Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Importance of Reading Chapter Books to and With Young Children

I'm asked by many parents just when should they start reading chapter books to their children.  In short, if he or she won’t sit still long enough to hear a chapter through, then it’s too early. But, then again, you might just be choosing books that are dull, or those that are just too hard and complex as narratives. But as well, you might also need to sharpen up your story reading skills. As well, what I will say in this post should be balanced against what say elsewhere about why the complexity of picture books, and why they are essential for children (HERE). I should state up front that by chapter books I mean novels for younger readers as well as collections of short stories in a chapter book format. Usually those chapter books for younger readers combine illustrations with more extended text. The amount of text usually corresponds to the difficulty level.
So, this post has two purposes:

First, to remind readers that 'long form' texts will enrich the experience of story, grow language and deepen children's knowledge of the world. 

Second, that chapter books help to grow reading 'stamina', language proficiency and a rich and deeper understanding of the world and its challenges. In short, they help to grow young minds.

Here are some quick questions that you might think about in assessing whether your child is ready:
  • Can your son or daughter listen for 20 minutes plus of reading aloud from picture books?
  • Do they seem to enjoy the text as much as the pictures?
  • Do they seem to relate to the characters and can they follow more complex picture books?
  • Do they ask you to read favourite books over and over?
  • Are they showing growing understanding of written language and asking questions about it (e.g. “What does calamity mean?” “Why does it say….?).
If you answer yes to most of these questions then they are probably ready. Children who have been read to constantly during the preschool years are typically ready to listen to chapter books from age 5 years and up (some even earlier). I also add that some children will be ready before 5 years.

In a post I wrote in 2008 on ‘Guiding children’s learning’ (here) I talked a little about Jerome Bruner’s concept of “scaffolding”. He identified scaffolding as a process where an adult helps children to learn in advance of their developmental level. The adult does this by doing what the child cannot do by themselves; allowing students to slowly take over parts of the process as they are able to do so. In many ways, this is the most fundamental reason to read chapter books to your children once they have become avid listeners to stories and beginning readers themselves. They can listen to more complex stories than they can read themselves as emerging readers.

In practical terms, chapter books offer children:

a) More complex narrative forms and plot development

b) Richer and more complex language

c) New areas of knowledge about their world & the human condition

d)  Different literary devices

e)  They train your children to be able to sustain longer periods of reading

As well as the above, chapter books will enable you to build an even richer shared literary history with your children. Shared books will become part of your literary common ground within the family, and more broadly, they will help to connect your children to a literary culture that others will share with them.

'A Necklace of Raindrops' Joan Aiken

A couple of warnings

Having said all of the above, there are a couple of warnings that I’d give:
  • Don’t push your children too quickly; all learning requires periods of consolidation before moving on to more difficult terrain.
  • Be aware that while your children might be able to follow the story line, relate to the characters and so on, they may not be emotionally ready for some of the content.
  • Be prepared to offer support - with chapter books you may need to explain new words, discuss new concepts, offer new knowledge etc.
  • Don’t forget, that reading a chapter book still needs to be interesting and enjoyable and that it will be harder to achieve this without pictures so you’ll need to work harder on varying your character voices (see my earlier post on reading to and with your children HERE).
One final warning. Don't assume that once you commence chapter books that picture books no longer have a place (again, see my post on this topic). Young children still need to read picture books and hear them read to them. They continue to have an important role in children's literacy development throughout the primary years of schooling.

Some Chapter Books to try

The list below is not meant to be extensive, just illustrative. It has a bit of an Australian flavour (but there are plenty of English and US books). I preface the following suggestions by saying that individual children will handle these books at different ages. For the very youngest readers it is best to start with books that have some illustrations to maintain interest until they develop more 'stamina' for harder books. The age guide that I have given is meant to be a ‘group age’ guide for teachers sharing such books with larger groups. Parents reading to a single child will perhaps find that their child can deal with books I’ve listed at an earlier stage. Conversely, your child might not be ready for some of these books as suggested. You may also find that they can handle even more difficult books not on the list (but don’t forget the warnings above).

I'd love to have your suggestions for other books to add to the list.

a) Suitable for 5-6 year-olds

‘Aurora and the little blue car’, by Anne-Cath Vestly, 1969
‘Arlo the dandy lion’, by Morris Lurie, 1971
‘Charlotte’s Web’, by E. B. White, 1952
‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, by Roald Dahl, 1970
‘Morris in the apple tree’, by Vivian French, 1995
‘Pippi Longstocking’, by Astrid Lindgren, 1945
‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie’, by May Gibbs, 1940
‘The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill’, by Dorothy Wall, 1939
‘The Littlest Dragon Goes for Goal’, by Margaret Ryan, 1999
‘Winnie-the-Pooh’, by A.A. Milne, 1926

b) Suitable for 7-8 year-olds

‘The BFG’, by Roald Dahl, 1982
‘Billy Fishbone King of the kid’, by Dianne Bates, 1997 (Bushranger series)
‘Bud Buster’, by Sofie Laguna, 2003 (Aussie Nibbles series)
‘Dragon ride’, by Helen Cresswell, 1987 (Colour Young Puffin series)
‘Elephant in the kitchen’, Winsome Smith, 1980
‘Grandma Cadbury’s Trucking Tales’, Di Bates, 1987
‘James and the Giant Peach’, by Roald Dahl, 1961
‘Hazel the Guinea Pig’, by A. N. Wilson, 1989
‘Mr. Popper's Penguins’, by Richard & Florence Atwater, 1939
'My Naughty Little Sister', by Dorothy Edwards, 1950
‘Rabbit Hill’, by Robert Lawson, 1944.
‘Superfudge’, by Judy Blume, 1984
‘Tashi and the Genie’, by Anna Fienberg, 1997, (series)
‘The Shrinking of Treehorn’, by Florence Parry Heide, 1971
‘The 27th Annual African Hippopotamus Race’, by Morris Lurie, 1969
‘The Wind in the Willows’, by Kenneth Grahame, 1908

c) Suitable for 9-11 year-olds

‘Boss of the Pool’, by Robin Klein, 1986
‘Bottersnikes and Gumbles’, by S. A. Wakefield, 1969
‘Boxer’, by Ian Charlton, 1999
‘Boy’, by Roald Dahl, 1984
‘Callie’s castle’, by Ruth Park, 1974
‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, Roald Dahl, 1964
‘Charlie up a gum tree’, by E. A. Schurmann, 1985
'Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool', by Odo Hirsch, 2009
‘Dear writer’, by Libby Gleeson, 2001
‘Dog tales’, by Emily Rodda, 2001
‘Foggy’, by Allan Baillie, 2001
‘Frog thunder’, by Jill Morris, 2001

‘Hating Alison Ashley’, by Robin Klein, 1984
‘James and the giant peach’, by Roald Dahl, 1961
‘Jodie’s Journey’, by Colin Thiele, 1997
‘Just So Stories’, by Rudyard Kipling, 1902
‘Let the Balloon Go’, by Ivan Southall, 1968
‘Little House on the Prairie’, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1935
‘Little Old Mrs Pepperpot’, by Alf Prøysen, 1959
‘Matilda’, by Roald Dahl, 1989
'Matty Forever', by Elizabeth Fensham, 2009 
‘Mike’, by Brian Caswell, 1993
‘Misery Guts’, by Morris Gleitzman, 1991
‘Onion Tears’, by Diana Kidd, 1989
‘Over the top’, by Ivan Southall, 1972
‘Penny Pollard’s Diary’, by Robin Klein, 1983
‘Selby’s Secret’, by Duncan Ball, 1985
‘Storm Boy’, by Colin Thiele, 1976
‘The adventures of Stuart Little’, by Daphne Skinner, 2000
‘The amazing adventures of Chilly Billy’, by Peter Mayle, 1980
‘The borrowers’, by Mary Norton, 1958
‘The Eighteenth Emergency’, by Betsy Byars, 1973
‘The Iron Man’, by Ted Hughes, 1968
‘The enemies’, by Robin Klein, 1985

‘The lion, the witch and the wardrobe’, by C.S. Lewis, 1950
'The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg', by Rodman Philbrick
‘The penguin friend’, by Lucy Sussex, 1997 (Collins Yellow Storybook series)
‘The Twits’, by Roald Dahl, 1980
‘The turbulent term of Tyke Tiler’, by Gene Kemp, 1977
'The Wish Pony', by Catherine Bateson, 2008
'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' by Judith Kerr, 1971 
‘Wiggy and Boa’, by Anna Fienberg, 1988
‘Wendy’s whale’, by Colin Thiele, 1999

Book series

There are many series that readily come to mind. Perhaps one of the first will be 'The Chronicles of Narnia' written by C.S.Lewis. But there are many others. While we wouldn't want developing readers just to read series, they are a great source of pleasure and deep reading.

I’ve written about book series in another post (here) and offer a detailed list for varied ages. There are a number of book series that children aged 5-7 years will enjoy, here are just some:

Mairi Hedderwick's 'Katie Morag' series 
Michael Bond’s ‘Paddington Bear’ series
R.A. Spratt's 'Nanny Piggins' series
Sarah Pennypacker's 'Clementine/ series 
'The Chronicles of Narnia' by C.S. Lewis
'The Sword Girl' series by Frances Watts  
'Violet Mackerel' series by Anna Branford 

Alf Prøysen’s ‘Mrs Pepperpot’ series
Anna Branford's 'Violet Mackerel' series
Arnold Lobel’s ‘Frog and Toad’ books
Astrid Lindgren’s ‘Pippi Longstocking’ books
Dick King-Smith's 'Sophie' series
Donald Sobol's 'Encyclopedia Brown' series
Dorthy Edwards' 'My Naughty Little Sister' series 
Emily Rodda's 'Rowan of Rin' and 'Deltora Quest' series 
Enid Blyton's 'Faraway Tree' series
Hugh Lofting's 'Dr Dolittle' series
Jeff Brown's 'Flat Stanley' series
Laura Ingalls Wilder's 'Ingalls family' series

Some related links

The importance of literature (here)
How to listen to your child reading (here)
Helping children to choose books (here)
The benefits of repeated reading of literature (here)
Why Older Readers Should Read Picture Books (here

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Australia's 2020 Children's Book of the Year Awards

The Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) has been making annual awards for 75 years. As usual, there have been many wonderful books. In this post I offer a quick review of the Winners and Honour books for younger readers.

1. Picture Book of the Year

Entries in this category should be outstanding books of the Picture Book genre in which the author and illustrator achieve artistic and literary unity or, in wordless picture books, where the story, theme or concept is unified through illustrations (Ages 0-18 years as some of these books may be for mature readers).


'I Need a Parrot' written and illustrated by Chris McKimmie

"Have you ever not just wanted something, but wanted it so much that you NEED it? The main character in I NEED a Parrot wants this pet so much that he attempts to persuade the unseen figure that he should get one."

Chris McKimmie has a style of his own. Always quirky he is the master of surprise in his work. His work is always surprising, and some might think a little bizarre at times. But it is always funny and kids get it! As usual this book has a great text well matched to his illustrations. His simple story gets at the problem of keeping and caging pets. As usual, there are few words and he never wastes a single one. The simple style of his illustrations might lead some to thinking, "I think I could do that!" Trust me, you can't! It's good to see Ford Street Publishing sharing the success as well. A small company that supports authors and illustrators by taking risks that sometimes the big publishers won't.

His blank double-page spread with the ‘aha’ moment, is brilliant! 

Chris McKimmie is a writer, artist, designer, musician, lecturer, grandad to seven grandkids and one dog, Teddy, a black Labrador who shares his morning tea biscuits. He has had many solo and group exhibitions of his art, and his previous books have been included in Children’s Book Council of Australia shortlists, long lists, honours lists and notable books lists.

I've been a fan of Chris McKimmie's for many years. You might like to read a post I did on his work in 2014 that includes an interview I conducted with him. HERE

Honour Books

'Nop' written and illustrated by Caroline Magerl

"A heartwarming picture book from award-winning author-illustrator Caroline Magerl about two unlikely loners who forge a forever friendship. Nop is a scruffy kind of bear. He sits on a dusty armchair in Oddmint's Dumporeum surrounded by the beaders, knitters, patchers and stitchers who are much too busy to talk to him. So he watches the litter tumble until, armed with a new bow tie, he has an idea that will change his life forever."

This story began with a memory of Caroline's school holidays in Sydney. Her father was welding a steel yacht in a boat yard and she wandered off . . . only to discover the local dump, a home for the things people throw out! Many years later, her daughter Jen made a teddy bear out of scraps for her father. It's a very sorry-looking, but endearing creature. Named Roadkill, ten years later it still sits on top of his desk. This story began with a memory of Caroline's school holidays in Sydney. Her father was welding a steel yacht in a boat yard and she wandered off . . . only to discover the local dump. A home for the things people throw out! Many years later, her daughter Jen made a teddy bear out of scraps for her father. It's a very sorry looking, but endearing creature. Named Roadkill, ten years later it still sits on top of his desk.

'Three' by Stephen Michael King

This is a very special book! watch a video of Stephen Michael King discussing his work by clicking on the link in the title below. Three is a three-legged dog with determination and a 'free' spirit. He survives due to many others who extend kindness. But his wandering takes him to new surroundings - the country! So many unusual creatures to deal with. And unlike him, they don't have 3 legs. This is a lovely story illustrated in King's typical style with lots of colour and expressive characters. It deserves being listed as an Honor book.

You can view a video of the author discussing his work 'Here'.

2. Book of the Year: Younger Readers

Entries in this category may be fiction, drama or poetry and should be appropriate in style and content for readers from the middle to upper primary years.
Ages 8-12 years.


'The Little Wave' by Harry Pip

When a Manly school sets out to bring a country class to the city for a beach visit, three very different kids find each other and themselves. Noah is fearless in the surf. Being at the beach makes him feel free. So where does his courage go when his best mate pushes him around? Lottie loves collecting facts about bugs, but she wishes her dad would stop filling their lonely house with junk. She doesn’t know what to do about it. Jack wants to be a cricket star, but first he has to get to school and look after his little sister. Especially if he wants to go on the class trip and see the ocean for the first time.

This beautifully written story in verse form revolves around three quite different Primary school aged characters. The story pivots around a school assignment to write to a pen pal. The plots become interwoven. Lottie struggles to deal with her father’s grief that leads to hoarding. Noah is being bullied by his ‘best friend’. While Jack is living in poverty with a Mum who has an addiction. Diverse themes flow through the book, including of grief, poverty and bullying and poverty which are all explored. As with all situations of this kind, usually support comes from somewhere outside the household. A deserving book of the year for 'Younger Readers' (7-12 years).

Pip Harry is the author of young adult novels I’ll Tell You Mine, Head of the River and Because of You, which was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards; the Children’s Book Council of Australia – Book of the Year, Older Readers; and the Queensland Literary Awards. She currently lives and writes in Singapore.

Honour Books

'The Glimme' by Emily Rodda & illustrated by Marc McBride

Fantasy at its finest is found in this gripping read, where the spooky village of Wichaunt and The Glimme, a land of dragons ‘beyond the veil’ are vividly brought to life. Finn and Lori are brave and resourceful and learn to appreciate their family relationships. Teller is the complex, brave hero who nevertheless abandoned his son. The Housekeeper is a magical woman with an amazing secret. The villainous Bravo tricks them all with his subterfuge. Each phase of the quest is written to maximise suspense and excitement. Traditional themes of good versus evil, family relationships and letting your talent shine emerge effortlessly from the story... The extent of the detail and the breathtaking beauty of the illustrations are definite stand outs. 

Emily Rodda has been one of my favourite children's authors for decades (won't mention how many). She continues to write such special stories. Fantasy fans will just love this book. A very worthy Honour book.

'The Secrets of Magnolia Moon' by Edwina Wyatt & illustrated by Katherine Quinn

CBCA award-winning picture book author Edwina Wyatt makes her fiction debut with a whimsical tale of a curious little girl who shares more than just her surname with the moon: They're both excellent secret keepers. Magnolia Moon is nine years old, likes Greek mythology, her best friend Imogen May (who understands the importance of questions like, "If you could be one fruit, any fruit, what would you be?"), wishing trees, and speaking crows. She knows instinctively that buffadillos are armadillos crossed with buffalos and believes there are walramingos living in her garden. She's also the kind of person who can be entrusted with a great many secrets. Each chapter in this novel, which captures Magnolia's year of being nine and ends on Chapter Almost 10, reveals a secret that Magnolia is keeping. But the novel also chronicles a year of change for Magnolia. From her best friend moving to the birth of her little brother Finnegan, Magnolia navigates every challenge and secret that comes her way with the kind of authenticity and innocence that comes from being nine years wise.

 3. Book of the Year: Early Childhood

Entries in this category may be fiction, drama or poetry and should be appropriate in style and content for children who are at pre-reading or early stages of reading.
Ages 0-7 years.


'My Friend Fred' by Frances Watt & illustrated by A. Yi

"My friend Fred eats dog food for breakfast. I think dog food is disgusting. My friend Fred howls at the moon. I don't know why. He does a lot of funny things. But even though we are different, Fred is my best friend."

The judges of the CBA said of the book: "This book is full of energy and movement while exploring themes of friendship, tolerance, and difference. The strong message of positive reinforcement that we can be very different in how we act, what we eat, how we behave, how we look and yet still be best friends, provides a highly satisfying ending. The short, engaging sentences, with some repetition, keep the pages turning. Together, the text and illustrations combine beautifully to present fully rounded characters."

Frances Watt gives credit to Anne Yi as the illustrator. He said of her "...she immediately saw the potential for the illustrations to support the idea of an unknown but present narrator. Whether the reader guesses the identity of the narrator through the pictorial clues or hunts for the clues on subsequent readings, the illustrations reward close observation."


Honour Books

'When Billy Was a Dog' by Kirsty Murray & illustrated by Karen Blair

'Can I please, please, please have a dog?' asked Billy.
'Would you walk it every day and wash it if it got dirty?'
'I would, I promise!' said Billy.
Billy wants a dog. He really really really wants one.
Billy's parents aren't so sure. So one morning, Billy takes matters into his own paws.



This is a very worthy Honour Book. The judges said of the work: "...The author and illustrator have worked closely to produce familiar scenes (the dilemma of owning a pet) and make the characters appealing and believable. The illustrator has mixed charcoal, watercolour and gouache to depict Billy, his family and where they live. Facial expressions and body language portray the characters’ range of emotions and feelings. The bright, appealing front cover image immediately attracts and engages young readers... The heart-warming ending provides a solid, satisfying resolution to a highly age appropriate story."

'Goodbye House, Hello House' by Margaret Wild & illustrated by Anne James

This is the last time I'll fish in this river. This is the last time I'll run through these trees. This is the last time I'll dream by this fire Goodbye, old house. Goodbye. A heartwarming story of letting go and starting anew, of moving from the country to the city, with a unique illustration style that allows room and space for the reader's imagination. Hello, new house. Hello!

Margaret Wild has given us so many wonderful books over many years, this one will not disappoint. Anne James is also a wonderful illustrator and contributes much to the success of the book. A very worthy Honour book.

4. Eve Pownall Award 

Entries in this category should be books which have the prime intention of documenting factual material with consideration given to imaginative presentation, interpretation and variation of style.
Ages 0-18 years.


'Young Dark Emu: A Truer History' by Bruce Pascoe

Bruce Pascoe has collected a swathe of literary awards for 'Dark Emu' and now he has brought together the research and compelling first person accounts in a book for younger readers. Using the accounts of early European explorers, colonists and farmers, Bruce Pascoe compellingly argues for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer label for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians. He allows the reader to see Australia as it was before Europeans arrived – a land of cultivated farming areas, productive fisheries, permanent homes, and an understanding of the environment and its natural resources that supported thriving villages across the continent. Young Dark Emu - A Truer History asks young readers to consider a different version of Australia's history pre-European colonisation.


When making the award to Bruce Pascoe the judges rightly pointed to the wonderful "Visual and textual information is produced on a traditional palette of ochre yellow, red and oranges and charcoal black. Full-page illustrations magnify and enhance detail in the historical photographs, documents, engravings, diary entries and sketches."

In doing so the author seeks to debunk... "terra nullius that positions Aboriginal people as nomadic hunter gatherers through an engaging discussion accessible to primary school and young adult readers." Instead we continue to learn how sophisticated Indigenous culture was (and is) across a period of at least 60,000 years.

Honour Books

'The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Ugly Animals' by Sami Bayly

Marvel as you enter the fascinating hidden world of ugly animals in this encyclopaedia of the animal kingdom's most unusual and beauty-challenged species. It's time for ugly animals to shine! With more than sixty ugly animals to explore, this compendium of the unusual celebrates the beauty in 'ugliness'. Children and adults alike will pore over the breathtaking scientific illustrations of unusual animals, debating their relative ugliness and merits, learning about science and nature along the way. Featuring illustrations and facts about the thorniest species the animal kingdom has to offer, from the naked mole rat to the goblin shark, aye-aye, sphinx cat, blobfish and many more 'ugly' beauties. This gorgeous hardcover book is illustrated in exquisite detail by exciting new Australian talent, Sami Bayly.

'Wilam: A Birrarung Story' by Aunty Joy Murphy & Andrew Kelly, illustrated by Lisa Kennedy

This is another stunning Indigenous picture book, from Black Dog books. Talented Indigenous artist Lisa Kennedy, respected Elder Aunty Joy Murphy and Yarra River keeper Andrew Kelly combine to create a special book. It tells the Indigenous and geographical story of Melbourne’s beautiful Yarra river, from its source to its mouth, and from its pre-history to the present day.

Lisa Kennedy is a descendant of the Trawlwoolway People on the north-east coast of Tasmania. She was born in Melbourne and as a child lived close to the Maribyrnong River. Here she experienced the gradual restoration of the natural river environment alongside cultural regeneration and reclamation. The experience of loss and reclamation is embedded in her work. The illustrations are richly coloured with a bright palette of green, red, blue, yellow and brown. Many of the plates would be stunning works of art on their own. But in combination with the text from Aunty Joy and Andrew Kelly, we have a special book to share with children aged 3-8 years of age. It is a very worthy Honour book.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Five Unique Children's Books that will Captivate & Engage Readers 3-12 years

I review lots of children's books for younger readers (aged 3-12) but rarely do I have a set of books land on my desk that are all so different, and yet all have their own unique qualities that sets them apart. I hope that you track them down and enjoy them with some children.

1. 'Go Away Worry Monster!' by Brooke Graham & illustrated by Robin Tatlow-Lord

At one level, 'Go Away Worry Monster loves!' is tale about a boy who has trouble sleeping at night because of the worries and fears of each day. The 'Worry Monster' seems to visit him each night. "Please go away," begs Archie. But the book also shows how the love of parents can help to build the essential resilience needed to deal with anxiety. The book also illustrates how the love and support of others is essential to help our children head out each day with confidence to encounter fears that with help they can conquer. The author and illustrator combine to create a book that offers every parent a window in order to support their children with their fears and worries. But it is also simply a delightful read for any parent and child.

Robin Tatlow-Lord as the illustrator seems to have chosen the perfect medium and colour palette for the topic. She is a writer and animator who has done many things. The author of this wonderful book is Brooke Graham, who is based near Ipswich in Queensland. 


2. 'Rain Before Rainbows' by Smrtiti Halls & illustrated by David Litchfield 

This is a wonderful picture book not much more than 100 words in length (well 145), that brings poetry, illustration and story together in a memorable book. Each word is chosen with such great care to create a book that will encourage and uplift readers while sharing some simple wisdom and truths:

"Rain before rainbows"

"Clouds before sun"

"Night before daybreak"

"The old day is done."

A little girl sets out with a fox for companion fleeing from a sinister looking castle. As they leave what are their hopes and fears? They depart a place where there seems to have been despair and hopefulness to seek a new place. The road ahead will be uncertain times, but will there be hope? The reader is reminded that before rainbows their will be rain, "clouds before sun", "night before daybreak". And while there will be hopeful dreams along the way, there will be "battles to win". But in time there may just be "treasure to find", before finally, a bright new morning might dawn.

This is a wonderful picture book with a careful weaving of a simple yet poignant text, with illustrations that complement and enhance the story and reader journey. I highly recommend this book for readers aged 4 to 8 years.

I commend Walker Books for releasing Rain Before Rainbows as an free eBook to raise awareness for the "Save with Stories campaign" that has been initiated to help children most affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The rainbow of course has been an incredible symbol of hope and optimism as the world has battled to cope with Covid-19. 

Above: Author Smriti Halls

3. 'There's something weird about Lena' by Sigi Cohen & illustrated by James Foley

This book comes to us from the award-winning picture book team that gave us 'My Dead Bunny: A Zombie Rabbit Tale'. It is another hilarious rhyming tale. There is certainly something that seems weird about Lena.

On my first day back at school 

I met a girl called Lena.  

Every time she acted mean 

she laughed like a hyena. 

The sound she made was kind of gross: 

a cackling, giggling howl, 

starting as a high-pitched shriek 

and ending as a growl.

Is Lena hiding a secret, or is her behaviour just good fun when she indulges in schoolyard pranks? But how to explain the accompanying beastly and hideous laugh? Will her classmates uncover a hideous truth?

 Sigi Cohen's text will engage young readers, and James Foley's illustrations in black, grey and orange will be familiar to readers of 'My Dead Bunny'. The combination of Sigi Cohen's wonderful rhyming text and James Foley's hilarious illustrations will ensure this is a winner with kids aged 7 to 10. It will appeal to kids who love horror, unexplained weirdness and all things gross. Sigi Cohen's rhyming text is a joy to read aloud! The playful words he uses fill the story with vibrancy and a sense of fun.

Sigi grew up in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, but now lives in Perth, Western Australia. His first book, 'My Dead Bunny', was shortlisted for the 2016 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards. This is his third book. 

James Foley started his illustration career in primary school, drawing cartoons for the school newspaper. His book 'In the Lion' was selected for the International Youth Library’s prestigious White Raven List in 2013. He lives in Perth with his wife, son and labrador.

4. 'Timeline Science & Technology: A Visual History of Our World, Written and illustrated by Peter Goes 


'Timeline Science & Technology' is an extraordinary book. In size alone, it will stand out from most books. At 27.5cm x 38cm in size, this almost a folio sized book and won't be easily tucked under the arm. But I can see groups of 2-3 children gathered around reading it at the same time, engaging and interacting as they discover new things. This stunning visual history of the technology of our world is a feast of images and rich text. Each page has a different coloured background, and intricate and fascinating black line drawings, with just a splash of extra colour. The author and illustrator Peter Goes lives in Belgium where he does freelance work as an illustrator. He has also worked as a stage manager and studied animation at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) in Ghent, Belgium. 

The book is a history of science and technology with each giant double page spread dealing with a distinct period in time. It begins with the 'Old Stone Age or Paleolithic'. Each double page typically has approximately 100 words in conventional text, and a double page spread of related images from the period, with about 10 scenes each time. Each page also has smaller associated curved text next to each of the scenes. The single page image below is just one of the two pages for the Mesolithic era.



Above: One page from the Mesolithic Era

Peter Goes offers an overview of the most fascinating technologies, from first tools to the most specialized IT, from medical breakthroughs to the creation of YouTube. He includes remarkable scientists and innovators and highlights lesser-known stories. It is a compelling history of technology from the Stone Age to the present day, from America to the Southern hemisphere and beyond.

I love the quirkiness of the images and text which children aged 7-12 will enjoy a great deal. Any child interested in their world will spend many hours dipping into and working through this book. It is also a wonderful book for an adult to enjoy with their child.

4. 'Fly on the Wall' by Remy Lai

This is a very funny diary-style illustrated novel from the award-winning author of 'Pie in the Sky'. A twelve-year-old boy goes on a (forbidden) solo adventure halfway around the world to prove his independence to his overprotective family. It is brilliantly written and illustrated by Remy Lai. 


You see, Henry Khoo has a plan to prove his independence. His family always seems (to him) to be on his back, and he feels they treat him like a baby. His “helicopter” family seems to be at him all the time, choosing his clothes, collecting him from after-school activities, controlling his diet. He can't cope with the suffocating attention. So, will he do you do about this? Well, take a surprise solo journey to see you dad who is living in Singapore of course! Sound easy? Nothing could go wrong. Could it? Read this funny book to find out what does happen.

Henry's story (and adventure) is presented in the form of a top-secret notebook or diary. In it Henry records regular entries and illustrates them with comic-like images and diagrams. There's a bit of poetry, a recipe, snippets of different languages, and quirky images. While the book is over 300 pages, each page is filled with variation, including its handwritten text and numerous notes, illustrations and diagrams. The book will be lots of fun for readers aged 8-12.

Remy Lai studied fine arts, with a major in painting and drawing. She was born in Indonesia, grew up in Singapore, and lives in Brisbane, Australia where she writes and draws stories for kids, with her two dogs by her side.

5. 'Zombierella: Fairy Tales Gone Bad' by Joseph Coelho & illustrated by Freya Hartas

This very funny and wonderfully illustrated book is the first in a three-part series of twisted classic stories, as the the title divulges. Framed by a deliciously funny (and creative) premise that just like food, when old books are left unread, unthumbed and unloved, they start to:

"... bloom on the skin... flesh goes brown and soft... flies lay eggs, maggots squirm, horrid smells find their way into the fruit ... The same happens with books!"

Forget about the 'Boy Who Cried Wolf'! It is now 'The Boy Who Puked Up a Wolf'. And as well, 'Sleeping Beauty' transforms into 'Creeping Beauty' and 'Cinderella' becomes 'ZOMBIERELLA'!!


The wonderful text of Joseph Coelho is perfectly supported by the hillarious illustrations of Freya Hartas. The black line drawings generously spread through the text add life and humour to the wonderful text. It is both a visual and literary feast! As the Prince prepares for the ball things are ominous.

"It was in the cold, dark bite of night that the prince arrived at the mansion.

The mansion protruded from the crown of Grimmsville's only hill like a growth - next to the old abandoned cemetery.

Inside, the prince was preparing for the first of his three balls..."

When Cinderella makes an appearance as the fairy story suggests she must, she slips on the winding stairs and dies (but only briefly!).

"Cinderella, you have died,

Tis sad but true, 

You fell and hit your head,

After slipping on some poo!"

This is a very funny book, that is cleverly written and delightfully illustrated. I look forward to seeing the second and third books in the series from this wonderful English team. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Eight Great New Books for Children Aged 3-10 years

In this post, I’ve gathered together four new picture books for children aged 3 to 7 years, plus four chapter books for slightly older independent readers aged 7-10 years.

1. 'Ellie's Dragon' by Bob Graham


Anyone who reads this blog will know that I'm a huge Bob Graham fan. As usual, this book doesn't disappoint. With his usual economy of well-chosen words Graham traverses the experiences of childhood and lands in an interesting place - no friendship is imaginary. 

As a toddler, no doubt following a parent around the supermarket, she finds a newborn dragon emerging from an egg carton on a supermarket shelf. Scratch becomes her constant companion. Her mum and her teacher don't seem to see her cute and fiery friend, even though her friends can. Scratch grows over the years and so does Ellie. Scratch was with her at all of her birthdays, and as she grows, so does he. The worlds of Scratch and Ellie also grow larger too. But what happens as worlds change and so do we? You'll need to read the book to find out!

This is a beautiful tale that explores the imaginative world of the child and how this can intersect and diverge from the other 'real' world experiences of others. The usual Bob Graham literary and artistic genius is on display.


2.  'Bear in Space' by Deborah Abela & illustrated by Marjorie Crosby-Fairall

Bear is different from other bears and so when he plans to fly into space, his other bear friends just laugh. But Bear knows he can change his world. He also knows lots about space, but I'm not sure that his friends listen much! He prepares for his great adventure not quite sure what to expect, and what surprises he has in store when he finds himself in the very different quietness of space.

This is a lovely and extremely imaginative story that seems (as much as an adult can tell) to have captured something of the imaginative explorations of the young child. I'm sure that many listeners and readers will see themselves in this delightful picture book.

The brightly coloured illustrations of Marjorie Crosby-Fairall also help to bring this story to life. Her representation of the lovable and clever 'Bear' adds greatly to the experience of reading or hearing the book.



3. 'Dry to Dry - The Seasons of Kakadu' by Pamela Freeman and illustrated by Liz Anelli

This wonderfully illustrated factual picture book introduces young readers to one of Australia's most beautiful and ancient places, where Australia's Indigenous people have lived for at least 60,000 years. It is a follow-up to the award winning 'Desert Lake'. It tells of the yearly weather cycle across this ancient and beautiful land. 
In the tropical wetlands and escarpments of Kakadu National Park, seasons move predictably from dry to wet and back to dry again. Most of Australia has four seasons like other nations, but Kakadu has two! And these two seasons are marked by extraordinary change and diversity in plants, animals, birds, insects and the incredible migratory birds that come during the 'Wet' season. But there's more! There is a movement of insects, lizards, and water dwelling creatures (like fish, turtles and crocodiles), not to mention fruit bats and the changes in flowers and grasses. What I like this book and the 'Desert Lake' is that they offer two texts on each two-page spread. One to be read by or to the children, and a second short smaller font text at the bottom of each page, with more technical language for the teacher and older readers. There is also an excellent more detailed description of Kakadu at the end of the book with some Indigenous words translated. Finally, there's a wonderful map of Kakadu that children will love, as well as a detailed index.

4. 'Kookaburra' by Claire Saxby and illustrated by Tannya Harricks

This an exciting new addition to the narrative nonfiction "Nature Storybooks" series, about kookaburras. Another wonderful book from the exciting team of Claire Saxby an author well-known to children's literature fanatics like me! Her pairing with illustrator Tannya Harricks has been very successful. This their second collaboration and follows 'Dingo' that won the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children's Literature in 2019. It was also shortlisted for the 2019 CBCA New Illustrator Award and Best Picture Book awards in 2019. It won the Royal Zoological Society of NSW Whitley Award in 2018. I just love Tannya's wonderfully 'simple' oil paintings. A perfect complement to the wonderful text.

In the crinkled shadows night-dwellers yawn, day-creatures stretch and Kookaburra laughs. Kook-kook-kook. Kak-kak-kak.  

This is a wonderful read aloud book, or a great personal read for children aged 5-8 years.


5. 'Weird Little Robots' by Carolyn Crimi & illustrated by Corinna Luyken


When two science-savvy girls create an entire robot world, they don’t expect the robots to come alive. But life may be a bit more magical than they thought.

This is a perfect book for 7-11 year-old readers. Penny Rose is a self-professed 'Science Geek' and is new in town. The robots she builds are her only company. But this is about to change when she becomes best friends with Lark and joins a secret science club. And with this, comes an amazing discovery, they are live robots! The once lonely girl has a new and very much changed life.

But then a fateful misstep forces her to choose between the best friend she’s always hoped for and the club she’s always dreamed of, and in the end it may be her beloved little robots that pay the price. 

This wonderfully quirky book will appeal to many readers, but I suspect that it will have a special appeal for the intelligent child who likes to imagine the unlikely and unexpected.


6. 'Agents of the Wild - Operation Honeyhunt' by Jennifer Bell & Alice Lickens


This creatively titled book for  7-10 year old readers will appeal to the creative child with a great imagination who loves to explore, discover and solve mysteries.

When 8-year-old Agnes is signed up for SPEARS (the Society for the Protection of Endangered and Awesomely Rare Species), she has no idea of the adventures that lie ahead with her elephant-shrew mentor Attie (short for “Attenborough”). 'Operation Honeyhunt' sends them to the Atlantic forest, on a mission to save an endangered, dance-loving bee named Elton. Will Agnes pass the test and become a full SPEARS agent? Species in danger? Girl and shrew to the rescue!

Jennifer Bell is the author of the bestselling 'The Uncommoners' series, which has sold over 50,000 copies in the UK. Alice Lickens contributes the wonderful illustrations that combine a simple two-colour pallette with striking images with a stunningly effective use of colour.

The book also comes with a fascinating array of end-matter, including fun-facts, and additional details about the real species in the book. I love this book and already have an eight year-old in mind to give it to.


7. 'Fish Kid and the Mega Manta Ray' by Kylie Howarth

This is a follow up book to 'Fish Kid and the Lizard Ninja' which was the first book in the series. The series of books features a 'superhero' who has some very special skills. This time his Nan is lost. Will he be able to find her? It seems that problems are never very far away from the special kid. 

Trouble finds its way to Fish Kid’s shores once more in his second adventure! Will Fish Kid be able to find his missing Nan, hide his powers from Pops and save the day? Only with the help of Freckles the Mega Manta Ray.

Having swam with the Whale Sharks and Manta Rays on Ningaloo Reef off the incredible Western Australian coast, I was always going to love this book! The book's engaging and funny story is also filled with lots facts about sea creatures and wonderful illustrations. A great combination of fiction, humour and knowledge from this talented author/illustrator.


8. 'Hattie' by Frida Nilsson & illustrated by Stina Wirsén


This is a wonderful new novel for readers aged 7-10 years by internationally known Swedish author Frida Nilsson.

Hattie is a street-smart country girl in her first year of school. She lives just outside of nowhere, right next to no one at all. Luckily she's starting school and that brings new adventures.

Having driven large tracts of Sweden, living 'just outside nowhere' was always bound to be a special place. Her house is read like many, there are ducks and hens that wander where they will. Hattie has dog, like to swim and 'falls madly in love with a hermit crab', and meets a best friend.This is a funny little book from a talented internationally acclaimed writer. It will be quickly read by precoscious and interesting children who love fun and exploring their world. Ideal as a read aloud or a book for readers aged 7-10 to enjoy alone, or with a friend!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Slow Death of Imagination and Creativity at School - Part 1

Creativity and imagination are not simply a gift to some—they are available to all. Children are born with an innate desire to explore the world. From birth, they receive a vast array of stimuli as they use their senses to observe and try to make sense of their surroundings. The environment in which they live has a profound impact on them. We now understand that poverty, early stress, maltreatment, trauma, neglect and lack of stimulation have a negative effect on early learning. While children commence life with great potential - notwithstanding genetic variations in potential - their environment can have negative as well as positive effects on their learning.


Above: A 'Big' Sister reads to Lydia (age 1 day)

The potential impact of poverty and neglect on children's early development, simply underlines the need to ensure that children entering school are given every opportunity to be stimulated, inspired and taught. With this as background to the ‘outrageous’ title of my post, I hope you can understand why I am perplexed when I observe how schooling is being dumbed down. And let me say up front, I don’t see this as the fault of teachers. In fact, many others need to shoulder the bulk of the blame.

Neuroscience research has taught us a number of things about the young brain, including the immense capacity of children to learn, and for their minds to expand when stimulated. But across our school education system in Australia, I see a dumbing down of the curriculum, as state and nationally mandated testing, seems increasingly to shape school programs and classroom practices, as well as wider community expectations. The impact of these forces has driven schools to teach to the test. The Australian annual national assessment of schools (NAPLAN) tests children in Years 3, 5, 7, and 9 in spelling, grammar, punctuation and numeracy. Of course, these represent little more than basic skills and essential learning.

So, what has this to do with creativity? In a nutshell, as schools spend more of their time teaching to the test, they inevitably need to discard activities that expand horizons, stretch minds, introduce new skills and encourage self-directed and motivated learning. But can schools actually kill creativity in the young? Sadly it can, and contrary to some views, I believe all children have the capacity to imagine, create and explore from the moment they can observe and use their senses to explore their world. From birth, children are gifted with an ability to observe and assess their world and ultimately explore it.  

The famous Social Philosopher Martin Buber suggested at an education conference in 1925 that imagination and creativity are not developed over time. As a philosopher, he was surprised to be invited to open an education conference. But he was intrigued, or perhaps annoyed by the title - "The development of the creative powers in the child". Buber opened the conference by saying he was troubled by the conference theme.

Above: Philosopher Martin Buber

Buber commenced his talk by declaring that the only words in the title of the conference that didn’t trouble him were "in the child". While the "child" he conceded is a reality, he saw no purpose in the idea that we can "develop creative powers in the child." Why? Because Buber suggested each child is born with a disposition inherited from the "riches of the human race" to be creative. That is, creativity is within all children from birth. This he described as an "originator instinct." They are born with innate ability to be creative and I'd add, to imagine. All that parents, teachers or schools can do is either suppress this inbuilt creativity, or drive it from them with banal activities. Such work I’d suggest is often set at a level that does not invite our students to push beyond what they know and can do. That is, they lack the encouragement and activities to help them explore their world and learn new things.

Buber went on to suggest that this disposition was to be found in every child from birth, and is nothing more than the capacity " receive and imagine the world... that is the whole environment, nature and society." This of course is primarily a capacity that only humans possess. As we help to form the world we create around the child, we can do one of two things: "draw out these powers", or stifle them if done badly. What we offer in schools is the provision of "...a selection of the world." In short, each child is born with an innate ability and desire to explore, imagine and create. We can shut this down by our actions, or encourage it and build on their innate desire to explore, create and imagine.

Of course, 'freedom' is an element of the child's education that is vitally important. A level of freedom to explore and create, that can either open up, or perhaps shut down their innate quest to know, explore, experiment, imagine and create. For most children, the first few years of life offer ample opportunities to explore, experiment and seek to push beyond their capacity to do most things. Preschool for most children can still offer freedom to explore, find out, imagine and act upon the creative urge they have to know and create. But by Kindergarten they begin to be trained to produce that which is seen as acceptable.

Above: A three year old doing some 'creative' writing

Within a year or two of the commencement of school the die is cast. The pressure to learn what is seen as the basics, increasingly dominates all that most parents and schools end up doing. With each passing year, less freedom is allowed for children to imagine and explore 'what if'? What might be? How might schools do this? I will offer just five ways that schools can potentially kill imagination and creativity.


  • First, ensure that they teach everyone the same thing. There was a time when virtually all primary school teachers would assume they should operate with three or more ability groups for subjects like reading, writing, spelling and maths. Today, our schools frequently use the same activities for the whole class, with only minimal activities to extend or offer remedial help.
  • Second, primary school teachers can send home identical homework for the entire class. With single worksheets in spelling, mathematics and so on.
  • Third, make sure content and teaching aims to teach the average child to ensure that all class members will do well on state mandated tests of basic skills for testing regimes. Forget activities that stretch, just teach to the middle.
  • Fourth, empty the curriculum of ‘non-essentials’ activities like the creative, open ended, unpredictable, and explorative.
  • Fifth, begin to judge our teachers at a systemic level based on their ability to produce 'cookie cutter' children who do well on basic skills tests. And give school leaders a key role to ensure that teachers drill and offer practice for weeks in the lead up to any state or national testing regimes.

If my claims are only 'half-true', what a terrible indictment it is for our education system, that in the quest to give all children opportunities to learn and reproduce what is seen as basic and essential, we limit the extension of schooling for those who can do better than average. As well, in some cases we also end up doing too little for children with need of additional support. Of course, mandated testing isn't the only reason for the slow killing of the ability of our children to demonstrate creativity and imagination. But it has delivered a deadly blow! 


But before the teachers who read my blog feel I’m blaming them, this isn’t so. Families, some employers, politicians, and educational administrators, are all complicit collaborators with state and federal governments in the sanitizing of curricula, the removal of teacher professional development, and the crowding of the curriculum with much dross that deflects from learning that matters. All of us must share the blame for the slow death of the stimulation of imagination and creativity in our schools. Yes! This is a shared responsibility.


In a future post, I’ll outline what might just help to turn this ship around.