Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Twas the Night Before Christmas

It is indeed the night before Christmas and in Australia there are many excited children. It is this sense of excitement that Clement Moore captured in his well-known poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas'. This poem, written originally for his children on Christmas Eve 1822, is 190 years old this year in its published form. But his rendition of Christmas is just one narrative that speaks of the significance of this special time.

Christmas is a season that means many things to many people. For some, it is simply about sharing in celebrations, taking a holiday and having a good time. While for others it is a time of deep spiritual significance, as the birth, life, sacrifice, death and resurrection of Jesus are remembered. The Christian message is encapsulated in the words of the Gospel of John:

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

At one end of the continuum of explanations of the meaning of Christmas, we have the biblical message of Christmas that John 3:16 captures, while at the other we have the secular message that Christmas is about gifts, family and a good time. In between there are many varied practices and traditions (not all mutually exclusive I might add). I wrote a post about a month ago that offered 28 wonderful picture books (here) that have many Christmas themes and span the entire range of interpretations.

Christmas nativity knitted with pure Aussie wool!

Whatever your understanding of the meaning of Christmas, I hope that in 2013 it will be a time of reflection, rest and great significance. I hope that in your experience it will NOT be a time of sadness, busyness and separation from loved ones. Might you experience and share much love, kindness, compassion and hope. I pray that all readers will be blessed at this special time; one which has its origin in a life that changed the world.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

10 Ways to Get Your Children Writing in the Holidays

We've known for many years that some children (especially children of lower ability) can regress in literacy during long periods of vacation like the summer break. For this reason some advocate that children should keep up their reading and writing over summer. In the Southern Hemisphere we've just entered the summer vacation so I thought I'd offer some thoughts on getting children writing in vacation breaks. I've written a full post on '10 Key Pointers' for developing young writers, but here are four quick principles that apply to summer writing:

1. DON'T make kids do school in summer! What I'm NOT suggesting is that you give you children lots of school activities.
2. DO look for ways to have children use writing for varied real purposes.
3. DO find ways to ensure that your children have interested readers for their writing.
4. DO make it enjoyable, rewarding and even fun!

Some ideas

With the above foundational principles in mind here are some ideas.

1. Quirky journals

By this I mean DON'T ask your kids to 'keep a diary over the holidays' (boring!). Instead try to understand what they are interested in and suggest they 'make some notes', 'keep some records', 'create a list', start their own 'Detective Clues' book, or create a 'Scientists observation book'. Focus on anything that interests them. For example:

Player profiles for cricket, soccer, football, tennis, surfing
Sporting records for specific teams
Ten things you have to know about.... (insert the name of a rock star, sporting hero, public figure, media personality etc)
Top ten things I like about.... (insert the topic)...
A Science Observation Journal (see my last post on science apps for one example HERE)

2. Musical Writing

If your children love music get them to try writing some to well known melodies. Re-write songs they know to make them funny, offer a different point of view etc. Some teachers have found that even rap music is a great way to get some children writing (see my post on music and language HERE).

3. Advertising

Get them to identify, record or collect their 10 favourite advertisements and re-write them or change them to make a serious advertisement funny, or a funny one serious. They could do these in print form, record an audio or even create a video advertisement (all you need is a mobile phone with video option).

4. Fractured fairy tales

Encourage them to take a well-known fairy story and 'update' it. They might change the ending, introduce extra characters, or make a serious or silly point. Here's a useful site that gives examples and offers a template to write some HERE.

5. Never-ending story

I've shared this strategy before. It's very simple. If you have more than one child get them all involved in this (plus you if you have time). You write a simple story starter on the top of a page (no more than 2 sentences). You hand it to someone and they write the next paragraph, they hand it to the second writer who adds their sentences, then folds over all but their own contribution. This is then passed from one to another until the page is full. The last person has to end the story. They then unfold the paper and read it together.

6. Start a blog

I've written about this already on the blog so you can read my post 'Children as bloggers'. But in essence, you need to create a blog template (they might be able to do this with your help) which has a purpose and which they share with specific readers (family, friends etc). There are many 'child safe' sites for doing this. You might take a specific interest of your children and suggest that they find out more and share their ideas. The beauty of a blog is that they can share words, images, audio files, videos etc. When my grandchildren lived in England for six months and were home schooled by their Mum, they all had their own blogs and wrote posts almost every day. It was a brilliant way to stretch them as writers as they described visits to museum, retold stories, did some poetry, reviewed their favourite reading and so on.

7. Try some film making

Once again I've written about this before so first read my previous post on the topic HERE. But there are many wonderful apps that can be used on tablets or packages that allow children to create films and animation. Obviously film making requires some script writing not just filming.

8. Write a book!

There are many ways that your children can make a book using new applications designed specifically for them. One recent example is the use of Clicker Books from Crick Software. This app offers a publishing template that allows children to add text, photographs etc to create a book and then publish it in pdf form to distribute to readers. They might write a book on a key interest, a famous person, their family and life, or simply focus on a topic they find interesting. You might find my post on 'Digital Storytelling' to be useful in relation to this as well HERE.

9. Stories in a box

I've written about this strategy before. If you're cleaning out the shed or the attic, you are bound to find some interesting objects, photos, and artefacts. Talk about them, share your memories, put them in a box and get kids writing. See my post on this HERE. The purpose of this activity is to get children thinking creatively about a set of objects and then creating a narrative that might be related to the objects.

10. Immerse them in poetry

Poetry writing is something that children can find enjoyable and less challenging than you might think. The key is to read lots of poetry first. You can then play with language and from there it is a short jump to poetry.

When my daughter lived in Cambridge for 6 months she took her children to 'Byron's Pool' and did some poetry writing (HERE) and the outcomes were wonderful. But such experiences aren't always available and without your children having much experience of poetry you might just start by getting them to:

  • Play with language, rhyme, new words, and technical terms.
  • Play with words as you drive with them in the car, walk with them along the road.
  • Play word games with them and make it fun! Dr Seuss is a great place to start with general language silliness (see my post on Dr Seuss HERE).
  • Give them new words in the midst of real life experiences.
  • Read some anthologies 

Here's a helpful post on the varied forms of poetry that children can write with examples (HERE).

Summing up

The above are just some of the many ways to get children writing. The key is to make it enjoyable, let their interests be the guide and to offer them readers who enjoy their work and show genuine interest. I would love to have any ideas that readers have concerning holiday writing.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Great Science Apps for Kids Aged 6-12 Years

I've reviewed lots of apps for children on this blog, here's one that I think deserves a post on its own. 'Meet the Insects' is actually three apps that deserve some attention. If your child likes to learn and is fascinated by nature then they should love this series of three apps that focus on insects.

'Meet the Insects: Water & Grass Edition' (NCSOFT) was released in September and is the third app in the series of iPad encyclopaedia apps from iaction books. I will mention the previous apps after reviewing this most recent offering. Each of the apps in the series is an effect interactive encyclopaedia for young entomologists. What I love about the apps is the variety and quality of opportunities for learning. As with the previous two apps ('Forest' and 'Village'), it comes with five ways to learn about insects. The app uses information from the National Science Museum of Korea. One lovely feature is that, at the touch of a button, you can view the insects by day or night.

In this latest app, the focus is on insects that live in or near waterways. With the tap of an appropriate image the main menu offers access to:

a) Information on insects - This comes in animated form and covers what insects are, life cycles, how they breathe, and varied characteristics.
b) Multimedia - This contains the most fabulous images and videos. The resolution and quality of the videos is stunning! You can watch a Backswimmer catching a fish, insects fighting over prey under water, a water scorpion hunting and so on. All have commentary and music that is at an appropriate level and is very engaging.
c) 'See the Insects' classificatory information on insect orders - this appears in the form of slide presentations with commentary that can be read as well as listened to. This is scientifically accurate, but it also has fun elements to click for extra information. You navigate through the encyclopaedia by helping an insect to move up or downstream. Over thirty insects are featured from the orders of Hemiptera (Water Bugs and Striders), Hymenoptera (bees), Coleoptera (beetles), Mantodea (Mantis) and Odonata (dragonflies and darters). There is also a cute magnifying glass to zoom in more closely and learn more about body parts. You can also move each insect as you touch them, and there are short notes for each. Each page also has post-it notes with more information if you tap them.

d) Observation Journal - this is a wonderful feature that allows the young learners to record their own observations. It also has the option to include your own photos as well as text and other information (e.g. weather). I love this feature.
e) Quiz - finally there is an excellent quiz that allows you to learn as well as test your understanding. The tests are relatively easy and will encourage users to revisit the various sections of the app if they get anything wrong.

As I indicated at the start of this post, there are two earlier apps that are of similar format and quality. The very first app in the series was 'Meet the Insects: Forest Edition'. This app features insects that live in the forest. The video that follows reviews all aspects of the app.

The second app in the series, 'Meet the Insects: Village Edition', as the name suggests deals with insects you might meet in the forest. All three apps have similar features and are of comparable quality.

All three 'Meet the Insects' app is available for $US 6.99 each from the iTunes store and are excellent value.


As in my other app reviews, I have used a rating scale that attributes a score from 1 (Poor) to 10 (Outstanding) to indicate the extent to which the app meets the following criteria:
  • The app is enjoyable to use
  • Children learn new things because of the app
  • The app makes it easier for children to learn
  • The app interactive elements don't distract from the key learning goals
  • The app is well designed, attractive and engaging
  • The app represents good value for money
'Meet the insects' is a wonderful app series that children aged 6-12 years will love. I can particularly see boys exploring this app for hours.  The content is appropriate for this age group (even the mating insects!) and the language is appropriate and scientifically accurate. The content is presented in manageable packages that allow children to learn a little or a lot.

My rating of this app series is 9/10.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Questions Matter! Helping Children (& Teachers) to Ask Good Ones

Children ask lots of questions. Sometimes their questions don’t move beyond repetitive “Why?” questions that can be annoying. But as well as helping them to learn, children's questions can also teach us a great deal about them and their learning. 

  • Children’s questions usually show us how keen they are to learn – We see that there are gaps in their knowledge, new areas of interest, & things that puzzle them.
  • Questions offer us a window into children’s learning – We discover what they are interested in, their learning styles, and how well they learn best.
  • Questions are also one way that children try to take control of their own learning - As they ask questions they try to set an agenda and focus for their learning.
  • Questions are a way for children to test their existing knowledge - They assess what they know and test their own hypotheses.
In short, questioning is a critical tool for children’s learning, and needs to be encouraged.

Two of my grandchildren on a trip to the Australian Museum with me. A great stimulator of questions!

1. How can I ask better questions to stimulate learning?

Questioning is a vital tool for parents and teachers. We should try to ask a variety of questions, but NOT just to test learning. Rather, the best use of questions is when they are used to stimulate curiosity, problem solving, imagination, a quest for knowledge and as a result, learning. A good tool for asking better questions is a simple taxonomy. There are many ways to classify questions but Bloom's Taxonomy is still one of the most useful frameworks for helping us to get better at it. These include:

  • Questions that test knowledge or seek basic recall of knowledge – “What colour is the frog?” “What did the first pig build his house from?
  • Questions that seek some level of interpretation – “How come Max's food was still hot?” “What was the story about?” “Why was Pinocchio sad?”
  • Questions that require application of knowledge or problem solving – “Why didn’t the stepmother let Cinderella go to the ball?” “Why are there so many worms in this bit of the compost heap?”
  • Questions that require analysis – “Can you show me all the animals that live in water?” “Why do you think the 3rd little pig got up before the time he told the wolf?” “Was Fern’s father mean to want to kill Wilbur?
  • Questions that require synthesis of knowledge – “So which animal sank the boat and how do you know?” “What do you think is going to happen when the 3rd Billy Goat crosses the bridge?
  • Questions that require some type of evaluation (opinion, values, critique, judgement) – “Was Max naughty? Should his mother have sent him to his room?
You can find a more detailed overview of Bloom's categories here.

2. How can I encourage children to ask questions? 
As I have already said above, it is important for children to make good use of questions. To help them learn what good questions are you can model questioning for them. There are a variety of ways that you can do this.

  • Ask questions of children that encourage learning and thinking
  • Avoid over-using questions that just test learning, or that simply channel learning in directions that you want it to go.
  • Try to give honest answers to children’s questions.
  • Don’t be frightened to say “I don’t know”, but use this to demonstrate that not knowing the answer should lead to further learning “Let’s try to find out…
In Australia we have a very funny advertisement for an Internet company that has a sequence of exchanges between a boy and his Dad. In one the boy is doing some research for school on China. He asks his Dad, “Dad, why did they build the Great Wall of China?

His Dad suggests, “That was during the reign of Emperor Nasi Goreng - to keep the rabbits out – too many rabbits in China”.

I'll say it again, we should never be afraid to say, “I’m not sure, but I’ll think about it and let you know” (view the video HERE).

3. Here are 4 strategies to help children ask better questions
I wrote a whole book about comprehension strategies some years ago ('Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work') but here are just four question strategies that can be adapted for use with children of varied ages. In these examples, I'm assuming a grade 5 (10-11 year-olds).

a) Question frameworks

Make a chart that has a simple framework for questing complete with examples. The one above based on Bloom's Taxonomy is an example. An even simpler example is one developed by Nila Banton Smith and has proven helpful for many teachers:

Literal - These ask for details or facts you can find in the text, e.g. 'What was the rat's name in Charlotte's Web?'
Interpretive - These require the reader to supply meaning not directly stated, e.g. 'Why did Fern's father want to kill the runt pig?'
Critical - These require the reader to evaluate something, e.g. 'Do you think Templeton was honest?'
Creative - These require readers to go beyond the text, to express new ideas, solve a problem etc, e.g. 'What other words might Charlotte have used in her web to save Wilbur?'

Use the chart to discuss the varied type of questions we can ask about stories, use the categories at times when asking questions of the class, model the varied forms in group work, and use them for some set work. I offer further information on the above questioning strategy in my book 'Balancing the Basics'.

b) Visual Comprehension

You can use images, cartoons or a short video segment to stimulate and model questioning. The example below shows how a simple template for group work can be used to direct attention at images and generate good questions and insights (see my post on 'Visual Comprehension' HERE). The grade 4 students were looking at a series of newspaper images.
c) Talk-to-the-author
I developed this strategy many years ago and wrote about it in 'Teaching Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work'. It is a very simple strategy designed to get young readers thinking about the implied author and meaning that is beyond the literal. The technique is applied like this:

Step 1 - prepare some passages of 300-1000 words in length (from magazines, school readers, newspapers etc), or identify a passage in a class reader or book.
Step 2 - demonstrate the technique using a smartboard and explain that the idea of this technique is to encourage us to ask questions that we might ask if we had the author in the room.
Step 3 - have your class help you with a second passage on the smartboard.  
Step 4 - provide a passage and ask them to read, making note of at least 6 questions they might ask of the author and also at least 4 comments they might offer.

d) Character Interview

I developed this strategy while working with gifted children, but it can be used in any primary classroom. It requires readers to select a character from a book and interview them. You can do this in several ways. The simplest, and perhaps the best way to start this strategy, is to ask children in pairs to come up with ten questions that they would ask of a character in a story if they had the chance. They can then act this out with one being the interviewer and the other the character.
An alternative to the above is to have one student prepare a series of questions to which another student, filling the role of the character, has to answer. Once again, it is helpful to give some guidance about the need to ask varied questions that include interpretive, critical and creative questions, not just literal ones.

Other posts on comprehension

You might like to have a look at the following posts on comprehension:

'Teaching and Supporting Children's Reading Comprehension' (HERE)
'Reading to Learn Using Text Sets' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Sketch to Stretch' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Map Making' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Advance Organisers' (HERE)
'Emergent Comprehension in Children Under Five' (HERE)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

26 Wonderful Picture Books to Read at Christmas

I've done a number of posts on children's picture books for Christmas in 2008 as part of my 'Key Themes in Literature' series (here), which I updated in 2009, 2011 and 2012.  Some of the books that follow are quite faithful to the traditional Christmas story, while others are based on elements of the Christmas story or themes from biblical teaching on Jesus life, including love, devotion, kindness, forgiveness and sacrifice. Here are some of best examples that you can find. Many of these books can be used even with children aged 8-12 years. The illustration below is used by permission of Walker Books and is from Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' illustrated brilliantly by Robert Ingpen (reviewed in this post).

At the heart of the Christmas story is the celebration of the birth of Jesus 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 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.

The Life of Our Lord, by Charles Dickens.

First published in 1934 (64 years after his death), this is the story of the life of Jesus and was written by Dickens for his children. While rarely included in his complete works, it is a delightful retelling of the Bible's account of Jesus birth, life, death and resurrection. Dickens takes the King James (Authorized) version of the gospel of Jesus, and makes it accessible to his children. There are elements of his telling of the biblical tale that some Christians might feel offers only some of the many facets of Jesus character. But, as well as being a beautifully written retelling of the Bible's account, what I love about it is that it offers an insight into the man Dickens writing in the middle of the 19th century. It shows his Christian faith, his love for his children and even some of the family prayers. Lovers of Dickens will enjoy the book, as will children, who will respond well to the story itself, as well as its literary qualities, and the personal nature of the telling. There are a number of editions of the book including the Simon & Schuster (1999) version pictured left that is still available.

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)

Walker Books has just published this wonderful book in time for Christmas. It is written and illustrated by one of my favourite English author/illustrators, Shirley Hughes. At 83 years of age Shirley is still producing wonderful books. 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.

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 piƱata 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.

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).

Monday, November 18, 2013

12 Great New Picture Books

Here the latest picture books that have come across my desk for review. There are some wonderful books here that will be of interest across some wide age ranges. They are a mix of books from Australia, Britain and the USA.

'Figaro and Rumba and the Cool Cats', by Anna Fienberg and illustrated by Stephen Michael King (Allen & Unwin)

Popular Australian author Anna Fienberg has produced a new Figaro and Rumba book. The story follows the two key characters we first met in 'Figaro & Rumba and the Crocodile Cafe'. In this adventure they make new friends, two cool cats from Cuba who run the 'Cool Cats Cafe'.

Customers come from everywhere to try their chicken empanadas, and to swoon beneath the spell of their singing and steel guitars. But the Cool Cats top singer can't rehearse while Figaro is howling out of tune. But Figaro would rather be exploring than singing, and Dora the ginger cat, has the keys to the singer's classic Catmobile! Figaro had thought he'd seen a monster in the car, but when he sniffed inside he could only smell polish, leather and fish. They head off to explore in the classic Catmobile.

This fun 83-page book is beautifully illustrated by Stephen Michael King and would be a great read for independent readers aged 7-9.

'Send for a Superhero!' by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Katharine McEwen (Walker Books)

Michael Rosen is one of Britain's most popular writers for children. This latest offering will delight children aged 5 to 8 years. A basic bedtime story turns into a very funny superhero adventure for two children in this picture book in comic book format. 'Send For a Superhero!' is an excellent and satisfying introduction to later graphic novels on this innovative book

It's time for bed and Dad is reading Emily and little Elmer a story..."Danger! Filth and Vacuum, The Terrible Two, are trying to destroy the world!" Who will save the day? Steel Man isn't strong enough; Flying-Through-the-Air-Very-Fast-Man isn't fast enough and Incredibly-Big-Strong-Green-Man isn't big, strong and green enough. Who can help? Clever young Brad 40 has a brilliant idea: he calls on a most unlikely superhero: Incredibly Boring Man, who sends the villains - and everyone else - to sleep! Filth and Vacuum are captured by the army, Brad is a hero, and Dad thinks Emily and Elmer have fallen asleep too. But he's wrong...

'How to Make Small Things With Violet Mackerel', by Anna Branford and illustrated by Sarah Davis (Walker Books)

Anna Branford has given us a series of wonderful 'Violet Mackerel' books that I first introduced when I interviewed Anna and reviewed her work two years ago (here). Her first book 'Violet Mackerel's Brilliant Plot' was named as an Honour book in the Children's Book Council of Australia's annual awards in 2011.

There are now four books in the series plus this wonderful companion book that encourages readers to make 'small things', which is one of Violet's key interests. Violet loves to make things - small things! Violet takes the reader through a wonderful series of fun ways to make your own small things.  When I reviewed her first book I shared how one of my granddaughters loved the book so much that she made her own box of small things, in her words, '...just like in the book'. Children who love the books will get many hours of enjoyment from this new book. The books are perfect reading for girls aged 6-8 years.

'Too Many Cheeky Dogs' by Johanna Bell and Dion Beasley (Allen & Unwin)

This is a wonderful collaboration between educator Johanna Bell who works in the Northern Territory of Australia and Dion Beasley is an up-and-coming Indigenous artist whose Cheeky Dog brand is already widely known and loved. This wonderful concept book for young readers (aged 2-5 years) introduces colours and numbers in an amusing and innovative way. Dion's illustrations are delightful and have a unique style. But it is no dry concept book. Rather it teaches while it amuses and engages young readers with a cheeky and charming story about naughty camp dogs funny almost naive illustrations. It is refreshing, original and wonderful. Young readers will enjoy this story set in a remote Indigenous community, that moves us through colours, numbers and days of the week to the final dog-packed.

'On Monday I went to my auntie's house and guess what I saw? ONE yellow cheeky dog sleeping on the floor.'

'Sticky Icky Booger Bugs' by Sherry Frith and illustrated by Carol Newell Walter (Archway Publishing)

This is an interesting picture book from a minor publisher in Bloomington Indiana (a town I actually lived in almost thirty years ago). It addresses the challenges of the estimated 30,000 children who each year are diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. There is no cure for this progressive disease. Sticky Icky Booger Bugs is the tale of a boy's battle with cystic fibrosis as he attempts to avoid the hospital.

Kory is just like any other child. He loves recess, playing soccer and exploring his neighbourhood with his best friend. With every puff, cough, and sneeze, Kory keeps the sticky icky booger bugs away so he can have fun every day!

As the grandfather of a little girl who has to face the daily challenge of a nebuliser due to a different Genetic Disorder (see my daughter's blog), I know how challenging this ritual can be. While I wondered whether the book is almost too explicit with the details of the 'icky booger bugs' that are expelled each day, it is an excellent introduction to the challenges children face every day when they have Cystic Fibrosis.

'Jandamarra' by Mark Greenwood and illustrated by Terry Denton (Allen & Unwin)

I love Mark Greenwood and Terry Denton, what a team! This wonderful picture book is based on a traditional story of the Bunuba people of the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

This is the story of the young warrior born to lead, Jandamarra. To the settlers, he was an outlaw to be hunted. To the Bunuba, he was a courageous defender of his country. He had an uncanny ability to escape any attempt to capture him. His escapes from troopers were legendary amongst his people. 

Mark Greenwood's text and Terry Denton's watercolour illustrations bring to life this story of conflict and divided loyalties - giving a unique insight into an extraordinary man and a tragic but important part of Australia's frontier history.

The book has been shortlisted for the 2013 Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Awards.

'I Wonder What it's Like to Be' by Mark Darlow and illustrated by Juan Rodriguez (Wolrad Press)

This picture book is based on a song composed by the author Mark Darlow who is a New York singer, writer and poet

The story and song feature a boy named 'Wonder' who considers what it would be like to be...a bird, a fish, or even a flea! The little boy, who is the story's narrator, introduces the book with the words:

I walk around and wonder,
I have a hat that says I do.
As I see new things I wonder,
DO YOU wonder too?

Wonder thinks about many things, including different places, animals and things to do. The story follows along with a song that you can listen to online for free (here). It is a catchy song that children will enjoy and the colour drawings by Juan Rodriguez will delight young readers, listeners and singers aged 2-6 year. It's available in Kindle edition for $2.99 and paperback for $7.47. 

'Dandelion' by Galvin Scott Davis and illustrated by Anthony Ishinjerro (Random House Australia and digital media company Protein)

This a wonderful picture book that focuses on the theme of bullying. Galvin Scott Davis explains its genesis:

The story for Dandelion came about when my son experienced bullying at school. As a parent, you are supposed to have all the answers, right? But as we all know, that is not necessarily the case. What to do? I needed to put myself in my son's shoes, draw on my own past experiences and offer him a solution to help him feel comfortable at school again. Being a writer, the idea for Dandelion sprang to mind and I immediately pitched it to my team at Protein.

This is an exciting project, starting out first as a concept by a Dad whose son was bullied which was then funded by people who like him wanted to say something about bullying to encourage those experiencing it. First there was the idea, then an app before finally a hard covered book. The illustrations and animation are beautiful. In both formats the unusual sepia tone illustrations of Anthony Ishinjerro capture the reader/viewer and the white, block-letter text stands out from the black pages to support text in the form of rhyming couplets.

Whatever form you experience it, (app or book) it is a story that will encourage parents, teachers and children to talk about bullying and look at whether some problems can be solved with a little imagination.
'One More Candle' by Merry Susiarjo and illustrated by Emmeline Pidgen (Twelve Elves Books)

Based on a number 1 bestselling children's- book app on iTunes.

Benjamin Brewster is a very particular little boy. He attends the School for the Misguided, a place for never-do-wells and bullies. A place where happy thoughts are quick to run and hide. A place where dreams and thoughts are squished. Until one day dandelions appear by Benjamin's side and he finds the courage and imagination to force the bullies to take flight. Bullying, after all, is for people with no imagination.

This magical interactive book for children is based on a bestselling children's iTunes app and came about when Galvin Scott Davis's son experienced bullying. The story encourages parents and children to discuss bullying and discover whether some problems can be solved with a little imagination.

One-More-Candle-by-Merry-Susiarjo.jpg" width="167" />
Nola is just over a year younger than her sister Betty, and they decide to have one big, shared birthday party every year rather than each having a smaller one. But poor Nola gets upset that Betty always has one more candle than her, and fruitlessly seeks help from all the light-giving things she finds in the world outside. But just as she begins to accept the reality of their different ages, the solution comes as an enchantingly simple surprise. Emmeline Pidgen's authentic and imaginative illustrations bring this sweet and gentle picture book story magically to life.

This is a sensitive book that tackles an issue that is known by every adult who was once a child. The desire to do what older siblings are able to do. The story is also a lovely model of love between two sisters and the wisdom required to be a parent. Children aged 3-7 will enjoy this book.

'Once Tashi Met a Dragon' by Anna Fienberg & Barbara Fienberg and illustrated by Kim Gamble (Allen & Unwin)

Ever since he could remember Tashi had been told stories by his grandmother and uncle about a dragon who lived on the mountain in a palace of gold. They were certain it was the dragon that brought the rains. No one had ever seen the dragon, but once a year it would send smoke and thunder down the mountain, and soon the rains would follow. But one year, the skies were always blue, the creeks were drying up and the people were hungry. What had happened to the dragon? One day when Tashi and Lotus Blossom were walking they met a white tiger who offers to help them find out. When Tashi reaches the dragon's golden palace, he meets an angry young dragon that is upset because his mother is under the spell of a demon sleep and he can't wake her up.

This is a delightful tale from the well-known Australian author Anna Fienberg and her mother Barbara Fienberg who devised the plot. Kim Gamble's delightful illustrations complement this original fantasy.

'Lizzy Bennet's Diary' by Marcia Williams (Walker Books)

'Lizzie Bennet's Diary' was published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice. It is a wonderful retelling of Jane Austen's most famous novel from the point of view of Lizzy Bennet, its feisty heroine. This is Lizzy Bennet's story of Pride and Prejudice, revealed through her secret diary. The narrative and delightfully illustrated diary beautifully echo and illustrate 'Pride and Prejudice'. Marcia Williams has managed to provide a fresh take on this well-loved story.

My nine-year-old granddaughter Rebecca devoured the diary at a single sitting and said to me, "It reminded me of the all the great things in the book". The diary takes you into Austen's world, and is enlivened with Lizzy's drawings, pressed flowers, ribbons, notes, dance cards, invitations, and a letter from Mr Darcy!

Lizzy Bennet's diary is a wonderful introduction to Jane Austen and also an engaging companion to Pride and Prejudice.
'This Little Piggy Went Dancing' by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Deborah Niland (Allen & Unwin)

 With a team like Margaret Wild and Deborah Niland this book was bound to be a winner. This is a delightful simple playful take on the traditional 'This Little Piggy' nursery rhyme. I've already enjoyed reading it many times to my two-year-old granddaughter and she loved it! But of course this little pig did so much more than simply heading off to market.

This little piggy went dancing
This little piggy stayed home
This little piggy had porridge
This little piggy had none
And this little piggy went hop, hop, hop, all the way home.

But it doesn't stop there; this little pig goes visiting, swimming, travelling, riding, splashing, sliding, shopping, sailing, and even reading. And as you'd expect, there were all sorts of unexpected things along the way!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Reading and Writing Feed One Another: 8 Key Illustrations

The desire to write starts early!
I've written before about this topic, but I thought I'd revisit it. There was once the confused belief that children learn to speak first, read second and write third. This was seen in the practices of most schools prior to the 1970s. But research in the 1960s and 1970s showed that this was a fallacy, and that all aspects of language are interrelated. Observation of children's early development should have indicated this. Young children generally do try to speak first, but as soon as they can hold a pencil or crayon they will try to make their mark on the world in some form. In fact, babies and toddlers will even use their fingers in dirt or food at the table to do some doodling. Early attempts to represent meaning with pencils, and certainly the 'reading' of images, often precede attempts to read words.

What does this mean for teachers and parents of young children? In simple terms, it means that rich experiences of early writing will have an impact on language and learning generally, and certainly reading.  In more specific terms, it means that early literacy and language experiences reinforce and help each other.  Offering rich early experiences for writing are as important as reading to and with your children. As well, children who have rich early reading experiences will often be more precocious as writers.  To illustrate the interrelatedness of all aspects of language and meaning making, I want to suggest eight ways that early writing reinforces reading.

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.' And of course, story is fuel for writing.

2. Reading offers models for writing - 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 begin to read for themselves, they realize that these stories have been written for them, the reader. Good writing requires a sense of audience, and stories read teach this. When children begin receiving letters, cards, or simply being shown print in their world, they begin to grasp that language isn't just to be received, but can also be created and shared with others as a writer.  They also learn that if you write for readers, and receive responses, that this is enjoyable and strengthens relationships.

An early letter from Elsie

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 very 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 but it is rich in language and metaphor. 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.

My granddaughter Elsie's 'TV Instructions' (left), written aged five years, 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 - Children also discover that reading 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.

  You can read all my other posts on writing HERE