Children’s fiction: some books for primary readers

Last week I posted about public libraries and how they provide an indispensable resource for children and parents/carers. They offer an opportunity to do something cheap, easy and local with your kids. They provide much needed downtime for children who these days seem to be leading ever more busy lives. And they get kids looking at, thinking about and engaging with books, because, frankly, that’s pretty much what you have to do when you have a room full of books! And borrowing books is FREE!

At the beginning of January, I did a scan of some of the new titles in my local library and I want to share with you the ones that caught my eye. This week, I’m looking at titles for primary school age children, around 7-10. Both have short chapters, large print and illustrations so are probably more suited to the younger end of the spectrum, or reluctant readers at the older end.

 The Invincibles: The Beast of Bramble Woods by Caryl Hart & Sarah Warburton

2018-01-31 12.16.32I really liked this little book and it’s the third in the Invincibles series. The central characters are two friends, Nell and Freddie, and Mr Fluffy, a cat. Nell’s teenage brother Lucas, has a sleepover camping with his friends in the garden, which, of course, the younger ones want to be involved with. Through ‘Pester Power’ Nell manages to persuade her parents to let her and Freddie participate for a few hours. Noises in the woods (the waste ground next to the garden) terrify them all, but, of course, it turns out to be nothing more sinister than Mr Fluffy! It’s a great little story, with nice illustrations and a level of humour which children will love and adults will also identify with. Recommended.

Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball by Laura Ellen Anderson

2018-01-31 12.16.44Similar in style to The Invincibles, this book is along the lines of The Addams Family – set in Nocturnia, a land of comic creatures, ghouls, vampires, mummies, etc. The central story is that Amelia’s parents are to throw their annual Barbaric Ball. They are keen for King Vladimir to come, but he has not been seen in public for years. The king decides he will attend with his son Prince Tangine, and, in preparation for getting to know the people, the Prince will attend the local school. He is of course, very haughty and unkind, and Amelia is particularly cross when he demands, and gets, her pet pumpkin Squashy. It turns out that Prince Tangine hides a devastating secret – he is half-fairy (terrifying creature of the light!), though his mother disappeared when he was young, leaving his father bereft. Amelia discovers this as she tries to rescue Squashy from the palace, and, when the truth is revealed, Tangine owns up to his faults and they all become friends. It’s a fun little story, and the toilet humour will appeal very much to the irreverent side of children. Lovely illustrations and plenty of contemporary references. It is basically about friendship, inclusiveness and being nice to people. Recommended though less in this one to keep parent readers interested.

Next week I’ll be looking at books for 11-13 year olds.

Do you have any recommendations for young readers?

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Children’s book review: “Do you speak chocolate?” by Cas Lester

I promised you earlier in the week that I was going to do more on looking at children’s fiction this year. Well, here’s a lovely little book that I really want to tell you about – Do You Speak Chocolate? by Cas Lester. I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did as I’m afraid I didn’t find the cover particularly appealing, but I have to say that, even as a grown-up, I was gripped. I loved the characters, the writing style, the themes and the storyline, so it would be a great one to read along with your kids, so you can chat about it with them.

Do you speak chocolate imgThe central character is Jaz, a 12 year-old girl who is in Year 7 at secondary school. She is dyslexic, doesn’t care too much for school (“Boring!”) and lives with her Mum and three older brothers, their Dad having left shortly after Jaz was born. Jaz is a bit of a rebel with a big heart. She struggles a bit at school, she comes across as someone who finds it difficult to deal with the mainstream demands of sitting still, concentrating, and not least the focus on reading and writing; there does not seem to be much allowance made for her dyslexia. She also struggles a bit with friendship issues, having jealous feelings towards another girl who she feels is going to ‘steal’ her best friend Lily. So we see Jaz is a bit insecure too.

 

Jaz is asked to take care of Nadima, a new girl in school, recently arrived from Syria as a refugee. She does not speak English but the two find common ground over their love of confectionery. They also find innovative ways to communicate, such as using text emojis! Over time, Jaz and Nadima’s relationship develops, but is not without the occasional bump in the road. For example, Jaz gets to know Nadima’s family, and realises what a difficult time they have had, escaping their home country and how little money they now have in the UK. When the school organises a charity fund-raising event, which Jaz and her team win, she stands up in front of the whole school and announces that she thinks the charity money should go to Nadima’s family because they are so poor. Jaz’s intentions are good, but, clearly, she has no idea how embarrassing this is to Nadima and how patronising it seems. Jaz learns quickly and is horrified, but it takes time to rebuild the bridges.

It has a happy ending of course – Jaz and Nadima do make friends again, and they also have a huge success in their drama class at school with an interpretative performance they create, about the situation in Syria. So, even at school, Jaz comes out on top in the end.

Jaz is 12 and in Year 7 so this book will appeal to 10-12 year olds in particular, and although Jaz is a girl, there is something slightly androgynous about her, so I think the book could easily appeal to boys as well. There are plenty of boys in the book (it’s not girly), although some of the friendship issues Jaz has are, in my experience, more common amongst groups of girls than boys. Jaz’s dyslexia is also an important element of her personality and her non-self-pitying discussion about her difficulties is illuminating and sensitively handled.

I love the mix of themes in this book – friendship issues, both the petty jealousies and the bigger fallings-out (subjects which some of us might think of as trivial, but which are really important to kids on a daily basis), are dealt with alongside HUGE issues such as religious and cultural tolerance, the war in Syria and the refugee crisis. The author deals with all these issues without being patronising or preachy and in ways that kids will understand. An achievement indeed.

I’ve passed this on to my 11 year-old to read immediately! Highly recommended.

What’s new in the children’s library?

One of my objectives for the blog this year is to focus a lot more on children’s books. Those of you who read my posts regularly will know that I am passionate about children’s literacy and ensuring that, in this electronic age, reading remains an activity that all kids do. We know that reading improves a child’s mind in many ways, improves their vocabulary, writing skills, and academic outcomes, to name just a few of the benefits. But it’s still something that I know many parents struggle with. There are just so many distractions – for adults and children alike!

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Books are also not cheap: you can expect to pay £6-7 for the average paperback, and often more for the hardback and picture books that are so vital when they are younger. A book every week or two is therefore a big ask for parents on a budget, especially if it comes with a bit of a risk – what if they don’t like it after 20 pages? Money wasted?

The answer for many is the public library. As we know, many local libraries are under threat, so it is a case of “use it or lose it”, I’m afraid. In my local borough, under 13s can borrow up to 20 books and four audiobooks at any one time. The loan period is 3 weeks and can be extended many times before you have to return (unless someone else has reserved the title). You can reserve books, search the online catalogue and renew online as well. What’s not to love? And all for free.

The only downside is fines – 6p per day per book for children, 15p for adults – so you need to keep on top of the due dates. However, my local library service sends emails a few days ahead of time to remind me what is due back when. It can be easy though if you build in a visit to the library every 2-3 weeks. I guarantee your kids will look forward to it and it’s time you get to spend with them, talking about, handling and looking at books.

I spent some time earlier this month scanning the new releases on my local library service online catalogue and picked up a few very interesting looking titles.

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I’m going to be reviewing these over the next few weeks, starting with titles for primary school age children.

So, why not make it a goal to spend more time at the library with your children this year. Give it a try, there’s nothing to lose!

If you are a parent, what do you think are the biggest challenges to getting (and keeping!) your children reading?

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Happy New Year!

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After a two-week break from blogging, writing, and working generally, I’m returning to my desk today refreshed and with a renewed sense of vigour. I had a proper rest over Christmas, mostly spending time with friends and family. The build-up to Christmas is always a crazily busy time, I never seem to get to the end of the to-do list, and the things that normally sustain me – nutritious food, quality sleep, exercise, and reading, of course – are all compromised as there is always another event to attend, party to host, gift to purchase. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the excitement, the sparkle, the dressing-up and going out, the shopping, etc, but I can only keep it up for so long. For me, this Christmas, all of that stopped at the Winter Solstice on the 22nd, fittingly perhaps. At that point, school ended, and time spent with those closest to me began. It would also have been my late father’s 74th birthday so is always a time when I pause to reflect. Two weeks of rest ensued and I now feel ready to face all the challenges that 2018 will no doubt bring.

My biggest goal this year will be to complete the first full draft of my book. I’ve been working pretty hard on it over the last three or four months and I’m hoping to finish it by the Spring. I’ve also been giving a great deal of thought to this blog and have decided that my passion really lies with children’s literacy, so I will be doing a lot more this year focussing on books for kids. After the posts I put out before Christmas with literary gift ideas for children, I had so many conversations with other parents desperate to support their children’s literacy, and looking for ideas on how to motivate a good reading habit, that I feel there is a real hunger out there for more on this topic.

January is a tough month in my view, long, cold (in northern England), damp and dark, so I’m always wary of making too many ‘resolutions’ (I find Autumn a much more fruitful time for me). It is also the month of my birthday and this year I am having one with a zero so that will be challenge enough! At our family New Year’s Eve celebration we were each asked what we would be letting go of, what we would be bringing more of into our lives. I will be trying to let go of ‘busy-ness’ – it doesn’t suit me, I lose my sense of myself and I get irritated with those around me. Yes, we are all busy at least some of the time, but I will try instead to focus on priorities and to let go of what I don’t need to do. I will try to bring more music into my life, listening, playing, singing and dancing. It is a primal human expression of our self and our creativity and allows us to connect with others on a deeper level. I also have a very narrow range of music I listen to (mostly Radiohead!) so I’ll be attempting to broaden my scope.

I will also, of course, try hard to maintain my reading habit. I had a great year of reading in 2017, thanks to this blog, my book club and to the Reading Challenge I set myself at the start of the year. I’ll be posting later in the week with another Reading Challenge for 2018, so look out for that if you’d like to join me.

Whatever your goals and aspirations for 2018 I wish you well in them. The sun is shining as I write this and life feels good!

What are your reading goals for 2018?

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Kids’s books for Christmas – fiction

I posted last week with some suggestions for non-fiction books for children for Christmas. Today, I’ve got some fiction ideas for you. Here is my round-up of some of the best books around at the moment, which I recommend for children. I’ve given you an idea of the age range too. As a rule of thumb, the central character in a book is generally a year or two older than the age of the children the book is aimed at. Kids like reading about people who are slightly older than them.

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Pax by Sara Pennypacker – suitable for 10-11 year olds

I reviewed this book here a few weeks ago. I loved it. Set in America, it concerns 12 year old Peter and a ‘pet’ fox he has raised from a cub. Peter is forced to release Pax into the wild when his father is called up to serve in the army. Peter’s mother is dead and he is sent to live with his grandfather. He runs away to search for Pax after realising what a terrible mistake he has made, and meets Vola, who lives on an isolated farm. Vola nurses Peter after he breaks his ankle and the two form an unlikely friendship which sets them both on a journey of self-discovery. Some challenging themes, but ultimately a heart-warming tale, with some lovely illustrations.

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Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada – suitable for 11-13 year olds

Perfect for pre-teens whose reading tastes and skills are maturing but who still love their animals. Narrated in three parts by three generations of a polar bear family who find themselves in different parts of the world: beginning with the matriarch in the Soviet Union, her daughter Tosca in East Germany, and her grandson, Knut, raised in Leipzig zoo. Very quirky and gently political. It is translated from the original Japanese so will also give children a taste of a quite different style of writing.

 

 

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Lucky Button by Michael Morpurgo – suitable for 9-12 year olds

I love a book with illustrations and I love Michael Morpurgo. This entry-level Morpurgo is a perfect Christmas offering. It concerns Jonah Trelawney who is the victim of school bullies and a carer for his mother. an accidental encounter gives him a life-changing insight to life in a Foundling Hospital in the 18th century (the original Foundling Museum was the inspiration for the story). Lovers of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather will enjoy this.

 

The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship by Philip Pullman – suitable for 10-13 year olds

Pullman’s The Book of Dust, part of the Lyra trilogy, is possibly the biggest children’s literature event of the year. Fans will already have bought it, so I’m not going to mention it here. Instead, I draw your attention to this graphic novel by the same author, which may encourage more reluctant readers, particularly boys. Just because it has pictures, does not mean it is for younger ones, who may find the storyline complex and the themes quite dark. John Blake is a seafaring time traveller. He rescues a young girl from a shipwreck, but his efforts to return her to her own time place them both in grave danger.

 

35529075The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy – suitable for 12-14 year olds

This debut has been very well-reviewed. It concerns Aila and her younger brother Miles who are sent to live in the rural town of Sterling, after their enigmatic mother, Juliet dies. The town carries a mysterious affliction: every seven years certain memories, experiences that people share in common, vanish. The locals believe that Aila’s dead mother, is somehow responsible and Aila must bear the brunt of their prejudice and hostility. A long book with some challenging themes which will suit keen readers who like a bit of depth.

 

2017-12-11 12.05.07Do You Speak Chocolate? by Cas Lester – suitable for 10-12 year olds

Friendship between girls is explored in this novel, which has been compared to Jacqueline Wilson. It is also a story about how friendship can transcend the bounds of language. Nadima is a new girl at school, recently arrived from Syria, and speaks no English. Jaz is a strong personality, and becomes friends with Nadima after the two share some confectionery. Their relationship does not always go smoothly and this book explores the ups and downs via themes of integration, community, and the things that bring us together.

 

Do you have any recommendations for children’s fiction this Christmas? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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Kids books for Christmas – non-fiction

I posted a blog last week encouraging you all to give a book a home this Christmas. A well-chosen book is NEVER a bad gift idea. Even if the gift receiver does not in the end like the book they will appreciate you buying it for them, especially if you write something inside about why you chose it. It will also give the two of you something to talk about. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

Kids can be more tricky, as we know! Unless you know what authors they like, or what sort of reading material they are into, it can be a risk. And for a reluctant reader, receipt of a book may come as a disappointment. When it comes to encouraging children to read, my advice is always to let them choose, but that can be difficult at Christmas, if you are buying for nieces and nephews, for example. Non-fiction is always a good choice in this scenario as you will be able to find a book on almost any subject, targeted at the age range you are looking for. I’ve done a bit of research for you and here are some that have caught my eye.

For younger ones:

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Paper Monsters by Oscar Sabini (£14.95). This is a gorgeous gift book. The idea is the child makes a collage on a blank sheet and then uses the monster templates to cut round. There is a similar book Paper Zoo which is just animals.

71FNtt45dULBarefoot Books World Atlas by Nick Crane & David Dean (£9.99). I love the values and ethos behind Barefoot Books. Multi-cultural and humanitarian themes are present in everything they publish and their books can be valuable tools in combatting exclusion in our world and teaching children about kindness. This world atlas focuses on the interaction between environment and the communities and cultures of the world.

For 10-13 year olds:

2017-12-04 13.20.00Illumanatomy  by Kate Davies and Carnovsky (£15.00). A superb large format book about the human body that goes into real detail. The illustrations are outstanding; when viewed with the special lenses provided you can see different parts of the body (skeleton, muscles, organs) and how they interact. Perfect for budding biologists!

2017-12-01 12.59.15EtchArt: Hidden Forest by AJ Wood, Mike Jolley & Dinara Mirtalipova (£9.99). This is rather like those books in the colouring trend except the images you create are shiny and sparkly. The child uses the etching tool provided to produce glorious forest-themed pictures (there is also a sea-themed one available). Lovely, and nice and solid.

Older teens:

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Notes from the Upside Down: Inside the World of Stranger Things by Guy Adams (£12.99). My teenagers love this show and Season 2 has been hotly awaited in our household! Yes, I know it’s a companion to a TV series, but it’s potentially entry-level Stephen King, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

2017-12-04 13.17.39 Wreck this Journal by Keri Smith (£12.99). Yes, I know it’s not exactly a reading book (though there are plenty of words) there are writing and drawing opportunities. I actually love this series as I think they tap into teenagers’ anarchic tendencies, whilst also encouraging a degree of creativity. Here’s the 2017 offering and the cover is much nicer than previous editions. Good fun.

If you have any non-fiction suggestions I’d love to hear them.

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Children’s fiction review: “Pax” by Sara Pennypacker

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and the challenges of keeping our kids reading when there are so many other distractions and calls on their time. I am always on the lookout for new and interesting titles to recommend and this one caught my eye recently. It was first published in 2016 but has been given some prominence in my local (chain) bookstore in recent weeks.

Pax imgThe cover is lovely and there are a handful of illustrations in the book which are truly beautiful and very evocative. The apparent subject matter (animals) and the fact that it has some illustrations might put off some of the target readership (10-11 year olds, I would say), particularly the more advanced readers among them, who might think it is better suited to younger ones. The themes, however, are much more mature than you might think and may in fact be upsetting to more sensitive 9-10 year olds, say. It is perfect, therefore, for older primary school kids who are perhaps more reluctant readers who may find some of those thick volumes a bit daunting. At 276 pages, with a few pictures and nicely spaced typeface, this is a book where pages will be turned quite quickly; in my experience, this is a surprisingly important factor in many children’s enjoyment of a book!

The plot of this story concerns 12 year old Peter and his ‘pet’ fox, Pax. Peter found Pax when he was just a few weeks old, the only one in the litter still alive and the parents having also been killed. Peter was allowed to keep the fox and he raised him as a pet. Peter’s mother died some years earlier so when we meet him he is living alone with his father, a rather severe man whose character is not fully drawn, but you definitely get the sense that he has troubles of his own. The story is clearly set in the US, but the time is unclear. It is not exactly ‘present day’, however, as there are references to a war going on in the surrounding area. The event which sparks the story is that Peter’s father is called away to take part in the war; he is an electrician or similar. He is posted not too far away, but it means that Peter has to go and live with his grandfather, with whom he does not appear to be close. Because of this, Peter is told that he can no longer keep Pax and that he must be returned to the wild.

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Pax is abandoned by the side of the road

As soon Pax is released, rather hurriedly and rather coldly, Peter bitterly regrets this action. Fearing that Pax could never survive in the wild, being virtually tame, Peter runs away from his grandfather’s house and embarks upon a search for Pax in the forests where he thinks they left him (a couple of hundred miles away), which is also the area where explosives are being either laid or tested in pursuit of the war.

The chapters alternate between Pax’s story, as he has to try and survive in the wild for the first time in his life, and Peter’s journey. Pax meets other foxes, particularly a feisty young vixen called Bristle who is at first hostile to him because he smells of humans; she lost her parents and siblings to a trap and looks after her younger and weaker brother, Runt. This mirrors Peter’s encounter with Vola, who finds Peter at her isolated farmhouse where he shelters after breaking a bone in his foot. Vola is a recluse who runs a small farm which she inherited from her family. She has a wooden leg, having lost one of her own whilst participating in the war as a medic. At first Vola resents Peter’s intrusion into her quiet life, but as their relationship grows (she finds her conscience will not let her abandon the young boy) so she is forced to face up to her own demons, terrible memories from her past, particularly her time in the war. Similarly, Bristle learns increasingly to trust Pax as he helps and protects her, both from the soldiers encroaching on their forest territory and predators, such as coyotes.

SPOILER ALERT!

Pax and Peter do eventually find each other  and Peter must decide whether to take Pax back in again as his pet, or whether to let him go and live amongst his new companions. His choice does not provide the happy ending that many younger children would want and expect, hence my feeling that it’s for older ones. But it will raise important questions for readers about how animals and human coexist and the impact of human habitation on wildlife and the balance of nature.

I really enjoyed this book and animal-loving kids will love the Pax chapters which are written quite differently to convey the special way that foxes communicate and interact – the book has been well-researched and just about avoids anthropomorphising whilst also making Pax a sympathetic character that readers can identify with. There are some challenging themes (not least Peter’s recollections about his mother’s death and the difficult relationship he has with his father), a few gory bits, and some scary suspense-filled bits. Recommended for 10-11 year olds.

What books are your children reading at the moment?

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