All posts by Abigail Cole

Summer is here, and in our house, that almost always means a speeding up of everything – things getting busy, being out and about a lot more, all sorts of school outings, birthday celebrations, holidays on the horizon… I usually really enjoy that uplift of energy, although it can take a little managing of the inevitable chaos in order to prevent family overwhelm and exhaustion. This year, I’m most definitely in the mood to take things a little slower, and whilst I’m looking forward to being out and about, I’m thinking of days sitting in the shade of a tree on a colourful picnic blanket rather than lots of running about. I remember when the children were really small, and life seemed to move at a gentler pace, that sitting on a picnic blanket in summer with a few of our favourite books and some tasty snacks could provide a whole afternoon’s entertainment as well as a sense of endless adventure through inspiring stories and artwork inside…

Thinking about this also reminded me of all the crafts and activities that would follow as a direct result of the inspiration taken from some of our favourite books.  It was as if the adventures outlined in our stories would stay alive in the imaginations of the children for hours (or days!) afterwards and aspects of the stories would come out in all sorts of games and imaginary play, sometimes in small fragments, sometimes in the form of an entire narrative… the crafts that we would often make alongside were sometimes to create props that would then enable and prolong the imaginary play and sometimes as an activity in itself because we had a particular obsession at the time (Dragons! Pirates! Space! Fairies…) and it was a fun thing in and of itself to make something inspired by a book.

Where books, stories, beautiful art and creativity meet

Some of our all-time favourites from when the children were small were the books of Jackie Morris. Her beautiful artwork would capture my own imagination as well and take me on such a journey – seeing new details every time and the soothing colours and gentle adventures awakening something inside of me – that I really didn’t mind reading the stories over and over and over!  The first book of hers that we read over and over when the children were very young was Tell Me a Dragon – so simple yet so beautiful with gorgeous artwork of a different dragon on every page. This book was definitely responsible for an entire childhood obsession with dragons that extends to this day! One of my favourite crafts that came about as inspiration from this book was to make dragon eggs in little nests. We used some recycled plastic easter-egg toys as a base and used paper-mache over the top to make them our own, and painted them with acrylic paints in imaginary colours of our choice – whatever colours we thought dragons’ eggs might be! We then made little nests for the eggs… and both the eggs and the nests would find their way into all kinds of imaginary games and play over the years!

Another favourite was the book Starlight Sailor, also by Jackie Morris. At the end of the book, there is an instruction page on how to fold a little paper boat, and it is so beautiful because the same little paper boat is incorporated into the story itself. It’s so lovely – dream-like almost – to follow the adventure of the little boat, and be able to have one of your own at the end and extend the story and play a while longer. We also made treasure maps to accompany our little boat – this wasn’t included in the suggestions at the end of the book, but by that point I knew that treasure maps seemed to be an all-time favourite with my own imaginative children at least, that it seemed to be a no-brainer to make maps to accompany this story – and again, it inspired plenty of imaginary play afterwards.

When I made them with my own children when they were small the maps were extremely simple… we just had some fun using tea-bags on some A4 paper to make them look old (and I might have used a lighter to burn the edges a bit for them to make them look even older!), and then I let the children draw and make their own marks and tie them into a scroll with a ribbon afterwards. I revisited this activity earlier this year in our craft group, but this time we extended the craft a little by incorporating different elements to make more of a map-like collage/art-work. We used a mixture of things like fabrics, ribbons, lace, string, some print-outs of some old maps to cut up and incorporate into layers on the map, acrylic paint pens, marker pens, and we found some lace napkin holders from a wedding that had been donated to the community centre – as a holder for the map once scrolled. I did show everyone the book, but I also offered the suggestion that participants could base their map on the story itself, or, another favourite destination, place, walk, adventure – it could be real or imagined – somewhere they know, or somewhere they dreamt up…. I was so amazed at how all the maps were so different, yet so clear in the imagination of each person, and each map told a story in its own way – so the activity had come full circle 😊

What I also love about these books and others like it are that they work on the level of a children’s story and activity but can also be very inspiring for adults as well. Starting with these beautiful books as a source for some of our family creative activities definitely meant that we had a more shared experience of enjoying the activities together.  I was often as invested in the creations we made directly inspired by books as the children were!

Creative inspiration on the bookshelf

There were so very many books that inspired us in this way when the children were little… Below are a just few that inspired many creative childhood capers for us:

Look! Really Smart Art by Gillian Wolfe – we were all obsessed with this when the children were young and although we didn’t necessarily make anything specific following this it created a sense of wonder and a way of looking at things – particularly when it came to seeing images within images in ‘double image’ pictures…

Otter Moon, Tudor Humphries – following the journey of a young otter, Flibertygibbet, with extremely beautiful, atmospheric artwork. A wonderful book for inspiring a love of wildlife and nature, connection to animals and a sense of gentle adventure in the natural world. Like Jacki Morris’s works, I found this book, with its delicate watercolour illustrations, really inspired our imaginations.

Naughty Bus, Jan and Jerry Oke – a photographic adventure story of one naughty little red toy bus! Let children pop some googly eyes onto some of their toys and watch the adventures unfold! You could also make this into a longer activity or project by taking your own pictures of various toys up to all kinds of mischief!

Brambly Hedge, Jill Barklem – we could spend so long looking at all the detailed illustrations in these stories! They definitely inspired in us a sense of ‘miniature worlds’ that then overspilled into dolls-house play, fairy play and tiny corners of our home being colonised by little fairy-worlds!

How to find Flower Fairies, Cecily Mary Barker – whilst we had numerous pop-up books that inspired all kinds of paper-craft activities over the years, this is one of our favourites. Universally accessible and enchanting for children and adults alike with such vivid colours and intricate paperwork. This book definitely makes us want to figure out how to make our own pop-up books.

The Harry Potter Series, JK Rowling – stories inspire all kinds of magical creative play – from wand-making from sticks to ‘potion’-making in the garden… our wands were many and varied over the years! Sometimes, they were simply one very special-looking stick that made the perfect wand… at other times they were intricate creations with wires, crystals, ribbons, and most recently these lovely willow wands as a Christmas craft.

We did enjoy the stories of Julia Donaldson, and the story ‘Stick Man’ is definitely one that adapts well to nature craft/activities and play with sticks aplenty in the park and easily turned into small families with their own family adventures at play. And any pirate story at all is a great excuse to make some binoculars out of recycled kitchen-roll tubes, to accompany a handmade treasure map and maybe even a little boat…  

Gentle adventures, and endless ideas

It doesn’t have to be elaborate or complicated. Even a collection of traditional fairy tales can inspire a sense of story and invoke imaginary play and sometimes creative activities follow. I remember the seaside stories by Shirley Hughes inspiring sandcastle-making, rock and shell collecting (and sometimes decorating), and of course all the World Book Day costumes over the years! These are a great chance to make something together, inspired by a book, story or character, even if it isn’t the whole costume and just one accessory, like a badge, or some glasses, or a pirates-eye-patch…

All of these ideas are really the tip of the iceberg and undoubtedly there will be many more beautiful and unknown to me children’s books that have come along since my own children were small. I still love looking back at some of our old-favourites from time to time though and will always see beautifully illustrated children’s story books as a source of inspiration for my own creativity, even though the days of hours of imaginary play with a simple treasure map are long gone for us…

Flicking through children’s books with beautiful artwork can be restorative in the sense that they don’t require deep focus, and through these lovely books, I’m reminded that in the same way that a good novel can be transporting, all sorts of adventures can easefully unfold close to home, whilst sitting in a sunny spot on a colourful picnic blanket and being surprised by the ideas that are sparked, and never knowing what we might make next. If you’re looking for some creative inspiration for family activities over the summer – you never know – there might be plenty sitting on your bookshelves, just waiting to be discovered! 😊

Wishing you a lovely restful Summer, with plenty of days, happily crafting!  A little note… the Summer Reading Challenge which is free to join and held through libraries across the UK could also be a lovely opportunity to choose some books that also inspire creative projects, especially for younger children.

© 2023 Abigail Cole

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