Five-year-old Jessica is showing me a set of fearsomely authentic African masks her class has made for World Book Day on March 14. They have been studying "The Witch of the Sands", a story from Botswana. I ask her:
"Can you tell me what happens?"
"No," says Jessica firmly. Then: "There's a really horrible witch. She wants to steal three little boys who live in a tree. She can climb up the ladder to get them because they think it's their father. It's like 'Hansel and Gretel', but it's in Africa."
"Do you know where Africa is?" "It's very far away. But my mother's been to South Africa."
For a child of five to grasp that a basic narrative theme can be expressed differently in other cultures, to communicate this to a stranger and connect elements of it to her own her mother's experience seems a considerable achievement.
Preparations for World Book Day at Brixham C of E infants' school and nursery unit are just a part of a more comprehensive commitment to enlarging pupils' cultural experience. The need for this is particularly acute, argues headteacher Mel Easter, because Brixham, a small fishing port on the south Devon coast, is almost exclusively white-British. There are no children from minority ethnic backgrounds at the school, and many pupils have never met a black or Asian person.
"That's why we feel a strong need to compensate," said Mel Easter, who spent nine years teaching in west Africa before coming to Brixham. "We didn't want to restrict the multicultural emphasis to different religions, but to look at music, poetry, stories, ways of life - all aspects of culture."
The school now holds an international school status award from the British Council for achievements in introducing multicultural themes. For World Book Day, each class took a different continent and chose a traditional story which they will dramatise in front of the whole school.
The project has three main objectives: to foster enthusiasm for reading, to inspire curiosity about life beyond Brixham, and to identify underlying themes common to human experience across cultures.
The stories, selected from library books such as Our Favourite Stories from Around the World (UNICEF), were chosen by the children. The nursery class corresponds regularly with a school in Kenya, so they might have been expected to choose an African story. "But they wanted a New Zealand story," says teacher Angela Truman. "It was the one that caught their imagination."
The story, "Rona and the Moon", tells how Rona, a Maori woman whose perfect life at home "on a stretch of silver beach" with husband and two children, is ruined by her irascible temper. One evening, late with her preparations for the family's dinner, she curses the moon ("you blithering idiot, you useless piece of rock!") for failing to provide enough light. The moon, being equally short-tempered, retaliates by snatching her away into the night sky. The story is full of poetic images, but is not too alarming for young children.
The nursery pupils were rehearsing with the puppets they had made - paintings and collages mounted on sticks - to represent all the main protagonists in the tale, plus dolphins, fish and trees. One of the difficulties for children of this age-group is to understand that they must hold the painted side of the puppets facing away from themselves and towards the audience.
Anne Parker, who teaches the reception class, has been impressed by her four-year-olds' ability to grasp "both the tragic aspects and the semi-happy ending" in the "Willow Pattern" story. Though this story is not actually of Chinese origin, it has provided the focus for exploration of far-eastern culture. The children have made lanterns, kites, a pagoda and a dragon, and have tried Chinese handwriting using traditional inks. They have also been shown films about modern China to avoid giving the impression that the culture is stranded in the past.
The older groups are given a greater intellectual challenge - each class has chosen a traditional story from western culture and matched it with a similar one from another continent. They are then asked to identify common themes, and reflect on possible reasons for the differences they find.
In Year 2, the pupils chose The Pied Piper of Hamelin from western literature, and a Mexican story, The Corn Maidens, which tells a similar tale of a community that reneges on a deal over pest-control and suffers the consequences. Teacher Caren Brooks asks the class about the similarities. Hands shoot up. "In both, somebody was attracted by a noise"; "I liked both stories because both were about being fair". Caren picks up on the last point, emphasising the common theme of fairness and natural justice, a moral concept which young children find easy to relate to their own experience. The pupils then practise their rat-impersonation skills for the final production.
Witches who use deceit to lure children away from safety dominate both stories chosen by Year 1, the familiar Hansel and Gretel and the African story The Witch of the Sands. Teacher and literacy co-ordinator Claire Brown has been using drama to help them see the difference between acting a role in games and doing it for an audience. To act involves a developmental leap; they have to appreciate that, although they know what their character is like, the audience does not.
"I've been trying to show them how to be the character by changing tone of voice." She taped the children speaking their parts, and then asked the others to guess which character is speaking. The story has also prompted work on life in Africa, says Claire Brown, "looking for similarities as well as obvious differences", and has been effective in uniting a class where reading levels vary widely (the school has a high number of children with special needs).
Brixham CE infants has interpreted World Book Day in a way that complements a commitment to multicultural themes, but there is no obligation to do this. Another option would be to take one book or one author for the whole school to explore in depth and at appropriate levels.
For information packs on World Book Day (including pound;1 book tokens for every child) ring 01634 729810. Our Favourite Stories from Around the World is part of the UNICEF series of books, "Children Just Like Me". Book Aid International, a charity providing books to the developing world, has produced a poster featuring activities, discussion ideas, a quiz and a competition, which is being sent to every school in the UK and Eire. The charity is also co-ordinating fundraising events. For more information tel: Nicola or Richard on 020 7733 3577 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org