Book Tokens - a gift of choice

January 18

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Salad Days – New Year 2018 issue

BOOK REVIEWS

Book Tokens – a Gift of Choice

What’s not to like about Book Tokens? They are a wonderful indulgence, if not an empowerment, offering the recipient the opportunity to walk into a bookshop and to spend time choosing a treat for themselves. After Christmas, they are a chance to take home the hoped-for presents which never materialised. Remember the child in Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, who received a book ‘that told me everything about the wasp, except why’?* Had that child received a Book Token instead, what worlds of imagination might he have selected instead …

One perfect present which wasn’t published when I wrote the book reviews for the Christmas issue of Salad Days is Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s The Lost Words. If your household didn’t receive this at Christmas, it would be a beautiful way to spend a Book Token. Earlier this year a report was published which identified words to be excised from the Oxford English Dictionary for lack of use. Many of these are words children used to name the natural world around them, now forgotten as they hunch over their screens – ‘bramble’, for example, overtaken by ‘’blackberry; ‘acorn’ by ‘apple’. Robert Macfarlane, academic, writer, word-collector and mountain-climber, was at the forefront of the outcry and was the perfect person to remedy the situation. 

The Lost Words is at once a nature trail, a treasure hunt, and a series of acrostic poems, stunningly and lyrically illustrated by Jackie Morris, which sends a subtle but powerful message about absence and vivid presence, based on some of the words at risk of disappearance.

For each word, there is a double-page spread of letters and sketches of the traces of the absent object, through which the reader must hunt to discover which treasure’s poem will be on the next page. Then the poem. Then a double-page illustration of that treasure in all its glory.

Take ‘fern’ for example. At first a jumble of letters with ‘f’ ‘e’ ‘r’ ‘n’ subtly highlighted amongst the pattern left by a fern when it is pulled off a wall or a rock. Then the acrostic:

Fern’s first form is furled,

Each frond fast as a fiddle-head.

Reach, roll and unfold follows. Fern flares.

Now fern is fully-fanned.

(Did I mention that Robert is the most fabulous wordsmith?) What follows is Jackie Morris’s glorious watercolour painting of ferns in their landscape.

Treat yourself, if the children in your care won’t, to this achingly beautiful evocation of the precious natural world around us.

Wordsmithery of a very different kind is at the heart of another perfect Book Token choice – I’m Just No Good at Rhyming: and other nonsense for mischievous kids and immature grown-ups by Chris Harris, illustrated by Lane Smith. I am clearly a deeply immature grown-up as I simply loved this. I don’t always enjoy poetry for children which is supposed to be funny, but this is just so clever and gloriously silly. For children who think they don’t like poetry or can’t write it, this is totally inspiring. 

Here’s one short example. The poem is called ‘The Gecko’. It goes:

If ever I find myself holding a gecko…

I’ll lecko.

Like The Lost Words, this is another book of poems to return to again and again.

Children will learn about poetry without realising it as they giggle their way through that book – and they’ll similarly learn about art history and about painting as they play with the ‘flip and flop’ options in Master-Pieces, a board book by Will Lach. The author has reproduced 10 famous portraits, one on each consecutive right-hand page. Each page has been sliced horizontally into three flaps, allowing the reader to flip the flaps and mix-and-match the three elements of each portrait. Not only is this great fun, it makes children look carefully at how each portrait differs, and they will also get to know each portrait well, with the future pleasure of recognising it during an art gallery visit.

You can, for example, match Van Gogh’s straw hat with Mona Lisa’s eyes and George Washington’s saggy mouth and chin (with his ill-fitting false teeth). Will Lach has included just enough text on the left-hand pages to draw attention to the salient features of each portrait – again allowing for mixing and matching into grammatical but slightly silly sentences. I started this paragraph with the word ‘you’ advisedly as this is compelling for adults as well as children …

Slightly more serious but with a lovely lightness of touch is another art history book for children, Vincent’s Starry Night and Other Stories: a Children’s History of Art by Michael Bird, illustrated by Kate Evans. In this, a series of famous paintings are reproduced in chronological order (from cave hand-paintings to ‘Sunflower Seeds’ by Ai Weiwei). A historically accurate short story (or episode) is then woven around the making of each. So, for example, the story of the Terracotta Army tells of the craftsmen who produced the clay warriors, ending with the secret visit of the Emperor’s officer to his friend, the workshop foreman, warning him to escape before the soldiers could round up all the craftsmen to be buried alive with the ‘army’ so that no other emperor could ever achieve so large an army in their afterlife. Again, this would be a fabulous choice introducing the history of art to children.

Can I include one more irresistible art book, please? (I do so on the basis that art books tend to be expensive and are therefore less likely to be chosen in the usual course of events). Marion Deuchar’s Colour is an inspirational choice for anyone who likes (or is nervous of) putting paint to paper. She begins with a multi-coloured quotation from Paul Klee, ‘Colour is where our brain and the universe meet’ and from there moves in all sorts of directions, from showing which colour schemes are included in various art works, e.g. the muted tones of Matisse’s ‘Dance’ to an explanation of why lobsters turn from grey to orange when cooked, to a glorious refutation of the phrase ‘red and green should never be seen’. The entire book is illustration into which the text is mingled. On a page full of dabs of reds, for example, she quotes Josef Albers: ‘If one says red, the name of a colour, and there are 50 people listening, it can be expected there will be 50 reds in their minds. And one can be sure all these reds will be very different.’ 

Breaking away from art, there’s an interesting and entertaining mingling of story and recipes in Bake-Off celebrity Nadiya Hussain’s Bake Me a Festive Story, illustrated by Clair Rossiter. This would be a great use of a Book Token, providing plenty of post-Christmas activity in the kitchen, creating some rather tasty and unusual treats. I like the idea of ‘The Elves and the Choux Maker’, for example, the story which goes with the making of Bakewell choux eclairs.

Those who read these reviews regularly will know that there is nearly always a Christmas (or ‘winter’) book which gets missed off my pre-Christmas list but which I add to my collection in January. This year is no exception. Little Hazelnut is a charming, if fragile, pop-up book by Anne-Florence Lemasson and Dominique Ehrhard, illustrating the passing of the seasons. On each page another layer of snow settles over a hazelnut dropped by a squirrel. There’s plenty of activity in the garden through the winter but it is in spring that the extraordinary thing happens. Because of the intricate paper engineering, this isn’t for small children but why shouldn’t older children and grown-ups enjoy a pop-up book occasionally? Especially if there’s a Book Token to pay for it!

Of course, the whole point about Book Tokens is that the giver gives the gift of choice, so it is perhaps invidious of me to direct you to the suggestions I’ve made. But I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about them: you might like to look out for them yourself at Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden, where all these books can be found, while the children in your care are indulging in their own decisions about how best to exercise their power of choice.

*Definitely worth investing a Book Token in a gorgeous edition of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, if you haven’t already got one ready for next Christmas – but I have no idea of the title of the wasp book! (My favourite edition of the Dylan Thomas is a tiny one, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone)

Books suggested by Jo Burch, founder of Words in Walden

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