Review: Patina written by Jason Reynolds

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The second book in the “Run” series by Jason Reynolds is in my opinion, even better than the first book, Ghost, which I also loved.. 

This time the story focuses on Patina (Patty) who projects a surface sheen of cool coping to conceal the boiling anguish inside. Patty is the fastest 800m runner on  the track team, needing to win at all costs as she pushes through life with an almost unimaginable weight on her young shoulders. As her tragic family history is revealed I found my heart breaking at the thought of this teenager trying to contain the unimaginable pain of losing her beloved father to an early death followed by watching her mother develop “the sugar” (diabetes), necessitating radical amputations. Patty’s care for Maddy, her younger sister, and the guardianship provided by her exhausted aunt and uncle are described with gentle domestic details making you realise that this family is held together by self-sacrificing love. 

Before I give the impression that this is a misery-fest, I ought to say that such is the power of Jason Reynolds’ writing, he can combine heartfelt emotion with zinging humour and contemporary teenage put-downs. His style segues from trackside banter to poetic descriptions like an elite athlete moving up through the gears. The short chapters and kinetic writing, power you through the story at a pace The Defenders track team would be proud of!

Patty has had to move schools, joining the elite Chester Academy which is closer to her aunt’s house, where she feels like an imposter amongst the rich kid “hair-flippers”. The description of her doing laps of the cafeteria whilst eating her lunch because she has nobody to sit with will tug at your heart strings. 

The athletics track is the venue for Patty to release her anguish, and where she has to win. Here she pushes her legs until they are screaming with pain, feeling that she is running with four legs: her own and her mum’s missing ones. The scenes where she develops teamwork and understanding with her new relay team are both hilarious and touching; the reliance on everyone performing their role reflecting Patty’s domestic situation. Imagery of the baton of care and responsibility being passed from one family member to another permeates the story, so that we see the extended family unit functioning like a well-coached team of athletes, each member stepping up as another exhausts their role. 

This is a book which will live long in my heart and I don’t mind admitting that at one point I “cried me a flood”. I cannot recommend it highly enough as a thoroughly gripping story to add to your “read-for-empathy” collections for anyone of 10+.

 

Animal-themed Picture Books

Scruffle-Nut by Corinne Fenton

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“As winter leaves tumble and twirl a wisp of memory wraps itself about me and whispers me back to long ago…”

Thus begins this poetic story which gently explores the subject of bullying through the tale of a young girl and a squirrel she befriends in a city park. When Olivia notices the little squirrel with the stumpy tail, whom she feeds with biscuit crumbs from her pocket, she realises that he is able to outsmart the faster, greedier squirrels she labels the Bully-Bunch. The wonderfully evocative artwork implies that she uses this lesson to deal with the bullies in her own life, and many years later she still remembers Scruffle-Nut as she sits in the park.

This is an incredibly beautiful book with which to start a conversation about bullying with young children; I would highly recommend it for schools and families alike. Corinne Fenton’s powerful writing will reward repeated reading and the artwork by Owen Swan absolutely compels your attention.

 

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a copy of this book to review. 

Pip Finds a Home by Elena Topouzoglou

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Well here’s a picture book that likes to play with your preconceptions, a penguin at the north pole, a hooded explorer who is female, a penguin that isn’t a penguin … and ultimately turns out to be extinct!

 When Pip the penguin is transported from the Arctic to the Antarctic on an exploration ship, he tries to find his place amongst the different species of penguin which inhabit that hostile landscape. As the beautiful, watercolour, artwork by writer and illustrator Elena Topouzoglou shows us, Pip has similarities to, but is not exactly the same as any of the penguins he encounters. Despite their recognised differences, the penguins welcome Pip as their new friend and he joins in with their snowy games.

Finally he sees a bird that shares his striped beak, flippers that resemble wings and grey feet. It turns out that Pip belongs to the northern hemisphere after all, and in fact his species has been extinct for a long time. Can you guess which species Pip belongs to? Get your hands on a copy of this gorgeous book to find out! At the end of the story there is a non-fiction section packed with fascinating facts about these incredible birds which have adapted to live in some of the harshest conditions on earth. This book is sure to be a hit with readers of 3 and above, with its message of inclusivity, atmospheric artwork and educational content.

 

Thank you to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Review: Twelve Days of Kindness by Cori Brooke

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This boldly colourful picture book is perfect for sharing with Early Years and Key Stage 1 children at any time, but its arrival is particularly well-timed during anti-bullying week. Written by Cori Brooke and illustrated by Fiona Burrows it demonstrates how one little girl’s careful observation, kindness and determination can make a huge difference to the happiness of another.

On the first page we are introduced to Nabila, the new girl at school, as she stands alone at playtime surrounded by small groups of children who are quite obviously whispering and giggling about her. Only one girl, Holly, stands apart from the others, looking sad and uncomfortable at the behaviour of her peers. She wonders if Nabila is lonely and devises a 12-day training plan, helped by the school football coach. Can her scheme to promote acts of kindness bring the football team together and integrate Nabila into the friendship group?

This inspiring and hopeful book, with its vibrant and expressive illustrations, makes a glorious addition to a school library or Key Stage 1 classroom as children will recognise situations that occur in the playground reflected in the book. The messages of welcome for a newly arrived pupil and advancement of teamwork to the benefit of everyone are great for starting conversations with young children. The level of detail in the pictures will be enjoyed each time the book is re-read.

 

My thanks to New Frontier Publishing for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Boy with the Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson

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This new book from Victoria Williamson brims over with emotion as it flits between the alternate voices of Elin and Jamie, two very different children who are pulled together into a new blended family.

Elin is an eleven year-old, struggling to come to terms with her parents’ broken marriage and hoping that if she lives up to her dad’s “ perfect princess” label he will return to the family. When her dad left she felt “ like he’d taken my wings and the blue summer sky with him.” She clings to her precious memories of life in their previous fairy tale home and bottles up her anger at her new circumstances, only revealing how she truly feels in the fantasy story that she adds to during her lonely, friendless break times at school. 

Meanwhile, Jamie is ignored by his mum’s new boyfriend Chris, but hopes that when the three of them move to California the American doctors will be able to fix his broken brain. He wants an alternative reality to his current one of being “the boy who can’t concentrate for more than half a second before his mind’s fluttering off somewhere else like a butterfly.

When Jamie’s mum delivers the devastating news that Chris does not want him to accompany them to America, but instead he is to move in with his Dad’s new girlfriend and her daughter in Glasgow, Jamie’s violent and destructive reaction is absolutely heart-wrenching. His reflections on his anger-management issues show his struggles and his self-awareness at the same time as his utter inability to control his behaviour when the chaos in his brain becomes unbearable.

Elin is furious at this messy arrival into her home and even more enraged when Jamie joins her class at school, causing disruption to the one area where she feels in control. She labels him “the enemy” and decides that she will have to get rid of him and his dad Paul if she is to have any hope of getting her own dad back to live “happily ever after with just me and Mum.” 

The clever story structure lets you inside the minds of the two young protagonists, and seeing the tale play out through their perceived realities gives the reader an incredible empathy with the contrasting viewpoints. Elin is a difficult character to warm to, her dismissiveness of kind, gentle Paige, her absolute refusal to meet her Dad’s new daughter or girlfriend and her desire to put her fairytale family back together all begin to make sense when seen through the prism of her desolation at losing her father. Meanwhile Jamie is a hugely sympathetic character with a kind heart and a continual struggle with ADHD. In one incredibly moving paragraph he sums up his reality in these words:

It’s funny how just four letters can mean the difference between being normal and being the kind of monster whose own mother moves to a different country to get away from him.

The extreme and deceitful measures that Elin takes to remove Jamie from her home appear to be unforgivable, but the reader has to take Jaimie’s big-hearted lead and believe that redemption is possible. 

In addition to the sensitively written characters of Jamie and Elin, I think that the character of Jamie’s dad Paul is wonderfully realised especially as kind, sensitive Dads are largely missing from MG fiction. Right from the start it is clear that he goes out of his way to respect Elin’s space and to show her understanding despite her coldness towards him, and his devotion to helping his son is all-encompassing. The quietly diplomatic Paige, a lonely character who blossoms as her friendship with Jamie develops is another key element in this story.

I loved the book’s structure, progressing through the different stages of a butterfly’s development and the way that this device was included in the children’s science project. The emotional journey of Elin and Jamie’s metamorphosis into a new blended family is handled with such sensitivity by Victoria Williamson that it teaches us all a valuable lesson in empathy – both for children living with ADHD and those suffering emotionally following divorce. This is one of those books that I know will stay in my heart long after I finished reading it. 

 

I absolutely recommend this book to everyone of age 10+, and I cannot wait to see what Victoria Williamson writes next.

It is heart-warming to see that 20% of the author royalties are being donated to Children 1st, a Scottish charity helping families and children.

If you love this book, make sure you read The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle by the same author.

 

Review: A Home for Luna by Stef Gemmill and Mel Armstrong

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New Frontier Publishing are releasing some outstanding picture books into the market this autumn, and this one is sure to melt hearts, as bedraggled Luna searches for a new home.

The author, Stef Gemmill’s words are accompanied by wonderfully detailed illustrations in a muted, natural, colour palette created by Mel Armstrong. I believe that this is the first picture book that she has illustrated – it’s a stunningly impressive debut. In an inspired nod to her target audience there is a small hermit crab to find on every page, an activity that little children will love and that again emphasises the theme of searching for a home.

It is not clear why the little cat Luna has washed up on a strange shore, only that “sounds of danger had made her leave her home.”  She is tired, friendless and hungry, but gradually she finds a trusting friendship with a huddle of penguins and an unlikely partnership develops. The simple, elegant text and characterful pictures convey this poignant story perfectly for a young audience.  The tale can be enjoyed at a surface level as one of developing friendship and finding a new home, and on another level this book could be used as the start of a discussion about displacement and refugees with young children.

 

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a review copy which will be added to our school library, and is a lovely addition to our “Read for Empathy” collection.

Review: Check Mates by Stewart Foster

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Once again, I have to thank the members of #PrimarySchoolBookClub for introducing me to the work of an amazing author, Stewart Foster. I loved this book and found its storyline and central relationship utterly compelling.

Felix Schopp is in his first year at secondary school,  we are introduced to him in the isolation room, or as Felix terms it, “the staring at the wall club”. Felix is a regular visitor to this room as his ADHD means that he cannot help himself from getting into trouble for being disruptive in class. He cannot concentrate on anything for even a short time, he is unable to sit still, he asks inappropriate questions and becomes frustrated with himself when he cannot read a passage or answer questions.

The story is recounted in the first person by Felix so that we are offered an insight into the thoughts and frustrations of a child with ADHD. Felix is an immensely sympathetic character and he is aware that “People think I don’t care, but I do, it’s just that I can’t help what I say or the funny expression they say I have on my face.”

His teachers are exasperated, his over-worked parents are annoyed with him and his grandfather embarrasses him daily by collecting him from school in a pink car! When his mother suggests that he should spend more time with his granddad, it seems that Felix’s life could not get any worse.   

Granddad is another perfectly realised character. He seems to have sunk into depression since the death of his wife the previous year, which to Felix manifests as sitting grumpily on the sofa, hardly ever leaving the house, keeping the curtains drawn all day, preserving the memory of his late wife by holding onto all the pink objects she owned but never actually discussing his emotional turmoil caused by her loss. It is clear that Felix adored his emotionally available grandma and misses her hugely and feels sympathy for his granddad whilst being confused at his reluctance to mention the “d” word.

The book takes flight when Granddad decides that he will teach Felix how to play chess, in the hope that it will improve Felix’s powers of concentration and additionally to share his great love of the game with his grandson. The slow change in their relationship is acutely observed and absolutely grips at your heartstrings. On top of this the two school friends Jake and Rebecca are completely authentic and their often conflicting influences on Felix add another level of brilliance to this book.

I don’t want to discuss the plot in any more detail for fear of spoilers; it does contain descriptions of chess games but I don’t think this would detract from your enjoyment of the story even if you had never played chess yourself. Throughout the story you feel that an unexpected twist is building, but when it comes I think you will be surprised.

I was greatly impressed with Stewart Foster’s writing style. Short chapters, full of short sentences and lots of dialogue, reflecting Felix’s short attention span. This makes the book a fast-paced read, and is likely to add to its appeal to those readers who don’t enjoy struggling through long, complex sentences. It also manages to weave a great deal of humour in amongst all the emotion. One line I particularly loved was Felix’s observation after playing a very irritating opponent: “I bet the Mechanical Turk never ate Doritos.” I was genuinely moved by the powerful, emotional bond between Felix and Granddad and by this story’s message that we all need someone to really believe in us, to spur us on to succeed. Highly recommended for readers of 10+.

If you loved the central theme of this book, then try The Cardturner by Louis Sachar, if you are fascinated by chess and developments in AI, try Deep Thinking  By Gary Kasparov.

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This is #Book6 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge, hosted by Cathy at 746Books.

Review: Ella on the Outside by Cath Howe

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Recently I have been reading a number of books recommended by EmpathyLabUK in preparation for Empathy Week at school; I think this one is perfectly pitched for Year 5 pupils…

Ella is feeling as if her life has been smashed apart like the watermelon that she once watched exploding in slow motion on a YouTube video. Along with her mother and younger brother, Jack, she has had to move house and leave her old school and her lifelong best friend and start a new life without her Dad. She describes her emptiness early in the book, “Me being without Grace today hurt like bare feet outside in winter.”

She feels lonely and awkward on her first day at her new school, unsure of the classroom dynamics and very much “on the edge” in the playground. As well as harbouring a secret, which her Mum doesn’t want her to talk about, she is also very self-conscious about her angry, red eczema and her sense of isolation at the beginning of the story is palpable.

The author, Cath Howe, presents a totally believable school dynamic, with completely authentic primary school characters. The reader senses Ella’s growing unease as she is first befriended, but then manipulated by the classroom “Queen Bee” Lydia. Her desperation for friendship leads Ella to act in a way that she knows is wrong. Will she be able to put matters right and find a true friend in the shy, silent Molly who sits alone at the back of the class protecting her own secret pain?

This book is written in a straightforward style, and would be easily accessible to readers aged 10 and upwards. The publishers Nosy Crow have produced a paperback with a lovely font which really adds to the enjoyment of reading this book. Many complex topics are covered including bullying, isolation, mental illness, imprisonment and young carers and this story is a wonderful addition to the read-for-empathy collection in any school library. I particularly enjoyed the author’s clever use of Ella observing the world through her camera lens as a metaphor for her outside observer status, and the clutter in Molly’s house illustrating the obstacles that have to be cleared and negotiated in most people’s lives. I think that readers from Year 5 and upwards will find Ella to be a sympathetic protagonist and will be quickly drawn into enjoying this story.

Review: Charlie and Me 421 Miles from Home by Mark Lowery

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I absolutely loved this book, narrated in the first person by Martin Tompkins, aged 13 and interspersed with his astonishing poetry. From the opening poem “Leaping Dolphin”, which is cleverly printed on paper which resembles a school exercise book, you know that you are in for a very special story.

Marty tells us that his younger brother, Charlie, isn’t like ordinary kids. We are shown this on the opening page with Charlie talking about the laser in his belly button, and Marty using Charlie’s made-up number for one more than infinity (a charillion)! Amongst the interesting phrases that Marty uses to describe Charlie are:

“Can’t do anything for himself, or concentrate for more than two seconds” and “brain’s inside out, no understanding of danger.

We soon find out that Charlie was a miracle baby, who survived a very premature birth and has subsequently suffered a multitude of health problems. However, Marty reassures us that Charlie is his “absolute best mate in the whole entire world” and it is clear from the way that Marty anticipates his little brother’s needs as they set out on their epic train journey, that he is a deeply caring older sibling.

The boys have sneaked out of home, early on a Saturday morning to embark on a train expedition to the seaside town where they enjoyed an idyllic holiday the previous summer. It is obvious from the outset that Marty has planned the adventure in meticulous detail, but something is amiss. He becomes extremely flustered when he gets to the front of the ticket queue and has to speak to the sales assistant, and he reacts very nervously whenever a police officer is encountered during the journey.

As the train progresses from Preston towards Cornwall, the story alternates between Marty’s struggles to contain Charlie’s excitement (described vividly as being like a puppy filled with blue Smarties and Lemon Fanta) and poignant reminiscence of last summer’s holiday; in particular Charlie’s obsession with the dolphin that visits the little harbour each day. En route Marty encounters unexpected kindness from a scary-looking fellow passenger as he battles traumatic events. Multiple references are made to the omni-special-leftover-from-Christmas biscuit tin that Marty is carrying in his backpack, which he promises Charlie that he won’t open until they reach St Bernards. Adult readers will guess the contents of the tin quite early in the story, but for younger readers the revelation will probably cause quite a shock.

I do not want to give away any more of the story, but encourage you to read this heartfelt story of two extraordinary brothers. It is definitely a book to add to the “read-for-empathy” list in a school library, but I would caution that an adult needs to read it and be aware of the children to whom they recommend it. I found it to be a beautifully written, uplifting and at points utterly hilarious tale of sibling love, but a box of tissues is required too. This is the first book that I have read by Mark Lowery, but I will definitely be looking out for more of his stories.

Review: Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

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This is a first person narrative, told in the original and quirky voice of 12 year-old Louisiana Elefante as she writes her story in a notebook, just in case anyone is wondering what happened to her. It is written in an interesting style, of short sentences and short chapters which leave you almost as breathless as Louisiana when her lungs get “swampy”.

It starts with her setting off on a 3am road trip with her Granny, heading to Georgia from Florida in order to outrun the “sundering curse” which is on the heads of their family. The adventure starts to go wrong from the start as they run out of petrol and then Granny is struck by terrible toothache. Louisiana’s recount of her exploits as she takes the wheel of the car to drive her Granny to the nearest town in search of a dentist is quite hilarious. It becomes apparent as they reach town, that Granny and Louisiana live by their wits, and Granny is not the most trustworthy individual.

I don’t want to give any plot spoilers, but there is quite a shocking plot twist about half-way through the book. Louisiana reacts by writing the following in her notebook:

“But here is the thing: it did not feel to me like the earth was moving infinitesimally. It felt like it was hurtling and jerking its way through a lonely darkness.”

Fortunately, Louisiana has met a local boy called Burke Allen, someone so kind that “if you ask him for something he will give you two.”  While Louisiana is questioning who she is, Burke is the son of Burke Allen and the grandson of Burke Allen. He and his family are completely certain of who they are, and they represent absolute kindness. Along with the Reverend Obertask they teach the eponymous heroine that “we all at some point have to decide who we want to be in this world.”

I really enjoyed this story, it is the first book by Kate DiCamillo that I have read and I can see why she is a prize winning author, the interesting writing style was utterly believable as the thoughts of a 12 year-old trying to find her place in the world. The plot twist that I mentioned earlier could upset younger readers; this book should probably be shared with an adult with whom the story can be discussed. An interesting story for mature readers of 10 and above.

Review: The Fox Girl and The White Gazelle by Victoria Williamson

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This is the most wonderful story of survival, courage, and a developing friendship between two very different girls, set in a run-down housing estate in Glasgow. The story is told in short chapters, alternating between the voices of Caylin and Reema, and occasionally interspersed with the poetic thoughts of an injured mother fox and she desperately seeks to raise and protect her cubs. This interesting structure only increased the majestic beauty of this book for me, with the fox seeming to be a metaphor for Caylin and Reema’s search for “home”.

When you first meet Caylin Todd at the start of the book, she seems to be the most unsympathetic character imaginable as she plots, and then carries out, an ambush on a classmate to steal her birthday money. However, you soon learn that Caylin’s single mum has become an alcoholic, following the death of Caylin’s grandfather, and with the benefits payment being consumed by vodka, Caylin must either steal or starve. The descriptions of Caylin’s chaotic homelife are so realistically heartbreaking, and her terror that she will be separated from her mum if anyone should find out, force you to be sympathetic towards her.

Reema is also from a broken family. In her case she has had to flee from her comfortable, middle-class life in Aleppo and has arrived in Glasgow, with part of her family as a refugee. She is struggling to overcome trauma, homesickness, the disappearance of her beloved older brother and the sight of her once strong father confined to a wheelchair following a poison gas attack, when she is re-housed in the same block of flats as Caylin.

The two girls take an instant dislike to each other, Reema is horrified when she spots Caylin shop-lifting and Caylin dislikes the feeling that she is being judged by the new girl. However, as both girls are moved by the plight of an injured mother fox, hiding out behind the bins, and a shared talent for running, a hesitant friendship begins to develop. Can Caylin open herself up to trust, and can Reema overcome her homesickness for Syria and embrace her new surroundings? You will have to read this incredible story to find out.

I loved many aspects of this book. Firstly, Victoria Williamson is an astonishingly good writer, her descriptions of the struggles faced by the two protagonists take you right inside their hopes and fears and open your eyes to the very difficult lives that so many children face. Woven over the “issues” is a terrific story of a developing friendship, and by the final chapters I was on the edge of my seat and breathless to find out how the various strands of the narrative would end. I think that the story of Caylin and Reema will stay with me for a long time. Finally, I read that 20% of the author royalties for this novel will be donated to the Scottish Refugee Council, so not only are you buying a great book, but you are helping those less fortunate than yourself too. I would rate this book as a “must-have” for all Upper KS2 classrooms, school libraries and read-for-empathy lists.

If you love this book, why not try The Boy at the Back of the Class?