spend so much time worrying about being normal that sometimes they forget how extraordinary they are … and this text very much speaks to all those children.

Murph, the central character, finds himself constantly moving school, as his Mum keeps moving for work. He is withdrawn and seems to lose friends rapidly, as he never has the chance to build relationships. This time, he also finds himself without a school and in desperation, Murph’s Mum walks through town until she finds a school for him to attend. In a twist of fate, he joins a school for superheroes and, even though he apparently has no heroic features himself, he manages to build some real friendships there. Of course, as with all good normal people, he is not normal at all but I won’t reveal what makes Murph so special. However, every child can empathise with him and will recognise their own self doubts and worries and perhaps they can find the special within themselves too.

There are some cracking portrayals of teachers that come straight out the pages of Roald Dahl! They are caricatures of teachers I am sure all kids will recognise and some real surprises in amongst the staff. I thought at one stage I was going to be disappointed, as it seemed that they were male and talented and that women only really had a place as mums and secretaries. But I was fooled. Wrapped up in the story are some clever twists and turns that I didn’t expect, that will happily engage even the most reluctant of readers and please those of us looking for some gender equality. Never underestimate the headteacher’s PA … that’s all I am saying!

The villain is a perfect James Bond stereotype: self obsessed, flawed and has a real issue with picnics. Nektar is a product of a disastrous DNA experiment with insects. He is a giant wasp with the brain of a genius. Wasps of course are not necessarily focused on world domination but on sugar and disrupting picnics. He has a helper, hell bent on gaining control of the superheroes from Murph’s school but Knox, of course, is really only out for himself and is hoping to kill Nektar off too. The tension between whether Murph and his friends can save the day or not is brilliant … but who will win and how can some school kids stop the evil Nektar? Well you’ll just have to read the book to find out.

Oh and a quick mention to Erica Salcedo … the illustrations are wonderful and scattered as they are throughout the story, give it a comic book element at times without taking over the writing. It takes a thoughtful illustrator to really complement the story and this is perfect here.

Who should read this book?

I think this would be a great book for reluctant readers, as from the very first page it is utterly engaging. It plays to the boys with Murph but there are so many good role models for girls in here too, particularly with the quiet girl, Nellie, who has control of the weather. I loved Nellie and the phrase, ‘never underestimate the quiet ones’ comes to mind. I am sure a class of Year 5s or Year 6s would love this book. There’s plenty of opportunity to discuss, ‘what makes a hero?’ and the chance to create a super villain. It would be a wonderful book to discuss gender stereotyping and how our expectations are broken down here. For school librarians, I would definitely have this in a senior school library, it’s well written and would be great for Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid fans.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2Frvi0k 

Blog 16

Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst

“Considered the property of men in their tribes, life was hard for Native American women.”

The joy of recapturing my childhood by reading books for kids is that I get to read some non-fiction too. Fantastically Great Women is wonderful and there were women in here I’d never heard of and I guess that is the issue. It’s 100 years since women were allowed to vote (saying “allowed” makes me cringe) and, sorry girls and ladies, we are still struggling to see equal pay for the same work as men do and we are still seeing appalling abuses of women by men in power. As I read in Writers Forum this month, “two out of three lead characters (in the top 100 selling picture books) were male, males accounted for almost nine out ten ‘baddies’, while non-human creatures were male in 86.6 percent of case.” This is shocking. So this month, I have been doing my own reading about amazing women, explorers, writers, scientists and more.

Kate Pankhurst’s beautifully illustrated book is full of little gems of information. The woman I was most fascinated by was Sacagawea, a Native American woman. She was kidnapped from her tribe when she was young but her ability with languages meant that she could speak and translate more than one tribal language. Even more remarkable, having then met with two American explorers she travelled with them to help them on their journey through some of the unchartered parts of America. She did this while carrying her baby on her back and she was still only a teenager. By the time the expedition was over, she was respected as an equal by the men, unheard of at the time.

Other amazing women featured in the text, are Emilia Earhart, Jane Austin, Marie Curie, and Anne Frank amongst the most famous. But there’s some lesser known women too. The depictions of them in the book are beautiful with each woman having a double page spread that would make wonderful posters (I hope Kate’s marketing department read this!). I’d love all of these women drawn like this on mugs, bookmarks and so on. They would be perfect for a wonderful display in a classroom.

Who Should Read This book?

I think this should be located prominently in all primary classrooms! There are plenty of others but this one caught my eye. It’s easy to dip in and out of and would be a great stimulus for some research about some of these women,  or it would be wonderful to write some letters to these women. In the back of the book is a Gallery of Greatness and it would be so good for schools to have Galleries of greatness with students in too, both girls and boys. The essential message, get out there and do it, regardless of gender, be the change you want to be!

Kate’s fantastic website: katepankhurst.com 

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2HRpwCT

Blog 15

Thornhill by Pam Smy

“I have spent days and days in bed. I can’t face school. I don’t want to see anyone. I can’t even read.”

I have never read a book like this. I was so stunned at the end that I had to take a break from writing a blog about it, to absorb the message and the story. This is not a book for the faint hearted.

There are two narratives in this wonderful novel about two teenage girls who live 30 or so years apart. Mary’s story is told through her diary from 1982 and it is a hard hitting read. She is persistently bullied by the girls she lives with at Thornhill and is repeatedly ignored and left to struggle on her own. And I don’t think we should hide behind the fact that places like Thornhill, where young girls who are struggling to be fostered are living. They existed in the 1980s and I am not convinced they don’t exist today.  I was so drawn into Mary’s existence that at every turn, when an adult turns up in Mary’s life, I wanted them to rescue her. It astonished me that she could be so overlooked for being quiet or mute. Thornhill itself echoes her despondent existence; she is isolated at the top of the house. When the summer’s stifling heat takes over her room and she is desperate to breathe, you feel the house is as much a trap as a home. But Mary doesn’t want to leave. It’s the only home she’s known. Her relationship with the bully made me weep, as time and time again she falls for the nasty, vicious tricks that are played on her.

The other story is Ella’s, set in 2017. It’s beautifully illustrated and it’s a long time since I have had to read pictures to understand a narrative. They’re black and white and reflect Ella’s lonely and rather dark life. She can see Thornhill from her bedroom window and it’s derelict and overgrown. However, she climbs through a gap in the fence drawn to the place by a figure she sees in the garden. Sadly just like Mary, she is alone as her father is never there and her mother is absent. However, she builds a relationship with Mary which is beautifully conceived and shown through the delicate images. I was entranced and even though we don’t hear Ella speak, you can feel her sadness and loneliness.

I don’t want to say much else, as this is a text that everyone should read. It demonstrates the power a bully can have over a young person. How they control the person they are bullying and those around them. It reveals the incredibly difficult circumstances some children are forced to live in, through no fault of their own. And, sadly, it also shows how easy it is for us, as adults, to firstly, ignore the problem but secondly, to just not listen and ask the right questions. I know there are kids out there that I worked with, where often I could not get to the bottom of the issue they were facing, until I found the right question. Sometimes that might have been as simple as asking, “Are you okay?”.

I am so impressed by a book that uses illustration, as powerfully as it uses the written word. I can see why this is on the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize Shortlist for 2018 and I am still feeling incredibly moved. Go and read it, would be my advice.

Who should read this book?

I think this is a fantastic book to discuss with teenagers. There is so much here that many of them face. Definitely recommended for 13+ or Year 9 and up. It confronts some difficult issues. Bullying is such a challenging issue to resolve. It takes a great deal of bravery for a young person to speak up. In terms of teaching, I think you could read some of the diary entries in this and talk about emotion and how it’s conveyed so quickly. It has great mastery of the diary form and a bit of textual analysis would open plenty of opportunities for discussion. In terms of form, what a wonderful text to use with A-level English Language students to discuss how texts are created and how they create meaning. For English Literature students, I would sit this alongside other gothic texts and compare them … might be a good NEA opportunity here.

Still thinking about the messages and meaning … truly powerful.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2EZz4dR 

 

Blog 14

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

“It was all because of me, Mum. The baby you wanted so badly died because of Me.”

Well, if I am bleary eyed today, it’s because I simply could not put this book down. What an emotional and joyous journey. I had no idea what to expect of this novel but, when Waterstones start jumping up and down about a story, I usually enjoy it and I wasn’t disappointed.

The story is about a boy called Matthew or Matty, in his first year at secondary school. He has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and if you don’t know what that is or can’t understand why it would keep someone away from school, then this text explains it all. But Matty’s illness unwittingly draws him into a kidnapping that takes place outside his house. Unable to leave the house through his fear of catching germs, he is indeed in a goldfish bowl viewing the world from the upstairs windows. His detailed observations are recorded in his little notebooks and as a consequence he knows the movements of all his neighbours in the cul-de-sac.

What Matty observes on one particular day is his neighbours grandson, Teddy, aged 2, suddenly vanishing from the front garden. The mystery begins: where has Teddy gone? Is he dead? Who has taken him? Could it be one of the neighbours that he has watched repeatedly? I was hooked, working with Matty to try and sort out who could possibly have done the deed. It reminded me of a less sinister version of Hitchcock’s Rear Window with equally despicable and misunderstood characters. Although there is a story here to be told of the missing lad, this really isn’t a book about a kidnapped child, it’s actually about Matty’s similarly ‘kidnapped’, if you like, childhood as he is trapped inside his own head and unable to break the terrible cycle of washing germs from his body. At times, his seemingly irrational fears prevent him from doing the most simple of tasks, playing pool with his Dad, talking to his friends, touching anything that has not be cleaned with antibacterial spray. This was so carefully written that you can feel nothing but empathy for him and it makes you consider some of your own compulsive actions too and how they are born out of fear. And that is the crux of it all, Matty is paralysed by fear.

Matty is not alone however and Melody, one of his neighbours, is his savour. She considers herself to be equally lonely and tries to help Matty on his quest to solve the disappearance of Teddy but she also is patient and kind. She doesn’t hesitate when asked to collect a box of latex gloves for her friend, never asking him to explain. She spends much of her time hanging around the graveyard at the end of their street and why she does that is not revealed until much later in the novel but it is something that helps Matty to confront his fears and start to mend. I loved her emotional and gentle character. She is also resilient. Even when Matty tries to push her away, she doesn’t give up and she doesn’t give up trying to solve the mystery either.

Of course, for every Melody there is a Jake. Jake is the victim turned bully. He has built up walls to cope with the rejection he had from his best friend, Matty, when they were in primary school. He is like an angry bear, stalking his friend and scaring him but at the same time, he’s desperate to help Melody and Matty solve the mystery. Gradually he becomes useful and as the novel progresses he too goes on his own journey. Whilst he appears to be a bully at the start, we soon learn that he is not that boy and again, his persistence with Matty reveals his true character.

I am not ashamed to say I cried at the end. I was so intrigued by what was at the root of Matty’s problems that the mystery for me was about him and I suspect that’s exactly what the author wanted and I willingly walked the narrative. If you’re anything like me, you will find the second half of the book a compulsive read only this kind of compulsion is probably a positive one (other than me shutting out my family and going to bed at midnight because I wanted to know the end!). I am looking forward to reading the next novel, The Light Jar, another mystery but I am sure there will be more to it than that.

Who should read this book?

I think this is a wonderful text for Years 6 – 8. There is so much to discuss in here and would make a really good book for PSHE actually. Perhaps a more open discussion about some of these disorders would create a more supportive world. The statistics in the story are really interesting … In a school of 3000 students about 20 will have OCD. It makes me wonder how many of the children I looked after had this issue and hid it really well. Other ideas for English, building a detective story and thinking about narrative structure. It would be fun to put Matty’s notes up on a board as the story went along, with students adding their own thoughts on whodunnit. It would make an amazing display and would prepare for other mystery texts at GCSE.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2sqcMzr

Blog 14

The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club by Alex Bell

When Stella joins the polar bear Explorers on an expedition to the icelands, her eyes are opened to a world of danger, adventure and snow pirates!

Oh what an adventure! Stella is an orphan who has been adopted by her explorer father, Felix. She has a pet polar bear and a house full of miniature dinosaurs. However, what she wants more than anything else is to be an explorer herself but there is one tiny problem, she is a girl. Everyone in her world knows that girls cannot be explorers, except it seems Stella. Even her wonderful father feels it would be better to leave her with her awful Aunt than take Stella along on his latest expedition. But that quickly changes when the Aunt suggests that Stella should be sent off to finishing school and there is no way Felix is about to let that happen.

Stella’s adventure begins the moment she arrives at the Explorers’ Club. Whilst Felix is in explaining to the president why his daughter should be allowed on the expedition, Stella goes in search of the map room, although ironically she can’t find it, she does find the Hall of Flags and a boy called Ethan. Ethan is very hard to like, but like all good books, you should never judge a character when you first meet them although I am not going to reveal how he changes. But he has had a rough time and has faced some dangers himself. Stella is feisty and determined. She’s also a loyal friend to Beanie, who she supports and understands even when he is saying just the wrong thing at just the wrong moment and generally this is when he speaks to Ethan. Importantly, Beanie’s character exposes some of the difficulties children with autism face when they see the world one way and other people see it another. The three of them are destined to spend the rest of the book together, facing all sorts of dangers, however, there is one more character to introduce, Shay. I loved Shay, he is a ‘wolf whisperer’ and looks after the wolves that will take the sleds across the frozen lands they are going to explore. Generally, he is calm in the face of danger and, like Stella, he has a can do attitude to overcoming the obstacles that are flung in their path.

The main part of the novel sees the children separated from their parents the moment they land on the Icelands. They have to survive first but they are also true explorers as they want to take back things they find on their adventure and show that they can do as well as the adults. They are constantly thwarted by a variety of dangers: fairies that turn out not to be the sort of ‘Tinkerbell’ like things we expect in fairy tales (it was rather more Artemis Fowl than Disney!), they meet some pirates who don’t want to be found, savage cabbages, and stone trolls. They use quick thinking and find some unusual solutions to their problems. We learn that they all have a special talent (read the book to find out what) but the person who finds out most about herself is Stella.

This is such a wonderful novel of twists and turns. Just when you think things can’t get any worse they do! It’s so imaginative and as I’ve said before, I love a good fantasy novel and this is perfect in it’s execution. It’s not too far from our world but far enough to have some scary creatures and some absolutely laugh out loud moments. We are often left wondering how the children can escape but as with all good ensemble stories, it takes all their talents to overcome disaster. I couldn’t put this down! I must also mention the illustrations which are absolutely stunning and I loved the symbols for each explorers club: I choose Polar Bears. As for the end, Alex Bell left me totally dangling … I am now waiting for the story of the witch and I’d quite like it soon, if that’s possible.

Who should read this book?

I heartily recommend this for adventurous Year 4s, definitely for Years 5 -7. There’s plenty that could be done in the classroom with extracts from this story; you could easily teach the art of the cliff hanger using some of this. A fantastic creative writing project would be to take an ordinary vegetable and turn it into a mad killer vegetable in an unusual place. I think you could use the illustrations too to stimulate creative writing and there would be some great cross curricular links with history and perhaps to look at women explorers.

On a personal note, I really learnt something about how to write a really gripping novel with a strong female lead, who does not need to be a boy to succeed.

Cracking!

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