Tag Archive for Farrant Natasha

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.

Fairy Tales for a New Generation

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about fairy tales. In fact, I probably have a fairy tales blog every six months or so. Why is that? Are fairy tales so important? Yes, they are. People have written whole theses on the topic…but essentially fairy tales work because they give us a view of how life is within a set structure. Within this fantasy framework we can formulate dreams and understand our deep-set fears.

Publishers aren’t just reprinting old fairy tales in new editions though. With a sense of our own changing societal rules and preoccupations, they are releasing anthologies that aim to subvert the status quo, or shine a light on forgotten tales, and writers are retelling tales with modern twists.

hansel and gretel
Hansel and Gretel by Bethan Woollvin
is my favourite fairy tale this autumn. With a subversive grin at parents everywhere, Woollvin neatly turns this fairy tale on its head by making the children the villains. In this retelling, Hansel and Gretel are a little entitled, helping themselves to sweets from a strange house. Woollvin pushes this idea, subverting who is good and who is bad, as the children’s naughty antics test the witch, even though she tries so hard to be a good hostess. In the end, of course, even the nicest witch can be driven too far. No stranger to subverting fairy tales, with past titles including Little Red and Rapunzel, Woollvin’s clever two tone illustrations highlight the pertinent points of the story, zooming in and out as if the reader is operating a film camera. Witty and wise. You can buy it here.

secret of the tattered shoes
The Secret of the Tattered Shoes by Jackie Morris and Ehsan Abdollahi
A completely different take on the traditional fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses is illustrated with great intricacy in this slightly melancholic version. Morris plays with themes of love and redemption in her poetic retelling, her soldier ‘a hollow shadow of a man’, her princess with ‘a smile like frost on glass’. Abdollahi matches the depths of Morris’s story with fully detailed illustrations, turning the characters into complex puppets, and inserting golden headpieces that illuminate the page, fruit that tempts the reader to try to pluck it, and a weariness in the eyes of her tired dancers. A supreme and surprising twist makes this a complex but worthy new interpretation. You can buy it here.

reading beauty
Reading Beauty by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt
My last fairy tale picture book retells Sleeping Beauty with a rhyme, transplants it to the future, and gives it a feminist feel. Lex is a booklover, but her parents remove all her books when she is 15. No, not because they feel she’s a fully fluent reader and doesn’t need more help, but because a nasty fairy cursed Lex with the promise of a paper cut, which would put her in a death-like sleep. Of course, a bookworm such as Lex uses knowledge from her books to overcome the curse, and outwit the nasty fairy, who it turns out, has a reason for her evil-nature. A fun, futuristic, humorous retelling with bold, bright, and busy illustrations. You can buy it here.

eight princesses
Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror by Natasha Farrant, illustrated by Lydia Corry
More modernity in this collection of original short stories, which takes eight princesses and gives them modern cause. There’s the princess who saves natural landscapes from urban developers, the princess who discovers being kind trumps being royal. Bookended with the tale of an enchantress and a magic mirror who long to discover what princesses are really like, the stories are told in the rhythm of traditional fairy tales, but with a firmly modern outlook, as the princesses are revealed not to care so much about their looks and future husbands, but more about being brave and determined and independent (even those who do marry). Illustrated in colour throughout by Lydia Corry, each tale feels quite distinct from the next, and yet form a cohesive whole. Perhaps a Christmas gift for Meghan? Age 8+. You can buy it here.

lost fairy tales

The Lost Fairytales, retold by Isabel Otter, illustrated by Ana Sender
It seems not all traditional fairy tales need to be reimagined or repurposed for our new sensibility. This anthology gathers tales from around the world, all of which feature heroines who demonstrate bravery and wit and none of whom needs rescuing. Instead, Isabel Otter has rescued the stories from their precarious position outside the canon of traditional tales. A story map at the beginning helpfully shows where the tales have been rescued from – so we find out that Sacred Waterfall, a fairy tale about Bending Willow, who won’t bend to her fate but shows persistence in what she believes to be right, is a tribal story hailing from what we now know as Canada, and The Shining Dragons, the tale of a fearsome orphan called Thakane who shows both immense bravery and also huge cunning, comes from Lesotho. Illustrated throughout with warmth and spirit, and with sensitivity to the region from which the stories come, this is an intelligent collection. More information in the back about story origin and thinking points. Age 7+. You can buy it here.

forgotten fairy tales
Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls with a foreword by Kate Pankhurst
Although I have qualms with books that advertise ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ on the cover, lest it should be off-putting to others, this collection also aims to firmly reclaim fairy tales with a feminist agenda. These traditional tales haven’t been retold with a twist, but rather are retold as they were, with modern language but the same storyline in order to show that traditional fairy tales featuring brave, determined women as protagonists did, and always have, existed. As attitudes change, so do the stories being told. This anthology sets text against a plain white background, with simple prose, and colour illustrations dotted throughout. The tales feel familiar – goblins, giants and castles, sisterly love and happy-ever-after marriages, but all with strong, agenda-setting female protagonists. For age 7+. You can buy it here.

folk tales for bold girls
Folk Tales for Bold Girls by Fiona Collins, illustrations by Ed Fisher

Lastly, something a little different, in that this is a compact book that concentrates far more on the text – black and white illustrations heading up chapters only. But the illustrations do something clever – they transpose real bold girls (from photographs) into the folk characters (in illustration).

The text too is clever, simply told, and yet with a distinctive rhythm to its plainness. There is no didacticism – the tales are for the reader to disseminate. Tales from other countries abound, even some familiar tales such as Red Riding Hood retold as a non-traditional version. Collins lists her sources at the back, and this too is fascinating, with an emphasis on the reader looking up further tales and retelling them themselves. A sort of pass-it-on telling, which is the very essence of folk and fairy tales anyway. And of course they all feature bold girl protagonists. For age 7+. You can buy it here.

Time for Jas by Natasha Farrant

time-for-jas

The fourth and last in the Bluebell Gadsby series, and for anyone who has lived and loved the cavorting adventures of Bluebell and her clan of siblings and hangers-on, this read will be tinged with sadness. Like a slightly older Pea from the Pea books by Susie Day, and a younger and more modern Cazelet clan, the Gadsbys are one of those storybook messy families, with an abundance of siblings and extra add-on quirky characters who interact with the main family and help them to learn and to grow.

Bluebell Gadsby burst onto the scene in 2013 in After Iris, a tale that joined the family a few years after Bluebell’s twin, Iris, had died in an accident. Despite the graveness of the subject matter, it was, and still remains, a light and easy read – a constant flow of emotion and busyness that is the modern family.

So now to 2016, and the arrival of Time for Jas. As with the others in the series, Bluebell tells the continuation of her family dramas partly through normal narrative and partly using video transcript – Bluebell having a penchant and flair for filming and documenting things around her. This dual style adds a great deal to the drama – at moments, allowing the reader to step back and see the setting from a wider viewpoint. But it also gives Bluebell (our protagonist) the unique opportunity to see things from a slightly distilled viewpoint, distancing herself from the action of the story, and perhaps editing things to a perspective she prefers, or zooming in and seeing a particular episode in close-up detail. It’s a powerful and clever way to tell a story in a book for young people.

The title, Time for Jas, suggests that the action has moved to focus upon little sister Jas, the only sibling still at primary school. Actually although it does pinpoint Jas’s struggle to find friends and her experience of bullying, the Gadsby family are featured in full; highlighting Flora’s escape to drama school, Twig’s new found hobby of violent team sports, and Bluebell’s own discovery of an immensely talented, yet mysteriously anonymous, chalk artist on her doorstop.

The whirl of the family continues around Bluebell, but it is her voice that pulls in the reader. She is all at once child, protector, friend, sibling, and as with all children of that age, struggling to find her place in the world and make things right, all with a touch of sadness, humour, and teen zest:

“I have tried to help. I have tried to be brave and ambitious and come up with the sort of solution you would get in a film, where whole communities are saved by pulling together and putting aside their differences, and audiences come out feeling that anything is possible, but now I have run out of ideas and it is very very sad.”

Farrant is astute at weaving the various characters’ dramas in with each other, meshing the family as a whole, whilst still retaining everyone’s own private happenings and giving an insight into what they might be feeling. The seamless flitting around characters explores both the busyness of life and situations in which people intersect.

But most particularly, I loved the friendship between Bluebell and her best friend, Dodi. They have a strong history, which gives them a strong friendship, but also a realistic relationship because it doesn’t always run smoothly. Bluebell’s observation that people don’t really change, even after you’ve pointed out to them what isn’t working (in this case, bossiness) is a robust admission; a clear view of Bluebell’s character as well as Dodi’s.

The book is set in an identifiable part of London, with a contemporary style that features the texts and emails and all the essentials of a modern teen life and the complications that technology brings, so it feels grounded, with tangible references. Yet the story also occupies the space of large middle-class families in storybooks who are slightly eccentric – the parents are nicely tucked away, and yet there is family time in the evenings of sitting en famille around the piano, rather than watching television.

Farrant’s gift for storytelling is evident in her ability to weave themes in the books too; here art, identity, ambition. And of course the ever-present death in a family that casts a long shadow of grief across the entire landscape.

A great series, rivalling McKay’s Casson family for a place on the bookshelves, this is a wonderful series for tweens and young teens. And it has to be mentioned, the new covers and the coloured edges look rather stunning.

after-irisflora-in-loveall-about-pumpkin

You can buy the last Bluebell Gadsby diary here.