Generally sidelined, often peripheral and frequently killed off, who are the mothers that stand out in children’s books?
In classic stories, mothers tend to fall into one of two categories: evil, such as the many stepmothers in fairy stories, or functional: for example, the only introduction Mother warrants in Milly Molly Mandy is, ‘Mother cooked the dinners and did the washing.’
An exception to this is The Family from One End Street, in which the mother is at the heart of the story. Her children may spend their days having adventures, but they come home each night to their mother. Her centrality is shown by the opening lines of the story,
‘Mrs Ruggles was a Washerwoman and her husband was a Dustman. “Very suitable too,” she would say, though whether this referred to Mr Ruggles himself, or the fact that they both, so to speak, cleaned up after other people, it was hard to decide.’
In many books, mother characters are entirely absent. As a plot device, it is often necessary to free up children to embark on adventures or explore the world, and the presence of parents would hamper this freedom.
The most common way to give children liberty is for the mother to have died. This can have a two-fold purpose. The first is to enable the children to live more independent lives (fictional fathers are often seen as being less involved). In books such as Beetle Boy, A Pinch of Magic, The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates, The Infinite, Millions and High Rise Mystery, the mothers of the protagonists have passed away, leaving their children the opportunity to forge their own paths.
The second is often to provide inspiration to their offspring, which drives their ambition and the path their life takes. In Orphans of the Tide, Ellie is driven to live up to her brilliant inventor mother, Hannah Lancaster: wearing her coat, following her path as an inventor, and providing a nurturing role to the younger orphans where she lived. And similarly, in Brightstorm, Maudie’s destiny is to emulate her mother Violetta’s engineering expertise.
Some protagonists follow their mother’s legacy closely. In I, Coriander, Coriander is heavily influenced by her mother’s skill with plants and medicines, and like her, is torn between the ‘real world’ and the fairy world from which she originally came.
The quest towards reunion
In other novels, the characters’ yearning for their mother and their (literal or metaphorical) journey to be reunited is central to the story.
After escaping from a concentration camp, David (I am David) travels across Europe in harsh conditions, hoping to be together with the mother he only dimly remembers, always travelling towards her. Similarly in Inkheart, it takes nine years for Meggie to find her mother again, after she is accidentally written into a fantasy book.
Sometimes it is the child who is left behind. In The Light Jar, Nate is left for days in an abandoned cottage while his mum went out for supplies and didn’t return, a trauma so great that it caused the return of his imaginary friend from early childhood.
Ade, from The Boy in the Tower, longs to have his mother back. Though physically present, she is afflicted with a deep depression that leaves her unable to support him throughout the destruction of their neighbourhood by mysterious plants.
And possibly the loveliest reunion of mother and children is that in Owl Babies when the mother returns with the words to her fretful children,
‘What’s all the fuss? You knew I’d come back.’
Some fictional mother figures are ever present, and form the epitome of a nurturing parent. Mother in The Railway Children was unusual for her time, in that she was both the breadwinner and the caregiver, after being plunged into poverty following her husband’s arrest. Marmee in Little Women is central to her girls, showing great fortitude in difficult circumstances and encouraging her daughters’ individuality.
Mrs Weasley and Mrs Stanton (from Harry Potter and The Dark is Rising respectively) are both mothers whose family is their world. Though living through dangerous times with threats from harmful powers, they are focused unwaveringly on the wellbeing of their children (and in Molly Weasley’s case, other people’s children too!)
More recent examples of this are Mamochka in The Girl who Speaks Bear, who adopts wild toddler Yanka after finding her in a bear cave, and is unswervingly devoted to her, despite not being sure if she is fully human.
In The boy at the back of the class, the narrator’s mum performs a dual role: both as a realistic parent juggling two jobs and financial difficulties, and as a teacher to readers of the book. As she explains to her child the plight that their new refugee friend may have experienced, she educates the reader too, so they can have a well-informed understanding of refugees and the hardships and prejudice they can face.
The list of absent, or functional mothers, performing a peripheral caring role is long. But what about the characters who are drawn in more complex ways?
The first complex mother I remember reading about in childhood was Peggy in Back Home, in which 12 year old Rusty returns from America, where she was evacuated five years previously. She interprets her mother’s reserve as coldness and indifference, and her busyness in the war effort as a sign that she doesn’t want to spend time with her. When she corrects her grammar and tells her, ‘Boasting doesn’t down too well in this country.’ Rusty feels rejected and isolated. But Peggy herself is a strong, modest and selfless character, renowned among her colleagues for her bravery and capability, though with the very human flaw of struggling to readjust to a daughter who seems to have outgrown her.
Some fictional mothers are depicted in an equally realistic and less idealised way, with the duality of their lives as a parent and their lives as an individual causing barriers or friction. Tanya’s mother in The 13 Treasures is so exhausted and broken by her daughter’s strange and apparently destructive behaviour (it is actually the fault of fairies), that she takes her to live temporarily with her grandmother.
Patina’s mother struggles to balance bringing up her children with a long term illness and medical care, so Patina and her little sister live with relatives, seeing their mum on a part time basis- though she remains a strong, guiding influence in their lives.
In The 1000 Year Old Boy, Alfie’s mam has to make difficult decisions to regularly move them on and remain isolated in order to keep the secret that they are Neverdeads (immortal).
After trying to embrace living a simple life as part of the natural landscape of the woods, October’s mother (in October, October) can no longer cope and makes the difficult decision to return to civilization when her daughter is a toddler, visiting her only occasionally for a number of years.
Dr Flossdrop from the quirky novel Zinnia and the Bees is another flawed, yet relatable parent. When her eldest son leaves home under acrimonious circumstances, she retreats into working long hours as a dentist and leading campaigns for social justice, while her lonely daughter Zinnia copes with her hair becoming infested with a swarm of bickering bees!
Mothers as the enemy
Less common outside of fairytales are the mothers in the role of ‘baddies’. The hugest transgression in fiction is for a parent to not be on the side of their child. Max’s mother is Where the wild things are rejects him and leaves him alone, while Bernard’s mother (in Not now, Bernard) is so indifferent to her son as an individual, she fails to keep him safe and doesn’t notice or care when he is replaced by a monster.
The Other Mother in Coraline is an extreme embodiment of evil. She bends the whole world around her to serve her desire to entrap Coraline, just as she has trapped countless children before. She initially tempts her with promises of favourite meals (no recipes!) and sought after possessions, but will only fully accept her if Coraline will let her eyes be replaced by buttons.
This idea of rejecting your child as they are being the ultimate evil is also shown in Goodnight Mister Tom. The disturbed and tragic Mrs Beech abuses and deeply traumatizes her son William, who only survives by being evacuated. In one of the most upsetting scenes in children’s literature, her profound neglect and rigid idea of how children should behave leads to the death of William’s baby sister.
Mothers who lead the way
In the rarest category is mothers who are central to the story: not as a supporting character, but a fundamental part who it is impossible to tell the story without.
Marina from The Wolf Wilder is an inspirational character who her daughter Feodora idolises. She teaches Feo their livelihood wilding wolves and how to live in harmony with their harsh, snowy surroundings. Her strength, determination and refusal to be cowed by powerful men lead to her arrest, and her devotion to her daughter is unwavering.
‘My love for her is a thing you should underestimate only if you have a particularly powerful death wish.’
Unusually, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH features a mother mouse as the main protagonist. In a quest to save her ill son Timothy, she sets out to find a cure for him, braving encounters with dangers and predators. Enterprising and resourceful, with a quiet, natural authority, Mrs Frisby is a bold adventurer, holding her own in unfamiliar settings. Her quick wits and lively curiosity drive the plot as much as her maternal love.
And lastly, the mother who evades all categorisation: Marisa Coulter. Ruthless, powerful and highly complex, she is utterly absorbing- both to the characters she encounters and to the reader. Willing to commit any crime necessary, including the murder of children, she is established in Northern Lights as heartless and self-serving. After leaving her daughter Lyra as a baby, there are signs that twelve years later she is beginning to feel some kind of love towards her, saving her from danger. This softening continues throughout the trilogy of His Dark Materials, culminating in Mrs Coulter’s willingness to give her own life to keep Lyra safe in The Amber Spyglass. Simultaneously a hero and a villain, deeply flawed and endlessly fascinating, Mrs Coulter rejected the traditional role of motherhood but was ultimately defined by her unexpected love for Lyra. A deeply flawed woman, but a perfect character.
Milly Molly Mandy- Joyce Lankester Brisley
The Family from One End Street- Eve Garnett
Beetle Boy- M. G. Leonard
A Pinch of Magic/ The 13 Treasures- Michelle Harrison
The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates
The Infinite- Patience Agbabi
Millions- Frank Cottrell Boyce
High Rise Mystery- Sharna Jackson
Orphans of the Tide- Struan Murray
Brightstorm- Vashti Hardy
I, Coriander- Sally Gardner
I am David- Anne Holm
Inkheart- Cornelia Funke
The Light Jar- Lisa Thompson
The Boy in the Tower- Polly Ho-Yen
Owl Babies- Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson
The Railway Children- E. Nesbitt
Little Women- Louisa May Alcott
Harry Potter- J. K. Rowling
The Dark is Rising- Susan Cooper
The Girl who Speaks Bear- Sophie Anderson
The Boy at the Back of the Class- Onjali Q. Rauf
Back Home/ Goodnight Mister Tom- Michelle Magorian
In honour of the UN International Day of the Girl on 11th October, here is a collection of some of the best written girls- often mighty, sometimes flawed, always memorable.
In previous generations, girls have had some inspiring role models in children’s classics. Characters who acted within society’s expectations were balanced with others who subverted the norm: for the maternal Wendy Darling there was the pioneering and frequently disgruntled Alicein Wonderland; for the good and obedient Lucy Pevensie, there was the vocal and dramatic Anne Shirley. But in recent years, there have been an abundance of brilliant girls.
One of the most skilful writers of female characters is Katherine Rundell. Choosing between her protagonists is as tricky as choosing between your own children, with most of her novels centring around a strong, complex girl or teenager: exuberant, semi-feral Will from The Girl Savage; prickly, independent Con from The Explorer, and dreamy, determined Sophie from Rooftoppers. But perhaps her greatest character is Feodora, the titular character from The Wolf Wilder.
As the daughter of Marina, a wolf wilder living in the icy forests of Russia, Feo has followed her mother’s example of strength- both physical and mental. When her mother threatens violence in defence of her child, against the ruthless General Rakov, she is told that this is unfeminine and replies,
‘Not at all. It seems profoundly feminine to me.’
After her mother is taken away to prison, Feo takes her wolves (her best friends) and sets off to free her. More accustomed to animal than human company, Feo is seen by locals as being ‘socially malnourished’. Her friendship with the teenage soldier, Ilya, began with her threat, “Get back! I swear I’ll bite you!” and she knows little of human behaviour, far less etiquette. But her fierce, generous and impulsive nature inspires many, including Ilya, revolutionary Alexei and a troop of village children, to join her in her dangerous mission.
Equally influential, and equally ill at ease in social situations, is Elle Bibi-ImbeleIfie from The Infinite by Patience Agbabi. Elle is a Leapling, born on 29th February and gifted with the power to be able to leap forward into the future.
Again, Elle has been brought up by a powerful woman: her Grandma, who though is sometimes bedridden with arthritis, remains strict, perceptive and fiercely loving. On her 12th birthday, Elle is permitted to make her first leap in time for a very unusual school trip to the future. There she realises that other Leaplings have been disappearing, and she sets out to investigate the mystery.
Elle’s adventure, narrated by her as she navigates her way through an unfamiliar place and time, shows her strength and selflessness. Unusually for a central character, Elle is more of an introvert, with much of the dialogue we read coming from her own thoughts. Her unique voice, as she processes her experiences as a neurodivergent protagonist, shows how reflective and understanding she is. Though frequently unsure of herself and whether she is doing the right thing, Elle pursues the truth and risks the trouble she so greatly fears.
Other characters are so self-assured and confident that they are utterly magnetic. Joan Aiken’s finest creation, Dido Twite is one such character. Proving so popular with readers and so full of life, Joan Aiken had to reverse her plans to leave her drowned at sea, and instead have her rescued.
From her first introduction in Black Hearts in Battersea, the ‘shrewish-looking little creature’ with ill-fitting clothes and covered in jam made quite an impression on visiting innocent, Simon.
‘”There’s nobody in but me,” she snapped. “Whose donkey is that?”’
Impudent and wily, Dido’s curiosity frequently leads her into danger. This is a quality that she never loses, though she becomes less spiky throughout The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence. Her intelligence, evident from her first bartering conversation with Simon, is a driving force, though it is only when her edges soften that her true qualities show through. Despite not being able to swim, she gamely sets off to float to shore in order to save her friend after a shipwreck. And it is this combination of kindness and recklessness which made her (fortunately for the reader!) impossible to kill off.
As well as wonderful central characters, there are a wealth of girls in smaller roles who make books richer, more thought provoking, or more entertaining by their presence.
In M.G.Leonard’s Beetle Boy trilogy, it is Novak Cutter, the daughter of the villainous Lucretia Cutter, who steals every scene she’s in. Poised for stardom as an aspiring actress, she treats every conversation as a dramatic audition, complete with feather boa.
‘”Don’t pretend you don’t love me.” Novak clutched her hands to her chest as if her heart was trying to fly away.’
But behind her carefully cultivated persona of the pouting, foot stamping ingénue is a trapped, lonely girl, with the capacity for huge warmth and sacrifice. (As long as the sacrifice doesn’t compromise her hair!)
In this year’s Orphans of the Tide by Struan Murray, we are introduced not only to fearless inventor Ellie, but to her best friend Anna. Bloodthirsty, argumentative and devoted, she is as likely to be distracted by passing handsome sailors as she is to focus on solving the mystery at hand.
‘Anna’s ears pricked up. When getting Anna to run an errand, it was important firstly to never call it an errand, and secondly to dress it up with the promise of sailors. And violence, if possible.’
Anna has a delightful and refreshing mixture of priorities, for as well as ogling men and seeking dangerous situations, she is a pragmatic, unsentimental best friend, and a maternal figure to younger children in the orphanage where she lives.
But for every noble girl on a righteous path, there is an ordinary girl- flawed and learning the hard way.
For Miggery Sow from The Tale of Despereaux, fortune was never on her side. Named after her father’s prize pig, motherless and sold in to service, all poor Mig wanted was to be a princess. Almost deaf from ‘clouts to the ear’, she eventually becomes the princess’s maid, but betrays her due to her ambition. Kate DiCamillo’s poignant, comedic creation eventually gets to wear a crown but finds disappointingly, ‘It’s a biggish thing…and painful-like.’
Mig finds her redemption, and a happy ending of sorts, when she recognises that true friendship is shown in the empathy of the princess and their shared loss.
And finally, to Lyra Silvertongue, one of the most iconic characters in modern literature. First introduced in Northern Lights, she shows herself to be bold and anti-establishment when she trespasses in a private hall at Jordan College where she lives, and thwarts an attempted murder on her uncle, Lord Asriel. For her efforts, she receives a twisted arm from her uncle, which ‘…might have been enough to make her cry, if she was the sort of girl who cried.’
Her significance within the world in which she lives is clear, and she is the focus of much attention from powerful forces throughout Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (and more recently The Book of Dust). But it is not the witches’ long-standing prophesy about her, or the destiny ‘to bring about the end of destiny’ that she fulfils which make her so memorable. It is the combination of her various contradictions.
Academically lazy but incredibly bright; endlessly active but able to still her mind totally to read the alethiometer, a truth telling device; an artful liar but fiercely loyal. Further contradictions are shown with her contrast to her dæmon (her soul in animal form) Pantalaimon.
Pan’s name in Greek means ‘all-compassionate’, providing a clue to Lyra’s true character. Though superficially they are opposites (with his caution and patience in contrast to her impulsivity) they are both steadfast in their devotion to their friends, and to their choices, which they ultimately make for the common good.
For more information about International Day of the Girl 2020 and its theme ‘My voice, our equal future’ please see Unicef’s website:
A common challenge that many families face is helping children to have a love of reading. While some children seem to naturally devour books without encouragement, others seem disinterested in reading in their free time. So how can families help encourage reluctant readers?
Leave books around the house- and car!
For children to be drawn to books, they need to have the opportunity to encounter them at home. As well as book shelves at a height children can explore, leave books casually lying around: on tables, desks, pillows… Think about where your child spends much of their time, and leave a few nearby you think might tempt them to leaf through. A quiz or activity book such as Doctor Who: Are you as clever as a time lord? Puzzle book or 555 Football Facts would be perfect to leave on the back seat of the car for them to discover. Visual books with less text will work best for this- the aim is for them to think about looking at books as a spontaneous pastime that they have chosen themselves.
Lure them in with books about their interests
Whatever your child’s interests or hobbies, you’ll be able to find a book to match, tempting them to dive in. Can’t get enough of unicorns? My Secret Unicorn Series will give them the glittery fix they need! Avid film watcher? Try film tie-in books, such as Peter Rabbit 2. Love dinosaurs? And space? Try the Astrosaurs series. (Whilst some parents have mixed feelings about children reading an extensive series of books, they can be the gateway to wider reading adventures so should not be underestimated. Read more about this in Help! My child will only read…)
Keep going with bedtime stories
Research shows that 86% parents read to their 5 year old every night, but this drops to 38% for 11 year olds. While lack of time is always a factor in family life, having devoted 1:1 time each night can become a favourite part of the day. You might decide to choose books together, or take turns to pick. This can help diversify your child’s awareness of different authors and genres they haven’t yet tried. And remember to include some of your own childhood favourites to read: enthusiasm is infectious.
Include poetry and joke books!
Quick, let’s get out of here by Michael Rosen or The Bee’s Knees by Roger McGough are a perfect place to start, and have introduced thousands of children to a love of poetry. I like this poem edited by Kaye Webb, is a collection of poems recommended by other children, giving them a chance to find their own preferences.
Joke books are perfect for reading in manageable chunks, and can be used with others to take turns making each other laugh! The Ha Ha Bonk book by Janet and Allan Alhberg and Audio CD Funky Turkeys by Benjamin Zephaniah are both tried and tested favourites.
Remember some children favour non-fiction
Not all children are as interested in fiction, others are much more drawn to information texts. The excellent series The Extraordinary life of… tells the stories of people who changed the world, from Rosa Parks and Anne Frank to modern role models such as campaigner Malala Yousafzai and scientist Stephen Hawking.
For incredible information based in the natural world, Ripley’s Twists reference series includes titles such as Snakes and Reptiles. And if all of this sounds too pleasant for your little treasure, then Why does earwax taste so gross? by Mitchell Symons might be more appealing!
Recognise the challenge of reading
Reluctant readers are reluctant because of two main reasons: they think reading will be boring, or they think reading will be hard work. Or possibly both. To (hopefully!) spark their lifelong love of reading, you need to start from the stage they are at. Dense text and authors they haven’t heard of will not be appealing at first- at this stage the visual appeal of books is crucial, so flick through and check the pages have manageable chunks of text interspersed with illustrations.
Introduce classics gradually
Many of us think fondly back on childhood classics, and can be eager to pass the love of these on to our children. But bear in mind that many classics such as Alice in Wonderland or The Wind in the Willows use sophisticated vocabulary, and old fashioned phrasing. This can be off putting for emerging readers and can knock reading confidence. These stories have enduring appeal and are perfect fodder for adult-read bedtime stories, but are more challenging than you might expect as an independent read for your child to tackle alone. If you feel they are ready for classics, modern classics such as Goodnight Mister Tom or The Animals of Farthing Wood might be a good starting point.
Create reading spaces
Make an enticing area, just perfect for curling up with a book. Not many of us is lucky enough to have a window seat (possibly the ideal setting for reading!) but beanbags and cushions can make a cosy reading nest. Inddor tents and teepees can be customised, and homemade dens add a personal touch.
A reluctance towards books does not necessarily mean a reluctance to hearing stories. Most children love hearing stories and poems being brought to life by someone else reading to them. Audio CDs like The Hobbit give children the benefit of developing their love for texts, and also broadens their vocabularies and general knowledge.
Following on from the success of the moving best seller Wonder by R J Palacio, ebooks such as Singaling: A Wonder story and Pluto: A Wonder Story are perfect for older children who prefer to interact with screens.
Associate reading with a treat
Increase children’s positive perception of reading by linking it with rewards. Depending on your budget, you might want to try one of these suggestions:
Allow your child to stay up late at the weekend for extra reading time
Visit a bookshop to choose a book together for your child as an occasional treat or give a book token as a reward
A magazine or comic subscription makes a lovely birthday or Christmas present that they can enjoy all year round
Turn a blind eye to reading under the covers, giving reading a ‘free pass’!
Libraries are whole buildings dedicated to books, filled with book lovers. As well as providing the obvious benefit of lending books, they help build children’s attitudes to reading. Making a library visit the point of leaving your house says that reading is vital. It’s so important, that councils want you to have extra books for free!
Giving children regular time to browse, talk about and choose from a huge range of books helps them to develop their identity as a reader. Books matter, and so do children’s opinions of them.
We are living in a golden age for children’s literature, with incredible authors such as S F Said (The Outlaw Varjak Paw, Phoenix) and Polly Ho-Yen (Boy in the Tower, Fly me home) producing future classics. But many children cling to the first series they enjoy, with no inclination to explore further. Should you worry about this?
The short (and hopefully reassuring!) answer is no. Look at the series as a stepping stone: they are developing good habits and positive associations with the process of reading. And they love their Mr Gum series or Jeremy Strong boxset because they are perfect for children. Fun, entertaining and well-written. Children don’t have the pre-conceptions about reading and literature that lots of adults have, they just read what they love. They won’t read them forever and will be ready to try something else at some point.
When they are ready to branch out, try to build on their newfound confidence by suggesting something along a similar theme but with a different author. For example, if they are addicted to animal books like the Magic Pony/ Kitten series, they might try Fang, the story of a pet tarantula by former Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman. Older readers addicted to the spy series Artemis Fowl might transition to The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd.
Try to interest them in good quality writers who can grow with them, as many authors write for children of different ages. An 8 year old might love The Firework Maker’s Daughter by Philip Pullman, Toad Away by Morris Gleitzman, or In Thunder’s Pocket by Joan Aiken and as they develop in maturity move on to their novels for older children.
Criticising the series they love runs the risk of putting them off reading. And as many families are all too aware, producing a book-loving child is no mean feat! (See 11 ways to encourage reading at home for tips on this.) For the time being, applaud their efforts and congratulate yourself on having one less worry.
As a primary school teacher with 17 years’ experience, I’ve worked with many dyslexic children. School staff are used to using their experience and strategies to help pupils in their learning at school. However, having my own dyslexic child has given me a very different insight to that of my hours in the classroom.
This article is written as a parent, not as a teacher. I am not claiming any expertise, but these are some of the things I’ve learnt about dyslexia and some of the ways we’ve found that can help at home.
Every dyslexic child is different
This sounds obvious, as we all know that every child is different. But there are a wide range of challenges that can be part of dyslexia: difficulty with reading and spelling; untidy handwriting; slow processing time when asked questions; difficulty in following instructions; slower writing speed; trouble with organising tasks; letter reversal; poor working memory…
Each child has their own combination of difficulties and strengths, so it’s not possible to treat all dyslexic children in the same way. You might be given a range of great advice, but not every tip will work for your child.
Decision making needs time
Whilst barriers to reading and spelling are an expected part of dyslexia, traits such as slow processing time can affect many areas of life. Asking open ended questions to our children, even simple questions such as, “What would you like to drink?” causes indecision, which can feel stressful for them.
Asking limited choice questions, eg “Would you like water or juice?” gives children fixed options, so instead of having to imagine what the options might be and THEN decide, they can go straight to the decision. (Although be prepared for this to still take several seconds.)
They may need to rehearse what they want to say
In unfamiliar situations, most children need a little scaffolding to help them use language in different ways, and this is particularly true for many dyslexic children. It can help to prepare them for what is likely to be said: when they buy something in a shop, speak to grandparents on the phone, invite a friend over to play and so on. Give them a chance to say their opening sentence out loud, then let them know what the other person might say back so they can think about their response.
Technology can help with speech
A great tip I was given last year was to start using Alexa at home. If your child has difficulty with forming and pronouncing words, Alexa or other smart speakers can give them the chance to compose questions for different purposes. Alexa won’t understand unless you speak clearly, so it also gives children the motivation to form their words carefully. As no humans need to be present, children can have the freedom to practise their speech when no-one is listening.
Limit your spellings
Ah, the weekly spelling list. The least favourite time of the week for dyslexics and their parents! This can often feel like a struggle in our house, so we try to make it as pain free and useful as possible.
Decide how many spellings is a realistic number to try to learn. If there are ten on the list, but you believe that your child can only feasibly manage five, then do five. You can let your child’s teacher know and they will not mind. Having a good go at five spellings is infinitely preferable to crying through ten!
Learn groups of words together
Spellings are often taught in groups according to a letter pattern, such as -ough words (eg tough/ brought) or –tion words (eg station/ portion). This makes it easier for children to learn, as they can remember one rule which they use for all of the words.
Learn spellings physically or in creative ways
For words with common letter patterns (eg the ough pattern), it can help to use something physical to handle, such as foam letters (the type you might stick to the bathroom wall) or magnetic letters. This can be done in different ways:
Give your child the letters o, u, g and h and ask them to arrange them in the correct order. Muddle them up and try again.
Some children find mnemonics help- these are little sayings to help remember the correct order, so o-u-g-h can be remembered as Oh YouGood Horse.
Let them hold or touch the letters as they write each word which contains them. This means they will have fewer new letters to remember, so if they are trying to learn ‘tough’, they only have to remember the first sound ‘t’ and then add the ‘ough’ pattern.
Look at the shape of each word- some children find it useful to draw around the outline of the word to see this. Others ‘colour in’ the letters, for example, the spaces in ‘o’ or ‘g’. Anything that helps your child to look closely at each word can be useful.
Break words of two or more syllables into chunks, and learn each bit separately. You can do this by cutting up words on cards, writing the parts in chalk on different bricks in a wall, matching halves of words…
(Warning: After enthusiastically purchasing letter themed food like Alphabetti Spaghetti and Alpha Bites cereal to help with spellings, I realised they only contained capital letters- which for some dyslexic children is as difficult as a second alphabet!)
Aim to hear your child read little and often
Learning to read is like walking down a path: everyone gets to the end, but some children walk there more slowly. To keep your child on their travels, they need to have the chance to read frequently, ideally every day. Some experts recommend two or three times a day! Whilst this sounds hard to achieve, it shouldn’t involve lengthy amounts of time. Ten minutes of concentrated effort is plenty when your child is building their reading stamina. However…
Prioritise ENJOYING books together
Daily reading might be academically ideal, but this does not always feel in the best interests of your child. When reading is a struggle, it can be demoralising, upsetting- and boring.
For several months when my child was in Reception, I decided I wasn’t going to hear him read. At all. It was causing such distress that I couldn’t see any benefit from it. But we have always enjoyed books together- children love to be read to, to have time to look at the illustrations, to discuss their ideas…
Some nights, it’s better to put down the reading book and share something you both love instead. Each child’s decoding skills will come eventually, but killing their love for books is harder to reverse.
Share reading by taking turns
It’s easy for the meaning of books to be lost in the slow, sometimes painful process of working out what the words say. To keep up children’s interest in what they are reading, they need enough pace to keep them going. Before children are at the stage where they can build that pace for themselves, try building it together. You might take turns to read sentences, paragraphs or pages aloud. If they’re flagging, pick out simpler sections for them and make sure you tackle the trickier passages yourself. Hearing your child read is often better as a two way process.
Talk about dyslexia
Children with a barrier to their learning can feel different to their classmates and siblings. They can feel alone in their difficulty and feel that everyone else knows what to do. Low self-esteem can unfortunately be one of the effects of dyslexia. But for many children, hearing that there’s a cause for their difficulty, particularly a reason that has nothing to do with intelligence, can be liberating. Instead of feeling that they are ‘stupid’, they can begin to understand the reason for the challenges they face in some areas of learning.
Celebrate their uniqueness
According to The Dyslexia Association, dyslexics often ‘have strong visual, creative and problem solving skills’. The way that they view the world has led a great number of dyslexic children to become highly successful adults, from Einstein and John Lennon to Jennifer Aniston and Holly Willoughby.
Every dyslexic child I have known has had a streak of originality or creativity. And for each of us having the privilege to bring up a dyslexic child, we can detail the ways in which they’ve surprised us with their ideas or their outlook. Their dyslexia may pose problems for them at times, but it is also one of the many reasons that makes each of them so special.
Slug in Love written by Rachel Bright and illustrated by Nadia Shireen (for age 3+)
It’s hard being a lovelorn slug. All you want is someone to hug you, but all those you meet are repulsed by your squelchy, slimy ickiness. Poor Doug is on a quest to find a lady love who can see beyond his moist exterior, into his warm, loving heart. Is there a match out there for him?
The rhyme, repetition and delightful language Rachel Bright has chosen will make this a favourite with younger children, who will love to join in with the story. The text is paired perfectly with Nadia Shireen’s charming illustrations depicting a world full of minibeast life, most of whom have very strong opinions about what they’re looking for in a mate! The deceptive simplicity of Doug’s expressions convey all of our hero’s hope, yearning and disappointment as he continues his quest.
Slug haters will be converted by this romantic, warm-hearted adventure about the importance of being yourself. Never will you wish good fortune on an invertebrate as much as now.
The Hungry Ghost by H. S. Norop (for age 9+)
When Freja’s mother is too unwell to care for her, she has to reluctantly leave Denmark to stay with her father and his new family. Life in Singapore is very different and Freja struggles to adjust to living with her multi-tasking stepmother Clementine and toddler twin brothers, losing some of the independence she has long prized. But after she glimpses a strange white figure with long black hair, Freja is desperate to find out more about her. Could there be a connection between this mysterious girl and the Hungry Ghost festival which honours dead ancestors?
H. S. Norop’s second novel balances the two threads of the story perfectly, managing to be both an intriguing supernatural mystery, and a realistic family drama, all rooted in the heat and bustle of Singapore. Freja’s sense of isolation in an unfamiliar home unfolds alongside her quest to understand the girl in the white dress, with both girls seeking to uncover buried secrets from the past. Well-rounded, sympathetic characters and a pacy plot make The Hungry Ghost a gripping read.
The Last Wild trilogy by Piers Torday (for age 9+)
In a bleak, dystopian world, most animals are a memory. Only vermin remain, following a chilling plague which wiped out their existence and continues to threaten humankind. Kester has been trapped in a children’s facility since the age of seven. Traumatised at his mother’s death and his separation from his father, he remains unable to speak. But could a glimmer of hope remain? When insects and pigeons begin to communicate with him, they believe that he is the key to the future. Can Kester escape his prison and journey to the Last Wild?
Kester’s journey, which continues in sequels The Dark Wild and The Wild Beyond, is an epic, twisting adventure. The trilogy takes in a wide cast of animals, and each one is utterly distinct and characterful (disdainful cats, plucky wolf cubs and deeply confused pigeons!) even if they only appear for a couple of pages. This is the kind of masterful writing where you can never decide on your favourite, as there are so many irresistible characters to root for. A moving, exhilarating treat of a series, made even better by the knowledge that a prequel is due this summer.
Inside out and back again by Thanhha Lai (for age 9+)
Ten year old Kim Ha lives in Saigon, with her mother and three older brothers. Indignant at her expected role as a girl, she contents herself with small acts of rebellion, such as hiding her brothers’ sandals and ensuring her big toe is the first to touch the floor at the start of New Year (breaking the tradition of letting male feet go first). But as the Vietnam war draws closer, the safety of Ha’s family is at risk and they must flee to find a new life across the sea.
Thanhha Lai’s verse novel tells the semi-autobiographical tale of her own experiences as a refugee, facing prejudice and hostility in 1970s Alabama. Moving, personal, warm and very funny, each poem unfolds the events of a momentous year for Ha. I read this in one sitting and was utterly absorbed by the characters: Ha’s brother Vu and his Bruce Lee obsession, her adored mother with her quiet dignity and self-possession, and Ha herself, bright and determined, but making sense of a world where even the rules of spelling are inexplicable. Absolutely wonderful.
Our wonderful world written by Kalya Ryan and Ben Handicott and illustrated by Sol Linero (for age 7+)
Far more than an atlas, this book of fantastically detailed maps brings countries to life for the reader. Each of the fifty countries featured has a double page spread, with facts about the geography, animal life, significant people and culture of this cross section of locations around the world. ‘Moments to remember’ sections give background historical information, and the light hearted prose gives a vivid flavour of each country.
As with all Flying Eye books, the presentation of Our Wonderful World is outstanding. Sol Linero’s bold illustrations make visual information easy to process for younger children, and the depth of facts provided by Ben Handicott and Kalya Ryan ensure that all readers can find parts to dip into that capture their attention. A great introduction to the wealth of fabulous places to explore in our world, even if that exploring may have to be done virtually for a little while yet.
Spring has finally sprung! After weeks where outdoor walks were the nation’s only hobby, nature has kindly provided us with a lot more to enjoy: lighter evenings, (slightly!) warmer days, and a world of plant, insect and animal life which is rousing itself once again. To celebrate nature’s glories, here are a selection of books to inspire even the most reluctant to venture outside.
Varmints written by Helen Ward and illustrated by Marc Craste (for age 7+)
In an idyllic landscape, the varmints live a peaceable way of life: tending to the plants and listening to the sound of bees, in harmony with their surroundings. The arrival of the Others brings unwelcome change as their world becomes covered in new structures and factories. Can the hope of one little varmint keep the dream of nature alive?
This dark, thought-provoking picture book explores the impact that industrialisation has on our connection with the natural world. But its focus is on the power of the individual to change our surroundings for the better, and makes an excellent conversation starter with older children on the positive impact that we can all have on the world we live in.
Varmints is also an excellent short film (made by illustrator Marc Craste) and the book’s cinematic scope helps to remind us how universal these issues are. And on a less worthy note, the little varmints are adorable!
The Girl Who Speaks Bear written by Sophie Anderson and illustrated by Kathrin Honesta (for age 9+)
Yanka is so tall and broad for her age, she is commonly known in her village as Yanka the Bear. On the periphery of village life, she is torn between wanting to be accepted, and being drawn to the wild ways of the forest next to her home. When Yanka awakes to find herself with bear legs in place of her human limbs, she feels forced to leave before she is rejected. Leaving behind her beloved adoptive mother Mamochka, she sets out to seek answers to the mystery of her birth. Why was she found in a bear cave? How many of the fairy stories she’s heard are true? And why can she now understand animals, such as her charismatic weasel, Mousetrap?
Sophie Anderson’s magical adventure interweaves Yanka’s journey through forest, rivers, mountains and volcanoes with the stories she has heard. The two threads entwine beautifully as Yanka gradually learns the truth, in a tale that is infused with her delight for the natural world.
The Wild Robot and The Wild Robot Escapes by Peter Brown (for age 9+)
Following a shipwreck, only one crate makes it safely to shore on a deserted island. That crate contains ROZZUM Unit 7134, better known as Roz, a robot who becomes accidentally activated by an inquisitive otter. Roz is programmed to learn, and her new life on a wild island is a steep learning curve. With the animal inhabitants threatened by her unfamiliar metal frame, it is her role as adoptive mother to a gosling which shows her true character.
Touching, original and pacy, this lovely book sweeps the reader along with Roz on her newfound voyage of discovery, as she finds out both what the world is like, and what she is like. Rooted in the vivid descriptions of the setting and its wildlife, Peter Brown has created a perfect depiction of island life and the adventures that could occur (if only a lost robot would wash up on shore…)
The Lost Words written by Robert MacFarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris (‘for children aged 3-100’ RM)
Winner of multiple prizes and shortlisted in 2017 as one of Britain’s favourite books of all time on the natural world, The Lost Words has become a children’s classic in the short time since it was published.
Since finding that children were struggling to name common living things, such as hares, bluebells or oak trees, the creation of The Lost Words sought to put a halt to the loss of children’s knowledge and vocabulary to describe nature. The result is this stunning book of spells, or poems to be said aloud, each focusing on one of twenty different plants or animals.
The combination of Robert Macfarlane’s evocative acrostic spells and Jackie Morris’s incredible watercolours make this a memorable book to treasure.
A First Book of Nature written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Marc Hearld (for age 4+)
Nicola Davies’ joyous celebration of nature is hard to place in a genre: partly poetry, partly information, partly recipes and activities to experience outdoors, it is full of different ways to enjoy the world around us.
Split into seasons, each section focuses on the plant and animal life that can be seen at every stage of the year. As ‘A First Book of Nature’, it is aimed at a young audience and the sensory experiences that they may be having for the very first time: finding worms in the soil, watching the stars in the night sky, or hearing the first bees of summer buzz past. It is a feast for the senses that teaches young children about the natural world, and encourages families to make the most of their surroundings.
The vibrant illustrations bring the subject of each page to life, luring readers to investigate the outdoors.
In a month where lockdown is set to continue, and the warmer brighter weather of spring is still some way off, my reading for the next few weeks is all about comfort. Comfortable, familiar favourites, and newer warm-hearted reads will get us through the last of the long nights.
The Princess Blankets written by Carol Ann Duffy and illustrated by Catherine Hyde (for age 6+)
A princess lived, once, who was always cold.
The kingdom is fixated on the princess’s problem, as people come from far and wide to try their luck at warming her up, in the hope of receiving the king’s reward. One day a cold-hearted stranger arrives, with an array of sinister blankets which harness the darkest powers of the natural world. Can the princess survive his oppressive magic or is she destined to become his prize?
Carol Ann Duffy’s lush prose and Catherine Hyde’s incredible paintings combine to make this the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen. The Princess Blankets fills your senses and is a book that you could never grow bored of. Timeless, atmospheric and captivating: my favourite picture book.
Mic Drop by Sharna Jackson (for age 10+)
At the residential towers known as The Tri, tragedy has struck for the second time this year. Destined for mega-stardom, local singer TrojKat returned to her childhood home for one last time, shooting a music video before leaving for Transatlantic fame. But fate had other ideas. Her shocking death is dismissed as accidental, but sleuthing sisters Nik and Norva know better, and it’s up to them to uncover the truth.
In this sequel to High Rise Mystery, Sharna Jackson creates another complex, absorbing mystery. Nik and Norva are instantly engaging protagonists, with their unique insight and humour bringing fresh life to every page. The combination of Norva’s gregarious nature and Nik’s deadpan narration blend perfectly. A hilarious and uplifting read.
The 13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison (for age 9+)
Tanya has an unwelcome gift: the ability to see fairies. It’s a gift she knows could cause danger to those around her, so she is forced into living a lonely and secretive double existence. When she spends the summer at her grandmother’s house, she is drawn into a local mystery- the disappearance of a girl fifty years ago, an incident that still casts a shadow over Tanya’s family. Will the help of Fabian, the caretaker’s son, will they be able to solve the mystery? And will Tanya’s gift be a blessing or a curse?
A decade ago, before her creation of the Widdershins sisters (from A Pinch of Magic and A Sprinkle of Sorcery), Michelle Harrison’s debut novel won the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize. Together with its sequels The 13 Curses and The 13 Secrets, the trilogy weaves a fantasy in which the world of humans and the perilous world of fairies overlap. Gripping adventures, perfect for those in need of escapism.
Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake (for ages 5-100)
Some poetry is so well known and well loved, that even the first couple of lines make you smile, thinking of what’s to come. Everyone has their own favourite Michael Rosen poems, but Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here contains some his most enduring and familiar work. Nearly 40 years of children have read, listened to, performed and imagined these poems- so timeless because of the way that he encapsulates the feelings and experiences of childhood.
Rereading a much loved poetry book is like reliving happy, and sometimes uncomfortable memories: the stereotype challenging of Lizzie, the excruciating loss of The Watch, and of course, the delight/ horror of Chocolate Cake. And is there a more poignant moment in literature than the end of Eddie and the Gerbils, when the tiny Eddie sadly watches the dead mouse be deposited in the bin? ‘Bye bye gerbils.’
Kay’s Anatomy: A Complete (and Completely Disgusting) Guide to the Human Body written by Adam Kay and illustrated by Henry Parker (for age 9+)
Did you know your lungs are the only organ in your body that can float? That you’re shorter at night than you are in the morning? Or that your blood contains gold?
In this highly entertaining (yet sneakily educational) book, the wonders of the human body are explored. Former doctor Adam Kay has an evident love of his subject matter, delighting in the wonderful complexity of our human processes, and delighting equally in how disgusting they are!
This is science teaching by stealth: a fascinating and funny performance, but in book form. Useful to older primary or younger secondary school pupils, but recommended for any child or adult who’s wondered about why THAT thing just happened…
The best children’s books of 2020?
The year 2020 has come to a close, and has been memorable for many reasons. But one of the positive things to come from last year was a wealth of new children’s fiction. Providing much needed comfort and escapism, here are a few wonderful books that you may have missed.
Best picture book: Clean Up! written by Nathan Byron and illustrated by Dapo Adeola (for age 4+)
The sequel to the prize winning Look Up!, Clean Up! features the same enthusiastic protagonist Rocket, who visits her grandparents on the Caribbean island where they live. Whilst there, she is shocked by the levels of plastic pollution she can see in the water and sets out to save the island!
Narrated by the exuberant Rocket, she is desperate to share her determination with all around her, including her nonchalant, phone obsessed brother Jamal.Clean Up is an entertaining story of a child’s concern for the natural world, and she frequently gives her readers facts and information. Engaging and inspiring, Clean Up is an empowering book for a parent and child to share together, and an ideal starting point for conversations about the environment.
Best fantasy: The Wolf’s Secret written by Myriam Dahman and Nicolas Digard and illustrated by Julia Sarda (age 6+)
As this beautiful fairy tale begins, we are introduced to the fearsome Wolf, the terror of the mountainous forest where he lives. But there is more to the wolf than appearances would suggest. The secret referred to in the title is his vulnerability: his need to follow the music of a young woman’s voice. After he is warned that ‘every choice has a consequence’ will he choose to trust his instincts, and will they lead him to happiness?
The Wolf’s Secret is a truly stunning book. Every page is a visual treat, whether Julia Sarda’s illustrations focus on the epic, mystical landscape, or the characters’ soulful expressions. These works of art are matched by the gripping tale and the richness of the description.
A dreamy, evocative world, perfect for a bedtime story (for children made of stern stuff!)
Best graphic novel: InvestiGATORS by John Patrick Green (for age 8+)
Mango and Brash are partners: partners who solve undercover assignments to keep the city safe. And who just happen to be alligators. Their secret mission is to investigate the disappearance of world-famous cupcake chef Gustavo Mustachio. To crack the case, they’re going to need all their cunning, teamwork AND a bushy false moustache.
Who is the shadowy kidnapper of Gustavo Mustachio? What happened to Brash’s last partner? And who can the pair trust?
John Patrick Green’s new series (the second was published in September and the third is due next month) is wildly entertaining. Pacy and full of wit, the jokes and plot twists come at a rapid pace. This intelligent mystery story is brought to life by the cast of instantly memorable characters. Very clever and very funny.
Best for nature lovers:October, October written by Katya Balen and illustrated by Angela Harding (for age 9+)
In the wilds of the woods, October and her father live peacefully alongside nature, taking care of the trees and their inhabitants. it has been just the two of them since October’s dimly remembered mother left in her early childhood, but on October’s eleventh birthday, the tranquillity of their existence is threatened. The return of ‘the woman who is my mother’ sparks a chain of events that lead to unwelcome changes. And to the outside world.
October, October is an incredible novel. Katya Balen’s first person narrative absorbs you so fully that when you stop reading, it’s momentarily a surprise to realise that you are not actually October herself, and have your own separate life. Utterly absorbing, enchanting and heart breaking- and with the most beautiful book cover I have ever seen. Buy yourself a copy, buy someone you love a copy. You will treasure this book.
Best for empathy: A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll (for age 9+)
When Addie learns at school about the witch trials that used to happen in her hometown, she is deeply affected. Despite the years that have passed and the nonchalance of others, she cannot forget their fate: all the women who lost their lives because they were seen as being different.
Addie knows all about difference, because she is treated differently too. Not by her family, or by the kind school librarian, but by her teacher, by some cruel classmates, and by some locals who treat her with prejudice, due to the fact that she is autistic. She decides that something must be done to remember these women, and to remember the danger that can arise by treating people differently.
An important novel about bravery and friendship, and the need to stand up to ignorance. Elle McNicoll skilfully manages to explore thought provoking themes through a warm, intriguing story.
Best young adult book: Lark by Anthony McGowan (for age 13+)
Awaiting the return of their long lost mother, teenage brothers Nicky and Kenny are tense and looking for a way to occupy their time. A day exploring the moors seems like the perfect distraction, and they set out with their little dog and a bag of sandwiches. But the three buses to get there and the hostile weather conditions are just the start of their troubles, and the brothers soon find themselves in danger.
Lark is the final of four novellas about Nicky and Kenny, but works just as well as a standalone read. Both a tale about the tense drama of the moors, and a vivid depiction of a fraternal bond and the hardships the brothers have faced. Since their mother’s departure in their early years, they have grown up with a neglectful, alcoholic father and faced bullying of Kenny due to his special needs. But the dialogue between the boys shows their love for one another and their determination to keep going. Despite the bleak conditions in which they find themselves, there are always moments of light and hope.
(NB. If you are buying this for your child, there is regular swearing!)
Best sci fi: The Infinite by Patience Agbabi (for age 10+) – see August’s review
Best comedy: The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates written by Jenny Pearson and illustrated by Rob Biddulph (age 8+) – see November’s review
Best adventure: Orphans of the Tide by Struan Murray (age 9+) – see July’s review
With the prospect of a different kind of Christmas this year, there are some wintry treats that can’t be affected by a pandemic. Leaving the biting wind and frosty pavements outside to curl up with a book is definitely one of them.
So whether you’re looking for an atmospheric winter’s read, or a special Christmas gift, here are some that are perfect for the job.
If you love to match your book to the season, then this month of short days and cosy evenings is the time to read a book with a snowy setting.
Snow Ghost by Tony Mitton and Diana Mayo is a spellbinding bedtime story for younger readers.
‘Snow Ghost came shimmering out of the air,Searching for somewhere to settle- but where?’
It tells the tale of the lonely eponymous heroine, who is desperate to find a place she can belong. The story, told in lilting verse, shows her journey through differing landscapes until she spots a boy and a girl that she can bring her magic to. Diana Mayo’s illustrations are beautiful, with the muted colours bringing a sleepy dreaminess to the book.
Pugs of the Frozen North by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre is an irresistible read for 6-9 year olds. When Shen is abandoned in the snowy wilderness with 66 pugs to look after, his prospects look bleak. But after meeting local girl Sika, he and his dogs join her on a quest to find the magical Snow Father. Everything you could want from a December read: adventure, comedy, snow, and lots of dogs in tiny knitted jumpers.
The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell is another snowy wonder, and one of the best books of the past decade.
Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl.
With these words, we are introduced to the world of Feodora, a world in tune with the unforgiving climate and frozen wilds of northern Russia. Her peaceful existence wilding wolves with her mother (in a process opposite to animal taming) is shattered by the arrival of the Russian army. After her beloved mother is taken, Feo and her wolves must take a perilous journey, facing the inhospitable elements and even less hospitable soldiers.
Best experienced while drinking hot chocolate in an igloo (thanks 2018!), but a snuggly armchair would do nicely too. An incredible book with an incredible central character (see more) For ages 10+
Published in October, The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery is fast becoming the must read of 2020. The Guardian Children’s Book of the Year is set during the Blitz, as Col travels to London to try to save his sister. Accompanying Col on his journey are his three imaginary friends: a vast tiger, a miniature knight, and a badger in a waistcoat. But more overwhelming than the threat of bombings is the threat of the malevolent Midwinter King. Part historical fiction, part fantasy, every word a pleasure. For ages 9+
The Victorian era brought us many of our Christmas traditions, and there’s nothing that embodies the season more than A Christmas Carol. Familiarity with the plot does little to diminish its touching and uplifting impact. (Although spoiler alert: the Dickens version is Muppet free.)
For younger readers (age 7-10), an alternative is the wonderful Fair’s Fair by Leon Garfield. This tells the tale of Jackson, a starving orphan facing life on the streets at Christmas, when his luck takes a turn for the better. Deceptively simple and perfectly characterized, this is a gorgeous story. Combines mystery, friendship and a heartwarming world view.
For 20th century classics, The Box of Delights by John Masefield is the magical story of Kay Harker- an ordinary schoolboy whose Christmas holiday brings unexpected peril. When a stranger gives him an unusual box for safe keeping, he is thrown into the centre of a battle for the box and its powers, as he protects it from those who want it for ill ends. For age 9+
For me, the quintessential Christmas book is The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. It tells the story of 11 year old Will Stanton who becomes embroiled in events beyond his experience, in the ongoing battle between the Dark and the Light. As he comes of age, he finds out that he was born to be part of these struggles as an Old One- one of a timeless community with powers of their own.
Not only is this perfect as a dark adventure story, but it is perfect as the embodiment of a family Christmas. With the story beginning on Midwinter’s Eve, the magical events are interwoven throughout the evocative traditions of Will’s home.
If you like your Christmas book links to be even more overt, then these would make lovely gifts for Christmas morning.
In The Snow Dragon by Abi Elphinstone and Fiona Woodcock, Phoebe longs to escape from her dreary orphanage and its joyless owner, Griselda Bone. The arrival of a snow dragon gives Phoebe and her sausage dog Herb the wonder they are missing in their lives, as they embark on an unforgettable ride through the skies. Stunningly illustrated, this story is ideal for children ages 5-8, who would welcome some extra Christmas sparkle.
Over the past five years, Matt Haig’s books have become a Christmas staple with his trilogy: A Boy Called Christmas, The Girl Who Saved Christmas and Father Christmas and Me. Originally inspired by the ‘behind the scenes’ approach of Raymond Briggs’ classic picture book Father Christmas, Matt Haig decided to create his own back story.
Father Christmas must have been young once: what was he like? How did a Finnish boy called Nikolas end up as such an iconic figure? A warm and humorous trilogy for 8-12 year olds, which work perfectly as standalone stories.
And for children who like books to be a little more hands on, the fantastic illustrator Rob Biddulph has produced another activity book, Draw with Rob at Christmas. Following his hugely successful #DrawWithRob video tutorials, he has created a Christmas inspired book full of arts and crafts for children to try, all presented with his customary warmth and humour. For children who can draw, and for children who think they can’t, this guide will help anyone over the age of four to start creating their own characterful elves, snowmen and reindeer. And as midday turns to afternoon and the turkey STILL isn’t cooked, this will keep the children grumble free. (Not a guarantee.)
Ruby’s Worry by Tom Percival
Ruby is a vibrant, adventurous girl, until one day she notices a little worry following her around. As time passes and she tries to ignore it, the worry grows until it is a huge presence in Ruby’s life. She begins to lose her sparkle- shown perfectly by the gradual seeping away of colour from the illustrations.
Ruby’s Worry is part of the Big, Bright Feelings series, which focus on promoting emotional literacy and helping improve children’s mental health. The touching, empowering story is perfectly pitched to begin a conversation about children’s own worries. In seeing Ruby’s experiences, it gives readers both the solidarity of knowing that other people have worries too, and the strategies to alleviate some of their negative feelings. For age 3+
The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates written by Jenny Pearson and illustrated by Rob Biddulph
Since his mother’s death, Freddie Yates has lived with his (step) dad and Grams in their cramped house, full of knitting. But when a further bereavement hits Freddie, he decides to set off on a mission to find his biological father: a mission that will take him and his best friends Ben and Charlie (each escaping from family miseries of their own) on a very unusual road trip to Wales.
Despite the heart wrenching premise, The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates is one of the funniest books I have read. Layer upon layer of slapstick mishaps and confused exchanges build to a perfect climax, bringing together many of the quirky characters of the road trip. But it is Freddie’s narrative voice with his astute observations and deadpan asides that make this book constantly fresh and witty.
Jenny Pearson expertly manages her readers’ emotions by signposting losses and moving briskly on with the pacy plot. Yes, you will probably cry, but only after you have done a lot of laughing, and quite possibly WHILE you’re doing a lot of laughing. The perfect antidote to 2020. For age 9+
Once series by Morris Gleitzman
November, as the month linked closely with Remembrance, is the perfect time to read, or reread, the Once series. The first book focuses on Felix, a young Jewish boy, trying to survive in occupied Poland during the Second World War. Desperate to find his parents, he escapes from the orphanage where he lives.
The Once series (Once, Then, Now, After, Soon, Maybe) tells of times in Felix’s life as he faces multiple tragedies and strives to become the person he wants to be. From his childhood to his old age as a grandfather looking back on his memories, the series is linked by the characters of Felix and his best friend Zelda. They look at how we are shaped by our lived experiences and the potential for incredible heroism in ordinary people.
The series is often hard hitting and open with the truth that not all stories end happily. But there is a lightness to Morris Gleitzman’s writing that brings out the kindness, friendship and humour in people, even in the bleakest of situations. Life affirming and moving. For age 11+
A Poem for Every Autumn Day edited by Allie Esiri
This beautiful anthology of poems is linked by their autumn settings, from the turning of the leaves and the mellow warm days of September, through All Hallows Eve and the darkness of the approaching winter. Each poem has a different tone, capturing many of the aspects of this most changeable of seasons, throughout the eras they were written in.
Featured poets range from Shakespeare and Christina Rossetti to modern poets such as Patience Agbabi and Simon Armitage, and each poem has a link to the date on which it is included (with two poems for each day).
At a time of year that some can find depressing, these poems herald the beauty, as well as the melancholy, of the season. In particular, many are linked by their celebration of the natural world and sensory experiences that can only occur in autumn. A wonderful collection to make reading poetry a daily habit, and to make the most of this time of year. For age 9+
Young, Gifted and Black written by Jamia Wilson and illustrated by Andrea Pippins
‘This book will help the next generation to chase their own dream… whatever it may be.’
In Young, Gifted and Black, 52 remarkable lives are detailed in page-long biographies. Telling tales of incredible people, living and dead, the lives of each of those who have made an impact on the world include writers, freedom fighters, film makers, healers, musicians, sports stars and leaders of all kinds.
Some of these lives would seem incredible even for fiction, such as that of Harriet Tubman, who escaped from her life as a slave which had trapped her since the age of five. She used her freedom to risk helping others escape, freeing 300 slaves using the Underground Railroad. Or Wangari Maathai, an environmental activist who tried to reverse deforestation in Kenya by leading a movement to plant 30 million trees.
Using the idea ‘if you can’t see it you can’t be it’, Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins created this book to inspire future generations of black children to have high aspirations. A valuable and fascinating book. For age 8+
With Halloween parties and trick or treating looking unlikely this year, snuggle in on 31st October with a spooky family read instead. Whether you’re hoping for a creepy picture book or a chilling novel for teens, October’s book recommendations are a seasonal treat.
Scare Level 1
Classic picture books have a host of approachable Halloween characters to entertain young ones, from the warm hearted witch in Room on the Broom to the comical Funnybones family, which provide plenty of scope for young children to join in the Halloween fun without the risk of night terrors!
For children who are afraid of night time, The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen tells the story of nervous Laszlo who tries to keep the dark away from his room. But instead of an object of fear, the helpful Dark becomes a companion who he learns to live happily alongside.
Scare Level 2
For lovers of Gothic mystery, Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse fits the bill perfectly. The first in Chris Riddell’s popular series, the beautifully animated and witty story tells the tale of lonely Ada Goth who lives in a mansion with her distant father, Lord Goth. Life changes for Ada when she meets ghostly little mouse Ishmael and sets out to solve the mystery of a plot unfolding in her own home.
Increasing the fear factor considerably is Emma Carroll’s Frost Hollow Hall. This wintry Victorian ghost story focuses on servant girl Tilly, whose near drowning in a frozen lake mirrors an accident from a decade before, in which the young heir was drowned. His ghost Kit Barrington saves her, but needs her help. Can Tilly solve the mystery at the truly creepy hall?
Neil Gaiman is a writer who is made for Halloween and perhaps his best loved children’s horror is Coraline. After moving to a new house, Coraline Jones discovers a mysterious corridor, leading to an almost exact replica of her own home. Living there is one of modern literature’s most chilling creations: the other mother. Looking uncannily like her own mother, this mysterious replica seems to provide everything she is looking for. Except that she has black buttons for eyes, and wants Coraline to have them too…
Scare Level 3
For horror enthusiasts only, recently published The Haunting of Aveline Jones by Phil Hickes will provide all the creepiness your heart could desire!
When Aveline is left to stay with an estranged aunt, her obsession with ghost stories leads her to find out more about local history than is wise. Who was Primrose Penberthy, the owner of the spooky, old book Aveline finds? And what happened to her? With a stormy, windswept setting, a ghostly drowning victim seeking revenge, and macabre scarecrow children dotted around the town of Malmouth, no-one will sleep well after reading this.
And finally, for those who have no desire for their pulse to ease before November, there is A Skinful of Shadows by the wonderful YA writer Francis Hardinge. During the Civil War, illegitimate Makepeace Felmotte is born into a sinister family- a family that have the ability to absorb the spirits of their ancestors. And so begins Makepeace’s internal battle, to keep control of her own mind against dark forces.
Press Here by Hervé Tullet
Press here and turn the page.
Using only brief instructions and coloured dots in various arrangements, French artist and author Hervé Tullet has created an interactive book to delight every age. As the reader follows the instructions, each page reveals what has happened to the dots as a result of our actions.
Funny, original and completely absorbing, it’s easy to see why Press Here stayed on the New York Times best seller list for over four years when it was first released. This is a page turner as much as the greatest whodunnits, as we cannot resist following the instructions to see what will happen next.
(And interestingly, after sharing this book many times, I’ve noticed that no child or adult has ever thought to disobey the narrator!) For age 3+
Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy
Arthur and Maudie Brightstorm are no ordinary twins. Children of the famous explorer Ernest Brightstorm, their world changes forever when they hear of their father’s death while on a mission to South Polaris. With accusations that he betrayed his fellow explorers before he died, Arthur and Maudie decide to leave Lontown to find out the truth for themselves. In a skyship…
In a wonderful time for children’s adventure writing, Vashti Hardy’s debut novel stood out when it was written two years ago. Alongside some of the perfect elements of adventure (a cold and unscrupulous villain, hidden truths, vividly described settings and a gripping plot), it is the twins themselves that make this story so special. Gifted and determined as they are, their relationship is what gives the story its heart. Their love for each other is complete, but also very normal. They argue, lose their patience, have their own private jokes: and this makes their journey all the more real and all the more beguiling. For age 9+
Planet Omar written by Zanib Mian and illustrated by Nasaya Mafaradik
Accidental Trouble Magnet first introduces us to Omar: caring, fun-loving and out of his depth. After moving home AND school, Omar is trying to navigate life in a new class- making friends and avoiding the unwelcome attentions of the bully, Daniel (who claims Omar’s going to be kicked out of the country). His busy home life is not much easier, when even frying onions causes bad tempered, judgmental neighbour Mrs Rogers to complain. But Omar and his family are undeterred, and little by little, their kindness is hard to resist.
Originally published under the title of ‘The Muslims’, the first book sets the tone for this comical, often silly and very sweet series. Omar’s imaginative flights of fancy and various scrapes are shown brilliantly by Nasaya Mafaridik’s cartoon illustrations. Uplifting and full of warmth, with a lovely, forgiving spirit that shows even a bully or bigot may have hidden depths. For age 7+
I Don’t Like Poetry written by Joshua Seigal and illustrated by Chris Piascik
The contents page is as far as most children need to get to know that they are going to like these poems A LOT. With titles such as ‘The most embarrassing moment ever’, ‘My bottom’s gone missing’ and the intriguing ‘I don’t like poetry’, Joshua Seigal can be quickly identified as a voice of childhood!
Much of the poetry in this collection is deceptively simple and instantly accessible to young readers. With a mixture of visual jokes, silliness, wordplay and clever wit, each poem has its own special charm.
Fantastically Great Women Who Made History by Kate Pankhurst
Inspiring and fascinating, Kate Pankhurst’s book tells the stories of women throughout time who have changed the world. From all parts of the globe, these were women who lead armies, worked as secret agents, were pirate queens, explored space and brought about social change.
Whilst some figures, such as Boudicca and Pocahontas, have well known life stories, others may be unfamiliar to readers- introducing them to new ideas and cultures. Each made their mark on the world by ignoring society’s boundaries and the traditional role they were expected to play.
Every double page focuses on a different historical figure, and captivates the reader by switching between styles: part biography, part story-telling, part information writing, all enhanced by illustrations and cartoons which sparkle with life.
Contains essential life lessons for all girls! For age 8+
The Beasties written by Jenny Nimmo and illustrated by Gwen Millward
Alone in a new bed, in a new room, in her new house, Daisy cannot sleep. As she lies awake listening to the sounds of her unfamiliar home and street, the Beasties creep unseen into her room. With their collection of treasures, the little creatures make a home under her bed, and take nightly turns to tell her the story of one of their precious objects.
Jenny Nimmo’s perfect picture book teaches Daisy, and the reader, the power of stories to spark your imagination and bring comfort, even when you’re alone. Empowering and magical, this delightful story with its endearingly drawn Beasties is a dreamy classic. For age 4+
The Infinite by Patience Agbabi
Elle is a leapling: a person born on the 29th February. But more unusual than this is that she is a leapling with The Gift, and can jump through time and space. As she reaches 3-leap (the age of 12) she will finally be allowed to use this gift, on a very unusual school trip to 2048. But all is not as it should be. Leaplings have been disappearing, and when Elle receives an anonymous SOS text, she is reluctantly drawn in to the mystery.
‘Something bad just happened and I want to leap back in time to make it unhappen.’
From its first gripping sentence, The Infinite is an utterly absorbing story. Elle’s distinct narrative voice builds her character expertly and every sentence sparkles with life and originality. With a range of neuro-diverse characters (Elle and her best friend Big Ben are both autistic) Patience Agbabi has created a memorable cast, but none more so than Elle, whose insight and perception make her a unique, futuristic hero. For age 10+
Beetle Boy series by M. G. Leonard
When Darkus’s father, scientist Bartholomew Cuttle, goes missing from a locked room in the Natural History Museum, Darkus cannot accept that he is gone. Alone, forced to leave his old school, and entrusted to the care of his eccentric Uncle Max, Darkus is determined to find out what happened. With the help of his new friends, Virginia and Bertolt, he sets out to uncover the truth about his father, and the intimidating stranger Lucretia Cutter. But he had not expected the help of an unusual beetle, a beetle who seems to understand every word he says…
In M.G. Leonard’s trilogy (Beetle Boy, Beetle Queen and Battle of the Beetles), Darkus and his friends are pitted against their arch enemy, Lucretia Cutter, and her world threatening plans. Every character, however minor, from the almost silent butler to the joyously dramatic child actor Novak Cutter, is perfectly drawn. And even Lucretia herself, one of the most dastardly fictional villains ever, retains some element of humanity, showing M. G. Leonard’s skill in creating fully rounded characters. These are faultless adventure stories: exciting, funny, pacy, addictive and moving. I defy anyone to read just one of them- and to not fall in love with beetles! For age 8+
Tell me a Dragon by Jackie Morris
‘My dragon is made from the sun and the stars…’
So begins the first verse of Jackie Morris’s stunningly beautiful book. Each page introduces a new character with their dragon: from the tiniest, graceful creatures, landing on their human’s hair, to vast, snaggle-toothed dragons, perched on rooftops. By using just a couple of lines and exquisite illustrations, Jackie Morris has captured the essence of each unique dragon on every page.
This is a book to be treasured and looked at again and again. The poetry and watercolour illustrations work together in perfect harmony to create a true work of art. And the final page (‘Tell me about your dragon.’) is an invitation which has every reader imagining what life would be like with their very own dragon companion. For age 5+
Pirates Magnified written by David Long and illustrated by Harry Bloom
Partly a history book, partly a biography of famous pirates, and partly a Where’s Wally-style finding book, this is a complete afternoon’s entertainment in one! Beginning with the background to the time of pirates, the book moves through different topics, from pirates’ tough lifestyles, adventures and the nature of their voyages, to historical figures such as Blackbeard and the cross-dressing friends Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
Written in an informative yet highly readable style, Pirates Magnified is a fascinating read for children and adults. Older children can gain an in depth insight into some of the tales in this period of history, whilst less confident readers can use the 10 Things to Spot feature, aided by the magnifying glass which comes with the book. As with much of the Wide Eyed series, the satisfying layout and intricate illustrations make this a treat to look at. For age 7+
Tidy by Emily Gravett
‘Deep in the forest lived a badger called Pete…’
The only problem with Pete is that he is an over-zealous badger. Fixated with his surroundings being neat and tidy, he patrols the forest on the lookout for protruding branches and asymmetrical blossoms to prune and dispose of. As his fixation spirals into obsession, the bags of ‘rubbish’ begin to grow.
Written with Emily Gravett’s distinctive warmth and humour, this story in verse gives a reminder to the reader to take care of the natural world. By following Pete on his journey to self-discovery, it cleverly guides us to see his mistakes, whilst still feeling affectionately towards him. For age 3+
Orphans of the Tide by Struan Murray
The City where Ellie lives has no need of another name. It is the only one left. Surrounded by the sea and piled on top of a mountain, the last bastion of human life is under the rule of the merciless Inquisitors. When Ellie pulls a mysterious boy from the belly of a washed up whale, she unwittingly begins a chain of events which will impact the whole City.
This debut novel from Struan Murray was launched earlier this year to critical acclaim and great praise on social media, all of which is thoroughly deserved. The vivid characters, gripping plot and sparkling writing style make this story completely absorbing. In a wonderful age for children’s adventure stories, Orphans of the Tide stands out. Whatever the step above ‘highly recommended’ is, this is it! For age 10+
Ottoline series by Chris Riddell
From the opening story in the series, Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, former children’s laureate Chris Riddell has created one of the strongest and most entertaining female characters of recent years in Ottoline Brown.
Now a series of four books, they follow the adventures of the determined and self-sufficient Ottoline as she investigates mysteries, whilst sustaining impressive collections of items such as postcards and odd shoes! Parent free (while they travel the work exploring), she is accompanied by her taciturn bog friend, Mr Munroe- an unspecified creature consisting mostly of hair.
The stories unfold as much through Chris Riddell’s detailed and hilarious illustrations as through the text, with running jokes and something new to spot each time you look. A delight for adults and children to share. For age 7+
Paint me a Poem by Grace Nichols
Grace Nichols wrote this collection of poems whilst on a year’s residency at the Tate gallery. Each poem is inspired by one of 20 different famous paintings or sculptures, and both the poem and its inspiration are published alongside each other. As part of Grace Nichols’ role was to work with groups of primary school children, some of their poems have also been included, adding other interpretations of the same works of art.
This thought provoking collection includes varied styles of art and poetry, and invites the reader to wonder what their own poems might be like, with tips and ideas to get going. A lovely starting point for budding poets to have a try at home, or for idyllic afternoons in the classroom. For age 9+
Fantastic Footballers: 40 Inspiring Icons by Jean-Michel Billioud and Armandy
The Wide-Eyed Editions range bring non-fiction topics to life for children, by their stylish text and aesthetically pleasing layouts.
In Fantastic Footballers, the French duo of author Jean-Michel Billioud and illustrator Almasty have created a chronological guide, detailing their choices for the top 40 international football stars. From Alfredo di Stefano in the 1950s to current players such as Neymar and French women’s captain Amandine Henry, this book offers a wealth of information.
Despite having little personal interest in the subject matter, I love this book- it is just so visually satisfying. Even the Contents page is perfect! And for fellow geeks, the sentence structure Billioud uses is a thing of beauty! For age 7+
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
Bear has lost his hat. And nobody has seen it. Or have they…
Published nearly ten years ago, I want my hat back quickly became a picture book classic. Appealing to both adults and children for its simple and intriguing storytelling with a hilarious twist, this is a perfect book to share. (And not least for the element of risk it involves: little ones have been known to burst into tears or become outraged when they realise what has happened!)
The type of bedtime story that children AND parents request every night. For age 3+
The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
As the daughter of a cartographer, enchanted by the mystery of maps but forbidden to travel, 13 year old Isabella is desperate to explore. So when a classmate is murdered and her best friend disappears, Isabella leaves her quiet, modest life behind her. Armed with only her father’s map making equipment and her knowledge of the island’s ancient legends, her journey begins.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first novel is addictive reading: a timeless, magical adventure that draws you in from its very first map. For age 10+
Raymie Nightingale sequence by Kate DiCamillo
When Raymie Nightingale arrives at her first baton twirling class, she has big plans: to learn to baton twirl, to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, and to lure her father back home (away from the arms of the dental hygienist he’s absconded with). But plans have a way of going awry. Instead, she meets the dreamy, theatrical Louisiana Elefante and the positively fierce Beverly Tapinski, forming an unlikely friendship.
Throughout the first book and its sequels, Louisiana’s Way Home and Beverly, Right Here, the trio of friends are unique and irresistible. Their enduring bond is central to their diverse and often turbulent lives. As always, Kate DiCamillo has the power to make her readers glad to be alive with her heart-warming and uplifting stories. For age 9+
Poems Aloud: An anthology of poems to read out loud written by Joseph Coelho and illustrated by Daniel Gray-Barnett
In this anthology of twenty of his poems, Joseph Coelho has given the joy of reading, performing and discussing poetry centre stage. Poems Aloud celebrates the fun that readers can have by taking part in poetry and giving it their own special twist.
With tips on performance techniques and poems especially chosen for their different features (such as tongue twisters, riddles and character voices), this book is a performance masterclass in twenty poems! For age 7+
North: The Greatest Animal Journey on Earth by Nick Dowson and illustrated by Patrick Benson
Told through a mixture of evocative description and stunning illustrations, North describes the annual migration to the Arctic. From around the globe, we learn about the gruelling journeys that take place through sky, across land and under sea.
Animals such as terns, narwhals and grey wolves are shown beautifully by Owl Babies’ illustrator Patrick Benson, whilst Nick Dowson’s prose shows his passion and wonder at the natural journeys he so poetically describes. For age 6+
Odd Dog Out by Rob Biddulph
What’s life like if you’re the odd one out? What should you do if you’re the one who’s different to the rest? Find out in this joyous celebration of embracing our differences and accepting ourselves. The stunning illustrations and light-hearted humour make this the perfect book to share and talk about. Impossible not to love. For age 3+
Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen
From the seventeenth floor, you can see for miles around: the buildings, the cars far below, the bustle of life and movement. But for Ade, life in his home on the seventeenth floor is about to change. Something has arrived, something has started to spread, and before long, the destruction begins.
A powerful story of an incredible boy, keeping hope and friendship alive in London’s darkest hour. For age 10+
The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper
Every year, on Midwinter’s Eve, a quiet tradition takes place. Book lovers across the country (and possibly the world) pick up their copy of The Dark is Rising and begin reading the same chapters, at the same time, in a silent community.
They read again how Will Stanton’s life changes when he turns 11, and discovers that he is an Old One and must do his part in the ongoing battle against the forces of the Dark. Inspiring devotion from adults and children alike for over 40 years, the five books of Susan Cooper’s sequence form possibly the best children’s series ever. For age 9+
My Life as a Goldfish and otherpoems by Rachel Rooney
From award winning poet Rachel Rooney, this collection of poems is irresistible. These are poems that plunge you into seeing the world from different points of view: how might a liar think? A wolf girl? A clock?!
With a mixture of humorous and thought-provoking poetry, this collection appeals to a wide range of ages. For age 7+
Little People, Big Dreams: Maya Angelou by Lisbeth Kaiser
The series Little People, Big Dreams focuses on the lives of ‘outstanding people’ from various fields, with each book telling a different life story. Aimed at younger readers, each illustrated biography is told in a simple style, appealing to children.
The book tackles difficult topics, such as Maya’s childhood abuse and the racism she faced, in an honest and accessible way, whilst inspiring the reader with Maya’s legacy of hope and determination. For age 5+