Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Encouraging More Girls (and Boys) to Explore Engineering, Technology and Coding

I have six grandchildren and as they grow older their interests become clearer. All love learning, but not all have the same learning interests. Even when they were very young, some would love to dig in the compost heap with me, and others, not so much. Some would bring every insect inside to examine it, others were less keen. One still heads to our upstairs living area where all the books are, so it isn't hard to find her at mealtimes. Her brother loves books too but when he was young, he was always more likely to head to the back yard (garden) to dig around, look to the sky for birds and so on. His interests have broadened in recent years.

All my grandchildren love books in their own way, but have different tastes, genres that they like and so on. Interestingly, one granddaughter loves books and writing, and is also interested in coding and is very good at mathematics. A younger grandson already shows incredible early talent in coding and computing and has more recently discovered books. All children are different, but I suspect all could code if taught well. What will the girls and boys in our families become? All will have varied interests in life. But vocationally, what might they become? Research evidence suggests that statistically, my grandson has more likelihood of ending up in a career where he will use his strengths in STEM, particularly coding, than my granddaughter. I see this is a problem, because computer coding will be such a critical language to know and use in the future in varied careers. In fact Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is so critical to the future and gender diversity in this field is important.

Gwendolin Tilghman who is a Senior Investment Analyst at Viking Global Investors, wrote an interesting post last year that I shared on LinkedIn at the time, which argued for proactive efforts to get more girls into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). She writes:

"I have always been interested in topics relating to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). So, when I started college and was able to learn any subject of my choosing, it was no surprise that I decided to pursue an engineering degree. However, what was surprising was that I seemed to be the only girl to do so, or at least that’s how it felt sitting in a room full of boys throughout many of my classes. Perhaps it should not have been because even though women now represent 47% of the workforce, only 12% engineers are females." 

Clearly action is necessary to encourage girls and young women to consider careers that build on their knowledge and interest in STEM. One the most critical needs will be to encourage girls with an early interest in science and maths to explore coding.

Gwendoline is part of the 'Girls Who Code' initiative in the USA that is seeking to close the gender gap in technology. She comments:

Get Coding (Walker Books)

Where can we start to inspire young girls (and boys as well) to explore coding?  There are some great resources appearing on the market that will help. I was sent a great little book about 6 months ago designed for primary or elementary school children - Get Coding (Walker Books) that has been produced by Young Rewired State (see below). This is a wonderful little book, it made me want to get to a computer, and to start doing some coding myself.

It is well designed and very inviting. Each page combines text, step by step instructions and projects to undertake. The first 15 pages are text-based with some headings, pictures and diagrams to make sense of the limited amount of the word descriptions. The reading level is about 8-10 years. Once the reader is through this introduction they can begin a series of missions with Professor Harry Bairstone, 'a famous explorer' who is '... in desperate need of [our] help'. Once we are introduced to the mystery of the lost 'Monk Diamond', we are ready to code our way towards completing our mission. Yes, we will need to know what HTML tags are. And we will learn how to use them as we learn to write HTML code, on our way towards completing the mission. Very soon, we are writing the code for a simple web page, with text and images. Eventually we build our own 'Monk Diamond Discovery Web Page'.

By Mission 5 our young coders will be making their own game 'The House of Volkov's Security Team' that is responsible for protecting some valuable jewels on display in the The House of Volkov'.

This is wonderful stuff, and should be part of every child's primary school education.

Information of Young Rewired State

Young Rewired State was created in 2009 and is a network of 3000 data specialists with a female founder - Emma Mulqueeny. It has 30% female developers with 60% aged 18-25. It has an interesting methodology based on the principle of rapid prototyping, using the MVP concept of working towards a minimum viable product (MVP). It runs events and programs for technically gifted young people aged 18 and under. It draws together young developers, designers, and those with other technical skills to build projects (mainly phone and web applications) that attempt to solve real world problems. Most of the developers participating in Young Rewired State events have taught themselves or learned coding skills outside the traditional school curriculum.

Information about Girls Who Code

Girls Who Code is a national non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. Its programs inspire, educate, and equip girls with the computing skills to pursue 21st century opportunities. They have been especially effective in impacting skills development for girls in their formative years. At the completion of this academic year, Girls Who Code will have reached 40,000 girls in total, covering all 50 US states during its five-year history. In fact, an impressive 93 percent of their summer program participants said that they now want to major in, or are interested in, computer science because of their participation in the program — this might well mean that for woman in the future that they might not be in such a minority in Coding, Technology and Engineering classrooms!

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Five fantastic new picture books for 2-7 Year Olds

This is my latest review of five wonderful new picture books. These 5 books will inspire and entertain young readers. My blog has recently been listed on Feed Spot as one of the Top 100 Children's Book Blogs globally.

1. 'Isla's Family Tree' by Katrina McKelvey & illustrated by Prue Pittock

This delightful book tells the all too common story of a first child whose Mum is expecting a second. Isla's family is changing and she's not too happy! Isla already thinks her family "is too full!" But her mother has an idea. She creates a clever family tree to teach Isla how to accept the growth in her family.

Her mother makes a paper tree and explains where their new baby should go. Isla doesn’t think they belong. "There’s no room left on our branch — it’s full!" she says. She tries to make them fit, and places them on Aunty Violet's branch, and then with her cousins, at Aunty Violet and Aunty Jasmine’s house. Maybe at Aunty Daisy and Uncle Doug’s? She is convinced that there is no room on her branch!

Eventually, she accepts that the baby can fit on their branch. Her Mum replies, so where do these TWO leaves belong? "Two leaves? Two babies!" she gasped. But she falls in love and says to her Mum, "our branch grew a little ... our family is never too full." And when she meets her new brothers she quickly accepts and loves them.

This lovely story is well supported by Prue Pittock's delightfully simple and expressive line and minimalist use of colour. This is a lovely book for any child with siblings, but perfect for any family that needs to introduce new family members, or to help them understand what a family is.

2. 'Bedtime Daddy' by Sharon Giltrow & illustrated by Katrin Dreiling

Any parent who has had to handle children at bedtime will instantly appreciate this delightful picture book. But this book has a serious twist, it isn't children who resist going to be, it's really Daddy!

"Putting Daddy to bed can be hard work. Especially when he starts crying! This story will show you how to wrestle your daddy into his pajamas and read just one more bedtime story. 'I’m thirrrrrrrrssssssty,' says Daddy. 'I need to poop … I’m hungry … But I’ll miss you,' he says, while he looks at you with cutie eyes."

Katrina Dreiling's crayon illustrations have a 'softness' that matches the text perfectly. This will be an instant favourite that will need to be read and reread by Daddy's, I mean "Children"!! Those Daddy's can be so frustrating! A funny and engaging picture book at readers 1-5 will love.

3. 'Ten Little Figs' by Rhian Williams & illustrated by Nathaniel Eckstrom

A child sits beneath a large fig tree and tries to count them. He has a plan to get the figs with his ladder. But others have their eyes on his figs. He watches as the figs disappear one by one.

He counts down the figs on the backyard fig tree, as each one is snatched away by a different Australian animal.

Ten little figs are on my tree.
I love figs and they're all for me.
A flying fox dives, fast and low.
Where, of where, did that fig go?

Nine of the ten figs are eventually claimed by an assortment of Australian creatures. Leaf-curling spiders, Zebra finches, Green Ants, Rainbow Lorikeets, a Wombat, Hercules Moths, an Echidna, Spotted-tailed Quoll. Just one remains but it's too high in the tree. Who will get that very last fig? Luckily Dad comes to the rescue and surprises his little one with the very last fig.

4. 'Old Enough to Save the Planet' by Loll Kirby & illustrated by Adelina Lirius

I just love this inspiring book, based on the passions and projects of real children looking at how all of us have responsibility for the ecological well-being of our planet. While it has a strong call to address climate change, it goes much further than this by sharing the projects of children challenging other children as well as adults and leaders to address the varied challenges to our world caused by human waste, pollution, deforestation, culling wildlife, polluting our waterways and oceans, saving our fresh waterways, reintroducing native plant species and grasses, reducing traffic pollution, reusing waste and much more.

The publisher's blurb is a bit misleading. Yes, the positive impacts that these children suggest will help to stop climate change, a but these young activists don't mention climate change, they aren't chanting slogans. They have simply got in and sought to make a difference to their world for the good of all. And yes, if we do these things (and more) we will help to arrest climate change. Read their stories of action! For example:

  • Felix from Germany is passionate about reforestation
  • Hunter from South Africa is trying to protect Rhinos
  • Himangi from India is taking action to reduce traffic pollution outside her school
  • Vincent from France has created a community garden to reduce food waste
  • Jordan from the USA is fighting against palm oil products to help save native forests
  • Shalise from Australia is campaigning to protect our oceans from human pollution

5. 'To the Bridge' by Corinne Fenton & illustrated by Andrew McLean

The award-winning team of Corinne Fenton and Andrew McLean tell the story of Lennie Gwyther and Ginger Mick, a boy and his pony who crossed Sydney's Harbour Bridge on 19th of March, 1932 and marched into history.

Any child who has been inspired by human ingenuity and invention will relate to this book. Whether it was the Moon Landing, people scaling Everest, deep sea exploration, or scientific discovery, many 6-12 year olds have been captured by great events in history. In this Aussie picture book, Nine-year-old Lennie Gwyther from an Australian farm in rural Leongatha was captivated by the steel arch bridge to span Sydney Harbour. With his father's blessing, he rode his pony 'Ginger Mick' across Australia, inspiring crowds of supporters to greet him in cities along the way, as he made his way to Sydney. It was there that he saw the bridge that had captivated his imagination and inspired his brave journey. And it was then that he and Ginger Mick became a legend. As a child in the 1950s I can recall my grandfather talking about 'Ginger Mick' with no idea what on earth he meant! Now I know.

This is an inspiring true story about a young boy who rode a cross a continent with persistence, resilience, bravery, courage and hope. Many children have big dreams, this book might just inspire some other children to pursue their own.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Children as Bloggers: How Class Blogs Can Promote Literacy, Learning & Thinking

As an educator, I've been blogging for almost 15 years and have written a number of blogs for varied purposes. But how might we make better use of blogging with children? I wrote about this topic ten years ago! I thought maybe it's time to return to the topic. Many teachers have experimented with blogging for children as have some parents. But could we make better use of the Blogosphere? In this post I thought I'd outline a few basic ways in which children could become bloggers, and why it's worth considering.

Why might blogging be good for children?

There seem some obvious reasons for using blogs in the classroom or at home:

1. Encouraging children to explore new internet applications for communication and learning is important.

2. Children need to experience web applications like blogs as creators, not just as consumers. Just as we want children to use written narrative forms like literature as readers and writers, so too we want them to explore web applications as creators not just users or consumers.

3. Each application that we experience on the Internet requires a range of web-based generic skills as well as some that are unique to the application.

4. The act of writing a blog post can lead to significant research and related learning. For example, it is an excellent way to develop web comprehension and research skills. Skills like checking your sources, not plagiarising content engaging readers etc.

5. Blogs also offer authentic readers and audiences for children. So much classroom writing is simply for the teacher 'as examiner', but blogs offer 'real' readers who will respond as learners and fellow writers. This is powerful.

6. Blogs can offer a means for children of many nationalities to communicate and share their ideas around the globe.

7. Blogging can offer a wonderful means for children to practice a second language.

8. Using blogs as creators as well as consumers highlights the need for children to consider issues such as truth and fiction, privacy, copyright and so on.

How can teachers and parents use blogging to promote learning?

a) Showcase blogs

One of the most common ways teachers use blogs is to showcase children's work. The blog can be set up to showcase work in specific subject areas or can vary by form. For example:
  • Poetry and narrative writing. Here's a blog just about poetry blogs.
  • Units of work. Here's one for a 5 year old 'Prep' class based on a 'Kindness' unit (The term 'Prep' class is used in some Australian states)
  • Drawings and art units (here)
  • Videos (class activities, class performances, readers' theatre etc)
  • Podcasts (personal stories, public speaking, family history, oral reports etc)
Kathleen Morris tells how she got into showcase blogs for her students (here) as well as how colleagues have used them.

b) Classroom News blogs

This is a common way for teachers to blog. It can have an important role in keeping parents informed about the work that their children are doing as well as being an excellent way to showcase children's work. Here is a 4th Grade class blog in the USA (here). News blogs offer less opportunities for children to compose than other forms of blogging but has a place.

c) Literature response blogs

This application offers children a greater opportunity to respond to the writing of other students. It is simply a way to take activities online that require children to respond to literature that they have read (or which has been read to them). Often the teacher posts the first entry or task and students then respond to the book that has been read. I love Kath Murdoch's children's response blog (here).  

d) Writing blogs

These are simply blogs that allow children to share their writing. Here is a wonderful site that shows you how to help children to write their own 'Choose Your Own Adventure' story (here).

d) Science blogs

Using blogs to share ideas on science or activities for science is also a great way to give children a chance to read and write scientific texts. Here's a great example 'Science Fix'.

e) STEM blogs

Sites that offer opportunities to share the outcomes of Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) projects and ideas are another great application of blogging for children. Here's a great one called 'Learning is Messy'.

Summing Up

Encouraging children to explore blogging is a useful way to get them to use technology to share and promote writing and reading for varied real world purposes and with authentic audiences. As well, it encourages children to write for 'real' audiences.

The above should not be seen as the only options, try to be creative with blogs. Once you are familiar with the various options for setting up a blog, play around with your site and think creatively about how you might use this powerful technology application to stimulate children to read, respond, write, reflect and learn.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Could Dr Seuss Help us Deal with the Corona Virus?

I've always found that children's literature offers great human wisdom and insights for many situations in life. As the world has struggled with the Covid-19, I think we've observed some of the best and worst of human behaviour. There have been numerous stories of human sacrifice from medical staff and age carers treating others at great personal risk and cost, airline staff transporting patients home from foreign countries, generous people sharing food, shelter and belongings with unemployed workers. As well, families separated in different countries with little prospect of getting home, have been given help from varied countries and agencies to journey back to loved ones. These are all examples of human cooperation and generosity. Where does children's literature come in? Children's literature can teach, challenge, inform, and offer emotional support while shining a light on the human condition and how we relate to one another.

In times of crisis, human traits like generosity, sacrificial care and a willingness to forgo self-interest, might just help us to overlook our differences and difficulties together. Yet, there is a darker side to humanity in times of trouble. Selfishness can also be shown by some. There is no place for stubborn self-interest in a crisis; whether it's hoarding food and essential goods (while others have little), or something as simple as stubbornly refusing to keep social distance when asked to by authorities. Young backpackers having parties in parks and on beaches, a man leaves enforced isolation to visit his girlfriend, unnecessary travel is undertaken, putting others at risk and potentially spreading the virus, and so on.

If you've experienced or observed such selfishness, why not share a bit of Dr Seuss wisdom with your children. This might just help them to understand why we all need to do different things in these difficult times, like stepping aside to allow social distance on walking trails or pathways. Or perhaps, not riding your scooter or bike down the centre of a path, and instead, keeping your distance in the interest of others. Dr Seuss has always had a way of embedding social commentary within funny stories. 'The Zax' is a little story that might just help to open up such conversations with our children.

'The Zax' is a wonderful story within the Dr Seuss collection titled 'The Sneetches and Other Stories'. While the other three stories in the volume are also excellent and have much to teach us about human behaviour, 'The Zax' shines a light on the futile nature of stubborn self-centredness. And of course, this has been seen in abundance around the world as interests of varied kind have often got in the way of quick responses to Covid-19. The story begins with two unusual creatures walking on a straight path towards one another with great purpose.

One day, making tracks
In the prairie of Prax,
Came a North-Going Zax
And a South-going Zax.

Trouble was, they were in a direct line for a collision.

And it happened that both of them came to a place
Where they bumped. There they stood.
Foot to foot. Face to face.

"Look here, now!" the North-Going Zax said. "I say!
You are blocking my path. You are right in my way.
I'm a North-Going Zax and I always go north.
Get out of the way, now, and let me go forth!"

And so, it continues:

"Who's in whose way?" snapped the South-Going Zax.
I always go south, making south-going tracks.
So you're in MY way! And I ask you to move...

How might this story all end? Well, it seems that the rest of the world moved on while they remained fixed in their stubbornness.

Of course the world didn't stand still. The world grew..
In a couple of years, the new highway came through
And they built it right over those stubborn Zax
And left them there, standing un-budged in their tracks.

Thankfully, the crisis we find ourselves into today around the world has also led to acts of great generosity, kindness and sacrifice. I pray that we might see more of these positive virtues as we support one another in the midst of this global challenge.

I would love to hear your thoughts on other children's books (for all ages) that might be helpful to share with our children right now, as they try to deal with a frightening time while at the same time growing as people.

Here's another lovely example of how a Dr Seuss classic story has been used for social commentary at this challenging time.  Kristi Bothur published this lovely example on YouTube just a few weeks ago. "How the Virus Stole Easter". If you loved 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' you'll enjoy this video based on the Dr Seuss classic picture book that offers a reflection on Covid-19 and reinforces the need for 'hope' and prayer.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Ventriloquists

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 6, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. 'Noodle' by Mark Gravas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Children's Books Worth Reading in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. 'Nop' by Caroline Magerl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. 'Cloud Boy' by Marcia Williams

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

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

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

11. 'Beverly, Right Here' by Kate DiCamillo

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

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

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

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