Saturday, February 23, 2019

12 Wonderful New Picture Books for Children Aged 3-7

I've had a number of wonderful picture books arrive recently. Here are 10 that are perfect for bedtime, reading to classes or groups of children, or also as great new self-reading for children aged 3-7 years.

1. 'Queen Celine' by Matt Shanks


Matt Shanks’ latest picture book introduces us to Celine Beaufort. Celine lives a fairly ordinary life, doing ordinary things, but sometimes she gets to be the queen of a very special place—her very own kingdom by the sea. But when Celine claims the land for her own and builds a fortress to keep everything else out, the kingdom starts to lose its magic and Celine realises she’s made a terrible mistake.   

 I love this simple but subtly complex tale. It's water colour plates are a joy in themselves (hope you enjoyed the video of our artist at work). But like any great picture book, 'Queen Celine' has many layers of meaning. It can be read as a funny story about an ordinary little girl, who messes up badly in trying to protect and claim her own bit of paradise. She was an ordinary little girl, who did pretty ordinary things. But she has the chance to make herself a Queen with a kingdom by the sea!

This picture book can also be read as a book with significant ecological messages. And if you consider it for a little longer, you might just see another layer that has political messages about a self-proclaimed ruler - Celine! It was her kingdom, she had 'bagsied' it for herself! She was to control the boundaries of her special kingdom. This reading could imply that there is another political path that doesn't keep all things to ourselves in order to protect and enjoy them. Is it possible to share good things with others without losing out ourselves? Indeed, might this generosity of spirit be better.

A brilliant book that combines delightful water colour illustrations with a well-crafted text that packs strong messages with a minimum of words. Wonderful stuff! 

Suitable for children 3-7 years.

2. 'Mallee Sky' by Jodi Toering &amp and illustrator Tannya Harrick

I just love this book. Tannya Harrick's wonderful oil paintings with rich almost extravagant brush strokes bring the Australian countryside to life as few books manage to do. Each plate is so authentic I was transported to many rural locations that I've experienced. The rich beauty of trees in sometimes barren landscapes, the colour of Australia's amazing birds and the authentic images of remote towns. Tannya understands this landscape and helps us on the journey which Jodi Toering has beautifully crafted in words. The beauty and harshness of remote Australia is so well described by the author. As well, the life is captured so subtly by the images of milk urn letterboxes, showers in the paddock, dust storms, harsh drought and the glorious excitement of long awaited rain.

Jodi was born in the Mallee at Hopetoun and grew up on a wheat farm outside a small town called Beulah, and it shows! No doubt this is why she had deftly written a moving account of the effect that drought has on families and communities. But she also enjoys in her spare time creating artworks based on her bush block. Tannya on the other hand lives in the city, but her love of the Australian landscape shines through in the joy and exuberance of her art. It won't surprise you to know that she is an award-winning visual artist/painter based in Sydney. Her paintings are derived from sketches done out in the landscape and brought to life in the studio. The book is a veritable gallery of stunning paintings worthy in their own right. Together, writer and artist have created a wonderful book. Don't miss it!.

Suitable as a self-read for children aged 5-7 and a read aloud for children aged 3-10.

3. 'The Box Cars' by Robert Vescio and illustrator Cara King

Liam and Kai are the best of friends. They do everything together. Each day in the park they race around in their box cars, pretending to be everything from policemen chasing down bad guys to chauffeurs driving around movie stars! One day they notice a little girl watching them -- she's keen to join in and they're happy to be her friends too, but with only two box cars to play with it seems someone's going to be left out. The Box Cars is a fun-filled story of friendship, sharing and creative problem-solving that will appeal to boys and girls everywhere!

This is a lovely book for younger readers aged 4-7 years to read or as a read aloud book at home or school. Cara King's quirky and delightful illustrations will captivate your readers and listeners. Robert Vescio offers a sensitive exploration of how children can learn that relationships with friends don't always need to be between two special best friends. There can be a generosity in friendships that might just enrich the existing relationships that you have, if you're prepared to open your lives to others. This is a wonderful exploration of how we can deal with the old 'problem' of two's company, but three's a 'crowd.' A beautifully crafted text from Robert Vescio and wonderful illustrations from Cara King work so well together. This is another wonderful book from a small publisher (Exisle Publishing) punching well above its weight! This new book is also a wonderful celebration of creativity, ingenuity and simple fun that children can make for themselves, if given the opportunity, time and access to basic things.

4. 'Flat Cat' by Hiawyn Oram & illustrator Gwen Millward

Sophie absolutely adores Jimi and smothers him with treats. She thinks he has everything a cat could possibly desire. And Jimi does ... but he doesn’t ... because secretly Jimi longs to explore the bright and bustling world outside. So, when Sophie rushes out one day forgetting her keys, there’s only one thing for it: Jimi slips on his coat and skedaddles out of there, too! Where will he go and who will he meet on those wild and exciting streets? And what on earth will Sophie say? Children and parents alike will rejoice in this funny, stylish and heart-warming celebration of freedom, adventure, friendship and love.

Flat Cat is a very creative exploration of a basic human reality; in life at times we need to take a few chances, and break a few rules. Gwen Willard is a clever illustrator who takes a 'one-dimensional' cat and turns him into a risk taker who changes the direction of his life. Willard's simple crayon line drawings are simply captivating and work perfectly with Hiawyn Oram's clever story.

A perfect read aloud for children aged 4-7, or a fun read for younger readers.

5. 'Clever Crow' by Nina Lawrence & illustrator Bronwyn Bancroft

Clever Crow is an endearing and witty tale that follows the exploits of a hungry and very clever crow. Crow searches in the bush for food but he can find none. It is only when he comes across people preparing for a ceremony that his luck changes. Crow spots a big turtle egg waiting to be cooked, and he cries out, 'Yummy, food for me!' But it is not an easy task stealing a turtle egg - even for a clever crow. Crow has to be more clever than he has ever been before!

I'm a big fan of Magabala Books, and Indigneous Publisher located in the beautiful town of Broome located in the remote North West coast of Australia. Nina is a descendant of the Yidinji people of Far North Queensland and Bronwyn is a member of the Djanbun clan of the Bundjalung Nation. This telling of a traditional Aboriginal story is presented with English and Indigenous languages complete with a wonderful glossary included.

Children will love Bronwyn Bancroft's colourful and evocative illustrations, and the way the Djambarrpuynu language translation (Yolnu language from North East Arnhem Land) is woven into the design of this wonderful book.

6. 'Dinosaur Day Out' by Sara Acton

Sally and Max love dinosaurs. They can’t wait to see them at the museum, but today the dinosaur exhibition is closed. Where will the dinosaurs go on their day off? A whimsical story with humour and heart from author and award-winning illustrator Sara Acton.

They visit their favourite museum where they love to look at the dinosaur skeletons, but this day the exhibition is closed. The dinosaurs have a day off! Outrageous. But as the children explore the city and the museum they gain a glimpse of just what dinosaurs might do on their day off. Sara Acton's crayon and watercolour are stripped back as is her beautifully economical text. Sara of course is the Crichton Award-Winning Author/Illustrator of 'Ben and Duck'. Sara grew up in The Cotswolds, England, and trained to be an art teacher in London. After teaching stints in London and New Zealand, she moved with her family to Australia.

This fun book would be a perfect read aloud book for any group of 4-6 year old children.

7. 'Good Rosie!' by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Harry Bliss

Rosie is a good dog and a faithful companion to her owner, George. She likes taking walks with George and looking at the clouds together. But the closest she comes to another dog is when she encounters her reflection in her empty dog bowl, and sometimes that makes Rosie feel lonely. One day George decides to try taking Rosie to the dog park, but the park is full of dogs that Rosie doesn’t know, which makes her feel lonelier than ever. So, when big, loud Maurice and small, yippy Fifi bound over and want to play, Rosie’s not sure how to respond. Is there a trick to making friends? And if so, can they all figure it out together?

Kate DiCamillo is a legendary story teller. The author of 'The Magician's Elephant', a New York Times bestseller, 'The Tale of Despereaux', which was awarded the Newbery Medal, and 'Because of Winn-Dixie', a Newbery Honor book. Harry Bliss is a cartoonist and cover artist for the New Yorker magazine. He has illustrated many picture books, including illustrated many picture books, including the New York Times bestselling series by Doreen Cronin: 'Diary of a Worm', 'Diary of a Spider', and 'Diary of a Fly'. Bliss makes a wonderful visual contribution to this work. Together they have created a memorable picture book, that looks a bit like a graphic 'novel' or comic book. But it is essentially a picture book.

This is a picture book that many readers aged 5 to 7 years will read over an over again.

8. 'Maddie's First Day' by Penny Matthews and illustrated by Liz Anelli


It is Maddie’s first day of school and she has everything ready – her uniform, shoes, socks and hat. But there is one special thing that Maddie can’t leave behind – her blanky! 

This is a perfect book for children aged 4-7 who still have some insecurity in new situations. It tells of the insecurity that can creep in during the early weeks of school, whether kindergarten or simply the start-up of a new year. 

Penny Matthews and Liz Anelli team up to tell this sensitive story of a little girl who sneaks her favourite 'snuggle' toy into her bag on the first day of school. While some classmates are surprised to see her 'Blanky' at school, Charlie understands because he had his 'blanky' too. A rich friendship develops as they adjust to school life together.

This would be a perfect book to share in the first weeks of Kindergarten or in the lead up to those first days at 'Big School'.

Penny Matthews has written more than thirty books for children and young adults. She writes in a variety of genres and has won a number of awards, including the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award and the Davitt Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Her delightful illustrations bring this story to life with expressive characters to whom young readers can relate. Liz is from England but now lives in Newcastle, NSW (my home town!). In 2017, her book 'Desert Lake: The Story of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre' (written by Pamela Freeman) was named as a CBCA Notable

9. 'Me and my Fear' by Francesca Sanna

When a young girl has to travel to a new country and start at a new school, her Fear tells her to be alone and afraid. How can she hope to make friends if she doesn’t understand their language?
This is an intriguing picture book. Sanna is the author/illustrator of 'The Journey' which was a 2017 Amnesty CILIP Honour book and recounted a family's dangerous flight from their home in a war zone to a new country. This book is similar in artistic and literary style. In fact, they are unmistakably related. It is a heart-warming tale that grapples with the importance of dealing with your fears, and in particular, the importance of sharing them with others. Sanna understands that we all have fears within us, even this unnamed little girl. The little immigrant girl might well be Francesca herself, for she shares in the author's note at the back of the book that she is an anxious person, and that she has needed the help of many people to deal with anxiety.

Fear shows itself in many forms and can be debilitating. But fear leading to anxiety, can also be our "friend" that seems to sit 'in our pocket' 'keeping us safe'. Fear might not be all bad, if we know how to deal with it. And if we are given support in doing so, it can be controlled in positive ways. Our fears might seem to get bigger and BIGGER by the day, but the can be our friends if they can be kept in perspective. Fear can take many forms; fear of a new neighbourhood, playtime at school, not understanding others, mealtime and plates that seem too big' dreams' or not having friends.

This lovely book, with distinctive illustrations created with a simple subdued colour palette, allows the reader to identify with this unnamed little girl and the emotions portrayed. And our 'cloud-like' friend 'fear' is drawn in an appropriate non-scary way, suggesting that it can help not just hinder.

Francesca Sanna is an Italian illustrator and graphic designer based in Switzerland. Following her studies in Cagliari (Sardinia), she moved to Germany and then Switzerland, in order to follow her dream to work as an illustrator.

10. 'Circle' by Mac Barnett & illustrated by Jon Klassen

The dynamic, 'dream team' of Jon Klassen (illustrator) and Mac Barnett (author) has come together again for the final instalment in their hilarious 'Shape' trilogy. They have made six books together: 'Sam and Dave Dig a Hole', 'Extra Yarn', 'The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse', 'Triangle', 'Square' and this their latest book 'Circle'. Jon was the creator of the much-acclaimed 'Hat' trilogy, which includes 'I Want My Hat Back', the Kate Greenaway and Caldecott Medal winner 'This Is Not My Hat' and 'We Found a Hat'. They both live in California, USA, but in different cities. Jon is originally from Canada.

Jon Klassen in Shape trilogy, almost seems to echo the famous Swiss sculptor Giacometti who sought to represent the human head (and later bodies) with as little detail as possible. And yet, his plaster heads still unmistakably represented heads. Klassen's incredible geometric shaped people of course sit within illustrated backgrounds, but the 'reader' is always drawn to the head.


In this third book of the trilogy, Triangle and Square are visiting Circle, who lives near a waterfall. One day they play hide-and-seek, and Circle gives them just one rule, 'no hiding behind the waterfall'. Why? Because "it is dark back there". But where do they go? Square stays behind because he's afraid of the dark. But Triangle hides behind the waterfall. Circle goes to find him, there is no answer. He goes deeper in and it is VERY dark! Only his eyes are now visible. Circle finds Triangle (and he is glad), but there is a third set of eyes! Who could it be? No, not Square, he's outside. So, who is it? What shape do you picture?

Brilliant as usual, you will be left wishing that this trilogy didn't have to end. I just live these books, which will always be seen as picture books that have helped us to rethink just what they might be. Every child should have access to this series. Suitable for readers 1-99 years! But also, perfect for a read aloud to children aged 3-6 years.

11. 'Let me Sleep sheep' by Meg McKinlay & illustrated by Leila Rudge

It’s bedtime for Amos, who smiles as he closes his eyes and counts some fluffy sheep trotting away in the grass. Until suddenly . . . THUD. And then another. “Not again!” says the first sheep, now on Amos’s floor. “I was having my wool clipped,” grumbles the second. None too happy at being interrupted, the woolly pair fire a battery of questions at Amos, most importantly: "Where’s the fence?"

The fence!? The sheep has a name Felix, not "one" and he the two sheep will be there until they find the fence. Amos will need to build one. But what can he use? The shelves? No, it's too high and Felix's friend Walter has a bad knee, and Judith, who is as yet un-arrived sheep 7 hates heights.

Amos sets out to build one to their specifications, then of course he'll need to test it. This is a very funny and clever book that readers or listeners aged 3-7 will find hilarious!

Meg McKinlay is a wonderful writer and Leila Rudge is a brilliant illustrator. Her soft and colourful crayon illustrations are 'delicious'! This great team has created a very special book.  It follows on from the previous success of this partnership with 'Duck for a Day' and 'No Bears'. 

12. 'I Do Not Like Books Anymore' by Daisy Hirst

Natalie and Alphonse REALLY like books. Picture books with Dad, scary stories with Mom, and especially stories they remember or make up themselves. So, when it’s time for Natalie to learn to read, she thinks it will be exciting — she can have all the stories in the world now, and even read them to Alphonse. But when Natalie gets her first reading book, the letters look like squiggles and it isn’t even a good story; it’s just about a cat that can sit. “I do not like books anymore!” Natalie declares. But she still wants to make up stories. With Alphonse’s help, can she find a way to turn a love of telling stories into a love of reading stories? With her one-of-a-kind voice and wonderfully droll artwork, Daisy Hirst captures the familiar frustration of struggling to learn something new — and the particular pride that comes when you finally succeed.

Hirst's cartoon-like style will be endearing to younger readers, with simple brightly coloured stylistic figures and bright colours they seem just right for this quirky tale. The story will parallel the experience of many children who start out loving the joy and closeness of being read only to struggle when they need to learn how to do it for themselves. A touching story about life's simple challenges as you grow up.








Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Getting Children Ready for School: Free Preschool Resource for Parents and Carers


My colleague Anita Ayre and I have written a resource program that is available free via the Australian Literacy Educators' Association website. The resource is called 'Little People's Literacy Learning: A guide for engaging parents and carers'. It offers practical help for parents and carers of children aged 0-5. And it's FREE!


This FREE online guide for parents and carers comes with hundreds of activities that you can enjoy with your child. Some activities are incidental and some are planned. But all activities are designed with an emphasis on learning through collaborative play and shared discovery.

Anita and I are experienced teachers, and also active grandparents who love spending quality time with their grandchildren. In this resource, we offer a wealth of suggestions and hints for parents and carers who want to engage with their children in literacy learning and mathematics activities. All activities are designed with an emphasis on learning through collaborative play and shared discovery. They can all be incorporated into daily life with very little (or often no) preparation! We offer hundreds of integrated examples throughout, including how new technology and multimedia can also enrich the learning experiences of your child with the same richness as other non-technology applications. You'll also find some advice on how to monitor and control screen time.

The resource contains practical and VERY doable common sense activities. You will find it HERE.



Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Early Work of Great Writers: Insights from childhood writing

Ever wondered what the childhood writing of Dickens, Austen, the Brontës and many other great writers was like? 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, in this post I offer a sample of the wonderful work that has been produced, that high school teachers and their students will find fascinating. As students study this largely unknown material, they will gain insights into the work of great writers and perhaps gain inspiration for their own writing.

An interest in Juvenilia

I have written already on this blog before here and here that children begin to write from a very young age. While the earliest attempts at writing of our children - even before the age of 12 months - is often seen as 'cute' and largely unimportant by some parents, many children from a young age 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 did, and some of this work survives.

The Juvenilia Press was founded in 1994 by Juliet McMaster at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Its aim was to study Juvenilia and to publish some of the early work of great writers. It moved to UNSW in 2001 when Professor Christine Alexander became the General Editor. Professor Alexander is a prominent Australian researcher, editor and writer on the Brontës and other 19th Century writers, including their juvenilia. 

Every publication from this not-for-profit press combines the early writing of great authors and a postgraduate or research essay on the work. These publications represent the scholarship and research of some of the world's leading professors of literature and their research students. In doing so, they preserve and shine a light on the early writing of great authors as an inspiration to young writers today.

The works published to date

Juvenilia Press has published 66 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, Marjory Fleming, Rudy Wiebe, Opal Whiteley, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens and many others.

Some Selected Recent Publications

a) Marjory Fleming, 'The Journals and Poems of Marjory Fleming'


A self-confessed "little young Devil" who could throw spectacular temper tantrums, Marjory Fleming was nevertheless sanctified as "Pet" by the Victorians for her brief life and winning writings. In her engaging verse and journals she shares her wide reading, her delight in "rurel filisity" and her devotion to Mary Queen of Scots and Scottish history.

Edited by Leslie Robertson and Juliet McMaster, with others.





b) Patrick Branwell Brontë


Written at the age of fifteen, The Pirate transports us into the dramatic imaginary world of the young Brontës, tracing the early career of Branwell's favourite hero (and later alter-ego) 'Rouge' to aristocratic demagogue. The young author and his hero both played pivotal roles in the creation of the Glass Town and Angrian saga.

Edited by Christine Alexander, with Joetta Harty and Benjamin Drexler.


c) Annie and Ida Rentoul, 'Mollie's Bunyip and other Tales'



The early twentieth-century Australian teenagers, Annie and Ida Rentoul, collaborated as writer and illustrator on a series of tales. They chose to work in the fairy-tale genre at a time when there was a demand for such stories to have an Australian character. Ida’s career as writer, and particularly as illustrator, grew from these childhood publications, eventually leading to international acclaim.

Edited by Pamela Nutt, with others




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

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.

c) 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.

e) Mary Grant Bruce, 'The Early Tales'

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.





How to Obtain the Books

For further information on all 66 books, as well as pricing and procedures to order single copies or class sets, contact the Juvenilia Press website for full details HERE.




Friday, December 28, 2018

Six Ways Storytelling Can Enrich the Holiday Season


Storytelling is such a central part of what it is to be human, that when any group of people gather they will end up telling stories. Holidays often create the perfect context for storytelling. In Australia, we've just finished celebrating Christmas. Of course, for some families, different religious or secular holidays may be celebrated across the year. These often coincide with holidays, religious observance, special food, music and in some cases, the exchange of gifts. Even if you don't have any religious convictions, you might well look forward to holiday seasons as a special time to catch up with family and friends. This inevitably leads to storytelling as we gather.

Let me share six ways that storytelling can enrich family time together during holiday times like Christmas.

1. Establish some traditions with reading

Our family has just finished celebrating Christmas. Like some other families, it is a time of significance for your family, as we attend church services and gatherings with family and friends. In the lead up to this event we would often share some books that centre on the central Christian message of Christmas. Books about Christian traditions have been shared in hundreds of different titles some are closely centred on the Christian message, others not so much (I shared lot of these books in my last post HERE). In classes that I taught I always found time for the Dr Seuss classic "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and many others. A story that centres on the theme that Christmas at its very core is about a special gift. Not so much about getting, but giving.

2. Sharing story through songs & music

Holiday time is often a time for music, and with this 'story'. We often overlook the key role that music plays in storytelling. Whether we are talking about religious songs or music in general, music and story are often intertwined. When people celebrate together, it often ends in music and song. As a child, I grew up in a house where music was sung and played often. This included lots of popular ballads, country, blues and pop. As well, as singing Christmas carols when we went for our annual holidays at the Lake Macquarie, on many a hot summer afternoon we ended up singing. At my grandparents’ home at Wangi Wangi, on a hot afternoon after a swim, we would end up with community singing on the front verandah of their house. At times 50-80 people would come out of their tents to join us on my grandparents front verandah. My parents would end up performing and leading the campers as they joined in.

Above: My parents performing at the time in a community concert  

3. Sharing family anecdotes (but avoiding the controversial family ones)

Another wonderful thing about holiday seasons is that you have time to sit with our children and share "can you remember the time that..." stories. These build children's knowledge of the family and the world, as well as their own ability to share stories. "Tell us the story about the time you got lost in the bush Dad". "What was it like going to school when you were a kid Mum?" "What was the funniest thing that happened at school this year"? "Tell us another story Grandad from when you were a kid". As you share your own stories as parents, you help to build family traditions, as well as teaching them how to tell stories themselves.

4. Engage your children in preparations 

Having time to do things with your children as you prepare for a time like Christmas will often create those 'spaces' where things can be shared as we make the preparations. Taking them shopping isn't what I have in mind (this often doesn't end well!). I was thinking more about getting your children to help you to decorate the Christmas tree, or the family room. This isn't just for fun or to fill in time. It does do this, but it allows space and time to share stories and for your children to become better storytellers themselves. In the case of parents, you might share stories of the type "I remember when...". "Do you know where this Christmas decoration came from?" "Do you remember when you made this silver star"? Or perhaps, while you're getting your children to help make some decorations you can simply share jokes and anecdotes, or reminisce. One of the most special times at our house, is decorating the tree each year with decorations that our children made over 30 years ago! Just looking at precious decorations given to us by other people as gifts is a great language and story telling event. "Do you remember who made this?" "Did you know that this decoration was on my mother's tree". Stories will flow!

5. Get children involved in using 'procedural texts'

Above: Preparing a pudding with my granddaughter
One of our family's most treasured traditions is the making of the Christmas pudding.  As a child, my grandparents involved my sister and me in this activity. This was always one of our special family events at Christmas. I implemented the same tradition with my daughters, and more recently, my grandchildren. As well as the fun we have as we prepare for the cooking, we have to follow the recipe, share stories, and lick the bowls. This is a great language event as stories and anecdotes just flow. As we cook, literacy is also being acquired. And of course, the stories shared while we make the pudding become part of shared family history. "Tell us again Dad about the time you...".

Above: The 2018 boiled Christmas pudding cooked with my daughter Louise

6. Involve your children in the making of presents, cards and gifts

Some of my favourite presents as a parent have been the gifts that children made for me. It is fun to involve your children as we make preparations for the exchange of gifts. This might be making yummy food, lollies or snacks to share with neighbours. Once again, there are recipes to follow, stories to tell, gift labels to write, and much more. Card making is just one fun non-food way to link literacy activities to holiday seasons. As well, children might make a book to give to their grandparents or their teacher. Making items for family and friends to hang on their tree is a great literacy activity already mentioned above.

Summing up

Literacy and storytelling are implicated in pretty much all aspects of life. Holiday seasons are just one context that offer opportunities to ground storytelling in 'real' life. As we engage with our children every day, there are numerous ways that the stories we share can help to build their knowledge and their proficiency as users of language whether in spoken or written form. As well, we can develop a shared history that binds family members together.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Children's Literature to Share at Christmas

I usually do a post in December about books that are appropriate to share at Christmas. In this post I feature 26 books that are varied and suitable for different ages. They include books that seek to the traditional Christmas story, and others that are based on elements of the Christmas story or themes from biblical teaching on Jesus life. Some of these books focus on love, devotion, kindness, forgiveness and sacrifice. These are some of best examples that you can find. Most can can be used with children aged 4-12 years.

At the heart of the Christmas story is the birth of Jesus, which Christians celebrate on the 25th December. While for many, the celebration of Christmas has become disconnected from its traditional purpose of remembering and celebrating Jesus' birth some 2,000 years ago, it is told and retold in varied forms each year at this time.

1. Books based closely on the biblical story of Jesus birth

'The Christmas Rose' by Wendy Blaxland & illustrated by Lucy Hennessy

This is a beautifully told story that traces elements of the story of the birth of Jesus.

https://www.booktopia.com.au/http_coversbooktopiacomau/big/9781921720406/the-christmas-rose.jpgThe fields near Bethlehem are filled with great joy when angels appear telling of the birth of a very special baby. Madelon’s uncle, his men, and the magnificent kings riding on camels all have gifts for the Saviour. But Madelon has nothing. What could she possibly give him? This version of the Christmas story uses the efforts of a small child to follow others to see the Christ Child. A beautiful illustration of those who would spend great effort to come and adore Him.

The rich and evocative oil paintings by fine artist Lucy Hennessy are stunning and in their muted softness leaves the reader to imagine the scene in all of its mystery and richness.

The Nativity by Julie Vivas is a wonderful book. The story is close to the Bible narrative and the illustrations as you'd expect from Julie Vivas are superb.

The Christmas Book, written and illustrated by Dick Bruna. Bruna's delightful and simple telling of the nativity story is special. He manages to tell the greatest story ever told with his typical simplicity. This one is suitable even for preschool children.

Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale by Martin Waddell & illustrated by Jason Cockcroft

That cold winter's night, 
beneath the star's light... 
...a Little One came for the world. 

First kind Ox welcomes Old Dog, then Stray Cat, Small Mouse, Tired Donkey, and finally the baby Jesus into his stable on the first Christmas night. Delightful story that tells of the momentous event.

A Baby Born in Bethlehem, Martha Whitmore Hickman's retelling is based on the gospels of Luke and Matthew. It begins with the revelation to Mary that she will have a child who will be the son of God and ends with the visit of the Wise Men. The text emphasizes the joy of Jesus' birth. Giulliano Ferri's pencil and watercolour illustrations contribute to making this a great book for four to eight year olds.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells the story of how one of the "worst Kids" in the world finds out about the real Christmas story for the first time as he takes part in the church Christmas pageant. The story itself is very funny but it also manages to communicate the Christian message accurately.

The Baby Who Changed the World by Sheryl Ann Crawford, Sonya Wilson (Illustrator). In this imaginative retelling of the Christmas story, the animals get together and discuss the approaching arrival of a new baby that some say will grow up to be a strong and powerful King. When Mary and Joseph enter the picture and the events of the true Christmas story unfold!

The Christmas Story: According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from the King James Version by Gennadii Spirin (Illustrator). This telling of the Christmas story begins with Mary's meeting with the angel Gabriel then proceeds to the birth of baby Jesus in a stable, the visit of the shepherds and the three wise men. Spirin's Orthodox Christian faith is reflected in the wonderful art that makes this a special retelling of the story of Jesus (although not all will find the images match their idea of what Jesus might have looked like).

Mary's Christmas Story, by Olive Teresa. There are a number of different retellings of the Christmas Story available in the Arch Books series. Most are told from the perspective of different witnesses to the birth of Jesus or draw more heavily on one of more of the gospel accounts. This one retells the Christmas story from Mary's point of view based on Luke 1:5-2:18.



2. Books that use the Christmas theme to offer moral lessons

This category of books is quite large. They typically use the Christmas celebration or season as the setting for a human story that teaches something about one or more fine human qualities that are consistent with Christian teaching; for example, love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and sacrifice.

The Christmas Eve Ghost, by Shirley Hughes (2010)


'The Christmas Eve Ghost' is written and illustrated by one of my favourite English author/illustrators, Shirley Hughes. It is a classic example of books in this category. It doesn't really mention the Christmas story at all but uses Christmas as one of its themes to highlight kindness against the background of sectarian differences between Catholic and Protestant residents of Liverpool in the 1930s (the place and time of her childhood). Without saying it, Hughes offers the message that Christmas is a time when people should connect with one another in love, kindness and service.

The book tells the story of a mother and her two children, living in poverty. The mother cares for the children and earns just enough to survive by washing other people's clothing. On Christmas Eve 'Mam' has to leave the children in bed while she goes off to deliver a batch of washing. The children awake to strange noises (as it turns out they are 'natural' noises) and flee the house in fear straight into the arms of Mrs O'Riley from next door, a person their mother doesn't speak to for reasons not clear until the end. It's a wonderful book with a touching resolution.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2008). This probably deserves to be in a category of its own. The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is taught the true meaning of Christmas by a series of ghostly visitors. This is essentially a fable that stresses that Christmas should be a time of goodwill towards mankind. There have been many versions printed of this classic story first published in 1843 with wonderful illustrations by John Leech. Published in 2008 this new edition has to be one of the best illustrated versions that I've seen, which isn't surprising as Robert Ingpen is one of the finest illustrators we have seen in the last 50 years. The edition also contains Dickens story Christmas Tree that offers an insight into a Victorian Christmas of the 1850s.

Used by permission of Walker Books

How the Grinch stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss. This is one of my favourites within this category. The Grinch lives on top of a mountain that overlooks Whoville. As he watches the villagers getting ready to celebrate Christmas he comes up with a plot to stop them. But instead of stealing Christmas he learns that Christmas means much more than the trappings such as gifts, decorations and food. I used to read this to my children at Christmas time and now they read it to their children as part of their Christmas traditions (my daughter did a post on this here). You can also watch the video version of this story that has been popular with children for over 50 years (here).

Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P.J. Lynch. This story focuses on Jonathan Toomey who is the best woodcarver in the valley. But he bears a secret sorrow, and never smiles or laughs. When the widow McDowell and her son ask him to carve a creche in time for Christmas, their quiet request leads to a joyful miracle, as they heal the woodcarver's heart and restore his faith.

Wombat Divine, by Mem Fox and illustrated by Kerry Argent. This wonderful story tells of the quest of a wombat to find the perfect part to play in the annual Nativity play. He tries out every part without success until he finds one that he carries off with distinction.

The Nativity Play, by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. This is the story of a group of children who put on their own nativity play. There is a much creativity that is needed to get the show on the road.

 

3. Stories based on Christmas traditions

For those who are more interested in Christmas traditions than the traditional Christmas story, there are masses of books that take the Christmas theme in all sorts of directions (some quite strange). However, there are some that have literary merit and are enjoyable stories to read at Christmas and suit the needs of families that are from non-Christian traditions. Some of the better examples follow.

Nine Days to Christmas by Marie Hall Ets and Aurora Labastida

This wonderful Christmas tale from Mexico was written in 1959 and won Marie Hall Ets the Caldecott Medal for illustration in 1960. It is the story of 5 year-old Ceci, who ready for her first Posada. This is a a fourteen day festival (ending on Christmas Eve) in which entire towns participate. There are great things to eat, music, ritual and traditional dress to wear. But for Ceci, she is most excited that she will have her own piñata to fill with special things that all the village children can share. As well as being about Christmas, this is a wonderful insight into Mexican culture. Marie Hal Ets collaborator was Aurora Labastida who grew up in Mexico and this his her story and her memories of Christmas.

Letters from Father Christmas, J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Baillie Tolkien)

This book is a collection of letters that Tolkien wrote to his children over a period of 23 years. Every December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in a strange, spidery handwriting and a beautiful coloured drawing or painting. The letters were from Father Christmas.

Tolkien shares wonderful tales of life at the North Pole. A reindeer gets loose and scatters presents all over the place, an accident-prone North Polar Bear climbs the North Pole and falls through the roof, Santa accidentally breaks the moon into four pieces and the Man (in the moon!) falls into the back garden and many more. This is Tolkien at his creative best, but what's special is that they are personal communications between him and his children. His last letter is a beautiful farewell from Father Christmas with an underlying message of hope and continuity. If you love Tolkien you will like this collection. It's available in an enhanced eBook format as well, which has a number of other features (see video below). These include audio recordings of many of the letters read by Sir Derek Jacobi and the ability to expand each of the images of the original letters and envelopes
(some never published before).

The Night Before Christmas, Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2010). This is a wonderful new release from Walker Books. Just the mention of Robert Ingpen's name will get me excited, because surely he is one of Australia's greatest illustrators. This is the best illustrated version of the classic Clement Moore poem that I know of. Moore wrote the poem for his children and first read it to them on Christmas Eve 1822.  A friend sent it anonymously to a New York newspaper in 1823 and once published it quickly became well known. Only in 1844 did Moore claim authorship. Many attribute much of our contemporary portrayal of Santa Claus to this poem. Who can forget the start:

'Twas the night before Christmas
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse...

Ingpen's depiction of Santa as a mischievous and happy old man sits well with the traditional myth. His usual immaculate line drawings are in evidence, but this time they are softened by a gentle wash that gives an ethereal feel to the drawings. The 'soft' lines also sit well with the traditional northern white Christmas.

Suzy Goose and the Christmas Star, by Petr Horacek (2010).  This is another new release from Walker Books. It is a perfect book for preschoolers or young children up to 6 or 7 years. Suzy and her farmyard friends are gathered on Christmas Eve around their Christmas tree and she notices that something is missing - a star on top of the tree! She cries to her friends, "It needs a star on top....Just like the one in the sky. I'll get it." So she sets off to 'get it' with some amusing episodes along the way before the surprising solution. Young kids will love this book. It is well written and beautifully illustrated by Petr Horacek. Again, it barely mentions Christmas, but parents and teachers could speak more about Christmas using this story as the springboard.

Finding Christmas, by Helen Ward. This slightly mystical book was voted in the top 10 Christmas books in 2004. It tells the story of a little girl in a bright red coat and bright green boots who wanders at dusk from shop to shop looking for “the perfect present to give to someone special.” Things look hopeless until she is drawn to the bright window of a toy shop filled with colourful toys.

All I want for Christmas by Deborah Zemke. What does a skunk want for Christmas? French perfume! What does a spider want? A spinning wheel! Deborah Zemke's wonderful art and great sense of humour makes this a hit. I wonder what they will want?

Emily and the big bad bunyip, by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whateley. It′s Christmas Day in Shaggy Gully. Can Emily Emu and her friends possibly make the Bunyip smile this Christmas? All the animals are in a good mood except the Bunyip. He proclaims, ′I′m mad and I′m mean! Bunyips don′t like Christmas!


Twinkle, Twinkle Christmas Star by Christine Harder Tangvald.

This delightful story is based on the familiar children's rhyme but re-words it to parallel the Christmas story.


'Bear Stays Up' by Karma Wilson & illustrated by Jane Chapman (McElderry Book)

This poor bear has never seen a Christmas because of he hibernates each year. This year, his forest friends vow to wake him up and keep him up for their Christmas celebration. This is a delightful story told in rhyme. Bear's friends give him a wonderful Christmas. They decorate his den, find a Christmas tree, make some decorations and sing Christmas carols. Does Bear stay up?
Mooseltoe by Margie Palatini, Henry Cole (Illustrator). This one is a lot of fun




The Nutcracker by Janet Schulman & E. T. A. Hoffmann, illustrated by Renee Graef. A version of the classic tale.

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. A magical train ride on Christmas Eve takes a boy to the North Pole to receive a special gift from Santa Claus. This book won the 1986 Caldecott Medal and of course has been made into a movie.
Summing Up

There are endless books that have written about Christmas. When choosing a suitable book to read to your children try to find one that is faithful to the Christmas story and which is appropriate for your children's age. Even those books that mention only tangentially the real Christmas story can be a good springboard for the discussion of the central meaning of Christmas. 

Parents or teachers who want to share the traditional Christmas story can use one of the many wonderful children's Bibles available for children of varying ages in modern translations. For example, Lion Hudson has published a variety of versions that paraphrase the Bible accurately and with illustrations that children will find meaningful and enjoyable (more information here). You can also use an adult Bible with primary aged children and can simply read the appropriate section from the gospels of Matthew (here) or Luke (here).