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Coming soon to a hive near you … a charming new series of children’s books introducing the idea of co-operation to young children – through the story of a honey bee, Harmony, and her imaginative ways of solving problems by working together with her friends.
The illustrated colour publications, which have been written and drawn by Joel and Pippa Pixley, are aimed at 3-5-year-olds, although as Julie Thorpe, Lead for School Programmes and Technology-based Learning at the College, says, “Every twenty to ninety-year-old I have shown them to loves reading them – they’re ageless. Harmony is a character small children can identify with as she gets across the values of co-operation and co-operative behaviour, and this is also linked to our heritage work.”
Harmony was inspired by a sculpted brick motif at the Toad Lane shop where the Rochdale Pioneers famously set up their co-operative grocery store in December 1844, and the series of stories, ‘Harmony the Honey Bee’, ‘Harmony Helps the Hive’ and ‘Harmony & the Waggledance’, offer a fun and inspiring way of exploring the benefits of working together. As Gillian Lonergan, Head of Heritage Resources at the Co-operative College, explains the bee has a particular significance in co-operative symbolism, saying: “Throughout history many co-operatives have used the beehive as a symbol because these tiny insects have so much to teach us about the benefits of working together. Bee images can be found on co-operative buildings, banners and in books and adverts.”
Working together with her husband Joel on many of her book projects, author and illustrative artist Pippa Pixley has led projects at many nurseries, children’s centres and primary schools, and loves working with young children and their teachers. Together, Joel and Pippa have brought their combined skills to about 30 projects over the past five years, working together on a mix of published releases and commissions, storybooks, pop-ups and practitioner handbooks. They share in the process of generating ideas and storyboards, developing the text and rhymes and deciding on the book and layout.
For the Harmony series, Pippa did lots of sketches to develop the characters and covered the walls with ideas and artwork, before drawing and inking the bees, painting the backgrounds and creating the wings and leaves using linocut and stamping techniques. Then Joel scanned the artwork and layered it together to design the finished spreads ready for print. Joel says: “For these books our space has been swarming with hundreds of bees! It has been amazing to be involved in the whole process from originating ideas through to producing print-ready digital files of these three picturebooks, and it’s lovely now to see them all side-by side as a complete series! They look and feel fantastic – printed and finished to a very high standard – and that has been very satisfying.”
Each book concentrates on just one or two themes, presented within a standalone narrative in a story structure that Joel says children will find familiar and comfortable, explaining that life in the hive provided an inspiration “because thousands of tiny creatures selflessly co-operate to build their home, maintain it, protect it, stock it with provisions, and make decisions collectively has amazing parallels we can learn from”. He added: “And children are well used to connecting with stories centred on little creature characters, of course”.
The first story introduces Harmony and her life and work in a beehive. The second follows Harmony as she forages for nectar to share with her hive. The final book shows how bees communicate through their unique ‘waggledance’. Each story concludes by looking at historic examples of humans benefiting by working together co-operatively, including the Rochdale Pioneers, and the way in which co-operatives and co-operators have been inspired by the co-operative instincts of bees, before ending with some fun bee facts.
Pippa did a lot of research about bees during the course of making the book. She says: “I was really impressed to learn about honey bees – how hard they work and how well they co-operate! It has made me want to keep a hive of my own one day! We went as a family for a ‘Wild Day Out’ at a nearby farm where we got to see honey bees in action, learn about setting up wildflower habitats, and the children also helped to build a bee palace for wild insects.”
She added: “What I found really interesting about honey bees was the stages they go through and the different jobs they do before they ever become foraging field bees. It reminds me of how children develop through stages and abilities, too. So I wanted follow Harmony, our main character, through her development and learning process – something that children could easily identify with.”
Pippa also visited the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, now housed in the building where the Rochdale Pioneers set up their first shop, to gain a better understanding of the co-operative story and values and the existing provisions for communicating them to young children so their project could complement what was already being done, and realised there were too many themes to fit into one storybook.
Co-operation has alsoadded an interesting perspective to the couple’s teamwork. Joel says: “People often ask us what it’s like working together as a married couple. Well, when the books are all about co-operation and harmony we could hardly have any serious issues! Any creative process involves sharing different ideas and viewpoints, so focusing on values that promote listening to others and working together has been very interesting.”
Harmony is already proving popular with young readers. Freddie Kingman, aged three, had to be read Harmony the Honey Bee twice. His father, Steve Kingman, said: “He loved the illustrations and the fact he could be involved. It’s interactive.” Alfie Willder, aged five, meanwhile, enjoyed the rhymes. “He started finishing the sentences and joining in,” said his mother, Emma.
Pippa led a workshop on Harmony the Honey Bee and introducing co-operation to early years learners at the Schools Co-operative Society’s annual national conference in Birmingham, and has also taken the books into schools. She says: “Children have really enjoyed joining in with the rhymes and activities in schools – and the teachers have all given very positive feedback.”
The series of books was commissioned by the Co-operative College on behalf of the Co-operative Heritage Trust, which was founded by the Co-operative Group, Co-operatives UK and the Co-operative College in 2007 to safeguard and make accessible the co-operative movement’s rich and unique heritage, and has been supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the John Paul Getty Junior Foundation.
Each ‘Harmony’ book is available to nursery and early years teachers free of charge, together with a classroom activity pack. The books are also available to the general public from the Rochdale Pioneers Museum and from its online shop for a suggested donation to cover print and postage.
Future projects include a book about the Rochdale Pioneers told through the eyes of mid-nineteenth-century children, for Key Stage 1 students. Pippa said: “I am looking forward to the next challenge: creating a book that will tell the story of the Rochdale Pioneers in a way that is fun and accessible.”