Out of the Best Books
. . . a revolving selection - but really, pick a book, any book - every book on WTBA is a 'best book'. (click on the images for the posts)
. . . a revolving selection - but really, pick a book, any book - every book on WTBA is a 'best book'. (click on the images for the posts)
With so very many heartbreaking images from Ukraine, Gaza and Iraq on our airwaves, and in print, we thought it might be helpful to provide a small collection of favourite stories that help to develop a narrative around war.
Talking about war is important in times when war is prevalent and proximate, if only through our televisions. But it also matters in times when we remain blissfully unaffected by war.
Of course war is fascinating to many children and teens, but that doesn't necessarily point to a morbid fascination.
A child or teen's fascination with war often points to a fascination with (and grappling with) big ideas like freedom, peace, liberty and big questions like: what is more important than life itself?
Stories support that grappling. They give us insights into how people respond when important things are threatened. And they give us a chance to assess those responses.
While we would probably wish that the world’s political leaders spent a little more time assessing their responses to conflict, the ability to assess responses before acting is also vital in our own everyday lives – in families, schools, workplaces and friendships. And a child will be so much more resourced to make assessments and in-the-moment decisions when there is a reservoir of narrative to draw on.
Stories of war, read aloud, also help to make war real – to take it out of the realm of video games and action heroes and into the real life of characters we care about. And with carefully chosen stories, a respect for the reality of the effects of war also develops. War stories should always be sober – not necessarily solemn, but they should always allow for the full weight of the story.
Generally, picture books about war show one person taking an important stand. A stand that sometimes appears hopeless but ultimately makes a difference. There may not be a completely peaceful resolution, but there is always good that would not have been, without one strong individual.
And in everyday life it means that I too can take action – I can stand up to the bully, I can speak the truth, I can defend the downtrodden in the playground, I can notice injustice. That’s where those big thoughts about freedom, peace, liberty and big questions intersect with everyday life.
The books we’ve chosen are mostly about rising above war – they’re about showing love in desperate times and in desperate ways, doing something however small, learning to see the ‘other’ in a new way, and remembering. They don’t whitewash the effects of war but they do show the best of human response responses to war.
I Believe in Unicorns - Review
The Kites are Flying - Review
The Librarian of Basra - Review
Sami and the Time of the Troubles – “My name is Sami, and I live in the time of troubles. It is a time of guns and bombs. It is a time that has lasted all my life, and I am ten years old.”
Let the Celebrations Begin - Review
The Enemy – “If he looked up at the stars, he’d understand. When you look at the stars you understand a lot of things.”
A Child’s Garden – “Let the soldiers return, thought the boy. Roots are deep and seeds spread.”
Erica’s Story – “My star still shines.”
The Mozart Question – “Every performance was your best performance, not to please them, but to show them what you could do, to prove to them how good you were despite all they were doing to humiliate you, to destroy you in body and soul. ‘We fought back with our music,’ Papa said. ’It was our only weapon.’”
Duck in the Gun - Review
14 Cows for America – “Because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty change.”
Where Children Sleep – not a book about war but tremendously useful in making connections.
Surely, making connections is ultimately the remedy for war.
If only … children really could lead the world to peace. If only … all the walls – real and metaphorical – could come tumbling down with ‘no trumpets needed, as they had been once in Jericho, only the laughter of children.’ If only … we could heal the wounds of war.
The Kites are Flying is the story of a Palestinian boy and his Israeli friend, a girl he has never spoken to. It’s an extraordinary story.
With the recent sadnesses of the Gaza and Israel conflict fresh in our collective memory, this is a very timely and useful book that raises more questions than it answers - but raises the very best type of questions: questions that have less to do with politics and more to do with people. Who are the people that become statistics? How do families respond to trauma in conflict? How does it feel to lose a loved one to circumstances that are seem to be without hope? Why do we respond in such varied ways to stresses and trauma? What is it that binds us to humanity? And so on.
The story is told from the perspectives of Said, a severely traumatized Palestinian boy, and Max, a reporter/movie maker planning to make a movie about the wall around the West Bank. What makes it remarkable is that it manages to allow an insight into the full extent of the damage suffered by Said and his family as a result of Israeli occupation of the West Bank without dehumanizing or vilifying the Israelis. If only… all reporting about conflict took such a compassionate and even minded approach.
The illustrations by Laura Carlin are hopeful and even exuberant sometimes. I think they do their job wonderfully well – they take the story seriously and they help to immerse us in Said’s world but they remain optimistic.
Michael Morpurgo is one of my very favourite writers – it’s the way he crafts his words and the fearless approach he takes to difficult subjects that really resonate with me. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is certainly a difficult subject, and one that really needs lots of discussion for children to begin to build a framework of understanding around it.
Here are a few of my favourite bites from The Kites are Flying that help with building that framework and, more importantly, a framework around building peace:
One final ‘if only’: If only …. the story of Said and his kites could become part of the narrative that shapes the way we think about war and the cost of war.
There are not many better ways to spend an hour or two on a windy afternoon than lying under quilts and reading this story out loud. (It’s an illustrated short story rather than a picture book.)
PS This is also a wonderful book to read when trying to understand grief – various means of coping with grief are shown and all are valued.
It's inexpensive - < $10 postage paid. Soul value: priceless.
Have you ever felt …lost …or perhaps just out of place ...in need of home?
Ahh, but have you ever felt …found…in the perfect place …completely at home?
In this thoroughly appealing story, a boy and a penguin move from being lost to being found. Ostensibly it's just the penguin that is actually lost, but eventually it becomes clear that the boy is lost without the penguin too.
Here is a young boy who makes a most surprising find. A penguin appears at his door and follows him everywhere. It becomes clear to the boy that the penguin is lost and needs to find its home.
The boy searches, he asks for help, he researches and finally decides that the penguin should be taken home to the South Pole. It’s quite the journey, there is careful planning and a lot of work, but eventually the boy and the penguin reach the South Pole and reluctantly say goodbye.
So far, there are all sorts of long lasting ideas here – lost things (or people) need to go home, its worth the struggle to find the right answer, sometimes considerable sacrifice and letting go is necessary in life, doing for others is worthwhile and fulfilling.
But there’s more to this story. There’s a twist that lets us think twice about many of the messages so far. I don’t want to lessen the impact of a first reading, so rather than tell the story, here are some of the other messages:
There’s a tremendous amount of good in this little story. It’s one that can be read to very young children and will still have meaning for teens and adults. It’s charmingly illustrated – well, it’s Oliver Jeffers so we expect that. I love that the illustration match the tale so well and that there is clarity and detail at the same time.
And if you’ve ever felt lost, out of place or in need of a home, you just might recognize yourself in the boy … or the penguin.
Written & illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
... to say thank you to everyone who continued to click on the site during July - even though there was virtually no new content. We had some day-to-day issues that meant we couldn't get at it and hopefully we've sorted it now. But we just want you to know that we really appreciate your being here.
Joan & Kim :)
So maybe this won’t be quite so funny for fastidious housekeepers, but it was really funny at our house. Because it all seemed so believable. It was entirely possible that I would lose a sausage behind a chest and leave it there to gather dust for months at a time. read the full post here
Because, between us all, we’d done so many of the things that were categorised as disgusting, dangerous or mean, these books made us laugh everytime. And then there was the unthinkable things that we had never done, and would never do, that were lumped into the same category – so funny. read the full post here
It’s the absurdity that appeals here – two famous artists consumed with pride and jealousy – and acting ridiculously as a result. It’s funny stuff – and while we’re laughing at Pigasso and Mootisse, we’re really laughing at ourselves and our own petty jealousies. read the full post here
How wonderful to think and understand that thought.
Brownie Downing was born at Manly, Sydney in Australia on the 9th May 1924. While her art is just beautiful, parts could be considered controversial today, as historian Robert Holden noted: "Today, Downing’s stylised work would probably not survive the more rigorous tests of political correctness. But .... this is more a reflection of changing times and social values than of Downing herself."
His last sentence is a well composed reminder about how the historical lens works in our lives.
Art created as a stand alone piece of art is a different story, pardon the pun. In this month’s top 5 we’ve identified five (actually six - again) books designed for children to view and appreciate and talk about the paintings and art works of the masters.
Let’s start with Quentin Blake’s Tell Me A Picture.
Quentin Blake selected 26 works of art from the National Gallery (in England) that tell a story. And then he illustrated the facing pages in and around the art works, with children and adults discussing the works and the stories that might come from them. It’s a delightful book – great and varied choices of artists and works - and lots of fun to read and talk about.
My favourite: Nameless and Friendless by Emily Mary Osborn.
A is for Art is a series of photographs of abstract pieces prepared by Stephen T Johnson.
Each one relates to a letter of the alphabet and the letter is hidden within the work – there’s abundance on each page and an alliterated verse to help you know what to look for.
Here’s an example: The letter N page is titled Nocturne and the verse reads, “Number nineteen is next to the letter N; nearby, the number nine neighbors a Naples yellow number ninety-nine.”
A really enjoyable way to spend an afternoon – this is also great for kids who are a little older and who still need to work on sounds etc.
I Spy Numbers in Art by Lucy Micklethwait is one of a large series.
This one is a counting book as well as an art book. Each page shows a famous artwork and the facing page says simply, “I spy one fly’…or … ‘two eyes’…etc up to… ‘twenty angels.’
The art works are well known, although there will probably be a couple of new pieces for most people. They allow for lots of discussion besides the counting and they’re beautiful pieces.
I Spy an Alphabet in Art from the same series by Lucy Micklethwait is very much along the same lines – this time the facing page says, “I spy with my little eye something beginning with …” And there’s plenty to look for on each page. The series of books includes books with paintings about children, shapes, animals, dogs, cats and so on.
I really like that each piece of art is given a page of its own so there’s plenty of white space around the works.
The Art Book for Children and The Art Book for Children Two are a bit more of a guided tour through the art world. I can tell that ours were well loved – the pages are gritty from dirty little fingers turning them often.
The books take a wider approach to art and include photographs of sculptures and installations. Each art work is accompanied by a brief story about the work, a few thought provoking questions, a couple of tips for things to look for and often ideas about producing something inspired by the work. Both books cover a very broad range of genres and span a large timeline.
So which books were most loved? Stephen T Johnson's A is for Art and Quentin Blake’s Tell me a Picture are winners at our house. But I've sometimes taken the whole lot (along with a few others) to groups of children and I can never guess which will be most appealing. All of them are well worn, that’s for certain.
I’m not sure that I can credit these books alone, but they all impacted in some way on Peet’s interest in art and art curation. And they also impacted on some of my less artistically driven children.
. . . and I think these books help a lot with that. I hope you find one or two that really speak to you.
I confess that I am not a big fan of the whole hero culture that we seem to have going. Too often the ‘heroes’ aren’t heroic and are anything but role model material. But Peaceful Heroes is a collection of super short biographies of people who have impacted the world positively and peacefully.
I think you’ll have heard of most of them – but there are probably some new names in the list too. For the most part they are people born without special privilege who worked at great risk to bring a bit more good into the world.
The first peaceful hero is my personal hero and ultimate role model - Jesus of Nazareth. Peaceful Heroes is careful to note that different people have different beliefs about Jesus, and it does a really nice job of respecting all beliefs (including atheists and agnostics).
Others on the list include Sojourner Truth, Corrie Ten Boom (another personal favourite), Martin Luther King Jr, and William Feehan (a New York City firefighter who died rescuing people on 9/11).
There are 14 peaceful heroes in all, and their biographies stand alone, so one biography can be read at a time, as the mood or need strikes. It’s a great selection of heroes in varying circumstances and times.
I also like that the selections are not without controversy – as the book itself says in the biography of Clara Barton: “Most heroes, peaceful or non-peaceful, have both fans and enemies. What their fans call heroism, their enemies might call troublemaking.”
This is great starting off point to talk about what makes a hero and to try to understand how any of the Peaceful Heroes might also be considered a trouble-maker by someone else – and then to think about which way we personally lean.
The book doesn’t assume prior knowledge, making it great for younger people who may not have heard of the historical circumstances that surround the various heroes. For example, in Corrie Ten Boom’s biography there’s a very short and simple explanation of Nazi Germany and who Hitler was.
All of which is not to suggest that the book doesn’t take a moral stance – it is absolutely aligned with peaceful actions and solutions and it calls an evil act an evil act. There is a clear delineation between the Peaceful Heroes and the evil they are fighting against – which is great, especially for children in the 6 -12 age group who often search for black and white constructions.
Some of the values and lessons available from the Peaceful Heroes include:
While this is a brilliant book for children from, say, 6 years upwards, it makes a very nice coffee table book for an adult household too – the art is striking and lends a wonderful connectivity to the varied stories – it’s a book that will lead to many interesting thoughts and discussions, and hopefully some new (and perhaps more worthy) heroes.
And perhaps most importantly, it may lead to thoughts about the personal peaceful heroes in our lives: parents, friends, neighbours, community and church leaders and countless others who through small peaceful acts earn the title ‘hero’ from someone.
Snippet “One thing is for certain: In any war, innocent people are going to get hurt - people who are just going about their daily lives.”
Have you ever had to wait for something you really wanted or even needed – and has that waiting felt like it would never end?
The baba (father) in this story tells his little girl about a time when he was a child living in Morocco. There was a drought and his family was running out of food and so they ate less and less each day. Eventually the gnawing hunger pervaded all of his thoughts and his mother came up with a way to distract him – from his own hunger and from the other worries in his life.
It was her way of making the waiting a little easier and it worked brilliantly. (It’s a clever and loving solution – but I’m trying not to give away too much of the story!)
This is lovely look at a boy’s life in Morocco and at his life as a grown man and father. There are lovely connections between the two worlds – couscous for dinner, a parent who goes away to work, a child who is hungry, a parent who finds a way to calm the child till it’s time to eat, and both stories culminate in a shared family meal.
The simplicity of life in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco appears charming and peaceful but the continuing drought has a profound impact and while there is still peace and love, there is also concern and hardship. Quite a nice lesson that peace and love can in fact exist side by side with concern and hardship.
There are quite a lot of words in this story, but the pictures provide some prompts and the font is clear and large – making it ideal for beginning readers to read to themselves. It’s also lovely for when you have a bit of extra time for at bedtime.
The rather naïve style of the illustrations matches very nicely with the homey telling and evokes Morocco in a way that is clear but not intrusive of the story.
The Butter Man will help to nourish ideas like:
These are some of the key ideas I hope to settle in the hearts and minds of my children – and myself.
This is also great to read in times of drought – to see the impact of drought and to remember how insulated many of us are from the vagaries of life. Or when families have to spend time apart for a greater cause. Or when you’re having couscous for dinner!
By Elizabeth and Ali Alalou Illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli
Snippet “But even as we sat around the steaming platter with our spoons held high, we had to wait just one minute more. Just long enough to say our blessing.”
We featured You and Me, Murrawee earlier in 2014 - it struck a chord in many hearts and we're repeating it here in honour of National Reconciliation Week (27 May to 3 June, 2014):
Some stories have a profound message – one that everyone needs to hear more than once – one that is just as relevant to a toddler as it is to the toddler’s grandpa. This is You and Me, Murrawee.
The story is told as the musings of a young girl – maybe 10 or 12 years old – who has a gift for seeing what is no longer present. The girl is on a family camping trip in the Australian bush and as she plays and paddles and watches her family, she senses the life of an indigenous girl, 200 years ago, doing many of the same things she is doing.
She calls the girl Murrawee which is the Ngarrindjeri people’s word for elder sister. There’s nothing of the supernatural in this book – just the careful imaginings of a girl who is sensitive to her environment and to the blessings of living in Australia.
The children – the girl and Murrawee – run past ancient rocks, they paddle in the same river, they watch their fathers teaching their brothers, they eat dinner with their families and sleep on the same river bank. There’s a lovely connection between a modern child and a girl who walked that path before. There’s also an awareness of inheritance and responsibility.
It’s hard for an author and illustrator to give value to two distinct lifestyles at the same time – but that’s what this book does. And that’s the profound message of this book. Both lifestyles are valuable, both are joyful and loving, both are interesting. And there is tremendous intersection in the things all people ultimately value – family, time, nature, room to grow.
Although this would be a great book for 3-6 year olds – the time that children generally start noticing race and often start stereotyping as they try to create order in their world – it is not really about race. It’s more about culture and heritage. And particularly about the intersection of different cultures.
Read aloud, You and Me Murrawee calls for soft tones, quiet times and pondering – it’s a lovely one to read after a busy day.
And you’ll probably be left with a hankering to go camping as well as an overwhelming sense of privilege if you live in Australia.
By Kerri Hashmi Illustrated by Felicity Marshall
(also searchable by: Australia Day, Sorry Day)
I mentioned to my adult children that I was going to do a top 5 on ‘poo’ books, and Terence the Toilet was the first book they each thought of!
When you’re a ‘bog-standard’ toilet, chances are there are magazines left in the bathroom with you – magazines that show ‘exotic bathrooms in exotic places all over the world’. And that can leave you feeling restless and unsatisfied. That’s what happened to Terence – and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that most of us have felt that way too after leafing through the magazines left in the bathroom.
Terence decides it’s time to see the world and so off he goes – to Wall Street, Paris, the African Plains and even more places. Everywhere he goes he meets other toilets who are leading fascinating lives, but still he feels restless. So he goes in search of a guru toilet.
Eventually he finds the wise guru toilet – who turns out to be a hole in the ground, having shed all his worldly goods and cares. The guru’s advice to Terence: ‘The only journey you need to take is the journey within.’ That’s all it takes – Terence is transformed – into a second hole in the ground.
I don’t like giving away too much of a story – especially when it builds as carefully as this one does – but this is an out of print book so you’ll need to find a second hand copy or a library copy. That's why I wanted to make the whole story fairly clear. It’s such a good one, so funny and so important at the same time.
The ‘funny’ comes from the juxtaposition of a toilet into the troubled thoughts of modern western society and from the drawings that somehow manage to give Terence - and the other toilets he meets - distinct personalities.
And then there are the various situations Terence finds himself in. For example - he “lunched with the sophisticated bidets of Parisian hotels and learnt all about the history of butt rinsing etiquette…then he ventured even further afield to the parched African plains to see the roaming portaloo tribes he had heard so much about…’
Terence the Toilet is funny and memorable but it also has a lot to say – things like:
And it is really good for a laugh! Keep an eye out for it.
By Ann Louise Stubbs
Snippet: ‘Please, oh wise guru toilet, I have travelled so far, I have seen so many places, but I still do not know where I belong! Where should I go next?!!’
Heavens this is a beautiful book! It’s a teary one – a lovely wander through the life of a baby girl told through the eyes of her mother. Truly – I get goosebumps every time I read it.
A young mother holds her newborn and kisses her fingers. Then tells the baby of her mother-wishes for the baby’s life. Things like, ‘Someday your eyes will be filled with a joy so deep that they shine.’ And even things like ‘Someday you will hear something so sad that you will fold up with sorrow.’
These are not a mother’s wishes for a simple, clean and shiny life – rather they are a mother’s wishes for a life for her baby that embraces all that life has to offer.
There’s a lovely progression as the mother talks to her child from ‘one day’ in the past, to ‘sometimes’ in the present, to ‘someday’ in the future. And the gentle and inviting illustrations take the child from baby, to childhood, adolescence, adulthood and through to old age.
While lovely to read with a young child, this will probably strike the deepest chords with that young child’s parents. It’s my go-to baby shower or pregnancy present for mothers who are expecting girls and I gave it to my daughter-in-law Kathleen when she first announced that I was getting a granddaughter. (Kathleen recently told me that when she first read she thought it was nice. But now that that granddaughter is here and profoundly impacting her family and the world everyday, Kathleen says she can’t read it without crying!)
For a young child this is a story about:
For the child’s parents it’s about:
This is an especially nice gift book for:
(also searchable by: Mother, Mom, Mum, Daughter
Snippet “Someday, a long time from now, your own hair will glow silver in the sun. And when that day comes, love, you will remember me.”
Wanna hear a joke?
There was once a family of moles who decided to go for a walk in the sunshine. First there was Daddy Mole, then Mummy Mole, then Sister Mole, then Brother Mole, then Baby Mole – all walking in a line with their noses to the ground.
Suddenly Daddy Mole stopped and said, “I smell honey – do you smell honey Mummy Mole?”
Mummy Mole sniffed the air and said, “I do smell honey – do you smell honey Sister Mole?”
Sister Mole sniffed the air then said, “I do smell honey – do you smell Brother Mole?” . . .Read More
Kissed by the Moon is more a lullaby with pictures than a story book. The perfect ‘snuggle down to sleep’ book. In it, a baby grows and moves through early life to the tune of beautifully worded wishes from a loving adult.
The illustrations are classic Alison Lester (the little house on the title page is almost the same as the ‘welcome home’ house in The Journey Home – one of my favourite houses ever). There’s a fairy floss sunset over a peaceful bay, a riotous flower garden, loyal pets playing on an ocean shore line, Australian animals peeking out of a forest and so much more to enjoy.
The words read like lyrics or like a cheerful prayer. There is a certain lilt to them when read aloud. And they’ll bring an internal sigh of longing from any adult because they do indeed represent many of our very best wishes for our babies.
If I had to choose a favourite I suppose it would be ‘May you grow sleepy at sunset, sing to the stars, and drift into dreams.’ But that might be my subconscious talking since none of my babies could sleep at night!
At the end of a weary day or a joyful one, this little book will probably come out again and again. I bought it as a welcome present for my new grandson William – it suits his family and some of my fondest wishes for him are right there too.
Kissed by the Moon is lovely for:
By Alison Lester
Snippet: “May you, my baby, follow the rivers, wander the mountains, and walk in the wild.”
Vesuvius is a problem solver – and Rome has a big problem – a poo problem. No one knows what to do with all the poo. It’s so bad that ‘Some people even dropped it into other people’s pockets when they weren’t looking.” (Now if that line doesn’t bring at least a grimacy smirk to your face I don’t know what will.)
Because poo is such a problem, it’s also a “forbiddenus wordus’, which leads to a whole slew of hilarious euphemisms like ‘huge daffodil’ and ‘cola cube’. Aside from all the usual uses for a poo book, this one does a great job of teaching how and when and why to use a euphamism . . .Read More
We have quite a collection of princess-and-the-pea stories – mainly because Alec (our second son) was called Princess for quite a few years after a camp where he slept on a whole pile of mattresses.
This one is great. Prince Henrik needs to find a proper princess to be his wife. Trouble is, he wants a wife who likes hockey and camping. These are difficult qualities to find in a real princess and when he looks at his sister-in-law, who passed the infamous pea test, he’s not so sure that’s the best way to choose a princess. Henrik decides to adjust the pea test to suit him!
Potential princesses fail the test miserably . . .Read More
Fair warning – this one is kind of gross. It’s the story of a fly who learns that swimming can be very dangerous – well, if you go swimming in a toilet bowl. The fly is merrily swimming away when suddenly everything goes dark, then it starts to ‘rain’ and then . . .Read More
This one is closed - thank you so much to everyone who participated - the winner was Katie L from Vancouver, Canada.
This giveaway will run from Tuesday 13 May to Monday 2 June - and a computer app will randomly select the winner.
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Also, if there's any doubt in your mind about how much we like this book, just read Kim's review here.
A sequel to Baa Baa Smart Sheep, this time Quirky Turkey tries to take revenge on Little Baa Baa by giving Little Baa Baa a glass of ‘lemonade’ – it all backfires horribly. And then insult is added to injury. Poor Quirky Turkey – once again the butt of Little Baa Baa’s quick wit.
This is great to read with Baa Baa Smart Sheep – the reaction usually goes something like: Belly laugh, “so disgusting,” “poor turkey.” I guess we’ve all been the turkey at some point – and possibly the sheep at some point too . . .Read More
reviews that feature what each book does for a child in everyday life; how what is going on in their lives can be sorted and helped with special books
We think CHILDREN are POWERFUL beyond measure
- Hugh Prather
- Alfie Kohn - read more here . . .
As an annexe to our ‘short thought’ post on How Stories Develop Moral Imagination, you might like this free podcast interview with John Paul Lederach about The Art of Peace. It’s interesting, timely and pretty relaxing really.