Kids’s books for Christmas – fiction

I posted last week with some suggestions for non-fiction books for children for Christmas. Today, I’ve got some fiction ideas for you. Here is my round-up of some of the best books around at the moment, which I recommend for children. I’ve given you an idea of the age range too. As a rule of thumb, the central character in a book is generally a year or two older than the age of the children the book is aimed at. Kids like reading about people who are slightly older than them.

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Pax by Sara Pennypacker – suitable for 10-11 year olds

I reviewed this book here a few weeks ago. I loved it. Set in America, it concerns 12 year old Peter and a ‘pet’ fox he has raised from a cub. Peter is forced to release Pax into the wild when his father is called up to serve in the army. Peter’s mother is dead and he is sent to live with his grandfather. He runs away to search for Pax after realising what a terrible mistake he has made, and meets Vola, who lives on an isolated farm. Vola nurses Peter after he breaks his ankle and the two form an unlikely friendship which sets them both on a journey of self-discovery. Some challenging themes, but ultimately a heart-warming tale, with some lovely illustrations.

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Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada – suitable for 11-13 year olds

Perfect for pre-teens whose reading tastes and skills are maturing but who still love their animals. Narrated in three parts by three generations of a polar bear family who find themselves in different parts of the world: beginning with the matriarch in the Soviet Union, her daughter Tosca in East Germany, and her grandson, Knut, raised in Leipzig zoo. Very quirky and gently political. It is translated from the original Japanese so will also give children a taste of a quite different style of writing.

 

 

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Lucky Button by Michael Morpurgo – suitable for 9-12 year olds

I love a book with illustrations and I love Michael Morpurgo. This entry-level Morpurgo is a perfect Christmas offering. It concerns Jonah Trelawney who is the victim of school bullies and a carer for his mother. an accidental encounter gives him a life-changing insight to life in a Foundling Hospital in the 18th century (the original Foundling Museum was the inspiration for the story). Lovers of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather will enjoy this.

 

The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship by Philip Pullman – suitable for 10-13 year olds

Pullman’s The Book of Dust, part of the Lyra trilogy, is possibly the biggest children’s literature event of the year. Fans will already have bought it, so I’m not going to mention it here. Instead, I draw your attention to this graphic novel by the same author, which may encourage more reluctant readers, particularly boys. Just because it has pictures, does not mean it is for younger ones, who may find the storyline complex and the themes quite dark. John Blake is a seafaring time traveller. He rescues a young girl from a shipwreck, but his efforts to return her to her own time place them both in grave danger.

 

35529075The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy – suitable for 12-14 year olds

This debut has been very well-reviewed. It concerns Aila and her younger brother Miles who are sent to live in the rural town of Sterling, after their enigmatic mother, Juliet dies. The town carries a mysterious affliction: every seven years certain memories, experiences that people share in common, vanish. The locals believe that Aila’s dead mother, is somehow responsible and Aila must bear the brunt of their prejudice and hostility. A long book with some challenging themes which will suit keen readers who like a bit of depth.

 

2017-12-11 12.05.07Do You Speak Chocolate? by Cas Lester – suitable for 10-12 year olds

Friendship between girls is explored in this novel, which has been compared to Jacqueline Wilson. It is also a story about how friendship can transcend the bounds of language. Nadima is a new girl at school, recently arrived from Syria, and speaks no English. Jaz is a strong personality, and becomes friends with Nadima after the two share some confectionery. Their relationship does not always go smoothly and this book explores the ups and downs via themes of integration, community, and the things that bring us together.

 

Do you have any recommendations for children’s fiction this Christmas? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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Kids books for Christmas – non-fiction

I posted a blog last week encouraging you all to give a book a home this Christmas. A well-chosen book is NEVER a bad gift idea. Even if the gift receiver does not in the end like the book they will appreciate you buying it for them, especially if you write something inside about why you chose it. It will also give the two of you something to talk about. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

Kids can be more tricky, as we know! Unless you know what authors they like, or what sort of reading material they are into, it can be a risk. And for a reluctant reader, receipt of a book may come as a disappointment. When it comes to encouraging children to read, my advice is always to let them choose, but that can be difficult at Christmas, if you are buying for nieces and nephews, for example. Non-fiction is always a good choice in this scenario as you will be able to find a book on almost any subject, targeted at the age range you are looking for. I’ve done a bit of research for you and here are some that have caught my eye.

For younger ones:

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Paper Monsters by Oscar Sabini (£14.95). This is a gorgeous gift book. The idea is the child makes a collage on a blank sheet and then uses the monster templates to cut round. There is a similar book Paper Zoo which is just animals.

71FNtt45dULBarefoot Books World Atlas by Nick Crane & David Dean (£9.99). I love the values and ethos behind Barefoot Books. Multi-cultural and humanitarian themes are present in everything they publish and their books can be valuable tools in combatting exclusion in our world and teaching children about kindness. This world atlas focuses on the interaction between environment and the communities and cultures of the world.

For 10-13 year olds:

2017-12-04 13.20.00Illumanatomy  by Kate Davies and Carnovsky (£15.00). A superb large format book about the human body that goes into real detail. The illustrations are outstanding; when viewed with the special lenses provided you can see different parts of the body (skeleton, muscles, organs) and how they interact. Perfect for budding biologists!

2017-12-01 12.59.15EtchArt: Hidden Forest by AJ Wood, Mike Jolley & Dinara Mirtalipova (£9.99). This is rather like those books in the colouring trend except the images you create are shiny and sparkly. The child uses the etching tool provided to produce glorious forest-themed pictures (there is also a sea-themed one available). Lovely, and nice and solid.

Older teens:

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Notes from the Upside Down: Inside the World of Stranger Things by Guy Adams (£12.99). My teenagers love this show and Season 2 has been hotly awaited in our household! Yes, I know it’s a companion to a TV series, but it’s potentially entry-level Stephen King, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

2017-12-04 13.17.39 Wreck this Journal by Keri Smith (£12.99). Yes, I know it’s not exactly a reading book (though there are plenty of words) there are writing and drawing opportunities. I actually love this series as I think they tap into teenagers’ anarchic tendencies, whilst also encouraging a degree of creativity. Here’s the 2017 offering and the cover is much nicer than previous editions. Good fun.

If you have any non-fiction suggestions I’d love to hear them.

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Top #10 tips for getting and keeping your kids reading

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I’ve been having lots of conversations recently about how to get kids reading. Social media and electronic devices appear to be the main culprits keeping our children away from books, according to the parents I have spoken to. Not only are they described as “addictive” but parents feel they are behind what is seen as our children’s ever-shortening attention span. On this, Universal Children’s Day, it seems appropriate to publish my Top 10 tips for getting and keeping your kids reading.

Top Ten tips:

  1. Do not put yourself or your kids under any pressure to read (done that, failed). Do not bribe them (done that, also failed), coerce them or make it a condition for getting some sort of reward. All that does is turn something that should be pleasurable into a chore.
  2. Model desired behaviours – read in front of them, put down your own devices. You are their greatest teacher. Let them see your joy.
  3. Value all types of reading (especially if you are starting from a low base), including non-fiction, newspapers, magazines and comics. Even leaflets! Never judge their reading choices.
  4. Fight the urge to tidy and leave reading material lying around. My teenage son, having told me a couple of years ago that he “hated” (yes, hated!) books, started reading again when we left the weekend papers on the dining table all week. It started with five or ten minutes at mealtimes. He now orders all sorts of books for himself from Amazon, mostly quite heavy non-fiction, history, politics, philosophy.
  5. Have lots of books around the house, in every room.
  6. Buy books for your kids, but take them to the bookshop and let them make their own choices (see 3 above). Yes, it’s probably more expensive than buying online, but the pleasure is immeasurably greater. Bookshops can be very exciting places these days, and you can often lose hours in there on comfy chairs and having a hot chocolate. It’s a very pleasurable way to spend an afternoon. The average children’s book costs £6-£8. That’s less than a cinema ticket, or an hour in a play centre. If cost is an issue for you, there are charity bookshops and libraries (see 7 below).
  7. Rediscover your local library. Libraries are under threat and if we don’t use them we will lose them. They have fantastic stock and you can usually reserve and order books in from other branches.

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8. Talk to your kids about what they are reading. Show an interest in and respect their opinions. If they love a book and recommend that you read it too, then please do it. It will open up all sorts of conversations and they will be chuffed

9. If concentration is a real issue for your child try audiobooks. When my kids were little we had all the Roald Dahl CDs, which we played when travelling. They adored these books and it has provided a powerful memory for them. A good narrator can also help to bring it alive for them. (Simon Callow reading The Twits is our absolute favourite.) There are also audiobook subscription services which they can listen to on mobile devices.

10. Finally, if you’re feeling bold, create some family time for reading. Half an hour on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps. It may be challenging at first, but, like most challenging things, it gets easier if you can build the habit over a period of time.

Good luck!

Help your child imgA book I am particularly fond of is Alison David’s Help Your Child Love Reading which I reviewed on this blog last year. Much of what I have learned on this subject and which I commend to others is distilled from that book.

As Christmas is now fast approaching, look out for my recommendations on reading material for your kids over the next couple of weeks.

 

 

 

What are your top tips for getting kids reading?

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Children’s fiction review: “Pax” by Sara Pennypacker

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and the challenges of keeping our kids reading when there are so many other distractions and calls on their time. I am always on the lookout for new and interesting titles to recommend and this one caught my eye recently. It was first published in 2016 but has been given some prominence in my local (chain) bookstore in recent weeks.

Pax imgThe cover is lovely and there are a handful of illustrations in the book which are truly beautiful and very evocative. The apparent subject matter (animals) and the fact that it has some illustrations might put off some of the target readership (10-11 year olds, I would say), particularly the more advanced readers among them, who might think it is better suited to younger ones. The themes, however, are much more mature than you might think and may in fact be upsetting to more sensitive 9-10 year olds, say. It is perfect, therefore, for older primary school kids who are perhaps more reluctant readers who may find some of those thick volumes a bit daunting. At 276 pages, with a few pictures and nicely spaced typeface, this is a book where pages will be turned quite quickly; in my experience, this is a surprisingly important factor in many children’s enjoyment of a book!

The plot of this story concerns 12 year old Peter and his ‘pet’ fox, Pax. Peter found Pax when he was just a few weeks old, the only one in the litter still alive and the parents having also been killed. Peter was allowed to keep the fox and he raised him as a pet. Peter’s mother died some years earlier so when we meet him he is living alone with his father, a rather severe man whose character is not fully drawn, but you definitely get the sense that he has troubles of his own. The story is clearly set in the US, but the time is unclear. It is not exactly ‘present day’, however, as there are references to a war going on in the surrounding area. The event which sparks the story is that Peter’s father is called away to take part in the war; he is an electrician or similar. He is posted not too far away, but it means that Peter has to go and live with his grandfather, with whom he does not appear to be close. Because of this, Peter is told that he can no longer keep Pax and that he must be returned to the wild.

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Pax is abandoned by the side of the road

As soon Pax is released, rather hurriedly and rather coldly, Peter bitterly regrets this action. Fearing that Pax could never survive in the wild, being virtually tame, Peter runs away from his grandfather’s house and embarks upon a search for Pax in the forests where he thinks they left him (a couple of hundred miles away), which is also the area where explosives are being either laid or tested in pursuit of the war.

The chapters alternate between Pax’s story, as he has to try and survive in the wild for the first time in his life, and Peter’s journey. Pax meets other foxes, particularly a feisty young vixen called Bristle who is at first hostile to him because he smells of humans; she lost her parents and siblings to a trap and looks after her younger and weaker brother, Runt. This mirrors Peter’s encounter with Vola, who finds Peter at her isolated farmhouse where he shelters after breaking a bone in his foot. Vola is a recluse who runs a small farm which she inherited from her family. She has a wooden leg, having lost one of her own whilst participating in the war as a medic. At first Vola resents Peter’s intrusion into her quiet life, but as their relationship grows (she finds her conscience will not let her abandon the young boy) so she is forced to face up to her own demons, terrible memories from her past, particularly her time in the war. Similarly, Bristle learns increasingly to trust Pax as he helps and protects her, both from the soldiers encroaching on their forest territory and predators, such as coyotes.

SPOILER ALERT!

Pax and Peter do eventually find each other  and Peter must decide whether to take Pax back in again as his pet, or whether to let him go and live amongst his new companions. His choice does not provide the happy ending that many younger children would want and expect, hence my feeling that it’s for older ones. But it will raise important questions for readers about how animals and human coexist and the impact of human habitation on wildlife and the balance of nature.

I really enjoyed this book and animal-loving kids will love the Pax chapters which are written quite differently to convey the special way that foxes communicate and interact – the book has been well-researched and just about avoids anthropomorphising whilst also making Pax a sympathetic character that readers can identify with. There are some challenging themes (not least Peter’s recollections about his mother’s death and the difficult relationship he has with his father), a few gory bits, and some scary suspense-filled bits. Recommended for 10-11 year olds.

What books are your children reading at the moment?

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Autumn resolutions

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January is never a great time of year for me – I’m not good with the cold, dark days of winter so it’s pointless me making New Year’s resolutions. In contrast, Autumn is, for me, the perfect time of year to reflect and think about the future. As a mother of three school-age children, my life is, in any case, dominated by the term time calendar, and there is something about the feeling of newness (shoes, pencil cases, planners, etc), the fresh start and the enthusiasm (yes, really, even the kids are usually excited to get back) that screams hope. Outside it’s the time of year associated with decay, when the blooms in the garden are starting to fade, the leaves on the trees begin to turn brown and fall, and the nights are definitely drawing in. In a funny way, though, I find this reassuring. It makes me feel that everything is in the right place, the natural order of things is safely on track, and that is a comfort to me in this era of accelerated climate change.

Big MagicSo, September is my month of choice for resolutions. My reading challenge this month is to read a self-help book and after a bit of indecision I’ve decided on Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s actually been on my list of books to read for some time, but seems particularly appropriate now as my main resolution is to complete at least a third of the book I am writing by half term (and hopefully another third by Christmas). I’ve been tinkering with it for months, and made some good progress with Camp NaNoWriMo in July, but I feel really focused now and am keen to capitalise on my motivation.

2017-07-26 20.42.01Before the summer break I also read WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel and it caused me to reflect on the time and care I give to myself. I think it’s true to say that, as a mother, when you have young children you can often put yourself and your needs at the bottom of the priority list, well after the rest of the family. Ultimately, this often takes a great toll. Now that my children are older, (all at secondary school as of this week, my eldest now in sixth form), I find myself not so much with more time, but definitely with more mental space to tend to my own needs, pursue some of my own passions and award myself more respect. So, I am re-reading WE, slowly and deliberately, a little each day, and working through the exercises.

As a Mum I feel I have for years ricocheted between feelings of resentment at the extent of my ‘self-sacrifice’ and guilt at not doing or being enough! I hope that over the coming weeks the reading and the exercises will help to shift my mindset more towards contentment, resilience, and gratitude – the Holy Grail! I don’t find it particularly difficult to change my habits, get a better eating or fitness regime, etc, but mindset change is much harder. Wish me luck!

Are you one of those who prefer to make their resolutions in September rather than January?

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On holidays in Portugal

I’m on my holidays with the family in Portugal. It’s a lovely country: the people are warm and laid-back, the food is wonderful, it’s a seafood-lover’s paradise. The weather where we are, north of Lisbon on what is known as the ‘Silver Coast’, is warm and sunny, with Atlantic breezes keeping the temperature below the more intense numbers you get on, say The Algarve – mid-30s Celsius is tough on a fair-skinned Brit! When you have to take your holidays in August (school!) you have to think carefully about where you go. It’s so much more expensive before you even arrive and popular locations can be jam-packed, unbearable with children. Our location here in Portugal feels perfect just now. 


The beach is stunning, vast and empty, and the ocean majestic, though cold even to paddle in for me and mostly too much undertow for swimming.

Since we arrived on Saturday I have finished reading The Power, the Bailey’s Prize-winning novel by Naomi Alderman. 

I wasn’t bowled over by it I’m afraid, but will post a review in a couple of weeks. 

We are staying close to the beautiful town of Obidos, which has designated itself, rather fortuitously for me, ‘City of Literature’! My book-seeking antennae were out and we found two amazing bookshops. 


The first was a secondhand bookshop that also incorporated an organic food market – what’s not to love! Look at what I picked up from the English shelf: 


Plenty of Manchester references here I expect!

The next bookshop was in a converted church and had the most amazing structure of wooden shelving which doubled as stairs and a mezzanine. 


Beautiful isn’t it?

Reading-wise I’m currently enjoying  Lisa McInnerney’s The Blood Miracles, which is so far matching the quality of her first novel The Glorious Heresies

I hope you are also enjoying the holiday season and that you’re getting plenty of R&R (reading and relaxation) in!

Reflections on being a mother of girls

My elder daughter turned 13 recently. I find this fact quite extraordinary and I am filled with a new sense of responsibility. Getting three children this far has been something of a feat, of course (!), but I now feel as if I have the huge challenge of nurturing a young woman. I have an older son, but that seems different somehow. Perhaps that’s because I have never been a young man, but I do have experience of being a young woman, so I am profoundly aware of all the special ups and downs that life can present to girls.

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A beautiful mother and daughter (this is not us!)
My daughter is strong, talented and determined. She is also loving, conscientious and kind, and experience tells me that this can make her vulnerable. The world has yet to fully come to terms with this potent mix of feminine powers, does not yet know how best to embrace it. It seems to me the world often seems to fear it. So, as a parent, as a mother, the conundrum is how to prepare my daughter for a world that may not be fully ready to receive her for all that she is and all that she can be, whilst also fostering her single-mindedness, encouraging her independent spirit and emboldening her to stay true to herself.

I recently read We should all be feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (look out for the review next week). This was given to me by a friend as a birthday gift. It’s a fuller version of a speech the author gave to a TEDx conference in 2012. Its context is Nigerian society, but there is much here that we can all take on board in terms of how we bring up our children and the values we attempt to instil.

I have a particular conundrum in that I have for a long time been what is disparagingly termed a ‘full-time Mum’. I took the usual maternity leave with my first child (my son) and when I went back to work he went to nursery for four long days every week (we had no family nearby to support us), a fact which haunts me to this day. My job was challenging and I was 50 miles away, so it was a difficult time. When I became pregnant with my second child not only did it make little economic sense for me to continue working but I felt my higher education job was incompatible with our circumstances. There was no way I could be the kind of parent I wanted to be whilst being committed to my career, and with no back-up it seemed impossible. My husband’s job was senior, demanding and in a relatively male-dominated industry so there was little prospect, in reality, of a shared model. So when my daughter was born I took a career break. I had another child during that time and took seven years off, which ended with voluntary redundancy.

When I recount this story I find it quite hard to believe myself – I was always very ambitious, acquired a Bachelors and a Masters degree, had a good career where I was respected, have always been a feminist, and yet as far as my children are concerned Mummy stays at home. Mummy does work of course (I have run a small business, I write and I do some occasional work for a charity) but I don’t work long hours out of the house like Daddy does so the lion’s share of the household work also falls to me. I don’t feel unhappy with this and I don’t regret any of the decisions we made and if I could do it all again I would make the same choice to stop working (I only wish I’d been there for my son sooner and not put him in nursery), but I do worry about the kind of messages this sends to both my son and my daughters about gender roles. What kind of a role-model am I?

We should all be feminists and the small companion book Dear Ijeawele have given me much food for thought. One of the first suggestions in Dear Ijeawele is that a woman should be “a full person” and not be defined by motherhood. I think in the early years I allowed this to happen, although with three young children and a husband working away every week for a number of years I had little time to define myself any other way! However…that is changing now. As my children get older and can take more responsibility for themselves I am trying to strike a balance between being there for them, but also not being there always, if you see what I mean.

Suggestion number ten in Dear Ijeawele is to “be deliberate in how you engage with [your daughter] and her appearance”. Adichie is a beautiful woman who embraces her femininity. She is a face of No. 7 cosmetics, a fact for which she has been criticised and for which she makes no apology. I have always struggled with my femininity; I think it was handled clumsily and fearfully when I was a teenager (I don’t think I’m alone). Being feminine should not be incompatible with feminism, this much I believe, but I struggle with both my young daughters’ desires to wear make-up, for example. I feel very conflicted as I want them to be happy with their natural appearance, to know they are beautiful as they are, and not to feel influenced by the media that they have to look a certain way or that a certain beauty product is a ‘must-have’. I also worry about the pressure to wear revealing clothing, although, as Adichie says, we should never link appearance with morality.

With a teenage and a pre-teen daughter, these are all very urgent issues. I’m afraid when they were young they did play with dolls and much of their environment was pink, though trains, lego and other colours were available! I agree it is important not to provide gender-specific toys and to encourage breadth and variety. Mostly, my kids liked to paint, make things and play with water, and I never tried to stop the girls getting messy – they were worse in fact! But the issues seem to be weightier now, especially as their thoughts gradually turn to their futures and as sexuality begins to emerge. They hear the news and find that there continues to be a gender pay gap in society, that there is not parity of treatment between LGBTQ and straight people, and that women and girls continue to be abused and exploited more than their male counterparts.

There is much that we all still need to do.

I would love to hear your thoughts about raising girls in the 21st century. 

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