Bookchat Roadshow. Just brilliant!

It’s a week ago today that we were busy welcoming parents to the Bookchat Roadshow at Harlands Primary in Haywards Heath.  This was a unique event, bringing together children’s authors, publishers, education specialists, along with local organisations and the Public Library Service to share ideas with parents and carers.  And being the second event I was possibly even more nervous than the first time round! The first event had gone so well, would this one be the same?  I can safely say it was even better, not least because after the main event, the authors ran workshops with 240 children at the host school!

“The atmosphere is positively buzzing” one parent said to me – and I couldn’t agree more. It really was exciting and I am so grateful to my brilliant fellow presenters, participating authors and the organisations who were exhibiting for helping to make it this way!  After a lovely introduction by the school’s Headteacher, Jane Goodlace, I spoke to parents about encouraging reading and the importance of reading for pleasure. It’s not easy to do this in such a short time – there is so much you could say!059_The-Book-Activist-Bookchat-Roadshow But the crux was how to help your child’s enjoyment of reading through helping them choose the right book for them, taking into account their interests. I truly believe parents can be the best reading role models a child can have but as parents we often worry about our children’s reading and this can sometimes remove the joy of the experience – for both parent and child.  If we can remove the stress from the situation and focus on what children want to read and get enjoyment from, the path to discovering the magic of stories is much smoother!

“It was really helpful to confirm I am doing the right thing and to give me new ideas” Parent feedback

I was followed by Jane Walker from Barrington Stoke, who spoke brilliantly about reluctant readers and making reading accessible. It was fascinating to hear how Barrington Stoke produce books that are so readable on a practical level and also really helpful to hear how whether your child can’t read or won’t read, there are ways to support them. “Reading is for everyone” Jane said.

Moving on from this, author Nikki Sheehan was totally inspiring on how to encourage children’s creative writing, with brilliant and achievable ideas that all parents – and of course their children – could benefit from.  Her final comment was ‘be their inspiration’ – what better advice could you get?!  I was delighted that both Kate Manning and Clementine McMillan-Scott from Scoop Magazine joined the line-up and shared the story behind Scoop.  Their presentation focused on the importance of celebrating all kinds of stories, sharing that every reader is different and how we can all play a part in encouraging all types of reading and writing.

“Congratulations on delivering such an inspiring and positive event!” Parent feedback

On that note, the coffee break arrived, and the celebrating continued with attendees having the chance to peruse the exhibition.  Parents had the opportunity to ask advice from organisations including local education service Discover & Be, dyslexia specialists Helen Arkell, Inkpots Writing Workshops and Nature Nuture Sussex. Even the Schools Library Service and the Public Library Service were represented with parents able to join up if they weren’t already members and find out about the Summer Reading Challenge!  With a bookstall provided by Waterstones Haywards Heath, and Usborne books it was a hive of activity!

“Attendance should be compulsory; it was inspirational!” Parent feedback

The grand finale of the morning was the fantastic author panel Bookchat featuring four award winning children’s authors; Nikki Sheehan, Jamie Thomson, A F Harrold and Jenny McLachlan which I was very excited to be chairing.  There is something magical about authors sharing their ideas – they create the worlds we inhabit when we read and I like to think some of the magic rubs off on those who hear them!

A lively chat ensued with questions from the audience and the authors shared their best tips for getting children into reading and writing and why stories are so important. As a parent myself I am eager to encourage my children’s reading and hearing the author’s childhood experiences of books and stories was just brilliant!  It was the perfect consolidation of all the wonderful ideas and advice heard throughout the morning, but with the extra inspiration everybody needs.

“It was a fabulous morning with excellent presentations and entertaining authors” Parent feedback

After a quick lunch break, it was back to work for the authors who ran workshops with pupils in years three to six at the host school as well as signing lots of books!  On visiting each classroom, I can’t tell you how incredible it was to see the look at the children’s faces as each author brought their stories to life and inspired them with ideas for getting into reading and writing.

Jenny McLachlan talking to Year 6

Jenny McLachlan reading an extract from Stargazing for Beginners

Nikki Sheehan talking to Year 4

Nikki Sheehan working her creative magic

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Jamie Thomson aka The Dark Lord!

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A F Harrold performing poetry

Schools don’t often have the opportunity to benefit from one author visit, let alone four, so this was a real achievement! As you may know this Roadshow was supported with funding from West Sussex County Council and I am truly grateful to them for recognising the value of the Roadshow and the importance of empowering parents and carers to support their children.   

The Roadshow was a great success… The combination of authors, publishers and specialists provided a focus for everyone in the audience… The workshops went down incredibly well with teachers and especially the children.” 

Jane Goodlace, Headteacher of Harlands 

I am so pleased we had fantastic photographer, Adam Hollingworth, to help capture some of the magic of the Roadshow! Feedback for the whole event has been even more positive than I could have hoped for and I’d like to say a HUGE thank you to EVERYONE who supported the event and made it so special.  Bring on the next one!

All photographs courtesy of Adam Hollingworth Photography.

If you would like to get involved please contact thebookactivist@gmail.com.

With thanks to our funding partner:

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For more information about the Bookchat Roadshow visit www.thebookactivist.com.

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Making reading accessible at the Bookchat Roadshow!

It’s really important we ensure all children can access reading, whatever their ability. And supporting dyslexic readers is a cause close to my heart – my 14 year old son is dyslexic so I am well aware of the struggles this can cause.  We want to make sure the Bookchat Roadshow supports parents and carers of children of all ages and all reading abilities.
BS_button_whtSo I can’t tell you how pleased I am that Jane Walker from Barrington Stoke will be speaking to parents at the Bookchat Roadshow on 20th July. Jane says:
“At Barrington Stoke we are all about cracking reading. We have nearly twenty years experience of publishing fiction particularly for the reluctant, struggling and dyslexic young reader and I will be talking about how we remove the barriers so that everyone can access and enjoy a good book. I look forward to meeting families and being part of this excellent initiative. “
Jane will be sharing tips and interesting facts around ‘readability’ and reading for pleasure and a very brief overview of what Barrington Stoke can do to support readers of all ages.
We also have the brilliant organisation Helen Arkell exhibiting at the event and on hand to give advice to parents and carers. Helen Arkell Logo Online
Helen Arkell offer dyslexia support and advice to anyone who may need it, whether they think they have dyslexia or care for someone who may have dyslexia. They support children and adults alike through assessments, training, consultations and offer a variety of courses on dyslexia and related topics. Their aim is to “inspire people to believe in themselves, achieve their goals and succeed on their own terms”.  

You can register for FREE to attend the Bookchat Roadshow, which takes place on 20th July 2017 at Harlands Primary School, Haywards Heath, West Sussex.   The Roadshow brings together authors, industry experts and people passionate about children’s reading and writing for pleasure.  With inspirational talks and an author panel bookchat, plus a selection of exhibitors, we give a huge range of ideas to help support children’s creativity. Speakers include author Nikki Sheehan and also the team behind Scoop Magazine. Register online now!

For more information please visit www.thebookactivist.com.

 

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Reading matters…at the Bookchat Roadshow

I’ve been fortunate to interview some wonderful authors on my blog and I’m thrilled to say some of them are here today with wise words on reading in support of the Bookchat Roadshow and the importance of encouraging children’s reading for pleasure.

 

 

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“I learned to love books, words and the worlds they created because of my Mum and now I try to pass on that love to my children – I’m so thrilled to see the Bookchat Roadshow helping this happen.”  

Alice Broadway

 

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Reading to a child is a unique experience you share together. You become travelling companions and join them on an adventure into the unknown. You meet new friends, you face adversity. You share how you feel and wonder at the world that unfolds in front of you. Finding time to read to a child is precious time. Find time. Childhood is all too short.” 

Gill Lewis

 

 

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‘No one’s ever too old to be read aloud to. Better yet, why not read aloud together. Showing your passion for reading, whether that’s reading aloud with your child or reading books together so you can discuss them, is the best way to inspire a lifelong love of reading. Pick things you can both be excited by and always go beyond the page. What do you think happens after the end of the book? Which character is your favourite? Where would you love to go in the book or which object would you most want to have from it? Reading is as much about what you put into making the book come alive in your imagination as what’s on the page. Seeing that is the gateway to writing your own stories…’ 

Alexia Casale

 

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“I love that this event is designed to support parents and carers to help and encourage their children to read and write for pleasure. That’s the key word here, for me. Pleasure. Not enough people read and write for pleasure. So anything that aims to encourage reading, writing and creativity as a form of pleasure, escape and fun, is definitely good in my book!” 

Maria Grace

 

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“I’m very pleased to be taking part in the Roadshow, because I like to read and I liked to read when I was younger too, and sometimes it’s nice to share those things that make you happy. In this day and age the empathy and other-person’s-shoe-ness that reading, both fiction and non-fiction, can help nurture and grow inside a human heart cannot be a bad thing to encourage, so let’s encourage it.”  

A. F. Harrold

 

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“I’m so excited to be taking part in the Bookchat Roadshow! As a reader, writer and story mentor with Little Green Pig, I’m very aware of the miracles that can happen when you allow children to take ownership of their reading and writing. There’s nothing better than the look on a child’s face when they realise that there really are no limits to the worlds they can explore and create, and as parents, teachers and librarians it really is within our power to help them to access to their own wildest imaginings.” 

Nikki Sheehan

 

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“Looking forward to receiving the oaths of allegiance on pain of death from all my minions at… no, wait, wrong speech. Umm…. Looking forward to helping parents getting kids reading and writing at the Bookchat Roadshow! Well, my books at any rate. Forget the other authors, pah!!!’ 

Jamie Thomson

 

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“I’m thrilled to be participating in the Roadshow and meeting parents and carers to talk about the wonderful world of reading. When I was a teacher, I saw first hand the hugely positive impact reading has on the lives of children and young people. Reading is empowering, encourages empathy and provides a calm oasis in what can be a chaotic world. A love of reading is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child which is why I’m so excited to be taking part in the Bookchat Roadshow.” 

Jenny McLachlan

 

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The Bookchat Roadshow takes place on 20th July 2017 at Harlands Primary School, Haywards Heath, West Sussex.   You can register for FREE to attend this unique event bringing together authors, industry experts and people passionate about children’s reading and writing for pleasure.  With inspirational talks and an author panel bookchat, plus a selection of exhibitors, we give parents and carers a huge range of ideas to help them support their children’s creativity. Presentations will include author Nikki Sheehan on creative writing, the team behind Scoop Magazine on celebrating stories and Barrington Stoke and reading and accessibility. With giveaways galore this is an event not to be missed!

For more information please visit www.thebookactivist.com or REGISTER your space for FREE via Eventbrite.

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Branford Boase Book Blog Bonanza!

BBA_LogoI was delighted to be invited to review the Branford Boase 2017 shortlist. The Branford Boase Award is given annually to the author of an outstanding debut novel for children, in memory of Henrietta Branford and Wendy Boase. Uniquely, it also honours the editor of the winning title, highlighting the importance of the editor in nurturing new talent and celebrating the author/editor relationship.

Having now read my way through this amazing variety of children’s debut fiction, I can see that the judges must have had a very difficult task when choosing the winners. Wonderful writing, amazing characters, absorbing worlds and inspirational story lines abound.  All thoroughly deserved of their place on the shortlist, these stories demonstrate the brilliant array of fiction available for children today.

The Branford Boase 2017 Shortlist

 

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Little Bits of Sky by S.E. Durrant

Ira and Zac have been moved around foster homes for as long as they can remember. All they have from their past is a tatty, blurry photograph of a black dog. Then they move into Skilly House, a children’s care home in London. It’s here that they make friends. Lose them again, and wait for their lives to begin. And then one day, they do…

Little Bits of Sky is an utterly believable reflection of growing up in care and the heartache felt when you don’t have a family of your own. Set against the backdrop of the late 1980s, it’s a lovely story about people young and old, who don’t always say the right thing, or do the right thing, but whose hearts are in the right place.  Moments of childhood are captured perfectly; like playing outside and climbing trees as well as having to share a bedroom with your sibling and finally finding a grown-up who understands you. Ira tells the story through diary entries and is full of wonderful observations like “the trouble with holidays is they make ordinary life feel even more ordinary”. You instantly warm to her and her sometimes quite demanding little brother Zac.  Throughout the narrative you are rooting for them to find a home.  Without being overly sentimental Little Bits of Sky grabs at your heart strings and the characters are truly authentic.  I particularly liked Silas, who helps look after Skilly House and the lovely Martha, who wants nothing more than to give Ira and Zac a home.  An evocative snapshot of childhood, this is a fantastic story with writing that reminded me of L M Montgomery.

Find out more at www.nosycrow.com

 

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We Are Giants by Amber Lee Dodd

Sydney thinks her mum Amy is the best mum in the world – even if she is a bit different. When everyone else kept growing, Amy got to four feet tall and then stopped right there. The perfect height, in Sydney’s opinion: big enough to reach the ice cream at the supermarket, small enough to be special. Sydney’s dad died when she was only five, but her memories of him, her mum’s love and the company of her brave big sister Jade means she never feels alone . . .

But when the family are forced to move house, things get tricky. Sydney and Jade must make new friends, deal with the bullies at their new school and generally figure out the business of growing up in a strange new town. And Sydney doesn’t want to grow up – not if it means getting bigger than her mum…

We Are Giants is an absolute gem of a story, celebrating love, family and friendship. Yes Sydney’s Mum is different but many of the things they face as a family are not and that’s what I enjoyed most about it.  Everything felt normal and the author cleverly sheds light on the difficulties facing a mother with dwarfism as part of everyday life.  Financial worries, difficult relationships, teenage angst, problems at school, moving home, romance all become part of a convincing narrative; a realistic reflection of things we all have to deal with. We Are Giants generates real empathy for Sydney, her Mum and her sister, who are ably supported by an array of eccentric characters. Sydney’s new friend Bobby is a gorgeous character – everyone could do with a friend like him.  The well-paced plot keeps the story moving and just the right amount of humour keeps it light, enhancing the positive messages of believing in yourself and the power of family.

As as young girl I myself had a family situation that was a bit different – my oldest sister was disabled.  To me, it was completely normal but I imagine to everyone else it was ‘different’.  But we just got on with it; we were just ‘normal’.  Family comes in all shapes and sizes, and that’s what Amber Lee Dodd celebrates in this book.  I loved it.

Find out more at www.amberleedodd.com.

 

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The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Forbidden to leave her island, Isabella Riosse dreams of the faraway lands her father once mapped. When her closest friend disappears into the island’s Forgotten Territories, she volunteers to guide the search. As a cartographer’s daughter, she’s equipped with elaborate ink maps and knowledge of the stars, and is eager to navigate the island’s forgotten heart.  But the world beyond the walls is a monster-filled wasteland – and beneath the dry rivers and smoking mountains, a legendary fire demon is stirring from its sleep. Soon, following her map, her heart and an ancient myth, Isabella discovers the true end of her journey: to save the island itself.

The Girl of Ink and Stars is storytelling at its best, taking me back to the childhood feeling of only being limited by your own imagination. A story as gorgeous as the cover that binds it and the pages it’s printed on, it is a magical adventure, with a great plot. Bravery, loyalty and friendship abound and as Isabella is drawn deeper into uncharted territory the truth about the island is revealed.  The perfect blend of mystery, myth and monsters – and of course, maps – keeps you on the edge of your seat.  What is it about maps that is just so magical?  I think they can reflect the wonder of the world; a time long ago when people explored in a way they perhaps don’t today.

When an author takes the trouble to write stories within the story, it always creates a world that is that much more believable. The myths in the narrative become more important as the story progresses and Isabella and her best friend Lupe reflect a courage embodied in the island itself. Their enduring loyalty is the lasting impression. The Girl of Ink and Stars is bound to inspire and encourage friendship in all who read it.

Find out more at www.kiranmillwoodhargrave.co.uk

 

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Riverkeep by Martin Stewart

Wull knew it was his Pappa as he had always known him….but there was something else there now too.  Fifteen year old Wulliam is dreading taking up his family’s mantle of Riverkeep, tending the river and fishing corpses from its treacherous waters.  But then everything changes. One night his father is possess by a dark spirit, and Wull hears that a cure lurks deep within the great sea-beast known as the mormorach. He realises he must go on an epic journey downriver to find it – or lose Pappa forever.

Riverkeep is an impressive blend of myth, fairytale and coming of age story. Beautiful, haunting descriptions create an absorbing world and Wull is a believable character with whom you feel much empathy. What with trying to save his father from a parasitic creature, as well as coping with the impending duty of taking over the role of Riverkeep – keeping the river free of corpses – Wull is facing many challenges.  Surrounded by an eclectic mix of characters as he embarks on his quest, Wull’s journey is far from dull! The persistent threat of the mormorach reminds us of the fragility of humanity with every life it devours. I enjoyed the authenticity the dialect added to the characterisation enabling you to really ‘hear’ the characters voices. Not being a fan of gore, for me the blood and guts distracted from the beauty of the prose. However, Riverkeep is a truly well-written debut evoking a fantastical but believable world, worthy of the comparisons it has drawn to other celebrated writers of the same genre.

Find out more at www.martinstewartwriter.com

 

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Beetle Boy by M.G.Leonard

Darkus Cuttle’s dad is missing, vanished from a locked room and now everything for Darkus is about to change. Miserable and lonely, he is has to move in with his eccentric uncle Max, next door to the most disgusting neighbours ever and their house infested by beetles. But when a giant beetle called Baxter comes to his rescue, Darkus learns that these are no ordinary creatures. They’re an incredible super-species and they could just be the key to solving the mystery of his dad’s disappearance.

When links begin to emerge connecting the crime with cruel Lucretia Cutter, mad scientist and fashionista, and her penchant for beetle jewellery, Darkus, Dexter and the other beetles are caught in a race against time to find the answers. A coffee-mug mountain, home to a million insects, could provide the answer – if Darkus and Baxter are brave enough to find it.

I defy anyone not to enjoy Beetle Boy! Darkus is a wonderful character, who despite having had a really tough time, remains optimistic and is incredibly brave – a fantastic hero in the making. This bravery is in no small way down to his new found and fairly unusual friend, Baxter the giant beetle along with new school mates Virginia and Bertolt – both also fairly unusual themselves!  Baxter leads Darkus, his friends and his eccentric Uncle Max to find out the truth; what follows is a well-paced adventure with plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing.  Larger than life baddies including the rather awful Pickering and Humphrey; and Lucretia Cutter (surely Cruella De Vil’s far-more-foul-cousin) will have you jumping up and down for justice! I will confess to not being fond of beetles but after reading this, can see the magic in these fascinating creatures whom I now know so much more about. Beetle Boy also has a positive message about facing your fears and celebrating being different which, alongside the mystery and mayhem, are ingredients for a wonderful story. I’m looking forward to the next one!

Find out more at www.mgleonard.com

 

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The Bubble Boy by Stewart Foster

‘Amir is mad. He’s crazy. But the hospital wouldn’t let a crazy person in. They must have interviewed him and checked his qualifications. But maybe he didn’t even meet them? Maybe he hasn’t even come from India. He might have arrived on an alien spaceship and snuck in here in the middle of the night.’

Eleven-year-old Joe can’t remember a life outside of his hospital room, with its beeping machines and view of London’s rooftops. His condition means he’s not allowed outside, not even for a moment, and his few visitors risk bringing life-threatening germs inside his ‘bubble’. But then someone new enters his world and changes it for ever. 

It doesn’t sound like the happiest of tales, but thankfully The Bubble Boy is more than just a view of being a sick kid.  Joe is a sweet boy who has been dealt a really rough hand in life – on top of his illness, his parents died in a car crash so the only person he has in the world is his sister Beth and his Skype- friend Henry who lives in the US with the same condition.  The writing effectively creates a picture of the claustrophobia of living with this awful illness, but it also demonstrates that Joe in many ways is just like every other kid. He’s loves superheroes and football and wants to do something with his life, someday. And it’s the totally odd, but very kind, Amir, his new nurse that takes the story in a different direction where you’re not entirely sure what is going to happen! I enjoyed the friendships Joe has with the wider cast of characters: his nurse Greg; the camaraderie with his Doctors; his fellow Bubble Boy Henry and the endearing Amir and his crazy ideas. It’s a tough but compelling read and perhaps a reality check for those of us who take our health for granted.  How do you stay hopeful in a hopeless situation? Through friends, kindness, the love of family and yes, by being a bit of a superhero.

Find out more at www.simonandschuster.co.uk

 

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Cogheart by Peter Bunzl

Some Secrets change the world in a heartbeat.  Lily’s life is in mortal peril. Her father is missing and now sliver-eyed men stalk her through shadows. What could they want from her.? With her friends – Robert, the clockmaker’s son, and Malkin, her mechanical fox – Lily is plunged into a murky and menacing world. Too son Lily realises that those she holds dear may be the very ones to beak her heart….

What a thrilling and brilliant adventure!  Full of imagination and fantastic characters, I absolutely loved Cogheart.  The setting comes alive with wonderful imagery and vivid steampunk themes.  The dirigible airships are utterly magical and capture the sense of adventure that runs through the narrative reflecting the Victorian age of discovery.  Lily is the perfect heroine, and as she sets about trying to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance, danger is never far away. As a world famous inventor it quickly becomes clear he has lots of enemies; not least because of the incredible life-like mechanicals he has made.  There is the utterly charming if slightly irascible Malkin, a pet fox made for Lily by her father and one I am certain will find his way into the hearts of everyone who reads this story. More mechanicals make up the household staff – a brilliant addition to the wider cast of characters, including Mrs Rust the cook whose exclamations are particularly endearing. “Clockwork and Cam-wheels!”. 

Lily let’s nothing get in her way but even the bravest of heroines need help and thankfully she has stalwart Robert to help her. He has to face his own self-doubt whilst fighting against some fearsome villains alongside Lily.  The fast-paced plot keeps you on the edge of your seat, as do the action-sequences. Cogheart doesn’t hold back on the treachery but balanced with the warmth and courage of friendship this creates an authentic story full of adventure sure to be a classic for years to come.

Find out more at www.peterbunzl.com

I absolutely cannot wait to see who wins this evening and wish all the authors and editors on the shortlist huge congratulations for their success so far! And thank you to the organisers of the Branford Boase Award for sending me these books to review!

You can read my reviews of the 2016 Branford Boase Shortlist here.

 

 

 

 

Discover creativity at the Bookchat Roadshow!

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The Bookchat Roadshow is an event for parents and carers with children of ALL ages. We want to inspire and encourage those attending with practical advice and ideas to support children’s development as readers and writers from birth right through to teens!  So we’re delighted Discover & Be will be on hand to chat to parents and carers about any Early Years concerns and advise about general teaching and learning worries for primary school age children.

Discover and Be logoDiscover & Be is an exciting educational service providing hands-on, creative experiences for children. As well as weekly multi-sensory messy play sessions for 0-4 year olds, they also offer academic and music tuition.

Rhiannon and Sheila, the co-founders of Discover & Be, share a passion for hands on, creative learning experiences. Their goal is simply to make learning meaningful and inspiring for children.  As the word ‘educate’, from the Latin educare, ‘to lead out’, suggests, Discover and Be aims to focus on not what is put into the child, but what can be led out of each individual. Sheila says:

“We are passionate about reading and sharing stories with children of all ages (even grown up ones).  The Roadshow provides a great platform for parents, teachers, authors and reading experts, to get together to share ideas and experience.”

Discover & Be also has a team of qualified, experienced and passionate tutors who provide bespoke 1 to 1 private tuition across Sussex.  Their tutors champion creative hands-on learning, with the primary goal of engaging the child’s interest to help pupils of all ages reach their potential.  This approach not only achieves fantastic results, but ensures that lessons are fun and meaningful for the child.

“Reading really is the gateway to the curriculum so making it fun and interactive is the best way to get children excited about it.  We love teaching phonics as these sounds are the building blocks that form reading. Empowering children with phonetical skills and watching them build sounds into words is amazing.”

Discover & Be’s weekly messy play sessions are themed, sometimes around a topic such as transport or the rainforest, for example, or often exploring a particular book. Rhiannon and Sheila feel it is important for all sessions to include a shared story with interactive aspects, thereby helping a story come to life. By engaging both the children and parents/carers in this way, reading for pleasure is encouraged and different approaches to sharing stories are explored.

“We feel it is important to access all learning styles and engage all abilities in this way, in order for each child to develop holistically and achieve the most out of each learning experience. We hope that our name ‘Discover & Be’ reflects this philosophy.”

Sheila will be joining us at the BookChat Roadshow on Thursday 20th July so do bring along any questions you have about making learning fun!

“The Bookchat Roadshow gives everyone the chance to come and chat about reading, phonics and writing too. This is definitely something we are proud to support. No matter how old you are, what could better than discovering a new exciting book that you can’t put down???……Chatting about it with your friends of course!!! So what are you waiting for? Get reading books and getting chatting about them.”

Parents and carers in the Sussex area with children of all ages can register for FREE to attend the Bookchat Roadshow, an event bringing together authors, industry experts and people passionate about children’s reading and writing for pleasure.  With inspirational talks and an author panel bookchat, plus a selection of exhibitors, we give parents and carers a huge range of ideas to help them support their children’s creativity. Speakers include author Nikki Sheehan and also the team behind Scoop Magazine. The next event takes place on 20th July 2017 at Harlands Primary School, Haywards Heath, West Sussex.  

For more information please visit www.thebookactivist.com.

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Author Interview: Sarah Matthias

A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias is definitely one of my favourite reads so far this year so I’m delighted to welcome Sarah to the blog today! The story is rich in historical detail and features characters who are so believable you can hear their voices. Read on to find out Sarah’s inspiration for writing the book, the creative process behind it and some truly wonderful insight into the work of an author writing historical fiction.

berlin-love-song_3A Berlin Love Song has romance and love at its heart; was this what you always intended when you started writing the book? When I first started researching the Porrajmos, as the Romanies call the genocide of their people during WW2, The Great Devouring, I had no preconceived idea about what sort of novel I was going to write. I knew I wanted to shine a light on this ‘forgotten holocaust’ but the idea of a romance between a Romani trapeze artist and a member of the Hitler Youth came to me gradually as I went about my research. I always read widely around a subject before I begin to write. As my knowledge of the period and the people caught up in the events of WW2 grew, ideas for a plot started to form in my mind. Other writers might disagree, but for me, I can’t have an idea for a historical novel and then try to squeeze my plot into the historical events. The real events form the skeleton, and any plot must fit into this reality. I believe that this approach means that my plot will be more likely to feel realistic. As I researched the historical background to the period I began to imagine a situation where two very different cultures could feasibly collide and it was then that the idea of a romance was born!  So by the time I started writing the book, A Berlin Love Song was definitely going to be a love story – although I didn’t know at the beginning how it would end!

The story you have created is so real as are the characters you portray.  How did the idea for Max and Lili come about?   Were they based on real people?  Max: I have always been interested in the Hitler Youth movement. When I was a child my father had a German Pastor friend, Pastor Knott. He’d been a Chaplain to the German prisoners of war in a northern town during the war and he and my father were involved together in a reconciliation project after the war was over. Pastor Knott was a frequent visitor to our home. He’d been a member of Hitler Youth in the 1930s. He came from a devout Lutheran family of anti-Nazis in Darmstadt, Germany. His parents had been opposed to him joining the movement but he had been forced into it in 1939 when membership finally became compulsory. Consequently, I had heard a great deal about what it was like to be a member of HY and the way in which many German children had been troubled about where their loyalties should lie. He told me stories of being bullied by National Socialist teachers at school for not conforming and joining the movement. When creating Max, I was able to think back to those conversations with Pastor Knott about how it really felt to grow up in Nazi Germany with all those conflicting pressures. In addition to this, I listened to hours of recordings of ex members of Hitler Youth from archive material I discovered in the Imperial War Museum – old men looking back and explaining what it was like to be a member of Hitler Youth and how they’d been attracted and repelled at the same time. They also talked about how they felt after the war when they discovered the consequences of what they had believed in so fervently. I think this background research helped me to create the character of Max with an authentic voice.

Lili: I first had the idea for the character of Lili when I visited Auschwitz. There is a very moving museum on the site of the main Auschwitz camp, Auschwitz I, where you can see lots of photographs and artefacts from the time – the piles of hair, shoes, suitcases etc. confiscated by the SS guards from the prisoners on their arrival at the concentration camp; the uniforms that were worn etc. It was here that I first saw the portrait of a Romani girl in a blue headscarf who came in my mind to be Lili Petalo. There were a series of paintings on display in this museum by a Czech artist who was a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. She’d been an art student in Prague before being sent to the Terezin ghetto and thence to Auschwitz, and when the infamous Dr Mengele found out that she could paint, he employed her to paint portraits of the Roma in Auschwitz for a book he was writing on genetic research. I bought a book about this called Roma in Auschwitz on the day that I visited the museum. I read all about the artist and her Lilli petaloencounters with Romani prisoners and in particular her encounter with the girl in the blue headscarf.  I learned from this book that many of the prisoners in the Gypsy Family Camp in Auschwitz had been entertainers and musicians and that there was always music in the camp. It was this discovery that led me to research the Romanies as entertainers and to create the whole Petalo family and their circus. There is no record of the name of the unknown girl in the blue headscarf – but for me, her name was Lili.

There is so much wonderful detail about the Romani people and the time period in general. Tell us about the research process for a novel like this. It must be lengthy! It took me several years to research the book. There were so many aspects to look at. Firstly I decided that the novel should span the entire war so I had to make sure that I had a sound knowledge of the progress of the war for the 6 years, almost, that it lasted. I’m really pernickety about my research as I am aware that a novel about a historical period might be the only thing someone will ever read. There’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone likes reading history books but it makes me feel that I have a responsibility to be as accurate as I can, always bearing in mind of course that history books are never entirely objective! After that I had to embark on detailed research in a number of areas – the Hitler Youth movement, air raids, clothes and food rationing, tank warfare, propaganda and films, the circus in Germany and Romani involvement in it, and of course the Romani community itself. There are a number of scholarly works written about the Romani Holocaust so I read all of those I could get my hands on. It was harder to find first-hand accounts written by Romanies about their wartime experiences and their suffering in the death camps. There is so much written from the Jewish perspective, largely because the Jews are such a literate and literary culture. The Romanies are less organised as a community, and theirs is not a written linguistic tradition. Their culture is hugely rich in oral tradition, music and folklore but not much is committed to writing. However, I did find a handful of first-hand accounts written by Romanies and those I found I read avidly, drinking in the atmosphere and the language they used to express their suffering. I wanted the novel to celebrate the Romani culture and to shine a light on the culture of a people who are still one of the most disliked and vilified minorities in Europe. I read collections of Romani folk tales and listened with delight and a certain obsession to their wonderful music. The Romani people are often celebrated for their musical heritage, which has influenced jazz, bolero and flamenco music as well as classical composers including Franz Liszt. I tried to incorporate as much Romani language, traditions and folklore in the novel as the plot would carry.

I can’t imagine some of the accounts you must have had to read in order to illustrate what the characters in the book went through in the prison camps. This must have been very difficult – how did you cope with this? It was very difficult. Sometimes I felt so sickened by what I read that I felt I couldn’t carry on with the research, especially when I came to the detailed research about Auschwitz. My research certainly kept me awake at night. I suppose the way I coped with it was always to try to find the good people amidst the despair and horror of it all – the Jewish prisoner doctors who worked tirelessly to help their fellow prisoners and the few SS who tried to help people get on the transports out of the camp. Alongside the many accounts of inhumanity and degradation that I read, there were so many stories of bravery and selflessness to counterbalance the despair that I sometimes felt. I tried to concentrate on the uplifting and nourishing stories of people who risked their lives to protect others. Many, many people collaborated with the Nazis, but there were also many in Germany who actively assisted victims by purchasing food for households to whom shops were closed, providing false identity papers for those at risk of arrest, and sheltering those who evaded capture. I hope that A Berlin Love Song ends with a message of hope.

The fate of the Romani people in WW2 has been called the ‘forgotten holocaust’. Why do you think it’s important that we don’t forget what happened to them? Many people have little or no knowledge that the Roma were targeted by the Nazi regime. The genocide of the Romani people is an under-taught and under-recognised topic. Despite Helmut Schmidt’s belated recognition in 1982 of the racial nature of the persecution of the Roma and Sinti, and the welcome opening of the beautiful memorial in Berlin’s Tiergarten by Angela Merkel in 2012, today the Romani community remains one of the most disliked and least tolerated minorities in Europe. And alarmingly, anti-Romani hostility is on the increase, aggravated by growing far-right extremism. The Roma are still scapegoats, frequently victims of prejudice and racially motivated attacks, hate speech and hate crime, and facing marginalization and discrimination in nearly every country where they live. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Roma avoid assimilation into the society of the host nation, a legacy, perhaps, of centuries of persecution. And yet because of their isolation, many Roma children don’t attend school. Families often lack access to stable jobs, affordable housing, social services and health care. As a result, poverty, disease, substance abuse and crime afflict many Roma communities.

I believe that now more than ever we must stand up against prejudice and hatred when we see them in our own communities. The Holocaust all happened a long time ago, and yet millions of men, women and children have been murdered since in genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. In today’s world, racial abuse and hate crime is still very much in the news so it is more important than ever, as the people who witnessed the Holocaust during WW2 are growing older and dying, to keep the memory alive of what can happen when prejudice and hatred are left unchallenged.

The story also reflects on what happened to normal German families at the time and the difficulties they faced. Was it important to include this perspective? Since A Berlin Love Song is set entirely in Germany and about Germans, I felt it was essential to make sure that the story was told exclusively from the German point of view. I was very careful not to read anything about the home front in England to make sure that my characters had an authentic German feel. There is so much written about the home front in England that it would have been very easy for me to rely on those sorts of books for things like how it felt to be bombed or how to manage with rationing, but I was very careful not to be tempted. It wasn’t too difficult as there are lots of diaries and memoirs written by Germans who lived through the war years and many of them are published in translation. I read every diary and memoir written by Germans living in Berlin that I could find and in that way I began to see that war through the eyes of ordinary Germans caught up in events – how they were bombarded with propaganda and how they were afraid to speak their minds for fear of being denounced and betrayed to the Gestapo, even by their own family. I have schoolgirl German but I was very relieved I could read them in English. I did have to tangle with a couple of books in German that I couldn’t find in translation and it was very time consuming! One of these books was the only book I could find, in the world it seems, about the Romani circus. I just had to read it or I couldn’t have found out what I needed to know. The dictionary was on fire!

A Berlin Love Song is full of colourful characters. When you were creating the wider cast of characters did this come naturally or were you quite specific in terms of who you included? I don’t really find it difficult to create characters. I’m a nosey ‘people-watcher’ by nature and I store up characters in my head and on paper for future use. My husband and I recently went on a small cruise around the Isle of Mull on a fishing vessel that could only accommodate 12. We were stuck on a boat for 6 days in terrible weather with ten people we had never met before – a rich source of characters!  I kept running back to my cabin to write things down – snatches of conversation and things people did. They probably thought I was pretty eccentric too! One of my favourite authors is Charles Dickens. He’s brilliant at characterisation and I never tire of reading his novels. Maybe a tiny bit of his skill has rubbed off on me since I’ve read everything he has written. I have certainly learned a great deal from studying his writing, thinking about how he has created such a wealth of sparkling characters in just a few lines of prose. One of the things I do in my spare time is help run a community choir in Islington where I live.  I’m the Membership Secretary. Our choir chairman suggested that I should write a novel about our choir as it’s full of ‘interesting’ characters – but I told her that I didn’t want to end up in court!

You’ve written several historical novels – what would your advice be for anyone embarking on writing a historical novel? Gosh – that’s a hard one. I think the most important thing is to try to know your subject inside out. I think you can never know too much about a historical period when you’re writing. The more you know the more confident your narrative will seem. However, the drawback of doing the amount of historical research I did is that when you come to writing you are overwhelmed with the amount of material you’ve gathered. What to include and what to leave out? I have a pet hate which is historical novelists whose writing feels like they’ve ‘swallowed a history book’ and are determined to tell you everything they know about a subject. This can be very boring and destroy the flow of the story. But I fully understand the temptation. It’s so tempting to include everything you know, especially if the research has taken a long time and been very painstaking.  You have to ‘kill your darlings’ as they say and leave lots out. It’s as much about what you don’t include as what you do. The bottom line is that I see myself as primarily a storyteller, not a history teacher. So, although I am meticulous in my research, even down to the weather on a particular day of a particular year, I nonetheless feel that the historical research must be secondary to the story.

So my advice would be to read as much as you can about the era you are writing about, especially original sources and accounts of the past written by people who were actually there and try to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the time. Try to take your 21st century spectacles off and immerse yourself in what it would have been like to have been alive then. But beware of using all the details you know just because you know them. Only use what you need to tell your story and create the atmosphere.  Less is always more!

Thank you SO much for sharing such wonderful, personal insight and detail about your amazing novel.  Some incredible advice and inspiration for anyone writing a novel especially those involved in historical research. 

Read my review of A Berlin Love Song here. For more information about Sarah and her work visit www.sarahmatthias.co.uk.

New review: Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink

Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink is the debut novel by Jennifer Killick, published by Firefly Press. Jennifer studied Creative Writing at Brunel University and having always loved stories, has achieved what she thought as a child would be impossible: having a book with her name on it in the shops!  It’s a fantastic middle grade debut and has been chosen as one of the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge titles.

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Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink by Jennifer Killick

Alex Sparrow is a super-agent in training. He is also a human lie-detector. Working with Jess – who can communicate with animals – they must find out why their friends, and enemies, are all changing into polite and well behaved pupils. And exactly who is behind it all. This is a humorous tale full of farts, jokes and superhero references. Oh, and a rather clever goldfish called Bob. In a world where kids’ flaws and peculiarities are being erased out of existence, Alex and Jess must rely on what makes them different to save the day.

Alex Sparrow is a boy whose mission in life is to be a superhero of the secret agent variety (think Nick Fury). He doesn’t share this too much with the boys at school, for fear of losing his ‘friends’.  But Alex’s idiosyncrasies become more obvious when his ear becomes a human lie detector causing horrifically smelly results! Little does Alex realise he’s not the only one who’s been ‘gifted’ a superpower. Jess, a girl at school who he’s never had much to do with, has her own unique power; she can talk to animals with equally odd results.  Together they make a hilarious team. Whilst the rest of the school kids, including Alex’s so-called friends, shun them for being ‘weirdos’ Alex and Jess set about uncovering a dastardly plot led by an evil teacher. Who knew the hidden lives teachers lead?! As you can imagine, this leads to some unusual and action-packed scenarios, featuring everything from a brave and noble goldfish to a fairly irritating pigeon – and lots of twitching and farting.

I particularly loved – and laughed at – Alex’s voice overs narrating their every move, fully immersing himself into a secret-agent-come-superhero guise. Even more amusing was Jess’ reaction to this, given her straight-talking personality and refusal to be anybody’s sidekick!  The banter between Alex and Jess is brilliant and brings each of their characters bouncing to life. The barmy plot keeps you guessing and laughing out loud all the way through. With twists and turns galore, Alex Sparrow is a school comedy caper perfect for kids – and I think lots of grown-ups will enjoy it too. It also brilliantly reminds us that being different is what makes us human and true friends are often found when we least expect it.

Find out more at www.jenniferkillick.com.

With thanks to Firefly Press for sending me this book to review.