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.

Recommendations: Witches in YA

There’s something about dark, chilly nights and great witchy titles that just go together well, so I thought I’d share a few recommendations for some good ones for YA readers across a few genres.

A Witch In Winter, Ruth Warburton

This kicks off a contemporary-set trilogy (all of which are now out) which starts off ultra-modern with typical high-school, new-girl issues and quickly heads into beloved fantasy tropes with warring witch clans and centuries-old battles over power. The story kicks off with kids playing around with spells and the main character casts a love spell which works dramatically well, showing that she has power which she was previously unaware of. Fab, pacey writing with a keen ear for dialogue from the author who also writes adult thrillers as Ruth Ware (In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10).

The Graces, Laure Eve

Another contemporary-set novel (with a sequel, The Curses, coming out in 2018), based heavily around high school. Inspired by the film The Craft, this book focuses on the Grace family and the town’s legends about their being witches, which inspire a new arrival to be obsessed with them. Teen readers will lap up the creepy vibes and good sense of school hierarchies and politics.

 

 

Crow Moon, Anna McKerrow

Near-future dystopian set in an England that’s been split by ecological disaster, this novel kicks off a trilogy (of which the last was released recently). In this version of the world, Devon and Cornwall form the Greenworld, an eco-pagan, self-sufficient community separated from the rest of the world (the Redworld), where resources are scarce. Magic and mystery rule as young Danny comes into his witch powers in a world ruled by women. The trilogy is a great read, with each novel focusing on and narrated by a different young witch.

Witchstruck, Victoria Lamb

Start of a historical trilogy about a witch set in Tudor times, with royalty and a witchfinder thrown in for good measure. The young witch, Meg Lytton, is also charged with looking after the imprisoned Lady Elizabeth at her half-sister, Queen Mary’s request.  She also has to hide her powers. These are pacey reads with plenty of historical detail and a good deal of intrigue, romance and suspense.

 

How To Hang a Witch, Adriana Mather

Contemporary-set high school paranormal drama with historical resonance. A new kid in school scenario, only this one is  set in Salem, and the new kid finds herself instantly unpopular simply because of her family name and its meaning in relation to the seventeenth-century witch trials (but yes, this is set in the 21st century!). The author makes interesting links between historical witch hunts and modern-day bullying in this novel packed with ghosts, witches, high school politics and a dash of romance.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter Review and GCSE language analysis practice task (Book of the Month in-depth)

Age range: YA (12+)

Themes: folklore, justice, truth, fairness

Genre: high fantasy/second-world fantasy

Narrative style: first-person present tense (with passages in past tense as she provides backstory/history) and often lyrical.

This is the first in a trilogy set in a fantasy world with a clearly-defined religion/folklore system which is explored and questioned through the books. Each book is narrated by a different character, but their stories definitely lead on from one another and need to be read in the correct order – it is a series.

As well as being exquisitely written and therefore suitable to show to students as a model of good writing that is likely also to engage them, I particularly appreciate a fantasy story written with underpinning feminist principles. There are great examples of female friendships here and positive models for romantic relationships – no romanticising of stalking or other abusive behaviour here. In this instalment, some have criticised Twylla for being a little passive at the start of the novel, but personally I find that realistic for the context that she is in – her social status is laid out clearly and she is relatively young and naive. She makes mistakes and grows through the novel, which I think is what characters should do. A supremely capable protagonist from the start leaves rather less room for character development!

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Here is a set of prompts for analysis on chapter 1, which is shared on the Movellas website (but, again, I would also recommend buying a copy for your classroom/school library/self). This is suitable to use with year 9 students as practice for GCSE ways of working, or in year 10/11 to develop and practise skills. Obviously, reading a whole chapter would never be required in an exam, but it allows for more immersion in the language here and therefore more comparison between the different aspects of the chapter.

  • How does Salisbury use language to present different time periods in this chapter?
    • [this allows discussion of narrative structure as well as grammatical tense; students could literally try to timecode the various sections of the chapter to track the different timings covered, or to plot events on a timeline]
  • How does Salisbury present contrasting senses of control and chaos in this chapter? Which sections of the narrative are concerned with this theme and how does the language used support it?
    • [could discuss semantic fields, listing and/or particular word classes such as adjectives, verbs, adverbs used in key sections]
  • How does the description of the religious/mythological system help to create the fantasy world?
    • [this allows discussion of structure, narrative genre/style, use of invented names/vocabulary]
  • Why do you think Salisbury begins and ends with the references to screaming?
    • [again, directs to discussion of structure but also theme; could also extend to discussions on likely wider themes of the novel – this is the opening chapter so what has the author set up here?]

I might also be tempted to give this text to A Level Lang students as a potential style model for Original Writing. The complex time shifts and lyrical style help it address the ‘ambitious’ label in the mark scheme.

Reading Recommendations Slide 13: Christmas

Just the one book this week, as it’s a very special one: an anthology of festive short stories and poems on the theme of ‘home’, and with a donation to the homelessness charity Crisis from every copy sold. What could be more in the spirit of the season? I thought it would be good to push this at the start of December rather than the end of term, as it is a good one for pupils to look out for/ask for as they’re starting to feel festive (or if you’re looking for end-of-term prizes, of course, this would be very suitable for a wide range of students).

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: 7 – Christmas

Last week’s theme was music. 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 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 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.

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.

Rewriting the World: Fantasy and Social Issues (YA Shot Blog Tour with Ellen Renner)

cropped-yashotcolourlesssmallAre you aware of the YA Shot event? It’s a fantastic Arts Council-sponsored event taking place next week in celebration of libraries and young people’s literature. 71 YA and MG writers are appearing in 3 venues across Uxbridge on Wednesday 28th October. There is also a programme of blogging and vlogging workshops for those who want to learn more about this area.

This thought-provoking post on the world of fantasy writing from Ellen Renner appears courtesy of YA Shot and demonstrates the high quality of material that you can expect on the day.

*****

Rewriting the World: Fantasy and Social Issues

I write in order to understand. Writers stand outside the world and watch it spin. We study this amazing, contrary world we live in and ask: Why?

Why do some people do bad things, and others good? Why is society organised the way it is? Does power always corrupt? Is history doomed to repeat itself? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where do I fit in? Can I make a difference?

These are the very questions children ask of themselves and the world as they grow up. Writers simply never stop asking. Perhaps we never truly grow up. The first job of a story-teller is to entertain (otherwise no one will listen!); the second, to ask the hard questions.

Castle of shadowsAll of this is why I predominately write fantasy, although my debut novel, Castle of Shadows, could more accurately be described as alternative history. I wanted to write about power and politics set in a time of great technological and social change. In fact, I wanted to put a mirror up to our own world while keeping a necessary distance. So I created a world based on 1830s England but free from its history. Castle of Shadows was written just after the Iraq War and, not surprisingly, features political shenanigans and a weapon of mass destruction.

My most recent boTributeoks, Tribute and Outcaste, are straightforwardly within the fantasy genre, with all its related world-building. It was both liberating and terrifying to realise that the only limits were those of my imagination. But too much freedom can be a trap and I chose my ‘magic’ carefully and made sure it had logical limits within the story. Instead of potions and spells, my magic-users have a genetic ability to transform matter (telekinesis).

I wrote Tribute because I wanted to explore issues that have haunted me since I was a child: racism, sexism . . .all the ‘-isms’ which are an excuse for the all-too-human tendency to scapegoat segments of a society as ‘other’. In other words: the failure of empathy. It is no coincidence that my main character, Zara, is gifted – or cursed – with extreme empathy. She has no choice but to rebel against the evil she not only sees, but feels.

In this book – and especially in Outcaste – I explore the group-think mentality which allows genocide to happen, which enables members of a self-defining group to de-humanise those who do not belong. I’m extremely proud that Tribute is endorsed by Amnesty International.

Fantasy, for me, is a Petri dish in which I can place elements of our own society and culture them in isolation and watch them develop. Sometimes unexpected things grow in the dish. It isn’t surprising that the world of Tribute is unfair and violent, or that the non-magic are enslaved by those with telekinetic power. But I was shocked to discover that this terribly dark society had a single positive aspect: one silver lining to the cloud of oppressive evil. As I explored the logic of my world, it became clear to me that since women mages are as powerful as men – and cannot therefore be dominated physically – that there would be little reason for sexism to exist inside their society. Which means that when the main character – magic-user and rebel Zara – flees to the non-magic world of the Makers, she is in for a rude shock. That story is told in the sequel, Outcaste.

Sadly, fantasy still seems to suffer from a twentieth-century bias amongst the critical establishment. This, despite the fact that, when used well, fantasy is one of the best literary tools for asking those difficult questions. It is a device which allows writers and readers sufficient distance from our messy, complicated lives in which to think more clearly. Fantasy, used well, is a direct descendant of the great world mythologies. The best examples of its practice deserve to be read with thought and care, in the realisation that – in the hands of a good writer – nothing is more ‘real’ than fantasy.

*****

How brilliant was that? Thank you so much, Ellen – and YA Shot, for that great post. If you want to find out more about Ellen’s writing, she is published by Hot Key Books and there is a fabulous review of Tribute by SF Said on the Guardian Books site, in which he says:

Two things make or break a fantasy novel: the magic and the world. In both these respects, Ellen Renner’s Tribute shares something with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, stories that gave us an original conception of magic and a richly imagined world, using the genre to say something deeply resonant about our own world.

North of Nowhere Blog Tour: A Place of Inspiration

Today is a very exciting day here at the Hearthfire: Liz Kessler is here to talk about her setting for North of Nowhere (which by the way is a fabulous story of families, mystery, magic and the sea – my review’s here). So, without further ado, I’ll hand you over to Liz.

About seven years ago, I went on holiday in the Scottish highlands. Whilst there, I visited various tiny towns and attractions along the coast. One of these was a small town called Pennan, the setting for one of my favourite films, Local Hero. But just a little way along the coast from this town that has now become a tourist attraction, there was another, smaller village. Little more than a row of houses standing silently, yards from the water’s edge, this one is not on most people’s tourist destination maps. And yet it was the one that stayed with me.

Crovie (pronounced ‘crivvy’) was once a busy fishing town. A storm in 1953, however, put an end to that. The storm washed away many of the houses and forced the residents to flee. Today, the houses that remain are mostly holiday lets – I guess, for those who really want to get away from it all. There is certainly not a lot to do here.

Crovie
But as I walked along the tiny ridge between the houses and the sea, what struck me was the intensity of the silence, the feeling of history trapped here, the creepy atmosphere that seemed to fill every inch of the place. It was the atmosphere that got inside me, and I knew instantly that I wanted to write a book that featured this place or somewhere like it – and most certainly this atmosphere.

It was about five years later that I began to write the story.

 
Many of my books are inspired by a place and, if possible, I always try to go to the place itself in the early stages writing the book. As I had now moved to Cornwall, the prospect of a visit to the Scottish highlands – and the fifteen-hour drive that this would involve – was, I confess, not the most enticing thought in the world.

So I began to look at other possibilities. Were there any other similar towns a
little nearer? That was when I discovered Hallsands.

Hallsands has a similar history to Crovie – only worse. A small but thriving fishing town in Devon, the village was all but destroyed in a storm about 100 years ago. Almost every house was destroyed. Miraculously, there were no casualties from the storm – but every inhabitant had to start a new life elsewhere.

It didn’t take me long to pack a bag and book a trip to Hallsands.

Hallsands

A few nights in a nearby apartment; a few conversations with the right people to allow us over the fence and through the gate that blocked off the land as it is now too unstable to allow public access; a few pages of scribbled notes as I wandered around soaking up the atmosphere of this incredible place; a few hundred photos…All of this led to a head buzzing with ideas and inspiration.

For me, there is nothing quite like going to the place that has inspired a book.

It’s not just about what you can read in a book or on the internet. It’s about standing in the place itself and feeling its history – almost hearing and seeing the events that took place where you are standing – this is what gets my creative juices flowing. This is what really excites and inspires me.

And so, seven years on from the original moment of inspiration, North of Nowhere is written and out in the shops, and this feels like a very exciting point of an amazing journey.

I hope that I have managed to do justice to the places and the people that inspired this book. And I hope that, if you happen to read it, you will feel at least an inkling of the atmosphere and drama that I have tried to convey.

Thank you for having me as a guest on this blog, and for giving me the opportunity to relive the feeling of inspiration that I had when this book began to form in my mind.

The path down to Hallsands
Thank you, Liz – what a fab post! The sea is such a great place for stories. Where I grew up, on the East Anglian coast, Dunwich is the focus of ‘washed into the sea’ stories, having been diminishing for centuries – at least half a dozen churches and monastery buildings, for example, are ‘out there’ in the sea somewhere, the tower of the last having fallen in 1922.

NORTH OF NOWHERE by Liz Kessler was published by Orion Children’s Books on 24 January in hardback at £9.99.

Opal Moonbaby Blog Tour: Fantasy Writer? Moi?

For Words on Wednesday this week, we have a real treat. Maudie Smith, author of the fabulous Opal Moonbaby (see my review) is stopping off on her blog tour to talk about genre.

Fantasy Writer? Moi?
If you’d asked me a couple of years ago whether I liked fantasy writing I’d probably have said no immediately. There would have been no need for soul-searching. As an adult I don’t tend to pick up fantasy literature. I’ve never read a Terry Pratchett for example (don’t know what I’m missing?) and the term ‘sci-fi’ has always been something of a turn off. Sci-fi’s not for me, I’d say. It’s more of a boy thing.

So when I started writing OPAL MOONBABY and it turned out to be about an alien from another planet, that was something of a surprise, even to me. I’ve always thought I liked my literature to be set firmly in the real world. But I now realise that I only have to scratch the surface of my childhood reading to see that this never used to be the case.

We’re all plunged into fantasy as soon as we start listening to stories. Fairy tales, myths and legends are full of fantastic worlds and amazing creatures the like of which we will never see on Earth. These strange environments and weird and wonderful creatures fire our imaginations and make us laugh but they do more than that too.

When we are children the adult world seems a mad and complicated place. Fairy tales help us make some sense of it but our need to do so doesn’t just end when we grow out of Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and The Pied Piper. We’re always having to try and make sense of the world we inhabit. I think that’s why I loved books where real world characters bumped into fantasy ones, each having to figure out the logic behind the other’s world.

It’s that moment where fantasy and reality collide that gets me going. The moment when Mary Poppins flutters down to London with a roomful of belongings in her carpet bag. The moment when Tommy and Annika discover their new neighbour, Pippi Longstocking, has superhuman strength and can lift her horse with one hand. It’s the wardrobe moment when Lucy pushes her way past all the coats and finds herself in Narnia and comes face to face with Mr Tumnus.

I loved THE HOBBIT but I wasn’t such a fantasy addict that I wanted to tackle THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I liked books where there was more of my world involved, where I could identify with the main characters and their problems. Narnia was enthralling but I was always keen to hang around quite near the entrance to the wardrobe.

In my book Opal is the title character and she’s the catalyst for the story but the real hero is Martha. I wanted my human hero to be as rooted as possible in the everyday world and it was her story I wanted to write. Martha has everyday problems with friendships and family, of the type we can all identify with, and she has to solve them herself. Sometimes Opal is helpful and sometimes she makes things more difficult than ever but I hope she always adds spice and sparkle, and some humour, to any adventure.

Opal isn’t the only fantasy character I’m working on just now. Reluctant witches, elusive mermaids and jealous cloud creatures are all milling around up there in my brain cogs. So I suppose I must be a fantasy writer after all.

Maybe I’d better sample some more adult fantasy then. Stephen King, here I come….?

Thanks for such an interesting post, Maudie. I must admit, I tend not to read much ‘pure’ fantasy written for adults either. I love Pratchett , but don’t see his books as ‘pure’ fantasy because of the satirical element. I’ve recently loved Sarah Addison Allen’s books for a touch of fantasy in a real world setting.

Any suggestions for Maudie, anyone? (Oh, and I suggest you take a look at Opal Moonbaby if you like children’s books or want a good read for a  7+ girl).

The next stop on the Opal Moonbaby tour is the magical Book Angel Booktopia. If you want to check out the other places Maudie’s visited, click on the tour button for a list. (I’d particularly recommend the Serendipity Reviews stop, where a fabulous tea party for Opal with fictional characters was planned)