Some of our favourite literacy-encouraging toys and games

Looking for a great gift for a kid? Just want to give them something to do when they’re bored–that’s not TV? Well, read on, my friend because here are the best of the best literacy-based games that I’ve reviewed in the past and that are still available and still awesome… Part I.


Microsoft Word - Riddle Edition Sales Oct29.docxuKloo
Recap—It’s a treasure hunt you don’t have to make yourself! (What?! You’ve never made a treasure hunt yourself? Well, trust me, it’s very Pinterest and a whole lotta work. This is muuuuch better.)

How it works
Kids find cards telling them where to search next… at the end is a small treat. The whole thing is great for developing reading skills because the child is super-motivated, not just for the treat but for the whole process.

Update—Since I reviewed this game years ago, they’ve developed a great phone app and a “Riddle Edition.”

Here are my past reviews:


must pop words enterMust Pop Words
Many online “reading” games are BO-ring and slow or both.  Well, here’s one that’s fun AND features a cute penguin. Gotta love that.

How it works
Go to the website:

And click on PLAY.
Then hit Enter on your keyboard to start.

Now, use the letters that fall to make words. Type a word and hit Enter. The balls will speed up, falling faster and piling up. Throughout the game you’ll get little “challenges” like “type a six letter word for 500 bonus points” that make the game more interesting.

Not only reading and word-making, but typing skills as well. Fun!

Here’s my past review:


Rory Story CubesRory’s Story Cubes
A fundamental building block of reading is being able to put stories in sequence: beginning, middle, end.

This is a wonderful game for that. And, bonus, if you have kids of different ages, they can all play at the same time and it will be just as fun for each of them. Many times I brought out these cubes at a restaurant while we were waiting for our order. Keeps kids busy and they don’t even realize they’re “sequencing.” Ha!

How it works
The cubes have pictures on them; you roll them and use the pictures to make a story that you come up with and tell to the others. More fun than I’m making it sound.

These simple cubes have come a LONG way since I first talked about them. Now there are tons of themed cube sets like Batman, Doctor Who, Scooby-Doo!, Looney Tunes and Moomin as well as Voyages, Actions and more.

My past review:


ScrabbleFlashScrabble Flash (known as Boggle Flash in the US)
This is an awesome game. Don’t ask me how it works because the answer is either “magic” or “magnets” or maybe both, I’m not sure.

Basically, you have letter blocks that work together–somehow, see above—and flash letters. You mix the blocks around to form words. The more words you can form with the blocks, the more points you get.

Trust me, this is an awesome game-slash-toy. Kids will love it.

My past review gives you a better idea of how it works:

Disclosure: I don’t get paid for reviews, but usually I do receive a free copy of the game after I’ve called up the company and asked for a review copy. Can’t really review a game unless I have it, can I? Yeah, that’s what I think, too. If I don’t like a game, though, I just don’t review it. So, not that much of a disclosure ’cause there’s not much hiding in this closet, so to speak.

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Wallpaper can help with literacy? Yep!

Wallpaper Dickens close upYes, I’m saying that I think there can be a link between (certain) wallpaper, and getting kids to read.

Bear with me, here.

Do you remember seeing a book cover or an illustration when you were a child–an image that has stayed with you? Of course you do. It might be a sweet, old Winnie the Pooh illustration or the cover of a Harry Potter book. Something that took you back into your reading world. A happy place. It’s just that kind of “feeling” or memory that helps to hook kids on reading.

That’s what I’m thinking about this wallpaper.

Put this up in your child’s bedroom, to surround her or him with lovely characters from literature.

The Facts: It’s super-thick, extremely durable wallpaper–with a corresponding price, frankly, but you get what you pay for, and you don’t have to buy a lot of it. In fact, you probably wouldn’t want to plaster an entire room with it. One wall, or even one section of wall, will do. And it’s soft to touch–the paper equivalent of velvet but a bit rougher.

Wallpaper Alice in Wonderland close upBut look, just look at it! Gorgeous characters from Alice in Wonderland, Dickens and The Wizard of Oz. In that olde-timey style. And in two sizes: tiny little gems you have to peer at to appreciate, and larger images, no less charming.

Disclosure: There is nothing to disclose. They didn’t send me anything except a few 8″ samples so I could see it in person and feel it. In fact, I’m thinking of buying some. So this article could actually cost me money. Sigh.Wallpaper Dickens

Here’s where to buy it:
Murals Wallpaper. Here are all the lovely literature designs (there are three). It’s $34 Cdn. per square metre. I know, ouch, right? But lovely–see above–lovely. Oh, and while you’re on the site, check out this mural of a Scottish knitted sweater. Co-zy.


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Plangman = online game + literacy!

Kids often learn the most when they don’t even realize they’re learning.

Online games are great for that. But the game has to be (a) fun, (b) easy to play, and (c) smart.

Plangman ticks all those boxes.

Kids will not only enjoy Plangman, but they’ll be thinking ahead, reading a storyline, putting together letters and spelling out words that are sometimes quite challenging. In short, they’ll be reading and learning. And having fun.

The “angman” in the game’s name is from hangman–Plangman is a version of hangman in that the goal is to guess the missing letters and fill them in. Don’t ask me what the Pl is from. Play, maybe? Platform? (An online “platforming” game is one like Mario, where the character runs around and jumps onto platforms, etc.)

CapturePlangman 2 2016

The clue (so far) is _ovel_ … novels. So the little person has to run, jump and fly around to find the n and the s to complete the secret word. In the meantime, the letter boxes can be pushed (the r has fallen, for instance) and sometimes they fall into space, taking you with them. Fun!

In Plangman, you are a little person, running through space, leaping onto letter blocks. You want to leap on the right letters, and avoid the wrong ones.

Hanging in “space” are a series of blanks. In order to figure out what word you’re making, you need to run over to the star and grab it. That will cause a picture to appear. That image is your clue as to what the word is.

Capture Plangman 2 3 2016

Yeah… I had to Google Eowyn. But your kid won’t, guaranteed. (Lord of the Rings, btw.)

The other clue, just like hangman, is the number of blanks, or letters, that comprise the word.

Link to Plangman
To play Plangman, go to:
You will need to use the Firefox browser if you want to play Plangman online, because it supports “Unity.” It’s all very above-board, and those are both extremely popular programs so don’t worry about using them. And when you download Firefox, it just sits on your computer and you can use it later–it won’t take over your IE or Chrome browsing. If you don’t want to do all that, you can also download it*.

You jump on the letters, and if it’s in the secret word, it will show up in the appropriate blank. If it’s not in the word, your letter block will fall away into space, possibly taking you with it. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to stay alive–all you have to do is jump off the falling block before it gets too far down.

Also fortunately, you never really die. There are lots of lives, so you just start over.

This game looks simple–very retro, which is totally in right now, of course–but it’s engaging, challenging (but not too challenging) and it really makes you think.

Plangman has an interesting storyline. Each word you reveal is integral to the story. There was another game, also developed by Ehren von Lehe, called Langman. It’s great too, but Plangman’s storyline is a bit more literature-focussed. It harkens back to a number of great books like The Lord of the Rings and references literary characters as well.

Try Plangman, and even if it’s not for you, point your kid toward it. I’m pretty sure it will be a hit.

And do try LangmanCapture plangman (you can play it here, on the awesome online game review website Kongregate), as well. Fun! My 2011 review of Langman.

If you’d prefer to download Plangman and play it offline, on your computer, here’s how:
Download it from (Just click “Download Now” and then “No thanks, just take me to the downloads”.)

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If your kid likes action, mystery, humour and the middle ages…

Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands Simon and Schuster…then try The Blackthorn Key, by Kevin Sands

Have you seen Merlin, on Netflix? That’s a pretty good comparison for what this book is like in tone, character and even plot, in some ways.

One of the blurbs on the book says the main character is “like Dan Brown and Percy Jackson had a child.” That’s not bad either, but I think my Merlin comparison is even closer.

The Blackthorn Key is set in the Middle Ages; the main character is an apprentice to the closest thing those ages had to doctors — an alchemist.

Most masters back then were pretty merciless to their apprentices, according to the book. But orphaned Christopher Rowe has managed to find a truly good master, Master Blackthorn, who teaches him and doesn’t beat him. Unfortunately (SPOILER!) he gets murdered pretty early on in the book.

And then Christopher is pretty much on his own, to navigate a cruel, Oliver Twist-ian world.

He’s got to find the murderers, prove it in a way that the King will believe, and then figure out how he is going to rebuild his life.

It’s a tall order, but the smart and always resourceful Christopher Rowe is up for it.

The book is exceptionally well paced. By that, I mean it’s slow where it should be, fast-moving where it should be, and full of action right when you want it–where kids will want it, too. The “world” is well-constructed, and the characters are interesting and likeable (or hateable, depending on the character).

Why to buy this book for your non-reading kid
Some kids like reading about knights and wizards–the Middle Ages tends to be a pretty good hook to get kids reading. And although the book is fairly long (my “advance reading copy” is 371 pages) it clips right along, with few exceptions, so it’s a fast read.

If you go to, you can read an excerpt of the book to see what you think. There’s even an audio file (scroll down until you come to it) where you can hear an excerpt–awesome. (Don’t bother with the video trailer–it’s fancy, but it’s only 27 seconds and it doesn’t say much except that the book is about “potions, puzzles, explosions… and muuuuuurder.”) The page also hints about another book in the series, but I can’t find anything online about that (The Blackthorn Key was published in 2015, so he’s probably still writing. Writing’s hard.)

Kevin SandsOh, and check out what Kevin Sands’ website says about him — it’s pretty interesting:
“Since escaping from university with a pair of degrees in theoretical physics, Kevin Sands has worked as a researcher, business consultant, a teacher, and a professional poker player. He lives in Toronto, Canada. The Blackthorn Key is his debut novel.”

Poker-playing, book-writing theoretical physicist. How cool is that? Very.

Simon and Schuster says the book is for ages 10 to 14, but of course younger or older kids would also like it, depending on the kid. And it seems to retail for anywhere from $10 to $25 for the hardback or about $11 for the e-book — although these days, it’s hard to tell how much any book retails for–do you find that, too? Here’s the book on so you can see what I mean.

Oh, and just for fun? Here’s the IMDb page on Merlin.

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Scrabble Twist — good fun, great for literacy

Scrabble TwistHasbro makes great, sturdy toys. From an adult’s perspective, they tend to be an excellent buy–good value, won’t break. But for two other crucial factors, namely fun and literacy, we wanted to get the opinion of someone who is likely to play with the toy.

So we asked high school writer Leni K. to play with Scrabble Twist for awhile and jot down a few comments on it. We also asked her whether she recommends it for parents who want a good, solid toy for their kids that might also teach them something about words. (Spoiler: She does.)

Review by Leni K.

Scrabble Twist is a super-fun toy. I especially enjoyed its “turbo” mode. It’s very easy use, and kid-friendly.

It’s certainly much more literacy-focussed than other toys I’ve tried.

I didn’t get a chance to try it between two people, but that option sounds great.

Overall, it worked well and didn’t break, not even once.

Conclusion: Good for young kids, very hard to break.


Thanks, Leni!

Here’s a video by Children’s Technology Review that explains how to play Scrabble Twist. They call it “essentially, Words with Friends” — but as a toy. Not a bad description. Scrabble Twist is designed for kids 8+ and retails for about $28. That’s on the medium-to-high side for a game, but because it has several modes (you can play it alone or with others in various modes) and because words only have to be three letters long to count–but can be longer–it’s quite a versatile toy.

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Gabby valentines — download, print and send!

Valentines are great for getting kids interacting with words–even simple ones like “Be my valentine.”

Illustrator Jan Dolby has created these lovely valentines featuring the characters from our Gabby picture book series.

Just click on the image to download and then print them on your colour printer. Enjoy–and Happy Valentine’s Day!

2016 Gabby Valentine's day cards (FINAL)Click on the image or click here to download:

Gabby Valentine’s Day cards 2016

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Guest Post: Write a book with your child

Jack By Nicole Plyler Fisk

If you want to get a kid reading, get him writing. A great way to do that? Create a story with your child. Even better? Self-publish it. It sounds hard, but if you’re at all book-y, it can be a simple and fun process. Here’s how:

1) Brainstorm

Talk with your child about their interests — those things that make them unique — and make a list of fun combinations. See the photo above? That’s my son Jack, circa 2013, resplendent in his pirate hat and Thomas the Train tattoos. What if, I asked him, a pirate family had a train instead of a ship? Coolest book idea ever, Jack said.

2) Research

Once you have your book idea, you need to research it to find some cool facts that can be peppered through your story. Google is your friend. We typed in “gem hunting, usa” and voila! Thank you, Jamie Pearson, for “Top Seven Places To Go Gem Hunting On Your Next Family Vacation.” With one click, we had something my son was interested in reading; the setting for seven pirate train books—and a list of future Fisk family vacation destinations!

3) Write

4) Illustrate

Maybe your kid wants to illustrate his own book. If not, consider hiring an illustrator. This requires research (see: your friend, Google). Commission some samples, and let your kid help with both choosing the illustrator and writing instructions for the illustrations.

5) PublishThe Pirate Train cover

Thank you twenty-first century and self-publishing sites like for making this as easy as uploading a document file.

6) Read it (over and over and over again) with your child

Introducing our book: The Pirate Train. A book that your child wrote himself will be read so many times you won’t even believe it.

Your biggest problem?  Selling enough copies/making enough money to do it again… times seven.

Nicole PlNicole Fisk headshotyler Fisk has a PhD in English (“Dissertation on the Brontë sisters, anyone?”) and homeschools her two children, Jack and Arina. She and Jack created The Pirate Train last year and are working on more books in the series. Visit her website at Here’s a link to an online reading of the book.

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Get your kid reading, they will! The Star Wars Jedi Academy series

Jedi Academy coversWith the new movie just out, Star Wars fever has probably gripped your kid. Use that force — for good — and hook your kid on reading with Star Wars, Jedi Academy, written and illustrated by Jeffrey Brown.

There are lots of truly awful Star Wars fan-fictiony books out there. This series is not one of those–it’s very, very good. In fact, I recommend that you read it, as well.

The stories revolve around a boy named Roan Novachez, “who is destined to attend Pilot Academy Middle School and become the GREATEST star pilot in the GALAXY. Until everything went TOTALLY and COMPLETELY WRONG…” That’s a direct quote from the Star Wars-esque opening credits of the book. Very fun.

What goes wrong? Well, the pilot academy turns Roan down for the career he’s been planning for his entire life. However, somehow an instructor named Master Yoda gets hold of Roan’s application and invites him to attend the Jedi Academy because:

“Strong in you, the Force is–Jedi you may be. Much potential, you have. Good to teach you, it will be!”Jedi Academy illos

The books are illustrated and written as though in a kid’s journal, much like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which means that they’ll also appeal to kids who love that series as well.

There are at least a couple of other books (I’m not sure how many–possibly three), which you can purchase on here; they retail for $13.99. I read the second book, Return of the Padawan, and it was just as wonderfully quirky and funny as the first one.  The author’s websites are here and here and his Goodreads author page is here.

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Elmo will get your kid reading

20c87071-8197-42cc-b5c6-e5f0cc492a8d._V313956058_I’ve been testing out Elmo’s on-the-go Letters, a new addition to Hasbro’s holiday line-up.

This is a very simple toy, very old school. No electronics to be found here, but I also believe that It is one of the better literacy toys that I have seen lately.

It is just a plastic briefcase with the letters of the alphabet in it. The letters snap in. There is also a space at the bottom-right for children to make words with the letters.

The letters are quite difficult to snap out, even for me. A toddler would most likely not be able to get them out on their own, an adult would do it for him/her. But there’s an upside — it means that there won’t be letters strewn over the house, or lost pieces (kind of critical for an alphabet).

Kinesthetic learning (learning by touching) is a great way for kids to learn words.

The letters come in a bright red, plastic “briefcase” with Elmo on it. It is a very durable case too–I put about half my weight on it without it really making any sound, or breaking. The briefcase is hard to open, and it would be an impossible feat for a young child to open it, which means that they might be begging mommy or daddy to open it for them, which might be a problem.

All-in-all, this toy is excellent for any child who is starting to learn basic words and is starting to be taught how to form them.

Going to give this one four and a half out of five stars.

(Note: Hasbro sent me this toy to review but I haven’t been paid for this review and wouldn’t have reviewed it if I didn’t like the toy or didn’t think that it had a good literacy application.)

Price: Approx. $35.

Recommended age: 2-4

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New HP illustrated edition

Illustrator Jim Kay has given the Harry Potter series yet another boost, with his gorgeous illustrations. What do you think of the new Harry?

This CBC article includes a flip-through sample of some of the pages.

HP illustrated editions

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