Reviews /

Our Table

Authored by Peter H Reynolds
Illustrated by Peter H Reynolds
Published by Scholastic

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Peter H Reynolds’ latest picture book, Our Table, tells the familiar story of family members who are constantly connected to the digital world but increasingly disconnected from each other. It is a story which has instruction at its heart. A lesson more for the parents than the children perhaps?

The front cover sets us all up with what seems like an aspiration. Violet’s family are pictured in a bubble of colour but surrounded by an ominous purple hue (I’ll come back to the purple in a minute). The title ‘Our Table’ is shaded in a warm golden light that matches the table and candles and this all makes sense when we note that the nuclear family (dad, mum, boy, girl, cat and dog) are sitting in a very traditional model. The parents sit at the head lighting candles, the meal is home cooked and healthy and there are glasses of water all round, in fact, Violet seems to be patting her brother affectionately and even the pets are sat obediently on the floor. There are no complaints about vegetables, no arguments, no chips, no fizzy drinks and crucially no screens. This is a prime example of children’s literature setting the bar pretty high for the rest of us.

The rub being that Violet’s family can’t live up to these ideals either and this is where the purple hue comes in. The purple signifies the disconnect, as this family are no longer always at dinner together. In fact, for all but four spreads the images are all drawn in purple – violet, you might say. Violet sets about ensuring the family can chase out the purple and return to the colour utopia evident on the front cover. Initially, Violet tries to connect with members of her family only to find them all in different rooms immersed in digital worlds. As I read it, I noted (and indeed empathised with) the mother sat on the stairs ‘chatting silently on her phone’ most likely complaining to a friend about Violet’s father who is ‘in his favourite chair in front of a big screen – bigger than Violet.’ With all this disconnect, the family table, rather symbolically, shrinks and vanishes. Violet ‘fixes’ the problem by encouraging the family to work with each other to build a new table and it is only when the family are all together that we see colour return. The book is part of a long line of books that caution parents -Judith Kerr’s Mummy Time springs to mind- about the dangers of being constantly connected to a digital world at the expense of family life.

This text has a job to do – it plays with our heartstrings and is deeply ideological in its instruction that children deserve a particular type of family life. That said, I was impressed that rather than entirely dismissing the digital world, the text reminds readers of its usefulness as Violet asks her mother to post a message to find out who ‘knew how to build a table’, her father to ‘watch a show about carpentry’, and her brother to plan the design on his computer. Our Table doesn’t by any means instruct us to throw away our devices it simply suggests we use them wisely.

This story will certainly invite much discussion about screen use within the family, and I can see this being a very handy conversation starter in class, not to mention its potential to ignite a lively debate about the use of colour in picture books. I would be cautious to measure it though with a more nuanced chat about different types of families who organise their family lives in different ways. After all, not every family who fail to eat wholesome food at the table every night is necessarily disconnected.