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Spring Picture Book Round-Up

mole in a black and white hole
Seldom has a picture book quite embraced how I feel right now as
Mole in a Black and White Hole by Tereza Sediva. With a die-cut hole on the cover into the mole’s black and white house, it feels like the perfect lockdown book. Mole is first seen deep underground in his hole with a television and a book for comfort. He’s clearly been in lockdown for as long as I have. His consolation is a bright pink chandelier – represented here by a vivid neon orange blob – representative in fact of a root vegetable, plugging the gap between the outside world and Mole’s hole.

During the course of the book, the ‘chandelier’ tells Mole of all the wondrous (neon and brightly colourful) happenings above ground, until one day, the ‘chandelier’ disappears. Initially, it leaves a hole in Mole’s heart too, as he misses his friend and the world is blacker than ever, despite the sunbeam reaching through the gap. But then Mole ventures forth, and life becomes not so black and white.

This is a beautifully executed picture book – with Mole as the expressive centrepiece to a world that proves to be full of fascination, friendship, and of course colour. Readers will take enormous pleasure from the contrast between the world below and that above – cleverly using the centrefold horizontally to draw the difference – but also from the careful layering of colour images, which interweave and seem almost transparent in their rendering. A wonderful spring awakening, and a cheerful reminder for the light at the end of every tunnel. Available for pre-order here but not published until June, I hope I can leave my black hole before then. In the meantime…

what about me said the flea
Children have found plenty of inspiration for writing during lockdowns, despite the world essentially shrinking on them, and What About Me? Said the Flea by Lily Murray and Richard Merritt is a great antidote to the idea that stories have to be about huge, powerful forces. Sometimes, the most exquisite inspiration is in the small everyday things.

This really is one of the most exciting and endearing picture books I’ve seen in some time. It happily marries text and pictures, with the pictures expressing beyond the story most eloquently. Sophia is trying to write a story, and looking for inspiration. All sorts of things present themselves as perfect protagonists: a bear (all good books have one apparently), a lion, a unicorn, a dinosaur, but there is also one who is jumping and squeaking to make itself heard and Sophia just can’t see it. Working on both a literal and metaphorical level, this is a great idea for a picture book , allowing readers to explore the ideas of inspiration, creativity, inclusion and so much more, but it is also just extraordinarily fun.

The pictures give the game away – at first the flea is fairly well hidden, but eventually the illustrator illuminates the flea with flashing lights and arrows. And Sophia still misses it! A clever reader will also see where the flea originated!

But the pictures do more than point out the flea – they give a real testament to each animal and its personality. The animals are shown in a whole helter-skelter of scenes, from a comedy stage to a swimming pool, the ocean, a boxing ring and more. Each is also imbued with a raft of humorous elements, including a bears’ picnic, and even Sophia’s desk itself (which gives more than a clue as to where inspiration comes from…anywhere!)

The ending is great fun. Poor flea. Although you’ll be delighted to hear that this author/illustrator pairing aren’t the first to focus on a flea. Samson the Mighty Flea by Angela McAllister and Nathan Reed would make a delightful companion book. There is a use to fleas after all. And What About Me? Said the Flea, available here, is a triumph.

luna loves art
Perhaps when children do go back to school, they’ll once again go on school trips. If not, then at least they can relive one in Luna Loves Art by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers. We first met Luna in Luna Loves Library Day but this picture book nicely captures a school trip to an art gallery with our exuberant, enthusiastic protagonist.

Luna is joyful to be in the art gallery, but classmate Finn doesn’t seem sure. In fact, he seems sad. Can Luna have an excellent day out, but also make Finn smile?

The illustrations here are observational and meticulously crafted – each child with their own unique personality, each person reacting differently to each painting in the art gallery, and cleverly, the paintings are all neat picture book reproductions of real art from Malevich’s Black Square to Moore’s sculpture to Henri Rousseau. Luna feels as if the sunflowers in the Van Gogh painting are alive because the painting is so thick – and the flowers burst out of the frame in Lumbers’ rendering. Luna warns Finn not to touch, and this is a wonderful evocation of the visceral quality of the paintings, as well as the very human reaction of Luna – wanting to do no wrong.

Not only is this a wonderful introduction to the power and beauty of art, and the excitement of a school trip (although both I and my test audience were very worried that the children in the story didn’t stop for lunch or a toilet break, key features of our own school trips), but it is also a lovely story of both family and friend dynamics.

The art installation page is glorious, but full marks to Luna’s teacher, who lets the class loose in the gift shop! You can buy your own gift here.

the perfect fit
Lastly, and by no means least – all four of these picture books are worth purchasing immediately – is The Perfect Fit by Naomi and James Jones. For the youngest children, beginning to make sense of the world and their place within it, and also beginning to recognise first shapes, colours and patterns, this is a pleasing story about a winsome triangle attempting to fit in with others.

Triangle has fun with the circles, but she doesn’t roll with them. She likes the squares but stacking is hard. So, she sets off to find others more like her. By the end, of course, she realises that being in a diverse group of shapes is actually the most fun.

The Jones pairing make a fabulous fit in this book, consolidating the ideas in both text and image, placing single sentences in a variety of spaces, slanting up and down or centred in the middle of the page, to fit with the images that tell the story too. And the images are simple – shapes coloured in primary and secondary colours, either coming together, or leaving white spaces between to explore what fits and what doesn’t.

Just as children make images from geometric shapes, so does the illustrator here. My children and I used to do this with felt shapes. Here, a boat is made from two squares, a simple black line, and a triangle sail. An ice cream is formed from a hexagon on top of an upside-down triangle, the flake drawn in simple black lines.

Of course, there are various underlying messages. We might be individual shapes, but we all want to come together as a group – it’s more fun. (From lockdown, we now know how much we are missing other people in all their shapes and sizes). But also, this is about inclusion. An array of shapes makes for a more diverse and interesting set of patterns. Four yellow triangles aren’t nearly as fun to play with as a green hexagon, a blue circle, a red square and a yellow triangle. Looking and acting the same aren’t always necessary.

But also, and more subliminally, is the message of a shared sense of purpose. The different shapes need to work together to collectively create a new shape, to form an image, to play.

This is a simply executed, yet positive and clever book. A narrative story running through, personifying a shape who’s lost their tribe, but then the welcoming spirit of other tribes, and the coming together of all. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Thames and Hudson, Buster Books, OUP, and Andersen Press for the review copies. 

Sylvia Bishop on Writing Settings

I’m delighted to host author Sylvia Bishop (The Bookshop Girl, The Secret of the Night Train) on the blog today. Bishop has been hosting writing workshops, and her session on Saturday is about settings, why some are captivating and transporting in those crucial childhood years.

44 tiny acrobats

Bishop certainly puts her teaching to practise. Her current junior fiction series, 44 Tiny, illustrated by Ashley King, focuses on the exquisitely quirky and captivating Betsy Bow-Linnet as she navigates life with her 44 tiny secrets. The second in the series, 44 Tiny Acrobats, published at the beginning of this month, takes its protagonist to the circus, a wondrous backdrop for a story, with scope for magic, stagecraft, animal antics, colourful costumes and so much more. But it is in exploring this from a child’s angle that one can begin to see what matters within each setting. 

Sylvia Bishop is excellent at climbing inside the mind of a child and expressing how they feel in the way they would express it. This is not necessarily a definable or known emotion to that child, but rather a series of sensations and gradual understandings. When Betsy has a particular experience at the circus, she wants to commit it to memory, but doesn’t quite know how to express herself. So she takes in the specifics: “the flag fluttered like that. The lights twinkled like that.” It is at once totally expressive and completely beautiful.

Here, Bishop explains how she writes her settings: 

I write for children because children are the best readers. I vividly remember the utter immersion, how perfectly content I could be to stay in bed all day with a book once it had hooked me; an experience of reading which is now rare and precious. And then, of course, there were the daydreams afterwards about the world of the book, long after it was finished. 

This is the power of a good setting in children’s literature. It becomes a world that feels very real, and takes on a life of its own. But what gives some settings this power? 

Of course, every child is different. But there are certain overwhelming commonalities in how we relate to the space around us at different ages, and learning to remember and tap into this is hugely useful for successful children’s settings. There is a reason for the cupboard under the stairs and the Wardrobe; the wood between the worlds and the Place Inbetween; Sara’s attic and the little house in its wide-open prairie. I think it is a myth that children don’t want to read descriptions of setting. We just need to remember what’s interesting. 

And this doesn’t only apply when you’re writing Narnia. Some stories must take place at home, or at school; but the most ordinary house is a world full of worlds. The many corners of home are a whole kingdom in early middle childhood, and we can tap into the agency and ownership children have in that space. 

44 tiny secrets

The first book in my series 44 Tiny…, 44 Tiny Secrets, is mostly set at home, with Betsy Bow Linnet and her 44 African pygmy mice. But she has her own spaces within it… 

Betsy picked up the letter, and was about to open it, but it felt wrong to tear it open in the hall. This was clearly a special sort of letter. So she ran up the stairs to the top floor and noodled her legs through the spindles of the banister. Here, in her favourite spot, she opened the envelope. 

We return to her home in 44 Tiny Acrobats. She knows her house with the thoroughness of someone who has spent hours playing games in it, in the years when hours still feel like eons. She has paid attention to its sounds… 

The Bow-Linnet’s house was full of creaks and groans and surprising thuds 

… and has her own routes through it… 

She tore down the alley behind the gardens of her road, climbed the tree outside her own garden, dropped on to the top of Grandad’s shed and down via another tree on to the grass, and raced over to the kitchen window.  

She had learned as a small girl how to lever this open from the outside. It occurred to her halfway through the window that she was not as small any more, but it was too late for that now; she shoved and pushed and wriggled, and at last landed in the kitchen sink. 

In Acrobats, however, Betsy has to choose between home and the circus. For this to work, the circus has to have the right kind of allure – something that could convincingly tug at her heart strings. It doesn’t take much description to put across the feeling of a performer’s trailer: 

Around her was a semi-circle of trailers. They had brightly lit windows with checked curtains, and doors painted with beautiful pictures. These were the performers’ homes. 

… and then: 

Betsy said goodbye and hurried out of the trailer. The rain had begun again, and the brightly lit trailers looked cosy; you could hear talk and laughter coming from inside them, snug and content.  

Being cosy and being on the road and having your own small, personal kingdom? I know I would have gone to sleep that night dreaming of circus trailers. And it’s not just me: those are three important aspects of game-playing and fantasies in middle childhood, across cultures. Writing settings well for junior fiction is less about stunning people with the poetic quality of your writing, and more about knowing which settings will work – what will prompt your child reader to willingly and delightedly do all the imaginative filling-in for you, from the sketchiest description. 

And to know that, we have some remembering to do. 

Sylvia’s workshop on ‘Junior Fiction: Settings that Stick’ has sold out, but do hit the wait list button: she’ll run another if there’s interest. And you can always sign up for the rerun of her sold-out Character workshop, on 27th February. Details for all workshops can be found at www.speakeasy.com/speaker/sylvia-bishop 

44 Tiny Acrobats, along with the prequel, 44 Tiny Secrets! are available here, and at all other bookshops. 

44 Tiny Acrobats tells the story of when Fry’s Circus pitches its tent opposite Betsy’s house, and despite her Grandad’s reluctance because of his memories of Grandma’s circus days, Betsy can’t resist the lure of the circus. 

But when Betsy’s 44 pygmy mice escape from their box during the show, she has no choice but to join them on stage. And suddenly, running away with the circus seems like the only thing left to do. 

Illustrated in two-tone colour, this sequel beautifully encompasses all the fun of the circus, whilst also exploring how the past has a habit of catching up with you. Captivating and delightful. 

With thanks to Sylvia Bishop and Little Tiger Press. 

Holocaust Memorial Day: Fiction for children

How do you teach primary school children about the Holocaust? Many years ago, I edited a large non-fiction title about the Holocaust for children aged eight and over, and each page carried an angst-ridden decision. Which photograph captures the truth and yet is appropriate for learning at that age? Which statistics to include? Which real-life stories? How to describe something so evil to children so young?

Recently, children’s authors have stepped up to this daunting task and produced some amazing titles that give context to the genocide, show truths without resorting to horror, and illuminate the very real emotions and scars of Holocaust survivors.

after the war
In the middle of last year, Tom Palmer, known for his books on football and history, published After the War with dyslexia specialist and reluctant reader publisher Barrington Stoke. Based on the true story of the Windemere Boys, it is a heartfelt and engaging piece of fiction that explores the emotions of survivors, whilst still carrying the boyishness and wonder that is a child’s exploration of the world.

Yossi and friends, Mordecai and Leo, arrive on the Calgarth Estate next to Lake Windermere after being liberated from Auschwitz. With the help of a multitude of kind adults, they try to rediscover joy for life and hope for the future. Palmer gently extricates the intricacies of their friendships, whilst also referencing Yossi’s past in Nazi-occupied Europe, and the terrible scars the boys carry with them. Palmer does a superb job of linking moments in the present to memories of an horrific past, be it the innocence of feathers falling from split pillows invoking memories of ash, to a synagogue service bringing up the scars of the Nazi terrors of book burning and desecration. But there is also the boyhood delight in simple present pleasures – a bicycle, a late summer storm, a bowl of tomato soup.  

And it is all written in an age-appropriate way. The emotions run deep whilst the language remains easy and accessible.

A few hundred children who survived the concentration camps were indeed brought to the Lake District after the war to ‘rehabilitate’ their lives, and Palmer uses their real stories to create a novel of his own. This is a phenomenally sensitive telling of events after the war, and the exploration of what it’s like to be a child in a strange country, without family or sometimes language, with a terrible loss and grief lying as an undercurrent to all the new things to which the child is exposed.  

It honours the memories of the survivors, whilst also showing that in the face of inhumanity, there is hope for the future. Friendship, courage, and goodness prevail. You can find teaching resources to go alongside the novel here and my interview with Tom Palmer about After the War here. For age 8+.

saving hanno

Saving Hanno by Miriam Halahmy, illustrations by Karin Littlewood
This gentle, yet occasionally heart-breaking book, is a welcome addition to Holocaust literature, as it is aimed at fairly young children and describes a child’s world disintegrating from their own perspective, with detail and emotion, and yet without resorting to shock tactics or hyperbole. It is also a gripping and pacey read.

Nine-year-old Rudi lives a typical German childhood, enjoying his mother’s cinnamon cookies, his close friendships, and school, until the Nazis start making rules prohibiting many facets of his life. As things become more dangerous, he is given the opportunity to go on the Kindertransport to England with his big sister Lotte, but has to leave his parents behind, and devastatingly, his dog Hanno. Amazingly, his parents arrange for Hanno to be smuggled to London too, but London is very different from what Rudi is used to. He is separated from his sister, and although reunited with Hanno, discovers that in London too, pets are in danger as the war intensifies. Halahmy has addressed this theme before in her book Emergency Zoo, but in the shorter Saving Hanno, Halahmy focuses in on the Kindertransport and the emotions facing a Jewish German boy during the war, and it is all the more effective for it. Halahmy explores Rudi’s loss and grief for his old life, as well as his new life experiences, and the small specific sadnesses and joys that accompany both.

The mix of Rudi’s gratefulness for his new circumstance, and yet uncertainty in the face of new customs, and warfare, are intense and yet delicately written, and entirely age-appropriate. A special book that will teach empathy and allow current readers to understand the devastation of Jewish children’s lives during the war.

An age isn’t specified by the publisher, but I would recommend for age seven plus. There is a glossary and note from the author at the end.

when the world was ours
A fantastic new addition to Holocaust literature for children is the newly published When the World Was Ours by Liz Kessler. My review of this book is featured in this month’s Books for Keeps, and you can read it here. The book is for children aged 11+.

With all Holocaust fiction, it’s worth making sure that parents and carers have a conversation around the context of the fiction.

With thanks to Otter-Barry books for the review copy of Saving Hanno, and thanks to Tom Palmer, who kindly let me read an early copy of After the War and voice my opinion.

27 January is #HolocaustMemorialDay, when we remember all those murdered during the Holocaust and more recent genocides. #HMD2021 #LightTheDarkness

Empathy Lab Book Collections

Did you know that empathy can be learned? In fact, only 10 per cent of our empathic ability is genetic, so there is huge scope to improve, and one way that we can think more about ‘we’ rather than about ‘me’ is through reading. And the earlier in life we do it, the better.

What is empathy? Well, quite simply, it’s the ability to see things from a different person’s point of view. This makes us kinder, more accepting, and helps us to advocate for a broader world view. All traits much needed in today’s times. And identifying with a character in a book and their emotions makes us more empathetic. We can learn empathy through reading.

For example, children can learn the consequences of ‘acting out’ through Horrid Henry, the strengths of exhibiting kindness through the actions of Miss Honey in Matilda, the courage and bravery of doing what’s right and standing up for your friends in The Boy at the Back of the Class. And we can turn what we read into acting for good.

The Empathy Lab, started in 2014, promotes an Empathy Day every year (June 10, 2021), but also promotes two empathy book collections each year, one for primary age children and one secondary. The aim of these books, as well as to entertain, is to promote empathy. They are specially chosen by a panel of expert judges to be books that encompass the following: they have great characterisation so that readers can really empathise with the characters; they challenge tribal thinking and enable the reader to see themselves as part of a community; they invoke key empathic skills; they address topical issues; and they provide an insight into others’ challenging life circumstances.

And here are the 2021 collections:

Empathy Collection

The books aim to not only provoke feelings of empathy, but also to spur the reader to social action. Reading also teaches us to listen, and to understand vocabulary about feelings. Forty-two percent of this year’s collection is from writers and illustrators from diverse backgrounds.

Free downloadable guides, with tips on how to use the books with children and young people in the home or learning settings, are available online for free at empathylab.uk/2021-read-for-empathy-collections.

Lockdown Home-School Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

What’s In a Number?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storytelling Specifically



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School in the Time of Corona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening and Looking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back To School (Remotely)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy schooling, and reading.