Playing by the book

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

Wonder-based library programs – and how you can bring them home

Posted on | November 5, 2014 | 11 Comments

Spend any time on Playing by the book and you’ll soon realise that bringing books to life is something I’m passionate about; taking their wonder and bringing it out of the pages and into our lives. And so, when I recently heard about the work Australian librarian Tracie Mauro was doing in Parkes Library I was keen to hear more; Tracie is a big believer in enabling kids to have enormous fun with activities inspired by what they find between the pages of the books they read as you’ll read in our conversation below:-

Zoe: Can you tell me a little bit about your job and the joys it brings?

Tracie Mauro: My stodgy title is Parkes Branch Librarian. Parkes is a regional town in the central west of New South Wales, Australia. Annually, we celebrate Elvis, ABBA and comics, and we dress up as zombies when required.

What gives me the most joy? Providing the “unexpected”, creating wonder-based activities for kids and families that will spark a conversation round the dinner table and imaginative play in the back yard. If people in town are talking about how wonderful and different the library service is, and the kids resources are being used to their full potential, then I’m over the moon.

Zoe: Can you briefly describe 2 or 3 events you’ve done in the library that others might see as slightly out of the ordinary?

Tracie Mauro: I always thought cooking was the best kids literacy activity until we played hairdressers. The Big Bouffant written by Kate Hosford and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown (2001), is the story of Annabelle, a little girl sick of always wearing ponytails and braids.

We read the story to kids and parents then set them loose to play in the “Our Town Hair & Beauty Salon” (perfectly shaped around one of our mobile display units.) Mums, dads, grandparents, siblings and library staff had their locks brushed, combed, rolled and water sprayed. Assorted magazines filled the “waiting” room. Everyone talked, listened and looked at themselves in the mirrors. By the end of the 4 week program, one 3-year-old had all the fine motor skills and language perfected.”You know Sandie, you should keep this style,” he advised, inserting the rollers into our library officer’s hair. “This one really suits you.”




Polly and the frog, a story by Matt Finch, also received the Parkes Library special treatment. In order to save their froggy friend, Polly and the knights have to squelch through a muddy marsh so we filled our branch transfer tubs with instant chocolate pudding and jelly. At first we told them it was imported bog but when one little bright spark licked between his toes, our rue was up. Typically, one of the little girls wanted our recipe – but not to cook it, I’m pleased to report. She just wanted to go home and play the game again with her family.

Tia, Georgie Elsie

Zoe: What’s so important about doing activities which bring books alive outside of their pages?

Tracie Mauro: Bringing books to life is a core business of our library. We love to provide sensory play that goes hand in hand with the story and it’s the immersive experience, I believe, that sparks curiosity and leads to self directed learning – and lots and lots of talking, speaking, listening and of course, reading! And borrowing! These days my clever staff say that they read children’s books differently now. It’s like they’ve developed a director’s eye visualizing an extension of the words using smell, touch and taste. Working out how to plug all those things into an activity to get the most out of the story is the fun part. We like to get the most from our library resources. It’s a way of working leanly but producing mega value.

Zoe: How can families approach bringing books to life at home?

Tracie Mauro: Cheaply! Considering the story and using one’s imagination to extend what’s on the pages doesn’t cost much. It just takes commitment to the game. When other libraries hear about the children’s services that we provide they moan about not having enough funds to pay for sophisticated resources. Most of the time we don’t have to buy anything, we just use what we’ve got in storage. A dragon’s eye that’s really a plastic egg can hold magical qualities if that’s what you want them to believe. When I accidentally dropped one into the Polly and the frog story before it was due, I adlibbed about the Bad Luck Curse and what would happen if it was touched. As the story progressed and the knight’s bottom was burnt by the fiery menace the kids cited the Bad Luck Curse and pointed the finger at the poor sod who’d accidentally trodden on it. But, like all happy endings, justice is sweet in the land of wonder-based play and our bad luck merchant received an extra slice of party cake. Nice.

Zoe: Nice indeed, Tracie. I love what I’m hearing from you but it leads me to another question – about how one changes a library (or even home) culture to allow such activities to take place. Whilst you mention fears about cost as one area that holds others back from replicating what you do, I can imagine another is perceived mess and possible damage to stock. How did you / your library embrace the mess that often comes with creativity?

Tracie Mauro: For library staff who haven’t quite “made the change” from traditional library services, duties and routines, then my approach to kid’s services, reading and play can be quite confronting.

Really, there is nothing that I do that causes permanent harm to the space where I’m working. It’s all cleanable. Honestly, I’ve never heard anyone walk into a library and say oh, what lovely clean carpet, you are doing a good job keeping that in lovely condition. They usually walk in and comment on how wonderful it is to see the kids in the library or that they didn’t know that you could do that in a library!!! That’s the sort of talk that you want spreading around town. It’s worth more than the new sign you pay for, or the 5000 pamphlets that get printed. Word of mouth is a wonderful thing in our business.

I can’t ever remember damaging any stock in my activities. When I talk to library staff or parents when/ if they are concerned about children’s items being returned “damaged” I remind them that this actually happens very rarely. Not never, but rarely. To me, it’s just part of the collateral damage of providing good, busy children’s services. If I have to replace a book or a comic because it’s been well used then I’ve achieved the best outcome possible. We’ve both seen how little kids read. It’s a tactile experience. The books get read on the floor, pages fingered, turned over and turned back again. Sometimes with gusto. They might read it under the table to the dog, or to a bed full of teddies.

I had to laugh the other week. One of our nanas that brings her granddaughter to storytime dragged me aside to have a quiet word. “I have a complaint. I’m sick to death of that library officer of yours. When Alex (the granddaughter) and I go home from storytime all she wants to do is play library. Over and over, I hear the same songs, the same stories. And I’m not allowed to call her Alex anymore. I have to call her Sandie.”

Winning awards is great, but that’s when I know that I’m on the right track. My question to librarians these days is not what they think will happen to their service if they do this, but what will happen if they don’t. Nurturing the love of books and reading is central to what we do. It’s just that these days we need to come up with more engaging ways to do so.

Zoe: It’s been inspiring hearing about your work Tracie; I and hope many other libraries will adopt and adapt your ideas. Thank you for taking time to chat today with me.

The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets – a Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlistee

Posted on | November 3, 2014 | 7 Comments

7277409-MThe Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets written by Emily Bone, illustrated by Fabiano Fiorin is a first primer in astronomy, full of simply explained and rather beautifully illustrated facts about the Solar System, different types of stars and how they group together, and space exploration and observation. Four large flaps fold out (a little like the expanding universe), to reveal further facts and some lavish astronomical vistas.

Usborne has history when it comes to astronomy books and the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize: Last year Usborne’s Look Inside Space (which I reviewed here) won the prize, and in 2011 The Story of Astronomy and Space (which I reviewed here) was shortlisted. So how does The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets compare? Is it an award winner?

Many Usborne books are characterized by cartoony illustrations, and here, The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets does something rather different and really worthwhile in my opinion: Fiorin’s illustrations do justice to the beauty of space, with the use of vivid watercolours, particularly effective in the section on nebulae.


As to the information presented, I have come up against a problem. Whilst I don’t fact-check everything in the non-fiction books I review, I do always check a few “facts”, to get a feel for how the book presents information. Unfortunately with The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets I very quickly came across a few statements which made me slightly concerned: the thickness of Saturn’s rings and the length of Uranus’ day don’t match what is stated on NASA’s website (65 ft thick vs 30-300 ft thick, 17 hours and 54 minutes vs 17 hours and 14 minutes). I know that “facts” are often much more complicated than presented, especially in books for the youngest of readers, and that simplification is sometimes necessary (and that my research skills can always be bettered) but it makes me uneasy when with just a little investigation I can find contradictory information from reliable sources.

I love the look and feel of The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets but I can’t help feeling unsettled by it too; why doesn’t the information I’ve looked up elsewhere match with some of the information presented in the book? Hmm.

[UPDATE 21 November 2014. Since publishing my review, I have heard from Usborne, and they have told me that the wording with regard to thickness of Saturn's rings will be amended in future editions, as will the stated length of Uranus' day. The latter inconsistency crept in as a result of advances in the understanding of Uranus' behaviour between the time of finalising the original text of the book and it eventually being published. It's a great thing that science is progressing all the time, but sometimes this means texts can date quicker than we would wish they did!]


Inspired by the patterns and colours of the planets in the illustrations, and such photos as the one below, where Jupiter appears in pastel colours because the observation was taken in near-infrared light, we decided to make our own set of planets.

Triple Jupiter Eclipse. Photo:  NASA on The Commons, ESA, and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona)

Triple Jupiter Eclipse. Photo: NASA on The Commons

We used marbling paint and different sized polystyrene balls to replicate the colours and patterns.


Having created a swirly pattern with a toothpick the girls slowly dipped their “planets” into the paint/water. (In order to hang up the planets to dry, we attached string to them before we dipped them).

The effects were just lovely!


Once dry, we put our planets into orbit in the windowsill:


We shall never have a dull sky at night now.


Whilst marvelling at our marbled planets we listened to:

  • The Monty Python Universe Song
  • The Planets suite by Gustav Holst. ‘Mars’ recently featured in the BBC’s 10 Pieces, a project designed to get primary school aged children really excited about classical music. The BBC created a video to go with the music, which you can view here.
  • For the Planet Pluto by The Music Tapes

  • Other activities that would go well with reading The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets include:

  • Making a scale model of the Solar System down your garden path or along the pavement to school. Here’s how we did it (all measurements included).
  • Watching some of the experiments carried out by Chris Hadfield when he was in the International Space Station. He’s got his own YouTube channel where you can hear him sing (not just the Bowie song) as well as explore many of the amazing things that happen in space.
  • Signing up to find out next time you can send your name into space! Occasionally NASA sends probes into space on which you can have your name inscribed – my girls’ names will be launched into space with Bennu in 2016 – and if you sign up you can find out when the next such opportunity arises.

  • When you read reviews of non-fiction books do you expect some commentary on factual accuracy? When can a book still be worth recommending even if it appears to contain errors? I wrote a review of a non-fiction book for a print publication at the start of this year. The book contained an error (double and triple checked by me), but my review was never published, and in all the other reviews I’ve seen of the book, the error has not been mentioned. What do you think of this? Should errors be overlooked because they can be corrected in future editions?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets about Your Body from the Royal Society.

    royalsocietyprizebuttonEach year the Royal Society awards a prize to the best book that communicates science to young people with the aim of inspiring young people to read about science. The Usborne Big Book of Stars and Planets is on this year’s shortlist for the The Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize. The winner will be announced 17th November.

    HAT WEEK: Sarah McIntyre, Celebrity Hat Stand

    Posted on | October 31, 2014 | 3 Comments

    When I first started planning hat week, I knew I wanted to invite the wonderful Sarah McIntyre, illustrator and writer of picture books and comics extraordinaire to take part. The creator of Vern and Lettuce, Princess Spaghetti and half of the all singing all dancing Oliver and the Seawigs and Cakes in Space team Sarah has serious form when it comes to hats. Her hats are book events are legendary. She has even been called a “celebrity hat stand”…

    Thus it is with huge delight and a great sense of honour that I’ve a guest post today from Sarah McIntyre, all about her love of hats. It is time to doff mine and let Sarah take the floor…

    “I daydream a lot. I love my job, but sometimes I wonder, what would I do if I wasn’t illustrating children’s books?


    I’ve contemplated taking various jobs, including:

  • a window dresser (I watched Mannequin too many times when I was a kid)
  • a medical illustrator (my biology teacher said I made good dissection drawings)
  • an archaeologist (I thought Indiana Jones was awesome)
  • a journalist (I tried it but found it too high-pressure)
  • a ship’s rigger (I interviewed for this job once but didn’t get it)
  • a shoemaker (I know exactly what kind of shoes I want and I can never find them)
  • a milliner

  • Okay, this last one. I’m not actually a hat maker, but funnily enough, my job has let me make little forays into this world of wearable sculpture. I don’t get very excited about the world of fashion; it’s mostly intended for skinny people and I’ve watched The Devil Wears Prada. I don’t understand all that stuff about stilettos and expensive handbags.

    I used to think I needed to wear slimming black and try to all but make myself disappear because I wasn’t a standard size, but south-east London has changed me. A large Afro-Caribbean population live in my neighbourhood and, let me tell you, a lot of those women don’t let a bit of WEIGHT stop them from looking absolutely fabulous. I adore their block-printed fabric designs. Here are some of my African-print dresses, from Sika Designs in Greenwich, and Esther Marfo in New Cross.


    And the outfits on these Nigerian and Ghanaian ladies don’t stop with curve-enhancing dresses in bold patterns, their bright colours rise two or three feet up into the air with incredible head wraps. On a Sunday morning when people are going to church, the bus stop can look like a sea of giant fancy sweet wrappers. It’s glorious!

    Making books has given me lots of reasons to dress up, and if I’m doing a stage event, I can go as over-the-top as I want; my only limits are whether I can fit the outfit onto the train or into the airplane. Here’s a six-foot-tall wig made out of purple clingfilm:


    In fact, I almost didn’t fit into my Oliver and the Seawigs book launch. I hadn’t counted having to pass through a glass door before ascending to the deck of the Golden Hinde ship. Here’s a photo of my editor helping me through. (Thank goodness for my dignity, I didn’t have to crawl.)


    The other thing that has changed for me is that I used to think comfort was the most important thing in dressing. But there’s a certain amount of discomfort that’s worth it, because it’s so fun seeing people’s jaws drop in surprise. This alien cake hat, for the Cakes in Space launch, for instance. It was quite heavy and clopped me hard on the forehead whenever I jumped in the air (because one does jump in the air, in stage events). But when I’d squeeze the hidden valve and its mouth would open, I’d have a wonderful time watching people gape. Some kids would obsess over it, trying to figure out how it worked, or if it really was alive.


    My sculptor friend Eddie Smith helped me with both the giant Seawig and the Cake. He’s a Royal Academy sculptor and has done lots of Proper Art Stuff, but he’s loved doing something a bit different.

    For Jampires, I tried to find a Bakewell Tart fascinator on the Internet, and there were lots, but they were all too SMALL. So I made this one out of a sprinkler attachment from the pound shop, a children’s ball (also from the pound shop), a foam pizza base, the plastic lid from a Christmas pudding, some felt, lace, fabric and glitter.


    My Summer Reading Challenge Medusa hat was also a pound shop marvel: a green pencil case, craft pipe cleaners, a yoghurt pot and a bit of painted foam. (I’m sure the Duchess of Cornwall wears very similar things herself.)


    If you go on to my Hats Pinterest page, you can see lots more things I’ve worn! Some of them I’ve made, and some of them I’ve customised, from vintage hats I’ve found in second-hand shops. It doesn’t take much to make a quiet hat into a startling headpiece; just stick on some large feathers or a big bow, or a ship, or a giant octopus. Some day I may make a book exclusively about hats, but for now, go check out David Roberts‘ fab new picture book with Andrea Beaty, Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau, inspired by his favourite hat makers.

    I do daydream about taking a year off to go study under someone such as Philip Treacy and make all sorts of wild headgear. But for now, I’ll be content with doing it as a job sideline… so much fun to be had!”


    So now you can see why I wanted Sarah to be part of my Hat Week extravaganza, can’t you! Do you have a favourite among Sarah’s hats?


    Sarah McIntyre’s most recent books include Cakes in Space with Philip Reeve and Jampires with David O’Connell. Visit the book websites for fun activities!


    Website & blog:
    Twitter: @jabberworks
    Hats Pinterest page:

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