Book Title: 'The Pond' & 'Perfect'
Author: Nicola Davies
Illustrator: Cathy Fisher
Date: 2017 & 2016
Stories and pictures have an incredible power to speak into emotionally difficult situations, opening up conversations that can otherwise be hard to find a way into starting. In a primary school setting, it is easy to fear that entering into discussions on topics like parental bereavement or disability in a newborn sibling will cause emotional turbulence to children, but practitioners are also increasingly aware that keeping silence on such topics turns important real-life experiences into emotional taboos. While sudden or unexpected changes in the family can cause it to be difficult for children to process and articulate their feelings, stories and pictures offer a wonderful way to explore related emotions and connect with shared experiences. Books that delve into such experiences also bring opportunities to develop empathy and understanding to a wider audience of children, far beyond the reach of their immediate subject matter.
Two important picture books tackling difficult topics come from author and illustrator team Nicola Davies and Cathy Fisher, who use relatable characters going through major family changes to walk through the important themes of birth, growth, disability, death and grief, while also highlighting the human connection to wildlife and shared natural processes. In this blog post I review The Pond and Perfect and suggest some discussion questions stemming from each text.
Bittersweet and poignant, this book tells the story of a child whose father has the idea to build a pond in the family garden. Initially there is excitement and hope about the potential of the pond, but before it is completed the father sadly passes away. The pond is left unfinished; a lifeless hole in the garden that mirrors the emptiness and desolation of the family’s bereavement.
Over time, the feelings of grief become mixed with a new hope as the young boy and his mother regenerate the pond and see it become filled with new life. The beautiful illustrations highlight how natural processes like death connect us to the world of nature. This book deals with a difficult and sad topic but does not attempt to simplify the tangle of emotions associated with the boy's grief. The Pond is an important and empathetic story for all children to read, not just those who have lost a close family member.
10 discussion starters based on The Pond:
What kind of living things can be found in a pond? What do you know about their life cycles?
What does Dad imagine the pond might be like before he builds it? If you could create a pond, what would you like it to be like?
How is the hole in the garden a bit like the ‘hole’ that fills the family’s hearts after Dad dies?
Do you think it was fair that the boy was told off for leaving on the hosepipe? Why/why not?
Look carefully at the pinboard page that starts with the text ‘After that, we were always looking at the pond’. Which parts of the observation board catch your eye? Which parts would you like to know more about? How does this image capture the notion of the boy processing and sorting through emotions?
What does the boy mean when he says he sits by the pond and tells his Dad about it?
How does the illustrator use colours to reflect different moods on different pages?
Can you spot any illustrations that make you think of the human life cycle (look particularly for images that remind you of pregnancy or birth)? Why are these important?
How does completing the pond project affect the way the boy processes his grief?
Why might Mum want to make a pond at the new house?
Teaching notes are available from the Nicola Davies website:
This story starts with a young boy being excited about the arrival of a new baby sister. He watches swifts flying in the sky and looks forward to the delights of racing and chasing with his new sibling. When the baby is brought home from hospital, however, it becomes clear to him that she is not quite as he expected and that she will not be able to play in the way he is hoping. The narrative very gently points to a disability in the new baby without being explicit about the details. Rather, the focus is on the reaction of the boy; a heavy muddle of emotions that range from confusion, hurt and anger to fear of putting into words the feelings of rejection towards his new sibling as he hides his tears from his parents.
As the boy continues to observe the natural behaviour of the swifts over the summer and helps a fledgeling swift to take flight, he finds a way to connect his experiences of nature to his relationship with his sibling. The boy begins to be able to process some of the emotions he feels towards his sister and to imagine how they might play together as she grows.
Much like The Pond, this book covers a difficult and potentially upsetting topic. So much that, in this case, initially publishers did not want to work with this text (see this article by Nicola Davies about the process of bringing the book to publication). But the topic is treated gently, sensitively and with much empathy. There are no specific details about the disability and some younger readers may miss the fact altogether as the narrative focuses more on the reactions of the boy than on the baby herself. Speaking aloud about negative feelings toward a new baby with a disability may seem like something prohibited, but this experience is a real one and those feelings are a very normal part of the process of adjusting for some people. The unspoken sense of taboo serves to make the emotional tangle much more difficult for the boy to articulate as he lays on the grass and hides his tears from others. This is why books that validate real experiences and feelings, however difficult, are so important. Perfect is a beautifully empathetic narrative that has the scope to resonate with readers far beyond the experiences covered in the story and it a wonderful choice for stimulating discussion in small groups in KS2.
10 discussion starters based on Perfect:
Why do you think the book is titled ‘Perfect’? Is this a good title? Why/why not? What alternative titles would you suggest?
Have you seen a swift before? What can you find out about their behaviour?
How does the boy feel when he meets his new baby sister? Why?
What does the boy mean when he says, 'I could see that she would never race or chase'?
Why do you think the boy did not want to let anybody see his tears?
How does the boy’s reaction to his new sister make you feel? Do you think you might feel a similar way if you were in his position?
Notice the different viewpoint of the illustrations (e.g. Who’s eye might the picture be seen through? Are we looking from above/in front/below?). Find pictures that seem to be from different viewpoints. Explain how the boy’s own viewpoint changes in the story.
What effect does finding the fledgling swift have on the boy? In what ways does the fledgling swift remind you of the baby? Which pages of the book help to draw parallels?
What might cause people to feel like somebody else is 'perfect' or 'imperfect'? Why might they change their mind?
This book explores a difficult experience that is not always talked about very much because it can be an upsetting topic. Why do you think it is important to read and share stories that show feelings about different experiences?
Teaching notes are available from the Nicola Davies website:
Many thanks to the publisher for kindly sending me review copies of these books.