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 He is withdrawn and seems to lose friends rapidly, as he never has the chance to build relationships.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!

Buy from Amazon here: http://amzn.to/2EAUEHI

Blog12

Moonrise by Sarah Crossan

“Joe hasn’t seen his brother for ten years and it’s for the most brutal of reasons. ed is on death row.”

Best reads

Fabulous!

What an incredible story. I only picked this book up from my local library on Monday and I had no idea what it was about. I just flicked through the pages and thought it looked like a book of poetry, which it is … and it isn’t. I intended to read this alongside another text I was exploring but I was swept away, caught up in Joe’s experiences of having a brother, who he adores but can’t be with and the doubts that exist in his mind.

This is not a book for the faint hearted. It’s gritty and real and doesn’t pull any punches. Joe is 17, the same age as my own son. Perhaps this is why it rips through my emotions. Joe has had a dysfunctional childhood but he is loved. It’s so important. He feels and gives love. He is not an emotional void. It’s what makes his narration of the story so much more powerful. The rhythm of the story echoes Joe’s pain, joy and fear and I simply loved that. I appreciate that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. But for me it opened up so many possibilities and really exposes how important the form of what we choose to read and write is so important. Like the blurred lines and feelings of the story, the structure echoes the poignant moments that a 17 year old experiences.

There’s a beauty to the setting. Texas in summer is not a pleasant place to be unless you’re inside an air-conditioned building. The stifling heat smothers every part of you and it beautifully reflects Joe’s life. He is smothered by his own terror. Lovely Nell, who has her own secrets, starts off being Joe’s friend and eventually his girlfriend. There is nothing certain in any of their actions. They do a dance around each other. Both refusing to let down their guard. But in a town that has a prison called, ‘The Farm’ where inmates are put to death, these moments between the two teenagers are a reminder that even when things are dark there is always some light. There’s also the kindness of Sue, who works in the local diner. She feeds Joe and seems to understand he has no money and is alone. The dirty and cockroach ridden apartment that Joe stays in nearly broke me. He’s 17. He’s visiting his brother on death row. He has nothing. The reality of the existence of some children (yes, he’s still a child, I’m sure anyone with a 17 year old boy will know that!) is so hard.

I don’t want to give you the impression that this is all doom and gloom because even through the story is sad, it’s moving and it’s full of beauty. It’s also a stark reality check about the injustices and barbarity of the death penalty. It makes me grateful that we simply don’t have that in the UK. As Joe reminds us, the people that deliver a concoction of barbiturates to a human being are basically murdering that person.

RESPONSIBLE

They charged Ed as an adult,

locked him up and

sentenced him to die

three years before

anyone thought

he was old enough

to buy a beer in a bar.

The reality is hard and very difficult to bear for me as an adult and Mum.

Who should read this book?

I loved it and I would recommend it to anyone with older teenagers at home. I would say it’s suitable for anyone 14 and up. There would be some fantastic teaching opportunities here. The debate around the death penalty for starters. But more than that, I think there should be a discussion around what it is that sustains us as human beings, because we are more than the stuff we have. Also, it is worth talking to young people about different realities of home life; it’s too easy to duck the difficult discussions in the classroom. It’s also a brilliant opportunity to talk about story telling and how we do it. I would urge everyone to give this a go. It really does stay with you …

 

Blog 11

Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

“You’re called fidge and you’re nearly eleven. You’ve been hurled into a strange world.”

Stars

A Good Read

This is a book that was on the Costa Book Awards shortlist and I can instantly see why. It’s so different from anything else I have read in years. As I said on Twitter a while ago, it’s a combination of the Teletubbies and Monty Python! So what is it all about and why should you definitely have it in your local or school library.

The story is about Fidge, the central character, and how she is transported, as if by magic into an alternate world. I didn’t warm to her at first, particularly as she is the cause of the accident to her little sister, Minnie, that throws the story off on a tangent at the beginning. As Minnie is rushed to hospital, Fidge is sent to stay with her cousin, Graham, who has been so pampered by his parents that he has forgotten what it means to be a child. He is a product of a world where everything can be solved by removing danger, rather than facing it.

Now, the world that Fidge and Graham find themselves in is a product of Minnie’s favourite picture book, the Wimbley Woos. As I said, it sounds rather like the Teletubbies and the Night Garden all rolled into one! However, there is an invader the land of the Wimbley Woos. Minnie’s beloved soft toy, Wed Wabbit, has turned into a tyrant and is destroying the wonderful, colourful world of the Wimblies into a white landscape of nothingness with his hatred and greed. The only person who can save it, seems to be Fidge BUT she can’t do it without Graham and an assorted collection of different coloured Wimblies.

Am I making any sense yet?

I did feel like I had been thrown into Monty Python and the holy Grail, when Wed Rabbit is screaming at the top of his voice, “THESE INTWUDERS MUST LEAVE OR THERE WILL BE TWOUBLE.” At that point I was howling with laughter but I am not sure I was necessarily laughing for the right reasons! Wed Wabbit’s transformation back to normal cuddly bunny is what takes Fidge and Graham through a variety of experiences that show how important it is for both of them to learn the value of each other’s talents. In the end, they are united and working together to get back home, before the land of the Wimbley Woos vanishes forever and them with it. I am not sure there is a long enough blog to explain how they do it but the essence is the teamwork they must use to overcome their problems.

who should read this book?

I found this quite hard to get into BUT I am definitely not target audience and that’s fine. It’s still a really good read. I would recommend it for Year 5 and Year 6. It will appeal to both boys and girls and I like the fact that Graham shows that he can be brave despite everything that is going on in his head. I do think a few parents could do with reading about letting your kids get outside, fall down, and hurt themselves. Children don’t need cotton wool wrapping, they need to know how to get back up when things go wrong and try again.

In terms of teaching, I think there are plenty of interesting opportunities for creative writing here. A cuddly toy at the front of the classroom who turns out to be a tyrannical despot could open doors for some! Writing for different audiences too. When I was a trainee, I did a project with my very reluctant year 8 class, where they interviewed local primary children (Year 1) who didn’t like reading and asked them about what they would read if they could. Each child was then assigned an author and my year 8’s went on to write some fantastic stories which they illustrated themselves or got others to illustrate. It ended up in the local paper! Value? Well they were writing for a specific audience and had to choose appropriate language and style. And, as I am sure any children’s picture book authors would tell you, that is incredibly hard. Also because they had to deliver the book to their child at the end, they were so proud to have written something ‘real’.

Other ideas: writing different worlds, creating a creature (good or bad), finding a voice for the ‘baddie’

I’d love to know what you all thought! But I wouldn’t mind another story of of the Wimbley Woos … maybe the one about the Festival of Theatre?

 

Blog10

Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

“February, 1941 A Bomb Blast … a chance encounter… her mother’s coat”

Best reads

Fabulous!

There are some books that you put in your basket, as you wander around the local book shop, that you had no intention of buying. When I picked up Letters from the Lighthouse, I wasn’t sure where I’d heard about Emma Carroll but I must admit that a lighthouse in the title was a draw. I am from the south west of the UK; there’s always a lighthouse and for me they evoke romantic images of a time before GPS, when rocks were life threatening to boats, and children dreamt of being lighthouse keepers.

When you start reading this book, you are immediately thrown back into World War 2. The opening, with it’s bombing and terrifying scenes of buildings being blown apart, is described with such vivid accuracy that I felt my heart rate go up and I feared for our lead character, Olive. Olive and her brother, Cliff, are then evacuated by their mother to Devon (again, how at home did I feel in this book), where there is an intriguing connection to the Post Mistress, Queenie. The journey doesn’t start well and it seems as if Olive has met her nemesis in Esther Jenkins, who superficially seems vile and a bully. There is, of course, much more to Esther than her outward nastiness.

The lighthouse is vital to the story and I learnt a great deal about the way the Germans used lighthouses for navigation into Plymouth. In fact, one of the wonderful elements of this gripping story is the history. There’s so much I didn’t know (and I am about to show my ignorance here) about the “Kindertransport” or that those children arrived and settled into the UK without knowing if their parents were alive or dead. I also had no idea that Jewish refugees were smuggled out of France to the UK. The book seemed to resonate with overtones of the current political state of the world, as one particular idea that runs through the story is that of humanity and what makes us human.

“Beneath our race, our religion, we are all human beings. We all hurt in the same ways.”

This seemed incredibly poignant to me and I am sure younger readers would appreciate the importance of recognising the humanity in everyone, even if we dislike them, or in this case were the enemy. It was such a powerful message.

As for Olive, she is a complex leading lady, naturally intelligent, curious and fearless, she drives the story forward with her unwavering determination to find the truth out about her wayward sister, Sukie. She shows her intolerance of Esther and then her kindness, she is unwavering in her devotion to her family, and her loyalty to the small village that she comes to love is to be commended. She also shows us how hard it was to be in a country torn apart by war. I felt physically sick when her and Cliff didn’t have enough to eat and equally, I was delighted for them when they ended up living in the lighthouse.

The story reminded me of The Railway Children, evoking the same emotional roller coaster as I journeyed through it. I was caught from the very start. It took me all of 4 nights to read it (much to my husband’s consternation, as I wouldn’t turn the light off!). It’s not often that you read a book where you really want to know the end but at the same time don’t want it to end. I wanted to know the rest of Olive’s story and Esther’s too.  Wonderful.

who should read this book?

Actually, if I had my way this would be a Year 6 class reader. It is so thoughtful, covering things like friendship, race, history and more. It’s a masterclass in historical fiction for kids. I would think linking it to some war poetry and some wonderful research on the period would be fantastic. There’s plenty of writing opportunities too, as you could teach the lost art of letter writing and how they really create bonds between people. It’s a cracking read for adults too, as I can honestly say it’s one of the best books I’ve read for a long time!

Blog 9

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

“Each of us carries the map of our lives on our skin…”

Stars

A Good Read

I love maps. In fact, I have so many maps that after much discussion, there was a clear out of maps that were so out of date they probably wouldn’t get me much further than the end of my street. Therefore, it seems a natural extension to think that I would I love a book that has maps, as the central part of the story. My only complaint was that there weren’t more of them inside this book, alongside the wonderful adventure.

The story is of Isabella and her life on the Island of Jora. It seems like a hard life for her. She has suffered the loss of her mother and her twin brother and it’s clear from the start that this has left a profound mark on her. Her ‘Da’ however, is the town’s cartographer and revels in his inks and bringing maps to life. He dreams of one day escaping Jora and going to India to capture the beautiful colours and inks of the country. But it seems that there is more going on in the town than meets the eye. Gromera is ruled by Governor Adori and it seems that he rules with an iron fist, having placed many innocent people the Dédalo, a prison under the his mansion. But there’s more threats on Jora than the Governor. There’s a whole tribe of people who have run to the Forgotten Territories, The Banished, and then there is something sinister living under the Island that seems to be killing the trees and terrifying the wildlife.

The threats to Isabella’s way of life begin when one her school mates is killed and her mangled body found underneath the Governor’s Dragon Fruit trees. When the Governor’s daughter, Lupe, decides to go in search of the killer, Isa transforms herself to save her friend from certain death. But she is at the Governor’s mercy and her journey across the island is fraught with danger. Isa is a strong character and she believes in the power of the natural world. She is intelligent and manages to lead the search party by using the stars and her mother’s map of the island to navigate the dangerous landscape.

The Governor is the true villain of the story (although there are a few other scary characters but I am not going to reveal those). He is arrogant, rude and treats his people with disrespect and, as we find out later, he treats Lupe with contempt too. He is vile to Isa, taking a precious piece of her father’s walking stick (which glows in the dark) and ordering her around without any recognition of her ability to navigate across an unchartered island. He has never told Lupe about his past and, as she finds out later, he is not the father she thought he was.

There are some lovely touches in this book. The wonderful Miss La, a chicken with attitude, somehow manages to survive the madness of events on the island and Isabella’s instincts to save her from the pot are augmented by Miss La’s ability to peck anyone who tries to take her out of her cage for a stuffing! Pablo, her neighbour,  frequently comes to the rescue of Isabella but what I loved about this story was that ultimately, it’s Isa’s resilience and quiet determination that see her through and it is not the boy that saves the day either but someone entirely unexpected.

I really enjoyed the language and style of this book; it was both challenging and engaging. It certainly does not patronise a younger reader and I think would not be a barrier to their understanding and I would always encourage youngsters to read a book that builds vocabulary. All in all, a strong story and lovely characters, I just wish there were more maps in the book to compliment the story.

Who should read this?

This would be a great text for Year 7 at the start of their journey through secondary school. Themes of resilience, resourcefulness and facing your fears are just the sort of thing that young people need to read. It also raises questions of class and difference which I think would be wonderful combined with some multicultural poetry and stories. Paired with something like The Caribbean Dozen, The Girl of Ink and Stars, would be fabulous for a great scheme of work.

Blog 7

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens – Review

“THere’s been a rather shocking murder at deepdean school for girls …”

Best reads

Fabulous!

I wanted to start the year, as I mean to go on: reading, writing and reviewing. I could not have chosen a better book to start off my reviews for 2018. Robin Steven’s gloriously conceived story, set in the 1930s at an English boarding school is a real romp and I found it very hard to put down. I will confess that, initially, I was somewhat sceptical, as I love a good murder mystery and my favourite writer in the genre is Agatha Christie (particularly as I live within 10 miles of Greenaway). As a voracious reader when I was young, I started reading Christie novels when I was 10 or 11. I think my Mum was trying to find an author who had written enough books to keep me quiet and which I wasn’t too young to understand. So, I like a good plot twist, I love trying to solve who did it before I am told and I always love the great reveal at the end. Could Robin Stevens do the same? Could she possibly write for a young audience and captivate them, as Christie had done for me?

The story is told from the perspective of the thoughtful Hazel Wong. Hazel is an interesting girl. She’s from Hong Kong and has been sent to a British boarding school, as her father wants her to have the best education. Interestingly, having worked in an all girls’ boarding school myself only 10 years ago, this was still the case. Many lovely Cantonese girls would find themselves arriving at Heathrow and on a coach to a rural Devon school. Deepdean sounds somewhat similar! Anyway, Hazel keeps the notes on the murder that takes place in the first few pages of the novel and is led into all sorts of scrapes by her best friend and president of the Detective Society, Daisy Wells. Hazel envies the blond, blue eyed Daisy, who is incredibly popular and pretty. However their unlikely friendship is forged when Hazel reveals that she knows Daisy hides how clever she is to everyone.  Daisy realises that Hazel is the steady character who can curb her impetuous tendencies and as such they form the Detective Society.

Their ingenuity and determination to uncover what has happened to poor Miss Bell, the Science Mistress, is both hilarious and haphazard. As they roam about Deepdean taking on the roles of Sherlock and Watson, they uncover a series of clues that they carefully put together. Hazel, spends the novel terrified that the murderer knows who she is and at the end, it turns out they do indeed know that Daisy and Hazel have uncovered their secret. In amongst all the investigation, they have buns, midnight feasts, seances and various lessons. They have a group of loyal friends, use words like ‘chump’ and ‘dunce’ and lead us on a merry dance through the 1930s experience of being at a girls’ boarding school. It’s all jolly good fun!

Does Robin Stevens achieve the goals I set out for a good murder mystery at the start of this Blog? Yes she does! Ooo, I thought I had it solved but red herrings galore abound and, like the girls, I charged off down a number of dead ends. I think I was too convinced that only Hazel could really solve the mystery as she was thoughtful … but Stevens was way ahead of me and cleverly demonstrated that the team is more important than the individual. I must admit that this was a cracking good read and if it wasn’t for the fact that I have a pile of books to get through to review, I probably would have read the rest of them straight away (summer hols aren’t too far away!).

Who should read this?

I think anyone (boy or girl) in years 6 – 8 would love this. It brings in a sense of history, is linguistically beautiful and the story makes you think. Of course, the heroes are Hazel and Daisy and I like seeing strong female leads in a novel. I think teaching suspense and pace is something that is quite hard to do and this would be a cracking novel to use to teach the art of writing great tension. And I think if you want to read something that has you scratching your head about whodunnit … well here it is!