To continue our June theme of positivity I (Gail) have selected ‘I Am Henry Finch’ by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz and published by Walker Books in 2014. It won the Little Rebels Children’s Book Award in 2016 which recognises books that celebrate social justice and equality for children ages 0-12. ‘I Am Henry Finch’ has been described as a ground-breaking philosophy book as according to Kerry Mason of Letterbox Library it ‘deploys the simplest of graphics and text to ponder vast questions about our humanity. Viviane Schwarz’s blood red thumbprint finches get to the beating heart of our existence and Alexis Deacon’s minimalist, beautifully structured sentences are like a beginner’s course in existentialist thought. This is a book which respects and honours the youngest of readers, believing them capable and thirsty for philosophical thought’.
‘I Am Henry Finch’ is about a young finch called Henry who challenges his ordinary everyday life with his flock to discover his own individuality. One night he wakes up in the dark and the quiet and has a thought. ‘I AM HENRY FINCH, he thought. I THINK, he thought’. This is his moment of Cartesian realisation as he begins to think and learn about freedom, choice and individual existence. He decides to confront the Beast (drawn in blue-green) who regularly threatens the flock. But the Beast eats him and, once inside the Beast, Henry Finch begins to have negative thoughts. He thinks he is a fool and only someone’s dinner. However, he manages to overcome these thoughts by asking himself, ‘WHO AM I? he thought. AM I HENRY FINCH? I AM SOMETHING? I THINK. I AM, he thought’. He listens to the thoughts of the Beast and persuades him to eat plants from then on. (There is an illustration of the Beast on the back cover proudly presenting his family with a carrot!). He then orders the Beast to open his mouth and out flies Henry. He returns to his flock and encourages the other finches to think for themselves.
So, ‘I Am Henry Finch’ is also a story about change, as in the beginning none of the finches think their own thoughts, they just do what all the other finches do. In the end, they realise that they can have their own individual thoughts and adventures.
The verbal text includes repetition and questions, some of which is visually represented in speech and thought bubbles. There is also a mixture of upper and lowercase letters, the uppercase indicating speech and thoughts.
The emphasis on the importance of thinking for yourself and valuing individual identity is wonderfully depicted via the thumbprint illustrations of the red finches which convey the meaning that everyone is unique as everyone has a unique fingerprint. Black lines add details to the finches to depict wings, beaks, eyes, feet and feelings. Backgrounds are white until Henry is eaten by the Beast. They then change to white on black presenting a contrast between outside and inside. Henry’s thoughts are also presented in black speech bubbles next to the Beast’s thoughts.
Younger children could create their own fingerprint birds and older children could research ten facts about fingerprints and create a fingerprint facts poster.
‘I Am Henry Finch’ is a superb picturebook for helping children to recognise their own unique identity and that positive thinking can impact their lives. There is lots to think about and to discuss.