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 Don’t Cross 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)
Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category
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
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!’
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.
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
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
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 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.
I’m inspired by the intricacy of our cells. Inside each cell are tiny molecules which are digesting, healing, sensing, supporting and moving us. Most of this is done by protein molecules – there are 60,000 different proteins in the body, such as enzymes (to carry out reactions) and hormones (send messages). We make proteins when we need them (eg. we build antibodies when we’re attacked by bacteria). In his wonderful book, Our Molecular Nature, David Goodsell writes:
We must be able to build each one exactly when and where it is needed, using only the materials available in the diet.
Why is this building process so accurate? Because each and every cell has a ‘library’ inside it called DNA which contains the precise instructions to build molecules. This ingenious library is used every second of your life. DNA has 6 billion bits of information; the equivalent number of books in a library.
Ultimately, a single cell, when paired with an appropriate mate, can build an entirely new human being, molecule by molecule. -David Goodsell
Using this blueprint, proteins are constructed in chains from smaller molecules called amino acids. Like letters of the alphabet, there are only 20 amino acids arranged to create thousands of novel proteins. Some proteins last a long time, others are disassembled after a few minutes. This allows the body to respond rapidly to any needs. The illustration (right) shows ubiquitin, a protein found throughout your body. Ubiquitin’s job is to attach to discarded proteins, tagging them for destruction.
Illustration of Ubiquitin © David S. Goodsell, the Scripps Research Institute.
A compelling, empowering book. – David Hill
My new book, Peace Warriors (Mākaro Press), tells the true stories of people who chose non-violent resistance in times of conflict. Young readers will discover that peace-making and people power can be more effective than military force.
Radio interview about the book:
Tony Juniper’s book What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? brilliantly proves that money really does grow on trees. Nature is the basis of our economic lives and is worth $100 trillion/year to the global economy. But we use up our yearly budget of resources in about 8 months and after that we destroy our natural capital. Juniper lists the huge benefits we get from healthy soil, plants, light, water and animals, and shows it makes economic sense to care for them. Pollinators, for example, are vital for our food supply: of the 100 most important food crop plants, 71 are pollinated by bees. He says the most likely causes of the bee decline are loss of habitat and pesticides (especially neonicotinoids):
Of all the unintended consequences that arise from how we treat nature, the loss of pollinators caused by pesticides is one of the more ironic. Chemical that were designed to protect agriculture are undermining its viability.
But he’s hopeful we can protect the bees, for example, by planting ‘bee roads’ of flowering plants between crops.
Everyone who has even a small garden can help with this.
There is only one time that is important: Now. – Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s Twenty-Three Tales (1903) inspired me in my youth and I still love the wisdom of his folk tales. The classics are How Much Land Does a Man Need (very little, naturally); The Three Questions (Eg. What should I do with my time?); and A Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg, an environmental metaphor that has only gained in power.
Photo: the only colour photo of Tolstoy (here aged 80), taken in 1908:
One evening, a Sufi stopped by the roadside to read a book. He lit a bright lamp then walked some distance away and lit a small candle. He sat by the candle and read. People passing by asked, “Why don’t you read by the lamp?” The Sufi replied, “The bright lamp attracts all the moths. Here I can read my book in peace.” (Adapted from A Perfumed Scorpion by Idries Shah)
Blockbuster books attract many readers, but I’m attracted by books that are almost forgotten. Here are a few favourite hidden gems:
- Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche; and which Lewis called “far and away the best of my books.”
- Catastrophe, the strange stories of Dino Buzzati – a brilliant collection of surreal stories.
- Daydreamer by Ian McEwan – imaginative stories about a boy who daydreams to cope with growing up.
- The Importance of Living, by Lin Yutang – thoughts on everything by a Chinese writer and inventor
- Drift by William Mayne – survival story about a North American Indian girl and a white boy.
A Bee in a Cathedral by Joel Levy is a fascinating book of science analogies and astonishing numbers. Suitable for all ages, only the physics section is a bit complex. A few of my favourites factoids:
- Every day 1 million meteoroids strike the Earth
- How far to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri? Travelling in a rocket at 250,000km/h, it would take you 18,000 years
- Most of the living cells in your body are less than a month old
- About 50 million neutrinos are passing through you now
- Every molecule in a glass of water is changing partners billions of times a second.
- How hard does your heart pump blood? Empty a bathtub in 15 minutes using only a teacup —repeat this without stopping for the rest of your life
- If an atom were blown up to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus would be no larger than a bee buzzing about in the centre.
The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a fable about a pilot who crashes in the desert and meets a wise child. It’s one of the world’s most translated books (in 250 languages) and the top selling French book. It has the most intriguing sentence in all children’s literature:
What is essential is invisible to the eyes. (L’essential est invisble pour les yeux.)
What is ‘essential’? Is it truth, love, soul, uncertainty? These are the questions the story evokes. The opening chapter about following your dreams is brilliant. Saint-Exupéry was a pilot who also wrote great adventure books (eg. Wind, Sand and Stars ). His delicate watercolour illustrations are near perfect too.
The book has long oscillated between being accepted as harmless hilarity and being condemned as excessively horrifying- Humphrey Carpenter
Struwwelpeter (Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures) by Dr Heinrich Hoffman (1845) is a classic of gleefully gruesome cautionary rhymes about naughty children. Hoffman was a psychiatrist who founded an influential Frankfurt asylum and pioneered counselling as an alternative treatment to cold baths. The characters in Struwwelpeter were inspired by his child patients – he’d tell them stories and draw pictures to calm them down. Hoffman was looking for a book for his three year old son and could only find ‘stupid collections of pictures, and moralising stories’, so he created Struwwelpeter. It was one of the first picture books designed purely to please children – before 1850 children’s books were mainly religious and moral lessons with titles such as An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children. Read more about ‘Shock-Headed’ Peter here.
The Awful Warning carried to the point where Awe topples over into helpless laughter.– Harvey Darton
Anyone can write but editing must be learned. P.G. Wodehouse was a relentless editor, polishing his manuscripts to perfection – Douglas Adams (The Salmon of Doubt) described Wodehouse’s unique system:
‘When he was writing a book he used to pin pages in undulating waves around the wall. Pages he thought were working well would be pinned high, and those that still needed work would be lower down the wall.’
The aim was to get the whole story up to the ceiling level. Here are 3 books that have helped me learn to edit:
Self Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King teaches the mechanics of style, dialogue, point of view, ‘show not tell’, character, beats.
The Art of Writing by John Gardner is a more stringent book which talks about maintaining the ‘dream’ of the story – when the writing draws attention to itself (in a bad way) then the dream is broken for the reader.
Go over and over it…refusing to let anything stay if it looks awkward, phony, or forced.– John Gardner
On Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (1934) explores the idea that a writer is both artist and self-critic – a writer begins with the unconscious mind ‘bringing at demand all the treasures of memory’; but then the conscious mind ‘must control, combine and discriminate’ (that’s editing in a nutshell).
The writer must be as God in his universe — present everywhere and visible nowhere. -Flaubert
There is great exuberance in the Moomins, and a delightful battyness. – Jeanette Winterson
The Moomin comic strips by Tove Jansson (originally from the 1950s) are reprinted in five magnificent hardback volumes. The comics are a lovely balance of humour and optimistism. The free-spirited Moomins live in the moment and these comics are still relevant, commenting on consumerism, the environment and work. For example, in The Conscientious Moomins, an officer of the League of Duty admonishes Moominpappa for being a drop-out; but when Moominpappa joins the establishment, all the pleasure goes out of his life, and he returns to his old philosophy of
‘Live in peace, plant potatoes and dream!’
Fiction should be both canny and uncanny. – Flannery O’Connor
The best short story I’ve ever read is Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find – it certainly has the most powerful ending. Her stories can be dark, her characters grotesque, but there’s always a redemptive thread and a tough spirituality that’s never preachy. O’Connor honed her writing to near perfection despite the pain of lupus which killed her at the age of 39. Here are some of her incisive thoughts about the writing process from her collection of essays and lectures, Mystery and Manners:
If you want to write well and live well at the same time, you’d better arrange to inherit money.
When I sit down to write, a monstrous reader looms up who sits down beside me and continually mutters, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t see it, I don’t want it.’
Fiction is about everything human and we are made of dust, and if you scorn getting dusty, then you shouldn’t write fiction.
There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the fiction writer can hardly do without and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting to the point at once.
As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees.
The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s severity.
The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher is a classic picture book that almost didn’t make it. It took Molly Bang years to create and it was repeatedly rejected by publishers – they said it was ‘peculiar-looking’ and that ‘children won’t relate to an old woman as a protagonist’. The manuscript sat in a drawer for years, was re-worked and finally published to some critical reviews, writes Molly Bang: ‘The New York Times that said that the weird-looking characters and flashy colors were an indication that I was part of the drug culture and the detailed pictures told no real story but were merely an excuse to show off.’ Then it won a Caldecott award and everything changed. Why? It’s a one-of-a-kind, off-the-wall book, and very creepy! I love the tiny fungi that grow where the Strawberry Snatcher has trod.
There is only one time that is important – Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.
Moominpappa had no idea what to do with himself, because it seemed everything there was to be done had already been done.
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.
I wouldn’t have said off-hand that I had a subconscious mind, but I suppose I must without knowing it, and no doubt it was there, sweating away diligently at the old stand, all the while the corporeal Wooster was getting his eight hours.
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
The classic picture book Calico the Wonder Horse — The Saga of Stewy Stinker by Virgina Lee Burton was published in 1941. I adored this comic-book style cowboy adventure as a child mainly because of the bad guy. Stewy Stinker is so low he steals Christmas presents from children but in the end he repents. This picture of him crying out his rottenness always made me feel sorry for him:
The word ‘Stinker’ was censored from the book in the 1940s as it was considered inappropriate for children. Burton was one of the great illustrators and the idea for Calico from seeing her sons engrossed with comic books. The wonderful design, cartoon framing and action scenes of Calico are worthy of a modern graphic comic: the flash flood and stagecoach crash are gripping highlights. But it’s that haunting image of Stewy that will stay with me.
I loved science fiction when I was a young teen – especially short stories about time travel, which usually had surprise endings. In Arthur C Clarke’s All the Time in the World, a man freezes time a second before a nuclear blast; in A Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury, the death of an insect changes the course of history. I still have my old copy of Bradbury’s Golden Apples of the Sun; the Corgi paperback cost me 65 cents new in 1970 (about the hourly rate for raspberry picking in my summer holidays). A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was a novel ahead of its time in 1960 (it was rejected 26 times by publishers). Its plot combines wormholes and angels and has a classic ending: a giant disembodied alien brain is defeated by love. L’Engle liked to tackle grand themes, as she said:
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.
Jane Goodall’s memoir, Reason For Hope, is certainly that – her life is inspiring. It covers her childhood in wartime England; her revolutionary studies of Tanzania’s chimpanzees; and latest development work via her Goodall Institute. The most moving chapters relate the death of her husband and how she found spiritual support back in the jungle. The writing is honest, sometimes poetic, and the science is simply conveyed. I like the way she integrates science with her beliefs (which embrace several traditions). Here’s a link to a fine interview with Jane Goodall; and a few quotes from her book:
Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference.
We either agree with Macbeth that life is nothing more than a ‘tale told by an idiot’, a purposeless emergence of life-forms…or we believe that, as Teilhard de Chardin put it, ‘There is something afoot in the universe, something that looks like gestation and birth.’
Yes, my child, go out into the world; walk slow
And silent, comprehending all, and by and by
Your soul, the Universe, will know
Itself: the Eternal I.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s book of sermons, Strength To Love, was written during the Civil Rights struggle (several written in prison). King’s poetic style was aimed at a live church audience – you can almost hear the “Amens” after each sentence. But his words remain relevant 50 years on as he encourages people to be forgiving, non-violent, and non-conformists; and to confront militarism and inequality:
Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together…
Expenditures for defence have risen to mountainous proportions. The nations have believed that greater armaments will cast out fear, but they have produced greater fear.
Through non-violent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
Capitalism must undergo continual change if our great national wealth is to be more equitably distributed.
All life is interrelated. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.
Here’s King’s anti-war speech, made shortly before he was shot. (This recording later got a Grammy for Best Spoken Word):
Old Tibet was once the essence of the mystical in Western eyes: with tales of mysterious Shangri-La and the yeti; the remote Himalayas; the serenity of Buddhism and its Dalai Lama. This essence has influenced many comic stories, such as wartime hero, Green Lama (1945), who got his strength by reciting a peaceful Buddhist mantra. Tintin (1958) experienced the power of Tibet when led by a vision to find a lost friend – even the Dalai Lama praised Tintin in Tibet.
Old Tibet was no paradise but, sadly, the culture is fading fast. China invaded in 1950 and destroyed 6,000 Buddhist monasteries; and in 1959 the Tibetans rose up and thousands died. There’s since been a long struggle against the occupation – some Tibetans want independence, others (like the Dalai Lama) would settle for religious freedom and some autonomy.
Iona and Peter Opie were the Brothers’ Grimm of the 1900s. Their great contribution to English cultural history was the fabulous book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren; an epic collection of children’s rhymes, riddles, superstitions, jeers, tricks and customs, garnered from interviews with thousands of children in the 1950s. Today’s children are perhaps not the ‘savage tribe’ they were then but many of these rhymes persist in the playground today. Here are some subversive gems from the Opie’s collection.
Pinch-me, Punch-me, and Steponmytoes,
Went down to the river to swim,
Two of the three were drowned,
Who do you think was saved?
Old Mr Kelly,
Had a pimple on his belly;
His wife cut it off,
It tasted like jelly.
When the war is over Hitler will be dead,
He hopes to go to heaven with a crown upon his head.
But the Lord said, No! You’ll have to go below,
There’s only room for Churchill, so cheery, cheery oh.
Same to you with knobs on,
Cabbages with clogs on…
God made the bees
The bees make the honey;
We do the work,
The teacher gets the money.
Scab and matter custard,
Green snot pies,
Dead dog’s giblets
Dead cat’s eyes.
Hard boiled snails, Spread it thick
Wash it down with a cup of cold sick.
It’s really, really heartbreaking. But for some reason you want to read it again and again. It’s an extraordinary love story. It really is exquisitely written.– Michael Morpurgo
Almost every Sunday morning as a child I’d listen to Oscar Wilde’s short story, The Happy Prince (1888), on the radio and cry into my pillow so my brother nearby wouldn’t hear. A statue being stripped of his gold to feed the poor seems an unlikely plot for children. I didn’t understand all of the lyrical language back then but I suspect the story shaped my attitudes to compassion and authority figures. Today I can see it’s also a touching story about two needy characters; and I like Wilde’s ideas about true happiness:
The living always think that gold can make them happy.
Listen to that original radio version read by the mellifluous Robert Morley. Still makes me cry.