Book reviews - summer projects

June 17

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The summer holidays, free from school routines, ought to be a time for adventures and absorbing projects but sometimes it isn’t possible for children just to head out into the wide world and sometimes projects need a kick start. For this issue of Salad Days, I’ve tried to find some books to help.

Take Origami, Poems and Pictures, for example, published by Nosy Crow in collaboration with the British Museum to celebrate its Hokusai exhibition. This is a beautifully understated introduction to three Japanese arts - painting, haiku poetry, and origami. A short introductory explanation is followed by stunning examples of the paintings, haikus (the 3-line poems) to accompany them, and step-by-step instructions to make origami creatures inspired by both poems and paintings. The book includes several sheets of origami paper from which to craft.

Designed, I’d say, for children aged 9+, I can see this occupying several hours in itself, plus maybe inspiring the writing of some experimental haikus, maybe some painting, some research into Japanese culture (OK maybe I’m being a bit unrealistic now!) but perhaps a trip to the British Museum?

If origami feels a bit tame for the children in your care, how about My Book of Bike Activities by Catherine Bruzzone, Jo Moore and Anne Wilson? Dubbed ‘A Wheelie Good Book’, this has everything from ‘spot the difference’ challenges to BMX tricks to try and instructions on how to mend a puncture. I’d have liked a bit more on bicycle maintenance but, as this is probably aimed at 7-10 year-olds, it is probably safe not to encourage them to tinker with spanners and allen keys!

Another book stacked full of design projects is Rosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts. Turning at random to page 38 for a ‘Super-Duper Engineering Challenge’ at the zoo (to design an egg picker-upper which meets various criteria), it says “There is no wrong answer to this challenge, just lots of chances to make fabulous failures and to learn!”. Elsewhere, the reader is told “Every idea is a good one when brainstorming.” How often are children really told that? Gloriously liberating!

There’s a little introduction to Rosie Revere, who features in a previous story by the same creators. It is followed by a note of all the ‘engineer’s treasure’ which Rosie has amassed for use in future projects (from toilet rolls to scissors, wire and tennis balls); there are projects like the egg picker-upper and also ‘Real World Challenges’ encouraging children to think about how to tackle, for example, a method of cooking food using only the wind or the sun. What a fabulously inspiring resource for children aged perhaps 8+.

For children whose creative and imaginative spirit operates differently, I have been struck by the popularity of Remarkable Animals, a ridiculous but extremely clever book by
Tony Meeuwissen.

Each page is split into three vertical sections. Running across all three sections are lines of text, below which there is a drawing of the creature being described (e.g. platypus, alligator, opossum). Flipping over the different sections of the pages creates absurd new composite creatures with new composite names (thus with two flips, the platypus can become a Platigasum) and, what is so delightful, is that the text still makes ridiculous sense. Imagine the folding paper party game ‘Consequences’ and you’re somewhere there. I’ve seen children poring over my 20-year-old copy of this book for hours – there are 1000 crazy animals to be had. Of course, you could extend the fun by challenging children to invent their own pages …

These are just some suggestions of projects to absorb children while parents are working. Another interesting book which might help is What Do Grown-Ups Do All Day? by Virginie Morgand. With simple, boldly coloured retro-style illustrations, the book offers the essential details of jobs adults do. For example, “I am a Hairdresser. Come to my salon and I will make you feel special with a new haircut.” Or, at the Concert Hall, “I am the lighting technician. I control the lights in the concert hall, which can make the performance more dramatic.”.

Not only does the book give young children an insight into the world of their adults, from newsroom to construction site, but it may also open their eyes to the range of opportunities they might explore in the future. Creative children might even use this as a jumping-off point for role-play activities.

In the context of ‘opening one’s eyes to the world’, I must mention one of the most beautiful and inspiring books I have seen for a long time – Timeline: a Visual History of our World by Peter Goes. A big book with stunning single colour annotated illustrations covering the whole of each page, this book provides a world history packed with interesting facts and, more importantly, providing children with a sense of how the history of different parts of the world dovetail through the ages. I bought this for myself to spend time over as it is so stunning.

While we’re talking about exploring the world, can I mention the Words in Walden Concert for Children on 1st October at Saffron Hall? Our theme is ‘Around the World in Sixty Minutes’ with music inspired by every continent except Antarctica – too cold!). As always, the Saffron Walden Symphony Orchestra plays while the much-loved children’s author-illustrator James Mayhew tells stories and paints illustrations to the music live on stage. We will auction James’ paintings at the end of the Concert and the proceeds will go to Edlumino, a charity providing emergency education to children in refugee camps around the world. Tickets are available online at www.saffronhall.com or at Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre.

Finally, and apropos of not very much else in this set of reviews except that it is (a) stunning and (b) too good to miss, is Lane Smith’s There Is a Tribe of Kids. Shortlisted for this year’s Kate Greenaway medal, the book explores the visual delight of the collective nouns we use for groups of creatures (parades of elephants, unkindnesses of ravens, sprinkles of fireflies) as a child encounters them on his adventure. Poetic, this is pure imaginative pleasure.

I hope that among my recommendations, you’ll find something to absorb your children this summer. If not, go to Hart’s Bookshop in Saffron Walden (www.hartsbooks.co.uk) and ask the lovely staff for their suggestions. There is a world of books to choose from on their shelves.

Jo Burch
Founder Words in Walden Festival

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