Thursday, July 30, 2015

Seven New Children's Picture Books

I receive many books for review. While I don't review all of them here are some that I've received in recent times. There are some wonderful books here.

1. 'Summer Rain' by Ros Moriarty and illustrated by Balarinji (Allen & Unwin)

This delightful picture book for younger readers is another excellent offering from Ros Moriarty who is well known for her work 'Listening to Country' as well as her creation of leading Indigenous design studio Baralinji. The language is simple and yet lyrical and the illustrations are vibrant and colourful.

First...the land wakes
in the morning light.
Turtles crawl
and lizards creep
Soon...wind scatters
dancing leaves
and splatters dusty ground.

This little book celebrates country, animals and painting. The textual devices used to accentuate key words work well and the evocative language will engage young readers. Language like:

...the "messy, sticky, slippery-slidey, oozy-squidgy, river bank.

The book also comes with a translation in the Aboriginal language of Yanyuwa, spoken by Aboriginal families in Borroloola in the Northern Territory of Australia.

 2. 'Splosh for the Billabong' by Ros Moriarty and illustrated by Balarinji (Allen & Unwin)

This is a second book from Ros Moriarty and Balarinji. Once again, the illustrations are vibrant and the language simple but beautiful. It celebrates the beauty and life of a quiet billabong. Each page begins with a powerful verb:

for the billabong
at shady bend
of river

for the flowers
that burst in
summer heat.

Once again, the simple illustrations are full of colour and life.

Both books are perfect early reading material for 5-year olds or as books to be read out loud to 5-7 year olds.

3. 'Sally Snickers' Knickers' by Lynn Ward & illustrated by Anthea Stead (Walker Books)

There's something very special about little Sally Snickers, for Sally never wears a hat, she'd rather wear her knickers! 

Now with a lead like this, why wouldn't children continue reading? This bright and colourful picture book will delight children aged 4-7 years. The preposterous idea that a child would wear a different pair of undies on their head each day will intrigue and amuse. And of course, there is a twist when Sally's teacher eventually intervenes. Children will be amused by the outcome.

The illustrations of Anthea Stead are bright and a perfect complement to the text. This is a wonderful picture book that children will love. Great to read alone, but better still with other kids.

4. 'Sam & Dave Dig a Hole' by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen (Walker Books)

This wonderful picture book was published in 2014 but is reviewed for the first time here.

This is an exceptional picture book. Illustrator Jon Klassen is of course the Kate Greenaway winning creator of 'This is Not My Hat' and 'I Want My Hat Back'. The beautiful book design, soft images and deceptively simple text, combine to produce a wonderful story and clever ending.

Sam and Dave are on a mission. A mission to find something spectacular. So they dig a hole. And they keep digging. And they find ...nothing. Yet the day turns out to be pretty spectacular after all. Attentive readers will be rewarded with a rare treasure in this witty story of looking for the extraordinary - and finding it in a manner they'd never expect.

5. 'Good Enough for a Sheep Station' written and illustrated by David Cox (Allen & Unwin)

This is the final book in David Cox's trilogy that began with 'The Road to Goonong' and continued with 'The Fair Dinkum War' (previously reviewed HERE). David Cox tells the story of his dad who is a horseman. The book describes their life on a sheep station in remote rural Australia. This book tells much more than the story of life in the bush, it offers an insight into the relationship between a father and son, and the different life of children in remote locations away from other children, but surrounded by the beauty and complexity and characters of remote Australia.

The line and water colour illustrations are full of action and interest and help to bring the authentic text to life and connect the reader to his life experiences.

6. 'Little Dog and the Christmas Wish' by Corrine Fenton and illustrated by Robin Cowcher (Walker Books)

Little Dog and Jonathan are best friends. They do everything together. But on Christmas Eve Little Dog finds himself lost and alone in a busy city. How will he find his way home? Can Christmas wishes come true?

 Robin Cowcher has a simple line and wash style as an illustrator, but her images help to bring greater depth to a simple tale of a dog that gets lost on Christmas Eve after a storm when he is left alone. He has a string of encounters with people as he battles to find his way home on a night when everyone else was also heading for their homes. And when finally he makes it to his home, 'there was a boy waiting'. This is a book that can be read at any time, as the strongest theme is 'home' not really Christmas. Children aged 5-8 will enjoy reading the book or having it read to them.

7. 'Looking for Tippo' by Sally Rickett (Matador Publishing)

This is an interesting little book. It has been self-published using the Matador imprint controlled by Troubador Publishing in the UK.  The use of a narrative style to present a factual text has been used often in the last decade as a way to present knowledge in engaging ways for younger children. And it works.

Sally has both written and illustrated this picture book about bowerbirds. A small female bower bird is looking for her mate Tipoo. She picks and hops her way through the New Guinea rainforest looking for the tell-tale signs of a bower that Tipoo would have prepared for her. She thinks she has found it only to be disappointed but eventually she finds just what she'd expect Tipoo to prepare.

The illustrations are delightful, a mix of collage, water colour and crayon.  The text has a logical plot and the expected outcome. While it could have been improved with some tight editorial work to shorten and simplify the language, it will be enjoyed by children aged 6-8 (self-read), or could be read to children (4-6) by a skilled reader.

Please Note

I have no connection to the publishers or writers of books reviewed.  I DO NOT accept payment for reviews. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

9 Tips for Managing Children's Media Time

There are few parents that don't worry about the amount of time their children spend using media of one kind or another. Thirty years ago our major fear as parents was how much television our children watched. I can recall as a teacher surveying a class I was teaching and being horrified that the average TV time was 21 hours per week.

A decade later we added electronic gaming and videos to the list of worries. But in the last decade, we've seen an explosion of options as media of one kind or another, have become available 24/7 at our fingertips (literally).

Of course, right up front let me stress that I LOVE media, but we do need to control it, rather than having it control us and our children.

Why do we worry? 

  • First, worrying about the mind-numbing potential that untold hours using media might have on our children.
  • Second, worrying about the potential impact on health of the mind and body (being withdrawn, depression, anxiety, obesity....).
  • Third, our fears about the 'stranger danger' risks of social media.
  • Fourth, the loss of time to do other things that we see as important (school learning, family time, exercise, developing 'real' relationships not just virtual ones....).

What can we do?

1. Control our own devotion to media. Ask ourselves how much time we spend on varied media. Is our iPad or smart phone almost permanently in our hands? Do I retreat for hours to my computer to check emails, do work and isolate myself from family and friends?

2. Establish some basic rules in families and schools. How much time on the computer, iPad, TV, watching videos, gaming etc? Limits on specific categories? Rules about clashes with family activities? For example, none at the dinner table or at family events, none before homework, none until after they are fed at the end of the day and perhaps get some exercise? Sites that they cannot access? Shared computers in open 'public' spaces at home? [These rules need to reflect your family circumstances and children]

3. Be prepared to make younger children understand that age makes a difference. Your 8-year can't simply do everything that their 15-year old sister does. Age makes a difference to the rules. Explain why.

4. Take the time to understand the varied social media options that your children are using. You'll be surprised by some of them.
5. Understand that media is part of life and can enrich it enabling us to keep in touch, make new friends, communicate instantly, learn and so on.

6. Keep media out of bedrooms as much as is practical. We once would advise that we shouldn't buy a TV for every bedroom. This still applies but today hand held devices are a TV and more that we allow children to take everywhere. Establish some limits on access. For example, why not have all handheld devices placed in a box in the kitchen when they go to bed, or when lights go off?

Above: Children enjoying media together in shared family space

7. Try something radical if the above proves difficult. Perhaps have a timer on the family WiFi router so that noone gets a signal between specific hours. Have kid friendly filters that restrict children's access to specific sites.

8. Do educate them about the risks of social media as well as the benefits.

9. Above all, act as good role models. I know, I've said it twice because I think that this one is SO important. We set the example for our kids to follow.

Other helpful advice on parenting

New York Times Parenting Page (HERE)

All my posts on Media (HERE)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

25 Short Story Anthologies for Children 5-15 years

This is a revised version of a post I did two years ago on the value of anthologies

There was a time when everyone read short stories. While school primers and reading resources still make good use of collections of stories, it seems that they are recommended less for general reading. This is a pity because short stories have a valuable place in the world of literature.

In many ways, the short story is a novel in miniature. Like the novel, they can draw on the full spectrum of writing. The short story is a written account of connected events, presented in such a way that they communicate significant meaning. They require well-developed sets of characters and like a novel, a series of subjects and objects. All this must be woven together in such a way that the author tells a story of significance to readers. Writers make short stories and we their readers are moved, challenged and shaped by them. They can be written in every available genre, including fable, parable, fairy tale, myth, mystery, science fiction, romance, humorous tale and so on.

There are at least 6 good reasons to include collections of short stories in children's reading:

1. They can be read and enjoyed at a single sitting. This can be motivating for the young or reluctant reader who may have a short attention span.
2. They offer young readers the chance to experience the complete narrative form many times over.
3. They can provide experience with varied genres and themes within the one book.
4. They offer the complete emotional experience of a story in one reading.
5. In a time-poor age, short stories avoid the frustrating breaks in narrative if reading is missed from one day to the next.
6. They provide an opportunity to read the work of many authors rather than just a few (particularly if they are anthologies).

Below are some examples of short stories for children aged 5-15 years. They are arranged in order of difficulty. Of course, all can be read to children as well as by them. Typically, we can read more difficult material to children than they will read themselves. 

'My Big Book of Nibbles' (Penguin, 2012)

If you've ever wanted to zoom into outer space like an astronaut, be brave enough to ride a roller-coaster, care for a lost dog, sail the seas on a pirate ship or dress up as a gorilla, then this is the book for you! This exciting collection of Nibbles from the much-loved series has been specially put together just for boys!

This is a wonderful collection of five stories that are drawn from the very successful 'Aussie Nibbles' series of books. To be honest they are probably a collection of short novels rather than short stories at 60-80 pages per story, but with authors like Victor Kelleher and some outstanding illustrators, they will delight readers 6-10 years.  It's available in paperback or a Kindle edition.

'Roald Dahl Treasury' by Roald Dahl (Penguin, 2003)

The Roald Dahl Treasury is a wonderful collection of 448 pages of fun from the master of storytelling. It has four themed sections – Animals, Magic, Family, Friends and Foes; and Matters of Importance. The collection brings together extracts and short stories from across Dahl's work. It introduces some of Dahl's best-loved characters, including Willy Wonka, the BFG, James and Matilda. It includes previously published complete stories, poems, memoirs and letters, as well as some unpublished poetry and letters.

The Roald Dahl Treasury is beautifully illustrated in full colour by Quentin Blake, as well as by other leading artists such as Raymond Briggs, Babette Cole, Posy Simmonds and Ralph Steadman.

As you'd guess, this isn't the only treasury or collection of Dahl's work. You will also find 'Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes', 'Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes' and more.

'Stories From Our Night Sky' by Drewery Melanie (Penguin, 2009)

A beautiful collection of stories and poems about our southern skies. From the legends of Matariki and Rona and the Moon through to how tuatara made the stars, Melanie Drewery weaves a special magic through all her stories that will ensure we never look up at the night sky in the same way again. Accompanied by Jenny Cooper's stunning illustrations this will be a book to treasure and read over and over again

Melanie Drewery is a writer, illustrator and artist who was born in Palmerston North (New Zealand), who now lives in Nelson. She is perhaps best-known for her 'Nanny Mihi' series (illustrated by Tracy Duncan) about two little children and their visits to their beloved grandmother’s house.

Melanie's concern as a writer is to introduce the Maori language and culture in a way that is both non-threatening and engaging. She believes that story offers children easy access to Maori language and culture, and leads them to want to learn more. Readers aged 6-10 will enjoy this collection of stories and poetry that offers a goods introduction to her work.

 'Tickled Onions: And other funny stories' by Morris Gleitzman (Puffin, 2010)

Morris Gleitzman is one of my favourite Australian children's authors. He has written some wonderful novels for children and adolescents, including 'Once' and 'Two Weeks With the Queen'. This collection of short stories is ideal for reluctant readers and in particular boys who find reading a challenge. In this collection of nine very funny stories for readers aged 7+ we have the story of Draclia(!) in the kitchen, and the challenge of school lunches and Tickled Onions. These are like the pickled variety but with rose petals, chilli powder and fermented fish paste. We also meet a 'Good Dog' named Anthony who causes chaos at parties and many other funny characters and story scenarios.

'Just So Stories' by Rudyard Kipling (Penguin, 2008)

The Camel gets his Hump, the Whale his Throat and the Leopard his Spots in these bewitching stories which conjure up distant lands, the beautiful gardens of splendid palaces, the sea, the deserts, the jungle and its creatures. Inspired by Kipling's delight in human eccentricities and the animal world, and based on bedtime stories he told to his daughter, these strikingly imaginative fables explore the myths of creation, the nature of beasts and the origins of language and writing. They are linked by poems and scattered with Kipling's illustrations, which contain hidden jokes, symbols and puzzles. Among Kipling's most loved works, the Just So Stories have been continually in print since 1902.

Part of a series of new editions of Kipling's works in Penguin Classics, this volume contains a General Preface by Jan Montefiore and an introduction by Judith Plotz exploring the origins of the stories in Kipling's own life and in folklore, their place in classic children's literature and their extraordinary language.

'Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales' by Andersen Hans Christian as retold by Naomi Lewis (Penguin, 2010)

The work of Hans Christian Andersen is timeless. There have been many collections of his short stories. This book contains twelve of Andersen's most loved stories. It includes 'Thumbelina', 'The Emperor's New Clothes, 'The Little Mermaid', 'The Princess and the Pea', 'The Ugly Duckling' and 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier'. This is a wonderful collection that children aged 6-10 years will enjoy.

The Word Witch The Magical Verse of Margaret Mahy By Mahy, Margaret (Harper Collins, 2009)

Margaret Mahy (1936-2012) is one of the greatest authors of children's literature that New Zealand has ever produced. She is one of thirty writers to win the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award for her "lasting contribution to children's literature". As well she won the Carnegie Medal in 1982 for 'The Haunting' and in 1984 for 'The Changeover'. She wrote more than 100 picture books, 40 novels and 20 collections of short stories. Her collections of short stories are a wonderful way to introduce children to this special writer. It was my great privilege to meet with her and share speaking platforms on a number of occasions. She was inspiring.

The 'Word Witch' is of course Margaret Mahy herself, and this book contains 66 of her much-loved poems and stories in rhyme. They are drawn from school readers, other collections, picture books, anthologies, magazines and her private papers. They span 50 years of her writing.

There are many other excellent collections from Margaret Mahy for readers aged 6-10. These include:

Watch Me! by Margaret Mahy (Dolphin Books, 2004; originally published in 1973) 

Like its companion volumes 'Wonderful Me!' And 'Wait For Me!', these stories and poems are alive with the sort of magic and fun that children's dreams are made of. In these pages you will meet Aunt Nasty the witch, the boy who bounced, a few magicians, a ghostly girl, a princess who marries a clown and endless other surprises. Originally published as 'The Third Margaret Mahy Storybook', and newly illustrated by Peter Bailey, these tales remain as well-loved now as ever.

Wonderful Me: Stories and Poems! by Margaret Mahy (Orion Children's Books, 2004)

Witches, mermaids, dragons, a dog who plays the violin, a girl who finds a dinosaur egg and a boy who wanted the world to be flat - all these and more appear in this book of stories and poems by a born storyteller. Written with warmth and a gentle humour, they read aloud beautifully and are rich in surprises and imaginative twists. First published in l972 as 'The First Margaret Mahy Storybook', many of these stories have been loved so much that they have appeared in many anthologies - and in many countries - over the years. They are now freshly presented with charming line drawings by Peter Bailey.

Wait for Me! by Margaret Mahy (Orion Children's Books, 2003)

This is a wonderful collection of stories that feauture bird-children, kind wizards, kings in broom cupboards, butterflies, goats, kites, woodland creatures and more.  The previously published stories stories in this book are freshly presented with wonderful line drawings by Peter Bailey.

'Kids' Night In' Various authors (Penguin Australia)

There are already three books in this series of short stories. They consist of never before published bedtime stories, rainy-day jokes, holiday stories, funny cartoons, art, recipes, poems and illustrations. They are written by a diverse range of well-known children's authors and illustrators including Sally Rippin, Ursula Dubosarsky, Libby Gleeson, Leigh Hobbs, J.K. Rowling, Tohby Riddle and a number of other celebrities (see list here). Ideal reading for readers aged  7-10.

Some of the proceeds of the sale of the books go to the organisation 'War Child' that helps children all over the world, affected by war.

Visit for more details on the three books so far.

'The Happy Prince and Other Stories' by Oscar Wilde (Penguin, 2009)

In this haunting, magical fairy-tale collection, in which Oscar Wilde beautifully evokes (among others) The Happy Prince who was not so happy after all, The Selfish Giant who learned to love little children and The Star Child who did not love his parents as much as he should. Each of the stories shines with poetry and magic and will be enjoyed by children of every age.

This is a wonderful collection that introduces children aged 7-10 to the work of Oscar Wilde.

'The Puffin Book of Five Minute Stories' by Various Authors (Penguin, 2010)

This lively collection of 19 five-minute stories, is perfect for read aloud session for young children (aged 6-10), or for individual reading for slightly older children. The stories will be enjoyed many times by varied age groups. They include traditional and contemporary tales in the same collection. These include Dick King-Smith's 'Norty Boy' and the traditional tale of 'The Three Little Pigs'. The wonderful illustrations of Steve Cox are a perfect accompaniment to this wonderful collection of stories.

'The UN Collection' by Paul Jennings

This series of books includes 'Unreal!'  'Unmentionable!'  'Undone!' 'Uncanny!' 'Uncovered!'  'Unbelievable!' 'Unbearable'

No Australian boy aged 7-11 who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s would have missed the outrageous short stories of Paul Jennings. Sometimes gross, over the top and edgy, they are engaging stories that boys love. In 'Unreal!' we have a story about a ghost who haunts the outside dunny (i.e. the toilet), a pair of very embarrassing underpants, glue that will stick almost anything, a manure mix that will make hair fall out, some magic lipstick, and two musical ghosts who try to save a lighthouse.

More recently Jennings has complied some of the most popular stories from the 'UN' collections into a series of new books, including 'Weirdest Stories'  'Spookiest Stories', 'Trickiest Stories'. For more information on Paul Jenning's books visit his website HERE

'Kibitzers and Fools' by Taback Simms (Penguin, 2008)

[There is] a saying: It pays to have a little chutzpah (nerve).

With Old World charm, universal humour, and just a bit of chutzpah, Simms Taback offers this lively spin on thirteen playful tales – as only he could. Paired with his trademark vibrant and hilarious artwork, these stories illustrate ultimate universal truths and important life lessons, from the difference between a shlemiel and a shlimazel to the idea that just because you can talk doesn't mean you make sense. Taback delivers the perfect combination of wisdom and humour – just the way your zayda (grandpa) would.

This collection of funny stories with brilliant and quirky illustrations from the US will be enjoyed by children aged 6-10 years.

'A Dream of Stars' by Brian Caswell (University of Queensland Press, 1991)

From the surprising tale of a chocolate addict to the futuristic dreaming of the title piece, these stories are as varied and thought-provoking as the stars. Are a pair of the world's best boots worth a human life? Can romance survive between a fifteen-year-old boy and a very attractive "Tralfamadorean"? Humourous, suspenseful and above all entertaining, this collection of thirteen short stories by Brian Caswell poses questions to challenge and delight the imagination. A Dream of Stars was listed as a 1992 Notable Book by the Childrens Book Council of Australia.

Brian Caswell is one of my favourite Australian authors for tween and adolescent readers, his thoughtful work is challenging but always engaging. In this incredible collection of stories he challenges children to think about issues of significance in ways that will surprise you.

'Tales of the Greek Heroes' by Green Roger Lancelyn (Penguin, 2009)

The beautiful land of Greece is haunted by more than three thousand years of legend and history. In this gripping retelling of the Heroic Age, you'll meet the mighty Poseiden, God of the Sea; Zeus, the King of Heaven and Earth; Hades, Lord of the Dead; Artemis the Huntress; Aphrodite, Immortal Lady of Beauty and Love; and many more mortals and gods. Their adventures are some of the oldest and most famous stories in the world.

This collection of well-known Greek myths will be enjoyed by readers aged 11+

'A Tale of Troy' by Lancelyn Roger Green (Penguin, 2012)

This book is a companion to 'Tales of the Greek Heroes'.

Step back into the Heroic Age with the story of Helen and the judgement of Paris; of the gathering of the heroes and the siege of Troy; of Achilles and his vulnerable heel. And join Odysseus, the last of the heroes – famous for his wisdom and cunning – on his thrilling adventures as he makes the long journey home to Greece.

Once again, perfect reading for children aged 11+

'Tales of Ancient Egypt' by Lancelyn Green Roger (Penguin, 2011)

In this thrilling collection of the great myths, you'll encounter Amen-Ra, who created all the creatures in the world; Iris, searching the waters for her dead husband, Osiris; the Bennu bird and the Book of Thoth. But there are also tales told purely for pleasure, about treasure and adventure – and even the first ever story of Cinderella.

Ages 10+ will love this collection

'Boy: Tales of Childhood', by Roald Dahl & illustated by Quentin Blake (Jonathan Cape,1984)

Roald Dahl has been described as the master storyteller, and there is little doubt that he is one of the best children's writers that we've seen in the last 50 years. His collection of stories from his childhood are so memorable. Who having read about his visit to the doctor, can forget the description of the removal of his adenoids in the local doctor's surgery, and his half-hour walk back home. Or Mrs Pratchett the owner of the sweet store dishing out gobstoppers with disgustingly dirty hands, followed by the great mouse plot.

Each of these short stories can be read in less than 20 minutes and will leave any child screaming for just one more.

'Leon Stumble's Book of Stupid Fairytales' by Doug MacLeod & Smith Craig (Working Title Press, 2007)

Read entirely ridiculous stories about Jack and the Branstalk, Snow White and the Seventy Dwarfs and the Gingerbread Mane. Once you've read this book, you'll agree that Leon Stumble's new fairytales have that magic ingredient - stupidity!

Make no mistake, literary silliness is not easy to write. Doug MacLeod has been doing it well for a long time. This is a wonderful collection that is jam-packed with loads of jokes. It will appeal (as his work often does) to boys.

Shock Forest and Other Stories by Margaret Mahy (A&C Black Children's Books, 2004)

In each of these five stories fantasy is at work in unusual and powerful ways. There's also a common theme of the pull that buildings have over people, whether they become houses in which characters find safety and comfort or prisons that can trap and oppress. 

These enchanting stories have been taken from some of Margaret Mahy's best collections that are sadly no longer available. Their return to print will be welcomed by parents and teachers and will also be an exciting introduction to the work of a master storyteller for children themselves.

These wonderful stories were previously published in volumes that are now out of print. But this collection is still available and will be well received by readers 12+.

'Loop' by Brian Caswell (Penguin, 2007)

'Loop' is a collection of 15 short stories written in Brian's unique style. The stories range from humorous to serious. The title story, 'Loop' follows Bernie through an inexplicable journey while he falls through 'the Black'. But how does he explain that every time he stops falling he's back where he started? Readers will hear echoes from 'The Matrix' and maybe even 'Groundhog Day' in this intriguing story. Another story, 'Jigsaw', is the story of a young woman who buys a dress from an op-shop. When she wears it, she experiences images and flashbacks of the life of someone else. Once again the collection is ideal for classroom study and discussion for children aged 12-15 years.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Boys & Learning: 'Active Learning' works!

In an article in 'The Atlantic' Jessica Lahey called on schools to 'stop penalizing boys for not being able to sit still at school'. The article was motivated by her observations of boys as a teacher and her reading of the findings of research on boys published by the International Boys’ Schools Coalition’s 'Teaching Boys: A global study of effective practices'. Her teaching of boys suggested that while some struggled at school, others thrived. What is the ingredient that leads to inconsistency? Is it simply within the boys, or are there factors external to the boys that are at work?

As a young boy I experienced first hand what it means to move from being a talented and successful boy in the primary school years, to being a struggling student who was often in trouble as a teenager. At secondary school I slipped from A classes to B classes and then found myself struggling with a number of subjects. However, my achievements varied across subject. While in some classes I was rebellious and disengaged, in others I was motivated and successful. This is not an uncommon experience for boys. Some teachers, subject and even specific lessons work for boys, while others don't. Why? Is the answer in the curriculum? The content? The child? Or something else?

The research work by Dr Michael Reichert and Dr Richard Hawley set out to find answers to questions such as these, and concluded that the problem wasn't just within the boys. They interviewed teachers and students and observed effective lessons in eighteen participating schools from North America, UK, South Africa and Australasia. They found that the most effective lessons for boys included a number of common elements:
  • They required students to be active learners (physical activities were a key)
  • The teacher embedded desired learning outcomes in the form of a game or fun activities
  • The lessons required individuals or groups of students to build, design, or create something that was judged competitively by classmates
  • They required students to present the outcome of their work to other students
  • They asked students to assume a role, declare and defend a position, or speak persuasively about something
  • The lessons held student attention by surprising them with some kind of novelty element
  • Lessons addressed something deep and personal in the boys’ lives; they engaged at a deeper personal level.
Getting a sense of scale!

Reichart and Hawley concluded that the learning problem wasn't due to the limitations of the boys, but rather the failure of lessons to actively engage them. What they found when they observed effective lessons in the eighteen participating schools from North America, UK, South Africa and Australasia, was that relatively simple changes in classroom pedagogy made a difference for boys.

The common features in successful lessons for boys were active learning, movement, teamwork, competition, consequential performance, risk taking, and surprise.  They concluded that successful lessons required teachers to engage and energize boys. They also found that boys were deeply relational and that the establishment of a positive relationship between teachers and boys is critical.

This last point is important. Over many years I have often asked students to name a great teacher and then to say why. The reasons given vary, and are typically idiosyncratic. But within each of the responses, invariably the student indicates that the teacher 'took an interest in them', 'understood them', 'saw some potential in them', 'got them interested in learning' and generally excited and engaged them. The general thrust of this work and its findings is that rather than simply blaming boys for their under performance, we need to seek different approaches in our classrooms to help to engage them as learners.

The excitement of chemistry

In my own life I can think of three teachers who made a difference to my life - Mr Campbell (Grade 4), Mr Blaze (Grade 7) and Mr Hoddle (Grade 11). My memories of them are rich but the methods they used to engage me were very simple (and in one case unconventional). All had a deep commitment to their teaching and empathy for their students. They wanted me to learn and saw potential within me that other teachers weren't able to see. Mr Campbell when confronted with a new aquarium in his classroom turned to me one day and said, "I'd like you to find out all that you can about tropic fish". He gave me a book and sent me off to find out about them and how to care for them. Several weeks later he asked me to present a mini-lesson to the class on tropical fish.  I was now the school expert on tropical fish!

My grade 6 maths teacher Mr Blaze (he was also my home room teacher, and cricket coach) overheard a student ridiculing me one day in class because I was overweight. He turned to the boy and said "I'll tell you what Meli, I bet TC will beat you in the cross-country race this week". He proceeded to set a wager, with the winner to receive $10 from his pocket. Now I had no intention prior to this of going in that race. But I did, and ended up $10 richer.

Mr Hoddle simply showed me that geography could be exciting by sharing his love of the subject and something of his life with a small group of senior students. He made it interesting by setting tasks that made us explore, solve problems and work collaboratively with others. And all the while he was interested in our lives and us.

The power of experience
None of these teachers used startling methods, and Mr Blaze used one that was positively dodgy, but all showed an ability to understand me and to try to reach and engage me. They also sought to understand me relationally, treating me with respect, believing in me and somehow, helping me to believe in myself. That's the art of good teaching for boys (and girls as well).

Boys and girls are different and as such at times require us to seek different approaches and forms of engagement. It is easy to dismiss boys who act out in classrooms as simply a pain in the neck for the teacher, but the acting out usually has some source and foundation. Just what is it, and how do we respond? The work of Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley offer us some clues and ways forward.

Jessica Lahey concludes her excellent article with these wise words:

"Educators should strive to teach all children, both girls and boys by acknowledging, rather than dismissing, their particular and distinctive educational needs."

My Previous Posts on Boys

I have written a number of posts on education for boys HERE

Friday, June 19, 2015

Graphic Novels: Reviews of some recent arrivals

What is a Graphic Novel?

The term graphic novel has grown in popularity in the last decade, as an increasing number of authors have experimented with this format for presenting narrative accounts. In simple terms it is a text that makes added use of drawn images to communicate its meaning. In some cases, words are absent or largely secondary, whereas in other cases, word and image are used equally with clever integration.

Some include comics within the category, although the pairing of 'novel' with 'graphic' reflects the increased development of long fictional works. But this textual form can cover fiction, non-fiction, comics and anthologies. The definition is slippery. For example, Manga (Japanese for 'comic') are read by adults and children in Japan and can be substantial works with varied literary content. Other recent works by children's authors can have little or no words and once would have been called wordless picture books. Shaun Tan's brilliant book 'The Arrival' tells a complex tale of a man who leaves his wife and child to seek a better future as an immigrant in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages. This 'graphic novel' tells the story with no words!

Some recent examples

I've had a number of graphic novels that have crossed my desk in recent months; here are just a few examples.

'Anders and the Comet' by Gregory Mackay (Allen & Unwin)

This is an adventure story for readers 6-9 years of age. Anders is a superhero; well a kid with a big imagination. The book celebrates the every day events of children's lives.  It's the school holidays, and Anders, Eden and a new friend, Bernie are amusing themselves in many ways. There are comics to be made, games to be played, ice-cream to be eaten, and rhinos to impress at Wekiwa water park. But when Anders and his friends meet the Green Grabber things take on a whole new direction, leading eventually to a dramatic rescue. The very simple line drawings in comic format with simple language will delight readers.

'The Return of the Queen' Vermonia, YoYo (Walker Books)

The 'Vermonia' series of graphic novels written and illustrated by YoYo (which is a Manga Studio) has now reached book number eight! Vermonia lies in the centre of the universe and its fate rests on the shoulders of four not-so-average kids. All of the heroes in the series have an adversary, avatar spirit, their own love interest and eventually their moment of truth. The illustrations are classic comic black line drawings with enough detail and quality to engage readers aged 9-14 years. This last book in the series ends with the triumph of the key characters. Not for me, but then again, the series wasn't written for me.

'Messenger: The Legend of Joan of Arc' by Tony Lee and illustrated by Sam Hart (Walker Books)
Tony Lee created his story from the original transcripts of Joan of Arc's trial before her death at the stake. He manages to portray powerfully the extraordinary life of a young farm girl who became the leader of an army of men. In 1424 she heard voices and had visions that helped save her village from attack in the Hundred Years' War. Was she touched by the devil or God? Shaping a story from the original transcripts of Joan of Arc's trial before her death at the stake, Tony Lee portrays the extraordinary life of a young farm girl who becomes the leader of an army of men. Her story tells of a young woman who has an unflinching faith in God and in herself. It is also a story of someone prepared to risk everything in the battle for freedom and independence. Joan of Arc's unflinching faith in God and in herself has inspired generations. After a trial for heresy she was executed. She was prepared to risk everything in the battle for freedom and independence. 

The graphic novel format seems ideal for this story and the illustrations of Sam Hart are wonderful, being full of colour and detail. Readers 11-14 will enjoy this story. 

This is book 2 in the series of 'The Bloodhound Boys' books following on from 'The Great Bloodbank Robbery'.  Beneath the earth Skull River is having mysterious earthquakes and yet, the Rocky and Vince have other things on their minds; they have a monster truck race to win. This dangerous and lethal race takes the boys off the track. But will they get back in time to stop the earthquakes? This fast moving tale with its simple (predictable) plot and simple line drawings will keep even the most reluctant boy readers turning the pages. Lots of fun for readers aged 6-9 years.

Other great graphic novels reviewed previously on this site

'Requiem for a Beast' by Matt Ottley

'When the Wind Blows' by Raymond Briggs

'One Minute's Silence', by David Metzenthen and illustrated by Michael Cammileri

'The Afghanistan Pup', by Mark Wilson

'War Brothers: The Graphic Novel', by Sharon E. McKay and illustrated by Daniel Lafrance

'Slog's Dad', by David Almond and illustrated by David McKean

'The Adventures of Scarygirl', by Nathan Jurevicius

'Hamlet', by Nicky Greenberg

'Rules of Summer', by Shaun Tan

'Tales from Outer Suburbia', by Shaun Tan

'The Lost Thing', by Shaun Tan

'Into the Unknown', by Stewart Ross and illustrated by Stephen Biesty

'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mt Morris Lessmore', by William Joyce

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Why we need to read to our boys: Ideas & suggestions

Why boys need to be read to

Here are my top 6 reasons why we must read to our boys:

1. We know that books widen knowledge, increase vocabulary and help to teach them about language and the world.
2. We know that being read to at home is linked to later success in reading at school.
3. We know that it helps to build common ground and strengthen relationships.
4. We know that it helps them to develop attention span.
5. We know that it helps us to build stronger relationships with the boys in our lives.
6. We know that it helps to divert them from too much screen time.

For a long time we've known that girls make a faster start in reading in the early years. In the last 2-3 decades 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

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, graphic novels 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 18 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)
'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)
Graphic novels like 'Messenger: The Legend of Joan of Arc', the 'Vermonia' series, or the more simple 'The Bloodhound Boys'.

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 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)