Friday, March 23, 2018

12 Outstanding New Picture Books to Enjoy

Many books cross my desk from publishers, but not all are reviewed. I try to review a range of the better books that I see as appealing to the readers for whom they were written. While I admire and respect writers, I'm careful not to review books for them. Rather, I review books for the children, and the parents and teachers who often recommend books or share them with their children. In this post, I review 12 new books that all in their own way are outstanding.

1. 'Me Too' written by Erika Geraerts and Charl Laubscher & illustrated by Gatsby
Sometimes the friends we seek are closer than we might think. This delightful book is a dialogue between two friends who discuss the type of friend they'd like to find when they're all grow up. It's a book about that longing for a special friend. Might the special friend they seek be closer than they think? This is a delightful book about friendship, love, and simple companionship, and the special someones who enable us to experience these precious gifts.

This a wonderful book written with simplicity and an economy of words. Prose like poetry, to be effective, often needs less words, not more. A wonderful story that is delightfully illustrated by Gatsby.

2. 'Alma and How She Got Her Name ' by Juana Martinez-Neal

What’s in a name? For one little girl, her very long name tells the vibrant story of where she came from — and who she may one day be.

Little Alma is perplexed by her long and unusual name. "My name is so long, Daddy. It never fits," Alma said. Why does she have the unusual name Alma Sofia Esperanza Jose Pura Candela? Six names!?

Alma turns to her father for an answer and learns where each name comes from. Alma learns why every name matters, and that her first name 'Alma', is a special name that will allow her, like all her relatives before her whose names she shared, to make her own story.

Juana Martinez-Neal is from Peru and this is her debut as an author-illustrator, and what a treat it is. Her soft pencil drawings have as much magic as the text she uses to tell this wonderful story. Not to be missed!

 3. 'Rescue & Jessica' by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes & illustrated by Scott Magoon

Based on a real-life partnership, the heartening story of the love and teamwork between a girl and her service dog will illuminate and inspire.

This is a lovely book about two parallel stories that come together in a beautiful way.  Rescue was growing up to be a Seeing Eye dog, but there was to be a surprise.  His trainers have another plan for him, he will be a service dog. Meanwhile Jessica is growing up and adjusting to life without two complete legs and she has a lot of adjusting to do. Jessica needs Rescue to help her accomplish everyday tasks and to be her companion. This is a lovely coming together of a young girl with big adjustments to make, and a service dog that helps her along the way.

A delightful story and at the same time, a book that helps readers to understand disabilities and how service dogs can help. The book has an end note that tells more about the training and extraordinary abilities of service dogs.

4. 'Count with Little Fish' by Lucy Cousins

Lucy Cousins is well known as the creator of the wonderful series of Maisy books. She is also author-illustrator of the 'Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales', which was the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of the Year. More recent successes have been 'I’m the Best', 'Hooray for Fish!' and 'Hooray for Birds!' reviewed previously on this blog.

In this latest fun counting book she uses similarly rich, colourful and endearing illustrations to take little readers on a counting adventure.

One Little Fish, swimming in the sea.
Two twin fin-fin fish, as pretty as can be.
Three counting fish... one, two three!
Four flying fish, flapping wild and free.

Wonderful stuff as usual, that will keep little hands turning the pages as they learn to count to ten and have a great language experience along the way.

5. 'Bird Builds a Nest' by Martin Jenkins & illustrated by Richard Jones

This beautifully illustrated book in soft autumn tones follows the life cycle of two small birds that meet, pair up, build their nest, lay their eggs and then care for their clutch of 5 chicks, who eventually leave the nest to set out on their own adventures.

Richard Jones's wonderful illustrations match perfectly Martin Jenkins beautifully crafted story that weaves the narrative around a quest to teach children about physical forces like gravity, lifting, puling, pushing, strength weight and more.  It even has an index and guidance notes (at the back) for parents, caregivers and teachers.

A wonderful book!

6. 'Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship' by Irene Latham and Charles Waters & illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

Irene Latham, who is white, and Charles Waters, who is black, use this fictional setup to delve into different experiences of race in a relateable way, exploring such topics as hair, hobbies, and family dinners. Accompanied by artwork from acclaimed illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko... this remarkable collaboration invites readers of all ages to join the dialogue by putting their own words to their experiences. 

This is a fascinating book that is an exciting creative attempt to take a different slant on inter-racial relations. It offers a rich set of poems that largely use free verse to shine a light on some of the at times idiosyncratic and confusing aspects of such relationships. For example, in 'Strands', a white boy asks a black boy can he touch his hair. "It feels like sponge," he says. In 'Beach' a white girl scrubs her sunscreen off at the beach so that she doesn't look "sugar-sand white" compared to the children with darker skins. Another poem of just eight words answers the question that represent the title of the poem, "Why Aunt Sarah Doesn't Go Downtown after Dark"? An intriguing book that children aged 9-12 will find interesting and engaging.

"A compelling portrait of two youngsters dancing delicately through a racial minefield."
 J. Patrick Lewis, former US Children's Poet Laureate 

7. 'Dingo' by Claire Saxby & illustrated by Tannya Harricks

This is an excellent addition to a growing set of engaging narrative non-fiction books. This new book in the 'Nature Storybooks' series is about dingoes.

Can you see her? There – deep in the stretching shadows – a dingo. Her pointed ears twitch. Her tawny eyes flash in the low-slung sun. Dingo listens. Dusk is a busy time. Dusk is the time for hunting.

The book is written by award-winning author Claire Saxby and illustrated by Tannya Harricks using a broad brush and colourful technique with oil paints. The illustrations are stunning and as usual Saxby crafts a text that is economical and beautifully expressed. In fact, there are two texts. One is a factual text that gives information about the dingo and its life, while the other is the narrative account of one dingo's life

8. 'I'm a Duck' by Eve Bunting & illustrated by Will Hillenbrand

This is such a beautiful book. The illustrations from Will Hillenbrand make you want to hug each page, as a brave and scared little duck encounters a world with many strange things. And it does so with a fear of water!

In spite of the encouragement of brothers, Big Frog, and Owl, the little duck cannot make the plunge, until one day, the 'whispering' of the pond saying "Come on! Let's go" does the trick.

Lovely work from Eve Bunting who has written 250 well-loved children's books, including 'Smoky Night' (illustrated by David Diaz) which won a Caldecott Medal.     

9. 'Horses: Wild & Tame', by Iris Volant  & illustrated by Jarom Vogel

This wonderful factual picture book tells the story of horses. This animal once wild, was domesticated and has been part of human life for centuries. They have taken us into battle, pulled our cargo, ploughed our fields, offered us transport and been our close companions.

This beautifully illustrated picture book engages through the beautiful illustrations of Jarom Vogel and the carefully crafted text of Iris Volant. Readers aged 5 to 8 years will enjoy finding out about the domestication of horses, their history, character and varied 'gaits'. The reader also learns about their key role across the ages.

The simple watercolour plates of Jarom Vogel add a special richness to the book, that children will be keen to pick up and read.

10. 'Three Cheers for Women' by Marcia Williams

This book is a celebration of inspirational women across the ages, and from around the world. It is told in a delightful comic book form.

The text introduces us to almost 100 women from around the world: inventors, feminists, doctors, authors, leaders, sportswomen, explorers, musicians and more. So many wonderful examples to inspire our young readers: Cleopatra, the Warrior Queen Boudicca, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, Jane Austen, Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Ann Frank, Aritha Franklin, Anna Pavlova and many more.

Boys and girls will enjoy this inspirational book overflowing with facts, quotes and jokes.

11. 'The Poesy Ring: A love story' by Bob Graham

"The poesy ring flew high, caught by the wind. And with the breeze in its tail, the horse turned and galloped. Salt tears dried on the rider's face. The ring tumbled end over end, and settled deep in a meadow near the sea... and there the ring stayed with just creatures to keep it company as the seasons slipped on by"

This is a tale about a poesy ring lost in a field in County Kerry (Ireland) in 1830. The ring is lost as a horse rears its head and its strange journey begins, across land and sea until one day it is found inside a fish and bought by Sonny and Jules in 1967 in New York. As always, this is a wonderful book from one of my favourite Australian authors.

His awards include the international Kate Greenaway Medal and the Children's Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year Award an unprecedented six times.

The Poesy ring (traditional spelling poesy) was a gold finger ring with a short inscription often from the Bible. They were popular during the 15th to 17th centuries in both England and France as gifts between lovers.

12. 'The Things That I Love about Trees' by Chris Butterworth & illustrated by Charlotte Voake

Journey through the seasons and discover how much there is to love about trees! From brand-new buds in spring to the sound of the wind whooshing through the leaves in summer, from the fall colors to the feel of winter’s rough bark and the promise of spring returning again.

This wonderful book brings together the magic of Charlotte Voake's delicate and evocative images with Chris Butterworth's wonderful parallel texts. One is a first person narrative account of what the little girl (the central character) loves about spring. As well, in slightly smaller and different font, he provides a factual text that teaches the young reader about trees.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Children's Writing of Alcott, Austen, Carroll, Bronte, Dickens & More

An interest in Juvenilia

I have written already on this blog before (here), that children begin to write from a very young age. While their earliest attempts at writing - even before the age of 12 months - is often seen 'just' as scribble by some parents, 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 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 have had the privilege 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, Distinguished Professor in English Literature at the University of New South Wales. Professor Alexander is a prominent Australian researcher, editor and writer on the Brontës and other 19th Century writers, 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.

Every publication combines the early writing of great authors and an essay on the work. They represent the scholarship and research of some of the world's leading professors of literature and their research students.

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 over 50 works since 1994, some of which I reviewed in previous posts (here & 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, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens and many others.

Some Selected Recent Publications

a) Louisa May Alcott's 'Norna, or the Witch's Curse'

Anyone who has read or seen 'Little Women' will remember the play that the sisters performed within the work. 'Norna, or the Witch's Curse' is the real play, written when Alcott was just 15yrs old. In it she provides a farcical description in 'Little Women'. It is filled with fierce posturing and melodramatic action, Norna shows young Louisa and her collaborating sister Anna stretching their creative wings in poetic drama.

Few readers of 'Little Women' would realise that the play in the book (and the film) was based on Alcott's play written, directed and acted out with her sisters when she was just 15.

b) Virginia Cary Hudson's 'O Ye Jigs And Juleps'

Both knowing and naïve, pious and feisty, 10-year-old Virginia Cary Hudson brings her sharp observation to bear on the adults and children, churches and institutions of her home town, early-1900s Versailles, Kentucky. Essays for a teacher have never been so revealing, or so entertaining.

Edited by Jeffrey Bibbee, Lesley Peterson, and Leigh Thompson Stanfield, with Emily Cater, Danielle Holcombe, Catherine James, and Melissa Thornton.

c) Charles Dickens's 'The Bill of Fare', 'O'Thello' & Other Early      Works (2012)

Dickens wrote of his childhood,"All these things have worked together to make me what I am". Among "these things" in his juvenilia are his genius for story telling, his creation of comic characters and his love of the theatre. Just like his later great work 'David Copperfield', they throw light on a young man in love, bursting with inventiveness and struggling to shape his ideas into the kind of public performance that would lead to fame.
Christine Alexander has edited this publication with Donna Couto and Kate Sumner. It was timed last year to coincide with the 200th anniversary of his birth. The critical essay that precedes Dickens juvenilia reminds us that Dickens's amazing talent for storytelling was evident from a very young age. He was a child who loved being centre stage to tell stories, sing and entertain others. It is clear that Dickens wrote a great deal as a child, but much of it doesn't seem to have survived. However, over time some works have emerged from his late teens, including some of his early poetry and fragments of his first comic drama that he titled 'O'Thello'. This is a fascinating look at some of the early work of this great writer. 

d) John Ruskin, 'Poems From Seven to Seventeen' (2012)

The greatness of great creators, John Ruskin wrote, stems from "what they had seen and felt from early childhood". These are early poems of the man known as the leading art critic of the Victorian period. He was also an artist himself and a significant social commentator. They demonstrate the truth of his own words in fascinating ways. Ruskin's life spanned much of the 19th century (1819-1900) and his creative endeavours were extraordinary. He wrote some of the most significant essays of his time on topics as diverse as art, architecture, social justice, political economy, education and culture. But his writing extended to fields such as geology, literature, social class and more. 

This publication features the poetry of this home-schooled youth. Rob Breton  who edited the work with Alayna Becker and Katrina Schurter, suggests that his poetry amongst many other things offer '...a fascinating look at the experience of growing up in an increasingly affluent home in the 1820s'. It offers us an opportunity to consider and enjoy the work of this amazing man.

e) Leigh Hunt's 'The Palace of Pleasure & Other Early Poems'
Young Leigh Hunt's poems, early recognized as “proofs of poetic genius”, offer landscapes populated by happy schoolboys and errant knights freed from magical enthrallment. Already vivid here is Hunt's lifelong commitment to the betterment of his fellow man through friendship and communion with nature.
The juvenilia of Hunt has been edited by Sylvia Hunt, with illustrations by Karl Denny

d) Hope Hook's 'Crossing Canada, 1907: The Diary of Hope Hook'
In her diary of 1907, young Hope Hook records an exciting journey across Canada to Vancouver Island and back, by ship, rail and boat. Born to a family of artists, she is eager to observe the new country that will soon be her home, and all its people, flora and fauna.
This work has been edited by Juliet McMaster.

f) Mary Grant Bruce, 'The Early Tales' (2011)
Pamela Nutt edited the work of Mary Grant Bruce with Year 11 students from Presbyterian Ladies' College in Sydney. This 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.

g) 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.

A Useful Resource 

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

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Parents As Examples With Devices & Technology

Above: Xbox in the pool
My last post on 'Why We Need to Bore Our Kids' seemed to strike a chord with many readers. This led to some helpful comments in response to the post. As I responded to some of the comments, and reflected on what I had written, I found myself reflecting on how as parents and teachers we need to exercise some level of guidance and control over our children's use of technology. Sometimes this can be VERY hard. Let me illustrate.

A mother in Sydney this past week got to the end of her tether with her children's use of the family Xbox. It seems that negotiating access to the Xbox led to many disputes about who went first, how long they could have and so on. Every parent should be able to relate to this if you have more than one child. With a history of problems and disputes she couldn't take it any longer. She pulled out all of the cables and leads, took the Xbox outside and threw it into their swimming pool. She was interviewed by Sydney radio and commented that it made her 'feel good' and that it was never coming back. Only time will tell if she gives in.

We also need to set a good example in relation to our own use of technology, social media, devices of all time and the way we use them. There is no doubt, that adults can also show an unhealthy attachment to their devices. In a lovely local park that has just been equipped with gym equipment I observe pretty much every day people using the equipment as a seat while they use their devices.

Above: The power of the device to distract & absorb
Let me offer some basic suggestions concerning parental control of devices, or technology time.

First, technology isn't bad! In fact, it offers us amazing opportunities to learn, communicate, elaborate, access resources and so on. But like anything it can be overused and abused.

Second, all parents need to establish some basic rules for use of technology at home (as do teachers at school).  These should cover:

a) how long they can use technology;
b) what you do and don't include in the family restrictions when you say 'technology' (e.g. TV, laptop, iPad, radio, phone etc.);
c) the purposes that they use it for (e.g. entertainment, schoolwork, fun, research, personal interest etc.);
d) Social; media like Facebook, Snapchat to be used at specified times during school weekdays (some parents have their children time this themselves);
e) No devices to be touched during shared family mealtimes (I know, some families have few, but this is a different problem);
e) What alternatives for technology use are acceptable.

Third, if things are out of control you do have two main options. You can try dramatic action (like the Mum, the Xbox and the swimming pool), but I think if you need to do this, the war has been lost. Having said this, as with many addictions (and some technology use can be one), going cold turkey is sometimes the best solution. But there will be painful adjustment consequences during 'withdrawal'. Alternatively, you can establish rules over time that place limits on access, and reward compliance when alternatives are explored. The latter will still be painful, but you can phase in some of your actions. For example, your rules might include:
  • iPhones in the cupboard after a specific time each night.
  • Tablets and computers only to be used for schoolwork in some specified hours of the day.
  • No facetime at all between specific hours.
  • Television only after all homework has been done.
  • All facetime (TV, phones, tablets etc) not to exceed a specified number of hours each week.
  • The home server or internet access to be timed to cut out at a specified hour.
  • Specific sites might also be banned or restricted for varied age groups.

Fourth, as parents you need to set an example. It's hard to be credible when telling your children to reduce technology time, if you demonstrate an obsession with devices and, for example, never put your phone down. Like many practices in families, parents need to set positive examples. We can be just as distracted as children. It should be 'do as I do', not simply 'do what I say'. The photo of the man in the park, sitting on gym equipment while on his phone, is a stark example of how we can be easily distracted by technology as adults, when better options are available. If our children see us being distracted, it is harder for us to rebuke them.

Summing up

We live in an age where technology allows us to do the most amazing things. This has transformed the ease with which we communicate, seek knowledge, explore our world, sustain and support relationships, learn languages, engage in many creative activities, become part of many communities of interest and practice locally and around the world. Devices and technology are not the problem, our lack of discipline and control of what we and our children do with them. I'd love to hear your perspective on how you deal with these issues.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Why We Need to Bore Our Kids

My title is meant to be outrageous, but I've also used it because I think it's also true!

We live in an age where children and adults alike never seem to stop! Rarely do we daydream, sit quietly on a park bench and stare into space, lie around at home resting on a wet day and so on. Lazing around does not seem easy in our driven lives. What's more, if there ever is a moment where we aren't confronting a task, conversation or activity, we reach for a device to help us fill this time with more activity. When there is a free moment, we often look to others or devices, to help us know how to use our time.

In one sense, dealing with bored children should be less of a problem than at any time in history, because it seems that there are endless things to do and many ways to use our time. But maybe, our children need to experience boredom? Might a lack of boredom be bad for our children?

What is boredom?

In essence, it is 'unmet arousal'. You are looking for something to do, or an activity to fill a space in your life, but you just can't motivate yourself to do something. Neil Burton suggests that there are many reasons for this:

"These reasons can be internal—often a lack of imagination, motivation, or concentration - or external, such as an absence of environmental stimuli or opportunities. So while you want to do something stimulating, you find yourself unable to do so;  moreover, you are frustrated by the rising awareness of your inability."1

What is significant about boredom is that it's a state that can be acted upon by the bored person. The typical bored child - who we have all experienced - will say, "I'm bored! What can I do?" Or, "Mum can you ... ". Note the onus is being placed on you as the parent to deal with their 'bored state'!

My simple answer to such situations is NOT to try to solve the problem, or simply give in and allow them to retreat to devices and more screen time. During times of boredom your children might just:
  • Find some new activities and interests
  • Lead them to use their imagination 
  • Offer opportunities to be creative
  • Assist them to develop mindfulness
  • Begin to enjoy the moment and their surroundings
However, you might just need to give them some prompts and help to get them started. Here are a few ideas.

How to respond to "Mum, I'm bored"?

At times, you should simply say, "what are you going to do then"? Don't feel that you need to solve the problem. Rather than always trying to solve the problem, it is often best simply to offer some prompts that will direct them towards possibilities. Here are some examples:

1. If it's a fine day, tell them to go outside, lie on their back and look at the sky, and think about 3 things that they might do. If it's bad weather suggest that they look out the window, what do you see? List ten things you can see. Draw one thing. Use one thing as a stimulus for a riddle or poem, "There was a ___  ___ in my yard, I didn't need to look too hard, but try as I might ...".

2. Suggest that they get a box (a shoe box works well) and go and find 5 things they would like to place in it that they could use, or do. This might lead children to put in a favourite toy, a game, crayons, craft materials, a book and so on. Ask them to consider one the thing they could do first. If you have more than one bored child, ask them to compare boxes and come up with a shared activity.

3. Give them a large cardboard box and ask them to consider what they might turn it into. Having a large cardboard box or two in your garage (perhaps in flat pack form) is a great resource. Perhaps a cubby, robot, space vehicle, animal and so on.

4. Suggest that they create a play to prepare and present to the family or some friends. You might help them to come up with some characters and a simple plot. For example, you might have a policeman, a dog, two children, and a school teacher. How can you create a story around these characters that you could present to others?

5. If the weather is fine, suggest that they devise a scavenger hunt, where 'treasure' is collected from the home (with your assistance) and which can then be hidden. The treasure could be edible, or treats of some kind. When the hunt is completed everyone shares the booty.

6. Why not create a family artistic mural, sculpture or map of the local community.

7. Alternatively, plan a photo frenzy (yes, I know a camera is a device, but it's special and only to be used for photos). You could come up with a list of things to photograph in your house and street and give them a time limit to hunt them down, photograph them and return. Give a prize (make it food and ensure it can be shared with everyone) for the most successful scavenger.

8. Or, why don't you suggest they create a board game around a specific theme. A simple game can be made in a race format, and with a dice and simple markers for each player. Use large pieces of cardboard and ask your children to choose their own theme and draw the squares or spaces that you progress through from start to finish (e.g. a car race, race around the world, quest for Mars, climbing Mt Everest etc). The game can have a simple format with spaces marked that can progress or retard the players. For example, in the space race, they could strike a meteor shower that forces them back home, or a time warp that accelerates their ship to another galaxy. Everyone should get to play the games at the end.

Summing Up

Boredom is NOT bad, it can drive children to explore new things, think creatively and move beyond the most common props in life today; screens and devices! Boredom can be used to prompt children to daydream, create, explore, imagine and play. Embrace it as a normal part of life and an opportunity, not just a problem. 

1. Neil Burton (2014), 'The Surprising Benefits of Boredom', Psychology Today'.