Caring for our environment with Gemma Koomen's tiny Treekeepers

Who's it for?

Reading for Pleasure

Sharing at storytime or reading independently  4-7 years

Active Reading: where will this book take you? 

Sharing and exploring through creative cross-curricular activities  4-9 years

Adapt our activities to suit your children’s interests and abilities

About this book

At the edge of the woods stands a great tree. If you keep very still, on its branches you’ll see tiny people harvesting the fruit, collecting the dew and polishing the buds. That’s what Treekeepers do. They "nurture and mend, gather and tend," and they like to work together...

Or do they? Sylvia is a Treekeeper, but she prefers her own company and avoids the boisterous fun of other children - until the day a fledgling bird appears, demanding her attention, and the two develop a close bond.
Before he flies the nest to join the other starlings, Scruff helps Sylvia understand the importance of friendship and shows her that bravery can bring its own rewards. By the end of the book, Sylvia has found the confidence to play alongside her peers – who are, in turn, discovering the pleasures that quiet activities can bring. 

“Sylvia thinks about her lonely secret hollow and about Scruff flying high with the flock. And then Sylvia, who has always said no before, nods.”

It's scary, but Sylvia finds the courage to fly. Image copyright Gemma Koomen for Frances Lincoln First Editions 

Koomen’s ability to tell a good tale (as well as painting one) makes this book stand out. But it’s her sensitive treatment of the central theme that really takes Flock to another level. Avoiding risk and choosing what feels comfortable may lead shy children to miss out, and learning to connect with others will bring its own rewards. But alone is not a synonym for lonely, and there are too many stories in which shyness is presented as an affliction that must be ‘cured’ by making friends.  

In Flock, things are more nuanced. We observe Sylvia playing in her hollow and can see she values her own company. She is independent and imaginative, focused and creative, but we can also see that her choices have cut her off from the pleasures and possibilities of companionship. By the end of the book, Sylvia has learned to join in with the other children and express her physical self, but this has not come at the expense of everything she has valued previously. Crucially, Sylvia is not alone in growing and changing – true friendship is never one-sided, and the other children have learned to embrace quieter, more creative pursuits.

Sylvia and her new friends making models of birds from natural materials. Image copyright Gemma Koomen for Frances Lincoln

There’s something deeply convincing about this charming fantasy, which works on many levels - Sylvia’s natural world feels real, and we have the sense that it could be discovered, if only we knew exactly where (and how) to look. There’s a folk-art flavour to Koomen’s illustrations and her ability to conjure this tiny world appears effortless - but these are sophisticated images that repay close looking and there is much here to spark discussion and response.

Ultimately, Flock celebrates individuality and the power of connection, and is an inspiration for us to notice, enjoy and care for our natural environment. 

Gemma Koomen lives and works in beautiful, wild Northumberland and has always loved exploring nature, “observing the tiny worlds that open up when you are quiet enough to notice them.” Flock was inspired by the close connections she feels with neighbours in her small rural community and is her first picturebook. 

Sharing and talking about this book

Why not find a large tree and get to know it before sharing this book? It doesn’t matter whether your tree is in a garden, park or wood – spending a little time looking at it, thinking about it and sharing your responses will draw children even more deeply into this story when it's time to read.

  • What colours and textures do you notice in your tree?
  • What do its leaves and bark feel like?
  • What can you hear and smell when you stand near your tree?
  • What do you think you’d be able to see if you could climb into its branches?
  • What does your tree remind you of?
  • Can you see any animals, birds or insects in or near your tree? What’s growing beneath it?
  • Does your tree have leaves? Fruit? Seeds? 
  • Is it alone, or are there other trees nearby?
  • How would you describe your tree to somebody who couldn’t see it?
  • How does your tree make you feel?
  • What do you think it would say to you, if it could speak?
  • How old do you think your tree is? How big is it? How could you find out?
  • What does it need to stay healthy and grow bigger? How does it get these things?
  • Do people help your tree in any way – by pruning it, for example, or keeping animals away from it, or protecting it from developers?
  • Imagine you are very tiny – small enough to live in the branches of your tree! Where do you sleep? What do you do? What is your life like?
  • Can you identify your tree?
Image copyright Gemma Koomen for Frances Lincoln First Editions

If the weather’s good and you’ve brought a rug, you could share this book beneath the branches of your tree. If not, you might need to go indoors! Either way, take plenty of time to read the story, look at the pictures and discuss your experience and responses.

What did you like best about this book, and why? How did it make you feel? 

Does this book remind you of anything else you’ve read? Who would you recommend it to, and why?

 

What next? Activities...

Look at the first double spread of the tree in its springtime landscape and talk about what you observe.
What is happening nearby? What do you notice in the distance? How many different plants and animals can you spot? What are the Treekepers doing? Why do you think they're so busy?

Imagine this picture is a window into the story-world. What do you think you'd see if you could open the window and peep around the corner? What could be happening just out of the reader's sight?
Now imagine stepping through this picture-window. Can you smell or taste anything? How do you feel? 
What can you hear now you're part of this story-world? Using your voices, found objects or percussion instruments, make the sounds of the wind in the branches, woodpeckers tapping, children playing and small animals rustling through the grass.  
Pass some natural woodland objects round and find interesting words to describe them.
Now tell the story of how you walked across the grass and said hello to the Treekeepers. What happened next? 

Image copyright Gemma Koomen for Frances Lincoln First Editions

Could you spot a Treekeeper house? Go for a walk in the countryside or your local park, keeping your eyes wide open to spot signs of the thumb-sized Treekeepers. Where do you think they'd choose to live, and why? What would they have to think about before building a home?
Use natural found materials (twigs, leaves, grass) to construct a tiny Treekeeper house. If you like, you can make furniture, too - or bring some dollshouse furniture with you and use it to furnish your houses.
Sketch your houses (making notes to remind you how you made them and the materilas you used) and take plenty of photos.
Who will occupy your house when you leave? Invent names and back-stories for your Treekeeper characters. What adventures will they have?
Build on your experience back in your setting by painting pictures, constructing models, telling your Treekeeper stories and writing about what you did.

To extend this activity, why not take a supply of mini cardboard doors with you on your walk? Set them up secretly and challenge children to find them all, then talk about who lives behind each door. What are their houses like? How do these tiny people care for their environment? Supply mini letter blanks and envelopes for children to write letters to the Treekeepers, then play postmen and deliver them. 

Treekeeper children enjoy playing energetic games. Examine the text and pictures to discover what they're doing.  
Can you invent rules for Catch the Acorn, Twig Tag and Tug the Vine - and have a go at playing them?
What about dancing the maypole or swinging on an old-fashioned rope swing hanging from a branch?

What games do you enjoy playing? Talk about how to play a particular game and agree on the rules.
Ask a small group of children to pretend they are Treekeepers. Can the rest of you teach them how to play your game?

What games did children play in your area in times past? Talk to mums, dads, childminders and grandparents and discover new games to play!

Treekeeper games. Image copyright Gemma Koomen for Frances Lincoln

Next time you're walking in a park, wood or other natural environment, keep your eyes open for interesting stones, leaves and other natural objects you can (safely and legally!) collect and take indoors.

Examine your objects, noticing everything you can about their shape, size, colour, texture, smell. Do they make a noise? What do you know about them, and what can you find out? Draw your objects carefully using different media, observing light and shade and experimenting with techniques to capture textures. 

Look at Flock and talk about the natural objects Sylvia has collected. What can you see? What has Sylvia done with these objects?

Using some of your found objects together with twigs, leaves, pine cones, berries and other materials, make items inspired by those in Sylvia’s hollow - dolls, kites, animals, tea sets, birds, flags, garlands...
Refer to the pictures (and your imaginations) for inspiration!

Sylvia's 'making space'. Image copyright Gemma Koomen for Frances Lincoln

Talk about museums and galleries, and the collections they display. Have you visited a museum or exhibition? What did you see and learn?
How do people decide what to collect? How do they choose what to put in an exhibition? How do they decide what to leave out? 

Curate an exhibition of your found materials, your artwork and the objects you’ve made. Don't forget labels and a catalogue!
Sylvia made the paintings on her wall with oak-gall ink, but you could draw with charcoal. Or try toasting and grinding a little earth and mix it to produce a natural pigment!  

Look at the pictures of Sylvia riding on Scruff’s back. How do you think she is feeling in each picture? How can you tell? Copy Sylvia's facial expressions, body postures and gestures, and talk about what you notice. Does this help you understand her better?  
How would you describe Sylvia’s feelings in each picture? Write your chosen words on post-its and add them to the right pages.

It isn't easy.... Image copyright Gemma Koomen for Frances Lincoln
 
 

What can Sylvia and Scruff see from high in the sky that they can’t see from ground (or tree) level?
Look carefully at the Whooosh! illustration and compare it with the landscape shown in the first double spread. What would Sylvia and Scruff see if they could fly over your house, library or school?
Could you paint a large-scale picture to show what they can see, like the Whooosh! illustration?
Alternatively you could draw a diagram or map, and label it.

Look at the picture showing Scruff (and Sylvia) meeting the other birds for the first time.
What could be Scruff thinking? What do you think the other birds are saying to him? As a whole class (and then in smaller groups) roleplay Scruff meeting the other birds.

Look at the picture showing Sylvia and the birds flying at sunset. How do the birds move when they’re flying together? Find out about starlings and their 'murmurations' - when they flock and fly together in great loops and swirls before roosting. 
Watch them flying in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOGCSBh3kmM 

Scruff joins his flock. Image copyright Gemma Koomen for Frances Lincoln

In a large-clear space, try swooping and looping gently together, letting your “wings beat as one.” How do you know where to go? How will you avoid collisions? Must you have a leader, or can you work it out another way? 

Using an earthy palette, paint pictures of flying starlings. Cut them out and arrange on a background to create a frieze inspired by Gemma Koomen's artwork. Can children draw themselves riding on a starling's back? Cut their pictures out and add them (one per starling!) to your frieze. 

Write about what you’ve done – or tell the story of what happened when you went for a “wild dance in the sky....” 

Extend by talking about decisionmaking. How do we decide what to do when we're alone? What about when we're in a group? 
Are the decisions we take as a group always positive? How could we make better decisions as a group?

Do you like being alone? What kind of activities are fun to do alone? What do you miss when you're not with other people?

How does it feel to be lonely? Is it the same as being alone? Are you always alone when you feel lonely? What is loneliness?

Look carefully at the pictures in this book and listen to what the text is telling you about being alone. When and why is Sylvia alone? When and why is she lonely? What does she do about her feelings of loneliness? What happens as a result?

Talk about friendship. Where and how did you make your friends? Is it difficult to make new friends? How could you go about making them? What would get in the way of making a new friend? What does friendship mean to you? 

Sylvia and her new friends. Image copyright Gemma Koomen for Frances Lincoln

Can you think of a way to help people who would like to make new friends? Perhaps you could set up a friendship bench, for example, where children can sit if they’d like to chat to someone new. What other ideas can you come up with?

Like Sylvia, lots of people enjoy their own company and solitary activities. How could you celebrate and share the things you enjoy doing alone? Perhaps you could take photos to create a display, or make a collaborative scrapbook. Can you think of anything else?

In a wood or other outdoor place, collect fallen twigs, leaves and other materials and make yourself a nest. Sit in it - very quietly! - and use all your senses to observe the world around you. 
Use your experiences to help you tell a story, write a poem or paint a picture.

Image copyright Gemma Koomen for Frances Lincoln
 

"Nurture and mend, gather and tend..."
The Treekeepers look after the natural world around them. What can you see them doing in this book? How do their actions help the environment? Does it need their help? Why?
What would you do if you were a Treekeeper? What can you do as you?
Make a poster telling everyone how to care for the environment.

The paintings in this book are accurate pictures of real flowers and other plants.
How many do you recognise? Use a handbook to help you identify them.

Go for a walk or expedition in a park, garden or other outdoor area and observe plants and flowers. Draw what you can see, make notes, take photos and try to identify each plant. Be very careful not to pick or damage them!  

If you liked this, try...

Come All You Little Persons by John Agard and Jessica Courtney–Tickle, published by Faber

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Billy and the Minpins by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake, published by Puffin

The Borrowers by Mary Norton, illustrated by Diana Stanley, published by Puffin

Stuart Little by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams, published by Puffin

Imelda and the Goblin King by Briony May Smith, published by Flying Eye Books

The Cottingley Fairies by Ana Sender, published by NorthSouth Books

Mighty Min by Melissa Castrillon, published by Alison Green Books

I am the seed that grew the tree: A nature poem for every day of the year compiled by Fiona Waters, illustrated by Fran Preston Gannon, published by Nosy Crow

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, published by Hamish Hamilton

Home by Carson Ellis, published by Walker Books

A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Mark Hearld, published by Walker Books

We Build Our Homes: Small Stories of Incredible Animal Architects by Laura Knowles, illustrated by Chris Madden, published by words&pictures

Tree: Seasons Come, Seasons Go by Patricia Hegarty, illustrated by Brita Teckentrup, published by Little Tiger

101 Things for Kids to do Outside by Dawn Isaac, published by Kyle Books

Copyright: Cast of Thousands 2020 All rights reserved.
This article/information may be printed freely for use in schools and other learning settings but may not be reproduced in any other format without the permission of Cast of Thousands

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