Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Reading by Right (Edited by Joy Court) reviewed by Dawn Finch

Literacy is a fundamental human right and recently has been publicly declared so in a number of high-profile international declarations, so why are we still not quite hitting our targets? This, and many other issues, are superbly covered in this new book identifying the barriers to successful development of children as readers.

Editor Joy Court is well known in the world of libraries and children’s reading thanks to her tireless work in the field. She is a familiar face on national steering and strategy groups for reading, and is a great champion for both school and public libraries. This new book of reading strategies has been edited by Court, and she also has a significant contribution to the content. Inside you can find strategies for encouraging reluctant readers and those with specific difficulties, as well as methods of promoting the joy of reading and supporting reading for pleasure. It also contains a huge amount of robust evidence and references many international studies relating to children’s reading.

The book is broken down into chapters, each one written by a different expert from the field of children’s reading. The contributors list is a gathering of people representing the gold standard of work in the field of children's literacy, and each person has written a chapter covering their specific area of expertise. Here you can find chapters from (among others) Wendy Cooling, Dr Rose Brock, Jake Hope, Yeejoo Lim, Amy McKay, Alexandra Strick and Mervi Heikkila – contributions from all over the world making up a wide range of approaches. All of the chapters make for fascinating reading, and each one is well supported with references to robust research and evidence.

This book is a great read (no pun intended!), but it is far more than that. This is an essential toolkit for anyone working with children’s reading. Alongside the research there are many practical ideas for parents, librarians and teachers to take reading forward. Carrying this book around is the equivalent of having a vast library of information at your fingertips, curated by some of the finest librarians and experts. Personally I consider the index a thing of great beauty and the references and appendices are a wonderful resource on their own.

I won’t lie to you; this is not a cheap book. At £55 (£44 for CILIP members) I know that most of us will feel a little faint at the price, however this is due to the huge cost of putting together an academic book like this. Many of us advise schools and educational establishments on how to better support reading, and I would suggest that you add this to your list of suggested resources. If every school had a copy of this book, and referred to it and used it to guide their reading strategies, we would see a speedy rise in literacy levels. But, as we all know, it’s not all about levels and education, this book strongly supports the joy of reading, and the love of books. Inside the pages I was delighted to find much to support reading for pleasure and to creating in young readers a life-long love of books and reading.

I’ll end this review with a quote from for children's Laureate, Chris Riddell, written for the foreword of the book.

“Reading for pleasure is the lamp post in the wood. Any librarian who has matched a child to a book, any teacher who reads aloud to their class at the end of the day, and parent who shared a book at bedtime with a son or daughter knows this. Turn the key in the lock, open the door, step inside and brush through the old fur coats. Keep going and you’ll find the lamp post in the wood. Keep going and you’ll find a lifetime of insight and empathy.” 

Reviewed by Dawn Finch, children's author and librarian, reading and children's book professional. Former President CILIP, member of the Society of Authors' Children's Writers and Illustrators Committee


Saturday, 12 August 2017

Stomp School by Jeff Norton - Illustrated by Leo Antolini - reviewed by Damian Harvey

How do little monsters learn to be good little monsters? They go to 'Stomp School' of course...

Rikki, the little kaiju (ky-joo) - from the Japanese: 'A strange beast' - loves building things with his bricks. When we first meet Rikki, he's just putting the finishing touches to his 'biggest, best city ever', and he can't wait to show his daddy. Unfortunately for Rikki, his little brother, Torik wants to play too - and we all know what monsters do to cities. Before Rikki has chance to stop him, Torik sends building bricks flying everywhere as he stomps, crushes and smashes the city to pieces. Torik has a great time, but Rikki isn't happy at all and stomps his foot on the floor.

On hearing this big stomp, Dad realises that it's time for Rikki to go to stomp school where he will get to play and interact with other little monsters.

Rikki feels nervous on his first day at Stomp School but he soon fits in with the other little kaiju and has them excitedly building a huge city together with all of the building blocks. As soon as they've finished of course, the other little monsters want to knock it down. Once again, Rikki is frustrated that he won't be able to show Dad what he's built and stomps his foot. Their teacher congratulates Rikki on his stomping but tells them that before they stomp, it's time to paint so that they can all show their parents what they have built. Rikki has lots of fun painting but when he's finished that quiet activity he's ready for a monster rampage and leads his new friends as they smash and crash the city together.

This picture book, written by Jeff Norton and illustrated by Leo Antolini is bold, bright, lots of fun and is sure to appeal to little monsters everywhere. A couple of cutaway pages, peep-through holes and a large fold out page add extra interest for young children, and they will love the different monsters - all of which have their own personal traits (nicely detailed on the title page).


Tuesday, 8 August 2017

As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

I read As Brave As You some time ago, yet the characters — three dimensional, complicated and memorable — are still very vivid in my mind. This middle grade contemporary novel tells the story of two African-American brothers, 11 year old Genie and his elder brother, Ernie, who spend the summer with their estranged grandparents in rural Virginia while their parents have time alone to work on their marital problems. 
We see the story through Genie’s eyes, a thoughtful boy and a worrywart. As Genie tries to understand the world, he writes down a barrage of questions in his notebook. However, without regular access to the Internet, many questions go unanswered. And although he is eager to please, Genie keeps making mistakes that haunt him. He accidentally breaks the wheel of a cherished toy truck that belonged to his late Uncle Wood. He has an even worse mishap in his Grandpop’s ‘nunya bidness’ room. How is he going to put things right? 

As well as experiencing these anxieties, Genie also eases into rural life. He tastes homemade grits and too-sweet tea. Grandma is strict and expects her grandsons to help with chores, learning to pick peas from her garden, then sell them at market. The boys also develop a secret, rather unorthodox poop-flinging method to clean up after the dog, Samantha. 

Many of the characters are quirky. Ernie, a cool dude, always wears shades and seeks to impress the ladies, yet poignantly struggles with the proposed rite of passage on his fourteenth birthday. We also meet a hypochondriac mother, a dentist who sells ‘celebrity teeth’ at the local market, Crab who goes hunting in the woods for hours yet fails to hit a creature. However, Grandpop is perhaps the most complicated of all. A proud blind man who carries a gun, he is self-sufficient yet vulnerable, full of contradictions and love for his family. It is the developing relationship between Grandpop and Genie that beats as the heart of the story. 

Despite the lack of reliable access to Google, some deep questions that Genie raises are answered over the course of the summer. Why had he not met Grandpop before this trip? Why did no-one tell Genie that Grandpop was blind? Why does Dad not want to talk to his own father? What is the untold story about Uncle Wood? And what happened, long ago, that forged his grandparents’ characters? We are gently reminded of the injustices of the African-American past that still reach out and affect the present. And as Genie learns about bravery in its many forms, he also finds bravery within himself.


Friday, 4 August 2017

Walking Mountain, by Joan Lennon - reviewed by Sue Purkiss

People often ask where writers get their ideas from - and it's a question I find quite easy to answer. I don't have that many ideas, but the ones I do have really grip me, and I always know just where they came from.

But with a book like this, I really do want to ask exactly that same question - because it's so full of inventiveness and imagination. The characters, concepts and landscapes come fresh-minted: they feel absolutely new - a bit like Philip Reeve's, I suppose; but I can't think of many other books they remind me of. It's fantasy, yes, and there are lots of other fantasy books, but they often follow recognisable pathways - they're sword-and-sandal epics, for instance, or paranormal romances, or urban dystopias. I suppose there's a touch of the dystopias about this, but the feel of it is much warmer and more magical than that genre usually is.

It begins with a group of Drivers - sort of celestial shepherds - who's job is to herd meteors. But one day, they have a party, as you do, and when they check the herd afterwards, they realise that one meteor is missing. Three of the Drivers volunteer to go in search of it and retrieve it before it can do any harm. But they're too late. They can only watch as it hurtles into a blue-green planet, which disappears under a coat of grey ash from a hundred volcanoes. Life on this planet will be changed, changed utterly, and all the three drivers can do is try to ameliorate the damage that has been done.

Fast-forward several aeons, and we meet Pema and Singay, a boy and girl who live near the Walking Mountain. This mountain has hitherto regularly moved, revealing in its wake an area of fertile ground which enables the people to live. But lately, the mountain has been behaving out of character. Singay has been having strange dreams of catastrophic rock falls and earthquakes - and then the two children hear, impossibly, the sound of crying from inside the mountain...

What follows is a quest to save the earth from destruction, and a journey which tests Pema and Singay to the utmost. Warning - it's really, really sad at the end, but then Joan Lennon whisks up a heart-warming resolution, just when you think she can't possibly.

It's beautifully written. It's warm, funny, sad, happy - and did I mention that it's incredibly inventive? Do read it. You won't regret it.


Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge by Philip Ardagh, illustrated by Jamie Littler – review by Lynda Waterhouse

I am always surprised by the many ways that books find you and lure you into their secret worlds. This beauty came into my hands after I had read about it in a National Trust magazine. My excuse for hunting it down was for ‘research purposes’ as I was preparing for some creative writing sessions at Windsor Castle and St George’s Chapel. I already had Ewart Oakeshott’s A Knight and his Castle and several academic tomes but what I needed was a book that combined historical facts, a great character, brilliant illustrations, a cracking storyline, pathos and humour. I needed to find the Secret Diary of John Drawbridge!
John has just moved to Widemoat Castle to begin his training to become a knight. He has to start at the bottom and on his bottom ‘because training to be a page one getteth knocked over quite a bit.’ Not many people could write at the time so John is composing this diary in his head and we are all invited to become mind readers which doesn’t happen every day.
Unfortunately John’s annoying big brother, Hubert, is also at the castle. There are two other pages in training, Martin and Cadwallon, and there is Doug who ‘smelleth much of dog’ as he lives in the kennels.
This books is full of fascinating facts about the life of a page in a castle. The diary format works well as does the use of footnotes. Jamie Littler’s illustrations are a delight.  
John’s life is in danger as he races to uncover a plot to attack the castle – if you want to solve the mystery as well as learn plenty of fascinating facts whilst having a good laugh then you need to read this book.
There is now a copy lurking on a bookshelf inside Windsor Castle and I am looking forward to reading the other books in the Secret Diary series.
ISBN 978-085763-901-1

Published by Nosy Crow in partnership with the National Trust


Wednesday, 26 July 2017

MAYBE A FOX by Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull

I wasn't sure if I would like this book. I feared it might be sentimental, with its themes of death and grieving combined with animal spirits. It does balance on the edge - and personally I would have cut the last chapter altogether. But what I loved about the story was its immersion in the imaginative world of children.

Place is all-important here: the deep mysterious woods of snowy Vermont. Sisters Sylvie and Jules, aged twelve and eleven, live in these woods with their father; their mother died some years ago. Sylvie loves to run; but there's something driven about her running, her desire to go ever faster. Jules collects rocks - she's a budding geologist - and some of these rocks are special: the children call them 'wish rocks'. There are neighbours: Mrs Harless, with her local stories and legends; the girls' school friend, Sam; and Sam's grown-up brother, Elk, who fought in Afghanistan and lost his best friend there. The woods are also home to animals: foxes, bears, and perhaps the mysterious catamount that Sam longs to see.

The girls' father has given them rules they call the 'Do Nots' - the most important being 'Do not ever go to the Slip.' The Slip is a place where the river vanishes suddenly into a deep pool in an underground cave, re-emerging some distance away. Nothing that falls into the Slip can escape. The sisters - despite the 'Do Nots' - often take wish rocks to the Slip and throw them in. Behind all their games is a longing for things to be as they were, and for them to be reunited with their lost mother.

Running parallel to the story of Jules and Sylvie is that of Senna, a fox cub possessed of a mysterious empathy with humans, whose fate is entwined with Sylvie's. Senna, driven by her intuition, roams the woods in search of the human whose destiny she shares.

This is a magical story with a setting reminiscent of the snowy forests of European fairy tales. The characters, however, are real and modern, and the children's quarrels and obsessions ring true, giving a solid reality to semi-magical events. Its themes of loss and longing are universal, and the link with animals will have undoubted appeal for children.

Published by Walker Books, 2016.


Saturday, 22 July 2017

SUPERDAD'S DAY OFF by Phil Earle. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Stanley's dad's day job is being a superhero. The kind that saves cities from crashing comets, captures audacious burglars red-handed and rescues pussycats from trees.

Stanley is very proud of his dad, of course. Except that once in a while, he wishes they could have a NORMAL day together, doing ordinary things like going on the swings in the park, buying ice cream etc.

When Stanley notices that his superdad is supertired, he is determined to make sure he has a restful day off.  The rest of the world, though, has other plans for Superdad and soon poor Stanley is run ragged tackling disasters so Dad doesn't have to. It's a mighty ask, but in the process Stanley discovers his true potential...

Part of Barrington Stoke's Little Gems series, this is a quirky and excellent quick read that will enthral both boys and girls. Hull based author Phil Earle's writing  zips along at a superhero pace and the plot will leave you breathless. Steve May's full colour illustrations take their cue from 1970s and 80s comics. They add panache to the whole book and I can imagine children could spend days trying to emulate his style.

The ending hints at a sequel. Hope it surfaces soon. A joy of a book.

Published by Barrington Stoke, 2017

My latest book MARK OF THE CYCLOPS is out now. Visit my website at Follow me on twitter @spirotta