Celebrating 15 years of innovating publishing with Barrington Stoke and Malorie Blackman: Jon for Short, a high/low reading book for teenagers












I want to shout from the rooftops to tell everyone what an amazing job Barrington Stoke is doing extending the joy of reading to ALL young readers and especially to those who have factors working against them – dyslexia, low confidence, Irlen Syndrome or ’just’ a simple reluctance to pick up a book.

For 15 years now, Barrington Stoke has brought together writing from world-renowned children’s authors, edgy and imaginative illustrations and careful editing to create a truly accessible book list.  And what better way to celebrate 15 years of innovative publishing than by bringing out a powerful psychological thriller by the new Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, Jon for Short.

Jon for Short by Malorie Blackman, published by Barrington Stoke

A recurring nightmare, flashing images, glints of a metal blade, footsteps.  And pain. More and more pain, as each time Jon wakes up, another part of his body is missing.  To sleep is to relive the nightmare; to wake is to discover another body part has been taken. Where will it end?  Jon for Short carries the reader to a dramatic climax with clever use of repetition – repeating words for impact, repeating the whole dream sequence, but revealing a little bit more each time.

Accompanying the text are Vladimir Stankovic’s dark and dramatic illustrations – some sharp, revealing in detail the full horror on the faces of the nurses attending Jon; some deliberately blurry, Jon’s woozy view as the painkillers start to take effect.

Jon for Short is a perfect example of an inclusive, high/low reading book- gritty content aimed at teenagers, a lower reading age text making it fully accessible and eye-catching illustrations and typography.  And it’s dyslexia friendly too.  It is published alongside some free classroom resources which can be found on the Barrington Stoke website.

Well done Barrington Stoke and Malorie Blackman for opening the door even wider for all to experience the joy of reading.

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From 15 years without a book to “15 Days Without a Head”, Dave Cousins nails it with this uplifting tale of growing up for teenagers












Fifteen days refers to 15 hot days in the middle of summer when life begins to unravel for fifteen-year old Lawrence, his six year old brother Jay and their ‘walk-about’ Mum who uses alcohol to blot out the death of the boys’ father and the struggles of bringing up two boys on her own with very little money.

Written in the present tense, the reader is right there alongside Lawrence and Jay during those 15 days as they struggle to keep their family together.  I “sweat like a kebab” too as I run with Lawrence in his desperate attempt to make it into school each morning, sneaking under the radar of Mr Buchan, Lawrence’s Head of Year; I feel sick too when Lawrence loses Jay amongst the tide of bodies leaving the fairground; and my anger also rises as nosy, interfering neighbours start asking awkward questions about their Mum and wanting to take a look around the flat.

And…and I hold my breath when, each night, Lawrence squeezes his six-foot frame and his squirming little brother into the telephone box across the road, pretends to be his dead Dad and agonisingly limps his way through the general knowledge questions during each round of a local radio phone-in competition to try to win an all-expenses-paid, luxury holiday for his Mum.  Like Lawrence says, “If there’s anything that is going to cheer Mum up enough to stop drinking, it’s a two week, all-expenses-paid holiday in the sun”.

Jonathan Douglas, Director of the National Literacy Trust, and writing in the Daily Telegraph, is passionate about instilling in children a desire to read for pleasure and to encourage this by putting in front of them books that “resonate with who they are”.  I believe that 15 Days Without a Head is one of these very books.  As Douglas puts it so well, these are books that “give them access to truths that adults are sometimes too scared to tell them”.  Douglas suggests other books in this category might include Junk and Nicholas Dane by Melvin Burgess and the books by Malorie Blackman.  Books such as these provide a safe environment in which teenagers can explore issues that they too are experiencing.

I, myself, can’t recommend 15 Days Without A Head more highly, especially to teenage boys.  For more information about the book, take a look at Dave Cousins’ very informative website where you can find out more about Dave, links to websites which carry advice for writers and reading group notes and ideas to accompany his book.

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Award Winning Author’s Puppets Bring the Write Stuff to Schools in Association with Scottish Book Trust and BBC Scotland Learning

Award winning author, Polly Dunbar, and puppets bring the Write Stuff to schools

Award winning author-illustrator Polly Dunbar is set to be the star of a magical free event on Thursday 25th April, which will be broadcast live over the internet to tens of thousands of primary school pupils across the UK.

Young fans of Polly’s books are invited to tune in as she brings her latest picture book, Arthur’s Dream Boat, to life with a little help from the Long Nose puppets, a variety of charismatic hand puppets, full body costumes and masks, all with huge personalities. This event is suitable for children aged 4-7.

Primary schools, families and, of course, kids will love this free Authors Live event, run by Scottish Book Trust and BBC Scotland Learning. The live event will be streamed live from the BBC Scotland Learning website on Thursday 25th April at 11am but will be available to watch again later the same day at: www.bbc.co.uk/authorslive.

The author and illustrator of many picture books, Polly is the daughter of the distinguished author Joyce Dunbar whom she collaborated with on the picture book Shoe Baby. Polly’s Tilly and Friends series of books has recently been made into an animated adventure for CBeebies and her best-selling book Penguin won the Nestle Silver award 2007, The Book Trust Early Years award 2007, The Red House Award 2008 and was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal. Polly is also the co-founder of Long Nose puppets, a touring puppet company who create inspiring, inventive and colourful puppet shows for the very young and have made successful adaptations of the books Shoe Baby, Fly Away Katie and Penguin.

Speaking about her upcoming Authors Live event, Polly said: “I’m very excited that the Arthur’s Dream Boat puppet show will beamed in to hundreds of classrooms across the UK! We approach making our puppet shows as though we are making a giant picture book; each scene change is like the turn of the page. With theatre you can bring a book to life with many different layers: music, movement, lighting and of course the key part to bringing a story to life…a live audience!” 

Polly has also put together an exciting list of children’s stories that she feels would make the best adaptations for puppet shows.  So, if you too are inspired to design and make puppets and put on a show, here are Polly’s suggested adaptations:-

Polly Dunbar’s top 10 books that would make great puppet shows

What is Authors Live?

The award-winning Authors Live programme is an exclusive series of authors’ events streamed live over the internet to provide young people, parents and teachers with the chance to get up close and personal with some of the world’s leading children’s writers. Run by BBC Scotland Learning and Scottish Book Trust, Scotland’s leading agency for the promotion of literature, reading and writing, the programme was the first of its kind in the UK. Anyone can sign up to watch and it is completely free. 

Over 800,000 people from 153 countries across the world have tuned in to watch the Authors Live events. The programme began in March 2010 with poet Michael Rosen, followed by author of The Gruffalo and Children’s Laureate, Julia Donaldson. The programme has also seen events from world class authors Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo, Charlie Higson and Francesca Simon.

All the events are available to watch again at www.bbc.co.uk/authorslive and   http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/learning/authors-live/on-demand.

Scottish Book Trust is the leading agency for the promotion of literature, reading and writing in Scotland. It develops innovative projects to encourage adults and children to read and write, supports professional writers with a range of projects including skills development and awards, funds a variety of literature events and promotes Scottish writing to over 10 million people worldwide. www.scottishbooktrust.com

Authors Live is funded by Creative Scotland is the national development agency for the arts screen and creative industries. www.creativescotland.com


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Make time for reading for pleasure and not just to get ahead at school. Egmont’s ‘Reading Street’ reveals key benefits of children reading being missed

Our time (as children and adults) is constantly under pressure – from work, school, including homework and preparation for endless tests and exams (UK children are amongst the most tested children in the world), television, computer games and hand-held gadgets.   And the victims of these pressures on our time and that of our children? Spending quality time in nature (see forthcoming post on this) and reading – not reading for advancing one’s language skills, acquiring a more extensive vocabulary or for getting ahead at school.  Simply reading for pleasure – immersing oneself wholly and completely in the magic of a story.

This is the picture emerging from a study commissioned by children’s publisher, Egmont UK. The study is following the behaviour of 12 families up and down the UK over the course of a year to understand the changing nature of children’s reading and its first set of findings, released this month (April 2013), reveal that excessive screen time, a focus on homework (no doubt prompted by the excessive testing regime of the British educational system) and parents inability to say ‘no’ and so taking the course of least resistance when trying to secure family harmony, are all combining to squeeze out time for reading for pleasure.

It is time to give back time to reading for pleasure. Switch off the television, the computer, the hand-held device and open a book.  And lose oneself in the simple pleasure of reading.

Here is the full story on Egmont’s Reading Street report and first findings into children’s reading.

Posted in Adult, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Pre-teen, Teenage, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Five favourite family board games enjoyed during the holidays and not an on-switch in sight!

Board games, it appears, are making a comeback – see a recent piece in The Guardian.  I, myself, have always loved board games – there is no on/off switch, they can be competitive or collaborative and they can be hilarious: try describing ‘socks’ without using the words ‘feet’, ‘clothes’, ‘pair’ or ‘smelly’ against the clock (Don’t Say It) and I don’t think anyone in my extended family will ever forget the image of my children’s granny trying to act out a bull in Junior Cranium.

Board games work across generations, bringing together the youngest and the not-so-young, sometimes with hilarious results (as just described).  They can also be enjoyed over a meal and a glass of wine with your closest of friends.  Perfect.

So switch off the TV, smart phone, iPad, Wii, Nintendo, Playstation, etc, etc and open a box of intrigue, strategy or just plain hilarity.

Ingenious by Reiner Knitzia, published by Esdevium Games    This game is genious because of its simplicity.  Very quick to learn (my seven year old grasped the objective and rules instantly), yet absorbing and very beautiful to look at.  The board is laid out in front of the players who each start with a rack of six tiles (each tile has two colour symbols on it, 2 different or 2 the same).  The game progresses with players taking turns to lay down a tile, making sure that one of the symbols on the tile being laid abuts a symbol of the same colour and shape on a tile already placed.  Tiles are scored by counting the number of straight lines emerging from the symbols on the tile placed.  The player then records the score for each symbol on their own scoreboard and refreshes their hand.  However, there is a very clever twist to this game.  When the board is filled, each player’s LOWEST positioned marker defines his result and the player with the highest ‘lowest’ result wins.  Therefore, you really have to make sure that you score with all your coloured tiles and not leave one colour trailing behind.

Don’t Say It! Published by Paul Lamond Games   Can you get your team member(s) to say “cow” without saying “moo”, “milk”, “beef” or “animal”? It’s harder than it sounds and hilarious too!  Playing against the clock can leave you completely tongue-tied when trying to describe the simplest of everyday objects.  Each card has a main word that a team member has to describe to his team but without using the words underneath.  The cards are coloured coded, some scoring more points than others.  The game can be set to different levels of difficulty – easy, medium or difficult.  The difficulty levels are determined by how many words you are NOT allowed to say as you try to get your team to guess the main word.  So younger players may choose ‘easy’ (can’t say two words) while older members may choose ‘medium’ (can’t say three words) or ‘difficult’ (can’t say four words).   Don’t Say It is an excellent game for building up children’s vocabulary and developing skills in describing objects and finding alternative words.  I have used this game a lot in classroom settings too and all the children love it. Without fail.

Labyrinth published by Ravensburger   What looks like a straightforward maze game is transformed by the fact that the playing board and hence the maze is constantly changing.  You think you have worked out a straightforward route through the maze to the next piece of treasure …but WAIT… one of your opponents has blocked your way by inserting the extra tile.   The game can be easily adapted for younger children by allowing them to choose which treasure they are going after before their next turn.  Ordinarily you have to look at and find the treasure on the top card in your stack.   Labyrinth involves lots of strategy and sequential thinking skills.  Sometimes it can be fiendishly difficult to see a route through the maze and just when you think you’re there, it all changes once more.  Frustratingly good fun.

Carcassonne published by Z Man Games  Another tile-laying game (there’s no board at all).  Each player takes it in turn to lay a tile down, placing it side by side to a tile already laid and building up roads, cities, monasteries and fields (along with rivers, inns and cathedrals if you have the expansion packs).   Gradually the area surrounding the famous French city of Carcossonne is created.  As the landscape grows, players choose whether or not to place one of their followers with each tile laid – a knight if placed on a city, a robber if placed on a road, a monk if placed on a monastery and a farmer if placed in a field.  When each feature is ‘completed’, then the follower scores points for its owner.  When playing you are required to make decisions all the time, where to place each tile in order to build and complete features, where to place your followers (they run out quickly so they have to be used optimally), at the same time keeping a watch on how your opponents’ features are developing. Carcassonne is a fast moving game which is different everytime it is played.

Junior Cranium published by Hasbro  This game is an absolute joy for bringing together several generations together for one hour of laughter and fun.  Players either team up or fly solo to complete challenges – crafting objects in clay, acting out secret words, drawing secret words, all for others to guess and answering questions or seeking specific objects against the clock.  The results, or should I say the attempts, can be hilarious.  Junior Cranium allows children to perform and be creative in a safe and fun environment.  Highly recommended.

Posted in Adult, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Knizia, Reiner, Pre-teen, Teenage, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow: in a near-future, Internet-dependent Britain, sixteen year-old Trent takes on the powerful media moguls and their brutal anti-piracy laws

Imagine a world without the Internet.  No Internet to listen to music, watch films, find out what friends are doing (or perhaps what they’re pretending to be doing), no online banking, no online dating, no quick answers to the kids’ homework (because we’ve all become so reliant on computers and the Internet, we now can’t  remember how to work things out in our own heads).  You get the picture.

Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow tells the story from the perspective of Trent, a sixteen year old movie obsessive who likes nothing more than downloading film clips of his favourite actor Scot Colford and reassembling the footage to create his own movies.  Only, this is near-future Britain, power is in the hands of the big media moguls (and their Parliamentary cronies) who use their money and muscle to get their brutal anti-piracy laws onto the statute book.  They do this because they are terrified of the free Internet and what this means to their bottom line.  The result?  Get caught downloading copyrighted material from the Internet three times and your Internet connection is suspended… as from now.  No evidence required.  No messing.

The Knock came to Trent’s family’s flat door one evening after school.  He thought he’d been careful.  After all, Trent is proper switched on when it comes to computing and he’s very much aware of how reliant his family are on the Internet for…well, pretty much everything – his Dad’s job, his Mum’s sickness benefits (only accessible via the Web) and his sister’s coursework and studies for her exams.

 ”‘Mrs. McCauley?”
“I’m Lawrence Foxton, a Police Community Support Officer here on the estate.  I don’t think we’ve met before, have we?”
…”I don’t think so, Mr. Foxton.” Mum had the hard tone in her voice she used when she thought me or Cora were winding her up, a no-nonsense voice that demanded that you get to the point.
“Well, I’m sorry to have to meet you under these circumstances.  I’m afraid that I’m here to notify you that your Internet access is being terminated, effective” – he made a show of looking at the faceplate of his police-issue ruggedized mobile – “now.  Your address has been used to breach copyright through several acts of illegal downloading.  You have been notified of these acts on two separate occasions.  The penalty for a third offense is a one-year suspension of network access.”

…”I could hear them them shouting through the thin wall.  No words, just tones.  Mum nearly in tears.  Dad going from incomprehension to disbelief to murderous rage.”


Disgraced and unable to hack the constant, pointed glares from his Dad, his Mum, his sister, Trent runs away from home (Bradford) to begin a new life in London, learning quickly the art of surviving on the street.   He squats in abandoned buildings, retrieves (actually, pretty decent) just past its sell-by-date food from bins outside a well-known supermarket chain and falls in with a crowd of young, passionate and creative activists.  Together they begin the fight to overturn the biggest evil of them all – the Theft of Intellectual Property Act.

Doctorow employs a useful and clever tool to explain the weighty issues that arise during Pirate Cinema – discussions, conversations, late night chats even – between the main protagonists; a technique that I feel works really well by educating readers who may not be completely up to speed with some of the subject matter.  I certainly appreciated the discussion between Trent and Aziz about trusted computing. Trust me, I knew nothing about trusted computing but Doctorow has enlightened me, warned me even.  It is, in case you were wondering, a hidden component engineered into a computer’s circuit board which can be used by computer manufacturers to get up to all sorts of mischief - to “make sure that computers never copied when they weren’t supposed to.  You could spy on peoples’ private communications.  You could embed hidden codes in the video and photos and network packets they made and trace them back to individual computers.”  Scary, isn’t it.

All that is wrong with politics and the version of democracy that we have in Britain (and the West) is a theme that runs throughout the book – the growing separation of ordinary people from the wheels of Parliament and the decision-makers; the power of money and the whip.   It all feels so hopeless for Trent and his comrades.  So they turn to the thing they do best – film-making, and come up with a very innovative way of reaching the hearts and minds of the British public and giving the power back to the People.

Pirate Cinema is a powerful YA novel which will resonate with many young readers who have grown up in a world of freely available, unregulated Internet.  It examines creativity and culture – how they are defined; how they might be be regulated, owned even?  It is also not a million miles away from reality – there are attempts by Governments all over the world to introduce controversial and stringent copyright infringement laws – see here for the Guardian’s column on the progress of the Digital Economy Act. Again, pretty scary stuff.   Be prepared.


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Two new children’s writing competitions: one about your hopes and dreams, the other wildlife themed and inspired by children’s bedtime classics such as Wind in the Willows.

I have mentioned before how good children’s writing competitions are for developing children’s creative thinking and writings skills. And here are two more children’s writing competitions sure to set minds thinking, pens twitching and fingers racing over keys.

RSPCA launches children’s short story competition to celebrate Britain’s wildlife

Animals feature heavily in many classic children’s favourite story books, right from the first story books for the youngest readers – The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle) - to jolly good reads for new readers - Fantastic Mr Fox (Roald Dahl) – and books that deal with more weighty issues such as Watership Down (Richard Adams) for older readers. All favourites of mine as I grew up.

This Autumn the RSPCA have launched a children’s writing competition and, as you would imagine, it is wild-life themed. It follows a survey the charity recently commissioned to find out the nation’s favourite children’s wildlife story books. And topping the wildlife poll as the nation’s favourite children’s book is Fantastic Mr Fox , followed by The Beatrix Potter series and Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham.

Ophelia Dahl, Roald Dahl’s daughter and chair of Roald Dahl’s literary estate, said: “I am thrilled that Fantastic Mr Fox has been voted the nation’s favourite wildlife story. I recall my dad trying out the tale on my sister Lucy and I, as a bedtime story. We’re delighted that clever Mr Fox is still a favourite across the country. I hope that such classic tales and memorable characters will inspire a generation of budding writers to get involved in Wild About Britain which I am delighted to be supporting. This is a brand new and hugely exciting competition for children where they can explore Britain’s great outdoors for inspiration and create their very own adventure.”

Chris Packham, RSPCA Vice President and ambassador for the competition, also commented: “What could be a more perfect way to get inspiration for your story than go out into our autumnal woods and search out signs of animals like hedgehogs, foxes and badgers. With the Olympics, Paralympics and Jubilee it has been an incredible year for Great Britain – now it is time to remember that our wildlife is great too.”

There are two age categories in the Wild About Britain competition – 11 years and under and 12 to 16 year-olds. The closing date for the competition is midnight on Monday 10 December 2012 and the winner will receive a selection of books from Random House publishers and be published on the website. The full judging panel is to be confirmed but will include Chris Packham.

For more information see http://www.wildaboutbritain.org.uk

Kip McGrath Education Centres launches Dream a Big Dream – a new national writing competition inviting young people to write about their own hopes and dreams inspired by those realised at this year’s Olympics and Paralympics.

Dream a Big Dream is a new writing competition for children aged 9 to 14 which is designed to encourage them to think big about their hopes and dreams.

Organised by Kip McGrath Education Centres, it’s a great opportunity to invite your child to write about their ‘Big Dream’. Whether they want to be an astronaut, a film director, a footballer or an accountant! Dream a Big Dream is all about encouraging them to put down in words what they hope to achieve in the future.

Entrants have the chance to win some fantastic prizes including £100 worth of Amazon vouchers and a commemorative book featuring the winning entries.

The competition website is full of ideas and inspiration including  videos from three amazing athletes who are all training to pursue their Big Dream of representing Great Britain at the Rio 2016 Games.    The closing date for this competition is 22nd February 2013 so you have a little more time to enter this one.  Get dreaming and get writing.

For more information visit www.dreamabigdream.info.

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New Autumn releases from Barefoot Books: enchanting, engaging new stories for independent readers and gorgeous picture books for those just embarking on their reading journey (Part One)

Autumn by Yvonne Keen

Autumn by Elli Woollard

In the brisk and bracing breeze
The trees perform their year’s strip-tease.
Shimmy-shaking bits of bling,
The golden leaves first flutter, fling
Themselves upon the floor;
Bronze ones, brown ones, then some more,
Until (so skimpy! tiny! brief!)
All that’s left is one sole leaf,
Which with a flirty little fall
Drops down to earth, revealing all.
And now the trees, completely bare,
Dance naked in the winter’s air.

Elli writes beautiful and funny and very original poems.  And they can be found on her website called Taking Words for a Stroll – Original Poems for the Young at Heart.   Please take a look and immerse yourself in her rhyming worlds.

Beautiful books newly available from Barefoot Books’ Autumn list (Part one) – picture books and books for newly independent readers

The Kite Princess written by Juliet Clare Bell, illustrated by Laura-Kate Chapman and narrated by Imelda Staunton  Trapped in the stuffy confines of court with her terribly posh and terribly rich parents, Cinnamon Stitch is desperate to escape the daily yawn of learning to be a girly princess.  All she wants to do is cartwheel through puddles and swing from the trees.  So her parents breathe a huge sigh of relief when Cinnamon suddenly starts to enjoy sewing.  But what exactly is Cinnamon creating with her yards of colourful fabric and cottons?  At the end of the book is a lovely section on how to make your own kite!

Little Red Riding Hood told by Lari Don, illustrated by Celia Chauffrey and narrated by Imelda Staunton  A beautiful retelling of this well-known tale, full of humour and sumptuous illustrations, detailed yet boldly coloured and with lots of red running through the whole book.  I particularly like the way Chauffrey has illustrated the plants in this book – almost William Morris like.




Animal Stories Book 1 – The Tortoise’s Gift, A Story from Zambia, retold by Lari Don, illustrated by Melanie Williamson    Part of an exciting series of books for early readers which use simple vocabulary, short sentences, short chapters to break up the text.   Drawn from a tradition story from Zambia, The Tortoise’s Gift tells of the brave, steady and determined tortoise who travels across the grasslands to the mountain and back in order to wake the ‘wonderful tree’ and save all the animals from their hunger and thirst, a task which some of the other animals have already tried and failed.


Animal Stories – Never Trust a Tiger, A Story from Korea, retold by Lari Don, illustrated by Melanie Williamson   A merchant is on his way to market when he finds a tiger stuck down a pit.  He rescues the tiger “it was wrong to trap something so bright and beautiful in such a dark place.”   However, the tiger repays his kindness by deciding to eat the merchant!  The merchant talks his way out of trouble and they both agree to consult two animals and a tree nearby – is it fair to follow a good deed with a bad deed?  How will the merchant’s and tiger’s impasse be resolved?



Posted in Age 0-2, Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8 | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fire City by Bali Rai. A Little Babblers Review by Sophie Thompson from High Wycombe

Fire City by Bali Rai : a review by Sophie Thompson

Twenty-five years ago, humankind lost the war against the demons. Now the demons have taken over, yet there is still hope, there is Martha and the rest of the resistance, who fight to save the unwanted. It all changes when a stranger called Jonah arrives. Together Jonah and the resistance fight against the demons. Will they succeed?

This urban fantasy, which is set in the future, has a wonderful storyline and an unexpected ending. This book is full of surprises, yet not all positive for the characters.  I enjoyed the book because it was so easy to lose myself in it, felt like I was there with the resistance, with the demons and mayor, and I shared the reaction of rejection to Aaron from Martha. The book had me gripped all the way through.

“It was blood. Human blood…” When one reads this, it leaves a sense of terror from the victim; and the panic and anger from Jonah and one shares the dilemma of running after the victim to save them, but the common sense of not to follow. I enjoyed how the book discreetly led one easily to read between the lines and into the thoughts of the characters, without them actually being said.

However, when Jonah’s secret is revealed, it is not surprising, but once the secret is stated the story just gets even more exciting. Therefore I would recommend this book, as it’s easy to read, yet has a large range of vocabulary, very fast paced in places, and yet still descriptive.  It is easy to feel like one who lives there.

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RHCBA blog tour: Ed Eaves, illustrator of “Welcome to Alien School”, shortlisted in the Younger Children category of the Red House Children’s Book Award 2013

I am delighted to welcome Ed Eaves, children’s book illustrator and one part of the writer/illustrator partnership that have created Welcome to Alien School, shortlisted for the Younger Children category of the Red House Book Award 2013.

First of all, of course, congratulations goes to Ed (and Caryl Hart) for their success so far with Welcome to Alien School and for being shortlisted.  The Red House Children’s Book Award is the only national children’s book award voted for entirely by children. A shortlist is drawn up by children and then any child can vote for their favourites from each of the three categories.  To be honoured at these awards must be particularly rewarding for any children’s writer or illustrator.

And now over to Ed, who delights us with his list of most favourite books ever, EVER, that he enjoyed when he was a kid.  I am pretty sure there will be one or two of your favourites here too!

Ed Eaves’ favourite five children’s books…ok, make that six!

I thought I’d write about my top five favourite books when I was a kid.  I’ve always loved books and it’s been great fun remembering the ones I enjoyed reading the most.  In fact there were so many books I loved I’ve cheated and sneaked in an extra one!

1. 1958 Lion Annual 

This book belonged to my dad when he was a little boy.  It’s full of brilliant old fashioned stories about spaceships and cowboys and indians and arctic explorers who wrestle polar bears!  

2.  Richard Scarry’s First Omnibus 

Richard Scarry created an amazing world full of animals behaving like people.  They drive around in cars and trucks and boats doing the ordinary things that people do, but every page is jam packed with funny goings-on!  A mouse driving a tiny car, a gorilla driving a banana car, a pig driving a fire engine.  My favourite picture was a tiny wrecked bug car being towed by a bear’s big breakdown truck which is being towed by a mouse’s little breakdown truck! 

3.  Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak 

This is one of the most famous children’s books ever, and one of the best.  When he puts on his wolf suit Max is a very naughty boy.  His mum sends him to bed without his tea, but Max ends up going over the sea to where the wild things are, and the wild rumpus begins!  It’s like the best dream you ever had.  Who wouldn’t want to put on a wolf suit and be the king of all wild things, just for a little bit?  

4.  A Fish Out Of Water written by Helen Palmer and illustrated by P.D. Eastman 

A little boy buys a goldfish and calls him Otto.  Mr Carp the pet shop owner tells the little boy “When you feed a fish, never feed him a lot.  So much and no more!  Never more than  a spot, or something may happen!  You never know what.”  Of course the little boy thinks Otto looks hungry so he feeds him too much, and something happens….  It’s a hilarious book with lovely simple illustrations, mostly done in black and white with a little bit of blue and orange for colour.  

5.  Matilda by Roald Dahl 

Roald Dahl wrote so many amazing books, but I think Matilda is my favourite.  And of course like all Roald Dahl’s books it’s full of Quentin Blake’s wonderful illustrations.  It’s a story about the love of books and learning, and it’s got Miss Trunchbull, one of the best baddies ever in a children’s book.  Every time I eat chocolate cake I think about Bruce Bogtrotter getting the better of Miss Trunchbull by eating a whole chocolate cake all in one go!  

6.  My Side of the Mountain by Jean George 

I read this book over and over again as a kid.  It’s about a boy called Sam Gribley who runs away from home in New York to live in the Catskill mountains.  He lives in a hollowed out giant hemlock tree and learns how to hunt and fish and live off the land.  I loved playing outside when I was a boy, crawling along the ground pretending I was climbing Sam’s mountain and hiding in the hedge outside my house imagining it was my own house in a tree.  I think a little bit of me would still like to live in a tree in the woods!  

And here they are.

Ed Eaves most favourite books EVER when he was just a kid

Happy reading!
Ed Eaves

Thank you Ed and best of luck for the Red House Children’s Book Award!

The Red House Children’s Book Award – details of all shortlisted books, how to vote and other book bloggers taking part in the blog tour

Full details of all the shortlisted books, writers and illustrators can be found at the Red House Children’s Book Award website.   You can also vote here for your favourites in each of the three categories – Younger Children; Younger Readers; and Older Readers.

Other bloggers taking part in the tour:

FCBG Blog @FCBGNews http://www.fcbg.org.uk/blog/  https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Federation-of-Childrens-Book-Groups/119682808115620

The Book Sniffer @maybeswabey http://booksniffingpug.blogspot.co.uk/    https://www.facebook.com/book.sniffer.1

5minutespeace @LucyRoseT http://5minutespeace.wordpress.com/

Book Reviews for Mums @Bookreviewsmum http://bookreviewsformums.co.uk/  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Book-Reviews-For-Mums/364273246917860?ref=hl

Read it Daddy!  @Readitdaddy http://readitdaddy.blogspot.co.uk/ https://www.facebook.com/readitdaddy

Child-Led Chaos @ChildLedChaos http://childledchaos.me.uk     http://www.facebook.com/childledchaos

Library Mice @librarymice http://www.librarymice.com https://www.facebook.com/pages/Library-Mice/176616309038052

Playing by the Book @playbythebook http://www.playingbythebook.net/

The Little Wooden Horse @Pollylwh http://thelittlewoodenhorse.blogspot.co.uk/ https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Little-Wooden-Horse/226691044080629

Girls Heart Books @GirlsHeartBooks http://girlsheartbooks.com/ https://www.facebook.com/girlsheartbooks

Mr Ripley’s Enchanted Books @Enchantedbooks http://mrripleysenchantedbooks.blogspot.co.uk/

Red House Blog @RedHouseBooks  http://my.redhouse.co.uk/read/blog


Posted in Age 0-2, Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Eaves, Ed | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

A Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master: What if you think the truth is too painful for someone to bear? Then it’s ok to lie, right?

Aren’t we always told to tell the truth?  It’s drummed into us right from the start by our parents, our teachers.  Look what happened to the boy who cried wolf, we are reminded.  But what if you think the truth is too painful to bear?  Especially for someone who is dying anyway.  Then it’s ok, right?

A Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master is set in the turmoil that was the months, the weeks, days, hours and minutes before clocks struck midnight on 14th August 1947 and the world witnessed the harrowing birth of a new nation, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, born from the break-up of India – in the West (now Pakistan) and the East (now known as Bangladesh). The unfolding events are witnessed through the eyes of young Bilal, the younger son of Bapuji.  Bapuji is dying and Bilal is desperate to protect him from what is happening just beyond the wall of books that is used to make a room in their simple mud hut, what is happening in their town where Bapuji had once proudly been the market organiser, like his father before him. What is happening is the breakdown of a community, of friendships, of trust, along religious lines; played out in the market, in the open spaces, even in the town’s cemetery.

So Bilal tells a lie.

He tells his father all is well with his beloved market, his town, his India.  And to preserve this version of events, the lie gets bigger and bigger, gaining a momentum and dragging others into its conspiracy – Bilal’s friends, the town doctor, his schoolteacher and Mr Singh who prints the town’s newspaper.

Throughout A Beautiful Lie, Irfan Master explores what it is to lie.  Is it ever ok? For example, Doctorji (the town doctor) is faced with just such a dilemna when he and Bilal return from a trip to some outlying settlements having been set upon and beaten by villagers who thought they were spies.

“‘Bilal, we mustn’t tell anyone about this.  Certain members of the committee might use this trip to tip things over the edge. Leave it to me. If we don’t say anything, technically we’re not lying.’

Looking at Doctorji’s haggard face, I nodded.  So it’s not technically a lie until you open your mouth. Right. It seems the rules of lying are more subtle that I thought.

‘I’ll keep it to myself.’ I can do that.”

And then there’s the way lying makes you feel.

“When you tell the truth, nobody bats an eyelid.  When you lie, still nobody bats an eyelid. The only difference is how you feel.”

A Beautiful Lie speaks through the watchful eyes of a young boy.  We see what he sees, we feel what he feels.  We might understand more in terms of what is actually happening.  But in other ways we understand less because as we get older we taint our judgement with fear and past hurts.  But we still feel the weight of a lie when it passes our lips.

Irfan Master has an excellent website which includes some really useful teaching resources to support classroom working with A Beautiful Lie.

Posted in Master, Irfan, Pre-teen | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Engaging, relevant and ‘grown-up’ ‘high/low’ reading books, giving older children a second shot at mastering reading

Good as many phonics reading schemes are (Jolly Phonics; Oxford Reading Tree; Read, Write, Inc), they are clearly not suitable for older learners.   Pictures and text about Floppy and Kipper will just not cut it with older readers.  Instead, what’s required are age-appropriate storylines, typography and illustrations which will engage an older reader and not patronise.    And so I was very interested to take a look at a new phonics reading scheme designed specifically for older learners who need a second chance at getting to grips with reading.  This is an area of literacy that particularly interests me and which I wrote about in a previous post: Reading books and ideas for when boys and girls (but especially boys) fall behind in their reading.

The Dockside reading scheme (available through Rising Stars) works with readers with little or no letter recognition through to National Curriculum Level 3, using a systematic and structured phonic approach.   It is divided into six stages and each stage includes a Stage Teacher’s Book which provides three teaching sessions for each invidual book within a stage; phonics for reading, comprehension and writing. The stories are engaging and contain age-appropriate content – for example, football, DVD and pizza nights, youth clubs and are about teenage characters.  In addition, the typography, illustrations and overall graphics are very colourful, eye-catching and modern.

Inside the front cover of each book is a table which contains the phonics and/or spellings that are the focus of the particular book, including sounds, high frequency words, tricky words, prefixes and contractions.   Below are some digital versions that I’ve created of three of their books – Torn Shorts (Stage 1, Book 9); Dark Castle (Stage 3, Book 7); and The Mistake (Stage 6 (last), Book 6). See what you think.

Torn Shorts – Stage 1, Book 9

Dark Castle – Stage 3, Book 7

The Mistake – Stage 6, Book 6


Posted in Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Four very different Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland books plus beautiful, never-before-seen Alice illustrations by talented artist Marie Petty

Alice and the Mad Hatter by Marie Petty

 ”There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’ (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.” Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole is just the very beginning of many curious and extraordinary adventures in Wonderland - growing, shrinking, growing again, shrinking again, swimming in a pool of one’s own tears along with several curious creatures who have fallen in, a disappearing cat that leaves behind just its grin, a game of crochet with a very disagreeable Queen, live hedgehogs for croquet balls, flamingoes for mallets and doubled-up soldiers for arches.  And of course, a tea party with a Mad Hatter, a March Hare and a very sleepy Dormouse.

Alice and Fan by Marie Petty

Alice and the Animals by Marie Petty

Alice and the Caterpillar by Marie Petty

Recently, the Story Museum, Oxford, featured a visually stunning and very imaginative exhibition entitled Tea with Alice.  It was a wonderful exhibition, a bringing together of the work of many artists who have illustrated Alice’s story, from the Victorian era through to today .  It ended with a room set up as the Mad Hatter’s tea party and my daughters and I got to wear lots of  different hats and try our hand at writing riddles.   Having been inspired by the illustrations on display, I made it my mission to seek out our favourite adaptations and editions of this classic children’s tale.  And here they are.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  With artwork by Yayoi Kusama   This is an unabridged version brought wonderfully to life by very colourful, sometimes abstract, sometimes very real, artwork.   The use of spots and dots feature heavily and this is because Kusama has a rare condition which means that she sees spots on everything she looks at.  The effect, however, is surreal, mesmerising and complements well the way Carroll writes and his take on the world through a child’s eyes, that is, extraordinary.

Down, down, down. Artwork by Yayoi Kusama

"I'm not a serpent". Artwork by Yayoi Kusama

"She found herself at last in the beautiful gardens". Artwork by Yayoi Kusama

"You may not have lived much under the sea". Artwork by Yayoi Kusama

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – published by Vintage Classics (Random House Children’s Books)   Vintage Children’s Classics is a classics list aimed at 8 – 12 year olds and includes a selection of books that most adults would hold very dear to their hearts – books that were most probably read to them as children or encountered by them at some point during their growing up or even as grown-ups.  Some were written a long time ago, some much more recently.  They are all, to me, the national treasures of the children’s literary world.  They include such gems as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner, Five Children and It by E Nesbit, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling and others.  All the classics in this series come with added extras, the ‘backstory’, which might be a who’s who guide to the main characters, a quiz about the book, an author biog and background, suggestions for further reading, a write-your-own nonsense verse (for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), information about horses (for Black Beauty) or exploring nature activities (for The Wind in the Willows). The children’s classics list is supported by a World of Stories website, featuring six worlds based around the books in the list and filled with lots of activities to do both online and in downloadable form.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland - A Pop-up Adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Original Tale by Robert Sabuda    Alice’s adventures lend themselves beautifully to the pop-up treatment and if anyone is going to do it justice then look no further than Robert Sabuda.   As readers might already know I am a huge fan of pop-up books and Robert Sabuda in particular.   (See here for more pop-up wonders).  Each double-page layout is a paper-engineering masterpiece.   Open the front cover and you are greeted with the opening scene from Carroll’s book: the riverbank, her sister reading from a book, a small copse of trees (look out for the surprises hidden in the foliage) and Alice running towards the rabbit hole.  The rabbit hole itself is revealed within a concertina, folding section which you pull up and look inside to find a tiny Alice falling down, down, down a very long spiral.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a pop-up adaptation by Robert Sabuda

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a pop-up adaptation by Robert Sabuda

There are more stunning and very complicated pieces of engineering as you journey through the book: a full reconstruction of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, complete with a table laid out with an eight-piece tea set, Alice, the Hatter, the sleeping Dormouse and the March Hare; and the deck of cards forming an arch way above and around Alice as she wakes from her dream.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, retold by Harriet Castor, illustrated by Zdenko Basic   Like Sabuda’s adaptation, this book also contains many hidden treasures – doorways, flaps, pull-tabs and mini-sized books within a book.   But best of all are the sumptuous illustrations throughout – they have a film-like quality to them, a Tim Burton film to be precise.  All the characters and creatures feature wonderful expressions on their faces.  Alice, in particular, is captivating as she stumbles through each each adventure and encounter.


Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, retold by Harriet Castor, illustrated by Zdenko Basic

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, retold by Harriet Castor, illustrated by Zdenko Basic

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, retold by Harriet Castor, illustrated by Zdenko Basic

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, retold by Harriet Castor, illustrated by Zdenko Basic

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, retold by Harriet Castor, illustrated by Zdenko Basic


Posted in Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Carroll, Lewis, Kusama, Yayoi, Pre-teen, Sabuda, Robert, Teenage, Young Adult | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Land of Stories (The Wishing Well) by Chris Colfer : reviewed by Hannah, aged 9, from High Wycombe

The Land of Stories – The Wishing Well by  Chris Colfer

This book is about two twins – Alex and Conner Bailey - who disappear into their Grandmother’s old book of fairy tales she gave them for their twelth birthday.  After their Dad dies, it seems like the twins’ world has fallen apart.  But on their amazing journey to get home they see some of their Dad’s stories for real and uncover secrets.

In each kingdom in the fairytale world, they will have to collect an item for the wishing well, the only possible way to get them home.

I think anybody who likes fantasy and adventure would love this book like I did.  I think that it should be for ages 9 – 12, or maybe older.

I would recommend this book because it is exciting.  The characters are great and I love the settings they travel through.  I loved the ending.


Posted in Age 8-10, Colfer, Chris, Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Back to school? Try student life at the School of Fear or Monster High … if you dare! Two school genre books by Gitty Daneshvari

My secondary school. I loved my school and, thankfully, it was nothing like the schools featured in the following two books by Gitty Daneshvari and reviewed by Hannah, age 9, from High Wycombe

Back to school this week? Count your lucky stars you’re not going to be a student at the schools featured in these two tween books by Gitty Daneshvari, School of Fear and Ghoulfriends Forever – Monster High, reviewed by Hannah, age 9, from High Wycombe.

School of Fear by Gitty Daneshvari   “Everyone is afraid of something…”  This book’s ending is thrilling!  I think it was my favourite part of the book.   It was amazing when Munchauser, a beastly man, comes out of the Dire Disaster chute in the school’s floor, announces some terrible news to their strange teacher, Mrs Wellington, and makes a daring escape with the caretaker’s dog, Macaroni!  Soon, the only students at the school are after him.   The foursome are on an incredible adventure, meeting some very odd people along the way and facing up to their biggest fears, namely, bugs, dying, confined spaces and deep, deep water.   Welcome to the school where there is no homework, no exams but where, if they fail to conquer their fears by the end of the course… it’s just too frightening to say.

Ghoulfriends Forever – Monster High – by Gitty Daneshvari   This is an exciting book with great characters.  Rochelle Goyle, the Scarisian gargoyle, Robecca Steam, the forgetful robot-girl and Venus McFlytrap, the eco-friendly plant monster are all new to Monster High and are sharing the Chamber of Gore and Lore.  After finding their way around the school they realise there is a new teacher who seems a little odd. What is she doing whispering in all the monster’s ears? The three ghoul friends must work out what Miss Flapper is doing, and more importantly, who is she..?

I really enjoyed this book and I’m looking forward to reading the second book.   I would really recommend Ghoulfriends Forever as a book for girls aged 8-10.

Posted in Age 8-10, Daneshvari, Gitty, Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Educational Leadership and the Community, ed by Gelsthorpe and West-Burnham: helping schools move from being ‘schools in the community’ to ‘schools of the community’

My secondary school years were spent at a school called Oathall Community College.  At the time, I didn’t really take much notice of its name or that it had the word ‘community’ in it.  It was just the school that I went to with all my friends.  In fact the whole of my year six at junior school  came up with me to Oathall because there was just one secondary school in the catchment.  Pretty straightforward for my parents.

Now it is my turn to start thinking about secondary schools for my two daughters as they move towards the end of their primary school years.   In Buckinghamshire, where I live, the situation for parents is a little more complicated.  We are presented with two main schooling options post primary – upper schools, for children of all abilities - or grammar schools, for children who qualify through the 11+ process.  So, to be able to go to some of the schools where we live, my children have to pass a test.  But, I am not going to discuss the rights or wrongs of selective schooling here.  I have been much more interested to learn what it means for a school to be called a ‘community’ school – having been to one myself (albeit a long time ago) AND having also stumbled across a really inspiring book on this very subject – Educational Leadership and the Community – Strategies for School Improvement through Community Engagement (edited by Tony Gelsthorpe and John West-Burnham).

Now I realise that it might seem a little pretentious of me to be reading and reviewing a book about educational leadership when I am not a school teacher, let alone a school leader.  However, I come from the perspective of a parent within a community, interested in how the local school provision can be the best not just for my children (isn’t that what all parents want?) but also for the wider community.   After all, schools are uniquely placed, they are operating within communities and a flourishing and positive relationship between a school and its community can bring real, mutual benefits.  This is the overriding theme of Educational Leadership and the Community.

All the contributors to Education Leadership and the Community have been able to provide informed and experienced perspectives on education and community because they have or are all working in these sectors – as school teachers, head teachers, adult education teachers, inspectors of schools, directors of education, managers within youth services, social services, children’s services, as a Community Schools Network Manager, as a Director of Education and Lifelong Learning at the Community Education Development Centre and as Director of Professional Research and Development at the London Leadership Centre, Institute of Education.

As its starting point, the book reflects on the last two decades during which schools have been operating within a programme of centralised reform – national strategies and a national curriculum – not all bad of course but hardly conducive to working with diversity and being able to respond to the uniqueness of each school’s community.   As the editors point out, “..the inspection regime, undoubtedly one of the key factors in raising standards, has nonetheless given rise to a mood of compliance.  Those who look over their shoulders cannot see the horizon”.   And there’s no doubt school leaders are in a very difficult position because of this.  It can’t be easy to be creative, to take risks, when your school is being measured and reported and placed in a league table based on centrally imposed targets such as the number of students gaining 5 GCSEs at grade A-C but which takes no account of the uniqueness and the diversity of your community and the children within it*.

In his contribution, Tony Gelsthorpe asks that education and schooling be defined more widely than just academic success and also that there be a movement away from the preoccupation with quantitative measurement of school success and improvement to a more qualitative one in terms of impact on society, community and individuals.  And to do this, Gelsthorpe suggests identifying a values framework to underpin a comprehensive community education service. ”These values might include the following:-

  • Access to high quality learning is the right of all.
  • Learning is a lifelong, life-enhancing process.
  • Involvement with the wider community enriches the curriculum and the teaching and learning enrich community life…”

And from these values, real benefits of “educational provision and practice rooted in the community can be realised.

Also rooted in the community needs to be the curriculum itself, including teaching and learning about the community, participation in the community, preparation for life in the community and, just as importantly, teaching and learning FOR the community.  Why not, for example, open up the school for further, adult and continuing education (such as ESOL classes), sports and leisure activities, transition summer schools for children moving from year six to year seven (a notoriously difficult time for some children), extending support to new parents (new parents mentoring partnerships), support for single Dads, and so on and so on?

John Grainger looks at how community schools, all of which have developed differently in response to their own, unique set of circumstances, have progressed over the last 25 years or so.  He uses, and extends further, a test offered by Phil Street, Chief Executive Officer of the Community Education Development Centre (CEDC) to judge whether a school is “committed to the operational principles of community schools“.  They are:-

  • To what extent does your school extend access to educational, recreational, social or cultural activities to the wider community?  List the provisions and the activities.
  • Are you offering lifelong learning educational opportunities?  List the provisions and the activities.
  • Is the community being involved and used in the delivery of the National Curriculum?  List examples of involvement.
  • Which other agencies is your school collaborating with to meet community needs?  List the agencies and purpose for collaboration.
  • What are the opportunities for the community to be involved in the governance or management of community school activities?

Plus Grainger’s additional questions:-

  • What measures have been put in place to join these operational principles together in practice?  List the measures in place.
  • How are these aspects of school life integrated into its ‘mainstream activities? Provide evidence of the integration to maximise the advantage to all learners.

Much of the rest of the book uses research and cases studies from around the world and around the UK, providing invaluable, practical examples of how primary schools, secondary schools and places of lifelong learning have adopted community based educational values as well as specific strategies and approaches that they have used to deliver community education.

I thoroughly recommend this book for anyone working in education and in community services or anyone who has an interest in these areas.   It is inspiring, visionary, entertaining (in particular, Chapter 4, Managing a Community Primary School by Peter Hall Jones) and an education in itself.

* Schools are also measured on value added which does take into account the progress of students between key stages and acknowledges special educational needs, family circumstances, movement between schools and the unique challenges some schools face. But the focus often remains on the number of students attaining 5 GCSEs.


Posted in Adult, Gelsthorpe, Tony, West-Burnham, John | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Pea and the Princess: an endearing twist on a well-known fairytale plus a lovely Princess and the Pea sewing project from Mollie Makes

 From pod to palace – the real story of the princess and the pea…”

I love it when writers come up with an original twist on a well-known fairytale and you can’t get more original than Mini Grey’s take on The Princess and the Pea.   In this delightful book, we get to hear the story of how the prince finds his true love … FROM THE PEA!  And what a gutsy, clever little pea it is who single-handedly and with much resourcefulness steps in (figuratively speaking) to sort out the hapless family up at the Palace.

The story picks up shortly after Pea’s birth – “I was born in the Palace Allotment, among rows of carrot and beetroot and cabbage” and almost immediately Pea suspects that ‘his’ life is going to be extraordinary.  And how right ‘he’ was – waiting in a bowl alongside lots of other, identical little peas, expecting to be part of a new recipe, Pea is suddently plucked out and taken in a box by the Queen no less.  The Queen has it in her head that “..a Real Princess will be able to feel this little pea as she sleeps, even if she is sleeping on top of twenty mattresses and feather beds.  And you are going to marry the first girl who can feel this Pea!“.   (One gets the feeling that Her Majesty is somewhat exasperated with the efforts of her son in finding a bride).

However, even the Queen’s efforts don’t quite go to plan and having endured many nights (months and months) “in the darkness under a pile of twenty mattresses and feather beds and a princess“, Pea, quite frankly, has had ENOUGH.  Time to take things into his own hands (hands, ?)  Anyway, with the right girl in place (you’ll have to read the book yourself to see who she is), and squashed underneath twenty mattresses and feather beds and a Princess, Pea decides to start climbing, gingerly, to the top.  Upon reaching the top and for the next three hours, Pea whispers into the girl’s ear, “There is something Large and Round and very Uncomfortable in the bed under you”, over and over again.

Can you guess what the girl’s response was to the Queen the following morning when asked how she slept?   Well, suffice it to say, Pea was made a Very Important Artefact and lived out ‘his’ days on display in a glass case.

I nestled snugly in a velvety pod with my brothers and sisters. I felt a tingle. I knew that somehow I would be important.

I was put in a little box, with soft tissue to protect me from bruising. And I was taken by the Queen.

Months passed. I spent most nights in the darkness under a pile of twenty mattresses and feather beds and a princess.

In the morning, the Queen asked the girl how she had slept.

Oh, it was awful! she sighed. Something Large and Round and Uncomfortable was bothering me all night.

Princess and the Pea sewing project inspired by Mollie Makes magazine

One of our summer holiday projects, amongst others, was to have a go at making this gorgeous sewing project.   All the materials were sourced cheaply from scraps of material lying around at home or from eBay.   The project also gave me the excuse to buy a sewing machine and after a lot of research I purchased a John Lewis Mini Sewing Machine for £49 which I thought was remarkably good value.   And I have to say it is a lovely little machine.  It is easy to use, so easy my nine and seven year old daughters are able to use it.  (And no John Lewis did not supply the machine for free and have not paid me to say all this).  Oh, and the Pea is made from airdry modelling clay.

The Princess and the Pea sewing project is designed by Miranda McGrory and featured in Issue 15 of Mollie Makes magazine.

Not quite twenty mattresses but we're working on it.


Posted in Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10 | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket: A Wonderful Tale Celebrating Difference by John Boyne

“That’s just not normal, that”.

But what exactly is normal and who, if anyone, has the right to decide what is normal?  Your parents, your wider family, your friends, your teachers, society?

Where do we learn what is ‘normal’ and from whom?  Sometimes it can be learnt from our parents and from their parents before them (an idea that is explored further by Boyne in the book).  Sometimes from our peers – in the school playground and then on into adulthood.  And sometimes from the media – actually a lot from the media – the papers, the TV, the Internet.

Barnaby Brocket is the third child born to Eleanor and Alastair.  His siblings, Henry and Melanie, are perfectly normal.  That is just how his parents like things – respectable, dull, as-far-from-the-centre-of-things-as-possible, normal.  But Barnaby is far from normal.  He floats.  This presents major problems carrying out the simplest of things like going to the loo for example.  And for his parents, a normal trip to the park is now anything but normal if you want to ensure your youngest child doesn’t float away and at the same time avoiding drawing attention to yourself – heaven forbid.

Yet Barnaby tries SO hard to fit in with the image of ‘normal’ that this parents so desperately seek – he endures days and days couped up at the family home so that Eleanor and Alastair don’t have to face going outside with him (usually on the end of a leash, just like a kite); he gets sent to a school miles away from his home so that the neighbours’ children won’t find out about him; he even puts up with wearing rucksacks loaded down with sand which dig deep into his shoulders so that his feet stay firmly on the ground.

But no matter how hard Barnaby tries, it’s never good enough.  And from what starts as as seed of an idea, develops into a definite plan in the minds of his parents – to cut the apron strings good and proper.  So, one fateful day, whilst on a walk, Barnaby’s mother makes a small cut in the bottom of his rucksack and out pours the sand that has been weighing him down – turning him into a “human egg-timer”.  It was a deliberate act by Eleanor Brocket to send her youngest son skyward and out of her life and that of her husband’s for good.

Fortunately for Barnaby, he drifts into the path of a hot air balloon, piloted by Ethel and Marjorie, an elderly couple who know exactly how it feels to be betrayed by one’s family.  And so begins an extraordinary adventure for Barnaby, spanning the globe and breadth of human nature, meeting along the way a host of characters, all of whom have a story to tell and a perspective to share on what it means to be ‘normal’.

John Boyne has crafted a beautiful tale about what it is to be ‘normal’, what it is to be different and the common perceptions and misunderstandings of both.  Barnaby, Boyne’s hero, brings his childlike simplicity to bear on these awkward questions and every time his innocence and straightforwardness cuts right through the rubbish strategies adults employ when they are fearful, anxious or just plain embarrassed about what other people think.

Posted in Age 8-10, Boyne, John, Pre-teen, Teenage, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reading books and ideas for when boys and girls (but especially boys) fall behind in their reading

It is well documented* that there is a “reading gender gap” between boys and girls and that it is growing.  Schools are attempting to address reading issues by using synthetic phonics to teach the mechanics of reading from Reception onwards.  And quite often children are introduced to letter sounds and shapes even earlier.    So why are some children, in particular boys, falling behind in their reading and what resources are out there to help them get back on track?

Children’s author Michael Morpurgo, who provided evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Literacy Group Commission on this issue, says,

“The problem is cultural and deep-seated, therefore unlikely to be resolved quickly. The effort to turn things round has to be multi-faceted and has to be sustained over decades.”


So, in an attempt to chip away at this huge problem, all I can do here is to point parents, carers, teachers to books, resources and ideas that I have come across and which might help those children who are struggling with their reading.

Barrington Stoke – specialist publishers of inclusive ‘high/low’ reading books

Barrington Stoke specialise in books designed for less experienced, struggling or reluctant readers.   (Their books are also produced with dyslexic readers in mind – using off-white paper, a special dyslexia-friendly font and, very thoughtfully, a removable ‘dyslexia-friendly’ sticker to help parents and booksellers).   But, most importantly for struggling readers, the books are very carefully edited to be ‘high/low’ – meaning that the interest age (IA) is appropriate to the actual age of the reader but the reading age (RA) is lower.  The IA/RA legend, again very thoughtfully, is discreetly placed above the barcode on the back of the book.

No child, who is a struggling reader, wants to be carrying around in their school bag books which are obviously for younger children.  So Barrington Stoke have also given a lot of thought to the ‘look and feel’ of their books, using graphics, images and typography that reflect the interests of teenagers and older children.   Here’s just a small selection of Barrington Stoke’s considerable backlist and current books.

Starship Rescue by Theresa Breslin (Reading Age 7+, Interest Age 9+)  A fun sci-fi adventure from a Carnegie Medalist, in a low reading-age edition.   Set in a divided world of Outsiders, trapped in lives of slavery at the Merkonium mines, and the Keepers, desperate to cling on to their priviledged position within the Fortress, Marc attempts to seek rescue from Starship and Planet Earth.  It is a dangerous mission, very dangerous and can only be attempted once every twenty years.    Will the Outsiders succeed this time?



one-nil by Tony Bradman (Reading Age 8, Interest Age 8-12)   Luke and his friend Jamie are football mad so when they hear that the England squad no less are training at their local ground, they are desperate to go and watch.  So desperate that they have to hatch a plan to get a day off school.  Will their football dream come true or will they score an own-goal?




Desirable by Frank Cottrell Boyce  (Reading Age 8+, Interest Age Teen)   George is a loser.  Even his grandad doesn’t want to hang out with him!  Then he starts using the weird old aftershave that he got for his birthday.  Suddenly all the girls are in love with him…including the teachers!  George wanted to be popular.  Now he’s looking for somewhere to hide…

This book is VERY funny.  It goes to show that sometimes what you wish for can actually turn into your worst nightmare..as George finds out.   Written by the Carnegie medalist, Frank Cottrell Boyce and author of Millions and The Unforgotten Coat.

Respect by Michaela Morgan (Reading Age 7, Interest Age Teen)   Read the inspiring story of Walter Tull, who overcame a tough childhood in a children’s home to become the first black Premier League football player and the first black officer in the British Army.    Also available alongside this book is a set of downloadable, photocopiable resources covering a range of literacy tasks and which are particularly suitable for students who struggle with the written word.



Crow Girl by Kate Cann (Reading Age 8+, Interest Age Teen)    Bullied at school, Lily takes refuge in the woods, where she meets the crows. With their help, she exacts revenge on her tormentors in a spectacular way.   “A powerful read exploring issues of self-esteem and identity,” The Guardian Bookshop.





Football Academy series by Tom Palmer, published by Puffin

Football Academy series by Tom Palmer, published by Puffin    This is the perfect set of books for boys in the eight to twelve age range (or older) who are so mad on football that they struggle to sit down long enough to read a book!   Not only that, but this book series has been written by someone who knows, knows about the challenges of getting boys to read books.   You see as well as being a huge football fan, Tom Palmer has an international reputation in reader development. He is a coordinator of the Reading Partners consortium, works with The Reading Agency, Booktrust and the National Literacy Trust, and has been the official writer for the Premier League Reading Stars scheme for five years.   Tom describes the books as “clear and simple”.  He also produced some good advice for using the World Cup to encourage children to read which translates very well for the forthcoming Olympics.   Click here to read the first chapter of Football Academy Boys United for free.

Non-fiction books

Sometimes it might take a move away from fiction altogether to hook struggling or reluctant readers back into reading.  This is mainly apparent for boys but it can also work for girls too.  Indeed, my youngest daughter, aged 7, has been slowly working her way through a children’s book all about the human body for the last few months.  This is HER book of choice each bedtime and now our evenings are interrupted by all sorts of questions about the human anatomy!     It is not necessarily my choice of reading material for her but that is the key point here – she has chosen the book for her reading for pleasure time.

As it happens, Barrington Stoke also publish a range of non-fiction books which, again, are edited to be ‘high/low’ – most have a reading age of 8+ and an interest age of 10-14.

Comics and graphic novels are also excellent resources for encouraging boys to read more.   Long chapters and pages and pages of text can be quite daunting for many children and the use of comic style illustrations, speech bubbles and the breaking up of large chunks of text in books like The Diary of a Wimpy Kid can work very well.

Using a Kindle or eReader

There is nothing like the anonymity that a Kindle provides.    Recent research points to boys improving their attitude towards reading after a two-month period using a Kindle.  Interestingly, however, when girls used a Kindle over a similar timeframe, the reverse happened.   It appears that girls still prefer to read the printed word.

Positive male role models

The National Literacy Trust produced a magazine entitled “Getting the Blokes on Board”, with the objective of ”involving fathers and male carers in reading with their children”.  Previous studies* have shown that some fathers tended “to give the child’s mother the main responsibility for reading with children, usually because they viewed her as the main teacher and caregiver”.

*(http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/assets/0000/2298/Blokes.pdf, page 5)

As schools, primary ones in particular, tend to have a female bias in terms of teaching staff, I think it is very important for boys to have access to positive male role models.  The “Getting Blokes on Board” magazine has lots of ideas for engaging male carers and bringing their experience, ideas and persectives into the classroom.

Another idea is to invite male authors into schools for reading/book events.   I have been lucky enough to witness some amazing author events at schools and in the local community; one by Steve Cole (of Astrosaurs fame) is particularly memorable.  His talk was very lively, very funny, incredibly engaging and the children were buzzing.

* The Boys’ Reading Commission findings published today (Monday 2 July)


Posted in Age 8-10, Bradman, Tony, Breslin, Theresa, Cann, Kate, Cottrell Boyce, Frank, Morgan, Michaela, Palmer, Tom, Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Giver by Lois Lowry: from Utopia to Dystopia. A powerful story about what it is to be human.

There is a reason for showing this flower in black and white, stripped of its colour. Read "The Giver" by Lois Lowry to discover why. Copyright Yvonne Keen

Jonas lives in a community which seeks order, conformity.  The Elders of the Community call it Sameness.    Sameness, it is thought, will protect the community’s citizens from pain, hunger, fear, violence, mistakes, wrong choices.  It is extended to all parts of the community – the weather (which is climate controlled), the physical surroundings (variations, like hills, are ‘landscaped’ out), people’s dwellings, their furniture, even their food.

The Sameness extends to the people living in the community too.   Babies that don’t develop according to pre-determined milestones are ‘released’ from the community, life partners are matched meticulously by the Elders based on disposition, energy levels, interests and intelligence.   And in the same way, all citizens are given their Assignment, their job, when they reach the age of twelve, again after much consideration by the Elders, who observe the children, take notes and meet together.   Even the language that is spoken is controlled – it is precise, devoid of possible misinterpretation.  For example, on one occasion Jonas announces, just before a meal, that he is “starving”.  Immediately he is taken aside and given a private lesson in language precision.

“He was not starving, it was pointed out.  He was hungry.  No one in the community was starving, had ever been starving, would ever be starving.  To say ‘starving’ was to speak a lie.  An unintentioned lie, of course.  But the reason for precision of language was to ensure that unintentional lies were never uttered.  Did he understand that? they asked him.  And he had.”

On the surface, it appears to be as near perfect a world as is possible.   Nobody experiences pain (or at worst, pain relief is available quickly), hunger (food is delivered to all dwellings, the remains collected later by the Food Collectors) rudeness (it’s just not allowed in the rules), crime (citizens who commit three serious rule transgressions are ‘released’).

We meet Jonas as an Eleven*, in the lead up before the Ceremony of Twelve when all children born in the same year as Jonas become a Twelve and are given their Assignment.  Some of his peers already have a good idea about what their Assignment might be; they are already demonstrating talents in particular areas such as nurturing or caring, engineering or recreation.  Jonas, however, hasn’t the slightest idea what his might be and is eagerly and nervously waiting to find out.   But while his peers are chosen to be doctors, teachers, caretakers of the Old or Birthmothers, Jonas is sent to receive daily training from an old and tired man, one of the Elders – The Giver.   And it is during these daily sessions with The Giver that Jonas begins to discover that the world in which he and his community lives is far from perfect.

As the story progresses and as Jonas continues his training, many questions are raised about the nature of society and what it is to be human.  If you remove sunshine because of the danger of sunburn you also remove the pleasure of warm sunshine on your shoulders; flatten out the landscape because of the inconvenience of navigating over hills and children can no longer play that wonderful game of rolling down hillsides or sledging down them in winter.   When life partners are selected for you, when you have to apply for children born of Birthmothers, there can be no concept of family, no understanding of love.

The Giver will stay with the reader for a long time.  It raises many questions about what it is that holds society together.   And what makes people special and unique and why that’s important.

Posted in Lowry, Lois, Pre-teen, Teenage, Young Adult | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Rubbish Town Hero by Nicola Davies: A Little Babbler Review by Rose, age 9, from High Wycombe

Chipo and his sister Gentle, live in a bomb crater outside Rubbish Town, where everything and everyone has been thrown away at least once. With no parents or family to protect them, Chipo is convinced that his ability to think quick and move fast, like a superhero, is all that he and his sister, Gentle, need to get on in life. But Chipo’s ambitions land them in big trouble and set the two children and their dog Mouse, on a roller coaster ride of adventures. Along the way they find a new kind of family, but will Chipo find the courage to be a real hero and find a better life for them all?  (Synopsis provided by Nicola Davies, from her website, here).

And this is what Rose, our Little Babbler, thought of Rubbish Town Hero.

“This book is about a little boy named Chipo and his sister Gentle.  They live together in Rubbish Town.  Chipo works on the local dump collecting bits of metal and other valuable rubbish, which a man called Papa Fudu pays him for.  One day Chipo finds a television at the dump and the children’s world changes forever.

This is not a book which I would normally choose to read and it took a little time to really start enjoying it, however the more I read the more I wanted to read.

It is a book about hope, courage, determination and friendship.”


Posted in Age 8-10, Davies, Nicola, Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Leopard Adventure by Anthony McGowan: a contemporary re-imagining of the classic animal adventure series to mark the 125th anniversary of Willard Price’s birthday

An Amur Leopard of which there are only about 30 left in the wild, 200 in zoos

“…a mother Amur leopard, one of the rarest big cats in the world, was sniffing the air suspiciously.

It should have been a good time.  The two cubs had fed on her rich milk, and they now wormed their way cosily into her thick fur.

But she was worried.  There were only two animals she feared.  The first were humans with their killing sticks that made the noise of thunder.  The second was the tiger.  Humans had been in the woods with dogs.  And she had smelled the strong odour of a big male tiger two days ago.


But something else was coming, something that was faster than any human, more deadly that a tiger.  Something that would find her even in the deepest den.”

Five thousand miles away and Amazon had thought she’d be spending the summer stuck in her domitory block at boarding school in England while her parents were on an important environmental expedition deep in Alaska.  That was until her thirteen year old cousin, Frazer, along with Dr Drexler from TRACKS – a secretive animal rescue organisation in America – turn up, uninvited, and recruit Amazon for their next daring mission – to rescue a female Amur leopard and her two cubs.  Just these three animals represent ten percent of the world’s wild population of Amur (barely thirty remain in the wild) and they are in grave danger, trapped by a forest fire between two rivers in the Sikhote-Alin mountain range, far east Russia.

Next stop… the Russian wilderness then for Amazon, Frazer, Miranda and Bluey from TRACKS.  Here they meet up with Doolins, “he’s probably the world’s greatest living expert on the Amur leopard”, along with some very dodgy-looking Russians, giving very good impressions of ex-KGB agents with their AK-47s, dark glasses and over-sized moustaches “bushy enough in which to hide a whole family of Amur leopards“!

Aaaaanyway, the race is on to save the mother Amur leopard and her two cubs.  This is a fast paced story which flips between the human stories – of Amazon, Frazer, the TRACKS team members, the Russians and Makha and Dersu, the local guides from the Udege (the indigenous people from the region) – and the animal stories, of the tiger, the bears and the Amur leopards and their desperate stuggle to survive.

Boys and girls aged 9+ who are into animals, are passionate about the environment and who enjoy an action-packed adventure spanning the globe will love this book.  I, myself, particularly enjoyed learning about the habitat of the Amur leopards, their behaviour and their real-life struggle to survive.   I also enjoyed the way McGowan pitched modern tracking technology like GPS against the age-old methods employed by the Udege people.

Leopard Adventure is the first in a series of animal adventure stories to be published by Puffin to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the birthday of Willard Price, a well-respected natural historian who travelled the world on expeditions for the National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History and which inspired him to write the original Adventure series featuring brothers Roger and Hal Hunt, selling over 5 million copies worldwide.  Now Anthony McGowan is continuing the adventure for today’s children.

Here’s a clip of Anthony McGowan reading an extract from Leopard Adventure

Posted in Age 8-10, McGowan, Anthony, Pre-teen, Price, Willard, Teenage | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting to grips with Shakespeare: Great resources for gently introducing the writings of the Bard to children plus a fun Shakespeare game

Shakespeare's Storybook by Patrick Ryan and illustrations by James Mayhew

There’s no doubt that the retelling of Shakespeare’s stories to a younger audience presents a challenge.   In Shakespeare’s original tales, the language is not entirely straightforward and I can remember when studying Twelfth Night for O level getting very bogged down in the language and missing key events in the plot.  Fortunately, our enlightened English literature teacher took the whole class to see a stage production of Twelfth Night, one specially designed for young English literature students, and it all became much clearer.

So I welcome any resources that provide an informative, entertaining and engaging way of bringing these classic texts to a young audience.  Here are my pick of the bunch.

The Shakespeare Stories – Bringing Shakespeare to Today’s Children – retold by Andrew Matthews, illustrated by Tony Ross     This box set contains the stories of Anthony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Henry V and Romeo and Juliet.   In Romeo and Juliet the story opens at the Capulet’s house, owned by Juliet’s father and is described as thus:


“On that warm summer’s evening, the Capulet house was the brightest place in Verona.  The walls of the ballroom were hung with silk tapestries, and candle-light from a dozen crystal chandeliers threw rainbows on to the heads of the masked dancers as they twirled through the music and laughter that filled the air.”

So, the scene is set for Romeo and Juliet to meet, both flushed and swept up by the excitement of the evening’s entertainments.   And from the moment they kiss, as we know, their fate is sealed – the bitter hatred of their two families setting in motion a series of tragic events.

This series of books really do offer a gentle introduction to Shakespeare for young readers (age 7/8+).  Very helpfully, each book contains a cast list of the main characters at the front; a brief discussion about the main emotions at play in the story; and what it was like to visit the Globe Theatre when Shakespeare’s plays were first performed.  Age 7/8+

Mr. William Shakespeare’s Plays – Seven Plays Presented by Marcia Williams   Marcia Williams has presented these plays in a highly individual but incredibly effective way – essentially, in the form of a comic strip which includes Shakespeare’s own dialogue, a very helpful narrative running underneath the action and comments from the audience all around the edge of the strip.  The seven plays are: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest.  This is how Marcia describes how the comic strip format works:-

“Dear Play-goer…There are three parts to each performance: the words that Shakespeare actually wrote are those spoken by the actors; the story, or plot of the play, is told underneath the pictures; and the spectators – who are famously rude and noisy – can be seen and heard around the stage.”

Marcia Williams has followed up the success of this book with Bravo, Mr. William Shakespear!  This book contains seven more plays – Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Richard III, Anthony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night, King Lear and The Merchant of Venice.  Age 9+

Romeo and Juliet presented by Marcia Williams

Romeo and Juliet presented by Marcia Williams

Detail from border of Romeo and Juliet (Marcia Williams)

Shakespeare’s Storybook – Folk Tales that Inspired the Bard by Patrick Ryan, illustrations by James Mayhew (with two full-length CDs)    Patrick Ryan introduces this book by saying that Shakespeare knew a good story when he heard one; heard, maybe, from his mother, or his grandfather or even his teachers, in public houses or from friends.   And that is the point, he ‘heard’ them.  Stories and storytelling were a big part of life, in the absence of other forms of entertainment. They were heard in churches or buildings owned by noblemen or simply in people’s homes.  “The people in Tudor times used to say that they were going to ‘hear’ a play” as opposed to seeing a play.  And Shakespeare used the stories he heard and adapted them into the plays that we know today.   They were drawn from folk tales, fairy tales and ballads which originated from many parts of the world.

Patrick Ryan has brought together in this book the stories that are central to seven of Shakespeare’s plays – The Devil’s Bet (The Taming of the Shrew), The Hill of Roses (Romeo and Juliet), A Bargain is a Bargain (The Merchant of Venice), Snowdrop (As You Like It), Ashboy (Hamlet), Cap-O-Rushes (King Lear) and The Flower Princess (The Winter’s Tale).   Each story is introduced, explaining a little about Shakespeare’s play itself and then examining the influences, sources or stories that Shakespeare might have used to write his play.   Patrick Ryan’s text is beautifully supported by James Mayhew’s rich and colourful illustrations.  Age 9+

An extract from The Hill of Roses (Romeo and Juliet)

The Flower Princess (A Winter's Tale): Illustration by James Mayhew

Shakespeare BrainBites Game by The Green Board Game Company – Do you know your Bottom from your Puck?    Shakespeare BrainBites is a fun quiz game for those who want to show off how much they know about the Bard and his plays.  It can be played successfully by those who know a lot and those who know a little.  This is because as you play the game you can choose the level of difficulty of the questions you wish to answer.  This is how it works.   Each player has their own brain card and the object is to gain brain cells, move around the card and be the first to gain 16 brain cells in total.  (See below).

The Brain Cards and Score Markers

To gain brain cells, you answer questions worth 1, 2 or 3 brain cells.

Question card (Romeo and Juliet category)

Answer card (reverse of question card, Romeo and Juliet category)

The questions fall into the following categories: General, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, Cymberline, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard III, The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, The Tempest, Timon of Athens, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It and Who Said What?

The whole game packs away in a compact tin, ideal for travelling with or taking to a friend’s house.  I also think that the game works really well as a revision aid.


Posted in Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Matthews, Andrew, Mayhew, James, Pre-teen, Ross, Tony, Ryan, Patrick, Teenage, Williams, Marcia, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans: A Little Babbler review by Lucy, age 7, from High Wycombe

I really enjoyed this book because it is full of mystery.   Stuart and his friend April want to find Stuart’s Great Uncle, Tony Horton. Stuart’s Great Uncle was a really good magician who never believed in magic until he became a real expert at being one.   One day he disappeared because his wife Lilly ran away when a fire broke out at his workshop. When Stuart went into this old phone box for the first time he found lots of litter on the floor and it smelt horrible.  He put an old threepence in the phone box and instantly received a phone call from the library. This was a really interesting part of the book. If you want to find out what the library says or whether or not Stuart finds his Great Uncle you will have to read this book. Let’s just say that there are lots of clues to follow while Stuart goes on his amazing adventure.   I found with this book that once you start reading it you don’t want to put it down!

In this book there are some quite tricky words and is more aimed at eight or nine year olds to read by themselves so I found it a little hard. However, it would be a lovely story for a seven year old to share with their parents reading it to them.

I rate this book 5/5 so I hope you enjoy it.


Posted in Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Evans, Lissa, Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Brotherband: The Invaders by John Flanagan. A Little Babbler review by Tom, aged 11, from High Wycombe

A very good book especially for adventure, pirate and nautical book enthusiasts.

Although I did read the 2nd book first, it will help a lot more if you read the first book as well.   This is also the first book I have read by John Flanagan and he has written another series called the Rangers Apprentice.

The start is quite long, the action quickly begins!   The book is set near India, in the Viking era and the crew of The Heron (the goodies ship) are Hal, Stig, Thorn, Ulf, Wulf, Stefan and Jesper.

They discover Shelter Bay, invent The Mangler, find the raven and attack Limmaut!   But it does end on a cliff hanger, so I can’t wait for book 3!   I like the way that the storyline is rather unpredictable which I really like in a book.

In all, it’s a great book, and I thoroughly recommend it to adventure and pirate book enthusiasts everywhere!

★ ★ ★ ★/5


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Children’s magazines and comics: two more examples of when children’s magazine publishers get it right

A sea of sellophane, pink and plastic, tacky toys

A short while ago (April 2012), I wrote a piece expressing my dismay over the poor quality of most children’s magazines available on the British high street and in supermarkets.  “Buy one magazine, get five tacky, two-minute-wonder toys for free” was the general sentiment.  I did, however,  feature in that piece some examples of good quality, educational magazines that I had found – Anorak, the Box magazines from Bayard and the official Jacqueline Wilson Mag.

Well, I am pleased to say that I can add two more to the list, both of which are available via subscription.   And here they are.

Aquila – “The fun magazine for children who enjoy challenges”   Aquila is a lovely, fun, yet educational, magazine aimed at children aged between 8 and 13 years.   Produced monthly, each edition is based around a main topic.  For example, January 2012′s edition was based around the 2012 London Olympics.  So, inside, pieces featured: the science of movement “Running on empty”; a craft activity involving making a picture frame based on the 5 Olympic rings; quizzes, word puzzles, maths questions all with an Olympic theme; an article about the Olympic torch – its history, the different designs, including the London 2012 torch; lots of facts and details specific to the London 2012 Games including venues, the bid, the logo and the mascots; and an extended piece looking back at the last time London hosted the Olympics in 1948.   As always, there was also an extended fiction piece (double page), this time not Olympics related, and the letters page “Over to you…” where readers are invited to write in on just about anything they like.

And in March 2012′s edition, much of the content was based around growing your own and included the importance of fruit and vegetables in our diet; the science of ‘flitatious flowers’; making a Dalek composter; quizzes and number problems on a nature theme; how to, in fact, grow your own; and keeping chickens.  The ‘peer into the past’ piece in the March issue covered the sinking of the Titanic, timed to acknowledge the one hundred year anniversary of the disaster.

Aquila’s content includes a good mix of educational pieces, stretching the brightest of the target audience, interesting craft and science projects, storytelling and brainfeeders – Aquila’s name for its section of word puzzles and quizzes.

Running on empty

Olympic rings picture frame

Olympics brainfeeders

The Olympic Torch

The Games of the London Olympiad

The London Olympics 1948

Hallsands by Caroline Butterwick

the Phoenix – The Weekly Story Comic   Judging by my nine year old’s reaction, who incidentally is comic mad, I think we will be extending our current trial subscription with the Phoenix.   Actually, the trial subscription is available to everyone and is an excellent way to try out the comic over five weeks.

Fridays have now become ‘Phoenix’ day in our house as this is the day that this weekly comic plops onto our door mat.   Inside are serialised adventure stories such as The Bald Boy and the Dervish which extend over a number of weeks, often leaving readers on a cliffhanger; shorter story strips such as Out All Night, featuring Kit and Clay; text stories which might be an extract from a book (Conrad Mason’s The Demon’s Watch was featured in one edition); puzzles, like Monster Breakout (see below); and advice for budding comic creators which my daughter leapt upon and you can see the result of her efforts in this post, below.

The Bald Boy and the Dervish

The Bald Boy and the Dervish

The Bald Boy and the Dervish

Out All Night

Tale Feathers with Chris Riddell

Monster Breakout!

How to make awesome comics ... with your friends

Lucie and Rumpelstiltskin

Lucie and Rumpelstiltskin

And here is an extract from the first edition of my daughter’s homemade publication – The Pinny’s Expedition – Gold, Silver and Bronze

The Pinny’s Expedition is a small-scale, in-house publication.   Further publication dates are yet to be decided – they might be weekly, monthly, yearly or a one-off – depending on demand, whether a team of other contributors can be found (her sister?) and the requirements of fitting it round the school day.  We hope you like it!

Gold, Silver and Bronze

Page 1

Page 2

Page 3

Page 4


Posted in Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

From India to London and back again: The Wheel of Surya by Jamila Gavin and Jasmine Skies by Sita Brahmachari (plus stunning images from The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, edited by Susan Stronge)

Map of India taken from We Live in India by Philippe Godard

Our journey starts in the Punjab, north-west India, around the time of the Second World War.  Tensions between the different religious communities in India have been rising, fuelled by Britain’s declaration of war on India’s behalf and nearly a century of British control of the Indian sub-continent.

The Wheel of Surya by Jamila Gavin     Born into this fragile land are siblings, Mavinder and Jaspal, children of Jhoti, who is really just a child herself, a bride at just thirteen.   Jhoti’s own journey had begun a little earlier on a long, white road – taken from her parent’s home just six miles away (it might as well have been a world away) in a “village so simple, that a casual eye would barely have distinguished it from the well ploughed earth and the dappled shade of the eucalyptus trees.”   Sitting on a cart pulled by pure white bullocks richly decorated for her wedding day, Jhoti was sensing the growing physical and emotional separation from her home, from her family, from her previous self.   She was to often look back, wonderingly, down the “straight-as-a-die, long white road.”

Dora Chadwick’s journey, although in terms of distance much longer (England to India), is not that dissimilar.  She too had journeyed to her husband’s home direct from her parents.  It wasn’t what she had planned – she had imagined she would study, be financially independent and then settle quietly into small-town life and marry respectfully.   But Dora followed her heart and her husband Harold, a young  idealist teacher, all the way to a small village in the Punjab, India.

The Death of Ranjit Singh, Lahore, The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, edited by Susan Stronge

And this is where Dora’s and Jhoti’s lives become intertwined.  They bear children together, who then play together; Jhoti goes to work for Harold and Dora; and Harold has big plans for Jhoti’s husband, Govind.  “Govind is just the son of an illiterate peasant farmer, but he is one of the most intelligent boys I’ve ever come across anywhere.  I’m sure I can help him go far.”   And all this takes place against a darkening backcloth of war in Europe and civil war at home - India’s difficult road towards independence.  More and more Jaspal is seeing that things aren’t right with the world.

“Jaspal had noticed that men who used to be friends with each other, who used to sit in the tea shops gossiping or playing cards, now argued and thumped the tables.  Strangers came into the village to march, wave banners and make speeches.  There should be a homeland for the Muslims, a homeland for the Sikhs.  They drew maps and created boundaries and forced people to be enemies…. There was death in the wind.”

And death does indeed come one night, forcing Marvinder, Jaspal and their mother Jhoti to flee.   In the confusion and terror that follows, the children are separated from their mother and so begins their epic journey across India, across half the world, to England, in search of a father they hardly know.

“Their lives could have ended then and there, and who would have known or cared?  Jaspal and Marvinder were two infinitesimal drops in a deluge of humanity fleeing this way and that across the country, looking for a homeland, while politicians in Delhi poured over ancient grubby maps and drew lines which would decide the life and death of millions.”


Guru Har Rai by Guler c.1815. The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, edited by Susan Stronge

The Wheel of Surya is an epic tale of an epic journey, of the courage of children and of their incredible resourcefulness and adaptability.

The Wheel of Surya contains one of the most heartbreaking and touching scenes of a mother’s grief.   It is really beautifully done.   Also, the historial and political landscape against which the story is set is informative and thoroughly absorbing.   It has really inspired me to read more about this period in Indian history.   The Wheel of Surya by Jamila Gavin, recommended for readers aged 12+

Guru Nanak as a young man, disputing with Hindu holy men, illustration from a prayer book of Rani Jindan (the mother of Maharaja Dalip Singh), The Arts of the Sikh Kindoms, edited by Susan Stronge

Jasmine Skies by Sita Brahmachari    Moving sixty or so years on and Mira Levenson is embarking on a journey to India – her first trip there but she is in fact reconnecting two parts of her wider family: her immediate family (her Mum, Dad, her brother Krish and sister Laila) in London and her Aunt Anjali and Cousin Priya in Kolkata, India.   And the India that she finds, post partition, post year 2000, is very different from that described in The Wheel of Surya.  It is an emerging India, a newly confident India in many ways but also one struggling with the burden of feeding its tremendous number of citizens.   With a rapidly increasing population, one-half of all Indians are less than eighteen years old (reference: We Live in India by Philippe Godard).   During the journey from the airport to her aunt’s flat, in the sweltering, hairdryer heat, she sees, through a taxi window, a disjointed landscape.

“When I look out of the window at the land around the airport I get the same feeling of things not being joined up, like one of those thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles my brother Krish insists on buying from jumble sales.   He spends hours making them, only to find that there’re always swathes of the jigsaw missing – whole chunks that don’t piece together.  This landscape is like that too.  There are no proper pathways or pavements leading from the road to the grand entrances of the high-rise blocks.  I wonder how people actually get into work.  They must have to walk across the scrubland, past all the slum dwellings that line the roads, to get to their brand-new sparkly offices.  To me, the new buildings are like giant glass flowers and the slum dwellings look like weeds, with heads of blue tarpaulin… but they’re both growing out of the same scrubland.”

An image of Kolkata (Calcutta) taken from We Live in India by Philippe Godard

Mira’s journey to India also involves uncovering a secret.  Hidden in her hand luggage is an album of letters – correspondence, postcards, notes – between Mira’s mother, Uma, and Mira’s aunt, Anjali.   They tell of lives separated by distance but together in the sharing of stories, the sharing of interests, passions, of hopes for the future, visits made.  But, all of a sudden, the letters between Uma and Anjali stop.  No explanation.  Mira is determined to uncover what happened over thirty years earlier.

But actually, Mira, uncovers a whole lot more on her trip to India – important lessons for life: that sometimes memories are just for those who experienced them first hand and are not for sharing; that it is not always possible to fix all the problems in the world, just maybe one small problem at a time; and that the course of young love is not always easy or straightforward.

I loved sharing Mira’s first trip to India with her.  Seeing Kolkata through her young and enquiring eyes was thrilling – her idealism, her youth and her passion are charming and engaging.  Young readers will easily relate to Mira and to the new, emerging India where classical art forms sit comfortably, more or less, with new forms of music such as dubstep.  Priya, Mira’s cousin, for example, loves classical Indian dancing. “The hours of training I could do without, but when I’m performing, I love it!”   But Priya is also into modern Indian music.  When Mira open a wardrobe in Priya’s bedroom, “it’s like discovering a whole new Priya.   There’s a flash-looking music deck, earphones and hundreds of CDs all stacked in alphabetical order….I slowly walk along the only free wall in the room where Priya’s stuck CD covers and bits torn from magazines, mostly stuff about bands I’ve never heard of, but mixed in with all this are photos of her dancing, holding the most amazing poses.   I hardly recognise her.  She looks so classical and … like she could be out of any period in time”.  

Jasmine Skies by Sita Brachmachari, recommended for readers aged 12+

Guru Nanak with Followers. Detail. The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, edited by Susan Stronge


Posted in Brahmachari, Sita, Gavin, Jamila, Pre-teen, Teenage, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Vampire Fighters by Pete Johnson: a great book to stimulate reading and creative writing for boys (and girls, if I’m honest)

Life’s already complicated enough when you’re thirteen. Girls are becoming ‘interesting’, you’re a teenager walking along that bumpy path to adulthood and you’re parents still think they can tell you what to do all the time.

All quite normal so far.  Except for Marcus, things are far from normal.  Because on the night of his thirteenth birthday his parents ever so casually announce that they are half-vampires and that Marcus too will soon start transforming into one.  OK, that’s definitely not normal.   And if that’s not life-changing enough, Marcus now has to acquire a special power and what that special power is, he has no idea.

Marcus’ efforts to draw out his ‘special power’ – with the help of Tara from the two-day crash course for half-vampires and his parents who join him on the floor for relaxation exercises (more embarrassing than relaxing) – are hilarious.   Also laugh-out-loud funny are Marcus’ attempts to win the heart of not one girl but two!  They are also very endearing; I just think he needs to work on his technique a little.   Here, for example, is how Marcus reacts when he thinks someone else might be making a big impression on the girl he likes.

“You’ve gone very quiet,” said Tallulah.
“It’s you, you’re giving me a headache.”
“How have I done that?” Tallulah actually sounded a bit shocked.
“Having to listen to your voice going on and on about vampires and Cyril…”
“Fine. I shan’t say another word.”
“That’s the best news I’ve heard all night”, I said.
And we walked in silence the rest of the way to Calf Lane.
……I’d calmed down a bit now and I said, “OK, let’s find the vampire’s teeth marks and take them inside for questioning.”
Tallulah’s lips didn’t so much as twitch.
“Don’t smile, will you?” I said.  “You might frighten the traffic.”

Anyway, back to the story.  Without giving too much away, scary things are about to happen in Great Walden.  It’s that weird time of the year between Christmas and New Year and strange sightings are being reported of shadowy figures with skeletal, blood-soaked hands that transfix you to the spot.  The Winter Fair is in town but not everything is as it seems.  Step into the ventriloquist’s fortune tellers tent…if you dare.

Life isn’t just about to become complicated for Marcus.  More like downright dangerous!  Ghosts, deadly vampires, freaky girlfriends and creepy Cyril.  Who can Marcus trust and when, exactly (and can it hurry up please) will his special power emerge?

Pete Johnson has written The Vampire Fighters in the form of a blog – a modern day version of a diary.  Marcus keeps us updated day by day, even minute by minute, and I think this is a refreshing nod to the new forms of creative writing emerging (such as blogs).  Stories don’t always have to follow a traditional format – starting at chapter 1 and finishing at, say, chapter 30 and I believe children should be allowed to experiment in the way they write creatively and be allowed to break the rules.   For example, my eldest daughter is having enormous fun at the moment creating her own comic and writing stories for it.

This is a sentiment endorsed by Pete Johnson himself who is very active in providing new ways of teaching young people, particularly boys, to write creatively.  Actually, Pete used to be a teacher so he knows a thing or two about what kids love and what gets them writing.  I have been very lucky to catch up with Pete (via email) and to ask him about his new book and how he goes about inspiring young people to write.

Interview with Pete Johnson – author of The Vampire Blog, The Vampire Hunters and now The Vampire Fighters

Babbleabout: I am always interested to know what an author read as a child, what books inspired them. So, what were your favourite children’s books growing up, the real page turners that you couldn’t put down?

Pete Johnson:  One of my greatest childhood memories is of the library lesson. For one double period you were left completely and gloriously alone with your chosen book.  I can still remember sitting in the library with the sun streaming through the windows totally absorbed in my story and just feeling so happy.

Top favourites included Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ books. I love the farcical misunderstandings and William’s wonderful eloquence on a subject he felt passionately about like pensions for boys. I collected all thirty eight of those. Humour was a big favourite. I also loved Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, Roald Dahl, Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawn books, the Blyton Mystery books and a wonderful American writer called Edward Eager – ‘Half Magic’ was perhaps his best in which wishes only come half true.

Sometimes I read a book which was so good it would stay in my head for days afterwards (in fact, it’s never quite left it). Books like ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ by Philippa Pearce, ‘Marianne Dreams’ by Catherine Storr, ‘Holiday at the Dew Drop Inn,’ by Eve Garnett., ‘101 Dalmatians’ by Dodie Smith and later ‘I Capture The Castle, by the same author. This is a list which could just go on and on …!

Babbleabout: Do you read contemporary children’s fiction and if so, what are you reading at the moment?

Pete Johnson: Yes I do. Often I meet an author or read a piece they’ve written and get interested in their books. Most recently I’ve read and enjoyed ‘The Considine Curse’ by Gareth P Jones. ‘Moon Pie’ by Simon Mason and ‘M is for Magic’ a great collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman.

Babbleabout: I really like Marcus, the main character in The Vampire Fighters. He comes across as quietly confident and is very funny. Is Marcus based on anyone you know or is there a little bit of you in him?

Pete Johnson:  At most school events I meet a Marcus. Someone who’s a bit of a character, not always an academic star but lively and quick-witted and who really helps my book events go with a swing. The character is also inspired by – would you believe – my Dad. My dad was very funny, wise-cracking in fact, especially on big family occasions, keeping everything light and cheerful. I have copied this and learnt from him. So some of Marcus’s lightness is now also me.

Yet what especially interested me was how this confidence and lightness is also a kind of mask. And in The Vampire Trilogy and The Vampire Hunters Marcus has to dig deeper into himself and let that mask slip sometimes.

I’m really pleased you like Marcus. He is one of my favourite characters too. I’m not writing about him at the moment and I miss him.

Babbleabout: Again, Tallulah is a very interesting character. She is not afraid of standing up for herself and what she believes in, she courageous and outspoken. Do you think it is important to have strong female/girl characters in your books?

Pete Johnson:  Tallulah was actually the first character I came up with in The Vampire Trilogy. I’ve met a number of girls like her: Goths who are quite aggressive on the surface, determinedly going their own way, yet also quirky and in their way dreamers. I had the idea of Tallulah liking monsters so much because she identifies with them – like her, they’re outsiders.

I’m read about equally by boys and girls and I think one of the reasons for my girl following have been the strong, determined characters like Miranda in Trust Me I’m A Troublemaker,’ and Tallulah, here. In some ways Tallulah is the motor for much of the story. She really makes things happen and on more than one occasion, comes to Marcus’s rescue.

Babbleabout: The dialogue exchanges between your main characters – Marcus and Tallulah and Marcus and his parents – are extremely funny. Have you ever thought about doing stand-up comedy or script writing for comedy?

Pete Johnson:  Thank you. I loved writing the dialogue scenes. Oddly enough, when a scene is going really well I don’t seem to be doing much at all. It’s rather as if the conversation is going on inside my head and I’m just transcribing it.

I’ve always had a special love for comedy and in ’How to Train Your Parents,’ (and the sequel which I’m writing at the moment, ’My Parents Are Out of Control’) the main character, Louis, wants to be a stand-up comedian. I also give Louis many of my comedy enthusiasms (Fawlty Towers, Alan Partridge, P.G.Wodehouse).  And I’m certainly gaining a vicarious pleasure from Louis’s progress. But I just haven’t got the nerve (or courage) to be a stand-up comedian. I have written some plays and also for the radio.

Babbleabout:  What frightens you more – a dark scary night with bats flying around your head OR a blank piece of paper in front of you and a pen in your hand?

Pete Johnson:  Well, many things scare me and certainly a dark, scary night with bats flying around my head would be right up there. In fact, bats at any time would disturb me. But a blank piece of paper is much, much scarier.

The way I get round it is this: I sneak up on that blank piece of paper. So I don’t start writing straight away. No I loosen up by playing with ideas and writing little exchanges of dialogue, and imagining what a character’s feeling at a certain point. So then I’ve found I’ve begun without even realising it and so vanquished that terrifying blank page.   

Babbleabout: There is a perception that boys sometimes find creative writing more difficult than girls. You’re a boy so do you have a view on this and can you offer some advice to boys (and girls) who find creative writing a little daunting sometimes?

Pete Johnson:  I agree, boys are often viewed as finding creative writing more difficult than girls. Yet interestingly, at the end of an event a pupil will often come up to me and announce. ‘By the way, I’ve also written a book,’ and then hand me a story often running to thirty or forty pages (sometimes lovingly illustrated too) – and generally that pupil is a boy.  Often too, the teacher will say, I had no idea he’d written that.’ Boys’ bursts of creativity usually goes on in secret.

Now just as I have to loosen up before I begin each day, I suspect other boys are the same, needing some stimulus and ways into a story. I am quite a restless person and easily distracted before I’ve got locked into my story. But once I’m in the ‘zone’ I hate being disturbed.

I’m giving a talk at a teachers’ conference in Leicester on June 30th about how my books have been used to stimulate boys’ reading. One of the points that I will make is that genre rules. Often it’s through a love of a particular genre that boys suddenly discover a love of writing. So it is my spooky books like, The Ghost Dog’ and The Creeper’ which have proved especially popular in stimulating creative writing in schools.

If I were giving advice to boys and girls I would say, read as much as you can, and if you start by copying another author it doesn’t matter (I did that myself) then as you grow in confidence you will start to add in your own ideas and insights. So have fun with a story, play with it, and try things. Don’t be too critical either. That horrible critical voice inside all our heads can inhibit and even destroy wonderful ideas.

Babbleabout:  Along with other well-known writers – Roald Dahl springs to mind – you seem to come down on the side of the kids in the eternal parents/children struggle. (I’m thinking here of your book, How to Train your Parents, and Marcus’ little moments with his parents). What advice can you offer to parents who might be reading this over the shoulder of their loved ones?

Pete Johnson:  I have taken part in a number of events inspired by ‘How to Train Your Parents,’ which were for both parents and children. I generally begin by reading aloud a few passages of How to Train Your Parents, satirising what is know as hyper-parenting – and soon there is the best laughter of all – that laughter of recognition.

I think there are more pressures put on both parents and children than ever before. What I aim to do is explore some of those situations with a light touch. So in Rescuing Dad,’ for instance. I take a serious subject – parents separating. The humour arises when children try and make sense of what’s going on in their parents’ world. It is the collision between these two worlds which stimulates me.

Now, if I have done my part well my books should amuse both parents and children, and if they also get parents and children laughing and talking together, then I’m extremely happy.

Thank you Pete for your time.  Your books are lively, funny and inspiring.

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The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens: an enchanted leather atlas holds the key to this gripping adventure. A Little Babbler review by Becky, aged 11, from High Wycombe

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens

‘That door wasn’t there a second ago.”

Siblings Kate, Michael and Emma were taken from their parents one dreary night – that was 10 years ago.   After growing up in several orphanages, they are sent to Cambridge Falls.   This eerie village lays quiet and dead until they find something that makes time change.   Travelling back through time, the children uncover the deadly secrets of Cambridge Falls, and have to put it right.

An enchanted leather atlas holds the key to the future and on a spellbinding mission to save the town, one foot wrong could prove fatal.

Full of twists and turns, I was completely gripped by this book.   Stephens writes in a way which reveals a mystery with every page turn.    It is in a similar style to Harry Potter, so for fans of J K Rowling, your bookshelf has just become better.   However, I am not the greatest fan of Harry Potter, and I still loved this book.

My favourite character was Kate, the eldest of the three children.  I felt much empathy for her as she could still vaguely remember her parents and was left responsible for her siblings, Michael and Emma.   I loved understanding how she created her plans to overthrow Cambridge Falls’ darkest secret, the countess.   Stephens managed to tie in her thought train and logic,which was interesting and built up much tension in this book.

I would recommend this book to boys and girls aged 10 or over.  At times it was a little hard to follow as it often changes time periods and setting, but don’t let this put you off! The book incorporates many genres so regardless of your taste I think you could enjoy it. Generally I would not choose a book like this, yet it is one of the best books I have ever read.   I would rate it 10/10.



Posted in Age 8-10, Pre-teen, Stephens, John, Teenage | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Books without words: the starting point for introducing your child to reading. Dressing by Helen Oxenbury, Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins

Believe it or not, books with no words (or just a few) are the basis for introducing your child to reading.   It’s never too soon to introduce books and share books with your baby and books with no words or few words, with simple concepts and clear, undemanding drawings of everyday life are a great starting point.  Which is why I am going to feature a gem of a book, Dressing by Helen Oxenbury.

The edition of Dressing I shared with my children when they were babies had no text in it all.   Turn the first page and on the left is a cloth nappy, on the right a baby standing and wearing the cloth nappy.  Turn the page again and on the left is a vest and to the right the baby is now wearing the vest.  Page by page, then, we are gently introduced to a new item of clothing which is then worn by the baby – moving from the left (the item of clothing) to the right (baby wearing the item of clothing).  So straightaway a baby is introduced to the notion of working from left to right, helped by finger pointing from an adult.

The deliberate absence of words means that you can’t help but talk about what is happening on the pages.   And language is what it is all about – talking, reading, writing.  Dr Miriam Stoppard says that “we underestimate an infant’s desire and ability to imitate; if talked to often, a baby will start to imitate sounds as early as eight weeks, and has already taken the first major step towards speech acquisition.   This means that parents must surround their children with speech using talk, songs, rhymes, running commentary, specific conversations.” *   I found Dressing by Helen Oxenbury an invaluable little book to share with my children the language of an everyday activity, as well as introducing them to the concept of a book.

When there are no words, or very few, the pictures take on the role of the narrative or even perhaps work with the very limited use of words to provide something more.   This is what is happening in the classic children’s book Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins.   Here, it is no longer the narrator that is telling the whole story – the very few words used merely describe, very simply, the walk Rosie takes around her farm:

Rosie the hen went for a walk
across the yard
around the pond
over the haycock
past the mill
through the fence
under the beehives
and got back in time for dinner.

However, there is an awful lot more going on in the story than simply Rosie’s walk.   The pictures are telling us a whole lot more.   The words don’t tell us anything about the fox that is accompanying Rosie on her walk, nothing about whether Rosie knows about the fox or the imminent danger she is in, nothing about how Rosie is feeling on her walk.  And it is this that makes this book work so well, makes it so enjoyable.  The reader, the observer, knows something the narrator appears not to know.   And this is where the adult comes in – talking about the pictures, gently pointing out the irony between the words and the pictures.  This really is such an enormously fun book to share with little ones, made all the more fun by the fact that only at the very, very end does the reader find out whether Rosie makes it back to her hen house unscathed.  The anticipation, the not knowing, and seeing Rosie blissfully unaware of the danger all around her, is tormenting, right up to the very last page.

Just as an aside, Rosie’s Walk is also excellent as in introduction to prepositions – across, around, over, past, through, under.

To see how Rosie’s stroll around the farm continues and what other mishaps the fox encounters, you’ll just have to read the book.  Rosie’s Walk is a classic children’s picture book and is perfect for teaching children to read.

* Test your child Or How to discover and enhance your child’s true potential by Dr Miriam Stoppard

Posted in Age 0-2, Age 2-4, Age 4-6 | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Tales from India by Jamila Gavin: Stories of Creation and the Cosmos with sumptuous illustrations by Amanda Hall influenced by both contemporary and classical Indian art

Lord Brahma had opened his eyes. He looked around him and saw Nothing... Great tears welled up in his eyes. They rolled down his cheeks and fell into the sea of milk and became the Earth.

When I think of India, I think of rich colours, ancient civilisations, classical Indian art forms, a vast landscape and a burgeoning population, an emerging India developing at a rapid pace – new skyscrapers of glass standing next to spralling shantytowns.  One day I won’t just think of India.  One day I hope to see it with my own eyes and take it all in.

India has a long tradition of storytelling; merchants, travelling men, professional storytellers even, moving from place to place, telling, singing or performing stories.   And Tales from India by Jamila Gavin reflects this ancient craft beautifully.  Gavin has given a new voice to the Hindu stories of Creation and the Cosmos and to hear these stories is, as Gavin believes, to “gain a glimmer of understanding of this ancient time“, a time before the written word, when the earliest forms of these Hindu tales were created and passed on by world of mouth.  So, for example, “‘How the River Ganga Came to Earth’ somehow makes geographical sense, this very river flowing down as it does from the Himalayas into the Bay of Bengal, its tributaries spreading out like Lord Shiva’s hair” and “the sea of milk being churned into butter at the start of creation helps us to appreciate why the cow is a holy creature to Hindus”. 

But before Manu could resume his prayers, the fish was already calling out. "Manu, Manu! The river's too small, and I've grown so big".

The stories included in this beautiful book are: How the World Began; How Lord Shiva Became Blue-Throated; Manu, the Fish and the Flood; How the River Ganga Came to Earth; How Ganesh Got His Elephant’s Head; The Birth of Lord Krishna; Hanuman, the Greatest; The Choosing; The Battle of Eighteen Days; and Three Steps to Save the Universe.

His work completed, Manu found himself a cool stream, where he stood on one leg, raised his hands in prayer, and thanked Brahma for creating the Universe all over again.

The river plunged down mountainsides, into canyons and valleys, filling brooks and streams, waterfalls and pools, it ran over rocks and down gulleys, and rushed across the dry thirsty plains of the Earth below.

As the dark, moist body of a baby boy slid into the world, a shiver of excitement vibrated around the Universe...and Lord Indra sent a shower of raindrops and flowers tumbling down from the sky.

Yasoda ran over to her son and asked him, "Is it true? Have you been eating chalk?"

The princess emerged carrying her garland. Her eyes scanned the expectant faces. But there was only one face she was looking for.


Posted in Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Gavin, Jamila, Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Babbleabout and Random House Children’s Publishers UK launch “Little Babblers” plus tips on how to write a children’s book review

Babbleabout and Random House Children’s Publishers love to see children enjoy a good book.  So together we are offering children the opportunity to become book reviewers and to see their reviews published on Babbleabout.   In other words, to become “Little Babblers“.   So here’s your chance to get blown away by a good book and then write about it.

To begin with, we will start with a small, invited group of children to trial the idea within the High Wycombe area.   It may then be extended to other areas.  Each child will receive a book to read, say once a month or every six weeks or so.  They will then be asked to write a short review.   Best of all, the review will be published here on the main ‘Books’ pages of Babbleabout and there’s no need to return the book!

Writing a book review is an excellent way of developing your creative thinking and writing skills.   It helps with comprehension, developing a writing style and finding your ‘voice’ to express your response to a text.   When I write a book review, I find the following helpful:-

  • taking notes as you go along, including page numbers so that you can find references or sections that you particularly want to write about quickly.
  • looking at other examples of book reviews.  You will quite often find book reviews by children in magazines e.g. Anorak magazine, or online at Red House Books or Guardian newspaper.
  • before starting a book review, sometimes it is helpful to do some background research on the book and particularly the author.  Really good places to start are the author’s own website and his/her publisher’s website.  Here you might find interviews with the author, quizzes, games and other background material.  A good example is Andy Stanton’s website (author of the Mr Gum series).
  • I find it helpful to draft out a book review first, roughly, under a few main headings e.g. plot, what I liked, the main character, a particular perspective or angle I want to draw out from the book (see my review of Wonder for an example of drawing out a particular perspective; in that case it was the issue of popularity in American high schools.)  Sometimes I use a mindmap to organise my ideas.
  • book reviews should include certain main elements.  These are usually:-
  1. The title of the book and the name of the author.
  2. A brief summary of the storyline or plot but without giving too much away!
  3. Does the book fit into a particular genre or style of book, e.g. historical, dystopian, detective?
  4. What you particularly liked about the book, its strengths.  This might be, for example, the book’s setting and the way the author described it, the twists and turns of the storyline or the fact that you could identify so readily with the main character, that they were so believable or real to you.
  5. You might want to use examples of scenes or parts of the books that you particularly enjoyed or that particularly moved you.  Use quotes from the book.
  6. Whether you would recommend the book and why.

All the above information can be found on a specially created “Little Babblers” page which will be updated on a regular basis.   However, if you have any questions or want further advice about writing a book review or want more information about Little Babblers, please email me at yvonnebabbleabout@gmail.com


Posted in Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Pre-teen, Teenage, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

This is London by Miroslav Sasek: a charming children’s travel guide to London first published in 1959 and brought up to date for 2012.

This is Picaddilly Circus at night

This is London by Miroslav Sasek was a follow-up to This is Paris which was inspired by a vacation to the French capital.  When first published in the 1950s Sasek’s  This is… series was incredibly popular and it is easy to see why.  The guides are a charming, child’s-eye view of the sights, buildings and people of some of the world’s major cities.   This is London invokes a sense of wonder as you take an excursion past beautiful buildings, historic monuments, take a stroll through parks, turn down side streets to discover ‘old’ London and travel on buses, taxis and the Underground (along with three million* other passengers. *In 1959.)   I particularly enjoy the view of Fleet Street from the top of a London bus.  Don’t all children just love to rush to the top of a double-decker bus, sit right at the front and pretend to be the driver.  Mine do!

Masek’s illustrations capture the spirit, the splendour, the atmosphere of London and all its people in rich colour, in little details, in big, double-page spreads and with lots of humour.   Masek’s drawings are very much of their time and yet are timeless.   This is one of my absolute favourite books about London for children.   It is a complete joy to wander through this snapshot of London, 1959.

Masek’s light-hearted commentary is now a little dated factually, so the publishers, Simon and Schuster, have very helpfully provided asterisks, referring readers to a page at the end of the book called THIS IS LONDON….. TODAY!   Here the readers will find up to date information about some of the places Masek visits.

Now, sit back and enjoy Masek’s illustrations of London.

"Busy emporium for trade and traders," it was described by the Roman historian, Tacitus, one thousand nine hundred years ago.


Royal Albert Hall (see our Paper City model of the Royal Albert Hall below)

Fleet Street looks like this from the top of a bus.* In 1959

The platform

Some three million* passengers are carried daily in Underground trains. *1959

"Taxi! Taxi!"

"L" means that the driver is learning to drive

Covent Garden market * *Today Covent Garden is no longer famous for its market and now is a popular shopping destination

London Paper City – taken from an idea by madebyjoel.com

Joel Henriques, founder, describes madebyjoel.com as a space to share art, craft and handmade education projects for children and their care givers.  And it is a truly beautiful space at that – packed full of inspiring ideas for arts and crafts that are both “accessible” and “meaningful”.  Joel has created a lovely series of Paper City printouts.   So far he has created printouts of Paris (plus a Paris travel size version), Sydey Opera House and Luna Park, vehicles and a road trip, a helicopter and landing pad and a general city buildings printout.

My children and I decided to have a go making a London city printout, based on the Miroslav Sasek book, This is London.   Here are the results.   We hope you like them.



Posted in Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Henriques, Joel, Pre-teen, Sasek, Miroslav | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

And the set of beautiful Barefoot Books children’s picture books goes to …

Rainie Bish.  Congratulations Rainie.  Please can you email me your full address at yvonnebabbleabout@gmail.com so that the books can be sent to you.  (Random.org was used to generate a random number which was 16 from a range of 1-20).

Thank you everyone for entering and thank you Barefoot Books for your beautiful books.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Dying to Know You by Aidan Chambers: “Could I talk to you?” “Why?” “You’re a writer?” “And?” “I need your help.”

“You’re a writer?”
“I need your help.”
“You see the sign on the door?”
“What does it say?”
“No visitors without an appointment.”
“Have you an appointment?”
“Then I suggest you make one.”
“Could I make an appointment?”
“When for?”

I couldn’t help laughing.  Anyway, there was something about him, an indefinable quality that instantly appealed.

And so begins what would seem, at first, to be a most unlikely friendship.

Karl is eighteen.  He is desperate to win the affections of his first, serious girlfriend, Fiorella.   She has set him the task of writing about himself, his feelings, about love.  This is a real ask for Karl who has trouble writing.

“Something happens between what’s in my head and what comes out when I try to write it down.  It’s torture.”

Karl has dyslexia.  And yet, ask Karl to talk about plumbing (his job) or fishing (his passion) he speaks elequently and with no hesitation.   Fiorella, on the other hand, loves words, books, writing, and seeks and sees beauty in them and expect others to do so too.

In a panic and afraid to lose Fiorella forever, Karl turns to the writer for help.  Will he craft his replies for him?  It would work like this: Karl to provide his thoughts, they might chat about stuff, he might even have a go at writing some things down the best he can.   The writer would then work on what had been spoken or written down, on all the mis-spelt words, badly punctuated sentences and construct something worthy, beautiful even.

The writer is a well known author (a favourite, in fact, of Fiorella’s).  He is the narrator of the story and of how this unlikely relationship between them grows.  He, himself, is at a very difficult juncture in his life – recently widowed, he has had the wind taken from his sails and is no longer writing.   Enter Karl.  He brings with him the energy and curiousity of youth but also the fragility and insecurities.

Together, Karl and the writer, through a series of meetings, misunderstandings, misadventures, each find their own voice – one rediscovered in words, the other in something all the more surprising.

Dying to Know You is a gentle and thoughtful exploration of friendship, being young, growing old and finding one’s voice.  It is also honest and extemely funny in places.  I particularly enjoyed the writer’s observations of himself and his aged state:

“Take it from me, whatever you do, do not volunteer to join the swelling ranks of the ancientry.  Live long enough, and willy-nilly, you’ll be conscripted.  The benefits are limited, the perks are few and the future prospects are unattractive.”

I can’t wait.


Posted in Chambers, Aidan, Young Adult | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

It’s Spring (honest!) So celebrate with (and maybe WIN) Barefoot Books beautiful new Spring list picture books (Competition now closed)

Inside sleeve, Grandpa's Garden

Broken Spring by Elli Woollard

Could someone repair this spring, do you think?

Do you think that somebody could?

This spring’s all broken, the sky’s dark grey

The sun has lost its bounce today

The clouds are spouting with terrible leaks

It’s rained and rained for weeks and weeks

And sometimes it thunders and blusters and hails

Get out your hammers, your spanners, your nails!

As there’s water, water everywhere

So could some builders come and repair

The spring? Do you think they could?

Elli writes beautiful and funny and very original poems.  And they can be found on her website called Taking Words for a Stroll – Original Poems for the Young at Heart.   Please take a look and immerse yourself in her rhyming worlds.

5 beautiful children’s picture books newly available from Barefoot Books’ spring list and yours to win (see below)

Grandpa’s Garden written by Stella Fry, illustrated by Sheila Moxley    Billy and his Grandpa work tirelessly together on the vegetable plot at the bottom of Grandpa’s garden – planning and preparing during the cold Winter months; planting seeds and potato tubers in the Spring; weeding and watering during warm Summer days; tidying and sowing new crops during Autumn to be ready again for next year.  Watch with Billy and his Grandpa as the hard earth begins to soften ready for sowing, little green shoots break through in search of light and the garden is invaded by hungry minibeasts.   It is lovely to read about and watch the relationship that Billy and Grandpa share.   Grandpa is always at hand to offer advice and encouragement.  At one point Billy is worried about all the slugs, snails and caterpillers feasting on the young, tender leaves.

“But Grandpa doesn’t seem to mind at all.   ‘Have a look around, Billy,’ he says.  ‘Tell me what you can see, and tell me how they’re protecting the garden.  Quiet, mind!’  Very quietly, I start exploring.  I find hungry frogs and snuffling hedgehogs.  There are lazy ladybirds and gauzy hoverflies.   And I see busy, bright-eyed birds fly down from the trees, searching for supper.  ‘They’re the best friends we could have,’ says Grandpa.”

At the of this book is a delightful section about planning your own vegetable patch and things to do in each season to get the best out of your patch.  Age 4+

A teepee marks the beans we buried weeks before. In I dig, finger and thumb. A gentle tug and up one comes, complete with brand new baby roots. And look! Another shoot is reaching up towards the light. 'There,' says Grandpa. 'Not long now!' But it's still hard to wait!

Planning your Vegetable Patch

My Mama Earth written by Susan B. Katz, illustrated by Melissa Launay  

“My mama wakes the eastern sun.  And weaves her magic till day’s done.”

This book is a stunning visual portrayal of the love between a mother and child.  It also reminds us, beautifully, that we too, as humankind, must never forget the relationship we have with Mother Earth.  The illustrations reveal the delicate balance between beauty and fragility in the natural world that is all around us. Age 2+

Who’s in the Farmyard? Written by Phillis Gershator, illustrated by Jill McDonald

“Who wakes up in the morning to a cock-a-doodle-doo?” 

This book is SO much fun.  When the king of the farmyard starts to crow, everybody wakes up and starts to make their own sounds too!   The hens, cluck, cluck, clucking; the sheep baa, baa, baaing; the cows moo, moo, mooing, the goats bleat, bleat, bleating; and the pigs, oink, oink, oinking.   This is one of those books that is perfect for sharing together as you travel round the farmyard illustrations and make all the animal noises together.  Each time the cockerel crows you get a peep at the next animal he has woken up through a little round window on the next page.  So sweet and great for little fingers to explore too.   There is also the opportunity to learn all the names of the baby animals too – sheep/lambs, cows/calves, goats/kids, etc.  Made from sturdy board, this book will travel and endure the constant exploring of little hands.   Age 0+

Clare Beaton’s Farmyard Rhymes 

A beautiful board book illustrated using needlework and applique.  Inside are lively animal poems – some very well known – but all chosen to develop language and relationship skills.  There are also plenty of opportunities to learn and practise those early counting skills.  A great little book for sharing rhyme and movement together.   Age 0+


Clare Beaton’s Bedtime Rhymes  

After a long day reading, what better way to be lulled off to sleep than by gently sharing together these relaxing bedtime rhymes.  These lovely poems should be read aloud, with the lights down low and in a soft whisper.  Shhhh.    Age 0+



*COMPETITION* Win all the books featured in this post – THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED.

To be in with a chance of winning this fabulous prize, all you need to do is leave a comment on this post.

And if you want an EXTRA chance of winning, then

For these extra entries to count, you will need to leave an extra comment on this post saying what extra action you took (e.g. I liked the Babbleabout facebook page or I followed @liveBarefoot).   So that’s one comment on this post FOR EACH action taken.   The more comments the more chances to win!!!!

Terms and conditions

This competition is only open to UK residents over the age of 16.
Random.org will be used to select a number which we will then match to the corresponding comment entry on this post.
The competition will close at midnight (UK time) on Wednesday, 9th May 2012 and the winner will be announced on Friday, 11th May, here on www.babbleabout.co.uk.
Good luck everyone.

Posted in Age 0-2, Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Children’s magazines: getting past the ‘buy one magazine, get five tacky, two-minute wonder toys for free’ to something educational and beautiful

A sea of cellophane, pink and plastic, tacky toys

Go with your children to any supermarket or a branch of a well-known newsagent/bookseller chain and you will find it very difficult to make it past the children’s magazines section.   The magazines are strategically placed at kiddy eye level and are adorned with garish,  brightly-coloured plastic toys all neatly packed in a sea of cellophane.  ‘Buy one magazine, get five tacky, 2-minute wonder toys for free’ they scream at you.   Kids love them, (most) parents HATE them.

I have made it my mission to seek out good quality, educational magazines that DON’T have a rubbish toy stuck to the front, are beautiful to look at and I would be happy for my children to read.   The magazines featured below can all be acquired by subscription, usually at a reduced rate.   There is something really magical when children get their own post – a parcel delivered by the postman just for them, with their name on it.

Here are my findings.   (Just so you know, the following magazines were all purchased by me, they were not freebies.)   All of the magazines discussed are available through subscription, the last one can also be bought at most supermarkets and newsagents.

Anorak ‘The Happy Mag for Kids’   is aimed at boys and girls aged between six and twelve years and is published four times a year.   It is visually stunning, more like a book than a magazine, and bound in heavy-duty paper with a matt finish.   My nine year old daughter, upon opening the parcel it arrived in, squealed with delight and it was some time before I was able to wrestle it off her to take a look myself.    Each edition is based around a theme (the current issue, no. 22, is all about food, see below).  It opens with ‘good stuff’ and ‘read stuff’ (I particularly like this section as it is a book review section for children by children).   Then there are highly imaginative comic strip stories using photographs (Munkie and Horrace) and colourful, fun illustrations (The gumball).  Further on you get to go inside the Anorak Food Store to discover good foods, not-so-good foods, what our ancesters ate, foods we love to hate, illustrators’ ideas of their most perfect, imaginary packed lunches(yummy and definitely not-so-yummy) and how to make a scale model of the solar system using food.  My children and I are particularly looking forward to making our very own street scene of Paris.  Mais oui!    What really stands out, though, are the stunning contemporary illustrations used throughout – they are colourful and stimulating and will clearly resonate with children, tapping into their vast imaginations.   I don’t think they will be lost on adults either.

Extract from Munkie and Horrace

Extract from The gumball

Good Food is Good

They Ate What?

Make your own Paris!

Make your own Paris!

DiscoveryBox by Bayard Magazines  Recommended for children aged between 9 and 12 years (although, of course, this depends on an individual child’s reading ability and understanding).  Published ten times a year.   My nine year old daughter has been subscribing to this magazine for a year or so now and really looks forward to each edition.   I actually think this magazine is particularly suited to boys as it treats a range of subject areas – nature, history, science, the world, sports – in a variety of different writing styles.  There are no long, extended pieces of text.  Instead, information is presented in short texts, broken up with illustrations, fact boxes and informative captions.   Each edition does include one ‘longer’ narrative text which treats a non-fiction subject as a linear story to provide children with a long chunk of text to read – great for building up reading stamina.  At the end of the magazine there is a fantastic Do It Yourself activities section which compliments the topics covered in the main body of the magazine.  So, for example, in the Japan issue (see thumbnail), there are instructions for preparing a Japanese lunch, ideas for painting a self-portrait in the style of Van Gogh (the narrative lifestory included earlier, The true story of Vincent Van Gogh, one of the most famous painters in the world) and some experiments observing the behaviour of snow inside your fridge (complimenting the picture story Mission to the South pole).   Every edition also includes a pull-out poster (with extra information on the back), comic strips and fun collectible info-cards.  We have found that this magazine has provided us with excellent ideas for homework projects, particularly in terms of looking at how to present information in different styles.

Nihon-E Yokojo! (Welcome to Japan!)

Japanese traditions

Quick look! Digestion, an amazing process!

Extract from: The true story of Vincent Van Gogh, one of the most famous painters in the world

Extract from: The true story of Vincent Van Gogh, one of the most famous painters in the world

Do It Yourself activities section: Prepare a Japanese lunch

AdventureBox by Bayard Magazines    Recommended for children aged 6 to 9 years and published ten times a year.   This magazine from Bayard is essentially designed to get children hooked on reading and it does this by including a story, split into manageable chapters, with full-colour pictures on every page.  This way children can have a really good go at being independent readers which is great for confidence and building up reading stamina.  I particularly like the fact that the editors at Bayard have not shied away from stories covering tricky subject areas.   In the issue featured here, the story covers, from a child’s perspective, the delicate subject of parents and divorce but it does so sensitively and with humour.   As Anthony Browne has said “Children are more than capable of coping with all kinds of stories..”  Also featured in every issue is a NatureBox section which includes photographs and scientific information about a creature or topic from nature; puzzles and games which are intended to stimulate children’s literacy and reasoning skills; Tom and Lili comic strip and Ariol comic strip.

Extract from Pirate parents fall out

Extract fom Pirate parents fall out

Extract from Fleas! (NatureBox section)

Extract from Fleas! (NatureBox section)

Extract from Deep Sea games pages

Extract from Ariol, regular comic strip

StoryBox from Bayard Magazines   Designed for children aged between 3 and 6 years and published ten times a year.   My youngest daughter has been subscribing to this magazine for a couple of years now and in that time she has progressed from enjoying the sharing of the stories contained within to loving the fact that she can read them on her own and even read them back to me!   (In fact, she is now ready to move to AdventureBox.)   Open StoryBox and you begin with a delightful book-length story to read aloud.   Reading books aloud and sharing stories is so important, right from the word go – enter into new worlds and share the new words that go with them.  Take time to talk about the pictures too.  And in StoryBox the illustrations are always delightful.  Also featured is SamSam, ‘the smallest of the big heroes’ comic strip; Animal world – lovely illustrations and simple text about a new animal each month; and Wonder with Whizkid which introduces children to science and answers their questions about the world around them such as ‘Why don’t we see colours at night?’  One of the loveliest sections in AdventureBox is ‘Polo – an adventure without words to lead you into the world of dreams…’   Each month Polo goes on a new adventure.   What is so special is that there are no words to accompany the illustrations.   Instead, you and your child are able to look at the pictures and put your own narrative to them.  You might even want to cut them out and swap the pictures around and create your very own version?  (Just a thought).

Extract from Little Black Cat is scared of the dark

Extract from Little Black Cat is scared of the dark

Extract from Little Black Cat is scared of the dark

Extract from Why do trees lose their leaves?

Time for a rhyme

Extract from Polo - an adventure without words

Extract from Polo - an adventure without words

Extract from Polo - an adventure without words

The Official Jacqueline Wilson Mag    OK.  I know.   This magazine comes in a cellophane wrapper with gifts attached.    However, if you can get past these, there is, in fact, a very good magazine to be found here.  And the gifts that you do get are related to the magazine – that is, they’re not pink (usually), they’re not tacky (usually) and they are (usually) really useful, for example, this month’s gifts (17 April 2012) were a ‘writers set’ of stationery, folder and a guide called How to be a…Super Story Writer!   Inside the magazine are lots of hints, tips and advice on story writing, for example, What Happens Next (the reader gets to write their own ending to a Jacqueline Wilson story) and My Writing Secrets.  And for the children who love to illustrate their stories, there is a section all about illustrating including tips from Nick Sharratt himself.

Extract from Set the Scene

Extract from Create a Cliffhanger

Tracy's Chat Cards


Posted in Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Pre-teen, Wilson, Jacqueline | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Children’s creative writing competitions: a great way to develop your child’s creative thinking and writing skills

Competitions are a great way to develop your child’s creative thinking and writing skills.   They usually have a theme and a word limit and these help to focus a child’s writing in terms of a style or genre, its creativity around an idea and also gets them used to accepting a brief and planning a story around a maximum number of words.   All tricky stuff but the type of assignments they should expect regularly as they progress through their school years and into work.

Here are details of current children’s creative writing competitions:

The 2012 Explore Learning National Young Writers’ Awards

This creative writing competition is one of the largest free-to-enter writing competitions for children in the UK and is open to children aged five to fourteen years whether they are confident in writing or have been a little hesitant to write in the past.  The theme this year is ‘Old and New’ and the story will be judged on its overall creativity, characterisation and descriptive language.   The maximum word limit is five hundred words.   Entrants can submit their entries by email, post or at their local Explore Learning Centre.

The competition opens for entries on 16th April 2012 and the closing date is 11th June 2012.   The prize is a trip for the winner and their family to Disneyland Paris and £500 worth of books for their school.

This year’s event welcomes best-selling children’s author Andrew Cope to the judging panel.   Andrew is probably best known for his award winning children’s books, the ‘Spy Dog’ series which were inspired by his own dog.   He has also written a series of self-help books, The Art of Being Brilliant and Being Brilliant for adults and A Brilliant Life and The Game of Life for teenagers, the UK’s first positive psychology books for this age group.  So, as a children’s writer, a qualified teacher and learning junkie, Andrew is well positioned to find the best young writers in the UK.

Interview with Andrew Cope – judge for this year’s Explore Learning National Young Writer’s Award

I have been lucky enough to catch up with Andrew, albeit via the medium of email, to talk about his involvement in this year’s Explore Learning National Young Writers’ Award.

Babbleabout:  What has prompted you to become a judge on this year’s Explore Learning National Young Writer’s Award?

Andrew Cope: When I do school visits I always try and set the kids a writing challenge.  I never cease to be amazed at their creativity and enthusiasm.  So judging something at national level is thrilling!  I’m looking forward to being amazed!

Babbleabout: Did you start your writing at a young age?  For example, my daughter loves designing and writing her own made-up magazines.  What sort of early writing projects did you do?

Andrew Cope:  I describe myself as an ‘accidental author’. I never set out to be a writer.  I just had a mad idea about my pet dog being a bit like James Bond and, hey presto, ‘Spy Dog’ was born. All of a sudden I was an author, at age 37 and a bit.  It’s great fun. There are now 15 books in the series, plus I’m busy writing ‘Raccoon Rampage’ for Harper Collins, plus a few books for adults. So, I was a slow starter but now there’s no stopping me!

I quite like producing short e-books with positive messages.  Check this one out if you want to upgrade or change your thinking.


Babbleabout: What advice would you like to give to young people starting out on their own writing journeys?

Andrew Cope: I always give the same 3 pieces of advice.  1. Read.  2. Read. 3. And read.  Just half an hour a day.  That’s all it takes.  Gets your vocab up to speed and exercises your creative muscles.

Babbleabout: So, your Spy Dog series was inspired by your own dog.  How does your dog stop her cover from being blown and what spying missions has she been on recently?  Or are you not allowed to say?

Andrew  Cope:  The ‘Spy Dog’ books are indeed inspired by my own pet dog, Lara. The dog in the book is a cool, super-sophisticated secret agent who goes on dangerous missions and saves the world. The real Lara is an RSPCA mongrel with no intelligence, talent or tricks. But with a little imagination, anything’s possible!

She has 2 missions on the go at the mo. ‘Spy Dog Rollercoaster’ comes out in June.  Top secret (obviously!) but think evil baddie meets Alton Towers and you’re not far off. And then in July,  ‘Spy Pups Training School’ sees Lara and the puppies on their first foreign adventure.  New York City beckons.

Babbleabout: What were your favourite children’s books when you were a child? Did you have a favourite author you always sought out in your local bookshop or library?

Andrew CopeThe best book in the world ever is ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. It’s got everything…action, humour, great characters, chocolate, oompa loopas, songs and the best line ever written; ‘Violet, you’re turning violet, Violet.’ I love all the Roald Dahl stuff but Charlie is the best.

Babbleabout: Do you have any favourite contemporary children’s writers? 

Andrew CopeThere are so many superb children’s writers out there at the mo. I particularly like Andy Stanton’s ‘Mr Gum’ series. Funniest books in the world! I also like Kes Gray’s ‘Nellie the Monster Sitter’ books.  And, for older readers, I marvel at the Harry Potter series and I also like Suzanne Collins’ blockbuster, ‘Hunger Games’.

Babbleabout: Do you have a favourite place to do your writing? For example, Roald Dahl famously had his writing shed at the bottom of his garden.

Andrew CopeIn my early writing days I could only write at night, in my office (converted back bedroom) with the same CD droning on and on. Recently I’ve become a bit more flexible and tend to take my laptop everywhere. That way, if I’m feeling inspired I can open it up and tap away. I’ve just come back from a family hols in Morocco and managed to do a few chapters while lounging around the appartment.

Spinebreakers – The Intern – Creative Writing Competition

Your mission, for this competition, is to write the first chapter of your first fictional day as an intern – the location is your choice and it is up to you whether you write about a good or bad experience.

Where would be your dream or nightmare place to have work experience? Who would be your ideal or most horrific manager to intern with? Whether it’s working at Hogwarts or MTV, travelling the world assisting your favourite book character or going on tour with your favourite football team, we’re looking for the most creative, exciting and wackiest fictional stories inspired by Dillon Khan’s The Intern!  The competition is open to UK residents only, aged 13-18 years.

The winning entry will be chosen by Dillon Khan and will receive a signed copy of the book ‘The Intern’, iTunes vouchers and have their work published on the homepage of the Spinebreakers and The Intern website.  Five runners up will also receive a signed copy of the book.   The closing date is 27th April 2012 so you need to hurry!

Bloomsbury’s very short story competition for young writers is back!  247tales.com

247tales.com is the online writing competition from Bloomsbury that challenges young writers to create stories using only 247 words or less.   It is a monthly competition and so each month a different Bloomsbury author will pen a 247tale on a given topic.  It is then over to budding UK writers aged between 10 and 16 to create their own miniature masterpiece.

One winner will be chosen each month and they will have their 247tale featured on the website as well as winning a selection of books and a framed copy of their story.  Ten runners-up will get a signed copy of the latest book from that month’s featured author and their story will appear in the 247Library section of the website.

Authors taking part include Anne Cassidy, Jim Eldridge, Sarah Crossan, A.F. Harrold, Laura Powell and Sue Limb.  Visit www.247tales.com for more information.

Developing Literacy and Creative Writing Through Storymaking – Story Strands for 7-12 Year Olds by Steve Bowkett, published by the Open University Press

This is an excellent resource for teachers and parents looking for usable activities to help children develop their literacy skills and creative writing abilities.   The premise of the book is the use of ‘story strands’ - a technique which begins with one simple picture and then adds others to it to form a sequence.  The ‘story strands’ and use of images help developing writers to form ideas and then organise those ideas without compromising creativity.   The book is very helpfully divided into 4 main sections – Section 1 Getting Started, including brainstorming and association webs, sentence building, things happen for a reason; Section 2 Building Narrative, including prediction strips, connectives, proverbs and similies, cliffhangers, the narrative template; Section 3 Enriching the Story, including parallel story, story board games, sequels, settings, comic cuts, character creation; and Section 4 Story Grids, including zig zag story game, grids and basic narrative elements, making grids, story strings.  Even more helpfully there are 11 story grids (sets of images) included at the back of the book and there is a supporting companion website that includes downloadable images from the book, colour images, worked examples for the ‘story string idea’, additional activities and games, as well as links to the National Curriculum.  Age 6+


Posted in Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Bowkett, Steve, Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

7 children’s picture books/collections of fairy tales. Classic, modern and sumptuous treatments of these enduring tales

"She took then the little key, and opened the door, trembling". Blue Beard from The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book

“The marvels and prodigies, the seven-league boots and enchanted mirrors, the talking animals, the heroes and heroines changed into frogs or bears or cats, the golden eggs and over-flowing supplies of porridge, the stars on the brow of the good sister and the donkeytail sprouting on the brow of the bad – all the wonders that create the atmosphere of fairy tale disrupt the apprehensible world in order to open spaces for dreaming alternatives.  The verb ‘to wonder’ communicates the receptive state of marvelling as well as the active desire to know, to inquire, and as such it defines very well at least two characteristics of the traditional fairy tale: pleasure in the fantastic, curiosity about the real.”

From the Beast to the  Blonde. On Fairy Tales and their Tellers by Marina Warner

I have a huge interest in discovering more about fairy tales, their social and cultural contexts, their origins and their tellers.   And I can’t recommend Marina Warner’s book From the Beast to the Blonde more highly.   I am only at the beginning of my journey through this book and I am completely fascinated.  In the meantime, I offer up our favourite collections and picture books of fairy tales.   I start with Arthur Rackham whose illustrations, I think, perfectly suit the style of fairy tales – his use of illuminating colour washes and silhouette cut-outs.     I particularly like his amazing use of light and the sense of sunlight flooding through the windows in the main picture above, “She took then the little key, and opened the door, trembling”, Blue Beard, The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book.   The silhouette cut-out is a style that is also used beautifully in a modern-day fairy tale The Princess Who Had No Kingdom, written by Ursula Jones, illustrated by Sarah Gibb.

The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book – 23 Favourite Tales with Illustrations by Arthur Rackham   ‘Old tales with new illustrations’ was how this book was described when it was first published in 1933.   I think the illustrations are as appealing and fresh as they were back in 1933 and are a delightful accompaniment to this collection of some of the most famous and well-loved fairy tales.  Included are Dick Whittington, Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast, The Princess and the Pea, The Ugly Duckling, The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Hansel and Grethel.  Some less well-known ones are also here – Blue Beard, What the Old Man Does is Always Right, Toads and Diamonds and Jack the Giant-KillerAge 8+

"Is that you, my prince? I have waited for you very long" Sleeping Beauty

"Will you not come down?" shouted Blue Beard

Fairy Tales told by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Jane Ray    Jane Ray is one of my all-time favourite children’s books illustrators.  My two daughters were absolutely captivated by her book Jinny Ghost the first time we got it from the library and it has remained a favourite of ours ever since.   So I was absolutely thrilled to receive Fairy Tales as a birthday present from my sister, also a talented artist and illustrator and I think you’ll see why when you scroll down to Jane Ray’s illustrations.  Jane Ray’s illustrations are typified by rich, dazzling colours and gold within and around.  I love the way they and the text are set against fairy-like wall-papers.   The tales included are Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty in the Forest, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, Snow White, Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, Little Red Riding Hood, The Fire-Bird, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince and The Wild Swans.  Both the text and the illustrations take on a dream-like feel in this beautifully crafted collection.  Age 5+

Rapunzel, illustrated by Jane Ray

Rumpelstiltskin, by Jane Ray

The Wild Swans, by Jane Ray

The Princess Who Had No Kingdom, written by Ursula Jones, illustrated by Sarah Gibb  A mixture of silhouette cut-outs with colour highlights and delicate, full colour illustrations bring this modern-day fairy tale to life.  The expressions on the enraged and spoilt princes are hilarious and fit with the text perfectly.

“The two princes were so enraged they pelted the new king with pastries.  The king wasted no time in bombarding them both with gooey gateaux, and soon everyone there was at it, which seemed like a terrible waste of food to the princess.   So she slipped away ….”

A wise and witty tale of a princess who sees through all the shenanigans and arrogance of the available princes and finds true love in someone with his feet firmly on the ground. Age 4+

My Favourite Fairy Tales, retold and illustrated by Tony Ross     Classic fairy tales have been given a modern, quirky and humorous treatment in this collection of Fairy Tales by Tony Ross (best known for his illustrations for Horrid Henry, and as writer/illustrator for Little Princess).    I particularly LOVE Ross’ retelling of The Hedley Kow, about an old down-on-her-luck woman who feels so blessed when just about everything goes against her.   On her way down a lane looking for something to sell in order to buy some food she finds an old pot with a hole in it.  Upon closer examination she discovers it is full of golden coins!  “Well, I’m blessed with luck to find this!” and she starts to drag it home.  Along the way, she finds that the pot of gold has turned into a lump of silver.  “That’s lucky,” she thought, “since silver is less valuable than gold, I am much less likely to be robbed.  Oh how lucky I am!”  And so the story continues – as she journeys home, her heavy load changes again to a rock and then finally into the Hedley Row, a fairy trickster who had changed himself into the pot of gold in the first place.   As the old woman watches him skip down the road, she declares “Folks round here have heard of the Hedley Kow but I’m the only one who has seen him.  Oh, how lucky I am!”  Other fairy tales retold are The Musicians of Breman, Sweet Porridge, Rumpelstiltskin, Prince Hyacinth and the Dear Little Princess, Fairy Gifts and Beauty and the Beast.   Each fairy story retold is accompanied by Ross’ instantly recognisable alluring line and colour illustrations.  Age 4+

Sweet Porridge by Tony Ross

Sweet Porridge by Tony Ross

Rumpelstiltskin by Tony Ross

Hansel and Gretel by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark    A stunning retelling of this most favourite fairy tale although it is quite a grown up, somewhat darker adaptation of the story.   A warty old witch with eyes that “glowed red, red as blood“, is desperate for the love of Hansel and Gretel’s father, Gabriel.   She ‘dispatches’ Lisette, their mother, and transforms herself into a beautiful young woman called Belladonna.  She gradually works her magic and gets under the skin of Gabriel and they marry.  But the children don’t like Belladonna.   “There’s something scary about her, about her eyes.  Have you noticed how cold they are when she looks at you from far, far away, as it she can’t see you properly.  And when she smiles, she only smiles with her lips, not her heart.  And her lips are as red as blood.”  You see, although she was able to take the shape of a beautiful young woman she was still a witch, a witch who could not see very well but who could hear and smell perfectly.   Emma Chichester Clark’s illustrations are visually stunning, dazzling yet dark too – the witch, in her true form, is actually quite scary, sinister even.  For this reason and because Morpurgo touches upon themes of hunger and cruelty, I would recommend this version for slightly older children, perhaps aged six plus.  Age 6+

"There's something scary about her, about her eyes. Have you noticed how cold they are when she looks at you, cold as ice?"

None of them noticed the magpie that was flitting through the darkness, silently, following them, silently.

"Nibbledeeday, nibbledeeday. Who's nibbling at my house today?"

Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Naomi Lewis, illustrated by Joel Stewart    This is a beautiful, sumptuous volume of tales from Hans Christian Andersen including The Princess and the Pea, The Tinderbox, Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Wild Swans, The Flying Trunk, The Ugly Duckling, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Little Match Girl and The Goblin at the Grocers.  The introduction to the book is a fascinating story in itself – Andersen’s story.   An only child to impoverished, somewhat mismatched parents, he inherited his father’s freedom of thought and originality – “he gave his child the thought that every non-human creature or thing – a leaf, a beetle, a darning needle – has a character of its own: a thought that was to prove invaluable to the later Andersen.   Invaluable too was his father’s teaching him how to make and work small toy theatres – human life in miniature.“  It seems that his fairy tales reflect Andersen’s own life story – trials, rejections, disappointments, rags to riches.   Not only that, Andersen, apparently, deliberately, included glimpses or perhaps even a portrait (The Ugly Duckling) of himself in each and every one of his tales.   Naomi Lewis challenges the reader of the book to take on the quest of seeking him out in the stories.   Helpfully, Naomi Lewis also includes an introduction to each of the stories too – giving us a flavour of how the story was conceived, how the story was received by the critics of the day and what we, today, nearly two hundred years on, can take from the story (I have in mind The Emperor’s New Clothes, see image below).  Age 6+

"If your Imperial Highness will graciously take off the clothes he is wearing now, we shall have the honour of putting on the new ones here; you can see the effect yourself in this great mirror."

"The sun had not yet risen when she came in sight of the prince's palace and made her way up the splendid marble steps...she fainted, and lay as though dead". (From The Little Mermaid)

"She was so beautiful, wonderfully delicate and grand; but she was of ice all through, dazzling, glittering ice - and yet she was alive." (From The Snow Queen)

Hansel and Gretel, written and illustrated by Anthony Browne    Anthony Browne’s books are an invitation to “value the act of looking” (his words).  To see beyond what is obvious, as if looking at something for the first time, as children do.  And children really do see things differently from adults.   My children are often first to see the faces in the knots and bark of trees or the hands in the tangled roots on the forest floor.  In Hansel and Gretel there is even more than meets the eye.   Take for example the illustration (see below) where the stepmother is looking down on her two sleeping step-children as she prepares to rouse them.  See how her shadow on the wall behind her extends to the gap in the curtain and so gives the impression she is wearing a pointed hat.  Likewise the picture of the old woman watching at the window of the gingerbread house.  Again the curtains are arranged to look like she is wearing a pointed hat.   Anthony Browne is not afraid to draw out the darker themes within fairy tales and in Hansel and Gretel there can be nothing darker than the betrayal of a child by it’s mother.  Anthony Browne’s response?  “Children are more than capable of coping with all kinds of stories; it’s adults who are threatened by the darkness in children’s books.   But it has a place: an essential place. If we insist on telling children that everything in the garden is lovely, we’re doing them a disservice.”  Age 6+

"At the edge of a large forest lived a poor woodcutter with his two children and their stepmother. The family was always very poor, and when a terrible famine came to the land, they could find nothing to eat."

'At daybreak, before the sun had risen, the woman came and wakened the children. "Get up, you lazybones, we must go to the forest to fetch wood."'

"From another window an old woman watched them."

"They began to run, rushed inside and threw their arms around their father."


Posted in Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Browne, Anthony, Chichester Clark, Emma, Doherty, Berlie, Gibb, Sarah, Jones, Ursula, Lewis, Naomi, Morpurgo, Michael, Pre-teen, Rackham, Arthur, Ray, Jane, Ross, Tony, Stewart, Joel, Teenage | 7 Comments

Wonder by R.J. Palacio: “My name is August. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

First impressions?  When I got this book out of the envelope after it had dropped through my postbox, I immediately thought what a grotty looking cover!   I turned it over to read the blurb (as you do).  It said

Point made.  And I hadn’t even opened the front cover.

The designers at The Bodley Head (imprint of Random House) have been very clever indeed.  Scuff marks and a mottled look have been added to give the front cover a worn and slightly damaged feel.  And it works… really well.

August Pullman is ten years old.  He loves his Xbox, his dog Daisy and knows just about everything there is to know about Star Wars.  He has an older sister, Via, and a loving, if somewhat overprotective, Mum and Dad.    He also has a terrible facial deformity, the result of a “previously unknown type of mandibulofacial dysostosis caused by an autosomal on chromosome 5, complicated by a hemifacial microsomia characteristic of OAV spectrum“.  In other words, he was incredibly unlucky in the genetics lottery of life.

Up until now, August has been homeschooled by his parents, mainly Mom.  However, August is smart and his Mom feels that the time is right for August to try real school.  “You’ll learn things you’d never learn with me”.   And besides, he’ll be old enough to go into fifth grade, the first year of middle school, so he won’t be the only new kid.

“I’ll be the only kid who looks like me”.   Naturally, August is dreading it.

I hadn’t appreciated until reading this book and then reading further around the subject how big a deal it is to be ‘popular’ at your typical American middle/high school.  To be able to sit at the ‘top’ table at lunch with the football players and the cheerleaders.  Apparently some school lunch tables are even ranked in order of popularity.  It seems that groups are formed across a whole spectrum, from super-popular, jocks, middle-of-the-road jocks, goths or emos, druggies, to geeks or nerds.  Coincidentally, I had a conversation with a friend of mine recently who expressed real relief at not putting his son through the American school system because of the very existence of this system of popularity.

It’s no wonder then that August’s Dad felt that sending him off to middle school would be “like a lamb to the slaughter”.

August’s narrative of his first year at middle school is touching, funny and honest.  It is also very moving because all the way through August understands.   He understands why the other kids behave they way they do, react the way they do, say the things they say.

“They were just being normal dumb kids.  I know that.  I kind of wanted to tell them that.  Like , it’s okay, I know I’m weird-looking, take a look.  I don’t bite.  Hey, the truth is, if a Wookiee started going to school all of a sudden, I’d be curious, I’d probably stare a bit!”

Woven into the narrative are the stories of others whose lives August touches.   For instance Via, August’s older sister, describes how “August is the Sun.  Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun”.    She is accepting of this (how could she be otherwise, there was no point in complaining) but at the same time yearns to be free of all the stuff that comes with having a brother with a facial abnormality – the staring, the pointing, the lack of ‘me’ time with Mom and Dad.   Sometimes she just wants to scream out, don’t forget me!

“Once, I got up in the middle of the night because I was thirsty, and I saw Mom standing outside Auggie’s room.  Her hand was on the doorknob, her forehead leaning on the door, which was ajar…..I wonder how many nights she’s stood outside his door.  And I wonder if she’s ever stood outside my door like that.”

I wonder whether R J Palacio will one day tell the story of August’s Mom.   As a Mum myself, that would be a story about which I would like to hear more.

Changing Faces – changing the way you face disfigurement

Changing Faces is a charity for people and families whose lives are affected by conditions, marks or scars that alter their appearance.  It aims to help individuals lead full and satisfying lives, to give practical and emotional support to adults, children and their families and provide training, support and advice to professionals in health and education.

Changing Faces also aims to transform public attitudes towards people with disfiguring conditions.   They promote fair treatment and equal opportunities for all, irrespective of their appearance. They campaign for social change: advocating for more integrated health services; influencing schools and workplaces to create more inclusive environments; and lobbying for anti-discrimination protection and enforcement.


Posted in Age 8-10, Palacio, R J, Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Fairyland Olympics : an enchanting children’s picture book about a forest of fairies that decide to hold a Fairy Olympics. *Win a signed copy by the illustrator*

It is so much fun to imagine what other creatures, real or imaginery, would do if they got hold of the Olympic idea – underwater sea creatures at the bottom of the ocean; insects and butterflies on a hot sunny day in a meadow somewhere; even all the animals in a city zoo!   Imagine the opening ceremonies that would be held, the games villages and stadia that would be built and the events that would be planned and staged.

This is just what Mighty Meg and Lucy Longlegs (aka Meg Clibbon and Lucy Loveheart) have imagined and created with The Fairyland Olympics.  This is Olympics fairystyle and it is enchanting.

“One day a very excited wizard on his magical broomstick gatecrashed a meeting of very important residents of the Enchanted Forest.  They were arguing about what sort of party they should hold in the summer.  ‘Stop!’ said the wizard, so they did.  ‘I’ve just come back from the world of humans.  They have something called the Olympic games once every four years.  It is a sort of great big sporting party.  Why don’t we do something like that?’”

And they did.  Soon everyone was hard at work getting everything ready – giants in charge of construction, food fairies and gourmet goblins started cooking, fairy godmothers began to make banners, bunting and beautiful decorations, to name but a few.

Let the games begin!

(I recommend you click on the images below so that you can see Lucy’s beautiful illustrations on a larger scale and in more detail).

The Misty Mountain (snow and ice events), the Arboreal Grotto (musical events), the Swamp (Troll dancing, mud wrestling), the Rainbow Podium (prize giving)

The Theatair (aerial events, cloud gymnastics), the Spherena (track events), Sea Palace (water events), the Games Village

The Rainbow Relay. A live report from the Spherena: Announcer : "Now, over to Gary Gigglebottom who's down by the finishing line for one of the most anticipated events of the games... the Rainbow Relay."

The Theatair. Sun, moon, stars and rainbows illuminate the beautiful theatair where the aerial events take place.

The Games Village

At the end of the book are some lovely ideas for holding your own garden olympics – create event cards and invitations for your friends, make special coronets for winners (instructions included) and hold a closing party.  There is even a recipe for a special energy drink and cut out medals to hand out.

The Fairyland Olympics is a lovely, enchanting book, perfect for this year of the London Olympics 2012.   The illustrations are exquisite and there are some really funny bits too. For example,

“Here is the Games Village. (1) Garden with delicious healthy vegetables. (2) Kitchen making lots of food with delicious healthy vegetables.  (3) Herb fairies in the cottage hospital looking after people who haven’t been eating delicious healthy vegetables…”

Competition!  Win a signed copy by Lucy of The Fairyland Olympics

Lucy Loveheart in conjunction with Babbleabout is offering a fantastic prize – a signed copy by Lucy of her delightful book The Fairyland Olympics.   To be in with a chance of winning, all you have to do is design your own Gold medal for the Fairyland Olympics.  You can use felt-tips, colouring pencils, paints, collage – whatever you like.  Even salt dough if that is your preferred medium.   The more colourful the better!   When you are happy with the final result, take a photograph and send it to me at yvonne@babbleabout@gmail.com      You have plenty of time – in fact, you have the whole of the school Easter holidays.   The closing date is Sunday 15th April, midnight.  Good luck designers!  My 9 year old daughter has already had a go and here is her medal (sadly for her she is not allowed to enter).

After the 15th April, I will put up an online gallery of all the entries and then Lucy herself will decide upon a winner.    The winner will be notified on this site on Friday, 20th April 2012, midnight.

About Lucy

Lucy Loveheart has been a full-time artist, illustrator and designer for over 18 years and has worked together with her mother, Meg, on a series of 17 children’s books to date.   To see Lucy’s new Print Gallery and for more information about paintings, exhibitions and future projects please visite www.lucyloveheart.com


Posted in Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Clibbon, Meg, Loveheart, Lucy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Learning your times tables: a necessity so why not make it fun! 5 ways/tools to engage your children with times tables


"Six sixes are 36, seven sixes are forty-two, eight sixes are forty-eight....."

There’s no way of avoiding them.  The times tables are a necessity if one is to progress along the mathematics learning journey. So, like them or not, knowing your times tables is important.   They are the building blocks for further maths study later on – division, long division (urgh!), long multiplication, fractions, calculating area and so on.

Not only that, but knowing the times tables is important for tasks in our daily lives too – working out quantities in recipes (especially if doubling or quadrupling quantities); working out money-off discounts at the shops; measuring for furnishings around the home (widths of curtains for instance).

It is important when learning times tables to engage the learner.  Simply reading and trying to memorise long lists of times table sums may work for some but not for everyone.  Also, rote learning will not provide the learner with the background understanding of the operation of multiplication – that multiplication is the grouping of sets, repeated addition and the inverse of division.   Once the understanding of the concept of multiplication is secure, then it is important to move on to fast recall.  And this is helped by the fact that, actually, the number of sums to memorise and recall is halved by learning pairs of sums together – 4×5 is the same as 5×4.   This happy fact is considered below when we look at using arrays.

5 ways/tools to engage your children when learning their times tables


We used smarties (adds to the appeal of any activity, believe me!) to make up arrangements of columns and rows to represent the two parts of a multiplication sum.  These are called arrays.  And the beauty of using arrays is that they clearly show that 7×8 is the same as 8×7 in a very clear and visual manner.

The above arrangement of smarties shows 7×8=56, 8×7=56, 56 divided by 8 = 7,
56 divided by 7=8, 8+8+8+8+8+8+8=56 and 7+7+7+7+7+7+7+7=56.   (Of course, other small candy-covered chocolates are available!  I wouldn’t recommend chocolate buttons though (messy)).

The Terrific Times Tables Book by Kate Petty and Jennie Maizels

A very visual and stimulating look at the times tables with lots to do on every page – flaps to lift, dials to turn, flowers to grow, sweets to make and so on and so on.   Throughout there are really helpful tricks to help children learn their tables, e.g, when learning the 4 times table, remember that 4 is twice 2, so all the answers are double the answers in the 2 times table and when learning the 5 times table, all the answers end in a 5 or a 0.  The 9 times table is fabulously represented by a 3D pair of hands leaping out of the book.  The idea here is to push every tab so that all 10 fingers are pointing upwards.  Then pull down the finger with the number you want to multiply by 9.  You then count the fingers to the left of it – these are your tens.  Count the fingers to the right of it – these are your units.  A very visual and fun way of explaining a clever trick for learning the 9s.   This is a fun book for exploring the times tables and my 9 year old loves it.  For some though it might be too visually stimulating.  Age 5+

Hoo Ha! Times Tables Playing Cards by Hoo Ha! Enterprises Ltd

On first inspection, the idea behind the Hoo Ha Times Tables playing cards appears to be too simplistic.  But actually the simplicity of this game is the reason why it works so well.

Inside the box are 3 sets of playing cards – the 7 times table playing cards, the 8 times table and the 9 times table.  (Other box combinations are available).  Each playing card within a set has one sum on it, including the answer (this is important and I mention why later on), e.g, 1×9=9.  There are 24 cards in each set, 2 cards of each sum, e.g, 2 of 1×9=9, 2 of 2×9=18, 2 of 3×9=27 and so on.  There are also 4 extra cards – 2 of ‘Hoo’ cards and 2 of ‘Ha’ cards.   Play is based on picking up pairs of matching sums or matching the Hoo and Ha cards to spell Hoo Ha!  The key to this game however (and I can’t stress this more strongly) is that as a child plays the game, he/she has to read out the sum clearly as they turn over each card (it is part of the rules).  By doing so, they are seeing the sum (visual), saying the sum (verbal), hearing the sum (aural) and physically turning the card over (kinaesthetic).   It is this that makes the game so successful.  In addition, the game can be played equally well by children with a wide range of attainment levels because the answers are on the cards (year 2 through to year 6).  My 6 year old and my 9 year old are able to play this game together very successfully and it is the reading out loud and the hearing of the sums that makes this game both accessible and successful for learning and memorising the times tables.

Arcademic Skills Builders Website – Online Maths Games

Arcademic Skill Builders
If you have children who respond particularly well to learning and practicising maths skills using computer applications, then Arcademic Skill Builders is an excellent site.   My daughters use this site in conjunction with other learning methods and I have no problems with this at all.   The games are fun, competitive and very engaging.   As well as multiplication, there are games for the other mathematical operations and for other areas of the numeracy curriculum.

Times Table Snap by BrainBox/The Green Board Game Company

Although this game too is based on pairs (and snap) like Hoo Ha (above), it is a very different game to play.  It is more suited to children who are more secure in their times table knowledge but could do with more practice and perhaps need to develop faster recall.  The pack is made up of selected times table sums from across the entire range (1 times table through to 12 times table), numeric answers and answers written in words.

As in traditional snap, play starts by shuffling the pack and dealing out all the cards equally between players.  Each player keeps their cards face down.  The first player then starts by turning over their top card and placing it face up in the middle.  Each player takes a turn and turns over their top card and places it on the pile in the middle.  The first player to recognise that a match has been made calls “Snap!”.   A match could be 4×3 and 6×2 or twenty-four and 6×4 for example.   The pack could also be used to play pairs.


Posted in Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Maizels, Jennie, Petty, Kate, Pre-teen | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Demon’s Watch by Conrad Mason : A fast-moving adventure of pirates, magic and improbable heroes, perfect for ages 9+

The Demon’s Watch – a debut novel by Conrad Mason, published 1st March 2012 by David Fickling Books

Port Fayt.  Trading heart of the Middle Islands.  Situated between the Old World and the New World, it has long been a safe haven where humans live peacefully, more or less, alongside trolls, elves, goblins, imps and fairies.  It has its usual problems as you’d expect from a trading port – tides of drunken sailors making their way from one inn to the next for just one more tankard of grog; dubious entertainment in the form of Harry’s Shark Pit where merfolk take on Harry’s pet sharks (and where there are no runners-up prizes); and the ‘odd’ bit of contraband that slips through the net.

Keeping a close eye on all the goings-on in Port Fayt is Captain Newton and his ragbag of watchmen – the Demon’s Watch.   There’s Captain Newton himself.  Larger than life but never in your face, unless the situation calls for it.  His preferred course of action is to ”stay in the shadows, unseen and unknown.  Always waiting, always watching”.  But that’s just the way he likes it.   Then there’s the Bootle twins, Frank and Paddy, who are trolls and the sons of Mr and Mrs Bootle, proprietors of Bootle’s Pie Shop.  There’s Hal, the Demon’s Watch’s very own magician, pasty-faced and bespectacled, but able to conjure up a spell in the tightest of corners.

“‘How’s that spell coming, Hal?’ called Newton, pulling a pistol from the unconscious pirate’s belt.   ‘I’m trying to concentrate,’ said Hal through gritted teeth.  ‘These aren’t exactly perfect conditions for magic, you know.’   Newton grunted and fired the pistol.  ‘Fine.  Hate to rush you.’”

Old Jon, the elf, has been a watchman since, well, forever.   He can usually be found sitting in the corner, watching and listening carefully.  He’s the one with the long white hair who doesn’t say much.  But when he does, it’s worth listening to.   Finally, there’s Tabitha.  You can’t really miss Tabitha.  Dyed blue hair (you’ll find out why when you read the book) and a tendency to speak and act a little impulsively.  The thing about Tabitha is that she’s young.  She’s also desperate to impress Captain Newton who took her under his wing when she was orphaned at a young age.   But what she lacks in experience and judgement Tabitha more than makes up for with courage and tenacity.

Meanwhile, half-goblin boy Joseph Grubb is working at the Legless Mermaid, a tavern of ill repute run by his uncle Mr Lightly who rewards his hard work and unremitting service by calling him a ‘mongrel’, ‘stupid’ and other nice names like that.   A chance encounter with a Captain Clagg, a pirate described as “thicker than Mrs Bootle’s custard”, a mysterious package left after another drunken brawl and suddenly Grubb finds himself free of the Legless Mermaid but embroiled in Fayt’s criminal underworld.  It is there that he meets the Demon’s Watch.

“‘We’re the Demon’s Watch, son. Protectors of Port Fayt.  Scourge of all sea scum.  Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of us?’”

Port Fayt is facing its most dangerous threat yet.  The powerful League of the Light, already in control in The Old World, want to rid it of all non-humans or ‘demonspawn’ as they put it so nicely.  Throw into the mix a dangerous witch seeking revenge on the port that exiled her ten years earlier and you have a remarkable, fast-paced, magic-filled, pirate-strewn, fantasy adventure.  Will Grubb become Fayt’s most improbable hero?  The one person who could help the Demon’s Watch save Port Fayt?

Conrad Mason’s descriptions of life in Port Fayt, his humour and his turn of phrase make The Demon’s Watch a complete joy to read.  Stop for a moment and breathe in deeply - smell the rich aroma of Velvetbean alongside the rotten fish, taste the salt in the air and hear merchants bartering at the dockside or another fight breaking out in the Marlinspike Quarter.   Lose yourself in Port Fayt.  And if you do, here’s a map to help you find your way.

Interview with Conrad Mason, author of The Demon’s Watch

Babbleabout: The Demon’s Watch is your debut novel. What was your inspiration to write it? 

Conrad Mason:  I’d tried to write things before The Demon’s Watch, but never got further than the first page. Then I read How to Write a Novel by John Braine. It’s a really inspiring book, and it got me started on the project that would become TDW. I was always interested in fantasy stories which played around with the conventions of the genre, and I felt that someone ought to stand up for goblins. They generally get treated pretty badly in fiction. I suppose I felt sorry for them.

Babbleabout: I understand you read Classics at Cambridge University Did this in any way help you with ideas and with your writing?

Conrad Mason: Yes, in that it involved a lot of writing! And my 10,000-word thesis was a good lesson in stamina, which of course is very important for working on a novel. Ideas are harder to track down, but I will say that studying Apuleius’s novel The Golden Ass, about a man who accidentally transforms himself into a donkey, had a big effect on me.

Babbleabout: What were your favourite children’s books when you were a child? Did you have a favourite author that you always sought out in a bookshop or at your local library?

Conrad Mason: So many… Roald Dahl early on. And later I became obsessed with the Redwall books by Brian Jacques. Martin the Warrior was the first book which made me cry.

Babbleabout: You are a very young writer. What advice do you have for any aspiring children’s writers?

Conrad Mason:  I think everyone has to find their own way of doing things, but my personal breakthrough was in separating the act of writing from the act of editing. They’re different skills, and it’s very difficult to do both at the same time. Beyond that, I think the main thing is to keep reading and writing. Critical reading can help you spot what works and what doesn’t. And of course the more you write, the more consistently good your writing becomes.

Babbleabout:  I understand you volunteered as a reader at local schools. Tell us a little more about this, e.g was this through a charity or direct with the school?

Conrad Mason:  It was for a charity called Volunteer Reading Help, organized through Usborne Publishing where I used to work. I went to the local school once a week and spent half an hour or so reading with children aged 7 to 9. It was so much fun. And especially gratifying when they enjoyed Usborne books…

Babbleabout: Who is your favourite contemporary children’s writer?

Conrad Mason:  This is a tough one! I am terrible at picking favourites. For younger children, I love Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum books. For older readers, two recent favourites have been A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd and Wonder by R.J. Palacio.   But ask me on another day and the answer will probably be different.

Babbleabout: The actions of the League of the Light (in The Demon’s Watch) could loosely be compared with events during a dark period in European history (World War II). Would this be a fair comparison?

Conrad Mason: Yeah, I think it would be fair. In real life, people we think of as evil rarely think of themselves that way, and I very much wanted to have this sort of villain in my book. I think they’re far more scary than the ‘Dark Lord’ variety. The League of the Light are absolutely convinced that they’re doing the right thing, which is what makes them so determined and so dangerous. It’s something I’ll be exploring more in the sequel…


Posted in Age 8-10, Mason, Conrad, Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

5 children’s picture books celebrating storytelling from around the world. Lose yourself in beautiful artwork and touching stories.

I am always keen to feature traditional tales from around the world.  Stories often passed down by mouth, generation to generation, perhaps with variations to them depending on the storyteller and always unique to the cultures, the landscapes and the people that inhabit them.   You can learn so much from these stories – lessons in life and lessons about the lives of others living far off, in the farthest places.   To me they are always enchanting.

Tales of Wisdom and Wonder, retold and narrated by Hugh Lupton, illustrated Niamh Sharkey   A beautiful collection of tales from around the world brought to life by Hugh Lupton’s narrative and Niamh Sharkey’s artwork.   The stories are thought-provoking, quite often astonishing and always life affirming.  Lupton has dug deep into old anthologies or simply heard the stories from friends who have in turn heard them from someone else.   Whatever the source, Lupton has sought to be “true to the spirit of the tales, and to all those countless tellers who have carried them before me.”    The stories are: Monkey and Papa  God (Haitian), The Curing Fox (Cree, Native American), The Pedlar of Swaffham (English),  The White Rat (French), The Blind Man and the Hunter (West African), Fish in the Forest (Russian) and The Shepherd’s Dream (Irish).  Age 5+

A page from The Blind Man and the Hunter (West African)

The Day of Ahmed’s Secret, written by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland, illustrated by Ted Lewin    Ahmed is bursting to tell his family a secret.  But first he has a whole day of errands and jobs to do  in the bustling streets of Cairo.  “My donkey pulls the cart I ride on.  I have many stops to make today”.  Ahmed is very proud of the work he does, carrying big, heavy bottles of fuel to people’s houses.   But he has a secret he is even more proud of and he can’t wait to finish his work and hurry home.   Sharing Ahmed’s busy day is so exciting – hearing the sounds, taking in the rich colours and the details of the buildings in and around Cairo and meeting all the people he sees along the way.   Age 4+

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson, paintings by James Ransome   Clara is a slave on Home Plantation.  When she arrived at the plantation aged 12 years and all alone she was sent straight to work in the cotten fields.   Rescued from this unforgiving work by her Aunt Rachel (“she wasn’t my for-real blood aunt“), who teaches her to sew, Clara becomes a seamstress up at the Big House.  Clara overhears talk of Canada and the Underground Railroad – they “is people who been helpin’ folks get there, secret-like“.  But how to get there?  How to get across the Ohio River and to the Underground Railroad?   Using her newly acquired sewing skills, Clara starts a quilt and by using scraps of fabric together she fashions her own secret map.  And as she sews she traces each stitch, each piece of fabric, over and over in her mind, providing an imprint of the whole journey.   Ransome’s paintings are vivid and full of the light of the landscape – hot yellow midday skies contrasting with the blue of the creek and the green of the swamp.  At the back of the book is a wonderful project idea to make your own neighborhood map using a large sheet of construction paper and lots and lots of craft materials – buttons, wool, string, bottle tops, old magazines and newspapers, dried noodles, peas or beans.  Age 6+

"Don't worry, Aunt Rachel. I got the memory of it in my head."

The King and the Kiang, story by Mariam Karim-Ahlawat, art by Shalini Biswajit   This is a tale of a young girl who lived in the valley of Yumthang, deep within the Himalaya mountains of Sikkim.   It is said that her mother left her in the rhododendron flowers that cover the valley where she drank of their nectar and so grew up with blazing red hair and eyes of deep pink.  Her name is Kunzang and she speaks to no one.  But she is often seen riding her kiang (wild ass) with its flowing mane, as red as her hair.    One day, a powerful King and his army arrive and stay in the peaceful and beautiful valley.  Upon glimpsing Kunzang, the King is at once mesmerized by her and her steed.  He orders their capture.  And as they are led away, the weather changes, storm clouds gather and thunder shakes the valley….. A beautiful tale of nature and of leaving well alone.  Biswajit’s illustrations are magical, quite impressionistic in their style with no detail on the faces and with colours that capture the Himilayan hillsides.  Age 5+

Mukand and Riaz, written and illustrated by Nina Sabnani     This very moving story is set against the backcloth of partition between India and Pakistan in 1947.  Mukand and Riaz are best of friends, sharing life together, cricket, scrapes, eating their favourite buns from the bakery at the market, helping each other with their work.  Riaz even wants to share Mukand’s cricket cap but Mukand will not let Riaz wear it.  When he wears his cap Mukand feels he can do anything.   Then everything changes.  English soldiers appear on the streets, their schoolteacher doesn’t come into school one day and Riaz tells Mukand he must hurry home to his family.  Their country is no longer one but two – India and Pakistan –  and Mukand’s family must leave.  Mukand’s family board a ship to India and as it departs, Mukand takes off his favourite cap and throws it to Riaz.  They never meet again.  This book is based on the memories of Nina Sabnani’s own father and is a heartbreaking reminder of the loss of friendships and homes in war.  The applique illustrations are beautiful, colourful and textured.  Age 6+



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The Witch at Turlingham Academy: an exciting new book series for girls age 8+ who love magic, witchy adventures and boarding school fun

Children’s books set in boarding schools have such an enduring appeal.  For adults, they are a nostalgic look back at their own school days, friendships made, friendships lost, the fun, the scrapes, the tears.  I didn’t get to go to boarding school.  Instead, I went to a HUGE comprehensive school, a tired-looking ‘community college’ made from brick and portacabins.   It was very rough around the edges.  If you kept your head down, worked hard and stayed out of trouble you could do quite well.  For some it was more a question of survival and developing strategies to get by.  My reading material at the time included the Malory Towers and St Clares series by Enid Blyton and I remember being transported to a completely different world – boarding school – and LOVING every second.

Children, of course, are living the whole school thing right now.  It is a huge part of their lives and which is why they love reading ‘school genre’ books.  It is what they know and probably what they would write themselves.  They can follow the characters in the stories as they make friends and mistakes along the way (just as they do).  They can follow them as they work out that popular doesn’t always mean nice and sort the true friends from the not-so-true friends.   And they can share in the fun of the adventures, the tricks played and, of course, the midnight feasts.

The Witch at Turlingham Academy by Ellie Boswell: out on 1st March and bringing boarding school fun and witchy goings-on bang up to date

It’s not fair!  Actually, it’s doubly not fair as far as Sophie is concerned.  For starters, she is the only day girl at Turlingham Academy and so misses out on all the late night gossip in the dorms and the midnight feasts.  And just to make matters worse, Sophie’s mum is the Headmistress, no less.

It’s the start of a new term at Turlingham Academy and all Sophie’s friends are arriving back after the long summer break.  Hugs and greetings are exchanged, stories told of long and boring flights from Los Angeles and holiday snaps swapped on mobile phones.  This is boarding school 21st century style!

However, if Sophie thinks it is going to be a normal term at Turlingham Academy, she couldn’t be more wrong.  Strange things start happening almost at once – the ancient but broken lighthouse lantern that towers over the school suddenly starts blazing away for the first time in fifty years; Sophie discovers a gift intended for her but posted five years earlier hidden in a drawer in her Mum’s office; and a new girl, Katy, joins the school.   Katy starts to bewitch all of Sophie’s friends and is then found conducting strange experiments in the science labs.   She confesses to Sophie that she is, in fact, a witch-hunter and is looking for a witch at the school who is getting stronger by the day.   Sophie agrees to help Katy find the witch but ends up making a discovey that is both startling and life-changing.  One thing’s for sure, “life at Turlingham Academy was never going to be the same again.”

My nine year old daughter read and loved this book – the schoolgirl chatter, the mischief and the innocent fun.   This book is great for that age group (8-12 yrs) who are starting to leave behind little girl fun and are looking forward to a little more independence, a little more responsibility and lots of girly chat.   The Witch at Turlingham Academy succeeds in introducing these ideas in a gentle and fun way.

The Witch at Turlingham Academy is the first of a series of witchy adventures written by Ellie Boswell and published by Atom and I know for a fact my daughter is going to be very excited to get her hands on the next one and the one after that and the one after that….


Posted in Age 8-10, Boswell, Ellie, Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Not So Scary Cactus by Theatre Tots: Storytelling using Drama, Music and Dance

Storytelling can take many forms – a cosy cuddle at bedtime, a whole school story in assembly.  It can be one person telling a story, it can be hundreds.  It can even be off-the-cuff made-up stories in the middle of the night to a poorly child who can’t sleep.  Done that.

Most cultures have a long tradition of storytelling in one form or another.     In winter, when it is dark for most of the day and time hangs heavy, storytelling is an important time for elders of the Inuit community in Greenland to pass on stories of the land and the mythical creatures that are said to inhabit it.  The elders heard these stories from their fathers who had, in turn, heard it from theirs.   Stories are part of daily life in India too.  In fact, there are professional storytellers who travel from district to district telling stories through performances, songs, puppet shows, dances and plays.

As a family we love to go to Norden Farm Centre for the Arts to see storytelling in plays and puppet shows.  One of our favourites has been Miki which I have already written about hereTheatre Tots is a company that produces drama workshops and shows for early years children and children with special needs.   They see drama and plays as an important way of continuing the storytelling tradition and for building confidence, sparking creativity and imagination and developing social skills.   And now Theatre Tots have written their first book which tells the story in printed form of one of their touring shows – The Not So Scary Cactus.

The Not So Scary Cactus written by Laura Sydonie, illustrated by Beverley Wilson, published by Theatre Tots

This is a delightful and touching story of Colin.  Colin the cactus.  He lives in the Wild West desert along with the rest of his cactus family.   They are a fearsome lot – upright and tall, lots of sticky-out, sharp spikes and horrible, scary faces.   No-one gets past them to steal the gold from the gold mine, believe me!

One day, when Colin has grown up a little more, Chris the daddy cactus says it’s time for Colin to earn his spikes (so to speak) and take his turn to stand guard at the entrance to the gold mine.   But something is troubling Colin – he just doesn’t look the same as the other cacti.  You see, he doesn’t have any spikes, none at all.   He’s the not so scary cactus.   Colin decides to set off into the desert in search of his missing spikes.  But he finds something even better – his true self.

The Not So Scary Cactus is a heartwarming story of difference, finding your true self and seeing the good in others.  It is also an excellent resource for parents and teachers of young children who want to go beyond telling a great story and act it out too.  Because all the way through the book there are prompts which allow a grown-up to suggest actions, movements, sounds or words that go with the story, e.g, can you make spiky hands?; can you hop?; can you shout YEE HA?.

The text and prompts are wonderfully supported by vibrant and colourful illustrations which show lots of character expressions and movement – great for copying and trying out for yourself as you act out the story.  A CD comes with the book which includes three songs – The Not So Scary Cactus Song, Colin the Cactus Theme Song and Hello song.   Age 2+


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The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Rachel Isadora : Evoking the colours, shapes and patterns of Africa in a reworking of Brothers Grimm

"... and everyone danced and danced all through the night."

Rachel Isadora began dancing at the age of six and went on to dance professionally in New York City.   Rachel also lived for ten years in Africa.   Both influences are clearly visible in the treatment she has given to the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

The hot colours, the patterns in the fabrics and the landscape, the textures and the edgy shapes, all lend themselves so well to Isadora’s chosen medium of collage.   Collage is great – anyone can have a go and get instant and beautiful results.   What’s more, the materials for collage are all around us – finished-with newspapers, wallpaper samples, ends of wrapping paper rolls, sweet wrappers, bits of coloured or hand-made papers, coloured envelopes from junk mail, all ordinarily destined for the recycling bin.

"Soon the princesses reached a grove of trees with silver leaves. Then they came to one of gold leaves and one of diamond leaves. The soldier broke off a twig from each."

Every night the princesses go to sleep, locked away in their bedroom.  Every morning their shoes are completely worn through.  It’s as if they have been dancing all night long.  How can that be?   Their father, the King, offers the hand in marriage of one of the princesses to anyone who can solve this mystery.  Many try.  All fail.  Until, that is, a soldier, travelling on foot one day, meets an old woman who offers some very timely advice and the use of a magic cloak.  At last, the secret and a hidden-away, underground world is revealed.

We were enchanted by the idea of twelve princesses so we decided to make our own paper-chain of princesses and used the collage idea to give them clothing, hair accessories and shoes.   We taped two A4 pieces of plain paper together down their long sides and then folded them in a zig-zag fashion.  A simple princess outline was drawn, making sure that the arms reached to the edges of the paper.   The princesses were then cut out and decorated.


Posted in Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Isadora, Rachel | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Noah’s Rocket: a highly entertaining and modern reworking of the Noah and the flood story, a great read for children age 5-9

Recognise the rocket on the front cover of Noah’s Rocket by Tony Frais?  No? Well, here’s a big clue.  Next time you are walking through the City of London or watching the latest news about bankers’ bonuses, take a good look at the buildings on the London skyline and you might just spot it.   To locate its exact location, you need to read the book.

Noah’s Rocket by Tony Frais is a modern take on the biblical story of Noah and the flood.  Swap Mount Ararat in Turkey (supposedly the resting place for the Ark) for the City of London and you have the beginnings of a very funny and highly engaging version of this most famous story from the book of Genesis.

Noah is minding his own business pottering in the garden of his small house in a street just like any other street in London.  His three grown-up sons have long since left home and he lives quietly with his wife Ethel.  Life is good.   Suddenly, he hears a loud whooshing noise and a voice talking to him.

“Hello Noah…. This is God speaking to you.  The world has become a very bad place with too many wicked people.  I am going to destroy them by causing a flood…. Your garden is too small to build a very large ark or a very large submarine.  You only have enough space to build something very tall instead!   Noah, I want you to build a giant space rocket… Take your wife, your three sons and their wives and put them into the rocket.  Also, you will collect two of every living creature, male and female, and put them, with enough food for everyone, into the rocket.”

What follows (probably after a long lie down in a darkened room) is a very funny story of how Noah rises to the challenge God has set him.   After all, how difficult is it to build a rocket rising over 150 metres in a small garden in a London suburb?  But Noah doesn’t bargain for the neighbours who start to get very cross because the rocket is making their television pictures go all wobbly.  Then there is the local policeman called by the said angry neighbours who, when hearing Noah’s story, has heard enough.  And where exactly do you get two of every living creature, male and female, in the middle of London?   The problems don’t go away once you get airborne either.   How do you keep all those animals entertained up there in deep space?   And, of course, there’s the small problem of zero gravity and all that animal pooh!

The animals board Noah's rocket

Will Noah complete the mission asked of him?   And who are all the men in bright, white suits who keep coming to Noah’s aid just as things are looking really bad?  You are just going to have to read the book to find out!

The Times Educational Supplement have described Noah’s Rocket as a “sparky, highly readable reworking of the Noah and the flood story” and I would entirely agree.   It is laugh-out-loud funny and very original.

Noah and Stanley the Spider (the hero of the story) have their very own website.   Schools can order special school packs which includes a copy of the book, a play of the story, an assembly play and curriculum planning resources.


Posted in Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Frais, Tony | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

6 books about science for younger children: investigate, explore, witness and prepare to be amazed

Our very own sun clock

Science can be so exciting for children – discoveries to be made, amazing transformations to be witnessed and everyday things to be looked at in a completely new way.    Getting science out of the classroom and exploring the world and all its wonders makes it so accessible and immediate.   There is no need to buy expensive or sophisticated equipment.  Most simple experiments make use of easy-to-find, everyday materials – just like our sun clock above.

Science can be made even more meaningful and real when part of a story which is why I have included two delightful picture books which tell the story of the lifecycle of frogs.

6 books about science for younger children: investigate, explore, witness and prepared to be amazed

Growing Frogs by Vivian French, illustrated by Alison Bartlett, published by Walker Books as part of their Nature Storybooks range   What happens when you take an empty fish tank, add some pond water and pondweed, scoop in a little frogspawn… and wait?    Told from the perspective of a little girl and her mum, this story describes how they carefully collected some “grey jelly stuff…yuck” (frogspawn) from a nearby pond and watched them magically grow into tiny commas, then tadpoles, then not-quite-frogs and finally baby frogs.  The story is excellently supported by little nature notes along the way which describe exactly what is happening during the lifecycle and there is also very useful advice if you want to grow some frogs from your own garden pond.  Age 3/4+

The Teeny Weeny Tadpole by Sheridan Cain and Jack Tickle   Follow the treacherous journey teeny weeny tadpole makes as he swims in and out of the lily pads, splashing his way to the edge of the stream and further out to where the stream widens and the water becomes clear.  Along the way he meets lots of other creatures, all of whom seem to be able to jump really high, higher than him!  But what teeny weeny tadpole doesn’t seem to notice is that each day he is changing, little by little.  And those strong back legs come in very handy when he meets the big bad fish who EATS LITTLE TADPOLES!   Another delightful tale of the tadpole to frog lifecycle.  Age 2+

The Usborne Pocket Scientist (The Blue Book and Internet Linked)   This book may be pocket-sized but it is absolutely stuffed full of sciency facts and information.  It explores the everyday, nature, the mysteries of science and the complexity of technology.  But all in a text that is simple, easy to read and supported by clear, yet detailed illustrations.   Each section includes pages of internet links about the subject area covered.  The contents are:- How do animals talk? How do bees make honey?  Why are people different? What makes you ill? Why is night dark? What’s the Earth made of? What’s out in space? What makes a car go? Science experiments with magnets; Science experiments with light and mirrors (which is where we got the idea for the sun clock above); science experiments with water; and science experiments with air.   Age 6+

100 Science Experiments (Internet-Linked) by Usborne   This book takes information  about science a step further by testing out some theories with hands-on investigations.  The book explains that most of the experiments make use of things we have lying around our homes – simple stationery, kitchen things and household items.  There are experiments that look at light, shadow, colour and seeing things; vibration and sound; forces of pushing and pulling, friction, and gravity; energy; the stability of structures; flight; energy, electricity and electromagnets and so on and so on.  What I particularly like are the very clear instructions and diagrams and the explanations of exactly what is going on with each experiment.  Ideal for early scientists.  Age 5+

How Cool Is This? An up-close, inside look at how things work  A Dorling Kindersley Book  What is the science behind a dynamo torch?  What happens the instant a bubble bursts?  How do you get the stripes in a toothpaste?  And what are the aerodynamics that allow a frisbee to fly?  These and many more questions are asked and answered in this fascinating book that reveals the science behind and inside ordinary and not-so-ordinary objects.  Explore the magic of organic chemistry in a bubble gum bubble, wonder at the extraordinary geometric beauty of snowflakes and crystals and find out how radios transform digital radio code into sound.  Age 6+

Why does light cast shadows? (Investigating Science series published by Franklin Watts)   This book is one part of an excellent series of books that encourage investigation to find out more about the world of science.   In this particular book, it starts by examining the subject of light by asking – what is it and what does it feel like when there is no light?  It then moves on to how we see with our eyes, looking at natural daylight and then light sources at night.  Other questions looked at are :- how light travels and bounces; how light is blocked and the making of shadows.  Each chapter has a simple experiment to try with clear instructions and diagrams and there is a “Because…” section which explains the science behind the question.  Other books in the series are What is a force? How do we use materials? How can solids be changed? How do we use electricity? And What does a magnet do?   Age 5+





Posted in Age 0-2, Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Pre-teen | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans: shortlisted for Costa Children’s Book Award 2012 and recommended for girls/boys age 8+

The Costa Book Awards 2012: The Children’s Book Award: Shortlist

Flip by Martyn Bedford (Walker Books)
The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Walker Books)
Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans (Doubleday)
Blood Red Road by Moira Young (Marion Lloyd Books) – WINNER

Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans (Doubleday)

Stuart Horten is small for his age, very small.   In fact, he often gets confused for someone much younger – this he finds VERY annoying.  Not only that but his parents are very tall (how strange is that?).  His Mum is very clever – a scientist.  His Dad is equally clever – he compiles crosswords.  But clever does not mean sensible.

Everything changes for Stuart the day his Mum is offered a job in a hospital a long way from home and the family upsticks and move to Beeton which, as it happens, is where Stuart’s father was born.  Problem no. 1 – Beeton is dull, really, really dull.  Problem no. 2 – it’s the start of the school holidays and Stuart knows no-one.  See what I mean about sensible!

By the third day in his new home, Stuart is bored, bored rigid.  His father suggests a “brief perambulation” – that’s a short walk to you and me – and they set off to explore Beeton and to go to a factory that once belonged to Stuart’s Great Uncle Tony.   And this is where Stuart’s adventure begins – to find his Great Uncle Tony’s lost workshop, reputed to be stuffed full of all sorts of magic and trickery.  You see, Great Uncle Tony was also a famous magician and his stage name was Teeny Tiny Tony Horten (note the height connection!).

A tin box with a secret compartment and a handwritten message from Great Uncle Tony set Stuart off on the strange and dangerous quest.

“I have to go away, and I may not be able to get back.  If I don’t return, then my workshop and all it contains, is yours if you can find it – and if you can find it, then you’re the right boy to have it.


Your uncle Tony

PS. Start in the telephone box in the High Street”

Will Stuart be up to the task - bearing in mind he needs a box to stand on to reach just about anything!   Who can he trust?  The triplets, April, May, June, who live next door?  Maybe, maybe not.  And is he the only one who wants to get their hands on Great Uncle Tony’s workshop and everything inside?  I doubt it.  And who is the shadow that keeps following him with a white dove circling above?

Small Change for Stuart is a heartwarming tale of mystery, magic and tenacity with lots of clues and puzzles along the way.  It is also a very funny read.  Stuart’s father’s crossword-clue dialogue is hilarious, for example, “Do you have any plans for the matutinal hours?” Meaning, doing anything in the morning?   And Stuart’s continuing hang-up about his height is very endearing.

I highly recommend this book for girls and boys aged 8+ who enjoy a mystery, some magic, a little time travel and lots of laughs.


Posted in Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Evans, Lissa, Pre-teen | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

6 beautiful children’s books from Barefoot Books – “Explore. Imagine. Create. Connect. Give Back*.”

If you take a look at the inside flap of a Barefoot book, you will find the Barefoot message proudly written under the name Barefoot and a drawing of two tiny feet.  It says,

“At Barefoot Books, we celebrate art and story that opens the hearts and minds of children from all walks of life, inspiring them to read deeper, search further, and explore their own creative gifts.   Taking our inspiration from many different cultures, we focus on themes that encourage independence of spirit, enthusiasm for learning, and sharing of the world’s diversity”.

I have come across Barefoot books at my local library and in some bookshops and to me they have always stood out as a little different from the more widely known about or more commercially packaged children’s books.  They stand out because they bring meaningful stories together with beautiful artwork in a way that goes against today’s commercialisation of childhood – every time.   They also encourage exploration of and respect for different lands and cultures – very often a Barefoot book will come with cultural notes and background information about the country/continent explored.

6 beautiful children’s books from Barefoot for you to explore

The Boy Who Grew Flowers, written by Jen Wojtowicz, illustrated by Steve Adams     This is one of our favourite Barefoot books and I’ve read it over and over again to my children.  Meet Rink, a very special boy who, every full moon grows flowers all over his body.  One day at school Rink meets Angelina Quiz, a girl with her own secret.  And together they discover the joy of difference, of acceptance and real friendship.   Jen Wojtowicz dedicates this book to her brother, Wally, “because you were there to show me that what makes us different is what makes us wonderful”.  Age 4+

Lin Yi’s Lantern – A Moon Festival Tale, written by Brenda Williams, illustrated by Benjamin Lacombe  A heartwarming tale of a little boy who learns that putting others first and being patient brings its reward in the end.  Lin Yi is desperate for a red rabbit lantern for the Moon Festival taking place later that day.  First, though, has to buy the things his mother needs at the market.  Lin Yi bargains hard but still does not have enough money for his little red lantern.   Lin Yi accepts this graciously but Uncle Hui has one last surprise for Lin Yi.  Benjamin Lancombe’s illustrations are so beautiful that I’ve included some for you to enjoy below.   This lovely book includes educational notes at the end about The Legend of the Moon Fairy, life in rural China and instructions on how to make your very own Chinese lantern.   Age 3+

Lola’s Fandango, written by Anna Witte, illustrated by Micha Archer, storytime CD narrated by The Amador  Family    Now we spend time with Lola and her family in their small apartment in the middle of a busy city in Spain.  Lola is always looking up to her big sister,  Clementina, and feels she lives in her shadow.   Even her name sounds so much better.   Cle-men-ti-na.   One day Lola discovers her mother’s old Flamenco shoes hidden away in a cupboard.  Does Lola have the talent and duende, or spirit, to learn Flamenco?  Lola and her Papi meet secretly to share the rhythm and the steps of Flamenco up on the roof of their apartment block, all through Spring, Summer, Autumn.  “Soon it will be too cold to dance on the roof”.   Will Lola be ready to dance at her Mami’s surprise birthday party?   The story’s text is wonderfully punctuated by the sounds of Flamenco: dancing shoes on the floor – Tap! Tap! Toca toca TICA!; the clapping of the Flamenco rythmn – 1-2-3, 4-5-6, 7-8, 9-10, 11-12!; and the snapping of Lola’s fingers – Snap! Shap!  And beautiful, vibrant illustrations capture the colour of Spain.  Age 2+

Watch a Barefoot behind-the-scenes video with the Amador Family who narrate the storytime CD that comes with the book.

Indian Tales – A Barefoot Collection, written by Shenaaz Nanji, illustrated by Christopher Corr   Head East and we reach India, a country of contrasts, colour and life.   The writer, Shenaaz Nanji, introduces this collection by explaining how stories live on in India – the best-known are passed by word of mouth from one generation to the next, some are told through folk songs, dances, plays and puppet shows and others by professional storytellers travelling from one district to the next.  The stories collected together in this book are organised into their different regions and each section includes a description of the region and key facts.  The regions covered are Gujarat, Punjab, Nagaland, Uttar Pradesh,Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Kerala – a trip of a lifetime!   Age 8+

The Animal Boogie, illustrated by Debbie Harter, sung by Fred Penner, includes enhanced CD with audio and video animation of the story     We’re staying in India but this time we are dancing deep in the Indian jungle.   All the different jungle animals are teaching children from around the world how to shake, swing, stomp, flap, leap, slither and sway in time to the jungle rythmn.  The CD that comes with this book includes animated video with audio singalong and words that children can enjoy the songs along with the characters of the story.  Age 2+

The Shipwreck, The Inuk Quartet Volume 1, written by Jorn Riel, illustrated by Helen Cann, a paperback chapter book from the Advanced Readers section of the Independent Readers Series    Our Barefoot journey ends in the frozen, ice-covered wilderness of Greenland.  Leiv, raised on his family farm in Iceland, is seeking revenge for the murder of his father.  He stows away on a ship bound for Greenland.  Nearing the coast, the ship is crushed by moving ice floes.   Close to death, Leiv is rescued by two Inuit children, Apuluk and Narua.  And what follows is a moving, insightful look at the lives of the Inuit people living off the land and sea of Greenland.  Jorn Riel describes the Inuit’s nomadic way of life, their temporary homes (stone and turf or igloos in winter, tents made of sealskins sewn together in summer) and their tradition of storytelling.  ”In winter, when it was dark for most of the day, time often hung heavy.  That was when Shinka [Apuluk and Narua's grandfather] began to tell his stories.”   We learn about the changeable weather – it is no surprise to Apulak and Narua when it snows in the middle of summer.   We learn about the way the Inuit get everything, absolutely everything, from the land and sea around them - seals, food and clothing; walrus, thongs, skins for boot soles and meat; reindeer, warm sleeping bags, anoraq and delicious meat; bears, meat for dogs and people, skins for clothing and sleeping; and so on and so on.  “You are right”, Leiv acknowledges, “What more could one want?”  Riel describes an Inuit child’s life of being on the move, finding security in their families and unconstrained by “clock time.  They slept when they were tired; they often played well into the small hours, ate when they were hungry and worked when they felt like it.  Maybe that is why Inuit children grew up to be happy and contented people”.  Leiv learns much too – peace, tolerance, respect, respect for people and the natural world.  “We have never had war”, Narua said. ”But maybe that is because the people up here do not have so much.  Here we share everything and do not crave what others have”.   The wonderful text is beautifully supported by Helen Cann’s illustrations which were inspired by a visit to the Artic Circle.  Age 10+

Barefoot Books full catalogue is available to view and books can be purchased on their website.  Their paper catalogue is as beautifully produced as their books!  The asterisk following Give Back in the title, just so that you know, refers to the support Barefoot Books gives to organisations that share the same goals –  ”of global understanding, empowering children through art and story, and protecting and preserving the earth for future generations”.


Posted in Age 0-2, Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Pre-teen, Riel, Jorn | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

4 books to help children to learn to read and write

Before talking about particular books to help you support your child with reading and writing, I can honestly say that the best thing that I have found to help with my children’s language development is simply to enjoy lots and lots of books together.   My children are six and nine and every evening we create a special time (usually just before bedtime) to enjoy a good book together.   As they are a little older now, we sometimes choose chapter books so that we can see how a story develops over time.  Also I think it is quite important to read books to your children that are above their own reading level so that they are introduced to vocabulary that they would not necessarily come across in their own reading.  Of course, we still also love picture books at bedtime.

The books listed below provide us parents with some extra help and ideas to support our children on their reading and writing journeys.  They include ideas about choosing books, how to help children who are struggling to love books and specific help with supporting your child as they learn phonics (the sounds conveyed by letters or groups of letters and the blending of these to read or write words).

4 books to help children to learn to read and write

101 Ways to get your Child to Read by Patience Thomson, foreword by Michael Morpurgo    In the foreword to this book, Michael Morpurgo describes the love his mother had for reading him stories and poems.  “And that’s the point.  She loved doing it.  I could tell that by the way she read it.  She was enjoying the story as much as I was.”  And he goes on to stress this point again later – “If as a parent or teacher you read to a child and make it a special moment, if you read because you love it, then the child will catch that love like a falling star, and put it in his pocket for life”.  Patience Thomson has worked for many years with parents of children who find it hard to read and has built up a wealth of experience and ideas to help.  Chapter 1 is all about helping your child to get started on letters (starting to read); you can learn how your child’s mind works, so that you can find the best way to help (Chapter 2); you can find out what’s stopping your child from reading, and look for ways round it (Chapter 3, Types of Reading Problem); you can change your child’s attitude to reading (Chapter 4, Changing Attitudes); you can offer support to your child from before starting school all the way through to the teens (Chapter 5, Tots to Teens); you can make sure that your child has the right things to read, like books and magazines that he or she really enjoys (Chapter 6, Choosing the Right Book); and some parents might like to brush up their own reading skills (Chapter 7, Adults and Reading).   This books is stuffed full of tips and there are also lots of contact details and links in a very handy Useful Addresses section at the back.  Finally, this book is available at a very reasonable price of just £1.99 from Barrington Stoke, right here.

Firm Foundations – A Parents’ Guide to the Skills Essential for Reading and Writing, by Clare Welsh and Lynn Fallaize    This books takes literacy right back to firm foundations and reminds us of the importance of developing pre-literacy skills.   It explains to parents exactly what these skills are and highlights their importance as foundations to a child beginning his/her literacy career.   Secondly, and just as important, this book provides parents of young children or parents with older children who may be struggling with literacy, with a bank of enjoyable activities to play at home.  Here are some examples of them: Paint, Picasso!  This is an exercise which teaches the child to listen very carefully to auditory instructions (don’t worry too much about the final piece of work!).  All you do is instruct your child to draw, or paint, exactly what you tell him/her to.  It is extra fun when there are other children to play along with.  If they have all been listening carefully, their pictures should all look roughly the same.  I have used this extensively in the classroom, especially when looking at prepositions such as ‘on’, ‘beneath’, ‘under’, ‘besides’, etc.  I have also asked children to give instructions to each other.  This helps them to understand about giving clear and precise instructions.   This book is a lot of fun and helps to build children’s skills in literacy in a clear, accessible and enjoyable way.

Montessori Read and Write – A Parents’ Guide to Literacy for Children by Lynne Lawrence  Much of the Montessori theory is about providing the right conditions for learning - allowing children to learn by doing and giving them the power to educate themselves; acknowledging that they learn when they are interested and when they have chosen an activity themselves.  If you ever go to a Montessori nursery you will see that all the activities, games, puzzles, books are completely accessible and the children are usually free to chose the activities or games themselves (once they have been shown how to use it).  Replicating this at home is important.  So if you want to encourage you child to read, organise a small ‘reading corner’ in your living room (e.g some low shelves that he can reach by himself and a comfortable place to sit.)    This book is full of games to play with your child to develop their language skills  - games with rhyme and ryhthm, games to develop listening skills, games and activities to prepare the hands for writing (e.g finger painting, playdough/clay), sound games and using sandpaper letters so that children can feel around the shape as they say its associated sound.

Using Phonics to Teach Reading and Spelling by John Bald (CD included)   This book is excellent for giving parents a basic introduction to teaching reading and spelling using phonics.  Phonics is the teaching of sounds that the letters and combinations of letters in our alphabet make.  It is also an extremely useful handbook for teachers and teaching assistants working with children aged betweeen three and eleven.  It is quite theoretical and technical in parts but I have found its ideas and resources extremely helpful.  The appendix at the back includes lists of all the main spelling patterns in English.  Also extremely useful is the CD Rom of photocopiable resources.  I have used some of these to provide help to weaker readers and they include word games (snakes and ladders) and word jigsaws.


Posted in Age 0-2, Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Pre-teen | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce: shortlisted for Costa Children’s Book Award and recommended for girls/boys age 9+

The Costa Book Awards 2012 : Children’s Book Award: Shortlist

Flip by Martyn Bedford (Walker Books)
The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Walker Books)
Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans (Doubleday)
Blood Red Road by Moira Young (Marion Lloyd Books) – WINNER

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

It was a normal last term of Year 6 at her school for Julie of Bootle – the last sports day at primary school, the leavers’ trip, the leavers’ photograph.  And hoping upon hope that the boy you like would NOTICE YOU!

All pretty normal that is until Chingis and Negui, two brothers, arrive all the way from Mongolia.  Stood there, staring through the railings.  “The little one was wearing a furry hat and they had identical coats.  Mad coats – long, like dressing-gowns, with fur inside.  But any coat would have looked mad.  The sun was beating down.  The tarmac in the car park was melting. Everyone else was wearing T-shirts.”

Julie is at once intrigued and excited about the new arrivals at her school.  Her eyes are opened to the landscape, the people, to life in Mongolia, when Chingis and Nergui appoint her as their “Good Guide” and show her the Polaroid photographs of life back home.

Julie’s eyes are also opened to the landscape of her own backyard, to Bootle, and to the houses, the flyover, the mountain of scrap metal towering over the Seaforth dock, the fields, the trees and sands leading all the way to the coast north of Liverpool.   You see Chingis has been carrying round with him a Polaroid camera won on a tombola at the Refugee Project Summer Holiday Party in Bootle.    And in the photographs he has been taking, Chingis has been creating alternative realities, a blurring of the boundaries between Mongolia and Bootle, Liverpool.

“Chingis shook the Polaroid dry and showed it to me.  The funny thing was, it looked like Mongolia, as though he could turn bits of Liverpool into bits of Mongolia just by pointing his camera at them….so you didn’t have that camera when you were in Mongolia?  So none of your photos is actually of Mongolia?  Are you even from Mongolia?  But I didn’t say any of that.”  

Julie recollects warmly the friendships gained in that last term of primary school.  And then its sudden and abrubt ending – their teacher, Mrs Spendlove, announcing in the first lesson one morning, that Chingis had phoned her in the middle of the night.  He had wanted to say goodbye.   It was complicated.  Something to do with not having the right papers.   And that was that.

The Unforgotten Coat is very imaginatively and cleverly put together – the style of a journal – by its writer, the photographers, Carl Hunter and Clare Heney and the designers at Walker Books.  It asks to be picked up.

Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote The Unforgotten Coat to support The Reader Organisation - a pioneering charity with an aim to bring about a Reading Revolution.   Its primary mission is to make reading and literature accessible TO ALL and it does this through Get into Reading groups, Read to Lead training, Our Read campaign, Community Theatre and Reader-in-Residence projects in NHS Trusts, care homes, prisons, schools and libraries.   A VERY worthwhile cause.

Follow-up activities to do with The Unforgotten Coat

  1. Explore Mongolia.  Open an atlas, find where Mongolia lies on our our planet, which countries does it border with, what are its main geographical features, its climate, its natural resources?   What are its main customs, its religion, its language/s?
  2. Think about the issues of immigration.   What drives people, families, to leave their homes, their homelands?   What is the pull from the new country (economic)?  What is the push from their own country (again, economic, poverty, persecution, war)?   Consider the effects of immigration upon the new, receiving country – cultural diversity (new languages, new sounds, new music, new artforms, new foods); pressures on housing, schools, jobs.
  3. The Bluecoat - a creative hub of four galleries located in the heart of Liverpool – has put together a fantastic teachers’ resource pack to support the reading of The Unforgotten Coat.    It can be found here. 


Posted in Age 8-10, Cottrell Boyce, Frank, Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Miki by Stephen Mackey: beautiful dreamy snowscenes and a magical mid-winter tale of courage, friendship and adventure

Miki written and illustrated by Stephen Mackey

A forever-icy world and magical underwater creatures brought to life by Stephen Mackey, Norden Farm Centre for the Arts and Slot Machine theatre company

Just before Christmas I took my two daughters (aged nine and six) to see Miki at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts (Maidenhead, Berkshire), produced by Slot Machine theatre company.   We were totally captivated.   By the creativity and extraordinary puppetry.  By the amazing and amusing costumes of the undersea creatures.  And by the story itself – an inspiring and touching tale about friends, the simplicity of wishes and courage in adventure.

“I wish”, said Miki, as she fished for supper,  “I could catch a star.  A star would shine forever.”  On midwinter eve when an icy wind blew, the moon weaved its magic and wishes came true.

Miki, Polar Bear and Penguin just want to brighten up the cold, dark and icy world in which they live.  They wish for a tree, they wish for some pretty lights “to cheer it up” and they wish for a star, a star that would “shine forever”.   And then, first Miki, then Polar Bear and finally Penguin are taken on an adventure, deep down in the depths and beauty of the ocean below their little fishing hole, safe in the magic of midwinter eve.  There, they  meet a host of underwater creatures – a gentle giant of a narwhal, a tiny octopus, crabs, a very big octopus and hundreds of twinkling stars.  Will Miki be able to bring back a star for the friend’s little tree before the midwinter eve magic runs out?

Miki hangs some fairy lights

"A star that would shine forever"

As you can see, Stephen Mackey’s illustrations are beautiful and dream-like in the way they portray the icy world where Miki, Polar Bear and Penguin live.

David Tennant has read Miki as part of CBeebies Bedtime Hour, here it is.  Charming, isn’t it.

Create your own Miki theatrescape and puppets and act out this delightful story

My daughters and I turned an old cardboard box into an icy, cold, winter landscape on top and an under-the-ice waterworld below.

Miki and her friends try to brighten up their icy, dark world

Miki and Penguin's magical underwater journey

Slot Machine theatre company are now touring with Miki – through January, February and March 2012.   See their website for more details and contact information.



Posted in Age 0-2, Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Mackey, Stephen | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Flip by Martyn Bedford: Shortlisted for Costa Children’s Book Awards and recommended book for girls and boys age 14+

The Costa Book Awards : Children’s Book Award 2012 Shortlist

Flip by Martyn Bedford (Walker Books)
The Unforgettable Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Walker Books)
Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans (Doubleday)
Blood Red Road by Moira Young (Marion Lloyd Books)

Flip by Martyn Bedford

Ever wake up in someone else’s body?  Alex did one summer morning.   Having supposedly walked home from his friend’s house in late December the night before.  Work that one out!

Imagine just for a moment what it would be like to wake up in a strange bedroom, in a strange house and in a stranger’s body.   Then… and then, to have to go downstairs for breakfast and sit round the breakfast table with this other ‘mum’, this other ‘dad’ and this other ‘sister’ who are all acting as if everything is completely normal.   Just imagine.

Your mind is telling you that you are Alex but people around you are calling you Philip or Flip (Philip’s nickname … apparently).   And when you look in the mirror you don’t see your own eyes looking back at you.  No.  You see another boy, a boy about your age, “a boy without freckles, or gingery-blond hair, or blond eyebrows so faint you could hardly see them…The face gazing back at Alex from the mirror was brown-eyed and tanned, with the stubbly beginnings of a moustache and dark hair cropped in the stylishly unkempt way that he could never get his own hair to go.”

“Any moment now this would stop freaking him out.  Any moment now, a TV presenter and camera crew would burst into the room and everyone would fall about laughing at the practical joke they’d played on Alex.”  Any moment now, PLEASE.  

You are now standing outside a strange school where the only thing you do recognise is the smell – school corridors.  You’re wearing a strange uniform and thinking ‘Well, if I’m Philip, who are Philip’s friends?’  Imagine that too.

Flip is a tense and riveting psychological thriller.  Martyn Bedford really gets into the mind of teenage Alex as he is suddenly and unexplicably facing a life-changing scenario, literally.   Bedford is in tune with both teen angst and teen humour, understanding that point where you are between child and adult.  As Philip, Alex thinks back to his life pre body swap and realises what he has left behind.   This drives him on to see if he can find a way back to his true self.   Read the book to see if Alex (the mind, the soul) makes it back to Alex (the body).

Posted in Bedford, Martyn, Teenage | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

American Children’s Classics 1: Little House on the Prairie: Books for Girls Age 9+

Image courtesy of Keep it Thimble

Say Little House on the Prairie and most people (well, those around my age anyway) will remember the NBC television series of the same name starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert.

Actually, Little House on the Prairie is the second of a series of three Little House books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder.   It tells of the Ingalls’ pioneering journey from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to the huge prairie lands of Kansas, ending near to a town called Independence.   Their journey is told in the third person but is a semi-autobiographical account of Laura and her family as they set off to “see the West”.   Everything they own is packed into their covered wagon, crossing too many creeks to count and making camp at nightfall.   Before noon one day, after travelling across the wide Kansas prairie, Pa stops the wagon.  ”Here we are, Caroline!” said Pa.  “Right here we’ll build our house.”

“All around them there was nothing but grassy prairie spreading to the edge of the sky”.   The huge skies, the vastness of the prairie, the bright stars hanging so low Laura often felt she could reach out and touch them, are a constant backdrop.   All the seasons of the prairie are vividly described – “the whole world was rippling green and gold under the blazing sky” (Midsummer); “the grasses were a dull colour under a dull sky.  The winds wailed as if they were looking for something they could not find” (Autumn); “the days were short and grey now, the nights were very dark and cold.  Clouds hung low above the little house and spread low and far over the bleak prairie…hard little bits of snow whirled in the air and scurried over the humped backs of miserable grasses” (Winter); “Spring had come.  The warm winds smelled exciting, and all outdoors was large and bright and sweet. Big white shining clouds floated high up in the clear space”.  (Spring).

The prairie was plentiful too - a source of food (rabbits, deer, Prairie chickens, wild blackberries), water and wood to build the family’s house and stable.   And so the Ingalls were very optimistic about their choice of homeland.  They worked hard to make a home for themselves, demonstrating perseverance and also gratitude for the help offered by other settlers and for the bounty offered up by nature.  Particularly touching is the joyfulness that Laura and Mary feel when their neighbour delivers their Christmas presents on behalf of Santa Claus.  The girls are overwhelmed by their very simple gifts – a new tin cup, one peppermint candy stick, striped red and white, a little heart-shaped cake (too pretty to eat) and a shining bright, new penny.  What a striking contrast to today’s Christmasses!

Although the prairie stretched out as far as the eye could see, the Ingalls were, in fact, sharing it’s vastness and bounty with Indians because it was Indian Territory.  The issue of white settlers and the rights of the Indians is woven throughout the book.  Pa Ingalls seeks to reach out to the Indians but Ma Ingalls is much more cautious.  A tension exists between the two communities until word comes to the family that politicians in Washington plan to send soldiers in to take all settlers out of Indian Territory.  Having endured and enjoyed a year on the Kansas prairie it was time to leave and the very next morning the covered wagon was packed up again. ”The little log house and the little stable sat lonely in the stillness”.

My daughters and I have loved reading Laura’s account of her journey to the Kansas prairie and the year they spent there.  We talked about the difficulties the family faced, the land issue between the white settlers and the Indians and even the role of children within family life.  Although I’ve recommended this book particularly for girls, there is plenty in it to interest boys too.  Pa Ingalls is a very strong figure in many ways – strong physically, mentally, morally.  He works hard with his hands, is firm with his decisions and is not afraid to stand up for what he believes.  I found the extended descriptions of how he built the log house, the stable, the door and the fireplace fascinating – a lot of detail is included.

Cornbread – a staple part of the Ingalls’ prairie diet

Cornbread formed a staple part of the Ingalls’ family meals so we decided to make some.  The results were delicious!   The Cornbread recipe we used probably has some added extras  but it does share the same main ingredient – cornmeal (polenta) which I found at my local supermarket (world foods aisle, next to the large bags of rice).

Ingredients for Cornbread


Mixing all the ingredients together


Cornbread muffins - delicious

Other activities related to Little House on the Prairie

  1. Why not trace the Ingalls’ journey from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to the Kansas prairie using an atlas?   You’ll be amazed at the length of the journey and the landscapes they crossed.
  2. Have a discussion (in class, as a family) about the land issue between the white settlers and the Indians.  The settlement of land is always a contentious issue and is being played out across many parts of the globe today.
  3. The role of children in family life.   In the 1870s when the Ingalls family made their journey to Kansas, children were required to complete many chores and were expected to be dutiful at all times.   Interestingly, throughout the book there are comments about how children should behave, for example, “Mary was always good; she never spoke with her mouth full”.  Should children’s literature be used to inform children about behaviour?


Posted in Age 8-10, Ingalls Wilder, Laura, Pre-teen, Teenage | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A brilliant guidebook on spying for young Bonds everywhere (age 7 upwards): Ralph is Not a Spy by Corinne V Davis and El Ashfield

'A brilliant guide to spying for beginners ... lock it away after reading or better still ... EAT IT!' SSS (Short Spy Society, for the under 12s)

Ralph is Not a Spy is no ordinary book.
For within its sumptious pages a spy story gets you hooked!
Ralph is a Chess Champion of extraordinary talent.
And the members of the International Chess Academy?
Well, you could hardly call them gallant.

Corinne V Davis has expertly written the whole of Ralph is Not a Spy in verse.   It bounces along rhymically with bucket loads of humour and is much, much better than my attempt in the paragraph above!    This book is a joy to read aloud together because of its rhythm and pace.   It will also have you laughing out loud together too!   Here’s one example of why.   (Just to set the scene, Ralph is having a secret rendevous in the loos.  Notes are being passed between him and someone in the cubicle next door.)

“One final note arrived and Ralph heard footsteps walk away.
‘There’s one important thing left that I think I ought to say:
You must dispose of all these notes – the method’s up to you,
But (just to play it safe) may I suggest a number two?’”

Who can Ralph trust?   Who is the REAL spy?   Help comes from some very unlikely sources – the quietest, nerdiest member of Ralph’s class at school, Blair McBond; the class pet, a gerbil, who is also a master code-breaker; and Ralph’s mum who can chase an escaping ice-cream van with the best of them and still not break the speed limit!

El Ashfield’s illustrations add to the excitement and drama – drawn in pen and ink and filled in with colour or shaded in varying degrees of grey to black – they give an air of mystery to … well, the mystery!   The carousel man with the evil eyes is particularly scary.  I wouldn’t want to bump into him on a dark night.  And here’s Jaws, the Gerbil – not your average classroom pet that’s for sure!

Jaws the Gerbil. By days Jaws just pretends to be your average furry pet, but this, my friend, will shock you more than all the rest, I'll bet. The minute that he has some information to off-load, he lets me know by tapping out the message ... in MORSE CODE!












Do you remember that I said at the beginning that Ralph is Not a Spy is no ordinary book.    Well, not only is it a story, told in rhyme, but there are spy missions to be solved or codes to be cracked along the way.   And a whole spy zone of further activities to be completed and missions to accept at the end of the book.   The most famous code in the world – Morse – is explained along with suggestions for practicising it.   But take care.   You never know when you are being watched.  Always have your wits about you and check for hidden sound bugs in your clothing.   Finally, when you have completed all the tasks set in the book, EAT IT.  Don’t let it fall into enemy hands.

My nine year old daughter loved this book.   When she picked it up to look at it the day it arrived, a smile spread across her face and stayed there.   We had great fun trying out different spying activities (see our suggestions below) and there are even further opportunities for spying missions by going to Ralph’s very own website, www.ralphisnotasuperhero.com where there are competitions, school activity sheets and lesson guides.

Spying activities – our suggestions.  As Ralph would say “Good luck and keep your wits about you”

  • Design your own super spy gadget, McBlair Bond style.   Write a descriptive paragraph detailing how your gadget might be used.   Do a drawing complete with labels and explanations of the various parts and how they work.   You might want to have a go at making your final design using junk modelling.  We always keep a store of boxes, cardboard, tubes, plastic food trays, bottle tops, packaging etc in our understairs cupboard for activities such as these.
  • Write secret messages to your friends.    Secret writing method 1.  Here’s what you need: white paper, white crayon or white candle, poster paint, water, paint brush.   Using the white crayon or white candle, write your secret message.  To reveal your message, mix a little poster paint with water and paint over your paper.   All will be revealed!    Secret writing method 2 (best to vary your methods for extra secrecy!!).  Here’s what you need: white paper, paint brush, lemon juice.  Write your message using the lemon juice ink and allow it to dry completely.  To reveal, hold the message close (but not too close) to a heat source, e.g a light bulb or a candle or you can iron your message (ask a grown up to help).


Posted in Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Ashfield, El, Davis, Corinne V., Pre-teen | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Children’s drawing competition – illustrate a short story and win an 83 piece art chest or Crayola set and £500 of books for your school!

Fancy winning yourself an amazing 83 piece art chest or Crayola set and £500 worth of books for your school or nursery?  Yes?  Then sharpen your brains (and your pencils), imagine yourself as a children’s book illustrator and enter the Tesco Magazine Kid’s Book Club picture competition.  We are!

All you have to do is read He should have listened to Grandad by Steve Hartley, draw a picture to illustrate it and then ask a grown-up to scan it or photograph it and send it in using the online form here (See terms and conditions below).

Popular children’s author/illustrator Ed Vere (Mr Big, Banana, The Getaway) will be on the judging panel.  Not only that, Ed will be available to answers questions, give tips and generally inspire live on Twitter this Monday, 12th December, at 4 pm.   Where – @tescomagazine.  Use #kidsbookclub.   More details here.

If you can’t make it at 4pm on Monday, you can tweet your questions to @tescomagazine in advance, just remember to add the hashtag #kidsbookclub.

Ed will be giving away a signed ink and watercolour sketch plus 5 copies of his new book Bedtime for Monsters* to participants in the twitter chat.   Winners will be chosen at random.

*Monsters, did you say monsters?  I wish I had known about this book earlier.  I would have featured it on my post “5 children’s books about monsters for our very own little monsters to enjoy“.





Terms and conditions

  • Closing date: Wednesday 14th December 2011
  • There are three categories; two to five years, six to eight years and nine to twelve.  One winner will be picked from each category.
  • Prizes – the winner of the two to five years category will win £50 worth of Crayola products, the winners of both the six to eight and nine to twelve categories will each win a Reeves Watercolour Art Chest.  Each winner will also receive a £500 cheque for their nominated school or nursery to spend on books.


Posted in Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Pre-teen, Vere, Ed | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

5 children’s Christmas craft books – activities and projects to brighten up your home this Christmas

Homemade bauble made from an old Christmas card

I think homemade Christmas decorations add something really special and unique to a home.    Making your own decorations can also be fun and very inexpensive.   For example, the homemade bauble featured above is made from an old Christmas card and two split pins – that’s all.  All you do is cut up an old Christmas card into strips, punch holes in both ends of the strips and insert a split pin.  Then fan out the strips into a bauble shape – easy!    This simple idea comes from Jane Bull’s book The Merry Christmas Activity Book.  Here are some more of our favourite Christmas craft books for children.

Should you wish to purchase any of these books simply click on the book image and you will go through to the Babbleabout/Amazon children’s bookstore. 

The Merry Christmas Activity Book by Jane Bull – 50 things to make and do for a fun Christmas    This book is packed full of lovely and simple ideas for turning your home into a winter wonderland.    All the ideas are very affordable to make and will mostly make use of bits and pieces you already have lying around.    There are some fabulous ideas for Christmas bunting, hanging decorations, lanterns, festive windows, Christmas scents and sweets and baking which make delicious gifts for friends, family and teachers.   An extremely useful Christmas craft resource book.  Age 4+

Angelina Ballerina’s Christmas Crafts – Count down to Christmas with Angelina! published by Puffin, based on the text by Katherine Holabird and illustrations by Helen Craig   Brighten up your Christmas holiday with twenty-six craft activities and recipes inspired by Angelina Ballerina.   There are some really unusual ideas in this book.  For example, here’s one we particularly like – pretty pasta snowflakes.  So, to make beautiful snowflake decorations for your window or tree all you need to do is to arrange the different pasta shapes into snowflake shapes.   Glue the shapes together with PVA glue and leave to dry.   Then paint with acrylic paints and again leave to dry.  For extra shine, paint again with varnish.   So simple but so effective.  Age 4+

Christmas crafting with kids – 35 projects for the festive season by Catherine Woram    Get busy with glue, paper, scissors, needle and thread and more with over 35 colourful and fun Christmas projects.   Just today, for example, my daughters and I sat down and made some beautiful red and green felt hanging stars using pinking shears and matching cotton thread.  My six year old found this an ideal easy sewing project for her little fingers to try and with some determination and a little help she got there in the end and was very proud of her little green star.   Age 5+

The Usborne Book of Christmas Art Ideas    Usborne do these sorts of books SO well and this is no exception.  Over 100 ideas for decorations, cards, wrapping paper and gift boxes using collage, printing, paints, pastels, stencils, inks, glitter, foil, gold and silver pens.  Phew!   More than enough ideas here to keep everyone busy in the days leading up to Christmas.  Age 5+


Usborne Preschool Activities Christmas Fun    Not wanting to leave the little ones out, this book is especially for you.    Simple and charming ideas involving lots of finger printing, cutting out for winter collage pictures and sticking with glue and glitter – all enormous fun, maybe a little messy and brilliant for developing important skills such as hand control, coordination and concentration.   Age 2+


Posted in Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Bull, Jane, Craig, Helen, Holabird, Katharine, Pre-teen, Teenage, Uncategorized, Woram, Catherine | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

5 children’s books about monsters for our very own little monsters to enjoy

One of my little monsters in training!

Have you got monsters-in-training?  I have!   The thing about ‘hoomum’*monsters is that they might look angelic but don’t be fooled!  Beneath that wide-eyed, sweet-smiling exterior is a tantrum of monstrous proportions ready to EXPLODE!   Know what I mean? (*hoomum, by the way,  is Gormy Ruckle’s word for humans in Monster Mayhem by Guy Bass)

Maybe that’s why writers and illustrators seem to love creating stories about monsters?   Aren’t we all capable, occasionally, of turning into little monsters?  I know I can come close during that hour between 7.30 am and 8.30 am on a weekday morning just before school.

Or maybe it’s because writers can really let their imaginations run wild and the results are, well, monstrous – creatures covered in “terrible tusks and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in [their] terrible jaws”, (The Gruffalo, see below), that can swallow five whole puppy pancakes in one gulp (Monster Mayhem, see below).

Anyway, here are our favourite books about monsters to read to your little monsters, I mean angels.

Should you wish to purchase any of these books simply click on the book image and you will go through to the Babbleabout/Amazon children’s bookstore.

Monster Mayhem by Guy Bass    Warning to little girls of a sensitive nature!  Gormy Ruckles, our little monster hero, eats kittens on toast and whole puppy pancakes.   (Boys will love this!)   Gormy Ruckles is a monster in training.  He is adorable but strong-willed, prone to outbreaks of stomping (sound familiar?) and is desperate to be a big monster like his dad.   He lives with his mum, dad and best friend (actually, his only friend) Mike the Scuttybug on Peatree Hill, which lies through the thick ring of trees and out of sight of ‘hoomums’.  Incidentally, Mike the Scuttybug is obsessed with poo, just so that you know.    Anyway, Monster Mayhem contains three hilarious tales of Gormy’s adventures as he learns to become a real monster and all the while his mum and dad can only look on and suggest he take another look at his book of How to be a Better Monster. In the first adventure Gormy learns lesson six hundred and eleventy-seven – the hard way!  That monsters can’t eat fish – watch out for monster-sized burps and big, green clouds of gut-gas of truly epic proportions!   In his second adventure, Gormy gets to take part in his first ever junior monster contest – with hilarious results!  But at least he gets to find out who his true monster friends are!  Finally, will Gormy’s overprotective dad let him out of his clasp for a monster-sized adventure with his big Uncle Kruckles whose only rule in life seems to be who needs learning when you can be smashing, monstering and good old-fashioned hoomum scaring?  But then Uncle Kruckles hasn’t bargained for … the Gloam!  Will Gormy remember all his lessons from How to be a Better Monster and save the day?  “Lesson five hundred and fivety-five – Expect the Unexpected!”   Age 6+

Guy Bass is an award winning author of a Blue Peter Most Fun Story with Pictures Book Award (2010) and I can understand why.  His Monster Mayhem book is hilariously funny – Gormy Ruckles is both repulsive and adorable.  How can that be?  Well, he is just another monster in training, much like my own!

Monster Madness by Guy Bass    If that’s not enough monster mayhem for you, try Monster Madness as Gormy learns again that being a monster isn’t as easy as it looks!    Age 6+



Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie by Joel Stewart    Is it possible for a boy to be friends with a monster?  Especially if that monster is hungry… and bored!   Dexter Bexley, though, is up to the task. But how long can his quick-thinking keep him from being the Big Blue Beastie’s next snack.  Long enough, perhaps, for the monster to see Dexter as something more – a friend. This is a funny and tender book about friendship and Stewart’s retro illustrations are delightful.  Age 5+

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler   The Gruffalo has got to be one of the most famous monsters of them all!   Right from the opening lines, readers and listeners will be drawn along with mouse as he takes a stroll through the deep dark wood.   Julia Donaldson’s rhythmical text is perfect for reading aloud and will actively encourage the youngest of listeners to join in with the adventure.   Meeting fox, owl and snake along the way, Mouse shows that it is quick thinking (rather than size or strength) that stops him becoming the next tasty snack.   And in any case “there’s no such thing as a gruffal…oh!”  “Oh help! Oh no! It’s a gruffalo!” But clever little mouse even manages to fool the Gruffalo into believing that he, mouse, is the scariest creature in the wood!   Well done little mouse.  Age 2+

Monster Day at Work by Sarah Dyer    It’s kids-at-work day and little monster gets to spend a day at the office with Dad.  He gets to navigate the rush hour, sit in on a very important business meeting, do some work on the computer (“That is very easy – I get a much higher score than Dad”), eat lunch in the staff canteen, colour in some charts and even do some exercise in the gym after work.   Nothing to it!   “I don’t know why Dad complains so much…”   And apparently Mum has it easy at home too!   A hilarious and very innocent child’s eye view of the world of work and the world of looking after the home.  Age 3+


Posted in Age 0-2, Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Bass,Guy, Donaldson, Julia, Schleffer, Axel, Stewart, Joel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Another delightful children’s picture book from Ping and Pong – this time join Ping and Pong in a Christmas adventure all of their own











Ping and Pong are the delightful, miniature creations of Amy Trevaskus (author) and Alison Heath (illustrator) and have featured in an earlier piece right here on Babbleabout.  And now they get to feature in their own Christmas adventure – Ping and Pong Santa!

Ping and Pong live in the clock on Lucy’s hallway.  It’s Christmas Eve and Lucy’s Nana and Grandad have come for tea and are reading Lucy some bedtime stories all about Santa and his reindeer.  Intrigued, Ping and and Pong are determined to stay up and wait for Santa.  Not only do they meet Santa, but they get to try out his sleigh for real, whooshing and swooping over and past roof tops, clinging tightly to the bobble on Santa’s hat.

As usual, Alison Heath’s pen and ink and colour illustrations are beautiful and bring out the delight in the faces of Ping, Pong, Lucy and Santa and the details of their home and surroundings.   And as usual, Amy captures life in miniature perfectly, seeing things from the way-down-low perpective of two little people who are exploring the world around them, having fun and learning along the way.   In the meantime, come and meet Ping and Pong.  Gorgeous, aren’t they!









Posted in Age 0-2, Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Heath, Alison, Trevaskus, Amy | Leave a comment

9 Children’s Christmas Picture Books That Capture the Magic of this Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Christmas Berries

Get into the true spirit of Christmas with these beautiful children’s Christmas picture books.   Reading these books together always gets us excited during the days before Christmas.   We don’t do mounds of presents in our house but we can’t help getting excited about the making of gifts, the wrapping of presents, the writing of cards, the rehearsals for school plays, seeing friends and family, playing games and decorating the Christmas Tree.  Lovely.

Merry Christmas Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark    Emma Chichester Clark is one of our all-time favourite author/illustrators.   She has successfully combined her work with other authors (e.g Michael Morpurgo, see below) and illustrated her own books as in this case.   Blue Kangaroo is quickly becoming an all-time classic children’s character and it is not difficult to see why.  He has an endearing and gentle nature and is clearly very loved.  In this lovely Christmas tale, Blue Kangaroo is spending his first Christmas with Lily and her family and Lily is working really hard to make it extra special.  Blue Kangaroo wants to give her something equally special in return.  The opportunity arises on Christmas Eve when Father Christmas comes crashing down the chimney and he and Blue Kangaroo get to spend some special time together.    Age 2+

Little Owl and the Star – A Christmas Story by Mary Murphy   A really charming story told through the eyes of a little owl who looks on as the kings, the shepherds and angels gather for the birth of a special new baby.   Little Owl senses that something really wonderful is about to happen.  A little star sparkles along and takes the owl along to be at this most amazing event.  The language used is so very gentle, here for example, “Aah! Such a peaceful baby.  I stretched out my wing, to touch the baby’s cheek and the baby woke and smiled.  What a happy smile!  The smile went right inside me.  The waiting feeling went away”.  On the last page, the star dazzles brightly over the stable; hold it under a light and lots of tiny little stars glisten within it.  Lovely.  Age 0+/1+

The Best of Times, written by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark   “A story can bring love and laughter, sorrow and tears.  But to save a life… That will require the greatest story of all.”   A beautifully written story of despair, of not giving up and discovering that the best of times lies in not in being surrounded by great riches but the generosity and kindness of strangers, health and the happiness of family.  An ailing Princess is restored to happiness by the acting out of the Christmas Story by a group of travellers.  And one year on, she has her own precious baby in her arms.   Age 5+

Paddington and the Christmas Surprise by Michael Bond, illustrated by R W Alley   Who can’t fail to fall in love with this adorable, brown bear?  Everyone it seems except perhaps the store manager at Barkridges, the local department store where Paddington takes the Brown Family for a Christmas treat.  “There’s a sleigh ride through Winter Wonderland and you get to visit [Santa's] workshop at the North Pole” announced Paddington excitedly.   But soon Paddington begins to wish he had used his bun money to buy buns as the broken plastic reindeer and the sad attempt at Santa’s winter garden fail to impress.  But don’t worry reader because Paddington comes to the rescue in his own special way.  “Bear?” exclaimed the manager.  “Did I hear someone say bear?”  Age 2+

Farmyard Tales Christmas by Heather Amery and Stephen Cartwright and published by Usborne   The excitement is really building in the farmhouse on Apple Tree Farm and everyone is getting ready for the big day.  Peep under all of the flaps and discover what everyone’s doing on Christmas Eve.   Poppy and Sam are busying themselves feeding and putting the animals to bed.   Then letters are written to Santa as Farmer Dray arrives with the Christmas tree.  By bedtime, Poppy and Sam can hardly contain their excitement – a scene no doubt played out everywhere!  This is a lovely book showing the normal and happy goings on in the lead up to Christmas Day – a great reminder for grown-ups too of that magical feeling as the big day finally draws near.  Age 1/2+ 

Cat in the Manger by Michael Foreman   A humorous and warm take on the nativity story, seen through the eyes of a cat who is just trying to get a decent night’s sleep in a barn somewhere in a faraway land, a long time ago.    It’s not easy sharing the barn with all the other animals – cows, stupid but at least they keep the barn warm; goats, always fighting and arguing with each other; donkeys, they might look friendly but turn your back and they kick you; …. and mice!  Then one night the menagerie is joined by a man and a lady on a donkey (not another donkey!).  The cat’s endearing commentary continues “Then I heard a baby cry.  That’s all we needed.  A crying baby!” … and then changes tenderly.  “Then all the shuffling stopped. The baby wasn’t crying.   Everything was silent.  It was if all the animals held their breath.  It was if the whole word held its breath…”   Michael Foreman’s beautiful illustrations perfectly accompany this gently funny Christmas story.  Age 4+

I’ve Seen Santa! by David Bedford, illustrated by Tim Warnes    Little Bear is so excited on Christmas Eve he can’t sleep… he wants to see Santa.   So, everytime he hears a noise Little Bear goes to investigate and sees …. Big Bear drinking Santa’s milk…Big Bear eating Santa’s mince pies… and Mummy Bear putting presents in their stockings!   “What are YOU doing?” said Big Bear.  “I’m giving you both a present from me,” said Mummy Bear.  “Just in case Santa is a tiny bit late.  What are YOU doing?”   In the end the whole Bear family stay up to see Santa.   But do they?   I think lots of Mums and Dads will enjoy this book because, I don’t know about in your house late on Christmas Eve, but we’ve had some very close calls when making special deliveries!!   Shhhhh!   Age 0+

Mog’s Christmas written and illustrated by Judith Kerr    Mog is getting flustered, nothing was right in her house at all!    Everywhere you looked things were different – people being busy hanging brightly coloured ‘things’ on the walls, Mr and Mrs Thomas were cooking, a tree was walking into the house, a tree talking!  Mog finds solace up on the roof of the house where these strange white fluffy cold things were falling from the sky.  Sigh.  Inside everyone is equally miserable, why won’t Mog come down?   Then suddenly there is a noice in the chimney.  Is it Father Christmas?  ”It’s Mog!”.   Age 0+

One Snowy Night by M Christina Butler, illustrated by Tina Macnaughton    Calm bedtimes and Christmas!   Hardly natural bedfellows!   But this book might just persuade the little ones into bed during this most exciting time of the year.    This is the story of a little hedgehog who unexpectedly wakes during his long winter sleep.   He tries to go back to sleep but he is just too cold.    Then, a gift arrives from Father Christmas – a warm, red, woollen hat but no matter how hard little hedgehog tries he can’t get it to fit over his prickles.   So off he goes searching for a more fitting recipient and his hard work is rewarded.   Age 0+

Posted in Age 0-2, Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Bond, Michael, Chichester Clark, Emma, Foreman, Michael, Kerr, Judith, Morpurgo, Michael, Murphy, Mary | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

9 children’s pop-up books – amazing feats of paper engineering to delight any child (and adult!)


copyright Yvonne Keen, www.babbleabout.co.uk

We are HUGE fans of pop-up books in the Babbleabout household.  Pop-ups, if executed well, bring a truly magical setting to a story, they add drama, explain what’s happening and highlight key events.  All of this makes a classic story accessible to a younger audience.

Fairytales especially lend themselves to the pop-up treatment.   We have pop-up versions of Cinderella, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland and each one has created a really magical and enchanting setting in which the stories unfold.

As an adult, I still marvel at the creativity and beauty of some of these feats of paper engineering.   And I love them because they offer an antidote to the digital world of computer games.

Actually, pop-ups aren’t just for kids…..but that’s for a later piece.  Anyway, here are our favourite children’s pop-ups.

The Chronicles of Narnia, based on the books by C.S. Lewis, pop-ups by Robert Sabuda    Robert Sabuda is currently one of the best known paper engineers and works out of his studio in New York with Matthew Reinhart who also is a children’s book creator and paper engineer (see below).   In The Chronicles of Narnia, there is one amazing pop-up for each of the stories – The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair and The Last Battle.   When you handle the book, you instantly know you are in for a treat – it’s hard-back cover and the thickness of it’s contents.   Each page leaps right out at you, literally.   The pop-up of Aslan (pictured) is quite simply spectacular and completely captivated my eldest daughter when she first clapped eyes on it.  A book to really treasure.  Age 5+

Cinderella, A Pop-Up Fairy Tale by Matthew Reinhart    Matthew Reinhart’s resplendent retelling of Cinderella comes to life with intricate pop-ups, foil, ribbons, acetate and amazing three-dimensional surprises.    The stunning transformation of a pumpkin into a magnificent coach can be seen in the main picture (above) of this piece.   This book shares the same sturdy cover and thickness of contents of Sabuda’s book so, once again, you know you are in for something really special.   A really magical retelling of a classic fairytale.  Age 5+

Beware of the Storybook Wolves by Lauren Child, paper engineering by Corina Fletcher   Lauren Child’s colourful and unique illustrations work perfectly with a children’s pop-up book and Corina Fletcher has certainly done them justice.   The opening page with Herb sitting up in bed at the end of his bedtime story captures that time just before ‘lights out’ wonderfully.   “In her hurry, Herb’s mother forgot to take the book with her” and Herb is right to be scared because just as he is dozing off, he realises he is not alone.  The wolves from his bedtime storybook feature throughout the book in scary 3D alongwith a sleeping princess, a wicked fairy, the Fairy Godmother, Prince Charming and a tiny caterpillar.  Perhaps not a book for bedtime but definitely one to be enjoyed with the lights on.   Age 5+

The Wonderful World Book by Kate Petty and Jennie Maizels, paper engineering by Ruth Wickings    “The whole world is in your hands” and it really is when you open the first page and up pops a huge 3D planet Earth as it demonstrates it’s place in space.   This book is full of pop-ups and lift-me-up flaps, great for little hands to explore the geography of the world and feel their way around continents, oceans, rivers and mountains, countries and  natural disasters.  A very visual way of explaining and demonstrating what happens in our wonderful world.   Age 5+

Peter Pan – A Classic Story Pop-Up Book with Sounds by J.M. Barrie and Paul Hess, Retold by Libby Hamilton   This beautiful pop-up book comes with the additional component of music and sounds and this really adds to the atmosphere created by the 3D effects.   In the first scene, Big Ben emerges skyward out of the London mist with Peter Pan, Wendy, John and Michael flying past on their way to Neverland.   And so the familiar adventure continues, visiting the Lost Boys hideout under the trees, the mermaids at the lagoon (listen out for Captain Hook’s evil laugh), onto the Jolly Roger where Captain Hook is defeated and Peter Pan turns the ship for home.   Age 4+

How to Find Flower Fairies, published by the Penguin Group   Perfect for girls who love fairies.   The cover, text and images have all been given an old fashioned feel because it has been made to look like it has been researched and put together by Cicely Mary Barker, the original creator of the Flower Fairies.   The details and little touches are delightful, including the addition of a mock photographic album from the 1930s showing Cicely’s photographs of fairies in her garden and with her friends and family.   There is advice on where to look for fairies with pop-ups of tree tops, the forest floor, garden flowers, by the wayside and the marsh.  Look carefully and you will find tiny little fairies hidden in all these beautiful, minature worlds.  Age 5+

The Nutcracker – A Magical Pop-Up Adventure by Nick Denchfield and Sue Scullard    I love the story of the Nutracker.   Open this book and you enter Clara’s world – the huge Christmas tree in the  Stahlbaums’ house, lit up, and surrounded by presents; the mice and the Mouse King in full battle with Fritz’s toy soldiers; the journey through The Land of Snow to the Land of Sweets, both of which are breathtaking.  There is even a ballerina under a sweet-covered arch that can be spun round and made to dance.   Age 5+

Danger Island – A Perilous Pop-Up World by Nick Denchfield and Graham Howells    Is it a book, is it a game?  Actually both.  And also great for boys this time.   It goes like this – “Your plane has crashed on a remote island.  You’re lost and alone… But don’t despair!   You’ll find everything you need to help you in these pages.  Read the story, follow the instructions and … good luck!”   Luckily you are given a survival pack which has everything you need to complete six missions – help the dinosaur find her missing egg; make a catapult for the tree creatures; rig up a zip-line for the trolls; construct a raft for the aliens; search for the explorer’s poisonous beasties; find the pirates’ treasure.   Finally (phew!) you make your getaway vehicle and … escape!   All combined with an amazing, multi-dimensional paper sculpture of an island in the centre pages.   Age 7/8+

A Three-Dimensional Victorian Dolls House, designed by Willabel L Tong, illustrated by Phil Wilson, paper engineering by Renee Jablow   This beautifully illustrated dolls house carousel has two storeys and eight rooms and will surely delight all lovers of miniature.  Open up, tie back the ribbons and the contents reveal exquisite decorative details and pop-up furniture including a chandelier, a baby grand piano and even an opening and closing loo lid.   An accompanying sheet contains press-out dolls and play accessories.   This will delight my six-year old daughter.   I can’t wait to see her face on Christmas Day, shhh!   Age 5/6+







Posted in Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Barrie, J.M., Child, Lauren, Denchfield, Nick, Lewis, C.S, Maizels, Jennie, Petty, Kate, Pre-teen, Reinhart, Matthew, Sabuda, Robert, Teenage | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

And the 10 fabulous books in the Great Babbleabout/Tesco Kids’ Book Club *Giveaway* go to……

…..*Lauren Morris*.   Congratulations Lauren.  Please can you email me your full address so that the books can be sent out to you as soon as possible.  (Random.org was used to generate a number which was 62 from a range of 1-199)

Thank you everyone else for entering and thanks to Tesco for providing such a great prize.  Look out for further competitions on the Tesco Kids’ Book Club pages and here at Babbleabout.



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Granny by Anthony Horowitz : A Taster for a Forthcoming Post about Grannies in Children’s Books

What is it about grannies that inspires so many authors to write books about them or feature them in their stories?   David Walliams is currently topping the children’s books bestsellers list with Gangsta Granny (see later post) and who can possibly forget George’s grandma in George’s Marvellous Medicine (Roald Dahl; also see later post).

My sister and I were doubly unlucky when it came to our grannies.  My dad’s mother had decided that her little boy was not yet ready for taking a wife – after all, he was only 45!  And so when my sister and I came along…. well, all I can say is, we weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms.  She never visited us and we probably saw her less than the number of fingers on both our right hands.    I have very few lasting memories of my other granny too.   Those I do have include a deepening sense of gloom as my sister and I sat in the back of mum’s car every Sunday on the way to her stuck-in-the-Victorian-era house by the sea; the sound of her voice as she screeched ‘Riiiiiiiiich’ to her long-suffering husband, our lovely Grandpa; and the comments that used to regularly come out of her mouth when she came on day trips with us in the car.  Here’s one I particulary remember, “Just you wait ’til I’m laid out in my coffin!”  Nice.

So, I was very excited to read a copy of Granny by Anthony Horowitz because it is very apparent from the front cover illustration, the blurb on the back and Horowitz’s introduction that his experience of ‘older’ relations is very similar to mine.   Horowitz has used his ghastly experience very effectively by creating a truly EVIL character in his book.   Ivy Kettle, Joe Warden’s granny doesn’t just look evil, she IS evil.  Here’s Horowitz’s description of her, “the terrible caves in her wrists where the skin seem to sag underneath the veins, the blotchy patches on her legs, the whiskers on her upper lip and really quite enormous mole on her chin……he could see it in the wicked glimmer in her eyes, in the half-turned corner of her mouth.  And it was so strong, so horrible that he shivered.  She was evil”.

Joe’s parents live in blissful ignorance of granny’s evil plans and the peril that Joe finds himself in.  Actually, Joe’s parents live in blissful ignorance fullstop!  They are rich, uncaring and totally wrapped up in their own worlds – making money by whatever means (Joe’s dad) and shopping, horse-riding and avoiding her motherly responsibilities by whatever means (Joe’s mum).    This gives granny the perfect environment to hatch her evil plan for Joe.   Who will save Joe?  Does anyone care?

Although scary in places (I wouldn’t recommend this book for children under 11),   Granny (the book, not character) is also very funny.   It also has some interesting things to say about family life, for example, “Joe did not like his parents.   He didn’t like the house [a huge house called Thattlebee Hall], the garden, the cars, the huge meals, the cigarette smoke… any of it.  It was as if he had been born in a prison cell, a very comfortable one certainly, but a prison nontheless….. The strange truth is that many rich children have a much worse life and are much less happy than poor children.   This was certainly the case for Joe”.

Granny by Anthony Horowitz was kindly sent to me for review by WHSmith.

For other books by Anthony Horowitz, including the Alex Rider series and the recently published new Sherlock Holmes The House of Silk, see the children’s books section, WHSmith.







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7 children’s picture books that gently touch upon generosity, letting go, honesty, good deeds, difference and love

Image copyright Yvonne Keen, babbleabout

Continuing the theme of books that help us nagivate through life’s ups and downs, this collection will definitely guide parents and children along the way.

That’s Love by Sam Williams, illustrated by Mique Moriuchi   A beautiful reminder of what love means to a child.  Not stacks of presents at Christmas but the simplicity of “being kissed, being missed…wanting to share, wanting to care”.  “Seeing the good, the way we all should. Being special, being there, the way you are, the way you care, THAT’S LOVE.”   Enough said.   Age 0+

Jessica Strange by Malorie Blackman, illustrated by Alison Bartlett    Jessica is confused.  Her mum, brothers and sisters are all mice.   But she doesn’t look like them.  In fact she’s not quite sure what kind of animal she is at all.  So she visits all the other animals that live in the farmyard and asks each of them in turn if they can tell her what she is.   At last Mrs Duck has some wise words for Jessica, “If you want to stay with your brothers and sisters, then stay with them.  It doesn’t matter what you are, as long as you love them and they love you”.   ….”a thoughtful look at differences.” TES PRIMARY   Age 2+

Something Else, written by Kathryn Cave, illustrated by Chris Riddell   Something Else tries to be like the others.  But everything he does shows how different he is.  Then Something turns up and wants to be friends.   But Something Else isn’t sure he’s at all like him and turns him away.   Something looks sad and small and this reminds Something Else how he felt when the others turned him away.  A heart-warming tale about accepting difference.  Age 2+

Blame it on the Great Blue Panda! by Claire Freedman, illustrated by Emma Carlow and Trevor Dickinson   Pandi is a cute, adorable little panda bear.   But he is also very naughty.  And every time he is naughty he says “It wasn’t me….it was the Great Blue Panda!”   Pandi’s mum knows the truth and decides to teach Pandi a lesson.  Pandi’s in for a shock!   And only then does he learn the value of honesty.   Age 2+

I Love My Cloth by Amber Stewart, illustrated by Layn Marlow    Bean is a little rabbit who is very attached to Cloth.  Mummy and Daddy rabbit think it is time to start doing things without Cloth.   But Bean is not so sure and hatches a plan, her “keep Cloth forever plan”.   But things don’t quite go to plan and Bean, with the help of Mummy, Daddy and big brother, slowly gets used to life without Cloth.  A really gentle story about letting go.  Age 2+

How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham    A beautiful story told mainly through pictures and the minimum of words and it works really well this way because parents and children can create their own commentary to go with the illustrations.  Will is a little boy who picks up a fallen bird from a crowded city pavement.  Everyone else has simply walked by.   He and his parents gently nurse the pigeon back to health.  With a little hope, “Will opened his hands and with a beat of its wings, the bird was gone”.  “A simple good deed shines with a child’s transforming faith”.  Books for Keeps   Age 0+

The Story Blanket written by Ferida Wolff, Harriet May Savitz and illustrated by Elena Odriozola    A heart-warming story about generosity rewarded, with stunning illustrations by the award-winning illustrator of The Opposite.  Babba Zarrah is the village storyteller and all the children love to sit on her beautiful woollen blanket to listen to her stories.   It is winter time and all Babba’s neighbours need new clothes.  Where is Babba going to get the wool to knit them?   “Every question has an answer,” said Babba Zarrah.   “I just have to think of it.”  Soon all the village children are huddling much closer together on Babba Zarrah’s story blanket.  Soon there is no blanket left, but the villagers have a solution for that!   Age 2+

Posted in Age 0-2, Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Blackman, Malorie, Cave, Kathryn, Freedman, Claire, Graham, Bob, Stewart, Amber, Williams, Sam, Wolff, Ferida | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

*This competition is now closed* Children’s Books – The Great Babbleabout/Tesco Magazine Kids’ Book Club *BOOK GIVEAWAY*

*This competition is now closed.*  Thank you everyone for taking part.

To celebrate  the launch of Tesco Magazine Kids’ Book Club story-telling videos, we’ve got one copy of each of the ten featured story books to giveaway – yes, that a ‘goody bookbag’ of 10 books for one lucky winner.    The stories range from beautifully illustrated picture books, to young readers and hilarious extracts from chapter books for older kids.  There’s a story to engage boys, and girls from 2-12 years and above.

To be in with a chance of winning this fabulous prize, all you need to do is leave a comment on this post.

So, the books are:-

Picture books (2-5 years)
Mine! Rachel Bright
Dog Loves Books, Louise Yates
Otto the Book Bear, Katie Cleminson
Thank You for Looking After Our Pets, Tim Hopgood
Little One’s Bedtime, Suzie Reeve
The Night Before Christmas, Clement C Moore
The Gruffalo’s Child, Julia Donaldson and Axel Schleffer




Chapter books
Daisy and the Trouble with Life, Kes Gray
‘Monster Madness’, Guy Bass
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, Frank Cottrell Boyce




And if you want an EXTRA chance to win this goody bookbag, then:-

  • follow @tescomagazine on Twitter.   They are giving further bags of books away, watch for their twitter notifications.
  • like the Babbleabout facebook page.

For these extra entries to count, you will need to leave an extra comment on this post saying what extra action you took  (e.g. I liked the Babbleabout facebook page).   So that’s one comment on this post FOR EACH action taken.   The more comments the more chances to win!!!!

Terms and conditions
This competition is only open to UK residents over the age of 16.
Random.org will be used to select a number which we will then match to the corresponding comment entry on this post.
The competition will close at midnight (UK time) on Wednesday, 10th November, 2011 and the winner will be announced on Thursday 11th November, 2011, here on www.babbleabout.co.uk.   Good luck everyone.

Posted in Age 0-2, Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Bass,Guy, Bright, Rachel, Cleminson, Katie, Cottrell Boyce, Frank, Donaldson, Julia, Gray, Kes, Hopgood, Tim, Moore, Clement C, Reeve, Suzi | Tagged | 199 Comments

Children’s Books – Watch Before You Buy at Tesco Magazine Kids’ Book Club




Tesco Magazine Kids’ Book Club are launching a new series of story-telling videos – a great way to watch before you buy.  All the new story-time videos have been read by leading actors such as Alison Steadman, Caroline Quentin and Meera Syal and are set to produce lots of chuckles from kids and parents alike.   The stories range from beautifully illustrated picture books (see above), to young readers and hilarious extracts from chapter books for older kids (see below).   There’s a story to engage boys, girls from 2-12 years and above.   Anything to kick-start a love of reading, be it story-telling videos, interactive applications or Kindles, is good in my book.





Posted in Age 2-4, Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Bass,Guy, Bright, Rachel, Cleminson, Katie, Cottrell Boyce, Frank, Donaldson, Julia, Gray, Kes, Hopgood, Tim, Moore, Clement C, Reeve, Suzi, Yates, Louise | Leave a comment

5 children’s picture books that gently touch upon friendship, acceptance, separation and the value of not having it all

Image copyright Yvonne Keen, Babbleabout

Few of us escape experiencing difficulties or upsets along the way.   It can be during these times that we learn the most about life, ourselves and what is important although this isn’t always easy.  And for children, it must be especially difficult and confusing as they are not armed with understanding, emotional maturity and wisdom that come with growing up.   Stories help, a lot.  Which is why I’ve put together this group of books

The Boy Who Grew Flowers, written by Jen Wojtowicz, illustrated by Steve Adams.   Jen Wojtowicz dedicates this book to her brother, Wally, “because you were there to show me that what makes us different is what makes us wonderful”.  We have read and re-read this book over and over again because of its uplifting and heart-warming tale about the value of acceptance.    Rink is a very special boy who, at every full moon, grows flowers all over his body.   “He was shy and quiet and different from the other children, so the teacher gave him a seat at the back of the room and did not bother with him.  As for the children, they had all heard rumours about Rink’s strange relatives, so they stayed a safe distance from him”.   Then Rink meets Angelina, a girl with her own secret, and together they find ways to help each other and their lives are changed forever.  Adams’ illustrations are stunning and beautifully support the story.  Delightful.   Age 5+

Look What I’ve Got! by Anthony Browne    I love Sam, the main character in this book.   I don’t like Jeremy, the other main character.   But then you have to wonder why it is that Jeremy acts the way he does (is it all his fault?).    Jeremy goes round with his nose in the air, showing off about all the stuff he has – a new bicycle, a pirate outfit, an ENORMOUS bag of lollipops.   He never shares but he always gets what he deserves (but not in the way he expects!).   Sam, on the other hand, is kind, friendly, happy in his own skin and very patiently rescues Jeremy from his scrapes.  The lesson here – happiness does not come from what you have but from who you are and how you are with the people around you.   Age 4+

Those Shoes, written by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones    As parents we constantly struggle getting the message across that there is a world of difference between wanting something and needing something.   And we are not helped by the constant bombardment from advertising on television directed at children and the peer pressure out on the playground.   Jeremy (yes, another Jeremy) is desperate to have those shoes – the ones with black high-tops, two white stripes, perfect shape.  Everyone at school has them.  But he can’t – his Grandma simply can’t afford them.  So Jeremy and his Grandma try the charity shops and eventually find a pair that Jeremy squeezes his feet into (they are way too small).  They really hurt his feet.  And then Jeremy notices someone else who might need his shoes more than him.  A powerful lesson about wants versus needs, particulary pertinent in today’s economic times.  Age 5+

Melrose and Croc, Friends for Life, by Emma Chichester Clark   Best friends Melrose and Croc remind each other what it is that they like about each other, ‘”You can do somersaults!”, said Little Green Croc.  “And you can draw aeroplanes!” said Melrose.’ Then one day Little Green Croc laments, “I wish I were more like you.”  “But you are you, and I am me….” said Melrose…”   A really touching story about what makes us and our friends special, unique and loveable.   Age 3+

Mum and Dad Glue, written by Kes Gray, illustrated by Lee Wildish   It’s no good.  No matter how hard he looks, a little boy can’t find the right glue at the glue shop to stick his Mum and Dad back together.   He is rescued by the kind, lady shopowner who offers him lovely words of advice.   He leaves the shop with no glue but with this message, “But there’s one thing to remember, and this should mean a lot.   My parents may be broken, but their love for me is not”.   The gently, rhyming text speaks about life belonging in a contemporary family and is accompanied by warm, colourful illustrations.   Age 5+



Posted in Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Boelts, Maribeth, Browne, Anthony, Chichester Clark, Emma, Gray, Kes, Wojtowicz, Jen | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

5 Children’s Books Set During the Second World War (Plus Links to Teaching Resources)

Image copyright Yvonne Keen, babbleabout.co.uk

















War is not an easy or straightforward subject to talk about with children.  War is never simple, never black and white.    The stories featured here are told through the eyes of children caught up in a war caused by grown-ups but felt by everyone.  The stories speak of innocence and wondering.   In Now, Felix watches Nazi soldiers flinging around and burning all the books from his orphanage library.   But it’s OK thinks Felix “I get it…..Mother Minka was complaining to us library monitors only last week that the library was very messy and needed a tidy-up….[t]hey’ve reorganised the library and now they’re burning the books that are left over”.   And in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Bruno, the lonely son of a concentration camp commandant, wonders at all the children over the other side of the fence and yearns to join them.  The stories also speak of courage and determination.   In The Silver Sword, we follow the perilous journey of four children across war-torn Poland to Switzerland in search of their parents, where every day is a struggle to survive.  And in The Machine Gunners, we experience daily life for Chas McGill and his gang as they collect war souvenirs in between nightly German bombing raids

Once by Morris Gleitzman Morris Gleitzman says he was inspired to write Once, Then and Now from reading the stories, diaries, letters and memories of those who lived at the time of the Holocaust. Once is the story of Felix, a young boy who runs away from an orphanage in Poland to search for his Mum and Dad. Instead, he finds and befriends a little orphan called Zelda, whose Father wore a Nazi uniform. Throughout the story, Felix describes events exactly how he sees them but interprets them as a young, innocent boy (as you would expect him to). Therefore, he doesn’t always understand fully what is actually taking place. And yet the reader does. This makes the story incredibly moving. Age 10+

Then by Morris Gleitzman Then continues the story of Felix and Zelda who are taken in by Genia, a farmer’s wife, living alone. She gives the children new Polish identities. Then the Nazis come. Be prepared for a harrowing ending but done with such beauty and simplicity of language and again seen through the eyes of a ten year old boy – “Oh. Oh no.” Age 10+

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Bryne   Bruno’s father is very high up in the German Army.   The ‘Fury’ assigns him a new job, commandant of a concentration camp.  So Bruno and his family have to move from their five-storey house in Berlin (with servants) to a new home, leaving all his friends and everything familiar behind.   Bruno feels hard done by, miserable and very lonely.    As days pass, he begins to wonder at the people in the striped pyjamas living on the other side of the fence and his boredom and curiosity gets the better of him.  He sets off to explore.   After much walking, Bruno sees a speck which turns out to be a boy and who becomes a friend he meets at the same spot along the fence almost every day.  The conversations of the two boys reveal their childhood innocence and naivety (especially Bruno’s).   Here’s an example “Are there many other boys over there?” asks Bruno.   “Hundreds,” said Shmuel.  Bruno’s eyes opened wide.  “Hundreds?’ he said, amazed.  “That’s not fair at all.  There’s no one to play with on this side of the fence.  Not a single person.”  “We don’t play,” said Shmuel.  Watch out for a killer punch in the final pages.   Age 10+

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier    Written by a schoolteacher shortly after the Second World War ended and who knew the landscape of Europe well, this story tells of the remarkable journey four children make from the ruins of Warsaw in Poland to Switzerland as they struggle to search for their parents.   The children’s father, Joseph Balicki, has escaped a prison camp in southern Poland and tries and fails to find his children amongst Warsaw’s ruins.  He does find Jan though, an orphan with whom Joseph entrusts a silver sword and a message for his children (for them to make their way to their grandparent’s home in Switzerland).   Jan and the Balicki children meet up and here begins their perilous journey to safety.   An amazing insight into life in war-torn Europe – life carrying on under incredible hardship and deprivation.   Age 8+

The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall     Chas McGill is making the most of life in Garmouth, a town in the north of England, bombed almost nightly by the Germans.  After each raid, he scours the town for war souvenirs hoping to get the best collection amongst his schoolfriends.  Then he stumbles across a machine gun in the debris of a German bomber which ignites his idea for a fortress of his own.   The writing depicts the grim reality of life in a British town subjected to constant threats from German bombers – the frustration of running for the shelter just as tea is served (another wasted meal of rationed food); the dog-tiredness of the grown-ups (balancing the day job and night-warden duties); the emotional neglect of many children as the adults that remain struggle to maintain something of normal life.   It’s no wonder that Chas and his friends find solace in their own underground shelter.    Age 12+

Links to teaching resources covering the Second World War

Imperial War Museum

BBC – History: World War Two

BBC – Primary History – World War Two








Posted in Age 8-10, Bryne, John, Gleitzman, Morris, Pre-teen, Serrailler, Ian, Teenage, Westall, Robert | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments