Monday, May 28, 2012

Twelve great books for younger readers

'Ladder to the Moon' by Maya Soetoro-Ng, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
Walker Books, 2011

From the opening line you just know this is a book that has deep metaphysical themes:

One cool new evening
Suhaila asked her mama.
"What was Grandma Anne like?"
"She was like the moon." her mother replied.
"Full, soft and curious..." 

The book written by Barack Obama's sister was inspired by Georgia O'Keefe's painting 'Ladder to the Moon'. It was an image on a postcard that Maya Soetoro-Ng was given by her mother as a child. Her book, by the same name as the painting, was a response to her longing for her mother who had died 10 years after the author's daughter Suhaila had been born. She writes in her 'Author Note', "More that anything, I wished that my mother and my daughter could have known and loved each other." Her response was the beautiful and rich story of a little girl - 'Suhaila' - who asks her mother one day, "What was Grandma Annie like?" Somehow, through the songs and stories that Suhaila's grandmother had shared with her mother, stories that were now her stories as well, she had a chance to meet her grandmother via a ladder to the moon. The author writes, via the ladder to the moon “grandmother and grandchild (unite) through a story in which my mother could meet one of her granddaughters and share the moon with her."

The experience of meeting her mother is overlaid with a chance to see the power of prayer and the peoples of the world united in spite of difference. The illustrator Yuyi Morales adds her own interpretation to these themes as she grapples with how to represent this multi-layered story. While for me, the integration of some of the complex themes seemed a little contrived in places, this is a haunting and mysterious picture book that manages to unite author and illustrator in a special way.

'FArTHER' by Grahame Baker-Smith, Templar Publishing, 2010

Grahame Baker-Smith won the 2011 Kate Greenaway Medal for this intriguing book (longer review HERE). A father who had always dreamed of flying went off to war and didn't return. His son decides to make his father's dreams come true. The book tells the moving story of how the boy tries to fulfil his father's unfulfilled dream of flying. The story demonstrates the power of love and ambition when faced with seemingly impossible goals.

Baker-Smith uses traditional media like watercolour, acrylic, pastel and ink, but he also uses fimo and other materials to create images. He then uses photography and Photoshop to create the unique images that make up this book. His special style will excite young readers.

You can read additional background on Grahame Baker-Smith and the book HERE.

'The Gift' by Carol Ann Duffy and Rob Ryan, Barefoot Books, 2010

Rob Ryan is famous for his amazing papercut art. This book is another fine example of the quality of his work. It is the story of one girl's life and the hopes and desires that shape it. One summer day a beautiful young girl visits the woods for a picnic. A wish forms in her mind and to her surprise a silver-haired woman appears; ready to grant it. The author, Carol Ann Duffy is the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, and is the first woman in the role in 300 years. The beautiful story touches on the wonder and mysteries of what it means to be human. In making the award, one of the judges commented:

The beautiful illustrations are not just decorative, they interpret the text for us and strengthen the story's impact. The frames and shadows perfectly reflect the fairy tale feel and the different emblems and details emphasise the message. A perfect depiction of the circle of life.

'There Was an Old Sailor' by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Cassandra Allen, Walker Books, 2010

This is a delightful new interpretation of the old story favourite 'There was an old who swallowed a fly'. This rather ravenous sailor 'swallowed a krill'. You guessed it, "It'll make him ill".

Then, he 'swallowed a jelly.
That wriggled and wriggled and jiggled his belly.
He swallowed the jelly to catch the krill.
I don't know why he swallowed the krill.
It'll make him ill.'

He then swallows a fish, squid, ray, seal, and shark, before finally,

'There was an old sailor
who swallowed a whale..
then with a burp..
set sail'

This is a delightful tale that is beautifully illustrated by Cassandra Allen. In its own way, as well as being a lot of fun, it offers young children a preliminary understanding of the food chain, complete with facts about each animal at the end. The book won the 2011 'Crystal Kite Award'.

'The Secret of the Swords' by Frances Watts, illustrated by Gregory Rogers, Allen & Unwin, 2012

The is the first book in an exciting series by award-winning author Frances Watt and Kate Greenaway Medal winner Gregory Rogers. This first story introduces us to Tommy (short for Thomasina), a kitchen hand who wants to be a knight. When Tommy is finally promoted to Keeper of the Blades, she feels that her life has taken an exciting new path. But will a missing sword ruin everything? The central character doesn't want to fit into the traditional mould for girls of the time.

The story introduces a feisty new character for girls (and their parents and teachers) who love adventure and want an alternative to traditionally gendered tales. Created by Frances Watts, a CBCA Award Winner and author of the huge bestseller 'Kisses for Daddy'.

'The Poison Plot' by Frances Watts, illustrated by Gregory Rogers, Allen & Unwin, 2012

This is the second adventure in the 'Sword Girl' series. Evil plans are stirring and it's up to Tommy to keep the peace at Flamant Castle! Tommy is on an errand to the smithy in the town, and overhears a plot to poison Sir Walter the Bald, the castle's bravest knight. It is to occur during a banquet and it is to look like the work of a neighbouring nobleman. Tommy must foil the plot or Flamant Castle will be at war. My 7 year old granddaughter loved these tow books. Ideal material for independent readers aged 7-9.

'Puffin Peter' by Petr Horáček, Walker Books, 2011

Peter and Paul are the best of friends, but Peter gets lost in a terrible storm. But with the help of a big blue whale, Puffin Peter sets off to find him. They find all kinds of birds that match Peter's description but none quite like Paul. Peter Horáček was born in Czechoslovakia but now lives in England (Worcestershire). He uses a variety of media in this book including collage. The judges describe this book as:

"A dramatically beautiful picture book full of movement. Layers of colour and texture capture the movement of water, and of light, and of Peter and Paul themselves. A thrilling visual adventure for children, with a tender message."

Shortlisted for the 2012 Kate Greenaway Medal

'There are no cats in this book' by Viviane Schwarz, Walker Books, 2011

This is a delightful picture book that has fantastic pop-up and photographic features, and a very quirky story. It features lovable cats, Tiny, Moonpie and Andr. They set off to see the world. They pack their suitcases and are ready to leave, but they can't get out of the book. First, they try pushing their way out, then jumping, but nothing works. Finally they decide to wish themselves out. But they need to engage the reader's help. This is a very unusual concept for a book which some children seem to love it, while others find it all a bit of a puzzle. It is delightfully simple in terms of its images, and with the added paper sculpture will interest many children from the moment they pick it up.

'There are cats in this book' by Viviane Schwarz, Walker Books

Cats Tiny, Moonpie and André are filled with the spirit of adventure – they want to see the world but they can't seem to get out of the book. They try pushing their way out, and jumping their way out but nothing works. Finally they decide to WISH themselves out with your help, the reader! This is a companion book to 'There are Cats in this Book'. It has been nominated for the 2012 Kate Greenaway Medal. The judges felt that this book:

"...perfectly expresses the power of the imagination! With an extraordinary sense of participation, this is book to play with as much as to read, and very much one to share. The illustrations are full of personality, the use of colour and blank space is brilliant. A book that works on lots of different levels."

'Diary of a Soccer Star' by Shamini Flint, illustrated by Sally Heinrich, Allen & Unwin, 2012

Marcus is a nine year-old Maths whiz, but he's not good at sport. His dad is a self-help author who thinks Marcus can achieve anything he sets his mind to. The outcome is very funny. It is presented with an illustrated diary format. Marcus manages to take a humorous look at his life. In spite of his Dad's efforts, he doesn't quite get the hang of soccer.

'I scored a goal today.
Unfortunately, it was an own goal.
It wasn't my fault.
Really, it wasn't!'

My granddaughter loved this book. She laughed along with the struggles of Marcus.

'Diary of a Cricket God' by Shamini Flint, illustrated by Sally Heinrich, Allen & Unwin, 2012

If you liked 'Diary of a Soccer Star' then you will like this, the second book in the series.  This time, Marcus Atkinson is pushed by his Dad to play cricket, and would you believe that he becomes a cricket god?

This Maths whiz is still not very good at sport, in spite of his Dad's wishful thinking and efforts. Children who struggle to be good at sport will be able to relate to this funny story
'A Bear and a Tree' by Stephen Michael King, Viking/Penguin, 2012

Ren knows that it's almost time for Bear's big sleep, but she needs just one more day with him. They have just one day to explore the winter together. This will be the last of the coloured leaves, which will give way soon to a blanket of snow and the final chance to catch the sun, the moon and the stars. Just one more day to play and dance and wonder. This is a story of friendship and the preciousness of time shared with friends.

Written and illustrated by the highly renowned Stephen Michael King,
who has previously illustrated The Magic Violin, Follow That Lion!, Duck Sounds and The Gorilla Suit. More recently he illustrated the Robin Klein classic story, The Princess Who Hated It. King has had several books shortlisted by the CBCA, and is frequently appear on children's book awards lists like YABBA.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Jeannie Baker Revisited

I wrote one of my author review posts on Aussie illustrator and author Jeannie Baker in 2010. This is an updated version. 

About Jeannie Baker

Jeannie Baker is an artist who began turning her hand to children's books many years ago. She was born in England but has lived in Sydney since the later 1970s. She has been making art from collage for at least 40 years. For the last 30 years many of these works have been created to use as illustrations for picture books. However, they can always stand separately as works of art. As a result Jeannie has exhibited her work regularly over the last 40 years, often in parallel to the release of her books. It is important for Jeannie that her art can stand alone, and it does, with distinction!

She is unique as a collage artist, illustrator and author. What puts Jeannie in a category of her own is the way she begins with an idea that always has a significance and a message that only a great collage artist could communicate in this medium. She creates her works with varied materials usually collected in the setting that then becomes the subject of her art.  I recall her saying many years ago that when she created 'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' she went off and not only explored the Daintree Forest alone, she slept in it overnight under a plastic sheet to keep herself dry. It can take Jeannie years to produce a book. Her most recent work 'Mirror' took her five years. I review this work in detail below.

Once she has finished the collages she photographs them to create the page plates for her books. This usually leads to an exhibition of her art as well as a picture book. To see her collages as works of art is a great treat. You can see examples of her work in a number of collections, but the Dromkeen Museum at Riddells Creek (30 minutes north of Melbourne airport) has some wonderful examples.

Jeannie Baker's technique yields works of art that are stunningly beautiful (and quite small) which when put together into a book offer a visual experience for the 'reader' that keeps them coming back to the book. I never tire of reading Jeannie's books, or of reading them to children.  When I read 'Mirror' recently to my grandchildren my eldest grandchild Jacob reacted with delight and excitement as he kept seeing new details in each image. The illustrations lead children to touch and stroke images because they look so real. This is partly achieved by Jeannie Baker's fastidious use of materials that are from the real object. For example, she used sand and authentic fabrics from Morocco in 'Mirror'. If she creates a bird it will often have real feathers.

Internationally her work has gained critical and public acclaim and a stack of awards, including Australian Picture Book of the Year Honour Book, 2005, for "Belonging", Australian Children’s Book Council Picture Book of the Year Award, 1992, for "Window", Notable Book by the American Library Association, 1984, and short listed for the Kate Greenaway Medal, 1985, for "Home in the Sky" and a Boston Globe Horn Book Magazine Honour Book award, 1988, and International Board of Young People Honour Book Award, 1990, for "Where the Forest Meets the Sea".

You can read a full biography here.

A review of some of her work

'Mirror' (2010) Walker Books

Her most recent work 'Mirror' is a wonderful place to start in considering Jeannie's work because I think it is her best work. The concept is brilliant, the quality of the images once again stunning, the book design groundbreaking and the wordless picture book created is, as usual, challenging at many levels. It is the concept and design that will first catch your attention. It is slightly more square in shape and it defies your efforts to open it in a conventional way. This picture book comprises two stories that are designed to be read simultaneously – one from the left, the other from the right (see below). As you pick up the book you try to open it from right to left only to have the book open at the middle to reveal two books, one that is read from left to right and begins in Arabic, and the other from right to left that begins with English. Page by page, we experience a day in the lives of two boys and their families - one from inner city Sydney, Australia and the other from a small, remote village in Morocco, North Africa.

Jeannie conceived the book while travelling alone in Morocco. It was while immersed in the warmth and generosity of the Moroccan people and while experiencing the sights, smells, sounds and textures of the place, that she conceived the idea and knew she had to produce it even without approval from a publisher. As usual, it is Jeannie's passion for the idea of her work, and her skill as an artist in holding a 'mirror' to the world (pun intended) that produces a stunning and memorable work. I love this book.

While the two worlds portrayed couldn’t be further apart, she shows through the parallel lives of the two families, a simple and profound truth. While people live in vastly different places, and have different lives, we share much. While the families have different food, clothing and family practices, there is much that is the same. Family members love one another and depend on each other. A mother, father and children do different things each day than in Sydney, but they are more like us than we might imagine. And there is an additional truth - we are connected to them. With subtle use of images Jeannie is able to show connection, and the delight of the reader is to discover them. My grandson excitedly shouted as we read the book "Look, look, it's the same carpet. The carpet they were making (in Morocco) is the same carpet they bought (the people in Sydney)". Jeannie's message is that in many ways we are mirrors of one another even though different. This is a stunning book that will win many awards.

Update: 'Mirror' was awarded the 2011 Children's Book Council of Australia award for best picture book (joint award).  It was also winner in the children’s category at the 2011 Indie Book Awards and also short-listed for NSW Premier's Literary Award.

'Millicent' (1980) Scholastic

One of the earliest of Jeannie's books to catch my attention was 'Millicent' a delightfully simple tale of an old lady who Jeannie observed day after day in Hyde Park (Sydney) feeding the pigeons and talking to them.  As she watched the old lady she often wondered what she was thinking. Through her simple collages and language she speculates about the lady's thoughts as she feeds them. She tells a gentle story of how she feels needed as she visits sees the pigeons each day.

One Hungry Spider (1982) Deutsch

This delightful about a spider (an Orbweb Eriophora) is another excellent example of Jeannie's work. This counting book while teaching the reader to count from 1 to 10 also tells the story of the spider, its catch day by day and the impact on its web. Like Millicent, the collage art is much more simple than Jeannie's later works that have greater complexity as works of art. But it contains many of the same wonderful qualities, simplicity, colour, varied textures and wonderful detail.

'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' (1987) Julia MacRae Books

This wonderful book marked a new stage in the development of Jeannie Baker's work. Not only is it a more complex narrative account that makes a powerful statement about humanity and the natural world, it demonstrates a new complexity in the collages and clever use of overlaid photographic images to add a new way to portray time. Once again the story is simple, but it has many layers. A boy and his father go out in their boat to fish along the coast of the Daintree Forest in far North Queensland, a place where the tropical rainforest meets the sea. As the story unfolds the boy is confronted by echoes ('ghosts') of what this place was once like - an age of dinosaurs, a time when Indigenous people lived here and so on. It ends with an eerie look at the future.

'Window' (1991) Greenwillow Books

This book saw Jeannie move from the natural world to the man-made world as she showed once again how development can change the natural world. A mother and her baby look through a window at wilderness. But with each turn of the page time marches on, and as we look from the same window, the world changes under the impact of people. As the child grows and ages, so too the view changes from a country scene to dense settlement.  This wordless book won the Children's Book Council (Australia) picture book of the year in 1992.

Jeannie Baker also wrote a wonderful short book 'Window: An Australian Outlook' (1991) published by the Royal Botanic Gardens to coincide with the release of the book and in association with the exhibition of the collages from which the book was made. 

'The Story of Rosy Dock' (1995) Greenwillow

In this wonderful book Baker continues her environmental themes making comment on the danger of introduced species of plants to the natural world. The story tells how one of the early settlers to a remote part of Australia builds a garden in the wilderness that is beautiful, but which ends up having an unexpected flowering. A single plant can change the landscape and push many plants and animals to extinction.

The book was produced as a 10-minute short animated film by Film Australia (here).

'Belonging' (2004) Walker Books

In 'Belonging' we see Baker returning to the theme of 'Window', man changes the world. Once again, the story unfolds through a single window of a house in a typical urban neighbourhood and it has the same central characters Sam and Tracy. Each picture shows another year and new developments. This is in a sense 'Window' in reverse, as we go back through time and see the urban landscape slowly disappear to reveal the natural landscape that was once there. But whereas 'Window' focused on our negative impact on the environment, 'Belonging' shows how a community can work to improve the urban landscape rather than just trying to escape from it. The images are stunning and once again, her point is well made.  This book is sold under the title of 'Home' in the USA.

Complete List of her Books

Polar, written by Elaine Moss, illustrated by Jeannie Baker, Scholastic (1975).
Grandfather, Dutton (1977), revised edition (1980).
Grandmother, Dutton (1978), revised edition (1980).
Millicent, Dutton (1980).
One Hungry Spider, Deutsch (1982).
Home in the Sky, (1985)
Where the Forest Meets the Sea, Greenwillow (1987).
Window, Greenwillow (1991).
The Story of Rosy Dock, Greenwillow (1995).
The Hidden Forest, Greenwillow (2000).
Home in the Sky, Greenwillow (2003).
Belonging, Walker Books (2004). Published in the USA as 'Home'.
Mirror, Walker Books (2010).

Other related posts

'Visual Literacy' (HERE)
'Key Themes in Children's Literature: Environmental Issues' (HERE

Friday, May 11, 2012

Literature as a means to understand people different from yourself

As I have argued in previous posts (here & here), we learn a great deal from literature. Literature brings great pleasure but it also teaches us and can impact on us emotionally. It passes on aspects of our cultural traditions, it introduces us to other cultures and it teaches us about our world, its history, its people and what it is to be human. A piece of literature is more than just a good story. I wrote in one of my books (Pathways to Literacy, Cairney 1995, p.77-78) that literature can act as:

  • A mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances
  • A source of knowledge
  • A source of ideological challenge
  • A means to peer into the past, and the future
  • A vehicle to other places
  • A means to reflect on inner struggles
  • An introduction to the realities of life and death
  • A vehicle for the raising and discussion of social issues
In this post I want to look at a group of books that I would loosely term books that help children to become aware of people who are different. Understanding the 'other'. The notion of the 'Other' is important in defining our sense of self.  The emergence of a sense of the ‘other’ is one of the ways that children first become aware of those who are different and to differentiate between that which can create fear, and that which is familiar and certain. The post is a revised version of one I did in 2010.

Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale 'The Ugly Duckling' first published in 1843 is a fairytale that speaks directly to this theme.  As the young ducks grew older they could see that the last 'duck' was not like them: 'He's too big!" "You're appallingly ugly!" "I wish you were miles away". They struggle to work out how to deal with his difference, "But why should we care so long as you don't marry into our family?"  While the 'Ugly Duckling' and other stories often speak of many things, some have the wonderful quality of shifting children's focus beyond themselves, to become aware of the other, to understand their difference, and to re-shape their sense of self as they see themselves in relation to those who are 'other' than themselves.

The books that follow are just a 'light' sample of the many books available for young readers. I have mainly chosen picture books but there are many children's novels that include this theme. I have also used some sub-headings to offer a sense of just some of the senses of 'difference' that are brought into focus.

1. The Aged

'Remember Me' by Margaret Wild & Dee Huxley (illustrator)

Margaret Wild's delightful book centres on the first person narrative of a grandmother who talks about her life and how frustrating it is when she forgets things. Her granddaughter is her little helper, enabling her to survive the day. While Wild's intent is to look specifically at memory loss and how it impacts on the aged, it also offers an insight into how this is read and responded to by others. In time the woman even forgets her granddaughter; but by mentally reliving her experience of the little girl (from birth to the present) she remembers her and the little girl promises that she'll be around to help her remember.  The older person with failing memory is not a problem, but someone to be loved, supported and learned from. And of course, in the process, our lives are enriched.

Other examples in this category include 'Wilfrid, Gordon McDonald Partridge' by Mem Fox & Julie Vivas (illustrator). This is probably my favourite Mem Fox book.  Another example is 'Waiting for May' by Thyrza Davey. In this wonderful story a social worker wants an old man 'Old Alec' living on a houseboat in Queensland with his dog to move to a retirement home. He 'escapes' to avoid this fate but in escaping his fate, a fierce storm and a little young boy change everything.

2. The person of different race or ethnicity

'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.

Another more recent exploration of this theme is Matt Ottley's epic picture book 'Requiem for a Beast' (which I have reviewed HERE), that uses story (in picture book form), image and music to explore the painful experiences of the 'Stolen Generation' and in the process helps us to learn much about ourselves and how the non-Indigenous are positioned relative to Indigenous Australians. This book is a picture book for secondary aged readers, not young children.

From the difficult, to the simpler rendering of this theme, Dr Seuss has also written a number of examples that touch on 'otherness'.  '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:

And, now we meet quite often,
Those empty pants and I,
And we never shake or tremble.
We both smile
And, we say

3. The person in different social circumstances

'Way Home' by Libby Hathorn & Gregory Rogers(illustrator)

This is the story of Shane, a young street kid (which isn't revealed until the end of the story), who finds a lost kitten. The story takes us through the city streets to Shane’s ‘house’; which the kitten will share with him. The illustrations by Gregory Rogers portray Sydney at night. They show the constant shift (which is part of Shane's life) from busy streets ablaze with lights to dark and sometimes threatening back alleyways. There are hazards and dangers for Shane and the tiny kitten at every turn. The story offers an insight into the life of the homeless and is a poignant story of two survivors. Suitable for 7-10 years olds.

4. Understanding the 'other' gender 

There have been many books that look at differences of gender. A recent author who has focused on this theme is Aaron Blabey. His first book 'Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley' is about friendship and relationships. Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley are the best of friends, but they are different in almost every way. Pearl likes solving mysteries and moves rather fast in the world; Charlie likes taking baths and watching his garden grow. So how can Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley be such good friends? Because that which is in the 'other' can complement that which is in him or her.  The book won the Children's Book Council Award for Picture Book of the year in 2009.

Blabey continues tangentially with a variation on theme in his second and third books 'Sunday Chutney' and 'Stanley Paste'.  In these, his first person narratives are more focused on how the child copes with their difference rather than us coping with the other. The rather unusual girl Sunday Chutney is always moving from school to school due to her Dad's jobs, coping with difference and awkwardness all the time. 

In 'Stanley Paste' we learn of the very small boy (Stanley Paste), who hates his size, until one day a new girl arrives at school who is very tall. Like Stanley, she hates the way she is. They become good friends and see different things in each other than many of the other kids at school who have made their lives miserable.

Summing Up

Each of the books above does much more than just presenting the theme that I have pointed to. However, the concept of 'otherness' is an important one in life and each book offers children the opportunity to consider who they are and how do they situate themselves relative to the 'other'; This is just one example of how literature does more than simply present enjoyable narrative accounts.

Other posts

All previous 'Key Themes' posts HERE

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Helping Preschoolers to Become Writers

I get many questions from concerned parents on this blog worrying about how fast they should push their preschool children as writers (see the comments on a previous post on writing HERE). Some worry about their four year old children reversing letters like 'd', 's' and 'b'. Others wonder why their children can't write their name by age three. Others want their children writing words from memory before they start school. While such concerns are well motivated, they miss the point that real writing is more than just correct letter formation, accurate spelling and neat handwriting. While all these things are important, and are important component skills for writing, your child might be able to do some of these things before the age of three and not be far along the path to becoming a good writer. For writing, like reading is above all, about meaning. Being able to communicate, record, express, instruct, persuade and so on. If parents become too preoccupied with letter formations, sound-symbol relationships and transcription too early, they may neglect other key understandings. 

1. What are the things to look for and encourage?

Here are six things that are foundational to early writing success.

Writing is about meaningful intent - What I mean by this is that when your child picks up a pencil, crayon or piece of chalk and makes a mark on paper, the path or (sadly) the wall, the hope is that they will be trying to 'say' something, even if it is just "Hey, I did this!"

Writing is about connection - When your child starts to bring a piece of paper to you and says "For you Daddy", he is saying, I did this and I think it's special and, I want you to have it. This suggests an understanding of written language as a symbolic system, a way to make meaning that others can grasp.

Writing is about ownership - As your child begins to attempt to place their name on everything, it is about them saying, this is mine; I know this (and you will too) because I've put my mark on it.

Now this image shows perseverance and intent!

Writing is about perseverance - When your child sits with a piece of paper for 15-20 minutes scribbling, drawing, trying to form letters and words, this suggests that they are motivated and can show perseverance.

Writing is about words - When the young writer begins to connect writing with spoken language play, words heard or seen via radio, CDs, computers, iPhones or television, they are developing a sense that language resources are to be used for writing.

Writing is about response - When your child reaches for some paper to draw and write after hearing a story, watching a television program or experiencing something, they show that they grasp that writing can be a way to respond and say, this is what I think this means. 

2. What can parents do to encourage the above?

There are many things that parents can do to encourage the above. Here are six that should seem obvious but need to be stressed.

Her sister reads Lydia her first story at age 2 hours

Read to your children from birth - Books will teach your child about language, story and the world. This is what will ultimately determine whether they have much to say.

Provide lots of writing materials - Have a writing table from the time they can sit, or use a high chair for this purpose. Give them paper, crayons (not pencils before 12 months) and pictures to 'play' with in order to communicate, make their mark or respond.

Discuss print in their world - Show them words, point to signs, direct their attention to packaging symbols and brands, television logos, writing on clothing, computer images and graphics.

Give them rich experiences - Use language to explore their world, encourage them to draw as a record and try to add words. Write some words for them and read them together.

Sing songs, read poetry, dance, and create - And as you do, use language in all its forms.

Show them how to form letters - You can do this with paper and there are many great iPad apps that help and are fun (see my review here).

3. What should I expect my child to be able to before school?
I'm always amazed that almost every parent expects their children to arrive at school able to write sentences that are perfectly formed with accurate spelling. I have rarely found any child who by 5 years can attain this. What are reasonable milestones that most children achieve before school?

At age 7 months Lydia already has some reading intent

18 months

Between age one and two, most children should be scribbling with some intent. By this I mean that they will try to make repetitive scribbles, make unusual lines, play with crayons and paper for up to 3-5 minutes. They should also be able to listen to parts of stories, try to turn pages, make noises when pictures are shown etc.

24 months

By two they should be able to scribble with intent, try to make written forms that could approximate letters (circle shapes, lines and circles). They will listen intently to stories, turn pages, say words that correspond to pictures, play with simple word and sound apps like Peekaboo Barn.

Above: Sample from the "Young in Art" site showing intent in the drawing of a young child

36-42 months

Most children will be attempting to draw letters, represent words with some letters, or letter-like shapes and associate these signs with pictures and meaning. They will try to 'read' books alone by turning pages, looking at pictures, making up the story to go with the pictures or reciting simple predictable stories from memory (e.g. 'There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly')

48-54 months

Between the age of four and five most children will be trying to write their name but not achieving it accurately. They will be beginning to use letters or numbers, word-like forms and pictures to communicate meaning. They might also make up signs to put on doors or the fridge that have a purpose (but are not necessarily written in accurate form). They will be beginning to learn to recognise letters and numbers. They will enjoy sending and receiving cards, looking for words in their world and recognise their association with meaning (e.g. store signs, brands, own name). They may try to write on an electronic tablet and will enjoy books.

60 months

By age 5 many children (probably 50-60%) can write their name and read some signs. A majority will also be able to write some numbers up to 10 (some will reverse them), and some letters (again some children will do this with reversals). A small number (less than 10%) will be beginning to read words, sound words out, and read predictable books. A small number (less than 10%) will also write messages that use invented and conventional spelling that can be read or partially read with the child's help.

4. What do researchers have to say about this?

There have been many studies of children's early art and many that have examined early literacy, but few have looked at the relationship between the two. A colleague of mine from Indiana University, Professor Jerome Harste conducted significant research in late 1970s and early 1980s that did just this and is seen as seminal work. With his colleagues Professors Virginia Woodward and Carolyn Burke and many graduate students, they studied the early writing of children aged 3, 4, 5 & 6 years. Harste, Woodward and Burke published their research in a book called Language Stories and Literacy Lessons. They concluded that most children know the difference between reading and writing by age 3, and that by this time they are developing an understanding of written language, demonstrated in their scribbles and attempts to write and draw, and that these parallel those of older proficient language users. They put to one side traditional developmental notions and suggested that children, at least from age 3, begin to demonstrate elements of authoring; they called this the "authoring cycle". For example they identified in the early scribble and 'writing' of very young children:
  • Organization (evidence of conventions and the genesis of cognitive processes similar to adults)
  • Intentionality (evidence that the children know that their marks signify something)
  • "Generativeness" (an attempt to generate or make meaning)
  • Risk-taking (trying things they haven't before)
  • An understanding that language has social function
  • Awareness that context matters in language (the situation is related to what you and write and how you use it)
  • That one's scribbles and later words form a text or unit of meaning (they realise that the sum of the elements collectively mean something)
For example, picking up on just one the above elements of authoring, Harste, Woodward and Burke observed in the scribbles of children from families who had a first language other than English some interesting differences. The writing below shows just one example of how different scribble can be for four-year-old children living in homes that speak different languages; in this case, English, Arabic and Hebrew. They concluded that evidence like this demonstrates that at age four, even before these children are writing words, that there scribble demonstrates organization, and that this is similar to the processes used by proficient writers.

Above: Harste, Burke & Woodward (1984), p. 82

I have also written about this topic at length in other publications such as "Pathways to Literacy", Cassell: London, 1995.