Children’s books we love :: 2015

I was going to write a blog post about my favourite children’s books for the year {Christmas present recommendations!}, and then I thought I might do a little video to save time. Then dear little Elka, my five-year-old, thought she might do a little video about her favourite books for the year. And her video is much better than mine. So here it is. Our favourite books from the year. {Not all were published this year, but these were the books we particularly loved reading.}

If you would like to purchase books for Christmas, support your local book stores! Or if buying online, I think you can still order through The Kids’ Bookshop or The Little Bookroom to arrive before Christmas.

It’s ok to go there: Reading difficult stories to children

On Friday, a plane is shot down over the Ukraine and hundreds of people die. It is beyond tragic.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, I play imaginary games with my girls, singing songs, reading and pretending to be Goldilocks.

We are oblivious to the tragedy. We are oblivious to most tragic events that happen. We play, we create, we imagine, and meanwhile terrible stuff happens elsewhere.

We have talked about it here before – how do you communicate difficult stuff to children? I feel that if it’s communicated delicately and sensitively, knowing about others’ suffering can in many ways benefit children.

I recently came across an article on HuffPost talking about this issue. The writer, B.J. Epstein states:

Literature does much more than teach basic facts or social rules. Children, like adults, have the right to see books that reflect the world around them, and the broader world, too. That means, yes, featuring different races, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, religions, abilities, classes, ages, and so on, and also exploring political, moral, physical, and emotional issues. Children need to see both themselves and other people in the books they read…Kids aren’t as delicate as adults like to think, and they aren’t ignorant of what’s happening around them. They don’t need to be protected from reality. They don’t only need books that teach them about manners and colours. Children have a right to see all sorts of topics represented in the books they read.

Some picture books are like doughnuts – sweet, and easy to digest. Others are like multigrain, sourdough bread. They are tasty, and their goodness and nutrition continues to release over time.

We have been reading a number of children’s books lately of the wholemeal variety that deal with difficult or complex material in subtle ways. My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood My Two Blankets, by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood (Little Hare) is a beautiful book I bought last week from our local bookseller.

On first read, you are aware of a feeling of isolation and uncertainty that the protagonist, Cartwheel experiences. You realise she discovers comfort through a sweet new friendship.

When you read again, though, you are drawn further into the metaphor of the blanket, and the true meaning of the book starts to unveil itself. The illustrations and the words weave a subtle, gentle and uplifting tale, of something difficult, but beautiful. Hasel and Rose Caroline Magerl Hasel and Rose, by Caroline Magerl (Penguin) is another subtle, and beautiful book that recently fell into my hands.

We had to read it two, or three times before I understood its meaning. And this isn’t a criticism. What it means is that it reveals itself over time. It doesn’t underestimate children’s intelligence – emotional or intellectual. It instead plays on their ability to understand difficult stuff.

When I asked Caroline directly about the complexity of the book, she replied:

I believe that growing the ability to deal with complex and difficult situations is of primary importance. Having raised a girl of my own has shown me how vital that is. However it must be presented in a kind and thoughtful manner. Hasel and Rose is an emotionally honest account, showing that trouble does occur in family life. Hopefully it also provides an understanding that there is hope for the future additionally for those suffering, that they are not alone. I hope that in the reading of a book, channels for understanding and honest discussion can be opened. For me this is a better path than the alternative.

A little like My Two BlanketsHasel and Rose is about displacement. A girl, Rose, has moved somewhere new and is struggling to find her place. She discovers Hasel, a worn and unusual toy, and Hasel gives her the courage she needs to make a new friend, Em.

It’s possibly tempting when thinking about writing for children that children are simple creatures and like coloured dots, big shapes and funny rhymes. Children like all those things, but so much more.

My own daughter, Elfie, asks about difficult issues most days.

The day after the Creative Business Women’s High Tea, she asked me what all the money in my tin was for. I said it was to help the girls in Kenya.

‘Why?’ she asked.

‘Some have been treated very badly, and we need to help keep them safe.’ She thought about it, asked questions, and wanted to write a letter to the girls, which we did. (She also thought it would be a good idea to send the ‘baddies’ something nice too so they would feel less bad, and would be less mean to the girls.)

At the CBCA conference earlier this year, Little Hare publisher Margrete Lamond spoke of the benefits of reading subtle and complex books to children.

She talked about the mirror neurons that light up in our brain when we hear about another person’s emotion. The mirror neurons replicate the emotional response the other person experiences, causing us to feel exactly as the other person feels. Physiologically, the only difference in neural activity between ourselves and the other is that we don’t act on the emotion.

Every time the brain pathways light up, we are learning, and each experience of learning helps us develop socially. The effectiveness of our interpersonal relationships, science is now saying, is as fundamental to our survival as food and sex.

When we read a subtle and nuanced story, Margrete said in her talk, our brain pathways also become more subtle and nuanced. We become better equipped at understanding other people’s emotions, and experiences. We develop our interpersonal competencies.

Reading, then, becomes a survival enhancing activity.

In that quiet moment of the evening, when your child sits in your lap, they are absorbing the story you hold in your hands. I think it’s ok to occasionally let them absorb something more subtle, complex and nuanced. Something a bit more wholemeal and a bit less doughnut.

What are your thoughts about this? Do you have books that have unveiled themselves to you over time? 

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Linking with Essentially Jess & Weekend Rewind

Once Upon A Timeless Tale

It’s no secret that our bookshelves are heavily laden with children’s books. The shelves sag from their weight. Yet despite the variety of quality, modern, interesting and quirky books in our collection, it is repeatedly the fairy tales that are selected by small hands.

It intrigues me. Why? Some are so gruesome. So dark. Most are set in bygone eras, that are surely not relatable for our kids.

And yet they go back for more.

I’ve thought long and hard about their attraction, and about their endurance through time.

Is it their rhythmic nature? Three bowls of soup, three chairs, three beds etc.

Or their moralistic, purposeful nature? Don’t talk to wolves etc.

Is it their goriness, and darkness kids are so sheltered from in early years, yet are so clearly drawn to?

Is it their magic, other-worldliness? From what I know of early childhood, children are drawn to magic. Their little imaginations take hold of an impossible idea, like a talking wolf or a fairy godmother, and let themselves soar.

You may have heard that Richard Dawkins recently questioned whether it was possibly ‘harmful’ to read fairy tales to children.

‘I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway,’ he said.

Dawkins’ comments were followed by a wave of hysteria and outcry. But fairy tales inspire imagination and wonder, the rebuttal sang.

Dawkins himself later commented that he was misrepresented. Like many of the rest of us, he too feels fairy tales are important.

‘I did not, and will not, condemn fairy tales,’ said Dawkins. ‘My whole life has been given over to stimulating the imagination, and in childhood years, fairy stories can do that.’

Clearly, the magic and wonder of these tales is significant.

But I feel that although fairy tales play with supernatural concepts, have archetypal characters and are set in other worlds, they are deeply human, and it is this that makes them so attractive.

At the heart of most fairy tales is a moral, yes, but there’s also a subtle and complex character flaw or problem that needs to be resolved.

Think of naive, trusting Red Riding Hood, the fiercely jealous step mother of Snow White, or the calculating, canny yet well-intentioned mother-in-law-to-be of the Princess and the Pea. And how relatable in fact is the ugly little duckling, who exists on the fringes of his social world, an outcast because of his looks?

I think as well as craving magic, children are drawn like magnets to the complexity and the humanness of these stories. Remember too that the tales were initially orated from one person to another, passed down through generations, until they were captured in writing. These are human traits that ascend advances in technology, and other cultural developments.

Margrete Lamond, publisher at Little Hare, realised there was a distinct gap in the market between high-end luxury-gift collections of folk and fairy tales, and the cheap Disney-inspired versions that were not true to the originals.

This year, Little Hare released the Once Upon A Timeless Tale series to address this. Margrete  describes the series as a ‘classic, collectible set of fairy tales with high production values, beautiful illustrations and a sense of traditional oral storytelling in the style of writing.’

Once Upon A Timeless Tale The stories are depicted by some of the industry’s best known illustrators, like Anna Walker, Anna Pignataro and Cécile Becq. 

Detail from Puss In Boots, Cécile Becq

Detail from Puss In Boots, Cécile Becq

Margrete herself retells the fairy tales. She tried to source the very early versions, and translated from original languages to find the most authentic voice.

From all the versions of fairy tales we have in our collection, these are by far and away my favourite.

Detail from The Ugly Duckling, Jonathan Bentley

Detail from The Ugly Duckling, Jonathan Bentley

They resolve some of the inexplicable threads other versions leave hanging. For example, Goldilocks has a clear motive when entering the house of the bears.

She was wandering through the forest when she chanced upon a house. She politely knocked, but there was no answer and when she pushed, the door opened, so she went in. Goldilocks wondered why the door was left unlocked, and why three bowls of porridge were left standing on the table, but because she loved the smell of porridge, she was drawn in, and curiosity tempted her to taste from each bowl.

Detail from Little Red Riding Hood, Anna Pignataro

Detail from Little Red Riding Hood, Anna Pignataro

I also love their playfulness.

‘That should teach you’ said the grandmother, ‘not to talk to wolves.’
‘It should teach the wolf,’ said Red Riding Hood, ‘not to talk to little girls.’
And once they had agreed on this, everyone lived happily ever after.’

I also like that Puss In Boots is a smart and sassy lady cat with fine red boots.

I guess the clue to the endurance of fairy tales is in the title of this series – they are timeless. No matter what goes on in our busy, ever-changing world, the fairy story still rings true, in a magical sort of way.

The books can be purchased here.

For more tales from the sunshine house, visit me over at Facebook. You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter, where I occasionally run giveaways for subscribers, and update you with the latest sunshine news.