Veronica, the Conspicuous Hippo, and the power of stories for vocabulary

Recently I was lucky to receive a review copy of Veronica by Roger Duvoisin, republished by Bodleian’s Children’s Books – a fairly new but sure-to-be popular company. Veronica is the third in their list, and it’s as delightful as the previous two: Penguin’s Way and Whale’s Way (you can read more about these in my review here.)

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The gist of the story is that Veronica, the hippopotamus, wants to be conspicuous. She’s tired of being part of the crowd of hippos, blending into the background, inconspicuous. So she decides to head for the big city to make her name, to be famous, to be a celebrity. However, once she gets there, she finds that she is being conspicuous for all the wrong reasons. Will the lure of stardom keep its attraction or will Veronica long for a little more anonymity?

Roger Duvoisin’s book brings the world of the late 1950s/early 1960s to life in his gorgeous drawings. Alternating between monochrome and colour (which the Key Stage 1 children immediately noticed) the pictures leaped off the page, especially beautiful Veronica. We had fun talking about the fruit and veg man with his cart and the rules of parking in front of fire hydrants in the United States – both new concepts to the children, but ones they understood easily. They giggled at Veronica’s large derriere, which features in a couple of the pages, and felt empathy for her as she quickly became overwhelmed by just how different she was in the city.

I also liked using this book for story time because I could introduce – and emphasise – one new word for the children: conspicuous. I explained what it meant and gave examples (eg one of them would be conspicuous in a group of hippos) but I wasn’t sure if they would retain it. So you can imagine my delight when one child, the following week, deliberately used the word with emphasis in a sentence to me, and grinned. Ah, the power of stories and books!

The children also understood the concept of fame, and the fact that it’s probably more attractive in fantasy than it is in reality (although many still wanted to be a celeb when they grew up – it’s as much, if not more, a part of a culture now than it was in the 50s and 60s). Not much has changed, after all: people are desperate to be well-known and loved but often find that it’s more of a burden than a benefit once critics jump on board.

Part of the reason why I’m such a big fan of the Bodleian’s books for children is how they remain true to their origins. The heaviness of the covers and the thickness of the paper complemented the story well and made it a pleasure to hold.

At the end of the week, in my Library lunchtime session with years 1 and 2, we coloured in our own hippos and named them. Interestingly and perhaps predictably, the girls all chose to make their hippos princesses with names like ‘Daisy’, ‘Star’ etc. However, bizarrely, they all came from Russia, not a country known for its hippo population. When I asked them why, they said that Russia was a beautiful country (fair point). One girl invented a more complicated migratory tale of how her hippo was originally from Brazil but moved to Russia later in life. Presumably to join all the other hippos now living there.

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