Retreating to Northmoor

It’s good to get away

I have found getting around to any writing this year to be difficult. I am sure it’s the sort of thing, all writers face: family illness, travelling for work, school stuff, just eating and sleeping. Everything seemed to stand in my way. Even my reviews have dropped off (not because I haven’t been reading); I simply didn’t have time to even contemplate what I was going to say. So, when confronted by my inability to carve out time to do one of the things I love in life (along with sailing, running, cycling, and not forgetting being with my family), I had booked to go on the wonderful Imagine Writers’ Retreat to Northmoor House on Exmoor.

Driving through Dulverton and up to the house itself is quite an adventure. You have to cross a magical troll bridge over the river Barle and round a sharp bend in the road, you see the former gatehouse. Trundling slowly down the gravel drive brings you to the House. It’s intimidating exterior and grand oak doors hide bedrooms galore and some of the largest baths in the world (ok slight exaggeration but I think I tried 4 different baths, all of which you could easily get lost in!). When I arrived, I was greeted by the wonderful and talented Jenny Kane. She and her business partner Alison, ran the retreat. They were relaxed and didn’t expect any of the attendees to fulfil anything other than their own goals. So if you didn’t want to take part in any exercises or events, you simply didn’t!

 

I had chosen my room on a previous visit. It’s not the sort of room you’d expect to me in, after all, I am not exactly girlie! But there I was unpacking my supplies (copious amounts of bubble bath, dodgy flavoured tea bags, and running kit) in the Flower Room. I’d chosen it on the basis of being able to look out over the garden and the room’s calming green colours. I also knew that it was a room where I could work, undisturbed and in a focused manner. By the time I had made it down to the kitchen with my ginger tea bags, most of the writers had arrived ready and prepared to get down to it. 6 of us were there for the first evening meal, along with Jenny and Alison. It was a fantastic meal. Chatting about writing moved from the mundane, to the extraordinary and beyond. In fact, all the evening meals were times where we openly discussed the writing process, progress or lack thereof (!) and were an inspiration to me. I learnt about my characters through these discussions and also realised that sometimes your characters don’t do what you think they should, and that’s fine!

 

The following morning, I was up and in the kitchen for my coffee very early, well earlier than most! I then cleared off for a run. Retreats are about writing I hear you scream. Actually, they’re about freedom. The freedom to give yourself the space to think. Something that I don’t get to do most of the time. Running through the grounds and out onto the footpath, I met a deer and her fawn, down near the water. They were beautiful but my heavy footsteps on the path startled them and they ran up the steep sided bank and watched me lumbering along. The image stuck with me and funnily enough, ended up in my writing that afternoon. It was an beautiful day and I think each of the writers ended up outside at some point, working in the sunshine.

 

In the evenings, we had two visiting writers. The first was Dan Metcalf, children’s author, scriptwriter, and lovely person. The world is small and the moment he mentioned going to Torquay Boys’ Grammar School, once more my past came up behind me and whacked me over the head with a big stick! However, times have moved on and Dan’s writing career was part computer generated, part gritty determination, all fuelled by talent. His revelations about the trials and tribulations of a jobbing author working full time and fitting his writing into every spare moment, struck a chord with most in the room. He was generous with his time, staying for dinner and answering endless questions about getting published. Dan has quite some tales to tell and, if you haven’t seen him speak, I highly recommend you do.

Our second author visit was from the equally wonderful Kate Griffin. Her marvellous stories of the incredible Kitty Peck are all set in the Victorian period around the East End of London. Recounting tales of her family in the East End and her visits to music halls both renovated and crumbling, kept all of us enthralled. One of the areas that she recommended to us was entering competitions, as her own break to publication was through entering a competition.She also mentioned that the latest trend in publishing was around ghost stories and that it worth paying attention to what publishers want. Kate was brilliant at bringing her characters to life and I must admit, if it wasn’t for the fact that I am reading as many children’s books as possible, I would be off to buy her books now! Like Dan, she stayed for dinner and continued to discuss with the assembled group her experiences and encouraged all of us to get our ideas written.

In amongst the residents, there were some day visitors, evening visitors, two day stayers, overnight guests, etc. We were a really eclectic mix, ranging in age and interests, at different stages of our writing ‘journey’ for want of a better word. The different genres and ideas were really inspiring and whilst I produced a massive 15,000 words in 3 days (this is the way I work, I probably won’t write anything for weeks now!), it wasn’t about the amount but that my own story took a dramatic twist over the breakfast table! The support and time given by Jenny and Alison to everyone was unstinting. Not once did Jenny mind me wandering over and asking a question or chatting randomly about character development.

   

I am feeling somewhat bereft now. I am missing the camaraderie, the excellent food, and the time to write. I have already booked my place on the next one and requested the Flower Room again, along with everyone else (it was a huge success!). But Jenny and Alison have another idea for a spring retreat. So keep an eye out. My advice, spend time working with other writers; they’re the best people in the world.

 

Blog 23

Pax by Sara Penny Packer

“I had a fox. I have a fox… We left him on the side of the road. My dad said we had to, but I should never have done it.”

This is a beautiful story and a compelling one.

One story is about Peter, who has been forced by his father to abandon his fox that he had rescued as a cub. Peter seems to be living in the modern world that is torn apart by war. It seems to be set in the USA or Canada but it could be any country that is calling men to arms. The consequence of the fighting means Peter is shipped off to live with his grandfather away from the frontline, where his father has decided to volunteer. The poor boy is full of guilt that he has left a tame fox to fend for itself in the wild. He feels he has left it to die. So he packs his backpack with essentials and runs away back to his home, in the vain hope he can find his beloved pet and save him.

Of course, as in all good stories, it’s not as simple as that. Peter breaks his foot and finds himself at the mercy of the wild. He stumbles into a barn and is himself, ‘rescued’ by Vola, an army veteran who has withdrawn from the modern world and lives off the land. Her harsh care and ability to make Peter confront his own weaknesses are what he has been lacking from his father. She is a tough woman. But she teaches Peter the harsh realities of nature and that he is much stronger than he could ever imagine.

The other story belongs to Pax. His initial confusion as to why his ‘boy’ would abandon him is heart breaking. He waits patiently for Peter to return. His loyalty is profound. However, his instincts draw him to his own kind and even though he stinks of humans, he is eventually accepted by the local fox population. Even so, his fight for survival becomes more than just finding food. As he tries to find his way back to the home he once had, he puts himself in terrible danger, as he is journeying towards where men are fighting the war. He suffers terrible loss and faces impossible odds but you will him to survive.

At the heart of the story is the rite of passage that both Peter and Pax must go through in order to survive in a world that is essentially falling apart. It’s a hard read and it does not give you the pithy resolution of a Disney film. I felt this was a moral tale for today that should make all of us reflect on our relationship with nature and each other. There’s an intense loneliness in this story and a need for humans to reconnect with one another and the world around them. It rather drew me back to the world of Steinbeck and certainly had the delicate nature imagery of stories like Of Mice and Men.

Who should read this book?

This is a lovely book and would make a wonderful partner to the Book of Lost Words, carrying the same sort of messages. I think Years 5 – 8 would enjoy this and there are plenty of opportunities to link with some powerful poetry or even Blackbird by The Beatles. As I mentioned earlier, schools will have hundreds of copies of Of Mice ad Men lying around and Pax would be a good partner text for older readers. Highly recommended, emotionally charged read.

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

Blog 22

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

“They killed my mother. They took our magic. They tried to bury us. Now we rise.”

This is one of a flurry of books I have read over the last month and it’s one of my favourites. Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel is a stunning story set in a fictitious part of west Africa and is inspired by west African culture and heritage. I was quickly drawn into this fantasy world and, from chapter one, it is clear that this is a world of devastating violence, embittered by hatred and fear. It seems utterly relevant for our world today and yet seems intrinsically linked to the past.

At the heart of the novel are three voices: Zélie, Amari, and Inan. Zélie is the lively daughter of a fisherman whose mother has been killed by the powerful ruling regime. She is fiercely independent, strong and has her mother’s magic. Yes, this is a story of magic but not Harry Potter wand waving magic. It is the magic of the spirit, grounded in the earth and the gods that give that magic to chosen individuals. But the magic has been lost. Destroyed by the despotic King Saran who has tried to kill all those who are touched by the gods, Zélie is the key to the return of magic to the kingdom but can she do it and who will stand in her way? Zélie is a fabulous leading character, she has all the traits needed for a hero but she also has the self doubts of a 16 year old confronted by her first feelings of love and desire (this was so beautifully written, it took me back to my own teenage years!).

Amari and Inan are the daughter and son of King Saran. Amari is the rebellious one, although she is also a virtual prisoner of her father’s ideological hatred. She is unable to think or be herself and lacks any confidence. Her growth throughout the story is crucial to Zélie’s progress and she is, at times, really annoying and at other times the saviour of the tale. Her voice brings balance to the violence and hatred, as she is often measured in amongst the chaos that surrounds our leading characters. Inan on the other hand … Is he a hero? Is he an antihero? Is he the villain of the piece? Early on, Inan’s secret is revealed (I am not telling you what it is!) and as a reader you are variously drawn to him as he falls for Zélie, and she for him, and then hating him as he seems to betray both himself and everyone else. As I rushed towards the end of this compelling story, I didn’t know whether I trusted him or not and whether I liked him or not! Adeyemi leaves it open to the reader to decide and that is one of the joys of this text, it doesn’t necessarily give us everything we expect.

This is one big fat book. But it doesn’t feel like it when you get going. It’s quite hard to put down. There’s some terrible scenes of violence that are in no way gratuitous but demonstrate what happens when you keep people afraid of their own shadows. People and children die. No punches are spared. Some of those that are killed shocked me to the core, but I can see how vital they are to expose the regime and give Zélie the courage to bring about a change. I can’t wait for the next instalment … as I didn’t want this one to end!

Who should Read this book?

This is a book for probably 14+, year 9 and onwards. It is a book to inspire and the characters will appeal to both genders. I think there is a great deal you could do with this as a class text for year 9. It has so many opportunities to discuss African heritage, culture and beliefs. But the real opportunity is to talk about difference. Why do we treat people differently based on race, gender, culture etc? I would definitely pair this with some poetry of people like Ben Zephaniah, or to look at some of the GCSE poetry, like ‘Nothing’s Changed’ or ‘Limbo’.  As writers, I think anyone playing with multiple voices should read this, and if anyone tells you that only two voices are acceptable… show them this!

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2lXp502

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.

LBF 1

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!

LBF 2

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.

LBF 7

My beloved Moomins

LBF 6

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).

LBF 5

Quentin Blake’s fabulous images

LBF 4

Matilda – Roald Dahl

LBF3

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.

LBF 9

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.

LBF 15

Some of the World’s Biggest Publishers

LBF 13

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