Wednesday, November 27, 2019

25 Children's Books to Read at Christmas

I usually do a post in December about books that are appropriate to share at Christmas. In this post I feature 25 books that are varied and suitable for different ages. They include books that seek to the traditional Christmas story, and others that are based on elements of the Christmas story or themes from biblical teaching on Jesus life. Some of these books focus on love, devotion, kindness, forgiveness and sacrifice. These are some of best examples that you can find. Most can can be used with children aged 4-12 years.

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 Christmas Promise' by Alison Mitchell and illustrated by Catalina Echeverri

This wonderful retelling of the Christmas story is brought to us by the highly successful team that has brought us a whole series of children's stories based on the Bible. It tells of how God kept His promise to send a new King.

A long, long time ago so long that it's hard to imagine God promised a new King. He wasn't any ordinary king, like the ones we see on TV or in books. He would be different. He would be a new King; a rescuing King; a forever King! 

I love the books in this series titled "Tell the Truth". Like all of the books in the series, it tells the Christmas story in a simple way that children can grasp, while remaining true to the Bible's narrative. The book will help preschool children discover how the Bible explains how God kept His Christmas Promise.

The wonderful illustrations by Catalina Echeverri are also faithful and consistent with the Bible-centered story-telling of Alison Mitchell. Together, they make this a book that both parents and children will love.

'The Christmas Rose' by Wendy Blaxland & illustrated by Lucy Hennessy

This is a beautifully told story that traces elements of the story of the birth of Jesus. fields near Bethlehem are filled with great joy when angels appear telling of the birth of a very special baby. Madelon’s uncle, his men, and the magnificent kings riding on camels all have gifts for the Saviour. But Madelon has nothing. What could she possibly give him? This version of the Christmas story uses the efforts of a small child to follow others to see the Christ Child. A beautiful illustration of those who would spend great effort to come and adore Him.

The rich and evocative oil paintings by fine artist Lucy Hennessy are stunning and in their muted softness leaves the reader to imagine the scene in all of its mystery and richness.

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.

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)

'The Christmas Eve Ghost' is written and illustrated by one of my favourite English author/illustrators, Shirley Hughes. 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.

Used by permission of Walker Books

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 piñata 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).

Friday, November 15, 2019

Could Reading Protect Against the Forgetfulness of Dementia?

For the last 12 years, I have shared many posts about early literacy from birth to adulthood. But this is the first post that I have written that considers the benefits of reading for the possible prevention of dementia. Garry Stix, Senior Editor of Scientific American, has shared in a recent article in the publication Scientific American, a fascinating study which found the very act of reading or writing (apart from any formal education), may help protect against memory loss. 

The article discussed research evaluations of the elderly in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of Manhattan New York. The study revealed that reading or writing - outside formal education - might possibly protect against the forgetfulness of dementia. As one of the senior authors writes:

The people who were illiterate in the study developed dementia at an earlier age than people who were literate in the study.

The team of researchers responsible for the study, were largely from Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. The team selected 983 people with four years or less of schooling who were part of the Washington Heights Aging Project. They found that 35% of the illiterate group had dementia when the study began, compared to only 18% of people who were literate. The findings were based on multiple follow-ups of their subjects, with average interval of four years over a period of up to 23 years. In a recent follow up study they once again identified a similar finding.

The researchers hypothesize that perhaps, helping people to read might help to change or lower the risk of dementia. The first author Miguel Arce Rentería, speculated:

“Could we change and lower that dementia risk by intervening at midlife or later life by helping people to learn to read and write?”

Clearly, much more research is needed before drawing more definite conclusions, but it's an interesting are of inquiry as we see rates of Dementia rising.

You can read the Gary Stix's article HERE.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Supporting Preschool Children (0-4) at Home in Literacy, Maths & Technology Education

Readers of this blog might know that I co-wrote an online preschool support program for parents of children 0-4 years that was released in 2018. The Australian Literacy Educators Association has just uploaded the latest modules in this free online program. No catch, just free support and practical ideas for new parents not sure how to help their children to learn. This support program started out with my co-author Anita Ayre (my co-author) preparing activities for her daughter to support her first child (Anita's grandchild). I was asked to partner with her to develop this online program for parents and grandparents. 

The online resource program is available FREE via the 'Australian Literacy Educators Association' website. The resource is called 'Little People's Literacy Learning: A guide for engaging parents and carers'. It offers practical help for parents and carers of children aged 0-5. And again, it's FREE! You don't need to be a member of ALEA to access to the resource is open to all.

This FREE online guide was launched in 2017 for parents and carers comes with hundreds of activities that you can enjoy with your child. Initially, there were 17 units. Now it has grown to 27 with new modules on 'Maths', 'Maths Language', 'Technology Use', 'Measurement', 'Space' and 'Pattern' just released. The modules will help parents to use simple activities as part of life. Some are incidental and others have some limited planning required. But all you need to know is explained in the modules. All activities are designed with an emphasis on learning through collaborative play and shared discovery. Why are so many of the recent modules related to maths? Because language and literacy have many important relationships to these topics.

Anita and I are experienced teachers, parents, and also (these days) active grandparents who love spending quality time with our grandchildren. In this resource, we offer a wealth of suggestions and hints for parents and carers who want to engage with their children in language, literacy learning and mathematics activities. Technology is also linked to many of these topics as well as now having a separate module. All activities are designed with an emphasis on learning through collaborative play and shared discovery. They can all be incorporated into daily life with very little (or often no) preparation! We offer hundreds of integrated examples throughout, including how new technology and multimedia can also enrich the learning experiences of your child with the same richness as other non-technology applications. You'll also find some advice on how to monitor and control screen time.

The resource contains practical and VERY doable common sense activities. You will find it HERE.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

55 Great Historical Fictions Books for Readers Aged 8-14 Years

Historical fiction sits within the broad category of historical narrative. It is essentially a story situated within a specific historical time centred around an historical event, people or culture. The people and the places may be true, but it is written in story form and fact and fiction can both be present. Biographies and autobiographies seek to be factual interpretation and also forms of historical narratives.  But much of what we introduce to children fits into the sub-category of historical fiction.
Historical fiction often focuses on a specific event in a time period and presents some of the actual events at the time through the presumed voices of people (using diary, journal, illustrative and secondary resource material) and offering a particular point of view of people living in the period.

Many forms of artistic licence can be taken in this genre including inventing new characters, using new or altered names and places and creating new events. Depending on how far these accounts vary from historical accounts, they may be classified as alternate history or historical fantasy.

Why is it important?

a) Historical narrative can illuminate history  and increase children's interest in it
b) It can enrich our understanding of the human condition and culture

c) It can highlight and make sense of the details of history often missed in textbook reading
d) In presenting multiple perspectives it can present complex issues in multi-dimensional ways, helping us to see things for the first time
e) It can connect children's learning right across the curriculum

In this post I offer 50 examples of excellent historical fiction from many places, peoples and times. I list some picture books first then novels for older readers (7-14 years). The novels are roughly in order of difficulty.

Picture Book Forms of Historical Narrative

The following picture books can be read to and by children 5-10 years.

'Little Frida' by Anthony Browne

One great artist inspires another, as former Children's Laureate and twice winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal Anthony Browne creates a beautiful story about Frida Kahlo.

There have been many books written about famous artist Frida Kahlo, but Anthony Browne weaves his magic to create a special picture book, that will bring the remarkable story of Frida Kahlo to a new generation.

Anthony Browne is former Children's Laureate and twice winner of the ultimate award for illustrated picture books, the Kate Greenaway Medal. Browne tells the story of Frida Kahlo for a young audience. has inspired. This beautiful and almost surreal work is delightfully illustrated as we would expect. It tells the story of Frida's lonely life, and how she discovered the power of her own imagination to open up new worlds of possibility. It is a lovely book that explores the themes of belonging and hope. A great book for 4-7 year olds. The book has a brief biography of Frida Kahlo at the back that parents and teachers will want to share after they've read Browne's story. 
'The Anzac Billy' by Claire Saxby and illustrated by Mark Jackson & Heather Potter

This is the story of one little boy lovingly selecting, with the help of his mum and grandma, favourite and useful things for his dad's billy – butterscotch, nuts, handkerchiefs, writing paper and more. Then, with a wish that the billy makes it in time for Christmas Day, he sends it on its way... Sail, big ship of billies, sail far across the sea. Until you reach the other side, until you reach my dad...

This wonderful new picture book from successful Australian writer Claire Saxby is a gem. The book will introduce young readers to a little-known aspect of World War I, and a simple way that our troops were supported.

During World War I, Australian soldiers serving on the front were sent Christmas care packages. This was a collection of gifts from home. They were carefully placed in tin billies used for boiling water to make tea or heat some food over an open fire. They billy cans were filled by families and friends. Then collected and sent to the front line.
And what happens if it doesn't make it to the loved one? You'll have to read this special book to find out. A wonderful contribution to the extensive list of great picture books about war. This makes its own special contribution. Beautifully illustrated by Mark Jackson and Heather Potter. Wonderful!

'The Afghanistan Pup' by Mark Wilson (Lothian Children's Books)

'The Afghanistan Pup' is book 4 in the Children in War Quartet by fabulous author and illustrator Mark Wilson. It is the story of an abandoned pup, a young girl in Afghanistan who just wants to go to school, and an Australian Soldier. It is a story of unexpected friendship, sacrifice, and finding hope in the strangest places.

The puppy is found abandoned by a little girl, Kinah. The backdrop and setting is the war in Afghanistan. When Kinah's school is bombed the dog is alone again until an Australian soldier rescues it. You'll need to read the book to find out how these stories are woven together.

Mark Wilson uses his wonderful art and well-chosen words to tell a great story with power. His illustrative work includes newspaper clippings, and varied beautiful images that are stunning. This is a special book that children aged 7-10 will enjoy.

'The Dam' by David Almond & illustrated by Levi Pinfold

A haunting, stunningly illustrated story of loss, hope, and the power of music from multi-award winners David Almond and Levi Pinfold.

This wonderful picture book has been created by David Almond and Levi Pinfold. David Almond is an author of extraordinary talent. He has received numerous awards for his writing, including the prestigious Carnegie Medal, two Whitbread Children's Book Awards and the 2010 Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international prize for children's authors. Levi Pinfold is also a widely awarded illustrator. His awards include the most prestigious award of all for any illustrator, the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2013. This is a stunning and haunting book from an amazing team.

Kielder Water is a wild and beautiful place, rich in folk music and legend. Years ago, before a great dam was built to fill the valley with water, there were farms and homesteads in that valley and musicians who livened their rooms with song. After the village was abandoned and before the waters rushed in, a father and daughter returned there. The girl began to play her fiddle, bringing her tune to one empty house after another -- for this was the last time that music would be heard in that place. With exquisite artwork by Levi Pinfold, David Almond's lyrical narrative -- inspired by a true tale -- pays homage to his friends Mike and Kathryn Tickell and all the musicians of Northumberland, to show that music is ancient and unstoppable, and that dams and lakes cannot overwhelm it.

'My Hiroshima' by Junko Morimoto - a picture book that offers a real life account of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima through the eyes of a child who stayed home that day sick rather than going to school. The illustrations complement the authentic personal story of Morimoto's memory of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on her city.

'The Wedding Ghost' (1985) and 'Fair's Fair' (1981) by LeonGarfield

Garfield is one of the greatest exponents of historical fiction for children. As well as many wonderful novels for older children he has also written a number of picture books. Two of my favourites are 'The Wedding Ghost' (1985) illustrated by the great illustrator Charles Keeping and  'Fair's Fair' (1981) illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain and in a newer edition with Brian Hoskin as the illustrator (2001).

 'My Place' (Nadia Wheatley & Donna Rawlins) -

First published in 1987 for distribution in Australia’s bicentennial year (1988) and makes a strong statement about the fact that Indigenous Australians were here for thousands of years before white settlement (there isn't space to unpack this). It is a very clever book that takes one suburban block (and the surrounding area) and tells the story of this place in reverse chronological sequence, decade by decade, from 1988 back to 1788 when the first British Fleet landed at Botany Bay. The overall meaning of the book is shaped by multiple narrative recounts of the families who have lived in this spot, 'my Place' and the changing nature of the physical landscape and built environment. See me previous post on visiting the 'real' My Place (here).

'Sweethearts of Rhythm' by Marilyn Nelson - This is the story of significant piece of cultural history. It tells through poetry of the first integrated all women's band in the USA.  It played swing music and was formed in the late 1930s. The singers all attended the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which was for poor and orphaned African Americans. It was formed to raise money for the school, but it was so good that it eventually toured the whole country and played to massive crowds.

The story is told through a set of rhythmic poems that are written in the varied voices of the instruments. Jerry Pinkney's illustrations add further richness with brilliant collages.

Jeannie Baker also offers some interesting examples of children's picture books that tell the story of specific places through brilliant collage illustrations.  Here themes include the impact of people on their world and the connection between people and place over time.  She rarely uses words except as explanatory words except as a foreword or afterword. The books enrich understanding of local history as well as environmental issues. 'Window' (1991) shows the changing physical and man-made landscape viewed through a single window.  A mother and her baby look through a window at wilderness. But with each turn of the page time marches on. As we look from the same window, the world changes under the impact of people. This wordless book won the Australian Children's Book Council (Australia) picture book of the year in 1992. In 'Belonging' (2004) Baker returns to the theme of 'Window', man changes the world. Once again, the story unfolds through a single window of a house in a typical urban neighbourhood. The book is sold in the USA under the title of 'Home'.

'The Story of Rosy Dock' (1995) by Jeannie Baker

In this wonderful book Baker tells the story of how early settlers who move to a remote central Australia build a garden in the wilderness that is beautiful, but which ends up having an unexpected flowering. A single plant (that we now known as the weed 'Rosy Dock') can change the landscape and push many plants and animals to extinction. This simple book shows how a hundred years ago European settlers in the desert planted seeds from the other side of the world that changed the landscape.

The book has been produced as a 10-minute short animated film by Film Australia (here).

'Maralinga', was written and illustrated by the Yalata and Oak communities of South Australia with Christobel Mattingley. This is the story of the British atomic testing of the 1950s in Central Australia. It is told by Indigenous Australians who are the traditional owners of Maralinga (a region used for atomic testing in the 1950s?).  In words and pictures community members, describe what happened in the Maralinga Tjarutja lands of South Australia before the bombs and after. This is an important and tragic account of human folly and its consequence for a people who were there first, but whose needs counted for little.

'A Certain Music' written by Celeste Walters and illustrated by Anne Spudvilas is a fairytale in the tradition of Hans Christian Andersen. The story offers an account of Beethoven's creation of two of his most famous works, 'Fur Elise' and 'Ode to Joy'. It is set in 1821 and is the story of a young girl who is drawn to the sound of music coming from a house in the woods near Vienna. She visits the composer regularly to hear him play. Eventually the girl and her mother are invited to a concert in Vienna to see Beethoven perform ‘Für Elise’. The author Celeste Walters has previously written playscripts for children and adults, as well as novels and picture storybooks for younger readers. 

Novels for Children Aged 10-14 years

The following are roughly in order of difficulty and age appropriateness, although this judgement will vary from child to child.

'Little House on the Prairie', Laura Ingalls Wilder

This series of eight books tells of the life of a family that travels from the big woods of Wisconsin to a new home on the prairie, where they build a house, meet neighboring Indians, build a well, and fight a fire. This classic story was first published in 1935 and has never lost its popularity. Written by Laura Ingalls Wilder it is based on her childhood in the northern midwest of the USA during the 1870s and 1880s. Eight books were completed from 1932 to 1943.

'Anne of Green Gables' by L.M. Montgomery

This 1908 novel by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery recounts the adventures of Anne Shirley an 11-year-old orphan girl, mistakenly sent to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. This middle-aged brother and sister had wanted to adopt a boy to help on the farm in Prince Edward Island. The novel tells the tale of how Anne builds her life with the Cuthberts, as well as he experience of school and the town. Due to the popularity of the books Montgomery wrote a series of eight further sequels and referenced Anne in two other collections.

'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit', by Judith Kerr

Anna was only 9 years old in 1933 when Adolf Hitler emerged in the Germany of her youth. But as a Jewish girl she was soon to find that her world had changed when her father went missing. With a leader filled with hatred for an entire race of people, and determined to see them eliminated Germany is transformed.  Anna's father is a well-known Jewish writer, and someone warns him, just in time that he might soon lose his passport. Her father leaves by night for Switzerland and Anna, her brother and mother are left behind in Berlin. He sends for his family to meet him in Switzerland and they escape just a day before the German elections. Hitler sweeps to power all Jewish property is seized in Berlin and they are now refugees in Switzerland, with no way back. This wonderful story tells the story of the horror of Germany in the reign of Hitler through the eyes of a little girl.

Somme Mud, by Private Edward Lynch, Editor Will Davies

This is a fascinating true story, which follows the war experience of a group of young men who set out from Sydney in 1916 to fight in the 'Great War' in France. The main character and the other enlisted troops at the centre of the narrative are fictionalised, but all other elements portray their real life experiences. Edward Lynch who returned from the War and became a teacher tried to publish the manuscript in the 1930s but was unsuccessful. After his death family members succeeded and it was published for adults in 2006. This new book is edited by Will Davies and is an abridged version for teenagers.  It offers a graphic insight into the horrors of the Western Front. It incorporates archival photographs as well as photographs of the sites today.  It will interest boys aged 11+.

'Samurai Kids Series' (Walker Books)

This is a series about the experiences of a group of samurai children in feudal Japan. Like other stories about Japanese warriors, the narrative is interwoven with the philosophy that is the foundation of their life and training.  The diverse samurai kids learn to fight, but always with the noble desire to prevent war.  The stories and their characters seek to build just and ethical societies. The books offer a range of characters that represent both genders and children of varied qualities, characteristics and challenges.

'White Crane' (2008) Walker Books
'Owl Ninja' (2008) Walker Books
'Shaolin Tiger' (2009) Walker Books
'Monkey Fist' (2009) Walker Books
'Fire Lizard' (2010) Walker Books
'Golden Bat'(2010) Walker Books
'Red Fox' (2012) Walker Books

Number the Stars (1989) by Lois Lowry

Number the Stars is set in Denmark during World War II. Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen is the central character, who is living in Denmark under German occupation in 1943. Her family becomes a target for the German forces as they help a Jewish family to attempt a daring escape. Annemarie and her family risk their lives to help Annemarie's best friend, Ellen Rosen, by pretending that Ellen is Annemarie's older sister. The title is taken from Psalm 147 in the Bible that speaks of God's power as the one who knows and has numbered every star. It is also probably a reference to the fact that God had promised Abraham the father of the Jewish nation that he would have as many offspring as there are stars in the sky. The novel was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1990 as the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children".

This is a moving and compelling book that engages the reader from the start and in the process offers an insight into the lives of many innocent Jewish families in World War II and the lengths that some went to in order to survive. Suitable for children 11+.

Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) by Scott O'Dell

Off the coast of California is a rugged rock known as the Island of San Nicholas. The seas around it are filled with dolphins, otters, sea elephants, cormorants and marine life all kinds. It was here in the early 1800's that an Indian girl spent 18 years alone. Karana has to maintain her food supply and avoid Aleutian sea-otter hunters and the perils of a pack of wild dogs that killed the brother she jumped ship to save. The spirit of this young woman and her ability to survive against all the odds offers an interesting insight into the challenges of life in another age.

This wonderful novel was O'Dell's first book and won the Newbery Medal in 1961. It is an excellent book for 10-14 year olds.

Strange Objects’ by Gary Crew (1990) - The story commences in 1986 with a teenager Steven Messenger who lives with his family in a roadside truck stop in the middle of nowhere along the highway that weaves its way up the western coast of Australia. Messenger discovers some gruesome relics in a cave while on a school excursion. This begins a mysterious tale where his life is interwoven with the lives of two of the survivors of the 'Batavia' shipwrecked in 1629 off the coast of Western Australia. Like many works of historical fiction, Crew uses the metaphysical encounters of one of his characters to transport us back to another time.

Crew won the 1991 Children’s Book Council Australia award for Older Readers for the book. Suitable for readers aged 12+ years.

'Slave Girl: The Diary of Clotee, Virginia, USA 1859' by Patricia McKissack - This book was originally published as "A Picture of Freedom" tells the story of a young slave girl who longs for freedom just before the Civil War. The year is 1859 and Clotee and has only known life as a slave mostly as an orphan) on the Belmont Plantation in Virginia. But she has learnt how to read and write in secret. She keeps a diary and hides it in a hollowed tree.

When a tutor comes to the plantation to teach the son of her master she discovers that he is an abolitionist and he offers her the chance for her inner longing, freedom.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice written by Phillip Hoose

This book is based on extensive interviews with Claudette Colvin and many others. It tells the story of a teenager who on March 2nd 1955 was sick of the daily injustices of Jim Crow segregation and refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The protest led to further injustice for the young women who is eventually brave and determined enough to challenge segregation as a key plaintiff in a legal case that became known as Browder v. GayleSuitable for readers 12+.

The Machine-Gunners (1975) by Robert Westall

Living in World War II Britain, Chas McGill has the second best collection of war souvenirs in Garmouth and he wants to have the best. He is determined to outdo his rival Boddser Brown in obtaining the ultimate war souvenir. An opportunity comes when he finds a crashed German bomber in the woods complete with machine gun, he knows he can not only beat Boddser hands down, but can also play a role in the war. All he has to do is to remove the machine gun from the plane.

This has to be one of the best books for boys that I've read. Not surprisingly it won the highest British honour for children's literature, the Carnegie Medal in 1975. Any boy aged 10-16 will love this book.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

This is a wonderful work of historical fiction written by Christopher Paul Curtis in 1995. It was republished in 1997. It tells the story of an African-American family living in the town of Flint, Michigan that goes to their grandmother’s home in Birmingham, Alabama. This middle-class black family move to Grandma's because she's strict and they hope she will sort him out over summer. But they happen to be in Birmingham when Grandma’s church is blown up, the 16th Street Baptist Church.

The book was Curtis’ first novel, and was named as a Newbery Honour book and won the Coretta Scott King Award. Curtis is also the author of the Newbery Award winner Bud, Not Buddy. 

It was released as a film in 2013 HERE

'Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry' (1976) by Mildred Taylor

This book won the 1977 Newbery Medal Award, tells the story of a poor African American family living in Mississippi during the Great Depression. This novel is set in the Depression-era in Mississippi and centres on the lives of the Logans, an African-American family Logan family. The Logans are fortunate compared to many African-Americans and own their own land when many black and white Americans are working as sharecroppers on plantations owned by others. It is a time when racially-motivated crimes are common. The 'Berry Burnings' mentioned the first chapter and the act of tarring and feathering Mr Tatum were incidents that were sadly not uncommon as 'nightmen' took the law into their own hands at the expense of African-Americans. It is a novel that traces the life of young Cassie Logan as she learns the hard realities of life for African-Americans.  This is a moving and confronting novel.

The book has a sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, which was released in 1981. It also has a prequel written in 1975, Song of the Trees and a related prior book The Land that tells the story of the Logan grandfather who purchased the land that is central to this novel. It is suitable for readers aged 11-14 years.

'The Children of the Wind Series' by Kirsty Murray

The 'Children of the Wind' series is a sweeping Irish-Australian saga made up of Bridie's story, Patrick's story, Colm's story and Maeve's story. These four inter-linked novels, begin with the 1850s and move right up to the present. 

 'Bridie's Fire' is a heart-warming story of courage and resilience and is the first book in the series. The series starts in the 1840s and ends in present-day Australia. The quartet tells the stories of four young people brave children, Bridie, Billy, Colm and Maeve, who are born fifty years apart. The central character in each book becomes a mentor to the child in the next.

We enter Bridie's world in the 1840s. Her world is torn apart when her parents and baby brother die in in the potato famine, the 'Great Hunger'. She leaves Ireland, for a life in goldrush Australia on the other side of the ocean.

As Bridie looks up at the swirling stars, it seems that the whole world is opening up to her.  She didn't feel like just an orphan girl at sea. She had money in her pocket, a swag full of food and a good companion. She was to be a new Bridie and nothing could stop her now.

The book was named as a 'Children's Book Council' Notable Book in 2004. The four inter-linked novels are suitable for children aged 10-14 years.

To Brave the Seas: A Boy at War' by David McRobbie (Allen & Unwin)

This is another gripping tale from one of my favourite authors of historical fiction.  It is the story of a teenager who ends up as a deck boy on navy ships, learning the ropes, fitting in with the crew, and facing wartime action in World War II.

The boys had been trained for emergencies. They had to know how to launch a lifeboat and to know where the life jackets were stored. But they were hardly prepared for the horrors before them. What an exploding torpedo do? And how will the ship and its crew behave when it sinks under you. No-one was able to prepare them for the blackness of night, or the horror of battle.

It is 1940, war rages and there is nothing to keep Adam Chisholm aged 15 years at home. So he joins Britain's Merchant Navy. His first ship takes him on a stormy Atlantic convoy where he faces seasickness, submarines, and shipwreck. In his remarkable sea journeys, Adam meets enemies face to face, and makes friends—some for a lifetime. The book includes a seven-page glossary of nautical terms and features WWII memorabilia throughout.

This is a very readable book that will keep readers aged 12+ engaged. It is beautifully written as with all of McRobbie's books.  It tells the story of war time battles that shows how men of honour and courage experience war. The book describes life at sea with great detail. This feature of McRobbie's books invites the reader to 'become' part of the action and adventure. A great read.

Playing Beatie Bow (1982) by Ruth Park

When Abigail Kirk joins in a traditional chanting game of 'Beatie Bow' in modern day Sydney she sees a mysterious urchin girl in the background and follows her. Unwittingly she stumbles into the past as she follows her up stairs and down alleys in the Rocks area of Sydney. She encounters a strange and different Sydney and finds herself walking the streets of the colony of New South Wales in 1873. Abigail is taken in by the Bow Family who believes that she is a mysterious 'Stranger' who is said in tradition to arrive to save 'The Gift' for future generations of Bows. Abigail remains in this past world to fill her role and in the process falls in love for the first time.

This is a book faithful to its time and setting but is best classified as historical fantasy. It won the Children's Book Council Australia Award for Book of Year in 1981. Suitable for readers 12-16 year olds.

The book has been adapted for film (details here).

'Chocolate Cake with Mr Hitler' by Emma Craigie

This is a gripping fictional retelling of the short life of Helga Goebbels, the 12-year-old daughter of the Nazi Party’s head of propaganda. Her childhood as a member of Germany’s First Family was a privileged and protected one. She accompanies her parents to parties and rallies, moving between the city and their country estate. But the war changes everything, and as defeat draws near she must move into a bunker in the heart of Berlin with her family and other key members of the Nazi leadership to be near the beloved Hitler.

In this strange world, there is chocolate cake for tea every day with Uncle Leader, but Helga eventually notices that all is not as it once was. As the days pass and the rumbling storms that bring no rain draw closer, her underground world becomes increasingly tense. She hears tears and shouting behind closed doors. There is a slow realisation, perhaps her perfect childhood is not all that it seemed.

'To Kill a Mocking Bird' by Harper Lee

The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

This is a compassionate and moving story that explored the roots of human behaviour. It is based loosely on Lee's observations of her family and neighbors, as well as an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.

The narrator's father lawyer Atticus Fiunch serves as a moral hero for many readers.
The main themes of the book concern racial injustice and the destruction of innocence. It deals with the themes of class, courage, compassion, and gender roles in the American Deep South. 

'The Book Thief' by Markus Zusak

Set during World War II in Germany, the novel tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau. This is a wonderfully crafted story of great power that shows how books can transform us and 'feed the soul'.

'I Am David' by Anne Holm

The book tells the story of a young boy who, with the help of a prison guard, escapes from a concentration camp in an unnamed Eastern European country (many suggest it was Bulgaria). He escapes to Denmark and along the way meets many people who teach him about life outside the camp. His first twelve years of life have been spent in the horror of war time incarceration. He escapes to a world he knows nothing about and struggles to cope in his strange new world. His basic resources include a compass, some bread and some vague advice to seek refuge in Denmark. This is a wonderful story that addresses the themes of freedom and the power of hope.

'Emilio' by Sophie Masson (Allen & Unwin)

This is the fourth book in the popular 'Through My Eyes' series of adolescent fiction. It is a moving novel about one child's life in the middle of the drug war in Mexico. This of course is a different kind of war. Not a war fought over territory in the traditional sense but one that centres on control of places and the trafficking of drugs.

The central character, Emilio Garcia Lopez, starts out on an ordinary school day. That evening a knock on the door changes everything. The arrival of his police-officer cousin Juanita, flanked by a tall man in the uniform of the Federal Police, turns his normal day into the beginning of a long nightmare. Unidentified criminals, who appear to know a great deal about her and have mistaken her for a wealthy businesswoman, have kidnapped Emilio's mother in broad daylight from a hotel carpark. This is a dark novel that is engaging and challenging. Suitable for mature readers aged 13+.

'The Thieves of Ostia' by Caroline Lawrence - I visited the ruins of Ostia about 15 years ago (it's incredible!) and wish that I'd read this mystery about Flavia and her friends in the ancient Roman port in the 1st century AD before or just after the trip. Flavia is fantastic at finding things, and becomes good at solving mysteries. She is the daughter of a ship's captain living in Ostia, which was the port of Rome, in AD79. With her three friends she sets out to solve the mystery of who severed the heads of the watchdogs that guard people's homes. This is an excellent mystery that offers an insight into the life of an ancient Roman city.  The story is brilliantly told.
'The Slave Dancer' by Paula Fox

This book tells the story of a boy called Jessie Bollier who witnessed first-hand the savagery of the African slave trade. The book not only includes an historical account, but it also touches upon the emotional conflicts felt by those involved in transporting the slaves from Africa to other parts of the world. The book received the Newbery Medal in 1974.

And there are lots more....

There are many other stories about war and persecution like 'The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia' by Esther Hautzig.'Good Night, Mr. Tom' by Michelle Magorian

Leon Garfield has written many fine examples mostly set in late 18th century England including 'Devil in the Fog' (1966), 'Black Jack' (1968) and 'Smith' (1967).

Allan Garner has also written a number of fine examples set in Cheshire and often stimulated by local history and legend, including 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' (1960), 'The Owl Service' (1967) and 'The Stone Book Quartet' (1978).

Stories set at key times in special places, like 'Emil and the Detectives' set in Berlin in the year 1929 by or Rosemary Sutcliff's brilliant novel 'The Eagle of the Ninth' set in Roman Britain a book that has sold over one million copies.

'Best Children's Historical Fiction' - Then of course, you can consult good lists. This list published on the 'Good Reads' site in 2008 but is still a great one. As the books reflect the votes of readers, they might not match your own top list but it contains 562 books so is a comprehensive list.