The Clockwork Queen by Peter Bunzl & Lia Visirin

Chess is the game of kings and queens, and they don’t come much better than the Clockwork Queen herself. Pitted in a game that is life or death, Peter Bunzl draws the reader into the world of this Russian marvel.

Sophie Peshka learned from the best – her father. His prowess at the black and white board was legendary across Russia, until one day the ultimate compliment came. By royal degree, Empress Catherine the Great requested that Sophie’s Papa teach her son, Paul, how to play this grand game. Filled with pride, her father accepts and leaves Sophie and her mother behind.

Peter Bunzl does a fantastic job at striping away Sophie’s comforts after her Papa displeases Empress Catherine which results in him being imprisoned. Desperate do desperate things, so Sophie tries to eek out an existence playing people for food and a few coins. This leads her to be challenged by the mysterious Clockwork Queen – a robot grandmaster that draws huge crowds. The Clockwork Queen could be the key to saving her father, or dooming everyone with defeat!

Now for the teacher bit. Lets be honest, most curriculums don’t have a lot of history units about the Russian Empire, nor is chess as popular as it once was. Yet, the understanding gathered of the wider history beyond the limits we, as school, set out is always a bonus. However, the main reason to share this book with your children is to allow it to be a gateway to other books by Peter Bunzl. This is what Barrington Stoke do best – get great authors to write shorter, possibly more accessible stories for children to be hooked as readers.

Pacey, engaging and littered with history, one to try.

A Bare Bear by Caz Hildebrand & Ashlee O’Neill

As we all know, the English language is incredibly tricky and is certainly not helped by homophones and homonyms. Caz Hildebrand and Ashlee O’Neill have a great deal of fun with this confusing aspect of the UK primary curriculum.

Although the phrases shared in this book are one per double page, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t an entertaining read. With an art style that has minimal detail and prose that matches it, this book is all about getting it right in the simplest of ways. For me, this is perfect because as adults we forget that young readers will find the puns mind-blowing.

Now for the teacher bit. This is a great book for exploring such a complex component of reading as it has fun with it while introducing children to why context is important. It also, due to the very nature of the homophones, builds on the phonics teaching that occurs in a classroom as well as enabling the children to encounter challenging vocabulary – ‘The sad whale is having a wail.’ is a great example of this.

Now go off and read it to them, tell your friends you read it…

I Can’t Sleep by Gracia Iglesias & Ximo Abadia

I always wonder which cultural quirks cross borders and thanks to this Spanish duo, I now know that counting sheep to aid slumber isn’t just a British thing. The irony of writing this review in the early hours of a school holiday due to not being able to commit to the lie in isn’t lost on me…

Spoiler alert: this is a book about counting sheep to get to sleep! I know folk love to live life on the edge and not know what is ahead for them, but I can’t mislead you otherwise my reviews become even more worthless. Yet the inventive nature of each page and the personality of the different sheep shine through. Even the font gets in on the action!

What I really love about this is the artwork. The bold colours and simple shapes perfectly compliment the surrealness of the dream-like nonsense that an over tired mind can appreciate.

Now for the teacher bit. As any teacher of younger children will tell you, the kids are great at spotting their learning in books. Been doing a certain sound – ‘Miss, Miss, I can see the ‘ee’ sound in my book’. The same applies to numbers which is why sharing and having books like this on display for constant access is important. It may sound simple, but surrounding the children with numbers and maths in books will help them to become better at maths.

You can count on the kids loving this book!

Me and my Fear by Francesca Sanna

I’m very much a fan of Francesca Sanna and Me and my Fear extends the admiration I have for her work. This tale is of a girl who learns to live with her fear, not fear it.

Learning to live with your own fears, to know they can grow or shrink, is a vital lesson in life and this story explores it so well. Each page is fascinating on its own, then when combined with the words works on an whole other level. The way the Fear changes size depending on how the girl feels is brilliant.

I adore the simplistic style of artwork that is clever with its use of shape and colour choices. It very much reminds me of animation of years gone by. For the eagle-eyed amongst you, you will notice that this is the same girl from The Journey.

Now for the teacher bit. Picture books are perfect for exploring PHSE with a class, and this one is no exception. When dealing with emotions, it is always good to explain that even negative ones such as fear can be ’good’. The fact that it sheds light on how it feels to be new to a country makes it even more worthy of sharing. The Fear is at its largest when the girl is in school and this should prompt all teachers to reflect on the experiences of EAL children in front of us.

Have no fear – this book is amazing!

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.