Books for busy brains

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Michael Thorn selects titles to encourage more acute thinking among pupils

Reading and thinking are so closely bound together it is hard to suggest any type of reading matter that does not prompt some kind of thought. The question arises: do different types of reading promote different types of thinking?

Browsing the back of a cereal packet might excite the mind into thinking up "serving suggestions", or spark curiosity about the list of ingredients.

But that is probably not the kind of thinking teachers mean when they talk about "thinking skills", a phrase that has common currency but which is made up of two words that are antithetical to one another.

Thinking is not a skill, it's the sixth sense. It's what our brain does, just as smelling is what our nose does, and seeing is what our eyes do. If we want to stop seeing we can close our eyes; stop smelling, pinch our nose. Religions are built around the effort to stop people thinking: an empty mind is a state to which only the holiest of holy can aspire and is not, contrary to teachers' perceptions, commonly found in primary classrooms, even on a Friday afternoon.

Folk-tales and stories concerning the giving of wishes are good for prompting analytical and logical thinking. E Nesbit's classic story Five Children And It (Puffin, pound;3.99) - the "It" being a Psammead, or sand-fairy - is built upon the expectation that the children's wishes will be faulty in some way. Children will enjoy predicting the pitfalls of the wishes (when the five become "as beautiful as the day", no one recognises them); they will also relish trying to improve on the wording.

A variation on the Psammead's granting of the gold sovereigns is Frank Cottrell Boyce's Millions (Macmillan, pound;9.99). Here, a sack containing thousands of pounds falls off a train and lands in a hermitage that has been built by Damian, who became obsessed with saints after the death of his mother. What will he and his brother do with the money? Will it bring solace? Apart from these obvious considerations, the novel will prompt thoughts about the lives of the saints and the nature of sainthood.

The Bee-Man Of Orn (illustrated here) is a modern folk-tale by the 19th-century American humorist Frank Stockton. Illustrated by P J Lynch (Walker Books, pound;12.99), it's a story about an old man living alone, surrounded by bees, who is told by a junior sorcerer that he is not what he is meant to be. "And what was that?" asks the Bee-Man. The junior sorcerer doesn't know, so the Bee-Man sets off to find out. After some suitably strange experiences, he is changed into a baby, only to grow back into the same person he was at the start of the story. It's a tale that cannot fail to get children thinking about destiny, about the degree to which we can alter the course of our lives, the effect of genetic determination and other heady matters. The same story will soon be available in another edition from Michael di Capua Books in the US, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak.

To further exercise the philosophical bent of young minds, you could use Stephen Law's The Philosophy Files and The Outer Limits: More Mysteries from the Philosophy Files (both Orion Children's Books, pound;7.99). They are described as "an adventure in thinking" and ask questions such as "Do miracles happen?"

Peter Dickinson's magisterial quartet about the beginnings of civilisation, The Kin (Macmillan Children's Books, pound;6.99), is an adventure story with appeal for older primary readers as well as a consideration of such big ideas as the beginning of language and the transfer of knowledge from generation to generation.

Science fiction has always been popular with children and young adults, taking readers into worlds different from our own. SF worlds must obey their own logic if they are to be believable, just as the magic in fantasy novels must be based on rigorous principles if young readers are not to ask too many "How come?" questions. This is just as important in fantasy for younger readers - for example, in stories about miniature people, such as Mary Norton's The Borrowers (Puffin Modern Classic, pound;6.99) or Sally Gardner's recent chapter book series, Tales from the Box (Bloomsbury pound;4.99). Mary and John Gribbin's Big Numbers (Wizard, pound;6.99) is a book that will help children get their minds round the scale of our universe.

Time-slip novels exercise a reader's sense of logic and discrimination in the same way. The most satisfactory, such as Tom's Midnight Garden (Oxford Modern Classic, pound;6.99), are those that prompt the reader to ask "How can this be?" rather than requiring a suspension of disbelief.

Thoughts about violence and saving the human race from imminent doom are at the centre of Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card (Atom, pound;5). Any older primary child who has already become an inquisitive reader will find this story - soon to become a film - extremely thought-provoking.

Weird real-life stories, such as The Bermuda Triangle Incident and other books in The Unexplained series by Terrance Dicks (Piccadilly, pound;4.99) provide a good way to foster a questioning attitude and tempt children who are less book-minded into some deep thinking.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary in Hailsham, East Sussex.

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