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.



Review: Smart About Sharks

smart2.jpgThe defining feature of any book from Flying Eye Books is that they are made to be treasured, none more so than Smart About Sharks by Owen Davey. The disposable, fleeting nature of modern consumption, with products devoured on the hoof and slung thoughtlessly in the trash, is countered the moment you hold Davey’s book in your hands. Like art, it is something to be gazed upon; something to be absorbed and assimilated in the mind and the soul, not grabbed, ripped at and stuffed in the gullet.

Davey’s illustrations are something else; they deserve a wide audience and much acclaim.  I first discovered his work when drawn to the cover of the wonderful Knight Night, a delightful picture book, perfect for fearless four year olds who love to swish a sword and battle to the death, or at least until a toe is stubbed, the tears flow and a cuddle is needed. It’s full of stylised images often using a palette based around one bold colour (orange dominates in Knight Night, next to browns and muted yellows).   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

Review: Questions and Answers

questionsandanswersAfter reading so much amazing fiction in the last few months, it makes a nice break to review some non-fiction.  It’s almost like a literary bank holiday – a time to refresh and wonder at the extraordinary world we are in, before returning invigorated to the made up worlds of others.

Questions and Answers by Catherine Chambers and Chris Oxlade (why do the writers of non-fiction not have their names on the cover?) fits the bill nicely.   At nearly 400 pages long, there’s a chunkiness to the book and the range of content guarantees longevity. The subjects have been chosen wisely with sections on Space, Weather, Pirates, Inventions and lots of history, including Ancient Egypt, Rome and the Vikings.

Continue reading

Review: Questions and Answers about Space

spaceusborne.jpgQuestions and Answers about Space breaks new ground for this blog – it’s my first review of a non-fiction book. All credit must go to @andyseedauthor for pushing the non-fiction cause – he twisted an arm or two to get information books sent out to book bloggers, mine included.

This is a good a place to start as any – the ‘Question and Answer’ series is top quality and deserving of a prominent place in book corners and school libraries.  I wasn’t easily won over – ‘lift-the-flap’ books normally get quite short shrift from me.  They are usually the first books to perish; the flaps don’t just get lifted – even in the hands of book-loving children, they are soon pulled, twisted, bent and broken.

But the Usborne books are made of sturdier stuff. The cover is as chunky as a hard cover can be, and the pages are thick, almost board-like.  Each page has almost a dozen fact boxes, hidden beneath solid folds of card.  Hard to break, made to be handled and to be read again and again. Continue reading