Friday, November 30, 2018

Children's Books as Springboards to Special Places

I've written about children's books with a strong sense of place before, but I want to revisit the topic with some new books as well as some old favourites. There are many books that centre on special or unique places that we cannot visit. But for others, it might be possible. One of the wonderful things that children can experience with books is the chance to visit a place featured in a book, or perhaps one like it. The horror of Hiroshima is not a place any of us would choose, but a book can offer insight and challenge us about events in the past that happened in a real place. As well, one of the most wonderful things to do with any book is to try to contextualise it by visiting the setting, or a place that is close to the setting for the book. There are some great reasons for this:
  • It helps young readers gain a stronger sense of setting and place and its importance for literature (see my post on 'Visiting the 'real' place in 'My Place' HERE).
  • It helps young writers to see how a place can be represented in words - how do we turn the sights, sounds, smells, tactile experiences and even tastes, into written language.
  • It enriches the experience of reading a book and deepens understanding of the book and its content.
  • It enriches other disciplines like geography, history and science (HERE).
If you are a parent on holidays, or a teacher wanting to plan an excursion with a difference, why not make a book come alive with an outing that enriches their knowledge and deepens their reading while teaching them about writing.

1. 'Backyard' by Ananda Braxton-Smith & illustrated by Lizzy Newcomb

Australian author Ananda Braxton-Smith and fine artist Lizzy Newcomb have created a stunning picture book. A work of art in its own right, and a team that has created a lyrical tale in word and picture that is set in life in a suburban backyard (or perhaps you might say the 'garden' in the UK and US).

In this city,
that is like
other cities,
a sleepy-moony child
and a star-eyed dog
are watching 
the world

This book is also a wonderful celebration of the natural wildlife of Australian backyards. 

Tawny frogmouths still as wood, with lamp-eyes lighting tiny movement everywhere.
Picking with fussy knitting legs, orb weaver nets her web.
A circus of evening midges spiralling always up.
Honeyeater gaping to catch tiny winds in her beak.

The backyard is viewed from a child's perspective as they stand on the back step at dusk and scans the backyard. The backyard can be teeming with life - birds, possum, native rat, bats, insects and bugs. This beautiful book encourages parents and teachers to reconnect children with their backyards and the natural world.

2. 'Clever Crow' by Nina Lawrence and illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft

This brand new picture book from Indigenous publisher Magabala Books is wonderful debut book by author Nina Lawrence (a descendant of the Yidinji people of Far North Queensland), and illustrator Bronwyn Bancroft (a clan member of the Bundjalun Nation). Like other Indigenous authors and illustrators they are sharing their people's stories but also seeking to preserve their languages. And hence, this gorgeous picture book is bilingual, with both English and Djambarrpuynu language used.  

It is the story of a hungry crow. A very hungry crow! He was desperate for food but couldn't find any. Then he saw some people at a special ceremony cooking a turtle egg. He looked at the egg and thought "Yummy, food for me!" And he steals it. A resting kookaburra laughs as he watches. The crow doesn't like this and calls out.... the egg is lost. Where does it end up next and where will it ultimately end up?

Bronwyn Bancroft is a highly awarded illustrator with many awards, including being a finalist in the Hans Christian Andersen Award (2016) and the honour of the award of the Dromkeen Medal (2010). This is Nina Lawrence's first children's book. And what an impressive start to her career as an author and champion for her land, people and language.

3. 'Sleep: How Nature Gets its Rest' by Kate Prendergast

How do animals sleep? Some alone, some in packs, some upside-down, some in the daytime...Kate Prendergast takes a close look at the sleeping habits of a wide range of animals, birds and fish. Includes meerkats, bats, horses and dogs - and who knew that fish slept with their eyes open? A first information book, illustrated with beautiful close-ups of the animals featured, the book ends with a question - do animals dream? and four pages of curious animal facts.

This wonderful non fiction book is the creation of Kate Prendergast. Kate is such a talented illustrator and writer. Her drawings of animals are exquisite, and her text, simple but elegant. I wanted to reach out and pat the tiger as it sleeps. I just love her work.

Once again, this book might well encourage them to wonder "where is ___ sleeping tonight. I have my window open and I can hear crickets, locusts, a Tawny Frogmouth, and a Ringtail possum scrambling over our roof as hunts for food before it sleeps.

4. 'My Place' (1988) by Nadia Wheatley and illustrated by Donna Rawlins

I wrote a post back in January 2009 (here) about a family excursion to explore part of Sydney that was the setting for the wonderful book 'My Place' (Nadia Wheatley & Donna Rawlins). 'My Place' was published in 1987 for distribution in Australia’s bicentennial year (1988). It makes a strong statement about the fact that Indigenous Australians were here for thousands of years before white settlement (there isn't space to unpack this). 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.

Our excursion as a family around the streets of Tempe and St Peters in Sydney enriched my appreciation of the book and my grandchildren's sense of the place. As well, it gave my grandchildren a great introduction to Australia's history since white settlement in 1788 and it deepened our understanding of the book. The book has been used as the basis of a television series which screened recently in Australia (here).

In recent months I've been reading this book to my grandchildren who haven't seen it before. They have been fascinated by it and complexity of its back story about Indigenous Australians reminding us recent arrivals that this is their country and this is their place!

5. 'Make Way for Ducklings'

Make Way for Ducklings (1941) was written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. It tells the story of a pair of mallard ducks that choose a small island in a pond in the Boston Public Garden to lay their eggs and raise their young.

The plot traces the mother taking the ducklings for their first major outing. She leads the ducklings ashore and straight to the highway but has trouble (not surprisingly) crossing the busy road. A policeman named Michael who likes feeding peanuts to the Mallards, stops traffic for the family to cross.

This wonderful book won the Caldecott Medal in 1942. If you visit the garden today you can view the pond and the island and retrace the steps of the ducklings. There is a statue in the park of the mother and her eight ducklings.

I spent many hours with my own children at a special park in the town of Bathurst in the central west of NSW. It had a duck pond where we delighted at the antics of the ducks. We had fun watching families of ducks, making up stories and enjoying this special place. 

6. 'Alexander's Outing' by Pamela Allen

'Alexander's Outing' (1993) by Pamela Allen is a wonderful picture book (like McCloskey's) that is set in the centre of a busy city. This time it is Sydney and the beautiful Hyde Park (particularly the Archibald Fountain). Alexander is a duck who lives with his mother and four brothers and sisters in Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens. Alexander's mother becomes bored and decides to take the family for a walk. Alexander is separated from the family and falls down a deep dark hole.

How do you get a duck out of a small hole in the ground? Hint - think about water and ducks!

7. 'Under the Southern Cross' by written & illustrated by Frane Lessac

This stunning new narrative nonfiction picture book from Frané Lessac, explores the Australia skies after dark. 'Under the Southern Cross' is a companion book to 'A is for Australia' (2015) and 'A is for Australian Animals' (2017).

In Darwin after dark, families "snuggle in beanbags and deckchairs, to watch movies and munch popcorn - under the Southern Cross". At Mon Repos in Queensland, "tiny turtles scramble down the beach and paddle out to sea". In Hobart, "ribbons of colour swirl and twist and dance on the horizon - under the Southern Cross". So many wonders in the sky after dark! Alongside the simple narrative text is more detailed factual information about the natural wonders to be found in Australia under the night sky.
8. 'The Dam' by David Almond & illustrated by Levi Pinfold

A haunting, stunningly illustrated story of loss, hope, and the power of music from multi-award winners David Almond and Levi Pinfold.

This wonderful picture book has been created by David Almond and Levi Pinfold. David Almond is an author of extraordinary talent. He has received numerous awards for his writing, including the prestigious Carnegie Medal, two Whitbread Children's Book Awards and the 2010 Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international prize for children's authors. Levi Pinfold is also a widely awarded illustrator. His awards include the most prestigious award of all for any illustrator, the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2013. This is a stunning and haunting book from an amazing team.

Kielder Water is a wild and beautiful place, rich in folk music and legend. Years ago, before a great dam was built to fill the valley with water, there were farms and homesteads in that valley and musicians who livened their rooms with song. After the village was abandoned and before the waters rushed in, a father and daughter returned there. The girl began to play her fiddle, bringing her tune to one empty house after another -- for this was the last time that music would be heard in that place. With exquisite artwork by Levi Pinfold, David Almond's lyrical narrative -- inspired by a true tale -- pays homage to his friends Mike and Kathryn Tickell and all the musicians of Northumberland, to show that music is ancient and unstoppable, and that dams and lakes cannot overwhelm it.

A wonderful picture book for readers 7 to 97 years. A great option as a read aloud as well.

9. 'Wind in the Willows' by Kenneth Grahame

This wonderful classic book is read less by children today but deserves our attention. This is a rich narrative, with wonderful characters and word choice and sentence structure that is as close to perfect as you can get. But there is more. Here is language that is symphonic, with the rhythms of each sentence and the choice and ordering of words matching exquisitely the settings, situations and atmosphere that Grahame has created. Or perhaps it’s the other way round.

You can also view the wonderful DVD version (HERE), you can see the story in the form of a play in a setting that evokes much of the wistful summer charm of Grahame's book.

While the Cornish village of Lerryn lays claim to being the setting for 'Wind in the Willows' it might just as well have been any one of a number of other small villages or stretches of lazy English rivers like the Thames where Grahame eventually retired after leaving banking, spending his life "messing around in boats" just like Ratty. There are lazy rivers all over the world that resonate and help to evoke the rich experiences that Grahame writes about. In fact, a stroll along many of the creeks that I frequented as a child in Australia with their native She Oaks (a species of Australian Casuarina tree), low flying kingfishers, slow moving water and glimpses of water rats and low flying dragon flies, evokes the same emotions (for me) as Grahame's novel.

Why not find a creek bank, pack a picnic basket and head off with 'Wind in the Willows' and read it to your children this summer (or next summer in the Northern Hemisphere). I can't walk along the banks of an Australian creek on a hot day without hearing the echo of some of Grahame's words (for example):

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing
10.  'Looking for Crabs' 

'Looking for Crabs' (1993) by Bruce Whatley could be set on just about any Australian beach and probably plenty of white sand beaches around the world. It is a simple picture book about a family outing and as always the children begin to look for things. 

But where are the crabs? This amusing story transports you straight to the beach. Reading it after or before a beach outing will enrich the experience and the reading of the book.

Many times as I've spent time on beaches and watched crabs and other creatures a story has never been far away. Are they hiding from us, or laughing at us?

And there are lots more

There are many fine examples of children's books of this kind that can be read while visiting other places during holidays. For example:

'Hairy Maclary From Donaldsons Dairy' by Lynley Dodd - find out what a 'Dairy' really is in New Zealand as this little dog and his friends have lots of adventures.
'The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch' by Ronda & David Armitage - what would life be like living in a Lighthouse on any coastal outcrop (watch out for pesky seagulls!).
'Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill' by Dorothy Wall - you probably need to be in Australia to appreciate reading this fantasy about Australia's bush and its animals. Find the Banksia men in Banksia Trees, Gumnut babies on every branch....
'The Wheel on the School' by Meindert DeJong - life in a Dutch village and the relationship between people and the natural world
'The Hockey Sweater' by Roch Carrier - gain an insight into ice hockey and cultural life in Canada
'Night of the Moon Jellies' by Mark Shasha - find out about life in coastal New England (USA)
'My Hiroshima' by Junko Morimoto - a picture book that offers a real life account of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima through the eyes of a child who stayed home that day sick rather than going to school.
'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall - live through the Blitz bombings in World War II Britain as a group of young boys collect the ultimate war souvenirs as they drop around them.
'Slave Girl: The Diary of Clotee, Virginia, USA 1859' by Patricia McKissack - learn about a 12 year old slave girl living just before the American Civil war who longs for freedom.
'The Thieves of Ostia' by Caroline Lawrence - I visited the ruins of Ostia about 10 years ago (it's incredible!) and wish that I'd read this mystery about Flavia and her friends in the ancient Roman port in the 1st century AD before or just after the trip.

And many more!

In Conclusion

The above are just examples of the many wonderful ways that linking books with places, experiences or specific time periods can enrich literature, language and learning.

I would love to hear about some of your favourite examples.

Related Posts

All my posts on Children's Literature (here)

'Key Themes in Children's Literature' (here)