Thursday, 28 November 2013

"The religion bit"

"Go and get the books off the religion bit" I said to A earlier.  Off she went to the bottom left corner of the left-hand bookcase in the living room and pulled out a pile of books.  "Why, what is it today?" she said.  "Hanukkah".  A dutifully looked up Hanukkah in the indexes and put back the Usborne Young Reading Diwali in favour of The Story of Hanukkah.

"Why do we have to look at the religion books anyway?" said C, with just enough of the whinge in his tone to get my hackles rising.  Unfortunately for him, I had just listened to the news, which was telling the sad tale of the Iranian born Bristol man who was murdered by two of his neighbours, who wrongly assumed he was a paedophile.  It followed a campaign of bullying which made me feel sick and very, very sad.

My Understanding Cultural Difference speech went on for some time.  Time enough for C to agree that looking at the books was a good idea, anyway, whether or not because he was persuaded by my argument, or because he decided that reading about Hanukkah was infinitely more interesting than listening to Mummy rant at him.

Kids have an inherent interest in what other people get up to.  They are essentially nosey.  This is why good RE books and teaching are so important. If children are brought up to understand why people look/dress/pray/don't pray/eat the way they do, and it is seen as a normal everyday thing that people are not all the same, then that is the sentiment they grow up with.  Babies are not born with prejudices, and it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to stop these from forming - for everyone's sake. Can we achieve this through "label this picture of a church"? No. But good RE encourages children to think about what makes human experience, why people might be motivated to do the things they do.

One of our favourite books when the kids were about 3-5 was this one which follows a day in the life of four children around the world. It's lift-the-flap, which always helps, but they were genuinely interested in Keiko's school, and why all of the children had to wear special school slippers rather than outdoor shoes, for example.

What Do You Believe? by Dorling Kindersley is a good one for KS2 children, and is arranged as a series of questions. It's a little crazily arranged for the adult eye, but has good snippets of information about different belief systems, including atheism. It also answers very difficult questions such as "If religions preach peace, why is everyone fighting?" and "Why do bad things happen to good people?" It doesn't give easy answers. Even the title of the book is not easy, as I would imagine most people's answer would be something along the lines of "well, I'm not really sure." Perhaps that's just me. I subscribe to Father Ted's view that the hospitals are far too full of people who thought a little bit too much about religion.

A was having a look at this book.  When asked what she thought, she said "it's good, but I can't be bothered to explain why I think that because I'm still in a mard with you for making me put my clothes away before I was properly dry".  Fair enough. It has the most gorgeous pictures, and I think will come in very handy for KS3 RE homework.

It has to be said, the food pages of any religion-based book are always the most popular in our house.  Once again, whilst I insisted that a cursory description of the actual story behind Hanukkah was given, the kids wanted to focus on what there was to eat.  "It's basically stuff fried in oil.  That's awesome." "Well, you see, it's fried in oil because.." "yeah, we know the miracle of the oil and stuff. So which side of the dreidl means you win ALL of the chocolate coins then?"

Ah well. Sharing food is an absolutely brilliant way of enhancing cultural understanding.  I am going to go with that as a reason for my offspring being obsessed by what food is eaten in other cultures and religions. Definitely food sharing as cultural exchange.  Nothing to do with the fact that they are a pair of gannets. And it's better than their previous obsession with presents which led A to declare a couple of years ago that she was going to convert to Judaism because "they get eight whole days of presents, whereas we only get one." What was that about coveting your neighbour's ass?

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Won't somebody think about the parents?

"Anyway," said C the other day, after I unreasonably asked him to get off Angry Birds and go and get dressed, "loads of kids in stories don't have parents that make them do stuff!"  This got me to thinking. In many of my very favourite stories as a child, parents play a very, very minimal role.  Even in stories that are explicitly about family life, such as Tospy and Tim, Mum and Dad are very much in the background, despite Topsy and Tim being depicted as really quite small children. The Mum in My Naughty Little Sister is really a secondary care provider. When I re-read The Wishing Chair series to the kids, I formed the impression that the mother must be on valium.  "We're going down into the garden room Mummy to see the naughty little pixie", they trill.  Mother doesn't actually say "I don't really give a flying **** where you go darlings, just leave me here to self-medicate against my dull and empty middle-class existence", but it is implied.

Modern stories often have a similar level of parental absence or benign neglect. JK Rowling has talked about Harry Potter having to be an orphan in order that he has the freedom to engage in death-defying exploits which no loving parents would reasonably want their small 11 year old to be engaged in.  She gets round Ron and Hermione having parents through Ron's having so many that they can barely keep track of who's doing what, and Hermione's parents being utterly disengaged from the wizarding world in a "oh you fought a large basilisk?  That's nice, dear" kind of way.

In the Mr Gum series, Polly is allowed to roam around with a feral dog and a man old enough to be her grandmother, without a by-your-leave from her parents. The Baker Street Boys series (which, though enjoyable does seem rather interminable at the moment) has a variety of urchins whose parents are absent for various reasons (death, imprisonment, forced repatriation to Australia), and so they live alone with one of the girls acting as housekeeper and doing all of the cooking (hmmm).

The trouble with parents, is they want you to do boring stuff, like getting dressed, eating nutritious foods and getting "healthy exercise." And who really wants to read a story about a child who eats some Weetabix, gets their waterproofs on and goes out for a walk across the fields. Not C, that's for sure.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Dorling Kindersley What's Where in the World

Let's pretend I bought this for the kids.  That's right.  I certainly didn't buy it because my general reaction to this question is "No idea." 

UK geography I can do.  I know my Wrexham from my Worcester, from my Shrewsbury from my St Albans. This is almost exclusively down to the fact that I spent the second decade of my life following a second-rate football club around the country, generally to places off the beaten tourist trail.

However, expand the map a little and I flounder, helpless. I had absolutely no idea up until about 3 months ago that Jamaica was off the coast of the USA. And I just had to google that to make sure that it was actually true. I think partly because I've never been outside of Europe (and not really very far into that continent!), but also because I was born without the spatial awareness gene that other people seem to be blessed with.  And I don't just mean, I have poor spatial awareness.  I really do have negligible to none.  For example there is a room at work that I must have been in 20 times, and I still have to ask a handy Year 7 for directions when I go.

Therefore when I clapped eyes on this book I knew it had to be mine.  That is, the kids'. Obv.  And actually it is fascinating.  There is such a wealth of information in here about the world.  From the basics, such as where the highest mountain peaks are, to where different animals are found, to a map showing rates of literacy across the globe.  It's a great book for promoting discussion, even if the conversations it prompts are not always comfortable ("but why is the life-expectancy only 43 there, Mummy!?  43 is young!")

Obviously the down-side of something so tied in to current affairs, is that, long-term, it will become outdated.  But for now, hugely recommended for children age 8 and up.

Monday, 18 November 2013

A book is for life, and also for Christmas.

I was an absolutely brilliant sleeper as a child.  Honestly, you just have to ask my Dad, who is willing to tell how I slept through the night from about the age of 6 weeks, which was in stark contrast to my brother, whose eyes resolutely refused to close for about the first decade of his existence.

Sadly, my children take after their uncle rather than their mother.  I have often railed against the unfairness of this, but God/the fates/Mother Nature don't seem to be listening.  That said (touching all of the wood in the house, and even venturing into the garden to touch some more), BabyM seems a distinctly better sleeper than his siblings so far.  Long may it continue.

However, there was one night of the year where I didn't really sleep at all. Christmas Eve.  On one memorable occasion, when I was about 13 and therefore really old enough to know better, I slept for half an hour and woke for the day at half past midnight.  I think I had a sleep after lunch and Top of the Pops, but was essentially awake for the duration.  This was the worst year, but up until I was 24 and had a child of my own, I probably only slept for 3 or 4 hours in total on that night of all nights.

With this in mind, when A and C were tiny I instigated the Christmas morning book bag.  They have a large linen bag with an embroidered Father Christmas, which is filled with books.  The idea being that, if they should wake at 4am, they can read until Daddy gets up.  Daddy is always the last up on Christmas morning in our household, due to the fact that he is neither a child, nor does he approach Christmas as a child.  He is allowed to sleep until 6am, and then is piled on, by children, wife, and this year, as an extra special treat, baby.  We tend to prise his eyes open until he is forced to accept the inevitable.  It always takes him what seems like about 3 years to put on his dressing gown.  I have taken to buying myself a book, and placing it in our joint stocking, so as to discourage him from suing me for divorce every Boxing Day.

The Christmas book bags have always gone down quite well.  A is far too flitty on Christmas morning to read fiction. She hardly ever reads fiction anyway, and Christmas morning is really not the time to encourage deep, protracted reading sessions. C loves fiction, so does tend to get some in his Christmas bag, but generally they are filled with books with small sections, or activities which can be abandoned at will when Daddy eventually gives in to familial peer pressure, and shuffles, bleary-eyed, downstairs to get the camera out.

Books which have been successful over the years are as follows:

  • For toddlers and pre-schoolers, Nick Sharrat's mix-and-match books are Christmas morning stalwarts. Our family favourite is Mixed Up Fairy Tales, but there are several different titles available.  Children have to make up their own stories by choosing from several different parts of sentences.  So you might have "A handsome prince kissed a frog, and was chased by a bowl of porridge." For non-readers, the pictures tell the story, but this is good for a sibling pair where one can read and the other can't, as it's quite easy to read.  C used to love A reading it to him, as he got to take part too, by choosing which parts of the sentence he wanted.
  • Also by Sharrat is my all-time fave You Choose. The sticker version would be a good choice for Christmas.  Utterly suitable for non-readers, and plenty to look at. There are even festive characters within the book - see if you can spot Father Christmas, or the turkey dinner.

  • For slightly older children, Usborne sticker books are fabulous.  A has particularly enjoyed the Sticker Dolly Dressing series over the years, although this is somewhat fiddly, so probably not ideal for those with poor fine-motor skills, as the frustration of ripping a beautiful skirt is not to be underestimated.
  • Also by Usborne, the puzzle adventures are worth looking at for children who can read independently.  They are not difficult, but are sufficiently challenging to hold interest. This version is particularly attractive, and hard-backed, so durable for carting about on your adventures.

  • For older children, a cook book is generally well-received.  A enjoys planning her future baking exploits whilst tucking into her customary Christmas breakfast of chocolate orange.  This year she has this one. I got in in The Works for £12.  Although not marketed at children, there are photographs for each step and it's very clearly written and extremely comprehensive.  She also has the Horrible Histories Spies book, as, for her birthday treat, she is going to the exhibition based on the book at the Imperial War Museum.  A tie-in book based on a future expedition is always a nice plan - one year I bought an Usborne art gallery sticker book, which we took with us on a trip to the National Gallery, and searched for all of the paintings depicted in the stickers.  As I recall A enjoyed this *almost* as much as I did ;)

  • For teens, in my experience, the most popular book ever is The Guinness Book of Records. I think this is probably down to the fact that it allows them to look at detailed photographs of bodily parts that they would not otherwise have convenient access to.  This is not to say that the book is unsuitable, but there are numerous photos of heavily tattooed or pierced folk, or those who are about the length of a normal classroom ruler.  For teens, with an obsession to be normal, these pictures can be quite comforting (OK, my nose is a little big, but I don't have  tattoo of a spider web covering my entire face and torso, and I am more than 30cm tall). Apparently Ripley's Believe it or Don't is along similar lines, and goes down a storm. 
  • I always used to have Jean Greenhowe knitting booklet at Christmas, but I accept that I was not, in many ways, a typical teen...
I always finish the job with a magazine.  Generally one I refuse to buy during the rest of the year, because they come adorned with plastic tat and are full of adverts for more plastic tat.  But for the rest of the year, they have the Pheonix comic, and when you've gorged on prime fillet steak all year, sometimes you just want a burger. And a chocolate orange, and a few Ferrero Rocher.  And perhaps some Pringles...

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

My ideal school run (aka The Wild Weather Book by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield)

In my head, if you buy a book about something, you then become better at doing the things the book tells you about.  My bookshelf can, in many ways, be seen as a portrait of what my life would be like if I was the idealised version of myself that I gave up striving to be a few years ago. This idealised version of me is absolutely brilliant at getting outdoors with her kids, whatever the weather.

This tempting title was in the latest Book People and, realising that my natural tendency in poor weather is to snuggle under a blanket mainlining cups of tea and Cadburys chocolate fingers, I decided it would be a good one to have on the shelf, especially given that we have to go out of the house at least ten times a week for the school run, so we might as well get maximum enjoyment out of it.

Ah, the school run.  The way there - calmly strolling through the crisp, golden countryside, discussing current affairs, and the minutiae of the day ahead. The way back, laughing together at an amusing anecdote from the day whilst walking our beautiful red setter who doesn't smell, moult, poo or get dirty.

Obviously, that's the ideal me. The real me is slightly scared of both current affairs and dogs.

What actually happens is this. In the morning we are left with precisely 14 nanoseconds to get shoes, coats and gloves on before we have to leave RIGHT NOW OR WE ARE GOING TO BE LATE.  Then I CAN'T FIND MY KEYS WHERE ARE MY KEYS KIDS CAN YOU SEE MY KEYS THERE THEY ARE GET OUT OF THE HOUSE NOW OUT I DON'T CARE IF YOU ONLY HAVE ONE SHOE ON.  We then spend the walk there discussing how youshouldhavelearnedyourspellingsbeforenowwhydoyoualwaysleavethingstothelastminuteIdon'tknowwhereyougetitfrom.
By the time we get to school, an almost calm has descended when we realise we are all actually going to miss each other all day, and kisses are dispensed as pills to counter the ill-effects of the previous twenty minutes of ill-tempered sniping. 

The afternoon.  2pm.  The sun is high in the autumnal sky, and it smells all lovely and fresh, like Britain is meant to smell.  3pm.  A huge, menacing, black cloud edges quietly onto the horizon. 3:10pm Said cloud unleashes its entire contents onto the heads of assorted mums, dads, childminders, grandparents and children and drenches them to the very core of their M&S undies.  The conversation goes thusly.  "Heymummyinictifinishedapictureanditwasofstarwarsandmyfriendsaidblahblebhalbablahblabbbbmmmmmd"
"ICAN'THEARYOUYOUHAVEYOURHOODUPANDAREFACINGAWAYFROM ME" "Yes,ok,andthenblamhablahblahbla".  Ad infinitum.  Complete the picture with A gazing at us as though she is just ever so slightly above it all and BabyM wailing his little heart out, because really Mummy I hadn't quite finished that feed actually.

Anyway. As I was looking through The Wild Weather Book with C earlier, I pondered on how it was a bit like the Autumn and Winter chapters of Nature's Playground, a book I read a while back. I googled the authors and realised that they are in fact the self-same people.

Nature's Playground is a better, more comprehensive book.  We have found the activities in there to be really inspirational; I enjoyed making the fairy house almost as much as the kids did, in actual real life, and this activity is also included in The Wild Weather Book. In fact, there is an awful lot of crossover.  However, it is worth having both books, and indeed The Stick Book if it takes your fancy, because the smaller books are much more portable.  Nature's Playground is not one to cart around in your rucksack - it's a substantial tome.

I noticed that they have a city version coming out in May, and I will certainly be looking out for that one. I will be putting it in my family adventure rucksack. Which I actually do have.  It only ever really comes out during school holidays when I reach as close to the person depicted on my bookshelves as I ever manage. Never mind - she's almost certainly completely insufferable.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Baking, and the interaction of the web and the book.

A and I have been fans of the Great British Bake Off since the Spring.  We went on what would have been a wonderful holiday in Brittany, which was somewhat less stellar than it should have been due to a number of factors.  1) I was pregnant, and still somewhat sick, and also was unable to indulge in copious amounts of French wine, which always makes a French holiday pass in an even more pleasant haze.  2) The weather was like Britain, but we had had to travel for pretty much a day to get there. 3) A picked up some kind of horrible virus and was sick and tired for the whole week.  She is normally an 100mph kind of character, but spent most of the holiday slumped in front of the TV.  Happily BBC2 were repeating all of the previous series of GBBO, and it was just the thing for lazy slumping.  It made the holiday a lot more bearable for the pair of us (MrM and C were a little less keen, so found other ways to amuse themselves, like swimming, seeing the sights and other things you are actually meant to do on holiday.)

Anyway, there has just been a new series of GBBO, which A and I have watched together, often in our pjs on a Friday after school.  This, coupled with the fact that I am currently mainly stranded at home with a car-hating baby, means that I am cooking a lot.  Particularly baking.  Whilst this is not ideal for me to get back into my jeans, we do all feel spectacularly well-fed at the moment.  I am virtually living off Banana Oat breakfast bars, the recipe for which was in a Sainsburys magazine the last time I was on maternity leave.  I am so au fait with the recipe now, that I don't have to look at it, and am almost at the point where I don't have to weigh the ingredients, and can judge it by sight. This is fine, since it has oats and fruit in, so is virtually a health food.

Anyway, to the point.  Up to now, my experience of book/web direct interaction has been the links they give you in Usborne books. Fine, to a point, but I'd really rather the kids actually looked in the book to help them with their homework.

However, I have now discovered the nirvana of web/book interactivity.  Eat Your Books. For a subscription fee which is similar in price to a good cook book, you can upload the names of all of your cookbooks.  The site provides an index of all of the recipes in your books. You can, therefore, search for all of the recipes for goulash in your books, pick out the appropriate books and peruse the recipes.  It takes out the angsty "I'm sure I have a recipe for this somewhere", where you look through every single book good old Delia has ever published.  So far A, C and I have searched for caramel cornflake cake, chocolate beetroot cake, Christmas pudding and, in a shock departure from cake, but not straying too far from the processed carb mothership, bread sauce. 

There should be a site like this for children's books.  "I'm sure I have a page of info somewhere on the development of toilets from hole in the ground to automatic flushes".  For now, we'll be content with knowing that an index of all our baked goods exists online, and feel safe that we will never have to live without a random-vegbox-inspired loaf cake for want of a good recipe.

Monday, 4 November 2013

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

"A new classic" says a quote from someone who gets paid to do this sort of thing above the blurb.  A new classic about a post-apocalyptic world, set in the not-too-distant future?  Ought to be quite my cup of cha.

Hmmm.  It's decidedly flimsy for a classic.  Quite short, and really quite thin on plot.  In fairness, I was already judging by about page 4.  I have this thing about names.  I'm very interested in them, and really hate it when a writer doesn't seem to do their name research properly.  In the Hunger Games, the names felt right.  Unfamiliar, but not impossible to pronounce.  In this book, the main character is sent to live with her aunt and cousins, deep in the English countryside. Two of the names are plausible but seem to have very Americanised spellings (Penn (presumably short for Penelope) and Edmond.  But the 9 year old girl is called Piper.  I know that Piper has increased in popularity in the UK over the last decade or so, but a 9 year old farmer's daughter called Piper in 2004?  I think not.  I called her Pippa in my head, which made me feel a little better (I told you I had a thing). It's really annoying since Rosoff has actually lived in the UK for a couple of decades, and therefore should know better.

Names aside, this felt like a book which was written in the hope of a film adaptation. It feels like reading the spin-off of the film adaptation. There is very, very little depth of character, and the "oh, now we're in love" bit reminded me of Romeo and Juliet, which always irritates me, because there doesn't appear to be any build up whatsoever to this love which is supposedly worth dying for.

Anyway, I was distinctly underwhelmed. However, it might be good for a reluctant reader teen, as it deals with a lot of popular themes of teen literature at the moment, but doesn't require the investment of time that many other novels written for teens do.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Newborns are so much easier now that ebook readers exist.

It's been a very lean few months on the blog, due to the fact that since BabyM was born, in the middle of September, I have been taking every opportunity to sleep that is available.

BabyM is so far not in the least interested in books.  However, rather wonderfully, due to the advent of ebook readers, I am able to feed and read at the same time, without the pesky issue of how to stop the book falling over/on to the baby's head (apologies for all the times a heavy Robin Hobb flapped open onto you, C), or how to turn the pages without losing the latch you've spent five minutes, and some minor discomfort, achieving.

Now, it's just a case of resting a nice light plastic screen on your leg.  And, wonderfully, if you're feeding at 3am, you can make the print REALLY big so that you don't have to have the light on.  Using a book light, which conveniently clips on to BabyM's bedside cot, I have got through quite a lot of reading material so far.

Most of it, to be honest, has been spent comfort reading. Mainly Bill Bryson, with his wonderful, comforting, chatty tone.  The only problem with this is that now I want to travel across Australia on a very expensive train, which I can't really afford, or actually do, given that I now have three children, who would probably not massively enjoy the journey.  Ah well, one for the bucket list.

I have also read the first two Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan.  I saw the trailer for the latest film when we went to see Despicable Me 2 in the summer, and thought that it looked interesting (well, if I'm being totally honest, I'm a sucker for anything that looks a bit like The Clash of the Titans or Jason and the Argonauts, both of which I am never, ever watching again, to preserve their status as masters of the special effect in my head.  As I recall, the scene with Medusa was realistic and terrifying.  In reality, you can probably see the plasticene marks on her head.)

Anyway, often I read books aimed at young people that seem to be more aimed at adults, and wonder how much children actually get out of them.  The Percy Jackson series is NOT like this. It is clearly and obviously written for teenagers (I was going to add by a teenager, but that is very unfair, since I don't know Mr Riordan, who may be the very model of maturity.)  It's a little, um, flimsy.  Also Percy is a bit annoying.  Not that this stops me enjoying a series; I loved the Harry Potter series, but never, ever really warmed to Harry, who I always thought was a bit of a smug git.  But Percy is really very irritating indeed, and his version of Hermione and Ron are also a bit irritating too, which is a problem, since I think I would have been a little relieved if they had been eaten by monsters.

It's a shame, as the idea is so very, very promising.  It's about a group of young people who are "half-bloods" - the offspring of humans and Greek Gods - and the monsters who are trying to do them in.  It is action-packed and the plot is good and interesting. I just kind of wish Philip Pullman had thought of it first...

Friday, 6 September 2013

The Haunted Book by Jeremy Dyson

I really enjoyed this book, up until the last twenty or so pages, which absolutely didn't ruin it, but I think went somewhat over my head.

I had downloaded this before I realised that it's by the guy who wrote The League of Gentlemen, which I hate with quite some passion.  However, I am not a fan of dark comedy in general, and I am very much a fan of spooky books, and this did not disappoint at all.  I enjoyed the stories, some were certainly scarier than others, but they were all spine-tinglers rather than violent or graphic.  I liked the framing of the stories, and felt the books within the book idea was fabulous.  I think the book was better for this, which is what made the ending all the more disappointing.  I realise this sounds very vague, but any further details would give away too much, and ruin the effect.

Apparently this is MUCH better in hardback than as a paperback, and less still an e-book, which I can well imagine, because, from what I have read, the effects of the book within a book are much clearer and more spooky in the hardback version.  It would make a great Christmas gift for a late teen or adult who enjoys ghost stories.  Be warned that one of the stories is about a voyeur, and contains references to the Marquis de Sade.  Although there is no inappropriate content, in may lead to some interesting questions!

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Possibly the most depressing book ever written.

OK, it's a very good book.  It's a very good book for teens because it combines a syrupy love-story-against-the-odds with a heavy (but well-disguised) dose of LOOK AT THE STATE OF THE WORLD WE LIVE IN, TEENS!  Kind of like Twilight with an actual point.

I was concerned that the only book I'd read by the new Children's Laureate was Pig-Heart Boy. And then even more concerned when I realised I hadn't actually read the book at all, but watched the series on the BBC, which is not really the same, is it?  So I decided to read Noughts and Crosses, which seems to be her best known novel.

Oh my goodness, how horribly depressing it is.  There are no easy answers to the uncomfortable questions it poses about racial discrimination and cultural hegemony.  Probably because there are actually no easy answers.  This does leave the reader with a bit of a sense of futility at the end, however. 

The book is set in an alternate world, where the continents have not separated and in the part of the world where the story is set, black people have power, control and, often, an utter disregard for the humanity of white people.  It follows the story of Sephy (a Cross (black person), whose father is high up in the country's government) and Callum,  a Nought (white) whose mother is employed as a nanny/home help in Sephy's home.  Sephy and Callum are close, but there are obviously many and varied obstacles in their path.  It doesn't end well.

The book is the first in a series.  I am stealing myself before reading the others...

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I vaguely knew the plot of this through hearing people talk about the film, although I've not seen it, since I think it would disturb A and she would probably never sleep again.  I've also read Gaiman's The Graveyard Book with my students in Book Group.  It was a little more difficult and wordy than the books some of them were used to, but most of us enjoyed it.

I loved Coraline though.  It was very creepy, but very compelling, and the characterisation was fantastic.  It reminded me a little of one of my favourite films, a little-known early-80s Disney horror called "The Watcher in the Woods".  The setting was very similar to another of my favourites, the book Tom's Midnight Garden. The spooky, lonely only child motif reminded me of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror.  For those that enjoyed Coraline, I'd recommend the other two books, if you've not already read them.

I tried to encourage A to read it but it had "too many long words".  *Sigh*.  I think it may have been a little too scary for bedtime reading in fairness.  It felt very old-fashioned and almost placeless in terms of its world geography, which only added to the sense of "other-worldness".  Very enjoyable.  Worth reading through first for sensitive souls though.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Horton Halfpott by Tom Angelberger

This was a very strange book indeed.  C and I read it at bedtime after I found it in a charity shop.  It was 99p and had a glow in the dark cover, with a picture that reminded me of Jan Pienkowski, so obviously I had to buy it.  I didn't actually look inside the book before I handed over my 99 English pence, which was perhaps an error of judgement.

C liked it, and I can kind of see why.  It was quite humourous in places; the characters were fun in a pantomime-esque way and there was enough mystery to keep the reader interested. However, it was an American book set in an English country house probably some time in the early 20th century.  It annoyed me because there were massive anachronisms in the way the characters spoke and the vocabulary used to describe items in the house and the landscape.  This didn't really bother C, in fact I am certain he didn't notice.  I did feel the need to translate some of it on the hoof, so was quite glad, for that reason, that I was reading, rather than him having read the book himself.

It's certainly not one I will be giving shelf-space to, so will be returning to the charity shop from whence it came.  It's not a bad read, but make sure you don't pay more than 99p for it!

The Baker Street Boys: The Case of the Limehouse Laundry by Anthony Read

As previously mentioned we downloaded this to the Nook for holiday reading, purely because we get the train from Limehouse to visit friends when we're in London.  This seemed like quite a spurious reason to download it, but we only had four books in our library basket, and you're allowed five at a time, so in it went.

It turned out to be a bit of a revelation!  C tends to denounce bedtime stories as boring unless they are instantly gripping and/or funny, preferably both.  This had just enough humour and mystery in the opening section to keep him going, and by the time we were about 10 pages in, he was hooked.  A also started to listen in, and by the end they were both heavily invested in the story.

They struggled a bit with knowing when it was set "why are they calling Tower Bridge new, Mummy?  It's really old!?  And Limehouse isn't where Chinatown is!"  Having explained the chronology, I though rather brilliantly, C piped up "so was it before or after the Great Fire then?"  I think we may spend some time this holiday making some sort of rough timeline...

Anyway, the stories involve Sherlock Holmes in a minimal role, but it's the children who make up the Boys that really solve the mystery.  It has sparked an interest in Holmes in the kids though, so we might do a visit to the Baker Street museum next time we're in London. 

The best news for C and me is that there are lots more of the books in the series, and the library have a very good selection of them available for the ereader :)  Bedtime story dilemmas solved for the foreseeable future.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe

This week we've been on our holidays in Scotland; an hour from Edinburgh on the train.  We took the opportunity to visit the festival for the first time ever.  I was very glad that we had some lovely friends with us who knew what they were doing, as I think I may have spent the days wandering around looking dazed rather than actually finding shows to watch otherwise. 

We saw two shows, only one of which was based on a book, but both of which are worth a mention.  The first was an adaptation of some of Kipling's Just So Stories.  The four actors used everyday items as props to enhance their storytelling, which was really, really very good.  Many small children were spellbound which, given how complex the language in the stories is, is quite impressive.  I have tried to read them to A, and she has declared them boring, but she was certainly listening at the show!  It was, however, very expensive for what turned out to be only half an hour's worth of show, which was a little irritating.

We also saw the stage show adaptation of CBBC's Help! My Supply Teacher is Magic! It was absolutely brilliant.  The only slight trauma was when A got picked to help with a trick and C didn't, which caused dramatic, but also thankfully, short-lived heartache.  I do get a slight heart-sink moment when kids are picked out of the audience in shows.  It does tend to simply aggravate kids who want to get picked and never are, or embarrass kids who don't really feel comfortable with being in the lime-light, but are suddenly thrust into it.  Anyway, it's a testament to how entertaining the show was that C quickly forgot his upset and has not mentioned it since.  Well worth a visit if you get the chance.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

The library, but portable...

So, having realised that it was in fact my computer that was hideously slow and temperamental, rather than the Nook or the library software, and, having now acquired a new computer, I have been downloading books from the library onto our three Nooks as often as the library rules allow.

I have a niggling doubt that downloading books to an electronic device cannot be quite as good for libraries as actually going in there, but since we do that too pretty regularly, it probably doesn't make too many odds for us.

The kids have enjoyed All The Best by Roger McGough on theirs, and we are currently reading The Baker Street Boys: The Case of the Limehouse Laundry at bedtime. I only picked it because we sometimes get the train from Limehouse station to see friends in Southend, so I thought the kids might relate to the setting, but it turns out it's a cracking tale so far, and it's one of a very long series, all of which are available through the library service.  Bonus!

I very much enjoyed The Comfort of Things by Daniel Miller - all about the residents of a South London street, and their possessions.  This is a book I probably would never have picked up in reality, or bought on the kindle, but it was a very interesting read.  I did suffer the disappointment of downloading a book which I thought I would love, only to find that I'd actually already read it on holiday a couple of years ago (it was The Gallows Curse by Karen Maitland, and I did enjoy it)

The Nook Simple Touch appears to be out of stock at the moment, but I will update when they come back in - we have been really very impressed with ours, and being able to support libraries and get books for free has to be a bonus.  Even if you do download the odd book you've read before.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Old-skool Choose Your Own Adventure

Last week I took the kids to the Tower of London for the first time.  Mr M and I went in June half-term when we had a couple of child-free days in London, and I was tempted to get the children's guide so that we could engage the kids before their visit.

"Don't get that!" says Mr M.  I assumed he was just weeping uncontrollably inside at the idea of adding yet another book to our collection.  But no.  Mr M remembered a book from his own childhood about the Tower, and wanted to find it.  "It was a Choose Your Own Adventure".  Say no more, Mr M.

I absolutely loved Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, even though I was also really, really terrified of them.  I remember one called Your Very Own Robot, which could equally have been called Die in a Variety of Quite Scary Ways.  I was always extremely risk averse in the books (as in life), but still ended up meeting a sticky end quite often.  And yet, I remember the books with fondness.

How could I resist the opportunity to combine an educational visit with some scary, nostalgic fiction?  I couldn't.  No book was purchased that day at the Tower.

Unfortunately, we couldn't find the chosen Tower book at MrsMSnr's house.  We found one about a shark, which probably would have given me nightmares for weeks, but there aren't that many sharks at the Tower.  Obviously the only available solution was to buy the book from a second-hand Amazon seller.

I can't remember if all of the Choose Your Own Adventure books were American, but Choose Your Own Adventure The Tower of London certainly is.  Published in 1984 "You" play the part of an American tourist visiting your penpal with the, unlikely even in 1984, name of Rodney, who lives at the Tower.  Obviously, in MrM and my readings of the text, Rodney speaks with an Edwardian BBC accent.  This is partly because it just seemed right, but also to try and minimise the terror, lest one of our unsuspecting children picks the story which leads the ghost of Richard III to throw you down a pit where you are destined to starve to death.

Most of the story arcs are not quite so terrifying, which is good.  They do cover a basic Who's Who of Tower of London ghosts, which is what we were after.  On balance, almost certainly more entertaining than the rather dry kids guide sold today at the Tower.  Also, we had literally minutes of fun daring and double daring each other to go and ask all of the Yeoman Warders if they were Rodney's Dad. Who can put a price on that?

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Dorling Kindersley Cook it Step by Step

I have always loved children's cook books.  Since the heady days of my Henry's Cat Fun to Cook Book, which had the best picture of Henry's Cat ever on the front of it, I have enjoyed reading them.  The recipes, however, often turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.  Although I do remember the cheese straw whiskers in said book were actually pretty good.

Anyway, there are some fab children's cookbooks around today, of which we own a fair proportion.  My favourite is almost certainly The River Cottage Family Cookbook, which groups recipes according to their main ingredient and provides background information on how and why the recipes work.  It is a little on the "you must grind the wheat and sweat in to the bowl" sack-cloth and ashes style, though, so the kids tend to prefer the glossy Usborne baking books that don't bother with such fripperies as actual dinners, and deal simply with gingerbread men and chocolate mousse.

A got the above book out of the library last week, as part of her summer reading challenge haul.  I resisted the temptation to say "but we've got loads of cook books at home!", because the rule in the library is that they borrow whatever they fancy, as long as its appropriate.  I promised that she could choose a main meal and a pudding to make on Saturday, as I knew we'd be in all day with our only plans being the very vague "tidy up".  So tonight we had burgers and gingerbread teddies (we don't actually have a person-shaped cutter) for tea.

Although the book is light on background reading, the recipes are very clear and easy to follow, and there are plenty of pictures so that the reader can see what each stage of the recipe is meant to look like, which is really valuable for the beginner cook, I think.  The burgers were actually really very good - they didn't fall to bits in the frying pan, and were extremely tasty.  The gingerbread teddies were also very palatable and were easily made by A following the instructions on her own. 

If you don't already own all of the kids' cookbooks that The Book People have ever sold, as I do, I would thoroughly recommend this one.  And put the Usborne World Cookbook in your basket too - the recipes aren't quite as well-explained but the short explanations of different world cuisines are very interesting.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell

OK, I will start with the disclaimer that the thing that made me hate these books at first was the author's irritating name.  Obviously it is not her fault that her name is alliterative, overly-cutesy, and un-necessarily first-name heavy.  However, these inadvertent faults are exacerbated by the font in which they are emblazoned across the front of the books. Think ComicSans MS but more irritating. 

Which brings me on to the covers themselves.  Now, perhaps I am old, but to me a "dork" is a geek.  Someone who one would expect to look at least a little bit geeky.  Perhaps scraggy hair and trousers which end a few inches above the ankle bone.  If there are specs, they would be NHS 80s style ones.  In brown.   The girl on the front of every single glaringly-shaded cover is categorically NOT a dork.  Unless it has completely reversed its meaning, and the girls out of Mean Girls are now what is considered to be a dork.  Somehow I do not think this is the case.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't exactly like The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  But at least it was original.  Tom Gates I love, because even though it is a bit of a rip-off of the above-named series, it is actually better.  This might be because it makes more sense to me and the kids, given that it is a British series.  But it is also hilariously funny, to the point where if a child is reading it to me in an independent reading session, I always make them read a little bit longer than the others, as I am enjoying the story.

Second disclaimer.  Unlike Tom Gates I haven't read a whole book of Dork Diaries. This is mainly because, as I rapidly approach middle age, I am keen to hold on to all the brain cells I can.  I could actually feel my brain cells dying as I read the vacuous trash contained within the pages of the first in the series.  It's real "write-a-kids-book-by numbers" stuff. 

A openly admits that the books are "pretty rubbish".  She compared them to junk food. I thought this was completely fair enough.  My junk reading at her age was, as I've said before, Danielle Steele; so I'd rather she was reading this.  Probably.

Originally I told her she would have to borrow them from the library, since I was not wasting hard earned cash on them.  However, the problem with series books and libraries is that it can be difficult to ensure that you can read the books in order, and I acknowledge that this is a problem, even for very rubbish books.  (That said, we did manage, between two school and four public libraries, to borrow the entire Series of Unfortunate Events in order.  But then I was very motivated that A should read that series).  I have bought the set from the Book People, with the proviso that as soon as the books are read, they will be donated to the charity shop.  There's no way I'm giving shelf space up for these.

Admittedly, the three hours of peace that the books brought me on Sunday morning does make them seem worth their £6.99 price tag.  Perhaps worth a buy for filling those hours in the long holidays approaching.  But don't expect great literature.  Or a laugh.  Or a picture of an actual dork.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Reading to older children

During my oasis of calm reading lessons with my lovely Year 7 group, I have taken to reading The Hobbit as they sit on the beanbags reading Wimpy Kid rip-offs (often better than the original, it has to be said), and vampire trash.  Obviously I am totally happy for them to read whatever they chose.  I have to admit I only chose The Hobbit because I couldn't be bothered to go to my bag and fetch the book I was actually reading, and it happened to be on a shelf that I could reach from the comfort of my teacher chair.

I have never actually read The Hobbit myself, but I remember my Dad reading it to me when I was about 11 or 12.  The deal was, if we were in bed for 9pm, Dad would sit on the landing between my room and my brother's room and read to us.  We had The Hounds of the Morrigan, The Hobbit, Watership Down and probably some others that have faded over time.  What hasn't faded is that feeling of safety that comes with being read to. It certainly made a difference to our own reading and writing skills - listening to an expert reader read aloud from the work of an expert writer can't fail to do this. It's not like we couldn't read well ourselves by that time.  But that wasn't the point.  It was lovely that Dad took the time to read something to us that we might not necessarily have bothered to read for ourselves.  It rounded the day off nicely.  It made us feel secure.

I have been urging parents at recent meetings to continue to read to their children as they transition from primary to secondary.  They don't suddenly turn into adults when they wear a blazer instead of a brightly coloured jumper.  It is still such a valuable use of time.  I will certainly continue to read to mine, either until they move out, or ask me to stop, whichever comes sooner. It is absolutely one of my favourite times of the day.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Usborne cards

C, like many males, has a favourite place for reading, which handily doubles as a place to perform, shall we say, necessary operations for the human body.  So, he was sat on the loo reading, as he often does.  However, he was somewhat scuppered by the fact that he had chosen to read the Usborne 50 Optical Illusions cards. 

I am a massive fan of Usborne cards.  They are good for taking on holiday, or to places where there will be room to spread out, since the cards often require writing on (with dry-wipe markers which are provided).  They are not, however, ideal for reading on the loo, as C has discovered.  Far too much potential for dropping them on the floor, and being unable to reach them comfortably afterwards.

The cards are quite tough (although mine were past the toddler stage when we got them, so would probably not survive being chewed).  Some are activity based ones (such as the Optical Illusions ones which have been very popular with both of mine.) Others are fact-based.  A is much more likely to have a look at her cards about Kings and Queens than she is to read a book about them.  Perhaps a more user-friendly format. 

Sunday, 16 June 2013

One of my more sophisticated hobbies

There are many reasons why I feel very lucky to have the job that I do.  You know, working with great young people, wonderful colleagues, feeling that I make a difference, blah blah.  But one of the major advantages of my job is that I often get to colour in, and it is totally and utterly legitimate.  For example, the Greenaway medal shadowing.  Obviously we produce some artwork based on the books we have looked at.  Obviously I need to "model" for the kids what they are expected to do, by spending many, many hours on a very detailed, but always disappointingly mediocre, piece of art.  The Teachit reading advent calendar which I've mentioned before is another good opportunity for colouring in. 

My own kids also provide a decent chance to get some illicit colouring into my life.  A doesn't particularly like it, and so I often step in to "help" her with any homework that requires colouring. I think I coloured in the vast majority of her First Communion activity book.

At the weekend I bought the colour-in map of the UK from Pheonix Cards from a stall at our school fete.  I've been eyeing this up for ages, and had decided against buying it, as we already have an Usborne UK map sticker book which we add stickers to when we go on a UK holiday or day trip.  However, upon seeing the colour-in map in the flesh, I just knew I had to have it.  I told myself it was so we could add notes, which we don't normally do in the sticker book; but really it was because then I could colour it in.

A did the puffin's beak, and C did a tiny section of Stonehenge.  I, on the other hand, have coloured the South of England in its entirety and much of Wales.  I have to admit that when the kids were in bed this evening, I have done a little more.  I don't even feel guilty.  Colouring-in is ace.

Every so often I think of the Rob Newman sketch where he calms himself down from a state of high anxiety by doing a Paint-by-Numbers on an easel.  I used to laugh at this, but always a little bit self-consciously. 

Ah well.  There are much less healthy and much less expensive ways of relaxing. You could buy a fair few colouring books for the price of a spa break...

A fellow colouring enthusiast has recommended The Secret Garden Colouring Book by Johanna Basford, which might well have to go on my Christmas list.  She has also recommended not letting the kids anywhere near it.  A woman after my own heart...

Saturday, 15 June 2013

World War Z by Max Brooks

I'd seen the posters for this film in that London over half-term.  I read it as World War Zed (being from Britain and all), which I thought was a bit of a clunky and not-very-clever title for a film.  What I should have realised is that, given that it stars Brad Pitt, it is, in fact, an American film, and is therefore called World War Zee.  Much cleverer.

Anyway, I hadn't realised it was a book until I was idly perusing Mumsnet whilst drinking my morning cuppa and I came across a thread ranting about how the film trailer makes it look like it takes massive liberties with the plot of the book.

I am a fairly recent convert to well-written zombie stories.  Well, I say zombie stories, I mean the Fear series by Charlie Higson.  I haven't actually read any others, as I don't quite trust them (just like I don't really trust fantasy writers other than George RR Martin and Robin Hobb.  What if I didn't like them as much?)

Anyway, I looked the book up on Amazon.  It is written as a series of eye-witness interviews detailing the events surrounding a war which comes about after the majority of the world's population contracts a disease which turns them into zombies.  The interviews are purported to be conducted about a decade after the official end of the war, although the zombies are yet to be totally eradicated. 

It is absolutely brilliant. I urge anyone who is a fan of the Fear series to read it.  I am going to recommend it to the kids in my form who have read and enjoyed the Higson books. It's much less brutal than them and, although it is aimed at an adult audience, it is less hard-hitting in lots of ways than lots of the teenage fiction I've read recently.  This is partly because the narrative is provided by people that we know must have survived, because otherwise they would not be around to be interviewed.

I had originally decided that when the zombies come, we were heading to Cuba.  However, since finishing the book, I have decided on the Republic of Ireland. It's easier to get to, we speak one of  the officially recognised languages, (I could even chuck in a few Roddy Doyle-isms) and we fit in, theologically speaking (we can all say the Hail Mary.  Well, I say all, C gets a bit lost after "Hail Mary" so his goes more like "Hail Mary muh mu muh.  Mummuh muh muh amuh muhmuh..." you get the idea). 

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre: A Pop-Up Play Book by Toby Forward

Apparently, I had agreed earlier in the week that we could watch a Dr Who this afternoon.  This happened to be fine by me, as it had been quite a busy morning, and I am rather partial to a bit of Dr Who.

They asked for a Tenth Doctor one they hadn't seen, and chose one about Shakespeare.  I hadn't seen it either, but assumed it wouldn't be that scary (after already having vetoed the first Weeping Angels one, which gave me nightmares).  Eeeek!  I am predicting rather a lot of witch nightmares tonight.

Anyway, the Globe theatre featured quite heavily in this episode.  We have seen the Globe from the outside, and been in the gift shop, several times, and they did recognise the building, and agreed when I pointed out that the Southbank has altered rather drastically since Shakespeare's time.

About halfway through the episode, I remembered that above-mentioned book, which I bought years ago (almost certainly from The Book People) for an indeterminate future date, when the kids might theoretically be interested in Shakespeare.

They did seem very interested in the book, but purely on the basis that they could see where the Doctor and Martha were sitting, and see where the witches were plotting to end the world.  They then spent a while re-enacting the Dr Who episode in all its glory.  They showed absolutely no interest whatsoever in making the little paper actors act scenes from Shakespeare (two play scripts and a variety of paper characters are provided for this purpose.)  Foiled again...

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Ooops - I appear to be reading five different books at once

Oh, it's all gone horribly wrong.  I think the fact that I have finished reading the Carnegie shortlist went to my head a little, and in the maelstrom of literary excitement, I have bitten off far more than I can chew.  Or started far more books than I can really read at once.

I partly blame the Kindle for this.  At least back in the days of piling books up by my bedside table, there was only a limited amount of physical space in which books could be comfortably deposited without endangering the smooth running of my teasmade.  Now, there is endless digital space to be filled, and each book looks so small, with the title in a small, unimposing font saying "oh, don't mind me, I'm only a little book."

The trouble is Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver is not a little book.  I've seen it in Foyles, so I know, it's really quite long.  I am reading this for the Mumsnet Book Club, which I am actually very much enjoying participating in.  I love my real life book groups at school and in my village, but the trouble with them is that you have to be dressed in proper clothes to attend.  You can't go in pyjamas, or in your actual bed.  The webchat on Mumsnet can't see you, and doesn't know that you're already tucked up with the only the sounds of the keys tapping filling the companionable silence.  (Unless the teasmade is at work making the night-time drink, it truly is unfeasibly loud).

Dodger by Terry Pratchett is another long one (this one is for Book Group - I have never yet successfully got to the end of a Pratchett novel in my long reading career so far).  I am not sure if Pratchett is normally quite so verbose, or if this is in homage to Dickens.  I already don't really like it, and I'm only about twenty pages in.  I really quite want to like Terry Pratchett, as he has written so very many books, but having read the same paragraph about the world on top of the turtle about 34,000 times over the years, and still being utterly baffled, I think I may have to admit defeat.

So, these two were already on the go.  Then I went to Oxfam yesterday.  I was meant to be buying cards and wrapping paper, but I accidentally bought four books instead.  This is fine, in terms of the fact that they seem quite good books, and I will happily return them whence they came when I have finished them.  I am, however, no further forward with wrapping the two birthday presents which need to be delivered to their recipients tomorrow.  Ah well.

I came across Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island in said shop.  I thought I'd read this years ago, as I love Bill Bryson, but upon reading Chapter 1, I realised that I hadn't.  What a treat!  Obviously it would have been rude not to have bought it, and start reading it pretty much immediately.  I also got hold of Eragon by Christopher Paolini, which I promised one of my form I would read, and kind of started that too.

Today I started reading Horton Halfpott by Tom Angleberger with C.  He giggled sufficiently through the first chapter to agree to having Chapter 2 tomorrow.  We shall see.

Luckily, they are all sufficiently different books, that I am just about managing to juggle them so far.

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

I am not quite sure now why I expected this to be rubbish. I am fairly certain that if this book had been like "Aurora Leigh", it would probably not have been shortlisted.  Because that wasn't really marketed for children.  So, I was expecting this book to be boring and try-hard, and actually it was neither.

It was really easy for forget that it was written in verse.  Not because the verse wasn't good, although it is fairly free-form, but because it didn't feel in any way contrived.  This is a massive achievement since "contrived" is a word which generally associates very closely with the term "verse novel". 

The subject matter was interesting and relevant to teens.  It's about a young Polish girl who moves with her mother to Coventry from Gdansk to find her runaway father.  Having moved to Coventry myself at a similar age, I found that this hooked me in, although I appreciate that is an atypical reason for identifying with a novel, and am in no way implying that to enjoy the book you have to have moved to Coventry at around the time you were going through puberty. 

The book explores the issues of family breakdown, bullying, fitting in at school, loss and first love without ever being navel-gazing.  Again, "navel-gazing" being the exact term that I would normally associate with any teen angst poem.  I am forced to admit that there is really no competition between the protagonist Kasienka's verse narrative, and my own poems, brought about by my move to Coventry, which mainly focused on people making fun of the way I said "carstle" instead of "casstle". 

Perhaps this should be the subject of my great work - the one thing which has followed me wherever I have gone (assuming where I have gone is north of Oxford) - people making fun of my "weird vowels".   Perhaps this will be my Carnegie winner.  But then again maybe not.

The completion of this rather wonderful book (which can be read by a voracious reader in the course of one evening, quite easily) means that I have now read all of the shortlisted books for this year's Carnegie Medal.  Much as this one would probably not be my winner, I think it would certainly be a worthy one.  It takes more risks than any of the other novels, and is refreshing in its originality.

If I were forced at gunpoint to decide (which is obviously a regular occurrence when shadowing children's book awards), I think I would go for A Boy and a Bear in a Boat.  However, I can certainly see this book winning.  I think Maggot Moon is in with a very good chance too.  All of the shortlisted books, with the exception of Wonder which seems extremely flimsy in comparison, are exceptional books in their own way. 

Monday, 3 June 2013

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Frequently I read a book which convinces me that teenagers get all of the best books written for them.  This is undoubtedly my book of the year so far.  It is absolutely and completely brilliant. Currently it costs £1.09 for the Kindle edition.  I would absolutely recommend that anyone who owns a Kindle download it.  And if you don't own a Kindle borrow it from the library.  Heck, even pay full price for it.  That's how much I love it - a book I would pay the RRP for without hesitation.

It's very Michelle Magorian-esque, but a little more grown up than that.  Set in World War II it tells almost the same story from two different points of view.  I have already read it twice, because it's only when you've finished reading that the whole story comes together.

It is incredibly sad.  I tried very hard to cry silently whilst sitting on the train home on my own.  In fact, it's not a very good bet for the train really - not only because you might well cry, but also because unless your train journey is extremely long, you will not get it all read.

It's a little bit slow to start, and this would possibly put some teens off, but it really is worth persisting.  It would be a great read for those studying or interested in World War II, or perhaps as somewhere for Michelle Magorian fans to move on to. 

Best for 13+ I would think, or slightly younger very competent readers - there are smatterings of several different European languages and the plot can be somewhat difficult to piece together, partly because of the different code names for the characters, and because of the multiple narrative.  However, it really is worth a read.

I now only have one of the Carnegie books left to read.  Given it's written in verse, I really don't think it will be in the running for my favourite.  It may come above Wonder in my estimation, but then The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia comes above Wonder. Potentially the book about practical jokes that the kids argued over last summer hols that doesn't even have  a name comes above Wonder.  If Wonder wins I will be very grumpy indeed. I should probably do something practical to assuage my rage, but being grumpy will almost certainly suffice. 

I can't decide whether I want Code Name Verity to win or A Boy and a Bear in a Boat.  (I absolutely loved A Greyhound of a Girl too, but Roddy Doyle still has to lose a few marks from me, because of writing A Star Called Henry all those years ago.)  There should be separate age categories, and then they could both win. They both win in my estimation anyway.  Unless of course the dreaded verse novel manages to pull it out of the bag...

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

This book, another shortlisted for the Carnegie medal this year, endeared itself to me in many ways.  One of the foremost among these is that it took pretty much exactly the same time to read as the train took to get me from my home town to London.  If you happen to live approximately 1.5 hours away from London on the train, this may be of interest to you.  If not, perhaps there are other chunks of 1.5 hours in your life that might benefit from being whiled away whilst you read a rather fantastic book.

Sedgwick was shortlisted for the Carnegie a couple of years ago with White Crow. I really wanted to like White Crow since, according to the blurb, it was something I should have liked.  However, although I liked the idea of it, it felt like a short story which had been stretched to become a novel, and I found myself reading it just so I could get to the end and find out what was going to happen, rather than because I was actually enjoying it.

For me, Midwinterblood is a much better novel than White Crow.  It works as seven short stories in one, and they are all interlinked in a clever way, which only becomes totally clear at the end.  There are enough clues to keep the reader interested, the characters are well enough drawn that you actually care what happens to them, and the plot keeps up a good pace.

Good for age 11+ for those with a strong sense of narrative and good memory for names, as there is rather a lot of overlap between stories, and you need to hold lots of threads in your mind at once.  Would be a good one to read aloud for weaker readers, but not for young kids as there is plenty of death, and some (admittedly folklore/fairytale-esque) blood and gore.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

In Darkness by Nick Lake

The good thing about shadowing competitions, and being one of those people who set themselves reading goals, which the world might possibly end if they don't achieve, is that it makes you read books that you would certainly not otherwise read.

Of the books shortlisted for this years' Carnegie Medal, this one was the one I least wanted to read initially.  Actually, that's not strictly true - the one written completely in verse seems even less appealing.  I had enough of verse novels for one lifetime after wading through "Paradise Lost", "Paradise Regained" and "Aurora Leigh" at university.

I don't know why I was so set against this book.  After all Between Shades of Grey, which I loved last year, was pretty harrowing in places.  I think it's the knowledge that the situation in Haiti is still so grave, and I find it makes me feel very powerless to read about situations which are still so bleak, especially when the protagonists of the book are young people.

The first 20 odd pages of the book did not do much to change my mind.  I found it very difficult to understand what was going on, as I didn't really understand the perspective shift at first.  This could have been because I was reading it at odd times such as waiting for public transport.  It's the sort of book that requires serious attention, rather than reading in dribs and drabs. 

Once I gave the book the respect it deserved, it began to make sense (I may have told kids this before, perhaps once or twice.  Along with "you can't tell if you're going to like it after only a few pages").  In fact it was really rather wonderful.  Interesting and clever, and made me want to learn more about Haiti.  The characters were cleverly drawn, without being patronising. 

Certainly not one for small children, but a very thought-provoking read, and I'm certainly glad I read it.

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller

I bought this mainly to help me with running my small but perfectly formed Book Group.  It's about reading at school, and how this is not something that works particularly well, especially once students get to secondary school age. It brought back all sorts of memories of English lessons at school.  Perhaps surprisingly, for someone who went on to become an English teacher, I absolutely hated most of my English lessons at school.  I remember either being bored rigid as I listened to people reading at a completely different pace to me, or terrified that I might have to read aloud, and other kids might laugh at my Southern accent.  Now I am 34, I find it amusing when kids (and indeed fellow members of staff) laugh at my Southern accent, but at the time it was excruciating.  At the time, it wasn't a gift.  I couldn't say "I'll only say "puppy" for you if you get ten out of ten in your spelling test".  Listening to me say the word "puppy" is often the preferred treat in my classroom.  Works for me: it's cheap, easy to arrange, and doesn't rot their teeth.

Anyway, I hated English.  I particularly hated "silent reading".  The selection of books was always terrible and/or falling to bits, and everyone either talked or fidgeted, which meant I could never quite get in the zone for reading.  Nor, it appeared, could anyone else.

Part of the problem, I think, is that there is no comfortable space to read in the normal English classroom.  A hard, small plastic chair at a wooden table, held together by twenty years' worth of chewing gum was not the place I would have chosen to read.  Added to this, worrying that the school bully might be attempting to spit bits of chewed paper at me through the hollowed out plastic bit of his biro did even more to distract me from the task at hand. And I LOVED reading, and spent most of my spare time doing it.  I don't imagine that those who didn't enjoy reading in the first place were particularly inspired by these lessons.

However, Miller has made me think again about the reading lesson.  Enthusiasm on the part of the teacher and very firm boundaries are the key in her classroom.  Plus, plenty of choice.  I am lucky enough to work in a school with a wonderful library and librarian (plus assistant!), and I have small classes and a comfy reading corner in our main classroom.  Two weeks ago I decided to re-vamp the reading lesson.  We put out the comfy bean-bags, get out the reading rulers of various colours for our dyslexic students, and they all curl up with a book they have chosen.  We listen to them read, and then for the last half hour have reading time.  Last Tuesday I read a couple of chapters of The Hobbit whilst several 12 year old students snuggled on bean bags around my feet, reading books of their choice.  The only sounds were pages turning and occasional relaxed breaths.  At the end of the lesson no-one really wanted to go anywhere.  "I loved that lesson, Miss" said a self-proclaimed reading hater as he left the lesson.  Me too. 

Highly recommended read for anyone involved in promoting reading amongst young people.

Monday, 20 May 2013

So. Modern technology...

I mean, it's all well and good.  It's all very convenient having bought the kids a Nook SimpleTouch.  They have reduced the price to under £30.  Sold out at the moment, due to popular demand, since thirty quid for an ereader really is a fantastic bargain.  I was very smug to have got them, and have almost finished knitting rather natty covers (royal blue for C and stripy red and orange for A). 

I was even more smug (if that were possible) when I discovered that our county library service offers loans of ebooks and the Nook is supported.  Very chuffed when I discovered that there are kids books available for loan, so I can download books for free.  Best of all, C seems to equate ereader time with computer time, so thinks that it is a really special treat to be able to read on it.  Everyone's a winner.

However, I can categorically state that it has never, in all of my born days, taken me over 2 hours to open a book.  An actual book, I mean, of course.  It simply requires the use of hands, which I am lucky enough to possess, and a brain, which I used to have before it was entirely destroyed by Adobe Digital Editions and repeated exasperating error messages.  By 7pm, having battled with my computer for nearly two hours, I was close to chucking the Nooks, the computer and myself out of the window.  A book has never really made me feel that way (apart from Middlemarch, but that wasn't because I couldn't open it, but more because I could...)

I am hoping that now I am more conversant with the system and the VERY SPECIFIC ORDER in which things must be done, so that the computer doesn't have a hissy fit in the manner of a particularly highly-strung toddler, it will be easier next time.  I am also hoping that my cortisol levels start to come down to somewhere around normal sometime soon. 

Sunday, 12 May 2013

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton

Or, A Boy, A Bear and a Boat,  The Boy and the Bear and the Boat and You Know, the Boat Bear Book I've Been Reading to the Kids as it has been variously known in this house for the past fortnight or so.  This has been my latest Carnegie shortlisted read, and the wonderful librarian at our school suggested I read it to C, knowing that he had enjoyed Small Change for Stuart.  Although it's a very different story from that one (mainly that Small Change is crammed full of mystery and plot twists, and you could tell the plot of this novel in about three sentences), it has many similar elements; most importantly that it is very, very witty.

I admit it, I fell in to the trap.  "It's like Life of Pi for kids", I said, before I'd really read it properly.  It's not really like Life of Pi except that there is a boat, and an animal.  Unlike the tiger, the Bear is a fully realised character, and he's not wild (at least not often anyway).  He is a skilled Captain, although he does have areas of difficulty, including navigation by the night sky, and playing I-Spy.

My favourite line in the entire book is "A lot of time passed very slowly".  We all giggled a lot at this line.  "It's like when you're waiting for something," said C.  "That's just how it happens". 

The genius of this book is it makes acute boredom real, yet also funny, touching and interesting.  And cleverer still is that it never quite ends.  It's more like Waiting for Godot for kids.  Except funny.  And interesting. 

"I don't even know if the man who wrote it knew how it really ended" said C.  Hmmm.  I wonder if it's a metaphor for death and the River of Hades.  I did suggest this to a friend, who felt that I was, perhaps, over-thinking it.  However, I did find it quite comforting that my final journey might be with a grumpy but very loveable bear, who enjoys nothing more than a good cup of tea and a sing-song.

I will really miss this book at bed-time.  I will miss the chapters where lots of time passes very slowly, and I will miss the bear's voice, which I had pretty much perfected by the end.  I would strongly advise you to read this book.  It's a great book to read aloud, or just to yourself if you have no available small children to read it to.  Just make sure you do the proper voice for the bear...

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The latest book to cause major arguments

So, the great de-clutter is going extremely well.  The "beautiful or useful" maxim has been applied in all areas of the house, and there are large plastic bags heading to the charity shop on a weekly basis.  However, once every few weeks, my resolve is weakened thanks to the latest arrival from those all-time purveyors of books and evil, The Book People.

Who could resist The Dr Who Character Encyclopedia for only £4.99? Not me.  Or either of my children, it would appear.  I got a couple of other books too (obv, or you have to pay postage!), but this was *the one*.  They seemed particularly fascinated by the pages about Doctors 1-10.  They were most displeased that I didn't seem to have any memories of Doctors 1-4.  I pleaded ignorance based on the fact that I was either not born, or extremely young when these Doctors were on-screen, but this did not seem to cut any ice.  I was pumped for information about Doctors 5-10, and was admonished for the sketchiness of my responses.  I felt somewhat sorry for myself, since I felt I had done a relatively good job to recall not only the names of most of their assistants, but comments about their dress sense and accents.

They read the book quietly together for a time, but C became impatient with A's desire to actually read the words rather than just looking at the pictures, and a dispute broke out.  In the end I was forced to set a timer and give them allocated time with the book.  There was much binding in the marsh, as my lovely Dad would say.

This morning, of course, they both wanted to watch mindless TV, and the book lay abandoned on the bedroom floor.  Neither child seems to realise that this state of affairs absolutely guarantees that they will never, ever get a TV in their bedroom. 

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Reasons why The Killables by Gemma Malley irritated me...

1) It has the author's name on the top-left corner of every page.  I am aware this would probably not irritate the target audience, but it felt like I was reading a piece of English GCSE Original Writing coursework circa 2003.

2) In a similar way to said coursework, it is highly derivative.  When you are 16, this is acceptable.  When you are not, it is less so. 

3) The whole "young people believing propoganda from a dictatorship" thing is good.  Patrick Ness does this brilliantly in his Monsters of Men trilogy.  It works much better when there is a central character that is likeable.

4) The central characters are not likeable.

5) The central characters are called Evie, Raffy and Lucas.  These are names from your average middle-class primary classroom circa 2013.  They are not names for adults in a bizarre post-apocalyptic landscape.  I don't know what those names are, but they are definitely *not* Evie, Raffy and Lucas.  Teens are not scared of names that are unfamiliar.  She seems to have used names from nieces/nephews etc.  Another strong link to the C/D borderline hinterland of Original Writing coursework.

6) and BY FAR the most irritating.  If this was better written, and had more likeable characters, it would have been fantastic.  It felt rushed and sloppy.  But the basic premise is completly brilliant.  It needs picking apart and re-writing.  Much like a... you get the picture.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle was by far and away my favourite author of the "here, young precocious young lady, read this improving literature" years at school.  Thinking about it, he was the only author suggested to me by my other, much less cool English teacher.  Thinking about it, perhaps coolness should not have been measured by shopping in Warehouse and having peroxide-blonde hair, but by actually listening to the books I like and suggesting an author who was similar.

I loved absolutely everything Roddy Doyle wrote.  I did a sixth-form coursework piece on The Snapper, and must have read The Barrytown Trilogy in its entirety at least twenty times, judging by the state of my copy.  Paddy Clarke Ha, Ha, Ha was a rare thing - a Booker prize winner I actually enjoyed.  So sad, and so real. In fact I remember crying when A was little because I bought a ladybird book in a charity shop that contained the lines ""Yes yes", said the girl. "We all need a drink!" which had been used to such great effect in the novel. 

I lapped up everything he wrote, and loved it.  Then A Star Called Henry came out, and I bought it in hardback in the days before Amazon for nearly twenty quid because I knew how much I would love it.  Except I didn't.  I hated it.  It was depressing, violent and boring.  That was it, he'd let me down, and it felt like a massive abuse of trust (because obviously Roddy, who I've never met, only wrote books to please me, a 20 year old English woman).  I have not read anything he's written since.

However, it's my mission this year to read the whole of the Carnegie shortlist.  I vowed to do it last year, but achieved the paltry total of three and a half (the half being My Name is Mina which was an authentic take on a diary of a young misfit girl. I I had wanted to read the diary of a young misfit girl, I would have spent a couple of evenings reading my own Five Year Diary from back in the day, and it probably would have been more interesting.  Not because my diary is interesting, but because My Name is Mina is more boring that watching a particularly boring shade of paint dry.  Slowly.)

Roddy Doyle has a book on the shortlist for this years' Carnegie Medal. Greyhound of a Girl I approached it with caution, as though it might contain some kind of harmful poison.  It doesn't.  It's absolutely heart-breakingly wonderfully brilliant.  Really simple, no twists, and absolutely true, but clearly fiction.  Doyle at his very best.  It's similar to A Monster Calls in that there is a great deal of pain in it, and a great deal of thinking about acceptance.  However, it is nowhere near as harrowing as the Ness novel, and is suitable for around 8+, because it is very gentle.

A is reading it now.  However she did say "Why do they all talk so funny?"  I, of course, didn't notice that at all, having been weaned onto adult fiction by a diet of "he's after going" and "so it is".  Although I did notice a distinct absence of "Jaysus" and other, more choice, curses, with which the Barrytown Trilogy is rather liberally sprinkled.  Which is certainly a good thing.

Highly recommended.  I am sure Roddy will be absolutely thrilled to hear that I intend to start reading his novels again.  What with me being the one he writes for and all.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Greenaway Medal shortlist 2013

It was with a little bit of sadness that I realised that, for the first time in a good few years, we do not own, and had not had out of the library, any of the books on this year's Greenaway shortlist.  Although A and C are still fond of picture books, I don't tend to buy as many these days, and in the library they will not even deign to look at the picture book boxes any more.  It's rather a good job that in September I will have a very good excuse for being firmly back in the picture books zone.  Although obviously I will be mainly borrowing from the library rather than buying, as having spent so many hours de-cluttering, I don't plan to instantly re-clutter again. 

Anyway, this year at work we are judging the Greenaway books again with several classes.  It's going as well as always, and the students have really enjoyed looking at the books and thinking about which ones are the most successful as picture books.

They haven't had the chance yet to decide on a winner, but I certainly have two favourites: Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton and I Want my Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

These are certainly two books where the pictures tell the story, and the words are very much an added bonus.  George is a very brighly-coloured book with drawings that show a refreshing disregard for scale and realism.  George is a dog who tries hard to be good, but often fails.  He has the most expressive eyes I have seen in a picture book since Mo Willems' Pigeon.  The ending is open-ended, which has irritated some of our judging panel, but I think it gives excellent scope for a discussion about behaviour, choices and control.  I think a child would be more willing to think about these things from the very loveable George and his owner Harris's point of view, and that this would be a much better starting point for discussion than basing it on something the child has done, which may well be met with resistance.

The bear in I Want my Hat Back is looking for his hat.  There is some repetition in the text, and it would be an easy one for a small child to join in with.  The animal pictures are in lovely muted tones and are very appealing.  However, when the Bear realises where his hat is, and the page turns red, things are about to get a little nasty.  The twist at the end is very funny, but if your tot is very sensitive you should probably know that it involves the bear eating a cute (but essentially criminal) bunny rabbit.  It might be worth reading it yourself first to judge its appropriateness for your child.  A would certainly have been most upset by it. 

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

I am slightly worried about this book.  I run a Book Group for some Year 8 and 9 students at my school, and decided to pick this as next month's book.  I wanted to read one of the books shortlised for the Carnegie Medal, and had only read Wonder out of those so far, which I was not overly keen on.  However, I am now beginning to wish I'd chosen that!

I had only read half of Maggot Moon when I chose it.  The half that, crucially (*SPOILER ALERT*) does not contain the bit where a teacher beats a child to death for laughing (although this happens soon after the half-way mark).  It's not the most brutal thing I've ever read, but then I am 34 and I like Game of Thrones. I am not sure that I would have enjoyed it at 13.  I am beginning to realise that I just don't know.  I am beginning to realise that I have forgotten what it is like to be 13.

Anyway, I am worried because my Book Group like David Walliams.  Some of them like other things, but not as much as they like David Walliams.  They also like Mr Gum.  There is never anyone beaten to death by their teacher in David Walliams or Mr Gum books.  In fact, the worse thing that happens is that very old, very poorly people die, or that Jonathan Ripples sits on Martin Launderette.

However, perhaps I am projecting my worry.  Perhaps part of the fun of being in a Book Group is reading things that you wouldn't have picked up before, and they may enjoy it.  It is a very good book after all.

It took me ages to work out where and when it was set, but I won't say, because that was part of the pleasure of reading it.  It's dystopian and has a wonderful central character, which makes it just my cup of tea.  The story is fast-paced and interesting, and you grow to really care about the characters, so that you are invested in the ending, which is pretty heart-breaking.

What really interested me, both from a personal and professional point of view, is that Sally Gardner is dyslexic and didn't learn to read or write until she was 14 years old.  It's a pretty major achievement for anyone to be on the Carnegie shortlist; but I think Gardner's feat is utterly incredible, and a really positive example for young people struggling with reading.  I say young people, as I would not recommend this book for anyone under the age of 13.  For one, the subject matter is upsetting, and for another thing the language is decidedly inappropriate for anyone under that age.  It sprinkles the f word around more than I do after a few glasses of fizzy pop on a relaxed evening out in a classy establishment.  Which is quite a lot.  Difficult to believe I know, for one so very eloquent ;)

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Pheonix Comic

The sad demise of Puffin Post leaves me with a few problems.  First, and probably at the forefront of my mind, is that they will no longer send a natty little outfit each May.  I will be called upon to either knit or sew my own version of said outfit.  I think Puffy is going to have a LOT of capes, scarves and blanket/slankets.  I am sure that she will be happy with these offerings.  A - possibly less so.

Problem 2 is that A no longer has a magazine that she enjoys reading.  She used to love the Puffin Post mag. She was quite keen on the Jacqueline Wilson magazine for a while, but has now decided that she is no longer interested in that.  She will occasionally look at the Beano, but considers it a bit boyish (I disagree but it's not a magazine for me!) We have had one copy of Discovery Box, which she read three pages of with great interest, and then lost.  As in lost the magazine, not lost interest.  A blog post on that magazine is pending - I have to thoroughly investigate the Book Pile Down the Side of the Bunk Bed.  This is a mission which may take some time, and I fear it may be put off for a while yet.  

The Pheonix Comic seemed like a good option.  Recommended by a friend online, I had a look through the sample pages and decided to plump for a 12 issue subscription.  It is weekly, just like comics were in the good old days, but, sadly, it is also more expensive than comics were in the good old days.

Anyway, it came through the post, and I showed A, keen to spark her interest.  She briefly flicked through and declared it to be "for boys".  Sigh.  C, however, absolutely devoured it.  I read him a couple of stories from it the other night at bedtime, and realised that it is actually quite challenging in terms of its sentence structure and subject matter (there was something about blood analysis in this week's issue - not anything remotely scary, but still quite a difficult subject to comprehend).  I am not sure whether C actually understands all/most/anything much of what he is reading, but presumably he is getting a lot out of it, as as soon as it arrives, it is not out of his little mitts for hours!

In summary, I failed to find a comic that A would enjoy.  But all is not lost - it might just be a bridge that C needs between nice easy-to-read books, which he clings to for comfort, and something a little bit more challenging.  Highly recommended, and very refreshing to see something so free of references to popular culture and adverts.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Maths for Mums and Dads and More Maths for Mums and Dads by Rob Eastaway and Mike Askew

Maths and I have come to an understanding over the past few years, thanks to quite a few people - but particularly my husband, the authors of this book, and a boy I have the privilege of teaching.

My husband taught me (through the medium of patient understanding, right through the beginnings of getting a bit cross with me, right through to sentences which may or may not have contained the word "pathetic" and the phrase "learned helplessness".)  I had encountered this phrase once before; in my PE report at school. This is all rather apt, given that those two subjects were the ones which brought me out in a cold sweat (or sometimes just a common-or-garden sweat in the case of PE.  Not that often though, as my effort scores would testify).  I was also utterly inept at DT, but luckily the teacher either liked me, felt very sorry for me, or both, and by Year 11 had given up even trying to make me do any practical work, and just made the products for me, based on my designs, which were at least neat and nicely coloured in.  This was a symbiotic relationship which seemed to work well.  It didn't serve me quite so well when, two months before the exam, the DT dept realised that we had to sit a written exam, and I knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about tools, resistant materials or really anything at all pertaining to the world of DT (apart from colouring in.  This was, sadly, not examined.)

Anyway, I digress.  The most important lesson I learnt from these books is never, ever to say to the kids "I'm rubbish at maths".  They have both worked out through the medium of their brains, that I am not very quick at mental calculations.  That's OK - it's accurate, because mental maths is really not a strong suit of my brain (although it is getting better, of which more later).  I point out that some people read more quickly than others; and that doesn't mean that those who read more slowly "can't read" - just that they don't do it quite so quickly as others might, and that the only way to get quicker is to work at it.

I did used to say to others that I am rubbish at maths, and still admit to the kids I teach that I don't find it as easy as I do certain other things.  To be fair, they generally are aware of this themselves, especially if it's a homework lesson and they have brought maths homework.  Then it's a "let's learn together!" type fun activity for all concerned.

However, the bare facts suggest I am not "rubbish at maths".  I got a good grade at GCSE, and was always in the top two sets in secondary school.  I just have a kind of fear of getting things wrong in maths which stops me from ever being sure that I have the right answer.  If I got a spelling wrong in English, or wrote something incorrectly in French, I didn't mind that much, it was OK, in my head I felt that I was still good at it.  If I got something wrong in maths, sitting next to others who never, ever seemed to get anything wrong, and looked at me with pity, I panicked.  My confidence diminished, and I spent maths lessons in a state of fear and tension, which is never a particularly great spur to learning.  My teachers were, on the whole lovely, but, alas, I feared them, because I feared everyone who was good at maths.

The authors of this book set a lot of store in effort, practice and understanding numbers.  They state that these have a lot more to do with confidence in maths than natural ability.  I remember the first time I read the first book, I scoffed a little at this.  Hadn't I done maths at school every day for 12 years?  It didn't seem to help much.  But this time, on re-reading the book, I have come to agree. It's a fantastic book.  The authors are non-patronising, and honest.  They make those of us who hide behind the "can't do it excuse" aware that this is not good enough - not good enough for us, and certainly not good enough for our children.  But they do it alongside useful explanations and fun games to play with your kids.  Both of mine are relatively confident with maths, although C shows worrying signs of that maths "blankness" which I find replaces my brain when someone asks me a maths question.  Anyway, the book helps.  It tells you what is not acceptable, and then helps you to move on from  there.  And I am moving on.

I teach a boy who is very gifted at maths.  His brain "gets" maths.  His calculations are super-speedy and almost always accurate.  He also has that "maths swagger"; even if he makes an error, he sees it as just that, rather than evidence that he can't do it.  Since I have been teaching him, he has become aware of my utter lack of confidence in maths, and has been helping me.  This awareness came about because in his first lesson with me, in Year 10, he brought maths homework with him.  The colour drained from my face, and although I tackled it bravely, he was profoundly aware of the difference in me teaching spelling and sentence construction, and my "help" with his maths (which consisted of reading the question for him and then saying "you're on your own".  His "help" mainly consists of roundly mocking me at every available opportunity.  However, I am expecting these kids to improve in their English.  I am expecting them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and achieve in an area where they have, for many long school years, consistently perceived themselves to have failed.  How can I expect them to do this when I refuse to do the same for myself?  Although it is embarrassing to admit that when I started to teach him I didn't know my 8 times table, I know it now, because I have made myself do the activities in these books, I have made myself do A's maths homework in my head as she is doing it, and I have banned myself from saying "I can't do it", even inside my own head.

A couple of weeks ago the class with maths-boy and I were playing a maths game with differently levelled questions, so that we could all participate at our own level.  It was really enjoyable for all of us.  I only got one question wrong.  And when I got it wrong, I thought "what a silly mistake!" rather than "I am so crap at maths I probably should just give up participating in modern society and go and live in a ditch".  Said maths-genius-boy also got a question wrong.  I simply looked at him and he said "NO!  I'm wrong, don't correct me, I couldn't stand it!"  I will absolutely allow him to be the maths genius in the class, because a) he is and b) people need to feel good at the things they are confident in.  And in my heart, and on leaving day, I will thank him for being the best maths teacher I have ever had.