Monday, November 26, 2012

The Incredible Picture Books of Roland Harvey

Roland Bruce Harvey (born 11 December 1945) is an Australian children's illustrator and author. He still lives in his birthplace of Melbourne. He is best known as an illustrator of children's books using pen, ink and watercolour. His illustrations are readily identifiable by their incredible detail that can keep you returning again and again to explore each carefully designed plate. His work (especially his own authored books) displays his quirky humour and sense of fun. He is a former architect who established illustration and design firm Roland Harvey Studios in 1978, to produce greeting cards, posters and stationery with a very Aussie flavour. In 1981 he established his own book publishing company Five Mile Press. The children's book division of the company was designed to publish entertaining and challenging books that make kids laugh and raise ideas and issues. I first became aware of Roland's work as a teacher when he published the 'Eureka Stockade' (1981) and 'The First Fleet' (1982) with author Alan Boardman. All 31 of the children in my one-teacher school loved them across all my seven grades (kindergarten to year 6). I've been enjoying his work ever since. I have had great fun in recent times enjoying the adventures of Uncle Kev with my grandchildren aged 1 to 10.

His latest book in the Uncle Kev series has just been released which was the motivation for this post and the interview which follows. It's a classic, so read it!

The Uncle Kev series (Allen & Unwin)

Readers first met Uncle Kev in 'To the Top End: Our trip across Australia' (2009). This funny travelogue (with a difference!) takes us on the perilous journey of the Aussie larrikin Uncle Kev. We start in Tasmania's dense forests, sail Bass Straight to bushland Victoria, cross the Snowy Mountains, and follow the mighty Murray River, before crossing Australia's challenging outback to the tropical 'Top End'.  In Uncle Kev's second book, 'All the Way to WA: Our search for Uncle Kev', Roland takes us on the search for Uncle Kev, who is seemingly lost. Our 'renowned lobotanist, inventor and ex-commando' has been reported missing after setting out to find the supposedly extinct Australian 'Night Parrot' [if you want to find out who Uncle Kev 'really' is, read the interview].

In the third book in the series we get up close and personal with Uncle Kev as his relatives Frankie, Penny, Henry and their Mum & Dad visit and are taken around his working farm. With a mix of prose, poetry and 'expository asides' (I think Uncle Kev would like this term) and of course Harvey's wonderfully designed and drawn illustrations, we learn what everyone needs to know about his farm. Just why do we all need a shed? How good is his 'bungee-pik' machine at picking fruit? We explore his 'simple and functional' headquarters (no super heroes here!) with his gymnasium kitchen, the secret entrance from his garage under the loo, and a room for his working pigs. We also meet many of his friends and family, like Paddy and Maria Antipasto, the great cook Miss Kellie Kelly, and his Dad (who tests the bungee-pik). But of course, like any farm, there are also lots of animals. Uncle Kev knows them and loves them. He speaks to his cows in 'cow' (the bulls of course just speak 'bull'), and he polishes his pigs. Of course, all his animals have a name and a purpose. There is Zorro the Shetland, Maisy the Clydesdale, and Sampson who is having a foal!

This is Roland Harvey at his amusing best. And all the while, within the fun and silliness, we learn some stuff along the way. What I love about this book is the multi-layered way he builds up his story. The academic in me wants to say that this book offers the 3 to 53 year old the ultimate multimodal, intertextual experience possible from a book. But then again, I'd sound like an academic. No, it's a complex, funny and rollicking tale about a type of Aussie character that many of us just might have hidden in our families. Then again, I might just say that this is a bonzer book about Uncle Kev!

The Interview

I have but one regret about this interview, it wasn't done over a beer in a quiet Melbourne pub. I've never met Roland but would love to. As you read his answers I think you'll understand why.

1. Did you have a love of story in your childhood years? Why or why not?

My father was run over by two trucks in Collins St. when I was three, so was out of action for a lot of my childhood. He was also very strict. I am sure I missed out on some positive influence as a result.

I was lucky in having excellent English books sent out by my Aunts after WWII. I absolutely devoured them and learned a lot from them. They were Information and Adventure books [Eagle Annual’ for boys was full of science, action, biography, comic strips, natural history (very British!)] and they certainly got me interested in nature and adventure. They also influence my storytelling to this day.

‘I Spy’ was a series on natural history beautifully presented and consummately English. It showed me they great differences between the European and Australian ecologies and landscapes. I have consciously set out to show readers the character and beauty of the Australian environment.

The ‘William’ series (Richmal Compton) was a great study of three or four grubby boys in a rural village during the war. The characters were very funny and finely drawn, as were the pen & ink illustrations. The subtlety of English humour has stayed with me, I think.

2. Why do you think children (and adults) love your work?

People say they ‘love the detail’. I find this embarrassing to be truthful, as I try to put a lot more into a book than detail.

In studying Architecture and Environmental Design I found I am a ‘Big Picture’ person. My illustrations reflect this in the inter-relationship of everything. I think people respond to the story within the story, and the strangeness of some of these situations.

I enjoy the caricature element of my work, and I think people respond to some of the characters. We all know someone like that!

So much of a story is influenced by context, and I feel a need to provide that perspective. I also try to show how things work and why something is happening, or what might happen next.

3. Did (or do) you have an Uncle Kev?

I have a brother in law Uncle Kev whom I admire greatly. My character is three people rolled into one: Kev who led adventure tours through Africa in the ‘70s and has the shed and Jag in the book; ‘Bucko’, who was an outdoor ed. Instructor and totally gung-ho without quite enough caution to moderate his actions, and myself, who is probably still trying to prove his manhood. One of us is an inventor and never quite finishes things but I can’t say which one.

4. Did you start drawing crazy characters early in life? Was there an inspiration for your marvellously detailed drawings?

I did drawings of people , cars and buildings all through school, and later realized it was an aid to concentration, not to mention a way of being popular with my classmates, if not teachers.

5. You say you love watching people. Do you spend long hours sketching a scene like Uncle Kev's shed from life, or is this and other images re-creations?

My better drawings are done from impressions and memory. If I get stuck I just go and have another look. Some things, such as water are very difficult to interpret so I may take five visits to a river to get an understanding of the factors at play: movement, reflections, shadows, sparkles, transparency, refraction, ripples and eddies etc.

I do make notes and sketches of characters at airports and beaches etc, for future reference. I need to be careful how I use characteristics like fat, sadness and posture and mafia connections.

6. What is the best response you've ever had to a book?

I get different responses but the ones I value are when kids say the book is ‘cool’ (or I’m ‘cool!’) which tells me they have read it for pleasure, particularly when the subject is not cool, or is difficult. Awards are good, but I am aware they may be made to a bit of a formula. From a personal point of view I appreciate an author’s endorsement, again particularly if was a difficult subject.

‘Sick As – the History of Medicine’ is one which has ticked boxes on most counts; it is the book that works for primary and secondary students; it is the one they will come back into class at lunchtime to read more; my illustrations were taken from Medical school textbooks and the author called them ‘genius’. The importance of that to me was that for most of my career the feedback from the marketing end of publishing has been shallow, negative (anti-intellectual) and self serving. It is difficult to maintain confidence and a positive attitude when so many egos are so involved. One comment of that type keeps you going.

The first series of history books ‘Eureka Stockade’, ‘The First Fleet’ etc (about 1980) are still in print and would have sold in the 2-300 000 area. This was despite being initially rejected by a major publisher.

‘At the Beach’ has been German, Chinese, a drama for children and a best seller according to the publisher, so that is probably as good as it gets.

7. Will there be more Uncle Kev books?

Uncle Kev is a good character, and I would like to see him take on some new roles as a philosopher, a diplomat, and a traveller to exotic lands. He also may become a father and raise a family, but all that is up to my esteemed publisher.

8. Are there authors and illustrators who you admire and find inspirational?

I have certainly been influenced by many: Bob Graham, Ronald Searle, Quentin Bake, Spike Milligan, Ralph Steadman, and my History of Architecture lecturer, Jo Bradley, who made it come alive for me, and taught me all about context.

9. What's the craziest thing you've ever done (that you can tell us about)?

I shouldn’t mention the things I did (in cars, boats and skis) to prove to myself I could look it in the eye and stare it down… because mostly they were plain stupid.

Finally I realized that calculated risks which involve skill, planning, preparation and no risk to anyone else were a better idea. That is the message (I hope) in my books.

The weirdest thing was a result of an impetuous serial habit of saying whatever comes into my head to complete strangers.

Eg.: Walking around Bologna Italy late at night with my editor, Scott Riddle. Scott needs a powder room, so I wait in a small bar. English voices in the corner; I introduce myself as Quentin Blake. Laughter: ‘No you’re not Quentin Blake, he’s Quentin Blake'.

They never believed that I had no idea what Quentin looked like, that he was in Italy at all, let alone in that bar.

It is probably a good thing that I am both big and ugly.

Complete List of Roland Harvey's Books

'Eureka Stockade' (1981), author Alan Boardman
'The First Fleet' (1982), author Alan Boardman
'The Friends of Emily Culpepper' (1983), author Ann Coleridge
'Burke and Wills' (1985), author David Greagg
'My Place in Space' (1988), with Joe Levine, authors Robin and Sally Hirst
'Milly Fitzwilly's Mousecatcher' (1991), author Marcia Vaughan
'Islands in My Garden' (1998), author Jim Howes
'Sick As - Bloody Moments in the History of Medicine' (2000)
'Belvedere Dreaming' (2002), author Kate Ryan
'Belvedere in the City' (2002), author Kate Ryan
'Belvedere Is Beached' (2002), author Kate Ryan
'Islands in my Garden' (2002)
'Climbing Mount Sugarbin: Aussie Bites' (2003) 
'At the Beach: Postcards from Crabby Spit' (2004)
'In the Bush : Our Holiday at Wombat Flat' (2005)
'In the City : Our Scrapbook of Souvenirs' (2007)
'The Secret Record of Me' (2007)
'In the City' (2007)
'In the Bush' (2007)
'The Shadow Brumby' (2007), author Alison Lester
'Circus Pony' (2007), author Alison Lester
'Racing the Tide' (2007), author Alison Lester
'My Place in Space' (2008)
'Roland Harvey's Big Book of Christmas' (2008)
'Saving Mr Pinto' (2008), author Alison Lester
'To the Top End' (2009)
'All the Way to WA' (2011)
'On the Farm' (2012)

Some of Roland's Awards

Roland's books have received many awards. Perhaps his highest honour was winning the 2005 Dromkeen Medal presented annually to an Australian who has made a significant contribution to the appreciation and development of children's literature. He has also been honoured by the Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA), including being short-listed for 'Burke and Wills' (1986) and 'To the Top End' (2010). 'Burke and Wills' also won the Clifton Pugh Award in 1986. 'Sick As - Bloody Moments in the History of Medicine' (2000) was shortlisted for the NSW Premier's Children's History Award.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Story and literature as a springboard to other Learning

Family outing to explore the real 'My Place'
Classrooms and homes are places where children can encounter a complex range of books, oral stories, good videos and television programs. Story is everywhere, and memorable stories become part of the substance of children's lives. They feed their language, story-making ability, creativity and other forms of learning. The most exciting classrooms and homes are places where children and adults:
  • Share stories with each other and incorporate storybook language into classroom, playground and home life.
  • Spontaneously respond to stories - 'Can I make my own book like Jeannie's'? (Jeannie Baker is the master of collage).
  • Gossip about stories - 'Have you seen this book'? 'Did you watch Toy Story last night'? 'My big brother told me this weird story about...'. 'Mrs watts, this story reminds me of that movie we watched..'. 'Have you read some of the other Berenstain Bear books?'
  • Incorporate stories into their playground and outdoor activities - 'Let's do the Big Bad Wolf, and I'm the wolf.' 'Can we play Toy Story, and I'm Woody?'
  • Incorporate elements of stories read, seen or heard into their writing.
  • Use literature and stories of all kinds as springboards to other forms of learning - 'Can we see if we can sink a boat like in the book?' (This is in response to 'Who Sank the Boat', see below)
  • Respond creatively through drawing, movement, song and rhyme, dance, drama.
 Some examples of literature as a springboard

In this post I want to provide examples of how 6 children's books can act as a springboard for meaning making and learning. Examples based on films, videos and life experiences, but literature is sufficient to illustrate what I mean by the above comments.

1. 'The Jolly Postman, or Other People's Letters' by Janet & Allen Ahlberg (1986)

'The Jolly Postman' is a favourite book for many children (and adults). The Ahlberg's inspiration for the 'Jolly Postman' was the fact that their daughter was always upset when they went to the mailbox and none of the letters were for her. So they wrote her a book that was full of her own mail. The text brilliantly weaves together various fairytale characters in a continuous narrative, while introducing readers to varied written genres - letters, a postcard, birthday card, letter from a solicitor etc. The book took five years to make but it won many awards, including the Kate Greenaway Medal. You can read my post on the Ahlbergs HERE

Children who read the book, or who share it as a class or group will delight in creating their own version of this unique book, or simply producing their own letters, cards, bills etc based on storybook characters or stories. Classes I have shared the book with have wanted to write and design their own versions of these texts inspired by other books and movies. 

2. 'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' by Jeannie Baker (1987)

Jeannie Baker is a well-known Australian illustrator and author who is a master of collage. She frequently develops her work around environmental themes, or other forms of social commentary. This example of her work is the story of a boy and his father who go out in their boat to fish along the coast of the Daintree Forest in far North Queensland. It's a place where the tropical rainforest meets the sea, but where there are pressures from development. 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. You can read my review of Baker's work HERE.

'Window' (1991) Greenwillow Books

A second example from Baker is 'Window'. This book represents a move from the natural world to the man-made world as she shows once again how development can change the natural world. A mother and her baby look through a window at bush and open space. 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.

Both books can inspire readers to produce their own collage, predict the future for a specific place, or contemplate how humanity changes places. Students might write letters to the editor commenting on the social cost of development, contribute to a joint blog with other students interested in a common concern and so on.

Illustration from Jeannie Baker's 'Window'
'Window' offers a special opportunity to find a window at school or home and imagine what it might have looked like out the same window 50 years ago, or perhaps 100 years into the future. The children could draw a series of pictures, caption them or write more extended text (in varied genres such as narrative, recount, exposition etc).

3. 'The Sign of the Seahorse: A Tale of Greed and High Adventure in Two Acts' by Graeme Base (1992)

The 'Sign of the Seahorse' is an illustrated picture book by well-known author and illustrator Graeme Base.  It was published in 1992. Originally designed by Base to become a narrated concert, the story is composed of two acts. We have a hero, a villain and eventually, the victory of good over evil. The story follows the underwater life of Reeftown that is threatened with environmental disaster.

The book explores varied ways to express meaning using language, image and many other devices (e.g. colour, print layout, a map, hidden clues etc). It stimulates creativity and the imagination in ways that can lead spontaneously to many texts, drawings, dramatic skits and so on. With little prompting your children will want to draw their own maps of the reef, record dialogue for a favourite character or scene, create drawings and collage. These varied forms of response will enrich the children's experience of the story and encourage them to deep their understanding of the environmental issues stimulated by the book. You can read my review of the work of Graeme Base HERE.

4. 'Counting on Frank' by Rod Clement (1990)

In 'Counting on Frank' we meet a boy who spends his life trying to solve problems to do with number, area and capacity. Frank speculates about many things. How many dogs identical to his own would it take to fill his room? How many of his Dad could he squeeze into a television? How long it would take to fill his entire bathroom at bath time? One day Frank puts these skills to a very practical use with a good outcome. This is a delightful story that teaches us about mathematical problem solving, estimation and prediction.

You can't read this book without talking about Frank's predictions yourself. In the right hands children can be encouraged to speculate and set up their own means to test their assumptions and predictions. These can be shared in verbal, written and diagrammatic form for hours of fun, and varied literacy, mathematical and scientific learning.  Your class might set up its own competition that requires prediction, estimation or mathematical calculations of all kinds.

5. 'Who Sank the Boat' by Pamela Allen (1982)

Pamela Allen has written and illustrated many wonderful and simple picture books. In 'Who Sank the Boat' her story explores how many animals it takes to sink a boat, and who's at fault!

Besides the sea, on Mr Peffer's place, there lived a cow, a donkey, 
a sheep, a pig, and a tiny little mouse. 
One warm sunny morning for no particular reason, 
they decided to go for a row in the bay . . .

In 'Mr Archimedes Bath' Pamela Allen invites her readers to consider why the water is flooding the floor as each animal hops into his bath. Mr Archimedes climbs in with a goat, a wombat and a kangaroo. In amazement he observes that the water continues to rise and eventually ends up on the floor.
"Can anyone tell me where all this water came from?"
And of course eventually, "Eureka!" he cracks the mystery. He exclaims with joy:
"We make the water go up."
Both these delightful predictable books are wonderful springboards to lots of simple science experiments with buckets, water and varied objects. Children will enjoy experimenting, drawing what they see, writing scientific notes, drawing charts. There are lots of ways to extend the experience of the story, record their new scientific understanding and enrich the literary experience. They might even want to become historians and explore who Archimedes was and what 'Eureka' means. You can read my review of Allen's work HERE.
6.  'My Green Day' by Melanie Walsh (2010)

This is a book suitable for 3-6 year olds. At first appearance it looks like a simple story about a day in one family's life, but it has a twist. It introduces children to ten things that they can do to protect the planet. Each double page has a simple sentence about parts of their day with a fine print explanation for teachers and parents that helps them to explain why each thing they do can help to 'green' the day.
'I eat a free-range egg for my breakfast'
'I put my eggshell in the compost bin ..'
'I help empty the washing machine... and peg our clothes out to dry'. And so on.
The illustrations are simple but eye-catching, use simple tonal variations, strongly contrasting colours and many variations in page shape, cut-outs and so on, to capture attention. The book has the look and feel of recycled paper.

The book can act as a springboard to varied environmental projects. Classes could set up a compost box, begin a worm farm, build a vegetable patch, or learn how to clean things without chemicals. Perhaps they could do their own 'Greed Days' based on their life at home or school. As well, writing, language and drawing can be used to support their varied response to how they might 'green' the day.   
Summing Up

While literature is important as a wonderful source of meaning, language and learning, it can also act as a springboard to other ways to learn and express ongoing explorations and discovery. Story enriches and can stay with you for life. It can have echoes that penetrate other areas of learning in can deepen learning experiences in surprising ways.

Well-known New Zealand author Margaret Mahy was well aware of the way stories crept into her life, and became part of her learning and literary history. When reflecting upon her childhood literary experiences she commented:
"I wrote because I was a reader, and wanted to relive certain reading experiences more intimately by bringing them back out of myself......books give me access to a continuous and reciprocating discussion, and the awareness of lots of things all going on simultaneously... I think I dissolved the books I needed and no doubt I still carry them (in solution) within me" (1987).

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Why stickers & school reward systems do little to motivate

When my grandchildren were visiting about a year ago they were playing with some old stamps and an inkpad. The stamps were actually reward stamps that I had purchased in my first year of Primary school teaching. I stopped using them the year I bought them - 1972!  But they had survived.  I was a little horrified to see the stamps with words like "Messy", "You Did Not Listen", "Do this Over", "Incomplete" and a token "Good" (see the illustration).

I know why I bought them. As a young inexperienced teacher in a difficult school in Sydney I grasped at old ideas; how I was taught, extrinsic rewards and sometimes punishment. I can also recall why I stopped using them. I was wandering around the room one day at the end of a lesson checking books and one of my Grade 4 students said: "Sir, can I have a the 'Do this over' one, it's the only one I haven't got yet?" I realised that they liked the pictures and thought little about the words.

I was reminded again of the stamps recently when a new batch of stickers came free as an insert in magazine to which I subscribe. They are mostly adhesive stickers these days and as you'd expect they are much more positive, no hint of anything negative. As well, in this much more market savvy age, the set was promoting Sally Rippin's popular Billie B. Brown book series.  As an aside, this is a level of commercialism that wouldn't have been possible in 1972.  I can certainly see kids collecting these stickers and feeling good about it. But do these stickers (and my old set of stamps) do anything useful to motivate children to learn? And what about other reward systems that are used in schools regularly; do they motivate children to learn? To answer these question I need to say something about 'motivation',  'competition' and 'punishment'.

What is motivation?

The psychologist will tell you that motivation refers to the psychological forces that lead us to act to achieve a desired goal. It can also refer to the reason for our actions that give purpose and direction to our behaviour.  Psychologists always distinguish between two major categories in our reasons for action. First, forces that come from inside the individual (e.g. interest, challenge, intense need to know something, desire to complete a task, feelings of self-worth etc) - Intrinsic Motivation. Second, forces that are external to the learner that can offer reward and pleasure (e.g. prizes, money, good grades etc) - Extrinsic Motivation.

What is Competition?

Competition is essentially when two people contest the same thing. Two runners try to reach the finish line first, thirty people scurry to get the last 20 tickets to a concert, two families try to get the best table in the park, children strive to be the best speller in the class. Competition can motivate, but there is great debate about its potential to lead to intrinsic motivation (not just extrinsic motivation). In the school context, competition in simple terms is about trying to do things better than other children.

What is Punishment?

Punishment is the use of some stimuli to reduce or eliminate unwanted behaviour. It can involve physical stimuli (e.g. a smack, confinement etc) or non-physical action (e.g. the removal of privileges, verbal chastisement etc). It is seen as effective if the punishment leads us to want to avoid a behaviour or action in the future (e.g. the child stays on task, rather than off it).  Research also suggests that for it to be effective it needs to happen just after the behaviour, and it is more effective if it is severe and occurs every time the behaviour occurs.

So what does this all mean for kids and learning?

1. Be careful with extrinsic motivation - At the very least, what we know about motivation should lead us to think carefully about the use of any form or extrinsic reward to motivate children. The stamps I used I can confidently say had little impact on the children I taught. Perhaps over time if your child gets enough super effort awards at school, they will feel good about themselves. But not if the rewards have little relationship to 'real' achievement or 'real' change in behaviour that they recognise as having its own rewards.  We need to recognise that extrinsic motivation might change behaviour for a time, but it doesn't necessarily lead to any sustained benefit. In fact, some argue that it does little for intrinsic motivation.

2. Ensure that ultimately it is intrinsic motivation that we should seek for our children - When extrinsic rewards are removed will they continue to want to learn, explore new ideas, sustain their efforts in any area of life?

3. Understand that punishment has a place in parenting and teaching but it is limited - For a start, physical punishment is not an option for teachers, and is rarely an option for parents. Even physical strategies such as the 'naughty chair', detention and so on, only work long term when associated with a realisation on the child's part that their behaviour was unwise, wrong, inappropriate, selfish etc. It should also lead to the child seeing the benefits to them of different behaviour.

4. Understand that for every winner there is always at least one loser - Classrooms, in particular, are places that should not be driven just by competition. In any class, and family for that matter, there will be different children with different strengths and weaknesses.  If you promote competition you will need to link it to a very broad range of achievements. Our primary aim isn't just to make sure that everyone gets a super effort award, but to actually acknowledge varied areas of achievement and learning. You will need to ensure that you don't simply reward compliant behaviour. We should also acknowledge kindness, tenacity, creativity, problem solving, graciousness, service and so on.

5. Recognise that extrinsic motivation has a relationship to what and how you teach - As a young teacher I soon discovered that teaching spelling simply by drilling and memorising lists of words led inevitably to a Friday spelling test to judge success or failure on the list. The Friday test of separate isolated words matched the way I taught decontextualised spelling, not the ability to write well, or even spell well in context. If your child's school has a massive and complex system of award cards, or if you teach in a school like this, you should constantly consider what is rewarded or acknowledged and what this says about the things that are valued in the classroom.

Summing up

I want to stress that I'm not saying that competition is wrong and completely unhelpful. No, it can motivate us in many positive ways.  But there is a difference between an adult being self-motivated by a desire to compete and succeed and the way we impose competitive structures on young children. Children need to understand when competition is good, fun and satisfying - this is one of life's hard lessons. They need to learn how to win and lose gracefully, and how to deal with success and failure. Wanting to beat your brother at backyard cricket might be fun and drives lots of good physical activity, skill development etc, but the benefits are greater and more wide reaching when motivated by more than just wanting to beat him or her into submission. 

We need to think carefully about how we use extrinsic motivation, competition, reward and punishment at school and at home.  We also need to remember that each child is different (even in a family), that we all respond differently to extrinsic rewards, and that different things act as intrinsic motivators for all children.

"If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed." Albert Einstein

"One might think that the money value of an invention constitutes its reward to the man who loves his work. But... I continue to find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success."  Thomas A. Edison

Other posts

There are many other posts on this blog that deal with related issues in child learning (here)

A UNESCO document titled 'How Children Learn' can be downloaded free HERE

This is a revised version of a post I wrote almost two years ago (16.3.11).

Friday, November 2, 2012

18 Picture books that 'teach' as well as 'tell'

Picture books are a source of great delight for children and adults. Whether read alone, together in groups or by a parent to a child, they enrich language, share narrative in all its forms and also teach. In many ways, the picture book is the pinnacle of the narrative genre. I wanted in this post just to demonstrate how, in so many different ways good picture books 'teach', as well as 'tell' great stories.

'The Dream of the Thylacine', Margaret Wild & illustrated by Ron Brooks (2011), Allen & Unwin

This wonderful book is a lament for the loss of a remarkable animal.  The use of a stripped down 130 word text, haunting images and historic photographs, leads to a simple, yet profound and evocative telling of the conquest of a species by human action. This book will teach more about ecology and humanity's need to consider how it shares this earth with other creatures than 10 lessons on the environment.

Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks are a master team that has produced a number of wonderful picture books.  It was a deserving Honour Book in the 2012 CBC awards for best picture book

'Let the Celebrations Begin!', by Margaret Wild & illustrated by Julie Vivas (1991), Omnibus

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 life in Hut 18 and the planning of celebration as the prisoners 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. This is a picture book about the plight of Jewish prisoners that captures the perspective of the child as well as the adult.

'When the Wind Blows' by Raymond Briggs (1983), Penguin

Raymond Briggs uses a comic or graphic novel format to powerful effect in this challenging book. Like many of the books Briggs writes, it is just as relevant (sometimes 'more' relevant) for adults as for children. It tells of the impact of an atomic blast on an elderly British couple who approach the impending disaster as if they were simply trying to survive the Blitz of WWII.

One afternoon they hear a message on the radio about an "outbreak of hostilities" in three day's time. Jim begins the construction of a fallout shelter just like they did during WWII.  Their pointless preparations are almost comical as the horror of a nuclear holocaust descends on them as they cheerfully and stoically await what is inevitable death. This is a story with political and ideological messages that many won't young children to address, but which older children will find challenging.

The book was later made into an animated film.

'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' by Jeannie Baker (1987), Julia MacRae

This wonderful book is a narrative account that makes a powerful statement about humanity and the natural world. As always, Jeannie Baker is the master of collage, but in this work demonstrates a new complexity in her clever use of overlaid photographic images to portray different time periods. The story itself 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 of a place that humanity has degraded and destroyed.

'Fair's Fair' by Leon Garfield & illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain (1981), Hodder & Stoughton

Leon Garfield is one of the greatest exponents of historical fiction for children. As well as many wonderful novels for older children he has also written a number of picture books. Two of my favourites are 'The Wedding Ghost' (1985) illustrated by the great illustrator Charles Keeping and  'Fair's Fair' (1981) illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain and in a newer edition with Brian Hoskin as the illustrator (2001). Each of these examples teaches a great deal about life in Victorian London (and other parts of Britain). Through these two examples we learn through the relationships and events of two extreme ends of the social strata, just what everyday life was like for a street urchin ('Fair's, Fair') and the British middle class ('The Wedding Ghost').

'Counting on Frank' by Rod Clement (1990), William Collins

Another wonderful example of this type of book is Rod Clements' 'Counting on Frank' in which Frank spends his life trying to solve problems to do with area and capacity. Frank speculates about many things. How many dogs identical to his own would it take to fill his room? How many of his Dad could he squeeze into a television? How long it would take to fill his entire bathroom at bath time? Frank one day puts these skills to a very practical use with a good outcome. Here is a book that teaches us about mathematical problem solving, estimation and prediction.

'Mr Archimedes' Bath' Pamela Allen

There are a number of books that encourage the reader to solve scientific problems. In this example, the reader is faced with a basic physics problem. Pamela Allen invites her readers to consider why the water is flooding the floor in 'Mr Archimedes' Bath' as each animal hops into his bath. Mr Archimedes climbs in with a goat, a wombat and a kangaroo. In amazement he observes that the water continues to rise and eventually ends up on the floor.
"Can anyone tell me where all this water came from?"
And of course eventually, "Eureka!" he cracks the mystery. He exclaims with joy:
"We make the water go up."
'All About Poop' by Kate Hayes & illustrated by Brenna Vaughan (2012), Pinwheel Books.

This is the best book about 'poop' that I've read! I've always wanted to use that opening line. Now I'm not typically a fan of books that exploit toilet humour and feed on the base instincts of many of us to joke about bodily functions.  But, this book doesn't do these things. Yes, there are funny lines but its aim is to answer children's questions about the way our bodies break down the things we eat, and why that stuff comes out of our bodies. In narrative verse form, Kate Hayes takes us through the story of poop. From the food we ingest right through the cycle to the transport of wastewater, she offers a simple explanation of this biological function. As well, she offers health hints and basic facts at the end of the book. The illustrations by Brenna Vaughan are also delightful and add to the appeal, not that 'floaters' in the toilet bowl can easily be defined as delightful.

'Aranea' by Jenny Wagner & illustrated by Ron Brooks (1975), Puffin

This (as the name suggests) is the story of a back yard spider that weaves its wonderful web each night using its skill and the elements to survive. Its encounter's with man is just one of life's challenges, just as dangerous is nature's elements of storm, wind and rain. A book that in its story and its illustrations teaches us much about spiders, their webs and our impact on them.

'George and Ghost' by Catriona Hoy & illustrated by Cassia Thomas (2010), Hodder Children's Books

Catriona Hoy is a science teacher (read my interview with her HERE) who has written a number of wonderful books that teach something of science through engaging stories.  'George and Ghost' is a great example of a well-told story that teaches as well. George and his friend are inseparable, but George isn't sure he believes in Ghost any more. He asks Ghost to prove he is real using classic scientific evidence. Show me the evidence, what does it mean? Can I trust it? He asks Ghost to weigh himself, have his photo taken and showing that he takes up space. But the scales don't move, Ghost can't be seen in the picture and the water in the bucket doesn't spill when Ghost stands in it. Ghost can't be real. Or can he?

This is a beautiful story of simple friendship that 'asks' a number of questions of the reader. With a dash of science and a little philosophy, readers are challenged to ask what might be, not what can't be.

'The World that Jack Built' by Ruth Brown (1990), Andersen Press

This is an interesting picture book that plays on the idea of the well-known rhyme 'This is the house that Jack built'; but with a twist. The narrative follows the main character who is a black cat chasing a butterfly. The cat's trail winds from Jack's house in the idyllic English countryside, to the trees that gave the raw materials, the stream that flowed nearby, the woods etc. The cat eventually finds its way to a much different stream that flows by the factory that guess who built?
'My Place' by Nadia Wheatley & illustrated by Donna Rawlins (1987), Collins Dove

'My Place' was published in 1987 for distribution in Australia’s bicentennial year (1988) and makes a strong statement about the fact that Indigenous Australians lived in this country for thousands of years before white settlement. It is a very clever book that takes one suburban block (and the surrounding area) and tells the story of this place in reverse chronological sequence, decade by decade, from 1988 back to 1788 when the first British Fleet landed at Botany Bay. The overall meaning of the book is shaped by multiple narrative recounts of the families who have lived in this spot, 'my Place' and the changing nature of the physical landscape and built environment. See me previous post on visiting the 'real' My Place (here).

'Simpson and his Donkey' by Mark Greenwood & illustrated by Frané Lessac (2008), Walker Books

Every Australian and English child who grew up in the 1950s to 70s in Australia would know of the story of Simpson and the donkey he used to retrieve wounded men on the WWI battlefields of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. This was one of the greatest of all defeats for the forces of Britain, France and of course the Australian and New Zealand armed forces (the ANZACs). In the midst of the massacre of thousands of allied troops and the eight-month siege of this isolated beachhead, a man and his donkey were responsible for saving many lives, before Simpson was eventually killed on yet another mission.

Mark Greenwood offers a moving story of John Simpson Kirkpatrick and how he and his donkey, Duffy, rescued over 300 men during the campaign at Gallipoli. It traces his life from his home in South Shields in Newcastle (England) and his journey from the Tyne Dock to Turkey. Informed by detailed research, the text includes a brief biography of the man, details of his work at Gallipoli and also the little known story of how one of the many he rescued was actually a childhood friend.

Frané Lessac's illustrations are a wonderful complement to the story and have strength of colour that is not controlled by conventions. There are skies of yellow, orange, aqua, purple and all shades of blue. Her unique style draws your eye deep into each plate; no details can easily be missed.

'Queenie: One Elephant's Story' by Corinne Fenton & illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe (2012), Black Dog Books
This is the beautiful yet troubling story of 'Queenie' an Indian elephant who was transported to the Melbourne Zoo in 1905 and spent almost 40 years entertaining visitors, giving rides and being a regular spectacle for visitors. It paints a true picture of zoos in the early 20th century and the relationship with their keepers. It also an insight in to the different purposes of zoos in another era, and the way animals were treated. It was a CBC Honour book in 2012.

'Sweethearts of Rhythm' by Marilyn Nelson

This is the story of significant piece of cultural history. It tells through poetry of the first integrated all women's band in the USA. It played swing music and was formed in the late 1930s. The singers all attended the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which was for poor and orphaned African Americans. It was formed to raise money for the school, but it was so good that it eventually toured the whole country and played to massive crowds.

The story is told through a set of rhythmic poems that are written in the varied voices of the instruments. Jerry Pinkney's illustrations add further richness with brilliant collages.

'All the Way to WA: Our search for Uncle Kev' by Roland Harvey (2011), Allen & Unwin

Roland Harvey is one of Australia's best-loved illustrators. This new book is a companion to its wonderful predecessor, 'To the Top End' that was shortlisted in the 2011 CBCA Children's Book Awards. The book takes the reader on a journey across the vast territory of Western Australia. It is written as a travel log in narrative form. From Kalgoorlie to the Bungle Bungles it will take the reader, amusing, informing and captivating them along the way. Uncle Kev, a former professor of hydraulics is reported missing on a mission to find the fabled Bearded Night Parrot. We travel along as we find the clues to the Bearded Night Parrot, and hopefully Uncle Kev. The first single dropping from the 'extinct' parrot, a cooking pot and the remains of scorpion curry... and so it continues. There is no better way to traverse WA than with the wonderfully detailed images and amusing narrative, woven into the journey across this wonderful part of Australia. RRP is $AUS 24.99 with an eBook version available.
Note: I will interview Roland Harvey in a post later in the month

'Bilby's Secrets' by Edel Wignel & illustrated by Mark Jackson (2011), Walker Books

This is a delightful non-fiction picture book that teaches us in narrative form about the life of the wonderful bilby, an Australian marsupial. It traces the events of a typical day for mother and baby, and the perils of native and feral animals as the baby Bilby tries to survive life in the Australian landscape. Edel Wignel's story keeps the reader interested, while Mark Jackson's brightly coloured illustrations add drama and detail to this piece of discovery learning in narrative form. Children aged 2-6 will love this book. It is also a great book for classroom-based units and learning.

'Glasses, who needs 'em' by Lane Smith (1991), Viking

This is a picture book written and illustrated by Lane Smith (1991) Viking Books.  It tells the story of a boy who is unhappy about having to wear glasses. However, his doctor comes up with an imaginative list of well-adjusted eyeglass wearers. The illustrations are stunning and fun. This is a perfect book to help children understand just why some of us need to wear glasses.