Marianne Dubuc’s Up the Mountain is worth considering when anyone says that a picture book is simple. It does not have the visual fireworks of Gaiman and McKean’s Wolves in the Walls or the political complexity of Foreman’s A Child’s Garden but the straightforward story (outlined below) has a lot to offer.
I find it is sometimes challenging when reading educators’ social media about “Where would you have this book?” and ” What use could you make of this book?” to stop and think of a book as an object in itself: the visual aspects, the pace and language of the narrative… That’s not to deny teachers for a moment a very exciting way to explore and widen their own understanding of “children’s books” – but just that sometimes a book calls me to step away from the pedagogy. Up the Mountain does that for me. Yes, it fits with projects on Outdoors, it could be used to discuss age, and friendship, and exploring, maps and maths, wildlife, ability…
But that’s why it is a really enticing book. “Very old” Mrs Badger, on her Sunday walk up the mountain meets the little cat Leo who overcomes his reticence and joins her in the walk – that Sunday and “for many a Sunday after that,” until Mrs Badger no longer has the strength and it is up to Leo to rediscover the mountain. It is a plain enough narrative, with an easy pace and lovely drawings, and as Leo makes the “splendid” mountain his own, it has a poignant and subtle message about growing up and passing on the things you have experienced and grown to love – as Leo does at the end of the book. This is a story my 5yo granddaughter will love, but the unspoken affection, the relationships between character and landscape, the exploration of tradition and enthusiasm mean I can return to this over and again for my own pleasure.
So how do we step back from being pedagogues to being simple readers? Easy enough for me in semi-retirement, maybe, easier still with research partners to spur me on, but the following are just some rough-and-ready thoughts.
Reading widely helps: if you stick to the ones you know, you are missing out. Not just because this book or that is perfect for this child or that, but because your own enjoyment is endangered, rendered threadbare. On social media recently, a new teacher asked about the book for this next term. My response was to suggest she read a book she will enjoy reading, and the best way to find those is to read widely. The commmuity of people reading and discussing “children’s books” (or fantasy or whatever) is rich, wide and very charitable. Look at Sarah or Dimitra for starters…
Re-visiting half-forgotten or set aside books or series: have you “done” the lovely Owl Babies a lot? What about On the Way Home? Or if you set aside something (a besetting sin of mine) ask yourself why, and whether it’s worth returning to it. Finish the Stone Book Quartet. I bet there’s a Moomin story sitting unexplored – or what about Jansson’s adult books??? There’s a whole different thread…
Treating the books destined for the classroom just as you would your holiday reading: You don’t intend to put Margaret Atwood’s Hagseed in the classroom but how did you read it? Did you take its psychological messages about bereavement and revenge to heart, or did you read it as a comic exploration of a Shakespeare play? Did you read and re-read, or did you race through it? Did you share it with a friend or a partner? Or a book group? Or on Goodreads? What did you “get out of reading it”? I read seasonally: Moomins in the autumn, maybe, and Lucy Boston’s Children of Green Knowe in December… How do you read? What do you enjoy? Why do I like Up the Mountain so much? Is it that poignant subtext of Mrs Badger saying goodbye to her beloved Sunday walks? The gentle loyalty of Leo? A bit of self-reflection might let you think differently about the children’s books not as a resource but as a source of wonder and enjoyment.
Reading about authors – reading other people’s critiques of authors’ discussions and interviews (I have to link to Mat Tobin here, but check out Simon and Martin and others, too), author biographies, books by the author outside their usual genre. No, for some people that’s not the way they want to go, but for some those lavish books of Maurice Sendak’s artworks or the simple self-revelation of Alan Ahlberg’s The Bucket are just the thing to get you looking at the books children read in a different light.
And then finally. Once you have enjoyed the illustrations, seen the way prose and picture work together (or in opposition), enjoyed that way that little cat peers out at Mrs Badger and how the bunny later echoes the incident, finally figured out the relationship between Sally Gardner’s wolves and John Masefield’s – then start looking at the classroom, and again, Mat has the resources … Too late to do this for this summer, I know, but this is, after all, simply a reflection as the weather cools. Time for the Moomins for me, then… More mountains and small beasts.
4 thoughts on “Up the Mountain”