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January Literature Review

This time of year is all about new beginnings: it’s a new year; a new school term; the days are starting to become longer and many people make resolutions. Some might focus on being kinder or spending more time listening to one another; others might focus on themselves and so-called ‘self-care’. And what better way to help children into a year full of kindness, empathy and self-care than reading books?  We’ve often said that children need continuous access to literature that will help them simply understand that part of life is to experience ups and downs: joy and sadness; elation and grief; comfort and loneliness… the full gamut of human emotion. Children need space to consider emotions and develop their ability to empathise but also their resilience: to know that others suffer hard times helps to ‘ground’ children as they see that troubles are a part of life and in doing so, learn to better cope with troubles of their own. And human emotions and themes of kindness, sadness and self-care (and self-preservation) run through all three texts that we are delighted to bring you this month: The Hug by Eoin McLaughlin and Polly Dunbar; If All the World Were by Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys and The Skylarks’ War by Hilary Mckay.


Picture book for younger readers

The Hug by Eoin McLaughlin and Polly Dunbar

(Faber & Faber, Main edition 3rd January 2019)

Poor little Hedgehog is feeling sad and not just a little bit sad but, As sad as a hedgehog can feel but it seems that none of his friends are prepared to give him the one thing that he so badly needs: a hug. And some of their reasons for not wanting to hug are spurious: Fox claims he has to go and knock a bin over, Squirrel won’t oblige either as for Squirrel must count all of his nuts… which only amount to three…but then he meets Owl. Whilst Owl won’t hug Hedgehog either, claiming that the prickles are the problem, he does - in the way that owls in stories often do - offer some wisdom:  don’t worry, there’s someone for everyone…

Meanwhile, in a parallel story revealed by flipping the book upside down then reading as if the book is an entirely new one (we adore this feature, by the way, such as it helps children to understand that others may feel the same as them) we meet Tortoise, who feels exactly as Hedgehog does. He, too, asks a range of friends - this time some different animals - for a hug but then eventually meets Owl. Once again Owl won’t hug the distressed creature but, once again, he does offer some wisdom and it is at this point that we know exactly what will happen, for in the very centre page of the book, two worlds collide and Hedgehog and Tortoise hug!

As happy as a hug can make you…

As happy as two someones can be.

Great for discussion around the rights and wrongs of the other animals who don’t step in to help and what it is to feel miserable for whatever reason but seeking comfort for misery. With the huge scope for inference and prediction here - especially around the prickly Hedgehog and the Tortoise with a hard shell being perfect for each other seeing as neither of them will be hurt when hugging- we feel that this book would be perfect for children in EYFS and Year 1. Simply gorgeous!

Picture book for mid-school-age readers

If All the World Were by Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys

(Lincoln Children’s Books, Paperback - 3rd January 2019)

For there to be beginnings, there must first be endings. And it is managing discussion around those endings with children that can be really tricky. We feel that such books shouldn’t just be reserved for when a child experiences a bereavement or is going through any other difficult time so we were delighted to read this beautifully illustrated and authored book - dedicated to ‘everyone who misses someone’  - which rather cleverly pairs sadness with joy. Love and life in all its predictable (and unpredictable) glory has clearly been poured into the writing of this evocative text and this love then pours out of the pages. Joseph Coelho is a favourite of ours especially when it comes to his poetry. Indeed, his collection of poems Overheard in a Tower Block is used as part of our Teaching Reading Comprehension Training for LKS2 and it is this grounding in poetry that makes Coelho’s narrative in If All the World Were so lyrical:

If all the world were springtime,

I would replant my grandad’s birthdays

so that he would never get old.

And through the seasons, the narrator explores a world of feeling with her grandad, all the while making reference to the closeness of what is a very special relationship:

If all the world were deep space,

I’d orbit my grandad like the moon

and our laughs would be shooting stars.

And then comes the saddest of all pages, with echoes of Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle, we see that - one day - grandad’s chair is empty. But  - just like with the events in The Heart and the Bottle - there is hope. Always hope:

On Grandad’s chair is a new notebook,

newly made with spring -petal paper,

newly bound with a length of Indian string.

The narrator uses this notebook as a working memorial to her beloved grandad; a place where she keeps the memory of a man she loved so much alive through her drawings in all the colours under the sun. The drawings of what may be memories or perhaps imaginings but all featuring herself and her grandad.

A perfect book to read at any time but we think it would be especially effective in helping a child of primary school age cope with bereavement.



The Skylarks’ War by Hilary Mckay

(Macmillan Children’s books; Main market edition 27th December 2018)

Life, death and all that lies between is encapsulated in this brilliant novel for older primary readers set during World War 1. It’s one of those books that so perfectly paints a picture of what life may have been like in the past with a most incredible level of characterisation.

The story begins at the turn of the century - 1902 to be precise - when the main protagonist Clarissa (Clarry) is born. Tragically, her mother dies just days later and Clary’s father - hardly ever there and emotionally absent - is left with a helpless newborn and toddler son, Peter.  And the burden of knowing that it was her fault her mother had died (or at least assuming, seeing as there wasn’t anyone to reassure her on the matter) is something that Clarry must bear forever:

Right from her youngest days, Clarry had understood that all the uncomfortable difficulties of their lives - Miss Vane and the itchy knitting, the uncertain cooking of Mrs Morgan…and the desperate fierceness of Peter’s temper  -were because she, Clarry, had been born and her mother had died.

In spite of this though, Clarry has indomitable spirit - the sort that means she sets the world ablaze. Through the novel she makes a steady set of friends who rally and support and they -along with her brother and Peter - become the family that she may not have had.

But then her brother is injured jumping from a train and whilst he survives, he later admits that this was a deliberate act to prevent him being sent to boarding school. Meanwhile, Clarry desperately wants better schooling and enrolls herself in the local grammar school.

When war breaks out, there are some grizzly scenes from the front line with much hiding of truths to protect others and this stoicism is prevalent throughout the novel as each character - now in their teens - protects the other. There is, towards the end, a hugely grief-filled moment that is just so beautifully done that it will send shivers down your spine but absolutely exemplifies just how an individual’s perception of what it is to be fulfilled varies.

This would work very well alongside Suffragette by David Roberts seeing as this is as much about feminism as it is war and there are strong links to War Horse too.

Posted in: Literature Review

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