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How I'm learning from my grandson

Penny DaleFor the last few years I have been writing and illustrating picture books that glory in big, noisy vehicles... Diggers, trucks, tractors, rollers and dumpers. And all of them driven by dinosaurs!

They emerged from a process of thinking about an idea that would strongly appeal to very young boys. Throughout 25 years of producing books I have tried to avoid gender stereotyping. But a few years ago, when I kept hearing statistics about boys struggling more with reading, and falling behind girls of the same age I just thought, why not try specifically, to produce something that would be really fun and rewarding for them to read... featuring subject matter that is known to be extremely popular with boys and treating it seriously - drawing vehicles and dinosaurs quite realistically with all the details there to be relished.

Of course girls can enjoy the books too, I'm one after all, and I have enjoyed creating them enormously - no pun intended! And I have become very committed to producing books that work across age ranges, i.e. suitable for reading to the youngest but with enough content and detail to be a pleasurable reading experience for older children to read themselves.

My grandson was born just as I had been starting to think about boys and reading, and at first he seemed to confirm and almost exceed stereotypes. He was extremely enthusiastic about almost anything with wheels, tracks or an engine. Before he could talk he would sigh and croon and point. If he got near to a car tyre he would pat and stroke it like it was a pet, and one day sighed "di ...gaaaa" as he did so. It was one of his first words! Even tow hitches and latches, chains, trailers... everything vehicular was "digger" and I was more and more intrigued as I hadn't led the witness at all, just observed.

As he's grown he has become a really useful consultant. It is so interesting to watch how he plays and thinks. Our 'work' is mostly done on the floor, crawling about, placing and racing cars and tractors and diggers, moving animals about (not always dinosaurs! ) and setting up scenarios and small dramas. Once, playing with his wooden track railway, he had a truck lying across the track and drove the engine into it, then watched it straining to push the truck around in front of it. I lifted the truck away, saying, "that’s better! Now the train can go faster again." but oh no, he was really put out, and shouted, "Leave the truck on the track Grandmaaaa!" There I was, trying to make everything nice and safe and tidy and he preferred incident and jeopardy!

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And when we do take a break from all this activity, there's nothing better than sitting and reading a good book. He has lots of picture books but one of the recent favourites when he visits my studio is an edition of "Tractor and Machinery" - not actually a book, but a copy of a magazine I had to research tractor detail, and he loves it! It's full of photos of tractors of all sizes and vintages and arrays of spare parts which he stares at and absorbs and points at ... "Look! A big tractor!" "Look, a muddy tractor!" "Look, a very old tractor!" And that's him reading… reading pictures... and we learn a lot together!

Things to read are everywhere and all time spent looking at words and pictures with boys and girls is really valuable. Whilst I continue to develop new books I would be very interested to know if others have found unusual things to read with children. It can be a great insight into what really interests them. Meanwhile I'm working on a third dinosaur book, this time featuring rescue vehicles. Now I wonder where I got that idea from?

You can read more from Penny Dale on her website and add your comments on this blog post here.