Last week I began our year of Getting Things Done Series, and oh my, we are going to need a year. I did get something done almost every day this past week, including deleting thousands of photographs. Tell me I am not the only person who has seasons when they delete so many photographs… and the further back I go the more I wonder why I had to hang on to so many photographs. I don’t anymore, its not that I don’t take photographs, but I do take far fewer that I did five years ago, say. Anyway, I digress. Sticking with the theme of Getting Computer-ish Things Done in January, I thought we could talk about getting a whole ton of blog stuff done. It turns out that there is a long list of things we can do to keep our blogs up and running smoothly… not to mention looking appealing and welcoming to the visitors that pass us by. This is the week that I am going to dive in and upgrade and tidy a couple of things on blog. Things I have been putting off forever and really it is time to just do them…
Se7en+ 1 Things to Get Done on Your Blog This Very Week
Refresh That Ancient About Page: Just stop reading this post for a second and take a look at your about page… and take a look at when you last updated it. I can just look at the age of our kids on that page and I know it has actually been years… years!!! I used to update mine annually… I kind of blogaversary tradition, in fact this past year when our blog turned se7en+1 years old… there should have been a big “rah, rah.” All I actually did was take a photograph in order to update our about page and then simply forgot about it.
Refresh Those Other Important Pages: Those other pages alongside your About page… for example your media page and your contact page probably need an upgrade too. I know mine do, and this is their week.
Feature The Work You Love: I need to rearrange the appearance of our blog significantly, the face of our blog just doesn’t represent the focus of our blog anymore. For example, once a year we build a library for an underprivileged school in our region… it is a major project, and we get help from followers all over the world… but a glance at our blog and you wouldn’t know that was a project of ours at all. It is definitely time to think about a redesign.
Clean Up Your Side Bar: Times change, seasons change and in the blog world, that which is cool this week, may not be cool in a year, or even a couple of months time. What most of us do is just add the latest and greatest trend to our sidebars. Go ahead and look at your sidebars and lose those things that really no longer belong there.
Review Your Categories: There is a lot you can do to refresh and renew a blog. When I began blogging I had exactly se7en categories… and it was easy for visitors to find what they were looking for. Not to mention, when we began blogging we had se7en kids under ten, now we have eight kids age se7en and up, and the things we blog about have a very different focus.
Explore Your Blog Stats: It’s time to take a look at the Dashboard page of your blog, not to mention Google Analytics. Take some time this week and really look at your statistics. Just knowing your stats is an interesting exercise. Click on the tables, look at the reports… spend some time there and familiarise yourself. Try things, explore… look at your blog over the past month, the past year… look for the highs and lows. Just do it!!!
Help Your Readers to Find The Posts They Love: It is one thing to expect your followers to find answers to their questions in a hundred posts, it is quite another when they are looking amongst thousands of posts. Your stats will tell you what your most popular posts are and that allows you to think about ways to give your readers more of what they are looking for, and how to answer the questions they might have according to that topic. I need to make a plan to make the posts our readers love the posts that they can easily find.
Get Your Blog Noticed: Another thing that you can glean from your statistics page is where where your readers are coming from. Yes, you can find out which country they are coming from, in fact which cities your readers are coming from and what language they speak. But here I mean, which other social media your readers come from. For our blog, by a very large margin, our readers arrive from pinterest, which means that I need to pay more attention to our presence on pinterest. Not only do I pin things that I think folk will be interested in, but I make sure that I pin posts from our own blog that would interest our pinterest followers. Go ahead… pin a couple of your own posts. Folk that follow you on pinterest don’t necessarily follow your blog… you have to show them a couple of your latest and greatest posts. And if this has you thinking about your other social media, never fear there is definitely going to be a post on how to practically achieve your social media goals.
With all this talk about improving your blog, the question that is crying out for attention is when… when on earth do you find time to blog and raise more than a handful of kids and actually sleep. That’s a question I am going to tackle in next weeks post in our 52 Weeks of Getting Things Done Series…
Previous Posts in our 52 Weeks of Getting Things Done Series
A new year and new projects and so many of our friends have said that they would like to get outdoors more with their kids, so I thought I would share a natural factual nature project that we did. We chose an area of land to monitor… we looked at the wildlife, mostly insects, reptiles and birds, and we learnt about the seasons form looking at the plant life and we got outdoors and had a lot of fun.
Most folk have kept a weather chart with their kids from time to time… and as you know that can be as simple as hot or cold, to very accurate weather data sourced from a weather station… how deep you go into it the details is up to you and your family. This kind of monitoring is exactly that, only it is a little bit more than just the weather. You can observe a bird feeder or a tree in your garden… or go further afield to a local park or even a nature park. The great thing about a Nature Watch is that it can be done by folk of all ages, as a team or on your own… you can create a photo album or keep a journal… the level of work and involvement is entirely up to you.
Read on, read on, down to our video…
Se7en Easy Steps to Nature Monitoring
Decide where your nature spot is going to be: You need to pick a spot that is easy to visit, every day, or each week or once a month… an area close at hand that you can get to without too much trouble on a regular basis. It can be a tree at the bottom of the garden, it can a hedge you walk past on the way to the library each week. Somewhere where you naturally visit in your rhythm of life is good. It is critical not to be too ambitious at this stage, imagine your spot in all weather, at the start of the day, at the end of the day… could you get to it after a long day of work? Think about it carefully. We chose to hike the mountain behind our house every month… but you can choose somewhere much easier if you like… even a pot plant is a spot of nature that you can observe and monitor.
Decide when you are going to take your observations: At the start of the project we marked on the calendar, a day off each month to do the hike for project… it was set and unchangeable. We did not wait for good weather days, or the perfect day. It was a simply pack your backpack the night before and whatever the weather we would head out. We had some really hot days, we had some freezing days and we had some extremely windy days… we learnt a lot about endurance, and doing stuff when you really didn’t feel like it, and the joy of seeing the project through and having something to show for it was worth it. Not to mention many of the days that we thought were not good days turned out to be the best days.
Decide What you want to Monitor – More or Less: You need to decide if you are just going to record everything you see, or if you are just going to look at birds, or plant life. We decided to take a few key photographs each month and then we looked at a different topic more closely… one month we looked at soil, another month rocks, one month the mountain was alive with butterflies so we dashed home to research butterflies. You can’t know exactly what you are going to look for until you are out there… nothing like saying you are going to look at only animals and then you don’t spot any.
Each month we took notes of:
The weather – which you can get from your local weather station.
Birds keeping a list of those we had seen.
Reptiles – watching them closely and looking out for tracks of them.
Insects – where hard to miss… but looking at them a whole lot more closely.
Mammals – we saw traces of them like skat, tracks and so on. Only recently after a year and a half of hiking did we spot an actual mammal while we were hiking.
Sounds – we had a spot we always stopped and where absolutely quiet for, where we just listened to sounds and kept a list of what we had heard.
Birds… we went from knowing zero, to more than handful… our interest is peaked and we will definitely be learning more.
Clouds and Weather Patterns… and weather maps.
Ocean currents and wave action,that we could view from above.
Gather your Gear: My kids absolutely love gear… if a project has gear they are totally into it. We gathered materials to take with us: Maps, a sketchbook and pencils, binoculars, test tubes for tiny collections – like soil samples, a tape measure and so on. And we put together a shelf of reference books as well, so that we could look up things we had seen as soon as we got home.
Gear Up and Get Out: We tried to keep our hikes absolutely the same each time, we left at the same time, we ate the same food, we packed our bags the same way… after a while we had refined to literally “get up and go.” The easier your monitoring spot, the easier it will be to actually get there. My kids knew it was a hike day the next day… bread was baked, water bottles filled and bags were packed so we could easily roll out. I tried to make sure that our days had no other activities on them so that once we were out there we could take our time… stop and photograph things of interest, stop and sketch… chatter about what we see, read a little bit and spend time with each other.
Keeping Track of what we saw: As we hiked some folk kept lists and jotted down a few things and then on a follow up day later in the month we would take out all our reference books and have a nature journaling day. What began as one or two lines at the beginning of the project became pages of things that discovered in books, to enrich the things they had learnt from real live observations.
The Photograph Collection: A big part of our project was taking photographs, we started by taking millions of photographs… and then reduced it to something a little more realistic… The same couple of photographs each time: one at the start of the hike, one or two landmarks special to us, one at the very top of the mountain and finally one over looking the bay. We always took photographs of anything in flower and evidence of animal life. And yes… this project finally got us to print photographs after years of not printing anything at all.
Putting it all Together: At the end of last year we put all our pages and photographs together into a sketchbook. We added a few things that we had collected while hiking, the odd feathers and porcupine quills, as well as a couple of sand samples. And now we have a family sketchbook to remember the time we studied Elsie’s Peak for a year.
A Peak Into Our Monitoring Project on Elsie’s Peak
We made a little video presentation for our friends… (click on the arrow in the picture above, mum, and you will get to see it!!!).
The mountain appeared to recover well, and each time we hiked more new plants were growing and it was exciting to see how the regrowth literally exploded. And then in January 2017 another fire occurred on the mountain and this time our hiking trail was closed for a fair while and we only went up again two months later. At this stage the mountain had not even slightly begun to regrow… the effect of another huge fire within the year had a devastating effect on the fynbos, months later there was little to no recovery. Now almost a year later, the growth is slowly returning and there is a good growth of ground cover and heaps of wild flowers in bloom.
One of the most significant stops on our hike was at a fork in the path where we stopped every time, and were absolutely quiet, listening to all the sounds we could hear… just that moment of quiet in a busy world.
Apart from the hiking we spent a lot of time just looking and observing the world around us, and some folk always loved to draw. This was a project where hands on really did win the day, but there were some great days around the kitchen table where we researched what we had seen, using books that we have reviewed for Struik Nature.
So there you go, a Nature Watch project is as easy or as complicated as you would like it to be. The best thing about a Nature Watch project is that folk of all ages and stages in life, can contribute in a real way to making the project a success. If you count acorns and spiders’ nests in a nearby oak tree, or if you document the life cycle of tadpoles in the local puddle… or if you climb the mountain behind your house, they are all great nature watch projects. May I suggest that you just start, grab a notebook and pen for keeping records and get out there. You can record from just one thing to twenty things, it doesn’t matter what you record… the point is firstly, that you get outdoors and secondly that you notice the ever changing world around you.
I had this idea to sort through all the school stuff before we begin schooling again… one thing led to another and there is chaos on every surface. None of the gang are complaining… clearly if we can’t find a single thing that we need for school then we will just have to carry on playing, as one does!!!
Reading Myself: I made my way through Harry Potter the first, since my gang have challenged me to read the series in two weeks. I am sure it was a month when we spoke about it first… but they have reduced the goal posts somewhat… to the point of unachievable… so I moved on to a new book, a quick holiday read and I am really enjoying it. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, I can see why everyone raves about her writing… it is compelling reading to say the least. I had no problem sitting on the couch reading this book for hours, I had to know what happened next and then next again. Contemporary writing about a guy and a gal… he is a paraplegic because of a motor accident… and she is employed as his carer. Not your traditional boy meets girl kind of a story, and it leaves with a fair amount to think about. Just what I needed to turn the weekend into a holiday for me…
Listening: The plan was that I listen to one classic a month throughout the year and I thought I would begin with something that I knew I liked… and wander my way through it while I cooked dinner. So I chose Pride and Prejudice, narrated by Rosamund Pike. Well forget about a chapter or two while I am cooking dinner… this is all consuming, life is on hold while I listen away. I had so forgotten how I enjoyed the classical classics.
Watching with the Kids: The Tale of Despereaux… Note to self: never watch a movie the day you finish the book… you are still far too much in the heart of the story to enjoy the movie.
Watching Myself: The Dakar Rally… I am a huge fan… I just love the hard work and effort that goes into it. It ticks all the boxes for me: great outdoors, never give up attitude and travel to such a variety of places…
Planning: My 52 Week Series of Getting things done… as one does!!!
Feasting: Roast Peaches for the win… a sugar free desert that all but one love!!!
Discovered: Create a Book Track App… I am going to check it out this week and see how it goes… The idea is that as you read your e-book and there are tons to choose from and plenty of free ones as well, the book has a backing track to go with it… while it rains in your story it will rain in your ears… very cool and something that a couple of my kids will love… I’ll check it out and get back to you all.
Exercise: Well hiking of course… and wondering if we should take the #52Hike challenge… or just keep it low key and rolling along like we normally do…
So the father person went back to work today… and after weeks of sleeping late and lazy meals in the great outdoors, everyone was up early and then a little subdued today. But that doesn’t mean we can’t reminisce on a summer well spent!!!
A New Year, and New moons… and time for a new weather tree to go up on the wall… though what can I say…. totally not enough blue on our tree. On the good side we are learning to save water in very real and practical ways every day…
The season of summer holidays brings ice-cream,
And more ice-cream…
And chilis for miles…
And so many many visitors…
And plenty of milk tarts…
And evening ambles, where for the first time ever we had cyclists riding along beside us…
And late night swims…
And generally late nights, since it is quite impossible to sleep when you can hear other folk still playing on the beach…
And summer sunsets…
And late night suppers under the stars…
Not to mention… beach days…
And always… pirates…
Art Work of the Week
Endless notebooks packed with pirates and castles…
And crazy creative gifts made for favourite people…
Game of the Week
Where have we been, the Hoods have discovered Sudoku!!! Hours and hours of puzzling away…
Book of the Week
Everybody has been reading and reading…
And we are onto Book 11… its been nearly a year and we are finally getting there!!!
And that’s us… waking up to a fresh new year and ready for some fabulous fun times in the weeks ahead…
I am thinking that after a couple of weeks off anything that looks like actual work, apart from the usual thirty odd meals a day and mountains of laundry, has been put aside. It has pretty much been late summer nights and lazy breakfasts for more than a few weeks and now it is time for us to get our act together again. Just slightly time to get things done… anything done, really. If I had a to do list, then it is actually a to don’t list. if something gets written down to get done around here, then that is the last you ever hear about it…
Se7en’s 52 Weeks of Getting things Done
So let’s just begin by saying that I am not making a list… I am just diving in and doing stuff. We live in an instantaneous world where we want everything now, chances are you cannot declutter your entire house, every closet, not to mention your schedule and also organise and plan your blog posts for the year ahead, all in one weekend. Experience tells me that slow and steady really does win the race… and so slow and steady it is. Our house doesn’t need organising so much as it needs decluttering. Every aspect of it. Thank goodness I am not the only person around here who feels like that, I think there may even be a few players on my team who feel the same way.
One thing I have been meaning to update and improve for the longest time is my “blog space”… get my time spent working a lot more streamlined and rewrite some of those pages that new visitors look at, but as a blogger I tend not to look at myself… the about page, the media page and so on. However, my computer is so galactically slow that I know I need to get rid of a lot of junk on it first. So often it is not about organising but more about decluttering. So this is week one and I am diving in to computer related decluttering.
How to Declutter Your Computer in a Weekend, for the Technically Challenged (that’s me)…
Step Zero Always Make a Back Up: Before you do anything make a back up. The techie father person gets endless calls from folk trying to retrieve their stuff from their hard drive.
He always asks, “Was it really important?”
And they say, “Yes, vital.”
So then he says, “Well you must have made a back up then.”
And this is usually followed by silence. Especially if you are starting to make big changes on your computer, you have to begin by making a back up.
Tons of Photos Be Gone: After choking my computer to death a couple of years back, I became very disciplined at keeping photographs under control. But I may have let things slide a little and it is time to get back on track. I find it hard to discern only the special photos from the the past week… it is hard to tell what is memorable when you are in it… so I pick a month from a while back, six months back say and ruthlessly delete. If you would never print it or stick it on your fridge or mail it to granny, then just hit delete… you will enjoy looking back on albums that contain fifty odd photographs, fifty thousand not so much.
For the Photos you want to Keep: Make sure you ensure that you don’t lose your specially saved memories… save them to Google photos, or Flickr, both have some free services available. And you can save them to an external drive as well.
Don’t waste your time unsubscribing to endless mailing lists: Here’s a top tip, head for Unroll.me and clean up your inbox in an instant.
Sort out your Desktop: The more stuff on your desktop, the slower your computer will be… so make a folder and drop all those odd photos and memos, unsent emails and suchlike into this folder of “important stuff.”
Stop Downloading Endless Junk: I know, if you sign up to tons of newsletters you will get endless free stuff… if you haven’t printed that printable or opened that e-book by now… chances are you never will. All the shiny new ideas for school, the tons of downloads on how to have the perfect blog… by now you have unsubscribed to more than half of the newsletters in the step above… let all the e-clutter go as well.
Review Your Podcast Subscriptions: It’s a new year, and if you are subscribed to podcasts that you haven’t listened to in over a year then chances are you are no longer in that season and have moved on… those 760 podcasts waiting to be heard do not spark joy… but they sure slow down your computer speed. And the video series on “Whatever Topic that You Once tried to be Interested In” that you haven’t watched in three years… though you fully intend to… you are never going to watch them… delete immediately. If you are unable to delete them, then give yourself a deadline… you have until Friday to watch and set a reminder, if you haven’t watched them by then… just delete them already.
Delete Your Trash Bin: When you delete things on your computer they are stored for you in your trash bin… and your trash bin can unwittingly become overfull of heaps of things that you really no longer want or need. From time to time you need to head into your trash bin and delete the actual contents. Just a suggestion!!!
We have been on a bit of a summer break, it happens to be the best time of year to find a shady spot, settle down and read… and read… and read. So, while our coffee table has been drowning in books, we are bringing you tons of reviews… if you are looking for something good to read them look no further, there really is something for everyone in this post…
A World of Information by James Brown and Richard Platt: This book has to be our fact book of the year, right up there with our other extra large book, Maps, this book has taken centre stage on our coffee table for weeks and it won’t be moving off it anytime soon. This book is very simply pages and pages of extreme infographics, the most incredible detail presented in the easiest possible format. Each spread tackles a different topic, from Different Types of Knots to Paper Sizes. There is a short bit on the back story of each page and then they dive in to observe and explore each topic, it is transparent learning, you really don’t feel like you are working at reading… and it is literally packed with incredible facts on the Solar system, on codes, music notation and the greek alphabet… and all together 30 topics. The illustrator, James Brown, has brought the author, Richer Platt’s, fascinating facts to life. Each page is a mono print and they have been able to use their creative skills and positive and negative spaces to create page after page of intrigue for book lovers of every age.
Guinness World Records 2017: Another book that is on the coffee table right now. Its a great dipper that gets more and more interesting the longer you spend time in it. This is a book that has heads bent over it for several minutes, and plenty of “Oh Wows” and “Have you Heards?” There is something for absolutely everyone in here… from science and technology, to animals, sport and the arts, planet earth and all sorts of animals, foodie facts and all kinds of games. This book is a dipper and each and every spread can keep you busy for hours, packed with facts and incredible photographs. This book is all about the biggest and the best, the smallest and the worst… the wildest and the wackiest, the strangest and the weirdest!!!
Guinness World Records 2017, the Gamers Edition: I didn’t realise just how much my kids would love this book, but they have totally loved it. It is a fun read and good for all ages… packed with quirky records: top players, top games and so on. Superhero games, graphic adventures, puzzle games and so many more. Super Mario, Minecraft, Lego and Star Wars… really this book is a gamers dream and one or two of my kids have been absolutely lost in it for weeks. Every single detail, has been read, discussed and repeated… This book is totally loved and here to stay and be enjoyed for a good while.
The World in Infographics: These are three out a fabulous new series of books. They are short, thirty-two day books absolutely packed with information using images, pictures and charts, and very short snippets of writing. They are a perfect way for book lovers to glean tons of knowledge, even those folk that aren’t brilliant at reading and so don’t love reading. There is lots to learn and the facts are so accessible, something about the way infographics are presented means that science on a higher level can be understood, that would be out of reach if the authors were only using words. Machines and Vehicles covers an array of the biggest and the best and ranges from Monster Machines to flying machines and everything in-between. In Technology, you can learn about all sorts of things, from the human body to vehicles, to the internet and cell phones. Countries is split into pages of amazing facts about each of the se7en continents. These books are really a vey quick way to glean lots of facts, they are bright and colourful and cry out for passing readers to dip into them.
Picture Book Reads
Hugless Douglass and the Great Cake Bake by David Melling: Well we have a huge Hugless Douglass and David Melling fan in the house and when this book landed on our review pile he literally snatched it up. Typical Hugless, he is extremely loving and gentle and affable throughout. He follows his sheepish friends in a trail of honey, and he is so hoping for some honey cakes… but alas he was at the back of the queue and misses out on the honey cake. Hugless is forced to try a carrot and discovers that it is rather tasty. There is a wild bake-off and tons of sticky mess through the pages of this book. Not to mention, there is a recipe… for honey cupcakes and that makes this book a winner!!!
Wolves by Emily Gravett, the 10th Anniversary Edition: We are not shy to say that we absolutely love Emily Gravett and her work… In this book a rabbit takes a book about wolves out of the library and as rabbit reads away he gets closer and closer to a real live wolf. A clever book, filled with suspense as the wolf gets closer and closer to the rabbit. And then cleverness… there are two endings to the book, one for sensitive readers where the wolf turns out to be a vegetarian, and one for less sensitive readers, say no more. This book has lovely special readers… a place for the real live library card to fit into the cover, not to mention an envelope at the end of the book, with overdue letter inside it. The genuine thing… really. There is also a small book to cut out and read at the back: The 10 Little Rabbits… this is Emily Gravett at her best… every single detail is important and relevant to the story. Love it!!!
Classical Stories for Kids
I am just going to say that Marcia Williams is a legend at bringing classical literature to kids.These are chapter books for just beyond beginner reading level… to either read to your kids or they can read themselves. They can either be read by a short person, one chapter at a time or as my youngsters would have it… I read it to them, read on, read on… in a sitting. One of my kids is a literature buff and would have loved these books as a child, they are such a great way to get to know the classics really quickly. The stories appear to be really short and yet they contain so much, they are a good overview of the books and it makes the classics really accessible to younger children, and their associated adults, who may never have read the classics before. These books have a whole lot more words on a page to read than the more familiar and fantastic cartoon strips we are used to from Marcia Williams.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare and retold by Marcia Williams: When I suggested that I read this book to my youngest three kids, I have to say that the girls swooned at the thought, they now that Romeo and Juliet is a love story and they wanted to know more… but our young pirate wasn’t that keen, until he discovered their was a heap of sword fighting and wild behaviour… It is the story adapted for younger readers, and I love how within each chapter their is a quotable quote… this is definitely a fun way to introduce Shakespeare to youngsters. The story is: Romeo is in love with a gal (who disdains him), who is a member of the rival family in town. Unrequited love is always a good theme for a book. His friends help him to gatecrash a party in disguise, so that he can catch a glimpse of his girl… and then he meets Julia and it is love at first sight… and so the famous story unfolds.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and retold and illustrated by Marcia Williams: There are few things as rich as a Charles Dickens book and almost everyone knows the story of Oliver Twist… the workhouse boy with a very difficult beginning. All the characters are there… Nancy and Fagin, and of course the Artful Dodger. This is a great way to introduce the classics.
Tales from Shakespeare by William Shakespeare retold and illustrated by Marcia Williams: And if you enjoyed the previous two books then you will love this one, it is the full colour version of fourteen of Shakespeare’s favourite tales, including the Romeo and Juliet book mentioned above. There is everything to love about Shakespeare stories, somehow he had the magic of creating stories that interesting for readers of all ages. If you have never read any Shakespeare, then this would be a good place to start enjoying them. Short versions of the actual stories… perfectly readable and lots of quotable quotes woven through. The book begins with an invitation to take your seats, as you are transported to the Globe Theater. If you have a child who is learning to love literature, they will love this completely and all my kids enjoyed reading these stories together… A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale… and so many more…
Hooray for Mr William Shakespeare by Marcia Williams: Would you look at this, a sticker activity book all about Shakespeare. There is a little bit about Mr Shakespeare himself, and then two double page spreads for a handful of his most famous plays, the first spread includes a summery or excerpt from the play and then the following two pages include puzzles and things like word searches and sticker activities to do. This is pure fun and great way for kids to learn in an engaging way, a far cry from the way we discovered Shakespeare when I was at school.
The Iliad and the Odyssey retold and illustrated by Marcia Williams: A classical Marcia Williams graphic retelling of tow of the most classical stories from Ancient Greece. The Iliad describes the famous was between the Greeks and the Trojans, and includes the famous Trojan Horse. The Odyssey is about the journey, through many trials of the Greek hero Odysseus, as he has to overcome many trials on his journey home. All my kids have loved these books, there is always someone reading one of them… it is just impossible to keep them on a shelf… which is a high compliment for any book!!!
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and retold and illustrated by Marcia Williams: Another graphic retelling of a classic tale, a tale of injustice, love and ultimately heroism. We meet each of the characters as we wander our way through the story. The story is set in France in the early eighteen hundreds and the main character is Jean Valjean a just released prisoner, who was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for nearly twenty years. This is an interesting read, weaving in and out of a classic story…
The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Emma Chichester Clarke: You know if it is a Michael Morpurgo its going to be good, and it is packed with Emma Chichester Clarke’s distinctive illustrations bring the characters to life. This is just above the level of easy readers and is a great book for an emerging reader. The story is intriguing, The author does have a way with words… right from the get go with his opening line, “I don’t know who my mother was, nor my father.” We loved this retelling of the popular classic… it is a compelling read, the words lead you on and the illustrations keep you engaged… just lovely.
The Children Who Smelled a Rat by Allan Ahlberg: A new to us story from the very much loved, over here, Gaskitt stories. Look out for these, they are fabulous books and there are quite a few of them in the series. These are lovely mysteries for beginner readers, fully illustrated with great pictures interwoven through the story, and lots of details to look out for from page to page. Lots of things go on in the book, side stories to keep your quick witted reader entertained as they power through the main story. So Mr Gaskitt finds himself running after the baby, who is dashing across town, in and out of all sorts of adventures across town, as the shopping cart remains just out of reach. Mrs Gaskitt is a taxi driver and finds herself all over town too, only just looking the wrong way to the way the reader wants her to look, and never sees the baby… Meanwhile the main story happens at school with the twins, their teacher Miss Fritter is always in the wars and her replacement teachers are a little alarming, but she returns and seems to to be, “not quite herself.” What has happened to their beloved teacher? There is a delightful, unexpected twist in the tale and just the thing to keep a beginner reader reading on. You can read a lovely interview with Allan Ahlberg here, and meet the illustrator, Katherine McEwen on her website here.
The No 1 Car Spotter by Atinuke:Atinuke is the author of the popular Anna Hibiscus Series and of course the No 1 Car Spotter. The name of the main character in this story is No 1, a boy who is always the first in the town to identify the cars that speed by. He finds himself in many awkward situations and always has a clever solution to the problems. In fact when the village cart breaks down, just when they all need to get to the market, and no one can repair the abandoned car in town, you will never What we love about these books is that these stories are particularly African, there are cultural nuances that happen only in an African village… so while the story of a boy and his friends and village life are universal… the attitude of the story gives it an African context. These are not stories that could be placed in any village in any culture and just add a few name changes at all, these are stories that are born and belong under an African sky… that children all over the world can read and relate to. If you are looking for diversity in children’s books, and books in an African context, then look no further.
Rabbit and Bear, Rabbits Bad Habits by Julian Gough and illustrated by Jim Field: A grumpy rabbit and an affable bear and a short “grand entrance and quickly departing,” scallywag fox… makes a wonderful laugh out loud story. It is the heart of winter and bear is woken by something on his nose… he is confused, his food is gone and and he has woken in the middle of winter. Turns out there was a little burglary going on… anyway Bear, who like to look on the bright side of life decides to get up and build a snowman… only she doesn’t have great snowman building skills. Enter rabbit… who is somewhat crotchety, perhaps hangry… full of know how and knowledge. Indeed, quite a proud little rabbit… until bear discovers rabbit having a nibble of poo… at which stage if you are reading aloud, your listeners will either collapse in hysterical laughter and gasp in horror… either way it a great shock tactic and everyone wants to read on. Just so you know, rabbits have the habit of eating, partially digesting their food and then um eating it over… to get all the nutrients they possibly can from it… just saying, and it is a habit that keeps their burrows fairly clean. Delightful story, I think we can look out for a lot more Rabbit and Bear stories in the future. These are definitely going onto our beginner reader shelf to stay!!! You can look inside the book, on Jim Field’s site here.
This is a series of Early Readers from Orion Books… What’s to like about them? Well the stories are new, fun, interesting… nothing “same old” about these at all. The books are divided into short chapters… so they can be read slowly and steadily. The pages are richly illustrated, lots of colour illustrations on every page… that help to keep your young reader interested and reading on. Not only that, they are good enough to keep. The stories won’t be read once and abandoned, they are full of substance, at least 75 pages worth of good quality reading, the illustrations and interesting stories that young readers will want to return to them again and again.
The Dragons Dentist by John McLay and illustrated by Martin Brown: Harry is the smallest person in his knightly family, and he dreams of impressing his knightly dad… this isn’t going to be an easy task. He decides to take his horse, Oats, and
Cinderella written and illustrated by Sally Gardner: The traditional story… Cinderella is forced to serve her ugly step sisters, and a fairy godmother that gets her to the ball. Written for the beginner reader with tons of lovely Sally Gardener illustrations.
Cudweed in Outer Space by Marcus Sedgwick and Pete Williamson: Cudweed has a pet monkey called Fellah, and they are somewhat bored. Until Cudweed discovers a comic about outer space… and they order a kit to build a spaceship. After much hammering and tinkering, they end up on an adventure in outer space… but of course made it home for tea.
Down in the Jungle by Vivian French and illustrated by Selina Young: It was too hot to sleep and So Monkey’s Mum tell him a story. In fact quite a few stories… jungle animal stories with a pervading theme of a villainous crocodile… stories about teamwork, friendship and generally jungle wholesomeness… the child who likes animal stories will love this.
A Creepy Crawly Story by Vivian French and illustrated by Selina Young: Wizz Bee and Buzz Bee come home without any honey and the Queen Bee is not impressed. They decide to tell her stories instead… the first story is a bout Sally Slug, and nobody wants to come to her party, of course it all gets resolved and everyone lives happily forever after. The next story is about Brave Mary Moth, who sets out to rescue Betty Butterfly from a spider’s web. It is quite a feat, and alls well that ends well.
Leopard Rescue by Sara Starbuck with the Born Free Association: For the beginner reader that prefers fact books trudging through stories, then this is a fabulous book, and it is part of a series. Leopards born in captivity that live in cramped zoos in Europe are relocated, after a long wait and years of ill treatment to a a wild life sanctuary in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. From a traumatic life, full of all the troubles associated with zoo phobia , it is an epic undertaking to rescue these animals. Through out the book there are short fact filled snippets to read and learn all about leopards. The book is illustrated with stunning, full colour photographs on every page.
I cannot begin to express how much our kids love Timmy Failure over here, they are the perfect read for actually… everybody, but especially for kids who are ready to lurch into fatter chapter books, but who need a little confidence boost to get there. Hugely picture rich, hysterically funny… literally laugh out loud funny… all the way!!!
Timmy Failure #5: The Book You Are Not Supposed to Have by Stephan Pastis: Timmy is a detective of the somewhat always failing, and yet winning the day kind. His sidekick is a polar bear… see already you are intrigued. Book 5 in the series begins with a page saying that these are Timmy’s private notes and not for publication, the manuscript was stolen… you see, all ready you want to read on and find out what is going on. In this book Timmy has been banned from detective work by his mum, and he finds himself in the valley of doom, sleeping in a froggy tent between two beds in his room, where his apparently awful cousins have arrived to stay. Things go from bad to worse, the teachers go on strike and Timmy thinks school is out, only to discover the cruel reality of substitute teachers. good for all ages, brilliant read aloud and just as good for reading on your own, but be prepared for a lot of , “just listen to this…”
Another easy reading series that is proving to be hugely popular over here, they are literally inhaled as they land… the day stops for these to be read through in a sitting by kid after kid after kid. It is the story, narrated to you by the author and illustrator, of a treehouse with every possible amazing attachment that you can imagine and a whole lot of things you could never have imagined. Ever!!! In each book they build thirteen new incredible stories onto their tree.
The 65 Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and illustrated by Terry Denton: This is book five in the series and the elaborate treehouse from the previous books just gets bigger and better, though it is hard to imagine how. Not to mention that it impossible to believe that series of books can just keep getting better and better as they go along. In this book there is a new birthday room, where it is always birthday, and the un-birthday room, where years are counted backwards… There is a new fun feature in this book… a newsfeed timeline, something like a twitter feed, along the bottom of each page as you leap forwards in time.
Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar: Another great read that I thoroughly enjoyed. The story of a twelve year old gal, Carol to her friends and Carolina to her family, and her coming of age. Already her name tells you that she is trying to find her own identity away from her family tradition. As the book winds it’s way through the desert of New Mexico and her Grandfather’s dementia worsens, so her relationship with him grows closer. They really so have something special. The family has moved out of town to stay on her grandfathers ranch for the summer in order to pack up the ranch and move hime to a care home, not to mention sell off the family ranch and live unburdened by the responsibility of elderly parents forever more. However, there is just one problem… what seems like a good plan becomes increasingly difficult… because by staying with their Grandfather, they can’t help but get closer to him, and while the rest of the family is there to get the job done, Carol finds herself falling under his spell… she is the only one who can see the bees, and he convinces her that the bees will bring the rain and break the drought. This is a sweet book, that portrays that complicated place called middle-school and all the ins and outs of best friends and not best friends and oh just complicated, and at the same time it embraces those precious relationships that skip a generation between children and their grandparents. This book is a keeper.
A Seven Letter Word by Kim Slater: This book caught my eye, because a book featuring the game of Scrabble must be great. Turns out it is a most excellent read, and if I were a middle grade teacher (haha I am !!!) I would make this compulsory reading. I loved it… and there are a lot of life lessons packed into this book. This is a book about life as it is and it doesn’t overdramatise and make things bigger than they are, but it doesn’t soften the blow, either. Finlay is a stutterer, his mother who always helped him communicate, suddenly left unannounced two years ago. His stuttering has become unbearable and he retreats and writes long letters to his mum. His dad does his best, which includes encouraging him, asking him about the bullying – his dad is ready to jump in and defend him… but can’t always be around… and being “understanding” isn’t that effective a weapon against bullying. On one level this book could be about school ground bullying and how to handle it… but it goes on to a much higher level of bullying that our children need to be aware of. Finlay and his mum played a lot of scrabble together, and Finlay is invincible. He started playing on line, in the hopes of coming across his mum in a game… and he begins playing with a person who seems to know him. Could it be his mum? Is she secretly starting to contact him… and for the first while he only plays scrabble but slowly but surely they start to chat… and then things start happening to the people around him and his primary protagonist, a lad on the scrabble team is in a terrible accident… and Finlay realises what he has started… its a shocker. Finlay has been taught about internet safety, he knows the rules and yet he quite happily shared much more information than he knew he should have. To his peril. There are a lot of twists and turns at the end of the story in order to make it turn out well… It is a great read, exciting, page turning… and one to share with your kids, especially if they, ahem, know everything about internet safety… in which case it is a must read… because sometime life lessons have to be learnt from someone who isn’t the parent. You can meet the author, Kim Slater, at her website over here.
Young Adult Reads
The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood: I took a while to get into this book, but once I was about a third of the way in I was compelled to read on, I had to know if 17 year old Gottie would ever achieve happiness. Her mum died when she was born, leaving her and her brother and father in the care of a slightly eccentric and free living grandfather. She lives under the cloud of grief as her family never quite overcome the loss of her mum, and then her best friend and neighbour Thomas, leaves town when she is twelve, to live on the far side of the world, and they don’t talk again… and the boy she thinks she loves dumps her for another, and finally her grandfather, who means everything to her dies. This is where the book begins, and ends, for that matter… time wraps around itself as you go on a journey with Gottie as she figures out love, grief and just life, that can be so terribly difficult. The summer that is going to be the hardest ever for her, also turns out to be so much better when her friend Thomas returns unexpectedly, and their awkward reunion turns out to be the special spark of love that Gottie needed in her life… and of course there is no such thing as an easy relationship. You follow the highs an lows as you get to know Gottie better… she is a feisty, funky gal that stays true to herself… time swirls and whirls around her in and out of wormholes and other mathematical meanderings… hence the title… but it isn’t essential to have any higher math to understand or enjoy the book, in fact it neither adds nor detracts from the story… Basically Gottie finds herself traveling in and out of time, in fact sometimes right along side time… it is a little strange at first, but you kind of get used to this ability of hers and it fits in quite well with the anxious teen world that she lives in.
In the Dark Woods by Eliza Wass: Wow… Hood #3 read this book in a sitting, and said, “You must read this.” I read it then and there… gripping, creepy, chilling and totally unputdownable. The thing about reading is that it allows you to go places that you would never actually go, and then you get to talk about it… and we got an, “I am so glad you are our parents” out of this one.
Castley is one of six siblings, living in the woods… and thats exactly where their dad wants them to be. Their father has a very alternative religious view of the world and without stirring up those around him or wanting to bring others into his elite circle, he has indoctrinated his family into believing that they are superior to the rest of the world. Only his family has a connection with God, and the rest of the world is inherently wicked, hence his need to keep the family away from society, to the point where he has decided that the children will marry each other when they grow up… I did say it was creepy. Unfortunately social services has somewhat thwarted their dad’s plans to be completely isolated and off the grid, and has forced the children all to attend the local school and interact with lesser mortals. In school the kids find their hidden strengths, their personalities are discovered and for Castley, the need for freedom and to escape their father’s psychological manipulations and violent outbursts, is just overpowering. This is a coming of age story packed with responsibility, you want everything to work out for Castley, you want her to make it, and you want her to make it all work out for her siblings as well. Between the pull of her family and the pull of the world, the tension just builds and builds, until of course everything falls apart… The end of the book definitely doesn’t feel like the end of the story, but rather the beginning of a new life for Castley and her siblings. You can meet the author, Eliza Wass, at her website here.
438 Days, an Extraordinary story of Survival at Sea by Jonathan Franklin: This story is so unbelievable that you feel compelled to read on and and on… you have to read it to see how a regular fisherman can survive in the Pacific ocean with no special equipment, actually no equipment at all… just a really small fishing vessel and his wits and cunning against the elements for 438 days. This is one of those books that you read and think you have never read anything like it before and you will probably never read anything like it again. It is incredible… beyond words what the main player in this book, Salvador Alvarenga, achieved, his will to survive against all odds, his ability to persevere, problem solve and just never give up were the survival skills he needed. The author, Jonathan Franklin, has the ability to piece the story together, and even though we know the outcome, clearly Salvador survived, we feel compelled to read all the details in the book. This is a harrowing tale that if you didn’t know it was the truth you would never believe, a clear case of “truth is stranger than fiction.” There is a lot to learn from this book, the author very cleverly popped some expert opinions and useful information into the script, yet with all that extra information one cannot get past the incredible will of Salvador Alvarenga to survive. Right up there in one of the most intriguing reads ever and if you think you might one day find yourself lost at sea, even if you don’t, then this is an essential read.
Shirley Goodness and Mercy by Chris Van Wyk: This is a memoir, snippets and stories from the childhood of Chris Van Wyk, who grew up in the coloured township of Riverlea, Coronationville during the apartheid era. It is the story of township life, dusty and difficult, poor financially but rich in spirit. A hard life, seen through the eyes of a child, running errands for the neighbourhood aunties, interactions with teachers, vivd descriptions of the food he used to eat and the pranks he got up to with his friends. I loved this book it was a step back in time, flashes of my own childhood made me laugh my way through parts of it and the reality of it all in the gritty words of a great writer will stir your heart. Chris Van Wyk was one of South Africa’s finest writers, committed to bringing South African history to life. You may know him for his abridged version of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, for children.
The Kamikaze Hunters by Will Iredale: For those history buffs that like true stories about the war… don’t stop, don’t hesitate, this is a must read. The story takes place at the end of World War II, when the War in Europe was all but over and fighting in the Pacific was continuing on relentlessly. The author, Will Iredale has written the story of a group of Royal Naval Fighter Pilots, whose task it was to intercept the Kamikaze pilots that were launched as a final desperate hope by the Japanese. These are true stories about real people and reads like a third person diary. The information in the book is gleaned from many sources including conversations with survivors and researching diaries. It is fairly heavy reading, a chapter a day kind of book, rather than a read in a sitting… because it is so packed with detail and minutiae. A fascinating read that begins with the pilot training and ends just after the final bomb was dropped. There is a collection of a few photographs in the book as well… a sketch of a cabin and a group of clearly emaciated prisoners of war after their release and the joy in their faces… real men, sons, fathers, brothers… who survived it all.
Summer Secrets by Jane Green: If you are looking for a quick and easy relaxing weekend then here is a great read. The main player in this book is an English gal called Cat, and you follow her journey as an alcoholic… the book jumps back to her childhood and she discovers that the man she thought was her father was not her father and this would explain why she never felt connected to him… she has to go in search of her roots. She heads for the United States to meet her real family, where she immediately fits… and then makes a terrible and unforgivable mistake. She returns home and continues her life, she meets and marries a recovering alcoholic. They have a daughter, and everything looks so perfect, but it cannot last… and eventually she reaches rock bottom and loses all that is important to her, before she begins her journey again… this is a book about friendship, enduring love and forgiveness.