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I have my first contender for the very best picture book I’ll read all 2015.
The Duck and the Darklings written by Glenda Millard, and illustrated by Stephen Michael King is a gentle and powerful heart salve. It is a tiny yet quenching oasis of love and hope. It is funny and quirky and lyrical and poignant and lovely in that way that makes your lips feel a little like singing when you read its words.
Grandpa and Peterboy live underground because the earth above has fallen into ruin. A quiet air of melancholy pervades their home whilst they remember happier, healthier and brighter times past. One day Peterboy finds a wounded duck which he brings home, even though they have little food to share. Compassion, thoughtfulness and generosity heal the duck, but once she is well enough she is drawn by instinct to leave and fly across the skies. The thought of losing his new friend makes Peterboy sad. Can he let that which he loves go?
Millard has written an exquisite story about hope and friendship. Rarely will you come across a picture book full with such glorious verbal imagery, where in almost every line words and sentences feel like they have been recast, hewn afresh from the language we use everyday. Melodic and evocative, I can’t remember the last time I read aloud a picture book and so enjoyed simply feeling and hearing the sentences blossom into the air as I shared the story.
With echoes of Leonni’s Frederick, The Duck and the Darklings explores the power of stories, real, remembered and imagined, to sustain us. For me it was also a metaphor for mourning and a way through, back to finding a sense of hope after experiencing depression, and how building relationships, even if they ultimately change and move on, is a that which brings us life.
M and J probably didn’t react the same way, I shall freely admit! As child readers of this book they adored its unconventionality, its playfulness, its whimsy. Grandpa in the book is highly inventive (there are many illustrations of his contraptions), Peterboy is brave, inquisitive and kind. He has freedom to roam and a valued role in the family and both these aspects also hugely appealed to my kids.
King’s illustrations are a perfect match for this very special story. With lots of black, dark blues and purples, mixing seemingly chaotic splashes and brushes with fine detail, humour and increasing use of colour as hope gradually fills the world between the book’s pages, King has created a beguiling landscape.
To paraphrase a line from The Duck and the Darklings, when I’m searching for books to share with my family and with you here on the blog, I wish “for more than crumbs and crusts”; I wish for “scrap[s] of wonderfulness.” And a piece of wonderfulness is truly what this book is.
A detail from the backcover of The Duck and the Darklings. This was the image which especially inspired our “playing by the book”.
Inspired by the darkness and the forest and flowers which grow as the earth heals, thanks to the blooming of hope and friendship between Peterboy, Idaduck and Grandpa, we created our own sculpture taking King’s illustrations as are starting point. To create the sculpture we used a large cardboard box, a piece of polystyrene (packaging from another box), jam jar and bottle lids, twigs, acrylic paint and tape.
First J painted the inside of the cardboard box and the twigs black, matching the black stemmed plants in King’s illustrations. She also painted the back of the lids black (where they weren’t already black), and the insides of the lids bright colours. For all of this it was important to use acrylic paint (rather than poster paint) as it adheres to almost any surface, including wood, metal and plastic.
Once the paint was dry we used the tape to stick the lids on the ends of the twigs to create “flowers”, which we embellished with paper leaves.
Then to bring light into our sculpture we used small batteries and LEDs to create pinpricks of magic.
I think you can just about see in the photo series below how J loved the “magic” of being able to turn the LED on by positioning it carefully on the battery. A simple but exciting introduction to electricity and circuits! We used small CR2032 3V lithium batteries and 5mm LEDs, and what J had to investigate is what difference it made as to which side of the battery the long leg of the LED (LEDs have one long leg, and one short) needed to be on, in order for the LED to light up. Once she’d cracked the magic-making we used electrical tape to fix the LEDs in position, taping around both legs of the LED and the battery to prevent any movement.
J stuck her LED lights through holes in the boxes once we’d assembled all our flowers inside the large cardboard box she’d painting black. To help the flowers stand upright, I “hid” a piece of polystyrene packaging under the base of the box. Thus, when J made a hole for her flower to stand in, the flower’s stem also went into the thick polystyrene base, helping it to stay vertical. You can just see the polystyrene in the picture – under the flap at the bottom of the box.
Finally we turned off all the lights in our room and entered into our own Darkness, gradually filling with light and hope and renewal.
Whilst making our garden in the darkness we listened to music I think could light up any darkness:
As steals the Morn by Handel, sung here by Mark Padmore and played by the English Consort. Exquisite, soothing, restorative.
Bless the glad earth also by Handel, the last piece in Act 2 of his opera Semele. You can see the production which moved me to tears the first time I saw it here, with ‘Bless the glad earth’ starting around the 45 minute mark. Yeah, I know it’s opera, but don’t think the kids won’t enjoy it; in my experience the “dressing up”, the theatricality, and the whole pomp of it can appeal to kids quite a lot! Just like many kids can fall in love with going to see a ballet, I’m convinced just as many could enjoy opera if given half a chance.
Reading the Kingdom of Silk series by the same author and illustrator pair. It’s actually thanks to this series of short novels for young children that I discovered The Duck and the Darklings. The series is remarkable and I will be reviewing this hopefully next month on the blog, but I can’t resist an extra opportunity to bring it to your attention as it is something rare and incredible.
Have you read anything yet this year which has simply taken your breath away?
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Duck and the Darklings from the UK distributors, Murdoch Books (YES! This Australian book is easily available here in the UK, your local bookshop should be able to order it without you having to resort to Amazon).
In central Africa, the World Food Program is shifting from aid in kind to cash and vouchers in the refugee camps that it runs. The hope is to create benefits for the surrounding host-country economies as well as for the refugees, themselves.
In West Gonja, Ghana, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization is investing in cassava processing and marketing, in the hope of stimulating incomes, employment, and welfare in one of the country’s poorest regions.
In a small-scale fishery in the Philippines, the government hopes to introduce new regulations to ensure the fishery’s long-term sustainability. The long-term gains are clear, but in the short run, nobody knows what limiting access will mean for an economy in which most fisher households are poor, and income from fishing is vital to these as well as other poor households with whom they interact.
These are classic situations in which local economy-wide impact evaluation (LEWIE) methods can be incredibly useful. These methods model the way local economies function, and can be used to simulate how these economies might behave under shifting conditions. In cases such as those mentioned above, impacts depend critically on how local economies adjust. For example, if local supply responses around refugee camps or in the cassava-producing communities of West Gonja are low, policies that simulate demand could raise prices and harm people they intend to benefit, with collateral damage on other linked sectors and household groups.
For those designing or evaluating a policy or program, LEWIE methods can highlight impacts not only on those directly affected by the intervention, but also the spillover impacts around them. Policy makers and donors want to know what sorts of complementary interventions might be needed in order to make sure that their programs are successful. Often, answers are needed before programs and policies are put into place. LEWIE methods were designed to provide such answers. The stakes are high, and as always, time and resources are limited.
We find that LEWIE often has impacts far beyond what we anticipate when we begin an evaluation. Often, it reveals benefits missed by other approaches. Documenting likely impacts beyond those affected directly by an intervention ex-ante can tip the cost-benefit scale in favor of funding the intervention. More and more, governments and donors want to know that a development project not only benefits targeted households and sectors but also creates positive economic spillovers—and they want to know what can be done to enhance those spillovers. Documenting impacts beyond the treated can be critical in order to garner political and institutional support for projects and policies.
Here’s a recent example: Our LEWIE of LEAP, Ghana’s flagship social cash-transfer program, found that each cedi transferred to a poor household increases local income by as many as 2.5 cedi. (A summary of this evaluation can be found at the UN-FAO’s From Protection to Production website.
Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama, opening the Pan-African Conference on Inequalities last April, stated: “LEAP has had a positive impact on local economic growth. Beneficiaries spend about 80 percent of their income on the local economy. Every GH1 transferred to a beneficiary has the potential of increasing the local economy by GH2.50.” His goal was clear: to demonstrate that social protection and economic growth can be complements. It appears that LEAP accomplishes both. Read the President’s speech.
Understanding LEWIE is basic to designing rigorous and innovative RCTs. Development projects are likely to create spillovers within treated localities as well as with neighboring ones. LEWIE gives us a way of thinking about these spillovers so that RCTs capture them and avoid control-group contamination and other problems that often raise questions about the validity of experimental results.
Most practitioners and policy makers do not construct LEWIE models or carry out RCTs, but they often find themselves involved in designing interventions and coming up with strategies to evaluate their impacts. Insights from LEWIE studies, which have been carried out for a wide variety of interventions in diverse contexts, can inform their work, at a time when more and more donors include “local economy impacts” in their list of evaluation criteria. LEWIE changes the way we think about impacts, direct or indirect, on people who are so vulnerable that we cannot risk being wrong.
Headline image credit: Highway Fruit Stall, by flöschen. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr
At a publisher’s event where I was meant to be being terribly professional, she handed me her new picture book, The Promise, illustrated by Laura Carlin, and I was floored.
Well, wouldn’t you be with a picture book which opens with a mugging?
I won’t say more about The Promise, other than that the tears were profoundly good tears, and if I had to sum it up, I’d describe the book as one part Melvin Burgess, one part Rachel Carson. Now that’s quite something for a picture book, don’t you think?
I recently asked Nicola about her new book, and – more broadly – about the issues that drive her to write, and here’s how our conversation flowed:
Nicola Davies: It’s a bit of a saga… My wonderful and best beloved editor at Walker, Caroline Royds (who is responsible for more wonderful books than any other editor of her generation) asked me if I’d be interested in writing a picture book version of The Man Who Planted Trees [by Jean Giono/PBTB]. I knew the book very well but hadn’t read it for years.
I re-read it and loved it all over again but knew that a) I didn’t want to retell someone else’s story, as it felt like a species of theft, and also I’m an author – so I have a fairly substantial ego – and I wanted something that was mine and b) I felt I wanted to write something for a modern world where most people live in urban or semi-urban situations.
For my research on Gaia Warriors [a book Nicola has written about climate change, with an afterword by James Lovelock/PBTB] I’d read about and talked to a lot of people involved in planting and preserving forest around the world so I knew I lot about the role of trees in regulating our atmosphere and also about the amazing transformation that they can bring about in local climate in urban and desert situations, bringing down temperatures and creating rainfall. So all of that was in my mind like soup.
But at the time I was also not well; I had a big and very horrible shoulder injury, and was up to my frontal lobes in hideous painkillers, so I went for a week’s holiday (something I don’t really do much) and just lay in the sun for a week. I wasn’t even consciously thinking of the book I would write. However, I got back, sat at my desk and knew this was The Day.
I didn’t make notes. I didn’t think. I just wrote and in about three hours I had The Promise. I rang Cas, read it to her and I realised the silence on the other end of the phone was her crying. Since then I think we’ve dropped one line, but everything else has remained unchanged.
One of the reasons I feel so unrestrained about singing the praises of my own book this time, is that it feels like it almost came from somewhere else and down my arm. I know in my SOUL that it has a really important and powerful message that can work across all age groups. When A First Book of Nature was published, I said in my speech at the launch that it had important work to do in the world, helping parents and children to reconnect with the simple profound joys of nature.
But I think The Promise has an even wider message, not just about our relationship with the environment but our relationship with ourselves, and that we can change; that a bad beginning doesn’t have to dictate a bad end. Something that I’ve seen the best teachers in the most deprived areas trying to convey to their pupils and a message that comes up again and again in my fiction.
Playing by the book: Yes, I couldn’t agree more.
Listening to your passion, would it be fair to describe you as a campaigner as well as an author?
Nicola Davies: I wouldn’t describe myself as a campaigner. I’m too much on the sidelines. I have been more involved politically and environmentally in the past. But I just get too upset and too angry and then I don’t help.
So telling stories that speak to ‘one heart at a time’ is the best way I can use what I am and what I can do with my life. I wish I’d seen that 20 years ago!
I hope The Promise is going to be the first of a line of picture books with big messages that work across ages. I’ve always said I would rather write one picture book that speaks to a generation than win the Booker, and that’s absolutely true; the problem with picture books is getting them out there, getting people to know about them.
So little children’s writing gets a serious review in the UK press. When the children’s entries for the Costa were reviewed on Radio 4 the presenters thought it was acceptable to say they hadn’t bothered to read them!
If we are supposed to value children and want them to read, then surely the most important writing is for children, and that writing should be valued?
Playing by the book: I couldn’t agree more with you Nicola! Perhaps we should campaign on this together?!
But actually, when I mentioned being a campaigner, I was thinking of your work for the World Land Trust. Can you tell us a little about your role as a World Land Trust Ambassador – what the charity does, and why you want to be involved with them.
Children getting ready to plant trees in the Garo Hills where Nicola Davies visited a WLT project, for ‘Elephant Road’.
Nicola Davies: I’ve been giving the WLT [World Land Trust] the lion’s share of my PLR [Public Lending Right - a fee which goes to authors, generated by their books being borrowed in UK/Eire public libraries/PBTB] for years. But I was incredibly flattered when they asked me to be an ambassador. This simply involves telling people about what they do. I wish I was truly famous then I could tell more people but I do what I can.
They’re such a simply ‘does what it says on the tin’ organisation. They work with the people who live with forests and wildlife to protect both. Sometimes that means buying the land, sometimes it means working carefully within existing and quite legally and culturally complex systems of indigenous land ownership, but it’s never top-down conservation, never the westerner telling the ‘natives’ what to do. And its incredibly successful. I think it’s very telling that WLT is the only conservation organisation that dear, lovely David Attenborough endorses.
I worked with WLT to research my book The Elephant Road, based very closely on their work in the Garo hills in NE India to safeguard elephant habitat and forest based livelihoods for local people.
Then I went to Borneo to see the amazing work WLT are doing with Borneo based organisation Hutan to make a continuous corridor of forest along the Kinabatangan river. It is really heartening to hear how committed the Bornean locals are to find ways to keep their forests, their wildlife and clean up their rivers. Of course the founders, Viv and John Burton, know all my old colleagues from the BBC Natural History Unit so it feels like going back to my roots sometimes too.
Wild Bornean Pygmy Elephant about to cross the Kinabatangan River. Photo: Nicola Davies
Nicola Davies: I think parents’ perception of danger is a big factor here. When I was a kid, I had scabs on my knees ALL the time. I was always bumping myself or cutting myself and nobody ever made a fuss. It was part of being a kid. I was allowed lots of unsupervised time, to just bum about in the garden or the fields and BE. Actually statistically not much has changed since the 60s; there is not a paedophile behind every bush and dealing with risk – for both adult and child – is an essential part of being human.
Richard Louv, an American author and campaigner (a real one), published a wonderful book called Last Child In the Woods all about the value of just BEING in wild or semi wild place, and what happens to kids who don’t get it. Its a must-read for anyone who cares about this stuff or who has children.
So my advice? Cut back on the activities and let a bit of your garden get messy and overgrown, so your kids can crawl about in the brambles and make a den out of a rusty old bit of tin roof – and just let them get on with it!
Playing by the book: Was there much time for books in your childhood or were you always outdoors?
Nicola on her first day at school
Nicola Davies: I was the youngest of 3 by a decade. My parents were old to have me and my mum was sick from the time I was 2. But we always had gardens – my dad and grandpa were great gardeners and countrymen so there were veg plots and flowers – and I was left to roam in them. I was also very bright and a bit weird, I suppose. I didn’t make friends easily (I still don’t) so I was very, very solitary (my mum made cakes and sandwiches for my 6th birthday party and nobody came…really NOBODY).
SO, when I learned to read I LIVED the books I read. And when I was outdoors I was trailing around talking to myself singing invented songs and making up some bonkers story. Really – perhaps it’s no wonder I didn’t have any friends!
As an adolescent (we’d moved to Suffolk by then) I got kind of obsessed with landscape, and I’d walk in the fields staring at the shape of them and how they fitted together. I wanted passionately to be able to paint landscapes. I remember reading The Lost Domain by Alain Fournier at 17 and wanting to paint that sense of mystery into the rolling West Suffolk hills around me.
My parents fostered my love of literature. They came from working class families in Wales where music and literature were very valued. My Dad taught me Keats poems, and whole sections of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, and my Mum bought me Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence’s animal poems. My Dad played the Dies Ire from Verde’s Requiem at ear-bleeding volume every Sunday morning, and Kathleen Ferrier singing Blow the Wind Southerly. My parents both died when I was in my mid 20s and never lived to see me become human; I was pretty vile until I hit 40. But all that I am now – my writing, my love of painting of landscape and of music – comes from them. I’m the same inside as when I was 8.
Playing by the book: What nature writers/artists for adults or for children do you turn to nowadays for a dose of delight, excitement or understanding?
Nicola Davies: I return time and again to J. A Baker’s The Peregrine. I don’t very often get to the end because the writing makes me stop and think and re-read. It’s one of the few things that make me want to write apart from poetry – Ted Hughes, Seamus Heany, Kathleen Jaimie, John Heath Stubbs, Vernon Scannel, Les Murray… Its a long list!
I read a lot of nonfiction. Richard Holmes is a god, and my old friend Richard Mabey always tells me something new. Simon Barnes‘ work is wonderful too – full of insight and warmth and humour. But it’s actually visual art I find most inspiring – I’m a frustrated painter inside really. Landscapes are still my great love. The little water colours of the Yorkshire landscape that David Hockney did when he first came back from LA were just ravishing, I was physically enraptured, blown away, knocked out by those.
And Peter Doing – his visionary tropical landscapes are astounding. I went to Australia when my kids were small and got exposed to aboriginal art, not just the Northern Territories figurative stuff but the Western Desert dreaming pictures, and they opened my eyes to all manner of things. My favourite artist there is Pansy Napangardi, making pictures of astounding beauty, scale and vision, with deep meaning, just sitting in the desert in a flowery frock. The day I sell film rights or win the lottery, that’s one of the first calls: to the gallery in Sydney that sells her work.
Playing by the book: It’s fascinating to hear how important art is to you, as I’m particularly interested in the role of illustration in your works – a role which is perhaps extra important given their message about the beauty of nature. Your books have been illustrated by a panoply of stellar artists – Marc Boutavant, Salvatore Rubbino, Mark Heard, Brita Granstrom, Neal Layton, Michael Foreman, and Laura Carlin to name but a few. How do you work with your illustrators? What sort of (if any) collaboration is there?
Nicola Davies: I don’t draw any more. I regret not keeping it as part of my life and getting better, but it’s kind of too late to start the process of improving now, I think. And I am now rubbish at it. But I do have a passion for images and when I finish a book I have a really strong sense of the emotional and intellectual job that I want the illustration to do.
Luckily Walker Books let me have a big say in who we use and even more luckily I’ve worked with some brilliant people. The amount of contact varies. Sometimes I never even see the illustrator, but sometimes we chat and meet. Indeed, increasingly it’s the latter. Most of the people you mentioned, especially Mark, Brita, Neal and also Emily Sutton, I worked with and met and talked to about our vision of the book. Salvatore took pictures of my old house by the river in Tiverton and made them the illustrations for Just Ducks!, so he made that book like an autobiography, which was so lovely.
But it would be wrong to say I have any influence on their work and I wouldn’t want to. Illustrators have to let the text speak to them and have their own relationship with it.
Working with Laura has been wonderful. We had very little contact while she was working on The Promise, but I saw her work in progress via the designer of the book, Liz Wood. I saw Laura’s journey, and that was a great privilege. I remember when we were deciding who should illustrate it, well, seeing Laura’s work, I knew at once she was the one
The way she defines space is extraordinary and The Promise is all about how the small scale influences the big, and Laura understands that totally. We spoke at the same conference in January this year and I have to say hearing her speak about her work was so inspiring. I always say great art, certainly the art I like, has to come from a real place, rooted in the identity, the experience, the LIFE – and Laura’s work is entirely consistent with her as a human being. She wears her wisdom and her insight so lightly and her work comes from a deep sense of personal truth and outward looking. We’ve started talking about a new book, which I’m desperate to write.
Playing by the book: That sounds incredibly exciting, Nicola – I can’t wait to hear more about this!
But returning to you as a writer – I think you’re an unusual author, comfortable across a variety of genres, from poetry, to fiction, to non-fiction. What role does narrative play for you in writing, especially in writing non-fiction and poetry? For you, what is narrative, and how is it different (and similar) in your non fiction as opposed to your fiction?
Nicola Davies: Narrative is EVERYTHING. I’m always saying this but it’s the psychological carrier bag that humans have used to pass around truths, from information on how to skin a rabbit to the deep currents in our nature.
I think there’s a perception of narrative as plot, as the stuff that happens, but it isn’t. Narrative is a shape, a structure. It might be made of character, it might be made of plot, it might be made of a single vision. But narrative creates an emotional link with the reader, a channel down which information – fictional or non fictional- can be communicated.
Wordsworth’s poem Upon Westminster Bridge is a narrative. Nothing happens, no characters beyond the voice of the narrator, but it has a shape, a beginning a middle and and end, so you remember it AND the information it contains.
I went to the Children’s Media Conference this year and heard every TV executive say the word “narrative”. I’m not sure some of them had the first idea what that was, but there was a realisation that you can have all the techno wizzery in the universe but if you haven’t got a narrative that engages your viewers’ EMOTIONS, its all a waste of time.
I get very fed up of people talking about interactive media – when books are THE MOST interactive of all: reading isn’t passive. I can’t believe books have been beaten onto the back foot when we have the best, most sustainable and most intrinsically interactive medium of all.
But to get back to what you actually asked…
Narrative is the key. It’s an information delivery system, and whether the information you deliver is five made-up murders and the chase for the killer, or the life of a polar bear, it’s the same. There just isn’t a hard line between fiction and nonfiction, and as soon as you start to draw it you’re in trouble. What’s important is knowing what’s real and what isn’t – the provenance of the information, if you like.
Only grown-ups get their Y-fronts in a tangle over this. Kids get it. For instance, in my blue whale book there’s an illustration of two kids standing on a whale’s flipper. In what world can that happen? Air?? Water??? Where? Kids get that it’s story space, and in story space, stuff that’s real and stuff that’s not is mixed up. But they also get that the stuff you tell them whilst in that story space is true.
I remember running a session at the Tate Modern once and looking at an abstract painting by Lee Krasner. A little girl said “This picture is about [not "of" you notice, but "ABOUT"] what it feels like to be a bird landing in a tree, going fast, the going slow, and landing.”
So a 9 year old was quite at home with the fact that a flat abstract canvas can tell you something about time, space, speed and emotion all at once.
Oh how I love working with children!
Playing by the book: And talking of working with children, I’ve read that you’ve even written opera libretti as part of school workshops. What role does music play in your life? Can you tell me anything about the whisperings I’ve heard about musical adaptations of some of your picture books?
Nicola Davies: Music is huge. I sing with a little band now called Pangolin, although I’ve never had the belief or patience to learn an instrument. This means oddly that I listen to rather less music these days, as I’m always listening to a song over and over to learn it. But music has always had a huge role in my life – as a comfort, as a mood altering drug. And singing most days is becoming more and more important. Songs are another wonderful and very portable form of narrative. I’d LOVE to be able to write songs.
My next picture book – the ‘King Of The Sky’, which Mark Heard will illustrate – has theatrical potential. When I read it at a conference, the very strong reaction to the story made me think, “Ooo. I’ve got something here.” So I sent it to Karine Polwart, a fabulous singer-songwriter, to ask if she’d like to collaborate, and SHE SAID “YES!” – I couldn’t believe it. So now we’re looking into theatrical help from a director friend of mine and the plan is to make it into a musical, but using mainly voice (which Karine is brilliant at) to create something that children will be able to perform and make their own.
Playing by the book: Oh, Nicola, that sounds amazing – definitely something I’d travel to see (Festivals: Are you listening?!).
Thank you so much Nicola for such a lovely conversation today. I’ve gone away with a long reading/viewing list, and I didn’t need the hankies I brought with me this time!
A week or so ago I rubbed shoulders with some of Kids’ Lit most illuminating talents at the Book Links’ QLD (The Centre for Children’s Literature) third Romancing the Stars event. The objective of these evenings is to meet and listen to as many authors and illustrators wax lyrical about their latest publication as possible in a frenzy of succinct deliveries and rotations – rather like speed dating, but with books and ultimately more satisfying.
Amongst them was, rising star, Andrew King. I first met Andrew and Engibear, both instantly likeable fellows, last year when Andrew and I were amongst the ‘daters’. I confess the first time I laid eyes on his non-typical picture book, I baulked at the complexity of its design and presentation. Perhaps it is the poor mathematician in me, but there seemed too many labels and numbers and graph grids! The detail overwhelmed me and the thought, ‘too much’ flickered through my mind like an wavering light bulb.
But Andrew’s compelling fervour for his work convinced me to look more closely. So I did, and fell in love with what I saw. Engibear’s Dream is neither too busy nor over-detailed, but rather a masterfully thought out and delivered tale of simplicity and perseverance. Engibear’s life is too full to pursue both his dreams and work. He needs help and being a clever engineer like his creator, sets out to design a Bearbot to help him achieve more. But grand schemes are rarely realised first time round. It takes Engibear several attempts to ‘get it right’ but he never gives up on himself or his Bearbot.
More than just a cute rhyming counting book about the rigours of planning and design, Engibear’s Dream covers the themes of sustainable living, finding balance in a world of progress and change and being innovative and tenacious in the face of failure. Mighty issues for small minds, but ones they will assimilate as they follow Engibear’s attempts to succeed, all superbly illustrated both schematically and in explosive colour, by qualified architect Benjamin Johnston.
I needed to find out more about the man behind the bear, behind the robot. So this week I have a bona fide, qualified engineer behind the draft table. Here’s what he had to say…
A 48 year old mixed bag: self, husband, dad, son, brother, relative, friend, engineer, co-worker, band member, aspiring author, committee member, community member, etc…
Fortunately, from my perspective, I have been very lucky and the mix has been good to me – I am trying to be good back.
Q Describe your 10 year old self. Did you have any concept then of what you wanted to do or be when you grew up? If so, what?
A 10 year old mixed bag – just a bit less in the mix – son, brother, relative, friend, school student, footballer, etc…
Fortunately (again) I had a very pleasant and carefree childhood. So carefree that I don’t think I had any real idea of what I wanted to do when I grew up. Interestingly though, I remember that a friend and I were writing and illustrating small books of jokes back in grade 6 and trying to sell them (for about 2 cents each). It has been more than 30 years since I last tried but I am now trying to write and sell books again.
Q Writing for children is not your first chosen occupation. Why take up the challenge now?
Kelly and I have been writing and drawing with our kids for years. We ended up developing characters like Engibear and the Bearbot and writing about their adventures in Munnagong. A few years ago my daughter, Marie-Louise, suggested that we should write a book.
Q Engibear’s Dream is your first picture book for children. What are you trying to impart with this book and why choose the picture book format?
The book started as a way of making engineering more accessible to young children. However, we wanted to make the book something more than an instruction manual. Therefore, we included a storyline (in this case a story about perseverance) and tried to include humour. We have also added numbers so that it can be used as a counting book.
To me drawing is a very powerful communication tool. The combination of words and pictures used in engineering drawings is a particularly useful way to communicate design ideas. The opportunity to include these types of diagrams and images of Engibear and the Bearbot meant that the book had to include pictures.
Q What sets Engibear’s Dream apart from other picture books currently on the shelves?
Engineering – in two ways.
Firstly, having a character that is an engineer, there are very few engineers in children’s literature. To me this is surprising as children seem to be very interested in the things that engineers do. Engibear provides a “friendly face” of engineering and therefore a way to introduce engineering to young children at the right level.
Secondly, including detailed engineering drawings. Ben Johnston is an architect who is used to working with engineers. Ben has created loveable characters and has also been able to contrast them with fantastically detailed design drawings of Munnagong, Engibear’s house and workshop, the Bearbot and its working parts. I think this combination of drawing styles allows children to enjoy the characters and the story and then also spend time thinking about how things work and making things (engineering).
Q How long from conception to publication did it take to realise Engibear’s Dream?
Building Bearbot was an early family story that is about 10 years old and was the basis for Engibear’s Dream. It sat in the cupboard for a long time. However, once we decided to write a book and chose this story it took about three years to get to publication.
Q It takes Engibear up to 10 types from prototype to final version before he engineers the perfect Bearbot. Does it take engineer Andrew the same number of attempts to design something new before getting it right?
If it is a book, yes – easily!
Depending on the complexity of the project I think engineering design can also take a lot of work. However, engineers have developed systems such as standards, computer modelling and design reviews to help make the design process robust.
Q Engibear’s dream is to have a life less strenuous with more time for enjoying the simple pleasures. What’s the one thing on your non-writing wish-list you’d like to tick off /achieve / produce?
I would like to read more fiction.
Q Do you have other writing dreams you’d like to fulfil?
I have a series of Engibear books planned. Munnagong is a busy place; there is a lot of engineering going on and a lot to write about.
Q Engibear is written in quatrain rhyming verse. As a first time author, did you find this difficult to pull off? Why did you choose to tell the story in this way?
We wrote the book in quatrain rhyming verse because this is how we made up verses when my children were younger – it just seemed to be a natural way to rhyme. However, while this worked for family stories, it was very difficult to do it properly. As an engineer I have some technical writing skills but I had to learn a lot about writing verse. Therefore, I did a course with Dr Virginia Lowe at Create a Kids Book and Virginia then mentored me.
Q You chose to publish your book via a partnership publishing company (Little Steps Publishing). Why? What other publication avenues did you explore if any?
I did contact some traditional publishers and received very polite rejections. I thought that rather than keep going down that route it would be better just to get on with it – self publishing seemed to be the answer.
Q What is on the design board for Andrew? What’s your next ‘writing’ project?
We have been making models of the characters in Engibear’s Dream and we have created a rsk based engineering game. I am also working on the next planned Engibear book “Engibear’s Bridge”. This book is about construction of an iconic “green bridge” near Munnagong State School which will be opened as part of the Munnagong Festival.
Brilliant Andrew! You know I can’t wait to meet your new characters and see their designs.
Like the most enthralling kids’ movies, Engibear’s story doesn’t just end with a ‘happily ever after’ moment. Keep page turning and be fascinated by full page project drawings of BBT-10, the Final Version, resplendent with some side-splitting specifications. My young miss could not go past the line drawn end pages detailing Munnagong, home of Engibear either. A fascinating read.
Designed for 3 – 8 year olds. Also riveting for boys, those with inquisitive minds, budding designers and anyone who likes to dream big.
“Once upon a time, Old MacDonald didn’t have a farm. He just had a yard—a yard he didn’t want to mow. But then, under the direction of the wise (and ecologically sensitive) Little Red Hen, Mac learns to look at the environment in a very different way, and whole new worlds start to bloom.”
“Old MacDonald had a house, E-I-E-I-O!”
Old MacDonald had a house with a big backyard he didn’t like to mow. In fact, he waited so long to mow it that Old MacDonald would sweat after just a short push of his power mower. There had to be a better way. So Old MacDonald got a goat. E-I-E-I-O! There were problems with the goat. MacDonald knew there had to be a better way, so he searched the Internet for help. He got that help from the Little Red Hen, the smartest hen in the world. But could she help Old MacDonald with his backyard lawn mowing aversion?
A fun story that will have kids and adults laughing from the beginning, E-I-E-I-O puts Old MacDonald in the middle of suburbia. He has a house with a large backyard and Old MacDonald doesn’t like to mow. He gets a goat but the goat eats the hedges, putting a window between MacDonald and his neighbor. But MacDonald’s real trouble—and fame—doesn’t begin until he hires the Little Red Hen. I love bringing in a character from another story. It adds more flavor to the story and most kids will instantly recognize the Little Red Hen. Plus, this wise hen has an agricultural diploma—perfect for Old MacDonald.
First, Little Red Hen gets rid of the grass. At first, I didn’t get what she was doing—nor will most kids—but soon it became clear. Until that could happen, the neighbors join and form a protest, insisting, as one sign put it, “A LAWN in every YARD.” I love the signs. One says the neighbors formed a mud watch group. But the sign stating, “Change is BAD” pretty much sums up the problem: no one like change. Though there is one little guy who may like change. His sign says, “No More Mud,” but he put a line through one of those words. Not until Old MacDonald has a workable farm, producing organic veggies, does the neighborhood change their feelings toward the smell of Old MacDonald’s backyard farm.
The illustrations are fantastic. They tell the story as well as the text tells it. The details are terrific and sometimes surprising, but you must look carefully to appreciate all the effort that went into these spreads. Colorful, informative, and humorous are but three words that immediately come to mind when looking at E-I-E-I-O. I love the part when Little Red Hen has Old MacDonald throw his trash onto his backyard, well, actually, his back-mud. Old MacDonald looks like he has given up when he tosses his corncob out the window onto his back-mud.
Kids inherently think the word “poop” is funny. Well, Little Red Hen cannot make her compost without it, or worms, so kids will love these spreads. Of course, Little Red Hen stays out of the muck, calling directions out from atop her hen house. Yes, she is one wise hen. Eventually, Old MacDonald gains the neighbors’ favor and a new career in one of the most entertaining, yet informative, picture books this year.
But that begs the question - where does the money come from? After all, books are our priciest prize.
One thing we did to find the money was change how we program.
We booked performers for years - singers, magicians, storytellers, performers of one kind and another. A very few could generate a crowd of 100-150 kids in our auditorium. Most would result in crowds of 25-45 kids and adults - and this in a city of 51,000 population!
The costs involved with performers were substantial - $200 if we were lucky; $300-$500 and up more likely. Add mileage, hotel and expenses and ouch! When we had 25 people in the audience, it meant we were paying anywhere from $10-30 per person in attendance for the program. That didn't seem like a sustainable use of money.
We were also developing some amazing in-house programs led by staff. It occurred to us that if we continued this strong staff programming and cut back on performers, we would have enough money to fund the hundreds of books that we want to give to kids as prizes.
So we made it so. We still book a performer or two for special events. The money we saved went directly to buying books as prizes for babies through teens. Parents and kids both love these books. Kids get to choose freely from a variety that we put out. We fill our program room for two weeks in August with books for kids to choose from who have completed their SLP in previous weeks.
Of course, we could also have written grants, looked for donors or sought money in other ways. But we chose to enfold books into existing programming money. By changing our priorities we made sure we could make a book in the hand of a child happen. Seems worth it!
**Warning: I wear my heart on my sleeve. This post has things to say and opinions (backed by science) to share.**
What’s the Point of Being Green? by Jacqui Bailey is the most depressing, worrying book I’ve read this year. It’s also the nonfiction book this year I wish all my blog readers and their kids would read.
What’s the Point of Being Green? tackles head on how you and I are slowly destroying the thing we rely on – our planet, our home, the Earth. It pulls no punches as it lucidly discusses the causes and catastrophic consequences of climate change and environmental destruction. It’s a message lots of people don’t want to hear, it’s a message lots of people outright deny, but it’s a message we all need to take on board and respond to.
With chapters on fossil fuels and their alternatives, the degradation of the natural environment and the concomitant impact on biodiversity (and why this matters), population growth, over-consumption and waste this book looks at the damage we’re doing from every important aspect.
And whilst it doesn’t shy away from the problems and their enormity, the book is packed with ways we can all make a difference with tips on how we can change our behaviour and why we should change our values, open our eyes and accept what is happening.
Photo: NRDC Media
The book is brilliantly written for its target audience (fluent readers to 14, I’d say), with an urgency and liveliness that makes the book exciting and gives the reader a sense of empowerment; not only are the issues presented clearly, excitingly and thoughtfully, young readers will feel they can indeed make a difference.
M lapped the book up; she enjoyed retelling lots of facts she’d learned, and enjoyed even more “badgering” us to make changes suggested by the book, from collecting our shower water to reuse on houseplants to making sure we use lids on our pans when cooking.
The colourful illustrations, including lots of cartoons, are fun and although the book is jam-packed with information it is all presented in easy-to-enjoy chunks, great for both dipping in and out of, but also reading from cover to cover. There’s a glossary, well compiled index and a very useful list of organizations and websites to explore on the topics raised in this book.
This is a book with a powerful agenda. Some people won’t like that, but I love it. M loves it. It’s utterly depressing, compelling and essential reading.
In case you hadn’t guessed, the issues discussed in this book are ones very close to my heart. I’ve read the science, I understand what is happening, I’m frightened by the environmental changes that are taking place, but I’m trying my hardest to do what I can to keep the planet healthy for future generations.
Any idea when courgettes come into season? How about cucumbers? No? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Research shows that most people aren’t sure when most British fruit and vegetables are in season which is a real shame as it means they’re missing out on when they’re at their absolute best.
While it’s easy to enjoy blueberries with your breakfast in winter, being accustomed to buying whatever we want, whenever we want it means we are increasingly becoming disconnected from our food and its relationship with nature. Eating with the seasons means getting back in touch with nature’s rhythms and eating the right thing at the right time. What could be more delicious than a crisp salad when it’s hot and sunny a wholesome stew when it’s cold? Ask any chef and they’ll tell you that fruit and veg are at their best when they’ve just been picked, so why settle for sickly looking strawberries in Winter or unappetising asparagus in Autumn?
Reasons to eat seasonably:
1. Fruit and veg are at their freshest and tastiest when they are first picked
2. Eating seasonably is a great way of eating more sustainably
Growing fruit and veg in season requires lower levels of artificial inputs like heating, lighting, pesticides and fertilisers than at other times of the year and so has a lower environmental impact.
3. Grocery bills are cheaper due in part by reduced transportation and production costs for growers. Everybody wins!
Get the whole family involved! Try cooking and eating seasonably to experience the joy of eating fruit and vegetables at their peak of perfection: fresher, tastier, better value and better for the environment. For more info check out our ‘Eat the Seasons’ page, and also our recipes page.
I’m not big on wind. Of all the meteorological marvels on offer, it’s the least appealing to me, perhaps because I endured a few too many tropical cyclones and missing roofs as a child.
So when The Windy Farm blew onto my shelves, I instinctively hunched my shoulders and wondered what on earth could be so appealing about the latest offering by well-liked picture book team, Doug MacLeod and Craig Smith. Turns out a whole Beaufort Scales worth.
Our plucky young narrator lives with her family on the windiest farm on Windy Hill because it’s all they can afford. Their home is buffeted and bullied by incessant katabatic winds. The kind of wind that permanently bends trees into weird angles; the kind powerful enough to blow away young pigs and little girls. No one is safe from its force, no one except Grandpa who, as the illustrations subtly suggest, is so immense and heavy that he will never budge just like his favourite pig, Big Betty.
The family survive undeterred and, as is often the case, necessity becomes the mother of invention. And indeed this is the case; Mum cannily invents heavy metal shoes to anchor them all to the ground. However, in spite of their best efforts, one day they lose half their home to nature’s tempest.
Rich Uncle Jeff is no help, pointedly refusing to lend them any of his oil-amassed fortune to help fix the house. They resort to good old fashioned ingenuity and Grandpa’s power tools instead but the ensuing crippling power bill plunges them into despair (who hasn’t felt like this after receiving their electricity bill?)
Not easily defeated, Mum comes up with a wily plan; to convert the farm into a sustainable wind farm. Pretty soon things are on the up and up. The farm road is paved in tarmac and truckloads of money from all the electricity they’ve enterprisingly ‘farmed’. Big Betty, the prized pig, returns to a wind-proof sty (she was sold to pay the electricity bills) and although the need to wear heavy metal boots remains, their money worries have been swept away, just like Uncle Jeff who ‘became poor’ after the ill winds of fate blew his way. ‘Never mind,’ Grandpa sanguinely observes; no one really liked him anyway.
Doug MacLeod’s contemporary message about the power of wind and its significance in environmental sustainability drifts delightfully zephyr-like throughout this picture book. Told in a concise, witty style, The Windy Farm exposes young readers to a range of fascinating topics including the harnessing of energy, inventions, problem-solving, sustainability and endurance.
No stranger to children’s book illustrating, Craig Smith’s flamboyant, comic-book style pictures and characters are hysterical; from the very top of Windy Hill all the way down to the chooks’ little metal boots. He uses heavier gauche paint to create a deeply detailed yet fluid almost dreamy visual effect that sweeps from page to page. Movement (of the omnipresent wind), is represented magnificently with the use of acrylics. One can see and feel the air swirling through each scene. I found it astounding even though I’m not that big on wind.
Smith and MacLeod include lots of witty references to the use of nuclear power and the need to adopt a clean energy philosophy if we are to enjoy a longer, better existence than poor old Uncle Jeff.
The Windy Farm is not however a heavy prescriptive lesson in world conservation. Rather, it is a light-hearted, fanciful look at ingenuity and tenacity in their purest and funniest forms. My Miss 7 just thinks it’s very cool. Well it would be with all that wind about wouldn’t it?
Breezy, good fun, imaginative with plenty of room for thought. Plus 5s will love it even if they are not big on wind (but most are).
This in the first in a series of blog posts addressing the concept of sustainability in our planning. As a management tool, it helps us build programs and initiatives in a way that points towards success.
I believe in sustainability - not just in my personal life but also in my work at the library.
When I think of projects and initiatives, a big question and discussion point as planning is done and over the course of the project is - can this be sustained? As a manager I like to see amazing efforts and accomplishments. I love to see big picture projects and ideas that push the envelope of our service to families and kids.
But I also like to see how the ideas and efforts can be maintained beyond the here and now. What are the implications - for the budget, for the staff, for continuation over the long-haul, for equitable access? Is the idea for a service or initiative one that will have longevity? Can it evolve and have a nimbleness factor that lets us adjust it for changing needs. Is this something that if we offer to one, we can offer to all?
To me questions like this that look into the future can inform our choices. They make planning deeper and result in a project or service that is more sustainable.
Let's look at an example.
1000 Books Before Kindergarten Many libraries are creating these programs for preschoolers in their community. The question is often asked, what are the costs of the program? I always like to say, it's what you can afford - and can realistically maintain. When we developed our program in Menasha, figuring in the cost for a binder for each child, CDs given out at every 100 level and a book at the end brought the cost per child to $14. I could see this would mean we would need to do continual fundraising to maintain this if the program proved popular.
It made me uncomfortable not to have a secure source of funds in place and to have such a high cost per child in terms of sustainability. The program has great worth and, philosophically, I wanted to offer it for as long as we could to involve kids for many years. The pressure of continual fundraising and grant-writing to maintain a project adds stress and uncertainty. I didn't want to repeat that feeling.
When we developed the program in here La Crosse, we had a goal of 1000 kids involved over the life of the program. We worked hard and raised $7000 dollars and figured the cost per child at $6 for stickers, book bag, finger puppet and book. We now have 750 kids in the program after two and a half years and still have a substantial cushion of funds to go well beyond our original projection (not all families who start will continue). I believe based on current and projected expenditures, our original funding remains secure for at least six years. By that time the program may naturally sunset or we can reach out again to generate donor-funding. This passes the sustainability test in my mind.
Our materials have also met that test. We have evolved our recording sheets and incentives to reflect participant feedback. It has helped us save money and still provide an amazing experience for families. We have not had to stay static and we look forward to more tweaks in the future.
In the next blog posts, I'll look at grant-funded projects and their pitfalls - or triumphs.
In this series of blog posts, I am looking at sustainability in our work. The first post addressed some larger issues and thoughts about costs of ongoing projects. Today, let's consider the pitfalls of grant-funded projects. It is exciting to plan, write and receive a grant - but the devil is in the details. What will you do once the funds are expended to maintain, evolve or change the grant-funded project. How will you keep it fresh? How do you build in sustainability?
I have noticed a tendency to create the project or service or kit or thing. And then when it is done, it is done. There is no money to add, enhance or change what has been created. The grant-funded initiative becomes static, dated and either reluctantly sunset long past it's usefulness or in place forever because it was...grant-funded!
Grant Fail Two examples of this grant-funded ennui in our library collection were a set of middle grade book discussion kits and "Treasure Boxes"- themed tubs full of preschool books and manipulatives to rotate to daycares. Both were outstanding original ideas, well-executed and did exactly what the grant was intended to do - for a time.
Book Discussion Kits The book discussion kits had ten books and a great discussion guide in special bags hung in a closet. As the years rolled on and the reading tastes of the target audience changed, the kits became less useful since no new ones were created or old ones withdrawn. Also compounding their decreased usefulness was difficulty in accessing them - both because they were out of browsing view in a closet and extremely tricky to find through the catalog.
The solution? Let the old kits go. Create new kits of five books each and house them near the fiction collection and accessible to the public. Buy enough bags to ensure we can develop 2-3 new kits each year for ten years and use the existing book budget to fund the purchase of the books. Be prepared to do great PR, withdraw kits that don't move and continuously add to keep content fresh.
Unsustainable was changed to sustainable. Treasure Boxes Created almost fifteen years ago, these tubs were stuffed full of goodness - fifteen-twenty books, puppets, cassettes, teacher material, hands-on manipulatives. They rotated in our outreach visits to the daycares we visited. Each daycare had a box for the month. All good you say?
The problem again was that the content of the boxes never changed. For years, our providers received the same books over and over again. To me, the message we were sending was that these are the only books we had on popular themes. It was as if we were caught in a Groundhog Day time warp that no one could ever escape. While we are spending ten of thousands of dollars a year on new materials for the general public in YS, the daycares were only provided with the same 100-150 titles.
The solution? Let the Treasure boxes go. Begin new service to the same daycares - Books2Go. Ten books per classroom are selected, bagged and delivered monthly to daycares. Each daycare then has 40-70 unique titles to share among the classrooms. We use our existing collection and a variety of titles pass through the hands of the providers to the kids. For teachers interested in particular themes, we encourage them to contact us and pick up a collection of five books matching their theme that we pull on their behalf.
Static morphed into dynamic and the service is sustainable as long as our department aide can drive and deliver and our collection of picture books exists.
Next post, let's look at grant triumphs in terms of sustainability.
In this series, I am looking at sustainability in our work. The first post addressed some larger issues and thoughts about costs of ongoing projects followed by a post on grant fails Today, let's consider the sustainability factor of successful grant-funded projects.
So what are key components to create sustainability in grant-funded projects?
First don't write it if you can't see a way to sustain the project, keep it fresh or easily make changes to evolve it to meet changing community needs. Taking a pile of money, creating a thing and letting it languish seems to be wasteful. If, in your grant planning, you figure what you need to keep the initiative or service going beyond the grant, it means two things: the grant start-up money is well-used to kick things off and you actually need the service or initiative enough to justify putting future general budget funds into keeping it fresh.
Grant Wins Here are two examples of sustainability thinking weused in creating and thinking about projects we wanted to continue beyond their initial grant cycle.
2nd Grade Library Stars Based on meetings with our LMC colleagues who suggested we bring in one grade level for an introduction to the library, we decided to reach out to all second graders and offer a field trip adventure at our Main Library location. The biggest expense for this was going to be transportation - only one school is in walking distance of our Youth Services Department.
We wrote a Community Foundation grant for buses for $1000 and looked at our program budget for the future to fund the project in ensuing years. If we didn't book three outside performers, we would have that money.
The tours were a huge hit with the teachers, kids and staff. The worth of them was so apparent that the schools funded the buses the second year. Now we are looking at adding seventh grade and kindergarten field trips annually and the schools have agreed to split the bus costs. This makes these visits sustainable for both organizations. And because of the impact of the visits and the positives that have resulted, if we needed to fund raise to keep them going, I believe we would have no trouble in gaining support.
Baby Book Bees We offer our 1000 Books program to children ages 1-5 but really wanted to catch families with their children from birth. So we developed a pre-1000 BksB4K efforts asking parents to read 100 books to their baby before their first birthday. We decided that offering a little bib at sign-up with the library name and a book as a culminating incentive would be swell.
We wrote a Target grant to fund these two pieces and we received that grant - for twice the amount we asked for! This allowed us to fund the effort beyond a year and get better pricing on the bibs and books. And how will we maintain this effort beyond this grant funding? We plan to enfold this initiative into the funds for 1000 Books (that original $7000 raised). Once this money is expended, we'll look into using existing programming money to continue or do a special fundraising appeal.
I think, dear readers, you are starting to see how thread of funding for projects needs to be worked into the warp and weave of regular budgets for programs and collections if sustainability is a goal.
Next post, we'll leave special projects behind and look at the sustainability of our programs. See you then!
In this series of blog posts, sustainability is the watchword. We've looked at issues and thoughts about project costs and grant fails and triumphs. In this final post, let's consider the sustainability factor in our everyday programming work.
Programs are some of the bread and butter of our work with youth. The concept of sustainability becomes critical here.
Our patrons often want ALL THE THINGS. And many of us want to give them ALL THE THINGS. That's perfectly understandable. They pay us, they are the reason we are working at the library in the first place. However, ALL THE THINGS often leads to staff burn-out, stress, and an unsustainable pace and level of work for staffers. Work tasks leak into home life and extra unpaid hours. Nobody loves me. Everybody hates me. I hate you. I quit (literally or just check out emotionally and mentally).
Not sustainable. To create sustainability - and sanity - in programming, finding balance is an important factor.
Budget If we have a program budget, how can we best use it? Many of us are expected to and feel pressure to book outside performers (note: I work as a free-lance storyteller making the big bucks at schools and libraries so I know about this issue from the performer's perspective). If we spend all our money booking performers, does that leave us a budget for incentive prizes like books, bookbags or money to fund buses or another special project?
If we balance our planning and expectations, cut back on outside performers, it often frees programming money to allow us to fund special stealth programming projects or initiatives or try something entirely new. Our budget can then sustain a larger number of efforts.
Patron Expectations Teachers and parents have clear thoughts on what they need for kids in their care but often these fall into narrow personal concerns - we want to use the library without these crowds; the storytimes aren't convenient for my schedule; you should have more ________ (fill in the blank: baby/toddler/teen/K/school age/homeschool/single/continuous/Saturday/evening/Sunday/Monday morning -I could go on but you know what I'm talking about here) events; why can't you provide our group with a weekly storytime or monthly outreach visits?
Meeting all the expectations isn't possible to do in a sustainable way - especially if you want to balance services to all. The challenge in planning then becomes looking for ways - through active and passive programs; judicious deployment of staff for in-house and outreach efforts and critically looking at the arc of programs - to honor on some level most of your clientele's needs.
What might that look like? It all depends on what you can find sustainable - and what you feel you can fairly offer to all. Perhaps:
Storytimes being offered for 25-30 weeks of the year.
After school programs being offered once a month or in a three-four week series 2-3 times a year.
Storytime breaks of up to two months to allow time to book field trips or do outreach to daycares.
School age programs during school breaks and early release days including plenty of DIY activities.
Programs presented once a semester to classes that make weekly/monthly visits.
Outreach visits scheduled once a year to every day care or school classroom
Passive programs made available more frequently
There isn't a one-way, right answer but there are many paths to help create a program structure that can be sustained and serve many needs.
Balance and Sustainability The point is not to deny patrons, jealously guard time and resources or alternatively force staff into working at a mad pace. To sustain programs, finding the balance is key. Looking at what we do and how to create balance - whether through program breaks; decreasing the frequency of some programs; offering the same level of service to all school or daycare groups or making sure that we have a balance of active and passive programs - means that our program work can be sustained.
And in the End Last but not least, learning when to say when is critical. When a program has reached the end of it's useful life, even though it is your favorite, let it go and put staff time and resources elsewhere. It keeps what you offer fresh, frees time for new initiatives and services and keeps patrons interested in your offerings.
And that's what sustainability is really all about!
I am an online community builder for librarians. In short, my job, my actual job, is to help librarians find and connect with each other online. I've said many times that I think I have the best job in library land. Sometimes, honestly, like today, it's not all that. It's not that I get discouraged, though sometimes that happens too, as I'm sure happens in the course of many of our day-to-days, but rather that I find my job very, very difficult. Head. Banging. Against a Wall. Difficult.
The parts that are most challenging for me have to do with resources. In our environment, as in most, resources are limited, and even though my particular project is considered well-funded, and indeed we are, it is a constant struggle to align those resources towards absolute efficiency and effectiveness. Of course, resources aren't just the dollars. There's also our time and our staff. I work really hard, and I know the team that I work with works really hard, to try and make the best decisions that we can about how to line things up effectively. Still, things are changing around us so rapidly. The plans we make are almost never exactly manifested. We always dream much bigger than we're able to implement. We always want to do more than we're able to in a day. By the time we're implementing there are three, five, or ten more things we wish we would have known. How can we be more clever? do this smarter? start that sooner? (And I'm not even really talking about the technology here. I'm talking more generally, about every aspect of the work.)
The other thing is that everybody cares so much about this work. In some ways I think it's a burden to feel so passionately about libraries and community. I often wonder if caring about the work as much makes me less effective. Am I missing something by taking things as seriously? How can I infuse humor, light, and even some degree of dispassion into my work so that I can be as personally nimble as the technologies I use and advocate for?
One of the best books I've read on libraries and change is "The Thriving Library" by Marylaine Block. I love this book. She outlines the things that "thriving" libraries are doing - not as a recipe, but as an example of some things that we can draw into our own libraries and communities. Come to think of it, Robert Putnam does the same thing in his work "Better Together" where he looks at successful community building projects and says 'here are a few things that work. it's not a recipe. just something to think about. something to try.'
So fine, there's no recipe. There's no perfect process, no perfect "plan for results". I think I can deal with that. And maybe things get easier as you gain experience and move through your career, (and perhaps that's another story). In all, I'd still say I have the best job EVER. I even know somewhere that the fact that it's difficult for me, that I'm constantly feeling like I'm new at this and that there's a lot to learn, is part of the reason it's such a great job for me.
But maybe tomorrow could be easier. Maybe tomorrow my cleverness could just swoop in and *poof!* solve the tough questions currently in front of me. Shoot, it wouldn't even have to be my cleverness. It could be yours. Please?
Last week Lorcan pointed to an interesting article [Even Gen X is aTwitter] with data about who’s using twitter. In addition to 57% being from California (really?) and 63% being male “…the age demographics of Twitterers show a dramatic shift. When the site became popular in early 2007, the majority of its visitors were 18-to-24-year-olds. Today the site's largest age demographic is 35-to-44-year-olds.”
David Lee King recently posted on his blog about how many patrons are already using twitter and other social media tools. “Yes, people in your community are already connecting and engaging with others via social media tools,” says David, “Are you?”
Over the last several weeks at WebJunction we received a number of support requests about user inability to view some of our videos about the new platform (here's an example with others linked here). In exploring the reasons why, we realized that some of our users in libraries still work in libraries that block access to youtube, blip.tv and the like. Reasons cited include bandwidth for networks that are already stretched. What should we say about our own Internet use and access to our IT admins? Our security and privacy colleagues? Our funding councils and governments?
Very simply, we must continue to articulate our need for access to both social media and social tools in terms of relevance to our patrons and our community. Without our knowledge of and participation in the social spheres where our patrons engage with each other, where new content is published and knowledge emerges, we can't stay relevant. And without relevance, we won't be around.
Update: let me just add that I don't care about twitter in particular. It's just a tool and one of many examples of things we should be exploring.
Deborah Gordon is a senior transportation policy analyst who has worked with the National Commission on Energy Policy, the Chinese government and many other organizations. Daniel Sperling is Professor of Engineering and Environmental Science and Founding Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. Gordon and Sperling are the authors of Two Billion Cars: Driving Towards Sustainability which provides a concise history of America’s Love affair with cars and an overview of the global oil and auto industries. In the original article below they look at what Washington needs to do to support sustainability.
Washington policymakers may have been backed into a costly corner on the Detroit bail out, but the real measure of their mettle is whether they can help us innovate our way out of this debacle. Automaking must undergo fundamental transformational change. The country needs a roadmap. That’s where Congress and the new Administration come in.
Over 20 years of government inaction does not instill confidence, however. Glorying in cheap oil, ignoring mounting imports, avoiding climate action, and preciously protecting U.S. automakers gave birth to Hummers while promising battery technology grew up overseas in Japan, Korea, and, increasingly, China. Few auto advances have been made. And now we’re poised to lose those gains as the venture capitial driven electric-vehicle companies that sprang up in recent years close shop.
One sure fix out of the utter mess we’re in would be to seriously raise gasoline taxes. This would change the entire oil equation, promoting sustained vehicle and fuel innovations the likes of which America has never seen. But with today’s economy bloodied and raw, this appears decidedly off the table, at least for now.
Instead, with current gasoline prices at all time lows, a minuscule 58 cents-a-gallon in 1980 dollars, the U.S. will remain hooked on oil. Priorities to accelerate the commercialization of clean advanced vehicles could be further derailed by Congress as it orders up the next fuel du jour. Corn ethanol, for example, a clear energy and climate fiasco, has long been the recipient of massive public subsidies amounting to about $10 billion in 2008. Federal commitments to clean vehicle and energy R&D, on the other hand, have dwindled to nearly nothing.
Over and over, the public interest has been swamped by regional and special interests and the private desires of consumers. This trend needs to be turned around: innovation needs to serve the public good.
California has figured out how to do this. And when it comes to cars, they have been pushing the envelope for half a century. It is now time for Washington to stop resisting a winning strategy and follow suit.
Adopting new clean vehicle performance standards is the key. The government must resist the temptation to pick winning technologies. Instead, we need innovative performance goals that let automakers and consumers decide which clean cars to commercialize. California’s 1960s pollution laws brought us the first automotive emission control, positive crankcase ventilation. Zero-emission vehicle regulations of the 1990s gave birth to the Prius. Just imagine what vehicle innovations new federal standards could summon.
The single most effective near-term action Washington can take to accelerate the development and adoption of next-generation clean vehicle technologies – electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and fuel cell vehicles – with no direct cost to consumers, is to create new performance standards for near-zero emission vehicles. Each company would be required to produce a set number of near-zero emission vehicles based on their market share, with more credit given to highly efficient vehicles with longer driving ranges that are mass marketed. Such regulations focus the minds of automakers and their suppliers. Small innovative start-up companies also get into the game. New supply chains for low-carbon cars would sprout up in America. Green jobs would be created.
It’s not too late for Washington, and Detroit, to follow the leaders and reimagine our automaking future. The European Union is already pursuing a near-zero emission vehicle category with less than 50 grams of carbon dioxide pollution for each kilometer traveled (equivalent to 113 mpg for gasoline).
So, while large gas taxes are still a sensible long-term solution, Washington must give automakers clear marching orders now. Our policymakers may be risk adverse when it comes to taxation, but Congress is an accomplished regulator.
The auto bail out, volatile oil prices, conflicts in the Middle East, increasing fears of climate change, and intense competition are creating the perfect storm for transformational auto innovation. Washington must take the reins and steer entrepreneurs, engineers, and the public down the path to reinvent vehicles.
Deborah Gordon is a senior transportation policy analyst who has worked with the National Commission on Energy Policy, the Chinese government and many other organizations. Daniel Sperling is Professor of Engineering and Environmental Science and Founding Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. Gordon and Sperling are the authors of Two Billion Cars: Driving Towards Sustainability which provides a concise history of America’s Love affair with cars and an overview of the global oil and auto industries. A few weeks ago we posted an original article by these authors. Today we have pulled an excerpt from the book which looks specifically at Governor Schwarzenegger.
The unlikely hero who jolted California into climate change leadership is the former bodybuilder and action movie hero Arnold Schwarzenegger. Before his election in fall 2003, California was experiencing something of a malaise. Governor Schwarzenegger resurrected a bipartisan action-oriented government and, molded by circumstance, became and environmental leader.
In signing an agreement between California and the United Kingdom on July 31, 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger proclaimed, “California will not wait for our federal government to take strong action on global warming…International partnerships are needed in the fight against global warming and California has a responsibility and a profound role to play to protect not only our environment, but to be a world leader on this issue as well.”
He had come a long way in a short time. Governor Schwarzenegger’s second inaugural address in January 2007 made it strikingly clear that he had evolved into an accomplished politician. He was now focused, serious, and increasingly savvy. In the cauldron of politics, he was forging himself into a centrist politician, strongly committed to getting things done, especially on the environment. He emphasized above all else the need for action on global warming. He was using global warming as his platform to unite voters from both parties behind him-in stark contrast to what President Bush was doing in Washington, D.C.
How did this Austrian bodybuilder evolve into an environmental leader? He got his chance to govern through an extraordinary set of circumstances. In 2003, voters became disenchanted with the remoteness and single-minded fund-raising of Democratic governor, Gray Davis, and voted him out of office in a rare recall election. This election bypassed the normal process of primaries in which each political party selects a candidate. That shortcut was essential to Schwarzenegger’s election. Schwarzenegger was a moderate Republican in a state where the Republican Party has become very conservative. According to most political experts, Schwarzenegger couldn’t have won a regular Republican primary. But in a free-for-all election, he didn’t need his party’s endorsement.
In the end, the Democrats couldn’t put forth a compelling candidate, and Schwarzenegger slid into power with 48.6 percent of the vote. he had never held a government office of any type, elected or appointed, and had little policy knowledge. But he had huge name recognition as a result of his extraordinary success first as a bodybuilder, winning seven Mr. Olympia world championships, and then as a movie star, known for his Terminator action movies. He also had management savvy in building very successful businesses capitalizing on his fame, though this was much overlooked at the time. Governor Schwarzenegger resurrected a bipartisan action-orientated government and, molded by circumstance, became an environmental leader.
He entered office speaking of “blowing up boxes” of government, eliminating hundreds of boards and agencies, and bringing a new order. His style was to browbeat the legislature. The honeymoon began to fade during his first year when he provoked his legislature opponents by calling them “girlie men,” offended protesting nurses by telling them “special interests don’t like me in Sacramento because I kick their butt,” and antagonized teachers by asking voters to curtail teachers’ rights to job security. Every one of the propositions he put forth to voters in a special election in fall 2005 went down in defeat. His popularity plummeted.
He soon righted himself. He apologized to voters for not respecting them. He abandoned his more bombastic language. He engaged himself in the business of governing and forged working relationships with the Democratic-controlled legislature. His popularity was resurrected with apologies and an ability to learn from his mistakes, coupled with willful rejection of ideology and partisanship. By late 2006, his ratings were once again soaring. With a cooperative legislature, he concluded a series of legislative milestones, capped by the precedent-setting Global Warming Solutions Act. In his 2007 inaugural address, Schwarzenegger justified this landmark law on moral grounds and “because California genuinely has the power to influence the res of the nation, even the world.”
Schwarzenegger was a product of circumstances. He wobbled toward a model of leadership and innovation. He’s not an intellectual leader. He’s a problem solver with charisma and strong management and communication skills, who surrounds himself with strong, competent people, not least of which is his wife, Maria Shriver. He’s been molded by the experience of being a Republican in a Democratic state and living with a politically astute Kennedy wife. His bipartisanship was illustrated by his appointment of Terry Tamminene, an ardent environmentalist, as secretary of California’s Environmental Protection Agency and later as secretary of the cabinet, and Susan Kennedy, a Democrat and former abortion right advocate, as his chief of staff.
The governor’s desire to simultaneously achieve a healthy environment and economy in the state has resonated well. With strong support from the venture capital community and leaders of many high-tech Silicon Valley companies, he has spurred the state’s businesses to think green thoughts. His unwavering commitment to California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, low-carbon fuel standard, and greenhouse gas standards for vehicles has had the cumulative effect of convincing even the most recalcitrant company that there’s no turning back. Indeed, Schwarzenegger sees climate change policy and green tech as his legacy. The question is whether the various rules and laws and what skeptics refer to as the governor’s globe-trotting happy talk will translate into ral action and change.
Daniel Sperling is a Professor of Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis and a Founding Director of US-Davis’s Institute of Transportation Studies. He and Deborah Gordon wrote Two Billion Cars: Driving Towards Sustainability which provides a concise history of America’s love affair with cars and an overview of the global oil and auto industries. Be sure to watch tonight when Daniel Sperling is interviewed on The Daily Show.
We decided it would be fun to ask Sperling some questions before and after his big television appearance. Below are the pre-show questions. Check back tomorrow to watch a clip and read the post-show interview. Read other OUPblog posts about this book here.
OUPblog: Do you watch The Daily Show and have you ever fantasized about being a guest?
Daniel Sperling: Yes, I watch, but I never even fantasized about being a guest—even though all my friends and students now say I have reached the highest state of coolness; one (young) professor friend now says he idolizes me.
OUPblog: What advice have people given you about going on the show?
Sperling: Roll with the jokes, don’t even think about trying to be funny, be succinct, know your key messages, don’t wear white shirts or patterned jackets, have fun.
OUPblog: What is the one thing you would like people to take away from your interview?
Sperling: It’s time for all of us to engage in solving the oil and climate challenges and, to quote our president, yes we can.
I know. I know. Sustainability is actually one of the big millennia buzz words, usually referring to important things like, saving our planet. Recycle. Reduce. Reuse. I get it.
But right now I'm really worried about sustaining my hair. It's all because of the gray. Gray changes everything. It makes your hair wiry. And changes the whole styling thing. It pretty much makes you reassess your haircut and ask if there isn't something that can be done because, basically, you don't want to look like your kids grandmother just yet (okay, ever!).
I've thought about dealing with the gray by going short (I have long hair).
But I had a bad experience with short. A few years ago, after I had my second child, I let my hairdresser convince me to get a bob. It would be easier than having long hair, he said. I gave in.
He did a great job. It really looked good. Amazing. Effortless.
Until I washed it.
And then all of those layers went every which way but down. Horror. What was I doing wrong? I suddenly remembered with a sinking feeling how my hairdresser had started to sweat as he dried my hair. How he'd labored at those layers. They weren't effortless at all.
Ack! How was I supposed to manage this?
I let it grow out.
Which was great until the grey started to appear. I mean, it's not exactly like it's going to go away now (despite my complaint with the gene pool. They so are not returning my phone calls).
So, color, right?
But there was that one study they did that one time that showed a correlation between coloring and bladder cancer.
I don't want vanity to give me bladder cancer. Okay, green freak, go all gray. Easy enough. Yeesh.
But I don't want to look like Barbara Bush.
Then cut it all off!
But...um...isn't that one of those options that sounds a lot better than it looks?
Joe Smith is senior lecturer in environment in the social sciences faculty at The Open University and Co-Director of the Cambridge Media & Environment Programme which runs seminars on environmental change and development issues for senior media decision makers. Joe is initiator and chair of Interdependence Day a new communications and research project. He is also co-author (with Stephen Peake) of Climate Change: From Science to Sustainability, an interdisciplinary introduction that takes the reader from keystones of the underlying science – and not just the headlines – through to the philosophical and political consequences of climate change. In his Countdown to Copenhagen post, he talks about ‘truth’ and climate change in the light of the recent hacked emails at the University of East Anglia.
For the rest of the Countdown to Copenhagen posts, click here.
What to say about ‘truth’ and climate science in the context of what appears to be the theft of ten years worth of private emails between climate researchers by mischief-making hackers? I’m not going to comment further on the incident but it proves once again that there are some highly motivated people out there who want to tear up the narrative that climate change is human caused and requires urgent action. There are a small number of high profile media commentators who have savoured the opportunity to insist once again that climate change is a massive science fraud and big-state tax plot.
How should we investigate the notion that humans are changing the climate? Who is best equipped to advise on how to behave in an experiment that we may only get to run once? If I wanted to know about a very complex scientific problem I’d start looking for answers by running the biggest scientific peer review process in human history. The IPCC is exactly that. It was set up to do the best job possible in making sense of an enormously demanding intellectual question: does human activity influence the climate – in the past, present and future?
The dominant model of science is one of aggressive (individual or lab based) competition to get the most convincing arguments supported by publicly published evidence, and to break new ground with original and supportable arguments. As an outsider looking in I think that that can be an unproductive form of ‘knowledge generation’, but one thing for sure is that it isn’t designed to produce consensus around such a complex topic as climate change. The IPCC is a review process with only a very small secretariat, and the thousands of scientists who generate the work across many disciplines that make up the raw material of the review are all highly competitive. The IPCC reports should be all the more disturbing for the fact that they point to so much willingness to agree within the science community on the headline themes.
Why then does a substantial minority of the population feel more confidence in Lords Monckton or Lawson, or the Daily Mail’s Melanie Phillips? It is the intellectual equivalent of backing a Sunday pub team of vain injured veterans against Real Madrid’s best side. We’ve all got pretty good feeling for who has the better f
In the last of this week’s Countdown to Copenhagen blog posts, Gordon Wilson of the Open University writes about public action and climate change beyond the COP15 summit. He is Senior lecturer in Technology & Development, and has been writing and researching on development issues for many years. These include technological capabilities, professional expertise and practice, knowledge production through active social learning, and science and technology for development. He has also written extensively on sustainable development. He is one of the editors of Environment, Development, and Sustainability: Perspectives and cases from around the world.
Click here for the rest of the Countdown to Copenhagen blogs.
World leaders at COP15 may or may not put their pens to a deal where it is worth waiting for the ink to dry. But to place too much reliance on anything that raises hopes is more than creating a hostage to fortune. It amounts to abrogating our responsibilities as citizens through setting up straw people who fall down when they fail to deliver.
The history of public policy and action has shown that they are rarely the sole acts of benign, neutral government drawing the right conclusions from technical analyses. More likely they represent a process of more-or-less ruly accommodations between many players and their different interests. Governments may be the most important of these players, but they are not the only ones. The history of public health initiatives in 19th century UK provides a useful lesson in this regard, the favourable social indicators of the Indian state of Kerala compared with the rest of India another. There is no reason to suppose that these lessons of how public needs come to be defined do not also apply to the international arena.
With respect to climate change, we owe a great debt to the scientists who created a consensus under the umbrella of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and who have ensured that the issue is on national and international agendas. We should not forget, however, the potential role of informed citizens operating individually or collectively in defining public policies and actions. This role is more than ‘green’ behaviour in terms of, for example, doing our bit to reduce carbon footprints. It is also more than our right in many countries to elect and de-elect our governments, important as that is. (In any case, at an international scale, a world government that is democratically accountable is not even on the radar.) Nor does it necessarily concern our ability to mount 10, or even 100, demonstrations relating to Copenhagen. It does concern, however, our abilities to apply individual and collective pressure through a combination of working with, and where necessary confronting, governments and their international manifestations, and demonstrating alternatives.
I stress the qualifying adjective ‘informed’ which I don’t restrict to citizen understanding of the science of climate change and its likely impacts, nor of the social science of understanding socio-economic impacts. Such understandings are undoubtedly necessary to be ‘informed’ but they are not sufficient. Knowing the ‘facts’ is neither enough to change personal lifestyles nor to change po
Earth Day is a day designed to inspire awareness and appreciation for the Earth’s environment, and is held annually on April 22. Although it originated in the US, it’s now celebrated in many places across the globe. And to help you get involved with your kids, here’s Andi’s selection of exciting books and her reviews of them:
I consider this to be the classic environmental education fiction story and have read it to countless numbers of children of varying ages and all have found something that they like about it (would you expect anything else from Dr. Suess?) The story of the Lorax is told by the Once-ler, an unknown creature who lives in an old boarded-up house in the middle of a barren land. The story is about a beautiful landscape that is threatened when someone decides to use the tufts of the beautiful Truffula trees to make Thneeds (something that everyone needs) and the Lorax who “speaks for the trees” tries to stop the destruction of the forest and ponds and fields of his beautiful land. It is full of the rhyme typical of Suess books, and although the land is decimated at the hands of the Thneed creator, the last page is one of hope.
This story takes place in the rain forest, where the great Kapok trees rise high into the sky. The story is of a man who enters the forest with his axe, ready to cut down one of the giant trees. He soon grows tired, and is lulled to sleep by the heat of the forest. While he sleeps, the animals of the rainforest appear one by one and whisper in his ear, asking him to save their home. It is wonderfully illustrated with the bright plants and animals of the rainforest coming alive on each page.
Joan Fitzgerald is Professor and Director of the Law, Policy and Society Program at Northeastern University. Her new book, Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development, is a refreshing look at how American cities are leading the way toward greener, cleaner, and more sustainable forms of economic development. Emerald Cities is very readable and Marco Trbovich of the Huffington Post wrote, “Fitzgerald combines the academic discipline of an urban planner with the rigors of shoe-leather journalism in crafting a book that documents where real progress is being made….” In the original post below Fitzgerald shares how she found the fine balance between “academic discipline” and “shoe-leather journalism”.
Emerald Cities is my first true crossover book—a serious piece of scholarly research rendered as a journalistic narrative for a wider readership. In recent years, I have had plenty of practice on this front, writing several oped pieces for the Boston Globe and longer features for The American Prospect, a monthly magazine that often draws on academics to write many of its policy-oriented articles.
My journalist and editor husband, Bob Kuttner, has long urged me to discover the joys of the interview, both on the record and on background. And indeed, when you follow a formal research design or rely purely on data, you don’t get to ask impertinent questions. You are at risk of missing what is really going on.
When I first started writing more popular pieces, Bob would say, “Get some quotes” and “talk to people off-the-record.” So I did. Interviewing facilitates networking. One interview leads to another. I was intrigued at how much I learned—say about an industry such as solar or wind and the true state of play as opposed to the self-serving claims—in a few phone calls with industry insiders. If one is intellectually honest, this kind of interview is a legitimate scholarly technique as well as a tool of narrative journalism.
Journalistic reportage also helps bring prose alive. Reporting on data without bringing in a human element makes for dry reading. Another discipline of writing in a more journalistic style is that your ideas need to be compressed into a lot less space. The standard academic article is 25 pages. An oped piece is typically three typescript pages and a Prospect policy article between six and eight. It is amazing how many words some academic writers waste, telling you what they are going to tell you, then telling it, and then telling you what they told you.
The discipline of tight, lucid writing also clarifies one’s thinking process. In fact, I now require my policy students to write regular short assignments or op-ed-style pieces. At first, they hate them—they find it easier to write 10 pages than 2, which reminds me of the old saying, “I would have written it shorter but I didn’t have the time.” It does take time, and many drafts. Professor John Kenneth Galbraith, a scholar much admired for his incisive prose was once told by an admirer how “
Sometimes I love the books I read with my daughters because of the delightful, uninhibited play they inspire. Other times I love the books we read together because they engage us with something bigger; they cause us to reflect upon our actions and the world around us and encourage thoughtfulness and care. Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson is a recent find that has done both these things for us.
Mama Miti is an enduring story with fable-like quality about a woman who loves trees. She knows which trees are good to harvest for firewood, which trees are best for building with, which tree leaves have medicinal properties as well as the trees which provide food for both people or animals and she happily shares this knowledge with the women she meets. In doing so, these women, armed with knowledge (and saplings!) are able to build better homes and communities, to provide more for their families and to build a more sustainable future – in fact all the things I try to do in my own small way.
It’s a fantastic book for stimulating discussion with your kids about plants and trees around you and what uses they have, what you can harvest from them, and why we might want to ensure that we continue to have plenty of trees and plants around us.
It’s a brilliant book for encouraging you to keep faith in the idea that small changes will eventually add up to something substantial that makes a difference.
It’s an inspirational book for anyone, but particularly girls wanting to read about amazing, strong women – it is actually a biography of Wangari Muta Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I left out this fact till now as Mama Miti is one of those non-fiction books which probably provide librarians with a puzzle – should it be shelved with literature, perhaps amongst picture books for slightly older children, or on the non fiction shelves (Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca which I reviewed here is another such dilemma posing book). Mama Miti is definitely a story that can be enjoyed for its writing and resonance first and foremost – the revelation that it is actually a true story about a real woman only further delighted M (and me!)
Kadir Nelson’s illustrations are amazing – yet another reason to love this book! He has created artwork primarily using scraps of African cloth, providing his illustrations with great visual texture which reward repeated, detailed observation. The use of African fabrics paradoxically really roots Napoli’s t