Blog 23

Pax by Sara Penny Packer

“I had a fox. I have a fox… We left him on the side of the road. My dad said we had to, but I should never have done it.”

This is a beautiful story and a compelling one.

One story is about Peter, who has been forced by his father to abandon his fox that he had rescued as a cub. Peter seems to be living in the modern world that is torn apart by war. It seems to be set in the USA or Canada but it could be any country that is calling men to arms. The consequence of the fighting means Peter is shipped off to live with his grandfather away from the frontline, where his father has decided to volunteer. The poor boy is full of guilt that he has left a tame fox to fend for itself in the wild. He feels he has left it to die. So he packs his backpack with essentials and runs away back to his home, in the vain hope he can find his beloved pet and save him.

Of course, as in all good stories, it’s not as simple as that. Peter breaks his foot and finds himself at the mercy of the wild. He stumbles into a barn and is himself, ‘rescued’ by Vola, an army veteran who has withdrawn from the modern world and lives off the land. Her harsh care and ability to make Peter confront his own weaknesses are what he has been lacking from his father. She is a tough woman. But she teaches Peter the harsh realities of nature and that he is much stronger than he could ever imagine.

The other story belongs to Pax. His initial confusion as to why his ‘boy’ would abandon him is heart breaking. He waits patiently for Peter to return. His loyalty is profound. However, his instincts draw him to his own kind and even though he stinks of humans, he is eventually accepted by the local fox population. Even so, his fight for survival becomes more than just finding food. As he tries to find his way back to the home he once had, he puts himself in terrible danger, as he is journeying towards where men are fighting the war. He suffers terrible loss and faces impossible odds but you will him to survive.

At the heart of the story is the rite of passage that both Peter and Pax must go through in order to survive in a world that is essentially falling apart. It’s a hard read and it does not give you the pithy resolution of a Disney film. I felt this was a moral tale for today that should make all of us reflect on our relationship with nature and each other. There’s an intense loneliness in this story and a need for humans to reconnect with one another and the world around them. It rather drew me back to the world of Steinbeck and certainly had the delicate nature imagery of stories like Of Mice and Men.

Who should read this book?

This is a lovely book and would make a wonderful partner to the Book of Lost Words, carrying the same sort of messages. I think Years 5 – 8 would enjoy this and there are plenty of opportunities to link with some powerful poetry or even Blackbird by The Beatles. As I mentioned earlier, schools will have hundreds of copies of Of Mice ad Men lying around and Pax would be a good partner text for older readers. Highly recommended, emotionally charged read.

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

Blog 15

Thornhill by Pam Smy

“I have spent days and days in bed. I can’t face school. I don’t want to see anyone. I can’t even read.”

I have never read a book like this. I was so stunned at the end that I had to take a break from writing a blog about it, to absorb the message and the story. This is not a book for the faint hearted.

There are two narratives in this wonderful novel about two teenage girls who live 30 or so years apart. Mary’s story is told through her diary from 1982 and it is a hard hitting read. She is persistently bullied by the girls she lives with at Thornhill and is repeatedly ignored and left to struggle on her own. And I don’t think we should hide behind the fact that places like Thornhill, where young girls who are struggling to be fostered are living. They existed in the 1980s and I am not convinced they don’t exist today.  I was so drawn into Mary’s existence that at every turn, when an adult turns up in Mary’s life, I wanted them to rescue her. It astonished me that she could be so overlooked for being quiet or mute. Thornhill itself echoes her despondent existence; she is isolated at the top of the house. When the summer’s stifling heat takes over her room and she is desperate to breathe, you feel the house is as much a trap as a home. But Mary doesn’t want to leave. It’s the only home she’s known. Her relationship with the bully made me weep, as time and time again she falls for the nasty, vicious tricks that are played on her.

The other story is Ella’s, set in 2017. It’s beautifully illustrated and it’s a long time since I have had to read pictures to understand a narrative. They’re black and white and reflect Ella’s lonely and rather dark life. She can see Thornhill from her bedroom window and it’s derelict and overgrown. However, she climbs through a gap in the fence drawn to the place by a figure she sees in the garden. Sadly just like Mary, she is alone as her father is never there and her mother is absent. However, she builds a relationship with Mary which is beautifully conceived and shown through the delicate images. I was entranced and even though we don’t hear Ella speak, you can feel her sadness and loneliness.

I don’t want to say much else, as this is a text that everyone should read. It demonstrates the power a bully can have over a young person. How they control the person they are bullying and those around them. It reveals the incredibly difficult circumstances some children are forced to live in, through no fault of their own. And, sadly, it also shows how easy it is for us, as adults, to firstly, ignore the problem but secondly, to just not listen and ask the right questions. I know there are kids out there that I worked with, where often I could not get to the bottom of the issue they were facing, until I found the right question. Sometimes that might have been as simple as asking, “Are you okay?”.

I am so impressed by a book that uses illustration, as powerfully as it uses the written word. I can see why this is on the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize Shortlist for 2018 and I am still feeling incredibly moved. Go and read it, would be my advice.

Who should read this book?

I think this is a fantastic book to discuss with teenagers. There is so much here that many of them face. Definitely recommended for 13+ or Year 9 and up. It confronts some difficult issues. Bullying is such a challenging issue to resolve. It takes a great deal of bravery for a young person to speak up. In terms of teaching, I think you could read some of the diary entries in this and talk about emotion and how it’s conveyed so quickly. It has great mastery of the diary form and a bit of textual analysis would open plenty of opportunities for discussion. In terms of form, what a wonderful text to use with A-level English Language students to discuss how texts are created and how they create meaning. For English Literature students, I would sit this alongside other gothic texts and compare them … might be a good NEA opportunity here.

Still thinking about the messages and meaning … truly powerful.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2EZz4dR 

 

Blog12

Moonrise by Sarah Crossan

“Joe hasn’t seen his brother for ten years and it’s for the most brutal of reasons. ed is on death row.”

Best reads

Fabulous!

What an incredible story. I only picked this book up from my local library on Monday and I had no idea what it was about. I just flicked through the pages and thought it looked like a book of poetry, which it is … and it isn’t. I intended to read this alongside another text I was exploring but I was swept away, caught up in Joe’s experiences of having a brother, who he adores but can’t be with and the doubts that exist in his mind.

This is not a book for the faint hearted. It’s gritty and real and doesn’t pull any punches. Joe is 17, the same age as my own son. Perhaps this is why it rips through my emotions. Joe has had a dysfunctional childhood but he is loved. It’s so important. He feels and gives love. He is not an emotional void. It’s what makes his narration of the story so much more powerful. The rhythm of the story echoes Joe’s pain, joy and fear and I simply loved that. I appreciate that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. But for me it opened up so many possibilities and really exposes how important the form of what we choose to read and write is so important. Like the blurred lines and feelings of the story, the structure echoes the poignant moments that a 17 year old experiences.

There’s a beauty to the setting. Texas in summer is not a pleasant place to be unless you’re inside an air-conditioned building. The stifling heat smothers every part of you and it beautifully reflects Joe’s life. He is smothered by his own terror. Lovely Nell, who has her own secrets, starts off being Joe’s friend and eventually his girlfriend. There is nothing certain in any of their actions. They do a dance around each other. Both refusing to let down their guard. But in a town that has a prison called, ‘The Farm’ where inmates are put to death, these moments between the two teenagers are a reminder that even when things are dark there is always some light. There’s also the kindness of Sue, who works in the local diner. She feeds Joe and seems to understand he has no money and is alone. The dirty and cockroach ridden apartment that Joe stays in nearly broke me. He’s 17. He’s visiting his brother on death row. He has nothing. The reality of the existence of some children (yes, he’s still a child, I’m sure anyone with a 17 year old boy will know that!) is so hard.

I don’t want to give you the impression that this is all doom and gloom because even through the story is sad, it’s moving and it’s full of beauty. It’s also a stark reality check about the injustices and barbarity of the death penalty. It makes me grateful that we simply don’t have that in the UK. As Joe reminds us, the people that deliver a concoction of barbiturates to a human being are basically murdering that person.

RESPONSIBLE

They charged Ed as an adult,

locked him up and

sentenced him to die

three years before

anyone thought

he was old enough

to buy a beer in a bar.

The reality is hard and very difficult to bear for me as an adult and Mum.

Who should read this book?

I loved it and I would recommend it to anyone with older teenagers at home. I would say it’s suitable for anyone 14 and up. There would be some fantastic teaching opportunities here. The debate around the death penalty for starters. But more than that, I think there should be a discussion around what it is that sustains us as human beings, because we are more than the stuff we have. Also, it is worth talking to young people about different realities of home life; it’s too easy to duck the difficult discussions in the classroom. It’s also a brilliant opportunity to talk about story telling and how we do it. I would urge everyone to give this a go. It really does stay with you …

 

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.