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Great books for great readers

In celebration of ‘Book’

Today was the peak in the ‘Books are my Bag’ 2014 calendar, with many independent bookshops celebrating what they do and the wonderful products they sell. So what better time to review John Agard’s new and marvellous title Book?

I was sent the title to review by We Love This Book, a website for which I review regularly – mainly children’s and young adults’ books but occasionally adults’ titles too. You can read my review here: http://www.welovethisbook.com/reviews/book but I couldn’t resist posting a piece on it on Childtastic because, well, that’s what this website is all about!

image courtesy of http://www.bookdespository.com

As a book lover, this was a piece of heaven. Agard, in his gentle and poetic style, takes the reader through the history of books, from a time before we ever had the written word, right up to e-books and Kindles. Book is the narrator, spilling plenty of secrets and trivia which delights even the mildest bibliophile (and there is information on where that word came from, too). The strapline says: ‘My name is Book and I’ll tell you the story of my life’, which sounds like a huge undertaking but Book is a slim volume, which packs a huge amount of knowledge into its small pages. It can be read in one go or broken into chunks and is suitable for reading aloud to younger audiences too, with black and white illustrations, poems, quotes, and excerpts from other books.

There is a gentle political message in Agard’s writing, cleverly woven into Book’s place in public libraries. We find out that ‘there were libraries in Rome as early as the first century AD’ although they weren’t open to the public till the middle of the nineteenth century ‘for free’ and that, once upon a time, signs outside libraries read ‘NO CHILDREN OR DOGS ALLOWED’. It is wonderful, therefore, that children can have access to the wealth of learning and possibilities that libraries provide… if they are allowed a future. At this point, ‘Book’ alerts us to the danger of losing libraries if funding is cut, saying ‘When politicians talk about closing a library to save money, I feel like knocking them over the head. And my hardback spine can give a jolly hard knock, I can tell you.’ If you have ever loved libraries, you can understand this sentiment, along with the wisdom of the Ancient Greeks who called a library ‘the “medicine chest of the soul”‘.

I urge you to buy Book for anyone and everyone who loves books. Or even likes them. And possibly those who are wavering between appreciation and indifference. It’s one of my top books of the year, and will stay with me for a long time.

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Why I like the Harry Potter books

Today’s post comes from Holly, who is writing about why she likes the Harry Potter books so much! Over to Holly…

In Year 4, at primary school, which was three years ago, I read the Harry Potter books. I loved them so much I thought I better write a review about them as nothing really matches up to them.

I was influenced to read the books after a friend said how good they were. I was six when we read the first one but never got round to reading the rest. When I was 9, I started reading them again from book two and couldn’t get my head out of them. By the time I had finished them I was sad and had to try and find something else but my head was so full of Harry Potter and still is.

The Harry Potter series is amazing. As you read them your imagination takes over and images fill your mind and encourages you to read more. The words wash around your mind like music. After one adventure is finished you start the next one. You begin to have a desperate longing to finish the books but when you get to the end you begin to feel sad.

When I finished the series I was disappointed because there was no more Harry Potter and I just had to find some other books. I just found that I didn’t want it to end. I think you only get that feeling with books and you can’t get that feeling with TV.

The Harry Potter books are wonderful, magical books to read and I would encourage anyone to read. They just unravel you into such a mysterious, exciting tale. I would like to thank JK Rowling for making me enjoy reading more than I ever have before. I would also like to thank JK Rowling for writing these amazing enthralling stories.

TIP for Harry Potter fans: Go to the Harry Potter Studios – they are amazing.

Do you like Harry Potter? Which is your favourite book? Or your favourite character?

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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 Waterstones.com (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.

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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. 

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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: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/feb/12/childrens-literature-imaginary-friends-enid-blyton

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!

Sam

 

 

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