‘The Weight of Water’ by Sarah Crossan – children’s fiction for June

Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature. I aim to read and review at least one children’s book every month, so here is my offering for May.

The Weight of Water imgThis was the third book I read last term with the children’s book club at my daughter’s primary school. It was something of a risk as it’s not conventional either in its subject matter or its format. But having read Time Travelling with A Hamster with them (which they loved) and The Snow Spider (which many of them were lukewarm about), I felt they were ready for the more complex themes and the quirky format. The kids in my book club are 10-11 and it’s well-known that children tend to like reading about characters who are a couple of years older. The central character in this book, Kasienka, is 13, so that fits, although some of the themes are quite mature. For example, she mentions her periods, puberty more generally and her feelings about a boy at school, which had some of my book club attendees sniggering! That could have been down to the group situation, however, and read alone or with a parent, this might actually be an opportunity to have a proper conversation with a child about such issues.

The book starts with Kasienka and her mother leaving Gdansk, Poland, with just a suitcase each. They are travelling to England to join Kasienka’s father, who left some months earlier. They are heading for Coventry, as they know he is somewhere in that city, but they have not heard from him for some time and have no address for him. There are clearly two things going on here: firstly, there is the immigrant experience, people leaving their home country in search of a better life, but there is the sub-text also of the mystery of the father’s departure and possible marital issues between Kasienka’s parents.

When Kasienka and her mother arrive in England they find themselves in a dingy bedsit, living amongst other immigrants, including Kanoro, a Kenyan doctor working as a hospital porter. Kasienka is placed in a local school, but is put down a year because of what are perceived to be her inferior language skills. She is resentful at this humiliation not only because she finds the schoolwork very easy, but also because she struggles to be accepted amongst the girls of her own age. Parents of teenagers will know there is usually quite a maturity difference between 13 and 11/12 so one can only imagine what it must have been like for Kasienka to be placed in this situation. There is a sense that the authorities at the school do not necessarily have her best interests at heart either, that perhaps they feel the additional demands placed upon them by immigrant pupils are a burden. There is a feeling that Kasienka is being made an example of.

Kasienka finds her relief in swimming, it is where she feels free and where she feels equal, and it is where she is able to prove herself to her enemies from school. It is also where she begins a relationship with a boy from school, William. There is some kissing here, which the kids in the book club found deeply amusing!

The second strand to the book is the search for Kasienka’s father. Her mother sets about the task with great energy, knocking on doors, marking off the streets on the map as they go. Kasienka is doubtful about this work and you sense early on that she realises long before her mother that her father does not want to be found and that they would be better off giving him up. They do eventually find him, with a new (English) partner and a baby. Kasienka then has to cope with her mother’s depression and despair. Things do work out in the end for them but the themes are clearly quite challenging. The book club coped well with it and particularly enjoyed the occasional minor swear word!

A word on the format, which is quite unique. It’s written in verse form, although it flows more like prose and each chapter is very short, with each topic covered as an extended poem. This makes it quite powerful. Here is an example of one of the early chapters, entitled ‘Mistaken’, when Kasienka is beginning to realise the scale of the challenge facing them in their new life:

“When Mama said

‘We’re going to England,’

I didn’t see myself

Alone.

I knew I’d be different,

Foreign.

I knew I wouldn’t understand

Everything.

But I thought, maybe, I’d be exotic,

Like a red squirrel among the grey,

Like an English girl would be in Gdansk.

But I am not an English girl in Gdansk.

I’m a Pole in Coventry.

And that is not the same thing

At all. “

I really enjoyed this book and my 11 year old daughter did too. It’s a good one for this age group so if you have a child transitioning from primary to secondary I’d recommend it for the holidays perhaps, particularly if you’re travelling abroad; it may help them to think about what it feels like to move to a foreign country.

#Top Ten tips for helping your teen with English Lit

read-515531_640Many households up and down the UK will be like mine this summer – tiptoeing around a teenager revising for their exams. In my household, my eldest is doing his GCSEs so this is our first experience of exams that really matter. It’s so hard for them and as a parent there is not a great deal you can do to help – which makes it hard for us too! At 16 they need to be working out their own best revision and study methods (definitely not the same as mine!) so although my heart is desperate to ‘help’ my head tells me that I need to step back and avoid interfering. Also, many of my son’s chosen subjects are areas I know very little about – Spanish, Russian – or have limited interest in – physics, electronics – or remember very little about – mathematics! So, beyond providing encouragement, food and drink, and making sure they’re getting enough sleep, what more can you do as a parent?

One area I can help with is English literature. It also happens to be the subject in which my son has least confidence (how? why?).  It’s difficult isn’t it – I have a degree of knowledge and expertise and can geneuinely help my child, but at the same time I don’t want to undermine my son’s confidence, or indeed alienate him, by coming across as some sort of expert, or for him to feel self-conscious with me. You know how sensitive teens can be!

So, I have given a great deal of thought in recent weeks as to how I can best help my son with his English Lit revision. Here are my top ten tips:

  1. Get to know their set texts yourself – feel it with them! I have re-read Michael Frayn’s Spies and re-acquainted myself with The Merchant of Venice this year. It has been very pleasurable for me and I’m hoping that some of my enthusiasm will rub off.
  2. Get hold of an audio or video version of the books – they need to know the texts well so there is nothing to lose by watching or listening to the texts being performed or read. I got a free audiobook of Spies with an Audible trial and borrowed  a DVD of The Merchant of Venice from the library. They may well have watched DVDs at school but it will do no harm to re-watch.
  3. Discuss the texts with them – have conversations with them about the books and talk enthusiastically. They don’t have to be big set-piece conversations, you could have a 10 minute chat over dinner or in the car, which will be more memorable to your teen than a sit-down ‘session’.
  4. Read through their English notes – identify the key themes their teacher has directed them to learn about and understand these yourselves. You could also buy study notes booklets or there are various websites which give you textual study guides, such as the BBC’s GCSE Bitesize.
  5. Test them on examples from the text – it’s absolutely key that they can provide evidence for points they make – they have to illustrate with examples from the text. So, from Spies, I might ask for three examples of Keith’s controlling and bullying behaviour towards Stephen. It comes back to knowing the text really well, so if they can’t remember, re-read/listen/watch extracts to make sure they can recall the examples.
  6. Make a plan for yourself – I find that my conversations with my son are best done in shortish informal bites rather than scheduled sessions. He is more relaxed and therefore more responsive. It’s all a cunning ruse, however, because I have my own plan about what to discuss with him and when.
  7. Set questions for them – if you’re busy, work and have other children, helping your teen to revise can seem like an additional chore. So, if you find that on some days you simply don’t see them much, or there isn’t time for your revision chat, set them a question to answer. This will also give them practice in writing about their texts.
  8. Teach them how to mindmap – as a grown-up you will know how mind-mapping can be a great tool for committing things to memory or exploring an idea, even for the least visual among us. If they haven’t done mindmapping yet at school, get them a big piece of paper (flipchart or some old wallpaper) and a marker pen and do it with them. It can be done for themes as well as for plot and character (they MUST get the basics right so make sure they know all the key characters and how to spell their names correctly). Stick these on their bedroom wall, be creative, print out pictures or draw the characters, use different coloured pens.
  9. Help them to memorise quotes – it’s always useful to have a few key quotes up your sleeve so help them identify some (eg the “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech from Merchant of Venice) and test them.
  10. Finally, praise. Your job now is building confidence.

 

If you have any other tips for helping your teen with English Lit revision I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, best of luck!

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A nice book for kids for the holidays

xmas-1-2Regular visitors to this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature. My children are part of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter. JK Rowling is one of my heroes, for a number of reasons, but primarily for all that she has done to get (and keep) children reading, particularly those who might otherwise not have done so. Harry Potter wasn’t the first literary character to bring wizarding and magic into children’s literary lives, however. The Snow Spider was first published 30 years ago and was a multiple award winner. It was originally published as a trilogy, but this anniversary volume has been issued as a stand-alone. I chose it for the book club I run at my daughter’s primary school.

It’s set in Gwynedd, rural Wales, where our central character, nine year-old Gwyn Davies, lives on a farm with his parents. It starts on the morning of Gwyn’s birthday with his grandmother, the eccentric Nain, giving him five gifts: a brooch, a broken wooden horse, a yellow scarf, a piece of seaweed and a tin whistle. It turns out that these rather unusual tokens are in fact a kind of test, designed to determine whether Gwyn has inherited the magical powers that run in the family line but which have now missed several generations.

We learn that Gwyn’s birthday is usually a quiet and fairly sombre affair because it is the anniversary of his elder sister’s disappearance, four years earlier. Bethan went out in search of a pet lamb belonging to her little brother, after he begged her to do so, and never returned. Gwyn’s father blames Gwyn for his beloved daughter’s disappearance and has since become a cold and distant figure in his son’s life.

Gwyn soon finds that he does indeed possess certain magical powers and each of the gifts given to him by Nain has an individual significance, a power he must explore and learn about. The first sign he receives is when the brooch becomes a delicate and beautiful silver spider, Arianwen. The spider becomes his guide and companion throughout the rest of the book and on his journey of self-discovery. The broken horse unleashes some malevolent forces that Gwyn must learn to control – this is a very high-action chapter! The yellow scarf, which had belonged to his sister and was the only sign of her left on the hills after she vanished, attracts Bethan back into the family’s life, but in an abstract way; Eirlys is introduced about halfway through the book when she arrives at Gwyn’s school, apparently an orphan. She lives with a family in the village, but after becoming trapped in a storm finds herself spending some days with Gwyn and his family. Eirlys clearly reminds Gwyn’s father of his missing daughter and her presence brings about a softening in his relationship with his son.

The children in the book club had mixed feelings about The Snow Spider. Some did not like it at all – one even abandoned it! For others I think it was perhaps rather gentler than their usual reading, with not quite enough “action”. Compared to many of the books published today it has a certain innocence that I confess made me rather nostalgic! I loved the sense of place; rural Wales, with all its traditions of myth and magic is beautifully evoked, and the characters are well-drawn and familiar.

The recommended age group for this book is 8-12 years, but I feel it would probably work best for children at the younger end of that spectrum, and it’s a lovely one to read aloud together; some of the keener children in the book club raced through it (it’s quite short) and I think this may have compromised their enjoyment. I think it also helps to have an adult to discuss the book with as it deals with some challenging themes, not least the disappearance of a child. Gwyn’s relationship with his parents, particularly his father, is quite a tricky issue, as is the question of acceptance by peers (once Gwyn’s ‘visions’ become playground gossip, he is teased by some of the other children). Also, Gwyn’s discovery of his magic after his 9th birthday is, I think a metaphor for puberty and adolescence, which may resonate with children approaching double figures.

It is a lovely book that I think quieter, perhaps more thoughtful children will enjoy, or children who like to read with an adult. But it isn’t Harry Potter!

Thoughts on unhappiness

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My children and I are privileged. On every level. There is no doubt about it. Because we have a roof over our heads that we can afford to pay for, because we know where not just the next meal, but the one after that and the one after that are coming from, and because we can turn the heating up when there’s an unexpected cold snap, we are more privileged than many. And I don’t just mean those children fleeing war or who have lost their families, but many in our country, our city, or our town. And yet. And yet.

I read somewhere once that you are only as happy as your unhappiest child. And just now I have an unhappy child. A child who feels that nothing is going right for them, who feels there is pressure, who struggles sometimes in their social network. A child. One who is too young for this. A child who says that sometimes life is so hard they wish they could just hide away from it all. So no matter how good my life, no matter how well my other children are or are doing, I too am unhappy. I’d go through the pain of childbirth every day to take that pain away.

I was lucky to be a relatively successful child. I sailed through most things. I was disliked by some of the nastier kids in the neighbourhood, but I managed to avoid them, mostly. I thank my lucky stars I wasn’t bullied because I was a prime target for it (nice, timid, studious, spectacle-wearing), but I came through school largely unscathed. It was in young adulthood that the realities of the world hit me. When I realised that, hmm, life was tough. That it wasn’t all going to be plain sailing. That life wasn’t fair. And I was powerless to do anything about much of life’s injustice. It was only later I learned all I could do about it was just to be the best that I could be.

Mental nd emotional wellbeing have been a lifelong challenge for me, as for many people I know (most?). I admire and am fascinated by people who have a natural positive outlook, that sunny disposition, and I wish I knew how to get it. No. I wish I knew how to get it for my child. My question is, is it better for children to learn when they’re young that life is not fair and you just have to make the best of it? Does disappointment and heartache when you’re young help to build resilience when you’re older? I sometimes wonder whether a bit of disappointment, a reality check, when I was a kid, might have helped me cope better with it in adulthood. But maybe not.

More recently, I’ve learned how focusing on gratitude can help to build resilience and a positive mindset, so I practice this every day. And I know I have so much to be grateful for. Just recently I heard a single mother on the radio talking about the pain of having to put her severely disabled 12-year old into care because she could no longer cope. And, again, I thank my lucky stars, my guardian angels, or whatever force in the world is out there looking after me and mine, that I have a healthy, stable family. That said, the least empathic thing you can say to someone who is feeling low is to invite them to think of all the people who are worse off than they are.

I also read somewhere once that you get the children you need; maybe that divine force out there has gifted my children to me because I have within me the love to support and care for them, when unhappiness strikes. But today I feel ill-equipped and today I feel as unhappy as my unhappiest child.

 “Happiness, not in another place but this place, not for another hour but this hour”

As ever, I look to my books for help. The above quote from Walt Whitman is a call to embrace joy in the here and now, and is one of the techniques for being happy listed in a little volume I picked up in a bargain bookshop a while ago. A little book I keep to hand for times like this – How to be Happy by Anna Barnes.

I don’t think Whitman will mean much to my child at this point, but perhaps my job as a parent is to try and pass on some of my own hard-earned resilience to my child, who is still maturing, still growing, still learning.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Lowry

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I was lucky to get a ticket for this performance at The Lowry in Salford last week. The play  has been a huge success for the National Theatre company in London and is currently on tour. You will  no doubt have heard of the book by Mark Haddon, which was published in 2003, and was a Costa Book of the Year and winner of the Guardian’s children’s fiction prize. Ostensibly written for a YA readership, it’s nonetheless a powerful read for adults.

The central character, Christopher Boone, has Asperger’s Syndrome, which means he operates at a very logical, ordered and predictable level. He struggles to make sense of emotion, finds social relationships very challenging and interprets his world in a very literal way. At the start of the story Christopher lives with his father and we are told that his mother has died of a heart attack. The dog of the title belongs to Christopher’s neighbour, Mrs Shears, and when the dog is found dead one morning, stabbed with a garden fork, he sets out to uncover the identity of the dog’s killer. His research does not generate the hoped-for answers but instead raises more questions for both Christopher and the audience. It also causes tension between Christopher and his father, who plainly wants him to cease his investigation. Christopher is completely incapable of interpreting the possible causes of his father’s stress and backing off from the task of finding the dog’s killer, but we as the audience, begin to see that there is more to this incident than meets the eye, and that people (Christopher’s father, the neighbours) are hiding something.

Eventually, Christopher searches his father’s bedroom and finds a stack of letters addressed to him from his mother, who is not in fact dead, but alive and living in London. Feeling that he can no longer trust his father he decides his only option is to go and find her and to live with her in London. What both the book and the stage play do so brilliantly is to convey the sense that logic and intelligence alone are not sufficient to navigate your way in the world. Christopher is a brilliant mathematician (he is doing his Mathematics ‘A’ level at his specialist school at 16) but getting from Swindon to London on a train, and then using the Underground to travel to north-west London, is a near-impossible task. For someone with Christopher’s condition, the noise, the crowds, the proximity of people to one another, are overwhelming. The stage direction is brilliant at conveying the sensory overload and also the extent to which the day to day humdrum interactions that most of us take for granted are utterly baffling to someone whose brain works at an entirely logical level; figurative language is hard for him to comprehend, and some of the most basic instructions and conventions cause him enormous confusion and therefore distress.

I had forgotten elements of the plot when I went to see the play, which was nice because it kept a bit of the dramatic tension for me. It would still have been highly enjoyable even if I had recalled the ending, however. The staging is superb, demonstrating cleverly how Christopher can only function in an ordered, boundaried environment where there is certainty and dependability. The dialogue and acting were also tremendous, with elements of humour, and there is great empathy for Christopher. His condition is dealt with not just sensitively, but triumphantly – it is the ‘normal’ adults around him whose shortcomings are exposed.

I went alone, but really wished I’d taken my 16 year-old son (who has read the book) and/or my 12 year-old daughter, both of whom would have enjoyed it. I think younger teenagers will be able to identify more readily than adults with the confusion of modern life, the challenges inherent in just getting from A to B when you have no experience of it, and the incomprehensibility of the codes that adults use to communicate with one another when they are afraid to use more direct language. The recommended age is 11+.

The run at the Lowry was short, just a week, but the production remains at the Gielgud Theatre in London and is on a UK tour until the end of September. Catch it if you can, it’s fantastic.

How are you getting on with your reading challenge?

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I know many people are following reading challenges at the moment – it’s becoming very popular. Not to be left out, I set my own at the beginning of the month, which you can find here  if you’d like to join me. I know, however, that many busy book-loving parents don’t get as much time to read as they would like, so my challenge was about reading deeper – enjoying, embracing, rekindling the reading passion – rather than reading more.

January’s challenge was to read a book with a child (or simply to read out loud if you don’t have a child to hand). This month I have been reading two books with my youngest daughter, who is now 10. First of all we read Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford, which I reviewed here last week. We have also been reading Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

My daughter is still young enough that reading together is something we do regularly, although we are not in the habit of doing it as much as we ought to for the purposes of school (oops!). Partly because, well, the usual, life is just full, but also because now that she is in Year 6 and a pretty good reader, we just don’t need to as much, so it’s slipped off our agenda somewhat. It just happens, doesn’t it? One minute you’re reading ‘Spot’ every bedtime, the next you realise your kids have hardly looked at a non-textbook for months.

Doing it regularly this month, however, has been a joy. For both of us. It was so lovely when we were reading a particularly dramatic section in Time Travelling with a Hamster where it was so tense she begged that we keep reading because she didn’t think she’d be able to sleep without knowing what happened next! Needless to say, I gave in, even though we’d gone way beyond official bedtime as I was pretty keen to find out if they escaped too!

Time Travelling with a Hamster, is a brilliant book, so if you haven’t got hold of it for your 9-12 year olds yet, you must. It was the first book in my daughter’s primary school book club, which I run, so I felt I was cheating slightly, putting it down for my January challenge. So, we’ve also been reading Black Beauty. I remember reading this when I was my daughter’s age and it’s been wonderful coming back to it as an adult. It has brought back so many happy memories from my childhood, not just from reading the book, but that wonderful television series. Do you remember the music? If you click here it will take you to a youtube clip of the opening and closing credits – watching it made me cry, it’s such a lovely piece of music, particularly the end theme with the choir. And that beautiful horse! It’s from 1972 so the TV show must have prompted me to read the book, as I would have been only 4 at the time. So, TV can be a good thing sometimes!

I hope you are enjoying reading with your child this month. I’d love to hear about it.

If you haven’t started yet, it’s not too late – maybe choose something together this weekend? You don’t have to finish by the end of January; we’re pretty relaxed about that sort of thing here at myfamilyandotherbooks.com!

 

Reading Heaven for kids

I’ve recently started running an after-school book club at my youngest daughter’s primary school; I am a passionate advocate of enhancing children’s access to and enjoyment of books, perhaps because reading gave me so much as a child and in a sense has shaped everything I have done in my life. It can bring particular benefits to less well-off, less confident and less academic kids, and children’s authors in recent years have embraced this wholeheartedly. There are some truly fantastic titles out there for children at the moment – I wrote about some of them in a couple of blogs I published before Christmas.

time-travelling-with-a-hamster-imgTime Travelling with a Hamster was the first choice of the book club, and what a joy it is. At the heart of the plot is a tragic event – a boy who loses his father at the age of eight – but the author handles this so deftly, acknowledging the huge emotional impact it will no doubt have had on such a young child, but also deploying humour and intelligence to help child readers deal with such a challenging topic. I think it shows a great respect on the part of the author for the maturity and strength of his young readership.

When we meet him, Al is 12. His mother has remarried and the family now lives with Steve, with whom Al has almost nothing in common, and his teenage daughter Carly, who is openly hostile. The other main character is Grandpa Byron, Al’s grandfather on his father’s side, with whom he has a warm and loving relationship. Grandpa Byron is a wonderful, larger-than-life, eccentric character, a perfect foil to his rather serious and conservative grandson.

For his 12th birthday Al is given a hamster (whom he calls Alan Shearer, to please Steve, who is a football fan and always trying to involve Al in his hobby). He is also given a letter from his father, written before he died. In the letter, Al’s father makes a huge request: he wants him to travel back in time, using a time machine he had invented before he died, to when Al’s father was a boy. Pye (Al’s father) had a go-kart accident, also when he was 12, which left a fragment of metal lodged in his brain. It is this fragment of metal that will later cause a brain haemorrhage that will kill Pye at the age of 40. Therefore, if Al can just prevent the go-kart accident happening, he will effectively be saving his own father’s life. Naturally, it doesn’t quite go to plan, and this is why the hamster is important. I don’t want to tell you anymore because it’s a cracking story that had me on the edge of my seat (and staying up far too late with the light on!).

There are some big themes in here: loss of a parent, step-families, mixed-race families, bullying, social awkwardness, as well as time-travel, of course, and some of the science around it! But the author handles these so skilfully that I don’t think it is too much for slightly older primary school-age children. The kids in my book club are 10 and 11 and are loving it. Although it’s quite a long book, it’s a fairly quick read because the pace is pretty fast. Events spiral very quickly. There are one or two chapters dealing with ‘the sad stuff’, but these are short and well-contained, and the pace of the action means the reader won’t dwell on them too long. Rest assured, the ending is a satisfying one for readers of all ages!

I heartily recommend this book for children 10-13. It’s also a good one for adults if you’re following my 2017 reading challenge! (January’s challenge is to read a book with a child)