Combat Zone – the new Rugby Academy series from Tom Palmer

Two years ago I wrote about a wonderful new book that I had recently purchased for my school library written by Tom Palmer and published by Barrington Stoke. That book was Scrum, and two years later I am still heartily recommending it to my students.

Tom has gone on to write other great sports books for Barrington Stoke and we have purchased every single title for our collection. The success of these books with my mainly struggling boy readers encouraged me to buy more Barrington Stoke titles including many titles with more ‘girl appeal’.

The benefit of these books are three-fold : the books are dyslexia friendly without looking like they are “special”; the books appeal to struggling readers or those needing hi-lo material, as well as those kids that just don’t like reading but are more likely to pick up and try a short book; lastly and most importantly, the stories are so well written and so good that they appeal to readers of mainstream fiction as well as dyslexic and struggling readers.

Rugby Academy

I was really excited when I learned that Tom was writing a series for children with a Rugby theme. Despite living in a rugby mad country like New Zealand, there really isn’t enough children’s fiction written and published that connects younger readers with their sporting and other interests.

The first book in this planned trilogy is ‘Combat Zone’ set in England, the second book ‘Surface to air’, set in  Toulon France, is due out in February 2015 and the final book ‘Deadlocked’  is set in New Zealand!!! and is due mid-year around the time of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Publisher’s description:  “Borderlands is no ordinary school. All of the students boarding there have parents in the armed forces, and the UK is drawing perilously close to war in the Central Asian Republic.

New boy Woody is desperate to escape, but his dad has been mobilised and now football-mad Woody is stuck in a school where everyone is crazy about rugby. Worried and unhappy, Woody tries to make the best of his situation. But will rugby be his unlikely saviour?

Tom has explained more about the trilogy on his website:

Sort of a children’s World Cup to run alongside next year’s Rugby World Cup.

The reason for the titles of the books gives away the second theme to the series.  The Royal Air Force.

Most of the boys in the Borderlands team have parents in the RAF. The series is set during a conflict a little like what is going on now in Syria and Iraq. A sad coincidence, I’m afraid.

So the books are about being part of a rugby union team, but also about being the child of a forces family.

What did I think about Combat Zone?

I loved it. I think the three main plot elements ( the struggle to switch from playing football to Rugby Union and the hardships of being sent to boarding school and coping with the worry of a family member fighting in a war) mean that the story has plenty of action and angst. That is perhaps the aspect that makes me like this so much – it isn’t “just a sports story”. The reader may pick it up because of the hook of a story about rugby, but they are exposed to a lot more – the same empathy inducing plot that they would find in realistic fiction combined with a great sports story!

Every time I read one of these books I am amazed at how the power of the story shines through, even if it contains far fewer words and chapters than the average book for the same aged reader. The author makes every word of the text count. There must be an art to this – how to tell a story using very spare prose? It is certainly something this author does very well and why I am eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series.

These books fit perfectly in our newly genrefied sports fiction section. Rather than have them in a collection of dyslexia friendly books, as we have done previously, they are shelved with the other sports titles. Should I need them for a dyslexic student they are easy to find, but they can be read by any reader at any time. As I have said previously – the stories are so good, the dyslexia friendly format is a bonus!

Verdict: Heartily recommended (and for me – an essential purchase.)

You can read the first chapter here:

This PDF file helpfully shows you the special yellow paper and dyslexia friendly font used in the books.

Resources and links:

Tom Palmer website (we are obviously sympatico – we have the same WordPress theme…I suspect the use of black means Tom really is rooting for the All Blacks to win the Rugby World Cup 2015!)

Barrington Stoke website take some time to explore and discover all the wonderful well known authors who have chosen to write for this audience. (Cornelia Funke, Tony Bradman, Jean Ure, Frank Cotterill Boyce, Anthony McGowan and many, many more)

Tom’s Literacy resources based on the Rugby World Cup

Bibliographic details:

Combat zone (Rugby Academy, Book 1) / Written by Tom Palmer with illustrations by David Shephard

Published by Barrington Stoke, 2014.

101 pages.

ISBN:9781781123973

NZ RRP $17.99 If not in stock at your favourite independent book store most would be happy to order this for you.

Barrington Stoke classification : Reading age: 8 / Interest age: 8-12

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