Listening and Looking

As we move into May, still in lockdown, something has happened to book reviewers. We aren’t getting as many books through the post.* This is for two reasons – firstly, many books that were due to be published in the spring have been moved to the autumn for when (the industry hopes), people are able to browse in bookshops again, and secondly, because there just isn’t anyone in the publishers’ offices to post the books.

At the moment, then, much of my reading is online or through audio. And your children may be experiencing the same.

What’s interesting, in listening to audiobooks, is the range of voices chosen for the narrator. I’ve listened to more accents in the past week than I usually hear in a year, from an Irish lilt to a southern American drawl to what sounds like a very young child’s London accent, but is probably voiced by a startlingly good adult actor. The voices bring a whole new resonance to the text.

And in eerie timing, the National Literacy Trust released some good news about audio books and children just before lockdown began. (National Literacy Trust Audiobooks and Literacy Report February 2020, Emily Best) Listening to audio books means that children can access books they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to read alone, and audio can help children with their understanding of the text by way of tone and pronunciation. The audiobook narrator is a model reader – expression is key, and therefore emotional response may be heightened in the listener: the child’s empathy and understanding are increased. What’s more, the report found that listening requires the same cognitive skills as reading – it is not as passive an activity as you might think.

Some books need to be looked at though – we need to see the illustrations, the colour, the layout and design, the fonts and diagrams. I have been sent ‘digital’ copies of some books for review recently, and for me personally, I miss the physicality of the print book. I like to touch and feel picture books; I find my eye is drawn to different places on the screen as opposed to in print, and I long to be in the physical presence of rows of newly printed books in a bookshop. However, I can spot a good book even in its digital appearance, and I can envisage how it would be to hold it in my hands. Here are two that jumped out at me, and I imagine will be wonderful to finally hold:

nell and the circus of dreams
Nell and the Circus of Dreams by Nell Gifford, illustrated by Briony May Smith
A sumptuously imagined story about a little girl who discovers a temporary circus in the fields beyond her house. Written by Nell Gifford, the owner of Gifford’s Circus, who sadly died in December, this is a richly-written text with magic and heart, matched by the highly-detailed illustrations from Briony May Smith. The little girl, also called Nell, has a sick mother and feels lonely before making friends with a chick, which eventually leads her to the circus community behind her house.

The contrast of her loneliness in the beginning with the packed pages of circus life, buzzing with life and people and the red glow of stage lights is a powerful reminder of the joy of crowds and community, and conjures a new world of inclusivity, inviting aromas, and fun. Although the illustrations, with their imagery of child wonder and nature’s charms, feel old-fashioned, this tale feels particularly relevant to our times. You can buy it here.

wild scientists
Wild Scientists by Steve Mould
A new way of combining the natural world with our perception of teaching science, this book sort of turns things on its head. Split into sections including biology, chemistry, engineering and maths, it aims to show how these sciences are represented naturally – by the animal world. The obvious example is beavers, who are natural engineers with their dam-building, but there are many more obscure examples in the book, such as bat physicists and chilli plant biologists.

What’s most attractive though is that the book is unbelievably bright and colourful, lighting up my computer screen with a mixture of illustrations and photographs – capturing the eye of a cat, the beak of a kingfisher, the hexagons of honeycombs. Showing that we learn from nature, this is a stunning way of teaching science at home. Plenty of diagrams and simple explanations make this a real joy. For age 7+ years. You can buy it here.

*That’s not to say that physical books aren’t still available to purchase. They absolutely are, and all good local bookshops will deliver, as will Waterstones.

With thanks to OUP and DK books for sending me pdfs.