Great books for great readers

Listening to a literary heroine: Judith Kerr

Last night, I listened to the wonderful Judith Kerr talk to the Sunday Times’ Children’s Book Editor Nicolette Jones at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. I heard about her inspirations, her creative practice, her incredible experiences as a German-Jewish refugee in World War II and her love of cats.

At the risk of sounding unattractively gushing, I have long-awaited the opportunity to see one of my literary heroines in person. On a couple of previous occasions, the events were cancelled at the last minute as Kerr, who is an amazing 91 this year, was taken ill. Third time did prove to be lucky though and I am so glad that I had this opportunity, and in my home town too.

My first exposure to Judith Kerr was when I lived in Canada, when my class read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Kerr’s fictionalized autobiography of her family’s experiences as refugees during the Second World War. I always remember my  horror that Anna, the young Judith, chose a games compendium as her one toy to take when they left their house, leaving her beloved pink rabbit behind. Anna believed, with the optimism of youth, that she would soon be home to collect her rabbit. Unfortunately this would never happen.

I read the book just before I moved to the UK from Canada and my mother and I were packing up our things to take. Unlike Anna, I was allowed to take my cuddly toys (the moving man even insisted upon it) and they were placed carefully in a crate, to travel slowly by boat and arrive 6 months later. My beloved rabbit Hoppy travelled with me though by air. She was too precious to risk leaving behind or getting lost at sea (which one of our boxes did).

Hoppy, my beloved childhood companion

Hoppy, my beloved childhood companion

Hoppy profile

The proof of how well Hoppy is loved is in her lack of one ear!

For ages, I worried about what had happened to Anna’s rabbit and whether Hitler’s men did take the toy.

A pink rabbit appears in, I think, the only Mog book we hadn’t read till last night, when I dashed out to buy it after the talk: Mog and Bunny. The toy looks incredibly like the pink rabbit of the memoir’s name, though Kerr laughed this off as coincidence:

image courtesy of (who hosted the talk)

Kerr told us that the idea for the story came from one of her cats (she has lived with 9 to this day), who walked around mewing with a toy rabbit hanging out her mouth and treated it like a kitten until she was old enough to have kittens herself. When she lined up her kittens, the toy rabbit would be there too, though the cat was becoming increasingly puzzled as to its inactivity. In the end, the cat gave it a gentle nudge towards independence by leaving it in a quiet corner of the garden with a dead mouse beside it for sustenance.

Little gems like these are fascinating to hear and Judith Kerr related them with warmth and humour. Despite attempts by some critics to read a deeper psychological meaning into her texts, Kerr humours their theories – saying they are ‘good’ but gently rejecting them. Why did she choose a tiger as the unannounced visitor in The Tiger Who Came to Tea? A tiger was an apt symbol for a Nazi, surely? And the story a metaphor for the fear she and her family felt as refugees fleeing from Hitler’s men? Smiling, Kerr replied ‘A Nazi might come into your house and eat everything there but would you cuddle it?’

One person asked whether the cat that can be seen on one page in her new book The Crocodile Under the Bed was a nod to Mog (the two look remarkably similar). Kerr smiled and said if so it wasn’t a conscious choice – she just likes to fill blank spaces with cats, which she said are easier to draw than geese, for example.

Her most recent research centres on seals and she was keen to extol the virtues of Google. She had previously planned to travel to a seal sanctuary in Scotland to observe and draw them but then discovered a plethora of images within seconds by just Googling ‘seals’. She was quite animated about the ease of the internet and how she now communicates with her editor nearly entirely by email. But she still prefers more traditional forms of artwork in her own creations, with pencils and paper her preferred form.

I loved hearing about the work, the inspiration but what really struck a chord with me was Kerr’s attitude to life. She naturally eschews self-pity for a genuine and infectious optimism and joy in life. She firmly states that she enjoyed her experience as a refugee, recalling her delight at viewing Paris from the window of their  run-down rooms, telling her father how lucky they were to  be living that kind of life. She says that this view is not just her own either – other refugee children felt similarly excited. Kerr admitted that life during the Blitz was difficult, but preferred to focus on how lovely people were in times of hardship, especially when her parents spoke English with very heavily accented German accents. She carries this pleasure with the small things in everyday life to this day, leaving everyone who listened to her marveling at her happiness. It is this quality that shines through her words and pictures and no doubt will continue enchanting generations to come.


Read On. Get On.

Imagine not being able to read a book.

Imagine not being able to read a letter.

Imagine not being able to read an instruction leaflet.

Imagine not being able to read this post.

I can’t imagine not being able to read. My earliest memories are of bedtime stories, typically taken from one of Richard Scarry’s wonderful collections. Each night I would look forward to my mum or dad reading to me so I could lose myself in the crazy world of the characters; indeed I became so obsessed with the stories that I learned them by heart and my kindergarten teacher thought I could read fluently at the age of 4! Even though this obviously wasn’t the case, I was fortunate in that I didn’t struggle to learn to read – in fact I couldn’t wait to be able to read independently and find even more stories to enjoy. I also feel privileged to be able to include my passion in the work I do – both as a children’s literature blogger and the work I currently do with the National Literacy Trust.

Disadvantage leads to more disadvantage

Unfortunately, not all children enjoy reading and many leave primary school unable to do so competently: in fact, nearly 50% of children from poorer families are unable to read and understand books, newspapers and websites by the time they leave primary schools, according to research published today by Save the Children. Even more worrying is the fact that these children are as much as seven years behind the more able children in in their age group in their reading, which makes the UK the second worse country for inequality in Europe, just behind Romania.

For this reason, a group of literacy-related charities and organisations, including Save the Children, the National Literacy Trust, the Reading Agency, Booktrust and the National Association of Head Teachers, have joined forces to launch a national campaign: Read On. Get On, with the aim of eradicating illiteracy in primary school children by the year 2025. It sounds like a tall order but, in order to avoid millions of children being denied a basic right and skill, it is essential.

What you can do

While the Read On. Get On. organisations will obviously be approaching political parties and other national groups, there is lots you can do at a local level to help. The Read On. Get On. website recommends the following ways to help:

  • Just reading for ten minutes a day can make a huge difference to children’s reading skills.
  • Sign our petition asking all the party leaders to commit to ensuring that every child leaves primary school reading well by 2025.
  • Sign up to volunteer and help poorer families in your local community improve their reading, their confidence and prospects.

Why primaries?

Helping those who struggle with literacy is essential at any age but in order to make a real difference to future generations, it is essential to ensure children leave school able to read. Most of a child’s ability in reading will have been established by the age of 11, as will their pleasure in reading. I won’t be unrealistic here – not every child will adore reading but to give them a chance of enjoying it as a hobby they need positive exposure to books and other media in the first 11 years of their life. Research also shows that children who enjoy reading do better generally in their studies and in life so this is the most vital time to catch them. 

Please do keep checking out the Read On. Get On. campaign and have a think about how you might make a difference. We all can. 


Imaginary friends… who’s had them? What books have them?

I’ve been working on various story ideas of my own recently and am mulling something over in my mind about imaginary children. I found a couple of excellent articles in the Guardian about them, including this one about imaginary friends in Children’s Literature:

I can’t think of many books that have them in, except for:

  • Philippa Pearce’s little dog in A Dog So Small
  • Lauren Child’s Soren Lorensen in the Charlie and Lola series
  • Nikki Sheehan’s young adult novel Who Framed Klaris Cliff (which I am looking forward to reading)

Er… that’s it!

Can you suggest any other children’s books that feature imaginary friends that you could recommend?

Did you have an imaginary friend as a child? How long did you have one for, and what sort of things did you do? I read an article that said girls and boys treat imaginary friends differently, with girls adopting a more caring and nurturing role towards friends that fulfil an emotional need, and boys acting out the personality and antics of their friend, often giving them skills and abilities they aspire to possess.

Any thoughts gratefully received as I am fascinated in this area and am researching it fairly extensively!

Thank you in advance!





Book crisis – please help!

I never thought I would be writing this post but that just goes to show you what life can throw up when you least expect it.

As you all know, Holly is an eager bookworm – otherwise she wouldn’t have started this blog with me. Granted, her contributions have dwindled over the last year because she is discovering other hobbies and is devoting her time to other passions. However, she’s always still read and enjoyed books.

But at the moment, she’s going through a bit of a book crisis.

We’re doing the Summer Reading Challenge, and she has made her way through three out of the six books. The first two were fine for her but the third proved troublesome. The first book she chose she became quickly bored with. The second book was too traumatic as the mother was going to die in it. We helped her through one of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books which she seemed to enjoy… ish.

I chatted with her today about reading and she said she just can’t get into anything at the moment. I know what she means – sometimes you just enter a phase when you just can’t settle with anything. But we’ve been stuck in that for a while, and part of me wonders if it’s part of the tween thing – she’s growing out of children’s books but young adult ones might be a little too brutal for her at the moment.

So I was wondering if anyone had any suggestions as to what they enjoyed when they were 11. What were you reading? What are you reading? She might listen to you! (We have some ‘mum-itis’ going on here – whatever I suggest falls on deaf ears!)

Looking forward to hearing your suggestions!


Getting to know new authors and storytellers

As some of you know, I am currently working as the Schools Project Manager for the Oxfordshire Reading Campaign, a two-year project aimed at helping to improve children’s ability in and love of reading. The children involved are typically aged six or seven, though we have some older children too. I do this for the National Literacy Trust, which was commissioned by Oxfordshire County Council to deliver the programme.

The programme is now drawing to a close and we’ve been celebrating the achievements of the pupils, all of whom have made amazing progress. Some have improved their reading age by at least 13 months in a four-month period! This is thanks to a reading programme, based on Project X Code books (published by Oxford University Press) and delivered by dedicated teaching assistants, who are passionate about the work they do and the children they work with.

We’ve run a total of nine events around Oxfordshire, inviting schools to attend a graduation ceremony in a host school. As part of the celebration, the children have enjoyed a special session with a wordsmith, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting new authors and storytellers as a result. They were:


John Dougherty

John Dougherty, who has written many books, amongst which are Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face and the Badness of Badgers. You can actually see John talking about the book with a group of pupils at Edward Feild Primary School in Kidlington, which is one of our participating schools and also hear him sing the song for the book on this video 

John Dougherty reading from his book at Edward Feild; image courtesy of

I really enjoyed John’s session as not only did I hear some very funny writing and singing (the song about pants was particularly side-splitting) but I also liked the fact that he talked about reading  more generally to the children and how it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you enjoy it. Beware parents who berate their children for reading picture books when they should be reading books with just words – watch out for your son or daughter’s retort when you pick up the latest copy of Hello! or Top Gear magazine…

Gareth P Jones

Unfortunately I was unable to attend the event where Gareth P Jones presented a workshop for pupils but I heard he was amazing and funny too from my colleague. Gareth is perhaps best known for his Ninja Meerkats series, which you can find out about in this video. Gareth has written lots of other things too, and won the Blue Peter Book of the Year 2012 with The Considine Curse. Gareth  often writes accompanying songs to his stories, so why not check out his website for lots of info and fun.

image courtesy of

Katy Cawkwell

Storyteller Katy Cawkwell did a couple of our events, and wowed child audiences with her enthralling tales. We listened to a tale of a greedy king in Turkey and a clever bird who foiled his murderous attempts at every step, and laughed along at a silly boy called Jack (not of the Beanstalk fame) who just didn’t understand how to carry things home (but still won the heart of a wealthy and beautiful young woman). Katy also told a lovely story of how the Man Who Lived in the Moon got there, and helped the pupils remember a way of telling the story themselves.

image courtesy of

Having a storyteller was a fab way of reminding everyone, not just children, that the stories we often read in books have their origin in oral storytelling and, for a very long time indeed, this was the main form of entertainment for societies around the world, who would sit down in communities and share tales. It’s a very dynamic form of entertainment.

Jon Lycett-Smith

Jon Lycett-Smith is both an author and illustrator. The Big Splash, a book he illustrated for writer A.H. Benjamin, featured as the CBeebies bedtime story on 2 June 2014, read by actress Rosamund Pike – you can see it here! Jon read this book to the children, as well a book he had both written and illustrated – Moo! … said Morris, in which he was accompanied by Morris the Mouse himself.


A spread from Moo! … said Morris, courtesy of

As well as reading from his books, Jon answered questions on the writing and illustrating process, which fascinated children and adults alike. At the end, he had a queue of children demanding pictures from him, and one child who dedicated their own illustration of Morris especially for him.

Jan Burchett and Sara Vogler

Authors Jan Burchett and Sara Vogler have written an astounding 160 books (minimum), amongst which are some of the Project X Code titles that the children will have read as part of the Reading Campaign. The children adore the stories in this series and love the fact that they are part of a special project when they go out to read together.

image courtesy of

I travelled around the county with cardboard cutouts of the above characters and felt like I was accompanying celebrities! Children stopped in their tracks and gasped and pointed, and at each event they all wanted their pictures taken with them. Therefore, the opportunity for the pupils to meet the authors in person was thrilling! Jan and Sara did a special workshop with the children, inventing a new zone and answering questions about the books and characters. Some children have been writing their own stories about the characters and were keen to share them with the experts!

Jan and Sara also write Sam Silver: the Undercover Pirate which is featured on the BBC’s ‘Bringing Books to Life’ programme, presented by actress Anjli Mohindra.

Alan Durant

Author and poet Alan Durant writes books for children of all ages, toddlers to teenagers, and for our event, he brought along some of his best-known titles for seven-year-olds (or thereabouts). One of these was his successful Burger Boy picture book, featured on CITV’s Bookaboo programme, about a boy who eats nothing but burgers with dire consequences. It was interesting to hear that Alan got the idea for the book from The Gingerbread Man and he explained how tales from his childhood acted as inspiration for his writing nowadays.

image courtesy of

Alan also did some ‘physical poetry’ with the children, getting them to perform the actions to one of his poems entitled ‘Tony Chestnut’ (based on body parts … work it out! ;-) ) and then asked the children to close their eyes while he read them a beautiful poem by Walter de la Mare called ‘Dream Song’, which I absolutely love:

Dream Song

Sunlight, moonlight,
Twilight, starlight-
Gloaming at the close of day,
And an owl calling,
Cool dews falling
In a wood of oak and may.

Lantern-light, taper-light,
Torchlight, no-light:
Darkness at the shut of day,
And lions roaring,
Their wrath pouring
In wild waste places far away.

Elf-light, bat-light,
Touchwood-light and toad-light,
And the sea a shimmering gloom of grey,
And a small face smiling
In a dream’s beguiling
In a world of wonders far away.

What an evocative poem for the senses. Alan asked the children what images came to mind when listening to the poem, and the answers included ‘stars’ ‘my bedroom at night’. Listening to poetry is a real treat.

I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to hear everyone read, speak, sing or draw. It just goes to show how much talent is out there in the world of children’s literature and how devoted authors and storytellers and illustrators are in participating in projects and events that strive to encourage a love of reading. I also feel inspired to start getting some of my ideas down on paper (or screen)!










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