Over the last couple of year’s I’ve read quite a lot about how children’s books with a very specific cultural setting are not favoured by publishers because it is hard to sell rights widely; publishers are keen for “universal” stories which translate (literally and figuratively) well across borders and languages.
Whilst I understand publishers’ drive to maximise sales, I think a great deal is lost if we ignore stories boldly and vividly set in specific and identifiable locations and cultures. Indeed, considering the current drive for increasing diversity in children’s books, I would argue that books which are culture specific have a vital role to play.
And of course, a great book will be “universal” whether or not it is set in a specific time, location or country; enduring stories speak to that which we share whatever our differences.
I have been a fan of Mairi Hedderwick’s books for as long as I can remember. She writes and illustrates rural Scottish island life in a magical way. She captures truths like poetry can in her watercolours of Hebridean life, whilst her stories are full of acute observations about family life that’s more or less the same wherever you are in the world, exploring issues such as sibling rivalry and intergenerational relationships.
The Katie Morag Treasury by Mairi Hedderwick is a glorious book, bringing together a mix of the most popular previously published Katie Morag books and new stories and illustrations first heard and seen on episodes of the highly acclaimed BBC Katie Morag TV show. It really is a treasury, with a range of witty and poignant stories, illustrated in ink and watercolour in a way that invisibly and movingly marries romance and realism.
For kids listening to these stories Katie Morag’s tales act as mirrors; yes she may live in a community vastly unlike the one the young reader or listener lives in, but that only makes it more interesting and reassuring to read that Katie Morag has the same sort of worries, plays the same sorts of games and quarrels with her parents just like they do. Thoughtfulness is a consistent thread in all these stories, and Katie Morag herself is a terrific role model; full of strength and imagination she is not afraid to explore, to try new things, or to be kind.
This is a keeper of a book, one which works well both as a read-aloud, or for children who can read themselves. Indeed the lovely hardback binding makes this ideal for older readers who might not want to be seen reading picture books any more.
Last year when we were holiday in Scotland we collected a stash of shells and sea glass and re-reading these fabulous Katie Morag stories inspired us to get our jars of them out of our natural history museum, and play with them using a home-made light box.
I borrowed one of our large plastic boxes which we normally store lego in, lined it with white tissue paper, and then put a load of fairy lights inside it. With the fairy lights turned on, and all the other lights turned off and curtains drawn we entered something of a soothing world where the girls could then make patterns with the shells and sea glass, with soft light shining through.
If you don’t have any sea glass, you could do this activity with florists’ glass (vase) pebbles instead, making light imbued mosaics.
Music which goes really well with Katie Morag stories (though maybe not with the light box activity as much of it will get you up and dancing) includes:
Other activities which you could try out alongside reading The Katie Morag Treasury include:
What are your favourite children’s books which have a very strong sense of location?
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of The Katie Morag Treasury by the publisher