The Baker by the Sea by Paula White

As a son, I can say that I didn’t appreciate my father’s trade as a young child. I understood little of what he did, and only knew that it meant he couldn’t do things with me. Paula White captures this relationship between child and parent – the unknown about a person despite being aware of their job in name alone.

The way the community is built up for the reader through the images and text is a joy. A coastal village presented with all its layers through the eyes of a young boy. He can see clearly the toil of the fishing industry that is the backbone of his community, but struggles to value his father, the baker.

Paula White uses muted tones to paint a picture of natural beauty, simpler times and the weariness of a hard working community. She does this in such a way that the book has a calming effect on the reader. At times it feels like zooming in on a Lowry.

Now for the teacher bit. It feels wrong suggesting this book of real beauty be used to develop an awareness of careers, but this is an area a lot of schools are trying to build capacity in. The list of the different occupations that combine to create a single industry is so well illustrated here. Oh, and for a book about a baker, there is a great recipe at the back to try out.

A gorgeous tale about how everyone can be valued for their hard work.

The Last Wolf by Mini Grey

Mini Grey does it again! Consistently one of the best picture book story tellers out there, The Last Wolf doesn’t disappoint.

Little Red is a roll-up her sleeves type of girl who seeks out peril and adventure. So when she declares she is off to find a wolf, her mother fully believes her but is happy in the knowledge that she won’t succeed. Wolves have disappeared due to the lack of forests. No danger will be found…or will it?

My favourite sequence is when Little Red bounds out on dark shapes she believes are wolves but only to be faced with a non-deadly bin bag or tree stump. Kids will love this part, without doubt. Mini Grey’s art to show how the wildlife has fell onto hard times is brilliant (it reminds me of Top Cat for some reason – that shows my age) and highlights how well crafted each page is.

Now for the teacher bit. I know many KS1 teachers like to introduce children to traditional tales like Little Red Riding Hood as it builds cultural capital as well as share those stories that put a little twist on it – this book is perfect for that. The bold nature of Little Red in this contrasts so well to the normal version of this tale. In addition to this, it is a great text for geography lessons as it explores the impact of deforestation. Some fantastic conservation discussions will erupt if you share this with a class.

A Mini Grey must-read!

Atoms by John Devolle

Atoms make up everything everywhere. Now to an adult this is old hat, but imagine how mind blowing that is to a child. John Devolle explores what this means and presents it in a fun and inventive way. Tossing out cool facts like your eyeballs being made up of an octillion atoms is just how it is with this book. All the science fans out there (me being one) can definitely get their geek on!

The geometric art style is fabulous – inventive, bold and vibrant – with my favourite being the tree found on the page with the dinosaur. I think it is so clever to draw in the way that a child might while producing something that is still very sophisticated. John Devolle will certainly be an artist that I will actively seek out.

Now for the teacher bit. Introducing children to complex ideas at an early age is hugely important. Every child in Primary will look at states of matter (gases, liquids and solids) so sharing a book like this could build on the natural curiosity that science sparks. Let’s remember that children decide a STEM path is not for them by the time they leave Primary; please do your best to ensure that gate remains open a little longer.

Bonkers and brilliant!

No Man’s Land by Joanna Nadin

Often you pick up a book based purely on the cover, and this was the case with No Man’s Land by Joanna Nadin. It was put to the side and slowly worked its way to the top of the TBR (to be read) pile. Don’t worry though, because once it did it proved extremely difficult to put down. A proper page turner!

Living in Albion isn’t as simple as it should be for Alan. He has an annoying brother, a mother who is no longer with him and a dad who tries his best but falls slightly short on the parenting front. On top of all of that, Albion is on the brink of war with Europe and anyone who is a bit different seems to go away, never to be heard of again.

Dad makes the decision to send Alan and his brother, Sam, to live with a group of women who have opted out of life in Albion. Living with women for the first time, being off the grid and feeling like dad has abandoned him, Alan has to navigate this new world he finds himself in without fully understanding the danger he is constantly in. Will he make a mistake that risks the lives of those he cares for?

I have to admit that I was concerned as The Worst Class Dares You! was the only book I’d read by Joanna Nadin and the tone couldn’t be more different. It shows real talent to move between the broad comedy of that to the more mature themes on show in No Man’s Land. War is confusing and telling of such a tale from the viewpoint of a child, who only has the information the adults allow him to know, is fascinating – excellent choice by an excellent author.

Now for the teacher bit. With the themes explored and the concepts of civil unrest being very difficult for a child to comprehend, providing opportunities to be exposed to such situations is essential. Across the world, at any time, conflicts are happening and once those events make the mainstream, teachers are often on the back foot to explain the complexity. This won’t prevent those tricky conversations, but hopefully allow the children to be able to see the world beyond black and white. This reminds me very much of No Country by Patrice Aggs & Joe Brady due to the gripping situation described: Britain becoming a place of instability due to war. Using both together with a class could lead to some amazing discussion.

A hugely powerful tale of family, civil unrest and the rise of fascism – children’s fiction at its best.

Needle by Patrice Lawrence

Patrice Lawrence is a popular author of Young Adult fiction, so teaming up with Barrington Stoke to create an accessible text is a win-win situation for readers.

Ever had a thing? You know, a thing that you know you do and it makes things worse, but you do it anyway. Come on, be honest…we all do. Charlene does, and my word does it cause her major issues.

Being separated from her sister is hard. Her only wish is really to see her regularly and make her smile. That’s why she is planning the best gift ever – a hand-knitted dinosaur blanket. Charlene is outrageously talented when it comes to knitting. It is pretty much the only thing that brings her real joy since she was put into care. Life would be a bit easier…if only she could say ’sorry’.

Charlene’s passion shines through throughout the book, with her knitting and fierce love for her sister being the true positives in her life. The way Patrice Lawrence makes the reader care for her, despite her flaws, is brilliantly done. It can be hard to root for someone so self destructive, but ultimately you do.

Now for the teacher bit. As a Y6 teacher, I find bridging the gap between introducing children to their potential YA and not pushing them in terms of maturity is tricky. We will have all came across avid readers who are ready for that next step and as teachers, we should be able to guide them. Needle (as well as a number of Barrington Stoke books aimed at YA) is that perfect middle ground – mature without violence or swearing, real life problems and flawed characters that pupils may see themselves in. No one is perfect and stories that share this message are ideal for pre-teens entering that tricky stage of life.

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.