The Holy Grail of Cross Curricular Learning! ‘The Nowhere Emporium’ by Ross Mackenzie

As a teacher, I find myself on an eternal quest to find a stimulating, original theme to link areas of learning for my pupils, which holds sufficient breadth to avoid the need for tokenistic links that end up making little sense to the children and even less sense to me! In the past I have found myself straight-jacketed by agreed whole school topics that were driven by one subject….the result being that I actually ended up completing virtually dissertation level research into obscure Victorian explorers to try to find some semblance of a link between the ‘given’ history theme of the said Victorian Explorers and the geography topic of The Amazon?!? Hours of my life that I will never get back and a process I have sworn to never enter into again as a result.

This has resulted in me scouring book shops, blogs, Pinterest and social media for rich learning contexts which have enough inbuilt freedom to link the sometimes disparate aspects of the curriculum in a meaningful way. On rare occasions you discover high quality texts which emit an almost mythical call to teachers everywhere…..use me and your pupils will love learning whatever you throw their way! ‘The Nowhere Emporium’ by Ross Mackenzie is one such text that emanates with this ethereal educational glow!

I couldn’t possibly be tempted to give the plot of the book way….it must be experienced to truly appreciate the magic of the story but I will at least allude to some aspects to exemplify how this text could be a godsend for cross-curricular learning.

The story itself is centred around the eponymous Nowhere Emporium; a magical shop which can travel through time and space holding endless wonders behind the myriad of doors that festoon the labyrinthine hallways. This very fact makes it the perfect vehicle for cross curricular learning as, regardless of historical period, geographical context, artistic theme or mathematical skill…the Nowhere Emporium can go there with you. 

At the same time, the story itself it a true wonder to read. The story is dripping with powerful language, emotive descriptions and wonderful characterisation, providing a multitude of opportunities to use the book as he center of English reading and writing development.

I am already buzzing with the thoughts of how I am going to integrate the story into my teaching during the new academic year! I am immediately determined to transform my classroom into a version of the Nowhere Emporium; red velvet curtains draped over my stock cupboard door with gold lettered ‘Hall of Wonders’ sign, where I will be regularly ‘finding’ the latest unusual object, letter or image provided by the magics of the Nowhere Emporium….which will magically link to our curriculum for the term, our very own Book of Wonders to capture examples of amazing learning, oustanding behaviour and home learning tasks and maybe even a desk/bureau for the Emporium’s Mr Silver to work at when he visits in our absence…which could also luckily double up as the class writing area! I can also see myself scouring eBay to find some unwanted roles of ‘library shelf’ event wall paper to really help transform my classroom into the dusty curiousity shop that is the Nowhere Emporium.

The author, Ross Mackenzie, is a true master of his art. A book written for children which can also fire the imagination of adults is a rare creature and I, for one, am greatly appreciative that he has chosen to share his wonderful story with the world! You MUST get yourself a copy….it will be your ticket to cross the threshold of the Nowhere Emporium and you will never want to leave!

quest featured

EXCITING NEWS! Multi-book cross curricular project uniting ‘Journey’ and ‘Quest’ by Aaron Becker with ‘Chalk’ by Bill Thomson

I am sure you are aware of the awe inspiring picture book ‘Journey’ by Aaron Becker, which tells the story of an isolated young girl. She finds she can access a hidden kingdom with the use of a piece of magical chalk (well I like to think of it as chalk – it could just as easily be a wax crayon or even a sharpie!

However, from experience, many people seem unaware that a sequel to ‘Journey’ exists in the form of ‘Quest’ by Aaron Becker. After I recently stumbled across the amazing ‘Chalk’ by Bill Thomson, the old picture book neurons started firing and I saw huge potential for an exciting and engaging cross curricular English and Art project.

From the first moment that anyone flicks through the pages of ‘Journey’ and ‘Quest’, they are captivated by the detailed illustrations of the magical kingdom access by the isolated girl and her friend. The continuing plot across both books is an excellent starting point for PSHE work focused on friendship and compassion; the girl in ‘Journey’ is determined to rescue a beautiful purple bird from captivity.

journey 1

This journey sees her exploring dense forests, sailing along sky-scraper high viaducts and taking flight in amazingly elegant airships. It is only after she rescues the bird, that she discovers that the purple bird is actually a drawn representation of a young boy – who appears to have discovered a similar piece of chalk to the girl.

journey 2

This is the launching point for the plot of ‘Quest’, as the two children return to the magical kingdom through an enchanted door, all the while aided by their mystical chalk drawings that spring to life – I particularly love the huge squid that helps them access an undersea city.

Quest 1

The children resiliently follow their quest to free the imprisoned leaders of the kingdom, returning order and calm to this magical world once again. The end of ‘Quest’ is truly beautiful but I will let you discover that for yourself!

English Activities

To be honest, I could wax lyrical all day about the potential of this book to develop oracy, reading and writing but I will try to be as concise as possible and summarise a few of the most powerful opportunities.

  • Both texts are wordless; the children could create Pie Corbett style story maps or traditional story maps to represent the key plot points within the books. Can they find any parallels between the plots of each text?
  • When familiar with the story, the children could be challenged to create short pieces of text or paragraphs that could be added to each page to change the wordless presentation of the originals. This would provided the perfect opportunity to explore sentence structures and punctuation, in order to achieve short but narratively impactful passages which ‘fit’ onto each page.
  • Extending the writing skills could be achieved by lingering on some of the most detailed images. This would allow the children to experiment with different descriptive writing techniques including the use of senses, changing points of view (i.e. the view of the city from the tower guards, as opposed to the little girl) and even writing from a third person perspective.
  • I would also be tempted to use ‘Quest’ to explore the use of dialogue within narrative writing, as the children could either write and punctuate the dialogue within their written extracts for each image or prepare the dialogue between the boy and the girl in the form of a playscript – which could later be re-enacted for an audience of children or parents.

Introducing ‘Chalk’ by Bill Thomson

Having developed the children’s writing skills through short burst tasks and within the context of ‘Journey’ and ‘Quest’, I feel that ‘Chalk’ provides a linked context for their own extended story writing.


In the book, a group of children find a back of chalk, hanging from the mouth of a plastic ride-on playground toy, in the form of a T-Rex! They soon discover that whatever they draw with these magical chalks immediately comes to life – this was the point at which I saw the obvious parallels between Aaron Becker’s work and that of Bill Thomson. When they use the said chalk, the children produce all manner of wonderful creations including hundreds of butterflies. Unfortunately, one child is inspired to draw a dinosaur in the same style as the T-Rex toy – which inevitably  comes to life and that is where the real adventure begins!

chalk 2chalk 3

This is where the children can be challenged to let their imaginations run wild, whilst you bottle that enthusiasm to ensure they produce some amazing narrative writing. How about setting the scene by leaving the children their own bags of chalk on the playground and asking them to draw what they would like to see come to life. From this fun, idea generating actively the children can then develop their own story maps/plans and hopefully develop these into rich and engaging narrative stories.

To be honest, they should be begging you to let them write their stories once they have imaginatively lived the events of ‘Chalk’ for themselves on the playground!!

Have fun with your chalk, crayons or sharpies!





COMING SOON! A new multi-book project!

I have recently pulled together three of my favourite texts; Chalk by Bill Thomson and the two texts by Aaron Becker ‘Journey’ and ‘Quest’.

I have been keen to work with these texts for a while, so I am planning to share some ideas on how to link the three texts into a creative, enjoyable themed unit of work. Watch this space!


Mr Wuffles! by David Wiesner


There are many ways to categorise and organise personality types; one of which is those who love the structure of a clearly defined plot line which ends with a satisfying conclusion, as opposed to others who delight in the possibilities offered by enigma, mystery and alternatives. ‘Mr Wuffles!’ by David Wiesner is certainly a delight for the latter of these!

From the cover and first few images of this largely wordless text, it would be easy to mistake it for a rather conventional picture book about the eponymous Mr Wuffles. However, within a few pages it becomes clear that the central feline character is about to get a new toy!


As a cat owner myself, I share the frustration of the owners in the story who purchase what they feel is a stimulating new plaything, only for the fussy feline to prefer a ball of string! However, Mr Wuffles discovers that his latest toy is actually the conveyance of a group of miniscule aliens!


The jubilation of the very little green men, upon arriving on the planet, is short lived when they are ‘attacked’ by Mr Wuffles! The remainder of the story takes the reader on a humorous trip amongst the dusty corners of any average home; as the aliens team up with some equally cat-oppressed minibeasts who work together to escape from the clutches of Mr Wuffles!

Quick Activities

This book is full of potential! Throughout the text, the aliens are seen to speak using a strange symbolic language. It would be great for the children to try to replace the symbolic language with their own speech bubbles, literally putting words into the mouths of the aliens in each scene – essentially an educational caption competition. It would be really fun to explore the different alternative conversations generated by a class of children.

In addition, the aliens learn to communicate with the local minibeasts using the insect version of prehistoric cave paintings. They create these using found materials (bits of chalk, charcoal etc.) Perhaps the children could create their own cave paintings depicting the events of the story. They could use found materials around the playground, marking their story onto the concrete or they could create a 3D cave painting by arranging found objects on the ground to help create their tale. If you are feeling more adventurous, ordinary classroom paint mixed with some pva glue (you need to experiment with your recipe!) creates a beautifully rubberised paint which can be applied to a rock, concrete or wood surface which will then dry to a durable finish – extending the life of your cave paintings by a few weeks.

Extended Activities

I know of many children who would be enthralled by the code-like communication used by the aliens. Perhaps they could be challenged to devise the alien’s alphabetic, which they can then use to communicate with each other or to create classroom labels and signs. This would be great in a role play area designed around the interior of the alien space-craft – they could label all the buttons and gizmos. They would even create the communications sent to the explorer craft from the mothership or the explorer’s reports back to their HQ about the terrifying cat monster they have encountered.

It would be equally intriguing to tell the alluded to but untold story of the minibeasts who have been suffering at the paws of Mr Wuffles. The children could develop their own narrative based on these tales.

At the end of the story, one of the minbeasts end up leaving with the aliens in their spacecraft. This would be a wonderfully original launching point for some sci-fi writing, as it would provide a set of characters who are immediately ‘alien’ rather than the more obvious ‘human-meets-alien’ approach; has anyone ever written an insect-meets- alien sci-fi story?!?

Additionally, the final image shows the remaining insects being left with a series of broken technology from the alien spacecraft. These could form the basis of some wonderfully explanation or instructional writing, based around the insects working out how this technology might help to protect them from or defeat Mr Wuffles!

Above all else, this is a fun and entertaining story that will not fail to raise a smile!


Night of gargoyles

Get Sculpting! Using ‘Night of the Gargoyles’ by Eve Bunting to inspire 3D art!

Night of gargoyles cover

Whilst I find sculpture projects to be great fun with children, especially when you gets your hands on clay, modroc and sculpting mesh but often the focus for the project can be a little ‘loose’. However, with the wonderful ‘Night of the Gargoyles’ by Eve Bunting (and coincidentally illustrated by my favourite David Wiesner) you have a fun and motivational context for a sculpture project which also links perfectly with a cross curricular English/History project.

At the heart of this story is the common premise that when night time falls, inanimate objects come to life – in this case all the gargoyles that sit poised on the rooftops throughout the city. This is a very entertaining picture book that does actually contain a fair amount of text which will also allow for some high level punctuation and grammar work – I’ve used it to look at the ever elusive semi-colon in the past!

The children (especially boys) will be immediately motivated by the comedic rudeness and a japery in the book and, as a result, they are then keen to engage with the sculpture task. The focus I have taken in the past has been to ask the children to design a gargoyle of their own, in clay, with some thought to how the form of the gargoyle represents an aspect of his/her personality i.e. it likes to surprise people from above, so it has wings; or it is always hungry so it has big puffy cheeks to store the scraps it finds in the local bins.

You can make this whole process even more magical with the addition of some glitter! In the past, we have had a resident ‘visitor’ in the our class who pops by at night and leaves us letters and notes to stimulate interest in our next learning activity. On this occasion we had a note left from our local fantastical beasts keeper, who advised us that he had lost a few gargoyles from the local church and then asked us to create him some more to avoid him getting into trouble. He then left us an intriguing little bottle of gargoyle powder (glitter); a sprinkle of which each of the children added to their clay at the making phase to help bring them to life at night!

At this point, the mention of the local church also encouraged us to visit the building to find out more about the many gargoyles residing there. We were lucky enough to get a guided tour from a church warden with a few pairs of binoculars (so we could see the smallest sculptures right at the top of the tower) who helped us all to learn more about the historical aspect of gargoyles and their inclusion on buildings in the past.

To further extend the use of the gargoyle theme (and to maximise on the children’s enthusiasm) we then used our finished gargoyles to write our own narrative stories; The Night of OUR gargoyles. We story-mapped each gargoyles adventures around our local area and then, over a number of sessions, developed these into wonderfully entertaining, extended narrative pieces!

Have fun sculpting and share any pictures of your gargoyles!


Hurricane by David Wiesner


As a long-standing fan of David Wiesner’s intriguing stories and powerful illustrations, Hurricane has always been one of my favourites, yet it doesn’t seem to garner much popular attention.

This might be that the narrative, at first, might not seem as strong; when in actual fact the book is a ‘hurricane’ of potential narratives that readers can explore for themselves!

What appeals to my sensibilities as a teacher about this book is the way in which is encourages creative and imaginative play, in the outdoors! The basic premise of the book is that two brothers spend the night, tucked up in their cosy home, whilst a hurricane rages outside. The result? In the morning, they discover the largest tree in their garden has been felled by the storm and so the adventure continues.

As the brothers explore the defeated giant that is their favourite tree, their imaginations run wild. They imagine the tree becomes a spaceship, landing on a distant alien-filled planet and take to the high sees in their very own tree trunk galleon. The book is filled with a number of other adventures based in the imaginative worlds created by the boys.

Quick Activities

This obviously provides an excellent launching point for children’s own adventures in the outdoors. You may have a wildlife area which a log circle; there may  be a large piece of outdoor play equipment on the playground or you might be ‘lucky’ enough to have a recently felled tree. Send the children to your chosen location/s in pairs and give them a limited time to generate an initial idea about what this object /location could become – in the same style as the boys in the story. Share the ideas and ask pairs of children to take a small number of their peers to their given location, to share their story and roleplay the adventures.

Extended Activity

This book would clearly lend itself to narrative story writing. To maintain the link with the outdoor learning aspect of the text, ask the children to create a story stick. The children are given or find a stick in the locality that their story starts and then create a story by moving around the area finding physical objects that would act as a prompt to an element of the story i.e. the story might have a dragon; an unusual autumn leaf my be a dragon’s scale! The children can then use other materials such as wool or twine to tie these items onto the story stick, in the order that they appear in the story. Essentially, a Pie Corbett style story map but made physical through the use of the outdoors.

Upon returning to the classroom, the children can then use the stick to practice retelling (and embellishing) the story with their partner, before creating a drawn story map and eventually moving on to write or record their fully polished tale!

story stick




EASTER SPECIAL – The Rabbit Problem by Emily Gravett

  During my long and painful years as a secondary school pupil, never did I think that the dry mathematical theories could be presented in a way any more engaging than my slightly unhinged Maths Teacher pretending to be Spider-Man whilst ‘climbing’ a wall drawn on his rotating chalk board! Fibonacci sequences were merely another boring pattern to explore. If only Emily Gravett’s wonderful book had been around at the time….I might have started my picture book evangelical church in my teens!

The premise of the book is that a single field is tracked month by month, along with the rapidly replicating numbers of rabbits in this one field….that no rabbits ever leave, unless it is to go to bunny heaven! This is essential the Fibonacci sequence of numbers but presented in a much more accessible and humorous way than the boring maths text books of old.

The whole text is presented in the form of a calendar, presenting the funny trials and tribulations of rabbits in an increasingly busy field. The bunny so behave in a seasonally appropriate manner in each month…sunbathing in summer, seeking warmth in December etc. This provides lots of rich illustrative details for the children to get lost in to help deepen their interaction with the text. 

   In addition to the Fibonacci element of the story, there are also additional mathematical opportunities to explore. For example, there are ‘mini-books’ within the larger text which talk of carrot prices, rationing supplies and costs. This would provide a wonderful context for further work on the budgeting required to feed and clothe an ever expanding family of young rabbits. 
 Furthermore, the book could provide stimulus for some growing activities in the real world. The children could find out about their local wildlife, the favored food sources and habitat requirements. The children could be challenged to create some rabbit friendly (or other furry animal) planting, calculating the cost of the seeds, maintaining their planting patch, harvesting and even selling any produce that the rabbits haven’t claimed as their own!

The illustrations could even be used to help structure some narrative writing, where the children take a month each in small groups and tell the story of a single rabbit or a group of friends. This could be a fun writing and illustrati task for a special book week or even World Book Day!

Get Them Writing! The ‘turn up volume’ technique

  Another universally useful technique for developing childrens’ narrative writing is to ‘turn up the volume’. To make the most of this technique, you will want to source some highly detailed illustrations. I, personally, love ‘The Moon in Swampland’ by M.P. Robertson. The book is the tale of what happens when the moon walks the Earth to save a young boy from the evil bogles, only to become trapped herself and the young boy must become her saviour. The images contained within the book are very atmospheric and evocative….in my experience, adults and children alike love spending time drinking in every littl detail; from the rain-soaked village streets to the menacing bogles lurking in the shadows.

To use the ‘turn up volume’ technique, you simply need to display a single image as a stimulus. The children will then be challenged to write three short narrative extracts for the image, but each time they will be ‘turning up the volume’ of one specific descriptive device. For example, they might be asked to ‘turn up’ the audio associated with the image. Therefore, the children would be asked to describe what they can see in the image whilst ensuring that they include lots of descriptive details relating to the sounds they might hear. Subsequently, they can be asked to turn up the volume of the visual details in a new piece of narrative with the same image and finally, turn up the volume of the action for a third piece of narrative writing. Finally, the children can then work individually or in pairs to magpie the most powerful description from each of the three descriptions (audio, visual, action) in order to structure a fourth and final version, which should now contain a balance of audio, visual and action details.

Try it with your favourite picture book, art work or movie freeze-frame and let me know how you get on!


Get them writing! The ‘if objects could speak’ technique.

  There are many schools of thought on how best to engage children with writing and, in my opinion, they all have something valuable to offer but I don’t promote or follow one approach exclusively. I’m more of an educational magpie, picking what works for me from the broad tapestry that is pedagogy.
One of my favoured, context-free techniques is called ‘if objects could speak’. The approach essentially asks the children to look at an image from a story, movie or painting and consider that thoughts and opinions that object might have, given the circumstances it finds itself in and the events it may have witnessed.

A text which works brilliantly with this technique is Rose Blanche, by Ian McEwan; the tale of of a young girl’s experiences of the holocaust during World War II. There are opportunities throughout the text to use ‘if objects could speak’ but a potent example is shown in the image above. Rose returns to the site of a concentration camp to find it deserted and battle damaged. The children she has secretly been feeding has gone and the barbed wire fence that once separated them is now sinking into a tank-mangled mud. To encourage the children to consider an alternative view to that of the main character or to simply to access details that the main character couldn’t have witnessed, I would ask the children to consider what responses the barbed wire fence might give (as the object that is speaking) to the following questions:

– how would it feel physically? i.e cold, wet etc 

– how would it feel emotionally? i.e. Helpless, isolated

– what would it see? i.e destroyed fields

– what would it smell? Gunpowder, death

– what would it hear? Screams of injured soldiers

Once the children have collected their initial ideas from the point of view of their given object, they can then work to improve and develop these ideas into extended narrative; this then provides additional opportunities for the children to explore sentence structure and punctuation. Using the ideas above, the children might extend them as follows:

I see the war ravaged fields of a once beautiful land, as my nostrils are filled with the suffocating stench of gunpowder and death. My ears are filled with the confused bellowing of bewildered soldiers, stumbling through the mud like zombies. 

There are obviously further potential learning opportunities that extend from this activity, such as different children taking the views of different objects within the same image or story….why might their opinions differ? Which opinion is correct? Is there only one correct view of the events?

Another excellent text within which to use ‘if objects could speak’ is The Invetion of Hugh Cabret by Brian Selznik

  The mysterious automaton that features heavily in the story would be an obvious focus for ‘if objects could speak’, however there are numerous other opportunities such as the opinions of the train station clock, the spare parts in the workshop, the tool kit used by the watchmaker etc.

This is a great technique to use as part of an extended unit of work on narrative writing or simply as a way of generating relevant and engaging ideas for more discrete sentence structure tasks. Whatever you choose to do with it, you are guaranteed to have fun when you let the objects do the talking….imagine what your classroom clock might say or the staff room kettle!?


Multi-book Project! Traditional Tales with a twist!

  The great benefit of working with traditional tales and fairy stories is that the children are usually already experts in the field. This provides a wealth of opportunities to explore narrative story-telling, art and drama. For this multi-book project, I would use ‘The Lost Happy Endings’ by Carol Ann Duffy as the central text; following this, there are many opportunities to branch out to explore other related texts:

– The Tear Thief by Carol Ann Duffy


– The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith


– The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury


– Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole



– The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch


Central text – The Lost Happy Endings

This is a captivating tale about Jub, keeper of the stories, and her quest to retrieve the lost happy endings to all the stories after they have been stolen by a wicked witch. The children of the world are crying as their are no more happy endings, so Jub must act! The reason for choosing this as a central text is that, during the quest, Jub encounters many of the most familiar fairy tale characters. This offers the opportunity to branch out from the central text, at a later date, whilst maintaining a meaningful, contextualised link for the children’s’ learning.

Setting the scene

To really engage the children with this project, I would employ some good old fashioned awe and wonder! Easily recognisable sections from fairy stories could be copied and cut up. These could be crumpled and then left all around the room for the children to discover, possibly with clues mixed in to lead them to a copy of The Lost Happy Endings. Alternatively, familiar objects from fairy stories could be found around the school; little red riding hood’s cape, goldilock’s porridge, Jack’s magic beans etc.

Possible skills

When studying The Lost Happy Endings, the fact that stories have been broken up into extracts could support focused work on extracts of stories and sentence level skills. For example, the story writing process could be developed gradually by focusing on extract openings, build-ups and resolutions. There is great scope for short burst writing and slow writing, as the children could be asked to write their own narrative for specific sections/pages of Jub’s quest, as she reassembles the lost endings.

The book also lends itself to some excellent character work. The description of the bird-like witch sitting high in a tree, with Jub looking into her nest is spine-tingling. The description of the witch is both breath-taking and grosteque….from experience, children love it, especially the fact that she is smoking a pipe! To extend this, children could be asked to do some character writing focused around other well known traditional tale characters…the witch, Malefiecent, from Sleeping Beauty is a particularly potent character (you could even link in the original and modern Disney film versions as inspiration).

An additional fun task would be for the children to provide each other with their own ‘lost happy endings’ as inspiration for story writing. Each child would write a traditional (or non traditional!) ending to a story on a piece of paper. These would then be mixed up and redistributed to different children, with the challenge of writing the story that came before each particular ‘lost happy ending’.

Related texts

The Tear Thief If you wished to create a short author study through this unit, the use of Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘ The Tear Thief’ would be perfect. This beautifully illustrated, heart-breaking story tells the reader about the Tear Thief; a fairy who collects the tears of children. She prizes tears of true sadness – I want reveal the ending here as its is one of those special literary moments that you need to experience for yourself.

Other related texts

All the other texts, identified above, are incredibly fun, alternative takes on the traditional fairy story format. Within the books you will find Tom-Boy princesses, Princes in distress, frightened little wolves and terrifying pigs!

A study of these short, engaging stories would be a great starting point for children to write their own alternative fairy stories…perhaps Little Red could become a wolf-hunter or Granny could become a global manufacturing magnate, as shown in the excellent animated film Hoodwinked!

As an additional branch to this fairy story literary tree, the Story Spinner DVDs and App contain a brilliantly atmospheric oral story which paints a very different, much darker version of Little Red Riding Hood in 3 parts. Each part of told from a different point of view and provides an excellent model for both oral storytelling and powerful narrative for older KS2 children!

I would love to hear what you all make of these traditional tales with a twist and I am sure you will have fun making your own!