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…”

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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!

Blog 6

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper – Review

‘this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining’

Best reads

Fabulous!

Twitter is an interesting place for authors and would be authors. There are some wonderful people to follow: Michael Rosen, Patrick Ness, Emma Carroll, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, M.G Leonard and more. Just occasionally a Twitter hashtag takes off and one I became instantly drawn to was #TheDarkisReading. Back in the day, when I first started teaching in Kent, I remember the Head of English introducing a book to me to teach to Year 8, The Dark is Rising. In those days, being relatively young and enthusiastic, I took the book home to prepare my lessons. We were reading it in the autumn term and it led perfectly into the Christmas holidays. Much more I couldn’t remember, it was after all quite some time ago. I had vague memories of snow on the ground and of Will Stanton but other than that very little remained in my head at all.

The Dark is Rising is the story of Will Stanton’s transformation into an ‘Old One’ between Midwinter’s Eve, 21st December, and Twelfth night. In that time he has a quest to collect the Signs to drive the Dark away from the home counties of England. He faces several tests, as well as trying to save members of his family and himself from death and, ultimately, the destruction of the world.The story starts on his 11th birthday but it’s very easy to forget that he’s just 11, as he shows a wise head in many situations throughout the story. However, he is not perfect as the hero of the tale. In fact, more than once he makes poor decisions, resulting in his quests being even more difficult. However, he is not alone in his adventure and a character we meet early on is Merriman. I did wonder if his name is ironic, as there seems to be very little about him that is merry! Merriman is the wise figure within the tale that stands with Will, when he most needs him and his age and understanding of the world contrast with Will’s naivety.

With Merriman’s patience and gentle discipline, Will starts to become the Old One he needs to be in order to save the world. The force that is trying to destroy him is described as the Dark, a powerful force that is exemplified in the Dark Rider. Will has to find enormous inner strength and to understand his role with the Old Ones and Merriman guides him to the people he needs to talk to. Will realises his whole life has been surrounded by people who turn out to be far more than they seemed on the surface. Miss Greythorne, Farmer Dawson and George are all part of the group that keep him from harms way as he hones his skills and talents against the Dark. He needs them too, as wherever he turns lie threats and potential hazards.

Perhaps one of the most interesting characters is Hawkin. A man pulled through time by Merriman, Hawkin feels his master has betrayed him and used him for his own ends. His lively character introduced in the early part of the story, gradually unravels and the ravages of time make him a shadow of his former self. Time itself is a character of sorts and Cooper carefully manipulates time and the reader, leaving subtle clues throughout the narrative as to who Hawkin really is. I suspect she also manipulated me, as I really felt no sympathy for him until the final pages of his story.

Pathetic fallacy is skilfully used throughout the novel. The cold starts to bite into you and the childhood desire for snow at Christmas, soon becomes a threat to the very existence of life itself. Snow is not a friendly blanket for making snowmen and tobogganing, it is a destructive force that is closing all means of transport, stopping power supplies and a threat to stability and health. Of course, once the snow has stopped, the devastating floods and the damage that causes follows on. And every time, the weather thwarts Will’s passage to save the planet but he overcomes the dangers put in his path. Ultimately the Dark is terrifying. It hangs over the novel weighing the reader and Will down. It’s relentless, unkind, and wilful destruction of mankind pervade ever move in the text and Cooper captures childhood nightmares perfectly.

This is a wonderful book. I was so glad to revisit it and to read it from Midwinters Eve was also quite special. The irony of the snow laying deep on the ground today and causing chaos across the country was not lost on me. The Dark is indeed rising and the metaphorical significance seems particularly pertinent in these troubled times. I did have to confess on Twitter that I couldn’t wait until Twelfth Night to finish, as I have so many books to read at the moment. However, I was not alone. It’s simply too good to put down and stop reading.

Who should read this?

This is a fantastic class reader for Year 7 or 8 but it would need a whole term and perhaps need to be tied into some poetry, myths and legends and work on pathetic fallacy. Although it’s part of a sequence, it can be read as a stand alone and I suspect those keen readers would go on and read the rest. This is a challenging text. Cooper expects readers to be unafraid of tricky vocabulary and she doesn’t patronise the younger reader either, playing with narrative structure, time, and bringing in mythological figures. It’s a Middle Grade text but as an adult who loves fantasy, this is a timeless classic that reads as true now as when it was written.

Blog 5

Skellig by David Almond – Review

‘I found him in a garage on a sunday afternoon.’

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A Good Read

David Almond’s story of Skellig tells the tale of Michael and his family, as they go through the trauma of having a sick baby. But in reality that is the side story of Michael’s search for self and his deep connection with the his friend Mina, Skellig and his baby sister.

The opening line at the start of this blog came up in a recent conference I attended. It’s such a captivating first line and raises so many questions in an instant, that I felt compelled to re-read Skellig. I hadn’t read it since I did my teacher training. At the time, I didn’t like it and I couldn’t remember why. I have a vague memory of Sky TV making the book into a programme but I didn’t see it, perhaps put off by my misreading of the text in the 1990s. So I read it this time with fresh eyes. Someone had said in passing that Almond was a Marmite author. Well, if that’s the case, I love Marmite. I was gripped from the start.

There is an emotional tug to this book that really made me feel everything Michael was experiencing. His relationship with his baby sister is explored through the link of their shared hearts. He can feel her being alive in his heart both physically and metaphorically. He is sensitive and at the same time a boy who plays football and is part of the rough and tumble at school. He seems to be able to adapt to this change with ease. I admire Almond for writing a book that allows boys to cry and show emotion. There is not enough of that in writing for young boys.

His next door neighbour, the unconventional Mina, is home schooled, clever and loves nature. Mina is a wonderful girl, not least because she climbs trees and draws and knows something of William Blake. She is the gentle voice of reason and understands Michael instinctively.  She feels his sense of fear and shares his excitement too. Her story is one of loss and, although we are given some insight into why she is a curious young girl who is educated at home, it’s never fully explored but there is another book by Almond, My Name is Mina, that perhaps would tell more of her story.

So who or what is Skellig? He has wings. He’s dusty and turning to stone. He eats owl pellets and Chinese food. He drinks brown ale. Initially he seems to be a tramp, a vagrant who has been living in the crumbling garage next to Michael’s home. As Michael experiences the trauma of his sister being taken back into hospital and perhaps dying, he tries to keep this strange creature alive. Mina helps him give new life to Skellig and they are both drawn to him to try to save him but also he gives them hope and a sense of wonder. He is an enigmatic figure at the centre of the story and his delicacy and vulnerability echo that of Michael’s baby sister.

This is a magical novel and it speaks to the way we try to rationalise some of the things we experience in life. It was so bare in terms of narrative and description but it simply didn’t need it. The raw emotion of the story reaches out to the reader punching through to our own hearts. I must admit to shedding a quiet tear at the end but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. The story gives us what we want but perhaps not in the way we expect. That’s as much as I can say without giving the story away!

Who should read this?

Everyone, Marmite or otherwise! David Almond is a skilled writer and, if like me, you are considering writing for middle grade or even young adults, there is a beauty to the clear and unambiguous style. I read this in two days; I couldn’t put it down. For young people, it’s requires some emotional intelligence so I would recommend it for age 11 and above. It would make a wonderful class reader for Year 7 or Year 8.

Podkin

The Legend of Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood – Review

Best reads

Fabulous!

“Back when rabbits were small, twitchy, terrified things, warrens were little more than a collection of holes and tunnels.”

Who would have thought that a group of young rabbits running away from the evil Gorm could have been quite so compelling. Now, I have to confess, that I am a big fan of a bit of fantasy and love an alternative world dominated by creatures with big furry feat but generally the books I have read are for older readers. So, to be thrown into this frozen rabbit world, which I thought would be more Watership Down than the Hobbit, was a real surprise.

This is a fabulous read. The ‘bard’ who tells us the story reminds me of the romantic middle ages, when story tellers would go from village to village to recount days of old. I felt like one of the little rabbits sat at his feet eagerly lapping up his every word. It’s funny but this story reminds me of the old Norse legends I read many years ago, or something along the lines of Beowulf. Now this may be because the names of the places where these little rabbits are living remind me of a number of places in my spiritual home of Denmark and nearby Sweden. However, like all good fantasy stories, our little rabbits start off life in their comfortable warren and the Podkin of the title, seems an unlikely hero.

Podkin has neglected his studies and spent most of his life snoozing and playing the role of the lazy son of the chief. I was a little disappointed therefore that his big sister, Paz, who has studied hard and can fight well, is not in line to replace her father. Surely the idea of a male descendant could have been unpicked here. We need a few more heroines who are dominant and ultimately save the day. As even though Podkin spends all his time acknowledging that his sister is better than him, ultimately it’s still Podkin who saves the day (I don’t think this is a spoiler. After all it would be a sad day if a little one eared rabbit didn’t make it to the end of the story). There are some other characters in the book that make up for the stereotyping. The blind Crom is clever and, just like the rabbits in the story, I kept wondering how on earth he would fight. And Bridgid, the witch rabbit, is vital to our understanding of the story, as she explains the balance in nature to the readers and the little rabbits that underpins the story.

The Gorm are the villains of the piece and the idea of metal and iron crushing the natural world is a clever idea. The fact that they seem invincible is part of the beauty of the story. There is no way that 3 young rabbits (really it’s two, as Pook is far too small to do anything really) can possibly fight off armour clad villains who have armour clad crow spies flying around the woods watching their every move. Their leader, the rather intriguingly named, Scramashank, has red eyes, a two horned helmet and is clearly the product of many myths and legends. He is a formidable adversary and again, like all good fantasies, he seems impossible to overcome.

I loved the wonderful illustrations in this edition, drawn in pencil by David Wyatt. They are beautifully detailed and I spent more than a usual amount of time pouring over them trying to see what was hidden in the pictures. They also capture the gloom and hope of the story, creating both the light and dark themes that are prevalent throughout the tale.

Who should read this?

I should imagine a group of Year 5s or 6s would love this as a class reader. There is plenty of discussion to be had around the characters and setting. You could also easily discuss pathetic fallacy with them, if you wanted to explore some literary concepts with them. Perhaps the most interesting discussion will be around the narrative structure and the use of the ‘bard’. I know I enjoyed reading this book and it would be good fun to read at bedtime to your kids … as long as you’re not scared of the Gorm!