Invisible in a Bright Light by Sally Gardner

An irresistible mixture of mystery, danger, history and fantasy this story by award winning author Sally Gardner has a fairytale quality that makes the book a delight to curl up with on a winter evening.

From the opening lines this novel has an other world feel to it. When we first meet Celeste we wonder if she is in the middle of a disturbing dream. Maybe a fantasy. Perhaps a curious mix of the two. Slowly and carefully Sally Gardner reveals tantalising glimpses of places, characters and events that intertwine as the truth of Celeste’s story is revealed both to her and to the reader. When she wakes up in a costume basket at the Royal Opera House Celeste is troubled by the memory of a sinister man in a green suit in a watery cave and a dangerous game called The Reckoning. To add to her confusion everyone at the theatre thinks that she is someone else, a talented dancer named Maria. Then the huge, crystal chandelier in the dome of the theatre, sparkling with hundreds of candles, crashes to the ground and as Celeste recovers from this horrific accident she is visited by a strange girl who claims to know her past. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent to both Celeste and the reader that she is playing a dangerous game that she must win to save those she loves and discover the truth.

It has been fourteen years since Sally Gardner last wrote a book for readers in this age group so she will be a new name for some. This original and beautifully imaginative story will enthral a new group of readers. This would be perfect for those readers in Upper Primary and Lower Secondary who enjoy a slightly more challenging and thoughtful read. There are textual references that avid readers will enjoy spotting. The repetition of, “And down she falls…” so reminiscent of Alice, the ghostly ship and the names of the girls at the heart of this story are reminders of other stories with a similar feel to this one. I am always intrigued by stories that play with the concept of time and parallel lives and Sally Gardner has used the idea of the Gutter of Time when a choice or decision can alter lives dramatically to masterful effect. The story contains both suspense and shock balanced with a bond of friendship and love that creates a whole that is captivating.

The world created by the author is a rich one. The descriptions of the theatre and life both in front of and behind the curtains are wonderful and will appeal to readers who are interested in the stage. I loved the historical aspect and the descriptions of the city in the depths of winter. There is a slightly spooky edge to this and it a wonderful read for a dark winter evening.

I should like to thank the publishers, Zephyr Books, for my free review copy. The hardback version was published in October with a stunning cover by Helen Crawford-White and is available to purchase in your local book shop or online

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Moon and Me: The Little Seed by Andrew Davenport illustrated by Marino Umeda

Moon and Me is the latest series for CBeebies created by Andrew Davenport who brought the Teletubbies and In the Night Garden to previous generations of pre-schoolers. Inspired by the Rumer Godden and Enid Blyton toy house stories the programme recounts how a toy named Pepi Nana comes to life during the night when her owner is asleep. Her new friend Moon Baby visits her from the moon and then introduces the other toys in the toy house to a world of stories and song before it is time for them to go to bed.

This book with its eye catching cover and bright illustrations by Mariko Umeda acts as a prologue to the series, describing the first time that Pepi Nana and Moon Baby meet. Their world will feel familiar to very young children and is a safe and comforting one. Stories in which toys come to life have been popular with children for many, many years quite probably because to a child a toy is real. The inhabitants of the Moon and Me toy house include Mr. Onion, Lambkin and Little Nana all of whom behave in a similar manner to the small children at whom this book is aimed. I liked the traditional activities included, such as making tissue paper flowers, and the themes of friendship and kindness. This book would be perfect for a bedtime read with its soothing feel and the ending with all the toys taking part in a bedtime ritual as their adventures end.

TV tie-in books have a ready made audience and this well presented hard back book with its embossed cover is well timed for the Christmas present market.

I should like to thank Scholastic publishers for providing my review copy.

Moon and Me is available to purchase at your local bookshop or online.

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Blog Tour – It’s a No-Money Day by Kate Milner – Art Showcase

In 2018 Kate Milner won the Klaus Flugge Prize for most exciting newcomer to children’s picture book illustration with her debut, My Name is not Refugee. It was a book that encouraged children to think about and empathise with a character in a heartbreaking situation. In It’s a No-Money Day, published this month, she has done this again with great care. The subject of life below the poverty line & food banks from a child’s perspective is treated with compassion & understanding. This book is a must have for every single school. I am therefore delighted to be able to participate in the blog tour organised by Barrington Stoke to mark its publication.

I loved My Name is Not Refugee and thought it dealt with a deeply upsetting subject sensitively and appropriately for a young audience so when I heard about Kate Milner’s latest picture book I had high expectations. I was most definitely not disappointed. This is a deeply affecting book and the illustrations play a significant part in its impact. In my review I mentioned that they convey much that is not voiced by the innocent voice of the child narrator and I am therefore pleased to welcome Kate Milner to my blog today to provide some background to some of her excellent artwork for this special book. She has selected three illustrations.

Kate Milner: I really enjoyed giving a visual texture to the one bedroom flat that this mother and daughter share. I wanted the feeling that they live in a space that has been carved out of a building which originally had a different purpose; that’s why there is a fireplace next to the kitchen sink. The reader can feel that the wallpaper is peeling, tiles have fallen off and clothes need to be hung above the bed because of lack of storage. It was fun to draw but there is another reason why I like this spread, it shows the love between them and that is the absolute heart of the story.

Kate Milner: This spread took a while. In the first version the mother and daughter were waiting alone to be let into the food bank and I had a lot of fun drawing huge bill boards hanging above them advertising fast food. The publishers wisely suggested a queue of people might be better. It was important to me that these people feel like normal citizens, neighbours and friends, because it is normal people who have to use food banks. I am particularly fond of the older couple at the back of the line. They are doing all they can to retain their dignity.

Kate Milner: If you are struggling financially you fantasise about what you will buy when you win the lottery. I do it, I suspect nearly everyone does it at times. My mother and daughter play a game to decide what they might choose if they ever have spare money; a holiday maybe, a washing machine, a kitten. Actually very ordinary things that most of us take for granted. I loved drawing the sweet treats the little girl imagines for herself. I especially like drawing food, not quite as nice as eating it but less fattening.

I should like to thank Kate Milner for taking the time to describe the illustration process which I think adds an extra dimension to my understanding and appreciation of the book. The love between the mother and daughter, ‘the heart of the story’ as described by Kate, is apparent in the illustration depicted here and throughout the entire book adding to its poignancy. The queue at the food bank encourages the reader to linger and there is a feeling of recognition as we look at the wide variety of people portrayed. This is both wise and important.

Please do follow the rest of the blog tour this week to find out more about this moving and thoughtful book.

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It’s a No-Money Day written and illustrated by Kate Milner

In 2018 Kate Milner won the Klaus Flugge Prize for most exciting newcomer to children’s picture book illustration with her debut, My Name is not Refugee. It was a book that encouraged children to think about and empathise with a character in a heartbreaking situation. In It’s a No-Money Day, published this month, she has done this again with great care. The subject of life below the poverty line & food banks from a child’s perspective is treated with compassion & understanding. This book is a must have for every single school.

This is a story simply told and yet the voice of the child narrator is one that has great impact. The little girl’s mum works very hard but, despite this, today is a day when the money has run out and there is no food in the cupboards. Their only option is to visit the local food-bank. Mum is ashamed and finds the visit humiliating but her young daughter likes the kind people who work there. In fact the little child is able to see the good in her day despite their circumstances and celebrates the simple joys like reading books from the library, drawing and imagining life with a pet kitten. Maybe one day things will be different and the little girl remains full of hope. Most importantly the mother and daughter have each other and their love to make even the darkest of days feel better.

Sometimes a book touches you in a way that you feel unprepared for and It’s a No-Money Day is such a book. Despite knowing the subject matter in advance as I turned the pages I slowed down, I looked at the illustrations of the mother and daughter and I cared about them. I cared very much. The voice of the child relating events is one of hope and innocence and the illustrations portray how the mother endeavours to protect her child from much of their situation. One page in particular brought me close to tears and this book could bring home to many the true picture of life for far too many families today. The muted illustrations match the tone of the story perfectly and add to the text conveying much that the young child does not voice herself.

Perhaps some may consider this a subject that is too upsetting for children to read about at a young age but as well as providing a window on worlds different to their own and encouraging empathy books offer children in difficult situations the opportunity to understand that they are not alone. For both these important reasons this moving and topical picture book deserves a place in every single school in the country. Teachers, school librarians, parents and carers alike should be made aware of this poignant and important book. It will prompt discussion, empathy, understanding and, I hope, make a difference.

I should like to thank the helpful team at Barrington Stoke for providing me with the advance preview material.

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Butterflies for Grandpa Joe by Nicola Davies illustrated by Mike Byrne

This gentle story, by Nicola Davies and illustrated throughout by Mike Byrne, conveys how love across the generations and the healing power of nature can soothe the heartache of grief and give hope for the future. This lovely book deserves a place in every primary school library and classroom.

Grandpa Joe has always loved butterflies and for a long time has photographed these beautiful creatures as they flutter around his garden. But he doesn’t do this anymore. Since Ben’s granny died Grandpa Joe has changed. He no longer wants to go outside and enjoy the lovely garden he shared with his wife. He doesn’t talk or smile anymore. He sits in front of the television lost in his thoughts and his memories. Ben fears that Grandpa Joe is slowly slipping away and he is desperate not to lose him too. Perhaps if Ben could find a way to bring the butterflies to his Grandpa the old man would come back to life and to his family.

This is a beautiful story. Nicola Davies has captured that special bond across the generations that so frequently exists between grandparents and their grandchildren. Ben loves his grandpa and Grandpa Joe loves Ben too but grief has left the old man unable to display this love anymore. I admired Ben’s determination to try to help. Nicola Davies also conveys to the reader the sadness of bereavement and how this can sometimes manifest itself in a solitary quietness and depression rather than floods of tears. Both her text and the illustrations by Mike Byrne capture that sense of something lost from a home when someone has died, almost as though the house and garden miss the person too.

As this book is aimed at an audience of about 8 years plus there is a lovely resolution to the story and the happy ending we would all hope for. The story contains threads that come together well and the family rift and its resolution show how conversation, understanding and compromise can help families sort out their differences which is a positive message for young readers too.

As one would expect from Nicola Davies, a zoologist whose books on nature are so popular, the story of the life cycle of the butterflies and the descriptions of their development and Ben’s care of them are excellent. I particularly liked the way in which the continuity of nature worked in parallel with the gradual reawakening of Grandpa Joe. It was beautifully done. The other family relationships, particularly that of Ben and his little sisters are realistic and show understanding and empathy.

This lovely book works on many levels and I would highly recommend it for primary school libraries and classrooms. As with all books published by Barrington Stoke this title is presented in a super readable style making it accessible to a wide range of readers but is also a great quick read for more confident readers.

Butterflies for Grandpa Joe is available at all good bookshops or online
Thank you to Kirstin Lamb from Barrington Stoke for providing my free copy for review.

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Flood World by Tom Huddleston

An epic dystopian novel that grabs you from the first chapter and hurls you into a world that feels disturbingly believable, Flood World would be great for lovers of fast paced thrillers and sci-fi.

Authors sometimes use a ‘what if’ scenario as inspiration for their writing and in Flood World Tom Huddleston has asked what if the world was ravaged by climate change and rising sea levels and subsequently changed beyond repair. The society he has created is a deeply troubled one in which power has been abused, those with position and wealth are kept safe and protected within The Wall and those without survive in The Shanties scratching out a living in the ruins of a sunken city.

Kara and Joe live in The Shanties, spending their days navigating the dangerous waterways with Joe diving for artefacts that will fetch meagre reward. The two of them are at the mercy of crooks but when they come into possession of a mysterious map their problems mount as they become involved in a world of sinister gangsters and The Mariners, a group of ruthless pirates who rule the seas.

This novel moves from one cliff hanger scene to the next at a rapid pace and has a definite cinematic feel which is to be expected from an author who is a film journalist and has written instalments in The Star Wars: Adventure in Wild Space saga. There are high speed chases, battles in which characters are disposed of in a violent manner and moments of high tension. Now I have to confess this would not be my usual reading fare and it was initially the brilliant map by Jensine Eckwall which drew me in. Maps in books are always a bonus for me and the world depicted in this one intrigued me. Once I started reading, the vivid descriptions made the world in the map come to life and I felt that there was almost a Dickensian atmosphere to The Shanties. Then there are the characters. Kara is a female character around whom, as the story progresses, the plot centres and she is a brave, almost fearless young woman, outspoken and yet caring towards Joe her younger and more naive friend. I found Joe a likeable character with a caring attitude despite his extremely difficult childhood. Having picked the book up not sure what to expect I kept reading because I found that within a few pages I wanted to know what happened to Kara and Joe and became involved in their world and their predicament.

This is an exciting read with moments of high drama and the violence depicted at times makes it a book for the upper end of the middle grade age range though I think it would appeal to teens also. Great for fans of the Alex Rider series.

Many of the themes touched upon make this a good book to share in the classroom at Year 6 and lower secondary levels. Climate change and young people’s reaction to world governments’ response to it is very much in the news at present and Flood World could be used as an effective prompt for discussion on both this subject and marine conservation. The prejudices displayed by different social groups in the story have echoes in discrimination based on race, religion or background so again the book may be a useful conversation starter.

Thank you to Nosy Crow Publishers for providing my proof copy. Flood World is published on 3rd October with a stunning cover illustration by Manuel Sumberac and a great map and illustrations by Jensine Eckhall.

An extract from Flood World is available on the Nosy Crow website

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Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year edited by Allie Esiri

This year National Poetry Day falls on 3rd October and with impeccable timing MacMillan Children’s Publishers have recently released a new anthology edited by Allie Esiri who has had great success with her previous poetry collections, A Poem for Every Night of the a Year and A Poem for Every Day of the Year. This time she has turned her attention to one of our greatest poets and playwrights, William Shakespeare.

Each page of this sumptuously presented book contains an extract from Shakespeare’s work – a soliloquy, poem, quote or scene – appropriate to the date. These extracts are accompanied by an introductory paragraph by Esiri that provides a little background to the piece and to its historical context, plus information about Shakespeare’s sources. These introductions are entertaining and informative and allow the reader to discover a little more about the life and times of this famous poet. There are familiar and much loved plays and quotes included that one would expect but also less well known works.

Shakespeare’s works lend themselves to the calendar of the year as he frequently refers to the passage of time and the changing seasons. I have over the last couple of weeks browsed this book and found it a calming and thoughtful experience. Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year could be read as the title suggests as a daily journal but this book could also be enjoyed by dipping in as often and for as long as one felt inclined.

The picture of the cover that I have shown does not do justice to the gorgeous illustration by Zanna Goldhawk. This book would make a wonderful gift for both older children and adults to share, read aloud or pore over as a reference book. It would also be a valuable addition to bookshelves in school libraries and classrooms. A daily taste of Shakespeare’s work from this book would serve to whet the appetite of children and encourage them to investigate further. Allie Esiri has created a refreshing introduction to Shakespeare that should make his works accessible to a wider audience.

Of course for maximum impact Shakespeare’s works need to be performed and his words spoken by those who can do them justice. In addition to the hardback there is also an audiobook version performed by leading actors such as Sir Simon Russell Beale, Helen McCrory, and Damian Lewis.

Thank you very much to Clare Hall-Craggs and MacMillan Children’s Publishers for providing me with my free copy. It has taken pride of place on my bookshelves.

Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year was published on 19th September and is available at all good bookshops or online

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The Frozen Sea by Piers Torday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Barrington Stoke – Making Brilliant Stories Accessible to More Readers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WW2 Evacuees

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

Home Front

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

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

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

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