building empathy through imagination—of all the bananas, which one would you be?

by Alexandra Tylee, illustrated by Kieran Rynhart – Gecko Press, 2016
ages 2 to 12 years / emotional resilience, heartwarmers

Teaching children to empathise might be the greatest of all parenting and teaching challenges—so very much else hinges upon it. And the level of difficulty only increases because, unlike shoe tying or bed making, parents and educators are inevitably still developing that skill themselves.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
— Atticus Finch

Atticus Finch famously said:
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

JK Rowling took the idea a step further, in an important direction. She said:
In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, [imagination] is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Imagination is a prerequisite for empathy—in order to walk around in someone else’s skin, you really do need to be able to imagine his or her life, with its joys and sorrows, triumphs and worries. And then you need to be able to imagine yourself in that life. Picture books are a tremendous support for this type of imaging, inviting readers into new worlds, imaginary or real.

If I Was a Banana is wonderful for both supporting imagination and building empathy—that’s an impressive combination in a picture book that’s also a delight to read!

Here, a young boy muses on which sort of banana, or mountain, cow, cloud and so on he would be. He has a thoughtful voice, one that weighs and considers, without verbosity.

His reasoning is varied—sometimes he thinks about the effect on others:

If I was a mountain I would be the one with the snow and the clouds and the rumbling volcano that never blows its top (well, never enough to hurt anyone).” 

Sometimes, he is wistful:

If I was a cloud it would be great to be a big black storm cloud and shoot lightning, thunder, and hail all over the place. But then, maybe a much smaller, lighter, fluffy sort of cloud would be a better sort of cloud to be.”

Sometimes he’s decisive:

If I was a tree I would be quite happy.”

Finally he thinks on being a boy and concludes that he is most comfortable being himself.

Some reasons to love this book:

It encourages readers to think about themselves living a vastly and impossibly different life, affirming the possibility of choosing the life you will live. We really can’t choose to be a banana, or an elephant, but we can be who we want to be. (The final page’s confirmation that the boy is happy with who he is now is vital—it says that there's safety in imaging other lives, all the while knowing that you can be happy where you are.)

The thoughtfulness of each of the boy’s ideas means that there is time to think privately about his choices—perhaps you’d prefer to be the unripe banana with more shelf time left!

The pictures carry the reader through the boy’s thoughts— there are multiple pictures for each idea and they show the genesis of the boy’s ideas + the progression of his choices. As well as being truly lovely to look at, they're really good for early readers who can see more than is read aloud to them.      

It affirms the value of imagination—the boy’s internal world is key to his understanding of the world around him. As he thinks through each of his ideas, he shares the knowledge he already has, which shows the value of knowledge applied to imagination.

It’s a beautifully produced book—the matt pages perfectly off set the pictures and I found myself running my hands over the pages for a tactile connection with words and pictures.

A small reading hint:

It's nice to read this book through once or twice as a whole, to enjoy the wistful feel and to let the notion of choosing a life sink in. Then, after some time for private thought, it's good to stop reading and talk about what sort of banana, or mountain, or bird etc you’d be.

To continue building empathy, for older children at least, you could try thought-prompts like:

If I was a refugee, I would be … or
If I was a President, I would be… or
If was a farmer, I would be … 

Another quick idea:

The illustrator, Kieran Rynhart held an art workshop in a New Zealand Children’s Library recently, where he offered “If I was … I would be…” as a prompt. The children produced thoughtful and beautiful art; after a reading or two, it could be fun to see what your child comes up with.

I’ve tagged If I Was a Banana for ages 2 – 12 because it has the sort of hazy illustrations that are like a gentle cushion for developed eyes, but can be tricky for very new eyes to focus on. But I think it would make a beautiful baby shower gift—it holds so much promise of the imaginary, thought provoking world to come.

Amazon  -  Book Depository

Book Depository has free postage anywhere in the world and great pricing, but North American readers may prefer Amazon.

determination and imagination will get you there in the end—just maybe not where you expected!

by Mathieu Lavoie – Phaidon, 2016
ages birth to 8 years / funny, imagination, language

You know you’re on a winner when Ivy (who is all of 3-years-old) can pick up a book, ‘read’ it to you all by herself, get the story more or less right, and laugh out loud at the end.

That's Toto’s Apple. It's an outstanding book.

With just a few words and some very self-explanatory graphic pictures, it tells a story about resilience, sticking to a task, following your dreams and looking for the good in life—all the while building to a great punch line.

Toto, who’s a no-guts-no-glory sort of worm, is willing to try pretty much anything to get to an apple hanging high in a tree.

After a few failed attempts, Toto appears doomed to failure when Didi comes along, plucks the apple and starts to eat it. 

But when Didi is distracted by a plane and momentarily drops the apple:

Toto knows that it’s now or never.”

Toto dives into the apple—and what happens next is both funny and unexpected!

Here's why I love Toto's Apple:

The artwork is simple and graphic and still manages to convey all of Toto’s emotions. It’s uncluttered with clear lines, making it brilliant for young children and babies. It’s modern and funky though—so it’s appealing to the adults reading to them.

There are just a few words on each page, so early readers are able to remember-read quickly.

It’s funny and there’s a little bit of gross factor, which does seem to appeal to all ages.

Toto is a worm with determination and grit and imagination—all good qualities to read about.

The ending is not what we imagine Toto had in mind, but Toto is happy. And so are we.

A couple of small reading hints:

Ask a child to read Toto’s Apple to you—if they hesitate you could model the first page or two and then let them go on.

Also, Toto is a worm—the very definition of a non-gendered character—but you may still find yourself or your child assigning a gender, probably ‘he’. For slightly older children it might be worthwhile talking out that underlying prejudice.

And finally, all that really great kid-fun and learning aside, Toto’s Apple is a cool looking book that will also strike a chord for many adults.

Amazon  -  Book Depository

Book Depository has free postage anywhere in the world and great pricing, but North American readers may prefer Amazon.

Names in this book – Didi, Toto

sharing problems often leads to solutions

by Gus Gordon – Penguin/Viking, 2016
ages 2 to 8 years / diversity, emotional resilience, funny

Maya Angelou wrote "The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned." 

She was talking about returning to ancestral homes—but that same ache sometimes flows from fear. The desire to feel safe can keep us from exploring all that the world has to offer (both metaphorically and physically).

George is a bird who stays home. All the other birds go Somewhere Else, and they try to persuade George to go with him.  But there is always something that holds George back—brownies baking, ironing to do, a yoga class. 

Important and satisfying as those things unquestionably are in George’s (and everyone’s) life, he misses many life-enhancing experiences. His friends fly off to the Andes, to Paris, and to Alaska—but George makes his excuses and stays at home.

Eventually George turns down so many offers to go Somewhere Else that his friends stop asking and George finds himself alone.  Except for his bear friend Pascal who starts wishing, in the depth of winter, for a Caribbean holiday.

George comes up with a cluster of absurd excuses but is finally forced to confess that he would have gone Somewhere Else:

If only I knew how to fly.” 

It’s a vulnerable moment for George and tender to read. All of George’s bravado fades away and the home loving façade is no more.

It turns out that George had simply missed the day when the other birds learned to fly and “He had been making excuses not to fly, ever since.”  

In a very charming series of attempts, George and Pascal come up with a solution—a hot air balloon allows them both to fly! They travel the world and discover that “The world was bigger and more brilliant than they had ever imagined.”

Still, that ache for home, the safe place to go and not be questioned, brings them home again—for pie and to decide where to go next.

This is a lovely book, with disarming characters displaying a whole gamut of very human idiosyncrasies. George tries to hide his inadequacies, Pascal talks up his abilities and then has to renege, George’s other friends are so busy with their own adventures that they fail to notice George’s problem and so on. Each character is delightfully flawed and wholly likeable.

The pictures are full of detail, giving a sense of George’s quirkiness. I especially like the collage effect—it’s fun to scour each page looking for the minutiae. And there’s a breeziness to the pictures and words combination that makes reading fun and light-hearted even in the midst of emotionally intense moments.

Some bits of philosophy to love in this book:

Fear of being discovered as less skilled than others can keep us from truly wonderful experiences. Those experiences don’t have to be world travel—they can be as simple as trying to roller skate. This is a great story for talking about overcoming fears. Everything doesn’t go smoothly as George and Pascal work together to find a way to fly, but they get there in the end.

Home is wonderful and safe, as it should be, but it’s often Somewhere Else that most personal growth happens. (Still it’s good to come home as George and Pascal do, to plan and to enjoy some pie!)

Sometimes, when we turn down offers of adventure over and over again, those offers might stop. There’s a lot to be said for taking chances when they’re offered.

It’s worth finding a way around our personal shortcomings. And it’s worth paying attention to our friends and helping them to do the same. (Or we might not notice someone who doesn’t know how to fly.)

It’s while George and Pascal are sitting quietly and feeling a little defeated, that they come up with the inspiration for a hot air balloon: a bit of downtime can be a wonderful thing.

A small reading hint:

George’s many skills (baking, yoga, homemaking) deserve to be played up and read as being very cool and interesting—they are important after all. Playing them up helps when George comes to confess that he can’t fly. The idea is to make it clear that flying is only one really great skill and simply lacking that particular one doesn’t make George any less interesting.

There’s a bit of George in all of us, seeking security in the familiar, averse to risk-taking. There’s a bit of Pascal too, helpful, encouraging and willing to give things a go. And George’s friends will probably feel familiar, looking for the next adventure, inviting others along for the ride. It’s in the embracing of all these different parts that we free ourselves to embrace home and seek adventure, be it in the wide world or in the corners of our imagination.

Booktopia  -  Book Depository

P.S. This is an amusing tale that will appeal to children up to about 8-years-old for its funny circumstances and resolution, but could also strike a chord with older children who might recognise themselves in George.

Names in this book – George, Penelope, Walter, Pascal

3 beautiful libraries

Home libraries hold our hearts of course, but how gorgeous are these three public libraries?

1. Klementinum Library—classic, romantic, what a place to read on a snowy Prague day!

Klementinum Library, Prague

Klementinum Library, Prague

2. Lawrence Library, United States—such modern elegance, the perfect marriage of form and function.

Lawrence Public Library, United States

Lawrence Public Library, United States

And 3, my favourite, a Donkey Library in Ethiopia. I was so excited by the arrival of a mobile library as a child and mine was nowhere near as charming as this one! The Donkey Mobile Libraries were designed by Ato Yohannes Gebregeorgis to address an urgent need of supplying books to children in rural areas of Ethiopia—you might like this heartwarming little video about the project.

Donkey Library in Ethiopia

Donkey Library in Ethiopia

Do you have a favourite library? Our State Library and precinct is ten years old and it's still a soul-enriching place to visit:

State Library, Brisbane Queensland Australia

State Library, Brisbane Queensland Australia

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