April Reading Challenge

At last, it’s starting to feel a little more spring-like as we enter April, which must mean it’s time for this month’s book on the Facebook Reading Challenge group.

2018-03-29-10-08-25.jpgLast month, we battled our way through Madame Bovary, some enjoying it more than others, it has to be said. Our theme was a classic novel, and this can be a challenging genre. It can take you right back to schooldays and unhappy memories of working line by line through a text that had no relevance to your teenage life. And if you are out of the habit of reading classic, usually older, novels, the language can feel outdated, and hard work.

For me, the challenge was the size of the typeface in my University days edition! Not only was this a strain on my ‘mature’ eyesight, but it meant that pages were turned less frequently than I am used to. A trivial point perhaps but it gave me an insight into what motivates continued reading, and feeling like you are making progress can be a part of that. Personally, I really enjoyed it – it was all about the writing for me. Just sublime. Irony on a par with Jane Austen. I had forgotten how good a novel it is.

2018-03-29-10-28-24.jpgThis months’s challenge is something altogether different – a children’s novel and I have chosen Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada. This book first came to my attention before Christmas and I have been keen to read it ever since. It is written from the perspective of three different polar bears: the first , a female, who flees her homeland in Soviet Russia, the second, her daughter, a dancing bear in a Berlin circus, and the third, the most recent, born in captivity in Germany.

The book has won high praise for its Japanese author. It’ll be the second children’s book I’ve read recently that is written, in part at least, from the perspective of an animal (the other being Pax, which I enjoyed enormously), so I’m looking forward to it. I expect it will be one of those books that blurs the boundary between ‘children’s’ and ‘adult’ fiction. Happily.

If you would like to participate in the challenge, do join us on the Facebook group, or if you have read this book and have a view on it, I would love to hear it. 

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Kids book review – “Kick” by Mitch Johnson

I read a super little book for children last week – Kick the debut novel from Mitch Johnson. It is set in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the characters are the poor people of that city, and, more specifically, young children who have to work in the sweat shops and on the streets of that city to help their families make ends meet. The theme is an important one and it is a book that will enlighten your child to international issues about which they may know very little, but it is not preachy.

Kick imgThe central character in the story is Budi, a football-mad eleven year-old boy whose hero is an English footballer called Keiran Wakefield, who plays for Real Madrid. Budi and his friends spend all their free time playing football, role-playing their favourite teams and stars. One of Budi’s friends has an old television and they sometimes watch matches together too, late at night Indonesia time. To that extent Budi and his friends are like any other boys their age and your children will be able to identify with their passions and their aspirations. The similarities end, however, when you compare the daily lives of these children with ours in the developed world; Budi and his friends work in factories, mainly sweat shops, where the conditions are poor and where the manager is cruel and exercises discipline through the use of corporal punishment. Budi makes football boots that are shipped off to Europe. They work for a pittance and, despite both Budi and his Dad working, the family still does not have enough income to eat a meal every day. Budi’s best friend is Rochy who lives with his mother and two sisters (his father is dead). Budi tells us that Rochy is the cleverest person he knows but that he had to withdraw from school because he needed to work to support his family. His existence is altogether darker – his mother barely communicates (depression?) and there is the suggestion that the two sisters are involved with the sex industry, although younger readers will not pick this up.

The community is also threatened by corruption; a local gangster, the Dragon, extorts protection money from local businesses and residents with impunity due to his familial links with the head of the police, and is reputed to have murdered his own brother. Unluckily for Budi, he crosses paths with the Dragon one day when he accidentally kicks a ball through the window of the Dragon’s apartment. The Dragon demands that Budi steal a pair of football boots for his nephew from the factory in recompense. He tells Budi that if he fails to deliver, then his family will be evicted and they will have to go and live in the slums.

Budi perceives the task as impossible and is ready to accept his fate, even to die, but then miraculously, the boots get to the Dragon. There is uproar in the factory as the foreman threatens everyone that they will suffer unless and until the thief is identified. A young girl is blamed and brutally ejected from her job. Budi learns only later that it was Rochy who stole the boots and passed them on and that he has effectively saved Budi’s skin.

The first half of the book is good fun: young readers will be able to engage in some gentle comparison of their lives versus Budi’s, the differences in wealth and circumstances as well as the similarities in outlook and dreams. The author subtly juxtaposes the poverty in the factory and in the society more generally with the excesses of the footballing world which the children so admire. Budi and Rochy discuss Western advertisments for cars, which they see whilst watching football matches, and to see the absurdity of them through their eyes is very funny and very enlightening

The second half of the book is darker. Budi’s life becomes even more challenging and some of his innocence is lost as he has to grapple with the realization that his dream of becoming a professional footballer like Keiran Wakefield may never be realized. We learn more about the activities of the Dragon and in particular a plot to traffic people to the West that Budi becomes embroiled in. This strand of the plot involves a dock-side shoot-out. There is also an earthquake in which Budi’s Grandma dies and Rochy’s mother and sisters go missing and are presumed dead.

This is a book which will need to be read with younger readers; parents will need to be on hand to explain and reassure. For readers 12+ the characters and writing style may feel quite immature on one level, but they will better understand some of the themes, which may well complement their secondary school syllabuses in a very accessible form.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book myself and ultimately it is uplifting. Although some of the events are bleak, Budi hangs on to his dreams and hope ultimately triumphs.

“The trouble with being a dreamer is that occasionally you’ll have nightmares – you’ve just got to make sure they don’t ever spook you enough to want to wake up.”

Recommended for 10-13 year olds.

How do you feel about exposing younger readers to difficult issues, such as the human rights abuses that many children in the world endure?

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Kids book review: “The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare” by Zillah Bethel

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare imgThis book is set in a familiar country (England) but in a future time where life has changed and the world is very different: bus journeys cost hundreds of pounds, many routine tasks and jobs are carried out (not very well) by robots and everyone carries a QWERTY, which it seems is some next generation pocket computer. Auden Dare is an eleven year-old school boy who lives with his mother in Forest Gate in east London. When we first meet him we learn that his father is away fighting in the war in Europe. Climate change has taken hold and water is scarce. Indeed, water, or the lack of it, seems to be the root cause of the conflict in which Auden’s father is involved. Auden has a condition called achromatopsia, which means he is unable to see colours, only shades of grey.

Auden and his mother move to Cambridge when Auden’s uncle, Dr Jonah Bloom, his mother’s brother and a brilliant scientist, dies and leaves them his cottage. She sees it as an opportunity for them to make a fresh start. When they arrive at the cottage, however, they find that it has been ransacked, as have his rooms at Trinity College, where he worked. It is clear that there is something amiss. Auden makes a friend at his new school, Vivi, who, it turns out, also knew Dr Bloom very well. The two young people decide there is something suspicious about Jonah Bloom’s death and set about to uncover the mystery.

Very soon Auden and Vivi discover that Dr Bloom had invented a robot, Paragon, which they find in a secret chamber underneath the garden shed in the cottage garden. Initially, Auden believes that his uncle was in the process of inventing a machine that would enable Auden to see in full colour. However, it turns out that the robot, in fact, has a much higher purpose.

This book is part adventure story, part mystery and has all the usual tropes you would expect from a children’s book of that nature: a brave and bold character in Auden, a brilliant female mind in the form of Vivi, an external threat in the form of the Water Allocation Board, which also wants to get hold of Dr Bloom’s work and in particular the robot Paragon, and a race against time, with moments of high tension. There are underlying themes here around the power of friendship to overcome adversity and how individuals can take control of their own lives and defy the destiny society has decided for them. It is also about taking a stand and doing the right thing.

As a rule of thumb, kids like reading books about characters who are slightly older than them; Auden is 11, but I would say this is a book for 10-12 year olds, rather than 9-11s. For a start it’s quite long and the plot is at times quite complex. Also, some of the themes may be quite challenging for younger readers, for example, the vision of the future, a kind of police state where the head of the Water Allocation Board is hostile and threatening. There is also the suggestion that Dr Jonah Bloom has been illegally murdered by the state and that Auden’s father has been wrongfully imprisoned by a corrupt military authority. Echoes of 1984!

Spoiler alert….

Also, the robot, Paragon, who develops a strong personality and whom Auden grows to love, ‘dies’ when he self-destructs after fulfilling his purpose as a rainmaking machine. Younger children might find some aspects of the book challenging or unsettling.

In places it is really funny; it reminded me a little of Time-travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford, so kids who enjoyed that book might like this one too (although for me it’s not quite as good or as well-written).

Recommended for 10-12 year olds who like an adventure mystery and can cope with some threat.

If you or your children have read this book, do you agree with my thoughts about the reading age?

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Children’s book review: “Do you speak chocolate?” by Cas Lester

I promised you earlier in the week that I was going to do more on looking at children’s fiction this year. Well, here’s a lovely little book that I really want to tell you about – Do You Speak Chocolate? by Cas Lester. I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did as I’m afraid I didn’t find the cover particularly appealing, but I have to say that, even as a grown-up, I was gripped. I loved the characters, the writing style, the themes and the storyline, so it would be a great one to read along with your kids, so you can chat about it with them.

Do you speak chocolate imgThe central character is Jaz, a 12 year-old girl who is in Year 7 at secondary school. She is dyslexic, doesn’t care too much for school (“Boring!”) and lives with her Mum and three older brothers, their Dad having left shortly after Jaz was born. Jaz is a bit of a rebel with a big heart. She struggles a bit at school, she comes across as someone who finds it difficult to deal with the mainstream demands of sitting still, concentrating, and not least the focus on reading and writing; there does not seem to be much allowance made for her dyslexia. She also struggles a bit with friendship issues, having jealous feelings towards another girl who she feels is going to ‘steal’ her best friend Lily. So we see Jaz is a bit insecure too.

 

Jaz is asked to take care of Nadima, a new girl in school, recently arrived from Syria as a refugee. She does not speak English but the two find common ground over their love of confectionery. They also find innovative ways to communicate, such as using text emojis! Over time, Jaz and Nadima’s relationship develops, but is not without the occasional bump in the road. For example, Jaz gets to know Nadima’s family, and realises what a difficult time they have had, escaping their home country and how little money they now have in the UK. When the school organises a charity fund-raising event, which Jaz and her team win, she stands up in front of the whole school and announces that she thinks the charity money should go to Nadima’s family because they are so poor. Jaz’s intentions are good, but, clearly, she has no idea how embarrassing this is to Nadima and how patronising it seems. Jaz learns quickly and is horrified, but it takes time to rebuild the bridges.

It has a happy ending of course – Jaz and Nadima do make friends again, and they also have a huge success in their drama class at school with an interpretative performance they create, about the situation in Syria. So, even at school, Jaz comes out on top in the end.

Jaz is 12 and in Year 7 so this book will appeal to 10-12 year olds in particular, and although Jaz is a girl, there is something slightly androgynous about her, so I think the book could easily appeal to boys as well. There are plenty of boys in the book (it’s not girly), although some of the friendship issues Jaz has are, in my experience, more common amongst groups of girls than boys. Jaz’s dyslexia is also an important element of her personality and her non-self-pitying discussion about her difficulties is illuminating and sensitively handled.

I love the mix of themes in this book – friendship issues, both the petty jealousies and the bigger fallings-out (subjects which some of us might think of as trivial, but which are really important to kids on a daily basis), are dealt with alongside HUGE issues such as religious and cultural tolerance, the war in Syria and the refugee crisis. The author deals with all these issues without being patronising or preachy and in ways that kids will understand. An achievement indeed.

I’ve passed this on to my 11 year-old to read immediately! Highly recommended.

What’s new in the children’s library?

One of my objectives for the blog this year is to focus a lot more on children’s books. Those of you who read my posts regularly will know that I am passionate about children’s literacy and ensuring that, in this electronic age, reading remains an activity that all kids do. We know that reading improves a child’s mind in many ways, improves their vocabulary, writing skills, and academic outcomes, to name just a few of the benefits. But it’s still something that I know many parents struggle with. There are just so many distractions – for adults and children alike!

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Books are also not cheap: you can expect to pay £6-7 for the average paperback, and often more for the hardback and picture books that are so vital when they are younger. A book every week or two is therefore a big ask for parents on a budget, especially if it comes with a bit of a risk – what if they don’t like it after 20 pages? Money wasted?

The answer for many is the public library. As we know, many local libraries are under threat, so it is a case of “use it or lose it”, I’m afraid. In my local borough, under 13s can borrow up to 20 books and four audiobooks at any one time. The loan period is 3 weeks and can be extended many times before you have to return (unless someone else has reserved the title). You can reserve books, search the online catalogue and renew online as well. What’s not to love? And all for free.

The only downside is fines – 6p per day per book for children, 15p for adults – so you need to keep on top of the due dates. However, my local library service sends emails a few days ahead of time to remind me what is due back when. It can be easy though if you build in a visit to the library every 2-3 weeks. I guarantee your kids will look forward to it and it’s time you get to spend with them, talking about, handling and looking at books.

I spent some time earlier this month scanning the new releases on my local library service online catalogue and picked up a few very interesting looking titles.

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I’m going to be reviewing these over the next few weeks, starting with titles for primary school age children.

So, why not make it a goal to spend more time at the library with your children this year. Give it a try, there’s nothing to lose!

If you are a parent, what do you think are the biggest challenges to getting (and keeping!) your children reading?

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