Blog 17

Kid Normal by Greg James and Chris Smith

“Murph has a problem. His new school is top secret and super weird.”

Oh how I laughed my way through this book. I was so wary, after all it’s written by a BBC Radio 1 DJ and a news presenter. I tend to avoid books by people who have the privilege of celebrity over those who have struggled to get their books noticed. But this had been selected for a few children’s book prizes and my curiosity got the better of me. What it means to be ‘normal’ is something all children and adults struggle to understand. What is a normal boy/girl? What is a normal family? Kids spend so much time worrying about being normal that sometimes they forget how extraordinary they are … and this text very much speaks to all those children.

Murph, the central character, finds himself constantly moving school, as his Mum keeps moving for work. He is withdrawn and seems to lose friends rapidly, as he never has the chance to build relationships. This time, he also finds himself without a school and in desperation, Murph’s Mum walks through town until she finds a school for him to attend. In a twist of fate, he joins a school for superheroes and, even though he apparently has no heroic features himself, he manages to build some real friendships there. Of course, as with all good normal people, he is not normal at all but I won’t reveal what makes Murph so special. However, every child can empathise with him and will recognise their own self doubts and worries and perhaps they can find the special within themselves too.

There are some cracking portrayals of teachers that come straight out the pages of Roald Dahl! They are caricatures of teachers I am sure all kids will recognise and some real surprises in amongst the staff. I thought at one stage I was going to be disappointed, as it seemed that they were male and talented and that women only really had a place as mums and secretaries. But I was fooled. Wrapped up in the story are some clever twists and turns that I didn’t expect, that will happily engage even the most reluctant of readers and please those of us looking for some gender equality. Never underestimate the headteacher’s PA … that’s all I am saying!

The villain is a perfect James Bond stereotype: self obsessed, flawed and has a real issue with picnics. Nektar is a product of a disastrous DNA experiment with insects. He is a giant wasp with the brain of a genius. Wasps of course are not necessarily focused on world domination but on sugar and disrupting picnics. He has a helper, hell bent on gaining control of the superheroes from Murph’s school but Knox, of course, is really only out for himself and is hoping to kill Nektar off too. The tension between whether Murph and his friends can save the day or not is brilliant … but who will win and how can some school kids stop the evil Nektar? Well you’ll just have to read the book to find out.

Oh and a quick mention to Erica Salcedo … the illustrations are wonderful and scattered as they are throughout the story, give it a comic book element at times without taking over the writing. It takes a thoughtful illustrator to really complement the story and this is perfect here.

Who should read this book?

I think this would be a great book for reluctant readers, as from the very first page it is utterly engaging. It plays to the boys with Murph but there are so many good role models for girls in here too, particularly with the quiet girl, Nellie, who has control of the weather. I loved Nellie and the phrase, ‘never underestimate the quiet ones’ comes to mind. I am sure a class of Year 5s or Year 6s would love this book. There’s plenty of opportunity to discuss, ‘what makes a hero?’ and the chance to create a super villain. It would be a wonderful book to discuss gender stereotyping and how our expectations are broken down here. For school librarians, I would definitely have this in a senior school library, it’s well written and would be great for Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid fans.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2Frvi0k 

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 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 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