Storm in a Jar by Samuel Langley-Swain and Katie Cottle

Arlo adores his Nana (as a northerner I love the use of nana) and spends every Sunday with her…and her jar of sweets. This constant in his life means everything, until the day when Nana is no longer there and then it means even move. As the family sort through the collection of items that remain of Nana, Arlo is desperate to keep the empty jar.

For a long time, the jar is never far from Arlo, yet it becomes a weight on him. It fills with anger and upset, until the storm is unleashed. Anyone who has lost a loved one will know that special memories are tightly bound to the most normal of objects and places.

Samuel Langley-Swain does a great job at crafting a story that deals with a powerful subject. The art by Katie Cottle is fantastic, especially the storm that rages. I’ve been a fan since The Blue Giant by Katie Cottle.

Now for the teacher bit. Dealing with loss is difficult and this means having books that help children understand this is essential. For a number of years, we have accepted that there are stages to grief and the creators explore this so well. Empathy is a true human trait that all schools should endeavour to foster in their learners. A fab bonus can be found at the back of the book with 2 hands on activities that can be done with children.

A story of love and loss; a guide to the importance of remembering.

The Curse of the Chosen by Alexis Deacon

Starting life as much shorter volumes known as Geis, Alexis Deacon’s Curse of the Chosen is a welcome addition to any graphic novel lover’s bookshelf. This fantasy tale with such a simple set-up is gripping and I can imagine any reader enjoying it.

When a leader of a land finally succumbs to death, the search for an heir becomes a huge undertaking. And rarely is it ever done without bloodshed! This is our starting point – a vast array of characters are present at the passing and they find they are the unsuspecting players in a game of life or death.

The curse the witch casts on all present pits friend against friend, brother against brother; all while asking them to compete in games with little or no rules. Like a Squid Games for fantasy fans!

Alexis Deacon has a wonderful style that leans into the sense of the story happening in a time gone by. It portrays characters in ways that visually allow the character to breath, to provide hints at who they are, and ultimately who they need to become to pass the trials that await them. The biggest compliment I can give is that when reading this, I felt I was revisiting the art of Moebius in a graphic novel I found in the library as a child. That book transformed me into a life-long reader!

Now for the teacher bit. Amazing graphic novels are a must for any class library. Many teachers are unaware of the fact that graphic novels generally expose children to a higher level of vocabulary. There may be fewer words that a standard novel, but those selected are often challenging and presented in a visually supporting context. Curse of the Chosen is a perfect example of this.

An amazing adventure that entraps the reader in the dilemma of life or death.

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve

Philip Reeve is a master builder of worlds. If you’ve read Mortal Engines (and if you haven’t please do), then you have already witnessed how he creates a fantastic narrative landscape for complex characters to interact within, and Utterly Dark is no exception.

Unlike Mortal Engines, a true sci-fi masterpiece, the roots of this tale are of an older time. A simpler time, a forgotten time, yet still filled with mystery and adventure.

Utterly Dark is an orphan – found on the shore by the watcher of Wildsea. A watcher who has one purpose and that is to observe the waves and ensure that when the enchanted isles appear and danger returns that the folk of Wildsea are prepared. A watcher who one day is found dead, succumbed to the very sea he is charged to observe and this is when Utterly’s life begins to unravel.

The way Philip Reeve develops characters is wonderful. Each of them – the returning uncle who is dismissive and worn down by expectation is a favourite – is flawed like true humans. And like the aforementioned Mortal Engines, a strong female lead is a sheer delight to read.

Now for the teacher bit. The descriptive langauage used throughout the story is perfect for sharing with a class. SPOILER ALERT: when the godzilla-like creature born of the ocean appears, the tension is such that as a reader you can’t help but feel the impact of the well-crafted words. Children often find building tension when writing difficult, so why not show them how it is done.

A must read – it is that simple.

A Perfect Spot by Isabelle Simler

A Perfect Spot by Isabelle Simler is the perfect book to welcome in the warmer seasons. A lovely book to read in lovely weather – what more can you ask for?

A ladybird seeks a place to lay their eggs. In the hope of finding the ideal location to nurture her offspring, she travels across the countryside encountering all manner of mini beast; not all welcoming.

’Stick insects gather, furious and snarling. Scarlet with shame, the ladybird zooms off at once.’

The language chosen throughout is a delight, with a wonderful selection of words to draw the children in and for the adult to explain.

I adore the traditional style of the illustrations; they have the quailty of a detailed labour of love combined with modern day exquiste colour. It is hugely impressive that the mini beasts have hints of personailty while the art has shades of victorians cataloguing insects they encounter. However, like the very best picture books, the words could be removed and the tale enjoyed by all.

Now for the teacher bit. The final part of the book has a fantastic double page spread diagram of a ladybird which is fantastically detailed. This alone could be the basis of some great non-fiction writing. Yellow blood, poisonous, being a natural pesticide – just some of the amazing facts you can gleam from this single double page.

A beautiful book that belongs in every classroom.

Little Frida: A story of Frida Kahlo

Anthony Browne is a picture book giant, creating some of the best books you can find. Piggybook, Silly Billy and Voices in the Park are great examples of his talent as a story teller. So it was a real pleasure to find this book on a fascinating subject from the world of art.

As you will have guessed, this story takes place at a time when Frida wasn’t pushing the boundaries of art, but still a dreamer nevertheless. It provides an insight to her early life such as her suffering with polio or happiness in her own company. To Little Frida, imagination is everything.

I have always adored the way that Anthony Browne plays with the viewer. The hidden themes and strange tricks that make the reader scan each page with curiosity. My favourite page is below. I love how he sucks the colour out of it to match the black and white photos her father creates.

As I say, he is truly a master storyteller.

Now for the teacher bit. Any picture book that supports another subject is worth exploring and this is no different. Above are two pieces of art to compare as a part of your learning: one is Anthony Browne’s imagining of Frida and her ’friend’ while the other is Frida Kahlo’s own art. The one page biography at the back that explains the story in more detail is a perfect text to share at the start of an art unit to develop more knowledge about the artist.

A fitting tribute to a powerhouse of the world of art.

Sisters of the Mist by Marlyn Spaaij

As the tagline says: When fear tells you to hold on, let go…and I recommend that people let go of the outdated idea that graphic novels are not proper reading as this one is a must.

I adore the visual medium of graphic novels as I graduated from the standard DC/Marvel comics of my childhood to appreciate the wider world of creators telling stories for everyone. Marlyn Spaaij’s focus on the interactions of a family of females is a great example of that.

The Frygea Forrest is a bit of an odd place with trolls, root goblins and a mist that seems to be something to fear most of all. With the souls of adventurers, a trio of sisterly siblings visit their granny to enjoy a summer of spying on the weird and wonderful…or so they thought.

When eldest Margot begins to act differently, her younger siblings start to worry. Has she been lured by the Fog Furies? Will she stay like this forever? Kyra, headstrong and relentlessly brave, sets out to help her sister anyway she can.

The artwork is top class with the main characters having a familiar cartoony style to them on a backdrop of beautifully painted water colours. The way each character’s personality is shown within the art highlights what a talent Marlyn Spaaij is. The cute array of living root vegetables is a winner for me. Give me a sequel of their adventures!

Now for the teacher bit (guest spot)! When I read this, there was a section I thought would be worth sharing with every Y6 female. It addresses Margot having her first period, so I asked a colleague if she agreed.

‘I think we do the biology side of period talks well. Answer questions. But the reality of periods is very different. It hurts. You can have leaks. Normalising it like this means girls won’t feel ashamed of that they’ve done periods ‘wrong’ somehow.’ – Ceridwen Eccles (@Teacherglitter)

I think that more than covers why those 3 pages are a must to share. The only other thing is there is some language that you might need to check first, before sharing. Not quite swear words, but as teachers it is always best to make the judgement call yourself.

A enjoyable fantasy romp with the importance of family at its core.

Fagin’s Girl by Karen McCombie & Anneli Bray

The beauty of well-crafted stories is that others see the possibilities for the themes and characters to be explored more. Karen McCombie does a fantastic job in entering this world and drawing out something new and, importantly, interesting.

Ettie Shaw lives a nice enough life when compared to other children growing up in Victorian England. But in such fragile times, life can be turned upside down quickly. Her close family of her mother and brother, Joe, work hard to keep a roof over their heads until one day Joe leaves and doesn’t return. Heartbroken, her mother and Ettie try to carry on but life can be cruel. I won’t spoil the story, but the title is a huge giveaway to the path she takes to survive.

Now for the teacher bit. This book is a must for schools learning about the Victorian era and Dickens. It is something that Barrington Stoke have became so effective in doing: historical fiction littered with so many curriculum links. I particularly like the author’s notes at the back that explains the different aspects of the period that are highlighted in each chapter. A perfect teacher guide to be honest.

You’ve got to read a page or two, you’ve got to read a page or two…

History of Rock for Big Fans and Little Punks by Rita Nabais & Joana Raimundo

I was inspired to write this review after the recent passing of a member of a band that I loved. I went and listened to some tracks and was inspired to dig out this cracker of a non-fiction all about rock.

Who doesn’t love a rock song? Everyone has a favourite and most likely the artists who brought you that joy will be featured here. A simple structure that starts with the birth of rock and roll with the likes of Buddy Holly and Elvis to more modern bands like Vampire Weekend.

With a clear layout, great portraits and very thorough research, it is hugely entertaining and informative in equal measure. I do like the different groupings for certain styles or trends. Flannel shirts for Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden is genius.

I was intrigued to learn that the book was originally a part of a kickstarter campaign. To then be be picked up by a more established publisher shows what a fantastic job the creators did.

Now for the teacher bit. Sharing the joy of music is something everyone should do and as a teacher you can cherry pick the artists to expose the children to. Of course, rock stars are flawed and their mistakes highlighted for us all, so you may want to be selective.

Lets rock!

The River by Tom Percival

Tom Percival is quickly becoming one of the best story tellers working right now. He impressed many with The Invisible, his most personal story to date, and hasn’t disappointed by following up with The River.

Rowan loves the river. He embraces his life outdoors and basks in the glorious river and the beauty it shares. It is almost like the river speaks to him; reflects his soul. And what a lovely, kind soul Rowan has.

Sadly, like a river, life has twists and turns and surges unexpectedly. This is what happens to Rowan. His life feels empty at the loss he suffers. He feels helpless, cold, numb, and the river mirrors his heart. It freezes over through the seasons until Rowan’s heart heals with the help of a cause that comes from a place of kindness.

As a picture book fan, I adore it when authors use the medium to explore such mature themes on a level that children can understand – Tom Percival does that so well here. His illustrations are both cartoony with the humans to appeal to children and beautiful in the way they present nature. The double page spreads are truly brilliant.

Now for the teacher bit. Any story that deals with the mature themes of love and loss are a must for the classroom. Many children will experience grief in some form and helping them understand these feelings is something this book does very sensitively. I also think it would be great to use in Y5 and 6 to introduce them to metaphors. The clear link between the boy’s feelings and the river is an ideal way to develop an understanding of what can be a tricky concept.

A tale of love, loss and hope – a joy to share with children.

The Biggest Footprint: Eight Billion Humans. One Clumsy GIANT by Rob & Tom Sears

There aren’t many books that I reread instantly just to comprehend what my mind has been exposed to. The Biggest Footprint demands constant revisits, and here is why.

The mega human isn’t mega as in ’wow, how good is that’, it is purely a label regarding size. And, boy, does size matter! The concept shared by the brilliant Sears brothers is a simple one, yet it is very profound and extremely chilling. There are 8 billion humans on Earth and counting…the human brain can’t even begin to imagine how many people that would be. Unless we smoosh them.

Smooshing is an idea that is illustrated by plasticine people being squashed together to make one big person. My word, do 8 billion people make a rather large person!

What makes this book so powerful is that it compares the mega human with a whole host of living things that we share the Earth with. It builds up to this idea by letting the reader know just how big is mega big. An eye the size of a football can get across that message. There is a real sadness to the factual manner in which the stark contrast of our population size and those of the other animals presented.

As always, there is hope. This is designed to be a wake-up call to us all. The fact the message is presented in such a clever manner with an art style that is both simplistic and well thought out, is a pure delight for the reader.

Now for the teacher bit. As well as the message about the impact on other species and how many are now endangered, this book is marvellous for scale. Scale is such a tricky thing to develop an understanding of in schools as once we get past a few metres, it becomes quite hard to model to the children. Throughout the book, there are so many examples of scale used to compare the different animal populations or other aspects of human life. A brilliant tool for classroom teachers wanting to teach scale and large measures.

Quite possibly one of the most important children’s book ever.