Monday, August 18, 2014

Australian Children's Book of the Year Winners Announced

The Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Awards were announced on the 15th August in Canberra. This event always marks the beginning of Children’s Book Week. As usual, the winners and honour books are a fabulous collection. But for every book that wins or is an honour book, there are many more worthy books. Thankfully, the CBCA publishes a list of approximately 100 notable books each year. You can find the lists HERE.


1. Older Readers (Young Adult Readers)


'Wildlife' by Fiona Wood (Pan)  

Life? It's simple: be true to yourself.
The tricky part is finding out exactly who you are...

"In the holidays before the dreaded term at Crowthorne Grammar's outdoor education camp two things out of the ordinary happened.
A picture of me was plastered all over a twenty-metre billboard.
And I kissed Ben Capaldi."

Boarding for a term in the wilderness, sixteen-year-old Sibylla expects the gruesome outdoor education program - but friendship complications, and love that goes wrong? They're extra-curricula.

Enter Lou from Six Impossible Things - the reluctant new girl for this term in the great outdoors. Fragile behind an implacable mask, she is grieving a death that occurred almost a year ago. Despite herself, Lou becomes intrigued by the unfolding drama between her housemates Sibylla and Holly, and has to decide whether to end her self-imposed detachment and join the fray. And as Sibylla confronts a tangle of betrayal, she needs to renegotiate everything she thought she knew about surviving in the wild.

A story about first love, friendship and NOT fitting in.

Honour books

'Fairytales for Wilde Girls' by Allyse Near (Random House)

'The Sky So Heavy' by Claire Zorn (UQP)    

2. Younger Readers (Independent Younger Readers)


'A Very Unusual Pursuit' by Catherine Jinks (A&U) 

'A Very Unusual Pursuit' is the first instalment in what should be a wonderful new fantasy series (the 'City of Orphans' trilogy).  It is set in Victorian London, where squalour sat alongside splendour. Where the houses of the rich were not always that far from the houses of the poor, open sewers, a seedy underworld and of course, the gruesome and frightening 'bogles'.

Monsters have been infesting London's dark places for centuries, eating every child who gets too close. That's why ten-year-old Birdie McAdam works for Alfred Bunce, the bogler. With her beautiful voice and dainty looks, Birdie is the bait that draws bogles from their lairs so that Alfred can kill them. 

One life-changing day, Alfred and Birdie are approached by two very different women. Sarah Pickles runs a local gang of pickpockets, three of whom have disappeared. Edith Eames is an educated lady who's studying the mythical beasts of English folklore. Both of them threaten the only life Birdie's ever known. But Birdie soon realises she needs Miss Eames's help, to save her master, defeat Sarah Pickles, and vanquish an altogether nastier villain. Catherine Jinks, one of Australia's most inventive writers, has created a fast-paced and enthralling adventure story with edge-of-your-seat excitement and chills.

The book is also available in the USA with the title 'How to Catch a Bogle'. Readers aged 11-14 will enjoy this engaging fantasy.

Honour books

'My Life as an Alphabet' by Barry Jonsberg (A&U)
'Light Horse Boy' by Dianne Wolfer and illustrated by Brian Simmonds (Fremantle Press)

3. Early Childhood (Preschool and beginning readers)


'The Swap' by Jan Ormerod, illustrated by Andrew Joyner (Little Hare)

Jan Ormerod and Andrew Joyner have produced a wonderful picture book to win this category in 2014. Jan Ormerod will be well known to Australian readers.

When Caroline Crocodile's baby brother is born, he's smelly and dribbles. He's no fun at all, but he manages to capture Mum's attention. Caroline decides to swap him for another baby. The Baby Shop assistant provides her with varied babies, but none turn out to be suitable! This funny story, reflecting the real life experiences of many big brothers and sisters, will be enjoyed by all.

'Honour books'

'I’m a Dirty Dinosaur' by Janeen Brian and illustrated by Ann James (Viking)

'Banjo and Ruby Red' by Libby Gleeson and illustrated by Freya Blackwood (Little Hare) 

4. Picture Book of the Year (Varied ages, Birth to 18 years)


'Rules of Summer' by Shaun Tan (Lothian)

It seems that every Shaun Tan book is a masterpiece. He has won international acclaim and numerous awards including an Academy Award for the animated short film adaptation of his book 'The Lost Thing'.

Rules of Summer seems at first to be a simple story about two boys and the sort of rules that could shape just about any relationship between friends or siblings. But such rules can be strange and arbitrary which becomes obvious. Tan's masterful illustration of this almost completely wordless book, takes us on an emotional journey that many will identify with.

Shaun Tan draws upon every day experiences (fishing, socks on the clothes line, average buildings on the street...) and leads the reader into a story rich in imagery and metaphor that takes you to darker places, before redemption as true friendship is affirmed.

Honour books

'King Pig' by Nick Bland (Scholastic Press)
'Silver Buttons' by Bob Graham (Walker Books) 

5. Eve Pownall Award for Information Books (Varied ages, Birth to 18 years)


'Jeremy' by Christopher Faille, illustrated by Danny Snell (Working Title Press)

Jeremy is a Tiny kookaburra just a few days old when he falls out of his nest.  He is brought home by of all things a cat! Luckily, Jeremy fights for his life. Slowly he gets stronger and stronger, until one day it's time for him to return to the life of a kookaburra. He must say goodbye. This is a lovely story based on a real life account of the rescue and raising of a baby kookaburra.

Honour books

'Welcome to My Country' by Laklak Burarrwanga and family (A&U)

This wonderful book is a collaboration between three academics and six Indigenous women from Bawaka and Yirrkala. It is a publication that literally welcomes you to the Country of Laklak Burarrwanga in Arhhem Land Northern Australia. This is a coastal land of crystal clear waters filled with fish, turtle, crab and stingray. The land that adjoins has varied bush fruits, pandanus for weaving, wood for spears, and all that is needed for daily life. But this isn't just a beautiful country, it is a land rich in meaning. This is the place where Laklak Burarrwanga heard great stories, told them to others and learned the great history of her people. These stories were learned from a special library, "a library in the land". This is a library that you cannot destroy.

This is a remarkable work that uses story, recount, poetry, exposition, lists, explanation and song to tell the story of the remarkable country of Laklak Burarrwanga. What a wonderful work! You can read my more detailed previous post on this book HERE.

'Ice, Wind, Rock' by Peter Gouldthorpe (Lothian)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Author & Illustrator Focus: Chris McKimmie

Chris McKimmie is a writer, illustrator and artist. His career has had several phases. In the 1970s he worked as a graphic designer and publications designer for the ABC, the National Parks and Wildlife Services and the University of WA Press. As well, he wrote, illustrated and designed a series of 8 children's books as well as designing many book covers. Later he moved to Queensland and established the illustration program at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University.

He has also applied his skills, knowledge and experience to film. In the 1980s he was production designer for the award-winning short film 'Stations' (1983) and the feature-length film 'Australian Dream' (1986). He also wrote the lyrics for the songs in both films, as well as 'Madness for Two' (1982), 'Top Enders' (1987) and 'Waiting' (1990). These films were written and directed by his wife, Jackie McKimmie.

Throughout his career he has also exhibited paintings and drawings at many Australian galleries. The last ten years have been a particularly fruitful time for him with children's literature and he has written and illustrated a number of wonderful children's picture books (see the full list at the end). The picture books he has written and illustrated can be recognised immediately by their deceptively simple style. This is a style that reflects careful attention to varied techniques honed over many years working as an illustrator in varied genres. He makes his images using acrylic on MDF, ink, watercolour, gouache, pastels and any other materials that seem like a good idea. I always feel as I read his books that here is an author and illustrator who seems to have a special way of getting inside the heads of his readers to set off sparks of imaginative energy.

Chris has received a number of awards for children's books including being shortlisted by the Children's Book Council of Australia for 'Two Peas in a Pod' (2011), 'Special Kev' (2009), and 'Brian Banana Sunshine Duck Yellow' (2007).

For more on Chris McKimmie's background read the interview I conducted with him at the end of this post.

Brief reviews of some of his recent picture books

'Crikey and Cat', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2014

Like all of Chris McKimmie's picture books 'Crikey and Cat' is aimed at inquisitive, creative and imaginative readers. It challenges them to think outside the square. Like all of his books he leaves 'space' for young readers to do their own thinking. If the stars suddenly disappeared, what would you do? With a ladder, a tape, and some late night cutting, the problem is solved! "Nice". But then, along comes the storm.... (you should read on). It is a wonderful blend of McKimmies delightful simple images, and just enough words to stimulate young and old brains. Wonderful!  Suitable for readers aged 3-6 years.

Scarlett and the Scratchy Moon', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2013

Scarlett can’t sleep again. The moon is scratching the sky, and she’s counting sheep. Scarlett is also sad because her pet dogs, Holly and Sparky, have died. But then a surprise comes to the door and the world seems new again.

'Alex and the Watermelon Boat', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2012

This book was inspired by his experience living through the Brisbane floods of 2011.  The flood provides the setting for a small boy's search in a 'watermelon' boat for his special stuffed rabbit. The river had burst its banks. The dam was overflowing. 'Don't go outside, Alex!' Mum shouted. But just then Rabbit hopped out the open window ...

Good Morning Mr Pancakes', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2011

It's holiday time for Bee. But first the chooks need their toenails painted, the dogs and cats need their bags packed and Gregor needs enough greens for a week. Then Bee is off to the island.

Two Peas in a Pod', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2010

From the inside front cover Chris McKimmie had me in. What might the four dwarves mean? I didn't think this was a book about dwarves?! No, it's about a boy and girl, like 'two peas in a pod', whatever that means. Violet calls her friend Marvin 'Marvellous' and they do everything together. Like watching the clouds to discover cotton wool castles and marshmallow kingdoms. Or catching the train in their lounge room to Toowoomba, Dimboola, Woop Woop and beyond. They live in Raven Street and you never know what they might encounter - ghosts, dwarves, woolly elephants? When Marvin leaves Violet for the plane trip home, it's always lonely. But luckily, Mum and T Rex are there waiting. I just love this book!

Special Kev Christopher', McKimmie (written & illustrated), East Melbourne: Allen and Unwin, 2008

If only my Mum had called me 'Special Kev' (funny thing is that strangers often call me 'Kevin', but that's my story). Trevor ('Special Kev') was always going to be different. He was born on April Fools Day and had different qualities to all of his "eleventy million cousins". With curly red hair and freckles he'd be noticed all right. Kevin seems to have a life with plenty of problems (like 'the thing with Nicky Bathgate) and it's never his fault. No, it was Fatty Boombah's, Nicky's, or Megan the Meanie's. Only Aunty Pav - who like Kevin is unique - seems to offer him a lifeline. This special book about a special child, has lots to say about difference, friendship and family. As with all McKimmie's books, it offers an opportunity for joyous fun with young children, but there is always a deeper point that awaits the reflective reader.

Maisie Moo and Invisible Lucy'. Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2007

The funny and tender story of Maisie who lives with her parents in the Gone Bonkers Discount Palace. She shares her troubles and joys with her invisible friend, Lucy, and misses her father who is often away driving his truck.

Brian Banana Duck Sunshine Yellow', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), East Melbourne: Allen and Unwin, 2006

A wonderful, innovative, quirky picture book about a child's search for identity and the need to belong - and a glorious celebration of the colour yellow.
An Interview with Chris McKimmie

1. Most of your published profiles don’t say a lot about you. Where did you grow up? What were your early influences? Are there people who helped to shape the Chris McKimmie who writes and illustrates such interesting picture books?

I was born in Perth, Western Australia and I am the youngest in a family of five. I grew up surrounded by aunties and cousins. Every Christmas we would gather around two trestle tables at my Italian grandmothers place two doors up. She had twelve kids, including my mother. The aunties, uncles and cousins would drink, play the piano accordion and sing and watch my grandmother have her one cigarette a year on her birthday which was also Christmas day.

At school we didn't have art. We had tech drawing which I would always get smudged and crooked. I didn't like school much and was glad to get out. My last year at school was spent listening to the top 40 hit parade and plotting the course of various songs and playing along on my homemade drum kit. When I left school after just scraping through I bought a sparkling red Premier drum kit and played in bands at weddings, twenty firsts, nightclubs and the one jazz club in Perth. Then I went to Sydney where I met Jackie.

We both returned to Perth and studied there and had our first son while we were students. I studied Graphic Design with electives in painting and drawing and I finished my studies a year before Jackie and worked at the West Australian University Press as a book designer. Every pay day I would buy a children’s book for our son. This was my introduction to picture books. I realised that as long as a book had a certain honesty to it that it served a purpose one way or another and at some time or other.

When Jackie finished her studies we moved to Sydney and had our second son. I worked various jobs cleaning and then as a designer at National Parks and Wildlife and the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Then I took a year off to help raise the boys and write and illustrate some children’s books while we both worked part-time. The 8 books I wrote, designed and illustrated were published by Hicks Smith and Methuen and sold internationally. In 1976 we moved to Queensland so I could take up a job offer from the Queensland College of Art. We planned on staying a few years but have been here a bit longer than that. Up until 2001 I was the convenor of the illustration programme at the college. Since I left I have been working on stories and books and paintings for exhibitions.

2. Do you love story as much as illustrating? Do you see the words in your books as just as important as the images?

Yes. I work on both together and change them as the story develops. Sometimes getting rid of some pretty good pictures. Sometimes getting rid of some pretty good writing. I also design all my books and I see that as a valuable part of the story as well.

3. Could you tell me a little about the inspiration for ‘Crikey and Cat’?

Crikey started out as the blue book. Pretty much the first half of the book. The publishers asked me to combine it with two other books I had sent them in rough form. These books were about a red cat. I found it impossible because the story lines wouldn’t connect. I asked Jackie, my wife, who is a writer of films, plays and poetry if she could come up with anything and she solved the story line in about five minutes.

4. A number of reviewers speak of your work as ‘quirky’, and this word came to my mind as well. But it seems to me that it’s much more than this. Do you see a book like ‘Crikey and Cat’ as quirky or would you describe the book another way?

No I don’t see it as quirky. Nor do I see my other books as quirky. I just work around my limitations.

5. What is the best response you've ever had to your illustrative & creative work?

I once got an e mail from a woman who told me she was taking my book Brian Banana Duck Sunshine Yellow on holidays with her and she reads it four or five times a day and that the line ‘It’s just beautiful, Wayne’ was the best line ever written in the English language. I was pretty glad I lived in a different state.

6. Do you have other book projects on the drawing board?

I have just signed a contract for a book called Lara of Newtown about a cat that is abandoned at Christmas time then is given as a Christmas present and abandoned again.

7. Who or what has been the most significant influence on your creative work?

Pretty much everything. I read a lot of poetry. Novels, short stories and picture books. If you have read some of my books e.g. Good Morning Mr Pancakes all the grandkids have been a help as well.

Full List of Chris McKimmie's Children's Books 

'Crikey and Cat', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2014
'Scarlett and the Scratchy Moon', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2013
'Alex and the Watermelon Boat', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2012
'Good Morning Mr Pancakes', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2011
'Two Peas in a Pod', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2010
'Special Kev Christopher', McKimmie (written & illustrated), East Melbourne: Allen and Unwin, 2008
'Maisie Moo and Invisible Lucy'. Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2007
'Brian Banana Duck Sunshine Yellow', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), East Melbourne: Allen and Unwin, 2006

Earlier Works

'The Caught Bird', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Sydney: Methuen Australia, 1977
'The Shape I'm In', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Sydney: Methuen Australia, 1977
'One Rainy Day', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Sydney: Methuen Australia, 1977
 'The Magic Day', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Sydney: Methuen Australia, 1977
'Apple to Zoo', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Sydney: Hicks Smith, 1975
'The Painted Bird', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Sydney: Hicks Smith 1975 'Two Friends', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Sydney: Hicks Smith, 1975
'One Day', Christopher McKimmie (written & illustrated), Sydney: Hicks Smith, 1975

Monday, August 4, 2014

Helping toddlers to develop reading comprehension


I've written a number of times about comprehension on this blog and have also written books and articles on the topic (see some references at the end). This post is a revised version of one I wrote in 2013. My claim in many of these publications is that comprehension begins early; in fact, in the first years of life. By comprehension I mean the ability "to understand, interpret, appreciate and critique what we read, view, hear and experience." This might not sound like something preschoolers do, but it is! Young children begin to make sense of their world and all that is in it from birth.

As distinguished literacy researchers Ken and Yetta Goodman said many years ago (in 'Learning to read is natural', 1979):
"The beginnings of reading often go unnoticed in the young child".
For the young child meaning making occurs from birth, and reading comprehension as we recognise it emerges over the first 5 years of life. In fact, for most children, it begins before they can decode print.

The emergence of comprehension

Caitlin McMunn Dooley wrote an excellent article in The Reading Teacher (Oct 2010) in which she described her observations of a group of children aged 2-5+ years in an early childhood classroom over a three year period.  Her observations suggested four broad phases in their emerging comprehension. These are not neat stages (hence the use of the word phase):

Book as prop (<2 to 3) - When choosing books children pay minimal attention to the topic and content of the book and instead use books as a prop, treating them like other play things. The book can symbolize story time or can be used to simulate reading.

Book as invitation (2+ to 3+) - Eventually, children begin to consider the book holistically as a complete unit of meaning. They begin to recognise the topic of the book mainly through images, colour, shape etc. They start to bring books to adults and expect them to read them. They might also volunteer to 'read' the book to others.

Book as script (3+) - Eventually, children begin to show an understanding that text carries meaning, as do the many features of the book.  Dooley found that many 3 year olds begin to treat the books more like "..scripts, memorising and calling out the texts in books..".  They point to the print and attend to text content, images and sound including voice intonation and inflection.

Book as text (4+) - Most four year olds begin to attend more to the print, pointing to the words and recalling (generally from memory) word by word what is on the page. They are still just as interested in content, images and sound, but there is an emerging sense of integrated comprehension where the reader can see consistencies and inconsistencies between print and other elements such as image and sound.

Comprehension emerges with other people

What needs to be understood about emergent comprehension is that the ability to make meaning as children encounter books, films, objects and experiences, develops as children try to make sense of their world. It also happens as an extension of their relationships within families and in other learning situations both informal (play with others) and structured (a preschool classroom or playgroup).

The following description of a preschool class gives some sense of what I mean:

Even when the teacher was not initiating reading or writing, the classroom was filled with literate behaviour. In the dress-up corner several children were including story reading in creative play. Children took turns as mother reading to her baby. Genevieve was asking her pretend mum to explain why the dog in I'll Always Love You (Wilhelm, 1985) had such a sad face (this is a book about death). Mum was doing a wonderful job explaining the relationships within the story. Another group playing shops was using a receipt book to record purchases. Receipt books were often referred to in the home corner. 'Mum' and 'Dad' were reading the newspaper and later flicking through the pages of the telephone book (Cairney & Langbien, 1989).
It is in varied social settings that children make meaning and begin to acquire a more sophisticated understanding of how written language works. Over time, the foundations of comprehension are laid.

What parents can do to help comprehension emerge? 

Here are 10 simple tips

  • Read regularly (at least daily) to your children and talk about the things that you read.
  • Try to read the book with emotion, with invented sound effects, with different voices for characters and the narrator, changes in voice volume and tone - much meaning is communicated this way.
  • Support their emerging understanding of what they read or hear by encouraging them to look at pictures and images and relate these to the words that you read. Emphasise key words or repetitive patterns in the book “But don’t forget the bacon”, “But where is the Green Sheep?”
  • Encourage them to relate ideas, language and knowledge that a book introduces to other areas of learning or life – “You’ve got a teddy too”, “His puppy is like Darren’s puppy”, “We saw an elephant like this one at the zoo”.
  • Encourage them to draw, sing, talk about, act out, make things, dress up and so on, in response to the things that you read to them or they read themselves (creating meaning in response to books).
  • Encourage them to use other tools to make meaning (playdough, toy animals, dress-ups, Thomas trains, drawing, craft etc) and relate these as appropriate to books (creating meaning leads to books).
  • Encourage them to memorise and learn things from the books they read or listen to. You can’t read “Wombat Stew” without reciting over and over again “Wombat stew, Wombat stew, Gooey, brewy, Yummy, chewy, Wombat stew!”
  • Encourage them to make connections between the things they read, view and experience – “This story is like in the television show Shaun the Sheep when he…..”.
  • Read varied books – different story types, factual books as well as fiction, poetry and prose, different forms of illustrations and so on.
  • Watch TV shows, videos and movies with your children and talk about them, explain things, try to make connections with stories they have read, encourage response with art, drawing, play dough, puppets, dressing up, acting out and so on.
    Summing Up

    Comprehension is ultimately the highest goal of reading, we read to understand things, to work things out, to make meaning.  Its foundations are laid in the first 5 years of life, not through structured activities, but through the use and experience of language and in particular, story.

    Comprehension emerges over time as children are encouraged to encounter and use written language and to integrate this with other avenues they have for making meaning.

    Other blog posts related to this topic

    'Teaching and Supporting Children's Reading Comprehension' (HERE)
    'Reading to Learn Using Text Sets' (HERE)
    'Improving Comprehension: Sketch to Stretch' (HERE)
    'Improving Comprehension: Map Making' (HERE)
    'Improving Comprehension: Advance Organisers' (HERE)
    'Why Kids Re-read Books' (HERE)
    'Making Books Come Alive' (HERE)
    'The Power of Literature' series (HERE)
    All posts on 'Children's Literature' (HERE)
    All posts on 'Comprehension' (HERE)

    References cited in this Post

    Cairney, T.H. (2010). 'Developing Comprehension: Learning to make meaning'. Sydney: e:lit (formerly Primary English Teaching Association).

    Cairney, T.H. (1995). 'Pathways to Literacy', Cassell: London.

    Cairney, T.H. (1990). 'Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work', Open University Press: London.

    Cairney, T.H. & Langbien, S. (1989). Building Communities of Readers and Writers, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 42, No. 8, pp 560-567.

    McMunn Dooley, C. (2010). Young children's approaches to books: The emergence of comprehension, The Reading Teacher, 64, 2, pp 120-130

    Goodman, K.S and Goodman Y.M. (1979) Learning to read is natural. In L.B. Resnick and P.A. Weaver (Eds), Theory and Practice of Early Reading (Vol 1),  Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, p 137-154.

    * This is a revised version of a post I wrote in November 2013

    Friday, July 25, 2014

    Getting Boys Excited About Reading: Ideas & Resources

    Well-known Australian writer Paul Jennings was asked by a grandmother one day at a signing to write something in it for her grandson "...that will make him want to read the book". He wrote "When you finish this book your grandmother will give you $20!" This isn't my perferred strategy but Paul felt it would work! There are other ways.

    We've known for years that girls make a faster start in reading in the early years. In the last 30 years the gap between the literacy achievements of boys and girls has widened in favour of girls. Professor William G. Brozo who is co-author of the book 'Bright beginnings for boys' shared this summary of boys' literacy achievements (primarily American data) at an American Literacy conference in October 2008:
    • By grade 4 an average boy is two years behind an average girl in reading and writing
    • Boys make up 70% of special education classes
    • Boys are four times more likely to have ADHD
    • Boys are 50% more likely to repeat a grade than girls
    • Boys are three times more likely to be placed in a reading disability or learning class
    So we know we have a problem, but what do we do about it?

    Helping boys to become readers

    Before sharing a list of specific hints, here is what I see as four fundamental building blocks to get boys reading:

    1. Boys are more likely to be attracted to books and reading when the books and the reading events (whether at school, or reading with mum and dad) offer opportunities to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, make them laugh, consider the curious or unusual, help them to play, see how things work, share trivia tricks and facts with other boys, explore the unknown, and generally do interesting things (see my previous post on this topic here).

    2. Boys need to understand the value of story and storytelling from an early age. This can be acquired through early books, the stories you share with them (anecdotes, memories, tall tales etc), traditional stories and fantasy. Until boys value story, they will struggle to cope with reading.

    3. Fathers and mothers need to learn how to listen to and read with their sons. Reading to and with boys is often different. You sometimes have to work harder to make it enjoyable. It mustn't be boring or a chore. See my previous post on this topic (here).

    4. Fathers have a key role to play in boys literacy and learning development (see my post on research in this area here).

    At a more basic level:
    • Boys need a lot of help choosing books that they will not only like, but which they will be able to read. Take the time to help your sons choose books, if they pick up a book with an exciting cover and find that they can't read it this will be a disincentive.
    • Fathers have a special role to play in encouraging boys to see reading as a worthwhile pursuit. Fathers who read will have sons who read. Fathers need to read to and with their sons. A good way to do this with older boys who struggle is to read the first few pages aloud and then ask your son to read on. In this way you'll find that your son can read for longer and cope with harder books.
    • Don't forget the importance of non-fiction. Boys want to learn and non-fiction is often a good way in. Try books about sea creatures, space, sport, transport, technology of any kind (see previous post here). There are varied paths into reading (see previous post here).
    • There is also a place for riddles, joke books, cartoons, poetry and silly rhymes (see my post on this here).
    • Comics and magazines are also a good place to start - get them reading. But don’t forget that it is the quality of the story that will ultimately motivate boys to want to read and so quality literature is important to develop long-term readers (see previous post here).
    • Online reading and research is also a good source of reading challenge for boys.
    I hope I haven't given the impression above that only fathers can motivate boys to read. Let's face it, more often than not it is mothers who read more stories to their younger children. But there is an important place for men reading books to and with boys, and research evidence shows that fathers have a key role to play with boys' literacy and learning (see my previous post on this here).

    Some sure fire starters for young boys

    If you can't get your 3-5 year old boy to listen to a story try one of these ideas to turn this around:

    1. Read a book dramatically that lends itself to lots of action, loud noises and maybe a rumble half way through (when the wolf eats Grandma, or the boy gets falls out of the tree). Be dramatic, get their attention!

    2. Read a story that they've heard before but mess up the story line as you go along. This is probably how writers invented fractured fairy tales. For example:

    The first little pig built his house from straw, but he wasn't stupid, so he used super glue to hold the straw together. The wolf knocked at the door and said, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in." The pig replied, "No, no, no, I've used super glue, get lost." "Then I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow you're house down," roared the wolf. "Two chances wolfey, get lost" and so on. It doesn't matter if the story logic breaks down, they will still love it anyway.

    3. A simpler version of the above is just to change the odd word. Boys (and girls) love listening for the words you change. They will roar 'Hey, you changed it from dog to frog'! To which you reply, 'Did I?' Even a story with some limitations will suddenly become more interesting.

    4. Get out some dress-up clothes and get them involved in acting out the story. Try to involve all members of the family and have lots of fun. You can sacrifice the accuracy of the story in favour of having a great time. Creative and dramatic play based on stories can be a great motivator for story.

    Some Great Books for Boys 

    I've written a number of posts on good books for boys (including here, here & here), so I won't repeat them here, except to list just 21 wonderful books to read to and enjoy with boys. These books will rarely fail if you read them with boys aged 7-12 years and do it with excitement and passion.

    'The One and Only Ivan' by Katherine Applegate (2012)
    'Dragonkeeper' by Carole Wilkinson (2003) [And other books in the Dragonkeeper series]
    'Boy: Tales of Childhood' by Roald Dahl (1984)
    'Prince Caspian' by C.S. Lewis (1951)
    'A Monster Calls' illustrated by Jim Kay and written by Patrick Ness (2012) 
    'The Hobbit' by J.R. Tolkien (1937)
    'My Father's Dragon' by Ruth Stiles Gannett
    'Crow Country' by Kate Constable, Allen & Unwin
    'The Silver Donkey' by Sonya Hartnett (2004)
    'Rowan of Rin' by Emily Rodda (1993)
    'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall (1975)
    'Strange Objects' by Gary Crewe (1990)
    'The Iron Man' by Ted Hughes (1968, new edition 2010)
    'The Pinballs' by Betsy Byars (1977)
    'Watership Down' by Richard Adam (1972)
    'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' by Mark Twain (1876) 'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeleine L'Engle (1962)
    'The Wheel on the School' by Meindert DeJong (1972)
    'Incident at Hawk's Hill' by Allan W. Eckert (1971)
    'Vinnie's War' by David McRobbie (2011)

    A final comment on literature

    As I've stressed above, while it isn't essential for children to begin reading via books or fiction, there is a critical place for traditional forms like children's literature because of the importance of narrative to people. What I'm saying is that while boys might start reading in many different ways, they shouldn't be allowed to avoid the narrative form. As I commented in the third part of a series of posts on the 'Power of Literature' (here) I believe that while it is possible to learn to read without a rich tradition of books and literature, I would argue that it isn’t possible without a foundation of narrative and story. Why? Expert in narrative Harold Rosen offers the perfect answer to my question:
    Narratives in all their diversity and multiplicity make up the fabric of our lives; they are constitutive moments in the formation of our identities and our sense of community affiliation.
    We build our relationships with one another, share our humanity through the stories we tell about our own lives and those that we have heard from others. So our aim in using factual forms of reading, and alternative forms like graphic novels and factual texts is of worth in it's own right, but it shouldn't completely replace rich narrative forms like literature.

    Some reference books about Boys and reading

    Some of the following books offer good general advice about boys and reading

    'Bright beginnings for boys: Engaging young boys in active literacy', Debby Zambo and William G. Brozo, International Literacy Association
    'Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys', Pam Allyn which I reviewed here
    'The trouble with boys', Peg Tyre
    'Best books for boys: A resource for educators', Matthew D. Zbaracki
    'Raising bookworms: Getting kids reading for pleasure and empowerment', Emma Hamilton
    'The Reading Bug', Paul Jennings

    Other Resources

    All my posts on boys and education (here)
    'Making Reading Exciting for Boys' (here)
    'Guys Read Website' - I don't like the design of this site but it has a great set of links to authors who write books that boys might like.
    The UK Literacy Trust has a great list of resource links dealing with boys and literacy (here).
    The Hamilton Public Library in Canada has a useful site with some good booklists and advice (here)
    Max Elliot Anderson's blog 'Books for Boys' has some very useful material and links (here)
    You can read all of my posts on boys (here) and boys education (here) using these links.
    Family Action Centre at Newcastle University has an Excellent Fatherhood Network and many programs (here)

    Thursday, July 17, 2014

    Corporal Punishment in Schools: Can it be Justified?

    Kevin Donnelly, the co-chair of the Australian Federal Government's national curriculum review has backed the use of corporal punishment for ill-disciplined children in schools as long as the local school and community supports it. Not surprisingly, there has been widespread comment in Australian media.

    I'm old enough to have experienced 'corporal punishment' in the school. In fact as a young child I had been caned 39 times by the time I reached 3rd grade. I have interesting memories of it. First, my most vivid recollection is of the keen rivalry I had with another boy who was caned almost as much as me (he was the school principal's son!). I saw each episode as another increase to my tally. Second, I recall that it had very little impact on my behaviour.

    My behaviour began to change in grade 4 when I had a male teacher who took an interest in me as a person. He saw a child with potential beneath the grubby appearance and belligerent attitude. He set about engaging me as a learner. He made me the monitor for all sorts of jobs like being the incinerator operator (couldn't do that with health and safety rules today). But eventually he tried to engage me as a learner. He knew I could read, was good at spelling and found maths easy but he also knew I was a great underachiever and when distracted was a pain in the neck.

    When the school purchased an aquarium and tropical fish that were placed in our classroom. I can still recall Mr Campbell handing me a book on tropical fish one day and saying, "I'd like you to study the book, and when you're finished come back and give the class a talk on tropical fish". This was my first public presentation and the beginning of a deep interest in creatures of the waterways and oceans.

    I was caned once that year, late one day when the principal was wandering down the verandah and spotted me through the window as we packed up to go home for the day. I was jumping about and messing around with his son as we waited to file. He pulled us out and caned us both in front of the class. I think this was the last time I was ever caned, but it wasn't fear of the cane that changed me, it was Mr Campbell seeing potential in me and engaging me as a learner.

    I'm thankful that corporal punishment had no long-term impact on me. Other children have not been as fortunate.

    Above: Awaba Public School where I taught in the 1970s when it was a one-teacher school
    When I grew up I became a teacher and I think my childhood experiences helped to me make me a better teacher. One of the life lessons I carried into the classroom was that no discipline should ever be done in anger. Anger always needs to be kept under control. But more than this, if you need to use physical punishment with a child you have probably lost the battle to teach them self control. Just as important as this, you may have lost your ability to nurture and engage them. I didn't use physical punishment with children. I'm glad that receiving it myself as a child helped me to see that is was less helpful and effective than my teachers and parents imagined. By the 1980s and 90s in Australia it was no longer allowed in any form in classrooms within public schools. The major exceptions to this are that independent schools in many states are still allowed to impose corporal punishment with the approval of parents, and in the Northern Territory there are no restrictions.

    I think Kevin Donnelly has it wrong.  Good teachers change children as they develop love and respect for their students and want the best for them. It seems to me that this is the starting point for effective teaching and parenting not corporal punishment.

    You can read more and listen to Kevin Donnelly's comments HERE

    Thursday, July 10, 2014

    20 Great Travel Games for Children (& Adults)

    I've done posts on travel games for children before and now seems a good time for another. In Australia most schools are closed for a short winter break and in the Northern Hemisphere it's the long summer break. There is a good chance that many readers will find themselves in cars or buses with children at some stage.

    While these days we have videos in cars, ipods for personalized music and varied tablets that allow children to play games individually, no trip would be complete without some group games. Don't avoid them! They're fun and they teach!

    Above: Photo courtesy of the Australian Newspaper

    In this post I feature some excellent language games that can be easily played in the car on long (or short) journeys. Many of them could also be played in a bus, or in some cases, a train. I've tried to keep the ideas simple and adaptable for use with children of varied ages. They are fun and teach as well. 

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

    1. Sound word categories

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

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

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

    3. Rhyming words

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

    4. Don't say yes

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

    5. Spotto......

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

    6. What's your job

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

    7. Guess my song

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

    8. Guess the person

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

    9. I Spy..

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

    10. Back to back words

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

    11. Who lives there?

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

    12. Twenty questions

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

    13. Memory game

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

    14. Never-ending story

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

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

    15. Word association

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

    16. Who am I?

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

    17. Oh no!

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

    18. Special choices

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

    Above: Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons

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

    20. Teapot 

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

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

    'Holiday activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning'

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

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

    Friday, July 4, 2014

    Experiencing Poetry Rather Than 'Torturing' It!

    I've written before about the power of poetry (HERE) and regularly review good poetry books on this blog. Poetry is to be read, listened to, experienced and enjoyed. It can amuse, entertain, challenge, teach and change us. Our aim as teachers and parents should be to seek to share good poetry often, and help children to 'experience' poems as significant literary and life events. Ariel Sacks recently wrote a great post in which she reminded us of this simple truth. In response to the post one of her readers in turn reminded us of Billy Collins great poem on poetry (William Collins was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003). In it he challenges us to avoid the temptation to beat a poem to death rather than experiencing and enjoying it.

    I ask them to take a poem
    and hold it up to the light
    like a colour slide
    or press an ear against its hive.
    I say drop a mouse into a poem
    and watch him probe his way out,
    or walk inside the poem's room
    and feel the walls for a light switch.
    I want them to waterski
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author's name on the shore.
    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.
    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.

    Billy Collins, 1988

    If you are looking for some good poetry for children aged 5-12 years here is an excellent recent list Some would suit older readers, and 'Wayling' is certainly for older readers. The Centre for Excellence in Primary Education (CLPE) has an annual award for poetry written for children.  This UK charity promotes the effective teaching of children’s literacy and emphasises the importance of children’s literature. The award is presented annually, usually in July, for a book of poetry published in the preceding year. Here is the excellent shortlist.

    Poems to Perform, Julia Donaldson (editor), illustrated by Clare Melinsky (Macmillan)

    This is a careful selection of poems, both familiar and new, that lend themselves to being performed in a range of collaborative ways. Progress through the book is subtly themed: gliding through poems about school, football, food and many other matters. It offers succinct suggestions for how they could be presented both verbally and dramatically at the back, leaving plenty of scope for teachers and pupils to make their interpretations. The judges felt that the poems in the anthology had been really carefully chosen and selected to reflect the best of poems to perform across a broad range of time, poets and styles. The poems range from classics by Edward Lear, W H Auden, and Eleanor Farjeon, to contemporary work by Michael Rosen, John Agard, and Clare Bevan. It is illustrated throughout with exquisite, expressive lino-cuts, this is a book for teachers, parents and children; in fact anyone who loves great poetry. I bought this to use with children myself! The descriptions are edited versions of the judge's comments on each book.

    The Dragon with a Big Nose, by Kathy Henderson (Frances Lincoln)

    This collection was chosen because the judges particularly liked the city poems and how these really captured the feel and vibrancy of urban life. These are odes to the urban environment - its buildings, its transport, the people and creatures that inhabit it and the effects of weather on it. The dragon on the cover disguises the contents although fantasy and reality converge in poems like ‘Under the Stairs’ and many of them describe wonder in the apparently ordinary. The child’s eye viewpoint is foremost and this contributes to this being that rare commodity – a single poet collection for younger children. The poet’s own illustrations work wonderfully with the text.

    Bookside Down, by Joanne Limburg (Salt Publishing)

    This is Joanne Limburg’s first collection for children. It has a unique and contemporary feel, catching the voice and ear of the intended audience providing thoughtful observations of modern childhood. What happens if you read a book while standing on your head? Dare to discover the answer within these poems that provide a fresh take on school and family life, complete with computapets and a Wii with a Mii channel. Take a prefix lesson that doesn’t deal with grammar too seriously while requiring some understanding to get the joke. Sample the mouth-watering potatoes Dad cooks, tantalising all your senses ‘for truly they are epic’. Don’t lose your temper or you may find important things are lost too.

    Wayland. The Tale of the Smith from the Far North, by Tony Mitton, illustrated by John Lawrence (David Fickling Books)

    'Wayland' was chosen by the judges for the mastery of the form, its epic nature and the beauty of it as a complete piece of art, poetry and legend. This verse retells the legend of a master blacksmith who fashions such ‘wonderful ware’ that he is captured by a king. It is a tour de force. Readers are quickly drawn into this 'story' set in a landscape of forests and mountains depicted in John Lawrence’s extraordinary engravings. The whole work is stunningly sustained in rhyming four line stanzas. There is lust and violence at the centre of this saga and neither poet nor illustrator shirk from portraying these – so this is definitely a publication for older children. There is the love of Wayland for his Swan-Maiden and beauty in the way words and pictures reunite them.

    Cosmic Disco, by Grace Nichols, illustrated by Alice Wright (Frances Lincoln)

    This is a collection of poetry with beautiful rhythms, language and imagery that Grace Nichols always captures with such mastery. This collection whirls us out into the cosmos to dance ‘in the endless El Dorado of stars stars stars’ and back again to ‘that little old blue ball spinning in the corner over yonder’. Nature is personified in many guises. Lady Winter raps out a warning and chastises a cheeky robin. Autumn is a knight with ‘cape of rustling ochre, gold and brown’ and ‘spurs made of sprigs’ and ‘medals made of conkers’. Colours speak, giving persuasive arguments why the artist should choose each one of them. Venus is addressed majestically and a ‘star that time forgot’ given a new name.