Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Revenge of Tirpitz by M. L. Sloan

The Revenge of Tirpitz by M. L. Sloan is a thrilling WW II story about a boy's role in the sinking of the warship Tirpitz. It would make an exciting class read for any year 6 class who are studying WW II, looking at 'time slip' novels or adventure stories.

The book cleverly interweaves stories from two different time periods and places: Norway, in 1944 and Shetland in 2014.

The opening chapter of the boook is pacey and launches the reader straight into the drama and intrigue of the novel. The descriptive language creates a real sense of atmosphere and many passages would be ideal for teachers to explore author's use of language for the reading content domain ' explain how meaning is enhanced through choice of words and phrases' and as models for children's own writing.

The language and vocabulary used would be challenging for most year 6 pupils and therefore makes it an ideal text for developing vocabulary in context. Each of the chapters is fairly short and as such can be easily read during a single guided reading session.

The story itself ties in with real historical events. It introduces the reader to 'The Shetland Bus', which was the nickname given to a clandestine special operations group that made a permanent link between Shetland, Scotland and Germany-occupied Norway from 1941 until the Occupation of Norway by Nazi Germany ended on 8th May 1945. Sloan has carefully researched the sinking of the Tirpitz and the detail provided will provide an excellent starting point for additional research. There is a website where information can be found ( A google search will throw up numerous links to information about the Tirpitz.

The characters are well developed. There are a number of issues raised through the friendships that emerge, which could form the basis of some very interesting and thought-provoking class and group discussions.

The ending is brilliantly satisfying, and ties up the story nicely. 

Sloan provides a useful glossary which defines some of the Shetland dialect. This could be used as a starting point for discussion about Standard English and dialect. In addition, includes some 'author's notes' about the inspiration for the story and the research she undertook.

All in all, this is an exciting, brilliantly written page-turner of a book and one that I would recommend without hesitation to all teachers in Year 6!

Advisory Note

There is one single use of the word 'crap' on page 87. Other than that there is no language or content that would cause any issue in the book. 


Thursday, 29 September 2016

Cool as a Cucumber by Michael Morpurgo

Cool as a Cucumber by Michael Morpurgo is a short chapter book about a boy called Peter who discovers something unusual whilst digging in the school vegetable patch and becomes something of a hero.

This title is one from the Walker Book's Sprinters titles.These are Ideal for helping to build confidence in young children who are learning to read alone. 

The storyline is simple to follow and is organised into manageable chapters which makes it ideal for those you have just become independent readers and are beginning to develop their stamina by reading short chapter books. It also contains a number of black and white illustrations which makes it a good transition book for those moving from picture books to more lengthy chapter books. There are also a number of items of vocabulary which most children in year 3 should be able to decode independently but they may not be familiar with in terms of comprehension. This makes it a particularly useful text for developing 'working out the meaning of words from the context'.

The story is told in the first person by the protagonist, Peter. The climax of the story is believable and is likely to appeal to boys as well as girls. There have been many similar stories recounted in the press and teachers could find some of these on the internet and use them to compare the story with one that has happened in real life.

Peter behaves like a real child, the school seems like a real school and the events aren't totally fantastical. This could make it easier for children to engage with, because it's not very different from their own lives. In addition to encouraging children in independent reading it could be used for inspiration in creative writing with students imagining what other things they might find in the school garden if they just dig deep enough.

The structure of the story is clear and as such makes a good text to use with children in years 2/3 who are beginning to analyse the books they read in terms of structure. Characterisation is developed through both speech and action and is done in a such a way that again children who are newly independent can nurture their skills of inference. Peter's thoughts and feelings do change throughout the book and this would be a good focus for study.

The climax of the story involves the emergency services and the media and would make a good stimulus for both drama and writing. 

Reading Activities £2

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston

 'I am a Child of Books. I come from a world of stories. And upon my imagination, I float.' These are the opening lines of this beautiful picture book, which follows a young girl as she takes a little boy on an adventure by opening his imagination. As they journey along, she teaches him that you don't need to travel the world to have adventures, you can travel anywhere you like with the aid of a book, as books are the key to letting your imagination flow freely.

Its very simple plot is very effective. The story itself is told through very few words. However, the artwork on every page is an explosion of words from a range of children's literature, which are cleverly presented to create the sea, clouds, mountains and monsters.

The written story and the illustrations visually take you on a journey. The passages have been carefully selected to echo each illustration. The sea is created from texts about journeys: The Voyage of Dr Doolittle, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels (which isn't a children's book but Jeffers and Winston can be forgiven for that).

The little girl leads the boy down the path of adventure which is created from the words from Alice's Adveentures in Wonderland. They climb the mountains of Neverland and enter the caves of Kidnapped before playing in the fairy tale woods and extracts from Rapunzel form the rope from the castle. Many of the illustrations use muted colours but interestingly and significantly the house where the little girl lives is bold and bright. The 2 page spread which features the words ' For this is our world we've made from stories.' is the most colourful of the whole book emphasising the bright, colourful world of stories and books.

It is the perfect book to launch a school book week or reading challenge. Pupils in upper key stage 2 could be challenged to identify all the titles featured. (Apparently there are 42 classic books and lullabies in total - I haven't spotted them all yet!).

It  would also be interesting to explore the 'word painting' that is used. Children could find appropriate passages from books they have read  to create their own images of worlds they have encountered and visited through story. Applications such as wordle , tagul and tagxedo would be useful in acheiving this.

In the back slip of the dustcover, Jeffers and Winston state 'From the very beginning we both wanted to create a tale that celebrates our own love of classic children's literature with an added modern twist. For us it was about capturing some of the magic tha happens when you first get lost in a timeless story, but doing it in a way that readers haven't seen before.' They certainly have done that.

Publisher: Walker Books
Publication Date: Sept 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4063-5831-5


Friday, 24 June 2016

The Story Shop. Stories for Literacy. Compiled by Nikki Gamble

The Story Shop is a collection of more than 60 short stories. It contains myths, legends, folk tales, fables, trickster stories, humourous stories, adventure stories, mystery stories, historical stories, fantasy, science fiction, stories with familiar settings, stories that raise issues ...all kinds of complete stories for use during English lessons and would serve as a good introduction to a variety of authors to promote reading for pleasure throughout Key Stage 2.  Authors range from Aesop and Arthur Ransome to  the very best for today's children, including Anthony Horowitz, Morris Gleitzman, Alexander McCall Smith, Michael Rosen, Michael Morpurgo, Philippa Pearce, Jan Mark, Jeremy Strong, Adele Geras, Paul Stewart, Malorie Blackman, Jamila Gavin and Beverley Naidoo.

It would make an valuable classroom resource, providing models for children's own writing in a variety of genres and styles as well as a resource for guided and shared reading where teachers and children can explore together the structure and features of a whole range of fiction genres. Nikki Gamble, author of Exploring Children's Literature, has used her expertise as a literacy consultant, university lecturer and now independent children's bookseller and reading consultant  to compile this selection. 

All of the stories are worth reading in their own right. It is designed to open reader's eyes and minds to the range of writing available. It's a chance to dip a toe into previously untried literary waters. This collection contains something even for the most reluctant reader. 

Publisher:Hodder Children's Books
Publication Date: 2006
ISBN: 0340911042

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Littlest Owl by Caroline Pitcher and illustrated by Tina Macnaughton

The Littlest Owl by Caroline Pitcher and illustrated by Tina Macnaughton is a picture book story about the trials and tribulations of Four, the youngest of four baby owls, who is 'so dumpy and small, a downy white ball.'

His three older siblings snatch the food before he can get to it and trample on him causing his Mum some degree of concern. Soon, the older owlets learn how to fly but Four can't quite manage it no matter how hard he tries.

Despite being smaller than his siblings, he doesn't give up. Like many younger brothers and sisters he wants to be just like his older siblings. This is something that children who have older brothers and sisters will probably relate to.

It would make a lovely read-aloud story for early years/foundation stage and has the clear message that we all develop at different rates. Children from year 1 up, who have successfully mastered phase 5 phonics, will be able to read the text independently. There are some items of vocabulary which children may be unfamiliar with and for that reason it would work well as a guided reading text.

Guided reading would also be an opportunity for teachers to scaffold children's emerging skill of inference. The character of each of the owlets is developed through the dialogue and discussions about how this informs us about their feelings will be instrumental in securing children's comprehension of the text.

The dialogue could also be used as a model for children's own writing. Pitcher makes use of a whole host of synonyms for said which children could collect. 

The illustrations complement the text. The owl's home glows with warm, golden tones. These contrast with the dark blue tones of the night sky.  The storm is depicted in greeny-grey blue tones and the ferocity of the storm is indicated by the sheer movement of the leaves in the trees and the swirls in the dark foreboding sky. The contrast from the warm, cozy glow of the Owls' home at the beginning of the story to the dark, menacing tones at the end would be good to use as a stimulus for discussing setting.

It would also be useful to read this alongside Martin Waddell's Owl Babies. Both are stories about a family of baby owls and whilst the themes and plots are different there are some similarities which could be explored.

Published: 2008
Published by:Little Tiger Press
ISBN: 978-1-84506-622-2

Thursday, 12 May 2016

There's a Dragon in my Backpack by Tom Nicoll and illustrated by SarahHorne

There's a Dragon in my Backpack by Tom Nicoll is a short, action-packed, chapter book illustrated by Sarah Horne. It is ideal for the newly independent reader who is developing reading stamina and making the transition from picture books to chapter books. It is the second story about Eric and his pet dragon, Pan. However, you don't have to read the first story in the series to be able to fully appreciate and enjoy this book as it reads well as a stand-alone story.

It is told in the first person by 9 year old Eric Crisp. Eric has a secret pet: a mini-dragon called Pan. Pan's thirst for adventure gets Eric into all sorts of scrapes and children will enjoy reading about the lengths Eric has to go to in order to keep Pan a secret. He loves his dragon despite this and is willing to put himself in danger in order to rescue Pan.

As a class/group read, teachers can explore characterisation. There are clear contrasts between the good and the bad characters, whilst at the same time some interesting similarities. Both Eric, the loveable protagonist, and Toby, the loathsome neighbour tell lies. Exploring why despite this, we still love Eric but detest Toby, teachers will be able to further children's comprehension skills beyond the simple distinctions between good and evil.

The story structure is a relatively simple one which is chronologically sequenced over the course of two days. This means that children will be able to comprehend the events with ease. However, the comprehension of the characters will require pupils to focus more on their developing skills of inference. Nicoll utilises the writing technique, often referred to as 'show not tell' throughout the book. The three friends, Eric, Jayden and Min all have their own individual character traits which can be explored through an examination of their dialogue. Likewise, later on in the book when the three friends meet Emily from the La-Di-Da school, children will need to use their inference skills to know that she doesn't believe their story about what is in the backpack and also why she doesn't believe it. 

It would also be interesting to focus on Toby as a character. Eric's views of him change as the story progresses. This makes it a good text to use when introducing children to the idea that character traits don't remain static. They are influenced by the events that occur.

Horne's black and white illustrations throughout the book break up the text making it a good transition text from picture books to chapter books. Children won't be daunted by the number of words on the page. Likewise, there are a number of 'notes/factfiles' which Eric has produced that serve the same purpose as well as providing additional information. The illustrations will also support children who still find it difficult to visualise a story or have no prior experience of some of the settings/events in the story. For example, many children will not have had experience of or know anyone who attends a private school and the illustration will help those children visualise the description of Toby's uniform.

Ideal to use as a class/group text to develop children's comprehension skills in particular inference. It would also make a good text to model various writing techniques or as a Talk4Writing stimulus. The book will appeal to both boys and girls alike.  The fact that the protagonist is a boy and there is a great deal of humour and action in the story means in particular that it ticks all the boxes that have been identified in research about motivating boys to read and this age group has proven to be the crucial age group in developing life-long readers.

Publisher: Little Tiger Press
Publication Date: May 2016
ISBN: 978-1-84715-676-1

Monday, 9 May 2016

Fleeced by Julia Wills

Fleeced by Julia Wills is the first novel in a trilogy about the ram who once was the proud owner of the famous 'golden fleece'. However, it doesn't really fall into the category of historical novel. It is actually a modern day adventure story full of drama, suspense and humour.

We are first introduced to characters from the Greek Underworld: ghosts from the Ancient Greek Myths. Aries (a ram) is disgruntled because Jason has stolen his precious Golden Fleece. He siezes the opportunity to return to Earth in an attempt to retrieve his fleece and he and his friend Alex are transported to modern day London. From this point on, the story contains all the elements you would expect from quest: drama, suspense, excitement and intrigue.

As a long novel, (almost 400 pages) it would suit most pupils in years 5 and 6. However, some pupils who are developing their reading stamina in year 4 would also enjoy reading this independently. Teachers may feel that a novel of this length is too long to read as a class text. Nevertheless, I would recommend it for individual/group reading. Each individual chapter is relatively short and fast paced. 

The main theme of the novel is friendship and loyalty. Throughout the story, the close friendship of Alex and Aries is explored, in particular Aries' perception of friendship. Pupils will be able to track how his character develops and pinpoint events which are critical to that development. If the text is used for group/guided reading, the discussions focusing on Aries' development would provide useful evidence for teacher assessment. 

The structure of the story is a quest and as you would expect, there are many events along the journey: some positive, others negative. Many of the Greek Myths themselves are quests and it would be interesting to encourage pupils to compare and contrast the structure of this modern day quest with one from Greek Mythology, in particular Jason and the Golden Fleece. Pupils could also make links with other contemporary stories about characters from mythology such as the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordon.

Julia Wills' style is interesting. The book is written in the third person and the author takes on the role of the omniscient narrator. However, rather than being the anonymous, unseen narrator, she becomes a character in the story. One who provides a commentary on events, useful snippets of information and humorous asides. You really do get the feeling that she is personally telling the story to you.

The detailed descriptions help the reader visualize the different settings. One of my favourites is that of Medea's shop. Although detailed, the descriptions aren't long and drawn out and do not distract from the pace of the story at all. Even, if the text is not being used as a class novel, any of these descriptions of setting can be used as models for writing. Other descriptions, such as in chapter 25 not only help you visualize the scene but also help you 'hear' it.

The book would complement a history topic of Ancient Greece, as not only do you learn about the myths but also about the architecture. Rose's mother works at the British Museum and as such Rose spends much of her time there. Chapter 7 describes in detail the exhibits in the Parthenon room of the museum and provides a short history lesson about the Elgin marbles. This is done in a very natural way from Roses's perspective and is not at all didactic. In the same way readers learn about important aspects of conservation and restoration.

The book is likely to appeal equally to both boys and girls, in that there are two protagonists: one male and one female plus of course Aries the ram. Also, the drama, action and humour ensure that readers are swiftly carried through the story which will help children who tend to lean towards shorter texts. Definitely, one for the class library.

Publisher: Picadilly Press
Publication Date: 2014
ISBN: 978-1-84812-476-9