Curious Creatures Glowing in the Dark by Zoe Armstrong & Anja Susanj

I’ve been saying it for a while now, but is there anyone better than Flying Eye Books at non-fiction for children? They constantly take the natural world, give it a shake and see what wonderful curiosity it can present to us in a beautiful manner. With Curious Creatures Glowing in the Dark by Zoe Armstrong and Anja Susanj, they have done it again.

As an avid reader of non-fiction, I always smile when a book title says exactly what is in store for the reader. Lots of crazy information about creatures that defy common sense and seem to create their own light? Check! A whistle stop tour of the globe so you know where to find these wild, wondrous animals? Check! Explanations about how a New Zealand glowworm uses sticky goo to catch its prey; similar to how a spider uses a web? Check! Except a spider doesn’t have the need for a glow in the dark bottom to attract flies to its web…

What I like most about this is the pitch. Often, non-fiction feels like is is aimed at the upper end of primary school or is so brief that it is for the youngest of readers. In this case, I feel as though it would be perfect for those Y3 and Y4 children thirsty for cool facts and ace graphics.

Now for the teacher bit. Of course this text is amazing for your science lessons on adaptation or even light, but the real joy is the other curriculum subjects you can explore with it. A fantastic activity would be to chart the locations the animals live at, which are littered throughout the book – New Zealand, Wales and Japan to name a few. If you want to explore the origins of words then this is a winner as well. Etymology fans will have a field day with this book.

An enlightening read – see what I did there!?

Bandoola the Great Elephant Rescue by William Grill

Nobody does non-fiction like William Grill. His books are things of sheer beauty with the illustrations having a vintage quality and the attention to historical detail bewitching. Previous work includes Shackleton’s Journey, which is widely used in schools due to it being excellent, and Bandoola continues in this splendid manner.

Although William Grill is an expert in presenting the facts about a subject, be it the differences between African and Asian elephants, their cultural history and interactions with mankind or the history of Myanmar, this book sings because of the relationships at the heart of the story. The respect that James Howard Williams has for the elephant trainers, the awe he has for the animals themselves and the central relationship he has with Bandoola, creates a connection with the reader.

I adore books like this that don’t focus on a period of history in a clear cut manner, but more explores the lives of those who live through these times that often overlap. Both World Wars underpin events in the story, which allows you to look at cause and effect, as well as how the British Empire changed the face of the globe. Books that make you feel smarter are always a good thing!

Now for the teacher bit. The theme of conservation and animal rights runs right through the book, explaining in detail how humans have had a negative impact on the habitat of the elephants. What I find fascinating is the question of whether it is better for the elephants to be used to transport logs, or leave it to mechanical means. Questions like these are perfect for a citizenship/PHSE lesson and like all great authors, William Grill doesn’t answer it, preferring to leave the thinking up to the reader.

A beauty for the eyes, and a feast for the mind – a perfect non-fiction book for adults and children alike.

Dragon Skin by Karen Foxlee

Some books are filled with events and action and these are great. Some tell a simplistic story that often has such emotional threads running through it that the reader just wants to follow the characters on their personal journey. Dragon Skin makes you want to read; makes you care.

Pip is a strong-willed girl living in Western Australia. She spends her time alone in the outback exploring with a heavy heart. The sadness she feels is due to her friend, Mika, who no longer lives in the town. Throughout the book, in the form of flashbacks, we learn about their relationship and how Mika taught Pip how to view the world with excitement and a curious nature. Just as well he did, as Pip finds a weak, new born dragon and she instantly knows that this is her secret; a secret to protect this creature.

It is a story of love, loss and letting things go. Quite mature themes for a children’s book but Karen Foxlee structures it so well that the picture is built clearly. Pip’s mother is in an abusive relationship which provides Pip with another sense of urgency in the form of escape and a contrast of how someone can make you negatively feel. One really clever device the author uses is to share a stream of mum’s internet searches to show how things are developing throughout the book which start off with:


Then become darker:


On a personal note, this book linked to my own childhood. I often mention books in schools needing to be mirrors that the children see themselves, or windows to view others. Strangely for myself, this story did both as I was born in the region the story takes place in, yet moved to the UK without forming any real memories of Australia. It was fascinating to read about the environment I could have explored, more like the lead character.

Now for the teacher bit. When children enter Y6, teachers need to find texts that are mature and complex in their structure. Dragon Skin is ideal for this. With the flashbacks, multiple character arcs, themes such as grief and domestic abuse, it provides a real platform for creating real readers in class. As an aside, from the teacher nerd viewpoint, it has a great deal of vocabulary that will be alien to children in the UK. It would be interesting to see how children respond to identifying the meaning of words such as ‘galah’ and if it corresponds with current reading research.

A book of sadness and loss, of kindness and hope, but most importantly of heart.

101 Bums by Sam Harper and Chris Jevons

I was lucky enough to get the chance to take part in the Lollies and got sent some great picture books designed to make children burst with laughter (and maybe snort a snot bubble or two).

101 Bums does exactly what it says on the tin – have lots of bums. So if you’ve ever wonder what a unicorn guff looks like or what baboons like to do, then you’re in luck. Funny and educational; you can’t beat that.

I asked our Y1/2 children to judge the picture book entries I had been sent…the winner was clear. Bums won the day and got every single vote!

Now for the teacher bit. This is when I pretend that you’d use this book to teach adjectives, verbs and adverbs (which you could), but lets be honest…you will read it to the little ones to make them howl with laughter. And that is as good a reason as any.

101 Bums will lead to 101 laughs!

Alex & Alex by Ziggy Hanaor and Ben Javens

What a wonderful book that I think every child making their first steps socially should have read to them. Alex and Alex are two friends who illustrate why being yourself is important.

Alex loves to do a variety of things and so does the other Alex. Ziggy Hanaor shares with us all this lovely friendship between two young children and how they explore the world around them. And how they do this is constantly side by side accepting each others likes and dislikes…until one point when the friendship hits a rocky patch.

Ben Javens is quite clever to not provide any real hints regarding gender, which is very much the point. Children will see themselves throughout the story as each page shares a different fun thing to do being enjoyed in bold, bright colours and a playful style.

Now for the teacher bit. Not making how a child sees themselves to be a closed view starts in EYFS. Children need to be encouraged to enjoy activities based on the activity alone, not if it something that has a gender stereotype. Presenting books like Alex & Alex opens up the debate at a level the children can understand.

Like Alex & Alex, everyone should get along and give this story a go.

Mason Mooney: Doppelganger Detective by Seaerra Miller

Seaerra Miller does it again with another witty, smart outing for that annoying paranormal detective, Mason Mooney. I really enjoyed the first Mason Mooney adventure and this confirms him to be one to follow.

What better night to set a story of a paranormal detective than Halloween? Well, not in Mason’s eyes. It is a silly waste of his valuable time spent amongst folk without a clue about the supernatural. But needs must to keep his friend and sidekick happy – Iris has prepared the school’s party and longs to win the best costume competition. And besides, she thinks she has a way to return Mason’s heart, you know, the one he carries in a jar, back into his body and break the witches contract. What ever could go wrong? Apart from a super nice version of yourself appearing to highlight how mean you are and a rabid beast prowling about the party, tearing the place apart.

Seaerra plays with the stereotypes of high school so well that you feel like you’ve spent so long with each character. Her page layouts are inventive and mix graphic novel styles with more traditional picture book pages. The breaking of the 4th wall is used so well, as the narrator has a unique voice. It is like a part time job to them and it is clear they aren’t Mason’s biggest fan. This makes the tone of the story pitch perfect due to him having the highest opinion about himself, despite being average as a paranormal detective.

Now for the teacher bit. As I’m constantly stating, graphic novels are a powerful tool for creating readers. With vocabulary being a huge focus for teachers across the globe, it is important to highlight that graphic novels and comic books often have challenging content for children to encounter. In Mason Mooney, a reader will read: passive-aggressive, bloated, essential, interference, suspicious; and the list goes on. The only word of warning for UK based teachers is those pesky Americanised words; in themselves a good teaching point.

Turns out frights are alright – get scaring those kids ASAP!

Edie and the Box of Flits by Kate Wilkinson

There is a strong history of children’s books being about the unseen; in this case of creatures so small and special that most are oblivious to their existence. In the tradition of The Minpins and The Borrowers, a world so close yet so far makes for a fun read.

Kate Wilkinson has taken a well-trodden route and come up with a fresh new tale. Her story centres around Edie who yet to turn 13, stumbles into the world of Flits when a box is left at lost property. Flits are small fairy-like creatures who inhabit the corners of our cities and towns that we neglect to focus on. As a contrast to the vast world the Flits navigate, Edie is sadly experiencing her own ‘world’ shrink since moving to secondary school. This leads to her spending all of her time at her father’s workplace and to the greatest adventure of her life.

Edie is a lovely character and her kindness towards the Flits highlights this. As always is the case, there are those who seek to take advantage of the Flits and their ability to go unnoticed. A story based in the unusual setting of the Lost Property Office for the London Underground is a brilliant idea and I love how the chapters are annotated with stations and the items found on that line. In this story, the setting plays such a vital role that children will be intrigued about the Tube.

Now for the teacher bit. Many schools do geography work around the capital, while many of our pupils have never been to London. It is hard to imagine an underground network of trains that is that important to a place so anything that adds to that knowledge is very helpful. As always, it is great to see a female lead driving the story on and we should never underestimate the value of children seeing girls in this way.

An enjoyable read that teaches us that looking closer can lead to adventures galore.

The Book of Stolen Dreams by David Farr

I’ll put my cards on the table here. I read slowly. I love books but never have I been able to read one in a single sitting. This means that when I finish a book, I must have enjoyed it or I’d have gave up. The Book of Stolen Dreams by David Farr stole a day from me and did the rarest of things; a single sitting which is exactly what this excellent book deserves.

Like all good stories, it starts with a hook. One that draws the reader into the danger, the intrigue and the fear. Krasnia is a fictional land that is bleak and harsh which is often the case when cruel men seize power. The citizens live with increasingly darker shadows cast over their families and friends; hope is in short supply. Little do Rachel and Robert know that the book their father steals holds the key to saving their homeland, nor the peril they will find themselves thrust into.

Although an experienced writer, this represents David Farr’s debut as a children’s novelist and he crafts a story so well written that you just have to applaud. The danger he puts the main characters in seeps off each page as the tension builds, and my word is it tense.

Both Robert and Rachel are well rounded characters that could carry the tale alone, so having both enriches the story. What the very best authors do is shine a light of the lesser characters so you remember them as much, if not more than the main characters. The fabulous Olga Von Stanis and strong-willed Laetitia are two I would have enjoyed spending more time with.

Now for the teacher bit. We often hear people mention ‘book talk’ and how important it is, yet I often wonder how you would probe deeper that the standard discussions such as what is the genre and which words do you like. I’ve come to the conclusion that one route for ‘book talk’ could be discussing the structures and themes and that requires teachers to find books that are challenging in this manner for whichever year group they intend to share the story with. For me, The Book of Stolen Dreams is a perfect book to explore with Y6 children due to the structure and the themes it presents. As a teacher, modelling thoughts and opinions about structures is important as you can point out aspects that go unnoticed. Highlight something then ask a probing question:

*Why does the author separate the children in the story?
*How does this help with pacing and/or cliffhanger chapter endings?
*Why does the author include news reports towards the end of the story?
*Does reading the pages directly from The Book of Stolen Dreams change how you feel about the story?
*Why do you think the author lets us know that Josef isn’t who he says he is?

As for themes – dictatorships, what ‘normal’ people do due to tyranny, family betrayals/sacrifice, the importance of culture/arts; international laws – with a book this well written, you can take your pick.

As the year enters Autumn, it is the best read of the year. Simply brilliant!

The Royal Rebel by Bali Rai

Bali Rai has mined the past for stories about the lesser known heroes who highlight that Great Britain has been a diverse nation for longer than most realise. His WWII set tale, Mohinder’s War, was excellent and so is The Royal Rebel, or to give it its full title: The Royal Rebel – The Life of Suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh.

Charting someone’s life can be quite boring purely because they are well known for a singular event. Neil Armstrong, for example, did an extraordinary thing but the journey to that point and after could be considered quite dull. This is not the case for Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. Born into royalty yet trapped by being a part of the British Empire, her early life and relationship with her family is fascinating. Bali Rai crafts characters in a way that you can relate to the plights of all in the Singh family.

I adore the way it is conveyed that the Princess is lost between her two ‘homelands’ of India and England – one she has known all her life, the other a birthright that she no longer holds. This struggle to find a place drives her on to live with purpose and leads her to the suffragette movement. In her time with these women, fighting side by side, the Princess finds a new family of sorts.

Bali Rai structures the story into three sections which tell the reader about significant periods in her life. This simple way of sequencing makes the book very easy to read. I do admire Rachael Dean’s artwork at the foot of each page which frames each period of the story. I hope to seek out more of her work.

Now for the teacher bit. As is the case with any historical fiction, the book is ideal to read if you are learning about the impact of Britain on India, Queen Victoria or the Suffragette movement, as all are interwoven into this story. Barrington Stoke have made it a good habit to produce easily accessible reading books which can be added to enhance most school curriculum, and The Royal Rebel is exactly that.

An important time in our history to learn about, reflect on and vow to create positive change like the Royal Rebel.

The Blue Giant by Katie Cottle

As children’s books can shape the thinking of the future, it is wonderful to read this fantastic story by Katie Cottle. Books that make you reflect on how we can all play a role can empower children and this delivers this in spades.

Meera and her mother fully intend to enjoy their day at the beach, yet the Blue Giant has other ideas. At the Blue Giant’s request, they explore the aquatic world and how humans have impacted on it. Rubbish has created a huge problem and this story focuses on how we can all be a part of the solution.

Katie Cottle is an artist that creates vivid images and impresses with her inventive approach to create such atmosphere with a limited palette of blue. However, the lovely lady herself will explain it better than I can.

Now for the teacher bit. Much like with books such as Somebody Swallowed Stanley, exploring the values of conservationism with a class is something that naturally grabs the attention of the children. Awareness of the impact of humans on the Earth is a vital concept to embed into your geography lessons.

A beautiful book with an important message.