Friday, July 21, 2017

Is There a Best Age to Start School?

One of my daughter's on her 1st day
I last wrote about this topic almost three years ago when one of my grandchildren was starting school for the first time. In Australia, most of our schools commence the year in late January at the end of our summer break. In the Northern hemisphere, of course school starts in Aug-Sept. 

The starting age in Australia varies from state to state. In my home state of NSW any child may commence school if they turn five years on or before the 31st July in that year, but they must start no later than six years of age. In other states the ages and rules vary so it can be a bit confusing. In other countries, we see similar diversity. In Finland children start formal schooling in the year in which they turn seven. In Germany it is six, in Britain five, and in the USA it varies (like Australia) from state to state.

This week some new research has been in the news that suggests there is a trend in Australia to hold back children for longer instead of sending them when they are eligible. The research suggested that "... the proportion of parents holding children back until they turned six almost doubled between 2010 and 2014, climbing from 1.5 per cent to 2.9 per cent". While parents doing this are in a minority, clearly some are making different choices. But why?

The new research in Australia considered over 224,000 students, and suggests that there was a trend towards more boys being held back. The reasons for this vary, but most parents are making choices based on their sense that their child might do better in education in the long term if they have an extra year to mature,

In my previous posts on this subject I have concluded that the question about the 'best age' to start school 'all depends' on the child and the family circumstances. Yes, children need to have reached a certain minimum stage of physical, intellectual and emotional development to cope with school, but this varies from child to child, between the ages of four and a half to six years. As well, previous research has suggested that variations in starting age in general, don't seem to make huge differences to most children’s long term academic achievement. In other words, it might just be that your child should be held back.

One of the interesting comments in the latest research was to show that parents are often worrying about behaviour and maturity in their boys, and even thinking about the consequences of their behaviour well into their adolescent years. The foundation of these thoughts would seem linked to fears of their children becoming victims of misadventure, crime, loss of university options etc. In other words, their immaturity affecting more than just their learning. Some parents of course choose home schooling for the same reasons, as well as a desire to shape the character of their children in the home. These are all legitimate concerns, but obviously what they suggest is just what I said at the beginning of this post, there is no magic age and parents need to make wise choices IF they are able to. This is a big 'if' because clearly some families don't have a stay at home parent that can care for them, and hence must rely on expensive childcare options. Some families don't have the luxury of choice. 

In reality, if we have the freedom to make the choice to hold children back we need to make our own assessments for each child. Here are some things to consider if your child has reached an age at which he/she can officially commence formal schooling. Please note that these questions don't all apply to children with disabilities. In such cases parents have to consider many things when making a decision about the right time to start school.

Is my child physically ready? 
  • Do they have the motor skills typical of the average starting aged child? Can they walk, run, jump, throw things, dress themselves (few can tie shoelaces – that’s why we have Velcro!). Can they tear paper, apply some stickers, hold crayons and pencils and use them (even if not that well)?
  • Can they feed themselves and will they cope with a new degree of independence?
  • How big is your child? Very tall children often struggle if held back when they eventually go to school. And very small children might struggle if they go early.
  • Are they toilet trained and independent in many areas of self care?
Is my child emotionally ready?
  • Is your child able to cope with separation? Going to school should not be the first time the child has been out of the sight of parents or the primary caregivers.
  • Have they had at least some experience relating to other children? Can they share, communicate, show some control of anger and frustration?
  • If your child is keen to go to school there’s a strong chance that they are emotionally ready.
  • Can they communicate their emotions (frustration, fear, anger, affection etc)?
Is your child intellectually ready?

This is tougher, but in general you would expect that your child can:
  • Concentrate on activities for extended periods of time (say at least 10-15 minutes on one activity). This might include being able to listen to a story, engage in 10 minutes of screen time without being easily distracted, sustaining attention on a game or activity that they like.
  • Hold crayons and show some interest in making marks or scribble (the early stages of writing - see my post on this topic here), show some interest in print and symbols (e.g. “what does that say Mum?”), complete basic puzzles (maybe 30-50 pieces), try to write their name, count to five, recognise some letters.
  • Use language sufficient to communicate with other children and the teacher?
  • Show some interest in learning. This can show itself in many ways such as inquisitiveness, exploration, and observation of things around them.
Ultimately, parents need to make the decision about the starting age based on what they know about their child. There are some other things you need to consider:
  • What is the school like? Do you know the teachers and do you have confidence that they will be able to understand your child and help them to find their feet at school?
  • What are your family circumstances like? If you have another sibling just one year younger you might want to make sure that you don’t have them going off to school at the same time.
  • What was the experience that you had as parents? Did you go to school early or late and what was the impact on you? Given the common gene pool this is a useful consideration.
  • What are your personal circumstances? Is there major upheaval in the family or some major change coming in the next 12 months (e.g. moving to another area)? If so, holding your child back might be justified.
I find today that there is greater anxiety about starting age than ever before. Unfortunately, much of this is caused by parents worrying unduly about children being successful at school. I have parents who ask me (for example) is it okay that their child can't read yet, even though they are only four. This is ridiculous of course; most don't start reading until they get to school. Others ask if holding their child back a year will disadvantage them compared to others. Overall, if you consider the needs of your child and the broad range of capabilities I've outlined above, I think you'll make a good decision. If you get it wrong, the evidence is that generally children will cope and adapt over time, and that there are few long-term problems for most children.

An interesting postscript to this matter is that countries like Finland where children don't start till they are seven (!) do well in OECD international school assessments as measured by PISA surveys (more details can be found HERE).

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Being Creative With Oral Reading for Young Readers

1. Because oral reading offer some important functions
  • It helps teachers and parents to observe and make 'visible' children's reading processes (what's going on in their heads)
  • It helps children to develop reading fluency and it supports vocabulary development
  • It can help us to assess reading progress and diagnose difficulties
  • It's a skill for life that we don't want to lose
I've written about oral reading before covering a variety of topics, including:

How to listen to children reading (HERE & HERE),
The importance of reading to and with children (HERE), and
Readers' Theatre (HERE).

Teachers have known for a long time that oral reading can be a valuable instructional method, but sadly, for many children, reading around the group (or worse still the class) kills interest and motivation. But we know from research that 'repeated readings' can improve fluency and ability (e.g. Stoddart & others 1993, Rasinski 1990, Rasinski & Hoffman 2003). So how can we move beyond 'round robin' reading and embrace more creative and enjoyable approaches to oral reading?

In this post I want to offer some suggestions for how teachers and parents can make oral reading more effective, as well as enjoyable and even fun!







2. Making it fun and enjoyable

Above: Bec reads to her day-old sister
How can we make repeated or oral reading fun? Here are some key elements to help achieve this.

1. Choose appropriate material for your children - use graded material at varied levels; favourite passages from books the class has heard or read (e.g. Roald Dahl or Dr Seuss books work); jokes & riddles; poetry or songs that they know; speeches and famous quotes.
2. Ensure that students are reading at their appropriate level.
3. Use varied strategies and avoid simply reading around the group.

3. Some alternative strategies

Most of the ideas that follow can be found in a great article by Mary Ann Cahill and Anne E. Gregory published in 'The Reading Teacher'. Here is their description of oral reading in a US 2nd grade classroom they had worked in:
'One pair is rolling dice and using different voices to read; a small group is reading to small, plastic animals on their desks; three students are wearing masks while reading; and another pair is using little, red-beamed flashlights to shine on each word as they read.'
What are some simple novel ways to help children remain motivated and enjoy oral reading?

Above: Evie reads to her pet cat
1. Read to prepare for performance - By this I mean, putting exciting material in children's hands, letting them practice and then asking them to share it with a group or the class (e.g. read a favourite section from a book, read a song, silly poem etc).
2. Try Readers' Theatre - I've written about this before (HERE). Obtain some free scripts and let your children have fun reading together in small groups to present the scripts to others.
3. Read to someone or something - This might seem strange, but some teachers get their children to read not to other people but to other 'things'. A number of classes in the UK and the US have had children read regularly to a school dog (read more HERE) with great success and benefits. Some creative teachers have had their children read to plastic dinosaurs (!), a favourite doll etc.
4. Some turn it into a game such as 'Reading Dice' - This involves getting children to discuss the different voices a character could have for a reading extract; they then write 6 of them on the board and giving them the numbers 1-6. They then have children work in pairs or groups to take turns, roll the dice and use the voice that matches the number.
5. Newsreader or media presenter - Teachers have a microphone (it can be a fake one) and ask children in pairs to conduct an interview for an appropriate extract.
6. Reading Masks - the children practice reading passages using the voice and persona of the mask they are wearing (these can be animals, super heroes etc).
7. Use songs for reading - The use of songs has the added advantage that the rhythm, sound repetition, melody etc can be used to support reading (see my recent post on this topic HERE)

Summing up

Oral reading is a valuable instructional tool and has been neglected of late. It has also been misused for many years with the effect that some children have found it less than rewarding. But it can and should be enjoyable and fun. I'd love to hear of your own experiences with oral reading. Do you have any great ideas? Post a comment. 

A useful reference

Mary Ann Cahill & Anne E. Gregory (2011). Putting the fun back into fluency instruction, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 65, No. 2, pp 127-131.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Eight Great New Picture Books (1-7 years)

1. 'Princess Cora and the Crocodile' by Laura Amy Schlitz and illustrated by Brian Floca

With the incredible team of Newbery Medal winner Laura Amy Schlitz and Caldecott Medal winner Brian Floca, it is no surprise that this new book is wonderful.

Princess Cora is sick of boring lessons. She’s sick of running in circles around the dungeon gym. She’s sick, sick, sick of taking three baths a day. Her princess life leaves little room for the ordinary things of life - like a pet dog! Enter her fairy godmother who doesn't supply a dog but a crocodile!

This is a book that will resonate with many children who will know what it is to have an over-scheduled and regulated life. And perhaps, it might challenge a few adults to see the benefits of simple things. Laura Schlitz has created a memorable and authentic modern fairytale that is brought to life by the illustrative brilliance of Brian Floca's work. Children aged 4-7 will love this book either to listen to, or read themselves.

2. 'Ollie's Treasure: Happiness is Easy to Find if You Just Know Where to Look!' by Lynn Jenkins & illustrated by Kirrili Lonergan

This is the delightful story of a small rat named Ollie and his grandmother who helps him to learn that often fun and satisfaction can be found in the simplest and most surprising of places.


Ollie's grandma sends him on a treasure hunt using a map that promises to lead him to 'something that will make him happy always'. Little does Ollie know that the things that will make him happy are not toys, or gadgets or the customary places that children often turn to for pleasure and fun, but rather in the simple things of life.

His grandmother's treasure map takes him on a journey that requires him to use his senses to explore his world. It comes as a surprise to find joy and pleasure in smelling the roses, gazing at the sky, feeling the grass beneath his feet and savouring the tastes, smells and sounds in his world.

A story that points to the value of mindfulness for our children in a world of hustle, bustle and gadgets.

3. 'Double Take! A New Look at Opposites' by Susan Hood & illustrated by Jay Fleck

This delightful picture book that tackles the language of opposites, does so with some surprising differences. First, the retro cartoon-like illustrations of Jay Fleck are delightful. But second, Susan Hood's text is linguistically rich, quirky and tackles opposites in some surprising ways.

Who knows what is BIG
unless there is small?

Does short measure up
except next to TALL?

And of course:

A racer's called FAST
when rivals are SLOW 

The book offers a new, engaging and entertaining perspective on opposites.
Prolific author Susan Hood and illustrator Jay Fleck have created a wonderful book that children aged 3-6 will listen to and read many times.

4. 'Ambulance Ambulance!' by Sally Sutton & illustrated by Brian Lovelock

I've enjoyed and reviewed the wonderful work of award winning Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock before on this blog. Their attraction to big machines is a topic that many young readers enjoy, and previous books like 'Construction' and 'Roadwork' are great examples. They have teamed up again for 'Ambulance Ambulance!'.

Once again, the same simple, bright and action packed images support the simple text that exploits rhyme, onomatopoeia and action.

Bleep, bleep. Emergency! News just through: Crash, crash, there’s been a crash. Let’s go, crew!

Nee nar nee nar nee nar nee nar ...

Now what child 3-5 years old won't join in a shared reading of this book!
  
5. 'Raymond' written & illustrated by Yann & Gwendal Le Bec

This wonderful French team gave us 'Danny' and now 'Raymond'.

What if dogs could walk and talk and go to work? Well, Raymond the dog has big ambitions beyond his ordinary, canine life in the big city. He wants to take himself for a walk and get his own dinner. And when he’s done all that? 

Children will love the cartoon-like bright images, the simple text and the quirky story of a previously very happy family dog who one day looks up at his family dining together and 'has a thought (a rather big thought for a dog) ... couldn't I just sit at the table? Isn't that what families do?'

Of course, it wasn't going to stop there. Trips to the theatre, supermarket and nights at home, were suddenly different. And Raymond discovers a magazine that will change his life even more - 'Dogue'!

Soon, he wants a job, just like his owners. But when Raymond begins a high-flying journalism career at Dogue magazine, he soon realizes it’s no walk in the park… The wonderful 'visual' humour, as well as the delight of the text will mean that children, parents and teachers will just love this book! 

6. 'A Kiwi Year: Twelve Months in the Life of New Zealand's Kids' by Tania McCartney & illustrated by Tina Snerling


This book is the latest in a wonderful series that helps children to understand the different lives that children lead around the world. Each book takes the reader through a typical year to reveal the everyday celebrations, cultural events, special holidays, sport and lifestyle.

I have reviewed previous titles by this team on my blog - 'An Aussie Year', 'A Scottish Year' and 'An English Year' (HERE). Now it's time to find out what life is like in 'A Kiwi Year'. Each book in the series begins by introducing us to five children from diverse backgrounds. We then follow them through the year. As the seasons change, so too do the things children play, celebrate, learn and do. In January, some play 'cricket', plant veggies in the garden, go camping and enjoy summer holidays. In February, there are celebrations for Chinese New Year, Valentine's Day and hot weather at the height of summer. In March, there is a national Maori celebration (New Zealand's First People), the celebration of Pacific communities, 'Children's Day', and homework!

Children will love this simple but effective introduction to the life and culture of people from another land. Tina Snerling's wonderful images will have children wanting to dip into the book many times.

7. 'A Canadian Year: Twelve Months in the Life of Canada's Kids' by Tania McCartney & illustrated by Tina Sterling

Just as with 'A Kiwi Year', children are given an insight into the life and culture of another country - this time Canada! All the books in this splendid series offer so much more than any geography text for children ever could. The teacher in me wants to race off to a classroom to share this book as a basis for a whole unit of work on Canada.

What better way to understand a nation's history, social and cultural practices, natural wonders, climate and more. Children have the chance to view another culture through the eyes and experiences of the children who live it every day. Wonderful stuff! The texts are carefully crafted by Tania McCartney who doesn't waste a word, the descriptive text for each event or activity complements the illustrations, and judicious labelling also add depth with few extra words. Another great book to read from front to back, or to leave on the table to be dipped into over and over again. Each time, young readers will notice new things, have additional questions, and be actively learning about other cultures and nations.

8. 'Nanna's Button Tin' by Dianne Wolfer & illustrated by Heather Potter

I have a glass jar full of shards of broken pottery collected on British sea shores. Each fragment echoes a place, a time and a story! My grandchildren love to empty the jar out and wonder about the meal tables these pieces might once have witnessed across 2-3 centuries.

'Nanna's Button Tin', like my bottle of pottery shards, contains objects that echo stories. Dianne Wolfer's beautiful story begins:

'I have my Nanna's button tin. it's full of stories.'

As the little girl takes off the lid in search of a button to replace her teddy's lost eye, her Nanna helps her to search for just the right one. A special button is needed for Teddy! Just the right size, just the right shape, and just the right colour. And as they sift through them, memories come back for Nanna. "This one is special ... it was on the jacket you wore home from hospital." And the little girl has memories too. "I remember that button. It was on the birthday jumper you made me." And when they find the right one, Nanna sews it on. What a delightful book! The gorgeous watercolour illustrations are all works of art in their own right. Perfect to read at bedtime, or for any child to enjoy aged 3 to 7 years.

Note: This book was temporarily out of stock when I wrote this post (no doubt due to the positive reaction to the book). I'm sure that the next print run will be out soon. Do check, it is worth it!


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Six Steps That Will Change Learners & Classrooms

The terms 'Transformational Teaching' and 'Transformational Learning' are discussed in the academy at times. But is this just academic nonsense or is there some significance to the terms and the practices. What practical advice might the work offer to teachers, parents and those who homeschool?

In the simplest possible terms, Transformational Teaching (TT) is teaching that changes learners by creating the right conditions for learning. We change the way we approach tasks, the questions we ask about the tasks, our expectations for what kids will learn, and our expectations. In effect, it helps to change the way learners understand learning, their co-learners, their teachers and themselves. This is the dead opposite of 'Transactional Teaching'.



The latter can be recognized by the emphasis on transmission of knowledge from teacher to child. Its major concern is what the learner knows and will learn. Transformational Teaching values knowledge too, but it is characterized much more by inquiry, discovery, firsthand experience, critical thinking and the use of varied communication and thinking skills, than simply knowledge transmission. Here are 6 basic steps that will help to create environments in order to change children from simply trying to acquire, soak up or replicate knowledge to learners who develop their abilities in areas like inquiry, discovery, and critical thinking.

6 Key Steps to using Transformational Teaching.

Step 1 - Develop effective routines

If we want to create classroom that encourage inquiry, experimentation, problem solving and lots of interaction, we need to be VERY well organised. Whether quiet places, or noisy ones, we must have good routines.

Step 2 - Organize classroom space & materials well

Transformation learning requires a place, where materials are available, spaces are provided that permit interaction, additional access is given to computers and other key resources.

Step 3 - Establish clear expectations with students about what can and cannot occur

We need to establish some basic rules about sharing space, movement, sharing materials, how class members interact, time frames for task completion and so on. All must be clear and revisited regularly.

Step 4 - Implement routines for the sharing of ideas and discoveries

Classrooms where transformational teaching and learning are practiced, need to be places where ideas are shared and celebrated. Audiences are very important to testing ideas, receiving feedback and learning from one another.

Step 5 - Place a high importance on quality outcomes and behaviour

They will also be classrooms where standards are high. Near enough is not good enough, there must be accountability in terms of quality, task completion respect for others and so on.

Step 6 - Place a priority on communication, feedback, task evaluation, honesty & respect

This is the key to a vibrant engine room in any classroom. Classrooms where there is honesty, generosity and accurate feedback are places where members will take risks as learners. Ensure that these are present and part of your regular maintenance work as a teacher.


What do these classes do?

I'll probably say more about this in a future post but in general terms Transformational Teaching leads to classroom environments where you will see:
  • Much greater interaction between students as well as much greater interaction with the teacher.
  • Much more group work. This will vary based on topic, interest and expertise, not simply general ability.
  • The teacher leading from 'behind' as much as from the front.
  • More celebration of work and achievements.
  • Greater learner autonomy within clear boundaries.
  • Regular demonstration, and expert resource people visiting.
  • Increased use of multi-modal responses (shared use of images, words, drama, art etc).
  • Increased risk taking, experimentation, problem solving and creativity.
  • Finally, we will see higher expectations and standards for work and behaviour.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Getting More Girls (& Boys) to Love Coding

I have six grandchildren and as they grow older their interests become clearer. All love learning, but not all have the same learning interests. Even when they were very young, some would love to dig in the compost heap with me, and others, not so much. Some would bring every insect inside to examine it, others were less keen. One still heads for my study (where all the books are), and we have to crow bar her out for meals. Her brother was always more likely to head to the back yard (garden) to dig around, look to the sky for birds and so on.

All my grandchildren love books in their own way, but one seems to have her head in a book most of the time. Interestingly, she is also interested in coding, and is very good at mathematics. Another grandson already shows signs of talent in coding and computing and has more recently discovered books. All children are different, but I suspect all could code if taught well. What will the girls and boys in our lives become? Hopefully, both will become wonderful people who will have many interests in life. But vocationally, what might they become? Research evidence suggests that statistically, my grandson has more likelihood of ending up in a career where he will use his strengths in STEM, particularly coding, than my granddaughter. This is a problem. 

Gwendolin Tilghman who is a private equity associate at KKR, works with technology companies as part of the firm’s technology, media and communications, is interested in this area too. She has just written an interesting post that I shared on LinkedIn, which argues for proactive efforts to get more girls into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). She writes:

"I have always been interested in topics relating to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). So, when I started college and was able to learn any subject of my choosing, it was no surprise that I decided to pursue an engineering degree. However, what was surprising was that I seemed to be the only girl to do so, or at least that’s how it felt sitting in a room full of boys throughout many of my classes. Perhaps it should not have been because even though women now represent 47% of the workforce, only 12% engineers are females." 

Clearly action is necessary to encourage girls and young women to consider careers that build on their knowledge and interest in STEM. One the most critical needs will be to encourage girls with an early interest in science and maths to explore coding.

Gwendoline is part of the 'Girls Who Code' initiative in the USA that is seeking to close the gender gap in technology. She comments:

Get Coding (Walker Books)

Where can we start to inspire young girls (and boys as well) to explore coding?  There are some great resources appearing on the market that will help. I was recently sent a great little book designed for primary or elementary school children - Get Coding (Walker Books) that has been produced by Young Rewired State (see below). This is a wonderful little book, it made me want to get to a computer, and to start doing some coding.

It is well designed and very inviting. Each page combines text, step by step instructions and projects to undertake. The first 15 pages are text-based with some headings, pictures and diagrams to make sense of the limited amount of the word descriptions. The reading level is about 8-10 years. Once the reader is through this introduction they can begin a series of missions with Professor Harry Bairstone, 'a famous explorer' who is '... in desperate need of [our] help'. Once we are introduced to the mystery of the lost 'Monk Diamond', we are ready to code our way towards completing our mission. Yes, we will need to know what HTML tags are. And we will learn how to use them as we learn to write HTML code, on our way towards completing the mission. Very soon, we are writing the code for a simple web page, with text and images. Eventually we build our own 'Monk Diamond Discovery Web Page'.

By Mission 5 our young coders will be making their own game 'The House of Volkov's Security Team' that is responsible for protecting some valuable jewels on display in the The House of Volkov'.

This is wonderful stuff, and should be part of every child's primary school education. 

Information of Young Rewired State

Young Rewired State was created in 2009 and is a network of 3000 data specialists with a female founder - Emma Mulqueeny. It has 30% female developers with 60% aged 18-25. It has an interesting methodology based on the principle of rapid prototyping, using the MVP concept of working towards a minimum viable product (MVP). It runs events and programs for technically gifted young people aged 18 and under. It draws together young developers, designers, and those with other technical skills to build projects (mainly phone and web applications) that attempt to solve real world problems. Most of the developers participating in Young Rewired State events have taught themselves or learned coding skills outside the traditional school curriculum.

Information about Girls Who Code

Girls Who Code is a national non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. Its programs inspire, educate, and equip girls with the computing skills to pursue 21st century opportunities. They have been especially effective in impacting skills development for girls in their formative years. At the completion of this academic year, Girls Who Code will have reached 40,000 girls in total, covering all 50 US states during its five-year history. In fact, an impressive 93 percent of their summer program participants said that they now want to major in, or are interested in, computer science because of their participation in the program — this might well mean no longer being the only woman in the classroom!

Friday, May 5, 2017

8 New Novels for Older Readers

In this post I review eight new novels for readers aged 8 years to Young Adult. They arranged in what for me is reverse order. I start with the books for young adult and teenage readers and work my way towards books for primary aged children.

1. 'The Rest of Us Just Live Here,' Patrick Ness

What if you aren’t the Chosen One?

The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death?

What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again.

Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.


Patrick Ness is an extraordinary writer of adolescent and young adult fiction. The award-winning author of 'A Monster Calls' (reviewed on this blog) and 'More Than This' has given us a new book to savour. It's a book that will probably divide readers, even some of his fans. But teenagers living through the experience of following and living in the shadow of others, will I suspect, relate more deeply to it. 


Others will compare it to previous books and perhaps be less enthusiastic. For parents and teachers concerned about sexual encounters, relationships are mentioned but not described or dwelt on. Its about real life for teenagers.

“Not everyone has to be the guy who saves the world. Most people just have to live their lives the best they can.”  

A book suitable for readers 15+
 
2. 'The Year It All Needed,' by Kirsty Murray

On Tiney Flynn's seventeenth birthday, every church bell tolled as if heralding a new year, a new era. Tiney stood in the garden, purple jacaranda petals fluttering down around her. One by one, her sisters came outside to join her; first Nette, then Minna and lastly Thea. It was 11 November 1918. Armistice Day.

For Tiney and her sisters, everything is about to change, but not in the way they might have imagined. Building peace is complicated; so is growing up. From tragedy to undreamt-of joy, from weddings to seances, from masked balls to riots in the streets, Tiney's world will be transformed.

At the end of the war and the dawn of the Jazz Age, Tiney Flynn must face her greatest fears and begin a journey that will change her destiny.

This wonderful piece of historical fiction begins as peace is declared at the end of WWII. It is set in Australia and Europe and written by talented author of eleven books Kirsty Murray. Tiney Flynn has just turned seventeen. What will life be like for Tiney, and all those who are celebrating peace? An excellent book that tries to represent something of the complexity of a time when after the joy and celebration of peace the reality dawns for many that some troops return broken, families have lost loved ones, and many are grieving and adjusting to a world that has changed.

A commendable novel that deals with the impact of war, not just at the front but also at home. Suitable for young adults.

3. 'The Hate You Give,' by Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl's struggle for justice.

This is a powerful novel for young adults that unpacks the racism that is evident throughout the world, but which has been brutally evident on the streets of America. This book is inspired by the 'Black Lives Matter' movement that has been born due to the death of many people of colour on the troubled streets of US cities. Angie Thomas opens her story through the interactions of a group of teenagers at a party, followed by a drive home and a death due to a broken tail light. But lives are changed when the main character witnesses the killing of her best friend by a police officer. The sixteen year old central character Starr is an inspiration. A great read for young adults.

The movie rights have already been sold to Fox, with Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) cast as the star.

4. 'The Heartbeat of Wing Jones,' by Katherine Webber

This is an excellent debut novel about a mixed-race family hit by tragedy in 90s Atlanta.

With a grandmother from China and another from Ghana, fifteen-year-old Wing Jones is often caught between worlds. But when tragedy strikes, Wing discovers a talent for running she never knew she had. Wing's speed could bring her family everything it needs. It could also stop Wing getting the one thing she wants. 


The main character Wing Jones has to deal with her brother being in a coma. She takes up running to help her cope and she discovers an ability she didn't know she had. With grandparents from China and Ghana, and she has struggled to know just who she is. As she runs, she finds a way to distance herself from the tragedy of her brother. The novel is well written, and offers a mix of humour, love and the strength of family. The characters are well developed and their depth adds greatly to an excellent story 

This book is also marketed as 'Wing Jones' with another cover in the UK and Australia. This US title and cover seem more appropriate and aligned with the book.

5. 'Yong: The Journey of an Unworthy Son,' by Janeen Brian

“Yong,” my father said one night as I sat on the earthen floor, stroking my pet cricket and determined to save it from being eaten. “You will come with me to Australia.” Yong doesn’t want to leave Guangdong to travel to the goldfields of Ballarat. But as the firstborn son, he has no choice. On the long and treacherous journey, Yong strives to be an honourable son, while he and his father face many hardships and dangers. But in his heart, he knows the shameful truth – that his honour is a lie. Can a journey change lives? Has Yong the courage to face what lies ahead?

This is a wonderful book for readers aged 9-12 years. It tells of an historical event in the 1850s that few Australians know about. Hundreds of Chinese immigrants who were bound for the Victorian goldfields found themselves stranded on the coast near Robe on the southern coast of Australia. They are well short of Melbourne and have to walk all the way to Ballarat in Victoria. Yong and his father are part of the group. Yong strives to be the type of honourable son expected, but and there are many challenges along the way that test him. This is a story that shines a light on many issues, including racism, prejudice, exploitation of others, and coping with change. It is a gripping tale from award winning South Australian author Janeen Brian.

6. 'Maybe a Fox,' by Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee

A compelling tale about two sisters.

Sylvie and Jules, Jules and Sylvie. Better than just sisters, better than best friends. Jules’ favourite thing is collecting rocks, and Sylvie’s is running – fast. But Sylvie is too fast, and when she runs to the most dangerous part of the river one snowy morning to throw in a wish rock, she is so fast that no one sees what happens when she disappears. At that very moment, in another part of the woods, a shadow fox is born: half of the spirit world, half of the animal world. She, too, is fast, and she senses danger. When Jules goes to throw one last wish rock into the river for her lost sister, the human and shadow worlds collide with unexpected consequences.

The book has been written by Kathi Appelt (Newbery and National Book Award finalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee) and Alison McGhee (New York Times bestseller). It is written in alternate voices, the two foxes, Jules and Sylvie. It's a heartbreaking and charming tale about the bond between two sisters left alone after the death of their father and mother. This is a beautiful story for readers aged 9-11 years that shouldn't be read without a box of tissues.


7. 'A Friend in the Dark,' by Pascal Ruter

A heartwarming and funny story about the power of friendship, perfect for fans of Frank Cottrell Boyce, Jacqueline Wilson and Lara Williamson. Victor is a failure at everything – school, girls, making his dad feel better about his mother having left them. When Marie-Jose, the smartest girl in the class and musical prodigy, starts helping him with his maths homework, there must be something she wants in return.

This poignant and very sensitive novel for readers aged 12-15 is above all a story about friendship and how the strength of bonds with others can get you through the worst of things. When Marie begins to lose her sight, the finding of Victor as a true friend helps her to clear many hurdles.

A lovely story that boys and girls will enjoy.  

8. 'The Turnkey,' by Alison Rushby

Flossie Birdwhistle is the Turnkey at London's Highgate Cemetery. As Turnkey, Flossie must ensure all the souls in the cemetery stay at rest. This is a difficult job at the best of times for a twelve-year-old ghost, but it is World War II and each night enemy bombers hammer London. Even the dead are unsettled. When Flossie encounters the ghost of a German soldier carrying a mysterious object, she becomes suspicious. What is he up to? Before long, Flossie uncovers a sinister plot that could result in the destruction of not only her cemetery, but also her beloved country. Can Flossie stop him before it is too late?

While superficially, some might see this as a simple story about ghosts, it is much more. The real focus is on a clever and strong female character (yes, she's a ghost but...) who spends most of her time settling disputes and listening to grievances to keep the souls at rest. Boys should enjoy the book as well. 

The book is ideal for mid-primary readers. The suspense and mystery with its supernatural plot, will capture the interest of varied readers. Suitable for readers aged 9-12.







Wednesday, April 19, 2017

16 Fabulous New Books for Readers Aged 3-13

My eldest granddaughter (aged 12 years) says I have the best job in the world because in her words, "people just send you great books to read and review." I pointed out that this isn't all I do, but it's one of the most enjoyable things I do get to do in any week. She volunteered to help me out, so she has reviewed the last book. Here are 16 recent arrivals for younger readers aged 3 to 13 years. As usual, I have arranged them in rough order of reading difficulty. And of course, I do NOT receive any financial benefit for my reviews from publishers or online book sellers.

1. 'Let's Go for a Drive!' by Mo Willems

This one of the latest of the 'Elephant & Piggie' books for beginning readers from Mo Willems the brilliant award-winning author of 'Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus'. Using speech bubbles and a repetition of words and phrases, this is a great early book for any young reader. The illustrations in simple cartoon form are simple, engaging and funny. Kids will love it!

2. 'I Broke My Trunk' by Mo Willems

Best friends Gerald and Piggie are at it again - adventure and fun! Piggie hasn't seen Gerald all day! Why? It seems Gerald has broken his trunk. How did he do it? Well, that's a long story. Piggie ends up telling a long, crazy story of her own? Once again, Mo Willems has created an hilarious tale.

3. 'Nanette's Baguette' by Mo Willems

Yes, another Mo Willems book?! It might seem like he's getting too much attention, but his work is stunning. This latest book, from the author with three Caldecott Honour medals, six Emmy Awards while writing for Sesame Street and the Theodor Seuss Geisel Medal on two occasions, is delightful!


Kids will love this hilarious new tongue-twister read-aloud about a little girl, Nanette, on a mission to buy a baguette. Nanette's has her first solo trip to the bakery. The question is, will the baguette make it home in one piece? The illustrations feature a handcrafted French village with the most expressive responses as she handles to tricky challenge. And the first 'Krack!' signals a problem. Children will want this read again and again. Just love Mo's work. 

4. 'Chook Doolan Saves the Day' by James Roy and illustrated by Lucinda Gifford

This author and illustrator team has now created seven very readable first books for newly independent readers aged 5-6 years.

Chook doesn't want to play this game, he thinks it's scary, especially when Ashton Findus and Marty Petrovic are on the team. Can Chook find the courage to join the game?

Will he survive as goalie when the two toughest players charge towards him? Children will enjoy be drawn along to the exciting conclusion.

5. 'Chook Doolan - The Tiny Guitar' by James Roy and illustrated by Lucinda Gifford

Like all of the books in the 'Chook Doolan' series from Walker Books, this one is well pitched for emergent readers. The language and sentence structure are simple, and the short chapters give young readers the satisfaction of reading 'chapter books'. Gifford's simple black and white illustrations and the large font also help to ensure reader success.

In this tale, 'Chook Doolan' (alias Simon, his birth name) receives a new present from his Dad the airline pilot. At first he assumes it is a guitar, but it's actually a ukulele. Reluctant at first he gives it a shot. Will he master it? Young readers will want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens.

6. 'The Jumble Sale' by Anna Branford and illustrated by Lisa Coutts

I've reviewed Anna Branford's books before and I always love her ability to engage young readers. This book is one of six books in the 'Lily the Elf' series.

All the elves are setting up stalls in their front gardens to sell the things they don't need any more. But Lily doesn't want to sell any of her things - they are all too precious. Will Lily be able to part with her special treasures?

A wonderful early book for a newly independent reader. There are far too few books of this type and Anna Branford has the rare ability to write simple stories that young readers find accessible and rich in language. This is an ideal first 'chapter' book.

7. 'The Sleepover' by Anna Branford and illustrated by Lisa Coutts

Lily the Elf is with us again in this lovely tale. Lily's cousin Fern has a sleepover; every child's delight. It feels like she will never arrive. Fern isn't too chirpy at first when her parents leave. Will a butterfly game, castle building or a midnight feast win her over? Perhaps? What might Granny have that will help? What is the secret weapon?

Delightful stuff for young readers ready to move from picture books to books with more words than pictures.

8. 'Smart About Sharks' by Owen Davey

This is one of the best non-fiction books for younger readers than I've seen for some time. Combining good scientific information, wonderful slightly stylistic illustrations in a muted palette and a quirky readable style, this book is a winner for readers aged 6-8 years. Even younger readers will make the effort to work through the book, and older readers will also be held by the wonderful way the book has been created and the way the knowledge of sharks is communicated.

There are so many interesting angles on the topic. Would you like to see a visual comparison of the size of a Megalodon (the first prehistoric shark), a Great White and a human? What are the scientific names for common sharks like Angel sharks, Dogfish sharks and Ground sharks? What are the varied fins on sharks? Like to know more about the eye sight of sharks? What does a meal look like for sharks? What about shark mythology? There is just SO MUCH in this beautiful picture book!


9. 'A World of Information' by James Brown & Richard Platt

This is one of the most visually stunning books that have come across my desk for quite a while. It looks and feels like some of those rare and expensive books that I first saw as a child in my school library that I would rush to each week to look though again and again for facts and figures for just about every topic I was interested in as a young boy.

This contemporary version offers a vast miscellany of knowledge with simple two colour images on every page. What child doesn't want to know how many bones there are in the human body or how clouds form? Every boy and girl wants to know about knots and Morse code.  What about the instruments and layout of an orchestra? Have they seen a periodic table, and what are elements anyway? Every page is beautiful, fact-filled and engaging. A book you can dip into on a wet day, or when other reading loses its interest. The celebrated author Richard Platt has done it again. The book covers over 30 fascinating topics and will be popular with children aged 8-12 who love knowledge and are curious about the world.

10. 'How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea' by Kate Hosford and illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska

This is a beautifully designed book. Gabi Swiatkowska's illustrations, inside cover detail and quirky image will capture children's attention from first sight. Once captured, Kate Hosford's story will keep them enthralled. Every day when the Queen wakes up, her three maids have to dress her, two style her hair, and the butler James makes her a cup of tea. But sometimes, tea drinkers are hard to please, and the Queen is no exception! The Queen and James set out in search of the perfect cup. At every stop on their hot-air balloon journey she encounters new friends who teach her more than just how to make different cups of tea. There is a secret to the perfect cuppa and she finally discovers what it is.

This is a wonderfully simple tale but it will engage a whole class, an individual reader, or your children as bedtime reading. A lovely book.

11. 'A First Book of Animals' by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Petr Horacek

Nicola Davies, the award-winning author of A First Book of Nature, presents a spellbinding treasury of poems about the animal world, illustrated in breathtaking detail by Petr Horacek. Polar bears playing on the ice, tigers hunting in the jungle, fireflies twinkling in the evening sky and nightingales singing in the heart of the woods - there are animals everywhere. From blue whales to bumblebee bats and everything in between, A First Book of Animals takes you all over the planet to visit all kinds of different creatures. This book is a glorious celebration of life in the wild in all its variety and splendour, and belongs on every child's bookshelf.

This is another stunning book that teachers while engaging younger readers with verse, facts and stunning images. Children will want to read this book again and again to find their favourite illustrations and animals as well as to learn new things. Double page spreads make the many animals jump from the page. A graceful flock of pink flamingos, a giant ant nest in a deep forest, a poisonous viper, and a sea of glowing jellyfish. The luminescence of the latter will make want to stroke the page.

This is no dreary book of facts but a work of art of extraordinary quality. One of my favourite books of the year!

12. 'Applesauce Weather' by Helen Frost and illustrated by Amy June Bates

When the first apple falls from the tree, Faith and Peter know that it’s applesauce weather, even though Peter is getting a little old for such things. It also means Uncle Arthur should be here to tell his stories, with a twinkle in his eye as he spins tales about how he came to have a missing finger. But this is the first year without Aunt Lucy, and when Uncle Arthur arrives, there’s no twinkle to be found and no stories waiting to be told. Faith is certain, though, that with a little love and patience, she and Peter might finally learn the truth about that missing finger. 

This poetic novel for readers aged 7-10 years is intriguing. There is a mystery to it that keeps the reader engaged and attentive. The connection of Aunt Lucy to the seasons that are marked by a special apple tree, that in turn is connected to the deep love she had for Uncle Arthur and their family, engages the reader and keeps you in state of tension and mystery. A love tale that speaks of the depth of love within families as well as hope. A delightful novel for younger readers.

13. 'Caleb's Cab' by Sally Chomet and illustrated by Sylvain Chomet

From the Oscar-nominated and Bafta-award-winning creators of animated films 'Belleville Rendez Vous'' and The Illusionist' comes a hilarious, dark-edged comedy caper full of twists and surprises.

This is an unusual book for readers aged 10-12 years. It is a somewhat dark tale of a world in which banks have become so powerful that parents offer their children as assets to secure loans. When Caleb's father disappears quite mysteriously he needs to take over the driving of the family cab so that the banks can't foreclose on them. He would end up working in ATM machines like lots of other children in his town. Life becomes a series of near escapes. And the cab turns out to be anything other than ordinary and it takes him into another reality. He discovers that his Dad is alive, but for how long? And how will he save him?

This a strange and quirky story that might sound very dark, but because it is so outrageous it is much more comedy than thriller. Many children will find the absurd tale rather funny and stimulating.

Sylvain and Sally Chomet manage to bring their cinematic art and storytelling to this their first children's book that ends with a cliffhanger and will have devoted readers waiting for the next installment.

14. 'Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story' by Caren Stelson

Sachiko is a challenging nonfiction true story about a small girl who survived the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.  It is also the story of the impact that this event had on many others. Sachiko Yasui was just 6 years old when the USA dropped their second atomic bomb. Amazingly, it hit just half a mile from where she was playing house with friends in an air raid shelter.

Her father was at work in the local shipyard, so her mother took her children to the air raid cave. There was an all-clear sounded, and her two older brothers left the shelter. Mrs. Yasui, Misa and Toshi went home, but Sachiko stayed in the shelter with friends to place 'house'. With no warning, the bomb was dropped and life was changed for Sachiko and her family.

The book has already been nominated for a number of awards and is poignant reminder of the horror of atomic weapons and war. This book brings together a powerful mix of narrative, original photographs, eye witness accounts, factual details concerning the aftermath in the city, the story of flight crew and mission and the impact on ordinary people. Some children might find the book just a little too challenging, so care will be needed in introducing them to the hard reality of what happened in Nagasaki on that fateful day in 1945. Nevertheless, this is an important book, and a story that we need to hear.

15. 'The Nutcracker' by E.T.A Hoffman and illustrated by Robert Ingpen

The tale of Nutcracker, written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816, has captured young and old readers alike. It has also inspired great artists and composers for two hundred years. It has lost none of its 'magic' and joy and is as fresh and as compelling a tale as ever, appealing to the sense of wonder within all of us. This edition of the book was released last year to mark the bicentenary of the story.

The illustrator Robert Ingpen is famous in his own right. While he is known primarily as an illustrator, he is also a fine writer with 13 works of fiction and over 20 non-fiction. For his "lasting contribution" as a children's illustrator he received the prestigious biennial, international Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1986. This book is one of a series of 15 classic stories that he has illustrated for Walker Books over a number of years and as always, the fine line work and detail are the marks of an extraordinary artist who enriches any book. This old tale is brought to life by his wonderful work. These hard cover books are outstanding collector books that will remain on family shelves for many years as treasured possessions.

16. 'The Secret Horses of Briar Hill' by Megan Shepherd and illustrated by Levi Pinfold

This review was contributed by Rebecca Starling (my Year 7 granddaughter who eagerly read the book and wrote these comments).

"Sweet and sad." 'The secret horses of Briar Hill' is a story unlike any I have ever read. Emmaline is instantly lovable and it feels as if you have stepped inside her head. The beautiful illustrations add to the staggering emotional impact this book will leave you with. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to spend a day or two locked up in a room, unable to tear their eyes away from a book that will stay with you for years after you have finished reading it."

Above: The stunning cover used in Australian and the UK





















Thursday, March 30, 2017

Drawing, Giftedness & Seeing the World Differently

Above: Creating a 'fairy' garden
I've written previously about the need to see giftedness as much more than simply intellectual skills and knowledge that can be established with a narrow range of intelligence tests. One person who has stretched our understanding in the area of giftedness is Howard Gardner in his work on Multiple Intelligences. While some gifted children demonstrate exceptional abilities across a wide range of capabilities (e.g. memory, language, mathematics, problem solving etc), others are gifted in narrower and more specific ways (e.g. visual arts, music, leadership, sport etc). In this post I want to focus on what drawing can show us about giftedness. If you are interested in more information on supporting gifted children you can read a previous post HERE which covers some common territory but has additional ideas for older children.
  
How Drawing Can Demonstrate Giftedness?

Evelyne's 'Horse in a T-Shirt'
A year or so ago, I observed some children using scribbles as part of an improvised drawing game. One made a squiggle and the others tried to turn it into an animal. The first child turned the first scribble into a monster. The squiggler responded, "you can't do a monster, the idea of the game is to draw a real animal, anyone can draw a monster".

He then drew another squiggle. The next child turned it into a horse which in her words was "a horse with a T-Shirt on" (see below). He replied, "but you can't have a horse with a T-shirt on, because they don't wear T-shirts". She replied "well this one does and that's the type of horse I drew with your squiggle".

Let me stress that all three children mentioned in the above example, are gifted in different ways, but two were demonstrating their giftedness in this activity. I should stress that while drawing can be a window on giftedness, it isn't the only way that different children, or even the same child on different occasions, can show their giftedness. But we can learn much from children's drawings that can be a pointer to giftedness?

Ten Things Drawing Can Teach us About Giftedness

Evelyne's drawing and some of the other drawings shared in this post can help us to identify giftedness. What might drawings help us to see?

1. They can show the ability to take a simple task and use it in a novel way, or for different purposes. Evie's drawing shows a preparedness to think outside the box.

2. They also help us to see if a child is able to see the unusual, think in novel ways, and observe possibilities that others don't. The camel drawing below shows this (note its shadow on the ground).

Sketch of 'A Camel & Its Reflection' (Lydia aged 3yrs)

3. It can also demonstrate the willingness of the child to experiment and take risks. These characteristics are evident in many gifted people, e.g. entrepreneurs need these qualities.

4. At the most fundamental level, they can demonstrate the ability to create something original. Not simply a drawing like all other drawings by children of the same age, but something different. For example, ask a 6 years-old to draw a house and you will usually see a hipped roof with chimney, two windows and a central single door.


Above: Child drawing of house (courtesy of 'Childhood Architecture')

5. Drawings can also demonstrate the ability to think abstractly, metaphorically and insightfully, as the child uses drawing to explore thoughts and ideas. Evie's drawing of the T-Shirt wearing horse shows this.

6. As well, drawings can show that a child can generate many solutions and possibilities for the simplest and banal tasks.

7. They can also demonstrate a preparedness to question assumed knowledge or ways of doing things.

Here a 6 yr old positions the pterodactyl above its prey

8. Drawings also offer a window into a more mature (and unusual sense of humour), and a different perspective and view of the world. Their orientation will be unlike that of the average person. The drawing above illustrates just such a different perspective.

9. Drawing can also show a depth of knowledge about a topic that is often required to create a special image. For example, awareness of the anatomical make-up of an animal, or the details of mechanical device can be seen in images that the child generates. As well use of shading to show multiple dimensions, clever use of light and shade and so on, show knowledge of image and design.

10. Finally, drawing can also show how the child's mind leads them to see different things and pay attention to the novel and unusual that is reflected in their drawings. The drawing below by a four year-old shows an image he drew after an outing to an aquarium. He created it as if it was viewed from the perspective of the fish. How did it see his granddad looking at it through the glass?

Jacob (4 years) draws Grandad from the unusual vantage point of the fish inside the aquarium looking out

Summing Up

Imagination & creativity starts early
All children are capable of demonstrating rich imagination and creativity, but some children demonstrate levels of creativity, insight, imagination and knowledge in drawing that suggests giftedness that is beyond the typical and normal. Drawing can help us to look for this and encourage it. I have many other posts that will help you to see some of the ways that you can encourage bright and gifted children. You can read another one of them HERE.