Small Children, Big Issues, Amazing Solutions

September 18

Small Children, Big Issues, Amazing Solutions

We all know that after the long summer holiday, preparing for a new year at school can be stressful for children, often for inexplicable reasons. We also all know that children are capable of resolving those issues with extraordinary resilience and imagination. Sometimes they need a little support.

I’ve selected a pile of wonderful books, all very different, which may help children explore the journey from problem to solution. They are also all highly entertaining reads even if there’s no current problem to solve.

First is You Are Awesome by Matthew Syed. Subtitled ‘find your own confidence and dare to be brilliant at (almost) anything’ and written by a two-time Olympian, this is a remarkable self-help book for children which details the difference between fixed and growth mindsets and establishes how practice and hard work can turn ‘Kid Average’ into ‘Kid Awesome’ in everything from maths homework to sporting or stage success. The book, punctuated with bright yellow cartoon drawings and text boxes, is full of anecdotes about the triumphs and disasters on Matthew Syed’s own path to table tennis success, and stories of, and quotations from, other successful athletes, singers, writers, politicians and others. For example, Serena Williams’ ‘I really think a champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall’.

I love the energy of this book. Matthew Syed says he wrote it ‘to challenge the beliefs that hold you back’. There is a lot of material here. The book will appeal to children (aged about 10+) who will encounter many ‘takeaway’ mantras to inspire and support their efforts. Even if only one tip sticks, it will have been worth the read.

Ruby’s Worry, a picture book by Tom Percival is a simpler, more gently reassuring approach to problem-solving for younger children. Ruby’s ‘worry’ begins as a small yellow scribble which follows her everywhere and grows bigger as Ruby tries to ignore it – until it stops her from doing the things she loves (in this case, squeezing beside her onto her swing, it pushes her off). She is in despair. Then, in the park, she notices a boy sitting sadly on a bench with a blue scribble hovering beside him. She recognises it as his worry and asks him about it. Of course, his worry dissolves as he talks to her. Ruby starts to share her worry and that, too, disappears. An obvious message to us adults but one which is hard for children to believe. 

What I particularly like about this book is the very end: ‘Of course, that wasn’t the last time she ever had a Worry (everyone gets them from time to time). But now that she knew how to get rid of them, they never hung around for long’. I think there’s almost more comfort in the matter of fact statement inside those brackets than in the final sentence.

How would it be if you could solve your greedy cat’s problems by keeping doughnuts in your hair? Meet Billy who has an ingenious solution to all sorts of disasters which she and Fatcat meet on their walk through the forest. Billy and the Beast by Nadia Shireen is a delightfully rollicking picture-book adventure in which Billy has to stop the Beast from turning the forest creatures into ingredients for his Terrible Soup’. I particularly like fast-thinking Billy’s reason why hedgehog would not be a good soup ingredient: ‘Excuse me, Mr Terrible Beast … but I think you’ll find that grated hedgehog is much too spiky. You’ll get an itchy mouth and a prickly bottom’. I can hear the cackles of laughter from the audience …

The illustrations add to the humour, hinting, ahead of the text, at what might be hidden in Billy’s hair to help her resolve the next crisis. Very clever and very entertaining with plenty of echoes of the great folk and fairy stories, this is excellent for reading aloud.

From imaginary monsters determined to eat one’s friends to the desperately real problems faced by children caught up in conflict and the possibility of compassionate solutions. I think every school should have a copy of The Day the War Came by Nicola Davies illustrated by Rebecca Cobb. I was intrigued by the endpapers which are pencil drawing of different types of chair – they didn’t seem to connect with the title. But, achingly movingly, they do. 

This is the story of a little girl, at school, learning about volcanoes, singing a song about tadpoles turning into frogs, and drawing a picture of a bird. ‘Then, just after lunch, war came’. The colourful sketched illustration turns black and grey. ‘I can’t say the words that tell you about the blackened hole that had been my home’. She tells of her journey as a migrant child, walking across fields, mountains, riding on the backs of trucks, on a boat that leaked, then up a beach ‘where shoes lay empty in the sand’. She ends up in a dark corner of a hut in a refugee camp but ‘war had followed me. It was underneath my skin, behind my eyes, and in my dreams.’ And, unforgivably, ‘in the way that doors shut when I came down the street. It was in the way people didn’t smile, and turned away’.

She finds a school and tries to join a class doing the same lessons she had been doing before the war. But the unsmiling teacher tells her ‘There is no chair for you to sit on. You have to go away.’ She goes back to her dark hut. Later, she hears the door bang and a boy stands in the doorway. ‘“I brought you this,” he says, “so you can come to school.” It was a chair.’ All the children have brought their chairs so all the children in the camp can come to school. 

I defy you not to be moved by this book, endorsed by Amnesty International. The author hopes it will remind us all about the power of kindness and its ability to give hope for a better future. That future will be in the hands of our children.

What if we really could stop time for a moment and make things better? In Between Tick and Tock, a gorgeous picture book by Louise Greig and Ashling Lindsay, this is exactly what Liesel can do. From her high window overlooking the streets which bad-temperedly ‘see only Grey’, she spots Lonely twirling in a park, Lost roll under a bench, Stray whimpering, and Stuck miaowing up a tree. She pauses the clock ‘between tick and tock’, conjures a colourful garden for the streets and sets all things right. ‘And if the streets should lose their way again, kind hands know just what to do. Liesel will just reach up … Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick – Who says a city never stops?’

I love the use of adjectives as nouns which emphasizes the universality of all the problems – for those who know their old literature, it’s a bit like the allegorical figures in The Pilgrim’s Progress or Piers Plowman – and this is something of an allegory. It certainly feels like a dream sequence as reality is paused. And yet, all the problems are real, and all can be solved if we just take the time to see them and have the kindness to respond. What an important message (and inspiration) for both parents and children!

Moving through time is key to Jack Tideswell’s attempt to avert disaster in J S Landor’s The Mirror of Pharos. This is a contemporary fantasy novel about a 12-year-old boy who is destined to be a ‘Magus’ – a special kind of time traveller. Intended for readers aged 10+, young teenage fans of Harry Potter will also enjoy it. There’s ancient myth, allegory, magic, and 21st-century technology all rolled into one adventure.

The book starts atmospherically with the ‘amber eyes’ of a magical and powerful wolf guiding a seagull through a ‘thick seam of fog’ which ‘stole down the hills, wrapping the town in a ghostly shawl’ to deliver a package to Jack. This package, and the wolf, will determine the course of the story.

Jack is ostensibly an ordinary boy with a tough past: his parents died in a diving accident while exploring the underwater ruins of the Pharos lighthouse – one of the seven wonders of the world. He lives with Nan, his grandmother, one of the ancient ‘wise women’ who imbues her baking with wonderful secret flavours – ‘bonfire’, ‘pancake’, ‘candyfloss’. Every day, Jack has to run the gauntlet of the school bullies but one morning the wolf is watching over him and things start to change. In a timewarp, Jack finds himself in a shipwreck caused by the failure of the Pentland lighthouse. He tries to save the life of a young girl, Lily, as he swims through the wreck to the sea’s surface. The rest of the book is about Jack’s attempts to go back in time to mend the lighthouse lamp and save the ship.

Children will enjoy the excitement of the adventure and the magic in this novel but, for me, the most engaging elements are the cast of extraordinary characters. I loved Nan’s mix of elderly woman perplexed by her young grandson and her connection with the ancient magic of the seers; her blue furry dice in her old Beetle car and her fierce superstitions. I loved Jago Flyn, a mixture of Fagin, Worzel Gummidge, Salvador Dali, Crocodile Dundee, and every conman you’ve ever read about (and wanted to be tricked by) – who we first see ‘in a battered trench coat, which fell almost to his feet … his face shaded by the brim of an oilskin hat’. The coat is soon revealed to have an extraordinary lining, ‘made of a sumptuous silky material with white pinstripes’, and under it, Jago wears ‘a striking back and white waistcoat over a maroon shirt’ … with a paintbrush in his waistcoat pocket. And I loved Alpha, the wolf, untamed and powerful, but who communicates with Jack to show him ‘in between the doors of time, in a strange kind of nowhere-nowhen … timeless and infinite, full of light and love and magic … a space which a Magus, young or old, could reach in a heartbeat. When Alpha’s amber eyes blink, ‘a million rings of light, myriad upon myriad – spread out like ripples around them’.

J S Landor is a local author and former journalist and publishing editor. Children interested in the book can visit her website www.jslandor.com to find ‘Meet the Character’ profiles, excerpts from the book and background stories. There’s also likely to be a sequel soon. I’m looking forward to it.

All these books (and of course many more) are available from Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden (www.hartsbooks.co.uk). Max and his colleagues will be delighted to help direct your browsing – and I hope there’ll be a moment between Tick and Tock to allow you to lose (and find) yourself in a book.

Books suggested by Jo Burch, Founder of Words in Walden

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