The Ink House by Rory Dobner

Welcome to the Ink House, an artist’s mysterious mansion built on a magical lake of ink that inspires creativity in anyone who lives there. When the artist goes away on a trip an array of animals great and small venture into his home ready to prepare for the Annual Ink Extravaganza.

The Ink House

This eye catching book is quite difficult to put into a category. In a large format with its black cover and gold typeface it has an instant appeal and I immediately wanted to pick it up and examine it. The wonderful ink illustration of the artist’s mansion on the first pages has a gothic look to it with a slight fairy tale feel too. Each page introduces the different animals starting with Maestro the Mouse, the music maker, and Freddie Foxglove, the fox who acts as master of Ceremonies and then continues through the wide variety of friends. My personal favourite was Huxley, the body-surfing hedgehog!  Rory Dobner is an artist and product designer and his beautiful illustrations are intricate and detailed. Some pages have a dramatic impact and I thought the procession of silhouettes as the animals departed was beautiful.


This striking book is primarily a work of art. There is a lack of narrative with the text being a description of the animal guests or maybe I should more accurately describe them as gatecrashers or squatters! This lack of storyline may be an issue for some but I do think that children will enjoy examining the wonderful illustrations. Perhaps they will also be inspired to be creative and use the pictures as an inspiration to design their own party guests.

Maybe we don’t need to be able to assign a particular label to a book but it does help to be able to identify its core market. Personally I think this is a book that will appeal to older children and adults too and its beautiful appearance ensures it will probably be bought as a gift.


Rory Dobner has also created a range of homeware featuring the Ink House animals. There is more information about this and his other artistic creations on his website.

Thank you to the publisher, Laurence King Publishing for providing my review copy.

Posted in Book Review | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lost Magician by Piers Torday

When I was about eight or nine years old I was given the book  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a present. It was the book that turned me into ”a reader”. For the first time I felt a sense of shock and disbelief at events told by the author and I truly cared about and identified with the characters. I later re-read the story at different points in my childhood with a greater understanding of its meaning and it is, of course, a book mentioned by many adults as a childhood favourite. The story had a great impact on Piers Torday and such was its effect that he has now written his own book, The Lost Magician, in homage to the C S Lewis classic.


In view of my own relationship with and memories of the Narnia chronicles I approached this new story with a mixture of excitement and slight trepidation. I need not have worried. Piers Torday has captured what made The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe so special and created in this new exciting, thoughtful and wise story a celebration of reading, books, libraries and the power of the imagination.

Library Rule No. 1 ”If you can imagine it, it must exist. Somewhere.”

We meet the four children, Simon, Patricia, Evelyn and Larry in 1945 as they arrive at the home of Professor Diana Kelly where they are to spend the summer holidays while their parents cope with the aftermath of the Blitz and find a new home for them all. Once there first Larry and then the other children in turn find a mysterious secret Library door through which they reach the magical world of Folio. Those who live in this kingdom, The Reads made up of talking bears, miniature knights and other characters familiar from fairy tales, stories and legends are in an eternal battle with The UnReads an army of metallic robots lead by a Queen made of glass through which columns of numbers shine.  The children find themselves caught up in this conflict and their only hope of resolving the situation is to find the creator of this world,  a magician called The Librarian who has been lost for centuries.

This outline of the plot sounds familiar and yet as you read you discover so much more and gradually the relevance to our modern world becomes apparent. The battle between the inhabitants of Folio could be described as a conflict between facts or knowledge and the world of the imagination. There is another element to this magical world that terrifies all who live there, the Never Reads, representing ignorance. As the children’s quest continues they and the reader discover some important truths about both themselves and the world.

The characters of the four children are wonderfully drawn and young readers will find much to identify with in their different personalities. Each of them has been affected by the trauma of war and in their individual ways are trying to cope with its impact on them. Larry the youngest, always clutching his beloved Grey Bear, has an instant appeal having an open, gentle and trusting manner. His belief in the magic of stories and imagination is the driving force beneath all that takes places.  I like to imagine him becoming a children’s author eventually! Evie is the child possibly most traumatised by her war experiences and this manifests itself in a determination to discover the truth behind everything. She feels she has been fobbed off by stories and now questions and wants answers. Patricia, a sensible and thoughtful girl, has been forced to grow up too quickly and in some ways takes on a maternal role with her siblings. Simon is a very interesting character who, although at times hard to warm to, is hiding his own feelings of inadequacy. A young man desperate to live up to his father’s expectations and experiences but struggling to know how to do so. It is a thoughtful touch to make it clear that Simon is dyslexic too, reinforcing the message that stories are for everyone even if you don’t find it easy to read them yourself.

It is hard to describe more of the story without giving spoilers but this is, like its inspiration, a book that can be read on many levels. After the scene setting opening the excitement mounts at a great pace and the story telling and world creation is wonderful. I really could see the beautiful valleys, the great plains and the forbidding mountains. I loved all the moments of recognition of old friends from other stories of which there are many. The most obvious being Larry and his dear friend bear bumping along behind him and the three talking bears who provided wonderful porridge for the children. There are moments where I relived episodes from my beloved Narnia but this never felt like a replication more a gentle reminder of previous wonders.

This is a cracking adventure that children will enjoy but they will then go away and ponder and remember. It is then that the magic of the storytelling by Piers Torday, a magician himself, will make them realise what they have learned. The readers will learn that although we need information and knowledge we need stories to help us make sense of them. We need previous experience found in stories and history to help us make decisions and avoid making the same mistakes. Perhaps also we need to learn not to be arguing amongst ourselves and instead work together against a common enemy.

I loved this book and will undoubtedly return to it. It is a story that makes you think, makes you care and makes you imagine. Perhaps best of all it is a story that speaks to the nine year old inside us all.  I suspect that in years to come today’s children will look back at this wonderful story as one that made them ”readers” too. The satisfying ending reveals that there will be further adventures in the land of Folio and I am very much looking forward to being part of them.

Lastly, the wonderful cover illustration by Ben Mantle is simply perfect for the story.


Posted in Book Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The School Librarian of the Year Award – a celebration of superheroes

On Tuesday 9th October the School Librarian of the Year award ceremony took place in the Judge’s Court above Brown’s Restaurant, Covent Garden. Librarians, authors and members of the children’s books community gathered together to celebrate the wonderful work carried out by some remarkable school librarians.


The four Honour Award Librarians, Emma Suffield, Alison Kennedy, Dr. Cchavi Jain and Nicki Cleveland with author Lauren St John

The very best librarians are those that meet the needs of their community and this is particularly obvious in the work done by school librarians. Their role is a unique one being a blend of both academic and pastoral and also catering for every single pupil within their school. At the moment I am reading The Lost Magician by Piers Torday and in the opening chapters he says this about librarians:

Although, Evie supposed a librarian was kind of halfway between a parent and a teacher.”

I was reminded of this during the presentations for all four of the outstanding librarians on this year’s Honour List. The schools they work in are very different to each other, an international school in India, a Lancashire C of E Academy, an independent boarding and day school for girls and a state primary school. This illustrated perfectly the range of skills required of today’s librarians. However there was a common thread running through the comments made by both the pupils and staff at these schools. The libraries were welcoming places where people felt safe and happy.  At one of the schools pupils said the library was “exciting” and “felt like home.” That’s a tricky combination to pull off successfully and yet the librarian had managed to do it. Both teachers and pupils discussed how the librarians acted as a mentor, supporter and almost as a friend. In addition to teaching how to access information successfully and use it productively, encourage reading for pleasure and nurture readers who enjoy a wide range of fiction these librarians were guiding pupils over career choices, exam technique and life’s everyday problems.

Emma Suffield, winner of this year’s School Librarian of the Year Award, encompasses all of these skills in her role as Learning Resources Centre Manager at St Wilfred’s C of E Academy in Blackburn. She is viewed as both a friend and member of the family by both pupils and parents. Emma has a creative and positive approach to her work that has made a big impact on her school in her time there. Incredibly she has achieved a 450% increase in book borrowing since she took over four years ago.


Emma Suffield School Librarian of the Year 2018

Children’s author Lauren St John presented Emma with her award and in her speech beforehand Lauren stressed the importance of libraries and librarians. She said that she had read research that stated that “reading is training in the art of being human.” Libraries and librarians enable access to books and reading for all regardless of income or situation.  Lauren St John said that she was blown away by the standard of the  librarians on this year’s Honours List. She went on to describe librarians as “superheroes” and “particularly now in our world when many people in power don’t realise the importance of libraries.”

In his closing remarks, Alec Williams former chair of the School Library Association, said that there is so much more to the role of school librarians than the traditional image. He mentioned the growth in creative use of social media by school librarians, particularly in engaging children with authors. This was particularly evident in the primary school, I thought, with pupils saying they had met authors they had never heard of but loved their books.

All four of the school librarians being honoured are wonderful ambassadors for their profession. In her lovely acceptance speech Emma Suffield thanked last year’s winner, Lucas Maxwell for his help, support and sharing of ideas. Emma has already started to do the same via Twitter and I am excited to see what the coming year holds for Emma and the #GreatSchoolLibraries campaign for which she, and the other three librarians, are such an excellent advert.


A chapter of School Librarians of the Year past and present, Lucas Maxwell, Emma Suffield, Amy McKay and John Iona

The Great School Libraries Campaign is a joint campaign officially launched last month by the School Library Association (SLA) and CILIP School Libraries Group (SLG) campaign supported by CILIP to ensure that every child has access to a great school library.

For news, information and downloadable resources please visit the dedicated website for the campaign

Please do support this very important campaign. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all children had the opportunity to have school librarians such as those celebrated at this happy occasion

Thank you very much to Alison Tarrant, CEO of the School Library Association for inviting me to the ceremony, it was a delight to be part of such a special afternoon.



Posted in Libraries | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Perfect Picture Books for Libraries Week

Libraries Week takes place between the 8–13 October to celebrate the nation’s much-loved libraries.
This year, with a focus on well being libraries across the country will showcase how they bring communities together, combat loneliness, provide a space for reading and creativity and support people with their mental health.It’s not just public libraries – libraries of all kinds in schools, workplaces and universities have amazing services that improve our wellbeing.

Picture books are a wonderful way of sharing and celebrating all that libraries do to make children’s lives better. Here are a few that have been enjoyed by young listeners in the school library over the years. I hope they work their magic for you too.

Madeline Finn and The Library Dog by Lisa Papp.

A personal favourite. A gentle story offering hope and encouragement to children who may find reading difficult. The calming  illustrations with their slightly old fashioned feel perfectly match the text that is a celebration not only of libraries but also of the “reading dogs” scheme.

516bJ6hobcL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Madeline Finn does NOT like to read. But she DOES want a gold star from her teacher. But, stars are for good readers. Stars are for understanding words, and for saying them out loud. 
Fortunately, Madeline Finn meets Bonnie, a library dog. Reading out loud to Bonnie isn’t so bad; when Madeline Finn gets stuck, Bonnie doesn’t mind. As it turns out, it’s fun to read when you’re not afraid of making mistakes. Bonnie teaches Madeline Finn that it’s okay to go slow. And to keep trying. 

A Library Book For Bear by Bonny Becker and Kad MacDonald Denton 

This is a treat to read aloud being full of humour. Bear is a very reluctant library user but is won over by his friend Mouse (small but determined) and a library storytime session that illustrates perfectly that somewhere there is the right book for everyone. Even bear.

A1zojB6zoDLWhen Bear reluctantly agrees to go with his friend, Mouse, to the big library, neither rocket ships nor wooden canoes are enough for Bear’s picky tastes. How will Mouse ever find the perfect book for Bear?

The Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara

This picture book is suitable for the youngest of listeners. The concept of a library coming to life at night to cater for the needs of a small army of animals is very appealing to children and the ”tiny librarian’ adds to the almost fairy tale feel. The distinctive illustrations in black, midnight blue and yellow create a secretive atmosphere in this very special library.

61IhboR+pLLWhen we are fast asleep in bed, the Midnight Library opens its doors to all the night-time animals. Inside the library the little librarian and her three assistant owls help each and every animal to find the perfect book. But with a noisy squirrel band, an upset wolf and a slow-reading tortoise to help, they could all be in for a very busy night.

How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel by Wendy Meddour and Rebecca Ashdown.

An absolutely wonderful twist on a traditional tale that will lift the spirits of any librarian or book lover. This happy story told in rhyme, accompanied by vibrant illustrations, relates how Rapunzel is released from a drab and dreary life not by a dashing Prince Charming but by a job in the library and the discovery of books.

61pVNjnHxjL._AC_SY400_Rapunzel sits on the sixteenth floor of an inner city block, bored, dreaming and looking out at the rain.  No one can rouse her from her apathy, not the milkman or the postman or the baker or her aunt – or even the prince. But when at last a letter is delivered, it contains news that has Rapunzel on her feet again. She has a new job at the library! And suddenly her life is busy, sparkling, exciting and stimulating.

Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar by Emily Mackenzie

Ralfy is a book lover. Unfortunately he loves books just a little too much, even those that belong to others. Frankly I have a bit of sympathy with Ralfy, so many gorgeous books it’s tempting to want to own them all. Sadly this is not really possible. So hurrah for the library! This is a great way to introduce a discussion with children about right and wrong and not taking things that don’t belong to you. A book to spend some time over as there is a lot to look at in the illustrations with plenty of visual humour.

wanted-ralfy-rabbitt-book-burglarSome rabbits dream about lettuces and carrots, others dream of flowering meadows and juicy dandelions, but Ralfy dreams only of books. In fact, he doesn’t just dream about them, he wants to read them ALL THE TIME. Soon his obsession sends him spiralling into a life of crime!

These are five of my favourites but there are several more wonderful picture books celebrating libraries of all sorts that I’ve shared successfully over the years and I’ve included pictures of these below in case you want to try them too. Perfect for Libraries Week but worth reading any week!

Collage 2018-10-08 09_59_08





Posted in Book Review, Libraries | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Secrets of a Sun King by Emma Carroll – Review and Link to Resources

Five years ago this month I reviewed Emma Carroll’s debut novel Frost Hollow Hall for The Bookbag. At the time I said that the ten year old me would have loved the book. Each of her subsequent novels has reminded me why I enjoyed as a child, and continue to enjoy, historical fiction. This latest title, both an exciting adventure and a window to long ago worlds is sure to hook young readers and encourage them to explore history further.


When Lilian Kaye finds a parcel on her grandad’s doorstep, she is shocked to see who sent it: a famous Egyptologist who had been found dead in mysterious circumstances and is the subject of the newspaper headlines that day.

Lil’s Grandad tells her that the mysterious package holds the key to a story. A story of secrets and wrongs that must be put right in order to break the deadly curse. So Lil and her friends, Tulip and Oz embark on an incredible journey – to return the package to its proper resting place, to protect those they love, and to break the deadly pharaoh’s curse.

Tutankhamen’s story has great appeal for both adults and children and Emma Carroll has captured that feeling of mystery and lost youth perfectly. The long lost writings describing the last days of this famous pharoah starkly bring home how young he was and this will undoubtedly add to the appeal to today’s children. The two stories, one in 1920s London and the other in ancient Egypt, have themes that weave the two together in a satisfying whole. Friendship, secrets and efforts to correct past mistakes are part of an exciting and well plotted adventure that moves at a pace sure to keep readers engrossed until the very last page.

Lil is a strong yet very likeable character and both she and Tulip supported by Tulip’s mother and, surprisingly to me, Lil’s father are feminist role models. This is also a book were diversity is recognised in a subtle and at times almost incidental way which, I think, normalises acceptance of differences. A lovely and thoughtful touch. There is mention too of the attitudes of many in 1920s England to other countries and peoples which would prompt interesting discussion and comparison to our world today.

This book has caused an excited buzz among primary school teachers and I can well understand why. It would work brilliantly as a class read linked to Ancient Egyptians. However, it certainly qualifies for a place on primary school library and classroom shelves even if this is not a topic being studied as it is an adventure with heart that can most definitely be enjoyed for its own sake. Emma Carroll, Queen of Historical fiction for children? Yes, I think so!

If you are looking for teaching resources linked to the novel Faber Publishers have some excellent ones free to download on their website

The websites listed below have information on Ancient Egypt presented in a child friendly way. Just click on the images to access the sites…


Children's university of manchester

Finally the excellent Books for Topics website has a list of books, both fiction and non-fiction, related to Ancient Egypt that children will find both interesting and informative.

Posted in Book Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reading Rocks South – Some Highlights

RR South

Over 200 primary school teachers, librarians, classroom assistants and others linked to the book community gathered together on a sunny autumn Saturday to celebrate and learn about children’s books, reading and how to encourage reading for pleasure in the classroom at the University of Greenwich. It takes something special to encourage people to give up a valuable weekend and this gathering of book lovers and educators was indeed something special. The combination of inspirational keynote speakers and well informed, experienced workshop facilitators ensured that everyone left for home at the end of the day buzzing with ideas and enthusiasm. It was a frantically busy event with many ideas shared and with time only to attend two workshops it was not possible to hear everything said but I thought I would share some of the key points that I took away from the day in case they are helpful to those who were unable to attend.

The Books You Read as a Child Are the Most Important Books You Read.

IMG_20180929_153748Christopher Edge, award winning children’s author and former teacher made this remark during his keynote speech in the afternoon and this was, I felt, the key to the whole day and the reason we were all there. He expanded on this by sharing a quote from The Lost Childhood by Graham Greene and shown on the slide here. He went on to say that books open doors to other worlds for children and by opening many doors we help children’s understanding, provide them with a refuge and perhaps the possibility that they will in turn create a better world. This importance highlights the need for access to a wide range of books for all children through libraries and schools. It was fascinating to hear how Christopher was influenced by Neil Gaiman’s work as a child, sneaking off school to get a book signed by the famous author at a local bookshop. Discovering that authors were in fact ”real people” inspired him to go on to become an author himself. One very good reason to encourage author visits to schools for as Christopher himself said ”Scratch every writer and you find a reader.”

All Reading Counts as Reading

Heather Wright, the wonderful organiser of the day, kicked off the event by making the point that ”One reader’s trash is another reader’s pleasure.”  Each reader is an individual and their reading habits will reflect their own interests and preferences. Even more importantly all reading matter counts, including comics, magazines, cereal packets, posters and online reading. Teresa Cremin suggested that children are encouraged to create a visual montage of everything that they read over a 24 hour period and include all these suggestions in addition to books. This enables them to see themselves as readers.

Reading is About Making Connections


When a reader reads a book they are making connections between their own experience and understanding and the characters and the events in the story. Each reader will experience the book in a subtly different way. In addition when we share and talk about books together we are making connections between people and creating a reading community. In a school this is hugely important in nurturing a positive attitude to reading. In Martin Galway’s workshop we learned about an initiative at the school at which he is a governor where they share one book throughout the whole school. The Take One Book approach enables teachers to share one book that they love with the children, explore it properly and use it as an inspiration for work across the curriculum as a community. You can find out more about the outcome on Herts for Learning website.

As a primary school librarian I know that librarians connect with their users on a daily basis however a key connection that encourages reading is that of a teacher and pupil.  Teresa Cremin and the Open University have carried out a great deal of research on this and their website is full of practical advice and case studies on how to become a true Reading Teacher. A Reading Teacher is reader who teaches and a teacher who reads but in addition thinks about their own reading and shares it with their pupils. At Teresa’s workshop we discussed ways of creating reading communities in schools. These included starting staff meetings by reading aloud from a children’s book. reading books at assembly and teachers sharing their own childhood reading histories.


Reading Aloud Makes A Difference

At several points throughout the day the speakers read aloud to the delegates. The effect this had on us as listeners was striking.  Roger McDonald, Senior Lecturer at The University of Greenwich read The Rascally Cake by Jeanne Willis and Korky Paul aloud to a large group of adults who enthusiastically joined in with the humorous rhymes and rhythms of the story. When a little later Nicola Davies read aloud her new picture book, Perfect, beautifully illustrated by Cathy Fisher you could have heard a pin drop as we engaged with this moving story told with care and kindness. In each case we as listeners were emotionally engaged with the storytelling and this was evidence, if any is needed, of why reading aloud to children matters. Somehow we have to find time in the school day to make this happen.

Children’s Books Broaden Minds

IMG_20180929_124547Nicola Davies says that when she writes books such as Lots (illustrated by Emily Sutton) she wants children to say when they reach the end, ”Wow! I want to know more about that.”  Although some may say that war is not a suitable topic for young children she maintains that children are exposed to difficult subjects via the media on a daily basis and therefore it is our duty to talk about the world with all its beauties and horrors with them. In her stunning book, The Day War Came (illustrated by Rebecca Cobb) war and its impact on refugees is dealt with in an extremely moving yet age appropriate fashion.  During the Q & A Panel in the afternoon Jane Considine mentioned this subject again, remarking that it is our moral duty to ensure that children learn about lives and worlds different to their own.

This is just a small snapshot of a very full day and there were so many important and interesting topics and points raised throughout the event it is impossible to include them all here. As is often the way in any educational gathering one of the many very cheering aspects of the day was the sharing of ideas, resources and suggestions between those attending. It was a treat to see old friends again, make new ones and to meet Twitter chums in real life. Thanks to the wonderful organisers of Reading Rocks a flourishing reading community of educators has been created and that has to be good news for the children in their care.


If this has whetted your appetite to participate in an event in the future the next Reading Rocks is Reading Rocks North in Northumberland on 13th October and and there is to be Reading Rocks SouthWest in Taunton on 23rd February 2019. For more information please visit the Reading Rocks website.




Posted in Reading, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Help Children Become Really Good Researchers

There was a conversation on Twitter recently about the use of KWL grids in primary schools.  This method for organising a research session asks three questions: What  is already known [K], What would like to be known [W] and What has been learnt (L). The general gist of the discussion was that the ‘W’ can create problems when a new topic is being introduced. If a young child knows nothing about a subject at all how can they identify what they want or indeed need to know? It is possible that after a couple of introductory lessons and prompting by an enthusiastic teacher they will think of something but for many children this would still be too broad a question. However there are alternatives to this system.

As a primary school librarian I have frequently seen children struggle with the need to carry out independent research without a framework suitable for their age group. When the senior management at my school made the decision to alter the teaching of the curriculum to encourage children to carry out independent research rather than being ‘spoon fed’ facts I grabbed the opportunity to become involved and collaborate with teachers to come up with an information literacy (research)  model that would enable the children to investigate independently but also ensure that they covered the elements of the subject that the teachers needed the children to learn.

It is important to note that as a staff we were clear that the teacher would introduce the subject first, provide a general overview and key information. Then the independent research sessions would provide the opportunity for the children to carry out a more in depth study of the subject. Sometimes this would be individually but frequently in pairs or small groups. Their findings would be shared as a class and the information found used in a way previously described by the teacher.

I needed to provide a system to structure research lessons in a way that could be used throughout the whole school and which would work successfully for both teachers and pupils. There are number of information literacy models available for use in education. One that is used frequently is The Big 6 method. This is very popular and there are many resources available online to support the use of this model. However after a great deal of thought and discussion I settled on the PLUS method devised by James Herring. There were a number of reasons for this choice. I believed the acronym would be easy for primary pupils to remember as it was a word with which they were already familiar. The division of the different aspects of the research process were logical and readily understood by children: Purpose, Location, Use and Self-evaluation. Lastly PLUS was easy to adapt to a visual aid that I believed would make it more effective and easy to use in the classroom.

I created a poster outlining the PLUS information literacy model that could be used by both teachers and children. This is shown below in a PDF format which you are welcome to download if you would find it helpful, by clicking on the image


At the start of the new academic year I introduced this research model to all the teachers and they were provided with posters to display in the classroom and smaller versions to place inside exercise books. The PLUS visual aid was placed in the library and next to computers as a constant visual reminder to the children. Gradually using the system began to feel more natural to them and one major benefit was that it prompted the children to slow down, pause, think and plan before they searched which generally resulted in a much more successful outcome.

The posters and the defined structure worked very well in Years 5 and 6 but the process needed to be simplified further for lower KS2. However the basic overview of PLUS was a constant basis for enquiry based learning in school. The question, What do I want to find out? in this model is just part of an initial gathering of thoughts about what the children have been asked to do by the teacher and is therefore less vague. In my experience this approach does help the child to focus on the specifics and is preferable to the broad, “Find out about the Tudors”, approach to research. In order to answer specific questions children have to think about what they are reading and decide if and how it answers their research question.

Some children’s idea of independent research is to ‘Google it’’ with little idea of how to use a search engine properly. Although Google can be an extremely valuable research tool children of this age do not generally have the skills to search successfully or to appraise the vast amount of information available.  School librarians are trained to teach research skills – referencing, plagiarism etc. and know how to carry out online research, use digital tools and can guide Google searching. As librarian I stored links to numerous websites for both teachers and pupils, provided links to suitable sites on the school VLE for young children to use both in school and at home and guided research lessons using books and online resources. School librarians can educate the next generation to select, appraise and use the information they find with confidence. This is just one of the many reasons for the new Great School Libraries Campaign.

When planning this whole school approach to research based lessons I found a publication from the School Library Association immensely useful: CultivatingCuriosity: Information Literacy Skills and the Primary School Library This is available to purchase from the SLA website for both members and non-members.

A structured approach to research, using a recognised model, will help primary school children to develop good habits that they will be able to build on as they move through secondary education. We all need to have critical thinking skills and to be able to access, assess and use information to become engaged citizens and primary school is a very good place to start.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lost Diary of Sami Star by Karen McCombie

In her latest book for Barrington Stoke Karen McCombie captures the voice of a young girl who feels she is invisible to her family and friends but gradually discovers that friendship can be found in the most unlikely places.

Lost Diary of Sami Star

Life at home is hard for Hannah at the moment. Her older sister, Vix, is constantly arguing with her parents and Hannah feels that no-one has time for her and her worries. Her parents are concerned for her sister’s future but appear to be uninterested in Hannah’s life. To make matters worse her friends at school don’t appear to understand either. She is beginning to feel invisible. But then she finds an abandoned diary in the park and becomes intrigued by the life of Sami Star whose photos and drawings appear in the journal. Hannah decides to to find the mysterious Sami in the hope that she will be the real friend she needs so badly. But she does not realise that perhaps Sami needs her just as much too.

Karen McCombie writes with kindness and captures extremely well the emotions of a girl in the early days of secondary school who is trying to keep up with her friends and cope with the changes around her. I think that readers will empathise with Hannah and quickly become involved with her story.  At just under 60 pages this is a quick read but manages to convey a thoughtful and worthwhile message.  Hannah is drawn to the happy personality described in the pages of the lost diary but when she finally meets Sami it becomes clear that she has problems of her own. Theirs is to be a special and inclusive friendship that will, we hope, make things easier for both of them. All the different issues in the story are resolved in a happy ending which will leave young readers with a positive feeling. I particularly liked the way in which Hannah gradually learns to feel comfortable with who she is and her own individuality which is a comforting message for many.

As already mentioned this is a short read and presented in Barrington Stoke’s recognised highly readable style. I feel sure that this will be popular in school libraries with readers of about eight plus.

Thank you to Barrington Stoke for providing my review copy. Karen has written several books for these publishers and you can find details of the other titles on their website.  I particularly enjoyed The OMG Blog which I reviewed for the Bookbag.

The eye catching cover of The Lost Diary of Sami Star is designed by Ali Ardington.


Posted in Book Review | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Race to the Frozen North – The Matthew Henson Story by Catherine Johnson

This is a remarkable story about an equally remarkable man and this enjoyable retelling ensures that his story will reach the wider audience it deserves.

Race to the Frozen North

Eleven year old orphan Matthew runs away from his violent stepmother to try to find a new life in Washington city and is taken in by a kindly woman to help in her cafe. Sleeping on the floor beneath the counter at night and sweeping the floors and running errands during the day Matthew earns his keep but always dreams that life holds something more for him. However, from this inauspicious start no one would ever have imagined that he would become the first man to reach the North Pole. Through hard work and determination Matthew becomes a sailor, navigator and craftsman and ultimately an explorer and right hand man to Commander Robert E Peary on his expedition to the Arctic.

The explorers I learned about at school included names such as Scott, Columbus and Amundsen and in recent years new children’s books about Shackleton, Hillary and Armstrong have been added to the school library shelves.  Yet, to my shame, I had never heard of Matthew Henson. Catherine Johnson, in her introduction to this book published by Barrington Stoke, explains why this is the case.  Although he was the first man to reach the North Pole his story was suppressed for decades because of the colour of his skin.

I read this story with mounting admiration for Matthew and anger at the way he was treated. In addition to being a wonderful, gripping and exciting adventure his story is one that will prompt discussion with young readers on a variety of important themes. These include prejudice and discrimination and resilience and determination. Matthew goes to sea at a very young age, as was common at the time, and learns much from a kindly sea captain who acts as a mentor and father figure. Without the input of this man would Matthew’s story have turned out as it did? The kindness of strangers is an interesting aspect of the book and there is a little bit of luck too but the overriding impression is that Matthew works hard and rises to any challenge he faces and it is this that enables him to succeed eventually.

The descriptions of the expedition in the Arctic are enthralling. The bravery of these men and their ability to endure the hardships they faced in order to achieve their aim is astonishing.  The friendships made between Matthew and the Inuits who helped and joined the trip to the North Pole and the lasting, shared memories of this were a touching part of the story too.

It is Black History Month in October and this excellent children’s book is a must to add to any list of titles to mark this occasion. I enjoyed ‘meeting’ Matthew Henson very much, a remarkable man and would like to thank Catherine Johnson for the introduction.

Like all of Barrington Stoke’s books this story is presented in an accessible way suitable for emergent, reluctant and dyslexic readers. However this is also an extremely worthwhile quick read for older and more confident readers too. Last but definitely not least I loved the cover by Katie Hickey.

Like all good historical fiction this wonderful story left me wanting to find out more. There is an interesting interview with Catherine Johnson on Grace Latter’s blog which answers my questions. This National Geographic article provides more background information too.

Thank you to Barrington Stoke for sending me this review copy.




Posted in Book Review, Reading | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer

This thought provoking story follows Lily as she uncovers the story of her brave ancestor. Lily has a lot of worries. She is struggling to compete in her fell running races and unable to concentrate on her training because she fears that she is losing her much loved Gran to Alzheimer’s. But then, whilst visiting her grandparents’ house she discovers her great-great grandfather’s diaries from the First World War. Gradually as his story of bravery is revealed Lily dares to hope that it could provide the key to a re-connection with her Gran and maybe even give her the inner strength and inspiration to win her next big race.

Armistice Runner


The First World War has been the subject of many children’s books in the past and inevitably there has been a flurry of new ones published to coincide with the commemoration of the centenary and this story by Tom Palmer is one of the best that I have read. Armistice Runner vividly portrays the reality of the suffering the soldiers endured in the trenches at a level that is appropriate to its target audience and by cleverly intertwining this with the difficulties faced by a twenty first century family he ensures that this important historical event feels relevant to today’s young readers.

Lily is an engaging character and as we get to know both Lily and her family in the opening chapters their relationships feel very believable. The stress her Dad is under as he worries about his parents, the niggling teasing from Lily’s little brother and the sad despair of her Grandad have all been captured and conveyed by the author in a manner which feels true to life and encourages the reader to care about these people and very quickly to become drawn into the story.

As Lily reads her ancestor’s diaries we learn about Ernest’s success as a fell runner in the Lake District and how he put this ability to good use in the war as a runner messenger. These brave men carried news along the front line and this was an aspect of the First World War that I knew little about. This story pays a moving tribute to these forgotten heroes. The connection between Lily and her great-great grandad is key to this story and it is this connection that provides Lily with the resilience and strength to tackle her rival, Abbie, in the next race.

This is a thoughtful book and ideal for introducing children to the history of the First World War and would be an excellent prompt for discussion on a wide range of topics including dementia, loyalty and forgiveness. I thought the ending was extremely well done providing a moving lesson in overcoming differences and reaching out to others in difficult times. However, this is above all a great story to be enjoyed for its own sake. I quickly became totally engrossed and enjoyed this book very much.

Last but not least, thanks to the lovely people at Barrington Stoke this book is accessible for many readers including those who may be dyslexic or are put off by very lengthy texts. The cover illustration by Tom Clohosy Cole is very eye catching giving the book great shelf appeal. A must have for school libraries and classrooms.

Tom Palmer has kindly produced a wide range of teaching resources linked to the book and these are available on his website. These include downloadable worksheets, theme ideas and posters. I also found the author’s notes at the end of the book both interesting and informative.

If you are looking for other books suitable for introducing WW1 to primary school pupils there is a very helpful list of titles collated by LoveReading4Kids

Booktrust have created a list of titles that may be helpful if you need to discuss dementia with primary aged children.

Posted in Book Review, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments