My height in books: a reading challenge for 2018

My challenge for the year ahead is to read my height in books.  Easy, some might say.  No-one has ever accused me of being tall so there’s no excuses, particularly as the pile of books – currently reaching just above my ankle – is deposited right outside my office at school, ready to invite a comment from the too-cool-for-school characters in Year 6.  ‘Is that all you’ve read?’ said one (‘More than you,’ I replied, with a smile. The smile was returned – seed planted and challenge accepted, I think).

Like all New Year resolutions the easy bit is starting with a bang; the hard bit is to avoid finishing with a whimper before the shortest month arrives.  So far, so good.  Here’s what I’ve read so far:

victoryVictory by Susan Cooper

A new discovery for me, Cooper’s books will be popping up more than once in the year ahead.  The beauty in this one is in the telling of the story – characters that absorb and feel alive and become part of life.  It brings together a girl in the present, recently moved to America against her will, and a boy, press-ganged in to service for Admiral Nelson.  The time shifts are handled skillfully and the depictions of Nelson and the naval battles are vivid and powerful.  A lovely read.

survivorSurvivors by David Long and Kerry Hyndman  

Another theme for this year will be to widen my reading beyond my ‘go-to’, which tends to be top-notch middle-grade fiction.  Survivors fits the bill perfectly.  Superbly illustrated, each chapter tells the story of someone who has survived in the most extraordinary situations – a girl falling from a plane two-miles high, a runner lost in the desert, a doctor forced to operate on himself.  Stunning, awe-inspiring stuff.  I’ve used some of the stories in assemblies, followed by non-stop requests to borrow the book.  Highly recommended.

overheardOverheard in a Tower Block for Joseph Coelho 

As well as non-fiction, I’m going to add more poetry into the mix (or the pile).  This is a great place to start and is particularly enjoyable as I know the places Coelho writes about – he was born a couple of miles down the road, close to my school (@heathmereschool).  Gritty, real-life narratives of fractured families, tower blocks and bullies, are lightened with stories of ponds and runs in the park, ending with a tear-inducing poem for a daughter – Coelho’s journey from childhood to fatherhood is complete.  One for top end primary to unpick with their teacher, or older children to read and to read out loud.

explorerThe Explorer by Katharine Rundell, illustrated by Hannah Horn 

A prize-winner, and rightly so, Rundell’s star continues to shine bright; she is fast becoming the best children’s writer of her generation.  The Explorer is about survival and friendship, with a subtle message about preservation of jungle habitats.  A group of children, lost in the Amazon, find their way to a mysterious hidden city, inhabited by an even more mysterious explorer, intent on sheltering his secret world from destruction by prying outsiders.  Will they survive? Beautifully written and illustrated – there is a flow to Rundell’s writing which edges it towards perfection.  I do have a major grumble with the ending but it didn’t overshadow my enjoyment of the books (and I couldn’t possibly say what it is, without revealing too much of the plot).

sticthheadStitch Head by Guy Bass, illustrated by Pete Williamson 

Stitch Head, oh Stitch Head, where have you been all my life?  The first and forgotten creation of a crazy scientist, Stitch Head, our lovable anti-hero living an almost life, ventures forth alongside a troop of other weird and wonderful creations in this delight of a book.  It’s funny and heart-warming – it’s hard, if not impossible, to resist Stitch-Head’s charms, even more so with Pete Williamson’s wonderfully imagined drawings which capture our Stitch’s vulnerabilities to a tee..  This one is going straight into my school library – and straight out again, ready to be devoured by anyone who likes a chuckle, enjoys a bit of slapstick gore and has space in their heart for a little Stitch.

 

 

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Review: Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse

There was a recent exchange on Twitter where confessions were being made.  One person had asked which iconic books people had not yet shifted from their ‘to be read’ pile.

gothgirlSkellig, said one.  Cue a sharp intake of breath from me – how and in what desperate place can Skellig not have been read?  Wind in the Willows, said another.  Guilty as charged on that one – I’ve started it more than once, and failed each time – along with The Hobbit and a number of classics – Watership Down, Tarka the Otter, The Box of Delights (in writing this, I think my New Year’s resolution is staring me in the face).

Another on my ‘yet to be read’ list is the Goth Girl series by Chris Riddell.  So, out of sequence, Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse,was the first in line.  Reading this, or any other book you know should really be sitting on the shelf, broken-spined and well-thumbed, generates frustration in the why-did-I-leave-it-so-long sense and deep in the belly delight at discovering something so wonderful.

Goth Girl is a hugely enjoyable read.  With many a hat tip to Lewis Carroll, Chris Riddell has created a book full of wonderfully absurd twists and turns – it as an extended riff of the ridiculous and the make believe, a fitting tribute to the Wonderland Alice discovers.

Left alone by her grieving father, Ada explores the corridors and gardens of Ghastly-Gorm Hall, meeting a cast of brilliantly bonkers characters, each one brought to life on the page by Riddell’s drawings.  Immediately recognisable – you know it’s Chris Riddell as soon as you see them – the sketches are what elevates this book to the status of a modern classic.  So simple – lines, some shading, a little hatching – yet so well-imagined, playful and full of character.  They are an absolute delight.

And the story unfolds with a gentle compassion.  Ada is not dominant, moving through the book with a calm and quiet resolution.  She could – in fact, should – be miserable, mourning the death of her mother and estranged from her distant father.  But she navigates the mysterious word she inhabits with grace and patience; Ada is a character to admire and emulate.

Why did I leave it so long?  So many books and so little time but, with Goth Girl, it’s definitely a case of  better late than never.

Review: Defender of the Realm – Dark Age

I was at a job interview recently.  It didn’t go well.  You know you’re doomed when, having answered a question, the panel pause and stare, if only for half a second.  In that moment, on their faces, all is revealed; their eyes flicker – they are horrified by what is before them.  A polite reserve kicks in and I get a half-smile, half-wince and a pursed ‘thank you’.  It wasn’t to be.

Defender of the Realm Dark Age

It reminded me of previous interviews and, given my mental state, previous failures.  Years back, I flummoxed an interview for a high-street burger chain.  Quite extraordinary, given the main requirements were a regular pulse and an ability to stand.  Never mind.

Once, I was asked the dreaded question – if you were an animal, what would you be?  A mind, with all the millions of neural pathways, has never failed so miserably.  I could barely think of an animal, let alone one that resembled my character.  I struggle even now.  I guess, on reflection, I’m a wombat but I can’t say why.  They, for example, have a backward facing pouch and leave distinctive cubic faeces.  I claim neither of these things but a wombat is all that comes to mind. Maybe I’m thinking about it too much.

Which leads me nicely, believe it or not, to the Defender of the Realm: Dark Age, the second book from the tag team writing machine that is Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler.  Some books, you see, are animals.  They can be cats, serene and gentle with odd flashes of fury.  Other are birds, almost ethereal, floating above the grime and the noise, revealing themselves gradually, with subtle layers emerging at each gentle turn of the page.

www.sarahweal.com +07957284588Other books, like Defender of the Realm – Dark Age are a different kind of beast altogether.  This one, the second book from Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, grabs you by the shoulders, slobbers in your face, pounds you to the floor and pummels you into submission. If these pages were alive, it would be an Old English Mastiff or a Great Dane- a big, slathering beast of a book.  It’s an enthralling, all-encompassing read. Resistance is futile, just go with and let it take over (and take over it will – you can well imagine reading this one in one sitting, all through the night).

Dark Age picks up where the brilliant first book left off (my review is here, should you wish to take a look).  King Alfie is part-monarch, part-superhero – the latest in a long line of regal defenders charged with keeping the country safe.  Like the first book, a sense of breathless visual drama is translated to the page.  There are sweeping, cinematic scenes and a boldness which allows the setting to leap from Glastonbury to Norway, via the Tower of London.  The dialogue is quick and punchy.  I’d be amazed if these books didn’t make their way to the screen, big or small.

The first book – and this one – contain many a nod and a wink to James Bond, Batman and Mission Impossible.  Their second one goes further, drawing on fantasy role-playing games. Imaginations are truly unfurled. It’s like they wrote Dark Age while rolling a dice (called chutzpah, perhaps) each face containing ever more extraordinary plot twists and turns.  Roll the dice and, fearlessly, that’s where the narrative goes.

Across a mere page or two, we have King Alfie, the Defender of the Realm, using his Ring of Command to instruct a group of swans to attack a longboat full of undead Vikings. Extraordinary.   It’s a stunning, audacious tale and – thankfully for the ever-growing number of Defender fans – one that leads on to the next book, and the next, and the next.

Maybe I should take the Ostler and Huckerby approach in my next interview.  Me? An animal? Roll the dice and see…

Review: Where Monsters Lie

wmlFor her second novel, Where Monsters Lie, Polly Ho-Yen has made a brave and brilliant leap from the inner city tower blocks of her first novel, Boy in the Tower, to an imagined village on the shores of a Scottish loch where Effie lives with her parents and younger brother.

The village is small, claustrophobic. Everyone knows everyone; blood lines are knotted together and unbreakable, particularly if, like Effie, there are hints of being an outsider.  The water is menacing and unfriendly. Keep away, the elders say.  Keep away, so the legend goes, because there are monsters in the water.

Like her first book (reviewed here), Ho-Yen establishes a powerful, memorable setting – one which provides an intriguing canvas for her narrative to unfold.   Continue reading

Review: Wonder

As a teacher, it’s my professional duty to make sure children can read and, once the mechanics of decoding are in place, to show them why reading matters.  There are plenty of arguments to deploy, even for the most reluctant or disinterested of readers.  Reading tells you things you didn’t know before.  You will know more words and so be able to explain yourself better.  You can travel the world and visit distant, unknown planets or stay close to home, all at the turn of the page.  It’s fun – join the library, and it’s free. You’d me mad not to.wonder

But, for me, reading matters most because it makes us better people.  The grandest and most humane function of reading is to instil empathy in the reader, an understanding of the world from someone else’s point of view.   It is in those moments when the written word means reality is seen in new ways, through another’s eyes; when the character becomes as real as the paper you are holding and in some way becomes part of you. This, I think, is what is most remarkable and what is most important about reading.  The best writing can change you and make you quietly, subtly better at being who you are.

This is is certainly the case with Wonder by RJ Palacio, a book which tells the story of August Pullman, a boy born with a facial disfigurement, as he starts his first year at middle school.  August has a face that is shocking in its deformity, so shocking that it is only partially described in the book and is revealed mostly by people’s reactions; they point, they stare, they whisper, they turn away, they say cruel, cutting words.  But on August goes, into the world – gently cajoled by his parents from the cocoon of home. Continue reading

Review: Boy in the Tower

boytowerIt may seem odd for a sci-fi novel, but Boy in the Tower is a book that oozes reality. If there is a story that warrants being described as dystopian then it it this one – it’s not always an easy read and emotional punches are far from pulled. They land heavy with a thud.

Polly Ho-Yen’s debut is, at times, a disturbingly grim portrayal of urban life and environmental decline.  But there, in the reality, resides a remarkable honesty – the characters are real, the emotions are raw, the setting – literally – could be the estate where I work, and (like all great sci-fi) the unimaginable becomes oh-so-believable. War of the Worlds made people run to their cars and flee to the hills, believing an alien attack was underway. Boy in the Tower has that same sense of maybe, maybe one day… Continue reading

Review: Animal Babies

animalbabiesAs any parent of young children will know, there comes a moment when it’s time for a clear out. It’s when the floor is no longer visible beneath a carpet of plastic cars, colouring books and various devices which bleep, glow or flash at unpredictable moments. It’s when you no longer tidy the mess but simply bend the knees, stoop low, drive the shoulders into the mass of tat, and shove it piled-high into a corner.

It’s also well-known that clear outs have to be clandestine affairs, carried out stealthily when the kids are in bed. Do this with said children and you’re doomed. Untouched board games suddenly become precious treasures. Fluff-covered superhero figures, left alone for months in some dark recess, are suddenly clutched lovingly to chests. Despite lacking critical parts and despite generating next to no prior interest, jigsaws become vital, as essential as oxygen.

In a recent after hours clear out, and with that unique, stomach-flipping feeling of discovering your children have moved imperceptibly from one stage of life to the next, we filled a bag of board books. My children are babies no more. So many favourites, like Millie Moo, Rainbow Rob, I Like it When – reminders of those special days when books weren’t just read, they were licked and chewed and salivated upon. Books that established a bond between adult and child, before words are understood – when the neurons in the brain are firing in a way that is almost perceptible. Continue reading

Review: Alfie Bloom and the Talisman Thief

talismanAlfie Bloom is the sort of book that gets children hooked on reading. The narrative zips along – it’s chock-full of magic, mystery, time travel and more evil elves than you can shake a stick at.

The main character, Alfie, and his buddies are easy-going and likeable, and the baddies are of the pantomime kind, inviting a boo-hiss and a wild cheer when they get their comeuppance.

This book, the Talisman Thief, leads on nicely from the first in the series and points enticingly towards the third. It’s a fun, moreish read – you can well imagine this book being devoured, feasted on by fans of Charlie Bone and Harry Potter.

Review: Archie Snufflekins

ArchieSnufflekins_cover_webOver the years I’ve placed many things on a pedestal – footballers, musicians, artists and authors. Norman Whiteside, for anyone with a recollection of football in the early eighties, was the first – his posters adorned my bedroom walls, and everything he did was majestic, a colossus in the midfield of an otherwise mediocre team.

While Norman always had a blu-tacked space in my room – he’d still be up there if I had my way – others soon joined him. Almost every heavy metal band of note was pinned up at some point, poodle hair and all. Then, as I moved through those deeply serious teenage years, black and whites of Dylan appeared, as well as whatever French impressionist was in the bargain bucket in Athena (whatever happened to Athena!). Later, it was prints of Hemingway front covers and probably a Sartre too, just to show how damn clever I was.

Continue reading

Review: Rebel Science

Science. The very word on my school timetable would induce a shudder. I can still remember her name. I shall call her Mrs H, the biology teacher from hell.  Such was her genius, she managed – for each 45 minute lesson – to remove from the study of life itself, anything and everything even vaguely resembling fascination, awe or wonder.  It was replaced with stodge.  Dog-eared text books.  Eye-fluttering irritation whenever a question was asked or a concept not immediately grasped.  I hated it and, as a result, hated science. rebelscience

Only as an adult have I begun to discover what science should be about – curiosity, speculation, boldness. As a teacher, I have gained some insight into the dismal limits of my knowledge – learning alongside the children I’ve taught (I hope, in desperation, that my lessons have led to a mild smattering of awe and wonder – at least more than those taught by the dreaded Mrs H).

If only, all those years ago, I’d had a teacher who’d shoved Rebel Science into my hands – a fabulous book written by Dan Green and illustrated by David Lyttleton (why oh why aren’t the names of non-fiction authors and illustrators placed on the cover?). Continue reading