Picture Books with Power
Picture books can impact on us in ways we don’t expect - Many children’s books contain threads which we carry with us as we grow, woven into our identities. We take a few that have made their mark on readers as children and as adults.
by Julia Donaldson
Man, I love Zog. You can keep your Gruffalo and your Stickman and your Tabby McTat. Zog is the absolute best Donaldson/Scheffler book by far. Don’t even try to argue with me on this one. (Besides, Josh Homme chose it to read on CBeebies Bedtime Stories, and I know you ain’t gonna argue with him.) But it’s not just for its wonderfully refreshing take on the fairy tale princess (Spoiler alert: Princess Pearl eschews “prancing round the palace in a silly frilly dress” in order to become a doctor). That’s fantastic, of course, but what people often overlook in this charming book is the portrayal of male characters.
Firstly, Sir Gadabout, who rejects outdated notions of masculinity by (a) backing down from his planned fight with Zog, (b) quickly abandoning the nonsense about the princess being “his”, and (c) asking Pearl to train him up to be a doctor. And then, of course, there’s Zog: ‘the keenest [dragon] by far’ who ‘tried his hardest every day’ at school. He is determined to do well and impress his teacher. He gets it wrong again and again and again, but he never gives up. You couldn’t ask for two better role models for your sons. In a literary world full of boisterous boys and macho men, here you have two absolute gems, who teach young boys that you don’t have to be the joker at school: it’s ok to want to do well. And you don’t need to feel pressurised into living up to male stereotypes: fighting is stupid. And you don’t need to know everything: if you can learn from a woman who knows more than you, for heaven’s sake, ask that woman to teach you.
The Sunflower Sword
by Mark Sperring and Miriam Latimer
This is a hugely likeable picture-book about a small boy “who wanted to be big like the other knights and fight like the other knights and have a sword like the other knights.” Fortunately the little boy’s mother is calm and wise. By the end of the book the knights and dragons are friends and having fun… All through the power of one small boy holding a sunflower, and a smiling dragon thrilled to be offered a flower.
The charm of this book lies in the standard tale of brave knights fighting fearsome dragons being turned on its head. For a simple story this book contains many themes and ideas; friendship, the importance of make believe and the powerful thought that there are “much better games than fighting”.
I once took flowers to a male friend; like the dragon he was delighted and reflected that men are rarely given flowers. This seems sad. Boys and men are just as sensitive to natural beauty as girls and women; but our society seems to find this unacceptable. God forbid a boy should wear clothes adorned with blooms. Part of the mother’s wisdom in giving her son a sunflower to use as a sword is its versatility. A plastic gun or sword or anything that looks like the adult version is limited in their play value. But a cardboard tube could be a telescope, a wand, or covered in red tissue paper and made into a campfire.
I also love the fact that this book is about disarmament. “Soon the word spread far and wide of how an enemy could become a friend and how the land might become a peaceful place.” This is a powerful message for children. Children seem to learn about fighting, guns and war earlier than most parents would like, why not start talking about peace early too?
The Song of the Dolphin Boy
by Elizabeth Laird
The Song of the Dolphin Boy is a lovely story for first readers. Like The Sunflower Sword it is rich in ideas, and the twin themes of friendship and care for the natural world. Finn lives with his father in a small seaside town. He is ostracised by the other local children because they think he is ‘weird’. They are cruel to him in a typically childish way, but there is complexity in their reactions too. One day Finn realises that he is special, he can swim in the sea like a dolphin and communicate with them too. This connection enables him to see the danger sea creatures encounter from plastic pollution. He is desperate to help his dolphin friends and the other children assist; eventually he is accepted and respected by the children. They become genuine friends.
The myth of the selkie that underpins the story is an ancient idea found in numerous tales. Introducing children to a world of mysticism that stretches wider than the ubiquitous unicorn is valuable. Again, the author balances this nicely. Some of the children struggle with Finn’s special qualities. They are grounded in science and the author displays a clear respect for scientific fact: useful for children who feel drawn to discovering ‘how things work’.
For any child encountering tricky dynamics in their friendships, it is empowering to read about young people with worries, anxieties, and unconventional families. An excellent chapter describes all the children deciding they are weird in their own ways. There is humour and truth here, and a useful message for children to absorb.
I believe that children are instinctively responsive to the idea that as humans we should take care of our planet and treat animals with respect. But in an age of mass consumerism, where they are surrounded by plastic in their daily lives, it is important for them to receive a message of care and consideration for the natural world.
The tale touches on bereavement too; both Finn and another child have lost their mothers. They have a brief conversation about this which would undoubtedly help any grieving child. There are relatively few fictional books which support bereaved children, so a book containing this thread is important. C.S Lewis’ assertion “I read to know I’m not alone” is equally true for children as for adults.
The Tiny King
by Taro Miura
As a short man, who was once a short boy, let me tell you this: there are not many positive portrayals of diminutive men out there. Not in books. Not on TV. Not in films. Short men are pretty much always ridiculous characters. And there are certainly no positive portrayals of short men in relationships with taller women. Don’t just take my word for it: have a flick through your kids’ books and see if you can find one depiction of a heterosexual couple in which the woman is taller than the man. (And it’s no better in real life. Growing up, who did I have to - excuse the pun - look up to? Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee.)
So imagine my delight when I - a man of 5’ 5”, married to a woman of 5’ 11” - discovered The Tiny King by Taro Miura. In this beautifully illustrated book, the titular Tiny King is unhappy. He is alone and has nobody to share his massive castle or his massive bath or his massive bed with. Until he meets the Big Princess, that is. And when we say big, I’ve just measured them: she’s six times taller than him. Anyway, they don’t care: they fall in love, marry, have a bunch of kids, and all is well. They probably get stick from the less enlightened members of the kingdom. I imagine some people find their height discrepancy amusing. I imagine some are taken aback when they see them walking down the street, holding hands. And I imagine even some of their friends still make fun of them from time to time. But that doesn’t bother the Tiny King and the Big Queen. They’re in love and that’s all that matters. They probably just feel sorry for all those other losers.
Mr Tiger Goes Wild
by Peter Brown
Teaching wild kids about freedom seemed counterintuitive to me when mine were tiny, but as structures have grown steadily around them – grounding them, helping them to learn, but also, ultimately stifling parts of them, I couldn’t help but feel sorry. There are the family rules to negotiate – ask before you get down from the table, say sorry to your sibling, fold up your pyjamas. Then the crossing your legs on the nursery carpet, the put your hand up to ask a question at school, don’t interrupt your teacher etc. Sometimes it seems there are so many rules for them to learn, so that they can fit into civilisation, learn in a classroom, behave in a restaurant, look after their things, their peers, themselves. It’s important, but it’s also a little bit sad.
Mr Tiger lives in a black and white, rather prim and proper world, where all the animals stand on two legs and wear restrictive clothing. When he breaks free, and heads out into the wild, the drawings transform into bold, bright and beautiful colours. It’s simple and effective, and it reminds me, and hopefully my small wild ones that we can and should make time for going wild. Every time I read it I think, I must book a holiday – we all need time off where everybody gets to be themselves, relax and live in the brightly-coloured wild. Eventually Mr Tiger returns to his home, but he is changed. So are the other animals, and it’s all for the better because he (and they) are being true to themselves, a powerful message in an understated and beautifully-illustrated book.
Emma Dodd’s Animal Series
by Emma Dodd
If you’re not familiar with the books of Emma Dodd, I have one piece of advice for you: familiarise yourself with the books of Emma Dodd. There are very few books on our kids’ bookshelves that can make me smile as much as hers. I specifically refer to her animal series with one-word titles, like ‘Sometimes’ and ‘Always’ and ‘Everything’. Seriously, I’m even smiling now just typing the titles.
Each one depicts a relationship between a gender-unspecific parent and gender-unspecific child. A pair of monkeys; a pair of penguins; a pair of otters; a pair of huskies; a pair of koalas. And each is narrated in the first person, either by the parent (to the child) or by the child (to the parent). Every single one is about the love between a parent and child. And miraculously (I say ‘miraculously’ because I am quite the cynic), they all stay on the right side of sickly sweetness. They are frickin’ adorable. And because the parents and the children in the books are not allocated genders, they become whichever parent is reading the book and whichever child is listening to the book. And as I already said, they’re all about the love between a parent and a child. They’re just perfect.
One more thing: they are perfect for emerging readers. Our eldest is now 5 and starting to read books, and his favourite books to read to us and his little sister are these books. And my goodness, I challenge you to listen to your child reading one of these books and not cry a little bit.
Frog and Toad
By Arnold Lobell
Thinking of readings I would like at my funeral I find I myself turning to children’s literature. Possibly this is a symptom of my immaturity or nostalgia but I think it is because children’s stories have the knack of distilling deep messages and feelings into something simple and powerful. Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books had a profound effect on me. The stories are about two best friends, Frog and Toad, and the small adventures they have together yet Lobel manages to convey love, kinship and morality in a vocabulary suitable for children learning to read.
Behind the simple stories is the sense of their love for each other and for the time they spend together. They reveal the importance of the small things; kindness, wrapping a present for a friend or sharing some cookies. This is summed up in one of the stories where Frog claims he wants to be alone and Toad is alarmed until they are re-united and Frog says, “I am happy. I am very happy. This morning when I woke up I felt good because the sun was shining. I felt good because I was a frog. And I felt good because I have you for a friend. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to think about how fine everything is.” These stories left me with an understanding that the deepest love comes from the silence shared or the unselfish gesture and that a sunny day spent with someone you care for is a small miracle.