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!

 

Jaqueline Wilson

Lily Alone by Jacqueline Wilson – Review

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A Good Read

“Lily’s things to remember! How to look after my brother and sisters.”

When I started teaching, Tracy Beaker was on the TV and Jacqueline Wilson’s distinctive book covers were all over my classroom. This never changed. She is always a firm favourite with young girls and does not shy away from tackling some of the issues young people face today. Lily Alone is no different and actually it is a story that resonates with me on all sorts of levels.

Lily is 11 and in Year 6 at primary school. She has 3 younger siblings, Baxter and Bliss, twins aged 6, and, Pixie, aged 3. Their Mum is just 15 years older than Lily and, to put it bluntly, she is more interested in her own life than that of her children. Now, to clarify, the thrust of the story is that she leaves her kids without an adult to go on nights out and also to go on holiday with a man she has just met for a week in Spain. There are stories of this in the papers and we make judgements about the parents all the time. Lily’s Mum is not intrinsically bad. She loves her children but there is a part of her that still wants fun and to escape the responsibility of 4 kids.

Lily is extraordinary. She is an 11 year old who has become so used to taking care of her brothers and sisters that when faced with the prospect of the twins immature and violent Dad coming to stay for the week, she decides to take on the challenge herself. She really does try her very best and considering she has no money and no front door key, she does the most incredible job. The kids are fed and loved. She is driven by the need to keep them all together and no matter what she will protect her Mum from the police and social workers. Lily is so used to her life that she normalises her world and despite the odd moment when she is desperately alone, she copes with everything that is thrown at her.

What I really loved was the way that Jacqueline Wilson reminds us that she is still a child. Sometimes Lily can’t cope and makes idle threats that terrifies her siblings. She likes to draw and has a tantrum when she can’t get the image of her perfect home down on paper. She also dreams of being alone without the responsibility of looking after her siblings, a rather ironic replication of her mother’s behaviour. There are some lovely moments when the kids are all sat around the dining room table eating peaches and cream but equally some where you just want to scoop them all up and rescue them. At one point in the story, they are sat in a café eating people’s leftovers as they have no food. It’s funny and also deeply upsetting. How can 4 kids sit in a café for most of the afternoon and no-one really notices them? It’s a sad world.

There is one other thing I found slightly disturbing and perhaps it’s the way teaching has changed. Mr Abbott, Lily’s teacher, turns up at their flat, when Mum is away, and chats to the kids. He also gives Lily some postcards from a trip she missed and seemed to be offering to pay to take her on the school trip too. In the back of my mind, all sorts of alarm bells were ringing about appropriate behaviour and why hadn’t he gone straight to his safeguarding lead. Old habits die hard, when you have been working with children in a pastoral capacity for 20 odd years.

So how does it all end … I’m not telling you. But I do love the fact that the story does not end ‘and they all lived happily ever after’, it would be wrong if it did. It does highlight the way the social care system could be better and that Lily’s Mum needed a little more support and guidance to make the right choices, at the right time.

Who should read this?

I would recommend this as a good adult read, actually. It certainly pulls at your heart strings. I think young girls in Years 6 – 8 would love this. I suspect there are many who would recognise themselves in the story either as the strong and resourceful Lily or, unfortunately, as the young carer who is left to fend for their family alone.

Planning

Learning the Craft

I love writing.

I will make up all sorts of silly stories, poems, notes, sentences, words. However, I am not confident in what I do. Like every writer, I wonder if anyone will want to read my stories. After all, I’ve delayed and delayed writing anything that could be considered fully formed. So, in order to understand the writing process, I’m trying to get to as many workshops and meetings with other writers as I can.

Writing like all crafts has some groups that you can access and some you can’t. However, I have so far taken advantage of the Literature Works, How to get Published Conference, which was brilliant and which has really moved me forward. I’ve followed every single person I can find on Twitter to see what they are reading and absorb their advice. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators so I can attend some of their courses and read their magazines. I’ve read two other writing magazines and kept some useful articles and, today, I went to a course run by Imagine Creative Writing in Tiverton.

I know that when I taught creative writing with GCSE students, I’d talk about having some kind of structure to the writing. How was it going to end? Were you going to start ‘In Media Res’? Could you create a story with only one character? How would you get me interested in the first 3 lines? When it came to A-level creative writing, we always talked about suspense and how you could tease your reader. We’d look at more complex story structures than beginning, middle, and end. We’d talk about motifs and themes. So I know a tiny little bit about planning. Do I do it myself? Ummm … nope! I seem to have entire novels fully formed in my head. My latest story of family loss and rebuilding has been lurking around in my head for a while but was influenced by a homemade sign I saw on a lamppost in Shaldon: “Lost: Cat. Ran away from Cattery. Could be  trying to get back to Dawlish.” Now, my story has nothing to do with cats (well not this one anyway) but the poster made me think about how young people cope with loss. Then I had a family, I had a setting, and a ‘voice’. So after that I sat down to write!

Today, after a wonderful 2 hours with the fantastic Jenny Kane, I realised that I probably (having written over 5000 words) ought to have a little think about timelines and how my story hangs together. In the class, we did two exercises which really made me think about story construction and I realise, I am driven by titles and names but I will come back to that in another blog! The first exercise, involved using a random story generator. What a fantastic resource this is for just getting some ideas. So what did we end up with:

  • Main Character
    Man in his late 40s who can be quite eccentric
  • 2nd Character
    A young man in his late teens who can be quite imaginative
  • Setting
    The story begins in an alleyway
  • Situation
    A 30 year old murder case is resurrected
  • Theme
    A story about vengeance
  • Character Action
    A character has to do some quick thinking to keep ahead

Now, I was off … as always, disappearing into my Philip Marlowe type world of police detectives and dead bodies. I did smile though, as the work I had done at my previous workshop on opening lines had an immediate impact. Here is my opening line:

“Boney fingers were visible underneath the black bin bags that lined the alley.”

What fun!

Next exercise was to create a timeline for a story outline which we created from a set of prompts. This was quite a challenge but it also showed me how I really needed to think about this for my own story. I would never have thought to do this had I not been shown. Now it might be obvious to everyone else but I think with longer writing, as I used to say to my students, if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know you are there! The next step for me, is to create the timeline for my own tale of loss, which has quite a complex narrative structure … But I know that 11 and 12 Year olds love stories that move through different times and places. Just look at Harry Potter.

Thank you again to Jenny and to the other lovely students, who created some amazing writing and were so supportive. I am not going to forget the dark gothic tale of dogs and cats that one lady came up with for some time!

To Be A Cat by Matt Haig – Review

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A Good Read

“Cats are magic.
That’s right.
Cats. They’re magic.”

If you had any doubts about the way cats behave when you see them on the street or when  lying on a radiator at home, then this book confirms your worst fears, cats are sometimes evil!

Matt Haig has an interesting style when he writes, actually interrupting reading the novel to interject. It would be a good book to use with students to talk about narrative voice as it shifts between the ‘author’ and Barney Willow, throughout the text. The book starts quite slowly, setting up Barney’s rather dysfunctional home life, as his Dad has gone missing and seems to be presumed dead. He can’t escape his misery at school, as he experiences the wrath of Miss Whipmire, the Headmistress, who seems determined to ensure that he is expelled from his secondary school in the first term in Year 7. As if to make things even worse, he’s also at the mercy of the school bully, Gavin. Poor Barney really does seem to have the rough end of the stick.

There are some good characters in the novel. It’s not all doom and gloom. Rissa, Barney’s best friend is the kind of girl that will appeal to those who are determined to be individual and she has some top tips for coping with an otherwise brutal world. She’s strong and clever and ‘marmalade’ works well for her (and not in a Paddington Bear type way). She is a complete contrast to Barney, in that nothing seems to worry her and her parents are settled and happy. They also live on a barge and are vegetarian, so Mr Haig does dip into every stereotype going. Perhaps my favourite character is Guster, Barney’s pet King Charles Spaniel. He speaks like a king and clearly has ideas above his station, oh and he hates cats, of course. But Guster’s inner musings are fabulous.

Now I don’t want to tell you what happens to Barney, as that would really spoil the story. But needless to say there are many cats in this tale (hahahaha) and, just like people, cats seem to have their fair share of problems.

Who Should Read This?

I wasn’t sure about this book at the start but by the end I was gripped and couldn’t put it down. The narrative rushes to it’s conclusion and it’s not clear until the very last minute who is going to win the day. The novel is an easy read with plot and characters easy to follow, even with the interruptions from the author! I think Years 5, 6 & 7 would enjoy this and even some reluctant readers would find the illustrations helpful in conveying the narrative meaning. It would appeal to both genders too and adults, who are very suspicious about cats.

In the Beginning

Well … here it is the start of my writing adventure!

So far, two books started and one nearly finished. Hundreds of ideas logged and noted down. When I taught and we would embark on some creative writing, I used all sorts of tools to encourage students to ‘get started’: photos, paintings (particularly Bruegel, some of those pictures were superb for creating a character), music, posters, cartoons. But even with all that stimulation, I’d still hear, ‘I don’t know what to write.’

So where do my ideas come from. I think some of them are stimulated by a title, or a sound or a memory. I worked with teenagers and they are a source of so much inspiration. They are both full of arrogance and self doubt and desperate to be seen as adults. So to all of them that I looked after over 25 years, you have all influenced my writing and whether they are ever published or not, I guess I should say thank you. Some of my ideas though are complete curve balls influenced by some nutty moment that I experience whilst out shopping or doing something that seems completely ordinary. For instance, I was sitting outside my son’s swimming lesson and in the corridor was a mum with her daughter. The daughter was throwing the most unbelievable tantrum and threw a wooden hairbrush down the corridor, narrowly missing a toddler on the floor. This has spawned an idea for a comedy horror book for 5 – 8 year olds! I wonder if that little girl will recognise herself in it.

I think at the moment, I have notes on about 10 different ideas. Some of them will come to nothing. Others … well who knows. When it comes down to it, the only way to write is to sit down and do it. There used to be a poster near the reception of the Brotherton Library at Leeds University that said something along those lines. Can’t remember the actual quote or the person who said it now (it was 25 years or so ago!) so if anyone can enlighten me that would be good. It was an excellent quote! Anyway, I digress, what I am trying to say is that I love writing. Whether it’s this blog or writing PRs for my work, or creating interesting content for websites, I can’t stop writing. So with an over active imagination and wanting to use time wisely rather than wasting it away, I might as well produce some stories.

Now then … back to the beach and my leading lady, Sophie. Let’s see what she does today.