Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Getting Children Ready for School: Free Preschool Resource for Parents and Carers

My colleague Anita Ayre and I have written a resource program that is available free via the Australian Literacy Educators' Association website. The resource is called 'Little People's Literacy Learning: A guide for engaging parents and carers'. It offers practical help for parents and carers of children aged 0-5. And it's FREE!

This FREE online guide for parents and carers comes with hundreds of activities that you can enjoy with your child. Some activities are incidental and some are planned. But all activities are designed with an emphasis on learning through collaborative play and shared discovery.

Anita and I are experienced teachers, and also active grandparents who love spending quality time with their grandchildren. In this resource, we offer a wealth of suggestions and hints for parents and carers who want to engage with their children in literacy learning and mathematics activities. All activities are designed with an emphasis on learning through collaborative play and shared discovery. They can all be incorporated into daily life with very little (or often no) preparation! We offer hundreds of integrated examples throughout, including how new technology and multimedia can also enrich the learning experiences of your child with the same richness as other non-technology applications. You'll also find some advice on how to monitor and control screen time.

The resource contains practical and VERY doable common sense activities. You will find it HERE.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Early Work of Great Writers: Insights from childhood writing

Ever wondered what the childhood writing of Dickens, Austen, the Brontës and many other great writers was like? The study of early writing (and art) has been termed Juvenilia, drawing from the Latin meaning "things from youth". I have had the privilege of spending a number of years on the Editorial Advisory Board of the Juvenilia Press at the University of New South Wales, in this post I offer a sample of the wonderful work that has been produced, that high school teachers and their students will find fascinating. As students study this largely unknown material, they will gain insights into the work of great writers and perhaps gain inspiration for their own writing.

An interest in Juvenilia

I have written already on this blog before here and here that children begin to write from a very young age. While the earliest attempts at writing of our children - even before the age of 12 months - is often seen as 'cute' and largely unimportant by some parents, many children from a young age develop a desire to do more than simply making their marks on paper; they begin to play with language and words, often in combination with their early drawings. Many great writers did, and some of this work survives.

The Juvenilia Press was founded in 1994 by Juliet McMaster at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Its aim was to study Juvenilia and to publish some of the early work of great writers. It moved to UNSW in 2001 when Professor Christine Alexander became the General Editor. Professor Alexander is a prominent Australian researcher, editor and writer on the Brontës and other 19th Century writers, including their juvenilia. 

Every publication from this not-for-profit press combines the early writing of great authors and a postgraduate or research essay on the work. These publications represent the scholarship and research of some of the world's leading professors of literature and their research students. In doing so, they preserve and shine a light on the early writing of great authors as an inspiration to young writers today.

The works published to date

Juvenilia Press has published 66 works since 1994, some of which I reviewed in previous posts (here & here). The writers whose early work has been published include Jane Austen, Charlotte & Branwell Brontë, Louisa May Alcott, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), George Eliot, Margaret Atwood, Greg Hollingshead, Margaret Laurence, Marjory Fleming, Rudy Wiebe, Opal Whiteley, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens and many others.

Some Selected Recent Publications

a) Marjory Fleming, 'The Journals and Poems of Marjory Fleming'

A self-confessed "little young Devil" who could throw spectacular temper tantrums, Marjory Fleming was nevertheless sanctified as "Pet" by the Victorians for her brief life and winning writings. In her engaging verse and journals she shares her wide reading, her delight in "rurel filisity" and her devotion to Mary Queen of Scots and Scottish history.

Edited by Leslie Robertson and Juliet McMaster, with others.

b) Patrick Branwell Brontë

Written at the age of fifteen, The Pirate transports us into the dramatic imaginary world of the young Brontës, tracing the early career of Branwell's favourite hero (and later alter-ego) 'Rouge' to aristocratic demagogue. The young author and his hero both played pivotal roles in the creation of the Glass Town and Angrian saga.

Edited by Christine Alexander, with Joetta Harty and Benjamin Drexler.

c) Annie and Ida Rentoul, 'Mollie's Bunyip and other Tales'

The early twentieth-century Australian teenagers, Annie and Ida Rentoul, collaborated as writer and illustrator on a series of tales. They chose to work in the fairy-tale genre at a time when there was a demand for such stories to have an Australian character. Ida’s career as writer, and particularly as illustrator, grew from these childhood publications, eventually leading to international acclaim.

Edited by Pamela Nutt, with others

Other selected publications

a) Louisa May Alcott's 'Norna, or the Witch's Curse'

Anyone who has read or seen 'Little Women' will remember the play that the sisters performed within the work. 'Norna, or the Witch's Curse' is the real play, written when Alcott was just 15yrs old. In it she provides a farcical description in 'Little Women'. It is filled with fierce posturing and melodramatic action, Norna shows young Louisa and her collaborating sister Anna stretching their creative wings in poetic drama.

Few readers of 'Little Women' would realise that the play in the book (and the film) was based on Alcott's play written, directed and acted out with her sisters when she was just 15.

b) Charles Dickens's 'The Bill of Fare', 'O'Thello' & Other Early Works

Dickens wrote of his childhood,"All these things have worked together to make me what I am". Among "these things" in his juvenilia are his genius for story telling, his creation of comic characters and his love of the theatre. Just like his later great work 'David Copperfield', they throw light on a young man in love, bursting with inventiveness and struggling to shape his ideas into the kind of public performance that would lead to fame.
Christine Alexander has edited this publication with Donna Couto and Kate Sumner. It was timed last year to coincide with the 200th anniversary of his birth. The critical essay that precedes Dickens juvenilia reminds us that Dickens's amazing talent for storytelling was evident from a very young age. He was a child who loved being centre stage to tell stories, sing and entertain others. It is clear that Dickens wrote a great deal as a child, but much of it doesn't seem to have survived. However, over time some works have emerged from his late teens, including some of his early poetry and fragments of his first comic drama that he titled 'O'Thello'. This is a fascinating look at some of the early work of this great writer.

c) Leigh Hunt's 'The Palace of Pleasure & Other Early Poems'

Young Leigh Hunt's poems, early recognized as “proofs of poetic genius”, offer landscapes populated by happy schoolboys and errant knights freed from magical enthrallment. Already vivid here is Hunt's lifelong commitment to the betterment of his fellow man through friendship and communion with nature.
The juvenilia of Hunt has been edited by Sylvia Hunt, with illustrations by Karl Denny

d) Hope Hook's 'Crossing Canada, 1907: The Diary of Hope Hook'

In her diary of 1907, young Hope Hook records an exciting journey across Canada to Vancouver Island and back, by ship, rail and boat. Born to a family of artists, she is eager to observe the new country that will soon be her home, and all its people, flora and fauna.

This work has been edited by Juliet McMaster.

e) Mary Grant Bruce, 'The Early Tales'

Pamela Nutt edited the work of Mary Grant Bruce with Year 11 students from Presbyterian Ladies' College in Sydney. This publication exemplifies the importance of pedagogy to the Juvenilia project. The illustrations are by Matilda Fay & Isabelle Ng.  Mary Grant Bruce’s nineteenth-century childhood was spent in rural Victoria and throughout her writing career this landscape provided the setting for many of her stories. These early tales, written for the newspaper 'The Leader', demonstrate an understanding of the challenges of the Australian outback and introduce many of the concerns she would later develop in her highly successful fiction for children.

How to Obtain the Books

For further information on all 66 books, as well as pricing and procedures to order single copies or class sets, contact the Juvenilia Press website for full details HERE.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Six Ways Storytelling Can Enrich the Holiday Season

Storytelling is such a central part of what it is to be human, that when any group of people gather they will end up telling stories. Holidays often create the perfect context for storytelling. In Australia, we've just finished celebrating Christmas. Of course, for some families, different religious or secular holidays may be celebrated across the year. These often coincide with holidays, religious observance, special food, music and in some cases, the exchange of gifts. Even if you don't have any religious convictions, you might well look forward to holiday seasons as a special time to catch up with family and friends. This inevitably leads to storytelling as we gather.

Let me share six ways that storytelling can enrich family time together during holiday times like Christmas.

1. Establish some traditions with reading

Our family has just finished celebrating Christmas. Like some other families, it is a time of significance for your family, as we attend church services and gatherings with family and friends. In the lead up to this event we would often share some books that centre on the central Christian message of Christmas. Books about Christian traditions have been shared in hundreds of different titles some are closely centred on the Christian message, others not so much (I shared lot of these books in my last post HERE). In classes that I taught I always found time for the Dr Seuss classic "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and many others. A story that centres on the theme that Christmas at its very core is about a special gift. Not so much about getting, but giving.

2. Sharing story through songs & music

Holiday time is often a time for music, and with this 'story'. We often overlook the key role that music plays in storytelling. Whether we are talking about religious songs or music in general, music and story are often intertwined. When people celebrate together, it often ends in music and song. As a child, I grew up in a house where music was sung and played often. This included lots of popular ballads, country, blues and pop. As well, as singing Christmas carols when we went for our annual holidays at the Lake Macquarie, on many a hot summer afternoon we ended up singing. At my grandparents’ home at Wangi Wangi, on a hot afternoon after a swim, we would end up with community singing on the front verandah of their house. At times 50-80 people would come out of their tents to join us on my grandparents front verandah. My parents would end up performing and leading the campers as they joined in.

Above: My parents performing at the time in a community concert  

3. Sharing family anecdotes (but avoiding the controversial family ones)

Another wonderful thing about holiday seasons is that you have time to sit with our children and share "can you remember the time that..." stories. These build children's knowledge of the family and the world, as well as their own ability to share stories. "Tell us the story about the time you got lost in the bush Dad". "What was it like going to school when you were a kid Mum?" "What was the funniest thing that happened at school this year"? "Tell us another story Grandad from when you were a kid". As you share your own stories as parents, you help to build family traditions, as well as teaching them how to tell stories themselves.

4. Engage your children in preparations 

Having time to do things with your children as you prepare for a time like Christmas will often create those 'spaces' where things can be shared as we make the preparations. Taking them shopping isn't what I have in mind (this often doesn't end well!). I was thinking more about getting your children to help you to decorate the Christmas tree, or the family room. This isn't just for fun or to fill in time. It does do this, but it allows space and time to share stories and for your children to become better storytellers themselves. In the case of parents, you might share stories of the type "I remember when...". "Do you know where this Christmas decoration came from?" "Do you remember when you made this silver star"? Or perhaps, while you're getting your children to help make some decorations you can simply share jokes and anecdotes, or reminisce. One of the most special times at our house, is decorating the tree each year with decorations that our children made over 30 years ago! Just looking at precious decorations given to us by other people as gifts is a great language and story telling event. "Do you remember who made this?" "Did you know that this decoration was on my mother's tree". Stories will flow!

5. Get children involved in using 'procedural texts'

Above: Preparing a pudding with my granddaughter
One of our family's most treasured traditions is the making of the Christmas pudding.  As a child, my grandparents involved my sister and me in this activity. This was always one of our special family events at Christmas. I implemented the same tradition with my daughters, and more recently, my grandchildren. As well as the fun we have as we prepare for the cooking, we have to follow the recipe, share stories, and lick the bowls. This is a great language event as stories and anecdotes just flow. As we cook, literacy is also being acquired. And of course, the stories shared while we make the pudding become part of shared family history. "Tell us again Dad about the time you...".

Above: The 2018 boiled Christmas pudding cooked with my daughter Louise

6. Involve your children in the making of presents, cards and gifts

Some of my favourite presents as a parent have been the gifts that children made for me. It is fun to involve your children as we make preparations for the exchange of gifts. This might be making yummy food, lollies or snacks to share with neighbours. Once again, there are recipes to follow, stories to tell, gift labels to write, and much more. Card making is just one fun non-food way to link literacy activities to holiday seasons. As well, children might make a book to give to their grandparents or their teacher. Making items for family and friends to hang on their tree is a great literacy activity already mentioned above.

Summing up

Literacy and storytelling are implicated in pretty much all aspects of life. Holiday seasons are just one context that offer opportunities to ground storytelling in 'real' life. As we engage with our children every day, there are numerous ways that the stories we share can help to build their knowledge and their proficiency as users of language whether in spoken or written form. As well, we can develop a shared history that binds family members together.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Children's Literature to Share at Christmas

I usually do a post in December about books that are appropriate to share at Christmas. In this post I feature 26 books that are varied and suitable for different ages. They include books that seek to the traditional Christmas story, and others that are based on elements of the Christmas story or themes from biblical teaching on Jesus life. Some of these books focus on love, devotion, kindness, forgiveness and sacrifice. These are some of best examples that you can find. Most can can be used with children aged 4-12 years.

At the heart of the Christmas story is the birth of Jesus, which Christians celebrate on the 25th December. While for many, the celebration of Christmas has become disconnected from its traditional purpose of remembering and celebrating Jesus' birth some 2,000 years ago, it is told and retold in varied forms each year at this time.

1. Books based closely on the biblical story of Jesus birth

'The Christmas Rose' by Wendy Blaxland & illustrated by Lucy Hennessy

This is a beautifully told story that traces elements of the story of the birth of Jesus.

https://www.booktopia.com.au/http_coversbooktopiacomau/big/9781921720406/the-christmas-rose.jpgThe fields near Bethlehem are filled with great joy when angels appear telling of the birth of a very special baby. Madelon’s uncle, his men, and the magnificent kings riding on camels all have gifts for the Saviour. But Madelon has nothing. What could she possibly give him? This version of the Christmas story uses the efforts of a small child to follow others to see the Christ Child. A beautiful illustration of those who would spend great effort to come and adore Him.

The rich and evocative oil paintings by fine artist Lucy Hennessy are stunning and in their muted softness leaves the reader to imagine the scene in all of its mystery and richness.

The Nativity by Julie Vivas is a wonderful book. The story is close to the Bible narrative and the illustrations as you'd expect from Julie Vivas are superb.

The Christmas Book, written and illustrated by Dick Bruna. Bruna's delightful and simple telling of the nativity story is special. He manages to tell the greatest story ever told with his typical simplicity. This one is suitable even for preschool children.

Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale by Martin Waddell & illustrated by Jason Cockcroft

That cold winter's night, 
beneath the star's light... 
...a Little One came for the world. 

First kind Ox welcomes Old Dog, then Stray Cat, Small Mouse, Tired Donkey, and finally the baby Jesus into his stable on the first Christmas night. Delightful story that tells of the momentous event.

A Baby Born in Bethlehem, Martha Whitmore Hickman's retelling is based on the gospels of Luke and Matthew. It begins with the revelation to Mary that she will have a child who will be the son of God and ends with the visit of the Wise Men. The text emphasizes the joy of Jesus' birth. Giulliano Ferri's pencil and watercolour illustrations contribute to making this a great book for four to eight year olds.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells the story of how one of the "worst Kids" in the world finds out about the real Christmas story for the first time as he takes part in the church Christmas pageant. The story itself is very funny but it also manages to communicate the Christian message accurately.

The Baby Who Changed the World by Sheryl Ann Crawford, Sonya Wilson (Illustrator). In this imaginative retelling of the Christmas story, the animals get together and discuss the approaching arrival of a new baby that some say will grow up to be a strong and powerful King. When Mary and Joseph enter the picture and the events of the true Christmas story unfold!

The Christmas Story: According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from the King James Version by Gennadii Spirin (Illustrator). This telling of the Christmas story begins with Mary's meeting with the angel Gabriel then proceeds to the birth of baby Jesus in a stable, the visit of the shepherds and the three wise men. Spirin's Orthodox Christian faith is reflected in the wonderful art that makes this a special retelling of the story of Jesus (although not all will find the images match their idea of what Jesus might have looked like).

Mary's Christmas Story, by Olive Teresa. There are a number of different retellings of the Christmas Story available in the Arch Books series. Most are told from the perspective of different witnesses to the birth of Jesus or draw more heavily on one of more of the gospel accounts. This one retells the Christmas story from Mary's point of view based on Luke 1:5-2:18.

2. Books that use the Christmas theme to offer moral lessons

This category of books is quite large. They typically use the Christmas celebration or season as the setting for a human story that teaches something about one or more fine human qualities that are consistent with Christian teaching; for example, love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and sacrifice.

The Christmas Eve Ghost, by Shirley Hughes (2010)

'The Christmas Eve Ghost' is written and illustrated by one of my favourite English author/illustrators, Shirley Hughes. It is a classic example of books in this category. It doesn't really mention the Christmas story at all but uses Christmas as one of its themes to highlight kindness against the background of sectarian differences between Catholic and Protestant residents of Liverpool in the 1930s (the place and time of her childhood). Without saying it, Hughes offers the message that Christmas is a time when people should connect with one another in love, kindness and service.

The book tells the story of a mother and her two children, living in poverty. The mother cares for the children and earns just enough to survive by washing other people's clothing. On Christmas Eve 'Mam' has to leave the children in bed while she goes off to deliver a batch of washing. The children awake to strange noises (as it turns out they are 'natural' noises) and flee the house in fear straight into the arms of Mrs O'Riley from next door, a person their mother doesn't speak to for reasons not clear until the end. It's a wonderful book with a touching resolution.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2008). This probably deserves to be in a category of its own. The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is taught the true meaning of Christmas by a series of ghostly visitors. This is essentially a fable that stresses that Christmas should be a time of goodwill towards mankind. There have been many versions printed of this classic story first published in 1843 with wonderful illustrations by John Leech. Published in 2008 this new edition has to be one of the best illustrated versions that I've seen, which isn't surprising as Robert Ingpen is one of the finest illustrators we have seen in the last 50 years. The edition also contains Dickens story Christmas Tree that offers an insight into a Victorian Christmas of the 1850s.

Used by permission of Walker Books

How the Grinch stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss. This is one of my favourites within this category. The Grinch lives on top of a mountain that overlooks Whoville. As he watches the villagers getting ready to celebrate Christmas he comes up with a plot to stop them. But instead of stealing Christmas he learns that Christmas means much more than the trappings such as gifts, decorations and food. I used to read this to my children at Christmas time and now they read it to their children as part of their Christmas traditions (my daughter did a post on this here). You can also watch the video version of this story that has been popular with children for over 50 years (here).

Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P.J. Lynch. This story focuses on Jonathan Toomey who is the best woodcarver in the valley. But he bears a secret sorrow, and never smiles or laughs. When the widow McDowell and her son ask him to carve a creche in time for Christmas, their quiet request leads to a joyful miracle, as they heal the woodcarver's heart and restore his faith.

Wombat Divine, by Mem Fox and illustrated by Kerry Argent. This wonderful story tells of the quest of a wombat to find the perfect part to play in the annual Nativity play. He tries out every part without success until he finds one that he carries off with distinction.

The Nativity Play, by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. This is the story of a group of children who put on their own nativity play. There is a much creativity that is needed to get the show on the road.


3. Stories based on Christmas traditions

For those who are more interested in Christmas traditions than the traditional Christmas story, there are masses of books that take the Christmas theme in all sorts of directions (some quite strange). However, there are some that have literary merit and are enjoyable stories to read at Christmas and suit the needs of families that are from non-Christian traditions. Some of the better examples follow.

Nine Days to Christmas by Marie Hall Ets and Aurora Labastida

This wonderful Christmas tale from Mexico was written in 1959 and won Marie Hall Ets the Caldecott Medal for illustration in 1960. It is the story of 5 year-old Ceci, who ready for her first Posada. This is a a fourteen day festival (ending on Christmas Eve) in which entire towns participate. There are great things to eat, music, ritual and traditional dress to wear. But for Ceci, she is most excited that she will have her own piñata to fill with special things that all the village children can share. As well as being about Christmas, this is a wonderful insight into Mexican culture. Marie Hal Ets collaborator was Aurora Labastida who grew up in Mexico and this his her story and her memories of Christmas.

Letters from Father Christmas, J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Baillie Tolkien)

This book is a collection of letters that Tolkien wrote to his children over a period of 23 years. Every December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in a strange, spidery handwriting and a beautiful coloured drawing or painting. The letters were from Father Christmas.

Tolkien shares wonderful tales of life at the North Pole. A reindeer gets loose and scatters presents all over the place, an accident-prone North Polar Bear climbs the North Pole and falls through the roof, Santa accidentally breaks the moon into four pieces and the Man (in the moon!) falls into the back garden and many more. This is Tolkien at his creative best, but what's special is that they are personal communications between him and his children. His last letter is a beautiful farewell from Father Christmas with an underlying message of hope and continuity. If you love Tolkien you will like this collection. It's available in an enhanced eBook format as well, which has a number of other features (see video below). These include audio recordings of many of the letters read by Sir Derek Jacobi and the ability to expand each of the images of the original letters and envelopes
(some never published before).

The Night Before Christmas, Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2010). This is a wonderful new release from Walker Books. Just the mention of Robert Ingpen's name will get me excited, because surely he is one of Australia's greatest illustrators. This is the best illustrated version of the classic Clement Moore poem that I know of. Moore wrote the poem for his children and first read it to them on Christmas Eve 1822.  A friend sent it anonymously to a New York newspaper in 1823 and once published it quickly became well known. Only in 1844 did Moore claim authorship. Many attribute much of our contemporary portrayal of Santa Claus to this poem. Who can forget the start:

'Twas the night before Christmas
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse...

Ingpen's depiction of Santa as a mischievous and happy old man sits well with the traditional myth. His usual immaculate line drawings are in evidence, but this time they are softened by a gentle wash that gives an ethereal feel to the drawings. The 'soft' lines also sit well with the traditional northern white Christmas.

Suzy Goose and the Christmas Star, by Petr Horacek (2010).  This is another new release from Walker Books. It is a perfect book for preschoolers or young children up to 6 or 7 years. Suzy and her farmyard friends are gathered on Christmas Eve around their Christmas tree and she notices that something is missing - a star on top of the tree! She cries to her friends, "It needs a star on top....Just like the one in the sky. I'll get it." So she sets off to 'get it' with some amusing episodes along the way before the surprising solution. Young kids will love this book. It is well written and beautifully illustrated by Petr Horacek. Again, it barely mentions Christmas, but parents and teachers could speak more about Christmas using this story as the springboard.

Finding Christmas, by Helen Ward. This slightly mystical book was voted in the top 10 Christmas books in 2004. It tells the story of a little girl in a bright red coat and bright green boots who wanders at dusk from shop to shop looking for “the perfect present to give to someone special.” Things look hopeless until she is drawn to the bright window of a toy shop filled with colourful toys.

All I want for Christmas by Deborah Zemke. What does a skunk want for Christmas? French perfume! What does a spider want? A spinning wheel! Deborah Zemke's wonderful art and great sense of humour makes this a hit. I wonder what they will want?

Emily and the big bad bunyip, by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whateley. It′s Christmas Day in Shaggy Gully. Can Emily Emu and her friends possibly make the Bunyip smile this Christmas? All the animals are in a good mood except the Bunyip. He proclaims, ′I′m mad and I′m mean! Bunyips don′t like Christmas!

Twinkle, Twinkle Christmas Star by Christine Harder Tangvald.

This delightful story is based on the familiar children's rhyme but re-words it to parallel the Christmas story.

'Bear Stays Up' by Karma Wilson & illustrated by Jane Chapman (McElderry Book)

This poor bear has never seen a Christmas because of he hibernates each year. This year, his forest friends vow to wake him up and keep him up for their Christmas celebration. This is a delightful story told in rhyme. Bear's friends give him a wonderful Christmas. They decorate his den, find a Christmas tree, make some decorations and sing Christmas carols. Does Bear stay up?
Mooseltoe by Margie Palatini, Henry Cole (Illustrator). This one is a lot of fun

The Nutcracker by Janet Schulman & E. T. A. Hoffmann, illustrated by Renee Graef. A version of the classic tale.

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. A magical train ride on Christmas Eve takes a boy to the North Pole to receive a special gift from Santa Claus. This book won the 1986 Caldecott Medal and of course has been made into a movie.
Summing Up

There are endless books that have written about Christmas. When choosing a suitable book to read to your children try to find one that is faithful to the Christmas story and which is appropriate for your children's age. Even those books that mention only tangentially the real Christmas story can be a good springboard for the discussion of the central meaning of Christmas. 

Parents or teachers who want to share the traditional Christmas story can use one of the many wonderful children's Bibles available for children of varying ages in modern translations. For example, Lion Hudson has published a variety of versions that paraphrase the Bible accurately and with illustrations that children will find meaningful and enjoyable (more information here). You can also use an adult Bible with primary aged children and can simply read the appropriate section from the gospels of Matthew (here) or Luke (here).

Friday, November 30, 2018

Children's Books as Springboards to Special Places

I've written about children's books with a strong sense of place before, but I want to revisit the topic with some new books as well as some old favourites. There are many books that centre on special or unique places that we cannot visit. But for others, it might be possible. One of the wonderful things that children can experience with books is the chance to visit a place featured in a book, or perhaps one like it. The horror of Hiroshima is not a place any of us would choose, but a book can offer insight and challenge us about events in the past that happened in a real place. As well, one of the most wonderful things to do with any book is to try to contextualise it by visiting the setting, or a place that is close to the setting for the book. There are some great reasons for this:
  • It helps young readers gain a stronger sense of setting and place and its importance for literature (see my post on 'Visiting the 'real' place in 'My Place' HERE).
  • It helps young writers to see how a place can be represented in words - how do we turn the sights, sounds, smells, tactile experiences and even tastes, into written language.
  • It enriches the experience of reading a book and deepens understanding of the book and its content.
  • It enriches other disciplines like geography, history and science (HERE).
If you are a parent on holidays, or a teacher wanting to plan an excursion with a difference, why not make a book come alive with an outing that enriches their knowledge and deepens their reading while teaching them about writing.

1. 'Backyard' by Ananda Braxton-Smith & illustrated by Lizzy Newcomb

Australian author Ananda Braxton-Smith and fine artist Lizzy Newcomb have created a stunning picture book. A work of art in its own right, and a team that has created a lyrical tale in word and picture that is set in life in a suburban backyard (or perhaps you might say the 'garden' in the UK and US).

In this city,
that is like
other cities,
a sleepy-moony child
and a star-eyed dog
are watching 
the world

This book is also a wonderful celebration of the natural wildlife of Australian backyards. 

Tawny frogmouths still as wood, with lamp-eyes lighting tiny movement everywhere.
Picking with fussy knitting legs, orb weaver nets her web.
A circus of evening midges spiralling always up.
Honeyeater gaping to catch tiny winds in her beak.

The backyard is viewed from a child's perspective as they stand on the back step at dusk and scans the backyard. The backyard can be teeming with life - birds, possum, native rat, bats, insects and bugs. This beautiful book encourages parents and teachers to reconnect children with their backyards and the natural world.

2. 'Clever Crow' by Nina Lawrence and illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft

This brand new picture book from Indigenous publisher Magabala Books is wonderful debut book by author Nina Lawrence (a descendant of the Yidinji people of Far North Queensland), and illustrator Bronwyn Bancroft (a clan member of the Bundjalun Nation). Like other Indigenous authors and illustrators they are sharing their people's stories but also seeking to preserve their languages. And hence, this gorgeous picture book is bilingual, with both English and Djambarrpuynu language used.  

It is the story of a hungry crow. A very hungry crow! He was desperate for food but couldn't find any. Then he saw some people at a special ceremony cooking a turtle egg. He looked at the egg and thought "Yummy, food for me!" And he steals it. A resting kookaburra laughs as he watches. The crow doesn't like this and calls out.... the egg is lost. Where does it end up next and where will it ultimately end up?

Bronwyn Bancroft is a highly awarded illustrator with many awards, including being a finalist in the Hans Christian Andersen Award (2016) and the honour of the award of the Dromkeen Medal (2010). This is Nina Lawrence's first children's book. And what an impressive start to her career as an author and champion for her land, people and language.

3. 'Sleep: How Nature Gets its Rest' by Kate Prendergast

How do animals sleep? Some alone, some in packs, some upside-down, some in the daytime...Kate Prendergast takes a close look at the sleeping habits of a wide range of animals, birds and fish. Includes meerkats, bats, horses and dogs - and who knew that fish slept with their eyes open? A first information book, illustrated with beautiful close-ups of the animals featured, the book ends with a question - do animals dream? and four pages of curious animal facts.

This wonderful non fiction book is the creation of Kate Prendergast. Kate is such a talented illustrator and writer. Her drawings of animals are exquisite, and her text, simple but elegant. I wanted to reach out and pat the tiger as it sleeps. I just love her work.

Once again, this book might well encourage them to wonder "where is ___ sleeping tonight. I have my window open and I can hear crickets, locusts, a Tawny Frogmouth, and a Ringtail possum scrambling over our roof as hunts for food before it sleeps.

4. 'My Place' (1988) by Nadia Wheatley and illustrated by Donna Rawlins

I wrote a post back in January 2009 (here) about a family excursion to explore part of Sydney that was the setting for the wonderful book 'My Place' (Nadia Wheatley & Donna Rawlins). 'My Place' was published in 1987 for distribution in Australia’s bicentennial year (1988). It makes a strong statement about the fact that Indigenous Australians were here for thousands of years before white settlement (there isn't space to unpack this). It is a very clever book that takes one suburban block (and the surrounding area) and tells the story of this place in reverse chronological sequence, decade by decade, from 1988 back to 1788 when the first British Fleet landed at Botany Bay. The overall meaning of the book is shaped by multiple narrative recounts of the families who have lived in this spot, 'my Place' and the changing nature of the physical landscape and built environment.

Our excursion as a family around the streets of Tempe and St Peters in Sydney enriched my appreciation of the book and my grandchildren's sense of the place. As well, it gave my grandchildren a great introduction to Australia's history since white settlement in 1788 and it deepened our understanding of the book. The book has been used as the basis of a television series which screened recently in Australia (here).

In recent months I've been reading this book to my grandchildren who haven't seen it before. They have been fascinated by it and complexity of its back story about Indigenous Australians reminding us recent arrivals that this is their country and this is their place!

5. 'Make Way for Ducklings'

Make Way for Ducklings (1941) was written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. It tells the story of a pair of mallard ducks that choose a small island in a pond in the Boston Public Garden to lay their eggs and raise their young.

The plot traces the mother taking the ducklings for their first major outing. She leads the ducklings ashore and straight to the highway but has trouble (not surprisingly) crossing the busy road. A policeman named Michael who likes feeding peanuts to the Mallards, stops traffic for the family to cross.

This wonderful book won the Caldecott Medal in 1942. If you visit the garden today you can view the pond and the island and retrace the steps of the ducklings. There is a statue in the park of the mother and her eight ducklings.

I spent many hours with my own children at a special park in the town of Bathurst in the central west of NSW. It had a duck pond where we delighted at the antics of the ducks. We had fun watching families of ducks, making up stories and enjoying this special place. 

6. 'Alexander's Outing' by Pamela Allen

'Alexander's Outing' (1993) by Pamela Allen is a wonderful picture book (like McCloskey's) that is set in the centre of a busy city. This time it is Sydney and the beautiful Hyde Park (particularly the Archibald Fountain). Alexander is a duck who lives with his mother and four brothers and sisters in Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens. Alexander's mother becomes bored and decides to take the family for a walk. Alexander is separated from the family and falls down a deep dark hole.

How do you get a duck out of a small hole in the ground? Hint - think about water and ducks!

7. 'Under the Southern Cross' by written & illustrated by Frane Lessac

This stunning new narrative nonfiction picture book from Frané Lessac, explores the Australia skies after dark. 'Under the Southern Cross' is a companion book to 'A is for Australia' (2015) and 'A is for Australian Animals' (2017).

In Darwin after dark, families "snuggle in beanbags and deckchairs, to watch movies and munch popcorn - under the Southern Cross". At Mon Repos in Queensland, "tiny turtles scramble down the beach and paddle out to sea". In Hobart, "ribbons of colour swirl and twist and dance on the horizon - under the Southern Cross". So many wonders in the sky after dark! Alongside the simple narrative text is more detailed factual information about the natural wonders to be found in Australia under the night sky.
8. 'The Dam' by David Almond & illustrated by Levi Pinfold

A haunting, stunningly illustrated story of loss, hope, and the power of music from multi-award winners David Almond and Levi Pinfold.

This wonderful picture book has been created by David Almond and Levi Pinfold. David Almond is an author of extraordinary talent. He has received numerous awards for his writing, including the prestigious Carnegie Medal, two Whitbread Children's Book Awards and the 2010 Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international prize for children's authors. Levi Pinfold is also a widely awarded illustrator. His awards include the most prestigious award of all for any illustrator, the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2013. This is a stunning and haunting book from an amazing team.

Kielder Water is a wild and beautiful place, rich in folk music and legend. Years ago, before a great dam was built to fill the valley with water, there were farms and homesteads in that valley and musicians who livened their rooms with song. After the village was abandoned and before the waters rushed in, a father and daughter returned there. The girl began to play her fiddle, bringing her tune to one empty house after another -- for this was the last time that music would be heard in that place. With exquisite artwork by Levi Pinfold, David Almond's lyrical narrative -- inspired by a true tale -- pays homage to his friends Mike and Kathryn Tickell and all the musicians of Northumberland, to show that music is ancient and unstoppable, and that dams and lakes cannot overwhelm it.

A wonderful picture book for readers 7 to 97 years. A great option as a read aloud as well.

9. 'Wind in the Willows' by Kenneth Grahame

This wonderful classic book is read less by children today but deserves our attention. This is a rich narrative, with wonderful characters and word choice and sentence structure that is as close to perfect as you can get. But there is more. Here is language that is symphonic, with the rhythms of each sentence and the choice and ordering of words matching exquisitely the settings, situations and atmosphere that Grahame has created. Or perhaps it’s the other way round.

You can also view the wonderful DVD version (HERE), you can see the story in the form of a play in a setting that evokes much of the wistful summer charm of Grahame's book.

While the Cornish village of Lerryn lays claim to being the setting for 'Wind in the Willows' it might just as well have been any one of a number of other small villages or stretches of lazy English rivers like the Thames where Grahame eventually retired after leaving banking, spending his life "messing around in boats" just like Ratty. There are lazy rivers all over the world that resonate and help to evoke the rich experiences that Grahame writes about. In fact, a stroll along many of the creeks that I frequented as a child in Australia with their native She Oaks (a species of Australian Casuarina tree), low flying kingfishers, slow moving water and glimpses of water rats and low flying dragon flies, evokes the same emotions (for me) as Grahame's novel.

Why not find a creek bank, pack a picnic basket and head off with 'Wind in the Willows' and read it to your children this summer (or next summer in the Northern Hemisphere). I can't walk along the banks of an Australian creek on a hot day without hearing the echo of some of Grahame's words (for example):

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing
10.  'Looking for Crabs' 

'Looking for Crabs' (1993) by Bruce Whatley could be set on just about any Australian beach and probably plenty of white sand beaches around the world. It is a simple picture book about a family outing and as always the children begin to look for things. 

But where are the crabs? This amusing story transports you straight to the beach. Reading it after or before a beach outing will enrich the experience and the reading of the book.

Many times as I've spent time on beaches and watched crabs and other creatures a story has never been far away. Are they hiding from us, or laughing at us?

And there are lots more

There are many fine examples of children's books of this kind that can be read while visiting other places during holidays. For example:

'Hairy Maclary From Donaldsons Dairy' by Lynley Dodd - find out what a 'Dairy' really is in New Zealand as this little dog and his friends have lots of adventures.
'The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch' by Ronda & David Armitage - what would life be like living in a Lighthouse on any coastal outcrop (watch out for pesky seagulls!).
'Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill' by Dorothy Wall - you probably need to be in Australia to appreciate reading this fantasy about Australia's bush and its animals. Find the Banksia men in Banksia Trees, Gumnut babies on every branch....
'The Wheel on the School' by Meindert DeJong - life in a Dutch village and the relationship between people and the natural world
'The Hockey Sweater' by Roch Carrier - gain an insight into ice hockey and cultural life in Canada
'Night of the Moon Jellies' by Mark Shasha - find out about life in coastal New England (USA)
'My Hiroshima' by Junko Morimoto - a picture book that offers a real life account of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima through the eyes of a child who stayed home that day sick rather than going to school.
'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall - live through the Blitz bombings in World War II Britain as a group of young boys collect the ultimate war souvenirs as they drop around them.
'Slave Girl: The Diary of Clotee, Virginia, USA 1859' by Patricia McKissack - learn about a 12 year old slave girl living just before the American Civil war who longs for freedom.
'The Thieves of Ostia' by Caroline Lawrence - I visited the ruins of Ostia about 10 years ago (it's incredible!) and wish that I'd read this mystery about Flavia and her friends in the ancient Roman port in the 1st century AD before or just after the trip.

And many more!

In Conclusion

The above are just examples of the many wonderful ways that linking books with places, experiences or specific time periods can enrich literature, language and learning.

I would love to hear about some of your favourite examples.

Related Posts

All my posts on Children's Literature (here)

'Key Themes in Children's Literature' (here)