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.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Does anyone actually enjoy reading 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez?

I had an English teacher when I was in Year 12 who I thought was the coolest person on the entire planet.  She taught me a lot, and I think was ultimately responsible for the fact that I went on to study English Literature and go on to be an English teacher.  I did once ask her "Why would anyone with an Oxbridge degree want to become a teacher?", which I think about sometimes with a wry smile.

Anyway, as I've detailed elsewhere, as a youth I was completely obsessed with reading.  I read on average about seven books a week, and always had at least two on the go at once (I guess that was my attempt at teen promiscuity, geek style).  However, there was a distinct trend towards quantity above quality.  Sometimes both books I had on the go were by the erstwhile Danielle Steele.  Often, they were Malory Towers.

My English teacher despaired of my trashy and/or child novel habits.  Every week she gave me a different book to attempt to lure me in to reading books that were "worth something".  Morvern Caller disturbed me for weeks.  Ditto Trainspotting (although I did like that).

I finally lost my temper at 100 Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Apparently it was meant to make you think about "the nature of reality".  Well frankly, give me Danielle Steele any day of the week.  It was grim and pretty much incomprehensible.  She suggested I read in in the original Spanish in case the "magic" was lost in translation.  My GCSE Spanish extended to asking where the town hall is (why would anyone need to know this, ever, by the way?  Why would you ever need to go to the town hall?) and ordering two beers and a ham sandwich.  Needless to say, I did not get on any better with the book in its original language, but, in fairness, this was my failing, rather than Marquez's.

I was prompted to think of this, as in a recent copy of the Times Educational Supplement, there was a Top 100 Books Chosen by Teachers list.  I was feeling excessively smug at having read all of them, but became incensed at the mention of Marquez.  If it's really their favourite book, then fine.  But I can't help thinking they said it to make them look clever.  They are not going to say "Actually I REALLY LOVE Flowers in the Attic" by Virginia Andrews.  It's like claiming that your favourite REM song is some random song off some album that no-one else has got apart from about three men who spent their youths scrabbling around in smelly record shops.  Yes Mr M, I am looking at you.

We've all done it.  I did it in my Oxford interview.  Instead of admitting that I was reading Just Seventeen magazine and Malory Towers for the 72nd time, I pretended to be reading The Handmaid's Tale, which I'd actually read about six months before.  I did at least enjoy that book though.  NO WAY was I going to say I was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Mainly because if they'd have asked me "What do you think of it?", I'd have struggled not to say "I don't get it, and it's really boring."  Not going to get me a place...  I think all of those people who chose it as their favourite should explain exactly what they like about it.  I would ban the phrase "it makes you question the nature of reality".  That can be achieved by watching Big Brother.

The Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness

I've recently finished the third of these.  Having only read A Monster Calls previously, I had an image of Ness as a writer, and certain expectations of the books.  What a versatile writer he is!  Totally different from A Monster Calls; utterly wonderful.

The book is based on a series of conflicts between settlers on another planet, set in the future.  The characters are wonderfully drawn, as I expected, and there are similar themes, such as teenagers struggling to take control of their own lives and destinies.

It's a great exploration of history/culture/circumstances, and how they are presented to us, and how prone we are to acceptance of the status quo.

A good place to move on for those who enjoyed The Hunger Games.