Empathy Lab and Black Dots

I attended a conference yesterday for Empathy Lab, the new organisation using books to help children understand about empathy. One of the speakers was Prof. Robin Banerjee of the University of Sussex. He’s done a lot of work exploring the impact a lack of empathy can have on children’s social and emotional needs. One of the most affecting things he showed us was a diagram of a Y6 class’s friendship patterns (slide 4 on the study). Children were asked to nominate those they most like to spend time with. Instantly you could see the popular kids, the kids with a few friends and those without any (the ‘rejected’). These rejected classmates were shown by black dots and the diagram had two black dots – ‘Alex’ and ‘Emily’ with no arrows going towards them, even though their arrows reached out to others. No one wanted to spend time with them in other words. What must life be like for Alex and Emily?  Why do they find it so hard to connect with others and vice versa?

Following Dr Banerjee was Teresa Cremin. Teresa did that thing – that magical thing – of reading a book out loud. She chose Nicola Davies’s King of the Sky. The way she read it made me want to cry. The lonely, nameless Italian boy with no one to talk to or look after him would have been a black dot on the diagram. He hadn’t done anything wrong; he just didn’t know how to communicate with his classmates (language barrier?) and they didn’t seem to want to communicate with him. As in many of Nicola Davies’ picture books, wildlife healed him. And as with many picture books, it was Laura Carlin’s powerful illustrations that made the story deeply moving, as well as Teresa Cremin’s skilful delivery.

So why was I there? Because Miranda McKearney of Empathy Lab approached the Patron of Reading gang, of whom I’m one, and asked if patrons might help deliver Empathy Lab programmes in schools. ‘After all, ‘ she said, ‘authors are the masters of empathy.’ She’s right. Our books are full of characters who are outsiders. From classic ‘loners’ to ‘oddballs’ to ‘geeks’ to ‘sociopaths’ – you name ’em, we’ve covered ’em.  Why? Because they’re the most challenging to write and the most interesting to read. We’re also good at showing why these outsiders have no friends or don’t ‘fit in.’ What makes them so unpopular or alien? Are they simply vile people who don’t deserve to be liked? Sometimes, but then again Draco Malfoy is an extremely nasty character in the Harry Potter books and he has friends; Draco would not appear as a black dot on Dr Banerjee’s chart.

Then there are the issues stories explore. Bullying, homelessness, loneliness, racism, disability, sexuality, pollution, divorce, bereavement, animal cruelty… basically, whatever is going on in the world, books have got it covered.  They don’t always have a happy ending – that would be fake – but they do, mostly, offer hope. That’s why books such as Wonder by RJ Palacio and Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian are so popular. They’re not easy reads but they show the reader that, no matter how bad things seem, there’s always someone or something to help you through. So it makes perfect sense that EmpathyLab would enlist authors to support the cause.  Check out this list of ’empathy-boosting books’ here.

A brilliant example of why children need empathy skills can be found on this blog by a mum called Hayley writing about loneliness. ‘It started in primary school,’ she writes. The blog shows that the bullying Hayley endured at school has stayed with her into her adult life. What’s interesting and heart-breaking at the same time is the number of comments from others relating to her experience.  Hayley could well be the Suzanne character in my book, Saturday Girl, only I hope I gave Suzanne enough ammo in my story to allow her to grow into a confident adult.  Perhaps if EmpathyLab had been around in Laura’s primary school, she would have led a more emotionally-stable life.

So bring on the empathy and bring on using books and authors to show children how to make the world kinder, safer and a better place for us all to share.


PS: Sorry no pics with this post – my server won’t download any – back soon once it’s sorted.




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One Club, One Community

In 2000, Roy Keane, then captain of Manchester United, famously lambasted the club’s fans for their poor support during a match against Dynamo Kiev. His anger was particularly directed at the ‘men in suits’ up in the corporate seats who ‘…can’t even spell football let alone understand it.’ He nicknamed them the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ and the phrase has stuck ever since. Well, there were plenty of men (and women) in suits in the Revell Ward Suite at the John Smith’s Stadium on Thursday but they were as far from the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ as Tring is from the sea.  They weren’t there to freeload, they were there to witness Dean Hoyle, the chair (some might say saviour) of Huddersfield Town, re-launch the fabulous initiative which is the Town Foundation.

Dean Hoyle with some of the children from the Breakfast Clubs having a day out in Filey. Photo c/o Town Foundation website

The Town Foundation is the charity arm of the club. Many clubs have similar foundations and do tremendous work. It’s a shame that side of what football clubs do isn’t given more credit in the media.

I became involved in the Town Foundation in 2012, soon after its inception and quite by accident. A follower on Twitter alerted Sean Jarvis, the commercial director at the club, that I was a Town fan. I was invited to meet Sean and I was impressed by this approachable guy who was as happy to discuss this new venture with a mid-list children’s author as he was with the movers-and-shakers from commerce and  industry. I was impressed, too, that the whole purpose of the Foundation was principally to help children from socially deprived areas by providing Breakfast Clubs and other schemes such as reading diaries. Reading diaries – I almost swooned! But that’s what makes Huddersfield Town so special – they know what’s important. I was honoured to be invited to become a patron of the Town Foundation in 2013, alongside such luminaries as Ed Clancy and Andrew Gale. It has been my pleasure to visit some of the schools involved on World Book Days and during school holidays. The last one I did was great fun – a creative writing workshop on a ghost train at Halloween.



All aboard the ghost train with the Town Foundation. Photograph: Contact john@thelightmonkey.com

Fundraiser Julie Sheffield with Y6 from Hightown JIN October 2016 Photo: Contact john@thelightmonkey.com

Anyway, such a huge undertaking needs financing and publicity so of course big businesses and major organisations were at the re-launch on Thursday but so were teachers and headteachers, so were people like Wendy Marsden, who runs the Kid’s Café at Lowehouses from a care-worn church hall.  Far from being just another corporate ‘do’, there were people there with stories to tell and stories, as we all know, are what makes us human.

Sean Jarvis, Commercial Director at Huddersfield Town, with Head of Retail Luke Cowan in 2016

Sean Jarvis was MC for the event.  Sean talked about key moments in the club’s recent history that had led to this day: the centenary in 2008, the new chairman (Hoyle in 2009), the dramatic play-off final at Wembley in 2012 and the match against Barnsley in 2013 that kept us in the Championship. With each listing my smile grew wider as memories flashed through my head.  I  remembered walking down Wembley Way alongside thousands of other Town fans, chanting that earworm chant as passers-by looked on, bemused. And the Barnsley match – yes, I was at that one, too. I’d never experienced anything like it and I’ve been going to matches since 1982. It was the last match of the season and Town, alongside Barnsley, Peterborough, and Fulham, were all statistically eligible for the drop.  Everything depended on picking up points and other teams losing them and, as fate would have it, we were playing Barnsley at home. Check out this link for how events unfolded but the last two minutes of the match when play almost stopped, with players gently tapped the ball from one to the other without any intention of scoring, were surreal and endeared me to Barnsley ever since. I’m sure Posh fans feel the same…

So anyway, it was all good stuff from Sean and then came the guest speaker, the Mayor of Kirklees no less. ‘Old School’ is what probably describes Clr Jim Dodds best; tall and imposing with a shock of white hair, he talked about growing up in Newcastle and how his heroes had all been footballers such as Len White. He talked about how, when a club does well, the whole town feels good and that had everyone nodding. It’s true, too. I know that local newspapers’ sales rocket when the local team is having a good run – success has a knock-on effect.  A huge part of  keeping that momentum going, the mayor continued, was getting footballers out into the community and meeting people but especially meeting children. ‘Let’s help them get reading again,’ he added, ‘…children don’t read enough.’ I could have hugged him.

He was followed by Dean Hoyle. This was a first for me, seeing Dean Hoyle only yards away. I had that same feeling I get when I’m appearing at literary festivals and I am in the green room with highly esteemed authors such as Neil Gaiman or when I served on the management committee on the Society of Authors and shared a table with Sarah Waters and Anna Sebba. I think it’s called imposter syndrome – that feeling of being somewhere you shouldn’t be because you’re not worthy and out of your depth. Still, there I was and keen to hear what the founder of the charity had to say.

The area of Lowehouses falls into one of the worst 10% in Kirklees for deprivation (2010 stats)

Unlike his commercial director, our chairman looks less happy in a suit. He looks, in fact, as if he’d rather be on a factory floor with his shirt sleeves rolled up, discussing production, or out on the training fields watching his dynamic head coach, David Wagner, put the players through their paces. But he’s here in the Revell Ward Suite and he has a job to do and when he is called to speak, he approaches the podium with confidence. Hoyle doesn’t have the steely physical presence of the mayor but what he does have is belief. ‘Believe’ has long been a motto of Town’s and Dean Hoyle believes in the club and the Foundation. That belief in the importance of charity work, he revealed, stems from an encounter he and his wife Janet had when meeting the headteacher of a primary school not far from the Leeds Road training ground. The headteacher told them of a boy who had been abandoned by his parents and whose background and situation were heartrending. The encounter, less than three miles from where the Hoyles lived, shook them both. They were determined to do something to help, not just that particular child, but other children like him. ‘There are problems on our doorstep,’ Hoyle  told us, his face grave and earnest. He’s absolutely right. The Metropolitan Borough of Kirklees, of which Huddersfield is the largest town but also includes many smaller, old woollen and textile mill towns like Batley and Dewsbury, as well as more rural settlements such as Denby Dale, was ranked 67th out of almost 400 in the last survey of Britain’s poorest areas.  In 2013, unemployment in Huddersfield among men was over 9.2% compared to nearby Penistone at 3.6%.  Behind those statistics are households struggling to make ends meet and within those households are children suffering as a result. The National Literacy Trust has long established a link between poverty and literacy. Basically, the more literate a child is, the more their chances of escaping the poverty trap.  Yet with public services under threat and many Kirklees libraries being closed, these avenues out of deprivation are being shut off to those who need them the most. That’s why I was glad when Dean Grice and Julian Winter, key figures in Hoyle’s team, explained why they had included education as one of the four new ‘goals’ and had partnered with Kirklees College. The other goals are sports, inclusion and health. They’re all linked. They’re all crucial. ‘We (Huddersfield Town) are the biggest brand in Huddersfield. We have a duty to give back,’ Hoyle said.

At the end of the session there were no questions from the floor but one hand was raised. ‘I don’t have a question, the speaker said, who, it transpired, was the headteacher at the school where it had all begun. ‘I just want to bring you up to date. I was there when we talked about that boy and I just want to tell you that thanks to your support he’s doing well. He’s gone on to better things.’  The headteacher didn’t gush. He didn’t elaborate or start heaping praise and platitudes on the panel at the front. He left it at that. Nobody clapped or whooped – we’re Yorkshire, remember – but we felt it: that moment when your eyes prickle because you’ve heard and witnessed something real and important.

Andy Booth at one of the Town Foundation’s breakfast clubs. Julie Sheffield in the background.

Afterwards I talked to Andy Booth, the club’s popular ambassador who, along with fundraiser Julie Sheffield, does so much of the leg work helping to run the Foundation and put all the initiatives into place. ‘What I like, ‘I told him, ‘is that unlike other clubs we don’t just make the players go out and rock up for  events – it’s a joint effort – everyone’s involved.’

‘Oh, but they do go out,’ Andy replied. ‘This is the best squad ever for being willing to meet the public and go the extra mile. Especially the German lads – it’s part of their culture.’

I left feeling so inspired. What a cause. What a club. Maybe we should invite Roy Keane to have a look round. I’ll bring the sandwiches.


To donate to the Town Foundation or find out more click here.












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Carnegie Medal Longlist Controversy

I was once nominated for the Carnegie medal; it was back in 1999 for Simone’s Letters. I can’t tell you how delighted I was – the Carnegie Medal was the children’s book award as far as I was concerned and to be nominated was the ultimate accolade (although I suppose winning would have been the ultimate, ultimate accolade but sadly Simone didn’t make it to the longlist). Seventeen years later and thirty two books down the line and I haven’t had a sniff of the medal since. I thought I might have had a chance with Never Ever (2001) or Accidental Friends (2008), two of my Young Adult novels but nah. I was disappointed but tried to heed Paul Arden’s advice in It’s Not How Good You Are Its How Good You Want To Be . ‘Do not try to win awards,’ Arden states, ‘… awards are judged in committee by consensus of what is known. In other words, what is in fashion. But originality can’t be fashionable because it hasn’t, as yet, had the approval of the committee. Do not try to follow fashion… that is where true art lies.’  Exactly – Never Ever and Accidental Friends were works of true art. The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett (2001 winner) and Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur (2008 winner) weren’t original at all – they were merely ‘on trend.’ Yeah – as if!  Both are excellent books, both are on my bookshelf, both stayed with me for a long time after I had finished reading them. Both, without a shadow of a doubt, were worthy winners of the Carnegie Medal.

What I’m trying to say is that being nominated for the Carnegie Medal, let alone making it to the next stage, is a real achievement for any children’s writer. Ask J K Rowling if you don’t believe me. She hasn’t won it, either.

All of which brings me on to the controversy that has broken out over this year’s Carnegie longlist. Having whittled the initial list down from about 50 titles to 20, the CILIP judges , all widely experienced librarians, proudly announced who was still in the running for the 80th medal. Here they are:

2017 CILIP Carnegie Medal longlist (alphabetical by surname):

  1. Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot by Horatio Clare (Firefly Press)
  2. Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Pan Macmillan)
  3. Unbecoming by Jenny Downham (David Fickling Books)
  4. The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Orion Children’s Books)
  5. How Not to Disappear by Clare Furniss (Simon & Schuster)
  6. The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (Faber & Faber)
  7. Whisper to Me by Nick Lake (Bloomsbury)
  8. Beetle Boy by M.G. Leonard (Chicken House)
  9. The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard (Old Barn Books)
  10. Pax by Sara Pennypacker (HarperCollins)
  11. Railhead by Philip Reeve (Oxford University Press)
  12. Beck by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff (Walker Books)
  13. Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt (Andersen Press)
  14. The Marvels by Brian Selznick (Scholastic)
  15. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (Puffin)
  16. Island by Nicky Singer (Caboodle Books)
  17. Dreaming the Bear by Mimi Thebo (Oxford University Press)
  18. Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford (HarperCollins)
  19. Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk (Corgi)
  20. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner (Andersen Press)

It’s quite a cohort and I see that pesky Philip Reeve’s on again, curse his teeming talent. What you don’t see are any writers from a BAME background (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) and this is where the trouble began.  I’m not on Facebook but my timeline on Twitter went into overdrive, with many reacting to this Guardian piece. It was the quotation by Nick Poole, chief executive of CILIP, that proved the most contentious. Forced into defending the all-white longlist he wrote:

“The books on the longlist are judged on merit and on an equal playing field. This year’s longlist represents, in the opinion of the judges, the very best books of the year, with no consideration of gender or ethnicity of either the writer, illustrator or audience,” said Poole. “The broad subject matter of this year’s longlist – stories about refugees, disability and migration – illustrates the breadth of range that the medals are known for.”

On the surface, this seems reasonable and nothing less than we’d expect.  Every school librarian worth their salt tries to find ‘a breadth of range’ that reflects and challenges their pupils’ reading habits. Sometimes they struggle to find a range  but that’s down to what’s being published, not lack of awareness by librarians.  But are judges truly ‘blind’ as to who writes the book?  Many thought not. ‘It’s not an equal playing field, my friend,’ wrote Nikesh Shulka and called for a boycott of the award.

While I feel a boycott would be unhelpful and over-the-top, I think there is a real issue here that needs addressing because CILIP  is one of the most important gatekeepers of children’s literature in the UK. CILIP needs to address this matter promptly and with honesty. I want to believe that judges do look for ‘the very best books of the year’. I have met two of them – Tricia Adams and Jake Hope –  on many occasions and I defy anyone to name two greater advocates of books and writers.  But the omission of BAME writers is a serious matter. It sends out subliminal messages that perhaps BAME writers are not producing good enough books to be longlisted for this prestigious prize. This is clearly not the case. Malorie Blackman, Narinder Dharmi, Candy Gourlay, Catherine Johnson, Bali Rai and Benjamin Zephaniah have all carved out successful careers as children’s writers. Their books are excellent, their voices are heard. In fact, Blackman’s Pig Heart Boy was shortlisted for the Carnegie in 1997 and was serialised by the BBC. Some might use this as evidence that, see, BAME writers do get recognised and this whole thing has been blown out of proportion by the ‘political-correctness-gone mad-brigade’ but the reality is, there aren’t enough Malories, Catherines and Balis coming through or, if there are,  they are not getting the same recognition as their white counterparts.  For many BAME writers, the playing field must seem a long way away and, for the few who make it to the boundary, there appears to be double the amount of fencing to climb before they can begin to check out how level the thing is.

So what’s the answer for the Carnegie Medal award? Positive discrimination? To automatically include at least one BAME writer on the longlist every year?  I’m not sure. As a writer, I’d want to be on the list through merit, not because of the colour of my skin.  What might be more useful is a look at whether there are underlying, subconscious reasons for our gatekeepers’ selections.  Do the librarians who nominate the books read with an implicit bias without realising it, given the vast majority of the librarians and judges are white? Again, I don’t have any answers but I think this is  worth examining. Have any studies been done on this? I’d be interested in any links, if so.  The reverse could also apply, of course – BAME writers may also have their own implicit bias.

Other troubling issues emerged from my Twitter feed, not related to the Carnegie as such but are part of the wider picture. One of the observations Malorie Blackman (photo left) made was how some publishers have certain expectations of BAME writers. They want black writers to write about ‘black issues’, for example, not about football or the perils of first dates. Stay in your box in other words. It’s a similar gripe Denbighshire Reading Services Manager Bethan Hughes (inset below) has about books set in Wales. Basically, too many dragons. ‘There’s more to the Welsh than dragons,’ she once told me.  Hear, hear. And there’s more to British Muslim kids than curry and the Qur’an and there’s more to Yorkshire folk than flat caps and whippets. This pigeon-holing needs challenging robustly. It’s wrong. It’s damaging and it limits both storytelling and storytellers.

Then there is the accusation (not made by Malorie – I forget who) that organisations are happy to promote books by white writers with BAME characters and BAME ‘issues’ but not those by BAME writers themselves. The stories of ‘refugees, migration and disability’ Nick Poole alluded to. Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow, for instance.  I suspect books such as Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird would come under that category or 2015’s winner, Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman.  My books too, to some extent. In Girls FC, I had a girls’ football team made up from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. There was Eve, whose parents were originally from Ghana; Nika from Ukraine and Tabinda, whose father is Gujarati and mother Punjabi. Those backgrounds weren’t issues in the plots – the plots were all about the footy – but having a multi-cultural team was a no-brainer. No doubt I missed many cultural identifiers through ignorance but I tried, and will continue to try, to be inclusive in my books. It’s the idea that my books might be favoured over a BAME author writing about a girls’ football team that concerns me. Could that really happen? It’s an uncomfortable truth, if so. However, I’d defend every writer’s right to write about any character of any colour and culture they choose, as long as they do so with respect and for the right reasons. There are enough problems in writing without denying us the creative process.

What might help is if the Carnegie Medal were only open to UK-based writers. On the longlist of 20, there are 2 Australians, 7 Americans (I’ve excluded 2 American-born writers now residing in the UK ). Such a restriction would mean children miss out on hearing about some terrific books but the smaller pool might give more UK-based BAME writers a greater chance of inclusion. Or is the system so biased it still wouldn’t make any difference?

I don’t really know how to address any of this – I am, after all, a white writer – but I want a level playing field and I hope this furore goes some way to looking at how to achieve one.

Matt Imrie, a school librarian and former judge added this well-balanced piece on his Teen Librarian blog here.



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Pinsky Press

Did I tell you about my exciting start to 2017? I’ve only gone and become a publisher, haven’t I?  Only a teeny-tiny one, specifically for one title but hey – full marks for enterprise, right?  I have called myself  Pinksy Press and the website is over here: Pinksy Press. It’s a micro site to promote Baby Football Fan – My First Year. My son Joe designed it and I think it’s  excellent. He used Persona as a template as it was quick and easy but also quite funky. Thanks Joe!

So, what’s the story?

Back in 2015 I designed a bespoke baby record book for Huddersfield Town. Unfortunately it was quite expensive to produce on my limited budget so Mandy Stanley, the illustrator, and I worked on a more generic template for future editions with other clubs. The idea was the cover will be changed to suit the club but most of the insides would be the same. These are called ‘common inners.’ It’s like when bakers bake a birthday cake. The sponge mix is delicious for all customers but when requested, the baker can add icing and decorations of your choice. You want chocolate on top? You get chocolate on top. Sprinkles?  Here are your sprinkles, hun.

Now, when Mandy Stanley made our cake – I mean book – the common inners were so uncommonly brilliant we decided we could put the book out there as it was. It didn’t need chocolate or sprinkles – it was perfect. This makes Pinksy Press is Baby Football Fan – My First Year great for any fan of any football club. Genius!

Tell me more about baby record books?

OK. When you were a baby did your parents fill out a record book for you? You know, recording all those important milestones like how much you weighed when you were born, what your first words were, how cute you looked in those Finding Nemo wellies?

Well, Baby Football Fan is like that only as well as space for all those key details, it has pages dedicated to what was happening in the family’s favourite football team that year, too. Where they were in the league the day you were born and who the manager was – things like that.











I think you’ll agree it’s a cracking idea so if you know anyone who is having a baby and loves football, Baby Football Fan makes a perfect baby shower gift. If they don’t like football… not so much!








  • Baby Football Fan comes in a choice of two glossy hardback covers, one for white babies, one for black babies
  • It’s great for fans of all teams – men’s and women’s
  • It’s suitable for all families – traditional and non-traditional (mums and dads, mums and mums, dads and dads)
  • And it’s only £11.99 for 32 pages of gorgeousness.

Hi Five!

Buy from Amazon

But you’re still writing fiction books for children aren’t you, Helena?  Please say yes.












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The Hypnotist

hypno-cover-border-643x1024The Hypnotist is children’s picture book writer and artist Laurence Alholt’s first novel for young adults. You can’t tell. Rather than his first, it has the assured style of someone who has been writing for this age range for years. The Hypnotist  is powerful book with a theme that couldn’t be any more relevant to today’s readers. It’s set in 1960s America, although the first chapter, where we meet Pip in St Joseph Poor Boys’ Orphanage, makes the setting feel much earlier. Pip is a 13-year old black boy, cruelly orphaned when his parents are killed in a traffic accident. We don’t get to know much about the orphanage – Anholt whisks him out of there pretty quick and into the service of Zackary, a grizzled,cumudgeonly type who lives on Dead River Farm with his morbidly obese and bed ridden wife, Lillybelle, and their only son, Erwin. Erwin, we soon learn, is not a nice guy. Erwin is best avoided at all costs, especially if you happen to be black. Pip soon learns to be on guard at all times, night and day, in case he bumps into this cruel young man and his mysterious associates.

Also on the farm is Hannah, a 13 or 14 year old (she isn’t sure of her age) girl of Native American descent and another of Zackary’s servants. Hannah might have been a potential ally for the lonely Pip but she is surly and silent and difficult to get to know.  It is only as the story unfolds we learn of her secret inner life and hopes and dreams.

Added to the mix is Irishman Jack Morrow, the hypnotist of the title. He is a lecturer at a college in the town and rents a place within spitting distance of Dead River Farm.  Apart from Lilybelle, Jack is the only man to show any kindness to Pip, recognising in him the same loneliness and sense of being an outsider he  has often experienced.  As the story progresses Jack, Pip and Hannah form an alliance that leads to deep friendship and love, with each one of them screwing up their courage to help the other when the time is needed.

I enjoyed The Hypnotist very much. Anholt deals with difficult issues of racism and white supremacism in a credible way.  The racism is open and brazen, as was the case in the southern states in 1960s. There is a scene where Lilybelle sends Pip to fetch her some burgers from the take away and he finds himself barred from entering: ‘No dogs, Negroes or Mexicans’ the notice declares.’ On his return, empty-handed, Lilybelle is amused. ‘Aw, honey,’ crooned Lilybelle, stroking his cheek. ‘Didn’t ah tell ya? You have to wawk round th’ back. There’s a li’l shed there for Coloureds.’

As I mentioned in the introduction, The Hypnotist feels as if it is set in a bygone era of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, for example. But the research is spot on, the period absolutely accurate – experiences like Pip’s were not uncommon in the 1960s. Worse still, The Hypnotist could also be said to be a contemporary work. With Donald Trump the president-elect of America, and white supremacists celebrating that victory with Nazi salutes only THIS WEEK, America feels as if it’s going backwards. ‘I will build a wall to keep out the Mexicans’ was the Trump quote for which most gasped but many applauded. That’s why fiction is so important and stories like The Hypnotist more important still. We need writers  to offer  readers hope and to shine a bright light along troubled paths with their stories. Pip and Hannah walk troubled paths but the light is always there, shining, shining, and good triumphs in the end.

The Hypnotist by Laurence Anholt

Published by Corgi

RRP: £7.99

Age range: 11+

Themes: friendship, racism, overcoming all odds

Would suit: Y7/8/9 classroom readers for discussion












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Blog for New Teachers Part #2: Class Readers

how-to-tell-stories-to-childrenHere’s the thing. I taught for seven years full-time and a further thirteen years part-time. I taught in junior schools and secondary schools. I taught in small village primaries and huge city secondary schools. I had good classes and awkward ones. I had days when I was on fire and days when I simply didn’t deliver what my class deserved. Sometimes I rocked and sometimes I was totally out of my depth. Totally. Those lessons were awful for all of us.

The one constant in my teaching career was my love of reading out loud to my class. This is where I excelled. This is what kept me going. It felt like cheating, it was so simple. Find a book, read it out loud – success guaranteed. I could be wrong, of course. I could be mistaking ‘success’ – that lack of shuffling, that silence, that absorption in the story – for something else; submissive boredom or a perception that listening to a story was better than ‘real work’ but I don’t think so. I think it was the magic of storytelling casting its spell.

The titles of the books have changed since I left the classroom (I hope) but the method hasn’t. The tips in How to Tell Stories to Children and some stories to tell by Sara Cone Bryant (born 1873), published in 1910, are as pertinent now as then. ‘Story-telling is at once one of the simplest and quickest ways of establishing a happy relation between teacher and children and one of the most effective methods of forming the fixed attention in the latter.’  ‘Happy relation.’ ‘Fixed attention.’ What more can a teacher ask for? Establish a happy relation and the rest is easy – even teaching inverse adverbials. Same goes for ‘fixed attention.’ Any teacher who can gain ‘fixed attention’ in 2016, using only a book, deserves praise and an enormous box of Celebrations.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my tips.

1. Choose the right book

Well, dur, But it’s amazing how many teachers don’t put enough thought into their choice of class reader. It isn’t good enough to simply pull a book from the trolley at random on your way back to the classroom and hope for the best. It isn’t good enough to pick something because it’s popular, either. I visited a Y4 classroom where the teacher had invested in a set of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Why? Those kids have seen the film, bought the t -shirt, had the book given as a Christmas present five times already. Half of them know how it ends – they know what’s coming. What’s the fun in that? It’s a long book, too. Even reading every day for twenty minutes it will take a whole term to get through.


  • Ask for ideas from a school librarian. They’re still around (just). They know what goes down well for your year group.  Here’s where a lot of them hang out: Schools Library Association
  • Spend a whole Saturday or Sunday in a large bookshop with a good children’s section.  Check out titles by new and unfamiliar authors rather than going for the same old- same old. Sure, Michael Morpurgo is wonderful but so is Gill Lewis and Guy Bass and Kaye Umansky and Andy Mulligan and Sita Brahmachari and … well, basically there are hundreds of great writers to choose from. Discovering new writing is part of the fun!
  • Check out social media. There’s a great hashtag on Twitter #myclassreads.
  • Look around your class. What sort of kids have you got?  Are there many with short attention spans? Maybe shorter titles might suit them better? Are they newly settled children from several different countries? Are they mad about science, ghosts, the planet, monsters?  There are gripping stories out there that will not only cross boundaries but will also allow your class to feel included. Children love recognising themselves in characters.  Read what children’s writer Leila Rasheed has to say on diversity in books.  This great blog here calls for teachers to vary their stories by  ‘offering different flavours of water.’
  • Don’t be put off by ‘age bands.’ Y6 can still enjoy picture books – it’s just got to be the right picture book.
  • Don’t be limited by genre. Non-fiction, poetry and plays can be just as engaging as straightforward stories.
  • Can’t get to a bookshop?  Surf the net for suggestions. Not Amazon – you’ll only end up with Roald Dahl and the usual suspects. Be adventurous. Check out Bookbag or publishers’ websites such as Walker Books and for guaranteed diversity try Letterbox Library. The Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ magazine Carousel is great for reviews, too.
  • Ask other teachers. They will share ideas and tips on successes and failures. Remember, though, a book that goes down well with one group might not be as well received by another.
  • Ask the kids. What are they reading? What would they like to hear?

2. Create the right reading environment

Trying to read to kids in a busy school hall or with constant interruptions is a nightmare. You will never get that rapt attention with doors banging and other teachers sticking their heads in your classroom and saying ‘Have you got a minute?’  Treat your book-on-the-go time with respect, as something precious. Find a cosy, quiet place to read. Put a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door.

Let the kids get comfy. If that means lying on their tummies on the carpet, so be it.

Let kids doodle while they listen. Some children need to have that as an aid. Doodling is a silent activity that won’t disturb others. The child is still listening to the story.

Don’t turn story time into a comprehension lesson. Stopping every two minutes to ask questions is a killer. ‘Why do you think Ronaldo did that?’ ‘Does anyone know what a boomerang is?’ Arghh! It stops the flow. Trust the kids. They’ll glean from the story what they need to at their own pace.

3. Titles that worked for me (KS2)

Don’t forget I’ve been out of the classroom since 2000. However, I’ve been involved in the world of children’s books since 1965 when I was 10 and fell in love with reading. Also, not meaning to brag but I was the UK’s first Patron of Reading until 2015, so I know stuff.  Here goes:



‘A Little Aloud’

Perfect for all KS2 teachers – poems, extracts, short stories and tall tales all with a reading time for those end of day moments






Diary of a Killer Cat by Anne Fine (1994)

My no-fail classroom read for KS2. I once had to stop to check if a Y4 was OK, she was laughing so much I thought she might injure herself. See also Jean Willis’s Silly Cecil and Clever Cubs for similar reaction.





Goodnight Mr Tom

goodnight-mister-tom-cover  Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian OK, OK, I know I’ve just said ‘find new authors’ but this is timeless. Y5/Y6









The Considine Curse by Gareth P Jones


Confession: I haven’t actually read this out as a classroom reader but I so would if I were still in the classroom. Y5/6. Spooky, funny, weird.








The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce (2012)



Just like it says on the cover – ‘…warm, funny and totally original.’ The story of brothers Chingis and Nergui from Mongolia and their ‘guide’ Julie, who is put in charge of looking after them, told in Cottrell-Boyce’s inimitable style. Y6/Y7








Poo Bum by Stephanie Blake (2011)

poo_bum_1024x1024 Remember what I said about picture books being for all age ranges?  OK, here’s a two minute read. It has the words ‘poo’ and ‘bum’ and ends in ‘fart.’ What’s not to like?  All year groups.














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Blog for New Teachers on their First Day #Part 1

Long, long ago, as a brigthV4IHKOM8ht-eyed teacher fresh from college, I closed the door of the large Victorian house I was sharing with four others in East Grinstead, squinted into the September morning sun and set off for my first day in my new job. I remember feeling nervous and excited as I walked the mile through town to the school, my brand new red academic year diary in my bag. I had already memorised all thirty two names of my Y7 form (1HR) and hoped  they would be biddable.  It had been drummed in to me at teacher training college that my priorities as a teacher were two-fold: to keep ‘control’ without shouting and to keep my classes ‘engaged’.  It sounded simple enough.  What I discovered on that first day and during the rest of my probationary year, was I could keep control and keep them engaged most times, couldn’t do either sometimes and didn’t need to even try during  certain times. Certain times involved reading. Whether it was me reading to them or taking them to the library or if the pupils took it in turns to read from a play script. Using books, especially fiction books, was the most effective teaching aid to classroom management ever. Actually, books were better than ‘effective’, which sounds too functional; books were magical. When I read out loud, the children listened and were absorbed; fidgeting stopped as they were transported to imaginary worlds. There was no need for ‘control.’  It goes without saying that it helped to choose the right book. Fidgeting started again if the plot lost its grip or the play sagged in the middle. Choosing the right book and teaching pupils how to choose the right book for themselves, was a real skill.

I honed this skill through trial and error.  At college there were no book lists or recommendations as such and only a handful fiction titles on in the small bookshop on campus.  I only had one workshop about classroom readers in four years of training. It was in my second year (I think) and the lecturer had us all sitting in a circle and reading out loud, one at a time.  When it was my turn, my feedback was that I had a good, clear voice but needed to slow down. At the end of the talk the lecturer mentioned The Midnight Fox by the American writer Betsy Byars as being a ‘good read we could try’ and that was it. End of reading for pleasure module.  I bought The Midnight Fox. I bought Byers’ The 18th Emergency and The TV Kid, too. Those titles are still in print. Kudos to my lecturer (whose name escapes me) for his sound recommendations. fox

Forward to 2016. It is now sixteen years since I taught in a classroom. I stopped teaching full-time when my kids were little and only taught part-time or on supply once they started school. It was during this period I took up writing. Just small bits and pieces but enough for me to know I had discovered something about myself. As well as reading stories, I liked writing them.

By the late 1990s, the National Curriculum was in full swing and teaching had changed forever. Gone was the freedom to choose what to deliver and how. A teacher’s time was now dedicated to long term, medium term and short term planning and having anxiety attacks over the next Ofsted inspection. I don’t think the National Curriculum is necessarily a bad thing but it is overly complicated and demands too much in terms of preparation and assessment. I am in awe of teachers who fulfil all its requirements and still manage to turn out well-rounded, keen pupils.

It must be so daunting for a new teacher starting out today.  They need more than an academic year diary and an apple to get them through, that’s for sure. Luckily, thanks to the glorious internet, there is back-up. The web provides so many resources aimed at helping teachers, old and new, in the classroom.  Here are a few I rate highly:

Literacy & Book Websites:

The Literacy Trust including Premier League Reading Stars initiative. Definitive website for resources and stats relating to reading especially how children’s reading attainment is a greater indicator to future success than poverty/background

The Reading Zone – all the latest buzz about books/authors/competitions from Reception to KS3

The Literacy Shed – jam-packed with ideas in different ‘sheds’ such as ‘the fantasy shed’ etc

Love Reading for Kids – book reviews, news etc

First News – every school should subscribe to this newspaper aimed at KS1/2

Patron of Reading  – linking authors with schools – genius!

Barrington Stoke: Expert publisher of dyslexia-friendly books

Young Writers: Useful website for competitions to stretch your budding writers. Contains tips & resources for the classroom, too.

Blogs about reading:

Michael Rosen’s brilliant tips on how to create a book loving school

Pie Corbett’s Reading Spine – free downloads KS1/KS2

Page 45 Reviews – Stephen’s shop in Nottingham specialises in graphic novels. His reviews on kids’ books are a masterclass in enthusiasm


Ideas from authors/poets:

Brian Moses’s poetry ideas – every one a gem to use in the classroom with lots of examples written by children

Shoo Rayner’s website includes loads of youtube clips on how to draw as well as stuff about books etc

Sarah McIntyre’s blog is awesome – full of fun ideas on how to create comics and much more.

Tom Palmer is the ‘go-to’ author for books about football and ideas to get boys reading. Loads of resources for schools, too.

Hilary Robinson has teamed up with illustrator Martin Impey to create an accessible picture book series for KS1 and KS2 about the First World War. Her Coppertree series is also right on the button for issues that worry kids.

There are loads more links – I’ll add them as I go along.

In part 2, I’ll blog about my favourite class readers, books and plays for KS2. The list will be long and it will be mighty.


This blog is dedicated to all those about to start their teaching career this week, especially Paul Hill of Huddersfield. Good luck, Paul. May the spirit of Danny Ogle & David Wagner keep you strong.





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New football season

How did your team do last week? Or do you support someone in the Premier League, so your first match is tomorrow?  I went to the opening match of Huddersfield Town v Brentford and it was excellent. Apart from winning 2-1 (a novelty for us – we rarely win our opening matches) everything about the day was perfect. Huddersfield Town’s new policy of making season cards and tickets affordable ensured a great turnout, with a most respectable gate of 18, 479. As an extra treat for the fans there was a  ‘clapper’  on every seat.  I don’t know who invented this device but its genius lies in its simplicity. Take a piece of A3 card, fold over a few times, stick a rubber band at the bottom and hey presto – you have a powerful sound machine in your hands, guaranteed to reverberate round the ground. I used mine to great effect in the John Smith’s Stand, I can tell you.

It’s always weird getting used to seeing the new squad bedding in at the start of the season but coach David Wagner has made some shrewd investments with Danny Ward (keeper), Jack Payne, (nicknamed the ‘Mini Messi’) Aaron Mooy, Chris LÖwe Elias Kachunga, Christopher Schindler, Rajiv Van La Parra, Ivan Paurevic, Jon Stankovic and Michael Hefele among those new to the blue and white striped shirt.  Good luck to all of them – I hope they enjoy every moment with us.

The stadium store was busy before the match I couldn’t go check how my ‘Baby Football Fan’ ™Record Book was getting on. I know it’s in the sale at a bargain £5.00, so if you are a Town fan and you’ve got a new addition to the family due, this is the gift for you.  The record book includes data not only about the new baby but also what was happening during the season the baby was born. Clever, huh? I’m hoping any Town babies born in 2016-2017 will be able to include the words ‘promotion’ and ‘longest run without defeat’ in theirs but as we’ve got Newcastle United tomorrow (August 13th) I’m not banking on it. If you don’t support Huddersfield and want one of these record books, fear not. I’m setting up my own publishing company to take the Baby Football Fan™ idea to everyone. Watch out for updates.

BFF-flyer-helena (002)



Illustrations by the super-clever and talented Mandy Stanley







What’s all this stuff about babies? I hear you cry. I’m ten years old and want better stuff to read than that!

In that case, check out Football Mad, Girls FC (Kindle) and Here Come the Girls. Football Mad contains my popular Danny Ogle story. I bet you can’t guess who Danny supports?

9780192735850teamhere come






To show what a big-hearted person  I am, I will put aside football rivalries  (which are silly when taken too seriously and only lead to trouble anyway) and recommend books by my mate and Leeds United supported Tom Palmer. Tom has written a fabulous book set in World War One featuring Huddersfield Town players Larrett Roebuck (killed in action soon after the war started) and Jack Cock. The book’s called Over the Line and has an eye-catching new cover. Co-incidentally, England international Jack Cock played for Brentford FC as well as Huddersfield Town and Chelsea. So there you go – something for everyone.



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Headline: Scientists forget magical ingredients in Borrowers research news…


The Borrowers by Mary Norton First published in 1952

I cherished Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers when I was little. The notion of tiny people living under the floorboards, making use of all the bits and pieces humans discarded or lost, grabbed my imagination. So much so, that I used to pray – actually pray – to God for a family of Borrowers to move into my doll’s house. I promised I’d look after them and not let them come to any harm. As part of the bargain I kept the doll’s house in pristine condition, ready for the new tenants to move into, which is more than can be said for my actual bedroom.

Fit for a Borrower My doll’s house was similar to this but with a better colour scheme, natchtin house

My prayers got me nowhere, people, nowhere – God being distracted by more urgent matters. It meant Borrowers never did take me up on my offer and the house was sub-let to various spiders and bits of Lego until I swapped it for a Sindy and her flashy accessories.

Anyhow, over sixty years after J Dent published The Borrowers, it is still in print and still capturing children’s imaginations. Recently, it has also captured the imagination of scientists who, according to today’s Daily Telegraph, have published an article in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics, claiming that The Borrowers would be ‘scientifically impossible’ and would ‘…be born blind, deaf and perilously cold.’ Oh no! You mean to say that tiny, tiny people couldn’t really exist? That they don’t actually live under floorboards? I took to Twitter to share my alarm at this earth-shattering news. ‘What next?’ I asked. ‘ Mr Toad couldn’t have driven a car because he had no hands?’

Malorie Blackman replied first. ‘And there is no known tree whose wood, when turned into a wardrobe, allows for other world visitation.’  To which poet Brian Moses responded with a link to one of his wonderful blogs about using the imagination.

Unfortunately the Telegraph link is only to the Journal’s website and not the actual study, so I can’t put the findings into a context or credit the researchers. I’m sure it was a fun and absorbing and thoroughly proper scientific project to undertake but alongside all the variables and physics and statistics and probability the scientists forgot one main ingredient: magic. That’s what writers like Norton add to their writing; you can’t buy it or bottle it or quantify it – you just have to have the will and wit to believe in it.

Imagine if Norton’s publisher had decided her manuscript wasn’t based on enough ‘science.’

maryPortrait of Mary Norton. I bet she was wearing those earrings when the following exchange (never) took place

Scene: J Dent’s offices, London  1949/50

Publisher: Well, Mary, we’ve got some good news and some bad news.

Mary: Oh.

Publisher: The good news is we all adore your story. The characters, the adventures, the concept… it’s wonderful. The Clock family – Pod, Homily, Arrietty… well – they just took our breath away.

Mary (blushing) Thank you…

Publisher: Where did you get the idea from? Of tiny people?

Mary:  Well, I was quite short-sighted as a child and always squinting to see things properly. While my brothers were pointing out huge buzzards in the sky I’d be on my knees in the grass, trying to focus on the tiniest creatures. I think the idea came from that, wondering how small creatures might survive in a world of huge, nasty enemies such as buzzards and, well, humans.

Publisher: Fascinating, Mary,  fascinating. There’s just one, small – if you pardon the pun – problem.

Mary:   Oh?

Publisher: It couldn’t happen.

Mary: What do you mean?

Publisher: Well, my science editor says it’s all down to metabolic rates. The Clocks couldn’t possibly exist, you see. Their body mass…

Mary: Body mass?

Publisher: Yes, or something like that. To be honest I wasn’t sure what he meant – something about shrinking ratios and the whole notion of a Borrower’s existence being physically and biologically impossible. Anyway, long story short, we’ve decided not to publish.

Mary: Not to publish? But why?

Publisher: It’s just not realistic.

Mary: But you said you loved it…

Publisher: We do, we do, but we don’t want to deceive people. What if children were inspired by it and their imaginations ran wild? We don’t want that kind of thing in England, do we? Not so soon after a world war. What would their parents say? Or their teachers? Or future Ministers of Education?

Mary: But I wrote Bedknobs and Broomsticks and that proved very popular.

Publisher: What can I say? I’m sorry, Mary, but it’s a no. If you can come up with anything a bit more realistic, we’d be more than happy to consider it…

   End of Nightmare Scenario 

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Book List

As promised, here is a list of my titles still in print (although more titles are available as e-books). I hope any schools/libraries and collectors of the finest books for children known to mankind find it useful. See my Books Page for full details of each story:

Football Mad 4-in-1





Published by: Oxford University Press

Cover: Stephen May

Cost: £8.99

ISBN: 978-0-199-273585-0

This is a compendium of four books in one which includes ‘There’s Only One Danny Ogle.’ ‘Football Mad’ has some great reviews on Amazon and seems to appeal particularly to reluctant readers.

Here Come the Girls

9780007464913 (2)


Published by: Collins

Cost: £5.99

ISBN: 978 0 00 746491-3

Part of the ‘Read On’ series aimed at 11-13s but suitable for 7-11s, too, Here Come the Girls is a fully illustrated, non-fiction book about the history of women’s football.

Clubbing Together

untitled 2

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Cost: £8.99

ISBN: 9780192754301

First published in 2003 and then as a bind-up in 2005, I’m delighted that Sammie, Jolene, Alex and Brody are still ‘Clubbing Together’, over a decade later.


The Secret Garden (abridged from the original by Frances Hodgson Burnett)





Published by: Oxford University Press

Illustrated by: James de la Rue

Cost: £22.00 as part of a pack of 6 titles (although some sellers will provide individual copies)

ISBN: 978 0 199117581

Part of the Treetops Classics series (Stage 14 – Y5)


Stinky Street


Published by: Oxford University Press

Illustrated by: Mike Phillips

Cost: £6.95 or c. £22.00 part of pack of 6 titles in the series

ISBN: 978 0 19911355 2

Part of the Treetops More Stories B (Stage 11 Y3)


NEW Walker Books are re-issuing the first 4 titles in Girls FC for 2018. Yay!


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