Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith

It goes like this – a boy lives with his family in a house by the sea. It’s summer and the sea is sparkling. The boy and his friend play on the only two swings that are left, there used to be four. He runs an errand for his mother. He visits his grandfather’s gravestone.

All the while the bright summer day is contrasted with the deep dark mine under the sea in which his father works as a coal miner, like his grandfather had done before him and in which, the boy understands he will work too.

In this town, that’s the way it goes.

This book is perfectly described by the New York Times as “quietly devastating.” It raises questions around themes of destiny, free will and determinism and the ethics of work.

published in the UK by Walker books

Why does the boy think he will become a miner?

Does he have a choice?

Does everyone have the same opportunities in life?
Should they?

Are we all born equal?

Should people ever have to risk their life to earn a wage?

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There’s a Bear on my Chair by Ross Collins

A rather large polar bear has taken up residence on a very small mouse’s chair. The mouse does everything he can think of to get the bear to move, pushing and shoving, staring him out, luring with delicious fruit… The mouse even tries frightening the bear by jumping out of a box (in his rather unsightly green underpants) to no avail. The bear won’t budge. Then the tables are turned as the bear reveals his endangered status and suddenly we become unsure of what’s right and what’s wrong.

Quite often with picture books for the best philosophical questions it’s best to stop before the end of the story, before all the loose ends are tidied up. This is one of those books. Personally I would stop reading just after the bear reveals his endangered status.

Do all creatures have rights?

Do smaller, less powerful creatures have less rights than bigger, more powerful creatures?

Does this apply to younger creatures, what about children?

Do children have the right to property?

What does it mean to have power over someone else?

Should creatures other than humans have legal rights?

Should habitats have rights? Why?

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Tidy by Emily Gravett

Pete the badger is obsessively tidy. It’s bad enough that his obsession encroaches on his friends personal space but then he turns his attention to cleaning up the environment… and when scrubbing and polishing rocks and picking up every single fallen autumn leaf creates a mound of plastic bags and results in the trees looking “bare and scrappy” he takes things even further. Pete’s extreme cleansing measures, as well as destroying many creatures habitat, result in him being unable to find his way home and after a hungry night spent in the bowl of a cement mixer, he finally sees his mistake. It really helps to pay close attention to the images in this story. The expression on the animals faces as Pete gives them a bath, the flower in the bin, the pile of bin bags, the hoover in the forest, the price tags on the trees…

How does Pete decide which flowers should stay and which should go?

What is the difference between a weed and a flower?

What is beauty?

Can nature be ugly?

Why do the animals allow Pete to wash them?

Should Pete use the hedgehog to brush the fox’s tail?

Why do the replanted trees have prices tags?

What does it mean to be perfect?

Do some creatures have more rights than other creatures?

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The Bad Mood & The Stick by Lemony Snicket and Matt Forsythe

A girl named Curly is in a bad mood and happens to come across a stick which has randomly fallen to the ground. The stick comes in handy for poking her little brother and happily also relieves her of her bad mood – which has been now passed to her mum. The bad mood is passed on further and so is the stick the stick finds an unlikely home in an ice cream parlour window whose owner keeps it there because it makes him happy.

Where do moods come from?

What are emotions?

What is the difference between a mood and an emotion?

Is a mood a thing that can be transferred/ passed along like a ball?

Is weather a good metaphor for moods?

Do we need our emotions to make reasoned judgements?

Why does the stick make the man happy?

How we respond to objects and incidents via emotions seems to shape what happens next, if we are not in charge of our responses – are we really making decisions for ourselves?

What place do random events have in life? Is the path of our life determined by prior events and experiences rather than by us making reasoned decisions?

Can bad actions have good effects?

If a bad action results in a good outcome – was it still a bad thing to do? How do we determine what is good and what is bad?

if everything that happens to us is a result of some event that happened before – what would be the first cause?

What is a coincidence?

What does it mean when the illustrations are described as art – are illustrations art? Can art be something that is mechanically reproduced?

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A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna

A lion, big curious and bored decides to leave the grasslands in search of something more – a job, love and a future. Arriving in Paris by train he is a little daunted by the busy city. He thinks that he might surprise the Parisians but instead they surprise him – by taking no notice. As he takes in more and more of Paris he grows to love the city and decides finally to give up his freedom and his grassland home for a plinth in the middle of a busy roundabout.

Alemagna’s art work – a mixture of color pencil,  ink pen, and photo montage is reminiscent of the Table That Ran Away to the Woods. The book opens like a calendar – quite different from usual. So big it’s too awkward to read sitting on your lap. It’s bulk forces us to pay proper attention, spreading it on the table or floor so as to take in each of the beautiful images. Each image is given it’s own page so the pace of the book is deliberate, slow and thoughtful. The text sits on the page above engulfed in white space, encouraging us to contemplate image and text separately.

Does a lion have a job? Did people always have jobs?

What is work? Why should we work?

Could a lion live freely in the city? Can we live freely in the city?

What determines who we are and what we should do?

What makes something real? Does something have to be seen to be real?

What is freedom – is it important?

Does living in a community necessarily mean relinquishing some freedom?

Are we exercising freedom when we choose to give up some freedoms?

What makes a good life?

What is the function of art? Does it have a function?

Is it possible to change our destiny?

Is to be loved more important than to be free?

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The Table That Ran Away to the Woods by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson

This small format picture book written in 1930’s poignantly tells the story of how the author’s writing desk puts on two pairs of shoes, (a pair belonging to him and a pair belonging to his wife) and takes off down the stairs out of a man-made urban environment and back to the woods where it takes root.

The illustrations were created by the author’s wife Franciszka Themersen. Her technique is collage and photomontage. Images from magazines, and  flat colour are in interspersed with hand drawn line on cut-out scraps of paper. Collage with it’s collision of different techniques draws attention to the process of it’s making. Rather than allowing us to become immersed in the illustration it continually draws us back to the surface of the page.  The images of the urban scenes are black and white, jagged shapes and cuts outs of concrete brutalist buildings. Colour is rare: the window on the cover, the green leaves, selected words in the text – it’s a welcome relief from the harsh black.

The book is unsettling.  There are so many conflicts and contrasts, jarring imagery induces the sense of anxiety the author might have felt at the beginning of an era where war threatens to destroy everything worth fighting for and modernity threatens to turn nature into a resource.

Is there a conflict between nature and culture?

Is culture natural?

Is the state of nature something perfect to be protected from the polluting influence of culture? (Rousseau)

It also raises philosophical questions regarding environmental ethics, modernity’s anthropocentric view of nature as resource.

Is nature simply there for us to do as we please with?

Is it right that human affairs spill out to the detriment of other living things?

The images of branches springing from where the ink has been spilled and the starlings nesting in the inkwell raise questions around language. The starlings in ink seems reminiscent of birds drenched in oil.

Do words restrict, and therefore distort/pollute ideas?

And yet, the word starling suggests the birth of an idea. It’s the fertility of the authors imagination that’s sprouted branches and is about to take flight, remaking the world.

How can ideas (something non physical that arise in the mind) alter the world physically?

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