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Great lesson activities for 10 books on growing up

Each of these stories exploring the complex sorrows and joys of getting older can spark a creative topic in your classroom...

  • Great lesson activities for 10 books on growing up

1. The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield and Kate Fillion (Macmillan Children’s Books)

Great lesson activities for 10 books on growing up

What’s the story?

“Nothing had changed. But Chris had changed…”

Chris is scared of the dark and still sleeps with his parents. But it’s 1969 and a rocket is landing on the moon. Can Chris find the courage to stay in his own bed?

Cheerfully and imaginatively illustrated, this autobiographical story shows astronaut Chris Hadfield conquering his fear and dreaming of his next big step.

Thinking and talking

How do we know that Chris loves space? Spot the clues! What scares Chris? How does he overcome it? How could you help someone who was frightened?

Try this…
  • Make a Chris-style rocket from cardboard boxes and imagine you’re flying to the Moon.
  • Move like weightless astronauts to starry music and draw what you can see in outer space. What happens when you get to the Moon? Tell your story.
  • What kind of person would you like to be when you grow up? What would you like to do? How could you make those dreams come true?

2. The Paper Dolls BY Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb (Macmillan Children’s Books)

Great lesson activities for 10 books on growing up

What’s the story?

Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie and Jim with two noses and Jo with the bow are all paper dolls. They’re loved and played with until a boy comes along and cuts them up. “You’re gone,” he says, but they’re not. They’ve flown into the girl’s memory where they find a forever home alongside white mice, a butterfly hairslide and fireworks.

This powerful story uses rich, rhythmic language to explore ideas around loss, the passage of time and growth in an imaginative and enjoyable way. There’s an intergenerational message about creating memories together, too.

Thinking and talking

What games do you play? What would have happened to the dolls if the boy hadn’t cut them up? What has changed in your life?

Try this…
  • Cut out paper dolls and name them. Tell and write stories about their adventures.
  • What is tucked away in your memory? Working together, make a list - then read it aloud. Can you add to your list-poem, change the words or rearrange it so that it sounds better?
  • Invite visitors to share childhood memories of games and activities. Have a go at them!

3. I Am Too Absolutely Small for School BY Lauren Child (Orchard Books)

Great lesson activities for 10 books on growing up

What’s the story?

Charlie’s sister Lola would rather stay home with her invisible friend Soren Lorenson than start school, and counters Charlie’s arguments with carefully considered objections. But Charlie is several (inventive and entertaining) steps ahead and knows just how to persuade Lola that school is worth attending.

Thinking and talking

How can you tell that Lola’s worried? What do you remember about starting nursery or school? Is there anything you’re worried about now? What would Charlie say about it?

Try this…
  • Use collage and drawing to create Charlie-and-Lola-style portraits of everyone in class. Help children make thought bubbles recording a memory of starting school, and display.
  • Which bedtime story would you read to the ogre, and why? Record an audio file of yourself reading to the ogre and add it to your reading corner.
  • Practise counting with lots of different biscuits. Sort them into groups to help you. Can you count in 2s and 10s?
  • Prepare Lola-style lunchboxes, then dress up and go on a Charlie and Lola story-picnic.

4. Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai (Puffin)

Great lesson activities for 10 books on growing up

What’s the story?

Because she didn’t have a magic pencil like the TV boy, Malala couldn’t erase the poverty in her Pakistani village, so she decided to get an education and use this to change the world instead. Then girls were forbidden to go to school.

Malala spoke out and was attacked, but she could not be silenced.

Malala tells her story in an age-appropriate way, giving younger readers an insight into adversity, resilience and change, and inviting them to think about the differences they might make as they grow up.

Thinking and talking

How did Malala feel at different points in this book? What did she do because of those emotions?

What would you draw with a magic pencil? What would you like to change?

Try this…
  • Explore the idea of magic pencils through roleplay, movement and drawing, then write stories inspired by your experiences.
  • Create a classroom display about Pakistan.
  • How could you make a difference in your neighbourhood? Choose a project and make it happen.

5. Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love (Walker Books)

Great lesson activities for 10 books on growing up

What’s the story?

Julian is entranced by three mermaids he spots on the New York subway and imagines swimming underwater like a fish with his hair swirling out behind him. As soon as he gets back to his Nana’s house, he dresses up. But what will Nana think of Julian’s new look – not to mention all the mess?

Luckily Nana is wise and loving enough to understand. Giving Julian some beads to complete his outfit, she takes him to the Mermaid Parade and gently encourages him to join in.

This book explores some big ideas around diversity, belonging and self-esteem but does so with insight and restraint. Jessica Love’s stage-set spreads are home to a cast of carefully-observed characters and her minimalistic text acts as a prompt to the visual and imaginative dramas that play out across every page.

Thinking and talking

Have you dressed up for a performance or special event? What did you wear and how did you feel?

Look at the picture that says “Oh!” What could Julian be thinking? How about Nana? And what about you? Did everyone read this picture the same way? How many different interpretations can you suggest?

Try this…
  • Explore moving like a fish, then find (or make!) some watery music and give a fishy performance.
  • Choose an incidental character and invent a back-story for them. Who are they and how did they come to be in this picture? Tell the story of what happens next… or act it out!
  • Assemble a dressing-up box full of fabulous colours and textures. Invite children to create outfits, then hold a parade.

6. The Bandit Queen by Natalie and LAuren O’hara (Puffin)

Great lesson activities for 10 books on growing up

What’s the story?

A rumbustious bunch of bandits steal a baby from an orphanage and subject her to a life of joyful anarchy. At first the Bandit Queen enjoys the mischief - but as time passes, she realises that it might be better to work for what you want. Heading back to school, she tells her men to “struggle and fight to do what is right” and give up their hedonistic lifestyles. It feels scary to grow, but grow she must - and her bandits must change with her.

Told in verse with retro-style illustrations, this riotous story takes a fresh and entertaining look at the responsibilities of growing up.

Thinking and talking

How do the bandits amuse their queen? How do their antics affect other people?

What would you do if you were a bandit king or queen, and nobody could stop you? How might your actions affect other people?

Why does the Queen decide to go back to school?

Try this…
  • Examine the way the bandits are depicted. In a large, clear space, copy their gestures, postures and facial expressions. How would they move? Join your performances to create a bandit parade. Can you compose a bandit song? Add costumes to your performance.
  • Choose one of their escapades and imagine you’re stepping into the picture to join the bandits. What can you see, hear, smell and taste? If you could interview the characters, what would they say? Pretend you’re a reporter and write about what happened. Then write about the escapade from the point of view of one of the people or animals involved.

7. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (Oup)

Great lesson activities for 10 books on growing up

What’s the story?

When his brother has measles, a cross and resentful Tom is sent to live with his relations who reside in a flat in an old house. One night, the grandfather clock strikes thirteen and Tom opens the hall door to find that everything has changed. Instead of a back yard, he steps out into a garden where he meets Hatty, a lonely orphan. Together they explore a timeslip world that changes every night. By the end of the summer, when old Mrs Bartholomew’s true identity is revealed, Tom is beginning to see his own experiences as part of a wider picture of connection, insight and responsibility. First published in 1958, this is a classic story of time and change and growing up.

Thinking and talking

How does Tom know that he’s travelled back in time? What part do dreams play in this story? How is Tom changed by his experiences in the garden?

Do you think this is a book about growing up? Why / why not?

Try this…
  • Hatty’s hiding place becomes a time capsule when Tom discovers her skates. What would you put in a sealed box to be opened in a year’s time? Five years? A hundred? Debate, then write about your choices. Assemble a time capsule to be opened just before your children move to secondary school.
  • Both Hatty and Tom are now part of history. What does this book tell us about life in Victorian times? What do we learn about Tom’s world of the 1950s? Talk about the similarities and differences and create timelines.

8. Clare and her Captain by Michael Morpurgo (Barrington Stoke)

Great lesson activities for 10 books on growing up

What’s the story?

Clare’s parents are always arguing and she’s dreading another summer at Aunty Dora’s in the country. Then she meets a lonely and isolated old man, Thatcher Jones, and his horse, Captain, and an important friendship begins. As a result of loss and change, Clare is able to stand up to her bullying father and assert her own quiet independence.

Beautifully illustrated in colour throughout and published in an accessible format, this short novel was inspired by true events and creates an atmosphere and insights that stay with audiences long after reading.

Thinking and talking

Talk about your pets and how you look after them. Is Thatcher Jones pleased to see the donkey? What changes for Clare during this book, and how and why does it change? Should Clare have obeyed her father? Why / why not?

Try this…
  • Using a natural history handbook, identify the wildlife in the illustrations. Go for a walk to sketch plants, birds and other creatures from observation. Experiment with watercolours, inks, coloured pencils and pastels to create your own wildlife pictures inspired by Catherine Rayner.
  • There’s a truth at the heart of this story, but Michael Morpurgo has added his own events and characters. Think of a real event that happened to you, then add to it to create your own Morpurgo-style tale.

9. The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf (Orion Children’s Books)

Great lesson activities for 10 books on growing up

What’s the story?

Nine-year-old Alexa’s class welcomes a new arrival. Ahmet is a Syrian refugee who’s lost his family as well as his home. Alexa and her friends decide to find them and a daring plan to enlist the Queen’s help evolves.

Current events, ideas and attitudes are explored in a direct and timely way in this accessible and enjoyable tale. Alexa narrates her own story, but in line with the book’s messages around diversity and inclusion, her name and gender aren’t revealed until much later in the action. By helping Ahmet, Alexa learns much about herself and others - and readers, too, will have their assumptions challenged and be invited to consider new perspectives.

Thinking and talking

What do you recognize about Alexa’s experience of school? In what ways does her school differ from yours?

What did you know about child refugees before you read this book? What have you learned? If you wanted to change something, what could you do?

Try this…
  • How many languages are spoken in your school? Learn some words from each, then write or tell a story using them.
  • Alexa and friends don’t set out to start a campaign – they just want people to help Ahmet find his family. Research an issue you would like to support. How could you persuade others to help you? Write about how you collected your ingredients and what happened when you cast your spell.

10. Lob by Linda Newbery (David Fickling Books)

Great lesson activities for 10 books on growing up

What’s the story?

Every year Lucy stays with her grandparents at Clunny Cottage where she works beside Grandpa in the garden and listens to his stories about Lob, who helps the plants grow. One summer she finally spots Lob hiding in the bushes… but then something terrible happens and everything changes. On top of all the loss and misery, Lucy worries about Lob. If he can’t find her at Clunny Cottage, where will they meet? At last, a chance encounter at a city allotment brings Lob back into Lucy’s life and she realizes that change can bring good things, too.

Embellished throughout by Pam Smy’s observational line drawings, this engaging and affecting story about family relationships and the power of nature moves at a gentle pace, with narrative chapters interspersed by short lyrical passages describing Lob’s journey from Clunny Cottage to the city.

Thinking and talking

What does Lucy lose in this book and what does she gain?

How does she deal with the changes in her life?

Do you know someone who likes gardening? Have you grown plants? Share your knowledge and stories.

How could you help Lob care for the natural world?

Try this…
  • Using paint, found objects and other media, create a Green Man collage. What’s his name and where does he live? Write his story.
  • Search for signs of Lob’s green magic outdoors. Make notes, collect words to describe your experiences and use these to help you write reports and poems. Examine the illustrations for different kinds of lines and marks. How does Pam Smy capture light and shade? Take sketchbooks to a garden, allotment or park and draw from observation.


Carey Fluker-Hunt is a freelance writer, creative learning consultant and founder of Cast of Thousands.

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