Thursday, November 24, 2011

Ten great non-fiction books for children aged 5-12 years

I have written before on this blog about the importance of non-fiction books (see some links at the end of the post). In fact, some young readers find non-fiction more engaging than fiction. There have been some wonderful examples published in the last year. This post is simply a quick review of ten recently published books that younger children will find interesting and enjoyable. I have arranged them roughly in order of difficulty.

'Bilby Secrets' Edel Wignel, illustrated by Mark Jackson

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

'Simpson and his Donkey' by Mark Greenwood & illustrated by Frané Lessac

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

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

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

'Kubla Khan: Emperor of Everything' by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Robert Byrd

Kubla Khan is not well known and has often been mentioned historically only indirectly or in passing. Who was the man who Coleridge described in his famous poem 'Kubla Kahn'? This is the presumed grandson of Genghis Khan who reputedly built the imperial city of Beijing, and fathered a hundred or more children. History and legend suggest that he ruled over the greatest empire of the time, and that it was more advanced than previous civilisations in science, art and technology. The narrative text is engaging and should hold the interest of young readers, and Robert Byrd beautifully illustrates the book. Readers aged 7-9 years will enjoy this 42 page illustrated book.

'The Legend of Moondyne Joe' by Mark Greenwood & illustrated by Frané Lessac

The motivation for this story was a visit by the author to the Fremantle Prison near Perth Western Australia and the cell that was built especially for a bushranger who was difficult to keep incarcerated. Moondyne Joe was not known for gunfights or holding up stagecoaches in the early days of the colony. It was the convict bushranger's ability to escape each time he was placed behind bars that made him infamous. The early settlers admired him as he roamed the wooded valleys and winding creeks of the Moondyne Hills, wearing a kangaroo-skin cape and possum-skin slippers.

As with many of Greenwood's books he adds a glossary of terms and some notes on the convict era that increase the depth of the reader's experience of the book. The simple story is superbly illustrated by the paintings of Frané Lessac. This is another wonderful book that engages and teaches.

'You Can Draw Anything' by Kim Gamble

Kim Gamble is a well-known illustrator of Australian picture books. In this very accessible book he shows you how to draw just about anything you want to. Most how-to-draw books are either simple and recipe like or far too complex. The book offers principles and guidance for drawing many objects, including varied animals, people (bodies and faces), and landscapes including perspectives. He also offers techniques for shading and colouring. He intersperses the many diagrams and drawings with stories, jokes and examples that make the approach lots of fun, engaging and effective. It is ideal for children aged 7-10 years.

'Amazing Grace: An Adventure at Sea' by Stephanie Owen Reeder

This is a story about the courage of 16-year-old Grace Bussell. The year is 1876, when a steam ship, the 'Georgette', runs aground near Margaret River in Western Australia. On shore an ordinary 16 year old girl sees the unfolding drama and heads off on horseback with the family servant Sam Isaacs to try to help the stranded passengers. Grace and Sam head into the water with their horses and rescue many people. Using eyewitness accounts and other historical documents as well as some slight embellishment to fill in details to sustain the narrative, Stephanie Reeder brings this true story to life.  This wonderful story is an excellent follow on from Stephanie Reeder's previous book, 'Lost! A True Tale From the Bush'. This previous story was also a true story. It told the story of 3 children who became lost on their way home in 1864 and spent eight days alone. It was shortlisted in the 2010 CBCA children's literature awards.  
'The Boy from Bowral' by Robert Ingpen

Robert Ingpen is known primarily as an illustrator but he is also a fine writer with 13 works of fiction and over 20 non-fiction. His most recent book as writer and illustrator is 'The Boy from Bowral' which tells the biographical story of Australian cricketer Sir Donald Bradman who is the greatest cricketer of all time. Bradman is seen as a legend in any cricket playing nation and Ingpen provides a lucidly written and historically accurate picture of Bradman's early life in Bowral, his rise to prominence as a cricketer, and his sporting career. The images are drawings based primarily on existing photographs, so the keen cricket fan (like me) will feel that they recognise some of them. The cover (which wraps around to the back) is a wonderful sequence of images that appear like a series of video frames that capture the classic Bradman cover drive. I loved this book and any cricket following child or adult will also enjoy it.

'Into the Unknown' by Stewart Ross and illustrated by Stephen Biesty

This wonderful hard cover book from tells the story of 14 famous journeys throughout history, including 'Pytheas the Greek Sails to the Arctic Circle in 340BC', 'Admiral Zheng He Crosses the Indian Ocean in 1405-07', 'Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin Land on the Moon in 1969', 'Marco Polo Rides the Silk Road to China in 1271-74' and many more.

Each story has multiple drawings, maps and a giant fold out cross-section. Boys will read and look through this book for hours. You will also enjoy reading this exciting book to boys. There are many other 'cross-section' books by Stephen Biesty and others (here), including 'Egypt in Cross Section', 'Castles' and 'Rome'.

'Movie Maker' by Tim Grabham, Suridh Hassan, Dave Reeve and Clare Richards

'Movie Maker' is another wonderful resource from Walker Books designed for primary school aged children (7-12 years). It is a kit that contains ideas for making movies, and a handbook that shows you how armed simply with a video camera, you can make movies. The handbook talks about techniques like storyboarding, production, equipment, sound and lighting, design, special effects, how to vary camera shots and so on. It also includes some very cute aids such as a binocular mask, an adjustable frame, sample story boards, character props (e.g. glasses, moustache) and even authentic theatre tickets. All it doesn't include is the popcorn.

'The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science: 50 Experiments for Daring Young Scientists' by Sean Connolly

I wanted this book as soon as I saw it.  Well, as soon as I saw the title!  The book is all about igniting interest in science. Sean Connolly achieves this with lively, hands-on activities that suggest excitement and "danger". Simple experiments that pop, ooze, surprise and teach will delight boys and girls in upper primary. He also leads the reader through the history of science, and uses simple experiments to demonstrate key scientific principles.

The reader can rediscover the wheel and axle with the ancient Sumerians, or perform an astounding experiment demonstrating the theory of angular momentum. Children can build a simple telescope like Galileo's and find the four moons he discovered orbiting Jupiter.  They can experiment safely with electricity and avoid the more risky approach of Ben Franklin with his Lightning experiment. They will also learn how to re-create the Hadron Collider in a microwave with marshmallows, calculator, and a ruler to demonstrate the speed of light. Or they might simply crush a can using Stephenson's steam can experiment. This is a wonderful book for children aged 9-12 years.

Related Posts

'Meet the Author: Mark Greenwood & Frané Lessac' HERE
'Author & Illustrator Focus: Robert Ingpen HERE
'Getting Boys into Books Through Non-Fiction' HERE
'Making Reading Exciting for Boys' HERE

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Text Talk - Why talk matters for comprehension

I first devised the term 'Text Talk' in the 1980s and wrote about it in a number of publications, including my book 'Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work' (Continuum). The post is based on what I said in these publications. My purpose in using the term was to stress to teachers and parents that the most vital thing we can do to improve children's comprehension is to talk about text.

What do I mean by 'Text Talk'?

Photo courtesy of Tembari Children Care
Text Talk means more than teachers talking to children about books, or asking them questions designed to elicit information. In essence, Text Talk requires the teacher or parent and children to converse about their understanding or meanings as they read, reflect up the author's intent, tease out the knowledge and meaning an author communicates, and generally tussle with and critique the view of the world that the author presents as well as the effectiveness of the text.  The role is varied, but in essence, still simple and requires the teacher to:

a) provide background information if necessary and appropriate;
b) elicit responses from readers to the text;
c) suggest alternative strategies for making meaning;
d) share insights about reading and language;
e) support and assess student efforts to construct meaning;
g) ask questions that expand knowledge and insight, rather than simply testing it; 
g) introduce new forms of language and alternative purposes for reading.

Teachers can assume varying roles when talking to children about texts, ranging from those which are heavily teacher-centred and text dependent, to those which are child-centred and reader dependent. Some teachers adopt a questionning role, while others provide support in the form of knowledge, alternative strategies etc. These roles are not mutually exclusive, nor is one approach right and the other wrong (although implementation of both can be good and poor). What is needed is balance and, above all, true conversation about books.

How should teachers talk to students about text?

One of the nicest examples of 'text talk' in action is to be found in the children's novel 'The Great Gilly Hopkins' (Paterson, 1978). This story revolves around Gilly's struggles to adjust to life in yet another foster home, come to greater understanding of herself, and experience love for the first time. Within the story there is a delightful exchange between Gilly, Mrs Trotter (foster mother), Mr Randolph (a blind man who lives next door) and William Ernest, a younger mildly disabled foster child who lives also with Mrs Trotter.

After dinner one evening Mr Randolph asks Gilly to read some of Wordsworth's poetry to him. She reluctantly agrees, and finishes William Wordsworth's 'Ode on Intimations of Immortality from the Recollections of Childhood'. She sits down lost in her own inner anger and frustration. But Mr Randolph interrupts her thought:
'Well, what do you think of Mr Wordsworth, Miss Gilly?' asked Mr Randolph interrupting her angry thoughts.
'Stupid,' she said.....................A look of pain crossed his face. 'I suppose,' he said in his pinched, polite voice, 'in just one reading, one might....'
'Like here' - Gilly now felt forced to justify an opinion which she didn't in the least hold - 'like here at the end, "the meanest flower that blows". What in hell - what's that supposed to mean? Whoever heard of a "mean flower"?
Mr Randolph relaxed. 'The word mean has more than one definition, Miss Gilly. Here the poet is talking about humility, lowliness, not' - he laughed softly - 'not bad nature.'
Gilly flushed. 'I never saw a flower blow, either.'
'Dandelions.' They all turned to look at William Ernest, not only startled by the seldom-heard sound of his voice, but by the fact that all three had forgotten that he was even in the room. There he sat, cross-legged on the floor at the end of the couch, a near-sighted guru, blinking behind glasses.
'You hear that?' Trotter's voice boomed with triumph.
'Dandelions? Ain't that the smartest thing you ever heard? Ain't it?' W.E. ducked his head behind the cover of the couch arm.
'That is probably exactly the flower that Mr Wordsworth meant,' Mr Randolph said. 'Surely it is the lowliest flower of all.'
'Meanest flower there is,' agreed Trotter happily. 'And they sure do blow, just like William Ernest says. They blow all over the place.'

This extract provides a perfect example of people talking about text and in the process increasing the child's knowledge of the world, and their grasp of language.  As well, it creates interest and appreciation of an unfamiliar and more complex work than they could encounter and understand alone. Within it we see:
  • Mr Randolph providing access to a text beyond Gilly's level of "actual" developmental.
  • How interaction between individual people can facilitate learning.
  • How a 'teacher' can exercise quiet control through questionning and comment without stifling other voices and views (or just testing knowledge).
  • That the 'teacher' is not the only person with knowledge and, that insights can come from unlikely places (William Ernest).
  • Mr Randolph providing new knowledge in response to the Gilly's questions.
  • The excitement of Trotter as she witnesses the insight of William Ernest, and her affirmation of support for him as a person and a learner.
Text Talk results when a teacher or parent has the sensitivity and insight to spot the teachable moment, to grapple for the right question, to know just when to provide new knowledge, or when to probe and prompt children to grasp new things.

Related Posts

'Guiding Children's Learning' HERE
 Other posts on comprehension HERE

Monday, November 7, 2011

Children's Book Reviews - Nov 2011

This is another of my regular posts on recently released books that have been sent to me for review. The titles in this post are all from British and Australian publishers Walker Books, Bloomsbury and Allen & Unwin.

1. Picture Books (0-6 years)

'All the Way to WA: Our Search for Uncle Kev' Roland Harvey (Allen & Unwin)

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

'The Scariest Thing of All' Debi Gliori (Bloomsbury)

A little rabbit named Pip has lots of fears.  He was scared of "all the usual things...some unusual ones...and some that were just plain weird". There were tree stumps that he was sure were a giant wood troll, bubbles in a pond that he was sure were caused by a gobbler and so on. He kept adding his new daily fears to his list and, it was enormous. How could he overcome these fears?  No-one seemed able to help him. Then one day, when things can't get any worse, he flees into the dark woods to escape an unexplained noise, and has to face up to all his fears at once. This delightful book with intricate images of animals and landscapes, all vividly coloured and filled with amazing detail, will keep young children coming back for one more read. RRP $AUS 16.95

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

This is delightful non-fiction picture book that teaches us in narrative form about the life of the wonderful bilby, an Australian marsupial. It traces the events of a typical day for mother and baby, and the perils of native and feral animals as the baby Bilby tries to survive life in the Australian landscape. Edel Wignel's story keeps the reader interested, while Mark Jackson's brightly coloured illustrations add drama and detail to this piece of discovery learning in narrative form. Children aged 2-6 will love this book. It is also a great book for classroom-based units and learning.  RRP $AUS 29.95

2. Younger Readers (6-9 years)

'Neville No-Phone' Anna Branford, illustrated by Kat Chadwick (Walker Books)

Neville is the only kid in his whole class without a mobile phone. Well, that's what he says to his parents as he tries to persuade them to buy him one. Neville enlists the help of his mate, Enzo. Surely, they can work out how to get Neville a phone. They are determined to achieve the goal, and an opportunity comes in an unexpected way.  But it brings with it equally unexpected consequences. Will Neville sort this out?  This is a funny short novel for young readers. Ideal for boys and girls aged 7-9 who have just entered the truly independent stage of reading and are beginning to devour lots of books. RRP $AUS 15.95

'Note on the Door and Other Poems About Family Life' by Lorraine Marwood (Walker Books)
This is an excellent collection of poems about children's lives. The poems are arranged in a number of categories, including family, holidays, school and play. The poetry is deceptively simple, but it is engaging and relevant to children's lives. Whether it's the funny 'There are many lingoes in my house' that is based on over-hearing the repetitive patterns of family members' conversation on the telephone, or the more serious 'Cat Burial', children will be able to connect these poems to the events of their own lives. It is a well designed book with a mix of text, image and lots of white paper. The latter is essential for children not accustomed to reading poetry. This would be a great first book of poetry for any child aged 6-9 or a lovely book to read with and to children of younger ages.

3. Independent Readers (10-13 years)

'The Truth About Verity Sparks' by Susan Green (Walker Books)

Verity Sparks is unusual girl.  She has almost perfect memory and is good at finding lost things. But when she goes to live with an unusual family she finds that there is mystery in her past.  Verity is a thirteen-year-old orphan who works as a milliner in Victorian London. When she is wrongly accused of theft and dismissed from her job, she goes to live with the Plushes, who run a Confidential Inquiry Agency. Verity helps them solve cases and slowly becomes one of the family. But her own past begins to reveal itself to her. Who were her real parents? Is she the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter? Who is sending poison pen letters about Verity to the Plushes? Who doesn’t want them to learn the truth about Verity Sparks? This is an adventure/mystery with a dash of the supernatural thrown in which most 10-13 year olds will enjoy. 

'The Sleeping Army' by Francesca Simon (Allen & Unwin)

Francesca Simon is well known for her very popular 'Horrid Henry' series. Its main character is Freya who lives in Britain and finds herself in another time and place. And these are unusual times when people still worship the Viking gods. Her life has also been disrupted by her parents' divorce. It begins when one night she is with her father on his night shift at the British Museum. As she views the exhibits one by one, she is unable to resist the urge to blow a ceremonial horn from a Viking tribe - Heimdall's Horn. She does so, and in the chaos that follows she finds that her world has changed. She has woken three chess pieces from a state of enchantment - the slaves Roskva, Alfi, and Snot the Berserk. All are summoned to Asgard, land of the Viking gods, and they are sent on a perilous journey. Their mission is to restore the gods to youth.  This is a rollicking tale that children 9-12 years will enjoy. RRP $AUS 22.99

'On Orchard Road' by Elsbeth Edgar 

Jane’s world has been turned upside down. She has a brand-new sister, and her family has moved to a small town, leaving behind everything she knows. But friendship can emerge in unusual places. A mysterious older lady, a curious boy and an amazing garden prove her wrong. This is story about mystery, romance, friendship and hope. The book deals with many themes, including loneliness, friendship, bullying and, the ability to cope with change in your life. It is novel that girls aged 10-13 will enjoy.  RRP $AUS 16.95

'Darius Bell and the Crystal Bees' by Odo Hirsch

This is another wonderful book from Australian Odo Hirsch (who now lives in London). It is the sequel to 'Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool', which won the 2010 CBCA Children's Book of the Year award.  In this story, Darius and his friends solve a new problem, the mysterious disappearance of some bees. Curiously, the bees on the Bell estate are dying. There will be many consequences, the most serious of which is that Mr Fisher the gardener and his family, will have to leave the estate. Darius Bell knows that something must be done. This is a story with lots of fun and humour, mystery and problem solving. Children aged 10-13 will love this book.  RRP $AUS 15.99.

'The Coming of the Whirlpool' by Andrew McGahan

Andrew McGahan is well known as an author of adult fiction.  This is his first novel for young adults and is part of a new series called 'Ship Kings'. Dow Amber is not a sailor, but he is driven by a strange urge to head for the sea. He is drawn to the great grim bay known as the Claw. He hopes to learn there about sailing, but he finds only a fearful people who scarcely dare sail at all. They have been cursed by a monstrous whirlpool that haunts the bay, stealing away their sons.

One day, the rulers of the entire world - the proud and cruel Ship Kings - arrive in the Claw. Their fine, tall ships fascinate Dow, as does a mysterious girl who lives aboard their flagship. This is a dangerous attraction. The question is, does his future somehow lie with the Ship Kings? Or will he be called upon to descend to his death, when the terrible whirlpool rises once more? Older readers 12-15 will enjoy this book of fantasy and adventure. RRP $AUS 22.99