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 

 

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 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.