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November Literature Review

Self-worth: something that is neither pre-determined nor fixed. We all must have a sense of high self-worth in varying degrees at different points in our lives. Or maybe not. Maybe some people never have the sense that they’re of value. Or maybe some too often feel worthless. That’s a sobering thought. In previous literature reviews we’ve explored resilience and we think that self-worth is inextricably connected to resilience: knowing that things will be okay because I’m okay; because I possess the rock-bed, the foundation – or whatever one wishes to call it – steadying me, anchoring me. And the courage to be resilient and keep going because it’s worth it; I’m worth it. And so we move to exploring how this theme of self-worth can be found within literature: characters experiencing the burning of uncertainty yet that possess the strength to keep going because they feel a sense of high self-worth; characters who still manage to do what is right not just by others but also themselves; characters who somehow manage to draw upon extraordinary reserves to save themselves because – even though they are faced by literal and figurative storms – they know that a better life of safety or freedom or acceptance or any number of things it is the human condition to strive for could await and that they are deserving of such things. Yet, the antithesis is also true in many a literary character: characters filled with self-importance; characters who are unkind, spiteful and cruel to others; some who act as they do because they are just not that nice but always some because they are so filled with self-loathing that they have no sense of self-worth and bringing others down with them somehow makes their world that bit better.

What, then, might alter a person’s sense of self-worth? Having a sense of purpose, be that a job or a vocation, a ‘calling’ might do this. For a child it is often feeling validated by others – fitting in. Comparing oneself to others may see an upward or downward shift in sense of value. And, whilst comparison may be the thief of joy or so the saying goes, we think it’s entirely human to compare – it’s how we see our place in the puzzle that is life, after all. But to help with working out the puzzle, here are four gorgeous books that exude worth and that all happen to sit within the theme of varying degrees of self-worth. They are: Animalphabet by Julia Donaldson and Sharon King-Chai; Cicada by Shaun Tan; Snowglobe by Amy Wilson and History in Infographics - The Mayans by Jon Richards and Jonathon Vipond.


Picture Book

I was Made for You by David Lucas (Andersen, 4th October 2018)

Now, we were already in love with David Lucas’ books not least because we had the pleasure of meeting him when he joined us on our Teach Through a Text in Reception training. But we were delighted to be gifted a copy of his brand new book and rather feel that it fits perfectly with this month’s theme of self worth purely because it’s about sense of self (and, ergo, self-worth). Having explored Lucas’ quirky and endearing ‘Halibut Jackson’ with our reception teachers and then with David himself, the parallels between these 2 texts are clear: just as Halibut appears to be (in the author’s words) ‘2-dimensional in a 3-dimensional world’/‘unreal’ and not really feeling part of things, so does the character in ‘I Was Made for You’, albeit in a slightly different way:

Cat was made from the softest, fluffiest wool.
‘Why was I made?’ asked Cat...
Cat was wrapped up with ribbon.

Then there was silence, as if the whole world were asleep...

Cat looked out at the DARKNESS.
‘Why was I made?’ asked Cat.
He didn’t expect a reply.
‘Wait until morning,’ said the DARKNESS, ‘then you’ll see.’
But Cat couldn’t wait.
Cat needed answers.

And so begins a journey of discovery where - literally and metaphorically- Cat unravels in the quest to find answers. And the answer? Cat exists for Daisy. That is Cat’s purpose.

The possibilities for discussion arising from this delightful and moving story are endless. Sense of self, self worth and awareness of being are all points for ‘deep’ discussion. We think this would work brilliantly with children in Year 1 and 2, with links to be made to PSHE and Philosophy for Children.


Picture Book for Younger Children

Animalphabet by Julia Donaldson and Sharon King-Chai (Two Hoots, 18th October 2018)

This is an absolute treat of a read and the message about self-worth, of knowing our strengths and appreciating our good points permeates. Set on pages of stunning cut-work and lift-flaps in riotous colours that are somehow vibrant yet soft, we are taken from A-Z through the animal kingdom:

Here is an ant.

Who is prettier than an ant?

A butterfly!

Who has more legs than a butterfly?

A caterpillar!

Who is faster than a caterpillar?

And so on right through to zebra (who happens to have more stripes than a yak, the yak seeming to have an air of brooding rock star about him, if that’s even possible for a yak…)

But what about ant? Well, when asked, Who is smaller than a zebra? We’re instructed to return to the beginning of the book …

Such a delightfully interactive look at animals and their attributes through comparing one with another each with their ‘strength’: faster/muddier/better at singing than each other. This would be perfect for supporting EYFS and KS1 objectives around talking about similarities and differences; talking about what children feel they and others are good at and around animals and habitats. And, of course, this could open up the discussion around self-worth with the idea that we all have positive attributes.


Picture Book for Older Children

Cicada by Shaun Tan (Hodder Children’s Books, 15th November 2018)

The eponymous hero of this startling and stirring book – which, as we’d expect from Tan, is thought-provoking to say the least – lives his life being undervalued. A worker for ‘man’, Cicada is shunned; is perceived as a lesser being than humans. They show no appreciation for what he does and the treatment of him is harsh. Day in, day out he appears at the office to do the jobs that he is assigned. He does these well but still they sneer, belittle and ignore:

Cicada work in tall building.

Data entry clerk. Seventeen year.

No sick day. No mistake.

Tok Tok Tok!

Seventeen year. No promotion.

Human resources say cicada not human.

Need no resources.

Tok Tok Tok!

And it would seem obvious at this point that Cicada has low self-worth. He keeps his head to the ground, is even homeless, sleeping (and we say sleeping rather than living as Cicada isn’t really living; this is no life) in the building’s walls at the end of each day. Then Cicada retires. He has No work. No home. No money. So he trudges up the steps to the top of the building and stands on the edge. It is time to say goodbye.

And in the heart-stopping moment between realising what is happening and turning to the next page, Cicada’s sense of self-worth is revealed. This is a periodic cicada: emerging from the darkness of the job in which he was much maligned after 17 years (for it is either a period of 13 or 17 years that this sub-species of cicada spends as an underground nymph), transformed into a vibrant new dawn of self. Off he flies with thousands of others:

Cicada all fly back to forest.

Sometimes think about human.

Can’t stop laughing.

In that way that Tan has, this is a book full of uncomfortable truths. It is about mistreatment of animals; it is about hierarchy and about misplaced self-worth (aka self-importance and arrogance) and it is about knowing, at the very core of ones self, when to spread those wings because the sense of self-worth translates as self-belief and self-preservation.

Although the scene on the rooftop where, forgetting that he can fly, we fear that Cicada is to jump to his death would need sensitive handling, we feel that this is a book that could do many things in terms of rich discussion in a year 5/6 class.



Snowglobe by Amy Wilson (Macmillan Children’s Books, 18th October 2018)

The main protagonist – Clem – is isolated and picked on for being different. And true to the genre in terms of a coming-of-age story around the onset of puberty and discovering something life-changing, (think Hagrid’s immortal words to Harry Potter, upon his 11th birthday ‘Yer a wizard, Harry’ and Percy Jackson – age 12 – discovering his own secret powers), Clem discovers similar truths about herself:

I’ve been pretending ever since my first day at secondary, ever since Jago first saw the weird in me, that it isn’t real. The roar of my blood, the flashes of static – all just the fantasies of a daydreamer. When I was smaller, that was all it was. But ever since my eleventh birthday, it’s been getting stronger, less dream-like.

And she’s already had a hard time of things because her mother has long been gone from the family home but for what reason, Clem doesn’t know and nor does her father, it seems:

‘Why did she go?’

I don’t look at him when I ask it; I just keep my eyes on the book.

‘Not because of you,’ he says.

‘So then what was it because of?’

‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘I wish I did, Clem. One day perhaps we’ll find out.’

She is the space between us, sometimes. We don’t know how to talk about her.

Following an incident in school resulting in a suspension (no one was hurt – not really – just that Clem lost her temper and the literal sparks generated from her as yet untapped magic resulted in her bully, Jago, being flung across the floor) her father gifts her a notebook that was once her mother’s. In this lie the secrets to Clem’s past and future. There is a sketch of a house – unfamiliar to Clem but obviously of significance to her mother. Needing to let off some steam, Clem walks out into the night and there – where it certainly wasn’t before – is that same house from the sketch. And in that house is a world of worlds; a world of snowglobes. To Clem’s horror, Dylan- friend/not friend- is being held captive. Why? He has magical abilities too and even though this is the boy who stands by while Jago bullies Clem in school, she chooses to rescue Dylan. Together they must escape from globe to globe but where is her mother, Callisto (named after one of Jupiter’s moons) and what sort of magic are they dealing with if her aunts Io and Ganymede (two further moons of the same planet) are so malicious?

In terms of relating to this month’s theme of self-worth, there are links in abundance. Clem doesn’t really understand the power nor courage that lies within her soul. She doesn’t feel that her differences mean all that much beyond simply being different and feeling ‘othered’. When she begins to realise the legacy that her mother has left, a sense of dogged determination comes to the fore. And, through this, self acceptance and high self- worth.

The way that Wilson has skillfully woven together thread after gossamer thread of storyline creates a rich and shimmering tapestry of lyrical prose. We feel that this book would be perfect for children in upper KS2 and would be brilliant for exploring an author’s use of literary language in particular.



History in Infographics The Mayans by Jon Richards and Jonathan Vipond (Wayland, 11th October 2018)

We do wonder how norms in terms of self-worth vary across the world or over time and this wonderful exploration of ancient Mayan civilisation (Mayan being a non-existent term to the people, referring to themselves as Nosotros los Maya – ‘we the Maya’) provides us with insight in such a relatable way. Ancient history can seem so far removed from what we know and for many children is just too abstract a concept but the use of infographics – that is, graphic illustrations and diagrams of facts and figures – support conceptualisation. And it is in this way that we are taken on rather a journey of discovery about these people who were highly organised in their running of society, had well-developed belief systems and advanced medical practices for their time. Granted, many of their practices would now be seen as highly dangerous or barbaric, at the core of these were self-care and self-esteem, ergo self-worth.

In the Health and Sport section, we learn that The Mayans developed a number of ways to treat sick people. Healthy people were thought to have all aspects of their life in balance – if one aspect fell out of balance then they became sick.

This section then goes on to explain that the Mayans were keen sports-people and, to keep fit, participated in a sport that sounds like a combination of netball and the Gaelic sport, hurling, just without a hurley (bat): arms, elbows and heads were used to keep the ball from dropping to the ground. The other fundamental difference was that the balls were allegedly so heavy and hard that players were sometimes accidentally killed mid-game due to, presumably, a lethal blow to the head.

In another section, Mayan beliefs are explored and whilst some practices were gruesome and divisive (for example, blood-letting and human sacrifice, where battles were fought in order to capture victims), at the core was a complex belief-system that would have played a part in the value and sense of self-worth that at least some Mayans placed on themselves and others (although not to poor people sacrificed against their will!)

This book would be perfect for key stage 2 children to support topic work on ancient civilisations but we feel that it would work especially well in year 5 & 6.

Posted in: Literature Review

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