Welcome to the final edition of our weekly blog series. Welcome, too, to almost-the-end of the strangest term ever!
We hope that you enjoyed this series. We’ve shared some fantastic, and varied books – new, old, established classic, future classic - and tried to provide an array of teaching ideas and follow up activities that were loose enough to account for the many variations on teaching and learning that have come into play across the summer term.
So, with a small measure of sadness, we have put the now familiar format to bed.
But worry not, in the spirit of the best comics of our childhood, we bring you a Bumper Special Edition - an extravaganza of books that will amuse and delight and fire up the imagination. Our choices are loosely organised around the theme of taking a staycation or holidays at home. If any of our book choices inspire an especially enjoyable staycation moment of your own, please do send us a postcard.
NB: Although the blog is a collective effort, and heartfelt thanks go to the whole team for working so hard to produce this series of 12 weekly editions, this particular entry has a change in format. Firstly, its purely about book choices. Secondly, several of the entries are written in the first person and/or represent particular personal choices. As such those individual entries are credited to the contributing adviser.
By Dianne Hoymeyr & Piet Grobler
Tiny Owl Publishing – with special thanks to Tiny Owl for the kind permission to share images from the book
Fancy a city break but circumstances not on your side? Worry not, let the city come to you.
Meet Paris Cat.
She’s quite the cat about town as you can see in this ever so appropriately jazzy trailer.
Paris Cat is a brand new book from the very fine Tiny Owl publishing and we are delighted to be able to recommend it on two fronts. One:it’s a fun, vivacious book, with plenty to enjoy. Two: together with Piet Grobler, Dianne Hoffmeyr has once again created something very special. You will know how much we admire Dianne’s work. Zeraffa Giraffa has served as the basis of a substantial chunk of shared writing traing, and we celebrated Dianne’s work in this blog looking at some whole school work inspired by that same book. In fact, we were honestly overjoyed when we received an email from Dianne, all the way from South Africa, telling us how the work shared in this blog had reignited her passion for writing for children. We’re delighted that Dianne continues to serve up gems like Paris Cat.
It’s a tale of transformation…
...a tale of highs…
…and as such, calls to mind those big Hollywood biopics that chart the rise and fall of the good, the great and sometimes the not-so-great. In this respect it rather reminds of David Litchfield’s classic, award winning The Bear and the Piano which way, way back in the pre-blog days of our newsletter, we compared to a Martin Scorsese epic. Here, though, the book is grounded in reality. As you might recognise from the fourth picture in the sequence shared above, Paris Cat rises to fame by offering her complementary talents to the trailblazing career of Josephine Baker. If you are thinking of buying this book for your library, class, your own children, or – let’s face it – yourself, then you may also want to purchase one of the very good picture book biographies of Josephine Baker. We especially like this biography by Patricia Hruby Powell that draws upon the immense talents of Christian Robinson, one of the creators of Last Stop on Market Street below.
Paris Cat offers up many of the things that you might wish for in a city break – stunning sights, entertainment, “good food” (do check out the witty endpaper maps of Paris), a dash of history. All this and cheetahs too.
Paris Cat is released in shops today so it truly is as fresh as can be.
Last Stop on Market Street
By Matt de la Peña
Pictures by Christian Robinson
You can watch a short film/trailer for the book here that features the creators talking about their process and intentions.
You can read a very full set of teaching guidance and prompts.
The front cover of this book does a fine job of selling itself to young audiences. Is it the bright, vivid colours? The appealing simplicity of its forms and figures? Its cartoon-like styling? It’s all of the above, and so it might not seem too surprising that its illustrator, Christian Robinson has also worked for both the Sesame Street Workshop and Pixar Animation Studios. That is a hard-to-beat pedigree, two institutions offering entertainment for children, and adults of course, packed with heart and brains. In fact, Robinson’s catalogue of books is fast becoming an institution of its own, just as infused with these qualities. Last year’s Another is a quite brilliant portal story suitable for children of all ages. Wordless, and with the same blocky uses of colour, it can be enjoyed and explored across Early Years just as well as it can be in KS1 and KS2. It is both fantastical and grounded in reality and carries a trademark of Robinson’s work – a commitment to reflecting the diversity of our communities in the fullest sense of that phrase. You can find out more about Christian Robinson and his work here. The name of the domain itself speaks volumes.
The front cover then, sets out its visual stall at our summer fete.
What of the back cover? Let’s take a look:
‘CJ and his grandma take a bus ride together.
discovering the beauty and wonder
of their vibrant neighbourhood’
And that really is what the book shares. Simple and perhaps easily underestimated. A fortnight ago we shared Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin’s The Promise – a book that begins with a fairly harsh view of its city setting, until things transformed and the world of that book softened. The week before that we looked at how the book Here I am by Patti Kim and Sonia Sanchez explored how alien things can seem when you move to an unfamiliar place where the dominant language is equally unfamiliar. In Last Stop on Market Street things are perhaps a little more straightforward thematically, but Matt de la Peña’s clever use of figurative language works so well in conjunction with Robinson’s visuals that it would be unfair to simply label the book as, well, simple. It is simple on many fronts: a familiar setting; two main characters; bold illustrations; an everyday journey driving the narrative. But it is how the words and images combine to make its world beautiful. In order to support you in beginning some deeper conversations about this book, we have put together this resource of suggested reading prompts. Try to see them as the start of the conversation; there is plenty more to talk about here.
Going back to the back cover, we might just comment on how simple (again) but effective that brief blurb above is: a summary of the ‘story’; a second clause providing some theming; and a final clause celebrating their community. Perhaps you and your children can take a few more walks and experiment with reinventing the familiar world around you - providing it with the poetry that Nana effortlessly dispenses across the pages of the book. We’ll just end with a final block of text on the back cover:
‘Award-winning talents Matt de la Peña
And Christian Robinson show there is
magic in unexpected place, and celebrations
to be had in everyday life.’
That’s it in just four simple lines. Here, simple really is best. Enjoy those celebrations waiting to be had!
By Shirley Hughes
Available in many short story volumes for children, including Hughes’ wonderful The Big Alfie Out of Doors Story book
Bonting by Shirley Hughes is a short story ‘old favourite’ that can be found in many collections. It’s a perfect read for holiday times, both travelling away and for staycations.
It starts in a home. Alfie finds a stone; a stone that becomes a friend: Bonting.
And so we move on into Alfie’s world. Bonting acquires clothes, a place to sleep, and becomes involved in the children’s activities. Then the family goes to the seaside for the day – and Bonting is lost. There is a happy ending, after some very believable upset, but something children always seem to take away is how kind this family are to one another, especially in times of distress.
The story captures the importance that children can attach to apparently unimportant objects and the alternate realities that they create for them: ‘Bonting had a little piece of Alfie’s sandwich.’ The prose is direct and detailed, lingering over the small things that really matter to children and to which they can relate. Finding Bonting, making clothes for Bonting, packing up the car, driving to the sea – all are seen through a child’s eyes. And the illustrations are utterly glorious, with far more detail than can be included in the words. They are pages to come back to, time and time again.
Why not seek it out and discover how Bonting and Alfie are reunited?
- Find your own Bonting!
- Dress it and house it – there are examples on the internet or have a look at these photos of our own new friend: Gorbel.
- Identify your own Bonting. In the story, Mum just explains that Bonting is ‘very old, perhaps thousands and thousands of years’, but many rocks can easily be classified more precisely. Gorbel is a flint and we think there may be a tiny fossil hidden inside her.
- Read up a bit more about how stones and rocks age and move. A Pebble in my Pocket by Meredith Hooper is a great place to start (it was very tempting to say stepping stone).
- Use your car journeys. Alfie and Annie Rose see cars, lorries and motorbikes (until Annie Rose falls asleep), but what do you see on your journey? Other vehicles? (You can allocate points – 10 for a car transporter.) Special number plates? (Extra points for ones containing prime numbers.)
- Plan a picnic. We don’t get told many details about what is in Alfie’s picnic, but there is quite a lot of food laid out. What do you want in yours? (Remember you have to carry it – even if that’s only into another room or just outside).
[Bonting chosen by Alison Dawkins]
On a Magical Do-Nothing Day
Thames and Hudson
You can see the book’s trailer.
You can enjoy a beautifully crafted walkthrough.
The first thing that you might notice when you pick up this award-winning picture book is the bright, bright orange of the central character’s raincoat, standing out from the muted tones of a fairly typical rainy day:
Here we were again. Me and mum
In the same cabin. The same forest.
The same rain. Dad back in the city.
How we respond to this may well depend on our current relationship to the issue at hand. A bored child. Worse still, a resigned-to-be-bored child. It’s likely that we have all been in that position a few too many times for our liking: a set of conditions not of our making and seemingly limited options. Perhaps as adults, we can relate to the frustration felt by the mother at the child’s commitment to not exploring his options:
‘What about a break from your game?’ Mum growled.
‘Is this going to be another game of doing nothing?’
She was right. There was nothing I wanted to do.
Except destroy martians.
The situation seems all-too-relatable following this period of various levels of confinement. Backtracking from the page quoted directly above, even the child realises that their game has its limits – realising that they are not destroying martians:
Actually I was just pressing
the same button over and over.
Reluctantly, and with game in hand in the hope that it might offer protection from this ‘boring, wet place’, the child dons that bright, bright coat and heads out into the mundane, grey yonder. They walk down a hill. They reach the end of a path. And there in a pond, are some rocks. Or stepping stones…only, they look like the heads of martians. So what are you gonna do? You’re going to jump on those martian heads, of course. Crush them before they get up to martianesque impositions. Only you may need to take care as you bounce along those rocks….you wouldn’t want to lose your precious game. Or would you?
What follows is a Magical Do-Nothing Day in which the child goes about seeing the world in a new light. Rocks are martians. Clouds are sieves. Much like Last Stop on Market Street, the world is transformed by the use of figurative language. Interestingly though, there is a move towards the literal, so that by the end of the book, the child is enjoying the delights of the woods on their own terms: talking to birds, collecting stones, noticing bugs they might never have seen before.
It’s a very dynamic book and it would serve equally well as both inspiration for a walk - setting the tone; raising anticipation; lining up ideas – or as a reflective tool for winding down from a tiring day outside – what did you see? How does it connect, or not, to what we are seeing in this very special book. Who knows, instead of crushing alien heads on your walk, you may have wound up adopting your very own Bonting.
Orion and the Dark
by Emma Yarlett
You can read more about Orion and the Dark.
This is a picture book that will instantly grab you and pull you in. In fact, on one page The Dark extends his hand in a friendly gesture as you open it. The fun, the colour and the detail in the endearing illustrations immediately draw you into Orion’s worst fear. This is a book that shows us how to face up to our fears. How? By getting to know them of course – indeed being on first name terms with them.
Orion’s mother puts his fearful nature down to his overactive imagination. Can we be too creative for our own good? Does the ‘what if.....’ part of our brain sometimes shift into overdrive? Poor Orion. You can’t help but harp back to your own days of keeping the covers firmly up to your chin at night as he stands at the foot of a long, long staircase leading to ‘bedtime’. For him the fear is all too real and recurring on a nightly basis. However, help arrives from the most unexpected direction. The dark. The Dark itself saves the day. After the initial shock of meeting The Dark, Orion allows himself to be taken on a tour of his fears. Firstly, they travel to the darkest places in the house and Orion finds, to his relief, that there’s just an absence of light and these, as yet unexplored nooks and crannies can be some of the most fun places to be. Next, the noises that The Dark supposedly makes are investigated. Each one is traced back to its origin and surprisingly, The Dark is not responsible for any of them! Animals are. Babies are. The wind and refrigerators are but not The Dark.
Perhaps we can take a leaf from this hugely enjoyable book and we too could try to become on first name terms with our own fears? The Dark is well documented and has its own section on the children’s library shelves. Why not explore some more titles from the older and much loved books such as The Owl Who was Afraid of the Dark, to newer picture books like The King Who Banned the Dark (there’s even fake news in this one!) and The Dark by Lemony Snicket.
Some enjoyable activities might include:
- Looking at some of Orion’s other fears in the initial pages and list what these fears would show him if they were take him on a tour
- Read some poetry about shadows – is it the dark that scares us here or is it the light? After all, how do we make shadows? Perhaps learn the first verse of ‘My Shadow’ by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Write a speech from The Dark explaining how it has been cruelly blamed for many things that are nothing to do with it.
[Orion and the Dark chosen by Jane Andrews]
The Green Ship
by Quentin Blake
Red Fox Picturebooks
The Green Ship evokes so many memories for me that it is hard to imagine that it was not written by Quentin Blake especially for my sister and I. Recently re-reading it, I was once again transported back to a carefree age of imagination and adventure, where forts were constructed behind the sofa and lightsabres fashioned from sticks and foil. This joyous book tells of two young children who, whilst staying with an aunt, stumble upon a green ‘ship’ in a neighbour’s garden. The ship is a wonderful construction of bushes and trees, with a garden shed perched atop a tree stump to form the captain’s bridge. The green ship comes with a ready-made crew in the form of Bosun, the gardener, and Mrs Tredegar, the owner of the garden. Together, they all spend the summer going on a series of marvellous expeditions to far-flung places such as Egypt and the Arctic. Mrs Tredegar even manages to successfully steer the ship through a terrible storm and bring the explorers safely home. At the end of the book, the narrator fondly remembers his annual summers spent in that garden, even though now, many years later, the ship has grown back into its natural form and is no longer recognisable as the ship of his adventures.
Growing up in a large family of limited resources meant that staycations were the norm and, just like the young protagonists of The Green Ship, we were often sent to stay with our grandmother for a change of scene. She had a long garden, which she could no longer manage: the overgrown final third was our jungle. Every summer we hacked our way through the undergrowth to visit the foxes in the abandoned Morrison shelter, examine the ancient relics of the haunted castle (the remains of a rotten shed) and hunt for buried pirate treasure behind the compost heap. We were lost children in the woods, foraging for blackberries to survive. Luckily, our expeditions always ended well, as the dear old lady who owned the house (aka grandma) would call us in for tea. I’m sure many of you have similar childhood recollections.
Aside from the glorious illustrations that characterise any book by Blake, this book encapsulates the joy and freedom of childhood. And, when you bring your imagination into play, you can truly do anything and go anywhere. As Albert Einstein once said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” The lockdown may have forced us to stay home, but this book reminds us that our minds can travel anywhere. Dens behind my own sofa are the now the portal to adventure:
In the spirit of many a good tale, the themes of friendship and discovery are played out on many levels in The Green Ship. There is perhaps a parallel, untold story of Mrs Tredegar’s husband, the original captain. There is the direct appeal to a child reader’s imagination as well as the adult reader’s memories. And there is the ‘what next?’ to which everyone’s mind will leap. My own story ends similarly to Blake’s. Once I’d grown up, my own young children used to play in grandma’s garden, although it was all, by then, a veritable wilderness. The house was sold many years ago now but this book makes me wonder if a new generation of children are now discovering the fox family at the bottom of the garden.
You can watch Quentin Blake talking about The Green Ship on YouTube.
[The Green Ship chosen by Michelle Nicholson]
by Mary Norton
Have you ever lain in bed and wondered: what if there’s someone else in this house? What if there’s another family, but not quite a human one? Not in a scared or scary way, but in an interesting -maybe there are different types of ‘people’ kind of way.
If you have, if you’re fascinated by the thought that maybe, just maybe, there are tiny, little ‘other’ people, who could be living alongside us, then find a copy of The Borrowers by Mary Norton.
If you haven’t read it, you’ll probably still know of it from the various film and television adaptations. Good as many of them are, I don’t think they quite manage to creep into, and linger in, the corners of the mind, in the way that the book, and its sequels do. First written in 1952, some of the terms are likely to be unfamiliar (bureau, shoe buttons, blotting paper) and you undeniably need to be a fairly fluent reader, capable of sustaining concentration on a book in order to really get into it – but oh my goodness, it’s worth it. It’s worth saying also, it’s a superb read-aloud story.
Borrowers own nothing. All they have has been borrowed from the Big People – and re-fashioned for their own use. Sewing tape and pins become a climbing rope and pitons; match boxes become a chest of drawers, with their contents used for firewood. Borrowers know all about the Big People, but the Big People don’t know about them. Mostly.
Then one night, a boy, awake in bed, sees Pod. Although terrified they will now be hunted down, the family decide to stay living in the house and young Arrietty is soon deemed old enough to start venturing out on borrowing expeditions with her father. Of course, she meets the boy. Of course, they start to talk to one another. And that’s where it starts to go wrong …
Collect some small household items and decide – what would a Borrower do with them? Write instructions for the conversions that would be made.
Work out how many steps it will take to cross your kitchen floor – if your stride is only 0.7cm.
Imagine being a Borrower – write some risk assessment arguments. What is the potential gain of something you might obtain from going Outside, balanced against the level of danger?
Imagine shrinking and going adventuring with a Borrower. (Chapter 12 will start you off.)
Make some teeny books that could be used by a Borrower (see the description of Arrietty’s book in Chapter 2)
[The Borrowers chosen by Alison Dawkins]
Rules of Summer
Lothian Children’s Books
It’s fair to say that alongside books very much grounded in a kind of reality, we have shared books here with flights of fantasy and, with The Green Ship and Bonting, celebrations of the powers of imagination. All offer up a narrative of one kind or another.
Shaun Tan’s beguiling Rules of Summer does something quite different – perhaps not surprisingly, given its creator. The book presents a series of notional rules relating to life in the open stretches of the summer months. These rules, quite definite with their repeated use of ‘Never…’ , seem to have been learned the hard way, in the course of a series of roaming adventures between two boys, across a summer, in landscapes made up of the familiar and the determinedly unfamiliar.
There is a narrative of sorts, or more accurately a thread. In fact, thread describes the dynamics at play here very well, as they might be seen as a series of running stitches – hidden in places, and then popping up to the surface to remind us of how the fabric is joined together – before disappearing beneath the surface once more, where who-knows-what is going on.
It starts with a simple muted image of the two boys – one seemingly older than the other and whispering to the smaller boy, perhaps a warning, a plan, or the first, unspoken rule of the day. We don’t know. It’s a wordless image, but it offers a real sense of the promise of the day or days ahead. How you respond to what follows may depend on your own experiences of those long summer days with friends or siblings, or perhaps giant red rabbits.
Turn the page and we have a single introductory statement that gets the thread running across the book:
This is what I learned last summer:
And then a series of rules, all fairly straightforward in themselves…
Never leave the back door open overnight
Never step on a snail
…or the odd quirky detail….
Never leave a red sock on the washing line.
Never eat the last olive at a party.
Each rule is accompanied by its own painting. Shaun Tan. Painting.
For once, I can shush up. Those two minor sentences say what needs to be said.
And as Shaun Tan suggests on his website – more on that below – the less said here the better. Why impose my own take on something that offers the potential for so many other takes? If you want to know what I think about the images, well let’s chat about that sometime at some bookish event or another.
Going back to my own thread, a pivotal page, some way into the book, suggests there may have been some challenge to these rules:
Never ask for a reason.
The consequences of this breach of the rules brings together all of the characters encountered up to this point to bear witness to a breakdown in the central friendship. It is this breakdown in the order of things that redirects the thread, as well as the thrust of the rest of the book, as it heads towards a satisfyingly ambiguous ending. A final image of the boys, back indoors, calls into question just what kind of a record the book itself stands as. It’s good to embrace those ambiguities sometimes. Consider the possibilities and - setting aside that what follows is a suitably impossible instruction – sometimes, just sometimes, never ask for a reason.
I really would urge you to pay a visit to Shaun Tan’s website, not just to explore this intriguing book in more detail, but to benefit from the insights there across the body of the author’s work. Tan generously provides an overview and an account of this book - its genesis, a commentary on how it might be viewed (and not spoiled), and extensive notes on the illustrations. He also offers PDF commentary for handy downloading purposes. It’s a model of writer-reader connection. He does the same for his other titles; in fact I made extensive use of this website in the writing of our Detailed English Plans related to Tales of Outer Suburbia in Year 5. Another favourite.
As it turns out, both Rules of Summer and Tales of Outer Suburbia sprang from the same initial project. The connections do not stop there. It is only by reading Tan’s account that I find out that a favourite painting of mine, Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’, may have had an influence on the book’s cover. It’s a painting that really struck me on a visit to New York’s MoMA and, yes, I have the fridge magnet, a postcard, and a book mark, thank you kindly. The connections run deeper. Thanks to Tan I have had my suspicions confirmed that Wyeth’s work influenced. Terrence Malick’s film Days of Heaven. Terrence Malik was something of a mythical figure in my much earlier guise as a film student and then later film lecturer. He works more regularly now, but back in the seventies he made two visually breathtaking, lyrical films: Badlands and Days of Heaven. I won’t turn this into a film blog entry, but in amongst Malick’s notable achievements, the commitment to capturing a certain beauty through very specific lighting choices, chiefly based on a particular “golden hour” of natural light. And this brings me back to Tan. The quality of light, the sense of summer, but also of evenings, and nights, is one of its riches. It’s a typically beautiful, thought-provoking book. I cannot lie, the simple thrill of the rich connections that I experienced is just one more reason to recommend it.
Tan would likely prefer that I leave it at that. Here he is talking about Rules of Summer:
‘Each picture might be seen as the chapter of an unwritten tale that can only be elaborated in the reader’s imagination, something that suits the picture book medium very well. The simple word-and-picture format roughly follows another book of mine without a clear storyline, The Red Tree, and in some ways the two might be considered companion volumes: where The Red Tree is about the strangeness of an individual’s inner life, Rules of Summer is (for me at least) about the strangeness of any close partnership – it cannot be adequately explained to the third party. But we can all imagine our own versions, our own meanings, conflicts and resolutions.’
As such, I’ll leave it to you to decide what you make of the book. You’ll ideally leave your children to decide what they make of the book. Feel free, though, to ponder, mull it over, discuss, agree and debate it to each of your hearts’ content, but what you ultimately take away? That’s between you and the book.
[Rules of Summer chosen by Martin Galway]
Well that’s it for this series. We did it. You did it, in this truly odd term.
Thank you so much for reading. We’d especially like to thank all of those that have been in touch via Twitter and elsewhere. It’s been so good to engage with you and share in your passion for both the subject and the books. We hope that some of the recommendations and suggestions have proved useful and enjoyable for your children.
Keep safe; stay well and widely read.