Little Women – entertainment or empathy?

Little Women has always been a book that has mattered to me. Last week I finally managed to see the Greta Gerwig adaptation of this classic loved by generations of readers and it made me realise once more why it matters so much. It is a story full of love, understanding and ultimately of tolerance too. As I write this the new Empathy Lab collections have been announced in preparation for Empathy Day in June. These books are titles that offer children a way to understand people different to themselves, to respect and value others and to develop empathy skills. It occurred to me that had such a list existed in the 1800s perhaps Little Women should have been included!

When I was about ten or eleven, my Mum said that she thought I might be ready to read one of her own favourites from childhood. It had been a present from her older sister who coincidentally had given me my much loved copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mum then handed me a fat, rather battered looking hardback book with slightly discoloured pages. It had, I thought, a rather ‘grown up’ look to it. The book was Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. I tentatively took the book, honestly not sure what to expect. Although very different to anything I had read before, I became engrossed. The language and content bore little resemblance to my own life but something about it touched me. I think it was partly that I knew my Mum had loved it. The handing on of this story about a mother and her daughters felt a little like a rite of passage. I wanted so much to be like Jo, thought that my Mum probably liked Meg best and we both agreed that Amy was infuriating. We talked about the book together and I went on to read the rest of the series. This was a story shared and loved together. I know that I am not alone in this experience. Little Women is a book that is recommended and handed on to the next generation and sometimes it is the sharing that makes it special. When we recommend a book we are really recommending what is important to us. Little Women is the type of book that is shared as we grow into adolescence therefore we grow alongside the characters so it feels even more relevant.

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Illustration from my own copy of Little Women given to me by my mum.

Some have said that they found the non linear narrative of the new film a bit confusing but I think it gave it added poignancy. Greta Gerwig has captured in her adaptation the way in which the four adult sisters retain the core essence of themselves as children. As my own sister who I watched the film with commented, “They’re the same, just a little more weary.” We laughed as we recognised ourselves in that description and just like the March sisters we reflected on our shared childhoods and teen years and how little we have changed really. That is one of the key themes of the book and the film and the reason I think it matters. The sisters are very different characters with different hopes and dreams so inevitably their lives will follow different paths. As the story unfolds they learn to respect each other’s hopes and dreams. Just because their dreams are different does not mean they are not equally important. Yet throughout all their experiences Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are still, deep down, the same people they have always been.

Throughout the book the impetuous Jo tries to learn to control her temper with mixed results. She is famously tested by Amy’s wilful and selfish actions at one point. Yet the two sisters do learn to forgive each other and mature into a trusting and loving relationship. A wonderful example of understanding and developing empathy. The book itself opens with Jo bemoaning the fact that they will not be receiving many Christmas presents because they are “poor”. A little later in the book the girls are asked by their mother to donate their Christmas breakfast to the Hummel family who are in dire need. The girls oblige and troop off together to help. As a child I remember being impressed with this act of generosity and wondered if I could manage to be so kind. Now as an adult I think it shows great empathy with others in difficult situations.

The new film version portrays these episodes as childhood memories looked back upon by the young women they have become. We witness how experience shapes us and this, I think, gives the story a different feel to the original. The actors caught the defining characteristics of the sisters beautifully and in a couple of cases gave them a little extra. Emma Watson’s Meg had a little more joy about her than some previous versions had and for the first time Amy, as portrayed by Florence Pugh, developed a dignity as she grew up and I found her a much more sympathetic character.

As many critics have already commented upon, the ending as written by Gerwig is thoughtful, ambiguous and clever. Personally I loved it. The idea of a book within the book and the merging of Jo’s character with that of the author appeals to the book lover in me. A story about the ordinary, the everyday and the seemingly unimportant has become a book that is cherished many, many years after it was written. There has to be a good reason for that. Perhaps that reason is that we all need a little kindness, hope and empathy.

 

 

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Children’s Books Debuts – new voices making a difference

Over the last few days I have been transported to far away lands to accompany brave young heroines on epic journeys and I have loved every moment of it. The publishers Nosy Crow had sent me a proof copy of The Girl Who Stole an Elephant a debut by Nizrana Farook  and I had earmarked it to read this month to coincide with its publication. I had also decided to add the winner of the Costa Book Award for best children’s book to my reading list. Earlier this month Asha and The Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan published by Chicken House, another debut, was announced as the winner. These two wonderful books complemented each other well and ensured a very enjoyable reading week.

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First of the two was The Girl Who Stole an Elephant selected as Waterstone’s Children’s Book of the Month. Set in Sri Lanka this is an exciting adventure featuring an irrepressible and brave heroine. Chaya is a thief who steals from the rich to help those in need or in trouble, however this time she has gone too far. Chaya has stolen the queen’s jewels. This has serious repercussions that she had never anticipated which result in her best friend Neelan paying a huge price for Chaya’s recklessness. She is determined to put things right. However things don’t go to plan and Chaya, Neelan and their companion, Nour flee by riding the King’s stolen elephant  into the Sri Lankan jungle where their adventure becomes even more dangerous.

The setting is beautifully drawn in this fast paced story and the descriptions are full of interest for young readers who will, I think, find jungle life captivating. There are moments of great tension and the short chapters, frequently ending in a cliff hanger, are packed with excitement and drama, making this perfect for children who may lack reading stamina. You are carried along on a wave of thrills and danger from the dramatic opening lines onward. This would be wonderful read aloud in schools and would have a wide appeal. The interplay between the characters is interesting and felt believable. We watch as the characters develop, particularly Chaya, and their attitudes to each other alter. This book had a fresh and original feel yet still retained at its heart the classic epic adventure journey. A wonderful story.

Jasbinder Bilan author of Asha and the Spirit Bird won the 2017 Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction competition with this inspiring story of two children who undertake a dangerous journey into the Himalayan mountains. Beautifully written and both touching and uplifting this is a thoughtful story about the importance of family and being brave to help those you love.

Asha misses her father who is away working in the city, money is tight and her mother is tormented by a ruthless moneylender. Asha resolves to find her father and put things right before it is too late. She and her best friend Jeevan face an arduous journey across the mountains suffering tiredness and hunger and they are running out of time. Asha’s mother will leave for England if she cannot repay the moneylender by the time of  Divali just a few weeks away.

The children experience both good and bad on their mammoth journey and their friendship grows stronger as a result. They face the dangers of wolves, tigers and devious, wicked junkyard owners and are helped by kindly shepherds. Throughout it all Asha is sustained by the sense that her ancestors, particularly her grandmother, are watching and guiding her. I enjoyed this story very much and the descriptions of the lands the children pass through, the food they eat and other details brought their world to life vividly for me. Books such as this one enable children to learn as they read without it feeling as though they are being taught. The glossary at the start of the story is helpful too. There is tenderness and care in the relationships and the author allows the friendship between  Asha and Jeevan, on the cusp of adolescence, to hint at the possibility of it developing into something more. Her religion is important to Asha and the spirituality and her strong family bond even to those who are no longer with her is touching. She, like Chaya in The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, is brave and she is, I think, an extremely engaging character. Highly recommended for both reading for pleasure and as a class book which would prompt discussion and links to the curriculum.

Children’s books are somewhat neglected in the main stream media unless they are written by the ‘big names’. These two excellent debuts are shining examples of the high quality children’s literature available and I hope that their exposure will be heightened by their success as an award winner and a book of the month in shops on the high street.

Thank you to Nosy Crow publishers for providing my review copy of The Girl Who Stole an Elephant.



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Reading Matters – News from the world of children’s books

Welcome to the second Reading Matters of the year and thank you to everyone who gave me such kind and positive feedback last week. I will try to make this a regular weekly feature if possible and hope that it will be a useful resource for busy school librarians, teachers and parents. This has not been quite such a news packed week as last but there is still plenty of positive news for us to enjoy in the world of children’s books.

What I’m reading…

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Sometimes my reading takes me on unexpected journeys and sometimes books may, by coincidence, be linked in some way, be it theme or time period, genre or character. This happened this week and made my reading particularly enjoyable. The publishers Nosy Crow had sent me a proof copy of The Girl Who Stole an Elephant a debut by Nizrana Farook and I had earmarked it to read this month to coincide with its publication. I had also decided to add the winner of the Costa Book Award for best children’s book to my reading list. Last week Asha and The Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan, another debut, was announced as the winner. So, this week I read them both. I was transported to far away lands to accompany brave young heroines on epic journeys and loved every moment of it.

My reading of the short story collection, The One That Got Away by Jan Mark, continues and every single one so far has been a gem. Look out for #JanMARKuary on Twitter to join in with an appreciation of her work.

I finally managed to see Greta Gerwig’s film version of Little Women. Despite my fears that it would not match my fond memories of the book I simply loved it.

News and Views in Children’s Books

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Popular author Abi Elphinstone revealed the cover of her forthcoming book, Jungledrop, created by George Ermos this week. It is stunning and gives us a taste of what to expect when the book, the second in The Unmapped Chronicles, is published on 14th May.

Abi describes the story as being “an adventure set in a glow-in-the-dark rainforest but it is also a story about being kind – to others, to our planet and, perhaps hardest of all, to ourselves.” I can’t wait to read it!

Jason Reynolds named Library of Congress’ national ambassador for young people’s literature – Reynolds is the bestselling and award-winning young adult author and poet well known for titles such as Ghost and Long Way Down.The two-year position, equivalent to the British Children’s Laureate, aims to raise the nation’s appreciation of youth literature, as it relates to literacy, education and the development and betterment of lives.

Empathy Day Collection Selection – On January 22nd EmpathyLabUK release their #ReadForEmpathy collections.  Check out what’s in store by watching Miranda McKearney and Sarah Mears discuss the judging process held at CLPE  featuring Learning Programme Leader Farrah Serroukh.

Books for Keeps January edition – this fabulous online magazine contains reviews, articles and interviews. So much interesting stuff in this issue it’s impossible to only highlight a couple of items. A must read!

My Journey to Publication by Nizrana Farook Author of The Girl Who Stole an Elephant– this guest post by the debut author of the Waterstone’s Children’s Book of the Month on Emma Perry’s My Book Corner blog is fascinating.

Young Adults Books Round Up – Reviews – If you are looking for books for older teens and young adult readers these new titles selected by Fiona Noble for the Guardian would be an excellent place to start.

Brian Wildsmith – 22nd January would have been this celebrated illustrator’s 90th birthday. To mark the occasion a new website is to be launched by his family and author/illustrator James Mayhew and bookseller Tamsin Rosewell plan to fill Twitter with his art using #Wildsmith90

Year 5 Recommended Reads  – Following last week’s Year 6 list Scott Evans, the Reader Teacher has now updated his list for Year 5.

Reading Zone interview with author Ross Welford– Ross Welford tells us more about his latest book, The Kid Who Came From Space.

Bedtime Library books…a starter list. Simon Smith, primary school headteacher and picture book expert has compiled this helpful list of picture books to share. A lovely mixture of classic and contemporary.

Pippi of Today”, a collaboration between The Astrid Lindgren Company and Save the Children, will support the charity’s work with children on the move. The Astrid Lindgren Company and Save the Children have come together to launch a global campaign aimed at creating awareness and raising money for Save the Children’s work with today’s Pippi Longstockings.

Planning for Another Year of Reading by Donalyn Miller– Advice from the “Book Whisperer,” along with recommended titles to sustain the enthusiasm of young readers.

School Library Association Regional Training Day in Surrey – There is still time to get an early bird discount on our SLA regional training day with Elizabeth Hutchinson  on 12th March. The subject is Using Inquiry to Engage Teachers Across the Curriculum and is suitable for school librarians working with KS2+

Finally, some reviews of children’s books published recently that have caught my eye

Respect: Consent, Boundaries and Being In Charge of You,’ by Rachel Brian  – A fantastic, accessible gem about consent and respecting boundaries for UKS2+ says @LibraryGirl&BookBoy (Jo) on her blog. 

The Boy Who Fooled the World by Lisa Thompson -Lucas Maxwell describes this as a touching, funny novel about a white lie that gets out of hand.

The Cure for a Crime by Roopa Farooki – a new middle grade detective fiction novel perfect for fans of Ruby Redford, Murder Most Unladylike and Alex Rider. You can find out more on Veronica Price’s blog.

The Monster in the Lake by Louie Stowell illustrated by David’s Ortu – this lovely review by Mary Reed suggests the second in this magical series celebrating libraries is just as good as the first instalment.

I hope that you have found something of interest in this week’s selection. Happy reading everyone!



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Reading Matters – news from the world of children’s books

It is the time of year when many people make resolutions or set themselves new goals. Across social media there have been suggestions for reading challenges such as a greater number of books to read this year, reading a wider range of genres, classics or books from different time periods. Some of these appeal to me but after consideration I have chosen to concentrate on my own reading for pleasure and to try to follow the latest news in the world of children’s books more closely. There is frequent criticism amongst children’s book lovers that literature aimed at children and young people is neglected in the main stream media. I think that this is a valid criticism. It requires time to research and investigate using a variety of sources to keep up to date.

As a school librarian I used to produce a weekly news update for parents and teachers and have decided to do something similar on this blog. It will probably not be weekly but I hope it will be frequent. At least that’s my plan, you might even call it my resolution!

So this first Reading Matters will be a recap of some of the news, reviews and articles that I have enjoyed or found useful over the last week or so.

What I’m reading…

My own recent reading has been made up of the books I had been asked to review for the School Librarian Magazine (the quarterly journal for School Library Association). Evernight by Ross Mackenzie was one of these and is a darkly magical adventure with a brave and inspiring heroine at its heart. Definitely one to watch out for in 2020, it is published next month by Andersen Press. I also read a retelling of Jane Eyre by Tanya Landman and loved it. Published on 15th January by Barrington Stoke it is the perfect introduction to this classic for young readers.

This month on Twitter I am following, intermittently unfortunately, a Jan Mark reading discussion #JanMARKuary organised by Ben Harris @one_to_read This has introduced me to The One That Got Away, a new collection of short stories by this award winning author. The stories are wonderful, full of humour and with cracking dialogue and unexpected twists and surprise endings. You can find out more about Jan Mark on this website and also order a copy of The One That Got Away if you are now tempted to join in.

News and Views in Children’s Books

Costa Children’s Book Award Winner – India-born author Jasbinder Bilan has won a coveted UK children’s book award for her debut novel. You can read an interview with the author at Books For Keeps.

BookTrust Calendar of Children’s Book Events and Awards – the helpful team at Booktrust have collated this comprehensive resource which is helpful for planning or general interest.

Year 6 Book list – Scott Evans, The Reader Teacher has updated his suggested book list for Year 6 and it available to download on his website.

Closure of Carousel – this is sad news. I subscribed for many years and found this magazine very useful.

Frank Cotrrell Boyce Promoting Children’s Books – this popular and award winning author took to Twitter this week to criticise the lack of attention paid by the main stream media to the wide range of children’s books available. He is now highlighting quality literature via his Instagram account. The first titles up were The Highland Falcon Thief by M G Leonard and Sam Sedgman due out next month and Icarus Was Ridiculous by Pamela Butchart illustrated by Thomas Flintham.

Little Women review by Lonesome Reader– I found this review of both the book and the film interesting and am very much looking forward to seeing the film next week.

The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll – this week Jo Clarke @bookloverjo showcased the cover for Emma Carroll’s first novella for Barrington Stoke. I am a huge fan of both Emma’s books and this particular publisher so am looking forward to this hitting the bookshelves in July.

10 Great Books to Read in 2020 – a list for Book Riot produced by former School Librarian of the Year, Lucas Maxwell

Great School Libraries Blog – super school librarian Jo Clarke writes about how she uses Chatterbooks Clubs in school.

Children’s Books to Brighten Up January – reviews of new titles for all ages in this Irish Times article.

Five Things To Know When Quitting to Follow Your Dream – an interesting interview with author Lisa Thompson to coincide with the publication of her latest book, The Boy Who Fooled the World.

Summer Reading Challenge – The Silly Squad will be in your local library this summer and the list of titles was announced this week. The Summer Reading Challenge 2020 will be a celebration of funny books, happiness and laughter.

Finally, some children’s books published over the last few days that have caught my eye:

Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm – published by Nosy Crow this is reveiwed on the Reading Zone website where you can also read an extract. “Perfect for fans of Mortal Engines and Star Wars”

The Moonlight Zoo by Maudie Powell-Tuck and Karl James Mountford – published by Little Tiger Press. Described by Jill Bennett on Red Reading Hub as an “enchanting story wherein determination is key.”

Tiger Heart by Penny Chrimes – published by Orion Books. This fabulous review by Joy Court for Love Reading 4 Kids has prompted me to add this to my wish list. “magnificent story of courage, love and loyalty which leaves the reader satisfied and enriched.” Wow!

There is sure to be much that I have missed out on as it has been a particularly busy start to the year in the world of children’s books but I hope this selection is of interest. Watch this space for the next Reading Matters coming soon. Happy reading!

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Jane Eyre – a retelling by Tanya Landman

As a teenager Jane Eyre was one of my favourite books. It was not a set book for an exam instead one that I had chosen for myself from a suggested classics list provided by my English teacher. It had a lasting impact on me. The gothic plot, the setting and the themes all attracted me and the mystery element guaranteed that this was a story that I made time for. However it was the character of Jane that ensured that this book will always have a special place in my memory. On the surface a small, quiet insignificant person she had hidden depths that gave her a great deal of appeal. This is at heart a ‘coming of age’ story way before such a concept had been considered. When I heard that Barrington Stoke were publishing a retelling of this classic that is so important to me and many other readers I was intrigued. I wondered how you could transfer the lengthy story into a manageable and accessible text without losing what made it such a renowned literary work. I approached my reading of my review copy with, I confess, a little trepidation.  I should never have worried. Tanya Landman has managed to convey the themes, accentute the key plot points and, most impressively to me at least, capture Jane’s wonderful spirit. I loved this and think it is brilliantly done.

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The reader accompanies Jane on her journey from childhood to maturity.  As an orphan she is ill treated by her guardians and then banished to Lowood, a harsh boarding school where she is raised in the shadow of cruelty and deprivation. As a teenager she takes a job as a governess to the ward of Mr Rochester at Thornfield Hall. It is there that the secrets and mystery deepen and Jane’s life takes a dramatic turn.

Jane’s voice is central to this remarkable story and Tanya Landman has ensured that Jane’s spirit, determination, fierce independence and intelligence is retained and this will, I believe, add to this retelling’s appeal to today’s young readers. The compelling drama, including the ‘mad woman in the attic’, that makes this such a well known story even to those who have never read it is rewritten powerfully and with care and poignancy too.

The author has greatly reduced the length of the part of the book when Jane stays with the Rivers’ family and the lengthy religious discussions. This is probably a wise decision as many young readers, in my experience, have found that section harder work. The language throughout is accessible and yet the text still feels true to the original. In fact this so rekindled my enthusiasm for the book that I have unearthed my dog-eared and yellowing copy from the 1970s and am keen to reread this old favourite now.

This is the perfect way to introduce this wonderful classic to readers who may be put off by the length of the original or its Victorian prose. Tanya Landman has captured the heart of the story, the plot, the passion and also the hopes of the young character who made such an impact on me all those years ago.

Jane Eyre by Tanya Landman is published on 15th January and is available to purchase here. Like all Barrington Stoke publications it is printed on an off – white background and in an accessible easy to read typeface. The book has a reading age of 9+ and would be excellent for set text study in secondary schools. I also think it would be suitable as a read for pleasure for Year 6 in primary schools. It deserves a place in every secondary school library.

Thank you to Kirstin Lamb and Barrington Stoke for providing my review copy.

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The Nativity Retold for Children in Picture Books

Leah’s Star by Margaret Bateson-Hill and Karin Littlewood

This tender retelling of the Nativity story manages to convey the beautiful message at its heart and allow the reader to witness the event through the eyes of a child. The text is accompanied by the most stunning watercolour illustrations and this has become my favourite picture book version of the gospel story.

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What makes this retelling so special for me is the way in which both the text and the illustrations capture Leah’s wide eyed wonder as the events unfold. Little touches such as Leah preparing the manger and adding a blanket of her own capture a child’s desire to please, to help and of course the excitement of the experience for her. Mary is also depicted as young and vulnerable yet kind and understanding towards Leah. It is important to note that the family are more accurately depicted as people of Middle Eastern origin rather than the European style so frequently used in picture books in the past. The illustrations throughout are stunning and the use of light adds to the overall effect. Leah equates the star shining down on them to her own mother watching over her and the golden glow of warmth from the stable seeps out over the pages in a comforting manner.

The conclusion of the story is particularly beautiful, I think, as Leah comes to realise the importance of the tiny child and is overcome with a feeling of love. It is perfectly executed.

Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher

This poignant retelling of the Nativity was published in 2015 in response to the refugee crisis sweeping the world. A donation is made from the sale of each book to the charity War Child. At the time of publication the book felt both timeless and timely and sadly later it is as relevant now as it was then.

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The story is told from the point of view of the donkey and from the first words on the opening pages we know that this is the journey made by Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. The illustrations by Sam Usher show tiny figures looking vulnerable as they make their way to the distant city. The sensitivity of the text and the simplicity of the illustrations combine beautifully to make this a short read but one with a big impact. The family scene in the stable is both loving and movingly poignant. The visitors arrive as we expect, first the shepherds and then the kings but there is no heavenly choir of angels and it feels very much like the kindness of friends recognising and celebrating the significance of a baby’s arrival.

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The threat of danger means that the little family must flee to safety and as the mother prepares to leave, the baby nuzzling at her neck, the story has a sense of reality to it. So the little donkey and the family set off through the night “hoping for the kindness of strangers.” A subtle but telling reminder that Jesus was a refugee too. As they progress the illustrations change and the family are depicted in a warm orange glow. This biblical family find refuge, kindness and a warm welcome. The reader is left wondering whether or not they would receive the same response now in our 21st century world.

The Nativity by Jane Ray

Jane Ray has won many awards for her fabulous picture books including The Story of Creation. In this sumptuous book, she retells the Christmas story, with a fold-out Nativity scene and stand-up characters as an added bonus.

The Nativity cover

During my time as school librarian this glorious book had pride of place in the library at Christmas time with the fold out Nativity scene displayed where all the children could see it. Frequently it aroused comment from both teachers and pupils partly because of its beauty but also because, unlike many children’s versions of the Nativity, the characters rather than being European in appearance did look as though they came from the Middle East.

The illustrations are stunning, highlighted in gold and with rich colours used throughout the book. There is a sense of drama and dignity to the overall feel which I find particularly fitting and which makes this book one that readers want to linger over.

Unfortunately I think that this version is no longer in publication but it is possible to find a second hand copy in good condition online. It would definitely be worth it as among the many versions I have shared in the school library this one has had a lasting impact.

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Perfect Winter Reads for Children

As the nights draw in the temptation to close the door on the outside world at nightfall and escape to another through the pages of a book is enticing both to adults and children. My own memories of childhood are filled with the sensations that I associate with winter reading. The feeling of warmth and security, the smell of hot buttered toast and roasts cooking in the oven, the sound of the radio in the background as I lay on the carpet lost in an imaginary world of adventure or magic. Sometimes we need a different type of book at this time of year. Snow covered landscapes or dark houses with secrets are perfect settings. These are a small selection of my favourites that may tempt young readers.

The Way Past Winter

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“Stories are just another way of telling the truth” says Kiran Millwood Hargrave in this beautifully written tale of winter, family love, loyalty and adventure. The narrative and the prose ensure that her book conveys the feeling of a fable and its themes add to the sensation of familiarity as one reads about Mila and her quest. The sprinkling of fantasy in the story adds to its fairy tale feel.

Mila lives with her two sisters, Sanna and Pipa and brother Oskar, deep in the heart of the forest, alone following the death of their mother and disappearance of their father. For years they have been caught in a never ending winter that arrived and never left. When Mila wakes one morning to find that Oskar has disappeared she believes that it is linked to the visit of a mysterious stranger the previous day. Then she learns that all the boys in the nearby village have gone except for one, the boy-mage called Rune. Together they set out to find the missing boys and their extraordinary journey will test their courage and their commitment in ways Mila could never have foreseen.

I completely fell under the spell of this atmospheric and beautiful story. At times poignant and thoughtful and then unexpectedly intense and dramatic this is a book that carries the reader on the journey alongside the characters. The relationships between the siblings had a ring of truth with love binding them together even during disagreements and friction. Kiran Millwood Hargrave writes with a perception and understanding that I find affecting and as with all the best children’s books I grew to care about Mila.

A perfect winter read that is full of warmth and tenderness underlying the gripping adventure.

Frost Hollow Hall

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The ten year old me would have absolutely adored this Victorian ghost mystery and I’m now considerably older than 10 and still devoured this lovely book in one sitting when it was first published.

Winter, 1881 and Tilly has sneaked into the grounds of Frost Hollow Hall. She is not supposed to be there. Ten years previously a young boy, Kit Barrington, drowned in the lake and as Tilly skates on the frozen surface she forgets the stories she has heard in the village and is no longer afraid. Then the ice breaks and she is underwater. Close to death, Tilly is saved by a beautiful boy. It is Kit’s ghost and he needs Tilly’s help.

Emma Carroll has now become known and loved by many as her fiction is wonderful for making history relevant to children. If you missed this, her debut, it is deliciously spooky with bumps in the night, secrets and strange happenings that are not too terrifying for those of a very sensitive disposition. The house looms large in the story and has an important role. For me this had a similar feel to Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce and would suit the type of reader who would move on to Rebecca or Jane Eyre as teenagers.

The sense of time and place is conveyed extremely well and there is a proper period-feel to the story. The voice of the narrator, Tilly, is appealing. She is an engaging character being just the right balance between feistiness and warmth.

Alongside the mystery this book also deals with the important themes of grief, loss and forgiveness giving young readers something to think about. Tilly’s relationship with her own family is interesting too and as we watch her grow and develop we see her character learn that things are not always as they seem and we can at times not appreciate what we already have.

This is an excellent read to curl up with on a winter’s evening and highly recommended for confident readers of about 9 or 10 years upwards.

Wolf Wilder

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This contains all the ingredients that contribute to a wonderful fireside read, a Russian winter, deep snow, wolves, ballet, and a traditional adventure.

Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl.’

Who could resist a character described in that manner? Feo is a strong and determined young woman around whom this story with its magical, fairy tale air, centres. She and her mother are wolf wilders, they teach wolves formerly kept as pets how to be wild again. When the hostile and ruthless General Rakov of the Russian Army threatens her very existence, Feo is left with no option but to go on the run. What follows is a story of revolution and adventure, about learning how to be brave and resourceful and the importance of friendship. The writing mixes gripping adventure with sensitive characterisation and builds to a satisfying and exciting climax.

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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

It was dusk – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees.”

The opening lines of this classic novel by Joan Aiken transport us to a wintry landscape set in an alternative historical England. The combination of train journeys in the darkness, sinister villains, an old mansion house hiding secrets, skating on a frozen river and the lurking presence of the wolves of the title bring together all the elements of classic children’s literature in this wonderfully entertaining adventure.

When Bonnie’s parents embark on a cruise she and her cousin Sylvia quickly discover that their new governess is a danger to them both. As the story unfolds the reader accompanies the two girls as they try to outwit the evil Miss Slighcarp and her network of criminals. Inspired by the stories the author enjoyed reading as a child this traditional tale works brilliantly and would be a great introduction to Victorian Gothic novels.

Winter Magic

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Winter Magic is a treat, a collection of stories by some of the very best of today’s children’s authors. This is simply perfect to curl up with on a dark evening and find yourself transported in both time and place. There are adventures, thrills, thoughtful ideas, loyal friendships, time travel, bravery, kindness and plenty of snow in the selection. I particularly liked that some of the stories refered to traditional stories and fairy tales such as The Snow Queen and the Pied Piper giving them a new twist.

An utterly lovely book to dip in to this would probably also work well in the classroom as a read aloud and would prompt discussion on the different ways the writers tackle the theme of winter.

I’m hard pushed to choose a favourite. I enjoyed Berlie Doherty’s Snow Queen based tale very much and the visit to a Victorian frost fair by my favourite children’s historical fiction writer Emma Carroll was the treat I hoped it would be. The final story, the Snow Dragon by Abi Elphinstone, who curated the collection, is a very special one. I closed the book with a contented sigh.

Sky Song

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From the opening lines of the prologue with its fairy tale feel readers are transported to the snowy kingdom of Erkenwald, a majestic land of icebergs and soaring cliffs where polar bears and wolves roam. Inspired by the beauty of the Arctic this is a world brought vividly to life and yet the stunning landscape is marred by evil as it has been torn apart by a wicked ruler. The Ice Queen, a truly terrible villain, is ruthless and the people of the land must stay hidden or they risk becoming prisoners in her Winterfang Palace.

It is children who bring hope to this troubled land. As the story unfolds it is Eska, a girl who is freed from her cursed music box, Flint, a boy who loves inventing and believes in the magic that others have abandoned, and little Blu, Flint’s younger sister, whom we follow on their quest to find the special song with the power to defeat the wicked Queen. Those who have read Abi’s Dreamsnatcher trilogy will be familiar with the excitement and drama that she includes so brilliantly in her stories and in Sky Song the epic nature of the children’s journey and the dramatic setting make the action scenes feel almost cinematic in their appeal. There are scary moments too but this is all handled at an appropriate level for the book’s target audience.

One of the things I think young readers will like about Sky Song is the way in which the child characters, despite the peril they face and the tasks they undertake, remain very much the children they should be. This undoubtedly adds to the sense of involvement for the reader who is more likely to readily identify with the characters. This is a book full of the wildness the author so loves and may well encourage her readers to make the most of the natural world around them. The relationship between the children and some of the creatures of Erkenwald is a thoughtful and appealing feature of the story.

The adventure is wonderful and has a feel of some of the stories I loved as a child particularly in the echoes of the Narnia books. I was gripped by the excitement of it and yet the quality of the writing and the thoughtful underlying themes of the book encouraged me to slow down and appreciate every page. Eska, Flint and Blu show great courage and bravery throughout the story and it’s lovely to follow the developing friendship between Eska and Flint. However even more important, I feel, is the way in which trust and acceptance are described and displayed. The tribes of Erkanwald have grown to fear and mistrust each other and yet as the story develops we watch as characters learn the importance of acceptance, understanding, kindness and trust.

At its heart this is a story about finding your voice and using it for good. No matter how small or insignificant you may feel each small voice makes a difference if you use it well and combine it with others. This is a comforting message for children and an important one for us all in today’s world.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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Finally, the classic by C.S. Lewis is synonymous for me with winter and curling up as a child to accompany Lucy into the bewitching world of Narnia. That moment when she brushes the coats in the wardrobe aside to feel the crisp snow beneath here and the icy wintry air on her face is etched in my memory as the moment when a fictional world became a possible reality. I wanted to be there with Lucy.

There is little I can add to all that has been written about the Narnia Chronicles and this book in particular other than to confess that I am reluctant to reread it now in case that magic is lost but I have witnessed its magic working on children over the years. Either read aloud by an adult or for a child to enjoy snuggled up in a corner, this is the perfect winter story. When I first read it the Christian symbolism did not register with me as a nine year old, I simply loved the adventure and the characters. The story of good conquering evil is such a heartening one and I will always have a soft spot for Lucy and Mr Tumnus. Sometimes in our haste to discover the new we neglect the old and I hope the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is cherished by children for many years to come.

Other children’s books with a winter theme on my to read list include, The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson and The Snowglobe by Amy Wilson both of which come highly recommended by book lovers.

I hope you find something among this selection that works its magic on the children in your life.





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Anti Bullying Week and the Role of the School Library + links to book lists

Anti-Bullying Week takes place in schools across England each November. This year’s Anti-Bullying Week has the theme Change Starts With Us and is happening from Monday 11th November – Friday 15th November 2019. Bullying in all its forms may have a lasting impact on children who experience it. It is therefore important that we work together to change this and any change starts with small steps. We all understand that there is not a quick fix but books, reading and school libraries do have a role in enabling this change.

The key thing that many forget when discussing school libraries is that every single one is different. They have to be in order to work well. Every library serves a specific community and endeavours to meet the needs of the people it serves. Great school libraries act as empathy factories in their communities. The sharing of books with pupils and staff can connect individuals as a school family and encourage us to practise empathy in our daily lives. This can make a big difference in the school and hopefully in the wider community too.

Through stories children are able to briefly put themselves in the shoes of others and in this way learn about what life is like for people very different to themselves. Equally importantly, in stories children may find themselves and learn to cope with situations, worries or feel less alone. Quite often children who experience bullying may be ‘different’ in some way. Children’s books matter because they can encourage tolerance and understanding of those differences. School librarians know which books can do this. Education is not just about the academics it is about educating the whole person to be the best that they can be.

Children and young people who use the school library have, on average, higher mental wellbeing scores. Those who don’t use the school library are nearly twice as likely to have low mental wellbeing than they are to have high mental wellbeing,” the National Literacy Trust says in a report published last year. Escaping into a good story is great way for children to cope when they are feeling stressed or worried. Literature, escapism and safe spaces are all imperative to good mental health and the school library is vital in ensuring that these are available to all pupils.

Every single school librarian can tell you of a child that has been ‘’rescued’’ by the library. The new pupil anxious about the hurly-burly of the playground, the worried child who needs some time alone and a quiet space to simply ‘’be’’. If for any reason a child feels out of place the school library can provide security and a place where they feel valued. During lunch breaks in a busy library year groups mingle together in a safe place allowing friendships to develop across the age ranges and encouraging informal mentoring by older pupils. Student librarians or library prefects act as guides to younger ones which again fosters kindness and understanding. The school library offers comfort to many and this matters enormously.

This pastoral aspect of school libraries is particularly difficult to measure yet remains a hugely important one, not only during Anti Bullying Week but all year round. If you value school libraries and their role in supporting the well being of school communities please do support the #GreatSchoolLibraries campaign, more information is available on the official website.

If you are looking for children’s book on the theme of bullying several organisations have compiled helpful lists and I have collected links to them below:

Anti Bullying Alliance – a list suitable for all age groups from Early Years to Secondary

Books For Topics – picture books, fiction and non-fiction for Early Years and Primary

Book Trust – books to help older primary school children books who may be experiencing bullying or finding it tricky to make friends

The Book Seekers – a collection of books on the theme of bullying ranging from picture books to fiction for teens and YA.

East Sussex County Council – a comprehensive list for all age groups although some titles are now out of print they may be available to borrow from your school or local library

Little Parachutes – Books which cover the subject of bullying, either written from the point of view of the victim or the perpetrator. Some books suggest practical ways to prevent bullying taking place, while others attempt to explain the possible reasons why people bully others.

Toppsta – Five books chosen ranging from a picture book to a YA novel in verse.

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Autism, Bullying and Me by Emily Lovegrove is published in May 2020 and is packed with self-empowering strategies for coping with being autistic in a neurotypical world, and practical tips so you can handle any bullying scenario.

More information is available here.

 



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McTavish on the Move by Meg Rosoff

McTavish the kind, wise & frequently hilarious rescue dog is back in this fourth instalment of life with the Peachey family. In this latest book the family are moving house and the youngest member, Betty, is moving school too. In all the turmoil it is McTavish who notices that Betty needs help and he resolves to do all he can to support his friend, in his own slightly unusual manner.

Pa Peachey arrives home from work one day singing a happy little song. Instantly the children know that something is wrong. Their dad is usually cranky and cross and he is definitely not the type of person who smiles happily and is full of the joys of spring at the end of a long working day. It is not long before the family learn the reason for this dramatic change in personality. Pa Peachey has a new job and is very excited about it. When the children learn that this means a new house too they are not quite as happy as Pa. Betty, who will also have to move to a new school, is convinced that this is a big problem not a trivial one and her nervousness mounts as the day draws near.

Meg Rosoff’s writing captures the family’s relationships beautifully and the conversations and situations are conveyed with a kind wisdom and bags of humour. Just like the earlier stories in the series this book is very amusing and McTavish’s weary tolerance is entertaining. The plot and the manner in which the family adapt to their move will be reassuring to young readers who may be facing this experience themselves. McTavish’s cunning plan to help Betty may not be the sort of plan that a wise adult would suggest but McTavish has a knack for rescuing his family in his own eccentric but successful way and young readers should enjoy the climax of the story.

McTavish on the Move is part of the Conkers range published by Barrington Stoke designed to help reluctant and newly confident readers make the jump to reading longer texts for pleasure, with dyslexia friendly Barrington Stoke font, paper with a gentle tint and loads of illustration. This means that this book is accessible to a wider range of readers. The charming cover and the illustrations throughout the book are by David Shephard based on and in the style of Grace Easton and these add to the enjoyment. At the end of the story there are two pages of “Betty’s Top Tips for Making Friends”, a lovely, thoughtful touch which will be helpful for children, especially if they don’t have a McTavish of their own to sort things out for them!

I should like to thank Kirstin Lamb and Barrington Stoke publishers for providing my free review copy. McTavish on the Move is available at all good bookshops or online

if you have not already read them I can wholeheartedly recommend the earlier stories in the McTavish series.



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Invisible in a Bright Light by Sally Gardner

An irresistible mixture of mystery, danger, history and fantasy this story by award winning author Sally Gardner has a fairytale quality that makes the book a delight to curl up with on a winter evening.

From the opening lines this novel has an other world feel to it. When we first meet Celeste we wonder if she is in the middle of a disturbing dream. Maybe a fantasy. Perhaps a curious mix of the two. Slowly and carefully Sally Gardner reveals tantalising glimpses of places, characters and events that intertwine as the truth of Celeste’s story is revealed both to her and to the reader. When she wakes up in a costume basket at the Royal Opera House Celeste is troubled by the memory of a sinister man in a green suit in a watery cave and a dangerous game called The Reckoning. To add to her confusion everyone at the theatre thinks that she is someone else, a talented dancer named Maria. Then the huge, crystal chandelier in the dome of the theatre, sparkling with hundreds of candles, crashes to the ground and as Celeste recovers from this horrific accident she is visited by a strange girl who claims to know her past. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent to both Celeste and the reader that she is playing a dangerous game that she must win to save those she loves and discover the truth.

It has been fourteen years since Sally Gardner last wrote a book for readers in this age group so she will be a new name for some. This original and beautifully imaginative story will enthral a new group of readers. This would be perfect for those readers in Upper Primary and Lower Secondary who enjoy a slightly more challenging and thoughtful read. There are textual references that avid readers will enjoy spotting. The repetition of, “And down she falls…” so reminiscent of Alice, the ghostly ship and the names of the girls at the heart of this story are reminders of other stories with a similar feel to this one. I am always intrigued by stories that play with the concept of time and parallel lives and Sally Gardner has used the idea of the Gutter of Time when a choice or decision can alter lives dramatically to masterful effect. The story contains both suspense and shock balanced with a bond of friendship and love that creates a whole that is captivating.

The world created by the author is a rich one. The descriptions of the theatre and life both in front of and behind the curtains are wonderful and will appeal to readers who are interested in the stage. I loved the historical aspect and the descriptions of the city in the depths of winter. There is a slightly spooky edge to this and it a wonderful read for a dark winter evening.

I should like to thank the publishers, Zephyr Books, for my free review copy. The hardback version was published in October with a stunning cover by Helen Crawford-White and is available to purchase in your local book shop or online

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