Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Machine Gunners

Probably the best book we have read since we began. First published in 1975, the book is now a well deserved classic.

Read with the younger group, this book demonstrated the capacity for younger readers to grasp big themes, and to stick with a lengthy narrative.

Set during WWII the book holds nothing back. For example, very soon into the narrative there is a dead body, which is shocking, the children swear and fight till they bleed, and the grown ups are, grown up.

It is no surprise to learn that this book was written by Westall, to account for his own experiences of the war, for his then 12 year old son. Perhaps this accounts for the open and honest approach to characters and events. I wish that more authors of children's books shared Westall's skill in communicating to children with respect for the fact that they too live in the real world, and see and experience far more than we would like to admit.

I didn't dwell on the themes with the group, though we had a very productive discussion. One of the successes of this group is that because these books are shared with parents at home, the children are very well supported in their experiences of the books we read, and this was evident from the enthusiasm of parents aswell as children for this book during the session.

So, I could afford to take a playful approach. I designed a game based upon my youngest son's suggestion, involving identifying aircraft from their silhouettes (using a wartime aircraft identity poster). I would fly a silhouette, and the children would either wave at the aircraft if friendly, or hide under a table if not. We then had a go at identifying 'shrapnel' from photographs.


The teen group had this as their summer read. In anticipation of it's tragic plot, and because she adores horses, one member of the group couldn't open the cover at all.

I admit that I was also wary of WarHorse as my holiday reading, so left it till the last minute to attempt it myself. Perhaps because I have seen and wept during the National Theatre stage production of the book, I was surprised that I was dry eyed for the duration of this read; though I was not unmoved.

The remainder of the group who ventured within the books pages,  were well rewarded. Everyone agreed that this is a stunning book. Told in the first person, the horse narrator 'Joey' was a reliable witness to the horrors of WW1. His story moves between both sides involved in the conflict, and thus enables a unique perspective of this dreadful war. The overwhelming theme is one of humanity. 

The book provided a rich text for discussion, enabling the group to look at narrative style and structure, whilst exploring the big themes. The group were unanimous in their praise; a book which surprised and provoked. Extraordinary.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Room 13

This is the third book the group have read, which could be styled as 'gothic horror', and they were keen to debate its merits against the others we have read. Some discussion about whether a vampire story and 'Hush, Hush' do in fact belong to the same genre took place, and I'm resolving it here by using the term 'gothic'.

This book is not a contemporary 'gothic' novel. First published in 1989, the 'present day' setting of the novel is by now dated, and as a result the children struggled because the characters to them appeared naive and unreal. This became a major barrier to enjoyment for them all. Issues like the absence of swearing in their speech were highlighted. The 'bad boys' in the school party seemed ridiculously innocent compared with those our kids have experienced. 

In terms of plot they found it a bit predictable, and the methods employed to kill the inevitable vampire, absurd. 

In the end it was agreed that the book offered a light read, that was good enough. 

On the other hand I found the book quite charming, depicting school life as I remembered it....but then, I have always been naive.

The Family from One End Street

This is a children's classic. Favourite apparently of my mum when she was a girl. The response of the children in book club to the book was mixed, though the parents all liked it. My own youngster wouldn't stick with it. He found the format a challenge. The book isn't structured as a novel is. Each chapter is a short story about one of the children from the Ruggles family. This works very well for bed time reading, but my youngest was looking for a longer, more involved narrative, apparently. I'm pleased to say other children loved it.

It's interesting to note that the book was shunned by several publishers before it finally made it to press in 1937. It was considered 'innovative' and 'groundbreaking' for its portrayal of a working class family.

It would have been interesting to talk with the group about differences between children growing up then compared to now. But since it was the last book club of the term, we had a 1930's style children's party instead. Call it living history!

So, we played party games with strange names like 'puss in the corner', ate food supplied by the families, including rock cakes and ginger beer, and I played a gramophone recording of 'The Lion and Albert', and some dance music of the era, on my actual gramophone. All in all it was rather jolly. The noise and mayhem looked very much like a party scene from a 'Just William' book. 

I realised as I stood back from the merriment, that this bookclub is now almost all boys aged around 9....comparisons with Just William seem very fitting.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Holes by Louis Sachar

I generally have no involvement in the selection of titles for bookclub. This is deliberate; I don't want the responsibility for an unpopular book. But this was an exception. We borrowed 'Holes' from the library for my kids to read; and I couldn't put it down. Since they wouldn't even pick it up, I knew it would have to come home again via bookclub.

I think this is a genuinely brilliant book. It unfolds with a number of different and unusual stories, whose threads gradually come together in a very extraordinary way. I was pleased that the group all agreed on it's merits, and rated it very highly.

In addition to an unusual narrative structure, great characters, sense of place, sense of heat, this book also allows you to think about serious issues, without the issues being what the book is about. I couldn't ask for more from a teen read really.

Here's what one of my enthusiastic readers thinks:

Holes is an excellent story with everything you would expect and more happening with each turn of a page. Set part modern day and part in the past (sorry I can’t remember exactly when) the story is about a kid who finds an athlete’s trainers drop from the sky. From then on his life goes from bad to worse. He gets arrested and thrown into a camp were kids must dig holes in the ground to teach them discipline. At least that’s what the staff tell them. The kids have got to discover the secret before it’s too late and they have to go home.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Mr Gum and the Cherry Tree

This book had a mixed reception from the group, as often happens with humorous books. Some of us agreed that this is ideally a read-aloud book; we found the language and humour so playful that it worked best with voices, adding to the silliness. 

Realising that this book is one of a series, all set in the fictional (thank goodness) location of Lamonic Bibber, I thought it might be interesting to map the location, using any knowledge children had of the other books. So, beginning with  brainstorm of places from this book, we then began to draw and cut out our landmarks, and to debate where to place them on our 3d map.

It was great to see how the group ran with this idea. Some wanted to illustrate events from the book, like the appearance of the real Runtus, others wanted to get the geography right. I loved watching the way this took on a life of it's own, and allowed everyone to participate in their own way.

Friday, 25 May 2012

'I, Coriander', alternative jacket design.

If you've been following this blog you will know that it has always been my hope that the bookclub would encourage kids to respond to books in interesting ways. I asked the older group this week to write something for me, and was delighted when instead I received this illustration from one of our members.

I love the way she has captured the elements of the 'fairytale'; the mirror and the silver shoes.

I, Coriander

This book was pretty weird. As it was not what you would have expected. The cover and blurb don't tell you anything about what the book may be like, and I am constantly getting cross with publishers and writers for giving away too much about the book on the cover and blurb. The book began like a journal, as it is first person narrated by the heroin of the book, Coriander Hobie. She writes of her family and her surroundings. You will learn about the history and politics of the time as it is talked about a lot during the book. So from the beginning you think it's going to be a book about a girl growing up in London in the sixteenth century. Well, with the introduction of a magical land and various magicians appearing here and there you end up with a fairytale. And for me it took some time to start reading it as a fairytale and not a historically accurate girls journal. Overall a good read. Read if you enjoy the Studio ghibli films or the book 
Mortlock by  Jon Mayhew.

Review by Lol. 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Mr Stink

Our most recent bookclub book (younger group) achieved a positive response from all the children. They all warmed to the character of Mr Stink; one boy particularly appreciated the scene where Mr Stink appeared on television. Other than that, they admitted that they did not find the book 'laugh out loud' funny.

I was slightly disarmed by the fact that this book was clearly designed to look like a Roald Dahl book, and felt this set the story up to be something it was not. I can see the marketing angle, but to offer comparison between the talents of both men was unhelpful. David Walliams failed to be a 'Roald Dahl' for me, but having been encouraged to make the comparison, I failed to hear his voice, and felt the whole book was derivative, which I think is probably unfair.

It is however always delightful to see Quentin Blake's illustrations, so for the session, I chose to look at some of Quentin Blake's own illustrated stories, by exploring the role of the 'eccentric' in children's stories.

In groups we read, 'Mrs Armitage and the Big Wave', 'Mr Magnolia', and 'Cockatoos'. From these we came up with a checklist of things that an eccentric character needs to have; obsessive behaviour or unusual interest, unusual appearance, interesting way of speaking, unusual name....

The group then brainstormed ideas for two characters, which I drew on the whiteboard, and they drew their own versions on paper. I must admit there was a tendency to prefer to design unpleasant characters, but we agreed that eccentrics are likeable, so had to ditch many of the more unpleasant suggestions....

Here were our brrainstormed ideas:

Name: Darling McDuck.
Appearance: a Top hat with champagne corks hanging from it, jester shoes, a duck beak shaped nose, webbed hands.
Unusual behaviours: collects Champagne corks but hates Champagne. Talks nonsense, such as, "Propesous is necessary". Makes random animal sounds. Keeps ducks and gives away their eggs.

Name: Doctor Macaroni.
Appearance: Overweight, with clown shoes, and a Top hat.
Unusual behaviours: Always eating macaroni. Confuses his festivals (Christmas at Easter etc.). Makes friends out of macaroni, which he then eats.Greets visitors by throwing macaroni over them. Doesn't speak, but has a constant supply of paper speech bubbles, which he writes his speech on.

The stories for these characters have yet to be written.....

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


I love this book, and happily so did the bookclub.

Essentially Skellig is a fairy story, with much to make you believe in the power of wonder and friendship, in a real world that's full of sadness and pain. Don't let 'fairy story' mislead you, it is the realism that makes the magic so intense.

The adult characters are all living through painful conditions, which impact on the children at the centre of the story. They are growing up with the reality of loss, and issues of mortality. Through the discovery, nurture and rescue of Skellig, a disgusting man with wings, they learn that their own possibilities are enhanced through love and friendship.

The book features the extraordinary 'Mina', who we have to focus on because she is home educated. In some ways it could be argued that Mina reflects the world's negative view that home education can be isolating, and that home educated kids are by default 'extraordinary' or weird. As a group we explored these ideas, but had to admit that ultimately Mina is a wonderful creation, and that many of the specific home ed. issues are a positive endorsement of autonomous learning. We all went on to really enjoy the prequel My name is Mina which is an unusual narrative; in some ways an indulgent but clever exploration of creativity and learning.

At the time we read Skellig back in 2010, I was still asking the teen readers to bring in something they had made, or written, or drawn, in response to the book. I would include something of my own to show them, and made some sketches of a man with wings, and a detailed one of the anatomy of a birds wing. I found a copy of Blake's poem The Angel in an untouched copy of his works on our bookshelves, and did some reading around his interest. Although this was a very self-conscious investigation, an attempt to model a process, it has become part of a more intuitive journey involving observation, bird anatomy, drawing, painting, plucking and eating, and serves to demonstrate something about creativity as I experience it.

It excites me to see how so many threads are pulling together in this way. At the same time my oldest son (Lol.) is developing his own interest in birds, and my youngest (Little Plum) in animal anatomy. There are collections of bones, and bird books growing around my own paintings and sketches, and currently when I begin to work, I listen to 'Birdgirl' by 'The Unthanks'.

Skellig plays its part in that tapestry, and that's what I love about books.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Storm Catchers

Storm Catchers was one of the first books we had at book club, and it got us off to a great start. It is an incredible book that runs on fear and threat. The book begins with a kidnapping, which immediately leaves you wanting to read more. As the story progresses, the kidnapper makes contact with the victims family by making several spooky phone calls. At this point you really get a sense of how the family feel, and it's told in a way that is so real that it gets to the point where you almost understand what they are going through.

Partway through the book the theme changes from a realistic crime thriller to a spooky psychological horror! For example, the youngest character Sam begins to see a ghost. The change in genre is handled well by the writer. It is slow and gradual rather than sudden, and stays true to its realistic theme. Though the ending was a little bit disappointing and somewhat odd, I would still recommend it to pretty much anyone.                 

Book review by Lol. Age 12.                 

Varjak Paw

It's a very long time since we read this book at bookclub. Back then we hadn't split into two groups, and were reading books on a shared theme. This book stood out that month, and I decided I had to bring in printmaking equipment for us to experiment with monoprint illustrations, in honour of the artworks within the books pages. The drawings by David McKean really sell this book and make it a beautiful object. I will admit to a slight fear that the story would not match the illustrations, but there cannot really be any doubt that they belong together on the page; both are beautiful and extraordinary.

The Scarecrow and his Servant

This book makes contemporary children's literature the most exciting place for any reader. For me it stands out as a work of extraordinary skill and imagination. The younger bookclub took to it with enthusiasm too.

It's a long time since we read it, and although etched in memory as a great read, I have turned to the internet to remind myself about it. This is what Pullman says:

If it were set to music, it would be played on mandolins, and be in the rhythm of a tarantella.

What a lovely description. And yes, I found it to be evocative of a complete world in which the scarecrows eccentricities are fully explored with great humour and theatricality. 

In response to the story what else could we do other than make 3d scarecrows in pop-up scenes? The pop up scene has long since been recycled, but my youngest's scarecrow still hovers in my studio...as if ready to take off for an adventure.

This book is very highly reccomended. 'Little Plum" (youngest's name for himself) became immersed in other works by Pullman after this; it was very amusing to see him propped up in bed for nights on end with a huge volume of collected works on his knees....

"It's a complete adventure book. It easily goes from one event to another, and every event is exciting, and throbbing with adventure" Little Plum 03/2012.

Friday, 9 March 2012


This is a simply brilliant book. One of our readers was so inpsired she produced both poetry and some very tasty Baklava in response.

The story is epic in scale, and imagination, but its genius lies in the crafting of a realistic female lead character. Halo is athletic and clever and quiet. Our readers appreciated her qualities, and the scope of her journey from her life with the mythical centaurs across the sea to mainland Greece and Sparta. The story is loaded with mythology and detail, but not at the exepense of the human story. It is skillfully told.


This novel was a huge disappointment. 

The group agreed that whilst there were some beautiful phrases, and extremely high quality writing, the structure of the narrative made it very hard going. For those of us that worked at it, and didn't abandon the book part way through, we were deeply disappointed to reach the end, only to find it wasn't; the story continues in a sequel.

The book is thoroughly reserached, and aswell as covering the heavy politics of the beginning of the American Revolution, slavery and war, has detailed descriptions which capture time and place. My favourite passage concerned the fashionable 'mistress' of the house, at a dinner party,  where the slave Isabel observes the mouse hair she had stuck to her eyebrows continue to gradually slide down her face as she eats. 

Read February 2012

Finding Violet Park

This book was universally enjoyed by all those in the teens group. It was a watershed book, because it was the first time we really just 'talked' about a book. We identified themes, found passages to quote, and shared an enthusiasm for exploring why this book is such a great read.

It's a modern story, with a believable teen protagonist. We found  his response to his extraordinary problems, genuine, and the world he inhabits, familiar. The structure of the plot keeps you involved, and the ending doesn't disappoint.

As a way-in to analysing characters we tried to think about who we would cast in roles if we were to make a film of the book...I think this is a great game, but I can't play it too successfully because I don't remember names, and I'm rubbish at popular culture....

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Ottoline and the Yellow Cat

A book that really inspired our readers way back in 2010.

I invited the kids to attend bookclub 'in disguise' to celebrate the quirky Ottoline, herself a certified 'master of disguise'.

Each 'master of disguise' brought in a small 'collection' to share with the group. Ottoline is of course an avid collector of very interesting things, sent to her by her parents who are travelling the world, looking for very interesting things.

Ottoline is also in contact with her parents via the postcards they send. We sent postcards from our travels too.

Below are some of our 'masters of disguise'....

Monday, 5 March 2012

Reading and me

Just to establish the fact that I do not love reading, but I love books. It’s important to say it. I do not ‘eat’ books now, and I never have. In fact, as a child I rarely read books, but was given free reign to enjoy comics, which I did.

I will never read a book if I can’t get into it within the first three pages (unless required to as part of a course of study).

I still prefer books with pictures.

If I find a book I like, then I can’t put it down, and I will reread it many times. I find a good read can be a very intense and exhausting experience; perhaps that’s why I don’t devour books?

I don’t find it easy to make time for reading, and I’m usually too tired. Children’s literature fills the gap. I read more now I have my own kids than I have ever done before.

Free to choose

Central to my approach to education is autonomy. I am passionate about an individuals right to choose what they learn, and how they learn it. This can be expressed as helping a child to discover their intrinsic motivation. This makes for an interesting dilemma, when organising a bookclub. 

Some children have joined and moved on, because the agony of reading books chosen by someone else (not by me, but by very helpful library staff) is too much. Though I'm always sorry to see kids move on, I applaud their choice. I would be mortified if I had put anyone off reading.

So, I never demand that books are read, and the structure of each session takes a creative form.
Older kids love to talk about books they have dismissed, but younger ones don’t enjoy talking (about books) quite so much, so we play with an idea inspired by something in the book…this is often very tenuous…but takes the pressure away.

Sunday, 4 March 2012


About two years ago I set up a kids bookclub in my home town. The bookclub was for home educated kids; a chance to meet up and explore books.
My motivation in setting up the group was to give my own home educated kids the chance to regularly meet others in a focussed session. The focus was to explore books creatively together, because books for me have always been a creative starting point, a beginning.
Two years on, the bookclub is now two bookclubs, one aimed at pre-teens, and the second at teen readers. We run like any bookclub, reading one book each month, and meeting up to discuss, and also to create.
To keep my interest active, and to celebrate the creativity of these kids, I have decided to keep this blog.