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KS2 Book Topic - Cloud Busting

Powerful themes and extraordinary language come together in a single book that could change the way children see – and describe – the world

  • KS2 Book Topic - Cloud Busting

There are few books you can read in less than an hour that have the emotional, literary impact of Malorie Blackman’s Cloud Busting. The central themes of bullying, friendship and difference are not so unusual, but the remarkable use of poetic forms, perfectly matched to the mood of each story section, has a profound effect. Readers experience the narrator’s perspective in a sensory way that is hard to imagine being achieved in any other form.

Blackman’s creative use of so many verse forms would make the book worthy of study in itself but it’s the poignancy of the story that marks this as a must-read for all junior learners. Indeed, many schools have embraced Cloud Busting as much as an inspiration for PHSE as they have for its offering of a rich literary experience.

What’s going on?

The back-cover blurb sets us up with an immediate forewarning of loss: ‘He’s gone and it’s his fault’, but then the opening pages skip along in their depiction of a poetic class teacher and his resistant pupils. This is brought up short with the lines,

“Sir, can I write about Davey?”
The class went very still…

The plot unfolds as a flashback: Mr Mackie, the class teacher, sets his pupils the task of writing about someone “near to you, dear to you,” and Sam, the narrator, decides to write about Davey, who is now gone. The chapters following introduce the new boy, Dave Youngson, as the weird misfit and target of the school bully, and his growing relationship with Sam. We also meet Alex, the apparently popular ringleader, who is also Sam’s best friend. The tension between these three boys develops from name-calling to catastrophic bullying, forcing Sam to look at himself and the world in an entirely different way. 

Before beginning
Musing on the title of the book itself will rouse children’s imaginations: What is Cloud Busting? Piecing together all clues from the cover and blurb, children are likely to infer the meaning of the phrase in physical terms, and may also be able to offer an hypothesis as to its metaphorical meaning – its hint at the opposing themes of conformity and imagination; friendship versus bullying.

Here’s how Davey teaches Sam to “cloud bust”:

Staring upwards
Letting the clouds
Fill, not just my eyes
But my ears and my mouth
And my nose. Touching
The clouds. Breathing them,
Sensing them. Being them.

If you are lucky enough to have a dry but cloudy day prior to starting the book, the opportunity for children to experience “cloud busting” for themselves is an ideal way to promote immediate engagement. Failing that, finding evocative images of cloud formations in books or via the internet will allow children the chance to describe what they perceive, as imaginatively as they possibly can, evoking similes, metaphors and other descriptive language, and drawing on the five senses to convey personal reactions to the images.

Prepare children for the key themes of the story by discussing their ideas of belonging and times when they have felt the need to conform. Warm thinking up with open questions such as, “Is it important to fit in?” and “Do we all see things in the same way?” Have children think about other stories from books, television and film where “difference” defines a character and marks them out for bullying, for greatness, or maybe both.

Working with the text

Cloud Busting offers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to writing responses; below is a sprinkling of possibilities:

1. Poetry in motion
Any of the poetic forms used by Blackman may be explored, imitated or adapted, but here are four that should work well straight away:

•Haiku (Chapter 3)
This chapter not only exemplifies Haiku; it even explains the five – seven –fFive syllable pattern, “a pure, paced rhythm…….so let your mind soar.” Sam’s Haiku for Davey is powerful partly because it is so simple: compacted, concentrated emotion. First allow children to talk about people, pets or experiences that they love or have loved; support their development of content, then help with vocabulary choices that will meet the syllable requirement of a Haiku.

•Big Mistake (Chapter 14)
This chapter uses a repeating phrase, alternating with lines of a simple recount, which includes a conversation, to convey monumental regret. Have children discuss a situation of regret from their own lives or from another story and then use the same technique as Blackman. Having done this, adapt the form for other feelings, with repeating phrases such as, How Embarrassing, Perfect Day, Never Again, Creased Me Up.

•Limericks (Chapter 5)
The limerick form in chapter five is used to abuse and bully. Children might research limericks and notice how often they poke fun at individuals – but that they are largely fictitious. To avoid causing upset to anyone, use the limerick form (the rhyme pattern, the rhythm and the humour) to satirise well-known fictional characters for a younger audience (e.g. Mr Men, fairytale or nursery rhyme characters). Be aware that the limerick form is challenging and children are likely to need support, particularly with achieving the rhyme scheme.

•Descriptions (Chapter 4)
Here, Blackman includes lines adapting the Kenning form. A Kenning is a word pair (or compound expression), which labels something without using its name: a cat could be a sofa-scratcher, mouse-catcher or milk- lapper, for example. Following a circle discussion around the impact that a bully has, children can generate compound expressions (for example, a misery-maker, a point-scorer, a fear-monger) from which to develop their own, Kenning-inspired poem. Ensure that the description evolves into an obviously negative picture, e.g. Lonely loser. Allow the children to use the form loosely.

2. Through other eyes
Cloud Busting is told entirely from Sam’s viewpoint. Have children discuss and dramatise pivotal moments from different perspectives, and use the results to inform diary entries, letters and email exchanges from the angle of those characters.

3. Mixing it up
“Davey, where d’you get this stuff from?...”
“I read it, see it, think it, hear it, taste it…”

Davey’s capacity to perceive the world in a multi-sensory way is one of the talents he passes to Sam. For example, favourite food becomes “…daydreams in your mouth…Or wishes down your throat…” Discuss everyday items and experiences, or use photos of familiar places, and help children develop their use of metaphor by exploring senses and linking one positive idea with another: a delicious taste is wonderful, as are star beams, so favourite food could become “star beams on your tongue”. You can’t taste a star beam; you see it – the effect is achieved by mixing sensory experiences, and it takes a great deal of imagination. As Sam finds, it’s hard at first, but improves with exercise.

Connecting the curriculum

1. PHSE
Thematic questions worth raising with your class might include:
• If you witnessed the pivotal events of the story, what would you think? What would you like to think you would do? Who should take responsibility for tackling wrongdoing?
• Sam makes an almost lethal mistake, and then regrets it. What does he learn? Why are mistakes important?
• Look at the role of Alex, particularly how he becomes the “kindly king”, befriending his victim. How does this make readers feel? Why does Blackman leave this wrong ‘un-righted’? Perhaps children could create mini-dramas in which they portray how Sam might have responded to Alex.
• Sam changes dramatically through the book. Is it for the better? He used to fit in; now he doesn’t: what does he have instead? Consider how people change; how might you change, in the next few years?

2. Drama
Many scenes in the book lend themselves to exploration through dramatic reconstruction, or even just freeze-framing. Try a conscience corridor/ decision alley to examine Sam’s decision not to chase after Davey in Chapter 11:

“And at that moment
I had to choose
To choose between the kind of boy I was
And the kind of boy I wanted to be.”

Having delved into his conscience, recreate the scene with Sam, Alex and Davey in simple freeze-frame, and have children suggest the thoughts going through each character’s mind. Take suggestions, too, on body language for each boy at that dreadful moment.

3. Music
Explore favourite lyrics, as Mr Mackie describes in the first chapter. What is there that is poetic about them, and do they work without the music? How does music enhance lyrics?
Mr Mackie also says, “Classical music creates poetry/ In your mind/ And your heart./ And your soul.” Choose emotive pieces, and ask children how the music makes them feel. Have children generate similes/ metaphors and descriptive language. Combining artwork - especially in abstract or abstracted form - with rousing music can truly inspire children to draw on their senses.

In conclusion…

Cloud Busting describes a life-changing experience, and could be a life-changing book. Questions that will be worthy of deeper discussion may include:
• Do wrong-doers always get their comeuppance?
• What is courage?
• What should we do when courage fails us?
• What function do “Big Mistakes” play in our lives?

Have children generate their own questions, and explore them independently and with adult facilitation. Should Philosophy for Children be encouraged in your school, Cloud Busting offers plenty upon which to ponder.

Finally, if children do feel profoundly moved by this tale, ask them how they are going to bring the book, or its issues, to other people’s attention.

Above and Beyond

Two homework ideas:

• 1. Time Travel
Ask children to imagine that Sam can travel back in time to speak to the Sam he was when Davey first arrives. What would ‘Sam now’ teach ‘Sam then’? Allow a choice in how children present this, for example, as a narrative, playscript, letter or email.

• 2. Get Outside!
Encourage students to visit somewhere local to them and with which they are already very familiar – perhaps a park, shopping centre or churchyard – and describe it as Davey might, by combining imaginative use of their senses with the most creative language they can generate.

Recommended reads

The Angel of Nitshill Road by Anne Fine – another story of bullying and difference, but this time with a savvy saviour…
Love that Dog by Sharon Creech – another moving story in verse. A boy overcomes his resistance to writing poetry in order to write about something very important to him.

Compare the effectiveness of books for younger audiences where difference and fitting in are depicted, for example, Elmer by David McKee and The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister.

Check out Malorie Blackman’s website for further stories to stimulate both heart and intellect.

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