Books that teach

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A couple of weeks’ ago, I came across an inspirational blog post by English teacher Andrew Tharby who advocated using a text, in his case Jack London’s ‘White Fang’ as a benchmark of brilliant writing, which pupils could learn from and refer back to. His students evaluated how the author used tone, sentence structure and description to produce truly engaging prose. Then he asked them to emulate this in their own writing.

Examples of students’ pieces are posted on the blog and the results are very impressive. Andrew proudly writes that almost all of the pupils, “worked slowly, diligently and, in many cases, with the care and attention of artists.”

I realised that this was a very clever way to teach a particular skill with the use of literature. Of course, English is the obvious subject choice, but it got me thinking about how far the use of literary fiction could be stretched to support learning in different subjects.

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Today I finished reading Anne Booth’s incredible ‘Girl with a white dog,’ which links the life of a teenage girl, Jessie, in a modern-day English village to that of her grandmother during the Second World War. Told in a voice to which all young people could relate, it tracks Jessie’s concerns about history not repeating itself. From the notes at the end of the book, I could tell that Anne did extensive research into her novel to ensure its historical accuracy.

‘Girl with a white dog’ would be a great book for students to read whilst studying the Second World War, as it brings the subject to life in an accessible manner – something which many textbooks fail to do. Moreover, it highlights the ongoing relevance of the subject to modern life.

Exploring the idea further, how better to learn about different countries than by reading some great travel fiction? For younger readers, the ‘This is…’ series by Miroslav Sasek is a great way of learning about the world.

I think it’s important for parents and teachers to encourage children to learn in different ways. Those who are already avid readers will definitely take to Andrew’s methods, but even those who aren’t might find that they learn better through the literary route…

Celebrating World Book Day

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Every year World Book Day brings up a range of funny and often excruciating memories from my time at primary school, when we were always encouraged to dress up as our favourite children’s book character. One of the most memorable was when, aged 9, I decided that I wanted to be Pippi Longstocking for the day and ordered my mother to dye my mousy brown hair ginger. Sadly, she picked up a bottle of semi-permanent dye and failed to notice that it required at least 20 washes to come out.

But in all seriousness, World Book Day is a great annual campaign to get children interested in reading. It was designated by UNESCO as, and is marked in over 100 countries around the globe. This year it’s taking place on 6th March and there are already some great activities being planned in schools around the country – many much more exciting than just dressing up. On the Guardian Teacher Network, there are activity packs for nursery, primary and secondary schools which include ideas such as organising a sponsored ‘read-a-thon’ or acting out a scene from a favourite classic.

The World Book Day website includes all of the day’s featured authors, whose books are available for just £1: David Melling, Hello, Hugless Douglas!; Emily Gravett, Little Book Day Parade; Jim Smith, I Am Not a Loser; Jill Murphy, Fun with the Worst Witch; Lauren St John, The Midnight Picnic are just a few. If you click here, you can also contribute your own ideas for ways to promote classroom reading and reading for pleasure. There are already some great thoughts up there.

The Reading Agency has created a great pack specifically for World Book day, which includes some great activities such as making a scrapbook out of your favourite book, putting together a book quiz or playing a game of guess the book charades. There are also some great tips about running children’s reading clubs.

In Wales, Olympic Gold medallist Jade Jones is one of the Welsh 2014 World Book Day champions. Over 15,000 posters promoting the day are being distributed to schools, colleges and bookshops across the country in the run-up to 6th March.

The Biggest Book Show on Earth is included in the line-up of events and is due to tour the country in in the first two weeks of March. Some of the authors mentioned above will be giving their hints and tips on different aspects of writing and illustration. Talks will include David Melling’s ‘How do you decide what a character looks like?’ and Lauren St. John’s ‘How do you bring your imagination to life?’ It is also available in a pre-recorded format which you can watch online. For more details click here – well worth watching for all aspiring authors, not just school-aged ones!

Death in children’s fiction

It features in many of the books that have dominated children’s bestseller lists over the past few years – The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and the Maze Runner trilogies all contain it in abundance. But how much should death be present in children’s fiction? And is it OK that at times it is almost brushed over as we are so keen to move onto the next action point in the story?

Winston’s Wish, the childhood bereavement charity, recently released its findings that every 22 minutes a child in Britain is bereaved of a parent, which equates to 24,000 newly bereaved children each and every year. It’s a subject that is difficult to deal with for both the teachers and friends of the affected child, because bereavement is a subject that isn’t commonly spoken about between children.

I would argue that the inclusion of the death of a loved one in children’s books is therefore important, because, if nothing more, it demonstrates to a bereaved child that others have gone through similar emotions. At the same time it can help its peers to understand their situation and hopefully to react to it more appropriately.  

Certainly, books such as Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls and Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece both tackle loss in a poignant way, devoting a lot of attention to the changing nature of the protagonist’s emotions.

You then get into the tricky territory of books in which death is prevalent and the plot is so action-packed that there isn’t time to dwell on the emotions that it generates amongst those that remain. I completely understand why the authors have presented it in the way they have – the narrative wouldn’t work if you slowed it down to examine the grief that follows death. But I feel that it’s important to at least acknowledge it. James Dashner does this very effectively in the first book of the Maze Runner, in which the protagonist Thomas, continues to think about his friend Chuck, long after he has died.

But however well described the reaction to death, most narratives tell only a small part of the story. All too often, dying in fiction is connected with a sense of heroism or a desire for avengement, whilst in reality this is rarely the case, as grief takes over the lives of those closest to the person that has passed away. Of course, there’s no golden solution other than to encourage children to read widely and in doing so, engage with the subject from a range of very different angles.

Query letters to agents… (pet hates)

I watched a great film at the weekend – About Time directed by Richard Curtis. Have you seen it? If not, I would definitely recommend it, although I warn you that it’s terribly sad!

The idea for this post came from a moment in the film in which the main female character talks about her job as a reader for a literary agency and mentions the vast quantities of manuscripts that cross her desk. Of course, she’s an entirely fictional character (who is magically lucky enough to end up working with Ian McEwan), but it made me think of the hours and hours of time that most writers put into their manuscript and the relatively little time that is given to them by readers.

So what can you do to give yourself a better chance of jumping out of the slushpile (aside from the obvious answer of writing a cracking unputdownable best seller that will make every reader fall in love with it from the very first line)? Well, you can write a great introduction to it – a query letter, if you will. Easier said than done? Yes, but here are some words of wisdom which I’ve gathered from agents at literary events, which might prove helpful.

  1. Make sure that you always use the first name of the agent that you’re pitching to. You have a much better chance of an agent warming to your work, if your query is directed to them specifically. It sounds obvious, but do your research on agents within individual agencies and tell them why you think your book will appeal to them specifically – e.g. ‘I noticed on your website that you have an interest in YA historical fiction…’
  2. Never, never mailmerge – there’s nothing worse than an agent seeing that you’ve done a generic query letter and just mailmerged in the names of different agents/agencies. And if something goes wrong with the mailmerge, you will have ruined your chance with all the agents you’re querying, not just the one!
  3. Sense-check what you’ve written – make sure that you don’t have any obvious clangers. Several agents I’ve met have said that they’ve had email queries from writers who have said that they’ve ‘attached an SAE’ – don’t be that person.
  4. Make sure you have all the right attachments in the format in which they’ve asked for them – every agency is different. Some want the first 10 pages, others the first 3 chapters or anything in between. Follow their instructions carefully.
  5. Remember to include your address and contact details, particularly if you’re submitting by post!
  6. Say a bit about yourself, but keep it relevant and related to your writing career. The query should be mainly about your book, not about you as a person.
  7. Be succinct and to the point when describing your work – many agents say that they are constantly ‘battling against the vague’ and find it incredibly frustrating to be merely told ‘I hope you enjoy reading my novel.’
  8. Don’t be super humble, but also don’t go the other way – Don’t tell the agent that your work is similar to ‘x author’. They want to judge that for themselves.
  9. Don’t say that your kids/partner/friends love your book and therefore imply that it must be great – sadly the above mentioned people are likely to be very biased…
  10. Check all your spelling and grammar!

Do you have any other tips to share?

My favourite poems for children

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So a lot of this blog to date has been devoted to my reviews of great/hilarious/uplifting children’s fiction, but sometimes what you need is something a little shorter, something that can be digested whole in just a couple of minutes and leave an impression on you for the rest of the day. A survey on reading for children published by The Independent today drew attention to the fact that many parents shorten the stories that they read to their children. It could be lack of time, it could be that our attention spans are getting shorter…but I hope you can allow yourselves a snippet of time to read some of my favourite children’s poems. Do you have any that you feel should be added to the list?

A Silly Poem

Said Hamlet to Ophelia I’ll draw a sketch of thee,

What kind of pencil shall I use? 2B or not 2B?

Spike Milligan

 I had a little nut-tree

I had a little nut-tree,

Nothing would it bear

I searched in all its branches,

But not a nut was there.

 
‘Oh, little tree,’ I begged,

‘Give me just a few.’

The little tree looked down at me

And whispered, ‘Nuts to you.’

Roald Dahl

Now We Are Six

When I was one, I had just begun.

When I was two, I was nearly new.

When I was three, I was hardly me.

When I was four, I was not much more.

When I was five, I was just alive.

But now I am six, I’m as clever as clever

So I think I’ll be six now and forever.

A.A. Milne

Valentine

Chipmunks jump, and greensnakes slither.

Rather burst than not be with her.

Bluebirds fight, but bears are stronger.

We’ve got fifty years or longer.

Hoptoads hop, but hogs are fatter.

Nothing else but us can matter.

Donald Hall

 

History and crime in children’s fiction – the perfect partnership?

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I started 2014 with the decision that I wanted to read more children’s fiction with a historical setting. One of my favourite reads of last year was Christopher Edge’s Twelve Minutes to Midnight, set in the dark streets of Victorian London. I’d particularly loved the way in which he wove together crime and history and when I got to the library, I decided that this is exactly what I wanted more of.

Crime and history have had a long and successful marriage in adult literature with recent popular works including Death comes to Pemberley by P.D. James and Half Moon Street by Anne Perry, and their stirring combination is now seeping through into children’s fiction. Below are my thoughts on what makes Twelve Minutes to Midnight so enthralling, and a review of two other brilliant works which straddle these two genres.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight – Christopher Edge

The protagonist is Penelope Tredwell, who is an orphan living in Victorian London. She has inherited a popular magazine, The Penny Dreadful, which reports on strange criminal events which are taking place across the country. Penelope is no stranger to gruesome stories, and is intrigued when she receives a letter from the governor of Bedlam, the psychiatric hospital for the mentally deranged. She finds out that a strange occurrence plays out at exactly the same time every night – the patients begin to furiously scribble on all surfaces that they can get their hands on. What they write, later comes true in reality. Penelope has to solve the mystery before the world is plunged into absolute chaos.

The Hanged Man Rises – Sarah Naughton

Like Penelope, Sarah Naughton’s protagonists are also orphans and live in Victorian London. Titus and his sister Hannah go to live with trusted Inspector Pilbury following the death of their parents. The Inspector successfully manages to capture and kill a dangerous child murderer. The problem is that the murders continue and suspicion grows amongst inhabitants of the city. Titus is faced with the task of solving the mystery of the murders in a world in which everyone is a possible suspect. I particularly loved the characterisation in this story, which almost carries connotations of Oliver Twist, with street urchins running riot and adults struggling to keep the peace.

Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders – Kate Griffin

Kate Griffin shows us a different dark face of Victorian London, ruled by opium and dodgy business. Lady Ginger is the leader of a criminal empire which is growing in its strength. She holds absolute dominion over everyone who comes into contact with her, and particularly the poor girls who are in her employment. However, she is faced with the problem of a thief who is stealing some of her girls. She is determined to catch him in the act and uses one of her boldest girls, Kitty, to seek him out at a public event, at which she is performing her very own trapeze act. Kitty must perform her task well, otherwise her brother Joey’s life will be on the line. A cracking story for slightly older readers than the previous two books.

Do you have any other recommendations that I should add to the list?

Encouraging reading for pleasure

I recently read an article on The Guardian website, which outlined the findings of a recent study on reading – results showed that reading for pleasure is more important to a child’s educational achievement than their family’s wealth or social class. But my friends who are teachers frequently stress the difficulty that they have with encouraging pupils to read – and here I don’t mean reading the set texts required by the curriculum or for an exam; I mean reading for the sheer enjoyment of it. So what more can be done to promote reading amongst children of all ages?

At the Nosy Crow conference last September, I met Tracey Corderoy, a fantastic children’s author who travels around the country organising ‘activity days’ for her young readers. She showed us how she would literally bring her stories to life by carrying costumes (allowing children to dress up as characters from her books), arts and crafts materials and other props to her interactive book days held at Waterstones around the country. The results so far have been more than encouraging – children are engaged and excited. Younger siblings often come along and get carried away in the fun of it themselves.  It would be great if more authors followed Tracy’s lead and met their readers face to face.

The National Literacy Trust does a lot of work to promote reading amongst children and adults. I’ve recently heard about their ‘paired reading’ campaign in which older children are partnered with younger or less confident readers to not only help them with reading but also share their favourite books.  I think the key issue that needs to be tackled here is the perception of frequent readers as bookworms or nerds – reading doesn’t have to be an isolated activity. Much can be done to make it sociable and fun.

The Reading Agency is another charity which coordinates Chatterbooks groups run in libraries and schools. On their website, there are tips on setting up reading groups for teenagers and details of their Instragrammer in Residence project which involve authors making inspirational videos about books of their choice – a great innovative idea!

But perhaps the most challenging task for teachers is encouraging parents to help their children with reading. Often, the parents themselves don’t enjoy reading, or aren’t sure how to spark up their child’s interest in books. The Discover Centre is a story museum which has some engaging tips to help families enjoy books. I’ve also found that children’s librarians are a great source of inspiration – an example is Janet Pamela Noble, who writes regular reviews of the latest exciting children’s fiction, absorbing both parents and children in her love of reading.

If you have any of your own tips on encouraging reading for pleasure, please share!