Friday Friends: Alistair Mackay on Novels with an Impact


Alistair Mackay is a primary school teacher and former journalist who is beginning his journey towards becoming a published picture book writer. The idea for this Friday Friends came from his time in class when a novel captures the minds of every pupil – even those with a strained relationship with reading books.

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There is something slightly heart-breaking about a child who tells you they ‘hate reading’. Usually as they progress through primary school and move onto reading novels is when this ‘hate’ sets in.

For some, it is the thought of not immediately understanding what they have read, leaving them feeling inadequate or, as one child said to me, ‘dumb’. It might be the fear of being made fun of by family or friends because story-telling has not been a part of their upbringing. It might even be something as simple as the page count. I’ve known many children who, when shown a new book, will not comment on the cover art, the author or the blurb. No, instead their first words will be ‘I’ll never finish that!’ or ‘That looks too hard!’

So, here are three books of varying sizes and difficulty which I would thoroughly recommend for instilling confidence in children and inciting discussion with parents. These novels have their own unique hooks but each one is perfect for children to read along with adults.



Franco Rodriquez, is an International Jewel Thief, who strikes fear into museum curators and art collectors around the world. He has evaded arrest for years and is listed on Interpol’s ‘MOST WANTED’ list. Renowned for his ability to overcome the most sophisticated security systems, his services don’t come cheaply! He doesn’t usually accept work for hire jobs! But, no one ever thought it possible to be able to steal the famous Hope Diamond.

The Spy Quest Agency (SQA), has received a ‘Tip-Off’ detailing Franco’s plans to break into the National Museum of Natural History. Can the Agency stop Franco from pulling off the heist of the century? Will the Diamond’s deadly CURSE strike again and claim a new victim?

Join SQA Agents Sam, Rebecca, Casey and Holly in an action packed adventure as they try to protect this National Treasure from disappearing forever….

My Thoughts

Ask a parent why their child doesn’t like reading and often the answer will be: ‘They’d rather be playing their XBoxStationDSBoy’. In a clever little twist, David Goutcher has combined gaming with reading in Spy Quest: Cursed Diamond. The plot about two young agents hunting for an international jewel thief could be plucked from any number of previous children’s novels or films. What makes this book stand-out, and encourages children to read to the end, is the free ‘augmented reality’ app which goes along with it. As they read through the book, children will come to illustrations which, if you boot up the app and point your phone or iPad’s camera at, will spring to life on screen. News reports, intelligence updates, satellite feeds will all appear giving children more information and clues. It really is a fantastic idea and, combined with the accompanying website, fully immerses children in the story. Great fun and a wonderful confidence booster for any child who has never ‘finished a book’ before.



Washed up on an island in the Pacific, Michael struggles to survive on his own. With no food and no water, he curls up to die.

When he wakes, there is a plate beside him of fish, of fruit, and a bowl of fresh water.

He is not alone…


My Thoughts

There is nothing I can say about Michael Morpurgo’s skill as a storyteller which hasn’t already been said. What makes Kensuke’s Kingdom stand out for me amongst his many other wonderful books is its heart. Beating throughout Kensuke’s Kingdom is a truly touching tale of a shipwrecked 12-year-old and his growing relationship with a saviour from another time – the eponymous Kensuke. From the attention grabbing opening page – ‘Kensuke made me promise I would say nothing, nothing at all, until at least ten years had passed’- to the lump-in-the-throat ending….this is a beautiful book. Every pupil I’ve read Kensuke’s Kingdom with has been left completely spellbound. The descriptions of the island – its heat, its greenery and its inhabitants – create wonderful images in youngster’s minds, making the island as important a character as Kensuke or Michael. What is helpful for hesitant readers, too, is the pacing. Often scenes involve Kensuke teaching Michael a little bit of life on the island, helping him survive. These could be ponderous but, in the hands of Michael Morpurgo, are delightful.



James, Ned and Billy are the Jammy Dodgers, three scruffy urchins always up to their eyeballs in scams and swindles. But the troublemaking trio meet their match the night they stray into the sinister slums – and Billy gets nabbed. Can Jem and Ned cook up a plummy plan to rescue their brother? Or has little Billy gone for good?



My Thoughts

Of the three books I’ve chosen to review, Jammy Dodgers has the potential to be the most challenging. Set in Victorian London, filled with slang (‘you stupe’; ‘good vittals’, ‘in the clink’) and weighing in at nearly 300 pages it should be problematic. However, much like Kensuke’s Kingdom, I have yet to come across a child who has not adored this book. The dialogue can take some getting used to – I often encouraged my class to put on their best Eastenders accent while reading – but a glossary at the back is useful, as is a bit of discussion and the fact that, by about chapter four, most children ‘get used to it’.

What also helps are the Jammy Dodgers themselves. A trio of scamps brought up in the slums of London who either create or get themselves involved in the kind of schemes and hi-jinks which any young reader would want to get involved in themselves. James, Ned and Billy are great fun and their relationship is realistic – battering lumps out of each other one minute, defending each other the next. Jammy Dodgers on the Run is definitely worth the effort.

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