Category Archives: Reading

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


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


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


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


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


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


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 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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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


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


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.

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!