brilliance for children who feel a little left out, or who might be excluding others

by Kate Banks, pictures by Boris Kulikov - Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, 2009
ages birth to 8 years / emotional resilience, language

It sometimes happen that we value things that are rare over things that are common. That’s not always a good idea. 

In this story, Max has two brothers with impressive collections – one collects coins and the other collects stamps. They hold those collections pretty tightly too. 

When Max asks if he can have a coin or a stamp he is roundly refused. 

So he decides to start a collection of his own – a collection of words. 

Could there be anything more commonplace? 

Max collects his words by clipping them from magazines and books. With such a ready commodity, Max’s collection grows quickly and soon he has so many that they spread into the hall.

Max’s brothers still don’t see the value in Max’s collection. They boast about how many coins and stamps they have. But …

'…when I have a few more words, I’ll have a story,' said Max.

Max starts to put together a story and his brothers become increasingly interested.  So interested that once one story is finished, the brothers ask for another:

'Hey, I want another story,' said Benjamin.

'So do I,' said Karl.

'And I want a stamp and a coin,' Max reminded them.

That’s how Max, who collected the most everyday thing possible, also ended up with a stamp and a coin.

There’s a really lovely little metaphor happening here. The things that were rare and so appeared to be valuable (coins and stamps) turned out to be valuable mainly as something to trade - while the things that seemed so very pedestrian (words), turned out to have intrinsic value as well as trading value.

This is a brilliant story for children who feel a little left out – or for children who might be excluding others, especially if it's on the basis of their possessions (collections or otherwise).

For a child who feels disenfranchised there's the promise that their interests are worthwhile even if others can’t always see it. There’s also reassurance that the simple joys of life – in this case collecting and story-telling – are available to all. 

For a child who is excluding others, this is a really gentle way to remind them of the value that lies in diversity of interests and talents, as well as the value of sharing.

I also really like this book as a lead-in to story-telling, especially for those who are nervous about writing and reading. Max starts off his collection with simple words like ‘a’ and ‘big’ and ‘day’ but moves on to bigger words like ‘hungry’ and ‘hissed’. Eventually, he is brave enough to collect words he doesn’t know, like ‘slithered’ and iguana’.

That’s how reading and writing works isn’t it? We start with the words we know and slowly expand our collection of words to include bigger words and new words.

One of the really great things about Max’s Words is that even though Max is clearly the hero, the work of his brothers isn’t undervalued. Max still wants a coin and a stamp. Max and his brothers still value that which is rare. But now they see the value in collecting common things, such as words, as well.

The illustrations capture the quirkiness of Max and his family perfectly – they're full of detail and emotion, the sort of pictures that give plenty to think about while the story is read. And they do a great job of helping us to feel what Max is feeling as the story progresses. 

Max’s Words is a great book for a home library – it's entertaining and beautiful as well as having an array of messages that will be helpful at different times in the life of a child.