March 17

It is a truism that children are great philosophers, blithely able to ask (and answer) some of the most difficult existential questions. For this issue of Salad Days I seem to have collected a number of intriguing and mind-broadening books for children, introducing them in different formats to new ways of thinking. 

It’s not all highly intellectual stuff – keep going and you’ll come to my review of the irresistible I Can Only Draw Worms …

My first choice heads straight in there with the DK Children’s Book of Philosophy: an Introduction to the World’s Great Thinkers and their Big Ideas. In the usual big hardback DK format, full of bright and eye-catching photographs and graphics, this explores concepts from ‘How do I know what you’re thinking?’ to ‘Can we think without language?’ and ‘Will there ever be world peace?’. Of course, there are no right or wrong answers and the book doesn’t presume to provide absolutes but the topics are examined from all angles (historical, theoretical, anthropological, etc) to inspire great discussion. This is probably aimed at children aged 8 or 9 and above but, to be honest, it isn’t a bad introduction to the subject (and to thinking philosophically) for adults, either.

If, for you and your children, this approach to philosophical thinking seems too formal, turn to poetry. Particularly to the work of American children’s writer, poet, and cartoonist Shel Silverstein who captures exquisitely the unfettered range and depth of a child’s thoughts. I’ve recommended his collection of poems, A Light in the Attic, before and do so again with enthusiasm. He is described as ‘the marvellous master of nonsense’ but this does him no favours. There is a great deal of very important and arresting sense fizzing out of his poems. I make no excuses for quoting the whole of ‘The Little Boy and the Old Man’ as an example. I defy you not to feel chastened and moved – and your children not to feel that someone understands.

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”

Said the little old man, “I do that too.”

The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”

“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.

Said the little boy, “I often cry.”

The old man nodded, “So do I.”

“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems

Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”

And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.

“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.


Equally rewarding is Michael Rosen’s You Wait Till I’m Older than You, first published 20 years ago and now republished with good reason. This is his hilarious collection of poems all about family, friends and growing up, which, as in all his work, nestles some very big ideas within the froth and the fun.

Another way to explore different philosophies is through folk tales from different cultures. As we all know, folk tales are often the result of our ancient ancestors’ attempts to explain the world around them – and so their stories evidence a range of world views. A Year Full of Stories: 52 Folk Tales and Legends from Around the World by Angela McAllister, illustrated by Christopher Corr, is a glorious thought-provoking collection. Each tale is anchored in the customs and morality of its birthplace. The delightful bright retro illustrations capture not only the essence of each story but the countries of their origin – from Latvia to Ireland, and West Africa to Brazil. I think this book would resonate long into the adulthood of the children who will pore over it now.

While I’m on world views, can I throw in The Art Book for Children: White Book? There’s the Yellow Book as well, if you like the white one. This is fabulous. As the blurb on the back cover says, it “explores the choices and attitudes of thirty different artists. It helps stimulate children’s own creativity and imagination by asking them to wonder why artists create things in the way that they do” … can dressing up be art? How do you paint feelings? Can you paint a noise? Why did Jeff Koons make a giant sculpture from 70,000 plants?” With large reproductions of familiar and less well-known works, fascinating pieces of information and inspiring questions I think this book supports the late Brian Sewell’s argument that the only education you need for full cultural understanding is in art history. Children as young as five or six could easily be introduced to art (and to wondering) with this book – but it would bring equal pleasure to anyone of any age who wanted to think about art.

Which brings me neatly to the picture book I Can Only Draw Worms by Will Mabbitt which made me laugh a lot. It is, in essence, a counting book but one in which worm NINE is missing because she had nipped to the toilet, worms TEN and ONE are mistaken for each other, and worm FIVE is poorly but doesn’t look any different from the others. Worms are the only illustrations. On so many levels this book works brilliantly – it explores counting, including fractions (read it to find out how); it explores existential thinking (can worm NINE be there if she isn’t on the page?); it explores whether worms can be different if they look the same; it is satisfyingly bright, bold and colourful; it’s a hilarious feat of imagination; and just consider how encouraging it is for children to discover that someone can have a book published in which the only pictures are not-very-well-executed worms.

To finish off, and still on the cultural-philosophical theme, a rather unusual parenting book caught my eye. Having benefited hugely from Amazonian Shaman childcare wisdom thanks to my anthropologist ante-natal teacher, I have always been interested in how different cultures bring up their children. So, Do Parents Matter? Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Siblings Don’t Fight and Parents Should Just Relax by Robert and Sarah Levine was bound to appeal to me. It is a fascinating report on decades of research into parenting across the globe – from Japanese children who share their parents’ beds well into primary school to the Hausa mothers in Sudan and Nigeria who avoid verbal and eye contact with their toddlers. The reassuring conclusion is that children tend to become reasonably well-adjusted adults despite the parenting they receive …

All these books can be found (or ordered if someone else has nabbed the last copy on the shelves) at Hart’s Books on King Street in Saffron Walden, where I spent a very happy hour browsing the children’s books section to make my selection. I highly recommend that you do the same!

Jo Burch

Founder Words in Walden Festival


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