Books to send children outside

April 18

I’m writing this set of book reviews in the worst spell of cold wintry weather the UK has seen for years. It is, therefore, with a huge sense of optimism that I have chosen a stack of books about nature and the pleasures of being outside in it. By the time you read this, I hope the sun will be shining and you’ll need little persuasion to go out and enjoy what nature has to offer. Do take time, though, to read my suggestions as these books will certainly enhance your experience.

You might, however, curse me for my first choice, The Little Book of the Dawn Chorus by Andrea Pinnington and Caz Buckingham. It is a non-fiction book with details about the birds which contribute to the dawn chorus and the order in which they tend to start singing. There are buttons to press to hear excellent recordings of their songs. I have a clock which used to produce a different birdsong on the hour every hour – but I confused it by changing the battery and it is now silent. This book has filled that silence and filled me with joy. I could press the skylark button all day. 

Equally, a little homework with the book and the children in your care will have the special pleasure of being able to open the kitchen door in the mornings and identify the birdsong in the garden. A word of warning, though – skylarks start 90 minutes before sunrise …

Also sending children outside is the ingenious We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: My Adventure Field Guide produced by Walker Books as a celebration of the original picture book by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. This super Guide is crammed with field activities, mini-research projects, and fun facts inspired by the elements of the story which will be familiar to almost all children. Plenty of stuff worth knowing – cloud identification tables, how to make mud bricks, the five different types of mountain and why they are shaped differently, for example – and lots of interesting activities from outdoor studies like listening to how many sounds you can hear in a wood, or calculating the height of a tree, to indoor projects like working out the food chain in last night’s dinner or building a worm farm. There are also sensible tips on what to do if you meet a bear (they don’t include the words ‘marmalade’, ‘’honey, or ‘run’).

How Many Trees by the French writer/illustrator Barroux is a lovely, funny, thoughtful and deceptively simple picture book for younger children. The animals argue about how many trees make a forest. They ignore a tiny voice squeaking out ‘Me! Me! I know!’ at ground level from behind a leaf. Eventually ant is allowed to speak. He silences all the others with the profundity (and ecological correctness) of his answer. Ever the thought-provoker, this isn’t quite enough for Barroux, who offers a throw-away line after the end of the story which will keep children (and their parents) busy for a while longer.

While it isn’t a nature guide, there’s no reason why How Many Trees? couldn’t inspire a walk through the countryside discussing the differences between copses, spinneys, woods and forests, doing some leaf, seed or nut identification, and deciding which is your favourite tree and why.

A stage on from that might be a little (sustainable) flower and leaf picking and pressing. This could lead to something as astonishingly beautiful as Helen Ahpornsiri’s A Year in the Wild: See Nature through the Seasons. In this book the text is largely a vehicle for the breathtaking illustrations. At face value, this is a lovely simple factual account of the changing seasons. What is remarkable about it is that every illustration (and it is lavishly illustrated), is created by the author from tiny pieces of pressed flowers and leaves. There is not a dab of paint involved. The illustrations of animals, birds, insects and plants are exquisitely detailed with ingenious use of plant material (look for the hollyhock buds used for the owl’s feet and claws, for example). I cannot begin to imagine how long each one takes to complete. Visit Helen Ahpornsiri’s website (helenahpornsiri.com) where you can see time-lapse footage of her at work. Younger children probably won’t comprehend the work involved but older ones (maybe 9+) and, indeed, adults, will enjoy creating their own pictures from pressed flowers, inspired by Helen.

Collecting nature’s produce is always fun for children. But it is a necessity for squirrels if they are to survive the winter. The Squirrels Who Squabbled by Rachel Bright and Jim Field is a funny bouncing energetic rhyming picture-book account of two greedy squirrels, Spontaneous Cyril and Plan-Ahead Bruce, who fight over the remaining pine cone in the wood. Disaster very nearly strikes as they blindly chase after the cone once it falls from the tree. But all ends well – ‘We shall change from today/May the squabbling cease/We should celebrate – seeing/We’re both in one piece’. Obviously, there’s a useful message about sharing here but mainly, it is just a rollickingly good tale which children aged 4+ will love.

I can’t make a link between nature walks and my next two choices but they are both so good that I’m going to tell you about them anyway.

My Worst Book Ever by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman, two masters of the art of making children’s picture-books, is a very clever and funny insight into the process of making a picture-book. For some years I have gone into schools to lead picture-book making projects with pupils and now I can simply take this with me. Job done! 

The book tells the story of Allan attempting to write a picture-book, Crocodile Snap, and being endlessly thwarted by cats, spilt coffee, children, snails and similar. Eventually he has some text which he takes to Bruce, his illustrator. There’s a problem: Bruce wants to draw hippos, not crocodiles. And he has a child with a dripping raspberry ice lolly … They get beyond these setbacks and go to see the editor. She wants dinosaurs involved. Then the designer gets excited about complicated fonts. Ultimately the book makes it to the printer. But he has a small daughter who gets chocolatey handprints on everything, presses some buttons on the computer and ‘helpfully’ piles up the pages out of order. At the bookshop the extent of the catastrophe is revealed as the pages fold out to show the ‘story boards’ for the book Allan intended and the one which has resulted from all of the above interventions.  

I loved this. As with all Allan Ahlberg’s books, there is far more to it than appears at face value and yet it is highly entertaining even for younger children who might not necessarily understand that they are learning about book production while they enjoy the comedy in the story. 

Then there’s I Say Ooh You Say Aah by John Kane. The blurb describes the book as ‘A laugh-out-loud interactive picture book. (Contains underpants)’. Brilliantly conceived with a series of oral and visual jokes, it needs both a reader and a listener (or group of listeners), and will keep both on their toes as the story depends on input from both. For example, every time the reader says ‘Ooh’ the listener must say ‘Aah’. When the listener sees the colour red, they must pat their head. When they see a cloud, they must say their name, and when they see an ant, they must say ‘underpants’. In this way the completely ridiculous story about Ooh Aah the donkey develops. It is quite a challenging memory test for little people (I tested it on my 19-year old), but they will simply love it and will want several repeats as they get better and quicker at their responses.

Finally, in a complete change of subject, I thought that in 2018, the centenary of women being granted the vote in the UK, I couldn’t let Rebel Voices: the Rise of Votes for Women by Eve Lloyd Knight and Louise Kay Stewart pass you by. With powerful, bold illustrations, this book, probably for readers aged 9+, recounts some of the inspiring stories of women’s suffrage around the world. 

To my shame, it hadn’t occurred to me that votes for women had been a global and not merely a UK issue – and the stories are fascinating and humbling. For example, there’s Matilde Hildago, the Ecuadorian girl branded a troublemaker at school, humiliated by her local priest, and shunned by the mothers of her schoolfriends, who discovered that although no woman had ever voted in Ecuador, it was not actually illegal to do so. She marched into the polling station to cast her vote, the first woman in South America to do so, and broke down the barrier between women and politics. There are many such stories of courage and determination from which we should learn that, with enough determination, even just one person can make history.

All these very special books and more can be found on the shelves at Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden (www.hartsbooks.co.uk). Do go and browse or ask for advice from Max and his team – it gives them an excuse to indulge in the pleasure of getting to know their children’s section stock!

Books suggested by Jo Burch, founder of Words in Walden

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