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.