Three very different but equally intriguing books landed on my desk at the end of the summer. For three different age groups, they all demand that their readers sit up and notice what’s out the window. They may be dissimilar in their readership from each other, yet I’m grouping all three because they all share a common trait – they excite the mind about nature through their distinct illustrative styles.
Let’s Go Outside by Katja Spitzer
The smallest title in size, aimed at the smallest child, and designed especially to be held by the smallest hands. Although the publisher claims that this title aims to teach first words, I would add that it is useful as an inspirational tool for developing the eye – for reinforcing a toddler’s passion for ambling on a walk and looking around them, noticing things that an adult passes by with scarcely a glance. The book’s colours harp back to the 1970s with their intense vibrancy of oranges, browns, yellows and greens, and a quick flick shows that each page depicts a fairly simple word accompanied by a picture which illustrates it: flowers, insects, bird, butterfly, fruit and vegetables.
However, closer inspection – as a toddler would demand – gives a much more insightful view of what’s on display. The picture of the tree demonstrates use of pattern; the picture of the neighbour’s cat (an interesting choice – the cat belongs to someone else) shows a cat with attitude – proud and haughty – the illustrator managing this by showing the cat on tiptoes, body and head erect, eyes slightly staring up, whiskers sharp; the depiction of cherries is unexpected too – the girl is clearly eating one, although all that can be seen is the stalk poking out of her mouth. She is wearing cherries over her ears, and the buttons on her top could almost be mistaken for cherries too.
Each picture contains its own world. The positioning of the squirrel on the page following the girl on the swing suggests the same fluid motion – is swinging an exercise in being part of the landscape – soaring or leaping in the air like an animal? There is plenty to name, count and spy in the pages. The last few pages diverge off into showing seasons – a pumpkin follows leaves, which leads to a snowman – the last picture is of the garden in different seasons. You buy it here.
Another book that shows the changing seasons, is Tree by Britta Teckentrup and Patricia Hegarty. This was snatched from my hands by excited children the minute it arrived. The static picture of the tree, with its die cut hole through to a picture of an owl nesting inside, stays throughout almost the entire book, with further die cuts within showing bear cubs playing, squirrels scampering, birds and insects.
However, the change from the original template of the tree is startling on each page – the slow change through the seasons represented by the number of leaves, the shape of the tree, the animals frolicking beneath and the silence of winter, and most particularly the use of different colour palates on each page from the pale frosty greens and blues and greys and whites of winter to the slow snow melting of spring, with the introduction of browns and yellow and purple as the bluebells and crocuses appear.
Britta Teckentrup portrays the subtle changes with an expert use of colour, creating an almost sensual reaction to the page. The clever layering of the die cut reflects the layering of the leaves – the increase in die cuts, with more and more animals, is in tandem with the increase in foliage as the seasons turn to summer, and then the mass of leaves before they fall in autumn. Each page contains an array of detail to spy and talk through – spring contains squirrels and fox cubs as well as many different types of flowers, leaves, insects and birds, and a changing sky, with rain or sun. The blue skies of summer change to the fading yellow light of autumn.
There is a small amount of rhyming text at the bottom of each page to explain what’s happening, with language to reflect the illustrations – the “springtime breeze” reflected in the illustration of movement in the tree – forests “abloom with flowers” reflected in the colourful flowers amassing on the page. And then of course the year begins again… “Owl sees the first new buds appear, And so begins another year…”
A simple concept, expertly executed. Both stylistically beautiful and informative. An autumnal must for every young child. You can purchase it here.
Lastly The Wonder Garden, illustrated by Kristjana S Williams, written by Jenny Broom, takes illustrated books for children to a new illustrative level, with a gold embossed cover reflecting the sumptuousness of the natural world in all its glory.
Exploring five lush habitats, including the Amazon rainforest, the Chihuahuan desert and the Great Barrier Reef, Williams uses layers of vibrant colours to explore each environment – it almost feels as if one is wearing 3D glasses when reading – there is much layering in the illustrations.
On closer inspection, the illustrations are not hand-drawn and old-fashioned as they first appear, but prepared digitally, which makes sense as some of the images are repeated in the same pose, and cast over one another to simulate the variety and layering of the landscapes. The detail is exquisite, capturing the textures and patterns of different animals and birds well, although of course they are not drawn scientifically accurately, but more as drawings to ‘wonder’ at.
But it is the colours that demand attention – splashes of neon pink and oranges lending the book a magical quality. Unfortunately the text doesn’t stand up to the same scrutiny; for those children who like animal non-fiction there is nothing new here – the creatures chosen are atypical of these books, with atypical facts – a poison dart frog, a hummingbird whose heart beats 100 times a minute, the green turtle, the golden eagle with its speeds of up to 320 km an hour. There is an immediacy to the text that I liked – the author talking to the reader as if you yourself were walking through the landscape, and describing the sounds of the animals, but also including the species’ Latin names. Sadly, there are one or two typos, which I hope are corrected for the next edition.
This is definitely an inspirational piece of non-fiction – a sumptuous looking gift for curious children, which I would recommend for its ability to motivate children to be inquisitive about the world around them and then go on to explore further for more in-depth information. Click here to see the Waterstones link.