It looks like a Hogwarts’ owl is trying to slip inside St Vipers School for Super Villains. I wonder why? Here’s my series, rubbing shoulders with Harry Potter, in the window of Topping & Company Booksellers of Bath yesterday.
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Removing the Barriers to Reading is my top pick for The Bath Children’s Literature Festival this year. The panel includes publisher Barrington Stoke, Dyslexia Action and author Tony Bradman. Hopefully, there will be lots of advice for children who find reading difficult. See also these two guest blogs on getting reluctant readers reading. Article 1 & Article 2.
In our house, the barriers to my eleven-year-old son reading are Xbox, electronic games on other devices such as phones and ipads, youtube videos, old episodes of Top Gear and the Dragon Ball Z television series which are available on demand… He draws manga characters, plays fantasy card duels, creates his own code for computer games and paints Games Workshop space marines. I’d need a removal van to take it all away! Then there’s always rugby, judo, meeting friends at the swimming pool and football in the park. For him, reading is nowhere near as interesting as doing any of these things – he always has something better to do. But I see the value of him reading. I know lots of boys who are like him, so here are a few of my tried-and-tested tips.
- Create time for reading. Establish a time of day when all the electronics are turned off and you read. It helps to read together – try leading by example. Sometimes my son and I sit on the sofa together with our own books, other times we take it in turns to read aloud chapters of his novel.
- Go with their interests. I buy him tech magazines, which he devours without him even realising he’s reading. As Dragon Ball is primarily a Japanese manga series, he has a number of these books piled up at the bottom of his bed. Games Workshop also sells books relating to the characters he paints. Graphic novels are often a big hit with boys too. I’m a great believer that it doesn’t matter what kids read as long as they’re reading and the content is age appropriate. I never look at the quality of the writing!
- A poem a day/week. Poetry is great because it’s super quick to read and it exposes kids to rich, expressive language. Every weekend, we take it in turns to pick a poem from A Treasury of Poems for Almost Every Possibility.
- Don’t give up. I’m always looking for the book my son won’t want to put down. I’ve just ordered Mortal Engines for him. I know he can suddenly become totally absorbed in a book – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was one of those stories. Sadly, the series I wrote for him – St Viper’s School for Super Villains – is now too young for him, but he loved it at the time. Remember, a reluctant reader isn’t always one.
- Keep bedtime electronics free. Other than e-readers just have books in the bedroom.
- Try going on holiday where there’s no Wi-Fi or phone signal. We did it this year and it was good for all of us!
Thanks for reading my blog.
As special advisors to the children’s book department at the North Pole, we have been campaigning for a story to be included in every child’s stocking. I know a nine-year-old has written to Father Christmas asking for St Viper’s School for Super Villains because I’ve been asked by an elf to write a personal message inside the cover. I’ve seen Kay’s book Treasure This on the present conveyor belt too. Here are some other brilliant stories we’ve suggested to the book-buying elf team.
Kim Donovan, author of the series St Viper’s School for Super Villains.
Every Christmas Eve my son and I dust off Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs and read it curled up together in bed. The book is in comic-strip format and has well over a hundred exquisite illustrations, showing the reader everything Father Christmas does from the moment he wakes up on December 24th to going to bed on Christmas Day: making cheese sandwiches for the journey, filling the sledge with presents, riding through fog, tripping over a cat in someone’s house. We also see him being a grumpy old man, which is a nice change from the standard jolly Father Christmas character. The book is full of humour, the illustrations are delightful and my son seems to appreciate the story more with each passing year. A special 40th edition copy has just been published. As Father Christmas says, “Happy Blooming Christmas to you, too!”
Janine Amos at janineamos.com
There are so many wonderful children’s books to choose from. . .
For children who like fairy tales, I’d recommend The Snow Queen, vividly retold for confident readers by Sarah Lowes, Barefoot Books. This little version of the Hans Christian Anderson tale about friendship and courage is illustrated by Miss Clara, a French artist with a gift for the magical. There are other books in the series – The Princess and the Pea and The Twelve Dancing Princesses − all perfect reading for a cold winter’s night.
For something much more contemporary, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s novel Millions is a miracle of a story: what happens when millions of banknotes fall from a train right into the arms of Damian Cunningham, Year 5. This fast-paced adventure, told in Damian’s voice, is both funny and sad; it will have you laughing out loud and crying too, and I can guarantee that after reading it you’ll never see the school Nativity Play in quite the same way again. Millions really will please anyone from 8 to 80 – Cottrell Boyce’s “dream-reader” is an adult and child reading together, one of the very best ways to spend Christmas I reckon.
Some stories have a magical quality you can’t quite put your finger on … For a rip-roaring yarn which adds that X factor to Xmas, look no further. Geraldine McCaughrean, one of the most acclaimed and original storytellers for children, gives Christmas a real twist in Forever X, a novel for ages 10+ which will enchant and surprise grown-up readers too.
When the Shepherd family car breaks down at the start of their summer holiday, they are forced to stay in the nearest B and B, a bizarre place where December 25th happens every day of the year. Despite Holly, the resident elf, and grandfather F-C’s efforts to fulfill wishes, the drama here isn’t all tinsel and candy, especially when the police and the mysterious Mr Angel arrive…
Funny, moving and brilliantly plotted, the story explores family relationships and gets to the bottom of what Christmas is really about. Read about Geraldine’s books here and check out another favourite, The White Darkness, a gripping and romantic survival adventure which, by contrast, has a decidedly wintry setting. Peter Pan in Scarlet, the official sequel to J M Barrie’s original, will delight too.
Kay Leitch, author of Treasure This
If you happen to see Santa sitting chuckling over a book before Christmas, he’s probably reading ”Who Could That Be at This Hour?” by Lemony Snicket (the first in the “All The Wrong Questions” series). And if you like your mysteries to have quirky humour, wit and a sense of the ridiculous, you’ll make sure this book finds its way into your stocking too. This series has all the usual fun, twists and turns we’ve come to expect from Lemony Snicket, along with more curious characters such as the enigmatic Ellington Feint, librarian Dashiell Qwerty, and Moxie Mallahan the journalist. Lemony’s secret assignment centres around finding a statue of the Bombinating Beast, presumed stolen… but perhaps not actually stolen… and as usual Lemony shows himself to be much smarter than his chaperone, S. Theodora Markson, who is the best there is… or perhaps not…
A nice mystery, neatly tied up at the end… or maybe not… which means you’ll probably want to read the other three in the series. Great fun and a delight to read. Just remember – the map is not the territory!
Another favourite of mine is One Boy and His Dog by Eva Ibbotson. A bit of a modern classic, this is simply but beautifully written and, sadly, was the last one Eva Ibbotson completed before her death. Hal has always wanted a dog and his overly house-proud parents humour him by hiring one – Fleck – for a weekend, thinking Hal will tire of the idea. As anyone who has ever loved an animal knows, you don’t tire of them in a few days – you fall more deeply in love. Hal is devastated when Fleck is taken away and returned to Easy Pets Rental. This is the story of how he runs away and tries to get Fleck back, with the help of his friend Pippa and four other dogs. An emotional journey for characters and readers alike and a very satisfying read.
In a time when children are reportedly reading less than ever, what we need are story heroes who stand together and take on the fight. In a small way, my young evil geniuses at St Viper’s School for Super Villains have been helping to save the day — they’ll be annoyed when they find out I’ve been calling them heroes! Readers tell me they can devour a St Viper’s adventure in a weekend (they take me months to craft and the illustrator to draw) and I know there are other super stories out there, which make kids want to read.
So here’s a novel idea: writers telling their readership about other books they would enjoy. Their competition! I know what my 7 – 10 year-old readers want from a St Viper’s story: plots to take over the world, plenty of action, use of super powers, cool gadgets, friends working together, tongue-in-cheek phrases, lessons in diabolical laughing, a fast pace … and I’m knowledgeable about what else is available in stores. We don’t have to work alone, do we? The time has come to join forces. We strike for victory!
If you like St Viper’s why not try:
Magic Ink by Steve Cole
Twelve-year-old Stew Pender loves super heroes as much as his grandfather, a once famous comic book artist, and spends his time drawing comic characters including his alter ego: Stupendous Man. When his grandfather goes to the great comic convention in the sky, Stew and his family move into his home. On the first night in the house, Stew is woken by a cartoon pig in a top hat and cape. This isn’t a figment of his imagination. In the attic, where his grandfather used to draw, Stew finds a bottle of magic ink, which brings characters to life. But it’s not all fun and games, the creator of the Magic Ink — the wizard Merlin — is imprisoned in a cave in a land of myth and monsters and needs Stew to draw super heroes to save him.
I say: It’s quirky, great fun and the idea’s brilliant. Unlike St Viper’s and NERDS (see below), most of the action comes at the end of the book, but there are lots of hooks to keep readers turning the page and the pace is spot on. Steve Cole is the author of the well-known series Astrosaurs. Magic Ink is suitable for 8+ readers.
Atomic. The Madness of Madame Malice by Guy Bass. Issue 2.
Ten-year-old super-powered twins Jonny and Tommy Atomic have a super hero father and a super villain mother. They live with their father, Captain Atomic, Aunt Sandwich who’s a hamster and Dogday, a super-intelligent dog on an island in the sky. Their mother is an inmate at The Stronghold, a high-security super prison, until she breaks out to spend time with her darling boys. In this book, one of the twins is drawn to the dark side and the other the light as they spend quality time with her. She frees all the animals in the zoo, turns their school to rubble and rips the roof off Icy Joe’s Delectable Dairy Den so they can fly to the front of the ice-cream queue. The story follows a predictable path until the end where Bass reveals their mother’s true dark colours.
I say: The storyline is simple, the chapters are short and there are lots of illustrations to break up the text. The book would be enjoyed most by my younger and less confident readers (7+). It’s also a suitable story for parents to read aloud. In book 3, Bass hints that the boys will become their father’s sidekicks. I hope that as the series develops we’ll see the children use their super powers a lot more. But what I think my readers will really like about this book is that it’s part novel and part comic. They’ll also like the super cool cover!
NERDS. The Villain Virus by Michael Buckley. Book 4.
Michael Buckley is the New York Times bestselling author of the Sisters Grimm series and NERDS is a great read, too. In this book, the villain population rockets as a virus sweeps the world, which makes people develop insane alter egos. Ordinary folk start planning the destruction of the planet, building doomsday devices, wearing ridiculous costumes and calling themselves the Terrible Tornado and such like. Kids from the NERDS secret spy society are given the job of saving the world. They are all underdogs and what’s nice is that their weaknesses are all turned into super strengths. For example, Wheezer — Matlida Choi — can fly and blast enemies with her asthma inhalers. In this story, Flinch takes centre stage. He’s hyperfast, hyperstrong and just plain hyper (a bit like my son!) and I must say hyperbrave to be shrunk and injected into the bottom of a master villain near the end of the book.
I say: the story is great fun and has lots of action — KA-POW! It feels like an animated cartoon, which is also how I see St Viper’s. NERDS is suitable for 8 + readers.
Cartoon Kid by Jeremy Strong. Title: Zombies.
All of Mr Butternut’s class are super heroes — that’s what he told them in their first lesson. There’s Cartoon Kid, Big Feet Pete, Exploding Girl and many others. They are actually ordinary children, but in moments of crisis the book changes to a comic strip and the kids transform into heroes in cool super suits. Afterwards, we find out what really happened to them. There are three short stories in this book. In the first story, Cartoon Kid (Casper) gets the pupils out of a tight spot with Masher McNee and his Monster Mob by scaring them with the dead bat he’d brought in for Show and Tell. In the second story, the school inspectors pay a visit and are not impressed with what they find until Mr Butternut saves the day with an inspiring history lesson. Then in the last story, Cartoon Kid tries to be a hero (even if this is out of self-interest) by painting his sister’s bedroom with a water blaster. The underlying message behind Cartoon Kid is that anyone can be a super hero.
I say: It’s exactly what I expect from a Jeremy Strong book. Cartoon Kid is funny, age-appropriate and suitable for children who are starting to build confidence with reading. Readership: 7+.
Vordak the Incomprehensible. How to Grow Up and Rule the World. Scott Seegert
A comical step-by-step guide on how to bring out your inner evil and take over the world. Instructions include: how to select a gut-wrenching evil name, communicating with your arch-nemesis, picking a super menace mask and buying the right super villain lair — typically, I chose the most expensive one: an orbiting space station!
I say: It’s a fun read and I can see my older readers liking it (10+). The book’s packed with illustrations, lists and diagrams (I loved the Many Faces of Evil) and it may appeal to reluctant boy readers. But it does cross the invisible line I set for St Viper’s. Some parents may not like how Vordak the Incomprehensible encourages children to grow the evil that exists inside of them. This book will appeal to my younger readers but it really is for older kids who know not to take the advice seriously.
St Viper’s School for Super Villains
If you are not familiar with my series, you can read about it on this site or please visit Amazon for more reader reviews. Thank you!
My eight-year-old evil genius was seriously unimpressed with one crucial thing that happened in the films Despicable Me and Megamind: the bad guys turned good. So it would seem that Despicable Me 2, the sequel, is wrongly named – there is now nothing at all despicable about the main character. It is more Responsible Me. Gru, the villain turned hero of the original, is now a devoted dad who cross dresses as a pink fairy to save his daughter’s birthday party and makes jam instead of trying to take over the world.
‘This isn’t good,’ said evil son (now nine), shaking his head and looking like there was no hope for Gru. Clearly he likes his villains to stay evil.
I can see the same challenge ahead for my own book series, St Viper’s School for Super Villains. My young readers like the fact that the super villains in training are bad – it makes them exciting. But some of my more responsible, grown up readers would like to see all the characters become heroes in the end to send out the ‘proper’ message to children. Good always wins through in the end, right? Who shall I upset?
Fortunately in Despicable Me 2, the writers have made Gru’s life as a stay-at-home dad more interesting by having him recruited by the Anti-Villain League, which has its HQ in an underwater submarine. In places the film has the look and feel of The Incredibles. The story has quirky scenes and cool gadgets. Gru’s secret agent partner, Lucy Wilde, has a lipstick taser. Personally, I’d have made it a lip salve lightsaber, which when twisted grows into a long white laser beam (Hmmm … maybe a copyright issue). The Anti-Villain League have decided it takes a villain to know one and Gru’s first and only assignment is to find the master criminal who has stolen a lethal serum which when injected into a fluffy bunny does the equivalent of feeding a Mogwai after midnight.
The film is not amazing but it is certainly good family entertainment with lots of slapstick humour. The kids I saw in the cinema all looked engaged and laughed along with the story; as did evil son. I saw no-one playing on their mum’s iphone (I did actually see this in a children’s theatre the day before). My super hero husband only nodded off for about five minutes (a record for a family movie) and there were several genuinely funny moments. Most of them involving the stars of the film, by some distance, who are the horde of little yellow ‘minions’. If they ever get bored helping Gru load the washing machine, they will be welcomed with open arms to be villainous at St Viper’s School!
It may not be any more despicable than the first film, but the entertainment is just as good. Take your young villains along for a laugh and even they won’t be too disappointed by the happy ending.
THUD. THUD. THUD! The second book in the St Viper’s School for Super Villains series, The Big Bank Burglary, is breaking through the workshop doors. KRAKK! The ebook has escaped – it’s been spotted on Kindle and Smashwords. THUD! Any day now, the physical book will break out of the workshop too. A few lucky children have read pre-publication copies of The Big Bank Burglary. Their verdict: It’s even better than book 1. They want to know when they can have book 3!
The first ebook in the series, The Riotous Rocket Ship Robbery, is being offered at a promotional price of just 77 pence (0.99 USD) for readers to ‘give it a try’.
Links – The Riotous Rocket Ship Robbery
Links – The Big Bank Burglary
How do you encourage reluctant readers to want to read? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently. I know reluctant readers, I’ve met them on author visits to schools and some reviewers have said that my story, St Viper’s School for Super Villains, is a good book for them. But what actually makes a good book for a reluctant reader? Is there a list of gold star stories which will help them to find a love of reading and what advice is available for parents who are struggling with this issue?
I’ve been talking to teachers, librarians and parents about the topic and reviewing the literature. I was lucky enough to visit Stuart Boydell and his wonderful Year 2 class in 2012. He is such a great teacher! I’m very happy to be able to share with you my second guest blog, by Stuart, on improving literacy.
Improving literacy and nurturing an enjoyment of reading has been the aim of successive government policies for decades. The media is peppered with reports on international league tables and school SATS results with depressing statistics about the nation’s reading levels. In this atmosphere we are constantly being reminded that we need to all be doing more and more to help our children get on in an ever-changing world where communication is central to everything they will be doing in the future.
Understandably, there is a growing sense of urgency to see our children learning to read at an ever younger age. For some children, however, reading is a chore and holds little enjoyment. These children are increasingly being labelled as “reluctant readers”. I am sure we all know a child who somebody has labelled as a “reluctant reader”. Yet, I wonder how many of us have actually ever stopped to unpick the term? To be reluctant means to be hesitant, or uncertain. Uncertainty often develops from a lack of confidence or experience. If a child is reluctant to read, it is incumbent upon the child’s teachers and parents to try to ascertain what it is about reading that makes them reluctant. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula. Helping our children to develop a love for reading takes a lot of time, a lot of patience and a huge dollop of encouragement. But, there are a few things we can all do that will encourage greater levels of engagement with books.
For many children, particularly boys, once they have learnt all the myriad skills needed to decode words accurately, it can be a lack of interest, motivation or stamina to read for prolonged periods of time that is holding them back from progressing in their reading. It certainly means reading novels and longer stories will be a huge challenge. Often, however, this is compensated for by an interest in non-fiction books which is, after all, still reading and a core component of school literacy. There will be, of course, a minority of children for whom even non-fiction books will present them with difficulties. But I am sure I won’t be risking my professionalism to be fairly sure that these children will happily read the many instructions and rules needed to understand how to download music or get to the next level of whatever digital game they are playing, Oh and scanning the TV guide looking for their favourite shows. The opportunities for reading go beyond fiction and books!
In an ideal world, we all want children to love story books and ultimately novels. Stories are how they make sense of the world around them and how they play out many of the ideas, wants and frustrations that occupy their minds. Consequently, publishers have been addressing the need to get more children involved in fiction for the last few years. There is a plethora of new and excellent authors out there tackling these issues with strong storylines, but often using language to describe plots and themes which appeal to today’s children.
Increasingly, children are enjoying stories that have strong, feisty characters and a huge amount of humour – think Jack Splat or Jack Stalwart. A simple search on the internet or a quick chat with your child’s teacher will point you in the right direction. I have yet to meet a child who doesn’t love Horrid Henry or Mr Stink. Check out the “Out of this World” series from Scholastic Books. There is a growing trend to produce illustrated books that mix animation with real-life images, which seem to really appeal to children. The texts can be a bit limited, but they are fictionalised stories and short enough to give some children the sense of achievement that they have just read a whole book.
The motivation and stamina to read longer texts is undoubtedly a bit of an uphill challenge for some – but it isn’t an insurmountable challenge. The best way to develop these skills, like all skills, is to develop it slowly over time. You can’t run the Bath half-marathon if you haven’t got out there and built up your stamina! Most children will have an area or topic of interest that you can tap into. Tap in sensitively and discreetly! Try to avoid the temptation to have an ‘action plan’ of how to maximise reading potential from your child’s interests – it is amazing how quickly they will change their interests! Work with them, taking the lead from them, as much as you can. Talk to them when their interests appear on TV or in articles in the press or magazines (shared reading is a common practice in schools and is a lovely way for parents to engage with their children). It is always worth remembering that there is nothing wrong in sharing the task of reading a book.
In short, don’t be unduly alarmed if your child seems to only be interested in short, sharp bite-sized reading material like non-fiction books or comics. These texts still require children to use many of the skills needed to be competent readers. Small, easily-digestible reading chunks are often enough for some children. As their interest grows so too will their desire to read more. And, with carefully chosen fiction that taps into their interests, they will soon be mixing their reading between fact and fiction in the much the same ways as we do.
To get yourself started check your local library and book stores for any reading competitions and lists of latest quality fiction out there or pop in to see your child’s teacher and find out what reading materials the schools use to engage the children. There are plenty of reading and writing competitions on-line that taps into all manner of subjects. Grab a cup of coffee and trawl through the different websites. Check out the World Book Day website as well as the ReadZone pages.
King Edwards School, Bath