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 baddy, 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 Captain 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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Book Advent – Children’s Books for Christmas Week 1

The Dog That Saved Christmas by Nicola Davies illustrated by Mike Byrne 

Award winning author Nicola Davies tells this story, of a boy for whom Christmas is a strain rather than a joy and the dog that helps him to learn to cope, with sympathy and gentle humour. A Christmas story with a difference but still celebrating what Christmas is all about.

The Dog Who Saved Christmas

Each year Jake struggles with Christmas. He prefers his life to consist of a regular routine and at home his family adapt to help him learn to cope. His bedroom is an oasis of ordered calm where he feels safe and secure. School has the structure of a timetable that Jake knows and understands and the corridors and rooms with their familiar colours are soothing to him. However as Christmas grows nearer this regular routine both at home and at school is disrupted. Jake’s logical approach to life means that he struggles to cope with the fact that his Mum and Dad want a tree inside the house and the flashing lights and increased noise cause him stress. He decides that he will try to turn back time to prevent the arrival of Christmas. Then, when a new teacher at school does not understand his needs it all becomes too much for Jake to bear any longer. However it is then that Jake meets a little lost dog who may just be able to turn his life around.

Although it is never explicitly mentioned in the text it is clear to an adult reader that Jake has autistic spectrum disorder and Nicola Davies has handled this beautifully and in a way that young readers will be able to relate to and understand. His misunderstanding of words and phrases due to his literal attitude and his distress caused by sensory over-stimulation are described with care. This should also be comforting to children who feel similarly to Jake. There is kindness all around Jake even though he himself finds it difficult to understand other  people’s emotions. His parents are kind and patient, his teenage brother displays a gentle concern and the teacher assigned to Jake explains things to him and encourages him in his school work. The growing bond between Jake and Susan, the dog that he befriends gradually gives him the reassurance and confidence he so badly needs and this story has the happy ending that readers need and will be hoping for.

This is a lovely book highlighting that Christmas can be stressful and a struggle for some but also celebrates the true meaning of what Christmas is all about and how it can be found in everyday life. Part of the highly readable collection of books published by Barrington Stoke this would be enjoyed by readers aged about 8+ and is particularly suitable for struggling, dyslexic or reluctant readers. I also think that it would be a good read aloud story for younger readers being a quick read but a very satisfying one.

Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

Kate DiCamillo is an author who can break your heart but always provides her readers with hope. In this utterly beautiful picture book she teams up again with Bagram Ibatoulline who illustrated her popular children’s book, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. This is quite possibly the perfect pairing to create a Christmas book that will touch the hearts of its readers.

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It is just before Christmas when an organ grinder and monkey appear on the street corner outside Frances’s apartment. Frances can see them from her window and, sometimes, when it’s quiet, she can hear their music. In fact, Frances can’t stop thinking about them, especially after she sees the man and his monkey sleeping outside on the cold street at midnight. Frances grows increasingly concerned about them and asks her mother if they can be invited in for dinner. Her mother, caught up in the frantic pre- Christmas preparations, says no. DiCamillo invites the reader to view the situation through the eyes of the child and Frances’s gradual realisation of the predicament of others not as blessed as her is very touching. Eventually when the day of the Christmas pageant arrives, Frances takes matters into her own hands with the result that for Christmas at least the organ grinder will find some happiness.

629205_3_excThis stunning picture book has a very nostalgic feel to it, set in the US possibly in the 1940s with an absent father, shown in uniform in a photo, maybe away in the war. The illustrations with the old fashioned cars, the lights twinkling from shop windows, the fashions and the ankle deep snow take me back to old Hollywood  films I watched in my childhood at Christmas time. There is a reassuring solidity about the scenes and the organ grinder’s sadness contrasts sharply with this. The lighting in the wonderful illustrations is stunning with Frances tiptoeing down stairs with her touch, the night time street scene and the opening of the door into the church all bathed in a golden glow.

Thanks to Frances, the organ grinder and his monkey will experience  joy at Christmas and the happy closing scene is reassuring for children. However we are left with questions about the future of these characters and thoughts about our attitude to strangers especially those less fortunate than ourselves. It is through a small child that joy is spread in this gorgeous picture book, an appropriate and thought provoking message at Christmas time.

 

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The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay

A wonderful story, characters you grow to love, a plot that carries you along with families as they grow from young children to adulthood set against the backdrop of a terrible war that affected so many, this is a book that I will remember for a very long time.

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Set at the start of the twentieth century we follow the lives of  Clarry and her older brother Peter. Neglected by their widowed father who shows neither love nor any interest in his children, their lives are lifted by their summers in Cornwall. There they stay with their grandparents and spend time with their adored charismatic cousin, Rupert. But normal life resumes each September with boarding school for Peter and Rupert, and a boring life for Clarry at home with her absent father, as the shadow of a terrible war looms ever closer.

As a school librarian  I used to advise children who were having difficulty choosing a book to try the first page test. If they sat down with a selection of books they should then read the first page of each and then take home the one that they most wanted to turn the page and read on. Skylarks’ War has possibly the best first page I’ve read for years and I instantly wanted to find out more. Hilary McKay’s flowing and highly readable style conjures up images of both people and places beautifully. It is Clarry, whose full name, Clarissa so aptly means ”clear and bright”, who is the warm heart of this story. Despite the lack of love from her father she is steadfastly kind, thoughtful and cheery. This description makes her sound too good to be true but it never feels like that. Clarry is the sort of person the reader would love as a friend or sister and as the story progresses and she matures and develops it feels both real and engaging.

As a reader you immerse yourself in the childhood adventures of their sunny summers in the sad knowledge that world war and tragedy loom ever closer to the characters we have grown to care about. The departure of the much loved Rupert to the front affects everyone in his circle including Clarry, Peter and their friends Simon and Vanessa. The contrast between the childhood adventures and Rupert’s life in the trenches is dramatic and shocking and Hilary McKay does not shy away from descriptions of the effects of war on those involved. Clarry, still a child when Rupert departs, experiences a gradual realisation of the impact of war on both those fighting and those at home and this is portrayed with compassion allowing young readers to learn with her. All of the young people in the story are deeply affected by the war to varying degrees but by following them to adulthood we see the existence of hope despite the heartbreak.

Another thoughtful aspect of the story is the way in which Clarry is gradually offered both an education and encouragement to embrace the possibility of a future other than that expected by her father. The links to the suffrage movement at the time and the impact of the war on the role of women is deftly included in the plot in a natural manner. There are also moments of wry humour between Clarry and the wonderful Mrs. Morgan.

Hilary McKay has created a story and characters that will, I think, stand the test of time. It is rare nowadays for children’s books to deal with such a long time span and to allow characters to grow up but this is done so beautifully I believe readers will appreciate the chance to learn and grow with Clarry, her brother and their friends.

I love this book, a beautifully told story of friendship, love, loyalty, heartbreak and hope this is now a contender for my favourite children’s book of the year. Skylarks’ War has  the feel of a classic family saga and yet it also conveys thoughts and dreams that today’s young readers will both engage with and learn from. Gorgeous and highly recommended.

 

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The S.L.A. Information Book Award – a celebration of nonfiction for children

The eighth School Library Association Information Book Award ceremony took place at Carmelite House London, the home of Hachette Children’s Publishers on Wednesday 7th November. This annual event shines a light on the very best information books for children from the youngest readers to secondary pupils.

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A few years ago when as a school librarian I bought factual books for the primary school library I was often asked why, ”when everything is on the internet now.” It has been fascinating to watch how children’s authors, illustrators and publishers have fought back against this trend and made today’s nonfiction books for children so engaging, informative and attractive. That ‘Facts Matter’ has been brought home to us all over the last couple of years and well written information books can be relied upon to provide children with facts they need on many different aspects of life.  This year’s wonderful shortlist contained books that dealt with wide ranging subjects including deafness, food, refugees, prejudice, science and dinosaurs. The judges had the unenviable task of selecting one winner in each category and an overall winner. There was also a children’s award winner for each age group and an overall winner.

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For the Information Book Award 2018, the overall winner chosen by the judges was Look I’m a Scientist published by Dorling Kindersley; whilst the Children’s Choice overall winner was 100 Things You Should Know About Food published by Usborne and illustrated by Parko Polo and Mariani Federico

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More about the winners in each age group category and further details of the background to the award can be found here 

 

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It was heartening to attend an event where nonfiction books were celebrated with the enthusiasm and importance usually seen at fiction award ceremonies. All reading, both of fiction and non-fiction, is valuable and is how young readers are encouraged and created. The most important factor is that children are enjoying what they are reading and for many it is information books about a favourite subject that opens the door to the world of reading and the wide range of books available to them. As a former primary school librarian I believe that fiction and nonfiction work in tandem as a means to enable young people to learn about the world around them. Often a well written novel will prompt a child to try to find out more about a particular historical event, a far away country or a situation they have not experienced. It is then that a high quality factual book can fill in the gaps in their knowledge. At last night’s ceremony the author Nicola Morgan said that both fiction and nonfiction contain truths about our world that enable children and teens to learn more both about themselves and others. As librarians and teachers we frequently talk about how fiction encourages empathy but it is nonfiction that provides young people with the facts that support them in the use of empathy in today’s world.

I have watched children poring over information books together at lunchtime in the library and then sharing what they have learned with others. Sometimes an eager child would rush up to me clutching a book to say, “Mrs. T. Did you know….?”  That is the magic of an information book, that sudden spark of interest and understanding that with help could grow to become knowledge used to create, solve or assist.

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A highlight of the evening on Wednesday was the presentation of the Hachette Children’s Group Award for Outstanding Contribution to Information Books to Nicola Morgan. Nicola’s books have been influential in helping children and teenagers learn how to cope with mental health issues and stress. Her work is greatly valued by secondary school librarians across the country. That this particular author received this award is an indication of how very important information books are to young people and not only for finding out facts but also for learning about themselves.

Information books provide children with a window to the wider world but also an insight into themselves and others. Definitely a cause for celebration.

This month is National Nonfiction November and if you would like to find out more the Federation of Children’s Book Groups have lots of details and resources on their website.

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The Carnegie Award Nominations – a quick look at the list

The nominations have been announced for two prestigious literary awards. The CILIP Carnegie Medal is awarded for an outstanding book written for children and young people and the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal is awarded for distinguished illustration. This year, 254 books have been nominated for the 2019 Medals; 137 books for the CILIP Carnegie Medal and 117 for the Kate Greenaway Medal. This year, in addition to CILIP members, those able to nominate included bodies such as, BookTrust, CLPE, Commonword, IBBY, Inclusive Minds, National Literacy Trust and RNIB.

Following controversy last year over the lack of BAME authors on the long lists a review was carried out by CILIP and an action plan implemented which included enhanced diversity training for the judges and an equality, diversity and inclusion advisory panel to support and advise on the Awards process. Initial reactions to the nominations would suggest, I think, that some progress has been made regarding this and there are also titles that are English translations.

The Carnegie Nominations

Each year I find that I have read more of the Greenaway list than the Carnegie. As a primary school librarian I have always tended to concentrate on picture books, younger and middle grade fiction and out of habit and sometimes preference that is what I continue to do. Therefore my assessment of the nomination lists will reflect that. It is wonderful to see such a wide range of titles nominated for the Carnegie this year and there are several that I have read and enjoyed very much. There are also many that I am now determined to move up my enormous reading pile to find out why they are highly regarded by others.

The full list can be viewed on the official website. Here is just a quick taste of some of my favourite books, not based on any judging criteria, but on my own enjoyment.

Moonrise by Sarah Crossan

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Having said that I concentrate on middle grade fiction Sarah Crossan is a YA author that I always make an exception for. For me, she makes poetry accessible for all and her wonderful books always have an impact on the reader. I simply could not stop reading this until I finished it and read the book in one sitting. It is a remarkable, important and deeply affecting story.  If you read it I have a feeling you will never forget it. The story is a poignant examination of the death penalty and leaves the reader deeply affected by the loss and trauma experienced by the two brothers, Ed and Joe, around whom the story centres. If I was a betting type I would put money on Moonrise making it to the shortlist.

The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day by Christopher Edge

IMG_20180523_161915I love it when a book surprises me and this 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.

The Goose Road by Rowena House

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Historical fiction set in France during World War 1 this debut is beautifully told and provides a window on the lives of civilians living there at the time and how the war affected them.  I first met Angelique in the author’s short story for The War Girls collection and  loved and admired her persistence in that and again in this novel. The book tells the story of her epic journey across France in a desperate attempt to save the family farm for her brother who is fighting at the front.  Despite the sadness this is definitely a story of hope. It would be a great WW1 read for KS3 & mature YR6 readers too.

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

Sky Song coverI am delighted to see this book on the list. Having followed Abi’s progress from the early days of a proof copy of The Dream Snatcher I have seen the way in which her stories touch children.  Sky Song typifies 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.

 

Kick by Mitch Johnson

IMG_20180426_093829When I read this earlier this year I thought that it was an extremely impressive debut. It has at its heart a lead character with whom readers will readily engage. An important story told in an accessible way, endorsed by Amnesty International and is highly recommended for Yr6+.

 

 

As a lover of historical fiction for all ages I am so pleased to see Emma Carroll featured on the list. Not once but twice!

The Secret of the Sun King

91Ew9DtJNlLThis is an exciting adventure with heart bringing history to life for young readers. The two linked stories, one in 1920s London and the other in ancient Egypt, have themes that weave the two together in a satisfying whole. Friendship, secrets and efforts to correct past mistakes are part of an absorbing and well plotted adventure that moves at a pace sure to keep readers engrossed until the very last page. Here is a link to my review and some teaching resources.

Sky Chasers

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I loved Sky Chasers. It is  fabulous fiction for children aged 8+ and is full of intrigue, thrills, bravery and loyalty. Set in 18th century France this is a period not often covered in fiction for this age group.  Historical events are made to feel fresh and relevant for today’s readers. You can find out more by reading my review.

There are many other wonderful titles that have been nominated and it is great to see a mix of established authors, previous winners and debuts from new voices too.

Among the many books that I hope to read before the long list is announced in February are Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari and Jane Ray, Jelly by Jo Cotterill, Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay, The Muslims by Zanib Mian and The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf.

The judges have a staggering task with so many books to read before a long list can be produced. A huge thank you to them all for their time and commitment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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