Tristan Bancks is an Australian children’s and young adult author. His new book is Ginger Meggs, a 100th-anniversary book of stories based on the character created by his great-great-uncle, Jimmy Bancks, in 1921.Alongside writing, he’s recently created Young Writers’ StorySchool, an online video-based workshop for the classroom that I’m using with my students. It’s designed to help nurture the writing of kids aged 9-14.
I have been trialing Tristan’s StorySchool with an enthusiastic group of writers from Years 5 and 6. These students give up their lunchtime once a week to practise their writing skills. As a teacher, I love how StorySchool teaches these students about writing from an author’s perspective and not from a teacher-teaching-the-syllabus perspective. The video content is top-quality and the activities set in each video are accessible and unique.
Here, Tristan shares how his fourth-grade teacher was pivotal in turning him into a writer and how he still uses her writing tools now. (We have been using this writing tool in our StorySchool club too!)
My writing journey began when I was nine years old and my teacher, Mrs Bannister, introduced a simple daily writing practice she called ‘Anything Goes’. I re-discovered the technique years later in Julia Cameron’s life-changing work on the creative process, The Artist’s Way and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I believe that this simple practice gave me the guts to back myself, pursue a creative career and become a writer of fiction.
Every morning in fourth grade we would get out our Anything Goes books, about a third of the size of a regular exercise book, put the date at the top of the page, and write, flat-out for five minutes. It didn’t matter what we wrote, as long as we were writing. We were told not to worry about spelling, grammar, punctuation or handwriting. BUT we had to write for five minutes non-stop. At first it was difficult. I don’t remember being given story starters, in these sessions, but I do remember a sense of freedom. While Maths and Spelling and other subjects had hard and fast rules, inside the pages of that Anything Goes book, there was the opportunity to escape and be anywhere and anyone we liked.
I, of course, immediately started writing a serial drama titled ‘My Life as a Mars Bar’ – a thought-provoking tale about the plight of a chocolate bar being eaten by a human and moving down the digestive tract. I won’t tell you what happens at the end of that gut-wrenching saga.
I LOVED writing that story. And the one about the evil Meany-greeny-puff-puff-lalala. And the other hundred stories that came to me in moments of fevered inspiration. No story starters. No text types. No judgement.
Anything Goes was writing for writing’s sake, with the intrinsic rewards of freedom, an escape into the imagination and, with any luck, the laughter of friends if we had an opportunity to read out our work.
Clearly, not every kid in that class became a writer. Some would have struggled with the task. Others may have outright despised it. But I’ve spent fourteen years visiting schools and working with young writers and, even the kids who find the Anything Goes concept challenging at first, take to it with practice.
I’ve shared Mrs Bannister’s approach with hundreds, maybe thousands, of schools in that time and, quite often, I have visited a school the following year. Those schools or classes that have adopted Anything Goes as a daily adventure for students see a marked improvement in students’ ability to express themselves on the page. I see it and hear it in my workshops. They dive down and start writing flat-out for five or ten minutes, finding their own voices. There’s a courage and confidence that comes with that dedication to writing.
Like anything, writing is a practice. Teachers have an extraordinary amount to get through in a day, a week, a year, but this five-minute daily practice – the licence for students to make mistakes, to try things out, to be themselves on the page – I believe, can do more for a long-term love of writing than anything else.
My talks, workshops and StorySchool cover drafting, rewriting, POV and so on but the real engine room for writing is Anything Goes. It gives young writers a blank slate to float raw ideas or concepts that they might otherwise dismiss.
My end-goal is to instil in young writers a love of writing, a love of creativity and a faith in themselves and their own ideas. I would like kids to read my books, I want them to read everything they can get their hands on, and I want those books to inspire them to create their own narratives, to tell their own stories.
My goal is to arm students with the tools and confidence to create authentic, personal stories and to encourage them to do it every single day. In the first StorySchool video, I introduce the concept of free-writing based on students’ own memories and I’ve included tips to help navigate this, as well as an activity sheet and teachers’ notes to get things started. You can watch the first video here at Oh Creative Day. Happy writing. 😉
You can access the entire StorySchool program and supporting materials at www.youngwritersstoryschool.com and, if you’re in NSW and have a creative kid, you can use your Creative Kids voucher to access the program for free! Just click on the Creative Kids tab at the top of the site.
Well 2020 has been a YEAR, hasn’t it? In other news though, there have been so many amazing picture books published this year.
Silver lining? Imma gonna take it. Here are the best picture books of 2020, as enjoyed by the young and old at my place.
Clicking on the blue title of each book will take you to Book Depository. These are affiliate links. This means that if you purchase from this link, I will receive a small commission. Thank you for your support!
The Encyclopedia of Dangerous Animals by Sami Bayly
Sami’s Encyclopedia of Ugly Animals has been a HIT in my teaching and at home. We were SO excited for the sequel and it DID NOT DISAPPOINT. Facts from it are quoted on the daily here. (This link will take you to the Ugly Animals Encyclopedia. Book Depository don’t appear to be stocking the Dangerous Animals version yet.)
This Small Blue Dot by Zeno Sworder
A big sister explains the world to her newborn sibling. Broccoli! Dancing Silly Dances! Darkness! Light! All of the really important stuff on our small blue dot. A poignant and hopeful “Welcome to Earth” story. It will be my Baby Shower Go-To book forevermore. See more of it here.
Be Your Own Man by Jess Sanders and Robbie Cathro This book encourages readers to embrace multiple perspectives of maleness and to rewrite the stereotypical narrative of what it means to “be a man.”
It encourages boys, and those who identify as boys, to embrace vulnerability and to feel all the feels. It lists some practical self-love tips to help process emotions. This is a powerful book. Take a flip through here.
Azaria: A True History by Maree Coote
This oversized visual feast gives me goosebumps every time I read it. This non-fiction book uses lyrical text and exquisitely heart-wrenching illustrations to sensitively recount the famous tale of the Chamberlain family’s Uluru camping trip when a dingo took baby Azaria.Read more and see more here.
If you have a non-fiction lover at your place, you might want to check out my IG post below with my top picks for fact-loving kids.
Pandemic by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley
This book is sublime. It tells of how communities pulled through the Spanish Flu pandemic by banding together and uniting with kindness. Jackie French pulled it together in a matter of days to give young readers hope in the current pandemic. Bruce Whatley illustrated this book whilst in hotel quarantine.
If you’re after some more books to help with processing all that 2020 and COVID-19 has been, check out this post.
The Pocket Chaotic by Ziggy Hanaor and Daniel Gray-Barnett
Alexander is a young kangaroo who, being a marsupial, lives in his mother’s pouch. Unfortunately, his mum has questionable organisational abilities and is constantly storing things in her pouch and taking over his space. This one tugged all my maternal heartstrings as it explores an adorable mother-child relationship and the pushing of boundaries towards independence. Disclaimer: Daniel Gray-Barnett is one of my very fave illustrators so I basically love anything he does.
The Fire Wombat by Jackie French and Danny Snell
Last year, Australia faced catastrophic bushfires. This is a retelling of that event told from the perspective of the animals on the ground. Anything by Jackie French is gold and this beauty is a touching treatment of a traumatic experience.
Give Me Some Space! by Philip Bunting
This one has been picked for National Simultaneous Storytime 2021 and I APPROVE. Illustrations in Bunting’s signature style with a narrative that is littered with space facts. PERFECT for the space-obsessed little reader.
All Because You Matter by Tami Charles and Brian Collier
This powerful book only arrived here last week and I am stoked that it can be a last minute inclusion. It is so, so moving. It is an ode to Black and brown children everywhere that reads like a Mother’s love letter, assuring them of their place in the world.
How to Make a Bird by Meg McKinlay and Matt Ottley
Sometimes I get this weird fear that my review of a book will never do it justice. This is one such book.
It for anybody who dares to take a creative risk and shows up to put their creativity out into the world. I fully expect it to be shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia 2021 Book Week Awards. It is no secret that I am a passionate advocate for Australian picture books and stories. I was lucky enough to be a part of the Bookstagang on IG this festive season. The Bookstagang is an association of #KidLit Bookstagramers world wide, who gather to support and share exceptional picture books. This year there was an Aussie division of the Bookstagang who reviewed many of the Australian children’s picture books released this year. You can check out this post for all our top picks and be sure to follow all the amazing Bookstagang who took part and share their passion for books all year round.
Many of the books featured here were sent to me by publishers as review copies. All opinions are my own. Thank you to the legends at Walker Books, Scribble, Scholastic, Thames and Hudson, Magabala Books, Harper Collins and Hachette.
Do you have a little fact fiend at your place? My 5-year-old is a HUGE lover of non-fiction books. He runs around our house reeling off facts at a rapidfire pace. Here are 10 of our current favourite non-fiction books for kids.
This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support!
The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dangerous Animals written and illustrated by Sami Bayly
Look this is a big call- but this is possibly my 5-year-old’s favourite book of the year. The left side of the spread contains a beautiful watercolour portrait of the animal being showcased. The right side of the spread contains a detailed information report about the animal.
This is a magical book for the child who loves history, mythology and mystical creatures like Loch Ness, pegasus and dragons. It’s best read in a cosy, darkish spot- so you can use the magic torch to illuminate the mythical creatures hidden on the page.
Walker Books are the trailblazers when it comes to what they called narrative non-fiction, or FACTion. This beauty follows a grandpa and grandson as they go camping and searching for cicadas. Facts are interspersed throughout the narrative. Non-fiction books can make for tricky read-alouds, but this style of narrative non-fiction is a joy to share and read aloud.
A beautifully illustrated book where each spread contains the biography of a child activist who are implementing environmental change. It features a how-to-help section with simple steps to empower young readers to take action at home and at school.
My 5-year-old has lost hours poring over this book. Each spread, organised in alphabetic order, is filled with animals beginning with the corresponding letter. A book that is chock-a-block filled with facts.
A practical and reassuring book for children to help them understand bushfires and what action they can take to feel less anxious and more prepared as Australia faces longer and more intense bushfire seasons. This is an amazing book.
Looking for a way to make reading fun for children? Y’all know that I’m a massive advocate for reading all day and every day with children. I am, however, the first to acknowledge that sometimes things can get a bit stale on the reading front and it’s fun to shake things up a bit.
Whilst we were in the thick of at-home learning thanks to COVID-19, I had to create online library lessons for my Kindergarten students. One of the suggestions I made in my vids to the kids was to play “Libraries” at home. This is an idea that isn’t restricted just to Kindergarten ages.
I thought I’d give you the inside scoop on this activity in case you’re after a way to make reading fun for children.
📚 Ask your mini-librarians to gather a few books from the bookshelves and let them create displays around their “library.” Will they display the books with their front covers out? Or spines out? (See how we’re already using the metalanguage around the parts of a book?)
📚 Do you just want to drink your tea? If so kick back and ENJOY THAT CUPPA.
Or do you want to inject a bit of #playfullearning? You can ask the librarian to recommend a read. What is this book about? Why do they recommend this book? What was their favourite part?
Talking about a book is JUST AS IMPORTANT as being able to read a book.
📚 You can start to point out the features of a book – the front cover, title, author, illustrator, spine, back cover, blurb, endpapers….
📚 My objective with my lessons is to get the kiddos to remotely role-play the borrowing process. Once you’ve found the book for you, where do you go? What do you say at the circulation desk? You’d best find a random household item to be a barcode scanner here because scanning the book and going “BEEP!” is the most gratifying part of the process.
We have an old computer keyboard that we use at the “circulation desk” to type in the names of our “patrons.”
And please make sure your patrons all have a suitable bag to take their books home in.
In my exceptionally humble opinion, Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys are an unbeatable powerhouse on the children’s book publishing scene. ‘Under the Love Umbrella’ and ‘‘All the Ways to be Smart’ are the two books I recommend the most frequently. (You’ve been warned- if I don’t recommend one of those two books to you, it’s a dead cert that I will recommend the other to you.) ‘The Underwater Fancy Dress Parade’ is the book I chose to gift to my son for his first birthday.
To say that I am fangirling at the fact that Davina and Allison are HERE ON MY BLOG would be, well, a complete understatement.
Through blogging and Instagramming, I’ve been introduced to an amazing Virtual Sisterhood of Creative Ladies.The Oh Creative Lady series is your chance to meet these incredible, kind-hearted, inspiring <insert ALL the happy, positive adjectives HERE> women.
Meet Davina and Allison.
This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
We are…. Davina Bell and Allison Colpoys, an author–illustrator duo who make picture books together. Allison is from NT and Davina is from WA but now we both live in Melbourne. Davina loves the sun and Allison loves the shade.
I find inspiration… Allison:
So many people and things inspire me. My friends and family are definitely the greats! Music and books – of course! I love pattern – particularly in nature – and have an appreciation for all sorts of typography, be it super slick or a dodgy hand-written ‘garage sale’ sign. And in terms of design and illustration, I think I am most in love with artists who were working in the 1950’s.
We’re excited about … our new project – our fourth picture book together. We’re never happier than when we’re sitting together workshopping the illustrations, making tiny scrap-paper versions of the book, moving the text around and giving each other high-tens of happiness when we feel like we’ve nailed a tricky section. We hope we can work together for always.
When I’m in a creative slump, I… Davina:
If I’m in a slump, it’s usually because I’m too afraid of being bad to even try and that’s made me lose respect for myself. So I combat that by doing something to earn back my own regard, and I’m not going to lie – it’s usually cleaning the vegetable section of my fridge. If that doesn’t work, I will walk in nature. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll get a Pomodoro timer going, read a Mary Oliver poem and grit my teeth. Or give up and get a coffee.
We’re really proud that… the books we make together say to kids, in different ways, that they are enough just as they are – that they are treasured for their uniqueness and loved unconditionally. Our new book that we’re currently working on, is about making mistakes, and we’re proud that we are talking about shame and imperfection and forgiveness and self-acceptance, which can be hard to tackle. It’s a privilege to have this platform, and one that we are so conscious of using to spread maximum compassion. We’re also proud of our long-term commitment to eating carob Banjo Bears. If you’re a rep from Banjo, please look us up for a sponsorship arrangement. We’re happy to endorse.
Someone once told me… Davina:
‘Write the book that only you can write.’
That’s what the author Martine Murray said once in a writing class, and I can still feel the ease and freedom that I felt in my body in that moment – as if I had put down a great burden. You don’t need to go out searching for a grand and revolutionary plot or premise. Your story is already within you. It’s in the constellation of your past and present, identity and interests, knowledge and hobbies, values and passions. You will find your story or your style by following your curiosity through a maze of your own uniqueness.
My advice to you is… Allison:
If you’re a writer, please see Davina’s excellent note above!
I’m not very good at advice, but here are some things that I know I need to do, and that I feel sure you’re already across!: Make more time to be amongst the things that inspire you. Make more time to draw for fun.
You can find me at …
@davina.bell on Instagram
‘Under the Love Umbrella’ is now available in board book format. It is the PERFECT present for a baby shower or first birthday. (I totes gave a copy to my niece for her first birthday.)
I’ve got a little challenge for you. The next time you’re reading with children, observe how fast you read aloud and experiment with slowing your reading speed down.
Now as us teachers say to students, we don’t want you sounding like robots. It’s super important for kids to hear a fluent reader reading aloud. So maintain fluency but slow it down.
Why is it important to slow it down when reading with children?
There’s A LOT at play when a little reader is listening to us read. All that awesome vocab is hitting their ears, they’re observing details in illustrations and making connections between print and illustrations. Slowing it down gives everyone a chance to luxuriate in the language whilst giving a bit of extra time for little readers to process it all.
PLUS who has ever read something loudly in speech marks only to get to “he whispered” at the end of the sentence? *face palm* Slowing it down gives you a chance to scan ahead for read aloud prompts like this.
It’s so important to build wait time into read alouds. Not rushing to turn the page but giving that all important processing time. I know that sometimes we want to rush to the end of the book when reading with children because IT’S BEDTIME AND MUM NEEDS A SPECIAL DRINK, but slowing it down and waiting really enriches a read aloud.
If you try this tip, I’d love to hear how it went for you!
I share more teacher-approved reading with children tips over on my Instagram.