To celebrate World Book Day we thought we needed to do something a little different to sharing our latest favourites and must-haves. We spend much of our time doing that anyway. We know that World Book Day should be, first and foremost, about books. There’s a hint in the title. So we thought we would gather together, say hello as a complete team, and tell you a little something about a pivotal book that inspired us in the course of our individual reading journeys. Happy World Book Day 2020!
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Chosen by Michael Gray
Some years ago, whilst perusing the shelves in some bookshop, I came across a book called ‘The Historian’. Having recently undertaken a history degree, this immediately piqued my interest. The cover of the book gave few clues as to what it was actually about, but what does draw you in is the phrase ‘To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history…’ alongside two drops of (what I assume is) blood. Without thinking about it much further, I thought that it looked interesting and decided to buy it.
It took me some time to read. It was hard going in places too, but it was worth it in the end. What this book does well is blend historical fact with myth and legend – it draws upon facts about Vlad the Impaler and weaves in the fictional brilliance of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, putting all of that into a modern setting. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted for some kind of magical realm to be real, and for me to be a part of it. This book almost brings a sense of that. The merging of what is real, with what is fantasy is done seamlessly. I almost believed every word and that has left the lasting imprint on my mind.
It has been some years now since I read this book, but it is one I will re-read. It has left images in my mind even though I can’t quite recall all of the events that took place in the book. I remember finishing it and really wanting to visit Eastern Europe (where much of the book is set) as a result. Unfortunately I still haven’t quite got there, and on some level, I’m worried that the reality won’t match up to the rich visions which I have built in my head as a result of this book.
This is a story which takes you down a rabbit hole. Starting with some historical exploration into something which seems interesting, leading to something which is quite unexpected. If you enjoy history and you have a penchant for Dracula, this is for you. One word of advice – don’t read this alone, at night!
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Chosen by Jane Andrews
When I think of my school days, I find that many memories are from the secondary years. My few of primary include being grateful that my friend Denise didn’t like school milk so I drank her bottle too (yes glass bottles that we chased across the playground with); walking on stilts; being told off for talking – a lot, and, Mrs Smith reading The Secret Garden. I don’t remember any of the other teachers reading to us but Mrs Smith brought books to life for me. She did all the accents and for those precious minutes I was transported into the garden and the lives of Mary, Colin and Dickon. Whilst Mrs Smith read a few great books that year, including My Family and Other Animals which had us rolling in the aisles, I’m now wondering why The Secret Garden resonated so much. I believe it’s the age old theme of children with less than perfect lives finding solace and love in friendship and that’s something that still resonates today.
Roll on the years and I found that Mrs Smith’s reading of The Secret Garden was not only the inspiration for my teaching career choice but a role model for the power of reading aloud. It was my favourite part of the teaching day. I even trained the children to change silently for P.E. so that we could squeeze even more story into the crammed day. I bought a beautiful illustrated copy of The Secret Garden and now can’t wait to read it to grandchildren one day. Just recently, a father of a girl I taught told me that she credits a teacher from her secondary school and myself as her inspiration for studying English at Exeter. In particular, she had enjoyed the copious books we managed to read across the year and how creative we were with the writing that we enjoyed from them. It seems to be the gift that keeps on giving.
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
Chosen by Michelle Nicholson, Primary English Advisor
When I was a young girl, I was introduced to a little orphan named Anne Shirley. The book was Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, and its bewitching contents took me on a lifelong journey of literature with that ‘red-headed whipper snapper’ by my side. Written in 1908, this book is never out-of-print and constantly televised, serialised and adapted for new audiences. It beguiles me as much as an adult as it did as a child, because like all great books for children, it’s a great book for adults too.
The story tells of a child who is placed with a quiet pair of elderly siblings. They had ‘sent for’ a boy to help them on their farm but instead they got a high-spirited chatterbox with a penchant for disaster, lots of love and a limitless imagination. She changed their lives and she changed mine too. It was Anne’s imagination that hooked me as a child: with it she could transform a dull pond to ‘a lake of shining waters’, a tree-lined road into the ‘white way of delights’ and even pull you out of the ‘depths of despair.’ Through Anne, Lucy Montgomery painted a picture of a faraway world that I could escape to in my own imagination, “Because when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worthwhile.” Anne taught me about resilience, ambition, determination and finding the good in everything. She also pushed my vocabulary knowledge beyond its limits and made no apologies for it: “People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, haven't you?”
Once I had discovered Anne in our local library at the age of eleven, I found a true ‘kindred spirit’ and I travelled with her to Prince Edward Island every summer. Where this island was, I had no idea at the time, but was delighted to find out as an adult that it is a maritime province, off the east coast of Canada, and a place of pilgrimage for fans of Anne with an ‘e’. I hope to visit when I retire.
Dibs: In search of self by Virginia M Axline
Chosen by Kirsten Snook, Primary English Advisor
This book is, without doubt, the tattiest of my collection…the most re-read, thumbed-through and pored over. It is also, without doubt, the most influential upon my career. As a rookie student teacher I bought it because, yes, it was on the syllabus list. But it was read cover-to-cover because of how you are drawn into and enveloped by the mystery of this child. Although published in 1964, the themes could never be more relevant. Is he autistic? Is he deaf? Does he understand language? What is wrong with Dibs..?
You can tell that the writing is of an era, that this was an age of digging deep into psyches, but the book is far from dated. Axline takes you on a journey of discovery alongside Dibs and his play-therapist, shows you how listening, interacting and responding to a young child can uncover the greatest mystery of all, and most astonishingly shows how nurturing relationships can bring about the most intense healing…something I have always taken forwards into my teaching.
But most of all, how much we can learn from this privilege we call teaching.
I won’t do a spoiler on you, but reader, I dare you to not find this a journey of self-discovery as much as one of discovery about Dibs. We are all Dibs.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Chosen by Kathy Roe
The first book I can recall reading as a child is the timeless classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. I must have been pretty small as I can remember fitting my fingers into the little holes left by the caterpillar as he munched though the pages.
I’m sure this formative experience is one that I share with many thousands of other book lovers worldwide. The book has been translated into 62 languages and sold over 50 million copies. I continue to treasure it to this day and read and re-read it to my own children. I have been pondering the incredible, and well-deserved place that this book holds in so many hearts as it nears its 51st birthday.
The books begins with this sentence: In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf. The beauty of Eric Carle’s writing demands an expressive storyteller’s voice. It’s almost poetry, throughout. This is the magic of the book for me, notwithstanding the iconic illustrations.
I can remember the joy and vicariousness of re-reading the pages where the creature feasts on cake, ice-cream, pickle, cheese and salami followed by an ice lolly, a piece of pie, a sausage, a cupcake and a slice of watermelon. I remember thinking I’d turn my nose up at the pie, but I’d definitely eat the rest along with him. I can also recall empathising with the restorative and healthy green leaf on Sunday’s menu. Although I knew he was destined to transform into that beautiful butterfly at the end, I always felt a bit sad for the inevitable loss of the friendly caterpillar that the metamorphosis necessitated.
With my teacher hat on, I can now consider the reading skills coming through that shared book experience – empathy, making connections, prediction, analysis, questioning. These all led to a deep inferential response which allowed for resonance and ultimately, great enjoyment.
The October Country by Ray Bradbury
Chosen by Kerry Godsman, Lead Primary English Advisor
I was probably about 10 when my teacher introduced me to science fiction writers and I encountered The October Country. Inspire means to excite emotion, encourage, or breathe life into and the master stoyteller, Ray Bradbury, made me feel like that when I read his stories. Poignant tales like Homecoming, where a small boy aches to share the talents of his ghoulish family, alternate with the horror of Skeleton whose final sentence stayed with me for months. Exhilarated by his poetic use of language, carried along by his macabre imagination and haunted by his other-wordly interpretation of the every-day, I devoured all his books. Despite a dark undercurrent, his writing is studded with joyous creativity and stunning imagery. Discovering that he was a prolific writer gave me that pleasure of knowing I would have many opportunities to be startled and enthralled by his boundless imagination.
If you haven’t already experienced his writing, I envy you the discovery. If you know his books well, they are a pleasure to revisit and savour.
"Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories." - Ray Bradbury
The Hillingdon Fox by Jan Mark
Chosen by Alison Dawkins, Primary English Advisor
The Hillingdon Fox by the late, great Jan Mark is a book that I read and re-read, and frequently urge others to read. I must have come across it shortly after it was first published in 1991 and it struck an immediate chord with me because half of the book is written as diary entries from the time of the Falklands Conflict. I was in Newcastle at that point, at university, convinced the world was going mad around me. It shot me back to the appalling, actual celebrations that I remember taking place when The Belgrano was sunk.
The other half of the book, interwoven with the 1982 sections and again beautifully, punchily crafted, are diary entries from the time of the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Two wars; ongoing historical detail; changing perspectives on these, and two brothers writing about their own daily lives with these larger events as a backdrop. I admit it doesn’t sound a barrel of laughs, but it is nonetheless quite brilliant.
And I find it a hopeful book. With all the examining of justice and injustice, of ongoing inequality, we get to see that it’s the small, daily actions that matter and that do make a difference. The kindnesses, the taking of time, and the memory of the Hillingdon fox itself.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Chosen by Theresa Clements, Primary English Advisor
Anyone that knows me well knows that I am a huge fan of The Classics. I have grown to realise that this is why:
My late mother was a huge fan of anything royal. Of course, this included the royal family, palaces, stately homes, royal ceremonies and above all any period dramas and films that involved the aristocracy and links with royalty. I spent at least one school holiday each year visiting either Hampton Court or Blenheim Palace….the latter being my mother’s favourite place to tour, picnic, sunbathe and dream of an imagined life. I was made to watch all royal events and public ceremonies on television and was even forced to enter my first school’s fancy dress competition in 1977 (Silver Jubilee Year), adorning a homemade giant silver crown that covered the entire length of my body! If I’m going to be honest, I am convinced that my mother believed that she was actually related to the royal family! Honestly! This largely stemmed from the fact my great grandfather served as wine butler to King George VI….a fact that I was repeatedly reminded of.
Anyway, sometime towards the end of primary education my parents plied me with classic novels and insisted that I read them because apparently they would change my life for the better. I had no idea what they were talking about but was a compliant child and set about trying to read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I could read it but did not fully comprehend it so gave up! The next classic came by way of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which I gleaned a tad more understanding of at the time. However, I gave up again and was a bit frustrated with myself so I laid the books to rest. As the years passed through secondary school, I returned to Pride and Prejudice and literally devoured it. I’m not going to bore you with my love for Mr Darcy but the turning point came through my complete admiration of Elizabeth Bennet. Not only could I relate to her as a young woman but also I actually wanted to be her! I loved her strength and resilience and was amazed that a classic fictional character appealed to me so much. Finally, I had entered a world of which I had no idea existed whilst growing up, despite my mother’s constant efforts to engage me in anything royal or aristocratic. I began to understand my mother better and as happens to most of us….I think that I am turning into my mum! This is how I know: I bought my daughter a copy of Pride and Prejudice when she started secondary school this year and explained to her that one day she will love reading it and that it will enhance, if not change, her perspective about how she understands herself as a woman. Of course, she had no idea what I was talking about and plonked it on her bedroom shelf. The whole experience was made all the more poignant as she found herself being placed within Austen House at school. Thank you mum!
The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl
Chosen by Penny Slater, Deputy Lead Primary English Advisor
I wonder if I have been a bit staid in my selection of ‘a text that has inspired me’? Certainly, everyone knows Dahl’s work. But then again, perhaps you won’t be so familiar with this particular offering?
I am lucky enough to be able to recall many memories of my mum reading to me. It was during one of these familiar bedtime episodes, that she read ‘The Magic Finger’. I was probably about 7 or 8 years old. Although I don’t necessarily recall the words being read, I do remember the feeling that the book left me with: a sense of mild horror along with intrigue and wonder. I suppose this is a fairly standard response to much of Dahl’s work, but having gone onto read many of his children’s books, I ascertain that few are quite as perplexing and disconcerting as this particular offering. The fact that I still have the original copy of this childhood text gives testament to the fact that it left a mark. The front cover quickly belies its age (note the red flares worn by the main character!).
I have gone onto share this text with my eldest daughter. She too was probably about 7 when I first read it. Like me, she was captivated. It’s a short text. We read it in one sitting. I doubt she would have settled for anything less because once you are presented with the predicament of the story, you cannot rest until you know the outcome.
Although I often come across teachers who are introducing children to the wonderful world of Roald Dahl, I rarely see them doing so with this text. I wonder why? Unlike his other upper KS1/lower KS2 suitable texts – like Fantastic Mr Fox and The Twits – it rarely features in the bulk buy compilations. Perhaps this is the answer? Maybe it is just less well-known? Whatever the reason, I challenge you to find a copy. You might just find a new Dahl favourite to add to your collection.
The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down: How to be Calm in a Busy World by Haemin Sunim and illustrated by Youngcheol Lee
Chosen by Ruth Goodman
During a particularly challenging point in my life, I found myself reading calm and thoughtful books. Life was moving at quite a pace and it
was hard to be mindful and slow down.
One book that helped me to gain some perspective was The Things You see Only when You Slow Down. The author Haemin Sunim is a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher who teaches inner peace and balance. In the book, he offers signposts to establishing well-being and happiness in eight important aspects of our lives. One chapter that especially resonates with me, includes a section entitled Why am I so busy? Here he draws your attention to the fact that the world is experienced according to the state of one’s mind. That is quite a powerful thought!
It is beautifully illustrated with simple idyllic pictures that aid a sense of peace and stillness. It is the kind of book that you can read all in one go or take your time over.
If you feel that you need to slow down and notice the world, make deeper connections or just be, then enjoy this little book of wisdom. Take time to read it, reflect on your life and make small steps to a more mindful existence.
Ask yourself …Is it the world that’s busy, or my mind?
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Chosen by Martin Galway
Someone borrowed my original copy of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and never returned it. Possibly my fault, and my shoddy chasing up of it, and possibly part of the trouble with those most powerfully lasting books. Impressive books, in the truest sense of that word. They have a tendency not to stay put. Is it pure coincidence that the other book that I considered sharing, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, is similarly missing in action?
So there’s a glaring, metaphorical hole next to Beloved on my bookcase. I suppose it is as it should be. Books that sear into you need to be seen and heard as widely as possible. That said, if it’s you that has assumed long-term custody, and you still have it, I’ll just quickly add that there’s a nostalgic attachment involved that is glued to that particular copy (intellectual awakenings, widening worlds and world views, the sense of something importantly different to what had come before, and, best of all, the knowledge that there was more to come – this was my introduction to Morrison).
The Bluest Eye was certainly one of those sit-up-straight-and-pay-full attention formative reading experiences as it looked upon and into Pecola, through all kinds of challenging, thought-stirring and re-stirring impressions relating to race and racism, identity and conflicted identities. It challenged me in terms of its subject, form, its modes of narration, and most particularly in its confrontation of beauty and ugliness, both as concepts, and in action. It introduced me to Morrison, with better still to come, and Morrison introduced me to so much more.
As much as it has left a gaping hole on my book case, it’s a book that remains undiminished in the best (and the still-relevant worst) of possible ways.