Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Wind in the Willows - Turns 100!

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame was first published in 1908. The first edition was illustrated by Ernest Shepard with work that is almost as perfect as Grahame's story. In this its 100th year, what better time is there for a review.

Grahame's classic novel is a fine example of how writing is more than just words. In fact, that it is more than just ‘the best words in the best possible order’ (a definition of poetry taught to me when I was at school).

This is rich narrative, with wonderful characters and word choice and sentence structure that is as close to perfect as you can get. But there is more. Here is language that is symphonic, with the rhythms of each sentence and the choice and ordering of words matching exquisitely the settings, situations and atmosphere that Grahame has created. Or perhaps it’s the other way round.

The book really came to prominence when the famous playwright, A. A. Milne adapted a part of the story for the stage in 1929 - Toad of Toad Hall. Milne loved the book so much that he wanted others to appreciate it. This first production led to many other versions over the decades (see below).

The story summary

The book opens in spring, when the weather is fine and animals along the river and in the wood are stirring from their winter slumber. We first meet the good-natured and uncomplicated Mole, who tired and bored of his spring-cleaning, senses restlessness within and leaves his underground home. He reaches the river, a thing he had never seen before and meets the wise and worldly Ratty (in reality it was a ‘water vole’ which is often confused for a rat and is now a rare mammal), who sees life as something that must be lived along the river. Grahame then slowly (at a springtime afternoon pace) introduces us to the main characters.

After meeting Otter and Badger along the river Ratty takes Mole to meet our main character Toad near Toad Hall. Toad is rich, jovial and friendly, worldly, conceited, vague and prone to becoming obsessed with new things that are quickly discarded. Having exhausted his love of boats his current craze is his horse-drawn caravan. Ratty and Mole head off with him on their first adventure and are with Toad as he discovers his next obsession, the motorcar. What follows is the story of Toad as he creates havoc with his new obsession, ends up in gaol, and has his home invaded by stoats and weasels. We are drawn along by the drama as Toad’s friends strive to protect him from himself and his latest craze and eject the impostors who have taken over Toad Hall.

Here's how the story begins, giving just a hint of the beauty of its language and the mood that Grahame creates with words:

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said `Bother!' and `O blow!' and also `Hang spring-cleaning!' and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air.

The movie version

If you think that your children will struggle with the richness of the language you might consider using a video first or one of the many illustrated versions of the story. I introduced my grandchildren to the story through the wonderful video/DVD depiction of the story first when they were less than 5 years. There are a number of versions, but the one we have is an animated production produced by Carlton UK and narrated by Vanessa Redgrave and with wonderful readers for the characters including Michael Palin who voices Ratty. It runs for 73 minutes and faithfully retells the story with perfect background music, faithful and accurate characterisation and precise use of the language of the novel.

Jacob (now 6) was just 3 when I first showed him the video and he loved it from the start. Within minutes of his first viewing we were acting out scenes from the video. We were to dramatise parts of the story on numerous occasions over the following two years (often in the back yard or under the Jacaranda tree at church after services). “Can we be Ratty and Mole?” he would implore me, and as a good grandad I would comply. I was almost always Ratty, he was mole, his Nanna and father (when roped in occasionally) would alternate as Badger, and his mother was typically Otter with little sister Rebecca becoming Portly (the baby otter). We hunted stoats and weasels, visited Badger in the Wild Wood, saved Toad and restored Toad Hall to Toad’s hands.

In time we began to read illustrated versions of the book (of which there are numerous versions) and later the novel.

You can also view a 6 minute video clip from the Terry Jones screenplay of the novel with a real life cast and an appearance from John Cleese as Toad's lawyer at his trial (click here).

Live productions

There have been a number of major live productions of The Wind in the Willows (in some form) since the A.A. Milne production of Toad of Toad Hall in 1929. These include:

Wind in the Willows, a 1985 Tony-nominated Broadway musical starring Nathan Lane
The Wind in the Willows, by Alan Bennett (who also appeared as Mole) in 1991
Mr Toad's Mad Adventures, by Vera Morris
Wind in the Willows, by Ian Billings

If you live in Sydney you can also take your children to a live production in the Royal Botanic Gardens from the 5-26 January 2008 (details here). This is an annual event that has been going for at least 20 years. Carmen and I took Jacob to see this production in 2006 and he loved it (as we did). The play is performed at several locations around the Gardens with the audience moving to the various locations where basic props have been set up. This is a wonderful way to appreciate this great book in another way with the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House as the backdrop.

Sequels and adaptations

William Horwood created several sequels to 'The Wind in the Willows': The Willows in Winter, Toad Triumphant, The Willows and Beyond, and The Willows at Christmas. The Willows in Winter appears on the same DVD as the TVC production of The Wind in the Willows.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

One year old today - a blogaversary!

I posted my first post on this blog exactly one year ago today. I've enjoyed developing the blog and writing the posts over this last year. I've also been pleased to see that it has attracted plenty of readers and that the readership keeps growing with a growing number of faithful readers who return regularly. I enjoy hearing from you via the comments section so please comment or ask questions. I'm also keen to have requests for topics that you'd like me to address. My writing and research covers early language development, literacy, children's literature and families so feel free to request posts in these broad fields and I'll do my best to address them.

I thought to note the anniversary I'd list some of the most popular posts over the last year:

Your baby can learn to read (click here)

The importance of play series (click here)

Basic literacy support series (click here)

Author focus series (click here)

Teaching and learning moments in everyday life (click here)

Key themes in children's literature series (click here)

Fathers and children's education (click here)

The Language Experience Approach (LEA) (click here)

Writing, communication and technology (click here)

Thanks again for reading this blog, please let me know if you have any requests - new topics, new authors for the author series, other key themes etc.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Key Themes in Children's Literature: Christmas

Christmas is a major celebration in most western countries and is arguably the largest religious celebration in the world. While for many, the celebration of Christmas has become disconnected from its traditional purpose of remembering and celebrating the birth of Jesus some 2,000 years ago, the Christmas story is told and retold in varied forms in many Australian families and also in our schools. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on the 25th December. 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 publish 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).

Of course there are many wonderful works of literature that offer their own interpretation of the meaning of Christmas. Some of these are quite faithful to the traditional telling while others are based on elements of the Christmas story or themes from biblical teaching on Jesus life, typically love, devotion, kindness and sacrifice. I thought that as we approach Christmas that I'd share a few examples of good literature that are based on the theme of Christmas.

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

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 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. Then 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 ideas of what Jesus was 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 of more fine human qualities that are consistent with Christian teaching. For example, love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and sacrifice. Some examples:

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. You can also watch the video version of this story that has been popular with children for over 50 years (here).

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. This probably deserves to be in its own category. 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. This new edition has to be one of the best illustrated versions that I've seen, which isn't surprising as Robert Ingpen is arguably one of the finest illustrators we have seen in the last 50 years. The edition also contains Dickens story Christmas Tree which offers an insight into a Victorian Christmas of the 1850s.

The 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 by Mem Fox tells of the quest of a wombat to find the perfect part to play in the annual Nativity play. He tries out for every part without success until he finds one that he carries off with distinction.

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.

The Night Before Christmas, by Clement Clarke Moore. There are many published editions of this classic poem, but one I like is the board version compiled by Harold Darling and Cooper for preschoolers.

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 the porcupine 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!

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.

The above are just a sample of the thousands of books that have used the theme of Christmas.

Every blessing at this special time to all the readers of this blog.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Juvenilia: The study of writing from youth

An interest in Juvenilia

As I have written already on this blog (here), children can begin to write from a very young age. While their earliest attempts at writing, even before the age of 12 months can be seen 'just' as scribble, many young children soon develop a desire to do more than simply make their marks on paper; they begin to play with language and words, often in combination with their early drawings.

Many great writers become aware very early in life that they have a great desire to write, sometimes for self, but often for others. The study of early writing (and art) has been termed Juvenilia, drawing from the Latin meaning "things from youth". I have the privilege of being on the Editorial Advisory Board of the Juvenilia Press at the University of New South Wales. The Juvenilia Press is currently one of the passions of Christine Alexander, Scientia Professor in English Literature at the University of New South Wales. Professor Alexander is a prominent Australian editor and writer on the Brontës, including their juvenilia

The Juvenilia Press was founded in 1994 by Juliet McMaster at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, but it moved to UNSW in 2001 when Christine Alexander became the General Editor. It promotes the study of literary juvenilia (writing up to 20 years of age) of recognised adult writers. It offers insights into the later work of successful writers. It has an international team of contributing editors from Britain, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the USA and Australia.

The Juvenilia Press, as its website suggests, is more than just a publishing project:

The Juvenilia Press was originally conceived as a university/classroom project. While it has grown well beyond those limits, pedagogy remains at the core of its mandate. Students are involved in every volume in some capacity, whether that be writing introductions, researching annotations, learning the importance of textual editing, drawing illustrations, or developing a book's layout and design. Working under the guidance of established international scholars, they gain invaluable experience, practical skills, and publication.
The works published to date

Juvenilia Press publishes the early writing
(up to the age of 20) of recognised authors who have had success later as adult writers. It has published 42 works since 1994. The authors who's early writing have already featured as Juvenilia Press publications include the following:

a) 18th Century

Jane Austen

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Anna Maria Porter

b) 19th Century

Louisa May Alcott

Branwell Brontë
Charlotte Brontë
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll)
Richard Doyle
George Eliot
Iris Vaughan

c) 20th Century

Margaret Atwood
Marian Engel
Greg Hollingshead
Philip Larkin
Margaret Laurence
Malcolm Lowry
Carol Shields
Aritha van Herk
Rudy Wiebe
Alison White
Opal Whiteley

The most recent work - Lewis Carroll

The most recent publication from the Juvenilia Press is the text The Rectory Magazine written (largely) by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). Dodgson wrote in the 19th century (1832-1898) and is perhaps best known for his works Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass and the poems The Hunting of the Snark and Jabberwocky. The publication was edited by Valerie Sanders and Elizabeth O'Reilly. Like other publications from JP the work contains an introductory essay by the editors of the volume. These essays, which are significant publications in their own right, provide an insight into the considerable research required to produce each publication as well as a theoretical overview of the work, the author and their early life.

'The Rectory Magazine' was written by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and other members of his family somewhere in the years 1847-1850 when he was aged 15-18 years. The original can be found in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. As Valerie Sanders and Elizabeth O'Reilly point out in their introductory essay, 'The Rectory Magazine' was a collaborative family venture, though Charles wrote a lot of the magazine and was certainly the editor and driving force behind its production.

Like all Juvenilia, 'The Rectory Magazine' provides a fascinating insight into the early life and work of an author as well as the characteristics of their later adult work. The fascination for me in Juvenilia is that in the early work of the child author we see (at the very least) evidence of the later content and style of the adult writer. In fact, the child writing of the author often offers us a window into the development of the voice of the writer that we recognise in their later work. 'The Rectory Magazine' certainly offers such insight into the later work of Carroll. Sanders and O'Reilly comment in their essay that:

"Much of what he wrote prefigures his later characteristics as the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published less than twenty years later. From the start he was proud of being an author: his style is both self-confident and self-mocking, and he sends up the classic Victorian periodical while also trying to sound like one of its most venerable editors. 'The Rectory Magazine' proves that Carroll's instinct for parody and comic verse was always strong, as was his love of word puzzles and nonsense games."

What JP publications also offer is an insight into the role that other authors and various literary forms play in the lives of any writer. They show evidence of the rich intertextual worlds that help to shape the work of any author. This publication on Carroll offers an interesting illustration of how the young writer often takes their lead in relation to form and genre from other contemporary works, as well as life of the times in general (including its morality), while at the same time drawing on the inspiration of great authors before - as children are want to do - giving it a 'twist'. Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster in their book, 'The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf', the Dodgson family were not unique, many a Victorian family produced its own version of a collaborative magazine, that mirrored (and sometimes mocked as Carroll does) the periodicals of the day.

An added bonus with many Juvenilia Press publications is how we witness the young author's keen interest in illustration and integration of their own graphics with their written work, 'The Rectory Magazine' is no exception and includes some delightful illustrations including the cover and other colour and black and white plates inside this 132 page book.

'The Rectory Magazine' is a delightful publication containing a mixture of poetry and prose, which should be of interest to teachers, teenage readers and writers and in fact anyone interested in literature. The publications are available from a variety of sources including UNSW (via the JP website) at a very reasonable price of $12 or $15.

For some of the latest Juvenilia Press publications visit the website (here).

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The impact of new media on children

I’ve written previously on this blog about the impact of television on children (here and here). However, a new meta-analysis study has analysed the more general effects of media across 173 studies with worrying findings. The study was conducted by researchers from the National Institutes of Health and Yale University. It considered studies across a period of 30 years that adressed the impact of television, music, movies and other media on the lives of children and adolescents. The findings are worrying. For example, many studies showed that there is a significant relationship between time devoted to new media and a variety of health or behavioural problems, for example:
  • 83% of studies found a relationship with obesity
  • 88% found a relationship to sexual behaviour
  • 75% found a relationship to drug use
  • 80% found a relationship to alcohol use
  • 88% found a relationship to tobacco use
  • 69% found a relationship to ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)

In releasing the report this week one of the researchers, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, of the NIH, commented that:
"The results clearly show that there is a strong correlation between media exposure and long-term negative health effects to children. This study provides an important jumping-off point for future research that should explore both the effects of traditional media content and that of digital media -- such as video games, the Internet, and cell phones -- which kids are using today with more frequency."

While there are many benefits of new media there are clearly disadvantages if children spend too much time with machines that generate images, and sound and not enough time with people, engaging in real relationships, exploring their physical world, playing, listening to stories and engaging in ways that stimulate them in other ways. I've written a great deal about the alternative benefits of things such as play (here), reading (here) and creative activities (here).

This latest research comes on top of an increasing number of studies that are demonstrating that excessive exposure to media like television, video games and computers, can actually change the activity and ‘shape’ of the brain as well as slowing down activity (I'll post on this later).

It’s important to keep stressing that new media has many benefits and that while excessive use can be a problem, it can also have benefits. For example, one interesting study at UCLA found that computer use for older people (aged 55-76) might even increase brain function for some (here). But the overwhelming message that we are receiving from research is that too much television, gaming or computer use can be harmful for children.

From my perspective, as a research interested in children’s early learning, my sense is that we haven’t even begun to consider the questions related to this topic. For example, what is the impact of the loss of play, book reading and human interaction on children? Evidence of a general nature and developmental research, shows that adult child interaction is critical to early emotional and intellectual development. This work alone would suggest that the loss of time spent playing, talking to others, listening to stories and so on, will be detrimental. There are other related questions. Readers of this blog will be ready to ask, how much time is too much? How little time with adults is too little? It’s difficult to answer such questions but here’s are a few suggestions based on what I know of research in learning, interaction, language and communication and emerging work on new media:

Children aged 0-2
  • Constant interaction with adults (preferably a parent) – singing, talking to, providing different experiences, reading to them etc.
  • No TV, videos etc - this is almost impossible if there are older siblings, but there are much more important things to do for the very young child.
Children aged 3-5
  • Shared mealtimes – most if not all.
  • Lots of interaction as part of everyday life – talking with them in the car, in the kitchen, in the bath, while watching TV together.
  • Planned experiences – exploring the garden, the house, the physical environment, creative play, craft, music, and introduction to computer sites for kids (together!), lots of stories read to them (at least 30 minutes a day in several blocks), ‘writing’ and drawing.
  • Deliberate efforts to cultivate shared interests with your children (special TV, favourite past-times or hobbies, music, sport etc).
  • Limited TV or computer use (no more than 60 minutes per day).
Children aged 6-12
  • Shared mealtimes – at least 10 meals a week together (with at least one parent, preferably two if there are two at home).
  • Lots of interaction as part of everyday life – debriefing after school, chatting at mealtime, planned talk (ask them questions) as part of other activities.
  • Planned experiences – provide varied experiences for your children including outings, the movies together, visit the library, shop together, visit people, do some outdoor physical activity together (the pool, some sport, the park etc), develop some shared interests and hobbies – build common ground!
  • Read with them and listen to their reading.
  • Spend some time exploring the Internet with them and not just as part of school activities, show them how to use the Internet as a tool.
  • Try to limit TV and video games to 60-90 minutes per day
Adolescents (aged 13+)
  • Shared mealtimes – at least 6 meals per week together (with at least one parent, preferably two if there are two at home).
  • Lots of interaction – make time to talk and be deliberate about it if they are reluctant. Make the effort, many teenagers find it easy to withdraw from adults, don’t let them!
  • Planned activities – still try to do things together; find common interests, watch some TV together, play some sport or follow their sport, engage yourself in at least one of their interests.
  • Talk about their schoolwork and have active involvement.
  • Encourage and demonstrate wise use of media – don’t give them a TV for their room; avoid providing a state-of-the-art sound system in their room; don’t have a computer in their room have one that they use in a more public space.
  • Open your house to their friends and get to know them as well; make your home welcoming to their friends with you as part of it.
  • Try to discourage large blocks of individual time on computers, playing video games, TV and Internet surfing (2-3 hours a day is more than enough).

While there are wonderful benefits from new media (I'm enjoying one right now!), research is showing us that over-use can be harmful for children. There is a real danger that as parents lives become more busy and complicated that we will allow new media to fill spaces that previously would have been filled by family interaction. We should not allow this to happen if we value the wellbeing of our children and the quality of the relationship that we have with them.

Other posts

Washington Post article, “Media Bombardment Is Linked To Ill Effects During Childhoodhere

Media Awareness Network article, “Television’s Impact on Kidshere

TV Numbs the brainhere

My posts previous posts that address the impact of TV here