Blog 20

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

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

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

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

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

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

who should read this Book?

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

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

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

 

LBF 17

The London Book Fair or “how to be lost in a sea of books”!

“What are all those people doing on the stands?”

Well … a very long day in good old London town but I have to say a thoroughly enjoyable experience at the London Book Fair and thanks to some wonderful ‘Scoobies’, I learnt all I need to know about visiting in the future. It was a bit like being a kid in a candy store or, in my case, being at Harry Potter World.

Some of the stands were stunning and I took quite a few images of things that caught my eye. The first was this amazing artwork on the Bloomsbury stand … there were images all the way round but this really spoke to me and I kept wondering what her story was.

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Beautiful images on the Bloomsbury Stand

There was a great deal of discussion going on on this stand which had an eclectic mix of books but I was intrigued by Big Foot!

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Bigfoot Challenge from Fox Chapel

Now the Knights Of folks were tied into another stand but when I saw the Moomins I was immediately staring at all the wonderful books and stationery that was available. There are very few images that have stayed with me from my childhood but the Moomins have great longevity.

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My beloved Moomins

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Another gorgeous stand Image

One of the key areas that, if I had realised had presentations for free (well included in the price of your ticket), was the fabulous Children’s Hub. There were some amazing people there and I was gutted I missed Chris Riddel, who was drawing as a number of writers read from their books. But the stand was surrounded by wonderful drawings by Quentin Blake from Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Was lovely to see the traditional amongst the new (if you can call Roald Dahl traditional).

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Quentin Blake’s fabulous images

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Matilda – Roald Dahl

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Matilda considering reading – Roald Dahl

I did spot ‘Barry Chicken’ on my way around the Chicken House stand … and it was pretty amazing to see so many of the books that have been on my reading list and blog all in one place. For a small publisher, they carry an enormous weight with the MG community.

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So many familiar texts here!

Now back to my original question, what were all those meetings about? In my naivety, I had no idea that book deals and meetings with agents would be taking place. I know, I know, what did I think they were all doing there, having tea and cake! I was also blissfully unaware that the publishers didn’t want random pretend authors (like me!) wandering across their stands with a big backpack on bashing everyone on the head. But ignorance is bliss and not once did anyone really stop me looking at the books due to be released this year.

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Some of the World’s Biggest Publishers

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So many meetings

Continue reading

Blog 16

Fantastically Great Women who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst

“Considered the property of men in their tribes, life was hard for Native American women.”

The joy of recapturing my childhood by reading books for kids is that I get to read some non-fiction too. Fantastically Great Women is wonderful and there were women in here I’d never heard of and I guess that is the issue. It’s 100 years since women were allowed to vote (saying “allowed” makes me cringe) and, sorry girls and ladies, we are still struggling to see equal pay for the same work as men do and we are still seeing appalling abuses of women by men in power. As I read in Writers Forum this month, “two out of three lead characters (in the top 100 selling picture books) were male, males accounted for almost nine out ten ‘baddies’, while non-human creatures were male in 86.6 percent of case.” This is shocking. So this month, I have been doing my own reading about amazing women, explorers, writers, scientists and more.

Kate Pankhurst’s beautifully illustrated book is full of little gems of information. The woman I was most fascinated by was Sacagawea, a Native American woman. She was kidnapped from her tribe when she was young but her ability with languages meant that she could speak and translate more than one tribal language. Even more remarkable, having then met with two American explorers she travelled with them to help them on their journey through some of the unchartered parts of America. She did this while carrying her baby on her back and she was still only a teenager. By the time the expedition was over, she was respected as an equal by the men, unheard of at the time.

Other amazing women featured in the text, are Emilia Earhart, Jane Austin, Marie Curie, and Anne Frank amongst the most famous. But there’s some lesser known women too. The depictions of them in the book are beautiful with each woman having a double page spread that would make wonderful posters (I hope Kate’s marketing department read this!). I’d love all of these women drawn like this on mugs, bookmarks and so on. They would be perfect for a wonderful display in a classroom.

Who Should Read This book?

I think this should be located prominently in all primary classrooms! There are plenty of others but this one caught my eye. It’s easy to dip in and out of and would be a great stimulus for some research about some of these women,  or it would be wonderful to write some letters to these women. In the back of the book is a Gallery of Greatness and it would be so good for schools to have Galleries of greatness with students in too, both girls and boys. The essential message, get out there and do it, regardless of gender, be the change you want to be!

Kate’s fantastic website: katepankhurst.com 

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2HRpwCT

Blog 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 11

Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

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

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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?

 

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

Stars

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.

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.