Did anyone see that episode of The Apprentice (UK 2015) during which the candidates were tasked with creating children’s picture books (in a day) and then flogging off as many as possible? It was interesting to see what they came up with. There was one candidate – Sam – who hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that the best picture books convey a message.
Julia Donaldson is one particular children’s author who does this exceptionally well, and as her fame and sales prove people love a message. We are well versed in The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom but recently my sister (who is a teaching assistant) gave us a pile of her books which I was not so familiar with.
EJ absolutely loves The Smartest Giant in Town (a tale about kindness, selflessness and the fact that it’s not how you look on the outside that matters but what’s going on the inside) and I’ve been trying to get him into A Squish and a Squeeze too (this is cognitive behavioral therapy in action – retrain your brain and manage your problems by changing the way you think). Whilst this one is based on traditional tales and possibly an Aesops Fable (nothing new under the sun and all that) nevertheless it proves that wise words spoken in creative ways never get old.
Meanwhile I’ve been kind of blown away by two of the others: The Snail and the Whale and The Paper Dolls. The former tells the tale of a sea snail who lives on a rock near a seaport and longs to see the world. A humpback whale then comes along and offers to take him on the journey of a lifetime. Not only are the words really lyrical and the pictures vivid but there is a point where the snail has a moment of such existential angst that I feel a pang of recognition every time I read the words “I feel so small“.
I love the fact that what the book tells us is that it doesn’t matter how small and insignificant you feel in this great big world, you can still make a difference.
The latter, The Paper Dolls, actually makes me cry every time I read it now. As a recently self confirmed Humanist I have kind of internally re-affirmed what I actually believe about all those things that can be classed as supernatural – bizarre coincidences, near-death light-at-the-end-the-tunnel experiences, phenomena which have historically been categorised as ‘miracles’ etc. The biggest of them all – what happens after death – is covered here (at least that is how I believe it is meant to be read).
A toy made of paper is always going to be short lived but when the dolls are inevitably destroyed we learn that it is not the end of their existence after all – they re-form and live on in the little girl’s memory, along with all the other people and things which she has known and loved (including her granny). Then she grows up and has a daughter of her own who she one day helps to make her own paper dolls – similar but different to the ones that came before.
I think it’s an absolutely beautiful depiction of what life after death really means (to me). Patterns in nature, human connections, genetics, family and the power of memory and love. I believe that is just as comforting as any idea of the conscious soul living on outside of the material flesh and bone.
So there you go, even if you don’t have time to take on Plato, Descartes or Nietzsche (and frankly I never did make it to the end of Sophie’s World) you can probably pick up everything you need to know about life and the human psyche through Julia Donaldson’s back catalogue.