Archive for Tales

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf



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:


wolf 2

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.


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 – 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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The New Policeman

dowds number nine

Kate Thompson‘s The New Policeman is adorned not with pictures but with music.

Music runs through the tale, and you can hear some of the jigs and reels on Kate Thompson’s website.

The story, though written with an eye and ear for the detail of life in Kinvara, is a fantasy. Fifteen year-old JJ has to go a lot further from, and a lot closer to, home than he expects to find the time that everyone is so short of.


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Varjak Paw

“There are Seven Skills in the Way of Jalal,” whispered the Elder Paw.  “We know only three of them. Their names are these.  Slow-Time.  Moving Circles.  Shadow-Walking.”

SF Said‘s Varjak Paw is a tale of a pet cat who must grow up, learn to survive Outside, and learn the Seven Skills of his ancestor Jalal. He uses the skills, which he learns from Jalal in his dreams, to help his new street cat friends, Holly and Tam.

As usual David McKean’s illustrations are amazing, and complement the text brilliantly.

Varjak Paw 1

Varjak Paw 2

Varjak Paw 3

Varjak Paw 4

Varjak Paw 5




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Of a Fyssh callyd a Carpe, and a Fissh called Tymallus

It happyd in a greate solempne feste, Fisshes of the floode walkyd togidre after Dynar in great tranquillyte and peace for to take ther recreacyon and solace; but the Carpe began to trowble the feste, erectynge hym self by pryde & saynge, I am worthy to be lawdyd aboue all othir, for my flesshe is delicate and swete more than it can be tolde of. I haue not be nourished nothir in dychesse, nor stondyngh watyrs, nor pondes; but I haue be brought vppe in the floode of the greate garde. Wherfore I owe to be Prynce and Regent amonge all yowe.

Ther is a Fissh callyd Tymal’ lus, hauinge his name a Flowre, for Tinius is callyd a Flowre; and this Tymallus is a Fissh of the See, as saithIsidore, Ethimologiarum, xii. and allthoughe that he be fauoureable in sight and delectable in taste, yet moreouir the Fyssh of hym smellyth swete lyke a flowre and geuith a pleasaunte odour. And so this Fyssh Tymallus, hering this saynge of the Carpe, had greate scorne of him and sterte forth & sayde: It is not as thou sayste, for I shine more bright than thowe, and excede the in odowre and relece. Who may be comparyd rnto me, for he that fyndith me hath a great Tresowre. If thow haue thy dwellynge oonly in the watir of garde, I haue myn abydynge in many large floodes.

And so emong them were great stryuis and contencyons. Wherfore the feste was tournyd in to great trowble, for some fauowryd the parte of the one and some of the othir, so that be lyklyhode there shukl haue growen greate myschefe emonge them: for eueiy of them began to snak at othir, & wulde haue torne eche other on smale pecys.

Ther was monge all othir a Fissh callyd Truta euyr mouyd to breke stryfe;and soo thys Trowte for asmoche as she was agjd, and wele lernyd, she spake and sayde: Brediyn, it is not good to stryue & fight for vayne lawdatowris and praysers; for I prayse not my self though some personis thinke me worthy to be commendid; for it is wryttyn, the Mowth of an othir Man mote commende the and not thyn owne, for all commendacyon and lawde of hym self is fowle in y*. mouth of the Spekar. Therefore bettyr hit is that those that prayse them self goo togider to the see luge, that is, the Dolphyn, which is a iust luge and a rightfull and dredinge God, for he shall rightfully determyn this mater.

This Counsell plesyd them well, and forth went these twayn togider vnto the Dolphyn. and shewyd to him all ther myndes, and to ther power comendid the self. To whom the Dolphyn sayde: Children, I neuyr sawe yowe tell this tyme, for ye be alwaye hydde in the floodes, and 1 am steringe iu the great Wawys of the See; wherfore I cannot gyue ryghtfull Sentence betwene yowe, but yf I first assaye and make a Taste of yowe. And thus saynge, he gaue a sprynge and swalowyd them in both two, and sayde,

Noman owith hym self to commende,
Aboue all other, laste he offende.


This fable of the Dolphin and the Fish is from a medieval collection called the Creature Conversations, or in Latin Dialogus Creaturarum. It’s very like the story told here before of the Two Otters and Jackal. Even though it makes hard reading – can you read it? – I’ve left the English as it was five hundred years ago.

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