One of life’s blessings is being able to sit with a loved and worried child and read and read, until peace and calm and order are restored. That type of restoration is liberating, not just for children, but also for the adults who love and read to them. When the world seems to stop following the rules of civility, it’s time to settle into books that offer comfort. Books that promise a return to simplicity, safety and security.
Awful events like the Sydney siege call for stories that reassure and allow time away from the clamour. For many children there is a need for comfort, and reading picture books aloud help to meet that need. Old favourites always win and it doesn’t so much matter which books they are if they're familiar and well loved. There are some though, that do an especially great job. Here's a small selection that fall into that category:
Distress and anxiety can enter a child’s life so easily. With very little life experience, hardly any ways to collect information, a limited vocabulary to explore the problem and a limited sense of geography of either the physical or political landscape, children can be quickly overwhelmed when the world seems to spin out of control. At those times, reading helps because -
- there’s physical comfort in a lap to snuggle into and arms that reach around in a hug.
- there’s escapism as the world takes backstage to the story in the book.
- there’s knowing that the world has many stories.
- there's knowing that very many of its stories are good and uplifting.
- and there’s the promise that life goes on.
We have a selection of books that provide good starting points for conversations about war, terror and their effects on people who are living good lives here. There’s also a top 5 selection of books that connect us to our worldwide fellow citizens here.
Both selections will help to make sense of the world - and for some children, they will be just what they need right now. Ideally, both types of books would be read and re-read to children often so that they are prepared with a framework of ideas, values and responses to times when situations make the world feel scary and unsafe.
There are also some good general principles for talking to children about war and terror here and an article specifically about talking to children in the wake of Sydney’s siege here. And if we can be of any further book-based help, please do send an email to this address.
Today, there is terrible sadness in Australia. Two innocent hostages and their crazed hostage-taker have died. Lives have changed forever, comfort for the families is beyond the reach of words.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was deep in family and national tragedy (25 December, 1864) when he composed the poem that became one of the world's most loved Christmas carols - his confident hope of peace has rung out for the last 150 years and I think it could seldom have been more appropriate than now:
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."
Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Baby - 0-1 year old:
Or . . . a beautifully illustrated version of your favourite childhood classic, to be treasured and read later. Eg The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame and Inga Moore - $5.70), The Hobbit (JRR Tolkein and Michael Hague - $12.75), Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain, Robert Ingpen) or Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren and Lauren Child)
Toddler - 1-2 years:
Early Childhood - 2- 4 years:
The Pig in the Pond – Martin Waddell – hilarious fun for this age. Lots of frantic repetition of “The pig’s in the pond” and a shocking ending when the farmer strips off and jumps in the pond too! Maybe also give a Schliech pig (available in lots of regular stores).
Extra Yarn – Mac Barnett – great with a set of knitting needles and some wool. (The rhyme we used to teach kids to knit is ‘Through the fence, catch the sheep, back we come, take the leap”). And check out this video of Mac Barnett, it's so great.
Baa Baa Smart Sheep and I Love Lemonade – what is Christmas Day without a few poo jokes anyway. Mark & Rowan Sommerset have a special going on their books at the moment, two for the price of one - here's the link.
Child - 4 - 8 years:
Pre-teen - 8-12 years:
Just a quick mention of a lovely new release - and a little heads-up that this is the last of the Christmas book reviews.
I was in a mad hurry and was supposed to duck into Avid Reader to pick up a copy of Noni the Pony for a gift, but as I walked towards the children’s section this one caught my eye. It was the illustrations that did it. They are fabulous – hazy and colourful at the same time, evocative and cheery. I just love them. (And so I ended with two books instead of one.)
It’s a very sweet story about a little shepherd girl who wants to go with her family to visit the Saviour at his birth. She struggles to find a gift and eventually settles on some flowers – Christmas roses, blooming in the middle of winter.
So – it’s not the most scripturally accurate story. The wise men are there at the same time as the shepherd and there is no mention of a little shepherd girl in the Bible – but it’s a lovely story about giving what you can and giving the best you have. And there really is a plant called a Christmas rose that blossoms in winter.
I do love the last line, the little girl is talking about Mary smiling at her: “Her smiled warmed me to my heart. I felt I would never be alone again.”
A nice reminder to smile a little more and to appreciate the gifts of life.
This is perhaps the most familiar of all Christmas Carols, certainly one of the most beautiful and one of the most calming. The effect of Silent Night, Holy Night has been felt in homes, churches, even schoolyards around the world and, at least once, it reached onto the battlefields of World War 1. This is the story of how the Carol came to be - and it's lovely.
In a time of poverty and despair, two young men - a priest and a teacher - recognised the gift that comforting words could be and created a carol that would drift and echo through the ages.
Silent Night, Holy Night does a wonderful job of inviting us into a time and place where the aftermath of war, coupled with a freezing, long winter and unemployment, poverty and grief combined to leave a village desperate and in need of solace. But this was also a time when solace was not brought through economic means. The people are instead lifted by a new song – Silent Night, Holy Night.
The two young men are Joseph Mohr, the priest, who had written a poem which he gave to Franz Xaver Gruber, the teacher and choir director, who had a love for music and composition. Together they produced a song for their village. The organ in the church was broken, so the song was first performed with a guitar.
This book beautifully evokes the feelings of that night: the impact of the guitar in place of the organ, the hopes of the people, the love of a priest and a teacher, the willingness of a town to take solace in a hymn.
Of course, nothing changed in the circumstances of the people but:“Borne up by the miracle that had come on them that silent, holy night, they walked home through the snow with lighter hearts…” And the Carol was carried throughout the world.
Truly, this is a lovely book. It’s so hard to recognise the bounty that surrounds us in the midst of all we want to celebrate and enjoy at Christmas time. This book does a lovely job of providing a moment to pause and consider the lives of others who have and do now struggle.
- It’s a reminder of the wonder and impact of music. We’re so surrounded by music now (another of those bounties) but here is the story of a people who were deeply moved by music that spoke to their hearts in part because it was rare.
- It’s a reminder that ultimately all we can give is ourselves – Mohr and Gruber gave all they had to help their community.
- It’s a reminder of how desperately important peace on both a macro and micro level is – there’s a brief passage about the Christmas Truce as well as the story of the village itself.
That all sounds quite solemn I know – and it’s certainly not a frivolous story – but Robert Ingpen’s illustrations do such a beautiful job of showing the life and community spirit of the village that it’s actually a joy to read. And if you click here and scroll down, you'll find an image of the original manuscript!
One more thing: in case it hasn’t shown up on your Facebook feed, here’s a very nice Acapella rendition.
If the hoopla of Christmas is starting to overwhelm the children in your life, then Tea and Sugar Christmas may be just the book for them.
It’s the story of Kathleen – a little girl who lives along Australia’s Nullarbor Plain – and of the Tea and Sugar Train which used to travel across the Nullabor on a weekly basis, acting as a mobile supermarket cum post office cum library cum community welfare office. And, once a year, there was a special Christmas Train. As well as tea and sugar, the Christmas train brought a special visitor.
In the story, Kathleen’s family have run out of sugar – not an unusual occurrence I’m sure – and they are waiting on the Tea and Sugar Train, but Kathleen is excited and anxious because this time Father Christmas will be on the train too. Her excitement is beautiful – it’s innocent, not at all demanding, simple and even grateful.
The heat and stillness of life on the Nullarbor Plain is palpable throughout the book – in part because of passages like: "The next few days dragged. The heat rolled in from the desert and hung heavily, entering the house at every door and window crack."
And partly because of the magnificent illustrations. Each page has a black and white line drawing of Kathleen (except for one of Father Christmas) and then opens out into a truly stunning double page colour illustration showing Kathleen’s life. They evoke all sorts of Australian archetypes and leave us with a very pleasing feeling of connection.
Kathleen’s innocent excitement, together with the draining heat and the punishing distance, come together to produce a lovely testament to simple pleasures. Christmas on the Nullarbor Plain is clearly not a commercial affair: Kathleen’s mother is working on a paper chain when the train arrives, there’s a Christmas tree decorated by the children that is wilting in the heat, and children visit Father Christmas in his railway carriage. Kathleen is every bit as thrilled by her momentary encounter with Father Christmas and with the arrival of the special Christmas train as a child who spends all of December being immersed in Christmas traditions and tales.
When Kathleen’s turn comes, Father Christmas asks what she would like for Christmas and she finally answers: “A present. Please.”
Not a list – just a simple request for a present.
Kathleen sat in the shade and carefully opened the package. She squealed when she saw the book. Her eyes didn't leave the pages as she flicked excitedly through it.
When all the shopping is done, the train heads off down the track and Kathleen and her family go home. Dad starts to make a cup of tea only to find that, “in all the excitement they had forgotten to buy the sugar.” But Dad isn’t worried. He’s happy that it’s Christmas and he picks Kathleen up and spins her around the kitchen.
Tea and Sugar Christmas is my favourite Christmas purchase this year because it:
- draws me into life on the Nullarbor Plain – a part of the Australian story that is not often part of the narrative.
- tells a delightful Christmas story about anticipation, excitement, and gratitude.
- enriches my Christmas season with beautiful art.
- provides a nice counter-balance to the commercialism of the Christmas season (I love all that commercialism too – but a bit of balance makes it all better).
This is a great story for children who need a bit of calm in the midst of their busy Christmas lives – it’s a perfect blend of peace and excitement, hardship and bounty, the everyday and the special.
Written by Jane Jolly, illustrated by Robert Ingpen - and it was hot off the press just last month from NLA Publishing (National Library of Australia)
There’s a bit of a craze happening for this book – that’s because it’s heaps of fun.
It really is a book with no pictures – but …. there are typeface changes, colour changes and white space, which all go together to give the book plenty of life.
It relies on a comic reading, but that’s not to say it has to be an enthusiastically comic reading – dead pan will work, wry will work, exhausted will work – pretty much anything will do the trick. The book carries the reader.
Basically, it’s a conversation between the reader and the book. The listener is invited along for the ride and invited to whole-heartedly laugh at both book and reader. It absolutely works.
Funny is great. It’s worth reading just because it’s funny and unexpected. There’s more to do though. I’m forever saying things like … don’t labour the book etc … but after a couple of laugh out loud readings, this is a great book for early literacy work.
Young kids could try coming up with new words to substitute for all the coloured words. Some of the coloured words are nonsense words like ‘blork’. Nonsense words in the context of a book are a great early writing exercise because you kind of can’t go wrong. Too many consonants in a row can easily be fixed with the addition of a vowel or two and that’s a great conversation to have about writing. But otherwise: spelling isn’t an issue, context isn’t an issue and grammar isn’t an issue. Brilliant for early or struggling writers.
It also lends itself to short grab story writing. Finding substitutes for “Also I am a Robot Monkey” is doable for even the most creatively shy child.
And there’s rhyme to work with: “glug, glug, glug, my face is a bug” can become “glug, glug, glug ,my face is ….jug, mug, shrug” and so on – it doesn’t have to make sense. There are just a lot of good times to be had playing with this book at home or in the classroom.
There’s a website here and the tab for teachers has a few discussion questions. I’d suggest that they'd be better used with older kids – maybe even early high school aged – because the last thing you want to do with a book as fun as this one (or any book actually) is turn it into a test. Keep it fun, I say, and the learning will just happen.
For older kids (10 and above, say) this is great book to open up questions like those on the website. Older kids will be able to see how it is funny and start thinking about what makes something funny and how the unexpected can cause us to re-think assumptions.
Here's a video of BJ Novak (the author, but also from The Office in case you’re wondering where you’ve heard that name) reading the book aloud.
It’s very cute – but don’t feel that you have to read the same way. The book really will do all the work and pretty much any way you read it will be funny. And, even though BJ Novak is clever and funny, don’t feel that you have to be - the best experience will always come from reading in person with people who know and love each other.
A really fun book for Christmas all about naughty and nice.
Sam and Charlie are twins and one is naughty and the other is nice, which is cause for some considerable consternation in the family. Everyone is worried about what will happen to naughty twin Charlie on Christmas Eve because: “There was no way Santa wouldn't know what Charlie had been up to this year.”
And everyone loved Charlie, so the family goes to bed on Christmas Eve feeling quite worried. Sure enough Santa comes and leaves one twin a bulging stocking and one twin an empty stocking. (Gorgeous illustration here when Santa leaves the room with a tear in his eye because: “He never liked doing it. But, sometimes, Santa has to get tough.”)
But there’s a mix up – Santa got the twins confused. So now ‘nice’ Sam has an empty stocking and ‘naughty’ Charlie has a full stocking.
But Charlie isn’t really all that bad and when she wakes up and sees her sister’s stocking empty she quickly shares out the presents in her stocking – proving that while she may be naughty she is still ‘good’. Which means that Santa has to turn around, because it turns out Charlie really belongs on the nice list.
It’s funny stuff – showing a loving (but worried) family, a funny little girl who is just trying to enjoy life and gets labeled naughty and a slightly frazzled but very dedicated Santa.
I like Santa books to have a sense of humour. As parents, we tread on dangerous ground with Santa – we want the fun and fantasy of it all but it’s tricky to get the balance right – we certainly don’t want to be lying to our children. This book treads the line really well. It treats Santa as absolutely real, but there’s a wink to the story telling too:
Then Mum and Dad went upstairs to bed pretty early too, because they’d heard a story about a mum and dad who had stayed up late and actually bumped into Santa Claus on the stairs – and Santa Claus had scampered and they’d had to quickly fill stockings for their kids themselves to make up for Santa’s hasty exit.
Moments like this will make this an appealing story to older children – even pre-teens will get a giggle out of this. It’s quite a wordy story, but it’s conversationally and conspiratorially written making it easy and fun to read aloud.
The illustrations do a great job of creating a feeling of a normal family living a happy life – they’re sharp and quick and lively – not at all sentimental and blurry.
A lovely book if yours is a normal family with at least one ‘naughty’ child. It’s full of love and redemption and unveiling of goodness. It’s the unveiling of goodness that was always there that makes this so appealing – Charlie was always good – it was just that quite often that was hard to see. And in the end Charlie starts to see herself as ‘a good girl’ too.
Classifying children as naughty or nice, good or bad, or any other dichotomy is problematic but The Empty Stocking has a wry grin about it when Charlie is called naughty and Sam is called nice. I really appreciate that in showing the ‘good girl’ in Charlie, Sam is still a ‘good girl’ too.
That’s a pretty nice Christmas message – that mostly people are good, even if they sometimes seem to be acting naughty.
Using an imagined conversation between God and Harriet Tubman, this book tells the true story of how Harriet found her way to freedom from slavery - and how she helped so many others to do the same. It’s just lovely to settle into and let the words and pictures swirl about as they do a very important work.
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in 1820. She's famous for both escaping herself and helping somewhere around 300 others to flee slavery too. (She died in 1913 – amazing to think how recently this all happened.)
Harriet’s own beliefs that she was led by God are reflected beautifully here. God’s words are separated from her thoughts and actions only by typeface, which is rather lovely. It makes the story flow easily, but it also points to how much Harriet and God were acting as one.
Slavery is, of course, a very tricky subject for a picture book to negotiate. But it’s enormously helpful to tell the story in as many ways as possible as a hedge against racism. And so this is not just a beautiful book – it’s an important one.
Here, there's just enough of the horrors of slavery to alert young readers to the problem without, hopefully, keeping them up at night. For example:
…Master owns me, drives me like a mule. Now he means to sell me south in chains to work cotton rice, indigo, or sugarcane, never to see my family again.
There are also just enough references to the personal cost that Harriet had to be willing to pay to escape. She left her husband; she didn’t know if she would see her family again; she lived in extreme deprivation and uncertainty. All of these are mentioned and not glossed over, but they take a backseat to the central theme of Harriet’s bravery and her continued belief and trust in God guiding her.
In her escape, Harriet relied on the goodness of strangers – a wonderful reminder that there’s a deep connection between people and that sometimes that connection requires that we take risks.
There's also no pretending that the happy ending meant an end to trouble – Harriet works as a housemaid, risks her life often to rescue others, and continues to endure the groans and tears of her people. But there is triumph too, in Harriet rescuing so many and in her hearing God’s approval.
The illustrations are moody and quite often dark, since much of the story takes place in the night. Perfect in fact for the story - which is full of emotion and quite often dark in tone too. They're the kind of illustration that leads to deeper thought.
I really love this version of Harriet’s story; it treats a serious subject seriously, but with hope and compassion. And although it is lovely for religious families, I don’t think the value of the book would be at all diminished for a secular family. Harriet drew great strength from her faith and that strength allowed her to do extraordinary things. For secular families, this is still a useful talking point allowing conversations to open up about how people find strength and the importance of overcoming.
This is one of my all-time favourites for children and adults alike. Here’s why:
- It’s perfect for older children to listen to and to ponder on.
- It is strong in its condemnation of slavery but doesn’t condemn people.
- It’s just lovely to look at and listen to – the words flow beautifully and the pictures are enticing.
- It hints at the impossible choices so many people have had to make in the cause of something great, like freedom.
- It shows Harriet’s faith in God and in her cause, overcoming her fears.
- It shows an amazingly strong woman doing a good, good work.
- It reminds us that we need to help others whenever we can.
- It reminds us that we might be in need of help and there will be people to offer it.
- It shows both how far we have come and how far we have to go in finally achieving a world of freedom.
- It’s a great starting point to conversations about freedom, slavery, strength, compassion, racism, sexism, faith, fear, risk and so much more.
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom was written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. You can buy it HERE.