Ah, the mysteries of space… astronauts adventuring to the moon, giant asteroids about to crash to earth, little green men intent on invasion. Glowing planets and shimmering stars with a beauty almost beyond description. The subject of space has always captivated children’s imagination. Who hasn’t hidden behind a sofa at one point in their childhood, terrified but magnetically drawn to the terrors faced by a brave Dr. Who, and then recreated the episode in the playground the following week? Or is that just us in the English Team?
Thursday 4th October sees the start of World Space Week, an opportunity to celebrate advances in space science. It is, therefore, the perfect time to enjoy the wealth of children’s literature that fires the imagination and turns us all into little Dr Whos.
1. 5,4,3,2,1 LIFT OFF! Shaking from side to side, the astronaut hangs onto the edges of her rocket. Pulling her grazed knees in tight, silver foil crumples and glued-on yoghurt pot headlamps slide to the floor… Climbing into a cardboard box to embark on a lunar mission is a regular event in Early Years classrooms up and down the country. Indeed, not just classrooms; the living rooms and back gardens of the nation have been transformed into lunar landscapes since the Apollo Missions of the 1960s and 1970s. Jill Murphy’s Whatever Next! captures this popular piece of imaginative play beautifully. Play before bath-time; dressing-up in a spacesuit of wellies and a colander; and the typical parental refrain of ‘Whatever next!’ in response to Baby Bear’s ‘imagined’ adventure to the moon make this a story with a familiar setting – even if it is an imagined moonscape.
2. The theme of child as lunar explorer is enjoyed again in The Way back Home by Oliver Jeffers. In this picture book a little boy ventures into space in an aeroplane. His moon landing is accidental – he runs out of petrol. He’s not alone for long, as a young Martian has an engine fault in his vehicle and he too crash lands on the moon. In a series of events reminiscent of ‘let’s pretend’, a solution is found to their shared plight and the new friends find their ‘Way Back Home’.
3. The Usborne Book of Planets – weren’t Usborne books great? They taught you all the things you wanted to find out that weren’t taught at school. Charlotte bought hers on a primary school trip to Jodrell Bank where she went to see the giant telescope and look at the planets.
4.Fast forward a few years to Charlotte’s NQT year and the desperate search for a book to use for her first ever class assembly. The saviour? Dr Xargles Book of Earthlets. A genius book, full of the usual Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross humour with great illustrations, and when isn’t a group of Year 6 children dressed as babies hilarious? It made for some great instructional manual writing too. Who said picture books were only for the Early Years?
5. How can we not mention Cosmic by Frank Cotterill Boyce, little known script writer of the Olympics opening ceremony and general genius. He is one of Charlotte’s current long running author crushes – has she mentioned that she has met him? (Only a few times – the rest of the team) Cosmic is a simple comedic tale that could happen to any of us (!) and shows the power of one small lie that gets out of hand. It’s a great book for Year 6. On the first day of secondary school, the unusually tall 12 year old Liam is mistaken for the new teacher and so begins a hilarious series of events. We are sure the moral isn’t ‘tell a lie and you get to drive a Porsche and go to space’, but it should be, it’s good to dream and sometimes those big dreams come true!
6. The Clangers, by Oliver Postgate. It’s an old one but a good ‘un. Inspired by the space explorations of the 1960s and originating from another old favourite series of children’s books, Noggin the Nog, this BBC animated series from the early 70s featured the Clangers, a family of creatures living on a hollow planet far, far away, nourished by blue string pudding and green soup harvested from volcanoes by the Soup Dragon. Those of us old enough to remember were captivated by these strange little creatures who spoke only in whistles, meaning that you could make up your own dialogue. Cue lots of storytellng, the putting on of plays, cartoons drawn and stories written. A forerunner of Talk for Writing perhaps?
7. Rebecca’s World. Terry Nation’s classic sci-fi adventure to a forbidden planet is unique and delightfully imaginative, both in plot and setting. Many an evening was spent by English Team members in their younger days, staring at the stars and willing themselves to be transported, like Rebecca, to a more colourful world. Never has it failed to capture the imagination of the classes we’ve taught over the years. The characters are so vivid they jump off the page – a rather un-heroic superhero in a threadbare costume, a man with an endless layer of coats and the most painful feet in the world and, finally, a spy who is inept with disguises and not terribly good at spying. Together they make a great team, embarking on a mighty quest to save the last tree from extinction. This is ‘off the wall’ imagination at its best and, like all great children’s books, equally enjoyable for adults.
8. In last month’s blogpost Neil Armstrong: celebrate his legacy with a picture book we celebrated the life of this courageous adventurer and the impact he has had on our imagination by taking a look at Mark Haddon’s book The Sea of Tranquillity, beautifully illustrated by Christian Birmingham. This beautiful picture book is an autobiographical account of Mark Haddon’s childhood – growing up as a little boy fascinated by space and the lunar missions.