Thursday, December 22, 2016

26 Children's Books About the Christmas Story

I've done a number of posts on children's picture books for Christmas on this blog. As teachers and families approach Christmas you might like to consider the many books that can be shared. In this revised version of a previous post I feature 26 books that are quite varied. Some of the books 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. They are just some of best examples 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 birth of Jesus, which Christians celebrate on the 25th December. While for many, the celebration of Christmas has become disconnected from its traditional purpose of remembering and celebrating Jesus' birth some 2,000 years ago, it is told and retold in varied forms each year at this time.

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

The 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

14 Brilliant New Picture Books

There are so many wonderful new picture books out right now. Here are 14 books that have hit my desk for review and are all fantastic! It is such a varied collection. I've arranged them in order of text difficulty. The early books have very few words (the first has none!) but those further on in the post are more challenging. Within the post you will find books suitable for sharing with children aged 1-8 years, and many that could be read by early readers aged 4-6.

PLEASE NOTE: I don't receive any payment for my reviews, nor do I receive any sales commission when you buy any of the books from any of the sites that I link to. Enjoy!

1. 'Owl Bat, Bat Owl' by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick

This wonderful wordless book is from Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick who has been awarded many times for her work. Simple but expressive illustrations move the 'reader' smoothly through this delightful tale.

 A family of owls become neighbours with a family of bats ... just how will the night unfold? The book celebrates family, friendship and the power of togetherness. Mummy Owl and her three little owls live happily on their spacious branch. That is, until the bat family move in. And the new neighbours (the owls up-top, the bats hanging below) can’t help but feel a little wary of one another. Owls just don’t mix with bats and bats don’t mix with owls. But babies are curious little creatures and this curiosity, and a wild, stormy night, might just bring these two families together…

2. 'An Artist's Alphabet' by Norman Messenger

This is a stunning book. It is an alphabet that brings a new level of creativity to titles in this genre. Is that possible I hear you ask? Look at the book and judge for yourself! The images are incredible works of art that could adorn the walls of any house, museum or gallery. The detail is so fine that one wonders how he produces them, and how long each plate takes. The letters of the alphabet are presented in upper and lower case form, and there is always a twist. The letters and the illustrations are in effect, one and the same. The letter 'e' is a two-headed dragon, the letter 'h' is represented by two buildings, the letter 'v' is represented by a very large eared jack rabbit. This is one of the best alphabet books I have ever seen! Children will revisit this book again and again and look deeply into the images and simply imagine and try to read the letters.

Readers will be mesmerized by these surreal and gorgeously rendered alphabet letters, cleverly shaped from flora, fauna, and more. At first glance, this elegant alphabet book—showcasing both upper- and lowercase letters—seems to follow a familiar formula. There’s an acrobat standing atop a horse to form a big letter A and another curled under herself to make a small one. There’s a colony of beetles attached to the leaves they’ve munched, creating a big and a small letter B. But then comes the letter C, made of sea waves evoking the artist Hokusai. Or a lowercase I in the form of a pen that has left an ink smudge, or two kingly beasts that create the letter K. And what of the many letters, equally fantastical and fascinating, whose associations are left to the viewers’ imaginations? Ingenious and intriguing, beautiful and full of stunning detail, this is an alphabet book sure to invite many repeat explorations.

3. 'Penguin Problems' by Jory John and illustrated by Lane Smith

Have you ever thought: I have so many problems and nobody even cares? Well, penguins have problems too!

This penguin has come to tell you that life in Antarctica is no paradise. For starters, it is FREEZING. Also, penguins have a ton of natural predators. Plus, can you imagine trying to find your mom in a big crowd of identical penguins? No, thank you.

Yes, it seems there is no escaping the drudgery of your daily grind, whatever it might be. Or perhaps we’ve just learned that grumps are everywhere. . . . 

What a stunning partnership between two wonderful people, a writer and an illustrator with many great books between them. Stunning images and a very funny text. Hand in hand they offer a delightful and fun read for children either alone, with other children or with a parent. This book won't disappoint child or adult readers. 

4. 'When We Go Camping' by Sally Sutton and illustrated by Cat Chapman

From the award-winning and bestselling author of 'Roadworks', 'Demolition' and 'Construction' comes a rollicking read-aloud celebration of camping, perfect for sharing together on the family camping trip! The whole family are away - banging in pegs, fishing for dinner, and singing round the campfire! Hummetty strummetty squeak-io. With gorgeous watercolour art, and delightfully rhythmical refrains, this story captures all the fun, excitement and joy of being in the great outdoors!

What I love about this book is the combination of simple but expressive images, a simple narrative that will engage under 5 year old readers and the use of sound words that relate to the text. The fish just caught and placed in the bucket goes 'flippetty, flappetty, jigg-lio', and when the door is zipped up in the tent it goes 'zippetty, zappetty flopp-io'. Younger readers love this playfulness with sound and words. The story text and the sound words are in parallel and beautifully support each other as well as maintaining reader attention and engagement. This is a great read aloud book. Lots of fun here.

5. 'We Found a Hat' by Jon Klassen

The name of the author illustrator alone will sell this book.  Jon Klassen won the two most prestigious awards for picture book for the first book in this trilogy - 'This is Not My Hat'. In 2012 it won this brilliant Canadian author/illustrator both the Caldecott Medal and the British Kate Greenaway Medal for children's book illustration.

So 'hold on to your hats' for the conclusion to the trilogy and its special twist. As usual, it is a simple plot. Two turtles find a hat, just one! But these two turtles both like the hat! The hilarious conclusion has the same simplicity of image and story line, but this stripped down tale has more complexity than it might seem. The book can stand alone, but is a delightful addition to the previous tales.

6. 'Captain Sneer the Buccaneer' by Penny Morrison & Gabriel Evans

Captain Sneer and his hardy crew of buccaneers are in for adventure as they head off on a treasure hunt. Captain Sneer is a mighty buccaneer. He's rough and tough, brave and bold and of course he sails the sea 'for gold, gold, gold'. But there is to be a surprise! The wonderful images combine line and colour to create pages that readers will want to scan and linger on. The interplay of the images and the text is fun and fast moving, and gives the feel of a summer 'pantomine' with all the audience excitement that goes with it. A great read aloud book for children aged 3-7.

7. 'A Child of Books' by Oliver Jeffers Sam Winston (author/illustrators)

This wonderful book is from the New York Times bestselling author-illustrator Oliver Jeffers, who is also the creator of well-known books 'The Day the Crayons Quit' and 'Lost and Found'.

This is a....lyrical tale about the rewards of reading and sharing stories, a little girl sails her raft "across a sea of words" to arrive at the house of a small boy. There she invites him to come away with her on an adventure. Guided by his new friend, the boy unlocks his imagination and a lifetime of magic lies ahead of him… But who will be next? 

Typographical artist Sam Winston has teamed with Jeffers to create a special book that young readers, and even adults, will find engaging and inspiring. This is a textual experience for all as the simple story line intersects with well-known literature from the past, both through the 'actual' text that appears in a child-like script, and the use of text from classic literature. The excerpts from 'Treasure Island', 'Little Women' and 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' collide both with the images and the text, to create a rich tapestry that engages and intrigues. There is complexity and depth here that will hold the older reader not simply the three year old who you could read it to. A memorable book, not to be missed!

8. 'Something about a Bear' by Jackie Morris

I have always been a fan of Jackie Morris, and this wonderful addition to my Jackie Morris books won't disappoint. It has just been shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal the United Kingdom's most prestigious children's book award. It is a stunning book! This beautiful picture book is a factual picture book about bears. The author uses a narrative form and her rich watercolour illustrations to introduce us to some of the world's most wonderful creatures. It has pretty much all of my favourites - Brown bears, Spectacled bears, Moon bears, Polar bears, Sun bears and more. The book begins with a large brown bear staring at a child's toy bear, and then launches into wonderful double page spreads showing nine bears. The first is the Brown bear:
'Where the water churns with salmon, thick and rich with leaping fishes, there the brown bear stands and catches the wild king of the river. On the shore the young bears watch him; still others swim the waters, but they are careful not to challenge, for he is the strongest of them all.'

With stunning watercolour paintings, this lyrical picture book describes eight bears from all over the world, all shown in their natural habitats: Black Bear, Polar Bear, Sloth Bear, Spectacle Bear, Sun Bear, Panda, Moon Bear, and Brown Bear.

But which is the best bear of all? Your own teddy bear of course!

9. 'Amelia Earhart' by Isabel Sanchez Vegara and illustrated by Maria diamantes

This is one of the 'Little People Big Dreams' series that focus on the lives of outstanding people from designers and artists to scientists. All are people who have achieved great things, but all began life as children with a dream. The first book followed 'Coco Chanel', from her early life in an orphanage. This new title introduces younger readers aged 6-8 years to the inspiring feats of the aviator Amelia Earhart who set a new world record for flying up to 14,000 feet. She also flew across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Beautifully, yet simply illustrated, this books will engage and inspire young readers.

All four books will delight children. As well as this title and 'Coco Chanel' the other titles include 'Maya Angelou' and 'Frida Kahlo'. 

10. 'Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World' by Laurence Anholt

This is the next title in the best-selling Anholt's Artists series. Laurence Anholt has been introducing children to some of the world's most famous artists. These inspirational true stories will be well received by children aged 6-8 years.

This book deals with the famous Mexican artist. When Mariana goes to Frida Kahlo' s house to be painted by the famous Mexican artist, she is scared. She's a bit afraid of the beautiful woman with her exotic pets and her 'frog-toad' - and she's heard that Frida keeps a skeleton in her bedroom. But as Frida paints Mariana, their friendship blossoms. Frida tells Mariana about her life and the terrible accident that almost killed her, while Mariana discovers how love, creativity, determination and, above all, courage, can give you wings to fly.

11. 'Home in the Rain' by Bob Graham

Bob Graham has been one of my favourite Australian author/illustrators for over 30 years. He has the ability to create novel, engaging and inspiring picture books that move children of all ages. This is the story of a family awaiting the birth of a child, with a storm pouring down outside.

As they drive along a highway at night buffeted by the storm they park by the highway to wait it out. This wait inspires a name for an unborn baby sister in a tender, exquisitely observed tale from the incomparable Bob Graham.

The rain is pouring down in buckets, and Francie and her mum are on their way home from Grandma’s. A sister is coming soon for Francie, but what will they call her? The little red car is pulled into a picnic area to wait out the storm. When the windows fog up, Francie spells out Dad, Mum, and her own name with her finger. The back window? What will she write in it?  Perhaps the name of Francie’s soon-to-arrive baby sister. Francie and her mum ponder the name as they head back onto the road. What will it be?

Bob Graham has a habit of taking a simple thing in life and telling a story about it laced with deeper meanings, and yet he tells his stories with utter simplicity adorned by his wonderful images. This book will be loved by children aged 6+ and their parents.

12 'Willy's Stories' by Anthony Browne

This isn't a new title (published 2014), but I hadn't seen a copy until recently. As well, it was only recently shortlisted for the 2016 Kate Greenaway Medal. Any new Anthony Browne title is always an exciting discovery.  Browne is one of the most celebrated author-illustrators in the world.

This book, like many before it, is a wonderful celebration of Browne's ability as a storyteller who stimulates the imagination. Once a week, Willy walks through an ordinary-looking set of doors and straight into an adventure with echoes of other great imaginative tales like 'Alice in Wonderland'. Each day we wonder where the doors will take him - a mysterious desert island with footprints in the sand; an adventure with Friar Tuck in Sherwood Forest; an encounter with Peter Pan and Captain Hook; falling down a deep, dark rabbit hole full of curious objects; or being swept away like Dorothy on the head of a tornado. Each page offers a new adventure, and an echo of another tale. The Willy we love is unmistakable as we are drawn into the book and the memory of our favourite tales. A great example of Browne's genius!

13. 'Willy and the Cloud' by Anthony Browne

Has there ever been a bad book from Anthony Browne? Not to my knowledge! This is the latest book from the former British Children's Laureate and winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal twice! This new title won't disappoint. It has less text than some of his other picture books, and yet it covers some complex issues concerning how children face their greatest fears. This is a book that will have broad appeal.

It is a subtle and yet perceptive story about worry and anxiety with everyone's favourite chimp, Willy. Willy sets of for the park on what is an ordinary day. It's a sunny day, but strangely, a cloud hovers over him and he finds it hard to join in with the fun he sees all around him. What can he do to make the cloud disappear? This is his quest throughout the day. Browne's exceptional illustrations combined with the insightful story makes this an essential book for young children. It shows us that just as suddenly as clouds of sadness and darkness drift over us, they can disappear. This is a wonderful children's book that teachers in particular will find helpful for use with children.

The publishers have also provided some excellent teaching notes to assist teachers HERE.

14. 'Welcome to Country' by Aunty Joy Murphy and illustrated by Lisa Kennedy

'Welcome to country' is now a well-accepted way to acknowledge that Aboriginal Australians were not only the first people of Australia, they have been the traditional owners of the land for over 40,000 years. This picture book offers an expansive and generous 'Welcome to Country' from a highly respected Elder, Aunty Joy Murphy. The wonderful words are complemented by the remarkable art of Indigenous artist Lisa Kennedy. The combination of the authentic and wonderful words of Aunty Joy, in combination with Lisa's incredible images, make you want to visit the remarkable places she pictures. It is a special book and will serve as an excellent introduction to the topic of Indigenous ownership of the land that Australians all call home.

Welcome to the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri People. We are part of this land and the land is part of us. This is where we come from. Wominjeka Wurundjeri balluk yearmenn koondee bik. Welcome to Country.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Picture Books & Graphic Novels that You Won't Put Down!

I've always loved wordless picture books as well as the power of a picture book to tell deep and complex tales with little or no text. The rise of the graphic novel has pushed us even further with the craft of storytelling in new and novel ways. This post is a celebration of just how many wonderful books we have of this type today. I have arranged them from the simplest to the most complex text and the range is from 3 years to perhaps young adult in the case of the Patrick Ness modern masterpiece, 'A Monster Calls' that is out in a new collector's edition.

1. 'Dog on a Digger - The Tricky Incident' by Kate Prendergast

This book is so good that my 5 year-old granddaughter tried to take it home the very first time she saw it - even before I'd even looked at it. Kate's magnificent crayon drawings (with a hint of colour) use soft line work to create detailed images that you want to look into for ages. The expansive scenes make you want to linger on each page. The dog who is the central character, makes you want to snatch him off the page. Here Kate allows herself a splash of yellow for his little yellow work jacket, that matches his owner's and the digger that he operates. The pair set of for an 'ordinary' day on the digger. But this day there was to be a rescue and the little dog is to be the hero. No child will want to put this book down. Delightful to share or for any 3 to 5 year old to lie on the floor with and 'read' it for themselves.

2. 'Return' by Aaron Becker

Caldecott Honour book winner Aaron Becker takes us with a lonely girl unable to get the attention of her father, back to a fantastic world where she finds friendship and adventure. This wordless book is the third part of the 'Castle trilogy'. As with the previous books in the trilogy, the central character embarks on a fantastic adventure where the imaginary and reality slide back and forth. Bored with her day at home as her dad works at his design desk, the girl draws her own doorway exit on the wall, and steps into the soft light of a forest festooned with lanterns. Once again, she finds a magical craft that takes her to the castle with her Dad in secret pursuit.

As in the previous books 'Journey' (the 2014 Caldecott winner) and 'Quest', the images are so wonderful that you need to explore every detail. There is so much depth and complexity, that repeated 'readings' will provide new insights each time. Again we are carried along by the fantasy and adventure. Will she return this time to the mundane world she left? Or will there be a return through the power of the drawn line! Marvellous!

3. 'Hilda and the Stone Forest' by Luke Pearson

The city of Trolberg has some dark secrets to reveal… and our favourite blue-haired adventurer is about to discover them! Hilda is starting to shirk her responsibilities, seeking days filled with excitement instead of spending time at home… and her mother is getting worried. While trying to stop Hilda from sneaking out into the house spirits’ realm, the pair find themselves flung far away into a mysterious, dark forest – the land of the trolls! Will they be able to work out their differences in time to rescue each other and get back home? And are the trolls all as sinister as they seem?

This visually stunning graphic novel has simple text and comic-like images that will draw readers in. The reading level is about grade 2-3 level but the content is probably more appropriate for grades 3-4. It has a dark side that for most children will be easy to handle as fantasy, but some younger children might find the world of trolls more challenging. It is a fast moving tale that has a good ending and a resolution that promises that the story is "To be continued".
4. 'Peter in Peril' by Helen Bate

Peter is just an ordinary boy, who loves playing football with his friends and eating cake - until war comes to his city and the whole family has to go into hiding...This moving, true story of the Second World War, set in Budapest, Hungary, shows in vivid words and pictures how Peter, his cousin Eva and his mum and dad bravely struggle to survive in a city torn apart by warfare.

The great strength of graphic novels is that the format lends itself to varied literary genres. This wonderful example of a graphic novel for children aged 7-10 shows how complex stories can be told in very accessible ways. It is told from the perspective and in the voice of a young child. This moving story, unlike many World War II tales, ends well. At the conclusion of Peter's story, a biographical account is also included with family photos. This book will be enjoyed and understood by primary aged children and would also be suitable as a basis for a unit of work on war as well.

5. 'Geis: A Matter of Life and Death' by Alexos Deacon

As the great chief matriarch lay dying, she gave one final decree: Upon her death there would be a contest. Having no heir of her own blood she called on the Gods. Let fate decide the one truly worthy to rule in her place. The rich, the strong, the wise, the powerful; many put forward their names in hope of being chosen. But when the night came... only fifty souls alone were summoned.

This graphic novel is the first part of a gripping trilogy. It combines supernatural and historical fantasy in a tale where souls battle in a contest to become the ruler of an island. 'Geis' is pronounced 'gesh' and is a Gaelic word for taboo or a curse. To have 'geis' placed on you is to have a spell that cannot be broken. A curse is at the centre of this tale told through text and water colour and black line drawings that are haunting and mysterious. 

The Great Chief Matarka has died and leaves no heir. A number are called to choose a new ruler, the Chief Judge, High Priest, Lord Chamberlain, the Grand Wizard and daughter of the Kite Lord.  However, an evil sorceress takes control and tricks them into agreeing to a cursed geis, that results in them all heading off on varied quests across the land.

When readers reach the end of part one a cliff hanger will leave them wanting to continue with part 2 when it is available. Readers aged 10+ will enjoy the book.

6. 'How to Survive in the North' by Luke Healy

1912... Captain Robert Bartlett sets sail aboard the Karluk, flagship of the Canadian Arctic Expedition. The journey ahead would be one of the most treacherous ever, with the loss of the ship and subsequent deaths of the crew. The survivors, Bartlett and an Inuk companion set out across the ice for the Siberian coast, in search of help... 1926... 23-year old Inuit Ada Blackjack signs on as a seamstress for a top-secret Arctic expedition. But soon she finds herself alone and stranded in the treacherous landscape of the arctic... Present day... A disgraced university professor, tracking the lives of these survivors soon finds history repeating itself as he follows in the footsteps of those before him... 

Luke Healy manages to use charmingly simple line and wash drawings, with stripped down but rich narrative. The story weaves together real life historical narratives from 1912 and 1926, with fictional narrative in the present day. It is a story about love and loss, as well as human strength in overcoming harsh conditions to survive. Readers aged 12+ will enjoy this book.

7. 'The Stone Man Mysteries - Book One' by Jane Yolen, Adam Stemple & Orion Zangara

This is Book 1 in 'The Stone Man Mysteries' and combines dark fantasy and detective work, to create stories full of suspense and stunningly detailed artwork. Orion Zangara's art alone is incredible, but adding the talents of Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple as writers, makes for a wonderful team. What an exciting series for fans of this genre.

The story is set in Scotland in the 1930s. When Craig prepares to jump from a church roof he is saved by a demon trapped in the form of a gargoyle. 'Silex' solves murders as a way of seeking redemption, and he wants someone to run errands as part of his investigative service. But might there be an even larger, equally supernatural threat? Readers aged 12+ who enjoy fantasy will live this dark series.

8. 'A Monster Calls' by Patrick Ness (Special Collector's Edition, 2016)

This extraordinary book isn't really a graphic novel but an incredible illustrated novel for older readers. It won the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2012 (you can read my previous review HERE). However, it has just been released again in a well-priced Special Collector's Edition. It is an extraordinary book, on multiple levels. The book had its genesis in the final story idea of Siobhan Dowd who died in 2007 from cancer before she could act on the idea herself. Dowd was also a Carnegie Medal winner in 2009 for 'Bog Child' (awarded posthumously). Patrick Ness was approached by Walker Books and asked to take Dowd's idea, develop and complete it. Dowd had the premise for the book, the characters and the beginning. Ness never got to meet her, but agreed with a great sense of responsibility to write the story. He set out, in his words, not 'mimicking her voice' but rather taking the 'baton' and running with it.  Jim Kay the illustrator was enthusiastic from the moment he read some of the manuscript and was asked to do some illustrations for one chapter. The author and illustrator didn't meet before the book was completed, but both seem to have approached the task as an unusual collaborative partnership, between three people, two living and one deceased. 

'A Monster Calls' is the story of 13 year-old Conor whose mother has cancer. His parents are divorced and his father is now in another country, with a new family. His mother is undergoing chemotherapy and while there seems little hope, Conor appears to be trying to escape the scary knowledge that his mother is dying. He has a recurring dream each night at 12.07pm in which someone is slipping out of his grasp into a deep chasm. And in the midst of this dreaming he is visited by a monster. The book opens with the line: 'The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.'

If you missed this book in 2012 don't miss it this time. A brilliant book for readers aged 12 to 99 years!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

20 great memory, word & observation games for travelling

I've posted on this topic plenty of times in the past but family travel time will be part of many families in this season of holidays in most continents. In Australia it's summer and school will be out for 6 weeks across the nation by early to mid December. Many families will be heading for the beaches and waterways to enjoy Christmas in a particularly Aussie way. For some this will involve hours of travel as relatives are visited and exquisite coastal locations sought out. This is always a recipe for children getting bored and frustrated with one another - "...are we there yet!". While they can sit with devices and earphones, and view movies, play games and more... some family interaction is a great way to shorten any trip and at the same time teach many things in fun ways.

While this post is very similar to some earlier posts at this time of the year, the ideas are NO less relevant than when I used them last time. I would love to hear your suggestions for other great ideas for travel. Many of these great games an activities will keep children content for hours.

Above: Photo courtesy of the Australian Newspaper

I've included a number of games that we played with our children in the car when they were young, some I used when teaching and a few new ones that I'd love to play with my grandchildren. Some of the newer games are adaptations of some activities from a great resource published by Usborne Children's books, '50 things to do on a journey' (here). This resource has a range of written and verbal activities that cover literacy, mathematics and general knowledge. One thing to note about these games is that you don't have to play every one of them competitively. If you do, you might need to handicap older children.

1. Sound word categories

You start this game by agreeing on 3-5 categories (depending on the age of the children and their vocabularies) for which people will have to be able to think of words that belong to them; for example, an insect, flower, person, country, girl's name, action word. Someone chooses a letter (maybe Mum or Dad to make sure that it isn't too hard) that has to be used by everyone and is applied to each category. The fastest person to quickly name their words earns 3 points, the second gets 2 and the third 1. So for the letter 'f' and the three categories insect, country and girl's name you could say fly, France and Fiona. A parent usually acts as the timer.

2. Top 6 (or 10 if your children get to be good at it)

This activity is a variation on the previous 'Sound Word Categories'. You vary it by choosing a category and then seeing if someone can list 6-10 words that fit the category. For example, think of 10 car names, dogs, books, insects, snakes, footballers etc. The person who thinks of the most words in a category wins.

3. Rhyming words

Pick a word that is easy to rhyme with other real words. Each person takes a turn. The winner is the person who is the last one to think of a rhyming word. For example, heat, seat, meat, bleat, sleet, neat, pleat..... If the children are older they can write the words down simultaneously.

4. Don't say yes

This is a slightly harder game but lots of fun. One person has to answer questions and the others get to ask them questions to which the answer is obviously 'yes', but they must answer every question truthfully without saying 'yes'. If they do say 'yes', or can't answer, the turn ends and the person asking the question earns a point. For example, Karen is asked, "Do you like ice-cream"? To which she might answer, "Most people like milk-based products that are cold." The next person in the car asks a question, but it mustn't be simply the same question. For example, they could ask, "Do you like milk-based products in cones?" To which the reply might be, "Some I like to eat in a wafer case."

5. Spotto......

One of our family's favourite games in the car was 'Spotto windmill'. We lived in the country and often drove for 5-6 hours towards the coast. In key areas there were lots of windmills pumping water for stock. But you don't have to use windmills; you can spot billboards, bridges, trees, birds, and animals, almost anything that is common. The game can be concluded in various ways, such as the first to 30, ending it at a specific landmark or just stopping when you're tired of it or you run out of windmills (or whatever).

6. What's your job

This game starts with someone thinking of a job. Others then guess by trying to find out details about what the person does, where they work, they use tools, what skills you need etc. The skill is in asking just the right questions. Does this person work outdoors? Do they drive something? Do they use special tools? Can they work alone? etc. The aim is to see who can get it right. Every person in the car takes it in turns to ask a question and you keep rotating until someone gets it right. That person gets to pick the next job and it all starts over again.

7. Guess my song

Someone picks a song and they have to hum the first line. Everyone in the car has one guess then the person hums an extra line if no-one gets it after the first round. This continues until someone gets the song.

8. Guess the person

One person in the car thinks of a person everyone knows (e.g. a family member, TV star, book character, teacher, cartoon character, famous person), and then everyone takes turns to ask a question about them. Is it a man or a woman? Are they young or old? Does she have black hair? Does he wear glasses? Is she famous?

9. I Spy..

This is a well-known game. It can be varied for young children by simply asking for categories rather than insisting on letter names or sounds. So the variations can include: "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with" 'p' (letter name) or 'p' (sound name) or even, "that is green". The last variation is a good way to involve very young children and the categories can be very varied. "I spy with my little eye a thing that ...." is black...or, a little thing that bites... or, a person who likes coffee... or, a thing the car has to stop at etc.

10. Back to back words

People think of words that begin the way the last word ends. You will need to demonstrate this a few times and it isn't that suitable for children under 6 years. It might go like this: pot, tree, egg, goat, top, pot, turtle, elf, fog, goldfish. You can make the game harder for older children if you like by asking for the words to fit specific single categories like animals, names, places.

11. Who lives there?

This is a great game. Wait till you stop at traffic lights or you are travelling slowly enough to see a house long enough to remember some details. People take turns adding details to describe who might live there. This can be very creative or an accurate set of predictions. Each player builds (plausibly) on the previous person's clues. For example, first person says, "a mother lives there with her three children". The next person says, "the children are aged 3, 7 and 16". The next person says, "their names are, Sue, Pickle and Wobble.". The next says, "Wobble is named after his Dad (Bobble) who is on a round the world yacht trip" etc. When people run out of ideas you start again. You could vary this by choosing a car. The first person might say, "That car has a family of three children and their parents heading for the seaside".

12. Twenty questions

This starts with someone choosing an object, person, place, country etc that others have to identify. The others in the car have a chance to ask questions (maximum of 20 for each thing chosen). The questions are answered with a 'yes' or a 'no'. When someone thinks they know it they can guess. You can score this different ways (or not all). The person whose word is not guessed can score points as can the person who guesses correctly.

13. Memory game

There are many memory games, but a common one involves thinking of things that are in the car (or the boot/trunk), an imaginary backpack, suitcase, the kitchen at home, the beach where you'll visit. The people in the car add an item to a list and the next person must repeat previous details and add their own. People are eliminated when they forget an item. So it could start like this: "In the car we have a radio", to which someone says, "in the car we have a radio and a steering wheel", which could become "in the car we have a radio and a steering wheel, plus a pesky sister.....". A parent might write them down as you progress to avoid disputes.

14. Never-ending story

This game has two main forms, a single word version and a sentence version. In the word version people in the car take turns adding to a story one word at a time. It might go like this: "It", "was", "the", "first", "day", "of", "the", "monster's", "summer", "camp"....and so on. The members of the game try to make it impossible to add to the story because the last word is pretty much the last word.

The sentence version is slightly more complex but just as much fun.

15. Word association

This game is a bit trickier but can be handled by children 6+. Someone starts with a word and the next person has to add a word that has an association. Using just nouns and verbs is easiest. The game ends when a word is repeated or someone is stuck. You can have winners and losers if you want but it isn't necessary. Here's how it might go. "Dogs", "bark", "bones", "kennel", "growl", "fleas", "wag", "tail", "scratch" etc.

16. Who am I?

The first player thinks of the name of someone who everyone will know then gives a clue about their identity, for example, Big Bird, a relative, a cartoon character etc. The people in the car then take turns trying to guess who it is. If they get it then they have a turn at choosing the identity. For example, if the player chose 'Bob the Builder' they might start like this: "I fix things".

17. Oh no!

This is a great idea for 3-4 people in a car. Someone starts a story with the words "Oh no!" followed by a simple statement. They might say, "Oh no! There's a spider in my pocket." People then take it in turns to add to the story using "but" as their first word to turn a serious circumstance into a not so serious one, and vice versa. They might add, "But it is only plastic". To which someone might say, "but it has dynamite in it". This continues until the players get sick of it or until everyone agrees that an appropriate ending has been found.

18. Special choices

This game requires people to choose between two options and give their reasons. Someone has to come up with the choice. For example, "If I had to choose between snakes or caterpillars" might receive the responses" "I'd choose caterpillars because I'm a robin", or "I'd choose a snake to surprise my teacher" and so on.

Above: Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons

19. Twenty-Five
The first person chooses a letter or sound at random. Each person then needs to write down (or say) 25 things inside or outside the car that begin with the letter. The game ends either by at the end of set time (say 3 minutes) and the points are tallied. You can score many ways, such as 1 point for every correct word or 1 for each word and 3-5 for each unique word.

20. Teapot 

This game starts with one player picking a verb (action/doing word). The other players in the car then have to ask questions about the verb, but they replace it with the word "teapot." For example, if the word is "swim", the first question asked might be, "Do cars teapot?" Of the course the answer is "No." Players keep asking questions until someone guesses the verb.
'50 Things to do on a journey', Usborne Activity Cards.

'Children's Holiday Activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning'.

'Holiday activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning'

'Stimulating language, literature & learning in holidays' - Part 1

'Stimulating language, literature & learning in holidays' - Part 2