Category Archives: Reading

May #52books2018

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

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

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

50. Victoria Jamieson – Rollergirl

roller

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

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

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

51. Gail Honeyman – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

eleanor

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

52. David Almond – The Tale of Angelino Brown

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

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

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

Humour with a thoughtful message.

53. Kwame Alexander – The Crossover

crossover

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

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

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

54. Elizabeth Laird – The Fastest Boy in the World

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

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

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

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

oranges

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

56. Various – Make More Noise

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

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

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

57. Jo Cotterill – Looking at the Stars

stars

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

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

58. Ally Sherrick – Black Powder

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

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

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

59. David Almond – The Colour of the Sun

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A warm and wondrous read.

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

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

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

60. Linda Sue Park – A Long Walk to Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

arthur

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

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

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

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April #52books2018

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

 

34. S.E. Durrant – Running on Empty

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

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

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

35. Ruta Sepetys – Salt to the Sea

salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

36. Kate Saunders – The Land of Neverendings

landofnever

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

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

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

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

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

37. Christopher Edge – The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day

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

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

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

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

38. Lissa Evans – Wed Wabbit

wedwabbit

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

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

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

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

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

39. Nikki Sheeran – Goodnight, Boy

goodnight

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

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

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

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

Read it.

40. Neil Gaiman – Odd and the Frost Giants

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

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

41. Maz Evans – Beyond the Odyssey

odyssey

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

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

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

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

42. Lauren Wolk – Beyond the Bright Sea

brightsea

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

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

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

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

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

43. Morris Gleitzman – Then

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

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

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

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

44. Morris Gleitzman – Now

now

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

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

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

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

45. Morris Gleitzman – After

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

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

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

46. Morris Gleitzman – Soon

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

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

He doesn’t do this for long.

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

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

47. Morris Gleitzman – Maybe

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

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

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

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

48. Natasha Farrant – The Children of Castle Rock

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

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

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

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

March #52books2018

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

24. Tim Bowler – Starseeker

starseeker

This was fantastic.

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

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

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

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

25. Rachel Joyce – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

harold

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

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

Really enjoying Rachel Joyce’s writing.

26. Guy Jones – The Ice Garden

ice

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

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

Some magical description and a lovely shorter story for KS2.

27. Eoin Colfer & Andrew Donkin – Illegal

illegal

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

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

28. Lauren Wolk – Wolf Hollow

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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

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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

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

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

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

31. Jen Campbell – Franklin’s Flying Bookshop

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

32. Frank Cottrell Boyce – The Astounding Broccoli Boy

broccoli

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

cuckoo

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

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

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

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

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

 

February #52books2018

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

12. Natalie O’Hara – Hortense & the Shadow

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

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

13. Iris Volant – Under the Canopy

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

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

14. Moira Young – The Road to Ever After

moira

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

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

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

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

15. Ross Welford – The 1000 Year Old Boy

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

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

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

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

16. Amy Wilson – A Far Away Magic

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

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

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

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

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

17. Peter Brown – The Wild Robot

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

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

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

Lovely verse and superbly illustrated.

19. Chloe Daykin – Fish Boy

fishboy

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

blackrock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January #52books2018

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

  1. Piers Torday – The Wild Beyond

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

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

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

2. Bao Phi – A Different Pond

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

skysong

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

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

4. Zillah Bethell – The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare

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

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

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

Read it. It’s lovely.

5. S.F Said – Phoenix

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

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

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

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

6. Neil Gaiman – Coraline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manchee!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Yangsook Choi – The Name Jar

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

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

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

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

battle

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

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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

sputnik

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

mrterupt

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

perijee

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

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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

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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

lightjar

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

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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

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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 👍📖pic.twitter.com/yrdFKi5paZ — 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.