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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eagle Warrior by Gill Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All the Ways to be Smart written by Davina Bell illustrated by Allison Colpoys

A celebration of what makes each and every child special, this positive and joy filled book acts as a reassuring balance to the message that the only things that matter are those that can be measured and assessed.

“I can’t wait to share with you how smart you are the whole day through.”

From the opening lines this book’s message is an extremely positive one. The rhyming text continues to explain that being smart is not only about having work marked as correct but also about being creative or practical or knowing how to use your imagination. Perhaps even more importantly being smart means being kind and caring and knowing how to be a thoughtful friend. All manner of life skills are included and acknowledged as a vital part of learning and growing. Everything from being able to choose what to wear to having a go at things even when you are scared is celebrated and valued. So many different aspects are included that each and every child sharing this book will discover that they are smart at something. I love the idea of a child listening to this read aloud or reading it alone and realising that their skills or things they enjoy matter. Even being able sit still and quiet is mentioned, a skill not all little people can manage for very long!

The cheerful illustrations are slightly nostalgic in appearance but are also diverse and inclusive and a delight for young children to examine. They complement the text well and the overall tone of the book is a comforting one. A lovely book to share both at home and in school this has the added advantage of being both reassuring and encouraging.

Thank you very much to the publishers, Scribe Publications UK Ltd, for providing my review copy.

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When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr – 20 Books of Summer (1/20)

“Nowadays, my escape from Germany and everything that followed seems far away. I’ve lived in London more than seventy years. I have been happily married and our children are a joy. It has been a wonderfully happy life. But it almost didn’t happen…I can never forget how lucky I’ve been.”

Judith Kerr ( Note from the author 2008 When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit)

When Judith Kerr, the award winning children’s author and illustrator, died in May at the age of 95 there was an outpouring of love, respect and, despite her great age, a sense of shock. There were many articles written about the long lasting effect her picture books such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Mog the Forgetful Cat had on children. These picture books are classics, their images and storylines have become part of the fabric of many families’ everyday life and traditions. Like all the very best children’s books Judith Kerr’s gentle stories work partly because they encourage us to savour those small, everyday joys.

My first book in the 20 Books of Summer challenge is When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. This is a semi autobiographical novel relating the story of Judith Kerr’s family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1933 and their life as refugees in Switzerland, France and finally in England. The first of a trilogy it is regarded as a classic and has been popular in school classrooms since its publication in 1971. Anna, the nine year old narrator of the story is a child of intelligence but also of practical and resolute optimism. She notices the good things each day and treats life as an adventure. Although this was largely due to the manner in which her brave parents protected Anna/Judith and her brother from the mounting horrors of pre-WW2 Europe, the author’s positive attitude to life is undoubtedly a trait which helped carry her through these difficult times. This positivity shines through her children’s books and is, quite probably, one of the reasons why we love them so much.

At the beginning of this novel Anna is too busy with schoolwork and tobogganing to pay much attention to the talk of Hitler. Her friend says that when her little sister saw his face on a poster she mistook him for Charlie Chaplin. This innocence is in sharp contrast to the reality for Anna’s Jewish parents. Unknown to Anna and her older brother, their father, a published writer of anti Hitler articles, is wanted by the Nazis. In the middle of the night he flees to Switzerland to avoid capture and this is when Anna’s world changes. They must leave Germany quickly and Anna may choose only the very few things that will fit in her bag. After deliberation she selects a new woolly toy dog rather than her old but much loved pink rabbit, a decision she later regrets. She, her brother and her mother rush to join Anna’s father in secrecy, leaving their home, their friends and everything the children have ever known.

“He put his arms around Mama and hugged her. Then he hugged Anna and Max. He hugged and hugged them all and would not let them go.

‘I couldn’t see you,’ said Papa. ‘ I was afraid…’

‘I know,’ said Mama.”

Judith Kerr tells the story of the family’s escape as an adventure with moments of humour. However there are difficult incidents too and once or twice the reality of the brutality and horror of the situation strays into the protective bubble Anna and Max’s parents have created for their children. For the children their lives as refugees revolve around adapting to their new surroundings, learning a new language and making new friends. Anna’s matter of fact attitude to her changed circumstances makes the moments when the exposure of the cruelty that has triggered their situation all the more shocking. The burning of books by the Nazis, including those written by Anna’s father and the prejudice shown by the German family holidaying in Switzerland who will not allow their children to play with Anna and Max because they are Jewish give young readers an idea of some of the attitudes at the time. The most shocking moment occurs when Anna overhears a conversation between her mother and grandmother about the fate of a well known professor who was imprisoned in a concentration camp. Anna feels sick as she listens and the reader feels a similiar sense of revulsion. As an adult reader with a knowledge and understanding of historical events this is difficult to read and yet Judith Kerr has carefully presented her experiences in an accessible manner for young readers that makes it easier for them to cope with.

It is the fact that the family are united throughout all of this that enables Anna to cope. Their previous comfortable lifestyle may be long gone but she draws great comfort from the sound of her father typing in the next room and family meals in their cramped flat in Paris. Again and again we are reminded of what matters. A sense of belonging, no matter where they live, and the support of a loving family make things bearable for Anna. In fact there are times when she thinks her new life is exciting and an improvement on her old one. As an adult reader we realise that this is largely due to her parents keeping the worst of the situation from their children but for children the underlying message of hope, determination and resilience is an encouraging one.

“Do you think we’ll ever really belong anywhere?”

“I suppose not,” said Papa. “Not the way people belong who have lived in one place all their lives. But we’ll belong a little in lots of places, and I think that may be just as good.”

Judith Kerr was a shining example of someone who made the most of her opportunities and was lucky to be able to seek refuge and make a home in a country that welcomed her. This important novel will continue to convey a message of kindness and hope to future generations of children.

This lovely and fascinating interview with Judith Kerr from The Financial Times in 2017 is well worth a read.

Following a recommendation by children’s author, Emma Barnes I intend buying a copy of Judith Kerr’ s Creatures – A Celebration of the Life and Work of Judith Kerr

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Owen and the Soldier by Lisa Thompson

Owen and the Soldier is a touching story relating how we all need to have someone to listen to us when times are hard but also need to be brave enough to ask. In her first title for Barrington Stoke, Lisa Thompson has yet again tackled difficult subjects, depression, loss, anxiety and grief, with an understanding and kindness that children will find both comforting and relatable.


Owen has a secret. He likes to go and sit in the park and talk to his friend the soldier. The soldier is made of stone and sits on a bench in the memorial garden, a tribute to the brave people who lost their lives in war. Things are difficult for Owen and his mum. They are both struggling to cope and this struggle manifests itself in different ways in each of them. Owen finds comfort in talking to his silent friend as he can share his worries with the soldier safely. Then he learns that the council are planning to modernise the park and get rid of his soldier. Owen is devastated and decides to fight to save the statue and show everyone how important it is. However to achieve this Owen will have to be brave and reveal why the soldier means so much to him.

This is a compelling read that I found extremely moving. Lisa Thompson has already proved that she can write about difficult subjects with compassion and understanding in her longer middle grade novels such as The Light Jar and in this novella she has made them accessible to slightly younger readers. Owen is an extremely likeable character and young readers will readily engage with this worried and sad little boy.  As they follow his story they will also learn the importance of asking for help when it’s needed, the importance of accepting the hand of friendship and that sometimes you can be braver than you imagine.

The school scenes were, I felt, extremely realistic. They captured the feel of everyday routines, the chat amongst classmates and friends and the kindness shown by Owen’s teacher, who, despite what Owen thinks, only wants the best for his pupils. The publication of this book coincides with Empathy Day which was marked this week and this tender story is a wonderful example of the way in children’s fiction promotes an understanding of others and ourselves. Owen and the Soldier is a book that encourages children to care. I loved it, even though it made me tearful and would highly recommend it.

There are some great books being published by Barrington Stoke at the moment and I would like to thank Kirstin Lamb for sending me my free review copy. The finished book has a very appealing cover by Mike Lowery.

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Special Delivery by Jonathan Meres illustrated by Hannah Coulson – Dementia in children’s books

A book about finding friendship in unlikely places, this gentle story focusing on helping others, provides a kind and thoughtful look at dementia and is suitable for younger readers.

Frank would like a new bike. Unfortunately it is not Christmas or his birthday so he has a problem. He needs to start saving! His older sister, Lottie, suggests that Frank helps her with her paper round to earn some money to put towards the bike of his dreams. When he starts his early morning routine he makes an unexpected new friend. Mary is an old lady who wears a cowboy hat and boots and sometimes seems a little forgetful and confused. When she is in trouble Frank is there to lend a hand.

Although dementia is never specifically mentioned this book successfully introduces this difficult subject to younger readers in an accessible and understated manner. Many children will, sadly, know of someone, possibly grandparents, who have some form of dementia and books can be a very useful way of prompting discussion and understanding. Special Delivery will enable this to happen. I liked the kindness shown in the story by the different characters including Frank’s sister and Mary’s son. A short story told with understanding, this would be a useful addition to primary school bookshelves.

Special Delivery is a book in the brilliant Little Gems series for children aged 5-8 published by Barrington Stoke and is presented in a super readable format meaning it is dyslexia friendly too. Perfect for both newly confident readers and those who prefer a shorter read, it would also work as a read aloud for younger children.

Thank you to Kirstin Lamb and Barrington Stoke for sending me my free review copy. Special Delivery is published on 15th June.

Dementia can be a difficult subject to talk about with children and teens but some organisations have put together lists of books that may help young readers understand and prompt discussion with adults. Here are a few you may find helpful.

Alzheimer’s Society – Recommended books about dementia for children and adults

Book Trust – this well known charity have produced a useful list Books on Dementia

Young Dementia UK – this charity assists people affected by young onset dementia Books for Children

The website, , provides child-friendly dementia information focusing on the ways people with dementia can change and the effect this can have on families. By bringing together a range of resources including stories narrated by the broadcaster Edith Bowman, videos and interactive games, the site allows young people to discover more about the brain, how it is affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s and share their experiences to help others.

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