Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Children’s Book Review, Cyclone

Reviewed by Susan Stephenson,

Cyclone is a children’s picture book written by Jackie French, illustrated by Bruce Whatley and published by Scholastic Australia, 2016. RRP: $Au24.99

From the publisher:

Pile the presents by the tree
Though clouds spiral out at sea. Wind snarls, skies weep grey
But Santa's sleigh is on its way!

Christmas Eve 1974 is marked indelibly into the Australian psyche, as the night tropical Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin.

Now, over 40 years later, Jackie French's lyrical rhyming text tells the story of a city's indomitable spirit, and Bruce Whatley's sumptuous illustrations bring to life the powerful force of the storm to a whole new generation of readers.

Cyclone truly is a stunning picture book. It’s amazing that something as devastating as a cyclone can be so beautifully and clearly depicted by both writer and illustrator. French’s lyrical language brings the reality of Cyclone Tracy’s effect on Darwin to life for children. We read of wind that snarls but is pretty much ignored as the kids dream of Santa’s arrival and Christmas day. Snarls turn to groans and growls, shrieks and howls, then when their house is destroyed and the small family tries to flee, they are “Slashed and bitten by debris” while the world around them is only storm. Whatley chose a toned-down palette to reflect the old photographs he used while researching Cyclone Tracy - graphite pencil and acrylic wash set the mood perfectly for both the cyclone and its aftermath.

Cyclone is part of a series that began with Flood. It also works well as a completely stand alone picture book for kids to read and enjoy. Schools looking for resources for Australian History, Geography and Science will grab this great text. It makes a wonderful choice in English, when teachers are searching for examples of metaphor, and for anyone who wants to explore creativity with kids.

Hard to believe this outstanding children's picture book didn't make the 2016 CBCA Notables list. It definitely gets the coveted Book Chook Feather of Approval!

Find more Children's Book Reviews on The Book Chook by clicking Reviews in the right sidebar.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Children’s iPad App, Acrostic Poem

Acrostic Poem Review by Susan Stephenson,

Previously I’ve reviewed several ReadWriteThink apps. You may remember Word Mover and Trading Cards, Theme Poems, Alphabet Organizer, Diamante and Haiku? Acrostic Poem is another free app by generous developers, ReadWriteThink. It’s a great way to introduce children to writing poetry because it supports them and gives them a concrete framework to operate in.

Acrostic Poem is available as an online interactive, in iOS and in Android. There are also lesson plans to support it.

From the developer

This app allows users to learn about and write acrostic poems, a poetry form that uses the letters in a word to begin each line of the poem. All lines of the poem relate to or describe the main topic word.

This educational tool allows users to first brainstorm words to help write their poem. Work can be saved in progress to revise and edit, which reinforces elements of the writing process.

Users can send their finished poem to their device’s camera roll or email it as a .pdf file to friends and family.

What I liked:

As usual, this ReadWriteThink app is free, works well, and works straight out of the box. Acrostic Poem encourages kids to brainstorm words then they are guided to use those words in an acrostic poem of their own. As you will see from my example in the image above, poems are generated as a PDF document with no images etc but I think children would love to use their poem as the basis of some kind of art work they could display and show off proudly to family and friends. The Acrostic app is designed to be used in school, allowing multiple users to create and save poems due to the ability to create multiple profiles.

Just as with the other ReadWriteThink apps: Theme Poems, Haiku, Alphabet Organizer and Diamante, children are encouraged to set up a profile and are supported as they proceed through the project. It is saved to the camera roll once finished, as an individual jpeg file.

Where to find it?

You may like to check out my iPad App Reviews on Pinterest, and find more apps and articles via my Listly page. If you’re interested in creating Poetry with kids, take a look at my Poetry Resources.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Reviews, Recommended Books for Older Readers 2016

by Susan Stephenson,

Although I have a fascination (some may prefer to call it an obsession!) with children’s picture books, I love to find great books for older readers too. Below you’ll find some recently read books that I recommend if your children and teens love strong characters, humour, punchy dialogue and fascinating plots. Even further below, you’ll find a highly recommended read for adults.

Awesome Animal Stories for Kids

Awesome Animal Stories for Kids was written by Aleesah Darlison, illustrated by James Hart and published by Penguin Random House (2015). RRP $14.99.

From the publisher:

“Hear the legend of Alvarado, king of the cats. Experience the extraordinary tale of survival of an orphan foal. Discover magical sea creatures on a beach adventure. Find out the problem with pets from outer space, and solve a puzzling pig-napping.”

Darlinson has the wonderful knack of knowing what kids WANT to read. She tempts them with an intriguing premise and delivers with original plots and characters kids can relate to. In this paperback, kids will find a selection of animal stories - some funny, some serious, some realistic, others fantastic. The large font and occasional black and white cartoonish sketch by Hart make this a great choice for young readers who need support in their reading choices.

Squishy Taylor and the Bonus Sisters and Squishy Taylor and a Question of Trust:

Written by Ailsa Wild, with art by Ben Wood, the Squishy Taylor books are published by Hardie Grant Egmont, 2016. There are teacher notes available from the Squishy Taylor website.

This is a new series of junior fiction perfect for independent readers 7+ who want chapter books with easy-to-read font and fun illustrations to break up the text. Girls in particular will enjoy the adventures of Squishy and her bonus sisters (so much nicer than “step” sisters) as they become embroiled in wreaking vengeance on their enemies, finding diamond smugglers, practising ninja moves and solving people’s problems. The series continues with at least two more, so it’s perfect for those kids who like to know what they’re getting into with a book.

Clementine Rose and the Special Promise

Clementine Rose and the Special Promise was written by Jacqueline Harvey and published by Random House Australia (2016). RRP: $Au14.99

From the publisher:

Change is in the air in Penberthy Floss!

Clementine Rose has to say goodbye. Her friends, Sophie and Jules, are moving back to France. While she is sad to see them go, Sophie has promised they will come back. Plus, Clementine will now have an overseas pen pal!

At school and home, things are also changing. There's a new girl in Clementine's class who looks set to cause trouble. And at Penberthy House, Drew and Will have become such frequent visitors that Clementine begins to wonder whether a very special promise is about to be made.

This is book 11 in the Clementine Rose series, and I know young readers will grab it with glee. As usual, there are lots of things they will relate to in the book - Clementine Rose has to say goodbye to her best friend (sob) and still manages to blurt out things that get her into trouble. There's a new girl at school who is mean, and a mystery surrounding the intentions of Drew towards Clementine Rose’s mother. The characters are quirky and believable, and there's lots of tension and humour for readers to enjoy. Harvey wrote the Alice-Miranda series which is also much appreciated by the target readership - younger girls. Recommended for kids 7+.

Coco Banjo and the Super Wow Surprise

Written and illustrated by N. J. Gemmell, and published by Penguin Random House Australia (2016), Coco Banjo and the Super Wow Surprise has the RRP of $14.99. (I reviewed Coco Banjo has been Unfriended in my Bookish Christmas Gift Suggestions for Kids 2016.)

From the publisher:

YIPPEE! It's the holidays! Time for glorious summer days and fun with friends.

Coco's mum is still travelling, but she arranges the BEST surprises.

One surprise is in a box delivered by Coco's best friend, N.

The next surprise is an invention called the Skip Back Machine. What does it do?

And the biggest surprise is tickets to a concert by Coco's favourite pop star, Prince Louis!

But . . . what if N isn't allowed to go? Coco has a big decision to make .

Gemmell is another author who understands that many many young readers love to find a series they enjoy. It gives them the chance to get to know a character and an expectation of enjoyment in any book to come. Coco Banjo is a very likeable heroine - she’s impulsive, loyal, misses her mum (who’s working away from home) and is learning to be brave. Gemmell’s fun sketches and crazy fonts will definitely appeal to today’s kids, as will the zany situations Coco gets herself into.

My Life and Other Exploding Chickens

My Life and Other Exploding Chickens was written by Tristan Bancks, illustrated by Gus Gordon and published by Random House Australia (2016). RRP: $15.99.

From the publisher:

Have you ever done a runner from the dentist? Are you petrified of clowns? Have giant headlice tried to eat you? Have you ever been attacked by Library Ninjas when your book was five years overdue? And have you come up with a genius way to never do homework again? All of these things have happened to me. I'm Tom Weekly. My life is an exploding chicken and the book in your hands is my attempt to glue it back together again.

Poor Tom Weekly! Unfortunately, but understandably, kids are more likely to laugh uproariously at him than to sympathise. And that’s what we want - humour is a most wonderful way to introduce kids to the idea that reading can truly be fun. Add a little grossness and sell them completely! Bancks understands that some kids want short, intense, hilarious stories with plots they can relate to, and characters they understand. If readers aren’t pulled in by the title and Gordon’s cartoon illustrations, share a little of each of Tom’s disasters adventures in My Life and Other Exploding Chickens to win them over for sure.

Friday Barnes: No Rules

Friday Barnes: No Rules is a middle grade chapter book written by R. A. Spratt and published by Penguin Random House Australia (2015).

From the publisher:

What if every clue points in the wrong direction?

Friday Barnes has been deported to Switzerland! With their in-school detective gone, Highcrest Academy has descended into chaos. Someone's fired all the teachers!

The Headmaster claims it wasn't him, and suspicion soon turns to Ian Wainscott, but Friday won't stand by and let her favourite nemesis take the blame. Apart from being innocent (probably), he's seriously good-looking. There's also the problem of the new vice principal and his questionable teaching methods. It's hard to take someone seriously when they wear tie-dyed t-shirts. Can Friday save Ian's scholarship? Can she find the prankster before they bring down the school? Can she run the cross country? She's certainly going to try . . . to do the first two, anyway.

Friday Barnes is a quirky character, yet one kids will relate to. You may remember I have reviewed Spratt’s chapter books:The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, and Nanny Piggins and the Race to Power, as well as Friday Barnes: Girl Detective and Friday Barnes: Under Suspicion Again Friday has to solve problems with her own special brand of deductive reasoning and the help (and hindrance!) of some very unusual characters.

I love that these sorts of series capture children’s interest and imaginations, and have them begging for more. If you think your kids will enjoy a book with a strong heroine, an interesting plot and lashings of humour and wry commentary, do seek out the Friday Barnes series.

The Selected Adventures of Bottersnikes and Gumbles

A quote from my review:

Apart from holding a wonderful environmental message, my students found the books full of humour and excitement. They LOVED little Tinkingumble, the one Gumble who has brilliant ideas that come to him with a clear “tink” like a bell. They loved the cunning plans as different Gumbles saved their friends from the mean and cranky Bottersnikes. They loved the detail of the cleverly built world Wakefield constructed and they adored that Gumble goodness triumphed over bad Bottersnikes.
Read my whole review of this great chapter book here.

Wicked’s Way:

Kids 8 - 12 who enjoyed Horrendo's Curse will be thrilled to read there’s a new book set in that same world. Written by Anna Fienburg and published by Allen and Unwin, 2016, it’s called Wicked’s Way, a title that certainly hints of excitement and problems to overcome.

From the publisher:

Will could walk a tightrope and juggle bananas as he went. 'One day you'll be the star of a circus,' his mother told him. 'But until then, you must be a secret.' For each year pirates came to the islands to steal young boys for their crew. And if that happened to you, well, you may as well kiss your life goodbye. So what's a young lad to do when his mother disappears and pirates arrive at his door?

Will takes courage from a crazy truth-telling parrot, and his mother's advice: 'Keep putting one foot in front of the other and your eyes on the prize.' But will this be enough to survive the perils at sea? And will that infuriatingly polite boy called Horrendo finally tip the balance?

A high-seas pirate adventure about scoundrels and blaggards, devilish treachery, and finding the most precious treasure of all.

A main character who walks the tightrope. A beloved but missing mother. Adventures on the high seas. Humour. Action. Problems to solve. A parrot to care for. And a friend and saviour called Treasure. What more could a reader want? Do look out for this longish 32 chapter novel and get it for your homes and libraries.

Raymie Nightingale

I really enjoy Kate DiCamillo’s books, so I was eager to read her latest middle-grade novel for kids 9+. Raymie Nightingale was written by Kate DiCamillo and published in Australia by Walker Books, (2016) (Candlewick in USA.)

From the publisher:

Raymie Clarke has come to realize that everything, absolutely everything, depends on her. And she has a plan. If Raymie can win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father, who left town two days ago with a dental hygienist, will see Raymie’s picture in the paper and (maybe) come home. To win, not only does Raymie have to do good deeds and learn how to twirl a baton; she also has to contend with the wispy, frequently fainting Louisiana Elefante, who has a show-business background, and the fiery, stubborn Beverly Tapinski, who’s determined to sabotage the contest. But as the competition approaches, loneliness, loss, and unanswerable questions draw the three girls into an unlikely friendship — and challenge each of them to come to the rescue in unexpected ways.

It’s sheer pleasure to read books by highly skilled writers! DiCamillo puts us squarely in Raymie’s point of view - we try to work out what’s going on in Raymie’s life as, bewildered, she encounters the book’s other main characters and interacts with them. The other baton-twirlers: Beverly Tapinski - who seems eternally angry and wants to sabotage the Little Miss Central Florida Tire Competition; and Louisiana Elefante, offspring of the Flying Elefantes and probably a shoo-in for that same competition. Raymie has convinced herself that her dad will see her picture in the paper if SHE wins the contest, abandon the dental hygienist he ran off with, and return to Raymie and her mother. 

There’s lots of humour, snappy dialogue from quirky characters, tension as we grow to care about Raymie and her potentially flawed plan and overall, that immensely satisfying feeling of being completely drawn into someone’s world.

The Turners

My next recommendation arrived Chez Chook gift-wrapped and accompanied by a card warning me not to open it until my thirteenth birthday. I waited and waited. Finally it dawned on me that my thirteenth birthday would never actually come again, so I opened said parcel. The Turners was written by Mick Elliot and published by Hachette Australia (2016). RRP: $Au14.99

From the publisher:

Leo Lennox has an epic problem: it's his thirteenth birthday and he has just grown a tail.

You'd think that growing a tail in the middle of the school library would be the worst thing that could happen to you, but Leo is about to discover that things can always get worse - and a whole lot weirder. Now, as he discovers an unthinkable family secret, Leo must team up with his infuriating older sister to escape snake-skinned henchmen, ancient shape-shifters and a whispering villain determined to feed him to a pack of genetically engineered killer pigs - all while trying to control his new shape-shifting powers. 

The first instalment of a trilogy from the funniest new Australian kids' author in years.

You know those chapter books that you pick up for just a minute, intending a quick skim? Ha! I defy anyone with a sense of humour to put this book down. From the beginning where I actually thought I felt my own reptilian tail growing, to my hysteria as the hero-tuurned-komodo tried to assuage his hunger on his classmates and perhaps the school librarian, through to increasing plot twists and gags involving an attack of Vipermen, surfing on sharks, and more shape-shifting and hair-raising adventures than you could ever believe would fit between two book covers, I was riveted by The Turners and I know kids will be too.

The Snow Pony

This is a 15th Anniversary Edition of The Snow Pony, by Alison Lester, published by Allen and Unwin, 2016. RRP: $16.99.

From the publisher:

Only Dusty can ride the wild Snow Pony. And no one but Dusty will trust her. Three years of drought have reduced the Riley's farm to a dirt patch and strained the family to breaking point. A trip to the mountains to muster their cattle promises a fresh start, but sudden violence erupts into the peaceful landscape. Now Dusty and her beautiful brumby are tested as never before.

I really enjoyed The Snow Pony. It’s set in Australian alpine country and tells us about Dusty Riley and her family, and also a girl from Dusty’s high school, Jade, and her family. The two girls’ lives entwine when Jade wags school for a week, and Dusty, her dad and brother go mustering up on the high plains. We get to know the two girls really well, but also recognise many of the other characters: Grunter, the local policeman; Horse and Neville, the two low-lifes; Jeannie, Jade’s fun-loving and flighty mother. All Lester’s characters are real, and the plot of The Snow Pony is full of tension and action.

I know that young people who love horse stories will grab this novel, but I hope other readers will too. It’s a great book for young teens who like realistic adventures. The publisher suggests the book is for 10 - 14 year-olds. I would err on the side of caution and recommend it to kids 12+ because of a scene where a man begins to force himself on young Jade, grabbing her breast and calling her a “b$#ch”. The main girl characters are both 14 - 15.

The Stars at Oktober Bend:

This YA novel was written by Glenda Millard and published by Allen and Unwin, 2016. RRP: $Au19.99

From the publisher:

Alice is fifteen, with hair as red as fire and skin as pale as bone, but something inside her is broken. She has acquired brain injury, the result of an assault, and her words come out slow and slurred. But when she writes, heartwords fly from her pen. She writes poems to express the words she can't say and leaves them in unexpected places around the town. Manny was once a child soldier. He is sixteen and has lost all his family. He appears to be adapting to his new life in this country, where there is comfort and safety, but at night he runs, barefoot, to escape the memory of his past. When he first sees Alice, she is sitting on the rusty roof of her river-house, looking like a carving on an old-fashioned ship sailing through the stars.
Some characters tug at your heartstrings immediately. Alice, the heroine of The Stars at Oktober Bend, has big obstacles to overcome. Yet her voice is pragmatic, never whiny, and she has such a strong and shining spirit you hope desperately she will be happy. Millard settles us deep into Alice’s point of view, writing in first person, hinting at Alice’s trauma and brain injury through her sometimes jerky voice, lack of capital letters and snippets of her poetry. Other characters are beautifully drawn as well, realistic and, if not always admirable, then definitely understandable.

It’s not just plot and characters that are stand-out features of The Stars at October Bend. Millard’s writing in the novel is so often lyrical and evocative. I have long admired Millard’s children’s picture books - you can read my reviews of The Duck and the Darklings, For All Creatures, Isabella’s Garden, and Once a Shepherd. She brings the same freshness of language and ear of a poet to this novel. We understand Alice when she says, "…hope prised open the tiny doors of my caged heart." Feel the despair of "the ravens came later. scratched the sky with sorrows. chased the wrens away…" and rejoice when, "the rescue crew wrapped us all in shining cloth to make us warm. bright as the stars at oktober bend we were…"

Millard gets the balance exactly right between literary fiction and a darn good story. Recommended for teens and adults!


Be Frank with Me:

This novel for adults, written by Julia Claiborne Johnson and published by Allen and Unwin, Australia (2016) was one of those books that grabbed me from its description:

From the publisher:

Meet Frank - a modern nine-year-old boy with the wit of Noel Coward and the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star.

Meet Mimi Banning - reclusive literary legend and mother to Frank. Mimi has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years, keeping her secrets, hiding from the world. Until Alice.

Meet Alice - a level-headed young woman who finds herself thrust into the Banning household, charged with looking after Mimi's unusual son. Alice doesn't want mysteries, she doesn't want eccentricity and she certainly doesn't want a love-affair. But she finds all of them under the Banning roof. In so doing, she discovers a part of herself she never knew was missing.

Full of heart and humour, Be Frank With Me is a captivating and unconventional story of an unusual mother and son, and the intrepid young woman who finds herself irresistibly pulled into their unforgettable world.

I do love a great story with humour and heart, and I'm definitely partial to appealing child characters and narrators with dry wit. But what keeps me reading I think is that almost indefinable quality of outstanding writing. The story must be well-crafted, and sweep me up into the fictive dream. Certainly I found what I wanted in Be Frank with Me.

The pace was fast; the humour delightful. I never really felt that Kate was laughing at Frank so much as subtly revealing his endearing though strange qualities to us. Frank himself was one of those kids who start by driving you crazy in a classroom, but end by being the one you’d love to adopt. His quirks are fun, and his dialogue spot-on for his character. Johnson’s research and writing skill underpin it all. Definitely one to look out for!

Find more Children's Book Reviews on The Book Chook by clicking Reviews in the right sidebar.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Children’s Book Review, Be a Friend

Children's Book Review by Susan Stephenson,

Be a Friend is a children’s picture book, created by Salina Yoon and published by Bloomsbury (2016).

From the publisher:

Dennis is an ordinary boy who expresses himself in extraordinary ways. Some children do show-and-tell. Dennis mimes his. Some children climb trees. Dennis is happy to BE a tree . . . But being a mime can be lonely. It isn't until Dennis meets a girl named Joy that he discovers the power of friendship--and how special he truly is! At its core, this book is a heartwarming story of self-acceptance, courage, and unbreakable friendship for anyone who has ever felt "different."

Feeling “different” can, for some children, be cause for rejoicing; for others, it means they feel alone and lonely, convinced there’s isn’t anyone who sees them truly and wants them as a friend. Dennis doesn’t communicate conventionally. Instead he mimes. He also wears the black and white outfit of a classic French mime. When the kids show and tell, Dennis mimes, and the other children call him Mime Boy. While kids climb and play in a tree, Dennis becomes a tree.

“But even trees get lonely sometimes.”

Then Joy arrives in his life, catching his imaginary ball and miming with him. Instead of a wall, it feels as if there is a mirror between them. They don’t speak, because friends don’t need to. Instead they laugh aloud (and with their hands) as they play with the other kids.

Yoon’s illustrations are superb. The movement of mime hands are indicated in strong red dotted lines, the only touch of colour against the black, white and sepia of Dennis’s world until Joy comes along. Each page has striking art work, enhancing what I believe to be a beautiful and important children’s picture book. For those who work with children, there are many opportunities for sharing and discussion, and for enjoyment and reflection. We are all alike and different, but each of us is special.

I believe it’s important to provide reassuring material for kids who do feel like outsiders. Be a Friend is an excellent resource for them. It’s also a great story for sharing with ALL kids, because they get the chance to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. By looking at the world through Dennis and Joy’s eyes, and by participating in constructive discussion about the story, children have the chance to open their minds and develop empathy for anyone deemed “different”. Wonderful!

Find more Children's Book Reviews on The Book Chook by clicking Reviews in the right sidebar.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Children’s iPad App, LumiKids Backyard

Review by Susan Stephenson,

You may remember I reviewed LumiKids Park in February. Here’s another digital play space by developers, Lumos Labs, and it’s just as fun and just as educational. It’s available in iOS and in Android.

From the developer:

** WATCH FRIENDS CONQUER THEIR FEAR OF THE DARK: What’s making that noise in the dark? Shine a light on the bushes to empower your new friends and observe their emotional responses as they conquer their fears.
** HELP WITH BED-TIME ROUTINES: Help the backyard critter with an everyday self-care routine - the sleepy squirrel needs to brush his teeth and get ready for bed.
** LEARN ABOUT QUANTITIES AND WEIGHT: The gang of raccoon bandits is hungry! Help them get to the pies inside of the house by using the right platforms. Try grouping the different sized raccoons to find equal quantities and weights in order to balance the platforms.
** EXPLORE SPATIAL RELATIONSHIPS: Explore flocks of colorful bugs that all fit together like a living puzzle. Figure out how to arrange the bug flocks on to the leaves, seeing how the flocks fit together based on spatial arrangements.
** USE PROBLEM SOLVING AND LOGICAL REASONING: The garden gnomes need your help making their dazzling mushrooms in their underground factory. Using critical thinking and deductive reasoning, identify what pattern they want you to paint on the mushroom and plan how to use their painting machines to create that pattern.

What I liked:

Free is very generous and will be much appreciated by parents looking for something fun but developmentally appropriate for their children under 5. I also liked the way the app has obviously been well planned. Exploring at night is so much fun, and not scary with a light and friendly critters to meet. Helping racoon bandits steal pies by working out how to lower them is fun too - and kids will incidentally learn lots about balancing and equal quantities. There are heaps more problems to solve and critters to interact with, and the art work and animation are truly engaging.

You can see what I mean in the video below.

Where to find it?

I’ll be adding this app to my List of iPad Puzzle Apps for Kids. You may like to check out my iPad App Reviews on Pinterest, and find more apps and articles via my Listly page
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