Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Ideas for 'Doing' School at Home During the Covid-19 Virus

Around the world there are many families trying to manage life at home during the Covid-19 Pandemic. While every family's situation and each nation is dealing with this problem in different ways, all families face similar challenges. As a trained teacher, author of varied learning activities for parents,  and devoted father and grandfather I've tested these ideas and many more. But due to the Corona Virus many parents across the world have found themselves acting as teachers at home. This is a nightmare for some, but it can be rewarding and even fun!

Many are asking:
  • How can I as a parent, who isn't a trained teacher, make this work?
  • What if my child gets through all of the school work in a couple of hours?
  • How can I make some of the work fun and engaging?
  • How do I juggle my paid work if I'm working at home as a parent at the same time?
In this post, I want to lay out some basic principles for teaching your children at home (I'll come back to some of the above questions later) and offer some practical ideas. In future posts, I will outline further practical ideas to make home learning not only effective but exciting and fun, even if you aren't a trained teacher. The ideas have all been tested by me and my wife who was also a teacher with children aged 5-12 years. Some of them will work for older children too, or if you have a wide age range in your family, one of the older children might become the 'teacher' for one or two of the activities. But first some DO's and some implied DON'Ts.

#1 Do establish some basic rules - these must be complied with if your children hope to do some of the other things that they might enjoy more than school work (e.g. computer games, TV, online activities, social media, outdoor games and exercise if still possible and allowed in your country). You need some basic rules for your children and you need to stick to them (stick them up on the wall). And as the 'teacher' one of the most important rules for you is to be consistent in applying the rules.

#2 Do complete the work that your children's teachers are setting - but don't assume that it has to be done first (especially if it's all hard and demanding). Some private schools will have sent your child home with very prescriptive guidelines for what is to be done and when. This might require online activities, class participation using varied platforms for online, prescribed content, media, group work and so on. But, you do have some freedom even in such prescription. If there's a meltdown, all school prescriptions might be set aside for an hour or two. This is about emotional 'survival', for you and your children.


#3 Do program in physical activities outside (weather permitting). There are many things that can be done with varied age groups. Board games (I've written about this on my blog), online games, sport, watching special programs via available content streams like Netflix, Disney, STAN etc.

#4 If you are able, DO establish a place within your home or apartment where school activities take place. Rather than private spaces in bedrooms I'd recommend 'public' places like the dining room, or a family room (if you are lucky enough to have such a place). In this space, you might have a shared computer (if you aren't able to have more than one device), a tablet (or two perhaps), hopefully internet access etc. When they enter this space for the activities of school, it is school! Insist on this.

# 5 Do provide time for marking work (if that is the task of the parent not teachers) and give good feedback and praise. Much of this will take place as you supervise, but do read written work and give some feedback to your children. Try to be constructive, not just critical. And do find something to commend.

# 6 Do be consistent! Discipline for the teacher always breaks down when they are inconsistent towards children in the class (or group at home). This will happen even faster for the parent if you let one child away with bad behaviour or attitude, but not the others.

# 7 Do build into the day planned 'Tension Breakers'. 'Tension breakers' (i.e. things to stop chaos when the wheels are falling off the family, or a child is having a meltdown!) are used when everyone seems to have had enough. Try to use activities that involve all children and hopefully at least one parent in the activities. Here are some examples:

a) Sure Fire Mimes - You can make up your own but make sure that they are suitable for varied ages. For example:

* You are trying to teach someone to knit
* You are a cat washing yourself
* You are a pirate being forced to walk the plank
* You are a tightrope walker at a circus
* You are a famous pianist walking onto the stage
* You are paddling a kayak when you lose your only paddle
* You are making a snowman
* You are decorating a birthday cake

b) Rearranging clothes - One child leaves the room and makes a minor alteration to his or her clothing (must be visible). They might leave a button undone, loosen a belt, undo, slightly rearrange their clothes or hair, and so on.

c) Five minute fillers - there are lots of options here. They are challenges of one kind or another. Try to make them such that children of varied ages can do well at most of them.

  • Making paper snakes
Give each child a small piece of identical paper (perhaps 10cm x 5cm, but the photo is using a Post-it note) and ask each child to see how they can tear the paper into a single 'snake' by working along the paper from out edge to the middle. The longest unbroken 'snake' wins.

  • Never ending story
As the 'teacher' you start a simple story that the children add to (maximum of 6 words), until you run out of inspiration. At first be generous if some find it hard to stick to 6 words. For example:

Oscar went for a ride...
He ran into ...
Who could have guessed that ...?
How would he possibly ...?
Fortunately, ....
But ...
How could he ever ...?
I guess that he ...

  • Who's that talking behind my back?
One child stands about 4 metres away from everyone and once they are blindfolded and looking away someone chosen by the parent is asked to whisper 'very' softly just two words. The blindfolded person has to guess who it was.

  • Ventriloquists

Give each child a turn to repeat a 3-5 word sentence without moving their lips. The group votes to decide who was best at it (the parent has 2 votes!). For example, "my front tooth is aching".

You can trot out tension breakers like the above when everyone seems to be getting tired, or as a reward after a more demanding task.

In my next few posts I will share some other ideas that might help to make learning at home more interesting. These will include:

  • Helpful educational apps to use on tablets or phones
  • Outdoor activities that can work
  • Books that are great for reading aloud
  • Poems for sharing
  • Art activities that are easy and fun
  • Cooking lessons
  • Fun activities outside  



Friday, March 6, 2020

Eight Stunning New Picture Books for Children aged 3-8 years

1. 'Wheels' by Sally Sutton & illustrated by Brian Lovelock

I've reviewed Sally Sutton's books before on this blog, including her other books in the transport series 'Roadworks', 'Demolition', 'Construction', 'Dig, Dump, Roll' and now 'Wheels'. I love this series of books and so do children aged 1-4 years.

Rumbly wheels, grumbly wheels, Hauling-up-the-hill wheels. Wheels go fast, wheels go slow. Shout what’s coming, if you know!

Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock with his wonderful illustrations keep producing these stirring rhythmical and jaunty stories that sweep readers and listeners along as fast as the transport!

In this new book, a boy and his sister watch vehicles going down a street and keep trying to guess what will come next. Brian Lovelock's illustration are as engaging as the rhythm and rhyme of these books.

Sally Sutton's book 'Roadworks' won the Picture Book category of the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards in 2009, and in 2015 'Construction' was a finalist. Sally has also written many other books for children. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

2. 'Noodle' by Mark Gravas

Noodle Bear is just crazy about noodles. When he fails to turn up at his best friend, Fox's birthday party she tries to coax him away from this preoccupation with noodles with other delicious treats. His bear cave has become a mess as he eats noodles all day long. Finally, he runs out of noodles, and his solution is to head for the big city to become a contestant on the biggest game show of them all, "Noodle Knockout". Inevitably, he becomes star with more noodles than he can eat. But noodles and fame can't seem to fill the empty space left when he turned away from home and friends. Will he come to his senses and seek his friends once again?

Mark Gravas is an animator and director from Sydney. He is well known as the creator and director of "Yakkity Yak" (2002/2003), an Australian/Canadian co-production. He also directed the 2005 animated film "Here Comes Peter Cottontail: The Movie" and designed and directed the 2006 Cartoon Network production of "Casper's Scare School". Writing and illustrating children's books has long been a goal of his. Children will be just as delighted as this book as his animation work.

3. 'Jelly-Boy' by Nicole Godwin and illustrated by Christopher Nielsen

I love this book with its text that has been beautifully crafted by Nicole Godwin. It isn't easy to create a picture book that tackles a significant environmental challenge without it drifting from storytelling to teaching and preaching. But 'Jelly Boy' manages to navigate this tough territory and make a significant point while still creating a great story. This is an environmental topic that needs to be shared with the young and the old.

In an unlikely love twist, a jellyfish falls in love with a plastic bag she mistakes for a jelly-boy? Jelly-Boy is different. He is big and strong. And not as wobbly as the other Jelly-boys. By the time Jelly-Girl discovers the dangerous truth about her new friend, it may already be too late.

Christopher Nielsen's illustrations make a significant contribution to the success of this stunning picture book. But it does not overshadow the skill of the writer. I just love the cleverness of the dialogue created by Nicole Godwin between Jellyfish and 'Jelly-Boy'. Wonderful stuff!

'You were big and strong.
And not as wobbly as other jelly-boys.
You were a good listener.
And so very brave.
My family didn't like you.
"He's not one of us."
"We've seen his type before."
"He's dangerous."

Christopher Nielsen as illustrator is inspired by his love of vintage design. His work has been acknowledged in many awards around the world and he has also received Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in the Illustrators Australia Awards.

4. 'When Sadness Comes to Call' by Eva Eland

It isn't easy to deal with Sadness whether young or old. This is the outstanding debut picture book from Eva Eland. It is the first in a series of picture books she will write that tackle key human emotions.

The short text is well crafted and very subtle and in no way overstated.

Sometimes sadness arrives unexpectedly.
It follows you around.
And sits so close to you, you can hardly breathe.
This is a beautiful debut picture book from the talented Eva Eland, who offers a wonderful book for young children 3-6 years old. I can't wait to see the next book in the series 'Where Happiness Begins'.

Publishers Weekly has described this little book as "...a deeply sensitive story".

Eva Eland is a Dutch Author Biography and Illustrator Biography who now lives in Cambridge England. She earned an MA with distinction in children’s book illustration from the Cambridge School of Art, and has also studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and the School of Visual Arts in New York.

5. 'Big Hug, Little Mouse' by Lisa Kerr

I'm a fan of Lisa Kerr and her books. As a big fan of Guess How Much I Love You (previously reviewed on this blog) I was keen to read 'Big Hug, Little Mouse. We all know how special a hug is when motivated by love. And Millie (the mouse) discovers how important they are, when one day she announces after dragging herself out of bed that:

"I've lost my hug."
She sets out to find her hug again. She hoped that it wasn't gone forever. Perhaps it was in the blueberry patch, a rabbit hole, or in a watering can! As she sets out to find her hug all her friends give her their special type of hug, including the "hello hug", "one-arm hug", "because you're happy hug" and so on.

Lisa Kerr is not just a great illustrator and artist, she is a great storyteller and wordsmith and uses just less than 300 well-crafted words to tell a simple story well. And surely we are living in times when we all need hugs, especially our children.

There are so many different types of hugs and, as an expert hug-giver, Millie knows them all. There is the Hello-l’m-happy-to-see-you hug, the I'm-Sorry hug and the Goodbye hug, to name a few. But what happens when Millie loses her hug? How can she find it? Luckily, her friends are ready to help. This is a story about giving hugs, getting hugs and making sure the people that matter most to you know they're loved.

Lisa Kerr is a Melbourne based illustrator/author who works from her studio at home in Beaconsfield. Her detailed illustrations are traditionally produced using ink and watercolor. Her first picture book, “One Cheeky Monkey” soon developed into a series of books. The illustrations in this beautiful book have been traditionally produced using ink and watercolour.

6. 'Azaria: A True Story' by Maree Coote

This is an important children's book that tackles one of the most troubling tragedies in contemporary Australia. And yet, the current generation of children knows very little about this true story of tragedy, miscarriage of justice, hatred and persecution. Not typical picture book themes. I tested this book on one of my granddaughters aged 11 and she found it very sad and a little disturbing. In many ways, she found the public hatred towards Lindy Chamberlain as the hardest thing to understand as well as the horrible death of a very young baby.

Of course, we cannot continue to shield children from such realities of life. Death is real and usually unexpected and even the youngest can lose their lives. And of course, persecution can happen. It might start in the playground, but in adults it can become even more ugly.

Yes, it is a modern day cautionary tale. It also explores with great sensitivity BIG issues such as how our lives can collide with the natural order of things. And injustice can be experienced by all.

It is a well-written and beautifully illustrated non-fiction picture book that explains a famous miscarriage of justice, and examines the role of the media in an appropriate manner for children. The book is appropriate for children aged 8-12. I wouldn't as a teacher read it to a group of 5-7 year olds.

As well as being a moving read aloud (or alone) story, it could also serve as an excellent cross-curricular resource. There are Teachers' Notes and extensive resource material available online for teachers.

7. 'The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family' by Ibtihaj Muhammad, with S.K. Ali and illustrated by Hatem Aly

This is an important book in our increasingly complex and diverse societies in western nations that require us to develop greater mutual understanding. It offer an uplifting story of being proud of who you are from Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad in association with S.K. Ali and illustrator by Hatem Aly
Asiya's hijab is "... the brightest blue. The colour of the ocean..." when she heads off on her first day of school for the year. With her is her older sister Asiya. It is her first day wearing a hijab made of a beautiful blue fabric.

However, as you'd predict, not everyone sees her hijab as beautiful. In the face of hurtful, confusing words, Faizah's mother encourages her by telling her she needs to find new strength and ways to be strong.

 This is an uplifting, story that has great significance in western nations like Australia. It is written by a young woman who has succeeded in varied ways in life, including winning a Bronze medal in fencing at the Olympic games representing the USA. She was also the first Muslim American woman in hijab to compete for the United States in the Olympic Games.

Illustrator Hatem Aly has added much to this beautiful book with her digitally rendered illustrations rich in colour, emotion and life. She was born in Egypt and has been highly honoured for her work, including her book 'The Inquisitor's Tale' (by Adam Gidwitz) being named as a Newbery Honor Book.
Collaborator S.K. Ali is an award winning author of 'Saints and Misfits' and 'Love from A to Z'. Like Faizah and Asiya, she and her sister visited Hijab shops every year before the first day of school to choose their proudest colours.

8. 'Under the Milky Way' by Frané Lessac.

I've been a big fan of Frané Lessac for a long time and have reviewed a number of her books in the past. Including her book 'Under the Southern Cross' which is about nighttime in Australia.

Beneath a blanket of stars, crowds cheer at Little League games, campers share fireside stories, bull-riders hold on tight, and sled dogs race through falling snow — all under the Milky Way.

In this new book Frané takes the beauty of the Milky Way and leads us to consider the incredible Galaxy in which we live. A spiral shaped galaxy containing several hundred billion stars, including our own Sun. A vast collection of stars 100,000 light-years across and about 10,000 light-years thick. And of course, it is visible across and around our globe. Just imagine the many things occurring every day 'under the Milky Way'.

The book has a multi-level text with a simple sentence on each double page that suggests thematically what might be occurring every day (or should I say night?)! For example:

In Salem, Massachusetts listening to spooky stories about things that go bump in the night - under the Milky Way.   

Each double page is then illustrated in keeping with the theme. In Salem, as you might predict, we see families celebrating Halloween in a tapestry of images and action.

But "In San Francisco, California firecrackers pop and crackle as the dragon dances to the drummer's beat - under the Milky Way." And so, we continue across America with each beautifully illustrated double page spread highlighting a different state or city in the USA (and a wee bit of Canada).

The artwork is beautiful as always, with vibrant colours and details that make you want to ponder and explore each page filled with detail. A wonderful and colourful celebration of the starry galaxy and its place in those who dwell 'underneath' it. Readers 5-10 will love this book.





Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Children's Books Worth Reading in 2020

This is the latest batch of books that have landed on my desk for review. It's a wonderful collection to receive at Christmas, particularly in Australia where children are having their long Summer holidays. The books are roughly in order of difficulty starting with simpler picture books and ending with 3 junior chapter books (10-12 years).

1. 'The Underhills: A Tooth Fairy Story' by Bob Graham

This lovely little picture book is a follow-up to 'April and Esme, Tooth Fairies'. April and Esme are back in this story from the legendary Bob Graham.

With their parents off on an urgent molar pickup, April and Esme are ready for a cozy overnight at Grandma and Grandpa’s teapot house by the airport fence. There will be fairy cakes to mix, pancakes and syrup for breakfast, a chocolate on each of their pillows. But then a call comes in about a small girl in a red coat, arriving from Ghana with a baby tooth somewhere in her pocket. Could this be a job for April and Esme, tooth fairy sisters? 

Bob Graham never disappoints. This quirky take on the life of tooth fairies will captivate young readers. All the tine details will draw the readers and 'listeners' in. Like the tea bag that doubles for a punching bag inside the tea pot house of April & Esme's grandparents.

Bob Graham has a habit of taking simple stories and turning them into wonderful engaging adventures. Wonderful!

2. 'Nop' by Caroline Magerl

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

This is a delightful picture book from talented and highly recognised author and illustrator Caroline Magerl. I've reviewed 'Maya and Cat' on this site as well as 'Grandma's Shoes' (illustrated by Caroline Magerl but written by Libby Hathorn). Her works always intrigue me. The watercolour and fine black ink line artwork and vibrant splashes of colour, are deceptively simple, but full of depth that will fascinate young readers.

This story is linked to a personal memory of a school holiday in Sydney as a child visits a local dump with her Dad. Nop is a rough looking teddy bear made out of scraps. This not so flash bear who no-one would likely choose, decides on an adventure to "someplace wonderful" in a balloon fashioned from "... rags and tassels, scraps and string..." that Nop had managed to stitch.

Caroline Magerl was born near Frankfurt in Germany and came to Australia when she was two. In 2001 she won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Crichton Award for new talent in children’s book illustration for Grandma’s Shoes (written by Libby Hathorn). Since then she has been awarded a May Gibbs Fellowship and received an ASA children’s picture book grant to work on her book Hasel and Rose. She is a full-time artist, illustrator and printmaker. 

 3. 'Arabella and the Magic Pencil' by Stephanie Ward & illustrated by Shaney Hyde

Arabella is a beloved only child who has everything a little girl could want. That is, until her brother, Avery, the master of mayhem, comes along. While she certainly loves him, she finds that it’s sometimes very hard to like him. So she spends her days creating marvellous, magnificent things with her magic pencil, and trying to ignore him. But when he spoils her perfectly proper tea party, she decides drastic action is required and she erases him from her life. Oops! 

Any first-born child who has experienced the changes (and sometimes chaos) that a second child can bring, will be able to relate to the problems of Arabella. If only she could get rid of him, to erase him from her life! And she does. But things aren’t the same without him ― can she get him back? A delightful tale that many firstborn children will find easy to understand.


Stephanie Ward is an award-winning children’s author and reviewer who splits her time between London, Seattle and Sydney. She spent 15 years in public relations before deciding to dedicate herself to what she loves – writing stories for children. Shaney Hyde is an Early Childhood Teacher from Melbourne who runs art workshops for children and draws inspiration from her own playful childhood. Arabella and the Magic Pencil is the first book Shaney has illustrated, fulfilling a long-held dream.

4. 'Africa Amazing Africa' by Atinuke & illustrated by Mouni Feddag

This is Atinuke’s first non-fiction title. With it she celebrates all 55 countries on the African continent! Her beautifully-written text captures Africa’s unique mix of the modern and the traditional, as she explores its geography, its peoples, its animals, its history, its resources and its cultural diversity. 
This non-fiction book for children will help children aged 7-10 years understand the complexity of Africa. While as a reader I wondered about some of the claims that Africa was the site of so many firsts, this remarkable continent should be understood by every child. It is a celebration of Africa, as well as a book that doesn't try to hide the heartbreak.
The book divides Africa into five sections: South, East, West, Central and North, each with its own introduction. This is followed by a page per country, containing a delightful mix of friendly, informative text and colourful illustrations. The richest king, the tallest sand dunes and the biggest waterfall on the planet are all here, alongside drummers, cocoa growers, inventors, balancing stones, salt lakes, high-tech cities and nomads who use GPS! 
I loved the wonderful juxtaposition of text and colourful maps and illustrations, African languages cultural insights and key facts about this vast continent made up of 55 nations.

5. 'The Book of Stone' by Mark Greenwood & illustrated by Coral Tulloch

Every stone has a story, the echo of a memory, a walk in the wilderness, a time and a place lived and loved. This book is about these stones. Every stone has its own unique story – and everybody needs a story stone and a book to collect it in! 

Mark Greenwood has always had a fascination with stones and has been collecting since he was a child. His love and passion shines through in the book.  He argues that there is a special connection that can occur when we pay attention to the stones that are all around us. With illustrator Coral Tulloch, he has created a book that encourages readers to see stones as "nature's gift" that have a history that might just cross millennia. Time travellers that hide many secrets and puzzles. Links to our historic past. Treasures to be found, held on to and that we can learn from. This is a wonderful book.

Please Note: The hardcover version of this book is not released until April 2020

6. 'Madame Badobedah' by Sophie Dahl & illustrated by Lauren O'Hara

"The Mermaid Hotel is the BEST place to live if you're an adventurer. There are rooms to explore, guests to spy on and secrets just waiting to be discovered."  

Mabel lives at the Mermaid Hotel that her parents manage. She has seen many guests, but Madame Badobedah was immediately noticeable. Who could miss her growly voice, and heavy bags filled with jewelry, trinkets and coins; and then there is her beady-eyed pet tortoise.

Mabel is suspicious from the start. She is there to stay "indefinitely" and never has any guests. Mabel decides it requires her best investigative persona.  Children aged 5-8 will love this story.

Lauren O’Hara’s illustrations are also a delight, the detailed watercolour artwork will keep young readers on the page until they've soaked up every detail. I love this picture book. Sophie Dahl's carefully crafted story and the wonderful illustrations will keep young readers engaged from the first to the last page. 

7. 'The Corner of My Eye' by Colin Thompson

I don't think I've ever come across a Colin Thompson book that I could open without being intrigued. Like all of his books, the adventure of reading them is as much about 'reading' the illustrations as the words. And this fascinating book about a small girl and her grandfather who has dementia, is no exception. Every one of his detailed illustrations are masterpieces that draw the reader into the detail and wonder of the illustrations and the story that complements them.

This is a book about a special relationship between a grandfather and his granddaughter, who tries to see life through his eyes. This is captured so well in some of Colin Thompson's words tucked away inside the back cover.

"When you get an Old Age, you don't actually forget anything. You've collected so much stuff inside your head there's not enough room for it all, so you throw lots of it away. The trouble is that sometimes you throw the wrong memories away and then it's too late. So some things you wanted to keep seem to be gone forever. Except there still there right back in the back of your brain on a dusty shelf buried under cobwebs and dead flies and the memory of that terrible sweater that your granny knitted for you that you can never get rid of. The sometimes, a little thing as small as one word or the smell of something can make you remember another thing that reminds you of something of something else that brings a whole roomful of memories that you hadn't thought about for years."

8. 'Nine Worlds in Nine Nights: A Journey Through Imaginary Lands' by Hiawyn Oram & illustrated by David Wyatt

This magnificently presented stunningly illustrated 'gift-book' will capture the imagination of young and old readers. The book is a collection of intriguing drawings, stories, illustrations, diagrams, and souvenirs that present 'Nine Worlds in Nine Nights'. It was left in the personal effects of deceased theoretical physicist Professor Dawn Gable for his family.

The book takes the reader on a journey into an amazing series of worlds. From King Arthur's Round Table to the ruins of 'The Lost City of Kor' and to 'Valhall, In Asgard'. Simply stunning illustrations and intriguing worlds. These are lands of myth, fairy tales, facts and stunning illustrations.

This is a rare book that bright imaginative readers aged 7-12 years will love.

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

CBCA award-winning picture book author Edwina Wyatt makes her fiction debut with story of a curious girl who shares many things with the moon, including her surname. A lovely junior novel for readers aged 7-11 years. The delightfully illustrated monochrome images by Katherine Quinn are a wonderful complement to the text.

Magnolia Moon is nine years old, likes Greek mythology, her best friend Imogen May (who understands the importance of questions like, "If you could be one fruit, any fruit, what would you be?"), wishing trees, and speaking crows. She knows instinctively that buffadillos are armadillos crossed with buffalos and believes there are walramingos living in her garden. She's also the kind of person who can be entrusted with a great many secrets. Each chapter in this novel, which captures Magnolia's year of being nine and ends on Chapter Almost 10, reveals a secret that Magnolia is keeping. But the novel also chronicles a year of change for Magnolia. From her best friend moving to the birth of her little brother Finnegan, Magnolia navigates every challenge and secret that comes her way with the kind of authenticity and innocence that comes from being nine years wise.

10. 'Cloud Boy' by Marcia Williams

The diary of an irrepressible girl learning to deal with friendship, grief and growing up, perfect for fans of Jacqueline Wilson.

This is a wonderful multi-layered book in diary form. It is the story of a deep friendship between Angie Moon and Harry Christmas. But when Harry is taken to hospital life starts to fall apart for both of them. It is told in diary form by Angie and tells of her life, including her friendship with her closest friend Harry. The story of their strong friendship is told through the Angie's diary to a "lost kitten". But there is another layer to this book as Angie also weaves into the diary, the story of her grandmother's imprisonment in Changi prison as a child in WWII. This is drawn from the letters of Olga Henderson that she wrote in captivity. The stories are cleverly written in parallel in the diary. The inspiration for the sharing of her grandmother's story was Marcia Williams viewing a quilt made secretly by the women of Changi (including her grandmother) which she saw in 2017 at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The quilt was stitched by 20 young British girls imprisoned during World war II.

Her Grandmother's story helps young readers to understand that tough childhoods are found across all generations. Children across the ages, have suffered hardship, fear and grief. As the reader negotiates the journal with its multiple stories they - in a sense - have the chance to reflect on their own lives and experience hope at times in the face of sadness. This would be a great read for children aged 10-12 years.

11. 'Beverly, Right Here' by Kate DiCamillo

In this new book from two-time Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo tells the story of a tough-talking, inescapably tenderhearted young woman.

DiCamillo revisits the world of Raymie Nightingale, two-time Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo tells the story of Beverly Tapinski who run away from home plenty of times, but that was when she was only a kid.

But this time, Raymie figures, it’s not running away, it’s actually leaving! She is determined to make it on her own,

Beverly finds a job and a place to live and tries to forget about her dog, Buddy, now buried underneath the orange trees back home; her friend Raymie, whom she left without a word; and her mum, Rhonda, who has never cared about anyone but herself. Beverly doesn’t want to depend on anyone, and she definitely doesn’t want anyone to depend on her. But despite her best efforts, she can’t help forming connections with the people around her – and, gradually, she learns to see herself through their eyes.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

25 Children's Books to Read at Christmas

I usually do a post in December about books that are appropriate to share at Christmas. In this post I feature 25 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 Promise' by Alison Mitchell and illustrated by Catalina Echeverri

This wonderful retelling of the Christmas story is brought to us by the highly successful team that has brought us a whole series of children's stories based on the Bible. It tells of how God kept His promise to send a new King.


A long, long time ago so long that it's hard to imagine God promised a new King. He wasn't any ordinary king, like the ones we see on TV or in books. He would be different. He would be a new King; a rescuing King; a forever King! 

I love the books in this series titled "Tell the Truth". Like all of the books in the series, it tells the Christmas story in a simple way that children can grasp, while remaining true to the Bible's narrative. The book will help preschool children discover how the Bible explains how God kept His Christmas Promise.

The wonderful illustrations by Catalina Echeverri are also faithful and consistent with the Bible-centered story-telling of Alison Mitchell. Together, they make this a book that both parents and children will love.

'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 15, 2019

Could Reading Protect Against the Forgetfulness of Dementia?

For the last 12 years, I have shared many posts about early literacy from birth to adulthood. But this is the first post that I have written that considers the benefits of reading for the possible prevention of dementia. Garry Stix, Senior Editor of Scientific American, has shared in a recent article in the publication Scientific American, a fascinating study which found the very act of reading or writing (apart from any formal education), may help protect against memory loss. 

The article discussed research evaluations of the elderly in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of Manhattan New York. The study revealed that reading or writing - outside formal education - might possibly protect against the forgetfulness of dementia. As one of the senior authors writes:

The people who were illiterate in the study developed dementia at an earlier age than people who were literate in the study.

The team of researchers responsible for the study, were largely from Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. The team selected 983 people with four years or less of schooling who were part of the Washington Heights Aging Project. They found that 35% of the illiterate group had dementia when the study began, compared to only 18% of people who were literate. The findings were based on multiple follow-ups of their subjects, with average interval of four years over a period of up to 23 years. In a recent follow up study they once again identified a similar finding.

The researchers hypothesize that perhaps, helping people to read might help to change or lower the risk of dementia. The first author Miguel Arce Rentería, speculated:

“Could we change and lower that dementia risk by intervening at midlife or later life by helping people to learn to read and write?”

Clearly, much more research is needed before drawing more definite conclusions, but it's an interesting are of inquiry as we see rates of Dementia rising.

You can read the Gary Stix's article HERE.