Despite the rather rainy summer we’ve had in this neck of the woods our sunflowers have done amazingly well.
This is only our 3rd summer of having a garden and it's the first time we've managed to grow sunflowers really successfully - in previous years they've provided feasts for the slugs and never really got going.
This year, however, we were helped by a pretty cold winter (by UK standards) which killed off a lot of those horrible slimy things, and then by some serious nurturing of our sunflower seedlings, including giving each of them their own copper necklace (actually short lengths of copper with the widest gauge I could afford from a plumbers’ merchant) to try and keep the slugs off them as they grew.
Sunflowers are great to grow with the kids because the seeds are so easy to handle. And they’re fantastic to have in the garden – kids love outsized plants – and 4.5 metre tall sunflowers definitely fall into this category. Once the flowers are past their best we keep the heads for the birds and squirrels, and seeing them feast off the seeds is always a lot of fun.
A fair few heads also become garden toys for the girls – they love pulling out all the seeds (learning about the Fibonacci sequence in the process?) and making soup with them.
The only problem with having such wonderfully tall sunflowers is that several of them have succumbed to the wind. The silver lining, however, is that we’ve been able to bring the flowers inside and have had a vase almost always full with a flower or two. This has allowed the girls to get up close and personal with the flowers, to explore their petals and stamens and, most interestingly of all for them, to sprinkle the pollen everywhere.
Looking at the sunflower from so close up inspired us to try drawing it. To encourage M to keep looking for new aspects of the flower we tried to draw it with as many different art materials as possible. My idea behind this was to keep M’s interest in drawing the sunflower for as long as possible by looking for new details and for her to experience how using different art media can impact what and how you draw.
Under normal I-can-only-handle-so-much-mess circumstances, the girls will typically have just the paints or just the felt tips, so when I got out (over 2 sessions) the yellows/browns and black for thick felt tips, thin felt tips, wax crayons, thin oil pastels, thick oil pastels, pencils, regular paint and printing ink M was pretty excited! I think she thought her mum was going a little bit crazy.
Nine sunflowers later we stuck our favourite examples in each media on construction paper and set up a little gallery of our own.
My favourite images were M’s watercolour sunflower and the one she did using this printing technique we learned from The Artful Parent (we used these water based printing inks and they worked, and cleaned up, a dream).
Now with so many sunflowers in our house, our garden and our heads of course we turned to find a good sunflower book. There is a great sunflower in Eddie’s Garden by Sarah Garland, perhaps our favourite children’s book about gardening, and we also like Sam plants a sunflower (and its companion book Ben plants a butterfly garden) by Kate Petty, but this year we looked for a new book with sunflowers in it and decided upon Katie and the Sunflowers by James Mayhew.
“Grandma was helping Katie plant some seeds in the garden when it started to rain.
“Never mind,” said Grandma. “The rain will make everything grow.”
“But what shall we do now?” said Katie.
“Let’s go to the gallery,” said Grandma.
“You always have fun there.”
Once at the gallery Katie goes off to explore on her own whilst her Grandma sits down for a rest, and soon she has found a sunny picture she particularly likes, Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh. She imagines gathering the seeds from the sunflower heads in the painting and planting them in her own garden and then discovers that she can put her hand right into the picture and feel the flowers themselves. But then disaster strikes, and Katie accidentally knocks over the vase of flowers, which fall out of the picture onto the gallery floor.
Katie looks around for someone to help her tidy up the spillage but can’t see anyone. She can however hear some laughing and it turns out to be coming from another painting, Breton Girls Dancing by Paul Gaugin. Katie climbs inside the painting to find out why the girls are giggling and thus begins an adventure for Katie, accompanied by one of the Breton girls as they jump in and out of other pictures in the gallery chasing a dog who has run off with the spilt sunflowers. After quite a chase, some quick thinking on Katie’s behalf and the discovery of chest full of treasure beneath the sands on a Tahitian beach (in another Gauguin painting) the two girls finally manage to restore the vase full of sunflowers to its rightful place, just before Katie’s grandma wakes up from her rest.
I’m usually a little wary of “edutainment” books as I find often the drive to “teach” the reader something results in a loss of beauty and imagination in text and illustration, but this was definitely not the case with Katie and the Sunflowers. The story is wonderful – full of imagination, told with great pace and excitement, and full of interesting characters. Along the way we do get to see some beautiful art and find out a little bit about the painters and subjects but this information comes out naturally and does not interrupt the flow of the narrative. The colourful illustrations woven throughout the text don’t disappoint given that this is a book about art – there is a mixture of reproductions of the original paintings and Mayhew’s illustrations in the style of the given artist, as well as his own style, which (funnily enough) reminds me a little of that of (the abovementioned) Sarah Garland, in his use of colour and the warmth and homeliness of the images.
Whilst I was really pleased to have read this book, the same was definitely true of M – she *loved* the idea of jumping into pictures and paintings – indeed she took me round our house looking at the pictures we have on our walls telling me what adventures she had had when she had jumped inside our pictures. She also thought the character of Katie was great fun – an independent spirit with a sense of adventure, interested in everything around her.
This book is a great way to introduce the idea of going to an art gallery to a young one – in fact I’m really looking forward to our next gallery visit now we’ve read this book, but please don’t think it is only for reading if you’re interested in great painters or visiting art galleries – it’s a fantastic book for sparking the imagination in all who read it.
Although this is a book from a bigger series where Katie learns about other artists and paintings, Katie and the Sunflowers reads wonderfully well on its own. There is certainly no need to have read any of the other Katie books to enjoy this one, though we will now be reserving the others in the series from our library, given how much M has enjoyed reading this one.
Katie and the Sunflowers: (or if you are going to an art gallery)
Whilst we’ve been drawing / painting / printing sunflowers we’ve been listening to Sunflower by Beth Mclaughlin. I’m also hoping that we might get around to setting up our own (toy) seed company using the gazillions of sunflower seeds we now have – there are some fun pointers for this at Daniellesplace (you’ll need to scroll down just over half the page to find the seed company project). We might also use the seeds to do a mosaic, this this one from KinderArt, swapping pumpkin seeds for sunflower seeds. There are also loads of different ways you can make your own sunflowers if you haven’t been lucky enough to grow your own: