Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Fairy tales, feelings and fish: three picture books reviewed

It was a lovely surprise earlier this month to find a parcel of picture books from Templar Publishing awaiting my return from holiday - though it's taken me a few weeks to get round to reviewing them. Here they are now:

Alison Jay: Little Red Riding Hood. (Text rewritten by Katie Cotton.)

This retelling of a classic story is firmly aimed at children who are already well-versed in fairy tales. The text is much less important than the illustrations - crackle-glazed paintings in (according to the blurb) "Alison Jay's much admired style". Personally, I don't care much for the tiny-featured faces and spindly limbs, but I do love the concept. Although Red Riding Hood is the main character, she lives in Fairy Tale Village, where her Mum runs the tea shop, and all around her other fairy tale characters are taking part in their own stories. Children will have great fun spotting these - I found more every time I looked - and could be encouraged to tell the story of, say Hansel and Gretel, themselves. NB the fates of the baddies in these tales have been considerably toned down! No wolves appear to have been harmed in the telling.

Tor Freeman: Olive and the bad mood.

Olive is having a really bad day - something has put her in a bad mood (make sure you start reading well before the title page to find out what) and she just can't snap out of it. Not only that, it makes her behave badly towards her friends (a variety of animals in clothes), putting them down in a most unpleasant fashion. Then - she passes a sweet shop and a bag of jelly worms puts all to rights! Except that, she discovers, her friends are all now in bad moods - I wonder why? It doesn't occur to Olive that she might be the cause, but she passes her sweets around, cheering everyone up, until the bag is empty and her bad mood returns. Primary school children often learn about feelings through stories - see Strathclyde University's list of suitable picture books - and this title is a good addition to the canon. Some might object to Olive's bad behaviour going unpunished, although she partially makes up for it by sharing her sweets generously. Children have mood swings like the rest of us and need to learn about the less positive emotions too, helped here, for those who can't yet read or aren't good at interpreting facial expressions, by the little black clouds which appear over the unhappy heads.

Andy Mansfield and Henning Lohlein: Fish food.

Children love pop-ups, and paper engineer Mansfield and illustrator Lohlein have done a grand job with this one. The story is minimal but pleasingly repetitive as each fishy character gets eaten up by a bigger one. This could be a useful introduction to the concept of the food chain, though possibly not for the over-sensitive - that shark's teeth are awfully big! The strength of the book though is, well - its strength. Many pop-ups are fiddly and flimsy and soon fall to pieces, but this one seems sturdy enough to survive multiple readings.

Thanks to Templar for sending me the books. They'll all be on their way to good homes in local libraries soon.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

100 years of Pollyanna

Statue of Pollyanna
Littleton Public Library, New Hampshire
Do little girls still read Pollyanna (1913)? You can still buy the books on Amazon (and not just the free Kindle versions) so maybe they do, or maybe she only finds older, nostalgic readers such as myself? I loved the book as a child, but hadn't thought of it for years until the 1960 Disney film, starring Hayley Mills, was shown on television a few months ago. I was rather more impressed by it than I had been first time round - in fact, my first memory of the cinema is being carried out screaming when (spoiler alert) Pollyanna falls from a tree. In my defence, I would only have been three or four, so was much too young to understand it. However, I wasn't inspired to re-read the book until this summer, while on holiday in New England, I came across the statue above. Littleton, New Hampshire, is the birth-place of Pollyanna's author, Eleanor H Porter, and every year they hold a Glad Day to celebrate Pollyanna, this year marking her centenary.

Why a Glad Day? Pollyanna is an orphan who is sent to live with her maternal aunt when her father dies. Her mother's family had not approved of her marriage to a poor minister, so Aunt Polly is not very welcoming. However, Pollyanna's sunny nature can melt the stoniest of hearts, and soon she has transformed the whole town with her "glad game" which consists of finding something to be glad about in every situation. It started one Christmas when Pollyanna, who was hoping for a doll in the missionary barrel, found only a pair of crutches inside. Pollyanna's father invented the game to teach her always to look for good in bad situations and to find something to be glad about —in this case, that they didn't need to use the crutches! When Pollyanna has an accident, all the people she has helped rally round to help her recover and her aunt is reconciled to, and marries, her former beau, Dr Chilton, leading to a happy ending. Like another of my childhood favourites, Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna can be irritatingly pious, but the message of the book is a sound one.

There are a dozen or so sequels, (see the list in Wikipedia) but only the first, Pollyanna grows up (1915), was written by Porter. Pollyanna's aunt wishes to accompany her husband to Europe. Rather casually, to the modern eye, she leaves Pollyanna to stay in Boston with the sister of an acquaintance. Mrs Carew's past has left her a bitter woman and Pollyanna, unknowingly, has been "prescribed" for her like a medicine. The glad game works its magic, Mrs Carew is transformed and Pollyanna makes many new friends. She is, however, horrified by the poverty she witnesses in Boston and returns home with views which sound dangerously socialist for the time! At this point, I got rather confused because six years pass and at first the second part of the book seems to bear little relation to what went before. Aunt Polly is now widowed and impoverished (by her standards), and Pollyanna casts around for money-making schemes and ways of preventing her aunt from sinking back into gloom. Her solution is to take in her friends from Boston as summer boarders - the connection is now clear! The rest of the plot features romantic misunderstandings and a rather hard-to-swallow coincidence which I don't think I could summarise without giving the game away. The attitude to a "crippled" character also sits uneasily in the twenty-first century, but is, I suppose, reflective of its times.

Despite these reservations, I've thoroughly enjoyed re-reading both books, but I don't think I'll go on to the sequels by other authors. I'll need to find another childhood heroine to revisit.

Update 26/08/13

Since posting the above I've learned of the existence of a list of children's literature statues in the US, Pollyanna included. Does anyone know of a similar UK list? Or of statues that could be included? Let me know in the comments if so.

Journeys from images to words: picture books in multilingual classrooms

An article in last week's TES, Pictures really do tell a thousand words, alerted me to this interesting research from Glasgow University. Sub-headed "Glasgow researchers find that images can build language skills", it sounds a bit obvious at first. However, there's more to Journeys - from images to words and back again than the heading implies. Working with classes which included refugees and asylum seekers as well as native English speakers, the researchers were looking for a way to help the children with poor English. However, they discovered that picture books were also of benefit to those whose first language was English, even advanced readers (the classes were P6, so were aged around 10).  They started with completely wordless books and moved progressively to books with no illustrations. Work included putting picture books into words and creating artwork to illustrate text. The research found that these visual strategies “provided a level playing field for all students because there were no expectations about success or failure based on the traditional reading and writing skills”. Find out more at the links above, and see the books used below.

The rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan. This is a story which represents an allegory of colonisation using images and minimal text.

Gervelie's journey: a refugee diary by Anthony Robinson and Annemarie Young, illustrated by June Allan. This is a non-fiction book with text illustrated by line drawings and photographs. It's part of a series in which the authors wanted to allow children to "put their feet in the shoes" of others.
Boy overboard by Morris Gleitzman. A chapter book consisting entirely of words, this tells the story of two children who journey from Afghanistan to Australia.

Update 26/08/13

 Since posting the above, I've come across a blog post by Trevor Cairney at  Literacy, families and learning which is relevant to the idea that pictures can help improve literacy. See "How drawing can improve reading comprehension."