dance

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.

 

No Angry Birds Here

It’s walk to school week this week. I’m one of those smug people who walk to school every day, but although the walk is the same, what we see and hear changes from day to day, season to season. There’s traffic of course, but a field to stroll across too, and that’s where we see wildlife. We skip over the slugs, avoid squashing the snails, dart away from dogs, and flap at flies. But we see some beautiful birds, so here are five fiction books – one for each school day this week – about birds!

dave pigeon

Monday: Dave Pigeon by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Not unlike The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp, Haddow has written a riotously funny book from the point of view of a pigeon – in fact the strapline betrays the fact that the book is almost a manual for pigeons – ‘How to Deal with Bad Cats and Keep (most of) Your Feathers.’ Dempsey’s hilarious pigeon on the front, wrapped in bandages, declares in a speech bubble that this is the best book you’ll ever read. It is certainly one of the funniest.

Pigeons Dave and Skipper are friends. But their common enemy is Mean Cat, and through the book they relay (in narrative and conversational speech bubbles) their attempt to defeat the cat and oust it from its comfortable home with Human Lady – taking the cat’s place, especially because the Human Lady has the nice biscuits with jam in the middle. The text reads in part through speech bubbles, but even when there is traditional narrative, it’s interspersed by the two pigeons bantering as they attempt to tell the story.

Their plans to outwit Mean Cat grow more and more absurd, but are always extremely funny. The pigeon’s point of view and language is exceptionally rendered with silly humour and observation:

“I lay back on the lawn. The grass dazzled greener, the sky shone bluer and the washing line looked lineier. Life was cat-free and felt birdrilliant!”

With a surprising ending, and equally comical illustrations from Dempsey, this is a title for younger readers to grab and adore. Look in particular for the full page illustrations in which the pigeons wait for rain. For ages 6+. Fly to your copy here.

tufty

Tuesday: Tufty by Michael Foreman
A gentle picture book about losing one’s family but finding a mate in Michael Foreman’s new book. As with many of his illustrations, they feel traditional – rendered first as sketches and then painted.

Tufty is placed firmly in London – he’s a duck that lives in the middle of the lake near the royal palace – in a nice touch the human royalty are drawn as being rather birdlike, and are addressed by the Mother Duck as ‘The Royal Duck and Duckess.’ But the story isn’t really about royalty – it tells the tale of Tufty flying south for winter, but losing his family in the process.

Perhaps an environmental comment lies within, as Tufty flies beautifully over Hyde Park – the Albert Memorial depicted lovingly from a bird’s eye view, but then the small duck gets lost among the cranes and towering buildings of London. The orange cranes and glass buildings are distinctive by their lack of distinction from each other.

Tufty is rescued by a homeless man, and then eventually finds his own duck mate back near the palace. The scenes of nature feel homely and gentle, with a wash of colours across the sky that reflect in the lake. All in all, an uplifting story – young readers will like the homeless man’s hollow in the tree, and the tenderness of finding a home, wherever it may be. Take one home with you here.

swan boy

Wednesday: Swan Boy by Nikki Sheehan

Swans and metamorphosis have long gone together – from narrative roots in Leda and the Swan to Russian folk stories such as The White Duck, and the Grimm’s Six Swans, as well as the ballet Swan Lake, and the contemporary film Black Swan.

Nikki Sheehan infuses her latest book with magic realism. She tells of a boy grieving for his father and suffering the agonies of starting a new school, and yet weaves in subtle fantasy and magic by gradually layering swan attributes and feathers on his body at the same time as an inspirational teacher at school persuades him to dance in her production of Swan Lake.

The story works because the contemporary London setting, the character of Johnny and his mother and brother, as well as his peers around him, feel so real that long before the swan metamorphosis becomes an issue, the reader is sucked into the story. The writing is so solid and the characters so rounded that its even believable that bully Liam and his cronies, and Johnny become fully immersed in a Matthew Bourne type production of a ballet to be performed in front of the school.

If anything, Sheehan could have pushed the ‘darkness’ of Johnny’s discovery of feathers on his body a little further – but the novel wins hands down in its portrayal of his character – his rising to the responsibility of caring for his little brother Mojo (who himself is fully realised with his penchant for drawing and his own reaction to his father’s death), and also in Johnny’s realisation that friendship takes work and sacrifice. The slight shift to Liam’s point of view didn’t garner my sympathy, but the story as a whole was compelling and page-turning.

This is a good poignant study of the effects of bereavement on a family (for this audience) and a solid plot that moves quickly and effortlessly. Thoroughly enjoyable. For 10+ years. Buy a copy here.

seagull and cat

Thursday: The Story of the Seagull and the Cat who taught her to Fly by Luis Sepulveda, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura

Books in translation can be hard to get into – the rhythms and what’s suitable for children can vary country to country – but this quirky story of a seagull (and mainly a cat) is worth persevering with. A gull, stricken in an environmental oil spill, gives birth to an egg, and leaves a dying wish that the cat, Zorba (who is the last animal she sees) nurture her baby and teach it to fly.

As with all good literature, it’s the characters that forge through and make the book. And this cat, together with his gang, is no exception. Completely anthropomorphised, he shoulders the responsibility with pride and a little anxiety, using his friends the Colonel, the Secretario and Einstein – the last of which rapidly searches for answers to everything in an encyclopedia. The cats themselves are fairly eccentric, and owned by even more eccentric humans, and the book is flooded with humour because of this.

The second part is most endearing as the gull hatches and the impetus is on the cats to teach it to fly – they try to study da Vinci’s flying machine for clues. It’s for a mature reader – one who can handle the vocabulary, but underneath that is a beautiful tale of friendship, perseverance and identity, as well as age-old themes of life and death.

Kitamura’s illustrations bring the story to life, adding humour, expression and unique characteristics to each personality – and should be savoured. A classic from Chile. For age 8+ years. Buy it here.

dawn chorus

Friday: The Dawn Chorus by Suzanne Barton

From the complex to the unassuming – this picture book is beautiful by way of its simplicity. Peep hears a beautiful song upon waking and wishes to know what it is. On discovering it’s the Dawn Chorus, he is invited to join in if he can audition. Unfortunately for him, he’s just not an early bird kind of a bird, and fails to turn up on time, then fails to stay awake during the audition the following morning.

Of course it’s not his fault, it turns out he’s a nightingale – and dawn is the wrong time of day for him to sing.

Suzanne Barton has managed to express the beauty of bird song through her renderings of colour in this picture book – from the leaves on the front cover to the luscious harmony of reds, oranges and yellows of the gathered birds of the dawn chorus. Each bird is drawn to be plump with patterned wings and tails – almost collage-like in their depiction. It gives them a cuteness, and yet doesn’t completely sentimentalise them.

Young children will delight in the hanging musical notes in the air, the bird conductor with baton in hand, and the delightfully tender ending. It’s uplifting, a lovely introduction to birds and nocturnal animals, and about persevering for what you want and who you are. Take home your own dawn chorus here.