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