John Newman chooses ten of the best books for encouraging children to think for themselves, and to initiate philosophical discussion.
Over ten years ago I was invited by Lisa Naylor to share and sell books to individuals undertaking P4C (Philosophy for Children) training at Gallion’s Primary School in the London Borough of Newham.
This involves my bringing a display of books and undertaking a ten minute lunchtime presentation of new and established titles to course providers and recipients of the training. Attendees usually include teaching staff from early years, primary and secondary settings who want to incorporate P4C into their school curriculum.
The focus of the training is to promote dialogue between children using a stimulus to inspire creative and imaginative thinking. Picture books are an ideal resource for this; sometimes the whole book might be used, but in many instances a double page spread might stand alone as a method of enquiry.
Here are ten books which have become core texts in my ever-growing and changing book displays.
What Are You Playing At? Marie-Sabine Roger and Anne Sol, Alana Books in conjunction with Amnesty International, 978-1-9078-2502-6, £12.99 hbk
I love the way this book cleverly challenges the reader to think about a range of gender stereotypes involving a number of day-to-day activities and linking them to the roles adults take on in our society. The book is split into two sections – ‘Boys Don’t’ and ‘Girls Don’t’ – and then presents an image to acknowledge and challenge the statement. This encourages the reader to think about the image presented and what it tells us about everyday assumptions around gender and gender roles.
How to Live Forever Colin Thompson, Red Fox, 978-0-0994-6181-4, £7.99 pbk
The idea of a library which comes to life and contains whole worlds within the pages of every book ever written is beautifully imagined on the page in both the words and illustrations. A boy named Peter sets out to find the missing library card which will enable him to access the secrets of immortality. On doing so he finally meets and has a dialogue with the Ancient Child, the only person to have read the book, who informs him that ‘to live forever is not to live at all’ and invites him to make a profound choice.
I Have the Right to Be a Child Alain Serres, illus. Aurelia Fronty, translated by Sarah Ardizzone, Phoenix Yard Books, 978-1-9079-1211-5, £7.99 pbk
Utilising the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child this is an ideal resource for both informing and challenging children to think about ‘rights’ in terms of what they mean in principle and practice. It also encourages them to consider what rights mean for both themselves and children in other parts of this turbulent and ever changing world. Using simple and accessible language and bold, colourful double page spreads, it provides a stimulus for discussing notions of identity, safety and difference, drawing upon everyday expectations and hopes.
Ask Me Antje Damm, Frances Lincoln, 978-1-8478-0125-8, £9.99 pbk
This book is a real gift to anyone engaging with children. The idea is simple but effective: collect a range of mainly open-ended questions – such as ‘What can you do better than your mum and dad?’ – and match them to an image. Children can reflect, and share their thoughts and feelings in relation to different experiences all of which contribute to their emerging sense of self. I have never tired of introducing this book to people.
Mayfly Day Jeanne Willis, illus Tony Ross, Andersen Press, 978-1-8427-0606-0, £5.99 pbk
The subject of death is one that adults often struggle with when communicating with children, whether it is the loss of a pet or a person. This book introduces the notion that everything dies and that even a short life can be full of meaning and purpose. In an almost perfect marriage of words and pictures, it shows how the Mayfly spends her life and the contribution she makes to all other life in the process; it manages to provide a sense of both consolation and celebration.
The Tunnel Anthony Browne, Walker Books, 978-1-4063-1329-1, £6.99 pbk
Browne presents a relationship between a brother and a sister and highlights the differences which separate them. On a day when they have to spend time together the brother defies his sister to follow him into a mysterious tunnel. In order to do so she must overcome her fears, and becomes his saviour and protector. Many questions and themes arise from this deceptively simple story and surreal artwork, most notably, why did she follow him in and how does she overcome her fears in order to do so?
The Red Tree Shaun Tan, Lothian, 978-0-7344-1137-2, £9.99
It was difficult to choose just one of Tan’s work as it all lends itself well to critical thinking and philosophical enquiry. Here, Tan focuses on a number of internal questions we ask ourselves throughout life, about the trials and tribulations of our human existence. He then creates some amazing and challenging images to illustrate the feelings they can generate, before creating a final image which suggests a means of coping with all that life throws at us and finding ways of sustaining ourselves.
Angus Rides the Goods Train Alan Durant, illus Chris Riddell, Picture Corgi, 978-0-5525-6919-4, £6.99 pbk
This is a wonderfully thought-provoking work, which remains topical and relevant in terms of children’s direct and indirect experience of social inequality both here and around the world. Angus’s dream of riding on the goods train and sharing its contents with those in most need rather than those who have more than enough is juxtaposed with the reality he sees on his television screen when he wakes. This in turn shapes and reinforces his commitment to bring about social justice and positive change.
Wild Emily Hughes, Flying Eye Books, 978-1-9092-6362-8, £6.99 pbk
An unnamed girl is raised by animals in the woods and taught how to survive and thrive until she is discovered by ‘other animals’, otherwise known as adults. Emily Hughes then joyfully and anarchically depicts the various failed attempts to civilise the girl before she escapes back to an accommodating natural and untamed environment. The concluding ‘because you cannot tame something so happily wild’ is a wonderful declaration in celebration of not just what constitutes childhood, but how one finds one’s ‘inner child’ and the freedom to be oneself.
The Day No One Was Angry Toon Tellegen, illus Marc Boutavant, Gecko Press, 978-1-9272-7157-5, £12.99 hbk
Twelve simple but highly philosophical and beautifully illustrated short tales humorously observe the existence and purpose of anger. The causes are gently explored in scenarios involving various animals either being thwarted, as with the Elephant who despite his better judgement wants to climb trees, or in disputes with one another, as with the Hippopotamus and the Rhinoceros who refuse each other safe passage. The notion that anger itself is an inevitable and necessary part of the human condition but needs to be properly managed is gently brought home.
John Newman is children’s book buyer at the Newham Bookshop.