The Middler by Kirsty Applebaum

This debut set in a dystopian near future is an absorbing story of boundaries tested, forbidden friendships made, propaganda and questioning, and developing the courage to find your own voice and speak the truth.

Eleven year old Maggie is a middler, sandwiched between Jed, the eldest and Trig, the youngest, she feels invisible and unimportant. Jed is held in high regard by his parents, teachers and community in the same way as all the eldest children in Fennis Wick where Maggie and her family live. The inhabitants of this town are enclosed and protected from the outside world by a boundary. They are told that beyond this barrier the dirty, dangerous, deceitful wanderers roam and the Quiet War rages. As this quietly menacing and unsettling story unfolds Maggie and the reader discover that the eldest may not be being singled out for something special but for something sinister instead.

The voice of Maggie, the story’s narrator, is compelling and matures as the storyline progresses. It is her meeting with Una, a wanderer girl who is desperate for help that sparks the change. Trusting and innocent at the start of the book Maggie starts to question the rules and realises that she has been told lies for many years. There are many themes running through the narrative that resonate today. The boundaries are not only between places but also between people. The sinister controlling of people’s attitudes towards those who are ‘different’ or who do not conform is well written as is the creation of this alternative but believable world.

The adventure through which the themes are conveyed is tense, exciting and well plotted. There were a couple of moments when as a reader you want to hold your breath and the children’s courage will keep young readers gripped. The wonderful characters including Maggie herself, the lovable Trig and of course Una, the wanderer girl are engaging and believable.  When I started reading this book I wasn’t sure what to expect but was completely won over by Kirsty Applebaum’s exciting debut. This is dystopian fiction for middle grade readers with an understanding of what matters to children; family, friendship and being valued.

Thank you very much to the lovely people at Nosy Crow publishers who sent me my review copy. The book, published on 4th April, has a fabulous cover designed by Nicola Theobald that features artwork by Matt Saunders.

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For the Love of Libraries

On Sunday 10th March I battled my way through gales, engineering works on Southwest Trains and fallen trees on Southern Rail to attend an event at the British Library. It was definitely worth it.  The afternoon brought together three wonderful authors, Sir Philip Pullman, Salley Vickers and Dame Jacqueline Wilson in a thoughtful discussion about the effect libraries had on them as children, as readers and as writers and, of course, why they love libraries.

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The discussion was chaired by Sue Wilkinson of the Reading Agency. She introduced the afternoon by explaining that as a body they work with many different partners but that one of the most important is libraries. She also went on to say that “personal choice creates readers.” Libraries help to provide that choice to everyone.

There were many important points raised and discussed during this event and I am still thinking about these several days later. There were some comments made that particularly resonated with me.

All three authors stressed how important it is that library usage and a love of reading starts in childhood. Philip Pullman said that if you develop a love of reading as a child you probably hang on to that love. Jacqueline Wilson told us that her mother obtained special permission for her to join the library as she was so young. Salley Vickers described the librarian after whom the lead character in her latest novel, The Librarian is named. The original Miss Blackwell displayed an impressive knowledge of children’s literature and an ability to know not just which book a child may want to read but also, perhaps more importantly, which book a child needed to read. This wonderful professional introduced Salley Vickers to The Moomins by Tove  Jansson, a series also beloved by Philip Pullman.

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Jacqueline Wilson had fond memories of graduating to the adult section of Kingston upon Thames library at a very young age and reading Jane Austen. Again there was a common thread as all three said that thanks to libraries and librarians they had been introduced to authors and books that otherwise they may never have known. This availability and range of choice is a key argument in the fight to maintain our public libraries. Without this access, this wonderful opportunity to happen upon literary gems almost by accident, reading could be a narrow and somewhat limited experience. Phillip Pullman said that the most popular area in a public library is the returns shelf. This comment was greeted by knowing smiles from the librarians in the audience! I think that his description of a library as “a treasure chest of serendipity” is just perfect. That feeling of wandering the shelves and discovering new worlds and new friends among the books is what I love most about libraries.

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Salley Vickers movingly described how a children’s book, The Owl Service by Alan Garner, brought her back to reading during a dark and difficult time in her life. She highlighted the social role of libraries commenting that the government could  be saving money on mental health if they invested in libraries. She also asked where better to find out about diversity than in a library? Libraries could be centres where literature and information are used for social benefit. Jacqueline Wilson summed this aspect up excellently with her description of a library as  “a place of refuge and of inspiration.” The library became her place, her home and somewhere that she was able to lose herself completely.

The descriptions of the writing process and the authors’ relationship with their books and their readers were fascinating. Often the author may not consciously be trying to express a particular point and sometimes meaning only really exists once the book is read. We all read in a subtlety different way and a story may be multi layered with different readers taking differing experiences from the book.  Salley Vickers expressesd the view that very good books can convey serious subjects through the imagination not through the mind. Philip Pullman voiced concern that in schools it is now harder for teachers to read aloud to children aloud simply for the joy of it and that often exercises or tests are linked to books read in the classroom. He said perhaps the best way to create a reader was to take a child into a library and allow them to choose. As a school librarian I agree that the freedom to choose reading material is key when encouraging reading for pleasure.

That public libraries are under threat has been well documented in recent years. Although Jacqueline Wilson has visited some wonderful examples of vibrant city centre libraries she also noted that the smaller library once found in every town is disappearing. As Philip Pullman so succinctly described it, “We must have libraries where people are.” If local town centre libraries shut then a mobile library service is even more vital. His own mobile library used by the elderly or young mums with toddlers in pushchairs who are unable to get to the city centre, has been removed. Sadly it appears to be that the places where libraries are needed the most are those where the service is cut.

Perhaps the final word should go to Dame Jacqueline Wilson, former  Children’s Laureate, who said.

”We must put our shoulders behind the campaign to preserve our public libraries.”

The packed theatre audience of library lovers wholeheartedly agreed.

 

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Children’s Books, Choice and Reading for Pleasure.

C8B96B5C-E4B9-4DD5-8703-10466DC019B0Which books do children read? The answer to this question varies according to which source of information you consult. A more pertinent question might be, which books do children choose to read? The announcement this week of the shortlisted books for the Children’s Book Award, the only national award where the titles are chosen entirely by the children themselves, is a very good indicator of which books children enjoy reading. I always find it fascinating to compare the lists for this award with the lists for other awards selected by adults. In the younger readers category in particular, books are often ones with plentiful humour or illustrations or sometimes a combination of the two. This year’s titles, FUNNY KID – STAND UP By Matt Stanton, MR PENGUIN – THE FORTRESS OF SECRETS Written and illustrated by Alex T Smith and THE DOG WHO LOST HIS BARK Written by Eoin Colfer, illustrated by P.J. Lynch are an excellent example of this trend. This is a wonderful selection and particularly so because the children consulted across the country to create this shortlist clearly value these books highly.

Coincidentally, this week an article appeared in TES referring to a recently published report that once again confirmed that  children reading for pleasure has a direct bearing on their attainment.  Everyone who is involved in any way with children’s books has known of this link between reading for pleasure and attainment for some time. However what do we mean by ‘reading for pleasure’? When I read for pleasure it means that I am reading something that I want to read, that I have chosen to read myself.  Children may choose to read a book for a variety of reasons but we know that motivation to read increases their engagement with reading. Therefore their choices are an important part of reading for pleasure. It may not always be a book that an adult considers a challenge or would have selected for the child themselves but children need to feel that their choice is a valid one or they may be deterred from choosing again. Learning how to be a reader involves a child in experimenting with different authors and genres to discover where their own tastes lie. Often primary aged children may choose a picture book, or a highly illustrated young fiction title or maybe a graphic novel. They may also select a book that is linked to a personal interest or hobby.  These are all “proper books”.

A40ACD06-0F16-4246-B0D0-1E68E2047A64As a school librarian I felt sympathy for a child who brought a carefully selected book back to the library the following day saying “Mum says this is too easy for me.” or “ I’ve been told I need a more challenging book.” It is of course possible that the child in question is easily capable of a more challenging book but surely it is preferable to respect their original choice and then nudge them gently towards something considered more appropriate next time. Fifteen years as a primary school librarian have shown me that illustrated books of all types are very popular with children all the way through primary school and beyond. Any concentration on books being ‘too easy’ or ‘too young’  may be linked to the following of reading schemes and levels but once a child is able to read independently they often want to revisit old favourites and read them themselves or simply read for fun. If we persist in describing reading as something that children should do or as something that is good for them in the same way as eating vegetables then we should not be surprised if they do not then see it as fun. If they are allowed to become involved in their reading progress by choosing books they like they are much more likely to feel that they are participating in an active and enjoyable way. The Rights of The Reader poster by Daniel Pennac and illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake summarises excellently the varies ways in which reading can be encouraged.

The books studied in the classroom or read aloud by a class teacher provide an opportunity for the child to experience a book in which the vocabulary or some of the themes may be too tricky for them to handle independently. It is then that their reading experiences can be stretched and guided further by the teacher and librarian working in tandem. Books borrowed from the school or public library or bought by parents provide an opportunity for children to choose for themselves, gain confidence in their ability to select books and develop their own identity as a reader. Perhaps choice could follow a discussion and books could be of varying types and levels of difficulty to widen the range available but nonetheless it is important to remember that children’s own reading choices are a vital part of  both encouraging reading for pleasure and creating true readers and therefore need to be valued.

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The Truth of Things and Lark by Anthony McGowan

The publishers Barrington Stoke are responsible for a wide range of books that are created to be accessible to all readers including those with dyslexia or children and teens sometimes described as reluctant readers. Sometimes “reluctant” readers are simply young people who have not yet found that right book that sets them off on their reading path. What makes Barrington Stoke so successful in what they do is that they select accomplished authors who create stunning, shorter stories that are equally as involving as lengthy novels. Their books are just as likely to appeal to fluent and enthusiastic readers as to their target market.

As a primary school librarian I have tended to concentrate on their books for younger ages but now I have the opportunity to read some of their titles for teens. Lark, the final story in a hard hitting YA series by Anthony McGowan, about brothers Nicky and Kenny was published in January. This was on my wish list but first I wanted to read the three earlier novellas Brock, Pike and Rook now published in one volume as The Truth of Things. So this weekend I started reading… I didn’t stop. Stunning spare writing, realistic characters and stories that are unsentimental but emotionally affecting combine to create an outstanding and unforgettable read.

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When we meet the two brothers their life is hard, their mum has left, their dad is drinking and in trouble with the police and Nicky has to look after his elder brother, Kenny, who is learning disabled from birth. Nicky is also struggling to deal with poverty at home and dealing with bullies at school. One early morning the boys witness the senseless killing of an innocent animal and together the two boys salvage something from this horror and gradually life changes for them in ways that they never expected. The four stories then follow Nicky and Kenny through the coming months and years as they mature and develop and their family situation changes. Despite the bleakness we see how the boys’ father gradually pulls himself back from the brink, how Nicky deals with first love and watch Kenny as he finds courage. The relationship between Nicky and the blunt but very endearing Kenny is at the heart of the storyline and Kenny himself is a wonderful character with his love for his brother, animals, stories and the truth of things.

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Nicky’s voice is a powerful one and as a parent I obviously found this affecting in a different way but Nicky’s character is wonderfully drawn and Anthony McGowan has captured that mixture of awkwardness and bravado of some teenage boys so well. There is a lot of love in these stories. Not the romantic, hearts and flowers, sentimental type but the steady, dependable, practical, often unspoken love found in families that makes all the difference when coping with what may seem like insurmountable difficulties.

 

There is a respect and understanding of nature running through these books that provides the link between both the stories and the themes contained in them. It is partly the care the boys show for living creatures that helps ultimately to save them too. The parallels between the creatures after which the stories are named and the content of them is cleverly written and some of the descriptions of the natural environment and its inhabitants are breathtaking.

So my reading weekend was one of many emotions. There were moments were I gasped aloud, several when I couldn’t stop the tears falling even though I tried and a couple when the hairs on the back of my neck tingled. Incredibly there is also a fair bit of humour underlying almost all the two boys do. I am so glad that I have read these and can now well understand the acclaim they have already received.

All four of these wonderful stories are uncompromising in their use of language and events so these books are part of the Barrington Stoke collection for those aged 13+ . The individual novellas have a reading age of approximately 9 years but the collection of three would require more reading stamina and would therefore be suitable for more confident readers.

Thank you very much to Kirstin Lamb and Barrington Stoke for sending me my copies.

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The Boy Who Flew by Fleur Hitchcock

I loved this thrilling story with a Dickensian feel. The Book Who Flew is brimful of murder, a chilling, sinister villain, rooftop escapes, adventure and a brave hero who has dreams, secrets and a warm heart.

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Athan Wilde and his friend and mentor, Mr Chen, share a secret.  In the heart of the city, in the rooms of Mr Chen’s house, they are working together on creating a flying machine. Athan dreams of soaring over the rooftops and his mysterious friend has the knowledge to turn these dreams into reality. Then one dreadful day the gentle Mr Chen is brutally murdered and Athan, together with his friend Tod, resolve to stop the flying machine from falling into the wrong hands. But their plans  put them both at great risk and gradually Athan’s family are drawn into the mounting danger and Athan faces a dreadful decision. Does he choose his dreams of flight or the family he loves?

There is much to enjoy in this new adventure from Fleur Hitchcock. From the opening pages the reader enters a world of narrow streets, dark buildings, steep rooftops, and poverty but with friendship and family at the heart of Athan’s life.  This world feels both different and realistic and once we are part of it the adventure, and in particular the characters, draw the reader in and the tension mounts to an utterly thrilling and moving climax.

This, I felt, had a real Dickensian feel to it. The city itself, although inspired, I think by Bath, reminded me of Dickens’s London and the distinctive characters such as the sinister Colonel Blade and Athan’s slightly grotesque Grandma all fit perfectly into this world.  The relationship between Athan and his friend Tod and his own family give the story its heart. It is in fact Athan’s love for his family and in particular his frail younger sister, Beatty, that eventually puts his own life at risk. The plot is engrossing and the gradual build up of tension and danger is well done. There are some gruesome events described which those of a sensitive disposition may find a little unsettling but this is a wonderful thriller for children having all the components that keep a reader hooked. By the final third of the book the pace of the story and my growing attachment to the characters resulted in that curious mixture of me wanting to find out what happened but not wanting to say goodbye. It takes a good story to do that! Thank you, Fleur Hitchcock.

Recommended to readers who have enjoyed Peter Bunzl’s or Philip Pullman’s books. The wonderful cover, sadly not on my review copy, is by Ben Mantle. However the little golden paper bird I received with my proof now holds a greater significance and will be carefully treasured.

Thank you very much to Nosy Crow for providing my copy.

 

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Super Readable Children’s Books

Book post from publishers Barrington Stoke is always a treat and February got off to a good start when these two books arrived through my letter box. Both titles have a dyslexia-friendly layout, typeface and paperstock so that even more readers can enjoy them. They have been edited to a reading age of 8.

In my experience as a primary school librarian Barrington Stoke books have a very wide appeal being suitable for young readers who prefer a shorter less daunting looking story. Both these great books reviewed below are excellent examples.

 

Ellie and the Cat by Malorie Blackman illustrated by Matt Robertson

img_2725Ellie has gone to stay with her grandma while her Dad travels abroad on business yet again. She makes it very clear that she does not want to be there at all and her bad behaviour is driving poor grandma mad. Ellie is quite possibly the rudest, most objectionable child Grandma has ever met and eventually Grandma reaches breaking point and decides that it is time that Ellie learned a lesson. It is a lesson that Ellie will never forget.

Malorie Blackman’s comic tale with a gently told moral is a very enjoyable read that will appeal to boys and girls of about 7 or 8 plus. A winning combination of adventure, friendship and a little bit of magic plus engaging illustrations give this a wide appeal. At the start of the story Ellie is, to be frank, a total pain and well deserves the punishment she receives. However her behaviour, although not excusable, is perhaps a little understandable as she feels both unwanted and friendless and confused by the constant moving around. When Grandma teaches Ellie a lesson by swapping Ellie’s body with Jolly her cat Ellie has to work hard to prove that she can be good. Perhaps with the help of some new found friends Ellie will learn to mend her ways.

This lovely story will amuse and entertain children and maybe give them pause for thought too. Published January 2019

Toad Attack by Patrice Lawrence illustrated by Becka Moor

4240A25C-5369-4832-99A2-143B79EF635BAfter a toad lands on his head as he leaves his house one morning, Leo is determined to find out where it has come from and why. When he discovers that his best friend Rosa has also seen a strange flying toad the two of them resolve to come up with some answers before the angry residents of Upper Dab take matters into their own hands and destroy the toads!

What a delight this story is! With teachers named Mr Pringle and Miss Quaver and a chapter titled A Toad Called Twerky it is full of humour that made me chuckle and the adventure has a sense of the ridiculous but with elements of everyday school life that children will recognise and relate to. Becka Moor’s distinctive illustrations add to the fun and this should engage even the most reluctant of readers. Another extremely important aspect of the book is the way in which a number of diverse and inclusive characters are introduced in an understated manner.

The wacky storyline of mysterious flying toads, an inter school garden competition, a bad tempered neighbour with a cat named Nigel and Leo’s family umbrella business combine to create an exciting and humorous story but one with friendship and tolerance at its heart. Another must have for primary school classrooms and libraries. Published March 2019.

Thank you to Kirstin Lamb and Barrington Stoke for providing these review copies.

 

 

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Creating a Primary School Library

“School libraries should be a focal point for a school. In a school library there should be resources to support every aspect of school life: every project, books to support sport, dancing, art, music; and it should also be the place to go for stories and poems. It should be an unmissable, unavoidable place.” Michael Rosen

In an ideal world all schools, including primary schools, should have a thriving school library and a professional librarian to manage it. The Great School Libraries campaign coordinated by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CIILIP) and the School Library Association (SLA) is working hard to ensure that this happens in the near future. We cannot ignore that in the meantime there are many schools, primary in particular, in which staff understand the need for a library and are trying to create one without a full time librarian to run it. It is for those people that I have put together this list of sources of advice, information and resources that, I hope, will be helpful. If, as a newly installed primary Head of Literacy or part time Librarian, you are presented with a dingy corner, containing a small selection of outdated books, and told that the ‘library’ is your responsibility, how can you transform this into an “unmissable, unavoidable place” with limited resources and time?

Stock up

The first step is to assess your stock and discard any unsuitable books. Be ruthless! Although it is tempting to keep all the books, regardless of their age, condition or suitability, this will not create a welcoming and useful school library. Ideally the library should have adequate funding allocated but in reality primary school librarians and teachers have to be draw support from wherever possible. There are grants available from organisations such as the Siobhan Down Trust and the Foyle Foundation.

Perhaps pupils could be invited to donate a new book to start the library? Donated books could include a bookplate with their name on, which gives them a nice feeling of ownership. In order to ensure that the library stocks a wide range of titles to cater for all requirements it is helpful to draw up a wish list for parents to select from.

Book fairs are a good way to obtain free books using commission from sales with Scholastic being the most well known  however it is worth checking to see if there is a smaller independent book fair organiser local to your school who may be able to cater more individually for your needs. The emergence of the Book Buddy scheme devised by author Maz Evans is a new approach to supporting school libraries and the website gives more information on how to get involved in this initiative.

Don’t despair if your book stock looks inadequate at first. Strategically placing books facing forward on shelving or having hardbacks standing up in gaps is attractive and stops the library looking bare.

Schools Library Service

Make use of your local Schools Library Service if you are lucky enough to have one. In addition to providing loan boxes of books for specific subjects and possibly fiction too, the SLS provides the expertise of a professional librarian to subscribers. The School Library Association (SLA) produces excellent guidelines on all aspects of library management from stock selection to library promotion. In addition, members receive a quarterly journal containing helpful advice and book reviews. I have written before about the many benefits of SLA membership.

Book expert

It is vital for someone in charge of a library to be knowledgeable about children’s books, and there are many sources of information to keep you up to date. The Book Trust website has downloadable book lists and Lovereading4kids.co.uk has reviews of the latest books and provides free extracts of some of them. There are other good online review sites such as The Bookbag and Books for Keeps. Get the children involved in book selection and have a suggestion book or box so they can recommend titles. The most important indicator of success for the library is having the support of the headteacher. Make your head aware of the positive outcomes of library use, including the benefits of reading for pleasure on academic attainment. But perhaps the most important thing to remember is to enjoy your school library.

The Primary School Library Guidelines website is a hugely helpful source of information. It has guidance on everything from policy writing and budgets to information skills and involving parents in reading for pleasure initiatives. Although writing a Library Policy and Development Plan may not be top of your to do list I have found that it is an excellent way to organise your ideas and to identify and prioritise your needs and goals. The recently published Priority Paperwork: Policy Making and Development Planning for Primary and Secondary Schools published by the SLA is a useful guide.

In recent years there has been an increase in the number of authors, illustrators and storytellers who are happy to visit schools and the Reading Patron scheme is an excellent way of maximising on the numerous benefits of involving an author in both your library and your school. They may even want to open your newly revamped school library! For more information visit the official website for details: www.patronofreading.co.uk.

Space it out

How much space do you have? If the library is in a corridor or tucked away in the corner of a room, there may not be enough room for a whole class to use it. But careful timetabling of small groups from each year, plus opening at lunch times and before and after school will encourage use. If the library is large enough you will be able to use it as a teaching area. Weekly visits by pupils as part of the English curriculum are a good start, with the option of incorporating research sessions later. Space will dictate your choice of furnishings but the library should be cheerful and welcoming. If possible, display children’s work, book reviews and photos of pupils and staff reading. Many children’s publishers provide free posters, and annual book events such as World Book Day and Children’s Book Week are a good source of display material too. Work with teachers to ensure that the library supports what is being taught in class, with themed book displays changed regularly to attract children’s attention.  There are companies such as Gresswell , BookSpace for Schools  and Incube that offer beautifully designed furniture for children’s libraries but furnishing a library can be expensive. However, it is possible to start small and gradually add more as your budget allows. If you can, it is better to have both a working or study area with tables and chairs as well as a cosy reading corner with comfortable seats, beanbags or cushions. In a confined area spinners are a good way to store books and picture books work well in boxes with wheels.

If you have money to spend…

  • Employ a qualified librarian to manage your library or share a librarian with a local school.
  • A computerised library management system enables efficient running of the school library and maximises its usefulness to teachers. Choose a version specifically for the primary age group.
  • Arrange visits by children’s authors, illustrators, poets or storytellers. This is a hugely effective way of raising the profile of the school library www.contactanauthor.co.uk. https://authorsalouduk.co.uk
  • There are some wonderful library furnishing companies that produce very appealing items such as a Reading Tower or a Picture Book Tunnel that are sure to entice children into the library.

Some dos and don’ts!

  • Don’t try and do it all on your own. The School Library Association’s publications are fantastic and will guide you through all aspects. Membership of the SLA is helpful for all involved in school libraries in any capacity (www.sla.org.uk).
  • Don’t only stock books. Try to have a wide range of reading materials, including magazines, comics, audiobooks and newspapers for children, for example The Phoenix, First News, WRD Magazine, Aquila, The Week Junior. For more information about these magazines and newspaper including links to websites with more information please see my earlier post.
  • Don’t restrict use to reading; offer alternatives such as chess, board games and lunchtime clubs, such as craft sessions, linked to books.
  • Don’t insist on silence, especially during lunch breaks; primary school libraries should be happy, inviting places.
  • Do involve all staff and parents too in the development of the school library. It is important that the library is viewed as a shared resource and a centre that can be used and enjoyed by the entire school community.

 

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Little Bird Flies by Karen McCombie

I loved this book. A wonderful historical novel set in Victorian Scotland, a central character who is both endearing and relatable and a setting brought vividly to life.

It is 1861 on the remote Scottish island of Tornish and crofter’s daughter Birdie lives with her father, two elder sisters and younger brother. Despite the hard life that they live and the death of the children’s mother several years ago. Bridie and her family share a happy life caring for each other and their friends and neighbours. The kindly Laird, who owns the land on which his tenants live and work, is a fair and honourable man with a soft spot for Bridie. However Bridie, or Little Bird as she is known, hides a secret dream, a dream of escape to far away America, a new life and adventure. However this is not to be as her father made a promise to his wife that the family would stay together on the island for ever. A settled and secure life but far from the exciting world of which Bridie dreams.

A sudden tragedy shatters their lives when a new Laird and his family arrive on Tornish and instantly make changes. A cruel man, with an equally unpleasant friend and a wife and daughter who treat the islanders with contempt, his treatment of Bridie’s family has a dramatic impact. Little Bird’s dreams of flying away to adventure are changed in a way she never envisaged when they are all forced to flee from their home in the hope of finding safety elsewhere.

The joy of a well told story is that it is able to transport you to another world and make you feel as though you are part of it. Within a few pages Bridie’s world became real to me and this, I think, is what makes good historical fiction for children so important. It provides a way of viewing those who lived so long ago as people just like us. Bridie is a fabulous character; born with a weakened arm and leg she refuses to let this restrict her in any way and roams her beloved island with her friend Will, climbing high crags and savouring life. She is stubborn but thoughtful, a dreamer but willing to work hard too. Karen McCombie brings this young girl to life for the reader and for a little while we walk with her on her eventful journey. Social history is made relevant, real and exciting for children in this way. The details of Victorian life are fascinating and the marked contrast between the social classes is starkly depicted. Interesting details of daily life and historical content are included without ever slowing the story down or feeling like a lesson.

Bridie misses her beloved mother very much and frequently throughout the book she ponders what her mother would have advised when faced with some of the situations that Little Bird encounters. I found this aspect touching and at times very moving, particularly when Bridie feels as though she is being guided by her mother. There is a lot of love in this story. Love for family, love of home, love for friends and love for those who need help. It also touches on the themes of poverty and forced migration and illustrates that there are situations when people may have little choice other than to flee in search of a safe haven. This book encourages us to care and I think that Karen McCombie’s Little Bird deserves to fly high. A wonderful read and highly recommended for readers of about 9+. This book is the first in a series and I am very much looking forward to revisiting Bridie’s world again soon.

Thank you to Karen McCombie and Nosy Crow for my proof copy. The published book has a striking cover designed by Jasu Hu and features a map by Hannah Horn. All children’s books should have maps, I love them!

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The Boy Who Lived With Dragons by Andy Shepherd illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

Tomas and his dragon Flicker are back in the second in this funny yet warm hearted series for newly independent readers. The wonder of a magical pet is tempered by the everyday problems Tomas and his friends, now with dragons of their own, encounter as they try to keep their fiery team in order. There is never a dull moment in this welcome sequel to one of my highlights of 2018.

Tomas and his friends, Ted, Kai and Kat, now each have magical dragons of their own thanks to the wondrous dragon fruit tree at the the bottom of Tomas’ Grandad’s garden. They are thrilled and love comparing notes on the dragons very different skills. But very quickly they discover that keeping a secret dragon in your bedroom or pocket is not straightforward. Not straightforward at all! None of the dragons are keen on obeying instructions and the resulting mayhem at school and home takes a great deal of effort to hide. Poor Tomas is starting to worry but then things get even trickier when the precious dragon fruit tree starts to look droopy and unwell and Liam, the school bully, begins to behave in a mysterious manner. Matters reach a climax with an extremely eventful school trip to a local farm and mysterious sightings in the build up to the local County Flower and Veg Show.

Just like the The Boy Who Grew Dragons this is a book that makes the reader smile. However it also makes you care. Andy Shepherd has developed her leading character in this sequel and Tomas is shown coping with the moral dilemma of protecting his dragon and loyalty to his friends which results in him not being entirely truthful to his kind Grandad. This aspect is well done and will prompt young readers to think about the situation with care. Grandad himself is a wonderful character, wise, tolerant and with a twinkle in his eye, the perfect Grandad in fact. The exciting drama and the crazy situations are perfect for engaging young readers and I particularly like the way the author has not entirely “got rid” of the parents but just made them realistically distracted. In truth, very distracted but it makes the story work and yet Tomas is still part of a loving family which in part gives this book its heart.

Any review will have to mention the wonderful illustrations by Sara Ogilvie which add so much to this book. I love the eye catching cover as it has great shelf appeal and captures the story well. The line drawings within the book break up the text so that it does not look daunting and they complement the story perfectly.

A lovely book that would be a welcome addition to primary school library and classroom shelves. I was a little late to this sequel and the third book, The Boy Who Flew With Dragons is published on January 10th so another treat in store.

Thank you to Andy and Piccadilly Press for providing my copy.

Andy Shepherd has a wonderful website full of information and entertaining stuff for children including yummy recipes, dragonfruit fact sheets and quizzes.  The range of teaching resources Andy has thoughtfully created for schools is extensive and covers everything from creative writing to art and research to media and these are available to download here.

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2018 – The Highlights of my Reading Year In Children’s Books

2018 has been a yet another wonderful year for children’s books. The increasing range of high quality books available is a joy to children’s book lovers such as me. However not all my favourite reads of the year were published in 2018 so rather than create a ‘best of 2018′ list that would miss out some of my personal favourites that have made this year such a rewarding reading one I want to mention my personal highlights of the last year instead.

The year got off to a wonderful start with Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone. Sky Song is a shining example of why children’s books matter. Courage, kindness, acceptance & hope are wrapped up in a thrilling adventure. My favourite of all this author’s books so far. You can read my full review here.

I love it when a book surprises me and The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day definitely did. This is a different but very satisfying read. The world of science combines with the unbreakable bonds of true family love in a well written story. The parallel timelines work brilliantly in my opinion and the reader is left guessing right until the end. Link to my review and teaching resources here.

Since my teens I have loved historical fiction and Emma Carroll has for the last few years been my favourite author of this genre for children. The ten year old me would have adored her books and I still enjoy them very much. This year we were blessed with two excellent titles to savour. I loved both SkyChasers, set in France during the 18th century with a delightful cast of characters, and Secrets of a Sun King, a cleverly plotted story exploring the Tutankhamen curse and England in the years just after the First World War. Another historical novel I can also recommend is Goose Road by Rowena House set in France in World War 1 and a story of an epic journey made by a young girl in an effort to save her family farm.

As a school librarian I have long been a fan of the publishers Barrington Stoke. They consistently produce high quality books by prestigious and popular authors that are accessible to a wide range of readers. My favourites this year have included Run Wild by Gill Lewis and Race to the Frozen North – The Matthew Henson Story by Catherine Johnson. Tom Palmer’s wonderful Armistice Runner is a definite highlight of the year. It manages to combine the trauma of World War 1, a family dealing with an elderly grandparent with Alzheimer’s and a contemporary heroine in an immensely readable story that has considerable impact.

There were so many other books I read and enjoyed this year including impressive debuts such as Kick By Mitch Johnson and The Explorer, an exciting and thoughtful adventure by award winning author, Katharine Rundell. The continuing rise in the range of fiction available for newly confident readers is very encouraging and I think The Boy Who Grew Dragons by Andy Shepherd is an excellent example of the sort of story that captivates young readers at this crucial stage in their reading development.

Still with historical links one of my favourite reads of the year was Across the Divide by Anne Booth. This is a thoughtful story about family, friendship and finding the courage to speak up for what you believe in. The historical element is movingly portrayed and in this excellent story the author shows young readers that they can make a difference.

the-lost-magicianHowever as the year closes there are three books in particular that, although very different to each other, typify the remarkable range and quality of children’s literature available at present and are my own favourites of the year.
They are, in order of reading: Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo, The Lost Magician by Piers Torday and The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay.

imageAll three of these wonderful books contain characters that I grew to care about, felt that I knew and now remember and think of still, long after I have turned the final pages. That is the magic of children’s fiction, it can make you genuinely care. It also has a knack for conveying and highlighting simple truths and important values that can sometimes get lost in the business of adult lives. Kate DiCamillo, Piers Torday and Hilary McKay speak to children, and to the child within the adult reader, in a way that comforts and reassures as well as entertains. A rare gift indeed and one I greatly appreciate.
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2018 has been an immensely rewarding year reading wise and I am looking forward with great anticipation to see what the coming year will bring.

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