Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Bookish Christmas Gift Suggestions for Kids, 2015

Bookish Christmas Gift Suggestions for Kids, 2015
by Susan Stephenson,

I’ve rounded up some of my favourite books and bookish gifts to help you decide on Christmas gifts this year. I also want to recommend a book voucher for children whose reading tastes you don’t know well. When kids own the choice they make regarding books, they are so much more likely to WANT to read them, that a voucher frequently makes a truly thoughtful and practical gift. Some kids are not yet sold on reading, so I’ve included “bookish” gifts where they’ll read, but not be daunted by lots of text. For kids who love to read, you'll find books for older readers that I loved as an adult, and for those who like to buy Christmas themed books and bookish fun, you’ll find those too!

Books for Younger Readers (say 6/8-10)

The Cleo Stories: A Friend and a Pet

This book for younger readers was written by Libby Gleeson, illustrated by Freya Blackwood and published by Allen and Unwin (2015). RRP: $Au 16.99

We first met Cleo, the little girl with a big imagination, in The Cleo Stories: The Necklace and the Present. In fact the first book was chosen as the winner of the CBCA’s 2015 Book of the Year Award for Younger Readers. In The Cleo Stories: A Friend and a Pet, Cleo must solve more problems. She needs to work out what to do when boredom is driving her crazy, and how to go about getting a pet of her very own.

Cleo's best friend is away, her parents are busy, and there's nothing to do but count raindrops - or tidy her room. Just when she thinks she'll never cheer up, Cleo has an idea. In the next story, Cleo longs for a pet but her mum and dad say no. Perhaps the answer is hidden somewhere unexpected.
Children don’t need to have read the first Cleo book to appreciate this one, but why not get both? The books are beautifully illustrated junior chapter books that are perfect choices for newly independent readers.

Coco Banjo Has Been Unfriended

Written and illustrated by N.J.Gemmell (Nikki Gemmell), Coco Banjo has been Unfriended is a graphic novel published by Penguin Random House, Australia (2015).

It's time for school camp and some spectacular, Coco-licious adventures!

But two problems could ruin everything . . .

Jay Page is hiding his pet rat in his bag.

Worse, Coco's best friend N wants to join Belle's group.

Has Coco been UNFRIENDED? Can Miss Trample really ban Coco from the disco? Could this camp get any worse?

Coco needs an amazing plan to make things right. Maybe the Prime Minister can help!

Girls 8+ will relate to Coco and take delight in all the bookish bling - decorative fonts, quirky comic-style sketches, fashion notes and wry humour dance from the pages. Gemmell knows how kids talk and what will interest them, and Coco is an impulsive but invincible heroine - fabu-licious!

At My Door

Many of our newly independent readers will be looking for a novel to read, but they are not ready for middle grade chapter books. Here’s a junior novel that might suit them perfectly. At My Door was written by Deb Fitzpatrick and published by Fremantle Press (2015).

Deliveries usually come in a van. Deliveries are often heavy boxes or oddly shaped padded bags. Deliveries do not come late on a school night. They don’t come in a speeding car. And they don’t cry.

When Poppy Campbell’s dad opens the front door to find a small, very distressed child clinging to a green blanket, the family try their hardest to do the right thing. They make the little girl comfortable, call the police, and look after her while the authorities search for her family. Why has this happened? The cops are called in, nappies bought, old toys dug out, and friendships made.

Young readers will quickly relate to Poppy and her brother in this unusual situation. The toddler, Mei, is also totally believable - and loudly distressed. Fitzpatrick includes humour in the story so it’s not too heart-rending for kids, but it will certainly give them pause for thought about children who don’t have stable home lives. Chapters are short, the dialogue authentic and the language structures are kept simple without being boring.

Precious and the Zebra Necklace

Here's a children's book by Alexander McCall Smith, with illustrations by Iain McIntosh, published by BC Books (2015) (NewSouth Books in Australia) is a junior novel I think would suit children 7+.

Do you know McCall Smith’s adult books about Precious Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? This is the latest of his books for children, set in those years when Precious was still a child. She is an alert and curious youngster with a very kind heart who loves to solve mysteries. When she meets a new friend Nancy, Precious does everything she can to help Nancy solve the mystery of her past. The language is simple, and despite a dangerous night time encounter with some cranky elephants, the story is a gentle one, well-told. It’s a also a wonderful way for children to engage with the lives of other kids who live in Botswana.

McIntosh’s name is not on the front cover of my hardback edition. I think he deserves much credit for contributing another layer to the book. His art work is in the form of wood-block style borders, cameos and chapter headers, that add a wonderful colour and flavour to Precious and the Zebra Necklace. The illustrations break up the text, and the large font helps make the novel more accessible to young readers.

Pig Dude

Pig Dude is the main character in this 64 page book by Michael Wagner, illustrated by Adam Nickel and published by Billy Goat Books (2015).

You are good at many things,’ Mama said. ‘In fact, you can do anything.’

Mama truly believes in Pig Dude, but can he really do anything? There’s only one way to find out. It’s time for Pig Dude to attempt the IMPOSSIBLE!

Follow Pig Dude on a hair-raising, heart-warming adventure that celebrates what can be achieved when someone believes in you.

The little guy’s determination to fly and hilarious misadventures will strike a chord with kids everywhere. Children will also understand why Pig Dude almost gives up, because we all have those moments when the odds seem stacked against us. The abundance of striking cartoon-style illustrations, the large print and the uncomplicated sentence structure makes this book a perfect match for readers who need to be charmed not challenged. You can read the first 15 pages at Billy Goat Books website.

When Luke Skywalker Met Yoda and When R2-D2 saved the secret plans

When Luke Skywalker Met Yoda and When R2-D2 saved the secret plans (lack of capitals hard to believe for second title, but true to the actual cover), were both written by Michael Siglain, with Art by Stephane Roux and Pilot Studio, and published by ChirpyBird, an imprint of Hardie Grant Egmont (2015). I would say the books target readers 5-8, but they would also work as a read-aloud for younger kids, and perhaps for (slightly) older kids who find reading difficult.

For young Star Wars fans, or kids who just love action, adventure and lots of great illustrations to help the text along, here are two exciting tales. They feel true to the original movies and yet have very simple sentence structures to help beginning or struggling readers. The vocabulary is also mostly simple except for such necessary words as Imperial, droid, stormtroopers, Tatooine etc, in other words, vocabulary to give it the necessary Star Wars flavour. The illustrations have not tried to copy the movie, but are authentic to the movie - cartoon style and full of drama e.g. Darth Vader looks like his Royal Meanness and emanates power, but Leia’s face is nothing like the “real” Leia (who will always be Carrie Fisher, to me).

Puzzle and Pop-up Books

These make great stocking stuffers, and present lots of opportunities for reading, while the emphasis remains firmly on fun.

The Anti-Boredom Book of Brilliant Things to Do, The Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff, and The Silly Book of Weird and Wacky Words, are all by Andy Seed and Scott Garrett, and published by Bloomsbury (2015).

Let’s face it, there are times in all our lives when the situation calls for nibbles at a text rather than the luxury of a long uninterrupted read. If you know a child who enjoys language, who loves challenges, puzzles and messing about with words, do seek out this set of books from Bloomsbury. Any of them would make a great companion on a long trip or an excellent alternative to screen-based games. They are available in paperback, PDF or e-pub formats.

At the Beach by Roland Harvey - Book and Jigsaw Puzzle

I love Roland Harvey’s books and especially his illustrations. At the Beach is a wonderful Australian classic where we learn about a family’s holiday in Crabby Spit via their postcards to their Grandma. The postcards are very funny because they are typical postcards from kids, telling Grandma what the highlights have been for them. The illustrations in this children’s picture book are amazingly detailed so that kids will have lots of fun working out what’s going on, and spying all the things mentioned.

Including a 150 piece jigsaw puzzle of one of the scenes from At the Beach is sheer genius - thank you, Allen and Unwin! Families can have fun doing the puzzle together, and this will be an excellent opportunity to discuss the image and use vocabulary that will help children internalise language from the book.

At the Beach Book and Jigsaw Puzzle has a recommended RRP of $Au 19.99. Great value!

Acorn Farm - Pop-up, Press-Out and Play!

Acorn Farm is part story, part toy. It’s a sturdy hardback book by Maggie Bateson and Nicola Slater, published by Simon and Schuster Children’s UK (2015). RRP: $AU 29.99

The book starts with a story. Jasper wants to find a missing lamb, but is distracted by Mum who wants him to do chores. We see several illustrations and the story ends with another task for Jasper - to bring up a baby duck. BUT THEN, there are several pages of press out cards which become standable pieces for re-telling the story. AND THEN, we open the last part of the book and it’s a gorgeous pop-up farmhouse with opening doors, and the fold out reveals other pop-up buildings too.

What fun children will have making up their own stories using the card pieces as props and the farm as a backdrop! No, the book would not be a good choice for a youngster who likes to destroy things, but for children who will respect the limitations of card, it makes a versatile, educational and enjoyable gift.

Tashi and the Magic Carpet and Tashi and The Big Scoop - Stories and Activities

These two colourful books are based on the new TV series and inspired by the original Tashi books by Anna and Barbara Fienberg. While there is an exciting story in each, this is not the original text. However it may well be an introduction to the actual Tashi books for your kids/students, especially if they have seen the animated series on TV. There’s also a nice activity section in each book - irresistible invitations to write, word puzzles, jokes etc - created by Meredith Costain.

Tasha and the Magic Carpet

Tashi and Jack are looking for a gift for Can Du's birthday, but when Second Uncle gives them a magic carpet they get much more than they bargained for. Will they be able to get the birthday boy back to his party . and save their village from destruction?

Giants, ghosts, witches, bandits, demons, dragons . Tashi, Jack and Lotus Blossom are ready for anything!

Tasha and the Big Scoop

Jack and Tashi want to create a newspaper, but Tiki Pu always seems to have the scoop. However, when giants and ogres get involved, the news gets too big for the village bellringer.

Giants, ghosts, witches, bandits, demons, dragons . Tashi, Jack and Lotus Blossom are ready for anything!

Christmas-themed Picture Books

Are you one of those people who likes to have a book to do with Christmas among your children's pile of presents? Perhaps a librarian who knows children will love to borrow a book to stoke their own excitement? Read on to find some newly published books you might like.

The Naughtiest Reindeer at the Zoo

This children’s picture book was written and illustrated by Nicki Greenberg and published by Allen and Unwin (2015). RRP: $Au15.99

Do you recall my review of The Naughtiest Reindeer in the Chookeriffic Children’s Book Giveaway 2013? Like its predecessor, The Naughtiest Reindeer at the Zoo is a “… picture book that captures a corner of Christmas and makes it magical.”

This Christmas, Ruby's family is visiting Granny and Pop, whose house full of breakable items is not the place for a very naughty reindeer. So Ruby is sent to the zoo for the holidays, and she has to bunk in with the stuck-up antelopes and the fussy zebras, which is no fun at all for an excitable reindeer.

So on Christmas Eve, Ruby opens all the enclosures hoping for fabulous festivities and feasting - and creates chaos! With all the animals on the loose, and Santa delayed from delivering all his presents - how can Ruby right her wrongs and save Christmas for everyone?

Kids will love Ruby’s mischief and the hilarious situations that result. Greenberg’s rollicking rhyme and rhythm gallop the story along like a herd of reindeer, while the illustrations simply explode with colour and fun. If you’re looking for a Christmas-themed picture book, The Naughtiest Reindeer at the Zoo is a great choice for families and libraries.

The Mice and the Shoemaker

When I was a child, Christmas meant book gifts. I can still remember most of them, and the delight they brought me as I read them over and over. I particularly loved the pop-up version of Cinderella I received, with its richly coloured illustrations.

My childhood is a long time ago, and yet I still meet children who love and look after books the way I did. If you’re looking for a special book for such a child, seek out The Mice and the Shoemaker, created by Australian author/illustrator, Gabriel Evans, and published by Five Mile Press (2015). RRP: $Au29.95

I love the way the pop-ups sometimes conceal a surprise, and that this traditional tale been given a Christmas theme. It’s a large, sturdy, delightfully illustrated book that I hope will become a loved family favourite.

Reindeer’s Christmas Surprise

This children’s picture book was written by Ursula Dubosarsky, illustrated by Sue deGennaro and published by Allen and Unwin (2015). RRP: $Au 19.99

It's Christmas time in Australia, and Reindeer has great fun giving presents to his friends -- Cat, Dog and Guinea Pig. But even when it's warm and sunny outside, it's hard to be far from home and family on Christmas Eve. Luckily, Christmas is a time for exciting surprises, and this year Reindeer might just get one of his very own...

Dubosarsky tells the tale of Reindeer’s Christmas with gentle humour. Kids will love the magic of the refrain: 'What's inside -- what can it be? Open it and you will see!' and love to chant it. They’ll understand Reindeer’s longing for his family, and rejoice in his visitors. I wish I could be a fly on the wall to witness all the discussions as children try to determine exactly what IS in the sack left for Reindeer.

The illustrations are delightful - you can’t help wanting to scoop up all the animals and cuddle them, especially Reindeer. There are lots of details to explore and giggle over - I especially liked Cat’s tree house, complete with Christmas ornaments, alarm clock, teapot and pile of books! This will make a truly delightful gift.

We're Going on a Santa Hunt

Written by Laine Mitchell and illustrated by Louis Shea, this children's picture book was published by Scholastic Australia (2015). RRP: $Au 19.99

We’re going on a Santa hunt.
We’re going to find the jolly one!
I can’t wait. Presents for you and me!

Race with the animals as they try to deliver their letters to Santa before it’s too late! But look out for chugging trains, running reindeer, busy elves and more obstacles in their way! Sing along to the bonus CD by favourite children’s entertainer Jay Laga’aia too!

As you will quickly realise, Mitchell has chosen a rhythm reminiscent of We're Going on a Lion Hunt. Lots of children will know the picture book or even the tale that book is based on, and will enjoy that familiarity and fun. Active kids will appreciate the ninja leaps and bounces, the chugging and the charges as the four animal friends go on their hunt for Santa.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Are you looking for a picture book that's not only Christmassy but has a CD to accompany it so children can listen and read along? Nathaniel Eckstrom has illustrated Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots' song, Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Published by Scholastic Australia (2015), it's accompanied by a CD of Human Nature singing the song. RRP: $Au19.99

You better watch out, you better not cry,
You better not pout, I'm telling you why...

Come along with Bear, Lion, Monkey, Giraffe and Mouse as they travel by train, plane and bicycle to tell EVERYONE their exciting news — Santa Claus is coming to town!
Sing along with Human Nature’s hugely popular CD recording of the much-loved Christmas song!

Eckstrom's illustrations are gently colourful with lovely detail for kids to smile over - e.g. the page about Santa finding out who's naughty and nice features a very long-necked giraffe gazing at the Nice list where Mouse is crossing out Lion's name.

Books for Older Kids (say 9+)

Friday Barnes: Big Trouble

This middle-grade novel was written by R.A.Spratt and published by Random House Australia (2015). I've previously reviewed Friday Barnes: Girl Detective, and Friday Barnes: Under Suspicion. R. A Spratt also wrote the entrancing Nanny Piggins books.

In Friday Barnes: Big Trouble we get to see more of Friday’s amazing parents, in particular her father. He raises absentmindedness to new heights - ‘“He wouldn’t notice if you tied him to train tracks in front of an oncoming train,” said Friday.’ - when he (eventually) raises the alarm about his wife being kidnapped. Not only must Friday solve this dilemma, she needs to look after her helpless father, help Highcrest’s Headmaster, and work out what’s going on with master thief, the Aquamarine Pimpernel. As usual, Friday’s scorching intellect and lack of social skills play a big part in this tale filled with quirky characters and amazing twists.

If you’re looking for a chapter book with a strong female heroine, lots of humour, problems to solve and a world kids will readily engage in, grab Friday Barnes: Big Trouble.

Magisterium: The Copper Gauntlet

I spoke of Magisterium: The Copper Gauntlet earlier this week. I think it will make a terrific book gift for kids who want something full of action, humour and intrigue.

The Dreamsnatcher 

This is another intriguing novel for 10+. Here’s an excerpt from my review: "The tension is real and believable, the problems are tricky, and kids will be riveted by Moll’s adventures."


Wordburger was written by David Astle and published by Allen and Unwin (2015). RRP:$Au 14.99.

Word wizard David Astle has come up with a sneaky way to introduce children to the mechanics of cryptic crossword puzzles, by taking them through different kinds of wordplay - anagrams, pangrams, spoonerisms, tongue-twisters, homophones - before presenting them with crossword puzzles to solve using everything learnt so far. 'DA' puns and word plays abound, making this the word nerd's bible of wordy trickery and puzzling.
Wordburger is a book aimed at young people who are interested in words - who love word play and diving down rabbit holes to discover fascinating facts about our language. It's one of those books you can dip into, but if kids work through it, they'll find they have acquired some very useful skills. In chapter 19, Astle reveals he's been leading up to an explanation of cryptic crossword clues. These sometimes fiendishly clever puzzles develop children's ability to think critically and problem solve.

But the great thing about Wordburger, I believe, is that it shares the author's own love of word play and wry observations about the language changes in our society. If you know someone who adores cornering his parents to read aloud snippets of information, or someone who ROFLs with friends over the humour of double meanings, do check out Wordburger.

An e-book and an app

If you’re looking for a different kind of bookish stocking stuffer, you can’t go past an e-book or an app, since neither occupy much space.

That's Wild!

Here’s an e-book, written by Julie Murphy, with cover art by Richard van Hoesel, and available at the Authors Unlimited website. That’s Wild! is a collection of short, fascinating articles on a range of subjects related to animals. Murphy knows how to talk to kids, and discusses topics that delve into the wild, wacky and truly wonderful.

Each article has a guide to indicate ease of reading (based on ATOS statistical scores). Activities, Fun Facts and internet links provide further opportunities for exploration, to inspire kids to further learning. It might just help busy parents and teachers too!

This book has something for everyone: from camouflage to communication, freaky behaviour to finding food, and seriously weird animal names to a wacky dating technique involving the colour blue. We’ve got wildlife, pets, farm animals and zoos covered.
If your young zoologist prefers non-fiction, or if your kids struggle a little with longer denser text, this little e-book is available for $Au4.99 in ePub or .mobi formats.

App, Axel Scheffler’s Flip Flap Jungle

I told you about the book, Axel Scheffler’s Flip Flap Safari in my article, Top Book Gifts for Kids 2014. Here’s a new way for kids to play with words and images in the form of an iPad app from respected developer, Nosy Crow.

What do you get when you cross a monkey with a porcupine? Why, a monkupine, of course! What about a leopard with a armadillo? Well, that would be a leopadillo, naturally!

The third brilliant app in the hugely popular Flip Flap series, Axel Scheffler’s Flip Flap Jungle features eleven brand new animals and poems, from the UK’s best-selling illustrator. With 121 possible combinations, silly names and animal noises to make you giggle, this hilarious rhyming app is perfect for pre-schoolers.

Swipe any part of the screen to create new animals and hear the poem read aloud, with original sound effects, jungle music, and text highlighting.

If you’re buying a gift for youngsters who are not yet sure they love to read, and you want something inexpensive and educational but fun, take a look at Axel Scheffler’s Flip Flap Jungle app. The app is intuitive and works well, while the rhymes and art work will make kids giggle. Children won’t realise that hearing the words read aloud while they “read” along with the highlighted words is a great way to develop their reading skills. However, they WILL appreciate the game of creating mixed up animals, and I hope they’ll soon decide to create a flip flap book of their own!

Book Gifts for the Whole Family

The Bumper Book of Peanuts by Charles Schulz, published by A and U Canongate (2015) RRP: $Au 35.00

A newly created bumper collection of the very best strips from the golden age of Peanuts. Charles Schulz's Peanuts strips and characters are loved internationally, appealing to fans young and old since they first appeared in the 1950s. The Bumper Book of Peanuts takes fans back to the golden age of Peanuts, gathering the very best of the strip from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Packed with strips featuring Snoopy, Woodstock, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and the rest of the beloved gang, this beautifully produced bumper collection is sure to delight Peanuts fans of all generations.
Sometimes you need a special book for the coffee table, a book visitors can pick up and browse through and find something they remember. Maybe you want a book your youngster sees other family members reading and wants to read himself. Perhaps you remember and still love Peanuts and plan to buy this collection for yourself. Don’t hesitate! Folk around here have been reading the black and white strips aloud, claiming to have found the best bit and loudly persuading others to like their own favourite characters. Young visitors have had the chance to witness one way adults engage with books. I think The Bumper Book of Peanuts makes an excellent Christmas gift for your whole extended family!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Illustrated Edition

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Illustrated Edition was written by J.K Rowling, illustrated by Jim Kay and published by Bloomsbury, 2015. I reviewed it in November. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

I was reminded all over again what a master Storyteller Rowling is. I was instantly in awe of Kay’s artistic skills, particularly the detailed images of places like Diagon Alley, the character traits he was able to portray in portraits, the fun of double page spreads like Newt Scamander’s Guide to Trolls.
I think this beautifully illustrated novel deserves a place in every family’s home. It’s the sort of book youngsters with freshly washed hands can sit and page through with Grandma. It’s one anyone who knows the books or movies will be fascinated by. If you’re looking for a bookish heirloom, this may be it!

The Princess and the Pony

Of all Kate Beaton's (the creator behind webcomic Hark! A Vagrant) creations, it's always been the fat pony I've loved best. Imagine my delight when I discovered  that this year Walker Books had published The Princess and the Pony! (Arthur A Levine in USA.)

The teeny tiniest of adorable farting ponies gives the biggest of laughs in this riotously inventive new title from Kate Beaton, the artist behind the bestselling Hark! A Vagrant.

Our feisty heroine, Princess Pinecone, is understandably tired of receiving  cosy sweaters each birthday. This year she wants a fast strong horse, one suitable for the mighty warrior she imagines herself to be. Alas, the birthday pony is small, round and seems to have only two accomplishments: eating and farting. Can the Great Battle be anything other than a failure for the Princess and her pony? 

I cannot believe any member of your family will not love this gorgeous picture book! To add to the fun, why not purchase the pony in plush too? The Princess and the Pony makes a great reason to share a picture book across the generations during your holiday celebrations

You might also be interested in checking out my recent posts: Recommended Books for Older Readers November 2015, Reviews: Recent Children’s Picture Books about Animals, 2015 (3) and A Sleigh Load of Fun Christmas Ideas for Kids.  Find lots of suggestions for gifts in last year’s Top Book Gifts for Kids 2014.

And as always, find more Children's Book Reviews on The Book Chook by clicking Reviews in the right sidebar.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Recommended Books for Older Readers, November 2015

Recommended Books for Older Readers, November 2015
by Susan Stephenson,

Earlier in the year, I revealed my plan to bring you reviews of books I would recommend for older readers. “Older readers” means you will find book here for kids 10-12 and/or Books for Teens. Below those books, you’ll find BOOKS for ADULTS.

Books for 10+

Counting by 7s is a chapter book, written by Holly Goldberg Sloan. It’s published by Scholastic in Australia and PenguinRandomHouse in the USA. It’s classified as YA in my library and middle grade by the publisher. I think it’s somewhere between the two. I can imagine voracious 11 and 12 year-old readers devouring it, but I honestly think young teens will enjoy it too. I adored the main character, Willow, an extremely intelligent and quirky twelve-year-old. When Willow’s parents die, she learns to cope with the help of other realistic and well-drawn characters. There are many moments of humour, as well as drama, and I have no hesitation in recommending Counting by 7s to readers 10+ who want realistic fiction with characters they can care about.

Magisterium: The Copper Gauntlet by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare is a chapter book I would recommend to children 10+ who enjoy exciting fantasy. It’s published by Random House in Australia (2015) and Scholastic in USA (2015).

From the publisher:

The Alkahest - a copper gauntlet capable of separating certain magicians from their magic - has been stolen. And in their search to discover the culprit, Call and his friends awaken the attention of some very dangerous foes - and get closer to an even more dangerous truth.

As the mysteries of the Magisterium deepen and widen, bestselling authors Holly Black and Cassandra Clare take readers on an extraordinary journey through one boy's conflict -and a whole world's fate.

The story continues the tale begun in The Iron Trial. (My review here.) This time, Callum has more problems to solve. He suspects he may be an evil overlord. That in fact he is possessed by an evil mage and murderer. He also thinks his father is trying to kill him. Luckily he can rely on some help from his friends Aaron (a Makar who can control Chaos magic ) and Tamara, another young mage who attends the Magisterium, and his faithful hound, Havoc (aka a Chaos-ridden wolf) Add the annoying Jasper deWinter to the mix and sparks are guaranteed!

Clare and Black continue to produce the goods in this second book of the Magesterium series. While I did find the first part of the novel a little slow, I quickly changed my mind once Call made it back to the Magesterium. The authentic young teen voice and wry humour will definitely appeal to kids who will understand Call’s dilemma about his own morality, and chortle over his list dividing his actions into those of a normal kid or those of an Evil Overlord. The well-built world of present day USA mixed with magical beings like Elementals and zombie-like Chaos-ridden people makes The Copper Gauntlet at the same time believable and terrifying, a heady mix!

The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone, published by Simon and Schuster (2015) is a chapter book I think would make an exciting read for kids who are 10+.

From the publisher:

Twelve-year-old Molly Pecksniff wakes one night in the middle of the forest, lured there by a recurring nightmare - the one with the drums and the rattles and the masks. The Dreamsnatcher is waiting. He has already taken her dreams and now he wants her life. Because Moll is more important than she knows… The Oracle Bones foretold that she and Gryff, a wildcat that has always been by her side, are the only ones who can fight back against the Dreamsnatcher's dark magic. Suddenly everything is at stake, and Moll is drawn into a world full of secrets, magic and adventure.

I loved the details of the world Elphinstone created - Romany gypsy lore and culture is woven with an intriguing plot and exotic and fascinating characters: a strong heroine, scary villains with dead eyes, foes who become friends, wild cats, horses and a pet worm called Porridge the Second, all compete for the reader’s enjoyment. The tension is real and believable, the problems are tricky, and kids will be riveted by Moll’s adventures.

Fuzzy Mud : I really enjoyed Holes by the same author so was keen to take a look at his recent chapter book. I wasn’t disappointed. Fuzzy Mud was written by Louis Sachar, and published by Bloomsbury (2015). RRP: $Au 19.99  My green fluoro hardback edition comes partially covered with a notice: “WARNING CONTAMINATION ZONE”, almost daring young readers to open it.

From the publisher:

If you go down to the woods today ... Well, every child knows NOT to, don't they?
Tamaya is on a scholarship to the prestigious Woodridge Academy and every day she and seventh-grader Marshall walk to school together. They never go through the woods. And when they arrive at school they stop talking to each other – because Marshall can't be seen to be friends with a little kid like Tamaya. Especially not with Chad around. Chad-the-bully, who makes Marshall's life utterly miserable. But today, hoping to avoid Chad, Marshall and Tamaya decide to go through the woods ... And what is waiting there for them is strange, sinister and entirely unexpected.

No way could I start reading Fuzzy Mud and put it aside. I gobbled up all 180 pages in one sitting, frequently having to remind myself to breathe. The characters are all people that kids will recognise; the tension is almost unrelenting, but there are some feel-good moments toward the end that come as a great relief. Sachar is an excellent writer who has the balance of horror and not-horror exactly right. Fuzzy Mud is definitely one to recommend to kids who are brave enough to take it though!

Paper Towns is a YA novel by John Green, published by Harper Collins.  I loved The Fault in our Stars, which I reviewed in Recommended Books for Older Readers, June 2015, and very much enjoyed this novel for teens too. It’s about eighteen-year-old Quentin, Q to his friends, who lives next door to the enigmatic but adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman. Q has loved Margo from afar for years - she is one of the cool kids, while Q is a nerd. One night, Margo appears at his window and persuades Q to accompany her on a night of revenge. The next day, Margo has disappeared and it’s up to Q and his friends to try to find her via some cryptic clues she has left.

Because there’s now a film of the book, I believe teens will be interested in Paper Towns, even if they don’t know Green’s other books. I predict they will love the humour, the authentic dialogue and characters, and enjoy the puzzle solving Q embarks upon. I hope they will also appreciate the way Green puts us inside his character’s heads, and makes their world totally real for us so we are caught up in the fictive dream.


I wanted to clearly delineate this section so you will immediately realise the books below are not written for children. Children’s (and teen’s books) can be found above.

Dressing the Naked Hand is a non-fiction book about puppetry, written for adults but teens would also appreciate it. It’s subtitled The World’s Greatest Guide to Making, Staging, and Performing with Puppets, was created by Amy White, Mark H. Pulman and Dallin Blankenship .and published by Familius LLC (USA) and Exisle Publishing in Australia (2015).

From the publisher:

With tons of color photographs and over 2 hours of hilarious instructional videos, Dressing the Naked Hand is the perfect how-to book for all levels of puppetry skill, from beginners to master artisans. With instructions on making hand puppets, turning stuffed animals into puppets, building mechanical puppets, finding accessories, performing, inventing voices, building stages, and more, this is the most comprehensive book of its kind. And with jokes and puppet humor throughout, it’s not just a handbook—it’s a joy to read!

I have always loved puppets for what they offer children, with creative thinking, bringing literature to life, performance, characterisation, and sheer unmitigated FUN just the start. I have also made my own puppets, but never been very happy with the results. Why didn’t I have access to this brilliant book (and videos)??? It starts with easier projects, then goes on to more complicated ones. Directions are not only clear and comprehensive, they’re entertaining. Full colour photos feature puppets who make wry comments about the projects too. Even the not-crafty-at-all (like me) can simply convert a stuffed toy into a puppet with some scissors and a hot glue gun - wow! Add in tips on stagecraft, scenery, voice and templates for puppets and you really do have a comprehensive and entertaining resource.

If you know a teacher, librarian or student with an interest in puppets, Dressing the Naked Hand would make a wonderful gift. Community and high school libraries will definitely find it an attractive resource and should snap it up.

A Time to Run is a novel for adults, written by J.M.Peace and was published in 2015 by Pan Macmillan Australia.  RRP: $29.99

From the publisher:

The hunt is on
A madman is kidnapping women to hunt them for sport.
Detective Janine Postlewaite leads the investigation into the disappearance of Samantha Willis, determined not to let another innocent die on her watch.
The killer's newest prey isn't like the others. Sammi is a cop. And she refuses to be his victim.

While it’s crime fiction, A Time to Run feels very true-to-life. When you discover the author is also a serving police officer in South East Queensland, you begin to understand the authenticity. Peace pulls us into the world of a serial killer, his victim, and the police trying to find her. I don’t enjoy horror as a genre, and though I was horrified by some of the action, I found it a compelling read but not too overwhelming. I especially enjoyed being inside the head of Sammi, the young victim, who’s strength and bravery, yet terror and despair were totally believable.

Big Little Lies is a novel by Liane Moriarty, published by Pan Macmillan in Australia and Penguin RandomHouse in USA.

From the publisher:

Sometimes it’s the little lies that turn out to be the most lethal.
A murder…A tragic accident…Or just parents behaving badly? What’s indisputable is that someone is dead.
Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny, biting, and passionate; she remembers everything and forgives no one. Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare but she is paying a price for the illusion of perfection. New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for a nanny. She comes with a mysterious past and a sadness beyond her years. These three women are at different crossroads, but they will all wind up in the same shocking place.
Big Little Lies is a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive.

Moriarty is now an author whose books for adults I MUST read. Previously I have read and very much enjoyed The Hypnotist’s Love Story, What Alice Forgot, and The Husband’s Secret.

In Big Little Lies, all the reasons I love Moriarty’s books are immediately evident: compelling story, multiple points of view yet no reader confusion, wry observations on our society, lots of humour and drama. The story starts with a shocking event at a trivia night and teases out the lives of several people brought together because their kids attend the same primary school. It explores the power struggles in people’s various relationships. I found myself chuckling one moment and forgetting to breathe the next.

Big Little Lies is also one of those books with book club notes at back, so I suppose it must be what I would think of as a literary read. Don’t let that put you off. I didn’t notice the elegance of the writing at first read, because I was completely and immediately caught up in the story. If you are in a Book Club, I think Big Little Lies has huge appeal.

I desperately want to read Moriarty’s Three Wishes and The Last Anniversary but am trying to save them for the holidays. Dilemma! (Update: Oops, I just read Three Wishes. Loved it too!)

On Wednesday I’ll bring you my Bookish Christmas Gift Suggestions for Kids, 2015. I have really exciting and diverse books, apps, and puzzles to share that have kept me busy over the last few months. Tried, tested and with many Feathers of Approval!

You might also like to take a peek at Recommended Books for Older Readers, June 2015.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Easy Ways Parents Can Encourage Kids to Write

Easy Ways Parents Can Encourage Kids to Write
by Susan Stephenson,

While many parents build special time for reading into family life, we don’t all do the same for writing. I believe we should. Why not call these times "read o'clock" and "write o'clock", the way I do. Don’t worry about what time precisely to do this. It doesn't matter WHEN we fit reading and writing into each day, so long as we do.

We need to make sure our kids know that writing is important and an activity we value. That means ensuring they see us writing, whether that be a grocery list, a note for a friend, or a recipe we're creating. Little ones will want to copy us right then and there, so it’s a great idea to have some writing materials available especially for them.

Before children start school, writing is mostly scribble with some letters thrown in, and maybe a picture for good measure. This is an important stage for kids. They gradually become aware of words and letters in their environment, and often want to copy what we write. Having kids write their own grocery list when we shop together is a great way to include writing AND make a shopping trip fun. Food clip art can help them make a list, and they get to cross off items as we shop.

As children master the early stages of writing, it’s important to keep write o'clock going. It's a good idea to be alert to opportunities that call for writing. Birthday party? Invitations and thank you cards. Kids nagging for something? Have them present their ideas on paper. Camping holiday? Lists galore! Often youngsters will have their own interesting ideas for writing activities, but if not, here are some more suggestions:

* Help children create a comic strip, perhaps using software, or an online editor like Professor Garfield.

* Write a letter to someone real or imaginary, persuading them about something. Maybe your child might want to persuade The Big Bag Wolf to change his ways, or talk the Prime Minister/President into having more school holidays.

* Take a photo or find an image and write a caption to accompany it - more details in my article, Writing Fun for Kids - Create a Caption.

* Create a character - with words, a picture, even act it out - and use this character in a story.

* Write instructions to explain something you know how to do, perhaps how to build something in LEGO, or how to blow up a balloon.

* Link writing with reading when that works for you. If kids are unhappy with the way a story ends, you might suggest they write a new ending. If they adore a book character, they may be thrilled to write more adventures for him/her. Some children will love the idea of recording all the books they read and writing a single sentence about each one.

Apart from the importance of regular daily writing, for however short a time, and having our kids catch us writing, here are some more tips. If our kids already have writing homework, that counts! I want children to enjoy writing as much as I do, and turning it into a chore won’t help. As much as possible, write o’clock activities need to be short and fun. Having special writing stuff like cute paper and pens, or being able to borrow Dad’s iPad, helps make daily writing time something children look forward to.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Reviews: Nine Special Picture Books for Kids

Reviews: Nine Special Picture Books for Kids
by Susan Stephenson,

What makes a picture book special? Questions like that have engaged me as a reader/reviewer for several years now! I always know when I’ve found one, but defining exactly what makes it that way is tricky. If you want to start buying picture books to put away for Christmas, here are some extra special suggestions.

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee, published by Simon and Schuster (2014). RRP: $Au 19.99

This children’s picture book is special because both story and illustrations are poignant and unusual.

A baby clown is separated from his family when he accidentally bounces off their circus train and lands in a lonely farmer’s vast, empty field. The farmer reluctantly rescues the little clown, and over the course of one day together, the two of them make some surprising discoveries about themselves—and about life!

The Farmer and the Clown is a wordless picture book, inviting children to tell their own stories about the illustrations. I love that wordless picture books offer adults an opportunity to nudge children toward making inferences about a visual narrative. What might that be falling off the train? How do you think the little clown feels? I wonder why the farmer did that? Children of different ages will respond to the story at their own level.

I have previously reviewed Frazee’s The Boss Baby. In The Farmer and the Clown, her illustrations are spare, and mostly with a limited palette. They put the focus squarely on the characters, whom we sometimes see in cameo. The return of the circus train is a celebration in colour, and the final page is an absolute delight.

Adelaide’s Secret World by Elise Hurst, published by Allen and Unwin (2015). RRP: $Au24.99.

This is another picture book which is unusual. I have previously reviewed Elise Hurst’s Imagine a City, which I loved. Adelaide’s Secret World is quite different, and yet displays that same quality of encouraging dreams and imagination.

Set in a mysterious city inhabited by a rich cast of characters, this enchanting and superbly illustrated story celebrates creativity and friendship. Adelaide leads a quiet life in the midst of the city. At night she listens to the song of the stars, but during the day she watches over the others like her: the still ones, the quiet ones, those who dance and dream alone. Little does Adelaide know that her secret world will soon be transformed into something unexpected and full of joy.

There’s a lovely richness, sumptuousness even, to the illustrations. Although the theme isn’t about Christmas, it reminds me of those wonderful fairy tales I read around Christmas time, those that made me give wide gap-toothed smiles and hug myself with delight. Although we start with Adelaide “…all alone, and the quiet stillness crept into her heart and stayed.” children will know in their own hearts that things will improve. And so they do.

A beautiful book with an uplifting ending.

Abigail by Catherine Rayner, is a Little Tiger Book, published in Australia by Hardie Grant Egmont (2015).

Abigail loves to count. It is her very favourite thing. But when she tries counting Zebra's stripes and Cheetah's spots, they just won't sit still. It's hopeless! What will Abigail do? A beautiful book by award-winning author-illustrator Catherine Rayner, full of gorgeous illustrations of Abigail the giraffe and her friends Cheetah and Zebra. Abigail is a perfect bedtime read with a stunning fold-out night sky ending. Shortlisted for the 2014 Kate Greenaway Medal!

The pre-schoolers I read to during Storytime at the Library truly love to count too. They will understand both Abigail’s interest in counting, and her frustration when her animal friends make counting very difficult indeed. Rayner’s illustrations in beautiful watercolour are a very special joy.

Mr Huff by Anna Walker was published by Penguin (2015). I have previously reviewed Alfie’s Lost Sharkie, and Hurry Up Alfie.

Bill is having a bad day. Mr Huff is following him around and making everything seem difficult. Bill tries to get rid of him, but Mr Huff just gets bigger and bigger! Then they both stop, and a surprising thing happens . . .

I would go so far as to make the sweeping generalisation that any picture book by Anna Walker I have seen is special. Her illustration style is perfectly suited to the gentleness of her stories, and the fact that while they may have hilarious humour, they still have an innate sweetness to them. To me, that makes her picture books perfect for young kids.

Get more of an idea of Mr Huff, by checking out its trailer, embedded below.

Pig the Fibber by Aaron Blabey, published by Scholastic Press (2015). RRP: $Au 16.99. Following on from the success of Pig the Pug, we now have Pig the Fibber, the same dog, who learns what happens to pugs who tell big fibs.

He's back! But this time Pig, the world's greediest Pug, is telling great big lies. Won't he ever learn? Another laugh-out-loud book from the best-selling creator of Pig the Pug.
I love how Pug is scribbled out in the book’s title and replaced with red crayon “FIBBER”! Pig is seen below, looking guilty, with a red crayon in his mouth. Next is an end paper containing a bookplate declaring this book to be Trevor’s, again covered by red crayon caps: NO. IT’S PIG’S. This silliness sets the tone for another of Blabey’s special romps, romps that will have kids in fits of giggles, and perhaps thinking about the probable results of dishonesty.

My Dog Bigsy by Alison Lester, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin (2015).

Meet my dog Bigsy. He's only small, but everyone knows he's the boss. Each morning he visits the animals on the farm. Squawk, neigh, quack, moo, baa, oink, cluck, purr, ruff ruff ruff! What a lot of noise! And all because of Bigsy! From Australia's favourite picture-book creator, comes this energetic story about a little dog who causes a big commotion.

Somehow Lester manages to capture the essence of those little yappy, self-important dogs that love to annoy other animals on a farm by barking at them. My Storytime children adored this book. It has lots of animal noises for them to join in with, as well as some sly humour for the listening mums and dads. I loved the double page map of the farm, showing Bigsy’s journey, and the double page spread of Bigsy, with all his interesting bits labelled. A special book for any special youngster, especially dog-lovers.

The Umbrella by Ingrid and Dieter Schubert, published by Book Island (2015). (I introduced Book Island here.)

It's a windy, autumn day when a little dog discovers a bright red umbrella in the garden. The umbrella, like a magic carpet, whirls him up into the air and sails him across the world, over continents and oceans, the tropics and polar regions ...

This wordless picture book opens children’s minds to all sorts of possibilities and stories. In my observation, it can be difficult for illustrators to strike the right balance in such a picture book. What balance? There needs to be an identifiable narrative, as well as an opener to several interpretations within that narrative. Some books require intense scrutiny before the narrative can be identified at all - most readers won’t persevere for a long time. The Umbrella is special because it gets this balance exactly right.

Delve into Process Drama, using The Umbrella.

The Scarecrow’s Wedding by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, published by Scholastic UK, 2014. RRP: $Au 24.99.

Why is this picture book special? Donaldson and Scheffler are both high profile and successful in the world of children’s literature. Donaldson was Children’s Laureate in the UK from 2011 to 2013, and is probably best known for her book, The Gruffalo. But to me, a book should stand on its own merits and this one does.

It’s a lovely rhyming story, with the flavour of a fairy or traditional tale about it. Anyone old enough to remember Worzel Gummidge will meet another naughty scarecrow here: Reginald Rake. But first we meet two scarecrow lovers who want to marry: Betty O’Barley and Harry O’Hay. When Harry is off on a mission to find water for their wedding flowers, his place on the farm is taken by the aforesaid Reginald, a rakish chap who accidentally sets fire to Betty via the cigar he is smoking. Luckily Harry arrives just in the nick of time. They both live happily ever after, although presumably not Reginald, who disappears with a cough.

As Big as You by Sara Acton, published by Scholastic Press (2015). RRP: $Au 24.99.

This is the first picture book I know which opens top to bottom rather than left to right. That makes it a little trickier to read aloud to a group of children BUT it’s a perfect vehicle for comparing sizes, the core concept of the story.

Claude is a large elephant. Finlay is a small one. Claude can trumpet so loudly the earth shakes! Finaly can only squeak and spurt tiny fountains with his trunk. Will he ever be as big as Claude?

I love gentle picture books. Acton’s soft watercolours and sweet story complement each other beautifully. But please don’t let me give you the idea the story lacks drama. As Big as You offers many great opportunities for children to join in: echoing Claude’s loud trumpet and Finlay’s contrasting squeak, mimicking the elephants’ water spurts, ear wiggles and feet stomps. There’s tension when Finlay finds himself all alone, fear and excitement when Finlay falls and floats, and a lovely theme of each one of us being the perfect size for who we are right now.

9+1 Perfect written by Danny Parker, illustrated by Freya Blackwood and published by Little Hare, an imprint of Hardie Grant Egmont (2015).

Have you been counting? Perfect actually makes number 10 on my list here. I had finished my post , added its title, and created the image for it, when I got a message from Dimity Powell, advising me to take a look at Perfect. It was in my enormous To-Be-Read pile but I took a quick look. And. Fell. In. Love.

Perfect really is. It leaves you with a warm glow in your heart, and words and pictures dancing through your mind. The combination of Blackwood’s mellow, golden and light-filled illustrations and Parker’s lyrical but simple, rhyming and evocative text makes this one of those special picture books which will become a classic. The two creators help us all rejoice in long lazy summer days and evenings; days filled with kite-flying and sandcastle-building; night-times of cuddles and dreams. I loved it, and hope you’ll grab and share it with a young reader you love. SOON!

And then - oh the fickle heart of a book reviewer! - a new picture book arrived chez Chook.

9+2 Please Open This Book was written by Adam Lehrhaupt, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe and published by Simon and Schuster (2015).

Just as my Storytime children rolled on the floor laughing over Warning, Do Not Open this Book! and The Book with No Pictures, I know they will adore Please Open This Book. Preschool kids seem naturally drawn to subversive humour, and they also love books that invite interaction. This one opens with a pair of eyes and a tentative Hello? Soon we meet the crew who’ve been trapped inside the book - a jungly and slightly squashed assortment including monkeys, apes, a toucan and a squashed banana. We are exhorted not to close the book again because of all the damage it can do, but the ending is getting closer…

Forsythe’s illustrations are striking, appealing, quirky. Matte black pages set off warm furry tones and contrasting highlights to perfection. There are interesting font changes, wanted posters, a diagram of a book-closer, and so many other giggle-worthy elements. I have fallen in love all over again with yet another new picture book and defy any of you not to do the same! (Check out the trailer on YouTube.)

You might also like to check out my reviews from last Wednesday, Picture Books about Family.

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

Monday, November 23, 2015

Children's iPad App, Nature Workshop

Children's iPad App, Nature Workshop
by Susan Stephenson,

Nature Workshop - Creative Crafts for Kids comes from the same developers who created Puppet Workshop. I was pleased to find another app that encourages kids to create, this time to build an image from items like virtual sticks, pebbles, shells, seeds, leaves etc.

From the developer:

- This application is appropriate for kids of all ages.
- This app has a kid-friendly design, and is easy to use.
- This app includes 158 nature items like different stones, shells, leaves, sticks and twings, acorns and chestnuts, nuts, sand etc. from which you can create whatever you want
- 10 colorful backgrounds available in the application. You can also add your own background image from the iPad camera roll
- 10 colorful markers, which can be used to decorate your creations
- The pictures created are stored and displayed right in the application
- You can add a name to your creations
- You can also save your masterpiece as an image to your device

What I liked:

Navigation is simple and obvious, with a menu at the side containing the different elements to create with, and a bar at the top showing functions that allow you to edit each element. You can move them easily with a finger, but also increase/decrease their size, as well as rotate them via this same editing bar. Very young kids might find this a little fiddly at first, but they’ll soon get the hang of it with parental guidance. I thought the inclusion of letters and numbers was great. You can see an example of letters in the picture of Krudge I created with the app, in the middle of the larger image, above.

I really hope kids go on from the app to create art with things they collect from the natural world. Because you can save an image to the camera roll, the app might also be a great way to create characters for their stories, and kids could add their creations to a comic editor too.

While the developers say the app suits kids of all ages, I think older kids may quickly get bored with it. However, if you’re looking for something that encourages your children under 10 to play with picture building, I believe it may well suit. I'll be adding this app to my list: Creating with Kids and iPad Apps.

Check out my other iPad App Reviews on Pinterest.
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