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June Literature Review

Following this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which ran from May 14th-18th, and rather ironically coincided with key stage 2 SATS week, this month’s literature review theme is one of health and well-being: both physical and mental. Its not ‘news’ that there has been a sharp rise in young children with mental health problems and it has even been suggested that mental health become a National Curriculum subject. The rise in the use of social media, pressures of national testing and living in poverty have all been cited as just some of the reasons behind an increase in children accessing Children’s Mental Health services. Many schools have responded with an aim to prevent mental health difficulties through a focus on building resilience, training for staff and the offering of in-school counseling/nurture groups. That said, we know that – and have oft written about this - the selection of quality literature is key so that it supports children’s understanding of themselves and others, encourages discussion of issues and generally gives children the sense that others may have felt as they do. Non-fiction texts about health – including mental health – are not a new genre but we wanted to explore current literature in this important area. And so, we have selected 4 texts for this month’s review, all published in the last few weeks and each very different from the other: What’s That Smell?! by Joppe Coelingh Bennink, illustrated by Lamia Sbiti; A Box of Butterflies by Jo Rooks; In the Mouth of the Wolf by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Barroux and Looking After Your Mental Health by Alice James & Louie Stowell.

Picture book

What’s That Smell?! by Joppe Coelingh Bennink, illustrated by Lamia Sbiti
(Routine Adventures, March 31st 2018)

We were delighted to receive a copy of this first picture book from what is sure to become a favourite author/illustrator dynamic duo and what a breath (please pardon the pun…you’ll see what we mean shortly) of fresh air it is! For it is – essentially - a book about teeth-cleaning. The idea to create an engaging picture book about oral hygiene came about when Dutch-born author, Joppe, found himself encountering daily negotiations in order to get his daughter Ruby to have her teeth cleaned. Given than Ruby enjoys stories so much, finding a book to help with this particular parenting battle seemed like a logical solution except there wasn’t really anything on the market. And this delightful book with a really fresh (and minty… too much?!) feel, completely works.

The story features an endearing purple monster that was actually based on the winning entry to a ‘Routine Adventures’ competition to design a monstrous character. A pupil at Fitzjohn’s Primary, Camden, then seven-year-old Alex’s purple monster wakes up one night with a start:

He was grouchy…and grumpy…and let out a scream!..(YARGH!) …and was suddenly struck by a smell quite obscene!

Frightened, he asks the maker of the smell to show himself claiming his cave is not a hotel! But then the poor monster realises that the smell is, in fact, coming from his own mouth! Hardly surprising, really, following his feast the night before comprising dragon soup with slimy snake gum, barbequed giant feet and elephant bum, after which he forgot to brush his teeth!

The charm of this book is not only due to the gorgeous illustrations but its engaging wording too: it is a brilliant text for developing children’s vocabulary exposing them to words such as ‘foul, ‘stench’ and ‘solution’. And this is what makes the book so effective as the teeth-cleaning message is clear but the look and ‘sound’ of the story is a far cry from more traditional reading material for children about looking after their teeth. Even the ‘Grandmonster’s Top Tips for Tip Top Teeth section is written in rhyme beginning with the instruction,

Brush your fangs last thing before bed. This is very important, so think ahead.

We feel that this book would work perfectly for children in Reception and would be a great resource to use to develop Early Learning Goal 5: health and self care whilst also being brilliant for phonics development due to its lovely use of rhythm and rhyme.

Endorsed by the Oral Health Foundation, the release of What’s That Smell? has been well-timed to coincide with their National Smile Month campaign, which runs from mid- May to mid June. To get hold of your copy of this gorgeous book, orders can be made either online via the Routine Adventures website (www.routineadventures.com) or at all bookshops.


Picture book

A Box of Butterflies by Jo Rooks
(Magination Press (American Psychological Asssociation), April 30th 2018)

Rooks’ use of imagery makes this such a lovely book for helping younger children explore their feelings. Written almost entirely with the use of simile, a little girl called Ruby attempts to educate her friend, Robot, who cannot, in fact, actually feel anything. Prompted by Robot’s question, What does love feel like?, Ruby explains that love feels …like a box of butterflies. like a colorful dancing kite!...like drinking in a sunset…like a firefly in the night. The illustration accompanying the drinking in a sunset… page shows Ruby and Robot sharing a pot of tea together as the sun lowers in the sky behind them; yet the metaphorical meaning of ‘drinking in’ synonymous with ‘taking in’ or – even – ‘absorbing’ the sunset is a rather lovely image, we feel. Because one can feel that rush of love when we witness something so beautiful like the sky at sunset.

Then we meet Jealousy, presented as a less-beautiful image that is green and spiky like a twisted thistle… Anger isn’t much better being described as hot like a coal on the fire … And fear: cold like a heavy stone pressing on your tummy.

Robot doesn’t think any of these feelings sounds at all nice but, Ruby reassures him, It’s okay, Robot. Those feelings come and go just like happy ones… gently hugging him and it is at this point that Robot begins to feel something for the very first time something fluttery, something uplifting, something warm… Love.

Written with the tools and strategies to support children develop emotional awareness, empathy and skills of self-regulation in mind, the book concludes with a note for parents and caregivers. In the note, how and why the text could and should be used to support children in developing these skills is explored with the psychological and physiological research that underpins the thinking.

Much like ‘What’s That Smell?!’, we feel that this a yet another brilliant text in its own right that happens to focus on the important area of teaching around health and well-being, without being staid and poorly–written like similar texts of yesteryear may have been.  Perfect for children in Reception and Year 1.



In the Mouth of the Wolf by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Barroux
(Egmont, May 3rd 2018)

Now, this may seem a bit left-field, seeing as it has been included in a literature review about health and well-being but actually, at the core of this wonderful new book from Michael Morpurgo who has teamed up with esteemed illustrator Barroux, there is a tremendous sense of a character who endured unimaginable things but had the resilience to cope. Based on a true story, we are told of Morpurgo’s uncles who were both young men during World War 2: RADA-trained Pieter- quiet, sensitive and bullied at the boarding school that the brothers attended; and Francis - taller, domineering and neglectful of his struggling younger brother. But – perhaps rather ironically – it was Pieter who chose to join the RAF, believing that Francis’ feelings about pacifism would not a war win. Francis was sent to work on a farm following a tribunal during which he had to argue his case for being a conscientious objector. But then everything changed: Pieter’s plane crashed after it had taken a spray of anti-aircraft bullets. He and the pilot died. Years later, reflecting upon this tragic event, Francis muses.

I did not know it at the time, Pieter, but … your dying so young, at twenty-one, set me on a new course in my life. By your death you won the argument. Somehow I had to find a way to set my pacifism to one side and join the struggle, join the fight against those who had killed you.

The story begins on Francis’ 90th birthday, a night for remembering … everyone who wasn’t here at my party…he remembers his late wife and his surviving children: I should be thankful. And I am, I am. But I am in the dusk of my life, a dusk that is streaked with joys, and sadnesses. And it is this depth of feeling that permeates this remarkable story of fighting with the resistance, the near-misses, the triumphs, the fear and the having to put life-long principles completely aside in order to do that which many must do when at war.

And so, to return to the subject of resilience, it is this very attribute that has been pegged as the essential skill to teach our young people today. Resilience to try again when we feel we’ve failed; the resilience to say no when all others seem to be walking a different path; the resilience to believe in oneself even though everyone else appears to be living better lives on Snapchat and Instagram and the resilience to cope when things go awfully wrong, become difficult or throw terrible sadnesses at us. Morpurgo’s uncle Francis had resilience by the bucket-load and lived his best life even though there were clearly elements that he wouldn’t have chosen to include in his story. And that is all we can do really, isn’t it? Help the young people we work with (and actually ourselves too) live our best lives whether we are in times of joy or times of sadness. We feel that this book would work well for children in years 5 and 6, with its rich vocabulary and multiple threads woven to create a sumptuous tapestry, making this perfect as a text for the teaching of reading comprehension.


Looking After Your Mental Health by Alice James & Louie Stowell
(Usborne Publishing Ltd, May 3rd 2018)

The non-fiction text that we have selected for this review needs no explanation in terms of how it might link to this month’s theme of health and well-being. However, we feel that this is a superbly thorough and up-to-date guide, which could be dipped in and out of as needed, that would be brilliant for year 6 children getting ready to make the transition to secondary school. A plethora of subjects are included: the usual suspects such as feelings, puberty and friendships. But ‘newer’/current modern-day worries for pre-teens are also explored through the inclusion of sections on gender dysphoria (not to say that this is a new issue but discussions around this are more prevalent at present) and social media (in fact, this is referenced throughout including the dangers of so-called ‘sexting’ and the damage that cyber-bullying can cause) to name but two. However, there are other things that our oldest primary children need exposure to and we feel that this book is the one to do this: toxic friendships; consent; family breakdown and eating disorders. Not to say that there haven’t been other books on these subjects but we feel it’s rare to find something so engaging, so well-written that manages to skillfully broach often tricky subjects in a sensitive yet factual and non-patronising way with lots of practical strategies for young people to try.

Some of the book presents an entirely different way of thinking about things. Take the chapter titled ‘Friends’. Two pages are devoted to helping young people learn to like their own company and coaching people who are reluctant to be on their own into enjoying this citing that It can also be really positive for your mental health to have some alone time. Usually when we are educating people about friendships and feeling included (especially when they’re feeling exactly the opposite of included) we focus on how to make friends, keeping busy, joining clubs and so on so it is a really different take on supporting children to think about alone time being just as necessary as being with others.

Sections of this text could be used to support in-school Sex and Relationship Education but we also feel that it is a good book to recommend to any parents of children in this age-group not just for their pre-teen to read but for parents to read too.








Posted in: Literature Review

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