Phoenix

phoenixSF Said and Dave McKean teamed up for the brilliant Varjak books about a cat that learns who he really is, and who his friends are; Phoenix is their science fiction creation – and, for a child of, say, ten, what a great entry to the genre it is!

Lucky the young protagonist chases his destiny across the Galaxy with the same  monomythical determination that Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea pursues the shadow creature. Like Varjak the book is, among many other things, about identity, in a world split along identity lines.

I recommend this short BBC radio talk by SF Said on the subject of identity. Also, his piece on identity and children’s books in the Guardian.

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One of Dave McKean’s amazing astrolabe-inspired illustrations

In the book there are humans and aliens. But we find out that this division is not so simple. It’s an awareness we seem to need especially now, in our us-and-them times.

The last Reith Lectures – “Mistaken Identities” by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah –  had this theme too. He shows how our simple ideas of what creed, country, colour and culture are, are too simple. In Culture, he discusses the “Oriental-Occidental” divide that is obsessing the world at the moment.

We think of ourselves – us ‘Westerners’ as in some way heirs to classical culture. As Appiah says (pdf):

“More than six centuries later, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the great German philosopher, told the students of the high school he ran in Nuremberg, that, “The foundations of higher study must be and remain Greek literature in the first place, Roman in the second.”

Reading Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan recently, I became

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Ashoka’s edicts – in Greek and Aramaic

aware of how much Alexander the Great had taken Greek culture east. I already knew that our only physical evidence for the maxims that were carved at the Greek temple of Delphi were in Afghanistan. But I learnt too that when the 3rd Century BC Indian ruler Ashoka posted his edicts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, they were in Greek and Aramaic for the Greek-speaking communities there.

(Of course, with the House of Knowledge in Baghdad, waves of Greek knowledge were reintroduced and accumulated eastwards as books on every subject in every language were translated into Arabic.)

Another thing from Appiah with a bearing on Varjak and Phoenix:

The stories we tell that connect Plato or Aristotle or Cicero or Saint Augustine to contemporary American culture have some truth in them, of course. There are self-conscious traditions of scholarship and argumentation. The delusion is to think that it suffices that we have access to these values, as if they’re tracks in a Spotify Playlist that we have never quite listened to.

If these thinkers are part of our Arnoldian culture, there’s no guarantee that what is best in them will continue to mean something to the children of those who now look back to them, any more than the centrality of Aristotle to Muslim thought for hundreds of years guarantees him an important place in Muslim cultures today.

Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them.

A journey of discovery is needed to discover our ‘own’ heritage; a ticket is not enough. Varjak has to learn the Way of Jalal. Lucky needs to find his father, and a lot else besides.

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Fable Comics

Fable Comics is a brilliant collection of cartoon versions of Aesop’s fables! Here’s one I like lots:

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See more here.

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Yuyi Morales

Her latest book, Viva Frida:

(See my first post about Yuyi Morales.)

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Mouse Bird Snake Wolf

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There are some brilliant stories of how things became – take Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, Ted Hughes’ How the Whale Became.

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf, a collaboration between author David Almond and illustrator Dave McKean, is in this tradition. The gods have made the world that Sue, Harry and Little Ben live in. But they’re lazy; they’re up there in the clouds and they’re sleepy. The children can see that there are holes in creation, and sometimes they can see what might go in those holes.

mouse Mouse-Bird-Snake-WolfAll goes relatively well until Harry and Wolf start having wolfish thoughts:
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I love the metaphorical muscle of this book. We live in such a world. A lot is created, but there are spaces left for us to create. Much of what we create is benign, but we have the power to create what is fearsome, destructive.

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We’ve been reading it with the Year 4 classes, and getting the kids to respond to it imaginatively, and the quality of their responses has been good to see. The book is deep enough, resonant enough with what we face outside fiction, for there to be plenty to discuss. The myth is both deep and lighthearted, and the kids entered into it from the first page, filling in the gaps that it’s creators have left.

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The Snow Queen

Before the holidays with Year 4, we did some lessons made a tiny show based on The Snow QueenWe used some great picture book versions, but the one I really missed was illustrated by Erol Le Cain. Shame it’s not around any more. Some of the illustrations are here on Michael Sporn’s website, and copied here below:

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On the shoulders of giants

I love it when I’m teaching science or maths and there are stories to tell, stories that unfold some piece of understanding and something human at the same time. Sometimes what humanity has learnt can be recapitulated for an individual learner, and the two syncronise really well.

Such is the case with our work on Galileo this term, which connects really closely with some of the things to learn about forces.

It’s even better if there are actual story-book stories to read. Illustrated ones even. And there are. Three that I found and read with the class, each of them a gem.

Peter Sis’s Starry Messenger is a song of praise to Galileo. It has a surreal feel and the pictures are loaded with metaphor.

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Galileo’s Journal written by Jeanne Pettenati and illustrated by Paolo Rui, tells the story of Galileo’s discovery of the moons of Jupiter in 1609 – 1610.

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And Galileo’s Leaning Tower Experiment, written by Wendy Macdonald and again illustrated by Paolo Rui, tells the story of a little boy from Pisa called Massimo who meets Professor Galileo on the bridge while dropping bread and cheese to his uncle.

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So great to find these books that, in different ways, bring the story of Galileo, and his science, to life!

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Carnaby Street’s Great Uninivted

Safia Shah and Mark Reeve’s Carnaby Street is a rumbustuous maelstrom of a book, a book of unexpectedly-arriving eccentric relatives, knit-offs (maths-and-sun-loving mum wins) and unlikely cuisine.

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With its dizzying cast of characters, both animal and human, and its love of almost-lost locutions, it’s a book where it’s a delight to get lost in the details, which Mark Reeve brings to life brilliantly.

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And, it’s accessorized! There’s a credit-card sized magnifying glass, for looking at the really small details, and a ribboned bookmark for… well for bookmarking (without the possibility of losing the bookmark). You might want to bookmark this page for instance:

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It depicts a knitted picnic. Unlikely you’d think, but then the book has led to a knitted garb for a London cab.

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Here’s Safia Shah talking about the book:

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