The Greatest Girls in Children’s Literature?

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 Alice in 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-Imbele Ifie 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:

https://www.unicef.org/gender-equality/international-day-girl-2020

11 ways to encourage reading at home

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.

Use technology

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’!

Visit libraries

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.

Help! My child will only read…

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.

How can I support my dyslexic child?

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 You Good 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.

Useful websites:

For general information: https://www.dyslexia.uk.net/ and https://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/

For child friendly examples of famous people with dyslexia: https://www.dyslexiascotland.org.uk/sites/default/files/library/famous_people_with_dyslexia.pdf

For advice and information aimed at parents: https://www.nessy.com/uk/parents/dyslexia-information/

This month’s favourite…

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.

September’s favourite…

Picture book:

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+

Chapter book:

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+

Series:

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+

Poetry:

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. 

Ideal to perform aloud (for yourself or others!), here is Joshua performing some of his own work: https://www.joshuaseigal.co.uk/videos For age 7+

Non-fiction:

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+

August’s favourite…

Picture book:

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+

Chapter book:

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+

Series:

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+

Poetry:

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+

Non-fiction:

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+

July’s favourite…

Picture book:

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+

Chapter book:

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+

Series

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+

Poetry

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+

Non-fiction

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+

June’s favourite…

Picture book:

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+

Chapter book:

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+

Series:

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+

Poetry:

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+

Non-fiction:

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+

May’s favourite…

Picture book:

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+

Chapter book:

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+

Series:

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+

Poetry:

My Life as a Goldfish and other poems 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+

Non-fiction:

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+