Picture Book Philosophy 101

Snail and the Whale snail

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 paper dolls

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.


And then the fun began...

16 thoughts on “Picture Book Philosophy 101

  1. I have read some kids books with awful messages. One where the parent spends the whole story trying to get the kid to eat peas. In the end she doesn’t eat her peas but gets ice cream!!! Or another where there is a bully and everyone else gangs up on the bully and beats him up???? Give me Julia Donaldson anyday 🙂 #thetruthabout
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  2. The Paper Dolls story sounds lovely! The bane of my life at the moment is the sloooow snail, who just slowly slimes all over everything and you follow his route with your finger. I mean, I see the benefits and that, but slow snail is slowly making me lose the will to live every time my daughter hands it to me… 🙂 #thetruthabout
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  3. I adore Julia Donaldson, she’s one of my favourite children’s authors. I’ve been trying to write a children’s book for yonks but I got stuck on the ending and haven’t touched it for 2 years. I’ve no idea if it’s any good or not but mine has a message too. I keep meaning to pick it up again. I’ll have to check out the Paper Dolls. xx

  4. Sometimes a good picture book can be way more profound than taking a college psych class! I’ve always liked The Red Thread – it is a story about adoption, and even though I’m not adopted or even know anyone closely who’s been adopted, it makes me tear up every time.

  5. I love the sound of The Paper Dolls. Such a lovely idea that they live on in the girl’s memory. I hadn’t heard of that book before. We just got The Snail and the Whale the other day but haven’t read it yet. Thanks for sharing this!
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  6. Interesting, as I have a degree in Philosophy, and am a Philosophy teacher, and I love Julia Donaldson’s books, but I never thought about them being philosophical before! This will definitely change the way I think about children’s books in the future. #TheTruthAbout

  7. We loved the smartest giant in town, and I’m definitely going to look for the paper dolls one too. It’s funny isn’t it how any good allegory can be read simply as a pleasant children’s book, or for those of us who like to look for the deeper meaning in things, we see what is trying to be said. Animal Farm was a favourite of mine as a child and my love for them has carried on into adulthood. I’m called ridiculous when I choke up at Wreck it Ralph, The Book of Life, and other such phenomenal animated movies that can either be enjoyed as a cartoon, or appreciated for the message they are trying to deliver. #thetruthabout

  8. Watch that episode? I reviewed it! Oh, the pain …

    John’s right, there is some real rubbish out there but when you find a good children’s book I love the depth and the layers you get in it and the way the author will get a message across without repeatedly bashing you over the head with it. With our kids, I’ve found that they pick up more of the subtext than we (and indeed many authors) give them credit for.

    I remember reading a book to Isaac called Always and Forever after my wife’s stepdad died. It handled the topic of death in a sensitive way without being patronising, and although he wasn’t quite four at the time, the message was strong enough that it prompted a genuine, in-depth discussion about what death meant and how it made him feel.
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