Friday, November 2, 2012

18 Picture books that 'teach' as well as 'tell'

Picture books are a source of great delight for children and adults. Whether read alone, together in groups or by a parent to a child, they enrich language, share narrative in all its forms and also teach. In many ways, the picture book is the pinnacle of the narrative genre. I wanted in this post just to demonstrate how, in so many different ways good picture books 'teach', as well as 'tell' great stories.

'The Dream of the Thylacine', Margaret Wild & illustrated by Ron Brooks (2011), Allen & Unwin

This wonderful book is a lament for the loss of a remarkable animal.  The use of a stripped down 130 word text, haunting images and historic photographs, leads to a simple, yet profound and evocative telling of the conquest of a species by human action. This book will teach more about ecology and humanity's need to consider how it shares this earth with other creatures than 10 lessons on the environment.

Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks are a master team that has produced a number of wonderful picture books.  It was a deserving Honour Book in the 2012 CBC awards for best picture book

'Let the Celebrations Begin!', by Margaret Wild & illustrated by Julie Vivas (1991), Omnibus

This wonderful Australian picture book was inspired by some simple toys made by Polish women held in the Nazi prison camp of Belsen. It tells of life in Hut 18 and the planning of celebration as the prisoners anticipate their liberation from the camp towards the end of the Second World War. This is a narrative with a setting that is so specific that the narrator (Miriam) identifies her bed number (Hut 18, bed 22). This powerful story could not be told without the place, and yet, the place (or setting) is very much secondary to the story told. This is a picture book about the plight of Jewish prisoners that captures the perspective of the child as well as the adult.

'When the Wind Blows' by Raymond Briggs (1983), Penguin

Raymond Briggs uses a comic or graphic novel format to powerful effect in this challenging book. Like many of the books Briggs writes, it is just as relevant (sometimes 'more' relevant) for adults as for children. It tells of the impact of an atomic blast on an elderly British couple who approach the impending disaster as if they were simply trying to survive the Blitz of WWII.

One afternoon they hear a message on the radio about an "outbreak of hostilities" in three day's time. Jim begins the construction of a fallout shelter just like they did during WWII.  Their pointless preparations are almost comical as the horror of a nuclear holocaust descends on them as they cheerfully and stoically await what is inevitable death. This is a story with political and ideological messages that many won't young children to address, but which older children will find challenging.

The book was later made into an animated film.

'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' by Jeannie Baker (1987), Julia MacRae

This wonderful book is a narrative account that makes a powerful statement about humanity and the natural world. As always, Jeannie Baker is the master of collage, but in this work demonstrates a new complexity in her clever use of overlaid photographic images to portray different time periods. The story itself is simple, but it has many layers. A boy and his father go out in their boat to fish along the coast of the Daintree Forest in far North Queensland, a place where the tropical rainforest meets the sea. As the story unfolds the boy is confronted by echoes ('ghosts') of what this place was once like - an age of dinosaurs, a time when Indigenous people lived here and so on. It ends with an eerie look at the future of a place that humanity has degraded and destroyed.

'Fair's Fair' by Leon Garfield & illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain (1981), Hodder & Stoughton

Leon Garfield is one of the greatest exponents of historical fiction for children. As well as many wonderful novels for older children he has also written a number of picture books. Two of my favourites are 'The Wedding Ghost' (1985) illustrated by the great illustrator Charles Keeping and  'Fair's Fair' (1981) illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain and in a newer edition with Brian Hoskin as the illustrator (2001). Each of these examples teaches a great deal about life in Victorian London (and other parts of Britain). Through these two examples we learn through the relationships and events of two extreme ends of the social strata, just what everyday life was like for a street urchin ('Fair's, Fair') and the British middle class ('The Wedding Ghost').

'Counting on Frank' by Rod Clement (1990), William Collins

Another wonderful example of this type of book is Rod Clements' 'Counting on Frank' in which Frank spends his life trying to solve problems to do with area and capacity. Frank speculates about many things. How many dogs identical to his own would it take to fill his room? How many of his Dad could he squeeze into a television? How long it would take to fill his entire bathroom at bath time? Frank one day puts these skills to a very practical use with a good outcome. Here is a book that teaches us about mathematical problem solving, estimation and prediction.

'Mr Archimedes' Bath' Pamela Allen

There are a number of books that encourage the reader to solve scientific problems. In this example, the reader is faced with a basic physics problem. Pamela Allen invites her readers to consider why the water is flooding the floor in 'Mr Archimedes' Bath' as each animal hops into his bath. Mr Archimedes climbs in with a goat, a wombat and a kangaroo. In amazement he observes that the water continues to rise and eventually ends up on the floor.
"Can anyone tell me where all this water came from?"
And of course eventually, "Eureka!" he cracks the mystery. He exclaims with joy:
"We make the water go up."
'All About Poop' by Kate Hayes & illustrated by Brenna Vaughan (2012), Pinwheel Books.

This is the best book about 'poop' that I've read! I've always wanted to use that opening line. Now I'm not typically a fan of books that exploit toilet humour and feed on the base instincts of many of us to joke about bodily functions.  But, this book doesn't do these things. Yes, there are funny lines but its aim is to answer children's questions about the way our bodies break down the things we eat, and why that stuff comes out of our bodies. In narrative verse form, Kate Hayes takes us through the story of poop. From the food we ingest right through the cycle to the transport of wastewater, she offers a simple explanation of this biological function. As well, she offers health hints and basic facts at the end of the book. The illustrations by Brenna Vaughan are also delightful and add to the appeal, not that 'floaters' in the toilet bowl can easily be defined as delightful.

'Aranea' by Jenny Wagner & illustrated by Ron Brooks (1975), Puffin

This (as the name suggests) is the story of a back yard spider that weaves its wonderful web each night using its skill and the elements to survive. Its encounter's with man is just one of life's challenges, just as dangerous is nature's elements of storm, wind and rain. A book that in its story and its illustrations teaches us much about spiders, their webs and our impact on them.

'George and Ghost' by Catriona Hoy & illustrated by Cassia Thomas (2010), Hodder Children's Books

Catriona Hoy is a science teacher (read my interview with her HERE) who has written a number of wonderful books that teach something of science through engaging stories.  'George and Ghost' is a great example of a well-told story that teaches as well. George and his friend are inseparable, but George isn't sure he believes in Ghost any more. He asks Ghost to prove he is real using classic scientific evidence. Show me the evidence, what does it mean? Can I trust it? He asks Ghost to weigh himself, have his photo taken and showing that he takes up space. But the scales don't move, Ghost can't be seen in the picture and the water in the bucket doesn't spill when Ghost stands in it. Ghost can't be real. Or can he?

This is a beautiful story of simple friendship that 'asks' a number of questions of the reader. With a dash of science and a little philosophy, readers are challenged to ask what might be, not what can't be.

'The World that Jack Built' by Ruth Brown (1990), Andersen Press

This is an interesting picture book that plays on the idea of the well-known rhyme 'This is the house that Jack built'; but with a twist. The narrative follows the main character who is a black cat chasing a butterfly. The cat's trail winds from Jack's house in the idyllic English countryside, to the trees that gave the raw materials, the stream that flowed nearby, the woods etc. The cat eventually finds its way to a much different stream that flows by the factory that guess who built?
'My Place' by Nadia Wheatley & illustrated by Donna Rawlins (1987), Collins Dove

'My Place' was published in 1987 for distribution in Australia’s bicentennial year (1988) and makes a strong statement about the fact that Indigenous Australians lived in this country for thousands of years before white settlement. It is a very clever book that takes one suburban block (and the surrounding area) and tells the story of this place in reverse chronological sequence, decade by decade, from 1988 back to 1788 when the first British Fleet landed at Botany Bay. The overall meaning of the book is shaped by multiple narrative recounts of the families who have lived in this spot, 'my Place' and the changing nature of the physical landscape and built environment. See me previous post on visiting the 'real' My Place (here).

'Simpson and his Donkey' by Mark Greenwood & illustrated by Frané Lessac (2008), Walker Books

Every Australian and English child who grew up in the 1950s to 70s in Australia would know of the story of Simpson and the donkey he used to retrieve wounded men on the WWI battlefields of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. This was one of the greatest of all defeats for the forces of Britain, France and of course the Australian and New Zealand armed forces (the ANZACs). In the midst of the massacre of thousands of allied troops and the eight-month siege of this isolated beachhead, a man and his donkey were responsible for saving many lives, before Simpson was eventually killed on yet another mission.

Mark Greenwood offers a moving story of John Simpson Kirkpatrick and how he and his donkey, Duffy, rescued over 300 men during the campaign at Gallipoli. It traces his life from his home in South Shields in Newcastle (England) and his journey from the Tyne Dock to Turkey. Informed by detailed research, the text includes a brief biography of the man, details of his work at Gallipoli and also the little known story of how one of the many he rescued was actually a childhood friend.

Frané Lessac's illustrations are a wonderful complement to the story and have strength of colour that is not controlled by conventions. There are skies of yellow, orange, aqua, purple and all shades of blue. Her unique style draws your eye deep into each plate; no details can easily be missed.

'Queenie: One Elephant's Story' by Corinne Fenton & illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe (2012), Black Dog Books
This is the beautiful yet troubling story of 'Queenie' an Indian elephant who was transported to the Melbourne Zoo in 1905 and spent almost 40 years entertaining visitors, giving rides and being a regular spectacle for visitors. It paints a true picture of zoos in the early 20th century and the relationship with their keepers. It also an insight in to the different purposes of zoos in another era, and the way animals were treated. It was a CBC Honour book in 2012.

'Sweethearts of Rhythm' by Marilyn Nelson

This is the story of significant piece of cultural history. It tells through poetry of the first integrated all women's band in the USA. It played swing music and was formed in the late 1930s. The singers all attended the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which was for poor and orphaned African Americans. It was formed to raise money for the school, but it was so good that it eventually toured the whole country and played to massive crowds.

The story is told through a set of rhythmic poems that are written in the varied voices of the instruments. Jerry Pinkney's illustrations add further richness with brilliant collages.

'All the Way to WA: Our search for Uncle Kev' by Roland Harvey (2011), Allen & Unwin

Roland Harvey is one of Australia's best-loved illustrators. This new book is a companion to its wonderful predecessor, 'To the Top End' that was shortlisted in the 2011 CBCA Children's Book Awards. The book takes the reader on a journey across the vast territory of Western Australia. It is written as a travel log in narrative form. From Kalgoorlie to the Bungle Bungles it will take the reader, amusing, informing and captivating them along the way. Uncle Kev, a former professor of hydraulics is reported missing on a mission to find the fabled Bearded Night Parrot. We travel along as we find the clues to the Bearded Night Parrot, and hopefully Uncle Kev. The first single dropping from the 'extinct' parrot, a cooking pot and the remains of scorpion curry... and so it continues. There is no better way to traverse WA than with the wonderfully detailed images and amusing narrative, woven into the journey across this wonderful part of Australia. RRP is $AUS 24.99 with an eBook version available.
Note: I will interview Roland Harvey in a post later in the month

'Bilby's Secrets' by Edel Wignel & illustrated by Mark Jackson (2011), Walker Books

This is a delightful non-fiction picture book that teaches us in narrative form about the life of the wonderful bilby, an Australian marsupial. It traces the events of a typical day for mother and baby, and the perils of native and feral animals as the baby Bilby tries to survive life in the Australian landscape. Edel Wignel's story keeps the reader interested, while Mark Jackson's brightly coloured illustrations add drama and detail to this piece of discovery learning in narrative form. Children aged 2-6 will love this book. It is also a great book for classroom-based units and learning.

'Glasses, who needs 'em' by Lane Smith (1991), Viking

This is a picture book written and illustrated by Lane Smith (1991) Viking Books.  It tells the story of a boy who is unhappy about having to wear glasses. However, his doctor comes up with an imaginative list of well-adjusted eyeglass wearers. The illustrations are stunning and fun. This is a perfect book to help children understand just why some of us need to wear glasses.


Down Under Teacher said...

What a fantastic post! I'm always on the lookout for new picture books that teach as well as entertain. You've brought up a couple of new ones for me to look into. Thanks!


Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Kylie, glad it was helpful.