Inspiring Young Readers
Arlo, Mrs Ogg and the Dinosaur Zoo by Alice Hemming, illustrated by Kathryn Durst
I was a quiet, conformist and sometimes anxious child myself so I was pleased to meet Arlo who seems to share these characteristics. He is part of a class 4X, a group of children who have a terrible reputation for being mischievous, unruly and disruptive. In fact, ever since they were in the reception class they have behaved rather like the children in the Mary Poppins story because they have gleefully seen off many teachers who just could not cope with their antics. Arlo has kept a careful record of all this in his notebook where he keeps useful lists. He introduces himself at the beginning of the story and presents his strengths and difficulties very honestly.
The fierce Ms Weebly used to be their teacher when they were in the reception class and one can’t help wondering if she was the main problem with their initial lack of engagement with school. She is now the head teacher and threatens them with missing the end of year class party if they don’t start to be more compliant. It seems that she has applied this sanction every year and all the children are understandably disgruntled about it. I remember this happening in real life when as a very young teacher I was told to supervise a small group of children who had been forbidden to go to the Christmas party because they had misbehaved that morning - I can still remember feeling like a cruel prison warder. Hopefully this would never happen today!
Although all the children really want to go to the party, all apart from Arlo seem to be determined to test the new supply teacher, Mrs Ogg, to the limit. But when she arrives, it is clear that she is unlike any other teacher they have ever met. For a start she communicates with them by drumming a stick and encouraging them to chant and then takes them out of the classroom in a long line through the building and out into the school field. Unconventional activities over the next few days include painting a huge mural using dye from berries and flowers and making a shelter with leaves, sticks and grass. The most exciting development is the promise of a trip to the zoo - something that that no other teacher has been brave enough to organise. Arlo is a little bit concerned as to whether this might be a step too far but decides to take responsibility for checking that everything goes smoothly. Given the need for increasingly onerous risk assessments, this made me laugh. I guess that teachers could have some interesting discussion with children about why such a trip might be very different if it happened in the real world.
Off they go at last on a coach driven by a man who wearing a furry outfit and sporting a huge scruffy beard. Much to their astonishment, they discover that they are visiting a Dinosaur Zoo where they go on to have a truly wonderful adventure. I won’t spoil the plot, but all of them learn that they are able to cope with a range of challenges. At the heart of their positive experience is Mrs Ogg who is determined to help them to make it a memorable day. There are several close shaves as you might expect from this group of energetic and imaginative children, but they return safely to school tired and very happy. And you will be pleased to know that they indeed get to have the end of year party despite the mean Ms Weebly who grudgingly allows it, as long as they don’t have any trifle.
Apart from liking Arlo and the other interesting characters, I really enjoyed this eventful story that is brought to life with plenty of lively illustrations. It is packed with interesting information about dinosaurs and also provides opportunities for talking about what happens in schools, and what doesn’t. I rather think that most children would like a teacher like Mrs Ogg who has faith in their abilities and gives lots of encouragement, although perhaps she is a little bit too unconventional for more than a few weeks. Luckily she is soon followed by Miss Pythia who is going to be their teacher the following year. She seems very promising because, as Arlo writes in his notebook:
‘ We’ve just met her but I can tell that things are going to be ‘ interesting’ She seems to know exactly what is happening without looking. Almost as if she has special powers ...’
I think that there will probably be another story on the horizon to tell us much more about this.