Finding that special book…

Here at Primary English HQ we deliver annual CPD on teaching English in KS1 and 2. One of the sessions focuses on the use of quality text, because we know that it is the text that makes the difference – the difference between learning and time wasted, excitement and boredom. Planning becomes a delight (no, really!), teaching and learning a joy, and final outcomes enriched.

So when you find that book, the one that will capture your class, it is a Bit Special.

I found that book.

blackdog1Black Dog by Levi Pinfold is a treasure between two covers. Here is a summary: a black dog appears outside the Hope family’s home. As each member of the household sees it and hides, the dog grows bigger and bigger. Only Small, the youngest Hope, has the courage to face the Black Dog. When it chases her through the forest she shows no fear, so it grows smaller and smaller. Finally, back to the size of a normal hound, the Black Dog is welcomed into the Hope household as their newest addition. Levi himself says ‘This is a book about being scared. It is also a book about not being scared. It all depends on how you see things.’

And the illustrations… I cannot begin to do them justice withblackdog7 descriptions. Suffice to say the colours glow like jewels and the detail on each page allows you to go back and discover something new each time. And there is something about the shape of Small Hope that makes me want to put her in the palm of my hand and squeeeeeze her. Is that wrong?

Black Dog is a book with appeal across the Primary age range, from little ‘uns who will love the story to the ‘secondary ready’ who can contemplate the theme of unfounded fears. It fits beautifully into Literacy units – stories with familiar settings; adventure and mystery; issues and dilemmas; recount; traditional stories; flashback. There is a heap of stuff to be done with the book, from ‘boxing it up’ in order to imitate and innovate stories, to using it as inspiration for a variety of short writing opportunities – letters, diary entries, different points of view and so on. Here are a few more suggestions:

Book talk

BlackdogStart with a word cloud of the first few pages of text. What is this story about? Ask the children to look at the image on their own for a minute. Next, share their ideas with a partner for two minutes and come up with three possible story ideas.  Then together use 30 seconds to come up with the best idea to present to the class.

Read the book – take your time, enjoy it – and then use the Aidan Chambers strategy: consider any likes, dislikes, puzzles and patterns. Ask the children to feed back using post-its. This should generate lots of discussion and allow the children to deepen their understanding of the book.

Learning the story

Drawing story maps, retelling, using actions for vocabulary and identifying the language features all add up to children really knowing the story. The language is so rich and varied – repetition, humour, precise language and rhyming couplets – that it presents ample opportunity for recreating in children’s own writing. (My personal favourite is the use of ‘guffin’ as an insult. And I am now slightly worried about the existence of a ‘Big Jeffy’.)

Understanding characters

blackdog4,jpgThe development of characters and believable dialogue can be a struggle for children. Try using hot seating to deepen understanding of viewpoint and develop conversations. If children find asking useful questions difficult (So Mrs Hope, what’s your favourite television programme?’) give them question stems to help – ‘Why do you think…? How do you feel…? Explain why…? What will you…?’

Allocate a pair of children characters from the book, and ask them to stand in a hoop. Give them a scene and a suggested line of dialogue and challenge them to have a conversation for a minute. Record great examples of dialogue on your learning wall that the children can then use in their own writing.


A study of the illustrations can find hidden gems! Challenge the children toblackdog3 find a colour, shape or object that they think has significance. Share ideas and compare with other illustrated books.


blackdog2Black Dog could be classed as a ‘monster that isn’t really a monster’. Further develop the theme. Could the children think of other similar characters, for example Hagrid, the Iron Man, the Hunchback of Notre Dame? Create a pop-up reading area using a tent and a collection of books on the theme, with other resources such as puppets and writing materials to encourage story telling and writing.

BUT – in the end, the best thing to do with Black Dog is simply sit down somewhere comfy and read it. Lovely.

Black Dog won the Coventry Inspiration Book Award 2013 in the ‘What’s the Story?’ category and has been included in the Kate Greenaway Medal shortlist. We have all our fingers crossed for success. logoAnd – stop press-  Levi will be in Coventry next week for the Literally Coventry Book Festival, appearing at a school and delighting us all with his writing and illustrating wisdom. I have to admit, I am just a little bit over-excited.

Julia Etheridge, Primary English team, Coventry

5 thoughts on “Finding that special book…

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