Emmy Levels Up / Amber Under Cover

These are two immersive stories for older readers – thanks to Oxford Children’s Books for sending them for review

Emmy Levels Up
Helen Harvey

With a back drop of gaming and a school setting, this is a superb story that focuses on bullying, mostly of the spiteful verbal kind that includes name-calling and other covert psychological nastiness which can make a person feel utterly worthless.

Emmy is on the receiving end of this terrible treatment but finds solace in gaming and the gamer community wherein she feels confident. So we actually have an interweaving of two narrative threads: online Emmentine – confident and highly skilled, and real world Emmy – ridiculed by some of her class for not having the ‘right’ trainers and other gear that her family can’t afford.

The biggest bully is sly vicious Vanessa and it’s she who makes Emmy’s life a misery at school. Her home life too is far from harmonious, in part due her older brother Ryan’s aversion to mum’s boyfriend , Paul.

What Emmy needs to do is apply some of what she’s learned through gaming to her school adversaries, find a real life supportive tribe of her own and in so doing feel able to tap into her inner resilience and speak out against those whose desire is to humiliate her.

Helen Harvey explores the issue of bullying with enormous sensitivity and empathy in her debut novel that I have no doubt many youngsters will relate to.

Another terrific read is

Amber Under Cover
Em Norry

Meet Amber, in her early teens, bookish, under confident and able to keep her cool, in contrast to her best friend Vi who loves to be in the limelight but apt to panic under stress. Amber is shocked to learn that she’s to become a big sister but that’s only the start of her troubles; she then discovers that she’s been under surveillance by a mysterious spy agency – specialists in global espionage. This organisation were watching her performance in a supposed virtual reality game and she’s been selected to train as a teenage spy.

So clever is this agency that they successfully dupe Amber’s somewhat preoccupied parents into believing her week’s residential training is part of an inter-school programme in recognition of her superior STEM skills.
Staying in an underground bunker, Amber is plunged into a secret world where she has to undergo training in self-defence and surveillance, about which she mustn’t tell a soul: not her parents, not Vi (who would love the stylishness of the place) or anybody who isn’t ‘authorised personnel’. What has she got herself into, Amber asks herself.

However, at the end of the weekend she’s deemed ready for her first mission. What will she say to Vi having to let her down again?

Before long it’s destination Sankt Hallvard Manor an exclusive Norwegian boarding school suspected to be harbouring members of CHAOS an organisation intent on destroying the existing world order. Is she up to the task of fitting in while spying in this world of the super-rich?

Seemingly it will have to be ‘Fake it till you make it.’ in this gently humorous, tense, fast paced story at the heart of which is a girl growing up and finding her place in the modern world.

Stick Boy

Stick Boy
Paul Coomey
Little Tiger

Being different is never easy, ditto starting at a new school; but when Stick Boy moved to a new town, he’d hoped that with yet another fresh start, he’d left old problems behind. Seemingly not, for on the opening pages of Paul Coomey’s story we discover the titular character being pursued on only his second day, by the second biggest bully in the entire school, Sam Devine.

Things are not looking good especially when he then meets Gretchen, another bully. The two of them taunt Stick Boy, get hold of the contents of his pockets and proceed to hurl them over a high wall, recording their nastiness to upload onto ‘Vidwire’.

Along comes Ekam and the two boys introduce themselves to one another. and Stick then demonstrates his locker-opening skill before the bell rings summoning everyone to assembly. There the headteacher announces that the opening of the new Baron Ben’s Bargain Bins Magnificent Mega Mall on Saturday will be celebrated with a concert.

Stick’s first lesson is science with Mr Jansari

where Stick meets another friendly face, Milo and discovers that everyone is excited about the prospect of a pupil from the school being chosen to sing at the Friday Factor. Things are looking up for Stick, but not for long as in double ICT, Miss Bird has it in for the newcomer from the outset.
Stick survives the day and then back home learns that his dad has bought a brand new TV from Baron Ben’s Bargain Bins that comes with a free HomeBot – uh-oh!.
Right away the thing starts behaving weirdly.

The following day Stick is late for school and overhears Miss Bird speaking on her mobile and acting scared. Later the two bully girls forced him into unlocking Mr Jansari’s classroom door

and the act is recorded on Gretchen’s mobile.
From then on things just keep on getting worse and Miss Bird definitely appears to be up to something. Could there be s a connection between those Homebots with their increasingly strange behaviour

and the Mega Mall opening?

This fast-paced mystery story about coping with bullies while being two dimensional in a three dimensional, world fizzes with excitement, and the kind of humour – both visual and verbal – that should go down well with older primary readers.

Crabbit the Parrot / Bluster and Snide

Crabbit the Parrot
Bluster and Snide

Steve Blakesley and Natalie Griffiths
LDA

Ex primary teacher, Steve Blakesley has penned two rhyming lessons showing undesirable and then desirable behaviour animal style.

Crabbit the Parrot is a self-centred bird, beautiful to look at but not to listen to. It’s always a case of ‘me’, me first’, mine’ or other self-serving words and he just can’t cope when he doesn’t get his way immediately.

He’s the last to be sold from Mrs Jollies Pet Shop but when eventually a family chooses him and he gets a new home, Crabbit  is bad tempered and demanding

and makes a reckless break for freedom.

No amount of coaxing will bring him down from his branch in the tree but then an old raven CK happens along with a warning about a marauding moggie (ignored by Crabbit) and some wise words about the need for the parrot to alter his behaviour.

This brings about a positive change in Crabbit who heeds the lesson and returns inside, a reformed character.

Bluster and Snide are a pair of bantam cockerels that bully the other farmyard birds especially the smaller, weaker ones

until one day they issue a challenge to CK (Carrion King), calling him cowardly and bragging about their gang.

Their over confidence leads to Snide daring his brother to do something reckless, the outcome of which is a badly injured, friendless and increasingly hungry Bluster.

Time to change his ways perhaps? CK certainly thinks so, advocating ‘You need to be a friend.’ But, in the face of the farmyard fox, is it too late? …

Lively ‘Story Therapy’ tales such as these two with Natalie Griffiths’ expressive illustrations, can open up individual or class discussions on their inherent themes of anger management and bullying and will prove a useful PSHE tool for primary schools.

A Different Dog

A Different Dog
Paul Jennings
Old Barn Books

When I taught children in KS2, Paul Jennings was one of our favourite authors. His short stories from Unreal, Uncanny, Unbelievable etc. and with younger audiences,The Cabbage Patch Fib, were always much requested both as class read alouds and for individual consumption.. I’ve not kept up with his output of late but was instantly drawn into this one and read it in a single sitting.
It’s a novella, quite unlike any Jennings’ I’ve read before and for such a short book, it spans a great many themes including poverty, loss, cruelty, bullying, trauma and its effects, determination and resilience.

The boy narrator is something of a loner; he doesn’t speak and is tormented by other children. The story opens with him dressing himself in his mother’s pink parka, adding a black bin bag on top and setting out to take part in a charity fun run, determined to win for his mother’s sake especially.

En route to the venue in treacherous weather, the boy sees a road accident and although he is unable to save the driver of the van, he is determined to see the dog to safety.

His subsequent journey, both physical and mental is gruelling yet ultimately uplifting.

Compelling and tersely written – every word counts –this is a book to hold you in its thrall even after you’ve put it aside. Geoff Kelly’s black and white illustrations are atmospheric and powerful.

This is a book that deserves to be shared and discussed widely in school, at home, by teachers and other educators, those who work as speech-language pathologists, (I was interested to learn that the author has worked in this field) and in particular, it offers rich potential for a ‘Community of Enquiry’ type discussion.

I’ve signed the charter  

The Princess and the Suffragette / The Song From Somewhere Else

The Princess and the Suffragette
Holly Webb
Scholastic Children’s Books

This is a sequel of sorts to one of my childhood favourite reads, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess.
It centres on one of the characters from the original story, Lottie, now ten, who has lived at Miss Minchin’s school since she was four.

Now, a few years on, it’s 1911, when the suffragette movement is on the rise, Lottie finds herself becoming friends with one of the maids at the school, a girl named Sally who is interested in the rights of women.
During the next couple of years she also finds herself getting more rebellious and more involved in suffragette activities.

In tandem with her burgeoning rebellion, Lottie discovers that there’s a mystery surrounding her mother, and that what she’d been led to believe about her isn’t the truth.

There’s frankness about Holly Webb’s writing that makes the whole story feel genuine and well researched. She doesn’t avoid mentioning the suffering and brutality that some members of the suffragette movement underwent; and one hopes, her deft manner of talking about it will inspire young readers to understand the importance of standing up for what they believe to be right.

 

The Song From Somewhere Else
A.F.Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Here’s a book that is both beautiful and alarming, terrifying even at times.

Frank (Francesca Patel) is stalked and bullied by the local nasty, Neil Noble, and a couple of his pals; but then a rather odd boy, Nick Underbridge comes to her rescue. You might expect that the girl would be greatful, indeed she knows she ought to be, but at school Nick is said to be smelly and so not exactly the kind of person she’d want any involvement with.
However, for safety she goes back to his house with him intending merely to thank him and leave. It’s a rather strange house – not what she’d expected – filled with abstract painting done by Nick’s dad; there’s a rather strange earthy aroma pervading the place and suddenly she hears music. It’s the most haunting and beautiful music she’s ever heard; and she wants more of it and more, and more. And so, she returns.

What happens thereafter is the development of an unlikely but challenging friendship, and the discovery that within Nick’s home are secrets.

There’s a talking cat involved too.

Part reality, part fantasy, this story is absolutely wonderfully and lyrically told, and entirely convincing – the stuff of dreams, the stuff of nightmares both.
And Levi Pinfold whose images – dark, mysterious and haunting – are a fine complement to Harrold’s telling, equally beautifully illustrates it.

Totally captivating: a magical book to return to over and over.

This Orq (he say “ugh!”)

This Orq (he say “ugh!”)
David Elliott and Lori Nichols
Troika Books

Orq back in new book; me happy; me love Orq.
Orq and best friend Woma play happily together …

but despite this, life is hard. The family cave is cold and dark, they dine on raw bison meat and worst of all, Orq is being bullied.
The bully, Dorq, is big, much bigger than Orq; he’s hairy, thoroughly mean, and has a nasty-looking pet named Caba.
The fearsome duo like nothing better than taunting Orq and Woma.
One day Orq and Woma are out hunting when suddenly, Dorq hurls a missile at Woma’s head

causing Orq to see red – literally.
In fury Orq grabs two rocks and bashes them together over and over, causing sparks to fly. The sparks ignite a pile of sticks at his feet: Orq has made a surprising discovery …

Orq is a hero; everybody’s hero: no more cold dark cave, no more raw meat: warm cave, night light, hot bison burgers. Mmm!
Like This Orq (he cave boy) Elliott’s deliciously droll text is written in clipped prehistoric cave-boy speak, which, in combination with Lori Nichols’ wonderfully funny, digitally coloured pencil illustrations, make for another great storytime read aloud.
Individual readers can also enjoy taking ‘The Turtle Challenge’ to discover how many turtles the artist painted for the story; it’s quite tricky.

Mr Particular & Super-Powered Ollie

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Mr Particular
Jason Kirschner
Sterling
Superhero he may be, but the particular superhero of Jason Kirschner’s debut picture book hasn’t been given his name without reason. Yes, he’s able to perform all manner of amazing feats such as car lifting (toy cars that is), and outrun trains – the kind you see at the zoo – and keeps strictly to his 7.30pm bedtime every single evening. (Parents, take note). He has however, a somewhat self-limiting issue: the little guy ‘liked things the way he liked them – and only the way he liked them.’ There’s an element of that in all of us but his weakness – so we’re told – is that of specifics: ketchup with all non-dessert foods, positively no humming, shirts must always be untucked, nothing with even a slight whiff of coconut about it, no squishy mud or oatmeal and anything green is a total no-no.
All these quirks do have a tendency to hinder him and his pals in their keeping the universe safe from Bad Guys mission …

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Eventually those long-suffering friends, Atomic Bear, Daring Duck and co. call an emergency meeting, the outcome of which is that Mr Particular is a group member no more; instead Dr Slimyhands -recently defected to the good guys side – takes his place.
Poor Mr Particular is devastated: surely his fate isn’t to be left at home playing with nappy-filling SUPERPOOPER.

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Change is needed … and boy does our hero try, but to no avail – old habits definitely die hard. You’ve gotta hand it to the guy though, he keeps on trying over and over …

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Then suddenly an opportunity presents itself: – those very Super-Duper Group members who have just ousted him – seem rooted to the spot …

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while Atomic Bear dangles by the seat of his pants from a tree branch. He is however, suspended right above an exceedingly muddy, mega- slimy patch and there just happens to be rather a lot of small insects creating something of a buzz right alongside. Can Mr P. finally overcome those pet aversions of his and save the day, whether or not Atomic Bear is faking the whole thing?

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Highly entertaining, this is told in action-packed comic-book format and is a wonderful take on sensory defensiveness and aversions. And with a few pooey touches thrown in to keep young listeners super-attentive, this one is bound to appeal especially to superhero addicts – and that’s an awful lot of youngsters – who will at the same time be absorbing messages about drawing on one’s inner strength, never saying never and only holding on to what, ultimately is of use to us. Let those super-powers shine through. And for those determined to do so and one hopes that’s everyone, then the inside covers have a show of everything for the job in hand …

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Ollie and his Super Powers
Alison Knowles, illustrated by Sophie Wiltshire
Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Language has tremendous power in the way it affects those around us; that we all know from recent events in the UK.
In this slim, illustrated book we meet seven year old Ollie who no longer has his brand new trainers: he’s been bullied into giving them over to two much bigger boys. Ollie’s mum is furious and he’s only told her that he’s left them at school. “You did what? … They cost a fortune, Ollie. You know I can’t afford to get you another pair. Oh Ollie, how thoughtless.” is what she says and off they both go in the car to visit the old people’s home where she works.
It’s there that one of the inmates, Mr Wilcox listens to Ollie and the whole sorry tale of how not only his trainers but other things have been taken from the lad, and about the name calling too. Mr Wilcox then suggests Ollie uses his superpowers to sort out the bullies. And thus begins the unleashing of Ollie’s amazing superpowers: Courage, Bravery, Strength and Calm among others; and with Mr Wilcox as his friend and guide, it’s not too long before Ollie

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(and his team of superpowers) is ready to begin Operation Positivity …
What a good example of the importance of using positive language to encourage, and/or reinforce, positive behaviours.
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Nicholas and the Wild Ones

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Nicholas and the Wild Ones
Niki Daly
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
Nicholas has just had his first day at school and we meet him at the gate where his mother greets him. “How did you like it?” she asks. “Not one bit,” is his response and on the way home he proceeds to tell her about the Wild Ones, who have made his life a misery all day. There’s the wildest, Charlie who jumps on people, Wedgie Reggie who gets his amusement by pulling his peers by their underpants, Big-Mouth Jake scoffer of other people’s snacks and scariest of all, the huge Cindy Crocker.

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Back home Nicholas’s family suggest ways to handle those bullies and next day armed with strategies Nicholas faces up to the gang and in the course of the day his tactics begin to pay dividends particularly with the number one bully, so much so that by the end of day two, Nicholas has a new friend with whom to share his design skill.

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And it’s this skill that eventually wins over the rest of the gang who are wild no longer. Well maybe just once in a while ….

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but no matter, Nicholas has plenty more designs up his sleeve.

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This humorous book tackles bullying head on, highlighting the fact that girls as well as boys can be bullies. It’s perfect for circle time discussions in primary classes and for individual sharing. I particularly like the way that Nicholas uses creative means to deal with the bullies here and those end papers are great.

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The New Kid (coping with bullies)

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The New Kid
Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick
Hodder Children’s Books
Ellie is a girl with inner strength, most definitely. So, when she moves into the purple house in a new neighbourhood she resolutely wears her grey coat (at her mum’s behest), despite the fact that the other children on her street aren’t wearing theirs when they knock asking her to play (at their mums’ behest). As a result she comes in for some unkind taunting from the others, “Ellie-in-the-grey-coat,” they all chant.
ELLIE-ELEPHANT!” No reply from Ellie. But then she begins, courtesy of that grey coat, to transform herself into an elephant and CHARGE …

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right at the bullies.
Next Ellie, morphs into a seal. The gang members applaud, all except their leader who is the book’s narrator. He feels his position as games-maker-upper is threatened by this newcomer, whose next transformation is into superhero. Time for some quick thinking and action now, boy narrator … there go two superheroes, coats a flying; but then …

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A new friendship is born.
Vibrant, sensitively rendered paintings cover every centimetre of this thought-provoking book that demonstrates the power of the imagination in adversity.
Great endpapers too; I particularly like that there’s a bookshop on what appears to be the main street and the hair of every one of those children is just so tactile in appearance.

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The boy narrator’s voice sounds somewhat detached; for much of the time he appears as an almost passive observer, perhaps reluctantly joining in with the bullying chants. This is an effective vehicle through which to present the way children can at times, all too easily, be cruel to one another, especially to those they view as outsiders. At the same time that same voice talks about positions of power and roles among peers.
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