August #52books2017

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

59. Katherine Rundell – The Explorer


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

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

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

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

Have I mentioned the explorer is brilliant?

60. Piers Torday – The Last Wild


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

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

61. Lorena Alvarez – Nightlights


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

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

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

62. Maz Evans – Simply the Quest


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

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

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

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


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

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

64. Elizabeth Laird – Welcome to Nowhere


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

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

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

65. Polly Ho-Yen – Fly Me Home


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

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

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

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

66. Gary Paulsen – Hatchet


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

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

67. Robert Swindells – Room 13


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

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

68. Piers Torday – The Dark Wild


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

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

69. Graeme Macrae Burnett – His Bloody Project


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

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

Stark yet enthralling.

70. Jill Paton Walsh – Fireweed


A story that feels like smoke and dirt.

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

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

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

71. Ross Welford – Time Travelling With a Hamster


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

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

72. Shaun Tan – Tales From Outer Suburbia


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

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

73. Zana Fraillon – The Ones That Disappeared


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

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

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

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

74. Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women


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

75. Alex Wheatle – Straight Outta Crongton


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

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

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


July #52books2017


Managed to complete the 52 book challenge this month, so have extended it to see whether I can reach 100.

48/49. Timothee de Fombelle – Vango / Vango: A Prince Without a Kingdom


Huge thanks to Jack Phillips for relentlessly enthusing about this – really glad he did as it is an astonishing book.

Book 1: Everyone’s looking for Vango, and Vango is trying to find himself.

This book has an enormous scale to it. Set in the early 20th century, the main protagonist, Vango, is on the run after a murder is pinned on him, but he’s not sure who wants him dead – or why.

The story chops and changes in time, going back to Vango’s early life before returning to the present, and takes in the viewpoints of a huge revolving cast of characters. This is probably my favourite part of the book – there is such a range and depth to these characters, each with their own story to tell and they all have a real purpose, interweaving with one another seamlessly. To name but a few, there is Ethel, a woman who lives with her brother in Inverness and has an unexplained obsession with Vango; Colonel Eckener, a high-ranking military official who leads the voyages of the Graf Zeppelin, a vehicle Vango becomes familiar with; Auguste Boulard, the much-beleaguered police officer who’s tasked with finding Vango; Mademoiselle, the woman who has raised Vango and knows more about his past than she lets on…the list continues. The Cat, Viktor, Pino Troissi – all brilliantly written and all important.

As well as moving back and forth through time and changing character viewpoints, the story moves swiftly from Paris to Italy, London to Inverness, with even mentions of Rio. The story has such scope and is wonderfully translated by Sarah Ardizzone.

Recommended. I’ll be reading it again.

Book 2: I enjoyed the second book a little less but it retains the same scale, just with a little less pace. The story focuses more on Viktor and his many guises, as well as exploring how Ethel’s relationship with Vango started and continued. The ending is a little emotional, and worth investing two books worth of time in for!

50. Melissa Savage – Bigfoot, Tobin & Me


A heart-warmer. Set in the mid-70s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, Lemonade is in mourning after her mother dies, and so moves to Willow Creek to live with her grandfather.

She meets Tobin, a boy who is obsessed with finding Bigfoot but struggles to make friends with others. Lemonade helps him to deal with his problems, and the two find more than they were bargaining for…

Some of Savage’s language and repetition reminded me a little of Kate DiCamillo, and she creates a lovely story of friendship. On a personal level, it reminded me of simpler times, when my friends and I would go off exploring in the fields nearby.

51. Frank Cottrell-Boyce – Cosmic


Liam Digby is an unusual 12 year old – his height and his beard give him the look of a much older man. He passes as the father of his friend, Florida, and this sows the seed of adventure in his young old head.

The book is written from the point of view of Liam already being in space. We find out he is up there with four other children – the first 2/3 of the story are japes, scrapes and silliness that lead to Liam’s venture into space.

The final 1/3 ties everything together beautifully – it is expertly crafted and is an ode to fathers and to fatherhood. Before this I was enjoying the book without loving it; the ending is perfect.

52. Gill Lewis – A Story Like the Wind


This short, beautifully illustrated book is set on a boat, in which a group of refugees are at sea – and scared. None of them have very much, if anything at all; Rami has a violin that he uses to tell a story, offering hope and a thin veil of security to those around him.

Warmly written and one that leaves a lasting impression.

53. Peter Bunzl – Moonlocket


The trials and tribulations of Lily and Robert continue with abandon, as the two encounter a new villain, Jack Door (named after Door from Neil Gaiman’s Neverland), an escapologist who is searching for the precious Moonlocket. Unbeknown to him, Robert and his family history hold the key to what Jack is looking for.

The follow up to Cogheart throws much more of a spotlight on Robert and how he is coping following the death of his father. Lily takes more of a back seat, as do the cast of mechanicals, as we follow their adventure to London, where Professor Hartman has been unwittingly assisting Jack…

54. Jess Butterworth – Running on the Roof of the World


One I’d been wanting to read for a while, and it didn’t disappoint.

Following a protest in their village, Tash and Sam escape Tibet and make their way across the Himalayas to India, where they think their parents are being held. They have to dodge soldiers, decide on who is trustworthy and who is not, and, simply, survive. The relationship they develop with their yaks is particularly poignant, and a serious message about refugees and political/social unrest is dealt with in a tone that would be perfect for year 5/6 children.

55. Stewart Foster – All the Things That Could Go Wrong


I really loved this book. Chapters are written from the alternate points of view of Dan and Alex. Dan is essentially full of anger, led astray all too easily by the vindictive Sophie, and his struggles are slowly revealed as the story progresses.

Alex, meanwhile, suffers with OCD, and is an easy target for the likes of Sophie. Dan digs away at him too, giving him the nickname ‘Shark Face’, but the two come together in unlikely circumstances.

The two characters are portrayed brilliantly – simultaneously different, but essentially struggling in the same way. Both are alone, worried and torn, and neither know how to deal with it.

Goldfish Boy + Wonder = All the Things That Could Go Wrong.

56. Malorie Blackman – Cloud Busting


Picked this up for 50p in the local charity shop. In my ignorance I hadn’t quite realised what it was – for those who don’t know, it is a short story written in poetic verse. The poems revolve around Davey, a boy who is bullied at school. There’s not much more to say without giving it away, but each poem is written in a slightly different style, revealing a little bit more about how Davey is treated. A thoughtful, thought-provoking book that I hope to use with my class next year.

57. M.G. Leonard – Beetle Queen


We started this in class but never got round to finishing it, so I was more than happy to spend an afternoon devouring it.

The gang – Darkus, Virgina and Bertolt – are hot on the heels of Lucretia as she prepares for a film award show in the US. They know she is up to something – but what is it? And can they stop her in time?

Another fast-paced tale, one that crescendos in the final few chapters with a stunning climax. As promised, the final part of the trilogy has been announced, so the loose ends here will be nicely tied up.

58. Siobhan Dowd – The London Eye Mystery


A true mystery story in which Ted, the narrator, is the boy who tries to solve it. When his cousin Saleem goes missing after taking a ride on the London Eye, Ted begins to develop a multitude of theories as to what happened. As he explains, his brain ‘works on a different operating system’, which means he sees and thinks about things in a different way.

I loved the way most chapters started with Ted’s fixation on the weather, and his relationship with his sister Kat is a perfect microcosm of brotherly-sisterly love (or otherwise).

A well-told story, particularly interesting in how it portrays Ted, a boy with Asperger’s.

100 books with QR codes


Most people will be aware of Ashley Booth (@MrBoothY6) and his work around reading – if not, be sure to give him a follow as he shares so much.

He created lists of 100 books for each year group/phase which are freely available from his blog.

I have adapted this slightly to add in a QR code – a quick scan will take the reader to (usually) the opening extract of the book in question, allowing children to try before they read. We don’t have every book available at school so this would be a quick way for children (and adults!) to see whether they would want to read on.

Disclaimer: my 100 list for Y5/6 is not the exactly same as Ashley’s for various reasons, but by and large it’s the same. Hopefully all QR codes work – the extracts are taken from the soon-to-be defunct lovereading4kids site.

Get them as a pdf/publisher file here.


June #52books2017

Managed to squeeze 12 books in this month – a mixed bag but enjoyable nonetheless.

36. G.R. Gemin – Cowgirl

This is Gemin’s first book, and, if you liked Sweet Pizza, you’ll probably like this too. There are similar themes: a community crumbling around its inhabitants (in this case the Mawr Estate); a determined central character (Kate – the ‘Cowgirl’); and a surprising agent for change in Gran. A fairly straightforward, well-meaning story that would be a good read for Y4.

37. Katherine Rundell – Rooftoppers

A wonderful story of hope. Sophie was left in the care of Charles after the ship she was on sank, and, as the only female survivor, realises her mother must have died. Charles – a brilliant, eccentric character full to the brim of the finest moral code – has his paternal methods questioned by the authorities, which leads the two to abscond to France, where Sophie has a hunch that her mother may be living.

Here, Sophie meets Matteo, a boy who lives on the roofs of Paris, and the two, aided by other roof-dwelling children, race against time to search for Sophie’s mum.

Sophie is a fabulous character, showing determination, self-belief and confidence in proving herself to  be the equal to, and better of, those she meets on her journey.

38. Ross Welford – What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible

Ethel, a 13 year old girl from Whitley Bay, finds herself turning invisible after a chance encounter with a sunbed and some unusual acne medicine. Her new-found abilities are kept secret by Boydy, a boy at school who is something of an outcast, and together they embark on adventure after adventure, getting themselves into more bother each time. Ethel finds out a few things about herself along the way which change her life forever.

An entertaining read, informally written and one to share with a Y5/6 class.

39. Emma Carroll – Letters From the Lighthouse

WWII. 1941. London. A bombing of the city persuades the mother of Olive and Cliff to evacuate her children to the coast, where it is safe, especially after their older sister Sukie goes missing.

Olive and Cliff are eventually housed in the lighthouse with Ephraim, a peculiar character who has a secret – and Olive is determined to find out what it is.

A wonderful piece of historical fiction and one that some of my children have enjoyed reading already. There are lots of twists and turns as Olive tries to solve the many mysteries that keep her puzzled, and the overall messages of tolerance, compassion and solidarity are as good a lesson for today’s children as they were for Olive and her companions.

40. Christopher Edge – The Jamie Drake Equation

Jamie Drake’s dad is an astronaut, circling the Earth aboard the ISS. After using a local observatory, unusual messages start appearing on Jamie’s mobile phone – could he really be talking to aliens?

The ending of this book is dramatic and heartfelt, a plea to show love to those we know, and to those we don’t.

41. Stewart Foster – The Bubble Boy

One of my children lent me this book as they said I’d enjoy it. They know me well.

Joe suffers from a debilitating condition which means he cannot come into contact with the outside world for fear of infection. He is visited frequently by his sister, Beth, his nurse, Greg, and a fellow sufferer – Henry. Joe and Henry keep in touch via Skype, allowing Joe to keep in touch with real life while the world continues outside.

Enter Amir, a new nurse with an eye for the unusual. He appears to be obsessed with aliens and installs Sky for Joe (somehow without being detected), all because he has a plan.

Joe is instantly likeable, remaining positive for those around him despite his difficulties. All in all, an emotional read.

42. Peter Bunzl – Cogheart

We started this as a class but the children voted to stop as they just weren’t following it. They had a lack of understanding of the Victorian era, weren’t sure about the difference between mechanisms and robots, and had no idea what an airship was. If anything, it highlighted lots of misconceptions. So we left it, and I picked it up again recently.

Lily is the daughter of a renowned inventor who goes missing when his airship crashes; the family’s loyal ‘mech’, Malkin the fox, embarks on a mission to warn Lily of the imminent danger she is in. Lily, meanwhile, is unaware, until the appearance of the mirror-eyed villains who follow her and her new acquaintance Robert, a clock-maker’s son.

There’s lots to admire – rich language, well-developed characters and a shedload of action. Once I got past the halfway point, the pace really picks up. I’m glad I returned to the book and have its follow-up Moonlocket on my to-read list.

43. Fleur Hitchcock – Murder in Midwinter

Maya was innocently snapping pictures with her phone when she sees something she wishes she never had. She is moved away from London to the Welsh countryside for her own safety, but danger seems to creep ever closer.

This story was fairly straightforward and didn’t really do it for me – Maya and her cousin Ollie don’t get on in the first instance but it seems obvious they’d grow closer, while the ending seemed to go on and on.

There are some great moments of tension, but just not a story for me. Would be a good Y4/5 read.

44. Eloise Williams – Gaslight

An Oliver Twist kind of tale, as Nansi finds herself orphaned and thieving for the evil Sid, an unforgiving character whose selfishness knows no bounds. Events transpire to help Nansi realise her mum might still be around, somewhere…but can she escape Sid’s evil clutches?

There is some wonderful language in here that I know some of my class would wallow in. A brilliant read.

45. Kate DiCamillo – Because of Winn-Dixie

This book is often held up as being one that every teacher should read, so I did. It was fine – a simple story, perhaps, or maybe I’m missing the point. It’s possibly because most of the books I’m reading are with my Y6 class in mind, and this is far too young.

46. Justin Fisher – Ned’s Circus of Marvels

A fantasy epic. Ned’s birthday quickly spirals out of control as it falls to him to save the world, using powers he previously was unaware of. I genuinely found this difficult to follow as there were so many characters, from George the giant gorilla to Mystero, the shapeshifter. There were goblins, demons, witches, immortal beings, and many more beyond.

The actual plotline is fairly easy to follow, but the story takes a long time to get going, wandering down endless dead ends and blind alleys before the action really starts.

47. David Almond – Kit’s Wilderness

Almond’s second book, following a similar theme of darkness and death as his debut Skellig.

Groups of children visit the local abandoned mine to play games of death – the ringleader, John Askew, chants over the ‘victim’, who then leaves them in the mine for as long as it takes for them to come to. All a game, thinks Christopher ‘Kit’ Watson and his good friend Allie…until Kit is chosen and it changes him forever.

This story has close links to Clay and Skellig in that Almond effortlessly blends fantasy and reality, all the while maintaining a message that most of us would be able to easily relate to. Another splendid read.

May #52books2017

27. Maz Evans – Who Let the Gods Out?


Elliot is suffering – he has problems at school, his mum’s health is a worry, and between them they are struggling to make ends meet. Added to this is the sudden appearance of Virgo, an immortal. She takes Elliot on a whirlwind adventure to save them both – it is full of jokes, smart historical references and an all-action endeavour which races by. The humour is aimed at the book’s audience but there are lots of nods and winks to adults as well, while the caricature Greek gods add lots of hilarity to the tale.

28. Kiran Millwood Hargrave – The Island at the End of Everything


This should easily a contender for book of the year – it is simply magical. Set on Culion Island in the Phillipines, we are introduced to Ami. Her mother is afflicted with leprosy and, led by the fantastically venomous Mr Zamora, will soon be separated from Ami as Culion is turned into a colony for those who are ‘Touched’.

The story follows Ami’s separation, her struggles in her new home and her plans to return to Culion. You may need to sit down with a box of tissues when you read the ending.

This is a book of hope, of love and of relationships, reminding us that there is good in people. The language used is full of poetic lilt and imagery, and would be a brilliant class read.

29. Christopher Edge – The Many Worlds of Albie Bright


Albie’s mum passed away recently, so now it is just him and his Dad, a famous scientist. Intrigued by the idea of parallel universes, Albie sets up his own experiment which takes him to lands of alternate existences, a glimpse into what could have been. Another story with a choker of an ending, but a really quick pace and good humour too.

30. M.G. Leonard – Beetle Boy


I read this with my class and they have absolutely loved it. They were fascinated by the beetles – we kept putting images of different types on our board – but the story itself had them well hooked from the word go. They laughed at Humphrey and Pickering, did that awkward laugh/glance at their friends when Novak met Darkus, and drew great big gasps of breath at Lucretia Cutter’s evil ways.

They have voted to read the sequel – I am pleased about this!

31. Zana Fraillon – The Bone Sparrow


This was tough, but brilliant and engaging. Subhi lives in a detention camp – I was imagining something like the Calais jungle – where he dreams of the outside, of a better life. This is tantalisingly close when he meets Jimmie, a girl from outside who has found her way in, and befriends Subhi when she learns he can read. The story tells us how Subhi survives, mainly thanks to his sister Queeny and his friend Eli, but he holds on to the hope that his father will come and find him and his family soon.

The ending was really hard to read and process, and the afterword brings it all home that this situation is based on the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people of Burma, and that people of all backgrounds and ages are treated like this in 2017.

32. Katherine Rundell – The Wolf Wilder


Marina and Feo, mother and daughter, look after wolves. They teach them how to be wild again, having been the toy-pets of the wealthy. General Rakov doesn’t trust these so-called witches, and hunts them down, taking Marina away and leaving Feo to escape, promising vengeance.

Feo is a wonderful character, full of bravery and determination and self-doubt, and is supported ably by Ilya, a boy soldier who quickly falls in love with Feo’s wolves. The two of them grow as a partnership, learning to trust each other and eventually, to trust others, as they embark on a journey for what is right.

33. Lara Williamson – Just Call Me Spaghetti-Hoop Boy


Adam Butters is an adopted boy who yearns to find out why his birth mother gave him up. The story centres on his difficult journey to do just this, but is written with lots of light-hearted moments.

Lara Williamson writes from a child’s point of view brilliantly – the misplaced confidence, the friendships, the secret plans – and has a wonderful way of drawing everything together at the end. The final few chapters, particularly Adam’s conversation with his adoptive mum, are really well-thought out and touching.

34. Jo Cotterill – A Library of Lemons


The first book for a long time that I managed to read in a day, simply because it’s that good.

Calypso lives with her dad. Since her mum’s death, she has preferred her own company, taking to reading books rather than making friends. Her father is doing the same, immersing himself in his own work rather than his daughter.

This begins to unravel when Mae starts at Calypso’s school and the two bond over stories. They form a strong friendship, one which opens Calypso’s eyes to what she has been missing in her own home.

A book about friendship, grief and inner strength, and an uplifting read.

35. Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane


Another magical, mystical tour through the mind of Neil Gaiman. Here the narrator reflects on events that happened to him when he was seven, involving the Hempstock family, who seem to have lived forever; Ursula Monkton, a tormenting, ever-present other-wordly figure who appears as a nanny, a worm and a piece of fabric; and the miner, whose suicide precipitates a chain of events so bizarre, so mesmerising and so unreal-ly real that it will stay with me for a long time.

Developing a love of reading

Aidan Chambers’ book ‘The Reading Environment’ talks of ‘The Reading Circle’. Here’s how I’ve tried to develop this in the classroom, hopefully encouraging a class of readers at the same time.

The Reading Circle, from Aidan Chambers’ book ‘The Reading Environment’ (1996)


Know your books (bookstock and availability)

I’ve been buying lots of books over the last seven/eight months and have read lots of blogs written by teachers and book reviewers in order to try and develop a wider knowledge of suitable books for my year 6 children. While I’ve always loved and promoted books like Skellig, Wonder and Holes, I wanted my children to become familiar with a wider range of authors, which is what they’re currently doing.

They now know about newer authors like Polly Ho-Yen, Lara Williamson, Peter Bunzl, Lisa Thompson and Kiran Millwood Hargrave. They are learning about more established authors such as Elizabeth Laird, David Almond and Kate DiCamillo. They are out at the weekend buying or borrowing books, then rushing in to tell their friends, or me. This is probably the best feeling there is as a teacher – to know you have influenced or encouraged them to pick up and buy a book.

And to do this, I have needed to show that I am enthusiastic, knowledgeable and interested. People like Simon Smith, Rhoda Wilson, Ashley Booth and Mathew Tobin have helped enormously with this as they regularly engage in book-talk, sharing recommendations, ideas and enthusiasm online.

Share books (accessibility)

I know lots of teachers do this, but I also know that lots of teachers wouldn’t ever want to – I think it is important. My class borrow books from me all the time, and through word of mouth certain books are seldom on my bookshelf. That’s what I want.

Whenever I finish a book, I share my review with the children and put it on my lending shelf. By the end of the day it has usually gone.

My personal bookshelf, which children go to and borrow from regularly

We have now opened our junior library at school so hopefully the children will have a greater range of books to choose from.


Engage with authors (formal talk and book gossip)

There are so many ways to get in touch with authors these days that it would seem silly not to. Twitter is the most obvious route, with authors keen to hear from their readers and able to give quick replies. Lara Williamson contacted the class via Twitter then sent them a personalised email; M.G. Leonard responded to a tweet by leaving a lovely comment on our blog; and Frank Cottrell Boyce sent us a letter that included a fake £20 note from the set of Millions. 

These authors didn’t need to take the time to reply to our class but the fact that they did really engaged the children – here were real-life authors talking to us, thanking us and asking us questions.  This is such an easy thing for a teacher to do and the children’s reactions are priceless.

Discuss (book gossip)

It sounds obvious, but talking to the children about the books they are reading has such a massive impact. Whenever I see them reading, or with a book, I ask them what it is, how they’re finding it, whether they’d recommend it etc. They’re probably sick of me doing so, but they are doing it themselves now – sharing recommendations, asking to borrow each other’s books and even telling me when a particular author has a new book out.


Read together (time to read)

Linked to the point above, because of their confidence in reading, the children love to read together. When we have reading time, either at the start of the day or when it is timetabled, some children choose to read silently on their own, some read with a partner (almost acting the stories out), and other children listen to one of their peers read parts of their books to them. Seeing the children involved in their books is a powerful and rewarding thing. 

Read aloud (hearing it done and doing it for yourself)

As a class, we’ve read 6 books this year, which doesn’t sound many but isn’t bad going considering we have had SATs to prepare for and a squeezed timetable at the best of times. We read every day – the children voice some of the characters, and they create accents and personalities for the characters we come across. The children are involved. As Chambers suggests, they are hearing it done, doing it for themselves and having time to read.

There were two reading-related articles in the Guardian this weekend, both of which surmised that stories are being devalued and almost forgotten in our current education system.

The Secret Teacher

Ditch the grammar and teach storytelling instead

Reading is a wonderful thing to share with a class, and it should be promoted by a teacher as often as possible. Chambers’ Reading Circle is a simple, straightforward model to follow and has helped my class to develop as readers, hopefully for a much longer time than I’ll be teaching them.

#52books2017 – April

19. Benjamin Zephaniah – Refugee Boy


This book starts with two almost identical chapters – one in Ethiopia, one in Eritrea. This is where the main man Alem is introduced – his Dad sends him to Great Britain as a refugee, being as his parents have a foot in either camp of the warring factions. Alem’s journey is unsurprisingly not a barrel of laughs, and the book is gritty, honest and at times difficult.

Alem experiences lots of problems as he tries to assimilate into British culture, building to an ending that fits in well with the rest of the book. It was published in 2001 but is just as relevant today.

I’d read this to my class but won’t be lending it to any of the children – there is some swearing that I’d be able to edit out if I was reading aloud.


20. Benji Davies – Grandad’s Island


Recommended by lots of people on Twitter, so I bought it despite not really knowing what it’s about. It’s heartfelt, and a thoughtful way of looking at death with younger children.


21. Markus Zusak – The Book Thief


I’d had this for a while but wanted to wait until the Easter break so I could get stuck into it. I initially found it difficult going as the narration had an unusual, stop-start style, but this soon passed and I found myself devouring chapter after chapter.

Liesel’s story takes in death, war, bravery, theft, naivety, friendship and loss, all through the voice of the narrator – Death. Her life is turned upside down as she is orphaned at the start of World War II and so is sent to live with the Hubermanns (Hans and the fearsome Rosa), of whom Hans becomes everyone’s grandad and an all-round wonderful beacon of light through the dust and dirt of the poverty in which they live.

Liesel steals, gets beaten at school and is pestered constantly for a kiss by her good friend Rudy. Unsurprisingly, the story doesn’t have a happy ending, but it’s a hell of a journey.

A large portion of the story centres on the Hubermanns’ decision to shelter a Jewish man, Max Vandenburg, the son of a man Hans Hubermann fought alongside in WW1. His presence allows the reader to see a different side to Rosa, and Liesel develops her own moral code and strength of character.

The power of words…


22. Morris Gleitzman – Once


Following The Book Thief, I thought this would be an apt read. Felix, a young Jewish-Pole, narrates his tale as he tries to escape occupied Poland, although his naivety and innocence is present throughout the book, meaning he doesn’t really know what it is he’s running from.

This changes when he meets Barney, a dentist who is secretly protecting children from the Nazis. Felix realises what is really happening – the ending is excellent and appropriate. Now I need to get the sequels.

There’s a lovely footnote from Gleitzman at the end of the book too.


23. David Solomons – My Brother Is A Superhero


I read the first chapter of this book to my class who loved it – it may well be our next class read. Luke’s older brother Zack suddenly and mysteriously gains six superpowers, though he doesn’t know what they all are. He and Luke agree that his pseudonym should be Star Lad, and he immediately shoots to fame when he prevents an accident outside his local comic store.

Cue Lara, a girl in Luke’s class who is determined to unmask Star Lad in order to satisfy her own ambitions as an up-and-coming journalist. Luke eventually sees her as a confidante, especially when Zack goes missing, and eventually the two work together to solve the mystery.

Solomons writes with lots of humour and clearly knows his comic-book history. Recommended.


24. Crystal Chan – Bird


I loved this book – really, really loved it – from the opening line to the very last word.

Jewel lives with her Mexican mother and her Jamaican father in what appears to be a fairly loveless and difficult arrangement, particularly as all concerned have never recovered from the loss of their son (Jewel’s older brother) John. There are arguments, silences and awkward moments provided by the most important character – her mute grandfather. Jewel makes lots of mention of her Grandpa and the silence of the house in beautiful yet sad ways:

I never really thought of Grandpa as someone who had feelings – with him being all silent, I just thought his heart was silent too. 

We meet a new boy who befriends Jewel, though her father and grandfather have doubts about the validity of this friendship.

Jewel feels as though she has never been fully accepted by her family in the light of their loss, and her friendship is the best thing she has ever had going for her. But her family’s misgivings lead to a climactic ending, and one that I don’t mind admitting shedding a few tears over.

A beautifully told story of acceptance, struggle and friendship.


25. Patrick Ness – The Rest Of Us Just Live Here


I didn’t understand this story at all, so this is what I think happens:

  • A group of teenagers are living in what seems to be modern society, though it is after the vampires and soul-eating ghosts have struck
  • Mike, the main character, is in love with his best friend Henna
  • Henna sometimes is and sometimes isn’t in love with Mike, but is in love with another boy called Tony, but ends up dating a guy called Nathan instead
  • Mike has another best friend, Jared, who is one quarter God and can heal things with his hands. He is also able to communicate with cats
  • Mike suffers with OCD; his sister once almost died from anorexia
  • Indie kids keep going missing
  • Blue lights keep appearing, both in the sky and in the eyes of people and animals

And that’s it. I couldn’t piece it all together, yet raced through the book hoping that something would make sense. It didn’t. The way it’s written lacks any real memorable description – it’s mostly dialogue (and a hell of a lot of brackets).

I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has read this and enjoyed it – I’m sure I must have missed something…


26. Elizabeth Laird – The Garbage King


Set in Ethiopia, this story sees two boys from very different backgrounds develop a friendship in unlikely circumstances. Dani is rich, fat and fed up of the threats he receives from his father, so runs away from home, surviving on the bag of clothes and 20 birr he takes with him.

Mamo is from an altogether more modest background, and his story starts when he is spirited away from his sister to work as a slave in the countryside. He too runs away and eventually crosses paths with Dani, before the two of them join a street gang, scavenging piles of rubbish for clothes and begging for food.

The messages here are strong ones, commenting on social injustice and the true meaning of friendship, but for me the book never really got going. It was fine – the story moved along at a decent pace, the characters grew a little – but there just seemed to be a lack of emotion, almost as though it were a reporting of facts rather than a story from the heart.

I am looking forward to reading Welcome to Nowhere though.