school

Millie vs the Machines by Kiera O’Brien

Millie vs the machines

A fascinating debut book that crosses the realms between science fiction and boarding school fiction, with an eerie atmosphere running throughout that gently reminded me of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Set in 2099, in which each student uses their RetinaChip and index finger to see what everyone else is doing, as well as using it to select the right clothes (what’s fashionable that day) and food (adhering to nutrition guidelines) for themselves, as well as using the chip to gain access in and out of transport, school and shops. Millie appears to be a typical 13 year old girl, she checks what her friends are doing, wears the fashionable clothes of the day, and worries about her impending exams. Told in the first person, the reader feels increasingly on Millie’s side.

Except all is not as it seems, and when students start disappearing from their high-security school, Millie wonders if the robots who serve them are really as docile as they should be.

This is a compelling thriller with a spectacular plot twist towards the end. Kiera O’Brien builds suspense throughout the novel, imbuing the school with a sense of entrapment as well as security. Ever since Millie’s accident, she’s been unable to remember everything in the past, so the reader and Millie are only privy to backstory when she attempts to access segments of her memory through the technology of brain streaming.

Of course, with all this technology comes loss of privacy – beautifully drawn out – and also a reliance on robots. There is a new political structure to this world too – with corporations consuming governments, and a small uprising of people who want rights for robots. A marvellously believable and yet strange world, with a pacey plot and sharp references to what technology could do.

Hugely enjoyable, with oodles of wit mixed in with Millie’s fear, and a good understanding of the teenage psyche – teenagers of the future it seems will also fret about schoolwork, fashion and friends. A great read, and another highly recommended novel. 13+ years. You can purchase it here.

 

Silly School Stories

There are some writers who excel at what I call ‘slapstick writing’ – the sort of silliness that ties the reader in knots, makes them laugh out loud, then chortle delightedly, and declare the story ‘nonsense’ in the best possible way.

Two school stories for you this week, which are ludicrously ridiculous. But, deep down, underneath all the mayhem, there lurks a subtle dig at our education system.

uncle gobb

Firstly, Michael Rosen’s Uncle Gobb and the Dread Shed, illustrated by Neal Layton.

Malcom’s school tries to make anything that could be remotely interesting appear boring, and has a penchant for worksheets, particularly the ‘filling in the gap’ kind. His Uncle Gobb (who lives with him) has a soft spot for homework, and when Malcolm doesn’t give the correct answers, or even ask the correct questions, Uncle Gobb decides to place Malcolm and his friend in the Dread Shed as a punishment.

But Malcolm is already querying why his uncle has his name stamped all over the school worksheets, and when a genie appears, and then another, and the way out of the Dread Shed is found simply by opening the door, things start to become even more peculiar. Add in some chocolate bars, chapters that go nowhere, and wacky illustrations, and suddenly you have a book of nonsense, with a subtle rebellious message about schemes of learning, and a book that elicits giggles at every opportunity.

Michael Rosen’s casual approach is brilliant – there are blank chapters, barmy explanations of non-fiction, plays on words, and references to writers and readers, and he even points out the central conflict in his book with capital letters. Neal Layton executes his illustrations in perfect tune with the text – messy, humorous, nonsense. A laugh a minute book for 6+ years. Click here to purchase.

mad iris

Or you could visit Puddling Lane Primary, the scene of Jeremy Strong’s Mad Iris series. Jeremy Strong was himself a headmaster, so there’s an added pathos and depth reading his school stories, a truth running through the middle. Like Michael Rosen, Jeremy manages to poke enormous fun at education – in Mad Iris and the Bad School Report by Jeremy Strong, illustrated by Scoular Anderson, it is the school inspectors who take the brunt.

Pudding Lane Primary has a mascot on the grounds – the ostrich Mad Iris. But Ross and Katie have to keep her under control because not only is there a new boy who is allegedly allergic to ostriches, but also the Ofsted inspectors are visiting.

Jeremy Strong is particularly good at naming his characters, from Mrs Fretting to Miss Cactus, and the dialogue is spot on too. He also likes to poke fun at the school system – when the inspectors ask one of the teachers for the point of the lesson, she answers that she thought the children might enjoy it. The ensuing horror from the lead inspector is terrifically written.

There’s a huge amount of humour running through the story, from the relationships between fellow pupils, to those between pupils and staff, and lots of slapstick mayhem with the ostrich. Kids will fall about laughing – with Jeremy Strong it’s pretty much guaranteed. This book is also superbly illustrated throughout in black and white. Published by Barrington Stoke, it’s suitable for dyslexics, but will appeal to anyone from age 7+ years. Buy it here.

Back to School: Information Books

Information or non-fiction titles can be used in so many ways. Some are inspirational with amazing photography or diagrams, others provide activities, and many are good with straightforward facts for helping with homework. As the children start school at the beginning of September, I’ve handpicked a few titles, old and new, to assist and stimulate.

Toby and the Ice Giants

Toby and the Ice Giants by Joe Lillington
A leading non-fiction writer once told me that the best non-fiction is told with a running narrative – a story lives through it. Toby and the Ice Giants embraces this to its full extent. From the endpapers at the beginning, which illustrate a map of the world 15,000 years ago showing the ice coverage, to the introduction that explains what an ice age is, the book gets off to a flying start. It follows the travels of Toby, the bison, as he wanders the globe discovering the creatures who lived in this period. On each page Toby meets a different animal, and the author gives facts and illustrations about each. The book is simple and effective, although as pointed out by the author, this wasn’t a journey that the bison could have actually taken. The text is basic, but the book triumphs with its muted yet expressive illustrations. The exquisite detail is inspirational as well as informative, motivating the readers to learn more about the topic. There are size comparisons to modern day children, and easy to access vertical strips of simple facts. A beautiful way to learn about the Ice Age for primary school children.
You can also learn to draw a woolly mammoth with Joe on the Guardian website. Just click here. You can purchase the book here or click the Amazon side bar.

dead or alive

Dead or Alive by Clive Gifford, illustrated by Sarah Horne
For those children who adore spouting weird and wonderful facts, this is a gem of a book. Animals will do anything to survive, and this book includes a plethora of ways that animals have evolved in order to escape death. From opossums’ state of tonic immobility to the long lifespan of the quahog, children will delight in these obscure facts. Sarah Horne illustrates the book with quirky cartoons, from whole page scenes of animal prisoners (dangerous killers) to a spoof newspaper with tales of ingenuity, there is as much to look at and absorb through the pictures as the stimulating text. Gifford is a master of non-fiction for children, highlighting key facts with lively and succinct text. The book also features photographs of animals too so that rarer animals are shown as they are – such as the takahe and the microscopic tardigrade. Fun and engrossing. Look out also for the next in the series, The Ultimate Animal Criminals, looking at more extreme aspects of the animal world. You can buy it here.

Children's Encyclopedia of Space

Children’s Encyclopedia of Space
Another fact book is the newly repackaged Children’s Encyclopedia of Space. This brings together five 100 Facts About Books for which Miles Kelly is known. My review of 100 Facts about Space appeared here, but this whopping encyclopedia brings together other books on space including the solar system, stars and galaxies, astronomy, exploring space, and space travel – 500 facts in total. Of course there is some repetition – there often is in books that have been sandwiched together in this way, but not too much repetition – and most children don’t mind this re-enforcement of some facts. Moreover, it is up to date, with references to space missions to happen in 2016, for example. The book is packed with fun, interesting information, including the history of astronomy to the science behind black holes, star constellations, and missions to space. The text is written plainly but well, with lots of fun comparisons to things that children can visualise – such as explaining how comets in 1994 slammed into Jupiter’s atmosphere at more than 200 times the speed of a jet aeroplane. The book is fascinating and informative – a book to be devoured by all space enthusiasts. Visit Miles Kelly’s website for a discounted copy.

Encyclopedia of History

Encyclopedia of History, consulted by Philip Steele
There are many occasions when children are learning about a period of history and need to access simple, effective facts to answer questions, introduce the topic and give a framework for further study. Miles Kelly’s all-encompassing encyclopedia of history for children does just that. It’s an excellent book for dipping into in order to get the answers, without resorting to unreliable or contextually inaccurate facts on a random website. It’s a mammoth task to document world history in 500 small pages, but this is a brief run-through of events and dates one might need. Each page is dedicated to a topic and is set out with a series of bullet points highlighting key facts. Miles Kelly have demonstrated impressive skill with their brevity – summing up events in complex areas of the world such as the Middle East in a mere 350 words.
There is a lot of white space, which helps to make the book feel clean and easy to access. The pictures are a mixture of photographs and illustrations, each serving their purpose, but like the text, minimal and informative – this is not a showy book. The sections work chronologically from pre-history through the ancient civilisations to medieval times and finally into the modern world, dating up to events that occurred in 2014. Highly recommended as a first look at world history. Click here for copy.

diary of a time traveller

Diary of a Time Traveller by David Long, illustrated by Nicholas Stevenson
For those who like their history to be inspirational, Diary of a Time Traveller provides another quick dip into the past, but in an entirely different way from an encyclopedia. This is another non-fiction title told through narrative text, focussing on the people who have influenced history. Nine year old Augustus falls asleep from boredom in his history lesson, so his teacher Professor Tempo asks him to write down which events in history he’d like to learn about, and then takes him back in time to the events. There are 29 events covered in the book from cavemen and the discovery of fire through to the first Olympic Games, Mexico in 1200, the Gutenberg Press in 1439 to spotting Einstein in 1935 in New York. These are not key battles, wars or kings, but rather a global exploration through culture, invention and adventure. History told through its most inspirational people.
The main text on each spread is told from Augustus’ point of view – it is colloquial, using words such as ‘awesome’, ‘guys’ and ‘cool’, and the illustrations are captioned with the Professor’s facts. This very extra-curricular way of looking at history is refreshing and exciting. Delving into just one spread, for example on the end of slavery in the USA in 1865 is a wonderful way to stimulate further reading and discussion. The illustrations are dominated by people – those who have forged history – each spread manages to be distinct and yet form part of the whole book – large vivid whole page illustrations which feel textured and luxurious. The facial and bodily features change on the people from event to event, continent to continent, and it feels friendly and warm. This title publishes on 1st October. Pre-order it here.

everything volcanoes and earthquakes

National Geographic: Everything Volcanoes and Earthquakes
Published 2013, but still one of my favourite information books, Everything Volcanoes and Earthquakes is an explosive book with scintillating photographs by an award-winning photojournalist and great verified information. The photographs are stunning and create a great excitement around the subject, and the information is extensive and wide-ranging. The book imparts a wealth of scientific information from types of volcanoes to explanations of the ring of fire and different types of rocks, but also includes hands-on experiments, the history of our understanding of volcanoes, rescue scenarios at earthquake sites, and the benefits of volcanic mud – but all explored with fascinating facts and magnificent photography. The text is aimed at the correct level – “Tectonic plates move at an average of about an inch (2.5cm) every year. Your hair grows about six times faster than that!” It’s incredible to look at the pictures every time the book is opened, and it is truly informative. This remains one of the great non-fiction titles. Buy it here.

 

 

With thanks to Miles Kelly for review copies of their encyclopedias, and to Wide Eyed Publishing and Flying Eye Books for their review copies of Diary of a Time Traveller and Toby and the Ice Giants.

 

Summer Reading List

I’m not going to be blogging in August. It’s my month to take stock, recharge, and just READ. So, in case you’re wondering which books to pack/download for your children or take out the library for the summer reading challenge (see here), then here are a few suggestions.

i want my hat backoliver and patchwinnie at the seasidekatie mcginty

I recently re-discovered I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. This is a modern classic and as close to picture book perfection as you can get. A bear is looking for his hat and asks a variety of creatures if they have seen it. It’s a simple concept expertly executed, with fabulous dry wit and wonderful facial expressions – the text and pictures complement each other flawlessly. It is fun to do different voices for different characters and good for all ages to discuss what happened to the rabbit and why! Oliver and Patch by Claire Freedman and Kate Hindley is a beautiful story about moving to a new place. Summer can be a transition time for lots of children, and it’s good to read a reassuring story about making new friends and settling into a new place. Phenomenal vocabulary, exquisite illustrations – it also shows the fun you can have in a city. For something more summery try Winnie the Witch at the Seaside by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul. Much loved by children everywhere, this episode takes Winnie to the beach – although will Wilbur the cat stay dry? A good story, well told, with Korky’s distinctive style of illustrations. If you don’t want to rely on old favourites, this summer watch out for Katie McGinty Wants a Pet by debut author Jenna Harrington, illustrated by Finn Simpson, publishing 13th August. Katie wants a very different kind of pet (bet you can guess from the cover!). Although she may end up with slightly more than she bargained for – the writing style is fun and quirky – and captures a small child wonderfully – ‘She wanted it more than Millie Phillips wanted to be able to stand on her head.’

oliver and the seawigsclever pollylottie liptonthe gingerbread star ted rules the worldClaude Lights

My newly independent reading choices are a mixture of old and new too. Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre is a gem of a book, which takes the reader on a seafaring voyage unlike any other. The illustrations are sensational, look out particularly for Iris the mermaid. A classic, which has just been reissued and is well worth a read is Clever Polly and the Wolf by Catherine Storr. With 13 separate stories this is a good starter read. Each story is a play on ‘wolf fairy tales’, but magically don’t seem dated at all – and Clever Polly is remarkably likeable. If you’re doing any museum visiting this summer, or just looking to solve some riddles, a great read is the new Lottie Lipton series by Dan Metcalf, released in conjunction with the British Museum. These are well written little mysteries for growing readers but they have real riddles in them, and activities at the end. I’d love to read one whilst in the British Museum to see if I could follow the trail too. A must for young historians. For new or struggling readers I’m also heartily in favour of the Little Gem series from Barrington Stoke. There are numerous titles by fabulous authors in this list, but recent releases include The Gingerbread Star by Anne Fine, illustrated by Vicki Gausden and Ted Rules the World by Frank Cottrell Boyce, illustrated by Chris Riddell and Cate James. The Gingerbread Star retains the quality of Anne Fine’s longer work, and tells a glorious story of a worm who wishes she was a gloworm (so she can read in bed after lights out). She perseveres yet retains her sense of right and wrong throughout her adventure. Beautifully illustrated too – worms have never been so attractive. Ted Rules the World by high calibre writer Cottrell Boyce also retains the writer’s style – his sense of humour and mischievousness shine through in this hilarious story about a boy whose opinions on politics have a direct line to the prime minister. Far from marking him out as special though, Ted finds that the root cause is rather more uninspiring. It’s extremely funny. This agegroup also adore the Claude series by Alex T Smith, and on the 1st August, the new title is published, Claude: Lights! Camera! Action!. As zany as ever, Claude and Sir Bobblesock discover a film set and when the two lead actors are injured, they are asked to step in. The jokes hit on all levels – both children and adults. And that’s not all…this summer is momentous for the release of the very last Horrid Henry book by Francesca Simon: Horrid Henry’s Cannibal Curse. Although I’ve yet to see a copy of this and hate to review books I haven’t read I’m told it has an answer to the perpetual parental groan that Henry is too horrid…as Henry himself starts to read an interesting book about a girl called Evil Evie…

elspeth hart dara palmerrooftoppersmurder most unladylike
Eight to 13 year olds have a huge choice for their summer reads in this golden age of children’s literature. Firstly, I’d recommend Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs by Sarah Forbes, illustrated by James Brown. The second in the series comes out in September, so wisely use the summer to read the first. It tells the tale of orphan Elspeth, working as a servant in the Pandora Pants School for Show-Offs, sweeping up mouse-droppings, and dodging the horrid students, until one day she realises why she’s there, and how she can escape. Comic fun and a school setting with a feisty heroine. Another show off is the eleven year old main character in Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah. This is a fantastic story about a young adopted girl who desperately wants to be an actress. The story highlights how, through drama, she becomes more aware of herself and her relationship with her friends and family. Dealing with so many issues, such as adoption, diversity “I looked like a chocolate bunny in a room full of snowmen”, Dara’s voice is fresh, funny, and heartfelt. The massively annotated pages (doodles and patterns) entice the reader, as well as Dara’s imagined film script running parallel to her normal life, but Emma Shevah also deals cleverly with sensitive issues. Both an enjoyable read and an enlightening one (about adoption and different cultures). If your child hasn’t yet read Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, then buy it before her new book comes out in September. Rooftoppers tells the story of Sophie’s search for her mother across the roof tops in Paris. Katherine’s gift for storytelling knows no bounds – her writing is exemplary – stylish, fresh, original, and imaginative. It’s a perfect book and I implore you read it, instilling virtues such as love and courage and morality and seeking for the possibles in life. Its timelessness and third person narrative set it apart from other titles for this age group and it is a deserving winner of the Waterstones Children’s and Blue Peter Book awards. For series fans, I would recommend the Wells and Wong Mystery series by Robin Stevens. The first in the series, called Murder Most Unladylike, tells the story of Daisy and Hazel who set up a detective agency at their boarding school to look for missing ties etc, but then discover the body of the Science Mistress lying in the gym, and suddenly have a real mystery to solve. It is Agatha Christie for 9 year olds and over. Robin Stevens captures the innocence and yet vivaciousness of the two girls with all their insecurities and complexities. The book is set in the 1930’s but feels fairly timeless. It’s fun, imaginative, and brilliant for those who love mysteries and school stories. (so most children!). Three in the series have been published so far – an addictive set to devour on the beach, or staring at the rain…once you’ve read one, you’ll want to read them all.

boy in the towerthe executioners daughterbinny for shortphoenix

For slightly older readers, a haunting but utterly absorbing book for those wishing to ignore their family whilst on holiday is Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen. A modern day Triffids, Ade lives with his mum in a tower block, but one day the other buildings start to fall down. Before long the Bluchers have overtaken the landscape – plants that feed on metal and concrete, and give off deadly spores. Suddenly Ade and his mother are trapped. Ade has to learn to survive, figure out why his tower hasn’t collapsed and help his mother through the situation. It’s a tense, exhilarating read with memorable characters. Other stories for those slightly older are The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff– a historical tale, set in the Tower of London, and focussing on the ‘basket girl’, – the child who catches the beheaded heads in her basket. Never a dull moment in Tudor times – as the tale turns supernatural too. Salter, the loveable boy protagonist, is a sparkling creation. The sequel River Daughter, came out earlier this year. Binny for Short by Hilary McKay swings back to modernity, with a coming-of-age tale of friendship that deals with loss, relocation, family dynamics and special needs all in a highly readable, compelling summertime story. Binny is an all-rounded character, with frustration, humour, sympathy and a fantastic sense of childhood adventure. A great read from a prolific author who can clearly observe and articulate what people are really like. The sequel, Binny in Secret, came out in June. For those approaching teens, Phoenix by SF Said is my final pick. It’s something completely different – science fiction superbly written by Said, and ethereally illustrated by Dave McKean. It’s a powerfully ambitious tale of age-old war between Humans and Aliens. Lucky thinks he is an ordinary human boy, but once he discovers his extraordinary power realises that he must harness it to save the galaxy, even if it comes at huge personal cost. Bixa, the alien girl who gets mixed up in his story, is one of the most awe-inspiring characters in children’s fiction: fierce, magnetic and witty. I would definitely choose to dress up as Bixa on World Book Day if I were younger. This book is quite unlike any other in its age range – an epic with clear language, scintillating scenes and huge themes of power and myth, the universe and love, war and sacrifice. It will stay with you long after the summer fades.

Lastly, if you haven’t yet worked through my books of the week from this year, my most memorable reads were Stonebird by Mike Revell, The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone, The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday and In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll.

 

 

The little journos

When I was at school I wanted to be a journalist. Whether it was from watching Press Gang with Dexter Fletcher and Julia Sawalha or from voracious reading of Mizz and J17, I’m not sure. I don’t remember reading any children’s books particularly about journalism, but I liked the investigative side of Nancy Drew. and the diary technique of Z for Zachariah, Adrian Mole and so many others – and it seemed as if the writing buzz was the course to pursue. I worked on the school newspaper, then the university one (where Minerva Moan was born), and finally did a journalism postgrad before reality slapped me in the face and I fell into children’s publishing.

My love for the media buzz never died though, so I’m delighted to bring you three stories that play with ‘journalism.’

completely cassidy

First up, Completely Cassidy: Star Reporter by Tamsyn Murray. The second in this series, the first of which I reviewed here. I don’t tend to review another in the same series within a nine month period, but Cassidy’s voice resonated with me the first time and I was intrigued to see if the second in the series retains the same spark. It does. Cassidy falls into journalism rather than pursuing it, and stays with it to impress other people rather than for her own love of reporting. She starts an online petition in favour of girls wearing trousers to school (mainly to cover up her own mishap with some fake tan), and the editor of the school magazine asks her to join. Of course, with Cassidy things never quite work out according to plan, and before long she’s desperate for a decent story.
The great thing about Tamsyn Murray is she really gets modern school children and their world (there’s a mystery blogger who’s causing havoc/borderline online bullying), and she has a wicked sense of humour, which shines through the text. It’s tame enough to be a light, engaging read, and yet with such a strong voice that the reader just wants to read more and more Cassidy. I liked that her use of journalism in this book invokes the moral dilemmas associated with telling a good story. Being a journalist isn’t that dissimilar from being a young teen – it’s all about deciphering what is the right thing to do. Highlights included Tamsyn mentioning the PTA in a good light, and also to Antonia Miller for her fabulous little illustrations throughout, particularly the poison pen! It’s also refreshing to read about a girl with no big issues in her life – her parents are together, she has annoying siblings, she goes to a run-of-the-mill school – and yet, as for all of us, and particularly children finding their way in the world – even the simplest of lives can be complicated and hard to navigate at times. Age 9+. Click here to buy a copy of the book from Waterstones

.jonny jakes

Jonny Jakes, on the other hand, rather like myself as a youngster, lives for the buzz of the story. Jonny Jakes Investigates: The Hamburgers of Doom by Malcolm Judge, came through the post and I read it without knowing any spoilers, so was hugely surprised with the turn of events. Of course, the title is a great play on words – hamburgers for harbingers, although I’m not sure how many children would understand the joke. Jonny Jakes runs the secretive school newspaper under a pseudonym so that he can craftily write sneaky stories about all the teachers and goings-on at his school without being rumbled. This would be story enough for me, but then, out of the blue, his headmaster quits and is replaced by an alien. Rather than get the scoop of the century though, Jonny is pipped to the post by his new headteacher, and Jonny is determined to investigate exactly what sort of head this alien will turn out to be. Written in diary form, the plot twists and turns and gets wilder and sillier, as befits the title. It turns out the headmaster is hypnotising all the students with his special sweets, and fattening them with hamburgers in order to eat them. Accompanied by gross descriptions of the aliens, and accounts of revolting smells, this book is not for the faint-hearted, but I’m sure will be embraced with much amusement by many children. The denouement is wild and fun and action-packed. There are inspired illustrations by Alan Brown, and it’s as far-fetched and imaginative as you would expect. Children – enjoy! 9+. To purchase, click here.

ivy and bean

The third reason for getting into journalism other than aforementioned peer approval and the buzz of the story, is money. Ivy and Bean: No News is Good News by Annie Barrows is a charming story in the long-running American series about two friends, Ivy and Bean, who, in this particular episode, decide to produce a community newspaper so that they can sell it to raise some money. The funniest element to me about the story is that they want the money to buy cheese. Not that they like the cheese, but they like that red waxy packaging in which the individually wrapped cheese comes…and their mother refuses to buy it for them. During the course of the small story we discover what a subscription to a newspaper is, how to earn money up front, and, just like Cassidy, when publishing a story can be morally ambiguous – especially if the story is embellished, embarrassing or just plain fabricated. Ivy and Bean is a series of books for newly independent readers, and although very American in phrase and tone, strikes a lovely chord here too, as it develops a cute friendship and showcases endearing childhood naivety. Sophie Blackall’s illustrations complement the stories well – it’s a good addition to any young reader’s bookcase. (An interesting fact – Annie Barrows co-wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society – see what a bit of investigating can throw up!). 6+ years. To buy a copy of the book click here.

 

 

A Guest Blog from author Lil Chase

taras sister troubleabbys shadow obis secrets
“I’m so excited about the release of the third book in my Boys’ School Girls series. They look so gorgeous together! It’s about a boys’ only school that has decided to take on girls for the first time, so there are only ten girls in the whole school. Each book is about a different one of the girls – their friendships with the others as well as their home life.

The first book is about Tara when she starts a club to rival her sister. The idea came from a hen party I went to where the sister of the bride brought along the bride-to-be’s club handbook from when she was young: full of favourite colours, boys they fancied, bands they liked, and coded languages. The younger sister admitted to regularly stealing the handbook and copying down her secrets.

Abby’s Shadow is a homage to the film Fatal Attraction. It’ll teach you to never betray your best friend by telling another girl she’s your best friend. This is what Abby does when she goes on holiday, but with Facebook and Instagram the girl from holiday catches up with her, and doesn’t like being second best. Warning: this book gets pretty scary!

The third – only just released – is Obi’s Secrets. Obi has never felt special but for reasons she doesn’t understand, the most gorgeous boy in her school likes her. Like likes her. It’s a heartbreaking story with a love triangle at the centre and a massive choice for Obi: her best friend or the boy she fancies.

People often ask me where I get my ideas from. The truth is: everywhere! I keep my eyes and ears open for inspiration and it finds me. It could be a friend’s anecdote from their childhood, a film I like, or – as was the case with Obi – knowing a character so well that you know the worst possible situation for them. I got to know Obi while writing books one and two and realised that she was loyal, and desperate for a best friend. So I decided to give her the best friend she always wanted, and then do something to test her loyalty.

So where did the big idea come from? The idea for the series? When I was young – about 10 or 11 – my father was made redundant from his job. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before new job offers came in. One was to be a bursar at a boys-only boarding school. The only downside was that we’d have to move and live on site. At eleven years old, I thought this would be wonderful! I would have my pick of all the boys. When he didn’t take the job I was heartbroken from missing out on all the knights in shining armour fighting for my hand.

Years later, I realise the reality of being the only girl in a boys’ school would not have been something out of Romeo and Juliet. Boys that age would at best, ignore me, at worst, tease me. Teenage boys aren’t often very chivalrous.

So the idiom ‘write what you know’ is true. Or, as in this case – write what you almost knew but made a lucky escape from.”

Thank you Lil Chase for your guest blog today.

MinervaReads is delighted to have 2 full sets of The Boys’ School Girls to giveaway. Just send MinervaReads an email with your favourite fictional school, or follow me on twitter @mineravamoan and see my Lil Chase competition tweet. Competition ends midnight 14th July. You can read Minerva’s review of The Boys’ School Girls here. And buy copies of the book here

A School Author Visit

I don’t remember meeting any authors when I was a child. My school had a well-stocked library with a librarian, and I do remember checking out books from there and the public library, and discovering a host of intriguing and exciting fiction and non-fiction on the bookshelves, but I don’t remember having a Book Week or author visits. We certainly didn’t dress up for World Book Day. That only started 18 years ago, and I left school before then. In fact, one of my favourite authors was Noel Streatfield – I didn’t know until after I left school whether Noel was a man or a woman – it didn’t matter. The author was largely anonymous, a system only for finding a book on the shelf, or reading more of the same.

For the next generation though, authors of books are REAL, alive (most of the time) and KNOWN. They may go to a school that encourages author visits, or attend book signings at a local bookshop or library, or attend literature festivals, such as the Southbank Imagine Children’s Literature Festival and meet authors in person. Suddenly these authors become celebrities (Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz), or in some cases, celebrities become authors (David Walliams, David Baddeil, Helen Skelton).

Authors have always been fundamental for writing, but now they have become fundamental to the reading process. On a cynical basis, I would attribute this to both increased marketing strategies and our celebrity culture. Authors are expected to provide a profile, whether it be on social media or in public life, as well as carrying out a fair bit of their own selling. For authors of children’s books, this often means visiting schools (which also serves a dual purpose as it creates an extra revenue stream as most authors make very little money from the sale of their books).

Pity the author who doesn’t have a SPARKLING personality or isn’t good at public speaking – by association they may tarnish their books. For those who can tell a good joke or strum a guitar they may gain a whole new audience for their stories. And after all, didn’t our storytelling all come from an oral tradition anyway? The notion of a writer scratching away with quill and ink in an impoverished attic was always rather Victorian.

What do children gain from seeing an author of a book? Not every author is as famous as David Walliams or Jacqueline Wilson, so what do the children think when it’s an author whom they’ve not heard of, with books they’ve never read, and are only prepped by their school the week or two before the visit?
Of course there are certain benefits that are readily talked about – it creates an excitement around reading, and books of all kinds not just by that author – it can inspire children, as passion for reading is something that is caught, not necessarily taught – and it can provoke children to write creatively themselves, believing it to be a ‘job’ they could do. These are all hugely important. This is something that the Patron of Reading scheme delivers in particular – you can read about them here.

I quizzed some school children recently about author visits. Why does it have to be an author of a published book? Surely a librarian – someone with knowledge of books, a good reading-aloud voice, a passion for literature and knowledge of the book market could equally well do a school visit, read books and inspire children. They admitted it wasn’t the same. For children, and I would argue adults too, there is something hugely special about seeing the author’s name in print on the front of the book – and if they are standing in front of you holding their product, then that’s something particularly special. It’s even better than Sir Tim Dyson vacuuming in front of you. But there was something else that came up that was surprising and special. Although any teacher, librarian or visitor could deconstruct a book – guess what came next, ask questions about the narrative, speculate on different endings and meanings – only the author had the ‘absolute’ truth in his head.

Having the author there to question on the story is like being able to get a glimpse inside someone else’s brain – in their dreams and imagination, in their feelings and reveries. The author is the only person who won’t reinterpret the book but has the ultimate interpretation of it – can discuss its origins and machinations, its complexities and issues, the versions it went through before its finalisation, with total authority. And then, and this is the bit that finally made me giggle – the children felt they could properly critique it.

I’ve yet to come across a school that didn’t heartily embrace the author who had come to visit – children who didn’t come away with a renewed vigour and warmth for reading, and a special place in its school library for those coveted signed books. If you’re an author, do a school visit, and if you’re a school, invite an author in. It’s mutually beneficial.

 

The Boys’ School Girls by Lil Chase

taras sister trouble

There’s a type of book that my readers never seem to tire of; a book based in schools, with issues around friendship, family life, and all the bother of finding one’s place in the world. I am delighted to bring you a new series that does the job so diligently with a clear understanding of 12 year olds, and with writing that sparkles with life. This is just the sort of series I wanted to read when I was young. (I confess I hugely enjoyed reading it this past week and I’m well past childhood!).

Lil Chase has created a fictional boys’ school, Hillcrest High, which has decided to admit girls for the first time. In the first title of the series, Tara’s Sister Trouble, Tara is one of these girls and she’s very excited – not least because she has a huge crush on one of the Hillcrest boys – but also because a new school means new friends, new opportunities and her best friend will be attending too. However, when Tara’s sister also joins the school, things start to fall apart for Tara. There is intense rivalry amongst the few girls at the new school, and her sister seems intent on sabotaging any relationships she does have. It’ll take Tara a fair amount of detective work and understanding to find out what’s really going on with her sister and her friends. There are a few little plot twists in the book – and it deals with some larger issues too – break up of a family, gambling, and jealousy, but Lil Chase always deals with them showing a great deal of compassion and humour. The action rolls along at a good steady pace and the reader is compelled to feel great empathy with the main character.

abbys shadow

There are three in the series, and the next two each focus on a different girl in the set of friends. Lil Chase has handled this cleverly by writing from the first person perspective each time – but the voices don’t blend into each other. Each girl in the series has a distinct voice and personality and this shines through. It’s a clever device and very enjoyable. The next two are Abby’s Shadow and Obi’s Secrets (the last published June 4th), but I’m hoping there’ll be many more. A series your 9-12yr old will devour with relish. You can buy the titles here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

obis secrets

School Libraries: the best bang for your education buck

Next week marks the end of Malorie Blackman’s tenure as Children’s Laureate. I will be sad about this, not only because Malorie has been a terrific laureate, but because she strongly advocated for school libraries. She has asked on numerous occasions why it is mandatory in this country for every prison to have a library, but not every school.

In fact this month also marks a year passing since the publication of the report, The Beating Heart of the School, by the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group about improving educational attainment through school libraries and librarians.

But in the past year I’ve seen more and more school librarians being made redundant, and visited more schools in which the library space is simply a bookshelf in the middle of a corridor, or schools in which the sole person looking after the library is a mealtime supervisor who merely ‘tidies shelves’.  There are obviously budget and space constraints, but it would be good to stop using these as excuses and start trying to re-prioritise.

I’ve banged on before about how reading improves a child’s chances in life. Studies in the US point to the fact that students in schools with effective library programs learn more, get better grades and score higher on standardised tests than their peers in schools without (American Library Association). Reading for pleasure is more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education (Institute of Education, 2013). Students who have access to and use school libraries are more likely to hold positive opinions on reading – they are twice as likely as non-users of libraries to say they enjoy reading. Also non-users were three times as likely to say that reading was boring.

Researchers have also found that spending £100 per primary school pupil on books has a greater impact on average test scores across English, maths and science than the same amount spent on ICT or staffing (Open University/Liverpool John Moores/Liverpool Hope University). According to statistics from Booktrust, 61 per cent of primary schools spent less than £10 per pupil per academic year on library books. In fact Britain spends less money on books in secondary schools than any other developed country.

Statistics from last year show that 1 in 4 children cannot read well by the time they leave primary school, and it’s increasingly evident in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. For these children in particular, school libraries are their only access to books.

There is still no data available on the number of school libraries, particularly in primary schools, nor of numbers of librarians or expert staff (although scant data has emerged that between 2012-2014 280 school librarians were cut from the system); meanwhile the number of school library services (council run bodies who provide expertise and resources to schools on children’s books) continues to dwindle. A 2007 Booktrust survey showed that two thirds of primary schools who did have libraries did not staff them with a librarian, library assistant nor a teacher. It’s important not just to have a stack of books, but to have a trained expert who can disseminate information gathering to the children, who can recommend the right sorts of books, and can demonstrate how important reading and love for reading is.

There’s a great deal more to being a school librarian than tidying shelves. Turnover of stock, preparing welcoming library displays, book competitions, involvement in the wider book community, author visits, recommendations, repairing broken books, replacing lost books, advising the school on books for use in the classroom and topic work, explaining how research is done – how information can be sifted and gathered, providing a safe haven in the school – a quiet contemplative place to study, showing love for reading by example, knowing the children’s book market and the range of titles available, reading with the children, leading book discussions….

Back in 2011 there was a campaign from the National Literacy Trust to promote school libraries and a plea to stop school libraries services from closing, as without a qualified librarian or expert in children’s books, the SLS was some schools only option. Despite this, it is still not a requirement of OFSTED to consider libraries in their reports. School librarian Caroline Roche said that on Ofsted inspections librarians need to “jump up and down saying: Look at me.”

If the government wanted to eradicate illiteracy, or even just promote reading for pleasure, all our schools should be centres of excellence for reading; it should be as important for a child to have a school librarian as a school teacher. And it would also take some of the burden from those teachers – who wouldn’t have to compensate by also attempting to be experts in children’s literature and information services, but have, on hand, an expert of their own.

Yet it doesn’t seem as if progress has been made. I can’t find data on which schools have staffed libraries. Anecdotal stories tell me that librarians are a dying breed. And we cannot rely on volunteers. Well-meaning grandparents can’t fill the gap of an expert. Charity book donations may stock a school library full with Enid Blytons or Roald Dahl books, but it’s time we taught our children there’s a book out there to suit everyone, and a welcoming person on hand to help them find it and love it. Maybe if we gave more of our school children access to and advice on books, we wouldn’t need to be building all those prisons, complete with their own libraries.

 

 

Poetry: It Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

Lend a Handstars in jarsWerewolf Club Rules

So it’s one thing buying your children fiction or non-fiction. But how about poetry? Have you ever bought your children a poetry book? Recited poetry to them? You definitely have, but you probably don’t know it. When you told your baby a nursery rhyme you were reciting poetry. When you bought them a picture book, you were buying them poetry. I bet The Snail and the Whale would look and most importantly, sound great written out as a poem without the pictures (sorry Axel Scheffler).

Poetry has had a bad reputation. It’s often labelled as boring, reflected in our recollections of poring over the Romantic Poets at school and trying to extract meaning in each word, each line. But in today’s age, we should be embracing poetry. Is expressing ourselves in a 140 character tweet that different from expressing an opinion in a haiku? Is a poem of rhyming couplets any different from a rap song? In the same way we disregard rules of grammar and syntax in text messages, poets do the same with poetry. E. E.  Cummings didn’t bother with capital letters at all. In fact, by using poetry as a means of expressing emotion, we can let children strip away all the rules and regulations of writing, and concentrate on the pure emotion, expression, opinion and feelings within the language. For children who struggle to read a large amount of text, the jumble and randomness of poetry can be hugely appealing. They can interpret and describe what they see and hear and feel in an artistic way rather like drawing, but using words instead; a mood board of words.

Lend a Hand

Lend a Hand by John Frank, illustrated by London Ladd
This landed on my desk a while ago; a large hardback with full page illustrations and small quiet poems alongside. It exudes a calm even from the cover; the illustrations are unusual for a children’s book – they are portraits of ordinary people doing ordinary things in acrylic paints, realistic and fairly muted in colour, yet they suit the poems in this collection. Each poem depicts an individual making a difference to their community, from the child planting trees in her street and the child clearing rubbish from a communal stream, to the child who helps another at P.E instead of laughing, and the child who befriends a lonely elderly gentleman. John Frank has not only captured the magic of these small incidental acts of kindness, but also the different points of view. The child collecting rubbish remarks that she didn’t make the mess – perhaps someone else should be tidying it not her – the child who watches the rest of the class nearly fall over with laughter at the ‘klutz’ in PE. I particularly liked the poem called ‘No Charge’, which shows how one good deed deserves another. There are other excellent ideas hidden within the poems – in ‘No Bounds’, the multiplication tables suddenly make sense to a child when she spends time quilting with her grandmother.
Although highly American in language and style, I think these poems are particularly plaintive and appeal to a wide audience. The illustrations show a good diversity too. Ages 6+. You can buy a copy here or see the Amazon sidebar.

stars in jars

Stars in Jars by Chrissie Gittins
A book which I suppose is what you imagine when you think of a collection of children’s poetry. Silly poems, heartfelt poems, school poems, worry poems, poems about everyday things and about fantastical imaginings. It’s perfect for showing children how poetry can stretch the boundaries of our language and grammar, can mix vocabulary – can use the space on the page to define the poem. These are poems to get lost in. Ones that I particularly like include ‘Me, Myself, and I’, which does rhyme, although not many in the collection do, and points out the importance of self in simple, clear repetitive language. There is much poignancy in ‘The Way He Used to Be’ about watching your sibling grow up and be at a slight distance from you; as well as the very simple ‘Three’ about three best friends. It’s a great little riddle and lesson to learn. My favourite is ‘Lullaby’, which implores the child to pack away their worries, or concerns or frustrations and embrace the night as tomorrow is another day. It’s told beautifully, with wonderful imagery playing with childhood illusions of the ‘cheesy moon’ and preoccupations with homework and fights, but is a grown-up way to approach bedtime thoughts. The whole collection contains silly poems too, but the ones with truisms stand out. One to be treasured and dipped into again and again. Chrissie Gittins is no stranger to poetry, having been shortlisted for the CLPE Poetry Awards on more than one occasion, and working with the BBC many times.You can buy it here, or on the Amazon sidebar.

Werewolf Club Rules

Werewolf Club Rules, poems by Joseph Coelho
A scintillating collection of poems about the primary school environment, and also about language and writing. These may be simple in tone, but they demand to be spoken. Joseph Coelho is a performance poet, and it shows in his writing. From ‘Onomatopoeia’, exemplifying that words that sound sounds need to be spoken, to ‘Skateboarding’, where the rhythm of the poem belies the speed and force of the skateboard, the words Joseph uses can almost be tasted in the mouth – rolling around on the tongue like taste explosions. Many are told from a child’s point of view, which makes them all the more appealing to the age group – from observations about teachers to the taste and feel of a jam tart. Like Chrissie Gittins, there is some playfulness with the space on the page, but it’s mainly the language in this collection that pulls it above the rest. Not only does Joseph explore vocabulary within classroom depictions –his description of the teacher Miss Flotsam and her seeming life experience:
“Miss Flotsam had climbed peaks
circled by vultures,
waded rivers with unseen bottoms,”
but he also uses language to explore language itself in ‘Collective Pool Nouns’:
“A school of pools
a loud of bubbles
A soak of splashes’.
My favourites were ‘If All the World Were Paper’, which cleverly explores wrapping a baby sister in bubble wrap and smoothing out the creases of a grandfather, and the stunning and unusual imagery of a piece of artwork in ‘Make it bigger, Eileen.’ This has been shortlisted for the CLPE 2015 Poetry Award. You can buy it here, or on the Amazon sidebar.

Towards the end of the summer I’ll revisit poetry, as I’ve just been sent the most powerful young teen book I’ve read for a while – and it’s all in verse. I can’t wait to tell you about it. In the meantime, you can see that from the very young to teen, poetry is a great way into story and narrative.