Monstrous Devices by Damien Love

Every now and again, you buy a book and plonk it on your TBR pile. It sits waiting while other books nip in front to take the limelight. Every now and then, you glance at it and wonder why you got it. The cool cover and title caught your eye, but there are so many books and so little time…then you read it, my word, should you have read it earlier. Monstrous Devices is this book for me, and, to my shame, it sat waiting for far to long.

Alex is a twelve year old boy with normal twelve year old’s woes. School bullies, absent father, and an adventure loving, globe gallivanting grandfather – you know, the normal stuff. His life is turned upside down when his grandfather sends him a wind-up tin robot. A simple child’s toy from a bygone era. A collector item really. Yet all isn’t how it seems…

The toy holds the key to a dark secret; one that very dangerous people seek, people willing to stop at nothing to get this item.

I adore the manner in which Damien Love builds on existing mythology, while weaving in new elements that create a real sense of danger. The retro tin toys being manipulated into tools of death has a fresh feeling to proceedings. But what makes the story sing is the relationship between Alex and his grandfather. One is unsure, confused and massively out of their depth, while the other seems to be relishing their constant plight. A brilliant duo!

Now for the teacher bit. Simply put, it is a cracker. Reading for pleasure is the pinnacle for a teacher. Get your class loving books and wanting to read just to enjoy it, then you’re on the right track. The only way to do this is share absolute belters like Monstrous Devices and watch them absorb every word. So go on then, what are you waiting for?

Daring, fast-paced, captivating – a monster of a read

Pippin Paints: A Portrait by Charlotte Mei

Pippen is a dog. Like all dogs, he enjoys doing dog-type things: writing in his journal, philosophising and, of course, painting. With his high opinion of himself, he has the perfect subject to paint…himself. When he starts to compare his own self-portrait with those his friends have done, he becomes frustrated and this leads to a discovery of artists he knew little about.

I’m quite a fan of this type of book – a narrative that wraps knowledge through its core. The works of Seurat, Degas, Picasso and others introduced through the narrative. What’s not to love about a picture book that does that? Charlotte Mei provides playful illustrations that contrast with the fine art at the heart of the book.

Now for the teacher bit. This is the perfect book to hook young children into learning about fine art. Most children start to develop themselves as artists by drawing portraits of themselves and those around them, so the focus on this is quite clever. For anyone hoping to develop their understanding of art, it is a joy to to see how much is packed into one book. Mediums are discussed, abstract is presented and techniques like pointillism is shared with the reader.

Let your children dream, let them become artists.

Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher

A huge festive favourite of mine is Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher. They breathe new life into an age-old tale in a way that makes me smile.

Although this retelling of the Nativity is simple in many ways, it is so so clever due to the viewpoint it takes. When using this with a class, I do like finding out who can tell me the narrator of the tale. This is always an interesting point of the session when sharing this brilliant book as some pick up on the clues, while others are delighted at being taken by surprise at the genius of the concept. The Nativity told from the point of view of the donkey – what’s not to like about this?

I’m a huge fan of Sam Usher so this instantly jumped off the shelf. I love his expressive use of water colours and the way the landscape engulfs everything. The simplicity of his artwork goes hand in hand with the way the story is told.

Now for the teacher bit. I’m a huge fan of taking the time over the Christmas period to share as many retellings of the nativity that I can, so when I find one with a quirky angle to generate discussion, I’m in. As a teaching activity, I’d suggest doing a Diamond Nine to explore the importance of each player in the Nativity. For those who haven’t used this task before, this is a brief description. Display a list of each person/thing involved e.g. Mary, Jesus, Innkeeper, Donkey, etc and then ask the children to decide on the most significant. That is the top point in the diamond. Next explore who would be the next two and continue until the diamond shape is completed. A great way to generate discussion for children.

An important story told from the most unexpected point of view.

The Christmas Star by Hilary Robinson and Ciara Ni Dhuinn

What a gorgeous retelling of one of, if not the most famous stories.

The nativity has one true star, and it isn’t the baby who is born on that special day. This book tells the story of how the angels came up with an imaginative way to let everyone know the good news. What I like most is how the star isn’t brash, nor the best candidate for the job, but through an excellent attitude and a willingness to help, they shine their brightest to bring joy to all. What a great message for children!

Hilary Robinson is a fantastic author who always pitches her tales so well for her audience. This is clearly aimed at the younger pupils we teach, with lovely crafted sentences sprinkled with rhyme a joy to read. Hats off to Ciara Ni Dhuinn who creates illustrations that will attract the attention of the biggest reading humbug.

Now for the teacher bit. Books that tell the story of the Nativity from different points of view, or with an interesting focus, are a must for Primary schools. In the build-up to Christmas, I find sharing stories like The Christmas Star, and Refuge, are the perfect way to embed the children’s understanding how important each person or, in these cases, non-human aspects roles are.

A perfectly gentle retelling that makes the reader know how important it is to shine your brightest to be your best self.

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!