We spoke to Jo Loring-Fisher about her kids book ‘Taking Time’ (we had to, didn’t we!) about the importance of reading with children and encouraging them to take in the world around them.
Taking Time: What was the original inspiration for making the book?
Jo Loring- Fisher: I was the kind of kid who always noticed the spider's web and little bits of nature. I grew up in Sussex surrounded by nature, I was very much encouraged to enjoy that. I went for a walk with my dog and I looked up and saw a flock of birds going over, and the concept just came to me, the idea of having different children in different countries observing their natural world.
To me, it’s more about connecting with people from different countries and appreciating what we have in common, rather than the differences that we hear about morning, noon and night. Because I honestly think that we have much more in common. The politicians might pick it up. But I think, you know, as ordinary everyday citizens, I think we probably have, right across the world, a lot more in common than we do different differences. So that was the concept behind it and we built from there. thinking about flocks of birds, thinking about various things that I could bring in that people could be aware of, like a spider's web, something that any child in the world could notice.
The mindfulness aspect of it wasn't something that I consciously planned, it was something that Alice at the publisher, Lantana, suggested we develop.
TT: The book does offer that sense of mindful awareness, of the world around us, as you said. It's directed at children, and my inclination is that, maybe because of the level of their eyesight, kids have a greater sense to explore nature than adults, because we think we've seen it before. The book just made me aware again of how my toddler might see the world, she’s very hands on and wants to grab and see everything. There's an awful lot that we can learn as adults from the perspective of the children in that sense.
Jo: It really is, and they don't want to be rushed. Unfortunately, I think more and more kids are being dragged into our fast paced lifestyles. Obviously, the whole Covid thing has been awful for us in many, many ways, but I think what has been good is making people slow down a bit. For some people, it's been quite positive, it's probably made people view things quite differently. For kids, they need to be able to go slow and not be rush, rush, rush the whole time. It's not good for them.
TT: I agree. I was going to ask about that, because kids are now just assumed into this world of constant attention grabbing.
Jo: I've got four kids, three of them are adults, my youngest is 15, who lives with me. I never really pushed them, they were more interested in being at home ,none of them were that interested in doing this club or that club and trying everything. I think some parents still like to be good parents. They need to constantly give their kids opportunities to do this, that and the other and to be seen to be good at being a good parent and active and involved. It can be a bit bombarding! I think that's kind of what’s expected, and I think parents feel that they need to do that in order to be good parents.
TT: There's also the sense with the book that it's a bit old fashioned in a way, kids just exploring in the countryside, playing out in a way that I know I did as a kid. That's less prevalent these days with the amount of options of screens and entertainment for kids.
Jo: Yeah, I think parents are scared stiff of actually letting their kids out of their sight, and I totally understand that. I think certainly when I was growing up, there would be huge gangs of this. We'd be going out and making camps in this field and this particular place and climbing up that massive oak tree and doing all that kind of thing, in a way that I probably wouldn't have let my kids do, because we're all scared stiff that they're going to be abducted. That's the truth of it, we're scared. You haven't got the safety in numbers thing that certainly I had when I was growing up.
TT: Yeah, there was always loads of us, and we'd all meet up after school.
Jo: That's how you learn without your parents.
TT: You have different social interactions, different interactions with your environment and your surroundings. When you have that sense of autonomy as a child, and sometimes that leads to conflict or something goes wrong, but actually there's a lot to be said for…
Jo : ...sussing it out yourself, yeah!
TT: How did you go about selecting what to include in the book? It's got an international viewpoint which is really lovely. I suppose the alternative to that is having one character, which you'd follow into lots of different scenarios, but you've chosen to have lots of different characters from around the world.
Jo: That is Lantana's USP really. There’s been various research projects done about kids from minority races, basically not showing up in books and or being main characters in books. I think the majority of main characters are male, even, so I always make sure I put a female in there, generally as the main character. It's always a white middle class boy that features, so I consciously thought, right, okay, that child in Nepal, enjoying the spider spinning its web in the same way we can in the UK. I was consciously thinking, let's make this lots of different countries of the world, and thinking visually how that would work, bringing in different wildlife. So I've tried to make it as broad as I could.
TT: There'll be slight nuances in different countries, but seeing a flock of birds in the sky, it’s a universal thing for children around the world.
Jo: Seeing the birds flying over is what sparked the idea in the first place. I love the natural world, so any excuse for me to do a landscape and stick wildlife in it, I'm there! It all came together in my mind quite quickly, and quite easily. It wasn't one that I sat there scratching my head over at all, I had the concept. Often I get a concept or a title or an image or something in my mind when I'm walking, and I put it down on my notes on my telephone and develop it from there.
TT: Yeah, I agree. I never have any good ideas sat at a computer! It's not a creative space for me. This is a book that only really could have been written because you are out doing exactly what your characters in the book are doing, being slow and being observant and mindful of the natural world around them. Did you have certain expectations of what your reader might take away from reading it? Or was it a case of you having this premise and setting it out and that being sufficient?
Jo: I think with all my illustrations, I like there to be something that kids can go back, or adults can go back to. Actually, in a lot of the reviews that I've got, a lot of the adults are saying, ‘Yeah, this is a kid's book, but actually, we're really taking a lot from it as a parent.’ I like the idea of somebody reading, taking time with their children at bedtime, they're having downtime as a parent. That's a really nice moment for them to think. There is the element at the end of the book where all of them take a keepsake that they share at the end. So on the endpapers it shows all the different things. I like that as a point of discussion, as well as a memory game, to encourage them to go back and consider what they’ve read.
TT: It caught me out a bit, I wasn't ready! I was suddenly like, I don't know, all these answers!
Jo: That's great though isn't it. It's multi-layered!
TT: It added a completely different dynamic to it, which I hadn't expected. I think you're right, that there's a transition period as a parent, (not always easy!), but when you're putting your kid to bed and reading a story, that is the point at which that mania of the last however long it’s taken to do tea and bath time doing tea, that you have this space of relative serenity with a book. And then falling asleep while you're doing it (sometimes!).
Jo: There are several books that I still know off by heart. I could recite them pretty much word for word for you, because I've just read them so many times. And luckily, they're the ones that I like. Some of my fondest memories of my kids, particularly my older two, and they will say as well, is that time when I sat and read to them, taking them to the library. I've got a picture of my son at about three years old. They used to go to the library, come back with a massive pile of books, and then sit down on the sofa. And they would just be all over their laps, looking at these books, you know, it's just such a fantastic thing. I used to work in the library as well, it's just such an important space and books are so important.
Doing what I do is quite a responsibility really, and I do think it's quite an important job. I think it's my way of giving out and doing my bit to help with perhaps raising awareness. I made a book about a refugee, that's something that's important to me and I wanted to raise that as an issue for young children and their parents. Another one about shyness called Wolf Girl becoming brave and finding it inside yourself to challenge and make friends and that's my way of doing my bit.
TT: Since time began, it's the way that all of us have learned, through telling stories. With books you learn through stories about the people that you wouldn't converse with day to day. My toddler reads stories with characters, people and whether they're personified as animals, or as people, she’s learning about different contexts, emotional states, different environments, and different perspectives on the world. Whether that's different skin colors, or different attractions, or whatever it is, she’s learning through the books that she's reading, because it's not necessarily going to come through the media that she engages on a screen. It’s so important that kids learn that everyone's different, and we're all unique and a story in a book is something that they're really engaged with. It's hard to know how much is going in at an early age, but it’s going in to some degree!
Jo: There's so many issues now that are being raised. I was just listening to woman's hour and there was an argument about being transgender and freedom of speech. People are afraid to say anything or share their opinion in case it's misconstrued. It's a hell of a challenge for parents.
TT: As an author, you can introduce these ideas to allow kids to think beyond the levels we’re all at. Does that feel like a big responsibility or is it just a pleasure to display in such beautiful ways these lovely stories for kids to enjoy?
Jo: I think I try to tackle tricky issues, but I try to do it in a very gentle and as beautiful a way as I possibly can. Kids books can be children's first introduction to art as well. So I want to make my work as good artistically as it can be.
Kids are a lot more sophisticated and understand things way more than we realize they do. You do not have to dumb it down for kids, they understand stuff. They take tough concepts on board and question things. Never underestimate the kids.
TT: Lastly, we have to discuss that your book and our site share the name Taking Time! I love it for it’s duplicity in terms of inviting us to slow down and take your time, but also the notion of ownership of time, taking your time for yourself. It resonated in my mind when I was reading your book in terms of slowing down, but also children owning their time. You spoke earlier about children doing things at their pace, not hurrying them. I think it's so, so crucial to be aware of that, that kids want to own their own time and live with a different sense of time than we do.
Jo: I think it's important to respect that children need that time. It's interesting, I wrote an article, which is on the Lantana blog, talking about why I think it's important to respect the fact that children need to slow down and not have to do this, this, this, this and this, because kids will suss stuff out for themselves. It's important that they have opportunities, but if you've got a child who just wants to chill out and be quiet, it's important to give them that! You're going to stress that kid out massively if you're making them go to gymnastics. The little people, they need rest! With my kids we did always have that special downtime at the end of the day where we read books.