Friday, October 19, 2018

Writing Tips for Kids 3 - Developing Characters

by Susan Stephenson,

This is the third in my new series of writing tips for kids. Over coming weeks you’ll see new short articles, each of them addressing young writers and dealing with a topic helpful to them. I’ve created a new List for these articles and will add to it over time. The List is embedded below.

How to Develop Your Characters

When you go into the bush, you go prepared with the tools you need. What if you want to find your way into a story? Some people start by writing a title, others start with a first sentence. But most writers agree you should get to know your characters before you start.

Let's look at four ways of doing that:

* Interview your characters. Think up questions, and then try to answer them as if YOU are your character. Brainstorm all sorts of questions like: "What makes you afraid?", "What do you want more than anything in the world?" or "What don't you want people to know about you?".

* Make up a profile for each character in a story. Profiles can cover features like looks, personality, likes, dislikes, and hobbies. Find some samples online by searching for "character profile".

* Draw your character, or find a picture in a magazine or online that looks like the character in your head. This helps a character become more REAL to a writer.

* Act out a scene you'd like to write. This is great for plot ideas, and it’s another way to get to know your character. Ask a friend to join you, choose a scene you'd like to play with, and start improvising. Or you could use toys or puppets. There's no right or wrong way to improvise. Have fun with it!

If you know your characters well, your stories will seem more realistic to a reader. But you don't have to write all you know about a character at once. Imagine if we read: "Jack, a short elf, had blue eyes, blond hair, pale skin, brown pointy shoes, a gossamer shirt, green leggings and a feathered hat. He liked: sardine ice cream, loud music and helping frogs. He hated: being short, and getting his feet wet." That would be information overload!

Instead, keep what you know about your character in your head, and introduce a detail when it makes sense to do so. Show us, don't tell us. Let the reader work it out. If you write "Jack brushed the hat feathers away from his eyes, and tried to make himself look taller", it helps readers to understand Jack better. The facts you don't use in the story are still useful because they make a character more real to you.

If a character is well developed and real to you, if you can hear his voice inside your head, and see his grinning face while he flicks feathers away, chances are he'll be real to your readers too.

Clipart Credit: Phillip Martin

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Reviews: Recent Children’s Picture Books 2018 (6)

Children's Book Reviews by Susan Stephenson,

Below is the sixth in my series of children’s picture books reviewed this year. Find the first here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, and the fifth here. Is there a child near you who would benefit from reading some of these books?

Benny Bungarra’s Big Bush Clean-Up is a children’s picture book written by Sally Morgan, illustrated by Ambelin Kwaymullina and published by Magabala Books (2018.) RRP: $Au 16.99 PB. I have previously reviewed The Perfect Thing by Morgan and Kwaymullina.

From the publisher:

When the animals work as a team to come up with ways to look after the bush, they decide to ask the humans to REDUCE, RECYCLE and use RUBBISH BINS. But it is Benny Bungarra who has the bright idea of a BIG BUSH CLEAN-UP so the animals can also help look after the bush.

Perfect for young kids - pre-school, Kinder/Prep, Grade 1/2 - who are learning how to look after their environment, Benny Bungarra’s Bush Clean-Up tells a simple tale about Australian animals with a messy problem. The rubbish situation in the bush has become so bad that animals are even being physically hurt by fishing line and pieces of glass.

Kwaymullina’s illustrations are beautifully simple and glow with colour. The environmental theme and simple story make this a great choice for schools looking for resources. Libraries wanting stories that resonate with indigenous students will also grab Benny Bungarra’s Big Bush Clean-Up. I’ll be adding this book to my List of Children’s Picture Books with an Environmental Theme.

At the End of Holyrood Lane is a children’s picture book written by Dimity Powell, illustrated by Nicky Johnston, and published by EK Books (2018.) RRP: $Au 24.99 HB. I have previously reviewed The Fix-It Man by Powell and Johnston.

From the publisher:

Flick is just like any other youngster. She loves to chase butterflies and jump in autumn leaves. But life at the end of Holyrood Lane is often violent and unpredictable due to the constant storms that plague her home, causing her to cringe with dread and flee whenever they strike. Visually arresting, emotionally incisive, and ultimately uplifting, this beautifully crafted picture book provides a sensitive glimpse into one aspect of domestic violence and how it can affect young lives.

I very much appreciated the deft touch Powell displays when dealing with such a fraught subject as domestic violence. Her character, Flick, suffers when storms strike. Those storms may be physical, or may in fact be a metaphor for something else. The image of the “storm” is a strong one - “angry clouds muscle in”, “wild winds bully the curtains”. Johnston’s illustration adds even more tension and action with the swirling wind and the look on Flick’s face.

There’s a great opportunity here for children to think about, and perhaps volunteer to describe things that make them fearful or want to hide. Johnston has some suggestions in her images of great hiding places and I can well imagine the ideas might be very comforting for kids. But the storm gets worse, worse than ever before (Johnston’s illustrations are beautifully eerie here) and finally Flick seeks help. The ribbon she has been dancing with unifies the story and we discover in the end that the kinds of storms that terrified her have completely disappeared.

At the End of Hollyrood Lane is enigmatic. Different children will be able to interpret the story in different ways. I think this is excellent, as children can detect a preachy, didactic tone from a mile away. Kudos to both author and illustrator for a successful creation that I hope will enrich many children’s lives. Teacher notes are available via EK’s website. Check out the book’s trailer for more of an idea.

A Forest is a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Marc Martin, and published by Puffin/Penguin Australia (2018.) RRP: $Au 14.99 PB . I have previously reviewed Martin’s The Curious Explorer’s Illustrated Guide to Exotic Animals, Max and What’s Up Top?

From the publisher:

There once was a forest . . .
So begins this timeless and touching story of renewal from one of Australia's most talented new picture-book creators.

I fell in love with A Forest at first sight. The story itself is simple but powerful. It shows what happens to a forest when people become greedy and destroy it. Then we see what happens to man-made cities because the forest is no longer there. There’s a strong environmental theme, obviously, and I know children will enjoy discussing this. But quite young kids will also respond well to the machines, the strong graphic design and the myriad tiny elements that make up a forest.

Martin’s illustrations are just delightful. There is such a contrast between the large city buildings with their geometric lines, and the forest with its smaller, more organic shapes. His illustrative work just keeps getting better and better, and I eagerly await his next book! I’ll be adding A Forest to my List of Children’s Picture Books with an Environmental Theme.

Collecting Sunshine is a children’s picture book written by Rachel Flynn, illustrated by Tamsin Ainslie and published by Penguin (2018.) RRP: $Au 24.99 HB. I have previously reviewed Gus Dog Goes to Work by Flynn.

From the publisher:

Mabel and Robert love to collect things on their walks – leaves and stones and seeds and berries. But when they are caught in the rain and can’t take their collection home they have an even better idea . . .

A book for those magical days when a walk to the park is nothing short of an adventure.

Collecting Sunshine had a cumulative effect on me. Wearing my “picture book aficionado” hat, I relished each page turn and was transported back to my younger days. Between them, Flynn and Ainslie have succeeded in capturing the essence of joyful childhood adventures. Mabel and Robert begin by collecting physical things but move on to exploring what their senses tell them. We share their joy in sticks, flowers, raindrops, puddles, and even wet dogs. (Well, maybe not wet dogs!) At the end of the story, there is time for quiet reflection as they create memories through drawing pictures of what they “collected”.

This would make an excellent read-aloud or resource box book for themes like Who We Are, Myself, or Our Senses. Kinders and pre-schoolers will love to share what they too can see, hear, smell, taste, touch in their environments. I hope they will be prompted to make a record of what they observe and collect, because this is such a wonderful part of learning. The book doubles as a puzzle book too, because kids are asked to find a mouse and a budgie on every page. Collecting Sunshine is a lovely gentle picture book that deserves a space in every home and library. Penguin have also kindly provided an accompanying activity pack to download.

Aleph is a large-format first book of words and pictures by Janik Coat, published by Gecko Press (2018.) RRP: $NZ $30.43 HB

From the publisher:

Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet—or maybe a nickname for a toy elephant.

Through powerful graphic images, contrasting colours and a thoughtful progression, Aleph moves from basic shapes and familiar objects to a wider world, full of story, character and wonder.

Janik Coat’s unforgettable illustrations are perfect for sharing with babies—big, simple images with instant appeal.

To me, Aleph is a kind of picture dictionary for babies. It starts with very simple and basic shapes, and moves on to slightly more complicated ones that may or may not be part of little ones’ lives. So circle, square star, then hug, car, toucan, train through to cupcake, rainbow, king. The images are more graphic design than realism, and are striking and memorable. At the back there is a list with all the images named and with someone’s special toys (Aleph, Rome, Popov and Cyrus) highlighted in fluoro pink. 

I liked so much about this book until I came to the witch. I have no problem with fantasy but why do babies need to see a scary witch? I argued with myself that perhaps it is important to have a range of images, and who says a witch is scary anyway? But I admit that it still made me uncomfortable.

Incy Wincy Spider is a children’s picture book illustrated by Matt Shanks and published by Scholastic Australia (2018.) RRP: $Au 15.99 HB. I have previously reviewed Shanks’ Eric the Postie.

From the publisher:

Incy Wincy Spider climbed up the water spout,
Down came the rain and washed poor Incy out!

Where will Incy Wincy Spider go next and who will she meet along the way?
Find out in this new Australian version of a favourite nursery rhyme.

Often it’s encouraging for little ones to meet a book that has a connection with something they know. In this case, kids will probably know the rhyme or song of the small spider with a real never-say-drown attitude. In this Incy Wincy Spider picture book, not only will children encounter the usual verse, but many more verses with the same rhythm, AND meet Australian animal characters too.

It’s charmingly illustrated in soft colours by Shanks, and has lots of great movement and expression opportunities. Incy Wincy Spider joins others in Scholastic's Aussie Nursery Rhyme series.

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

What’s So Great about School Libraries?

by Deborah Robins and Susan Stephenson,

To those in the know, a school library is a vital resource for students. As author, Jackie French, says:

Yet some still have questions, and others haven’t taken time to think about it.

“If students have Google, why do they need a school library?”

“Our school doesn’t have a library any more, and my kid gets by.”

“A school library - just some place with books where you need to be quiet, right?”

I asked teacher librarian, Deb Robins, passionate advocate for school libraries, to help us understand what a really great school library would look like. She chose to explain with this clever acrostic:

Today, October 16, is an important time to think about school libraries because tonight at 7.00 pm AEDT is the launch of the Students Need School Libraries Campaign. Play "spot the celebrity" while you check out the excellent videos made by the campaign - videos that will be shared widely via social media.

This worthwhile campaign's mission is:

... to ensure student access to high quality school library services. School libraries, and the qualified staff that run them are vital for ensuring that all students are equipped with the research and literacy skills they need throughout their life. Our vision to is ensure that every student has access to a dynamic, well-resourced school library led by a qualified teacher librarian alongside qualified library staff.


The campaign aims to take over social media by getting the hashtag #StudentsNeedSchoolLibraries to trend and having other media take it up. If you understand how important school libraries are for ALL Australian students is, please show your support by:

* visiting

* sharing this post widely on Facebook, Twitter and other social media

* letting us know how you feel by using the hashtag #StudentsNeedSchoolLibraries

If you'd like to download the Thriving School Library poster (above) that Deb made, in PDF format, it is available for free to teachers, librarians and parents via my website.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Create a Story with Google Slides

by Susan Stephenson,

Google Slides can be really useful. It’s a free tool in your Google Drive to create presentations. You can choose from different themes and fonts, embed videos and add animations. You can collaborate with others, and share via email, download etc. The thing I love about Google Drive is the way saving is automatic, something that also makes it very useful for kids. You can even convert PowerPoint Slides to Google Slides and vice versa. As well as working through your browser (I find Chrome is best) there’s an app for your mobile device.

(If a child is under 13 (or your country's applicable age) it may be best to collaborate on a class story, using the teacher's account. Some kids under 13 may have a Family Link and be able to access Slides for themselves but it depends on what permissions parents have set.)

We can tell a story via Google Slides by simply writing a narrative, and dividing it into suitable sections. Each slide then has a section of the story. It's a an engaging way to create a digital story, and helps kids learn new technology skills.

How do you start? Once you open your Google Drive, choose New, and slide down to Google Slides, choosing Blank rather than From a Template. For my story example, I decided to write about a koala. I made a title page, inserting a title and my name, then inserting an illustration. Next, I added a slide. In this second slide, I deleted the top box where I’d put my title in the first slide, because I didn’t need it. I re-sized the bottom box to make a half page for the text, added a rectangle via Shapes, made it transparent (transparent is found inside the fill pot) and set it to the right for my illustration. I added a border to each box via border dash to the left of the font menu.

I wanted to add my own illustrations, but you can search for safe images via Insert, add from the computer, from Google Drive or from a camera. It’s very versatile. I added some leaves and my koala clipart (made with Assembly app on my iPad.) Then I repeated the process, each time adding a new slide via the + top left. Finally I went to Transition and set directions for animating the slides, then I published it to the web. The results should be visible below. If not, you can see it here.

Once kids have mastered a simple linear narrative, they might like to try an interactive story, something like a choose-your-own adventure story. This works because Google Slides allows us to embed links and also choose to link to different slides. Here’s a great video with an example and explanation.

Google Slides would be a good presentation tool for something like a short poem, a short graphic story, a cartoon, a joke, or a collection of illustrated sayings, similes or metaphors. Younger kids could try innovating on a known text like I Wish that I Had Duck Feet or Mrs Wishy Washy, or a repetitive song like The Ants Went Marching. There are some examples of Google Slide stories and extra resources on this page at Control Alt Achieve.

For more inspiration, check out my Creative Prompt series. You might also like to read Creating Picture Puzzles - Seek and Find.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Children’s Book Review, The Heart of a Whale

Children's Book Review by Susan Stephenson,

The Heart of a Whale is a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Anna Pignataro and published by Scholastic (2018.) RRP: $Au 24.99 HB.

From the publisher:

Whale’s song was so beautiful it could reach the furthest of faraways. It sang of happiness and hope, magic and wonder, always and everywhere. But Whale wishes with all his heart to find a friend somewhere in the vast, endless sea. Can his wish be carried over the ocean for someone to follow?

This is a beautiful picture book, both in the way it looks and the text. Whale has a far-reaching song that does so much good in the underwater world. It settles a wriggly octopus, it cheers a sad urchin, it even provides a musical backdrop for a ballet of ocean flowers. But Whale himself knows there is no song that can fill his empty heart. Can his loneliness be assuaged?

Pigntaro has used watercolours to great effect in the watery landscapes. Sea creatures glow against a blurred blue backdrop. Fronds and fish drift with the tide, and it seems we can almost hear that eerie whale music.

The Heart of a Whale is a lyrical and heart-warming story that will appeal to different aged children, and indeed to their parents, for different reasons. I hope you’ll grab it soon for the children you know who appreciate beautiful things.

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

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