Monday, September 15, 2014

Literature on Civil Rights for Younger Readers

This past week Ruby Bridges celebrated her 60th birthday. It is 54 years since Ruby famously became the first African American child to attend a desegregated former all-white elementary school in the American South.

Ruby Bridges was born in Mississippi on September 8, 1954. That year the United States handed down its landmark decision ordering the integration of public schools. Previously black students were not allowed to attend the same schools as white children.

Ruby had grown up on a farm that her grandparents sharecropped.  But her father heard that there were better opportunities for his family in the city so they moved to New Orleans. Her Dad began work at a service station and her mother worked at nights to make ends meet.

When the US federal court ordered that New Orleans public schools were finally to be forced to desegregate, there was an opportunity for black children to attend regular schools. In the spring of 1960 Ruby took a test, along with other black kindergarteners in the city, to see which children would be able go to an integrated school at the start of the school year in September. Ruby was chosen to attend William Frantz Public School in First Grade. While her mother was keen to do this, her father was afraid that this would bring problems for them as a family.

Her parents argued and prayed about it and eventually her mother convinced her father that for Ruby’s sake, and that of all black children, they should do it. Just six children were chosen to be integrated. On November 14, 1960 four of the six chosen decided to attend the previously white only schools.

On the morning of November 14 federal marshals drove her mother and Ruby just five blocks to William Frantz School. Two marshals walked in front, and two behind as she entered school.  As they arrived at school her mother said to her "Ruby Nell, don't be afraid. There might be some people upset outside, but I'll be with you."

While people shouted and shook their fist when they got out of the car, they walked through the crowd and up the steps into the. Ruby spent the whole day sitting in the principal's office. At the end of the day the marshals drove them home, and this was repeated the next day.

On the second day Ruby A met her white teacher Mrs. Henry. The next day Ruby went just with the marshals. Her mother reminded her, "Remember, if you get afraid, say your prayers. You can pray to God anytime, anywhere. He will always hear you."

Above: Protestors in New Orleans (Ruby Bridges Foundation)
As the news spread militant segregationists took to the streets in protest, and riots erupted all over the city. Her parents shielded her as best they could, but Ruby knew problems had come because she was going to the white school. Her father was fired from his job, her family wasn't allowed to shop at the local grocery store and her grandparents in Mississippi were made to leave the land they had sharecropped for 25 years.

But as the year went on, Ruby did well.  The more time she spent with her teacher Mrs Henry the better she coped. In her words “…I grew to love her. I wanted to be like her.” Neither Ruby nor her teacher missed a single day of school that year. The crowd outside the school each day dwindled to just a few protestors, and before long it was June and the school year ended for summer. The next year there were no protests.

Some Key Literature

If you'd like to share Ruby Bridge’s inspiring story with the children in your life, there are several excellent books about her. Here are some.

The Story Of Ruby Bridges for ages 4 to 8. This book was written by child psychiatrist Robert Coles who volunteered to give counselling to the Bridge family. He met with Ruby weekly and later wrote the book to make children more aware of Ruby's story.

'Ruby Bridges Goes to Story' by Ruby Bridges. This is written for children aged 5 to 8 years.  It is Ruby's own account of her extraordinary experiences as a child.
'Through My Eyes' by Ruby Bridges. This is the wonderful memoir that Ruby Bridges wrote for readers 6 to 12 years of age.

There is also a wonderful highly awarded film about the story of Ruby Bridges which is titled simply 'Ruby Bridges'. It is for children seven and up. 
Other books to read with or to children about Civil Rights

'Coretta Scott' by Ntozake Shange and illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

Walking many miles to school in the dusty road, young Coretta knew about the unfairness of life in the south of America. And yet she had a desire to be treated with equality and her life proved to be inspirational.

'Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice' by Phillip Hoose.

This multi-award winning book - including being named as a Newbery Honour book in 2010 - is about Claudette Colvin. On March 2, 1955, this inspirational teenager, fed up with the daily injustices of Jim Crow segregation, refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Instead of being celebrated as Rosa Parks would be just nine months later, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin found herself shunned by her classmates and dismissed by community leaders. Undaunted, a year later she dared to challenge segregation again as a key plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that struck down the segregation laws of Montgomery and swept away the legal underpinnings of the Jim Crow South.

'Rosa Parks: My Story' by Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks is best known for the day she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, sparking the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Yet there is much more to her story than this one act of defiance. In this straightforward, compelling autobiography, Rosa Parks talks candidly about the civil rights movement and her active role in it. Her dedication is inspiring; her story is unforgettable.

'One Crazy Summer' by Rita Williams-Garcia

Set during one of the most tumultuous years in recent American history, One Crazy Summer is the heartbreaking, funny tale of three girls who travel to Oakland, California, in 1968 in search of the mother who abandoned them. It's an unforgettable story told by a distinguished author of books for children and teens, Rita Williams-Garcia.

The Story of Negro League Baseball is the story of gifted athletes and determined owners; of racial discrimination and international sportsmanship; of fortunes won and lost; of triumphs and defeats on and off the field. It is a perfect mirror for the social and political history of black America in the first half of the twentieth century.  

'The Slave Dancer' by Paula Fox

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

'The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights' by Carole Boston and illustrated by Tim Ladwig

Since the earliest days of slavery, African Americans have called on their religious faith in the struggle against oppression.  In this book the Beatitudes -- from Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount -- form the backdrop for Carole Boston Weatherford's powerful free-verse poem that traces the African American journey from slavery to civil rights.

Tim Ladwig's stirring illustrations showcase a panorama of heroes in this struggle, from the slaves shackled in the hold of a ship to the first African American president taking his oath of office on the steps of the United States Capitol.


Ruby Bridges, now Ruby Bridges Hall, still lives in New Orleans with her husband, and their four sons. For 15 years she worked as a travel agent, and for a time was a full-time parent. Today, she is chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which she formed in 1999. This is designed to foster "the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences".


1. ‘The Education of Ruby Nell’ by Ruby Bridges Hall, fromGuideposts’, March 2000. Downloaded 14th Sept 2014.

2. ‘Ruby Nell Bridges Hall’ Wikipedia, downloaded 14th Sept 2014.

3. Bridges Hall, Ruby. Through My Eyes, Scholastic Press, 1999.

4. The Ruby Bridges Foundation. Viewed 14th Sept 2014 .

5. The ‘A Mighty Girl’ website is a wonderful place to go for resources. It was developed for those interested in supporting and celebrating girls. It is a resource site that points to varied resources including books, toys, music, and movies.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why Older Kids & Adults Need Picture Books & Graphic Novels

This is a revised version of a post that I wrote almost two years ago. Once again I want to pick up on my previous comment that many parents move their children on from picture books far too quickly. Even many teachers encourage their children to 'move on' to chapter books almost as soon as they become proficient and fluent in reading. I've always felt that this was a bad idea, for a range of reasons, that all stem from four myths that drive this well-motivated error.

Myth 1 - 'Picture books are easier reading than chapter books'. While some are simple, they can have very complex vocabulary, syntax and visual images & devices.  For example, Nicki Greenberg's graphic novel adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' is in effect a print-based staging of Hamlet's struggles with truth, meaning, morality and action. She brings the play to life in a riot of colour and visual acrobatics that makes 'Hamlet' accessible to new teenage and adult readers. And the text of Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are' is a single sentence that is extremely complex, with a mix of embedded clauses, direct speech, unusual verbs and rich metaphor. Good picture books often use complex metaphors to develop themes, and the limitations of the number of words used requires the author to use language with an economy and power that many chapter books simply don't attain. The subtle use of image, word, page layout, colour and text layout variations can create sophisticated texts. Graphic novels and electronic picture books like 'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore', which I've reviewed previously (here), are taking this to a completely new level.

Myth 2 - 'Illustrations make it easy for children to read and they reduce the need to read the words'. While illustrations do work in harmony with the words and can use 'stripped down' language that allows greater use of images, the interplay of illustration and words is often extremely complex, allowing the reader to discover new meaning each time they re-read the book, often over a period of many years.  So a child can read John Burningham's classic book 'Granpa' as a simple story about a little girl and her grandfather, but can revisit it years later and discover that it tells of the death of the little girl's Grandfather. And many adults may never see the underlying themes in children's books, like that of death in 'John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat'.

Myth 3 - 'Getting children reading longer texts earlier will maximise their reading growth'. Not necessarily! While having the chance to consolidate reading skills by reading lots of similar chapter books is good, pictures still have a place. In fact, pushing a child too quickly into long chapter books isn't necessarily best for young readers. At the point where readers 'take off' and want to read everything, to give them a series of books is satisfying for them and reinforces their knowledge of the world and knowledge of language. But this can offer less stimulation than good picture books and less challenge in terms of developing comprehension ability (see my post on 'Emerging Comprehension'). Picture books present multiple sign systems in one text. The parallel use of language, image and many other devices (e.g. colour and print layout), stimulates creativity and the imagination in ways that chapter books cannot. A book like Graeme Base's 'The Sign of the Seahorse' uses language, brilliant illustrations, a play text structure and other devices (including a map and hidden clues), to offer a complex text to be explored, read, enjoyed, 'worked out' and revisited many times.

Myth 4 - 'Picture books are just for children'. Not so! Pick up any Shaun Tan book and you might at first read think, "Wow, is this a book for adults?" 'Tales From Outer Suburbia', 'The Arrival', 'The Lost Thing', in fact any of his books, have a depth and richness that can 'stretch' and challenge any child or adult. My first reading of his more recent book, 'Rules of Summer', left me perplexed and with so many questions I had to read it again, and again to grasp the depth of this deceptively simple story about the relationship between two boys (one older and more dominant than the other). This is a story about rules and power with Tan's characteristic images prodding your imagination at every turn of the page. Like all quality picture books it can be entered by readers of all ages and leave them enriched in different ways.

While the majority of picture books are designed for readers under the age of 7 years, more and more are written for much wider readerships and the rapidly developing genre of the 'Graphic Novel' (see previous post here) because they allow the author to use word, image and other modes (including related audio, video and music) to create more complex tellings of the story the author has in mind.  For example, books like 'My Place' and 'Requiem for a Beast' and 'When the Wind Blows' were never meant just for children. In fact, Matt Ottley's book was actually meant for high school readers. The great thing about picture books is that children and adults can both enjoy them, sometimes separately, and sometimes together. The latter is an important way to grow in shared knowledge and understanding as well as a key vehicle for helping children to learn as we explore books with them.

So what do Picture books do for older readers?

Picture books communicate complex truths in relevant and economical ways - 'Harry and Hopper' by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood helps readers of any age to have a light shone on the challenge of accepting and dealing with death so that life for those left behind can move on, even though death changes things in big ways.

Picture books offer special pathways to deal with deep emotional challenges and springboards for discussion - 'Dandelion' by Calvin Scott Davis (illustrated by Anthony Ishinjerro) allows the inner pain of bullying and the fears it brings, to be visited and opened for reflection and growth.

Picture books also enliven and reintroduce wonderful classic short stories - Oscar Wilde's 'The Selfish Giant' is made fresh and relevant again through the illustrated picture book of Ritva Voutila. This tale of forgiveness is enriched by Voutila's contribution. So too Ted Hughes classic 'The Iron Man' is enriched with the illustrations of Laura Carlin and the graphic and paper craft design. 

Picture books bring the power of image and graphic layout to words in ways that add layers of meaning that would take thousands of words to communicate - Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks work 'The Dream of the Thylacine' shows this with great power when Brooks surreal images of the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger have embedded within them grainy black and white photographs of the last miserable creature caged in a Tasmanian zoo in the 1930s.

Picture books can achieve things at times which the novel cannot - Irene Kobald & Freya Blackwood's brilliant picture book 'Two Blankets' manages to offer insights into the inner struggles of a girl who arrives from a war-torn nation to he strangeness of a new land. It is primarily through the metaphorical use of an object - a blanket - that the author and illustrator jointly communicate a significant story about the strangeness of language and place in a unique way.

Summing up

It is good to encourage younger children to progress to chapter books as they become proficient in reading, but we shouldn't simply discard picture books once they can do so.  The stimulation and challenge of the mixed media opportunities that picture books offer are very important for language stimulation and development as well as creativity and the enrichment of children's imaginations.

Picture books are important for children aged 0-12 years, so don't neglect them or discard them in a perhaps well-intentioned but misguided desire to improve your children as readers. Remember, books are foundational to language, writing, knowledge, thinking and creativity as well. They represent one of the best ways to offer children multimodal experiences with text.
Other reading

Previous post on 'Requiem for a Best' and graphic novels HERE

Previous post on 'Emergent Comprehension' HERE

All my posts on picture books HERE

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Are we blindly in love with our children?

The well-known Australian author John Marsden recently wrote a short piece in the Australian College of Educators publication 'Professional Educator' (Vol 13, Issue 3). As well as being a great author of children's and young adult books, he runs an alternative school in rural Victoria (Australia) for about 150 children called Candlebark. His key criteria for building the perfect school include having lots of space, interesting buildings, good resources, a challenging playground, great Internet and a variety of farm animals.

Like many teachers and principals he has some common concerns about education. For example, he's concerned about bullying. But not bullying by children of other children, he's concerned about bullying by parents of teachers and principals. How does he experience this bullying? In his words, at the hands of people who he describes as "in love" with their children. He describes it this way:
"We are seeing an epidemic of terrible parenting at the moment. Not just the familiar benign (and sometimes malign) neglect of decades past, but a new phenomenon: educated middle-class parents who don't just love their children, but are in love with them. This is another manifestation of narcissism. The fruit of their loins must be superior to every other child who has walked the earth... such parents agonise over every little disappointment their child suffers, lavish them with praise when they manage to eat a green bean ('We are so proud of you'), record every moment of their lives on camera, encourage them to parrot adult phrases at each other ('Scott you hurt my feelings when you took my pencil sharpener yesterday'), manipulate their friendships and encourage their feuds... In short, they minimise their children's transgressions, block the school's attempts to create a culture with consistent values, have no regard for those who are hurt by their children's narcissism, and blame the school for the child's aberrant behaviour. They are doing awful damage, irreparable damage, to their kids."
These are strong words, but John Marsden isn't the first teacher or principal to say such things. But before every parent becomes defensive at his words, it might be helpful to use his comments to shine a light on our parenting skills and our attitudes towards schools and teachers. I haven't taught for many years in a primary school, but when I did I can't say I had the experience that Marsden describes. As a teacher I had a position of authority that was respected. This meant that parents didn't question my every move, nor the sometimes critical comments I made about their children. Their first reaction was not immediately to defend their child. As a child if ever I complained about my teachers my Dad would typically say, "you probably deserved to be punished". We need to teach our children to show respect for their parents, for teachers and in fact for all people in society who fulfil roles with some authority. We also need to demonstrate some respect for them ourselves.

Above: My one-teacher school

When I took action as a teacher parents usually stood with me rather than in opposition to me. I can recall one memorable morning when I was teaching in a one-teacher school (I had 31 children across seven grades). I was standing in the driveway before school as parents and children were arriving. A child in year 3 was abusing his mother as he was getting out of the car. I grabbed him by the arm, pulled him out and said sternly, "I don't ever want to hear you speak to your mother like that again". His mother thanked me and she went home.  If I did this today I would probably be disciplined for grabbing the child, and the parent might well tell be to butt out of their parenting.

I saw a daytime breakfast host stand recently stand up on the set when a policeman walked in as a guest. The other panellists looked at her, laughed and asked, "Why are you standing"? She replied, "it was spontaneous, my father always taught me to stand whenever a policeman entered a room". It was a ritual that was a sign of respect. Another example comes from a school I visited this week, where there is a daily ritual of unknown origin that they say has been around for years. At the end of the day as students file out of the room their teacher is standing at the door to shake the hand of each student. The child thanks the teacher and in turn, the teacher thanks the child. The above examples are small things, but they show a respect for teachers and others in authority, which is sadly lacking in communities today. I suspect that this is more than just a minor lack of manners and etiquette; it shows something much deeper about parenting and how we raise our children. I think we need to take heed of John Marsden's wise (and confronting) words; there is great wisdom in what he has to say.

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)