Author: Beth Kemp

Reading Recommendations Slide 21: Fairy Tales

These books all borrow from fairy tales, folklore or existing classic stories as their source material. This is a genre of its own with plenty to choose from. (I’m particularly looking forward to Louise O’Neill’s take on The Little Mermaid, The Surface Breaks, due out in May – bound to be an interesting feminist re-interpretation of that problematic story…)

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 2 – Fairy Tales

The last theme posted was friendship. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links. (Next week I’ve got a nice set ready for International Women’s Day)

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton: February’s Book of the Month in-depth – review and a writing activity adaptable for KS3-5

Age range: YA (12+)

Themes: identity, diversity/ethnicity/race, protest & politics

Genre: fantasy + western 

Narrative style: first-person past tense with plenty of pace and an engaging voice with plenty of ‘sass’ and wit. It’s really easy to root for Amani as she tries desperately to escape her situation by dressing as a boy and entering a shooting competition.

It’s great that she is a skilled shooter and can be admired for that, but she does have weaknesses to engage our sympathy too and her world is all too ready to dismiss her as ‘just’ a girl. With the imaginative combination of the Western setting and the magical 1001 Nights tales as a folkloric backdrop, there is plenty here to get involved in.


Using the opening page, which is available to read on the Guardian website, here is a writing-focused task which can be adapted for years from KS3 to 5:

Paste the opening page into the centre of an A3 page.

Ask students to examine the opening for the different jobs that it is fulfilling. They could highlight sentences in different colours to show this. For example, looking at information that helps:

  • establish setting
  • establish character

This can be further complicated by labelling the techniques used.

A more interesting/complex exercise for older/more advanced students might explore how Amani’s voice is created using a combination of words and phrases (lexis/register) and sentence structure (syntax), further considering how the information chosen to be provided to the reader through Amani helps characterise her by showing her attitudes to those topics. Again, different colour highlighters could be used for lexical vs syntactical techniques with the labels and subject-based comments written on around the text.

This analytical work can then feed into writing of the students’ own, where they introduce a character/setting/situation with attention to the same issues. A scenario could be provided for them, or they could be invited to come up with their own. Some possibilities include:

  • An already-known character from a fairytale/folktale but not the central character (e.g. telling Red Riding Hood from the Huntsman’s perspective)
  • An ‘outsider’ character in a dangerous situation
  • A young person readying themselves to do something difficult (a test, delivering some difficult news, telling a friend a tough secret)

Reading Recommendations Slide 20: Friendship

These books all share fabulous representation of friendships – whether those friendships pre-exist before the story or are formed through the story.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: Friendship

The last theme posted was genre-twisting/unusual reads. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 19: Genre Busters/Something Different 2

These two are great reads and both defy genre descriptions in different ways. I’ve included a bit more description of the actual plot/book on the slide than normal, to try to pique students’ interest.

More of Me reads a lot of the time like a Contemporary YA, with concerns about friends and family, but has a weird Sci-Fi twist with this dividing-self thing and a strong dash of Mystery as Teva is trying to figure out what on earth is happening to her and how she can live the most normal life possible.

Midwinterblood is a sweeping, epic tale that takes in seven lifetimes crossing from pre-Christian times into the future, so spans from an Epic or High Fantasy setting into a Sci-Fi world, all the time with this link in that the characters are the same souls in different people, linked in different ways, so there’s Romance or even Saga in there too, plus some creepy Supernatural vibes.

Both are brilliant, and somewhat experimental in their own ways, and fab for students who don’t like anything that fits the normal genre boxes, whether they’ve torn through everything already, or won’t try anything because it sounds boring…

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 5 – Genre-twisting and unusual reads

The last theme posted was for LGBT History Month. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Introducing February’s Book of the Month: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton (including GCSE Language prep task on inference)

This fantasy YA novel opens a glorious trilogy (the final instalment has just published this week) exploring identity, loyalty and other eternal themes relating to the classic battles between good and evil. As with many other books I’ve recommended, I love and recommend this series for its genuine feminist principles – not just a ‘strong girl’ lead, but well-rounded female (and male) characters, great examples of female friendships as well as serious moral dilemmas, not just glib ‘this is right, I must do it’ scenarios.

It’s a very popular trilogy, so well worth putting in front of students, as it’s likely to tempt less keen readers in with its vivid and unusual 1001 Nights-inspired setting crossed with the Wild West (at least in this opening section – it’s more fantasy and less western as the story moves on).

The opening chapter can be found here on the Guardian website, but (as ever) I would also recommend purchasing a classroom/library copy. Here’s an activity using the first four paragraphs only to really focus on inference skills. I’d use it with year 9 or 10 students to practice/build these before serious exam-paper-focused work.

Paste a copy of the book’s first four paragraphs into the centre of a blank page (ideally A3).  Students need to annotate the passage with statements to show what they can infer from it. The inference should be written as a statement, with the evidence for it underlined and linked to the inference statement. They might feel that more than one part of the text could be evidence – that is fine.

For lower ability groups, or to start them off, you could pre-annotate with ‘the narrator is a girl pretending to be a boy’ and link it to the clause in the third paragraph ‘but so long as I didn’t seem like a girl it didn’t much matter’. For the weakest students, I might be tempted to provide inferences on post-its that they just match to relevant places in the text, e.g.:

  • the narrator is doing something they shouldn’t be but it isn’t evil/wicked
  • the book seems to be a Western
  • the narrator lives with their uncle
  • the narrator is a girl pretending to be a boy

With more able students, you could then discuss how the writer shows us these aspects, to lead into a discussion of how information is introduced at the start of a narrative (perhaps introducing ideas about structure, or ‘show, not tell’, depending on where you’re headed next).

Look out for more detail about this book in a couple of weeks, and another teaching idea.

Reading Recommendations Slide 18: for LGBT History Month

These five books are all good reads to explore during February, which is LGBT History Month, as they all offer great representation for a range of sexualities and gender identities. The slide shows which identity is particularly highlighted in each book, to help student selection. There is also a plug for @QueerYA on Twitter, who recommend a range of great LGBT-friendly books and will point to other relevant accounts, helping students to find a way in.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 4 – LGBT History Month

The last theme posted was film and photography (creatively-minded characters). I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Recommendations: Writing/Poetry as a hobby in YA

To go with the creativity buzzzing through this week’s reading recs on the slide, here are three great titles that feature characters who enjoy writing as a pastime in YA novels:

Haunt Me, Liz Kessler

In this beautifully-written dual-narrative romance, writing is a key thing joining the two together. Joe wakes up to find his family moving out and no-one can see or hear him… Then another family moves in and gradually Erin discovers Joe’s presence.

A highly unusual premise, which works really well and has Liz Kessler’s trademark love of the sea evident.

Apple and Rain, Sarah Crossan

This beautiful family drama features a teacher who introduces Apple to writing and to poetry in particular as a way of helping her deal with the messiness of her life and her emotions. Poor Apple has to cope with a somewhat chaotic home life due to the actions of her mother – she left her with Nana eleven years ago, to pursue an acting career. Now she’s back, Apple thinks everything will be better, as Mum’s a lot more fun that strict old Nana.

The Sky Is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson

In this lyrical, poetic book, main character Lennie can barely contain her urge to write, scribbling on napkins and scraps of paper. This may have been the first YA novel in which I read teen poetry that felt fresh and plausible as teen, and yet didn’t make me cringe (but then the author is a poet as well as a novelist…). In the story, writing is used as emotional expression and therapy and exists already for Lennie before the story begins – it’s a clear part of her identity. The main thrust of the story is Lennie’s rebuilding of her life after her sister’s death – a plot which I personally found very realistically handled, as Lennie has ups and downs and also does other things (including considering romance) and has guilt about doing other things. It’s emotionally complex and messy, just as grief actually is.

Writer’s Wednesday: A ‘Filling the Well’ Trip – The British Library’s Harry Potter Exhibition

Postcard with the poster image from the exhibition – now in my lovely organiser as a memory of my fab day

A few weeks ago, I went with my younger daughter to the marvellous British Library’s Harry Potter exhibition, and it was such an inspiration! I’ve always been a fan of our folkloric and mystical heritage, and that is what this exhibition celebrates – the ideas, stories and rich mythical background on which Rowling draws in her world.

It was an absolute delight to take my 14 yr old HP fan around and enjoy her amazement at illuminated medieval texts, pre-Christian oracle bones (although it’s really thanks to Abi Elphinstone’s Dream Snatcher series that she was excited to see those!) and artwork from Jim Kay (and J.K herself – who knew that she could draw as well?!).

A particular joy as a writer was to also get to see some of the early drafts of the texts. There are sections with different character names, clearly different outcomes, bits with Rowling’s and her editor’s notes on – all a great treat to get to see. I definitely felt refreshed and inspired as a result – a brilliant example of ‘filling the well‘, as Julia Cameron calls it in her seminal work ‘The Artist’s Way’.

As a writer, it was particularly fantastic to see the wealth of ideas referenced in a much-beloved series all drawn together in one place, and to see so many families in wonderment over the fact that so much of that series came from existing ideas. So many of the adults in those display rooms, never mind the children, were exclaiming over not having realised that this or that was not invented by Rowling but already existed as an idea in the world before the books. There was so much respect for Rowling’s weaving together of bits of folklore, astronomy, alchemy and so on – no-one (as one might fear) appeared to feel cheated that it wasn’t ‘truly’ made up, but combined. The whole thing was, to me, a glorious celebration of creativity as the art of re-combination: putting things together in new ways. There really is nothing new in the world.

All in all, it was a great day out, and a wonderful affirmation of the creative imagination.

Reading Recommendations Slide 17: Film and Photography as Hobbies

Back to a thematic link for this week, although this is not so much the central theme as a thread that appears in all of these stories via characters’ hobbies/ work/ career goals that enables readers with similar interests to relate.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 3 – Film and Photography

The last theme posted was for fans of DC and/or Marvel. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Asking For It: Review and A Level Language NEA Original Writing Practice Task (Book of the Month in depth)

Age range: upper YA (14+)

Themes: justice, gender, rape culture, social media

Genre: contemporary

Narrative style: first-person present tense; structurally separated into ‘last year’ and ‘this year’ (although all is expressed in present tense)

This is a punchily-written contemporary novel which explores the lead up to and aftermath of a gang rape of a teen girl at a party. Reviews all describe it using words like ‘unflinching’ and ‘brave’ and it has won and been nominated for a slew of awards, because it is an important book, published just before the recent stream of scandals that have hit Hollywood and caused people to discuss sexual behaviour again. This book is the perfect way to bring about that discussion with teens, as it is a great story which is not at all ‘preachy’, but alarmingly realistic in its presentation of people’s ‘shades of grey’ reactions.

I personally think it’s a stroke of genius that the main character is a ‘queen bee’ type and very definitely written to be unlikable – and yet once the rape has happened, I am firmly on her side. The pacing and use of point of view, particularly since Emma does not remember the event itself and must piece it together from things other tell her (and social media), are especially strong factors in the book’s crafting. It’s an absolute masterclass in addressing social issues through fiction, and that’s why the teaching activity for this post is a writing-based one.

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Here is a set of prompts for analysis on the first five pages, which are shared on the Irish Times website (but, again, I would also recommend buying a copy for your classroom/school library/self). I intend this as a practice task for working with a style model for the Original Writing part of the English Language NEA. Obviously, this extract is longer than students are permitted to write, but it helps them to get into the language and content of the text more if they can see a little more of it.

  • Which tense is used (and why)?
  • How does O’Neill create a picture of Emma’s mother as unreasonable?
    • find some relevant quotations and then identify the linguistic features used to craft this impression. How is this constructed?
  • How is dialogue presented?
    • Look at all the examples of dialogue and identify the tags/quotatives (speech verbs) used. Why is it done this way?
  • Examine the longer paragraph (‘The door closes behind her… jerking her head at me.’ p.6-7).
    • Why is this set of ideas presented in this way? What is the purpose of this block of text? How is this section different from the rest – in content and in style (features)?
  • What other features of this extract do you find interesting/effective in setting up this novel?

Use what you’ve observed to write your own YA novel opening in which you set up the characters and setting, making sure to similarly make the social context clear: family, social status, pressures on the character etc.

 

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