Review policy

Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Sunday 30 January 2011

Born to read

This blog is another "off topic" one. It is in response Save the Children's Born To campaign, to prevent child mortality and allow more children worldwide to achieve their potential.

I was born to be a reader. I was at Primary school in the 1970s, and as I have said before, it took me a long time to learn to read. I went to a small (100 pupils) school North West of London, a commuter belt small town. We had a great library, with a wonderful children's librarian called Adrienne. Once I had mastered reading, it was the access to a wealth of books, and Adrienne taking me seriously as a reader, that gave me the incentive to read widely.

There are two types of reading that children need to do in order to be successful readers, once they have mastered the basic decoding (sounding out of words). One is to be able to return to what is comfortable. Anyone with a close relationship with a small child knows this; that a child will have a loved book that they thrust into your hands and demand "Read it to me!", and for the umpteenth time you share the adventures of Spot, or Thomas the Tank Engine, or The Gruffalo. Children need the comfort and support of repetition and familiarity; to know that the story is fixed and to feel successful, even when they can read independently. So owning their own books is vitally important, as is the work of Booktrust in giving books to children at various points in their development.

The other is the chance to read widely, and to autonomously choose books. Jacqueline Rose and others have pointed out that the term "children's literature" is problematic- after all, children do not have "free choice" in what they read. Their books at home are generally chosen by their parents or relatives. Their books in school are chosen by their teachers. So access to a range of books in a library is vital for them to develop their discrimination, taste and understanding of genre. I remember being almost overwhelmed by the choice, but Adrienne the librarian would talk to me about what I enjoyed and didn't enjoy about my reading. She helped me to explore books and develop my taste.

In 1992, award-winning French teacher and novelist Daniel Pennac wrote The Rights of the Reader (Comme un Roman). It was translated into English and wonderfully illustrated by Quentin Blake in 2006.  It is a wonderful book, based around 10 rights. The right to skip, the right not to finish a book, and the right to read anything that he claims for young readers I think demonstrates the importance of libraries for young readers. Some experimentation will lead to wonderful discoveries, but some will not. I remember the joy of discovering Elizabeth Enright's Thimble Summer. I remember the heat of the sun and the smell of the grass as I lay in my back garden reading it when I was 9 or 10. I remember the disappointment of reading Scott O'Dell's best selling The Island of Blue Dolphins  which I didn't enjoy at all.

Next Saturday is the Day of Action for Libraries. All over the United Kingdom people will be visiting their libraries to stage Read-Ins, to demonstrate their support, recognition of the importance of libraries and to demonstrate to council leaders and to the government that in this time of economic downturn, cutting library funding and closing libraries is not a good decision. Libraries provide free access to books when families may have to cut back on spending. They provide internet access for people who may not be able to afford it (1.7 million children in the UK live in severe poverty, according to Save The Children), and 17% of the population has never been online. Children without access to the internet at home can access it at the library. People wanting to use e-readers can download e-books for free at libraries.

Next Saturday I am working, but I will pop into the library near where I work, where I have a library card, as well as one for my home borough. I may borrow a DVD. I may take out some books on the Italian lakes, where I am hoping to go on holiday. Please consider joining your local library, if you don't belong already. Next Saturday may be the perfect time to do so! Take proof of address and photo ID, and rediscover the joy of reading voraciously. For more information see Voices for the Library.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Unwizardly To School

As a girl growing up in the London commuter belt in the 1970s I think my love of school stories came from two sources. One was my weekly fix of Bunty, which I bought with my pocket money, and would often wander into the road because I couldn’t wait to start reading it on my way home.  My favourite story was The Four Marys, about four girls at St Elmo’s boarding school, who had various adventures- I seem to remember them catching burglars- and possibly there was a teacher who was a spy?
My mum was a Liverpool grammar school girl. The daughter of factory workers, who grew up in the 1940s, she loved the Chalet School books and Lorna Hill’s Sadler’s Wells books. These were books about the Sadler’s Wells ballet school, and tended to be about older girls that the general school stories.
I loved Mallory Towers and St Clare’s books by Enid Blyton, and the wonderful books about the Marlowes by Antonia Forrest. I don’t remember getting them from the library, so I am fairly sure that I collected school stories from jumble sales and church bring and buys. I carried on collecting and reading Dimsie, Angela Brazil, Abbey school and Chalet School books well into my University years.
What was the attraction of books about boarding school stories from the 1930s- 1960s to a girl going to state schools in the 1970s? Well, for me they had strong girl characters (as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I was not keen on books with no girls, or weak girls). The girls were away from their parents, overcame difficulties such as being wrongly accused of cheating or stealing, making and losing friends, and in the case at least of the Chalet School, getting lost on mountains, falling through ice when skating on a lake or being involved in a train accident. The girls almost always navigated their own difficulties, often rescuing their friends from greater or smaller problems, since they were away from parents. However, this is not a Lord of the Flies world- there is a structure provided by rules, timetable, regular meals and a school staff to provide protection and enforcement.
Like the fantasy genre, most successful novelists created a whole world, usually sustained through a series of novels. The exception was Angela Brazil; and this may be why she is less well known today.  I think the benefit of a school setting is obvious for writers of fantasy novels for children and young adults. The familiarity of the school structure grounds the authors, making their fantasy worlds more believable, and the removal of the protagonists from the care of their families allows them to be put into dangerous situations in a credible way. After all, children at school encounter challenges and dangers that adults cannot experience.
The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy was first published in 1974, and is aimed at younger readers than most of the books in this blog. Mildred Hubble and her friend Maud are new pupils at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Young Witches. Mildred is a well meaning young witch, but she is clumsy and careless, and manages to, amongst other things, turn a stuck up classmate into a pig, ruin a broomstick riding display and, by making a mistake in her potion test, turn Maud and herself invisible. However, she saves the day by accidentally stopping rival witches from taking over the Academy.

Witch Week (1982) by the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones is one of the Chrestomanci series of novels. These are set in a number of parallel worlds connected to ours, where in general the landscape, natural world and society resemble Britain, but magic exists and is more or less accepted. Chrestomanci is responsible for regulating the use of magic in these parallel worlds. Witch Week is set in world Twelve C, where magic is present but illegal, and punishable by death by burning (the setting is contemporary).  Larwood House is a boarding school, but not a well funded one, for the children of executed witches. The Geography teacher, Mr Crossley, finds a note claiming that someone in class 2Y is a witch, meaning that the inquisition must be called in. Unfortunately the most unpopular members of the class, Charles Morgan and Nan Pilgrim, have just discovered that they are witches.
Wynne Jones is a fabulous writer (and sister of Isobel Armstrong, poet and Emeritus Professor of Victorian Studies at Birkbeck, University of London), and I think unfairly overshadowed by some later and inferior writers. One of the subtleties of this novel is that Charles and Nan, although victims of teasing and bullying, are in fact not particularly likeable characters at the beginning of the book. Charles is antagonistic and a know it all; Nan can’t stop talking and is tactless. Wynne Jones develops their characters in a way that does not eliminate their negative traits, but demonstrates how in some circumstances these can be positives, and the school setting is integral to this process. The children must learn how to tolerate each other, and eventually identify the positive aspects of their classmates’ characters in order to survive. While the Chrestomanci series nominally has a reading order, starting with The Lives of Christopher Chant, I would suggest starting with Charmed Life, as it has more of Chrestomanci in it and demonstrates how he controls the use of magic. Sadly, Diana Wynne Jones is very ill, and it is to be hoped that she recovers soon.

Before Anthony Horowitz’s Stormbreaker, featuring teenage spy Alex Rider, was published, he was a struggling children’s author and was considering giving up and focusing on his writing for television (he wrote Foyle’s War.) But he wrote Groosham Grange (1988) intending it to be a series- there are only two novels so far, and the rather (in my opinion) mean spirited comments on his website may suggest why he never went further than Return to Groosham Grange (first published as The Unholy Grail in 1999).
Horowitz has stated that Groosham Grange was influenced by his unhappy experiences at boarding school. David Eliot, the seventh child of a seventh child, is a great disappointment to his father, a merchant banker, who makes various very funny “when I was your age...” speeches. At the beginning of the book David has just been expelled from Beton College, where the boys must wear top hat and tails, say Good Morning in Latin and clean the older boys’ shoes.  His parents are (in a slapstick way) violent and cruel people, and when a prospectus for Groosham Grange school mysteriously arrives they send him there without any further investigation, mainly because it promises discipline and only one days’ holiday a year. The prospectus boasts that it’s the only school with its own cemetery!
The school is off the coast of Norfolk, and on the train journey from Liverpool Street, David meets Jeffrey Jones, who has been bullied because of his weight, glasses and stammer, and Jill Green, who ran away from her Swiss finishing school because she was so unsuccessful with the ladylike tasks she was given. The curate they meet en route faints when he hears that they’re going to Groosham Grange, and at Hunstanton they’re met from the train by a hunchback called Gregor, then rowed to Skrull Island by a pirate, Captain Bloodbath.
The rest of the children at the school seem mysteriously well behaved. The deputy head has no reflection, the French teacher M. LeLoup vanishes every full moon, the English teacher teaches Shakespeare as if she knows him personally, and the Science teacher and Matron has a very jealous pet crow. Jill and David can’t wait to get away, particularly after the Department of Education visitor dies in mysterious circumstances. Jeffrey, however, is very happy at the school, and is soon wearing the school ring that all children and staff are wearing...
As I have said, Horowitz’s website seems to be hinting at the similarities between Groosham Grange and the Harry Potter series. However, this first novel is not the story of a rejected child happily finding immediate acceptance in a magical world that is mostly wonderful and joyous, with warm, cosy dormitories, delicious food and fun learning. Groosham Grange is a dangerous, hostile place in this novel, and David eventually must make a choice to stay that is really no choice at all. It reads very much as the set up for a series, and I have the second novel to read as I’m intrigued to find out whether he grows to enjoy school.

Harry Potter of course is the best known of the fantasy school story genre. First published in 1997, it has become a global phenomenon, initially by word of mouth. It is one of the very few cases in children’s literature where the author is as famous and internationally recognised as their literary creation- Roald Dahl, maybe, is the only other one.  Her life, like that of the Brontes or Dickens, has become as mythologised as that of her creation- for example the stories of how the book was written in a cafe in Edinburgh while her baby daughter slept in her pushchair, which Rowling has largely discredited. There is no need to summarise the plot, as I am certain that my readers will be familiar with it, but I would like to state why I believe the novels are so successful.
Firstly, I think that Rowling creates a very believable alterative world. The magical world has a centre of commerce (Diagon Alley and Gringott’s bank), an administrative centre (Ministry of Magic) a sport (quidditch) and a specialist vocabulary (muggles, auror, animagus, Golden Snitch), as well as an education system (OWLs and NEWTs). These elements lend credibility to Harry’s adventures.
Secondly, the novels grow (in complexity, in the challenging nature of the themes, and somewhat regrettably, in length) with Harry and his friends. The nature of the dangers and the independence with which the children face them become increasingly threatening as the series continues, but at the same time, the other challenges in Harry’s life, both internal and external, are recognisable. He must deal with an unhappy home life, nasty classmates, seemingly unfair teachers, arguments with friends and romantic relationships as well as coming to terms with the loss of his parents, learning some unpleasant facts about his father and learning to channel his aggressive side. The knowledge he gains about himself and his background are also proportionate in each novel with his level of personal development.
Thirdly, Harry and his friends are clearly modern children. The detail about their clothing, the sweets, the different standards of brooms, and the envy of children with the best equipment and the teasing of children with lesser, including the Weasley’s worn out owl and Neville’s unglamorous toad) enables the reader to visualise the characters, to locate them within the society, and for children, to empathise with the characters and recognise similarities amongst their own friends.
I would recommend The Worst Witch to children newly independently reading.
It was made into a popular ITV programme. It has frequent illustrations, and Mildred’s adventures are great fun. Groosham Grange may appeal to fluent readers with a taste for puns and gore.  Witch Week to my mind is perhaps for readers with a little more endurance as readers- it is more of a slow burn than the others, but a child (or adult!) that has enjoyed Harry Potter would probably enjoy the Chrestomanci series. There is some fun Harry/ Mildred fan fiction here, if you’re a fan of both!

Wednesday 19 January 2011

A Fearful Symmetry: Skellig by David Almond

I am very ashamed that I haven't read David Almond's Skellig before. It is a book that I have known by repute for a long time, and I must confess that one of the things that put me off reading it was the fact that it is so widely read as a lower KS3 set text in Secondary schools. I imagined that it would be one of those tediously contemporary "issues" novels that we read at Secondary schools, all teenagers, scooters and youth clubs, that are embarrassingly out of date within 5 years. How wrong I was.

Skellig was first published in 1998, one year after JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and three years after Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, arguably two of the novels that ignited the current interest in children's literature. It was David Almond's debut novel, and was a remarkable success, winning the Carnegie Medal (also won by Philip Pullman in 1995 for Northern Lights). It was made into an opera at Sage Gateshead, with music by Todd Machover and libretto by David Almond (you can read reviews and listen to clips here) and dramatised by Sky 1 with Tim Roth as Skellig- see the trailer here.

Michael, his dad and pregnant mum have just moved house. They have bought a house in need of extensive renovation, expecting to be able to renovate it before the new baby comes, but she arrives prematurely and in need of a great deal of neo-natal care. Michael is missing his old house, his friends Leakey and Coot and is very worried about his mum and sister. In the garden of the house there is an old garage, which is falling down. The family had intended to demolish it and redesign the garden, but hadn't had time to do it. While exploring the garden, Michael opens the door and finds an old man in there, apparently dying.

Next door to Michael and his family lives Mina and her mum. Mina is home schooled. She challenges Michael's view of the world, with her rejection of many of Michael's values and assumptions; she and her mother believe, like William Blake, that institutions (such as school) and society crush our natural curiosity and imagination, and who assists Michael in recognising the wonder of Skellig, due to her knowledge of the anatomy of birds and the poetry of William Blake, which is a recurring trope throughout the novel.

Blake of course is (along with Milton) an inspiration for Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (in particular, the visions of heaven and hell, and the portrayal of religion's antipathy for sexuality, particularly female sexuality). The poem The Tyger (see an image of the original manuscript here) is quoted throughout. Mina's love of birds (and knowledge of owls) and night time are expressed through her repeated quotation of Night from Songs of Innocence. I was also forcibly reminded both of Blake's images of angels (Skellig's splendour once he is revived by Michael's ministration of pork char sui, spring rolls, brown ale, aspirin and cod liver oil capsules reminded me of the image above) but also the repetition of three sided relationships (both successul and unsuccessful) throughout the novel recalled Blake's portait of Newton.

Mina, Michael and Skellig's triangular relationship, exemplified first by their three sided dance and then by Michael's vision of Mina and his wings. There is a satisfying triangle with Mina, her mum and Michael, and between Leakey, Coot and Michael, which is threatened by his growing friendship with Mina. Coot's jealousy of Mina means that a triangle between him, Michael and Mina is unbalanced. The only close relationships that are not triangular in the novel are those between Mina and her mother, and Mum, Dad, Michael and the baby, although it could be argued that there is a relationship between Mina, her mum and Blake, and perhaps that there are triangles between Michael, his mum and dad and the baby, her mum and dad.

This was a wonderful read- I read it in two days because I simply couldn't stop. It is a rich and deep text, but still wears its learning lightly- it could be read as an allegory of the power of love and the imagination or belief, or it could be equally enjoyed as a magical story about a boy finding an angel in his garage. I was delighted to see that David Almond has written a prequel to Skellig, My Name Is Mina. I can't wait to read it. And now I'll maybe overcome my prejudice against Louis Sachar's Holes...

Sunday 16 January 2011

Everyday Magic

Elisabeth Beresford died on Christmas Eve. A prolific children's author, she was most famous as creator of The Wombles novels, which later became a BBC tv show. I had forgotten that she wrote a series of novels before she created The Wombles (apparently so named because her children were running on Wimbledon Common after a long car journey and her small daughter called it Wombledon Common), the Magic books, until I saw Neil Gaiman's comment on Twitter wondering why they weren't more popular. So I ordered some books from Amazon (second hand- sadly they're all out of print), and have been enjoying them.

Travelling Magic was the first in the series, first published in 1965. My Target edition is from 1973, with lovely 1960s cross-hatched illustrations by Judith Valpy. It is the story of Marcus and Kate, who have to go to stay in a boarding house in a London suburb (I deduce that it is Wandsworth since it has the river Wandle flowing through it and a common) during a school holiday, possibly October half term although this isn't made explicit. Their mother is dead and their father has had to go to Istanbul for his work. Mrs Button, the landlady, and her daughter do their best to make the house welcoming for the children and their two other lodgers, Mr Snip and Mr Trevillick, but they and the area have come down in the world, and what was once a desirable area has become more and more urbanised- a block of flats is being built nearby, and a shared area at the back of the gardens has become a dumping ground. On their first night in the house, Marcus is awoken by a noise at his bedroom window- an owl is trying to get in. The children discover that he is a Latin-speaking owl, the guide of Mr Trevillick, who is a trainee magician from the 6th Century, who has travelled forward in time to gather information to present to the council so that he can join the Magician's Guild. He has received a travelling scholarship to study Housing, Travel and Food, with Horace the Owl to act as his guide. However, Horace has become too old, and far too grumpy, to be much use, so the children agree to help. Horace is a lovely example of an obstructive magic creature- he speaks Latin, and calls Marcus "simplicitus".

After adventures involving travelling through the wasteground at the back of the house (which is in fact a time-travel portal), travelling back to Mr Snip's youth, making him much happier and witnessing the statue of Boadicea (sic) on the Thames Embankment coming alive, Mr Trevillick casts a spell, making the Button's road a prime spot for redevelopment, enabling them and the old people from the Laurel's old people's home (where Mr Snip was about to move) to live more comfortably.

Awkward Magic is the second of the Magic books.

This is about Joe, a boy living with a foster mother in Brighton, since his mother is dead and his father is in the Army. On his way home from school for the summer holidays, he rescues what he thinks is a dog being hurt by two boys. It turns out to be a talking Griffin, travelled from the Ancient World to find a mysterious treasure that has been lost. Joe and his friend Grace assist the Griffin, whose magical powers enable them to have adventures, including finding and riding on a magic carpet. Along the way they make friends with Mr Wilkins, a washing machine salesman whose real passion is antiques, and it is through him that the unexpected treasure is found in the most unexpected place. Joe is well drawn, and he is a likeable boy. Beresford explicitly points out the development in his character as the story progresses- he has become much more self confident through his involvement in the Griffin's quest. Grace, however, is less well drawn. She conceals her real circumstances as a plot device, but this leaves her as a rather shadowy sidekick. Mrs Chatter, Joe's foster mother, jars rather for the 21st century reader- she reminds me of the comic char lady from a 1950s Ealing comedy, with her obsession with owning a washing machine and her enjoyment of watching the upper classes going in and out of the Regal Splendide Hotel.

The books have similarities- a light, comical touch, and the use of fantasy and magic is believable, as Beresford uses it to enhance everyday occurances rather than create extraordinary events. They are reminiscent of Edith Nesbit in this; for example The Story of the Amulet, where the juxtaposition of the Queen of Babylon with contemporary London is used to great comic effect. The character of the Griffin is reminiscent of the Psammead or the Phoenix from Nesbit's novels; he is vain and autocratic, and has great difficulty in understanding contemporary life. Both authors use parental absence to enable the children to have the freedom to pursue their adventures, and while magic causes them inconvenience or embarrassment, they are never in danger. Eventually magical agency allows the children what they really want: to be reunited with their parents.

I find it interesting that Beresford's novels are of fantasy in a distinctly urban environment; Travelling Magic in south west London, and Awkward Magic in a very clearly described Brighton. Joe and Mrs Chatter live in Kemp Town, the children visit the Brighton Museum, Royal Pavillion and the Lanes in the search for the lost treasure. There is a very funny scene in a department store. By contrast, Beresford's most well known contemporaries (for example Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander) tended to set fantasy novels in the countryside or small towns. These novelists tend to have a mentoring adult to help the child protagonists in their quest- a Merlin figure. However, Kate, Marcus, Grace and Joe are the voice of reason, and the most knowledgable characters involved in the task or quest the magical character is involved in. Again this is reminiscent of Nesbit's comic fantasy, rather than the high fantasy genre that the other novelists espoused.

I have Sea Green Magic still to read. The blurb explains that it is the story of three children who find a djinn (genie) inside an old bottle, where it has been imprisoned for four hundred years. I fully expect it to be as enjoyable as the other two books. I would recommend these novels; they are great fun to read, and in my opinion although they are not completely successful (the endings in particular are a little anti-climactic) they stand up against other comic fantasies such as Helen Cresswell's Winklesea novels or Susan Cooper's The Boggart. Snap them up if you see them in a second hand bookshop, and enjoy them.

Saturday 8 January 2011

The Tao of Ged

Once there was a poor boy who was neglected by his family. Strange things started to happen around him, and he was taken in by a man with affinity with the natural world. His powers earned him a place at a school for wizards, a place of esoteric learning and strange rules, where he was teased and humiliated by a boy from a high born family. The boy was impetuous and hot tempered, and well aware of his poor home life, and as a result of using magic in an unauthorised way, called up a dreadful threat which only he could defeat.

 A Wizard Of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin was first published in the UK by Puffin books in 1971, as the rather psychadelic/ pre Raphaelite cover above suggests. This is the cover I remember as a child (I think this was my Mum's book; at any rate it didn't feature in my bedtime stories from my Dad. Maybe he thought it was too scary- but somehow had no compunction about reading the far more gory Hobbit!) I didn't read this as a child. I first read it a couple of years ago. It is a very different beast from the plot-driven fantasy of much popular modern children/ Young Adult fantasy such as Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl or the Lemony Snickett novels (and I don't mean this dismissively- these are all very enjoyable and often challenging reads). But Le Guin is writing in a different era, from a different stand point.

The novel was first published in 1968. This was an era of race riots, Black Power, Vietnam protests, USSR and China testing nuclear weapons, strikes and riots in Europe, hippies, "free love" and women's liberation. Ursula K Le Guin is a feminist, she is concerned with ecological issues and in Taoist philosophy, and these themes are often explored in her novels. Le Guin has stated that she feels that too often Science Fiction is about white men colonising space; she writes specifically from a feminist perspective in her later novels (see The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu, the fantastically creepy sequels in the Earthsea novels). A huge innovation in her Earthsea novels is the diverse nature of her world; Ged and most other characters are described as having copper skin and black hair (although you wouldn't know it from the cover above or the recent television dramatisation.) Ged's friend Vetch is black. Le Guin drip-feeds this information about her characters throughout the first few chapters; a clever ruse given the year the novel was published in, and clearly sadly the producers of the television series didn't feel that staying true to Le Guin's vision would be popular either with viewers or with advertisers. See Le Guin's comments about this here.

I have stated that this novel is not plot driven, like much modern fantasy. Ged is on a quest, to defeat the evil that he releases due to his vanity and egotism. However, I believe that the novel’s key theme, the necessity for Ged to restore balance to Earthsea and thereby to learn moderation and self-control, are Taoist in origin. His growing maturity is demonstrated in his changing names: he is Duny as a child herding goats, then Sparrowhawk when he is with Ogion before going to school, but his true name is Ged, which must be guarded, for knowing a person’s true name gives the hearer power. (I know very little about American Indian beliefs, but Le Guin’s mother was an anthropologist who wrote a famous book about Ishi, a Yahi  man. I wonder if the idea of the power of names came from her mother’s research.) Ged must learn a dragon’s true name in order to gain power over it, and this section of the novel, where very little action occurs, but a great deal of character progression happens, can be related to the Taoist principle of inaction. Ged must learn to be in harmony with the universe.

A BBC audiodrama was recently repeated on BBC7. It is still available to listen again for a few days, and I strongly recommend it.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Good and bad news

My, 2011 has seen some sad news already. Pete Postlethwaite, one of my favourite actors, Mick Karn, whose band Japan was incredibly important in opening my 13-year-old musical mind with their album Gentlemen Take Polaroids, and now Dick King-Smith, a prolific children's author. He will be best known as the author of The Sheep Pig, filmed of course as Babe, and The Queen's Nose which was a very successful BBC children's series, but I remember Dick King-Smith for two other books.

I taught for most of my career in inner-city, ethnically diverse schools. I had a delightful class of year 4 children (8 and 9) in Tottenham. They had an amazing sense of humour, they were creative, enthusiastic and great fun to teach. We were doing a Geography topic on contrasting locations, and we were looking at farming. We went on a trip to Capel Manor, where the children marvelled at the space, and were terrified of shire horses. We saw bluebells and a fox (not so amazing for the children...) They loved it.

I always made a point of reading a class novel to my classes, whether they were Reception class or Year 6, about to go to Secondary school. And this class was no different. To carry on with the theme of the topic, I read them Sophie's Tom

Sophie is a little girl who lives on a farm with her mum, dad and brothers. She longs to be a farmer. For her 5th birthday, she receives lots of presents, including a toy farm, but what she really wants is an animal of her own. She decides to adopt a stray cat, Tom, but her parents are against it. Sophie, being a determined young lady, has some plans to help her get her way... My very ethnically diverse class (in a school where 38 languages were spoken) who, as I have said were not at all familiar with farms and animals absolutely loved this book. They adopted  Sophie's favourite insult, mowldy, stupid and assive, and laughed uproariously at her cheekiness.

The following year I taught Y5, another very diverse class, with a small group of children who really struggled with reading. They could read the words in books (decode) but they had real problems with making sense of what they read. I found it hard to find books that would interest them, that were challenging enough but not so challenging that they would be put off reading them. Again, Dick King-Smith came up trumps (as did Anne Fine). The Hodgeheg (once they understood what a hedge was, and a hedgehog) was a winner. As well as having it as a group reading book I had a copy of it in the class library, and had to draw up a rota for the 5 children in the group to read it. Antwone's mum bought it for him at the bookfair, because it was the first time he went home talking about a book since he'd read Spot by himself in Y2.

So goodbye Dick King-Smith. I wonder if these classes, who will now be in their late teens and early twenties, have heard the news of your death, and remember reading your books when they were 8, 9 and 10. I hope they do.

Dick King-Smith was never Children's Laureate. I don't know if he would have wanted to be- I think he was quite happy on his farm in Gloucestershire, writing. Anthony Browne's tenure comes to an end later this year, and the public are invited to nominate an author. I have nominated Malorie Blackman, who I think would be a brilliant Laureate. She is a passionate advocate of reading, and writes consistently brilliant books for older children and young adults (she writes picture books too, but is more well known for her novels). You can listen to her on Radio 4's Open Book here, and while I love the Noughts and Crosses, I can't wait to read Boys Don't Cry. Who are you nominating?