Solace for the Worrysauruses in your house
Reading together can be very comforting and reassuring in a time of anxiety and uncertainty. If you and your children have got out of the habit of it, try reintroducing it. Pick up an old favourite story, cuddle up together, and begin. My go-to book for this sort of treat would be The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame but almost anything gentle and timeless would do. The Sword in the Stone by T.H White; The Phantom Tolbooth by Norman Juster; the Just William books by Richmal Crompton; all the Enid Blyton stories (from The Magic Faraway Tree to The Famous Five) are good in a crisis. But you will all have your own favourites on your shelves.
You could even regress further and get out all the old picture-books. Brambly Hedge, Charlie and Lola, The Little Red Train, all the Beatrix Potter books…They will all bring back memories of happy times which will be consoling for everyone. If you’ve got time to read them with your children, that’s wonderful but I know that plenty of parents are having to juggle a new regime of working from home together with childcare duties. So just get out a stack of the picture-books and let your children pore over them. Maybe they can sort out the ones they want to keep forever and the ones which never really enchanted them. That’s a tidying and sorting job done which they won’t even realise they are doing for you!
You may have story tapes or audio books on CDs in the loft or at the back of the cupboard. Again, get them out, especially if you’re trying to get some work done. What’s not to like about hearing Martin Jarvis as Just William again? Or Jenny Agutter reading The Railway Children? Or Swallows and Amazons read by Gabriel Woolf (I still regularly listen to all the Arthur Ransome stories – my favourite is Winter Holiday – pure escapism).
If stories aren’t the thing, I have reviewed several books over the years full of projects and activities. Obviously, it may be tricky to get materials at the moment (baking projects may be on hold until eggs and flour reappear in the shops) but there are plenty of books with projects for the back garden, patio, or balcony. Nature Smart is a good one, as are all the books by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield (like The Stick Book). Try painting the trunks of trees with a brush loaded only with water; bug-hunt under bricks or stones; peer into the cracks between paving stones; spot birds from the window and research them – maybe learn their songs; collect sticks on a walk and see who can build the tallest tower with them…
Maps could be a source of all sorts of project and discussion, especially at the moment when we’re all thinking about how the corona virus has been spread around the world. (I’ll just share with you an irrelevant tweet I spotted:
My husband purchased a world map.... gave me a dart and said, "throw this and wherever it lands I'm taking you for a holiday when this pandemic is over". Turns out we're spending two weeks behind the fridge.
As an appalling darts player, it made me laugh a lot).
Anyway, I found two books on the shelves at Hart’s Books which I thought would make fabulous starting points for projects. The bestselling Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall has been adapted and illustrated for children. Subtitled Our World Explained in 12 Simple Maps and illustrated by Grace Easton and Jessica Smith, it is a superb introduction to geopolitics, explaining, for example, why Europe has so many different languages but the USA, which is bigger, doesn’t; why Russia is so keen to defend its control of Crimea; why the geography of the Middle East is such a cause of instability and conflict; and why everyone wants a piece of the Arctic. The book is beautifully set out with maps, illustrations, text boxes, and although the information is simplified for children, it isn’t in the least dumbed-down. In itself, it will absorb a child (and, indeed, an adult) for some time – but could also inspire individual research. Tim Marshall says in the Note from the Author that the greatest reward he received from his original book was from the young students who told him it had inspired them to go on to university to study international relations, politics, and geography. He says that ‘if this colourful edition creates similar sparks in younger minds then that too will be the highest possible reward’. It surely will.
I’d say that Prisoners of Geography would appeal to children of 8 or 9 years upwards. For slightly younger children, another map book caught my eye: the Usborne Books Maps Activity Book which explores all sorts of maps and what you can do with them – from weather maps to trade routes, city maps, maps of the night sky, time zone maps and, topically, the map which Dr John Snow drew in 1854 to find the source of the outbreak of cholera in London. There are lots of brilliant activities through the book, which will teach children all sorts of map-reading skills without them realising it, for example giving N, S, E, W directions, reading grid references, cracking a coded message to follow an escape route, as well as a word search for all the US states, a chance for children to draw their own map, and story maps, like the Aboriginal dreamtime stories. Usborne are so good at knowing what will inspire children to further thinking – and this is one of their best.
If very young children are picking up on anxiety in the house but can’t express their fears, you could try reading them The Worrysaurus by Rachel Bright and Chris Chatterton. It’s a charming little picture book rhyming story about a creature, the Worrysaurus, who, despite having all sorts of fun plans for the day, can’t help over-thinking all the possible things which might go wrong because he ‘liked it when he felt he was prepared. Unexpected happenings…they made him feel quite SCARED’. His mother reminds him to ‘chase that butterfly away’ and that ‘if it’s not a happy ending, then it hasn’t ended yet.’ He learns that ‘when you’re in the moment, there’s no need to run or hide. And then the only butterflies will be the ones outside’.
Thinking of butterflies, I found at Hart’s Books an extraordinary book written nearly a century ago by a young girl aged 12, which shows just where a young imagination can take you. The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett, which has been brought back into circulation and illustrated by Jackie Morris, is an enchanting, mystical story about a young girl (Eepersip), a wild spirit, who doesn’t want to live in a normal house but runs away to the wild of the forest, the mountains, and the ocean, eventually becoming a wood nymph, the Spirit of Nature. Here’s a taste of the writing: I’m giving you a longish excerpt to show you how the young author balances free spiritedness and concern for practicalities.
‘A butterfly flew over her head – a little yellow butterfly who danced and glimmered before her. Her brown eyes sparkled with delight. A cricket hopped and twittered; a bird burst into song. Almost without knowing what she did, Eepersip leaped into the air and began to dance, with the swallows circling above her head and the leaves fluttering about her. Then suddenly she sat down breathless. She began stripping off her shoes and stockings. Her feet were tender and every stick she stepped on hurt; but she was determined to get her feet toughened so as to go barefoot all the time.’
Poor Eepersip’s parents spend the book trying to capture her and bring her home but she always breaks away so it isn’t the most comfortable read for adults, but it is beautiful and beautifully imagined, and may inspire children stuck at home to write their own escapist adventures. What a silver lining that would be…
Keep safe, everyone, and take the opportunity to let your books lift your spirits.