Review – Red: A Crayon’s Story, by Michael Hall

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Red is an amazing story, about a little crayon who is called Red, even though he’s blue on the inside. This is a book with layers, subtext and yet more layers, and every layer is wonderful.

The illustrations are simplistic, with large crayons and childish drawings on a clean background. Our narrator is a pencil, who, literally, writes the primary story.

Red can be read on different levels and adapted to be suitable for different ages. The pencil text creates a simple story about a being true to yourself, of self-discovery. To add an older dimension to the story you can add in the type written text, which adds a new dimension to this journey of self-discovery.

“Sometimes I wonder if he’s really red at all.”
“Don’t be silly it says red on his label.”

One of the adorable aspects of this story is the crayons themselves. Michael Hall has named them wonderfully, and presumably put a lot of thought into this with characters like Red’s grandparents who are Silver and Grey or the character that says “Right! He’s got to press harder” is Army Green. Then there is the comedic undertones, as in the crayon Berry who draws a boat that Red creates a sea for it to sail on, who gets the line “His blue ocean really lifted me”.

The big trick with this story is not to put adult context on a child’s interpretation. Where a child reads this story and can develop a sense of empowerment about being who they feel they are, it’s all too easy for an adult translate into our own warped ideas and connotations.

In saying that, this book enjoys poking holes in adult’s ideas and is one of the charming aspects of this story, it is also quite confronting. There are many ways that this book can be interpreted as an adult, from gender balance or homophobia to a more simplistic pigeon-holing most adults have experienced, and put others, particularly children, through. This is particularly powerful within the illustrations. For example “I thought he wasn’t sharp enough” is backed up with the image of a pencil shaving chunks off the crayon in a pencil sharpener. In a childish and literal context of a pencil being sharpened this is perfectly innocent. Yet in the adult context, we can see something being forced and shaped until they fit a mould that is far from true to themselves.

Like all good stories, this one has a happy ending, with our little red crayon being celebrated for being true to himself, and finding out that who he is in the inside is just perfect. It’s a heart-warming moment, and provides a great conclusion to a potentially confronting story.

Absolutely essential reading for anyone with a child that likes to dance to their own drum.

Review first published on NZ Booksellers

Red: A Crayon’s Story
by Michael Hall
Published by Greenwillow Books
ISBN 9780062252074

 

Celebrating Children’s Books For #NZBookMonthMay

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It’s been quite disheartening in New Zealand lately, as we have more celebrations of books and reading cancelled or postponed. Yet a conversation on twitter (where all the best conversations take place) spawned the hashtag #NZBookMonthMay.

Within hours the hashtag had spread and was trending. Which just goes to show, they can take away our festivals and our awards, but they can never take away our love for (and support of) local authors.

New Zealand authors often aren’t promoted as such, and sometimes we aren’t aware that these wonderful books that we love and share are born from our own backyard. So during this unofficial #NZBookMonthMay we’ll be trying to post a book a day, to make sure everyone knows just how precious kiwi books really are.

Read to children to get them talking

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Parents may read to children with the intent of fostering a love of books in the child, or perhaps with the hope of teaching them to read early. For myself, I read to my child from the moment she was born, not because I thought I’d be teaching my 1-day old to read, but because, as a reader, it seemed a natural thing to share. I enjoyed being able to cuddle up with this bundle and passively share books from my childhood. I felt, instinctively, that she’d draw comfort from the sound of my voice, but I have discovered that there are cognitive benefits from shared reading too. Numerous studies discus variances in reading frequency, quality and even age, and the effects these have on children’s vocabulary. Although many studies focus on literary development as the end result rather than oral development, we will see that to assist oral vocabulary development in children is to make reading an enjoyable, bonding exercise, with frequent reading sessions that focus on the child’s interest and, ideally, with a personalised book.

 

Talking to babies is important. A study by Weisleder and Fernald was able to show that conversing with an infant directly has a positive outcome on a child’s cognitive development and vocabulary, irrespective of cultural background or socio-economic status. However, this only applies to speech with the child, not for speech that the child may simply overhear; reading to a child has a similar effect. The more a child is spoken to the better their oral vocabulary will be.

 

Shared book reading helps develop a rich verbal vocabulary. Hindman, Skibbe and Foster describe shared book reading, as practiced in most westernised cultures, as an activity that involves a reader (parent, teacher, sibling etc) reading a picture book to a, usually pre-literate, child.  Shared reading provides a time for both the infant and the reader to match words and objects, with parents able to ask questions that help label images and relate the story back to the child (Tomasello and Farrar qtd in Karrass and Braungart-Rieker 134; Ninio qtd in Cameron-Faulkner and Noble 270). Not only is the child given a chance to observe their world one still frame at a time, but the language used in written language is richer than found in free-play (Hoff-Ginsberg qtd in Karrass and Braugart-Rieker 134; Fletcher and Reese 66). This is not simply in sentence structure, but in providing a wider view of the world. It would be a rare everyday occurrence for most New Zealand children to hear ‘look at the zebra, it has a black and white striped coat’, yet in the world of story books this phrase might be repeated often (Hindman, Skibbe and Foster).

 

Picture books are of great value in assisting infants to label and understand their world, more so than simply observing the world around them. Picture books provide a snapshot moment in time, which allows the child to focus and analyse on the one image, rather than try to analyse a “quite fleeting and changing” situation (Moerk 549; Forman, Anthony and Seals). Moerk notes that children’s picture books tend to be made of simplistic and stylised line drawings, which he suggests make it “easier for the child to recognize the represented objects” (549).

 

Using simplistic, rhyming, language picture books help children understand the meaning of the pictures.  Moerk feels that this, combined with the repetitive nature of both text and frequency of reading, assists children in learning these stories “by heart” (558), reinforcing vocabulary learning.

 

As with most things in life, there is not a one size fits all solution for oral vocabulary development in children.  Fletcher and Reese looked at different studies (Morrow; Reese and Cox) and found that repetitive reading of the same book to a child with low language development meant the child was more likely to make comments and ask more questions when compared to reading different books. However, when they looked at styles of reading they found that discussing story meaning at the end assisted children who already had a higher vocabulary learn more, yet children with a lower vocabulary learnt more with a style that focused on descriptions and labelling. So fitting the mode of shared reading to the language level of the individual child is important.

 

One of the best ways to encourage discussion and interest is the use of personalised books. Kucirkovea, Messer and Whitelock “define personalized books as books that are written specifically for a particular child, have a personal meaning for the child and are sociocultural appropriate” (446). Yet, Hindman, Skibbe and Foster feel that even in a unpersonalised book, relating the story back to the child has a similar effect, although marginally lesser, on oral vocabulary development. However, “emphasizing letters/sounds” (303) has little benefit to oral language development. One of the advantages of personalised books may be in catering to different cultures and parental beliefs. Fletcher and Reese note that many cultures do not have the “wh” questions (who, what, where, why) that seem to come naturally to Westernised readers, and this information should be considered when planning reading intervention programmes.

 

It shouldn’t be surprising to discover that children learn more if they’re enjoying what they’re doing (Deckner, Adamson and Bakeman). Children who are encouraged to choose their own books to read have increased levels of interest in what they’re reading (Ortiz et al. qtd in Fletcher and Reese 94, 97), with children asking more questions and making more comments. Parental enthusiasm and interest does not have the same effect. However, the more interest a child shows in the book, the more metalingual utterances (“what’s that?”, “say doggy”, “that’s right, a cat”) the parent will make, and the more metalingual utterances a child hears, the greater the child’s expressive language development will be. Yet “referential utterances” (Deckner, Adamson and Bakeman 32) (e.g. “where’s the dog”) and “social regulative utterances (Deckner, Adamson and Bakeman 32) (e.g. “now it’s your turn”) have little effect on language development. Of course, the more interested a child is, the longer a reading session is likely to last, and the stronger the effect on their oral language development becomes (Tomasello and Farrar qtd in Karrass and Braugart-Rieker 134; Trivette, Dunst and Gorman 3).

 

Studies have shown that 8 months of age is a critical time for language development. It is the best time to start reading to a child for expressive language development, although not significantly related to receptive language development (Karrass and Braugart-Rieker). However, the younger a child is when the parent starts to read to them the more likely it is that frequent book reading will become a habit, although it is possible that reading to a child from a newborn may have effects not yet studied (Karrass and Braugart-Rieker; Rescorla and Goossens qtd in Karrass and Braugart-Rieker 135). Er, Aral and Bizakzi looked at a study by Slivern that suggests “reading stories to young children …increases… listening and speaking abilities” (1270). With increased comprehension and “linguistic competencies” (Huck, Helper and Hickman qtd. in Er, Aral and Bizakzi 1270) reading to young children can foster an enjoyment of reading that will see continuing developmental benefits.

 

Another strong effect on positive shared reading experience is parental attachment. An insecure dyad is more likely to see unproductive behaviours such as the parent trying to hold the book out of reach of the child, correcting words and choosing books that are above, or below, the comprehension level of the child. Because these reading sessions are fraught with anxiety neither will enjoy the experience, and neither child nor parent will be keen to try again (Fletcher and Reese 93). Yet it must be remembered that while the reasons for unattached dyads can be varied and complex, the effect of a negative reading experience can be damaging.  Fletcher and Reese cite Bus and van Ijzendoorn’s inability to find “a sample of securely attached dyads that did not read frequently” (84). So it’s conceivable that a securely attached child is going to be more content to read with their parent, and show more interest thereby gaining the benefits of being actively involved in learning, but equally, a securely attached parent is more likely to be in-tune with their child, and reactive to the child’s interest, answering questions easily, and choosing books that are more likely to be of great interest to the child.

 

In conclusion, reading to children is a wonderful way to engage them, to help them understand their world, and to help them develop their vocabulary. It can also a wonderful way to help cement the bond between child and the reader, be that parent, teacher, sibling, grandparent or other. However, reading needs to be fun and enjoyable to gain any benefits. A personalised book, based around things the child is interested in, that gives plenty of opportunity to discuss objects or themes seems to be the best way to foster a love of reading and to develop a well-rounded vocabulary. These can be a few family photos or magazine images glued onto paper folded into a book, to professionally design books with the child’s name and details customised into a story. In an ideal world, the importance of reading to children from newborn would be known by all new parents, but customised early intervention programs that include how to read to children, and how to make personalised books that a family can share, might assist at risk children and their families.   Reading to a child from infancy starts good habits, creates an enjoyable routine, and helps develop early oral vocabulary, but it is never too late to start reading to a child and encouraging their love of language.

A sweet christmas message from The Lollipop Monster

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Although the Lollipop Monster’s Christmas is a warm story about friendship, giving and the “meaning” of Christmas, the message is let down by the actual execution.

The Lollipop Monsters Christmas tells the story of Larry, the Lollipop Monster, having a Christmas party with his monster friends, with decorations, fun, laughter, fresh baked cookies and gifts. While out getting more wood for the fire he discovers a very lonely monster, Walter, who is crying huddled around a fire (made from Larry’s firewood). Larry brings Walter back to his home, where Walter is warmly welcomed by all of Larry’s friends, and learns that Christmas is about sharing the gift of time with friends and family.

I must admit, I was surprised that this was the ultimate meaning of Christmas. For all that this is my personal reason for celebrating the season; it’s not exactly the reason why Christmas is traditionally celebrated in Christianised Western cultures. I did find myself turning pages with trepidation waiting for the “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” line, so was quite pleasantly surprised to find just a warm message about be kind to others and enjoy and appreciate your friends and family.

the lollipop-monsters christmas-internal

Unfortunately the story needs to be tightened up, and large chunks deleted before it can really shine. There is a lot of unnecessary build up and development, like a scene where hot chocolate is being prepared, which we come back to several pages later as it’s handed out and enjoyed. It all goes to build up story and to explain actions of characters, but is mostly superfluous.

A TV skit would be a wonderful medium for The Lollipop Monsters Christmas, where the wordy prose could be developed into sharp dialogue, and the cute, but flat, illustrations could be giving a full range of moving emotion.

Reviews at Booksellers NZ

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My first two reviews for Booksellers New Zealand  have been published, both for author/illustrator Ruth Paul. I’m quite excited! Please go and check them out.

 

cv_hedgehogs_magic_tricksHedgehog’s Magic Tricks

Hedgehog’s Magic Tricks is a charmingly illustrated story about friendship, starring a baby rabbit, a hedgehog, a raccoon, a mouse and a duckling.

Read the rest of the review at NZ Booksellers

cv_go_home_flashGo Home Flash

Poor Flash! He gets such a hard time in this book. This adorable little puppy just wants to play, but everywhere he turns he gets told to go home.

Read the rest of the review at NZ Booksellers.

The new Mansbach – picture book for adults only

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You’ve probably heard of the black humour picture book for tired parents “Go The F*ck To Sleep” (If not – try the [uncensored!] version, read by Samuel L Jackson on youTube). Well, Adam Mansbach has followed this up with a sequel, “You Have To F**king Eat”.

As you might expect, this is a tongue in cheek version of children’s picture books, with frequent use of the “F” word. This is NOT for children. This is a book to amuse adults who understand exactly what is being said, and are nodding in agreement with the text.

Although I found the first book hilarious, in a totally inappropriate way, this follow-up sequel misses the mark, just ever so slightly.

Part of this disconnect is possibly through the illustrations, which alternate between cute animals (eating happily) and discontented, unhappy, tantrum throwing children (refusing to eat). Although I’m amused by much of the text, the illustrations allow the reader to relate the text back to their child/ren, and I’m just really not that excited by having the urge to swear at my toddler reinforced.

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I’m also not thrilled with the language used (outside of the F word, obviously). Things like calling a child a liar, even in jest, does not work for me.

This spoon-feeding shit makes me wonder
Why the f*ck we weaned you from the teat.

For all that I can relate to some of the sentiments, it does not feel right or as amusing in the calm reading, post dinner.

Yet, although there are passages I don’t find in the least bit amusing, there are some passages that I did find truly hilarious.

I hope you know it’s super-special
To go to a restau- Hey, back in your seat.
You shitting me? This whole menu’s crap to you
But a roll on the floor – that you’ll eat?

When the text wasn’t derogatory towards children, and the images shown weren’t of grumpy brats, this becomes a very, very funny story, that is easily relatable for most parents.

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Are eBooks good?

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There was an interesting article in my twitter timeline this morning, looking at research into whether reading eBooks to children has a similar effect as reading physical (print) books, or the more negative effects of screen time.

As we are a VERY heavily technologically focused household, the issue around screen time and children is one I find very interesting. My 18 month old is already a proficient user of my iPad, able to turn it on, find the application she’s after, switch between aps and cancel out the pop ups that she’s accidentally opened (if they have an “x” not “cancel”), but she also ‘reads’ physical books to her dolly’s and brings us stories to read to her.

She knows that bringing a book to any adult in this house, 95% of the time, will cause them to stop what they’re doing and read her a book. Repeatedly. This ‘trick’ even seems to work on guests.

Reading is big in our house. Technology is big in our house. Outside… not so much (everyone has their failings right?).

So what are your thoughts on eBooks and reading?

I use the iPad primarily as a babysitting device. I work from home, and her playing on the iPad for a bit will often give me time to finish that phone call, send off that email, code that complicated form, or just finish working. The aps I have installed for her are mainly musical. Although we do have a couple of ‘toddler’ aps, I don’t really see the value in them. Most are aimed at getting your child to read and count as fast as possible, and I personally feel there are better (and easier, less painful) ways of teaching these skills (at an appropriate age) than expecting an iPad to do it for you.

But, we do have eBooks installed. She loves listening to the Winnie the Pooh story (and touching the bees to make them hum), or To The Dump and making the cat meow or the car honk.

Is there a difference between the ‘read along’ story books that played on the record player, which I loved as a child, and modern eBooks on the iPad? Well, yes. My childhood interaction was turning the pages, and when I got a bit older I was allowed to turn the record over. E’s interaction is swiping the pages, but she’s also interacting with the images. There isn’t the focus on the words or pictures on the page as a story, there’s a hunt to find what will move or talk or appear.

As the article says, the technology is still too new to have any true measure of the effects it will have on children’s development.

My personal view is, as with everything, moderation and balance. I have an eBook that we’ve created ourselves, from family pictures, using simple text. This has no bells and whistles, just pictures we can talk about and text that is obvious. To me, this is a wonderful book to read, and we have it where ever we go. And, of course, because all the pictures are of family E loves it, because she recognises them.

Publishers are trying to outdo each other and get the parental spend. Yet, what I’d like to see is less bells, less whistles, and more plain, “boring” books, where the most exciting this is the ‘read to me’ option.

Hachette Nursery Rhymes Giveaway

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If you nip on over to the Hachette NZ facebook page, they’re running a neat giveaway celebrating the new picture book “Little Bo Peep and More” by author/illustrator Donovan Bixley

They’re asking for people’s favourite childhood nursery rhymes, what was yours?

I remember peels of laughter with my brother an I regaling a captive audience to:

Jingle Bells, Batman smells,
Robin laid an egg,
Wonderwoman lost her bra
… I just can’t remember the last line

A quick google reveals this parody has been around since at least the 1970s, and has numerous versions. Anything slightly rude always seems to be a hit with a certain age bracket 😉

Anyway, if you’re in New Zealand, go tell Hachette your favourite remembered rhyme and be in the chance to win that awesome prize pack.

If you’re not… tell me. No prizes, but I’d love to know what other wonderful nursery rhymes you know.

 

Bath Time – a very short bedtime book

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Bath Time by Charles Reasoner is a very quick bath/bed time book, excellent for children with a short attention span, or parents running short on time.

Because it is so brief, as my child gets older I find myself adding more to the story, talking about how she has a yellow rubber ducky, just like baby bear; isn’t baby bear dirty, he’s all covered in mud! and so on.

The story is very simple. Baby bear is dirty, has fun in the bath, dries off, brushes his hair and then we say good night.

The illustrations, with the very cute stitched, blue, teddy bear are adorable; even rubber ducky and the tugboat look cute.

But… why is baby bear brushing his hair and not his teeth when getting ready for bed? There’s a toothbrush and toothpaste in the scene. Surely the brushing of teeth is a more normal, and encouraged, bedtime routine than brushing hair (particularly when Baby Bear doesn’t actually have visible hair to brush)?

baby-bear

I confess, I do mix it up a little, sometimes Baby Bear has fun with *his* toys in the bath, sometimes Baby Bear has fun with *her* toys in the bath. Baby Bear is not obviously gendered, so I see no reason why we can’t decide for ourselves what gender to use.

Still, it appears that Baby Bear is back on our bedtime reading list this week, as my little lass keeps bringing it to me to be read, so although it’s not one of my favourite stories, I’m not the target audience. Any book that engenders enthusiasm for reading is a winner in my world.