Colour, Counting and Fun with Lucy Cousins

Legendary author – illustrator Lucy Cousins of the Maisy fame and the effervescent Hooray for… (Fish / Birds) series returns with some gloriously colourful newbies for little ones. Best known for her captivating learning books and ingenious simplicity over a range of age-appropriate topics for toddlers, these current titles are suitably superb. And here they are…

Splish, Splash, Ducky!, with its medley of bold, vibrant colours, intoxicating rhyme and adorably animated characters is like a toddler’s favourite play time come true in a picture book. The main character, Ducky Duckling, is the ultimate depiction of a curious, enthusiastic, and adventurous youngster up for anything that involves splashing in water, schmoozing with slimy critters and some playful activities. The book contains a scrumptious blend of small creatures one might find in the garden or around the pond on a rainy day, and the way Ducky interacts with them is just infectious. Cousins cleverly integrates the repetitive phrase, ‘Quack, quack, quack’ along with some onomatopoeia to add to the characters’ pure delight in their little games. And of course, no book for young children is complete without a bonding experience between parent and child as daddy duck provides the duckling with a sense of security, comfort, fun and love.
Two to five year olds will adore this playful story and happy-go-lucky Ducky, knowing after a busy adventure with friends there is always a soft spot awaiting them at the end of the day.

We’ve seen Lucy Cousins’ gorgeous counting books with Maisy and friends. In this ‘A Little Fish Book’ series, Count with Little Fish is yet another kinesthetically mesmerising board book for little hands. Exploring numbers from one through to ten, a progressive counting pattern of fish find their way swimming into our hearts and minds. Being able to touch and feel the embossed, decorated shiny numerals and their associated fish on the opposite page provides the young audience with a highly interactive mathematical reading experience. The language facet is also fetchingly engaging with its exuberant rhyme. “Three counting fish…one, two, three! Four flying fish, flapping wild and free.” “Seven scary fish, with sharp teeth to feed. Eight shy fish hiding in seaweed.” Cousins keeps the colour palette appropriately eye-catching with blue and green backgrounds to offset the vibrant, and often contrasting, cartoon fish.
Brilliant fun and learning, perfect as a first book for babies and as a repeat read for toddlers.

Where is Little Fish? is another new title in the ‘A Little Fish Book’ series. This time, it’s a game of seek and find with a lift-the-flap component. Little Fish, as featured in sparkling gold on the front cover, engages his friends, and us, to find him in amongst the underwater nursery of coral, shells and even a treasure chest. With the continual questioning, ‘Is Little Fish in the…’, or ‘Is Little Fish behind the…’, readers are encouraged to make predictions and experience trial and error as they open the flap to discover the actual identities. Naturally, it is only on the final page where we succeed, but not without a little surprise to enlighten all the senses. Friendly fishy faces grace the vivid pages set in simple primary-based colours and patterned accents to create the maximum impact. This perfectly sturdy and compact book makes for a terrific accompaniment to the other Lucy Cousins board books for children up to age three.

Walker Books UK, March 2018.

Footballers’ Favourite Books

Artemis FowlThere’s this bizarre disconnect in my life where my work spans multiple, discrete fields, but the people who know me in a work sense tend to only know me in one field. For I write about social and environmental issues, football (soccer), and the arts and, for reasons both obvious and not, these worlds don’t often overlap.

I don’t, for example, think I have often managed to bring in football here.

Until now.

The Guardian just published a photo gallery of footballers’ favourite books. While some of the footballers’ selections could, without deeper examination, lead to quips about them not reading particularly grown-up books, it’s probably more a reflection of the audience they’re trying to encourage to read. That is, people struggling with literacy issues.

The Guardian article is part of a Premier League Reading Stars Online Challenge facilitated by the National Literacy Trust, an organisation that works to reduce the fact that one in six people in the UK struggle with low literacy. (The figures are likely similar in Australia.)

It does so by such actions as establishing literacy project in some of the UK’s lowest socioeconomic communities. Getting footballers—heroes—on board to encourage literacy is another step (and a powerful one at that, for who else to make reading look aspirational than your football heroes?).

It’s fitting, then, that none of the footballers are standing there touting (and putting people off with) something of the ilk of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. That’s a book I have to admit I’ve never gotten more than a few chapters in on either. Instead, we see a mix of adult and children’s books, most of them mass market and accessible. There were even a few in there that inspired me.

Artemis FowlAston Villa’s Shay Given, for instance, loves Artemis Fowl, a series I’ve read sporadically myself over the years, but never managed to get round to reading in full.

True story: I used to read snippets of Artemis Fowl books while eating my lunch in the stockroom out the back of a bookstore where I used to work. The Artemis Fowl books seemed to be housed near where I sat and, intrigued and also keen to improve my product knowledge, I one day started flicking through and was hooked. I began to look forward to those Artemis-filled escapes.

Arsenal’s Emiliano Martinez’s choice of fellow footballer Sergio Aguero’s biography is a good selection for inspiring people to read—a footballers’ biography is surely a great incentive and entry point to reading if you’re a football fan. So too are the selection of Harry Potters that appear in various footballers’ selections—lose yourself in Rowling’s imaginary world and, if necessary, supplement the books with the films and you’re at least part way on your way.

Former Australian goalkeeper and legend Mark Schwarzer—himself a children’s book author—chose Dr Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham. I’d like to know why that Dr Seuss book specifically—I think I’d have nominated the entire suite.

Aguero biographyLiverpool’s Adam Lallana selected The Gruffalo, a book I feel is entirely remiss of me not to have yet read. I actually even have a friend and her young son who regularly perform the tale for family and friends, and I still haven’t managed to encounter the text.

Meanwhile, Swansea City’s Jonjo Shelvey’s went for The Gruffalo’s Child, which prompted me to be, like, there’s a sequel?!

I’ve never actually read Some Dogs Do, which was nominated by QPR’s Joey Barton, but the cover makes me think it’s fun and I should rectify that reading gap, stat. After the Gruffalo books, of course.

Leicester City’s Dean Hammond chose The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a book I have to say featured prominently in my early reading years and one I’ve noticed friends my age now having children buying for their own kids.

Finally, Newcastle United’s Siem De Jong and Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters voted for perennial favourite Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG, respectively. As with the Dr Seuss selections, I’m intrigued. If pressed, I’d probably have gone Matilda myself.

The GruffaloAll of which is to say that I’m getting something out of the footballers’-favourite-books campaign, even though I’m not its target. I have some mighty respect for the charity for the work they do and for the footballers for getting on board to promote literacy.

Seriously, if anyone can make reading seem less scary and more cool, it’s them. If it encourages even one person to get some help improving their literacy, it’ll be a win. I’d love to see something similar extended to the A-League and W-League…

The Stupid Country

Destroy the JointI was fortunate enough to attend a literacy forum yesterday at which Jane Caro was the keynote speaker. I’ve long admired her from afar (mostly through my TV as she appeared on The Gruen Transfer and through the recently released Destroy the Joint: Why Women have to Change the World book she steered to great success).

Caro is, as I was discussing with my colleague at morning tea, the kind of woman I’d love to grow up to be. That is, incisively intelligent, pragmatic, and cutting a firm but fair line between warm and fuzzy and necessarily angry (an extreme too many of us are at either end of, rather than combining the two for best effect). Oh, and she’s funny. Just when we were deep into theory, Caro lightened the mood and drove her point home with some brilliantly timed humour.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Caro was there to discuss literacy and, in a wide-ranging speech, managed to blow our metaphorical socks off. I’m still grappling with getting my ahead around much of it, but here were my favourite parts and takeaways:

  • ‘a life live literately leads to a well-stocked mind’ (this may be Caro’s quote or someone else’s, but either way I like it)
  • equity and wellbeing are key to ensuring literacy. Put another way, before children can perform well in school, they need to feel a sense of wellbeing
  • our current system sees children as ‘vases you stuff with information’; the one who regurgitates it best wins. Caro advocates subversion rather than compliance will see people succeed in the long run
  • a ‘user pays’ society is more aptly expressed as ‘youse pays’
  • literacy acts as the ‘keys to the kingdom’ in an increasingly information-led society
  • Australia is the third-lowest funder of public schools (only Chile and Belgium are behind—and Chile’s working to change that now)
  • we’ve created a ‘publicly funded arms race’ whereby private schools must do ever-increasing peacocking to attract desirable parents and students. It doesn’t equate to better education
  • it’s important to know the business you’re in. Her message to the largely librarian audience was that they weren’t in the business of loaning books, but one of providing ideas, imagination, information, learning, and inspiration. She also showed us this brilliant, brilliant ad by The Guardian, a newspaper that understands it’s not in the business of selling newspapers, but instead providing the whole story, information, analysis, and more.

The Stupid CountryThat list doesn’t do her eloquence and inspiration justice, and I’d recommend seeking her out to hear her speak on this topic and, frankly, any other. I’m not sure how soon that will come about again for me, but I am inspired to pick up a bunch of her books and devour them, stat.

That includes the aforementioned Destroy the Joint: Why Women have to Change the World and fresh-off-the-printing-press The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education. Two light reads they won’t be, but invaluable ones that strike the right balance between outraged and incisively witty they will be, I’m sure.

Review – Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson

9780007488728

There have been a plethora of books on the brain; how it changes, how to rewire it, what it can do and how we still know hardly anything about it. At the same time there has been much written about the growth of The Internet, social media and advances in computer technology and how this is undermining our brains. As we let computers do the thinking for us and as we use The Internet and social networks to answer questions we are losing the ability to think for ourselves and as a consequence we are getting dumber. Clive Thompson argues in this book that this couldn’t be further from the truth and in fact we are becoming smarter than ever before.

Clive Thompson also shows that these fears are also not new. With every piece of new technology human’s have invented there have been bold predictions about what these inventions will lead to, positive and negative, and time and again both sets of predictions have been off the mark as our everyday use of these technologies often differs greatly from what the technology was intended for. Television, radio, the telephone, the telegraph and even the Gutenberg press were all ushered in with some people decrying the negative impact they would have on human’s ability to think and interact with one another. Nothing has changed with today’s technology

Thompson’s key argument is that our fear is human functionality is being replaced by new technology but what is actually happening is that we are integrating with this new technology. The book opens with Thompson looking at the quest to find a computer better than a human at chess, something humans have been doing for over 100 years. And while yes there are computers now than can beat a chess master there are also people becoming chess masters at younger and younger ages. And even non-chess masters who can beat computers and chess masters alike by using a combination of skills, human and technological.

This is true for new everyday technologies. We don’t use Google at the expense of memory we often use it to jog memory. It even helps us prioritize our memory. If we know something else will remember a detail or fact for us we won’t waste valuable space trying to remember the detail, we will try to remember where the detail is stored. Rather than The Internet, text messaging and twitter eroding literacy it is actually making us the most literate generation of humans ever. And social networks are also making us more socially aware, online and in person, not just of our friends but the whole world around us. And it is also allowing us to collaborate in ways we couldn’t ever have imagined before.

Thompson is not all glowing about what is happening. For every potential positive there are pitfalls and drawbacks. The technology that helped foster the Arab Spring is also being used by other regime’s to clamp down on people’s rights and maintain their power.  Some social networks can also  lead to homophily, where we only communicate and interact with those of similar opinions which can create massive echo chambers that serve to reinforce a belief, rightly or wrongly and can foster fierce partisan politics.

But technology, like humans, is ever evolving and as we learn more and more about ourselves and the technology and use it in different ways we get different outcomes that will shock us, surprise us and lead us in bold new directions. It is all about making the best use of technology. One of my favourite examples in the book is about a group on NZ High School students whose teacher got tired of the same, stock standard essays and reports being handed in. Instead she got the students to post their essays and reports publically online. At first nothing changed but as the students became aware that other people outside the school could also read and comment on their posts (parents, friends and even authors of books they wrote reports on) their writing began to change. More attention was paid to their research and more time was spent on their reports. Their writing improved.

This was a wonderfully thought-provoking book which reminds us all that rather than fear and deride what is new and changing that we should take time to look at the whole picture not just what bubbles to the surface. Because, one person’s silly cat meme can be another person’s only way to protest…

PS
I found out about this book via Rebecca Schinsky on the Bookrageous and Book Riot podcasts. Check both out they’re awesome.

Buy the book here…

Pigeons

When I hear the word ‘pigeons’, I immediately visualise dozen of birds flying around, crapping on the heads of famous statues. But there’s more to that word. ‘Pigeons’ also happens to be the name of a non-profit organisation dedicated to running literacy programs in Melbourne. Their latest project, Pigeon Letters, which saw primary school students teaming up with established authors to co-write stories, has resulted in the publication of an anthology. On Monday, as one of the participating authors, I went along to the launch of the book. And what a fantastic event is was! Excited kids, proud parents and assorted authors gathered together to celebrate this unique publication.

But let’s backtrack a little as I tell you about Pigeon Letters. This is the second year that the project has run, organised primarily by Lachlann Carter and Jenna Williams, along with their merry band of helpers. It’s an in-school letter writing exchange, linking primary school students (10-12 years of age) with established Australian authors (at varying levels of young-at-heart). Each student is paired with an author. Over the course of two terms, through a series of letters, the authors and students collaborate on the writing of a short story.

The pilot program in 2009 worked with a class of students from North Melbourne Primary School and 12 authors. This year, the program was expanded, involving a larger group of students, Class 5L from Footscray City Primary, and 21 authors and comic book creators. The result was a collection of 18 short stories and 3 short comics.

I was lucky enough to be one of the participating authors, along with:

The program is a terrific opportunity to enthuse kids about writing and for them to learn from people who are actually professional writers. And it’s a great opportunity for authors, as well. It gave me the chance to interact with a young person of the age that I write for. And it was a great learning experience for me. It was my first attempt at co-authoring a story. Me and my writing partner, Joel, crafted a World War II story called “Friend or Foe?”. Joel was the driving creative voice. He has an interest in World War II history, so he came up with story setting and concept. What started out as a traditional adventure story about a German soldier on a suicide mission, turned into a human drama about the effects of war. It is not the sort of story that I would have written on my own. So I owe a debt of gratitude to my young co-author for pushing my boundaries and getting me to think outside the square I would normally write in. I have no doubt that Joel has the potential to become an author in his own right, if he chooses to go down that path. And if he doesn’t… that’s okay too. He has, at the very least, had the chance to write a story, have it professionally edited and published in an anthology. A pretty fine achievement for one so young!

Copies of the anthology, Pigeons: Stories in the Post Volume 2, are available for purchase, with proceeds from the sale going towards future literacy projects. So, to buy a copy or to find out more about Pigeons, check out their website.

Are there any other projects like this running in Australia? If anyone knows of any, please, leave a comment and tell us about it.

And tune in next time for The Rosie Black Chronicles.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… or run the risk of having a pigeon crap on you from a great height.

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