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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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!

Three Ways to Sneak ‘Reading for Pleasure’ Recommendations into GCSE English Classes

This is a re-post of one of the few teaching-themed blogs I’d featured before the recent overhaul, so if you get a sense of deja-vu when reading, it’s not you, it’s me 🙂


I think (hope?) many of us can agree that GCSE set text lists do not inherently encourage students to become readers. By exposing young teenagers to  books deemed ‘classics’ or ‘great’ and requiring detailed analysis, we often in fact risk putting them off reading. This is, unfortunately, especially true for those not from a reading background whose only exposure to books is in school and who are left with the impression that the set texts they are given is what all books are like.

It is important, therefore, to try to share with pupils good examples of recently-published, engaging fiction for Young Adults (YA novels or Teen Fiction – although these are not interchangeable labels; teen is generally a little ‘younger’ and less likely to feature romance or tackle gritty issues). Here are some suggestions for ways that this can be achieved without going too far off-piste – especially if your school doesn’t have a school-wide initiative like Drop Everything And Read time.

  1. Use YA novel extracts when teaching writing skills. I know we often reach for the classics here, but especially now that this skill is tested in an exam and not as a CA, the boards are no longer looking for pre-1950s-style (and currently unpublishable) purple prose. More modern exemplars are likely to be useful to students.
  2. Offer extracts from YA novels as early practice texts for reading skills before moving on to the more demanding types of texts set by the boards (e.g. the 20th century lit set by AQA).
  3. Share recommendations, possibly supported by extracts, or simply blurbs and covers on slides (see my Sunday posts: here‘s last week’s) for topical reads or good reads linked to students’ interests (including the canny use of TV shows and films as genre guides – here‘s my sizable list from the summer). This makes a nice plenary as a ‘how do these link to the lesson?’ or an end of half term task: choose one or two to look out for and read over half term (it’s always worth promoting libraries – kids don’t have to BUY books to read them…).

On Twitter I occasionally share #ReadingTeacher recommendations, which I hope are of use and interest to other secondary teachers. I use recently published YA and occasionally MG novels, and link them to: curriculum possibilities such as teaching particular writing/analysis skills; broader curriculum issues such as SMSC/the four ‘R’s of Learning Power; themed months/days such as Black History Month or World Mental Health Day; students’ interests/TV/film to allow easy recommendations. I generally use books I’ve personally read (although I may occasionally rec something based on reliable intel 🙂 ), but they won’t always have already been reviewed on here/GoodReads.

If you don’t yet follow me on Twitter, I’m @BethKemp (and I talk mostly books, but also dogs, so be warned!)

Introducing September’s Book of the Month: YA BAME Anthology A Change is Gonna Come

This book is a superb introduction to a range of BAME writers working in the UK today. In this collection, they all tackle the theme of ‘change’ in short stories and poems for a Young Adult audience. The collection features many well-known authors such as Catherine Johnson, Patrice Lawrence and Nikesh Shukla, but the publishers also held open submission slots for previously unpublished and and unagented writers and the collection thus introduces new voices: Mary Bello, Aisha Bushby, Yasmin Rahman and Phoebe Roy. The project demonstrates a serious attempt to tackle the issue of BAME representation in YA writing, and since its publication, the publisher has also announced other proactive measures to increase opportunities for writers in this under-represented area.

The stories and poems cover a range of genres: contemporary, historical, fantasy, mythical and topics from personal loss to dramatic and fantastical transformations. (A fuller review detailing individual texts will follow later in the month.)

Lesson on representation issues and stealth-recommending the collection to students

Starter to highlight the gap in representation: how many Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic writers or characters from fiction can students come up with? In pairs, students could work separately on either characters or authors each, and then pair and share their ideas.


Non-fiction work: the collection features a thoughtful and thought-provoking foreword by Darren Chetty (@rapclassroom).  If you’re considering using this book in the classroom, or having copies in your classroom library, a lesson based on the foreword would be a constructive way to highlight the book to students. This text can be used to open up debate on representation and interventions such as this project. Students could be invited to discuss issues such as:

  • the eternal problem of minority writers being expected to record only the minority experience (e.g. gay lit reduced to ‘coming out’ stories)
  • the question of privileged writers writing from minority positions (but what about imagination?)
  • public perceptions of special collections such as this one
  • how/why increased and improved representation is important to minority or less privileged groups

Additional resource: a further text that could supplement this work is Tanya Byrne’s excellent article for the Guardian on the issue of BAME representation and resistance. (There are a couple of examples of strong language in this piece, so you may want to use caution with younger students). Again, this is a great text to open up debate, and it raises the issues particularly clearly. Students could be asked to trace Byrne’s arguments and/or look at how she gathers and presents her evidence in order to convince her audience. Tracking this through the piece via a flow diagram is a useful way of visualising it.


Creative approach: students could be asked to plan and perhaps also produce their own narrative on the theme of change. This may (or may not) be followed by a discussion of the stories and poems in the collection themselves.


I think if I had the space to use this anthology like a set text, I would teach from the foreword as discussed here, then set a creative writing challenge, then explore the stories. In reality, of course, it’s more likely that I’ll only be able to sneak in one extract as a means of ‘teasing’ the book and hopefully encouraging some students to read it. I think both non-fiction and lit-focused tasks have the chance to do that with different classes, depending on their interests.


A Change is Gonna Come is out now from Stripes, a division of Little Tiger Press. For a poster of the book for your classroom, contact @StripesBooks on Twitter (they did say I should tell people this!)