school

When Good Geeks Go Bad: A Q&A with author Catherine Wilkins

when good geeks go badIt all started with a pair of trainers. Ever had an argument with your child over their choice of shoes for school? Or about an accessorised piece of school uniform? When I was a child I wore a brightly-coloured coat to school as a clear mark of rebellion against my school’s black coat policy. Today, I see various attempts to challenge authority with hair style, or key rings on bags, or shoes!

When Good Geeks Go Bad begins with Ella’s Dad refusing to buy her a cool pair of shoes or let her stay up late. And yet she’s always been a good girl. So Ella decides to go bad. Perhaps then she can get her own way. But being bad is more than just a few detentions and she’s soon losing control.

In fact, she’s already lost control at home, where her parents are spending time apart. So when her best friend wants to spend time apart from her too, she wonders if it really is best being bad, or if being geeky was good after all.

This highly-relatable, funny read from comedienne and writer Catherine Wilkins is an excellent look at a young teen fitting in at school, and finding her own place at home, as well as working out which identity she’s going to carry through her teen years. Who to be friends with and for what reasons? It poses the sorts of questions many children ask of themselves in Year 8, on the cusp of being full-blown teenage. Wilkins understands how to write funny as well as how to explore the pathos in harder family scenarios, and she creates a highly identifiable character in Ella.

Written in first person, Wilkins captures the wishes and desires, the nuances of Ella’s life and thoughts, almost in diary-style, as well as those of her peers, so that the reader can often see more of their motivations than Ella can herself – giving the reader even more laughs, and also understanding. Here, Catherine Wilkins answers some questions on the book, and her own ‘funny’ life:

Were you Good at school or were you Bad?

A bit of both. I was a slightly mischievous younger child. When I started secondary school I became shy and quite well behaved. Then I eventually rebelled again a little bit. Like Ella, I wore trainers to school. I think there’s something about testing where the line is that all kids do. (Also I really liked my trainers at the time).

In When Good Geeks Go Bad, Ella’s dad refuses to let her have cool shoes. Was there an item you wanted in your childhood that you never got bought? 

There were many, many items I wanted that I never got. From a sooty puppet to a frosty the snowman ice slushie maker. We never had money for crazy purchases, but my parents encouraged me to save up for things, or wait for birthdays, so sometimes I got lucky too. (The downside of this is that when I wanted a shell suit, I eventually got one. And I still have not managed to burn all the photos of it.)

In the book there’s also some serious stuff about separated parents. Do you think all comedy should go dark at some stage?

I would never legislate that all comedy should do anything. I think comedy is subjective and everyone has different taste. I find when things in my life go a bit dark, it can help me to laugh at them, make them less scary, make sense of them and bring them back into the light. But that might not work for everyone. Comedy can be used in many different ways. I like that it can be a coping mechanism, to cheer things along, or satirical beacon shining a light on hypocrisy and corruption. And you can enjoy dark comedy and still like slapstick too.

Also I feel like in this book, there are genuinely serious bits, that we’re not laughing at, but they are then undercut or contrasted with the more funny bits.

You write comedy for kids – does being funny come naturally to you? Are you the funniest in your house?

I live in such a fun house that it unfairly throws off the grade curve. My three-year-old daughter is probably the funniest. She’s always making up jokes and dances and clowning around. She has comedy chops. Then my one-year-son is pretty funny, but more in a cute way. Then my husband is a comedian and writer too, and they all play funny games together. I might be somewhere at the back, just after the cat (who is actually really funny at falling off things and then looking to see if anyone saw).

What’s the scariest thing about doing stand-up comedy?

The profit margin. BOOM. (Jokes). For me, the scariest thing would be never having tried doing it. But lots of people would say performing in front of other people is nerve-wracking. I didn’t find that so much when they were strangers, but as I climbed the ladder a bit, and there’s accountability because the gig matters and you have to impress the next booker or reviewer, that’s when I would get nervous and lose my spark. But when I started, the thrill of testing a new joke and getting a laugh made up for everything.

Which fictional character do you wish you could be (for a while)?

This is a really hard question to answer because there’s so much to choose from. Maybe I’d like to be Alice and check out Wonderland for a while, and have some adventures.

What advice would you give budding comedy writers?

You are probably already a fan of comedy, so keep doing that and consume as much comedy as you can. Keep a notebook about your person to write down your funny thoughts and observations. I think sometimes with comedy it can be ‘spotting’ the joke, as much as making it up, seeing if you can spot something that no one else has connected in that exact way.

If you have a friend who has the same sense of humour as you, sometimes it helps to pretend you are trying to make them laugh. Or even collaborate with funny friends and try and write stuff together. (When I was at school I was often trying to force friends to do comedy with me, but they weren’t always as into it).

But also it’s important to write about what you think is funny, not what you think other people might laugh at, or what’s expected. It’s yours. Your jokes, your voice.

And lastly, is the next book simmering – will we see Ella again? Or is there something new?

There is a new book on the horizon, but it’s something brand new, not Ella. But never say never, it might be fun to see what Ella gets up to next in the future as well.

With thanks to Catherine Wilkins for her time. When Good Geeks Go Bad is published today, 10th January, and you can buy it here. 

Dyslexia and Writing: Amber Lee Dodd

lightning chase me home

There’s a glut of new middle grade books arriving this January, and it’s intriguing for a reviewer to try to pick up on a ‘trend’ or theme running through them. What were the writers preoccupied with while they were writing, what did they want to say?

Amber Lee Dodd’s Lightning Chase Me Home feels personal from the beginning. Told in first person narration by Amelia Hester McLeod (named for two explorers: Amelia Earhart and Lady Hester Stanhope), this is a heart-wrenching tale of a girl embarking on a new adventure herself – starting a new school. Amelia is immediately endearing – and struggling – her mother is absent, Amelia suffers from dyslexia, and to make matters a little more complicated (and fictional), after she makes a wish on her eleventh birthday off her small Scottish island on the Serpent’s Tooth Rock – she finds herself magically disappearing and reappearing elsewhere. Will she work out why, and can she use it to find the courage to push through, and maybe, maybe could she use the strange power to find her mum?

Lightning Chase Me Home is one of those treasured novels for the 9+ audience, packing in a great plot, some magical realism, but also issues that dominate ‘primary school and beyond’ discussions – how to deal with an elderly grandfather who doesn’t always remember where he is, managing with the emotions invoked by an absent parent, the constant building of resilience and harnessing bravery, and the power of folklore and magic to explain our own small lives. Dodd has a gift for identifying the makeup of a person – be it the objects that help to define us and our relationships, the difficulties some children have in learning or making friends, and how schools and parents deal with this, and the understanding that not all people are what they first seem.

Amber Lee Dodd portrays her main character with an acute sensitivity, but manages to weave in magic, a sense of great explorers of the past, and an endearing friendship that feels as real as it is strong. Below, she reveals why Amelia is so close to her own heart.

As someone with dyslexia, I thought that writing and reading were impossible. Before secondary school, I had real struggles with reading. In fact I hated it! I hated reading, I hated writing and I hated books. I sat in my special needs classes reading Fuzz Buzz books. Books about a blue spiky ball with enormous legs who never did anything more exciting that remark on the weather. If this is what books are, I thought, there is no point in me learning to read.

amber lee dodd
Amber Lee Dodd

But even when my teachers gave up, saying I was hopeless, my parents refused to. They would make me read through my reading books again and again. I ended up memorising them from the pictures before I could make out the words. Slowly, painfully, I started to recognise words, memorise them and store them away. My word bank began to build, until one day, like magic, I realised I could read.

After spending so long struggling to read, when I finally could it felt like I had personally discovered books. At school, I would pour through Tintin and Asterix comics. I read every book on how to care for everything from puppies to pet spiders. Then I found even more books to fall in love with, The Worst Witch series, Jacqueline Wilson’s books and Malorie Blackman’s. Once, I spent a whole day on a kitchen chair with Double Act wishing desperately that I could be a twin.

The only thing better than reading turned out to be writing.For a long time it was the one and only thing at school I was good at. I found that I could invent stories from thin air and filled pages of my exercise books with big wobbly writing and dramatic inky pictures. I once even made my teacher cry with one of my stories. Writing stories became my super power.

And I want to share that power with everyone. So here are my top tips for dyslexic writers (and for non dyslexic writers too).

Firstly, don’t worry about your spelling. I still make massive spelling mistakes. My first book had a spelling mistake in the very first sentence and it still went on to be published. Plus writers get to work with magical people called copy editors and like teachers they can fix all your spelling mistakes. Being creative does not include being an expert at spelling!.

Secondly, read. And read lots. Don’t worry if you’re slow about it. It still takes me about a month to finish reading one book!  But I take a lot of that book in. And I still go back and reread things if they didn’t make sense to me first time or I jumped a few lines. It may be a slow process, but the advantage is you can learn more from it and start to unravel how the author put things together.

Thirdly, don’t worry if you’re doing it differently. My dyslexic brain makes me jump all around a story narrative and I often have to write quite a bit before I can sort out the plotting. Find a way to organise your thoughts and ideas that works for you. Some people make visual diagrams,or come up with places their characters visit and fit the plotting around that.I write lots of lists and notes and flow charts often on the back of used envelopes. There is no right way, only the way that works for you.

And lastly, for me the best way to start a story is just to start writing it. Write that first line. Make it intriguing, or scary, or funny. Make it the best first line you can think of. Then think of who that first line is about. How are they feeling? And what’s happening to them? Stories are all about questions and finding the answers to them is half the fun.

There’s much to extrapolate in Lee Dodd’s second novel, many issues and great characters, but in essence, Lightning Chase Me Home is a good adventure story. Amber Lee Dodd’s first novel, We Are Giants, is reviewed here, and you can purchase Lightning Chase Me Home here.

Zebras and Lollipops

On route to take my younger children to school, we have to cross four roads. Two are minor, and two are main roads, neither of which two years ago had a zebra crossing. I decided to use my campaigning skills to petition the council and Transport for London to install one on the school’s road. And to my delight, a year later, they did. Now I use it about four times a day, and it serves the local park too.

phantom lollipop manAnother school that has a zebra crossing outside, is Izzy’s school in the Pamela Butchart book, The Phantom Lollipop Man, illustrated by Thomas Flintham. This seventh book in the ‘Baby Aliens’ series continues the exploits of Izzy and her friends and their school. In this title the friends are shocked to discover that their lollipop man has disappeared. Instead, they feel an unsettling coldness even when wearing tights, and start to see wispy clouds in the playground. Could he have died and now be haunting the school? So Izzy and her friends determine to find out.

On the surface, this is another exuberant adventure from brilliant comedy writer Pamela Butchart. The text flows with Izzy’s characteristic breathlessness, driving the reader through the plot and as always staying true to the brilliant friendship group, each member clearly distinguished by their character traits.

But what makes the book so endearing, other than the CAPITAL LETTERS, illustrations and energetic use of dialogue, is Butchart’s complete comprehension of schools. From her understanding about the importance of blu tack through to school office workers’ signs and the attitude of lunch supervisors, this is imperative as young readers feel a sense of familiarity with the world being created.

And although the books are hilarious – this one in particular had me laughing out loud every few pages and is definitely the funniest so far – there is an insightful compassion for the community of a school – the way that each component is dependent on another, and some real truths about what we value in society.

Izzy and her friends point to the lack of value we place upon certain people – lollipop workers included (but also perhaps, the school officer workers, the librarians, careworkers etc) and how important their roles are, and how they should be recognised. It’s a subtle message underlying the hugely comedic text, but a vital one. And Butchart also points out the loneliness that can be experienced in old age – when juxtaposed with the intense intimacy of Izzy and her friends, it becomes even more apparent.

This is a superb book that deals with community, values and society, and rounds off nicely with good use of the library and empathy for other people. A riotous, happy, storming success. A really top series for newly independent readers. I hope they keep coming. You can buy it here.

zebra crossing soul songOn a similar theme, but for teen readers is Zebra Crossing Soul Song by Sita Brahmachari. This is a book published by dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke, and is suitable for a reading age of 8, even though its subject matter is for teens. But it’s an enjoyable read for all.

Lenny has spent most of his eighteen years crossing the nearby zebra crossing, aided by the singing ‘zebra man’ Otis. But when Otis isn’t there anymore, Lenny, who is himself struggling as he sits his psychology A-level, looks back on his memories of them together, through music, and finds a way to move forwards.

Cleverly, the fixed point of the zebra crossing gives a clear focus for Lenny to look back on his school years from nursery to A-Level as he reaches a crossroads in his life. And the shared passion of music gives Lenny and Otis a clear bond, and also a vehicle for Brahmachari to use music as a distinguishing feature in her novel, as the story is written in music memory tracks – music as a recall mechanism, but also as a form of writing in its own right – like a poem.

When Otis disappears, Lenny uses his knowledge of psychology and memory, as well as music to find out what happened in Otis’s past to affect his future, and discovers that not only does music hold a bond with the past, but a vital component of Lenny’s life going forwards.

This is a cleverly woven piece, with a sympathetic bond between two people, and, as in Butchart’s light-hearted book, an awareness that although some people aren’t highly valued by society, they are highly valuable as individuals and in the role they play. Lollipop men and women are there to save lives – and sometimes literally do, and they play a positive role in shaping the community they serve. Sometimes it’s the quiet people who make the difference. You can buy it here.

 

 

National Poetry Day 4th October 2018

poetry for a change

It’s National Poetry Day on 4th October, and the first ever official National Poetry Day Anthology, Poetry for a Change, illustrated by Chie Hosaka, has been published to celebrate. It holds a fantastic variety of poems on the topic of ‘change’ by a selection of exciting modern poets. Not only are their poems included, but they have each chosen to share the reasons or inspiration behind their poetry in a short paragraph, as well as a companion piece from the classical canon, and their motivation for choosing it.

This neat conceit showcases how older, classical poems and poets can spark ideas and provide inspiration for new poems. Our modern poets explore not only their reasons for choosing the classical poem but they also make it accessible. The poems are not too long, and the accompanying explanations are in bitesize format.

There is a special impact that poetry can have upon young children – some who find a whole novel difficult to grasp or wade through, can find solace in a poem’s small chunks of text, can see possibility in the lack of right or wrong answer for their interpretation. Poetry provides time to dream, time to think, time for the mind to seek connections.

And the theme of change is topical. Politically, it feels as if the world is going through huge changes, but sometimes it’s the little individual changes that can make a difference – a change in an approach, a change in emotions, a change in the way we present ourselves, a change in the way we see others, a change in behaviour…

Poetry for a Change is simply illustrated too, with black line drawings that give an extra dimension to the poetry, an extra resource. Below, I’m delighted to share Rachel Rooney’s poem, explanation and companion poem. Her theme is a changing life cycle – the caterpillar.


Also, readers might like to take a look at A Kid in My Class, poems by Rachel Rooney, illustrations by Chris Riddell. This unique, daring selection features a poem on each different child within a class – the daydreamer, the new boy, the one who fidgets, the cool kid, the joker and so many more. The genius lies in the fact that the poems will resonate for the teacher of the class, but each child will see some of their own character in some of the poems – there’s an artist in some of us, a drama queen in others, a best friend too. Full of both emotion, and knowledge of the classroom, this is a superb collection, brilliantly illustrated by Riddell, who has also managed to pick out the unique look of each child. If nothing else, it will certainly make you wince in recognition, and laugh at the wit. Poetry has never seemed more alive and more relevant. You can buy Poetry for a Change here, and A Kid in My Class here.

a kid in my class

 

 

Death by Detention by Ali Sparkes

death by detentionThe other week in my school library, I was assigned a year 6 pupil for a day whom I never normally see. He’s not that into books or reading and shies away from the library space unless his friends are hanging there on hot days when it’s the coolest room in the school. So when he was assigned to me, there was a fair amount of reluctance. And yet, by the end of the day, there was a glint of enthusiasm there, a realisation that books aren’t bad. He read to younger students, held a book treasure hunt, and even agreed he’d come back (and not just for the chocolates!) It’s all about changing someone’s mindset.

Prolific children’s author Ali Sparkes is attempting to do the same thing with her latest novel, Death by Detention. It’s aimed at slightly older children than her usual books, aimed at the young teen reluctant readers, and although I don’t quite fit that mould, I’m captivated by a great story well told, and this fits that bill too.

The protagonists aren’t bookish or scholarly; they aren’t misunderstood geniuses but regular, can’t be arsed, worldly teens. Their attention spans are fairly narrow and they’re just the type of troubled teens who sit in detention planning their next game of Fortnite rather than concentrating on the homework in front of them, and they definitely don’t read books.

This book begins with these two teens, Elliot and Shania, in detention. And the book doesn’t hesitate – before the end of the first chapter, Elliot and Shania witness their head teacher shot from an unknown marksman outside the window, and then watch in horror as a laser beam seeks out further targets. They have to use their wits to make their way out of their deserted school before the gunman or men, realise they are there. What’s more, their head teacher looks as if he might be coming back…as a zombie.

For this generation of teens, there will be inevitable comparisons with Alex Rider type novels, but Elliot and Shania have to rely on their quick-wittedness and resourcefulness rather than some James Bond type gadgets in order to survive. And this is where Sparkes (and the reader) have a lot of fun with the novel. By using the precise orientation of the school as the setting for the entire novel, Sparkes is able to explore all the fun hidden spaces within its site – stationery cupboards of course, but also the high windows of a school gym, the maintenance crawl space above the toilet ceilings, the tannoy from the head teacher’s office, reception, and of course the gym cupboard. And as everyone who has read a high school drama knows – there’s plenty of scope to be had in the school theatre space. This meshes nicely with computer games – each action sequence is in a different setting.

Sparkes also captures the extreme physicality of the teens’ situation – they are not just running away or confronting the gunmen, but they feel their cramped limbs from hiding, they vomit in fear and relief, their hearts palpitate and they go into cold shock.

What’s more, as the reader roots for them to succeed, Sparkes alternates between the two protagonists’ point of view – their headspace – seeing not only what’s in front of them, but also thoughts about who they are, how they came to be in this situation, and the resilience and skills they might draw upon to see them through. It’s the clever writer’s way of drip feeding information about the main characters and Sparkes works her magic here, as well as proving her knack of showing character through action – there is no lengthy exposition.

The beauty of the book is that it reads like a computer game – it’s fast, pacey, gripping, and yet in prosaic format – Sparkes has time to give us apt similes – “Normally she attracted cops like a dropped Cornetto attracts ants.” The chapters are super short, ending in gritty cliff-hangers, much like levels in computer games. Her descriptions don’t interfere with the action, but merely enhance it – there is a multitude of sensations giving the text a visceral feel. The reader sees what’s dark and light, where the shadows creep, the sounds of silence and of approach and of violence.

And this perhaps is where readers or gatekeepers may feel a jolt. Sparkes reportedly failed to attract a mainstream publisher for the title – there are so many fears about showing a gunman in schools in a novel for children after the number of real school shootings in the States.

But I would argue that if publishers shy away from novels that may offend, then much of publishing would fall away, and be worse for it. In the same way that computer games don’t shy away from it, in the same way that dystopian novels portray children battling to death, or incidents of terrorism, then this shouldn’t be out of bounds here – particularly when in actuality this story is positioned very far away from what we think of as ‘school shooting’ or ‘act of terrorism’.

In fact, there’s much humour. There are numerous wry asides – the headteacher is positively brilliant at releasing humour into scary situations and is as sharp as a pencil, and the teens fare well in this regard too.

This is a fabulous entry or re-entry into books for reluctant readers. Short, sharp, witty and great fun, the reader will understand that it’s not great to judge someone by the stereotype attributed to them, in the same way that they’ll understand that facing a gunman with a resistance band and a cricket ball from the gym cupboard probably isn’t the best solution.

This up-to-the-minute pacey novel is a match for the screen any day. I’ll take detention – if they’ll let me read stories like this during it. Suitable for 11+ years. You can buy yours here.

Books for Younger Readers

I’m constantly blown away by the quality of books for younger readers, otherwise known as newly independent readers. This, of course, is how it should be. It’s a crucial time to create that love of reading for pleasure. If they actively want to spend time reading at this age and it becomes habit, then their transition to reading longer texts will follow. Here is my round-up of recent texts for newly independents – about age 6-7 years onwards (although each child reads at their own pace and shouldn’t be rushed).

Sam Wu
Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Ghosts by Katie and Kevin Tsang illustrated by Nathan Reed
Sam Wu is afraid of many things, but no one likes to admit being a scaredy-cat. After an incident during a school trip to the science museum, everyone, especially the school bully, figures out that Sam Wu is quite scared. To prove his bravery, Sam opts to keep a pet snake. The only problem is that he’s scared of snakes.

This is a new series by husband and wife team and their compatibility obviously pays off in the writing. Never a dull moment, and packed full of laughs, this is an endearing look at different cultures, friendships, and how to be brave. There are particular stellar characters, including a grandmother and a little sister, who delightfully is not stereotypically annoying, but actually a great help to Sam. There’s a fun layout with large typeface, capital letters to emphasise embarrassing and scary moments, and lots of fantastic illustrations from Nathan Reed. A great introduction to chapter books. You can buy it here.

great telephone mix up
The Great Telephone Mix-Up by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey
An absolutely charming tale about the importance of community, helping your neighbours and reaping the surprising benefits. When the phone wires in a sleepy little village get mixed up, the neighbours start to discover things about each other as they receive the wrong phone calls, and then have to pass on the messages.

It turns out that meeting each other face to face not only brings new friendships, but brings awareness of who in the town is struggling, needs help or may need to find love. Nicholls carefully gets over the problem of mobile phones by explaining there is no signal in the town (a message not entirely lost on rural communities), and so everyone relies on their home phone.

The story is simple, the text well-spaced, and illustrations by Sheena Dempsey positively charming. Each character is well delineated and there’s a diverse mix. A lovely addition to the Little Gems selection. You can buy it here.

noah scape
Noah Scape Can’t Stop Repeating Himself by Guy Bass, illustrated by Steve May
An altogether more nightmarish story from Guy Bass, in which the protagonist can’t get what he wants. Noah decides that if everyone in the world were like him, then that would solve the problem- after all the majority rules, right? It starts, as all school problems do, in the school canteen when Noah is served meat pie instead of spaghetti with tomato sauce.

When Noah wakes the next morning and goes to school, he finds himself already sitting in his seat – there are two of him. And each day the number of Noahs double until finally they get what they want. They also share the same opinions like a modern day echo chamber.

Or do they?

When the original Noah is outvoted by his 63 copies, Noah realises he still isn’t getting his own way. This is a brilliant examination of how to get along with others, as well as a great representation of coping in school when a child is having to manage a mental health issue such as OCD, which dictates that routine is of paramount importance to the day. Of course, there’s the numerical element too. Bass hasn’t quite tied up all the loose ends of the story either, so there’s plenty of room for speculation after reading. A fun, and also highly accessible read. You can buy it here.

happyville high
Happyville High: Geek Tragedy by Tom McLaughlin
One of the most hilarious young fiction titles I have read in a long time, I couldn’t stop sniggering, which of course made all the children near me want to read this too. Tyler is too smart for school and has been homeschooled for much of her life. But when she and her Dad move to Happyville, he enrols her in the local school.

This is no ordinary school though, and Tyler realises there’s something inherently wrong, especially when she reads the motto: “The more popular you are, the happier you become!” Being a bit of a nerd means that Tyler definitely isn’t popular, but she does make two friends in the library, who are equally ‘geeky’. Tyler is enthralled when she discovers that one of them has developed an algorithm to decipher which candy bar is best, with the results laid out on a spreadsheet. (Tyler’s excitement at being invited over to see this knows no limits.)

When the popular kids are struck with an affliction – their right arms elongate to enable them to take better selfies – the three new friends have to use their brains to rid the town of this vain disorder. There is much slapstick and silly humour but also a biting satirical look at the way our society ranks people and behaves. Fabulously funny in many ways and incredibly readable. For slightly older readers than the other books on this blog. Self-illustrated too. You can buy it here.

magical kingdom of birds
Magical Kingdom of Birds: The Sleepy Hummingbirds by Anne Booth, illustrated by Rosie Butcher
A gentler start to a series in this book about magical escapism – something we all might need from the world of selfie-sticks and cool school heroes. When Maya colours in the pages of her colouring book, she is whisked into a magical kingdom filled with the most enchanting colourful birds and their small fairy friends.

But, as with all idylls, trouble is brewing, and the evil Lord Astor has a plan to capture the tiniest, most vulnerable residents and put them into cages. Maya has the privilege and great responsibility of being Keeper of the Book, and she must protect the kingdom and its birds at all costs.

An early introduction to the beauty of the natural world, with each book in the series showcasing a different species, this is a wonderful start to early reading. The pages are exquisitely illustrated in black and white by Rosie Butcher, the text in many cases framed by a leafy border, encapsulating the words and the story in this natural landscape. Beautiful descriptions bring the birds and their habitat to life, and Booth hasn’t been afraid to introduce more difficult vocabulary, explaining words such as torpor, tubular and prophesy. You can buy it here.

unicorn academymuddle the magical puppythe spiderwick chroniclesA quick mention to three other series. Unicorn Academy by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Lucy Truman has hitchhiked perfectly onto the current zeitgeist for all things unicorn. With its sparkly covers and more grown-up illustrations, these reminded me of my adoration and loyalty to all things My Little Pony when I was a child. The Unicorn Academy adventures are school stories in which the girls each have their own unicorn, and each book introduces themes such as friendship, loyalty, and independence. The first in the series, Sophia and the Rainbow, introduces ten-year-old Sophia who finds out that each unicorn has its own special powers. The stories are simple, chapters short, but the series has the magical potential to turn reading into a habit. Likewise with Muddle the Magic Puppy and Cuddle the Magic Kitten series by Hayley Daze. Cute illustrations adorn the front and continue inside, with big eyes as a feature. In Muddle the Magic Puppy: The Magic Carpet, Muddle goes on a flying carpet adventure in Arabia. A long-established children’s writer has penned these, and the story is straightforward. Large typography and short chapters make comprehension easy. Lastly, for more advanced readers, the publisher Simon and Schuster have republished The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black in beautifully illustrated hardback editions. This gothic fantasy series is a great choice for fluent readers who want to expand their literary landscape – with a richly imagined world of dark fairies. The Grace children move into the Spiderwick Estate and through secret passageways and hidden doors, they discover that they are not alone in the new house. First published in 2003, with a 2008 movie, the series is well-worth revisiting for a new young audience.

 

 

Writing poetry and prose: Brian Moses


Human beings like to classify and label things – it’s how we distinguish one thing from another, it’s how we name things to be able to convey and signify ideas to each other. One only has to look at John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding to see a grasp of these principles. In writing, we like to clarify the difference between prose – from the Latin meaning straightforward – and poetry. Tomorrow is National Poetry Day, and children in schools up and down the country will be pulling out poetry from their bookshelves, and hopefully reading it and enjoying it. One of our foremost children’s poets is Brian Moses, but this National Poetry Day, he’s also published a prose novel.

Of course sometimes the line between poetry and prose is blurred. Both communicate ideas, feelings, a story; and both play with language, crafting it so that what is said is not only communicated in language but also by the choice of language, the positioning of the words, the use of punctuation. Two authors (Sarah Crossan and Kwame Alexander) immediately spring to mind when crossing the borders between the genres, because most readers think about novels as being written in prose form, whereas these two write some of their novels in free verse poems. There are some who call poetry a form of art, and prose merely communication; but overall I think the distinction would have to be the sound crafted from poetry – the overarching stretch of the meaning by the way the poem sounds. With prose, the meaning is inherent within the text, held within it.

Python doesn’t ring with the same sounds as Moses’s poem, The Snake Hotel, for example (which you can listen to here), but it definitely strikes a chord of fear in the reader, and is written in clear, precise prose.

Daniel lives with his zookeeper father, and also with his father’s pet snake, a python residing in the attic. Unfortunately, Daniel is terrified of the snake and his imagination conjures up the horrors of the snake’s escape from its cage. But added to Daniel’s nightmares is his waking life, in which he is bullied by a girl gang who roam the streets on his way to and from school.

When he starts to study the Second World War at school, as well as taking refuge from the girl gang in his grandfather’s house, the stories of the past start to merge with Daniel’s current fears, and before long snakes, girls and ghosts of the past all converge.

Moses’ prose is certainly more straightforward than some of his poetry, but it still conveys plenty of emotion. A whizz with language, the author uses his prose form to whip the plot at pace, and with economy, so that action is always forefront, all the time managing to eke out enormous authenticity in the characters. From Daniel and his friend Errol and their believable camaraderie, to the relationship between Daniel and his grandfather – the weariness from boys who despair of that generation’s ‘going on about the war’ and so rarely visit, but also seek wisdom and enlightenment and eventually realise that their grandparents are real people with exciting stories to impart.

The book is set in the 1980s with all the freedom afforded to children that this entails – ghost-hunting on their own, and the lack of health and safety implied in keeping snakes in attics, and yet the novel also touches on parental break up and a child returning to an empty house from school – something that feels completely up to date.

An entertaining mix of history, the supernatural, contemporary families, and snakes. You can buy your own copy here.

Back to School

The autumn always sees a mega haul of children’s nonfiction – the back to school collections, lists for National Non Fiction November, and of course the Christmas gift treasure troves. This year, unlike the wet harvest, has yielded a bumper crop.

We start the day with maths. Always a slog after the long summer holidays, this book aims to reverse that groan with a rather wonderful premise – from the front cover, the reader is a genius: This Book Thinks You’re a Maths Genius, by Dr Mike Goldsmith, illustrated by Harriet Russell. It aims to prove that if the reader likes patterns, colouring and puzzles, then actually they’re good at maths. Taking basic mathematical concepts, such as geometry, measurements, statistics, and number patterns, it gives the reader activities and games to enhance their knowledge. Most pages have a ‘Where’s the Math’s box’ at the bottom to explain the ‘science’ behind the activity. It feels more heavily weighted towards shapes and patterns than basic numbers, but it was certainly fun to fill in.

Geography next, with two books to explore. The first, Animazes, illustrated by Melissa Castrillon also combines the territory of activity book with non-fiction, as readers can trace the mazes on each page to learn about the migration patterns of different animals. There’s a vibrancy and exuberance to this book – set by the vivid colour palate, which lifts the knowledge from the page. Christmas Island red crabs, wildebeest of the Serengeti, Monarch butterflies, Mali elephants…There’s a wealth of phenomenal facts about these wonderful animals – for general use or project use. Maze answers are given at the back of the book.

For those wanting a more straightforward factual book, Starters: Rainforests by Nick Pierce and illustrated by Jean Claude ticks the box for little ones. Basic layouts and colourful simple illustrations lend this a modern textbook look, and it reads plainly, but overall gives information in a neat concise visual way, with glossary, and index. Great for Key Stage One, and will bring a dazzling intensity of colour to the topic.

After break, it’s biology, using Bugs by Simon Tyler for budding entomologists. With the first 32 pages devoted to dissecting insect life – from anatomy to taxonomy, life cycle to senses, and the rest given to large colourful illustrations of individual species with accompanying small details about size and habitat, this is a comprehensive look at the subject. However, it stands apart with its impressive use of blank space on the page, clean lines, and coloured backgrounds, which all give the book both a vivacity and a clinical feel. Rarely have insects looked quite so engaging, it could almost double as a coffee-table splendour. Inspirational for children, a minibeast triumph.

You can’t beat a good historical narrative for history lessons. Philip Ardagh’s new series sets out to dominate the market here with his ‘faction’ books, illustrated by Jamie Littler. The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge explores the life of a medieval knight with as much tongue-in-cheek humour as sword-in-hand fighting. Written in day-by-day diary form, with footnotes giving factual information or terminology, the next in the series is The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny, Victorian Housemaid.

The Histronauts series aims to mash activity, story and non-fiction in its first two titles, An Egyptian Adventure and A Roman Adventure by Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke. A group of children dive back in time, and through the means of a comic strip, they illuminate facets of historical life. There are activities alongside the narrative, such as learning Roman numerals and how to play merellus, as well as mazes, recipes and a host of other factual information. Packed with detail, these are fun and educational.

For a more visual look, try Unfolding Journeys: Secrets of the Nile by Stewart Ross and Vanina Starkoff. More cross-curricula than anything, this geography/history hybrid aims to explore this part of the world with a fold-out, vividly yellow map of the Nile (not to scale), highly captioned with number points, which are then extrapolated on the reverse of the fold-out. A mixture of ancient and modern facts and points of information make this a tricky landscape for a child to navigate – a few more dates might have helped, (and I’m unsure about the James Bond reference inside) but it’s certainly an intriguing way to look at a place of interest.

After lunch, younger primary school children will be delighted to get their hands on Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System by Dr Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman. A new title in this series, but firmly aimed at a younger age group, this is another gem from publishers Flying Eye. Fantastic, familiar cartoons, accompanied by Professor Astro Cat’s chatty and informative dialogue, this would be my go-to book for teaching KS1 children about space for the first time.

With our first day at school completed, we look forward to a trip out. The National Gallery have two phenomenal companion books to touring – Get Colouring with Katie by James Mayhew, and Picture This! By Paul Thurlby. The Katie books by James Mayhew have long been favourites for introducing the youngest children to art, and this is a great companion title that picks out paintings within the gallery and gives children space on the page to colour a detail in their own way. Katie gives hints and explanations along the way. Paul Thurlby’s spiral bound book explores more of the paintings by featuring a picture of them, and then a small explanation, with occasional questions to the readers. The paintings are grouped in different ways – both historical, but also those featuring children, times of day, fashions etc. It might be frustrating without a knowledge of which room each painting is in (which the book doesn’t give). But the questions it poses are pertinent and thoughtful. You can buy all these books from good local bookshops, or click the Waterstones link on the top left of the page.

 

There’s a Werewolf in my Tent! by Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham

I’ve long been a fan of Pamela Butchart’s writing. Her narration spills off the page with bubbliness and enthusiasm and leaves the reader feeling joyful and always entertained.

She won the Children’s Book Award in 2016 and the Blue Peter Book Award in 2015, as well as being shortlisted for a Lollie (Laugh Out Loud Book Award), and I think this sums up her stable of texts – hugely popular with children and always packed with humour. If you haven’t come across her books yet, do start reading now.

There’s a Werewolf in my Tent is actually the sixth book about Izzy and her set of friends, but each book can happily be read as a standalone.

Izzy and her friends are going on a school camping trip, which is HUGELY exciting. Accompanying them are Miss Jones, their teacher, and also Miss Moon, the scary new PE teacher who is whoppingly tall, and a bit hairy too. Once they have pitched tents, things become a little nerve-wracking when there are howling sounds at night, missing sausages, and strange scratches. Could it have anything to do with Miss Moon and her increasingly hairy legs?

Butchart excels in the conversational writing style – the story is told by Izzy – in a type of breathless whizzy fashion – exactly how my daughter speaks when she has a story to tell me about her day at school. With capitals every so often for emphasis, and the hilarious black and white illustrations from Flintham, the book really is a laugh a minute. The reader will cringe as they see the truth behind the story, which Izzy and her friends fail to see. The delight is in spotting the absurdity of the friends’ assumptions, and revelling in the zaniness of the plot.

And yet, despite this craziness, there’s always a truth behind the story, a grounding in schoolfriends’ experiences, and real emotion – and this is what bears out the longevity and effectiveness of the books, because as well as the adventure and all the silliness, Butchart continually shows the friends’ kindnesses towards each other, their caring attitudes towards their friends. This school trip story deals with homesickness (lightly), the pros and cons of camping, and a full protein diet! Contemporary, indeed.

It’s one of my most recommended series for newly independent readers – teaching them plot, dropped clues, emphasis and most importantly a whole lot of fun. Reading doesn’t get much more pleasurable than this at the age of seven. You can buy it here.

Lyn Gardner: An Interview

 

Although my first thought when hearing the name Lyn Gardner is that of Lyn’s role as theatre critic of The Guardian, the children in my library (and home) all know of her as a writer of children’s books, who tells brilliantly dashing adventure/mystery stories linked to the theatre. Firstly, with the hugely popular Olivia series, and now with her Rose Campion Victorian era novels. So, after featuring Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone as my book of the week, I was delighted to be afforded the chance to ask Lyn some questions.

The Rose Campion series marries love for theatre with the Victorian era. Can you explain why you picked this historical period?

It was the golden age of music hall, a period that produced stars such as Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Dan Leno, Little Tich, people who at the height of their fame would be performing at a network of halls and theatres across the country. Every city, and even big town, had its music halls. London was stuffed with them. The stars were the celebrities of their day and the most successful among them were huge earners. At the height of her fame, Marie Lloyd could command almost £1,000 a week, which was a fortune.

The music hall was a way out of poverty for many. Vesta Tilly was just one who made her family’s fortune by performing as a child. In Rose Campion and the Stolen Secret, the first book in the series, when Campion’s is in desperate straits and failing to attract an audience, Thomas Campion employs Aurora, otherwise known as the Infant Phenomenon. Such child performers were hugely popular.

The story packs so much into one book: foundlings, thievery, Holloway prison, and of course magicians and the bullet trick. What research did you do in order to write the novel?

I’m not a historian, and this is a work of fiction not fact. I’ve taken some liberties, particularly around the justice system and the way it operated. But I did want to write a novel that genuinely gives a sense of the sights and smells of Victorian London, and what it would be like to live there. Also what it would be like to be a working child during that period.

Of course I did some research and read books about the period, but I reckon that it’s easy to get bogged down in research and forget that you are trying to write a really rollicking good mystery story. So I tend to write and then check afterwards. I was fascinated by the bullet trick as a child, and when I was writing Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone I was determined to incorporate it into the action.

A main theme running through the Curse of the Doomstone is what’s seen and unseen – trickery of magicians and thieves, and being observant. Is this something you’ve picked up from years of watching theatre productions as The Guardian’s theatre critic?

I don’t think I am a particularly observant person. What happens in theatre a lot of the time is exactly what happens in a magic show: the audience is directed to look at one thing that is happening so they don’t see something else that is also taking place.

It’s all part of the suspension of disbelief that makes us fall through theatre’s rabbit hole into a new world, even though we know that it is only actors on a stage playing a role. Of course if you go to the theatre as much as I do, you start noticing the way a show works, and its mechanics, but even when you do know, I’m interested in the way you still succumb to the magic.

The theme also allows for lots of exploration of identity and the way people present themselves to the world: how they appear and how they really are, those everyday deceptions that we all practise to some degree.

In Curse of the Doomstone these become magnified as people pretend to be something they are not or—like Rose—are trying to find out who they are. Or in the case of Aurora, trying to adjust to the fact that she is not the person she thought that she was, and if she is going to be happy she needs to learn how to straddle two very different worlds.

The book highlights the class divide that separates theatre goers into different theatres/areas of London. Do you think a class divide still exists in theatre?

Theatre certainly has a problem with diversity. It is easier to become a theatre-maker today if you come from a background where there was enough money for theatre trips, and if you have parents who help you get a good education and can support you in the early stages of your career. So yes, I do think that class is an issue in theatre not just in terms of theatre-goers, but also around who makes theatre.

One of the things that spurred me to set the story in a music hall was that while the late Victorian era was one of rigid class divides, the music hall was a place where rich and poor rubbed shoulders together. That was true for the performers as well as the audience, which lends itself to fluid social situations and some very vivid characters.

I was interested in writing a novel set in a music hall in the late Victorian period because I wanted to write a book that was full of the joy of performance, but which doesn’t shirk the realities of Victorian life. From the pea-soupers, to the fact that the streets were full of horse dung, that thousands of children lived on the streets, that landlords took advantage and charged high rents for appalling housing, and life could be short and brutal for those at the bottom of the pile. In fact very much like life is today in the UK (one of the richest nations in the world), if you are one of the 3.7 million children living in poverty.

But I hope that it’s also a book full of warmth and laughter that reminds us how much the Victorian music hall has influenced popular entertainment today. The annual pantomime in your local theatre, and TV shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, are the direct descendants of the music hall. So while the period I’m writing about may seem very long ago, there may be more connections and parallels than immediately meet the eye.

And more generally, is there a play that you would say is essential viewing for children?

There is so much brilliant work out there from big musicals such as The Lion King or Matilda, to small scale shows made for the very young, including babies. Reading fires the imagination and so does theatre.

What is your favourite children’s book?

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It’s so psychologically accurate. Whenever I read it, it takes me straight back to the feelings of rage and impotence I had as a small child when I was thwarted by my parents or had behaved badly, and I imagined ways of exerting power. Such a brilliant, brilliant book.

There have been some brilliant stories adapted recently for the London stage – Lord of the Flies, Running Wild, Treasure Island. Is there any children’s book in particular that you would like to see adapted for the stage?

There are so many great books out there. But what I would really be interested in seeing is more original plays for children and young people, rather than page to stage adaptations.

What is your favourite play? Or best production you’ve ever seen?

That changes all the time.

With huge thanks to Lyn Gardner for taking the time to answer my questions. You can buy the latest Rose Campion novel here