The link below is to an infographic that looks at how children’s books are made.
A child’s early experiences with books both at home and later in school have the potential to significantly affect future reading performance. Parents play a key role in building oral language and literacy skills in the years prior to school. But it’s teachers who are responsible for ensuring children become readers once at school.
While there’s much we know about how students learn to read, research on books used to support beginning reading development is sparse. Guidelines provided in the Australian Curriculum
and the National Literacy Progressions complicate matters further. Teachers are required to use two types of texts: decodable and predictable books.
Each book is underpinned by a different theory of reading, arguably in conflict. This contributes to uncertainty about when and how the books might be used.
The difference between decodable and predictable books
Predictable books and their associated instructional strategies align with a whole-language approach to reading.
In this approach, meaning is prioritised. Children are encouraged to draw on background knowledge, memorise a bank of the most common words found in print, and to use cues to guess or predict words based on pictures and the story. This method is not consistent with a phonics approach.
At the earliest levels, predictable and repetitive sentences scaffold beginning readers’ attempts at unknown words. Word identification is supported by close text to picture matches and familiar themes for children in the early years (such as going to the doctor).
While there is some evidence the repetitive nature of predictable books facilitates the development of fluency, the features contained within disadvantage young readers as they do not align with the letter-sound correspondences taught as part of phonics lessons. This is particularly problematic for children who are at risk of later reading difficulties.
In comparison, decodable books consist of a high percentage of words in which the letters represent their most common sounds. Decodable books align with a synthetic phonics or code-based approach to reading. This approach teaches children to convert a string of letters (our written code) into sounds before blending them to produce a spoken word.
When reading decodable books, children draw on their accumulating knowledge of the alphabetic code to sound out any unknown words. Irregularly spelt words (for example was, said, the) are also included, and children receive support to read these words, focusing on the sounds if necessary.
There is mounting evidence for the use of decodable books to support the development of phonics in beginning readers and older kids who haven’t grasped the code easily. Decodable books have been found to promote self-teaching, helping children read with greater accuracy and independence. This leads to greater gains in reading development.
The role of books in early reading development
Children need lots of opportunities to practise reading words in books. Given research demonstrates a synthetic phonics approach provides young readers with the most direct route to skilled reading, there’s a strong logical argument for supporting early reading with decodable books.
Until the most recent version of the Australian Curriculum, only predictable books were included in the Foundation and Year one English curricula. The addition of decodable books recognises the critical support they provide beginning readers. But this places teachers in a difficult position because the elaborations in the curriculum documents place more emphasis on the strategies designed primarily for use with predictable books.
Using different books in the classroom
While reading is an extraordinarily complex process, a model of reading called the Simple View of Reading is very helpful from an educational perspective. It explains skilled reading as the product of both decoding and language comprehension. This helps us understand what we need to do when teaching children to read, and the types of books they need to support early reading development.
Before they enter school, the majority of children are considered to be in the “pre-alphabetic” stage of reading. In this stage, children have little or no understanding the written code represents the sounds of spoken language. They would not have the skills to use decodable books.
Instead, they recognise words purely by contextual clues and visual features. For example, children know the McDonalds sign because of the big yellow arches (the M) or can read the word “stop” when they see the sign, but not out of that context.
Predictable books would help the pre-alphabetic reader gain insight into the workings of texts, especially with regard to meaning. In particular making the connection between spoken words – which they are familiar with – and written words, which they are not.
Beyond this stage, predictable texts become less useful because memorisation and meaning-based strategies aren’t sustainable long term. Once children have advanced to the partial and full alphabetic stages of reading, usually fairly quickly after starting formal reading instruction, they benefit more from decodable books which allow them to apply the alphabetic code.
So where to from here?
There is no evidence children benefit from the continued use of decodable books beyond the beginning stages of reading. In the absence of any empirical studies, we suspect it would be a good idea to move children on once they have sufficient letter-sound knowledge and decoding skills that they can apply independently. At this point, the introduction of real books would benefit students and provide access to more diverse language structures and vocabulary.
Given what we know about how reading works, it makes sense for children in the early stages of learning to read to be given decodable books to practise and generalise their developing alphabetic skills. At the same time, they will continue to benefit from hearing the rich vocabulary and language forms in the children’s books being read with (to) them.
It’s less clear what predictable texts contribute to beginning reading in schools when considering how reading skills develop. But there is evidence they might have a useful role to play in pre-school prior to the start of formal reading instruction.
Two of Australia’s most popular children’s storytellers live in a treehouse. It’s a Thirteen-Storey one, at least it started out that way. The storytellers are Terry Denton and Andy Griffiths, responsible for an array of children’s comedies, who live in a fantasy treehouse paradise. There they write and illustrate their stories, distracted by the lemonade fountains, see-through shark-infested swimming pool and a marshmallow gun that shoots directly into your mouth.
Since its arrival on the literary scene in 2011, this Treehouse has grown by 13 storeys at a time. The next edition will be 104 storeys. The books have sold over 3 million copies in Australia alone. The treehouse now contains a detective agency, a mashed potato and gravy train and a machine that makes money… or honey… depending on what you’d prefer. These delights interrupt Andy and Terry as they write for their publisher, Mr Bignose. Indeed the treehouse functions as a metaphor for the writing process … its storeys provide food for the stories produced inside.
Treehouses feature often in children’s stories. In Dav Pilkey’s popular Captain Underpants series, the heroes George and Harold write comics in their treehouse and retreat to it when things get out of hand, to regroup and create their way out of trouble. There are, of course, Tolkien’s Ents, the walking trees who fight on the side of good against Sauron and his army. Or Dr Seuss’s Lorax, who guards the Truffula trees from devastation. Ents and the Lorax are guardians of the ecosystem. When they act we know that something is badly out of kilter – in these cases in the fight between good and evil.
Mention Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree stories, meanwhile, and many a grown-up gets misty-eyed. Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series has been going strong for 25 years, and has nearly 100 titles. Carter Higgins’s Everything You Need for a Treehouse helps you get kitted out for your own woodland home. And mythology is full of trees.
The World Tree of ancient Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, is similar to the thirteen-storey treehouse, linking the nine realms of the world (of fire, of ice, of elves, of gods, of fertility, of giants, of dwarves, of humans, and of the dishonorable dead). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when King Eresichthyon of Thessaly cut down the Greek Goddess Demeter’s favourite oak tree she teamed up with her sister Fames to torment him with a hunger so eternal that he eventually ate himself.
The Russian witch, Baba Yaga, lives in a mobile treehouse on a chicken foot, like an old-fashioned Grey Nomad. The Biblical serpent tempted Eve to taste fruit of the tree of knowledge. And many European forests are inhabited by tree creatures, such as sylphs and dryads, eco-friendly creatures that appear in fantasy literature such as Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher.
So it’s not surprising that living in the trees gives Andy and Terry and George and Harold access to fantasy spaces, and to magic and mystery. A technical term for this is liminality: in a liminal space, you are on the borders of things, or thresholds (the word come from the Latin for threshold, limen). If you live in a tree, you are up in the air, but connected to the earth.
At heart, most myths respond to fundamental practical needs. Tree house stories recognise that children need time in nature. For generations of urban children, these books offer a fantasy of unsupervised creative spaces where they can control their own adventures, face dangers that test them and engage with others in a less restricted way.
In Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature Rich Life (2016), author Richard Louv coined the phrase “Nature deficit disorder” to describe the human costs of alienation from the natural world. Opportunities for play in nature have dramatically declined in urbanised societies and with them, benefits such as creativity, problem-solving and emotional and intellectual development.
Writers like Denton and Griffiths recognise the child’s need for nature. So does Tina Matthews, in whose Waiting for Later a tree provides company for a child whose family is too busy to spend time with her. And so does mythology which regularly takes characters into nature, to confront, to challenge or to come to terms with life.
While the Thirteen-Storey Treehouse may not be directly inspired by Yggdrasil or Demeter’s Oak, or hop about like Baba Yaga’s hut, it understands the relation between creativity and time in the woods, taking part in a grand literary tradition that goes as far back as myth itself.
Elizabeth Hale, Senior Lecturer in English and Writing (children’s literature), University of New England and Lynnette Lounsbury, Lecturer in Communications and History, Avondale College of Higher Education
The children’s writer Michael Morpurgo has written a new novel inspired by his autistic grandson, which is set to be published later this year. Flamingo Boy is set in the Camargue in the south of France during World War II and features a boy who “sees the world differently”.
Morpurgo explained how it didn’t occur to him to write a book about autism until his grandson was born, which isn’t totally surprising – as autistic characters in books are few and far between.
Fiction plays a significant role in shaping how people understand and respond to autism. And in this way, books are often used by both schools and parents to help children and young people understand more about autism.
But the limited and skewed portrayal of autism means it is often
misrepresented rather than represented in fiction. For an autistic child or young person this can be extremely isolating and they are often unable to find a version of “themselves” in a book.
The sad reality is many authors and publishers – perhaps from fear of causing offence – appear to steer clear of autistic characters in their narrative. As a consequence, books with autistic characters are either tucked away in the special section of bookshops and libraries, or absent altogether.
My research looks at the role fiction plays in creating awareness and acceptance of autism among children, as well as how the portrayal of autism in children’s books shapes how autism is understood and responded to. As part of the research, I recently put on an interactive discussion at the Festival of Social Science around the topic of how autism is portrayed in children’s fiction.
The panel included Vicky Martin, writer of M is for autism and M in the middle, and Amanda Lillywhite, writer and illustrator of picture books including Friends, written for the Neuro Foundation which works to improve the lives of those affected by neurofibromatosis – a genetic condition caused by a mutation in one of their genes. On the panel was also Elaine Bousfield, founder of new publishing house Zuntold. And the audience consisted of autistic children, young people and adults. As well as parents of autistic children, secondary school teachers, academics and the general public.
One of the key topics discussed at the event was around the idea of “co-production”. This is where books are written in collaboration with autistic children and young people – much like the M in the Middle series, which was authored by Martin, but written jointly with girls of Limpsfield Grange, a school for autistic girls.
Making magic happen
The story of M has captured the hearts of readers and already resulted in a sequel to the first book. The girls of Limpsefield Grange have also featured in an ITV documentary Girls with autism. Why? Because M is the story of an autistic teenage girl who is interesting, endearing and real.
She’s written and created with a group of teenage autistic girls. Big chunks of the book is written verbatim, with their very words, and the rest is heavily edited by them. It doesn’t get more real than that. M is the one girl they all created together.
Similarly, as a part of her book for the Neuro Foundation, Lillywhite spent time with children with neurofibromatosis. They spoke about themselves and their experiences of things that matter not just to them but also to many other children, such as bullying. And while all the characters in the book have the genetic disorder neurofibromatosis, the stories aren’t about that and are just as relevant for every child.
Autism is extremely diverse and perhaps the only way to have a good representation of it in fiction is by having lots of autistic characters – in comics, in picture books and in novels.
Publishers too have an important role to play in garnering collaborations and bringing work co-produced with autistic children and young people to market – much as in the M books. Publishing house Zuntold, for example, has an interactive novel writing project which encourages people to write the next piece.
Ultimately, every story – whether in life or fiction – has characters, and all characters are different. So given that autism affects more than one in 100 people, there needs to be more done to represent the outside world inside story books.
Millions of people have a relative on the autism spectrum. And it is only by making autistic characters a part of mainstream books that we can hope for widespread understanding and acceptance of autism.
The inevitable and universal nature of death has made it a popular topic of children’s literature. While death has appeared in these stories for centuries, death in young adult novels has become much darker and more complex.
The recent controversy over Netflix’s adaptation of the novel Thirteen Reasons Why, which depicts the aftermath of teen suicide, shows that dealing with death in kids’ fiction can be fraught. While some defended the show’s graphic depiction of suicide, others argued it was gratuitous and dangerous.
This raises the question of whether children’s literature and young adult fiction is still a safe place to discuss death. At the recent Emerging Writer’s Festival panel, Sex, Death and YA, young adult literature was celebrated for exploring such complex themes. While there may be a trend toward darker themes in literature written for a young adult audience, there is still room for hope.
Putting death on the page
When early works of children’s literature broached the topic of death, it was usually to show how the protagonist copes in the aftermath of the death of a family member or friend. In many of these early works, depictions of death were softened for the reader, occurring outside the text. For instance, Mary’s parents in The Secret Garden (1911) die “off page”, which acts as a plot device to facilitate Mary’s arrival at Mistlethwaite Manor, where she discovers the secret garden. Charlotte’s Web (1952) softens the blow by making the characters non-human – in this case a spider.
Modern young adult novels are different. These texts not only depict young adult protagonists dealing with the aftermath of a loved one’s death, but also the trauma of witnessing it. Such as in the case of The Outsiders (1967), when the 14-year-old protagonist Ponyboy is present when his best friend Johnny dies in hospital and when Dally, a member of Ponyboy’s gang, is killed by the police.
In recent years, young adult novels have featured their protagonists doing the killing. The characters in books such as Harry Potter (1997), The Hunger Games (2008) and Tomorrow When the War Began (1993), struggle not only with the inevitability of death and the pain of losing loved ones, but also with the guilt and ethical dilemma of having to kill to survive.
Life after death
There has recently been an influx of novels that present death from the perspective of the protagonist. These novels show characters who are terminally ill, presenting a rarely explored viewpoint in young adult novels – the perspective of dying. In books such as Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender (2005), Jenny Downham’s Before I Die (2007) and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012) the protagonist portrays the fear and pain of dying, the challenge of accepting one’s own mortality and the guilt of leaving their loved ones to cope after their death.
Other recent novels come from the perspective of someone who is already dead. They speak to the reader, and sometimes even their own friends and family, from beyond the grave, such as in Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall (2010) and, although technically not a young adult novel, in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which has been widely read by young people.
In the beginning of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why it is made clear that the protagonist, Hannah Baker, has taken her own life. As the novel continues, Hannah’s story and the reasons for her actions are disclosed through a series of tapes, 13 in total, all recorded before her death.
The Netflix series also demonstrates the shift of how death is portrayed to an adolescent audience. While Asher’s novel leaves the method of Hannah’s suicide largely undisclosed, the series, released ten years after the book, portrays the suicide in excruciating detail.
Talking about death
There are many children’s picture books, such as The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, and Harry & Hopper written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood, that talk about death to help parents discuss the concept with young children, possibly for the first time. When talking to kids about loss and grief the Victorian government’s Better Health Channel recommends the use of “storybooks” to explain death, stating that, “It is important to recognise children’s feelings and speak with them honestly and directly about death and grief”.
Why is the honest and direct depiction of death in young adult novels often so controversial? Perhaps it comes from a desire to shelter young readers from topics such as war, terrorism, and human mortality – topics that young adult readers not only read about in the news and on social media, but experience. Or perhaps it is because depicting death is seen to be void of hope. But possibly the idea of hope has also shifted, away from a fairytale notion of happily ever after and towards a reality that acknowledges the existence of darkness and light.
There is little research on the possible benefits of discussing death with young people. For those who are yet to be affected by the death of a loved one, reading about it from the perspective of another young adult can offer a way of building resilience. For those readers who have experienced the death of a family member or friend, being able to read about the experiences of others can offer consolation. Death is an indisputable part of adolescent lives, and books can provide a place for them to reflect on its influence on life.
It’s not always easy to keep kids reading over the summer holidays. But research shows that those who stop reading over these long breaks from school are actually at risk of seeing their reading ability drop during this period. This is called the “summer slide”.
But there are simple ways to prevent this from happening. Reading just four or five books over the summer can stop the slide.
Reading regularly also helps to develop a child’s language and comprehension, enhance listening and speaking skills, and help with the understanding of narrative and story. Reading to your child during pre-school years has even been shown to boost their literacy levels.
Children are, unsurprisingly, more likely to read when they find a story interesting and engaging. With this in mind, I’ve pulled together a list of great new books that have been published this year that are sure to keep kids engaged in reading over the summer break.
1. Hello Little Babies by Alison Lester
(Harper Collins Publishers, 2016) Ages: 0 – 3 years
Cameos of babies’ lives and their families feature in ordinary but universal scenes starring babies as they sleep, play, eat and explore life.
The short, familiar text, such as “Zane rubs corn in his hair” and “Vikram yawns and stretches”, is perfect for parents to read aloud. Lester is at her finest in capturing the minutia of the ordinary and rendering it memorable.
Further reading: Lester’s 48-page colouring-in book, Wonderful World, featuring characters and scenes from her books Imagine, Magic Beach and others, is the perfect companion.
Parents might collect Lester’s books and join in a game of “find the characters” appearing in the colouring book.
2. Who sank the boat? And other stories by Pamela Allen
(Penguin, 2016) Ages: 1 – 5 yrs
Here’s a treasure trove of nine familiar favourites by a creator who excels in the art of simplicity, humour, playful images and universally loved stories including Grandpa and Thomas and Belinda. Allen’s jaunty language is perfect for reciting and performance by pre-schoolers.
Parents will enjoy performing words and actions and talking about the subtle character-building ideas, such as being kind to others and working together.
3. One Minute Till Bedtime written by Kenn Nesbitt, illustrations by Christoph Niemann
(Little Brown, 2016) Ages: 3 and up
These 60-second poems are perfect bedtime reading. Five countries, including Australia, feature in these 132 selections, each evoking strong emotions. Included are abecedarian, pantonums and haiku poems, plus others. The illustrations are minimalist and clever, ensuring imaginations are engaged.
Australia’s poems by Kathryn Apel, Mark Carthew, Sophie Masson and others add to the international flavour. Parents prepare for a rollicking read aloud and discussion of other kinds of poetry than those here.
4. Welcome to Country written by Aunty Joy Murphy, illustrated by Lisa Kennedy
(Black Dog Books, 2016) Ages: 5 and up
Welcome to country ceremonies are an important part of major events. They signify cultural greetings by Aboriginal elders who grant permission for visitors to enter their traditional lands.
This stunningly illustrated book has a deep yet simple text, which introduces its central concept through poetic language and earthy, evocative landscapes of blended colours and shapes of people and landscapes.
“We are part of the land and the land is part of us” reminds us to respectfully share cultural traditions. Parents might collect a range of picture books by Aboriginal creators for children, comparing illustration styles and discussing the meaning underlying traditional stories.
5. The Sisters Saint-Claire written by Carlie Gibson, illustrated by Tamsin Ainslie
(Crows Nest, NSW : Allen & Unwin, 2016) Ages: 7 and up
Gibson’s debut, gem-like story offers likeable characters, a tasty dilemma and a satisfying ending. Appealing ingredients include a family of four French mice who adore food, family and fashion, intricately detailed illustrations, lavish banquets of French food and a text in delectable rhythm and rhyme.
Adults and child can explore places in the world, locate these on maps, and share cultural diversity.
Further reading: Similar in whimsical detail, but featuring enchanting rabbit characters, is the trio of books by Kate Knapp about Ruby Red Shoes. Ruby’s adventures to distant places are told in entrancing prose and feature detailed, whimsical illustrations.
6. Amazing Animals of Australia’s National Parks by Gina M Newton
(National Library of Australia, 2016) Ages: 8 and up
Australia is home to over 110,000 species of animals and here in Newton’s large, lavishly designed book are 120 – most existing only in Australia. The beautifully designed layout conveys information so jam-packed that readers will return again and again.
Basic and iconic information include slang, sports, places to visit, and lots of food. Adults reading this book (and the one below) with children might want to talk about the importance of looking after the environment.
Further reading: Tania McCartney’s book, Australia illustrated, in a similar large and inviting format, offers fascinating titbits about all Australian states and territories.
7. Artie and the Grime Wave by Richard Roxburgh
(Allen & Urwin, 2016) Ages: 8 and up
Artie and his best friend Bumshoe discover a cave-of-possibly-stolen-stuff, then match wits and defeat our shady characters including fang-toothed Funnel-web and the dastardly Mayor Grime.
High-appeal ingredients abound in this mystery-adventure: a struggling underdog; good-hearted friends; moments of bravery; slightly dangerous baddies and a rip-roaring pace. The quirky line illustrations perfectly capture inventions like the “super snotter” and shady characters in zany, slightly dark, line illustrations.
Parents might compare this work with other popular humorous authors and illustrators such as Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton with their Magic Tree House series.
8. Radio Rescue written by Jane Jolly, illustrated by Robert Ingpen
(National Library of Australia, 2016) Age: 9 and up
Two masters of story and illustration combine their art to reveal a fascinating piece of Australian history — how “the world burst open” with the invention of the pedal radio. The facts are astonishing, but the human story adds great appeal.
Young Jim and his mum and dad love station life but long for human contact, and worry about disaster striking. Jane Jolley’s text is simple with appealing repetition perfect for reading aloud.
Robert Ingpen’s signature soft pencil sketches and luminous foldouts are unforgettable. Parents might find other books about significant inventions and innovations in our world such as transportation and the Internet, and talk how these have changed our lives.
9. Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
(Allen & Urwin, 2016) Ages: 10 and up
Shaun Tan’s 15 short stories explore unique, perplexing and sophisticated ideas with unforgettable images. One story centres on Eric, tiny in size but large in heart. He leaves behind an unforgettable gift for his human friends. Another story features satirically decorated missiles in front yards. Tan puts a twist in this tale, prodding the reader to think. A family with little money creates a richly imaginative attic retreat.
Parents will enjoy reading Tan’s crisp proud aloud and luxuriate in his mesmerising illustrations, then discussing the many layers of his work. Then, as a family, put together the accompanying Shaun Tan 750-piece puzzle.
10. The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
(NSW : Hachette, 2016) Ages: 12 and up
Occasionally a book leaves an indelible impression, irrevocably changing one’s worldview. This is one of those books.
Ten-year-old Subhi is a refugee, born in a permanent Australian detention centre. Though he knows no other life, his imagination soars and offers comfort. When he meets a young girl from the other side of the fence, their lives change forever.
Family members loved and lost weave throughout this story. The prose is lyrical, and there are light moments. Read this book as a family and explore injustices, hope and love.
You might also like “A love and feel for place : Australian illustrated children’s books – in pictures” by Leigh Hobbs.
• All the books listed were published in 2016 and reflect Australia’s rich and diverse creative talent.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the top 100 children’s books on Goodreads – any thoughts?
The link below is to an article that looks at the children’s books and associated apps for ‘A Monster at the End of the Book’ and ‘Another Monster at the End of This Book.’