Playing by the book

Reviews of kids' books and the crazy, fun stuff they inspire us to do

The Colour Thief x 2

Posted on | October 13, 2014 | 3 Comments

Can you imagine a world without colour, where all you see is black, white or the shades of grey in between? As a self-confessed colour junkie such a world would sap my energies and leave my life (perhaps ironically), somewhat blue.

Thus when two new books came to my attention both titled ‘The Colour Thief’ I was very intrigued; not only did they look like their subject matter would appeal to me, it was funny and surprising to see two books, from different authors/illustrators/publishers with the same title.

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In The Colour Thief by Gabriel Alborozo an alien looks longingly across space to planet earth, full of colours and brightness. He believes such a beautiful place must be full of joy, and so sets off to bring some of that happiness back to his home planet.

With just a few magic words the alien is able to suck up first all the reds, then the blues and the greens and before long planet earth is looking very grey and sad. But what of the alien? Can he really be happy when he sees the glumness he has caused?

Alborozo’s story about kindness, desire and what makes us joyous and content is full of appeal. There are lots of themes which can be explored; from the beauty around us which we might take for granted (requiring an outsider to alert us to us), to whether or not we can be happy if we’ve caused others distress, this book could be used to open up lots of discussion.

Click to see larger image

Click to see larger image

Although the alien’s actions could be frightening, this is mitigated by his cute appearance, just one of the book’s charms. I also think kids will love the apparent omnipotence of the alien: He wants something, and at his command he gets it, just like that, and this identification with the alien makes the story more interesting and unusual. The artwork is fun and energetic, seemingly filled with rainbow coloured confetti. I can easily imagine a wonderful animation of this story.

The Colour Thief by Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, illustrated by Karin Littlewood is a very different sort of story. It draws on the authors’ own experience of parental depression, exploring from a child’s perspective what it can feel like to watch a parent withdraw as they suffer from this illness.

Father and son lead a comforting life “full of colour”, but when depression clouds the father’s mind he withdraws, and all the colours around the family seem to disappear. The child worries that he might somehow be the cause of this loss, but he is repeatedly reassured it is not his fault and gradually, with patience and love, colours start to seep back into the father’s life and he returns to his family.

Mental health is difficult to talk about when you’re 40, let alone when you are four, but this lyrical and moving book provides a thoughtful, gentle, and unsentimental way into introducing (and if desired, discussing) depression. If you were looking for “when a book might help” to reassure a child in a specific situation, I would wholeheartedly recommend this; it is honest, compassionate and soothing.

However, I definitely wouldn’t keep this book ONLY for those times when you find a child in a similar circumstances to those described in the book. It is far too lovely to be kept out of more general circulation. For a start, the language is very special; it’s perhaps no surprise when you discover that one of the author’s has more than 70 poetry books to his name. If you were looking for meaningful, tender use of figurative language, for example in a literacy lesson, this book provides some fabulous, examples.

Click to see larger image.

Click to see larger image.

And then there are the illustrations. Karin Littlewood has long been one of my favourite illustrators for her use of colour, her graceful compositions, her quiet kindness in her images. And in The Colour Thief there are many examples of all these qualities. I particularly like her use of perspective first to embody the claustrophobia and fear one can feel with depression, with bare tree branches leaning in onto the page, or street lamps lowering overhead, and then finally the open, sky-facing view as parent and child reunite as they walk together again when colour returns.

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Particularly inspired by the imagery in Alborozo’s The Colour Thief we made a trip to a DIY store to pick up a load of paint chips.

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Wow. My kids went crazy in the paint section: Who knew paint chips could be just so much fun? They spent over an hour collecting to their hearts’ desire. A surprising, free and fun afternoon!

Once home we snipped up the paint chips to separate each colour. The colour names caused lots of merriment, and sparked lots of equally outlandish ideas for new colour names, such as Beetlejuice red, Patio grey, Spiderweb silver and Prawn Cocktail Pink.

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We talked about shades and intensity of colours, and sorted our chips into three piles: Strong, bright colours, off-white colours, and middling colours. I then put a long strip of contact paper on the kitchen table, sticky side up, and the kids started making a mosaic with the chips, starting with the brightest colours in the middle, fading to the palest around the edge.

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Apart for the soothing puzzle-like quality of this activity, the kids have loved using the end result as a computer keyboard, pressing the colours they want things to change to. I also think it makes for a rather lovely bit of art, now up in their bedroom.

colourthiefartwork

Whilst making our colour mosaic we listened to:

  • My favourite ever, ever song about colours…. Kristin Andreassen – Crayola Doesn’t Make A Color For Your Eyes
  • Colors by Kira Willey. This song would go really well with ‘My Many Colored Days’ by Dr. Seuss.
  • Roy G Biv by They Might Be Giants


  • Other activities which might go well with either version of ‘The Colour Thief’ include:

  • Taking some online colour quizzes to learn more about just how you see colour (and how that might be different to someone else)
  • Making your own colour swatches or favourite colours book, using this amazing 322 year old Dutch book as inspiration. It will be much cheaper and a lot more fun than buying a Pantone Colour Guide.

  • If you know someone suffering from depression these charities may be of help:

  • Depression Alliance
  • Mind
  • Sane
  • Pandas Foundation – Pre and Post Natal depression support
  • Acacia – Pre and Post Natal depression support

  • Disclosure: I received free review copies of both books reviewed today from their respective publishers.

    Some other books I have since found with the same title but by different authors/illustrators/publishers include:

    thesnowyday

    ‘The Snowy Day’ by Ezra Jack Keats, and ‘The Snowy Day’ by Anna Milbourne and Elena Temporin

    bubbleandsqueakpair

    ‘Bubble and Squeak’ by Louise Bonnett-Rampersaud and Susan Banta, and ‘Bubble and Squeak’ by James Mayhew and Clara Vulliamy

    mydadtrio

    ‘My Dad’ by Anthony Browne, ‘My Dad’ by Steve Smallman and Sean Julian, and ‘My Dad’ by Chae Strathie and Jacqueline East

    My thanks to @josiecreates, @FBreslinDavda and @illustratedword for alerting me to some of these titles.

    What makes you You? A Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlistee

    Posted on | October 9, 2014 | 1 Comment

    royalsocietyprizebuttonEach year the Royal Society awards a prize to the best book that communicates science to young people with the aim of inspiring young people to read about science. In the run up to the announcement of the winner of The Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize in the middle of November, I’ll be reviewing the books which have made the shortlist, and trying out science experiments and investigating the world with M and J in ways which stem from the books in question.

    7277405-MFirst up is What makes you YOU? by Gill Arbuthnott , illustrated by Marc Mones.

    Have you ever thought how your genes could get you out of prison?

    Or what the consequences might be if a company owned and could make money out of one of your own genes?

    How would you know if you were a clone?

    Why might knowing something about junk DNA be important if you’re running an exclusive restaurant with slightly dodgy practices?

    Answers to these and many other intriguing questions are to be found in this accessible introduction to genetics, pitched at the 9-11 crowd. Arbuthnott does a great job of showing how relevant a knowledge of genetics is, whether in helping us to understand issues in the news (e.g. ‘Cancer gene test ‘would save lives’‘) or understanding why we are partly but not entirely like our parents. What makes you YOU? covers key scientists in the past history of genetics and crucial stages in its development as a science, including the race to discover what DNA looked like, the Human Genome Project, and Dolly the Sheep.

    wmyyinside

    Arbuthnott portrays the excitement and potential in genetic research very well, leaving young readers feeling that this is far from a dry science; there are many ethical issues which make the discussion of the facts seem more relevant and real to young readers. Whilst on the whole I felt the author did a good job of balancing concerns with opportunities, I was sorry that in the discussion about genetically modified plants no mention was made of businesses ability to control supply to food stock, by creating plants which don’t reproduce, leaving farmers dependent on buying new seed from the business.

    A timeline of discoveries, a very helpful list of resources for further study, a glossary and an index all make this a really useful book. Importantly, not only does the book contain interesting and exciting information, it also looks attractive and engaging. Lots of full bleed brightly coloured pages, and the use of cartoony characters make the book immediately approachable and funny – a world away from a dry dull school textbook.

    What makes you YOU? provides a clear and enjoyable introduction to understanding DNA and many of the issues surrounding genetic research, perfect not only for learning about this branch of science, but also for generating discussion.

    Extracting DNA is what the kids wanted to try after sharing What makes you YOU?. In the interest of scientific exploration we tried two different techniques to see which one we found easier and which gave the best results.

    Method 1: Extracting your own DNA

    What you’ll need:

    dna1

  • A tablespoon
  • Salt
  • A measuring jug
  • Water
  • Washing-up liquid
  • A small bowl
  • A teaspoon
  • A small clean cup
  • A tall and narrow jar (or a test tube)
  • Clingfilm or a stopper/lid
  • A stirrer eg a plastic straw
  • Rubbing alcohol (surgical spirit – in the UK you can buy this easily in a chemists such as Boots)

  • dna4

  • 1. Dissolve 1 tablespoon of salt in 250ml of water to create a salt solution.
  • 2. Dilute the washing-up liquid by mixing 1 tbsp of washing-up liquid with 3 tbsp of water in your small bowl. We’ll call this the soap solution.
  • 3. Swish 1 teaspoon of tap water around in your mouth vigorously for at least 30 seconds. Spit this into the small cup. We’ll call this spit water.
  • 4. Put 1/4 teaspoon of your salt solution into your tall jar/test tube.
  • 5. Pour your spit water from the cub into the tall tar/test tube.
  • 6. Add 1/4 teaspoon of your soap solution to the test tube.
  • 7. Cover the top of your tall jar/test tube either with clingfilm/a stopper/a lid and gently turn the jar almost upside down several times to mix everything together. Avoid making any bubbles.
  • 8. Take the covering off the jar and dribble 1 teaspoon of surgical spirit down the side of the tall jar/test tube. Watch for the surgical spirit forming a layer on top of the spitwater/salt solution/soap solution mix.
  • 9. You should now see a white stringy layer forming between the two layers – this is your DNA (and a few proteins, but mostly it’s your DNA)
  • 10. You can use the stirrer to pull out the white goop to get a closer look at your DNA.
  • dna5.jpg

    We learned this method for extracting DNA from Exploratopia by Pat Murphy, Ellen Macaulay and the staff of the Exploratorium. Unfortunately it’s out of print now, but it is definitely worth tracking down a copy if you are interested in doing experiments at home.

    Method 2: Extracting strawberry DNA

    This second method is detailed in What makes you YOU? and involves strawberries, fresh pineapple, warm water and ice as well as washing-up liquid and salt. It also calls for methylated spirits but we swapped this for surgical spirit, as that’s what we had to hand.

    dna2

    This method is a little more involved than the first method but is a all round sensory experience: There are lots of strong smells (from crushed strawberries and puréed pineapple, as well as the surgical spirit), colours make it visually very appealing (perhaps this is why methylated spirits are called for in the original recipe as the purple of the meths adds another dimension) and there is also lots to feel, from the strange sensation of squishing the strawberries by hand, through to the different temperatures of the warm water in which the DNA-extracting-mix gently cooks followed by the ice water in which it cools down.

    squishingstrawbs

    strawberrydnaprocess

    strawberrydnaresult

    Look! Strawberry DNA!

    strawberrydnagoop

    Both methods were fun to try. We liked the first method because the result was seeing globs of our very own DNA, but the second method was a much more stimulating process, appealing to all the senses. Indeed this DNA extraction recipe alone makes it worthwhile seeking out a copy of What makes you YOU?.

    Whilst extracting DNA we listened to:

  • GENEticS, a rap by Oort Kuiper
  • The DNA song

  • The Galaxy DNA song By Eric Idle and John Du Prez (a re-worked Monty Python song)


  • Other activities which might go well with reading What makes you YOU? include:

  • Checking out this list of children’s books I previously compiled on genetics and DNA – with something for everyone no matter what their age.
  • Listening to an interview with Gill Arbuthnott
  • Watching this animation which helps explain how Mendel’s pea plants helped us understand genetics

  • What do you and your family look for in science books to really hook you in? Do share some examples of science books which you’ve especially enjoyed over the years.

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of What makes you YOU? from the Royal Society.

    Sam & Dave Dig a Hole: diamonds, a dog and deadpan humour

    Posted on | October 6, 2014 | 2 Comments

    samanddaveSam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen is full of near misses but ends up being one big hit. Forget the treasure that may or may not be buried under your feet, pick this book up and you’ll have a real gem in your hands.

    It starts like this:

    Apropos of seemingly nothing, Sam and Dave decide to dig a hole.

    They’re only going to stop when they find “something spectacular”.

    They don’t have much luck, but… in a brilliantly crafted piece of drama they come oh so painfully, excruciatingly close.

    Many picture book creators have talked about how they see their books as mini pieces of theatre, and this book delivers a very special theatrical experience; like in a pantomime when you might call out “He’s behind you!”, only for the innocent character on stage to turn and see nothing, the reader/listener has special knowledge that poor Sam and Dave do not. With beautifully textured, muted illustrations revealing something quite different to what is known from the text, children treated to this story get a special thrill from “being in the know”, from seeing the truly spectacular buried treasure that the poor protagonists keep missing.

    This empowering experience is doubled up through association with Sam and Dave’s little dog. Despite being small and just a side kick (like many children sometimes feel), the dog seems to have all the brains. He is the one who keeps sensing just how close the diamonds are. He is the one who makes the breakthrough, resulting in Sam and Dave appearing to have dug all the way through to …

    …well, to what? To where? Although this book was authored by Barnett, the ending feels like classic Klassen: It’s full of ambiguity and multiple possible readings. Have Sam and Dave dug all the way through from one side of the earth to the other? Have they managed through some Möbius-strip-like convolution to dig all the way through to end up back where they started? Or have they discovered something genuinely spectacular – some new dimension where slightly different rules are at play?

    Finely honed, pared-back text and seemingly quiet illustrations which actually pack a very funny punch combine to make this a winner. Do look out for Sam & Dave Dig a Hole!

    Inspired by Sam and Dave’s digging we decided to do a little bit of digging ourselves. Using these guidelines from Suffolk County Council, we dug what is known by archaeologists as a “test pit” in the middle of the lawn in our back garden.

    We marked out a square and I took off the top layer of turf before the girls started digging down, retrieving any “treasure” they found on the way.

    digging3

    They used a large garden sieve to go through the soil they removed, and a toothbrush to wash what they found.

    digging4

    As you can see we found quite a lot of “treasure” including something metal but unidentifiable (top left of the photo below), a section of Victorian clay pipe stem, several pieces of pottery and a surprising number of large bones! (oh, and a hippo…..)

    diggging1

    At some point when my back was turned the game developed into something a little different – M made a “time capsule” in an old icecream tub and insisted that it got buried when the time came to fill in our hole.

    digging2

    So I guess this means we’ll be digging another hole at some point in the future. Given how much fun we had with this one, I won’t be complaining.

    We weren’t listening to music whilst we dug our hole, but were we to choose some music to match Sam & Dave Dig a Hole we might include these in our playlist:

  • The Hole in the Ground sung by Bernard Cribbins – I have to admit, a favourite from my own childhood
  • Diggin’ a Hole to China by The Baby Grands (you can listen for free here on Vimeo!)
  • Diggin’ in the Dirt by Peter Gabriel


  • Other activities you could enjoy along side reading this hilarious book include:

  • Watching Mac Barnett give a Ted Talk about “writing that escapes the page, art as a doorway to wonder”

  • Helping Sam and Dave find their way through a maze using this activity sheet from the publishers.
  • Indoor hole digging. One of my kids’ favourite activities when they were younger, and one which saved my life several times by providing me with a good few minutes to get on with making supper or tidying up, was digging in an indoor sand tray. I had an old roasting tray filled with sand and a few spoons and yoghurt pots which I kept in the cupboard and would bring out for the girls to play with at the table. Yes sand would get spilt as they dug the sand, but all it took was a quick hoover to tidy up.
  • Taking a look at these VERY big holes around the world….
  • Reading The Something by Rebecca Cobb, another very lovely, very different book all about the possibilities a hole offers.

  • What’s your favourite hole? A hole you made? A hole you visited? A hole which allows you to sneak through into some secret space?

    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book from the publisher but was under no obligation to review it and received no payment for doing so.

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