Children’s Books Helping Readers Find Courage

One of my favourite debuts last year was The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson so I was very much looking forward to reading The Light Jar, her second novel, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed by this thoughtful novel about finding courage and friendship in unlikely places.

36535699

In the middle of the night Nate’s mum wakes him and together they drive away in the darkness to a tumbledown cottage in the middle of a forest. When Mum heads off for more supplies, and then doesn’t return, Nate is left alone and afraid. How will he cope? But then Nate discovers comfort can come from the most unexpected of places. He meets a mysterious girl trying to solve the clues of a long forgotten treasure hunt and an old friend reappears from his past too. Will they help Nate find the courage needed to conquer his fears?

Lisa Thompson shows some courage too by tackling the subject of domestic abuse in a book aimed at children of about 10 plus. Yet she conveys the situation with such care and sensitivity for her young readers that this subject is dealt with in an entirely appropriate manner for them.

This is another well plotted story by this author. Readers will enjoy solving the treasure hunt clues alongside Nate and Kitty and the air of mystery surrounding both the characters and the setting should keep children gripped. As the details of Nate’s family history are gradually revealed I grew to care more and more about him. As a Mum I just wanted to give the poor lad a hug. Although, thankfully, most readers will have no experience of his situation Nate is a character they will empathise with and learn from.

As a school librarian I’ve been asked by teachers and occasionally by parents whether I think difficult social issues are appropriate subjects for children’s books for this age group. When they are handled as well as this my answer would be yes. It is just possible that a book like this could offer help to a child in a similar situation and make a vital difference.  Also, reading about such subjects in the safety of the pages of a book is a learning experience for young readers promoting an understanding of and empathy with those with very different lives to their own.

The opening of The Light Jar reminded me in some ways of the lovely picture book, The Snow Lion by Jim Helmore and Richard Jones. In this story Caro and her mother arrive at their new home in darkness. Once inside, the house is white, bare and empty. Caro wishes that she has someone to play with and feels a little lost and small. Then one day she hears a noise and a gentle voice asking to play. She has a new friend and a very special one. The Snow Lion has appeared as if by magic to help Caro learn how to make friends of her own and maybe find the courage she has been hiding inside.

the-snow-lion-9781471162237_hr

Although we are never told why Caro and her mum have moved house both Nate and Caro find courage and friendship in ways that are reassuring to and understood by children. Class teachers may find a study of the differing ways in which these books depict this and the comparisons between the two interesting.

These books have made me wonder if children’s stories act in a similar way to an imaginary friend, being a reassuring guide to young readers, helping, comforting and walking alongside them as needed as they learn about life.

Advertisements
Posted in Book Review | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I’m looking for a book about… Shakespeare for Primary School Children

Shakespeare’s birthday is remembered on 23rd April and this is a good time to introduce primary school children to the Bard.  There are several websites providing resources to enable teachers to produce lessons about some of his greatest plays and I have linked to a couple at the end of this post. However there is also a great selection of books available for children to read themselves that provide a taste of both the man and his work. Here are just three that I think will kindle an interest that can be built on later.

Mr William Shakespeare’s Plays by Marcia Williams

Marcia Williams has written and illustrated numerous books for children and many of these have been re-tellings of classic stories, illustrated in her distinctive cartoon-strip style. In this book she presents seven of Shakespeare’s classic plays, including Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Macbeth and Julius Caesar, in this accessible format. The dialogue boxes include quotes from the plays making this an excellent introduction to the language.  The wonderful illustrations and humour add to the appeal.  This engaging book is the perfect place to start an interest in Shakespeare.

What’s so Special About Shakespeare? by Michael Rosen

The style and format of this biography of Shakespeare by former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, has great child appeal. Presented in clear sections and answering questions such as ‘What was it like to live in Shakespeare’s time?’ plus a helpful timeline, this book encourages children to browse and discover. Sarah Naylor’s illustrations add to the appeal and readers will learn both about Shakespeare’s life and have an introduction to some of his plays including King Lear and The Tempest. This is a book that has been a hit in the school library.

 

The Boy and the Globe by Tony Bradman and Tom Morgan-Jones

Last but not least this lively and enjoyable story published by Barrington Stoke combines fact and fiction wonderfully.

Set in early seventeenth century London where young orphan Toby Cuffe is living on the streets.  In order to survive, the resourceful Toby joins the gang of boys who work for Moll Cut-Purse as thieves. Moll sends Toby to the Globe Theatre to do some pick-pocketing where Toby becomes so engrossed in the play being performed that he forgets about his own safety. Caught by the theatre’s owners Toby meets the writer of the play he has just seen performed, the famous playwright William Shakespeare. Then our young hero is given an opportunity that he had not expected and he rekindles the Bard’s enthusiasm so that together they team up to save the threatened theatre.

There is enough historical detail to give a sense of time and place and yet this exciting story never has the feel of a history lesson. By depicting Shakespeare as a world weary man with writer’s block and a wish to go home to see his family Tony Bradman cleverly brings him to life in a way that children will probably enjoy. The wonderful illustrations by Tom-Morgan-Jones, slightly cartoonish in style, work well with the text too.

This book has the added attraction of funne activities for boys and girls at the end of the story. These include double page spreads of both London and The Globe with items for readers to spot, some Shakespearian insults to try out on your friends and guidance on making your own puppets

All of the books above should be available at good bookshops or your local library. They can be bought online by clicking on the images above.

There are also many websites with resources to help teachers engage children with Shakespeare and his plays. One of the best for the primary age group is Shakespeare Week. Click on the image to visit their website.

Shakespeare Week

James Clements, an educational writer and researcher, has created an extensive website providing units of work for several Shakespeare plays and many downloadable resources. It can be accessed here.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Over the weekend I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, the debut novel by Gail Honeyman. I adored Eleanor and her voice will stay with me for a long time. This is a moving story told with humour and care. It is also a timely reminder, if one were needed, that even the smallest acts of kindness can make a big difference.

E Oliphant cover

When I was a member of a book club whenever anyone recommended an ‘’award winner’’ as our next read I would stifle a groan. There is absolutely no logical reason for this bias of mine. As a school librarian I regularly used award shortlists to help me select library stock and often read and enjoyed them too. Yet my inner child clearly views adult award winning novels as something I ‘’should’’ read rather than something I want to read for pleasure. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine won the 2017 Costa Award for a Debut Novel. It is a worthy winner. It is also, I think, a hugely enjoyable book.

I was instantly hooked from the opening pages and found Eleanor an intriguing and very unusual character. She feels so very real that it is almost a little unnerving. Eleanor leads a solitary life, working in an office all week and retreating to her flat at weekends when, following a pizza from Tesco, she will speak to no-one until she returns to work on Monday morning. A creature of strict habit, including drinking two bottles of vodka over the weekend, she is efficient and diligent but does not interact with her colleagues at all. Gradually the author reveals small details about Eleanor’s past and as a reader I grew to be interested in her back story and to care increasingly for Eleanor’s well-being.  The subject of loneliness, which is more and more often being highlighted as a modern day problem, is tackled with great care and perception.

As the story progresses Eleanor’s timetabled and orderly life starts to unravel and yet at the same time her connections with others start to increase and slowly, so slowly, Eleanor learns to trust and to hope that change may be possible.

I found this a moving, thoughtful and ultimately a hopeful read. Eleanor is at times frankly hilarious. She is an intelligent woman and her observations of social behaviour are spot on. One of the most lovely aspects of the book is the kindness shown by others and watching its effect on Eleanor. It really made me think that when we are out and about in our daily routines we have no idea what others are having to cope with and endure. I will try to remember that next time I get exasperated by trivial things.

School librarians and teachers often stress how important reading and books are in developing empathy in children. Eleanor Oliphant does a pretty good job at doing the same for adults.

This book can be purchased from all good bookshops, borrowed from your local library or bought online

The Reading Agency has a scheme called Reading Well that helps people to understand and manage their health and well-being using helpful reading. This includes providing titles to help those suffering from common mental health problems.

 

Posted in Book Review, Reading, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell is a hugely enjoyable read. Wonderful writing brings a vivid world to life, creating a gripping adventure and convincing characters who develop and grow. This award winning novel combines excitement and quiet thoughtfulness. I loved it and would highly recommend it to young readers.

 

When four children find themselves abandoned in the Amazon Rainforest following an air crash they are forced to pull together as a team in order to survive. Without adult help they must rely on their own limited knowledge and initiative to cope with threats from snakes, piranha, tarantulas and much more besides. The children, Fred who has always found the idea of exploration exciting, prickly and irritable Con and brother and sister Lila and Max gradually learn that they can be braver than they ever imagined.

Katherine Rundell has a gift for creating a world that feels real in her stories and in this book she has drawn on her own personal experiences of the Amazon to do so. This book is packed full of information wrapped up in a very exciting adventure. Readers will learn how important it is to value our environment and to care for it responsibly. Although the story is set many years ago this message definitely has a relevance today and will open children’s eyes to the beauty of the wider world.

The characters are wonderful in their realistic feel, displaying emotions that you would expect such youngsters to feel. Poor snotty little Max is whiny at times, Con gets irritated and angry, Fred makes some mistakes and Lila is so fiercely protective of Max that she may not understand the others attitude to him. As the story progresses these children develop and mature in a manner that young readers will learn much from. There is a sensitivity to the story that runs through all the trials and adventures the children endure.

This is the sort of book that I would have lapped up as a child and even though I’m long past being in the target age group I still loved it. A remarkable story, beautifully told this deserves to be in every school library and classroom.

From a teaching point of view this would work brilliantly as a read-aloud in the classroom and also to link with the topic of the rainforest or conservation. The publishers, Bloomsbury, have kindly created a resource pack for teachers which is freely downloadable here

Katherine Rundell has also featured in an interview talking about the inspiration behind the book.

As a school librarian I have collected a selection of links to websites on the topic of rainforests which may be helpful in the classroom for research projects or to provide more background information linked to The Explorer. Please click on the images below to visit the relevant websites.

Posted in Book Review, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Mum, Books and Me – A Reading Legacy

“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”

                                                      Emilie Buchwald

This is such a well known quote about a child’s reading journey. Book lovers know and understand this. We encourage and promote it. Teachers and librarians pass on this message often and with great commitment. We quote research. We reiterate that reading for pleasure aids academic success. We confirm that reading attainment is positively affected by parental involvement at home in sharing stories and encouraging reading. Usually we concentrate on the academics. But reading is not only about that. Reading is about love. Especially in families. Perhaps we should be concentrating on that a little more.

I honestly can’t remember a time in my life without books, without stories being read to me or me curled up reading to myself or maybe aloud to my younger sister. There are however some landmarks in my reading journey that I remember vividly. When I was very small my mum used to disappear on Saturday mornings to go into town to have her hair done.  She would return on the bus with her shopping bag bulging. I can still remember crouching down on the rug in the hall to peep into the bag. I knew there was treasure hidden in the bottom of the bag. A Ladybird Book. A small hardback piece of magic. My favourite from that time was Mick the Disobedient Puppy, the tale of a naughty black poodle who ultimately saves the day for his owners. My sister has fond memories of Tiptoes the Mischievous Kitten. My mum would read these aloud to us and as time passed we were able to read them ourselves. These little books were a highlight in my week, bought and shared with love and remembered now with nostalgic affection. They were part of the fabric of my family life and not just a tool to help me learn to read better.

When I was a little older, about ten or eleven, my Mum said that she thought I might be ready to read one of her own favourites from childhood. She said 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. Each page was covered in rather dense looking text but there were some beautiful colour illustrations too. 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, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. By the time I’d finished I had decided that when I grew up I was going to start an orphanage or school just like Jo. My Mum smiled wryly when I told her. This was a story shared and loved together.  It was to introduce me to other classic novels and confirmed my experience as a ”reader” that would eventually lead me to seventeen happy years as a school librarian sharing stories with children and passing on the right book at the right time, just as my Mum did for me.

 

Just before Christmas I noticed that there was to be a TV adaptation of Little Women shown over several nights. When I next visited my parents’ home I told Mum all about it. We looked forward to it with eager anticipation and hoped that it would do justice to the book we both had such fond memories of. Since April of 2016 my Mum had been unwell with long periods in hospital and was now bedridden so her world had rather shrunk but she loved conversation, having a giggle and watching her favourite programmes on TV so this was to be, we hoped, a happy Christmas highlight. We were not disappointed. I recorded the episodes so was a little behind her experience of them. When I phoned or visited I begged Mum not to tell me about them until I too had watched them. Then we had a happy half hour after each episode had been watched by both of us dissecting the portrayal of the characters, the suitability of the actors and much more.

Afterwards I said it had made me want to reread the books. Poor Dad was dispatched to search cupboards to retrieve them and after a bit of repair work I carefully took the two volumes home.  The books, Little Women and Good Wives, with my Mum’s signature in the front, were back on my bedside table almost fifty years after they first found their way there. Over the next couple of weeks I reread Little Women and each time I visited my Mum I told her where I was up to in the story. I confided that I now identified much more with Marmee but still thought Jo was a wonderful character. We giggled over Amy and the episode of the pickled limes. We sighed over the fact that any rereading is slightly marred by the knowledge that Laurie will finally end up married to Amy. Why? How? This was much more than just a book that I had once read, it was a shared experience, a conversation about people, life and love.

I hadn’t started my rereading of Good Wives when my Mum became ill again. Life then became too busy and stressful for any reading really. My lovely Mum died in January surrounded by her family and surrounded with love. I still can’t quite bring myself to start rereading Good Wives but I will.

I have a huge number of reasons to be grateful to my dear Mum but right up there high on the list is the way she shared her love of books with me and encouraged my sister and me to read with joy. Reading is about so much more than test scores, academic achievement and success. It’s about living, learning and, of course, about love.

057_01

Posted in Reading | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll

Magpie is an orphan living off her wits as a pickpocket in the back streets of Annonay in France when a chance encounter with a boy dangling from the sky changes her life forever. She goes to the rescue and finds herself afloat too and for the first time ever she forgets about hunger and cold and feels strong, brave and truly alive. By impulsively rushing to help Pierre, Magpie finds herself involved with his family, the Montgolfiers, who are in a race to be the first to invent a flying machine. As events unfold Magpie and Pierre are sucked into a world of danger, spies, duels and royalty.

Sky Chasers cover

Inspired by Neal Jackson’s winning entry to The Big Idea Competition in 2014 this is an exciting adventure full of thrills and intrigue but hope, determination and friendship too. Emma Carroll’s skill as a writer ensures that she makes historical events from more than two hundred years feel fresh and relevant to today’s young readers.

Set in 18th Century France at the time of Louis XVI this enthralling story has a simply wonderful cast of characters, both human and animal.  Magpie and her pet rooster, Coco and Pierre and his much loved duck, Voltaire, are endearing and entertaining and their developing friendship and growing trust is well written and believable. I love Magpie. She is intelligent, resourceful, brave and despite her background kind and caring too.  As the story progresses the way in which Magpie quietly observes and learns from things around her means that the reader accompanies her as she discovers scientific details that will help in the family’s quest to be the first to soar into the sky. This is a fabulous way of incorporating science into children’s fiction and readers will learn the basics of flight without realising it.  There is a wonderful baddie too and she and the clever plotting and secrets gradually revealed add to the suspense.

The author’s attention to historical detail, as ever, is great and the book brings to life a period of history that today’s children probably know little about.  The inclusion of Marie Antoinette is brilliantly and amusingly done. I think this story would encourage children to find out more about the period, an added bonus of good historical fiction for this age group.

Emma Carroll incorporates the underlying themes of loyalty and a sense of belonging with care and this is a thoughtful read in addition to an exciting one. This is a must have for primary school libraries and classrooms, ticking all the boxes.  For various reasons I had been suffering from a bit of a reading slump and this book, although for children, engaged me and got me back on track so I’m grateful to Emma for that too.  This is a great book for ages 8 – 80.

Last but definitely not least a word of thanks to David Litchfield for the fabulous cover which captures the spirit of the story so well.

Sky Chasers is available to buy in your local bookshop or online. My lovely local library has a copy and I hope that yours does too.

Another fabulous historical novel by Emma, this time set in World War Two, is Letters from the Lighthouse which I have reviewed here

 

Posted in Book Review, Reading, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Here We Are – Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers’ latest picture book is a tender guide written to his newborn son to help him make sense of the world around him. This lovely book is also a short but thoughtful essay on what makes our global community work and would be treasured by older children and adults too.

image

Being a brand new parent can feel very daunting. That moment when you arrive home from hospital with a tiny scrap of humanity for whom you have total responsibility is overwhelming. This little person is on a voyage of discovery with you as the guide. Becoming a new father prompted author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers to create a manual for his baby boy that would answer some of his questions and start the little chap on his journey. His thoughtful guide is full of kindness, humour and wisdom which make this lovely book something to treasure. It would be a beautiful gift for new babies and new parents.

The opening pages start in space and we then zoom in to planet earth, which looks rather small and vulnerable. But then our tour of the planet begins and we see how beautiful and precious earth is, from the mountains (with pointy bits) and hills (bumpy bits) to the sea full of wonderful things and then back out to the sky which is blue (sometimes) and the stars and constellations. The illustrations that accompany the tour are full of fascinating detail. We learn about people and that one people is a person and more importantly that although people come in many shapes, sizes and colours and may look very different they are all still people. The fabulous double page spread that accompanies this message is worth spending some considerable time over. The diversity is wonderful, from a nun to a sumo wrestler, from a gay wedding to a woman in a burqua, from a boy in a wheelchair to the queen, this is a celebration of differences.

image

An equally lovely double page spread depicts the world of animals of every type with the words: “They can’t speak, though that’s no reason not to be nice to them.” Oliver Jeffers advises his son that he will learn language and an understanding of lots of things and then it will be his turn to pass on knowledge himself. Meanwhile he must remember that time often goes quickly, he should look after planet earth and most importantly of all remember to be kind. If he still has questions there are many, many people he can ask.  The book ends with the positive feeling of us all being part of an understanding, global community. In our present troubled world this is a moving and thought provoking message.

I loved this book and think it is a must have for primary schools as in addition to being a beautiful book to share read aloud it would prompt interesting discussion among older children too. It is one of those rather special picture books that resonates with adults too.

This stunning hardback version is available to buy Online or at any good bookshop.

You may like to watch the lovely official trailer

Oliver Jeffers has written and illustrated many picture books and if you would like to try one that is completely different to Here We Are I would recommend This Moose Belongs To Me 

Posted in Book Review | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tried and Tested Magazines and Newspapers for Primary Schools

 

When encouraging children to read for pleasure it is important to remember that they should be able to choose their reading material whenever possible. This choice may not always be the latest award winning novel but perhaps a magazine, comic or newspaper. Good school libraries always have several of these available for pupils as they can be the key that opens the door to the world of reading. The following suggestions have all been enjoyed, shared and valued by children in my care as a school librarian. I am passing on their details in the hope that they will be equally successful in your school library or classroom.

WRD Magazine

image

WRD is a magazine all about books for children between 8 and 14 years old. Originally known as tBkmag, but rebranded as WRD in 2013, it is wonderful for keeping up to date with children’s books. It is full of extracts from the latest books, author Q&As plus loads of assorted features and activities. I used this in the library frequently to help give pupils a taste of books or authors that may be new to them. A couple of extracts read aloud often encouraged children to be more adventurous in their reading choices and it is extremely helpful for librarians and teachers alike. Sometimes it provided reading material for those who had left their reading book at home too!

From 2018 WRD will be published three times each year in March, July and October. It is available singly (from£45 per year)  or in packs of four for schools (from £49.50)  so can be distributed around classrooms if required. I would highly recommend this. More details are available on their website here.

The Week Junior 

image

The Week Junior Magazine was launched in 2015 and is aimed at children aged between 8 and 14. This is designed to help children to understand current affairs and the world around them. 

It is packed with news on a wide range of diverse topics covering everything from nature, the environment and  science to politics, sport and technology. It also includes reviews of books, films, video games and apps. The information is presented in a very child friendly way but provides valuable information too. The weekly debate page is invaluable for sparking class discussion and I loved sharing this with children in the library.

Weekly issues cost £1.20 in the shops but special subscriptions for schools are available from £53.33 for one issue per week. More information is on the official website.

Storytime Magazine

image

This monthly magazine is fabulous for younger children. Each month, Storytime magazine is packed with wonderful stories for children including fairy tales, myths, fables, stories from different cultures and tales from new authors. Accompanied by bright and cheerful illustrations and puzzles, games and activities this is a very appealing package. Perfect for reading aloud sessions in KS1 and lower KS2 this is a useful resource for teachers and the publishers have now created a range of teaching resources to accompany the magazine. There are more details of these and the various subscriptions available to schools on the website.

Anorak Magazine 

image

Anorak Magazine, published quarterly and known as  the ‘happy mag for kids’ is aimed at boys and girls aged between 6 and 12 years old. Published on recycled paper this has a subtly different look to other magazines for this age group. I think this is a refreshing change and children appeared to think so too.

Each issue has a theme (inspired by the British National Curriculum) to inspire and encourage children to tap into their natural creativity and learn while having fun. Every edition has plenty of beautifully illustrated stories, games and activities to inspire and encourage. A one year subscription costs £25. If you would like to find out more visit the website.

Discovery Box 

imageFirst published in 1996 this educational magazine for children aged 9-12 includes a wide range of subjects including nature, science and history. Animal topics are presented through spectacular photos and informative facts. Important historical events are retold in story format and in a lively and engaging way and science articles present the great innovations and inventions using clear explanations and captioned pictures.  There are comic-strips, DIY activities, games, quizzes, recipes, pet care, and competitions to attract and engage. I think this is more suitable for young readers who may be put off by a lot of dense text.

Ten issues a year cost £50 and can be ordered via the website.

Aquila Magazine

image

This long standing  monthly magazine needs no introduction. Described as “the ultimate intelligent read for inquisitive kids” it is full of interesting articles and challenging puzzles that will get the whole family involved, every issue covers science, history and general knowledge. AQUILA is beautifully illustrated throughout with contemporary artwork.

Despite the increase in competitors Aquila remains a valuable addition to the primary school library or classroom. The content complements what children are being taught and can inspire them to discover more. The topics covered can link together what children are learning in maths, science, history and English. The magazine was originally conceived with the aim of challenging the gifted and more able child and it continues to do so.  Details of subscriptions and multi-buy savings are available on the website.

First News

imageHugely popular and widely used in schools this award winning weekly newspaper for children is aimed at 7 to 14-year-olds and encourages them to read about the news in an easy to understand and non-threatening way.

It cover issues which are relevant to children and which specifically affect them. There is  a mix of world news and UK news, but also loads of fun stuff, such as entertainment, games, animals, sport and puzzles. The editorial team try to provide a balance of happy, positive stories together with the more hard hitting items in the international news.

There are a range of subscriptions available for schools on the website.

The Phoenix Comic

The phoenixLast but not least is this brilliant weekly comic. As soon as the first copy arrived in the school library I knew I was on to a winner. The Phoenix is a weekly comic with high quality content and no 3rd party adverts that is suitable for girls and boys aged 6-12.

I have a soft spot for this great magazine as I have on several occasions spotted children, who are normally reluctant to read, curled up in the library engrossed in this. It engages through a mixture of stories, information and humour all conveyed with wonderful illustrations. This is a valuable addition to every primary school library and would be useful in the classroom too. It has also inspired children I have worked with to create their own comics too. It is fabulous.

To find out more visit their official website.

Perhaps one of these magazines will encourage your children to read for pleasure. I do hope so.

 

 

Posted in Reading | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

 

I savoured every moment of this first stand-alone novel by one of my favourite children’s authors.   This book typifies why children’s books matter. Every page is full of courage, kindness, acceptance and hope wrapped up in a thrilling adventure. This is a very special story for children of all ages and one that I believe will stand the test of time.

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.

‘’I think gentleness is a mighty word because you have to be strong of heart to be kind’’

Eska

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.

‘’I don’t think people stop evil by staying hidden. I think they stop it by standing out.’’

Flint

Lastly this is a book bursting full of hope in dark times. In the book’s acknowledgements Abi Elphinstone has written about the personal background to this story. Her own experiences have added much to this special book.  When I started to read this story I was feeling a little downhearted and worried and though I will never have to battle with wolves or defeat an Ice Queen as I turned the last page my heart felt lighter and I felt able to face challenges with more optimism. A children’s book had worked its magic.

Thank you very much to Abi and her publishers, Simon and Schuster, for sending me this review copy.

Scheme of Work linked to Sky Song

Abi Elphinstone, a former teacher, has generously created a scheme of work that teachers may use with pupils aged 8 – 12 linked to the book. This covers many different aspects of the story including the life of Innuits, research projects on Kazakh Eagle Hunters & climate change to language analysis tasks, PSHE links & tips on crafting dialogue. It is freely available to download from Abi’s website

Background

The wonderful character of Eska is based on a Mongolian Eagle huntress named Aisholpan. Abi visited Mongolia when carrying out research for the book and you can read more about their adventures on Abi’s blog

In 2016 a documentary was produced about Aisholpan and you can read a fascinating article from the Guardian containing a link to the film’s trailer here

The stunning book cover illustrated by Daniela Terrazzini and designed by Jenny Richards deserves a special mention as it is just perfect and captures the spirit of the story beautifully.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Highlights of My Reading Year in Children’s Books

2017 has been a 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 2017 so rather than create a ‘best of 2017’ list that would miss out some of my personal favourites that have made this year such a happy reading one I want to mention my personal highlights of the last year instead.

The Secret of Nightingale Wood

image

Oh how I loved this wonderful story. A very accomplished debut by Lucy Strange this is beautifully written, poignant, and utterly captivating. A perfect book for bookworms.

Set in 1919 the Abbott family move to the country after a tragedy that has deeply affected them all. Henrietta, or Henry as she is known, discovers that their new home is full of secrets and finds herself drawn to the mysterious wood at the bottom of the garden where she meets Moth. A woman with secrets of her own.

This story will stay with me for a long time, it’s ages since I’ve read a book that made me feel as though I was 12 years old again but Lucy Strange managed to do just that. She has captured perfectly that creeping anxiety that children experience when they know something is seriously wrong but are excluded from conversations and kept in the dark. This feeling is magnified by the grief that envelops the whole family. Despite the themes of loss, mental health and the effects of war this is a story brimming with hope and in Henry a great deal of courage too. She is such a wonderful character teetering on the edge but determined to cope. I loved her relationship with her baby sister as it felt so genuine. Fabulous characters, all of them, with truly sinister baddies who are chilling without becoming unbelievable.

There May Be a Castle

imageIt is hard for me to review this wonderful book by Piers Torday.  I simply could not stop reading. Deceptively simple at first this became an overwhelming read that kept me up late at night as I had to finish it. The story and the characters, particularly Mouse, have stayed with me and I’ve a feeling they will continue to do so. This remarkable book is multi-layered and leaves the reader pondering the many different ideas it contains.

I’m reluctant to describe the scenario, although this has been done elsewhere, I believe that the impact of this book is partly due to the unexpectedness of its themes. I think the reader’s response will be affected by so many things including mood when reading it, previous experience and attitudes. It is, I think, an extremely moving and almost heartbreaking read and yet there is hope within its pages too. It is about families, love, bravery, loss and growing up. At its heart it is really also about the importance of stories. Discussions could be wide ranging after reading this but I wonder if it’s best left as a personal read. However I find myself wanting to share it with others and talk about it. Even as I read it I wanted to ask others for reassurance. As it dawned on me what was happening and what I feared may happen next I struggled with desperately wanting to find out but being full of trepidation too. Never have I wanted so much to peep at the last page to find out if all ended well.

There’s so much more to say about this book but quite honestly I don’t know where to start. But I loved it very much.

The Island at the End of Everything

imageEvery so often you come across a book that is special. This is definitely one of those books. Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s gorgeous writing style is so evocative of both time and place that I felt transported to another world. Utterly engrossing I found myself glancing up and being slightly surprised that the real world was carrying on around me.

In Ami the author has created an unforgettable character that as a reader you grow to care about very much. Although there is much sadness in the story there is also love and courage and perhaps most importantly, hope. The ending is beautifully perfect.

Although set in the early 20th century this has a resonance today. The discussion of how fear can create hatred and how the two can cause such damage has a horrible familiarity. However the importance of friendship and love shines throughout the story and it is ultimately a hopeful read.

Truly a gem of a book for all ages.

A Story Like the Wind

image

A small group of people huddle together in a tiny boat in a large sea. Strangers to each other but united by a common experience. They have each lost everything and yet each has a dream of seeking and finding refuge. They each have hope. A small hope.

Thirteen-year old Rami has lost his family and is alone on the boat save for his beloved violin. As his fellow travellers share their stories and offer to share their meagre possessions and food with Rami he declines as he believes that he has nothing to share with them in return. However Rami is wrong. As he tells the others that his violin means everything to him and they ask him to show them why he realises that what he can share with them is the power of music and story to heal and to offer hope.

Gill Lewis was inspired to write this story by a photo of a young Syrian playing his violin in front of a barricade of riot police at a border control. It is this and the knowledge of the young refugees who have lost their lives in similar circumstances whilst trying to reach a better life that adds to the heart-breaking poignancy of this story. And yet this is not a story of despair. There is a quiet dignity about the refugees as they cling to their dream of freedom despite their circumstances. The link to the traditional Mongolian fable about the origins of the horsehead violin is beautifully executed and the two stories intertwine both in the text and the illustrations. The traditional tale of a boy and his much loved stallion is one of courage, freedom and standing up against oppressors and thus mirrors in some ways the refugees’ stories.

The illustrations by Jo Weaver are haunting and perfectly complement the text. Amnesty International has endorsed this book and this is hardly surprising as it eloquently celebrates our common humanity and nurtures the values of kindness, compassion and tolerance. As an adult I found this a compassionate and very moving read and yet I would highly recommend it as an excellent children’s book for confident readers. The subject is handled with care and thoughtfulness and there is much to celebrate within the book despite the sadness. 

The Night Spinner (Dreamsnatcher 3)

imageThe final, and in my opinion the best, book in the Dream Snatcher trilogy by Abi Elphinstone opens with Moll and Gryff back in Tanglefern Forest about to embark on their quest to find the last Amulet of Truth and defeat the terrible Shadowmasks and their dark magic once and for all. Their adventure begins with a night time journey by train to the far north where Moll and her friends must brave the barren northern wilderness, scale mountainous peaks, defeat goblins, bog-monsters, witches and giants while the sinister and evil Shadowmasks lurk unseen but always present. All the time Moll clings to the faint hope that her friend Alfie is not lost to them for ever.

Having followed Moll and her friends from the start I loved how much the characters have developed in this final story. Moll is a hero for today’s generation being brave, determined, resilient and loyal and, now she has matured, able, usually, to curb her impatience and impetuous behaviour when needed. Throughout the story the reader becomes aware of her thoughtfulness and kindness too. Her friend Siddy is now a much braver soul now but is still drawn to pets with a difference, this time a ferret called Frank who adds a touch of humour to the story. The central partnership of Moll and Gryff is key to the series and I know many young readers are particularly drawn to the wildcat. I thought some of the new characters had a striking impact too, in particular Kittlerumpit and Bruce.

Abi Elphinstone has again created a world that feels very real to the reader and this time the landscape is inspired by her native Scotland. The vivid descriptions convey a sense of scale and once again this highlights the enormity of the task facing the children. The map by Thomas Flintham at the beginning of the book is a lovely touch and enables the reader to follow the children’s trek and adds to the feeling of being part of Moll’s world. There is a lovely slightly traditional feel to this story despite its setting in a magical world. At times it is scary but never too scary for its intended audience and children will be united in their wish to see their heroes beat the baddies.

In addition to being a brilliant adventure story for children this is also a story that children can learn much from. It is a wonderful example of the importance of friendship and loyalty but most importantly of never giving up hope. That is, I think, a valuable message for children. I am quite sad to say goodbye to Moll and her tribe of friends.

Letters from the Lighthouse

image

I do so love the way Emma Carroll writes historical fiction as it takes me back to my favourite childhood stories.

It is February 1941 and a bomb blast takes place in London. Afterwards Olive can remember little about the night her elder sister went missing. Olive’s mother decides that the city is no longer safe for her children so Olive and her younger brother, Cliff, are evacuated to coastal Devon. Once there they eventually find themselves staying with the mysterious lighthouse keeper.

At first Olive struggles with life in the country and sadly makes an enemy of the challenging Esther. In addition to coping with the changes to her circumstances Olive is determined to solve the mystery and secrets linked to the disappearance of her sister, Sukie. She soon becomes drawn into a dramatic and exciting adventure which keeps the reader guessing. Once again the author has created believable characters that a reader can engage with. Olive is a likeable heroine who copes remarkably well with her situation showing a maturity and kindness that readers can learn much from. I found Queenie intriguing too and liked her rather spiky attitude. It is Esther, though, whose story has the most impact. I’m reluctant to give away too much of the plot but one of the major strengths of this book is the way in which through Esther readers can empathise with people today who are suffering prejudice in similar ways to Esther and her family. Emma Carroll writes about weighty issues including grief and loss with a warmth and kindness that is appropriate for her intended audience.

This is children’s historical fiction at its best, a gripping adventure with believable characters and events that have a resonance today. A wonderful book and highly recommended.

The Goldfish Boy

image

Twelve-year-old Matthew is trapped in his bedroom by crippling OCD, spending most of his time staring out of his window as the inhabitants of Chestnut Close go about their business.

That is, until the day he is the last person to see his next door neighbour’s toddler, Teddy, before he goes missing.

Now Matthew must turn detective and unravel the mystery of Teddy’s disappearance – with a little help from a surprising and brilliant cast of supporting characters.

When I first picked up this book by Lisa Thompson I  knew nothing about it but this has become one of my favourite reads of the year because it combines an engaging and well plotted mystery with a character I grew to care about very much. This is a wonderful story for highlighting to young readers the importance of accepting those who for whatever reason may be a little ‘different’.  Matthew learns to confront his fears in a way which is believable, heart-breaking and courageous.

This would prompt thoughtful discussion in schools and may be a lifeline for children in a similar situation to Matthew.

Wed Wabbit

image

I just managed to fit this in before Christmas and absolutely loved it.  It is an original, inventive and hugely enjoyable read.

Ten year old Fidge and her cousin, the ghastly Graham, find themselves stuck in a world filled with Wimbly Woos ruled by the tyrannical Wed Wabbit. She must solve a series of difficult clues to return home to her mum and little sister  Minnie. The whole situation is appalling and worse still it is her own fault. However if anyone can cope in this situation it is the practical and down to earth Fidge. I know this plot sounds crazy and yes it is but it works brilliantly.

Somehow Lissa Evans manages to make this story both hilarious and extremely moving. This is an exciting adventure which I read in one sitting and yet it is full of wisdom and heart too. Wed Wabbit is shortlisted for both the Costa and Blue Peter Awards and I can understand why. I think this would engage the most reluctant of readers.

All of these brilliant books can be bought online by clicking on the titles above. They are also available to borrow from your local libraries.

Happy reading!

Posted in Book Review, Reading | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment