Tuesday, November 26, 2013

26 Wonderful Picture Books to Read at Christmas

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

At the heart of the Christmas story is the celebration of the birth of Jesus on the 25th December. While for many, the celebration of Christmas has become disconnected from its traditional purpose of remembering and celebrating Jesus' birth some 2,000 years ago, it is told and retold in varied forms each year at this time.

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

The Nativity by Julie Vivas is a wonderful book. The story is close to the Bible narrative and the illustrations as you'd expect from Julie Vivas are superb.

The Christmas Book, written and illustrated by Dick Bruna. Bruna's delightful and simple telling of the nativity story is special. He manages to tell the greatest story ever told with his typical simplicity. This one is suitable even for preschool children.

Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale by Martin Waddell & illustrated by Jason Cockcroft

That cold winter's night, 
beneath the star's light... 
...a Little One came for the world. 

First kind Ox welcomes Old Dog, then Stray Cat, Small Mouse, Tired Donkey, and finally the baby Jesus into his stable on the first Christmas night. Delightful story that tells of the momentous event.

A Baby Born in Bethlehem, Martha Whitmore Hickman's retelling is based on the gospels of Luke and Matthew. It begins with the revelation to Mary that she will have a child who will be the son of God and ends with the visit of the Wise Men. The text emphasizes the joy of Jesus' birth. Giulliano Ferri's pencil and watercolour illustrations contribute to making this a great book for four to eight year olds.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells the story of how one of the "worst Kids" in the world finds out about the real Christmas story for the first time as he takes part in the church Christmas pageant. The story itself is very funny but it also manages to communicate the Christian message accurately.

The Baby Who Changed the World by Sheryl Ann Crawford, Sonya Wilson (Illustrator). In this imaginative retelling of the Christmas story, the animals get together and discuss the approaching arrival of a new baby that some say will grow up to be a strong and powerful King. When Mary and Joseph enter the picture and the events of the true Christmas story unfold!

The Christmas Story: According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from the King James Version by Gennadii Spirin (Illustrator). This telling of the Christmas story begins with Mary's meeting with the angel Gabriel then proceeds to the birth of baby Jesus in a stable, the visit of the shepherds and the three wise men. Spirin's Orthodox Christian faith is reflected in the wonderful art that makes this a special retelling of the story of Jesus (although not all will find the images match their idea of what Jesus might have looked like).

Mary's Christmas Story, by Olive Teresa. There are a number of different retellings of the Christmas Story available in the Arch Books series. Most are told from the perspective of different witnesses to the birth of Jesus or draw more heavily on one of more of the gospel accounts. This one retells the Christmas story from Mary's point of view based on Luke 1:5-2:18.

The Life of Our Lord, by Charles Dickens.

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

2. Books that use the Christmas theme to offer moral lessons

This category of books is quite large. They typically use the Christmas celebration or season as the setting for a human story that teaches something about one or more fine human qualities that are consistent with Christian teaching; for example, love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and sacrifice.

The Christmas Eve Ghost, by Shirley Hughes (2010)

Walker Books has just published this wonderful book in time for Christmas. It is written and illustrated by one of my favourite English author/illustrators, Shirley Hughes. At 83 years of age Shirley is still producing wonderful books. It is a classic example of books in this category. It doesn't really mention the Christmas story at all but uses Christmas as one of its themes to highlight kindness against the background of sectarian differences between Catholic and Protestant residents of Liverpool in the 1930s (the place and time of her childhood). Without saying it, Hughes offers the message that Christmas is a time when people should connect with one another in love, kindness and service.

The book tells the story of a mother and her two children, living in poverty. The mother cares for the children and earns just enough to survive by washing other people's clothing. On Christmas Eve 'Mam' has to leave the children in bed while she goes off to deliver a batch of washing. The children awake to strange noises (as it turns out they are 'natural' noises) and flee the house in fear straight into the arms of Mrs O'Riley from next door, a person their mother doesn't speak to for reasons not clear until the end. It's a wonderful book with a touching resolution.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2008). This probably deserves to be in a category of its own. The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is taught the true meaning of Christmas by a series of ghostly visitors. This is essentially a fable that stresses that Christmas should be a time of goodwill towards mankind. There have been many versions printed of this classic story first published in 1843 with wonderful illustrations by John Leech. Published in 2008 this new edition has to be one of the best illustrated versions that I've seen, which isn't surprising as Robert Ingpen is one of the finest illustrators we have seen in the last 50 years. The edition also contains Dickens story Christmas Tree that offers an insight into a Victorian Christmas of the 1850s.

How the Grinch stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss. This is one of my favourites within this category. The Grinch lives on top of a mountain that overlooks Whoville. As he watches the villagers getting ready to celebrate Christmas he comes up with a plot to stop them. But instead of stealing Christmas he learns that Christmas means much more than the trappings such as gifts, decorations and food. I used to read this to my children at Christmas time and now they read it to their children as part of their Christmas traditions (my daughter did a post on this here). You can also watch the video version of this story that has been popular with children for over 50 years (here).

Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P.J. Lynch. This story focuses on Jonathan Toomey who is the best woodcarver in the valley. But he bears a secret sorrow, and never smiles or laughs. When the widow McDowell and her son ask him to carve a creche in time for Christmas, their quiet request leads to a joyful miracle, as they heal the woodcarver's heart and restore his faith.

Wombat Divine, by Mem Fox and illustrated by Kerry Argent. This wonderful story tells of the quest of a wombat to find the perfect part to play in the annual Nativity play. He tries out every part without success until he finds one that he carries off with distinction.

The Nativity Play, by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. This is the story of a group of children who put on their own nativity play. There is a much creativity that is needed to get the show on the road.


3. Stories based on Christmas traditions

For those who are more interested in Christmas traditions than the traditional Christmas story, there are masses of books that take the Christmas theme in all sorts of directions (some quite strange). However, there are some that have literary merit and are enjoyable stories to read at Christmas and suit the needs of families that are from non-Christian traditions. Some of the better examples follow.

Nine Days to Christmas by Marie Hall Ets and Aurora Labastida

This wonderful Christmas tale from Mexico was written in 1959 and won Marie Hall Ets the Caldecott Medal for illustration in 1960. It is the story of 5 year-old Ceci, who ready for her first Posada. This is a a fourteen day festival (ending on Christmas Eve) in which entire towns participate. There are great things to eat, music, ritual and traditional dress to wear. But for Ceci, she is most excited that she will have her own piƱata to fill with special things that all the village children can share. As well as being about Christmas, this is a wonderful insight into Mexican culture. Marie Hal Ets collaborator was Aurora Labastida who grew up in Mexico and this his her story and her memories of Christmas.

Letters from Father Christmas, J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Baillie Tolkien)

This book is a collection of letters that Tolkien wrote to his children over a period of 23 years. Every December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in a strange, spidery handwriting and a beautiful coloured drawing or painting. The letters were from Father Christmas.

Tolkien shares wonderful tales of life at the North Pole. A reindeer gets loose and scatters presents all over the place, an accident-prone North Polar Bear climbs the North Pole and falls through the roof, Santa accidentally breaks the moon into four pieces and the Man (in the moon!) falls into the back garden and many more. This is Tolkien at his creative best, but what's special is that they are personal communications between him and his children. His last letter is a beautiful farewell from Father Christmas with an underlying message of hope and continuity. If you love Tolkien you will like this collection. It's available in an enhanced eBook format as well, which has a number of other features (see video below). These include audio recordings of many of the letters read by Sir Derek Jacobi and the ability to expand each of the images of the original letters and envelopes
(some never published before).

The Night Before Christmas, Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (2010). This is a wonderful new release from Walker Books. Just the mention of Robert Ingpen's name will get me excited, because surely he is one of Australia's greatest illustrators. This is the best illustrated version of the classic Clement Moore poem that I know of. Moore wrote the poem for his children and first read it to them on Christmas Eve 1822.  A friend sent it anonymously to a New York newspaper in 1823 and once published it quickly became well known. Only in 1844 did Moore claim authorship. Many attribute much of our contemporary portrayal of Santa Claus to this poem. Who can forget the start:

'Twas the night before Christmas
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse...

Ingpen's depiction of Santa as a mischievous and happy old man sits well with the traditional myth. His usual immaculate line drawings are in evidence, but this time they are softened by a gentle wash that gives an ethereal feel to the drawings. The 'soft' lines also sit well with the traditional northern white Christmas.

Suzy Goose and the Christmas Star, by Petr Horacek (2010).  This is another new release from Walker Books. It is a perfect book for preschoolers or young children up to 6 or 7 years. Suzy and her farmyard friends are gathered on Christmas Eve around their Christmas tree and she notices that something is missing - a star on top of the tree! She cries to her friends, "It needs a star on top....Just like the one in the sky. I'll get it." So she sets off to 'get it' with some amusing episodes along the way before the surprising solution. Young kids will love this book. It is well written and beautifully illustrated by Petr Horacek. Again, it barely mentions Christmas, but parents and teachers could speak more about Christmas using this story as the springboard.

Finding Christmas, by Helen Ward. This slightly mystical book was voted in the top 10 Christmas books in 2004. It tells the story of a little girl in a bright red coat and bright green boots who wanders at dusk from shop to shop looking for “the perfect present to give to someone special.” Things look hopeless until she is drawn to the bright window of a toy shop filled with colourful toys.

All I want for Christmas by Deborah Zemke. What does a skunk want for Christmas? French perfume! What does a spider want? A spinning wheel! Deborah Zemke's wonderful art and great sense of humour makes this a hit. I wonder what they will want?

Emily and the big bad bunyip, by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whateley. It′s Christmas Day in Shaggy Gully. Can Emily Emu and her friends possibly make the Bunyip smile this Christmas? All the animals are in a good mood except the Bunyip. He proclaims, ′I′m mad and I′m mean! Bunyips don′t like Christmas!

Twinkle, Twinkle Christmas Star by Christine Harder Tangvald. This delightful story is based on the familiar children's rhyme but re-words it to parallel the Christmas story.

Mooseltoe by Margie Palatini, Henry Cole (Illustrator). This one is a lot of fun

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

12 Great New Picture Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 8, 2013

Reading and Writing Feed One Another: 8 Key Illustrations

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

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

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

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

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

An early letter from Elsie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  You can read all my other posts on writing HERE

Friday, November 1, 2013

Choosing Great Educational & Creative Toys

This is my 5th post on this topic and is largely a repeat of my 4th annual post about choosing great toys for kids (it's repeated in the hope that you can see these ideas earlier than usual!). The post is about selecting toys that teach, challenge, stimulate and encourage creativity and learning.

It doesn't negate all that I say in other posts about the many varied ways to help kids play, learn, solve problems and develop creativity that cost nothing.

I've outlined previously some basic principles for choosing toys which stressed that children don't need expensive toys to learn, that play in and, of itself, stimulates learning, problem solving, language development, creativity and so on (see for example my post 'The importance of simple play' here). In short, many activities require few or no bought materials within the child's world.

As well, even a single purpose toy that brings great pleasure but doesn't teach a lot can achieve more if adults are engaged to some extent with the activity. For example, a game like Hungry Hippos besides helping with basic counting, can also help children to learn about turn taking, being gracious as a winner and a loser and so on.

But, if you are planning to spend significant sums of money on toys for Christmas or as part of other celebrations I would be aiming for toys that offer multiple purposes and varied areas of learning. My test for toys we buy would be:

  • Do they stimulate creativity and learning?

  • Do they encourage language use?

  • Do they require varied skills and multiple abilities?

  • Do they encourage the integration of many forms of learning?

  • Do they help children to develop interpersonal skills (if it is a multi-player toy)? 

  • Do they require children to collaborate with and, play well with others?

  • Will the toy last (i.e. not fall apart)?

  • Is the toy good value for money?

  • Is the toy fun, interesting, challenging?

  • Will it sustain your child's attention beyond a few uses?

So, while you don't need bought toys to stimulate children, in this post I will talk about some of the bought toys that I find interesting and which have worked with our children and grandchildren. I'm not trying to be  comprehensive just offering examples of good toys that meet some of the criteria I outline above.

1. Scientific toys for older children

Here are some examples of the many wonderful scientific toys around for children aged 8+. Most range in price from $20 to $40 AUD.

a) The Museum of Victoria has some wonderful kits. One that I like helps children to explore 'Crystals and Minerals'. The kit helps them to discover the amazing qualities and features of minerals in everyday life. Many of these are available from the CSIRO site (see below).

b) CSIRO Science Kits - The CSIRO has some wonderful kits for children. One I like is 'Biology Madness'. This is a comprehensive science kit with 26 fun and interesting experiments. The kit includes all the main scientific equipment required for the experiments, plus an interactive DVD featuring five filmed experiments, and a 68 page full colour booklet which includes fun facts and further experiments. You can also 'Make Your Own Volcano',  do astronomy experiments using the 'Double Helix Astronomy' kit or build their own 'Solar Powered Planaterium'. There are many kits that come in a range of categories including flight, dinosaurs, chemistry, rocks, construction and more.

c) Geoworld also has many wonderful options including a 'Mammoth Skeleton Dig' kit so you can unearth a museum quality replica approved by Paleontologists, a 'Glow in the Dark Solar Mobile' kit and many more.
d) Green Science also has an interesting kit called 'Weather Station'. It allows the child to experiment with static electricity that causes lightning, make clouds, watch air currents that
produce wind, and study the greenhouse effect and acid rain. It has many other options including 'Solar Robot' that allows children to learn how to make a robot that moves under solar power.

e) Kidz Labs (4M) also has some wonderful science kits. One of my favourites is 'Forensics' which helps children to explore basic techniques like finger printing, handwriting analysis, fibre evidence, making plaster casts of footprints, identifying 'strange' powder. Another great kit from Kidz Labs is the 'Animation Praxinoscope' that allows kids to rebuild a 100 year old optical toy that demonstrates modern animation techniques. 

2. Timeless construction toys

No family should be without a couple of toys that encourage children to make or construct things. These toys help to develop good hand-eye coordination, encourage creativity and problem solving and can help to develop mathematical and spatial intelligence.  There are many types of construction toys that  children can use from a very young age. Here are a few examples:

Above: Father & son play with Knupferli (see below)

a) Wooden blocks of some type At our house our grandchildren still use the same set of blocks in their original walker that our children did 30+ years ago (suitable for ages 6 months to 3 years).

b) Lego

Probably all three types/sizes will be useful. Our children's Lego is now  played with by our grandchildren (suitable for age 6 months to 1 years). The themed sets for 'Harry Potter', 'The Hobbit', 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Super Heroes' are some of the sets on the top of many kid's gift lists and give hours of creative story-telling fun.

c) Mobilo is one of my grandson Sam's favourite toys. It can be used with childen aged 1-10. It is a durable tow that allows creativity to reign. Sam and I build space stations and star ships and engage in battles around the house.

d) Other more challenging connector toys (e.g. Knupferli)

There are many sets that allow children to do creative construction. I used the soft plastic Knupferli
materials (see picture above) when I was in Kindergarten(!) and only just rediscovered them again (ideal for age 5-10  years). You can use them to make a simple necklace or a complex 3D shape.

e) Meccano

Newer meccano sets (see right) are different from those I grew up with, but they still combine all the old skills and interest of the metal Meccano I had as a child (age 5-15 years).

You can do many things with construction toys. Yes, you can build simply things like towers or shapes. You can make houses, cars, anything (in the case of Lego).

In combination with other objects (e.g. plastic animals or people) you can  tell stories - zoos can be created, aquariums, farms, space invaders  and dinosaurs can invade villages etc. In some cases your children can learn how to follow instructions and design plans (e.g. Meccano, Knupferli & Lego).

What's great about construction toys is that they:

  • Help to develop hand-eye co-ordination

  • Encourage creativity and problem solving

  • Can help to develop spatial and geometric skills

Above: A family favourite, 'Zoob'

3. 'Toys' that allow you to create

These are not all toys, some are materials, but all allow children to be creative. Here are a few of my favourites:

a) Modelling clay

You can buy cheap multi-coloured modelling clay for $2-3 per pack, or  you can make Play Dough. I've written a post on the creative use of modelling clay (here). Suitable for all ages.

b) Magnetic learning boards with letters and shapes (age 12 months to 5 years), see picture to the right.

c) Magesketch (or some other variety) of this magnetic sketching board, age 12 months to 4 years.

d) Felt boards - there are many products of this type on the market (many of these are very cheap), age 2-6 years.

4. Model people, animal and objects

There are many wonderful examples of toys that consist of people, animals, dwellings, and objects that go with them like dolls houses, castles, forts, arks etc. These allow children to engage in creative play either alone or with others for long periods of time. These simple objects can  allow children to amuse themselves in a world of make believe and fantasy at home, in the car, at other people's houses etc. They are a wonderful way for children to create (verbally) their first  narratives.

Some of the simplest are perhaps the best:

a) Keep a box of animals

Depending on the child's interests these might be farm animals (under  12 months), African animals, sea creatures, dinosaurs and people. These can be used alone or with other toys (see the shot of Sam above with his Lego 'zoo').

b) Commercial sets like the Little People  series and Sylvanian Families are wonderful for young children - we have a set based on Noah's  Ark
to which we've added other animals. This has kept all our  grandchildren
 engaged for hours (0-3 years).

c) A doll's house will keep boys and girls engaged in creative play for ages and there
are modern variations on  the same theme with medieval castles complete
within knights and  dragons (age 2 -8).

5. Mathematical or Spatial Skill Toys

a) Perpetual puzzles - these are puzzles designed by Makoto Nakamura. They add a new level of creativity by allowing the child to change the shape of the overall puzzle that is based on continuous and interlocking shapes.

b) Blokus is a relatively new puzzle game with simple rules, but it can keep adults and children stimulated for ages. The purpose of the game is for each player to place his/her 21 pieces on  the board (or at least the maximum number of pieces) in a continuous span unimpeded by other players' pieces. It can be played by 2 or 4 people.

c) M-Tic  

This is a brilliant and simple construction type game that consists of multi-coloured plastic pieces with magnetic ends. The purpose of the game is to create geometric shapes. It is excellent for developing geometrical and spatial knowledge. If you can't find this version there are other similar examples at good toy shops (see the picture below).

d) Puzzles of all kinds - puzzles are brilliant for developing memory, patience and a variety of spatial skills. Young children can start with simply puzzles that require them to insert an animal or shape into a single hole. Later they can move to simply 6-20 piece puzzles then much more complex puzzles as they develop their skills.

6. Other categories

There are many other toys that allow children to have fun, learn, manipulate and develop fine motor skills. Here are just a few examples that I spotted at my local Toy Shop this week. If you live in Sydney Monkey Puzzle Toy Store is worth a look, it's one of the best toyshops I've seen. The owners know and are passionate about toys. Find a good local toy store where the owners choose, sell and enjoy toys.

a) Magnetic (Mudpuppy) Dress up Figures - these come in a metal box and the mannequins vary (e.g. sports model, pirate, ballerina, monster, mermaid etc).

b) Chicken Socks craft sets (Klutz) - These are cheap and have a variety of separate packets including 'Crayon Rubbings', 'Fun Felt', 'Simple Sewing', 'Hand Art' etc.

c) Puppets - every house should have a puppet or two, there are many different 
types of puppets including finger puppets, hand puppets, shadow puppets and string 

d) Card games of all kinds. There are so many wonderful card games today that encourage language and mathematics and also encourage sharing and collaboration. Some recent favourites include 'Rush Hour' and 'Story Cubes'. 

There are obviously many great toys that I haven't mentioned. In my home I'd always want to have puzzles, lots of writing implements (crayons, pencils, chalk, varied papers), toys that teach numbers and letters, toys that train hand-eye co-ordination (through threading, putting things in holes etc), percussion instruments, Thomas Trains and cars (especially for boys), a dress-up box and so on.