Sunday 25 September 2016

Pattan's Pumpkin: An Indian Flood Story

Today we have a guest post from author Chitra Soundar, author of a gorgeous new picture book re-telling a traditional Indian flood myth. 

As an anthropologist, I've always been fascinated by the way in which different societies have explored the relationship between themselves, nature and divinity and sought to explain their origins in the absence of modern science. Myths, of course, are not fairy tales; they are ancient stories which reveal truths or philosophy to us, and are immensely valuable to children as they develop their understanding of their world and learn about the diversity of other cultures. It's also interesting to identify the commonalities between various origin or disaster myths. Pattan's Pumpkin bears striking similarities to the Epic of Gilgamesh (a Mesapotamian flood myth) and our own biblical Noah. It also gives an encouraging message about the importance of ingenuity and a respect for nature. It's a great addition to the bookshelf. Here's Chitra talking about how she discovered this tale, written down here for the first time, and what we can learn from it: 

It’s great to stop by at CultureBaby to tell you about my new picture book Pattan’s PumpkinHere we come rolling down the mountain to talk about a story so ancient that it has only been passed down orally through many generations.

Ancient legends, folktales and even ghost stories that came to us from our ancestors give us the foundation to build our imaginations. While some stories manage to get written down, many are still hidden in the wisdom of our elders.

Pattan's Pumpkin is one such story that has never been written down until now. It is not just a story of ingenuity and adventure, but also of Pattan’s love for his valley, animals and birds that live there. 

When I discovered the skeleton of this story, it fascinated me because it was set in the UNESCO heritage site of the Western Ghats. These mountain ranges are older than the Himalayas. They feature in Indian epics not just as part of our physical landscape but also add to our cultural heritage. In this valley for thousands of years, tribes have lived in harmony with nature. But in the recent past, the land grab of modern society has deprived many communities of their habitat and their heritage.
By S N Barid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This story that I had found in the crevices of research notes came from one of the Irular tribe. The story Pattan’s Pumpkin predates this tribe’s reputation as hunter-gatherers, when they were guardians of the land in the valleys of these mountains. In recent times, this tribe’s reputation as snake-catchers fascinates the urban dweller. But it also denies the tribe dignified place in the society.

While every religion told its flood tales, this one was unique. This wasn’t about the religion, but about the determination of one man and his love for his valley. In contrast, the story of Manu and the Fish is a Hindu flood tale that involves a boat just like the Christian story of Noah. But Pattan isn’t a boat-builder. He is not getting help from Vishnu, in the form of fish. Pattan has to use his own ingenuity and his enormous pumpkin. This resonates with history when people of both Asia and Africa hollowed out gourds like the bottle gourd and pumpkins to create drinking jugs and calabash.

But how do you explain the enormous pumpkin without imagining a miracle? Super-sized pumpkins are neither miracles nor a freak of nature. The world’s largest pumpkin in modern history weighed 2323.7 pounds in weight in 2014. If a modern-day farmer from an industrialised nation can produce a massive pumpkin with good seeds, organic fertilisers and tremendous care, then I’m quite inclined to believe that the enormous pumpkin that Pattan grew wasn’t a miracle at all – but the habit of nature when she’s undisturbed and protected from human greed especially in one of the most bio-diverse valleys in the world.

For me this story is not just a rollicking Indian tale about a bumpity-bump ride inside a pumpkin. It is that. But it is also about living in harmony with nature. It is for every child who deserves a greener tomorrow. really hope children enjoy reading this story with their parents and grandparents. I hope they enjoy the words and the fabulous pictures by Frané Lessacand also take in Pattan’s message – cherish the nature around you, nurture it and pass it on to your descendants.

Pattan’s Pumpkin by Chitra Soundar is available now here.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

The Museum of Me

This month debut author and illustrator Emma Lewis has published a new book with Tate The Museum of Me. We are always on the look-out for accessible and inspiring books to accompany our museum visits and this one is truly original and enchantingly illustrated. It's the sort of book that has left us pondering for days, as every good book should.  
Inspired by folk art and Scandinavian design, Emma Lewis uses a combination of illustration, collage and photographs to take us on a simple journey through the various sorts of museums at our fingertips from the British Museum (stuffed with antiquities), the Natural History Museum and its wealth of specimens, Art Museums and Science Museums to the sorts of places we might not think of as such - botanical gardens and growing collections. Though we can instantly recognise many loved London places and spaces in this book, it is transferable to many other cities and collections. Manchester University Museum, Kelvingrove, or Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter, for instance, with their breadth of collections in one building; parks and gardens - such as Kew or the Yorkshire Sculpture Park; living museums; and small local exhibits (which are covered too).

This clever book, which is intended to get us to think about the reasons why we collect and preserve objects, then takes us rather closer to home. At the coda we are presented with another sort of precious space - our own museums created with the meaningful items of our own lives. The artefacts we choose to surround ourselves with in everyday life, and particularly those we treasure. What do the things we collect say about us?
At the beginning of September to celebrate the launch of the book, Tate challenged us to gather our own Me in Five Objects collection. This was so tricky to find just five things that speak about our passions, background and personality. We were discussing it for days until we finally set up our little Museums of Me. 
Culturebaby chose her ballet shoes, violin and swimming kit, her paints and a picture she'd drawn of her family. Culturetot selected her Today Book (her diary), favourite doll, ballet shoes, swimming costume and a photograph of her nursery friends. I changed my items several times for those with multiple meanings and settled on my engagement ring (representing marriage, family and my love for Art Deco), an Egyptian cat (Egyptology and felines), a guide to music, my favourite book (Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh) and a model of Aslan (children's literature and faith). What a lovely exercise and great opportunity for dinnertime discussion with the family and chance to really explore with the girls what they really love.

To celebrate this fabulous book, I thought we'd share some further ideas for DIY museums. One of our favourite activities, either after a museum visit that we wish to re-live, or often at times when we are unable to venture out for the day but wish we could, we create our own museums at home. From modern art to jewellery, science and fashion to antiquities and sculpture, these are all so simple to create and incorporate into imaginative play.

1. The Shoebox Museum

We saw this wonderful idea online a long time ago and we have used it over and over to re-live visits to the Tate, create Mummy rooms and treat a host of play characters to an educational visit. The simplest way to do this is simply with a large shoe box, blue-tack and a selection of postcards. When we've been to an exhibition the girls choose a couple of favourite postcards, or for particular blockbusters I buy a postcard pack. We select favourites to display and you have an immediate playspace for small characters. You can join several boxes together - the girls are rather keen on creating the necessary cafe space too!


2. The Converted Doll's House

Doll's houses can be easily converted into gallery spaces in a very similar way to a shoebox museum. The beautiful book Henry Tate can serve as great inspiration for how a home can become a gallery, as can trips to spaces such as the Wallace Collection and other house galleries. We particularly like using part of my old Galt house from my childhood - it can easily be set up as a four room open gallery with thematic rooms and a cafe.

3. The Book Back-drop Gallery

We have a number of wonderful books that open out to reveal timelines of historical objects or strings of art works. These are so simple to set up and can become immediate mini museums. The most effective and regularly used we have is Art for Baby Colour - a box containing four mini concertina galleries in each of red, blue, yellow and green and featuring 44 works by leading modern and contemporary artists. These can be easily moulded into room shapes and corridors for miniature characters to navigate.

We also constructed our own little dress museum at home using the gorgeous fold out title from Big Picture Press Shirts, Skirts and Shoes illustrated by Sanna Mander. Whilst this volume only covers the last 100 years or so, it is a work of art; folding out to over two metres and forming the perfect museum backdrop. We've spent some extremely happy creative sessions discussing our favourite designs and again emulating these styles for dolls with simple (no sew) off-cuts of fabric, ribbons and a few items I've had since I was a child. We've explored the Edwardian, the '20s and the '50s and 60's. Simple and so much fun... 

Similarly the sister book Planes, Trains and Automobiles by Mike Lemanski has been used as a backdrop for our own science museum transport galleries at home using some of our favourite resources - Safari Toobs (miniature educational models). The Disney Princesses, led by bookworm Belle, trooped round the exhibits - each identifying their favourite train or plane - and watched with delight our miniature moving railway exhibit. Culturebaby played happily with it all afternoon.We've also done the same sort of thing with DK's Play Dinosaur (card landscapes). 

4. Felt Museum Collages

For a couple of the Tate Modern's blockbusters I have created felt works of art for the children to explore and re-create in the galleries in front of the original paintings. These are really useful as they can be transported easily and don't involve pens or other art materials in the galleries. I've done Matisse's La Gerbe and Malevich's Dynamic Suprematism. We've also produced Mondrian lolly-pop arrangement (an idea spotted on the internet). These DIY art works are accessible for younger children and can also be used afterwards at home. I was also really impressed when we visited Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum in July that they have created a similar sort of resource using felt versions of iconic items in their museum, and children were invited to select and place these on large black backgrounds. I think I may try to replicate this idea at home.

5. Postcard Chronology Games

Culturebaby has become really interested in the concept of stratigraphy and chronology. What came first, how do streets change with time, what is older and younger? At a recent visit to the V and A, she particularly loved the jewellery galleries. I purchased a postcard pack featuring 16 different items of jewellery, ordered and numbered these on the back, and created a simple numeracy and ordering game to put the artefacts in the right date order - relative to each other. This has been surprisingly successful.

6. Miniature Sculpture Parks

Once the children have been in the habit of setting up their own museums, they have increasingly improvised with interesting results. When we studied Calder (see HERE) Culturebaby created a series of sculptures with a box of Shapescapes ("Sculpture in a Box") and turned this into a Sculpture Park for her miniature dolls to explore, climb, ride and discuss. As a child (and adult) I've always loved Galt's Octons, a great construction tool made up of various coloured 8 sided shapes. There are all sorts of materials that can be used to create a colourful landscape of interesting miniature art.

Disclaimer: We received a copy of The Museum of Me for review purposes. All opinions are entirely my own.

Saturday 10 September 2016

Art Baby: Best Art Board Books for the Very Young

In the last couple of years I've had numerous requests for recommendations for the best, most accessible and age appropriate art books for the very young. I thought I'd take the opportunity of celebrating the launch of a very welcome addition to this well thumbed pile, to share a round up of the most effective art board books we have discovered.

1. First stop, a brilliant book I bought at the Tate Modern called Art For Baby. I have become rather an evangelist for it (it's a much purchased new baby gift from us) as it is both beautiful and engaging. Containing monochrome images by famous artists, such as Ohana (1999) by Takashi Murakami (which was a definite favourite for both girls), this clever introduction to art (complete with additional wall frieze) gripped Culturebaby right from the start. In the first weeks of life babies see differently to us and are most attracted to people's faces, bold patterns (especially black and white) and contrasts between light and dark (that's why babies stare at windows). I've written about this further in this post. As Montessori from the Start notes: "The baby gradually develops focus on a moving object, tracking of an object, and perception of colour and depth." Step in the next two beautiful books in the series Art for Baby Faces (same format as the first title but with twelve striking and varied faces from contemporary and modern artists from Ofili to Picasso); and Art for Baby Colour. The latter is still a favourite in our household. The box contains four mini concertina galleries in each of red, blue, yellow and green and featuring 44 works by leading modern and contemporary artists. Whilst these little books are perfect for small hands, they have really come into their own in imaginative play. They can be easily set up into a whole art gallery for small characters and are regularly used by both girls.

2. The second set I bought were the beautiful little titles from Chronicle Books (USA) and Susan Goldman Rubin: Andy Warhol's Colors, Matisse Dance for Joy and Magritte's Imagination. The first two in particular have been extremely successful with the girls. We discovered Andy Warhol's Colours first online. This beautifully designed board book introduces colours through Warhol's animal art (for further suggestions on great animal themed art books see HERE). It is a perfect size for little fingers, feels shiny and beautiful to touch and has an engaging rhyme throughout. It was one of Culturebaby's first favourite books and came with us everywhere. The minute your baby is out of black and white books, I'd put this top of your to-buy list. We even included it, complete with colour activity, as a summer book exchange  (see the follow-on activity HERE).

The Matisse Dance for Joy is a perfect little introduction to the link between joy, art and movement. It's not only a book to read. It's a book to dance! This inspired little boardbook was a favourite for quite a while, particularly given Culturebaby's penchant for ballet. It takes a number of Matisse's cut-outs which involve dance and movement, and provides a simple text which directs the reader to recreate the movements and join in. It brings the images alive and gives a sense of the dynamism and energy of Henri's works, which were very much inspired by his love for music (he was a keen violinist). We took the book to the blockbuster Matisse show at Tate Modern a couple of years ago and it served both as a guide-book for the children to find favourite images in the galleries and helped to show this connection between movement and image in many of the works before them.

 3. At a similar time I also bought another set of titles from American publisher Sterling and authors Julie Appel and Amy Guglielmo. I've never seen anything quite like these touchy feely art books, which invite the child to explore real art in a tactile way. Although the text of these books leaves a little to be desired, the concept is brilliant. We used the pop art edition Pop Warhol's Top as part of a project on Andy Warhol (see HERE). All the children loved popping the top of the Campbell's Soup can, fluttering Marilyn's eyelashes, pulling the lettuce out of Oldenburg's Two Cheeseburgers and, best of all, feeling the sticky sauce on Lichtenstein's Mustard on White.

We also particularly love Tickle Tut's Toes, included HERE in a post on Egypt for tots. 

Though this series is aimed at ages 4+ because it has parts that can unravel, I'd really disagree with this and say the best audience is a supervised 1-2 year old. Like the engaging 'That's not my...' series, the appeal of these books are the touchy-feely elements. Little paws can explore mummy wrappings, sandy sarcophagi and corrugated pyramids, pick Monet's waterlilies and make Van Gogh's bed. They contain photographs, original artworks and a simple rhyming text. There's also a section at the back of each volume with context and information for each image. 

File:Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas 076.jpg
Culturebaby's favourite: Edgar Degas' Blue Dancers from Wiki Commons

4. Next, the Mini Masters series from Merberg and Bober is a set of beautifully-made little glossy board books. Again these are published by Chronicle Books and feature the work of one artist - taking the child on a lyrical journey through some of their well-known art. Dancing with Degas  is the favourite with our miniature ballerinas - it uses the paintings of Degas to walk us through a ballerina's day; from preparation and rehearsal to performance and rest. There are mixed reviews of the text of this book (some think the language could be better), but I think the book (and series) are a great idea and the text does the job - the rhymes help the book flow and remind Culturebaby of the paintings she likes. I would really recommend them. We used the book to talk about which scene we'd like to jump into, we talked about what the ballerinas were doing and what they were wearing, and which instruments are depicted . Culturebaby had clear favourites, which she flicked through and found for herself again and again.

5. Readers will already know we are a fan of Miffy at the Gallery and Miffy the Artist. These brilliant little classic story books by the iconic illustrator Dick Bruna, who took inspiration from Matisse's bold use of colour in art, feature a visit by the endearing little bunny with her parents to a modern art gallery and serve as a brilliant introduction for any toddler doing the same. They cleverly introduce easier concepts of both figurative art and sculpture, but also surrealism, collage and use of mobiles. They even contain a bunny ears version of Matisse's La Gerbe. Miffy becomes an amateur art appreciator and critic, and in turn is inspired to go home and try painting for herself in Miffy the Artist, a clever follow-up book produced by Tate and Dick Bruna that majors on the inspiration art galleries can give to a toddler for their own creativity.

We were therefore delighted to see that in 2015 Tate produced a new, and slightly simpler, Lift-the-Flap board-book version of Miffy the Artist. The very young progress from black and white to cloth and then feely books as their vision and dexterity develops. Around nine months, I found that the girls started to really enjoy the cause and effect and surprise elements of lift-the-flap books. Culturetot still enjoys these, which are the pre-cursors to the brilliant and much more complex Usborne Look inside books, which appeal to much older children with the same basic concept. This version of Miffy the Artist is an accessible introduction to gallery going, and the important creative process of inspiration and consequent production. "At the end of the day Miffy knew she was a real artist". A message for all our little paintbrush-wielders to hear.

6. Finally, I'd like to recommend a new series of First Concepts with Fine Artists from the brilliant publisher of art books Phaidon. I'm really excited about these clever, stunningly produced and well thought-out titles. Each glossy board book takes a learning theme (colour, shape etc...) and in such simple terms explores how these feature in a range of the artist's work.

In April we received the first in this series to test - Blue and Other Colours with Henri Matisse. Two year old Culturetot and I have loved working through the book, spotting and naming the colours used, reading the text, answering questions posed and talking about our favourite works amongst the many (over 25) featured. The book focuses on Matisse's cut-outs - produced during his 17 twilight years when he was recovering from cancer and was often too sick to hold a paintbrush. Matisse had his assistants paint large sheets of paper in a wide range of colours, he cut them into shapes and then had them arrange these on his studio walls. He cut and arranged and re-worked these until he had his perfect composition - surrounding himself with a bright paper "garden" of his own creation. For toddlers, as we experienced in the Tate Modern's brilliant retrospective, this work is bold, dynamic and memorable; a catalyst for creativity. Youngsters, in particular those who still struggle to etch complex images and get frustrated that their drawings don't yet look on paper as they intend, can perhaps see in the aged Matisse a kindred spirit who distilled shapes down to their simplest form to create something wonderful. They too can use ready-made cut-outs to create an exciting artistic composition or, for the slightly older tots, take a pair of scissors and use them to 'draw' simple shapes.This book works well in combination with the Mini Masters A Magical Day with Matisse, which focusses on his earlier period.

Next to be published on the 4th October is Squares and Other Shapes with Josef Albers. We've had a sneak preview and think it is brilliant. Albers was born in Germany in 1888 and was a leading pioneer of 20th Century Modernism and his work Interaction of Colour is still used by students today to learn about colour in art and in nature. I don't know his work well so exploring over 30 of his works has been a delight for me too. His series of works entitled Homage to the Square are his best known and several are featured in the book, alongside many others. We find towers of wobbly rectangles, bouncing circles, napping oblongs, sharp triangles and circles hiding in squares. Albers liked the way that colours looked (and seemingly changed) when juxtaposed with other colours. Some colours made his squares within squares look as if they were 'glowing'; others recede or pop-out of the picture. This is a fabulous book for learning shapes, but is also brilliant on many levels - for discussing colour and form, size and mood, perception, and exploring iconic artists in a fun way with the youngest appreciators. I can't wait to see who is up next...

“Art is as natural as sunshine and as vital as nourishment.” 

MaryAnn F. Kohl

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” 

Albert Einstein

Disclaimer: We received the two titles from Phaidon, Miffy the Artist and Art for Baby Colour for review purposes from the publishers (with thanks). All other titles we bought. As always, all views are very much my own.
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