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.