Aliens at school, and how (and why) to choose books to read to large groups of kids

posted in: Colin McNaughton, Sue Hendra | 6

For last week’s book+activity session I held at the girls’ school we read and played aliens. First up was a new book by Sue Hendra, Wanda’s Space Party.

For Wanda’s birthday treat, her friend, the alien, takes Wanda to his planet for a special space party. Wanda is amazed by all the new things she sees on the way to the party and the different ways things are done on her friend’s planet. But will she like the what her friend has prepared for her birthday celebration? Or will alien customs be all a little too… well, alien for Wanda?

With her trademark gorgeously bright, bold, modern and zingy illustrations (which look oh so ripe for adaptation to tv animation – think Octonauts, which has a not dissimilar aesthetic) Sue Hendra has written a lovely story about differences and similarities across customs and cultures. Kids will enjoy the apparently far-out traditions on the alien’s planet (such as brushing your toes instead of your teeth before you go to bed). On a more serious note, it provides an easy route in to talking about how we’re not all the same, and that such differences are enriching rather than threatening.

Next we read Colin McNaughton’s The Aliens are Coming (I think originally recommended by a reader of this blog, but I can’t track down who it was – thank you to whoever you are!).

An alien invasion has been launched. All sorts of aliens are heading this way; wobbly ones, two-headed ones, ones that have eyeballs stuck on stalks, the list goes on… It’s a terrifying prospect! But as the aliens approach and catch sight of us, the readers, what do they do? What do they see? Who is more frightened? Us or them?

This book is so much fun to read aloud! It’s told in rollicking rhyme so the words just bounce along and the illustrations are hilarious (even when trying to be scary). The yuck factor is just right (with squelching, smelly gases and some burping) and the denouement is perfect – [spoiler alert] the penultimate page has a mirror in it, so we can see what the aliens see… and what they see is enough to stop the attack and get them retreating back to outer space. The listening kids emerge as the victors, more mighty and powerful than a whole host of extra terrestrial life forms. Hurray!

For our session at school we had several different activities on offer after reading the books (all photos below are from the dry run I did at home with M and J as I’m not allowed to take photos in school). Kids could make alien spaceships out of foil plates and plastic bowls, decorated with permanent pens and stickers.

M flying her spaceship

They could choose to make aliens out of (homemade) playdough.

There was the chance to make Wanda style aliens out of pingpong balls using this very lovely tutorial from Sue Hendra herself.

Click to see full tutorial from Sue Hendra

And finally there were 2 colouring sheets (1, 2) for “mopping up” any spare time, or for people who just preferred the idea of colouring in.

I’ve been doing book+activity sessions at the girls’ infant school on a regular basis since September. I’m a volunteer, and – this is the most important thing you could be too! Have you ever thought about offering to read to classes at your kids’ school? At a local playgroup or Rainbows/beavers group?

Most schools/organisations will be delighted to have a parent volunteer and it’s a hugely rewarding way to spread your love of books. By volunteering, kids get to see “normal” adults loving books. They may not see this at home, and whilst having a teacher enthusiastic about reading for pleasure is definitely what I want for all kids, my experience has been that kids are especially delighted to see an adult who is not a teacher (and therefore has no obligation to do what they are doing) enthuse about books. It gives books a new legitimacy. It shows a respect for books that kids may not have seen before.

Since September experience has taught me that the books (and crafts) which work well at home are not necessarily the same as those which work well in school. Here are a selection of tips for choosing books which will work well in a group setting:

  • Books with great rhythm and rhyme make reading aloud easy, and offer the opportunity to get into the spirit of things with a bit more of a “performance” rather than simple reading words off pages. e.g. A House is A House for Me by Mary Ann Hoberman

  • Books which are “naughty”/”rude” always go down well. Get the kids to laugh and you’ll be laughing too. By “rude” I mean anything about underpants, bodily functions, snot, or even being mischievous at school. “Rude” books aren’t often on the top of the reading pile for teachers (in my experience), but by reading them I seem to have got a bit of “street cred” from the kids, and they’ve also experienced first hand how much sheer fun reading can be. Two great “naughty” books I’ve read at school are Sir Scallywag and the Golden Underpants by Korky Paul and Giles Andreae, and Don’t Put your Pants on your Head, Fred by Caryl Hart and Leigh Hodgkinson

  • Books which have repeated refrains or other opportunities (eg actions, questions posed directly to the audience by the book’s text) for kids to participate in the reading aloud, are great because they enable all to feel included. Rhyme and repeated refrains are also good for helping kids anticipate what is coming – something they enjoy. E.g. Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin, illustrated by James Dean.

  • Books that you yourself enjoy are key to reading aloud in away that kids will also enjoy. If you’re enthusiastic about a book, that will shine through. The Traction Man stories by Mini Grey are examples of this for me. I can’t help but read these with a massive grin on my face.

  • Books which have bold, bright illustrations, rather than detailed, intricate ones are best for ensuring everyone can see the illustrations even from the back of the group e.g. How Many Jellybeans? by Andrea Menotti, illustrated by Yancey Labat.

  • Books which are hardback are much easier to hold. Seems like a tiny detail, but if I’ve the choice of paperback or hardback I always use the hardback because it is easier to hold open with one hand.

  • Books with no (or few) flaps make reading aloud to a group easier. Opening flaps requires two hands, making it all too easy to fumble and drop the book!

  • Books without crazy fonts and typeface all over the page are better than ones with more creative type. Why? Well, it’s for rather practical purposes – you need the book to be easy to read upside down!

  • Other tips for reading to groups include

  • Bring a drink for afterwards – even if all you are doing is walking home, rather than going off to another classroom to teach, your throat will appreciate a drink!

  • Don’t feel you have to put on silly voices or perform – although kids generally love it if you act a little, they prefer to see you being comfortable with what you are doing.

  • Don’t be afraid to have a practice read at home beforehand, with or without an audience

  • A whole host of us on Twitter came up with this selection of tips. My thanks to @MsTick68, ‏@BhamLibrarian, @lainasparetime, @Tracy_SBT, @theliteracytree, @Alibrarylady, @madgiemadge, @StoryPhones, @simon1972, @ClicketyBooksEd, @aitcheldee, @MrsBrownsBooks and @CazApr1 for sharing all their ideas with me.

    If you want more tips on how to read aloud to a group do check out this article: (Thanks to @MrsBrownsBooks for the link).

    So much for the “how” of choosing books to read to groups of kids. But what about the “why”?

    I recently took the Bookstart 20 pledge, to share at least 20 books with children this year. Volunteering at the girls’ school is an important way for me to share books with kids who may not be growing up in such a book-rich environment as my girls. Spreading a love of books brings brightness to my days. It makes me hugely happy, but what would make me even happier is if one of you felt inspired to approach your local school/club/playgroup to offer to read. It could change your life. It will definitely enrich the lives of others.

    A poster created by the Denver, Colorado nonprofit literacy group Burning Through Pages. Click to find out more and donate.

    Disclosure: I received my copy of Wanda’s Space Party from the publishers. This review, however, reflects my own and honest opinion.

    6 Responses

    1. Sam

      Another great post, with some fab tips, which I have shared on my site, if that’s OK! I agree with you that the rude books go down well with children. Have you read The Mole Who Knew it Was None of His Business? It’s amazingly funny and got two 11-year-old dyslexic boys I work with laughing (they normally hate books) and saying it was their favourite book:
      Sam recently posted..Aliens at school, and how (and why) to choose books to read to large groups of kids

    2. Library Mice

      Great tips :0)

      Some people can’t read upside down at all (my other half for example) so it is sometimes good having a trustworthy “book holder” or other adult helper in the room :0)

      Regarding practice, I sometimes time myself reading the books I am going to use – it is good to know how much time the stories are going to take to judge what kind of activity to do afterwards. There is nothing worse than running out of time!!!
      Library Mice recently posted..FABULOUS FIVE: Rebecca Cobb presents five fabulous books she loves

    3. Jackstace


      This is a nice share..
      The blog is quite interesting and the pictures look very creative..

      Well, after reading this I can say that by reading the good books helps you child to develop the knowledge and make them more creative .Or also you cab say that the best books will grow with your child.

      When reading to your child, talk about the illustrations, storyline, and characters. Read the text and point to each word, bringing the story off the page with a dramatic reading style.
      Encourage your child to think of books as entertainment by renting a movie version of a treasured tale or going to see a live performance starring a favourite character.
      Thanks a lot for sharing your best ideas.
      Blessing to you!!

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