Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Reading to children: Why & How to do it well?

Listening to your child reading is more complex, and important than people think. While I've written previously on reading to your child (here) and listening to them (here) back in 2008, I wanted to revisit these two topics in the one post. It's easy to do it badly, but not so easy to do well. In this post I'll comment on three things:

  • The value of reading out loud
  • Some DOs and DON'Ts for listeners
  • A couple of specific read aloud strategies

1. Some general comments on the value of oral reading

As an instructional strategy oral reading has some clear advantages:
  • Anyone can do it
  • It ensures that the child reads a specific number of words each day
  • For the skilled listener (usually a trained teacher) it acts as a 'window on the reading process' allowing us to understand what strategies children are using, misusing, not using, what help they need, etc (more on this later)
  • It's an opportunity to build confidence and self esteem
But there are potential disadvantages:
  • It is slower than silent reading
  • The proficient reader does most reading silently, so this is the key reading skill we're working towards, with the exception that skilled audience reading does have a place. I comment on this in other posts. So reading out loud shouldn't be a total replacement for silent reading
  • It is teacher or parent intensive compared to silent reading (oral reading is mostly one-to-one or in small groups rather than individual)
  • It can be a source of frustration for the child and can lead to a loss of confidence and self esteem if the listener is unskilled

2. Some DOs and DON'Ts

Here is my outline of what to do and NOT to do.

Some DON'Ts
  • Don't make unfavourable comparisons between the child you're listening to and another child. Avoid statements like "How come Jason can read that word but you can't?"
  • Don't feel that you need to correct every error, or teach every sound that your child seems to struggle with. Listening to your child is not just an accuracy test. Besides, if your child struggles on more than 5 words on a page then the book is too hard for them (see below).
  • Don't ridicule your child as they read.
  • Don't make the sessions too long (10-15 minutes is ideal). It's better to have two short sessions than one that is too long.
Some DOs

DO Relax - try to make it fun and enjoyable for you and the child. The experience should strengthen your relationship, not weaken it.
DO choose a good time & place - choose a good time when your child is fresh and you are feeling patient and perhaps less stressed. If it has to be after school give your child something to eat and drink and let them relax or play for a while first. And make sure you choose a quiet place without distractions.
DO select books carefully - choose the books well. Hopefully the book will be at the right level, and the child will enjoy it. If the books are boring speak to the child's teacher and try to substitute another book. For help on getting the level right see the "5 finger test" below.
DO encourage your child and praise them - the purpose of the session is to help, encourage and build confidence, not test, frustrate and shatter confidence.

5 more specific DOs

DO talk about the book first - read the title, look at the book, ask if he or she has read it before, ask what they think it's about etc. Maybe even read the first page for your child.
DO let the child hold the book (it's more natural and gives them a sense of being in charge).
DO talk about the book after reading (not as a test, just as a chat).
DO show patience, progress can be slow.
DO help them as they read but don't labour any teaching moment. If they can't get the sound "oar" give them the word after a few attempts and read on. You can come back to this sound on another occasion. Remember that fluency is important for your child to gain meaning from what they are reading and for building confidence. Teachers can give more support as part of oral reading because they're trained to know what to look for and how to offer many different forms of support. For parents, if you're in doubt give them the word and read on.

3. Some associated strategies

(i) The 5 Finger Technique

This is a basic way to make sure the reading material is at the right level. This is how it is done:
  • Choose the book your child will read (or have them choose one from a range of books).
  • Choose a typical page towards the middle of the book (with lots of words and not too many pictures).
  • Begin to read and each time your child comes to a word that they don't know, hold up one finger.
  • If you end up with five fingers before the end of the page stop reading the book and choose another one.
  • If you have no fingers up by the end of the page then it’s probably too easy, if you have one or two then it’s probably the right level.

 (ii) Pause-Prompt-Praise

This is a strategy I suggest for parents and untrained listeners (like older reading buddies). As a general rule, oral reading should privilege fluency, with errors only being corrected when they break down the meaning. If your child makes errors based on problems with lack of phonic skills or due to poor word recognition skills, it is best to note the problem and come back to them at the end of the story. You might also like to keep a record of such problems in an exercise book; not as a record of failure, but to note areas that need help, to plot your child's progress and as a means to offer encouragement when they overcome problems after practice.

With Pause-Prompt-Praise the only mistakes corrected during the reading are those that get in the way of meaning.

If your child makes a mistake use this simple technique:

PAUSE - after your child makes a mistake for about 3 seconds and say nothing, they may self-correct.

PROMPT - If you child doesn't self-correct either give them the word or offer a prompt (e.g. give them the sound that they are struggling with; help them to sound it out; get them to re-read the sentence)

PRAISE - Encourage your child by praising the fact that they have finished the page, had a go at a difficult word, had no or few errors, read fluently, and seemed to understand what it was about.

(iii) Miscue Analysis

Professor Ken Goodman at the University of Arizona developed Miscue Analysis. It was later refined with his wife Professor Yetta Goodman. Ken Goodman discovered that if you analyse reading errors (he prefers the term "miscue") that they provide a 'window' into the reading process. I share it here as a reminder for teachers and as an insight into the complexity of the reading process for parents. Goodman found that when you analyse miscues carefully you could come to understand what strategies children are using (in their heads) to read. These he found fall into three main categories:
  • word-based strategies (identifying the word by sight, using phonic strategies to sound out words);
  • syntax or grammar (predicting the next word based on the logical grammar or flow of the sentence);
  • semantics (meaning-based strategies; does the word make sense in this sentence or passage?).
He also noticed that at times readers over or under use specific strategies or fail to 'orchestrate' these key language strategies. For example, they might over-use prior words and not read ahead (so it makes sense or is grammatically correct with what precedes the word, but not what follows it), or they might over or under use one of the three key strategies. Here's a simple example of a bit of text and three miscues to illustrate.

Original Text - Bill ran across the road to get the ball
  • Reading 1 - Bill runned over the road to get the ball (a problem primarily of syntax showing itself in the addition of a suffix)
  • Reading 2 - Bill can over the road to get the ball (a problem with word recognition and a failure to use syntax)
  • Reading 3 - Bill ran across the toad to get the ball (a problem with under-use of semantics as well as a miscue on the initial consonant of road)
What the above examples would show if repeated by your child is the misuse of different reading strategies. Such miscues are only problems if there are recurrent patterns of this type. Some of these miscues will only become apparent when the child is put under pressure as a reader. If it's too much pressure you should first go back to some more suitable material before jumping to too many conclusions. I need to stress that Miscue Analysis is too complex for untrained listeners to use as a tool, even busy teachers find it hard to apply in the classroom. In fact it is a much more complex than I have described above (this is Prep 101 Miscue Analysis). However, there is a simpler technique - "Running Records" - that teachers find easier to use.

(iv) Running Records

Running records is a simpler technique developed by Dame Marie Clay who was a New Zealand educator who developed the Reading Recovery program. It is still primarily a tool for teachers to use to make sense of mistakes that readers make during reading. Because of its use as part of Reading Recovery the technique tends to have been used in three main ways: to assess an appropriate starting level for instruction; as a way to assess a child's strengths and weaknesses as a reader; as a tool integral to the teaching process. I may do a post on the technique later but I've provided a couple of useful links below that should help.

Final Comments

Oral reading can be a wonderful tool for encouraging reading development and a positive way for parents to help their children. It can also be a way to reinforce failure and frustration. Use it carefully. One final comment. Remember that oral reading should rarely be used as a test by teachers and virtually never should be used in this way by parents. It's a way to provide practice, feedback and encouragement. Make sure that you choose books wisely (the Five Finger Technique should help). Don't provide material that is too hard (this will breed failure and frustration) and don't use material that is too easy (this won't help them to learn new things).

Other resources

For a more detailed outline of ways to support the beginning reader beyond just listening to them you can consult my website here.

Teachers can find a good introduction to Running Records here and a more detailed teachers description of the technique here.

For a more detailed description of Miscue Analysis click here and Ken Goodman's work here.

Friday, October 24, 2014

10 Great New Non-Fiction Books for Younger Readers

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

This delightful book is a companion to 'Funny Bums' and 'Funny Homes'. The faces of some animals might look 'funny' to us but their eyes, ears, noses and mouths are what these animals need to survive. Dr Norman is Head of Sciences at Museum Victoria where he leads the large and active natural sciences research team. The books have wonderful photographs of different animals and clear and relatively simple text to explain why these creatures have these special features. The Tarsier, which is the cover image, has large eyes for hunting spiders and grasshoppers at night. The Fennec Fox has huge ears so that it can hunt well at night listening for the tiny scratching noises of insects moving around. And more of course!
This is a beautiful book that readers aged 5-7 will enjoy, while learning a lot about animals.

2. 'Emu' by Claire Saxby & illustrated by Grahame Byrne (Walker Books)

This wonderful narrative non-fiction book is the next in a series by the author and illustrator. This time it features the large and famous Australian flightless bird, the emu. Graham Byrne's illustrations are stunning! The text as you'd expect from Claire Saxby is also excellent. On each wonderful double page spread, Saxby provides a narrative account on one side - where details of the Emu are woven into a story about a family of emus - and facts about emus on the other. This is a clever way to present information in two forms that allow parallel reading, or a selective one. Young readers aged 6-8 will enjoy reading this book, or just having it read to them.

You can also download some excellent lesson ideas HERE.

3. 'One Minute's Silence' by David Metzenthen & illustrated by Michael Camilleri (Allen & Unwin)

While this isn't a typical piece of non-fiction, it is a moving and powerful story about the meaning of Remembrance Day drawing on the ANZAC and Turkish battle at Gallipoli. So while it is based on true events, it is written in a way that encourages the reader to imagine sprinting up the beach in Gallipoli in 1915 with the fierce fighting Diggers. You are also encouraged to imagine standing beside the brave battling Turks as they defended their homeland from the cliffs above.

In the silence that follows a war long gone, the hope is that you might see what the soldiers saw, and feel a little of what the soldiers felt. And if you try, you might just be able to imagine the enemy, and see that he was not so different from 'his' enemy. The purpose is to challenge us to imagine, remember and honour soldiers on both sides of the conflict. All are heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives for their countries.

This is a very moving and powerful reflection on the meaning of Remembrance Day, which is brought to life by Michael Camilleri's incredible pencil drawings. Each double page spread is wonderful. Surprisingly, I found one that depicts the engineering, physics and impact of a bullet, to be quite dramatic and challenging.

Readers aged 7-10 will enjoy this book.

 4. 'Catch That Plane' by Sally Sutton & illustrated by Sylvie Currin Korankova (Walker Books)

This is another of Sally Sutton's wonderful rhyming texts with the unique and zany illustrations of Sylvie Currin Korankova. It is a great follow-up to Sally's last effort, the successful book 'Demolition' reviewed previously on this blog. This book turns the simple task of getting onto a plane an exciting adventure.

Rushing to the airport,
what do I see?
Plane at the gate,
a-ready and a-steady.
I hope it's going to wait.
We're late as late can be!

Readers aged 3-6 will enjoy this book about the excitement of taking a plane flight.

5. 'The Story of Buildings: From the Pyramids to the Opera House and Beyond' by Patrick Dillon & illustrated by Stephen Beasty (Walker Books).

Stephen Beasty is in a class of his own with his incredible cross section books. While the book takes a narrative form, no-one can 'read' any Beasty book without learning many things. The author Patrick Dillon explains that a building is much more than a place to shelter. If we would just look at each one closely, we would gain insights into technology, design, politics and human ambition. He uses narrative to encourage the reader to imagine life and how people lived along a timeline. What made the people who built these structures make the choices that they did. The book covers many civilisations across thousands of years. This is a fascinating book that can be revisited many times without exhausting the reader's capacity to learn new things each time. Readers aged 7-12 years will love this book.

6. 'Nancy Bird Walton' by Grace Atwood and illustrated by Harry Slaghekke (Random House)

This book is part of a picture book series about the extraordinary men and women who have shaped Australia's history, including Australia's first female commercial pilot, Nancy Bird Walton. This book tells how Nancy Bird Walton began her career as Australia's first commercial pilot. Nancy was an inspiring woman who in the 1930s achieved new things for women. The book covers her life from age 17 when she began flying lessons. It is a wonderful biography that children aged 6-8 will enjoy both for the quality of the story and the wonderful illustrations from Slaghekke.

7. 'Come Count with Me!' by Marika Wilson (Allen & Unwin)

This is a delightful picture counting book from first-time author and illustrator Marika Wilson who produced the book with the assistance of the 'Emerging Indigenous Picture Book Mentoring Project'. It is a counting book in narrative form supported by simple line and wash illustrations that offer slightly exaggerated images of a chick and her nanna.
Nana! Nana!
Come count with me!
I can count.
Look! Look! 1, 2 and 3.
Well little chicky,
now let me try,
1, 2 and 7 , 8 and 9?
There are many counting books but this one is delightfully quirky and uses humour to great effect. The warmth of the relationship between a little chick and her nanna offers a playful way to learn about numbers while enjoying a story.

Readers aged 3-6 will love to listen to this book, join in, and later, read it themselves.

8. 'Found and Made: The Art of Upcycling' by Lisa Hölzl (Walker Books)

This is a fabulous book! Anyone who has children aged 6-11, or who teaches some, will find countless hours of fun and creative activities that will be stimulated by this book. This book is not about recycling discarded items, it's about 'upcycling' them! Turning them into things that are more wonderful that the bits and pieces that are used to make them. Girls in particular will love the ideas in this book. You can find out how to build your own art kit, then get started. Make an art book, create your own box of secret things, create a 3D bird, a fantasy montage, a painting with paper, a self-portrait in string, puppets, a musical instrument and more. And if that's not enough you can find lots of great associated classroom ideas HERE at Classroom Walker.

There are countless hours of fun, learning and content-based reading in this great book.

9. 'Bugged: How Insects Changed History' by Sarah Albee and illustrated by Robert Leighton (Bloomsbury)

There are millions of insects in the world, and believe it or not, some have changed the course of human history. People have had to learn to live with insects - insects change things! As Sarah Albee says, "once you begin to look at world history through fly-specked glasses, you begin to see the mark of these minute life forms at every turn. Beneficial bugs have built empires. Bad bugs have toppled them."

But of course 'Bugged' is not your normal history book, it is a combination of world and social history, science, medicine, and conservation, all wrapped up in 168 page book that can be read almost like a novel, dipped into like a reference book to check some facts or learn some new things. Every page has remarkable insects and crazy images (as the cover suggests) to engage readers and capture their imagination. But there are quirky mini-stories as well, like the biblical plagues of Egypt, germ warfare, and how the explorer Captain Drake's final journey ended (and why).

From the author and illustrator team behind kid-favourite Poop Happened! A History of the World from the Bottom Up, this book will be enjoyed by readers aged 10-13, particularly if they enjoy history and science.

10. 'The Afghanistan Pup' by Mark Wilson (Lothian Children's Books)

'The Afghanistan Pup' is book 4 in the Children in War Quartet by fabulous author and illustrator Mark Wilson. It is the story of an abandoned pup, a young girl in Afghanistan who just wants to go to school, and an Australian Soldier. It is a story of unexpected friendship, sacrifice, and finding hope in the strangest places.

The puppy is found abandoned by a little girl, Kinah. The backdrop and setting is the war in Afghanistan. When Kinah's school is bombed the dog is alone again until an Australian soldier rescues it. You'll need to read the book to find out how these stories are woven together.

Mark Wilson uses his wonderful art and well-chosen words to tell a great story with power. His illustrative work includes newspaper clippings, and varied beautiful images that are stunning. This is a special book that children aged 7-10 will enjoy.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Six Good Reasons Why Family Conversation is Still Important

Have you noticed how when people under the age of 35 eat out, they usually do so with their smart phones on the table or in their hands, with sideways glances to share posts, funny videos, pictures and so on. While there's talk going on it's quite different. Conversation happens, but it is mediated by smart phones.

More worrying than the above scenario is that when families eat out often the adults talk and the kids play with the smart phones. While I know adults need to talk without kids, when families get together over a meal it's a precious times for lots of things to occur.

Above: Not all families look like the Waltons but...meals are important

Social research indicates that the family dinner is increasingly a curious practice from an earlier age. Reports suggest that as many as 10% to 20% of families never eat together, and most rarely eat together as a unit without a wide range of distractions such as television, eating standing up, at the kitchen bench and so on. Does this matter? I think it does. Not because I think all families should resemble the Waltons, but because I think we're losing the ability to listen to, ask questions of, and show genuine interest in the lives of other people. Our children are also missing out on many life lessons and key social practices that are vital for any community.

Let me offer 6 good reasons why a shared meal is something to protect:

1. The dining table is one of the few places that families sit down together and share things about their lives. The dining room table is a place where family members can let their guard down, and where previously unknown facts about school, friends, worries, hopes and frustrations can come to the surface.

2. The shared meal is also a place and time where children learn basic lessons about sharing, turn taking, avoiding gluttony, showing thoughtfulness, kindness to the one preparing the meal, nutrition and even food science. There will be challenges - tears about food not eaten, parents feeling like nags at times, the hard work of persisting with basic manners and so on - but they will learn many things that will help to shape their character.

3. Children learn how to ask questions of one another, and how to listen to the answers of others with patience, respect and kindness. Virtually all societies throughout the centuries have relied on the sharing of a meal as a key way to form children and build shared communities of varied kinds.

4. The dining table also trains children to listen and comprehend the conversations of others. At times a vibrant dinner table conversation will require children to keep in mind the comments of several people before framing their own responses. It also helps them to learn how to structure an argument, offer a point of view with politeness and humility, learn how to disagree calmly, and so on.

5. The dining room table also helps children to learn how to negotiate turn taking, how to be patient in conversations, when to speak and when to be quiet. They also learn what it means to be tactful and what others think it means to be rude and inconsiderate.

6. Finally, it is a place where relationships can be strained and strengthened. To be honest whether the conversation goes in a positive, or a negative direction, there is much to be learned about life.

Some quick suggestions for dining together

1. Try to remove all distractions other than people - switch the TV off, don't allow children to read at the table, switch off devices, let phones go to message banks and so on. While none of us can manage this all the time, and there can be wonderful dinner conversations over the sharing of a newspaper, a book, a YouTube video and so on, in families I think this should be avoided as much as possible for at least some evening meals each week.

2. If you're a parent think about some things to share and maybe make sure that everyone has a turn to share something about their day. Don't force this all the time, sometimes richer conversation can emerge without structure.

3. Be deliberate at times in the way you try to teach your children some basic social graces around turn taking, listening well, avoiding ridicule, showing kindness and so on.

4. Vary the way you share meals together and aim for a minimum number of meals together. Eat out together if you can afford it in places where talking is easy, or maybe just eat outdoors (BBQs, picnics etc). Invite guests to share meals with you, a visitor changes everything and can enrich the experience as well as introducing complexities that children need to learn to handle.

The reality is that in our fast paced world this isn't easy. You might need to set modest goals for eating together. For most families breakfast is an impossibility (and let's face it most teenagers can't communicate before 10.00am), and lunch through the week is at work and school. This leaves dinners and a few more options at weekend. At best most families will struggle to have more than a few meals together each week, but it's important to try. family meals can be challenging and yet they are rich and important times of learning and sharing.   

Sunday, October 5, 2014

How do I know if my preschool child is ready for school?

This is a revised version of a post I wrote last year.

I am asked constantly by parents of preschool children how they will know if their preschool children are ready for school. At back of this is their concerns about what they should do before they start school. People ask, should I:

"Make sure they know their sounds before schools?"
"Teach them the letter names?"
"Teach them to write their name?"
"Make sure they can write neatly?"
"Teach them to read some simple words?"
"Teach them about numbers?"
While the above are genuine questions about knowledge children will eventually need, most overlook the real 'basics' in the preschool years that will have a big impact on school success and later learning. If you want your child to succeed at school and in the workplace, become lifelong learners, be creative people able to solve problems and adapt to varied situations, who have varied life interests and a love of knowledge, then here are the things you want them to be able to do when they are five.

Enjoy playing with language - know unusual words, enjoy finding out new ones, play with rhyme and rhythm in language, love telling stories, jokes and talking with other people.

Creative story making with skills established early
Enjoy new stories with others in all their forms - stories you tell them of your life, stories read to them, stories watched together with others in the form of film and on television.

Have an interest in numbers, letters and words - wanting to learn about them (e.g. "Show me what a thousand is Mum"), trying to write them, including them in their creative play and drawing.

Be able to sit still for up to 30 minutes - being able to play alone or with others, complete a task they're interested in, listen to stories, engage in a play situation etc.

Have an expanding vocabulary - learning new words, trying to invent their own, asking you about words and what they mean.
Learning from experience

Enjoy knowledge and the gaining of it - being curious about some area of interest (e.g. insects, dragons, horses, pets) and having a desire to know more and share it ("Did you know Mum that a stick insect is called a Phasmid, and there are lots of types").

Have a love of books - while I've already mentioned stories above, there is a particular place for the love of books, I'd want my children to see books as some of their most special possessions because of the knowledge, stories and wonder that they hold.

Have an emerging knowledge of words, letters and the sounds associated with them - a five-year-old doesn't need to be able to read before school, but I'd want them to have some knowledge of letter names, some concepts of print and an interest in knowing how to read and write.

Show an interest in technology - not just to play games, or sit for hours transfixed in front of a TV, but a desire to explore their world with computers, an interest in the knowledge and learning that technology can deliver and how it can expand our world.

An ability to be creative and inventive - drawing and making things inspired by a story, TV show, movie or experience. Wanting to dress up and act out characters and experiences. Making shops, cubbies under the table, giving names and characters to their dolls and toys, using toys and other objects for creative story telling or recreation.

Creative play in action, the foundation of imagination & problem solving

Have an interest in problem solving - working out a way to spread the sheet over the table and hold it there for the cubby, trying to see how things work, trying to fix things that are broken, coming up with ideas for how the problems of his or her world can be solved ("Mum, if we could knock off three palings on the fence I could make a gate to Cheryl's house").

Have the ability to listen to, learn and comprehend - stories, lifestyle programs, movies, television shows, stories you tell them, recipes and how they are structured, instructions (spoken or pictorial). 

The above are the real basics that children need to know to succeed at school. The problem with them is that you can't cram in the year before school to develop them. These basics are things that take time and effort by parents and preschool teachers. Each requires knowledge of the child, an interest in their learning and interests and the ability to observe our children to scaffold their learning.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

10 Great New Picture Books for Younger Readers

It has been about four months since I did a review of the latest picture books to land on my desk. I have so many wonderful books piling up I thought it was time to give the first of several updates. In this post I've chosen 10 books that have been published in 2014 that are worth reading to and with children.

1. 'Vanilla Ice Cream' written and illustrated by Bob Graham (Walker Books)

Bob Graham is one of Australia's finest authors and illustrators of picture books. With the familiar sharp lines, watercolour and simple yet very expressive characters he follows a wild sparrow’s journey. A single sparrow stows away in a truck and then a ship that crosses the sea and sets in motion a toddler’s latest experience of vanilla ice cream!

The sparrow journeys south from the lush rice paddies of India, across the rough sea, and all the way into a dazzling new city. As the sun rises, he finds Edie Irvine at a Café Botanica with her grandma and granddad. Their worlds meet in an unusual way.

Readers aged 0-5 will love this delightful book.

2. 'Emus Under the Bed' written and illustrated by Leann J. Edwards (Allen & Unwin)

This book is beautifully and uniquely illustrated, and tells an authentic story about a little Indigenous girl and the fun she has at her Auntie Dollo's house. This is a story that celebrates and honours culture and the experiences of family.

The author and illustrator Leann J Edwards, was born in 1962 at Robinvale, Victoria, She is a descendant of the Mara tribe from the Gulf of Carpentaria, and the Wiradjuri tribe from central New South Wales. The book was produced through the Emerging Indigenous Picture Book Mentoring Project, which is a joint initiative between 'The Little Big Book Club' and Allen & Unwin, assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

Children aged 0-6 will enjoy the story and the vibrant images that help to tell the tale.

3. 'So Many Wonderfuls' written and illustrated by Tina Matthews (Walker Books)

This simple story is told in rhyming verse takes you on a journey through a single town, and the many wonderful experiences the people who live there, experience. It is a celebration of the simple things of life.
Wonderful town 
It's a good place to stay 
So don t hurry by Hold your horses - Slow down! 
Tina Matthews is a wonderful illustrator and author who has used varied artistic styles. Previously I have reviewed 'Waiting For Later' (here).  In this book Tina combines sepia ink and digital media to create some stunning images. Children aged 2-6 will enjoy this book.

4. 'Our Village in the Sky' by Janeen Brian and illustrated by Anne Spudvilas (Allen & Unwin)

This is a wonderful book that tells a simple yet a lyrical story of the daily life of children during a typical day in a remote Himalayan village. It is a day or work and play as children seek fun, adventure and excitement in the midst of the mundane and difficult tasks that are essential to family life in this place.

Janeen Brian's evocative poetic narrative is beautifully illustrated by Anne Spudvilas. Together they reveal how the vital work of children in a remote village can be transformed through the imagination into joyful play. The children are vital to the running of the village, but like children everywhere, if given a job to do, they can still manage to turn it into fun.

Children aged 3-7 will enjoy this excellent book that offers a unique insight into the universality of childhood.

5. 'What Happens Next?' written and illustrated by Tull Suwannakit (Walker Books)

This is a delightful tale of imagination, storytelling and play between a grandmother and a small child Ellie. Grandma and Ellie head out for the day and the toddler asks, "Can you tell me a story, Granny?" She immediately launches her tale:

"Deep in the woods, not far from here, lives Grandma Bear. Whenever Little Bear visits her, they go on a fun trip together". Any parent or grandparent will immediately recognise the context and the imaginative wonder of co-creating stories with young children in the 'everdayness' of life.

The gorgeous pen and watercolour drawings and the simple and warm text will be enjoyed again and again by children aged 1-5. This would be a great read aloud book.

Tull Suwannakit is relatively new author and illustrator who is originally from Thailand and now lives in Australia. He received a Bachelor in Fine Arts specializing in animation from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2004, He has worked as an animation studio sculptor and set designer in New York. He has been writing and illustrating children's picture books since 2006, first in Thailand and now in Australia through this his first book in English. He teaches at a preschool when not writing and illustrating.

6. 'Hey Dad, You're Great' written and illustrated by Corinne Fenton (Black Dog Books)

This is a simple and wonderful story about the confidence that comes from knowing that your Dad 'is always there'. The wonderfully simply and warm verse is supported by photographs of animal fathers and their young. Children aged 0-4 will love the images and enjoy being read this simple book that speaks of security, love and confidence in your Dad.

Corinne Fenton is the author of 25 books for children but her passion is picture books about social history. Her classic picture book 'Queenie: One Elephant's Story', illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe, which I have reviewed previously HERE, was an Honour Book in the 2007 Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Awards. Corinne has also published many educational books, some translated into other languages.

7. 'The Skunk With No Funk' by Rebecca Young and illustrated by Leila Rudge (Walker Books)

Woody the skunk has a problem; he is born without the ability to make a smell. Well, it wasn't his problem but his parents. How will he survive the swoop of the Great Horned Owls with no stink?! This is a funny picture book from Rebecca Young with the quirky art of illustrator Leila Rudge. Leila's uses cartoon-like images with fine line and pastel, with a dash of pattern, text used as a creative way to render parts of the images.

While Woody isn't quite what the family (especially his mother) expected, he surprises them all with a wonderful twist at the tale end of the story (pun intended!).

Children aged 2-6 will enjoy immensely this very funny story.

8. 'The Swap' by Jan Ormerod, illustrated by Andrew Joyner (Little Hare)

This wonderful picture book from Jan Ormerod and Andrew Joyner, won the Children's Book Council of Australia's award for an early childhood book in 2014 (see my review HERE).

When Caroline Crocodile's baby brother is born, he's smelly and dribbles. He's no fun at all, but he manages to capture Mum's attention. Caroline decides to swap him for another baby. The Baby Shop assistant provides her with varied babies, but none turn out to be suitable! This funny story, reflecting the real life experiences of many big brothers and sisters, will be enjoyed by all.

Children aged 3-6 years will love this book.

9. 'The Croc and the Platypus' by Jackie Hosking and illustrated by Marjorie Crosby-Fairall (Walker Books)

This is an Australian reinterpretation of Edward Lear's nonsense poem 'The Owl and the Pussycat'. In this version a croc and the platypus trundle " in a rusty old Holden ute." They take some damper and "...tea in a hamper and bundled it up in the boot" (US readers think 'trunk'). Join Croc and Platypus for an Australian outback hullabaloo!

This is a wonderful Aussie larrikin twist on a well-loved poem. It would be perfect to read aloud for and with children. Teacher will have fun with this one in any country. An ideal book for children aged 3-6.

10. 'The Lost Girl' by Ambelin Kwaymullina and illustrated by Leanne Tobin (Walker Books)

This is a wonderful story about an Aboriginal girl who has lost her way. She has wandered away from the Mothers, the Aunties and the Grandmothers, from the Fathers, Uncles and the Grandfathers. Who will show her the way home? This is a story that works at the simple narrative level as the lost girl wanders through the beautiful outback countryside, but there is a deeper metaphor here that speaks to those Indigenous children who disconnect from their elders who give them wisdom, sustenance, love and guidance.

The simple but lovely story is given richness by the gorgeous pastel illustrations from Leanne Tobin with the full richness of the outback colour palette.
Ambelin Kwaymullina comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. When not writing or reading, she works in cultural heritage, illustrates picture books and hangs out with her dogs. She has previously written a number of children's books, both alone and with other members of her family.

Leanne Tobin has worked as an artist for more than three decades. She is of Dharug descent, the traditional Aboriginal people of Greater Western Sydney. Leanne is a primary teacher but works as an educator within the community and runs creative workshops with a range of Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations, teaching local Dharug histories, stories and land care to the public.

Children aged 3-7 years will enjoy this wonderful book.

You can find some of my other posts on picture books HERE

Monday, September 15, 2014

Literature on Civil Rights for Younger Readers

This past week Ruby Bridges celebrated her 60th birthday. It is 54 years since Ruby famously became the first African American child to attend a desegregated former all-white elementary school in the American South.

Ruby Bridges was born in Mississippi on September 8, 1954. That year the United States handed down its landmark decision ordering the integration of public schools. Previously black students were not allowed to attend the same schools as white children.

Ruby had grown up on a farm that her grandparents sharecropped.  But her father heard that there were better opportunities for his family in the city so they moved to New Orleans. Her Dad began work at a service station and her mother worked at nights to make ends meet.

When the US federal court ordered that New Orleans public schools were finally to be forced to desegregate, there was an opportunity for black children to attend regular schools. In the spring of 1960 Ruby took a test, along with other black kindergarteners in the city, to see which children would be able go to an integrated school at the start of the school year in September. Ruby was chosen to attend William Frantz Public School in First Grade. While her mother was keen to do this, her father was afraid that this would bring problems for them as a family.

Her parents argued and prayed about it and eventually her mother convinced her father that for Ruby’s sake, and that of all black children, they should do it. Just six children were chosen to be integrated. On November 14, 1960 four of the six chosen decided to attend the previously white only schools.

On the morning of November 14 federal marshals drove her mother and Ruby just five blocks to William Frantz School. Two marshals walked in front, and two behind as she entered school.  As they arrived at school her mother said to her "Ruby Nell, don't be afraid. There might be some people upset outside, but I'll be with you."

While people shouted and shook their fist when they got out of the car, they walked through the crowd and up the steps into the. Ruby spent the whole day sitting in the principal's office. At the end of the day the marshals drove them home, and this was repeated the next day.

On the second day Ruby A met her white teacher Mrs. Henry. The next day Ruby went just with the marshals. Her mother reminded her, "Remember, if you get afraid, say your prayers. You can pray to God anytime, anywhere. He will always hear you."

Above: Protestors in New Orleans (Ruby Bridges Foundation)
As the news spread militant segregationists took to the streets in protest, and riots erupted all over the city. Her parents shielded her as best they could, but Ruby knew problems had come because she was going to the white school. Her father was fired from his job, her family wasn't allowed to shop at the local grocery store and her grandparents in Mississippi were made to leave the land they had sharecropped for 25 years.

But as the year went on, Ruby did well.  The more time she spent with her teacher Mrs Henry the better she coped. In her words “…I grew to love her. I wanted to be like her.” Neither Ruby nor her teacher missed a single day of school that year. The crowd outside the school each day dwindled to just a few protestors, and before long it was June and the school year ended for summer. The next year there were no protests.

Some Key Literature

If you'd like to share Ruby Bridge’s inspiring story with the children in your life, there are several excellent books about her. Here are some.

The Story Of Ruby Bridges for ages 4 to 8. This book was written by child psychiatrist Robert Coles who volunteered to give counselling to the Bridge family. He met with Ruby weekly and later wrote the book to make children more aware of Ruby's story.

'Ruby Bridges Goes to Story' by Ruby Bridges. This is written for children aged 5 to 8 years.  It is Ruby's own account of her extraordinary experiences as a child.
'Through My Eyes' by Ruby Bridges. This is the wonderful memoir that Ruby Bridges wrote for readers 6 to 12 years of age.

There is also a wonderful highly awarded film about the story of Ruby Bridges which is titled simply 'Ruby Bridges'. It is for children seven and up. 
Other books to read with or to children about Civil Rights

'Coretta Scott' by Ntozake Shange and illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

Walking many miles to school in the dusty road, young Coretta knew about the unfairness of life in the south of America. And yet she had a desire to be treated with equality and her life proved to be inspirational.

'Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice' by Phillip Hoose.

This multi-award winning book - including being named as a Newbery Honour book in 2010 - is about Claudette Colvin. On March 2, 1955, this inspirational teenager, fed up with the daily injustices of Jim Crow segregation, refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Instead of being celebrated as Rosa Parks would be just nine months later, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin found herself shunned by her classmates and dismissed by community leaders. Undaunted, a year later she dared to challenge segregation again as a key plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that struck down the segregation laws of Montgomery and swept away the legal underpinnings of the Jim Crow South.

'Rosa Parks: My Story' by Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks is best known for the day she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, sparking the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Yet there is much more to her story than this one act of defiance. In this straightforward, compelling autobiography, Rosa Parks talks candidly about the civil rights movement and her active role in it. Her dedication is inspiring; her story is unforgettable.

'One Crazy Summer' by Rita Williams-Garcia

Set during one of the most tumultuous years in recent American history, One Crazy Summer is the heartbreaking, funny tale of three girls who travel to Oakland, California, in 1968 in search of the mother who abandoned them. It's an unforgettable story told by a distinguished author of books for children and teens, Rita Williams-Garcia.

The Story of Negro League Baseball is the story of gifted athletes and determined owners; of racial discrimination and international sportsmanship; of fortunes won and lost; of triumphs and defeats on and off the field. It is a perfect mirror for the social and political history of black America in the first half of the twentieth century.  

'The Slave Dancer' by Paula Fox

This book tells the story of a boy called Jessie Bollier who witnessed first-hand the savagery of the African slave trade. The book not only includes an historical account, but it also touches upon the emotional conflicts felt by those involved in transporting the slaves from Africa to other parts of the world. The book received the Newbery Medal in 1974.

'The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights' by Carole Boston and illustrated by Tim Ladwig

Since the earliest days of slavery, African Americans have called on their religious faith in the struggle against oppression.  In this book the Beatitudes -- from Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount -- form the backdrop for Carole Boston Weatherford's powerful free-verse poem that traces the African American journey from slavery to civil rights.

Tim Ladwig's stirring illustrations showcase a panorama of heroes in this struggle, from the slaves shackled in the hold of a ship to the first African American president taking his oath of office on the steps of the United States Capitol.


Ruby Bridges, now Ruby Bridges Hall, still lives in New Orleans with her husband, and their four sons. For 15 years she worked as a travel agent, and for a time was a full-time parent. Today, she is chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which she formed in 1999. This is designed to foster "the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences".


1. ‘The Education of Ruby Nell’ by Ruby Bridges Hall, fromGuideposts’, March 2000. Downloaded 14th Sept 2014.

2. ‘Ruby Nell Bridges Hall’ Wikipedia, downloaded 14th Sept 2014.

3. Bridges Hall, Ruby. Through My Eyes, Scholastic Press, 1999.

4. The Ruby Bridges Foundation. Viewed 14th Sept 2014 .

5. The ‘A Mighty Girl’ website is a wonderful place to go for resources. It was developed for those interested in supporting and celebrating girls. It is a resource site that points to varied resources including books, toys, music, and movies.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why Older Kids & Adults Need Picture Books & Graphic Novels

This is a revised version of a post that I wrote almost two years ago. Once again I want to pick up on my previous comment that many parents move their children on from picture books far too quickly. Even many teachers encourage their children to 'move on' to chapter books almost as soon as they become proficient and fluent in reading. I've always felt that this was a bad idea, for a range of reasons, that all stem from four myths that drive this well-motivated error.

Myth 1 - 'Picture books are easier reading than chapter books'. While some are simple, they can have very complex vocabulary, syntax and visual images & devices.  For example, Nicki Greenberg's graphic novel adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' is in effect a print-based staging of Hamlet's struggles with truth, meaning, morality and action. She brings the play to life in a riot of colour and visual acrobatics that makes 'Hamlet' accessible to new teenage and adult readers. And the text of Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are' is a single sentence that is extremely complex, with a mix of embedded clauses, direct speech, unusual verbs and rich metaphor. Good picture books often use complex metaphors to develop themes, and the limitations of the number of words used requires the author to use language with an economy and power that many chapter books simply don't attain. The subtle use of image, word, page layout, colour and text layout variations can create sophisticated texts. Graphic novels and electronic picture books like 'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore', which I've reviewed previously (here), are taking this to a completely new level.

Myth 2 - 'Illustrations make it easy for children to read and they reduce the need to read the words'. While illustrations do work in harmony with the words and can use 'stripped down' language that allows greater use of images, the interplay of illustration and words is often extremely complex, allowing the reader to discover new meaning each time they re-read the book, often over a period of many years.  So a child can read John Burningham's classic book 'Granpa' as a simple story about a little girl and her grandfather, but can revisit it years later and discover that it tells of the death of the little girl's Grandfather. And many adults may never see the underlying themes in children's books, like that of death in 'John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat'.

Myth 3 - 'Getting children reading longer texts earlier will maximise their reading growth'. Not necessarily! While having the chance to consolidate reading skills by reading lots of similar chapter books is good, pictures still have a place. In fact, pushing a child too quickly into long chapter books isn't necessarily best for young readers. At the point where readers 'take off' and want to read everything, to give them a series of books is satisfying for them and reinforces their knowledge of the world and knowledge of language. But this can offer less stimulation than good picture books and less challenge in terms of developing comprehension ability (see my post on 'Emerging Comprehension'). Picture books present multiple sign systems in one text. The parallel use of language, image and many other devices (e.g. colour and print layout), stimulates creativity and the imagination in ways that chapter books cannot. A book like Graeme Base's 'The Sign of the Seahorse' uses language, brilliant illustrations, a play text structure and other devices (including a map and hidden clues), to offer a complex text to be explored, read, enjoyed, 'worked out' and revisited many times.

Myth 4 - 'Picture books are just for children'. Not so! Pick up any Shaun Tan book and you might at first read think, "Wow, is this a book for adults?" 'Tales From Outer Suburbia', 'The Arrival', 'The Lost Thing', in fact any of his books, have a depth and richness that can 'stretch' and challenge any child or adult. My first reading of his more recent book, 'Rules of Summer', left me perplexed and with so many questions I had to read it again, and again to grasp the depth of this deceptively simple story about the relationship between two boys (one older and more dominant than the other). This is a story about rules and power with Tan's characteristic images prodding your imagination at every turn of the page. Like all quality picture books it can be entered by readers of all ages and leave them enriched in different ways.

While the majority of picture books are designed for readers under the age of 7 years, more and more are written for much wider readerships and the rapidly developing genre of the 'Graphic Novel' (see previous post here) because they allow the author to use word, image and other modes (including related audio, video and music) to create more complex tellings of the story the author has in mind.  For example, books like 'My Place' and 'Requiem for a Beast' and 'When the Wind Blows' were never meant just for children. In fact, Matt Ottley's book was actually meant for high school readers. The great thing about picture books is that children and adults can both enjoy them, sometimes separately, and sometimes together. The latter is an important way to grow in shared knowledge and understanding as well as a key vehicle for helping children to learn as we explore books with them.

So what do Picture books do for older readers?

Picture books communicate complex truths in relevant and economical ways - 'Harry and Hopper' by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood helps readers of any age to have a light shone on the challenge of accepting and dealing with death so that life for those left behind can move on, even though death changes things in big ways.

Picture books offer special pathways to deal with deep emotional challenges and springboards for discussion - 'Dandelion' by Calvin Scott Davis (illustrated by Anthony Ishinjerro) allows the inner pain of bullying and the fears it brings, to be visited and opened for reflection and growth.

Picture books also enliven and reintroduce wonderful classic short stories - Oscar Wilde's 'The Selfish Giant' is made fresh and relevant again through the illustrated picture book of Ritva Voutila. This tale of forgiveness is enriched by Voutila's contribution. So too Ted Hughes classic 'The Iron Man' is enriched with the illustrations of Laura Carlin and the graphic and paper craft design. 

Picture books bring the power of image and graphic layout to words in ways that add layers of meaning that would take thousands of words to communicate - Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks work 'The Dream of the Thylacine' shows this with great power when Brooks surreal images of the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger have embedded within them grainy black and white photographs of the last miserable creature caged in a Tasmanian zoo in the 1930s.

Picture books can achieve things at times which the novel cannot - Irene Kobald & Freya Blackwood's brilliant picture book 'Two Blankets' manages to offer insights into the inner struggles of a girl who arrives from a war-torn nation to he strangeness of a new land. It is primarily through the metaphorical use of an object - a blanket - that the author and illustrator jointly communicate a significant story about the strangeness of language and place in a unique way.

Summing up

It is good to encourage younger children to progress to chapter books as they become proficient in reading, but we shouldn't simply discard picture books once they can do so.  The stimulation and challenge of the mixed media opportunities that picture books offer are very important for language stimulation and development as well as creativity and the enrichment of children's imaginations.

Picture books are important for children aged 0-12 years, so don't neglect them or discard them in a perhaps well-intentioned but misguided desire to improve your children as readers. Remember, books are foundational to language, writing, knowledge, thinking and creativity as well. They represent one of the best ways to offer children multimodal experiences with text.
Other reading

Previous post on 'Requiem for a Best' and graphic novels HERE

Previous post on 'Emergent Comprehension' HERE

All my posts on picture books HERE