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

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Murder in Midwinter by Fleur Hitchcock

Murder in Midwinter by Fleur Hitchcock - Review for Primary Teachers

This is a brilliant, fast-paced, hard-hitting, edge-of-your-seat crime novel for children aged 9+.


Sitting on the top deck of a bus days before Christmas, Maya accidentally photographs a couple arguing in the middle of a crowded Regent Street. They see her. Maya is convinced she has seen one of them pull a gun and goes to the police. They send her away. Then a body turns up. Now she seems to be a vital witness to a crime and is placed in a witness protection scheme for her own safety and sent  to rural Wales. She resolves to get to the bottom of the mystery. Then the snow comes and no one can get out but....what if someone can still get in?

This a gripping story, full of drama, mystery and excitement that will capture the imagination of any young reader.


The story is told in the first person by Maya, who is sharp, witty, strong and brave. Her anxieties, fears and thoughts come through clearly. Her relationship with her cousin Ollie is an interesting one to explore and investigate as the story progresses. His views of her change and as such provide opportunities for pupils to make 'comparisons within ... books'. Children will need to infer how and why his views change and this could be achieved through activities such as diary writing and hot-seating. Primary school children could be introduced to the concept of the 'hero's character arc' through the study of Maya. This would then allow them to make links with other stories/films with which they are familiar.

Other characters in the story worthy of study are Auntie V, Gethin (Ollie's friend) and Peter Romero.


The story begins in bustling streets of London just before Christmas. All of the places can be researched by children. Those who have never been to London would benefit from searching images of Regent Street, particularly at Christmas. The other locations in London could be plotted on a map of London and again an internet search would help children visualize the different scenes.

The location in Wales, Ty Fach, is very different from what Maya is used to. The novel itself provides a lot of detail for children to compare and contrast the different locations, which could be supplemented with additional independent research. 


The book has an AR book level of 4.6 and as such should prove to be well within the capabilities of most in years 5 and 6. Nevertheless, there are a few specific items of vocabulary which will be challenging for many children in upper KS 2. These tend to relate to items at the farm in Wales such as 'eiderdown'. As such, children can practise their skills of working out the meaning of words from the context. 

The style of the writing is exciting and fast paced. Children will be able to explore how sentence length, sentence starters and use of language all contribute to create this effect. (Some of which we often discourage in children's own writing such as beginning repeated sentences with 'I'). Close study of the action passages would develop children's comprehension skills and also provide models for short 'slow' writing activities.


The plot of the story develops quickly from the opening pages. Exciting and dramatic events pile on top of each other. It is episodic but has a number of twists. All the events in the story make the reader (along with Maya) ask the question 'what was it that she saw/photographed?' Why did such an innocent act on her part seemingly put her life in so much danger? 

The book would make a good class novel (either to study or as a 'reading for pleasure' novel), group novel or one for independent reading.

It was the winner of the Leeds Book Award 9-11, 2017 and shortlisted for the Stockport Children's Award 2017.

Advisory Note

There are two instances where the word 'bloody' is used. The first is on page 61. The second is on page 229. Also, it may be worth mentioning that the scenes in chapter 24 do involve a great deal of gunfire.

Publisher: Nosy Crow
First Published: Oct 2016
ISBN: 978-0-85763-638-6

Monday, 14 August 2017

Moondial by Helen Cresswell

Moondial by Helen Cresswell. Review for primary teachers.

Moondial is a ghost story, a time travel novel and a book about contemporary issues all rolled into one. It will appeal to readers aged 9+ and would work well as a class novel for children in years 4 or 5.

The protagonist of the novel is Minty, short for Araminta. She has been sent to  stay with her aunt over the summer as her recently widowed mother had to work. Her aunt lives across the road from a former manor house which is now owned by the National Trust and open to the public. 

Minty believes herself to be a witch, 'or something very like it.' She is aware of her own sensitivity: to the 'pocket of cold air on the landing of the back stairs', 'She had woken at night to see shadowy presences gliding across the floor.'. So, she is not really surprised when the sundial/moondial in the garden of the old house takes her back in time. She visits 19th century 'suntime' where she meets Tom (a young boy who suffers from tuberculosis and longs to be reunited with his sister) and 18th century 'moontime' where she meets Sarah who is tormented and bullied by others because she has a birthmark and is known as the 'Devil's child'. Throughout the book,Minty faces two challenges; 1) she feels she needs to save the children and 2) she needs to bring her mother out of a coma.

The book is listed as having an ATOS book level of 4.4, and therefore could be read independently by most children half way through year 5. The story is beautifully written and many of the descriptive passages could be used to develop children's own writing. e.g. the personification on p 151 "The little icy tongues of wind licked her face..."; the alliteration on pa 162 "the lazily falling flocks of snow" and the description of the scene on p 193 could be used as a model for children's own descriptions. 

"The street was thinly washed with gold and the shadows were icy. A cockerel crowed from the farm beyond the church, tearing the dawn hush. The graveyard was drenched with dew and littered with cats, strayed from the night."

The story is told in the third person, but through the eyes of Minty. We get a clear insight into her thoughts as she endeavors to fulfill her missions.
There are a couple of questions raised in the story which don't have clear answers. We are never told were the children from the past go to nor is it clear who the mysterious and ominous Miss Raven is. Nevertheless, these provide opportunities for pupils to come up with their own ideas which could provide a stimulus for writing activities.

The themes in the story are family and friendship, loneliness, bullying (the way in which Sarah is taunted and labelled because of her birthmark)

The story would work well alongside a topic on the Victorians. The differences between Minty's time and Tom's time are interesting to compare and contrast. The story is set in the National Trust owned Belton House and for those within travelling distance a visit to the property would be interesting as the features of the property described by Minty including the garden, the sundial, the orangery and the yellow room are all there. Helen Cresswell was asked to write a story set in one of the National Trust's properties and she chose Belton House. There are some activity notes for teachers based on the sundial which were inspired by the National Gallery's Take One Picture Programme. Click on the image of the sundial to take you through to this link.

For those not close enough to visit Belton House, the story could still be used as a model/stimulus for children to write their own story based in another National Trust property. 

The story is reminiscent of other time travel classics such as 'Tom's Midnight Garden' by Philippa Pearce and 'A Traveller in Time' by Alison Uttley. The book was serialised for television by the BBC soon after it was published and the complete series is now available on DVD.

Published by Faber & Faber
Originally published: 1987
ISBN: 978-0-571-32290-9


Monday, 7 August 2017

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. Book Review for Primary Teachers.

The classic novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was originally published in 1962. It tells of the adventures of cousins, Bonnie and Sylvia. Syliva travels to Willoughby Chase to live with Bonnie whilst Bonnie's parents travel abroad. However, things soon begin to go wrong. Sylvia meets a sinister stranger on the train and the governess, who has been employed to teach the children has other plans which don't include the girls. Bonnie and Sylvia discover a secret passage which runs through the heart of the house and use it to spy on their oppressor. However, things go from bad to worse and they are soon sent away to school which is little more than a workhouse for orphans. Bonnie is a determined character and nothing, not even the wolves, is going to stop her escaping and getting to London. 

It is a classic adventure story with elements of the gothic, which includes a forger, a wicked governess, orphans, a poor aunt who is too proud to ask for help, wolves (animal and human) and a ship wreck. It will appeal to readers aged 9+ and with a lexile level of 1020L and an ATOS book level of 6.5 makes it a good challenging read for years 5 and 6.

The story is set in an alternate history. As the note at the beginning of the book states: 

'in a period of English history that never happened -shortly after the accession to the throne of Good King James III in 1832. At this time, the Channel Tunnel from Dover to Calais having been recently completed, a great many wolves, driven by severe winters, had migrated through the tunnel from Europe and Russia to the British Isles.'

There are numerous references throughout the novel which place the events securely in a Georgian/Victorian era. The clothes worn by the children, the etiquette of the time, the transport system can all be researched. Children who are already familiar with these time periods will be able to use their 'prior knowledge' to aid their comprehension of the text whilst others might need to carry out some research. 

Children may be surprised to read about the idea of a Channel tunnel as early as 1832 and dismiss this as fiction. However, ideas for a channel tunnel emerged as early as 1802 and an early attempt to build one was made during the late 19th century. 

The story is written in a style which evokes the best of children's literature. The characters and descriptions are at times a little stereotypical; similar to Dickens in that they highlight all that is lacking in society. Pupils could easily compare passages with extracts from Dickens' Oliver Twist and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Aiken also follows tradition in the way she names her wicked characters: Miss Slighcarp, Mrs Brisket. Pupils could investigate how authors, classic and modern, name similar characters.

There are opportunities to develop children's knowledge of the craft of writing. e.g. how to use alliteration to mimic the sound of the wolves. 'she heard again that lonely, heart-shaking cry of the wolves and wondered whether to waken Mr Grimshaw and tell him.'

The vocabulary will prove challenging for many in years 5 and 6 with specific architectural language, references to clothing from the Georgian/Victorian period as well as vocabulary that most children don't use on an everyday basis such as commodious, impetuosity, deportment and indignation. 

The main themes of the novel are friendship and family and good v evil. The themes are developed, on the whole, through the actions of each of the characters and their relationships. Children could explore the emotions of the characters and their motives through techniques such as hot-seating, conscience alley and diary writing. The characters of Bonnie and Sylvia are very different and complement each other. Sylvia is very timid at the beginning of the book but becomes more confident towards the end. Bonnie is reckless at the beginning but her actions become more considered.  Simon is a good-hearted, independent boy who has numerous practical skills and discovers a talent for painting. At the end of the novel, he goes off to London to study at one of the art schools. Pupils could write about Simon's subsequent adventures in the style of Joan Aiken. After composing their own stories they might like to read Black Hearts in Battersea, Aiken's sequel to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase which does just that.

In 1989 the book was turned into a film starring Stephanie Beacham, Mel Smith, Richard O'Brien and Jane Horrocks. 

The Vintage Classics edition of the novel includes a brief biography of Joan Aiken, historical information about travelling around Britain during the 1830s, summaries of each of the characters, facts about wolves, a glossary of vocabulary, a quiz and some activity ideas.

Publisher: Vintage Classics
Original Publication Date: 1962
ISBN: 978-0-099-57287-9


Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce tells the story of two young boy refugees. The story is narrated by Julie, now a grown-up with a child of her own. She recalls her final term in primary school when two young nomads who had arrived from the borders of Outer Mongolia and joined her class. Her memories are prompted by a series of Polaroid photographs that one of the boys had taken when Julie became their 'Good Guide'. This funny, original and moving tale takes its inspiration from a true story of a Mongolian child refugee in Bootle, who was eventually returned to her home country after a midnight raid by the immigration authorities. As you read the story, you can't help be touched and moved by the plight of the boys  and the Afterword of the book just adds to that.

We learn about and get to know Chingis and Nergui through Julie's eyes. At first Julie is curious about these new additions to her class and goes out of her way to find out as much as she can about their home country and its traditions. Children reading the story could, like Julie, carry out their own research. The story is set in real locations in the UK (Bootle and Formby) and as such, it lends itself to looking at contrasting locations for geography.

There is one particular incident in the story which is a major turning point for Julie. It's the first time she visits the temporary home of Chingis and Nergui. She is hoping to be invited in but instead is surprised by the reaction of her two new friends and their mother. Her sense of surprise is soon taken over by shock and confusion. She suddenly realises they are afraid but what of she does not know.

The photographs in the book have been taken by professional photograghers: Carl Hunter and Clare Heney. Each of the photographs show a scene that on first inspection appears to be one thing but on closer inspection turns out to be something different: illusions. They demonstrate that often we see what we expect to see rather than what is really there. For Chingis and Nergui they are images that remind them of home, maybe a way of feeling that Bootle is not so different from Mongolia. Pupils could try, as part of an art project, to create their own photographs that suggest other landscapes from familiar surroundings in the same way.

The story speaks about friendship, nostalgia and the enrichment of lives by other lives. It explores in a sensitive and non-preachy way the deeply divisive issue of imigration.

It was the winner of the 2012 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize.

Candlewick Press have produced a useful discussion guide which includes pre-reading activities, discussion questions and post-reading activities.

Publisher:Walker Books
Publication Date: 2012
ISBN: 978-1406341541

AR Book Level: 4.4
Lexile Level: 710L