Books of Play - Book Reviews

November 19

Books of Play

Can you hold your breath for the length of time it takes you to empty the dishwasher? What would the Girl with the Pearl Earring look like? What’s the longest sentence you can create using only words beginning with ‘B’? Michael Rosen’s Book of Play is the starting point for these book recommendations to get you and your families through the long dark evenings and miserable winter weekends when, to quote Dr Seuss, ‘the sun [does] not shine, it [is] too wet to play, so we [sit] in the house all [the] cold, cold wet day. I [sit] there with Sally. We [sit] here we two and we [say] How we wish we had something to do.’.

I’m still not sure whether the Book of Play is for adults or children – but that is rather Michael Rosen’s point. We are all capable of play and we all feel better for it. The key thing about play, he says, is that it is about pleasure, and it is about what we do when we allow ourselves time to be bored – the time when ‘the mind can freewheel, new connections are made, new ideas are born’. ‘Boredom breeds inspiration’, he says – ‘and ‘inspiration’, literally, means to breathe in’. ‘Take a moment,’ he says, ‘and breathe in the world around you and think of the world as something you can play with’. 

The world looks quite different when you’re thinking about how you might adjust your appearance in a playful manner (maybe a pirate earring, a child’s necklace, a false moustache?) and see how it affects your ‘character’ for the day. Or when you’re making a scribble blindfold and giving yourself one minute to turn it into something recognisable. Or when you look at a map and pick a town name at random to make up a limerick about someone who comes from there – ‘There was a young lady from Twickenham…’ is his example. This active engagement with the world around you, breathing it in, in Rosen’s words, can be hugely exhilarating and entertaining. 

I thought you might like some other books with examples of ways you can ‘breathe in’ and play with the world.

Play is all about experiment (and vice versa) in a setting where the only consequence of getting something wrong is that something interesting happens (or, interestingly doesn’t happen), so The Kitchen Science Cookbook by Dr Michelle Dickinson seemed perfect to me. As she says, ‘you don’t need any qualifications to be a scientist – just curiosity, a willingness to try things, and to get things wrong from time to time’. All her experiments can be done at home with ingredients and utensils which can be found in most kitchens. Some of the experiments need adults to help (what’s not to like about helping a child make unicorn spaghetti or edible earthworms?) and all of them teach something about physics, chemistry or biology that neither you nor the children in your care are likely to forget. How about investigating whether your breakfast cereal really is ‘fortified with iron’? How about creating plasma with grapes in a microwave? Why not make a bouncy ball from cornflour? 

I’ve reviewed lots of excellent ‘Kitchen Science’ books before but this one has the most imaginative ideas I’ve seen. There’s no gimmicky text; the experiments are clearly described, set out much like cookbook recipes (cookery, after all, is science), and at the end of each experiment there’s a suggestion as to what you could explore further. A fabulous resource for those who want to play with the world. This is probably about right for 7+ year olds.

What about playing with the Ancient World? I loved the idea behind Jan Bajtlik’s Greek Myths and Mazes. Probably the most famous maze in the world is the Minotaur’s Labyrinth (yes, I know that mazes and labyrinths are different but, for my purpose, it doesn’t matter). Bajtlik has taken this fact and created a series of mazes (including the Minotaur’s) which children can follow through the ancient Greek myths, picking up the stories and the characters along the way. There is, for example, a series of mazes leading the reader through Odysseus’s journeys – through the land of the lotus-eaters, the island of the man-eating giants, Circe’s Palace, the Cimmerian Kingdom, where he meets Achilles’s ghost, and finally back to Penelope in Ithaca. The mazes aren’t easy to follow, so the journey through the pages of this book is pleasurably painstaking and there is so much detail to enjoy along the way. I particularly liked the maze through the 5th century BC Greek town.

At the back of the book there are several pages of Explanatory Notes adding even more information about the stories and figures which appear in the mazes. Definitely ‘inspiring’ in Michael Rosen’s terms for anyone over about 8 years old.

Why stick just to the current and ancient worlds? What about the in-between? My sense of history is pretty hazy so I love ‘Timeline’ books which help me understand what was happening simultaneously around the world. Usborne’s Timelines of World History: from the Stone Age to the Millennium is an excellent example. Each double-page spread covers a particular period, with dates arranged in columns according to geographical area – so you can look across the page and compare Southern and Western Europe to Northern and Eastern Europe, Africa to India, the Far East, and the Americas and the Pacific. This is a serious book with lots of dates, maps, and illustrations and is absolutely fascinating. The ‘play’ comes in imagining how the happenings in each part of the world might have interacted – why, for example, was there war in every part of the globe during the early 17th century? Why was there so much decorative art developing across the world in 500 BC? Why was the late 19th century so full of inventors? A great book to set the mind whirling.

Whirl your mind further and you might reach imaginary worlds, playing with how different they might be from our own world and what that might say about us. The imaginary worlds in Gulliver’s Travels, famously provide Jonathan Swift’s satiric commentary on his own contemporary world. Nine Worlds in Nine Nights: a Journey through Imaginary Lands by Hiawyn Oram and David Wyatt pretends to be an account of the travels through nine fantastical worlds by ‘the late Professor Dawn Gable, the prize-winning theoretical physicist’. I love the fact that all of the wildly imaginary Lands have internal rationality: Mecanopolis, for example, the City of machines, has a museum of humans, a spare parts kitchen, a cleaner-bot service station and terminal and roving micro-repair bots, ‘about the size of a cotton reel’. There’s also King Arthur’s Camelot reimagined; Atlantis; Lilliput; Laputa; and Valhalla, all exquisitely illustrated and convincingly described. Michael Rosen would see this as a jumping-off point for playing with new worlds of your own.

And why not play with a new world of your own? This is exactly what Fredrik has done in Nora Brech’s Cornelia and the Jungle Machine. Cornelia is a girl with an interest in amateur magic. Her parents move to what is quite an extraordinary house with unending opportunities to explore. But Cornelia is not impressed. She is sent out for a walk, where she finds a rope ladder swinging in the forest. Climbing it to the top, she meets Fredrik, who is much more engaged than Cornelia with the world around him. He is an inventor and his wonderful Heath Robinson-ish creations fill his house with ingenuity and colour and play. Best is his machine which creates the jungle in which the two children play for hours. The message of this book would make Michael Rosen very happy – this is imaginary play at its most fantastical. And it is perfectly achievable at home. Some of you may know the ‘Alfie’ story by Shirley Hughes about Alfie’s visit to his grandmother’s house on a wet cold day, when the stairs become the Alps, the cat becomes a mountain lion, and a picnic rucksack of emergency rations is most definitely essential – we can all create imaginary worlds.

The true glory of this book, however, is its illustrations, reminiscent of Korky Paul’s in the Winnie the Witch books. There is just so much to look at and to ‘breathe in’. In Cornelia’s gloomy dark-coloured house, there’s a bear rug which is looking round at her as she slumps miserably further down in her over-sized chair; there are portraits glaring at her; standard lamps which look as if they are about to walk around the room; and plants trying to escape from their pots. In Fredrik’s garden there are birdboxes high up in the trees, each with their own garden furniture; his postbox is at the top of his rope ladder, hundreds of feet up in the trees; and his shoes are neatly tucked away under his jungle machine. 

As the notes on the back cover say, this is a ‘what if’ book. ‘What if you had to move house? What if you made a new friend? What if he had a jungle machine?’ Play with the ideas and see where they take you.

What if you came from a world of stories? I have fallen in love with Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston’s A Child of Books in which a small girl who has literally grown up on books, introduces a small boy to the pleasure of reading. The interplay of words and stories and illustrations is wonderful. Small children will enjoy the simple gentle story which it tells but this is really a sophisticated and witty work for nostalgic adults. For example, the shadow which falls behind the book on the cover is made of the first lines of classic children’s stories; the sea over which the heroine sails is text from adventure stories like Kidnapped, Gulliver’s Travels, and The Swiss Family Robinson; the monster is made up of lines from Frankenstein, all inkily overtyped; the children sleep in clouds of lullabies; and as the boy heads home with his new book tucked under his arm, his footsteps read, ‘our house is a home of invention where anyone at all can come for imagination is free’.

So, this winter, why don’t you and your children get bored, breathe in the world, and free your imaginations.

All these books were chosen from the shelves of Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden. Most of them are big hardback picture books which can be pored over alone or companionably – and would make great presents or Book Token purchases. 

Jo Burch - Founder of Words in Walden 



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