Reviews /

Big Ideas from Literature: How Books Can Change Your World

Authored by The School of Life
Illustrated by Anna Doherty
Published by The School of Life Press

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Big Ideas from Literature is an eye-opening and thought-provoking information book which encourages children to think more deeply about the process of reading and the reasons for it, drawing on a range of philosophical and psychological insights. Produced by The School of Life (who on their website describe themselves as ‘a passionate group of people on a mission to bring about healing, growth, calm and self-understanding’ ), the book begins with a working definition of literature as ‘stories that teach you important things‘ before taking us through the history of literature from the Epic of Gilgamesh onwards, and then exploring some of the different feelings that literature can provoke.

The book is written in a conversational style with some gentle humour, often drawing analogies with situations children face in their everyday lives (‘you know perfectly well it’s not very nice to tease a younger siblings but you keep on doing it because, at the crucial moment, you sort of forget). Each short chapter introduces a key concept, such as ‘The Invention of Books Just for Children’ or ‘Making Hard Subjects Entertaining’, then illustrates this by talking about one book in more detail. Many chapters end by posing questions on which then we can reflect; for instance, the chapter on fantasy explores The Hobbit and then asks the reader ‘in what ways might you be (even just a tiny bit) like Smaug?’ and ‘what would it be like if you were kinder to your inner Smaug?’ 

I was impressed by the wide range of topics covered by this book, ranging from key innovations in printing and the manufacture of paper to thoughtful exploration of our emotional response to literature – I particularly enjoyed the chapter on ‘Happy Crying’. The books chosen as examples are similarly diverse, from well-known classics such as Little Women and Peter Pan and modern favourites like The Boy at the Back of the Class, to titles likely to be less familiar to British readers, including William Kamkwamba’s 2010 book The Boy Who Harvested the Wind from Malawi and Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book from 11th Century Japan. Anna Doherty’s attractive full-page illustrations further help to bring these stories to life.

Although the questions raised by this book are often complex and profound, the language remains accessible and it would suit an intellectually curious child in KS2 or KS3 – I know that nine-year-old me would have loved it. Teachers might also want to incorporate it into their teaching of reading, sharing different sections to prompt reflection on why we read and how books make us feel: it would spark some great discussions as well as introducing children to many new authors.