Ditch your devices and take time to explore the here-and-now with this sophisticated picturebook
About this book
Stuck in a rain-drenched woodland cabin, a boy tries to keep boredom at bay by zapping aliens on his screen. Mum doesn’t like him playing (“as usual”) and confiscates his game. So the boy sneaks it outside (“where it felt like everything…was hiding from the rain”) and promptly drops it in a stream. What a disaster! However will he entertain himself?
Managing screen time can be a challenge, so it’s great to find such a beautifully-illustrated picturebook tackling the subject in a creative and appealing wayBut there is more to the Great Outdoors than our hero anticipates - although whether he’s chanced upon a magical landscape or whether this is just the reality of the world in all its glory is left appealingly unclear.
Following an image that captures all the misery of being lost in a wet forest (“I was a small tree caught in a hurricane”) comes the turning point – the arrival of four huge snails with an enticing invitation. “I knew that there was something special close by,” says the boy, and digs his fingers into the mud. There, in an astonishing split-page illustration, he finds a medley of nuts and seeds and other underground inhabitants and his journey of discovery begins.
By the time the boy returns home, everything has changed. “I wanted to tell (Mum) what I had seen, felt and tasted outside in the world,” he says, but how can such things ever be conveyed? So the two settle for contemplation and hot chocolate - and a mutually appraising stare.
This story of slow happenings and subtle shifts is raised to epic status by its artwork. For Alemagna, ‘outdoors’ isn’t just a visual delight – mud oozes and squelches, the snails’ antennae are jelly-soft, mushrooms smell of basement treasures and raindrops are for tasting. This multisensory, animistic landscape hums with possibilities and there’s a grandeur about it that puts nature’s power centre-stage.
Graphic lines and patterns across every spread create texture, imply movement and suggest change and growth, and colour is used in an almost orchestral way to direct our attention and evoke a response. The boy’s bright orange coat marks him out as an intruder, making him easy to pick out against a dark palette, and the earthy tones at the beginning of the book lighten as the boy’s mood lifts.
This picturebook is a hymn to all things ‘slow’ and makes a richly memorable starting point for creative work across the curriculum, particularly with older children who will relish its sophisticated artwork and enjoy reading the pictures even more than they enjoy the text.
In its celebration of the sights, sounds and squelchiness of the outdoors, On a Magical Do-Nothing Day is reminiscent of Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, but it goes a step further, highlighting the transformational potential of nature - Imogen Carter for The Guardian
Sharing and talking about this book
Before reading this book with children, ask them what they think about boredom.
What bores you? What does boredom feel like? When did you last feel bored and what did you do about it? Can you remember something good coming out of feeling bored? What was it, and how did it happen? How would you help a friend who was bored? What would you suggest they do to chase the boredom away?
Examine the front cover and talk about it.
How is this character feeling? Do you think they’re bored? How can you tell? What kind of place is this? How would you describe it? What do you think the title means? What other questions do you have about this book, based on the title and cover?
Share the whole book as a reading-for-pleasure experience, drawing attention to details in the pictures as you go. Then talk about the book and your responses to it, making links between the story and the discussion you had before reading. Did anyone suggest going outside as a way to banish boredom? What is it about the forest that changes the way the boy feels?
Why do you think Mum wants the boy to stop playing his game? How do you feel when you’re playing screen-based games? Do you have family rules about screen time?
Is the main character a boy or a girl? What makes you say that? Does everyone agree? Does it matter?
Look closely at the pictures and talk about what you can see, how these images make you feel and why you think Alemagna has chosen these colours, textures and subjects to create her artwork. What do you like about the pictures, and why? What questions do you have?Choose a picture and imagine stepping into it. What can you see, hear, smell, feel and taste? What does the boy see, hear, feel and taste while he’s outside?
How important is it to notice the world around you?
Can you care for the environment if you don’t connect with it?
What do videogames give you? What do they take away?
Should adults limit your screen time? Why/why not?
What next? Activities...
Look at the spread showing three pictures of Mum and the boy arguing about his game. Try sitting and standing like Mum – what does her body language and expression tell you about how she’s feeling?
Think of words to describe how Mum feels in these pictures, write them on post-its and stick them around the edge. On post-its of a different colour, write words to describe the boy’s feelings.
In pairs, roleplay Mum and the boy arguing about his game. Showback and discuss. If you were Mum, how would you persuade the boy that too much screen time isn’t a good idea? If you were the boy, how would you persuade Mum of the benefits?
Devise and conduct a survey to find out how much screen time children are allowed, how they use it and how they feel about this issue. What’s the most popular screen activity, and why?
How could you display and share your results?
"The rain was so hard it felt like rocks hitting me…"
Examine the book to discover how Alemagna depicts rain. Does it look the same on every page? Look out of your window at the rain. What’s similar to the rain in this book, and what’s different? Alemagna’s rain makes patterns on the page. Does the rain outside your window make patterns? Observe your rain and use a pencil to make marks and patterns that capture the feeling of it on paper.
Put on a raincoat and wellies and go outside to experience your rainy day. Using the book and your own observations, make a list of words, phrases and similes to describe rain - what it looks like, what it sounds like, what it feels like, how it tastes and smells – and use to write descriptively or poetically.
Use watery mixed-media (watercolours, water-soluble pencil crayons, watered-down inks) together with coloured pencils and graphite to explore the idea of rain. Try out your ideas and share your results before working on a final piece. Present your artwork, talking about how you created it and why; what you think worked well and what could have been improved. Display your artwork on the wall with a written label (like an art gallery!)
“The whole world seemed brand new, as if it had just been created right in front of me…”
Look at the multi-image picture showing the boy climbing a tree, drinking raindrops and talking to a bird…
Have you ever done these things? What else have you done outdoors? Which game or activity did you enjoy most?
Mime the boy doing some or all of these activities. Showback and discuss – what worked well? How can you improve your mimes? Invent new ways for the boy to explore the natural world around him, then mime those too. Can others guess what you’re doing?
Go on a Magical Do-Nothing Expedition by visiting an outdoor location that’s new to you and exploring it using all your senses. If it’s sensible and safe to do so, try some of the activities in this book and talk about the differences between miming and actually experiencing each activity.
Create annotated sketchmaps of your route to show where you’ve been, what you’ve noticed, what’s happened and how it’s made you feel. Make rubbings using wax crayons and different types of paper, and try sitting quietly and sketching from life. Collect words, phrases, similes and metaphors to describe your Do-Nothing place and use to help you write descriptive poems or accounts when you’re back indoors.
Alemagna’s ability to convey the physicality of being outside through artwork that never attempts realism is an absolute delight
Ask children to choose a small area each to explore more fully (e.g. by allocating a square metre to each child and demarcate with sticks and string) Look closely. What do you notice that wasn’t immediately apparent? Make notes and drawings of everything you can see, from blades of grass to pebbles to minibeasts – you can identify them later.
Imagine you’re tiny – what adventures would you have? Tell your stories, record your stories, write and illustrate your stories!
Challenge children to co-create a guide to this place – one that will highlight all the details ordinary visitors might miss. What can they include that will make their guide a super-sensory experience? Sound recordings? Textures?
A magical landscape? Or the real world, in all its glory, that has been there all along?
Try your hand at creating mixed-media collage and coloured pencil artwork, inspired by the illustrations in this book and the special things you’ve noticed on your Magical Do-Nothing Day.
"Here we were again. Me and Mum in the same cabin. The same forest. The same rain…”
What does the text in this book say about boredom? What do the pictures show us? Which is most effective at helping us understand the child’s boredom, Alemagna's text or images? Or could you argue that you need both?
What bores you? Create a questionnaire or run a survey, then analyse your results. Can you create a graph or infographic to help other people make sense of them?
What can you do to stop yourself being bored? Interview different age groups and compare their answers. What’s the most popular answer? What’s the most surprising? Is there a difference between age groups? Can you devise a way of testing these suggestions?
Alemagna's characters are full of movement and expression
Look at the way the boy is depicted in each spread and talk about what you can see and what it tells you about his thoughts and feelings. Use post-its to label each posture, using a variety of interesting verbs to describe what he’s doing - lying on the sofa, peering round the door, leaping across the rocks, reaching for the lost game, slumping under the tree, touching the snails, being startled by the storm, tumbling down the hill, balancing on a branch, lapping up the rain, peering at a stone, jumping into a puddle, rushing home, pulling off his coat, gazing at Mum…
Working in pairs, ask one child to copy a posture and hold it while the other child observes from every angle and reports on what they can see. Extend by asking children to sketch each other from life, quickly, trying to capture the essence of the postures, then label each sketch using interesting and evocative language to describe the action.
Write a third-person account of what the boy did in the forest, using ideas and vocabulary inspired by these activities. Display alongside your labelled sketches.
Look at the picture of the boy jumping along the rocks. If you could step into the picture, what would you be able to see, hear, smell, feel and taste? Describe the scene for somebody who isn't there, including lots of detail and insights. What is the boy experiencing as he jumps? What could he be thinking?
Create a series of pretend stepping-stones using cutout cardboard shapes (or mats). Set up a course and invite children to jump along it. Can they do it quickly? Very, very slowly? On one foot? Backwards? While you’re reading a poem about a stream? To rushy, swirly water-music?
Write an interesting adjective on each stepping-stone, describing this picture or the boy's experience (deluged, shivery, mossy…) Then talk about the words and what they mean.
Ask children to jump along the course again, shouting out each word or using it in a descriptive sentence as they land on it. Use easy words to start with and allow plenty of time. To step up the challenge, increase the pace and include tougher words!
Make audio-recordings and use to help you write your own descriptions and/or poetry.
Look at the spread showing six figures of the boy falling down the hill. Why has Alemagna drawn the illustration this way? Could you get the same effect by drawing six separate pictures? Discuss, encouraging lots of comments and opinions, then compare with the spread showing three figures of the boy walking through the rainy forest. What’s similar about the spreads? What’s different? Why are there only three figures here, rather than six? Alemagna was in charge, why did she make those choices, do you think?
How do these multi-figure spreads make you feel and what are you thinking about when you look at them? (a sense of movement, a sense that things are getting busy or speeding up, a sense of being out of control, a sense that the landscape stays the same as the boy moves through it…)
Create an Alemagna-style landscape, then draw yourself in several places, showing the different things that happen to you
OR show yourself at different moments in the same action (running, climbing a tree…) Make sure you’re wearing a colour that makes you stand out against the background!
To take this idea further, you could explore the way multiple images trick the eye by investigating flick books, zoetropes and similar.
My mother was there, still writing, but now she looked different – like one of the creatures outside…Look at the picture at the end of the book showing the boy and his mum drinking hot chocolate and looking at each other. What do you think the boy is noticing? How and why has his attitude to his mum changed?
What could his mum be thinking? Go back to the pictures of her at the beginning of the book and look more closely at her body language and facial expressions. What do you think she’s thinking and feeling in these pictures? Talk about what’s changed from her perspective.
Tell and write the story of the Do-Nothing Day from Mum’s point of view. Was it magical for her, too, do you think? Why?
To extend this:
Look back at the pictures showing the child outdoors. Whose viewpoint are we looking from in each picture? Who or what could be looking at the child along with us? Think about trees, rocks and microbes (look at the picture of the boy’s hands in the mud!) as well as animals, insects and birds…
How does the changing viewpoint in this book affect how we feel about the ‘Big Outdoors’?
What would the Big Outdoors think or feel or say, if it were able to do so? Tell or write the story of this book from the point of view of the Big Outdoors!
Look at the picture of the boy putting his hand in the mud. What can you see underground that he can’t see?
Why do some of the treasures have faces? Are they alive? What’s Alemagna saying here about the natural world?
What likes to live in muddy places? Think about insects, amphibians, microbes, roots, seeds….
Examine different types of seed with a magnifying glass and draw them from life. Then plant some and watch them germinate and grow. Keep a record of your plant’s size and appearance over time.
Hide natural and found objects in mud (buttons, pebbles, seeds) and use your fingers to find them. Guess what they are by touch before looking at them, then draw Alemagna-inspired pictures of each treasure. When you’ve found everything, assemble your drawings and make a collage.
Host a mud pie festival outdoors, then share some chocolate mousse or Missisippi Mud Pie with hidden treats inside!
If you liked this, try...
A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna, published by Tate Publishing
The Big Little Thing by Beatrica Alemagna, published by Tate Publishing
What is a Child? by Beatrice Alemagna, published by Tate Publishing
Little Evie in the Wild Wood by Jackie Morris and Catherine Hyde, published by Lincoln Books
Imelda and the Goblin King by Briony May Smith, published by Flying Eye
The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes, published by Flying Eye
Wild by Emily Hughes, published by Flying Eye
Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak, published by Red Fox
You Belong Here by M.H. Clark and Isabelle Arsenault, published by Compendium
To find out more about Beatrice Alemagna on her website click here
Beatrice Alemagna made a film about her book "What is a Child?" You can watch it here:
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