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: The Shadow Keeper

Review: sahdowThe Shadow Keeper is a cracker.  Abi Elphinstone’s second book transported me back in time – way back in time – to my youth.  Not to a specific moment or place as such, but to a feeling, a sense of what it was like to be young. Remember – before the more worrisome effects of adolescence or adulthood arrived on the scene, there was a time when everything was an adventure.

A bike ride wasn’t just a bike ride; how could it be when blood-sucking martians, visible only to me and my mates, were flitting between the trees?  A kitchen table to you was a secret den to me.  A stroll on the beach was no such thing, not when you’re foraging for food, surviving alone after being washed up, shipwrecked on the sand (surviving, it must be said, within sight of Mum, not past the pier, and with a bellyful of sand-encrusted cheese rolls).

This is what’s great about The Shadow Keeper, it creates or, more accurately, re-creates that unique sense of adventure and derring-do that is only really experienced in childhood.

In the telling of the tale – Moll, part of a gypsy clan who crack codes and battle smugglers to find an amulet with the power to defeat the evil Shadowmasks – Abi Elphinstone summons up the spirit of the Famous Five and turns out a rollicking yarn, full of wonderful pantomime-esque villains, clever and well-observed description and, in Moll, a lead character full of life and vigour and the kind of flaws that make you want to hold her close.

While there’s more than an echo of Enid Blyton in the book, the Shadow Keeper drew out another vague, distant, imprecise memory.  It reminded me of a time, way back in time, when I read a very special series of books with the same sense of magic, adventure and other-worldliness.  This was the Narnia books by CS Lewis.  I can offer no higher praise.

Review: A Great Big Cuddle

agreatbigcuddleMy children love a good story. They’ve been raised on books, from before they were even born. I remember reading out loud while number one child – that’s birth order, not personal preference – was driving Mum crazy, entering the last month or so of pregnancy. We read all the time now; they are immersed in words and stories.

What’s really interesting though, as they begin to express more interest and enthusiasm for one particular book over another, is their response to poetry.  They love it; they are captivated by poems in a way that is different to the prose they read or hear.

There’s a playfulness to the language of poetry that seems to more readily connect and align with their understanding of language. From time to time, my youngest still gets words wrong and we laugh together and make up new sillier words, giggling just because of the sound they make. We speak in our own tongue, unique to us, made up of crazy sounds and intonations – we babble away together while they are in the bath. It’s poetry, of sorts.

Don’t get me wrong, we all love a straight-down-the-line story, paragraphs, chapters and all – but there is a freedom and a lack of constraint to poetry that young children seem to instinctively ‘get’.  It’s the same with older children. I’ve taught for enough years to know that there’s a point in the academic year when writing can become a slog, a treadmill of planning and paragraphs and punctuation.  In this critical state, the only thing that revives the stricken patient is a dose of poetry.  It brings life and joy back to the page. Go on, it says – break the rules, have a play. Continue reading

Review: Defender of the Realm

Defender of the RealmIf Defender of  the Realm were a cocktail, it would be an intoxicating blend – two parts James Bond, three parts Batman (or for that matter, any other super hero ending in ‘man’), and one part Mission Impossible.

Brought to the shelves by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, a writing partnership best known for their work on television scripts like Danger Mouse and The Octonauts, Defender of the Realm is an absolute rip-snorter of a debut novel.  It’s a heady, thrill-a-minute blur of action and adventure.

Prince Alfie of Wales, a reluctant heir to the throne, becomes King when his father is killed.  Thrust into the limelight, Alfie takes his father’s place, not only as the monarch but also as horse-riding, sword-wielding superhero, known only as The Defender.

The story rattles along, absorbing all the superlatives that could possibly be hurled its way – Defender of the Realm is easily the most exciting book I’ve read in recent memory; a genuine page-turner.  In lesser hands, it could be a bit of a mess (there’s gizmos, gadgets, lizards, dragons, a smidge of time travel and a touch of  Alfred the Great) but the authors know exactly what they’re doing. It’s a delight to be in the hands of such skilled writers who combine action and adventure and humour and enough reality to keep everything still just about tethered to planet Earth.

Given the author’s background, it’s no surprise that the book has a visual, almost cinematic quality. The first few pages rip into the story at breakneck pace, like a James Bond opening scene, only more so.  When Alfie becomes the Defender, it echoes Bruce Wayne becoming Batman in the Bat Cave.  Reading the book gives a feeling of being pinned to your seat, like watching the very best Hollywood blockbuster unfurl in front of you.

There’s also an endearing Britishness to the book, with many a hat-tip to James Bond, and the Prince of Wales taking centre stage.  Alfie charges across our green and pleasant land like one of those crazed American package tours – Stonehenge, Winchester, Edinburgh Castle, Westminster Abbey all get ticked off.  It’s patriotic in a warm, engaging way; the Royal Family and the British Tourist Board should be indebted to Ostler and Huckerby.

Just like any good cocktail, Defender of the Realm will leave you giddy, wanting more. The good news for those of you with a thirst?  Book number two is on its way soon.

A free copy of Defender of the Realm was provided by the publishers.

The Boy who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair

The-Boy-who-Sailed-the-Ocean-in-an-ArmchairSome books drill deep into the wiring of the brain.  They alter thoughts and create memories, becoming part of who you are. Others books float above, never quite breaking the surface.

Whether a book connects or not is what makes reading so magical – it’s both a profoundly public business (anyone can look at the words – in a bookshop, in a library or at the click of a button) and about as private as it gets (my thoughts are mine, and mine alone).  When we read, we all look at the same letters on the page but our reactions to them are very much our own.

With this in mind, I can easily see why this book would be loved by some and how, seen from a different pair of eyes, would be a moving, emotional experience but, for me, I’m afraid to say The Boy who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair by Lara Williamson floated rather drilled deep.  Continue reading

The Iron Man

‘The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff.  How far had he walked?  Nobody knows.  Where had he come from?  Nobody knows.  How was he made?  Nobody knows.’

ironman.jpg

Is there a better opening in a children’s book – or any book for that matter – than Ted Hughes’ first few lines of The Iron Man?  Brilliant in their simplicity, they establish a sense of mystery which runs like a thread throughout the book.  What is most intriguing is that the beginning feels like the end, as the metallic monster appears to have reached the end of his journey at the top of a cliff, then topples over the edge to be smashed and scattered across the sand and the surf. But this remarkable, unusual start to the book entices the reader to speculate, to wonder and, above all, to read on.

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Storytime magazine

stroytimeWay back when, there was a brilliant advert for British Rail which made the experience of train travel appear like a deep, deep exhalation; relaxing, soporific, comforting.

In the ad, the camera lazily scans across a train carriage, occasionally drifting to a green and pleasant land blurring past outside the window. Inside, a businessman settles back in his seat and his stiff brogues transform into soft slippers.  The long heel of a stiletto curls and tucks like a dozing cat’s tail.  Bearded Grandfather plays chess with bespectacled Grandson, the black bishop and white knight yawn and sigh.  A card-playing family sit alongside a woman reading a book – the Penguin logo comes alive, stretches and slides sleepily on its back.

It’s all set off with Leon Redbone’s lilting, half-slurred ragtime:  ‘Any time you choose, kick off your shoes, rest your weary eyes and catch up with the news, a favourite book will be the perfect company, so relax.’  (Watch the advert here – it’s a classic). So memorable was the advert that, thirty years on, it has framed almost every train journey I’ve made since.  It’s the journey I imagine, the one I look forward to when the tickets are booked.

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The Boy who Swam with Piranhas

theboywhoThis is a quirky, offbeat tale about pursuing your dreams, with fish – yes, fish – at its heart.

Stan’s Uncle Ernie hits the buffers when the shipyard shuts – he loses his job and, soon after, the plot. He frantically tins fish in their terraced house, convinced that ‘Pott’s Spectacular Sardines’ are exactly what the world is waiting for. But Clarence P from the Department for the Abolition of Fishy Things (yes, that’s DAFT) has other ideas and closes him down.

Meanwhile Stan, who shares his Uncle’s fascination with fish, is transfixed by the prizes on a stall of a passing circus – beautiful goldfish. He is drawn to them, captivated. He follows the fish and the circus out of town and away from crazy Uncle Ernie.

It’s a book chock full of eccentrics: Seabrook, goldfish supplier and faux gangster who actually just craves a cup of tea and a natter; Peter, a miserable circus act who hasn’t laughed for twenty years; Dostoyevsky, Stan’s saviour, who has been running the hook-a-duck, man and boy; and Pancho Pirelli, the famed piranha-swimmer who claims to be from Orinoco.

There is a wacky, cartoonish tone to the book – it could almost be a comic strip in the Beano or the Dandy.  The offbeat humour and slapstick will appeal to children a few years younger than those who are reading Skellig or My Name is Mina. The Boy who Swam with Piranhas rattles along at breakneck speed – it’s hard not to enjoy, even if the story lacks the subtlety and depth of Almond’s more successful novels.

 

 

 

The Day the Crayons Quit

crayons.jpgThe joy of having young children – well, not the joy, there are one or two others – is the reading that goes alongside the more mundane, humdrum aspects of bed-time routines. So, after the tortuous subtleties of getting an exhausted little person to move from downstairs to up, the ‘I don’t want to get in the bath’ tantrum closely followed by the ‘I don’t want to get out of the bath’ tantrum, and the protracted, oh-so-delicate teeth-brushing negotiations, it’s time to read.

For me, one of the duties of parenthood – that sense of passing down what matters from one generation to the next – is the reading of old favourites. There’d be a sense of neglect if there was no We’re Going on a Bear Hunt or Thomas the Tank Engine for my younger one, and no Magic Faraway Tree or James and the Giant Peach for my eldest. In turn, CS Lewis will enter the frame and then, in the later teenage years, William Golding. These books, if I know anything, are what matters.

To go with the duties, one of the more surprising benefits of parenthood is the extent to which new books and new authors have been discovered and broadened my reading experience. This is what led me to start this blog; the rediscovery of books, after a number of barren years when the the thread had been dropped (I’d lost that sense of ‘what to read next’), coupled with the mind-numbing exhaustion of early parenthood.

One of the most rewarding of these discoveries was the picture book, The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. I know I’m late to the party on this one (it was published in 2013) but it’s a brilliant, inventive book. It works so well because, like all the best picture books, there is a magical unity between word and picture, as if what’s drawn and what’s written are somehow merged, distinct still but inseparable. Continue reading

The Kingdom by the Sea

kingdomIt’s 1940-something in the north east of England. A bomb drops and a world – Harry’s world – implodes. He makes it to the safety of the air-raid shelter but his home is flattened.  His parents are nowhere to be found, too slow to make it up the garden path.  His pet rabbits are dead and, except Cousin Elsie, who is ‘more awful than death itself’, he has no-one.  So, in the dead of night, he steps through the debris and decides to disappear, to just go away.

This is a gripping, dramatic story. It follows Harry and his dog Don as they head northwards, aimlessly at first and then ‘like a pilgrim’ towards Lindisfarne. There are times of real desperation when Harry is lonely, hungry, and afraid but Westall captures a Boys Own spirit of adventure and daring-do. There is a romance and a boyish excitement to the scenes where Harry sleeps under the stars stuffing his face with vinegar-smothered chips, or when he discovers a shelter with an open door, which reveals a bed, candles and a fire.    Continue reading