A Visit to City Farm

Verna Wilkins

A Visit to City Farm Verna Wilkins Illustrated by Karin Littlewood (Firetree books) 32pp, 978-1911402077, Paperback 5-8 Infant/Junior, RRP £6.99

This review is available on the Books for Keeps website. Thank you to Books for Keeps for permission to reproduce their review.

The excitement of a trip to a city farm is described with particularly vivid insight in this joyful picture book, and no wonder: A Visit to City Farm was created as a special and probably unique collaboration between the children of Year 5 at Chalkhill Primary School, Brent and the author, illustrator, editor and printer. A note at the back from headmistress Rose Ashton tells us that the children were ‘hands-on’ from the idea to the finished product and there is definitely a strong sense of the community of young minds behind the story. Some individuals are picked out – Salma, who trails behind on the walk to the station, and TJ who is alarmed when the horses suddenly gallop towards the fence for feeding time – but generally it’s their group reactions that are discussed and recorded. Rainbow Class love meeting the llamas and the alpacas for example, with their beautiful soft coats, and they’re all careful to creep quietly past the enormous pig in his sty. In this scene, Mister Pig is an imposing presence in the foreground but our eye is still drawn towards the row of brightly coloured welly boots across the top of the page, all we see of the children. The story is full of details that primary school children will love and, no matter where they live, they will identify completely with the children of Rainbow Class as they enjoy their special day out.

Firetree Books Verna Wilkins’s new venture, and this dynamic new company aims to present a range of books with engaging stories that celebrate our interconnected and culturally-diverse world, putting all children ‘in the picture’. A Visit to City Farm does that beautifully and spontaneously.

The Power of Children’s Literature: Making connections between books

A Visit to City Farm is the story of children on a school trip from the city atmosphere of Wembley to an outdoor, rural setting in an inner city farm in Brent. What is amazing about it, is the fact it was written with the collaboration of year 5 pupils in the school, and it celebrates an extremely wide diversity of cultures in the class, as well as the fun of a school trip. The author Verna Wilkins writes with the aim of including culturally diverse groups in children’s literature so that they can see themselves in books. This lively account of a class outing is a great example of this.

Themes.

  • Cultural diversity represented in children’s literature.
  • Balance between words and illustrations in a picture book.

Cultural diversity represented in children’s literature.

The unselfconscious inclusion of the diverse origins of the class members is a mark of social development over the last thirty years. Verna Wilkins created a publishing company Tamarind, about 30 years ago because her own son told her only white children appeared in books and had drawn himself with pink colouring in a book about himself.

Dave and the Tooth Fairy Verna Wilkins. Tamarind 1993

This is the story of Dave, who loses a tooth and makes the wonderful discovery of tooth fairies as a source of further income. His ingenious plan of using his grandfather’s dentures to increase his income is told with great humour. The story is good to share with children at this stage of life and also to establish that these rights of passage occur wherever you originate from.

Amazing Grace Mary Hoffman Frances Lincoln 1991.

Grace enjoys acting out her favourite stories with her toys and cat Paw Paw. She has an extensive repertoire which comes from her grandmother’s stories and her lively imagination. When her class mates tell her she can’t be Peter Pan in the school play because she is black and a girl, her confidence is shaken and her mother is very angry. However the advice from her grandmother is good advice for everyone,” you can be anything you want to be if you put your mind to it.” Grace does succeed in being chosen for the part because she shines in the audition, which reinforces this.

The illustrations add to the text by showing Grace in a very multicultural classroom, and also tell the supplementary story of how willing Paw Paw is to be part of the shows Grace creates at home.

This book is aimed at younger children but can be used to talk about issues of race and gender with any age as it provides good opportunity for looking into these issues.

Balance between words and illustrations in a picture book.

The balance between words and illustrations is one of the pivotal issues in a picture book. Some exist without text at all, but often the greatest pleasure in reading a picture book is finding the extra bits of the story told by the illustrations only. A visit to City Farm uses the illustrations brilliantly to capture the diversity of the class group, the contrast between the urban high street and the rural city farm. The illustrations also contain some facts, about sheep for example, that don’t come into the text.

Rosies Walk Pat Hutchins. Red Fox 1968.Random House 1996.

This story only contains 32 words and the illustrations are absolutely vital to understanding the story. There are several pages with no words at all but a lot of action. The pictures are simple and fairly stylised but are a good example of how to include a lot of relevant detail and humour.

If students retold this story, how many words would it involve?

Big Blue Whale. Nicola Davies. Illustrated by Nick Malland.1997

Nicola Davies is a zoologist and author who writes about the natural world and wants to help the readers develop a connection with it. She uses picture books and a narrative format, as she believes this is the best way to share information. She uses all the senses to explore the feel, sound and smell of a blue whale. The information about its size, life span, diet and habitat are all included in the narrative and not listed or put into special boxes, as other information texts might be. A comparison between the two styles might make an interesting starting point for students about to produce a piece of non-fiction

The Chalk Hill Farm story is an account that is told in narrative and includes rhyming verses. It is a very original way of dealing with a retell of a school trip. It includes the normal preliminaries of organising the class and going through the important things to remember by the actions of the children. It is told by incident with a minimum of text that captures the excitement of the journey and the wonder they feel on seeing so many animals. The illustrations convey the multicultural nature of the class, in a school where eighty five percent of the children have English as an additional language. The head teacher comments that the process of writing a collaborative work with an author, gave all the children a sense of identity and belonging which is important for any class.

Not all classes can collaborate with an author but it is worth considering, would this be a helpful way to capture the events and knowledge gained on a school trip?

Liz Robertson

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