Thursday, April 28, 2011

When Words and Art Meet

I've just been to see the finalists in the 2011 Archibald Prize. This is Australia's most distinguished prize for portraits. There were many wonderful works but something struck me while viewing the Archibald winners as well as the finalists for the 'Wynne Prize' (for an Australian landscape painting or figure sculpture art prize) and the 'Sulman prize' (for the best subject/genre painting and/or murals/mural).  In a number of cases artists used words as part of their art. While we often consider how images support and add to the written word in books, comics and graphic novels, it seems that increasingly modern artists use words in metaphorical ways to support and add to the meaning of their art.

A wonderful example is finalist Sonia Krestchmar’s acrylic on wood portrait of Sydney-born author Cassandra Golds. Cassandra writes books for children and young adults. Some critics have described Gold's writing as part parable, part surrealist fable and part love story.

Artist Sonia Kretschmar
Kretschmar became familiar with Golds’ work when she was commissioned to illustrate the cover of her novel 'Clair-de-Lune' for Penguin Books in 2004. Since then she has illustrated two other novels by Golds, 'The museum of Mary Child' (2009) and 'The three loves of Persimmon' (2010).

The inspiration for the portrait of Cassandra Golds were some lines from 'The three loves of Persimmon':

Persimmon gazed at him. For a moment she had the strangest feeling that there was a bird trapped inside her ribcage, as if her bones were its prison and it was flapping frantically against them, trying to get out. She opened her mouth, but could find no words.

Author Cassandra Golds
In discussing her portrait Kretschmar commented "As birds, and cages, and cats all seem to be recurring themes in her work, those lines were the perfect catalyst for my concept...Dressing her in a voluminous lace skirt seemed an apt reflection of her 'other time, other worlds' sensibility." The background of the painting is also formed completely from words. All are lines of text taken from 'The three loves of Persimmon', which describe the meeting of the main character with a young male artist who offers to paint her portrait “for an Art Prize”.

I hope to interview Sonia soon in relation to Errol Broome's recently released book 'Dove'.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Webinar with Pam Allyn

Scholastic (USA) is hosting a webinar with author and literacy specialist Pam Allyn on Boys and Summer Reading (how to motivate them to love reading, book suggestions, etc.) It's on May 2, 2011, at 2pm EST (USA), that's 4.00am May 3rd for Australians (EST). But it will be an archived event so if you follow the registration link you can view it at any time after the live event.

Pam Allyn is the author of What to Read When which is a book for parents, teachers, and caregivers, published by Penguin. She published a successful professional book, 'The Complete 4: How to Teach Reading and Writing Through Daily Lessons, Monthly Units and Yearlong Calendars' with Scholastic in 2007. She followed this with a series of grade level books written with colleagues, The Complete Year in 2008.

Pam Allyn founded the program Books for Boys in 1999 as a residential centre for foster children. This program has been acclaimed for its innovative efforts on behalf of at-risk boys, and its work is replicated in other foster care agencies. Pam Allyn also created The Family Story Power Project in 2008, which brings literacy-rich curriculum and reading and writing opportunities to families and children.

Her latest book is 'Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys: How to Engage Boys in Reading in Ways That Will Change Their Lives'.

Here's the link to register for the event:

They also have a Facebook event page set up:!/event.php?eid=1938232306 61065

The Childhood Writing of Famous Authors: Recent Titles from Juvenilia Press

An interest in Juvenilia

As I have written already on this blog (here), children can begin to write from a very young age. While their earliest attempts at writing, even before the age of 12 months can be seen 'just' as scribble, many young children soon develop a desire to do more than simply making their marks on paper; they begin to play with language and words, often in combination with their early drawings.

Many great writers become aware very early in life that they have a great desire to write, sometimes for self, but often for others. The study of early writing (and art) has been termed Juvenilia, drawing from the Latin meaning "things from youth". I had the pleasure of spending a number of years on the Editorial Advisory Board of the Juvenilia Press at the University of New South Wales. The Juvenilia Press is currently one of the passions of Christine Alexander, Scientia Professor in English Literature at the University of New South Wales. Professor Alexander is a prominent Australian editor and writer on the Brontës, including their juvenilia

The Juvenilia Press was founded in 1994 by Juliet McMaster at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. It moved to UNSW in 2001 when Christine Alexander became the General Editor. It promotes the study of literary juvenilia (writing up to 20 years of age) of recognised adult writers. It offers insights into the later work of successful writers. It has an international team of contributing editors from Britain, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the USA and Australia.

The Juvenilia Press, as its website suggests, is more than just a publishing project:

The Juvenilia Press was originally conceived as a university/classroom project. While it has grown well beyond those limits, pedagogy remains at the core of its mandate. Students are involved in every volume in some capacity, whether that be writing introductions, researching annotations, learning the importance of textual editing, drawing illustrations, or developing a book's layout and design. Working under the guidance of established international scholars, they gain invaluable experience, practical skills, and publication.
The format of the publications is similar each time. A theoretical essay is included to introduce the work and is written by the editor of the work. This is then followed by the juvenilia that is published with original illustrations when available.

The works published to date

Juvenilia Press
has published 44 works since 1994, some of which I reviewed in my previous post (here). The writers whose early work has been published include Jane Austen, Charlotte & Branwell Brontë, Louisa May Alcott, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), George Eliot, Margaret Atwood, Greg Hollingshead, Margaret Laurence, Rudy Wiebe, Opal Whiteley and many others.

The Most Recent Publications

a) Mary Grant Bruce, 'The Early Tales' (2011)

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

b) Iris Vaughan, 'The Diary of Iris Vaughan' (Revised edition, 2010)
Peter F. Alexander and Peter Midgley have edited Iris Vaughan’s Diary, with the assistance of Sigi Howes and illustrations by J. H. Jackson. The diary was begun when Vaughan was only seven years old and is as much autobiography as Diary. It also gives a charming, keenly observed and brilliantly amusing picture of colonial Africa as Victorianism made way for the twentieth century.

c) Patrick Branwell Brontë, The History of the Young Men (2010)

William Baker and others have edited this early work of Patrick Branwell Brontë. This is a tale of exploration, bloody battles, colonization and supernatural ‘guardian demons’. Branwell at age 13 years chronicles the founding of imaginary African kingdoms and the exploits of the toy soldiers who inspired the Glass Town and Angrian saga. Here we observe the role of history and the power of childhood play in the early writing of the neglected but talented brother of the famous Brontë sisters.

d) Sarah Fyge Egerton's The Female Advocate (2010)

Peter Merchant has edited this work with the support of Steven Othman. While Egerton claimed that this work was written when she was 14 years this cannot be verified. This is a work by a young woman that takes a stand for woman in general. The measured militancy of The Female Advocate (1686) breathes fresh air into the age-old battle of the sexes. Though the author entered the fray while still in her teens, in making her statement she creates a compelling poem. This is the first time the work has been presented in a single edition with critical commentary.

e) Jane Austen's 'The History of England & Cassandra's Portraits' (2009)

Written "By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian", this History of England is an outrageous parody of the schoolroom history book. Together with her elder sister Cassandra, the fifteen-year-old Jane Austen reduces the heroic to the everyday, vigorously endorses Mary, Queen of Scots, and denounces Elizabeth I. The young 15 year old Jane Austen offers a revisionist version of British history (e.g. citing 17 great woman compared to 26 men at a time when only men could be ‘great’). Jane uses her sister Cassandra’s drawings to support her work. Even here there seems to be a clever interplay going on, and perhaps another layer of criticism as she seems to express concerns at how history is presented to expose the deficiencies of the texts of her day.

This edition explores the collaboration between the sisters and the way Cassandra’s illustrations extend the textual allusions to family and friends, revealing some surprises. The work was edited by Annette Upfal and Christine Alexander.

Other Posts & Resources

My previous post on Juvenilia HERE

Christine Alexander (2010). The Brontës: Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, Selected Writings, London: Oxford University Press.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Choosing Good Children's Books: An Encounter in ALDI

I had a depressing experience on Saturday. I had gone to ALDI to buy some sugar cane mulch that I needed for the garden. Unfortunately, the bags were small and hence expensive. But...! On a middle aisle display table I found treasure! Hidden amongst a pile of literary dross and assorted colouring and painting books, I found a series of children's picture books by a number of excellent English authors and illustrators, including:

Tony Ross - Michael Foreman - Ruth Brown - Emma Chichester Clark - David McKee - Lindsay Camp - Sandy Nightingale - Jeanne Willis - Hiawyn Oram - Frederic Joos - Susan Varley - Mary Rees - Ella Burfoot - Ken Brown

Now here's the depressing part. I stood at the box reading them one by one (must have been there for 20 minutes). On a busy wet Saturday morning there were people everywhere. There were grandmothers, young mothers, some with children and one with a pram, and there were kids on the prowl. And yet, not one person picked up one of the books. While many came to the box and rummaged through the pile, all zoomed in on colouring in books, paint with water books and various picture books from television series. The children didn't even pick one up. I even tried spreading out some interesting titles just within reach of some of the children - but they wouldn't take the bate. Several mothers picked up a 'Playschool' book (based on an Australian Children's show) but no one touched one of the books in the literature series.

I could stand it no longer. A young mum with a stroller and a 6 year old was looking at some of the books. I said pointing tentatively, "I'd look at these instead". "Really", she replied. "Oh you've got so many. Are they good?"  "Yes", I replied a little embarrassed. "They're all good. Many are by well-known authors." "I don't recognize any of the names", said the Mum. "That's because they are English", I replied. "Trust me, I know children's books, they're good, and they're only $2.99, and no, I'm not getting a commission." She began to look and her son piped up, "I just want a Playschool book, don't get me any other books." I walked away, defeated.

There were many wonderful titles. Some of my favourites were:

'Cat on the Hill' by Michael Foreman
'Why' by Lindsay Camp & illustrated by Tony Ross
'Throwaway Bear' by Sandy Nightingale
'I Want a Cat' by Tony Ross
'Can't Catch Me' by Michael Foreman
'Our Puppy's Holiday' by Ruth Brown

Well-known author/illustrator Michael Foreman
All the books were of various ages, but had been re-published in new 2010 or 2011 editions by Hinkler Books Pty Ltd. They are on sale across Australia for $2.99 each!! Hinkler have branded them as 'Silver Tales'. They are hardcover (more like board) saddle stitched and look very durable. They are on quality paper and well printed. What a bargain! I suspect if I go back in three weeks time there will be many left and there won't be a 'Play School' book in sight.

I've used a variety of links on the titles above to show that the books are widely available in varied forms. Note that at some places they are 4-5 times more expensive than the ALDI deal I found in Australia. I even found some people selling these books on eBay with a 'Buy it Now' price of $9.95. If you don't find them at ALDI the next best prices for the same books would seem to be 'Learning Discovery' in Australia (all their books are $5.95 and postage is free in Australia), Amazon in the UK (titles are 2.50 in UK pounds) and the USA (some titles from $4.50US). 

The experience in the store suggested a few things to me:

  • Children need help choosing books to read and enjoy (see my previous post on this here). 
  • We need to give a priority to reading books to children. I suspect that none of the parents I witnessed this morning were readers of many books to their children. Drawing, sticker books and paint with water books are fun and have a place, but don't offer the joy of a pile of good books read with and to children (see previous post on this here).
  • We have a very limited view of what a good children's book is. There are thousands of books and authors that go unnoticed because the books haven't won the latest Schools and libraries still need to be the champions of books. 
  • Parents need help to find books and to be able to judge a good book. Teachers have a great responsibility here.
  • Cheap books are still available if you look hard enough.
Anyway, I enjoyed reading the titles I bought on Saturday afternoon with my grandchildren.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Key Themes in Children's Literature: Racism

It is difficult to grow up in any urban area within any open society without being confronted by people different from yourself. Major differences occur in terms of social class, race, ethnicity and language, but at a more subtle level people can be isolated from one another based on different cultural and social practices as basic as fashion and popular culture.  I wrote post last year on the theme 'The Other' in which I suggested that literature is helpful in helping children to become aware of the 'other'. But while schools have been good at stressing and celebrating multiculturalism, I suspect that there is potential and perhaps an imperative to push the boundaries to more explicitly address racism. We need to do more than just make children aware that other races exist, there is a need to encourage them to understand people and gain some sense of what it might mean to live in their shoes. As I've suggested in various previous posts on this blog literature can do many things including serving as "a vehicle to other places", "a source of ideological challenge", "a mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances" and a means for the "discussion of social issues" (here).

Below I look briefly at some books that offer the potential to consider the theme of racism. At the end of the post I offer some ideas for how the books might be used. I have included a range of books from simple picture books to adolescent novels.

1. Young Readers (aged 4 to 8 years)

'The Sneetches' by Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss has written a number of stories that deal with the difficult topic of racism. 'The Sneetches' is an obvious one that tells of two types of creatures (Sneetches) one with a Star on their bellies and the other without. Needless to say one felt superior and the other inferior. One day a man arrives with the perfect solution, a machine that can add a star to the belly. But without the stars how could the 'superior' group differentiate itself? The man had the solution; his machine could take the stars off (!) the Sneetches who were the original 'Star Belly' kind.

But perhaps an example even closer to the theme is 'What was I scared of?' a funny story about a small creature who while walking at night is confronted by a pair of pale green pants that are out walking by themselves. He is terrified when on each walk he sees them. But of course it turns out that the pants were just as scared of him and finally all is resolved.

'Henry's Freedom Box', by Ellen Levine & illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Henry 'Box' Brown lived in 19th century America and was a slave who escaped to freedom by mailing himself to some northern Philadelphian Abolitionists who were against slavery. This brilliantly illustrated picture book for readers aged 5 to 8 years is a retelling of the true story. Henry Brown doesn't know how old he is because nobody keeps records of slaves' birthdays. He dreams about freedom, but that dream seems farther away than ever when he is torn from his family and put to work in a warehouse. When Henry grows up and marries, he is again devastated when his family is sold at the slave market. Then one day, as he lifts a crate at the warehouse, he knows exactly what he must do: He will mail himself to the North. After an arduous journey in the crate, Henry finally has a birthday — his first day of freedom.

The book was a 2008 Caldecott Honour Book.
'The Resurrection of Henry Brown' Wiki Commons

Let the Celebrations Begin!”, Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas (1991).

This wonderful Australian picture book was inspired by some simple toys made by Polish women held in the Nazi prison camp of Belsen. It tells of the life in Hut 18 and the planning of celebration as they anticipate their liberation from the camp towards the end of the Second World War. This is a narrative with a setting that is so specific that the narrator (Miriam) identifies her bed number (Hut 18, bed 22). This powerful story could not be told without the place, and yet, the place (or setting) is very much secondary to the story told.

'Where the Buffaloes Begin' by Olaf Baker and illustrated by Stephen Gammell

This is a mystical story that is a retelling of an old North American Blackfoot Indian legend. It was originally published in 1915 and retells a Blackfoot Indian tale. A young boy is curious about Nawa, the wise man, who tells a story about the origins of sacred buffaloes from the centre of a nearby lake. The fearless young boy, Little Wolf, sneaks away in the middle of the night to keep watch over the lake. He waits with his pony for the buffalo to appear from beneath the waters. As he does, he contemplates the fate of his tribe if the enemy Assiniboins should attack. As he watches, the myth of the buffaloes becomes a reality and he runs as the buffaloes stampede towards him. Little Wolf tries to outrun them, but notices that suddenly the buffaloes surround him; he has become part of the stampede.
Stephen Gammell's illustrations are wonderful. The use of lead pencil sketches of great detail adds greatly to this mystical tale.

2. Independent Readers (aged 9 to 12 years)

'The Burnt Stick' (1995) by Anthony Hill & Mark Sofilas (illustrator)

This novel for younger readers (8-10 years) is set in Australia prior to the 1960s.  It is the story of a young Australian aboriginal boy named John Jagamarra, who had been taken (like thousands of other Indigenous children) from his family. John was taken from his mother by the Welfare Department of the day, and sent to live with his white Father at the Pearl Bay Mission for Aboriginal Children. He grew up in this beautiful place, but he knew it was not like being home with his mother and his people.  He remembers how the 'Big Man from Welfare' had come and taken him away. His story illustrates how well intentioned government policy at the time failed to deal with the problems of Indigenous communities and failed to understand the full needs of people 'other' than themselves. While the story positions us as reader to see the tragedy of the 'Stolen Generation' through John's eyes, at the same time it offers child and adult readers the chance to consider the issues of racial difference and how we understand, live with and when necessary, reach out to people other than ourselves.

Mark Sofilas' wonderful charcoal images add a haunting and powerful additional dimension to the story. The Children's Book Council of Australia named it Book of the Year for Younger Readers in 1995.

'The Jacket' by Andrew Clements & illustrated by McDavid Henderson

A white boy (Phil) wrongly accuses an African-American boy of stealing his brother's jacket. He realises that he is racist and asks his mother the question: "How come you never told me I was prejudiced?" This incident forces Phil to confront his inner prejudices and ultimately leads to a great opportunity to learn for the sixth grade boy. He recognises that there is prejudice in his neighbourhood, his family and even himself. In the process he finds a new friend in the process and is changed. The book is suitable for children aged 8 to 12 years.

'Peaceful Protest: The Life of Nelson Mandela' by Yona Zeldis McDonough & illustrated by Malcah Zeldis

This is a biography written for upper primary children (aged 8-11) that tells the story of Nelson Mandela. It commences with his childhood and ends with his retirement in 1999. It covers the major events you would expect, including his imprisonment for opposing apartheid, his election as the first black president of the Republic of South Africa, and his award of the Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle against racism and apartheid.

Mother and daughter Malcah Zeldis and Yona Zeldis McDonough have worked together to create a wonderful and challenging tribute to Nelson Mandela's “long road to freedom” that helped to free an entire nation. The illustrations by McDonough are striking and unusual, using gouache on watercolour paper. 

'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit', by Judith Kerr

Anna was only 9 years old in 1933 when Adolf Hitler emerged in the Germany of her youth. But as a Jewish girl she was soon to find that her world had changed when her father went missing. With a leader filled with hatred for an entire race of people, and determined to see them eliminated Germany is transformed.  Anna's father is a well-known Jewish writer, and someone warns him, just in time that he might soon lose his passport. Her father leaves by night for Switzerland and Anna, her brother and mother are left behind in Berlin. He sends for his family to meet him in Switzerland and they escape just a day before the German elections. Hitler sweeps to power all Jewish property is seized in Berlin and they are now refugees in Switzerland, with no way back. This wonderful story tells the story of the horror of Germany in the reign of Hitler through the eyes of a little girl.

3. Older Readers (Aged 12 to 14+ years)

'Requiem for a Beast' by Matt Ottley

Another more recent exploration of this theme is Matt Ottley's epic picture book 'Requiem for a Beast' (which I have reviewed in full here). Essentially, Ottley wrote, drew, and composed a work that uses the Australian Stockman’s life as the centrepiece of a work that offers a different story of this much romanticised figure in the Australian psyche. In his own words, shared just after the award announcement when responding to some of the controversy surrounding the choice of the book, he suggested that:
"We have a romanticised view of what a stockman's life is like, a Man From Snowy River-view, and I wanted to present life in a stock camp as it really is, in all its grittiness."
And ‘gritty’ it is. As he explores the parallel lives of a young man working on an outback station coming face to face with a rogue bull, the story of his childhood, and the stories of dispossessed Aboriginal people. Within this narrative he explores other significant themes - the stolen generation (international readers might need this link), conquering one’s demons, loss, separation, guilt and forgiveness, separation and loneliness, family and community.

The book is in four parts, each with a title in Latin. Part one is Dies Irae (Day of wrath), presumably tied intertextually with the 13th Century hymn about the day of God's judgement. The opening pages, with its five magnificent oil paintings of the Australian landscape and three haunting statements, offer some clear clues to the reader:
It’s our memories that make us
This country, these hills you see; this is my mother’s country, and her mother’s too.”
I’m supposed to be a fully initiated woman, but that knowledge, that memory, is gone. Aboriginal Elder”
Ottley's ambitious work is set against the backdrop of Indigenous suffering and alienation. Ottley weaves multiple narratives of the boy’s life and Indigenous memories. This work is a riot of rich visual and verbal imagery.

The book won the 2008 Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards for a Picture Book. 

'Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry' (1976) by Mildred Taylor

This book won the 1977 Newbery Medal Award, tells the story of a poor African American family living in Mississippi during the Great Depression. This novel is set in the Depression-era in Mississippi and centres on the lives of the Logans, an African-American family Logan family. The Logans are fortunate compared to many African-Americans and own their own land when many black and white Americans are working as sharecroppers on plantations owned by others. It is a time when racially-motivated crimes are common. The 'Berry Burnings' mentioned the first chapter and the act of tarring and feathering Mr Tatum were incidents that were sadly not uncommon as 'nightmen' took the law into their own hands at the expense of African-Americans. It is a novel that traces the life of young Cassie Logan as she learns the hard realities of life for African-Americans.  This is a moving and confronting novel.

The book has a sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, which was released in 1981. It also has a prequel written in 1975, Song of the Trees and a related prior book The Land that tells the story of the Logan grandfather who purchased the land that is central to this novel. It is suitable for readers aged 11-14 years.

'Somehow Tenderness Survives: Stories of Southern Africa', by Hazel Rochman

This South African book is about the reality of Apartheid and the impact on real people. It shows the ugliness of racism played out in the stories of people who suffered and experienced violence. It includes ten stories and autobiographical accounts by a range of writers from southern Africa writers of various races (five black and five white). It includes well-known writers like Nadine Gordimer, Mark Mathabane and Doris Lessing as well as writers who mostly won't be known outside South Africa. The stories together and individually are a moving and challenging set of narratives that do not hide the ugly side of racism. At times they offer a shocking and powerful portrait of life under the oppression of racism that is sustained by the law.

'Sounder', by William H. Armstrong

This is the story of an African-American boy who lives with his family. The boy's father is a sharecropper and the family is struggling through hard times. He has a dog, named 'Sounder', mixed a coon/bulldog. Sounder goes out hunting with the boy's father each and every night they come back empty handed. But one morning, to his amazement the boy wakes to the unfamiliar smell of his mother cooking a hambone. Everyone is overjoyed, but a few days later the joy is shattered as three white men arrive and take his father for stealing a ham. The sheriff cruelly shoots Sounder who chases the cart that takes his father away and life suddenly becomes even harder. But he hungers for an education and his resilience and perseverance is remarkable.

'Sounder' won the Newbery Award in 1970, and was made in to a motion picture in 1972.

'Number the Stars', by Lois Lowry

This fictitious story recounts the real life salvation of 8,000 Danish Jews who escaped to Sweden by sea. It is 1943, during the German occupation of Denmark, and ten-year-old Annemarie learns how to be brave and courageous when she helps shelter her Jewish friend from the Nazis. Annemarie and Ellen are best friends. Their life is ordinary. Annemarie is Christian and Ellen is Jewish and they are good friends. But there is a great threat from the Nazi soldiers who have invaded and are on their streets. The girls believe that the Danish King Christian will protect them. One night their families learn that all Jews of Denmark are about to be sent to concentration camps. With the help of Danish Resistance Annemarie’s family hides Ellen and attempt to get her to safety in Sweden. This is a gripping tale that will be enjoyed by 10-14 years old children.

Using the books in the classroom

The major purpose of the post is to show that there are many good books for children of all ages that focus on the theme of racism. My aim in presenting such books is straightforward.

a) I want children to experience books that offer narratives that deal authentically with the issue of racism.  The initial aim is simply for children to enjoy the book as a good story.

b) I also want children to engage with the story at a deeper level and be able to see the characters as authentic and at times to even to identify with them. This might be as a victim, or as someone who struggles to understand and deal with people other than themselves.

c) My aim is not to indoctrinate, but I do want to raise the issues, provide historical and factual details as appropriate as supplementary material.

d) I want children to have an opportunity to respond and discuss the literature as narrative and in relation to the themes and issues raised.  This might involve a variety of formats for response:
  • Structured and guided response in discussion groups
  • Free written response
  • Aesthetic response through drama, music, drawing (see for example 'Sketch to Stretch' here)
  • Opportunities for further research on time periods, events and people
One final comment. All literature needs to be experienced as narrative not as enabling material for lessons on topics that may or may not be related to the author's story and intent. I always want to trust the story to teach and try to avoid turning a wonderful narrative, with an authentic treatment of an important issue, into a series of decontextualised lessons. Such lessons can easily destroy the enjoyment of the story and fail to engage children at the deep level necessary to grasp and deal with complex life themes.

Other related resources

All previous posts on 'Key Themes in Children's Literature' HERE

Ann M. Neely (2011). Literature of Social Transformation: Helping Teachers and Students Make Global Connections. Language Arts, Vol. 88, No. 4, pp 278-287.

Monday, April 11, 2011

15 Simple Stay at Home Holiday Activities for Kids

In Australia most schools will be shutting down for the end of term 1 break this weekend. It traditionally coincides with Easter, which is also our Autumn (Fall) season. This is a post about holiday activities but all can be used at any time. If you'd like ideas on how to celebrate a traditional Christian Easter with children you should have a look at my daughter's site where she has written a lot about Easter traditions (here).

For many parents the longer 2 week holiday itself will mean more hours to fill each day with activities that will keep your children occupied, stimulated and happy. I've written a number of posts in the past about things to do in the holidays with kids (here) and simple travel games to fill the time on trips with your children (here). There is also an excellent post on Planning With Kids that offers '10 Activities to Do With Kids at Home'.

I thought I'd offer my top 15 activities that can work inside and outside, in pretty much any type of weather. My criteria for choosing them are that the activities should:
  • Stimulate creativity
  • Encourage exploration and discovery
  • Involve using their hands as well as their minds
  • Encourage interaction between you and your children
  • Foster literacy development
  • Increase their knowledge
  • Keep them interested
Books with a difference

1. Pick some special books they haven't seen - try to borrow or buy at least 2 books for each child that you think they'll enjoy. Op shops, book exchanges and libraries are the place to start. See my post on book exchanges, op shops and web exchange sites here. Take your children with you to the op shop or library to choose them.

2. Books as a creative stimulus - While the shear joy of the book is usually enough, sometimes books can stimulate many wonderful creative activities. For example:

After reading Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things are" go outside and dramatise it. Let one child be Max and let others take turns at being the wild things. Make a boat out of bits of wood, or even have a go at making one out of a large cardboard box (or several).

After reading Jeannie Baker's book "Where the Forest Meets the Sea" (a book about the Daintree Rainforest in which all the pictures are collage) encourage them to make a collage out of natural materials (and maybe some wool, straws etc to supplement) in response to Baker's pictures. Or read a second book and have them use collage in response.

After reading Graeme Base's "The Waterhole" get them to paint the waterhole (they can draw the animals, cut them out and paste them around the waterhole).

3. Dramatisation - Dramatisation is an excellent way to respond to a book. If you have a dress-up box all the better. Let your children either re-tell the story through dramatisation or improvise. Get involved to help set the pattern for turn taking etc. I play a mean wolf, and an even better Grandma!


4. Diaries and journals - Introduce older children to diaries or holiday journals. Make this fun, not a school activity. If they just want to make it a scrapbook by pasting in tickets, leaves they collect, food wrappers etc, then let them. But you can also show them how to create a travel diary.

5. A holiday blog - Tech savvy mums and dads might encourage their children to write online. Why not set up a family blog that can be read by friends and relatives (even if only for two weeks). You could use this as part of a trip away, or just use it at home. Older children could set up the blog themselves and all family members could contribute. Let them have access to a digital camera and a scanner and the sky is the limit. See my recent post on 'Children as bloggers' (here).

6. Start a family joke or riddle book - give them some jokes as models ("Knock, knock", "Why did the centipede cross the road"....)


7. Structured Craft ideas - simple beadwork, noodle craft, mask making, making plaster moulds (and painting them), anything for young children that requires paper tearing, gluing, glitter, stickers.

8. Unstructured creative craft - Stock up when you go to the supermarket with simple materials like paper plates (good for masks), brown paper bags, sticky tape, glue, cotton balls, tooth picks, paper cupcake holders, straws (cutting up and threading), noodles (for threading).

Creative Play

I've written a number of previous posts on play (here) but planning for play is important. While you can say to your children go outside and 'play', doing some simple planning at times will lead to more stimulating play times.

9. Dress-up box - If you don't have one take the kids to an Op shop to start one. You might even pick up some gems like old helmets, hats, belts (you can cut them down), handbags etc.

10. Water play - This is hard in cold weather, but maybe you could make bath-time special for littlies with extra bubbles, different stuff to take into it . In warmer weather give them a bucket of water and some things to scoop, sieve etc - obviously only UNDER SUPERVISION.

11. Play dough - You can buy cheap coloured modelling clay but home-made playdough works well. My wife 'Carmen's can't fail' recipe is 1 tablespoon of oil, 1 cup of plain flour, 0.5 cup of cooking salt, 2 tablespoons Cream of Tartar, 1 cup of water, colouring. Mix together and put in a saucepan on medium heat until it binds together, stirring all the time. Fold together by hand. If you keep it in a sealed plastic bag it will last for ages in or outside the fridge.

There are endless things to do with play dough. Try to move beyond just cutting out shapes (which kids still love). Encourage them to make a house, a farmyard, a bed, and an aquarium. Use some plastic animals with the play dough or small plastic people. If you don't mind tossing the play dough out you can let them use sticks, plants etc to make simple dioramas. Kids will create complex stories as they manipulate the play dough.

The blanket cubby!
12. Build a cubby house - No not with wood, just use a table, some chairs, wardrobes (hitch the blankets into the top of the doors, some pegs and sheets and blankets. By draping them over other objects you should be able to create a special space (about 2x2 metres is enough for three small kids). Try to get at least 1.5 metres of height. Have the kids 'help' and then get them to collect some special things to have in the cubby. Use a toy box for a table, some cushions to sit on. I always let my grandchildren have my cheap transistor radio from my shed (lots of fun). Girls might like a tea set; boys will collect animals and toys, both will like books. If you're up to it, climb in as well and read some stories. They'll like the edges tucked in to cut out light so you might need a torch. I've seen a cubby of this kind amuse kids for half a day. Then of course for the adventurous you can share some snack food as well. You can even build a cubby inside! See my post on cubbies (here).

Above: Jacob in a 'house' that he made (with help) from a box we saved

Indoor and back yard fun

13. Treasure hunts - Write the clues on paper using words and pictures depending on ages and make the treasure worthwhile (chocolate, a coupon for an ice cream in the kitchen etc). For something a little more challenging why not try a map with grid references (see picture opposite).

14. Cooking - Kids love cooking with their mothers or fathers. Do simple stuff. Nicole (Planning With Kids) has lots of great ideas for cooking with kids on her site. Don't forget to make it a language activity as well by getting them to follow the recipes.

15. Insect scavenger hunt - Try an insect scavenger hunt (one of my grandchildren's favourite activities). You'll be surprised just how many you can find. You'll to be careful turning rocks over and digging around, but even in Australia it's low risk if you supervise. Place a pile of bricks in a damp place and then let the kids help you to uncover them a few days later - watch the critters scurry. We always enjoy a good snail race afterwards!

A few basics hints
  • Have a strategy for the holidays - map out a timetable (post it on the wall) and try to plan a few significant events and think through the general structure of each day.
  • If you have younger children still at home, being joined by school kids on holidays, try to think about how you will cope with all their interests and think about varying daily routines a little.
  • Pace yourself - don't use all your best ideas in the first few days (you'll wear them and yourself out and you'll struggle to keep up the variation later).
  • Expect bad weather - think about some ideas that will work in rainy weather as well. It's called the "Law of Holidays" - expect lots of wet weather and a day or two of sick kids.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Visual Comprehension

I've written previously about Visual Literacy, but I have been prompted to do so again by a helpful article written by Frank Serafini in the February 2011 edition of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (Vol 54, No. 5, pp 342-350). By Visual Literacy I mean the application of our visual senses to understand, create and use images for varied purposes. Images include pictures, photographs, created objects (e.g. sculptures, architecture etc), advertisements, art, signs etc.

As I argued in my last post, the ability to comprehend visual images is more important than ever before.  The use of the visual is more pervasive in our world and the medium is used in more sophisticated ways to manipulate and communicate meaning. Children are bombarded by images that seek to persuade them to buy things, value things, imagine their futures, and understand the present and the past. Children need help to comprehend the images they encounter, critique them and respond to them. The help they need includes knowledge of the world and skills. The most basic of skills they need are visual literacy skills to learn from and with images and to communicate with other people.

A Simple Framework

Conceptually, Serafini draws on the fields of art, design, media studies, literacy, psychology and semiotics.  He cites many previous researchers, including the work of Kress & van Leeuwen (1996), Gomrich (1961), Arnheim (1974), Panofsky (1955), Chandler (2007), Elkins (2008) and Alverman & Hagood (2000). Based on this diverse theoretical work he offers a simple way to focus student attention on the visual.

A Photograph I took in London in 2010
He introduces three lenses and some instructional examples to show how teachers might use them to expand children's visual comprehension. Each is designed to focus the child's attention on visual aspects of the complex texts they encounter each day. These three lenses are as follows.

Understanding the artistic elements - What are the objects and images that they notice? What might these images mean? What are the ideological and cultural meanings the artist is trying to communicate?

One of the tools Serafini suggests is a simple chart that students use to record their observations and facilitate discussion with others. The example I use was applied to a discussion of the image above.

Another technique is simply to provide a series of key questions (again in relation to the London image). For example, the following could be applied to the above image:

What are the key objects in the image? What effect do they have on you?
Are there any patterns to the elements in the picture? How are they similar?
Do some of the objects seem unrelated to the key message? Do some things seem out of place?
Choose one of the signs within the photograph, what was the writer trying to communicate?
What might be the message of the photographer? What do they want us to think about?
Is this an image that could be used to communicate multiple messages depending on the photographer's point of view?
Could the photographer be trying to use metaphors in some way?

Understanding the structure and 'grammar' of the images - a) Composition - How are images or objects positioned and used in relation to one another? b) Perspective - How is the viewer positioned by the artist (distance, positioning, orientation to images)? c) Symbolism - How are symbols, motifs, logos, brands and used to communicate?

For this lens I have used the 'Be Cooper' image below to focus student attention using a series of questions. Note that there could be an analysis of the photograph in relation to structure and grammar, but the questions below (modified from Serafini) focus on the complete photographic image (others could be added for individual elements within the image). 

What has the photographer chosen to foreground?
What catches your eye first?
How has the photographer used background objects and those in the foreground? Why might the photographer chosen to include specific objects not just the signs?
What is the photographer trying to get you to look at? Why?

Photograph I took in Greece in 2002
Critical understanding and evaluation - How well do children understand the way images are used to elicit emotion, offer proof, manipulate or persuade by linking ideas with objects?

Serafini suggests a helpful guide for analysing advertisements. I have applied this first to the advertisement on the billboard.

a) Consider the company that created the billboard advertisement and it's possible intentions

What company produced the advertisement?
What does this company primarily sell?
Why might the company advertise its products where it has and in this way?
What materials and resources were necessary to create the advertisement?

b) Consider the contents of the advertisement

What is your first impression?
What do you notice first? What seems to stand out?
Where is the product positioned in the advertisement?
What is the catch or 'hook' for this advertisement? What concept of the target audience does the advertisement appeal to (e.g. fear, vanity, needs)? What type of person is it appealing to?

c) Consider the context of the advertisement

Who might see the billboard? [Note: for the example in which country might it be located?]
Why is the advertisement located where it is?
Why would you be looking at the advertisement (information, a purchase etc)?
What background knowledge might be necessary to understand the advertisement? [Note: In this example I would ask the same question of the image and the way it is constructed?]
How is the advertisement distributed (target audience, general public etc)?

How might the ideas and framework be applied?

An increasing amount of visual comprehension is being explored in high school but in my view if we wait till high school it's too late. While the above examples and the tools suggested have been chosen for a secondary school target group, I would encourage parents and teachers to begin laying the foundations for visual comprehension much earlier. Children are bombarded with images from a very young age. There are negative reasons for critical visual comprehension, but also some positive messages that use the same devices. Here are some examples:

a) Negative examples

By negative, I mean advertising that can have negative consequences for children. An obvious example is advertising by major fast food companies that direct their advertising at very young children and might have an impact on obesity and good nutrition. The one we know best of course is McDonalds which manages to associate images of fun, enjoyment, appealing food, a key icon (the 'Golden Arches') and careful product association through images with popular culture (especially movies, books and toys). Of course, there are many products that can have negative impacts on children.

Clothing and cosmetic manufacturers and outlets begin at an early age to use images as an appeal to vanity and self-image to persuade children that specific clothing styles will make them look older, gain them friends and acceptance, appear better looking and so on. 

b) Positive examples 

Creators of images also use the same visual literacy tools in positive ways for good not just profit (advertising isn't inherently bad, it just needs to be understood). The most obvious way is to warn children of specific dangers at a young age, particularly road safety, water safety, and stranger danger.

c) More neutral examples

There are other examples that are more neutral and could be seen positively and negatively depending on your view of the world. Great care is needed if teachers work in this space. For example, images that promote nationalism and patriotism, that oppose (or support) specific social agendas (e.g. climate change, just war), life choices and preferences. Many of these sit more comfortably within the responsibility of families, but schools do have a role to give children the tools to comprehend visual images in this more neutral zone.

In conclusion, by age 8 there are good reasons to begin helping children to identify the artistic elements in visual literacy, the grammar or structure of how these are put together for effect, and the purpose and intent of images.  No, I am not suggesting that you apply the above tools just as they are described but you can easily choose key questions to apply in the context of the visual literacy experiences that children have from a very young age.

Other resources for teachers

If you're a teacher you might want to go further. I'd suggest that you look for a good resource book like 'Interpreting the Visual' that will help you to identify the many ways that images can be 'read' and used.

There are also good web resources around. For example the Curriculum Corporation in Australia has an excellent website devoted to Visual Literacy advice, complete with examples of images that teachers can use - 'Visual Literacy K-8'.  This site also lists other resource books and how to get them in the USA and Canada.

You will also find many helpful links on the EDNA website in Australia (HERE).

My previous post on 'Visual Literacy' HERE 

All comprehension posts HERE