The Sydney Story Factory

The Sydney Story Factory

Catherine Keenan, the executive director of the Sydney Story Factory and the 2016 Australian of the year Local Hero, is our guest blogger today.  Welcome Cath and congratulations on your well deserved award.


In the nearly four years since the Sydney Story Factory opened in Redfern, we’ve taken over 8,000 enrolments from young people aged 7 to 17. We offer them free creative writing and storytelling programs and they have surprised us with everything from poems about robot birds to ghost stories, a pantomime, food reviews, newspapers and podcasts. You can read some of their wonderful stories here.


Most of these young people are marginalised in some way. Around one quarter of our students are Indigenous and just under half are from non-English speaking backgrounds, particularly refugees and asylum seekers. All our programs – whether they’re a one-off two-hour workshop or a term-long program in a school – end in a publication. This might be an animation recorded on a DVD, or a beautifully illustrated book: either way, it’s something the students can take home and proudly show their family. There is nothing like the smile that spreads across the face of an eight-year-old when they hold that publication in their hands. Especially if that child normally struggles with literacy, as many of our students do.

Cath and William (1)

Cath and William at the Story Factory


The thing that makes our workshops different – and makes writing at the Sydney Story Factory different from writing at school – is that our classes are run with volunteers. We have a fantastic staff of expert writers and teachers, and they plan and lead every workshop. But within each workshop, we may have, say, 20 students and 10 volunteers who work with those students one-on-one to support them as they write. The volunteer’s job is to say to the student: “That’s a great idea! Tell me more.” Writing is hard for everyone, whether you’re 7 or 70, and the volunteer is there to help when the student gets stuck. They ask questions and throw ideas around, and gently get the student going again. The volunteers don’t need to be experts in writing, and they don’t need to be teachers (though some of our best volunteers are retired teachers). They just need to be genuinely interested in the children they’re working with. You cannot over-estimate the power of having an adult, who’s not a family member and not a teacher, genuinely engaged with what a child thinks. You can almost see them stand a little bit taller.


There’s one boy I can think of – let’s call him John – whose mum almost literally dragged him through the door when we opened. He hated writing. He had just graduated from a remedial reading program and he would lie over two stools, facing the other way, yelling out “BORING!”


But our volunteers persevered. They didn’t treat him as a kid who was bad at writing; they were relentlessly curious to find out how he was going to finish his story and what would happen next. And very slowly, despite his best efforts, John’s ideas came. When he threw one out, our volunteer would grab it and say: ‘Yes. And? Then he’d have another idea and they’d run with that too. ‘Yes. And?’ At the end of that first course, which we ran in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art, he’d worked with a small group to produce a short stop-motion animated film which was screened at the MCA for parents and friends who clapped and cheered.


Naturally, John still told us he hated the course. But he came back the next term. And the next. And the next. Nearly four years later he’s still coming. In fact, he’s enrolled in our longest ever course, a year-long program to write a novella of up to 30,000 words. He’s a very different boy from the one who first walked through our door. He’s doing better at school, and he’s far more confident as a person. When younger kids come into the Story Factory, he welcomes them and shows them around. We don’t claim credit for all of that, of course, but some part of it is because he has become something he never thought he would be: a writer.


Back in 2011, it seemed a risky decision to leave my job as a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald to run the Sydney Story Factory. I would never have done it without the tireless and self-effacing support of my co-founder and Herald colleague, Tim Dick. But every time I see John, every time I see that light go on in a child’s eye when they understand the power and joy of words, I know I made the right decision.


For more information, go to We’re always looking for more volunteers. If you’d like to volunteer, please go to




Children’s learning patterns

Children’s learning patterns

Children’s learning patterns can seem quite mysterious to an adult. The meanings they take from stories, for example, can be different from the meanings we think they take. In an earlier post I described how children need quite some time to work out what is real and what isn’t; and to come to understand the conventions of form and illustration in picture books – all processes which affect how they construct meaning.

Here are some further things to note:

A child’s logic may not seem logical to an adult. For example: A child might ask the following slightly off-track questions during a reading of The Three Little Pigs:

The Three Little Pigs

The Three Little Pigs

Why don’t animals eat themselves?
Why don’t wolves blow people’s houses down?
Do pigs wear hats?
Can pigs walk?

The adult sees these questions as irrelevant to the story being read. But the child has to work through many different connections between ideas and how things work in the world before they come to a similar kind of understanding. Their ‘own’ logic is very precious because it is based on seeing the world through new eyes.

What should you do? Should you interrupt your reading so that the thread of the story is lost and try to answer the questions asked as best you can? I think so. If the child’s mind is actively seeking answers then they really need to know what those answers are.

Of course, some children get so caught up with the questions that you never get back to the story. Maybe if this happens you can suggest you have a turn of just listening to the story. But on the whole questions shouldn’t be discouraged – it means the child is learning to think independently.

Children do not have an automatic understanding of idioms, homonyms and word play. Language has many encoded mysteries which adults understand without consciously thinking about them.

For example, a simple word can cause confusion to a child because it has more than one meaning. I recall the word ‘feet’ causing this problem for my daughter when we were reading Winnie-the-Pooh: ‘Oh, help!’ said Pooh, as he dropped ten feet to the branch below him.’

From Winnie-the-Pooh

From Winnie-the-Pooh

But in the picture, as Juliet pointed out, Pooh only drops two feet, not ten! She was convinced the author had got it wrong. This kind of confusion is also caused with idioms.

What should you do? It is probably better to talk about these concepts outside of reading time. You could play word games to help this kind of understanding. Then when they do cause confusion in a reading it will be easier to explain what is meant.

Progress in a child’s learning is not continuously forward and may seem to get ‘stuck’ at times. A common learning pattern for a child is to take a step forward, then a step backward, pause there for a time, then move forward again.

Sometimes, a story a child seemed to understand suddenly raises questions from them suggesting they’ve missed the point entirely. There can be many reasons for this but one is that they become temporarily obsessed with something – not necessarily for reasons we understand. Subjects that regularly come under children’s scrutiny in this way include hands; feet; fathers; mothers; who/what looks after who/what; stealing; eating animals; death; and what’s real or pretend. A child will endlessly test out what can be known about their current fascination – they relate it to everything else – both successfully and unsuccessfully, they imitate it, and they see connections that may or may not be there.

What should you do? Understanding that there are common, seemingly irregular, learning patterns that most children work through means there’s no need to feel anxious when a child seems to ‘go backwards’. It is a part of their learning even though it looks as if it’s the opposite!

Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present

Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present

Children build on what they know of the world by relating it to their books and their books gain in meanings as they learn more about the world.

This is a reciprocal process which reinforces understanding of a whole range of things. In other words, the books you read to children aren’t only offering them the pleasure of story and enrichment for the imagination. They also help build and consolidate ways of understanding and knowing.

What should you do? You can look out for books that might be helpful for situations relevant to your child. There is almost certainly a book that explores every new situation a child will face such as their ‘first time’ experiences – the dentist, the doctor, kindergarten, school – the death of a pet, the birth of a baby brother or sister and so on. It is best though to try to choose well written books that achieve their purpose in imaginative ways as books of this kind can be of poor quality. Do you have any recommendations?

The 2016 short list of children’s books and other thoughts

The 2016 short list of children’s books and other thoughts

The Children’s Book Council of Australia has announced their short list for the book of the year in various categories for 2016.

There are some wonderful choices in each category. You could encourage your children, grandchildren or class to read books from the shortlist and make their own predictions as to which book deserve to win. I’d love to report any comments children might have about any books on the short list.cbc

The winners are announced in August.

Categories include:

Early childhood,

Younger readers

Older readers

Information books

Picture book of the year

(You will notice that Aaron Blabey made it into the Early childhood category with Piranhas don’t eat bananas.)






I had a very nice surprise this week when Zoe’s mum posted a video of her reading my I Like Poems book on facebook. The best thing was that Zoe said the poem ‘Counting’ was ‘perfect’ for her as she is eight and is in the soccer team. Thanks Zoe!

Has anyone tried to read The Book with no Pictures by B.J. Novak to their children? It came out at the end of 2014 but I hadn’t come across it. I was intrigued by the title and got it from the library this week. I decided it might work on a parent child basis but I don’t think it would work with my Kindy class.

Then I found this Youtube of a teacher in America reading it to her class. The children seem to be enjoying it but I’m still not convinced I want to try it. What do you think?

Have you come across Aaron Blabey picture books?

Have you come across Aaron Blabey picture books?

My Kindy group is enjoying Aaron Blabey’s books at the moment. Have you tried any of them? You can read about him here.

He both writes and illustrates his books and, while they may be something of an acquired taste, they are wonderfully unusual.

You could try The Brothers Quibble: It begins:                 Clip_6

Spalding Quibble ruled the roost.

He shared it with no other.

But then his parents introduced

a brand new baby brother.



Clip_5Or you could try Stanley Paste. This is about a boy, Stanley Paste,

Stanley in the letter box

Stanley in the letter box

who hates being small and a girl, Eleanor Cabbage, who hates being tall.

There is a small boy in my class whose laughter, when we come to the

illustration of Stanley in the letterbox, is so infectious that I can’t resist

reading the book just to hear him laugh.


I’d love to hear if you’ve tried any of the Blabey books with young children

and how they respond to them. Are there any authors you’d like to recommend?














Websites about children and books

Websites about children and books

Websites for you to browse

Here’s an outline of a few useful sites to help you find advice about children, reading and books on the web. Most sites have some commercial base so you need to read with discrimination – but then that is true of anything you read, especially on the web!

Do you have any sites you’d like to recommend? Please add them to the comment box for others to see.


Purpose: Goodreads was started ‘to help people find and share books they love…’. Amazon purchased it in 2013 presumably to encourage people to buy more books.

Organisation is in genres. Search for lists of books others recommend in any category. Or click on the genres below to see what is currently available:

Sample articles. Click on these titles to see what’s on offer.

Best Graphic Novels for Children

Best Kick-Ass Female Characters From YA and Children’s Fantasy and Science Fiction

Best Children’s Books

The Must-Have Series for Children Ages 6 to 12


Purpose: Aim is to help parents grow life long readers. Created to promote books and reading by Penguin/Random House. Note Amrerican bias.

Organisation is in ages and stages. Click here to see what is currently available:

Sample articles: Click on these titles to see what’s on offer.

Pinterest: Children and Books

Purpose: Pinterest is a visual bookmarking tool that helps you discover and save creative ideas. You can save anything you find around the web to a board you set up for yourself or you can look to see what other people have collected on topics of your choice. I looked at Children and Books here but most topics have a swag of suggestions.

Samples of topics/subjects include:


Children’s Book Council of Australia

Purpose: Established in 1945, the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) is a not-for-profit, volunteer run organisation which aims to engage the community with literature for young Australians. The CBCA presents annual awards to books of literary merit, for outstanding contribution to Australian children’s literature.

Organisation: Reports lists of notables, short lists and winners of awards by year. Publishes Reading Time online which presents news and reviews of children’s books.

Sample articles:

The benefits of reading aloud to young people

Simon Thorne and the wolf’s den




How to encourage children’s interest in books.

How to encourage children’s interest in books.

Get children their own library card

Start the practice of visiting the library at a very young age. Let them choose their own books – a bit of subtle guidance and even sleight of hand may be needed, but children love to choose things for themselves.

Cooper reading with Patch

Cooper reading with Patch

I have two special memories of libraries. I was introduced to the Kew library in Victoria when I was 8 (way too old). I can still remember how astonished I was to find you could take books home. When I left the library with my books I kept looking back to see if anyone was following me to take them back again.

My other memory is of Juliet, my daughter, lying on the floor of the library and refusing to get up when it was time to leave. ‘Come on, Juliet,’ I said. ‘I can’t,’ she replied. ‘I’m a library book. I’m me with Connorwaiting for someone to take me out.’

I am often found in the children’s section of our local libraries looking for books to read to my Kindy group. That is where I met Cooper with his mother, Lyn. Here he is reading a book of his own choice with his bear, Patch, beside him. He was completely absorbed in his task.

These days libraries offer many different free programs and events to inspire children’s love of books.  It is worth checking out what is on for children, especially in the holidays. One program some Queensland libraries have been involved with is First Five Forever which is about how important the first five years of a child’s life are in terms of brain development and learning.

Make books for your children. 

 You can use your computer to make something that will be special just for your child. It can be done quite simply as a power point or pdf, run off and stapled together. That is a method I used for a book I made called ‘The Great Strawberry Mystery’ for my step grandson, Max. We were visiting in KL and at the time he was very fond of strawberries . You can look at the story The Great Strawberry Mystery.

The Great Strawberry Mystery

The Great Strawberry Mystery

Another approach is to purchase a photo book from a commercial firm (eg Snapfish, Photobook) and then paste your text, photos or pictures into it. They will print your book and post it to you. Watch out for their special offers – sometimes they waive postage or offer up to 80% off.

Making up the story need not be difficult. You can take the plot from any story and change the details if you don’t want to invent your own. Or you can write about your child’s daily life and introduce a visit from a storybook character.Cover - Copy

I made a book for my niece, Chilli, called ‘Chilli’s secret tea party’ using Photobook. I knew she loved the Olivia books by Ian Falconer and I had gathered lots of information about her sayings, her friends, what she liked doing and so on.  Then I fitted these details into a story that showed Chilli having a secret tea party for Olivia. You can watch her listening to the first part of her book right here on this Facebook video.

It was great fun for me to make and you can see Chilli was very involved right from the start. Her mum says it is a favourite. And it will be interesting for her to look back on when she is older.


Make books with your children.

This can work well with most ages. It is often good to start with something a child draws. Talk about the drawing together. That is how The Rainbow Dragon and The Rainbow Dragon’s Revenge began. My grandson, Oliver, drew a beautiful coloured dragon and it was our talking about his dragon that got us started. Oliver and James, his brother, were soon involved in telling me about its adventures. This gave me a plot to work with (a bit weird and wonderful) and I wrote the stories while the children added illustrations. I made two books with my grandsons in this way. I recently put them on Create Space and made them available online (see my website).

Look out for books about things that chime with your child’s current interests.

As children develop, they move through many different experiences, passions and stages. Tapping into what a child is experiencing at a particular moment and finding books that explore similar things is a great way to capture a child’s interest. An example that brought me a lot of pleasure recently was sparked by a poem in my book, ‘I Like Poems’.  Molly had spent many years of her young life wanting a dog and then she finally got one. When she was reading my poetry book, given to her by her grandparents, the poem ‘If…’ about not having a dog really struck a chord. She wrote a poem in response to show what it meant to her to own a dog, a poem full of feeling and empathy.

If . . .
If I had a dog
I’d feed it every day.
I’d brush its coat,
I’d check for fleas,
We’d walk and run and play.

If I had a dog
I’d sneak it in at night.
I’d pat my bed,
I’d make a space,
We’d sleep till it was light.

If I had a
I’d train it to obey.
I’d give commands,
I’d give rewards,
‘twould do just what I say.

If I had a dog
I know that in the end
We’d be a team,
We’d be best friends.
Till then – I’ll just pretend.

Molly wrote a wonderful poem in response.

Now . . .
Now I have a dog
His name is Harvey bear
He’s black and white
And very cute
Of him I take good care

Now I have a dog
He can dance and run and play
He licks and barks
He sneaks our food
He loves us everyday

Now I have a dog
He often goes to sleep
He lies on my bed
He sleeps on my couch
Maybe he’s counting sheep

Now I have a dog
His name is Harvey bear
He’ll be my friend
Until they end
We’ll always be a pair

By Molly

Molly's Harvey Bear

Molly’s Harvey Bear

Finally If I can be of any help with your own book-making experiments please email me. I am far from expert with any of these things but I am willing to help if I can.