The subject of death is such a hard one to explain to children as it can be fraught with our own fears and lack of surety about our beliefs. Many people will turn to traditional faiths and of course there are many children’s versions of religious texts. But, there are many people that do not follow a traditional faith and have different beliefs about death and what happens after we die. In this situation it can be almost impossible to find a book that perfectly reflects your family's feelings about death. I normally recommend getting a few books that show a range of ideas and then using them as a starting point for conversations with your child.
If possible it can be useful to have conversations about death before the need arises. Most children under the age of 5 will have trouble understanding the finality of death but his doesn’t mean it is a concept to be avoided. Many children will start asking questions at around 3 or 4 years old and this is a good time to start introducing concepts that can be built on later in life. For example when seeing a dead animal by the side of the road, a child might ask what the animal is doing; while it may be tempting to say ‘sleeping’ and quickly change the subject, it can be helpful to have early conversations about death in relatively safe ways. Other situations arise when children see images on television of natural disasters or advertisements for organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières. One of our little 3 year old regulars recently told me during Storytime that when people die “they go in the ground and it’s not like going to sleep because they don’t wake up again”. She had apparently been asking her family a lot of questions after seeing this kind of add on television. Her parents felt it was important to tell her what they believed in an age appropriate way.
As much as we would like to protect our children from anything bad, it is inevitable that at some point in their lives they will have to deal with loss (although, hopefully not for many years). So, it's a good idea to help find ways of dealing with grief.
Often books for young children that are about death or grief feature animals. This helps to provide a degree of separation so that while children are learning about the concepts they feel slightly removed from actual situation.
There are so many wonderful books about grief for young children these days there are bound to some that will be suitable for your child. Here are a few of my personal favourites. Of course there are many more books I could recommend Talk to us or your local librarian about your circumstances and we'll help you find the right book. All of these books are available to order from The Little Bookroom and are most likely also be kept in your local public library.
Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr
This is the touching final book in the Mog the Forgetful Cat series. One day Mog feels sleepy, so tired in fact that she doesn’t want to do anything except sleep. So that’s what she does. Mog dies and becomes a spirit that watches over the family that loved her. She stays around long enough to see that they are alright without her. This is a helpful book for those that want to tell their children that our loved ones will come back to check on us after they have passed away.
The Very Best Of Friends by Margaret Wild
This is a beautiful book which shows the aftermath of a death and the difficulty some people have coping with grief. It doesn’t give any kind of religious view point. Told from the perspective of William James’ cat. Jessie and James live on a farm and are The Very Best of Friends. When James suddenly dies Jessie stops going outside, she is angry all the time, she stops looking after herself and she stops looking after William. William misses James too. William becomes skinner and more feral with every passing day. After a long time when Jessie sees what has become of William she suddenly realises what she’s done and what William would want. Although she still misses him she knows that he wouldn’t want her to feel this way.
Samsara Dog by Helen Manos
This is an absolutely beautiful book for anyone that believes in reincarnation. It follows the many and varied lives of a dog. He has some tragic lives and and some good ones, some long ones and some short ones but, in each life he becomes a better version of himself. Eventually he attains enlightenment and isn’t re-born again.
Badger’s Parting Gift by Susan Varley
Badger is old and he knows it won’t be long before he dies. He wants to make sure all his young friends will be alright when he dies and he tries to prepare them. Of course when he does die they all struggle with the grief they feel. Eventually though, they start to talk about all the lovely things Badger taught them and realise that in a way he is still there. This book shows how those that we have loved live on in our memories.
Todd Parr's Feelings Flashcards
For really little children it can also be helpful to have other tools to help them find the words for their emotions. Sometimes it can be frustrating for toddlers when they can’t express their emotions and this frustration can cause to more stress. They might say things like “I feel yucky” and yucky can mean any negative emotions; sick, worried, afraid or angry.
These flashcards are a great way to talk about feelings and help young children increase their vocabulary of words to describe their emotions.
The Little Bookroom’s Degraves Street shop was lucky enough to have a visit from the charming Tina Matthews. She is a Sydney based author/illustrator best known for Out of The Egg. Tina was on her way back home after a tour of Victoria. She was such a nice lady and I was feeling a little forward so, I boldly asked her if she would like to write an article for our blog. She kindly said yes and took my details and to my delight she sent through this wonderful piece as soon as she got back to Sydney!
I have just returned from my first book tour to Victoria. I went to Bendigo and Castlemaine and the gold fields area, to Melbourne and to south west and east Gippsland. We had beautiful blue autumn days and crisp cold nights. On a few mornings there was even frost on the tent. In the schools in Bendigo and Melbourne I met great students and teachers who seemed interested in all I had to say about writing and illustrating books. They did some wonderful drawings of cakes, (trying to imagine what the cakes in A Great Cake might look like) and made lots of little 'zines' which I am sure have been filled with words and pictures of their own by now.
Castlemaine is a great town with an exceptionally lovely library and bookshop (and farmers market, and picture theatre and high school brass band) and I can't wait to go back there for longer. They even have a writers' festival there.
In Melbourne I went with Michael, the Walker rep, to some of the city's best bookshops and met such enthusiastic staff who knew and loved books, their staff and their customers. That was such a pleasant surprise when so many people I meet are gloomy about the future of books. Not if the Melbourne and Catlemaine and Bendigo booksellers have anything to do with that future!
In the La Trobe valley I worked on a project called Expecting Something, run by Polyglot theatre. I worked with young mums, talking about the pleasure and importance of reading to kids, even when they are little babies. We made zines together about some of the things babies like doing. There are photos on facebook on the Expecting Something page.
And then through east Gippsland, over the mountains and home to Sydney, where it was still hot. Or at least the water was still warm enough to swim in! What a great trip!
Now back to the drawing board before a trip to NZ in June for the NZ Post Book Awards in Christchurch.
I absolutely adore Philip Pullman's writing. I remember years ago when I worked at a different book shop (yes, there was a time in my life before The Little Bookroom, but it was so long ago and so sad, it has basically passed into myth). Anyway, one of the other staff was always telling me that I HAD to read His Dark Materials as a matter of urgency. I got a bit tired of hearing about this AMAZING-WORK-OF-UTTER-GENIUS, so eventually I just bought the boxed set to get him off my back. So here’s the thing; I called in sick for work for the next two days so I could stay home and read this completely brilliant trilogy. Of course my co-worker was extremely smug when I (ahem) recovered from my illness and he couldn’t wait to talk to me all about my new favourite books. When I went to Finland (aka Moomin Valley) I spent five long and bumpy hours on a bus traveling deep into the Arctic Circle to Lake Inari, so I could see the lake that is home to Serafina Pekkala, the witch that plays a central role in His Dark Materials. As a side note, if you would like to visit Lake Inari, I would suggest going in summer, I went in December when the average daytime temperature was -36 brrr.
So when Philip Pullman himself puts together a list of must read books for Pre-Teens, I pay attention (and you should too). Here is the great man’s list and short comment on each book. Please especially take note of his Moomin recommendation, we couldn’t agree more.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Indispensable. The great classic beginning of English children's literature.
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. What effortless invention looks like.
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner. A great political story: democracy in action.
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. As clear and pure as Mozart.
Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken. If Ransome was Mozart, Aiken was Rossini. Unforced effervescence.
The Owl Service by Alan Garner. Showed how children's literature could sound dark and troubling chords.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Superb wit and vigorous invention.
Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson. Any of the Moomin books would supply the same strange light Nordic magic.
A Hundred Million Francs by Paul Berna. A particular favourite of mine, as much for Richard Kennedy's delicate illustrations (in the English edition) as for the story.
The Castafiore Emerald by Hergé. Three generations of this family have loved Tintin. Perfect timing, perfect narrative tact and command, blissfully funny.
And to finish here's Philip Pullman with a monkey reading over his shoulder.
Here are five books we love for Year Nine classrooms:
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
I absolutely loved this book. It covers some fascinating aspects of modern history and opens up so many moral questions that have no answer. Teenagers are notorious for thinking in black and white terms, this book is about what happens in between. If you want meaty and challenging classroom discussion, this a great choice.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Everyone you know has probably already told you to read this book; now we are telling you again. Beautifully written, dense with ideas and language.
Cry Blue Murder by Kim Kane and Marion Roberts
A psychological thriller for teens. This book is real page turner and covers a range of literary devises. If you want to introduce discussion about internet safety into the classroom this book is a great opportunity.
The Dead I Know by Scot Gardiner
The main character works in a funeral home, which instantly brings up a number of discussions, but this is a great book for discussing different family situations, mental illness (especially dementia) and what happens after high school.
When the Hipchicks Went to War by Pamela Rushdie
Set in the 1960's when it was completely normal for a 16 year old girl to leave school and get a job as a hairdresser, but good girls didn't drink alcohol or go out alone in the evening (very confusing for today's girls). Kathy changes from being a completely sheltered girl into a young woman who has seen too much. As well as topics like, war and modern history this great to bring up discussions about the changing role of women in this time.
Children's book authors and illustrators are a strange bunch. It’s an occupational hazard; they tend to spend a lot of time working alone drawing or writing about talking pigeons, caterpillars eating salami or trying to find just the right turn of phrase for a tree.
Here are a few pictures of some of our favourite children’s book authors and illustrators being a little silly.
Sometimes Tove Jansson just wants to be a pirate.
Graeme Base likes to be in a garden filled with puppets.
Frances Hodgson Burnett is rather fond of a large hat.
Terry Pratchett aslo sometimes indulges in comical headwear.
Edward Gorey enjoys the company of his teddy.
Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler) likes to stand on the beach playing the piano accordion while dogs run around him. Of course he does.
Eric Carle is just adorable.
Mo Willems gets mad.
Mo Willems likes pigeons
Sometimes Maurice Sendak goes a little wild.
No one can really explain what is going on here with Shel Silverstein.
Yes, this is the man that wrote The Giving Tree.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Steven Lochran, the author of the awesome new series “Vanguard Prime”. Vanguard Prime is a fasted pasted, quirky and action packed series for 9-12 year olds (think X-Men for tweens). It can be so hard to find books for that age group that appeal to both the children’s sense of fun and adventure and the parent’s reading objectives and aspirations. Vanguard Prime are well written, modern sci-fi, adventure books with a quirky (Australian) sense of humour and plenty of action. At this stage there are two books in the series with more on the way.
Here is what Steven Lochran had to say:
I’ve been writing since I was 7 years old. I started off using exercise books to write and draw my own picture books, moved onto an electric typewriter when I was 10, and finally made the jump to my first computer when I was 13. In other words, I’m old.
I attempted writing my first full-length novel when I was studying Creative Writing at uni. It was a blend of steampunk and sword-and-sorcery fantasy. And it was terrible. The characters were thin and the story was unfocused, but I learnt a lot in writing it and trying to get it published.
I spent quite a few years sending it out to agents and publishers, and while a handful requested to see the full manuscript it never got further than that. Eventually, I realised I had to go back and try writing something else. But if I was going to do that, I knew I had to be more focused in my approach.
I also knew I wanted to write a book for younger readers, so I went into bookshops and looked at what else was being published. I read the Artemis Fowl books, as well as books by Garth Nix and Jack Heath, to get a better sense of what was popular and how far the authors went in terms of depicting action and violence.
Teen Spy books were big at the time, but I wasn’t interested in writing something that felt derivative of those ideas. Going through some old files on my computer, I found a story I’d started writing at 15 and had quickly abandoned. It was about a teenager getting dropped off at a military facility by his parents to join a superhero team. I felt like there was a lot of potential in that idea, so I decided to flesh it out.
I drew on the books I loved as a kid, as well as my lifelong love of superhero comics, to create the world of Vanguard Prime. It’s a world identical to ours, save for the existence of ‘neohumans’. Much like mutants in the X-Men comics, neohumans are people who develop extraordinary powers, generally in adolescence, which is usually triggered by a traumatic or extremely stressful experience.
The book's main character is Sam Lee, who ends up joining the elite superhero team Vanguard Prime and being given the codename ‘Goldrush’ after he develops the ability to run at superfast speeds. The reason he’s called ‘Goldrush’ is because he also generates a golden force-field that protects him from the G-forces at which he’s running, as well as from any obstacles he may encounter. I found the name ‘Goldrush’ in one of my old exercise books, where I’d created a superhero team when I was 12. I thought the name was just the right amount of ‘cool’ and ‘quirky’, and so it stuck.
In writing for Sam, I draw a lot on my own experiences of growing up, using the anxieties I faced while transitioning into high school life – and from there into adulthood – as the basis for what Sam is thinking and feeling. Sam and I also share a very similar sense of humour, though other than that I’ve deliberately made Sam different from me in terms of his interests, background and family life.
The reason for that is because the fantasy book I tried getting published featured a lot of characters based on my friends and me. I think that's something that a lot of writers do when they start out as it makes creating characters easier to do, but it also leads to the characters being quite thin; you don’t want to insult your friends, so you write everyone as happy and well-adjusted and getting along.
Eventually, you have to take the step of creating a character from scratch, and while you can draw on elements from people you know, it’s better to focus on inventing a character that serves the purposes of your story, rather than trying to flatter your friends and family.
Of course, I’d feel very flattered if someone gave me the chance to be a superhero like Sam. Though my costume probably wouldn’t be yellow like his. Or skin-tight. I don’t care what the market-testing says.
Next week we will feature a list of Steven's top five genre books for young readers (if he's not too busy saving the world, that is). In the mean time, see Steven's website for more details on Vanguard Prime.
What could be nicer than giving a child a delightful hard cover edition of a family favourite to cherish for ever? Some of you may be lucky enough to still have books from when you were very young or even from when you were first born. Some may even have a cherished book with a handwritten message in the front from someone you love. These are the books that sent us off to sleep, soothed us when we were afraid of the dark or cheered us up when we were sick. So, wouldn't it wonderful to these very same books with the little ones you love?
Please always remember that things that are in print today, may not be there tomorrow and even Classics can become unavailable. With authors that have large backlists (like Enid Blyton) publishers don't tend to keep their full catalogue in print at the same time. So, if there is a book that you absolutely love, please don't make the mistake of thinking it will always be easily available!
Ages 3 to 5
The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese
Ferdinand The Bull by Munro Leaf
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Oh, The Places You'll Go! by Dr Seuss
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
Let me begin this blog post by saying that I absolutely adore everything Mem Fox does, says and writes. In my opinion, if you have small children, not having Mem Fox books in your house is virtually a criminal offense. I think the high quality of children’s book publishing in Australia is largely because Mem raised the bar so high for everyone that followed and so many of our wonderful young authors grew up reading her books. There, now that’s off my chest I can continue.
Mem Fox (Merrion Frances Partridge), AM, was born on the 5th of March 1946 in Melbourne. Shortly after her birth, her family moved to Zimbabwe, where her parents were missionaries. She studied drama in London, where she met and fell in love with her husband Malcolm. They have one daughter, Chloe, whom Mem dedicated her first book (Possum Magic) to.
As well as being an author, Mem spent much of her working life as Associate Professor, Literacy Studies in the School of Education at Flinders University; or as Mem puts it “I worked in a university, teaching teachers how to teach reading and writing.”
Mem has written dozens of books for children and many non-fiction books about teaching and literacy. Her best known book Possum Magic, is still the best selling children’s book in Australian history.
Now let me share 10 of my favourite Mem Fox books:
Possum Magic illustrated by Julie Vivas
This has to be top of my list. Published in 1983, it was Mem’s first book. Personally, I’ve never quite forgiven the CBCA for not awarding it book of the year (although I do like Bertie and the Bear by Pamela Allen).
Hunwick’s Egg illustrated by Pamela Lofts
The name Hunwick was inspired by John Hunwick, who Mem worked at Flinders University with, he was working on a campaign to save the bilby and trying to raise public awareness about their plight.
Time for Bed illustrated by Jane Dyer
This is a great book for helping relax little folk before bed, with gentle repetitive text and soft illustrations of animals snuggling down to sleep children find it very soothing. It is great for newborns all the way up to four and five year olds.
Whoever You Are illustrated by Leslie Stub
This book is about children all around the world, just like you. Children that go to school, eat dinner and play games, just like you; there may be differences but they are only superficial.
Where is the Green Sheep illustrated by Judy Horacek
This is a must have book for every toddler. If you want to understand the kind of power this amazing book has, just ask any group of toddlers “where is the green sheep?” I can pretty much guarantee that they will all answer in unison “fast asleep”.
Koala Lou illustrated by Pamela Lofts
This is a wonderful story for children struggling with the idea of new siblings. Koala Lou is the apple of her mother’s eye but as she grows up and her mum has more babies, she has less time to spend with Koala Lou. Of course she’ll always be there just when Koala Lou needs her.
Tough Boris illustrated by Kathryn Brown
Boris von der Borch is a big tough fearless pirate, he and his pirate crew travel in their pirate ship digging up treasure and having fun. Boris' constant companion is he parrot (all pirates have to have parrots), when the parrot dies one day Boris cries and cried, because everyone, even big tough pirates cry sometimes. This is a great story for talking about gender roles and how even massive, scruffy pirates cry sometimes.
Ten Little Fingers And Ten Little Toes illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
From two of the most gifted picture book creators of our time, here is a celebration of babies and the joy they bring to everyone, everywhere, all over the world! It was on the New York Times bestseller lists for 18 weeks and has become an instant classic.
Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge illustrated by Julie Vivas
Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partidge lives next door to an old people's home and the residents are his friends. His favourite person there is Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper. Miss Nancy has lost her memory and Wilfrid decides to help her get it back with unexpected consequences.
Wombat Divine illustrated by Kerry Argent
A great Australian Christmas book. Wombat really wants to be in the nativity play, but every part he tries, poor Wombat seems to get wrong. Finally, there are no parts left for him to try, when Wombat is in deep despair wise old Emu has a brilliant idea.
Books with great rhyming text have a way of capturing children's attention and keeping their focus for much longer. Most parents and educators have noticed this, especially with authors like Julia Donaldson and Mem Fox. They love the predicability, the rhythm and often have the story memorised after just a few readings. We are often asked for books that will hold the attention of even the most active and squirmy pre-schooler, so here is a list of ten of our favourites.
The Gruffalo - by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler - This must be one of the most popular rhyming to ever be released and anyone who reads it to a small child will see why!
“A mouse took a walk through the deep dark wood.
A fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good.”
Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld - Going to bed books are always very useful and this rhyming text helps calm and relax children.
“Down in the big construction site,
The tough trucks work with all their might
To build a building, make a road,
To get the job done- load by load!”
Thesaurus Rex by Laya Steinberg and Debbie Harter - Not just great rhyming text, this book also introduces children to synonyms.
"Thesaurus Rex starts his day: stretching, reaching, extending, bending.
Uh oh, his pants need mending!"
Mr McGee by Pamela Allen - The short rhyming text, large print and silly humour in Mr McGee work really well fro pre-schoolers. They won’t take long to have the words memorised and be able to ‘read’ it to themselves.
“Mr McGee lives under a tree.
One morning he woke up and said,
‘It’s time that I got out of bed.’”
Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans- This book has rhyming text with more complex sentences and even the occasional French word thrown in.
“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines.
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.”
Giraffes Can't Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees - Longer rhyming text (about a paragraph per page), great fun to read aloud and a great message about fitting in.
"Gerald was a tall giraffe,
Whose neck was long and slim,
But his knees were awfully bandy
And his legs were rather slim"
Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss- Of course we had to include at least one Dr Seuss and what could be better for children to grow up hearing than this?
Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!”
Time for Bed by Mem Fox and Jane Dyer - Every baby should grow up hearing this book at bedtime. Mem Fox’s lyrical rhyming text blends perfectly with Jane Dyer’s touchingly warm illustrations.
“It’s time for bed, little mouse, little mouse,
Darkness is falling all over the house.”
Mister Magnolia by Quentin Blake - The rhyming and very repetitive text in this book help children to be able to predict the next word even if they can't read it (good for building confidence).
"Mr Magnolia has only one boot.
He has a trumpet that goes rooty- toot-,
And two lovely sisters who play the flute-
But Mr Magnolia has only one boot."
Mulga Bill's Bicycle by A.B. Paterson illustrated by Kilmeny and Deborah Niland - rhyming text, great Australian classic. Children will giggle at the idea of a bicycle being a new invention.
"'Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze;
He turned away the good old horse that served him many days;"
For any unfortunate people that haven't met the Moomins yet, here is a little bit of background on those dear little philosophers and their creator; Tove Jansson.
Although not very well known in Australia, the Moomins have a huge following around the world especially in Scandinavia, the UK and Japan. Beginning life in a series of books there are now Moomin movies, television shows, toys, lollies, all kinds of merchandise, a museum, a theme park (pictured below), there has even been a Moomin Ballet (1952) and a Moomin opera (1974).
Tove Jansson is one of our all time favourite author/ illustrators. Born in Helsinki, Finland in 1914 (when Finland was still a Grand Principality of Russia) she spent much of her childhood surrounded by art and artists (both her parents were artists). Her family was part of the Swedish speaking minority in Finland and all her books were originally published in Swedish. She studied art in Helsinki and Paris in the 1930's. After finishing her education Tove had work in a number of galleries and her first solo exhibition was held in 1943.
Tove wrote and illustrated The Moomins and the Great Flood (which was her first book featuring the Moomins) during WWII as a way of bringing back something naïve and innocent at this dark time.
Tove had a studio in Helsinki but her summer home was located on an tiny island called Klovharu with no electricity and no running water.
She spent every summer with her partner (a professor and graphic artist in her own right) Tuulikki Pietila (nicknamed Tooti) for almost 30 years. Jansson said the character Too-Ticky who appears in Tales from Moominvalley and Moominland Midwinter was based on Tuulikki.
Tove Jansson was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1966.
Like many other illustrators (for example Maurice Sendak and Edward Gorey) she collaborated with a number of theatre companies, designing sets, costumes and writing dialogue.
Tove Jansson is best known for her Moomintroll books although, she wrote many books for grown ups too including The Summer Book, Fair Play, The Honest Swindler and Sculptor’s Daughter (a book of short stories based on Jansson’s childhood memories).
Tove Jansson died in 2001 her Moomin books are sold all over the world and have been translated into 44 languages.