The Frozen Sea by Piers Torday

Stories have great power. Through stories we learn about people, places and events. Stories can inspire and entertain, they connect us and help us to make sense of information and understand how it applies to our own lives. Stories require inspiration and imagination. Sometimes one story inspires another. The Narnia chronicles are classics that have affected readers for many years leaving a lasting impression on generations of readers. They inspired Piers Torday to create the world of Folio. In The Lost Magician we met the four children who discovered this special land and were thrilled by the adventure they took part in that brought peace to Folio. In The Frozen Sea, forty years after the first instalment, another child must embark on a dangerous quest to rescue a long lost relative in this remarkable world of stories and imagination.

Inspired by The Silver Chair this story begins in a similar way with Jewel Hastings trying to escape from school bullies just as Jill did in the earlier story. While hiding in a mysterious old bookshop she discovers an atlas through which Jewel, and her pet hamster Fizz, are transported to the land of Folio. In the Land Of the Reads she finds herself in the Idea Jungle and she and Fizz, who is now miraculously able to talk, are sent by the Librarian, the ruler of this place, on a quest to rescue her Aunt Evie who had returned to Folio.

The premise of discovering and visiting imaginary worlds using books, bookshops or libraries as a portal is immensely appealing to any of us who have felt transported to another place when reading. The world created by Piers Torday is a vivid one, at times beautiful and inspiring then within a few pages sinister and frightening. What makes this world deeply affecting is the place of technology within it. Setting the story in 1984 ensures that Jewel’s experience of computers and technological gadgets is confined to early video games and a much prized combined radio and double cassette recorder. She is bewildered by the robots, the rapid communication systems and the personal access to instant information that the UnReads of Folio have at their disposal. As an adult reader there are many moments of unsettling recognition as we watch how the citizens of Folio are dominated by the Stampstone worn on their wrists. Piers Torday demonstrates how the advancement of technology and the digital revolution can be both a blessing and a curse. The opportunities provided by the development of AI are touched upon and Jewel and Fizz are accompanied on their epic journey by a robot named Pandora.

There are many interesting themes and ideas conveyed throughout this imaginative and exciting adventure. As we follow Jewel who displays courage, loyalty and intelligence as she battles with enemies and the elements on her journey we learn that access to knowledge gives power and that this power may sometimes be used for ill. The manipulation of information, the inability to form one’s own opinion and the reliance on others’ ideas are all displayed in various scenarios. But the resilience of the human spirit and loyalty and love for family and friends play an equally important part in this book.

All of these ideas are wrapped up in an absolutely thrilling adventure. There is danger at every turn and the reader is never completely sure which characters are trustworthy and which are not which adds to the tension. Jewel is a fabulous protagonist and one that you very quickly warm to. Fizz definitely deserves a mention too. A hamster with a slightly cynical approach to life and a dry sense of humour he provides some very entertaining and amusing moments.

The intricate chapter headings and the stunning cover are by Ben Mantle. I think the cover illustrations capture the essence of the story beautifully and removing the dust jacket reveals an unexpected bonus on the hardback copy.

It would, I think, be possible to read and enjoy this book without having read The Lost Magician as the necessary plot points are covered within this sequel however for added enjoyment it would help to have met the various characters and to have visited Folio already.

The very best children’s books do more than entertain, they encourage the reader to think, to question and inspire them to read more widely. The skill of Piers Torday as a story writer is that he writes about the subjects he cares about with such passion that the reader is inspired to care too.

The Frozen Sea is now available to purchase in all good bookshops or online

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Barrington Stoke – Making Brilliant Stories Accessible to More Readers

As a school librarian I have long been a fan of the books published by Barrington Stoke. From their earliest days they have produced stories that are inviting to children, written by top authors, of a length that is not too daunting and including appealing illustrations. Also, and very importantly, they are presented in a style that is dyslexia friendly using a special typeface, extra line spacing and off white paper. Barrington Stoke’s books are therefore popular buys for school libraries and these two new titles are no exception.

Sophie Takes to the Sky by Katherine Woodfine illustrated by Briony May Smith

Part of the Little Gems series aimed at readers aged five to eight this charming story is inspired by a real historical character, balloonist Sophie Blanchard. Katherine Woodfine has created a story that has at its heart the possibility of overcoming fears to aim higher than you think possible so has a very positive message that would reassure and comfort children trying to overcome anxiety.

As the story opens we meet little Sophie living in a small village with her family. She is known for being scared of absolutely everything and is given the nickname ” Scaredy-Cat Sophie” by her sister. When a famous balloonist visits a local town fair Sophie is left behind while everyone else goes to watch him. Sophie is too frightened of riding in the horse drawn carriage to get there, too frightened of the crowds and too frightened of the noise and hubbub of the town. But Sophie is fascinated by the picture of the hot air balloon she has seen and the idea of floating in the sky. Perhaps she can learn to be brave. Wonderful things may happen if she can learn to conquer her fears and no longer be a “scaredy-cat.”

This lovely, touching story is matched by gorgeous illustrations by Briony May Smith which add to the traditional feel of the book, with a rich palette and plenty of detail they will encourage children to linger and look.

I think this is a gorgeous “Little Gem” that will be enjoyed by many readers and would make a delightful introduction to historical fiction.

If you enjoy this type of story you may also like to try Katherine Woodfine’s other Little Gem, Rose’s Dress of Dreams. For older readers, or as a read aloud for a younger age group, Sophie Takes to the Sky links beautifully to Emma Carroll’s Sky Chasers.

A Most Peculiar Toy Factory by Alex Bell illustrated by Nan Lawson

Best selling author Alex Bell combines adventure, mystery and black humour in her novella for Barrington Stoke. Targeted at the eight plus age group this creepy but entertaining story would be perfect for fans of Roald Dahl.

There are sinister rumours surrounding Hoggle’s Happy Toys following its closure five years ago, stories of shadows behind closed doors, sinister teddies and whispering dolls. But when news that the factory is reopening circulates through the town Tess Phipps and her siblings have no choice but to work there if they want to save the family farm. From their arrival on their first day the children realise that the factory does indeed hide dark secrets.

Many children dream of their favourite toys coming to life and sharing adventures with them and this book takes that idea and gives it a slightly sinister twist. It’s a brave move to make teddy bears, so often portrayed as cuddly and loveable, the villains of the piece. Young readers should enjoy the slightly subversive element to the story and Tess is a no nonsense character who tackles the situation with determination. The black and while illustrations throughout the book and the appealing cover are by Nan Lawson. This is recommended for readers who enjoy adventures with twists and a little touch of the sinister.

I would like to thank Kirstin Lamb of Barrington Stoke for providing my review copies.

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When We Were Warriors by Emma Carroll Review and links to teaching resources (Book 6 of my #20BooksofSummer)

Ever since her debut novel, Frost Hollow Hall I have found Emma Carroll’s historical fiction a treat to savour. I am shamefully late to reading this collection of short stories but having found the opportunity to sit down and enjoy this book in a leisurely fashion it was most definitely worth the wait.

What I find appealing about Emma’s books is that more than any other current children’s fiction they make me feel like the ten year old me again, curled up in a corner engrossed in a story that I truly felt a part of. She is an author with a knack for capturing the voice of children and enabling her readers to feel that they are involved in the adventure. Better still they are adventures in which children take centre stage, finding bravery when they thought they had none, righting wrongs and solving problems.

Historical fiction is wonderful for explaining to children how the world came to be as it is at present. In Emma Carroll’s books historical events become real and relevant to today’s child readers. In When We Were Warriors the author returns to a period and to characters already featured in some of her previous books. Set during World War 2 in 1942 each of the three stories depict children coping with the effects of war, be that as evacuees or at still at home but enduring the fear of the blitz.

In the first story young Stan and his two sisters are evacuated from Bristol to a large country house with forbidden rooms and disturbing secrets. Stan is portrayed as a sensitive boy and the manner of his character development is touching and would be reassuring for readers too. The second story is one in which Olive discovers the body of a German soldier washed up on the beach and is an exciting adventure that will enthral children as the tension mounts and the story is told at a cracking pace. Again the children display tenacity and courage as they face a threat to a friend and to their village. In the final story Velvet is determined to ensure that all the local pets are kept safe when the bombs fall even if this means taking matters in to her own hands. It also touches on the subject of conscientious objectors with care and understanding.

This is a delight for those familiar with Emma Carroll’s earlier stories as we rediscover familiar places and are reunited with old friends, however it would also be a wonderful introduction for those unfamiliar with her work. Although the stories stand alone the way in which they are set in a particular area of the country and the lovely manner in which they contain a thread that unites them add to the feeling of satisfaction as you turn the final page.This is highly recommended.

A book that will appeal to children in the 8 – 12 age group this would also work extremely well read aloud. It would be useful for primary teachers as it features different aspects of the Second World War presenting historical detail in an accessible manner.

When We Were Warriors is available in all good bookshops or online

If you have not already read it I would recommend Emma’s other book set in World War Two, Letters from the Lighthouse. Another excellent WW2 novel for this age group is D-Day Dog by Tom Palmer.

I have collected a number of links to websites that may be useful for teachers in primary school classrooms on World War 2 topics.

WW2 Evacuees

There are many sources of information about evacuees suitable for KS2 students but two of the most comprehensive websites are Primary Homework Help and the Imperial War Museum

Home Front

Life at home in Britain is an interesting subject for children and The National Archives website contains a range of teaching ideas and resources.

For a range of resources on many different aspects of World War 2 that are freely available to download you may like to try the Primary Resources website.

When We Were Warriors is the sixth book on my list for the 20BooksOfSummer challenge organised by Cathy on 746 Books.

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I, Cosmo by Carli Sorosiak

As a child my family always had a dog. There were times when we had two dogs. To me and to my sister these dogs were much more than pets, they were friends. Friends who we always believed knew when we were sad or troubled, whom we occasionally confided in and sought refuge with when life was tricky. Carli Sorosiak clearly felt the same way and in this lovely book has recreated that special relationship between a child and their pet dog with heart, kindness and humour.

Cosmo’s family are in trouble. Mom and Dad are arguing, Emmaline is too little to understand what is happening but is worried, her brother Max is old enough to understand and is scared that his family will break up. Cosmo wants to help his best friend Max and the family he cares very much about. However, Cosmo is a Golden Retriever, thirteen years old and getting a bit creaky so what can he possibly do to help? Perhaps more than he realises because Cosmo loves, he loves “doggedly” with his whole heart, no matter what and he will do for his whole life.

From the opening lines Cosmo’s voice is a distinctive one, full of warmth and a wise understanding with occasional moments of bewilderment. The story begins at Halloween with Cosmo suffering the indignity of being dressed up as a turtle with admirable fortitude. Very quickly we start to understand how deep the understanding is between Max and Cosmo. To try and save the family and remind Max’s parents of former happier times the two enter a local dog dancing competition. They are going to dance to a song from Cosmo’s favourite film, Grease. In order to succeed Cosmo will need to battle against aged joints and aches and pains while Max must learn to overcome his shyness.

It says much for the writing that as the story progressed I felt I knew and understood Cosmo and Max and the unbreakable bond between the two of them. Cosmo is such a fabulous character. He is so full of love. At times he misbehaves but he cares, he cares very much and he makes the reader care too. There are some very funny, at times hilarious, events along the way too. Mostly involving Cosmo and food. Max has great appeal, being a thoughtful boy who is trying to do his best during a stressful time. He and Cosmo are helped in their mission by Uncle Reggie, an army dog trainer who has just returned from Afghanistan, a lovely character who I found as appealing as Cosmo.

The improvement in Max’s and Cosmo’s dancing skills runs alongside the rapid disintegration of Mom and Dad’s marriage and viewing all this through Cosmo’s eyes enables children to witness Max’s unhappiness at a safe distance. Throughout the whole book there are moments when we realise that everyone has to deal with fears in life, sometimes nameless ones, and that it is possible to face up to and overcome these.

Carli Sorosiak writes about a difficult subject with an understanding of the needs of her young readers and I, Cosmo demonstrates how families are able to adapt successfully to changing and difficult circumstances. A book full of warmth and humour. I adored Cosmo and I loved his story. By the end I was desperate for a Cosmo of my own and think other readers will feel the same way.

I, Cosmo was published on 1st August and is available to purchase at all good bookshops or online The appealing cover illustration is by Ben Mantle. Thank you very much to Nosy Crow publishers for providing my free review copy.

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Straw into Gold – Fairy tales re-spun by Hilary McKay illustrated by Sarah Gibb Book 5 of #20BooksofSummer

Fairy tales are part of our cultural history. We share these magical, gripping and frightening stories in childhood and their characters, messages of magic and bravery, evil and love stay with us into adulthood. They are referred to in a wide range of literature for both adults and children and each individual cautionary tale offers a template for coping with circumstances and events. In fairy stories good conquers evil, the wicked are punished and after trials and tribulations our heroes live happily ever after. So why would an author rewrite them? Many do. Often these retellings are humorous such as Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl or tell the story from a different protagonist’s point of view such as The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.

In Straw into Gold Hilary McKay takes ten of the best loved fairy tales and with care, humour and wisdom retells these stories with a freshness and with unexpected twists and updates and yet they retain the heart of the originals. Each story feels comfortingly familiar, the traditions and the key elements that we know are still there but the messages and the characters feel relevant to today’s readers. Both adults and children, particularly if they know the originals, will love the jokes and references and the way in which the characters are subtly redrawn.

The fairy tales chosen include Rapunzel, Snow White, Rumpelstilstkin, The Pied Piper of Hamelin and Cinderella so the most well known children’s favourites are all there. What I particularly enjoyed was the way in which Hilary McKay answered some of those unanswered questions and observations from my childhood. I always fretted about the ending of The Pied Piper and wondered what happened afterwards. The retelling of Rumpelstilstken is thoughtful and thought provoking making me care about a character who terrified me as a child. Chickenpox and Crystal, the Snow White story, contains a wise message about modern culture’s obsession with appearance and an ending that I loved. It is impossible for me to select a favourite. The Tower and the Bird (Rapunzel) with its gentle look at coping with ones fears was touching. The Princess and the Problem, (the Princess and the Pea) made me smile. Each and every one was a delight to read.

The subtle silhouette illustrations by Sarah Gibb are a perfect match for the stories. I think they are beautiful and they reminded me a little of Jan Pienkowski’s work. The outlines of the characters leaves the reader to imagine features and other characteristics but capture the historical and traditional nature of the stories themselves. Hilary McKay’s prose describes settings and landscapes so beautifully that images are created in your mind as you read and I found the simplicity of the illustrations worked extremely well with the writing. The cover with its scattering of motifs from the stories is stunning too.

This would be a valuable addition to home and school bookshelves. The ten short stories would be perfect to read aloud in the classroom and the retelling of traditional tales would be an excellent discussion and writing prompt for teachers to use in English lessons.

Straw into Gold was published in paperback in 2018 and is available to purchase in all good bookshops, online or to borrow from your local library.

Thisx was the fifth in the books I earmarked for the 20BooksOfSummer challenge organised by Cathy on 746 Books. It is time to face up to the fact that I will not manage all twenty books so I will select two or three more from the ones I originally chose. Full details are in this post

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The Salt Path by Raynor Winn Book 4 of #20BooksofSummer

My slow progress through the 20BooksOfSummer challenge organised by Cathy on 746 Books took a long detour around the South Western Coastal path with this non fiction best seller from 2018. Raynor Winn tells the story of how she and her husband, in their fifties, lose everything, their home, their livelihood and their money following a bad investment. Almost unbelievably, only days later Raynor’s husband, Moth, is diagnosed with a terminal, degenerative illness. This is a situation most of us could not bear to contemplate. However Raynor and Moth, prompted by a book she has read, decide to pack their bags and walk the south western coastal path together, all 630 miles of it. This impulsive, some including me, might even say foolish decision was to change their lives in a manner they did not anticipate.

There are two strong themes threading through this journal of their journey; firstly the restoring power of nature and our relationship with our environment and secondly homelessness, specifically the circumstances surrounding its increase and attitudes towards those who are in this situation.

I read this book with increasing admiration for this couple’s remarkable resilience. Raynor and Moth are wild camping and with only £48 per week to live on frequently their food runs out. Their strength in the face of their difficulties owes much to their background. They share a love for and understanding of the natural world around them, restored their family home and ran their farm in South Wales for many years. The early days of their journey are marked by Moth’s physical pain and I wondered again about the wisdom of their decision. I should have had more faith. As the days turn into weeks the couple grow stronger both physically and mentally. There are an increasing number of articles written about the restoring power of nature on our wellbeing and for Raynor and Moth their long journey gives them a reason to carry on. Equally importantly they also gain an acceptance of their situation helped by the fact that Moth’s condition is improved by their long and arduous walk.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Salt Path are the many encounters they have with other people on the path and in the towns they call in to on the way. When others discover that the couple are homeless some visibly recoil or are unsure how to respond. Yet when Moth explains their journey saying they have ‘sold up’ and are completing a long awaited journey they are viewed as ‘inspirational.’ There are several occasions when Raynor and Moth meet others in a similar situation and homelessness in rural, holiday areas is a growing problem in part due to high rental charges and the temporary, seasonal nature of some employment. Winn shows the reader how public preconceptions regarding homeless people can result in prejudice against those who are sadly in this situation.

Yet this is not a depressing read at all. Raynor Winn’s love of nature shines through in her writing and there are vivid descriptions of the coastline and the birds and other wildlife they observe. There are humorous episodes too, particularly when Moth is mistaken for a travelling poet. In addition to the couple’s resilience I was touched by their obvious love and concern for each other. There were friendships made along their route and the kindness and concern shown to them by many outweighed the indifference of some and the hostility displayed by a few.

The Salt Path demonstrates the strength of the human spirit in the most difficult of circumstances and encourages all of us to appreciate every moment.

If you would like to see which other books feature on my 20 Books of Summer list you can find out all about them here

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H is for Harry – and thoughts on literacy, libraries and laureates

On Monday evening I attended a screening of H is for Harry a documentary created by Postcode Films. Through the eyes of an eleven year old boy and his classmates we view what life is like for those children who struggle with literacy. It was a moving and at times disheartening experience as the issues of educational inequality and inter generational illiteracy were highlighted. However I ended the evening with a feeling of hope that much is being done to try to correct this situation.

We joined Harry on his first day at secondary school but his story and his educational difficulties had started long before that. His father and his grandfather are unable to read and write and Harry’s dad wants better for his son and hopes that attendance at a new academy will provide Harry with the opportunities he lacked. In the early days of Year 7 the pupils are reminded of the academic path stretching ahead to university and as I watched Harry’s expression as he listened I feared for him. However, despite the challenges the teachers faced as they endeavoured to make a difference, the dedication, commitment and care they showed to Harry was deeply affecting. In particular Harry’s form teacher, who also acted as his one to one support provider, managed to connect with him and we saw glimpses of success as he made progress. His face when he scored ten out of ten in a spelling test was a joy to see. His teacher shared in that joy too.

By the end of Year 7 Harry had made good progress and was praised by all involved with him. Yet the gap between Harry and his classmates in English attainment was still large and as an audience we all noticed and were saddened by the change in Harry as he returned in Year 8. There had been a noticeable slump and despite the fact that Harry was now considered able to rejoin the class, albeit with support, he continued to slide. Eventually the academy decided they can no longer cater for Harry’s needs and he subsequently left to attend a special school. Before that there were happy moments along the way including Harry’s interaction with his friends particularly on a residential school trip. Before he left it was heartening to see how he engaged with the younger children in the primary school showing a gentle, kindness and understanding. There was so much more to Harry than his test results and as an audience we were all able witness this.

The producers of the documentary deliberately wanted the issues in the film to be shown from a child’s perspective and therefore there were some unanswered questions about Harry’s circumstances. The co-producer of H is for Harry, Jaime Taylor, was able to fill in some of the gaps in a Q and A session afterwards. She is still in contact with Harry, his father and his former teacher and thankfully his part in the making of this film has had a positive effect on Harry’s life.

One of the most important aspects of this film is that it draws attention to the situation and prompts discussion about what can be done to help and ideally to prevent this from continuing. There is no quick fix and there are many much more qualified than I am to put these ideas in to practice. However it made me think about the various ways in which I am already involved and has encouraged me to share some points that I believe are relevant.

The screening I attended was organised by the charity, Coram Beanstalk, and the film served to highlight the huge importance of the work they do in both Early Years settings and Primary Schools. As we witnessed in H is for Harry if a child is struggling with reading as they start at secondary level it is much harder for that gap to be made up. Coram Beanstalk recruits, trains and supports volunteers to provide one-to-one literacy support in early years settings and primary schools to children who have fallen behind with their reading. As a new volunteer I have been working in a nursery this term and can already see the difference individual attention has made on the three children I visit. Early intervention is vital to ensure that children go on to become enthusiastic readers and Beanstalk does a great deal to enable this. The charity also now offers training for parent helpers from early years to Year 7 and there is also a pilot Summer Reading Scheme taking place in London. Although some may argue that charitable support should not be required the sad reality is that it is needed.

On the way home after watching this thought provoking film I pondered not only on the role of charities who support schools and educators but of libraries. That we are worrying about our children’s literacy levels while public libraries have been closing around the country makes no sense at all. According to research from the National Literacy Trust: “1 in 8 disadvantaged children in the UK don’t own a single book, compared to 1 in 11 children nationally” We should not need to explain why public libraries matter, the fact is they do. Particularly to children and those of us who can’t afford to buy the books we want and need and they matter hugely to communities who need support and a provider of reliable information.

There was no mention of a school library in the documentary so I do not not know if one existed or not but I would be disappointed if this was not provided for the young people who attended. School libraries, ideally run by a librarian, are great social levellers. They provide a range of books for all tastes, at different levels that will encourage all children, whether or not they have books at home already, to read for pleasure. I can think of a few secondary school librarians who could have found something that would have engaged Harry. When I worked as a full time school librarian in the independent sector I was once told that I was the ‘fizz on the drink’ that fee paying parents expected. I firmly believe that school libraries and librarians should be a vital part of a child’s daily educational diet not an optional and enjoyable extra. The Great School Libraries campaign was launched last year with the aim of bringing school libraries and librarians back to every school in the UK. Please do try to support this important campaign, it could make a big difference to children like Harry.

Finally, on my long, thoughtful journey home I read an article by Cressida Cowell. If you don’t follow children‘s book news you may not know that this popular author was appointed Children’s Laureate this month. This wonderful woman is already voicing her support for libraries in our communities and in our schools, including primary schools. Hurrah for Cressida! She has also produced a charter of her most important wishes for her two year tenure. These include reading for the joy of it, accessing new books in schools, libraries and bookshops and owning a book of your own. Her charter if followed would help to enable children to start off on the journey to becoming a reader with happy anticipation rather than a fearful dread of something they find difficult. I hope people listen before it is too late.

If you would like to find out more about H is for Harry, attend a screening or possibly organise your own screening there is more information on the official website.

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Eagle Warrior by Gill Lewis

In her latest book Gill Lewis combines her knowledge, understanding and concern for wildlife with her skill in storytelling to create a thought provoking read that will enthral children and inspire them to think about conservation.

Ten year old Bobbie lives on the family farm on the Scottish moors with her parents and Granny. She is thrilled that a golden eagle has settled near them and she and Granny watch him with care and interest. However not everyone feels the same about this majestic bird and Bobbie is distressed to discover this in a brutal manner. One day while out walking, her Granny’s beloved dog is poisoned and dies so Bobbie now knows that the bird is in danger is and she is determined to protect the eagle. Sometimes difficulties arrive together in life and she must also deal with the possibility that she will be sent away to school so Bobbie must now find the strength to fight for the things that matter most to her.

Inspired by the true story of the ‘disappearance’ of a Golden Eagle called Fred in suspicious circumstances near a Scottish grouse moor this book raises many questions about environmental issues. Children are increasingly aware of the threat to our natural habitat and this thrilling adventure will engage them and encourage them to research further into the subject too. Gill Lewis has pledged to send her PLR royalties from this book to Wild Justice, a new organisation challenging the legalities of wildlife law.

However it is the story itself that will spark interest in young readers. Bobbie’s character is appealing and children will want things to be resolved happily for both her and the golden eagle she cares so much about. Barrington Stoke publishers have ensured that this story is accessible to a wide range of readers and it is presented in their usual super readable style. This would also make a good read aloud for the classroom prompting discussion and linking well to lessons on environmental issues.

Eagle Warrior is out now and can be bought in all good bookshops or online

If you would like a quick taste of Eagle Warrior the first chapter is available on the Barrington Stoke website There is information about Golden Eagles and their current situation on the Scottish Wildlife website

Gill Lewis has written many excellent children books on the theme of our natural world and if you are looking for another accessible, short read I would highly recommend Run Wild.

I would like to thank Kirstin Lamb and Barrington Stoke for my free review copy.



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Anna at War by Helen Peters (20 Books of Summer -Book 3)

“The British were so magnanimous to welcome us foreigners… truly showing a phenomenal humanity.”

These words were part of the inspiration for this enthralling and immensely thoughtful book set in World War 2. They were said by a woman in her nineties, a former Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, who wanted to thank Brighton College for taking her in more than 70 years ago. The sentence struck Helen Peters more forcibly in view of the prejudice and hostility sometimes displayed towards refugees today. Anna at War tells the moving story of a twelve year old girl who, thanks to her parents’ bravery, escapes to England just before the outbreak of war as part of the Kindertransport rescue effort. Inspired by real events and people this is a remarkable story of bravery and resilience but also of compassion and friendship that will engage and inspire young readers.

Life in 1930s Nazi Germany has become increasingly difficult for Jewish families such as Anna’s and the tension and fear have gradually increased, culminating in the dreadful events of Kristallnacht, following which Anna’s father is temporarily sent to a concentration camp. When he is released he and his wife make the heartbreaking decision to send Anna alone to safety in England. Helen Peters’ description of both the terrifying night when Anna’s father was taken and her subsequent journey by train out of Germany is utterly gripping. The terror experienced by Anna has she hides in the wardrobe as soldiers ransack their home, the raw grief of the farewell at the station and the mounting fear on the train journey are conveyed with an eye to the age of her readers and yet with great emotion. Throughout all of this we are beginning to appreciate that Anna is a remarkable and resilient character.

Once in England Anna is fostered by the kindly Mr and Mrs Dean and lives on their farm with their daughter Molly and her younger brother, Frank. Life in the Kent countryside is very different to Anna’s previous experiences and yet she is determined in her desire to make the best of things and to try to enable her parents to join her eventually. The reader accompanies Anna in her attempts to adapt to English schooling, life on the farm and making friendships in an atmosphere of growing fear of the enemy as war is declared in England. The fears that Anna thought she had left behind her in Germany are now real again and she finds herself caught up in a web of secrets and betrayal. The subsequent adventure is one with a lasting impact and is of such extreme tension that children reading will be utterly enthralled.

Historical fiction for children gives a voice to those who are no longer able to tell their stories and they are stories that need to be told. Helen Peters has managed to balance the need to explain a harrowing and deeply sad period of history with the desire to make it accessible to a young audience. The various strands to Anna’s story do not all have happy endings but this is important in order to maintain historical accuracy. However this is a story of hope and determination which celebrates the bravery of the parents who sent their children away and the impressive manner in which their children responded to the opportunity. The author introduces the book with a school project for which children are researching life in World War 2 which is a neat and appropriate way of enticing young readers in to the story and provides a link to today’s familiar world.

Anna at War has now joined my list of favourite children’s books of the year so far. Combining history and adventure in a story that is both relevant and relatable for today’s children this is a compulsive and enjoyable read. It was published on 4th July and is available in all good bookshops or online The cover illustration is by Daniela Terrazzini.

Thank you very much to Nosy Crow Publishers who kindly provided my review copy.

This is my third book in the #20BooksOfSummer challenge organised by Cathy on 746 Books. If you would like to see which other titles are on my challenge list I wrote about them here

If you are looking for other children’s books set during World War 2 I can recommend D-Day Dog by Tom Palmer, Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll and the classic, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr.



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Bookworm – A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan (20 Books of Summer Book 2)

What is a bookworm? The Cambridge dictionary definition describes it as “Someone who reads a lot.” For Lucy Mangan it means so much more than that. In the introduction to this homage to the joys of reading she says that books are so important to her that “they made me who I am.” This, I think, applies particularly to the books that we read in childhood. In her best selling memoir Lucy Mangan reflects on the characters and worlds that books brought to life for her when she was young and in doing so confirms something that I have long believed. Reading is not something done in isolation, it connects us. To the characters, to the author and to the book’s other readers. It is a shared experience that unites us in an understanding.

Lucy Mangan’s memory for detail is impressive as she takes us on her reading journey from her early encounter with The Very Hungry Caterpillar all the way on through her school days culminating in her teenage reading of Summer With a German Soldier. Along the way we detour to savour the best of children’s illustration, an obsession with Enid Blyton and the Sweet Valley High series and a healthy dose of classics such as Tom’s Midnight Garden and What Katy Did. The range of titles enjoyed is broad and even those that Mangan enjoyed less or even not at all are ascribed an importance in so far as she recognises that they are important to other readers. In addition to the delightful and sometimes hilarious anecdotes about her childhood, her reading choices and her family Lucy Mangan also includes a brief history or further background information about the authors and illustrators she loved or the literary trends that helped to produce their books. I found this aspect fascinating and it has prompted me to want to find out more about some that were mentioned.

As is often the case with a budding bookworm there is an adult behind the scenes acting as a guide or mentor. For Lucy Mangan this was her father whose sharing of beloved books at the right time is wonderful, a gentle suggestion or a book given with a quiet encouragement that was so appreciated by his daughter. This is an approach that can be equally successful in libraries and schools, subtly nudging a would be reader and opening the door a little onto a whole new world. On many pages I smiled in recognition of a beloved book or a particular character and often my favourites were those of Mangan’s. This is interesting in itself as I am older and my formative reading experience took place in the 1960s rather than the 70s or early 80s. We shared a love of the classic Ladybird information books, Enid Blyton’s Willow Farm and numerous pony books despite the fact, or maybe even because of it, that we would never ever have ponies of our own. However, perhaps this age difference would account for the marked difference in our teenage reading habits. In the early to mid 1970s a teen or YA market did not exist as such and like my contemporaries I jumped from a childhood world of magic, schools, animals and adventure to that of adult best sellers with a short diversion to the classics in between. I fear I may have missed out a little.

One aspect that remains the same for all bookworms regardless of the decade is that when we read we are transported to another place entirely. Oblivious to distractions, summons to ‘come and eat’, ‘do homework’ or all the other pleas from our parents that fell on deaf ears as we fought battles in Narnia or accompanied Jill as she won yet another rosette in a gymkhana.

Another aspect that Lucy Mangan mentioned and one I have noticed in my work as a school librarian is that for child readers rereading is a vital part of the process. For adults the desire to try something new, the fear of missing out on wonderful new books or of wasting precious time is a nagging and real concern. For children it is different. Firstly there is the mechanics of reading itself, the just learned skill of decoding and discovering the meaning of words takes effort, then the understanding of the plot itself requires concentration and often a second look. Only once all this is done can a child return, reread and ponder on the characters themselves, their development, the underlying emotion or relevance to themselves and to their own lives. Hence the need and the desire to reread old favourites. We need to remind ourselves of this instead of rushing young readers on to the next level or pushing them too fast too soon.

This book is full of warmth, great humour and an honest insight into the slightly obsessive love that many of us have for the books that we care about. I enjoyed it thoroughly and found it nostalgic in the best possible way. Not a sad reflection of something long gone and now lost but a celebration of something that I am able to continue to build on and to share.

Bookworm – A Memoir of Childhood Reading is available at all good bookshops, your local library or online

This is my second book in the #20BooksOfSummer challenge organised by Cathy on 746 Books

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