Posted in Competition, general and welcome, literacy

Pottertastic – celebrating 20 years of Harry Potter!

Every year at St Michael’s Primary School in Oxford, where I am the Librarian, we run a fun summer challenge based on books and reading. In previous years, we’ve had Cakespeare (make/decorate a cake based on something from Shakespeare), Supertato veggie/fruit villains and heroes, and the Strangest Place to Read.

Since this year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we decided to base our competition on J.K. Rowling’s publishing phenomenon. I called it ‘Pottertastic’ and the challenge was for pupils in Key Stage 1 to colour in a picture from either Harry Potter or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Children in Key Stage 2 were encouraged to create a new character, object (eg wand, horcrux), Petronus, shop, etc, that could fit in nicely with the books.

With two weeks to do their best, the children set about their work, while my daughter Holly helped me design the background for the display, together with the help of Bloomsbury Kids UK, who sent me some decorations.

The display awaiting the children’s artwork

When the deadline arrived, I was amazed by the results. Two classes – Reception and Year 1, had embraced the competition and decided to use it as a prompt for their Big Write or class artwork. Therefore, I had pictures of Fantastic Beasts from every one of the children in both classes, with the children in Year 1 also writing amazing descriptions of what their beasts were and what they could do.

nagini.jpg   Gwen.jpgdishor.jpg   dave the monster.jpg

Some of the writing was very impressive indeed, and we gave special writing awards to two children for their efforts. See, for example, Lucy (below) who wrote about her beast, Diamond, of whom she is very fond:


Three children in the school created models of their entries.

sapphire bird.jpg
Sapphire Bird (this has feathers on the underside – hopefully I will be able to hang it up!)
Voldemort’s Spirit (another horcrux) lies inside this green tub and flashes! Under no circumstances must you open it. This handy map also gives you further information.
This is a fish but with a  human head. It can move on both land and water!

Interestingly, the children in Key Stage 2 based their creations on potential family members from the past and future. We have:

  • Valdi – Voldemort’s son who is 12 and really wants to be good but his father won’t allow it
  • Harry’s twin sister, Ellie – who was trapped in a crystal
  • Emily Potter – Harry’s long-lost sister!
  • Emma Upton – who escaped from Voldemort’s attack, although she has the same scar as her brother
  • Dobby’s family – both his mum and dad seem to love socks!

As you can imagine, judging the competition was extremely hard. Holly and Carl (my husband) went through all 75 entries and narrowed them down to 17 (I didn’t get involved to ensure neutrality!).

On Monday of this week, a good friend of mine, children’s/YA author Angela Kecojevic, came into school to help announce the winners. She treated the children to some slimy character creations based on her Hobbledown books and theme park and they all squealed with delight at her descriptions of her characters, especially when fellow pupils had to act them out in front of the assembly.

It always delights and inspires me when the children, families and staff enter into the spirit of these competitions, and we are incredibly fortunate to be supported in the activities we run to promote reading for enjoyment. Our library is an amazing resource but it wouldn’t be the place it is without the support, love and enthusiasm of everyone who uses it. Pottertastic was a huge success and it’s all down to everyone who supported it!

I’d like to thank Bloomsbury Kids UK for their generosity in sending us bunting, posters, bookmarks and other items to help with our display. I’d also like to thank Carl and Holly for their time in helping me with the competition – especially Holly, who designed the display board! And finally, a huge thank you to everyone in Year 1 and Reception for devoting so much time to supporting this competition.





Posted in general and welcome, picture books

Veggies on the run

What better book to read in the (pardon the pun) run-up to sports day than Sue Hendra’s and Paul Linnet’s latest instalment in the Supertato series, Run, Veggies, Run!?,204,203,200_.jpg

It was actually pretty coincidental that I picked this up in the bookshop the week before our school had its annual sports day. I just saw the cover and thought I had to add this book to our collection because the children at St Michael’s are such huge fans. And indeed, when I showed them their special surprise during story time, their faces lit up, and they gasped so excitedly, that I knew we’d be onto a winner.

What it’s about:

Supertato isn’t impressed by his fellow veggies’ fitness … or lack thereof. They can’t keep up with the speed on the conveyor-belt/treadmill and he has to rescue them from falling in the baggage area.

Added to that, their diet leaves something to be desired – gorging on crisps (uh, do they not know where they come from?!), doughnuts and burgers and dozing in hammocks mean they’re not at their fittest. As Supertato remarks: “Whoever heard of an unhealthy vegetable?” (The children piped up at this point that there are some – eg ones that are rotten.)

To inspire his friends to adopt a healthier lifestyle, Supertato arranges a sports day, where there will be running, jumping, carrying the heaviest item… etc. But just as they’re about to start, who should make a last-minute appearance but The Evil Pea, along with his protegee, Gloria (a suspicious-looking watermelon). The Evil Pea announces that Gloria is going to win all the activities and she soon does. But Supertato knows that something’s not right … and he’s out to find out what it is.

What we thought:

As expected, the children loved this story from the first to the last page. The usual silly (but very funny) jokes were there, along with the favourite vegetables. I think The Evil Pea ranks up with Supertato in terms of popularity too – it was as if the children were holding their breath for his appearance in the story to make it that bit more funny and exciting. They nearly jumped out of their seats in excitement when he rolled up with Gloria! They followed the story avidly and asked for it to be read to them again as soon as I had finished. You can’t ask for better than that, can you?


Since we were gearing up for Sports Day, I asked the children to design pictures of various fruit or veg doing sporty things. They got stuck into that with glee, with some interesting results.


Sorry for the blurry image – it’s because the fruit and veg are moving! (Not really…) In the pic on the left, we have a swimming banana with a carrot balancing on his head, and a red pepper jumping rope alongside The Evil Pea on a trampoline. On the right is a netball game of carrots against aubergines. Not sure who’s winning, but Supertato, as ref, will ensure a correct result.

pea and broccoli.jpg

In this picture, The Evil Pea, wearing his black cape, is jumping rope alongside a happy broccoli. They seem to be enjoying themselves…


Of course Supertato had to feature in many of the drawings. In the three above, we see various representations of the Super Spud, one swimming after The Evil Pea, one running to the rescue of a friend, and a final one who looks rather frightened (and like he’s sprouting something out of his head).

As usual, Supertato has been a huge success. We can’t wait to read his next adventure!


Posted in adventure and mystery, general and welcome

Dark Dawn Over Steep House

As the name of my blog suggests, my reviews usually focus on children’s and young adults’ books. However, my reading does stretch beyond this remit and I particularly enjoy thrillers, crime and ghost stories, especially those set in Victorian times. Therefore, it was a real treat to discover a series that included all those elements, with a feisty, intelligent and wonderfully dry-humoured heroine to boot. I am talking of M.R.C. Kasasian’s ‘The Gower Street Detective’ series, narrated by the admirable and independent March Middleton, who details the always interesting and often bizarre crimes that she and her guardian Mr Sidney Grice (a personal, not private detective, if you please) set out to solve. Today, I am delighted to participate in the blog tour celebrating the new, and fifth, book in this excellent series by M.R.C. Kasasian.

Dark Dawn blog tour

What the book’s about

Dark Dawn Over Steep House opens in London, in 1884. Sidney Grice is restless – his latest case remains (unusually) unsolved and he turns to his book A Brief History of Doorstep Whitening in Preston for solace. Meanwhile, his ward, March Middleton, vows to find out what happened to Geraldine Hockaday, the daughter of a naval captain who was ‘outraged’ in a murky part of London and whose attacker is still roaming the streets. A chance encounter with two women – Lucy Bocking and her female companion Freddy – in a crowded café brings a new victim to light – it appears London has a serial offender on the loose. As Middleton and Grice recommence their investigations, their investigations lead them to the dining room of a Prussian Prince, the hangout of an Armenian gangster, and the ruin of a once-happy family home, Steep House.

Fancy a drink, March?

Slipping into this latest instalment by M.R.C. Kasasian was like coming home. The familiarity of the writing – dry, deft, humorous – and the characters – well-drawn and instantly recognisable – meant that I easily fell into the action and the story (not literally of course, just to clarify for Sidney Grice’s pedantic sake). March’s narrative voice is one that I could happily read endlessly, and is a testament to Kasasian’s writing (he teased another blogger by saying he wouldn’t reveal why he had chosen a female narrator instead of male – perhaps he might be tempted now?).

March is the kind of woman I’d like to go out and have a drink with, although I doubt I could keep up with her. Additionally, I’d probaby forego her favourite tipple of gin (it makes me morose and gives me a whopping headache) but we could hit a few cocktail bars and she could tell me about ‘Edward’ – her once husband-to-be. She might not like the smoking ban in drinking establishments, though, so we might spend the evening standing outside in the smokers’ area.

What I admire about March is that she sticks two fingers up at the Victorian establishment who, in the first book of the series, called her ‘a mere girl’ and wins the respect of her ward and even members of the police force, with whom she frequently liaises. She’s clever, sympathetic, determined and funny – and is a perfect contrast to Sidney Grice whose rudeness (or blunt honesty) knows no boundaries. In that way, he’s rather similar to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, although he does not drink, smoke or take drugs (heaven forbid) – preferring, instead, a nice cup of black tea made to very strict specifications. He is also a strict vegetarian, which means poor March must take her cravings for meat pies or pork chops out to lunch occasionally. Grice is also an avid inventor, seeking to trademark many of his creations (including a Victorian version of a thermos flask for Grice’s beloved tea).

He ain’t no Sherlock Holmes

A comparison to Sherlock Holmes would have incensed Sidney Grice. As March explains, in the opening sentence in this book:

“I was approached by a man from the London County Council yesterday. They want to put a blue plaque on the front of 125 Gower Street, commemorating Sidney Grice’s many years and countless triumphs here. I can only imagine how my guardian would have revelled in such glorification, especially as his detested rival Sherlock Holmes, being fictional, will never qualify for one.”

Yet, when reading the Gower Street series, you can hardly fail to notice the similarities between the two. Like Watson to Holmes, March is Grice’s recorder of tales, and the voice of sanity when he threatens to become too eccentric for his own good. Like Holmes, Grice has an amazing ability to tell things about people from the minutest of details (in this latest book, the age of a woman severely injured in a house fire when she was young, by the state of her teeth and skin on her hands). It has been said that the series is a pastiche of the works of Sherlock Holmes and I can see why this comparison was made. But be under no misapprehension that it lacks originality – the allusions serve to add to the richness and humour of the stories.

Sometimes a strong stomach is needed

While there is a great deal of humour in these books, crimes are still at the forefront of the action, and many are not for the fainted-hearted. When talking about the women who have been ‘outraged’ (Victorian euphemism for violated) in Dark Dawn Over Steep House, we see a side of sadism that makes for, at times, very uncomfortable reading. In previous books, there have been gruesome murders and disfigurements and stomach-churning visits to the mortuary that have had me squirming. The details are never salacious or unnecessarily grim but there is honesty about the crimes in this story, and the previous four, that can make you wince. Victorian London was, after all, a city of two sides – the squalor of the slums that encouraged both crime and cholera, and the wealth of the upper classes, who viewed visiting the slums as a kind of extreme sport (hence the women in this story being ‘outraged’ when visiting disreputable opium dens). March Middleton constantly battles with her conscience about this, handing out money when possible to street urchins and others in need, struggling to live a life of comparable luxury against a backdrop of abject poverty.

Characters that grow

Sometimes in series – book or television – and especially ones with a comic element, characters must remain frozen in a particular role in order continue playing their bespoke part in events. However, with this series, March and Sidney do grow and change, more specifically in relation to each other. In this latest instalment, the book commences with March challenging Sidney to tell her the truth behind his relationship with her mother – is he her father? Sidney denies it strenuously, but both March and the reader aren’t satisfied; there is something in her past that he’s not revealing. However, the guardian and his ward have definitely become closer as the series has progressed, and despite his often deprecating tone, it is clear that Sidney is very fond of his God-daughter.

March has also moved on from mourning the loss of her fiance… but she’s now mourning the loss of another suitor, Inspector George Pound, with whom she fell in love, somewhat against her will. Pound is still in her life but will not enter a relationship with her because of financial pride; her wealth is larger than his own. It seems as if March is destined to live life a reluctant spinster.

Molly the maid resides in the Shakespearean role of jester – providing comic relief at various points in each story. Her fidelity to her master is undeniable, as is her naivety in mistaking an insult for a compliment from her irascible employer.

Bedtime stories

I first came across the books on audible, during a difficult family time when I was driving to and from Devon on most weekends. The first book in the series had me enthralled, and meant I was mainly unaware of the miles I was clocking up in our grumpy and temperamental Citroen. Since then, I’ve introduced my husband to the series, and he’s now also become a huge fan – in fact we read them to each other at night like bedtime stories. When I asked him what it was he liked about the books, he said he liked the combination of humour and crime, and the interaction between March Middleton and Sidney Grice. In short, the books are a perfect recipe of action, characters and narration, although in this latest book, there is a fair amount of sadness too.

Dark Dawn Over Steep House, by M.R.C. Kasasian, is published by Head of Zeus.




Please note that while I was given a copy of Dark Dawn Over Steep House to review by the publishers, the views expressed in this post are entirely my own.


Posted in general and welcome

Farewell and thank you, Mr Bond

After a cold, drizzly morning spent helping out at my primary school’s sports day, I was cradling a hot cup of coffee when I heard the news that Michael Bond, creator of one of the most-loved bears in fiction, died today, aged 91.

image courtesy of the Telegraph

Everyone around the table in the staffroom expressed sadness, and social media sites have been filled with sad faces and posts mourning a person who had given so much joy to so many children’s childhoods. While the stories were always gently humorous, they also were comforting. Reading them was the literary equivalent of a warm hug and I never lost that feeling moving into adulthood when sharing them with my daughter or the children at school.

What I’d never known until today was Michael Bond’s inspiration for Paddington. According to an interview he gave to the Telegraph last year, he had gone into Selfridge’s on Christmas Eve and seen a solitary bear on a shelf. “I felt sorry for it, and I bought it and gave it to Brenda, and it lived on our mantelpiece.” (I was delighted to read about another person who worried about teddies being on their own…)

Soon afterwards, Bond admits that he “…mentally dressed it in the same duffel coat and hat he [Bond] wore while riding his scooter bought from the government surplus shop. A legend was born.”

As is often the case, Bond didn’t find overnight success. He admitted to his interviewer, Victoria Lambert, that he could have pasted his room with rejection slips but never gave up. And thank goodness for all of us that he didn’t. Just think how much duller the world would be without the antics of Paddington.

I may just read one of the books tonight. With this sad news, I feel like one of those literary hugs.

Thank you, Michael Bond.

Posted in general and welcome

Our future writers

What a wonderful start to today.

After a week of mud-slinging, bitterness and tragedy in news stories and on social media, it was wonderful to hear Chris Evans and his team celebrating our future writers via the annual 500 words competition.

Back in February, I was sent a tranche of entries to judge in the 10-13 years-old category. Even at this early stage I was struck by the imagination of these young people. It was hard to select a shortlist because I wanted to reward everyone who had entered for taking the time and effort, for daring to put pen to paper and produce a complete story in such few words (it’s actually pretty hard!).

As I listened to the winning entries, I had to keep reminding myself that the writers were all under the age of 14. The ability and talent were amazing, inspirational and a salve to the unkindness and sadness in the rest of the world. There were hilarious tales of prosthetics for slugs, a beard for a lady, and a rather yobbish Miss Riding Hood who increasingly drives a polite Mr Wolf to despair. Then a tale filled with horror and suspense based on Jack and Jill which made me envious as a wannabe ghost story writer. One of the most moving entries was by Lauren Cook, in the 5-9 years-old category, called The Kindest of Strangers, which looks at how a hungry, homeless man gives his last piece of food to a girl he thinks is even hungrier than him.

As David Walliams commented, on the standard of entries: “I feel like giving up.”

You can read all the shortlisted stories here:

So today, after a week of becoming increasingly more despondent every time I look at the headlines or read updates on social media, I have felt my heart lift in happiness and gladness. We have some truly awesome future writers out there to look forward to. Let’s celebrate their success, and the wonderful initiative of 500 Words, which seeks to champion children’s writing. Let’s thank Chris Evans and his team for running this with such enthusiasm and commitment every year and for making it the fun and inspirational event that it is. And let’s applaud the actors who help bring the stories to life and thrill the young writers whose work they read.

You all did good today.

Thank you.


Posted in general and welcome

Winnie the Pooh for Prime Minister? Why not?

While adults are getting geared up for the election and heading off to polling stations (I hope) to exercise their constitutional right, I decided to dedicate my Library Lunchtime session today to the importance of voting with some children from Year 2. I grabbed a potted biography of Emmeline Pankhurst and sat them down to listen and debate.

The biography was specially written for their age group and had authentic photographs from last century. One they particularly wanted to see was Mrs Pankhurst being carried away by a policeman after protesting outside of Buckingham Palace. The book explained what the suffragette movement was and how she started it.

Her life story inspired the children to think about what it would be like to live in a society where not everyone has the right to vote but it had a few tricky moments – particularly when relating the violent methods the suffragettes used to put their view across – smashing windows with hammers, etc. The children ooohed and ahhhed about this, with mischief sparkling in their eyes and I felt a moment of conflict – I totally owe my right to vote to these brave and unstoppable women but I also had to remind the children that we can’t solve problems with violence, or else they’d go and clobber one another on the playground. Hmmmm…

We also looked at the punishments inflicted on these women for trying to stand up for their rights, including imprisonment. When I revealed that the women went on hunger strike to protest, the children were astounded by this (having just had lunch). When I then said that an act was passed releasing starving women home until they had gained their strength and then imprisoning them again once they were stronger (the suffragettes called this the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’),  this caused more bafflement. I asked them to guess how many times Ms Pankhurst was released and re-imprisoned. “One thousand!” yelled one child and I had to disappoint them by saying “Eight”. I thought this was quite enough but … you know … kids.

The children had a basic knowledge of the suffragettes and were quite interested to hear more about them. When I revealed that Emily Davison had died on this day in 1913 after being knocked down by the King’s horse, they were amazed by the coincidence in date.

This then went rather off-topic, as is typical of discussions with young children. When they heard that Ms Davison had died, they started telling me about all their relatives who had died, and then asking each other what the cause of death was, and then talking about attending (or not) the parades (funerals) of family members. Apparently having white hair can be a cause of death – I did not previously know this.

Anyway, I then asked who they would vote for if they could today. A couple of girls shouted “Jeremy Corbyn!”, having heard his name a lot at home. The majority of children didn’t really know the electoral options, so I widened the scope. If they could pick anyone – real or imaginary – to lead the country, who would they choose?

One girl picked herself – “Because I like me!”

Another picked Jesus – “Because he was a very nice man”

And another picked Winnie the Pooh – “I like him!”

I think that’s a pretty good field, actually.

Which fictitious character would you vote for?


Posted in general and welcome, picture books

Rhyming seating plans for animals

When deciding where animals should sit, the best plan is to do so through rhymes. Or so says Frog in Oi Dog! the hilarious follow-up to award-winning Oi Frog! by Kes and Clare Gray and Jim Field, published by Hodder Children’s.,204,203,200_.jpg

What it’s about
Frog is fed up with dogs sitting on frogs (understandably)…

.. so he’s decided to change the rules: ‘From now on, dogs sit on logs, not frogs!’
And that’s not the only change. All the other animals in the book are reassigned, such as:

  • cats on gnats
  • whales on nails

  • and – the children’s favourite – elephants must sit on smelly pants:

But what will frog sit on? I’ll give you one hint – it won’t be on logs. Instead, the frog in our story decides that amphibians like him can sit on something far more comfortable and non-rhyming.

The children loved this book – it’s fast-paced, witty, unpredictable and rhyming. The frog is cheeky – another big plus for a child audience – and he’s also pretty clever, too. Reading it aloud encouraged the children to participate in guessing what rhymes the frog might come up with for the different animals. At the end, there’s also an opportunity to test their memory skills when Cat and Dog restate the different seating options.

As part of our weekly Library Lunchtime, I decided to base an activity on the book. While we all admired the frog’s cunning, we felt that he needed some punishment for the outcomes he inflicted on his acquaintances. Therefore, I sketched a quick and rather bad version of Frog on a piece of paper (sorry Jim Field!) and asked the children to come up with their own ideas for what he could sit on. The results were interesting, but also pretty violent (worrying!):


(L-R) Tom was actually quite kind and allowed Frog to sit on a scooter, while Gabe gave him thorns and Isabella allocated him a volcanic seat with a dog sitting on his head.


(L-R) Seth felt that a bomb with nails was suitable, Hayden preferred a volcano with stinging nettles and a gun, and Sabrina chose a bomb with fire.


(L-R) Martina chose stinging nettles plus thorns in the Frog’s pants (ouch), Renee thought fireworks were good and another child, who wished to remain anonymous, afflicted the Frog with superglue and wasps.


(L-R) Isabella gave the Frog a bomb and fire, Alessia chose nails and a volcano plus some sort of virulent virus that causes spots, and Jillian condemned him to Super-Duper Sticky Honey.

We’re super-excited to hear that a new book in the series – Oi Cat! – will be published this September!,204,203,200_.jpg