The Longest Night of Charlie Noon by Christopher Edge

How to review a book as clever as this one without giving away its secrets has given me pause for thought. Perhaps it could be summed up like this…I read this in one sitting, utterly captivated, and as I read the final sentence I wanted to go back to the beginning and start again. It asks questions about the human understanding of the concept of time, questions about our natural world and about our influence on events. It will encourage children to think and to care. All this in less than 200 pages!

Christopher Edge’s recent books for children have combined science including space travel, black holes and virtual reality with adventure and, sometimes, with hard hitting emotion. Charlie Noon’s story begins like so many before it with the words, “Once upon a time” but then asks what exactly is ‘a time’? The author then introduces the three children who one day decide to find out what lies hidden in the heart of the woods near their village. At first they enjoy the rural idyll and the descriptions of the natural world around them are evocative of long hot summers of childhood. However Johnny, one of the three has told them about the legend of Old Crony, a monster who lurks there unseen. As darkness falls rapidly and the three children become lost the tension mounts as the secrets of the wood, the dangers and the puzzles, whatever their cause, slowly increase the children’s fear of the unknown.

The storytelling in this book is so skilful that I was completely unprepared for some of the breathtaking events and surprises. What at first feels like a traditional adventure gradually evolves into something both thoughtful and thought provoking. By setting this story deep in a wood the reader is reminded of scary woods in other children’s stories. Who among us has not at one time gasped at the idea of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood or hidden in terror at the thought of the witch in Hansel and Gretel both set in similar woods to these that Charlie, Dizzy and Johnny explore. These familiar fears return as you read. However Christopher Edge balances this with descriptions of a natural world that can also be a solace and a place of great beauty. We witness this through the eyes of Charlie, a child who is knew to the great outdoors and this will mirror the attitude of some of the book’s readers.

It is the playing with the idea of time and our place in it that I found most intriguing. I love the way that this author uses story to introduce children to scientific concepts and feel sure that it will capture young readers’ imaginations in the same way that it captured mine.

The development of the three main characters throughout the story is well done and these children feel very real. The plot is masterly in its twists and I absolutely loved the ending. This is a children’s book of intelligence and emotion and highly recommended. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon is a book that will make children think and ask questions but will encourage them to care and to take notice of the world around them too.

Thank you very much to Clare Hall-Craggs and Rebecca Mason and Nosy Crow Publishers for providing my free review copy and the beautiful finished book with its stunning cover by Matt Saunders.

If you are new to Christopher Edge’s books I can highly recommend The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day



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Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone

As a child I sometimes used to sneak inside a wardrobe and push gently on the back wondering if I could reach my beloved Narnia. This wonderful, epic adventure by Abi Elphinstone will have a new generation of children trying to discover the secret entrance to the magical world she has created.

Eleven year old Casper Tock is an unlikely hero. We first meet this quiet, lonely, anxious boy hiding in a lost property basket trying to avoid the school bullies, Candida Cashmere-Jumps and Leopold Splattercash, who are just as dreadful as their names imply. Casper doesn’t take risks, he is fond of to do lists and strict timetables and likes to avoid trouble whenever possible because he is most definitely a boy of a nervous disposition. Yet one day an unexpected event occurs and all Casper’s lists and plans are no help at all when you find yourself in a magical kingdom full of dangerous beasts, storm ogres and drizzle hags. Casper wants to go home but a girl called Utterly Thankless, an impetuous child who hates rules and possesses a fierce and independent air has very different plans for him. As the story unfolds Casper, Utterly and a miniature dragon named Arlo, embark on a dangerous journey to try to save the kingdom of Rumblestar from the evil Morg and in doing so protect Casper’s world too.

All of Abi Elphinstone’s adventures have had friendships at their heart but Rumblestar feels subtly different to her previous books. Alongside the danger and the beautifully created world of the Unmapped Kingdoms there is humour and clever wordplay. The names of some of the characters and the language used is reminiscent of Dahl’s The BFG. I may adopt the term wigglysplat myself for occasions when life gets a bit complicated. I also thought the snow trolls were wonderful characters being both endearing and wise. It is Bristlebeard the Snow Troll who helps Casper to see what really matters in life and how he may manage to achieve it.

It is this wise message of the importance of friendship and loyalty that is at the heart of the adventure. Utterly and Casper, with Arlo’s help, face great danger and difficult decisions and through learning to trust one another they both develop as people throughout the story. Many children who enjoy reading adventure stories are not naturally adventurous themselves and by accompanying Casper on his journey perhaps they too will gain a little confidence. Sometimes it helps to see that just because you are frightened it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to be brave. Utterly is not all she seems intially either. Occasionally first impressions can be wrong and readers will see that even the fiercest of characters may be hiding troubles of their own.

In Abi’s last book, Sky Song, I was struck by the beauty of the world she had created. In Rumblestar, again, the descriptions of the landscapes are clearly inspired by the author’s own adventures and are all the more vivid for this reason. Once, in a school in which I worked I was told that in education it is our duty to inspire in young children a sense of “awe and wonder.” Abi Elphinstone does just that by prompting the reader to take a moment to stop, think, look at and appreciate the beautiful world around us. A timely and important message.

This is the writing of an author who understands children and how they feel about life and this is, I think, why it works so well. Rumblestar has all the ingredients that encourage children to enjoy a book: an exciting edge of your seat adventure, characters that readers will empathise with and root for, an evil villain and a dash of magic too. Oh, and what child will be able to resist a loveable miniature dragon who fits in your pocket!

Rumblestar can be bought at all good bookshops, online or borrowed from your local library.


Rumblestar is the first of the Unmapped Chronicles, a series of stand alone novels about these magic kingdoms. The prequel, Everdark, was one of the World Book Day special £1 books. The stunning cover of Rumblestar is by Carrie May and Jenny Richards and the book also contains a super map by Patrick Knowles.

Thank you very much to Abi and her pubishers, Simon and Schuster Children’s Books for providing my free review copy.

Teachers who are planning on using Rumblestar in the classroom may be interested in the scheme of work designed by Ian Eagleton, The Reading Realm which is available to download on Abi Elphinstone’s official website

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Barnes Children’s Literature Festival – a celebration of children’s books

Five years ago the first Barnes Children’s Literature Festival took place with the aim to become an inspiration for book lovers everywhere. Since then it has grown into a two day event for families that is now the largest dedicated children’s literature festival in London. In 2017, the organisers launched their Education & Community Outreach Programme, specially curated, curriculum-linked sessions which are provided free of charge for primary schools. The authors appearing over these last few years read like a veritable Who’s Who of the children’s book world including Michael Rosen, Judith Kerr, Lauren Child, Michael Morpurgo and many more.

BCLF19-5thWEB-LOGO-finalWhat is it about literature festivals and especially ones for children that make them so special? There is always a happy buzz about them and a general feeling of enthusiasm amongst the festival goers. This, I think is magnified at events for children. As I travelled by train to Barnes I read a tweet from Michael Rosen that summed it up perfectly:

“The thing about book festivals, children come and hear authors and ask authors questions and there are no tests or exams. The children just get to think and reflect and wonder and ponder – on their own or with friends or family.”

Throughout my visit I watched with pleasure as excited children listened and engaged with well known authors, asked thoughtful, articulate and interesting questions and discussed favourite books with other children and adults as they queued. It is a lovely touch by the organisers to have school children introduce the authors and illustrators at each event, emphasising that children truly are the heart of the weekend.

Marcia Williams

IMG_20190511_120525My first event was a talk by author and illustrator, Marcia Williams who I have long admired for her illustrated books such as Archie’s War, My Secret War Diary and Bravo, Mr William Shakespeare. At Barnes, Marcia introduced the audience to her first novel, Cloud Boy. This book combines two separate stories, one of present day best friends Harry and Angie told in diary format and the second of a young girl imprisoned in Changi prison in World War 2 told in letters written to her pet kitten left at home. The inspiration for Cloud Boy was initially Marcia’s visit to a quilt exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum where among the extravagant and beautiful quilts on show she saw a small coverlet made by children in Changi prison. The twenty children involved belonged to a guide group formed by one of the women prisoners comprising twenty girls aged 8 -16. When Marcia’s own grandson was going through a particularly difficult time aged only four she was struck by how important friendship is to young children and how they look after each other. The author wanted to show children how special this type of friendship is. These two moving elements combine in her new novel.

IMG_20190511_123317Marcia also introduced a very special guest to her audience, Olga Henderson who at just 10 years old was imprisoned in Changi Prison in appalling conditions alongside her mother. For almost half an hour this quietly spoken eighty seven year old woman had the children hanging on her every word as she told us about her experiences during WW2 and answered the children’s questions. It was a moving experience to hear her speak about her own life at the same age as many of the youngsters in the audience. The children will have gained a great deal from this experience, Olga’s story was a lesson in the value of optimism, hope and love. The session finished with a quiz which the the children entered into with enthusiasm and a book signing with both Marcia and Olga. I left the session with much to think about as I am sure everyone did.

David Almond

A quick walk down the road took me to St Mary’s Church, the beautiful venue for my second event, a conversation between Bex Lindsay of Fun Kids Radio and Carnegie Award winning author, David Almond. David is probably best known for his award winning novel, Skellig. However he has created a fabulous range of titles for children and young people including my favourites of his, My Name is Mina, a prequel to Skellig and My Dad’s a Birdman. In addition he has collaborated with illustrators such as Levi Penfold for the stunning picture book The Dam and David McKean for the new graphic novel, Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist. 

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This hour of conversation passed far too quickly, I could have listened for ages. It was a wonderful, wide ranging discussion about writing, language and stories and full of inspiration for budding writers of all ages. David Almond’s books frequently use the language of his native north east and during his conversation he touched on the importance of this and of really engaging with the rhythm and sound of words when we read or write as this can be so beautiful.

As a child he grew up surrounded by aural story telling and loved myths and legends, enjoying books by authors such as Roger Lancelyn Green. He also occasionally pinched his sister’s Enid Blyton books! Libraries, as is so often the case, were important to the author and his reading material expanded to include John Wyndham and Ernest Hemmingway.

Bex asked David Almond about his books and about the specifics of the writing process. His answers were extremely thought provoking. He mentioned that writers have to be quite brave and said that any good book is created by something inside the writer, “writing is a physical, emotional thing that comes from your bones.”

There was, inevitably, a great deal of discussion about Skellig, a novel now used widely in schools. David said that he loves the stage play based on the book and is particularly happy to see how his book has touched readers and released something inside people. The wonderful thing about Skellig is to witness the creativity it has inspired in others. This is one of the reasons why books matter. All over the country teachers are working with children on art, drama and dance, all linked to this remarkable story.

When the children started asking questions David advised them that if they want to write they should read widely and when writing don’t write to try and impress anyone. He also gave them freedom to write the sequel to Skellig as he has no idea what happens next! The book itself leaves many unanswered questions. David also confessed that he finds starting a book easier than finishing it. He also warned the audience that all writers have doubts when writing and it’s important to learn to push aside the inner voice telling you that the story is no good.

Bex also asked David a quick fire round of questions from which we learned that he prefers books to a Kindle (of course!), writing about villains rather than heroes, Narnia to Hogwarts, doing school tours rather than bookshop visits as he loves talking to children and last but not least would choose cheese and onion rather than salt and vinegar crisps! His favourite word is hawthorn which made me smile as I love the hawthorn blossom at this time of year. 

The queue to have books signed by David Almond afterwards was lengthy but so inspired were the children that all around me I could hear snippets of book related chatter. This book talk was enthusiastic, informed and frankly interesting for me to listen to. Youngsters discussed their favourite authors who alongside David himself included Robin Stevens, Philip Pullman, Matt Haig and Kate Di Camillo, a broad cross section showing a knowledge of current authors. One young girl commented that she “liked sad books best”, an interesting observation as David Almond had mentioned in his conversation that he believes that “children can manage all kinds of things.”

These two events that I attended were only a very brief taste of what was available over the weekend. There was an impressive range of activities on offer for families including an outdoor theatre trail linked to the wonder book The Lost Words by Jackie Morris and Robert McFarlane, model making with Aardman Animations, the Poetry Zone and much more besides.  

The Barnes Children’s Literature Festival is a true celebration of the magic of children’s books conveying a feeling of creativity and inspiration but perhaps what makes it really special is that it makes children happy. I plan to return next year. 

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Not My Fault by Cath Howe

Ever since the accident Rose and her sister Maya have not been talking. Maya asked her sister to push her harder on the roundabout and when Rose did there were terrible results. Now Maya blames Rose and treats her unkindly and in her frustration behaves badly too. Rose, full of guilt for what has happened, wants to make things right again. The sisters have to go away on a week long residential school trip and their parents, teachers and even their friends worry about how this will work out. Will the trip mend the broken sibling bond or break it completely once and for all?

I am often intrigued by how two people can sometimes have entirely different recollections of exactly the same event. This often does not mean that they cannot remember the incident properly but simply that different aspects resonate more with people depending on their views, interests or attitudes. Cath Howe takes this a stage further by looking at how a traumatic event has a lasting effect on those who suffer it or witness it. In this case that the event involved children, and even more poignantly siblings, adds to the emotional impact.

Not My Fault is told in the alternating voices of the two sisters and this works extremely well. Maya and Rose are very different characters indeed and how much of this is due to the accident and how much is down to their individual personalities would be an interesting subject for discussion. Rose is reserved and quieter than her sister, she tries to be good and is a bit of a perfectionist whilst Maya is popular with other children at school, full of humour and with an air of bravado. Rose has become involved in the world of gymnastics and her increasing commitment and success results in Maya becoming even more bitter than before. Things come to a head during the school trip when events conspire to throw the sisters together despite their wish to stay apart.

Cath Howe is a primary school teacher and she has captured the voices of ten year olds and the highs and lows of residential school trips to perfection. The writing displays an understanding of children and is extremely well observed. This feels realistic and believable and I feel sure that young readers will find both the characters and the storyline relatable. School trips can be a source of worry for some children but this book demonstrates that despite these fears they should be, and generally are, an enjoyable and enriching experience. In addition to the main storyline about Maya and Rose, there are amusing moments and some of the supporting cast of characters including Maya’s friend, Bonnie and the poor harassed teacher, Mr Goodman are very appealing.

I enjoyed reading this and as I somehow never got around to reading this author’s acclaimed debut, Ella on the Outside, I will be putting that one on my to read list also.

Thank you very much to Rebecca Mason and Nosy Crow publishers for providing my free review copy.

If young readers enjoy this type of school story with relatable characters they may also enjoy Splash by Charli Howard



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Into the Bin (and out again) by Anne Fine illustrated by Vicky Gausden

Former Children’s Laureate and Carnegie Award winning author Anne Fine has written several shorter novels for Barrington Stoke over the years that have been extremely popular in the school library. Her latest offering Into the Bin (and out again) is a cheerful story that enables children to see that what one person may discard as rubbish may be something that another person would treasure. It is perfect for encouraging reusing and recycling.

Mr Frost’s classroom is always in a mess as is the cloakroom. The headteacher wants everywhere tidied up quickly. Now Mr Frost’s class are on a mission to send all the things they don’t need off to a charity shop. They are even including the scratched rubbish bin that keeps falling over. So the children bring things in from home that they no longer need, from books to old toys, they gather all sorts of things together to send away in the bin to the charity shop. However as they examine all the items they discover that what one person doesn’t want might be just the thing someone else has been looking for.

This timely story taps into the enthusiasm and interest shown by many eco-conscious children and would be a valuable prompt for discussion in the classroom. However it is also a jolly read and the various reasons why discarded things may be valued by others are interesting and thought provoking.

This book is part of the Barrington Stoke 4U2Read range and has a dyslexia-friendly layout, typeface and paperstock so that even more readers can enjoy it. It has been edited to a reading age of 7.

The first chapter is available to read on the Barrington Stoke website.

I am delighted to welcome Anne Fine to my blog today to talk about Into the Bin, the role of the Children’s Laureate and children’s books.

 

LL. The subject matter of Into the Bin is excellent for encouraging the current interest shown by children in protecting our planet. Was there a specific event or situation which inspired you to write the book?

AF. I take as much interest as anyone else in the safety of the planet, and am very aware that those of school age, including my own grandchildren, care about this matter a great deal. (Indeed, they nag adults about it in much the same way that my daughters nagged me about my smoking habit. And hopefully, like them, they’ll win.)

I suddenly remembered that each time their rooms had turned into garbage tips, I’d go in with large black bin bags and a firm purpose. Picking up every item in turn, I’d ask, “Trash, or treasure?” They’d snatch all treasures and heap them on the bed. Dried-up felt pens and banana skins went into the rubbish, and things they never wore or played with any more were dumped, after a lot of squawking, into the charity shop bag. The problem was that other members of the family gathered like gannets.  “You can’t throw that away. I want it.” “That’s perfect for my school project!” “I can use that!” So our family was well into recycling even before it became so popular, and I became very well aware that, for almost every object in the world, there is someone who can use it.

LL. Children’s fiction can be useful for making young people aware of situations and events they may know little about. Do you always consider that aspect when writing a book? 

AF. Not always. Sometimes an idea just comes to me, begging to be a book, and I’ll go with it. But Eva Ibbotson did once say that fiction ‘helped children lead big lives’. After all, you only get your own personal experience: your own country, your own social class, your own temperament, your own parents. Reading widens the child’s vicarious experience so much. But unlike many writers who expand their readers’ knowledge of other countries, times or  issues, like Beverly Naidoo or Elizabeth Laird, I tend to focus on trying to expand the thoughtfulness of their attitude towards those with other experiences, as in The Tulip Touch, or Blood Family. I stand with Susan Sontag, who said that she thought that the most useful thing that fiction could do was ‘increase the sense of the complexity of things’.

LL. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Children’s Laureate scheme. What is your happiest memory of your period as Laureate and what would be your dream for future Laureates to achieve in the next twenty years? 

AF. To be honest, my happiest memory was the day I finished. I was exhausted. The only back up for the Laureate at that time was Lois Beeson, a marvellous support but she lived in Southampton (I live in County Durham) and she fell seriously ill halfway through. So I ploughed on with the three main projects (www.myhomelibrary.org  ; http://www.clearvisionproject.org ; and the poetry anthologies A Shame to Miss 1, 2 & 3, plus a score of keynote addresses, and, looking back, a quite astonishing number of talks and visits.  My accountant actually queried whether I could possibly have caught as many trains as I claimed, and I never got to write a single word of fiction in the whole two years. But the two projects are still rolling along all these years later, and I am very, very proud of that.

I think one of the most interesting things about the Laureateship is how each person chooses to approach the role. But I expect we all share the same dream – to turn every child who could be a passionate reader into a passionate reader. I doubt if that will change over the next twenty years.

LL. You have been writing for children for many years. Do you think that their reading tastes have changed during that time?

AF. No, I don’t. I think publishers still second-guess what children will enjoy as much as they ever did, to the detriment of both the reading child and the industry. Of course, children’s lives have changed. The almost relentless ‘contact’ with others that comes from social media has to be taken into account if you’re writing about their lives now. But children themselves are no different, and their interest in, and emotional responses to, the sorts of problems that, sadly, never really change, won’t change either.

LL. You have published a wide range of books catering for different ages. Is there a particular age group you find most rewarding to write for or a genre you enjoy writing most?

AF. I keep trying to choose a favourite age group, but it won’t work. The idea comes, and I think, “Who’d like this idea most?” and then, till I’ve finished the book, that’s my favourite age group. (Though I admit that, after writing any of the eight adult novels, I felt like a piece of chewed string.) And I know that the prize winning children’s books, and the ones people want to talk to me about most, are the emotionally rich ones, like Goggle-Eyes or Step by Wicked Step. But I adored comedy as a child. So, secretly, my favourites are books like The More the Merrier, Eating Things on Sticks and Ivan the Terrible. I can almost hear my own daughters’ frequent expression. “We had a good laugh.” And I’d always be happy to settle for that.

I would like to thank Anne Fine for taking the time to answer my questions so fully. It has been a treat and I hope that readers have enjoyed the interesting responses as much as I have.

My thanks to Kirstin Lamb and Barrington Stoke for providing my free copy and for arranging the interview.



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D-Day Dog by Tom Palmer

In this poignant and thought provoking World War 2 story Tom Palmer weaves together diverse voices to commemorate those who lost their lives during the D-Day Landings and sympathetically answers some of the most difficult questions about war itself. This is a must buy for school libraries.

Historical fiction gives a voice to those who are no longer with us and when it is written for children it enables them to see people from the past as flesh and blood human beings just the same as people today. This well researched and extremely thoughtfully written story will educate young readers as well as entertain them. Tom Palmer has linked together multiple strands and very different voices, bringing them together in a way that makes this difficult subject accessible to children.

Jack and his classmates in Year 6 are shortly to go on a residential trip to Normandy to visit the D-Day Landing beaches. Beforehand they have to learn more about the brave people who gave their lives so that others may have a future. This has particular relevance for Jack as his dad is a reserve soldier who is called up for action. This causes upset at home for Jack and prompts him to question all his previous attitudes to war. He seeks comfort with his beloved dog, Finn and at school starts to find out about a paratrooper who parachuted into France with his dog. As Jack carries out his research and the day of departure on their school trip draws near he learns more than he expected and during his time in Normandy Jack will find answers to his many questions.

In addition to the main storyline Tom Palmer includes a range of diverse characters including a young girl from Syria seeking asylum in the UK and a pupil who receives 1-1 support in the classroom. This never feels contrived but instead strikes a good balance and results in the story feeling true to life and relevant to today’s young readers. Jack himself is a character who children will empathise with, he tries to do the right thing but can make mistakes. His family situation and his relationships with his friends feel believable and as a reader I wanted things to work out well for him.

As with all Barrington Stoke’s books this book is also produced in a dyslexia friendly format and at 180 pages is not too daunting for the more reluctant reader.

This is a book that will make children think but does not preach at them, a tricky task to pull off effectively sometimes but Tom Palmer has achieved it. I would highly recommend this thoughtful book for school libraries and classrooms.

The eye catching cover is designed by Tom Clohosy Cole.

Thank you very much to Kirstin Lamb and Barrington Stoke for providing me with my free review copy.

Tom Palmer’s comprehensive website contains a range of free resources linked to this book which teachers are sure to find useful in the classroom. There are historical details and questions to prompt discussion at the end of the book too. Tom has also written about the inspiration for this important book on my blog here.



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We Won an Island by Charlotte Lo

Islands have featured in fiction and in particular in children’s fiction for many years. From Kirrin Island in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series to Stephenson’s Treasure Island, the islands in Kensuke’s Kingdom and Robinson Crusoe and also in picture books, like Struay in the Katie Morag series. Islands are often synonymous with adventure and sometimes with secrets too. The island in Charlotte Lo’s debut novel for children fits in perfectly with this theme. However there is a difference. In this story Luna and her family win an island in a competition. The island will be their new home.

When the family hear the news of their win Luna is absolutely delighted as she thinks she will finally be able to achieve her dream of acquiring a donkey of her own. Luna’s older sister, Margot is less thrilled. In fact initially she refuses to move. Fabien, the girls’ goat obsessed younger brother, is already planning how he will keep goats in their new home. Mum ponders the possibility of starting a yoga retreat on the island whilst Dad, still grief stricken after the death of the children’s much loved granny, is unable to raise enthusiasm for anything at the moment. However the move goes ahead and the family discover that their island is beautiful despite needing much work done on the house and its surroundings. Then their plans hit a few snags and things get rather tricky for the children with much hilarity and excitement along the way.

This is great fun and guaranteed to put smiles on faces. There is a very positive feel about the story which is engaging from the first pages onwards. The three very different children are fond of each other and the sibling relationships are realistic. The dramatic change to the family’s lifestyle is a good discussion trigger for children and some of the locals reactions to the new arrivals are interesting too. As the story progresses we watch Luna’s growing friendship with Kai, a boy from the mainland and the three children’s attempts to organise a festival both of which storylines encounter a few hiccups. Fabien is a delightful character and the cause of many of the books amusing moments. The reader is made aware of the grief suffered by families when a loved one dies but this is not dwelt on and in fact is dealt with in such a matter of fact way that younger readers will gain reassurance.

We Won an Island is a happy, enjoyable read which readers aged about 8 plus will enjoy, especially if they are animal lovers. It would work well read aloud too, the short chapters would be perfect for ten minute sessions in the classroom.

Thank you to Nosy Crow Books for providing me with my proof copy. The book has an attractive cover and chapter headings by Aviel Basi.



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D-Day Dog by Tom Palmer – The inspiration for the story

One of my favourite children’s books from 2018 was the wonderful Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer. On 2nd May his latest book, D-Day Dog, is published in time to mark the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. It is another extremely thoughtful and powerful story. Tom has kindly written about his inspiration for D-Day Dog here. Thank you very much, Tom, for this interesting insight.

Putting Animals to War

How reading another animal at war story, The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico, inspired me to write D-Day Dog

 This was going to be a blog about why authors write about animals in war. There are a fair few children’s books that combine war and animals. Michael Morpurgo comes to mind, but there are others. Kate Cunningham. Megan Rix. Sam Angus. But I should let them speak for themselves and just say why I wanted to write about an animal’s role in war.

It was The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico for me. I didn’t read it until I was in my thirties, but when I did it got to me in a way none of the war films I’d watched or war comics I’d read as a kid got to me.

The Snow Goose is about a boat-owning solitary man, Rhayader, who lives out on the salt marshes of Essex. It’s set in 1940. With the help of a local girl he rescues and rehabilitates an injured goose. Then the call comes for small craft to save what is left of the stranded British Army. Rhayader has a boat. He works with the goose – who guides his boat – to help rescue stranded soldiers from Dunkirk.

For me it was the girl and her take on the man and the goose that drew me in. The emotional power!

I wasn’t a big children’s book reader until then. This changed my reading. And therefore, my writing.

So when I set about writing D-Day Dog I had that reading experience in mind.

My book is about a man, an animal and what happens to them on D-Day. As seen through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. I took Paul Gallico’s lead for this. For me Gallico’s story works because you see the adult-in-war and its relationship with an animal from a child’s point of view.

One of the big questions in D-Day Dog – for me – is whether it is acceptable to use animals in war. I was torn. I still am. If a pigeon can save a dozen soldiers’ lives – and survive itself – then why not? Ferrets are being used today to help rescue people from bombed buildings. But dogs with bombs strapped to them going under tanks? Never.

I wanted to explore my feelings and attitudes in D-Day Dog through a boy called Jack. Jack goes through the range of reactions I went through, thinking through his ideas about war.

I do my best not to sugar-coat animals’ involvement in war. The last scenes in D-Day Dog include Jack going to visit the grave of Glen, a Paradog, in France. And you hear – second hand – how Glen and his handler came to be buried there.

I’m still torn about whether animals should be used in war. But writing the book has helped me get my head round it.

Tom Palmer

Tom Palmer’s brilliant website includes interviews, chapter excerpts and a wonderful range of resources.



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No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

No Ballet Shoes in Syria tells the story of Aya, an eleven year old asylum seeker from Aleppo in Syria. It is a story of hope and of kindness. Aya provides a voice for all the millions of child refugees seeking a safe haven in our world today. This moving and thoughtfully told story for today’s generation of young readers contains echoes of the stories of previous generations of children who searched for a place they could call home. A wonderful and important children’s book.

We meet Aya as she waits in the local community centre with her mother and baby brother for information and advice about their application to stay in England and to receive aid from the volunteers who run the food bank. Her mother is traumatised and defeated by the family’s recent experiences so much of the decision making is falling on Aya who is too young to cope with these responsibilities. It is at this centre she discovers the local ballet class. The music, the voice of the teacher and the movements and attitudes of the young girls remind Aya of happy times in Syria before war struck. Gradually she is drawn into their midst when one of the pupils, Dotty, a whirlwind of enthusiasm, befriends her. Then the principal of the ballet school, Miss Helena, spots Aya’s talent and suggests a plan that may allow her to achieve her dreams. But at the same time Aya and her family must fight to remain in the country that she is slowly beginning to think of as home.

This moving and well told story builds up to an emotional climax slowly and carefully. The trauma of Aya’s escape from Aleppo and the subsequent journey to freedom is gradually revealed as her memories of the events are triggered by her situation in England. These are brief initially but expand to provide more details as the story progresses. This results in the reader getting to know Aya in a similar way to her new friends in the ballet class which allows for a dawning realisation of what she and her family have endured. This is always handled appropriately for the target age group for this lovely book but as a parent I ached for both Aya and her mother. The absence of Aya’s father is at the heart of their sad situation and this is poignantly portrayed by the author.

Catherine Bruton wanted to tell a story that would make young readers look beyond the labels “refugee” and “asylum seeker” and I believe she has achieved this. Aya is an engaging, thoughtful character and I particularly liked her relationship with Moosa, her baby brother. The cast of supporting characters, including Mr Abdul, the kindly old man from Somalia and Mrs Massoud, desperate for news of her son in Damascus but ready and willing to look after little Moosa and sympathetic to Aya’s mum’s situation, all give a sense of real people enduring an intolerable situation.

The growing friendship between Aya and the other girls in the ballet class would be an interesting topic for discussion in the classroom. They are not all welcoming initially and the use of labels and that attitude of “otherness” that can be so damaging is well drawn. It is a thoughtful touch to provide a back story for Dotty too, as this helps strengthen the girls’ friendship.

Ballet loving readers will adore all the dance related references. I thought Miss Helena was a wonderful character and it is her story that provides the link to history and the way in which, sadly, the world has a way of repeating mistakes. Yet this is a story full of hope. It is a celebration of how much the kindness of others can achieve in the darkest of times for those in need. A valuable lesson for today’s young readers.

I loved this story very much.  In her introduction Catherine Bruton refers to the importance of books such as When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr for opening children’s eyes to important issues and broadening their horizons. No Ballet Shoes in Syria is a book that you could definitely add to the list. Highly recommended.

Thank you very much to Clare Hall-Craggs and the publishers, Nosy Crow Books for kindly providing my proof copy. The eye catching cover is by Elisabetta Barbazza.

No Ballet Shoes in Syria is published on 2nd May.

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Jasper: Space Dog by Hilary Robinson illustrated by Lewis James

Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing this entertaining book weaves fact and fiction together in a package that is designed to be accessible to a broad readership. Jasper would be a valuable addition to all primary school bookshelves.

The first in a new series by award winning author Hilary Robinson, this engaging book cleverly mixes facts with fiction in an entertaining way that results in children learning without them realising that they are doing so.

The story is told in the form of humorous letters between eight year old Charlie Tanner and Dr. Isabella Starr, a Rocket Scientist. Charlie asks questions about the moon and space travel on behalf of both himself and his extremely curious dog, Jasper. The questions young readers may want answers to themselves are put by this duo such as: Is the moon really made of cheese? How are space rockets powered? And, Why did one astronaut on Apollo 11 not walk on the moon? All these questions and more are answered with clear explanations and children will be learning while being entertained. Astrophysicist, Dr Suzie Imber acted as consultant for the book ensuring that all factual information is correct. In less than 100 pages it manages to cover a great deal and I even learned how Buzz Aldrin acquired his nickname!

A great deal of effort has been made to ensure that the book is designed with an inclusive approach and dyslexie font is used for the reduced text which is on cream paper and broken up by appealing illustrations. The artwork is provided by Lewis James, who is supported by The Prince’s Trust. Hilary Robinson also shared early drafts with teachers and children in several primary schools. All of this preparation has resulted in a package that should appeal to a broad range of young children, including both emergent and more confident readers.

This is the first in a new series, the second sees Jasper learning about the Vikings which sounds equally appealing.

I would like to thank Hilary and Strauss House Productions for sending me my proof copy.

Teaching Resources linked to Apollo Missions and the Moon Landings

If you are considering covering the anniversary of the moon landing and space travel in the classroom there are a range of online resources available. I have selected just a few that may be helpful.

Space Kids http://www.spacekids.co.uk/moon/ This site contains information about the Apollo missions including Apollo 11 and the first men who walked on the moon.

Peanuts and NASA http://ymiclassroom.com/lesson-plans/peanuts-nasa/ Fifty years ago Apollo 10, the NASA mission used Charlie Brown and Snoopy part of the U.S. space program when their names were used as call signs for the command and lunar landing modules. Now NASA and the Peanuts gang have teamed up to help students explore the history of space flight and the amazing technologies NASA will use to land astronauts on Mars. They have created separate activity sets and lesson plans for all primary school age groups which are available on this website.

ESA Space for Kids https://www.esa.int/kids/en/home The European Space Agency’s website for children. Information about spacecraft, the moon and more.

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