Recommendations for Teachers for Downtime

With half-term on the horizon, I thought it might be timely to share a few recent adult books for a bit of escapist joy of our own. These cover a range of genres, so hopefully there’s something here that will appeal no matter your reading tastes.

Contemporary UK-set Urban Crime (Police Procedural)

Someone Else's Skin (DI Marnie Rome 1)Someone Else’s Skin, Sarah Hilary. OK, this is not so recent (2014), but that’s only because I have to recommend the first in this excellent series (we’re up to the fourth now). These books follow the career of DI Marnie Rome and her DS Noah Jake. I love them because they’re brilliantly written, totally absorbing and the representation they offer is a breath of fresh air in terms of diversity. To be fair, that is something found more in UK than US procedurals (hat-tip to Val McDermid, for example), but these are strong examples of something very ‘now’, very British and very moral. Hilary always raises an issue in her Marnie Rome books – I’ve always learned something, and always been gripped by the story. Her narration features the odd chapter from the perpetrator’s perspective (without giving away their identity), which intensifies the action. Beautifully done, and well worth a look. [Teacher hat on: also worth showing to students if you’re doing the Crime incarnation of the AQA Lit A Level. Sorry, couldn’t help myself…]

1980s US-set Nostalgia/Coming-of-age

The Impossible Fortress, Jason Rekulak. This book is about 14 year olds in 1987, which made me almost the same age as the protags at the same time, so the heavy references in the first couple of chapters to anchor the text were an amazing memory blast personally. The book is chock-full of early computer gaming and coding (with tapes!!), teen boy obsessions (Playboy, for example) and terrible ideas (because teen boys) and I should probably warn potential readers that the early part of it felt really ‘blokey’ to me but it’s much more intelligent and sensitive than it initially presents itself to be. It’s a well-done coming-of-age set firmly in a specific time-frame which I enjoyed a lot and would definitely recommend for its 80s nostalgia and its exploration of masculinity and growing up.

Romantic Comedy (with a splash of magic realism)

If You Could See Me Now, Keris Stainton. This hilarious novel features Izzy whose life is not quite what she’d wish for and whose boyfriend rather takes her for granted. And then something rather unexpected (and magical) happens and she’s forced to re-examine everything. I really enjoyed this – the characterisation is warm and easy to accept, and the crazy magic twist works in context. I found myself laughing often, with too many oh-so-familiar small details. I’ve always enjoyed Keris’s YA and children’s titles in the past – this is her first book for adults, but her trademark warmth and wit and keen ear for dialogue make it just as successful.

Black Comedy/Thriller (from serial killer’s perspective)

Sweetpea, C J Skuse. This irreverent and hilarious novel had me trying desperately not to laugh out loud on the bus, which is not what you expect from a serial killer novel, but the voice is superb. Rhiannon narrates and also shares snippets from her diary, often lists of people (or types of people) who annoy her – some of which you can easily understand and others are way beyond reasonable. The portrayal of her psychopathy is fab because you are happily nodding along with her complaints about other people and then suddenly it takes a turn and is all way too much. I should probably mention that there is quite a strong level of violence (and sex, for that matter) in this novel, and the language is also very much adult.

Folklore/Fairytale Retelling

A Pocketful of Crows, Joanne Harris (publishing 19 Oct). This is a treat of a book. Based on a Child ballad and featuring gorgeous line illustrations, it’s a feast of love, betrayal and revenge. I enjoyed getting lost in this and felt that it was something that Angela Carter would have taken real pleasure in – a delightful textural weaving of elements out of a relatively short original piece.

What will you pick up over half term?

 

Reading Recommendation Slide 6: for fans of Gilmore Girls/Riverdale

(in other words, here’s some great YA contemporary reads with plenty of drama)

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 – For fans of Gilmore Girls or Riverdale

Last week’s theme was horror to look ahead to halloween. Some links are thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

So far this half term, themes have been: For fans of Lemony Snicket; comedy; weepies (for catharsis); Black History Month and horror. Next week will be multiple narrators. I’m trying to vary the titles offered, but I think across the year some titles will appear in front of students twice (The Hate U Give will be one of those, for example – titles I’m seeing as really valuable, and also perhaps likely to appeal in more than one category). Across this half term there has been one ‘classic’ (Gatsby), two other adult titles (Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black), but the majority are recently published teen/YA titles (mostly last 5 years – I think Geek Girl is potentially the oldest I’ve included, but that series has only just wrapped up and I wouldn’t rec the last in a series) to keep students’ faith.

Introducing October’s Book of the Month: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (including A Level Language teaching idea)

This YA novel, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement is a great contemporary pick for Black History Month. It tells the story of Starr, a 16 year-old girl, who is with her friend Khalil when he is shot by a policeman after being pulled over (this is not a spoiler – it happens in chapter 2 and is covered in the blurb). The novel treats the aftermath of this event in Starr’s life, which is complicated by the fact that she lives in a poor (black) neighbourhood and attends a ‘posh’ (white) school. The novel beautifully presents issues facing Americans of colour today (and not just Americans, for some aspects at least), without being didactic or preachy – it’s a damn good story, extremely well told. The movie of the book is being filmed at the time of writing, with Amandla Sternberg (Rue from the Hunger Games) as Starr.

There are excerpts available online, and I’m basing lesson ideas off those, but please do buy the book for your school/classroom libraries – you will not regret it.

A Level Language Lesson Idea: Language Diversity (AQA spec)

Extract to use: opening pages (7-13 – 4 double pages): find one here at the Reading Agency (if that doesn’t work, it is worth googling as there are others and not all of them work from school accounts)

Copy 4 spreads and shrink to A5 each. Arrange onto A3 and give one copy between 2 students.  Students to highlight/annotate examples of language which reflect different aspects of the narrator’s/characters’ identity (teen, black, US) and feedback.

[suggestions – teen: semantic fields of fashion, music, school, ‘hoes’; black: elongation of ‘shit’ to ‘shiiit’ (or is that teen? – discuss), dope (ditto), stank-eye, gon’ say; US: bougie, third grade]

The Hate U Give is out now in the UK from Walker Books.

Look out for my more detailed review and a GCSE Language activity on this title (likely to be questions for an AQA Paper 1) in 2 weeks.

Reading Recommendation Slide 5: Horror (for Halloween)

Four creepy reads to start gearing up for Hallowe’en at the end of the month for this week.

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 – For horror fans

Last week’s was Black History Month (which starts today). Some links will be thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Fifth Friday Five: Must-Haves for Writing

On months with 5 Fridays, I’m doing a Top 5 list for the fifth Friday. Here’s my first one, which you may have seen a version of before, as these are all points I’ve made before – and will probably make again – about things I need to keep me writing.

1 Timer

This really does come first. I use a timer for motivation in all kinds of work, and it really does help. When I’m struggling to focus (i.e. cataloguing socks is suddenly looking ridiculously tempting), just setting a simple kitchen timer for 15 minutes, putting the phone away, turning wifi off and doing NOTHING ELSE for those 15 minutes will get me started. It’s great for busy days too – 15 minutes each on a handful of tasks moves me further in a morning than the faffing that I would do otherwise.

Stamps

Not postage ones, but children’s brightly coloured stars, hearts, faces etc. Some people use stickers. This is exactly the same principle, but stamps are less consumable (and, I suppose, less varied). It’s a simple yet effective anti-procrastination motivational technique which becomes more powerful the more stamps/stickers you have lined up – once there are a few in a row,  it becomes more and more important (and easier) to keep going.

I use a set of Crayola pen stampers and assign different meanings to different designs, so 1 is for exercise, 1 for writing a blog, another for fiction writing and so on. When I’ve done the thing, I stamp the calendar day. It works really well to help build and maintain ‘streaks’ of good habits. Some people allocate a stamp/sticker to a certain number of words written or to pages edited etc or to time spent; I just credit for having done it at all (my standards are low, alright?).

3 SCBWI membership

The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators is a fabulous organisation for those of us working in that area. A lot of what is offered is geared to fiction, but non-fiction writers are welcomed too. Membership is open to anyone interested in children’s books – you do not need to be published. The Society organises critique groups, a British Isles conference (which I went to for the first time this year, and loved) and many smaller events. I am drafting this on the train to a day workshop on writing series fiction for 5-8 yr olds taught by a successful author in that area, for example. There is a lot of skill-sharing, which is invaluable, and conducted with a generosity of spirit.

4 Notebook and pencil

I write on computer, but all my planning and ideas generation is carried out by paper and pencil – or occasionally an array of coloured pens. I could not write anything without this stage.  Of course, when I say notebook, I really mean my trusty organiser from Cordwain Higgler. Isn’t she lovely? I’m going to do a post all about her one day.

5 Scrivener

I am a relatively recent convert, but I have transferred all my novel plotting to Scrivener’s outline board and I love it. It allows for clear organisation of ideas; moving around (and insertion) of parts; separation into scenes/chapters/acts to clearly see turning points etc – fabulous for a structure junkie like me! You can also have character notes, older drafts, research notes and anything else you like saved right in the file but not part of the word count of the story for easy viewing – so useful! (yes, yes, I know – I should have been using this years ago and no, I’m not on commission, and I know it would be even better if I were a Mac person, but there we are…).

What are your writing must-haves?

Reading Recommendation Slide 4: Black History Month

Four fab Black-authored texts which educate and entertain in equal measure for this week.

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.

This week’s theme is Black History Month, since that starts next weekend.

Download the slide here:

4 – Black History Month

Last week’s was cathartic reads. Some links will be thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

If you’d like a little more info on these books (including their value for BHM), there are brief reviews for The Hate U Give, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo and Orangeboy in this week’s main blog post.

If you haven’t already seen it, I have longer posts on A Change Is Gonna Come, as that’s been my Book Of The Month for September. There’s an introductory post explaining why Stripes commissioned this fabulous Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic-authored anthology at the start of the month, along with some brief classroom ideas on the topic of representation. Then, later in the month, I posted more of a review along with a set of AQA Eng Lang GCSE paper 1 questions on the opening of one of the stories. I’ll be using The Hate U Give as October’s Book of the Month and following a similar pattern, with classroom ideas for A Level Eng Lang and another GCSE paper 1 q.

Recommendations for Black History Month (KS3 to 5)

There will  be a reading recs slide for Black History Month too, but here are some brief reviews for some great BHM books to share with/recommend to classes. Obviously A Change Is Gonna Come also fits into this category, as it does so much to balance representation, and some of the stories could really be used to teach BAME experience (Yasmin Rahman’s and Nikesh Shukla’s are about contemporary BAME experience in the UK while Mary Bello’s and Ayisha Malek’s are also contemporary but with different geographical focuses).

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (spoiler alert: this is next month’s Book Of The Month in honour of Black History Month) is an amazing YA contemporary novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. It follows the experiences of Starr, who is with her friend when he is shot by police and has to negotiate the moral minefield that follows. Everything is complicated by the fact that she lives in a black neighbourhood and attends a largely white school. This book is going to be a major Hollywood film and is seriously well written. It teaches loads about contemporary Black experience in the US without a single note of didacticism or bitterness. I’d recommend this for year 9 up.

Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence is a contemporary UKYA novel which is great for reflecting common Black teen experience in the UK. Marlon is 16 and struggling with various things, mostly exacerbated by his social situation. I loved this book for its texture and realism and the sense of ‘oh no, Marlon’ but at the same time, knowing he lacked much choice. It’s great for showing the ‘mind-forged manacles’ that still exist for many (sorry, guess what I’ve just been teaching!!). I’ve also just read Patrice Lawrence’s second book and it’s also fab – both novels also heavily feature music as being important to the characters, which I appreciate as music is central to so many teens’ lives and identities. I’d recommend this for year 9 and up.

The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson is a glorious UKYA historical novel based on real events. It tells of a young woman who reinvents herself as an exotic princess after trauma. The novel is a fab demonstration of colonial attitudes in early nineteenth century Britain, with many people keen to embrace Caraboo’s act and to study her ways. Catherine Johnson’s attention to detail in her historical research is fantastic and her characters are an absolute delight. Many students will enjoy this book, but in terms of appreciating its messages for BHM, it’s more suitable for older students. Students from KS3 could read it but I think those in KS4 and 5 are more likely to understand the depiction of imperialist attitudes.

Look out for my The Hate U Give posts during October for Black History Month, especially an extract q for GCSE practice which will enable us to introduce the text into the classroom. It’s a real gift of a book to put in front of young people and I’ve no doubt that bringing an extract in for such a lesson will prompt some to go out and read the whole and expand their understanding of contemporary race issues in the US (and worldwide).

Reading Recommendation Slide 3: Cathartic Reads

Here’s a new slide for this week. I just leave these 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 another 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.

This week’s theme is catharsis.

Download the slide here:

For catharsis

Last week’s was comedy. Some links will be thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

A Change Is Gonna Come Review and GCSE Resources (Book of the Month In-Depth)

Age range: YA (12+)

Themes: as this is an anthology, these are really varied, but include: love, sexuality, racism, islamophobia, bereavement, refugees, OCD, friendship, punishment, fantasy, time travel, fairness, identity.

Narrative style and genre: again, varied by the story/poem – pretty much the full possible range is covered, with first and third person perspectives, present and past tense and genres from realism to fantasy; history through contemporary to near-future dystopian.

The anthology is a showcase of crisp, entertaining writing for young people in a range of styles by today’s top writers from a wide range of backgrounds. It’s great to see the range of ways in which the theme of ‘change’ has been interpreted, some with a political slant, others much more fantastical. For example:

  • Tanya Byrne’s story Hackney Moon is a gorgeous lesbian love story with an omniscient, God-like narrator. If you could read the whole story with a class, you could enjoy discussing the narrator’s character and function.
  • Catherine Johnson’s story Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances! is a historical story of circus folk dealing with the death of their leader, with a historical note explaining her sources. Again, plenty of opportunity to discuss how writers work with source material there.
  • Yasmin Rahman’s Fortune Favours the Bold is the story of a teenage Muslim girl with anxiety getting through the day after a terrorist attack. This story offers plenty of moral discussion opportunities.
  • Patrice Lawrence’s story The Clean Sweep is a dystopian tale set in a version of Brighton where young offenders have been sent to be watched by the rest of the country/world as they are washed away (or possibly saved by a vote). Reading this story would allow useful exploration of structure, as the plot points and turning points come thick and fast.
  • Aisha Bushby’s Marionette Girl is a diary-style, incredibly detailed journal of a girl with OCD who reaches a turning point in her illness. Lots of chance for empathy-based discussions here, and perhaps to focus on the language we use around mental health and why it’s inappropriate to label behaviours/people ‘OCD/depression’ etc when those labels belong to debilitating conditions.

Obviously, on the whole I am 100% behind this book. As a project to increase representation, it is sorely needed, but it is so much more than that. It wouldn’t work if the stories in it weren’t good and they are GREAT.

 


Here is a set of GCSE-style questions on one of the story openings. These are based on AQA, as it’s what I have experience of, and I’m using Eng Lang Paper 1 as that’s the most sensible.

Use the first section of The Clean Sweep (to the second paragraph on p. 148: ‘…could hate us even more’) as the full extract.

1. Read again the first two paragraphs. List four things about the boys’ plan.  (4 marks)

2. Look in detail at paragraphs two and three. How does the writer use language here to describe Emo and Daphne?

  • You could include the writer’s choice of:
  • words and phrases
  • language features and techniques
  • sentence forms  (8 marks)

3. You now need to think about the whole of the source. This text is the opening to a story. How has the writer structured it to interest you as a reader?

  • You could write about:
  • What the writer focuses your attention on at the beginning
  • how and why the writer changes this focus as the source develops
  • any other structural features that interest you  (8 marks)

4. Focus this part of your answer on the second part of the source, from paragraph 5 to the end.

A student, having read this part, said: “The writer really shows the characters’ desperation in this extract. It comes through in everything from the description of the setting to the narrative voice.’

To what extent do you agree?

In your response, you could:

  • write about your own impressions of the characters’ desperation
  • evaluate how the writer has created these impressions
  • support your opinions with references to the text.    (20 marks)

I do hope somebody out there uses this. Please do let me know!

Event Report: A Change Is Gonna Come in Birmingham

I was fortunate enough to attend a panel event celebrating my Book of the Month, A Change Is Gonna Come, yesterday evening. It took place in Birmingham Waterstones, and we were treated to discussions from two of the authors, Patrice Lawrence and debut Yasmin Rahman, chaired by superstar blogger Mariam Khan (@helloiammariam).

Much of the discussion was around the need for this book, the spaces for BAME voices in publishing and representation issues more broadly. I thought I’d share with you some of the top comments I noted:

  • There are more BAME writers in this one volume than are being published in YA in the UK this year. Ouch.
  • Both authors spoke about wanting to contribute to a breadth of representation, to help young people be able to find themselves in books. Patrice Lawrence specifically talked about being a child who was never like the heroine in books (‘girls described as beautiful never had my skin colour, nose shape or lips like me’) and was saddened by Yasmin’s agreement, as she is much younger (‘Still? This is why we need this book.’)
  • Both authors also agreed that there is pressure on BAME writers in particular to be seen as representing their whole ethnicity when they write, whereas that pressure does not seem to apply to white writers, so whatever a Jamaican heritage writer does for example would be seen as therefore reflective of Jamaican writers, rather than purely themselves. There was some discussion about this also being true in the world in general: that you are expected to reflect the community in how you behave/dress/generally comport yourself, so this naturally also carries across to writing.
  • It was very clear that this collection is not just ‘for’ BAME readers. Obviously, there is a desire to reach readers of different heritages who may not have been able to find themselves in books before, but it is also important that white readers are able to read outside of themselves (ourselves), which we haven’t had enough opportunity to do in the past. I would add that this is a really important aspect for empathy and understanding. It’s really hard for people to see past themselves when they are only ever presented with images like themselves.
  • I was struck by Patrice Lawrence’s generosity and humility when asked about her feelings on winning the YA Book Prize and the YA category of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize with her debut novel Orangeboy (which is fab, by the way). She talked about how pleased she was that the award proved that there was an appetite and a market for BAME stories and that it might encourage publishers to be bolder in publishing them. She had talked earlier about how hard it had been to get the book published, with only one editor at one publishing house being willing to take a chance on it.
  • Both writers, and Mariam as chair were very complimentary to Stripes the publisher for their work on this project. It represents the start of a real commitment to increasing BAME representation in YA for them. They took on a (paid) editorial mentee to work on the collection (who has since gained an editorial role in another publishing house), who is credited in the book. They have since advertised for an editor of BAME background and are currently (through September) open to submissions from BAME writers, so this wasn’t a one-shot, trend-hopping thing for them.

It was a great event and if you have anything similar near you, or have the opportunity to book a #ChangeBook school event, grab it with both hands. Contact Charlie at Stripes’ Marketing/Publicity for more info.