Mini Grey’s meta-fictional tale draws young children’s attention to the playful side of storytelling and feeds their imagination with the question: where do all the lost toys go?
A boy leaves his toys outside at night and for the very first time they see the starry sky in all its terrifying glory. A tale or two might keep their spirits up, but Wonderdoll’s story is about a drooling alien known as the Hoctopize who kidnaps toys, which doesn’t really help. The situation looks bad until the toys discover that the alien isn’t so scary after all. He’s just looking for something very special. Can our intrepid explorers use their imaginations to reunite the Hoctopize with his own lost toy – his ‘Cuddles’? And how will they get back home? As the night progresses, everyone helps shape the story until the outcome is exactly what they’ve all been hoping for.
In Toys in Space, award-winning illustrator Mini Grey has created a gem of a picture book that operates on many different levels to provide an absorbing and emotionally-rich reading experience for KS1 children, as well as an inviting starting point for further work.
Strong characterisation and a distinctive narrative voice go hand-in-hand with the tale-within-a-tale structure to make this a storytelling masterpiece in miniature. There’s even a built-in moral dilemma of exactly the right sort to engage young children, and danger sits alongside zany humour as the reader becomes both spectator and participant, engaging with the action while at the same time commenting on it – just as the toys do in the garden overnight.
In drawing on so many time-honoured themes and storytelling devices and illustrating them in such rich detail, Mini Grey has created a multi-layered and highly satisfying reading experience. Toys in Space is funny, affecting and deeply memorable, and offers KS1 teachers enormous scope for cross-curricular work and linked activities.
Before reading, collect some ‘lost toys’ and introduce them to your class. How might each toy have come to be lost? How could the toys be reunited with their owners? Invite children to talk about their own toys. Have any of them been lost? What happened, and how were things resolved? If you like, you can use role-play to extend the discussion.
This opportunity for connection and reflection prepares children to inhabit the emotional landscape of the book and makes the eventual reading experience richer and more relevant.
Inviting a response
There is a massive amount in this book for your class to engage with and they will be keen to talk about the story, as well as relate it to their own experiences. What did they think about the book and the way it was illustrated? Did it remind them of anything else they’ve read? Did anything suprise them?
Look at the spread where all seven toys are introduced, noting the words Mini Grey uses to describe them. What kind of comments do these toys make as the story progresses? Does each toy have a distinct character? Which toy would your children prefer to have with them in a crisis?
Make sure everyone understands the idea of a ‘story within a story’, and draw their attention to the way the toys help shape the tale as it happens. What do your class think about the ending? Was the Hoctopize real, after all?
My view, your view
In searching for his Cuddles, the Hoctopize kidnaps toys that don’t belong to him. What is right for the Hoctopize is wrong for everyone else, but – in common with many children – the Hoctopize finds it difficult to empathise with others and see the world from their perspective.
Try this Role on The Wall activity to help your class understand different points of view:
i) Divide children into groups and give them a large sheet of paper showing an outline of the Hoctopize. Look at the spread where the Hoctopize and the toys meet. What is the Hoctopize thinking? How does he feel? Write this inside the outline.
ii) Now consider what the toys think of the Hoctopize, and how do they feel? Write this outside the outline, then discuss as a class.
iii) The toys and the Hoctopize are very different, but they probably have some things in common. Talk about what they may share, as well as some of the differences.
Where could the Hoctopize come from? What might his planet be like? Generate ideas as a class and model note-taking for your children, as well as collecting good words to describe imaginary worlds.
Ask children to pretend they are presenting a TV news report about a recently-discovered planet, with one child narrating while the others mime. Move on to individual or group writing, and video children reading their ‘news reports’.
The secret life of toys
What do toys get up to when their owners aren’t looking? Share other books such as One True Bear by Ted Dewan, the Teddy Robinson stories by Joan G Robinson (out of print but available second-hand) and Traction Man by Mini Grey, and ask your class to create their own stories and illustrate them.
Telling stories to toys
Wonderdoll invents this story to help the toys overcome their fears. Invite your class to create all sorts of different stories and provide special storytelling areas where they can tell them to an audience of toys. These areas can be just big enough for one child plus a toy, or larger to accommodate a group. Think dens - sheets draped over washing lines, enormous cardboard boxes – and decorate them with paints, cushions and bunting.
Provide a collection of toys and invite children to choose their own audience. If you like, you can record each child so that they can listen to themselves (and each other). Perhaps you could create a CD of stories to share with another class?
Look at the spread showing the ‘Room of a Thousand Lost Toys’. What do the words mean on the Sleep-o-meter? Can your class think of other words to describe the sleeping toys?
In a large, clear space, ask children to pretend they are a sleeping toy. Explore different positions, just like the ones in the book. Play some ‘sleepy music’ and ask the ‘best sleepers’ to tour the room in silence, two at a time, allowing them to observe everyone else while your class is still and quiet.
i) While they are ‘sleeping’, ask children to imagine what their toy could be dreaming about. Are their dreams colourful? Is there any noise? Is anything strange or exciting happening in the dream?
ii) Use ‘Touch and Tell’ as you move around the room to capture ideas and thoughts. Now ask children to wake up slowly, stretching and showing surprise at finding themselves in such a strange place. How do they feel, so far from home?
iii) Gather children together to discuss the exercise. With you acting as scribe, ask children to collaborate on a piece of descriptive writing about the toys’ dreams.
iv) Make a collection of soft toys and invite your class to invent owners and addresses for each toy. Label each toy like the ones in the book and display them on shelves. If you like, you can extend this by creating a name and character profile for each toy, or writing the story of how the toy came to be kidnapped by the Hoctopize.
And then the toys saw this…
Find out about the stars and constellations. Make wax resist pictures of the night sky using the double spread in the book as inspiration, or layer black crayon over coloured wax and scratch away.
Why were the toys “quiet for a while”? What could they have been thinking? Write thought bubbles for each toy and Blu-tack to the page.
The Hoctopize first appears as a silhouette, which increases the tension. Use a white screen and spotlight to explore the silhouettes cast by different shapes.
Look at pictures of the amazing variety of life on earth and talk about the way creatures evolve to fit the place they live. What might creatures from another planet look like?
Ask children to draw different designs for aliens. Can they turn their favourite design into a silhouette by tracing over the outline and colouring it black? Ask children to exchange silhouettes, and try to predict what each creature will look like from its silhouette alone.
Why not give the silhouettes to another class and invite them to make the same response?
Parachuting down to earth
Look at the spread showing the kidnapped toys being parachuted back to earth. What does a parachute do? Using cord and fabric, ask children to try out different designs for parachutes using a collection of small-world toys. If you have a safe location for experimentation, drop the toys from a height and time how long it takes for them to fall to the ground. Which parachute is the most effective? Can anybody find a way to make their parachute work better?
Ask your class to plan a party, complete with traditional games, food, invitations and decorations. Talk abut the different tasks and assign pairs or groups of children to each task. Make a date for the party and allow each child to invite a toy as a guest.
Try organising a stargazing evening, or arrange a visit to a planetarium.
Use junk materials to create models of aliens. Or you could create a family of Hoctopizes from gloves!
Beegu by Alexis Deacon
The earth can be very strange when you’re a baby alien
Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems
A realistic and very funny story about a lost toy
Dr Xargle’s Book of Earthlets by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross
Earth customs from an alien’s point of view
It Was a Dark And Stormy Night by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
The characters in this book are involved in shaping their own story
One True Bear by Ted Dewan
This toy’s hidden mission will change his owner’s life for ever
Biscuit Bear by Mini Grey
More secret lives of toys from the creator of Traction Man and Toys in Space
Carey Fluker Hunt is Creative Projects Manager at Seven Stories, the Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle upon Tyne. Find out more about Seven Stories at sevenstories.org.uk