Guest blog from BooksforTopics founder Alison Leach.
Several years ago I was teaching in a primary school and the time came around for our
termly parents’ evening. I sat across the table from the parents of a bright and delightful
child who was simply a joy to teach. The parents listened to my comments about the
child’s academic and personal accomplishments, and were keen to ask me only one thing
- which reading books could I recommend for him? The child was already reading lengthy
chapter books at age 5 and his parents wanted to find age-appropriate books at the right
reading level. He likes animals, they said. And adventure stories. And forest or woodland
settings. And he had enjoyed Dick King Smith’s stories. As they left with a handful of
recommendations to try, the thought struck me - if only there was an easy tool for parents
and teachers to reliably find books listed by theme, age and content style.
Shortly afterwards BooksForTopics was born. After sharing some helpful curriculum
booklists with colleagues, I decided to take the resource online. Fast forward a few years
and the site is now brimming with booklists and recommendations aimed at getting the
right book into the right hands at the right time, curated with the help of a team of school-
based book reviewers.
Whether looking for topic-based book recommendations or reading for pleasure choices,
there are several routes through the site to find the right book. I’ll share four of the key
ways in which teachers and parents like to use the website to find the books they need:
Books for Topics
Curriculum Topic Lists. I think of our topic booklists as the ‘bread-and-butter’ of the BooksForTopics
website. When the new National Curriculum came into action back in 2014, a frantic
scramble took place among primary teachers to find children’s books to support
some of the new topic additions. Do you know any books about the Stone Age?
teachers would frequently ask. At the time only one or two were recommendable,
but fortunately since then publishers have caught up with the demand and now we
are able to share a whole list of them. If your child is interested in the Ancient
Egyptians, we have a list for that too. From plants and oceans to Ancient Greece
and Black History, try browsing the topic lists or running a search on the website to
find books linked to your topics of interest.
Year Group Recommendations Another popular resource is our Year Group Recommendation lists. Teachers and
parents often ask for age-specific recommendations - as sometimes book covers
and blurbs can be deceiving when it comes to making an assessment of age
suitability. The books that we feature are selected by a panel of expert reviewers,
from teachers and headteachers to primary education lecturers and librarians, to
make sure our recommendations have been screened for both quality and age
suitability. Another important factor we consider when we curate the Year Group lists
is balance - we spend a long time deliberating to ensure a breadth and depth of text
types, genres, themes, diverse representation and reading level. The lists, which
cover EYFS to Year 6, come with downloadable posters and checklists and are also
available as full packs for school from Peters, or simply to browse online.
Special Interest Lists Sometimes there is a particular topic or theme that’s close to a child’s heart. Most of
us have encountered a child who only wants to talk about dinosaurs, or who is interested in protecting the environment, or majorly into video gaming - and teachers
often choose to look for books to match these interests. If children are already
interested in a topic before they start reading about it, one of the barriers between
the reader and the text is instantly removed and readers can enter right in without
necessarily having to understand new concepts and vocabulary before they can feel
happily absorbed by the book. Teresa Cremin, Professor of Education at The Open
University, explains how interest-based reading can spark a love of books, stating
that ‘Young readers find different reasons for reading, but all deserve to encounter
texts which have particular salience and interest to them, so that they can come to
value the experience and be caught in a web of fiction or non-fiction which inspires
and motivates them to return - to renew such an imaginatively energizing
engagement.’* Finding books that match special interests can be an excellent
gateway into the world of reading for children, and the BooksForTopics special
interest booklists can be a useful place to start.
Follow the season Sometimes readers simply want to read about the topics that everyone is talking
about. During the Summer Olympics and Football World Cup, our sports and
football booklists were among our top-viewed resources, while during the Black
Lives Matter protests many of our users turned to our Black History booklist for
guidance, demonstrating the demand for books that matched the events everyone
was talking about at the time. At key times of year - like Science Week, Anti-
bullying- Week or Christmas, we also see a surge in views on our special event
booklists as teachers and parents look for suitable books for seasonal themes and
current affairs. Keep an eye on the ‘Seasonal Booklists’ tab on our menu, or sign up
to our email newsletter to keep in the loop about books themed around upcoming
events through the year.
Branching Out A quick scan through Teacher Twitter or Parenting Facebook Groups will quickly
bring up a myriad of similar questions when it comes to book recommendations.
’Can you recommend a book for fans of Wimpy Kid?’, or ‘My daughter only reads
David Walliams books - what else can I give her’, or ‘How can I move my child on
from Rainbow Magic?’. Our Branching Out posters and booklists are designed to
offer similar suggestions to the popular books and series that are often so appealing
that readers tend to get stuck on them and struggle to move on. Using our lists, fans
of Tom Gates are gently pointed towards Planet Stan or The Day the Screens Went
Blank, whereas die-hard Harry Potter readers may enjoy the suggestion of trying
Amari and the Night Brothers or Nevermoor.
Books for Topics
I hope that this has given you a flavour of some of pathways through the BooksForTopics website. Whichever route you take, the end goal is the same - helping teachers and parents to find hidden gems that hit the spot for readers just at the right moment. We aim to give a series of options for readers to choose from, and with complementary sites like Toppsta at the ready with a treasure-trove of reader reviews to help you to finish the selection process, teachers and families have a terrific toolkit at their disposal to find the reading riches that await.
Reference: *Cremin, Teresa (2007). Revisiting reading for pleasure: Delight, desire and diversity. In: Goouch, Kathy and Lambirth, Andrew eds. Understanding Phonics and the Teaching of Reading: A Critical Perspective. Berkshire, UK: McGraw Hill, pp. 166–19
Books for Topics
Alison Leach is the founder of BooksForTopics, a website that supports schools in finding great books to enrich their curriculums and to promote reading for pleasure. As an experienced primary teacher, Alison knows that it is not always easy to source the right books amid the time pressures of teaching and she is passionate about helping the best books reach the spotlight. Visit BooksForTopics.com to find out more, or follow Alison on Twitter or Instagram as @booksfortopics.