My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell was a book recommended to my ninth grader for a nonfiction book response assignment. I was immediately attracted to its cover, with a picture of a young boy, a jar and a frog, and began reading. This autobiography of five years in the life of a budding naturalist is not only hilarious, it tells a story of exactly the kind of honest, interest led learning that I would love to have in my own home.
The story begins when the family, headed by a widow, decides to leave the cold English summer and move to the island of Corfu. Being written from the viewpoint of the nine-year old youngest son, it does not explain how they financed the move, or why they were able to leave England on a whim. Instead, the story focuses on the wonderland of exploration Gerry found when he reached the island. He began with the “profusion of life” on his very doorstep, examining the insects and creatures that lived in the garden. He spent hours observing little crab spiders and earwigs, even guarding an earwig nest in the hope of watching the hatching.
Gerry was not the only one in his family who settled in to a lifestyle of learning. His oldest brother spent his time writing a manuscript and in studying literature. His mother settled in to a life of experimenting in the kitchen and garden, happily consulting a “tottering pile of books” on the kitchen table. Another brother was extremely interested in guns and shooting, but found time to design and build a boat for Gerry’s birthday. Gerry roamed farther and farther afield, following tortoises, catching and bringing home snakes and baby magpies, and learning more and more about the world around him.
As Gerry grew older in this peaceful environment, his mother found occasional tutors for him. He was fortunate enough to have tutors that either followed their own interests while he followed his, or taught him in ways that caught his interest. His mother’s one constant desire was a desire for him to learn to speak French. Although he was unable to learn conversational French from his tutoring using La Petit Larousse, a dictionary, he did learn to speak the local Greek and communicate with the neighbors. Gerry also had a constant mentor who shared his interest in the local insect life and aided him with his discoveries. Gerry describes the time on the island this way:
Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen. Each day had a tranquillity, a timelessness, about it, so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us, glossy and colourful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.
Isn’t this how we wish the days passed for our children and ourselves? To follow the path of our interest wherever it leads, with no hinderance stopping us, or turning us to a more “important” pursuit? If we could only have the confidence in ourselves and our children to let that happen! I can’t wait to read this book aloud to Max and Lucy. As with many other books we have read, notably: My Side of the Mountain, Owls in the Family, Farmer Boy, Little Britches, and The Secret Garden, this wonderful book tells the story of a childhood doing real, important things. I hope these books give us the character strength to be free and act on what we want to do.
Do you think independence is important in childhood? How can we foster that sense of discovery and wonder that leads to important work for all of us? Please leave me a comment below.