March 4th, 2014
Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways… Books can open up emotional, imaginative and historical landscapes. Gail Rebuck (Humans Have the Need To Read)
The reading brain is part of highly successful two-way dynamics. Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed. Maryanne Wolf
Readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative… using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities. Washington University
We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically. – Gregory Berns (Emory University)
Photo: My grandson, Spencer, 5 months old
February 27th, 2014
Comics were banned in WW2 occupied France but Edmond-François Calvo secretly produced a powerful satirical comic that became a French icon after the Germans retretaed in 1944. La Bete Est Morte! is the story of the bloody European war told with Disney-style animal characters: with the French as rabbits; British bulldogs; and German wolves (Goebbels is a weasel, Himmler a skunk). La Bete Est Morte! is a forerunner of the brilliant graphic novel, Maus, with its Nazi cats and Jewish mice. Here’s an extract:
My dear little children, never forget this: these Wolves who perpetrated these horrors were ordinary Wolves … They were not in the heat of battle excited by the smell of powder. They were not tormented by hunger. They did not have to defend themselves, nor to take vengeance for a victim of their own. They had simply received the order to kill.
February 22nd, 2014
Max and Moritz (1865) by William Busch is one of the world’s first comic books (actually, the Egyptians began the style in the pyramids). Two naughty boys create mayhem with booby-traps that torment animals and authority figures until the boys are finally punished (by ducks!) in keeping with the morals of the times. The exaggerated wickedness follows the style of Shock-headed Peter (1845).
Through the chimney now, with pleasure
They behold the tempting treasure.
Busch was the first comic artist to use motion lines to show rapid movements, such as his eye-popping piano virtuoso playing furioso:
February 17th, 2014
Quadratino (1911), ‘Square Head’, is an Italian comic strip by Antonio Rubino. In each story, Quadratino’s mischief is punished by an ‘accident’ in which his head is squeezed into a new geometric shape – he rolls downstairs and it becomes a circle; a biscuit tin squashes it into a rectangle – and Mother Geometry must ‘redraw’ his square. Maths has never been such fun! According to 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die Quadratino is “the best conceptual homage to comics” because he’s a living comic strip frame. I love his cat (click image to enlarge).
February 10th, 2014
Alice Walker’s picture book Why War Is Never a Good Idea begins with the bright, comforting colours of a book for young children, but as War devastates the land the images become grim. It’s a scary message and parents will have to judge if it suits their children. The illustrations by Stefano Vitale are evocative and Walker’s words are true:
Though War is old
It has not become wise.
Though War has a mind of its own
War never knows who it is going to hit.
Walker comments: ‘War attacks not just people, “the other,” or “enemy,” it attacks Life itself … It doesn’t matter what the politics are, because though politics might divide us, the air and the water do not … Our only hope of maintaining a livable planet lies in teaching our children to honor nonviolence, especially when it comes to caring for Nature, which keeps us going with such grace and faithfulness.’
February 4th, 2014
The classic Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (1936) remains one of the most influential children’s books (it’s never gone out of print) because of its simple but powerful theme. The tale of a bull who likes to smell flowers instead of fighting was seen as a pacifist text at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Ferdinand is a reflective, laid-back character who bravely chooses to be himself instead of following the aggressive crowd.
No wonder the book was
In contrast, Munro Leaf also wrote books which reflected the strict child-raising style of the time. His 3 and 30 Watchbirds (1941) condemns behaviours such as shoe-scuffing, primping, mumbling, moaning, fidgeting, sassing and wasting food. Some of it is in the spirit of war-time frugality, some is just a tad excessive:
Grammar Can Be Fun is slightly more tongue-in-cheek and warns children against slack language such as “gimme, wanna, gonna, and ain’t”.
January 28th, 2014
Honey bees have a body clock to keep track of time – this is vital because flowers produce nectar at different hours of the day – dandelions at 9am, for example. We have a similar inner clock but most of us rely on outer clocks to tell the time. If our devices were removed we’d probably switch to our body clock too. Bees learn very quickly: scientists trained some bees to feed (on sugar water) at 10.30am, and after that the bees turned up at exactly that time to be fed every day.
January 24th, 2014
Tintin in Tibet, the forgotten occupation, by comics artist, Cosey:
Other creative Tintin covers from Le Figaro.
January 18th, 2014
Plants have between 15 and 20 senses, including smelling, tasting, and sensing light and sounds. The root tips are especially ‘intelligent’: sensing gravity, water, light, pressure, hardness, volume, nutrients, toxins, microbes, and messages from other plants. Here are some remarkable examples of plant behaviour:
- Some corn plants emit a scent when caterpillars attack them, and the scent attracts parasitic wasps which then eat the caterpillars.
- Many plants produce caffeine, a drug which encourages bees to remember the plants and return to pollinate them.
- Forest trees use a ‘wood-wide-web’ of underground fungi through which they deliver food and water to other trees in need, and also signal others about insect attack.
- Plants eat sunlight!
Read more about intelligent plants in this excellent essay by Michael Pollan.
January 14th, 2014
You must marry the wind of inspiration with the bone of graphic clarity.– Chang Chong-Jen.
The Adventures of Herge is a must for Tintin geeks although it’s not for children. It’s a Hergé (George Remi) biography done in the ‘clear line’ style of a Tintin comic book. Hergé fell in love with drawing in 1914 when his mother gave him some pencils to ‘calm him down’. The book is a fascinating insight into the influences on Hergé and the political and emotional difficulties he faced, especially during wartime working under the Nazis. Most moving of all is the story of his friendship with Chang Chong-Jen (which inspired Tintin in Tibet). Chang helped him refine his beliefs and drawing style. Before reading this book it might help to know a bit about Hergé, or to read the appendix first. Download a 5 page sample of the comic book here.
January 8th, 2014
The King of the Golden River (1841) by John Ruskin is a children’s morality tale that still speaks loudly. It’s unique among fairy tales in having a punchy environmental and social message as well as being highly atmospheric. It’s about two brothers who exploit their farmland and have no compassion for their workers:
They shot the blackbirds, because they pecked the fruit; and killed the hedgehogs, lest they should suck the cows; they poisoned the crickets for eating the crumbs in the kitchen; and smothered the cicadas, which used to sing all summer in the lime-trees.
Their fertile valley in Austria becomes a wasteland and is cursed by the Southwest Wind (illustration below by Richard Doyle). To break the curse the brothers must take holy water up a mountain to the Golden River, but they fail to help the people they meet on the journey. But a third, younger, brother gives the holy water away to needy people and as a result is saved from the fate of his brothers.
December 31st, 2013
Dae they no ken that Tintin’s in danger?
The Derk Isle is the first Tintin book to be translated into the Scots language (which is over 1000 years old and is still spoken) and it works a treat. Familiarity with the original book, The Black Island (1938), adds to the fun but most readers will easily interpret the Scots (it’s best read aloud). There are many delightful phrases such as ‘dinna fash’ (don’t worry), ‘whit a scunner’ (what a nuisance) and ‘blackbelickit’ (drat). Snowy becomes Tarrie (terrier) and the Thompsons are Nesbit and Nesbit. The first Asterix comic is also now in Scots.
He’s a fair wunner, is wee Tarrie. There’s no a dug like him for snowkin efter crooks!
Oot ye get! An nae joukery-pawkery, mind!
December 30th, 2013
Not another pirate picture book! Yes, but a beauty. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) is a masterpiece of illustration by the cult novelist Mervyn Peake (author of the Gormenghast trilogy). His pirate Captain has a mid-life crisis on a weird pink island where he discovers ‘a creature as bright as butter’ who inspires him to ‘drop out’ ( NY Times says the creature looks ‘like Bob Dylan with cocker-spaniel ears’.) Peake’s son, Fabian, says his father always wanted to live on an island ‘living a bohemian life free from the pressures of modern society’. See Peake’s incredible illustrations here.
December 23rd, 2013
A book whose small, huge work is the healing of the divisions between the child state and the adult state; of a child-sized truth about how things connect. – Ali Smith
The Christmas present I couldn’t resist opening early: Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson is a beautifully written childhood memoir that reads more like short stories. Jansson was the creator of the charming Moomin books had a Moomin-like family: affectionate, creative, and liberal. Her parents were well known Finnish artists: her father a sculptor, her mother an illustrator. She spent much of her childhood on the Pellinki islands in the Gulf of Finland. This new edition of the 1968 book is an exquisite little hardback.
December 21st, 2013
The Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas, is my favourite Christmas book. The pictures bring warmth and humanity to the story by showing the love between Mary and Joseph, the pregnancy and the rustic setting. Oddly, it sits well with the poetic language of the 17th century King James bible version. Vivas also illustrated the wonderful book for babies, I Went Walking.
December 15th, 2013
Honeycomb is one of the lightest, strongest, most efficient structures known. The comb isn’t just for honey, it’s the bee’s home: kitchen, nursery, pantry, bedroom and dance floor. Bees build these beautiful wax hexagons from flakes of wax (made in glands on their bellys) using their mouth and feet. Each identical cell tilts back at an angle of exactly 13˚ (so honey doesn’t flow out) and cells are joined at precisely 120˚. Bees use hexagons (not squares or triangles) because they use the least wax for the most space – hexagons are found elsewhere in nature where an efficient shape is needed.
December 10th, 2013
1. Plant flowering things – bees love them
2. Avoid pesticides – especially the new systemic ones
3. Let the lawn grow long – it encourages diversity
4. Buy local honey – it’s better for you
5. Get to know bees – they aren’t aggressive if you aren’t
December 5th, 2013
Thoughts from a remarkable book written in 1938: The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, Chinese philosopher and inventor.
Every word has a life and a personality. A writer always has an instinctive interest in words.
Writing is but the expression of one’s own nature or character… style is not a method, a system or even a decoration; it is but the total impression that the reader gets of the quality of the writer’s mind.
A writer in the ‘familiar’ style speaks in an unbuttoned mood. He completely exposes his weaknesses, and is therefore disarming.
A literary masterpiece is like a stretch of nature itself, well-formed in its formlessness…
The ancient peoples called books ‘limp volumes’ and ‘soft volumes’; therefore the best style of reading a book is the leisurely style. In this mood, one develops patience for everything.
I regard the discovery of one’s favourite author as the most critical event in one’s intellectual development. Like a man falling in love with his sweetheart at first sight, everything is right…
A good reader turns an author inside out, like a beggar turning his coat inside out in search of fleas… an itch is a great thing.
November 29th, 2013
Would it be possible to find a more ungrateful boy, or one with less heart than I have! – Pinocchio
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1882) is a rare thing: an archetypal story for children. The puppet-boy is every disobedient, lazy child who must face hardships, find parental love and grow up. It can also be read as a snapshot of Tuscan society, a Christian allegory or a myth. The language of this classic has barely dated. The best recent version is illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, capturing the all the pathos and drama of the tale – his iconic artwork combines painterly detail with cinematic angles. This darkly humourous adventure is far from the sanitized Disney version (one of the most beautiful animated films).
November 23rd, 2013
Alice in Wonderland (1865) and 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 knitting sheep is my favourite). The books revolutionized children’s literature.
Best Alice versions:
- 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 is a collaboration of two of the ‘ultimate explorers of dreams and imagination’. View the paintings here.
- The weird 1966 movie version captures the dreamy torpor of the fantasy.
November 18th, 2013
Children’s fiction about honey bees is rare and this gem from 1957 is hard to find. A Swarm in June by Rosemary Garland is a charming junior novel that beautifully combines bee lore with childhood wonder. Seven year old Jonathan finds a wild swarm in June (‘worth a silver spoon’) but a visiting cousin is scared of bees. It takes an attack by a stoat to unite the cousins in the end. It’s an innocent tale and the bee wisdom is timeless: beating a gong to attract a swarm; tracking bees with thistledown; and ‘telling the bees’ about important events in our lives. Best of all is the way the boy is so comfortable around the bees.
November 7th, 2013
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
November 1st, 2013
‘Neonicotinoids’ … a clunky word, but one that everybody should know. They (‘neonics’ for short) are the most widely used insecticides in the world – they’re now found in almost every managed landscape from farms to home gardens (and use is increasing rapidly). Neonics are non-targeted (ie.lazy) pest control: they’re usually coated on seeds and the poison stays in the plant as it grows. And the residue can remain in plant tissue, pollen, soil and water for years – it’s these residues that can kill beneficial wildlife: bees, birds, soil creatures and helper insects. That makes neonics a threat to our food supply because:
- Bees and other pollinators directly provide much of our food
- Soil creatures (worms, microbes) are vital for soil health
- Helper insects (predatory and parasitic species) provide natural pest control
Why would we want to harm any of these? The EU has put a two year ban on neonics (because of damage to bees)but they are still used in NZ and are available to the public. Let’s ask garden and hardware shops to stop selling them (Placemakers and The Warehouse have recently withdrawn them) and the EPA to ban them.
Research: neonicotinoids harming honey bees
Report: effect of neonicotinoids on beneficial insects.
The larval stage of a ladybird (right) loves to eat aphids (left) – great natural pest control.
October 29th, 2013
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched…
So begins The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. But some did believe it 75 years ago on Halloween in 1938. Orson Welles’ fake radio news report based on the novel panicked many people into thinking it was a real invasion, if not by the Martians then by the Germans. The broadcast remains scarily realistic (listen to a clip here). It made Welles famous, and even Hitler referred to the hoax, calling it an example of ‘the decadence of democracy’. H.G.Wells once met Orson Welles and recorded a nicely understated interview. The novel is one of the most influential of all sci-fi stories although it displays the some of the racist attitudes of its time (1898). It gave the world its extraterrestrial consciousness and opened narrative wells that have produced a host of alien stories. And the existence of alien life seems more than likely amongst the billions of ‘Goldilocks’ (suitable) planets, stars and galaxies.
Picture by Alvim Corréa, 1906 edition.
October 22nd, 2013
Am I really made of stardust? Most atoms were made in dying stars… when the stars exploded (supernova) the atoms were flung into the universe and became planets and plankton and people… the atoms themselves don’t change but are constantly recycled into different bits of matter… so the exact same atoms of supernova dust still make up 93% of my body mass. It’s difficult to grasp that the ancient universe is somehow ‘me’, but it’s also oddly hopeful.
‘Our presence in the universe is deeply rooted in this cosmic history.’– Marco Bersanelli, physicist.
Mum and Dad: the remnants of two ancient supernova explosions, Puppis and Vela. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
October 17th, 2013
Honey, Nature’s Golden Healer by Gloria Havenhand is a superb book that deftly balances bee science, beekeeping expertise, folklore and health tips. Honey is more than just another spread for your toast:
‘Most people know very little about honey and its healing powers… Research has shown honey deserves to move into the serious league for healing.’
I thought I knew every fascinating fact about honey but I found many new insights here:
- Beeswax is made by bees only 10 to 18 days old who consume about 10 kg of honey to make 1 kg of wax.
- A little honey before bedtime fuels the brain overnight because the live stores the sugar (fructose).
- Raw honey is best to eat. Most supermarket honey is treated which removes vitamins, anti-bacterials and pollen nutrients.
- Always scrape out the honey jar – that last 1/10 of teaspoon represents the honey collected by one bee in her entire lifetime.
October 12th, 2013
The Day Boy and the Night Girl (1879) is a classic short fairy tale by George MacDonald (left) about a witch who raises two children in a bizarre experiment – the girl, Nycteris, has never seen the sunlight, and the boy, Photogen, has no knowledge of the night. The two escape and meet at twilight to help each other overcome their fears of dark and light. It’s a lovely romantic allegory which also subverts male/female fairy tale roles. MacDonald was an unorthodox preacher turned writer whose fantasy tales inspired both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. His other fairy tales are equally fascinating, my favourite being The Light Princess (1864) a witty story about a feisty princess who has lost her gravity – she floats like a helium balloon and can’t can’t take anything seriously, even a prince who gives up his life for her.
MacDonald occupied a major position in the intellectual life of his Victorian contemporaries. MacDonald’s stories are profoundly experimental and subversive. – (The Complete Fairy Tales of George MacDonald)
October 7th, 2013
City life can distance people from nature and from the consequences of environmental damage. One solution is to bring nature to people’s door-steps, such as bringing beehives into the city. Murray and Heidi Rixon rent beehives into home gardens. They visit the hives regularly and teach their clients how to manage the bees and provide protective bee suits for the whole family. People can choose their degree of involvement with the hives and most are very keen to learn.
They say the Rentahive business has a ”massive feel-good factor” and people are driven by the urge to do something positive and proactive about the bee crisis. Customers are also excited to get a share of the honey. Murray and Heidi have just launched a schools’ project to teach children about bees. The children can partake in beehive construction, help with care of the hive and honey extraction.
There are many benefits having hives in an urban setting: bees get a longer flowering season and a wider variety of pollen/nectar sources; gardens are well-pollinated; honey flavours are unique; and best of all, people more fully engage with the environment.
October 3rd, 2013
A female bee lives for only about six weeks in summer. But it’s a life lived to the full because she’s constantly changing jobs: from cleaner to babysitter, builder, honey-chef, queen-groomer, guard, forager, undertaker and scout. Here is the diary of a teen bee:
Week 1 Dear Diary, So unfair! The work started the moment I hatched. I had to clean out my birth cell (ew!), then spend the whole week tidying the rest of the hive. My older sisters call me a ‘house bee’ and say I’m not allowed outside ‘til I’m 21 days. And I’m like, no way sister!
Week 2 Dear Diary, Yay! I’m a babysitter. The babies are sooo cute but totally exhausting. I have to check them 1300 times a day (okay, call me obsessive) to make sure they’re okay. Meanwhile the comb cleaning goes on 4EVAH…
Week 3 Dear Diary, I’ve graduated to building honeycomb, and I have to admit my hexagons are pretty groovy. I make honey in my so-called spare time – when I’m not still CLEANING!! Celebrated my 21st with my first flight and harvested nectar from flowers – it’s such a sweet job!