Review: Animal ABC (iPad Interactive Book)

A good friend of mine just launched her first children’s picture book, and chose the iPad as her platform of choice. It’s only 99c in iTunes, and the pictures are an absolute delight to look at. If you have young children and you own an iPad, you should definitely grab a copy.

Animal ABC, by Irish illustrator, designer and instructor, Jennifer Farley, is an interactive book for toddlers. That “interactive” part means that it’s more than just an ABC of gorgeous, quirky animal illustrations (and the illustrations really are amazing), but each page contains a couple of multimedia zones, which the reader can tap to hear audio clips.

For example, tap the “Animal Sound” button to hear a recording of the animal barking, squawking or growling. Tap the “Animal Name” to hear the letter of the alphabet and the animal name (read by Jennifer herself, in her lovely Irish accent!)

As a parent, it’s been fascinating to watch my daughters’ language acquisition through the early years. The genius behind this book is that animal names and sounds are some of the first things kids adopt into their vocabulary (my youngest still calls a dog a “woof woof”). So the combination of teaching kids the alphabet while reinforcing animal sounds, all presented using exquisite, colourful artwork makes this a winner with my kids, and I’m sure it will with yours as well.

I’ve known Jennifer for a years, and she was very supportive when I was working on Charlie Weatherburn. That said, I’m not just saying it’s good because I’m proud of her for getting this out there — it really is a fantastic book, and a prime example of how self-published titles can be as good or better than traditional published titles. Go buy it for 99c from iTunes now.

Psst … if you really like Jennifer’s style, she also has a t-shirt shop! I love my raygun hoodie! Check it out—you may be able to find your favourite animal illustration is available for you to wear.

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A Short Comic About Sketchnoting

I try to attend at least a couple of web/design/UX conferences each year. Not only do I always learn something, they’re a great opportunity to refine one’s sketching skills while sitting in the audience!

Recently I was asked to contribute an article about sketchnoting — visual note-taking — to a magazine called Primarily English, put out by the Victorian Association for Teaching of English (VATE). Rather than write about sketching, I created a four-page comic strip:

Although it was only short, I really enjoyed the process of creating a comic strip, and the flexibility that the format gave me to communicate. I hope you enjoy the final product!

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Review: The Common Denominator

Great review in The Common Denominator: The Newsletter of The Mathematical Association of Victoria. Glad you enjoyed the book Angela!

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Where Can I Buy Charlie?

A few people have asked where they can get their hands on a copy of Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine (not everyone is comfortable with ordering online). I’m pleased to report that several bookshops around Australia have copies in stock.


If you’re in Melbourne, head on over to Readings in Lygon Street, Carlton. Grab a delicious coffee from Tiamo next door, why don’t ya?

If you live further north, there’s always the quaint Westgarth Books on High Street in Northcote. Equally good coffee across the road at Alphabet City cafe!


In the city of churches, your best bet is Booked. There’s a store in Unley and another in North Adelaide. It’s been a while since I’ve had a coffee in either suburb, but I have fond memories of a delicious brunch in North Adelaide, so I’m sure the coffee’s pretty decent as well!

A huge thanks to these stockists for supporting Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine!

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Highlights from the Mathematical Association of Victoria Conference

Sketchnote from the MAV conference on December 2nd, 2011

A sketchnote I created during Jennifer Bowden and Cathy Snowdon's talk on using children's literature in teaching maths. There's a familiar book in the top right corner!

On Friday I attended the Mathematical Association of Victoria‘s annual conference at La Trobe University. The conference is primarily for school teachers who teach mathematics, so many of the sessions weren’t relevant for me. However, I was interested to see whether this was a conference I should be more involved with, as maths teachers fall squarely into my demographic for “potential customer.”

Not that I was interested enough to fork out the cash for a full price ticket, of course! But I did sign up as a volunteer for one of the days, which allowed me to attend a couple of sessions in exchange for directing car park traffic, manning the registration desk and taking down all of the signage after the conference was over.

It just so happened that a few of the conference speakers considered my book to be quite a perfect fit for their presentations. In fact, I’m told that the keynote presentation at the start of the conference consisted of the speaker spending 10-15 minutes exploring my book. Apparently Susie Groves from Deakin University read excerpts from it as an example of a book that was perfect for getting kids excited about maths (!). I had sent a few presenters copies of my book in advance, hoping that they’d like the book enough to possibly mention it, but having it featured as a core part of the keynote presentation far exceeded my expectations!

As a result of this exposure, the conference book shop sold out of all copies of my book. Luckily, I happened to take along a few extra on the day on the off change that this might happen, and they sold out of them as well! After that, the shop took a bunch of additional back orders.

Charlie Weatherburn on display at the MAV Conference book shop

It’s exciting when you see people get so excited about something you’ve created that they want to rave to a room of 1,800 people about it. It’s even more exciting when people are prepared to put their money where their mouth is!

It was also fun to sit in on a session about using children’s books to teach maths, in which the presenters used my book as an example. They realised that I was in the audience about halfway through their talk, and I ended up signing copies and chatting with customers. Fun times!

I look forward to being more involved with the lovely folks from the MAV. Oh, and if you’re a member of the MAV, it’s worth noting that you can buy my book from the association at less than the retail price. What better incentive to join!

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7 Ideas to Turn Charlie Weatherburn into a Fun Lesson

A number of people who have bought Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine are primary school teachers. They’ve read the story to their students, and I’m delighted that many of them have taken the story to the next level and used it as the basis for an entire lesson. Some of the ideas are fantastic, so I thought I’d collate them (and include a couple of suggestions of my own) as a resource for other teachers.

  1. Downloadable worksheets

    On this very website there are some worksheets available for free download: a crossword, a word-find, a dot-to-dot puzzle, a maze, and some colouring worksheets. The crossword obviously requires a minimum level of literacy, but the others have been used successfully by students from Prep up to Grade 2.

  2. What does Charlie see while in the sky?

    Ask the class to think about what the world below would look like to Charlie, while he is flying high. Have them draw a “bird’s eye view” map of their bedroom, their classroom, or the path that they take to get to school. This task is sure to deliver some interesting maps!

  3. Draw your own flying machine

    After reading the story, encourage kids to draw the flying machine that they would like to build. I love the imagination that some children put into this activity—you’re guaranteed to see some weird and wacky contraptions! A variation on this would be to encourage students to fold paper planes and compete to see who can throw theirs the furthest, but this has the potential to become dangerous, so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you were certain that you could keep things under control!

  4. What would you invent?

    Expanding on activity #3, talk about Charlie as an inventor, and ask students to draw pictures of the invention they would create if they were Charlie. I’ve seen everything from elaborate military vehicles to mobile wardrobes and everything in between.

  5. Write and illustrate your own book

    One school that I visited used the fact that I was visiting the school as an opportunity to inspire budding author/illustrators that writing, illustrating and publishing their own book is well within reach. Two students wrote their own masterpiece ahead of my visit and presented it to me as a present: their own version of the Charlie Weatherburn tale, but instead of falling into a rubbish bin, Charlie smacks into a wall. Gold!

  6. Measuring stuff

    Use the page where Charlie is constructing his flying machine to talk about measurement. Talk about what might happen if we built things without measuring them. Assign students the task of measuring a number of items inside or outside the classroom—tables, chairs, sandpit, basketball court.

  7. Gravity and surface area

    Use the page where Charlie falls from the sky to talk about why objects fall. Assign students into groups to build an object to be dropped from a height, with the winning group the one whose object takes the longest to fall to the ground. Discuss why the winning object took longer to fall.

I hope you find these ideas useful. I’d love to hear from you if you decide to use any of these in your classroom. Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments!

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Letters and Numbers

I recently appeared on a rather nerdy TV game show called Letters and Numbers, the Australian version of the popular UK show Countdown. Contestants compete to solve anagrams and maths problems. There are no cash or prizes to be won — but contestants do receive a copy of the Macquarie Dictionary. Like I said, pretty nerdy!

The video at the top of this post is an edited version — 30 minutes condensed down to 7). If you’re particularly keen, you can watch the full episode online at the SBS website.

My wife and I watch the show every night, and play along on the couch. Making the leap from “watching at home” to “competing in the studio” was her idea — she suggested that it might be a good opportunity to give my children’s book a plug. The book is about a mathematician, so you’d think the audience would be a good fit.

The Rise

I don’t remember being particularly nervous before filming started, but I was certainly excited. After a fairly even start, I managed to break away from my opponent, Debra the accountant, with the seven-letter BROILED. When I was able to conjure an ironically apt DETHRONE for 8 letters, I felt giddy with excitement. Or maybe that was the nerves finally kicking in. Either way, I remember thinking “You beauty! All I have to do is match Debra point-for-point, and I’ll be crowned the carryover champion! I’ve got this!”

The Fall

If you’ve ever participated in the filming of a TV show, you’ll know that the final, edited version of the show is much smoother than the final product that viewers see. There are mishaps. Filming my episode of Letters and Numbers was no exception. Debra asked for “three vowels” to begin (a no-no: the format has to follow one letter at a time), so we reshot that. Richard, David and Lily are all pros, but fumbled over their words at one point or another and had to repeat their conversations, making it look as natural as possible. I left my water bottle on the seat next to me, and it was visible to the cameras, so I had to move it. With all of these stops and starts, I was becoming very conscious of my dual role, as an actor as well as a contestant there to solve anagrams and mathematical problems.

Then it was my turn to stumble. I failed to reach the target in one of the maths problems, but didn’t explicitly mention that I was outside the scoring zone, and had to repeat myself. It turns out the solution was bleeding obvious, but I’d been so conscious of writing down my answer (proof is required) that I couldn’t concentrate on exactly what it was that I was writing.

After that, another stumble. I was so used to watching the board at home, that I chose to keep my eyes on the board when choosing my final set of letters. Lily was standing between me and the letters, so obscured a couple of the letters, but I heard her call out an M, and wrote that down. Turns out the letter was an N, not an M, so the word I made in that round was invalid. Why I didn’t look at the screen on the desk right in front of me, which offered a completely unimpeded view of the letters, I don’t know.

Then in the final numbers round, the music that normally marks the tick-tock of the 30 seconds available to solve the problem didn’t play. This totally threw me. Of course, this is no excuse, because my opponent was in the same boat, but the result was that I botched another easy maths problem. Never mind that I spent 5 years at university solving some fairly advanced calculus and network algorithms. At this point, with the bright lights, the collection of stops, starts and retakes, and probably a minor case of being star-struck while in the presence of Lily, David and Richard, my brain had stopped working.

In a somewhat poetic parallel to the central character in my book, I rose high, and then came crashing down.

The Aftermath

And that is how I clutched defeat from the jaws of victory. Full credit to Debra, whose maths skills were solid. But I do feel like I handed her the game on a platter.

Now, it might sound like I’m bitter about not winning a silly, nerdy TV game show. I’m not. I’ll admit that I was a bit hard on myself for a couple of days — I was disappointed at myself for what in sporting terms could only be referred to as a massive choke. I knew that instead I should be proud of myself for even making it on the show in the first place, that at the end of the day it didn’t really matter, and hey how about that 8-letter word that David got everyone to give me another round of applause for? But in the aftermath, emotion dominated logic, and I was a bit down about the whole thing for a day or two.

And then … I got over it, got some perspective, and smiled at the fact that my primary objective — to give my children’s book a plug on national TV — had been well and truly achieved. Not only did I use my introductory spiel to mention the book by title, but Lily Serna, arguably the mathematician with the highest profile in Australia (and certainly the highest heels) read a page of my book out on air. I couldn’t believe it. I had absolutely no idea that it was coming, and couldn’t have asked for a better endorsement.

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The Pursuit Of Perfection

Last month I had the privilege of delivering one of the keynote presentations at the Microsoft Tech.Ed conference on the Gold Coast. Interestingly, I was invited to speak not as a user experience designer (which is usually the case when I give a talk) but as the author of Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine.

Now, I’ve done a bit of public speaking, but this was hands-down the biggest, most professional, highest profile event that I’ve ever spoken at. Nearly 3,000 people were in attendance, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a teensy bit nervous before going on stage (especially given the MC of the night who introduced me was none other than Adam Spencer, the talented comedian whose breakfast radio show I grew up listening to).

Luckily, I put a lot of effort into preparing for my 7 minutes of fame, and I’m reasonably happy with how it went. I’ve made my slides available on SlideShare, which lets you listen along to the audio of my talk at the same time:

If you’d rather watch the video of me pacing around the stage instead, that’s available too:

The video uses Silverlight, which means it won’t play if Silverlight is not installed on your computer. Never fear! The video is available for download in multiple formats (although some of the files are quite big!)

While speaking at Tech.Ed was incredibly daunting, it was also an enormous thrill and I would definitely do it again. I’m grateful to the organisers for believing in me, and to Adam and the other presenters who were very encouraging and supportive on the day. Oh, and thanks to all of the attendees who approached me after the talk was over to buy a copy of the book. I took 20 copies with me to the Gold Coast and sold out there and then!

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Free Download: Activity Sheets

Ever since I launched Charlie Weatherburn I’ve wanted to create some activity sheets to complement the book. Being about a mathematician, it made sense for there to be some educational material that kids could have fun with — and now there is!

Taking the popular colouring sheets and expanding on the idea, I’ve added a dot-to-dot puzzle, maze and find-a-word activity sheet to the downloads page. These activity sheets were fun to make, and there will definitely be more down the track. In the mean time, I’d love to hear your thoughts!


The dot-to-dot puzzle is slightly different from dot-to-dots that you might have seen before. The numbers differ by 2, so completing the puzzle requires you to count by 2s. I’m considering expanding on this idea, to offer other dot-to-dots that test one’s ability to count by different intervals. There’s nothing particularly maths-related about the other two puzzles, although my daughter says the maze is quite tough!

Visit the downloads page.

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Shipping, Scientists, Schools & Speaking Gigs

Wow, it’s been a crazy few weeks since my book launched. I’ve been a bit slack with updates to the blog, but here’s a summary of everything that’s happened:

Shipping Options for Aussies

If you previously thought about buying a paperback copy of Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine but baulked at the $9 shipping cost from the US, then I have some good news!

Australian customers can now order the book directly from me and pay a much more reasonable $3 postage and handling. I’ve decided to fulfil these orders directly, so I placed a big order with a local printer and bought a ton of  tough bags from Australia Post (I get a discount if I buy more than 100!).

That means a copy of the book will now cost you under 20 bucks, delivered to anywhere in Australia. And if you email me when you place your order, I’ll happily sign the book or write a message in it before putting it in the post. Place your order here.

Media Coverage

A while ago I took the bold step of applying to be a contestant on the television game show Letters and Numbers. My stint on the show was filmed last week, and it will go to air in early October. I can’t talk about the result, but I will say that my book received a massive plug on the show! It was a massive buzz to hear the incredibly smart (and drop-dead gorgeous) co-host, Lily Serna, comment on air that she loved the book and read a page from it during the closing of the show!

And just today I had a surprise phone call from Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, who hosts a science Q&A show on Australia’s national youth radio network, Triple J (I’d sent him a book a couple of months ago). He just called to thank me for the copy I’d sent him and pass on the fact that he loved the book! In his words, he thought it was “delightful,” which needless to say put me on Cloud 9 for the rest of the day! Who knows what doors that will open, but hearing that he’d enjoyed the book was a huge ego boost.

Readings at Primary Schools

This week is book week, so there has been a fair amount of interest from primary schools for me to come along and read the book to prep, grade 1 and grade 2 students. I love doing readings at schools, and have been getting some very interesting and thoughtful questions (my favourite today was “Would you be able to draw as well if you didn’t use a computer?” My answer was: “Yes, but I’d might have to use my eraser a bit!”)

If you’re in Melbourne and would like me to come along to your child’s school (or a school that you teach at) to read Charlie Weatherburn, then send me an email and we’ll arrange a date that suits.

Public Speaking

Unexpectedly, I’ve also had a number of offers to speak to even larger audiences, such as conferences and arts festivals, about the book. The details for these haven’t been announced yet, so I’m reluctant to talk about them, but I can say that at one of the upcoming conferences I’ll be on stage in front of nearly 3,000 people. As you can imagine, I’m pretty chuffed to be given the chance to talk to so many people about the book, and plan to seize the opportunity and give the audience a killer presentation that they’ll remember.

That’s all for now!


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