Introducing December’s Book of the Month: The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury (including GCSE English Language practice task)

This YA novel is a fantasy with a large scope set in a beautifully-realised second world. It’s a great choice for contemporary teens, particularly as it’s written with a strong feminist sensibility. This includes some great examples of female community and relationships, as we move through the trilogy.

Beautiful writing and themes of duty, sacrifice and loyalty make this a compelling read, delivered in lyrical prose.

Movellas has the opening chapter available to view and this could be used with pupils as the focus for a lesson activity (although of course I would also recommend picking up a copy or three for your school/classroom library).

Use the first eight paragraphs, up to ‘I have other demands on my time.’ as a practice AQA GCSE Lang Paper 1 Q3: ‘How has the writer structured their work to interest you as a reader? This section has plenty to discuss in terms of building tension, shifting timelines and hints/foreshadowing.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter (together with a further two books to make up the trilogy) is out now from Scholastic in the UK.

Look out for a more detailed review in a fortnight, with another teaching idea.

Reading Recommendations Slide 12: Music

Four fab contemporary YA reads with a strong thematic focus on music for this week – 3 about bands/musicians and being a fan, and one about being in a band.
This Song Is (Not) For You has an asexual character (who is nonetheless romantic and is represented really well – lovely to see asexuality not presented as a symptom of/linked to something else) – you may have particular students who may appreciate seeing that representation.
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: 6 – Music

Last week’s theme was fantasy. 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.

Writing Myths and the Damage they Do

Writing is fraught with myths, many romanticised and some downright damaging.  It’s taken me a while to spot some of the dangerous ones, and I’m probably still in thrall to some others.  Here are a couple that I can mostly remember are, in fact, false.  And as an educated and mostly competent adult writer, if these myths are harming my practice, what damage can myths do to our less confident writers in the classroom?

Writing = Fiction

Although I have been fortunate enough to enjoy some success as an educational writer, I find it all too easy to completely write off my non-fiction writing as somehow not ‘real’ or ‘proper’.  Let me be clear: this is absolutely a self-defeatist thing.  I have no problem taking other people’s non-fiction or educational writing seriously.  I found this view particularly difficult with the standard advice to write every day, as I found myself all-too-easily discounting the teaching-related work as just not writing.  So, clearly, I needed to add daily fiction work on top – which was soon too much. I’m still not completely sure whether this is really a ‘writing about teaching doesn’t count, because that’s too much like your job’ thing, or simply another version of ‘whatever you’re doing, it doesn’t count because you’re doing it’…

Real Writers Have Ideas Constantly

Y’know like when you hear writers say in interviews ‘and then this character popped into my mind and demanded I tell their story’? Having listened to and read many writers on writing over the last few things that does, in fact, seem pretty rare, so maybe it is OK that I had to learn to sit down and generate ideas.  Once I stopped hoping the muse would drop in some time and simply worked at producing ideas, everything changed.  It’s easy to believe that if ideas don’t find you, you aren’t supposed to be a writer, but the truth is rather more prosaic.

Real Writers Can Speak to their Characters

This is not a thing that ever happens to me. It’s another thing you’ll occasionally hear in an interview with an author, where they’ll talk about arguing with a character who ‘wanted their story to be different’ or chatting to their character while out and about. It all sounds lovely, but it’s an imaginative world away from mine. When I’m writing fiction, which I am at the moment, I’m like I was as a child playing with Lego – more like a stage manager than an inhabitant of that world. I don’t believe myself, even for a second, to be in that world. I’m just not capable of that kind of imaginative leap – but that doesn’t mean I can’t shape and mould that world on the page. For a long time, I allowed this perceived shortfall in my imagination to prevent me from writing fiction, but not any more. I no longer believe that this kind of ‘tipping over’ is necessary to create a world strongly enough for an audience.

So, what of the students?

I think it’s worth being aware of the mystique of the writer in contemporary society. Even if students aren’t reading about writing, they may well have some sense of writers as ‘other’, which ultimately can make writing for themselves difficult. Two contemporary writers whose works they may be familiar with, and who have spoken about the process in a useful way, are J. K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. I always love to show students Rowling’s planning for Order of the Phoenix, which has been on the internet for a few years now and is a thing of beauty. And Neil Gaiman has literally hundreds of useful comments on writing on the web but here’s a good starting point. If you’re reading or have recently read anything by a living writer with a class (an extract, a non-fiction article…), it’s worth looking them up on Twitter to see them talking about the business of writing too – students love this!

Reading Recommendations Slide 11: Great Fantasy Reads

Four fab fantasy reads for this week. Three are recent YA titles and there is an adult title (from Pratchett’s Discworld series) for those fancying a bit more of a challenge. 
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 – Fantasy

Last week’s theme was family drama. 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.

The State of Grace Review and Lesson Ideas for KS3, GCSE and A Level Lang on Gender representation (Book of the Month in-depth)

Age Range: 12+ (according to publisher’s website; I would happily use this throughout the secondary school – plenty to engage older teens, nothing ‘unsuitable’ for yr7/8, although they will be less interested in the romance aspects)

Themes: family, friends, being different, romance

Narrative style and genre: Strong first-person narration plants you firmly in Grace’s world and gives you clear access to her thinking. She is highly self-aware and able to explain in-depth how her world is different to everyone else’s being painfully aware of her differences.

The opening passage (and a few other sections dotted here and there) are brilliant for explaining what Asperger’s is like – see my last post on this book for an analysis task on this.

The State of Grace is a brilliant contemporary YA which centres on Grace, an autistic girl who is just trying to negotiate the world. In the novel she deals with family issues, the problems of not easily fitting in with what school wants, and the complexities of first love. It’s a great story, which also teaches about autistic experience. The author is autistic herself and has an autistic child, so it’s written with clear knowledge and understanding that there is a range of experience within the condition.

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Teaching Ideas: Gender and Book Sales

One thing that makes me a little sad about this book is that it its cover is coded in a way that is designed to mark it as ‘girly’, which reduces its potential audience. But probably the publisher believed that boys would not be likely to read it anyway. There is a belief among many adults – parents, publishers and teachers included – that boys are reluctant to read books about girls, and that is problematic for various reasons.

This idea can be seen as contributing to a society where women are seen as ‘other’ and potentially even less than human (witness the size of the sexual harassment/assault scandals we’re seeing at the moment). But of course it also simply reduces the art available to boys and men as they grow – concepts centred around a male character are seen as universal, while those centred on a woman are reduced to ‘women’s interest’. Obviously, this is not always the case, and those few exceptions may be showing that the world is more than ready for a wider range of stories. This article, citing writer Shannon Hale on how her ‘Princess Academy’ books are marketed and received, and providing clear feminist analysis of the issues might also be useful.

These concepts could be introduced for a media lesson at KS3, a non-fiction writing lesson for KS4 and as peripheral to the gender topic for A Level Lang.

For KS3, I would first allow students to read the opening extract from the publisher’s page, so that they have some familiarity with the content. They can then discuss the idea of ‘boy’ books and ‘girl’ books, with some careful questioning. I might give them prompts in groups such as:

  • Do you believe that there are topics that boys and girls are naturally more interested in? What kinds of topics would they be?
  • Do you think a book with a girl character is more ‘for’ girls and a book with a boy character is more ‘for’ boys? Why/why not?
  • Are you aware of having read and enjoyed a book that you think was ‘supposed’ to be for the other gender? What was it?

They could go on to discuss the book’s cover and then create alternative covers for the book which are less ‘girly’.

For KS4, I might choose some obviously boy-targeted and girl-targeted novel covers (or even go to the adult shelves for books the students are less likely to be) and pop them on a powerpoint with the 200-word challenge prompt:

Write an article that argues FOR OR AGAINST the idea of marketing books and films by gender.

You should include:

  • a sentence that opens with an adverb (e.g. obviously, clearly)
  • a rhetorical question
  • a reference to a well-known film, book or myth
  • a sentence of five words or fewer
  • a metaphor
  • the word ‘segregation’ (n) or ‘segregate’ (vb): the division of people into groups against their will/ to divide people… e.g. This is nothing less than segregation/ This idea segregates us

For KS5 Eng Lang, I might open with some covers, discuss their graphology and then dive into a couple of blurbs to do a bit of language analysis. If time allows, you could look at a body of four of five blurbs aimed at each gender to try to show methodology and model investigation practice.  Alternatively, you could take a more theoretical route and ask students to relate the ideas of boys not being expected to read about girls/from girls perspectives to representation theories. It might be a good way to make muted/dominant group theory a bit more real world, for example.

Reading Recommendations Slide 10: Family Drama

Four contemporary reads dealing with family drama for this week. All feature non-traditional families, families in crisis and teens dealing with the fallout and/or taking things into their own hands. For those of you working with Learning Power/Four Rs, it’s worth knowing that there’s lots of resilience being shown/developed in these stories, and plenty of reciprocity too, especially in Dead Ends and Orbiting Jupiter, which focus as much on friendship as they do on families. Indigo Donut has friendship as a theme too, but it’s a bit more complicated and there are more obstacles to the teamwork actually working.

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 – Family drama

Last week’s theme was something different (difficult to classify genre-wise/more experimental books). 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: Great Examples of Friendship in Recent Children’s Books and YA

I thought it might be good to recommend a few books that model good friendships. This seems especially useful in YA, where the relationship focus is so often on romance rather than friendship, although the reality in teen life is that a lot of emotional energy and time is devoted to friends.

Remix, Non Pratt

YA Contemporary about a ‘best friend’ relationship and all the complexities that entails. It takes place over the weekend of a music festival and deals with fandom, loyalty and the ways friendships change as teenagers get older and start to have sexual relationships. Dual narration by the two protags, with convincing voices. Authentic and engaging for KS5 and 4.

Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo

YA Fantasy heist novel about a group of outsiders who are effectively forced by circumstances to work together. Their relationship (as they negotiate it) is what makes this brilliant story work so well. The representations in this book are also fab with a truly diverse cast including in terms of disability and sexuality. Multiple narration, so you get to know each character’s outlook. First in a duology. Good for KS5 and 4

Mind the Gap, Phil Earle

YA Contemporary about a boy who’s falling apart since his Dad died, so his best mate helps him recover something of his Dad to help him cope. A really touching story which, unusually, covers male friendship. This is a Barrington Stoke book, so it’s dyslexia friendly – printed in a special font on yellowish, non-glare paper and using a controlled vocabulary. (If you’re unfamiliar with Barrington Stoke’s brilliant work on ‘super-readable books’, do check out their website.) Good for KS3-4

Murder Most Unladylike, Robin Stevens

MG Mystery featuring a fantastic friendship at the heart between Daisy, a classic 1920s boarding-school girl and Hazel, from Hong Kong, who doesn’t always quite know the social norms of the UK. Relationships with other girls at the school also feature and become increasingly important in this hugely popular murder mystery series, narrated by Hazel who plays a ‘Watson’-type role in the girls’ Detective Society. Great for KS3

Perijee and Me, Ross Montgomery

MG Fantasy focusing on Perijee who is an alien being who appears on the beach one day and is at first kept secret but then must be protected from the world of adults. Perijee arrives just when Caitlin is feeling really lonely as her parents are very busy with important work and school is hard for her, but Perijee grows to an enormous and impossible-to-hide size and then the story becomes a mad chase. This is an unpredictable, zany story with a lovely emotional heart. Great for KS3.

Reading Recommendations Slide 9: Something Different

Both of these are fabulous reads which break boundaries or challenge expectations in terms of genre and/or style. Mortal Chaos is essentially a thriller, but it uses chaos theory as its organising concept, and is told in incredibly short chapters. Every Day has a body-free character at the centre known simply as A, who simply inhabits a different body each day, with no understanding of where the body’s usual inhabitant goes. A is therefore genderless, but they do have an age, as they have progressed through bodies of different ages over time.

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 – Something different 1

Last week’s theme was bullies. 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 November’s Book of the Month: The State of Grace by Rachael Lucas (including GCSE English Lang teaching idea)

This gorgeous YA novel, focusing on Grace’s normal teen issues, handled in her atypical way, is a brilliant #ownvoices look at Asperger’s. Grace’s way of engaging with the world is clearly filtered through the symptoms and differences she experiences and these are rendered crystal-clear for the reader right from the start. The plot deals with changes around Grace’s family life and friends – there is a romance plot – and there is plenty to get caught up  in.

It’s very easy to root for Grace, and Rachael Lucas’s first-person narration plunges us into her thoughts and feelings with ease, with some interesting direct address telling about her unique take on the world.

[Note that the cover is very ‘feminine’, but there’s no reason that the lesson tasks described couldn’t be used in mixed classrooms. Some of the book’s content may be of more interest to some girls than some boys, but the book is not ‘unsuitable’ for boys to see – do check out the extract below to help you decide. The issue of ‘girls’ books/’boys’ books will be raised in my next post on this book, by the way…]

The publisher’s website has the opening extract available to download and this could be shown to pupils as the focus for a lesson activity (although of course I would also recommend picking up a copy or three for your school/classroom library).

The opening two paragraphs are very suitable for an AQA Eng Lang paper 2 q3 type task focusing on language (although I know that this is likely to focus on the older text – the skills are the same, it’s all practice and I’m keen to boost confidence and showcase worthwhile/enjoyable outside-of-lesson reading).

Show the extract and ask ‘Looking at the first two paragraphs, how has the writer used language to present an impression of being autistic?’ The passage in question is brilliant for discussion of the impact of imagery and the verbs used to create a sense of repeated/constant happenings.

The State of Grace is out now from My Kinda Book at Pan Macmillan in the UK.

Look out for a more detailed review in a fortnight, with another teaching idea.

Reading Recommendations Slide 8: Bullies

These all represent good stories which feature bullying, and which I would recommend as good reads on the topic. They do not all have it as their primary theme, and are not solely ‘issues’ books (if we define that as having a primary purpose of raising issues) – all of these are entertaining stories, which also prompt thought and discuss issues.

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 – Bullies

Last week’s theme was multiple narrators. 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.