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 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.