With Ofsted increasing its focus on the foundation subjects and particularly the subject knowledge that pupils acquire as part of their learning it is essential that the texts we provide support that learning and avoid obvious misconceptions and stick to the parameters of the National Curriculum. The difficulty with this is that primary teachers are generalists and have a huge spectrum of subject matter to cover, and little access to specialists to guide them in the right direction.
With so much to try to fit into a very limited time, cross curricular activities allow for extra learning oppotunities but also support the truth that learning does not happen in isolation and that all subjects are interconnected - even fiction can add to our knowledge.
Here are some fiction texts that could be used alongside topic work to support knowledge and expand childrens understanding of the times and peoples they are learning about. These texts have been considered taking into account the pros and cons of using them in the classroom and in relation to how they fit with the National Curriculum guidelines.
This list is not exhaustive and there are texts that you may use that do not appear here, if you have a text you would like reviewed please contact me on through the contact sheet and I will endeavour to respond.
National Curriculum descriptor - a non-European society that provides contrasts with British history; Maya c 900 AD (This is the end of the classic period for the Maya so books will also be considered that fit within the Classic and early Post Classic periods).
Middleworld by J & P Voelkel (The Jaguar Stones: Book 1 of 4)
Set in the fictional country of San Xavier, which is based on Northern Belize, this book is clear of its fantasy aspect from the outset. The action takes place in the lead up to the end of the 13th Baktun, 21st December 2012 (said by some, who do not understand the Maya, to predict the end of the world). Fourteen-year-old Max Murphy has focused on his gaming skills until circumstances land him in the Maya Lowlands. As he adapts to the challenges that his unexpected adventure throws at him Max makes his way through the jungle, with both negative experiences; including the ‘give and take tree’ and becoming the main source of sustenance for the massive insect population to the positive of humour that arises out of the situations that Max finds himself in. There is quite a long build up in this story, with the end happening quite suddenly however this is likely to be due to it being the first book in a series. The descriptions of the jungle and the snippets of Maya mythology and modern life that are included in the book are in line with our current understanding of the Maya world. The illustrations add to the story rather than detract adding another dimension to the storytelling. This chapter book is suitable for Upper Key Stage 2
Popul Vuh retold by Victory Montejo and illustrated by Luis Garay
This is a great translation of the K’iche’ sacred text explains the creation myth of Maya along with other stories. It makes clear the wide pantheon of Gods including some of the exploits the well-known Hero Twins Janajpu and Ixb’alanke’ (K’iche’ spelling). The translation is suitable for Upper Key Stage 2 and would be excellent for teaching the features of a myth, with each story carrying the structure with the lesson reinforced at the end using similar phraseology. The illustrator spent time with K’iche’ ensuring that his images represent the people and their material culture as well as the environment in which these stories are set. The text version of the Popul Vuh was written in K’iche in the 16th century and hidden from European eyes, however aspects of the stories have been found in Maya sites dating as far back as 300BC, which indicates that these stories were known to people from the Pre-Classic through to contact including c 900 BC.
Rain Player story and pictures by David Wisniewski
Following along the lines of the hero twins Hanapu and Xabalenque (Quiche spelling) this picture book follows the story of a young man trying to trick the god Chac into delivering rain so that the crops can grow. The imagery is representative of the Northern Maya Lowlands although not linked to any specific city state. The story is simple but effective and allows for issues of religion and food production to be investigated further. The author does acknowledge that the quetzal and cenotes would not have been found in the same region. The images are bold and demonstrates the authors experience of the region. This book is ideal for Lower Key Stage 2 however there is a lot of scope for discussion and development with Upper Key Stage 2 readers particularly if used as a starter for a lesson.
The Dwarf-Wizard of Uxmal by Susan Hand Shetterly and Robert Shetterly
Based in the Terminal Classic city of Uxmal in the northern Yucatan, this myth has been retold in an engaging manner with bright and accurate pictures. The story includes some small details that explain daily activities that the Maya would have participated in, along with the mythical explanation for the building of the Temple of the Magician or Temple of the Dwarf. Some of the names of the animals are not the standard English nomenclature (e.g. ringtail cat more commonly known as coati or coatimundi) however the pictures are clear enough that they could be used for identification. This book is suitable for key stage 2.
To the stars by canoe by Clayton Haswell Maya Archaeology Initiative.
Bright and bold this parable is told in three languages, English, Spanish and Kaqchikel (one of the existing Maya languages). I found this book flowed best in English if read aloud somewhere along the lines of the Owl and the Pussycat particularly as the text is missing full stops. To have created a text that works in three languages has required a huge amount of skill however it appears to have lost the focus of the story along the way. In addition, some of the language is quite complex for Lower Key Stage 2, which probably stems from the translations from the original Kaqchikel.
The Hero Twins against the Lords of Death by Dan Jolley and David Witt
A comic version of a story from the Popul Vuh of the Hero Twins Hanapu and Xabalenque gives this book a high appeal to boys particularly as the story follows the exploits of two cheeky chaps as they trick the Lords of Xibalba by playing pik-a-pok. The action is fast moving relying on the pictures to fill in for the missing text. This book is suitable across key stage 2 however some more sensitive children may find the decapitation distressing.
The Corn Grows Ripe by Dorothy Rhoads
A 20th century Maya coming of age tale that successfully depicts the complex beliefs of the Ancient Maya Gods as they are intertwined with modern Catholicism. Although first published in 1956, this lifestyle endures in remote parts of the Yucatan and Peten regions of Central America. Dionisio (Tigre) steps up to fill his father’s role when disaster strikes his family, but his questioning mind needs answers and those of his family will not suffice. Tigre comes to understand that he must keep up his studies and persevere with learning new skills to ensure his future and his family’s survival. This short chapter book introduces the Maya world and some of the gods still revered today and could also be used as part of a study incorporating the human geography of Mexico. The illustrations are reminiscent of Mexican art from the publishing period and could be used as a basis for art sessions with children – particularly if adding bold bright colours to the images. This book is suitable for Lower Key Stage 2 and those early in their chapter book reading.
National Curriculum requirement - The Viking and Anglo-Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England to the time of Edward the Confessor
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s knowledge of the original Prose Edda and sagas of Snorri Sturluson along with known translations of the Norse myths shines through on every page of this anthology, starting with the introduction of some key characters and the creation of the nine worlds through a selection of the adventures of the gods to Ragnarok the end of the Aesir and a rebirth of the world. These stories depict the gods in their fulness as complex beings capable of passion, wit, jealousy and spite; with their exploits explaining the mysteries of the world in which the Norse lived. The selection of myths allows the text to be either read as a novel or dipped into to select particular stories for whole class work. The text is aimed at Upper Key Stage 2 and is most suitable for years 5 and 6, for younger children it would be advisable to pre-read to ensure the content of the story is appropriate.
The Littlest Viking by Sandi Toksvig
The Lloyd family live in Pegwell Bay, one winter’s day the children come across a small Viking girl – Amber the Hammer of the North, who only they can see. The four children get to know each other through their adventures, finding answers to their dilemmas through the Scandinavian themed tales Amber tells. This book is set in the present time and has a very light touch when introducing a few ideas of Viking life, travel, gods and beliefs while saving the garden the Lloyd children share with the other members of their terrace. This short chapter book is aimed at Lower Key Stage 2 and ideal for those starting to read chapter books in Year 3 or 4.
Viking Boy by Tony Bradman
Gunnar is a happy boy growing up in England whose world gets ripped apart when his family’s holding is raided by the local tough man. Gunnar draws on his Viking heritage to travel to the Land of Ice and Fire to retrieve his father from Valhalla. Through his journey Gunnar learns the hardship of the world in which he lives but is guided by a mysterious old man and his pets, who always seem to be there when he is most in need. He learns central aspects of Norse mythology. Details of Viking life are woven through the story and can be used to gain more understanding of life in the 10th century. The book is targeted at upper key stage 2 but may also be suitable as a class reader or for those working above expected levels in lower key stage 2.
Bracelet of Bones by Kevin Crossely (Book 1 Viking Sagas)
Solveig is devastated when her father, Halfdan, leaves her on the farmstead and goes in search of exiled King Harold Hardrada (or Hard-ruler). She sets off on a journey that tracks Norse traders from Trondheim all the way to Miklagard (modern Istanbul). On the way she meets a wide variety of characters as she travels, from the traders she is with through English spies and even the King of Kiev. This book is excellent for understanding the breath and complexity of Viking age trade and gives great detail in terms of the issues faced when travelling by boat. There is plenty here from the goods used in the period to the intertwined natures of European cultures to support learning on the topic in upper key stage 2. In addition, there is plenty of action and adventure to attract both boys and girls including a diverse cast of characters from each gender. This book is suitable for upper key stage 2.
Riddle of the Runes by Janina Ramirez
A detective story set in a small Viking village in Norway gives structure to Viking society and gently entwines what it is to be Norse through the adventures of the main character Alva as she helps her uncle to solve the strange goings on in her village. Based around solving a riddle set by Alva’s missing father the story neatly weaves in the attack on Lindisfarne creating hooks for the National Curriculum objectives in history and literacy. The story is well paced to retain interest of readers however the male characters are all adults. This illustrated chapter book is aimed at Years 4-6 and able readers in Year 3.
Arthur and the Golden Rope by Joe Todd Stanton
This delightful take on the story of the capture of Fenrir puts Arthur and his adventurous nature at the centre of the tale. Using characters and events from Norse mythology young Arthur solves problems that the Gods cannot and in doing so not only saves the world from the destruction of Fenris Wolf but also his village from freezing. The carefully constructed pictures augment the text and provide a range of talking points to focus in on Viking mythology. This beautifully illustrated picture book is aimed at Years 2 – 4.
The Tale of King Harald: The Last Viking Adventure by Thomas J.T Williams
Harald Hard-ruler (or Hardrada) led the last Norse invasion into England the story follows his life from a teenage boy in the aftermath of battle until his death at Stamford Bridge at the hands of the forces of Harold Godwinson. Based on the sagas of Snorri Sturluson and drawing on contemporary sources from the histories of the Byzantine Empire and the Anglo Saxon Chronicles the main points in the story are verifiable with details being added to flesh out the story. Written as a recount each chapter is ended with a fact page linking to the objects mentioned within the text and maps Harald’s journeys from one end of the Viking world to the other and the transition from Pagan to Christian beliefs. The last chapter of this book would also be useful when looking at the Anglo Saxons as it outlines the Norse motivations for the Battle of Stamford Bridge. This illustrated chapter book is aimed at Years 4-6 and able readers in Year 3.
Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
Drawing on his knowledge of Norse mythology, Gaiman sets his young hero off on an adventure to save the world from a never-ending winter. He is aided on his quest by three animals, quickly recognisable to those familiar with the Norse pantheon as Thor, Loki and Odin. The small details that make this book valuable in the classroom, descriptions of life in the village and voyaging. A chapter book that is suitable for KS2.
National Curriculum requirement - changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age (The exemplars given for this topic range from the Neolithic through the Bronze and Iron Ages, although mention is made of hunter gatherers which would extend the topic back to the Mesolithic).
The Boy with the Bronze Axe.
This chapter book is based in Skara Brae just before and during its abandonment, the period focused on is the end Neolithic in this remote Orkney location. It introduces the idea of small communities and how they interact with others, both nearby and far away. Also covered is the transmission of new ideas from one location to another – how did people learn of new technologies and what was their reaction to it which fits in well with National Curriculum requirements. The text covers aspects of daily life along with childhood adventures undertaken by the three main characters. The material culture described in the book is accurate and detailed enough to enable children to visualise them, particularly if supported by images or artefacts. As a chapter book it is suitable for readers from Year 4 upwards, although could be used as a class text for earlier readers.
Secret of the Stones by Tony Bradman
A short novella that is built around the Amesbury Archer and his appearance as a stranger at Stonehenge. Caturix, the archer, is not the main character but Bradman carefully weaves the tale to focus on local boy Maglos at a time of great turmoil in his life and how Caturix and his brother come to his rescue. Not only do these strangers save Maglos but they also teach him how to smelt metal to make copper and bronze metals that his tribe knew of but did not have the technology to create themselves. This book fits nicely into the National Curriculum requirement of changes between the Neolithic and Bronze Age by showing how traders bought ideas and in the right circumstances were willing to pass on their ideas. There are small details about late Neolithic life that support teaching of the topic such as hunting and fire lighting. Just one error was the hunting of rabbits (they don’t appear until the Roman invasion) hares would have been here however. This book is suitable across KS2 however is lacking in any female characters.
Stone Age Bone Age by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom
This book has some real positive points going for it. To start with it is specific as to the time period that it is covering, the text is suitable for the target age group (Lower Key Stage 2) and there are plenty of ideas to support classroom activity. I had thought that this was the perfect text, then I turned the page.
There it was – a mammoth. Many readers will say that ‘Hey, they had mammoths in the Stone Age’, the book is targeted at the British market for use in British schools and this book is specifically dated to 10,000BC (12,000 BP) – thousands of years after the last mammoth is known to have walked in the United Kingdom. As a comparison an author wouldn’t write a book explaining the modern English countryside and include wolves, which officially went extinct in 1680 (a mere 240 years or so ago). I would advise any teacher using this book, and certainly it has much going for it, to either glue together the mammoth pages or better yet cross out the word mammoth and replace it with the word auroch then replace the pictures of mammoths with those of aurochs. Aurochs are massive, grumpy, imposing bovines that fit right into the story line and are accurate for the timeframe.
It went back to being fairly good, staying in line with the current knowledge of the period until…the cave art. Oh dear, really? There’s great incised artwork at Creswell, Cheddar and Gower for this period but to date not the type of art depicted in this text, of the three currently identified Mesolithic/Upper Palaeolithic sites all have incised art. There is currently no painted art identified in the United Kingdom.
Stone Age Boy by Satoshi Kitamura
Published in 2007, before the Stone Age appeared on the curriculum, Kitamura states that he is fascinated with cave painting and went to France to view cave painting, which indicates that he is interested in the Upper Palaeolithic which is not the main focus of the British topic Stone Age to Iron Age (exemplars span the Mesolithic to the Iron Age in Britain). In fact, the book is not about British Prehistory at all but would be perfect if you were studying France or Spain. There is incised cave art in the United Kingdom however no painted cave art making this problematic for the history objectives of the National Curriculum.
That said there are some positive aspects to this book, particularly the pages of pictures that focus on activities such as making and using tools and campsite images which could be used as a starting point for Design Technology projects or a for discussions of life as a hunter gatherer. There is plenty that could be developed for the Mesolithic from this two-page spread. The book is aimed at Lower Key Stage 2.
Ug boy genius of the stone age by Raymond Briggs
Raymond Briggs is a great author, particularly for developing readers, this book however is more of a hinderance in the topic than a help. It does however explain where many misconceptions come from in tackling the Mesolithic and Neolithic. Ug’s mother at one point goes on about how everything must be made of stone, unfortunately there have been teachers out there that follow this line of reasoning in their teaching, thereby continuing the misconceptions from the story. If this book must be used, and there are strong indicators that it is, then it should be about discovering the misconceptions and be used to investigate what materials prehistoric people had that could replace the stone in the book. Furthermore, this can be developed into questioning of what evidence we have for other materials being used and encourage skills acquisition in understanding how we find out about the past. This book is targeted at lower key stage 2.
Puku B does not deliver Amazon specific sessions, however indications are that some teachers are using Amazon based texts to teach Maya topics. This is not suitable as the distance from the southernmost Maya sites to the Amazon is approximately 2000 miles - like using a book about Turkey to teach about England. That said there are some great fiction works that teach about the Amazon.
The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry
This is a beautiful book that gently illustrates the importance of a tree to the environment in which it grows. The theme reinforces the connections between plants, animals and humans. The text is simple and repetitive so excellent for new readers and for reinforcing words. The images are beautifully drawn and accurate, displaying the complexity of the rainforest. This book is perfect as an introduction to the rainforest or Amazon and would be appreciated by all age groups. It is suitable for year 2-4 readers.
The Explorer by Katherine Rundell
This adventure story is set in the early 20th century against the backdrop of the Amazon and the forest that surrounds it, three children are stranded until they come across a hermit, who has no desire to return to the world. As each child faces their fears they bond and slowly win over the grumpy hermit. Survival skills are learnt as are the potential dangers that are innate in this landscape. True to real life, the wildlife is often heard but not seen as the children struggle to become accustomed with their environment. This book is great for Upper Key Stage 2 and suitable to be coupled with either the Amazon or Rainforest topics.
Jake Atlas and the Hunt for the Feathered God by Rob Lloyd Jones
A fun adventure in the line of India Jones or Tomb Raider, siblings Jake and twin sister Pandora Atlas are trying to outwit the People of the Snake to find the clues to locate the tomb of Quezalcoatl and save family friend, fellow tomb raider and technology specialist Sami. The family journey to the depths of the Honduras, deep in the jungle far away from any Aztec evidence in search of a place the fictional Aztecs are said to have fled after the Spanish invasion to build a secure hiding place for an Emerald Tablet the most important of their treasures. What it does do well is describe the discomforts of living and working within the rainforest. This fanciful adventure is fun, but should not be linked to any topic work on Maya or Aztec to avoid confusion. The book is suitable for good readers in upper Key Stage 2, with the writing targeted more towards boys than girls.
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