Saturday, April 23, 2016

Introducing Young Children to Shakespeare in the 400th Anniversary of his Death

I've written relatively recently on the value of Shakespeare for children of all ages, even primary school children (HERE). On this the 400th anniversary of his death I thought I'd post it again. There is no better tome to rediscover Shakespeare.

I had little chance as a child to be introduced to Shakespeare until forced to read it at High School. What a terrible way to meet some of the world's greatest literature.  English classes boring and seemingly unrelated to my life.  Shakespeare's plays seemed remote and of little interest. And yet later in life I began to appreciate and love Shakespeare's work.

Is it possible to make Shakespeare accessible for children as young as seven or eight years? Yes, I think it is! A good place to start is either with an abridged version of the great plays or using some of the wonderful prose versions of his work. A company in Sydney has even begun to present live Shakespeare to primary schools. Bell Shakespeare has set itself the task of introducing primary aged children to Shakespeare's plays, with a plan to teach Shakespeare's work to children as young as six.

Sixty- Minute Shakespeare

I have no doubt that in classrooms where children learn to love words, language and narrative, that they will find Shakespeare exciting, challenging and enriching. There are many resources that will help you. Recently, I had a look at Cass Foster's abridged versions of Shakespeare's plays. The 'Sixty-Minute Shakespeare' series is an ideal alternative for those who lack the time to tackle the unabridged versions. Professor Foster has carefully condensed (without modernizing) the rich poetic language of each play so that it can be completed in about 60 minutes. The abridged versions offer the excitement of Shakespeare's tales, as well as the wonderful imagery in the prose and verse.

Each edition also comes with detailed footnotes on nearly every page explaining the more arcane words and phrases to help the reader better understand and appreciate each play. You will also find practical suggestions for staging, pacing, and thematic exploration very useful. Each script is approximately 70 pages.

'Shakespeare's Hamlet' staged on the page by Nicki Greenberg

This is a remarkable and ambitious work from Nicki Greenberg for high school children. This imaginative and epic 415-page graphic novel will excite many teenage readers. Hamlet has become an expressive black inkblot whose form changes shape according to his circumstances and mood. This is not a kid's picture book! Rather, it is one more attempt to present Shakespeare in new forms. Not just to make it more accessible (for some might find some other word-only attempts less challenging) but to tell it afresh.

There is no doubt that Greenberg’s Hamlet is unique. At 400+ pages it is hardly an easy 'read'. But might it not help the young uninitiated reader of Shakespeare to see new things? Only readers 13+ will be able to help us to answer this question.

The language of Shakespeare is given new emphasis as the play is performed on paper. This is a play 'staged' in a book as the title suggests.  It is a very interesting book but I can't help but feel that a retelling like Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories (see below) is not a better way in. It is hardly stuff for the poor reader, but more likely the gifted who wants to experience Shakespeare with new depth and relevance. It might just do this for some.

Joint winner of the Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Picture Book of the Year 2011

Photo courtesy of the Guardian

Prose Forms for Young Children

You don't need a theatre company to help you to introduce Shakespeare to young children. One of the easiest ways to get young children interested in Shakespeare's work is to read some of his plays in adapted prose form. While there are some pretty awful attempts to do this, the collections written by Leon Garfield are superb. His first collection 'Shakespeare Stories' was illustrated by Michael Foreman and published by Gollancz in 1984. It features 12 of Shakespeare's best-known works, including 'Twelfth Night', 'The Taming of the Shrew', 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'Macbeth'. Garfield is a brilliant writer of children's fiction and so if anyone was to tackle this project, he would surely be the most likely to succeed in presenting the plays with as much complete dialogue as possible but with adaptations that make the works more accessible without detracting from the language, plots and characterisation of each play. This is how Garfield begins 'A Midsummer Night's Dream':
Hermia, who was small, dark and perfect, loved Lysander; and Lysander loved Hermia. What could have been better than that? At the same time, Helena, who was tall, fair and tearful, loved Demetrius.
But Demetrius did not love Helena. Instead he, too, loved Hermia...who did not love him. What could have been worse than that? 
Garfield's adaptations are engaging and faithful to the plays and if read well to children as young as 7 or 8 will capture their attention. I have used them with children or varied ages and they love to hear Garfield's versions of Shakespeare's work and they want to pick them up and read them. My daughter has also found the Garfield collections wonderful to use with her children aged 6-10.  She has written about this on her own blog (HERE).

A shorter collection, 'Six Shakespeare Stories' was published by Heinemann in 1994 and 'Six More Shakespeare Stories' in 1996.

Other resources

There are a number of other helpful resources and sites for teachers who want to try Shakespeare with children aged 6-12 years.

'Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare' was written by Edith Nesbit in 1907 and is still available in more recent editions (HERE)

A good BBC resource that offers children a simple introduction to Shakespeare and his work (HERE)

The 'Shakespeare 4 Kidz' site is worth a look. Their tag is "Bringing the world of Shakespeare to the young people of the world" (HERE)

'Shakespeare is Elementary' is a great little site developed by an elementary school (Crighton Park) in Novia Scotia Canada. It has some great ideas for getting started (HERE)

You can buy some scripts adapted for young children but I haven't personally tested them (HERE)

The 'Shakespeare for Kids' site also has some helpful advice for teachers using Shakespeare with primary/elementary school children (HERE)

Read more about the Bell Shakespeare work in Sydney HERE

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Helping Young Children to make Reading & Writing Breakthroughs: Eight Simple Steps to Literacy

While the groundwork for the creation of young writers takes years, the point of take-off can occur in as a little as 30 minutes. This post is an illustration of how this can occur. In fact, in this single post you will see how one five year-old goes from a 'non-reader' with some early knowledge of sounds to a reader and writer in one week.



The example is drawn from observations of one of my grandchildren, but I have seen it many times in classrooms throughout my teaching and research career. As a five year-old she had just commenced formal schooling in Australia in Kindergarten (Grade 1 in most countries). She had attended two years of preschool (for 2 half days per week as a three year old, and then three days per week as a four year old). She had been read to before school, mostly at bedtime, had begun to play with sound, writing and matching games on an iPad as a 4 year old, and she liked completing some basic prereading booklets. She had also shown interest when she saw her brother (three years older than her) being taught to read at home. As a result, she began asking him to read to her.

When she started Kindergarten her teacher had begun introducing letters and their sounds and as reading and writing exercises. After about seven weeks the teacher had introduced about 15 sounds (2-3 per week), all single consonants and vowels. With each one Evie had to complete an activity sheet that required her to copy the letter, write (copy) a word, and then draw a picture (see an example below).

Above: One of Evie's School Worksheets

Like many preschool children she also enjoyed drawing and liked to embellish them with numbers, sometimes letters and print-like scribble. However, she had not tried to write words or represent meaning with more than scribble or drawings. The only exception to this was the copying of the single words that matched the letters that her teacher had been systematically teaching.

One weekend just 8 weeks into the school year her grandmother was doing some creative oral story making using Lego as part of the process (this is a common strategy we have used in the past, see my recent post HERE). They were acting out a shopping episode, and my granddaughter was acting as the customer. As she came and asked for items (which were Lego shop items with food pictures on them) her grandmother said to her, 'You need a list.' To which she replied, Yes'! And she began to do some text-like scribble on paper and handed it to her grandmother in exchange for the 'goods'.

Because her grandmother had seen her school workbook she said, 'Why don't you write some words on the paper?' My granddaughter grabbed a piece of paper and wrote 'egg' and 'fish' on the paper (two of her school words), which matched two of the Lego pieces. She exclaimed, 'I didn't know I could do that'! Her grandmother praised her, showed her grandfather (me) and we told her how clever she was.

Above: Her first two words written from memory

She dropped the game, got more paper and proceeded to try her hand at more writing. At first she was using her store of words that she had seen at school, writing each from memory without her school book. Within about 30 minutes Evie had written many words and then began to push the boundaries as she extended her writing from school words, to new words, then phrases, sentences and finally short stories.


I explained to her that she needed to have spaces between words and showed her how to use finger spaces between them. We provided more paper, her grandmother gave her a blank book, and she was away. Before the hour was out Evie had achieved the following milestones:

Step 1 - She had written her first words from memory (above)
Step 2 - She begun to string known words together from memory with loose associations (see above larger text)
Step 3 - She began to try to write words that she didn't know (see her attempt at 'bowl' and 'horse' below).

Above: Her first 'invented' spellings for 'bowl' & 'horse'

When she wrote the above words she said, 'I wrote some new words Grandad. Do you know what they are?' I answered, 'Yes, bowl and horse'. Pointing to the second word she asked, 'Does this really say horse'? I answered, 'Well I could tell that you meant them to be horse and bowl, even though there are some letters missing'. I showed her the missing letters, and then she moved on to her next piece of writing.

Step 4 - She sat down with her new blank book and tried to string together a number of words in the form of a simple sentence, trying to spell the unknown words using her limited knowledge of phonics.

Above: 'My pet dog is the best'

Step 5 - She repeated the text and experiments with images and other textual forms. Attempting multimodal texts already.

 
Step 6 - Her sentences became more complex, and her satisfaction was obvious! She shared her work.


Step 7 - She tried further experimentation with tough words and concepts. Her next text was much more complex in syntax, vocabulary and meaning. It had been written just one hour after she wrote her first words from memory and without assistance!

Above: A story with greater complexity

Step 8 - The next morning with her mother's help and advice on some words, she made herself a book and began to write her first 'novel' - 'My Cat'! 

In the week following this series of events my granddaughter also decided, with new confidence, that it was time to start reading herself at night. She asked me could she read herself in bed, her mother gave her one of the Level 1 Ladybird 'Read it Yourself' books. The video below shows a snippet of her reading 'The Little Red Hen' largely unaided without having tried to read the book before.




Summing Up

This post hasn't set out to offer a recipe for how you can teach your child to write in in a few days. Rather, what I have tried to do is show an example of how fast progress can be for young readers and writers, if they have had rich literacy experiences in the preschool years, and when we seize on key teachable moments. In the day-to-day life of the home and school we need to look for opportunities to 'prod' children forward to take risks as learners. Once children do take such risks and experience success and encouragement, progress can be quite remarkable.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Place of Picture Books for Readers of All Ages

This is a revised version of a post that I wrote a couple of years ago but the message is still in need of repeating. I want to pick up on my previous comment that many parents move their children on from picture books far too quickly. Even many teachers encourage their children to 'move on' to chapter books almost as soon as they become proficient and fluent in reading. I've always felt that this was a bad idea, for a range of reasons, that all stem from four myths that drive this well-motivated error.

Myth 1 - 'Picture books are easier reading than chapter books'. While some are simple, they can have very complex vocabulary, syntax and visual images & devices.  For example, Nicki Greenberg's graphic novel adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' is in effect a print-based staging of Hamlet's struggles with truth, meaning, morality and action. She brings the play to life in a riot of colour and visual acrobatics that makes 'Hamlet' accessible to new teenage and adult readers. And the text of Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are' is a single sentence that is extremely complex, with a mix of embedded clauses, direct speech, unusual verbs and rich metaphor. Good picture books often use complex metaphors to develop themes, and the limitations of the number of words used requires the author to use language with an economy and power that many chapter books simply don't attain. The subtle use of image, word, page layout, colour and text layout variations can create sophisticated texts. Graphic novels and electronic picture books like 'The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore', which I've reviewed previously (here), are taking this to a completely new level.


Myth 2 - 'Illustrations make it easy for children to read and they reduce the need to read the words'. While illustrations do work in harmony with the words and can use 'stripped down' language that allows greater use of images, the interplay of illustration and words is often extremely complex, allowing the reader to discover new meaning each time they re-read the book, often over a period of many years.  So a child can read John Burningham's classic book 'Granpa' as a simple story about a little girl and her grandfather, but can revisit it years later and discover that it tells of the death of the little girl's Grandfather. And many adults may never see the underlying themes in children's books, like that of death in 'John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat'.

Myth 3 - 'Getting children reading longer texts earlier will maximise their reading growth'. Not necessarily! While having the chance to consolidate reading skills by reading lots of similar chapter books is good, pictures still have a place. In fact, pushing a child too quickly into long chapter books isn't necessarily best for young readers. At the point where readers 'take off' and want to read everything, to give them a series of books is satisfying for them and reinforces their knowledge of the world and knowledge of language. But this can offer less stimulation than good picture books and less challenge in terms of developing comprehension ability (see my post on 'Emerging Comprehension'). Picture books present multiple sign systems in one text. The parallel use of language, image and many other devices (e.g. colour and print layout), stimulates creativity and the imagination in ways that chapter books cannot. A book like Graeme Base's 'The Sign of the Seahorse' uses language, brilliant illustrations, a play text structure and other devices (including a map and hidden clues), to offer a complex text to be explored, read, enjoyed, 'worked out' and revisited many times.

Myth 4 - 'Picture books are just for children'. Not so! Pick up any Shaun Tan book and you might at first read think, "Wow, is this a book for adults?" 'Tales From Outer Suburbia', 'The Arrival', 'The Lost Thing', in fact any of his books, have a depth and richness that can 'stretch' and challenge any child or adult. My first reading of his more recent book, 'Rules of Summer', left me perplexed and with so many questions I had to read it again, and again to grasp the depth of this deceptively simple story about the relationship between two boys (one older and more dominant than the other). This is a story about rules and power with Tan's characteristic images prodding your imagination at every turn of the page. Like all quality picture books it can be entered by readers of all ages and leave them enriched in different ways.

While the majority of picture books are designed for readers under the age of 7 years, more and more are written for much wider readerships and the rapidly developing genre of the 'Graphic Novel' (see previous post here) because they allow the author to use word, image and other modes (including related audio, video and music) to create more complex tellings of the story the author has in mind.  For example, books like 'My Place' and 'Requiem for a Beast' and 'When the Wind Blows' were never meant just for children. In fact, Matt Ottley's book was actually meant for high school readers. The great thing about picture books is that children and adults can both enjoy them, sometimes separately, and sometimes together. The latter is an important way to grow in shared knowledge and understanding as well as a key vehicle for helping children to learn as we explore books with them.

So what do Picture books do for older readers?

Picture books communicate complex truths in relevant and economical ways - 'Harry and Hopper' by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood helps readers of any age to have a light shone on the challenge of accepting and dealing with death so that life for those left behind can move on, even though death changes things in big ways.

Picture books offer special pathways to deal with deep emotional challenges and springboards for discussion - 'Dandelion' by Calvin Scott Davis (illustrated by Anthony Ishinjerro) allows the inner pain of bullying and the fears it brings, to be visited and opened for reflection and growth.


Picture books also enliven and reintroduce wonderful classic short stories - Oscar Wilde's 'The Selfish Giant' is made fresh and relevant again through the illustrated picture book of Ritva Voutila. This tale of forgiveness is enriched by Voutila's contribution. So too Ted Hughes classic 'The Iron Man' is enriched with the illustrations of Laura Carlin and the graphic and paper craft design. 

Picture books bring the power of image and graphic layout to words in ways that add layers of meaning that would take thousands of words to communicate - Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks work 'The Dream of the Thylacine' shows this with great power when Brooks surreal images of the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger have embedded within them grainy black and white photographs of the last miserable creature caged in a Tasmanian zoo in the 1930s.

Picture books can achieve things at times which the novel cannot - Irene Kobald & Freya Blackwood's brilliant picture book 'Two Blankets' manages to offer insights into the inner struggles of a girl who arrives from a war-torn nation to he strangeness of a new land. It is primarily through the metaphorical use of an object - a blanket - that the author and illustrator jointly communicate a significant story about the strangeness of language and place in a unique way.

Summing up

It is good to encourage younger children to progress to chapter books as they become proficient in reading, but we shouldn't simply discard picture books once they can do so.  The stimulation and challenge of the mixed media opportunities that picture books offer are very important for language stimulation and development as well as creativity and the enrichment of children's imaginations.

Picture books are important for children aged 0-12 years, so don't neglect them or discard them in a perhaps well-intentioned but misguided desire to improve your children as readers. Remember, books are foundational to language, writing, knowledge, thinking and creativity as well. They represent one of the best ways to offer children multimodal experiences with text.

I would love to hear of your own favourite examples that cross the ages.
 
Other reading

Previous post on 'Requiem for a Best' and graphic novels HERE

Previous post on 'Emergent Comprehension' HERE

All my posts on picture books HERE

Monday, March 28, 2016

2016 Newbery, Caldecott & King Children's Literature Awards

The major children’s literature awards in the USA are the Newbery and Caldecott Medals. The winners of both awards were announced earlier in the year so I'm a little late with this post. The Newbery Medal is known internationally and was first awarded in 1922. It was named after the eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) awards it annually. It is presented to the author of the book judged to have made the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. The books can be works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. The author must be a citizen or resident of the United States and the work written for children up to and including 14 years.

The Caldecott Medal was named in honour of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is the most significant award for picture books in the USA. The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) also awards it annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. The awards commenced in 1938.

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards are given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults

Caldecott Medal 2016


Winner

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, illustrated by Sophie Blackall & written by Lindsay Mattick (Little, Brown & Company)

This true story was based on the life of Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian who in 1914 headed off to be part of World War I to tend the horses. Along the way he rescued a baby bear called her Winnie (after Winnipeg) who he took with him to war. Harry travelled from rural Canada in a convoy across the ocean to an army base in England, but this isn't the end of the story. Finally, Winnie ends up in the London Zoo, where Winnie makes another friend, a boy named Christopher Robin. This is the wonderful and true story that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.

Honour Books:

Trombone Shorty, illustrated by Bryan Collier, & written by Troy Andrews (Abrams Books)



Troy “Trombone Shorty” was from the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans. He got his nickname by wielding a trombone twice as long as he was high. By age six he was leading his own band, and today this Grammy-nominated artist headlines the legendary New Orleans Jazz Fest.

With the brilliant illustrations of Bryan Collier, Andrews has created a wonderful picture book autobiography. The book tells how Troy followed his dream of becoming a musician, despite the odds, until he reached international stardom. Trombone Shorty is a celebration of the rich cultural history of New Orleans and the power of music.

The book also won the Coretta Scott King illustrated book of the year award (see below)

Waiting, illustrated and written by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins)

This is a delightful picture book from the legendary author and illustrator Kevin Henkes, a previous Caldecott winner with 'Owen' and two Newbery Honour books. Five friends sit happily on a windowsill, waiting for something amazing to happen. The owl is waiting for the moon. The pig is waiting for the rain. The bear is waiting for the wind. The puppy is waiting for the snow. And the rabbit is just looking out the window because he likes to wait! But will anything happen? Will patience win in the end? Or might they just do something else? Children who know what it means to wait and dream will love this book.

Waiting is a big part of childhood—waiting in line, waiting to grow up, waiting for something special to happen—but in this book, a child sets the stage and pulls the strings. Timeless, beautiful, and deeply heartfelt, this picture book about imaginative play, the seasons, friendship, and surprises marks a new pinnacle in Caldecott Medalist Kevin Henkes’s extraordinary career.

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, illustrated by Ekua Holmes & written by Carole Boston Weatherford (Candlewick Press)

Despite fierce prejudice and abuse, even being beaten to within an inch of her life, Fannie Lou Hamer was a champion of civil rights from the 1950s until her death in 1977. Integral to the Freedom Summer of 1964, Ms. Hamer gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention that, despite President Johnson’s interference, aired on national TV news and spurred the nation to support the Freedom Democrats. Featuring vibrant mixed-media art full of intricate detail, Voice of Freedom celebrates Fannie Lou Hamer’s life and legacy with a message of hope, determination, and strength.

Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson & written by Matt de le Peña (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin).

Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. But today, CJ wonders why they don't own a car like his friend Colby. Why doesn’t he have an iPod like the boys on the bus? How come they always have to get off in the dirty part of town? Each question is met with an encouraging answer from grandma, who helps him see the beauty—and fun—in their routine and the world around them.

This energetic ride through a bustling city highlights the wonderful perspective only grandparent and grandchild can share, and comes to life through Matt de la Pena’s vibrant text and Christian Robinson’s radiant illustrations.


This book was also named as a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honour Book. 




Newbery Medal Awards


Winner:

Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña & illustrated by Christian Robinson (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Group)

CJ’s journey with his Nanna is anything but ordinary. It's a journey for all of the senses. He discovers the beauty of music, nature and people around him.  His questions are those of many children and Nanna answers them wisely.  She encourages CJ to become “a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

The Newbery Medal Chair suggested that we “Read it aloud to someone (so that language can) elicit questions, spark imagination and make us laugh is at its best when spoken."

Honour Books

The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial Books an imprint of Penguin Books) 

This is a book with a powerful plot, fine characters and economical use of language. It is a novel about courage, community and conviction. Set during World War II, Nine-year-old Ada has lived her whole life in a one-room apartment, for her mother is embarrassed by Ada’s twisted foot. When her brother is sent to London to escape the war, Ada sneaks out to join him.
A wonderful piece of historical fiction family, identity and overcoming adversity. 

Roller Girl, written & illustrated by Victoria Jamieson (Dial Books an imprint of Penguin Group USA)

Astrid falls in love with roller derby and learns how to be tougher, stronger and fearless. Victoria Jamieson captures the highs and lows of growing up in this dynamic graphic novel.

Book cover: Echo'Echo' by Pam Muñoz Ryan (Scholastic Press)

Otto is lost in a forbidden forest where he meets three unusual sisters. He suddenly finds himself part of a strange quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica. Many years later three children become interwoven with the same harmonica. All have daunting challenges - a father to be rescued, a family to keep together and a brother to protect.  An invisible thread of destiny binds them together.

Coretta Scott King Awards

 

The Coretta Scott King (Author) Awards, recognize African American authors and illustrators of outstanding books for children and young adults.

 

Book Award

 

Winner


Gone Crazy in Alabama, written by Rita Williams-Garcia, is the King Author Book winner. The book is published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Honour Books

Three King Author Honor Books were also selected:

All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely and published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division;

The Boy in the Black Suit, by Jason Reynolds and published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, and

X: A Novel, by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon and published by Candlewick Press.

 

Illustrator Award


Winner

Trombone Shorty, illustrated by Bryan Collier, is the King Illustrator Book winner. The book was written by Troy Andrews and Bill Taylor and published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, an imprint of ABRAMS.

Honour Books

Two King Illustrator Honor Books were selected:

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and published by Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc. and

Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson, written by Matt de la Peña and published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group USA.

Related Links

All posts on Awards (HERE)

The full list of all previous Newbery and Caldecott Medal winners and honour books can be found (HERE).


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

21 Great Picture Books With Environmental Themes

There are many ways that authors have explored environmental issues. In some books it is central to the book, while in others, it is secondary to the narrative and other themes. Here are just some of the ways children's books explore environmental issues:
  • The relationship of people to the environment
  • The negative impact of humanity on the environment
  • A celebration of the environment, its beauty and wonder
  • Environment as creation and the metaphysical experience of our world

1. The relationship of people to the environment

This first category includes books that tell of the fine balance between humanity and the environment and the disastrous consequences when we get this balance wrong. In these varied picture books it is not a matter of deliberate action, but rather ignorance and failure to plan effectively, which leads to the destruction of environments whose beauty was once a lure to people.

'All the World' by Liz Garton Scanlon & illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane Books)

This wonderfully simple picture books for readers aged 3-7 years was a Caldecott Honour book in 2010. Using delightfully simple everyday images of a family interacting with their world and precision language, Scanlon tells a powerful story of how we 'softly' interact with and mark our world. It is a simple, yet profound book. The author sets out to affirm "the importance of all things great and small, from the tiniest shell on the beach, to warm family connections, to the widest sunset sky". She succeeds with the brilliant illustrator Marla Frazee to do just this.


'Can We Save the Tiger?' by Martin Jenkins & illustrated by Vicky White (Walker Books, 2011) 

This is a stunning book which was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2012. Conservationist Martin Jenkins and Vicky White celebrate some of the world's most endangered species in this book and show us why we must try to save them. Martin is a conservation biologist and consultant for the UN conservation organisation WCMC. Vicky White had experience as a zookeeper at the Cheshire Zoo caring for great apes. This is Vicky's second book; her first was 'Ape'.

The book has stunning images and a punchy text that confronts the reader. It begins with the matter of fact reminder that some of the animals and plants we have shared the planet with "...have coped with the changes very well. But some haven't. In fact, some have coped so badly that they're not here any more. They're extinct". Jenkins then introduces us to five species that are extinct, the Dodo, Steller's Sea Cow, the Tasmanian Tiger (Marsupial Wolf), Great Auk and Broad-faced Potoroo, before another challenge, "and then there are all those species that are still around, but only just." Like the tiger!

This is without a doubt one of the best conservation picture books that I've seen. White's illustrations are fine-grained pencil sketches, some in colour and some simply black and white, and are wonderful. They invite you to gaze and browse for the pictures alone. Children aged 5 to 12 will love the book. 

'Window', by Jeannie Baker

Jeannie Baker is a wonderful artist who is a master of collage who tells her stories with wonderful illustrations and a minimum of words. This book is in fact wordless that tells the story of a changing place when viewed from a boy's window. He grows from a baby to a man with the view changing from dense bush and diverse wildlife to suburbia, before he moves on to a new place on the urban fringe where no doubt the process begins afresh.


'Flute’s Journey: The Life of a Wood Thrush'
, by Lynne Cherry
Flute is a wood thrush who migrates from North America to Costa Rica. The story traces the hatching and travels of Flute and in the process introduces the reader to issues of endangered species, environmental hazards, toxic waste, loss of habitats and co on.


'The World that Jack Built', by Ruth Brown

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


'Kenju's Forest', by Junko Morimoto

This book is the opposite message of 'Window', and tells how a boy with a vision to plant some trees in a rural farming environment sees his dream become a reality over his lifetime. And as it does, the forest becomes the playground for the town that eventually was to grow near his forest. It tells a more positive story about how humanity can improve the environment rather than just degrading it.


'The Earth and I'  by Frank Asch

This is an ideal book for young preschool readers. It tells the story of the friendship between a child and the earth. They play together, listen to each other, and nourish each other. When the earth is sad, the child is sad. The child sets out to find a way to make his 'friend' happy. This is a beautifully illustrated book which shows in word and image a tender and special relationship between a child and their world. 






2. The negative impact of humanity on the environment

Stories in this category reflect man's careless destruction of the environment motivated by greed and ignorance. These are stories that tell of humanity's failure to see environmental damage and act to prevent it. They also tend to have a much stronger ideological message.

'One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia', by Miranda Paul & illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Milbrook Press)

Plastic bags are cheap and an easy way to package and carry things. But when they are discarded they quickly multiply in any environment. They pile high, become mixed in garbage of all kinds, become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other insects and vermin. Soon we have an environmental disaster. This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of how one woman Isatou Ceesay began to recycle the bags in Gambia and in the process encouraged others to join her. The outcome is an environmental success worth sharing. A wonderful environmental picture book for children aged 5-9 years.

'Where the Forest Meets the Sea', by Jeannie Baker

This is another wonderful book by Jeannie Baker (perhaps her best). It tells the story of a boy and his Dad who go regularly to a wonderful beach in northern Queensland at a place where the ocean meets the edge of the Daintree Rainforest. This threatened landscape has been shrinking for decades. As the boy explores the rainforest he imagines what it might have been like 100 million years before when dinosaurs roamed. He finishes the day cooking fish on the beach and contemplates coming again someday. But in the background we see a landscape overlain by ghostly images of what it might be like when he comes back again, should development do in this place what it has done in many other parts of the Daintree.

'The Sign of the Seahorse: A tale of Greed and High Adventure', by Graeme Base

This wonderful ballad tells of the exploitation of an underwater world by a corrupt and evil Groper, his side kick Swordfish and a band of 'henchfish', who pollute a reef to drive out its inhabitants, secure their 'land' at rock bottom prices, and then sell them new homes on another reef. A tale of greed, corruption, and environmental exploitation, where good eventually wins out.

'The Lorax', by Dr Seuss

Many of the books of Dr Seuss offer a social commentary (see my post on Seuss here). In this story a small boy notices at the end of a desolate street on the edge of town, a ramshackle house with a memorial to the 'Lorax'. What was it he wonders as he gazes at the home of the Once-ler? The Once-ler drops his Whisper-ma-Phone and for a small fee tells the boy the story of the Lorax and the once beautiful Truffula trees that covered the landscape, and the creatures that enjoyed the environment they helped to sustain. The story of greed, excess, and environmental destruction ends with the Once-ler giving the boy the last seed of a Truffula tree. Perhaps, just perhaps, in his young hands there may be hope for this place once more.

'Lester and Clyde', James H. Reece

This is the story of two frogs one a young and mischievous youngster (Lester) and the other an older stayed frog named Clyde. Lester plays just one too many tricks and is kicked out of their beautiful wetland and heads off to find his own way in the world. He is shocked to find that not all ponds are like his, and in fact some have been destroyed and made unsuitable for frogs. He returns repentant and is embraced by Clyde and the story ends happily with the words of Clyde: "try not to worry, although it's so wrong, at least we're safe here...until Man comes along!"

3. A celebration of the environment, its beauty and wonder

Books in this category celebrate the world's biodiversity and beauty without pointing to problems or making strong comments about human action. These are books where often the environment is secondary to the story, but where everything about the book reinforces the value, beauty and wonder of our world.

'The Elephant Scientist' by Caitlin O'Connell & Donna M. Jackson (Houghton Mifflin)


This multi award winning book tells how the author became interested in science and set her on a quest to protect threatened species. Years later camouflaged and peering through binoculars, Caitlin O'Connell an American scientist traveled to Namibia to study African elephants in their natural habitat. She couldn't believe what she was seeing.

As the mighty matriarch scanned the horizon, the other elephants followed suit, stopping midstride and standing as still as statues. The observation would be one of many to guide O'Connell to a groundbreaking discovery!

"Children will be interested in O'Connell's growing interest in science, how family and teachers encouraged her, and her efforts to protect these threatened animals. This amazing presentation is a must-have for all collections." -- School Library Journal

'Aranea: A Story About a Spider', by Jenny Wagner & Ron Brooks (Illustrator)

This (as the name suggests) is the story of a back yard spider who weaves its wonderful web each night using its skill and the elements to survive. Its encounter's with man is just one of life's challenges, just as dangerous is nature's elements of storm, wind and rain.


'Wind in the Willows', Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows is one of my favourite books (see my previous post on it here). Kenneth Grahame manages to tell a wonderful tale of animals of the English wood and riverbank. It opens in spring, and the weather is fine and animals are stirring from their winter slumber. We first meet the good-natured and uncomplicated Mole discards his spring cleaning and leaves his underground home. He reaches the river, a thing he had never seen before and meets the wise and worldly Ratty (in reality it was a ‘water vole’), who sees life as something that must be lived along the river. A parade of rich characters is introduced against a backdrop of the wonderful physical world. Otter and Badger, Toad, Stoats and Weasels are introduced as he weaves his wonderful tale of friendship, devotion and the challenges and 'human' frailties of life. There are many wonderful versions including the more recent illustrated version with Robert Ingpen's wonderful art (here).

'The Little Island', Golden McDonald and Leonard Weisgard


This classic picture book was the winner of the Caldecott Medal in 1947. It is a fine example of a book that had its genesis in a place that formed part of the author’s life. Weisgard loved this island where he explored its waters. His wonderful illustrations capture the beauty and rich biodiversity of this place.

 



'S is for Save the Planet: A How to be Green Alphabet', by Brad Herzog and Linda Holt Ayriss (Illustrator)

This is a book for the very young. It is an alphabet book that focuses on environmental issues. The illustrations support the clever use of simple text to raise environmental issues and suggest ways to save the planet from environmental disaster. Suitable for children aged 3-6 years.

4. Environment as creation and the metaphysical experience of our world

There are a number of children's books that simply celebrate the world as creation. Some of these books simply focus on the beauty of nature, while others offer creation accounts, myths and metaphysical explanations of the world and humanity's connection to it.

'The Waterhole' by Graeme Base

This beautifully illustrated book is centred on a waterhole that is progressively drying up. While the book is a counting book for young children, the constant focus on the waterhole and its diminishing size as the water is used by an international collection of animals, is used by Base to show how water is essential to life. Without it the land withers and dies and life is lost, but as the first drops of replenishing rains return life begins to emerge again.


'Enora and the Black Crane', Arone Raymond Meeks

The Aboriginal artist who wrote and illustrated this book tells the story of a young man who lived in a rainforest at peace and in harmony with the physical world. That is, until one day after encountering a flock of amazing birds he accidentally kills a crane with dramatic consequences. Enora and his world lose their innocence.

'The Rainbow Serpent', by Dick Roughsey

This is another Australian Aboriginal legend that tells the Dreamtime story of a time when there were only people and how Goorialla, the great Rainbow Serpent travels across the country with a dramatic transformation of the land and the resulting creation of animal life.

'The Fisherman and the Theefyspray', Paul Jennings & Jane Tanner (Illustrator)

This story tells of the encounter of a fisherman with a strange fish and its mother. He catches young fish from deep within the sea, just after its mother has given birth to this, the last young, of its species. The old man looks at the beautiful creature as its colour and beauty begin to fade away in the bottom of his boat and he returns it to the sea. It survives and he is changed by the encounter.


The Whales' Song, Dyan Sheldon (Author) & Gary Blythe (Illustrator)

This is the story of Lilly and how she is captured by the story of the Whales' song that is told to her by her grandmother. A species once so plentiful that her grandmother would hear them sing at night, but now they are just a memory of an era of whaling that has gone. Lilly's mystical connection with the whales is the focus of the story.