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Favourite books — The day I swapped my dad for two goldfish

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By Ross Collins — Author and illustrator (www.rosscollins.net)

A boy decides to exchange his boring, newspaper-reading dad for two goldfish. Seems like a fair swap… doesn’t it?

I have been a fan of Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman since I spent most evenings drawing comic books on the floor of my parents’ lounge. These guys made their names producing beautiful graphic novels for ‘adults’, before they tried their hand at a picture book for children. In The day I swapped my dad for two goldfish (Bloomsbury, ISBN 0747575185), McKean successfully translates his renowned dark style for the eyes of children, creating a world that is ordinary yet not quite the one we know. A world where parents can be swapped for goldfish without anyone batting an eye. A world full of rich texture, crackling flame-like warmth and deep painterly darkness. A world to tickle any child’s imagination.

The day I swapped my dad for two goldfish

Synopsis

The story is a simple one. A young boy swaps his boring, paper-reading dad for two lovely goldfish. When his mother returns home and his little sister blabs, the pair are ordered to go and retrieve their father. Unfortunately, he’s already been re-swapped – and so a chain of children and bizarre swaps is followed to track down the missing dad.

The joy of this book, aside from the wonderful images, is in the way McKean and Gaiman bring warmth and realism to the relationships between the boy and his friends and with his little sister. It’s a beautiful love/hate relationship, which many children will immediately recognise. Gaimen himself actually includes an afterward detailing the story’s origins in his own family.

Collage days

The work of Dave McKean is a wonderful introduction to the art of collage. Encourage your class to pore over the artwork, trying to find all the sources that the illustrator has used. Photos, newspaper, stamps, and leaves – they can all be found here. Then get the children to try collage themselves. Ask that they bring in as many found objects to collage as they can (but preferably not icky things from the street), and get them to collage a scene. Be inspired by the images in the book, or let the children try collaging a scene from their own home lives.

A silly scenario

The book beautifully realises the ongoing dialogue between the brother and sister. Encourage the children to write their own conversations. These could be conversations that they have with siblings or friends. Get them to imagine a silly scenario, like the one in the book, to base their conversations around. Once they are done, invite the children to act out their conversations with a partner. They will have created their own mini-plays.

Home life

All the characters in the book live in different styles of home – from a terraced house, to a mansion, to a windmill. What sorts of houses do the children in your class live in? What other interesting dwellings can they think of, and who might live there? Get the class to draw and write about all the homes they can imagine.

Mask making

In the book, Vashti has swapped the dad for a splendid gorilla mask. Get the class to create their own animal masks. A gorilla mask can easily be made with some dark-coloured heavyweight pastel paper. Encourage the children to use black wool around the edges for hair and cut out white paper for teeth. A piece of elastic or string will be enough to hold the masks in place.

Count the goldfish

There may be only two goldfish in the book’s title, but there are a lot more in the book itself. Get the class to see how many goldfish they can count. (I reckon it’s 57… and five rabbits.)

Class cartography

Blinky draws a map of how to get to Patti’s house, where the dad is at last found. Get the class to draw their own maps, perhaps the route they take to school or how they get to a friend’s house. Ask them to put in as much detail as they can think of and encourage them to use collage where possible, just like Dave McKean.

An alternative is to make a giant map frieze for the wall. In the centre of the frieze do a drawing of the school. Then invite all the children to add to it, drawing their own maps of how they get there each day. How much can the children remember of what they see on their way to school? Do they see the same things or do they see the world differently?

Swap shop

Play the swapping game as a class. Start by announcing that you want to swap your dad. Pick a child and ask what they will swap you for him. That child should then pick another child, who needs to offer another swap for the dad. The swapping has to go round the whole class. The swaps can be as bizarre as the children can think of, but they must be things that they actually own. The swapping ends when it comes full circle and your father is returned. While the children swap, keep a list of all the items they come up with. At the end the children have to try and remember as many of the swaps as they can.

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What happens next?

Like some of the best children’s books, The day I swapped my dad for two goldfish leaves the reader wondering what will happen next. The boy promises not to swap his father for anything else, but he makes no such promises about the fate of his annoying little sister. Ask the class to imagine what happens next. What might he swap her for? Or will she turn the tables on him?

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