Take a walk in the wilds

18th April 2003 at 01:00
A touring resource gives early years children a chance to experience everyday life on a hill farm. Elaine Williams reports.

Over the Hills and Far Away. Exhibition and schools' roadshow.

The children's illustrator and author Kim Lewis, who depicts Northumberland farming life in all its tough reality, once said she wanted children to "walk into the books as if they were visiting a farm themselves". Now young readers in these scattered communities can.

Over the Hills and Far Away is a touring resource based on an exhibition of Lewis's work in Gateshead. It is organised by the Centre for the Children's Book, the national archive based in Newcastle upon Tyne. The roadshow enables early years children to re-enact the everyday rituals and dilemmas depicted in loving detail in the Floss books and The Shepherd Boy.

Surrounded by large-scale scenes from the books on screens, children can try on shepherd's caps, sweep up straw and collect rubber eggs in a walk-in "barn", ride on rocking sheep, move animals around a scale model of Lewis's hill farm, make pencil drawings, or rest on a play mat (a textile, tactile creation of the Northumberland landscape by a partnership of rural and urban women).

When the roadshow kicked off at Gateshead's Shipley Gallery, where Lewis's exhibition is hung, children from the Jesmond nursery in Newcastle made a beeline for the dressing-up box, becoming busy farm workers with their livestock, playing out the everyday dramas of Lewis's books. Their teachers, unable to take them to farms since the foot and mouth outbreak, which hit the area hard, were now thrilled to be able to. The Centre for the Children's Book has taken Lewis at her word, inviting children to "try on" a way of life through these superbly designed play materials.

In Bellingham, Lewis's village, near Hexham, nursery and reception children from Bellingham and Greenhaugh first schools tackled the lambing with gusto. With lambs once more in the fields, Over the Hills and Far Away is intended to lift the confidence and self-esteem of rural children, teachers and families, by giving them a chance to create positive stories about their lives.

The pound;40,000 roadshow, funded by communications company Orange, is touring more than 45 schools, nurseries and village halls in Northumberland, County Durham and Gateshead in a play van through the summer term. Clare Lishman, early years support teacher for the Northumberland early years development and childcare partnership, has worked with the Centre for the Children's Book in making sure the roadshow meets foundation stage early learning goals.

Lewis and her husband, Flea Lurati, moved to Northumberland to take up hill farming in 1977 after working as artists and designers in London. Lurati now manages 1,000 acres while Lewis recreates the reality of the life and work she can see from her studio window. "People can walk through the countryside and have no connection with it," she says. "I have sought to develop a connection for my readers with the land, the weather and the way of life. When foot and mouth was upon us, I felt almost like a historian, as if I was recording something that might disappear."

Books such as The Shepherd Boy, which describes a weathered boyhood on a hill farm, and Just Like Floss, which details the choices made when choosing a sheepdog puppy, have earned her a worldwide following. Elizabeth Hammill, artistic director of the Centre for the Children's Book, praises Lewis as a "Shirley Hughes of the countryside". As Hughes acutely observes urban family existence, so Lewis captures "small corners of country life for children, its splendour, but also its contemporary nitty-gritty tough workadayness", Mrs Hammill says.

Back at Shipley, visitors can walk into a re-creation of Lewis's studio, sit at the desk with her worn-down pencils, see the washing line where she hangs up rough drafts, and the photographs of family, friends and landscape that are her references. They can also make their own pictures and drawings. The drafts and redrafts that make extraordinary stories from everyday events show the books' painstaking process.

A second exhibition, Fantasy Farms, opens at Shipley tomorrow, focusing on rural "landscapes of the imagination" in which pigs fly, animals talk and scare-crows walk. A sculpture from Bill Quay Community Farm in Gateshead of a fantastical hybrid - a creature with a pig's head, lamb's torso, chicken's front legs and a cow's rear - sets the tone for works by illustrators such as Pat Hutchins, Quentin Blake, Helen Oxenbury, and Satoshi Kitamura, and writers including Ted Hughes, Anne Fine and Roald Dahl. These show the making of classics such as Rosie the Hen, Farmer Duck, Fantastic Mr Fox, Doggie Dogfoot and Worzel Gummidge.

Kim Lewis and Fantasy Farms exhibitions run at Shipley Gallery until June 8. The summer term roadshow term is full. For other education and public events (including 'Days on the Farm' with Lewis, Flea Lurati and sheepdog Fleck) contact The Centre for the Children's Book. Tel: 0191 276 4289; info@childrensbook.org.uk. Kim Lewis's books are published by Walker Books

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