Archive for Tales

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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The Daydreamer

the daydreamerI’m teaching  Year 4 next year (8 and 9 year olds).  So I’ve started to read books that they might like.

I like Ian McEwan’s The Daydreamer a lot, though maybe it’s a bit too old for most Y4 children. Why too old? Perhaps the element of threat. But then again, maybe it’s OK…

It’s a book about a young boy who’s a daydreamer, dreaming about transformations.

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind.

Ovid, Metamorphoses

So, in the wonderful chapter called The Cat, Peter discovers something unexpected about his cat:

Looking down through the fur, and parting it with the tips of his fingers ,he saw that he had opened up a small slit in the cat’s skin. It was as if he were holding the handle of a zip. Again he pulled, and now there was a dark opening two inches long. William Cat’s purr was coming from in there.

The choice of Anthony Browne as illustrator is perfect. His detailed realistic images always have an element of the surreal in them, and McEwan’s writing embeds the mysterious in the quotidian detail of family life:

In the big untidy kitchen there was a drawer. Of course, there were many drawers, but when someone said, ‘The string is in the kitchen drawer,’ everyone understood. The chances were the string would not be in the drawer. It was meant to be, along with a dozen other useful things that were never there: screwdrivers, scissors, sticky tape, drawing pins, pencils. If you wanted one of these, you looked in the drawer first, then you looked everywhere else. What was in the drawer was hard to define: things that had no natural place, things that had no use but did not deserve to be thrown away, things that might be mended one day. So—batteries that still had a little life, nuts without their bolts, the handle of a precious teapot, a padlock without a key or a combination lock whose secret number was a secret to everyone, the dullest kind of marbles, foreign coins, a torch without a bulb, a single glove from a pair lovingly knitted by Granny before she died, a hot water bottle stopper, a cracked fossil. By some magic reversal, everything spectacularly useless filed the drawer intended for practical tools. What could you do with a single piece of jigsaw? But, on the other hand, did you dare throw it away?

I think maybe this would be a good read-aloud book, to make the trickier ideas more accessible, and to be together for the weirder parts. The language is, as you’d expect, just right, good to hear.

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childish comparisons

mworry3It was thought-provoking when last week my excellent colleague Russel Tarr was accused by Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove of “infantilising” 14-year old students by asking them once they had finished studying the Weimar Republic, to re-present what they had learnt to younger 10-year old students in the form of their own Mr Men book.

Russel answered the criticism very sufficiently on his popular history site activehistory.co.uk – but I’ve been thinking about one aspect of the business in particular: how and why we use fables.

Russel mentioned Orwell’s Animal Farm, but fables have a long history of being told to portray political events, though that’s may not be their only, or even main, purpose. The Kalilah and Dimnah fables of Persia for instance were in the frame story told by the sage Bidpai to a tyrant as a form of “mirror for princes”, a way to show things as they really were.

The oldest fable in the Bible is a political one, the fable of the Trees and the Brambles, given to discourage the people of Israel from adopting kingship:

Trees_and_brambleOne day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’ But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and humans are honored, to hold sway over the trees?’ Next, the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come and be our king.’ But the fig tree replied, ‘Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come and be our king.’ But the vine answered, ‘Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and humans, to hold sway over the trees?’ Finally all the trees said to the thorn bush, ‘Come and be our king.’ The thorn bush said to the trees, `If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thorn bush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’

A similar Aesop’s fables is said to have been delivered by Aesop to the Athenians for a political purpose too, the Frogs who Desired a King:

The Frogs, grieved at having no established Ruler, sent ambassadors to Jupiter entreating for a King. Perceiving their simplicity, he cast down a huge log into the lake. The Frogs were terrified at the splash occasioned by its fall and hid themselves in the depths of the pool. But as soon as they realized that the huge log was motionless, they swam again to the top of the water, dismissed their fears, climbed up, and began squatting on it in contempt.

Wm_de_Morgan_storkAfter some time they began to think themselves ill-treated in the appointment of so inert a Ruler, and sent a second deputation to Jupiter to pray that he would set over them another sovereign. He then gave them an Eel to govern them. When the Frogs discovered his easy good nature, they sent yet a third time to Jupiter to beg him to choose for them still another King. Jupiter, displeased with all their complaints, sent a Heron, who preyed upon the Frogs day by day till there were none left to croak upon the lake.

So, why construct a fable? Why not just recount the situation literally, as it “actually is”?

I’m not sure what the whole answer is, but part of it is the power of storytelling to magnetise listeners. Another part is that you can put the actual historical people aside for one moment, with all the positive and negative associations and responses you have to them, while you look at the basic structure of events. And a third thing is that the act of making or recognising the metaphor allows you to see the whole thing newly, freshly and memorably.

Whether the characters in the metaphor are bushes, or frogs or characters from a children’s story is not important – it’s that their relationships and actions to each other hold up a mirror to human affairs. To object that a signifier is a children’s book character is to mistake the container and the content. It would be like objecting to Newton’s f=ma because it uses mere letters of the alphabet to represent physical forces. It’s the truth of the metaphor that’s important.

mr impossibleNow all three reasons for using fables seem to me to be excellent reasons for getting children to use a metaphor of some kind from time to time to deepen and share their understanding of events.

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