Playing by the book

Reviews of kids' books and the crazy, fun stuff they inspire us to do

Storytime: a new magazine for families to encourage a love of reading

Posted on | September 10, 2014 | 9 Comments

storytimefrontcoverToday sees the launch of a new national magazine for families, designed to help parents and their kids develop a passion for stories and reading. Storytime magazine is packed with quality illustrations, games, reading tips, and most importantly of all, great stories, poems and extracts from novels, just right for sharing as a family.

Advert free, and with no plastic toy on the front cover, Storytime will be stocked in all major retailers including WH Smiths, supermarkets and local newsagents, retailing for £3.99. Whilst it is a UK publication, subscriptions are welcome from anywhere in the world.

I’m a big fan of quality magazines for kids (my very favourites being The Phoenix Comic, and Stew, though Okido and Anorak are also much loved here) and so I took the opportunity to interview Storytime’s editor about this new and very exciting venture.

Zoe: Wow, what a brave adventure you’ve set out on: Starting a new magazine is a risky business, so what’s the motivation for you behind starting Storytime?
Storytime: As a team, we’ve all been coming up with ideas for successful magazines and creating them for other publishers for several years now (including magazines for children) and we’ve had a burning desire to create Storytime for some time. Earlier this year, we decided to go for it and become a publisher in our own right. Why Storytime? We all love and value stories, and I’ve been doing storytelling sessions with local kids for a while now, so the idea of creating a magazine that delivers different types of stories every month, all beautifully illustrated, and getting kids and parents enthused and passionate about reading was hugely appealing to us. We also liked the idea of creating something that could make happy memories. We often fondly reminisce about the comics and magazines of our childhoods, and we’d like that to be the case for our readers. We’d love readers to look back on Storytime with fond memories, recalling their favourite stories and illustrations.

An inside spread from this month's 'Storytime'

An inside spread from this month’s ‘Storytime’. Click to view a larger image.

Zoe: What features can readers expect to see in each monthly issue? 
Storytime: Every issue features a balance of several types of stories – there’s a classic fairy tale, a myth or legend, a famous fable, a folk tale, a tale from around the world, one or two poems and an extract from a well-loved book. Some of the stories will be familiar, some are famous and a few of the stories might be new to some readers. There’s a good mix of heroes, heroines, baddies, animals, magic, and monsters. We’ve also got a few pages of puzzles (and occasionally a board game) – all inspired by the stories in the magazine. Finally, working with our education consultant, we have a panel of storytelling or reading tips in every issue, plus Story Magic – two pages dedicated to educational activities, facts and storytelling ideas for each story in the magazine. We’re really proud of this section – it’s very accessible and we hope it will inspire parents to feel more confident in storytelling and help bring the stories to life.
We’d love to featuring brand new stories from known authors in later issues and we’d like to include book recommendations, too.

Zoe: You’ve got a great range of beautiful illustrations in the first issue. How do you source your illustrators?
Storytime: Our art director has a great eye and is constantly researching and looking for the right illustrator for each upcoming story. She has built up a gigantic wish list of illustrators over the last few months! We’re trying to keep the styles varied and interesting across each issue, so there’s an exciting mix of contemporary, retro and more traditional. It’s been particularly gratifying working with illustrators to see how they interpret some of the classics. Issue 1’s quirky Alice in Wonderland by Mirdinara delighted us all; we have a gorgeous and colourful Wizard of Oz cover by Alex Wilson; and Birgitta Sif’s Mole and Ratty from The Wind in the Willows is just exceptional. It’s great to provide a platform for up and coming illustrators, too.

An inside page from this month's Storytime

An inside page from this month’s ‘Storytime’. Click to view a larger image.

Zoe: You’ve chosen no adverts, no cover toy – which as a parent I’m delighted by – you’ve been able to get stocked by major stockists, and you’re sending a free copy of Storytime Issue 1 to all libraries nationwide: How have you managed to achieve all this? 

Storytime: By sticking to our guns! From the outset, we wanted to ensure that Storytime magazine was something that would be kept and treasured, not thrown away, which is a bit different to many of the other magazines in this market. We’ve had a universally positive reaction to the concept and have had great support – getting so many great stockists has been a real boon for our launch and has confirmed that we are doing the right thing. We’ll be stocked in WH Smiths, all major supermarkets, local newsagents and Waterstones, but would love to be stocked in independent bookshops, too. 
One of the key reasons for creating Storytime magazine was to open up a world of stories for readers, so sending out the first issue to libraries was really important to us from the start – it means that these stories are accessible to anyone. We’re also offering heavily discounted subscriptions to schools and libraries to encourage more reading for pleasure.
Zoe: I can see the magazine being enjoyed by parents reading the stories aloud to their kids, but also by independent readers – who are you hoping will read the magazine?
Storytime: Actually, both. We hope that parents will read and share Storytime magazine with younger children, but that older children will enjoy reading it independently. We’d love for parents to keep and treasure the issues so that, in time, their child can read a story independently that was once read to them during a story session.

An inside spread from this month's 'Storytime', Click to view a larger image.

An inside spread from this month’s ‘Storytime’, Click to view a larger image.

Zoe: What do you believe a magazine can do differently / better than a book for promoting reading for pleasure?

Storytime: We very much hope that Storytime magazine can work hand-in-hand with books to promote reading for pleasure. We’re featuring an extract from a Brilliant Book in every issue in the hope that we’ll encourage parents and children to want to get hold of a copy and carry on reading a classic. We’re also running a competition every month, which gives readers a chance to win beautiful copies of the featured book. If Storytime magazine can encourage children to read more books and fall in love with stories, then we’ll have accomplished one of our goals. If we had to say one thing we’re doing differently to books, we’re offering wide availability and accessibility (from major supermarkets and local newsagents to online subscriptions and a digital version), and a good value cover price for completely fresh content (a whole new world of stories!) every month. And thanks to our uniquely varied content, perhaps parents and children will develop a love for particular types of stories they might not have encountered before – poetry, myths or folk tales, for example. That would make us happy.

Zoe: Hear, hear!
Full details of the new magazine, including how to subscribe can be found at

Dead or Alive? Discover the Most Amazing Animal Survivors

Posted on | September 8, 2014 | 7 Comments

deadoralivecoverDead or Alive? by Clive Gifford, illustrated by Sarah Horne is a book packed with oohs and aahs, eurghs and arghs.

It is most definitely my kind of book.

If you’re looking for a book that will get your kids curious, disgusted, delighted, amazed, and astonished all in the space of a few pages, it will also be your kind of book.

An exploration of the greatest animal survivors, how they defy death and keep alive against the odds, Dead or Alive? shares stories of many extraordinary animals. From frogs who can freeze to catatonic opossums via zombie crabs and animals which have survived in space without spacesuits, this book is packed with unusual, engaging and remarkable facts.

The importance of playing dead, the huge range in animal life spans, the discovery of creatures which have come back from (apparent) extinction, and cloning are amongst other topics which feature. All are backed up by a really useful further reading list, web resources, glossary and even a fun quiz to take (or make your parents take). Exciting, engaging and the start for many more questions – what more could you want from a book?

Great illustrations?

Well you’ve got that too in Dead or Alive?.

Horne’s illustrations are funny and full of energy. Her cartoon style characters show a terrific range of emotions, surreptitiously encouraging readers to feel really involved with the bizarre and fascinating stories being told. Judicious use of animal photos in amongst the brightly coloured, zany illustrations add another richness to the visuals.

Click to see a larger image.

Click to see a larger image.

Dead or Alive? is an example of kids’ non-fiction par excellence.

Amazing information, brilliantly presented in a way which is bound to get young readers wanting to know more (and providing them with some starting points to do so). This is the sort of book kids will return to time and time again, to discover new facts as they dip in and out of the book, to re-live thrills when reading about particularly disgusting animal behaviour, to think about the very essence of what it means to be dead or alive.

This book has ‘lived’ by our dinner table for most of the summer. It’s been read and returned to many times, with lots of it being read out by the kids, desperate to share something they’ve found revolting or surprising. It has inspired all sorts of play and exploration, starting with a hunt for a bit of dead or alive action in our own back garden.

On one occasion we stumbled upon this Garden Spider and wasp:



Maybe it was a bit gruesome watching the spider prepare its prey (the wasp was wriggling when we started watching), but it gave us plenty of opportunities to talk about wildlife, food chains, and even a little bit about how death is very much part of life.

Next we scoured under rocks and in neglected corners of the garden for any dead bugs we could find so that we could look at them under our microscope. We stored the spiders, woodlice and bees we found in small makeup containers (from our local chemist, but you can get them online too).


This is a field microscope which works really well for us as we can look at 3D objects (ie not slivers on slides), and the kids can look through two eyepieces (which is easier than looking through just the one). We got ours from here and can highly recommend it. It’s super simple to use, and yet packs quite a punch; Dr Who monsters have nothing on close-up views of pincers and scales and eyes of everyday garden bugs!


After examining our dead subjects we added them to our own Natural History Museum (here’s the post explaining how we started it) and this led to a conversation about a different Natural History Museum we had visited earlier this summer which was packed with specimen jars. Spooky and intriguing, mesmerising and slightly frightening, we then decided our museum needed specimen jars too.


We made our “specimens” out of plasticine and wax, put them in jam jars with water stained brown with the swish of a tea bag, and then wrote labels explaining what strange creatures we’d found, when and where.


The one specimen that was made from plant matter (shhh! It’s a secret – of course, this is really a slice of alien brain) we put in a jar of vinegar stained with a little bit of brown sugar.


I think these could provide great prompts for storywriting, or as props come Halloween time… (if you want to create EDIBLE specimen jars for a spooky party, do take a look at this!).



Whilst making our specimen jars we listened to:

  • You Spin Me Round by Dead Or Alive
  • Dead Or Alive by Lonnie Donegan
  • Dead Chicken Joe by John Hadfield

  • Other ways to bring the pages of this book “to life” include:

  • Making clones. Choose your favourite animal cookie cutter and make a trayful of genetically identical biscuits you can munch on.
    Image: fdecomite

    Image: fdecomite

  • Visit a butchers and talk about the different animals (some) humans eat, and the different parts of the different animals. Can you identify the different parts? Why does meat from one animal look different to meat from another animal?
  • Find a museum or stately home to visit and hunt stuffed animals. Our experience is that kids are fascinated by the results of taxidermy. Mummified animals are also always a hit.

  • Were you fascinated by dead animals as a child? Are you kids curious when they see a dead animal?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Dead or Alive? from the publisher.

    Help your child love reading

    Posted on | September 4, 2014 | 17 Comments

    Seeing as you’re reading this blog I’m willing to bet that you hope the children in your life will develop a love of reading.

    But is hope good enough?

    What practical steps can you take to encourage a lifelong passion for books?

    indexHelp your Child Love Reading: A Parent’s Guide by Alison David provides interesting, forthright answers to this question. It is written in an accessible, encouraging way, full of clear lists of “Dos and Don’ts” and real-life Q&As from parents looking for reading advice.

    David outlines concrete suggestions to help create a reading culture within your family, with targeted strategies for each age range; 4 core chapters focus on the 0-4s, 5-7s, 8-11, and finally 12-16s. The focus is solely on reading for enjoyment and is not about the technicalities of learning to read. And it is about reading for pleasure in a family setting; whilst teachers and librarians may also want to read this book, it is written primarily with the parent in mind.

    The most important message for me in David’s book is about a glorious side effect of promoting an enthusiastic reading culture at home; reading acts as family glue, enabling better, deeper and easier relations between parent and child. She rightly quotes from research showing the benefits to the child who loves reading. Not only does that child have an enriched interior world, enlivened imagination, strengthened empathy and better self-understanding, there is also a measurable positive impact on that child’s academic achievement. Yet it is David’s novel focus on family reading as a tool for building strong families that I found most exciting; it’s a message I hadn’t heard loudly before, but one which really resonated with me.

    A key plank of David’s approach to helping your child love reading is the restriction of screen time. I am 100% with her on this (for my family it has been a very deliberate decision to have no TV, no smart phone, no Wii or tablet at home), but I do wonder if some families may find the vigour of her arguments unpalatable, or at least (perceived to be) impractical and a challenge to follow through. Again I’m with David who believes parents can and should set firm boundaries (though where these are located will vary from family to family) and I hope parents who read this book will feel empowered to do so. I’d love to hear what you think about screentime and its interaction with reading.

    Another area where David argues very clearly for a particular strategy (and one I haven’t seen so enthusiastically promoted in other reading-for-pleasure books) is when it comes to co-reading. Co-reading, ie where parent and child alternate reading aloud, is clearly something David and her son have enjoyed and so it is no surprise she strongly recommends it. I, however, don’t share her position on this.

    Co-reading has always been an unpleasant experience for me and my kids (I shall admit that more often than not I have “forgotten” to make M and J do their reading aloud set by school). When I read aloud to my girls I want it to be an unadulterated pleasure for them, and asking them to read a paragraph or a chapter aloud before I continue strikes me as punitary. Of course IF your child wants to read aloud, be happy to listen to them, but I’d debate with David as to how essential it is as a device to foster a love for reading.

    [If anyone can point me to research showing reading aloud having a beneficial impact on learning to read and/or becoming an avid reader I'd be most grateful if you would share it. I can see it as a useful tool for monitoring a child's progress whilst they are learning the mechanics, but my kids are living examples of it not being as necessary as some would have us believe. Could reading aloud regularly to your kids be just as beneficial in helping them learn to read as making them read aloud themselves?]

    As a mother to a son David is keen to stress that a love of reading can be fostered equally well in boys as in girls, despite widespread misconceptions to the contrary. I’m delighted to see this tackled head on in her book, but it then comes as a disappointment that gender stereotypes in family reading for pleasure do appear elsewhere: there is a focus on what the mother can/should do in the family.

    Whilst Dads/spouses are mentioned on the odd occasion, I would strongly argue that both parents can and should be at the heart of making the family home a hotbed for reading. One particular case in point is when David discusses strategies for reading to siblings of different ages. At no point does she suggest what seems to me the easiest and best solution for everyone involved; that one parent read to one child whilst the other reads to the second child. Why should spouses miss out on the “relationship glue”? If you’re arguing a family should think structurally and boldly about screentime, I think you could also encourage them to think about managing reading time so that the every member of the family can be involved, and not just the mother. Yes one parent or the other may work late, but this book is partly about blue-sky thinking, and about deciding what matters to you as a family – about making the effort to create time for reading… or not.

    Help your Child Love Reading is a thought-provoking and supportive read. Whilst it doesn’t include a bibliography or further reading section for adults wanting to read more (there are plenty of interesting, well written books about promoting reading for pleasure out there, although few of them have been written – like this one – specifically for parents in the UK), it does contain a list of children’s books, sorted by age, which David has found very useful in supporting her son develop the reading bug. It’s great to see her include poetry and non-fiction, and to read how passionate she is about reading in all its guises including comics, newspapers and magazines.

    I ended David’s book feeling bolstered, hopeful AND also armed with real-life strategies to help my children love reading. Perhaps this book should be given to every set of new parents by their midwife, so more parents can be equally encourage and enthused?

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