school

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

The White Tower by Cathryn Constable

I once had a giggle with a fellow children’s books reviewer about the number of books we reviewed in which the main character had to move house or school in order to start their adventure. But sometimes an old trope works a treat in a new book.

Livy, a young girl struggling with her grief that her best friend has died, is moved to a new private school, and her family to a house within the grounds, when her father lands a job in the school’s library. Her new attic bedroom nestles among the spires and domes of the school, and Livy is strangely drawn to the statues on the rooftops. When the headmistress shows more than a passing interest in her and her little brother Tom, Livy must work out what her connection is to the school, and how it will help her to overcome her grief.

With echoes of the lost boys of Peter Pan, and the contemporary adventures within Rooftoppers, this is a book that lingers in the mind long after the final page is turned. The story itself is old-fashioned – not only the setting of an old private school, but the unfurling of a mystery about ancient science experiments, a wish to fly, and a dream-like reality where ghosts stalk rooftops and nothing is as it seems.

The reader pelts through the story, as keen to solve the mystery as Livy herself, and as unsure of the motives of the old librarian and the headteacher as Livy. But as things begin to fall into place, the reader remains a little unsure as to whether all the links completely tie up.

A trance-like atmosphere pervades the book: stained glass shatters, and spires and statues create connotations with the dreamy spires of Oxford. This imagery haunts at the end, but it almost seems as if the book could have been drawn out into a trilogy – there was scope for the links between the dropped clues and the final dénouement to be extrapolated further. The wonderful setting of the school library and her father’s work within could have been stretched out too.

There is a wonderful juxtaposition between the everyday normality of a school; Livy has modern problems with friendships and distracted parents, and there is much made of friendship groups, fitting in, and flirtations with the opposite sex. And then the dreamy, almost fantasy landscape of Livy’s night-time wanderings, as she seeks to find out the mystery behind an ancient science that makes claims of human flight, and the link between gravity and being grounded – science and pure magic.

Emotions are pulled too – Livy’s little brother is used as a pawn in the villain’s game, and there are frequent references to the science that couldn’t help Livy’s best friend recover from leukemia – so Livy is grieving too.

This is a good book, and it certainly deserves to be read. I’m not sure if it was so good that I wanted more, or just did not satiate satisfactorily, which left me wanting more.

Make your own mind up here.

What I Was Like At School by Karen McCombie

I’m feeling rather excited about 2017. An excellent start to the year with some children’s book gems falling onto my doormat. St Grizzles School for Girls, Goats and Random Boys by Karen McCombie, illustrated by Becka Moor is a madcap caper with a rather whizzy headteacher, triplets on stilts and a head-butting goat.

When Dani’s Mum lands a job looking at penguins’ bottoms in the Antarctic, Dani is signed up for St Grizelda’s School for Girls. But when she arrives, she discovers that this rather strict looking girls’ boarding school has had a change of headmistress…and direction!…

But through all the madness, this is the tale of a girl trying to overcome her angst at settling into a new place with its new rules – something with which almost all of us can identify. Karen’s writing is always springy, endearing and genuine – and this book is no exception. So I’m delighted to have her writing for MinervaReads about what she was like at school: 

Try to picture Beaker from the Muppets, all googly-eyed with shyness, only a panicked “meep!” coming out of his mouth when expected to talk. That is ME, practically the whole way through primary school.

It didn’t help that we moved from Scotland to Australia to Scotland again, traversing five schools in all. Oh, the total non-joy of being the new girl x 5!  (How to reduce a naturally shy kid to a trembling kid-shaped jelly…)

(Karen at school)

It also didn’t help that I had an undiagnosed hearing problem for a year when I was little, and fell massively behind in class. (Shy girl blinks at everything going on around her, doesn’t have a clue what’s happening.)

But things improved once…

  1. my hearing issue was spotted and addressed
  2. I got help catching up
  3. I found out I was a bit good at this writing lark.

One teacher in particular spotted some sparkiness in my writing – hurrah! But in an attempt to have an eye-dabbing, heartstring-tugging moment where she cured me of my shyness and helped my confidence blossom in one fell swoop, Miss Thomson asked me to stand up and read my ‘excellent’ short story aloud to my classmates.

Sadly, all my classmates could make out was an alarmingly trembly girl who squeaked “Meep-meep-meep-meep!” at top-speed and then flooped into her seat before she keeled over…

Luckily, secondary school was a BIG improvement. For a start, there was only the ONE secondary school, rather than multiple options. Things got better with the discovery of a vast library, cool art rooms, drama club, fab friends and lashings and lashings of black eyeliner.

(Karen with her black eyeliner)

Secondary school was also the time I had a Very Stern Talk with my shyness. I explained to it that I understood where it was coming from, but from now on, I wasn’t going to let it stop me from doing what I wanted to do. Of course, it sulked, and still liked to trip me up from time-to-time (as it does now), but at least it just moped in the wings instead of taking centre stage and spoiling all my fun.

So I suppose Beating the Lurking Shyness Monster was one major thing I accomplished during my years at school. If only there was a GCSE in that; I’m sure I’d’ve got an A+…

Thanks so much to Karen McCombie. You can buy St Grizzle’s School for Girls, Goats and Random Boys here. It’s suitable for age 7+ years, and contains lashings of fun.

Back to School First Readers

It’s September. Back to school time in the UK, and a new school year. Sometimes that means a new school, sometimes a new teacher, and sometimes a new book series. Three new finds for newly independent readers:

isadora moon

Isadora Moon Goes to School by Harriet Muncaster


This utterly charming and totally irresistible new series follows the adventures of Isadora, half vampire, half fairy. Illustrated throughout in pink (for fairy) and black (for vampire), the book is a delightful twist on the current crop of first readers, which often feature fairies, but not like this one, which comes with extra bite (a fairy with fangs!).

Isadora is both cute and quirky, and struggles to decide whether she would rather attend fairy school, in the daytime, like her fairy mother did, or vampire school, at night, just like her vampire father did when he was young.

Despite being a combination of fantastical characters, Isadora is hugely relatable for her feelings of being ‘different’ to everyone else, and her attempt to make sense of the world. Of course the experiences at the two different schools dominate the book, but it’s the little touches that make the story stand out – mentions of Isadora’s favourite food (peanut butter on toast), the mistake of taking along one’s soft toy on the first day of school, managing parents on different time schedules and trying to please them both.

The illustrations of Isadora and her peers make this truly exquisite. The page dedicated to Isadora trying to dance at fairy school is hilarious, with tiny vignettes of her moves – it turns out colour does matter for Isadora! With plentiful wit throughout, and mischief and magic, this is a wonderfully unique and sparkly new series. My test readers already want the rest in the series (Isadore Moon Has a Birthday, Goes to the Ballet and Goes Camping), and in my opinion this is definitely a series to rival Claude. Well-conceived, well executed. A triumph. For ages 5-7 years (and fun adults too!) Find Isadora here.

the new teacher

The New Teacher by Dominique Demers, illustrated by Tony Ross, translated from the French by Sander Berg

Newly available in English, although first published in French in 1994, this is an adorable tale of what a good teacher – one who doesn’t necessarily follow the rules – can do for a class.

Mademoiselle Charlotte, who doesn’t even walk or look like the other teachers, talks to a rock. She doesn’t write her name on the board, and she asks the class what they want to do. And so begins the class’s foray into a new type of learning. Narrated by one of the children in the class, this is a delightfully subversive, humorous and endearing story, wonderfully illustrated by Tony Ross (of Horrid Henry fame).

It’s always cheering to see books for young children with exemplary vocabulary, and this oozes it with abundance – I’m sure it is there in the original French too, for there is the odd quirky phrase that might be more familiar in the original language, but retaining it still makes sense, and gives the book its own distinct flavour:

“And as far as schools are concerned, let’s just say I know my onions. My dad and I have moved house loads and I’ve been to tons of schools!”

Embedded within Miss Charlotte’s teaching is daily storytelling, and this love for storytelling shines out from the story. Added to this is the children’s growing attachment to their teacher, so much so that they put on a performance to illustrate the fact. However, like all great fictional teachers and Mary Poppins figures – they go where they are needed most, and so by the end of the story, our protagonist is left to get used to another new teacher. A gentle persuasive story for age six plus (confident reading alone, or shared with parent). Buy it here.

grandma bendy

Grandma Bendy and the Great Snake Escape by Izy Penguin

One of the most popular and talked about elements of primary school education in the UK today has to be ‘show and tell’. Stories of ‘who showed what’ and ‘what was said’ roll from the tongues of little ones on the walk home from school.

So it’s no great surprise that with the launch of publisher Maverick Children’s Books Junior Fiction titles, comes a tale about what can go wrong with show and tell. When Lucy reaches to extract her show and tell item from her schoolbag, she pulls out a snake instead. Bully Mike Grimace has put it there, but when it escapes and everyone blames Lucy, she must find it and reveal the real culprit.

With a cast of zany characters, and exuberant dizzy text, this story zooms along with pace. Grandma Bendy implausibly zigzags and twizzles her super stretchy twisty limbs around the town, getting Lucy and her brother into all manner of places, and mischief, but in doing so helps them search for the snake. There is an inept policeman, a nosy journalist and some other typical characters, but the author has added some nice modern touches, such as Grandma adding broccoli to the children’s ice cream floats so that she doesn’t get told off by their mother for not giving them enough veggies.

The illustrations match the text – a lovely map at the beginning displays the layout of the town with the same crazy aplomb – random sheep, a tree that looks a bit like a sheep etc, which is all the sort of thing that makes a child chuckle. The characters too look like their personalities, and there’s plenty of chaos to behold.

Other titles launching in the junior fiction range include Letter to Pluto by Lou Treleaven and Rickety Rocket by Alice Hemming. They’re not short at 128 pages each, but highly illustrated with different text formats, and might be a good stepping stone from learning to read to reading chapter books alone. You can find Grandma Bendy’s snake escape here.