middle grade (age 8-13yrs)

Penguin or Owl?

So first there was snow – and then there were penguins. I’m not sure when penguins became synonymous with Christmas, but this year they certainly have – from the John Lewis advert to the Penguins of Madagascar, Penguins have arrived in London in time for Christmas.

owl or penguin
When I was little I had a small soft toy called Owly. It was loved and cherished (see its somewhat battered state now), but it was only recently that someone pointed out that maybe it’s a penguin. So I thought – that’s a great premise for a book – the penguin with the mistaken identity. In the meantime, here are some books that have already been written:

Penguin Polly DunbarPouting Boy
Penguin by Polly Dunbar
My overall abiding love for this book is one illustration that depicts a facial expression, in which a close member of my family is THE expert. Penguin tells the story of a boy called Ben who receives a penguin as a present, but the penguin will not communicate with him, no matter what Ben does. Finally Ben is eaten by a lion, the penguin saves him, and the penguin suddenly has a great deal to say. The book is packed with witty illustrations, a zany storyline and a winning outcome. An old favourite. Penguins are often used as a way to explore and develop friendships in picture books – I wonder if that’s because they are often depicted huddling together? Two perfect examples of penguin friends are Fluff and Billy Do Everything Together by Nicola Killen and Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers.

Fluff and BillyLost and Found
Fluff and Billy tells the tale of when play between friends gets rough leading to hurt and falling out – before there is forgiveness and friendship again. It works well to read aloud to a small child because the book is littered with repetition. Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is fast becoming a children’s classic. The book tells the story of a boy who opens the door one day to see a penguin standing on his doorstep. He spends much of the book grappling with what to do with the penguin – until realising at the end that the penguin just wants a friend. Jeffers’ illustrations are beguilingly simple – less is more in fact. Jeffers said that the illustrations are deliberately simple so that children, wherever they are, can fill in the gaps with their own individual landscapes. Characters too – the penguin is a few simple lines – it almost seems as if the characters of the boy and the penguin are more expressive the less detail they have. Jeffers’ text also shines with a simple clarity – basic plotlines mixed with truisms and pathos:
“He ran down to the harbour and asked a big ship to take them to the South Pole. But his voice was much too small to be heard over the ship’s horn.”
So much expressed so simply – the vastness of the ship and the world as compared to a small boy asking for help.

Blown Away
The new addition to the ‘penguin’ canon of literature, and published in August of this year is Blown Away by Rob Biddulph. I implore you to find and read a copy. Rob Biddulph’s blue penguin may be more ‘Hampstead Heath’ inspired than normal Antarctic penguins, but, like Jeffers, his penguin is simply drawn – Biddulph too remarking that children can put their own emotions into the animals, so simple black dots for eyes work best. With rhyming text, Biddulph explores what happens when Blue the penguin gets blown away on his kite, picking up cargo along the way, and finally setting down onto a jungle island. But does he want to stay?
“’How nice,” says Blue,
A lovely spot,
Although it is
a bit too hot.”
The beauty of this book lies in the small details. Every page is lovingly created so that your eyes pick up the story and the animals’ emotions almost by osmosis – the rhyming text is lovely to read aloud, but the extra touches on the illustrations won me over. A charming Christmas present that’s not just for Christmas!

Dragon Loves Penguin
My last picture book is Dragon Loves Penguin by Debi Gliori, shortlisted for the 2015 Red House Children’s Book Awards. I coordinate the testing in my area for this award, so know very well how popular this book has proved with young children. It celebrates diversity, and is even relevant for those attempting to explain adoption to the very young – in essence it’s about mother’s love. When an egg is abandoned, a dragon without its own egg adopts it, but when it hatches it’s a penguin! Despite the differences, the mother dragon loves the penguin as her own, and the love makes the little penguin brave enough to see off her dragon peers who can’t accept her differences, and also to escape an erupting volcano. Yes, this little picture book is packed full of action – and has adorable illustrations – rarely has a penguin chick looked quite so cute.

The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out
For slightly older readers, in the Jill Tomlinson series of animal books is The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out. Beautifully told so that the reader learns about penguins at the same time as digesting the story. Jill Tomlinson’s strength is her ability to weave fiction and non-fiction seamlessly here, with some magical lines:
“The trouble was, not all adults were good at answering questions, or would try.”

The Emperors EggUsborne Beginners Penguin
For those children who want to find out even more, and for adults who can’t tell the difference between an owl and a penguin here are two great non-fiction titles for early learners.The Emperor’s Egg by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Jane Chapman, is part of the Nature Storybooks series – telling the story of the Emperor penguins. It’s an excellent starting point for a young child wishing to find out more information. It’s not patronising, but is written as if the child is having a conversation with the writer about penguins. Asking questions of the young reader, particularly ones that make them think, is a lovely way to write a non-fiction book. No wonder this won the TES Junior Information Book Award. The Usborne Beginners series has a book on penguins; I like this series for their gentle introduction to non-fiction. Helpfully containing a glossary and an index, and with short chunks of text throughout for easily digestible facts. It also covers many different types of penguins. Usborne have also had their facts checked by experts in the field, which sadly, is not true of all children’s non-fiction in the marketplace.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Five Children on the Western Front
Hailed with a chorus of five star reviews when published last year, Five Children on the Western Front really does deserve all accolades thrown at it. Kate Saunders has taken E Nesbit’s story of the sand fairy, the psammead, from Five Children and It, and moved it gently into the era of the First World War. The book works as a stand-alone novel, but those with prior knowledge of the psammead won’t be in any way disappointed with the update. It’s as if E Nesbit herself had written it. The children, despite some having reached young adulthood, stay divinely in character, as does the psammead – and the period details of the time are lovingly rendered. The manners, the setting, the dialogue are all completely convincing and beautifully crafted. What struck me most however, was that Kate Saunders manages to convey the horror of the war injuries, the devastation of the deaths, and the immense change that the war wrought on the world without scaring any young child reading the book. I enjoyed it fully as an adult read, but have no qualms reading this war literature piece to the eight year olds and older with whom I read (although reading aloud may be difficult as I was reduced to tears on more than one occasion!) I couldn’t recommend a book more highly – a perfect example of how a children’s book should be.

How Can I Help My Dyslexic Child To Love Reading?

Dyslexia Action quotes that on average one in three children in every classroom is dyslexic and therefore struggle in some way with literacy.[i] As a reading for pleasure consultant, it’s vital to help parents find those texts that will appeal to a dyslexic child, and keep them reading because they want to. In particular, it’s important not to make that child feel as if they can read only ‘easy’ books that their peers read long ago, and for which they might be ridiculed for reading.

Being dyslexic only means that the processing channels can get mixed up – it doesn’t mean the child is in any way less intelligent, and so the books still need to be content appropriate. It’s also vital that the child doesn’t find the processing too difficult, so that their confidence (which can be the first thing to go) is nurtured, and it’s vital to help them discover that reading can be a pleasure not a struggle.

Luckily, in today’s publishing industry, the publisher Barrington Stoke is doing some excellent work producing books that are dyslexia-friendly, and seek to be like any other chapter books in their outward appearance.

What does dyslexia-friendly mean? In the main, it means that books have the following features:
paper that’s off-white to reduce glare, well-spaced text, thick paper so that the words from the next or previous page do not show through, wide margins, straightforward syntax, (which means that there aren’t too many clauses in one sentence), an unjustified right-hand margin, a well-structured story, and signposts that clearly show the story’s natural pauses – pictures, headings etc.

I’m most often approached by parents of children aged about seven who are learning about dyslexia for the first time and are desperate to find appropriate books to encourage them to read and learn to love reading. Here are some titles by phenomenal children’s writers to help:
Haunting of Uncle Ronyoung werewolfsnake who came to stayreal true friendsmeet the weirds
The Haunting of Uncle Ron by Anne Fine
A funny book about a guest who doesn’t want to leave! Part of the 4u2read series from Barrington Stoke, which also includes excellent stories by the likes of Annie Dalton, Michael Morpurgo, Jeremy Strong, Malorie Blackman, and Terry Deary, all aimed at an 8-12 years interest age.

Young Werewolf by Cornelia Funke
One of my favourite authors ever since reading Inkheart, Cornelia has the ability to create magic through simple text. When Matt gets bitten on the way home from the cinema, he realises he’s been infected by a werewolf. Can he undo the curse before the full moon? See also The Moonshine Dragon by Cornelia Funke for younger readers.

The Snake Who Came to Stay by Julia Donaldson
Another excellent children’s author best known for her picture books (many are surprised that Julia Donaldson has so many titles for older readers, but she does!), this is a simple tale of a home for pets and the trouble that ensues when Doris the snake comes to stay. Part of the Little Gems series, this is aimed at the 5-8 years age group, which is quite a wide range in my opinion, but excellent for confidence building for first readers.

Real True Friends by Jean Ure
When Hannah moves to a new school she needs to discover who are her real friends. A good story about fitting in and friendships. Jean Ure is a well-established writer and many of her books feature girls aged between 10-14 years, so a young reader can progress through her books if she likes the style. I personally remember Jean Ure for her now out-of-print titles such as One Green Leaf and A Twist in Time, and Hi there, Supermouse! which I adored!

Meet the Weirds by Kaye Umansky
A fabulously funny story about unconventional neighbours. Mrs Weird is a stuntwoman and Mr Weird a mad scientist and they have some unconventional habits, so moving in next door to the Primms is bound to spell trouble.

There are many more titles on the Barrington Stoke website, to which I highly recommend a visit.

However, I would also point to stories such as the Horrid Henry series by Francesca Simon as a good read for dyslexic readers because they contain brilliant illustrations by Tony Ross, and are divided into short manageable chapters. Likewise Clarice Bean Don’t Look Now by Lauren Child and the Ottoline books by Chris Riddell are all stories broken up into short chunks with fantastic illustrations to accompany the text. Mr Gum by Andy Stanton has excellent spacing too, and try the Agatha Parrot books by Kjartan Poskitt, which, like the Mr Gum series, are also illustrated by the amazing David Tazzyman.

I would recommend the Edge series of graphic novels from the publisher Franklin Watts, which are also published on dyslexic-friendly paper. They are an excellent publisher of non-fiction titles, and their Slipstream series of reading resources is aimed at struggling readers.

For older readers (young teen) the Wired Up series by the publisher A&C Black are an invaluable source of gripping reads at manageable lengths and levels.

Of course it’s hugely helpful for a child to be able to identify with the characters they are reading about. So, here below are some books in which the protagonist has dyslexia:

percy jacksonhank zipzerreading the gamemaggot moon
Percy Jackson
Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief is the first of a hugely popular series of adventures by Rick Riordan. This series focuses on adventures with the Greek gods, and the books are tremendously exciting and fast-paced. Aged 9 and up.(and there’s a film).
Hank Zipzer
The Hank Zipzer series of books by Henry Winkler (yes the Fonz to you) follows the haphazard adventures of a ten year old boy. Very American but also very funny.
Reading the Game by Tom Palmer
A lovely story about a football mad boy who is great at football but struggles to read. Part of the Football Academy series. Tom Palmer is also published by Barrington Stoke.
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
A teen novel that won the 2012 Costa Children’s Book Award, about a young teenage boy called Standish Treadwell, set in a totalitarian future state. Totally brilliant for its menacing subject matter, startling prose and exceptional characters:
“There are train-track thinkers, then there’s you, Standish, a breeze in the park of imagination.”
I also want to champion Sally Gardner here, who herself is dyslexic and has spoken out about this many times. She has written much for younger readers, including the Magical Children series, and gives splendid advice such as not shying away from giving dyslexic children a different platform from which to read. Giving a dyslexic child an ereader or a tablet for reading can help build confidence as it masks what they are actually reading – and therefore reduces any peer pressure. Some readers also find the letters jump around less on the ereader, and of course you can play with the font size. You can also try an audio book alongside the printed word for more challenging titles. And never, never underestimate the joy of reading aloud to your child (whatever age) to encourage their love for reading.

[i] Dyslexia Action (2012) Dyslexia still matters.

Why Does My Child Persist in Only Reading Series of Books?

Naughtiest girl series
Any marketing man’s dream, many children, particularly aged between six and 10, love to read books in series. Harry Potter, Famous Five, Rainbow Fairy, Beast Quest, Astrosaurs, Horrid Henry. The question is why, and does it matter, and what are the series doing? The ones mentioned above actually do very different things.

There are some key factors to the appeal of series books for this age group. The first is stability and familiarity. Once a child empathises with a character such as Horrid Henry, and finds them funny or interesting, they want to hear about as many adventures with that character as possible. If the setting is magical and yet comforting, such as Hogwarts, the child may wish to revisit it as much as possible. Even the setting in a series such as Famous Five allows for escapism into a time and place that’s very different from the child’s own. In terms of the Rainbow Fairy series, some children latch onto the series because they want to read the story of the fairy with their own name, and then their sister’s, cousin’s, etc. There’s also, for some, the impetus to read the whole series just because they know there are twelve titles for example, or to be in competition with their friends.

Many times I have had children ask me ‘but why did the author end it there?’ when they come to the end of a favourite book. So there is great satisfaction to be derived knowing that there is a follow-on title. Children aren’t alone in this – many adults will read as many books by the same author as possible – knowing that there is a familiarity in tone, style and sometimes even character and plot devices.

Sometimes though parents can find this worrying. I have many parents moan that their child ‘will only read Horrid Henry’, or ‘I can’t get them to read anything else but Beast Quest’, and some of these series go on and on…

It can be worrying in that with some of these books the plots and characters do not develop, eg. Rainbow Fairies, but simply shift shape slightly and there is no growth in vocabulary. Others can provide a growth – as we know in Harry Potter the characters grow older with each book, and the adventures get darker. Either way, with a series of books, two things matter here. One, that the child is reading something – and enjoying it. And secondly, to remember that the child will move on in their own time. One day they will simply get bored and pick up the next thing. What’s most important is that they are enjoying reading. From personal experience I read ALL the Famous Five books, and yet still graduated to reading George Eliot, Ian McEwan, and many many more!

For those series that don’t follow a chronological or sequential order, but just keep churning out more adventures, there can still be much to gain from. Many children adore the Horrid Henry books, starting with the Early Readers and moving onto the more advanced series. What stands out for me with Horrid Henry is that they are not unlike some of the very early readers, such as Topsy and Tim, which introduce first experiences. Horrid Henry just does this at a later stage, introducing many first school experiences for children – Horrid Henry’s Nits, Horrid Henry Tricks the Tooth Fairy,  Horrid Henry’s Sports Day (the list goes on!). It can be comforting for children starting to read independently to read about a familiar character with similar problems to their own, and of course, a character who makes them laugh.

Horrid Henry series

Other series do work in a chronological or sequential order and can be frustrating for both parents and children when the numbers aren’t printed on the spines! (Publishers take heed!). An excellent website to help you is www.childrensbooksequels.co.uk
an invaluable resource if your child is unsure which Dork Diary precedes which! One of my daughters is so enamoured with the Judy Moody series that instead of waiting for the next in the series (due out January 2015, Judy Moody, Mood Martian), she’s writing her own!

Judy Moody series

A last word of advice – if your child is obsessed with reading these kinds of series, Astrosaurs, Beast Quests etc, try to choose a completely different book to read to them. That way, you’re making sure that they can continue reading what they love, but you’re introducing different styles, formats, characters, and plots.