December #52books2017


The final instalment of what has been a thoroughly enjoyable year of reading. I’ve found new authors, rekindled a love of authors I’d forgotten about, had recommendations, chanced my arm on unknowns, and have managed to grow a decent-sized personal library that my wife is furious about. All good stuff, and because I took part in the challenge of 2017, I am much more confident in recommending books to children – and they are now starting to reciprocate.

The 12 books of December, then:

113. Frank Cottrell Boyce – Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth


Prez has been separated from his Grandad, who is suffering from severe memory loss, possibly Alzheimer’s. As a result, Prez is taken in by the Blythe family, and one day a stranger knocks on the door – enter Sputnik, who appears a boy to Prez, but to everyone else, a stray dog. Sputnik has travelled from his own planet wto find out more about Earth. What makes it tick? What are its great successes? Why do people not marvel more at cows?

Together, Prez and Sputnik’s wacky adventures teach them both what is important about life on Earth, and helps Prez to grow closer to his family – both his Grandad and the Blythes.

As ever, Boyce’s writing is packed with humour and several threads are perfectly brought together in the final few pages. Touching and full of heart.

114. Jane Elson – A Room Full of Chocolate


When Grace’s mum finds a lump, she sends her 10-year-old daughter away to live temporarily with her grandad. This means starting a new school in a new town with a new way of living – and Grace finds it hard. She is bullied, gets into trouble at school and develops a friendship with Megan, a girl from a family her grandad doesn’t trust. The story of how Grace deals with her new surroundings and her difficulty accepting Mum’s illness is engaging throughout.

There are some dark moments here, and it is a book that would offer up lots of discussion about friendship, bullying, change, illness and much more, but the issues are dealt with in a light-hearted but appropriate manner. Grace’s naivety shines through in places and Megan is a perfect foil for her, especially as the bullying comes to light.

There are similarities with A Monster Calls, but this is certainly a little brighter for the soul.

115. Barroux – Line of Fire


This diary was found in Paris by illustrator Barroux, who hasn’t changed the words, but has brought them to life with simple but effective drawings.

The soldier in question has never been identified, but his story would be one shared by many. The most striking thing for me was the physicality of WW1 – the relentlessness of the march-dig-sleep-repeat cycle must have been an ordeal in itself, and that’s before the actual warfare is taken into account.

A stark reminder of the misery of war.

116. Frances Hardinge – Verdigris Deep


When Josh, Ryan and Chelle take coins from a neglected wishing well, their lives take turns they’d never have expected. All three develop unusual powers that help them to hear the innermost thoughts of certain individuals – Ryan’s visions soon confirm that these thoughts are the wishes of the coin-givers, and, by stealing coins, they now have to help grant the wishes. Behind all this is a bewitching Well Spirit – but is she well-meaning or does she have a sinister side?

I’ve only read The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge and this shares a similar depth and marvel in language that I had to read more than once because it was so beautifully put.

As a story, I liked the idea but couldn’t get going with it. It sometimes seemed very stop-start and too many things – for me at least – were presented or left as unexplained.

There was a real darkness to this one…More than a three, less than a four.

117. A.P. Winter – The Boy Who Went Magic


A pacy adventure as Bert discovers he might have magical powers, forbidden and illegal in Penvellyn. However, he soon discovers that it is a highly sought-after commodity, and leading the search for magical powers is the archetypal evil villain, Prince Voss.

Bert has to manoeuvre his way out of several sticky predicaments with the help of Professor Roberts and his daughter, Finch, while at the same time discovering more about his past than he ever dared dream.

Very enjoyable and would suit Y4+ I would think. A straightforward narrative that builds on themes of friendship and greed.

118. Rob Buyea – Because of Mr Terupt


I raced through this – it was such a lovely read that the pages just flew past.

Set in the fifth grade of an American school, the story of the school year is narrated by seven different students, in a similar manner to the way Wonder is told. They all have one thing in common – Mr Terupt, a teacher who challenges and guides them with love. When he suffers an accident in school, the class try to put aside their differences as they consider Mr Terupt’s true influence.

I think all teachers should have a read of this. It’s interesting to see the different views children have of their teacher, but most important is the message that every child has a story which can influence their behaviour in school, for better or worse. Sometimes we forget that.

119. Ross Montgomery – Perijee & Me


Adventure abound as Caitlin discovers an alien life-form in her otherwise very lonely island. When this alien seems to lose control of itself, Caitlin thinks she knows how she can help, leading her on an adventure consisting of pick-pocketing tearaways, sinister octogenarians and, above all, a sense that family is important – and a family is not always the people you’re related to.

A warm-hearted read, similar in style to ‘Sputnik’s Guide to Life On Earth’, and perfect for year 3/4 and up.

120. Kate DiCamillo – The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane


Edward Tulane is a china rabbit who has a high opinion of himself, coming across as fairly cold-hearted and passive. When he becomes separated from his owner, Abilene, he starts to find out what it is to love, to feel, to ache and to yearn. Much of his journey is hard for him, full of pain and false hope – but Edward’s story takes in great swathes of humanity in all its glory and misery. He learns, and we learn too, that living can be hard, but life is always worth opening your heart for

121. Susan Cooper – The Dark is Rising


Will Stanton discovers he is one the ‘Old Ones’, a guardian against the Dark, which is intent on destroying his world. This discovery leads him to travel through time into parallel worlds where, guided by the fatherly Merriman and the six signs, he learns and develops his powers.

There is a real darkness about this book: dark against light, good against evil, spirits against humanity. I loved the opening chapter in particular (all darkness, suspense and ominous hints of evil). I had a soft spot for Hawkin too – a man hindered by his own decisions and ultimately left to fall victim to his own greed, thereby presenting what for me was possibly the most human element of this other-worldly story.

122. Lisa Thompson – The Light Jar


Nate and his mum are escaping from Gary, mum’s cruel bully of a boyfriend, and decide to spend a few nights in an abandoned cottage. When mum goes missing, Nate has to survive on his own, with just the help of a long-forgotten imaginary friend and a girl called Kitty.

Nate’s story shines a light (pun not intended) on emotional abuse at home, split families and fears, and has a direct link to A.F. Harold’s The Imaginary as well as a hint of The London Eye Mystery.

Would be a great read for Y4+.

123. David Almond – A Song For Ella Grey


A modern-day retelling of the tale of Orpheus, with Ella the subject of his charm. The story is told through the eyes of Claire, Ella’s best friend and arguably true love, as they, along with their group of friends, explore sexuality, freedom and choice as they reach their late teens. Orpheus’ appearance heightens certain tensions between different factions of the group.

The North-East is a special place for me (which is possibly why I am constantly drawn back to Almond’s writing) and the beach and castle of Bamburgh provide a fitting setting for this group of wantaway teenagers. However, I didn’t fall for any of the characters – Claire seemed too fixated on Ella with no real explanation; Ella was flighty in the extreme; and the other characters didn’t do a lot for the story itself.

A mixed bag.

124. Rachel Joyce – The Music Shop


The first three-quarters of this book are set in 1988, following Frank, a record shop owner on Unity Street whose care-for-the-community-attitude forgoes his business sense. He refuses to believe that in the advent of CDs, persevering with selling only vinyl while other shops around him start to be swallowed up by the Fort Development.

In walks Ilse Brauchmann, a beautiful lady who faints outside the shop and returns to offer her thanks when Frank tends to her.

Their relationship grows through Frank’s passion for music, until Ilse reveals a secret that turns Frank’s beliefs upside down.

The final quarter sees the Unity Street community reunited as they try to reassemble what they once had.

Full of wry observations on life in a record shop, and in the independent retail industry, I could feel the love and warmth on every page. The love of the Unity Street community, Frank’s love of music (and fatherly, somewhat begrudging love for his Saturday assistant, Kit), and of course the unspoken love between Ilse and Frank.

If you have wiled away the hours in a dingy record shop, then this is for you. It feels like it is part of me.


Developing a Reading Classroom: Part 2

Over the last year I’ve been trying to develop myself as a reading teacher, and to pass this enthusiasm on to the children I teach. My first blog post on this, written in May, is here – this ramble will look at five things I’ve added to my classroom to try and enhance the children’s reading opportunities.

1. Making It Visible

Reading is everywhere in the classroom. We’ve used Ashley Booth’s author quotes and 100 books display materials, a small but comfortable reading area, visible reading journals (magpied from Lisa C on Twitter), and a display that shows my class’s reading journey.

This shows the variety of books that we’ve read as a class, during reading sessions and/or within learning across the curriculum.

Children have constantly referred back to books we’ve looked at previously, especially The Journey, which we looked at in September, and which I’m hoping will spark a love of picture books.

Our most successful reading fortnight was using The Last Wild – since then the book has permanently been in someone’s hand, while I was quietly pleased at hearing one of the boys saying he’d asked for all of Piers Torday’s books for Christmas.

2. The Shared Bookshelf

Each half term we are choosing a focus author. For the first half term, this was Lara Williamson, and currently it is Katherine Rundell. It makes sense to have their books available to the children during this time, as well as having one of their books as our class read, but I wondered whether the authors would be willing to share their own recommendations of books for children to read. Fortunately, after my pestering them on Twitter, they did so, offering books by authors such as Frank Cottrell Boyce, David Almond, Katherine Woodfine and Mark Haddon. The children were really keen to read books recommended by a REAL AUTHOR, and more often than not they are in the hands of a child rather than being on a shelf.

Further to this, I’ve added a shelf of my own recommendations, as well as a shelf for the 100 books list.

The children have their own shelf too…

3. Peer Recommendations #1

Their shelf has become a little crowded (a good thing). We are lucky to have a range of books to borrow from; the children use a parcel label to write a short blurb about a book they’ve enjoyed. It is wonderful to see children poring over these tiny (and now, slightly dog-eared) scraps of brown card as they find a book they might enjoy.

Some of the children’s recommendations left on the shelf for half term. The rest have been take by their friends for the break 👍📖 — Stephen Connor (@StephenConnor7) October 20, 2017

I’ve encouraged the writing of these recommendations for a range of reasons: firstly, to encourage the more reticent speakers to share their recommendations; to encourage ‘micro-writing’, restricting their summaries in order to be precise; and to share a range of books, not just those I’ve recommended or that are on reading lists. The range that children read is quite impressive once they’re given a platform to show it.

Jon Biddle has recently written a post on how he encourages the sharing of recommendations in his classroom, which is well worth a read.

4. Peer Recommendations #2 Every Friday, children are invited to talk in front of their peers and share a recommendation for a book they’ve read. This could be a recently-read book, a long-held favourite, fiction, non-fiction, poetry…anything really.

This came about fairly naturally as one girl asked if she could talk about Fortunately, The Milk…and immediately pointed to another girl and said, “I think you’ll love this because you have always loved funny books.’ Then another child talked about Kick, explaining the parts that he liked and how Real Madrid were mentioned a lot. Both books were taken that morning, and the children said they’d like to do that more often.

Our Reading Gladiators have been very vocal recently too, which I suppose is the ultimate aim – for them to be ambassadors for reading. They have plans as to what they can do to promote reading across the school, which has started with a small display for their favourite book.

5. Reading Questionnaires This year was the first in which I’ve ever asked my children about their reading preferences and habits, rather than just forcing books that I like down their throats. The reading questionnaires, available here from the OUP Reading for Pleasure site, have been an eye-opener, and I’d definitely encourage others to do it if they’re not already.

On the first day back, my class filled in their questionnaires. Some of the headlines:

  • Half of the children said that they loved reading (more girls than boys), which was a good starting point
  • 58% of the children saw themselves as good at reading (or better) – again this was more prevalent in girls
  • 83% said that I came across as a teacher who enjoys reading
  • when asked who they read to or with, the majority of children said they read with mum (30%), the next most popular being dad or their teacher (19% each)
  • when asked to name 6 authors, seven children said they couldn’t do this. Of those that could, 52% of answers were Dahl, Walliams or Rowling.

I’ve since asked them to repeat the same questionnaire earlier this month:

  • 62.5% of the children said they love reading – still a quite distinct boy/girl split
  • 62.5% of the children saw themselves as good at reading (or better) – only a small shift, and included one boy who I’m sure would argue that water is not wet if I were to give him the chance
  • 87.5% said that I came across as a teacher who enjoys reading

All small stuff, but the final two answers really gave me cause to smile. When asked who they read to or with, mum and dad now share equal weighting with 18% each. This is obviously a lower percentage than before, but it also meant that children were reading with other people too – the majority share here was 27% of the children reporting that they read with their friends. Grandparents and siblings also increased – might this show that children are reading more frequently, or at least discussing it more often?

Secondly, the author response. There was such a massive range of authors shared by the children here:

Dahl, Walliams and Rowling were now much less well-represented at only 19%. Other notable authors were Piers Torday, who, as previously mentioned, has been really well-received by my class; Lara Williamson, who was our first author and shared a Skype call with us; and Ali Benjamin, whose book our Reading Gladiators loved and have since not stopped talking about it.

The final two questionnaire responses are the ones that are giving me most hope that the love of reading we share in the classroom is spreading further afield.

I can’t wait for next term.

November #52books2017

This month has been more of a struggle – finding the time to read has been the main issue but I have also persevered with a couple of books that I maybe should have put down. Rights of the reader and all that…

Nevertheless, here are the 10 from November. The Gritterman was the pick of the bunch, but I really enjoyed Barnaby Brocket too.

103. Chris Callaghan – The Great Chocoplot


A silly and entertaining story of an evil villain – Garibaldi Chocolati – who wants to make money off the back of the impending chocolate apocalypse, but Jelly and her Gran smell something is awry and do their best to foil his plans. There is humour for children and adults alike, and this would be a great class read for a Y3 class – or any class, in fact: its universal appeal (or horror) of a chocolate apocalypse isn’t a world away from Dahl and Walliams.

104. Kate Wakeling – Moon Juice


A fine collection of poems written in a variety of styles. There’s speed, space, tongue-twisters, teasers, emotion and commotion – and that’s just the start. The CLPE have a bank of resources including Kate’s performances for many of the poems, which is worth looking at to bring the poems to life even more.

105. Sarah Driver – Sea


Mouse is destined to become the captain of The Huntress…or at least, she is until Stag comes along. He overthrows Mouse’s Grandma – the current captain – and banishes her brother to an unknown land. Can Mouse still fulfil her destiny?

Another Pullman-inspired text, what with the moonsprite/daemon similarities, as well as Sarah Driver’s characters using ‘ent’ in lots of their dialogue. There is lots of magic and beast-chatter and the like, but perhaps more confirmation for me that fantasy just isn’t really my bag.

106. John Boyne – The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket


A really enjoyable read that would encourage children to think about their place in the world.

Barnaby Brocket has, to his parents’ chagrin, always been different – he defies the laws of gravity and his parents, who revel in normality and live their lives in a permanent shade of beige, find this quite at odds with their sensibilities. So, they let him float away.

Barnaby floats from one part of the world to another, meeting a wonderful cast of characters who show that being different is ok – sexuality, career choice and physical appearance are all discussed at length but in a way that would be entirely appropriate for children to engage with.

A lovely book that has a warm heart (and for me, the right ending).

107. David Almond – The Fire Eaters


Bobby, the main character, falls in love with Ailsa, a girl his age who refuses to go to school; he appears to be in love with Joseph, an older boy from his neighbourhood; he supports newcomer Daniel in outing a teacher as a bully; he has several dealings with McNulty, a fire-eating former soldier who appears to be suffering with PTSD; and he has to deal with the sudden and mysterious illness plaguing his father. This is all set against a backdrop of the early 60s – the Cold War has brought about the possibility of another World War, and everyone is contemplating their mortality.

There’s a lot to take in in a short space of time. I found it hard to really connect with any of the characters (other than Daniel and his parents, who seem to be wonderfully non-conformist), but as I enjoy David Almond’s writing I flew through nonetheless.

One for the Almond purists, perhaps.

108. Orlando Weeks – The Gritterman


A tale narrated by the gritterman, an elderly gent who works as an ice cream man in the summer before battling the ice in the winter.

His story is of his last night gritting the roads – it is one of commitment, perseverance and honesty, but lots of clues throughout his tale indicate a sense of loneliness and emptiness. A heartfelt and poignant ending adds to this.

109. Sharon Cohen – Starman and Me


A fast-paced sci-fi adventure that could be 2017’s answer to Stig of the Dump.

Kofi hears unusual sounds and starts receiving bizarre, unexplained messages on his computer – this is Rorty, a human-ish species who is being hunted for his intelligence. Together, the two of them help one another to understand what it is to care for somebody.

Themes of friendship and universal respect make this a really enjoyable read – I know lots of children in my class would love it.

110. Joanna Cannon – The Trouble With Goats and Sheep

A beautifully written novel set in the summer of 1976 that explores the nature of the outsider, how we all have our own crosses to bear, and the public face we all paint on to hide things. There are tender moments from Grace and Tilly, awkwardness when more ‘outsiders’ threaten to bring change to this inward-looking community, and sadness as various characters have their inner demons slowly revealed.

111. Timothee de Fombelle – Toby Alone


Toby is just 1 and 1/2 millimetres tall – the world in which he lives is simply a tree, brought to life in intricate detail by de Fombelle – every detail of the Tree has a part to play as Toby journeys through, trying to find himself while escaping the clutches of Joe Mitch. Mitch, for me, is a Donald Trump kind of character, obsessed as he is with power and also turning a blind eye to to the ecological impact of his actions.

I have to admit I’ve struggled through this a bit. Toby’s journey is an epic one, falling into trap after trap yet always escaping unscathed.

I picked it up after reading the incredible Vango, but, for whatever reason, this book just didn’t grab me.

112. Gary Crew – The Blue Feather


There have long been rumours of a giant carnivorous bird living somewhere off the mainland but nobody has any evidence other than anecdotal. Muir, an ornithology enthusiast, and Mala, a wildlife photographer, set off to find it. They take with them Simon, a boy who is lost in so many ways, completely unimpressed and disengaged with life.

Their journey sees them develop in different ways, learning the value of life and the value of relationships.

My only minor gripe would be the odd moments of seemingly unnecessary swearing which means I can’t share it with my class – a shame, but I’ve enjoyed reading it nonetheless.

Interactive Book Lists

There have been lots of brilliant end-of-year book lists floating about on Twitter – follow Simon Smith and read the threads that follow his recommendations – and I wondered whether these lists could be something parents could access.

Below is an interactive list made using the app ThingLink. It’s the most simple of apps – the user can place hotspots over an image that take them to videos, text or specific URLs.


Open in new window if above image is not interactive://

I’ve put this one together fairly quickly (I’d not use 20 images again) but the links take the user to authors reading their book, reviews online, trailers, author websites and more. This (potentially) allows parents to find out more about recommended books without having to spend lots of time researching.

My thinking is that this could be shared with parents (Christmas is coming, after all) in order to share some of the brilliant books that have been released this year – a link directly to the ThingLink or blog post it is embedded in could be sent via text, ClassDojo or any other school social media channel. It could also be something put together by children at various points of the year to review and promote reading across school.

Other ideas:


As a class, as a reading group or even as a whole school, videos and written reviews (on a blog or as an image) could be added and shared in one place.

Children reading

A great way to encourage reading with expression and reading for purpose, children could be filmed reading an extract from their favourite part of a book. This could be shared with parents and authors, and I’m thinking of asking my reading group to do this to recommend books to younger children.

Book-based work

If your class uses a text to support the wider curriculum, why not use ThingLink to share the range of work your children do, whether art, drama, writing or reading – it can all be shared in one place.

I’m sure many people will have more expansive ideas, but it’s a start. Please share if you can think of anything else!

October #52books2017

91. Geraldine McCaughrean – Where The World Ends

An absolutely stunning, absorbing and fulfilling read. I really can’t recommend it enough.

Set in the early 18th century, a small group of boys, along with a couple of adults, go off to the Warrior Stac, lying just off the island of Hirta, in order to carry out the quest of fowling – collecting birds to eat. As time passes, the boys realise they have been forgotten, and are left marooned, starting to wonder whether the world has ended without their knowing.

We see all the guises, good and bad, of mankind here, from the pious Euan to the thoughtful Calum; Kenneth, an incessant bully, is bitter until the very end; Col Cane reveals himself not to be a man of God but something else entirely, while John’s character development is fascinating (and has worrying connotations, should you be sharing this with primary aged children).

At the centre of this is Quill, a boy with his head screwed on and seemingly the only one who tries to keep the group (and their sanity) in tact. He tells stories to soothe, puts his life at risk to help, and is a confidant of others. His own spirit is kept alive by the thought of returning to Hirta to see the love his life, Murdina, who he believes is watching over him in the form of a particular sea-bird.

There is so much to admire here, so many twists and turns. There are hints of Lord of the Flies in parts, and the ending is just sublime.

Just brilliant.

92. Helena Duggan – A Place Called Perfect

A unique story of the quest for perfection. Violet and her family move to Perfect to better themselves, and for Dad to help develop the glasses that are worn by every resident. Violet, however, quickly realises the glasses are not all they are made out to be, and are just the tip of an iceberg of evil and deceit. Working with an accomplice, Boy, she works to find the root of the deception – but can she convince her own family of the truth?


93. Kate DiCamillo – The Tale of Despereaux

A traditional-ish tale of love, hope and determination, where the baddies are taught lessons and rewards are given to those who persevere.

94/95/96. Abi Elphinstone – The Dreamsnatcher / The Shadow Keeper / The Night Spinner

A wonderfully imaginative trilogy that wears its influences proudly on its sleeve.

Moll Pecksniff is a gypsy traveller whose future has been foretold: she is the one who has to fight against the dark magic of the Shadowmasks, six dark forces who want to take Molly, having already taken her parents. To aid her, she has the loyal Gryff (here is the first of a few Pullman nods, alongside tearing through worlds), and a fantastic cast of family members, guardians, friends and odd acquaintances picked up along the way. Friendship, loyalty and family are all really strong themes throughout the book, even when trust is seemingly misplaced.

There is magic to rival Rowling; Tolkien’s riddles are alluded to in book 2; even G.R.R. Martin appears to be an influence as there are guardians of the night. If it is fantasy your children (or you) are after, then you won’t go too far wrong with this trilogy.

97. Mitch Johnson – Kick

Set in Indonesia, this story is about a twelve year old boy called Budi. He works in a factory sewing together football boots and he dreams of one day meeting his hero, a football player for Real Madrid.

When playing football, he accidentally smashes a window belonging to the local gangster and finds himself involved in a murky underworld.

Endorsed by Amnesty International, this story shines a light on sweatshops, human rights and people-trafficking. A great read.

98. Alex Bell – The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club

A frosty tale of exploration – part-fantasy, part-fairy tale – as Stella and three comrades make their way across the Icelands. Stella, who was orphaned and taken in by the wonderful Felix, finds out about her true identity, and friendship is very much at the fore here.

There were lots of moments that reminded me of Katherine Rundell’s writing – Felix, for one, is very similar to Charles of Rooftoppers, not to mention Stella’s predicament bearing similarities to Sophie – and obviously the exploring theme has strong links.

I think I realising fantasy is not my genre, and as such I found it difficult to get excited about chapters about frosties, carnivorous cabbages or giant yetis. There are some really well-written descriptive elements here though, and the relationship between the four children grows brilliantly.

99. Neil Gaiman – Fortunately, The Milk…

Literally a story of a dad going out to get some milk and taking too long – his excuse to his children takes in aliens, time-travel, balloon flights and much more. Silliness superbly illustrated, as ever, by Chris Riddell.

100. Piers Torday – There May Be A Castle


The story starts with a car crash on Christmas Eve; from here it splits into two: Mouse, a daydreamer, escapes the wreckage and is aided by a sheep, a sarcastic talking donkey and a cumbersome T-Rex, while back in reality, Violet (Mouse’s sister), tries to work out how to save her family from freezing to death on the snowy hills.

To be honest, the first few chapters didn’t grab me – I thought it was a little silly and a bit *too* childish. But once I understood the direction the story was going, it was enormously powerful. Mouse’s bravery and determination see him make important decisions that could change everyone’s lives forever…

A hugely emotional ending and a book I won’t forget for some time.

101. Philip Pullman – The Book of Dust

I think I enjoyed this more than His Dark Materials. It is a prequel to the trilogy that has Lyra very much in the background, kept safe by the nuns as alluded to in Northern Lights. We follow Malcolm, a genial young man who shows respect to his elders, and as such takes the advice of Lord Asriel when he visits his parents’ pub. He is warned of a forthcoming flood and takes actions accordingly – the second half of the book sees Malcolm and his accomplice Alice sailing through Oxford and beyond, being chased by those who want to get their hands on Lyra.

Not a book for children, whether or not they’ve read His Dark Materials, not least for the language. A novel that stands brilliantly on its own and introduces two brilliant new characters to Lyra’s world.

102. William Grill – Shackleton’s Journey

Looking forward to using this book for a geography topic. Full of beautiful illustrations and brimming with facts about Shackleton.

September #52books2017

76. A.F. Harrold – The Song From Somewhere Else


I think I love this man’s writing. He has such a relaxed style that sits so well with his poetic turn of phrase – there is humour, sarcasm, imagery and a depth of language that would be brilliant to explore with children in KS2.

The story starts when Francesca (Frank) accidentally befriends Nick, a boy at school who is evidently quite unpopular. She visits his house and hears unusual music, the source of which leads her, and Nick, to explore the boundaries of their newly-formed friendship and of life itself.

Shadows are more sinister than they appear, and cats wiser than one thought. Magical reading.

77. Kieran Larwood – The Gift of Darkhollow


Podkin, Paz and Pook have survived – just – and are now holed up in Grimheart forest, avoiding the Gorm at all costs. Podkin, however, is feeling less than appreciated and goes for a wander in his new surroundings, where he stumbles upon a new Gift. This leads him to overhear a conversation about where another has been hidden, a Gift that can help them end the Gorm forever.

And so begins another epic tale of these wonderful rabbits. There are more of them, but this time, instead of running away from danger, they are choosing to walk right into it.

As with the first book, the relationships between Podkin and Paz, and Podkin and Crom, show real heart, while new characters such as Zarza and Vetch offer possible hints of what is to come in book 3.

Again, my favourite element of the book is the bard, who is on his own journey with an apprentice-to-be, Rue. He looks after Rue in a slightly curmudgeonly manner but ultimately shows the love he was once shown – a thoughtful ending wraps up his story (for now) very poignantly.

Another must-read.

78. Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book


A celebration of life and all its curiosities.

A wonderful opening – the man Jack holding a knife, trying to kill his fourth victim, a baby – is quickly followed by the baby (now named Bod) growing up and learning magic in a graveyard. He can see the dead and he can see the living. He floats between the two worlds.

Time passes and Bod wants to know what happened to his family – my favourite exchange of many a book comes when Bod learns of the man Jack and a guardian, Silas, wonders whether the outside world is safe enough for Bod:

Bod: If I go out into the world, the question isn’t, “Who will keep me safe from him?”

Silas: No?

Bod: No. It’s, “Who will keep him safe from me?”

A wonderful bit of dialogue dripping with intent.

Bod wants to live. We all should.

79. Pam Smy – Thornhill


So dark and so hard-hitting.

Two parallel stories that collide together.

The written part of the book is in diary form, dated 1982 and detailing the difficulties of Mary Baines. She lives in the Thornhill orphanage for girls and is suffering at the hands of ‘her’.

Meanwhile, in 2017, Ella Clarke has moved into a house that looks over Thornhill. Through brilliant illustrations, we see Ella see a figure in the window and goes closer to find out more…

Not one I’d use in class as I think it’s too upsetting.

80. Francesca Sanna – The Journey


A beautifully illustrated book that tells the story of a family’s sudden departure from their homeland to somewhere safer. The illustrations are so rich and wonderfully presented- my class spent a week exploring this book and we could have gone on for longer.

81. Mark Haddon – Boom!


Jimbo and Charlie overhear their teachers using a secret language and decide to find out what’s going on. Despite being by a man with glowing blue eyes, they journey across the country to uncover the truth.

Fast-paced silliness that would be great for Y4+.

82. Malorie Blackman – Pig-Heart Boy


A story about Cameron, a boy with a dodgy ticker who is offered a way out by the enigmatic Dr Bryce. He has a heart transplant using the heart of a pig, and the story is really about what happens to Cameron afterwards: how others perceive him, how he perceives himself, and what life comes to mean to him.

A strong emotional ending and lots of talking points around animal rights (and the price of life).

83. Ali Benjamin – The Thing About Jellyfish


I found this a really engaging book to read, and one that I genuinely didn’t want to put down.

Suzy has chosen not to speak since finding out her former best friend (Franny) drowned. Instead, all her energy is focussed on finding out what actually happened – her theory is a jellyfish sting.

The story uses flashbacks to explain, firstly, how Suzy and Franny became friends, moved through school together, then gradually drifted apart, and secondly showing Suzy’s current predicament – that being her parents have taken her to therapy sessions to get to the root of her non-talking.

Suzy comes across as precocious, socially awkward and likeable – she’s not interested in the ‘girly’ things her peers are, and is rather much more taken by the life that surrounds her. She is intelligent (which comes to be a disadvantage, of sorts), referencing Kate DiCamillo, TED talks and John Cage, and of course her obsession with jellyfish reflects how differently she thinks when compared to other children of her age.

There are themes of bullying, revenge, regret and grief, but the accessible way in which it is written offers so much scope for discussion with children from Y5 and up.

84. Sonya Hartnett – The Children of the King


A language-rich tale of WWII, though written from a different viewpoint to most books on this theme that are aimed at a similar age.

Here, we follow Cecily Lockwood, a 12 year old girl who knows her family are wealthy and is minded just so, as she, her brother, Jeremy, and mother debunk to their uncle’s mansion in the sticks in order to avoid the bombings in London. Along the way, they take in an evacuee, May, who seems entirely and amusingly nonplussed by the wealth in front of her, but shows gratitude to, and tolerance of, her new family (particularly Cecily, who comes across as fairly annoying).

The two get along and discover the ruins of Snow Castle, which leads on to Uncle Peregrine’s dramatic storytelling sessions that provide a large backbone of the story. Without wanting to give too much away, his story mirrors May’s journey somewhat, and also supports Jeremy’s exploits towards the end of the book.

The language here is just fantastic – I haven’t read any of Sonya Hartnett’s books before and am glad that I have now. She writes poetically, and the only author I can think of that she reminds of is Frances Hardinge.

85/86/87. Philip Pullman – Northern Lights / The Subtle Knife / The Amber Spyglass


In the interests of honesty I should admit that The Amber Spyglass was finished on October 2nd…but it’s easier to review as a trilogy.

I don’t mind admitting that I struggled with this a little. Perhaps it was the vastness of the worlds that Pullman has created, or my sometime aversion to the fantasy genre, but whatever it was, it slowed me down.

It would be much easier to read a thorough review from someone who understands everything that happened, and what it all means, which would be here.

My personal likes from book one were Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear who grows to love Lyra, likewise Lee Scoresby. In Northern Lights, Lyra appears strong and determined and self-assured; I felt this diminished when she meets Will in The Subtle Knife. It is clear she admires him but the strength of her own fire is dimmed a little. However, they make a great team, ducking and diving between worlds as they do.

The Amber Spyglass is my favourite of the three – there are lots of emotional decisions made here. A world – or multiple worlds – of magic, of armoured bears and witches, of knives and dragonfly spies, of possibility, finishes with the most human of endings as various characters are forced to make impossible choices. Relationships end and relationships begin – this is life.

88. Amy Wilson – A Girl Called Owl


Owl is a girl who has never known her father, but this is all about to change once she finds an unusual power within herself.

Full of magic, myth and midwinter scenery, this book has a unique atmosphere and sparkles with description all the way through. Owl does her best to find her father – in fact, trying too hard at points, putting friendships in danger – and starts to harness what she has.

For me, there’s not a true ending, no definite full stop, but that’s no bad thing. Lots of focus on fantasy and friendship which will entertain Y5+.

89. Sonya Hartnett – The Silver Donkey


A fairly straightforward war narrative, whereby Coco and Therese find a soldier camped in a nearby forest. He has deserted his post and what he has witnessed has turned him temporarily blind. The girls resolve to help him, and in return, the soldier shares a series of stories, each of which revolves around a donkey. Through his stories, the children learn what it means to show compassion, love and loyalty, which in turn they show to their fallen soldier.

The soldier’s stories are the highlight of this for me – the nativity is told beautifully, while the others I’m unfamiliar with or indeed whether they are Hartnett’s own words. Either way, they offer morals and discussion points (they are short too – perfect for an assembly).

90. Morris Gleitzman – Two Weeks With the Queen


If ever there were an example of why a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover, then this is it.

I was expecting a light-hearted, high jinks tale of a boy’s journey to the UK, and there are elements of that, but ultimately the issues here are deep.

Colin lives in Australia and learns that his brother has become ill; Colin, with loveable childish naivety, thinks the Queen of England can help. On this journey he meets Ted, a man whose partner is seriously ill, and Colin realises he importance of family and friendship.

Issues raised are terminal illness, same sex relationships, victimisation and family. Even the family Colin stays with in the UK (auntie and uncle) raise issues by virtue of the way they treat their son, Alastair.

Definitely one to use in class but should be thought about carefully before doing so.

August #52books2017

A lovely summer holiday spent reading as much as I could, fitting 17 books in to August. Some crackers too.

59. Katherine Rundell – The Explorer


Four children – Fred, Con, Lila and Max – find themselves stranded in the depths of the Amazon after their plane crashes.

The first half of the book is all about the dynamic of the group – the leaders, the helpful, the painful, the stubborn – and each character is vividly written. Fred is a doer, a boy who wears his cricket jumper with pride and thinks about what his father what say and do; Con is a complicated girl with multiple layers to her personality. She can appear stubborn, angry and cynical, often all within one sentence, but shows her childish love for life at other points. Lila is the mother figure of the group, not least because she looks after her younger, slightly annoying brother, Max.

They survive through a mixture of luck and opportunism – then they stumble across the explorer. What a wonderful character this man is. I picture him acted by Charles Dance, all stiff upper lip and correctness, a sharp tongue allied to a sharper temper, not to mention a wonderful way with words (‘I’ll cut off your ears and give them to the vulture to wear as a hat’ is one of my favourite throwaway lines). He teaches the children more than they ever thought as their adventure unfolds.

Simply put, a wonderful story. It’s not too much to say you can feel yourself in the jungle with the gang, and the explorer character is just fantastic. Katherine Rundell is such a fine writer that it brings both admiration and envy.

Have I mentioned the explorer is brilliant?

60. Piers Torday – The Last Wild


Set in a dystopian future, where humans and animals alike have succumbed to ‘red-eye’, we meet Kester, a mute boy who has been living in quarantine, alone, for six years. He soon realises he can talk to animals, and it falls to him to lead the creatures – the last wild – to safety, away from hungry humans, callous cullers and mad scientists. On his journey, he begins to learn more about himself – why he was in quarantine, and what happened to his father – all the while becoming more at one with his new-found animal friends.

There are some great characters here, not least the regal and righteous stag, the slightly mad white pigeon and the batty field mouse, all of whom help Kester to reach his potential as ‘the wildness’. The message of the importance of the animal kingdom rings loud and clear, and is perfectly paced for a class read. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels.

61. Lorena Alvarez – Nightlights


This was a very affecting book, both beautiful and uncomfortable at the same time. The artwork is stunning, presented as a mini graphic novel, and the attention to detail is mind-boggling.

Sandy is a dreamer, a girl who’d sooner be drawing and doodling than listening in class. She creates creatures and worlds from her dreams, but begins to question herself when she meets the new girl at school – Morfie. Is Morfie real, or is she another – a more powerful – figment of Sandy’s imagination?

A dark, disturbing picture book, and one that would be interesting to read with older children.

62. Maz Evans – Simply the Quest


The much-anticipated follow-up to Who Let the Gods Out? continues at a blistering pace from the get-go. Elliott is still being chased by the daemon Thanatos, who wants to get his hands on the Chaos Stones. He makes Elliott an offer he finds difficult to refuse, and much of the story is about Elliot dealing with his own personal demons as well as those trying to hunt him down, the most prominent of which are his mother’s ill health and a revelation about his father.

Elsewhere, Virgo is desperately trying to regain her immortality, the gods are stuck in Elliott’s house and Patricia Porshley-Plum is out for revenge.

I enjoyed this book much more than the first – the pace is excellent, the humour is non-stop and the story is based more on Elliott’s life than the intentions of the huge cast of gods.

63. Kieran Larwood – The Legend of Podkin One-Ear


Kieran Larwood has written a classic in under 300 pages: a sprawling, magical fantasy world of rabbits is under attack – chieftains are being killed and warrens ransacked as the Gorm seek to take over all the land. Podkin, along with his sister Paz and little brother Pook, make good their escape, carrying with them Starclaw, one of the Twelve Gifts – which the Gorm are intent on finding. They have to think on their feet, always being wary of where the Gorm might be lurking, as they make their way through this impressively constructed rabbity realm.

My favourite thing about this story is the way it is told – we begin with a wise old bard sitting with a group of younger rabbits in the middle of winter, readying them for a story. Their enthusiasm is boundless, but the bard holds them all in the palm of his hand (or paw). He goes on to tell Podkin’s tale; the book is interrupted with interludes as the bard questions his audience about things like the morality of gambling, or the importance of storytelling. And this book is a perfect example of the art – wonderfully written.

64. Elizabeth Laird – Welcome to Nowhere


A gritty tale of escape as Omar and his family make their way out of Syria, which has just descended into civil war.

I really wish I’d read this book with my class. They were genuinely interested in the wider world but often said they were unsure how people became refugees. This book maps it out clearly – much like an illness, displacement can happen to anybody. It is indiscriminate – the trouble Omar and his family go through show this perfectly.

A thoughtful story that would be perfect for any learning around the current refugee crisis.

65. Polly Ho-Yen – Fly Me Home


I love Polly’s writing style. She builds this magical realism into her stories which I love in other authors too (Almond and Murakami, for example).

In this story, Leelu is afraid – she is new to the country, new to her school, and as such struggles to find her voice. Through the help of her friend Betsy, her growing relationship with her brother Tiber, and the ‘wonders’ that are left by Bo, she grows.

Bo is an interesting character. He’s an oddball with a big heart, and teaches Leelu how to become more. He reminded me a little bit of Skellig – not in his mannerisms, but more because of the impact he has.

Another lovely read from an author who thinks a little differently.

66. Gary Paulsen – Hatchet


Brian Robeson finds himself stranded, alone and unprepared, when his plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. He uses his ingenuity, his patience and ultimately his instinct for survival in order to make the best of his situation.

A great short story that marries well with Katherine Rundell’s ‘The Explorer’, and, as promised by those who recommended it, there are some brilliant extracts that would be useful for teaching how to write with suspense.

67. Robert Swindells – Room 13


Fliss is off to Whitby for a class residential, only before she goes she experiences a nightmare that slowly begins to become true.

At midnight, mysterious things start to happen at room number 13, including sleep-walking, illness and mirages, but will anybody believe Fliss – and will she be able to do anything about it?

68. Piers Torday – The Dark Wild


The second in the trilogy, and just as brilliant as the first. This time the focus is a little more on Polly and her secrets (or at least, the secret her family have been holding on to). Kester realises he is not quite the ‘wildness’ he thought – not all of the animals follow his command, leading to the discovery of the dark wild, a collection of animals who are looking to exterminate human life once and for all.

As with The Last Wild, Torday raises some important points about animals, how they’re treated and whether we, as humans, could do more to look after our world.

69. Graeme Macrae Burnett – His Bloody Project


The darkest book I’ve read for quite some time, and certainly the only book that has given me sleepless nights (I woke to think that Roddy was at the end of my bed).

The book is a collection of accounts of three brutal murders that took place in the Scottish Highlands. Roddy has been accused of the murders, and has accepted responsibility, but each account offers a slightly different perspective.

Stark yet enthralling.

70. Jill Paton Walsh – Fireweed


A story that feels like smoke and dirt.

Narrated by ‘Bill’ – we never find out his real name – we learn of life in London during the Blitz. Bill should be in the Welsh countryside, evacuated as other children were, but makes his way back to London where he meets Julie, another child who has avoided the authorities.

Together, they just about survive, earning money through Bill’s opportunism and finding shelter whenever possible. The final two chapters are particularly heart-wrenching.

This is perfect for use with a WWII topic, touching upon evacuation, shelters, vividly described scenes of bombing (both during raids and the aftermath), as well as lots of other smaller pieces of information of which I was ignorant.

71. Ross Welford – Time Travelling With a Hamster


This story begins with Al’s birthday, upon which he receives a letter from his dad – though his dad is dead. The letter urges Al to go back in time, using his dad’s time travel invention, in order to make small but important changes that means he wouldn’t die young.

Off Al goes, in a Back To The Future-fuelled mission to change things, but not too much, and meet people, but not affect them. There is humour, emotion and a considerable amount of darkness – death, miscarriages, swearing, hints about virginity all feature, all of which would put me off reading it with my class. An odd one in many ways, as so many books seem to be about dealing with grief, whereas this one goes against that, and actively tries to reverse what has happened. One of a kind!

72. Shaun Tan – Tales From Outer Suburbia


I spotted this for £1.50 in a charity shop window and thought there must have been some sort of mistake – always a treat when that happens.

Packed with short stories of the mundanity of suburban life, albeit with magical twists, such as the day a water buffalo was found on the street, or when the town painted a load of rockets. Unusual and entertaining, and enhanced with Tan’s unique illustrations.

73. Zana Fraillon – The Ones That Disappeared


A story about enslaved children, this is hard-hitting with a pinch of magical other-worldliness. Having escaped the clutches of their ‘owner’, Orlando, Isa and Esra make their way through drains and tunnels, trying to find their friend, Miran. Along the way they meet Skeet, a character who is the best of humanity personified – he’s enthusiastic, lovably naive, honest and open, and the three of them learn to work together.

In the midst of all this is the Riverman, a Skellig type character that Skeet, Isa and Esra build together out of mud, sticks and clay. When he comes to life, the children are unsure whether to follow him or run further from their old lives.

In a similar way to The Bone Sparrow, Zana Fraillon writes about a modern day crisis, albeit one that is less talked about than displacement. It links to the refugee crisis, something that Fraillon’s excellent author notes make clear.

Another strong read, thought-provoking and difficult at once. Would be great for KS3+.

74. Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women


Seven short stories centred around Men Without Women, exploring loss, desire, love, jazz, cats, heartbreak and loneliness. There’s a distinct sadness about this book.

75. Alex Wheatle – Straight Outta Crongton


A page-turner in the truest sense. This is the third in the Crongton series and is by far my favourite.

It centres around Mo, a 15-year-old girl from the estate whose life begins to unravel from the word go. Lloyd, her mum’s boyfriend, physically attacks Mo over a fiver so Elaine, Mo’s erstwhile and loyal friend, advises her to go the police.

Lloyd is central to the plot as Mo gets a boyfriend who stands up to him on Mo’s behalf, and her friend Naomi gets involved with local gang members. Everything moves at a breakneck speed until the most bittersweet of endings. Not suitable for KS2 but a moving, absorbing tale of life on the Crongton estate.