Lockdown Home-School Reading

There’s a wonderful wealth of activities and online resources opening up for children who are, once again, home-schooling and remote learning. I’m not going to list all of them here, as others have brilliantly done this already, including A Library Lady, whose blog handily lists almost everything you will need for encouraging reading at home. Click here.

There’s also, of course, the national efforts from the BBC starting next week, and Joe Wicks, as well as normally subscription only services opening up for primary school pupils during lockdown, and Jane Considine who’s offering live writing lessons here, as well as science for under 14s here.

Of course, the issue, is that even looking through these and finding what’s right for your child or composing some kind of timetable of events and activities for them is highly time-consuming and what with work continuing for most parents, and/or juggling more than one child at home, elderly parents to care for etc time can be really tight.

So my advice is to prioritise reading. (And exercise). Take time to read each day – and this can be in several ways. Each household member could read independently for ten minutes a day before bedtime or during the day. Try a family read-a-long, in which you all read the same book together, perhaps taking turns to read aloud, depending on age of children.

We’ve found immense joy in creating individual accents and ways of speaking for characters in our read alouds – from the deep resonant tones of Hagrid in Harry Potter to the piratey ‘rrr’s’ when reading Treasure Island.

We’ve also explored picture books again – even though children may ‘seem’ too old for them, they aren’t. Picture books can work in two ways – there are those that are specifically aimed at younger children, and these can be fun to revisit with an older child – reliving memories and also letting them take the lead in reading to you – and also older picture books with difficult themes or issues that are well worth exploring in conversation while reading.

There’s also benefit in comics. We subscribe to The Beano, and it’s good for tracking narrative, learning to be concise in expression, and understanding the visual effects. To remain hopeful in light of the news, The Week Junior continues to excel in presenting the facts but balancing the doom with light, insight and interest.

There is also delight to be found in structure, and reading A Poem for Every Winter Day edited by Alli Esiri, hands out that on a plate, seeing as each poem is given a date. Today’s is Journey of the Magi by TS Eliot, and although this is one I personally studied for A-level, it’s surprising and wonderful what an eleven year old can bring to the table upon hearing it!

The rewards of reading can’t be stressed enough. Whether it’s diffusing family arguments in a tight space by just switching off and letting everyone’s imaginations take them to desert islands or deep forests or unexplored planets, or whether it’s sharing in the nostalgia of the past, I highly recommend that even if you eschew Joe Wicks and endless multiple choice maths questions, you buckle down to a good read.

Natasha Farrant’s Voyage of the Sparrowhawk picked up the Costa Children’s Book Award this week, and is an uplifting tale promoting a future full of hope, so may be just what you need. Set just after the First World War, it tells of the adventures of two orphans as they cross the channel to find long-lost relatives, and is perfect for 9+ readers.

Also for this age group, and by debut author Lesley Parr is The Valley of Lost Secrets, set during the Second World War and featuring evacuee Jimmy, who finds life very different in a small village in Wales as compared to his home life in London. However, the discovery of a skull in a tree makes even a docile village seem scary.

More history in Cat Weldon’s How to be a Hero, publishing later this month and featuring a trainee Valkyrie, this is the first in a new trilogy about being heroic, and exploring the confusing world of Norse Gods. Filled with illustrations and a couple of maps, this is hugely fun, and also fascinatingly informative.

For laughs, and also large dollops of pathos, you’ll want to read The Perfect Parent Project by Stewart Foster. Unfortunately, it didn’t show me how to be a perfect parent, but it did make me laugh, and kept me gripped. My review is being published in Books for Keeps later this month, and I highly recommend the novel – it’s terrific for building empathy, showing insight, and portrays a great child perspective on the world.

silent stars go by
If you missed The Silent Stars Go By by Sally Nicholls in December, I recommend you read it now, even if it builds to a pivotal Christmas scene. Nicholls is a sublime writer, and this book – for young teens – is a comfort read, a beautiful historical romance that I read in one sitting, feeling both transported and charmed. Set in 1919, Margot’s fiancé Harry has been reported missing, leaving her at home with a devastating secret. When Harry returns, she has to build up the courage to tell him the secret and see how he responds. Will it change the course of their lives forever? The characters are so real that the reader feels as if they are friends, and the only fault I could find was that the book was too short – I wanted more.

The Violin Players
by Eileen Bluestone Sherman is a quick romance read for teens, which aims to highlight prejudices that can be held and acted upon, and yet not challenged for years. Featuring a Jewish teenager in America, Melissa, who moves with her parents from New York to a small town, she confronts anti-Semitism whilst also finding romance. The writing and characterisation feel a little clunky and contrived, but the novel warms as the plot thickens, and was more enjoyed by my teen than by me.

Lastly, a book I’ve been using for younger readers, and published last year, is The B on your Thumb by Colette Hiller and Tor Freeman. A fascinating and fun book of 60 poems, these aim to use the letters of the alphabet to show how words are pronounced and spelled. It’s clever and funny, and excellent for reading aloud, and will make phonics learning that little bit more exciting.

What’s In a Number?

I’m not very good at maths. That’s not a ‘girl’ phrase, but a statement of fact. In school, my teachers thought I did have good maths capability and sat me for my GCSE a year early. I achieved a B, no mean feat in those days of no A*s, but they then shot for the moon, and sat me for maths AO Level, and I crashed and burned with a lousy D. Needless to say, I was not as good at maths as they thought.

These days, numbers are everywhere, more prevalent than the virus as it turns out, with statistics, predictions, probabilities and graphs popping up on the media minute by minute. And my maths is sharpening. I regularly listen to Tim Harford on BBC Radio 4’s More or Less show, and I think I understand what the statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter says four fifths of the time. And I definitely understand when retailers send me percentage discount emails.

But I get stuck explaining maths to children. Here, two brilliantly practical and mathematical books are helping me out this autumn.

Dosh: How to Earn It, Save It, Spend It, Grow It and Give It by Rashmi Sirdeshpande
is a phenomenon. Neatly packaged to be slightly wider than a traditional paperback novel, and coloured with a lurid green, reminiscent of an American dollar, this guide does exactly what it says on the cover. It explains that money is about making choices, it can be used for good and bad, sometimes you might not have a lot, but the best thing to do is know how to manage what you have.

There’s history here too, as well as up-to-date information on crypto-currencies, and trailblazers who have innovated in business and created new companies, and made money. What’s more the book aims to inform the reader about adapting to change, finding new ways forward, and applicable life skills, all told in a friendly, non-patronising, informative chatty way.

How about starting your own business – ideas aplenty – or learning how to avoid fake ‘special’ offers, which maybe aren’t quite as special as they seem? What’s compound interest, what’s a mortgage, and when was the word ‘bubble’ used to mean something before coronavirus?

This is a fascinating and fantastic guide, which isn’t at all boring. It links tulips in Amsterdam to the housing market, it explores charity and sharing chocolate cake. For anyone planning to live in our society, this is a must-read book for upper-end of primary school/lower secondary school. You won’t regret investing in it. You can buy it here.

in great numbers
The publisher Little Gestalten very kindly sent me In Great Numbers, illustrated by Daniela Olejnikova during lockdown. For primary school readers, this is a great full-colour non-fiction book that opens up the world in terms of where numbers are and what they can do. This dissects maths in the world rather than explaining mere sums at school. It tracks the history of numbers from the people who invented them, to the modern calendar and ways of measuring things, to explaining how the universe doesn’t make sense without numbers and how if you look hard everything is made of patterns of numbers, and that numbers and their possibilities are endless. And it’s written in simple, explanatory prose paragraph bites.

Particular attention should be paid to the spread on how animals use numbers, learning how spiders count the prey caught in their webs, or perhaps you’ll find more of interest on the page about how the world came up with how to tell the time in different places. For me, there’s always the genius of the Fibonacci sequence, phi and the golden ratio, and of course code cracking. With bold primary colours, detailed illustrations, and something to catch the eye on every page, this is a cracking introduction to how relevant and necessary numbers are. You can buy it here.

how to hold an umbrella
And now for a little self-promotion (sorry). For adults reading this who like their fiction short and sometimes surreal, you might wish to look at this short story anthology, How to Hold An Umbrella, in which one of my own short stories has been published.

Storytelling Specifically

Initially, lockdown bestowed upon me a kind of numbness, and everything was difficult, including reading. But now, I have started reading voraciously again; a wide range of fiction, both historical and contemporary, from Thomas Bernhard to Victor Lodato, but also as part of my day job from a wide range of non-fiction resources on story-writing, teaching reading, disseminating creative writing, and of course giving children a lifelong love of reading.

Why is this so important? Why do I read? Why do I impress upon children the urgency of reading and listening to stories?  

When we are living in a world of statistics and generality, with graphs and numbers bombarding our news feeds every day, and meaningless slogans resounding in our heads (Stay Alert!), it is easy to become overwhelmed, or to disappear under the deluge of data. But storytelling can lift us out, and give us insight, hope, and truth.

Storytelling gives us the specific. It distinguishes the detail from the general, and gives us the individual within the society. This is important too. It doesn’t take the individual out of society, instead it shows us their specific place within it – a protagonist would not be very interesting if they existed in complete isolation. Even Robinson Crusoe had his Man Friday.

The specifics of a story are what make it great. Take a woman walking down the street. She’s not very interesting, until you add specifics. You can’t picture her until you add specifics. Does she wear a red hat? Perhaps she walks with a limp, maybe she carries a baby in a sling, or an expensive briefcase. Perhaps she flicks her hair a certain way, or stops to look at her reflection in the shop window. The little details bring out who she is – you can start to see into her personality, into her life. Is she checking herself out admiringly, or perhaps tugging down her skirt out of inhibition and low self-esteem?

Now let’s look at the front cover of The New York Times on Sunday May 24th. It lists the names of the dead, but what makes it so effective and powerful is not so much listing the name of the person who died, but the embedded individual specifics of their lives – the key to a whole rich undertone of living and being. “Clara Louise Bennett, 91,’ The New York Times reads, ‘sang her grandchildren a song on the first day of school each year.” And “Helena Silvia, 96,” who was “known as the fashionista in her nursing home.”

The reason the Dominic Cummings story resonates countrywide is because we know the specifics of it. People can directly compare their own situation to his. Whereas the daily death toll carries no story. We need the specifics within it to understand it. We can empathise with the family of Clara Louise Bennett now because she’s become a person in our mind, one who carried out a specific act.

How about the Holocaust? We know as a fact that six million Jews were killed, but it’s only through hearing the individual stories of survivors that we can feel our way towards understanding the truth of the matter. Why does Anne Frank stand out as a seminal text – it’s a way for our teenagers to engage with another individual teenager and her struggle in going into hiding, her truth of what she saw, and her tragic end. What do I remember of reading her diary so many years later – the specifics: her longing to ride a bicycle, for example. Through this, we can grasp the complexity of what the Holocaust was all about.

On Twitter, the Auschwitz Museum excels at bringing the truth of what happened to life by each day giving their followers an individual story of a person who died there. Their photo, their name, how old they were when they were deported, the age at which they died. The photos themselves tell whole stories in their individuality. A cocked eyebrow of a cheeky young boy, the carefully tidied fringe of a small girl, the hope and passion in a young woman’s eyes as she envisages her future from the other side of the camera lens.

It is through the stories of individual refugees that we see the arrival of immigrants to our shores with a compassionate view, rather than as a threat. It is why many children’s authors have chosen to craft a story around a particular individual and their particular pain and journey, so that children reading the story here can understand the specifics of the situation there and see inside the humanity of the situation. Look at No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton, The Journey by Francesca Senna, The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf, Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird and many more.

While I read and re-read books on storytelling, each book always boils the craft down to the fact that what storytellers are doing by creating the drama of an everyday fictional life is getting at an absolute truth behind it. By showing us a specific story, a specific incident in someone’s life, it reveals who we are as humans. It reveals how different people react to situations and why. Storytelling may be fiction, but underneath the layers, it is truth-telling. It shows us how life is, or how life should be. The reader wonders if they would react like that character, it makes them wonder why characters are behaving in certain ways. Fiction shows us motivation and causality, consequences and endings.

To teach our children manners we might not just tell them about saying please and thank you, but also look to the storytelling in Please Mr Panda by Steve Antony. To explain friendship to our children we might look at the relationship between Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, to explain sacrifice we might look at the story of Charlotte’s Web. To explain nature’s power to heal we might start with The Secret Garden.  

Look at the story you’re currently reading to your child. What truth is it imbuing in them behind the dramatic scenes? Look at the The Tiger Who Came to Tea. It’s just a simple story, but behind it lies what? And perhaps it’s individual to you? Does it show you the generosity of the mother and daughter, the comfort of a family scene, that imagination can transform a boring rainy day, that despite the threat of something unusual, all can be well in the end.

In every specific story, there is a general truth to be found. And this is the beauty of storytelling – the power of the language of the specific gives a marvellous truth to the world outside, and enables the reader to see with more clarity and more heart.

School in the Time of Corona

malory towers
As the government and teachers’ unions argue over the return to school, many debates are taking place about the education gap, the missed months of learning, the ‘summer slide’ or ‘brain drain’ that usually occurs over the long summer holidays now stretching into months and months off school. But what some children are really missing is not so much the mainstream education, as the microcosm of society that school represents.

Looking at children’s literature about schools, such as Wigglesbottom Primary by Pamela Butchart, Malory Towers by Enid Blyton, Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes, The Chalet School by Elinor Brent-Dyer, St Grizzle’s School for Girls by Karen McCombie, and so many more, it’s definitely not the learning taking centre stage.

Even those who prefer to play hookey from school find relative gains from its presence, such as meeting up with a girl, and having an environment in which to show off (I’m looking at you Tom Sawyer, and Becky Thatcher). School is a way to find one’s own identity, to compare oneself with others, it’s an avenue to finding one’s passions, and a place to spark adventure. School is where friendships are made and cemented. It’s hard to sustain this tight closeness during lockdown – how would Mildred Hubble and Maud have fared? Or Harry, Ron and Hermione? In fact, one of the most devastating scenes in the Harry Potter books is when Harry is alone in his bedroom during the summer, and bemoans the lack of contact from his friends. The loneliness is stark.

Even William Golding could have easily set Lord of the Flies in a playground. A playground pretty much acts as a desert island; teachers standing around with mugs of coffee, helplessly looking the other way, whilst all sorts of mischief and camaraderie and bullying goes on in its clandestine way.

How do children bond as a pack when they’re not together and there’s no nemesis directly before them to gang up against? Miss Hardbroom and the Demon Headmaster would not be as menacing on a Zoom screen. Alone in bedrooms, there are no fights over playground equipment or footballs; the bully can’t flush your PE trainers down the toilet. Izzy’s tight friendship group in Baby Aliens Got My Teacher by Pamela Butchart, would find it hard to carry on all their adventures over WhatsApp.

There’s no point making subversive lyrics to the school songs, as in Diane Wynne Jones’ Witch Week, when the teachers are completely out of earshot. The most children can do is fake technical difficulties when they are supposed to hand in work – and it’s at this point that I begin to pity current children’s authors. Technology has never been a comfortable fit with children’s adventures, which is why for the most part, contemporary children’s fiction throws out the technology with the parents at the start of the novel. Children must be free of all shackles to adventure.

The community that school gives – think of meals in Hogwarts’ dining hall or shared buns in Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens – cannot be replicated on an app or in small family kitchens. Children need their gangs and groups, their misfits and scapegoats, their bullies and besties, in order to try to shape their own identities and see who they might become. Our children need their tribes in order to have their tribulations.

So, I welcome a return to school if only that it makes playing hookey more appealing again. Otherwise we face a future in which primary school librarians (if there are any left of our dying breed) have to shelve the fictional adventures of St Claires‘ and Trebizon next to The Hobbit in the fantasy section. 

We can do times tables at home. We can’t make forever friends, giggle at the class clown, or fear the Headteacher. We can only read about them. You can see some of my prior blogs on school stories here and here

*This is a tongue-in-cheek blog. Of course education is important, and teachers always pay full attention in the playground. 

Listening and Looking

As we move into May, still in lockdown, something has happened to book reviewers. We aren’t getting as many books through the post.* This is for two reasons – firstly, many books that were due to be published in the spring have been moved to the autumn for when (the industry hopes), people are able to browse in bookshops again, and secondly, because there just isn’t anyone in the publishers’ offices to post the books.

At the moment, then, much of my reading is online or through audio. And your children may be experiencing the same.

What’s interesting, in listening to audiobooks, is the range of voices chosen for the narrator. I’ve listened to more accents in the past week than I usually hear in a year, from an Irish lilt to a southern American drawl to what sounds like a very young child’s London accent, but is probably voiced by a startlingly good adult actor. The voices bring a whole new resonance to the text.

And in eerie timing, the National Literacy Trust released some good news about audio books and children just before lockdown began. (National Literacy Trust Audiobooks and Literacy Report February 2020, Emily Best) Listening to audio books means that children can access books they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to read alone, and audio can help children with their understanding of the text by way of tone and pronunciation. The audiobook narrator is a model reader – expression is key, and therefore emotional response may be heightened in the listener: the child’s empathy and understanding are increased. What’s more, the report found that listening requires the same cognitive skills as reading – it is not as passive an activity as you might think.

Some books need to be looked at though – we need to see the illustrations, the colour, the layout and design, the fonts and diagrams. I have been sent ‘digital’ copies of some books for review recently, and for me personally, I miss the physicality of the print book. I like to touch and feel picture books; I find my eye is drawn to different places on the screen as opposed to in print, and I long to be in the physical presence of rows of newly printed books in a bookshop. However, I can spot a good book even in its digital appearance, and I can envisage how it would be to hold it in my hands. Here are two that jumped out at me, and I imagine will be wonderful to finally hold:

nell and the circus of dreams
Nell and the Circus of Dreams by Nell Gifford, illustrated by Briony May Smith
A sumptuously imagined story about a little girl who discovers a temporary circus in the fields beyond her house. Written by Nell Gifford, the owner of Gifford’s Circus, who sadly died in December, this is a richly-written text with magic and heart, matched by the highly-detailed illustrations from Briony May Smith. The little girl, also called Nell, has a sick mother and feels lonely before making friends with a chick, which eventually leads her to the circus community behind her house.

The contrast of her loneliness in the beginning with the packed pages of circus life, buzzing with life and people and the red glow of stage lights is a powerful reminder of the joy of crowds and community, and conjures a new world of inclusivity, inviting aromas, and fun. Although the illustrations, with their imagery of child wonder and nature’s charms, feel old-fashioned, this tale feels particularly relevant to our times. You can buy it here.

wild scientists
Wild Scientists by Steve Mould
A new way of combining the natural world with our perception of teaching science, this book sort of turns things on its head. Split into sections including biology, chemistry, engineering and maths, it aims to show how these sciences are represented naturally – by the animal world. The obvious example is beavers, who are natural engineers with their dam-building, but there are many more obscure examples in the book, such as bat physicists and chilli plant biologists.

What’s most attractive though is that the book is unbelievably bright and colourful, lighting up my computer screen with a mixture of illustrations and photographs – capturing the eye of a cat, the beak of a kingfisher, the hexagons of honeycombs. Showing that we learn from nature, this is a stunning way of teaching science at home. Plenty of diagrams and simple explanations make this a real joy. For age 7+ years. You can buy it here.

*That’s not to say that physical books aren’t still available to purchase. They absolutely are, and all good local bookshops will deliver, as will Waterstones.

With thanks to OUP and DK books for sending me pdfs.

Back To School (Remotely)

“He was struck by how lives diverge and by how powerless each of us is up against the force of circumstance.” Philip Roth, Nemesis

Powerless we may be in the grand scheme of things, but powerful we are as parents in the education of our children. Particularly when they’re remote learning! As the school term starts again, I thought I’d quickly outline some excellent resources connected with children’s reading and literacy. Although these have been widely shared in the children’s book world, parents and carers may not yet know about them:

authorfy challenge
My favourite so far is this Authorfy literary challenge. (You can click on the picture to make it larger.)  Authorfy started a few years ago and is quickly becoming an unparalleled resource for teachers and librarians. As well as this simple picture tool, there are ten minute challenges to complete on the website, numerous free videos from authors exploring learning resources connected to their books, such as how to write historical fiction and so on (called masterclasses on the classroom part of the site), and a creative area with more ‘fun’ activities’ such as word searches, colouring, quizzes and more, all of which are connected to the texts.

Another useful source of lesson plans or learning schemes is CLPE. Although really a professional tool for teachers, they have some free downloadable resources connected to a few select books. They are more in-depth than most, but easy to navigate. They also have some resources that were created for World Book Day, which are suitable for home learning. Click here.

While we’re on teaching resources, I can’t help but plug some of my own – look on Zephyr’s site for some wonderful novels and see the accompanying readers’ notes. Click on the ‘here’ at the end of each paragraph.

So many authors are giving up oodles of their time to bring free readings, videos and teaching ideas to you. Anthony Horowitz has decided to write a new Diamond Brothers novel called Where Seagulls Dare, and is planning to share a chapter at a time as he writes it. It should appear on his website. Frank Cottrell-Boyce has some excellent resources on his Instagram pages, including creative writing tasks for Key Stage 2 (Years 3-6). Cressida Cowell is busy reading from her How to Train Your Dragon series, and you can access this on Youtube or via BookTrust – she is after all, our current Children’s Laureate (with a now extended tenure because of the Coronavirus). There are many other ‘hometime’ ideas on the BookTrust website.

For budding artists, many illustrators are also teaching their tricks of the trade virtually. BookTrust’s illustrator-in-residence, Ed Vere, is running a drawing competition here. 

I mentioned Rob Biddulph’s #drawwithRob before, but you can also find Steve Antony’s drawing videos on YouTube, as well as many others, and simply the best place to see what’s going on is to visit this webpage, hosted by Toppsta, which updates daily giving live activity listings.

hug me
For those who want a more passive tool, Tom Hardy is starting a week of bedtime stories on the CBeebies bedtime slot, 6.50pm, starting 27th April with Hug Me by Simone Ciraolo. I think parents and children will be glued to the screen, maybe trying to hug it! 

I’ll try and bring you some more actual book recommendations soon (although I’m home-schooling three so I might be a bit busy)! In the meantime, you can check out the National Shelf Service video channel, in which a librarian recommends a children’s book each day. 

Also, I’ve found an excellent and fun way to tap into gaps in your child’s education. Editor Gillian Stern has produced a brilliant series of general knowledge quizzes for children in Years 5 and 6, which she’ll email you for free, and they are perfectly pitched. You’ll need to contact her via Twitter. We tried the first quiz, and the score was more than acceptable, but did show us where the gaps are. Now to teach! (The questions can be used in any format – stage your own quiz show, use buzzers, make noises, award prizes.)

Lastly, don’t panic. If the resources are overwhelming or you are inundated with your own work, then a child with a blank piece of paper is just fine too. They can doodle, sketch, write from scratch. And of course, the best thing of all, is simply reading for pleasure.

swimming against the storm
I’m currently reading Swimming Against the Storm by Jess Butterworth, a compact novel that takes the reader far away from the current chaos, and into an environmental crisis that faces Eliza and her younger sister as they get lost in the swamps of the South Louisiana Bayou, where they live. A gripping adventure story for age 8+.

If your child is anxious about Coronavirus, or struggle to concentrate on any of the above because of the lockdown, then this brilliant resource from Nosy Crow publishers may ease the mind and explain what’s going on. With illustrations by Axel Scheffler, illustrator of The Gruffalo and more, there is a familiarity despite the strangeness of the circumstances. Do have a read yourself too. You can download it here.

Happy schooling, and reading.

Prescient Publications

“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.”
Orwell 1984

My last blog listed some children’s books that described a future dystopia of some kind. Today’s books are so acutely in tune with what’s happening right now that you might find them kind of spooky. However, as Orwell wrote, it is indeed the best books that tell us what we already know, and so below are two that feel weirdly prescient.

astounding broccoli boy
The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce, illustrated by Steven Lenton
Cottrell-Boyce has been reading this book in extracts on his Instagram feed during the lockdown from his grand storytelling chair – it’s worth it just to see the chair – and his voice is calm and soothing, but die-hard readers will want to read the book for themselves too.

Rory Rooney is locked up in isolation as a medical mystery after he unexpectedly turns broccoli-green on a Y7 school trip. Then, the school bully, Tommy-Lee, also turns green, and the pair are locked up under observation together. Rather than admit they may be medical guinea pigs or in throes to a horrid disease, Rory decides that he must be a superhero (after all the Incredible Hulk was green).

Before long, the pair are escaping into night-time London, which itself is under threat from a weird feline flu virus, known as Killer Kittens.

As with many children’s books, and ideal societies, it isn’t a far stretch in the story before the unlikely heroes decide that they could do a better job of running the country than the incumbent prime minister, and the climax feels typically Cottrell-Boyce as it makes the most of a wonderful London setting to stage its extreme denouement.

Brimming with humour and likeable characters, this is a gripping read told in short digestible chapters. As one would expect from Cottrell-Boyce, the scenes are filmic, the storytelling dripping with adventure, pathos and excellently-timed humour. With Steven Lenton’s impeccably comic illustrations, this is a great children’s adventure story that deserves to go viral! You can order the book for delivery here.

where the world turns wild
Where the World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold

Published earlier this year, Nicola Penfold’s characters were in isolation long before our lockdown. The majority of people in Penfold’s book are forced into lockdown under strict regimes in order to protect themselves from a nasty disease that is spread by ticks. This future dystopia is set in a world in which most of the Earth has been destroyed, and a group of ‘ReWilders’ create a tick-borne disease to enable nature to claw back some of its wildness.

Following protagonists Juniper and Bear, two children who are immune to the disease, the book tracks their adventure from closed city to wild nature in order to find their mother.

Part paean to nature, part thrilling dystopia, the book picks up on so many dystopian traits, including the banning of books (this time those to do with nature), the fierce importance of immediate family, the role of the outsider and the acceptance of the ‘new normal’ despite its negative and dangerous undertones.

A lush description of the natural world, and a good old-fashioned chase make this a good book, but the relationship between Juniper and Bear, and the authenticity of their emotions from fear to hope and back again is what separates this from the crowd.

A truly hopeful book, and in some way a call to arms. Thoughtful, wise and perfect for lockdown. You can order it for delivery here.

With thanks to Stripes publishers and Macmillan for the review copies.

A Dystopian Landscape

“Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”
― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

I go through phases with the current situation. There are moments of pragmatic acceptance when I believe that all will be well in the end and there will be an afterwards to this mayhem. At other times, I spiral into complete anxiety, in which I believe we are at end-times, and it’s only a matter of months before the electricity and water supply run dry. In this scenario, my family will perish because although we read a lot and play a lot of sport, we lack basic survival skills such as foraging, hunting, or making fire. The nearest we’ve come to building a shelter is stringing blankets between cupboard handles and calling it a ‘den’.

My far-fetched imagination of #endtimes stems from reading too much dystopic fiction. In normal times, we read dystopic narratives as a warning to what might come to pass, for example, if we continue to destroy natural animal habitats, then the animals will die out. If we continue to take risks with artificial intelligence, then the robots might take over.

What about if you’re already living in a dystopian reality? The children’s fiction highlighted below may deal with frightened people living in terrible times, but they all offer more than a glimmer of hope – they’re positive affirmations of the kindness of humanity, our willingness to build decent communities, and the belief that good will come again. Perfect for age 9+ reading lists right now.

the last wild
The Last Wild by Piers Torday
Possibly my favourite children’s book of the last decade, The Last Wild is the first in a trilogy about a boy called Kester. Opening with Kester locked in a home for troubled children, it tells of a world in which animals no longer exist. When a talking cockroach approaches him, he thinks he’s gone mad, until he sees that maybe there is a last wild – a last group of surviving animals, and he could be the one to save them. The Last Wild explores the concept of another large extinction, but also holds underlying tones of how humans are guardians of the planet. It’s written with such a complete lack of condescension that adults will identify with Kester just as much as children. My go-to page-turning children’s read.

boy in the tower
The Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen
A modern day Triffids for children, Ade lives with his mother in a tower block. Then one day, the buildings around them start to fall. Before long the Bluchers – plants that feed on metal and concrete and give off deadly spores – have overtaken the landscape. Ade is trapped. But why hasn’t his tower block fallen to them yet, and how will he get his mother out before it does?

Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw
England has closed its borders, not following a virus, but following the ‘Faith Bombings’, and Scotland is now entirely an independent country. Individuals are chipped to enable government tracking, and there are even clearer distinctions between class groups – your microchips dictate whether you can enter a department store or a food-bank. The story follows twelve-year-old Jack, who plans to break out of his state institution, find his dog, and escape to his grandparents in Scotland. This is a fascinating thriller, with political currents and a filmic dystopian landscape. For older readers.

the giver
The Giver by Lois Lowry
A community cut off from all others, and more importantly, cut off from any form of history. Jonas is approaching adulthood and must be given a role in the community. Unlike his peers though, his role is as the new Receiver. In a world in which all pain and suffering have been removed, someone has to remove the painful memories. This dystopian vision of a future way of living reveals itself by slowing peeling back the layers of this community, but ultimately leads to Jonas and the reader questioning the value of life. Powerful and provocative.

the middler
The Middler by Kirsty Appplebaum
If birth order dictates your role in society, would you want to be first born or last born? Applebaum takes the point of view of eleven-year-old Maggie, a middler, and therefore one with a lack of expectations upon her. And yet, when she meets a wanderer – someone who is deemed even lower in society, she begins to question all the things she’s ever been told. A novel that explores a child testing her very literal boundaries, and how going against the grain is difficult, but sometimes necessary, in order to find the truth. Exceptionally crafted.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
First published in 1962, this alternative version of England, in the early 19th century reign of King James III, explores a time in which wolves from Europe and Russia have entered Britain via a channel tunnel, and prey upon and terrorise inhabitants in rural areas. Focusing on two cousins, Bonnie and Sylvia, it is in essence a triumph of good over evil, as they combat the dastardly plans of their evil governess Miss Slighcarp, and their boarding school teacher, Mrs Brisket. A tale of children doing the right thing, and corrupt adults getting their comeuppance, told in simple engaging prose.

Z for Zachariah by Robert C O’Brien
If you were a child in the 1980’s, then your fear was not a global pandemic but nuclear annihilation. Capturing the zeitgeist, this novel written in 1974 was actually one I studied at school (just so we were more terrified of global events that we could not control). Set in America, it’s a diary-form first person account of Ann Burden, who has survived a nuclear war, and believes she is the only survivor. A year after the war, a stranger approaches her farm. This is for an older teen, and brings up a host of intriguing issues, including the morals behind science, and individual freedoms.

Floodland by Marcus Sedgwick
More pertinent than ever as the flood waters subside (for now) in parts of England, this short book is set in a near future in which many parts of England are permanently underwater, and people survive by living in gangs on raised patches of land, fighting over food and territory. Zoe has been left on an island that used to be Norwich, and when she discovers a boat, decides to try and escape for a better land, and to find her parents. Although concise, Sedgwick’s future dystopia feels very real, and explores how societies form and disintegrate, as well as alluding to William Blake in a ruined cathedral setting.

FloodWorld by Tom Huddlestone
Another flooded future, with sunken cities ripe for scavenging, this is a gripping thriller following Kara and Joe, who forage for a living in their new dystopian ruins. But when they find a much-wanted map, they too become much wanted. This may be a dystopian world, but familiar elements come to the surface – pirates, gangsters, hi-tech submarines. It’s a good versus evil action story, with excellent characterisation and a look to a better future with cooperation, equality, and justice.

how to bee
How to Bee by Bren MacDibble
The bees have died out, and so children are used for pollination. Peony is nine years old and works on the farm, although she is not yet a ‘Bee’. With her unschooled, unrestricted voice, she tells of how she is moved to the city before she can become a Bee, to work with her mother in one of the big city houses. This is another tale of a future dystopia in which society is even more starkly delineated by class and money. This future is bleak. Human rights have been eroded; there is no right to education, poverty is widespread. However, though dark, there is an overwhelming sense of light through Peony’s prose, and readers will come to consider how they want their future world to be shaped. It’s also worth looking at The Dog Runner by the same author, another dog-eat-dog future, in which food production and energy sources have dried up, and society is once again in huge peril.

Where the River Runs Gold by Sita Brahmachari
Once more, a society in which the divide between rich and poor is strongly felt, and children are used as labourers on farms, pollinating by hand. Following the story of Shifa and her brother Themba, the book explores the treatment of people who don’t quite fit the mould, as well as how we cultivate and protect nature. A journey story, and one not for the faint-hearted, Brahmachari weaves her lyrical prose in such a way that the words show the beauty of nature, and freedom is seen to be the most coveted concept. For slightly older readers.

All available to purchase through Waterstones for home delivery. No need to venture out!



“Fear unmans us. Fear degrades us. Fostering less fear—that’s your job and mine.”
― Philip Roth, Nemesis

Perhaps like me you’re oscillating between joy at having the children at home with their wonderful laughter, and an enormous paralysing anxiety about everything else. As I said last time, I’m finding it really hard to focus. Particularly on the reading and writing, which for me is profoundly unusual.

One solution however, is in finding a children’s book and reading it out loud to the children, or even to a partner, or a dog (failing any other willing listener). There’s something about reading a book out loud that forces the mind to concentrate more, to think about the expression one is putting into each phrase, to notice the difference in speech patterns between characters, to note the change in timeframe as a novel builds suspense or accelerates to a climax.

Currently we are reading Black Beauty by Anna Sewell to child three at bedtime – the novel a complete antithesis to our current situation. Actually intended for an adult audience, it is now firmly regarded as a children’s classic, and tells the story of a horse from the horse’s own point of view. Written in a time when horses were the primary means of road transport, Sewell offered a fictional story as a way of showing the population the price of animal cruelty, and how important it is to care for animals.

The book takes the form of showing Black Beauty’s life through its owners: some kind, some cruel; and there are many scenes of companionship among horses, as well as some dramatic episodes. The language is as sleek as a horse’s groomed mane, and although historical, there are signs of basic human kindness and community spirit that are terribly apt. Age 9+ years. You can buy this very beautiful hardback here or opt for a cheaper option by typing Black Beauty into the Waterstones home page.

freddy yates
For some, the best antidote to anxiety is laughter. The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson, illustrated by Rob Biddulph is snortingly chucklesome. It tells of fact-obsessed Freddy Yates, who is desperate to find his biological father, even if it means taking part in an onion-eating competition, a loo explosion, and donning a supergirl costume on national television. Although there’s pretty much a joke a page, there’s a serious undertone too, as Freddie learns the true meaning of friendship and family, and that maybe miracles can happen. We have never needed laughter and miracles so much. For age 9+. You can buy it here.

If you are after pure escapism, then look for Orla and the Serpent’s Curse by CJ Haslam. This fantasy adventure is written by The Sunday Times Chief Travel Writer (and he’ll be wanting to keep writing children’s books at this time). Publishing in a couple of weeks – you can pre-order and have something to look forward to – it is about Orla and her family who arrive in Cornwall for a relaxing holiday, only to discover that Orla may have uncovered an ancient curse. What’s more, their holiday cottage seems surrounded by a coven of elderly ladies, who do more than just flower arranging at church. With two brilliantly drawn brothers, and a family dog who has a large role to play, this mash up of the Famous Five’s adventures, folklore, witches and pirates is powerfully imagined, and deftly crafted. The dialogue between siblings is as good as in Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island, and the book feels fresh and feisty. Age 10+ Pre-order here.

Lastly, for those who want to scare themselves silly in a completely different way, Crater Lake by Jennifer Killick is just the answer. For those Year Sixes who are missing out on their end of year residential, they’d do well to read this instead – it will make them feel relieved they didn’t have to go! From the moment a bloodstained man tries to stop their coach on route, to the lack of human activity when Lance and the rest of Year Six arrive at the Crater Lake activity centre, something doesn’t feel right about this school trip. Although there is horror here, (they must NOT fall asleep), and peculiar things happen, Killick is another children’s author who has managed to capture the particular politics and dynamics of a Year 6 class – from friendships and individual circumstances to loyalties and fears. Her dialogue is authentic, and there is more than a touch of well-placed humour. For ages 10+. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Firefly, Usborne, and Walker publishers for review copies.

A Moment to Reflect

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
― Albert Camus, The Plague

I had not planned to resurrect this blog in this way, but then one could argue that the government hadn’t planned for this situation either.

And I am no Daniel Defoe nor Samuel Pepys documenting the plague, nor Pliny the Elder looking out on Mount Vesuvius.

Historians say that we may be living through a period that future students will divide into before C-virus and after C-virus, but the beauty of history is hindsight, and we do not have that yet. Only this morning, I was speaking to my Year 6 students about reading a text set in the Second World War. The vantage point of the reader of course, is that they know the ending of the war. The protagonist is living through the period, and although writers writing about it now can take advantage of their own hindsight, and build in clever insights for their unknowing protagonist, for a writer living through it, such as Anne Frank, the book becomes even more poignant.

One thing that has diminished for me already, (hopefully temporarily), is focus. My normal writing day would be to throw myself into my current text, either as editor or as writer. The days at the moment are a conundrum of news bulletins, cancellation emails, school contingency planning and a spouse (with loud conference calls) working from home. Not to mention the anxiety spiralling from an utterly uncertain future, and concern for elderly relatives. For a writer, whose work is an immersive act of imagination, this new situation will warrant some adaptation. For a publisher, looking at a novel that may be published in two years hence, they may wonder what will be the new normal – what will people want to read post C-virus?

It is particularly apt/ironic/spooky that this virus is forcing certain obligations upon us. In a time when so many are worried about climate change and the lack of action by political leaders, the sudden grounding of aeroplanes and reduction in air pollution may feel like an extraordinary answer to the saying ‘be careful what you wish for.’ And at a time when we were so worried about the isolating effects of social media, the forced social distancing and isolation we have to endure may seem even more ironic.

More ironic still is that this ‘isolating’ technology will actually be the only way to bring us together during the crisis. Although the dangers of its surveillance and data-mining are not going away.

We must also embrace other pursuits we may have let dwindle. With less traffic outside, when we open the window, we are more likely to hear the birds singing. Our government have warned us to social distance, but outdoor exercise is encouraged. I can see the daffodils blooming, the grass looking greener, and the magnolia budding next door. As I type, a bee is banging against the window and the plants shiver in the breeze.

There is also room now for boredom. Or for thinking, for creativity. Whereas before C-virus, time was pushed to rush here, or rush there, to see this and that, now is the time to slow down. Newton made a start on his theories of gravity, calculus, and optics during his plague isolation period. Shakespeare wrote King Lear during his. I would argue that neither had three children home from school and a husband to feed (and so, no, my masterpiece will probably not come during this time), but it is surely a time of reflection for us all.

And then of course there’s that other great pursuit: reading. Why do you think Lauren Laverne asks guests on Desert Island Discs which book they’d like to take? There is a reason that libraries in prison are mandatory.

Reading reduces stress (proven by our esteemed scientists). In enforced isolation, perhaps we can all embrace the books. I hope to share with you lists of children’s dystopian fiction, current reads, and more over the next few weeks, but here are some ideas to keep you stress free during the weeks at home.

Install a schedule of quiet reading time for the whole family. Twenty to thirty minutes a day (instead of the normal commute/school run), in which each member of the family sits and reads for pleasure. No newspaper, social media or other doom-mongering. Choose an escapist novel, a fascinating non-fiction narrative, that classic you’ve been meaning to read. Everyone in the family takes part.

Then also, later in the day perhaps, read aloud. Choose a family book – something that will appeal to everyone. Each family member gathers to listen. Have a designated reader, or take turns. This reading will gift your your own family book club – you can talk about it over the many meals you’ll be forced to take together. 

Reading is good for the soul and the mind. Because in amongst all of this – there has to be some good.