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 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 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?

 

Blog 7

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens – Review

“THere’s been a rather shocking murder at deepdean school for girls …”

Best reads

Fabulous!

I wanted to start the year, as I mean to go on: reading, writing and reviewing. I could not have chosen a better book to start off my reviews for 2018. Robin Steven’s gloriously conceived story, set in the 1930s at an English boarding school is a real romp and I found it very hard to put down. I will confess that, initially, I was somewhat sceptical, as I love a good murder mystery and my favourite writer in the genre is Agatha Christie (particularly as I live within 10 miles of Greenaway). As a voracious reader when I was young, I started reading Christie novels when I was 10 or 11. I think my Mum was trying to find an author who had written enough books to keep me quiet and which I wasn’t too young to understand. So, I like a good plot twist, I love trying to solve who did it before I am told and I always love the great reveal at the end. Could Robin Stevens do the same? Could she possibly write for a young audience and captivate them, as Christie had done for me?

The story is told from the perspective of the thoughtful Hazel Wong. Hazel is an interesting girl. She’s from Hong Kong and has been sent to a British boarding school, as her father wants her to have the best education. Interestingly, having worked in an all girls’ boarding school myself only 10 years ago, this was still the case. Many lovely Cantonese girls would find themselves arriving at Heathrow and on a coach to a rural Devon school. Deepdean sounds somewhat similar! Anyway, Hazel keeps the notes on the murder that takes place in the first few pages of the novel and is led into all sorts of scrapes by her best friend and president of the Detective Society, Daisy Wells. Hazel envies the blond, blue eyed Daisy, who is incredibly popular and pretty. However their unlikely friendship is forged when Hazel reveals that she knows Daisy hides how clever she is to everyone.  Daisy realises that Hazel is the steady character who can curb her impetuous tendencies and as such they form the Detective Society.

Their ingenuity and determination to uncover what has happened to poor Miss Bell, the Science Mistress, is both hilarious and haphazard. As they roam about Deepdean taking on the roles of Sherlock and Watson, they uncover a series of clues that they carefully put together. Hazel, spends the novel terrified that the murderer knows who she is and at the end, it turns out they do indeed know that Daisy and Hazel have uncovered their secret. In amongst all the investigation, they have buns, midnight feasts, seances and various lessons. They have a group of loyal friends, use words like ‘chump’ and ‘dunce’ and lead us on a merry dance through the 1930s experience of being at a girls’ boarding school. It’s all jolly good fun!

Does Robin Stevens achieve the goals I set out for a good murder mystery at the start of this Blog? Yes she does! Ooo, I thought I had it solved but red herrings galore abound and, like the girls, I charged off down a number of dead ends. I think I was too convinced that only Hazel could really solve the mystery as she was thoughtful … but Stevens was way ahead of me and cleverly demonstrated that the team is more important than the individual. I must admit that this was a cracking good read and if it wasn’t for the fact that I have a pile of books to get through to review, I probably would have read the rest of them straight away (summer hols aren’t too far away!).

Who should read this?

I think anyone (boy or girl) in years 6 – 8 would love this. It brings in a sense of history, is linguistically beautiful and the story makes you think. Of course, the heroes are Hazel and Daisy and I like seeing strong female leads in a novel. I think teaching suspense and pace is something that is quite hard to do and this would be a cracking novel to use to teach the art of writing great tension. And I think if you want to read something that has you scratching your head about whodunnit … well here it is!