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Blog Tour – 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Reading for Pleasure by Scott Evans

Welcome to my stop on the Blog Tour for this must-have book for any primary school teacher or TA interested in encouraging Reading for Pleasure (RfP) within their workplace.

Like many of those within the children’s book-reading community on Twitter, I have always read for pleasure and cannot remember a time when I didn’t, even as a young child. Unlike my brother, who was told as an adult that he was dyslexic, learning to read was never a struggle and it wasn’t until I was much older and volunteering to hear readers in my children’s primary school that I discovered that not everyone felt the same way.

As the author tells us in his introduction, research conducted by the OECD has shown that the ability to read determines a child’s aspirations, irrespective of their parents’ level of education or their socio-economic background, making it imperative that as educators we ensure that the gift of reading is passed on to our learners – not just so that they can read but that they want to read.

With school curricula ever more squeezed by trying to fit everything in, and a heavy focus on guided reading and all that entails in some establishments, it may feel impossible to promote RfP but here is a vast selection of ideas which can be trialled as part of everyday practice, whether in class or as whole-school projects. The genius of many is that they are simple and with little or no cost in terms of money or time – an all-important consideration in these times of squeezed budgets and over-burdened staff.

Taking us by the hand, a step at a time, Scott Evans leads us through his suggestions which are arranged helpfully into sections from Raising Reading Children through to Working with Writers and Illustrators, with related ideas clearly cross-referenced so that they can be tailored appropriately for individual adults and their schools. Each idea is also accompanied by tips and additional ideas for taking it further as well as a handy hashtag to use on social media to share good practice. Where appropriate additional resources are signposted, such as the author’s own fully comprehensive website to provide additional support.

Although the title of the book suggests that the ideas within are for Primary Teachers, many other members of staff who take an interest in RfP, such as TAs and HLTAs, will also be hugely inspired by reading this. The importance of having adults within school communities who are readers is also covered in depth here so that by collaborating with colleagues a whole school culture of RfP can be successfully introduced or built upon, no matter at what point in the journey a school is.

Concise and easy to dip in and out of, I have taken so much out of this title that I want to trial with my Year 3 class and I know that I will not be alone in this. I will be recommending to our Reading Lead that our employing school invests in a copy not just for his CPD but also for our staffroom so that we can all work together to improve the RfP culture we all know is vital for our charges.

My enormous thanks must go to Scott Evans and publisher Bloomsbury Education for my gifted copy of this title and inviting me to be part of the Blog Tour. Don’t forget to check out the other stops too. 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Reading for Pleasure is on sale now.

Not Now, Noor! by Farhana Islam and Nabila Adani

Cover illustration © Nabila Adani, 2023

Like many other adults who work in schools, I need no excuse whatsoever to buy and read children’s books but it has to be said that I have used moving to Year 3 in September as the perfect reason to buy many more picture books than I did in Year 5. With my own children way past sharing such titles with me, and my own knowledge now quite poor, I have mostly relied on recommendations from my Twitter friends up until now to guide my acquisitions.

When this gorgeous new title from writer Farhana Islam and illustrator Nabila Adani arrived from Puffin Books I was thrilled. Bright, colourful and highly engaging, this is a book I could not wait to share with both my class and in my little lunchtime Story Club, where it proved a huge hit this week.

Telling the story of young Noor, who is desperate to find out why the female members of her family wear hijabs, this is a read which will delight young readers. For those who are Muslim, it shows authentic representation of hijabis and for those who are not, it answers the types of questions that naturally curious children will have such as whether hair coverings are worn to hide big ears or secret snack stashes to feast upon at a later time.

Throughout the book, those for whom a hijab is unfamiliar are gently corrected in their misassumptions with the result that the book is one that will educate them without their knowing – they will simply enjoy the story and the beautiful pictures throughout.

On sale now, this is a must-have in every primary school where authentically reflecting our diverse society is, quite rightly, a priority for many of us. I adored this and know that my young charges will too.

My enormous thanks go to publisher Puffin Books for my gifted copy of this wonderful title. Not Now, Noor! is on sale now.

The Tale of Truthwater Lake by Emma Carroll

Cover illustration © Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini, 2022

I think all of the Twitter children’s book-reading community knows that I read a lot of books – more than many of my friends are able to. In part this is because I read quite quickly but I also don’t have young children to care for and am far too lazy to do the housework that I should, freeing up significantly more time to indulge myself than perhaps I deserve. Despite this, even I cannot possibly read all that I would like to and so, sadly, some books pass me by – such as this title from Emma Carroll which published in hardback last year and is soon to be released in paperback form.

Blessed with an advance copy from publisher Faber & Faber, when I shared the good news that it had arrived I received several replies from those who had already read it to tell me how much I would love it and as a result bumped it straight to the top of the pile. Reading it over the course of a few evenings, I soon found myself absorbed in its story – a unique blend of the past and the future and one which is surely destined to become a classic.

Our story opens in the near-future – a 2032 where the summer weather is so extreme that the government has taken firm action to protect its citizens. On this particular night, the temperature is unbearable and seeking relief from the relentless heat, Polly follows older brother Joel out to the sea for a cooling swim. Panicked by a sudden flash of light, weak swimmer Polly loses her confidence and has to be rescued by Joel who pulls her back to the beach where she quickly realises that the flash was from a camera. Worse than this is the resulting film of the pair of them posted on social media the following morning which makes Polly feel guilty as Joel has recently been experiencing bullying at school and she fears this will add to it.

All thoughts of this are pushed to one side, however, when the siblings go to stay with their Aunt Jessie who lives by a reservoir known locally as Truthwater Lake. Arriving at Jessie’s house, Polly and Joel are shocked that the valley in which it is situated has undergone a radical change of appearance since their last visit, with much of the lake’s water gone as a result of the intense heat, revealing traces of Syndercombe – a village buried beneath the reservoir. That night, unable to sleep again because of the heat, Polly sneaks out alone to the remaining water and nervously decides to investigate the submerged buildings. After looking at the graveyard hidden beneath the water, Polly decides to go back but before she can do so she feels herself being pulled into the water and starts to swim down – not as herself but as a girl called Nellie.

Waking as Nellie in 1952, Polly finds herself sharing a room with Lena and after the girls get up the pair of them visit Nelly’s mother’s grave, only to find that an unknown visitor has again left yellow roses there. Returning home, Nellie is reminded by her guardian that she is late for her swimming lesson, where an important guest is due – a celebrity who is scouting for talent. Once at the local lido, Nellie discovers that the guest is a champion swimmer looking for a young swimmer to take on a huge challenge. Travelling between her present and the past, Polly finds herself caught up in Nellie’s world as she experiences the other girl’s life at first hand. Will Nellie get the opportunity to show the world what a wonderful swimmer she is and will Polly be able to over come her nervousness in the water?

At first glance, Nellie and Polly might seem to be polar opposites. Nellie is an orphan, cared for by a local couple who have taken her on rather than see her go into care, and Polly is a child with a stable, traditional family. Both of them are strong characters though, who are unafraid to push for what they want – whether it be the chance to take on the challenge of a lifetime or to pursue the truth. While Nellie is completely oblivious to her future, by experiencing the other girl’s life Polly is drawn in to the history of how the reservoir came into being and becomes desperate to see how Nellie’s life played out after her initial visit.

With its strong environmental message, the author has set the book far enough away in time to feel futuristic but close enough that I could almost feel time ticking by until 2032 – a date that will surely come around all too soon. The effects of global warming on the weather included here might have seen unbelievable a few years ago but after last year’s heatwave and drought that affected much of the country, the scenario presented here feels more like a prediction than fantasy – a frightening prospect indeed. For those children reading it now, who will be young adults in 2032, I hope that the book’s message will be one they retain and act upon as those who are currently in charge do not seem to care enough to take the strong action that is needed to prevent the crisis towards which we find ourselves heading.

Perfect for confident readers in Year 4 upwards, this would make a brilliant class read, whether to complement any environmental topic or just for the sheer pleasure it will bring – a good enough reason in my book. There would also be some wonderful opportunities to discuss friendship, cyber-bullying and the importance of having hopes and dreams – and the perseverance and hard work needed to achieve them – through sharing this in school.

It is not for nothing that Emma Carroll is known as the Queen of Children’s Historical Fiction and this is a wonderful story for which I owe enormous thanks to publisher Faber & Faber for my gifted copy. The hardback of The Tale of Truthwater Lake is on sale now, with the paperback publishing 6th April.

The Boy Who Made Monsters by Jenny Pearson

Cover illustration by Katie Kear © Usborne Publishing, 2023

There was a time when I saw reading as a very black-and-white affair. I either read for pleasure or I read to enable myself to do something – to gain knowledge on a subject I wanted to know more about or acquire skills I wanted, like making a cake or knitting a jumper. By sharing books I have enjoyed in school, I have gradually come to see that there are also shades of grey – books that hold the reader spellbound but that also teach one of the most important and powerful abilities that humans have: to empathise with other people.

As someone who has always struggled – and continues to struggle – to empathise with others, it has come as a complete revelation to me that by sharing books with my charges that are by turn hilariously funny or deeply sad, the opportunity to discuss not just what is happening in stories but the feelings they prompt can help us to put ourselves in the metaphorical shoes of others. All of which leads me, in a rather round about way, on to this new title from Jenny Pearson who is – quite rightly – top of many teachers’ reading for empathy list. Here again she has crafted another gorgeously written story which will entertain children with its enormously funny storyline, while prompting them to think about the terrible situation in which its young protagonist finds himself.

That protagonist is Benji, who together with older brother Stanley has been orphaned following an accident at sea involving the brothers’ parents. After a brief stay with foster carers, the boys are sent to live permanently with their Uncle Hamish at his home next to Scotland’s beautiful Loch Lochy, set amongst a variety of holiday lets for visiting tourists to rent. Benji quickly determines to make the best of things but Stanley finds it far more difficult to show any optimism, especially once he becomes aware that business is far from booming for Uncle Hamish and he is danger of losing both the lets and his home.

After an argument with Stanley, Benji takes Hamish’s dog – Mr Dog – out for a walk and looking out over the lake is convinced he sees something big splashing about in its centre, something which can only be the Loch Locky Monster. Telling Stanley and Hamish about what he has seen, he is frustrated that neither of them believes him – especially when he believes that a monster is exactly the thing to tempt visitors to stay and solve Hamish’s money worries.

Trying his best to help the brothers settle in, Hamish arranges for Murdy, a friend’s daughter, to visit to get to know the boys and when she reveals to Benji that she has also seen the monster, Benji’s active mind starts to form a visionary plan and he decides he needs to produce firm evidence of the monster’s existence. Together with Murdy and Mr Dog, Benji pulls out all the stops to prove the Loch Locky monster is real but as his obsession with saving the holiday lets threatens to take over his life, Benji learns that the biggest monsters are not always the ones you can see.

We all need security and stability in our lives and for children, who have yet to find their way in the world and are still enormously dependent on their guardians, this is particularly true. Here, not only have Benji and Stanley lost their much-loved parents but as a result they are forced to move from the familiarity of their London home to Loch Locky to stay with an unknown uncle. While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, Stanley’s negativity and resentment at the situation in which he and his brother find themselves is perhaps more what we might expect and is in stark contrast to Benji’s seemingly relentless optimism and positivity. Both brothers are clearly in the very deepest of pain, and while – thank God – the vast majority of our children will not suffer the loss of parents, they will most likely lose grandparents, pets or other loved ones, or be forced to move away from their support networks at some point in their young lives. For those young readers so affected, not only will they and their friends see themselves reflected perfectly here but they will – more importantly – see that however they feel their loss, it is the right way for them.

Although the theme of grief and loss obviously runs through the book, it is far from being gloomy or depressing to read. There are some very funny parts that certainly made me chuckle and will have children in stitches but I am not going to divulge them here for fear of spoilers. Perfect for 9+ readers, this is a book that you will definitely want to pre-order and with its summer release date, it will be entertaining many readers on their holidays, I’m sure.

As always, the very hugest of thanks go to publisher Usborne for my gifted review copy. The Boy Who Made Monsters publishes 6th July.

Catfish Rolling by Clara Kumagai

Jacket design by Andrew Davis

My New Year’s resolution this year was to read more Young Adult titles – one that so far has proved far better for my soul than dieting or starting a new exercise regime. When I was sent this new title by debut author Clara Kumagai, I was immediately drawn to its gorgeous cover and spredges and curious about its story, described as a coming-of-age novel set in a world of Japanese myths, folklore and magical realism.

Reading it, I found a book unlike any other I have read. Part science-fiction, part love story, part exploration of Japanese culture, history and belief, I read this in a day as I was hooked into the story of Sora, whose world is turned upside down following an earthquake said to have been triggered by a giant catfish beneath the ground rolling itself over.

For most of us, an earthquake is something we will fortunately never experience but for Sora, when it comes as she is at a supermarket, it is the start of a life that will no longer contain her mother, who is missing in its aftermath. Seven years later, as she graduates from high school, she feels the frustration of being stuck at an event she doesn’t want to be at and the embarrassment of her father arriving late. Gazing over at friend and classmate Koki, she remembers their first meeting in a time zone – a forbidden area where time no longer follows normal conventions following the earthquake.

When Koki reveals that he is going to nearby Tokyo to study, Sora reflects on the imminent loss of her only real friend but has other, greater, concerns when her scientist father who is studying the zones starts to become confused and forgetful as well as drinking heavily and staying up too late at night. Intrigued by the zones, and looking to make some money, Sora illegally shows people around them and when guards from her father’s place of work discover her in one, her father is sacked.

With no school or work to attend, Sora takes the opportunity to visit Koki in Tokyo and attends a lecture with him which leads her to a lecturer and student Maya who are studying time and the zones. As Sora visits the Tokyo zones and is drawn towards Maya, she receives news that her father has vanished and hurries back home. Trying to figure out what has happened to him, Sora decides that she must enter the zones and go further in than anyone has before. As she searches, will she be able to locate him and bring him back, or will the zones around her have other plans for her?

Time is something that we all believe we understand but in reality we probably really don’t. Certainly, the older I get, the quicker time appears to go but the idea of being able to visit places where time goes more slowly or more quickly is an intriguing one. Where Sora lives, the zones are under investigation by her father and are out-of-bounds to the general public but in more cosmopolitan Tokyo, visitors come and go for their own reasons, throwing up a great many questions with the reader being treated as an intelligent participant in the story who is quite capable of making up their own mind as to what is going on for themselves.

Told mainly in the present tense and also in flashbacks of Sora’s experiences, we come to see just how she has ended up as a loner and as the willing subject of her father’s experiments. When Koki – who seems to have his future mapped out for him, like many of their peers – leaves for university she is surprised at his choice as she has no real plan and holds on to their friendship like a security blanket. Visiting Tokyo in response to her father’s mood when he is sacked, she quickly realises that the relationship she imagined she had with Koki is not what she is destined for and comes to see that her choices need to be hers and hers alone.

Exquisitely written, as I said earlier this is unlike anything else I have ever read. A science fiction story perfect for those who don’t like science fiction, it is thought-provoking, tender and a wonderful balance of Japanese mythology and modern storytelling. I very much enjoyed it and am looking forward to seeing what Clara Kumagai writes next.

As ever, my enormous thanks go to publisher Zephyr Books and to ed public relations for my gifted review copy. Catfish Rolling is on sale now in hardback.

Love You to Death by Gina Blaxill

Cover image © Adobe Stock and Getty Images with contributions by Taylor Henry at Unsplash

I’m of an age where when I was growing up the idea of all-consuming, romantic love was pitched as something very desirable – something at which my 26-year-old daughter now scoffs and rolls her eyes. With the popularity of romcoms and classic love stories such as Pride and Prejudice still enduring, there are a great many of us who still hold onto this idea and would class ourselves as romantics but what if that love morphed into obsession and instead of being on the receiving end of the attentions of Mr Darcy, we were stalked by someone unknown, someone with a very twisted idea of what love should be?

Such is the premise of this brilliant new Young Adult thriller by Gina Blaxill – a book that I read almost in one sitting such was its hold over me. This is a title that not only entertains but sends a very powerful message to its readers about the behaviours of what is, thankfully, a minority of members of our society and how those behaviours are solely the responsibility of those carrying out the stalking.

For Mia, a routine wait for boyfriend Aaron is turned into a terrifying experience when she is approached by a drunk who feels it necessary to comment on her clothing choices. Rescued from the situation by Aaron arriving, Mia reflects on what might have happened if he had not appeared before they both head off to meet up with friend Leyla for coffee. Arriving at the coffee shop, the pair are greeted by owner Cale who asks a puzzled Mia if she has forgotten something and when she tells him she has only just arrived, tells her that a girl he could’ve sworn was her has only just left.

After a short amount of detective work, Leyla finds Mia’s doppelgänger online – a girl called Jade who is copying Mia’s look down to the smallest details, leaving her creeped out. Trying to put all thoughts of this to the back of her mind, Mia takes Aaron back home where they hang out and discuss their plans for the following weekend, when Aaron’s parents will be away giving them the opportunity to spend the night together. Standing together on the doorstep in the dark before he leaves, Aaron tells Mia to go inside for her own safety but as they kiss goodbye they are both startled by a series of camera flashes and an indistinct figure running away.

The following day, Mia heads to the local cinema to help out at a screening and is shocked when Jade turns up not just bearing an astonishing resemblance to her but also wearing what appears to be a one-of-a-kind scarf that Mia had made herself, forcing Mia to conclude that Jade has stolen it somehow. Over the next few days, Mia becomes increasingly convinced that she is being followed and spied upon and reencountering Jade at school is shaken by the other girl’s behaviour. When Jade’s body is discovered by the cliffs, Mia at first assumes that the other girl has had a terrible accident or has killed herself but it is soon obvious that that is not the case. And when Mia continues to be followed and starts to receive anonymous messages, it becomes clear that someone is stalking her – someone who will stop at nothing to get their own way…

While, like many women, I’ve had a couple of boyfriends who turned out to be utter creeps, or have at times attracted unwanted attention from men, I am eternally grateful that I’ve never been a victim of stalking – a truly terrifying experience for those affected and one which, sadly, is often not taken as seriously as it should be. Throughout the book, Mia questions how she presents herself – her choice of clothes, for example – and despite reassurances from her mother that she is very much not the one to blame for her situation, continues to believe that, at least in part, she bears some responsibility. We all know that we should be free to express ourselves and dress how we please but this idea of any woman attracting the wrong sort of attention or being assaulted because she was asking for it seems to be one that as a society we are not making enough progress to banish, which frightens me enormously.

Brilliantly written, the plot twists and turns from the very beginning and includes plenty of red herrings. I was convinced I had worked out who the perpetrator was halfway through but my smugness soon disappeared when I reached the end only to discover I was wrong. Gripping, thought-provoking and a title that I thoroughly enjoyed, this is a must-read for fans of Young Adult thrillers and one to which I am enormously grateful to publisher Scholastic for my gifted review copy. Love You to Death publishes 13th April and is definitely one to pre-order.

Wild Family by Ben Lerwill and Harriet Hobday

Cover illustration © Harriet Hobday, 2023

I’d like to think that as well as my charges learning in school, I learn alongside them and one thing that I have really take on board over the last couple of years is that many children not only enjoy reading non fiction, they actually prefer it to stories. As a result of this, I have tried to explore titles for them to read – not primarily to educate them, but in the main for their pleasure.

While some of my class have quite niche interests, all of them are united by their love of animals and in this new title from author Ben Lerwill and illustrator Harriet Hobday I have struck gold. Gorgeously illustrated and full of interesting facts that are presented in small chunks so as to tempt even my less confident readers to dive in, this is a read which I guarantee will not sit long on our class shelf and is one destined to be read over and over again in school.

After a brief introduction to bring the reader up to speed with the terms wild family and biodiversity, we learn about elephants – surely one of the most loved animals on the planet – before progressing through representatives of all branches of the animal world and travelling around our beautiful planet to encounter a vast array of life. As well as those creatures with the aww-factor, we meet many who are less glamorous but equally as important in sustaining the ecosystems in which they live – something that is crucial if our young people are to go on not only to prevent more damage to Mother Nature but hopefully reverse it.

While many youngsters may choose to read this alone, it is a book which is absolutely perfect for sharing with a friend or with an adult – a title to savour and discuss. There is certainly plenty here to talk about, whether it be the details within the gorgeous artwork or the many facts that were new to me and will be to many other readers too, making this a book with enormous appeal to a huge range of readers. In school, it could be used to support a great many topics looking at the environment as it also covers the importance of protecting the vast array of habitats around the world and in particular the importance of trees and the huge contribution they make to supporting all life on Earth.

An absolute must-have for KS2 classrooms, I adored this book and cannot wait to share it in school. My enormous thanks go to publisher Puffin Books for my gifted review copy. Wild Family is on sale now.

The First Shadowdragon by Lee Newbery, illustrated by Laura Catalán

Cover illustration by Laura Catalán

Before I moved to teaching Year 3 I had already started to explore books aimed at lower KS2 – both to improve my own knowledge of titles written for a younger audience and so that my little library shelf had a better selection of reads for the less confident readers in my then Year 5 class. When I read The Last Firefox – Lee Newbery’s debut book – I knew that I had found a real winner, a beautiful story which was not only written in short chapters (all important when you are less confident) and fabulously illustrated but also a title that was inclusive in its representation of a family with same-sex parents and an adopted protagonist.

As soon as I saw that there would be a follow-up title, I was thrilled. Now teaching Year 3 and equally as determined to share high quality, inclusive stories with my children as I was previously, this is a book I simply had to request from Net Galley for an advance read ahead of publication. Again beautifully written in those so important short chapters and perfectly complemented by Laura Catalán’s enchanting illustrations, here is another read that deserves a place on every lower KS2 class bookshelf to delight those who pick it up – and surely there will be a great many.

Life has returned to a new normality for Charlie after his previous adventures. Not only does his family now share their home with firefox Cadno but they’ve been joined by recently-adopted toddler Edie, whose cuddly unicorn Madam Sugarpuff is missing at the start of the story – causing her a huge amount of upset. Retrieving the cuddly toy from the back garden where it has been buried by Cadno, Charlie’s dads discuss the firefox’s recent misdemeanours leading Charlie to worry that they are planning to get rid of his pet. Sharing his concerns with best friends Lippy and Roo, their comments that Cadno is probably missing his magical home of Fargone do nothing to reassure him and together with the firefox the group makes their way to Bryncastell Castle, where Charlie first met his pet, hoping to give Charlie inspiration for a school project he is struggling to complete.

Discovering that the portal to Fargone is open once more, the gang rush back to Charlie’s house to ask his dads if anything odd has happened there. Almost as soon as they have asked, a variety of strange creatures appear in the garden, accompanied by Teg who asked Charlie to protect Cadno in his first adventure. Over tea, Teg reveals that Fargone is under threat from a monster called Draig who is draining the life force from the land. Unconvinced that he is the right person to tackle the crisis, Charlie protests that his previous success was purely down to good luck but Teg refuses to take no for an answer until Charlie’s dads put their joint foot down and say that they will not allow him to put his life in danger again causing Teg and the magical animals to leave.

The following morning, it is clear that Edie has vanished during the night and all the evidence points to her disappearance being linked to magic. With no other option, Charlie’s dads decide the family must travel to Fargone to find her and together with Lippy and Roo they make their way to the hidden portal at the castle and slip through into the magical land. Finding Edie quickly, Charlie and the others meet Teg once more who again asks Charlie for help in defeating Draig. Guilt-tripped into realising that he is the only one that will be able to rid the land of its tormentor, Charlie seizes the opportunity to sneak off with Lippy, Roo, Cadno and new friend Blodyn to find and defeat the beast. Can the friends carry out their mission and release Fargone from Draig’s clutches and can they do so before Charlie’s dads catch up with them?

Charlie is a wonderful character – a real friend to Lippy and Roo and somebody who wants to do the right thing, whether that be completing his homework, putting Cadno’s needs above his own or saving Fargone. These positive traits don’t make him an unbelievable paragon of virtue, however, he has his flaws just like the rest of us and here young readers will be able to recognise many of their own faults in him and breathe a sigh of relief that despite his errors he is unconditionally loved by those around him. This is so important for children to realise – perhaps especially for those who are adopted, who frequently feel rejected by their biological parents – because, let’s face it, none of us is perfect and here Charlie is completely secure in the knowledge that his imperfections do not affect the love his dads, or the other characters, have for him.

I love a magical adventure and this one is a sheer delight from start to finish. With just the right amount of scariness and peril for young readers, this is a book which ticks so many boxes for me and is one that will work perfectly well as a standalone read. I must say at this point that it seems unbelievable to me – as it does to many others – that the threat of the removal of LGBTQ+ books from schools and libraries is again being debated. All of our children need to see rainbow families represented in the reading materials they enjoy and this is a book which I know many of us will be proud to promote and share with our charges for that very reason.

With the introduction of new magical creature Blodyn to the gang and a way back to Fargone now in place, I am hoping that we will see much more from Charlie and Cadno in the future. Until then though, I am enormously indebted to publisher Puffin Books and to Net Galley for my advance virtual read. The First Shadowdragon publishes April 27th.

Until the Road Ends by Phil Earle

Cover illustration by Tom Clohosy Cole

Within the children’s book-loving community on Twitter there is quite regularly a certain amount of book-envy. Sometimes, I am envious of books that other bloggers have been lucky enough to receive and sometimes I am the fortunate recipient of a title that will prompt my friends to say that they are most envious of me. This new title from Phil Earle falls very much into the latter of those two categories and is one that caused more than a touch of the green-eyed monsters in those who were not as lucky as me.

So what is it about the author’s writing that inspires such strong feelings in its readers? Well, since you ask, I would say it is a unique ability to draw in the reader with stories that are so exquisitely crafted that even my icy heartstrings are not just pulled but stretched to breaking point and then massaged tenderly back to full strength by being exposed in turn to the full cruelty of life and its greatest joys. This is another emotional rollercoaster of a read, which will leave you weeping and smiling broadly by turn as you follow the unfolding story, the third in a trilogy of standalone titles set during WWII.

It is shortly before the outbreak of that conflict that we meet stray dog Beau, who has been surviving on his wits for years until a chance encounter with young Peggy Alford sees him taken into her family home. Quickly worming his way into Peggy’s heart, the rest of her family take to him too with the exception of her younger brother Wilf’s cat, Mabel, but Beau soon wises up to her and ensures that he behaves impeccably to earn himself a permanent place alongside his new owner.

While life is much improved for Peggy’s furry friend, it is soon to be shattered and through overheard conversations, wireless broadcasts and gossiping with racing pigeon Bomber, who lives next door, Beau soon learns that war is on its way. With the lives of their children threatened by the expected imminent bombing campaign, Mr and Mrs Alford take the heart-breaking decision to send Peggy and Wilf away to the safety of their Aunt Sylvie’s seaside home. For both children, this news is hard to digest and when they are told that Beau and Mabel will have to stay with their parents they are beside themselves, with Peggy determining to make the best of things by writing to her beloved dog to stay in contact.

Once the children have been evacuated, Mr and Mr Alford go about their daily business until a bombing raid occurs that means that they will not be returning home again. Pining for Peggy and fully aware of what she has lost, Beau decides to take action to find her. With hundreds of miles between them and unsure as to where she and Wilf are, how will Beau make his way to Aunt Sylvie’s and will he be brave enough to cope with the terrible challenges he faces on the way?

For today’s children, the concept of evacuation is a very odd one. While some may have a better idea of what it entails thanks to the arrival of refugees in this country from Ukraine or elsewhere, who can talk to their new classmates from first-hand experience, most of our youngsters have very little real idea as to the effect on both those who were sent away and those who stayed put. By turning the idea of evacuation on its head here to focus on the story as told from Beau’s point of view, the reader is left in no doubt as to the horrors that were left behind by the children sent away and the pain of separation for their adults, who could never be 100% sure that they had made the right decision, making this an incredibly powerful story.

Running through the story are the feelings that all of the characters, human and animal, experience – those that are on show for all to see and those that are hidden away. Beau is probably most people’s idea of man’s best friend – he wears his heart on his sleeve and is totally devoted to Peggy although his devotion leads him to be blind at times to the possible outcomes of his actions. Mabel, on the other hand, is possibly the most sarcastic character I have ever met as she battles to persuade those around her – and herself – of her indifference to Wilf and the rest of his family, providing some very humorous moments to offset the horrors she and Beau encounter. I know there will many teachers in upper KS2 sharing this as a class read and some fantastic work on character studies could come about through reading this, as well as some very powerful discussions in PSHE about the choices we make and the emotions we all experience. It goes without saying that this, alongside the writer’s other titles, When the Sky Falls and While the Storm Rages, would make an incredible read to complement any WWII topic.

Publishing 1st June, this is book I urge you to pre-order. Powerful, beautifully written and featuring the most wonderful cast of characters, it is one you will love and want to return to again and again. My very greatest thanks go to publisher Andersen Press for my gifted review copy.

Olly Brown, God of Hamsters by Bethany Walker, illustrated by Jack Noel

Cover illustration © Jack Noel, 2023

Hamsters are often seen as a gateway pet – one with which children might be entrusted to prove to their adults that they can take care of an animal before they move on to something bigger and more needy, such as a dog or cat. For some children though, a tiny furry friend is at the top of their wish list and so it is for Olly Brown, hero of this hilarious new read from the winning team of Bethany Walker and Jack Noel.

Struggling to think of three targets to meet in the short time he has left at Burton Upper Primary School, Olly decides that his number one priority is to take home the class hamster, Sharon, for a weekend and care for it as only he really knows how. Having read up on the subject and produced detailed instructions for his classmates, Olly considers himself a bit of an expert on hamster care but his father has put the kibosh on this plan all year by telling Olly that he is allergic to the tiny creatures.

After completing his list of targets and getting through the day, Olly is collected by his dad and little sister Martha and the three of them head to Asda on the way home supposedly to pick up some shopping but more so that Olly’s dad can encourage his quiet son to talk to the adults there by requesting items from its counters. Clamming up under the pressure he feels, as he lies in bed that night Olly reflects that he will never meet his third target – to speak up and make an impact – and drifts off, imagining just what it would be like to bring Sharon home with him.

Performing his duties as hamster monitor a couple of days later, Olly is stunned to see another hamster next to Sharon’s cage – a hamster that bows to him before fainting. Not knowing what else to do, Olly hides the new hamster inside his lunchbox and takes it home. Managing to hide it from Dad, Olly is woken up during the night by the rodent who is no longer on its own but is accompanied by thirty or forty others. Over the next few days, more hamsters appear and Olly tries to communicate them, only to come to the conclusion that they appear to be worshipping him. Can our hero work out where they have come from and why before they completely take over his life, and – more importantly – before Dad finds out?

Olly is such a likeable character – one that young readers will empathise with and root for as the story unfolds. Quiet and shy, he is one of those children who very often disappears in class because he doesn’t draw attention to himself through poor behaviour or by routinely volunteering answers – something his father is keen to help him overcome by trying to force him into talking to adults at every opportunity. For Olly, like many of our learners, this is something that he can’t do, rather than something he won’t, but as the situation with the hamsters spirals out of his control he gradually starts to find the courage to speak up.

This new-found bravery comes about as a result of his passion for all hamsterkind and his realisation that it is down to him and him alone to resolve the difficulties in which he and the hamsters find themselves, providing him with exactly the motivation he needs to be able to talk to adults. For those youngsters who share his shyness, they – and with luck the adults around them – will hopefully see that they are not less than their peers for being quiet and that when the need arises, they too will find heir voices.

A really delightful book, I read this in one sitting. With some laugh-out-loud funny parts (children will love the many references to hamster poo) and the wonderful illustrations of Jack Noel throughout to complement the story, this is perfect for my more confident Year 3 readers as an independent title and would also make a brilliant shared read as adults will enjoy this too.

Enormous thanks, as always, go to publisher Scholastic for my gifted review copy. Olly Brown, God of Hamsters publishes on April 14th.