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The Young Explorer’s World of Nature




Everybody Up author Patrick Jackson rediscovers his favourite book from childhood after 35 years and asks if it can teach materials writers and young learner educators anything.

Young Explorer's World of NatureThe Young Explorer’s World of Nature

I’ve just found my favourite book from when I was a boy. It’s called The Young Explorer’s World of Nature and it was published in 1957 by Sampson Low, Marston. It’s nearly four decades since I last looked at it but every page comes right back to me like it was yesterday. I loved nature and spent a lot of time looking under rocks in the garden. What was it about The Young Explorer’s World of Nature that kept me reaching for it? What fascinated me about that one book so much? Is there anything in that fascination that will help me now as a teacher and materials writer?

The first thing to mention is the variety of the content.  This is an adventure that spans the whole world, from creatures living in a pond to an armadillo’s burrow, to giant redwoods, to the Kalahari Desert. Woodpeckers, beavers, bees and a bush pig, a bathyscaphe, people who live with herds, a frilled lizard, a wolverine, a vet examining a sick chimpanzee and a man milking a reindeer into a bowl all jostle for attention. This variety keeps you turning the pages. Likewise, lessons and materials should be varied and have plenty of surprises to keep our students on their toes.

Animals running from volcano

There is a sense of wonder throughout the book. Nature and our relationship with it is something to marvel at. These images were my connections to a wider world beyond suburban Dublin. Although most of the pages showed scenes beyond my imagination, some of them were about things closer to home: a cat with an injured paw, a toad in a half-buried flower pot or sycamore seeds that spin as they fall – all fascinated me as much as the Kirghiz chief riding along with a falcon on his arm. We should never forget that plenty of miracles are very close at hand and do our best to bring them into our classrooms.

Every single page of the book is full of action. A frog dives into the water, a musk ox tosses a wolf high into the air, a baboon bangs his chest and a puffin catches a rabbit’s foot just as it enters its burrow. Most memorably, a hippopotamus overturns an African canoe as two crocodiles watch intently from the bank, one showing its sharp teeth. As a rule, crocodiles should be kept out of the classroom but we should never forget how much children are verb-driven creatures and bring as many opportunities to do as we can into our teaching.

Wild buffalo

Every page is rich with detail. To think it was all done by hand without a computer in sight! There isn’t a photograph in the whole book either so this had to be made up for by the excitement of the drawings and the events they show. There’s plenty to take from that too. As we surround ourselves and our students with the digital and the instant we shouldn’t forget that something hand-made and personal usually has the value of a thousand clicks.

These images leave as many questions unanswered as they answer. Will the squirrel catch that dragonfly? Will the man who looks a bit like Charlie Chaplin get out of the pot-hole? What happened to that camel’s leg and can you really bandage them like that? Are Tasmanian Devils dangerous? Will I ever see cormorant fishermen or listen to lions roaring just beyond a thorn hedge?

This book comes from an age when people had fewer tools at their disposal and had to work harder to captivate the young explorer’s imagination. There is much for us to learn 55 years on as we do our work in a world utterly changed. We have so much power at our fingertips but do we appreciate that power enough? Do we make the most of it? Would we sometimes be better off with less?

I learnt a lot from my trip down memory lane. The Young Explorer’s World of Nature is full of variety, adventure, surprise and wonder, connections to a wider world, action and movement, fascinating detail, discovery and metamorphosis and I suppose, without realising it at the time, that’s why I loved it so much. All those happenings and all those questions both answered and unanswered!

Those are not just the ingredients of a great children’s book, they are the ingredients of great language teaching, the ingredients of beautiful and effective education and, ultimately, the ingredients of happy childhood. Think back to your favourite book when you were a child. What can you learn from it today?

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  1. My favourite book when I was a little girl (and still is one of my favourites) is “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White. The messages it gets across are amazing and I believe should be read by all children – teachers, please let your kids know about it : )

    • Hi Vicky!
      Thanks for your comment. Funnily enough I was talking to my friend over at Jerry Time and he said that was his favourite book too. It never made it to our house but I saw the film a few years ago. You can listen to my kids talking about the film here in an ooooold podcast.
      Can’t believe that was 5 years ago. Seems like about 50! They’re so grown up now.

  2. Hi! My favorite book was “Platero y yo”; it’s an Spanish book about a donkey. I read it when I was at primary school and some kids still read it these days!
    Smiles from Argentina, Maria 🙂

  3. Joel Josephson of aplanet-project.org writes:
    The book or books that most influenced me, was the Oxford Junior Encyclopedia (all 13 volumes). I was given it by friends and family as a special present and read most of it. I still believe it was what gave me a broad perspective of the world and knowledge.
    Thanks, Joseph

  4. One book I read over and over again when I was a little girl was “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. It tells the story of an innocent little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe. Its a book about friendship, love and loss, about missing someone and being hurt, about forgiveness and coming home. I think as a little girl I didnt understand all those messages but they way it was written touched me. When I was 18 I choose this book for my final examination in French and I understood that this is a story that leaves you reflecting your own life in a good way…

  5. I loved the Chronicles of Narnia when I was in Primary school. And The Borrowers definitely took my fancy. I loved the idea of imagining my familiar world through the eyes of a tiny person.

    • Hi Lewis. Did you enjoy the film versions of those books? My kids loved the recent Miyazaki Hayao version of The Borrowers. I also was completely obsessed with micro-people…still am actually. I was surprised to hear how relatively recently The Borrowers was written and interested how the themes tie in with the wartime experience of many children.

  6. My favourite book was “The Magic Faraway Tree” by Enid Blyton and the books that followed. I remember dressing up as the saucepan man for book day at school and delighting in telling my friends about the strange characters from the book.

    • I would very much like to see a picture of that, Poppy. Not enough children today dress up as saucepans. Just Googled the book. Sounds like quite a story. Interesting to see how many of this list of favourites are fantasy works.

  7. My favorite book was “Rasmus and the Vagabond” by Astrid Lindgren. I checked it out of the library so many, many times. I haven’t read it again since I was eight, and probably should. I do remember a few things: the sadness that a young orphan was never picked by potential families because he wasn’t cute enough and the happiness he found in the company of someone who the rest of the world considered an outsider. Thanks for asking this question, Patrick, because really, I hadn’t thought about that book in a long time and wonder if it had more of an influence on my character than I remembered.

  8. Hi dear Patrick,
    Your article brought up a very interesting idea, looking deeply at how children view their favorite stories and how we as teachers can view it !!
    Going back in time, what kept jumping out of my mind from childhood is “Mickey Magazine”. All children used to save money to buy it regularly. By the way, it’s still popular for some children uptill now. What’s really interesting is that I have some colleagues who still buy it uptil now, or borrow it from their kids !!
    As a teacher, I guess what I liked most were Mickey’s sons as they were very clever kids. For me, they did everything I wanted to do as a child; camping, solving problems cleverly, acting pravely, and planning well for whatever adventures they go through.
    I read recently that one of the points that makes a story appealing is the reader’s feeling of superiority, which I guess was achieved in Mickey’s sons who nearly always conquer others, even adults sometimes. This is reflected positively on a child’s character, I guess !!

    • Hello Ayat. I agree that kids want to see other kids doing cool stuff and they want to ‘consider’ unusual situations. I wonder how we can make students feel empowered like this because it’s surely important for them and an important role for stories.

  9. Sue I have a faint memory of being read that book when I was little or maybe I’m confusing it with something else. It was definitely a fascinating theme. William and the Tramp was definitely a favourite and there was another story about some kids who find a downed pilot. Not sure what that was.

  10. My favourite books as a child were funny, clever, a bit silly, and showed twists of fun and imagination.
    My overall and overwhelming favourite is of course Alice, in all her Wonderland- and Looking Glass- adventures. Always and forever the best.

    One other book which I have very fond memories of is Half-Magic, by Edward Eager. It’s hilarious – the cat that goes “Ow!” (you have to read it to get it.)

    Enid Blyton is generally frowned upon nowadays, but the Magic Faraway Tree books were such a fun read, written much more outside the lines than her other stories.

    Every little girl should have a copy of “Eloise”. I still have mine, as well as a replacement I bought as an adult. Eloise and Nanny have an unforgettable relationship.

    Finally, I had (and probably still have, in a box somewhere) a clothbound book called “Happy Families”, certainly from the 40s or earlier. The illustrations were great, and the stories a little more mature. I wish I could remember the author, but it is almost certainly out of print.

    • Hi Mari,
      Alice is popular with my kids but the film got a major thumbs down. Looking out Half-Magic now and getting a bit of a Holy Grail feel off the cover! Interesting that this is another book from the 50s as was Eloise. I remember reading The Castle Adventure by Enid Blyton and thinking it was the best thing ever. With 600 million copies of her books sold I obviously wasn’t alone.

  11. Patrick – the Alice books have more layers than an onion, no film can possibly do it justice, especially the Burton one….
    Read The Annotated Alice or, even more mind-blowing and if you can even find it, a book which offers different interpretations of Alice (Freudian, Jungian, social commentary, satire, logic, sexual, tripping on hallucinogens…) No idea of the editor, i read it 20+ years ago.
    Books in the 40s and 50s (and of course earlier) had the most wonderful pen-and-ink illustrations, which modern illustrators have rejected in favour of stunning, glossy colours.

  12. Patrick, I really enjoyed your article and believe it highlights a very important lesson for language teaching in an ever evolving digital landscape. My favorite book as a child was “The Hobit”, which for me encapsulated the wonder and engagement that had me reading the story over and over again! Looking forward to more of your posts soon!

  13. Thank you, Richard. I am reading it to my 9-year old son at the moment and he is really enjoying it. He wanted to read the story before seeing the film. Have you seen the film? What did you make of it? I was sorry to see it got a poor review in the Irish Times but a friend tells me it is just amazing.

  14. I would love to tell you my favourite book from childhood-but the list is as long as my arm!! Will have a think and try to whittle it down to a couple or six.

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