Great books for great readers

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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So very sorry!

Things have been rather quiet over here at Childtastic Books for the last couple of months and I am very sorry for the silence. These are just several things that have been happening:

  • Holly had her Year 6 SATs (and all was fine – no results yet but she actually enjoyed the exams!)
  • I had my MA essay to complete for the end of my second-year, based on British Children’s Literature, 1960 to the present day, with the University of Roehampton. I am glad to say I did pass this and therefore can go into my third and final year in September (dissertation year – yikes!)
  • Holly has been preparing herself for secondary school, with a transition day at her new school. This also went well and she has already made friends, which is a relief as she will not be going to the local secondary with some of her friends from primary.
  • I’ve been super-busy with my job with the National Literacy Trust, as we prepare to exit from our two-year Oxfordshire Reading Campaign project. This has involved planning for and running a series of ‘graduation ceremonies’ for pupils in schools throughout the county. I have three more to attend and my feet are already killing me! But it’s been fantastic to work with new authors and storytellers I have not met before, so I will be sure to write about this soon.

We have had some fun and sadness too over the past couple of months. Our beloved cat Socks, who lived with us for 15 years, after coming to us from a sanctuary aged 2, died suddenly from heart failure. This was very hard for all of us as he was such a big part of our family. Books did help us with this time, and Holly returned to some of her favourite childhood picture books about cats, including the Mog series by Judith Kerr …

image courtesy of


and Captain’s Purr by Madeleine Floyd.

image courtesy of

We still get our sad moments but we also have some good memories to help us. Additionally, we seem to have been adopted by a small, female cat called Lily, who has had a rather rough start to life. She’s gradually getting used to our house, though our remaining cat, Archie, is taking a long time to settle in her company!

So… I will be posting something very soon but I just wanted to say hello after such a long hiatus and promise that we will be writing again shortly!

I hope you are all well and enjoying the summer, wherever in the world you are (or indeed the winter, if you are in that part of the world!).



Enid Blyton fun quiz!!

Hi adults and children! Here is a fun quiz just for you.

As you may know Enid Blyton is one of my favourite authors so I decided to do a quiz about her. Do you think you have complete knowledge and know everything about Enid Blyton? Then use your knowledge to get involved and try to answer some of these questions that quiz you about Enid Blyton. So give it a go you may just win a prize for the best marks out of 10!

1. what was Enid Blyton’s job in world war 2? 

a. A green grocer

b. A code breaker

c. A shop keeper

2. How many novels did she write?

a. 186 novels

b. 204 novels

c 190 novels

3. How many children did she have?

a. 1 child

b. 3 children

c. 2 children

4. When did Enid Blyton publish “Adventures of the wishing chair”? 

a. 1936

b. 1937


5. When did Enid Blyton publish “Five on a treasure island”?




6. When was she born?

a. 1896

b. 1898


7. When did she die?




8. What type of description was she famous for?

a. Description of setting

b. Description of food  

c. Description of people

9. What word was she famous for

a. Lashings

b. Dollops

c. Handfuls

10.What was her middle name?

a. Beth

b. Madeline

c. Mary

Now write your answers down on a piece of paper and email them to us by 1 June 2014. Good luck everyone!!

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Sue Townsend: thank you for the memories

It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of Sue Townsend on 10 April 2014.

I’d caught it as a Tweet on Twitter just before going to bed but couldn’t find any confirmation until the next day, when it was all over the newspapers and internet. Tributes were pouring in for a woman who caught the imagination of not just one generation but of many.

I’ve spent the first part of the Easter weekend devouring the book that made her a household name: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4. It’s the 30th anniversary edition and it contains some fascinating information about Townsend’s journey to becoming a bestselling author. I’d had no idea that:

  • she had left school aged 15 because she said her parents couldn’t afford the uniform for her to go to the local grammar schools to take exams
  • one of the most famous diaries of recent times started off as a secret writing project, and the very John Tydeman, who Adrian writes regularly to with his attempts at poetry, championed it at the BBC
  • Adrian was originally called Nigel but Townsend was persuaded, with difficulty, to change it after BBC people pointed out it was too similar to Nigel Molesworth. Before Townsend arrived at Adrian, she experimented with the name ‘Malcolm’ but rejected it, saying that it reminded her of blocked sinuses
  • Sue Townsend had originally written the diary as reading material for adults, despite the age of the main protagonist
  • she had become a virtual recluse towards the end of her life because of ill health and what she called ‘late-onset shyness’.

I first read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 when I was around the same age, and certainly in the mid-1980s soon after I moved over here from Canada. The books were a joy to me – pure comedy and so evocative of the times I was growing up in. I felt both sympathy and frustration for the wannabe-intellectual, who pestered Malcolm Muggeridge for information on what it was like to be an intellectual, and who badgered the kind John Tydeman with his dreadful poetry. His teenage angst, heightened by raging hormones, lust over Pandora, acne (which he mistakes for Lassa Fever) and the insecurity that many if not most teens feel, rang true and I was staggered that a middle-aged woman could capture this so well. Townsend did say to her publishers that she didn’t want her name on the book cover precisely for this reason: ‘It was supposed to be written by a 13 3/4-year-old boy. It seemed stupid to have my name on it.’

Returning to the book several decades later, and it still seems fresh to me. I still laugh aloud at Adrian’s ineptitude and his seriousness. This is one of my favourite passages:

Thursday January 22nd

It is a dirty lie about Pandora’s father being a milkman! He is an accountant at the dairy. Pandora says she will duff Nigel up if he goes round committing libel. I am in love with her again.

Nigel has asked me to go to a disco at the youth club tomorrow night; it is being held to raise funds for a new packet of ping pong balls. I don’t know if I will go because Nigel is a punk at weekends. His mother lets him be one, providing he wears a string vest under his bondage T shirt.

My mother has got an interview for a job. She is practising her typing and not doing any cooking. So what will it be like if she gets the job? My father should put his foot down before we are a broken home.’

For all his aspirations to intellectualism, Adrian is still very provincial and narrow-minded and this is what gives the books much of their irony. Take, for example, his comments on his mother’s disillusionment with marriage: ‘… she said that for some women marriage was like being in prison…Marriage is nothing like being in prison! Women are let out every day to go to the shops and stuff…’ Later he gets a worse shock when she cuts her hair off, wears boiler suits (sometimes with sequins) and joins a feminist group.

Similarly, his despair at not being able to do his maths homework drives him to calling the Samaritans for help. ‘The nice man at the end of the phone told me the answer was nine-eighths. He was dead kind to someone in despair…’ only to later lament the help: ‘The stupid Samaritan got the answer wrong! It’s only seven-fifths.’ For all his attempts at intellectual loftiness (reading and not understanding Iris Murdoch, for example), Adrian still remains quite sheltered and, dare I say it, mediocre.

Adrian as a teenager nowadays

In the notes at the back of the 30th anniversary edition, Sue Townsend is asked what Adrian would be like if he were a teen nowadays. She replies: ‘He would be exactly the same, but he wouldn’t be using Twitter … He would keep a secret diary. … He would not use social networking.’ As someone who does use Facebook and Twitter and has a blog, I feel strangely happy about this revelation. Perhaps this is because Adrian Mole represents a certain time in my life when these activities weren’t even dreamt of and teens did other things, like go to Ricky Lemon’s Youth Club and have slide shows on wombs cut in half as a form of sex education (actually, I never experienced anything like that). It’s strange that, despite the lack of social media in the Adrian Mole books, they still feel timeless. Or maybe they do to old-timers like me.

RIP Sue Townsend, and thank you for the memories and the laughs.

image courtesy of

Quotes are taken from: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 (30th anniversary edition), published by Puffin in 2012, first published by Townsend in 1982.


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