2015 Non Fiction

Educating Ruby by Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas

Educating Ruby: What Our Children Really Need to Learn Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: schools, progressive, change, children, confidence

I’m currently trying to decide which secondary school to send my children to, so I bought a copy of this book in the hope it might give me an idea of what to look for when I’m visiting them. It proved excellent for this purpose, but was also good at pointing out what parents can do to help their children within the home.

Educating Ruby states that our current education system fails to teach children what they really need to know to thrive in the outside world. It’s current focus on passing exams means that children falter when confronted with the skills needed for employment. The book argues that the education system needs to change radically in order to teach children to work with others, to communicate effectively, and to have the confidence needed to chase their dreams. It also questions the topics that should be taught in schools – suggesting that learning about finance, cookery and sex might be of more use than trigonometry or the Tudors.

Some parts of this book felt like an uncontrolled rant but beneath the surface it contained a lot of interesting points. It made suggestions for how to improve a child’s social skills, both as a parent and as a professional within the school environment, and gave numerous examples of how to make lessons more interesting and engage children in creative thought:

A few years ago we worked with a teacher in a school in Milton Keynes who undertook some research into ways of making reading and writing fun for her Year 1 children in ‘Elephants’ class. The teacher chose Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss as a book to read together (a good choice given its central character is Sam-I-Am who is reluctant to try things out but gradually learns to ‘give it a go’). She equipped the Elephants with paper, pencils and clipboards and asked where they’d like to do their writing. They chose to try in the classroom with the lights off and powered by torches, in the staffroom (achieved after a bit of negotiation!), lying on the floor in the school library, in the school grounds and even in the local park. This simple but imaginative approach worked well. Accompanied by the normal phonics and handwriting practice, the confidence of the Elephant class increased, the teacher told us, as did the fluency and skill of their writing. 

It became increasingly useful as it neared the end – especially because it backed up many of its proposals with scientific research or examples for further reading.  

Educating Ruby makes a compelling case for changing the way children are taught in schools. I hope that the ideas discussed within this book can be introduced into schools and more people come to appreciate that exam success is not the most important thing a child can achieve.


Books for Children Other

Writing for Children – child’s play – or is it?

Guest post written by Linda Strachan, the author of over 50 books for children.

Car crime, racism, stabbings, pregnancy; delicately seasoned with flying horses, puppies, a cuddly haggis and a dollop of love –  Enter the diverse world of this children’s writer.

It is a curious thing – you would never ask a paediatrician if they are going to become a proper doctor i.e. a doctor for adults, but most children’s writers have been asked when they will write a ‘proper book’ (for adults!).  I think the real question to ask a children’s writer is – ‘What kind of children’s books do you write?’

The answer might be – novels, non fiction, educational or picture books.  Some write one kind of book while others will write across the ages and genres.  I write novels for young adults, picture books for young children and pretty much everything in between.

One of the glorious things about writing for children (unlike writing for adults) is that you are less likely to be restricted to one age group, or even a single genre. But if you write for adults, publishers and readers alike will have expectations; do they know you as a writer of crime or romance, thrillers or literary fiction?

Writing is a lot about imagination but I never imagined I would be a writer. In fact it is amazing that it happened at all because when I was about eight years old a teacher once said ‘ (she)….lacks imagination.’  So for many years being a writer never really entered my head.  

When I started I had my fair share of rejection slips (in fact I have a fat file full of them) and it was a steep learning curve, but in 1996 I got my first publishing contract.  My latest book, a teenage novel (Dead Boy Talking – pub Strident – April 2010) will be my 56th book.  Granted some of them are very short!

I love my work, the angst and delight of writing; losing myself in the story and living with my characters.  It is the challenge of getting inside the head of a teenager or trying to find exactly the right words that will be reassuring and still have the awww! factor, for a bedtime story picture book.

Writing ‘short’ for a picture book means that every single word counts. You are continually working up the text, reading it out loud, cutting and moulding it, until the rhythm is strong enough to grab even the most casual reader. The story may seem deceptively simple but it must feel complete and satisfying for both the child, and the adult reader who reads it to them –again and again!

Writing ‘long’ for a novel it is important to get the feel of the characters and their situation so that the reader is taken along for the ride and not bumped out of the story because it seems unrealistic, or because the readers cannot recognise themselves in the characters.

Young people are very critical readers, they will not put up with anything that does not grab them and carry them through the story; they won’t put up with padding or self indulgent twaddle. There is no place to hide.  As a children’s writer you also have to be prepared for very direct criticism. Most young people will be brutally honest about your book, even if it is negative, they will tell you with complete disregard for your feelings.

Writing is only a part of my job. The research is often fascinating. It has taken me out on a Saturday nightshift with an ambulance crew; extracting people from crashed cars on a training day with the local Fire Service training college; on tours of haunted castles and Royal palaces; speaking to experts about where pterodactyls nest or the culinary delights of Jamaica.   So from pterodactyls and ghostly castles to crime and mayhem, being a children’s writer may be exhausting at times, but it is never boring.

I spend a lot of time travelling all over the UK, and beyond. I visit schools and libraries talking to children and I also speak to adults who want to start writing, at festivals, conferences and writing retreats.  So I decided to write a book for people who were as excited as I was by the idea of writing for children.  But it is not just for new and aspiring writers.   I was keen to give a realistic view of what happens when you are first published; what to expect and how to gather support systems, and everything from school visits to handling finances. Many people have a very strange idea of what life is like for a writer.  This probably comes from the media hype that surrounds any big book deal or mega-successful author; think JK Rowling’s Harry Potter or Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights.  The reality is actually less Hollywood and more Eastenders!

Linda Strachan is the author of over 50 books for children and her book Writing for Children is full of information for aspiring and newly published writers.

If you’d like the chance to win one of two copies of Writing for Children, then just leave a comment below, before midnight GMT on 5th January 2010.

Winners will be selected at random and notified by email.

The giveaway is open internationally.

Good luck!

1990s Recommended books

The Giver – Lois Lowry

Winner of the Newberry Medal, 1994.

The Giver is set in a futuristic world where all aspects of society are governed by strict rules.  All pain is removed by strong medicine and all feelings (from emotion, to hunger, and cold) have been eradicated; even colours and music have been removed, to provide a “sameness” which protects the inhabitants from fear.

Every year ceremonies are held in which 12-year-old children are assigned their future role in society. Jonas is honoured with the task of being the “receiver of memory”. He is sent to learn the secrets of the world, from the tired, old Giver. He quickly learns the truth behind his community, and has to decide what to do with his new, disturbing knowledge.

Many aspects of the book were reminiscent of The Hunger Games, but The Giver failed to develop the characters as well as those in Suzanne Collin’s futuristic world; this book felt very brief and shallow in comparison.  The beginning was excellent, but it seemed to fizzle out as it progressed, and I found the ambiguous ending a bit of a let down.

There were lots of moral issues high-lighted, and I think it is very beneficial for children to discuss these  – I can see why this would make an excellent text for children to study at school. The book questions the structure of our society, and whether it is better to be dictated to by others, or have the freedom to make our own choices. This book was temporarily banned from many schools in America (ironically, increasing it’s profile!) as it was thought that the themes of euthanasia and violence were inappropriate for the young. There were brief passages of violence, but these were not graphic, and were important to the message of the book,  I wouldn’t hesitate to give this to a child to read.

This is the first of Lowry’s books I have read, but despite my criticisms I still plan to read the rest of the trilogy soon.

Overall, this is a thought-provoking read, which I highly recommend to all older children, but it lacks the complexity or power required for a satisfying adult read.

Adult Rating: 
Child Rating (8 – 12 years-old?) :  

Have you read this book? Do you enjoy reading books aimed at children, or do you need more complex plots to be satisfied?

I’d love to hear you opinions!

Other Weekly Geeks

The best books for three-year-old boys

This week the weekly geek site informed me that April 2nd was International Childrens Book Day. In celebration I thought I’d share Adam’s favourite books.

When I was compiling the top ten I realised that the books I enjoyed reading to him were very different to the books he liked best, so I thought I’d compare the two!

The books I enjoy reading to my three-year-old son


The Gruffalo is my favourite picture book. It’s rhyming verse is easy to read, the gruffalo is very endearing, and it has the cleverest plot I’ve seen in a book for young children. Adam enjoys listening to it, and loves the disgusting sounding food the mouse suggests  –  owl ice cream anyone?

The only problem is that it is a little bit too long for him. I sometimes miss out a few pages so that he will sit through to the end. I think this will be perfect for him once he’s four or five.

Adult Rating

3 Year-Old Rating 

Mr McGee and the Blackberry Jam

Mr McGee is a lovely story about a man who decides he’d like to have some blackberry jam, and goes off to search for some blackberries. As with the Gruffalo it is really easy to read, as it all rhymes:

This morning he was feeling grumpy.

He’d made the porridge and it was lumpy.

He’d put two sugars in his tea,

then spilt the lot and burnt his knee.

The plot is simple, but Adam finds a lot of it very funny. He has read it so many times that he can recite it. I highly recommend this book for three-year olds.

Adult Rating

3 Year-Old  Rating

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Adult Rating

3 Year-Old Rating

This picture book is a must for all book lovers. It’s about a little boy that decides to eat books. He discovers that by doing so he learns everything that is inside them. In the end he realises that it is better to read them though!

Adam is happy to read this, but never requests it. I think it is much more appreciated by the adult than the child, but if you get the chance you should have a quick read of this one, as I love it!


You’ve probably never heard of Whiff, but I don’t know why, as he should be a classic! Whiff finds it hard to find friends, as he smells and is surrounded by flies. These flies tickle everyone leading to all sorts of trouble, including Adam’s favourite –  jelly and custard getting stuck to the ceiling! It flows nicely, is a great story, and makes toddlers laugh. If you’re after something new, then this book is a good choice.

Adult Rating

3 Year-Old Rating

Very Lazy Ladybird

The Very Lazy Ladybird is another classic. It teaches young children about lots of different animals, and they love the sneezing pop-up at the end. Adam still enjoys reading it, although it is probably best for children under three.

Adult Rating

3 Year-Old  Rating 

My son’s favourite books

Steam Trains

Adult Rating stars1

3 Year-Old Rating 



This non-fiction book on steam trains is my son’s favourite book by a long way. Published in 1978, it is packed with photos of trains from around the world. He spends hours comparing relative chimney sizes, the colour of traction rods and how many carriages each train is pulling. It bores me to tears, and it doesn’t matter how many times I hide it at the bottom of the pile – he always manages to find it!

Mighty Tugboats

Adult Rating 

3 Year-Old Rating

This large, bright board book is another favourite. Six plastic tug boats are visible through holes in the pages, and each one has it’s own page, explaining the job it is going to perform that day.  Each tug boat has a name and my son want to know it, and why it is helping the tourists/going to the docks/helping the sail boat etc. I think this book is OK, but I don’t really understand his fascination with it. I have now read it so many times that I can recite it without the book!

Harry and the Dinosaurs Romp in the Swamp

Adult Rating 

3 Year-Old Rating 

Adam loves all the Harry and the dinosaur books, but this is his favourite. They build a swamp in the garden using plants and pretend the hose is a snake. He thinks it is really funny, especially when they capture the snake in a basket. I quite enjoy it too. It is a nice gentle book, which is easy to read, and has the added benefit of explaining that it is not scary to go and play with new friends.

Bedtime Bear

The Bedtime Bear is a very confusing book to read. There is no real plot; instead each page is crammed with little pictures, flaps to lift up and a few words to describe what is happening. Adam finds this book funnier than any other. He is literally crying with laughter when he reveals the skunk in the bunk or the wombat in a bath hat. I find it quite annoying to read, but it is worth it for the pleasure it gives him.

Adult Rating 

3 Year-Old Rating 

One Day in the Jungle

This book has a very simple concept – basically each page consisits of animals sneezing. As the book progresses the animals and the sneezes get bigger. Children find it hilarious, but pretending to sneeze can only be fun for so long. I don’t like reading it more than two or three times a day, which unfortuanetly isn’t enough for my boys. Only buy this if you enjoy sneezing!!!

Adult Rating 

3 Year-Old Rating 

Writing this list has just emphasized the differences between books that children love, and books that adults like to read to their children. I think it is important to read a wide range of books, but just remember to ensure that the children are getting to read books they really enjoy too!

Do you agree with my ratings? Does your three-year-old agree? If you have a three-year-old girl I’d love to know her opinion of the books – do they like the same ones as the boys?


Edited to add: See my new post on the Best Books for Four-year-old Boys.