Review policy

I am very happy to review any novel that fits in with the theme of this blog: novels aimed at 9-14 year olds, preferably with a fantasy/ speculative world setting. However, I will make clear in the review that I was sent the book by the publisher and I will write my honest opinion. Please feel free to contact me via Twitter or Facebook, or fantasticreads at gmail dot com.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Spooky reads for Hallowe'en

Image: scholastic.co.uk

This lovely book for 3-5 year olds is a great autumnal read for children that may be too little to enjoy the scary side of Hallowe'en. Cat, Squirrel and Duck live together in a house, making pumpkin soup every day. They each have their own jobs to do, following the same routine, but one day Duck wants a go at stirring the soup, which is Squirrel's job. So a squabble ensues, and Duck runs away. Squirrel and Cat regret that they didn't take turns, and set out to find him. This is a gorgeous book that won the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration, and would be a great read after making and eating pumpkin soup from the indides of Hallowe'en lanterns! And here's a nice easy pumpkin soup recipe that children could help with!

Image: nosycrow.com


Another lovely book for younger readers is Tracey Corderoy's Hubble Bubble Granny Trouble. With beautiful illustrations in purple, mauve and grey by Joe Berger, this rhyming picture book is told in the first person by a little girl whose granny is a little bit different. She eats gloopy soup, she has bats, cats and frogs as pets, and wears a pointed hat. The little girl is embarrassed by her granny, especially when while helping out at school, Granny accidentally makes the teacher's trousers disappear! The little girl persuades her granny to change her image and look more like a stereotypical granny. However, on seeing how sad her granny is, she changes her mind. I loved this book; it is affectionate, funny and works beautifully with the illustrations. Highly recommended for 3-7: younger children will love it read to them, and older readers will enjoy reading it to themselves.


Image: amazon.co.uk

The late and wonderful Diana Wynne Jones'  posthumous Earwig and the Witch is the story of a little girl named Earwig who is happily living in an orphanage; happily because she is able to control the staff and all the children. One day however, a strange couple come and take her home with them; living in a suburban house is Bella Yaga, a witch, who has taken Earwig in to be her servant. With the help of Thomas, a talking cat, Earwig manages to take control of this household as well, and all ends well. Marion Lindsay's quirky illustrations fit beautifully with the slightly sardonic prose; all in all a fantastic book for 7-9 year olds. I loved it.

I adore all Jones' books, but a special book for me is Charmed Life, as it was the first I read. Published in 1977, I think I first read it a year later.

Image: leemac.freeserve.co.uk
Everyone says that Gwendolen Chant is a witch of exceptional ability. She and her brother Eric (known as Cat) survive the steamboat accident in which her parents die: Gwendolen because witches can't drown, and Cat because he is holding on to Gwendolen. Initially the children are looked after by a local witch, but after Gwendolen writes to Chrestomanci (a very powerful enchanter who controls the misuse of magic in the parallel universes in which this series of novels is set) they go to live at Chrestomanci castle. It is here that Gwendolen, who has initially seemed to be arrogant and bossy, is shown to be malevolent and, once we learn the source of her magical powers, positively evil. One scene is particularly chilling, being reminiscent of the triumph of the White Witch over Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I make absolutely no apologies for including two Diana Wynne Jones' books in this post; she is an astoundingly good writer for children and young people, and I hope that (unlike Joan Aiken, sadly) her death doesn't mean that she falls out of the public eye again. It's a wonderful book for readers of roughly 8-13. Neil Gaiman wrote in his blog after Jones' death that she is a great writer to read aloud.

Image: witchchild.com
At the end of the English Civil War, Mary sees her grandmother hanged as a witch. A strange woman rescues her, and buys her a passage on a ship heading to the New World with a puritan community. Along the way, Mary keeps a diary which she sews into a patchwork quilt, as she starts to realise that in New England she has not found freedom of belief or expression that the pilgrim fathers were seeking. The juxtaposition of a very repressive Christian community alongside the Shamanistic Native American people leads to fear and suspicion, but finally it is jealousy that leads to accusations and danger for Mary and the family sheltering her. This is a wonderful book by a brilliant writer of historical fiction for young people. Highly recommended for readers of 12+.

Are you reading anything special for Hallowe'en? If you're going to buy a book for you or for your children, maybe you'd like to add one for a class of school children in Africa? Pelican Post is a wonderful new charity sending hand-picked books to African schools (a far better idea than bulk donations of completely unsuitable texts), at the moment books written in English that are culturally appropriate. I'm sending Akimbo and the Elephants to a school in Zambia (a great book by Alexander McCall Smith about a boy who is the son of a ranger on a nature preserve). I heard about this charity from Zoe from Playing By The Book; read an interview with the founder here.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Books to encourage reluctant readers


I've been asked several times recently by parents how to encourage children to read, and I thought I'd expand on this in something longer than a 140 character tweet or quick chat after lectures at University! I hope you find this helpful.

1. Continue to read to your children, even after they can read competently for themselves. Children's language comprehension skills often develop in advance of their ability to decipher words on the page; so they enjoy hearing adults or older siblings read books they can't yet read for themselves. From hearing stories read aloud they develop understanding of how books and stories work, and it can encourage them to persevere with reading.

2. Take your children to the library, and encourage them to choose anything that looks interesting. Allowing them to select fairly freely from the children's section will allow them to develop their taste and improve their ability to choose books that are likely to interest them. If they choose books that are a bit too difficult, you can read them with the child; if too easy this is fine- it will improve their confidence. Talk to the children's librarian if you can, and look out for story time, holiday reading clubs and other events which may encourage your child.

3. Allow your child to see you choosing books for yourself in the library, and read in front of your child. That is far more valuable on a day to day basis than seeing Premiership footballers read! This is particularly important for dads, as schools can be such feminised places. Allowing them to see reading as something that is enjoyable and a pleasure in itself rather than something stressful, can encourage them to read other than when they have to.

4. Series of books can be very comforting for child readers. I was a reluctant reader until I was about 7, but latched on to Enid Blyton's Secret Seven; I realised pretty quickly that they were pretty much all the same, but this was reassuring. Astrosaurs- space travelling dinosaurs- are great for 6-8 year olds, the glorious Mr Gum for 7-9-ish year olds (and 40-something University lecturers; I really can't read them on public transport due to loud cackles), and of course for older children there are a plethora of series. I particularly like Artemis Fowl, and Caroline Lawrence's Western Mysteries looks fantastic. I've written before about how Harry Potter got reluctant readers- particularly boys- reading in my classroom.

5. All reading is good reading. Comics and annuals- including those based on popular TV programmes and sport- were devoured in my classroom by children often reluctant to read books. The forthcoming Phoenix looks very exciting, and Bayard's comics that Zoe blogged about on Playing By The Book. There are some fantastic graphic novels for children too, like the Baker Street Irregulars by Tony Lee and Dan Boultwood, for 10-12 year olds. Since comics and graphic novels don't feel or look like graded readers from school, it removes one of the barriers for children reluctant to read.

6. Have a look at the Guardian's Children's Books site if you haven't already, with your children. There are podcasts and video clips of authors talking about their books and book reviews by children of children's books. There are competitions to win books as well! For older children, sites like Walker Books' Undercover Reads is great: book trailers and author information, which is also posted on YouTube.

7. Allow a space for reading. I'm the kind of person who could read in a whirlwind, but some children need a space with no distractions. Maybe an evening a week with no telly or computer, where the whole family reads?

8. Audiobooks can be a great support. Libraries again can be a great source. Some children enjoy listening to the audiobook alongside reading the book, while some may like listening to the story first then reading the book. Knowing the storyline allows children to make sense of the text, and if they enjoy the story, it will encourage them to persevere.

9. Collections of short, related stories can be more manageable than a novel. For younger children, Horrid Henry or Penny Dreadful are great, with lots of pictures to break up the text. For older children, Horowitz Horror and Geraldine McCaughrean's wonderful retelling of myths and legends are great reads.

10. Tap into their interests. Sport? Tom Palmer and Helena Pielichaty write great football and rugby stories for boys and girls. History? Well, the Horrible Histories and Philip Ardagh's fascinating historical list books. Sharks, dinosaurs, space, trucks, ballet, gardening, cookery... there are some amazing non fiction books out there. The Wonderwise Science-related picture books are great. Baking from a simple cookery books or following instructions to make something from a craft book can show children the purpose of reading for information.

Finally, apps and ebooks may or may not have an impact- but I have no experience of them, so I can't comment from experience. Nosy Crow's Cinderella app looks great, and I am quite excited about the possibilities of the Choose Your Own Adventure app- the original books were huge favourites with Y3 and 4 boys. In my experience this is the age that children may start to be reluctant to read independently, but spotting the furtive groups of boys huddling in the corners of playground swapping books was a delight in the 90s!

I hope that this is helpful! If you have any tips, please do post them.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Ada Lovelace Day


Image: en.wikipedia.org

7th October was Ada Lovelace Day. Lovelace (1815- 1852) was the only legitimate child of the poet George, 6th Baron Byron, and his wife Anna Isabella (known as Annabella) Milbanke, nicknamed by her husband "the Princess of Parallelograms" due to her love of science and mathematics. Ada's parents had a very unhappy marriage and they separated a month after her birth. Unusually for the time Ada was brought up by her mother, and her father made no attempt to enforce his legal parental right. Ada had no relationship with him.

Annabella was obsessed with educating out what she saw as Ada's possible inheritance of Byron's instability and madness, and she did this by focusing Ada's education on "rational" subjects such as mathematics and logic. Through Mary Somerville , who taught her mathematics, Ada met Charles Babbage, the creator of the "analytical engine"; a machine designed to analyse mathematical formulae. Ada translated an Italian article on the engine and added notes to it. She wrote an alogarithm for the machine to compute Bernoulli numbers (although the machine was not completed during her lifetime) and is therefore considered the world's first computer programmer.


Image: fantasticfiction.co.uk
This made me think about a book I read many years ago as a young teacher: Hacker, by Malorie Blackman, probably best known for her astonishing Noughts and Crosses series, but also the author of some great picture books, books for younger readers and novels for older children.

Hacker opens with Vicky and the rest of her Year 8 class (including her adopted brother Gib and his annoying friend Chaucy) waiting to take a Maths exam. Inside the exam hall Vicky notices several people cheating, including her friend Maggie. Vicky has a programmable calculator, and writes a programme to work out interior and exterior angles and areas of shapes. Unfortunately since she finishes her exam in 20 minutes instead of two hours, her teacher assumes that she is the hacker that stole the Maths exam. She is given a letter by the head teacher to take home.

However, on returning home, she and Gib discover that something far more serious than cheating at an exam is concerning her parents. Her dad has been accused of transferring one million pounds from the bank where he works to his own account. Vicky and Gib set out to prove his innocence by hacking into the bank; however this puts Vicky in terrible danger from the real thief.

I loved this book. Not only is it a thrilling adventure, but Vicky and Gib's relationship is very believable, as is the ebb and flow of "tween" friendships. Vicky is mixed race, as is her adopted dad, and the detail of her darker skin making her feel as though she doesn't quite belong to the rest of her family rings very true. Identity and ethnicity are not the most important aspects of this book, but it is great to see that the problems needing to be solved in this story. And as children pick up the ideas of "girls' subjects" and "boys' subjects" so early, it is very positive to have a book aimed at 8+ featuring a girl computer programmer! It is unfortunate that the computing aspects of this book have dated, but I would hope that the thriller plotline and believable characters would carry young readers through.

This book is a good one for teaching Primary children about Ada Lovelace and her importance in the history of computing.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

About a Girl

The Bookseller recently reported what seems to be a downturn in sales of titles by top selling women authors, which was reported in The Guardian as "the death of chick lit". At the same time, it seems that children's books are outperforming adult fiction, which is good news for children's book week. So what is there for girls to read ? Well, I recently read three books that teenage girls should enjoy.

Image: bookdepository.co.uk
Lauren Laverne, BBC 6Music DJ, TV presenter and erstwhile indie pop star with Kenickie, (and they were as much fun to see live as they look!) writes about 15 year old Candy Caine, who lives in a small seaside town. She and her best friend Holly hang out in the cafe/ record shop The Bluebird eyeing up the gorgeous Dan, and hatch plans to rid Candy's glamorous mum of her boring fiance and to find Candy's birth father- could he really be 90s indie star Nathan Oxblood? To placate Candy, her mum and Ray buy her a battered old cherry red Gibson SG guitar, and when Candy strums a B chord, out pops a supernatural being called Clarence B Major, to assist her. Candy and Holly form their band, the Broken Biscuits, and their plan for finding Candy's dad comes together. It's very funny book, encapsulating embarrassing teenage party behaviour, feisty octogenarian Gladys, and lots of music references (as you'd expect from Lauren's encyclopedic knowledge). One rainy day I'll make a playlist! Here's Lauren talking about her "indie fairy tale". I've passed a copy on to a friend's 13 year old bass playing daughter, who loved it as well. I can't wait for the sequel, although of course Lauren has been rather busy with baby no. 2... but come on, Lauren, please!

Image: Jessieheartsnyc.wordpress.com
I read Keris Stainton's Jessie Hearts NYC while commuting. This is always dangerous; fine on my way ti work since it is at the train's final destination, but more tricky on my way home, and I nearly ended up in North Essex on more than one occasion. This is an interesting book. English Jessie and her best friend Emma head to New York to visit Jessie's playwright mum, hoping to forget her awful ex boyfriend. New Yorker Finn is in love with his best friend's girlfriend, but also needs to find a way to tell his dad that he doesn't want to study business at University and go into his firm. Jessie and Finn could be perfect for each other; as long as they get to meet... This book has three protagonists: Jessie, Finn and New York City itself. I loved it; the city is evoked perfectly, and the dynamics (between Jessie and her mum, Jessie and Emma, Finn and his family, Finn and Scott, Finn and Sam, Scott's girlfriend) are pitch perfect. Keris very kindly sent me a copy of the book, but this is my honest impression of it. Here is one of favourite New York- related songs: Belle and Sebastian's Piazza New York Catcher. Incidentally, also one of the best gigs I've ever been to!

Image: thebookpeople.co.uk
It's a truth universally acknowledged that many teenage girls dream not of becoming a footballer or rock musician themselve, but becoming a WAG (wife and girlfriend) of one. Michelle Gayle should know; she was married to footballer turned pundit Mark Bright (although having played Hettie on EastEnders and been a pop star it could be argued that he was the BAH- boyfriend and husband).  Her novel Pride and Premiership is about seventeen and a half year old Remy Bennet and her gorgeous older sister Malibu, who are both beauticians working in the same salon. Malibu has devised a WAG's charter, which includes such gems as "Pretend you don't know he's a footballer" and "Never dispute a thing his mum says"- since all footballers worship their mums. Written as Remy's diary, the book charts her meeting with footballer Robbie Wilkins (he doesn't play for a premiership team, but he's gorgeous) and her relationship with him. Can she trust him on a lads' holiday to Ayia Napa? has he really broken up with his ex girlfriend? Can she believe his excuses for not contacting her for long periods? And is Malibu following her own rules? It's a fun read, more Bridget Jones than Pride and Prejudice; Remy's voice is believeable, and Michelle Gayle workshopped the novel with a number of groups of girls; perhaps for me this is where it doesn't quite work: the message overpowers the medium. It feels a little contrived. However, I really rooted for Remy and found myself willing her to dump Robbie and believe in herself more in parts of the novel. Here is a clip of Michelle reading from Pride and Premiership.

I'd recommend all these books for 14+. They're fabulous! The title of this post is from one of my favourite Nirvana songs.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Banned Books Week

This week (24th September to 1st October) has been Banned Books Week. Every year in the US, hundreds books in the public (state) school system and in public libraries are "challenged", but many are never reported. During Banned Books Week, the public was challenged to read banned and challenged books. I decided to read Young Adult novel  Bless Me, Ultima by award winning Mexican-American author Rudolfo A Anaya.

Image: msu.edu
This is the story of Antonio, a seven year old Chicano boy growing up in New Mexico during World War Two. His brothers are away in the army, and in the early part of the novel the loss of young men is a palpable background to the story: the mothers in mourning going to Mass, and then a traumatised veteran kills the sheriff. Antonio's parents, a farmer's daughter whose hopes for respectability through Antonio's becoming a priest, and his father, former vaquero (mounted livestock herder, similar to a gaucho or cowboy) turned road mender, have conflicting dreams for the family. His mother wants to stay close to her family; his father hopes to move to California once his older sons return. It is into this atmosphere that Ultima, the wisewoman and healer, comes to stay with the family.

As soon as she arrives, Ultima recognises something within Antonio, and becomes his mentor in curanderismo, the healing arts. She teaches him not only the herbs and their properties, but also how to respect them. Antonio has vivid dreams and deep sympathies, which reflect not only his learning as a curandero, but also the conflicts of Catholic teachings and traditional beliefs, and the conventionality of his mother's family and the freedom loving nature of his father. Then his uncle Lucas is cursed by the three bruja (witch) daughters of Tenorio Trementina. Antonio not only witnesses Ultima break the curse, but also internalises Lucas' illness, leading to his recovery. However, Tenorio becomes determined to destroy Ultima and anyone protecting her. Antonio witnesses a number of deaths as a result.

Bless Me, Ultima contains swearing both in Mexican Spanish and in English, and what could be taken for mocking of Catholic religious practices through the children re-enacting confession with Antonio as reluctant priest. However, there is nothing more shocking in it than in Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood scenes with children. I was unsurprised to see that the principal who removed the book in Norwood, Colorado later admitted that he had in fact not read it. I am at a loss to find where the parents of Fayetteville, Arkansas find the book irreverent. The scene where the children are re-enacting confession, as I mention above, shows that Antonio is an unwilling participant and feels uncomfortable doing so; Anaya is definitely not approving of this behaviour.

In my opinion the changes to the UK education system, with more state-funded independent schools and giving more "freedom" in the curriculum could lead to similar challenges to literature here. In my opinion this should be resisted. Parents should and do have the right to disapprove of books for children; they have every right to control what their children read at home. However, no parent should have the right to control what other children read. Literature exists to provoke, challenge and make us think. It should be discussed, studied and its merits should be judged. How else will a child in the City of Birmingham, UK know about the lives of children in Birmingham, Alabama, or children in East London, UK know about children in East London, South Africa? "Only connect", as EM Forster says in Howards End. Through reading, that is what we do.

An appropriate song: La Bruja by Lila Downs, an amazing Mexican singer.