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.