Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Endless Possibilities of Story & Literature

I presented a plenary address yesterday at the Love To Read conference in Sydney Australia. It was was the initiative of MindChamps. I was one of three speakers, the others being Brian Caswell and Libby Gleeson. The other two speakers wer well known Australian children's authors, with many award-winning books.


In my presentation, I suggested that story is a central part of life. Even in ancient cultures, story was integral to life. In the presentation, I argued that story helps to define and influence who we are, what we believe and how we live.

Above: My father Henry Cairney
I discussed the place of literature in my life. I shared how I had not lived in a family home where I had been read to, nor were there many books. But on reflection - in my middle age - I had realized that while being read to was not part of my childhood experiences, story did have a key place in my early life. My Father and Grandfather were in effect constant story 'tellers'. In particular, my early life at home was filled with music, yarns and anecdotes.  Contemporary music was a big part of my household, with parents who were both musicians, singers and entertainers. Often this music was in the form of ballads, especially Scottish, Irish and Italian ballads, and the popular songs of film, radio and the popular culture of the day.

As well, my father was a great storyteller. Most centred on his childhood living in Victorian tenement housing just outside Glasgow in Scotland prior to WWI, and then a 'bag hut' on the fringes of Newcastle after the war. His stories also featured the journey by sea to Australia, the battles with his 9 brothers and the tenth child, his sister Margaret, who died age 2. As well, he often spoke of how his mother cared for 10 children for two years in Scotland, while his father was in Australia establishing a house and working as a miner. He also spun yarns about his sporting achievements, the depression, WWII, and the union movement in which he was a leader of a militant movement. The famous Rothury Riot, where he was part of the band. This lead the miners as they marched towards the mine where the workers had been locked out.  

My Grandfather, who I stayed with every school holidays, also shared stories constantly with me about war, politics, literature and the Bible. My grandfather was of Scottish and English stock and would recite from memory the great poetry of Robbie Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, the literature of Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, Sir Walter Scott, and verses from the biblical Psalms and Proverbs.

The spoken stories of my father, grandfather and others had a big impact on me. And while I had little literature shared at home, my world was rich with narrative. So narrative in whatever form can help to shape us as people, learners and language users.


Three Ways Reading and Story Changes Lives

  • Telling stories expands our world and teaches us many things about language, and the world
  • Literature enriches our lives intellectually and emotionally
  • Literature transforms us as learners, language users & people

1. Telling stories expands our world and teachers us many things about language, life and the world
 
Story helps us to grasp the very nature of the human condition. It offers a means to see relationships portrayed and human qualities displayed in narrative. It helps us to understand and grasp the richness of what it is to be human. Through story we can be confronted by all the human emotions, including fear, hope, love, forgiveness, trust, failure, despair, loneliness, and joy.

Reading and being told stories also helps us to understand that language and story can have varied purposes and can be written and communicated in varied forms. By being told stories we can begin to grasp the difference between the poetic, narrative, fantasy, the satirical, ironic and so on.

Being immersed in story also helps us to see demonstrated:
  • The varied genres of language;
  • How language works beyond the literal;
  • That language can be used symbolically; metaphorically, it has varied forms;
  • That story can be truth and fiction;
  • That narrative helps us to begin to know what to fear, love, avoid and so on. It offers lessons for life as well as language; and
  • Finally, it is important remember that we can experience story in varied ways, including oral and written storytelling, anecdote, jokes, songs and more.
Stories teach, move, challenge, awaken, and confront. And as they do so, they also serve as a means to shape and change the trajectories of children’s lives.

2. Literature also enriches our lives

As well as expanding our knowledge of language and the world story can ‘enrich’ our lives? In effect they expand us, broaden our view of the world, and self. Deepen our sense of compassion, love, hope, help us to deal with fears?

In Charlotte’s Web, just before Charlotte dies she speaks to Wilbur as she knows her time is nearing an end and she says to him:

“You have been my friend," replied Charlotte. "That in itself is a tremendous thing...after all, what's a life anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die...By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.” Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)

These words in and of themselves, are the type of language in story that can enrich and change us. They help us to see life differently. Our lives are enriched as we ponder the words of a fictitious spider.

A spider talks, and weaves webs rich in language as a pig is rescued, love grows, people are moved and touched to wonder as death comes and life goes on for others.

My Place (Nadia Wheatley & Donna Rawlins) In 1988 Nadia Wheatley wrote a book that was intended to disrupted the one-dimensional nature of the planned Bi-centenary celebration of Australia’s foundation. We were to remembers 200 years of human history, only to forget a nation and people who for 50,000 years nurtured the land, built a rich culture, developed multiple languages, cultivated the land, developed stories, song, rituals, family, kinship and more.

The Legend of Moondyne Joe (Mark Greenwood, Frane Lessac) – The story of a beloved scoundrel and expert bushman of early Australian convict history. There wasn’t a cell built that could contain him, and Joe often led the troopers on wild chases through the Moondyne Hills. This is the story of a colourful Australian bushranger that children to understand just part of Australia’s European colonial history.

Storm Boy (Colin Thiele) – Thiele takes us to a magical place – The Coorong - to enrich our understanding of nature’s balance and help us to imagine the wonder of it all before it’s lost due to human intervention.

Thunderwith (Libby Hathorn) – Hathorn takes us on a journey with Lara who after the death of her mother moves in with her Dad who for 11 years has been building another family. But this new blended family make her feel like an intruder, and a bully at school doesn’t help either. One night a mysterious dog appears in a storm which gives the story a metaphysical dimension.

‘Wilfrid, Gordon, McDonald Partridge’ (Mem Fox & Julie Vivas) - Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge lives next door to a nursing home. When he finds out that his special friend, Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper is losing her memory he sets out to find what a memory is. In an age when many families are touched by Alzheimer disease this is a book that opens up the beauty of age, not just the pain of death, as well as the power of relationships.

‘Where the Forest Meets the Sea’ – Jeannie Baker’s timeless book raises one of the great ethical issues of our time. What price the loss of rainforests? What is the true cost of environmental degradation as human intervention ‘eats away’ at some of our most wondrous natural resources.

‘A Canadian Year’ – Tania McCartney’s wonderfully simple books from varied countries, tell of life from the child’s perspective. How do Canadian children play? What is school like? Sport? Holidays? We visit this distant place and peer into their lives. These books enrich our understanding of children from around the world.

‘Wonder’ by Raquel J. Palacio – The story of August Pullman, born with a facial difference that kept him from school until the 5th grade. This is a challenging story about ignorance, resilience, bravery, understanding, hope, acceptance and kindness. Auggie’s story cannot be read without a box of tissues (just like the Movie of the same name).

Lemony Snicket: The Composer is dead’ - In this perplexing murder mystery, everyone seems to have a motive, everyone has an alibi, and nearly everyone is a musical instrument. But the composer is still dead. Lemony Snicket is a wonderful entrée to the world of satire and humour. And if your children like this they’ll also love ‘A series of unfortunate events’.

‘George and the Ghost’ (Catriona Hoy & Cassia Thomas)

Are ghosts real? George has a ghost as a friend, but he isn't sure he believes in Ghost any more. He asks Ghost to prove he is real by weighing himself, having his photo taken and showing he takes up space. Can Ghost be real if he can't be seen, weighed, he doesn’t take up space…What does it mean to be real and imaginary? What is it ‘to be’!

‘Niko Draws a Feeling’ (Bob Raczka & Simone Shin) Niko draws to understand himself. But no-one understands his drawing for they see it just as scribble. Until one day, a girl moves in across the road and cracks the seal on Niko’s lonely life and sees beyond the symbols to the boy within. One of my favourite books of 2017.

3. Literature also transforms us as learners, language users & people

As stories expand our world and teach us many things, and as they enrich us as humans, they also begin to transform us as people.  Literature also has a special role in enhancing our humanity; of opening our eyes to the world. Books can sharpen our eyes to see beauty in surprising places as well as to identify injustice and human folly. They introduce us to social and ethical issues that really matter and deeply challenge us.

I believe that a life rich in story and literature can help us to grow into better people, more responsive to and responsible for our world and our fellow human beings.

Above: 'The Day War Came'

One perfect example of a book that does this is an illustrated poem written by Nicola Davies. Nicola wrote the poem in response to the UK government’s decision not to allow lone refugee children a safe haven in the UK. The poem was published in the Guardian and later a children’s book was born.

The confronts us with the realization that at times government will make decisions pragmatically that can fail consider the consequences of their policies. This is a powerful story about a little girl has her home bombed from around her. As she runs from the carnage around her, to her school to seek safety, finds just a hole in the ground. In her words: “War took everything. War took everyone.”

She flees alone on a lonely journey that involves walking across fields, over mountains and fields, on trucks and in buses, in a leaky boat and then a lonely camp where she finds an empty hut, with a blanket and ‘crawled inside’. When she finds her way to a school there is no room for her and others like her as the teacher says: “There is no room for you, you see. There is no chair for you to sit on. You have to go away… [for] war had got here too.”

But help comes from an unexpected place as children from the school find chairs so she “could come to school”.

Books can indeed transform us through the power of story.

Summing up

As Barbara Hardy said:

“We dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative”

Children begin life with an innate potential to imagine, create, seek meaning, express themselves, and ask why? And story is a key vehicle that teaches, enriches and indeed can transform us.

Story helps us to grasp what it is to be human, and literature is one of its most powerful vehicles to touch and change our lives. From birth, we should flood our children’s worlds with stories and interaction. We have an obligation to help to shape in character, to be people who understand their world, feel at home in it, develop identities that contribute to it, and who as a consequence, lead fulfilled lives.


Friday, May 11, 2018

Education and Pedagogy for Life

I just wanted readers of this blog to be aware that my latest book has just been released internationally. This is a book that tackles the tricky question of what might an authentic faith-based school look like. While this is about education in Christian schools, readers of other faiths might find it of interest.

The book Pedagogy & Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, and Formation' has been released in paperback, hardback and Kindle editions.

The blog that I've been writing - Education, Pedagogy and Formation - in association with the release of the book, might also be of interest to Christian teachers and educators who seek authentic models for Christian education.


Its chapters include:

CONTENTS

PART 1: CHRISTIAN PEDAGOGY, FORMATION, AND EDUCATION

1. Introduction: Is there such a Thing as Christian Pedagogy?
2. What is Christian Pedagogy?
3. Education as Formation in Communities
4. Standpoint, Pedagogy, and Formation
5. Pedagogy, Teaching, and the Kingdom
6. Meaning, Learning, and Formation


PART II: EDUCATION AND LIFE


7. Classroom Life
8. Storytelling and Life
8. Imagination and Life
9. A Framework for Evaluating Classroom and School Life


It's available through Amazon and all major international online bookshops. There will also be copies available from major bookshops in Australia, USA and the UK. If you would like review copies for journals and other education publications please visit the publisher's site and provide your details. ISBN numbers for each format can be found on the Amazon sites as well as others. The paperback ISBN is 1498283616 HERE.

The book is available from Amazon in paperback ($US25 and $AUD34.27), hardcover ($US45) and Kindle edition ($US9.04 & $AUD11.99).

Monday, April 30, 2018

9 Ways Reading & Writing 'Feed' One Another From Birth

Children begin to write early - very early! In fact, they begin to make marks on their world as soon as they can dip fingers into food, water and dirt. Once they can hold a pencil or crayon, or use simple apps on a drawing tablet, they are ready to 'compose'! Reading follows a little later as they notice symbols and begin to associate them with spoken language.

There are many simple ways to encourage children to write:

a) Provide them with varied writing implements and materials to write on.
b) Encourage them to try to write letters and words.
c) Let them see you writing words and letters.
d) Encourage them to write their name, numbers and letters.
e) Let them see you writing and reading words at the same time.
f) Encourage them to write signs and labels

Rich experiences of early writing have an impact on language and learning generally, and certainly reading. Offering varied early experiences for writing is as important as reading to and with your children. Children who have rich early reading experiences will often be more precocious as writers.  Here are nine ways that early reading and writing are related.

Photo from TTALL Literacy Project
1. Being read to and reading oneself offers us a rich experience of story - I've written in other posts about the importance of story to life and learning (e.g. here). Harold Rosen once suggested that 'Narratives...make up the fabric of our lives...'.  Jerome Bruner and others have gone further to suggest that story is 'a fundamental mode of thought through which we construct our world or worlds.' And of course, story is fuel for writing. As children look at symbols in books, on walls, on TV and so on, they seek to copy them and make sense of what they are for.

2. Reading teaches rhyme, rhythm & word play for young writers -

From the earliest experiences of being read to, toddlers will be captured by rhyme, word play and the rhythm of language. And of course, sound and rhyme are so important for reading and writing. Many children's books make great use of the wonders of rhyme and word play. One of the masters of course was Dr Seuss. Few would not know 'There's a Wocket in my Pocket' and 'Hop on Pop' to name just two!


One of my favourite books for toddlers is Janet and Allen Ahlberg's classic 'Each Peach Pear Plum'.

"Each peach pear plum, I spy Tom Thumb. Tom Thumb in the cupboard. I spy Mother Hubbard".  Delightful!

And more recently, the master of the tongue twister Mo Willems has given us a number of wonderful books that demonstrate rhyme and word play. A recent favourite is 'Nanette's Baguette'.

Today, in the kitchenette, Mum tells Nannette that Nanette gets to get the baguette!


3. Reading offers models for writing - Reading also introduces us to varied ways to share a story, and how to start a story and end it. It helps us to learn how to develop a character, the art of description, humour, rhyme and rhythm. Once again, Dr Seuss is a master at such lessons.

4.  Reading & writing teach us about 'readership' -When children begin to have books read to them, and later begin to read for themselves, they realize that these stories have been written for them, the reader. Good writing requires a sense of audience, and stories read teach this. When children begin receiving letters, cards, or simply being shown print in their world, they begin to grasp that language isn't just to be received, but can also be created and shared with others as a writer.  They also learn that if you write for readers, and receive responses, that this is enjoyable and strengthens relationships.

An early letter from Elsie

5. Reading enriches language that 'feeds' writing (& vice versa) - There is no doubt that reading feeds children's writing. It introduces children to new words, novel use for old words, and the very important need to 'play' with language if you are to be a successful writer. Robert Ingpen's book 'The Idle Bear' demonstrates this well. It is essentially a conversation between two bears but it is rich in language and metaphor. He starts this way:
"What kind of bear are you?" asked Ted
"I'm an idle Bear."
"But don't you have a name like me?"
"Yes, but my name is Teddy. All bears like us are called Teddy." 
Later in the story a very confused bear asks:
"Where do you come from, Ted?"
"From an idea," said Ted definitely.
"But ideas are not real, they are only made-up," said Teddy. "You have to come from somewhere real to have realitives."
"Not realitives, relatives!" said Ted trying to hide his confusion.

Elsie's TV instructions
6. Reading introduces us to varied written genres - While children experience story from a very young age, reading also introduces them to the fact that language can be represented in different genres. Through reading at home and within their immediate world, children quickly discover that people write and read lists, notes, labels on objects, poems, jokes, instructions, maps and so on. Parents read and point out these varied text forms and eventually children try to use them.

My granddaughter Elsie's 'TV Instructions' (left), written aged five years, is a priceless set of instructions that she wrote for her Nanna just before she went to bed, so that Nanna could watch her favourite programs while babysitting.

7. Reading helps us to understand the power of words - Stories and other texts quickly teach children that words can have power. Signs give clear instructions in powerful ways - 'STOP', 'BEWARE OF THE DOG', 'CHILDREN CROSSING', 'KEEP OUT'. But well-chosen words express emotions too - "I love you", "It was dark and scary". Children also discover that words can do other things. With help they will enjoy discovering language forms like onomatopoeia, e.g. atishoo, croak, woof, miaow, sizzle, rustle etc.


8. Reading offers us knowledge - Children also discover that reading offers us knowledge that can feed writing. Without content there won't be writing. Books can captivate children and offer new areas of learning and interest. As they are read books, they also learn about their world. For example, they might discover that trees don't just have green leaves, but sometimes these leaves change colour, fall off and create a habitat for many creatures. Trees drop seeds which animals eat, offer shelter for animals, material to build homes and so on. But they are also homes for elves and animals that talk, places where strange lands appear regularly, and where a lost dragon might rest. Reading feeds writing with knowledge as raw material for writing.


9. Reading helps us to imagine and think - As children are introduced to varied literary genres and traditions, imaginations are awakened to the realms of fantasy, time travel, recreation of life in other times, the perils of travel through space. But at a more realistic level, reading can help young writers to imagine childhood in other places and times, 'within' the bodies of other people and with varied life roles. Through reading, children are given the examples and the fuel to imagine and write about themselves in the shoes of others, sharing their life circumstances as well as their challenges, fears and hopes.



Sunday, April 22, 2018

33 Non-fiction Books for Reluctant Readers (5-13 years)

I regularly do a post on non-fiction books for two reasons. First, all children need to have a good range of non-fiction books as well as narrative in their early reading life. Second, some children who are reluctant readers when faced with just narratives can be reluctant readers.

The latter is often more likely to occur with boys, and non-fiction can be a good way into reading.

I discuss this in greater detail in a post I did a number of years ago (HERE). The current post is a review of a range of good books published mostly in the last few years, that might appeal to the reluctant readers in your life. Some of the books have already been shared in other mixed review posts in the last few years.

I have arranged the examples I offer roughly in order of difficulty and age interest. It goes without saying that there are girls who are also reluctant readers, for whom non-fiction may also be more engaging.

1. 'Before After' by Anne-Margot Ramstein & Matthias Arégui (Walker Books)

Everyone knows that a tiny acorn grows into a mighty oak and a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. But in this clever, visually simple and yet stunning hardcover book, French artists Ramstein and Arégui do much more than offer a simple book of word concepts. They offer visual springboards to problem solving and imagination. The authors play with numerous hidden dimensions of one's view of the world. A view of a great mountain across fields can leave the fields as simple foreground, but what if the view of the mountain is from within the foliage that covers the ground? A rocket waiting on the launch pad is positioned next to a moonscape and offers a visual point of view across the moon's surface. A landscape that displays human footprints against a backdrop of a familiar distant planet. 

Turn a page and cooking ingredients sit next to a well decorated cake, and as we turn the page we encounter a mountain field complete with cow adjacent to a bottle of milk. The next double spread returns to the mountain field, but this time in the foreground we have an easel with a painting of the scene and the cow.

So the 'reader' is invited to contemplate how a cow can result in both a bottle of milk and a painting, an ape in a jungle may become an urban King Kong, a many-tiered cake is both created and eaten, a quill pen sits beside a typewriter, a pack of cards can transform into a pyramid and so on. These simple, graphic illustrations, gently tinted with pastel colours, will appeal to readers of all ages and will make them think and contemplate their world. This is a book that doesn't just explore the concepts of 'before' and 'after' it invites the 'reader' to reflect on time, perspective and reality. Readers aged 3 to 8 will be fascinated by this book.


2. 'Ambulance Ambulance!' by Sally Sutton & illustrated by Brian Lovelock

I've enjoyed and reviewed the wonderful work of award winning Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock before on this blog. Their attraction to big machines is a topic that many young readers enjoy, and previous books like 'Construction' and 'Roadwork' are great examples. They have teamed up again for 'Ambulance Ambulance!'.

Once again, the same simple, bright and action packed images support the simple text that exploits rhyme, onomatopoeia and action.

Bleep, bleep. Emergency! News just through: Crash, crash, there’s been a crash. Let’s go, crew!

Nee nar nee nar nee nar nee nar ...

Now what child 3-5 years old won't join in a shared reading of this book!


3. 'Crazy About Cats' by Owen Davey

This is part of Owen Davey's bestselling series.

Did you know that the fishing cat has partially webbed paws for catching fish? Or that pumas can leap over 15 feet into trees? There are roughly 38 species of cats today, each one superbly adapted to their environment - whether that be in the rainforest or the desert!

I have previously reviewed 'Smart About Sharks'. But your children will enjoy 'Mad About Monkeys' and many more books by Owen Davey. I love the almost geometric nature of the images, the beautifully toned colours and the multi-layered nature of the texts. Stunning work. Wonderful for children aged 4-8 years.


4. 'A is for Australian Animals', by Frané Lessac


If you haven't come across Frané Lessac before, you must correct this significant gap in your experience of children's literature. She is a U.S born author, illustrator and painter who currently lives and works in Western Australia. She has published over 40 books for children and won numerous awards for her illustrations. Don't assume that this is a simple alphabet book. While it adopts this form, this is a book that will deepen children's knowledge of some of Australia's most amazing animals. Each letter has one to three unique animals. Each has multiple illustrations with an introduction to each animal in larger font and then short paragraphs associated with separate illustrations. Every page has a depth of information in the varied texts and gorgeous illustrations that use the rich colours of the Australian landscape.


'The Blue-tongue is a lizard which, if threatened, puffs up its body, opens its mouth wide and sticks out its dark blue tongue'

'The Bilby is a desert-living marsupial with rabbit-like ears'
'Bilbies don't hop like a rabbit or jump like a kangaroo - they gallop like a pony'

A stunning book with carefully crafted text and stunning illustrations with a riot of colour and detail.

5. 'Funny Faces' by Mark Norman (Black Dog Books)

Dr Norman is Head of Sciences at Museum Victoria where he leads the large and active natural sciences research team. He studies octopuses, squid, cuttlefishes and nautiluses (the cephalopods). He is also a trained teacher, an educational display designer and an experienced underwater cinematographer. His research and projects with documentary makers including BBC, National Geographic and Discovery Channel has covered giant squid, poisonous blue-ringed octopuses, huge aggregations of southern giant cuttlefish and diving surveys of remote Indo-Pacific coral reefs.

He has published a series of simple factual picture books framed by the word 'funny'. His first was 'Funny Bums' published in 2013. 'Funny Faces' is the second in the series. From oversized noses to bulging eyes, elaborate beaks to gigantic ears - the faces of some animals may look funny to us, but their peculiar features are exactly what those animals need to survive. Find out "Why the funny face?"

6. 'Funny Homes' by Mark Norman (Black Dog Books)


As with the first two books in this series Dr Norman  considers the complexity and beauty of the natural world, while at the same time considering its 'strangeness'. With his customary scientifically accurate and informative text, and stunning photographs, he invites us to explore aspects of the world around us. You see, some creatures live in funny places - prickly cactuses, dark caves, high treetops. These are strange places where humans would not survive for five minutes. Just why do these animals have such strange homes?

7. 'Funny Families' by Mark Norman (Black Dog Books)

The fourth book in Mark Norman's series has just been released in recent weeks, 'Funny Families'.

If you think your family is funny, imagine being a baby alligator carried around in its mother's mouth! Find out why some families of the animal world are so funny.

Inquisitive children and lovers of wildlife will enjoy this new title just as much as previous ones. As with the other titles they are suitable for readers aged 5-8 years.


8. 'A Kiwi Year: Twelve Months in the Life of New Zealand's Kids' by Tania McCartney & illustrated by Tina Snerling


This book is the latest in a wonderful series that helps children to understand the different lives that children lead around the world. Each book takes the reader through a typical year to reveal the everyday celebrations, cultural events, special holidays, sport and lifestyle.

I have reviewed previous titles by this team on my blog - 'An Aussie Year', 'A Scottish Year' and 'An English Year' (HERE). Now it's time to find out what life is like in 'A Kiwi Year'. Each book in the series begins by introducing us to five children from diverse backgrounds. We then follow them through the year. As the seasons change, so too do the things children play, celebrate, learn and do. In January, some play 'cricket', plant veggies in the garden, go camping and enjoy summer holidays. In February, there are celebrations for Chinese New Year, Valentine's Day and hot weather at the height of summer. In March, there is a national Maori celebration (New Zealand's First People), the celebration of Pacific communities, 'Children's Day', and homework!

Children will love this simple but effective introduction to the life and culture of people from another land. Tina Snerling's wonderful images will have children wanting to dip into the book many times.

9. 'A Canadian Year: Twelve Months in the Life of Canada's Kids' by Tania McCartney & illustrated by Tina Sterling

Just as with 'A Kiwi Year', children are given an insight into the life and culture of another country - this time Canada! All the books in this splendid series offer so much more than any geography text for children ever could. The teacher in me wants to race off to a classroom to share this book as a basis for a whole unit of work on Canada.

What better way to understand a nation's history, social and cultural practices, natural wonders, climate and more. Children have the chance to view another culture through the eyes and experiences of the children who live it every day. Wonderful stuff! The texts are carefully crafted by Tania McCartney who doesn't waste a word, the descriptive text for each event or activity complements the illustrations, and judicious labelling also add depth with few extra words. Another great book to read from front to back, or to leave on the table to be dipped into over and over again. Each time, young readers will notice new things, have additional questions, and be actively learning about other cultures and nations.

10. 'Bilby Secrets' Edel Wignel, illustrated by Mark Jackson

This is a delightful non-fiction picture book that teaches us in narrative form about the life of the wonderful bilby, an Australian marsupial. It traces the events of a typical day for mother and baby, and the perils of native and feral animals as the baby Bilby tries to survive life in the Australian landscape. Edel Wignel's story keeps the reader interested, while Mark Jackson's brightly coloured illustrations add drama and detail to this piece of discovery learning in narrative form. Children aged 2-6 will love this book. It is also a great book for classroom-based units and learning. 


11. 'Tom the Outback Mailman' by Kristin Weidenbach and illustrated by Timothy Ide (Lothian)

'Tom the Outback Mailman' by Kristin Weidenbach and illustrated by Timothy Ide won the Eve Pownall prize for information books. This delightful true story of a great Australian character is based on Weidenbach's story of Tom Kruse who was the driver of the Marree-to-Birdsville mail. Once a fortnight for twenty years Tom loaded his Leyland Badger truck and drove 1,000 km across perilous territory on little more than a dusty dangerous rutted track. His job was to deliver mail and provisions to arguably the most isolated residents in the world. Tom was a great Australian character who lived in the middle decades of last century

The book is a version for younger children (aged 5-8 years) that Weidenbach has adapted into a delightful picture book for young readers. It offers just a small slice of the events of Tom's life. When floods cut the Birdsville Track, the station residents run out of supplies and worse still, the Birdsville Hotel runs out of beer! It takes Tom’s ingenuity to beat the floodwaters and get the mail and the beer through. Timothy Ide provides wonderfully detailed watercolour illustrations that add to what is already a compelling narrative account.

12. 'Children's Quick and Easy Cookbook' by Angela Wilkes and published by DK Publishing.  

The Children's Quick and Easy Cookbook has 60 simple recipes that children will enjoy. The recipes are easy enough for most children to use, and are mostly suitable for the whole family. It contains a mix of healthy snacks, full meals, and delicious treats and sweets. The meal recipes include pita pockets, falafel, pizzas, Turkish meatballs, tacos, Thai satay kebabs, lemon fish sticks, filled crepes, chicken curry and rice. There are also many wonderful sweets including simple baked bomb Alaska, Tiramisu, parfaits, carrot cake, cookies and many more.  

The book also outlines cooking techniques, good food hygiene, kitchen safety, and step-by-step instructions. Full colour photographs are used throughout the book.

13. 'The Lego Ideas Book' by Daniel Lipkowitz and published by DK Publishing 

If you have a box of Lego pieces resulting from your purchase of dozens of Lego sets, then you need this book. The book has 500 ideas for how you can make new things out of your box of Lego pieces. The book has six themed chapters—transportation, buildings, space, medieval history, adventure, and useful things to make. Each section has templates for models and ideas for how you might create your own. The book has 200 pages of tips and advice, illustrations and ideas.  It is well illustrated and beautifully designed. This book will keep children aged 7 to 70 years busy for hours.

14. 'Into the Unknown' by Stewart Ross and illustrated by Stephen Biesty

This wonderful hard cover book from tells the story of 14 famous journeys throughout history, including 'Pytheas the Greek Sails to the Arctic Circle in 340BC', 'Admiral Zheng He Crosses the Indian Ocean in 1405-07', 'Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin Land on the Moon in 1969', 'Marco Polo Rides the Silk Road to China in 1271-74' and many more.

Each story has multiple drawings, maps and a giant fold out cross-section. Boys will read and look through this book for hours. You will also enjoy reading this exciting book to boys. There are many other 'cross-section' books by Stephen Biesty and others (here), including 'Egypt in Cross Section', 'Castles' and 'Rome'.

15. 'How Machines Work: The Interactive Guide to Simple Machines and Mechanisms' by Nick Arnold & Allan Sanders, published by Quarto Children's Books and distributed in Australia by Walker Books.

This book is a unique interactive guide to understanding simple machines and mechanisms. It introduces basic physics both in words and through models that the reader manipulates. It has 9 double-page spreads that introduce the reader to a key mechanical principle that you then put into practice by building one or more working models. The text and illustrations offer an easy to understand description of the mechanical principle and how to make a model that demonstrates it. This hands-on approach makes it easy to understand how these principles work and how they can be applied to everyday objects, such as cars, bicycles cranes and seesaws. Everything that you need is within, or attached to the book. The concept is brilliant

16. 'You Can Draw Anything' by Kim Gamble

Kim Gamble is a well-known illustrator of Australian picture books. In this very accessible book he shows you how to draw just about anything you want to. Most how-to-draw books are either simple and recipe like or far too complex. The book offers principles and guidance for drawing many objects, including varied animals, people (bodies and faces), and landscapes including perspectives. He also offers techniques for shading and colouring. He intersperses the many diagrams and drawings with stories, jokes and examples that make the approach lots of fun, engaging and effective. It is ideal for children aged 7-10 years.

17. 'Locomotive', written and illustrated by Brian Floca (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2013).

Floca is the author and illustrator of many books for children, including three Robert F. Sibert Honour Books: 'Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11', 'Lightship', and 'Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring', written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan.

'Locomotive' is the story a family’s journey across America in 1869 on the newly completed transcontinental railroad. The star of the story is the steam engine, but a mother and her two children and all those who keep the train moving are essential extras as it races down the Californian coast.

For the true enthusiast of trains the author gives us plenty of technical information about 19th-century railroading. This is not surprising, as Floca seems to have aimed at a very broad audience. Some will be pulled along by rhythm of the story, others will love the train details, and some will revel in the sense of history (even in the very typefaces used). Floca uses free verse and as you'd expect plays with words and sound to great effect. 

The technical craft and book design are both brilliant, as Floca uses every device to good effect to engage readers in this exciting journey by an incredible piece of 19th century technology.

Even the way he uses his pictures provides a cinematic style that is hard to create, but which adds to the richness of the text. The detail in the illustrations is superb; it is as much draftsmanship as it is fine illustration.

'Locomotive' won the 2014 Caldecott Medal.

18. 'Kubla Khan: Emperor of Everything' by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Robert Byrd

Kubla Khan is not well known and has often been mentioned historically only indirectly or in passing. Who was the man who Coleridge described in his famous poem 'Kubla Kahn'? This is the presumed grandson of Genghis Khan who reputedly built the imperial city of Beijing, and fathered a hundred or more children. History and legend suggest that he ruled over the greatest empire of the time, and that it was more advanced than previous civilisations in science, art and technology. The narrative text is engaging and should hold the interest of young readers, and Robert Byrd beautifully illustrates the book. Readers aged 7-9 years will enjoy this 42 page illustrated book.



19. 'Simpson and his Donkey' by Mark Greenwood & illustrated by Frané Lessac

Every Australian and English child who grew up in the 1950s to 70s in Australia would know of the story of Simpson and the donkey he used to retrieve wounded men on the WWI battlefields of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. This was one of the greatest of all defeats for the forces of Britain, France and of course the Australian and New Zealand armed forces (the ANZACs). In the midst of the massacre of thousands of allied troops and the eight-month siege of this isolated beachhead, a man and his donkey were responsible for saving many lives, before Simpson was eventually killed on yet another mission.

Mark Greenwood offers a moving story of John Simpson Kirkpatrick and how he and his donkey, Duffy, rescued over 300 men during the campaign at Gallipoli. It traces his life from his home in South Shields in Newcastle (England) and his journey from the Tyne Dock to Turkey. Informed by detailed research, the text includes a brief biography of the man, details of his work at Gallipoli and also the little known story of how one of the many he rescued was actually a childhood friend.

Frané Lessac's illustrations are a wonderful complement to the story and have strength of colour that is not controlled by conventions. There are skies of yellow, orange, aqua, purple and all shades of blue. Her unique style draws your eye deep into each plate; no details can easily be missed.

20. 'Usborne Complete Book of Art Ideas' by Fiona Watt and published by Usborne

The Usborne Art book has almost 300 pages of original ideas for painting, drawing and making collage. This fantastic book is ideal for children of varied (and minimal) artistic ability. It is also suitable for just about any age (but it's ideal for 7-12 year olds). The book will help children to explore varied artistic forms and materials, including chalk, pencil, paint and watercolour. It offers ideas that require the use of a wide variety of artistic techniques, including painting, drawing, sticking, ink, ripping, rubbing, smudging and colouring. Each of the many ideas is illustrated with very easy to follow step-by-step instructions. The book also offers tips on brushwork, mixing colours, thinning and thickening paint, how to shade and add patterns, using oil pastels, acrylics and more. 

21. 'I Was Only Nineteen' by John Schumann and illustrated by Craig Smith (Allen & Unwin)

John Schumann wrote an unforgettable song 'I Was Only 19' in 1983 with the band Redgum. It had the memorable refrain 'God help me, I was only 19'. The lyrics of this well-known Australian song have been brought to life in a children's picture book illustrated by the widely acclaimed Australian illustrator Craig Smith. The words are used exactly as in the song. With Craig Smith's wonderful watercolour and line drawings they are a moving reminder of the Vietnam War. This was a war that was fought in different ways to the previous great wars and had less universal support than previous conflicts in which Australia and other nations had fought. This was a war that for many didn't seem 'quite real', and our servicemen still carry the physical and mental scars. The book is a moving insight into a war fought by young men who knew little about the country in which they fought and why they were there. It would be an ideal book to share with children aged 6-12 years as we approach ANZAC Day in Australia on April 25th.

22. 'The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science: 50 Experiments for Daring Young Scientists' by Sean Connolly

I wanted this book as soon as I saw it.  Well, as soon as I saw the title!  The book is all about igniting interest in science. Sean Connolly achieves this with lively, hands-on activities that suggest excitement and "danger". Simple experiments that pop, ooze, surprise and teach will delight boys and girls in upper primary. He also leads the reader through the history of science, and uses simple experiments to demonstrate key scientific principles.

The reader can rediscover the wheel and axle with the ancient Sumerians, or perform an astounding experiment demonstrating the theory of angular momentum. Children can build a simple telescope like Galileo's and find the four moons he discovered orbiting Jupiter.  They can experiment safely with electricity and avoid the more risky approach of Ben Franklin with his Lightning experiment. They will also learn how to re-create the Hadron Collider in a microwave with marshmallows, calculator, and a ruler to demonstrate the speed of light. Or they might simply crush a can using Stephenson's steam can experiment. This is a wonderful book for children aged 9-12 years.

23. 'Tales of the Greek Heroes' by Green Roger Lancelyn (Penguin, 2009)

The beautiful land of Greece is haunted by more than three thousand years of legend and history. In this gripping retelling of the Heroic Age, you'll meet the mighty Poseiden, God of the Sea; Zeus, the King of Heaven and Earth; Hades, Lord of the Dead; Artemis the Huntress; Aphrodite, Immortal Lady of Beauty and Love; and many more mortals and gods. Their adventures are some of the oldest and most famous stories in the world.

This collection of well-known Greek myths will be enjoyed by readers aged 11+

24. 'A Tale of Troy' by Lancelyn Roger Green (Penguin, 2012)

This book is a companion to 'Tales of the Greek Heroes'.

Step back into the Heroic Age with the story of Helen and the judgement of Paris; of the gathering of the heroes and the siege of Troy; of Achilles and his vulnerable heel. And join Odysseus, the last of the heroes – famous for his wisdom and cunning – on his thrilling adventures as he makes the long journey home to Greece.

Once again, perfect reading for children aged 11+

25. 'Tales of Ancient Egypt' by Lancelyn Green Roger (Penguin, 2011)

In this thrilling collection of the great myths, you'll encounter Amen-Ra, who created all the creatures in the world; Iris, searching the waters for her dead husband, Osiris; the Bennu bird and the Book of Thoth. But there are also tales told purely for pleasure, about treasure and adventure – and even the first ever story of Cinderella.

Ages 10+ will love this collection





26. 'The Dangerous Book for Boys' by Conn Iggulden & Hal Iggulden (Harper Collins)

As they say, this book is an 'oldie' but a 'goodie'. It offers a range of ideas for making and doing things. For example, how to make the greatest paper plane in the world, building a tree house, all about dinosaurs, making a G0-cart, how to go fishing, juggling, all about Australian snakes, skimming stones and so on. This isn't a simple book (about grade 4-5 standard) but the content will help boys to 'stretch' themselves. It is also a great book for boys to read and 'do' with an adult. I've reviewed it in more detail here.


27. 'Amazing Grace: An Adventure at Sea' by Stephanie Owen Reeder
This is a story about the courage of 16-year-old Grace Bussell. The year is 1876, when a steam ship, the 'Georgette', runs aground near Margaret River in Western Australia. On shore an ordinary 16 year-old girl sees the unfolding drama and heads off on horseback with the family servant Sam Isaacs to try to help the stranded passengers. Grace and Sam head into the water with their horses and rescue many people. Using eyewitness accounts and other historical documents as well as some slight embellishment to fill in details to sustain the narrative, Stephanie Reeder brings this true story to life.  This wonderful story is an excellent follow on from Stephanie Reeder's previous book, 'Lost! A True Tale From the Bush'. This previous story was also a true story. It told the story of 3 children who became lost on their way home in 1864 and spent eight days alone. It was shortlisted in the 2010 CBCA children's literature awards.  
28. 'The Boy from Bowral' by Robert Ingpen

Robert Ingpen is known primarily as an illustrator but he is also a fine writer with 13 works of fiction and over 20 non-fiction. His most recent book as writer and illustrator is 'The Boy from Bowral' which tells the biographical story of Australian cricketer Sir Donald Bradman who is the greatest cricketer of all time. Bradman is seen as a legend in any cricket playing nation and Ingpen provides a lucidly written and historically accurate picture of Bradman's early life in Bowral, his rise to prominence as a cricketer, and his sporting career. The images are drawings based primarily on existing photographs, so the keen cricket fan (like me) will feel that they recognise some of them. The cover (which wraps around to the back) is a wonderful sequence of images that appear like a series of video frames that capture the classic Bradman cover drive. I loved this book and any cricket following child or adult will also enjoy it.

 29. 'Australian Writers of Influence' by Bernadette Kelly (Black Dog Books)

Bernadette Kelly loves writing non-fiction and in this book she writes about writers. But not ordinary writers, she writes about some of our pioneers of poetry, plays and novels. They are all great names that many of us know by reputation and the odd work, but just how much do we know about these greats who have made their mark on our literary culture. These are the writers of the 19th century who influenced our grandparents and great grandparents.

With 200-400 word descriptions, beautiful illustrations and historic photographs and paintings, she makes us want to explore the great works of Adam Lindsay Gordon, Banjo Paterson, Miles Franklin, Henry Lawson, CJ Dennis, Mary Gilmore, May Gibbs and more. This book will be enjoyed by children aged 10 to 13 years. Suited ideally for use in classrooms, it will be a valuable resource and a good individual read for children who love literature.

The work has no doubt been a labour of love for Bernadette Kelly. In her words:

"Researching this book was a joy, and I learnt a lot in the process. The writers, poets and journalists of colonial and post-federation days in this country were a tough lot and they shared my love of words and stories. So it’s out there now. May it find its way into the hands of Australian history lovers and learners."

30. Get Coding (Walker Books)

Where can we start to inspire young girls (and boys as well) to explore coding?  There are some great resources appearing on the market that will help. I was recently sent a great little book designed for primary or elementary school children - Get Coding (Walker Books) that has been produced by Young Rewired State (see below). This is a wonderful little book, it made me want to get to a computer, and to start doing some coding.

It is well designed and very inviting. Each page combines text, step by step instructions and projects to undertake. The first 15 pages are text-based with some headings, pictures and diagrams to make sense of the limited amount of the word descriptions. The reading level is about 8-10 years. Once the reader is through this introduction they can begin a series of missions with Professor Harry Bairstone, 'a famous explorer' who is '... in desperate need of [our] help'. Once we are introduced to the mystery of the lost 'Monk Diamond', we are ready to code our way towards completing our mission. Yes, we will need to know what HTML tags are. And we will learn how to use them as we learn to write HTML code, on our way towards completing the mission. Very soon, we are writing the code for a simple web page, with text and images. Eventually we build our own 'Monk Diamond Discovery Web Page'.

By Mission 5 our young coders will be making their own game 'The House of Volkov's Security Team' that is responsible for protecting some valuable jewels on display in the The House of Volkov'.

This is wonderful stuff, and should be part of every child's primary school education. 

31. 'Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles. America’s First Black Paratroopers' (Candlewick Press, 2013)


This is a true story that has been a long time coming. It tells in a fair but powerful way of the racism that has often existed in armed forces around the world. Americans may well have heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, but few would know of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion - the Triple Nickle. These were the first US black paratroopers. They showed that black soldiers could do anything their white counterparts could do. The text and over 100 carefully labelled photographs in this 150 page book offer us an insight into how some brave and persistent African American men paved the way for others to be a full part of the US armed forces.

Tanya Lee Stone (author of 'Almost Astronauts') has done extensive research to tell her true story for readers of all ages. Boys in particular will love reading and looking at the historic photos. The work took Stone almost 10 years and the meticulous care and passion shows in this wonderful book. This amazing story will challenge all readers irrespective of age, race or ethnicity. The book recently won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. It is a very worthy winner.

32. 'Neurology: The Amazing Central Nervous System' by April Chloe Terrazas (Crazy Brainz, 2013)

Neurology explores the complexities of the Central Nervous System, beginning with the different sections (lobes) of the brain, continuing to the spinal cord and concluding with the structure and function of the neuron. Readers will learn how to pronounce key terms like Cerebellum, Occipital Lobe and Sensorimotor Cortex. They will also discover the functions of the Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia and the Hippocampus! The book will also help them to understand the way the brain is organised - Forebrain, Midbrain, Hindbrain... and much more. 

The book has wonderful images that will engage them and color-coded text will reinforce lots of new learning. A great book for boys who love science and fancy themselves as brain surgeons! This is a book that will appeal to boys (and girls) of all ages.

33. 'Movie Maker' by Tim Grabham, Suridh Hassan, Dave Reeve and Clare Richards

'Movie Maker' is another wonderful resource from Walker Books designed for primary school aged children (7-12 years). It is a kit that contains ideas for making movies, and a handbook that shows you how armed simply with a video camera, you can make movies. The handbook talks about techniques like storyboarding, production, equipment, sound and lighting, design, special effects, how to vary camera shots and so on. It also includes some very cute aids such as a binocular mask, an adjustable frame, sample story boards, character props (e.g. glasses, moustache) and even authentic theatre tickets. All it doesn't include is the popcorn.

'Getting Boys into Books Through Non-Fiction' HERE
'Making Reading Exciting for Boys' HERE