Super Readable Books For Children

In her helpful guide to nurturing readers, The Book Whisperer, teacher Donalyn Miller prefers the term ‘dormant readers’ to the more widely used ‘reluctant readers’ arguing that these are children who have not yet found the right book to hook them into the reading habit. Barrington Stoke have for more than twenty years been working to help these dormant readers find that special book. Their editing process ensures that the books they publish are more accessible, presented in a special super readable font and on cream paper to reduce glare. But they know that what really hooks children is a good story. These two books, published on 3rd September, although different in themes and content are both good stories that will encourage more children to see that reading for pleasure is for them too.

Noodle the Doodle by Jonathan Meres illustrated by Katy Halford

As a school librarian I was frequently asked by children to show them where they could find ‘the funny books’ and Noodle the Doodle would definitely be on the funny shelf. This has huge child appeal. Jonathan Meres has brought a typical primary school classroom to life in this happy story and there is a great deal in this adventure that would be reassuringly familiar to young readers.

When Mr Reed tells the children that they have a new member of the class starting that day none of them expected him to have four legs, a noisy bark and a shaggy coat! However Noodle the dog quickly makes himself at home, listening when the children read him stories and ‘helping’ to deliver messages to other classes. When the class go on their trip to the seaside of course Noodle must go with them, even if this may have more chaotic results than anyone expected.

Jonathan Meres has taken care to ensure that young readers will find someone with whom to identify in this story. The class is made up various diverse types such as the little girl with all the answers and an impressive general knowledge, the class clown who wants to make his friends laugh, the shy child who gains confidence reading aloud to Noodle and, importantly, a boy who worries and is wary of dogs. The teacher is kind and comforting and all the mayhem is resolved in a happy ending that leaves the way clear for there to be more adventures with Noodle. A really lovely story to recommend to newly independent young readers exploring their personal reading tastes, with entertaining illustrations by Katy Halford completing the appealing package. There is a downloadable Doodle activity sheet available here.

The House of Clouds by Lisa Thompson with illustrations by Alice McKinley

Lisa Thompson’s ability to both capture and carefully convey children’s emotions is displayed in this thoughtful and tender story about family relationships and coping with loss. A tale in which love, friendship and the magical power of imagination are brought together to comfort, reassure and also to encourage us all to stop and take notice of what really matters.

As this story opens Tabby is unhappy. Her best friend has abandoned her and since Grandad has come to live with her family their home life has been disrupted. All the changes made to accommodate an elderly person result in Tabby no longer feeling comfortable in her own home. She struggles with Grandad repeating the same old stories and does not really believe all of them. Worst of all she has to take Grandad’s smelly dog for a walk each day after school. Yet an unplanned visit to a mysterious, old house whilst walking Grandad’s dog followed by tragedy changes Tabby’s views.

This is a lovely story leaving the reader with much to think about. It is an important reminder to cherish those we love, to savour every minute, focus on the world around you rather than the artificial one on social media and to value true friendship. Yet again with these novellas published by Barrington Stoke short in length does not mean brief in impact. Despite dealing with themes of grief and sadness this is not a depressing read for children. Far from it in fact, it highlights the power of friendship and love to make things better and also the possibility that magic does exist if you can learn to trust your imagination.

Thank you very much to Kirstin Lamb and Barrington Stoke for providing my review copies. More excellent books have been produced by this publisher over the summer and a couple that you may have missed are After the War by Tom Palmer and Sequin and Stitch by Laura Dockrill illustrated by Sara Ogilvie and I would highly recommend both of them.

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Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: a retelling by Tanya Landman

One of my favourite books as a teen was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, a book that caught my imagination and lingered in my memory for years. As an adult I read and enjoyed The Tennant of Wildfell Hall by her sister Anne. However despite several attempts the work for which their sister Emily is renowned has never had the same effect on me. This is in truth an understatement, and now is probably the time to confess that I actively disliked the leading characters and have never managed to finish reading the book. My relationship with Wuthering Heights goes back a long way. I’m of the age to remember the Monty Python sketch in which Heathcliff and Cathy communicate by semaphore across the Yorkshire Moors. No wonder I struggled when this prompted my first attempt at reading this classic! Fast forward a couple of years and Kate Bush gave the book a whole new appeal so older and hopefully a little wiser I had a second attempt. Although more successful I still found the Yorkshire dialect and the complex plot unappealing and started to wonder what I was missing. Over the years TV adaptations and a guilty conscience have encouraged me to try and engage with this highly rated classic and I simply couldn’t. I had admitted defeat.

However Barrington Stoke and Carnegie Award winning author Tanya Landman have come to my rescue. Earlier this year the publication by this brilliant team of a retelling of Jane Eyre captured what made that particular book special for me and made it accessible to a wider audience. I enjoyed that version immensely. Could they make this reluctant reader finally understand the appeal of this classic beloved by so many? The short answer is, yes. Let me explain how.

Firstly it is, I think, a stroke of genius to retell the story from Cathy’s point of view. She is a complicated character, as a child unmanageable and wild and as a young adult selfish and at times unkind, even cruel, so allowing the reader to observe and experience events through her eyes is enlightening. Heathcliff is not a conventional romantic hero by any means; his desire for revenge coupled with Catherine’s self absorbed wilfulness is crucial to the plot. Possibly this is why I struggled with the book when I was young as I mistakenly expected a romantic novel when in fact it is a tragedy. Tanya Landman’s powerful retelling captures all the drama, passion and conflict so well. In the opening chapters she conveys how much the wildness of the Yorkshire Moors means to the young Catherine. The child loves nature and feels at one with the landscape she inhabits and unhappily constricted when she is confined to the home. Cathy’s wild ways put her at odds with those around her but encourage the bond which rapidly develops with the young orphaned Heathcliff when he is brought home by her father.

As the story progresses and the conflict between family members and others grows the sense of claustrophobia and impending doom loom ever larger. The story has lost none of its darkness in Tanya Landman’s shortened version but is made more understandable and accessible. The bond between the two troubled characters is depicted with care showing how Catherine and Heathcliff are almost like twins in their thoughts and attitudes. There can be no happy ending for this couple and the reader accompanies them through their harsh childhood, foolish marriages and pain.

I was impressed at how Tanya Landman managed to retain the overall tone of this dark tale and yet still ensure that young readers are able to engage with the story. I can imagine this would encourage discussion about the motivation of key characters and provide an opening to the novel itself for some. This would be an invaluable book for secondary schools and will, I am sure, bring this novel to a wider readership. It definitely worked for this sceptical reader!

Published on 6th August and as with all Barrington Stoke books presented in a dyslexia friendly format this book would be excellent for reluctant readers and for more confident readers looking for a quicker read. With content suitable for teens this book has a reading age of 9.

I should like to thank Kirstin Lamb and Barrington Stoke for providing my review copy.

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Brilliant New Children’s Books – illustrated young fiction and middle grade adventure

Over the last few weeks several new books have been published for children including some that were delayed due to the pandemic and I would like to share just three of them. Children overcoming fears, making friends, having adventures, magic, humour, dragons, space and rainforest exploration ensures that there is something here for all tastes and every one of these should be popular in primary school libraries and classrooms.

Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Space by Katie and Kevin Tsang illustrated by Nathan Reed

This is the last in the series featuring Sam Wu, a likeable if slightly unlikely hero, and no doubt young readers will be sad to say goodbye. This is a fast paced and funny story yet with a reassuring and thoughtful theme of making friendships work in difficult circumstances.

It is the summer holidays and Sam is given the chance to go to Space Camp with his friends and as a huge fan of the TV series Space Blasters Sam has never been more excited. He is desperate for his friends to enjoy it too and would love to work together with them to win the Space Challenge Trophy. However to do this Sam has to conquer his fears and cope with others who may be reluctant team players which may be an even bigger challenge.

This entertaining series tackles common childhood fears and this final instalment would be reassuring for children who may have misgivings about being away from home on residential school trips. There is a lot of fun in this adventure but an insightful look at children’s friendships too. I particularly liked how Sam was depicted as a kind, considerate team leader and as a character he has developed a braver attitude which may inspire youngsters. There is a positive message of the value of tolerance and learning to work as a team running through the story. However children very quickly recognise a preaching tone and in my experience avoid books that adopt one, thankfully Katie and Kevin Tsang have brilliantly avoided this and the story is great fun whilst still containing a valuable life lesson. 

The engaging format of this book with its use of illustrations, graphics, differing fonts and amusing footnotes makes this an attractive read for children moving on to slightly longer independent reads; wonderful for readers who may find pages of dense text a little daunting. A jolly read but containing a great deal of warmth and understanding too

The Boy Who Dreamed of Dragons by Andy Shepherd illustrations by Sara Ogilvie

We may have thought that this delightful series ended with The Boy who Flew with Dragons but happily we were wrong. Tomas is back and so are the dragons. However the dragons have now grown and Flicker, Tomas’s beloved dragon, is living far away in the frozen North and only visits occasionally, which Tomas finds hard. However dragons are never far away and soon a new baby dragon hatches from Grandad’s dragonfruit tree at the bottom of the garden. Zing is tiny with very large wings and, like the other dragons, rather antisocial toilet habits and very soon, as regular readers may anticipate, magic and mayhem ensues.

However there is a subtle difference in this fourth instalment as we enter a time of change for Tomas and his friends. A new girl, Aura, starts at their school and immediately announces that she is a dragon expert which results in Tomas feeling both confused and a little threatened. However before long the two children are united by their shared interest and find themselves caught up in a new adventure together. 

This story is just as charming and amusing as the previous books and I enjoyed the tantalising hints at what the future may hold for Tomas and Aura. The family relationships and childhood friendships are depicted so well and I particularly like the close bond between Tomas and his little sister Lolli. Told with warmth and kindness this is a lovely adventure full of friendship, magic and secrets and the lovely illustrations by Sara Ogilvie capture this perfectly.  If you haven’t already read any of Tomas’s adventures you may like to try The Boy Who Grew Dragons  which is the first in the series. More good news is that there is another adventure due to be published in 2021! There are some fabulous resources linked to the books on Andy Shepherd’s website.

My Name is River by Emma Rea

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Perfect for young readers who enjoy adventure stories this exciting read also has a strong ecological theme running through its engrossing plot.

Dylan has dreams for the future. Perhaps they are simple dreams but they matter greatly to him; all he wants is to spend time with his friends in the Welsh countryside and grow up to follow in his father’s footsteps on the family farm. Then all his ideas and plans are swept away by a global pharmaceutical company who want to purchase the family farm. Dylan resolves to stop them and save the farm he loves so much. Together with his new friend Floyd Dylan sets off to put things right but his journey will take him to the Amazonian rainforest and dangers that he never anticipated. 

With short chapters, a swiftly moving plot and a likeable protagonist I think this will be popular with a wide readership. Emma Rea writes convincingly and her research of the settings shows in the descriptions of Salvador and the rainforest itself with these settings brought vividly to life.  Lucia, the street child who comes to Dylan’s rescue, is a wonderful character. Brave, compassionate and with a delightful turn of phrase thanks to learning English through a pocket thesaurus she and the more reserved Dylan form an unlikely but strong bond. A villain who in the best tradition of children’s books will have readers desperate for their demise and many thrilling moments add to the enjoyment.

In addition to being a great adventure My Name is River would be a perfect book to study in the classroom linking to many important themes such as preservation of our environment, animal testing in science and medicine and our global connections. A children’s book with similar themes to Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson and The Explorer by Katherine Rundell and highly recommended.

I should like to thank Fritha Lindqvist, Egmont, Piccadilly Press and Firefly Press for providing my review copies.

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After the War Auschwitz to Ambleside: Q & A with author Tom Palmer

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Barrington Stoke, the publishers of this beautiful book, offered me the opportunity to ask Tom Palmer some questions about After the War, its inspiration and the writing process and I am delighted to share his interesting and thoughtful replies here.

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Photo: Barrington Stoke Publishers

The subject matter of After the War is both important and challenging and you have successfully managed to convey this within a storyline that is appropriate and engaging for contemporary young readers. Did you know from the outset how you planned to approach the content or did the story evolve from your research? 

First of all, thanks for saying that. That’s what I was trying to achieve, so I am glad you think it works okay.

The answer is I knew 100% that After the War had to be based on primary sources. I began with the audio recordings of the Windermere Boys – 300 children who came to the Lake District from the concentration camps in 1945 – on the Lake District Holocaust Project website. It had to start there. I was told by people who have worked in Holocaust education that you must be entirely faithful to the true events. There is no need to make anything up, no need to embellish, anyway. So I listened to hours of recordings and then read the books written about and by the Boys. Then it was just a decision as which of the true stories to work with, with the guidance of my editor at Barrington Stoke and the Lake District Holocaust Project. You can listen to the Boys’ interviews at http://ldhp.org.uk/?page_id=507.

Despite having spent many happy childhood holidays besides Lake Windermere and having family connections I knew nothing of the Windermere Boys. Why do you think they have only received attention in the last few years? How did you learn about them?

My wife heard about them on Radio 4’s Open Country (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0000xrc). Then we checked out the From Auschwitz to Ambleside exhibition at Windermere Library, then I met Trevor Avery, who led the team that put the exhibition together. He has great relationships with the surviving Boys’ and their families. He joins the survivors in schools to pass the story on. He was crucial to the film The Windermere Children coming out earlier in 2020. But all this work has really only happened in the last 10 years.

Gradually I built up what I needed. I also travelled to Auschwitz, then Theresienstadt, the camp where the Boys were liberated from. On a lighter note, to reach the part of the shoreline where the Boys would have played and swum, I had to canoe down from Ambleside to reach that. And I also took part in an archaeological dig on the site in July 2019.

You consulted primary school children at one point when writing the book and shared the story with them. Did this result in you making any changes and if so what type of alterations did you think necessary?

Hugely. I took a late-ish draft of After the War to Grasmere Primary, one of the nearest primary schools to site. The main point they made was that they did not want to be over-distracted by the drama of the events or their emotional impact on the readers: they wanted the facts. They wanted to know what the children’s lives were like before the Holocaust, what happened to the children during the Holocaust and what happened after they came to England. I remember the look on their faces when they said all this to me. It will stay with me forever. Yes, we like the story, but we want to know the facts, to understand the why, the what, the how. So I went through the book and rewrote several sections to make sure I was being clear and not being manipulative.

This is your 50th book. What an achievement! In what ways do you think children’s publishing has changed since your first book? Do you think that your writing style has changed too? 

I think children’s publishing is far more decentralised and therefore more child-friendly. A lot of that is down to libraries, booksellers and bloggers, including the likes of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups acting as a two-way conduit between publishers and readers.

Authors are much more in touch with the children’s book world (and mightily grateful to them) and their readers through these channels. Also, I think there is a flourishing of smaller publishers excelling. Look at Barrington Stoke winning the Carnegie with Lark. It feels more bottom-up then top-down.

I’m not sure that my style has changed. To be honest, I don’t know. It probably has. The big deal for me has been confidence. The more confident I have become the more I dare take on bigger subjects. I would never have dared writing from the point of view of soldiers in the trenches or Holocaust survivors at the beginning of my writing career. Now I do dare, so long as I have the expertise of others to guide me. But the main reason I think my recent books – Armistice Runner, D-Day Dog – have done pretty well is because of the quality of editing I get from Ailsa Bathgate.

In After the War and your previous books connected with WW1 and WW2 it is obvious that you have carried out an enormous amount of research. Have you always had an interest in history or has this developed alongside your writing? 

To be honest – as I’ve already alluded to – I would never have dared write about history before. I thought you had to be a historian or something that I wasn’t to do so. Then – with the help of another writer and the fact the book was about footballer – I wrote Over the Line. Then I realised that – so long as you do your research as in-depth as you can – you draw the confidence from that. That and enjoying reading history fiction, notably Rosemary Sutcliff and Bernard Cornwell. Gradually I built up confidence.

There are loads of free resources relating to After the War at www.tompalmer.co.uk/after-the-war.

What type of book do you hope to write next and do you have an ideas or plans you can share with your eager readers? 

I am writing a story about the Second World War Arctic Convoys with Barrington Stoke at the moment. It features HMS Belfast and the Imperial War Museum is giving me lots of help with that. That might be called At Sea and should be out in May 2021. As well as that I have been commissioned to write books 7 and 8 of the Roy of the Rovers series by Rebellion. Then there’s this other idea that I have, but I have to stop thinking about that for now and get on with the jobs I have been asked to do!

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Thank you very much Tom for taking the time to provide such full, interesting and detailed replies to my questions. I have learned a great deal and have found following up the links you provided fascinating too.

After the War is a remarkable and rather special book and I would urge others to read it if you can. Sometimes books really do matter and I think that this one does. 

 

 

 

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New Picture Books – stories to put smiles on faces

There is a flurry of activity in the world of children’s books at the moment with several books being published this week and among the range of titles are these two picture books. They made me smile and I think they will make children smile too.


Albert Talbot Master of Disguise by Ben Manley and Aurelie Guillerey

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The world can be a daunting place when you are very young, especially if you are a bit of a worrier.  The school day is full of opportunities for young Albert to worry; what will he say at Show and Tell, will he stay afloat in the swimming lesson?  Perhaps it would be easier if he were someone else. Albert decides to pretend that he is not Albert, a slightly anxious, small boy but instead he is a dangerous desperado, an intrepid explorer and even a galactic superhero. Suddenly things become a lot easier for him.

This lovely celebration of the power of the imagination will reassure small children, particularly as the variety of experiences depicted are situations which they frequently encounter. The story is told with kindness and with a great deal of humour. The names of Albert’s alter egos are a delight. Swimming lessons take on a different feel when your name is Zandrian Delaclair, Antarctic Submariner and who can possibly resist your Show and Tell presentation when you are in fact Professor Ocatavius Pickleswick, Mechanical Engineer? This would be brilliant to read aloud. The wonderful, bright and colourful illustrations by Aurelie Guillery are packed with detail and include helpful labels and entertaining additions.

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As Albert’s interesting day draws to its close he has discovered the joy that can be found through imagination but also the comfort in being yourself too. A lovely, happy picture book. Oh and Ben Manley tells me that my name is no longer Anne, it is in fact Birta Ungerpup, Professional Waffle Ironer. That made me smile too!

The Teeny Weeny Genie by Julia Donaldson and Anna Currey 

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This is an entertaining picture book based on the familiar rhyme, Old Macdonald had a Farm and told with a magical twist. The farmer, Old Macdonald himself, is clearing out the farmhouse when he comes across an old, dusty teapot. Inside the teapot is a genie who is now disturbed from his peaceful slumbers by the farmer rubbing the teapot clean. Before long the the genie finds himself granting the farmer’s wishes, all his wishes. The resulting chaos proves too much for the poor genie who is desperate to escape but is unable to work magic for his own benefit. Thankfully the little genie is not the only genie disturbed by the racket and perhaps genie number two can save the day.

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The classic, watercolour style illustrations by Anna Currey complement the text and add to the overall traditional feel of this jolly picture book. This also would be lovely to read aloud and the story encourages involvement by very young listeners with noises to copy and actions to imitate. Quite possibly resulting in a story time as noisy as the farmyard! The Teeny Weeny Genie does contain a message about being careful what you wish for and the ending allows young readers to give some thought to what they would wish for given the opportunity.

Thank you to Two Hoots, MacMillan Children’s Books and Clare Hall-Craggs for providing by review copies. Both books are published on 6th August and can be purchased at all good bookshops. You can search for your nearest independent bookshop here.





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Sequin and Stitch by Laura Dockrill illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

Laura Dockrill’s debut for Barrington Stoke weaves together family, loss and hope in a story that is both poignant and striking in its portrayal of our society. This is a touching and imaginative tale with love at its centre.

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Nine year old Sequin’s mum is a talented seamstress who works all day and most of the night on beautiful designer dresses for famous people. Their tiny twelfth floor flat is bursting with colourful fabrics, sumptuous silks, buttons and twinkling beads. Sequin loves it there, it feels like a haven. While her mum works Sequin looks after her baby brother, Stitch and dreams that one day her mum will get the recognition she deserves. It is the designers whose names appear in the magazine articles and next to the glossy photos. Although her mum appears resigned to this Sequin believes it should be her talented mum who receives the accolades. To make things worse when Sequin chooses her mum as her ‘inspirational person’ in a school presentation her classmates do not believe her descriptions and accuse her of lying. Unkind children tease Sequin about her mum who never leaves the flat and although Sequin is quick to deny the accusations and defend the mother she loves very much she is hiding her own fears and anxiety.

Laura Dockrill’s writing is fresh and accessible and with Sequin as an engaging narrator this is a story that children will find both relatable and thought provoking. The author has explained how this story was prompted by the Grenfell tragedy and yet here she dwells not on the loss and the grief but on the sense of community, the resilience of children and the feeling of hope for the future. At less than 100 pages this is a short read but nonetheless it is one with considerable impact. Subjects such as mental health, bullying and grief are important elements of the story but are approached with care and in a suitable manner for the intended audience. The plot and the subtleties of the characters are revealed by degrees in a well executed storyline culminating in a satisfying ending.


Laura Dockrill has drawn on her own childhood experience for some of Sequin’s world and the description of her home clearly shows for this as the setting comes to life in the writing. There are some lovely touches in the depiction of characters such as the young fashion designers and Sequin’s neighbour who all feel true to life.

Despite the subject matter and the link to a dreadful national tragedy this is a story full of kindness, love and hope. We often cite the importance of books as a means of encouraging empathy in children and this book and its thoughtful message is evidence of how they are able to do this. A highly recommended read. This book 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 8.

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

Barrington Stoke have published a number of books dealing with serious themes and you may like to look at It’s a No-Money Day written and illustrated by Kate Milner a picture book about a family using a food bank or Owen and the Soldier by Lisa Thompson another kind story looking at grief and anxiety.





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After the War by Tom Palmer

In recent years Tom Palmer has written historical fiction for children that has focussed on events that took place during the two world wars. Both Armistice Runner and D-Day Dog are books that are enjoyed by young readers and also enable them to understand and empathise with people and situations outside their own experience.  In After the War he takes the most challenging subject matter and with thoughtful care and respect makes it accessible to children.  This is an incredibly powerful book telling an unforgettable and important story.

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Cover: Violet Tobacco 

After the War was inspired by the three hundred child concentration camp survivors who came to the Lake District in the summer of 1945 for ‘recuperation’.  The story is told through the eyes of a Polish boy named Yossi, who, with his two friends Leo and Mordecai, has survived the horrors of the camps to find himself in the beautiful surroundings of Lake Windermere where it is hoped they can begin to recover. They are shown kindness and care by those looking after them on the Calgarth estate and the local people. At first the children struggle with both their surroundings and the contrast with their recent traumas. Gradually Yossi’s initial fears subside and he and his friends learn to trust the adults they now live with and Yossi grows healthier and stronger. Yet Yossi is haunted by terrible nightmares prompted by memories of his wartime experiences and troubled by constant thoughts of his missing father. Each day he waits anxiously for news and wonders what the future holds for him, Leo and Mordecai. The boys desperately need to feel that they belong and that they have a future that will be free from fear.

This book is immensely moving; I had to stop reading at several points and collect my thoughts.  The story leaves you needing to sit quietly and think about its impact. Tom Palmer has created in Yossi a boy who readers will relate to and understand. He has managed to convey the important fact that these boys, these children, are no different in essence to the young people reading the story seventy five years later. There are points in the story where small touches capture what matters to children and will bring home to today’s readers that these boys have so much in common with them. Events such as when Yossi is forced to hand over his beloved bicycle to the German authorities, the misunderstanding about unfamiliar food in England and the way smells evoke memories from long ago all contribute to making this feel relatable to today’s children. Tom Palmer uses Yossi’s memories to tell the story of the appalling events that he and others witnessed and experienced and the contrast between his earlier life and his current situation is stark.

To be able to write about this subject in a manner that does not diminish the horror but also conveys the story in an appropriate way for the intended audience takes skill and understanding. Tom Palmer has honoured the memory of these children and those who died whilst still creating a story that will engage young readers. As with all Barrington Stoke titles After the War is presented in an accessible format,  with a typeface suitable for dyslexic readers making it appealing to a wide readership. The more simplified use of language does in some ways I think add to the impact.

It is important to stress that this is a book full of hope and ultimately of love. The value of close friendship that can be, at times, almost akin to a family relationship is highlighted and we are reminded of the importance of loyalty, resilience and trust. Despite the events of the past which these courageous boys have endured the reader turns the final page with an optimism for their future and the knowledge that there is goodness to be found if we look for it. This is a beautiful book. Beautiful, powerful and important. Anyone who reads it will not forget it.

Thank you Tom Palmer and Barrington Stoke.

After the War is published on 6th August and can be preordered/purchased on the Barrington Stoke website.

You can watch a trailer for the book below:

 

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Freedom We Sing by Amyra Leon and Molly Menoza

Visually stunning this picture book is a poem, a song, a rallying cry of hope and belief. Vibrant and uplifting it is full of joy and optimism, this would be a wonderful addition to school and library bookshelves and a beautiful picture book to share at home.

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I wonder, then, what freedom is. Is it a place? Is it a thought? Can it be stolen? Can it be bought?

This is both beautiful and powerful. Freedom, We Sing is a lyrical picture book designed to inspire and give hope to readers around the world. A mother and child share a conversation about the earth, its inhabitants and what freedom means to each and everyone of us. They talk about life, love and family in this poetic and diverse look at humanity. The stunning, vibrant illustrations by Molly Mendoza are eye catching and inviting, as soon as you see the cover you are tempted to discover more. The lyrical and emotive text begs to be read aloud. That Amyra León who wrote this book is a musician is not a surprise as the text flows and soars and the repeated refrain, “Inhale, exhale” is both calming and uplifting. A book that confirms and celebrates everyone’s right to be free; the joyous fold out double page spread towards the end of the book invites the reader to join in with the celebration. I can see this being a fabulous book to use in school assemblies or as part of a classroom session on human rights. The text invites the reader to answer questions about the meaning of freedom and to observe the differences and more importantly the similarities in people of different races, beliefs and circumstances. It builds to a joyous climax of hope that leaves the reader feeling part of something special. 

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A book to empower and start conversations, Freedom We Sing has been endorsed by Amnesty International for reminding us that we are all born equal.

There is a fascinating, thoughtful interview with Amyra León and Molly Mendoza on the We Need Diverse Books website which provides an insight into the creative process and the importance of books to engage and empower children and nurture their curiosity.

Thank you to Flying Eye Books for providing my copy. Freedom, We Sing was published on 1st July and is available to buy at all good bookshops, you can search for your nearest independent bookshop here or purchase the book online here.


If this book appeals you may also enjoy 
Child of Galaxies by Blake Nuto and Charlotte Ager another lovely picture book that explores our place in the world and how we are connected to each other. Here We Are – Notes for Living on Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers is a thoughtful guide to our world and is an inclusive and thoughtful picturebook. 



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Reading Matters – news from the world of children’s books

Hello and welcome to this week’s look at the latest children’s news. The schools in my local area have already closed for the summer holidays or will be doing so in the next few days. Reading Matters will be taking a break for the summer too so this is the last issue for a little while, however this has been another busy week so there are many articles and news items still to share. I hope you find something in this week’s collection interesting, useful or simply enjoyable.

What I’m reading…

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The 20 Books of Summer Challenge has encouraged me to focus on books that have appealed and yet have been neglected due to other reading commitments. Toffee by Sarah Crossan was most definitely worth the wait and my review gives a taste of what to expect if you would like to find out more. Another book, this time for a middle grade audience, that I was looking forward to reading was The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson and over the last few days I have enjoyed this one too. It is a charming, magical story with a fairy tale feel and lived up to expectations. I plan to post my review in the next few days.

News and resources…

‘The prize of all prizes’: Teacher Kate Clanchy’s memoir wins Orwell award– Kate Clanchy’s “moving and powerful” memoir about working as a teacher in the state education system, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, has won the Orwell prize for political writing.

What Would Bernardine Read? – the author of Girl, Woman, Other recommends her top twenty reads by black British womxn writers including Malorie Blackman, Catherine Johnson and Patrice Lawrence.

The Three Rs of Reading Aloud in Lockdown– A great article on the OURfPleasure website by Ben Harris, a Y6 teacher, who discusses the ways in which he ensured children continued to access quality Read-Alouds during lockdown. He explores some of the interesting effects of reading aloud on children’s emotional wellbeing, showing in particular how it supports the ‘Three Rs’, Reassurance, Recovery and Relaxation.

The Literacy Calendar 2020 – 2021 – this is a wonderful and extremely helpful resource created by Sadie Phillips. It includes a mixture of writing and reading competitions, events, days, weeks, festivals and shadowing schemes suitable for primary pupils. It is available to download in both PDF and Word formats. Great for planning for the next school year.

Love My Books is Five Years Old! – Lovemybooks was launched in 2015 with the aim to combine carefully chosen books with activities and resources designed to help parents and young children enjoy sharing books together. The website now contains over 220 activity pages used by families, schools and nurseries and Frank Cottrell Boyce has recently become a patron. There is lots to explore on their extensive website and you can sign up to their regular newsletter too.

Gender gap in children’s reading grew in UK lockdown – survey – “Greater access to audiobooks at school and home may help re-engage boys with literacy, the report from the National Literacy Trust (NLT) and Puffin says, as findings suggest these are more popular with boys.” An interesting article in the Guardian.

Biting off more nonsense than you can chew….with Mini Grey– a delightful and entertaining guest blog post by Mini Grey on the Picture Book Den. Mini describes illustrating the new collection of poems by A F Harrold due to be published in September. The book sounds and looks wonderful.

Reading is Magical Festival – Bath Children’s Literature Festival have joined forces with fellow festivals to create the Reading is Magic Festival this autumn! A free, inclusive and engaging digital book festival for schools and families.

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The Little Rebels Award Shortlist – The shortlist has been announced for this award which celebrates children’s fiction which challenges stereotypes, promotes social justice and advocates for a more peaceful and fairer world. You can read more about the list and links to reviews in this Books for Keeps article.

Little Rebels Book Award Interview – this is a fascinating history of the award founded in 2012 which includes a look at previous winners.

Children’s Books That Help to Teach About Emotions – these stories selected by Caroline Bologna for Huffpost all help children understand and express feelings including anger and sadness.

Axel Scheffler shares unseen illustration work on the Picturebook Makers blog – I think this is a fascinating article and a wonderful insight into the creative process behind the production of picture books. It also includes a look at Axel’s sketchbooks and early observational drawings.

Tom Palmer: Family reading means everything to me– as part of #ReadingTogether day on Thursday author Tom Palmer wrote this personal and touching article about his own family reading experience. I think he is a wonderful ambassador for this new initiative.

Finally, some book reviews that caught my eye this week…

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson (story & art), Omar Mohamed (story), Iman Geddy (colour) – the power of graphic novels in building empathy is discussed in this blogpost by Melanie McGilloway as part of the blog tour to launch this new graphic novel.

Monsieur Roscoe On Holiday by Jim Field – another blog tour and another lovely review from Melanie. Alongside the review of a picture book that sounds delightful and great fun Jim Field also recommends his five favourite picture books in French. I’m so tempted to try and brush up my O Level French with these!

I Am Not A Label Written by Cerrie Burnell Illustrated by Lauren Mark Baldo – an empowering collection of biographies profiling over 30 disabled creators, thinkers, activists and athletes. Joy Court, in her review for LoveReading4Kids says “A comprehensive glossary and helpful discussion of language choices around disability and representation throughout add even more usefulness to this essential and attractive resource.”

The Great Godden by Meg Rossoff – this book keeps being mentioned online as a good read. Books for Keeps says that although “ostensibly a Young Adult novel there is much here for adult readers too.”  Perhaps we should all put it on our summer reading list?

Well, that’s it for the time being. Thank you for reading and a special thank you to those who get in touch to comment or share via Twitter and to everyone in the children’s book community who have supported each other and continued to create fabulous books and useful resources during the last few difficult months. There will continue to be book reviews and occasional articles posted on here and I hope to bring Reading Matters back too. Wishing you a happy, safe and restful summer.

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Toffee by Sarah Crossan – Book 4 of 20 Books of Summer 20

In 2013 I challenged myself to read all the shortlisted titles for that year’s Carnegie Award and found that I discovered authors new to me and also explored genres that had beforehand not appealed. The high point of the exercise for me was a book called The Weight of Water, a debut written in free verse by Sarah Crossan. Had it not been for the Carnegie this was a book that I would probably not have selected from the shelves and yet I loved it. A poignant, touching story of a Polish teenager struggling to make a new life in England that left me moved and also impressed by the author’s skill. Since then Sarah Crossan has been shortlisted  for the Carnegie again with Apple and Rain, won the award for One in 2016, been appointed Laureate na nÓg and this year was longlisted for the Carnegie for Toffee. Every one of her books has made an impact on me, in particular Moonrise, a devastating story centred on capital punishment and sibling love which was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award in 2017.

 

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So to Toffee, published last year and somehow on my to read list all this time without actually being read. Thank goodness for the 20 Books of Summer 20 challenge. Something that Sarah Crossan does with great success is make challenging subjects accessible to her readers. The writing style, like her previous books, told in verse, results in pages with much white space, short sentences and a book that feels like an ‘easy read’. Easy perhaps in reading speed but not however in content. Toffee tells the story of Allison who runs away from home and is taken in by Marla, an elderly woman with dementia, who in her confused state of mind mistakes Allison for an old friend, Toffee. Allison has reasons for disguising who she is and so does not correct her mistake and moves in with the old lady. Gradually a relationship of sorts develops between the two which slowly becomes a bond of friendship and the reader sees these two fragile people discover a strength and a unity that is at times quite beautiful.

I loved this, so much so that as I reached the last page I wanted to turn back and start again at the beginning. Sarah Crossan writes about difficult subjects such as abuse, dementia and mental health with care and with kindness. She draws her characters so well that you want the best for them even when they are not behaving perfectly. Is Allison taking advantage of Marla at first? We are asked to suspend judgement and wait for events to unfold and when they do we are rewarded with a story that feels complete and believable. The verse format enables us to witness the story in a series of snapshots and therefore the more harrowing aspects are not dwelt on yet they are still deeply affecting.

The depiction of dementia is disturbing in its poignancy. There are flashes of the younger Marla, her humour and lust for life reappear and we are made aware of the woman she once was. Or perhaps still is, just buried a little further down beneath layers of life, experience and age. Sometimes the friendship between Marla and Allison breaks through the mists of memory loss and the two share a pleasure in dancing and joking together. It is both heartbreaking and beautiful.

This YA title is one that I imagine will be extremely popular in secondary schools, the style will enable it to be read by a wide audience and its important themes lend themselves to discussion and thoughtful exploration.  Sarah Crossan has become one of my favourite authors.

This is the fourth book on my #20BooksofSummer2020 challenge organised by Cathy at 746 Books.  If you would like to see which other books I’m planning to read you can browse my list here.

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