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




Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Awkward Autumn of Lily McLean by Lindsay Littleson

The Awkward Autumn of Lily McLean by Lindsay Littleson is the sequel to The Mixed Up Summer of Lily McLean. Following her summer of uncertainty after leaving primay school, Lily has now started secondary school. This brings with it further insecurities. She is faced with so many changes: a new school, a new man in her mum's life, a new home, the new friend she made during the summer, new routines and her sister's new friend. Pupils leaving year 6 and embarking on the next phase of the schooling will be able to identify with Lily.

There are a number of themes which permeate the book: change, resilience, understanding, forgiveness and bullying. All of these develop as Lily's character develops throughout the novel. The themes all have a contemporary feel about them and deal with real issues that children face today such as the fear of being ridiculed on YouTube.

Part way through the novel Lily is faced with a dilemma. She has to make a decision and she feels that she needs to make this decision on her own and not involve anyone else. Pupils will have faced similar situations themselves and therefore will be able to relate to Lily. The use of the drama technique 'conscience alley' would be a good strategy to explore the issues that Lily faces.

The story is told in the first person from Lily's point of view. As such the style mirrors Lily's moods. This is particularly apparent in chapter 12 where the sentence length and repetition give a real sense of fear and foreshadowing. A close reading and discussion of this chapter would provide plenty of material for that tricky content domain 'identify/explain how meaning is enhanced through choice of words and phrases'. Having discussed the literary devices it could then be used as a model for the children's own writing.

The novel is set mainly in Millport in Scotland. As this is a real place pupils will be able to research its location and its amenities which could then be used as a stimulus for non-fiction writing. Part of the book is set in Brodick on the Isle of Arran. Littleson's descriptions of the main town, like so many other descriptions throughout the novel are detailed and help to create a vivid mental image of the settings through the use of personifcation, noun phrases simile etc.. These would provide excellent models for children to use when writing their own descriptions of settings. It isn't just the descriptions of the settings though that place the novel in Scotland. On occasions the characters do speak using items of vocabulary that are a feature of the Scottish dialect.

Children who enjoy contemporary stories with social issues that they can relate to will really enjoy reading this. It would particuarly appeal to those who are in their final term of primary school, first term of secondary school. It is a story which is funny, tender, thought-provoking all at the same time and one which has an important message for everyone who reads it.



Publisher: Kelpies
Publication Date: 2017
ISBN: 978-1782503545


Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Wonder by R. J. Palacio is a moving and uplifting story of 10 year-old August (Auggie) who was born with a facial deformity. The book would make a good class novel for pupils in years 5 or 6.

Auggie lives in New York with his parents and older sister.  In many ways he is an ordinary boy. He rides a bike and likes to play on his xbox. However, Auggie was born with deformities of the face and looks very different from other children.  At the beginning of the book, he tells us 'My name is August. I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.' Auggie's appearance shocks people. People stare at him and others look away as soon as they see him. 

The predominant themes which emerge throughout the novel are: kindness, difference, family, courage and friendship. All of these make it a powerful story to read with children and provide opportunities to discuss at length the way individuals and society treat those who are perceived as 'different'. As such the novel would make an ideal choice for numerous areas of the curriculum: anti-bullying week, British Values, Diversity...

The story is told in the first person from a range of points of view. The story begins with Auggie and is told through his eyes. We see first hand how his deformity has impacted on his life and how he feels about the way others treat him, both strangers and his own family. There are also chapters narrated by his sister, his friends from school, his sister's boyfriend and his sister's friend. Pupils will, as they read the accounts from the different characters, see Auggie's life from those different perspectives. These perspectives would be good stimuli for looking at character motive and could be used in drama activities such as hot seating. The way the story is told helps pupils understand why the different characters behave in the ways that they do.

The vocabulary in the book would be accessible to the vast majority of year 5 and 6 pupils. What provides the challenge is the multiple perspectives we encounter of the same event. Pupils will need to realise that as we move from one section of the novel to another, we often go back in time to view the same events again but they are told to us by a different person. For those pupils who have not read widely or have ony just begun to read independently this may be challenging but with guidance and support not insurmountable.

A significant amount of the dialogue in the novel isn't tagged and as such some pupils may find it difficult to follow. These excerpts could be used for readers' theatre to: explore and identify who is saying what; consider characterisation (identify how each of the characters feel at that point and therefore how they might be saying the lines spoken); thought-tracking and playscripts.

There is also one section of the book which is told through a variety of means of communication: letters, facebook posts, texts and emails. The difference in register of each of the communications is interesting. The 'shifts in formality' are clear and could therefore be used as a model when discussing and teaching this aspect of writing.

Although the majority of readers won't have experienced Auggie's medical problems, you can identify with each and every one of the characters which makes it such a compelling read. It is a story which is funny, sad, moving and uplifting. 

The film is due to be released in the UK in December this year. I strongly recommend that you read the book with your classes before they see the film.






Publisher: Corgi Children's
Publication Date: 2014
ISBN: 978-0552565974  

          
                 

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 (http://shetlandbus.com/) 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. 






Comprehension
and
Reading Activities £2