September & October Literature Review

Posted on: 17/09/2018

Written byPippa McGeoch

Senior Consultant

See More

When we began to curate this – our first Literature Review of the academic year, we had in mind the theme of magic. And there certainly is magic within each book, yes, but there is so much more than that, too. The power of hope (a recurring theme we notice which is, perhaps, no coincidence given the times in which we live) and the feeling of freedom juxtaposed with rivalry and captivity would be more apt as threads that run through the texts we’ve chosen. That said, a healthy dose of magic is still prevalent with animals playing musical instruments and portals to other, secret worlds.

With more and more libraries closing, and fewer of the existing ones being accessed by children and young people, never before has it been so important to promote children’s literature. Indeed, in the words of Piers Torday – just one of five authors whose work we’ve explored this month: …where the best adventures have always and will always begin. In the library. And whilst this is the main premise for Torday’s latest novel The Lost Magician, so too is it something that we at the Literacy Tree are firm believers of. In previous Literature reviews, we’ve discussed the importance of literature in helping young people develop resilience; we’ve referenced the need for the sad, the tragic and the upsetting plots in helping children find a sense of self and develop understanding of the world; we’ve explored literature as a means to promote inclusivity where children who may feel ‘othered’ might see that there are others ‘like’ them or who have experienced similar to them.  And so it is heartening to know that there is so much choice in terms of children’s literature at the moment, where these themes are explored, hence why we’ve been a bit greedy and are featuring five stunning new books rather than our usual three! Here’s the selection that has made us rather giddy with joy at how clever and profound the writers responsible are: The Bear, the Piano, the Dog and the Fiddle by David Litchfield; Wisp - A Story of Hope by Zana Fraillon and Grahame Baker-Smith; The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton, illustrated by Angela Barrett; The Lost Magician by Piers Torday and The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

Picture Book

The Bear, the Piano, the Dog and the Fiddle by David Litchfield (Lincoln Children’s Books, 6th September 2018)

We eagerly leapt upon this – the 3rd book by David Litchfield and sequel to The Bear and the Piano (2015) –as we knew it would be brilliant and we were right! Continuing the themes introduced in the first book of enduring friendship, trying things we are perhaps afraid of and showing support for friends even if we feel jealous of their opportunities and accomplishments, this gorgeous story tells the tale of Hector and Hugo. Violin-playing Hector feels glum. Older than he once was and less-popular a violinist than he used to be, (due to the arrival of brilliant new talent on the music scene – a pianist who happens to be a bear) he packs his beloved fiddle away for the last time. It is time for him to retire! But Hector’s dog, Hugo, decides that he will take the fiddle up instead. And so Hector teaches his friend and Hugo becomes really rather good. Trouble is, the Bear spots this bright, new canine talent and whisks him away on tour with a host of other instrument -playing creatures. Hugo is overjoyed; Hector is consumed with jealousy and hurls embittered insults at the poor dog as he prepares to leave on tour. But then Hector has a change of heart. Hugo has been his companion for a long time and how he treated him was no way to treat a friend so he attends one of the tour’s concerts. Calling out to Hugo whilst he is on stage, Hector finds himself being man-handled out of the auditorium by a pair of security guards. Will he and Hugo ever reconcile?

Such a brilliant text for talking about rivalry and jealousy and how encouraging friends is the right thing to do if at all possible. Would work particularly well with KS1 children. And as for the first story, where it all began with a talented bear, playing the piano in his forest, look out for a Literary Curriculum planning sequence on The Bear and the Piano for Year 2 coming soon!

Picture Book

Wisp - A Story of Hope by Zana Fraillon and Grahame Baker-Smith (Orchard, 4th October 2018)

This picture book, rich with beauty and laced with a deep, profound sorrow, is a stark reminder for us all that for many, life inside the barb-wired confines of a refugee camp is a difficult reality for thousands of children – and adults – around the world. The significance of the title? The ‘wisp’ is a grain of hope, floating, not quite tangible. For some, it is the hope brought by memories of how life used to be; for Idris, it is the hope of a future. And the reason it isn’t of Idris’ memories, is that this child has been born in the camp. He doesn’t know any different and can only imagine a life of freedom; of what riding a bike across a beautiful land and playing might be like. It is ‘a small, small world… A world with no trees to give shade, no rivers to drink or seas to swim. A world full of people, but where everyone was alone’.

Now, you may be familiar with Grahame Baker-Smith’s stunning illustrations with their haunting, ethereal qualities (Leon and the Place Between, FaRther and Winter’s Child  - all texts that we have written planning sequences for) and he weaves magic into his illustrations. But his collaboration with Zana Fraillon is no different really: for even in the midst of the despair that emanates from parts of this book, so do magic and hope for a life of freedom beyond the confines of the camp. Fraillon’s turn of phrase is poetic and lilting and this adds to the spine-tingling, heart-rending feel of the book. One day, a wisp blows in and no-one except Idris notices it:

Idris gentlied the Wisp from the ground. He softlied away the dust and dirt and footprints. And that was when he felt it. The smallest whisper of want.

The Wisp bustles Idris through the rows of tents, through the dirt and out to barbed perimeter fence where an old man, eyes dull from years in captivity, is found by the Wisp and so ignites the spark of remembering; a song bursts forth and the people gather in all their ‘rememberings’. The next time a Wisp appears, Idris knows what to do and allows himself to be bustled by the Wisp to who it was seeking. This time, a woman, a sad etched deep into her face…’Once’, she whispered, and the Wisp quivered with delight. The memories spun from the woman’s fingers and rippled through the air.

So, when a Wisp appears one evening and doesn’t bustle Idris anywhere, he realises it is now his turn to remember. Except, no memories appeared. Idris had lived his whole life in this small, small world. There was nothing else to remember. And rather than being a memory of ‘once’, Idris is filled with a promise of ‘soon’.

Evocative and current yet timeless, this exquisite picture book would work particularly well with children in Key Stage 2 around themes of war, freedom and captivity but could also be really effective as a whole-school project text.


The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton, illustrated by Angela Barrett (Bloomsbury Children’s, 27th September 2018)

Author of the highly-acclaimed The Miniaturist, this is Jessie Burton’s first children’s book: a feminist fairytale about finding ones inner lioness and about picking a battle very much worth fighting.

Twelve sisters - princesses, no less. Each full of personality and of the joys of life and living. Each with interests and passions, sparked by their late mother who before the tale begins has died in a motoring accident. Wracked with grief, their father, King Alberto of Kalia decides he must protect his daughters. And so he removes their telescopes, books and paints; forbids them from writing, listening to music... doing anything, really, to advance their education instead believing that girls should sit and wait for a husband to take their hand in marriage. A rebellion, led by the clever Frida, eldest of the daughters, and involving the bringing down of swathes of heavy blackout cloths that the king insisted upon shrouding the castle in, leads to the King locking all twelve daughters into a dormitory. There, captive, they eat all meals, only being allowed out once a day for fresh air but also there, they discover a secret door behind the painting of their late mother. And through the secret passage- way is a world of wonder. Their escape is in form of a world of glittering magic, lagoons, golden-hues, diamond-growing flora and taking animals:

The lioness examined her claws. ‘Brave, resourceful, clever and kind. And terribly imaginative. Just how I like princesses to be.

In the freedom of the tree-root palace, the sisters dance each night away, feasting upon whatever they desire. But then their father realises that their shoes are wearing out at a rapid rate, yet cannot work out why. He sacks the royal shoe-maker and he demands that eldest daughter, Frida tell the truth but she holds fast and refuses to spill the secret. So Alberto banishes Frida and announces that by royal decree, any man who manages to discover the girls’ secret will marry any daughter of his choosing and be crowned king. But things do not go according to plan at all…

This brilliant reimagining of Grimms’ tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses completely subverts the fairytale genre. Gone are insipid, demure ‘weaker sex’ princessy-princesses and enter feisty and passionate girls who trail-blaze their way into a better life. And the message that Burton conveys doesn’t end here. Also included are some profound learnings of self, about courage and about the pursuit of ones desires:

The darkness grew around them once more. But this time the princesses were not frightened. They knew now that the dark was simply the beginning of new things. The dark was necessary. The dark might bring you a golden fox. The dark could be kind to twelve girls simply looking for their next path. (p50)

And find their next path they do indeed!

Whilst there is striking beauty in Burton’s soaring lines of prose, there is also a sense of punchy, humorous direct appeal to the reader which makes this all the more delightful a read. And the slipping into first person narrative towards the end of the story is just brilliant: happens completely without warning. The illustrations are a refreshing take on the traditional imagining of fairytales too.

Gripping, often comical and highly astute, we think this would be perfect for children in upper key stage 2 and would work well alongside our sequences for The Sleeper and The Spindle, The Lost Happy Endings and The Princess’ Blankets.

Novel for middle primary-aged children

The Lost Magician by Piers Torday (Quercus, 6th September 2018)

Intrigue, excitement and adventure is exactly what we’ve come to expect from a novel written by Piers Torday but what is so comforting upon reading this novel  is that you are not mistaken if you find it hugely familiar. Torday has deliberately emulated C.S Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in homage to his favourite childhood novel and it makes for such a lovely read (with its fair share of daring, gore and loss, as you’d expect from Torday). Four siblings – two boys and two girls – are sent to a large house in the country at the end of the war. Each bears their own scars: Evie in particular from the trauma of being inside her school when it was bombed and having to see things that no child should ever see; the oldest child, Simon, jealous and frustrated that he didn’t get ‘in’ on any of the wartime action. In charge of their care is Professor Diana Kelly, who lives in the huge, rambling Barfield Hall: the perfect setting for an adventure. Youngest  - Larry – is the first to find the secret portal into a lost library. And, just like when Lucy Pevensie  - also the youngest child – discovers Narnia, Larry’s siblings don’t believe that he has discovered a magical library. And they certainly don’t believe that such a place called ‘Folio’ exists, where all the stories ever written reside. But, If you can imagine it, it must exist. Somewhere.

But then a truck full of gun-wielding soldiers appears at Barfield. The Professor is arrested and the children are forced into hiding. There appears the portal into the library and to Folio and all four siblings find themselves inside a parallel universe of stories of old, warring factions and with a quest: to find The Lost Magician and defeat Jana and her army of Unreads and it so transpires that this is exactly the professor’s plan.

Sharp edges both metaphorically and through the use of witty, snippets of dialogue makes this a brilliant text for exploring an author’s use of literary language. A particularly favourite section is when Larry, having being separated from his siblings inside Folio, chances upon a world-weary, slightly acerbic  unicorn named Roderick:

‘I am a unicorn you know!’ he snapped. ‘And unicorns got rights, just the same as everyone else.’… The unicorn turned around in the water to face him. His eyes were bloodshot and red-rimmed. A battered pair of gold pince-nez were delicately balanced over his nostrils. ‘First off, the right to be a unicorn. We are not just horses with horns, got that?’

A brilliant text to use with year 4 we feel especially alongside our ‘Lion and The Unicorn’ due to it being set post-war and would also support work on ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ due to the clear parallels between the stories.

Novel for upper primary-aged children

The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (Chicken House, 4th October 2018)

There are things in the world that you have to look at with more than your eyes, hear with more than your ears, touch with more than your fingers.

And we think that this book is exactly one of those things. So sumptuous is Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s prose in terms of plot, characterisation and theme that it’s rather like being enveloped in swathes of velvet. Even when parts are scary or sad, there are no hard edges here and it makes the fear and sadness things of beauty just as much as the joyous occurrences do.

One might draw parallels between this and the first of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights in so far as the sojourn to the North, the epic wintry landscapes, the references to Nordic communities and Norse folklore coupled with a spirited young female protagonist who has such mettle that she becomes a savior. And a powerful bear is involved, too. But Kiran writes with such elan that her lyrical prose must be celebrated in its own right too, just as Pullman’s was more than 20 years ago.

‘The golden thread’, ‘the thread that binds us together’ and ‘all that glitters is not gold’: all idioms in common use, yet the literal binding in this novel subverts these metaphors into a reimagining that isn’t all that pleasant. The Bear – a dark counterpart to Iorek Byrnison, the loyal and highly decent armoured bear in Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’, hails from the North, yes, but is no companion to humans. He has bewitched the boys and young men in Eldbjørn and Oskar – brother to Sanna, Mila and Pípa - is amongst the captives, taken North as if in a trance. The Bear binds them with golden cord that burns fire-like and sears the skin of anyone attempting to free its captives. But in a metaphorical sense, the bond that holds the sisters together – sisters who have had sorrow enough through the loss of both parents – enables them to hold hope and take courage to do what they must and rescue their brother. For a large portion of this delightfully and intricately woven tale, steeped with Norse references yet in an imaginary Northern setting, the eldest of the family, Sanna, isn’t with the others and so it rests to the middle girl, Mila, to execute the rescue plan. Together with little Pípa and the aptly-named Rune the mage (pronounced ‘Roo-nah’ and an old Norse derivative for ‘secret’; not to be confused with the runes that were read by the children in Torday’s The Lost Magician, but linked in meaning nonetheless) they endure a journey fraught with danger and punctuated by attacks from the Bear’s other bewitched creatures: wolves, eagles and the like. But when Rune tells Mila and her sisters – now that Sanna, who was taken in by the jarl, who, it transpires was foe and not friend, has joined them  - that he won’t be accompanying them on the final leg of their quest, Mila must remember what he urged her do: You must find the way past winter.

This would be utterly perfect as a text to support the exploration of extended metaphor, sustained characterisation and setting description and literary language in general and we feel would work well as a text for children in year 5 and 6 to support the teaching of reading. That being said, we also know many children who would find this so gripping and spell-binding that it would work brilliantly as a ‘just because’ read-aloud text where we suspect children wouldn’t  much care for play time, lunch or the end of the day coming round as they’d be desperate to hear what happens next!

Posted in: Literature Review

The Literacy Tree®, Literary Leaves®, Spelling Seeds®, Home Learning Branches® and #TeachThroughaText® are all Registered Trademarks of The Literacy Tree Ltd.
The Literacy Tree CS.301, Clerkenwell Workshops, 27/31 Clerkenwell Close, London, EC1R 0AT | Company Registered no: 07951913