Sunday, 12 August 2012

Toddling through the green and pleasant land

We are currently in the middle of the annual trip to the UK, always a whirlwind tour of friends and family, but always much loved, if only as an escape from the heat of a Virginia summer.  We have been watching the Olympics, reacquainting the children with their extended family and embracing the British countryside via long walks in the sunshine and cool breeze.  It's wonderful.

I will probably have a lot more to say about the traveling and the attempts to find routine in other people's houses in future posts.  But right now, I am going to enjoy being the middle of three generations under one roof.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Book Review: The Snail and The Whale

The Snail and the Whale is written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, who are best known for The Gruffalo, although really any of their books are worth a try.  We have about half a dozen of Julia Donaldson's rhyming picture books, since my mother discovered that they were a safe bet for my son.  It's hard to pin down a reliable favourite, but this is the one that surprised me most with how much it appealed to him.

The reason for this is that it isn't especially funny and there's quite an abstract side to the plot.  The story follows a snail, who lives on a rock by a dock and dreams of travelling.  She hitches a lift with a humpback whale and gets her wish, only to be left feeling insignificant due to her small size.  Then the whale beaches himself, and the snail saves him by writing a message with her slime-trail on a school's blackboard, kicking off a rescue mission (no huge claims to realism here!).

While the idea of somebody small doing something heroic would seem an obvious story for children, the book has a slow build up to that climax, taking several pages to tour the world with the snail.  I'm not sure what captivates my son so much, but I love reading lines like:

This is the sea
So wild and free.
That carried the whale
And the snail on his tail
To towering icebergs and far-off lands
With fiery mountains and golden sands...

Perhaps that's the answer.  I always believe that one of the important factors in choosing a book to read to children is to choose one that you can read well.  Public speaking will never be my thing, but even I can tell that I'm more expressive with this book than some of the others we've tried out.

With that in mind, one of the common critiques I find with any of Julia Donaldson's books on Amazon is that the rhythm doesn't work out.  Personally, I've figured out the rhythm to all the books we have, though some of them are more difficult than others... the Snail and the Whale has a tendency to suddenly go slow (yeah, it's been a while since I studied metre in poetry, so apologies for the clunky terminology here).  It might be worth flipping through any of her books before purchase, to make sure you have a feel for the rhythm.

Anyway, as I've already said, I love the text in this one, where she gives her descriptive powers more of a workout.  Similarly, Axel Scheffler puts his cartoony detail to broader use, sketching out some impressive landscapes.  I confess that I rather wish a different artist had been used, since I would have loved to see a 'prettier' rendering, but I suspect there are just as many people who are delighted that they stuck with the same illustrator instead of going for something more saccharine.  It's just a personal taste thing.

Agewise, my son has been loving this book since soon after he turned two--he's currently three and a half.  It's too long for my eighteen month old daughter, who has shown no particular interest.

Notes for the Parent

Nothing here likely to upset your child... a couple of sharks appear in passing, which might be considered scary, but no comments on the food chain!

The protagonist is female, always a nice touch, and although she spends much of the book being carried around by the (male) whale, she takes the more active role in the narrative, devising her own way of achieving her dream, and likewise, figuring out how to save her traveling partner, and when she returns to her home-rock, she has finally earned the respect of her fellow snails.

In the diversity stakes, the human cast are predominantly white, but the class of children feature one black girl and a boy who looks to be of Asian (e.g. Pakistani) descent.  Of the firefighters helping with the beached whale, two are black and one is female.

The school is a traditional primary school, with desks in front of the blackboard and a strict teacher telling the children to be quiet.  Obviously, I'm biased here, still, I am a bit annoyed that the school is given a negative image.  Children's opinions count for more, of course, but if you are trying to avoid negative school imagery (e.g. with a child about to start), this will not be the book for you!

Educational stuff

While it's not overly realistic, there's a nice feel of geography in the pages without going into anything too specific.  The snail's home-dock and the school by the beach have typically British scenery, but we also get a taste of the Antarctic (judging by the penguins) a tropical and volcanic island, under the sea and a North American coastline--complete with bald eagle.  I can't spot any obvious errors in Axel Scheffler's details, and my son enjoys spotting the various fauna in each new location.

Also, the snail writes in cursive, which is a nice touch if you have a child learning that.

All in all, highly recommended, as is just about any Julia Donaldson.

For your own personal reading pleasure, I will recommend Dear Zari: The Secret Lives of the Women of Afghanistan.  It compiles some of the 'life stories' broadcast on the radio show, Afghan Woman's Hour, along with the personal experiences of the author who hosted the show.  While some artistic liberties have undoubtedly been taken (along with steps to preserve anonymity, these are real stories and as such make for a pretty devastating read, often being the story of how a woman got into a state of despair without any cheerful resolution (though there are some uplifting stories).  There are also a diverse range of personalities in these stories, despite the recurring themes, and also a look into how Islamic culture and religion often clash (with culture generally winning).

Eye-opening, and made me appreciative of the rights my daughter and I have.  It's a book I'd like my daughter to read in another fifteen years or so, despite the grim tone.