In June and July of 2018, my final six whole class reading sessions with my Year 2 class focused on a profoundly moving, exciting picture book called ‘The Antlered Ship’, written by Dashka Slater and illustrated by The Fan Brothers. It’s published by Beach Lane Books. I had read Rob Smith’s review and blog about the book and was so inspired by his enthusiasm for it, that I immediately bought a copy of the book for myself. After a few reads and lots of time poring over the beautiful illustrations, I really began to see the potential of the book and started to plan a series of lessons to end our reading journey.
What’s it about?
There are some big themes in the book and they are tackled sensitively and engagingly. I felt this was the perfect vehicle for exploring many themes with my class. The themes that particularly appealed to me were:
The importance of asking questions
The main hero of the story is Marco, a curious, lonely, inquisitive fox. He is always wondering about the wide world and his desire to ask questions and find the answers to them propels him along throughout the story. His questions certainly got me thinking: Why don’t trees ever talk? How deep does the sun go when it sinks into the sea? Do islands like being alone? It should encourage the children to ask their own questions about the wide world – I was fascinated by their ideas!
How we treat others
Marco’s desire to always find out more and his insistent questions, however, is met with scorn. The other foxes are dismissive of him and treat him with disdain. Why would they care, after all? What one earth do his questions have to do with being a fox and, more importantly, chicken stew? There’s a lot to be said about their treatment of him. Does it come from ignorance or fear? Are they scared that their lives might irrevocably be changed by his probing explorations into life, love, nature and friendship? Is it just all too much for them to understand and comprehend? There’s lots to discuss here about how we treat others who are different to us and see the world in a different way to us.
Perseverance and resilience
A huge theme in the story! Terrible storms, sopping wet fur and hard work aboard the ship soon send all the animals into hiding. Why did they ever come on this journey? The pigeons soon tire of raising and lowering the sails and retreat below deck to play checkers (a particularly humorous image!). The deer, seasick and afraid, huddle together praying for it all to be over. However, with a warm meal inside them and after some careful persuasion from Marco, the animals are soon plotting their course again. There’s much to be said here about not giving up and, how even in the most trying of times, the animals band together to face off evil pirates and the deathly Maze of Sharp Rocks.
Diversity and difference
The Antlered Ship is made up of an eclectic mix of animals: pigeons, deer and a fox. For much of the story, Marco is focused on how they are different. Foxes, after all, he muses when the food has run out, are not meant to be vegetarian. He is desperate to find other foxes and sure that the other animals cannot possibly answer his questions. It is a revelation to Marco at the end of the story that, despite all their differences, he has so much more in common with the other animals than he ever realised and that everything he had been looking for was there, right in front of his eyes, all along.
Journeying into the unknown
This theme runs throughout the story and offers a particularly moving ending to a stunning story. Marco realises that it was never really about reaching Sweet Tree Island or the destination – that it is the journey and the discoveries he makes along the way that allows him to grow, develop and ultimately make friends. And how touching at the end of the story that Marco, once so driven by reaching a specific place, allows himself to journey into the unknown. What courage and bravery it takes for him to realise that things may not always be plain sailing, but that life is a journey and a process, rather than a destination.
We began by predicting what the story might be about. As a class, we spent quite a lot of the lesson talking about what we could see on the front cover. Where was the ship going? Who might be on it? Eager observers noticed the fox and pigeon riding atop the antlered figurehead. One child thought that the ship might actually be a deer, transformed by magic and that the animals were steering the ship to an island where the deer might once again regain its body. Other interesting ideas included pirates, storms, enchanted islands and sea monsters. We spent a lot of time poring over the endpapers and the map at the beginning of the story and discussing the names of various places. What might the Maze of Sharp Rocks look like? Where might the voyagers be heading? Why?
At this point, I let the children either draw or write about what they thought might happen. Many chose to write what they thought the accompanying story might be. I was impressed with their creative responses to the front cover, their grasp of story conventions and their developed, thoughtful responses. If I look back to the beginning of the year, when we first began our whole class reading journey and read ‘A Clockwork Dragon’ by Jonathan Emmett and Elys Dolan, their predictions ranged from “It’s about a dragon” to “It’s about a clockwork….dragon?”
This lesson wasn’t actually planned! At this point in the story, the children had been introduced to Marco, the hero of the story. He is inquisitive, brave, thoughtful and full of questions. The children were so intrigued by Marco’s questions that they asked if they could write their own. We discussed what made Marco’s questions so difficult – how open ended they were, how they focused on nature and feelings, how we couldn’t just look them up in a book and so on. This lesson was a real highlight in the year for me – the children were all laughing, thinking, debating, discussing and, of course, questioning. Questions ranged from ‘How many people are there in the world?’ to ‘Who invented bubbles’ to ‘What happens to you when you die?’
I then asked the children to find a partner and see if together they could find the answers to their questions. How did they feel when finding a solution to their questions seemed impossible? Frustrated? Intrigued and wanting to persevere? This also gave me some valuable time to hover around each table and listen to their ideas and evaluate their interests. The next day, I simply typed out a title and stuck it above their questions!
This lesson led naturally into us thinking about Marco and his relationship with the other foxes. Why are they so dismissive of him? Do they feel threatened by his inquisitiveness? How is he different to them? How do we treat others who are different? How does Marco feel when they ignore him and fail to understand why it is so important to him to ask questions? How did they feel when they had a question to ask or wanted to know something but no one seemed to listen?
This led to lots of lovely drama and spending time exploring the line, “What does that have to do with chicken stew?” We rehearsed lots of different ways in which the foxes might say this: despondently, scornfully, mockingly. How might our expression change to reflect these different responses? The children all said that Marco would be feeling very sad, disappointed and left out following this treatment and this helped them to understand his motivation for joining the crew of the Antlered Ship – he is desperate to find other foxes like him, who can answer his questions. As we were coming to the end of our class read too, which was Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl, I also took the opportunity to ask the children what similarities Marco and Roald Dahl’s wily fox shared. We concluded this lesson be recording in a thought bubble what the other foxes were thinking when they replied to Marco with, “What does that have to do with chicken stew?”. The more obvious activity here might be to explore what Marco was thinking and feeling but I wanted to challenge the children to reflect on someone else’s point of view and a point of view that they didn’t necessarily like or agree with – the views of the dismissive, haughty foxes. We continued reading and followed Marco across the sea on his journey to find other foxes.
After lots of reading, excitement and gasps, we followed Marco’s storm filled journey to The Maze of Sharp Rocks. At this point in the story, Marco has rallied the other animals, who had all but given up, and the Antlered Ship is once again on course for the Island of Sweet Trees. However, they are suddenly plunged once again into danger – they must navigate through a treacherous maze of towering, spiky rocks to reach their destination. We began the lesson by creating a soundscape for this part of the story. With our hands, feet, voices and bodies we created a terrible storm and imagined what the animals might be shouting to each other as they try to navigate the terrifying rocks. We swayed from side to side, held our breaths and breathed a sigh of relief when we finally cleared the deadly path. This then led to a creative response from the children – they wrote short diary extracts to describe their journey through the maze. The initial soundscape and visualisation techniques definitely helped them to empathise with the characters’ plight and imagine how scared they would be. Many were able to use similes to describe the waves and some even employed repetition to reflect the momentum of the ship (‘the waves banged and crashed and crashed and banged against the boat’). Moving forward, I think I could have given the children more options for how to record their responses – I suppose I could have filmed their soundscapes and taken photos too and perhaps even allowed them to paint or draw in response to this part of the story.
You’ll have to forgive me for this last lesson – it was the final Thursday of the Summer Term, before we broke up. Tired, hot children and a tired, hot teacher determined to finish the book led to less focus and a much gentler pace. We began by spending some time looking at the illustrations and discussing how the illustrators had made the fur on the animals seem so realistic and textured. Usually, I would actually model to the children how to draw in the style of the illustrator and employ some of the techniques they have used. I love drawing in front of my class and discussing techniques employed by artists and illustrators. However, the children were struggling with the proportions and my instructions were not as patient or precise as I’d like – it was the end of term! Instead, we used a really simple ‘How to draw a fox’ video from the fantastic Art Hub for Kids website on YouTube and then practised with using pencils to create a textured, layered look for the fox’s fur. Examining and appraising an illustrator’s work is just as valuable and important as an author’s use of language. It might be interesting to discuss with the class why the illustrators in ‘The Antlered Ship’ chose not to anthropomorphize the animals and instead present them in a more naturalistic manner.
We finally reached the end of the story. The crew have arrived at Sweet Tree Island but Marco is left bewildered when he discovers there are no other foxes on the island. He feels he has failed, saying:
“No foxes. No one to answer my questions.”
Victor, the pigeon who has joined Marco on his journey, asks, “What questions?” and Marco finally gets to pose all the questions that have been bubbling inside him to a receptive audience. It’s a moving part of the story – Marco realises that he has many questions to ask and that sometimes it’s OK not to know the answers. He also learns that the people who can answer our questions might surprise us. He realises that sometimes we learn the most from the journey, not the destination. There’s a touching moment at the end of the story when the animals try and answer Marco’s questions, “What’s the best way to find a friend you can talk to?”
After this, we spent a lot of time sharing our ideas about how you could make and find friends. How do we make lasting friendships in life? What makes a good friend? How can you be a good friend? Around our illustrations, we wrote our own answers to Marco’s question about friendship
The book also allowed me to discuss with my class their apprehensions about moving into Year 3. We talked about their worries and what they were looking forward to. I talked to them about journeys and about how the story ends with Marco setting off on another unknown adventure. He finally accepts that ‘the clouds would sometimes make marvellous swirls and sometimes make them wet’ but that there was excitement in not knowing what the future holds.
For many of them, there was the uncertainty of the summer holidays and the worry, excitement and fears about moving into Year 3, which would mean a new class, a new teacher, a new playground, a new entrance at the beginning of the day…
The last thing I said to my children, before they began the next step of their learning journey and before I myself prepared to leave the school and set off on my own unknown journey was, “I suppose our class is a little bit like the Antlered Ship isn’t it? Everyone’s different and everyone has different questions about the world and different ways of seeing things. There might be some scary things ahead in your life, like the Maze of Sharp Rocks. But if you stick together and support each other and are kind to each other, you might be able to have lots of exciting adventures together…”
They nodded and some smiled. Some yawned (it was the end of term, after all!).
One boy said, “Can we finish Fantastic Mr. Fox now, please?”
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