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Welcome to escapism…

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society.” ― Kofi Annan

“Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.”  ― Vera Nazarian

Hi! So after a crazy few months, I’m starting again to try and write every day. ‘Write a blog’ they said, ‘it’s like a diary only everyone can read it!’ Hmm, well if everyone can read it then it might as well be something useful. So, a couple of hours later (yes, literally, how EASY can they make things for you now?), I am feeling very rewarded having created a website, a logo, a brand, and and idea for what to fill my time with now that builders, puppies, children all out of the house.

The intention is that I will review children’s books, aimed at the 5-10 year old section of the market initially. The hope is that it will spur me on to write more myself for pleasure. And more, it will suggest books for others which they might find interesting for their children, especially if to spurs on their creativity and inspires them, to really look at what is being said and evaluate it. What’s different is that I am trying to critically evaluate books for how much they inspire creativity as well as critical thinking in my own (and maybe other) children. What us middle age-er’s used to call Comprehension with a bit of Creativity thrown in for good measure. So the input will be mine at first with selected comments from my children but over time I hope that my children will themselves begin to write reviews.

Reading for pleasure starts earlier than you think for children, it starts with pictures and repetition. This helps them learn the language for what they are seeing, and just as importantly, feeling.

I’d welcome all ideas, pitches for books for me and mine to review and any thoughts you might have on how to improve this site. Go on – get in touch! #escapeintoatale hello@escapeintoatale.com

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Who what why?

Your essential questions answered….

There is a real person behind bloggers. With feelings, thoughts, people who they connect with IRL on a daily basis, as well as online. It’s normal to want to know more about the person behind the text so read on…

Who?

I’m Jan, writer, blogger, reviewer, mother, believes in encouraging critical thinking in literature for children whilst enjoying developing their literacy.

I’m Jan, middle ager, frustrated creative, business builder by day, often lost for words by the time it’s night.

I’m Jan. I’ll always give my honest thoughts, and I’ll try and frame it so its critically appropriate and useful, not just wishy washy wordy padding.

I’m Jan. Sometimes I have pink hair. Sometimes I bake cakes. Most times, I long to read or write in peace and quiet.

Sometimes, my kids or guest authors/bloggers will write for this site. Be nice to them, they do it because they want to not because they have to or get paid to.

What?

Reviews, Commentary, Critique, Creative Problem Solving in action, Notes on what inspired my children….Let’s see where this goes and evolve as we can.

This part of of the website is about reviews, however if you want to know more about my writing and publishing head here for the Mitch and Mooch series and here for more information about other books in the pipeline.

“Some say they get lost in books, but I find myself, again and again, in the pages of a good book. Humanly speaking, there is no greater teacher, no greater therapist, no greater healer of the soul, than a well-stocked library.” – L.R.Knost

Why?

When was the last time you got lost in a book? It’s harder than you think when modern life is so busy, social media so demanding, and there is always the grass to be mown or dishes to clean. And yet, there is something incredibly satisfying about being transported into another world, why do we not make more time for that? To get lost in a tale. It’s not so hard to see why people are fixated upon drama series or reality TV shows when we all yearn to forget about our lives for a short while and examine someone elses’. Maybe even fantasise about being that person, living that lifestyle…

However, we lose something if we don’t allow our imagination to play a part in this escape. On the TV you have no control over what happens next – it’s spoon fed to you in the next scene or episode (although that said, the next generation of TV will allow us to make our own storylines). Granted, a book might also take you down its own narrative path but how that looks in your minds’ eye, how its set, how you feel about it are all entirely down to your imagination.

For children, if you spoon feed this ready-made scenario into their heads without encouraging them to analyse it then we risk breeding a generation of believers without imagination. They become adults who don’t question the world around them, accepting of what is visible in front of them as the truth. Children’s literacy is so vital to their rounded development that without the constant drive by teachers and like minded parents to stimulate this imagination, the next generation of free thinkers, idealists and creative problem solvers is threatened.

#zerotohero #escapeintoatale

The Interview

Imagine if you were to meet your character – what would you say to them? Ask them? Well, in preparation for my prequel novella, Risking Destiny, I interviewed Queen Lana. It wasn’t quite what I expected…

I’m sitting in the throne room – the High Hall as they call it here in Naturae – waiting for my interviewee to arrive. I must confess, I’m a little nervous – it’s not often I get to interview an actual Royal, the Queen of the Fae of Naturae no less. I’ve heard she can be a little…snippy.
The doors behind me open silently and my first glimpse of her is really from behind, huge green translucent wings waft my hair around my face, and I spot some finely embroidered shoes underneath a lilac gown. How they made those colours in the 800’s I do not know. But, here she is, so I shall make my way down towards the throne and talk to her. Actual face to face. Me!
“Your Majesty,” I say, curtsying. She inclines her head gracefully but doesn’t meet my eyes.
“Thank you so much for your time today, I hope I haven’t kept you from other pressing matters?”

“I am due to bless the vines in the Pupaetory, but it can wait.” Her finger flicks on the silver arms of the throne. I really don’t want to blow this opportunity by boring her, so I pull out a scroll and take a deep breath.
“Your Majesty, if I may start with enquiring about your daily routine?”
She fixes me with a hard stare. My skin crawls as she examines my face, then my somewhat tatty clothing. Her chin tilts up as she looks away, exposing a long pale neck.
“I have many duties to attend to – from blessing the lands, blessing the pupae, record keeping…”
“And do you do this all yourself, or do you receive assistance from….”
“The workers keep everything running here at the palace, but they cannot write or read as a royal or noble can.” Her glare suggests I should have known this.
“I meant, other people who can support you?”
“No, there are only my advisors, most especially Lord Tolant. They form a council with the nobles, but it hasn’t needed to sit for many decades now.”
“Oh?”
“When there is no pressing requirement for their input, I do not see the need to recall the nobles. Things are stable – as they should be when one does one’s duty correctly.”
“I see.”

I don’t. It sounds very lonely.
The Queen looks around the empty High Hall. The ornately carved chairs at the edges are vacant yet facing her still.
“And…your family? Friends? Who do you spend your spare time with?” I feel a little impertinent asking this, because aside from the guard who let me in, I’ve seen no-one else in the palace. Just flashes of brown wings moving away from me at haste.

Queen Lana looks down at her hands, then stills them on her lap. I realise that she is bone-thin underneath the elegant gown. Frail almost. Although her voice is unwavering, it is as brittle as she is.
“I have no need of anyone’s company. And I have no spare time. Running a kingdom takes up all of one’s hours.”
A small flush rises in her pale cheeks, as though she is thinking of something she ought not to. Or lying.

She knows I want more. I hold my gaze and stay silent until it becomes awkward.
“I sometimes watch the humans, during the ceremonies,” she says, carefully. “Their ways seem so strange. But then, one cannot expect them to be like us, they have not been around for long enough. Their procreation methods require that they form into these small ‘family’ groups. To have each other’s constant presence must be tiresome.” She finishes by rolling her eyes, but I can tell she is faking it.

“Our readers would love to know what a Queen is fond of, something for them to identify with,” I push on.
With a sigh, she reaches down to a box next to the throne and extracts a small silver key. Twiddling it between her fingers, Lana says, “I suppose I like to read. The history of the Fae is long, so there is much to cover. And much I added within my 200 year reign.”
“Ah yes,” I say, “your rise to the throne was quite dramatic. Could you tell us what it was like to lose your mother in the Sation wars and ascend to take the crown that same day?”
I think I’m onto something here as Lana sits forward and leans towards me. I’m holding my breath, but a musty smell tinged with fir invades my nostrils regardless.

Her dark gaze bores into me. Then she says in a surprisingly unemotional voice, “My mother was murdered. Right in front of my eyes.” Her eyes dart between mine, assessing me for a reaction. I can’t look away.

“Her throat slit from behind. Her blood spilled onto my dress.”
Thin lips turn up into a sneer, “And then I did my duty and took her place.”
Despite my gasp, I swallow and force myself to ask, “It must have been a very terrible thing to witness. Did you see who killed her?”

The Queen breaks off her stare and draws herself up, looking down the hall. I notice her hands have clenched themselves in her skirts again.
“These are not matters which I can discuss with the likes of you.”
Her eyes narrow as she turns towards me again. “What is in the past should stay there.”
I am confused, because earlier she seemed to indicate she was interested in history, studies the scrolls even perhaps in the Scriptaerie. Yet now, she wasn’t willing to discuss its relevance to her current position.
“I beg your forgiveness, your Majesty.” I’m fumbling now, how can I bring this back onto neutral (less scary) territory?

A silence lies between us and it is cold. I shuffle my notes, dropping a scroll in the process. The Queen makes no effort to bend down and retrieve it, even though it has rolled almost underneath the throne. She sniffs, then picks at her hands.
“Your Majesty,” I try again, “we would love to know what your plans are for developing the area? It was quite devastated by the Sation Wars, and yet, little re-building has been seen so far.”
Her eyes narrow again. Oh shit, I’ve done it again. Touched a raw spot.
But, the Queen takes in a deep breath, “I can only do so much to replenish the stock of worker Fae. It takes a lot out of me to grow them. I must have surplus Lifeforce to do it, and of course, with the blessings I have to bestow on the lands around us for the humans….it takes time.”
I nod, as if I understand. “The Sation Wars, you were very young still, I believe. Did you see any of the fighting yourself?”
“I did not leave Naturae. It was determined by the Council at the time that I should be protected. My Mother, the former Queen, wore herself out trying to grow replacement Fae with enough time for them to be trained, but it was to no avail. The vampires were just too strong, too overwhelming. Their methods to procreation are just too efficient for us Fae to compete with.”
Both of us have our heads bowed as she says sadly, “Too many lives, nobles who cannot be replaced, were lost.”
This time the silence between us is warmer – united in our remembrance of the fallen.
After a minute or two, I ask about her plans, where did she see growth in Naturae in a century or so?
“The future?” Lana almost screeches. I’m a little taken aback, even more so when she stands up and starts to walk down the High Hall. Is she walking out on me, I wonder?
“Things need to stay the same, the same as they are now. That is the future.”
I frown. “But surely, your Majesty, it is important to regain lost ground?”
“What would you have me do?” She wheels around to glare at me again, her wings are beating and the draft is blowing my hair.

“There is only me! Would you have me return to futile war to get our lands back?” Lana starts to kick at the chairs – sending them splaying around the room. She’s not looking at me, but building up to a childish tantrum I fear.
“This is how things are and must always be!” Lana says petulantly. “We cannot survive with the humans, we must stay hidden. Hidden here, where it is safe.”

It’s not safe, I know. She knows. We all know.

Not that it helps her. Rumour has it one of her own courtiers – a noble no less – murdered the former Queen because she urged the continuation of the Sation Wars. It might have been the defining act which stopped complete destruction of the Fae race in Naturae, but it surely doesn’t mean that Lana is safe here either. Perhaps that is why it is empty here, she doesn’t trust the nobles?
Goosebumps have risen on my forearms. She’s been staring at me but the focus of her attention is my neck, not my face. I’m suddenly very aware that only the two of us are in the Hall. And I can see her breathing has slowed…
“Your Majesty, I can see I have taken up much of your valuable time today.”
She wheels around to me, her attitude suddenly replaced by a forlorn look. “Oh no dear,” she says. “You don’t have to go just yet, stay a while. I can…give you a tour of my chambers perhaps?”
I twig what’s happening. I think I need to go.
“That is most kind of you, but I really must be heading back. Lots of writing to do,” I trill. I’m gathering my things together when I feel her scrawny hand on my arm.
There is a cruel twist to her lips and I can’t help stare at them. Then, her tone is almost playful, “Well, we can’t keep the readers waiting now, can we?”
I feel a pull of something from within me, I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. She is standing very close to me and has a weird smile on her face, which doesn’t quite meet her eyes. I can’t take my eyes off her lips.
Somehow, I pull my arm away from her grasp. It seems to break the trance and the Queen lifts off gracefully up to the cavernous ceiling. I grab my scrolls and quill and scurry down the High Hall.
“Thank you so much for your time, your Majesty,” I call back without looking at her.
I’ve nearly made it to the doors when a voice calls down, “Mind the mists as you go…”

Risking Destiny is due to launch on Amazon and all other e-book platforms on the 28th February 2021. However, subscribers can get their hands on an advance FREE copy by signing up to the Escape Into A Tale Newsletter here.

Gratitude Tree

Photo by gryffyn m on Unsplash

I sometimes forget that the simplest things can bring us joy. Here in England it has been a rainy, dull, locked down September and October. A brief pause for half term offered the opportunity to reflect on how things had been now back at school. Reconnect with my children. Rest in readiness for NaNoWriMo (which I am trying for the first time ever! Wish me luck!).

Dodging rain showers, we ventured into some nearby woods. The glorious autumn colours have largely been obscured by the grey weather so I was desperate to get out and stomp amongst some fallen leaves. Inevitably, my children found the largest puddle they could and – along with some friends we bumped into amongst the trees – dared each other to squelch through it. Competition for who could get their welly boot stuck first was fierce, but, amazingly all emerged unscathed and complete with both footwear!

Puddles + children = simple joys

Having satisfied appetites with bacon butties and coffee, we duly fist bumped goodbye to our friends and made for warmth at home. What happened next took me a little by surprise.

My daughter, never a keen writer, spent the next morning furtively locked in her bedroom, refusing all visitors. She insisted all was well, but that she was ‘working on something.’ An hour later, I was presented with a parcel, wrapped in Christmas paper with silver trees on it. I confess, it’s not often my children go to such lengths to make something for me, unguided by parental input.

Within the parcel was a selection of goodies – a second hand scarf (to keep me warm), a cuddly toy (which we had made together earlier in the half term), and a hand drawn picture. Now, I make no apologies for my daughter’s writing – the fact that she chose to write anything at all is simply a marvel to me at the best of times, such is her usual reluctance. But I was wow’ed by what she had written.

Rosies gratitude tree
Gratitude Tree

She explained to me that she had woken up feeling something, and felt the urge to make a present for me to express how she felt. Now, every parent has those touching moments when little ‘treasures’ are given freely and with love to express a child’s feelings at the time. I’m sharing one of those moments with you all because it was inspired not, as I usually focus on, a book, but by being around nature. Drizzly, muddy, glorious nature. Who’da thunk it?

This little moment, unprompted, gave me cause to consider. I have spent a fair amount of time myself being grateful for our blessings, especially recently. I appreciate the safety of home, the loving family I have, and that even during these challenges I am fortunate enough to try and use these times to try and spread some kindness where I can. Explore creative avenues I perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have. But I realise – having never directly discussed gratitude with my children except to point out how lucky they are to have all of the above – I perhaps should have. Somehow my 7 year old still knew to be grateful for what we have and to thank those responsible.

If you would like to discuss gratitude with your children, there are any number of resources on the internet. I plan to try and practise gratitude more often with our children, in the hopes that they continue to see the small blessings which we have even in the darkest of days. More than ever, get outside and be grateful we can!

Some resources you might like:

https://www.twinkl.co.uk/resource/individual-gratitude-tree-t-p-1230

This page has a huge amount of information on it about the psychological benefits of practising gratitude, and resources to help. https://positivepsychology.com/gratitude-tree-kids/

#gratutide

#natureisfun

#natureinspires

#writefromyourheart

#writerslife

#writersofinstagramcommunity

#writingforchildren

#writingforkids

#writingforlife

#writinginspiration

#writingismagic

#youngreaders

#kidlitmotivates

#trysomethingnewtoday

#savewithstories

#resourcesforlibrarians

#selfpublishedauthor

#kidswillbekids

#childhood

#childhoodunplugged

Why I’m still learning life lessons from learning History

I’ve always loved History, except I didn’t really know it until I was halfway through my life. If you’d have asked me shortly after leaving school about the dates of Kings and Queens, or why certain wars happened, I probably would have shrugged and said “I had a GCSE in History, but I’ve forgotten it all now!” And yet, as I follow the twin paths of motherhood and developing as a writer, I find myself reflecting that History has far more to teach us than just ‘what happened then’.

My husband recently queried why the school my children attend used a single event in history (in this instance The Great Fire of London) as a whole topic for half a term. I responded that of course it wasn’t just a single event, the children were learning about it in context, which meant that they were learning about all sorts of stuff surrounding it. My youngest, who at the age of 6 is the one immersed in the period, rattled off a whole string (unprompted!) of facts about why the fire happened, and was able to answer some quite detailed questions about the construction of the buildings at the time, how the fire had spread, eye-witness accounts from Samuel Peyps etc. Yes, I was very proud. No, I hadn’t tutored her in it.

In schools these days, history isn’t just a set of names and dates, stories about what happened to whom. Cleverly, by using it as a topic over a number of weeks, it is a tool to explore writing, reading, textiles, design and construction and so much more. Earlier that week the class had all witnessed for themselves a ‘science’ experiment with cardboard city they designed and built, which the teacher then set fire to in order to demonstrate how the fire had spread! I hasten to say this was of course done outside in a special area of the forest school with fire safety briefings beforehand and fire extinguishers at the ready!

Tudor House, by R (aged 6)

I confess I was absolutely delighted – my long held theory that history needs to be brought to life, literally experienced as much as it’s possible to, in order to appreciate it and is impact to be felt, was demonstrated. All my time spent arranging days out to historical places of interest and using all available resources to help bring history to life for my children (dressing up, acting out, all the wonderful activities which the National Trust and English Heritage do so ably) seemed vindicated. Would my children equally relish history as I do now? Would they surpass me and actually remember relevant things from it?

Then I realised, my parents had done the same for me too – many a holiday was spent truding around historic houses, or climbing hills where significant battles were held or proclamations made. Did I remember the details though? Did I grasp the significance of them? No. For all of this wonderful immersion in history they too were at pains to provide for me, I remembered absolutely nothing which I thought at the time was important, especially for exams.

However, what it did leave me with was a love of history, even if clearly I didn’t ‘get it’ until very recently. As an adult, I find myself taking refuge in past times – in literature, or wandering around a castle imagining what life must have been like then. I question and explore how it must have felt to be living in turbulent times, what their daily life was like and how different it was to our own. As I am currently writing a novel set in the Tudor age, I am revelling in having to immerse myself in their times and truly imagine what my characters would have done in that period with the choices they make.

Above all, history gives you a sense of perspective – it’s easy to dash off cliches like ‘we should learn from the lessons of the past’, but actually when you think about it, all of our knowledge is built on the lessons of the past. Toddlers learn to step over the rocks on the pathway because they have learnt that if they don’t pick up their feet they stumble and that hurts. Children learn to correct their mistakes before the teacher points it out to them again. Adults, when pondering life decisions, look to what went wrong for them before and make a judgement on if the same outcome is likely again if they choose to progress down a certain line of action. Every advance we make as a civilisation is informed by what went before. It is inescapable as we carry with us the baggage of the past into the future with us.

An understanding of history has indelibly impacted how we view the world. This seems especially pertinent with every twist and turn of world politics – historic political and religious grudges play out on an economic stage and long held belief systems are challenged around the world on a daily basis. Institutions rise and fall as conflicting belief systems inevitably clash and public sentiment swishes from one mood to another. History in terms of cause and effect has not moved on, even if the minutae and settings have.

What history does not do, and this is the interesting part for me, is predetermine the certain future. At no point can the same outcome as what happened before be guaranteed, for circumstances are always changing. This is perhaps the hardest lesson our children need to learn about history – linear creatures that they are! And it is only really as an adult that you come to understand that there are no hard and fast rules in history to dictate precisely that what will happen in the future will be the same as what happened before. In order to truly learn from what happened in the past, we must apply perspective to our informed judgement. The dates become irrelevant then; only the circumstances under which significant events in history happened need to be factored in to inform the future. However, even by understanding the factors which influenced the event, how likely is it that the same outcome would occur? Given the rapid speed of change across the hyper-connected world today, the events of old seem archaically slow and thus easily written off as irrelevant.

History is ultimately about the people who shaped the past.

And this is ultimately what history has to teach us, in my humble opinion. That human nature is the constant, not the circumstances. People will always want more than they have, suffer from the sins as listed out in Biblical times, and yet, will love and fight with a passion which belies their fragile frames. History is ultimately about the people who shaped the past. It is a study of human nature, in the vain hope that the more extreme elements of it which has driven some of the most shocking events in the past, are identifiable and ideally prevented from damaging again. I wish I’d twigged that when I was younger instead of fretting about the dates of treaties and getting people’s names spelt right! Perhaps if we all approached history with a different perspective we might indeed be able to progress towards a fairer, peaceful society to live in. I have higher hopes for my children however, with this immersive way of teaching a living history! Bread roll anyone?

Does Dogtastic Dogman develop independent reading and drawing? Or is there more to it?

The team behind the very successful Captain Underpants series (Harold and George) aka the fantastic Dav Pilkey are ostensibly the writers of this comic book series about a dog-cop and his crime fighting pals. My son, 8, has the entire collection – which he discovered after the Captain Underpants series oddly; my daughter, 6, has just discovered them as she transitions into longer books and into independent reading. Drawn in the authors’ inimitable style a comic style, they are quick and easy reads and well thumbed and giggled over in our household by multiple children.

Having lived with purile jokes, repeated ad infinitum toilet related gags and incredulous and improbable crime capers for the best part of 4 years and counting, I admit, I was both relieved and inwardly groaning when my 6 year old recently picked up the Dogman books. On the upside I was delighted that her independent reading was picking up a pace and to books which needed little by way of adult explanation. The downside being I’m no doubt living with all the above for another 4 years!

Dogtastic Dogman

Despite feeling like I have lived with Dogman/Captain Underpants for so many years, had it read to me in parts, had the jokes repeated endlessly, I finally plucked up the courage to read one in its entirety the other day. My expectation as an adult was low to be honest, and I’m happy to say, easily exceeded. I think the extracts I had had read to me and (hopefully) my more mature sense of humour resulted in me discounting the books as being akin to the Beano in tone and message. And yet, I continued to purchase them because they were such a popular read with all children visiting or living at our house, and prompted much discussion, shared giggles hastily denied as in jokes I wouldn’t understand, and toilet talk (mostly) when I was out of the room. Whilst I admired from afar the imagination and skill required to eek out a premise and shallow characters into a series of such length, I honestly didn’t expect much of interest or value from the books from an adult perspective.

I was wrong, so so wrong in my assumptions. I hold my hand up. I had pre-judged a silly premise and simplistic drawings and was well, not blown away, but certainly significantly surprised and pleased by what was contained within. The easy language means it’s accessible to early readers, and colourful pictures help to transition children from the larger short story books into cartoon style books. The silliness and the humour level are the many frequent hooks which keeps them reading. The storyline – yes – there is one – is surprisingly moralistic. The range of characters means that each kid reading can identify with at least one of them and feel a part of the team. Fliporamas (for the uninitiated – this entails quickly flapping 2 pages forward and back so you see a repeated action like someone being punched repeatedly or being bouncing in the air etc) add cartoon action to the pages. Winner.

A child’s perspective – by R, aged 6

Dogman books are great – I like it when Dogman is naughty like my dogs are and eats everything he shouldn’t. Lil’ Petey makes really bad jokes like Mummy says I do, they aren’t very funny. The songs make me laugh too, and I sing them to tunes I make up in my head. It’s usually Sarah Hat Off, the world’s greatest reporter, who saves the day, and I really like her. The Fliporamas are cool too because its like a Tom and Jerry cartoon when you do it really quick, bash, bash. The best thing is the How To Draw pages at the back so I can draw the characters myself!

As a new convert to the series, I now see there have been some surprising bonuses from having two children both reading the same series of books despite being 3 years apart and obviously of varying reading abilities. Not least because instead of the usual bickering, sometimes I’ll find them having little ‘in jokes’ related to something that happened in the books. Or having an actual conversation about the various merits of two books or what happened in one. More surprisingly, it has initiated critical analysis and thinking from both children to some degree (if you count “L do you think Petey will ever be good, like really good?” “No, his character is always trying but he thinks he’s bad but he’s always trying to do better” type of discussions!).

What is also appealing from a parental point of view is the repeated message throughout the books about trying to do the right thing, team work for success and playing to your strengths. These positive attributes are what elevates it from lengthy comic strip to novel.

A child’s perspective of the Dogman Series and more – by L, aged 8

The stories in Dogman always turn out well, in the end, and they are all different. Although the characters don’t change, their costumes do. Petey is always trying to be good, but theeeen he’s bad, but then he makes it good in the end. There’s some really funny jokes, same as in Captain Underpants. I also like watching the Captain Underpants TV shows and movie, as well as all the stuff you can get online to do featuring Dogman and Captain Underpants. I tried to draw a comic, using the same sort of ways Dav Pilkey does but it’s quite a challenge! I saw online Dav Pilkey likes to read the comics which kids draw so maybe someday I’ll send him one to say thanks for making the Dogman and Captain Underpants books!

There is a whole Dav Pilkey world (or should I say Planet?) out there, from Apps to websites to support the creative inclinations of children inspired by reading the books, not to mention the more traditional media such as the Captain Underpants film and TV series. Publishers Scholastic have done the sensible thing to try maximise the interest levels by creating wrap around social and online media to engage children further – having looked at a few areas however, I do feel they could do more than a few print offs and an out of date game app, it all feels a little neglected somehow. Dav Pilkeys own website effectively replicates a lot of the information on the Scholastic website, with slightly more information about the author. I can’t decide if I’m happy they haven’t gone too far down the merchandising route yet or not….

Overall, I have a new found appreciation for the unquestionable skills of Dav Pilkey in engaging his audience, and the many prompts to be creative drawing themselves. I’m delighted to discover that there are so many characters which children can identify with, and a moralistic ending neatly hidden within. So, to answer my own question, yes, it does more than just develop reading and drawing skills, it does inspire, and it does prompt critical discussion amongst children. I guess I’ll be heading down to the nearest book store for the next release then, and just try and endure the awful jokes being retold for the next few years! @scholastic #DavPilkey #DogMan

How structural integrity inspires with Kevin

‘It’s really imaginative, Mum, you should read it!’ my son said to me describing ‘the LEGEND of KEVIN’, by Phillip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre. ‘Great’ I replied, ‘what else struck you about the book?’ The answer was not one I ever though my 8 year old would ever say: ‘I really liked the structure of the book, the way the chapters made sense.‘ Wow, what a mature observation, I thought to myself. I appreciate well formed architecture, but why had it inspired such passion in a child? In fact, there was a lot to like about the book actually, especially if you like biscuits, improbable ponies, adventure and a dash of silliness!

A Child’s perspective – the LEGEND of KEVIN – Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

I love this book because it has sad parts and loads of happy parts – it’s a real emotional rollercoaster! The chapters make sense with where they are split – each chapter is like a mini story in itself. One important thing for me is imagination; it made me think of writing a really imaginative book with amazing pictures and lots of descriptive words for myself. Someday. I’ve started writing one already, about werewolves!

My favourite part was when Kevin and Max saved everyone, and I liked the guinea pigs too, they were funny!

by L (aged 8)

When you think about it, I shouldn’t have been surprised; children from the ages of 6-9 are taught in schools about sentence structure, story structure (at the very least a beginning, middle and end), as a part of their english lessons. Additionally, children need structure themselves, and by this age they are starting to become aware of their routines, and how it falls into natural break points, relating routine and structure to results. Whilst I was intrigued by the observation from my 8 year old, the recognition of structure shouldn’t have been the shock; rather, that he appreciated the mechanics going on behind the scenes in creating chapter-sized chunks so much it had the impact of him noticing it to the degree that he wanted to emulate it himself.

Having read the book, I can appreciate what he is noting: the story begins with introductions, moves quickly into the ‘inciting incident’ (as screen-writers call it), the adventure begins and then satisfactorily ends. The characters are briefly introduced with simple and relevant back stories. In truth, aside from these snippets (such as Daisy ‘going through a phase’ wanting to be known as Elvira) they are relatively 2-dimensional but perfectly sufficient for children to visualise them. The pictures dotted through the book on most pages break up the text rather than advance the story in a comic type fashion and are simple accessible illustrations to support the story.

The smatterings of jokes (a non waterproof lifeboat which dissolves upon contact with the floodwater is a stretch however, but its nicely silly enough for children to understand) didn’t quite make me titter, but are in keeping with the slightly fantastical storyline about a fat pony with wings who gets washed away from his nest by a big storm and gets lost in the big city but finds friendship and purpose. Parents will, however, enjoy the subtle references to things they as children probably (I want to say enjoy but…) endured as children – camping food labelled ‘brown stuff with bits in’ for example and the retro biscuits so beloved by Kevin – as well as the adult phrasing of sentences – “going through a phase,” and “it was an absolute disgrace” (describing bad behaviour!). In short, it is textbook story structure and pleasingly so.

The mermaids invade the hair salon!

I confess, whilst LEGEND of KEVIN is a pleasant enough read, I was struggling to see why my son was so inspired to begin writing his short stories after reading the book. On the face of it, he’s not into ponies, mermaids, biscuits etc, although our copy does have the very tactile silver edging to the pages. So, could it be that the actual structure itself, being so much a standard structure of a novel, cleverly weaving in guinea-pig tit-bits, dropping early relevant information you pick up later in the book, and the chapters which actually have an internal structure like a short story in each ‘chunk’, was in itself the example to inspire? Having now read a number of children’s literature, I am forced to conclude that yes, surprisingly its very conformity to a set structure probably is a great re-enforcement of the structure they would be teaching in school. I’d imagine, because it is sufficient length for it to be read in one sitting by a child yet longer than a short story, it’s structure is more obvious than with other classic structured books which might be read and studied in schools.

So what happened next you might ask? Taking inspiration for structure from Kevin, and the basic storyline from a hot favourite game app, L produced, over a number of weeks, his own little book. Pages torn out from note books and then sellotaped together once he’d written that chapter, easily removable if re-writes were needed or extra information added. I could see he had it all planned in his head as to what piece of action was going to happen in each chapter, and that some information had to be dropped in earlier in the tale to be used later in the story. Whilst the chapters were in reality sometimes only 5 sentences each, they all had an illustration at an appropriate juncture – map or diagram, or character. A more critical reviewer would have pointed out that his characters were a little on the shallow side, but having read Kevin, he has used the basic same techniques that Phillip Reeve has and only described what is really necessary to move the story on with minimal fleshing out of the characters back stories. The story had a beginning, middle and end, and each chapter covered an essential chunk in the plot. The loving parent in me is terribly proud of his attempts to use adjectives and adverbs to help spice up the story, even if the spelling was atrocious and handwriting barely legible in his desire to put pen to paper with the words in his head. It ain’t perfect, but by heck, the elements are all there!

Bite Sized Review

StoryFun adventure of a flying fat pony getting lost and finding his way in the word, and a boy desperate for a pet getting more than he bargained for when disaster strikes.
CharactersRecognisable yet amusing stereotypes
LanguageGood mix of short sentences with longer descriptive ones, great for learning a wide vocabulary of adjectives/adverbs and teaching well punctuated longer sentences.
JokesNot quite laugh out loud but enough to smile at.
IllustrationsSimple and effectively illustrate what’s described in the text, more designed to break the text up for younger readers
Creative InspirationSurprisingly, it inspired here, however, I’m not absolutely persuaded that a non creative writing keen child would be so motivated.
Invites Critical AnalysisThe mix of a fantastical element into a real world disaster has prompted questions about what would happen in a flood IRL. That the structure re-enforced what is being taught in schools about creative writing was a winner.
Invites creative problem solvingWithin the tale the characters tackle challenges in an imaginative, humourous manner. I’ll definitely be packing the pepper next time there is a flood and high risk of naughty sea-monkeys along with a life-time supply of motivational custard creams!

Building a multi-storey treehouse of imagination

I’ve always loved treehouses – that you could live up in the gods, amongst nature and weirdly I’m always alone up there with my thoughts, in my thoughts! So therefore it came as no surprise to me that children would equally be fascinated by the idea that there could be a house or even a city in the sky, accessed only by (highly attractive to active children) climbing branches, rope ladders, pulleys, swings and the like. The Treehouse series of books all start with a fantastically detailed illustration as if to re-enforce how cool it could be to the reader, literally inviting them into their world with lemonade fountains, massive TV rooms, games rooms…who wouldn’t want to live in this fantastical castle in the trees?

The 13 Storey Treehouse map – taken from the book @AndyGbooks #13storeytreehouse

The basic premise of these books is that the authors are the characters, who live and work in the ever expanding treehouse, having adventures along the way as they attempt to write the book. Frequent distractions of an often absurdly hilarious nature strive to detract them from their main focus (not unlike the intended readers I’m sure!).

What I like about the books (aside from the absurdity of them) is that they are subliminally designed to inspire creativity in children. From the engaging illustrations – some detailed enough to pour over, some short pithy to illustrate the point – to the simple language, they are highly accessible to children who perhaps are initially phased by moving up into ‘paperback’ big books. The first, the 13 Storey Treehouse, is essentially a lesson in the pitfalls of writing a book – easy to go off tangent and get distracted, bad drawings, as well as a how to guide. It talks about where ideas come from, what inspires them, the looming pressures of deadlines and publishers. If you wanted a fictional yet actually useful How To guide to writing a kids book, for kids, this is it!

Bite Sized Review

StorylineStoryline in small chunks hence goes off on tangents but overall easy to follow as very obviously keeps bringing you back to the main task at hand of writing a book
CharactersAccessible for a target audience appropriate ages 6-9, suitably silly
LanguageShort words and sentences, nothing too challenging
IllustrationsExcellent – detailed and appropriate to the context of the dialogue, adds rather than detracts from the story (i.e. used as a part of it not as a bolt on)
Creative InspirationGreat for inspiring budding writers, builders and artists!
Invites Critical AnalysisNot so much
Invites creative problem solvingThe characters adapt to solve the problems they are faced with, which are largely of their own creation, however they find innovative solutions (however absurd!). I’d like to think it would inspire ‘out of the box’ thinking but that might be a reach…
Favourite quoteHe was inside his own burp-gas-filled bubblegum bubble! ‘Hey, this is really fun!’ said Terry as he floated around his bubble. ‘Be careful,’ I said. ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ he said. And then he began to float higher and higher up into the air. ‘HELP!’ he cried.

Overall, this series of books have been great at not only getting my son to read independently, but take inspiration from what he has learned in the book to be creative in his own way. He has built models, written short stories and actively creates fantasy rooms in trees when he is climbing around in them! Let me know how your children have been inspired to be creative from reading! #escapeintoatale

A child’s perspective – Thirteen Storey Treehouse Series by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton. By L.

I like these books because they are exciting and the story pulls you in so you want to read more. The cliff-hangers are awesome as you don’t know which way the story is going to go – will it go bad for them or will it go ok? The pictures are quite good, detailed and help you picture the story in your head. I wanted to make my own treehouse, with my own rooms that I would like to have.

L, aged 8

Mine has a pool and a slide, a cafe and its on a boat so it can go anywhere! I like using Lego as it’s easy to build something quickly and it is less fiddly than paper or card.

Why ‘You Choose’ is a window into your child’s day

I’ll confess, we have the whole collection of this series (click here to see on Amazon), including the colouring book. The original You Choose and the You Choose in Space are massive favourites in our house – I think we must have read it every week for the last 3 or 4 years at least twice. I have another confession – sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it.

Why I love it – aside from my kids love the cheerful bright pictures, simplistic snapshots of different lifestyles or items they could eat/buy/wear/travel in etc – is because it’s a window into my child’s day. If L has had a bad day he picks the dull, less exciting activities, the boring clothes (that’s how he feels), the ‘dreamer’ jobs (that’s what he wants, escapism). If R is feeling like talking about things she picks the most extravagant, bold and colourful pictures or friends and family. She invites me into her world when I ask the simple question of ‘Why?’ Sometimes the answers are simplistic – colour association with a mood she feels, or a desire to escape or aspire to be a princess or an astronaut driving the space ship (You Choose in Space). All of these are kind of obvious psychology, however, not all books encourage you to use this open question technique to share with your child.

The basic premise of the book is to allow children to make choices, decisions about their desires. On the one hand it’s a wonderfully simplistic idea – imagine going into a shop and choosing whatever you want with without consequence or having to pay for it? Some children I’m sure opt for the same picture choices time and time again. I know R had very definite choices for the first six months of reading it (I think she was about 3 years old at the time) – pretty much revolving around pink, princesses and fanciness as a little girls is wont to do. However as time has gone on, her imagination has stretched to consider other possibilities she could explore in her mind. At the age of 5 she was able to articulate why this might be an interesting choice, her responses to open questions became more qualified.

The book works on many levels – from encouraging decision making to what might be appropriate to wear for certain situations or jobs. My view is that it works best though as a conversation starter – by encouraging them to examine why they are making these choices; this also reinforces a teaching strategy I have noted primary school teachers using to encourage making positive choices in their behaviour and education. Through conversation initiated by the questions asked in each page, we as parents can better understand them, guide them, inform them about aspects of the world which they might not otherwise have reason to investigate.

Now, the downside, or is it? Sometimes by children (especially L, aged 8) don’t want to talk. Sometimes, they just want to hear what you choose and copy it for safety. In itself, this is a mind-window, and can lead to side conversations about what else might be going on which has made them upset/moody/uncommunicative. Sometimes, the very act of choosing in itself is just too much – they are overwhelmed by the choices they have been making through the day and this is just another one. It’s a downside if you wanted to start a insightful ‘how was your day but I can’t ask that because I’ll just get a monosyllabic answer‘ conversation, but equally their response (or lack thereof) to it invites a different conversation. So the book can serve its purpose either way, if that is what you wanted to begin with.

In my attempts to review books from the viewpoint of if they inspire creativity and/or critical thinking, this one is probably one of the best examples. The critical thinking comes from your prompts as a parent, by asking those open questions to examine their motives, or ask for their opinion on something for example. I couldn’t say it directly has inspired them to be creative in the sense of ‘have they been inspired to go away and craft something’ however, I would say there has been an influence in role play activities as a result of the book. Since they have been exposed to (and discussion around) different jobs one might do in this fantasy world, this has led to a greater understanding of what practical skills one might need to perform a job, what it involves, and this has fed into role play with my daughter and her friends. Less so with my son, but he has always been less inclined to role play games.

The colouring book version oddly I find less satisfying because they, the children, maybe have in a sense already had to make the initial decision on colour for objects, and then in review, they decide they don’t like that colour after all but it cannot be changed. Something about a printed version, the images are set, defined, printed and cannot be changed, frees their minds. Allowing them to make that choice and for them to then see the results in the light of a different day has proved to actually mean the colouring book has been discarded and forgotten. My children, initially excited by the prospect of colouring (which they both like but frankly, are slightly careless with in terms of keeping within the lines!), quickly found the level of detail required to make a page look good was too much for them.

Why, I hear you ask, did I say I love and I hate it then, in my opening gambit? Well, frankly, sometimes I just want to read a story. Like my children, sometimes I don’t want to discuss the in’s and out’s and various merits of the clothing/hair/transport/job choice I am being asked to do. As an adult I am more aware of my mood and how that affects my choices. And sometimes, I’m just too tired to have that lengthy decision making process (even without the questions to prompt discussion which I happily do at other times), and I’d rather just put on a silly voice and read a funny story!