Book Review – “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne

This was November’s book on my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a children’s novel. It has very mature themes and requires a grasp of irony as well as some knowledge of history to fully appreciate, but it renders a difficult and complex subject accessible to a young audience in the same way as The Book Thief, so although it is not recommended for young children, it is entirely appropriate for the early secondary school age group.

the boy in the striped pyjamas imgI remember when this book was published in 2006. It was widely acclaimed, but also controversial; there were some questions marks over its historical accuracy (one senior rabbi argued that nine year-old boys were not kept in concentration camps, all were gassed because they could not work and were therefore of no use, though this argument also been disputed) and others have questioned whether such a relationship, between a young inmate and the son of the camp commandant, could have gone on for so long undetected, particularly when Bruno slips under the fence. Whatever its problems, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and was made into a successful film within two years of publication.

 

The central character is Bruno, the nine year-old son of a senior Nazi. He lives happily with his parents, twelve year-old sister, and their maid Maria in a large house in Berlin. Until, that is, “the Fury” comes to visit and shortly afterwards the family is forced to move to a much less nice and isolated house in “Out With”, where Bruno’s father has an important new job. One of the charms of the book is Bruno’s habitual mis-naming and his innocent perspective on events, even though it is clear to the reader what the true facts are. An example of this is Bruno’s observations about changes in his mother’s behaviour, suggesting first her flirtation and possible affair with a young lieutenant, then her depression, and tensions in his parents’ marriage brought about by the family posting.

Bruno’s bedroom window faces the camp, though he has no idea what it is. Arguably, given his curious nature, it is perhaps a little surprising that he is not more questioning about the camp, the fences and the people he sees inside, all of whom wear the same uniform (the striped pyjamas). It must be remembered, however, that Bruno has almost no-one to talk to; his relationship with his parents is remote, he has no friends, he and his sister share a mutual contempt (he calls her the “Hopeless Case”) and the other adults around are involved in a conspiracy of silence that keeps him completely in the dark. The sense of fear, unwillingness to speak up or out, anxiety about the world, and intimidation are palpable.

Lonely and bored, Bruno eventually decides to go exploring and at the boundary of the camp one day he meets another boy of his own age, Shmuel, who is interred at the camp. Bruno is thrilled to at last have someone his own age to talk to and the two boys strike up a friendship. As readers, we are meant to see this friendship as in some ways unlikely, and in others completely obvious – why would two young boys be bothered about such differences as clothing, housing, status? They are just children. The author also comments on the transience of friendship at this age (in Berlin Bruno has three “friends for life”, whom he misses terribly, but after a few months he cannot even remember their names) and I think this helps address some of the credibility difficulties of the plot; friendship between young boys is mainly superficial. Bruno wonders about some aspects of Shmuel’s lifestyle, but Shmuel explains very little, which perhaps would not be surprising if the child was deeply traumatised.

No spoilers here, but there is a brilliant denouement to the story. Although it is a book that has been much discussed, and I have almost watched the film a couple of times, I had managed to avoid knowing the ending as I was determined to read it one day. I am so glad because there is a brilliant inevitability to it – there is a point where you just know what is going to happen and the author places you in this incredible state of suspense and dread, despite Bruno’s innocence. I have said enough!

It’s a short book, and the writing carries you along at a pace that feels like the mind of a child – no real sense of time. I think it’s also a book where you have to suspend the sorts of (adult) questions that would make the events improbable, in favour of the bigger picture, which is a fundamental questioning of the forces that create fascism, terror and discrimination; if only we could see all these things through the eyes of a child they could not exist.

A powerful and engaging novel which pulls off the trick of being both important and highly readable. Recommended for grown-ups and kids of 12+ alike.

How did you feel reading this book?

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#KeepKidsReading week – Building your children’s library #2

It was back in the summer that I published my first post in what was intended as an occasional series on building a library of books for your children. Last time I focussed on the 2-5 age group, mainly picture books and mainly classics. This time I am moving on a little to the 4-7 age group, ie Key Stage 1. This is the age when children are just learning to read, but they still value and need to be read to – the phonics and early reading books are much better than they used to be (I loved reading the Oxford Reading Tree Biff, Chip and Kipper books that my kids brought home from school), but they are designed to expose your children to vocabulary, word order and sentence construction – they are tools designed specifically to aid learning; good children’s literature, on the other hand, fosters joy, builds a bond between child and reader and should inspire.

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Image by saralcassidy from Pixabay

There are some good chapter books now for six and seven year olds: precocious readers who benefit from the challenge of something more complex, but still need age-appropriate themes and subject-matter. I would argue, however, that at this age pictures are still vitally important. Pictures help to build vocabulary organically, they give the child something to look at and focus on whilst listening, as they may not be able to read all of the words themselves, and they help the child develop their imaginative skills as they look at the visions created for them by authors and illustrators. For this age group, the quality of the illustration is just as important as the text; can you imagine AA without EH, or Julia without Axel?

So, for those of you looking to build a library for the child or children in your lives, here are my top ten suggestions. The list is (absolutely!) not exhaustive of course, but these ten will provide the foundation for something wonderful. Nearly all of the books below are just one in a series or the same authors have written similar titles that you can add to the collection.

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  1. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (plus the other 22 books in her classic collection!)
  2. The Mr Men and Little Miss series by Roger Hargreaves
  3. Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne
  4. The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss
  5. The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff
  6. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
  7. Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
  8. Look Inside – Things That Go by Rob Lloyd Jones and Stefano Tognetti
  9. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
  10. The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

I would love to hear your suggestions of books for this age group, particularly any that you have enjoyed sharing with the little people in your life.

I would love to hear your suggestions of indispensable titles for 4-7 year olds.

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#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “The Umbrella Mouse” by Anna Fargher

I’m finally getting back into my blogging groove after a fairly difficult few months and feel it’s time to revive my occasional #Keep Kids Reading series. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s books and about making sure our young people don’t neglect reading in favour of seemingly more “exciting” (but ultimately less satisfying) pursuits – you know what I’m talking about don’t you?! Every writer and keen reader I know remembers childhood reading with joy – the torch under the bedclothes, a favourite book read over and over, sitting on a parent or grandparent’s lap enjoying time shared. There is a relatively short window in which to foster a love of reading, a love which brings lifelong benefits, and I fear that many youngsters today are missing out on something precious. #KeepKidsReading is all about trying to keep books high up on our childrens’ agendas. Plus I love an excuse to sit down with something from the amazing world of contemporary literature for kids!

The Umbrella Mouse imgI’ve just finished a lovely little book The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher. When I was browsing in my local bookshop a few months ago, one of the assistants recommended it to me and said it had had her in tears. I knew then it was a ‘must-read’! I got my copy secondhand online and it’s signed!

The story is set in 1944 in World War Two and the author says she wrote it because she felt there were not enough books about this period aimed at children. The story is set amongst an animal community that is affected by the war and plays its part in defeating the Nazis. Pip Hanway is a mouse who lives with her parents in an umbrella shop in London. Their nest is inside the prized antique umbrella that sits in the window of the shop. When the shop is destroyed by bombing Pip finds herself alone, her parents and the shop owners seemingly having been killed. All that is left of the life she has known is the umbrella. She decides that her only hope is to go to Gignese in Italy, to the umbrella museum there that her parents have told her about and where she knows she still has family.

She is befriended by a rescue dog, Dickin, who takes her to St Giles, an underground hub for all the London animals, domestic and wild, made homeless by the war, and thence to the Secret Underground Animal Army, an intelligence outfit helping Churchill by mobilising animals across Europe. Dickin believes they will help Pip get to Italy with her umbrella. They agree that she can participate in a mission to get a secret message to the (animal) Resistance in France, and from there will be directed to Italy.

After a perilous journey through a storm, down the Thames and across the Channel, Pip arrives in France with her companions, Hans, a German rat fighting on the Allied side, and GI Joe, a messenger pigeon. She is welcomed by the Resistance animals there and takes part in a further dangerous mission to sabotage a German camp, at which Pip displays bravery she did not know she was capable of. Her commitment to the cause helps her to deal with the grief at the loss of her family and her old life, as she finds new friends, and exposes a traitor in the midst of the Resistance force.

The book did not have me in tears, which is perhaps a good thing! It was a nice little tale that had plenty of action, good characters, a nice solid story and gently introduced ideas about the war, the brutality of the Nazis, the bravery of those who fought against them and the impact the war had on civilians. The standard of writing makes it quite mature but the story and characters (talking animals) suggests a younger age group, so I would recommend it for 8-11 year olds, with the caveat that younger kids will need to be quite accomplished readers, while it would not suit those at the upper end of the age range who have moved on to more mature texts. So, for example, anyone who is on to the Diary of Anne Frank (which I think all my kids did at school in year 6) may find this book a little childish. I hope that helps. This is apparently the first in a planned series about the adventures of Pip the umbrella mouse, so look out for more.

A nice one for me – read on a day when I was ill in bed, and needed something not too taxing!

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Book review – “The Storm Keeper’s Island” by Catherine Doyle

Regular followers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and that I frequently post reviews of great kids’ books I have read. I have decided to make this a more regular feature and will devote one week a month to reviewing children’s books and discussing issues about kids reading habits, an issue which I know is of concern to many of you, parents or otherwise. After all, most keen adult readers would, I think, say that their love of reading was fostered in childhood. Just the other day, I recommended Lucy Mangan’s new book Bookworm: A memoir of childhood reading, one of the books on my TBR list this spring which I feel sure will take me back to my own childhood and the many nights I spent reading under the covers, not with a torch, worse, by the light from the landing. It’s a wonder my eyesight wasn’t ruined!

The Storm Keeper's Island imgThis month, I would like to recommend Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island, published last year by Bloomsbury, as a fantastic choice for any young people you know who like modern adventure stories where the good guy wins. Catherine Doyle is a young writer (just 29 years old) and has published several YA novels already; The Storm Keeper’s Island is her first novel for what is called the “middle grade”, ie about 9-12 years, and it was a barn-storming debut, winning several prizes and accolades from established authors in this genre. A second novel, following the further adventures of the main character Fionn Boyle, is planned for this summer and I would expect it to feature heavily in recommended holiday reading lists in advance of the Summer Reading Challenge.

Fionn Boyle and his twin sister Tara are to spend the summer with their grandfather, Malachy Boyle, on the real-life island of Arranmore, just off the coast of Donegal in north-west Ireland. It is a sparsely-populated island where most of the inhabitants are native Irish speakers, but many tourists visit. It is an island the author knows well, her own grandparents having lived there, and her love of the place comes across strongly. The two children don’t seem to know their grandfather well; he is their paternal grandfather, and their own father died at sea before they were born. The children have been sent to their grandfather because their mother has had some sort of mental breakdown. We learn that she has never really recovered from her husband’s death.

Malachy Boyle soon proves to be a quirky character, about whom there is an air of mystery. His cottage is full of home-made candles with mysterious names, like “The Whispering Tree”, “Low Tide” and “Unexpected Tornado”. Malachy Boyle is in fact Arranmore’s ‘Storm Keeper’, a chosen one whose role is to preserve the memories and legends of the island and protect it from its ancient mythical enemy, Morrigan, and her foe, the good spirit, Dagda. Inevitably, Fionn, gets drawn into an adventure involving these mythical spirits; Tara’s island boyfriend (whom she met on a previous visit), the ghastly Bartley Beasley, a vain, self-centred, full-of-himself bully, is the grandson of Elizabeth Beasley, who wants her family to be the next in line for the storm-keeper role and hopes Bartley will be anointed when it becomes time for Malachy to pass the baton. The undercurrent of conflict between the Boyles and the Beasleys is a metaphor for the Morrigan/Dagda feud.

Led by Bartley, the children (ie him, Tara, and Bartley’s sister Shelby, but excluding Fionn) plan to search out the long-lost and mysterious Sea Cave, where it is said a wish can be made. Obviously, Bartley wants to use the wish to make himself the storm-keeper. They are warned away from it as it is said to be highly dangerous. Fionn wants to find it first, to prevent Bartley having his wish, but he is afraid. As time passes, his grandfather passes on to him the knowledge of the candles and how lighting one enables a kind of time travel, where those present can see, even be a part of, events of the past that have been captured in the candle. Using the candles, Fionn will eventually triumph and (spoiler alert!) become the new storm-keeper.

I am not normally a lover of fantasy fiction, and I fear the above makes it sound as if there is a lot of myth and legend here. There is, but there are also actually a lot of real-life issues, modern concerns that children will identify with – loneliness, bullying, sibling rivalry, grief and loss, emotional vulnerability, what is meant by fear and courage, and perseverance. Ultimately, the good triumphs over the bad, the bullies don’t win and they are be exposed and punished. All the kinds of messages we want kids to get from their reading. The island legends do underpin the novel but it is by no means the heart of the novel. Most of all the child characters are credible and human, and many kids will be able to identify with them.

There is excitement, adventure and mild peril here, but also a kind of escapism – the children are on their summer holidays in a remote island community, with freedom to roam and where candles are more useful than mobile phones. The book would suit a variety of young readers in the 9-12 year-old age group. Recommended.

What recently-published books would you recommend for the 9-12 age group?

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Kids books for Christmas – fiction

Blog number two on book recommendations for the young people in your life…or perhaps the not so young! I read this week that about a third of books sold in the UK are those aimed at the children and young adult market. It seems that the golden age of children’s literature that we are in is prompting adults to turn to kids books as well. I think that’s fantastic. As with so many things in life now, boundaries imposed on us about what we should be/read/wear/do are being constantly challenged.

With so many truly fantastic children’s fiction titles about, it seems rash to pick a handful, but I’m going to anyway! You could pick almost anything for keener readers, including a book token which will be double joy to a book loving kid, so I’ve picked books that I think will have an appeal to those who may be a bit more reluctant. As ever, the age recommendations are fluid, it’s more about emotional maturity and awareness of issues discussed than it is about reading ability. Here are some books that have caught my eye.

Primary school age

Ella on the Outside – Cathy Howe & The Boy at the Back of the Class – Onjali Q Rauf

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I’ve grouped these two together since they both deal with the complex issue of childhood friendships and are both about children who find themselves on the ‘outside’. Ella is a new girl at school and is isolated at first, but then finds herself being befriended by the most popular girl in school, whose motives she does not understand. Ahmet is a refugee in The Boy at the Back of the Class and the story is about the challenge of integration and how other children who are at first wary, become interested in his story.

2018-12-03 13.06.51The Girl, the Cat and the Navigator – Matilda Woods

Beautifully illustrated and a magical story about smart, imaginative Oona who dreams of an exciting life at sea, on a voyage of discovery. Perfect for winter bedtime reading.

 

 

 

 

2018-12-03 12.57.28Ladybird Tales of Adventurous Girls 

A collection of short stories, some of which are a retelling of traditional fairy tales, where girls are the heroes who save the day (Gretel and Hansel?). Perfect for challenging some of the stereotypes that abound in fiction for children.

 

 

 

2018-11-30 16.15.43Dog Man Lord of the Fleas – Dav Pilkey

This is the fifth book in the Dog Man series, from the author who brought us Captain Underpants (which was a favourite of my 17 year old when he was younger), a new hero for a new generation. Love these books!

 

 

 

 

2018-12-03 13.06.04Flamingo Boy – Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo needs no introduction, and this is his latest book, published in October. Set in France during World War Two its central character is a young autistic boy. When the Nazis invade he makes a connection with a German soldier who has a son at home the same age.

 

 

 

Late primary/early secondary

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My Mum Tracy Beaker – Jacqueline Wilson

Tracy is all grown up and is now a Mum herself. She is a single parent, and is devoted to her daughter. This book will I am sure be a thrill for youngsters who read (or watched) Tracy Beaker when they were younger.

 

 

 

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The Guggenheim Mystery – Robin Stevens

The second mystery to be solved by young sleuth Ted Spark. Whilst in New York visiting his aunt and cousin, Ted has to solve the mystery of a painting stolen from the Guggenheim Museum when Aunt Gloria is accused of the theft. Kids love series, so this is a good one to get them started on.

 

 

 

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The Graveyard Book Graphic Novels – Neil Gaiman

Death, ghosts, an eccentric childhood and a hunt for a murderer! Neil Gaiman’s book was a sensation when it was first published ten years ago. It is great to see it now in graphic novel form, a brilliant medium for reluctant readers, and a genre that has expanded hugely for all age groups in the last couple of years. This book is also available in two volumes if you want something slimmer and/or cheaper.

 

Teens

2018-12-03 12.59.19Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy

This book was published last year, but is set to be released as a film on Netflix next year. Willowdean Dixon is a brilliant heroine who starts a relationship with handsome and popular local lad Bo, whom she never thought could be attracted to her. She is then beset by self-doubt and to overcome she takes part in her town’s beauty pageant, busting all sorts of myths about what is meant by beauty.

 

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Obsidio: The Illuminae Files 3 – Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

The third book in the Illuminae Files series, the first and second being Illuminae and Gemina. The books are set 500 years in the future in a dystopian universe, it is about warring factions, survival, has loads of action and is presented in an unconventional style that many teenagers may find a bit more engaging than the traditional chapter format.

 

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Scythe – Neal Shusterman

Another sci-fi novel set in the future where death from disease, crime and war have been eliminated and the only way left to die is to be randomly taken by professional ‘scythes’. Citra and Rowan are teenagers who have been chosen as reluctant scythe apprentices who must come to terms with their new roles.

 

 

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I Am Thunder And I Won’t Keep Quiet – Muhammad Khan

Muzna is a young Muslim teenager who starts a relationship with Arif, a handsome and popular boy. However, Muzna learns that Arif has a dark secret and is forced to confront a choice that challenges her integrity and beliefs. This proves very difficult for the girl who is normally very reserved and not used to pushing herself out of the shadows.

 

I would just love to read all of these myself!

If you have any other recommendations, I would love to hear them. Or, if you buy any of these books, I would love to get your feedback.

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Kids book review: “The 1,000 Year Old Boy” by Ross Welford

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature and regularly post about kids’ books I have read. I would encourage all adult readers to dip into children’s literature from time to time. For many of us the love of reading was fostered in childhood, and it can be a lovely experience to rediscover that innocent joy. For some, that might mean going back to old favourites (for me it was Enid Blyton, Lewis Carroll and Puffin Books, and it was wonderful to re-read these with my children when they were younger) but I would also urge you to explore current authors and titles. If you have school-age children or grandchildren it can be a great way of understanding what their priorities are, their hopes and fears, and the challenges they face, which may be rather different to our own.

As you may know, I set up a Facebook Reading Challenge at the start of the year, with a different theme for each month. September was a children’s book and I chose Ross Welford’s The 1,000 Year Old Boy. This was Welford’s third book, published earlier this year. I loved his first novel Time Travelling with a Hamster which I read with a book group I used to run at my youngest daughter’s primary school. The children all loved it too.

The 1000 year old boy imgThis book, like Welford’s others, is set in North Tyneside (where I used to live, so it resonates with me for that reason too), on the coast east of Newcastle. Alfie Monk is over 1,000 years old, having been born at the time of the Danish invasions of Britain. When he was young, his father was custodian of some ‘life pearls’ within which were stored an elixir of eternal life. To access the elixir the life pearls had to be smashed and the liquid consumed. Alfie’s father was involved in a fight with someone who tried to steal the life pearls, and he was killed. Alfie (unfortunately?) smashed two of them accidentally; he and his mother (and their cat!) drank the liquid, meaning they will never age and therefore never die of natural causes. The curse can only be lifted by drinking another dose of liquid, but there is only one life pearl left. This is hidden on a remote island off the Northumberland coast.

Alfie and his mother live a quiet and discreet life in a secluded cottage in the woods. By moving around every few years they have managed to avoid discovery and the authorities. Alfie’s existence is awkward though; if he makes a friend they soon become suspicious of the fact that he does not grow up like them, and it is the betrayal of one former friend in particular which leads to a fire at the cottage which destroys Alfie’s home and kills his mother. Alfie finds himself in the care of the local authority and is unable to reveal anything about himself, fearing the consequences. Fortunately, Alfie makes two good friends, Aiden and Roxy, both of whom live on the estate close to Alfie’s cottage. He reveals his secret to them and they set out to help him.

Roxy is a feisty young girl, and a wonderful character. Shrewd, able, quick-witted and intelligent, she has a resourcefulness which no doubt comes from her being the sole carer for her disabled mother. Aiden is less sure of himself and is a thoughtful young boy, whose family moved onto the estate after running into financial difficulties. His parents argue a lot and his friendship with Roxy and Alfie helps him get away from his problems at home. All three main child characters are strongly developed, well-rounded and believable. The narration switches between Aiden and Alfie and I loved the way the author uses their different speaking styles to convey character.

I love the way Welford writes; he has a real ear for the language that young people use and there are great comic touches in this book which will appeal to kids’ sense of humour. There are some challenging themes here – I read Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time earlier this year, where the main protagonist has a condition which means he ages extremely slowly. Rather than being some miracle to be aspired to, Tom Hazard, like Alfie Monk in Welford’s book, finds it lonely and isolating because it prohibits normal human relationships. Alfie says throughout that he just wants to be a normal boy, to go to school. At one point he talks heartbreakingly about the “Prison of my deathless life.

This novel has everything you want from a children’s book – pace, plot, great characters who grow and learn from their experiences, and suspense. It has a happy ending. Although I believe that children should not be completely shielded from some of the tragic realities of life (Alfie’s mother is killed and for a time he believes his cat was also), I also think it’s important for the 9-12 age group that there is positive resolution and that good things can come out of bad. That way, I believe, we can help build children’s resilience, a role that books have always had in my life for sure.

Highly recommended for 9-12 year olds.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts. 

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Keep your kids reading this summer

Libraries up and down the UK have launched their summer reading challenge for kids this week as schools break up for the holidays. My local library service (Trafford in Greater Manchester) has launched its challenge under the title Mischief Makers – hmm, a thinly disguised attempt to appeal the more reluctant reader, methinks! The little pack they get looks great so get your kids along to the library.

Libraries always work hard to provide great recommendations for kids so they will have a display of the latest and most appealing titles. Some brilliant kids’ books I have read and reviewed this year have been Kick by Mitch Johnson, A Whisper of Horses by Zillah Bethel, Tin by Padraig Kenny and 36 Questions that Changed My Mind About You by Vicki Grant.

In addition, there are some great new books around that have caught my eye. Age ratings can be tricky as children reach reading abilities and levels of maturity at different stages, so I’ve defined by key stage. Here are my picks.

For KS1-KS2 (age7-10ish)

The Wild Folk by Sylvia V Linsteadt is a quest story with an eco theme about two young people trying to stop the city taking over the country by completing a series of challenges set by a pair of hares. Migration by Mike Unwin and Jenni Desmond – non-fiction is good, pictures are good, this is a beautiful book. The Creakers by Tom Fletcher – bumps in the night, all the adults gone from the town! Lucy is on a mission to discover the truth.

For KS2, going on KS3 (8-12 ish)

Anthony Horowitz, Derek Landy and Tom Gates, all popular and much-loved, each have new books out this summer. For something a little different try Riddle of the Runes by Janina Ramirez, set in the Viking town of Kilsgard. Alva, our young heroine solves mysteries with the help of her pet wolf Fenrir. This is the first book in a new series which I am sure will go down a storm.

For tweens and teens (11-14)

Push the envelope with some poetry – Everything All At Once by Steve Camden is a series of poems about one week in secondary school and all its trials, tribulations and pleasures. Theatrical by Maggie Harcourt follows the fortunes of Hope, who wants to work backstage in the theatre but whose Mum is a famous costume designer, which is a problem. Oh, and she falls in love with a young actor. Perfect summer reading! Suffragette: The Battle for Equality is an illustrated history of the movement with some stunning artwork. Perfect non-fiction for young people interested in political issues.

I hope that has whetted your appetite – it certainly has mine! Get your kids along to the library or local bookshop and there’ll be loads more to choose from.

What are your suggestions for kids reading material this summer?

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