Blog 20

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

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

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

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

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

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

who should read this Book?

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

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

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

 

Blog 19

A Place Called Perfect by Helena Duggan

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

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

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

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

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

Who should read this book?

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

Loved it! Sure you will too.

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

Blog 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

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?

 

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 5

Skellig by David Almond – Review

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

Stars

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.

To Be A Cat by Matt Haig – Review

Stars

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.