And…we’re back after a long “weekend” at the American Library Association Annual Meeting! We had a blast and learned so much – watch for our wrap-up post about the conference tomorrow!
Today, though, we are so happy to present this interview with Zoe Toft, the founder and manager of a wonderful early literacy blog called Playing by the book. Fans of Rebecca Z. Dunn’s Pages to Projects series will love the children’s book reviews, author interviews, and loads of creative extension activities that Zoe has pulled together in this fantastic resource for parents, educators, and youth librarians. ~ Laura
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?
I work part-time as a librarian at an infant school (ages 3-7) and volunteer at 2 local schools doing a mixture of literacy support and enrichment sessions. I sit on the national executive of a UK wide charity which promotes reading for pleasure for children, The Federation of Children’s Book Groups, and am currently leading preparations for a Festival of Children’s Literature in my home town, Birmingham, in the autumn.
I wasn’t much of a reader myself as a child. I did read, though not widely and it certainly wasn’t something I was passionate about. My real discovery of the joy a great book can bring came about after my children were born. I’d been an academic and I didn’t really know what to do with little babies. Having spent years reading for research I thought books might be able to help me out with babies. And so I started reading to my children, from the day they were born. Books gave me a structure and a way to enjoy simply being with the little people, and as my children grew older, books gave me a way to play and interact. Now I’m never without a book within arm’s reach, and I can’t imagine a day without reading to my children, with my children, and for myself. It’s such a simple and yet profound pleasure.
Can you tell us a bit about your blog, Playing by the book? What prompted you to start the project, and how did you start sourcing the content for it?
When my eldest started going to nursery something rather funny happened. Every day she’d skip to nursery and say a happy hello to the staff, who’d say “Good Morning M____ (my daughter’s name)”. My daughter would without fail turn round and reply, “Oh, no, I’m not M____, today I’m…..” and here she would insert the name of a book character. Whatever we’d read that morning or the night before would so enter into her being that M simply became that character, and would insist to all and sundry that she was not M, but rather a fictional character. It soon became a running joke – there was no child named M at the nursery, just one who stepped out of a different book each day.
It’s a lovely anecdote, and her spontaneous book inspired play was heartwarming and delightful. But I knew I had a problem.
I have a terrible memory. And I was sure that if I didn’t start documenting what we were reading and playing together I’d forget it all. And thus my blog, Playing by the book, was born. It started off as a way of keeping a diary, and also satisfying a need for me to write – having been an academic I was used to, and loved, writing articles; researching a topic, working it up, meeting a deadline, feeling satisfied with a good piece of work well done.
Initially all the books we reviewed came from our own shelves or the library, but then our local library closed, and I started getting offered more free review copies. Now most of the books I review come from publishers. I review probably only a third of the books I’m sent – I have a clear review policy in place and ultimately I blog for pleasure – that of my kids, and my own pleasure – so the pace of reviews, and precisely what makes it on to the blog is personal, but also only those books which we think are exceptional.
What are some recent highlights from the blog you’d like to share?
My blog focusses on reviews of the very best books for young children followed by some sort of creative activity inspired by the book – an extension of the book which really brings it to life, if you like.
- Gary Northfield’s The Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs! is a terrific book which inspired an amazing reaction in my girls. Some activities we get up to are indeed pretty involved, but others are much simpler, and easy to replicate such as the ladybird/bug game and toy we made in response to the beautiful Lucy Ladybird by Sharon King-Chai.
- I also enjoy interviewing authors and illustrators. Recently I’ve interviewed Mo Willems, Sarah Garland, and Viviane Schwarz amongst others.
- Returning to my research roots, I love it when I find a topic I can get my teeth into, such as this round up of children’s authors and illustrators who were refugees (written to celebrate Refugee Week), this annotated list of children’s books featuring genuine museum artefacts on public display around the world, or the rather more lighthearted list I curated of children’s book inspired dolls’ houses.
Can you talk a bit about the process of picking “extension” activities related to children’s books? Does inspiration strike you right as you’re reading the book? Do you look around Pinterest or other online or print resources for ideas? A combination of both?
Lots of ideas come to me when I’m swimming. Maybe the bottom of the pool is a good place to look! Other times, my girls know precisely what it is they want to do with a book and I have to work out a way of making their vision reality. If this is the case I often use Google Image search. If I’m looking for inspiration more in general I search Pinterest, and my favourite online repository of creative activities for children, The Crafty Crow. We try to visit an art gallery or museum most weeks and often I get inspiration from what I see there – a technique we can adapt, or an object we can replicate. Being creative – like reading – gets easier and more enjoyable the more you do it. It also helps to be a little bit brave: I don’t see myself as a born crafter, but I’m willing to try things, to attempt new activities, to learn new skills. Sometimes things don’t work out, and whilst that is frustrating in the moment, I’m a great believer in the journey being just as valuable as the end destination.
Do you know of another great resource that mashes up early literacy activities with hands-on creative play like Zoe’s ideas? Send it our way – we’re always on the lookout for outstanding library / literacy resources to share! Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.Pin It