Six to Read

Last year, I had a small group of children who were fixated on genres – one week they wanted to read mystery books; the next, something emotional. One of my reluctant readers became deeply interested in picture books, and another girl loved stories told in verse, such as Cloudbusting or Love That Dog.

We are well stocked at school, but I sometimes didn’t have the right book to hand, or, on other occasions, the time to sit and talk through a range of books based on the genre they’d asked for. For a couple of the children, I quickly wrote out a ‘six books to read’ reference for a couple of genres – adventure/mystery, humour, and poetry.

 

I thought this might be a useful resource for my class coming up next year, so have tried to improve it a little.

Six To Read is a quick reference guide, and is therefore by no means definitive. It has largely been based on:

a) what I know about the children I have in my class next year

b) books I’ve read myself (with a couple of exceptions)

c) books I know we have in school (I don’t see the value in a child asking me about a book then me sending them away empty-handed).

The complete list is available to download here as a PDF, but I’m more than happy to send over the editable version if anyone wants to change it to suit their class and book knowledge.

The current lists (should) have working QR code links to extracts (from the excellent lovereading4kids site), reviews, trailers and the like, or alternatively a simple blurb. I’m thinking of either printing these as A3 posters, or binding them together in some sort of book for the classroom.

I’m thinking there are lots of different avenues that could be explored too, such as a list for wordless picture books, sports-themed stories, auto/biographies, myths and legends, graphic novels… or even more specific, such as dragons or wolves. This is largely for Y5/6 children so if anyone wants to make a Y3/4 one, that would be great too.

That’s it. Enjoy.

Click to download the full set.

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June #52books2018


62. Elizabeth Laird – Song Of the Dolphin Boy

doplhin boy

This is the fifth of Elizabeth Laird’s books that I’ve read, and is very different from the others.

Set on the Scottish coast, Finn is struggling to make friends with children in the community, and is chased by one of the boys after a disagreement. He hides under a pier, slips, and realises he has a special power.

From here, the story doesn’t quite go in the direction you’d think – magical powers and fabled creatures make appearances, but instead the theme of the book focuses on the environment. Finn learns that dolphins and other animals are being killed by rubbish, and when he learns that a local supermarket plans to release 5000 balloons to celebrate its opening, he overcomes his shyness and forms a protest group with the other children.

Secret Seven-esque, and would be great for years 3 and up.

63. Adam Baron – Boy Underwater

boyunderater

A wonderful story, told by Cymbelline Igloo (this will make sense at the end of the story), a 9 year old boy who boasts that he’s a brilliant swimmer – in fact, he’s never been swimming, and is rescued, shorts round his ankles, from the pool by a classmate.

What isn’t expected is what happens to his mum, who suffers a breakdown as a result of Cym’s accident. Cym has to live temporarily with his auntie and uncle, when he uncovers a secret about his mum that gets him puzzled.

The pace is fast, the humour is non-stop, and the emotion hits hard. Baron does a brilliant job of voicing a nine-year-old’s misplaced confidence and trust, while also leaving lots of jokes for older readers.

Read this – you won’t be disappointed.

64. Ele Fountain – Boy 87

boy87

Set in an unnamed country, Shif and best friend Bini plan to escape in order to avoid military service – but they don’t act quickly enough.

Sent to prison in the middle of the desert, they are left in a container with a variety of ‘deserters’ – people who have spoken against the government and punished. They are left with the decision of whether to escape and risk their lives, or stay and meet certain death.

Shif and Bini’s friendship is a highlight here, all knowing looks and unspoken understanding. It isn’t until the escape that the action really picks up, with new characters offering more questions.

This would work really well with Eoin Colfer’s ‘Illegal’, as it depicts the struggle people have to find a better place, risking lives and being exploited along the way.

Thoughtful, thought-provoking and raw.

65. Sophie Anderson – The House With Chicken Legs

chicken

Based on the Slavic folk tale of Baba Yaga, this story turns tradition on its head: Baba Yaga has always been painted as a witch, an evil character plotting and magicking against others. Here, we see Baba Yaga as a loving grandmother to Marinka.

Marinka assists her grandmother as she sends the dead through The Gate, from one world to the next; however, Marinka’s frustration with her repetitive life, and inability to make lasting, meaningful friendships, leads her to make some questionable decisions.

Throughout the book, Marinka is torn as to what is right and what is wrong – she always seems to have made her mind up, but her stubborn streak is often scuppered by her sense of duty and loyalty to her grandmother, and to her house with chicken legs.

Without wanting to reveal too much, one of my favourite things about the book was that Marinka made bad decisions, and largely had to pay the price for them. This is an important lesson for children to learn as it can often be the case that stories have characters making the wrong decision, but then everything works out just fine. Not the case here, and it’s all the better for it.

Brilliant world-building, a strong female lead and suspense throughout – a great read.

66. Jess Butterworth – When The Mountains Roared

mountains

Ruby moves to India with her father after her mother’s death, from which the family are reeling and become embroiled in debt. Once there, dad vows to develop a hotel at the foot of a mountain – one that is supposedly cursed.

Overcoming her fears, Ruby begins to explore and learns that the mountain’s curse is atually inflicted on the animals, particularly the leopards, who are being culled for their fur. Ruby tries to gain the trust of locals in order to expose what she has discovered – but can she act quickly enough?

Lots of discussion to be had around animal rights and conservation here, and this story would be a great start with years 4 and up.

67. Kate DiCamillo – Flora & Ulysses

flora

Flora adopts a squirrel which has had the misfortune to be vacuumed. Since this incident, the squirrel starts behaving strangely, typing poetry, fighting cats and flying.

Flora’s mother wants the squirrel dead, and the story tracks how their relationship ebbs and flows. Flora’s cynicism about life recedes and she realises all she wants is her mother’s love.

The comic book references are frequent and act as a form of guidance for Flora, and there is a lot of light humour and silliness.

Not one of my favourite DiCamillo books, but still full of thoughtful prose and an interesting, sideways look at life.

68. Peter Reynolds – The Word Collector

words

Jerome is a hoarder, an enthusiastic collector of words that intrigue and beguile him. He keeps them with him as he explores their impact, and there is a lovely ending that is a play on words in itself.

A love letter to vocabulary and its power.

69. Philip Pullman – The Firework Maker’s Daughter

firework

Lila wants to become a firework-maker, just like her father, but he thinks she should find a husband instead.

Outraged, Lila leaves the home to receive official recognition that she is indeed good enough to be a firework maker, but her hastiness leads her, and her father, into danger. Together, they have to work to prove their talents.

Quick, adventurous and a strong message about having total belief in yourself.

70. Diana Wynne Jones – Howl’s Moving Castle

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A story full of magic, led by Howl (or Howell), a magician with an eye for the ladies and who is permanently escaping the wrath of the witch and her curse.

Sophie Hatter has already incurred said wrath, and as such is transformed into an octogenarian. She sets about Howl in order to reverse the spell, but instead finds herself involved in all of his capers.

I have to admit I’m not the biggest fan of stories of magic/fantasy, and this story bypassed me somewhat. I should return to it one day, perhaps.

71. Nicola Davies – The Day War Came

daywarcame

A stunning picture book that lays bare the destruction of war, not just of a home, a building, a town, but of a life.

The story shows a child’s normal school day being destroyed by war, which then follows her as she has to escape her home, her town and her country. She eventually finds herself in a foreign land, where she is generally shown no love, trust or compassion. This is addressed at the end.

Through my own ignorance, I hadn’t heard of the 3000 Chairs campaign, started in revolt against the government’s decision to refuse unaccompanied children from Syria. This picture book started as a poem based on this event and would be a wonderful starting point for discussion in KS2 classrooms.

72. S.E. Durrant – Little Bits of Sky

littlebits

A story told through a collection of diary entries written by Miracle (Ira for short). She and her brother Zac are in care, and have experienced the parentage of lots of different people. When they move to Skilly in London, they have no expectation that this will be any more permanent or rewarding.

Ira finds a letter written by a former resident at the care home, and the spirit of the author helps Ira to become stronger and more focused on her future. When Martha, a woman who wants to help orphaned children, gets in touch through a charity, Ira starts to hope a little more.

A touching and thoughtful story which does a great job tackling a difficult subject. Ira and Zac were authentic, troubled characters who you couldn’t help but feel sorry for, and their story of having hope built up and being knocked down again is one that must be true for so many children, including those we teach.

May #52books2018

I think the first book on this list will remain a favourite for many years. I also fell back in love with David Almond this month – his newest novel is fantastic.

49. Graeme Baker-Smith – The Rhythm of the Rain

rain

Beautiful words, beautiful illustrations and beautiful colours combine to tell the story of the water cycle. A book to promote awe and wonder.

50. Victoria Jamieson – Rollergirl

roller

A coming-of-age story about Astrid, a young girl who is trying to find her place.

Her interest is piqued by the local roller derby club, but joining means threatening a lifelong friendship, lying to her mother, and the realisation that she’s not that great at skating.

Ultimately a story that shows that teenage years can be difficult, filled with what seem like life-changing decisions and a desperation to be loved and to succeed.

51. Gail Honeyman – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

eleanor

Universally acclaimed and so doesn’t need my two-penneth, but here it is anyway: the story of Eleanor is at times harrowing, at times laugh-out-loud, and one that sheds a sorry light on how ‘outsiders’ are treated by the majority – whether co-workers mocking behind people’s backs, or how Eleanor’s struggles to communicate ‘normally’ are met by strangers. Eleanor’s tale is heroic and desperate at the same time, but should make you stop and think.

52. David Almond – The Tale of Angelino Brown

angelino.jpg

Bert the bus driver thinks his time his up when he feels a fluttering around his heart, but is shocked (and pleasantly surprised) to find an angel in his breast pocket. He takes it home to his wife, Betty, and the two of them name him Angelino.

Angelino attends school, where he plays football, becomes the focus for art lessons, and farts music. He brings happiness to all – but others are hunting for him.

The social commentary on what is happening in our schools is brilliant, as the children are shown to thrive in exploration of a variety of subjects, rather than the narrowed-down education that the school inspector wants to bring. Angelino inspires the children and even some of the adults, while Betty and Bert’s story is equally warm and heartening.

Humour with a thoughtful message.

53. Kwame Alexander – The Crossover

crossover

Written largely in free verse and narrated by Josh, twin to Jordan, the narrative explores the difficulties of growing up – loving sport, but finding love elsewhere. How can the two be combined?

Meanwhile, Dad, a former pro basketball player, is hiding his own struggles whilst living vicariously through his sons’ successes in the court.

Packed with emotion, action and drama, a great read for anyone who likes their fiction served a little differently.

54. Elizabeth Laird – The Fastest Boy in the World

fastest

An easy-to-follow short story of Solomon and his grandad. Grandad decides to take a trip from their village to the capital, Addis Ababa – on foot.

What seems like a pointless journey is given poignancy as Grandad reveals secrets of his past before falling ill, at which point Solomon decides to run all the way home for help.

Solomon’s relationship with his grandfather is warm and loving, and the story shows the (literal) lengths families will go to for one another.

55. Elizabeth Laird – Oranges in No-Man’s Land

oranges

A very short story that follows Ayesha’s journey across no-man’s-land as she fetches medicine for her sick grandmother. Lebanon is divided, but on her travels Ayesha encounters the true essence human spirit – sharing, kindness, empathy and goodwill.

56. Various – Make More Noise

mmn

Ten short stories that celebrate females overcoming the ignorance of their male counterparts.

Featuring authors such as Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Emma Carroll, M.G. Leonard and many more, the stories show female characters battling against others in their quest for what is right – whether to be treated equally to men in competition, or in interests, or in strength (physical and emotional).

Lots to enjoy here – my favourites were Emma Carroll’s story about otter hunting, and Ella Risbridger’s ghostly tale.

57. Jo Cotterill – Looking at the Stars

stars

A fictional world that reflects much of what is happening in the world today. Amina and Jenna become refugees after warescalates in their country, under a regime that makes women second class citizens. They get separated from their family in varying circumstances, and the two have to survive how they can – for Amina, this means telling stories.

Her stories entertain other camp-dwellers, give hope to those who have lost it, and allow those who are suffering to escape, even it is just for a few short minutes. Through her story-telling, Amina’s confidence grows, which helps the girls propel themselves to their ultimate goal of finding their family.

58. Ally Sherrick – Black Powder

blackpowder

A fictitious account of the infamous Gunpowder Plot, featuring all of the real protagonists (Fawkes, Catesby et al) alongside Tom Garnett, a young boy whose father gets mixed up in the religious upheaval of the time.

Tom gives the game away to the local constabulary, and the hunt for his father begins – Tom determines that the best course of action is to follow him and warn/help him. On his way, he comes across a mysterious character who refers to himself as The Falcon; Tom starts to trust him – but at what cost?

Lots of historical insight into the class divides as well as well as the religious background to the Gunpowder Plot – fast-paced and twists and turns abound.

59. David Almond – The Colour of the Sun

colour

A warm and wondrous read.

Almond’s semi-autobiographical story sees Davie walking away from his hometown after the murder of Jimmy Killen. On his journey, he encounters various characters who help him see the simplicity and beauty of life.

As he walks, Davie starts to come to terms with his recent loss, and it is this thread that really pulls the story together.

As ever, David Almond’s writing is full of contrast – simplicity in its structure with a depth of meaning that few other writers can reach. There is a beauty here, an acceptance and acknowledgement of life being full of wonder if we let it be so.

60. Linda Sue Park – A Long Walk to Water

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A dual narrative, told from the perspectives of Nya (2009) and Salva (1983), both living in Southern Sudan.

Nya has to walk each day for water: a long, thankless and often fruitless task.

Salva is caught in the middle of a civil war and is separated from his family, making his way to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, then Kenya. We follow Salva’s story as he gets older, where he makes a life-changing decision.

It was fascinating to read from the point of view of those who need fresh water, and the story has a beautiful and fitting end.

The afterword from both Salva and Linda Sue Park hit hard too.

61. Joe Todd-Stanton – Arthur and the Golden Rope

arthur

A really enjoyable picture book/graphic novel-lite that follows Arthur, a a young boy widely regarded as an odd-bod due to his interest in the unusual.

He is quickly blamed for bringing misfortune to his town, and resolved to sort it out himself. He approaches the Norse gods to ask for their help, and is set a series of tasks.

Ultimately, it is Arthur’s eye for the unusual that saves him, and the townsfolk learn to appreciate him for who he is.

April #52books2018

April was one of the most enjoyable months of reading I’ve had for a while – Salt to the Sea and Goodnight, Boy were highlights, as was Morris Gleitzman’s Once series. So much to enjoy.

 

34. S.E. Durrant – Running on Empty

running

A heart-warming story about AJ, an eleven-year-old boy who lives with his parents, both of whom have learning difficulties. The three of them are struggling to adjust to life without recently-deceased Grandad, a man who helped, supported and guided them.

The family begin to spiral into debt, and AJ’s passion for running dwindles when he realises his trainers no longer fit and he can not afford new ones.

AJ’s narration is honest, showing his confusion and sadness now that Grandad is absent, and for me the story has a message of the redemptive nature of sport, particularly with regards to mental health.

35. Ruta Sepetys – Salt to the Sea

salt

This was stunning. Harrowing, difficult, even graphic at times – but stunning.

Four people cross paths in the midst of World War II. Emilia is a fifteen year old Polish girl, desperately trying to remain out of the grasp of the Nazis; Joana is a Lithuanian nurse repatriated by Hitler’s Germany; Florian is a mystery to begin with – is he a soldier on the run?; and then there is Alfred.

Alfred is pathetic. His imagined letters home portray him as an essential part of the Nazi’s operations when he is really a small man with a small mind. He comes across the other three characters as he helps them board the Wilhelm Gustloff.

Florian grows and grows throughout the story, his secret revealed early on. He falls for Joana, a nurse full of heart and wisdom, who in turn goes to Emilia’s aid as her circumstances come to light.

On top of this, there are other wonderful characters, such as the shoe poet, Klaus and Ingrid, and many others beside. The stories interweave perfectly and add subtle layers to each character.

I loved it. Due to some of the graphic nature of the content, particularly in Emilia’s story, it would not be suitable for primary but would be a great book to study at KS3 and beyond.

36. Kate Saunders – The Land of Neverendings

landofnever

A lovely story about what I initially thought would be a dark subject.

Emily and her family are grieving the loss of Emily’s sister, Holly. Emily is naturally finding things hard, and, when she thinks she sees and hears her toys talking to her, assumes she is dreaming or losing her marbles.

Fortunately, Emily’s neighbour (Ruth) sees something similar – she lost her son when he was young – and together the two of them start to explore how and why this could be happening. More and more toys begin to talk and it appears that the magic of imagination is leaking into the real world.

Toys past and present bring comfort to Emily, Ruth and others. The story shows us the power of imagination, love and memory. This resonated with me: grief can affect us all but talking about those we’ve lost is important, and the characters here were strong. Ruth was a kindly, encouraging neighbour, Mum and Dad were trusting and loving, and even Emily’s wantaway friend Maze shows the importance of a lasting friendship.

A strong story of escapism, dealing with grief and friendship.

37. Christopher Edge – The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day

maisie

Maisie is an academically gifted girl celebrating her tenth birthday – a party is being planned and she is looking forward to starting work on cold fusion.

The chapters alternate between what we perceive to be Maisie’s real world and some sort of alternative universe, a place where dark matter is swallowing everything around Maisie.

The chapters continue to go back and forth between Maisie’s reality and ‘other’ world, and then you’re hit with the truth – the final few chapters are brilliant. Sit down for them.

Maisie is a terrific character, intelligent, curious and proud of it. The book’s themes are obviously based in science fiction, somehow being both educational and intense at the same time, but it has a huge heart too. Wonderful stuff.

38. Lissa Evans – Wed Wabbit

wedwabbit

Originally read in January, but I forgot to blog it.

When Fidge’s younger sister, Minnie, is hospitalised after an accident, she is packed off to her cousin’s house with little more than a bag of Minnie’s belongings.

After a storm hits, Fidge and Graham wake to find themselves inside the world of the Wimbley Woos, characters from one of Minnie’s favourite books. Wimbley Land is ruled by Minnie’s favourite toy, Red Rabbit – pronounced Wed Wabbit due to Minnie’s inability to pronounce her R’s.

What follows is an adventure of silliness, daring and confronting fears as Fidge and Graham have to plot Wed Wabbit’s downfall.

Lots of silly jokes, some fairly annoying rhymes and an adventurous land of make-believe.

39. Nikki Sheeran – Goodnight, Boy

goodnight

I feel as though I’m being spoilt at the moment – this was another stunner.

The narrative comes from JC as we see his conversations, both real and imagined, with his dog, Boy. JC and Boy are big living in a kennel, trapped by ‘him’, who we find out much more about as JC tells Boy his story.

We learn about JC’s misfortune and maltreatment in his early life, separated from his family as part of a people-trafficking gang; we find out about his illness and recovery as earthquakes hit his home country; and we learn about his journey that brought him to his current predicament.

Such an original and engaging style here, and I loved JC’s wide-eyed innocence and faith in both Boy and Melanie.

Read it.

40. Neil Gaiman – Odd and the Frost Giants

oddfrost

A short, simple and entertaining story about Odd, a Viking boy, who leaves home and chances upon three talking animals. He ventures to help them return to their normal state.

Drawing on Norse mythology and with some humorous exchanges, this would be great for Y3+.

41. Maz Evans – Beyond the Odyssey

odyssey

Another rip-roaring adventure as Elliot sets off to find the potion of Panacea, a cure for all illnesses and what he sees as the only help he can get for his mum.

Back in the real world, Patricia’s claws are sinking further into the Hooper home, Boil finally sees the back of Elliot, and Dave, the father recently released from prison, is not quite singing from the same hymn sheet as his family.

I really enjoyed Circe’s spiel on school life (yes, there are too many forms), and if Virgo’s speech to the council isn’t a comment on today’s government letting the majority down, then I don’t know what is…or I might be reading too much into things.

I have to admit, WLTGO was a slow burner for me, but now, especially after a beautifully written final chapter, I can’t wait for the fourth instalment.

42. Lauren Wolk – Beyond the Bright Sea

brightsea

A beautifully constructed coming-of-age tale about Crow, a girl whose past catches up with her.

Crow was born on Penikese, an island for lepers, and while she has been accepted and loved by a wonderful father figure in Osh, and maternally by Miss Maggie, islanders still recoil when they see her.

However, she believes that she was saved from Penikese, and that she has family – and when Osh presents her with a faded letter full of clues and hints about her parents, Crow begins a relentless treasure hunt.

The only problem is, she’s not the only one.

The relationships between Crow, Osh and Miss Maggie are wonderful, showing love and compassion and care for one another for what they’ve done and for who they are, and this is a message that resonates throughout the book. There are moments of tension, high-octane action, but each scene is filled with a love and an honesty on Crow’s part that is a pleasure to read.

43. Morris Gleitzman – Then

then

Felix continues his escape from and evasion of the Nazis, aided by his newly adopted sister Zelda.

The two are taken in by Genia, a pig farmer whose husband is away fighting for the Nazis, and change their names in order to fit in. However, the threat of the Nazis is close by: the Hitler Youth are ever-present and Felix upsets one of them by stealing a book from his shop.

Felix is not as naive as he was in Once, and is much more aware of the atrocities that are happening. His own personal torment about what to do for the best continues to the very end of the book – an ending which is a punch in the guts.

No detail is spared here, from hanging to mass graves, all seen through the innocent eyes of a ten year old.

44. Morris Gleitzman – Now

now

Flash forward seventy years, and Felix is a retired surgeon living in Australia. He is caring for his granddaughter, Zelda, while her parents are away.

Zelda loves her grandad and is inspired by him so much that she wants to be a surgeon too. However, she is bullied by a group of girls who think she is making up stories about Felix’s survival and his career.

When a bush-fire rages out of control, Felix has to confront his demons and rely on them to save himself and Zelda.

I liked the departure from World War II, as this story instead explores the lasting after-effects, as well as thinking about what is truly valuable in life.

45. Morris Gleitzman – After

after

The fourth in the series sees us go back to Felix as a child, hidden and protected by Gabriek.

Felix joins the partisans as they try to overthrow the Nazis, and on the way develops his skills in medical care that we learned of in Now.

Twists and turns abound and a heart-wrenching final few chapters.

46. Morris Gleitzman – Soon

soon

The fifth in the series follows Felix and Gabriek after the war, a stark reminder that once war ends, hardship does not.

Gabriek has descended into near-alcoholism, while Felix’s days consist of getting his hands on what he can and avoiding the wrath of the local gangs.

He doesn’t do this for long.

Soon, he finds himself with more responsibility than he bargained for, befriending Anya, a tough street-wise girl who is under the care of Dr Lipzyk, a man whose past comes to light late in the book.

As with the other books in this series, lots of heartbreak, desolation and hardship, but, for the first time, a bit of hope.

47. Morris Gleitzman – Maybe

maybe

Here we follow Felix as he is offered the chance of a new start in Australia – without Gabriek and Anya.

During his flight, he finds he has a surprise passenger, but his arrival in Oz is fraught with difficulty, and Felix finds himself placed in Australia’s answer to Camp Green Lake.

Friendship and determination are the recurring themes here – Felix is not sure what freedom really is and his survival instincts from the war are always at the forefront of his thinking.

The first book in the series with a happy ending, and with the promise of one more to come.

48. Natasha Farrant – The Children of Castle Rock

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An enjoyable caper set on the Scottish coast, a love letter from Natasha Farrant to her former stomping ground.

Alice has been packed off to boarding school to start a new life, where she quickly makes friends with Fergus, a mischief-maker, and Jesse, a do-gooder. Events conspire to cause the three of them to team up for the Great Orienteering Challenge, which is the same time as Alice receives a mysterious letter from her absent father.

Against Jesse’s better judgment, Alice and Fergus decide to meet Alice’s Dad as per the letter’s instructions – but why are they being chased?

Lots of humour, wry observations on why parents are sometimes rubbish, and perfectly-placed asterisked swearing. I really enjoyed Farrant’s nods and winks to the camera as she guides the reader through the story, and the action made me long for the times when children could just play outside and explore. There’s so much to be learned.

March #52books2018

Six books, a graphic novel and three picture books. Lauren Wolk was by far my favourite, though Starseeker by Tim Bowler was excellent too.

24. Tim Bowler – Starseeker

starseeker

This was fantastic.

It starts with Luke, a disaffected 14 year old with a gift for playing the piano; he is struggling to come to terms with the death of his father and has fallen in with the wrong crowd, who are encouraging – and later, forcing – him to do things he doesn’t want to do.

Luke’s relationship with his mother is deteriorating too, but, when he is asked to play the piano for Mrs Little’s blond granddaughter, he begins to find worth and value in himself.

Luke has to make several decisions – sometimes correctly, sometimes not – about his actions and of those he meets, but the musical gift of his father is always with him, and ultimately this is what helps him.

A fair bit of swearing, some serious violence and references to drug-taking and sex make this unsuitable for KS2, but as a novel in its own right it is excellent.

25. Rachel Joyce – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

harold

A celebration of life’s normal folk, as Harold sets off on an unplanned walk to see an old dying friend. On his journey he meets a range of characters who fill him with hope and belief in the inherent goodness of people, and he is able to confront his demons and search for forgiveness for his own wrongdoing.

There are moments that soak in and celebrate life’s simplicity, and others that remind us of life’s harshness. Harold is ultimately looking for some sort of redemption, and the final few chapters really tug at the heartstrings.

Really enjoying Rachel Joyce’s writing.

26. Guy Jones – The Ice Garden

ice

Jess is dealing with photosensitivity and the loneliness that comes with it. When she spies a crack at the end of her garden, she travels through it into the ice garden, a place where she can do everything she can’t in the real world. She plays, explores, has freedom and makes friends with Owen, a boy of ice.

Something links Owen to Jess’s condition, and perhaps vice versa, but the intrigue in this story is in what is left unexplained. We don’t know what becomes of Owen, or the ice garden, or how Owen or Davey – a boy from the hospital – are linked to Jess, but none of it matters.

Some magical description and a lovely shorter story for KS2.

27. Eoin Colfer & Andrew Donkin – Illegal

illegal

A hard-hitting graphic novel that tells the story of brothers Ebo and Kwame, who flee Niger in order to find a better life in Europe.

This story pulls no punches, based as it is on real events we’ve seen in the news so often. There is an important afterword from Eoin Colfer which would be brilliant to share with children. Essential reading.

28. Lauren Wolk – Wolf Hollow

wolfhollow

Set in middle America, 1943, Annabelle’s life is changed by the arrival of Betty Glengarry, who immediately sets about bullying her.

A chain of events are set into motion, involving injury to Annabelle’s friends, family and even animals, and when Betty goes missing, the blame is pinned firmly on Toby, the town’s outsider, a man ravaged by the memories of war.

What follows is a coming-of-age tale in which Annabelle has to choose when to lie for good, when to keep secrets and learns who to trust. It is language-rich and I particularly loved Annabelle’s family – her parents are firmly on Annabelle’s side, and Aunt Lily gets what she deserves.

29. Glenn Ringtved – Cry, Heart, But Never Break

cryheart

A poignantly written book that gives death a voice, allowing children to understand the loss of their grandmother.

A brilliant book for sensitive discussions about why people die, and why it is ok to be sad.

30. Juliette Forrest – Twister

twister

Twister wants her dad back, and to do so she must decide whether to accept the witch’s offer of a cursed necklace: its power will lead her to her Pa, but should the evil spirits locate the necklace then all the children of the village will be killed.

Lots of magic and some fast-paced adventure, led by Twister, a likeable if naive character whose foibles include a rather endearing mis-turn of phrase (weak at the ankles, throwing the trowel in etc).

Ultimately a story about a child wanting her family to be complete, and she is willing to do anything to make it so.

31. Jen Campbell – Franklin’s Flying Bookshop

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Franklin is a book-loving dragon, but has no-one to share his stories with, because, well, he’s a dragon. Along comes Luna, who trusts him, shares with him, and gives him the confidence to do what he loves for the benefit of others. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all do that?

32. Frank Cottrell Boyce – The Astounding Broccoli Boy

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Silliness abound, albeit with a serious message.

Rory Rooney is not the most popular boy in his class, and becomes even less so when he turns inexplicably and unexplainably green.

Taken into quarantine for testing, Rory soon finds that his nemesis – bully Grim – has the same condition, and the two of them are stuck with one another.

Against the backdrop of a pandemic, a panicked London suspects the boys of being aliens, and they have to go a long way to prove they are not.

The message within is about being brave and proud enough to be different – don’t just blend in. I thought the message was a good one but the plot didn’t do it for me.

33. Frances Hardinge – Cuckoo Song

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A quite bizarre story that took me a while to make my mind up about – and truth be told, I’m still not sure.

Triss is taken from her family and replaced with a ‘Besider’ – a monstrous creation that can take on human form. She argues with her sister Pen, and when she starts to see things that aren’t real, she begins to question her sanity.

Pen and Trista eventually join forces in order to find the real Triss, passing from one world to another in which cinema screens eat children and birds talk to the girls.

Violet, an ex-girlfriend of Pen and Triss’s deceased brother, Sebastian, is the real heroine here, full of bravado, gumption and determination. She believes the girls when no one else will and helps them carry out their plan.

As I say, I struggled here. Language-wise, Frances Hardinge is almost without compare, but the story here just didn’t grab me.

 

February #52books2018

Three picture books and nine novels – all varied and all enjoyable. The highlights this month have been Under the Canopy and The Wild Robot.

12. Natalie O’Hara – Hortense & the Shadow

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A beautifully illustrated story of how a girl tires of her shadow before realising how important it truly is.

The book has dark moments as Hortense shows her frustrations and finds herself in danger, but also shows the strength of accepting ourselves for who we are. Lovely.

13. Iris Volant – Under the Canopy

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A beautifully presented hardback book that tells stories about lots of different trees – the legend of the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, to the olive trees of Greece and the blossom in Japan – as well as giving factual information about seasonality, average height and where in the world they grow.

A fascinating read for all ages, with brilliant and vibrant illustrations throughout.

14. Moira Young – The Road to Ever After

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A moving and thoughtful story about Davy, a young boy with an artistic flair, and Miss Flint, an elderly recluse who is desperate to get to her former home in order to die in peace.

The two embark on an unusual and, at times, humourous road trip, stealing cars, releasing turkeys and dodging the law, all the while developing an unspoken trust and understanding.

Unusual things start to happen to Miss Flint, and her reasons for returning to her former home, and for her reclusive lifestyle, are laid bare.

Some difficult subject matter at times, but certainly makes you ponder life’s brevity.

15. Ross Welford – The 1000 Year Old Boy

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The 1000 year old boy is Alve, or Alfie, and, after losing his mother, he lays bare the difficulties of staying eleven years old forever: friends grow up and leave him behind; he realises he’ll never marry and have children; he lives a lie.

But if he can get his hands on the last life-pearl, he could live and age normally.

In step Aidan and Roxy, who believe Alfie’s story and set about helping him to achieve ‘normality’.

Despite the author’s note claiming otherwise, I liked the ‘historical’ side of the story, and the way Alfie and Aidan both had their sides told. Roxy was a fantastic character too, determined and assured and fearless. An interesting theme to the tale (who would want to live forever?) and would suit children in y5/6+.

16. Amy Wilson – A Far Away Magic

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It took me a while to get into this one, but, once I did, it was well worth it.

Told from two perspectives, Bavar and Angel are outsiders who connect. Bavar is a seven-foot-tall giant of a boy, seen by some and not by others, and he lives with the weight of magic on his shoulders. Portraits talk to him, ancestors give advice on his home, and he is the next in line to defend the rift, a break into another world which has been opened and allows the raksasa through. The only trouble is, Bavar doesn’t want to fight, he doesn’t want to become a monster and he doesn’t want the responsibility.

Angel has been orphaned, her parents killed in a burglary gone wrong. But when she sees Bavar – and especially when she realises others can’t see him – she begins to delve more deeply into her past.

Bavar comes across as a troubled soul, lacking any real guidance or purpose, and Angel provides this perfectly. She is feisty, determined and, as Bavar’s auntie puts it, sassy too.

An enjoyable adventure that portrays friendship, magic and loss, with hints of Neil Gaiman’s storytelling within.

17. Peter Brown – The Wild Robot

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A brilliant short story that would be perfect for years 3-4, The Wild Robot is full of warmth, love and acceptance.

When an intelligent robot, Roz, finds herself stranded on an island, she adapts and learns from the animals around her, overcoming their mistrust and earning their respect through her good deeds. Friendships and relationships grow and prove to be vitally important come the book’s end.

18. Lucy Rowland – Little Red Reading Hood

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A humourous twist on Red Riding Hood, as the Big Bad Wolf gobbles up a librarian as Red goes to return a book.

Wolf is shown the power of books, and taught to stop being so predictable.

Lovely verse and superbly illustrated.

19. Chloe Daykin – Fish Boy

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An unusual yet highly engaging tale of one boy’s struggle to deal with his mother’s illness. There were some moments that were odd, as Billy’s narration was often fairly scattergun (perhaps to reflect his emotional state). I did wonder whether his swimming with the mackerels was an analogy for suicidal thoughts, after struggling with school bullies, his mother’s condition and the family’s apparent financial difficulties, but maybe that’s a little too dark.

Either way, Billy finds solace and friendship in Patrick, an seemingly oddball character straight out of the David Almond playbook.

Definitely a story of interest and intrigue, and one that could promote lots of discussion among confident readers.

20. Joe Todd-Stanton – The Secret of Black Rock

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Erin Pike wants to find out more about the secret of the Black Rock, the legend of which is of death and destruction.

She realises that there is more to Black Rock than meets the eye, and warns adults of this. In the end, it is up to her to save the rock.

A story that shows we should value all of our natural world, and that children can make a change.

21. Pádraig Kenny – Tin

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A fast-paced story centring around Christopher, a boy who lives with mechanicals – sentient robots, essentially.

When Christopher finds out something shocking about his past, he and his friends set off to discover the truth, leading to whirlwind encounters with deranged inventors and power-hungry control freaks.

The language here is rich and absorbing, every line used to develop each character fully and further storylines to such an extent that they could have their own stories. Round Rob was a particular favourite of mine, but Cormier grew on me too as his own backstory was revealed.

Ace stuff.

22. Geraldine McCaughrean – The Middle Of Nowhere

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Comity lives in the Australian outback, and is grieving the sudden loss of her mother, killed by a snake bite. Her father is consumed by grief and Comity turns to Fred, an aboriginal boy, for solace and comfort.

Their world is turned upside down upon the arrival of Quartz Hogg, a man sent to help Comity’s father work on the telegraph exchange but is ultimately power-mad and possibly murderous.

Comity’s survival hinges on her own unswaying beliefs, her friendship with Fred, widely regarded as an outsider, and a good dose of good fortune.

Lots to ponder here, from dealing with death to racism and the casting-out of sections of society. It didn’t grab me from the start but as Fred and Comity grew in stature, so did the story.

23. John Boyne – Stay Where You Are and Then Leave

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This story follows Alfie Summerfield – a five year old when we first meet him – as he deals with the trauma of his father going off to fight in the Great War.

Alfie’s family struggle financially, and he takes it upon himself to earn money shining shoes at King’s Cross station. It is here that he learns his father is not in France fighting, but back in England, in hospital, and so begins Alfie’s secret mission to rescue his dad.

This took me a while to get into as the pace was fairly slow to begin with, but once Alfie’s intentions were clear the story developed nicely. The book shines a light on the mental illnesses caused by the war (often described in great detail) and also talks of conscientious objectors and conscription, all of which would offer interesting points of discussion in the classroom

January #52books2018

Another year, another challenge, not least to keep me reading. So far highlights have been Abi Elphinstone’s Sky Song, and the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness which was all kinds of wonderful. Eleven books so far…

  1. Piers Torday – The Wild Beyond

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Perfect storytelling which, as with books 1 and 2, have a really strong message about the environment, and how life in all its guises should be cherished.

The main thrust of Kester’s adventure sees him sail to a mysterious island in order to solve the riddle of the whale’s prophecy. Here he meets a man who reveals a lot about Selwyn Stone’s motives, tying the three books together beautifully.

There is humour, loss, despair, determination and much more, not to mention a bittersweet ending. A fantastic trilogy.

2. Bao Phi – A Different Pond

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A simple enough tale with a serious and thought-provoking message.

Set in the US, a father gets up before work and takes his son fishing for their evening meal. Here, he shares a little of his previous life back home, a life during wartime.

The story has a warm conclusion and the author’s footnotes provide a clearer idea of the inspiration behind the book. It shows the struggle of refugees, the tradition of different cultures and the bond that can grow between a father and son.

3. Abi Elphinstone – Sky Song

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A magical fantasy adventure that follows Eska, a young girl who has been trapped by the Ice Queen as she seeks to take her voice and achieve immortality. Eska escapes the Queen’s clutches and falls in with Flint, a boy from the Fur Tribe. He doesn’t trust Eska to begin with, but, as with Eska’s relationship with Balapan, a golden eagle, this changes as the story’s theme of trust, hope and friendship are explored. Eska, Balapan, Flint, and Flint’s sister, Blu, work together to fight against the odds, finding out why Eska is wanted by the Ice Queen and learning the power of collaboration.

Wonderful language, non-stop magic and adventure, and a fitting rollercoaster ending. Abi Elphinstone’s acknowledgements at the end are just as heart-rending, showing that the courage shown in the book doesn’t just come from the characters.

4. Zillah Bethell – The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare

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I really enjoyed this. There’s a serious message at its heart and has so many angles that it’s hard to say where it belongs.

A tale of friendship, mystery, humour, dystopian sci-fi along with a backdrop of war, served with a message of care for our planet. The relationships between characters are fantastic, and Uncle Jonah steals the show despite being a dead man.

Auden can’t see colours, and, after following clues left by his genius scientist uncle (now deceased), he believes he can find a cure. However, what he finds is something much bigger and much more important.

Read it. It’s lovely.

5. S.F Said – Phoenix

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This book took me by surprise – I’m not a science fiction aficionado and often steer clear of space-related films, series or stories. I’m glad I challenged my own preconceptions.

Lucky is anything but, having never known his father, being forced to escape his home, and suffering from terrible dreams in which he feels burning sensations.

He is taken in by the Axxa – a group of aliens who are at war with the humans – and is quickly accepted as one of them, particularly by Bixa, a feisty foil for Lucky’s uncertainty, and soon finds he has more power than he realises.

Dave McKean’s beautiful illustrations more than add to the atmosphere, and the ending was just fantastic.

6. Neil Gaiman – Coraline

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Coraline is tempted into another world, opening a mysterious door into a place where another mother and father live. All is not as it seems, as the mother wants her to stay there forever and will stop at nothing to get her way.

As with all of Gaiman’s books, there is a darkness here that is palpable, without ever being too frightening for readers in year 5 and 6.

7, 8 and 9. Patrick Ness – The Knife of Letting Go, The Ask and The Answer, Monsters of Men

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The Knife of Letting Go: This was just fantastic. All-action, non-stop from the word go.

Written from the perspective of Todd Hewitt, the last boy in Prentisstown, we follow his escape from the settlement as we find out he is a wanted boy. Prentisstown’s evil layers are revealed as Todd’s story is told, and as his relationship with Viola develops.

I love the idea of being able to hear thoughts (Noise, in the book) – whether it is too intrusive or strips everyone back to an equal state of being. There are wonderful relationships built and destroyed on the back of this ability.

Perhaps a comment on power, faith and equality, though also a sci-fi dystopian survival story of love and trust, Patrick Ness’ imagination knows no bounds here.

Manchee!

The Ask and the Answer: ** spoiler alert ** After Todd and Viola are tricked by the conniving Mayor Prentiss (now self-proclaimed President), they are separated – Todd is made to work with Prentiss and his son, Davy, while Viola makes good her escape from her role as a healer to join The Answer, an uprising of affronted women, led by Mistress Coyle.

Both only have thoughts for the other, despite burgeoning relationships with different characters (soldier Lee in Viola’s case, and, surprisingly, Davy for Todd).

At the centre of all this are the two super-villains, Prentiss and Coyle, whose words mix truth and lies in equal measure. I don’t think Todd ever truly learns to trust the Mayor, but he is certainly drawn closer to him; the friendship with Davy is the most interesting of this power triangle, with Davy desperate to impress and revealing his innocence and honesty along the way.

Viola, for her part, is fully taken in by Mistress Coyle’s words and actions, but soon realises she is as ruthless as anyone else.

Part love-story, part coming-of-age, against a backdrop of war, politics, equality and power. There’s so much to enjoy that I’m thinking of putting off the reading of part three just to prolong the joy.

Monsters of Men: ** spoiler alert ** Probably – no, definitely – the best trilogy I’ve ever committed myself to. And I was committed. You have no choice once you fall into the world of Todd Hewitt, who gamely and naively battles with the all-powerful Mayor Prentiss. Viola’s perspective shows her struggles, both physically and emotionally, as she continues to put her faith in Todd, and the return of 1017 is a perfect twist.

Ultimately a story about love, hope and trust as Todd and Viola search for peace – and you’d have a heart of stone not to fall in love with the two of them.

10. Yangsook Choi – The Name Jar

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As Unhei moves from Korea to a school in the US, many of the children (and perhaps a little oddly, the teachers) find her name very difficult to pronounce. Unhei pretends she has no name, and the rest of the class make her a name jar from which to choose a new one.

Unhei learns the meaning of her name and why it is important, and the ending with one of her school friends is lovely.

A message about accepting all cultures, learning from each other and being proud of our own heritage

11. M.G. Leonard – Battle of the Beetles

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A fitting ending to what has been a fully engrossing and endearing trilogy.

Lucretia Cutter’s evil plans are finally revealed – she wants full world domination and intends on mutating humans to go along with the beetles she has genetically modified. Nothing will stop her…unless Darkus, Bertolt and Virginia can do something about it.

The message throughout all three books has been one of caring for our world and respecting everything within it – this is emphasised even more in this book. Darkus’ determination, Virginia’s bravery and Bertolt’s intelligence combine to confront a brilliantly-written villain.

Educational, humorous, adventurous – a keeper in classrooms for years to come.