Friday, 2 November 2018

Poppy Field by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Michael Foreman

Poppy Field by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman

Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman have partnered with the Royal British Legion to produce this book which explains the significance of the poppy.

Poppy Field is based on the poppy's history, following one family over four generations. Young Martens knows his family's story, for it is as precious as the faded poem hanging in their home. From a poor girl comforting a grieving soldier, to an unexpected meeting of strangers, to a father's tragic death many decades after treaties were signed, war has shaped Martens's family in profound ways.

The book also includes an unabridged copy of John McCrae's poem 'In Flander's Fields' and an Afterword by the Right Revd Nigel McCulloch which explains the history of the paper poppy which is sold every year by the Royal British Legion and worn by many to honour the memory of those who in two world wars and other conflicts since have lost their lives in service to others.

The story is told by the young boy, Martens. As often happens in Morpurgo's novellas, the main narrator goes on to retell a story that has been told to him. This narrator, Marten's Grandfather, also recounts the story he has been told by his mother, Marten's great-grandmother. It is worth mentioning here that on page 27 Morpurgo does make an error and refers to Marie and Piet as being Martens's grandma and grandpa rather than his great-grandma and great-grandpa as they are referred to on all other occasions in the book. This may confuse children as they read and try to determine the relationships between the characters in the story. Nevertheless, the fact that this is a story that has been told and retold in the traditional sense emphasises the purpose of the story (the meaning of the poppy): that we should ensure that the memory of war and those who have lost their lives in service to others should be kept alive and never forgotten.

Parts of the story are quite poetic: ' lanes like ribbons running through farmland', Very few cars, Very few people.' There is also a strong reflective tone that comes through Grandpa’s narration. He doesn’t simply recount the events of his life but tells them with feelings of both loss and hope. One particular part which evokes that sense of loss is when he tells Martens about how he and his father worked the land ‘putting it to rights….This land needs healing still, Martens, still does. So much healing.’

Michael Foreman’s illustrations are beautifully subtle, using grey tones throughout. The only colour that is used is red. This is on the whole reserved for the poppies but also Martens’ Grandpa’s hat,  his Great-Grandmother’s ribbon, the cross on the first-aiders’ bags and ambulance, the soldier’s pencil, Marie’s father’s chisels, the flower’s on Marie’s dress, the bugle cords and the kite. This serves to connect the events and people of the past with those of the present in the story. The images of the poppy field also serve as a reminder of the amount of blood that was shed during those battles.

Although not factually accurate this is a touching story which does explain the significance of the poppy and why we use it as a symbol of remembrance. The Afterword provides a factually accurate account of the origin of the poppy as a symbol. A beautiful book published in time for the centenary of the end of the first World War.

Publisher: Scholastic
ISBN: 978-1-407181-42-4
Date of Publication: 2018

 Digital Resource

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Little Red by Bethan Woollvin

Little Red by Bethan Woollvin

Book Review for teachers

Little Red is a retelling of the classic fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood. However, unlike the classic version The protagonist of this story is clever and outwits the wolf leading to a very different ending. 
The wolf's intentions are revealed through the illustrations. Through discussion these can be used to develop children's prediction skills and inference.  Some parts of the story are told simply through the use of illustration rather than text, making this a multimodal text in the truest sense.

The protagonist in this story is a modern, street-wise, clever girl who does not need a 'knight in shining armour' to rescue her. As such, this makes the book perfect for looking at stereotypes in fairy tales. It could be used alongside Robert Munsch's The Paperbag Princess and Babette Cole's Princess Smartypants. All 3 of these texts take the traditional passive, vulnerable female character and turn it on its head.


Woollvin's illustrations use a limited colour palette: black, grey and red. They are bold and offer many opportunities for discussion including, prediction, inference and characterisation. 

For a list of other 'alternative' fairy tales visit The Literacy Classroom.

ISBN 978-1-4472-9140-4
Publisher: Two Hoots: Pan Macmillan
Publication Date: 2016

Friday, 22 June 2018

Billy the Kid by Michael Morpurgo

Billy the Kid by Michael Morpurgo: Book review for primary teachers.

Billy the Kid is the story of an 80 year old man whose dream was to play for Chelsea. It is told in the first person as Billy sits on a park bench watching a group of children knock a football around. As he watches them, he recalls events from his life, from fond memories of playing football with his Dad to the Second World War and its devastating effects on him and his family and his struggles when he turned to vagrancy.

The novel isn't divided into chapters. Instead each section is punctuated with a fleeting recollection and short commentary on what he observes whilst sitting on the bench. These are marked by the use of a slightly different font. This naturalistic jump between past and present may prove to be challenging for less experienced readers and thus makes the novel more suited to children aged 10+. Some of the content relating to the deaths of family members and the war also makes it more suited to older children.

As the novel is told through a series of recollections, you have two main timelines: the 'real' time timeline, ie the present, which takes place over the course of a few hours whilst the 80 year old Billy sits on the bench observing the children play football and culminating in him attending the match of his beloved Chelsea; the second is the timeline of his life which is told through the recollections. Some of the recollections are date specific as they relate to events during the Second World War. It might be useful for children to plot the two timelines in order to sequence the events as they unfold.

There are some interesting instances of foreshadowing throughout the novel. These provide opportunities to develop pupils prediction skills beyond those they have developed through their early reading, by identifying the key phrases which indicate that Billy's life is going to change. In order to predict what might happen children will need to not only use their knowledge of what has already occurred in the novel they will need to use their wider knowledge of WW II.

Billy's character arc is an interesting one to map. He develops from a happy, confident child to a lonely, sad, elderly man who gradually, once again, experiences companionship and has his love of football rekindled. Each of the changes in his personality can be mapped against specific events which occur during his life. A discussion of these points will help children understand the cause and effect nature of quality narrative. How Billy felt at the various points in his life could be explored through the use of hot-seating and thought-tracking.

The novel also raises a number of moral issues. Billy's father tells him that he 'must never go fighting in a war, any war.' Billy does try to keep his promise to his father but following the death of this brother feels the need to go and fight for his country. Later in the novel, the issues of alcohol and vagrancy are addressed both in a moving and sensitive way.

At the end of the novel we are provided with a series of author's notes which provide useful information of factual events relating the WW II. These could be researched further.

 Although football is a key feature of the book,you don't have to be a fan of football to enjoy it. It also addresses the devastating effects war has on families the lives of individuals.

The Mighty Dynamo by Kieran Crowley

The Mighty Dynamo by Kieran Crowley

Book Review for Primary Teachers

This is a brilliant read suitable for pupils in year 5 or 6. You don't have to be a fan of football to enjoy this book. The story has all the elements you'd expect of good quest story and a mystery rolled into one.

It tells the story of 12 year old Noah, whose dream is to become a professional footballer. We learn in the Prologue of the death of Noah's mother and the impact that has on his immediate family. This becomes the driving force behind his determination to play in the School's World Cup to be in with a chance of being picked up by one of the football scouts. However, the head of his school bans him from playing for the school team for something he did not do which leaves his dreams in doubt.

The story is a quest story in that the protagonist has a goal ( to play in and win the School's World Cup) and as such pupils can map the plot of the story noting the highs and lows along the way. This can then be compared with the story arcs of other quest stories to identify the common elements. Analysis of this kind requires much more sophistication than the common 'story mountain' often used in Key Stage 1 and lower Key Stage 2.

It is also a mystery story. From the moment Noah is banned from playing for the school team, readers are intrigued as to why the principal of his school made this decision. Noah also asks himself this question but as his priority is to find a way to play in the tournament he chooses to not dwell on the fact. The story is told in the third person but clearly from Noah's perspective. For this reason the reader is also forced to not dwell on the reasons for his ban. Nevertheless, it remains a constant thread all the way through the novel with fleeting references and observations which only go to heighten the intrigue. 

The novel's themes include gender stereotypes, privilege, morality, family, resilience and loyalty. 

Lexile Measure  760L
ISBN: 978-1-4472-9978-3
Publisher: MacMillan
Publication Date: 2016

Friday, 24 November 2017

Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O'Hara

Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O'Hara - Review for Primary Teachers

Hortense and the Shadow is a debut picture book from sisters Natalia and Lauren O'Hara. It is a haunting, folk-tale like story. The protagonist, Hortense, is 'kind and brave' but she is sad. She hates her shadow. It follows her everywhere she goes, does everything she does and it grows 'tall and dark/and crooked' when night falls. She believes her shadow hates her too. However, one cold night, when bandits surprise her in the woods, it's her shadow that saves her. Hortense then realises that rather than being a nuisance, her shadow is vital part of her and so, in the style of all good fairy tales, all ends happily ever after.

The story's themes ( self-esteem, self-identity and finding inner strength) are developed subtly. 
Although the story is not written in rhyming text, it certainly has a poetic feel about it. The book is marketed for children aged 5-7 years. However, the language and style of the story has a lot a potential for use in the KS 2 classroom.  The descriptions of the setting have a fairy tale quality about them 'Through the dark/and wolfish woods,/through the white and silent snow.' These could be explored not only in terms of the noun phrases and alliteration  but also the rhythm which gives them that timeless quality. Investigations which collect examples from other fairy tales (old and modern) would help develop and awareness of these features which children could then be encouraged to use in their own fairy tale composition. 

The story was inspired by stories told to the sisters by their Polish Grandmother and this is evident in the watercolour illustrations, which are reminiscent of Polish fairy tales. The buildings have the feel of Eastern Europe with onion domes, turrets and ornate furniture. There is also a slight Gothic feel with all the garden tracery and architectural embellishment. 

Hortense feels as though 'someone is watching her' and careful examination of the illustrations show that she indeed being watched, as the bandits are hidden within the wintry blue and grey illustrations. Sometimes they are easier to spot as one of them wears a red hat. Younger children will enjoy trying to spot the hidden bandit on the page.

Some of the vocabulary used throughout the book would prove challenging for most children within the targeted age range. The placing of the words on the page using 'word painting' might also prove challenging for some children. As Hortense's shadow grows, so does the size of the text. As Hortense falls down the steps the text also 'falls' down the steps. A great deal of the text is also positioned on top of the illustrations and as a result changes colour. None of these things should put you off reading this exquisite book. They make it an ideal book for sharing with children either as a class read or as a group read. They provide an abundance of opportunities to talk about the book and invite multiple readings.

Published: October 2017
Publisher: Puffin
ISBN: 978-0141374024

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Angel of Nitshill Road by Anne Fine

The Angel of Nitshill Road by Anne Fine: Review for Primary Teachers.

Anne Fine often writes about social issues and The Angel of Nitshill Road deals with the problem of bullying, making it an ideal read for anti-bullying week/month.

The story is set in school and three of the characters are being bullied by one of their peers. Penny, Mark and Marigold are miserable. Penny is rather plump, Mark's compared with a Martian and Marigold can't speak to anyone - thanks to relentless bullying from Barry Hunter. Then Celeste arrives and things begin to change. Watering the plants, polishing her desk - her whims infuriate Mr Faraway, but the classroom looks better already. Celeste atrocious at maths - she doesn't mind about it a bit, but it gives Marigold hope knowing she's not bottom of the class any more. Barry tries to bully Penny at break, but Celeste stands up for her, saying that she could lose weight any time - Penny's shocked that Celeste mentions her size, but it makes her realise things need to change. When Barry calls Mark weird, Celeste laughs in his face, asking if anyone would possibly want to be normal, if to be normal is to be like Barry. The next day, Celeste arrives with a book and a gold pen, and each and every last horrible word or taunt is entered in the book, with witnesses. The children begin to take control of what's happening to them and Mark just makes a joke of it when Barry puts a cardboard box on his head. When Celeste has to leave, she gives the book to Mr Faraway who is first astonished, and then realises he too was silent about what was going on. Celeste steps out, but not before astonishing everyone by leaving the gold pen with Barry Hunter.

The story will facilitate discussions which explore why people bully, the effects on those being bullied and ways in which to stop bullying.

The story begins with a 'reflective' statement Until the angel came, there were three terribly unhappy children at Nitshill Road School: Penny, Mark and Marigold. The rest of the first chapter introduces the reader to the three unhappy characters and the perpetrator of the bullying, Barry Hunter. This first chapter is particularly important in helping the reader understand  each of characters from a range of different viewpoints. 

Anne Fine uses quite a few examples of simile throughout the book. By paying close attention to specific examples, children can examine how the meaning is enhanced through the author's choice of words and phrases. 

Shortlisted for Carnegie Medal, 1993
Shortlisted for Federation of Children's Book Groups Award, 1993

AR book level 3.9
lexile 630L
Interest Level 8-10

Published by Egmont
First Published 1992
ISBN 978-1-4052-3320-0

Friday, 20 October 2017

Vulgar the Viking and the Rock Cake Raiders by Odin Redbeard, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Vulgar the Viking and the Rock Cake Raiders by Odin Redbeard, illustrated by Sarah Horne. Review for Primary Teachers.

This first story in a series of stories about a young Viking, Vulgar, is a book that will appeal to children aged 8+. It would make an ideal addition to a year 3/4 class library, a fun class read to accompany a topic on the Vikings and as it offers so much potential to develop children’s comprehension skills, it would also work well as a guided read.

Vulgar wants to be a Viking, a real Viking, because, unfortunately, his people seem to have renounced their old ways and become a rather boring bunch. Vulgar reminisces fondly upon their history of rampage and pillaging. Vulgar has great hopes to learn more about it on History Day, but when this turns out to be a huge disappointment, Vulgar decides to take matters into his own hands: with the help of best friend Knut and hanger-on Princess Freya, he hatches a plan to do a little bit of looting of their own. Their target: the bakery. Their coveted treasure: rock cakes!

The plot is straightforward and linear in structure. It is organised into seven chapters and follows Vulgar’s quest to become ‘a real Viking’. As such, children could analyse the structure, identifying the ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ and comparing how the plot of this quest is similar to others. The opening is very atmospheric. ‘The cockerel’s cry tore through the early morning air.’

The main character is a hero that will appeal to young readers. He is a bit of a rascal who has a thirst for adventure. These key traits are identified through a mixture of action and dialogue in the first chapter.

The other two main characters in the story are introduced in chapter two. Knut, Vulgar’s best friend, is a foil for Vulgar, providing opportunities for comparison activities. Princess Freya Gold-Hair proves to be an interesting character and it would be good to map the children’s changing views of her. The three friends find themselves in unlikely and comical situations; with a few gross elements such as eating bogeys and juggling elk poo added to the mix.

The story is illustrated throughout with black and white drawings. The illustration of Vulgar’s mum in chapter 1 helps to emphasise the vastness of the figure that Vulgar sees in the corner and the darkness of the room. Likewise, the drawing of the cellar adds to the atmosphere of the scene as the two young Vikings creep down the staircase. The illustrations add to the overall “naughty but funny” atmosphere of the story. They also break the text, making it more manageable for pupils who are fluent readers but need to develop their reading stamina.

Children who have enjoyed listening to Cressida Cowell’s 'How to Train a Dragon' series but who are not quite ready for the density of the text will find this an enjoyable book to read.

After reading the story children might also enjoy making rock cakes. Hopefully, they won’t be as hard as the ones made by Ivar!

Published by: Nosy Crow
Publication Date: 2012
ISBN: 978-0-85763-056-8

Lexile Level: 690L