Thursday 26 November 2020

How To Create A Book List

There’s been a lot of excitement on social media the past couple of weeks around the announcement by Marcus Rashford that he’s teamed up with Macmillan Children’s Books to not only write several books but also launch a children’s book club aimed at age 7+ with the remit that “books should have diverse characters … making sure people of all race, religion and gender are depicted correctly and representative of modern society.”

As a school librarian, I know the impact a popular young Black male footballer tweeting “Reading is cool. Books are cool.” will have – and it’s exactly what we need to help promote books and reading for pleasure. Can we have more role models like this please?

But, as is the norm whenever anything like this is announced, a plethora of suggested books appear – one of these was a list published in the TES of 10 books gathered by a teacher from suggestions on Twitter. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these books but they don’t exactly fit the intended remit. And I know if I was to create a library display around them very few would be borrowed. I might be able to entice some students to try a couple if I could deliver a talk promoting them but it would be more likely to be the avid readers picking them up, those who are already confident in trying something new or different knowing that if they didn’t like it they could put it down and move on to something else.

It’s actually quite difficult to put together a list that appeals to everyone, especially if the number of titles is restricted. The wider the age range the list is targeted at the more challenging it is especially if you have to consider emerging readers alongside confident readers – too many suggestions aimed at each group will put many off. I’ve had experience of doing this for book awards and school library packs, and it takes a lot longer and is harder than you’d think.

The books need to be diverse – with respect to characters as well as authors and illustrators. They need to be inclusive so that children can see themselves in the stories, physically and emotionally. However, it’s important to remember that they don’t always want to read something that mirrors their own lives; sometimes they want escapism.

The stories should be well researched – there really is no excuse for incorrect factual information – and well-written with characters and plots that engage and develop throughout the book. Fiction introduces children to new language, sentence structure, inference, etc. but books that are aimed too high and outside their level of understanding may well have the opposite effect and put them off reading. So a balance is needed with books at all levels encompassing both less-able and more-able readers. It is important to remember that a book that is read with a child, or as a class set text, can be at a totally different level from one a child reads by themselves; simply because words can be explained, concepts explored and any issues arising in the book discussed.

Then there are genres to consider. If you want the list to have a wide appeal it needs to include as many as possible; fortunately most books encompass several genres but this can still be a bit of a balancing act. And let’s not forget different types of books; poetry, graphic novels, verse novels, memoirs, non-fiction and so on …

Finally, one important thing to think about is the visual appeal of the whole list, especially if you are planning to create posters or displays using the books.  Covers are important.  Forget “don’t judge a book by its cover” because that’s what people do. They have nothing else to go on until they pick the book up and read the blurb so if the cover doesn’t appeal, they’ll leave the book sitting there. And children are no different ... if anything they can be more rigid in what they like and dislike.

So … I asked my librarian colleagues for suggestions, received rather a lot and have narrowed them down to the following 10. This is not a top ten list and if I was to create another one in a couple of months, it would likely be very different. I've not been able to include every type of book or every type of character.

And yes, I know it’s yet “another” list but I’m hoping this one might just be a bit more appealing and help some children engage with reading. As with all book lists my caveat is that the age recommendations are exactly that; they may appeal to younger or older children and books targeted at 7 – 11 years sometimes have content that may be unsuitable for the younger age range although often the age restriction is more to do with reading ability. If you’re not sure my advice is to read the book first - or ask a librarian.

So … what do you think?


1.      The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson
Published by Andersen Press, 2020
Recommended 7 – 11 years (and older)

A stunningly illustrated poem that remembers both famous and often overlooked figures from Black history. This book can be read on several levels and is excellent for encouraging discussion and further exploration into the background of the people and events represented. It’s a book that, when on display, draws people to it.


2.      Super Side Kicks: No Adults Allowed by Gavin Aung Thun
Published by Puffin, 2020
Recommended 7 – 9 years

Junior Justice is fed up with the adult superheroes getting all the attention so he and his friends form their own team to save the world. A graphic novel series about superheroes and supervillains – always popular! Rather silly and entertaining.


3.      World Burn Down by Steve Cole and Oriol Vidal
Published by Barrington Stoke, 2020
Recommended 8 – 11 years

Carlos’s mother works for Brazil’s Environmental Authority protecting the Amazon from being destroyed. When he’s kidnapped, Carlos manages to escape but then finds himself trapped in the burning jungle. A gripping story with an environmental message. Particularly suited to struggling, reluctant and dyslexic readers.


4.      Who Let The Gods Out? by Maz Evans
Published by Chicken House, 2017
Recommended 9 - 12 years

Things are not going well; Elliot is struggling at school, he is the main carer for his mother, and they’ve received a letter informing them the house is going to be repossessed. But when an immortal constellation crashes into the cow shed, he has a whole new set of problems to deal with. A laugh-out-loud and action-filled fantasy adventure with a nod to Greek mythology and a wonderful cast of characters. This is book 1 of 4 so opportunities to read more of the same.


5.      High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson
Published by Knights Of, 2019
Recommended 8 – 11 years

When Nik and Norva discover their community art teacher has been murdered on their tower block estate, the detective duo swing into action, collecting evidence and tracking down suspects. A fast-paced, urban-set whodunnit with a gripping plot and great cast of characters.


6.      The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L D Lapinski
Published by Orion Children’s Books, 2020
Recommended 9 – 12 years

When Flick Hudson discovers the Strangeworlds Travel Agency, where she can be transported to hundreds of other worlds simply by stepping into the right suitcase, her adventures begin. However, Five Lights, the world at the centre of all this, is slowly disappearing and Flick has to race against time to save it. An imaginative fantasy that pulls the reader in and transports them to magical lands.


7.      Wild Lives: 50 Extraordinary Animals That Made History by Ben Lerwill and Sarah Walsh
Published by Nosy Crow, 2019
Recommended 7 – 11 years

The true tales of fifty animals from around the world and throughout history, featuring bravery, friendship, courage and inspiration. Lots of interesting details, a great way to learn about history and superbly illustrated with drawings and photos.


8.      Planet Omar: Incredible Rescue Mission by Zanib Mian and Nasaya Mafaridik
Published by Hodder, 2020
Recommended 7 – 9 years

Omar has a very active imagination and when he discovers his regular teacher has been replaced with a rather grumpy one after the school holidays, he’s convinced she’s been abducted. So he persuades his friends to undertake a rescue mission. Book three in a great series about the (mis)adventures of Omar and his friends. The illustrations as well as fun use of fonts and space make this book visually appealing and the characters are culturally diverse.


9.      The Big Book Of Football by Mundial and Damien Weighill
Published by Wide Eyed Editions, 2020
Recommended 7 – 11 years

There’s no denying the popularity of football books – my library shelves that contained them were always in a mess – but many are aimed at older readers. This is a perfect book for younger children covering the history of the game, popular players, famous stadiums and lots more. An essential guide to football with fun, colourful illustrations.


10.  Seven Ghosts by Chris Priestley
Published by Barrington Stoke, 2019
Recommended 8 – 11 years

Jake is a finalist in a writing competition and they have all been invited to a tour of a stately home haunted by seven ghosts. As each tale is told, the ghosts are stirred up and Jake begins to see things out of the corner of his eye. An atmospheric collection of connected short stories that are unsettling rather than frightening. Great for struggling, reluctant and dyslexic readers.

Sunday 15 November 2020

What's All The Fuss About Non-Fiction - and how on earth do you choose from so many books?


One of the things I love about November is its focus on non-fiction: the Federation of Children’s Book Groups (FCBG) uses this month to “celebrate all things factual” while the School Library Association (SLA) holds its Information Book Awards (IBA). Although I’ve always got a fiction book or two (or three or four) on the go, looking at my bookshelves you’d be forgiven for thinking I preferred non-fiction. This is partly because I pass on a lot of my fiction books or borrow them from my public library but I hoard my non-fiction and find it difficult to let go of them. I can weed any school library collection to within an inch of its life but hands-off my personal stuff!

This has resulted in a rather esoteric collection over the years. Most of the non-fiction books I buy are linked to interests or hobbies – so I’ve got knitting books alongside travel guides, books on photography and architecture sitting next to stuff on fantasy art and painting, then there’s my CPD collection about books, reading, libraries and all things connected. I have Jim Morrison’s poetry sharing space with Kaffe Fassett’s needlework and Prince Charles “A Personal View of Architecture” (I did warn you) …

As discussed in my previous blog, there are numerous advantages in reading non-fiction – improved vocabulary, exposure other cultures, increased general knowledge amongst others – and when reading non-fiction is done for pleasure it replicates the benefits of reading fiction. I also mention several ways that non-fiction can be promoted in the library and school but what about choosing it for the school library? How do you decide what to stock when you have a limited budget and shelf capacity?

The two organisations above, the FCBG and SLA, are both good starting points: each year the IBA shortlists feature books for all ages and the FCBG has a “100 brilliant non-fiction books for children and young people” list. However, these suggestions need to be considered in the light of the following:

·         Choosing non-fiction books used to be fairly easy. Many subjects used the library for research lessons so you basically bought books linked to those topics. However, today, too many teachers traipse off to an IT suite to undertake “research” which means books can lie unused on the shelves and pupils don’t get to investigate the use of both print and online resources.
So if you have research lessons in the library then prioritise those topics for any non-fiction purchases.
And teachers – please think about using your school library for research (though give the librarian plenty of notice so they can get relevant resources in stock). Contrary to popular belief, not everything is online and students will, at some point, need to access information in different formats. Now is a good time for them to start learning those skills.

·         Publishing non-fiction has also changed, probably because of the change of use in print books but particularly with regards to its use by older pupils. It’s difficult to find non-fiction that links to GCSE topics that’s not a text book. KS4 students tend not to read around the subject; they don’t have the time and are taught to the test so have no need to. This is often true for many KS5 (A level) pupils other than those who are extremely motivated or gripped by their subjects. Unless you have staff who push library use with KS4 and KS5, then it is likely books aimed at this level will get minimal use.

·         Non-fiction aimed at KS3 and KS2 is totally different and there are some fabulous books published for this age group. Again, if you have classes coming into the library to research then ensure you have up-to-date and appealing books on those topics but don’t forget interests and hobbies, especially as non-fiction can often be a way to entice the reluctant reader.
Interestingly these can vary from school to school, even within a geographically close area so what works in one school library may not even be picked up in another.
There are perennial favourites – such as football, cars, space, animals, cooking – but I’ve worked in schools where ice hockey, wrestling and fishing books were in constant demand. One good way to ascertain what pupils are involved with is via a survey about their interests. And don’t forget topical areas of concern such as Black Lives Matter and the environment.

·         Primary school libraries are slightly different. They typically supplement classroom libraries with teachers using the stock to support the topic pupils are studying, often bringing in their own personal books. This means that books linking with curriculum topics will be in demand but don’t forget that pupils will also want to explore the shelves and discover books outside of the curriculum.

·         Resources to support mental health and wellbeing are important at both primary and secondary levels. There are a number of books to support this which can be stocked in the library and used – either by individual pupils, as part of PHSE lessons or by the pastoral team. Have a look at The Reading Agency “Reading Well” programmes for some suggestions.

Can’t finish this blog without some book suggestions. These are not a “best of” list or the top 2020 publications. I always find it hard to make recommendations as I’m only too aware of the numerous amazing books that aren’t included; however, as this year’s non-fiction theme is “The Planet We Share” these are some of the non-fiction books linked to this that I’ve enjoyed reading – in no particular order:

Climate Emergency Atlas.
Published by Dorling Kindersley. 

Covers what climate change is, its impact & what we can do about it. A stunningly visual book – it’s both awe-inspiring and scary at the same time. An important topic.

The Farm That Feeds Us by Nancy Castaldo & Ginnie Hsu
Published by Words & Pictures

A year in the life of an organic farm. Pages filled with gentle muted illustrations and lots of information about sustainable farming.

The Big Book of the Blue by Yuval Yommer
Published by Thames & Hudson

I love all of Yuval Zommer’s books (and am intrigued as to what the next one is going to be one as the subjects all begin with B) but this is my favourite. An exploration into the world of the oceans. 

Lots by Marc Martin
Published by Big Picture Press

This is a book for dipping into. It’s a journey around the world with random facts and observations, filled with pages that are bursting with illustrations and quirky details.

Our Wonderful World by Ben Handicott, Kalya Ryan & Sol Linero
Published by Wide-Eyed Editions

I confess to having a soft spot for atlases and this one is filled with 50 maps containing facts and figures, encouraging the reader to explore the world. Hours of browsing delight!

The Magic and Mystery of Trees by Jen Green and Claire McElfatrick
Published by DK

A perfect introduction to the world of trees – nature, wildlife, biomes, conservation and more – all wrapped up in a beautifully illustrated package.

The Animal Book by Ruth Martin.
Published by Lonely Planet Kids

It was hard to choose between this or one of the Lonely Planet books about countries or different cultures but this won because, even though it’s aimed at 8-12 years, my grandson (aged 4) will happily sit and read it, looking at the photos and asking questions. Books that appeal to ages outside their intended audience are definitely value-for-money!

Wild City by Ben Hoare and Lucy Rose
Published by Macmillan

Another book that takes the reader on a tour of worldwide locations, this time looking at the wildlife that can be found at each one. 


I could go on … there really is a huge choice out there and books are a wonderful way of  introducing children to the natural world. I always find I'm learning something new myself - which is one of the reasons I love non-fiction so much! Go and explore ...