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Willow the Wonderer picture books are stories about wisdom and knowledge. Here's why.

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

Wise As Stories is unique amongst publishers world wide for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that we are creating stories that plant seeds of wisdom and knowledge.

It is why Darren and I started Wise As Stories and produced and published Willow the Wonderer picture book series - and it's what keep us going.

In this blog I wanted to share with you the backstory to this mission we've taken on. I've shared this in past blogs (here's the link to another) but seeing some of the reviews and emails coming our way, I can see some of you are curious to know more. Besides, we've had quite a few new subscribers and members since we last published these so I think it's perfect time to share a bit more.

Beautiful illustration of a starry night with fantastical image of the milky way with a silhouette of Willow, a wise donkey watching on.
Willow the Wonderer - Illustration of Starry Night by Darren Pryce

Lets start with why we focus on wisdom

Darren and I come from very different backgrounds:

  • We were born and grew up in different parts of the world; Darren in the cold, dark, bleak, rainy Wales and I in the beautiful, friendly, warm, tropical paradise that is Fiji Islands ... ;)

  • We come from different eras; Darren grew up in the analogue era of the seventies and eighties whereas my formative years in the nineties and noughties ushered in the digital era. True to form, his first draft is always in pencil and paper whereas I use my 'Surface Pro'.

  • We had different cultural influences; Darren had an agnostic upbringing with sport and music being the main cultural influences, whilst I grew up immersed in the very colourful and multi-faceted Fijian-Indian culture, Hindu religion and Bollywood!

  • We had different motivating for migrating to Australia; Darren moved with his family when he was fourteen - they were escaping the bleak Welsh weather. I engineered my exit when I was eighteen - I was escaping the confines of the traditional Indian culture.

  • We've had starkly different professional lives; Darren always knew he was going to pursue a career in the arts and had a highly accomplished one in design and illustration (although his dad still regrets he did not pursue football/soccer). I wanted to be Indiana Jones (an archeologist specialising in lost civilisations) but alas ended up in commerce, specialising in the world of strategy and banking (my dad is rather happy about that).

In spite of our different backgrounds, we grew up with essentially the same 'grand narratives'; get the grades, get the job, find your prince/princess and live happily ever after...

We spent our early lives chasing this dream and lived through all the fun and folly that this entails. But regardless of what we did or accomplished, we never found any lasting sense of contentment.

I remember reading a quote once that said, 'Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a fantastic stroke of good luck.'

So it was for us. The feeling of unsettledness made us search far and wide for 'the answers' and as it happened, it was staring us in the face all this while.

The grand narratives we grow up with are misleading

Darren and I started working on Willow the Wonder four months after we'd first met. This period turned out to be a faily introspective one for us, as it coincided with the first COVID lockdown. We spent a lot of time both, on our own and in conversation together, contemplating our life experiences and all that we've learnt.

As we chatted, we began to understand that 'grand narratives' we had grown up with had let us down; at best they were incomplete and at worst, utterly misleading.

Reeta and Darren working on Willow the Wonderer picture books at park near Coogee Beach
Reeta and Darren working on Willow the Wonderer picture books at park near Coogee Beach

The biggest issue with the grand narratives in our societies is they only tell one side of the story; the emphasis it seems more often than not is on finding fulfillment through 'acquiring' things, whether it be wealth, property or relationships.

To be clear, I do not think that there is anything wrong with wanting to be financially stable and having all the comforts of life, including the company of a loving partner ...

However, it's also possible that these things, by themselves, don't bring about lasting contentment.

Indeed our Western societies are full of people who have achieved all the above - yet still suffer greatly from lack of contentment - and so they keep on acquiring more and more...

Mental illness has also grown to be biggest health issue of our time.

I remember a mystic once humourously point out that the current generation of humans have the most material comforts than any before them - yet we are also the most miserable to have every lived!

So what's missing? We think it's stories about wisdom and knowledge

There are other narratives out there which have a markedly different emphasis. They can be found through the ages in both, Western philosophical traditions and Eastern contemplative traditions.

Instead of asking us to look externally and focus on acquiring things, they suggest that we look within and deeply examine our inner experience as human beings. In doing so they ask us to recognise the incredible faculty that we have as conscious beings to not only create but also control our own mental states, and ultimately, shape our inner experience.

Indeed, some go so far as to say (and demonstrate through accomplished practitioners) that our inner 'subjective' state is so powerful that it can override the stimulus we experience 'objectively' in the external world.

Recognising that we all have an inner world which colours our reality, and is one that we have the ability to control and shape, is a powerful and empowering insight.

It opens up the possibility of experiencing and being in positive states of mind - happy, joyful, content - regardless of our external situation, which we often have no real control over. It also shifts the power away from others and puts it squarely back in our hands.

How do we define wisdom?

Wisdom, to us at least, are such insights: Insights on life and living that have come from deep introspective examinations of the human life and the human condition.

These can be found in ancient and contemporary philosophies as well as in contemplative wisdom traditions across the Eastern and Western worlds. It has been around for thousands of years, is universal in nature and resonates with us at a human level - after all it speaks to our human condition.

However, in our post-modern, highly westernised, hyper capitalist and materialistic societies, a lot of this wisdom no longer forms part of the narratives that we grow up with.

Darren and I shared a desire to use storytelling to change that. We wanted the next generation to have a better start in life that comes with having a more balanced outlook. So, we started creating stories that planted seeds of wisdom - seeds that we hope will blossom with time and guide our young readers to navigate the vicissitudes of life.

Are stories about wisdom enough? What about knowledge?

The wise would tell us that there is also a practical aspect to life, which requires that we go out and acquire resources to nourish and protect our bodies - to survive.

Wisdom may be the essence of life but knowledge is what makes life possible.

Goes without saying, in addition to acquiring wisdom, we also need to learn practical life skills and knowledge to fend for ourselves. To that end, it felt important to us that our books engaged the little ones in learning as well.

But we did not want want our readers - young and old - to feel like that we were "teaching" them anything.

Rather, we wanted the wisdom and knowledge in our stories to be so intricately woven within the folds of the narrative, that the learning would take place naturally through the simple act of reading or listening.

This is what makes Willow the Wonderer the perfect early years learning books

Every Willow the Wonderer book is specifically designed to make early childhood learning effortless.

We start each book off with a simple question of what early learning outcome can be very naturally acheived through this particular narrative that we are developing. We then use storytelling and illustration to emphasise that learning outcome so that the learning itself becomes effortless.

At the end of the day, it's ability to engage and impart knowledge effortlessly to the little ones is what makes them the perfect early years learning books.

We take a 'literacy first' approach

Books by their very nature already serve the very practical purpose of helping readers become adept at one of life's most essential skills - literacy - reading, writing and speaking a given language.

This is the first and most obvious early learning outcome that is implicit in every book - and our Willow the Wonderer series is no exception.

Our picture books are meant for young children so we knew that just spending reading our story with their teachers, siblings and parents, in their pre-schools, kindergartens, classrooms and homes would serve this very practical purpose of learning to read, write and speak better.

But lets face it, not every kid is a reader so how to make it more engaging?

To enhance the learning experience, we therefore decided to write the books not only in verse, but also using perfect rhymes.

And this is no easy feat, especially as we are also trying to convey some fairly subtle philosophical tenets through our stories!

But you see, verses written in rhymes are the best way to engage the little ones in a story. This is because verses are written to a rhythmic meter which, when read aloud has a lyrical quality to it. And who does not like a good melody?

Not all kids may love to read, but every child loves to rhyme. A melodious stanza engages children in listening to the story. It helps them to remember new words and sounds effortlessly, with no need for rote learning.

And, it is also a great way to introduce them to the great art form that is poetry.

So the first choice we made was to enhance the practical learning experience of our young readers was to start writing in verse using perfect rhymes.

And then we ask, what else do the little ones need to learn?

In addition to literacy, we will add another specific early learning outcome to each book. What we focus on depends entirely on the narrative we are working with. In the first Willow the Wonderer book for example, the narrative lent itself to counting - or learning of numbers.

I personally believe that apart from literacy, numeracy is the next most important practical knowledge that every person needs to have. Being numerate is so important, especially as we grow into adults and have to take charge of our financial life. Numbers are as much part of our lives as are words.

But seeing the fear that many kids and adults harbour towards numbers has always confounded me. It is also sad because it causes so many people to make poor financial decisions which can be cause of much stress if not distress.

Developing basic math skills is not hard but I fear that the way we are taught it has something to do with the fear that people that people develop. I was therefore determined not to fall into the same trap and make sure our picture book allowed for a sense of adventure, if not fun, to exist around counting. Willow the Wonderer was not going to be another counting book!

This is where rhymes once again played a role; I incorporate the numbers and counting deftly into the melodious verses. But what really made the difference though, was the illustration style that Darren developed for the first book; he embedded all the creatures tha Willow encountered on his adventure into the landscape and in doing so, turned the task of counting, into a game of hide and seek. What kid does not enjoy hide and seek?

The process of seeking all the hidden creatures out allows for the learning of numbers to occur naturally, leaves our little readers not only with the thrill of the search, but also the reward of finding and counting them out.

Beautiful illustration of Willow the Wonderer watching the sunrise on top of a snowy mountain
Found the second snoring bear? Illustration by Darren Pryce

We take a similar approach in our second book in the series, Honey Time, where the narrative lent itself naturally to be used to learn colours - not the basic boring primary ones - but all the shades in between.

It also stretches the little ones by introducing them to more creative expressions of colour - the hope is that they walk away, safe in the knowledge that they can come up with as many creative expressions for colour, as they please :-)

Beautiful illustration of Willow the Wonderer in a blob of honey seeing the natural world clearly for the first time and noticing all the colour and detail in the woods
Honey Time teaches the little ones about the many natural and creative expressions of colour

Teachers and educators are loving using Willow the Wonderer to engage children in learning

We shared a story a short while ago about an early childhood educator, Reshmi, who came across our books and loved the possibilities it creates to engage her little charges in learning. You can read the full story here.

What amazed us was seeing the creative ways in which Reshmi extended the learning through developing new learning outcomes (e.g. learning a new word - camouflage) and creating engaging new activity (e.g. creating collage based on illustrations in the book).

Child reading willow the wonderer books and playing with the plush toy at their early learning centre
Willow the Wonderer at Reshmi's Early Learning Centre

Similarly (and this is hot off the press) a primary school in Victoria is using the Willow the Wonderer books as the catalyst for their school production later this year, with the school principal impressed at how the story and message can work to engage children across many years. She ended up donating her Willow the Wonderer books to her school library (it sits in the philosophy section) and reading the book out for the year 6 graduation.

And best of all, it seems that the books support learning even in more challenging settings.

We received a call from a teacher from an alternative college, which supports students with mental health problems with tailored programs to help them get through schooling. She was delighted to inform us that the books held her student's attention, which was typically a struggle.

These anecdotes are like music to our ears. It's hard to express the gratitude we feel towards teachers and educators who are using our picture books to open the hearts and minds of the next generation.

Our hope with all this is that more parents, teachers and educators start becoming aware and using Willow the Wonderer as early learning books. We have no doubt that it will help spark wonder and wisdom whilst helping them learn the practical stuff they need to get through life - It is certainly how we would have like to learnt them!

But it should not be all about work - a book with a plush character is how we extend into play.

Illustration from Honey Time. Willow is jumping out of bed excited with many plans for play. Everthing is flying around him
Willow the Wonderer woke up with infinite ideas for adventure and play!

Slightly chiched but never false - you can't make everything about the serious stuff. Ideally, everything in life came wrapped up in play - amd this is especially true for stuff meant for little ones.

This is why we extended into developing plush character toys to accompany our books. It was to introduce an element of play and in all honestly, act as a bribe of sorts for the kids who need some additional inducements to read ;)

We were however very keen make sure our first character plush, none other than Willow the Wonderer, would be up to the task. So we (mostly Darren) put in a lot of work to ensure it did justice to our very adorable and wise protagonist in the book!

Plush character toy of a cute little donkey from Willow the Wonderer picture books
Willow the Wonderer - Picture books with plush characters

We were very happy with what we've ended up with, and based on customer feedback, it seems like they are work a treat. A customer messaged us earlier this year to say "that the books are lovely and her little boy loves to hold Willow whilst they read his adventures :-)"

It's never too early to plant seeds of wisdom and knowledge

I will end this blog by saying that all this work goes back to Darren and my foundation belief that it is never too early to plant seeds of wisdom and knowledge. In fact the earlier, the better.

And that is why we started Wise As Stories - To create stories that plant seeds of wisdom and make early childhood learning effortless.

We hope that you are enjoying your willow the wonderer books and toys - and can't stop telling everyone in your life about them :-)


Reeta Dhar is the author of the Willow the Wonderer picture book series and co-founder of independent publisher, Wise As Stories. We are creating beautiful stories we wish we'd grown up with - stories that plant seeds of wonder, wisdom and joy. They are also perfect as early years learning books and make great gifts for the little ones. Check out our bestselling picture books today!

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