Top Texts for October 2022

Alice Visser-Furay has selected powerful texts for Secondary


by Patrice Lawrence

In Patrice Lawrence’s gripping and poignant novel, Charlene is in foster care because her mother has died. Her carer Annie is kind and wise, but Annie’s son Blake wants nothing to do with Charlene. Worse still, Charlene is not allowed any contact with her half-sister Kandi who she is exceptionally close to; Kandi’s dad feels that Charlene is a bad influence. This makes Charlene feel desperately lonely and angry. When things go wrong, Charlene works through her emotions by knitting – it calms her when nothing else can. She is knitting a blanket with a dinosaur hood for her sister Kandi. But then it turns out Blake has a mean streak, and Charlene is pushed into the criminal justice system.

This is an honest and deeply empathetic portrayal of a complex teenage character for whom life has been cruel and unfair. Lawrence doesn’t sugar-coat or trivialise the experiences of her protagonists – instead, she brings us into their minds and realities while at the same time exposing institutional racism and societal failures. I felt so much outrage on Charlene’s behalf. I love the multi-faceted nature of Lawrence’s characterisation, evident even in a short novel like Needle – the motivations and emotions of both adults and young people are explored, with characters capable of change. There are no easy solutions or magic wands, but this reflects real life.

Needle is a powerful addition to the treasure chest of Barrington Stoke published books; these are accessible for reluctant and struggling readers, but contain mature and thought-provoking themes. I highly recommend Needle for Year 8+.


by Tom Palmer

This is a magnificent historical fiction set during World War II in the village of Velp near Arnhem; it is loosely based on the childhood story of Audrey Hepburn. 15 year old Edda (Audrey) is frightened and increasingly hungry, but she shows immense courage in undertaking small actions of resistance against the Nazi occupiers. Like most Dutch citizens, Edda’s family has been traumatised by the war: her uncle was killed by the Germans as retribution for the actions of saboteurs; her brother Alex is in hiding because Dutch young men were abducted and sent to work as virtual slave labour in Germany; her other brother Ian is 17 so should be young enough to be safe – but is he? And why is Edda’s mother on a list of locals that are ‘not to be trusted’? What will Edda do if Allied paratroopers arrive in Arnhem to liberate the population – but end up underestimating German military power? This is a story of resistance and hope in the face of oppression which seems especially timely given recent events in Ukraine.

As a History & English teacher and a Reading Intervention Specialist, this book is incredibly useful in every facet of my work. It subtly engages students with historical events (as I lived in Arnhem for two years and have studied the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, I can attest to the authenticity of Resist). Palmer is a genius at using crisp, clear language to create vivid scenes and evoke tension, so with my English teacher’s hat on, it is top-notch. It is also a Barrington Stoke novel, meaning that it is accessible for the reluctant and struggling readers I work with. It is brilliant for children from Year 6 & up.

Journey Back to Freedom

by Catherine Johnson

Catherine Johnson’s historical fiction is meticulously researched, richly imagined and beautifully written; her latest novel is inspired by the autobiography of Equiano, and focuses on the decade in which he was captured and enslaved, before managing to buy his freedom at the age of 21.

The story begins in Africa where Johnson flushes out the sparse details provided by Equiano, portraying the terror and pain of the capture, the march to the sea and the voyage over the ocean as an enslaved ‘living ghost’. She then imagines his reactions to being repeatedly bought and sold, and to racist people who attempted to diminish him. Along with Equiano’s frustrations and moments of despair, Johnson includes uplifting and even funny moments in his many journeys and his time living in Britain. Descriptions and dialogue are at times disturbing, but the matter-of-fact delivery in this Barrington Stoke novel means that it is suitable and accessible for Year 7+ students. It will work particularly well in conjunction with a History unit about enslaved people & resistance, so I plan to use this with my Year 8 History class.

Johnson includes a detailed afterward which provides more details on Equiano’s life including his work to get slavery outlawed. She recognises that he was a complex person who faced awful situations, and at times made morally ambiguous decisions. Her nuanced approach will lead to thought-provoking discussions, and her engaging style means the book will fly off the shelves.

Alice Visser

About this month's reviewer

Alice Visser-Furay is the Literacy Coordinator and an English & History teacher at a secondary comprehensive in Oxfordshire; she has an MA in Children’s Literature and has lived in 6 countries, including the UK since 2005. Alice has developed a national reputation for her work in building a reading culture, supporting struggling readers and developing academic reading. She is leading the National College of Education’s Level 5 Apprenticeship called ‘Building a Reading School’ and she speaks at various educational conferences. For booklists, resources, links to reading advocates and research plus more, see her website or follow her on Twitter: @AVisserFuray