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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Bug in a Vacuum by Mélanie Watt

Bug in a VacuumThe author of the hugely popular Scaredy Squirrel has written and illustrated a beautiful new book that kids will love—and better yet, parents will enjoy reading over and over again to their children.

One of the things about reading kids picture books is that it can get tiring. And boring. And repetitive. And that often makes parents say, “Let’s look at a different book!”

But kids get a lot out of reading the same book over and over again. (I won’t bore you with the science, but trust me, reading and re-reading the same book over and over boosts literacy. If you don’t believe me, here’s an article about it.)

With Bug in a Vacuum, Mélanie Watt manages to appeal not just to the children, but to adults as well. Ostensibly, it’s a book about a bug who gets sucked up by a vacuum. The bug goes through a bunch of emotional stages (despair, acceptance, etc.) before finally getting out.

And therein lies the interest for adults. Kids will enjoy the poor bug, stuck in the dusty, dirty vacuum. Parents will enjoy the scientifically-based “five emotional stages.” Here’s another scholarly article for ya. There are lots of inside jokes that will go right over kids’ heads, but there’s also tons of stuff that kids will find interesting and fun as well, including puns that you can explain to them (like the two meanings of “vacuum,” for instance.)

bug in a vacuum denial


The pictures are glorious. Lush, rich and packed with inside jokes and little things to find. The text is minimal. And boy, are there a lot of pages! You’re certainly getting value for your money with this one! At 96 pages, it’s three times as long as the average picture book, which is 32 pages. (I did the math for you—you’re welcome.)

Bug in a Vacuum, written and illustrated by Mélanie Watt, Published by Tundra, 5-9 years old (and, I would add, adults), $24.99—a bit pricey but remember, three times as long.

Here’s the cute book trailer for Bug in a Vacuum.



And, just in case you’re interested, visit this page on the Scientific American website to get some instructions (completely unrelated to this book or, in fact, this post) to create a “bug vacuum.” Fun.

Bug vacuum experiment

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Great online word game: Words Warrior

Words Warrior captureThis is a wonderful game that hits all the right notes: reading, strategic thinking and fun. Kids won’t even realize they’re learning–plus, it’s not lame (if you’ve ever played an online game that’s “good for you,” you’ll see how important that is, and how rare).

You use your computer’s arrow keys to move your knight across the sentences, reading as you go.

Each sentence contains clues as to what’s up ahead–for instance, a vampire–as well as tools to help you overcome the monsters and problems. For instance, pick up the bridge to span the gap before you fall into it.

Even better, your character can’t win right off the bat. He’ll have to discover and be defeated a few times, before you can figure out which words will help you succeed. So good.

Play Words Warrior here (via Bonte Games).


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Great summer kids’ book series

In the sSummer Seriesummer, kids often read less. Get them interested in a great book series, though, and they’ll be hooked because the characters and setting will be familiar to them. They’ll look forward to seeing what their favourite characters are getting up to next!

Here are some wonderful Canadian kidlit summer series recommended by YA author Angela Misri on CBC Radio’s Fresh Air.


For more information about these great books:
Giraffe and Bird
Discovering Words
Scaredy Squirrel

Scott Pilgrim
Neil Flambe
Jewel of the Thames (A Portia Adams Adventure)
Between Heaven and Earth
The Starling Series
The Night Has Teeth
The Agency
I Am Canada
What Kills Me
Strange Times at Western High



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Super Hair-O and the Barber of Doom

Super Hair-o and the Barber of DoomIf you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I love superhero books.

They’re a great substitute for comics, which kids love but which can be a bit too mature for some really young kids.

Here’s a wonderful book. It’s about a kid whose superpowers are in jeopardy when his parents make him get a haircut.

It’s quirky and fun and wonderfully illustrated. Great story, great pictures–your superhero will love it.

By John Rocco, illustrated by… oh geez, this guy’s talented… John Rocco. Oh crap, I just found his website and he’s apparently also the guy who illustrates Rick Riordan’s books. So yeah, he’s talented. (Can I pick ’em? Maybe that’s my superpower. Yay!)


Here are some other great superhero books.

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Three things to get your kid reading

49th shelf logoICYMI, here’s a post I wrote awhile back for the wonderful reading website, 49th Shelf.

I talk about the three “must-dos” to create a life-long reader. They still hold true.

Raising a Reader: my guest post on 49th Shelf.


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Authors for Indies Day May 2, 2015

authorsforindies logoThere are some HUGE reading events going on throughout Canada and the U.S. today.

Authors for Indies Day
More than 600 Canadian authors will be selling books and giving recommendations at independent bookstores. Check the website to find one near you. I’ll be at Book City at Yonge and St. Clair in Toronto today from 10 until noon. Come and join us!

Free Comic Book Day
As if that wasn’t enough, it’s also the day when you can visit a comic book store and get FREE comic books!

So really, there’s no excuse not to grab the kids and get outside–and read!

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Connect with books by attending a book launch

This picture was taken at my first book launch, for Gabby, at the Intergalactic Travel Authority (cafe and literacy centre) in Toronto.

This picture was taken at my first book launch, for “Gabby,” at the Intergalactic Travel Authority (cafe and literacy centre) in Toronto. Kids also got to meet Gabby’s illustrator, Jan Dolby, who signed books and talked about her process.

If you’re trying to get your kid to read more, a great way to do that is to connect them to the book, in real life. And one of the best ways to do that is to attend a book launch.

Some facts about book launches
1) They’re free! (And they even sometimes have cake! And it’s free!)

2) You don’t need an invitation! Authors want you there–in fact, the more the merrier.

3) If it’s a launch for a children’s book, there will almost certainly be great children’s crafts or other activities there. (Yep, for free!)

4) You should probably plan on buying a copy of the book (although it’s not mandatory). But bring a twenty.

5) After you buy the book, you can get the author to sign it! And personalize it for your child.

So now your child has a brand-new book with a personalized message to them, they’ll have the author’s autograph, they’ll have eaten cake, and they will probably come away with a bookmark or a sticker as well and maybe they’ll even have done a book-related craft. Think they’ll read that book? Heck, you’ll be lucky if they haven’t read the whole thing by the time you get home! And you may as well just turn the car around because you’ll need to go back to the bookstore to buy the rest of the books in the series because your kid will be clamouring for them as well.

Oh heck, ya, there's gonna be cake! At my second launch (for Gabby: Drama Queen) the cake featured toppers by plasticine artist Suzanne Del Rizzo.

Oh heck, ya, there’s gonna be cake! At my second launch (for Gabby: Drama Queen) the cake featured toppers by plasticine artist Suzanne Del Rizzo.

Where can you find out about book launches?
1) Follow your child’s favourite authors and illustrators on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads or through their author site. They’ll let you know when they have a new book coming out.

2) Follow some kidlit publishers on social media, such as: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Lorimer, Owlkids, Groundwood, Scholastic and there are zillions more. Just search for them on Facebook and Like their pages–you’ll soon hear about upcoming book launches. Check your child’s favourite books to see who published them, and then follow them on Twitter or Facebook. For instance, I just went to the Fitzhenry & Whiteside (my “Gabby” publisher) FB page and found this upcoming book launch for a picture book called The Old Ways, which will be at Mabel’s Fables in Toronto on April 22.

3) Ask at your local bookstore about what children’s book launches they’ve got coming up.

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Detective fiction — enter our contest to win an ebook

Thrice BurnedThe Sherlock Holmes stories are well loved–by adults and kids. If you’re trying to hook your teens on reading, introduce them to the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
There’s been a recent resurgence in all things Sherlockian (sorry, did I say “Cumberbatch”? Why yes… yes, I did.) Not only are there new TV series and movies about the curmudgeonly detective, but recently there has been a spate of new “detective fiction” written in the style of Conan Doyle’s great books. One popular example is the new Portia Adams series by Angela Misri.
Misri–who is a good friend of mine–is launching the second book in her series.


Q: Angela, tell us a bit about your main character, Portia Adams.
Portia is a bright and curious 19-year-old Canadian girl who has to find her way in the world pretty much on her own. Having lost her mother and closest confidante at the beginning of Jewel of the Thames, she is forced to step outside all her comfort zones and grow up, leaving Toronto behind for busy London. I think Portia has a lot of growing up left to do, including finding a way to trust again and open up her heart to the people around her, something the loss of her mother has impeded. Annie Coleseon is a big part of that. Portia discovered early on in Jewel that many of the traits her peers found irritating about her, like her focus and over-analysis of minute details, could be found in the journals of her grandfather John Watson — as he described his best friend Sherlock Holmes. Suddenly, there is potential that what made her a freak could make her a great detective, and it is in Thrice Burned that she actually figures this out. That she could be more than she had ever dreamed. That she could be an amazing detective in her own right.
Angela Misri with two Calgary fans at the Oolong Cafe in 2014.

Angela Misri with two Calgary fans at the Oolong Cafe in 2014.

Q: What do you think teens find detective fiction so appealing?
There is a thrill you get when you ‘figure out’ a mystery that I have never found in other genres of literature. I read all kinds of books, from non-fiction biographies to science fiction series to the latest YA dystopic fiction. All have their attractions, but none provide that moment of ‘ah-ha!’ that I (and I believe many teens and adults) find addictive. It’s buried like hidden treasure in every mystery book on the shelf, just waiting for you to dig it up!


Misri author photo

Author Angela Misri, at the 2014 launch of the first book in her Portia Adams detective series, Jewel of the Thames.

Q: What did you love about the Sherlock Holmes books when you were a teen?
I read all kinds of mysteries as a kid; that is, just feeding my rampant curiosity. It may sound strange, but I found comfort in the idea that a book-smart, logical person could find a niche in the world. I was an introverted, book-reading, socially withdrawn teen who preferred comic books to makeup and Dungeons and Dragons over sleepover parties. While Nancy Drew was a compelling heroine with mysteries to solve, it was Sherlock and his misunderstood personality that mimicked my teenage experience. I was not a vivacious strawberry blonde with perfect fashion sense. I was the misanthrope that most girls my age didn’t understand. I loved the friendship between Holmes and Watson and sensed that my closest relationships would be the same sort of opposites-attract balance (which turned out to be true). As much as Portia is based on pieces of me and pieces of my favourite detectives, her best friend, Brian Dawes, is based on my best friends — who are invariably more social and have far more emotional IQ.

Click on “Continue Reading” and comment on this article to be entered into a draw to win an e-copy of Thrice Burned by Angela Misri. You will also be entered in the draw if you tweet about this article and copy me with @JGCanada. Good luck! NOTE: THIS CONTEST CLOSES ON TUESDAY, MARCH 31, 2015.

(PS: The comments are now turned on — they’d accidentally been turned off earlier. Sorry!)

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