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