Friday, 27 April 2012

My kind of ghost story

One for the wimps amongst us.  Whilst I really enjoyed The Dead of Winter, it is fair to say that it did NOT end happily.  However, Anne Fine's The Devil Walks has a very satisfying resolution.  I enjoyed scary stories as an older child, but would not have coped well with one which ended without the evil being put to bed and a positive future ahead for the protagonaist.  The Devil Walks would have suited me down to the ground.  An interesting beginning, with lots of little mysteries weaved in to be solved.  No scary happenings until towards the end of the book, which contains them and makes the book overall much less nerve-jangling.  A scary sequence followed by the restoration of harmony.

This is a great book for transitioning a sensitive soul aged around 9+ into the darker and more macabre world of teenage fiction.  The reader needs to be mature enough to cope with the death of the mother of the main character, and a slightly crazed uncle, with a reading age of approx 11 upwards.  Also a good choice for reading aloud, although not necessarily at bedtime!

I am about to embark on The Crowfield Demon, which I have borrowed from our wonderful school library.  Then I really must read something from another genre for young adults, as when I do my weekly "Mrs M recommends" during our reading slot in registration, I have had a few complaints of late that "Miss, you only ever read scary stories!" 

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Apparently, it is against societal norms to order two hot drinks for one person. And some lovely picture books.

It rained today,  in case you didn't notice or avoid the news and social networks and outside.  It was the worst day weather wise that I can remember for ages.  Last Wednesday was quite rough too.  Perhaps I am being punished by the powers that be for having a 0.8 timetable and spending every Wednesday jogging, reading and meeting up with various fabulous people.  Sorry, that obviously should have read doing admin jobs around the house and tidying up.  Anyway, though the weather was vile, I have had a lovely day.  A jog around the village this morning, which blew all of the cobwebs pretty much in the world away, and then a day shopping and chatting with my best friend culminating with a visit to the library to choose books for the kids and have lunch and a cuppa.  The ladies behind the till in the library cafe are really quite scary.  At one point one of them shouted "Is there anyone missing any food?"  The whole cafe fell absolutely silent, and when a tremulous voice answered, I was reminded of all of the scenes from Matilda where Miss Trunchbull calls upon the children to answer her.

I excited the wrath of chief denizen of the cafe by ordering both a hot chocolate and a cup of tea.  I was in need of something chocolatey, and I was cold, but I was also thirsty, so thought I would be a bit crazy and order both.  Don't get me wrong, I did also pay for both.  But still, said lady behind the till pulled me up on my crime and I was made to feel suitably chastened.  I did drink them both though, and finished my salad with my panini like a good girl.

I mostly chose reading books for C, but did sneak a couple of picture books in.  Tonight we had The Opposite by Tom Macrae.  It was really, really hilarious and we absolutely loved the pictures.  They were very original, and quite sparse but very expressive.  I particularly liked the teacher with the paint on her face.

We also had The Trouble with Dragons by Debi Gilori.  It took me a good few pages to work out that the dragons were supposed to represent human beings.  It took A a little longer, but after two readings she "got" it and was really impressed.  She is going to take it in for show and tell tomorrow, because apparently they have been talking about climate change in class.  C was pretty much oblivious to the deeper message of the book, but he quite liked the pictures.  He's not so much one for allegory, and prefers his sublety to be brick-like.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley

I have always loved a good scary story, especially one with a hint of the gothic.  When I was at university I spent one very happy week reading Lady Audley's Secret, The Woman in White, The Castle of Otranto and, the completely bonkers The Monk.  I even enjoyed writing the essay on them. 

The psychological style scariness and unexplained noises, raging storms and haggard looking ghosts has always appealed to me much more than blood, gore and violence.  I can cope with much more of this in books than I can in films - for example I've read American Psycho but would not even dream of watching the film version.  It's easier to skim over nastiness in books and the images are less graphic and much more subtle.  However, I've always found blood and gore in books to be a little brutal and obscene.  My least favourite parts  in Game of Thrones are the bits where people are getting various limbs chopped off by an axe, or losing their entrails in some gruesome way.

The Dead of Winter has all of the classic gothic ingredients of a good psychological ghost story, which doesn't need to feature any mention of bodily parts or spilt bodily fluids: old-fashioned setting, isolated creepy old house, characters with vague maladies of the nerves and a woman who is not quite all that she seems.  It takes a couple of chapters to get going, but once the story gets moving, it becomes very difficult to put it down.  It's written in Victorian style, but is written for young people, so is accessible, something which is a hallmark of Priestley's writing.  It's not an easy read though - I would say a reading age of around 12 is the minimum for independent reading.  It would also be far too scary for a highly sensitive under-12.  Admittedly, I am not a great benchmark, being a wimp of the highest order, who would not look in the mirror for three days after watching The Others, but I did feel utterly terrified when I left my bed to go and turn out the light after finishing reading the book.  I ended up having to go to the extreme lengths of reading a bit of my "English in Education" journal to dull my heightened nerves.  I learnt something about the importance of grammar in English education, and was able to get to sleep without thinking that a scary ghost was going to come and kill me.  Bonus.

I am hoping that the students I am reading it with will enjoy it.  If they do there's a whole genre of similar, brilliant stories for them to enjoy.  Next stop The Turn of the Screw or The Yellow Wallpaper. But probably not The Monk.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Stories of Dragons by Gill Doherty and Linda Edwards

At Beavers tonight, C was making a St George's Day bookmark.  I help out at Beavers, but generally stumble in ten minutes late because of the rush to get back from work, sort kids out and then get there.  So, when we arrived, the discussion about St George's Day had already taken place.  The boys were merrily scratching pictures of dragons, knights and shields on their Scratch Art bookmarks, from the wallet-loosening Yellow Moon.  C said "Why are we all drawing dragons?"  I was mildly amused by the fact that he was happily drawing a dragon because everyone else was, despite having no idea why he was being asked to do this.  I said "You know the story of St George?"  "Who?" I had assumed that C would just know the story, even though, thinking about it, I have never actually told him it. 

One of the good things about being an obsessive and committed book buyer, is that, generally, you can find the story you want in your own house.  One of my most cherished plans for when we move house is that I am going to categorise my book collections thematically.  The kids books are already in broad categories, so I went to the Myths and Legends section (otherwise known as the left side of the third shelf down) and located Stories of Dragons by Gill Doherty and Linda Edwards.  There, about half way through the book was a beautifully illustrated version of George and the Dragon.  The kids were a little confused because the pictures clearly depicted a landscape which was Middle-Eastern rather than British, but we used that to talk about how myths travel, and that St George is the patron saint of several other countries, as well as England.  

Although we've had the book for quite a while, it's not one to read in one go necessarily, but to dip into when the occasion demands.  I felt it earned its place on the shelf this evening, by filling a gap in the cultural education of the youth of this house.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The National Trust have given me a parenting test, and I have passed.

So, A and I were leafing through First News on the sofa this afternoon, lazy Sunday afternoon stylie.  There was an article about the drought, which is one of her favourite "can't sleep" worries at the moment, and which, eternal thanks to the First News team, has put her mind at rest somewhat.

We then came across a tick-list, with the headline Things to Do Before You're 11 3/4.  Apparently it's been compiled by the National Trust.  A and I spent a happy few minutes ticking off her achievements, and I was relieved to see that she and C had pretty much done all of them already.  We have cut the column out and put it in our "adventure bag" for the summer holiday.  The adventure bag contains spotters guides to trees, wild flowers, bugs and animals, a magnifying glass, bug catcher and binoculars.  I packed it after reading the brilliant Nature's Playground by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield, which has given me some really good ideas for fun activities in the great outdoors.  Some of them seem really obvious, but they just hadn't occurred to me before I read it.  It's split into 4 sections, so there are activities for each season, and what I really like about it, is that you don't have to be a Bear Grylls type to be able to plan some activities and feel really enthused about outdoor activities.

I think the National Trust ought to send me some sort of badge that I can sew onto a blanket as proof of my achievements.  This would give me the impetus I need to continue working towards the "not shouting at your kids because you're annoyed with another adult who you're not allowed to shout at" badge, or the "remembering to pay dinner money that you owe before you get a reminder letter" badge.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Tom Gates by Liz Pichon

So far there are three books in the Tom Gates series: The Brilliant World, Everything's Amazing (sort of) and Excellent Excuses.  A has read all three and is now re-reading them.  C read some of the first one this morning.  They are very thick, long books, but hve a LOT of illustrations, and so are actually a much easier read than they look.

I have heard them described as the British answer to the Wimpy Kid books.  A hasn't read those yet.  She picked the first Tom Gates book in Waterstones after her Great-Grandpa sent vouchers.  She liked the front cover, and the overall look of the book.  I can understand this - the book looks quirky and inviting and the pictures are amusing.

They follow the fortunes of Tom and his family, friends and school mates.  A has been giving me a running commentary of the funnier happenings, and they are keeping her very well entertained. C has also been quite engrossed this morning.  A good choice for those who are just beginning to tackle longer books, and for a while beyond, I would say.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Dorling Kindersley Complete Dog Breed Book

Apologies for any typos tonight. I have had two days of small but irritating disasters which have led to me spending a long time mopping olives, oil and smashed glass up from the kitchen floor, and A. C, and I eating an inordinately large amount of porridge oats after an incident involving pouring milk into the wrong container. Today has been relatively disaster free, but just now I managed to brush my hand over my computer keyboard in such a way that I have shrunk the typing box on my blog to a third of its usual size. Attempting to brush it back the other way has proved futile. Mr M is currently away, so until he returns, I will have to live with typing into a tiny box.

Anyway, to today's topic. I am always extremely suspicious of any book marketed as "for reluctant readers". "Reluctant readers" is often used as a synonym for "children we consider to be educationally subnormal". The books are therefore generally patronising and a bit rubbish. Everyone is a reluctant reader until they find something which fires their imagination.

I teach a lot of kids who don't enjoy reading. They generally do not enjoy books specifically marketed to reluctant readers. Almost without exception, the boys enjoy The Guiness Book of World Records. However, ever popular with both genders are books about different dog breeds.

I have no idea why this is. Even kids who don't own a dog, or are not particularly interested in dogs LOVE looking at books where each breed has a photo and some information relating to their loooks, character and habits. We have now built a lesson into one of our schemes of work, where, after reading Buster Fleabags by Rolf Harris (a lovely book btw), the students then spend some time researching their ideal dog and producing a leaflet about it. They absolutely love it, and the lesson sometimes extends over several lessons of rigorous hard work.

The latest Book People catalogue has the DK Complete Dog Breeds Book for £5.99. I am now the proud owner of said tome. This, obviously, is ostensibly for work purposes. However, I have spent the past hour leafing through, stopping every now and then to think what it might be like to own a Beagle or a Lurcher. A was very concerned when she saw me with the book. "I'm not sure we'd cope with a dog Mummy. I think we should get chickens." Hmmm, I said, non-comitally. But in my head I was thinking "can you take a chicken for a walk?"

For the time being a dog breeds book is a much smaller commitment than an actual dog. And it's useful. Perhaps I should suggest to Dorling Kindersley that they slap a "Great for Reluctant Readers" tag somewhere on the front cover. Because, on this occasion, it would actually be true.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Farm Boy by Michael Morpurgo

After War Horse some of my Year 9s requested to read the sequel Farm Boy, having enjoyed the first novel. We were all surprised by how very different this book is. It is much, much shorter than War Horse. It's a thin tome anyway, but it also contains a great many illustrations, making it even shorter than it appears. It is a much easier read too - I would say a reading age of less than 10.

It also isn't really a sequel, more a spin-off, I would say. It's like Joey to War Horse's Friends. We all enjoyed it as a story - it's heart-warming and entertaining, but it doesn't pack the emotional punch or paint such a clear picture as the first book.

We had some great discussions during the course of the reading - two particularly memorable debates were about the way family stories get altered into legend, and about adult literacy and the implications of not being about to read.

I've just had a quick squizz at the reviews on Amazon, and had a good laugh at the person who claims the book has "been rushed out to capitalise on the success of the War Horse film". A quick look at the publication dates might have suggested that this was not quite the case - Farm Boy was published in 1997. Much as 1997 might feel like the other week to me, I am reliably informed that it is, in fact 15 years ago.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Back to the wonderful world of touchy-feely baby books

We had two very young visitors on Friday, and over the weekend, which has given us a wonderful excuse to get out the baby books from the box we keep for such occasions. Both have been extremely lovely to have around, and have very much enjoyed sitting on A's lap for a book.

The definite favourite for both has been Usborne's That's not my Tractor. I used to have an entire shelf of That's Not My... books, but have pruned it back to just a few now, of which Tractor is generally the resounding favourite for our young visitors. A enjoyed asking the boys to point out the mouse and encouraging them to feel the different textures. I really do think small babies appreciate books with some kind of added bonus in the shape of flaps, touchy-feely bits or mirrored sections. The language in these books is great too - there's a reassuring rhythm to them and the final page is always greeted with a relieved laugh.

Two of our other favourites to get a welcome run-out from the subs bench were Baby ABC by Roger Priddy, with its fabulous clear pictures and fun textures and shapes, and What Shall we do with the Boohoo Baby by Cressida Cowell, which was read many a time to A and C, back in the day. It's always nice to make a return to old favourites, and even nicer now that I don't have to read them 87 times in a row any more!

Friday, 13 April 2012

I know I've said this before, but libraries really are great.

So, picture the scene. We crawled into bed after a day-long journey from France at about 1am. At 7am the kids were both awake, quite clearly still tired, but awake. The morning passed in relative peace, but grouchiness was setting in towards lunchtime, and we required stuff from Tesco. A Tesco shop with tired, grumpy children, and (if I am totally honest), tired, grumpy parents. Never a recipe for success. Never mind, I thought, since MrM is off today, he can go to Tesco tout seul, and we'll go to the library.

We spent a very peaceful hour or so choosing books and reading quietly on bean bags in the children's section. Once again C steadfastly refused to look in the picture book boxes, so I chose for him, and, predictably enough, he and A have both enjoyed them. We spent another peaceful hour after lunch reading through some of the books we chose.

I particularly enjoyed Peculiar Pets by Victoria Roberts and Deborah Allwright. It was a sweet little story, which made them smile, but the main reason I liked it was that when I was young (although perhaps not as young as one might hope), I had a pet balloon. I sense that the author of the book probably also had a pet balloon, and it made me feel somewhat less mentally unbalanced that I was not the only one to do this. The pet balloon in the story bursts, whereas mine lived to a good age (for a balloon) and I buried it in the garden (yes, once again, I am aware of how this is making me sound. Catharsis is good).

Anyway, the library has been the saviour of my (let's be honest, profoundly shaky) sanity today. A lovely peaceful time out of the house to shake the cobwebs off, followed by more peaceful things to do when you get home, and all for free. Brilliant.

Holiday reading

We got back (at around 1am) from a lovely week near Coulommiers in France. We are all a bit tired and crabby today (of which more later), but had a very busy and fun week. I had several reading-related revelations on this particular holiday. The first was that in years gone by, MrM would rely on me to bring books and then read them after me. This does not work now that I have a kindle for holiday reading. Luckily for MrM there was a library of sorts in the club room at the place we stayed, where he was treated to some dubious spy novels of varying quality. Next time we go on holiday I plan to stick some improving literature in my bag to save him from the horrors of Ian Rankine and the like.

I was able to continue ploughing through Game of Thrones without taking up half the suitcase, thanks to said kindle, and (second revelation), I wondered if it might soon be worth investing in another kindle for the kids (or perhaps two). This was partly driven by the fact that we have a LOT of books already, and are now somewhat lacking in shelf space. It's also driven by the revelation that you can get Beast Quest on the kindle (or at least some of them), which will mean that when we get to number 5368 there will not be two rooms full of Beast Quest books (because obviously C will not even entertain the idea that we might give the books away once we've read them). The kindle would also solve the bedtime issue, which is that they have got used to having a LOT of books to choose from to look at in the evening before they go to sleep, but on holiday that selection is, by necessity, heavily pruned. This means that there has been a lot more whinging than usual, which is not a particularly relaxing thing, when you're trying to eat foie gras on a baguette and neck a nice carafe of vin rouge.

Thirdly, a massive recommendation for Fodor's Around Paris with Kids. Having done a quick Amazon search, it looks like these Fodor guides are only available for big American cities, Disney World and Paris, but the Paris one was absolutely exceptional. Lots of ideas for things to do, with time guides, suggested walks, recommendations for places to eat etc. No fun for the kids to read (stick to the Not for Parents Travel Guide I've mentioned before for them) but v useful for parents. Our only criticism of it was there is no map included; even a basic one would have been very useful.

Fourth reading revelation of the holiday was something I should have learnt from my mother-in-law over a decade ago. When we all went to France on our hols in 2002, we went to a theme park and she made us all take a book. The time in the queues flew by - I can still remember that I read Cuckoo in the Nest by Michelle Magorian, and very good it was too. Anyway, before we set off for Disneyland Paris, I put the latest Beast Quest tome in my book, partly to read to the kids, and partly to conceal the half-baguette, Belvita breakfast biscuits and large quantity of chocolate eggs acquired at a Chasse des Oeufs, which I was smuggling in). The queues were significantly less boring for both the kids and me. At one point I looked up and there were about 15 children all looking at me impatiently, waiting for me to say what happened next in the tale of Zepha the monster squid. A book doesn't weigh a great deal, but is a definite asset during a day where there is lots of waiting around.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

"Mummy? You haven't said anything for a really long time". This is an unusual state of affairs, especially when reading bedtime stories. However, I had just read A the first chapter of Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, and could not resist re-reading the final chapter - the one with the reconciliation, which is one of my favourite passages from any book, ever.

A has taken the book to bed. She found the first chapter "OK", but I was quite vociferous in my praise for the book - it being my second favourite children's book of all time, after Goodnight Mister Tom. It remains to be seen whether Tom's Midnight Garden will suffer the same fate as Little House on the Prairie did with A, or The Secret Garden did with me.

I have to admit something which shames me deeply here - I watched the TV series of this before I read the book. Had I read the book first, I would have preferred it, but my love for the book was born of the 1989 BBC adaptation, which I thought was brilliant - atmospheric, touching and with perfect characterisation.

This is not as shameful as my admission about Moondial by Helen Cresswell. I watched that on TV first too, and then didn't even like the book when I eventually read it!

Both of these books have time travel as a theme, which was something I greatly enjoyed as a child. I had an exceptionally happy childhood, but also an extremely vivid imagination. This, coupled with the fact that I lived in a house built within a copse in the New Forest, full of very ancient trees, made me feel that this time travel might just be possible. I think I had visions of waking up one morning and being in The Children of the New Forest. Surprisingly, this never actually happened.

If A does seem taken with this book I have others to recommend - particularly The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively and A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley. This last one will be of especial interest to A, since we live in South Derbyshire, in a village where there is a house where Mary, Queen of Scots is said to have rested on her journey to Tutbury Castle. I will have to take steps to ensure that A does not break into said house, to see if she can go back in time...

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh

I absolutely loved this book and read it in two sittings. I am going to suggest that A reads it, although I wonder if she may be a little scared. She is v sensitive though, so I would say 8+ in general for age-appropriateness, and about 10+ for reading age. There's quite a lot of specialist vocab in it, as it is set in a monastery in the middle ages.

The Crowfield Curse has lots of ingredients that make a story I love: a historical, spooky setting, monks (both kind and evil), mysterious strangers, and a loveable, but not perfect, hero. I absolutely love the Matthew Shardlake books by CJ Sansome, and it reminded me a tiny bit of those, because the setting was vividly described and interesting. Obviously there is more magic and less murder, politics and sex in The Crowfield Curse.

There were several interesting twists in the tale, and the story seemed to be set up for a sequel which, I for one, would definitely be reading. In fact, having just checked Amazon, I notice that there is, in fact, already a sequel. Darn that one-click facility...