Penny Slater is Deputy Lead Adviser on the Primary English team at Herts for Learning.
If you haven’t yet found your passion for children’s literature, then Traction Man is the text that will set you on the road to discovering what all the fuss is about. Put simply, Traction Man is one of those books that prove just how exciting children’s literature can be.
Personally, reading Traction Man for the first time was a light-bulb moment for me. It was so distinctly different from what I was used to reading as a child. Bright, bold, funny, witty and relevant: it features a believable child, playing in a believable way, in a believable setting (no twee, whimsical interpretations of childhood pastimes here!). As a fairly inexperienced teacher – and one yet to have developed a worrying Amazon ‘buy with one click’ habit – it helped me to understand the hype around children’s literature.
Over the subsequent years, I have used this text extensively in my teaching across all year groups. It is always in my book bag and often provides the inspiration needed when working with teachers in need of a great text to engage and excite the children. I have yet to find a teacher, or child, who isn’t captivated by its dynamic style and distinctive voice.
Traction Man lends itself perfectly to a read aloud text. Get ready to adopt a plummy, quintessential British tone for this (I end up doing my best Danger Mouse vocal impression here). In my mind, the text demands a theatrical, am-dram style presentation. The often short, sharp, clipped lines of text require dramatic intonation. I find myself pronouncing every word clearly and with gusto: ‘Traction Man is here!’, leaving the children in no doubt that this text deserves their full attention. It seems to work. In my experience, the children are always captivated.
But don’t dive in straight away. It can be helpful to prepare them for a fully-engaged first read by introducing them to the villains of the text in advance. You could show them illustrations of the ‘Evil Pillows’ and ‘Wicked Professor Spade’ beforehand, and in true panto style, cue them to boo and hiss when these characters are mentioned.
Following just one read, the appeal for imitation becomes obvious. Some lines are instantly memorable: ‘Well done, Scrubbing Brush! You can be my pet!’, ‘Hooray for Traction Man!’. Following several shared readings, the children will no doubt be joining in with key phrases and enjoying using their own voices to create theatre and melodrama. When the children are confidently reciting the text alongside you (in doing so, they will incidentally be using the present progressive form of the verb – see NC Year 2 VGP appendix), the time is right to provide the children with their own ‘Traction Man’ (I bring out a collection of well-loved dollies/action characters at this stage – alternatively cut-outs of Traction Man work well). You could begin by strategically positioning the figures in precarious situations using every day classroom objects e.g. trapped in a half zipped up pencil case, submerged in a paint pot, wedged between two books – your imagination needs to come into play here)! Then you could ask the children to set up creative scenarios of their own, each time inviting them to narrate the situation that ‘Traction Man’ finds himself in, mirroring the wonderful language of the text: ‘Traction Man/Woman is exploring the murky corners of the pencil case. He is searching for the long-lost silver paperclip’.
Now comes some fun: challenge the children to create sensational villain names. For this, the most innocuous classroom equipment can take on a new persona; so a pack of highlighters becomes ‘a gruesome gang of horrible highlighters’, and a pencil sharpener becomes ‘Baron Blade, the most feared sharpener in the teacher’s drawer’. An exploration of Bond villain names would provide some good inspiration here. Natural links to an exploration of capitalisation for proper nouns and expanded noun phrases can also be exploited at this stage (see NC Year 1 and Year 2 VGP appendix). This could lead us to: ‘Oh no! Traction Man/Woman has been captured by callous Colonel Zip!’
Naturally, the next step would be to allow the children to bring in their favourite character toy and use the classroom environment to involve their figure in creative scenarios. Who knew that the book shelf could become a rugged insurmountable cliff, or that the 100 square could become a perplexing number puzzle constructed by the evil mind of Colonel Calculus, or that a collection of open upturned glue sticks could become a treacherous game of leap frog! Encourage them to let their imaginations fly.
And this is of course just the tip of the Traction Man iceberg. This text has mileage for use across every year group. A grammatical geared-up reader may have spotted that the use of the passive construction is rife throughout the text (take note Year 6 teachers – this text may be just what you are looking for in order to bring much-needed life to this grammatically gruelling concept)!
So to end in true Traction Man style, now you ‘are ready for Anything.’
With sincere thanks to Greenway Primary and Nursery School for generously sharing their work, inspired by Penny’s workshop at HfL’s Growing Great Writers conference this September.