Friday, May 13, 2011


Postage stamps may eventually become irrelevant is today’s world of digital communication but, until recently, they were crucial for communication between people across countries and around the world.

There’s quite a lot encompassed in a stamp: national identity and symbols of nationhood, historical and geographical thinking, art, exchange of money for service, etc.  Great tie-ins for social studies. The two books I’m recommending here though, take us beyond what’s obvious in the world of stamps into the realm of storytelling: stories captured in miniature.

The World of Donald Evans, text by Willy Eisenhart (759.13 EvW 1980) was recommended by another blog (Charlotte’s Library). The idea immediately intrigued me and I knew I could promote it to student teachers as one of the ‘those’ books that spark fresh ideas and stimulating discussions.

Donald Evans, took a very particular interest in stamps from an early age, often drawing his own stamps for countries that only existed in his imagination.  As an adult he continued this exercise and produced several thousand stamps in his very short lifetime.  His collection depicts flora, fauna, food, landscapes, aircraft, windmills, and people from many of his imaginary countries.  He invented intricate backstories for his imaginary kingdoms, such as Caluda that,

claimed a vast territory on the northern coast of South America, part of the Guianas, which was incorporated into the empire as the Etats d’Outremer (the Overseas States). (p.82)

This vast territory he named Katibo. In his images for the Katibo stamps Evans’ elaborated on its geography (jungles, rivers, palm-lined coasts, mountains and waterfalls), crops (bananas, cotton, rubber, lumber and copra), and the evolution of its society and people (poverty to more economically prosperous times).  Portraits of ‘natives’ were based on real photographs from postcards and books of African and Surinamese people.  He even developed the scenario where the currency changes from Caludan cents and francs to Katiboise luciens and riekjes.  Such detail!

Then Postmark Paris: a Story in Stamps by Leslie Jonath (823 J697P FIC) arrived in the Doucette Library.  This is a fabulous little book that recounts a year spent in Paris by an American family, told from the perspective of nine-year-old, Leslie.

What a little gem.  Each two page spread includes the picture of a stamp and then a short narrative of a remembered incident that connects to the picture on the stamp.  Sometimes the connection is not so obvious and this intrigues the reader to wonder and search for connections.  One example, entitled Stranger is about Leslie’s father, who was a scientist, though she thought he sold shoes.  One day she is approached by a man she doesn’t know, who asks her questions about what her father does.  She runs away and tells her parent about her encounter.  We never learn anything more about what her father is involved in, other than he was a physicist.  The accompanying stamp is from Czechoslovakia and shows a magician juggling a deck of cards.  But who does the magician represent, Leslie’s father or the stranger?

Each of the narratives are very much like stamps themselves as they encapsulate small fragments of a larger story showing colourful bits of everyday life, such as going to school , meeting new friends, difficulties with learning French, all significant for a young girl living in a different country. Often the stamps are representations of paintings by French artists such Delacroix, Manet, Renoir, Ingres and Miro.

So, what’s with stamps?  I’m intrigued by the ideas that go into the designing of a stamp and what a government wants to convey through them.  A tool for disseminating information, propaganda, celebrating achievements, perhaps?  Both of these books are more bent toward the whimsical, not intending to promote any party line. However, they can be used to start an investigation into social studies and art, as well as tell stories.

Postmark Paris is recommended for reading levels ages 9 to 12 but will interest adults, too. The World of Donald Evans is written for adults but will interest children, ages 11 and up. 


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