Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Archive for the ‘Primary (Grade R-5)’ Category

Book Review: “Stepping Stones” by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr, University of Queensland Press (2017)

stepping stones

In my first year of teaching I learned the value of a carefully chosen picture book for the purposes of introducing a topic or addressing tricky issues.  Seventeen years later, I have a growing stash of these that I continue to revisit with students in the secondary classroom across a range of subject areas.  As an English specialist, I continue to appreciate the accessibility of these texts, the many layers of reading they encourage as they engage captive audiences in a reading activity that nearly always harnesses a range of interpretative skills.  Picture books are a blessing for the time poor educator.  They tick many boxes and set the scene for a high level of student engagement.

First published in Canada, Stepping Stones, is a welcome addition to my personal collection and is one that I will draw upon for use in the English, HaSS and Religious Education classroom.  Told in both English and Arabic, and narrated by a young girl, Rama; we follow her experience of persecution, death and loss in their war-torn homeland, her families’ escape, journey by foot and their crossing of an unforgiving sea to their eventual, albeit bittersweet, liberation.  While clearly drawing from recent history with the story illuminating the experiences within the Syrian context, the tale might easily be supplanted into another setting.  Nizar Ali Badr’s artwork which utilises stacked stones to recreate scenes in the story, is culturally neutral, thus inviting a transposing of other refugee narratives.  Within the Australian context, I imagine that educators might specifically draw upon experiences of the Vietnamese and Cambodian ‘boat-people’.  Similarly, Christian communities would certainly draw parallels to Gospel narratives (Matt 2:13-14) concerning the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.

The provision of both English and Arabic text adds additional linguistic dimension to the story that could be readily exploited by students as an extension activity.  While I would use this text exclusively in the secondary classroom, it will appeal to older primary students and, with discretion, may be an effective tool for engaging dialogue with new arrivals in our school communities.  The story will certainly find its place in many of our Syrian and Middle-Eastern communities in Australia with many families likely to embrace it as a vehicle for intergenerational sharing and a celebration of language.

I commend Stepping Stones as a text that provides an authentic voice for educators who seek to promote cultural diversity, while engaging frankly with their students on issues related to refugees and asylum seekers.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: ‘My Brother is a Beast’ by Damon Young, illustrated by Peter Carnavas, University of Queensland Press (2017)

MY BROTHER IS A BEAST.jpg

Picture books, especially those targeted at pre and early readers, tend to be at their best when they are shared.  While for the most part reading to our five-year-old daughter is the responsibility of my husband and myself; I love it when I find a picture book that has other members of the family clambering to get in on the action too.  This was the situation when My Brother is a Beast appeared on my door step.  “Awesome!” proclaimed Master Eleven as he turned to his younger sister, “I’m reading this to you tonight.” Our youngest child, by way of positive reaction, promptly squealed with delight.

I firmly believe that books are meant to be shared, and that while parents are ultimately the key players in fostering a love of reading in children, there is nothing more powerful to this endeavour, than when the whole family (especially older children) get involved in the promotion of reading as a joyful activity.  You see, often it doesn’t matter how many books children have, unless the home is one where reading is the dominant culture for all, it can be difficult to engage children in this activity (or get them to think positively about reading as a form of leisure).   Indeed, Young and Carnavas’ series of books are exciting, in that they not only encourage the sharing of stories but they promote positive relationships between siblings (and other family members) with books as the vehicle.

My Brother is a Beast   is the fourth book in a series of books celebrating family (My Sister is a Superhero, My Nana is a Ninja and My Pop is a Pirate).  This, along with other books in the series will provide a perfect entry point for discussions about family structures and diversity.  Directed primarily towards children in the early years, My Brother is a Beast is appropriate for use in child-care, pre-school and junior primary settings.  Of course, with the strong focus upon family it will certainly become a favourite choice shared between siblings. As with the other titles in the series, the simple language is accessible for even the youngest of children, while beginning readers will find enough challenge to be extended without being overwhelmed.  Children will enjoy the rhythmic language in a narrative that makes use of simple alliteration and a clear pattern and rhyme that will encourage participation.

I was again enamoured with Carnavas’ delightful watercolour illustrations rendered in cheery colours. Text is clear and easy to read for beginner readers and children will enjoy following the words with their fingertips as they weave and move across the page. As with the other titles in the series, children will enjoy finding the various animal characters scattered throughout the story. Children will also appreciate exploring the sepia illustrations found in the inside of both back and front covers.

My Brother is a Beast is a light, yet deeply engaging read that demands to be re-visited, all the while fostering a love of language in young readers.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Little Wing” by Katherine Battersby, UQP (2016)

Little Wing cover

Frequently, as readers, we fall into the trap of assuming that picture books are just for younger children.  This is not always the case.  There are quite a few writers and illustrators, like Shaun Tan, who have built stellar careers upon the idea that picture books can be written for, indeed directed towards an older audience.  Of course, then there are these wonderfully creative people who manage to write for children, yet at the same time also address older audiences in ways that are nothing short of profound.  As a secondary teacher, when I come across these stories I always find a way to use them; either in my classroom or with staff.  Katherine Battersby’s latest picture book, Little Wing is one such book.  On the surface it is a charmingly illustrated picture book, aimed at pre-schoolers or junior primary students.  Indeed this is probably the way the most people will choose to use it.  However, when we delve beneath the surface we discover something with themes so universal that it not only speaks to adults but it serves as a tool that has the potential to transform that audience.

“On the smallest island, in the tallest tree, lived the world’s smartest animal.”  So begins Battersby in what is a deceptively simple tale about a bird, Little Wing, who, through his love of books and learning, becomes the smartest animal on the planet.  However, despite the great wealth of knowledge accessible at his fingertips, Little Wing fails to understand how he fits into the larger scheme of things.  Little Wing launches on a journey of self-discovery that takes him to a place beyond the wisdom stored inside books.  It is a place where he must discover on his own, through original and creative thought processes; the answer to who he actually is.

Battersby uses sparse, simple language in her telling of this story, a choice which makes this story accessible to young beginning readers.  However, it is the juxtaposition of the text alongside the delightful illustrations that really breathes life into Little Wing’s story.  Battersby uses a combination of media that includes watercolour, pencil and textiles along with scanned images to create a digital collage with an airy and whimsical feel.  I envisage that teachers will take inspiration from this and embrace the opportunity to explore this method in art lessons.

For teachers, the story of Little Wing reminds us that although the content of what we teach is important, our greatest imperative as educators is how we develop in our students skills that will lead to self-discovery and original thought.  Of course, when reading this story with my 4 year old daughter the message we shared was that learning is an exciting adventure, one that is life long and fun.  What a wonderful message to share with children at the very beginning of their learning journey!

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: Jo-Kin Vs Lord Terra – Super Space Kids 2, by Karen Tyrrell, Karen Tyrrell (2016)

Jo-Kin Book 2 Cover

I have a lot of admiration for writers of middle grade fiction and chapter books.  As a writer of YA fiction I easily draw from memories from my own time as an adolescent and integrate these experiences into my work.  It does help being a secondary teacher too.  Unfortunately, I don’t recall so well what I liked to read as an 8 year old, or indeed what I was like at this time.  So far as writing middle grade books, I wouldn’t know where to begin.  It probably makes sense then, that I choose to review very few books of this genre and, when I do, I like to get the second opinion of my target audience.  Such was the case last year when set about reviewing Jo-Kin Battles the IT.  My initial reaction to the story was lukewarm (to say the least).  It didn’t speak to me at all which, to my surprise, was not the case with my son.  He loved it.  Tyrrell had successfully managed to harness that mysterious thing that ten year old boys love.  Such a thing, in my eyes is a massive achievement.  This said; it seems that Tyrrell is on a roll, because she has done it again.

Jo-Kin VS Lord Terra, follows on where book 2 left off.  Our hero Josh Atkins, fresh from saving the world against the IT, is back to his life as a normal kid living with his parents and attending school.  However, as Josh himself explains, the situation has him ‘lying low’.  He is, moving through life incognito while hoping that his planet saving skills won’t be required again.   However, this is not to be with Josh required immediately for an urgent mission to save the Junior Space Kids Team from the clutches of the evil Lord Terra.

Jo-Kin VS Lord Terra, is a highly accessible read for students, especially boys, in the middle years of primary school.  Following on from the first book, Tyrrell continues to develop themes of resilience, problem-solving, team work and overcoming self-doubt.   Tyrrell has not only constructed an appealing story for children of this age, but everything, from the language,  font size, to the quality and quantity of the images, has been selected with care and an acute awareness of the intended audience.  However, it is her understanding of the ‘obsessions’ of children in this age group, which left me wondering if Tyrrell is in fact a ten year old boy simple masquerading as an adult!

I commend this book, and its predecessor, as a valuable addition to the school library.   I anticipate that as the series continues to grow in number it may fulfil its potential and join the likes of Jennings and Andy Griffiths as ‘go-to’ staples for boys in the reading lesson.

Tanya Grech Welden

PS For resources and other cool stuff to support reading of this book click here.

Book Review: “My Sister is a Superhero” by Damon Young illustrated by Peter Carnavas, University of Queensland Press (2016)

9780702253928.jpg

My Sister is a Superhero, arrived as an unexpected surprise on my doorstep on a hot, January day a few weeks ago. With three children on school holidays, and a mother on the verge of being ‘over it’, it was a welcome gift that couldn’t have been more perfect. “Here,” I said thrusting the package into the hands of my 12 year old daughter, “Go and read this with your sister. Tell me what you think.”
“What did you think?” I asked them ten minutes later. “Awesome,” replied the 12 year old. “My sister is a superhero!” echoed the 4 year old. “Can we read it again?”

With the book receiving top marks from its intended audience I was keen to read it myself and gauge how it might be useful as a resource for teachers.

Thematically, the story is a simple one that celebrates the diversity of sisters, with a general aim of fostering positive relationships between siblings. It would be a wonderful story for younger siblings to read or, alternately, a fantastic story for older sisters with a view to generating discussion about the responsibilities attached to this role.
Pitched at younger readers, My Sister is a Superhero is perfect for use in a variety of early learning settings and within the junior primary classroom. With a strong focus upon family it works well for sharing in the home. The simple language is accessible for even the youngest of children, while beginning readers will find enough challenge to be extended without being overwhelmed. The narrative makes use of simple alliterative language (repetition of s, d, p, c, t predominate) and the telling encourages participation, driven by a clear pattern and rhythm that is only broken on the last page. As an adult I appreciated the clever play with language that created vivid images (bench pressing trolls, chocolate cake digging dwarves), while bringing to life the diversity of activities undertaken by sisters who are all united by their shared brilliance.

I was captivated with Carnavas’ delightful illustrations rendered in primary colours in calming watercolour. The use of white space provides an excellent balance, complementing the text without adding unnecessary busyness to the page. My 4 year old had lots of fun finding the frog, koala and chicken scattered throughout the story. Of special note are the delightful sepia coloured illustrations found on the inside page of both front and back covers.

My Sister is a Superhero is the third book in a series of books celebrating family (My Nana is a Ninja and My Pop is a Pirate) . This, along with other books in the series will provide a perfect segue into discussions about family structures and diversity. It is a light, entertaining read that only improves with re-reading whilst fostering a love of language in young readers.

Teachers notes, based on the National Curriculum, are available here.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Jo-Kin Battles the IT” by Karen Tyrrell, Karen Tyrrell (2015)

ktyrrell-jokin-cover-promo-web-lgeAs teachers and librarians we can be a judgemental lot. During the process of selecting books for use in the classroom, or to sit on shelves in our libraries, we are sifters. By that I mean we sift through stacks of books in an effort to identify those which serve our own personal agenda. This inevitably means eliminating books for one reason or another. For instance, it may be that the language is too simple, the themes and ideas too one dimensional, the structure too formulaic. During this process we sometimes neglect a certain truth that what appeals to us, as adults, does not always concur with the interests of children.
My ten year old son reminded me of the importance of this a few weeks ago. As often occurs in my household, a novel arrived on my doorstep. Usually, my son pays little attention to this (it is such a common occurrence). However on this day he was drawn to the book like a moth to a flame (I apologise for the weak analogy). “What’s this Mum?” He asked holding up the copy of Karen Tyrrell’s Jo-Kin Battles the IT, “Can I read it?” I must confess, at the time I was bogged down with other books to read, so I told him he could have it now as long as he promised to tell me what he thought of it. Off he scurried to his room, book in hand, where he wasn’t heard from for a few hours. “This is awesome Mum!” he told me later that night. “It’s a page turner. I’m already up to chapter 8.” I nodded my head, told him not to read too late, and stood quietly in the hallway while he continued his reading. What I heard was the beautiful sound of literary engagement. His laughter told me that not only was he enjoying the story, but clearly it was one with characters he could strongly identify with.
Sadly, my reading of the same book was not nearly as enlivened. I found the story a little trite, and at times inane. This middle grade chapter book tells the story of Josh Atkins and Sam Jones, who, after winning a computer contest, are selected for training as Super Space Kids. Following training, they are launched into space where they do battle with the deadly alien IT. While my adult brain did not really love the book, I could immediately see why the story resonated so strongly with my son. Michael, it seems could identify with Josh, who like himself, is obsessed with computer games, and quite frankly, all things best described as being ‘nerdy’. Having snared him with Josh (and let’s face it, corny gags), Tyrrell proceeds to tell a story that empowers children to overcome feelings of self-doubt, as they develop resilience, while understanding the value of team work.
Jo-Kin Battles the IT is a cleanly edited story, typeset in a child-appealing manner, with a scattering of delightful illustrations by Trevor Salter. The story will be appreciated by younger primary students up to grade 4. The ease of language will deem it suitable for independent reading although the story would benefit from a shared class reading where the themes of resilience may be explored in greater depth.
Tanya Grech Welden

For teaching resources related to this title please click here.

Book Review: “Mister Cassowary” by Samantha Wheeler, University of Queensland Press (2015)

mister-cassowaryA year after his Grandad’s death, Flynn travels with his father to Mission Beach on an assignment to prepare the family banana plantation for sale.  Understandably, Flynn anticipates that the trip will be dominated by the mundane chores of cleaning and repairing.  Understandably, he is taken aback when things get a lot more interesting when he happens across a pair of cassowary chicks and meets local girl Abby.  As Flynn quickly learns, the discovery of the cassowaries raises more questions than answers with the young boy keen to unravel the mystery of his Grandad’s death, his father’s anxiety and how this is all related to these unusual prehistoric birds.

With environmental studies top of the National Curriculum agenda, this text is a perfect choice for complementing or introducing the topic of endangered species.  With a manageable length and short snappy chapters, Mister Cassowary would be ideal as a shared class text for close analysis, or add on filler when read by the teacher.  The text itself provides a valuable segue-way into discussing general issues related to endangered species, whilst acting as a tangible case study, or model, for older students to undertake their own research on this or other animals at risk.  I was also pleased to note the inclusion of supplementary facts at the end of the task, along with websites and organisations to support extension activities.

Mister Cassowary is written in clear language and should be easily accessible and engaging by students ready to move on to more challenging chapter books.  Flynn and Abby are appealingly drawn characters with a wonderful natural inquisitiveness that mirrors many of the children in this age group.  I was less taken by the adult characters, some of whom I felt were a little one dimensional with dialogue that felt somewhat stilted.

Perfect for children in the Primary Years and edging into the lower end of the Middle Years, Mister Cassowary is a Heaven-sent gift for teachers wanting to teach across a range of curriculum areas and inspire the next generation to embrace an active role as stewards of this planet.  A wonderful novel that will surely become a favourite in schools by teachers, students and animal advocates alike.

Tanya Grech Welden

Tag Cloud