Cracking Christmas Books

Christmas is a magical time of year and that magic is only enhanced by sharing festive books with those children in your life at home or in school. Below are some Christmassy recommended reads to share.

How Winston Came Home For Christmas – Alex T. Smith

Written in 24 and a half chapters, this book is designed to be read over the period of advent and I can see it becoming a Christmas tradition in our house. It is also good to read with any primary aged classes as well. If you follow Alex T. Smith on Twitter, I’m sure you’ll be kept informed of which day to start reading, depending on when you break up for Christmas.

Throughout the story Winston visits a number of European countries on his quest understand a vision he has had and his heritage. In each country he encounters a variety of indigenous creatures who are all exceptionally helpful and aid Winston in piecing together the clues he needs to complete his journey. We also learn about Christmas traditions from all over the continent.

As well as daily chapters during advent, there are also craft and recipe ideas for each day. These are all lovely and add to the magic of the book. The only downside is the pressure I put on myself to read a chapter with the children everyday. I find it hard enough to remember to always light the advent candle. Weekends are pretty good for catching up on a chapter or two though, and it really doesn’t detract from the overall loveliness of the story.

Father Christmas – The Truth – by Gregoire Solotareff

I love this book. Mostly because it’s really rather silly, but it also has many other qualities. It is a collection of ‘facts’ and stories about Father Christmas which are organised alphabetically. The book can be read in order, but you also can dip in and out of it, if you prefer. We’ve found it great for getting our young children to practice reading because there aren’t too many words on each page so they enjoy taking turns and making each other giggle.

So it’s a light-hearted, fun book that you can return to time and again, year after year. A perfect Christmas book really. Well worth adding to your collection.

A Boy Called Christmas – Matt Haig

Matt Haig is a master of his craft. He constructs stories brilliantly and each word is carefully chosen to induce a range of emotions in the reader. A Boy Called Christmas is the true origins story of Father Christmas (it really is, don’t argue) and it’s absolutely pack with festive magic and drimwickery.

While all does end well for Nikolas, the boy at the centre of the story, the book also has moments of real sadness and darkness. Like, at one point, when the boy unwittingly eats his only toy. Or when Nikolas is sent to the tower. To balance the darkness, there are also many warm and humorous moments.

A Boy Called Christmas is the first time Matt Haig introduces the characters of Miika the Mouse and the Truth Pixie, Both characters have gone on to be the central characters in others books, with the straight-talking Truth Pixie being a particular favourite of mine.

As well as a lovely story about Christmas, Haig also manages to mix in some social commentary about the media and how it controls and manipulates the world around us at time.

A Boy Called Christmas is my favourite Christmas book and it will take something very special to change that. I can’t wait to see the film.

Pick a Pine Tree – by Patricia Toht

The start of December, means it’s the start of Christmas books in assembly. Pick a Pine Tree is beautifully illustrated by Jarvis and charts the journey of selecting, decorating and enjoying the perfect Christmas tree.

By using this book we started conversations about why we bring trees into our homes and decorate at Christmas time generally. It was also great to discuss how we all have family traditions. Some are the same as everyone else, others unique to our families, all are special and help make Christmas a magical time of year.

The Girl Who Saved Christmas – Matt Haig

The is Matt Haig’s follow-up to ‘A Boy Called Christmas’, and it is filled with plenty more magic (or rather drimwickery). The first is an origins story for Father Christmas, and it’s good. Really good. And believable. It all makes sense and keeps to magic of Christmas very much alive for all children who read it.

In ‘The Girl Who Saved Christmas’ the big man goes in search of a girl who has the most hope, to help restore the magic which makes Christmas possible. Unfortunately, the girl in question (Amelia) has had an extremely tough couple of years and proves difficult to track down and has also lost a lot of hope.

Haig skilfully and sensitively handles themes of loss, trust, love and hope and includes cameos from Charles Dickins and Queen Victoria, but it all works. We hoped and assumed it would all turn out alright in the end, but didn’t really know how it was going to get there until very near the end. It is a gloriously happy ending, but with another adventure to look forward to in the shape of ‘Father Christmas and Me’. Also, rather excitingly, ‘A Boy Called Christmas’ is being made into a film which will be released in December 2020. Can’t wait.

Dasher – Matt Tavares

This is the story of how Father Christmas began to use reindeer to help him deliver his presents instead of horses. Dasher and his family are stuck working for a travelling circus but he longs to escape and head north to the beautiful place his mother has often spoken of. When Dasher’s opportunity arises he quickly grasps his freedom. One thing leads to another and he ends up finding a better life for himself, his family and children all over the world.

Farther Christmas and Me – Matt Haig

This is the final instalment of Matt Haig’s Christmas trilogy and the festive magic is very much still alive in Elfhelm. We’ve read each of the books, in order, over the last 3 Decembers, and it’s been a lovely Christmas tradition we’re sad has come to an end.

On the surface, Father Christmas and Me, is another epic adventure for Amelia, who we met in the second book. She struggles to feel accepted in Elfhelm and find her place living amongst the elves. She thinks about leaving, but ends up trying to become a journalist, an honest one. For a timeless Christmas classic, this book is also pretty topical, exploring themes of immigration, fake-news, Trumpism (Vodalism) and nationalism.

Above all, Matt Haig is just a bloomin’ good writer. The arc of all three books are beautifully created and always leave the reader guessing how the loose ends will be tied up. The loose ends are tied up and although there are a lot of worrying moments throughout, hope always wins. What I particularly enjoy are the moments throughout the book that bring a wry or knowing smile.

Throughout the truth is important. The perceived truth and the actual truth are not always the same thing. But the Truth Pixie is on hand to make the distinction and, as with other Matt Haig books, she steals the show.

The first book, A Boy Called Christmas, has been made into a movie and will be released in November 2021. This means that our Christmas Matt Haig tradition can continued for one more year at least, but I very much hope that the other books will be made in to films as well.

Tom, age 7, says: “It was sometimes scary, but mostly fun. I liked that Amelia went back to London in the end and told the stories to the children in the orphanage that she had built. Father Christmas is my favourite character because he always tries to help everyone.”

A Mouse Called Miika – Matt Haig

We first came across Miika in ‘A Boy Called Christmas’ where he acts as a curious supporting character who narrates occasional thoughts about the extraordinary goings on that he witnesses. Released around the same time as the film of that book, A Mouse Called Miika gives a little more detail to the background of the mouse, but mostly focuses on events that happen shortly after the conclusion of the first book.

Miika is a friendly mouse with human, elf and pixie friends but only knows one other mouse – Bridget the Brave. Through the book, Miika tries to please Bridget and be a good mouse-friend but at the end realises that actually Bridget hasn’t ever really been a good friend to him. He realises, with the help of the ever-wonderful Truth Pixie, that he’s better off being disliked for who he is rather than being liked for who he isn’t.

As ever, Matt Haig writes fabulously constructed books for children with fantastic nuggets of wisdom interwoven for readers of all ages. I particularly liked the quote below which comes towards the end of the book. I can see myself using in when talking to Year 6 children before they move up to secondary school.

Tom, age 8, says: “I thought it was really interesting to listen to. He meets Bridget the Brave and to start off with it was a good relationship, then it wasn’t, then it was again, then it wasn’t again. Relationships can be like that sometimes. It was really courageous of Miika when he said that he was the cheese thief but sadly he got flattened by the troll’s foot. In the end he learned that it’s ok to be who you are and not try to be someone else. It’s a good message for children who read the book.

The Empty Stocking – by Richard Curtis

Richard Curtis, yes that Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings, Blackadder, Comic Relief, etc) is the author of this week’s Christmas book.

I’ll admit I was a little dubious when this book was recommended to me as I’m not overly keen on the whole, ‘if you’re naughty you won’t get any presents,’ thing. But it’s handled really well. The ‘naughty’ girl in the story often misbehaves for innocent, misguided or misunderstood reasons and in the end she is able to make the right choice and receive a stocking full of gifts.

Alfie’s Christmas – Shirley Hughes

Shirley Hughes does heart-warming, nostalgic books, and if Christmas isn’t a time for heart-warming nostalgia, I don’t know when is. Dogger is an all-time favourite children’s book of mine (and my mum for that matter) and Alfie’s Christmas is another beaut.

It’s the countdown to Christmas and Alfie and his sister are preparing for the big day. They experience an exceptionally traditional English Christmas with all it’s chocolate-box awe and wonder.

Taskmaster Tasks for School

I have been using Taskmaster in school for a few years now, to great effect. The following is a list of all the tasks I’ve done or heard about. They originate from the TV show, the Taskmaster book, Class Taskmaster, my brain, my colleagues and other teachers who have been enjoying Taskmaster in schools. However, most of the credit must go to the creator of Taskmaster, Alex Horne. If you have any more to add, please tweet me the suggestions and together we can create an extensive list of tasks for children (and teachers) to enjoy all over the world.

  1. Scavenger Hunt
  2. Paint a picture – blindfolded
  3. Take an impressive photograph
  4. Make something big appear small
  5. Make something small appear big
  6. Kick a rugby ball from one end of the field to the other while holding hands. If you let go, you start again
  7. Score a goal from the furthest distance
  8. Work out how long a ball of string is
  9. Cross the playground in the least step
  10. Find all of the playing card hidden around the school
  11. Throw a tea bag into a mug from the furthest distance
  12. Get an egg as high as possible, without breaking it
  13. What is Mr Blake-Lobb’s age in minutes/seconds?
  14. As a team, build the highest tower on the field. You have ten minutes starting from now.
  15. Memorise the Highwayman poem
  16. Set a task for another group
  17. Melt the ice – fastest wins
  18. Draw a flower with your weaker hand
  19. Draw an upside down self-portrait using crayons
  20. Make the most juice from these fruits
  21. Make the best picture, using only this toilet roll.
  22. Unveil a new handshake
  23. Make something spin for the longest period of time
  24. Make the best paper aeroplane. Furthest flight wins.
  25. Score a goal with a shopping bag, each team member must kick the bag at least twice
  26. CONNECTED TASK – Make the shopping bag as heavy as possible in ten minutes. It must then hang, unassisted, for one minute
  27. Make the most impressive throw of something, into something
  28. Do the most brilliant thing on a gym mat
  29. While holding hands, kick a rugby ball from the round house to the year 6 table
  30. Move the pallet as far as possible. You have 3 minutes. Go.
  31. Eat the best picture out of a piece of bread
  32. Guess the number on Mr Blake-Lobb’s left arm (the number had also been written on the cupboard door at the back of the room for 3 days).
  33. Vote for the team you wish to receive 5 points. If you vote for your own team and don’t win, then you will lose 2 points
  34. Write the lowest unique number on a whiteboard
  35. Stand up for 100 seconds
  36. Blindfolded, stack as many objects on top of each other as possible without falling (for at least five seconds)
  37. Bring me someone who was born on the 28th May 2011 (pick the date of birth of someone in your school)
  38. Surprise Mr Allen
  39. Impress Mr Wood
  40. Make Mrs Humphreys say ‘bubbles’. You cannot use the word ‘bubbles’
  41. Make Mrs Rowe laugh out loud. You must not touch her.
  42. As a team, stage a performance of a nursery rhyme
  43. Write and perform a song about this week
  44. Bring in a book to read to a younger child
  45. Tweet a joke to Penguins class, 1st joke wins (Bonus for best joke)
  46. Wear the most unusual hat to school tomorrow
  47. Write the best 10 word story
  48. Make the best Christ-Maths Tree
  49. Make the best flag without using a flag
  50. Decorate your classroom for Christmas
  51. Line things up height order, longest line wins
  52. Make the smallest piece of art
  53. High five the oldest and youngest person, greatest age gap wins
  54. Make the best domino show
  55. Write and perform a tune with E, A and B in it
  56. Create a Remembrance Day tribute
  57. Recreate a famous book cover
  58. Find all of the playing cards hidden around the school
  59. Make the best piece of art using one toilet roll
  60. Make the longest line of things that begin with the first letter of your team/class/school name
  61. Make the biggest circle
  62. Write an epic story in 280 characters or fewer
  63. Create a cartoon character using things found in the classroom
  64. Take a picture of the oldest thing in your school
  65. Make the best snowman
  66. Recreate a famous film scene
  67. Make the biggest splash
  68. Eat the most crackers in a minute
  69. Put the most different things beginning with H, A and T in a hat
  70. Show me a picture of a cow. You cannot draw a picture. You cannot use technology
  71. Balance the biggest thing on your head
  72. Eat the most watermelon
  73. Remove your socks without using your hands – fastest wins
  74. Build a den 2m x 1m x 1m. Driest wins
  75. Create a throne
  76. Fly a flag on the tallest, free-standing flagpole
  77. Write a haiku about a task
  78. Build the tallest card tower in 2 minutes
  79. Balance the heaviest thing on the lightest thing. Greatest difference in weight wins
  80. Find the biggest leaf
  81. Line up in age/height order
  82. Make the best entrance
  83. Disguise yourself/team. Most disguised wins
  84. Hide
  85. Touch the door, fastest wins
  86. Make an A4 piece of paper into the longest piece of paper possible in 2 minutes
  87. List the most 5 letter words as you can
  88. Write a verb for every letter of the alphabet
  89. Make the longest paperchain
  90. Build a kite, longest flight wins
  91. Get a celebrity to Tweet about the school
  92. Make a cool video in reverse
  93. Film a slo-mo stunt
  94. Work out how long a ball of string is without using rulers, tape measures, meter sticks, trundle wheels, or other traditional measuring devices
  95. Identify the items in the sock/pillowcase
  96. Carry a bowl of water around the track. Fastest wins. Bonus point for the most water
  97. Throw as many balls of scrap paper over your shoulder and into the bin as you can. You have 5 throws per team member
  98. Get this egg as far from the starting point as you can in 2 minutes. You may not use your hands
  99. Find Miss Burrows. Quickest time wins. You must stay together as a team and ALL find her. You must walk in the school. Miss Burrows is not in another classroom or behind a security door
  100. Throw the ball to a teammate and they must catch it. Furthest throw wins
  101. Using the iPads, your team must take 5 photos around the school. The Taskmaster will try and identify where the photos were taken. You will score one point for each photo the Taskmaster guesses incorrectly. Photos must not be blurry
  102. How much money is in the tins? Closest wins
  103. Knock the heaviest item off the table from the furthest distance
  104. Compose a tune using the pentatonic scale with at least three instruments
  105. Using only natural things, make a picture of the Taskmaster
  106. Using a strip of toilet paper stuck between two tables, balance the heaviest item
  107. Reveal something surprising from under a blanket
  108. Using two materials, design and build a device to move as much water as possible from one bucket to another
  109. Create a device to time exactly 20 seconds using the equipment provided
  110. Estimate the amount of water up to the line in the large bottle using the equipment provided
  111. Create the best window art using the post-it notes provided
  112. RELAY TASK – Choose the order you will go in. Put on the oven gloves, eat the banana, tie your laces and then pass on the oven gloves to the next person
  113. Identify the items in the sleeping bag
  114. Put as many blue M&M as you can in the other bowl, while wearing boxing gloves. 1 point for each blue M&M, negative points for each non-blue M&M.
  115. Decorate the cake to represent what our school means to you
  116. Draw the school crest from memory
  117. Get the potato in the hole. You cannot touch the grass inside the circle with any part of your body
  118. Score a basket with the ball. You may not touch the ball with your hands
  119. Estimate the weight of the fruit (without the bowl). You may weigh anything EXCEPT the fruit in the bowl
  120. Spot the missing item. Study the tray to 20 seconds. The Taskmaster will then cover the tray and removed an item. The winner is the first to spot the missing item
  121. Get every member of another team to say a mystery word, without using the mystery word yourself
  122. Find the heaviest blue, green and red items. You have 5 minutes
  123. Sort a pack of playing cards into suits – fastest wins
  124. Transfer rice from one saucer to another using chopsticks – most rice wins
  125. Put the cover on the duvet, while holding hands
  126. Transfer dried butter beans from one saucer A to saucer B, while a member of the opposing team is transferring kidney beans from saucer B to saucer A. Use straws to suck the beans to transfer them.

If you do your own Taskmaster activities in school, why not use this video from Alex Horne to introduce it? The password is schooltaskmaster. Enjoy.

Brilliant books by Jenny Mclachlan

The Land of Roar – Jenny McLachlan

We LOVED this book. It’s a magical adventure featuring dragons, a wizard, mermaids and a particularly scaring scarecrow. The journey Arthur and Rose go on is truly epic as they venture through a portal in their Grandfather’s loft into a realm created by their own imaginations.

The adventure they go on in order to save their Grandfather is incredible and full of danger and excitement. However, it is how the relationships between the characters develop that I really enjoyed. The twins at the centre of the story are growing apart at the beginning. This is often the case with siblings, as they mature at different rates and find different interests. It’s lovely to see them grow closer together as they find a new respect for each other and remember how much fun they can have when they believe.

The Land of Roar is a modern classic and I’m sure it will be made into a major feature film at some point soon. The follow up, ‘Return to Roar’, has recently been published, and it’s already in the pile of books next to my bed, waiting to be enjoyed.

Tom, age 7 says, “It was very, very dangerous at times, but I liked it lots.”

Return to Roar – Jenny McLachlan

This is the second in the trilogy of Roar books which we were desperate to read as we had enjoyed the first one so much. Expectations were high, and I’m relieved and delighted to announce that it did not disappoint.

Arthur and Rose have now started secondary school and are navigating their way through Year 7 and the changes and challenges it presents. The friendship issues are brilliantly handled by McLachlan who excellently describes the complexities of relationships within peer groups that are familiar to us all.

Back in Roar, the children are looking for an adventure over their half term break, and they certainly find one. Their nemesis, Crowky, is back as well as a new dark, character of Hati Skoll (a nod to Norse mythology). Both are menacing characters and just the right side of terrifying for KS2 children.

Fortunately for the twins, they are joined on this adventure by their friends Win and Mitch. This is the first time we meet Mitch (a mermaid/witch) and her particular set of skills prove to be most useful along the way. Win (wizard/ninja) is back and is probably my favourite character. He can be over enthusiastic at times, which leads to more than more problems, but his enthusiasm and humour make him particularly loveable.

Return to Roar is all about facing your fears and standing up to people who try to control you. Everyone with children should buy these books and read them together. They are simply brilliant.

Tom, age 7 says, “My favourite character is Arthur because he is really brave. I enjoy the books because they are quite scary, but they have loads of adventures along the way. I can’t wait for the next book.”

The Battle for Roar – Jenny McLachlan

We adored the first two Roar books, so the third in the series had a lot to live up to. However, we’ve come to trust Jenny McLachlan’s writing, so we knew it wasn’t going to disappoint.

The first hundred or so pages are a pleasant journey where the main characters get back together and explore, as yet unvisited, parts of this imaginary world. All the while there is the looming sense of uncertainty surrounding Crowky and the reader just knows he’s out there somewhere. The biggest twist in this story though, is that he turns out to not be the greatest danger to our heroes.

I won’t give anything more away, just to say if you’ve not yet discovered Roar for yourselves, it’s definitely time you gave it a go.

Tom, age 8, says: “Wow, that’s an amazing book, I hope there’s a fourth! It’s fun because it can be scary (like when Arthur gets trapped with Crowky) but it always ends up fine. There were loads of best bits but I loved it when they flew on the Crowgon. Win is still amazing and it was brilliant that he ended up with a dragon.”