Monday, September 24, 2012

'The Sword Girl' Series: A look at the writing of Frances Watts

There have been a number of new book series for younger readers in the last year (see my previous posts on series HERE & HERE), but one of the most delightful and engaging is 'The Sword Girl' series by France Watts, who I interview later in this post.

Frances Watts

Frances Watts is the pen-name of Ali Lavau, a Swiss born Australian author, who moved to Sydney when she was three years old. She studied English Literature at Macquarie University in Sydney, before teaching Australian Literature and children's literature. She went on to complete a PhD and took her first job in publishing. For ten years she worked with many talented Australian children’s authors and illustrators before she began writing her own books. Her delightful first picture book Kisses for Daddy (2005), which was illustrated by David Legge, was an immediate success. Her second picture book, also with David Legge, was the wonderful and innovative non-fiction book Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books (2007). This won the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Eve Pownall Award. Since then her writing has kicked into overdrive, with a number of wonderful books and a prolific output. I have listed all of Frances Watts' books at the end of this post.

The Sword Girl Series

This is an exciting series of books by Frances Watts that is illustrated by Kate Greenaway Medal winner Gregory Rogers. The central character is Tommy (short for Thomasina) who is a feisty kitchen hand who longs to be a knight. When Tommy, through a series of unusual events, is finally promoted to Keeper of the Blades, her life changes. As Frances Watts shares in her interview responses below, Tommy is "a girl who wasn’t a princess or a fairy, who could be kind and thoughtful and empathetic yet still be active and adventurous and ambitious". This is the perfect book series for girls who love adventure, action and want an alternative to stereotypical books for girls. One of my grandchildren (Rebecca) is just such an independent, intelligent, and creative girl of seven, who loves complex characters who don't follow the crowd. She has been reading these books as they have been released and just loves them. But the appeal of the books will be wider than simply girls, many boys will enjoy these fast moving and enjoyable tales with action and interest from beginning to end. They are ideally suited for young independent readers aged 6-9 years. The RRP in Australia is $11.99 for each book.

'The Secret of the Swords' (2012), illustrated by Gregory Rogers

Tommy is a kitchen hand at Flamant Castle who dreams of just one thing, becoming a knight! One day through fate or good fortune, she finds herself defending a cat, then herself, with just a broom from the blows of a boy who is the keeper of the knights' swords. When she is made the Keeper of the Blades, caring for all the swords in the castle armoury, it seems like her dreams might have come true. But after some discoveries about the cat, and then some more about the swords, Sir Walter's most valuable sword goes missing from the sword room. Disaster beckons. Question is, will Tommy be able to find it before she is sent back to the kitchen in disgrace?

'The Poison Plot' (2012), illustrated by Gregory Rogers, Allen & Unwin, 2012

This is the second adventure in the 'Sword Girl' series. Evil plans are stirring and it's up to Tommy to keep the peace at Flamant Castle! Tommy is on an errand to the smithy in the town, and overhears a plot to poison Sir Walter the Bald, the castle's bravest knight. It is to occur during a banquet and it is to look like the work of a neighbouring nobleman. Tommy must foil the plot or Flamant Castle will be at war. As in the first story in the series, Tommy receives some help from some unusual sources.

'Tournament Trouble' (2012), illustrated by Gregory Rogers

Flamant Castle is having a tournament and all the knights and squires of the neighbouring Roses Castle are invited. Tommy has jobs to do at Flamant and looks set to miss the fun and excitement. After Edward the Squire falls from his horse it looks as if Flamant Castle will be a squire short. Sir Benedict asks Tommy to take his place and offers her one of his own horses. But there's a problem, she has never ridden a horse before, and even if she could, there would be jousting to learn.  With some unexpected help with her riding she sets out to help Flamant win the tournament.

'The Siege Scare' (2012), illustrated by Gregory Rogers

When Sir Walter, Sir Benedict and the other knights go to nearby Roses Castle for a tournament, the enemy knights from Malice attack Flamant. Sir Malcolm the Mean and a raiding party head for Flamant. Tommy is the key to saving the castle, but how will she get a message to Sir Benedict, who is a day's ride away? The castle is surrounded with no way out! But Tommy devises a daring plan. But is it too late?

An Interview with Frances Watts

1. TC: What contributed most to your love of story in your childhood years?

FW: Probably a plentiful supply of good books! My parents were (and are) avid readers, and my sister and I just naturally followed in their footsteps. We were regulars at the local library and the second-hand book store, and my grandparents in America used to send huge parcels of books and subscriptions to children’s magazines. (I particularly remember Cricket, which was essentially a literary magazine for kids.)

But you asked about my love of story particularly. I think I’ve always been drawn to story because to read a story is not just to observe, to be a spectator; it is to feel, to live, to experience. As Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most wonderful books of all: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. The intimacy of a story can provide that experience. When you read, it is personal: good literature takes you right out of your own skin and into someone else’s. It has a voice that rings true. It makes you feel something.

2. TC: Could you tell me a little about the inspiration for the Sword Girl series?

Château de Chillon (Wiki Commons)
FW: My first inspiration for the series was really my father: whenever we would drive around our region on holidays in Switzerland (or even further afield, in Italy or France), he’d tell us about the battles that took place in this town or that, describing scheming kings, luckless dukes, relating the legends and apocryphal stories…My father has a great eye for character and for the quirky detail. It made history fascinating. As for the medieval setting, that too comes from my Swiss background. The city where I was born, Lausanne, has a very rich medieval history, and there’s a particular medieval castle nearby—the Château de Chillon on the shores of Lake Geneva—which I have been visiting since I was a child. The last time I was there, I started to think of the castle as the springboard for a setting, to imagine myself as a girl living there—and realised I would have preferred to be a boy living there: a little less needlework or kitchen drudgery; a little more swordplay! That’s really where the character of Tommy started to take shape: a kitchen girl in a medieval castle who longs to be a knight. Of course, a big part of the appeal of a medieval setting for me is that it gives me a lot of imaginative leeway; the medieval world had such a fluid relationship between fact and fiction that it seemed perfect for the kinds of books I love to write.

3. TC: Thomasina is obviously an unusual lead character in a children's book set in medieval times. Is the choice all about simply wanting to portray a girl as a strong, clever, courageous and determined lead character, or are there other reasons for this interesting character?

FW: Yes, being able to write a strong girl character was definitely something I wanted to do—a girl who wasn’t a princess or a fairy, who could be kind and thoughtful and empathetic yet still be active and adventurous and ambitious. I think, too, that I wanted to convey the idea that the times we live in can change, can be changed – but it is up to us to change them, to help to make the world we want to live in. And sometimes that’s just a matter of being yourself and following your heart. As Tommy performs her role as Keeper of the Blades with such diligence and skill and determination, more and more people around her begin to accept the idea of her one day becoming a knight.

4. TC: Do you have any particular reasons for pitching this book series at young independent readers?

FW: It’s an age group I do enjoy writing for. There’s a combination of innocence and awareness; young readers embrace characters wholeheartedly, they get a kick out of absurd humour and they are absolutely open to joy and wonder. In a way, though, I never feel like I’m deliberately pitching my books at a particular age group or ‘market’; in the first instance, I just write the stories I want to tell and worry about the audience later.

5. TC: You've obviously done some research in situating these stories historically, but you also have fun with names and language and a variety of elements of fantasy. How and why did you come up with this interesting mix?

FW: I love language—its quirks, its ambiguities, the way it sounds, the way we can play with it; there’s always an element of play with language in my writing, just because it’s a passion of mine. (And, if I’m honest, I’m writing for myself first, before any other reader.) As for those elements of fantasy…I just can’t explain them! It’s what comes out when I begin to write.

6. TC: What is the best response you've ever had to a book?

FW: I don’t know if I could choose a single instance: any time I hear that someone has enjoyed one of my books, has connected with the characters, has been moved or delighted or inspired, is a thrill. But one of the most moving ‘uses’ of one of my books has to be when 'Kisses for Daddy' was chosen, for a while, by the Storybook Dads program Dartmoor prison in the UK. The program helps inmates to record bedtime stories onto CDs and DVDs. These are then sent to their children, helping prisoner parents to maintain an emotional bond with their children. I was lucky enough to hear a recording of a prisoner reading Kisses for Daddy to his son. Some of the prisoners have poor literacy skills themselves, but are keen to encourage their own children to read. For a book to become a means of a father expressing his love for his children, and his hopes for their future, is a beautiful thing.

7. TC: Will there be lots more Sword Girl books?

FW: I hope so. I’m having a lot of fun with the characters and the setting. I’ve just finished writing the sixth book (books 5 and 6 in the series, ' The Terrible Trickster' and 'Pigeon Problems', will be published in April 2013) and I still feel like I’m bursting with ideas.

8. TC: On a long haul flight to London, which two books would you take?

FW: Hmmm...That’s a very different question to the whole ‘desert island’ concept, because I’m not going to be taking favourite books on that flight but ones I haven’t read yet. So these aren’t recommendations but, rather, books I’m keen to read myself. I’ve just started Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue—he’s a dazzling writer. And if we can delay the flight till November I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, Flight Behaviour. She has a voice that really gets into my head.

 Other Books by Frances Watts

'Kisses for Daddy' (illus. David Legge) (2005)
'Parsley Rabbit's Book about Books' (2007)
'Captain Crabclaw's Crew' (2009)

Ernie & Maud Series

A series of junior novels about two very unlikely superheroes, Extraordinary Ernie and Marvellous Maud.

'Extraordinary Ernie & Marvellous Maud' (2009), illustrated by Judy Watson. CBC Notable Book in 2009.
'The Greatest Sheep in History' (2009) illustrated by Judy Watson
'The Middle Sheep' (2011), illustrated by Judy Watson
'Heroes of the Year' (2012), illustrated by Judy Watson

Gerander Trilogy

'The Song of the Winns' (2011).  Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book 2011.
'The Spies of Gerander' (2011)
'The Secret of Zanzibar' (2012)

Picture Books

'Kisses for Daddy' (2006), illustrated by David Legge. Children’s Book Council of Australia Honour Book, 2006
'Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books' (2007), illustrated by David Legge. Winner of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year: Eve Pownall Award, 2008.
'Captain Crabclaw’s Crew' (2008), illustrated by David Legge. Shortlisted REAL children’s choice awards (NSW, Vic, ACT, NT) 2012. Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book 2010.
'A Rat in a Stripy Sock' (2010), illustrated by David Francis. Shortlisted REAL children’s choice awards (NSW, Vic, ACT, NT) 2012. Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book 2011.
'Goodnight, Mice!' (2011), illustrated by Judy Watson. Winner: Prime Minister’s Literary Award 2012. Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book 2012.

For more information on Frances Watts and her work (HERE)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Using Board Games To Teach

I have written previously on this blog about the importance of play for children (here and here), but structured games can also have a significant impact on learning and development. Cognitive psychologists at the University of Maryland, Professor Robert S. Siegler and Geetha B. Ramani, found that games can help preschool children learn mathematics and other things (here).  This was especially the case for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. They found that there were multiple benefits from structured games for learning as well as for literacy and language.

The general usefulness of games

There are literally hundreds of games that have been designed for children and adults today. When I was a child the choice was much more limited (e.g. snakes and ladders, ludo, scrabble, monopoly, draughts) but the enjoyment and benefits were fairly similar. Some of the general benefits include learning:
  • That you can't always win
  • How to take turns
  • Team work
  • To be more patient
  • Risk taking
  • The importance of persistence
  • Anticipation skills
  • Memory gains
  • Colour and shape recognition
  • Pattern recognition
  • Vocabulary growth

But as well as these general benefits, there can be more specific benefits for learning that are related to other forms of learning, including:
  • Basic counting and mathematics
  • Word recognition
  • Problem solving
  • General knowledge
  • Writing (numbers and words)
Board games as learning aids

Schools have long used games in recognition that they can be a beneficial way to learn many things, especially for young children and those with learning difficulties.

The use of board games as part of school literacy and mathematics is motivated by the perceived benefits of:
  • repetition and over-learning (i.e. the repetition of something until it becomes second nature and increases the speed of recall);
  • incorporating some forms of repetitive learning into game situations to increase enjoyment and help concentration and time on task;
  • providing foundational knowledge for other more complex learning.
Some simple board game applications for literacy

The application of games to literacy has taken many forms. Here is just one example. It relies on board games that traditionally use a dice to determine the pace of the game. You can take existing games and simply replace the dice with a set of cards that require some simple reading task; each with the number 1 to 6 in small print that dictates the number of spaces moved. There are endless variations. For example:

a) You can choose basic sight words (i.e. words like 'were', 'said', 'there') - that is, words that can't easily be sounded out and are more easily recognised as whole words based on their shape and some partial letter clues. There are a number of these lists available such as the Dolch List that has been in use since 1948. Write the words in print at least 2 cm high and then write a number between 1 and 6 on the top right-hand corner (in much smaller print). You can use existing games like snakes and ladders, but instead of using the dice you have a pile of cards face down that players turn over one at a time and read. If successful, they move a counter the appropriate number of squares to progress the game.

b) Sound cards - Do the same as the above but use sound cards as appropriate for the child's age.

c) Phrase reading - You can use phrase cards instead of single word cards.

d) Teaching colours or numbers - Use colour or number words.

Image courtesy of 'Heart of the Matter'
As a teacher I often used games with children who were struggling with reading. In fact one of the things we did for struggling readers was to create our own simple board games that had a theme that matched the interests of the child (e.g. car racing, football, space, dinosaurs, cartoon characters, super heroes etc).

While there are some electronic games that attempt to use repetition and over-learning in similar ways, many of the other general benefits of games seem to be achieved more readily with board games. For a start, there is an added social dimension as children interact with other children as well as adults as they play and learn together.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Power of Poetry & Animation: Giving Voice to Young Urban Writers

An exciting project in the Western Sydney is giving voice to students from diverse backgrounds, using poetry supported by simple yet very effective animations. These year 7 children with varied cultural heritages, different abilities and interests are being helped to see significant meaning in everyday life. This is important work that can be replicated in other places.

Sir Joseph Banks High School students are having their poetry turned into animation by a local filmmaker. Bankstown Youth Development Service (BYDS) facilitated the project. This is an arts based cultural development organisation located at the Bankstown Arts Centre. Watch this short video that demonstrates the power of language when grounded in the lives of these writers. The animations support the writing of these young poets and the work offers an insight into the way they see their everyday lives.

Thirteen students from year 7 worked with the Chief Editor of Westside Publications, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, to develop writing that was then animated by 2012 Shortcuts Film Festival winner Vinh Nguyen. Every year Westside Publications produces a series of Westside anthologies. These anthologies are the only ongoing literary journals that feature Western Sydney writers, visual artists and photographers.

A Great Collaboration

Photo courtesy Wiki Commons
The above video, called ‘Coming to Voice’ was screened for the first time at an assembly at Sir Joseph Banks High School on the 23rd August and launched on the BYDS website as a new web series. Principal of Sir Joseph Banks High School Brad Mitchell said the videos allowed the students to display their talent. He suggested that the production of the animated video is "...a fantastic way to showcase their work and share it with other students.”

“Our relationship with BYDS and Michael Mohammed continues to help foster the creativity and expression of our students in new and interesting ways, and we are extremely grateful for the support.” 

Michael Mohammed Ahmad said the project reflects the convergent nature of the publishing industry:

“I wanted to invest in a medium that was easier and more accessible than publishing but one that also maintained the same literary value that all our writing projects have had.”

 Other related posts on animation

'Film Making for Kids: Three Great Resources' HERE 

'25 Great Children's Apps to Stimulate Literacy, Learning & Creativity' HERE

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

8 Ways Reading Helps Writing

The desire to write appears early
In the late 1970s and early 1980s academics began to talk a lot about the relationship between reading and writing. The first paper I ever presented to an Australian national literacy conference in 1983 was on this topic. Those of us who were writing about the key relationship between reading and writing back then, eventually moved on to talk more about the vast range of text types and modes of delivery (multimodality), and the relationship between a person's experience of varied texts, including image, film, video, experience, story, anecdote etc (intertextuality). Great terms that I've researched, used and written about elsewhere. But I thought in this post I'd narrow my focus back to one question, how does reading help writing? My motivation for this has been my granddaughter Elsie, who also inspired a post by my daughter recently as well (here). She is a prolific writer in just her first year of school. She couldn't read just 6 months ago, and yet now she is reading chapter books and writing varied texts on a daily basis.

After 30+ years reading the research of others and doing my own research as well, I can conclude that if a child is read to, and eventually begins to read themselves, that there will be an influence on writing. So what does this mean for teachers and parents of young children? In simple terms, it means that reading to and with your children is critical, as is talk, word play and use of language in all its forms. It has an impact on writing and also learning. Here are eight ways it does this.

Photo from TTALL Literacy Project
1. Being read to and reading oneself offers us a rich experience of story - I've written in other posts about the importance of story to life and learning (e.g. here). Harold Rosen once suggested that 'Narratives...make up the fabric of our lives...'.  Jerome Bruner and others have gone further to suggest that story is 'a fundamental mode of thought through which we construct our world or worlds.'

2. Reading offers models for writing - But reading also introduces us to varied ways to share a story, and how to start a story and end it. It helps us to learn how to develop a character, the art of description, humour, rhyme and rhythm. Dr Seuss is a master at such lessons.

3.  Reading teaches us about 'readership' -When children begin to have books read to them and later to read them for themselves, they begin to realize that these stories have been written for them, the reader. Good writing requires a sense of audience, and stories read teach this. When my granddaughter Elsie began receiving letters from family she suddenly wanted to write letters herself. She learned that you write for readers and that this is enjoyable and strengthens relationships.

4. Reading enriches language - There is no doubt that reading feeds children's writing. It introduces children to new words, novel use for old words, and the ever so important need to 'play' with language if you are to be a successful writer. Robert Ingpen's book 'The Idle Bear' demonstrates this well. It is essentially a conversation between two bears. He starts this way:

"What kind of bear are you?" asked Ted
"I'm an idle Bear."
"But don't you have a name like me?"
"Yes, but my name is Teddy. All bears like us are called Teddy." 
Later in the story a very confused bear asks:

"Where do you come from, Ted?"
"From an idea," said Ted definitely.
"But ideas are not real, they are only made-up," said Teddy. "You have to come from somewhere real to have realitives."
"Not realitives, relatives!" said Ted trying to hide his confusion.

Elsie's TV instructions
5. Reading introduces us to varied written genres - While children experience story from a very young age, reading also introduces them to the fact that language can be represented in different genres. Through reading at home and within their immediate world, children quickly discover that people write and read lists, notes, labels on objects, poems, jokes, instructions, maps and so on. Parents read and point out these varied text forms and eventually children try to use them.

Elsie's 'TV Instructions' (left) is a priceless set of instructions that she wrote for her Nanna just before she went to bed, so that Nanna could watch her favourite programs while babysitting.

6. Reading helps us to understand the power of words - Stories and other texts quickly teach children that words can have power. Signs give clear instructions in powerful ways - STOP, BEWARE OF THE DOG, CHILDREN CROSSING, KEEP OUT. But well-chosen words express emotions too - "I love you", "It was dark and scary". Children also discover that words can do other things. With help they will enjoy discovering language forms like onomatopoeia, e.g. atishoo, croak, woof, miaow, sizzle, rustle etc.

7. Reading offers us knowledge - But reading also offers us knowledge that can feed writing. Without content there won't be writing. Books can captivate children and offer new areas of learning and interest. As they are read books, they also learn about their world. For example, they might discover that trees don't just have green leaves, but sometimes these leaves change colour, fall off and create a habitat for many creatures. Trees drop seeds which animals eat, offer shelter for animals, material to build homes and so on. But they are also homes for elves and animals that talk, places where strange lands appear regularly, and where a lost dragon might rest. Reading feeds writing with knowledge as raw material for writing.

8. Reading helps us to imagine and think - As children are introduced to varied literary genres and traditions, imaginations are awakened to the realms of fantasy, time travel, recreation of life in other times, the perils of travel through space. But at a more realistic level, reading can help young writers to imagine childhood in other places and times, 'within' the bodies of other people and with varied life roles. Through reading, children are given the examples and the fuel to imagine and write about themselves in the shoes of others, sharing their life circumstances as well as their challenges, fears and hopes.

I'd be keen to hear of your experiences with young writers and the way reading has been related to the writing of children you have taught.

  You can read my other posts on writing HERE

(i) Cairney, T.H. (1983) Reading and writing: Making connections, paper presented to the 9th Australian Reading Association Conference, Launceston (Tas), September 10-14.