Growing Things - Book Reviews
For this Spring issue of Salad Days, I thought I’d celebrate the joy of being busy outside in the sunshine, growing things, watching things grow, and even doing a bit of growing oneself. There’s a wonderful crop of new books to sow the seeds …
The first step to appreciating the Outdoors is to look around you. I’m not sure anyone can beat Shirley Hughes at capturing children’s delight in their surroundings and All Around Me: A First Book of Childhood, a collection of several of her books for the youngest children, is a fabulous place to start. Who else but she would give these as examples of yellow in Colours:
Syrup dripping from a spoon
Buttercups, a harvest moon;
Sun like honey on the floor,
Warm as the steps by our back door.
The illustration is, of course, as gloriously golden as the verse, and always with such attention to the tiny intimate details in nature which so fascinate children.
Capitalising on that fascination is my next choice, an obvious and excellent practical book – Let’s Get Gardening, published by the Royal Horticultural Society, which has 30 easy gardening projects for children. With step-by-step instructions and vivid photographic illustrations, the book is visually stunning. It begins with some basic explanations about what plants are, what they need, and what makes an eco-friendly gardener, and then offers a range of projects from how to grow leeks to how to make mini cork planter fridge magnets and owl-nesting boots, grouped under three main headings: Kitchen Garden; Wildlife Garden; and Recycling Garden. While some of the projects require some financial outlay, there’s nothing very expensive, and the lessons children will learn and the lasting pleasure and satisfaction they will have, will be worth every penny. The book is aimed at children aged 6 or 7 upwards, though the projects will have universal appeal: my husband has spent many happy hours nailing his old worn-out training shoes to fence posts for birds to nest in. And, astonishingly, they do!
If you want more ideas, try Never Get Bored Outdoors, published by Usborne Books. This is a sequel to the superb Never Get Bored, which I reviewed last year, and is just as inspiring. It includes projects ranging from learning how to read maps, to preparing recipes for a picnic, to dancing in the rain with an umbrella (with moves like ‘the stroll’, ‘the half-swing’, ‘disco fever’ and ‘the shimmy’!) and making art outdoors (try rain painting – ‘brush splotches of paint on a piece of paper and, before the paint dries, take the paper outdoors in the rain and watch as the rain splatters the paint and transforms your picture. When you’re satisfied with how the painting looks, bring it inside to dry’. I remember an Art A Level project which wasn’t so very different. Like all books published by Usborne Books, the text is clear, lively and interesting, and the sketched illustrations are colourful and appealingly cartoon-like as well as being accurate representations. I’d buy this for the umbrella dancing alone!
More lyrical but equally observant of nature, growth and change is The Things That I Love About Trees by Chris Butterworth, illustrated by Charlotte Voake,in the Nature Storybooks series published by Walker Books supporting Key Stage 1-2 Science. There are two layers of text: a series of simple observations such as ‘… the thing about trees that I love in the spring is that changes begin’; and then in smaller type there are little informative notes like ‘In hot weather, a big tree can suck up as much as a bathful every day!’. Charlotte Voake’s sketchy style of illustrating is perfect for the subject, leaving plenty of space for children’s own imagination.
I think this book could initiate some wonderful conversations about other ‘things that I love about …’ trees or about anything else in the natural world. Puddles. Caterpillars. Daffodils. Or it could turn into a game with each player challenging the other to name the things that they love about something deeply unloveable in nature: nettles; sleet; mosquitoes.
Poems from a Green and Blue Planet, edited by Sabrina Mahfouz, shows where early thinking about ‘things that I love about …’ can lead. This is a beautiful collection of poems about the natural world from around the world and across the centuries. Some are familiar, some are not; some are funny, others are lyrical. What they share is the way they capture and celebrate nature’s energy and the energy of our response to it. How about Flowering Tree Haiku by the Japanese master of the haiku, Matsuo Basho, translated by R H Blyth:
From what flowering tree
I know not,
But, ah, the fragrance!
Although this is ostensibly a book for children, there is no reason whatsoever why it wouldn’t delight all ages. I think it might well be the gift I choose to give for all birthdays this year.
I had never consciously thought of Enid Blyton as a nature writer but her enchanting collection of Stories for All Seasons, illustrated by Becky Cameron, reminded me of the magic she wove through the natural world in her books. For example, in The Tale of Snips, we learn how Snips the Tailor stuck his dressmaking pins into the chestnut tree’s conker cases, points outwards, to stop horses and donkeys eating the conkers; in Pockets in his Knees, Binky and Bob learn how bees keep pollen in their knee pockets; and in Jack Frost is About, Jack explains not only about the six-sided crystals of snowflakes but also that a blanket of snow protects plants and, when it melts, the water runs down to their roots and they drink. There’s even nature ‘raw in tooth and claw’ in The Thrush and his Anvil. Young gardeners, Peter and Jane are watching a thrush tapping a snail on a stone:
The thrush beat it down with all his might. Crack!
‘It’s broken!’ said Jane. Now he can get at the soft body inside. He’s eating the snail, Daddy.’
‘Poor snail!’ said Peter. ‘But he shouldn’t eat our lettuces!’
Never underestimate Enid Blyton’s capacity for understanding how children think and what they want to know about.
My final choice is about a different kind of growing, told using a tree as a visual metaphor. It’s a stunning and unusual cut-paper picture book called Kindness Grows by Britta Teckentrup. The book begins, ‘It starts with a crack that we can hardly see, it happens when we shout or if we disagree.’ As the story goes on, each dark left hand page illustrates how the crack (an actual crack cut out of the page) grows wider and longer when damaging, unkind things are said or done, whereas successive right hand pages show in bright colours how ‘with every kindness that we care to show, something good and magical will begin to grow’ and the dark crack becomes the trunk of a tree growing into blossom, leaf, and fruit. It’s a simple message very cleverly imagined in strong imagery which might just stick in children’s minds and help them grow towards their ‘best selves’.
I’ve loved writing these reviews: I sincerely hope you and the children you care for will also love the books I’ve chosen. I found them all on the shelves at Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden (www.hartsbooks.co.uk) – go and have a look for yourselves and be inspired this spring to get outdoors and get growing.
Founder of Words in Walden
9781406390308 All Around Me
9780241382639 Let’s Get Gardening
9781474952989 never Get Bored Outdoors
9781406382877 The Things That I Love About Trees
9781444951240 Poems from a Green and Blue Planet
9781444950892 Stories for every Season
9781848578777 Kindness Grows