Tuesday, October 24, 2023

The Final Year: Book-Chat ideas

The Final Year by Matt Goodfellow (Otter-Barry, 2023)

Published last month, Matt Goodfellow's new verse novel, The Final Year, is being justly celebrated. It offers us a snapshot of  Nate's life as he negotiates his 'final year' at primary school and lays out, with clear-eyed empathy, the pressures and problems that exist in the pre-teen's world today. Illustrated throughout by the inimitable Joe Todd-Stanton, the pictures interact beautifully with the words to tell Nate's very moving story. 

With compulsive plotting, The Final Year is at once an empathy-builder, a guide to navigating those tricky years, and a green light to the power of the imagination. Most important of all, Nate's story is destined to capture the hearts of everyone fortunate to encounter a copy. 

And just as unique as those hearts are, each reader is sure encounter their own connections and pose their own questions. As starting points, I've put together a few prompts below that I hope will help young readers to explore the depths of this extraordinary book together. 

Names

  • Look up what the three brothers' names mean: Nate, Jaxon, Dylan. What connections can you find? Do you think the choice of names was deliberate? 
  • Nate's primary school is called 'Poppy Field'. Is this significant? Where have you heard about Poppy Fields before? 
  • Is 'The Beast' a character in the story or simply a name? 

People

Major characters in the novel include: 

Nate, Jax, Dylan, Mum, Auntie San, Mr Joshua, Caleb, PS, Turner. 

  • Give one word that first comes to mind when you think of some of these characters. 
  • Put the names of these characters on cards. Pair up the characters/cards choosing your own reasons for the pairings. 
  • There will be one character left out of your pairings each time you do this - does this tell you anything about that character? 
  • How do you feel about PS? 
  • Make a list of all the things Mr Joshua teaches the children in his class. When you've done this, read it through. What does the list tell you about Mr Joshua? 
  • Why is Turner in the story? 

Voice

  • Which words are used that combine to create Nate's voice? Make a list of these. 
  • Try reading some of the poems out loud. Can you hear Nate's voice speaking the poems? Which parts in particular could you strongly hear his voice?
  • Do any of the other characters have a 'voice' of their own in the novel - Auntie San? Mr Joshua? Dylan...? What makes them so recognisable? 

The Poems

  • How does the shape of certain poems tell us 'a deeper meaning' that is going on? As an example to think about, look at "I only hear two names" and the poem on the previous page to that. 
  • Look at the use of 'white space' throughout the book. Does it have any particular importance to certain poems? 
  • Are the titles of the poems just 'titles'? 
The Pictures

  • What do you think of Joe Todd-Stanton's depiction of 'The Beast'? Find all the pictures of 'The Beast' and read them from the earliest one to the last. What is the illustrator telling us? 
  • Why has a whole double page been filled with a picture of Windermere? 
  • There are no words on that page, either. Why not? 
  • Which characters appear in the illustrations the most? Make a tally - are there any surprises for you?
  • What is special about the cover? What stories are being told?  What messages are hidden there? 
David Almond

  • Nate discovers a bond with David Almond and his work: "He writes about people like me" (page 65). Find out about David Almond's life and the sorts of stories he writes. 
  • Joe Todd-Stanton's cover for The Final Year echoes that of Skellig. Why has the illustrator decided to make that connection from the moment you see the book? 
  • If you know Skellig, does it matter if you read The Final Year but haven't read Almond's novel? 

The Final Year is published by Otter-Barry and is available from all good bookshops. Huge thanks to the publishers for sending me an advance copy of the book in preparation of this blog. 


Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Kicked Out

Kicked Out by A.M. Dassu (Old Barn Books, 2023)

Kicked Out finds Ali and Sami living their dream, playing football for the school team and hanging out in their friend Mark's new luxury pool. But money goes missing and racism rears its ugly head when their friend Aadam is accused of the theft. Can the boys prove Aadam's innocence, keep their friendship – and help fight Aadam’s threatened deportation? Can Ali navigate his emotions and stay focused now his dad is back on the scene and his half-brother has joined his school?

Following the triumphant success of Boy Everywhere - the first of Dassu's books to feature Sami, a refugee from Syria - and the short novella, Boot It!, published for World Book Day 2022, the whole gang of brilliantly drawn characters is back in Kicked Out, published on October 19th 2023. 

While her books deal with the very real experiences of refugee children (the research that went into Boy Everywhere was extensive!), Dassu's genius is to create characters that immediately connect with children today. While many of her readers will not be refugees themselves, there are a lot of elements to each character's life which will be very familar: football, gaming, fast food pangs! Why is this so important? The answer is clear, especially in these days when the refugee crisis, racism and extremist views loom large on our screens, in media and in our daily lives. Whilst propaganda seeks to draw divisions between us, never before has children's literature been so important to show young people that humanity should not work like that. 


Dassu's writing is vivid, engaging and ultimately very, very readable, exactly the sort of thing that middle-grade readers particularly enjoy. But beyond the fast-paced plotting and hugely likeable characters (though there are a very few not at all likeable!), there is also tremendous skill and care - just what young readers deserve!  


The title for instance will, on a surface level, simply describe what has happened to Aadam, and also to Ali and Sami. But there are wider echoes of 'kicking out' refugees, away from British shores, that young people might hear bandied about in casual conversation. Again, Dassu's love for her readers and fierce passion for her subject work in tandem: having created her characters, to an empathetic reader, they feel more like friends and the same upset, anger, unfairness is felt by them as it is by Ali and Sami.  


What her readers will keep in their hearts long, long after they have turned the last page is the warmth and love that Dassu demonstrates in her writing. In this way, her books remind me of the way Kelly Yang's Front Desk series makes me feel. As the saying attributed to Maya Angelou goes: 


“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


In this way, I couldn't rate Dassu's writing any higher. As a teacher, I want the young people I work with every day to have the very best literature to read, so they learn that - other that for the sheer pleasure of it! - reading makes you feel: feel the emotional rollercoaster of life, feel the injustices meted out, and most importantly of all feel the joy too. Dassu's knack of engaging us to feel by creating stories and characters who still live alongside you once you've read the book exemplifies the genius of the most lasting books for children. That she is writing today for all of us, particularly the young, is cause for celebration indeed.

***

Kicked Out by A.M Dassu is published on 19th October 2023.
Thank you to Old Barn books and to A.M. Dassu for providing me with an advance copy of Kicked Out to read.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Generating a spark

Super Questers: The Case of the Great Energy Robbery by Lisa Moss and Dr. Thomas Bernard; illustrated Amy Willcox (QuestFriendz, 2023)

Just like a wind-turbine, I'm a big fan...

...of the SuperQuesters series, that is! 

Earlier this year, I celebrated the publication of The Case of the Missing Memory, the second in the Super Questers series and now, just a few months later, comes another title perfect for introducing younger children to the wonderfully exciting world of STEM.

The series, now well underway, is the best I have seen to give  young children  - Y2 -Y4 is the perfect audience -  the tools and confidence to think through problems based on real life STEM contexts and will have a hugely positive effect on their linguistic learning too. 

So what's the latest book about? The publisher writes: 
Leo and his two best friends, Lilli and Bea are on a quest to power a plane. Leo’s mum is an engineer and has given them a model plane explaining that some planes get energy to fly from biofuels. The team discover that renewable energy is made from organic materials even ones available in a garden! They journey to Questland in search of clues about creating biofuel energy. Upon arriving in Questland, the Queen is in urgent need of their help as Lord Grumble and his pesky Snapettes are draining all the energy out of Questland. Join the SuperQuesters in their new adventures as they learn all about how to produce energy from different natural resources; the wind, sun, plant oil, animal manure, algae and ocean waves and work together to crack this latest case, in order to defeat Lord Grumble and restore normality once again to Questland.

I really admire how the aims of the series are so positively embedded here. Quest Friendz have set out to instil a passion for STEM subjects in all children, especially girls, and this is made clear here in the brilliant role model provided by the character of Leo's engineer mum. Transferable skills, associated with STEM subjects, are all in evidence too, whether it's problem solving, finding creative solutions or - and this is a big one for me as a teacher - feeling that buzzy joy of discovery. Throughout the book, puzzles and challenges are posed in a positive, encouraging way which makes for a book that is primarily a real 'read for pleasure', as well as one that teaches key facts, knowledge and skills clearly. 

This book focuses on renewable energy - the subject of which the children I teach are very well aware. They speak of 'saving electricity' and 'not wasting water'. Reading this book will give them a much deeper understanding of the subject (seaweed power, for instance!) and offer thoughtful ways to consider their own place in solving today's problems. 

I cannot wait for the fourth book in the series to be published now - due in Spring 2023, it looks like we will be treated to a further adventure that focuses on the 'Angry Sea' - and the collection as a whole is certainly shaping up to be a major asset to homes and classrooms everywhere. Thoroughly recommended! 

Super Questers: The Case of the Great Energy Robbery is  published today (5th October 2023)! Do support your local bookshop where you can.
 

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Jurassic Perks*

Ultimate Dinosaurs by Ben Garrod (Zephyr, 2023)

Occasionally these days, I'm sometimes reminded of the odd little crazes that swept me up as a kid of the 1980s. From Madballs to M.U.S.C.L.E. men via cereal-packet surprises, they all occasionally pop up - often on eBay! - to produce a nostalgic smile. The most recent buried memory re-surfaced when I read the blurb of Ben Garrod's series Ultimate Dinosaurs (I'll leave the reader of this blog to fathom which toy series it was!):

"Put a dinosaur in your pocket and start your greatest adventure!"  

But the connection to the child-like fascination with the collectable is no whimsy. Whether it's toys, cards, books, children love a series. Victor Watson wrote a brilliant book about the lure - and learning - that series fiction holds. Non-fiction has found triumphant success (and many readers) in Horrible Histories and Football School to name but two popular series, and the Ultimate Dinosaurs books look set to take over a similar position on the shelves of Natural History. 

The writing in this series of prehistorica is both immediately engaging and reassuringly accurate. Ultimate Dinosaurs take the best of the best non-fiction books currently available for children - a straightforward and supportive prose style, detailed but clear illustrative matter, factually up-to-the-minute research - and tap into that love of series that (nigh-universally) hooks children into reading for their own pleasure. 

He knows his audience and while the books will undoubtedly be picked up too by complete novices, Garrod understands that the already dino-mad fans will be most intrigued: there's helpful asides guiding pronunciation, but not to the extent that they get in the way of the flow of information - it's assumed that the reader will know how to say Tyrannosaurus, even Hadrosaur, but not necessarily Baryonyx or Suchomimus. 

There is also a 'New Science' section in the books, which brings the reader up to speed on the latest findings and thinking. There's a freindly authority to this which, to me, seems like a pretty good way of children being taken seriously by the very top scientists, of helping them feel that their passion and interest matters. They will of course be the generation that questions what we know now and go on to discover even more: the science never ends. As Garrod writes, for example: 

"With each new discovery, our understanding of Anklyosaurus grows." 

What an invitation!

The series also offers asides from other experts in the field - some particularly famous, like Chris Packham and Jane Goodall, and it is great to see the representation of women in science placed firmly at the centre of these publications with contributions from Dr. Jess French and Mary Gagen in the Anklyosaurus and Microraptor books respectively. 

Finally, the covers of this new series are not only stunningly exciting but also factually accurate, painted by the 'paleo-artist', Gabriel Ugueto. 

Ultimate Dinosaurs is a series that is destined to be popular with children everywhere, and which really must find its way into every library and junior classroom. 


* In the interests of accuracy, it should be noted that some of the dinosaurs in the 'Ultimate' series, such as Anklyosaurus and Microraptor, were not around during the Jurassic period. Still, it makes for a good 'dino book' blog-title...

***

Eight new editions of the Ultimate Dinosaurs series were published by Zephyr on 14th September 2023. Thanks to Courtney Jefferies and Zephyr for the review copies and the blog tour invite!


Thursday, August 31, 2023

Exploding Croissants, Anyone?


Bridget Vanderpuff and the Ghost Train 
by Martin Stewart (Zephyr, 2023)

As the late summer days start to get chilly and the lengthy evenings become gradually shorter, my reading begins to turn to those gently spooky autumnal books that herald the beginnings of traditional Ghost Story Time.  

Bridget Vanderpuff and the Ghost Train, the second in the Vanderpuff series is so beautifully written that it's not necessary to have read the first - though I'd heartily endorse doing so simply for the sheer pleasure! The story is sure to delight its readers with its marvellous baked treats and a mysterious Ghost Train steaming into Belle-on-Sea at the start of the SPOOKY season. 

Bridget and her friend, Tom, hear a strange rumbling noise just as Captain Lufty tells them of the Ghost Train heading towards the town. Naturally, Bridget's curiosity is piqued and a mystery beckons, especially when some of the locals go missing too! Something's not right and it's up to the two children - and the bakery elf, Pascal - to set things straight. 

A great read for Years 4 and 5, Ghost Train has a fast-paced, highly entertaining and humorous plot, with just the right amount of spookiness. Add to this plenty of opportunity for characterisation and you've got yourself the perfect read-aloud for these years, too. 

There are many nods to Dahl, who also really understood what children enjoy in their reading. The magical objects that Bridget relies on during her adventures have a touch of James' Giant Peach minibeast friends - each with their own characteristic strength, they willingly lend Bridget their help. Above all else, I am certain that children will hugely enjoy the the Vanderpuff bakery, a cornucopia of goodies that invoke Wonka's chocolate wizardry at their zaniest: glowberry jam (made from fruit with glow-in-the-dark seeds), and exploding croissants are just a few whose delicious scents rise from the pages. Invention is at a wild and wacky high throughout, though my favourite scene in the book involved a ferociously hot baklava 'volcano' (itself faintly reminiscent of Diana Wynne-Jones' Calcifer) and a voracious Cake-Safe!

Anyone who has devoured Anna James' Pages and Co. series is sure to gobble up this deliciously warm hug of a book. It's just crying out to be enjoyed with a hot chocolate...and maybe just a few pastries on the side!

***

Bridget Vanderpuff and the Ghost Train was published by Zephyr on 31st August 2023. Thanks to Courtney Jefferies and Zephyr for the review copy.

And be sure to follow the blog tour to celebrate publication! 

Monday, August 28, 2023

Silly? Serious? It's Something Extraordinary!

 Stuntboy, In-Between Time by Jason Reynolds and Raúl the Third (Knights Of, 2023)

Portico was being silly (he really wasn't being silly, he was being serious, but his serious was silly, seriously). 
(p. 105)

There's something extraordinary going on in Jason Reynolds' and Raúl the Third's Stuntboy series and I couldn't put it more eloquently than in that one line quoted above. 

Open the most recent Stuntboy novel and straightaway you'll appreciate an illustrator and a writer working in tandem, to tell a story with all the hyperactive brilliance and breathless energy of a Loony Tunes cartoon. The pace never lets up. Far from exhausting, the experience of reading about Stuntboy's adventures leaves you excited to read more (and, as with the first book, there's a 'To be Continued...' panel at the end!). 

Look a bit closer and the interplay between text and drawings will remind you of the best graphic novels. The zipping around between storyline and popular culture references (being an 80s kid, I particularly enjoyed the invocations of Beetlejuice and  Garbage Pail Kids trading cards) combine to become much more than the sum of their parts. Words and pictures jostle for attention, bounce off one other, merge together in a perfect kind of counterpoint. It seems 'silly' to the untrained eye, but it is 'seriously' so far from that. When Stuntboy invokes one of his special moves - the 'Stare Well' - for example, Raúl the Third's illustration has him literally 'looking daggers' with actual knives flying from his eyes towards his enemy! 

At the very heart of the book, the 'what is actually going on' is two storytellers who just 'get' what it is to be children in a confusing world. Here, 'real world' issues of anxiety, bullying and parental separation are explored deeply, but are never shoehorned in, or fall back into didacticism. The story is these issues (the subtitle of the book is positioned as such towards the end of the novel) though the whirling exuberance of the telling makes you think you are enjoying a slapstick comedy...one that keeps you turning the pages, faster and faster, to the very moving end. 
 
I mentioned the vocabulary and language the authors draw on in my review of Book 1. Anyone who (dare) claims that books like these with a lot of pictures, a lot of panels, and a lot of speech bubbling are more 'fun' than 'proper' reads, should really take a much closer look. (And yes, I'm looking at you, Mr. But-are-graphic-novels-really-as-good-as-a-'normal'-book!)

I'll explain. And for the sake of space I will simply provide a few examples in the form of...

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Finally Seen

Finally Seen by Kelly Yang (Knights Of, 2023)

Everything I have read by Kelly Yang has been a jewel of children's literature. I started by reading Front Desk back in 2018 and shortly after finishing it, the book travelled round readers in my class and found new Yang fans in the process. Then came Parachutes, a novel for much older readers - and one which genuinely shocked me - in which could be felt the same compelling narrative drive. Last year I read aloud New From Here to my class. This one had a special resonance as the plot touched on the repercussions of Covid, and gave us an insight into the racism that accompanied those years of Lockdowns...and beyond. And then there was Key Player which continues Mia's story from the Front Desk series and which is possibly my favourite novel by Yang yet! 


So I am very proud to be a part of the blog tour for this author's latest novel, Finally Seen, and I'm doubly delighted to have been allowed to share the first chapter here! If you've not read any of Yang's work, you are in for a treat and, from just this one chapter, the author's stylistic fingerprints are immediately recognisable... 

The novel opens with Lina Gao travelling from China to America, something that echoes Yang's own experiences as a girl and as a mum. That sense of displacement, finding oneself in a very different cultural landscape, is a feature of her books too, and Lina's strong voice, similar to Mia's and Claire's and Knox's in their turns, tells her story with charm and wonder. (It's this voice that I think is the key to what makes Yang so very readable!) 

Alongside this, there's also a lot of very relatable experiences and reactions very familiar to many children; Yang's young readers immediately see the main character as a friend, one who seems to have been so for years. Here there's the deep connection with her grandparents, the drawing of them in her sketchbook...even the throwaway mention of collecting up the free airplane goodies. Like all Yang's main characters, Lina is fully drawn in the first few pages - she bursts from the page - but is has taken just a few elegant brushstrokes to do so.

One final thing that always grabs my attention - maybe a bit more personal, but something I think appeals to many children, too, in my experience! - is the tempting mention of different foods. White Rabbit sweets intrigue me most here - what are they? They sound glorious! - but also the baozi, the hawthorn flakes, the wheat flour cakes. I want to try them all!! 

Finally Seen is a great way to start (or continue!) your exploration of Yang's novels and I'm sure that the following extract will show you why...

***
Finally Seen by Kelly Yang
Chapter 1 (extract)

A hand on my arm pushes me awake.

“Lina Gao?” the flight attendant asks. I rub my eyes awake. She smiles and says to me in Chinese, “We’re moving you up to first class. So you can get out first when we land!”

I blink in confusion. I reach for my sketch pad. I was in the middle of working on a sketch of Lao Lao gardening, but as I look up, my eyes nearly pop when I see the flight tracker on the screen. We’re almost there!

“Your escort will be waiting as soon as we get to LAX to take you to your parents.”

I leap up from my seat. Let’s gooooo!!!

I follow the flight attendant up the long aisle to first class, staring at all the people stretched out in beds with their noise-canceling headphones and candyfloss slippers. These are airplane apartments.

I take a seat in one of the cabins and reach for the fancy first-class cotton slippers. I’m so saving these for Lao Lao. I wonder if she likes her new nursing home.

I feel a tug of guilt thinking about it, but Aunt Jing said it was necessary. She and Uncle Hu both live in Shenzhen, which is about twelve hundred miles away from Beijing, and they both have 9-9-6 tech jobs. A 9-9-6 job means you work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. They’re the envy of the country, because they make the most money. But it also means there’s no way my aunt can be a tea brewer for my lao lao.

So they took me and Lao Lao to visit the nursing home. I remember the floors were very shiny, almost like you could go roller skating on them. I pictured a bunch of elderly folks roller skating, and then had to bite on my cheeks to stop myself from giggling. Because it wasn’t funny.

The rooms were bright, with big windows that allowed the team of nurses to look in at all times. Aunt Jing said she got Lao Lao the biggest room of all – a private room. It was the nicest room in the entire nursing home. But to Lao Lao, it was like living inside a fishbowl. She didn’t like the idea at all.

“No way!” she said, stomping her walking cane down on the ground. “Not happening! I am a free spirit – I need to be able to roam around the park and go to see my friends!”

“They can come see you!” Aunt Jing insisted. “That’s why we’re putting you into a retirement home in Beijing – so your friends can come visit. Anytime!”

Lao Lao has two good park friends: Chen Nai Nai, a grandma who loves to dance, and Wang Nai Nai, whose daughter is also in America. I’ve never seen either of them come to our house, though.

“Why can’t I just stay by myself?” Lao Lao asked, peeking at my aunt.

“Because, Ma, your arthritis and osteoporosis, it’s all getting worse. And now that Dad’s gone . . . Frankly, you should have gone into a retirement community a long time ago,” Aunt Jing said. “But you had Lina –”

“And I loved every minute of it, sweet child,” Lao Lao said, patting my hand.

I felt a tear escape. This was all my fault.

“No, don’t you cry,” Lao Lao told me. She nodded to my aunt, and with a shaking hand, she signed the papers.

I put my hand to the airplane window and whisper with all my heart:

“I’m so sorry, Lao Lao. I promise I will find a way to bring you over. I will find a way to get you out of the waiting city, too.”

“Fifteen minutes to landing!” the captain announces on the speaker. 

I immediately grab the stash of free goodies next to the candyfloss slippers. I stuff as many as I can into my backpack. Socks, sleeping masks, you name it. I add the stash to my collection of Chinese snacks I’ve brought over for my
(almost) new family. I’ve packed wheat flour cake, hawthorn flakes, pumpkin chips, and White Rabbit sweets for them, hoping the sweets will fill them with sweet guilt for leaving me behind.

I gaze out the window at the wispy clouds. The Los Angeles houses sprawl across the land, stretching all the way to the shimmering blue sea! I’ve never seen the ocean before. Before Lao Ye passed, we talked about going to Beidaihe, the closest beach to Beijing. But it was always too hard, with Lao Ye’s work and health. He was a magazine editor. Even after he “retired” he kept going into the office. He said working was the best way to stay young, but Lao Lao secretly suspected it was so he could keep eating lunch at his favourite fried dumpling place next to his office.

My lao ye had heart disease and diabetes. He used to joke that at his age, heart disease and diabetes were like stamps in a passport – signs of a life well lived. 

I wish Lao Ye had had actual stamps in his passport, though, and more time to get them. But at seventy-two, he had a stroke in the taxi on his way home from work.

We didn’t believe it even when we were sitting in the hospital waiting area. Lao Lao and I were still talking about going to the beach and pushing Lao Ye to actually retire after this. When the doctor delivered the news, all I remember is my grandma falling to the ground, pounding the cold stone floor, crying, “You get back here, you old goat! Don’t you dare leave me!”

But her beloved goat was already gone.

Lao Lao’s voice comes burrowing into my head as the plane starts to descend.

This is different. Remember, we may be six thousand miles apart, but I’m right there in your heart. Anytime you want to talk to me, just put your hand over your chest and I’ll feel it, sweet child.

As the turbulence jiggles my butt, I open my mouth, like I’m about to eat a gigantic baozi, the tears running down my cheeks. This is it, Lao Lao! I made it!!!

We touch down at 9:58 a.m. As the plane taxis, a flight attendant comes up to me. “Are you ready?”

“I’m ready!” I announce.

***

With many thanks to Courtney Jefferies who provided the extract from Chapter 1 and the permission to reproduce it for the blog. Thanks are also due to Sabina from edPR who sent me a copy of the book. 

Finally Seen was published by the amazing Knights Of on 6th July 2023 and is available from all good bookshops.