Blog 21

Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

“Every summer Quill and his friends are put ashore on a remote sea stac to hunt birds. But this summer, no one arrives to take them home.”

I have read some fine books since the start of the year but this is going on my pile of books that I would keep in my soul forever. This extraordinary telling of a true story is beautiful and is unrelenting in its confrontation of what it means to stay alive. It was so hard for me to put it down that last night I was reading well beyond midnight, desperate to get to the end. Desperate for a happy ending that is not quite what I expected.

So what is the story all about. Well, living on a remote Scottish island in the 1700s must have been pretty harsh to say the least, particularly as the St. Kilda Archipelago sits off the western coast of some of Scotland’s larger islands. Now these tiny islands are the homes of wildlife, humanity has left nature to its own devices. However, the crofters and farmers that lived there in the 18th Century relied on sheep, fish and the birds to live. Fowlers, as the men and boys in this story are called, were shipped off to a remote rock and spent a few weeks capturing the birds that nested there. They effectively farmed them for the food, oils and feathers. In fact, pretty much all of the bird was used. However, what this group of 9 people didn’t expect was to be left behind. Why they were left is not revealed until the end of the tale but it’s worth the wait.

The main character is wonderful Quilliam. He is a young man, not quite adult but not a boy. He is wise beyond his years and suffers awfully at the hands of one of the men, Col Cane. But Quill is sensitive and has great empathy and it is thanks to him that this small group survive their 9 months on a rock with 3 caves. His dreams of returning to Hirta (the island where they live) and being with his beloved, Murdina, keep him alive and he believes her spirit is with him throughout the ordeal. And what an ordeal. You are living on a rock. There are no comforts, just rock. You live off the birds that you are supposed to be taking back to Hirta and the fish you can catch. There is no real warmth and your clothes are tattered and torn, saved only by constant repairs. Every day you venture out a slip could result in your death or worse an injury that leads to death. The whole experience can be summed up as horrific. Yet, somehow despite everything that takes place, the loss, the hope, their stubborn refusal to die, there is such spirit in the boys.

What I found most moving was the relationships between each of them. The tenderness, the hatred, the love and the jealousy. All human spirit seemed to be encapsulated in 9 months isolation. There are villains, Col Cane being the worst. A supposed religious man who uses his position to manipulate the boys and maintain his lazy disposition. He gets his comeuppance, however. Mr Farris who without Quill would have never made it home and Davie, wonderful Davie, who I just wanted to hug. The landscape itself is living and breathing through the beautiful writing. McCaughrean captures every moment through the tiny details and at times, I was literally hanging on a cliff’s edge wondering how on earth the next moment could possibly be resolved. It’s a stunning read.

Who should read this book?

Heartily recommended for Year 7 & 8. This book would open up wonderful cross-curricular opportunities for history and geography and would be a brilliant text for looking at context. It’s also a really good introduction to Lord of the Flies if you were thinking of using it at GCSE. There’s some wonderful opportunities to talk about gender identity here. What makes a boy or girl? How do we create gender? So perhaps this might work in Year 9 too. As an adult, this is one of the stories that lives with you and I am so glad I read it. Well worth its Carnegie nomination and more.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2ko2kBr

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

 

Blog 19

A Place Called Perfect by Helena Duggan

“Who wants to live in a town where everyone has to wear glasses to stop them going blind?”

This is a fantastically creepy story! Violet is a bright and clever girl who moves to the town of Perfect, when her Dad is given a seemingly fantastic new job. However, anywhere called Perfect is bound to be an illusion right?

Violet quickly finds herself blind after spending just one night in the town. Given a pair of spectacles she can then see her surroundings and its inhabitants again but something is not quite right and she knows it. Everything seems just too ‘perfect’, immaculate houses, streets and the people seem to be possessed by a false kindness. Violet also has a sense that she is being moulded into a different kind of person, someone who is submissive and does what everyone else does in Perfect. Violet is also aware that someone seems to be watching her and eventually she meets with the mysterious, “Boy”. Boy lives within the town but in an area called No-Man’s land. No-Man’s Land is populated by all those who did not fit the ideal model citizen of the main town and somehow they have been forgotten and lost.

The tension builds incredibly quickly in this story, as Violet finds her world falling apart. Her mother becomes more and more consumed by making cakes and book groups, something that she had never done before. She starts trying to turn Violet into a model citizen by drugging her with concoctions given to her by the brothers who run the town’s opticians, the Archers. And her father … he has vanished and her mother doesn’t seem to realise. However, Violet can see that behaving just like anyone else and not being an individual is wrong and with the help of Boy, she starts to unravel the goings on in the town.

This is such a clever mystery. There are so many twists and turns and the brilliant linking together of the characters is superb and had me gripped. There’s also some really disturbing dystopian features, eyeball plants and stolen memory jars that are right out of a John Wyndam novel. How are they pulled together? Well you will just have to wait and read the story yourself but needless to say, the Archers are not what they seem and the mysterious lady in the ghost village is far more important than she initially seems!

Who should read this book?

This is a cracking text for Years 5 – 7. With appealing central characters in a world that seems not too remote from our own, I think it will intrigue boys and girls alike. Violet’s strong character is a delight and she will appeal to young girls and boys, as she shows both her determination but also her fear. In terms of using this in a classroom, I think there’s some fantastic opportunities for exploring the idea of ‘rose tinted spectacles’ and imaginative writing. There’s also some great stereotyping here and questions around why women bake cakes and men go to work. Definitely something you could use to challenge perceptions in Years 6 and 7.

Loved it! Sure you will too.

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

Blog 18

This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada

“My darling girl, if you are reading this, it means I am dead. I know you want to grieve, but there is something that I need you to do.”

I chose to read this after it was on the nominated list for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. It’s a Young Adult novel, although I think any adult would love this. Set in a dystopian future, where a lethal virus is gradually killing off the human race, we find a young girl Catarina living a life in an isolated cabin with her father and his assistant, Dax. Why are they living in this splendid isolation? Well it appears that Cartaxus, an organisation that sounds rather too close to being Sky television for my liking, with a number of sinister divisions attached to it is trying to prevent the virus from spreading. But it’s not just a case of giving everyone an injection, oh no, in this dystopian future every single person on the planet has a panel in their arm that controls their bodies. This panel is connected to a series of wires that travel through the body focused on key organs, bones and the brain. It’s incredibly powerful and the technology … it’s been created by Cartaxus.

Now, if you are not a sci-fi fan, it really doesn’t matter. It’s the relationships and how each individual is connected that makes this such a compelling read. Catarina’s life is ripped apart. Firstly, her father and Dax are abducted by Cartaxus and she is left to fend for herself. She could choose to go into a bunker run by Cartaxus, where she will be safe until a vaccine is found. But her father has told her to stay away from them. So, she is surviving on her own out in the wilderness with a network of friends. Food is scarce and the virus is getting closer all the time. She then finds herself at the mercy of a young man who has come to take her to a lab in Canada to unlock the cure for the virus stored inside her. He is from Cartaxus. Does she trust him or kill him?

Catarina is a strong young woman of 16 or 17. She is a fighter and a survivor. At times, she is broken by the lies she seems to face from everyone, even those she thought loved her. She’s bright too, she can hack the code that is running the panels in people’s bodies and the code that seems to control every bit of technology she is surrounded by. Her relationship with Cole, the young man who abducts her is complex and again full of twists and turns. She saves him as much as he saves her. This is the strength of the story: she’s clear thinking in dangerous situations, she does the right thing even when she knows it is bad for her, and she is capable of killing, if it’s in the interests of the safety of mankind. Pretty amazing qualities for our leading lady. Cole is attractive and very much made of the stuff of heroes but he’s also vulnerable and needs Catarina.

I couldn’t put this book down. The more I read, the more I was drawn into this world and I went running after every red herring Suvada could throw at me! Although I did guess the twist in the tale towards the end (Thank goodness! I was beginning to feel like I’d never read another novel!). The door has been left open for the next book and I am looking forward to it’s release and seeing what will happen to the virus … and I still need to understand the pigeon poem because I still don’t quite get it. So feel free to enlighten me, if you can.

Who should read this book?

Well I would recommend this for any teenager who enjoyed the Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. It’s not exactly the same genre but the recognisable strong characters would appeal to those who have read that. It’s definitely a book for aged 14+ and would be a very interesting addition to school libraries or classrooms. I’d definitely want to talk to students about what they see in their future. How would they feel about being controlled by say Rupert Murdoch or a pharmaceutical company like GSK? Would they allow a company to implant technology in them, if it meant they could be instantly healed? The discussions would be good. You could create some great opportunities for writing to argue too.

Well worth reading!

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

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.”

Stars

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?