Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Summer Book

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (author of Moomin stories) is perfect for anyone interested in pedagogy. It is about 6 year old Sophia and her grandmother mooching around a Finnish island throughout a summer. Sophia's mother has died and her father is busy writing in the study. The chapter 'Playing Venice' is a good example of how the book delicately shows what play, conversation with adults and observing the natural world can do for children.

In the chapter, a postcard arrives from Venice, showing beautiful palaces seemingly floating in the canal. Sophia's grandmother has been there so she describes it excitedly to Sophia, the smells, the sinking, the golden dinner plates buried in the mud. They invent a princess and a mother, and then begin building their own Venice near a marsh pond, talking all the while as princess and posh mother. They have a little spat because grandmother thinks it's not quite right that Sophia should be calling her 'mama', worrying about how she lacks her own mother. The spat is therapeutic, though. Later that night, a storm and high tide comes and destroys their Venice. Sophia is completely distraught. Grandmother says 'I promise I'll find the palace' and secretly makes one from matches. When she finally lets Sophia in to see it, Sophia says 'Quiet...I want to hear if she's still there.' After a while listening she says 'You can rest easy. Her mother says it was a perfectly dreadful storm. Now she's cleaning up the mess and she's pretty worn out.'

I like the fact that a small image, a postcard, can be the stimulus for so much imaginative play. The two are completely absorbed in making Venice, and it grows and grows all day under the alder tree. In this making of Venice the grandmother isn't acting as teacher, although it was her knowledge of the city that enabled them to imagine and recreate it. She is entirely involved in the play herself. Then the destruction of their work is a sad loss, but one that can be overcome by remaking the space for the drama to continue.