Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, April 2018

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Flamingo Boy, By Michael Morpurgo.

Now, at first sight the plot seems to borrow a great deal from the classic story The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. And in a way it does, but then Michael Morpugo works his magic. I often find his books almost painfully sad, but sad in the right sort of ways. To achieve the level of emotion in a reader (that he achieves) is no small feat of writing. 

It’s written up as ‘a landmark new novel from the nation’s favourite storyteller’. Well, yes and yes... I think it is an excellent story, that explores some interesting themes (such as, not all the Germans were bad people in the war. This is shown through the character of Willi Brenner). To do this, the author has counter-balanced the ‘real world’ with a boy who lives predominantly in his own. In effect, this is the pure natural thought of an autistic child meets the mindless thoughtlessness of so-called grown-ups and the Nazi war machine.

It is set in the Camargue in the South of France (down at the bottom of France in the Rhone delta). This is another watery salt marsh setting (the wilds of Essex were already used by Gallico) but it is the perfect setting for this story as it unfolds in the troubled days of World War 2 in Vichy, France. It’s about resistance (both physically and in the mind) full of action, interest and, of course, Morpurgo’s trade-mark emotion.

This is suitable for competent readers of 10+, but there are some themes that may be tough for younger-minded readers. So to be safe: 11+.

I definitely give this story 5 "Yellowbirds" out of 5!


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Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, March 2018


The Nowhere Emporium, by Ross Mackenzie.

            If you missed this book when it came out - as I did - it won the Blue Peter Best Story Award 2016, the Scottish Children's Book Award 2016 and the North East Book Award 2015, so it’s well worth taking a look at it now. This is a stand-alone story, so there’s no need to search out the rest of a trilogy.

            Daniel Holmes finds the Nowhere Emporium almost by accident. Daniel is an orphan living in the city of Glasgow and he is soon entranced by the mystery of this wonderful shop.  Its owner, Mr Silver, draws him in and reveals a world filled with enchantment. The Emporium is a huge maze of passageways and rooms and Daniel soon begins learning its magical secrets. Each room can contain unlimited imaginings; he only has to write them into the Book of Wonders for them to become real.

            Daniel’s weary life is transformed. He becomes Mr Silver's apprentice and all goes well. He meets Ellie, Mr Silver’s daughter, who believes that she can’t leave the Emporium. Soon, however, the past catches up with the present and when Mr Silver disappears, disaster threatens in the form of Vindictus Sharp (Mr Silver’s nemesis). It’s up to Daniel and Ellie to save the ever-moving Emporium before it is destroyed for all eternity.

The action moves at a good clip, going back and forth between the present and the past, revealing the history of the Emporium and the relationship between Mr Silver and Vindictus Sharp. The author lets his imagination run riot and has created a page-turning adventure that will appeal to Neil Gaiman fans. It could have gone a little further in terms of themes, but that would have, perhaps, lost something in the pace of it...

As it stands, it’s a great read for competent 8 year olds. Ideal for the 9-12 age range and we give it a Yellowbird rating of 4.5 "Yellowbirds" out of 5!        

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Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, February 2018



Gordo, by Jasper Cooper.

This is a good page-turner for the dark months of February after the blue moon. It’s by the same author as the King of Gems Trilogy, which I quite enjoyed but I consider this much better (only because I’m a little tired of the magic stuff). It’s a stand-alone story that is based on a true event in the 1950s: the first monkey in space. In the story, Jamie, who is 13 years old, befriends a squirrel monkey where he lives. To his amazement, he soon discovers he has the ability to communicate with the monkey and, along with his cousin Rachel, they have a series of adventures with the cheeky Gordo. However, the monkey soon draws the attention of the rich and unscrupulous - people like Mr McMurphy who is the head of Cape Canaveral Space Centre in Florida. Gordo is too valuable to ignore and Jamie and Rachel realise the danger the monkey is in. It’s an unscrupulous world and people aren’t about to let a couple of kids get in the way of the space race...

Gordo is funny and gripping. It is action-packed, but it also makes a point. Even if the themes have been explored a few times before, it still seems fresh. The real star is Gordo, so if animals are your child’s thing then this one is perfect. It is also illustrated by the author. I would recommend this book for competent readers of 9+ (although 10-13 is probably ideal).

We recommend this book for both boys and girls and give this book a Yellowbird rating of:         

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Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, January 2018


Finance 101 for Kids, by Walter Andal.


My BoM for the New Year is more practical than imaginative. I chose this book because I was looking to introduce the concepts behind money to our own children. It is an ideal introduction to a subject that is encroaching increasingly on young lives.


Talking about money tends to be put off until later and by then it’s much harder to get teens enthused when they’d rather be in bed sleeping. So start them young, when they have the interest and energy, by giving them an insight into how finance fits into their lives. It’s too important just to leave it to Kidzania!


Walter Andal has put together the information in an entertaining way that will appeal to kids and will help parents talk things through little by little.

In fact, I think the subject is so important I would like Yellowbird to add a ‘Kidscoin’ course to our range of courses in 2018. Watch this space.


This book is suitable for children of 10+. We give it a Yellowbird rating out of 5:

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Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, December 2017

The Book of Dust Series. Volume 1. La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman.

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First let me explain that I liked Northern Lights (Book 1 in His Dark Materials trilogy) right up to the penultimate chapter. After that I found the end a bit disappointing, mainly because I felt that Philip Pullman had his eye too much on writing the series rather than a novel that would work well in itself. I know I’m probably in the minority, but I found the subsequent books in the series didn’t have the same magic as that brilliant parts in the Jordan College and at Oxford.

Having said that, this prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy tells how Lyra ended up in Oxford. It’s fast paced and carries the reader along (so it’s good for boys as well as girls). It also has a boy as a main character. Malcolm Polstead (and his dæmon, Asta) both live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. So the book is set on the River Thames, where Malcolm has a boat called La Belle Sauvage. He soon discovers that the nuns in Godstow Priory, on the other side of the river, have a guest: a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua.

The action follows Malcolm, Alice and Lyra as they grow older. There is a mysterious place known as Oakley Street, and the League of St Alexander opens up a number of side themes to help the series later; I cannot say more about either of these without spoiling the read.

This is not ‘more of the same’ (although the daemons lose some of their originality because of Dark Materials) and it keeps you reading right up to the end... where, once again, I found it a little bit frustrating for the same reason as above.

The book is suitable for all readers of 10 years+ and we give it a Yellowbird rating of: 4½ yellowbirds out of 5.

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Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, November 2017


The Explorer, by Katerine Rundell. 

Let me begin by saying that I loved this book. It's a mystery set in the Amazonian rain forest. This is a great alternative to Journey to the River Sea and much more likely to entertain... especially boys. Gripping, yes.  Full of atmosphere, yes.  Poignant, definitely.

After an Indiana Jones-style moment in a pre-war aeroplane, Fred, Lila, Con and Max crash-land in the jungle. They are forced to adapt quickly to their new surroundings in order to stay alive. You name it, they face it: piranhas, wild animals, ants, fire... The children need to get out of there fast; the only question is – how?

This doesn’t turn out to be too distressing (it isn’t a Lord of the Flies style book) so no need to worry about content for younger children with an older reading age. Great characters (I like Con) and beautiful descriptions of a wonderful (but sadly endangered) place. It’s clear that the author knows her stuff in that regard. The descriptions of the rainforest are vivid and detailed. There’s all the adventure of trapping animals, spearing fish and generally surviving the wild, but at the centre of this book is the mysterious explorer. On this I must remain silent, except to say this adds another rich theme to the book.

This should grab young readers and not let them go. Suitable for all nature-loving, action-loving children aged 10+ with the added bonus that they’ll learn about the rainforest too.

Yellowbird Education rating out of five:

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Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, October 2017

The Snow Goose, by Paul Gallico.

I’m going back to a classic this month with the Snow Goose mainly because this has been the ‘Dunkirk Year’. This is a story set in the wilds of the Great Essex Marsh just before and during WW2. It is often used as a source for comprehensions.

A lonely hermit, Philip Rhayader, lives alone in a tumbledown lighthouse (the author lived in a lighthouse too) rejected by local society because of his scary looks. One day a young girl called Fritha finds a wounded snow goose on the marsh. Not knowing what else to do, she takes the bird to the hermit. At first she is frightened of him, but as he cares for the goose she sees a different side of him.

Fritha begins to visit the marsh regularly until the snow goose flies north for the summer. Once the bird has gone, Fritha no longer needs to come and the hermit feels his loneliness again. The following winter, however, the bird returns to the lighthouse and Fritha comes back. As time passes, Fritha realises that she has fallen for the strange, lonely man on the marsh.

However, war comes and in 1940 Rhayader answers the call to sail his boat to Dunkirk to help the soldiers that are trapped on the beaches. It is a sad, poignant story (worthy of Michael Morpurgo in content and poignancy) and well worth reading... and reading again if you’ve already read it.

This version includes a second short story THE SMALL MIRACLE about a boy’s love for his dangerously ill donkey. However, watch out for the version illustrated by Angela Barrett. The illustrations are stunning.


Suitable for readers aged 10+.


Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, September 2017

Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories. by R J Palacio.

I had to recommend this book! It’s great. As I’m sure you know, the film Wonder has been out over the summer and these stories are a great follow up to it. I read Wonder some time ago and Auggie (the main character with the ‘interesting’ face) has remained with me ever since. So if you - like me - read Wonder and you were left wanting to read more...then here it is.

First published only in ebook format, these three stories have been complied in book form and are now out in paperback. Auggie’s story continues in three stories through the eyes of three main characters: Julian (the bully) Christopher (Auggie's oldest friend) and Charlotte (Auggie's new friend at school). The action mainly takes place just before Auggie starts school and during his first year at Beecher Prep. It’s interesting to see the different points of view and the characters seem to jump off the page. It isn’t always easy to walk at Auggie’s side, but it certainly is an experience and one I would recommend.

Age range: competent readers of 9 and beyond that for readers of 10 – 100. 

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Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, August 2017

The Nine lives of Montezuma, by Michael Morpurgo (published by Egmont).

If you have read Shadow, Mr Skip, Butterfly Lion or the War Horse (or any of his other animal stories) you will know that Michael Morpurgo writes brilliantly about animals. His main strength lies in his ability to write with warmth and feeling, but without sentimentality.

He has written at least two other novels about cats and he clearly knows his subject. This is another good one. It is a story about Montezuma, a feisty ginger kitten that grows up to have many adventures. Some of those experiences are good, some are bad, and it’s fortunate that Montezuma has nine lives (that doesn’t give the plot away).  I found myself believing totally in Montezuma and I lived each thrill right to the end. A good book by a very skilful author... whose brilliance lies in the tender and touching way he brings stories like this to an end. You don’t need to be a cat lover to like this one. Suitable for readers 8 – 80.

Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, July 2017

Letters from a Lighthouse, by Emma Carroll (Faber).  July 2017.

I read Emma Carroll’s first novel, Frost Hollow Hall, and loved it. It was clear then that she was destined for great things as a writer. This is a story set in World War II, but it isn’t just another ‘evacuation’ novel. It is great for background reading of the events of the time and it touches on some deep themes that are very relevant today. You find yourself drawn to the characters because they are so well-rounded and believable. This is a book with everything for the young imagination:  a mystery, the drama of war, evacuation to Devon and a lighthouse!  

I wouldn’t mind betting that this book becomes a rich source of texts for comprehensions of the future.  A modern classic and a great summer read for competent younger readers aged 8/9 -11.



Story Writing for Exams

Story writing for exams.

Story writing comes with practise, so the more you write the easier it becomes to think of ideas. The difficult bit is coming up with those ideas –especially in a short space of time.

Use your own experiences and bits of other stories. It’s OK to borrow ideas as long as you change them a bit:

1. Make a plan – especially the first and last paragraphs.
2. Always finish.
3. Keep it neat.
4. Have 5 – 10 power words in your head that you know will impress and that you can spell.
5. Don’t lose marks for careless grammar and punctuation.
6. Balance the story in 5 paragraphs.
7. Stick to the title. Don’t make too much happen, but keep the story interesting with similes, senses and descriptions.

A story should flow with each paragraph leading to the next.

That’s it, piece of cake really...

VA Richardson

Yellowbird Education

Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, June 2017

DOTTY and the Calendar House Key: by Emma Warner Reed.

This is a magical, fantasy adventure for 8-12 year olds (although the young at heart will love it too). It is the first in the DOTTY Series (paperback – Nov 2016) and it is a great read. I think it works for both boys and girls, but especially girls.

Story in brief: tragedy strikes and poor Dotty is sent away to live in a huge, sprawling mansion in the depths of Yorkshire. It’s set in the winter around Christmas time and the early evenings add to the sense of gloom. The house is a spooky place with strange scratching noises coming from the fireplaces and out of the dark in the chimneys.

It’s a fun book, though, and Dotty is a strong character. She explores on her rollerblades and Mrs Gobbings (the housekeeper) is also a great character. Cooking scenes are fun too. However, it’s the mystery that holds the reader. It is scary at times as Dotty tries to work out what’s going on. I won’t say more, because I don’t want to spoil a very enjoyable read.  It’s Yellowbird Education’s book of the month.                                             

Viv Richardson


Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, May 2017

Unreal, by Paul Jennings. 

This is a book of short stories in the ‘Un’ series of books by Australian author Paul Jennings (some other books in the series are: Unbearable, Unbelievable, Undone). These books were published in the 1990s, but are still easily available and they are just as appealing to young readers today.

The stories are funny and irreverent, but, above all, they are great examples of well-crafted short stories. There’s a lot to be learned from the (seemingly) effortless way Paul Jennings structures the story... something that may help with compositions at school. 

Ideal for competent readers aged 9 up to 12 (and beyond).

Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, April 2017

The Knights of the Drop Leaf Table, by Kaye Umansky.

8+ Reading Age 8

This April, it’s great to find a book we can recommend for reluctant readers and also for young readers with English as their 2nd language. This one will suit boys particularly. King Arthur is having trouble with his knights who are always pestering him. It’s a funny clash of personalities with a slight elbow in the ribs to the self-important. 

Barrington Stoke is an excellent publisher of dyslexia-friendly books and also for reluctant readers. It’s worth checking this publisher’s list out.

Yellowbird Education Book of the Month, March 2017

Who Let the Gods Out? By Maz Evans.          Published Feb 2017 by Chicken House

This is Maz Evans’ debut and it’s great. Who Let The Gods Out? is a funny adventure story that will keep both boys and girls gripped.

The story in brief: Elliot is in trouble. His mum isn’t well, he’s in trouble at school and they have fallen on hard times. Things don’t look good for Elliot, but then a strange star crashes to earth. It turns out that the star is Virgo. She is a goddess on a mission to Earth. Elliot teams up with her, but they accidentally release Thanatos. Thanatos is a wicked daemon that has been imprisoned under Stonehenge. So they turn to the old Olympian gods for help.  Zeus and the other gods are enjoying retirement, but they return to help save the world. But do they still do that? And can they solve Elliot's problems while they do? Read the hilarious Who Let the Dogs Out? and you’ll see.

March 2017. Yellowbird Education Recommended Read for ages 9-12.

Joined-Up Thinking

“Finland has become one of the first countries to ditch joined up hand writing classes for young children in favour of teaching keyboard skills.” Daily Mail 1/8/15

Interesting choice of word “ditch”. To ditch means to leave behind, get rid of - to do away with the unnecessary. Admittedly, it was the DM’s choice of word rather than the education officials in Finland (whoever they are) but it immediately rang an alarm bell with me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of the purist, holier-than-thou crew that extol the virtues of some mystical connection between hand and brain – even though I happen to believe there is one. As a writer I admit I’m always at the keyboard. I couldn’t live without one, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need a biro too.

For me the idea that learning to write by hand is now suddenly irrelevant to our modern lifestyles simply because we use computers is just plain wrong. For a start the article claims that a third of adult respondents had not written anything “properly” (ie by hand) in the last six months. Well, that also means that two thirds had (written properly, I mean, assuming there was no one who didn’t know or wasn’t sure if they had written anything by hand).

The computer is designed to do a lot of our thinking for us. We Google everything we can’t quite remember mainly because we know Google will remember it for us. It was the computer that first made it possible for anyone and everyone to write a book – gone were the endless manuscripts (manu as in manual) and typed-up copies that made writing so hard most would-be authors gave up around about Chapter 3. Computers did away with 75% of the perseverance needed. Before computers writing was very, very hard work.

Why? Because when you write things by hand you have to think carefully before you start. You have to frame the sentences as well as the story. You have to get it right first time or start all over again. There’s no fall-back position with a pen, no cut and paste, no spell check, grammar correct, thesaurus. It all has to come from your head. In short you have to use brain power - writing by hand is a brain gym.

So this is why we would be very unwise to follow Finland’s lead and fly-tip cursive in some forgotten corner of our computerised world. We need to write more by hand and encourage our children to do the same: not because of some arcane wish to return to the sepia days of writing letters, but because it means we would all have to think more about what we are doing and how we are doing it. It’s not just about stringing words together, it’s about joined-up thinking too.

VA Richardson

Yellowbird Education’s Five Point Plan for surviving the 11+ exams

1. Year 5 is the key
Remember Year 6 is really only a term long because the exams start in early January. Actually only the first half of the Autumn Term is really very effective for extra learning because the children get very tired towards the end. The second half of the Autumn Term is often full of distractions: concerts, carols, bugs and colds etc..

2. Get ahead of the game
If you can start early do some work with your child over the Easter holidays and the May half term.  Everyone is fit and well and raring to go in spring and summer. It’s the best time to get ahead of the game while the pressure is still off.

3. Check progress
Mock exams are a great way to establish a starting point and then to monitor progress. They take place throughout the year at key times. They also soothe exam nerves and are good practise.

4. Identify areas that need support early
Nothing builds your child’s confidence better than by helping them to feel in control. The best way to build confidence is by incremental steps. Give your child a weekly boost throughout the summer in any areas that need support.

5. Don’t overdo it
Think: training for a marathon - you can’t sprint all the time. The brain is like a muscle, it needs constant exercise. The slow build up will bring your child to the peak of mental fitness for January.

Remember, from the end of January onwards they have the best year ever. Post exams, Year 6 is what education should always be – fun. And you’ll feel so much better too!

Comprehension Tips – 11 Plus

Here are some useful tips when taking your 11+ English Exam.


1. Before reading the text of the passage, read as many of the questions as you can. You might think this will slow you down, but in fact it doesn’t. It helps you to focus on the important parts of the passage when you read it.

2. Then read the passage: if you see something that you have read in the questions quickly mark the place in the margin with the number of the question.         

3. If you find yourself losing concentration – stop; take several deep breaths before carrying on. It’s important to read the passage carefully. It my help you to focus if you follow the words with your finger or pencil.

4. The passage is usually been taken from a book. ALWAYS read the name of the book. You will usually find this at the end with the name of the author. There may be a clue in it for the place or time.

5. Underline names when they appear. You are likely to be asked about the characters in the piece when answering the questions. If you underline the names you will find them more easily later.

6. Underlining names will also help you to use them if you are asked to continue the story in the composition.

7. Highlight or underline important words or phrases – but don’t underline everything!

8. If you don’t understand the meaning of a word try to read on to see if you can work it out. Do not get stuck . If you can’t work it out move on. 

9. When looking for answers in the text remember the questions usually come in order. This means you should find the answers to the first five or so questions at the beginning of the passage, the middle questions in the middle and the last questions nearer the end of the passage.

10. Be aware of the number of marks for each question. Always try to answer the questions with the most marks. It makes sense!


1. It’s OK to answer 1 mark questions with a single word or short phrase. Don’t waste too much time on the low mark questions. You don’t need to write out a full sentence it takes too long.

2. Look at the marks. With questions worth 2 or 3 marks you need 2 or 3 parts to your answer. These are usually straight forward questions like:

When the ship first started sinking what happened? (3 marks)

You are looking for 3 things that happened and you should write your answer as a full sentence. Your answer might read:

A. When the ship started sinking the siren went off (1), the people started gathering on deck (2) and the crew began launching the lifeboats (3).

3. High-mark questions: 5 or 6 marks+ are designed to test in-depth comprehension or understanding of the passage. You must have a go at these questions. They are usually near the end. This is how to answer them:


1. Make your point (1 mark).

2. Give an example to support your point from the text (1 mark).

3. Explain why you are using the example to back up your point (1 mark).

For example, if the question is:

Question: What indications are there that lifeboats were in danger of sinking? (6 Marks)

Make your point: The boat was full of people and the sea was rough.

Find an example in the text: “The water was splashing over the sides and slopping around their feet.”

Explain: When a boat is overloaded it sits low in the water and the waves splashed into it. If it starts filling up the boat will sink.

But remember you need 6 marks remember and you only have 3 so far!

So find another point: The people aboard the boat were upset and calling for help.

Another example: “A woman burst into tears and her husband comforted her.”

Another explanation: The people in the boat wouldn’t have been upset if they knew they were safe.

If you do this you will have 6 marks!                                                                                                     


Remember Comprehension means Understanding. The examiners want to know if you have understood the question as well as the passage.

Watch out for these key phrases in the questions and answer them correctly:

1. ‘in your own words’

2. ‘with reference to the passage’

3. ‘use evidence from the passage to support your answer’

If you see any of these in question then watch out! This is what they mean and how to answer them:

1. ‘in your own words’: rephrase the relevant part of the passage, but do NOT quote or use the words used in the text.

For example, if the text says: ‘The ship’s captain was a strong, silent man with a neat white beard and the crystal blue of the sea in his eyes.’

Don’t write:  ‘The captain was strong and silent with a neat white bread and his eyes were crystal blue like the sea.’

Why? Because you have used silent, crystal, strong, white and sea in your answer.

Try to make it more you: ‘The captain hardly ever spoke. He was a big man with a clipped beard that covered his chin like snow and his eyes were clear and pale blue like the sea.’

2.  ‘with specific reference to the passage’: they want actual references or reasons using evidence from the words in the text.

For example, don’t just say: the ship was sinking, say, the ship was sinking because of something (give the precise reason why). You can use words from the passage here, but remember to put speech marks if you use the exact words.

So your answer could be written:

either: The ship was listing badly to starboard and sinking because it had hit an iceberg and had was holed under the waterline. (words taken from the text: listing, starboard, holed, waterline).

or: The ship was, “Listing to starboard and sinking,” because it had been, “Holed beneath the waterline by an iceberg.”

3.  ‘use evidence from the passage to support your answer’: When answering this question always quote from the passage as in the second example above.

REMEMBER to look at the number of marks: you may need more than one example and/or quote for the answer.                                                                                                                    

© Yellowbird Education. Exam Help 11+ English 3.