All posts by Angela

Book Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness illustrated by Jim Kay

This is an unsolicited and personal review of Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Special Collector’s Edition, Walker Books, 2016. ISBN 9781406365771

I’m not sure how long I spent imprisoned in an ancient twisted yew tree back in 2016, but clearly it was long enough to have have missed the existence of both the book and film of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I arrived at this book after recently reviewing the paperback release of Jim Kay’s illustrated version of J K Rowling Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  This is part of why I love the partnership of authors and illustrators, as illustrators sometimes wander you off your usual garden path, into the words of a wonderful author.

After reading this book, I probably won’t be taking tree photographs like this
again when camping – too spooky now!

I have wanted to read the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, but it has been a while since I’ve felt able to find the emotional space for a dystopian series, so I’ve waited. I wondered if A Monster Calls was going to be terrifying and I steeled myself. The cover of the special collectors edition that I bought and the amazing ink-black illustrations by Jim Kay were definitely pointing to things crawling out from nightmares.

The light and dark of trees

This is a darkly spooky tale, but within it, is the most moving story. Conor is haunted by a monster. From the cover, there is no mistaking that the monster is a terrifying tree beast. This constant haunting is entwined with the story of how Conor deals with the cancer that his mother is fighting. Instead of being spooked by this story, I found myself in tears, but also still spooked because the monster is unavoidably confronting and so raw and wild in its pursuit of what it wants from Conor.

Patrick Ness has won a range of awards for this story, and although primarily dealing with grief and bravery, if you are interested in wild nature mythology and the folklore of trees there is enough fantasy and nature mythology to root this firmly in the fantasy genre. Jim Kay’s incredible illustrations, dark, inky and shadowy enable the twisted-limbed monster to skulk through every page, looming around the text or imposing its fear in double-page spreads that made this feel as luxurious as a graphic novel.

Patrick Ness completed this story for another author, Siobhan Dowd who passed away before she could take her concept further. This additional layer of poignancy is so powerful because the circumstances and story around this are explained up front.

At the time, I thought this tree was reaching out for a friendly hug.
On reflection, perhaps it was haunting me!

The collectors edition contains the novel, plus additional material the background story of the book and the making of the film. A truly beautiful book to be revered, particularly because it is printed onto the very paper soul of a tree that once stood in the earth.

Never lie to a tree. They are much bigger than us.

This was a heartbreaking and beautiful read, suitable for young adults and adults.

Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Special Collector’s Edition, Walker Books, 2016. ISBN 9781406365771

Book Review: The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle

Best read with a cup of tea and a storm rattling the windows

Catherine Doyle, The Storm Keeper’s Island, Bloomsbury Childrens Books, 2018. ISBN 9781408896877.

This is an unsolicited and personal review.

The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle is a luminous flame of a story! Smouldering in the pages mingle the wild, ancient strengths of nature and family love.


The story is set on Arranmore Island, a real island , Árainn Mhór off the west coast of Ireland. Fionn and his sister Tara have come to the island to stay with their grandfather, who is candlemaker. Malachy seems grown from the island and part of the ebbing tides of sea and the cycles of island folklore.


As Fionn and Tara try to settle into island life, the wellspring of ancient island magic stirs. It calls for the powers of the Storm Keeper of Arranmore. There are signs that times must change forever. New friendships must be forged and old ones mended. Finn must survive betrayals and peril, to quell an ancient evil that is rising to destroy the island.


This story is a wonderful read for middle-grades to young adult. It tackles the complexity and frailty of memory and time, as well as family relationships.


Wildly enchanting, there is also a bright light flickering on the horizon! This isn’t the end of Fionn’s story!

The next book in the series is due out in July 2019.

Teaching notes

The Storm Keeper’s Island teaching guide is available from Bloomsbury.

Maker/digital technology project ideas

craft: scented candle-making

technology: interactive candles

Mycological mythologies – or a rite-of-passage

“Only you know where you’ll be when it happens. Drifting through a Wednesday counting emails in the office, bent over kale at the allotment, gearing up for the school-run dash through the rain.”

Martin Shaw, Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia

I return a lot to wilderness rite-of-passage guide and mythologist, Doctor Martin Shaw’s writings.

In this post, I’m describing the first time I felt what it was like to have the closest sense of what Shaw writes about when he describes a journey from dreaming to getting dreamt, which can happen as part of a wilderness vigil. When you know you will never have such a vigil, can your own stories conjur something close? Do yours?


It’s twilight and we grasp candles. I’m around nine years old,  and I am wearing my ceremonial brown clothing for the last time. It is adorned with cloth badges. Each badge represents a skill I have mastered. The paddock behind the beige brick suburban hall is unremarkable. Half dead weedy grass crunches underfoot. A depressed looking singular tree stands sentinel.

In the corner sits a small crafted monument of a fly agaric mushroom. It has been painted roughly, and seems quite out of place. But it is twilight, and so, for a moment we look beyond.

The women and other girls my own age sing, while some of us, who are now the right age, are each lifted by our arms, by our leaders. We each for a brief moment soar over the mushroom,  in the twilight.  My heart flutters in the sensation as my feet leave the ground, held gently by the women. In that lightning moment of voices and flying,  we are not children in a street where our neighbours grow drugs and fight each other in the street. We are lifted. Over.

Our rite of passage complete, the next time we meet, we will bear “robes” of blue. I am different.

This is the first time I remember understanding how enchantment and a bigger belief in yourself can be conjured by a simple ceremony. A rite-of-passage that feels connected to a myth, even though the myth and the symbol does not properly belong to the land here.

I was just a Brownie, graduating into being a Girl Guide, but in the twilight, flickering like candlelight, for a moment,  I was a little more.

The unobservable universe.

“The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” Carl Sagan

There’s a concept in astronomy that I love. It’s the idea of the edge of the observable universe. I love it because our very attempt at defining the limitations of space, create room to imagine the infinite.

The fascinating unknown of the unobservable universe.

It might even be the most poetic thought thinkable about our universe. It reminds us of our imaginations.

What is there beyond what we can see and measure from our perspective?

Even with technology capable of seeing into deep space, and complex mathematics able to theorise, model, predict and replicate. It’s probable that there is far more beyond our edge,  that we can’t see.

As a learning designer, it feels like my job is to advocate always, for this unobservable universe in education.

Learning, and the dark art of measuring it, analysing it, predicting it, evaluating it and replicating it is what we do within the boundaries.

For me, to be able to reach outside of those false edges that we create around learning, like formal education,  it always has to start with big unanswerable questions.

Book Review: Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl


“As a fan of classic sci-fi, having read my way through the likes of Isaac Asimov and Ursula Le Guin, before moving into fantasy for many years, Enchantress from the Stars has made me fall in love with science-fiction all over again. Although perhaps already hinted at in the critical acclaim and awards cited on the cover, Engdahl’s writing and how she expresses the inner thoughts of her characters is compelling from the outset.  In the prologue I could already sense a clear potential to hook those who believe that science-fiction isn’t a genre they enjoy.”

Read the full review on Reading Time review site (Children’s Book Council of Australia)

Book Review: Blade of Shattered Hope (The 13th Reality #3) by James Dashner


“Dashner’s epic face-off in this ‘good kids versus evil grown up’ adventure has plenty of nightmarish mutant monsters and downright creepy scenarios faced by a likeable gang of young human characters.  The story builds into what becomes a terrifying page turner.”

Read the full review on Reading Time review site (Children’s Book Council of Australia)

Book Review: The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid

The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for The Worlds Most Adventurous Kid  by Dylan Thuras and Rosemary Mosco, illustrated by Joy Ang. Workman Publishing. New York. ISBN 9781523503544 Available September 2018.

 

9781523503544_3D
Cover image: Worman Publishing

Here is an incredibly beautiful book aimed at young adventurers, or even young adventurers at heart. It’s the sort of book that you will want to read with a torch under the bed covers, sprawled out in a treehouse, curled up in a window seat on a winter’s afternoon or on the grass underneath the shade of a tree.

 

 

But, don’t wait for the right place. You are in the right place! This book should be read wherever you find yourself right now, at a bus stop, in the schoolyard or even at the kitchen table.

The text, beautifully written by Dylan Thuras and Rosemary Mosco unfurls your imagination over 100 pages of quirky, curious places and facts hidden in the nooks and crannies of our amazing planet. At times achingly poetic descriptions of watching sunsets rise over distant forests, or lowering yourself into the centre of the earth, sits alongside thoughtful questions to ponder alongside scientific facts and details.

You navigate country to country on a global romp, magically illustrated with sketches and some beautiful coloured artwork that bring an element of comic and manga epic-ness to real places, through illustrator Joy Ang.

You are encouraged to emerge from the pages with eyes wide open to the possibility of discovering this fascination around you. Be prepared to find your own way! Reading this book reminds me of the thrill of the first time reading a choose your own adventure book when I was a child.

For me, what makes this book stand out, is that as readers, we are challenged to find and connect the elements of wonder in the places around us now. Although the book contains just snippets of the world found in the borders and margins of places, the writers demonstrate that any two places in the world can be connected, so that you can traverse in thought from place to place.

There are no photographs of the destinations included, but with the related Atlas Obscura website to explore, photographs really aren’t needed in the book.

This is a book to read if you are a kid, aimed at ages 8-12, but also a book to read if you forgot or refused to grow up.

The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for The Worlds Most Adventurous Kid Dylan Thuras and Rosemary Mosco, illustrated by Joy Ang. Workman Publishing. New York. ISBN 9781523503544 (Available September 2018)


A digital review copy was provided to me by the publisher and this review is also published on Netgalley.

Book Review: Coding as a Playground: Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom by Marina Umaschi Bers.

Through my explorations of Makerspaces, I keep returning to wonder about why we create separate, distinct spaces aside from others “for making”. In a similar way, we also create designated play spaces, like playgrounds “to play”.

These boundaries of space, led me to reading Coding as a Playground: Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom by Marina Umaschi Bers.

Book Review: Coding as a Playground by Marian Umaschi Bers

 

 

Mindstorm on a hillside: learning to stay in play

I have just finished reading Coding as a Playground: Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom by Marina Umaschi Bers, which has led me into re-reading Mindstorms by Seymour Papert.

You can read the full text of Papert’s Mindstorms here on MIT’s website. I have been a little surprised by not hearing much about Papert and constructionism in the thirteen years I’ve worked in higher education. For some ideas about how Papert came to be a bit under-the-radar in higher education,  see this paper about Seymour Papert’s Legacy.

To those I’ve asked recently, Mindstorms is perceived as being primarly about  technology and early education. It’s not a text to go to naturally for insight into learning in higher education, unless perhaps, you are in ed-tech. It has such an ageless relevance about how we learn.

I first read Mindstorms about ten years ago. I also must confess to being a child of the LOGO language. I have vivid memories of the first time I sat in front of computer in primary school and used LOGO. When I read Mindstorms it was all about computers. I now find myself reading Mindstroms very differently.  This is the first jolt:

“Thus this book is really about how a culture, a way of thinking, an idea comes to inhabit a young mind…My interest is in universal issues of how people think and how they learn to think.” (Papert, p10)

Playing ‘on’ playgrounds

I find myself thinking about a playground on a mountainside in Switzerland where I had an extraordinary learning experience, given to me by a passer-by. I think about this often and have wanted to write about this playground since we were there in 2015. Now feels like the right time.

It was a playground like no other. An adventure by cable car to get there. Equipment surprisingly plonked perfectly on the hillside. Epic views of snow-capped Alps in summer. A path out of it which led into a beautiful hillside wildflower walk.

playground

Sssh. At home, I know of a rare park with extra swings high enough for adults to have a swing. If the park is quiet and we have it to ourselves, I’ll gleefully hop onto a swing and swing into the blue sky. If another grown up turns up, I’ll self-consciously slow so down so that I’m sort of really just sitting on the swing. I feel, somehow, embarrassed to be seen….playing.

At this epic playground of playgrounds in Switzerland, I of course I got on the swings alongside our children.  My husband did too. Swinging through the warm summer air in the snow-capped mountains, this was truly the stuff of my imagination. The park of my childhood consisted of some swings in a shade-less hot prickly-weed paddock behind suburban houses. If you swung high enough and jumped off,  you could catch a glimpse of  foot-hills in the distance.  Something about the glimpse of those childhood hills made me feel like there was the potential of adventure to distant lands in the future. Here in this impossible land of hot sun and snow,  was my imagined landscape.

wildflowers

Suddenly, a woman, dressed in bright colours,  appeared from the wildflower path.  She just seemed to emerge from the hills as if she was a flower that had grown from them. I was merrily swinging, and characteristically slowed down self-consciously to a stop. She walked over to me and said “Hello, hello, keep swinging, keep playing, it is beautiful to see this!“. She then told me that she missed seeing adults play and being able to play herself. She explained that where she grew up (somewhere in Germany) it was acceptable for adults to play on playgrounds, but where she lived now (somewhere in France) it was not acceptable, and she had often been laughed at and mocked. She said it was beautiful to see adults playing. She then waved, said goodbye and continued on her walk, disappearing along the path down the mountain.

I think so often of this message from a stranger.  Three years on, I now see the very beginnings of my 10 year old standing aside a little,   as her younger brother plays if there are others present. At home, just the two of them, they are different.  The self-consciousness about being seen to play is creeping in.

Questions I can’t answer

Why, at some point, do we feel embarrassed to be seen to play?

Is this a global phenomena? Are some cultures really more playful than others in adulthood?

As you are reading this, in your country, what would it feel like if you were seen on a swing?

And then, I think about play-based approaches to learning that I am seeing more of through working with younger learners. When I look side-by-side at learning in primary years education and the differences between how we support children into learning, and our approach to adult education, I feel a sense of forgetfulness in higher education. Like something is lost, a pastel-wash of colours where the colours should be bright.

Must we grow out of play?

Why do we so easily give up play in formal education? Is this inevitable, or are we teaching this? Is this cultural or academic?

 Why is it acceptable that final years of high school, and higher education is acceptable as a grown-up “stressful” experience?

Why is exam and assessment pressure so normalised? Why do students who don’t have exams in their course become apologetic, and express that they  “feel guilty?” amongst their peers for not having a stressful assessment period?

What contribution does our quest for seriousness and rigor in higher education have on the brain chemistry of our teenage and adult students?

Why have we made the absence of play for adults, an acceptable culture and one that we, perhaps without realising, perpetuate?

The players in higher education

Some grown-ups are still playing.

Cambridge University is playing: Meet the world’s first professor of play.

JISC too: Learning to play, playing to learn: the rise of playful learning in higher education

Here’s some tips from The Creativity Post: Play Matters: Six Play-Full Practices For Higher Education

I’m excited to see Makerspaces in academic libraries, like at Curtin University Library Maker Space. (lucky things!)

How to play: now you try!

playground2

The challenge of play in higher education, seems to be that to have a place to play, we first feel we need to rebuild the playgrounds. Once we have the playgrounds, will our educational culture allow us to play?

If you are an educator, my challenge for you is simple. Next time you see a swing in a playground, test your boundaries of seriousness.

Get on a swing. Swing on it. How does it feel? Is it complicated to express?

Are there people observing? What element does that add to your experience?

It’s just a hunch, but I think the complex swirling galaxies of mixed reaction that at you feel in these moments, is how learning should probably feel.

My hope is that we can make a culture of play in higher education.

“What we bloodlessy call ‘place’ is to young children a wild compound of dream, spell and substance: place is somewhere they are always ‘in’, never ‘on’.”

Robert MacFarlane – Landmarks

alps