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 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).

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.