There's a stranger in the forest and everyone is worried. Can empathy and insight overcome difference and prejudice?
Who's it for?Reading for Pleasure
Sharing at storytime or reading independently 3-7 yearsActive Reading
Sharing and exploring through creative cross-curricular activities 4-10 years
But every child is different, so feel free to adapt our activities to suit their interests and abilities!
About this book
Washed in by the tide, a polar bear arrives on the shores of a northern forest. He settles in an abandoned cave where he tries to make a life for himself. The animals who live nearby call him Leaf, because of his habit of collecting plants, but Leaf is strange and different, and the animals are afraid of him. No-one is brave enough to speak to the newcomer – until the bear makes a pair of leafy wings and tries to fly. He fails, of course, but at last the other animals are prepared to listen to his tale of separation, misery and loneliness. “We’ll help you,” say the crows. And they do – by flying him through the clouds and straight back home to his family.
This beautiful picturebook has plenty of heart, but there’s bite, too, beneath its decorative surface. Dieckmann’s story isn’t a retelling, but it has been informed and shaped by the Northern folk traditions that add depth and impact to her work - not only in her use of colour and the patterns that enhance the pages but also in the darker aspects of her story, where Leaf’s separation from home and family, the threat of environmental imbalance and the mistrust of the ‘other’ is evident throughout.
Sandra Dieckmann was born in Germany but lives and works in East London. Leaf was her first picturebook and was shortlisted for the 2018 Waterstones Children's Book Award and the 2018 Kate Greenaway Medal. The Dog That Ate the World and Waiting for Wolf have also been published by Flying Eye Books.
"The best folktales have a dark edge. Conversely, the best folk art pops with colour - perhaps as a visual way of whistling in the dark, perhaps a celebration of the richness of northern Europe's storytelling tradition. Sandra Dieckmann's nature inspired illustration has got that elusive, comfortable yet disquieting quality in spades" Digital Artist Magazine
Sharing this book and talking about it
Before reading Leaf with children, look at a globe together and talk about what you can see.
What shape is the globe? Why? Where are the oceans, and where is the land? Where do you live? Can you name the continents? The oceans? What’s at the northern tip of our world, and who lives there?
Pool what you know about the Arctic, collecting questions on a large sheet of paper to act as a prompt for later research. How can you find answers to your questions? Introduce a selection of books and online resources that you can explore later to learn more.
Show children the front cover of the book. Who do you think this animal could be, and where is he? A forest isn’t an environment that’s usually associated with polar bears….!
Use the globe to show children where the northern forests are. Describe the trees and animals that live there. How did the bear come to be in this forest, do you think? Discuss your ideas and the questions you might want to ask this bear.
What do you think this book will be about?
When you’re ready to share the story, read it all the way through for enjoyment, then re-read it, taking time to look more carefully at the pictures and discuss your responses
The artwork is intricate, so you might want to use a visualizer to project it onto a screen - or you could source some extra copies and recruit helpers to turn pages as you read, so that every child can see clearly.
Talk about the book. What did you like best? What surprised you? What will you remember? Did this book remind you of anything else you've read?
Why didn't the animals want to be friends with the bear when he arrived? Do people behave the same way, do you think? How can we make newcomers feel welcome?
Track the crows throughout the story. What do they say and do to change things?
What next? Activities...
Really good picture books like Leaf give you lots of opportunities to inspire richer and more satisfying writing experiences for children, with higher quality outcomes.
Explore key moments in the story by choosing an image and using multisensory approaches to experience and interrogate it. For example, you could choose the spread showing Leaf’s paw sticking out of the water. This is when the crows decide to talk to him!
Discuss what you can see in the picture and the questions it raises. What can Leaf see, hear, feel, smell and taste as he falls into the water?
Touch some large, black feathers and view through magnifiers. What do you notice? Sketch using thick graphite and charcoal, then blow on the feathers to see what happens in the wind. What would it be like to wear a coat of feathers, do you think?
Fill a large bowl with water. Look closely at the surface. How does it move when you blow on it? Agitate the water to make little waves. How do they move? Make small splashes and notice how the water behaves. What does it sound like? Recreate using your voice and/or percussion instruments.
How has Dieckmann chosen to depict the northern sea? Investigate ways to draw and paint a seascape using different media (watercolour, pastels, wax crayons...) Share working methods and discoveries.
Ask children to use their voices to explore sounds that could be made by water, wind and birds, then choose their favourite to add to a communal soundscape. Conduct your orchestra, using signals to raise and lower the volume. Talk about what you’ve done and how it felt to take part. What can the bear hear in this picture, do you think?
Collect words to describe everything in this image: water, sky, feathers; flying, falling, splashing, swimming; how it feels to be a crow or bear. Set up whole-class wordbanks and use to tell stories about the bear falling in the water.
Now ask children to write about the moment shown in the picture. Encourage them to involve their readers by using vivid words, descriptions and ideas.
Stories about animals behaving like people can help children explore difficult emotions by creating distance and allowing them to be objective.
In this book, a new arrival is ignored, discussed behind his back and judged - and this may resonate with children who are aware of the impact of unkindness and exclusion.
Carefully-handled drama activities can be an effective way to develop thinking around such issues, as well as helping children improve their speaking, listening and other language skills.
Look at the first spread (the bear floating on the ice.) How does the bear feel? How can you tell? As a class, collect words to describe him and his feelings. Copy the bear’s posture, then find other ways to use your body to show sadness, loneliness and fear
How do his emotions change throughout the story? Recreate the bear's postures, gestures and body language from other spreads in the book and find words to describe him at each stage. Is it helpful to understand how other people feel? Why? What happens if you don't understand their feelings?
Look at the second spread, showing the animals staring up at the bear in his cave.
Based on your knowledge of the book, what could the animals be saying and feeling, do you think?
Working in small groups, decide who will roleplay the bear and who will be the other animals. Create freezeframes showing the animals ignoring the bear. How will you use your body to show how your character feels?
Play ‘Find my Voice’ by tapping a child’s shoulder to hear their character’s thoughts and feelings. On a given signal, bring your freezeframes to life, allowing children to move, speak and show what happens next.
Repeat, with different children as the bear. Ask some or all of the groups to showback to everyone else. Talk about what's happened and what you think about it. How did it feel when your character was ignored and excluded by everyone else? How did it feel to be one of the animals ignoring the bear? Deal sensitively with this if parallels are drawn with playground issues.
What could the animals have done to change things? Discuss possibilities and/or roleplay different outcomes.
Build on the activity by writing about the meeting from different points of view.
Every day they discussed the stranger...Initially the animals refer to the Bear as It. Eventually they call him Leaf - but as he hasn’t said a word, we don’t know who he is or why he came to the forest.
Look at the fourth spread. What are the animals saying about Leaf? Is it true? Talk about facts, opinions and rumours. How could the animals learn the truth?
Look at the seventh spread, showing the animals in the clearing. What are they saying? Have their ideas changed? Tip: pay attention to the crows!
Group children and give them one copy of Leaf for each group, plus post-it notes. Look at each picture up to and including the seventh spread, and add dialogue or thoughts for different characters using post-it notes. Tip: use one colour for the animals and another for the bear.
They let him speak and at last they listened...
Look at the spread showing the bear crawling out of the water. At last the crows are talking to him! What could Leaf be saying? Use post-its to add thoughts and dialogue to the remaining pages of the book.
Why is it important to listen? And how do we know when it’s safe to talk to people we don’t know?
Using a template, cut sets of wings from card. Give each child a set, making more available so that everyone can experiment. Supply equipment such as string, hole punchers, sellotape, staplers, scissors plus a variety of different types and thicknesses of card and other materials.
In pairs, ask children to find ways of attaching the wings to their back or arms. Encourage them to keep a record of their investigation by drawing what they've done and annotating it as they work – including ideas that aren’t successful, as well as those that are. Share and discuss frequently so that everyone can benefit. What works best, and why? Leaf made mistakes - why are mistakes important, do you think?
Once you’ve worked out how to attach your wings, ask children to make a well-finished set of wings that they can wear. Decorate your wings 'Dieckmann-style' by painting and drawing leaves, cutting them out and attaching them to your wings – or choose a different way to decorate (collage, wax resist, scrunched-up tissue…)
Wear your wings. How does it feel? Take plenty of photos! Write descriptions of your wings and instructions on how to make them.
To take this further, retell the Greek legend of Icarus, look at Leonardo da Vinci’s birdwing cartoons or read My Dad’s a Bird Man by David Almond and Polly Dunbar.
Sandra Dieckmann is a ceramicist as well as a writer and illustrator. Visit her website at www.sandradieckmann.com to see her animal figurines. Which do your children like best? Which animal would they choose to model, and why?
Examine Dieckmann’s animal artwork in Leaf and compare with the ceramic models on her website. Using plasticine or clay, model an animal head inspired by Dieckmann’s work.
Look closely at the plants on the book cover - use magnifiers! – and talk about the shapes and colours you can see
Draw your own plants, copying Dieckmann’s ideas and inventing new ones. Experiment with pastels, watercolour, coloured pencils, wax resist, scraperboard and other media.
Cut out your leaves and plants and stick on a sheet of card with a hole in the middle. Display so that your model animal can peep through the hole, surrounded by your forest plants.
Invent a name for your animal and tell the story of how he or she came to be living in the forest you’ve created, and what happened next.
Flying Eye Books is a relatively new imprint that really cares about high-quality design and production
Books today have to compete with lots of other media, so making a picturebook that’s great to touch and hold (as well as look at) is important, and ‘extras’ like Leaf’s printed cloth spine on a hardback edition can make a big difference.
Let Leaf inspire you to create beautiful handmade books of your own. Online tutorials will teach you how to make a simple hardback book, or you can use single sheets of textured card and bind with washi tape (easy-to-use Japanese masking tape) to add Flying-Eye-style impact to your finished books.
To fill your books with good things, why not find out about the Arctic and the animals that live there, and write illustrated reports? Or you could write the story of what happened when Leaf rejoined his family...
If you liked this, try...
The Dog that Ate the World by Sandra Dieckmann
Waiting for Wolf by Sandra Dieckmann
Ice Bear by Nicola Davies and Gary Blythe
The Last Polar Bears by Harry Horse
Izzy Gizmo by Pip Jones and Sara Ogilvie
The Ice Bear by Jackie Morris
My Dad’s a Bird Man by David Almond and Polly Dunbar
Find out more about Sandra Dieckmann on her website here
A version of this article first appeared in Teach Primary Magazine. To visit Teach Primary's website click here
Get updates and news from Cast Of Thousands direct to your inbox