Thursday 3 March 2016

Books to change children's thinking...

To celebrate World Book Day today, I thought I'd share a selection of the recent books we've discovered that have genuinely made us stop and think, have a good discussion and perhaps even resolve to do something differently. As a child, I was rather taken by a series of classic books my parents owned; collectively entitled "Books that have Changed Man's Thinking". I'd like to think that the editors were enlightened enough to have me, a female, in mind with their sweeping '70s collective nouns and, whilst I agree with many of their choices from Homer to Huxley, I often believe that it is the simplest of books that can often be the most profound - and none more so than those designed for children. Many of these books have genuinely inspired wow moments for me as a parent, several - without fail - provoke tears, but all in some way have served to remind me to celebrate the joy in life, embrace difference, and serve as a catalyst for change; all crucial messages I want to pass on to my children.

1. Henry Tate by Bruce Ingman was my personal book of the year in 2015. Many of us visit the Tate and appreciate the enormity of the collection we are privileged to view (and for free) but perhaps fewer are aware of the passion and generosity of the man responsible for this astounding gift to the nation. With photographs of art encased in a cartoon world and a text so simple even my two year old adores it, Ingman presents an enchanting tale of Henry Tate. Henry was a boy who worked hard and built a business from the bottom up, fell in love with art, collected and collected and ultimately decided that it was not only for him to enjoy - he wanted to share it with the nation. Following a rejection of his offer to the National Gallery (ever wondered why the NG's art contains nothing modern?), he built his own gallery, filled it with his beautiful art and we can visit it (and 3 others) today. The girls adore this book with its amusing text and stunning artwork. It's a tale of philanthropy and enterprise and the impact of generosity in a tangible way on their own experience.

2. Pass it On is a new book from an author whose work we love: Sophy Henn. It's a children's version of the idea that good works and joy are there to be passed on to others. If we use what simple gifts of love we have to lighten the lives of others, we spread beauty and it always comes back to support us in the times we too need to be cheered. With an emphasis on finding delight in small things, this book is a joy for all readers - big and small.

3. Another lovely book with a similar message is Alisa Burrows' The Jar of Happiness. There once was a little girl called Meg, who invented her own kind of happiness, put it in a jar and carried it everywhere with her - sharing it with all who needed it. But then one day she couldn't find her jar and became sad. Happily her friends came to the rescue, teaching her their own unique ways to create happiness - from smiles and hugs to happy thoughts. Armed with an arsenal of joy, she no longer needed her jar alone.

4. The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde is one of my favourite childhood books and comes in a number of versions. With Wilde's beautiful prose and the message of Easter through the eyes of a child, I eternally fail to get through this classic without a hankie. A hard-hearted giant throws children, who have nowhere else to go, out of his garden; it is his garden and his alone. But without joy present the frost and snow and hail and wind move in, bringing with them a perpetual winter. Then one day the giant is awoken by birdsong; the children have broken into the garden and with them comes the spring - the trees bloom and flowers spring up. However, one corner of the garden remains in winter - a spot where a small child is unable to climb into the tree alongside his peers and reaches up to the trees to no avail. The giant's heart is melted and he goes to the garden and helps the child reach the trees, which immediately bloom. His kindness is rewarded with a kiss and the giant is healed; he knocks down the walls and the children make his garden their playground once more. The children return daily, except the little child he loved the most. The giant grows old and frail with the children all around him, but he is always hoping that the small one will return... and one day he does, but scarred with wounds on his hands and feet. The giant, enraged, asks who has dared to hurt his friend, but the child tells him that these are the wounds of love. Once he let the little child play in his garden, and so today the child explains that he will be taking the giant to his own garden - paradise. The version of this story we discovered beautifully illustrated and abridged by Alexis Deacon stops at the point the Giant bestows his garden upon the children and all find happiness. This in itself is a beautiful and profound tale for the very young. However, for 4 year old Culturebaby we also love the full version. I have a vintage version illustrated by Michael Foreman and Freire Wright from 1978, but there are others out there too.

5. Isaac and his Amazing Asperger Superpowers by Melanie Walsh dropped through our letterbox last week and is an extremely refreshing and positive exploration of life from the perspective of a child with Asperger's. Isaac explains that "You might think I look just like everyone else, but I've got special superpowers that make me slightly different to my brother and the other kids at school. However, some children don't understand this and call me names." He goes on explain that his brain works a little differently - why he loves to give facts, has so much energy, forgets to say hello and sometimes says things that people find rude. The book focusses on the amazing strengths children with autism can display and why they also struggle with certain environments. This book should be essential reading for all children.

6. Cat's Colours by Airlie Anderson is one of the most stunning books we have discovered in a long time, with a coda that never fails (after many many "again!"s) to make Culturebaby sigh with delight. Cat is surrounded by grey and is consequently having rather a grey day; but she decides to snap out of it, look for the colour in life and as she notices the vivid hues all around her, she begins to take something of each of them into herself. At the end of the day, dappled with rainbow markings, she settles down to rest. She delivers a litter of technicolour kittens; gifting the beauty she received from the world back into it again several times over. A simple and stunning message with exquisite illustrations, this is my favourite new book of 2016.

7. Where's the Elephant? by Barroux is a brilliant graphic exploration of the effects of deforestation. Illustrating the concept perfectly through almost entirely wordless pages, the impact of a simple search for three animals in a rapidly reducing habitat is immense. The child is invited to find the elephant, parrot and snake, who initially are tricky to find. Then their habitat is decreased and decreased until there is nothing left to hide them. And they leave. This is a deep and prophetic tale of the importance of saving our world before it is too late.

8. Little Home Bird by one of our favourite authors Jo Empson (of Rabbityness) is a well-timed new tale for our little, recently moved, household. Little Bird loved his home, his favourite branch, his nest and his beautiful collection of things... but then the wind blew cold and it was time to fly south. He tried to take all this things with him, but they weighed him down and gradually he shed them - blessing a range of grateful creatures who had a great need for them along the way. Eventually he reached a land where the wind blew warm and he could rest and establish his new life with his family. He no longer had his favourite things, but he found new ones and a host of new friends. A beautiful meditation on the necessity of leaving things behind and the real meaning of home, this book has other layers and would be excellent reading both for children moving house or those who must live between two homes.

9. Continuing this theme of memory and value, The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Rebecca Cobb is perhaps Donaldson's most moving work. A loving mother helps her little girl make a chain of paper dolls, which become the child's most beloved play things. They accompany her on adventures, they face perils and experience wonders with her and all the time laughing and singing "You can't get us. Oh no no no! We're holding hands and we won't let go. We're Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie and Jim with two noses and Jo with the bow!". Then sadly one day a little boy snips and destroys them, believing they are gone forever; but of course they aren't - they fly singing into the girl's memory. They join her most treasured things and as she grows into a girl and a mother they remain in her memory and she too helps her own little girl make some paper dolls. This stunning book shows the real value of legacy, and how our acts of love and creativity with our children (and those of my own mother with me) will always live on.

10. Another, perhaps lesser known, Donaldson and Sharratt collaboration is the ingenious What the Jackdaw Saw, a  picture book about the importance of understanding each other. Dedicated to all deaf children and their families, this story follows a journey of a jackdaw who flies along inviting animals to his party. He is perplexed that they do not reply but in each case they continually touch their head. Eventually he flies headlong into a stormcloud and, failing to see the hazard, a tree. He exclaims "Why didn't they warn me?" and in turn he is told that each animal was indeed trying to tell him of the danger - why didn't he see them touching their head? Danger! Danger! The jackdaw understood the problem and learned how to sign.

11. Already big fans of Iggy Peck Architect, I was delighted to discover the Mighty Girl masterpiece Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Rosie loves making things; gadgets and gizmos and machines for doing wonderful things. She hides them under her bed where noone can see. She was once unabashed but, after she created a wonderful gift for a favourite relative who laughed at her offering, she lost her confidence to share her inventions. Then one day she heard the dream of her great great aunt (herself once an engineer) to finally fly and set herself the task to create a flying machine and propel the old lady into flight. With the wisdom and support of this wonderful old lady Rosie discovers that true failure can come only if you quit. With a wonderful canter through some of the feminine aeronautical successes of the last few centuries, this quirky book exhorts children to stand and cheer at each perfect failure, get up and try again.

12. Finally, a wonderful book we discovered last year and is on my 'to buy' list, is the inspiring The Man With the Violin by Cathy Stinson and illustrated by Dusan Petricic. The book is based on a true story about the famous musician Joshua Bell who dressed in normal clothes and played in a subway station in Washington D.C. in 2007. Over the course of an hour's experiment, thousands passed but only seven people stopped to properly listen. However, the musician noticed that it was the children who often wanted to stop - but were hurried on by their parents. This book imagines the experience from the perspective of a child. I've discovered since I've had the children that I'm often in a hurry but I'm slowed down by their natural curiosity and infectious joy in the smallest and simplest of things and I'm often delighted to see what they see - whether we are in museums, concerts or in nature. It's a continual lesson for us all to stop and listen and look at the wonder in life around us and never to let genius and beauty pass us by.

"You give a little love and it all comes back to you...You know you're gonna be remembered for the things that you say and you do..."
Bugsy Malone

Disclaimer: We received some of these books for review purposes, others are from the library or owned by us. All views are entirely my own.

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