Playing by the book

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

Win a full set of signed Captain Underpants books!

Posted on | October 4, 2014 | 131 Comments


To celebrate an extremely rare visit by Dav Pilkey, author of the best-selling Captain Underpants series, to the UK later this month I’ve got an amazing giveaway for you today.

You could win a full set of signed Captain Underpants books, just by leaving a comment on this blog post!

Full CU Books

Yes, Dav Pilkey is will be in London on October 11th and tickets are now on sale to see him. Full details of this event can be found here. But even if you can’t make it to London, do enter the giveaway; if not for you, how about for your school or club?

The nitty gritty

  • This giveaway is open to UK/EIRE addresses only (NB You personally could be based outside UK/Eire, but the winning books can only be posted to UK/EIRE addresses)
  • To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post
  • For extra entries you can:

    (1) Tweet about this giveaway, perhaps using this text:
    Win a full set of signed Captain Underpants books over on @playbythebook’s blog

    (2) Share this giveaway on your Facebook page, blog or other social media

    You must leave a separate comment for each entry for them to count.

  • The winner will be chosen at random using
  • The giveaway is open for ONE week only, and closes on Saturday 11 October 2014 5pm UK time. I will contact the winner via email. If I do not hear back from the winner within one week of emailing them, I will re-draw as appropriate.

  • Best of luck and happy reading!

    underpantswinnerTHIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED. It was won by Robyn Logan Clarke. Robyn – I have emailed you so please get in touch :-)

    Welcome to the family by Mary Hoffman & Ros Asquith

    Posted on | October 2, 2014 | 4 Comments

    welcometothefamilyFascinating and reassuring, thoughtful and funny, Welcome to the Family by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Ros Asquith is a very special book about all sorts of different families and the ways children end up in them. If ever a book was cut and bound with love, this is it.

    It’s the perfect book if you’re part of a family with step-parents, adopted siblings, or any sort of family which is not vanilla Mum, Dad and 2.4 kids, and you want your family to see families just like yours in between the pages of a book.

    It’s also the perfect book if you are part of a family with Mum, Dad and 2.4 kids and you want to help your kids understand that there’s not just one way of being a family, even if all families do have one very important thing in common: Love.

    All sorts of children (and parents) will find themselves in this book; they will see themselves and their family set-ups acknowledged and celebrated without judgement. And as is appropriate of any celebration there’s lots of joy, happiness and humour in both words and pictures. Reassurance that the child is loved and welcomed is the beating heart of this book.


    A special cuddly teddy bear provides commentary at different points in the text, allowing children to feel ok if what they’re reading is new or surprising for them. Sibling rivalry, anxiety and the difficulties which can arise in any family are also mentioned; this remains a realistic, not a sugar-coated view of family life, and it’s all the more comforting for that.

    Whilst I adore this book more than I have found easy to say (I’ve drafted this review many times trying to find just mix of exuberance and professionalism), I think it worth pointing out that although all sorts of families are included, they are all core, nuclear families ie parents and children. No explicit mention is made of aunts and uncles, grandparents or cousins, and yet these people too are very important parts of many families.

    Sharing this book (or letting your child discover it for themselves) is an easy and enjoyable way to introduce your primary school aged kids to everything from IVF babies to the fact that some kids are brought up by two Dads. It’s honest, welcoming text is brilliantly brought to life by spirited illustrations. It’s unpatronising, unthreatening approach is a breath of fresh air. Simply put, this is an outstanding book, a book that fights evil and ignorance with joy, love and respect.


    Inspired by Welcome to the Family we made a set of family puppets.


    We started by taking a load of photos of each other, with our faces showing different sorts of expressions. I cropped our heads out and resized them so they were only 1.5-2 cm tall, before printing them out.


    (Alternatively you could also go to a passport photo booth and get have fun there, coming home with strips of faces.)

    Next we drew bodies and clothing. I gave the kids pieces of paper between 10 and 15 cm long and encouraged them to draw their bodies/clothes to fill the space; if your printed head is about 2 cm big, you’ll need the bodies to be between 10 and 15 cm long if you want them to be approximately in proportion to the heads. The kids found the scale issue a little difficult to begin with, but it definitely helped to give them rectangles of paper approximately the right size, rather than big sheets of paper.

    We cut out the heads and bodies and stuck them onto wooden barbecue skewers using label stickers, but you could use tape.


    Now we were ready to act out all sorts of family dramas!


    Whilst making our family puppets we listened to:

  • Love Makes a Family by Two of a Kind. In some ways the perfect song to match with Welcome to the Family
  • I Have Two Moms by Bria & Chrissy. Not the best music you’ve ever heard, but still potentially a useful song, about a boy with two moms in a same sex relationship.
  • Two Moms by Tom Knight. This one’s actually about step families (lyrics here)
  • Family Time by Ziggy Marley

  • Other activities which could work well alongside reading Welcome to the Family include these:

  • Use the photos from your family puppets to make family cloth dolls – here’s some inspiration from mokru
  • Make a family peekaboo board, like this one from His4Homeschooling. I think this would be a lovely thing for an older sibling to make for their younger brother or sister.
  • Draw up a family tree. This post from Sun Scholasr has lots of different ideas.

  • What are your favourite books about families?

    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of Welcome to the Family by the publisher.

    An interview with Jon Scieszka

    Posted on | September 29, 2014 | 3 Comments

    Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor By Jon Scieszka and Brian Biggs is the first in series of highly illustrated books, ideal for the 8-12 crowd, which encourage readers to explore how things work and get experimenting themselves.

    frankeinsteinGiven our recent foray into tinkering, Frank Einstein is my new favourite scientist.

    The brain child of Jon Scieszka, Frank loves to tinker, using old household appliances to create robots which one day come to life. There’s lots of real science, a good dose of silly science-fiction, adventure, and a whole lot of fun.

    Although Jon Scieszka has sold over 11 million books, he’s not as well know over here in the UK as he is in his native US. But later this week he arrives on our shores ready to take Brits by storm ;-) I took his impending invasion as an opportunity to interview him; I hope you’ll enjoy what he had to say and be tempted to seek out Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor, which I highly recommend.

    Zoe: Hi Jon, I’m honoured and delighted to have the opportunity to put some questions to you in advance of your UK tour. In the US you’re something of a superstar but perhaps it is fair to say that over here in the UK you’re not quite so well known. So to get us started, what are the three most important things we should know about you?

    Scieszka JonJon Scieszka:

  • 1. My name is pronounced: SHEH-ska
  • 2. I am Roald Dahl’s much younger brother
  • 3. My job is to make things up
  • 4. And also bend rules

  • Zoe: Ha! I like what you’ve done there Jon ;-)
    I think I should also add:

  • 5. Jon was the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the United States, a position which is roughly equivalent to the UK’s Children’s Laureate.
  • 6. Jon has written over 45 books, and
  • 7. Jon founded the literacy programme Guys Read. (More on this below…)

  • Given your family background, Jon, did you ever consider becoming a professional wrestler? …I’m thinking here of your brothers, and how this along with going to an all boys’ school may have influenced your outlook on life…

    Jon Scieszka: After growing up with 5 brothers, teaching elementary school for ten years, and raising a son and daughter, I pretty much am a professional wrestler. Also a pro golfer, chef, babysitter, racecar driver, garage cleaner, and dog poop picker-upper.

    Jon's work place

    Jon’s work place

    Zoe: You’re coming over to the UK in October to spread the word about the first book in a new series, Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor, a brilliant collision of fact, science and fun all about a kid who just loves to figure things out for himself, run experiments and make machines. What were the key points on your journey to seeing Frank Einstein released into kids’ hands around the world?

    Jon Scieszka: I always loved science, studied in college to be a doctor, and ended up teaching science in elementary school. Having been a teacher, my writing is always about intriguing my readers to ask why. So I thought up FRANK EINSTEIN, kid inventor genius as a great way to introduce kids to all of Science, conveniently broken down into 6 illustrated books.

    With an evil genius.

    And an evil sidekick chimpanzee named Mr. Chimp.


    Zoe: You strike me as a bit of a renaissance man: You love science and maths, but you also crazy for fairy tales, myths and legends. Where did this come from?

    Jon Scieszka: I had a wonderfully supportive mom and dad, and a great education where I was always encouraged to study everything and anything that interested me. So I took both literature classes and comparative anatomy classes. I read comic books and Tristram Shandy. And I think it was my myth and religion studies that lead me to fairy tales and legends. Well, that and Bugs Bunny cartoons and Mad magazine and Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales

    Zoe: Humour is incredibly important to you and your writing. Do you think there is such as thing as an American sense of humour which is different to a UK sense of humour (especially when it comes to kids)?

    Jon Scieszka: There is something different about the US and UK senses of humor. But I’m not sure what that difference is. I am a huge fan of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Hitchhiker’s Guide, Little Britain, Terry Pratchett, Eddie Izzard, Python, my older brother Roald Dahl, Wallace and Gromit, Steve Coogan, Simon Pegg, and some of Philip Ardagh’s work.

    With kids I think the humor difference is often just a matter of vocabulary.

    In the US, the fox’s line of dialogue in The Stinky Cheese Man story, “What is that funky smell?” gets huge laughs. Everywhere. I think because it sounds to the American ear, very much like another, very inappropriate f-word. But that line just doesn’t get the same laughs in the UK.

    Frank Einstein

    Frank Einstein

    Zoe: I was racking my brains for a joke about noodles as I know you love them a lot and I came across this one – I’m not sure if it will make you smile or groan! – but would you share a favourite joke of yours?

    Jon Scieszka: A recent favourite told to me by a second grader: What is brown and smells and sits in the woods? Winnie the Poo.

    Zoe: [Groaning] …Something else which you’re passionate about is getting boys reading. In the UK boys typically do less well in reading tests and enjoy reading less than their female classmates – a situation which mirrors that in the US to some extent. You decided to try and do something about this by setting up Guys Read – please can you tell us a little about it?

    Jon Scieszka: Boys not reading is a worldwide problem. In the US, boys have tested lower in reading in every age group for every one of the last 30 years that kids have been tested. But there has been no federal effort to address this.

    I started Guys Read ten years ago first to just get people to realize that boys are having trouble, and second to try some practical solutions to get boys engaged in reading – like allowing them to read texts they enjoy, expanding the definition of reading to include humor, science fiction, graphic storytelling, non-fiction; and providing male role models for reading.

    The website collects texts that boys like to read, and suggests them to other guys.


    Zoe: Are there any UK Field Offices? If someone wanted to start one, what would your advice be?

    Jon Scieszka: We do have one very fine field office at the International School of Aberdeen. But there should absolutely be more UK branches. Go to the Start Your Own section of the website ( and get cracking, UK! It’s all there.

    Zoe: As part of Guys Read you’ve edited and contributed to a series of themed short story books all targeted specifically at boys – their titles all make it clear that these are books for boys. I personally hate seeing books labelled as “for girls” as such titles seem to me to only pigeonhole what girls and young women can be and might like. Why is it ok to have books categorically labelled as “for boys” (or even “guys”)?

    Jon Scieszka: The Guys Read Library of Great Reading is curated to give boys a reason to want to be readers. My experiences as a parent, a teacher, and a book writer have all shown me that the most effective way to inspire boys to be readers is to give them something they are interested in reading; and that in the most broad strokes, many boys are interested in types of reading that are different from what interests girls. These genre-themed short story collections aren’t meant to limit or exclude anyone. They are simply offered as a wide range of stories (written by great male and female authors) that boys can peruse … and hopefully find an author that inspires them to want to read more.

    Jon's office

    Jon’s office

    Zoe: Recently there was a lot of debate and even anger here in the UK about the gendered marketing of books, a debate sparked by the author Jonathan Emmett, who argues that the UK “picture book industry reflects girls’ tastes more than it does boys’ and that this bias is exacerbating the gender gap between boys’ and girls’ reading abilities.”

    To what extent do you think the same could be said for the US market?

    Jon Scieszka: I think Jonathan Emmett made a very thoughtful, considered, statistical, and careful presentation about the realities of children’s publishing. The statistics and challenges he mentions for the UK are very much the same in the US. Here elementary school teachers, librarians, children’s booksellers, and children’s book prize committee members are mostly women. It is not unreasonable to wonder if this gender inequality might influence what is produced and bought and awarded in children’s books.

    And I think the anger this question provokes is more about gender inequality in the wider world at large than just about kids’ books.

    Zoe: Ok, so that was a pretty hefty couple of questions I guess, so now a couple of easier ones to wind down with! What’s the last book you read?

    Jon Scieszka: I just finished Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and Edward Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the Western World.

    Zoe: Who would your dream dinner party guests be and why?

    Jon Scieszka: I would invite Auguste Escoffier to cook, Baron Rothschild and Madame Clicquot for beverages, Ursula Nordstrom and Maurice Sendak for kids book thoughts, Napoleon for a dash of military history, comedian Hannibal Buress for long funny stories, and Bugs Bunny for surreal relief.


    Zoe: Would you serve noodles or stinky cheese at the party or something else entirely?

    Jon Scieszka: That will be up to Monsieur Escoffier.

    Zoe: And if your dinner guests begged you to read an excerpt from one of the things you’re working on right now, what would you read them?

    Jon Scieszka: I think I would distract them with a dramatic reading of one of my favourite books: Go, Dog.Go! I never read unfinished pieces of stories I am working on to anyone.

    Zoe: Many thanks, Jon. Here’s wishing you an exciting and welcoming time this side of the pond.

    You can see Jon at the following public events:

  • October 5 at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, at an event chaired by Jeff Norton
  • October 7 at Waterstones Picadilly in London, taking part in a panel event with Louise Rennison and Jim Smith on humour in children’s books
  • October 9 at Seven Stories in Newcastle
  • October 11 at The Cheltenham Festival

  • Jon Scieszka’s website:
    Jon Scieszka on Twitter: @Jon_Scieszka

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