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: Book review – “What not to do if you turn invisible” by Ross Welford

This is my third Ross Welford novel. I loved the two others that I have read – Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy – and have recommended them widely. What not to do if you turn invisible explores some similar themes to the other books – a child who has lost a parent and who feels slightly set apart from their peers, childhood fears and worries, dealing with bullies, and choosing to be brave. It is also set in the same north east England neighbourhoods of Whitley Bay and Tynemouth (an area I know well as I lived there for a few years) and the made-up town on Culvercot (sounds rather like real-life Cullercoats to me!).

What not to do if you turn invisible imgThe main character in the book is a girl this time – 12 year-old Ethel Leatherhead; yes, it is an unusually old-fashioned name, but that is significant. Ethel lives with her ‘Gram’, a very conservative, very proper lady who has strong views about things that are ‘common’ or undesirable. We learn that Ethel’s mother died when she was young, and that she is not aware of her father. Ethel also has a great-grandmother, who turns 100 in the course of the novel. Great-gram lives in a nursing home and speaks very little until one day, after Ethel visits her, she grabs her by the arm and says to Ethel, rather mysteriously, “Tiger. Pussycat.”

Something else we learn about Ethel from the outset is that she suffers from severe acne. That fact is key to the story as it is her search for a cure that leads her to try a mysterious Chinese medicine she buys from the internet and an old sunbed. It is the combination of these two potent remedies that causes her to experience bouts of temporary invisibility. Once she discovers this, and comes to terms with it, she and her friend Elliot Boyd (another school outsider, who is teased because he is from the South and because he is overweight) seek to use the invisibility, firstly, to help Elliot in the school talent competition and, secondly, as a means of exposing the bad behaviour of school bullies Jarrow and Jesmond Knight, boy and girl twins who have been kidnapping local dogs and demanding ransoms for their return.

The scene is set for a number of interwoven plot threads – how will Ethel cope with her invisibility and will it have any long term physical effects? Will Ethel and Elliot succeed in getting the incriminating video evidence back from the Knight twins, who become aware of Ethel’s ‘power’? What did Great-gram mean when she said “Tiger. Pussycat.” to Ethel? And who is Great-gram’s mysterious visitor? Finally, what has the late pop-singer Felina, who apparently died from the pressures of fame, the paparazzi and alcohol problems, to do with Ethel?

There is a great deal going on in this novel, and some of it does not seem relevant at the beginning, but things start to come together towards the end, so it rewards patience. There are some brilliantly tense moments of adventure and peril, for example, when invisible Ethel breaks into the home of the Knight twins while they and their father are there, in order to wipe their computer hard drives and mobile phones (to destroy the video), but I found this book a much slower burn than the other two I have read. For that reason, I would recommend it more for the older end of the target age group (11-12 years) rather than say 9-10 year-olds. Also, the themes are quite mature – the problems of growing up, the loss of a parent (there is no miraculous ‘happy ending’ like in Hamster, but there is acceptance and reconciliation, and discovery of her Dad), the nature of true friendship and possible romance.

This is quite a long book, but a relatively quick read, thanks to the shortish chapters. A nice one for travelling with, I would say.

Recommended for 11-12 year olds.

I love having an excuse to read kids’ books – what about you?

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#KeepKidsReading week – book recommendations for summer

As is my seasonal habit, I’ve been scouring publishers’ lists, bookshelves and indeed my local library to come up with a few recommendations that your kids might be interested in. Yesterday, I posted about the Summer Reading Challenge launched this week which is an encouragement to mainly primary school age children to read six books over the summer. Much is made of so-called ‘summer learning loss’, when children get so out of the habit of schoolwork that teachers notice a decline in their performance when they return in September. I don’t hold much truck with this myself; true, anything you don’t do for six weeks is going to become rusty, but the benefits of down-time, family time, play and outdoor time outweigh keeping the times tables tip top! If you are worried about it, however, keeping your kids reading (for pure pleasure!) over the long summer holiday can help maintain their literacy standards as well as help them wind down after day-long playing, and help them relax and sleep when it’s light until late and routines go to the wall.

So, here are some great titles I have spotted that I think your kids might like. I’ve broken down into age groups, but these are broad and can be a bit arbitrary, as you know. Much will depend on not just reading aptitude, but also maturity.

7-10 year olds

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Two Sides by Polly Ho-Yen and Binny Talib

A beautifully illustrated book about Lula and Lenka, who are best friends and complete opposites. One day they have a falling out and they seem irreconcilable. The story is about how they come together again through patience, listening and empathy. Perfect!

 

 

Summer 19 recs 2Milton the Mighty by Emma Read

A great story for our time. Milton is a spider who discovers that he has been branded as deadly on social media and is being hunted by pest killers. He and his two best friends, fellow spiders Ralph and Audrey, must fight to restore Milton’s true reputation, but they will need the help of Zoe and her arachnophobic Dad, the humans in whose home they reside.

 

 

Summer 19 recs 3

 

Mr Penguin and the Fortress of Secrets by Alex T Smith

Really fun illustrations in this book. A nice easy adventure, the second in Alex T Smith’s series about Mr Penguin (a third is due in the autumn). Action and adventure with slapstick humour. Shades of Tin Tin, Captain Underpants and Hercules Poirot! A great introduction to mystery series.

 

 

10-13 year olds

summer 19 recs 4The Dog Who Saved the World by Ross Welford

I have frequently declared my admiration for Ross Welford and this is another cracking title! Welford has an uncanny ability to blend adventure and peril, with wonderful sensitive and empathic characters who defy stereotypes. In this his 2019 novel, eleven year-old Georgie and her dog, Mr Mash, must save all the dogs on earth when they are threatened by a deadly virus.

 

 

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Pog by Padraig Kenny

I loved Padraig Kenny’s first novel Tin and his second looks great too. Brother and sister David and Penny move to their mother’s childhood home after she dies. It is situated in the middle of a forest and they soon discover that they are not alone – Pog is a tiny magical creature who protects the boundary between the human and his own world. Tempted by the prospect of seeing his mother on ‘the other side’ David is drawn to a dark place and Pog has to help save him.

summer 19 recs 6

 

The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher

The lady in the bookshop told me this had her in tears! It has been very highly praised since its publication in May. Set in London during World War Two, Pip, a young mouse, finds herself homeless and an orphan when the shop in which she lives is bombed. She must find safety and a new home if she is to survive. Pass the hankies!

 

 

Older teens and young adults

summer 19 recs 7Meat Market by Juno Dawson

A must-read author for this age group, Juno Dawson’s topics are hard-hitting but reflective of the world our young people inhabit today. This book is about the fashion industry and one young woman’s experience of it. Perfect for the #MeToo era.

 

 

 

summer 19 recs 8On The Come Up  by Angie Thomas

I have recently read The Hate U GiveAngie Thomas’s first novel. If this one is half as good it will be well worth a read. The author returns to the neighbourhood of Garden Heights, the volatile setting of her first novel, but her central character this time is a teenage rapper who finds viral success online. It is a story about how getting what you wish for might not necessarily be what you need.

 

 

summer 19 recs 9

Killer T by Robert Muchamore

This looks like a highly ambitious novel, imagining a disturbing future where science has run amok and is being misused. The Killer T of the title is in fact a deadly virus which terrorists are threatening to release onto the world unless they are paid a huge ransom. Harry and Charlie are two teenagers attending a Las Vegas high school who become caught up in the effects of the impending catastrophe. Against a background of potential disaster, supposed technological advance and rapid social change, friendship and love are the forces that truly underpin the human condition.

Now that must have whetted your appetite – I want to go and read all of these right now! I hope you will find something for your kids here. As always, the golden rule with kids reading is support whatever it is they want to read (parental guidance notwithstanding), show an interest and discuss it with them.

Happy summer reading, kids!

Are there any titles for kids that have caught your eye this summer?

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#KeepKidsReading week – the Summer Reading Challenge

I’m bursting with excitement this week – I seem to have got back into a good reading groove at last, and I’ve started another book by children’s author Ross Welford. I try to read at least one YA or children’s book a month and they are always such a treat. Ross Welford is one of my favourite authors; I loved both Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy and I’ve now started on on What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible. I’ll be posting my review of it later in the week.

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This week also sees the launch of the kids Summer Reading Challenge 2019 by The Reading Agency in association with libraries up and down the country. The theme this year is Space Chase, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Children joining the reading challenge are encouraged to read up to six books. When they join they get a ‘mission folder’ so they can keep a record of their achievements, they get stickers and rewards for each book read, and, on completing the challenge, will receive a certificate. It’s aimed at primary school children and there is also a fantastic website with games, book recommendations, competitions and the chance to write reviews. I got my kids into this every year when they were younger and it also gave me something to do with them – a weekly trip to library certainly helped to fill the long summer holidays. It’s a win-win!

“It’s on in almost every locality, it’s a delight for the children to take part in and…it’s one of the few things where you’re delighted and it does you good! What could be better?”

Michael Rosen, Author and former Children’s Laureate on the Summer Reading Challenge

I’ll be posting tomorrow with some book recommendations for your kids for this summer, so look out for that if you’d like some ideas to get started.

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Building your children’s library #1 – books for pre-schoolers

 

I have a deep love of children’s books and am passionate about keeping kids reading, as regular readers of this blog will know. I am frequently asked for recommendations for books for children and young people. In truth, there are so many great books for kids out there and I can only read a fraction of what I’d like to, so it’s difficult. Wander into any bookshop or library, however, and you will see before you dozens of wonderful titles. I am a firm believer in allowing kids to choose their own books; that way you build their love of reading from the inside out rather than it being an interest that the parent tries to impose from the outside in. This is particularly important for teenagers who a) are likely to resist all things their parents like and embrace the opposite, and b) are particularly sensitive to being told what’s ‘good’ and ‘not good’. My advice would be, don’t worry too much about the ‘quality’ of their reading and take pleasure in the fact that they are reading. Once you engage with them on their terms, they may be more open to suggestions further down the line.

 

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Image by Aline Dassel from Pixabay

I have a deep love of children’s books and am passionate about keeping kids reading, as regular readers of this blog will know. I am frequently asked for recommendations for books for children and young people. In truth, there are so many great books for kids out there and I can only read a fraction of what I’d like to, so it’s difficult. Wander into any bookshop or library, however, and you will see before you dozens of wonderful titles. I am a firm believer in allowing kids to choose their own books; that way you build their love of reading from the inside out rather than it being an interest that the parent tries to impose from the outside in. This is particularly important for teenagers who a) are likely to resist all things their parents like and embrace the opposite, and b) are particularly sensitive to being told what’s ‘good’ and ‘not good’. My advice would be, don’t worry too much about the ‘quality’ of their reading and take pleasure in the fact that they are reading. Once you engage with them on their terms, they may be more open to suggestions further down the line.

I know, however, that many parents want to build a decent library of choices for their children, and also, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and godparents also want to know what they should give as gifts. So, I am starting a series of posts on building your children’s library. I will focus mainly on classics as these are books that have stood the test of time. As ever, age boundaries are flexible – a mature 10 year old might enjoy something in 11 -13 range and vice versa. Again, don’t worry; this is not a reflection of their ability, only of their interests. It is counter-productive to push them to read topics they are not ready for.

That probably won’t be a concern for today’s list however, as I’m picking books for pre-schoolers! Having said that, my teens still get great pleasure from having many of these books around (many of our books have gone to charity shops over the years, but some will be treasured forever).

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So, if you have or know young children in 2-5 age group, here are ten of the very best books ever:

  1. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  2. Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
  3. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury
  4. Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram
  5. Miffy by Dick Bruna
  6. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd
  7. The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr
  8. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  9. The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
  10. Elmer by David McKee

There are probably at least a hundred other books I could have included here, so my next post on this topic might just be an extension list to this one! I’d love to hear your recommendations too. I should add that these are books not only that my children loved but that I also loved reading aloud to them. And THAT has truly been one of the joys of my life.

What are your favourite books for pre-schoolers?

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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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Kid’s book review: “The Explorer” by Katherine Rundell

I want to tell you about a wonderful book I have just completed which will be perfect summer reading for 9-12 year olds; long enough to last them for a holiday, but with enough pace to sustain their interest and sufficient can’t-put-it-down qualities! Katherine Rundell. This is only her fourth novel, but she has already won two major prizes: the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2014 for Rooftoppers and The Explorer won the Costa Book Award in 2017. Phew!

The Explorer imgThe novel begins with a dramatic event: four children are travelling in a light aircraft across the Amazon jungle, which then crashes. The pilot dies (this is quite gently done, it is not frightening), which means the four children, five year-old Max, his older sister Lila, both Brazilian, and Con and Fred, two Brits, aged about 11-12, find themselves alone. Each of the children has their own back-story and their characters are carefully-drawn: Fred is resourceful, a natural leader who the others look to, but he is also a troubled soul, his mother is dead and he longs for the approval of his remote and uptight father. I should add at this point that the story is set, I would guess, in the 1950s. Con is a feisty and assertive girl, who is also often angry and finding herself in conflict or impatient with the others. She comes across as something of a spoiled brat, but she too is hiding a deeper insecurity. Her secret will be revealed much later. Lila and Max are siblings. Max is very young, vulnerable and afraid. Lila is fiercely protective of him, acts as a mother-figure in the absence of their own family, and has the maturity to bring the group together at times of great stress.

Straight away the children’s survival instinct kicks in and they search for food, are vaguely aware of the dangers of certain plants and creatures, build a shelter and work out how to start a fire. Very soon they find a pouch with a rudimentary map, which they hope will take them back to some sort of civilisation. With nothing to lose they decide to build a raft to take them along the river. They are forced into it in any case when their fire, which they had failed to fully extinguish, catches hold and burns the whole area they were staying in. They have to take to the river to escape.

Once on board their raft they encounter many other hazards, but they are also having the adventure of their lives, far away from the dull and staid lives they normally lead. Even though they know they are facing grave dangers at every turn, they also feel that this experience is life-affirming:

“The next day was a Wednesday. Wednesday at school began with double geography: the most exciting thing that happened on Wednesday was biology with old Mr Martin, who was liable to fart at unexpected intervals.  This Wednesday, Fred woke to a rainforest thunderstorm, and rain dripping through the roof of the den into his ear.”

About halfway through the book the children encounter a man in the rainforest, ‘the explorer’, who lives in a ruined ancient city with his pet vulture. He is initially hostile to them, which comes as a shock to the children as they clearly believe that he, as the adult, will help them in their dire need. He falls woefully short, however, and they find that they must continue their survival efforts. He allows them to stay with him in the ruined city, and, as he gets to know them better, trust develops and he transfers some of his knowledge of the rainforest to help them. Over time, he slowly reveals to them why he has chosen to live alone, rejecting the rest of human society and why it is so important to him that the ruined city remains a secret. He too has a tragic back-story that helps to explain his behaviour.

Spoiler alert: Max becomes very ill and it becomes apparent that without medical help he will die. The explorer reveals to them that he has a small plane, but that Fred will have to learn to fly it to get the children out of the rainforest and to their only chance of safety. They make it to Manaus, landing in a field, and Max gets the treatment he needs in time.

This is a really cracking story with a good balance of peril and positivity. It is both an adventure story and a very touching exploration of humanity. It will appeal to those interested in environmental issues as it is a love story to the rainforest and all that is special about it, as well as an exhortation to tread lightly on the earth. Insensitive human exploration and endeavour has a great deal to answer for and has put places like the Amazon rainforest in jeopardy. The explorer voices a desperate plea on behalf of the planet when he appeals to the children to ‘pay attention’:

“’Do you see all this?’ The explorer held his torch high, casting light on the trees and the sleeping birds. ‘You don’t have to be in a jungle to be an explorer,’ he said. ‘Every human on this earth is an explorer. Exploring is nothing more than the paying of attention, writ large. Attention. That’s what the world asks of you. If you pay ferocious attention to the world, you will be as safe as it is possible to be.’”

Another theme running through Rundell’s work is the resilience and resourcefulness of the young and the error that adults make in trying to ‘protect’ them too closely. Children need to learn to take risks and find their own boundaries and discover meaning in their lives. The four children here learn much more than school will ever teach them as a result of their experience and manage perfectly well without adults.

I loved this book and found myself moved and uplifted by it. Highly recommended for 9-12 year olds. It is augmented with some beautiful illustrations, which younger ones will enjoy.

Have you read any of Katherine Rundell’s books?

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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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What are your favourite films of kids’ books?

I am currently compiling a list of books that every child’s bookshelf should contain (look out for a future post). There are a lot of kids out there who love to read and the only problem their parents have is keeping up with consumption. But for many of us, keeping our kids reading in the face of so many other assaults on their time is like waging a war on multiple fronts and it’s not always easy to keep them interested in books once they get past 11 or 12 years old.

If you recognise this, then a film adaptation can be a good way of sustaining their interest, supplementing the act of reading with some visual stimulation and sharing the engagement with them (some kids just need more social interaction and books generally mean being on your own). So here are my top picks. They may not be the best film adaptations (such a list would be incomplete without The Wizard of Oz, in my view, but the L Frank Baum book on which it is based would not top most people’s reading lists), rather it is a list where I think both the film and the book complement each other and which may help kids with or lead them to the book. The order is in roughly increasing age appropriateness (my opinion).

  1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory  by Roald Dahl – I could probably populate a whole list with Roald Dahl adaptations, but the two films that have been made of this book are both superb and very different, which just goes to show how differently books can be interpreted. Personally, I prefer the 1971 version Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder, but the 2005 version with Johnny Depp is also excellent.
  2.  Matilda by Roald Dahl – the 1996 film stars Danny DeVito and his wife Rhea Perlman as Matilda’s appalling parents.
  3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – there have been many film and television adaptations of this and its follow-up Alice Through the Looking Glass.  I love the 2010 version by Tim Burton which stars Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp.
  4. The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis – again, there have been many adaptations of the five books in the series. I love the big 2005 production which stars Tilda Swinton as the White Witch and Liam Neeson as the voice of Aslan.
  5. How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell – the three films (2010-17) may be rather more well-known than the books, but if your kids liked the films try and get them into the books.
  6. The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith – you can’t not love the 1995 film Babe based on this book.
  7. Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine – Robin Williams is on classic form in the 1994 film version Mrs Doubtfire.
  8. The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DeTerlizzi and Holly Black – my son loved the movie and then went on to read all the books.
  9. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – a classic book, and the 1933 film version with Katharine Hepburn is a classic also. There is also a 1994 film with Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst, among other big names.
  10. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman – The Golden Compass (2007) is based on the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy and stars Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Ian McKellen among others.
  11. Coraline by Neil Gaiman – I haven’t read the book, but I love the 2009 movie. Gaiman will appeal to a certain kind of child who likes dark fantasy.
  12. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett – I love the 2004 film starring Jim Carrey.
  13. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – a challenging book and a challenging film, released in 2013, but well worth the effort. Recommended for 11-13 year olds. Younger kids will need you to watch this with them.
  14. The Fault in our Stars by John Green – my daughters, aged, 12 and 14, love John Green. They love the high emotion! The film is pretty good, but a weepie, so tissues at the ready.
  15. Holes by Louis Sachar – a superb book. The film is rather more comic than the book, in my view, but a good one for teenage boys I would suggest.
  16. Watership Down by Richard Adams – another classic weepie the 1978 film was voiced by a big-name cast and who could forget the score and theme song, Bright Eyes by Art Garfunkel. Written in 1972, teenagers will recognise the issue of environmental destruction.

Have you spotted the glaring omission? Yes, the Harry Potter series. Left out simply because it needs no introduction. Most kids, it seems to me, have read or watched all of them, or both.

Are there any that you would add to this list? I would love to hear of your favourites.

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