fears

Emotional Literacy: Books about feelings

Young children may find it difficult to identify and express their feelings, and quite often it can come out as difficult or disruptive behaviour. In others, feelings may be locked away and expressed only in silence. Key strategies for helping children to express their feelings include learning how to identify what they are feeling – naming feelings and giving them labels is vastly helpful. As is learning to identify them in others – by facial expressions for example. After naming the feelings, it helps to talk about them. And books are excellent ways to trigger an emotional response:

feelings

Feelings by Richard Jones and Libby Walden
Sometimes with children, one way to ask them to express how they are feeling about something is to ask them to draw a picture. A yellow sunshine or a black sky can give a clear indication of emotion. Richard Jones explores this with his debut picture book, Feelings. With the same boy on each spread (die-cut so that he remains the same while all around him changes), emotions are evoked throughout the book by a series of images on each page.

The illustrations cleverly surround the child – changing mood with colour, texture, shapes and illustrations, all of which convey the emotion expressed in the rhyming couplet text.

Each double page is a different emotion. Brave is expressed with a beautiful orange sky at sunrise or sunset, and acres of land below, as the boy stands atop a mountain:

“The journey might be hard and the path may not be straight,
but if you’re bold and carry on, the view below looks great!”

Angry is red, the boy halfway up an erupting volcano, whereas Happy sees him surrounded by smaller images in a variety of bright colours – mainly depicting nature, from flowers to dancing dogs, symbols of love, music, and a string of coloured lights. Jealous shows the boy atop a mountain again, but this time set in a green land, watching a girl on pink hills riding a bike with a flock of red and pink birds rising behind her.

“Your vision blurs, your mind is fixed on things you do not own
and as green steam begins to rise, you give an envious moan.”

Other emotions include Alone, Embarrassed, Excited, Afraid and even Calm – and there’s a strong call to empathy at the end of the book as other children join our boy in a beautiful orange and blue palette of child-friendly images, from swinging on a tree branch to walking a dog, and breathing in the air from a calm sunny winter’s day. A host of smaller illustrations at the bottom of the page give different scenes, and each one could be discussed by the reader – how does each picture make you feel?

This is a clever book – enabling emotions to be discussed frankly against a background of an appealing, calming and emotive collection of landscapes and illustrations. Showing that emotional literacy and visual literacy are meshed together. You can buy it here.

a-book-of-feelings

A Book of Feelings by Amanda McCardie, illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino
A more overt and explicit show of emotions is discussed in this new book from McCardie and Rubbino. Rather than filled with abstract landscapes and vignettes, this book goes to the heart of the family. Rubbino portrays two children, Sam and Kate, with their mum and dad and Fuzzy Bean, their dog. Then by illustrating everyday actions and situations, Rubbino and McCardie draw attention to the different emotions felt, and give them name.

They start with happy (a very good place to start), and Kate and Sam look directly at the reader. This is a brilliant way to invite the child reader to bond with the characters – their facial expressions and body language invite the reader right inside the book, and therefore into the emotions of Sam and Kate.

Throughout the book, the family are seen doing everyday things. Things that make them happy, such as saving a goal, reading, drawing etc. And, in a gorgeous full double page spread, showing that they are loved. In bed with their parents, sharing breakfast, amidst the clutter of their home. It feels intimate, and safe and comfortable, and again, makes the reader feel included.

But, of course, it explains over the next few pages, that everyone experiences different emotions, and although they are still loved, sometimes Mum gets cross, and Dad might get sad or angry. A raft of emotional feelings is explored and explained, including grumpiness, nervousness, feeling shy, feeling embarrassed, feeling scared and sad. What’s clever here is that not only does the author explain that sometimes saying sorry or thank you can be difficult when you’re not feeling happy and gracious, but also that sometimes you can feel mixed emotions, and that people express their emotions differently. An easy one to explain is that Mum cries when she is happy and sometimes sad people don’t cry. I particularly loved:

“Sam cries when he’s had a bad fall, or can’t explain something, or he’s tired.
Kate cries when she can’t think what she feels, or she’s downright cross.”

The author stretches the family a little to include a friend whose parents are separating. A myriad of emotions come out here, as well as a clear explanation of what she needs from Kate and Sam’s family to help her.

Death too is dealt with – the death of a pet, and even the dog’s emotions. Jealousy is first explained with Fuzzy Bean, and then goes back in time to when Kate was born, and Sam’s jealousy of his new sibling.

Bullying too is explored, as well as one of the reasons behind it.

This is a fabulously thought out book. Both entertaining, with delightful illustrations that make the reader feel part of the family, and which contain a great deal of detail of the family home, so that each picture needs intense scrutiny, as well as deciphering (very easily) which emotion is being explored. Mostly though, there is an overriding sense of understanding for each member of the family, and love, so that by the end, a young child will be able to see that emotions are in flux all the time, but as long as there’s a basic grounding of love and understanding, they will be fine. A great addition to any bookshelf. You can buy it here.

meh

Meh by Deborah Malcolm
Of course sometimes it’s a little more complicated than that. Meh is a wordless picture book that explores depression. A young boy is shown happy – he draws pictures, runs across a rainbow. But then an abstract shape of darkness appears and pulls him inside, and then he appears trapped in page after page of darkness.

Finally, he sees a way out and follows a trail to overcome the darkness. Cleverly, Malcolm has illustrated this with enormous dexterity, so that not only does the way out look glowing and illuminated, but also it looks incredibly difficult for the boy to climb out from the darkness.

There’s quite a limited pool of resources explaining depression to children. In fact, it’s a fairly difficult thing to explain to adults too. This wordless picture book shows that depression can happen to children too – and is a great starting point to talk about it – to explain that it’s something that happens and can happen to anyone and importantly, is not something that can just be shaken off by a kick about in the park etc.

The boy seems fairly age-less in the story, which is good as the book can appeal to a wider audience. His way out of the depression is through a vague, illuminated white cat, which could be a symbol for a variety of things that pull someone out of depression, and because the story is left wordless and fairly vague, the emotional literacy is left to the reader to decipher and interpret in a way that resonates with them.

Meh has questions at the end of the book for further discussion, although I feel that the illustrations themselves pose enough questions to talk through as the book is read. But it is an excellent tool for dealing with this complicated issue, and quite unique in its marketplace. You can find it here.

 

All three books were sent to me by the publishers for review. 

 

Before I Wake Up by Britta Teckentrup

Before I Wake Up cover

Britta Teckentrup has illustrated more than 80 children’s picture books, and this latest, Before I Wake Up is one of her best. It has a soothing, dream-like quality, encapsulating the essence of the idea, which is a book that portrays a child’s nighttime in the most reassuring way possible. It follows the dreamscape of a little girl, accompanied by her toy lion, and taking ideas and articles from her life with her – yet distorting everything slightly – as happens in dreams.

Like in Teckentrup’s picture book about the changing seasons, Tree, the colour palate blends and merges like a tonal rainbow, from the intensity of a dark night to the encroaching glow of morning. By using collage – layers of transparent images – the dreamlike quality escalates, the further into the book the reader goes.

Although a typical journey of a children’s book, it is the clever use of imagery that pulls. The moon transforms into a hot air balloon – pulling the child’s bed through her subconscious with a dreamy consistency. Other images are repeated and warped slightly, yet soothe and reassure; the toy lion is a companion who leads the little girl through the night. The lion grows in the dreamscape, but as a protector rather than a predator – putting his arms around the child in the storms.

There is an innate sensitivity to the images, pared with rhyming text that contains a multitude of soothing words, such as gaze, stars, song, rocking, safe, kisses.

The face of the little girl in repose both absorbs this stillness and also offers assurances. The dazzling brightness of daytime comes into play in the final pages, the yellow hue so powerful it is as if you really have opened your eyes from a dream. Wonderful stuff. For anyone who’s ever had a worrying, sleepless night.

Below, Doris Kutschback, Editor-in-Chief of the publishers, Prestel Junior, explains how the book came about.

Can you give some background information as to how the book was created?

When Britta showed me the book she had already worked on it for a long time. It was a project of the heart. I was very excited by it straight away and we sat down together and selected the spreads that would make it into the final book out of a vast selection of images.

The book is a 56pp picture book and not a typical 32pp picture book… why have you chosen a longer format?

The rhythm of the story didn’t allow for it to be cut down to 32pp. How can you travel through a whole night if you’re limited to 12 spreads?

Was the original text written in German or English (Britta was born and lives in Germany)?

It was written in English and it was not that easy to translate the English rhymes into German.

What do you love about the book?

I mainly love the soft tones and how the lion gives the girl strength with his subtle tenderness. I love the soft flow of the images as they guide you through the night. It’s all very harmonious without ever getting boring.  The mood is perfect for this subject matter. I also really like the paper and the whole look and feel of the book…it all works together very well.

Have you got a favourite page?

My personal favourite is – ‘…I wish I could stay in this wilderness…’

fav spread

Is there anything you would have done differently?

No!

What was it like working together with Britta on this book?

She’s perfect! Super professional, super relaxed and unpretentious…She is a fantastic artist and isn’t a diva but always very modest which makes working with her a great joy. I enjoy brainstorming with her and I have got the feeling that we are on the same wavelength – we always understand immediately what the other person is talking about.

Britta 1Britta in her studio

Thanks so much to Prestel for providing the interview and the book review copy. You can visit Britta’s website at www.brittateckentrup.com or find her on twitter @BTeckentrup. You can purchase a copy of Before I Wake Up… here

 

The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn by Tania Unsworth

Daisy Fitzjohn

Tania Unsworth has written a most compelling thriller for children, using a mixture of tense suspense and magical realism to tell a story of depth, mystery and adventure.

Daisy lives with her mother in a huge, crumbling mansion called Brightwood Hall. She has never left the grounds, so when her mother goes on a shopping trip and doesn’t return, Daisy is left completely alone. She has to make a crucial decision – should she venture into the wider world or wait at home in the house and surrounding gated grounds until her mother returns.

Then a stranger arrives, and secrets in her family, and those contained within Brightwood Hall, begin to be revealed and cast Daisy into more danger than she could possibly have imagined. She must decide again whether to protect the mansion and her ‘friends’ within, or whether to find help outside the gates.

As well as a weaving a spellbinding tale, Tania Unsworth has threaded immense depth into the book, with themes of memory and the power of imagination. Daisy’s mother is a hoarder – she keeps objects from each day as memories inside ‘Day Boxes’, which stack up inside the mansion. Added to this are Daisy’s own conversations with an imaginary friend, and her belief that the objects that make up the mansion are living and can talk with her – from the portraits lining the walls, to the topiary hedge shapes in the garden, to the animals roaming the grounds.

This magical realism enables her to explore her own mind and memory, and prepare her to battle the dangerous stranger who invades her space.

Of course, as with all great books about a character being alone, the protagonist has to resonate extremely strongly with the reader, and gain their sympathy – and Daisy does. She is likeable, introspective but interesting, and brave despite her increasing vulnerability. Her fears of abandonment, her anger at her mother, then her despair and loneliness, are tangible and realistic – as juxtaposed with the ‘magic’ of things around her. The two concepts spar brilliantly with each other – and the reader is left to decipher what is real and what isn’t – and what the mind does when left to its own devices, and how it deals with the world when it is fighting for survival.

The setting itself is striking and highly visual – the expansive grounds, some wild some tamed, the house with its towers of ‘Day Boxes’, old artefacts, and plentiful rooms – some shrouded and hidden – others open and comforting.

Yet despite the depth within the text, this is a thrilling adventure/mystery story that is easy to read – the plot skims along at pace, the characters are well-drawn and identifiable, and it promotes thought. It’s a highly memorable book, and one of my top reads so far this year. For age 9+. You should definitely read this book – and if you want to, you can buy it here.

 

I was sent a copy for review by Orion publishers, but also worked on some readers’ notes for this book.

New Year Grit

It’s the New Year. A time for resolutions, and thoughts about what’s to come. For children it’s never too early to learn the key skills of steering your own life – personal responsibility, determination and grit.

In fact, ‘grit’ has been acknowledged recently as an important indicator of academic success. It’s a tricky one as it’s a fairly undefinable characteristic – but is associated with character traits such as resilience, and perseverance. Not hanging around for ‘good luck’ to happen, but focusing on personal growth and a drive to improve. This goes back to Albert Bandura’s definition of self-efficacy as one’s belief in the ability to succeed in a situation or to accomplish a task. The psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED talk has been fairly well touted as a definitive guide to grit. But for the young, who may not understand a full TED talk yet, there are numerous picture books that also espouse ‘grit’:

most magnificent thing

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
This is a wonderful picture book tale of grit. A young girl (a regular one, the author makes clear) sets out to make something, assisted by her dog. The reader isn’t sure what it will be, but the girl knows it will be something magnificent. From the cover page it’s clear that this is going to be an assemblage of junk yard items, but firstly the girl starts by drawing a plan of it.

The text is simple, playful and as everyday as possible. The reader sees that the ‘regular’ girl makes things all the time, and this will be “Easy peasy!” Hilarious illustrations accompany the text, adding an extra dimension – there is a lovely scene where the girl hires her dog as an assistant – she is posed looking over glasses at the paperwork. Then when she starts to work, her American city neighbourhood is shown in the background – the buildings in black line drawing, the characters at the front – colourful and as diverse as can be.

Then the book really springs into life with the girl’s work. The vocabulary is fabulous – she “tinkers, hammers, measures,” and later “smooths, wrenches and fiddles”. After numerous attempts it’s still nowhere near magnificent. Her face shows much grit, determination and perseverance. She re-examines, she “twists and tweaks, steadies, fixes”, and even draws a crowd. But it’s not right.

Then of course, as is natural, she loses it! She “smashes” and “jams” and “pummels” and the vocabulary becomes less and less constructive, and more and more destructive, as she fails to build what’s in her imagination. She ends up hurting herself and quits.

But after a long walk with her trusty assistant, she comes to the realisation that with careful and slow work, and no distractions, she could try again. There are some brilliant learning points here – her explosion is “not her finest moment”, her discarded inventions are found to be useful by others, the illustrations show that her imagination is piqued by what’s around her on the walk….

What she makes in the end is magnificent (even though it is not perfect, and the author is keen to point out it has taken all day) – the girl and her dog are not disappointed and nor will the reader be. This reviewer certainly found the book to be a magnificent thing.

cow climbed tree

The Cow Who Climbed a Tree by Gemma Merino
More about doing what’s deemed impossible by others and following dreams than having grit, this picture book still aims to show that unless you attempt something you won’t achieve it. In magnificent watercolour, what stands out most in this picture book is the subtlety of the illustrations versus the unsubtlety of the premise.

Tina is a curious cow who reads books and comes up with ideas. Her sisters reject each of them. Then one day Tina disappears, and in order to find her, the cow sisters must follow her example and climb trees and see where she might have gone. In the end, they too believe that anything is possible – cows can climb trees, fly and even go to the moon.

The humour inherent in the illustrations is great. When Tina looks at a book, her three sisters are pictured leaning against a tree chewing the cud languorously, eyes disbelieving. When Tina explains to them about taking a rocket to the moon, the sisters are shown eating again – but this time around a kitchen table. A disinterested mouse strolls off the other side of the page. Likewise when she explains to them ridiculously incredulous stories of her meeting a vegetarian friendly dragon at the top of the tree she climbed, they are pictured dismissively strolling up the stairs to bed (mouse too).

These cows walk on two legs – the trees are pictured with round colourful watercolour leaves, almost like balloons, and when the sisters do follow Tina, they climb behind a pig on his way to flying lessons.

It’s a cute, yet beautifully composed picture book about attempting the previously thought impossible. Buy it here.

oh places you go

Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss
I’m sticking a classic picture book in here. Not all book purchases need to be of new books – many of my favourites are from the back catalogues. This is a quintessential book about keeping going, because good and bad things will happen to you, but it’s all about persevering and pushing through. Written in second person – referring directly to the reader, and also in future tense as if the reader is just beginning on the journey of life:

“And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.”

What’s great is that despite all the realism within – you’ll face slumps, be left in the lurch, lose because you’re playing a game alone, you’ll spend time alone, and be confused and sometimes frightened and face problems – you’ll get through it all, and keep moving onwards – there is eternal hope and enthusiasm on each page:

“With banner flip-flapping,
once more you’ll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you’re that kind of guy!”

Classic Seuss illustrations from fantastical creatures to colourful flying balloons, weird contraptions, balancing houses, imaginative landscapes like the craziest crazy golf you ever played – it’s all here in wondrous colours. A poem to keep you going. You can buy it here.

Picture Books with A Message

Learning to Share

moonlight school

Owl Wants to Share at Moonlight School by Simon Puttock, illustrated by Ali Pye
Actually, there is much more to this book than a simple lesson about sharing – it’s about using your imagination, being kind to each other, and accepting difference. However it is not preachy at all. In fact I fell in love with Miss Moon, Moonlight School’s teacher, the most understanding teacher in literature since Miss Honey! Simon Puttock demonstrates his understanding of children’s behaviour within a classroom environment (even if they are animals here) with accuracy and skill, and Ali Pye’s phenomenal illustrations, capturing shadows, mannerisms, and expressions are a delight.

At drawing time, there aren’t enough night-time colours to go round, so after Cat, Mouse and Bat have helped themselves, Owl has to draw using bright daytime colours. What will he come up with, and will the other students learn about sharing in the process?

Silver glitter on the front, attention to detail inside (look for Mouse’s tail accessory and her body language as she puts her paw up), the clever use of perspective to stop the reader from seeing Owl’s picture before Owl is ready – there is so much to admire in this picture book.

The language too is pitched perfectly – “Owl looked clever and said nothing”, whilst Miss Moon is a shining example of every good primary school teacher, with positive reinforcement, classroom control, and of course giving out stickers at the end.

This is a sumptuous picture book. Recommended to all. Buy a copy here.

 

Owning Up

the whopper
The Whopper by Rebecca Ashdown
Perhaps slightly less subtle, The Whopper by Rebecca Ashdown is certainly comical. Percy’s grandma comes to stay, and as a gift she gives him a hand knitted jumper. Percy hates it of course, and decides to take her words literally when she says it is “just right for walking the dog in”. When the dog ruins the jumper, Percy tosses it away, but when he lies to his Mum about what happened to it, a little creature called the Whopper appears. Before long the Whopper has taken over Percy’s life, to the extent that the only way he can get rid of it is to admit the truth. He does so, and of course, Grandma shows her acceptance of his apology with a new gift!

There are some hysterical moments in this book – from the picture accompanying his lie to the baby brother’s and Percy’s classmates reaction to the whopper, and the whopper’s ultimate defeat!

The message is how a lie, no matter how small, can loom large and take over quite quickly, and it’s drawn with some relish here. Very enjoyable as a lesson in telling the truth, but not necessarily a go-to picture book for bedtime. You can purchase it here from Waterstones.

 

Trying New Things

bogtrotter
Bogtrotter by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Judith Rossell
Bogtrotter is a simple creature. Furry green, with keen eyes, lively hair and a toothy expression, he runs day after day, year after year around the bog – hence Bogtrotter! But he’s not entirely content. When the frog asks him why he doesn’t ever do anything new or different it sets in motion alarm bells, and Bogtrotter starts to take notice of the world around him, and think of possibilities for the future.

The frog’s second question makes him think even harder, and he goes on a full adventure, with surprising results – not spelled out for the reader in text, but inferred in the picture. It’s a gem of a title, exploring what can happen if a person goes outside their own comfort zone, and takes stock of other creatures and the surrounding landscape.

The illustrations are adorable – the sort of depiction of a creature that a child wants made into a soft toy, as well as endearing human touches for animal creatures – the Bogtrotter sleeps with a mug of tea beside him and pictures on his wall (presumably of himself). Even the illustrations from behind of him ‘trotting’ are quite something to behold. A great book, with humour, insight and inference. Highly recommended. Buy here from Waterstones.

 

Being Brave

brave as can be
Brave As Can Be: A Book of Courage by Jo Witek, illustrated by Christine Roussey
Another fairly unsubtle book, but so excellently produced that you’ll think seriously about buying this and referencing it over and over. Sturdy thick cardboard pages with die cut shapes cut out lend a special element to this dynamic book.

An adorable little girl depicted in black lines with red cheeks, red bow in her hair, and red spots on her dress, takes the reader through the book in first person narrative, recalling how when she was little she had many fears. Ironic of course, as the little girl is still pretty little. Firstly she introduces her huge mountain of scary things.

Two die cut eyes in the mountain turn it into a kind of monster, but on the next page those die cut holes turn into snowflakes – showing that our fears are simple shape shifters – we can choose to see things as scary or we can choose to view them as something other than that.

The little girl then goes through her fears one by one, but instead of dismissing them, she tells the reader how she dealt with them – from using a night-light in the scary dark, to her mum’s explanation that the dog’s bark is just him saying hello. She even points out that sometimes we use being scary as a way to entertain – such as Halloween and telling spooky stories.

The illustrations are very clever – not only using the die cut shapes on each page to turn into something fresh, but also the combination of pencil lines and colourful crayons, as if the little girl had drawn the illustrations very neatly – the tangle of adult legs with scary boots on the ends is very effective when the little girl describes getting lost. (She overcomes her fear by becoming a brave explorer).

I wasn’t convinced about the ending though, which I found to be a bit of a letdown, although perhaps it is apt for the target readership. Size is said to be important here. As the little girl grows up, she realises that fewer things seem scary. As she grows as a person, her fears diminish.

Certainly the things that were scary as children no longer seem scary…it’s just that for this reader, other stuff does. You can buy a copy of the book here.