Let me make it easier for you this holiday season, because I know how it is. You want to buy a book for a child for the holidays, but you think they’d probably like a toy better, but you don’t want to give plastic junk, and yet do kids even like educational toys? Do you give the kid an abacus and watch that smile dissolve, or do you give in and buy a lead-coated choking hazard that promotes violence and unhealthy body images?

Get Max’s Castle written by Kate Banks and illustrated by Boris Kulikov along with wooden letter blocks, a game of Scrabble, or Bananagrams and everyone’s happy! If you have an iPad, tech it up for free by downloading the free Magnetic Letters app to play along while you read!

Max’s Castle is full of imagination and creative problem-solving, along with letter recognition and spelling. I love the way Banks and Kulikov show that switching a few letters changes words. Max and his brothers use alphabet blocks to build a castle. Kulikov does a fantastic job with letter arrangement: Max is in the MOAT hanging onto a block that is angled with an M and a B when Benjamin says they need a BOAT. The boys use the letter blocks to solve problems, like when the ADDER that is literally “in” the DARK DUNGEON (Banks capitalizes the words the boys have built with blocks) is causing problems, the boys take the L from the BUGLE to make the ADDER a LADDER.

Once you share Max’s Castle with that lucky kid or with your lucky students, give the kids letter blocks or Scrabble tiles or the iPad with the Magnetic Letters appĀ  to play with and rearrange! You can let students explore independently, or give challenges, like “Here comes a SNAKE ready to attack – what could you make to solve the problem?” Kids can switch out letters to make a RAKE to shoo away the snake, or TAKE it to the woods, or give it a SNACK to eat instead of eating you, etc. Encourage students to see if they can make the word look a bit like the object it represents, like Kulikov did, or use the blocks or tiles to build a structure like Max and his brothers did. Kids will build upon the Common Core State Standards of Print Concepts, Phonological Awareness, and Phonics and Word Recognition while they build fine motor skills. You’ll be the hero of the holidays!

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