Reading between the lines
“To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting” — Edmund Burke
I don’t remember learning how to read, but I can’t remember a time that I didn’t have at least one book ‘on the go’. I decided that we needed to buy our house on the spot based purely on the wall to wall book case in the dining room. I’ve spent the best part of the last ten years encouraging countless teenagers to discuss the ‘themes and issues’ of various texts and ask them what they think the author ‘really’ meant or what comment he/she is trying to make about society. So it’s no surprise to learn that I’ve spent a great deal of time reading to my own babes and we have children’s books stashed in every room of the house, just in case a sudden urge to read overcomes them, they don’t have far to go. And now that I’ve read these books at least 4162 times each, I feel almost qualified to write a little bit about what the author might have meant.
The Very Hungry Bear — Nick Bland
We’d read through this catchy, rhymy (technical term) story a few times before I started to let my mind wander about some of the broader issues Bland might be getting at. The basic story is that the brown bear was hungry, wanted some fish but the polar bear had caught them all. They came up with a deal whereby the brown bear would find the polar bear somewhere to live in exchange for some food. And the brilliance of this book, is in its apparent simplicity — it’s cool to be kind. Here are some of the big issues I’ve discussed with the boys after a reading: global warming, equal rights and refugees. Here’s how we got there — the polar bear (an asylum seeker if you will) is forced into the habitat of the brown bear as a result of global warming and melting polar ice caps. The brown bear is kind of like Canada — welcoming and helpful and going out of his way to find somewhere appropriate for the polar bear to live. Even though the bears are different — colour, climate, habitat — they are essentially the same in that they just want to live a peaceful life. And look, the bears might well just be mates but I’ve taken the opportunity to talk with the boys about equal rights and marriage equality and we’ve even lamented the current state of play in Australia.
The Tiger Who Came To Tea — Judith Kerr
I remember this book very vividly from my childhood — and the illustrations are still some of my favourite so I was keen to get it for my boys and it was even better when it came with a ‘bonus!’ little teacup (I’m all for the marketing). When I read it again as an adult, I couldn’t just leave it at the fact it was a fanciful story about a tiger coming to tea (as the title would suggest) and eating the mother and daughter out of house and home. I was certain there must be more to it. I started to think of the tiger as being something like anxiety or a free loading ‘friend’ or ‘thing’ that just takes and doesn’t give anything back–arriving, unannounced and milking you dry before leaving just as suddenly as it came and you’re left to pick up the pieces and rebuild your metaphorical life and go out for sausages, chips and ice cream — which I still think sounds like an excellent little supper, provided the sausages are vegetarian.
The Gruffalo — Julia Donaldson
This is where my foray into the secret messages of children’s books first began and I distinctly remember finishing this book one day and after reading ‘the mouse found a nut and the nut was good’ and saying “ and that boys, is why we don’t eat meat” (although in the spirit of full disclosure, they do sometimes eat meat much to my chagrin). The story follows a little mouse on a walk through the ‘deep dark woods’ as he outwits each of the predators who seek to eat him by inventing a creature known as the Gruffalo with whom he is going to eat lunch. No one is more surprised than him to actually run into the terrible creature and then the little mouse must use his wit to preserve his life and outsmart the Gruffalo. A win for the little guys and a good lesson on the power of brains over brawn.
I’ve got to admit that whilst the boys are still a captive audience, Shane thinks I’m reaching a few bridges too far with some or most (ok all!) of my insights into these texts. But I really hope that I can teach my babes that even in these turbulent times, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.