Gecko Press‘ latest picture book is that rare beast, a message book that also entertains – it’s also artfully designed with eight blank pages and sixty characters! In Crossing the Line by Isabel Minhó Martins, an army general orders a guard to keep the right-hand page of the book blank. But a crowd of people build up on the border, desperately wanting to use the space. What can the guard do? People power succeeds in the end. It’s those eight blank pages that will speak to all ages about freedom: children see an empty space and want to play in it; teenagers ask why it’s forbidden; and adults see the injustice in it. A wonderful concept with lively illustrations by Bernardo Carvalho. (Read about Peace books for children here)
Just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may also very well need contact with nature.
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv is an inspiring book about how to prevent ‘nature deficit’ in children. Children today are often more aware of threats to the environment (climate change, extinction, pollution) than they are of the environment itself.
If we fill our classrooms with examples of environmental abuse, we may be engendering a subtle form of dissociation. Lacking direct experience of nature children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse.
Louv brings together a body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development. He takes a positive approach by offering practical solutions in your own backyard.
Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts…It is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world. – Rachel Carson
1. The bee and its place in history: by Claire Preston, author of Bee.
The bee is the only creature on the planet that is a true creative artisan. It gathers materials and transforms them to make not only architecture but food.– Claire Preston
William Steig, (creator of Shrek) has been called ‘one of the finest cartoonists and creators of children’s books’ (Jonathan Cott). He began writing for children at 60 and his stories are often uncompromising but always celebrate the richness of relationships and nature. Steig used sophisticated language to entertain readers rather than befuddle them.
The picture book Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride is one of his most playful. A farmer-pig suffers a series of slapstick mishaps as he takes gifts home to his beloved family. I love his description of a rainstorm:
‘Harum-scarum gusts of wind … a drubbing deluge … thunder rambled and rumbled … it dramberamberoomed!’
Daleks exterminate, it’s terribly rude:
But humans kill bees, who make our food.
Bees give us honey and fruit for free,
Daleks love bees, so why can’t we?
Perhaps it’s because the Daleks have a ‘hive mind’, a collective consciousness – much like honey bees which communicate in the hive by smell, touch, and by democratic systems.
Listen to the Dalek High Commander speak:
Reading and brain development are linked almost from birth. A baby’s brain grows quickly (tripling in size in the preschool years) as the brain cells make connections with each other. What creates those connections? Reading and singing to a baby; playing with a baby; touch and eye contact. By six years old, a child has the most brain connections he or she will ever have. A baby who’s been introduced to books will start school with many literacy skills in place.
The amount of time the child spends listening to parents and other loved ones read continues to be one of the best predictors of later reading.– Maryanne Wolf
Reading and thinking can enhance each other. It’s our brain’s ‘plasticity’ that enables us to learn to read – reading creates brand new neural pathways and these then become the basis for new thinking. (More reading quotes here).
Spencer and his Dad
Tell all the truth but tell it slant – Emily Dickinson
Science can be difficult to describe: all that maths, the weird words, and ungraspable quantum physics. That’s why analogies and metaphors are so useful in science. And so comforting:
We find it easier to reason by comparing unfamiliar with familiar, falling back on experience, looking for links between things, and seeking out pattern and meaning. – Joel Levy, A Bee in a Cathedral
Science abounds in comparisons: a greenhouse to explain global warming; a cat in a box to illustrate a paradox; and Kepler’s clockwork solar system. One of my favourites compares quantum physics to jazz and general relativety to a waltz:
General relativity is like Strauss — deep, dignified and graceful. Quantum theory, like jazz, is disconnected, syncopated, and dazzlingly modern. – Margaret Wertheim, Physics’s Pangolin
Photo: Shrödinger’s Cat in a super position
In late autumn most of the male bees (drones) are pushed outside the hive to die – the female worker bees can’t afford the honey to feed them all. In winter, the large bee family huddles together in a tight ball which traps the heat of their bodies. It’s amazing that even when it’s way below zero outside, bees can keep the cluster at around 95˚F (35˚C). To adjust their temperature, bees vibrate their wing muscles and constantly change places with each other within the huddle. This close cooperation means bees can control the temperature and survive in almost any climate. Bees eat their honey in winter and on the odd fine day they fly outside to poo, as is their hygienic habit.
The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber, is 60 years old and retains its brilliance. I can still recall whole sentences from when it was read to me as a child. This fairy tale parody, about a prince who performs impossible tasks to save a princess, uses every trick in the English language, including invented words ( ‘squtch’ and ‘zickering’). Look for the Ronald Searle illustrated version which has a bonus story, The Wonderful O, about a pirate who tries to ban the letter ‘o’. Here are some choice Thurber sentences:
Thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets.
Time is for dragonflies and angels. The former live too little and the latter live too long.
A peasant in a purple smock stalked the smoking furrows, sowing seeds.
Honey is a symbol of grace – a gift freely given by honey bees – and saints were known as ‘Divine Bees’ because they often led lives that expressed grace and love. Saint Nicholas was born about 280 AD into a rich family, but when his parents died he used his great wealth to help the poor and sick, giving them gifts in secret. He became a bishop and because of his beliefs he was imprisoned by the Roman Emperor, Diocletian. Today Nicholas is the Patron Saint of Greece and possibly the model for the gift-giving Santa Claus. Honey is given as a gift to children on St. Nicholas’ Day.
A painting of St. Nicholas (1294):
We should not write them off as superstitious primitives.– James Hannam
It’s a myth (turned cliche) that science and faith have always been at odds. The book, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam, shows how the church supported the genesis of science. Medieval universities were church-sponsored and ‘natural philosophy’ (as science was called back then) was a core subject. European thinkers drew on ancient Greek and Islamic texts to develop scientific principles that we still use today. Hannam debunks the myth of the ‘Dark Ages’: for example, people knew the Earth was round; the Christian church did not routinely persecute scientists; there were many inventions, from clocks to spectacles; and early Islamic scientists discovered how the eye functions and invented surgical instruments. (Essay on Science and Soul).
He who saves one life, it is as if he saved an entire world.– Babylonian Talmud
The Righteous by Martin Gilbert is a record of the very best and the very worst of human behaviour. These are remarkable stories of ‘Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust’ who risked their lives to save Jews during the 1940s. Schindler’s List is well known, but here are 500 similar acts of courage in helping Jews (which carried the death penalty in Nazi-occupied countries). Many of the stories come from the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ archive which lists 19,000 non-Jews who risked their lives.
Anti-Semitism was rife in many parts of Europe and the Nazis were assisted by local populations in murdering tens of thousands of Jews, in addition to the concentration camps. The heroes in the book are clergy, farmers, businessmen, families, royalty, city officials, and soldiers. It’s estimated that to save one Jewish life required at least 10 people working in a fragile chain of courage.
Another remarkable book about saving Jewish lives in WW2 is Life in a Jar – The Irena Sendler Project by Jack Mayer. It’s the story of Irena Sendler who rescued 2,500 Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Poland – a forgotten piece of history uncovered by three high school girls in rural Kansas in 1999. Irena smuggled children out of the Warsaw ghetto where the Nazis imprisoned 450,000 Jews. The Kansas girls turned the story into a play which has had international impact.
This moment is the ultimate revenge on Hitler. Protestant kids, celebrating a Catholic rescuer of Jewish children for the Warsaw ghetto, performing in a Jewish theatre…and they are being filmed by German television.’ – Chief Rabbi of Poland
Recent research has revealed more amazing honey bee abilities:
- BeeSweet: Bees can detect electrical signals from flowers which help them identify the flowers with the richest nectar.
- BeeSpresso: Many flowers have traces of caffeine in their nectar which bees are more attracted to than flowers without.
- BeeTox: When bees eat honey it detoxifies them by triggering genes that make antibiotic chemicals.
- BeeFriend: Bees use their right antenna to tell friend from foe – it has more smell-sensing hairs on it than the left antenna.
- BeeStill: Even non-fatal amounts of pesticides will eventually destroy a beehive. Don’t spray near flowers!
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was ahead of its time with its story of wormholes and angels. Struggling writers should take note that it was rejected 26 times because its ideas were so ground-breaking back in 1960. Not unlike the current Dr Who, L’Engle combined engaging characters with a sci-fi plot that invoked the whole universe – I especially love the ending where a giant disembodied alien brain is defeated by love. Here’s what she said about children’s books:
You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children – Madeleine L’Engle
A book needs us desperately. We have to pull it off the shelf. We have to open it up. We have to turn the pages, one by one. We even have to use our imagination to make it work. So, suddenly, that book is not just a book; it’s our book. – Mo Willems
The pictures are not very defined because one wants to be able to have the imagination playing over them. – Quentin Blake
Because they have so little, children must rely on imagination rather than experience. – Eleanor Roosevelt
“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space…”— Shakespeare (Hamlet)
Image: Two merging galaxies, from NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes. (Credit: NASA, ESA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/D. Elmegreen (Vassar)
Miss Clavel turned on the light and said, “Something is not right!” – Madeleine
You’ve written a wonderful story and can’t wait to send it to a publisher. But wait! Don’t send it off; instead, hide your story away for weeks, or even months. When you pick it up again it will be like ‘turning on the light’ – you’ll see what ‘is not right’; you’ll see with fresh eyes all the weak bits. Not waiting has been my biggest mistake as a writer. When I wait, I always find things to fix: I get that Miss Clavel feeling when a scene doesn’t fit or a character speaks in clichés – the story dream is broken. (Illustration above from the timeless book, Madeleine, by Ludwig Bemelmans).
Nothing must be out of place. The reader must keep turning pages with no interruptions in the flow. – Darcy Pattison
Go over and over it…refusing to let anything stay if it looks awkward, phony, or forced.– John Gardner
Choosing a title is the fun stage of writing a book. The hard work over, I spend hours happily test-driving pithy, bizarre or lyrical titles. The greatest children’s titles describe some aspect of the plot, setting, or character, in striking words. My favourites titles are A Swiftly Tilting Planet and The Stupid’s Die; and I quite like my own, Global Norman (about global warming). Here are some classic titles of children’s literature:
* Character: Oliver Twist, Shrek, The Halfmen of O, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, Flat Stanley
* Plot: Millions of Cats, Journey To The Centre of the Earth, The Shrinking of Treehorn
*Setting: Outside Over There, The Horror of Hickory Bay, The Black Island
*Theme: To Kill A Mockingbird, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry
* Joke: War and Peas, Squids Will Be Squids, Green Eggs and Ham
Bees and humans are partners: we can’t survive without their pollinating skills and bees can’t survive without a clean environment. Keep the bee partnership alive by donating to these charities:
1. Bees For Development: combats poverty by teaching beekeeping in poor communities. Their patron is Sting, naturally (Photo: Paolo Roversi). Great website too: Bees For Development.
2. Oxfam: Plan B helps women in Ethiopia learn beekeeping and earn a living.
3. Tear Fund: The Bees Knees fund helps people in Nepal start a beekeeping business.
Alice in Wonderland (1865) is 150 years old. The book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass (1871), by Lewis Carroll, were the first children’s novels to create a complete fantasy world. Before Alice, children’s books were mostly moralistic or religious, with titles such as ‘An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children’. The Alice books are infused with word play, parody of Victorian society, anarchy, and creepy characters (courtesy of Tenniel’s illustrations; the sheep below is my favourite). Alice revolutionized children’s literature.
- The lovely hardback version with Zadie Smith’s intro and Mervyn Peake’s pictures.
- The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner is the definitive geek’s guide.
- Salvador Dali’s illustrated Alice (view the paintings here.)
Never before have so many people fled political persecution and war as today.– German 10-point plan
The biggest refugee crisis is history is unfolding and our government refuses to increase our (already low) quota of refugees. Our population has almost doubled since 1987, yet our quota has fallen. Globally, 59.5 million people are forcibly displaced (up from 33 million in 2010). The crisis in Europe mirrors the period before WW2 when the flood of Jewish refugees were blocked by unyileding refugee quota systems in the US, UK, France, Canada, South Africa, Australia and NZ.
In the late 1930s Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany were particularly keen to migrate to New Zealand. However, New Zealand restricted their entry. –Te Ara Encyclopedia of NZ
Currently the largest refugee-hosting countries are Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon. The crisis is massive but that’s no excuse for NZ not to make a start by increasing our refugee quota.
We’re all brothers and sisters, wherever we come from, whatever our culture, whatever our religion. – Jean Varnier
Who was one of the most widely read but least known children’s authors? Carl Barks. My first comic book love was the Donald Duck series by Carl Barks who fleshed out Disney’s film characters and created 500 engrossing adventures for children. The hunt for square eggs in Lost in the Andes (1949) was a favourite and anything with the Italian sorceress, Magica de Spell . When I was ten I moved on to superhero comics – I loved the bizarre character Mr Mxyzptlk who could only be beaten if Superman tricked him into saying his name backwards. Why are comics so popular? Because the style combines dramatic art, fast pace and engaging characters. Teachers can use comics in class as models of design and tight narrative structure; and they’re ideal for reluctant readers, usually boys. The comic form also embraces stunning graphic novels for adults, such as Persepolis and Logicomix, about Bertrand Russell.
The only thing to withhold is what happens next.– Orson Scott Card
I made a basic mistake while writing my latest children’s novel. I tried to create suspense by withholding information from the reader. The result was a confusing plot that had no gripping power – so I edited the opening chapters, introducing the central problem up front. The Hitchcock Principle is that you create suspense by showing the audience as much as you can, and as early as you can. He gives the example of two characters talking at a table for 5 minutes then a bomb explodes, providing a few seconds of surprise. But if we see the bomb under the table from the start of the scene, it provides 5 minutes of suspense.
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. – Kurt Vonnegut
As soon as the character engages with the problem, narrative tension starts. – Norman Bilborough
The worse drafts hide information, wrongly believing that just giving a hint here or there is the best strategy.– Darcy Pattison
Two war memoirs I was gripped by recently. Resistance by Agnes Humbert tells of her four year imprisonment by the Nazis. The title refers not only to the French Resistance but also the inner strength that enabled Humbert to survive horrific treatment. It’s a riveting read which shows ‘how the human mind can preserve the heart and soul intact against all attempts to annihilate it’ (Linda Grant).
A Moment of War by Laurie Lee relates his time in the Spanish Civil War. Lee begins his journey as an idealistic young man and ends it a shattering ‘moment’ when he sees the true consequences of war. An honest, eloquent book; the third in Lee’s stunning memoir-trilogy (with Cider With Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning).
‘I was in that flush of youth that never doubts self-survival, that idiot belief in luck and a uniquely charmed life, without which illusion few wars would be possible’ – Laurie Lee
Thirty years ago today, French spies attacked the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour. It was on a voyage around the Pacific, relocating islanders from radioactive areas and protesting against American and French nuclear weapons. One of the ship’s engineers, 25 year old Hanne Sorensen, describes what happened that night:
“I had been working on another protest boat during the day doing some gas welding. That night I decided to go for a walk – I just had this urge to get off the Warrior…I can’t explain it. I came back at midnight and was stopped by police on the wharf who said there’d been some explosions. I thought, ‘Had I forgotten to turn the gas off?’ I didn’t even realise the Warrior had sunk at first. The crew were all huddled in blankets on the wharf and I still didn’t realise what had happened even though they all told me. It wasn’t until morning when I saw the boat that it really hit me hard.The first bomb blew a huge hole in the engine room – you could drive a car through – and the crew scrambled ashore as the boat sank. The next bomb exploded on the propeller shaft, close to my cabin. It was then we realised that the ship’s photographer, Fernando Pereira, was missing. He had returned to his cabin to get his camera and was drowned.
These people were my friends, like family…we’d all been through some intense things and trusted each other with our lives. Now they’d sunk our ship and killed one of our friends. After the bombing, the Greenpeace office was flooded with clothes, sleeping bags, and offers of homes to stay in. You couldn’t have had a stronger expression from the people of the world. Our aim back then was to save the world – not thinking that fifteen people on a boat could save the world, but that this was our little piece in a big puzzle. It matters what every single one of us does.” (Extract from my book, Peace Warriors).
A Matter of Life and Death is both awesome and intimate, suggesting that a single tear shed for love might stop heaven in its tracks.- Roger Ebert
A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is a wonderful fantasy movie about an English pilot who’s in love with an American (it was made to boost post-war Anglo-American relationships). It begins with their unique ‘falling’ in love scene (that can be seen here) – the dead pilot argues his case in Heaven to be allowed to return to life. The scenes on Earth are in Technicolor while Heaven is in black and white (which makes it more surreal). The last words are from a Walter Scott poem:
‘For love is heaven and heaven is love.’
At last, a big picture is emerging in science as links have been found between the small and the large, between quantum physics and biology. The poster child of ‘quantum biology’ is the European robin. The bird uses the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate vast distances – but the field is 100 times weaker than a fridge magnet, so how does the robin detect it? It uses an very finely balanced system that reaches from the sub-atomic level to the biological. Here’s how it seems to work: a photon (‘particle’) of light enters the bird’s eye as it’s flying; the photon is absorbed by a protein molecule in the eye where it causes electrons to become ‘entangled’ (an electron state that’s sensitive to magnetic fields); this creates a chemical change in the protein molecule which sends a signal to the bird’s brain telling it which way to fly. This ‘magneto-reception’ occurs in many bird species (including chickens!), honey bees, dolphins, butterflies, sharks, lobsters and stingrays. This fascinating book tells the full story:
More than any book I read as a child, The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster, gave me a love of words– it puns them, pushes them, and plunders their meaning. It’s overflowing with inventiveness: the man who is short, tall, thin and fat, at the same time; an orchestra that plays colours; a city that disappears because nobody cares. And I love the illustrations by Jules Feiffer, especially this faceless timewaster, The Trivium, who has a message for all writers:
What could be more important than doing unimportant things? … There’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.
The story is about a child’s quest to overcome boredom. It’s told with imagination, wit and wisdom — what more could you want in a children’s book?
I had been an odd child: quiet, introverted and moody. Little was expected from me. Everyone left me alone to wander around inside my own head. When I grew up I still felt like that puzzled kid — my thoughts focused on him, and I began writing about his childhood. – Norton Juster
The best picture books are like a marriage: the text and illustrations support each other but have a strong life of their own. For very young children the plot should be focused and the pictures comforting. I Went Walking by Sue Williams is a perfect first book. The words are basic yet they incorporate repetition, questions, rhymes and humour. And the illustrations by Julie Vivas are sublime; leading the eye across the page in a dance of line, shape and colour. (See her gorgeous version of the Nativity too).
Max’s Bath by Barbro Lindgren is another delightful book for preschoolers. Max dumps his toys and his food in the tub and then tries to wash the dog with predictable results. Max is a classic ‘terrible two year old’ combining charm and mischief.
The picture book Seasons by French artist, Blexbolex is a unique, meditative book for young children that adults will relish for it’s design. It’s a tactile treat, printed in chunky hardback on rough paper, like old comic annuals. Each page has a single word and a subtle image to illustrate it. No garish colours here, just the quiet passing of seasons.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1940) is best loved for his exquisite fable The Little Prince, but he also wrote one of the greatest true adventures, Wind, Sand and Stars (1940), an exciting poetic, philosophical memoir. Saint-Exupéry’s flights in the 1920s and 30s took him across the Pyrenees, Andes, and the Sahara in a tiny plane that would sometimes conk-out “with a great rattle like the crash of crockery.” There are remarkable descriptions of flying among waterspouts in a typhoon and his survival after a crash in the desert (which inspired The Little Prince).
In the sky a thousand stars are magnetized, and I lie glued by the swing of the planet to the sand. A different weight brings me back to myself…Behind all seen things lies something vaster; everything is but a path, a portal or a window opening on something other than itself.
- If you made a tower of ten million atoms… it would only be as high as a grain of sand.
- Picture a walnut sitting in the palm of your hand…if the walnut was an atom then your hand would have to be the size of the Earth.
- Look at yourself…seven octillion atoms [7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000] make your body.
Atoms are held together by electromagnetic force and they are mostly empty inside. You are made of atoms, so you are mostly empty space too. If you took away the space from everyone’s atoms you could fit the entire human race into a small Lego brick.
Atoms have smaller particles inside them. There’s a nucleus in the centre with a cloud of charged electrons around it. Look deeper inside and you’ll find even smaller particles with names such as gluons and muons, strange quarks and charm quarks. We live in a vast universe, but the universe is also inside us.
Photo: atoms of gold