animals

Autumn 2018 Picture Book Round-up 1


The Best Sound in the World by Cindy Wume
A debut picture book that will strike a chord with readers, it tells a simpatico tale of a lion who wants to capture the best sound in the world. He tries to imitate the sounds he hears by reproducing them on his violin – but nothing sounds quite right, particularly with annoying neighbour Jemmy dancing, clapping or singing along to the music. Roy the lion leaves on a mission to find the most beautiful sound and explore the world, but realises in the end that the most beautiful sound is back home – the music he makes with his neighbour, and now, friend.

Wume’s gouache, coloured pencil and ink illustrations are detailed and wondrous, conveying precisely the mood of each page – from the monkeys leaping in the forest to the train rumble in the city. What’s more, her vocabulary pitches perfectly when pulling out each sound – from the pling of the rain to the chitter-chatter of the market. There is much to explore and disseminate here, from the mix of rural and urban, to the clever use of movement to convey dance and sound. The message of course, is that friendship wins out, and what you’re looking for is often within rather than in the outer world, but there are also subtler issues around observation and subjectivity. If nothing else, it will make the reader appreciate the sounds around him/her in the everyday world. Aesthetically astute, intelligently observed and warm. You can buy it here.


Sing to the Moon by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and Sandra van Doorn
Even from the front cover, reality mixes with magical realism in this universally themed book of what to do on a rainy day. Ever since before The Cat in the Hat: “The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold cold wet day,” the weather has been a source of inspiration for writers. Used well, it can dictate mood, create atmosphere, and influence plot. This rainy day is during the rainy season in Uganda, and the source of inspiration for the child’s use of time is not a cat in a hat, but the child’s Jjajja – the grandfather.

This is a good introduction to Ugandan life. This child completes chores with his Jjajja, from packing peas to clearing the veranda, but all the while is engrossed with the tales his grandfather tells. The day passes quickly, and is filled with the dreams and stories of the past and the future.

Domestic detail sings from the pastel illustrations, but there are also wishes and dreams spun and illustrated as the boy thinks of the adventures he would take. The illustrative stickmen figures with large heads create a further dreamlike status, and the text rhymes in a rhythmic fashion, almost as if to the beat of the rain itself. Children will appreciate the mischievous white dog on each page – but I particularly enjoyed the descriptive language: ‘the clouds spread like a charcoal stain’, and ‘the drops…muddle the view’. Comforting and illuminating. You can buy it here.


The Dress and the Girl by Camille Andros, illustrated by Julie Morstad
We are taken back in time in this lyrical story of immigration, which begins in a slightly idyllic Greece, with donkeys, blue skies and days of freedom at sea and in the fields. But these large vistas with their white buildings and flowered landscapes are not enough and the family long for change. The family immigrate to New York, and upon arrival the girl and her beloved dress are separated. Here, the dress takes on its own persona and searches for the girl. Years later, they are reunited and the dress fits the girl’s own daughter.

Nostalgic illustrations give good period detail, and tell a tale with their muted colours at Ellis Island. At the same time there is a clarity and sharpness to the drawings, as if they have been rendered with a precision that conjures months and years in small pen strokes.

This is not a refugee story of migration, but a desire for an easy passage and a better or even just different way of life, which makes an interesting contrast to recent picture books about modern migration, such as The Journey. The Dress and the Girl is worth examining for the opening and closing spreads and their theme of separation and reunion – a complete circle if you will, as well as an examination of memory and possession. You can buy it here.


Daddy Hairdo by Francis Martin and Claire Powell
A light-hearted look at hair in this delightful picture book about overlong hair and the passing of time. Amy doesn’t have much hair when she’s born, and her Dad has plenty. But then her hair grows, and her Daddy’s seems to disappear. After considerable searching for it, they settle on dealing with the problem of Amy’s hair, which is becoming inconvenient due to its length. Amy’s Dad comes up with some incredible solutions, before reason kicks in.

This is a wonderfully amusing book for anyone who’s ever de-tangled a web of hair, and a cool nod to crazy fashions. Francis Martin lets loose his inner child with some excellent wordplay – hair-raising of course, while Powell has immense fun illustrating hairstyles with aplomb – accentuated by wonderful facial expressions. This is a fun, giggling-inducing picture book, and one which also celebrates the father/daughter relationship with zest and affection. You can buy it here.


Fearless Mirabelle by Katie Haworth and Nila Aye
Perhaps it’s the celebration of individuality, or having confidence in your own unique skill set, or looking after your sibling, but this picture book appeals on so many levels. There’s the circus element, which is always a winner, and the attention to quirky detail, such as Mirabelle balancing on a galloping horse on one leg, whilst eating a bowl of cereal.

Mirabelle and Meg are identical twins, but although Mirabelle is fearless in the circus, Meg is scared of heights. When they realise that Meg’s asset is her ability to speak in front of a crowd (which terrifies Mirabelle), the girls realise that together they can be a supreme double act.

The limited colour palette of primary colours, with black and white, makes for a distinctive look – the characters look a little like friendly Coraline’s, and children will delight in the veneer of simplicity in the scribbled illustrations – they are stylish and endearing – like sugar candy with an edge. Different typefaces explore direct speech, capitals are used for emphasis. Much to look at, just like the circus. You can buy it here.


How to be a Lion by Ed Vere
Or how not to conform to type in this fairly new picture book from Vere. Here, Leonard the Lion isn’t a roary hunter but the sort of lion who likes to ponder upon his ‘thinking hill’, and write poetry. When bullied by the pride for not devouring a duck whom he has taken as a friend, Leonard and Marianne the duck collaborate on a poem to explore individuality.

It may sound whimsical but Vere’s thick black outlines convey a ruggedness to the story, and the book publishes at an apt time as society rethinks its stereotypical view of masculinity. It’s a call to not bend to peer pressure, and the tightness of the text brings the message home without sentimentality. A celebration of creativity and words too, and of the benefits of thinking rather than being the loudest voice in the room. Bold oranges and yellows bring to mind the African Savannah, and as always with Vere, there is abundant humour tucked in with the message, wit in both text and picture, and a great understanding of the rhythm of the language. A proud and majestic picture book. You can buy it here.


Can You See a Little Bear by James Mayhew and Jackie Morris
A new gift edition for 2018 with phenomenal production quality, this much-loved picture book first published in 2006. Aimed at younger children, with its delightful premise of ‘seeing’ not only the little bear in different imaginative landscapes, but also spying patterns and colours, contrasts and opposites within Morris’s exquisitely beautiful illustrations, this also feels relevant for older children and artwork students because of the theatrical and circus settings, and the sumptuousness of the watercolours.

The text rhymes, and its intent is to pull you into the pictures, leading the reader to spy and spot certain things, but it also captures the soporific tone that has affected the bear – this is a dreamscape after all. The incredible detail of the illustrations, depicting medieval scenes, wild landscapes and exotic buildlings, before gently falling back into the more domestic sphere of bathtime and bedtime under the moon, will entrance adult and child alike. You can buy it here.

Books for Younger Readers

I’m constantly blown away by the quality of books for younger readers, otherwise known as newly independent readers. This, of course, is how it should be. It’s a crucial time to create that love of reading for pleasure. If they actively want to spend time reading at this age and it becomes habit, then their transition to reading longer texts will follow. Here is my round-up of recent texts for newly independents – about age 6-7 years onwards (although each child reads at their own pace and shouldn’t be rushed).

Sam Wu
Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Ghosts by Katie and Kevin Tsang illustrated by Nathan Reed
Sam Wu is afraid of many things, but no one likes to admit being a scaredy-cat. After an incident during a school trip to the science museum, everyone, especially the school bully, figures out that Sam Wu is quite scared. To prove his bravery, Sam opts to keep a pet snake. The only problem is that he’s scared of snakes.

This is a new series by husband and wife team and their compatibility obviously pays off in the writing. Never a dull moment, and packed full of laughs, this is an endearing look at different cultures, friendships, and how to be brave. There are particular stellar characters, including a grandmother and a little sister, who delightfully is not stereotypically annoying, but actually a great help to Sam. There’s a fun layout with large typeface, capital letters to emphasise embarrassing and scary moments, and lots of fantastic illustrations from Nathan Reed. A great introduction to chapter books. You can buy it here.

great telephone mix up
The Great Telephone Mix-Up by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey
An absolutely charming tale about the importance of community, helping your neighbours and reaping the surprising benefits. When the phone wires in a sleepy little village get mixed up, the neighbours start to discover things about each other as they receive the wrong phone calls, and then have to pass on the messages.

It turns out that meeting each other face to face not only brings new friendships, but brings awareness of who in the town is struggling, needs help or may need to find love. Nicholls carefully gets over the problem of mobile phones by explaining there is no signal in the town (a message not entirely lost on rural communities), and so everyone relies on their home phone.

The story is simple, the text well-spaced, and illustrations by Sheena Dempsey positively charming. Each character is well delineated and there’s a diverse mix. A lovely addition to the Little Gems selection. You can buy it here.

noah scape
Noah Scape Can’t Stop Repeating Himself by Guy Bass, illustrated by Steve May
An altogether more nightmarish story from Guy Bass, in which the protagonist can’t get what he wants. Noah decides that if everyone in the world were like him, then that would solve the problem- after all the majority rules, right? It starts, as all school problems do, in the school canteen when Noah is served meat pie instead of spaghetti with tomato sauce.

When Noah wakes the next morning and goes to school, he finds himself already sitting in his seat – there are two of him. And each day the number of Noahs double until finally they get what they want. They also share the same opinions like a modern day echo chamber.

Or do they?

When the original Noah is outvoted by his 63 copies, Noah realises he still isn’t getting his own way. This is a brilliant examination of how to get along with others, as well as a great representation of coping in school when a child is having to manage a mental health issue such as OCD, which dictates that routine is of paramount importance to the day. Of course, there’s the numerical element too. Bass hasn’t quite tied up all the loose ends of the story either, so there’s plenty of room for speculation after reading. A fun, and also highly accessible read. You can buy it here.

happyville high
Happyville High: Geek Tragedy by Tom McLaughlin
One of the most hilarious young fiction titles I have read in a long time, I couldn’t stop sniggering, which of course made all the children near me want to read this too. Tyler is too smart for school and has been homeschooled for much of her life. But when she and her Dad move to Happyville, he enrols her in the local school.

This is no ordinary school though, and Tyler realises there’s something inherently wrong, especially when she reads the motto: “The more popular you are, the happier you become!” Being a bit of a nerd means that Tyler definitely isn’t popular, but she does make two friends in the library, who are equally ‘geeky’. Tyler is enthralled when she discovers that one of them has developed an algorithm to decipher which candy bar is best, with the results laid out on a spreadsheet. (Tyler’s excitement at being invited over to see this knows no limits.)

When the popular kids are struck with an affliction – their right arms elongate to enable them to take better selfies – the three new friends have to use their brains to rid the town of this vain disorder. There is much slapstick and silly humour but also a biting satirical look at the way our society ranks people and behaves. Fabulously funny in many ways and incredibly readable. For slightly older readers than the other books on this blog. Self-illustrated too. You can buy it here.

magical kingdom of birds
Magical Kingdom of Birds: The Sleepy Hummingbirds by Anne Booth, illustrated by Rosie Butcher
A gentler start to a series in this book about magical escapism – something we all might need from the world of selfie-sticks and cool school heroes. When Maya colours in the pages of her colouring book, she is whisked into a magical kingdom filled with the most enchanting colourful birds and their small fairy friends.

But, as with all idylls, trouble is brewing, and the evil Lord Astor has a plan to capture the tiniest, most vulnerable residents and put them into cages. Maya has the privilege and great responsibility of being Keeper of the Book, and she must protect the kingdom and its birds at all costs.

An early introduction to the beauty of the natural world, with each book in the series showcasing a different species, this is a wonderful start to early reading. The pages are exquisitely illustrated in black and white by Rosie Butcher, the text in many cases framed by a leafy border, encapsulating the words and the story in this natural landscape. Beautiful descriptions bring the birds and their habitat to life, and Booth hasn’t been afraid to introduce more difficult vocabulary, explaining words such as torpor, tubular and prophesy. You can buy it here.

unicorn academymuddle the magical puppythe spiderwick chroniclesA quick mention to three other series. Unicorn Academy by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Lucy Truman has hitchhiked perfectly onto the current zeitgeist for all things unicorn. With its sparkly covers and more grown-up illustrations, these reminded me of my adoration and loyalty to all things My Little Pony when I was a child. The Unicorn Academy adventures are school stories in which the girls each have their own unicorn, and each book introduces themes such as friendship, loyalty, and independence. The first in the series, Sophia and the Rainbow, introduces ten-year-old Sophia who finds out that each unicorn has its own special powers. The stories are simple, chapters short, but the series has the magical potential to turn reading into a habit. Likewise with Muddle the Magic Puppy and Cuddle the Magic Kitten series by Hayley Daze. Cute illustrations adorn the front and continue inside, with big eyes as a feature. In Muddle the Magic Puppy: The Magic Carpet, Muddle goes on a flying carpet adventure in Arabia. A long-established children’s writer has penned these, and the story is straightforward. Large typography and short chapters make comprehension easy. Lastly, for more advanced readers, the publisher Simon and Schuster have republished The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black in beautifully illustrated hardback editions. This gothic fantasy series is a great choice for fluent readers who want to expand their literary landscape – with a richly imagined world of dark fairies. The Grace children move into the Spiderwick Estate and through secret passageways and hidden doors, they discover that they are not alone in the new house. First published in 2003, with a 2008 movie, the series is well-worth revisiting for a new young audience.

 

 

The Road Less Travelled

migrationMigration by Mike Unwin and Jenni Desmond
This is an spectacularly stylish book telling the story of the incredible journeys of twenty animals. Mike Unwin, UK travel writer of the year, has been superbly paired with Jenni Desmond, winner of The New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book, to draw attention to the migration patterns of the monarch butterfly, great white shark, caribou, Arctic tern and many others. Whether it be seasonal changes, a search for food, a place to breed, or an escape from a hostile environment, these are scintillating journeys that can occur annually or once in a lifetime.

Each animal is afforded a double page spread and each of these double pages looks as individual as the animal itself, and startlingly beautiful enough to hang on the wall. The butterflies, for example, in ‘Forests of Flutter’, are shown a-fluttering among the trees, with incredible perspective and perspicacity so that the reader feels as if they are standing amongst them, waiting for one to land on their palm.

The text matches the beauty of the pictures; it is told informatively but also poetically. Monarchs ‘dance’ in the air like ‘confetti’. Sentences are short and specific, and the four to six paragraphs per spread give a comprehensive overview. The reader will gasp often at the huge distances the animals travel – the delicate hummingbird, weighing less than a sugar lump, flies 800 km across the ocean.

The book manages to be a staple non-fiction text as well as depicting the awesome beauty of the world with powerful text and alluring images. The range of animals is well thought out – and well indexed at the back on a migration map of the world, with hints of conservation advice. It’s not often that a reader will find the Christmas Island red crab adjacent to the Globe skimmer dragonfly, the blue wildebeest and whooping crane. Here, they come together to create a thrilling book. Make the journey here.

journeysJourneys by Jonathan Litton, illustrated by Dave Shephard, Chris Chalk, Jon Davis and Leo Hartas
From animals to humans. This book gathers stories of human discovery, amazing endeavours, untrodden paths, and journeys that explorers have made from the earliest times – before they could even document them.

Journeys craftily concentrates on the lesser known explorers, the lesser well-trodden paths, so that although Christopher Columbus gets a mention, it is Nobu Shirase’s race to the South Pole that draws attention, the lawless Mary Bryant, the impressive James Holman, the pony express in the Wild West.

What’s great fun about these snippets is the unpredictability of the journeys – not only the road travelled and hitches along the way, but also the discovery upon arrival. Alexander Gordon Laing may have been murdered on his quest to find Timbuktu, but many others came back to tell and document their extraordinary stories.

The book is ordered physiographically, and also kind of chronologically so that it begins with exploration across the seas by the Polynesians, the history of which has been pieced together by archaeological evidence and knowledge of their culture. Towards the end of the book are journeys by motor car, and finally the exploration of space.

But as well as simply telling the stories of each explorer and each journey in paragraphs, sometimes punctuated by quotes from the explorer, the text seeks to ask questions too – why do humans make journeys with the dangers and risks involved – what are the rewards, and is curiosity itself a justifiable reason?

There are many extraordinary journeys in here, including Auguste Piccard and his balloon flights, Thomas Stevens with his penny farthing, and Nikolay Przewalski and his wild horses. Whether it’s all-encompassing across global cultures is difficult to tell, but it certainly attempts to be diverse and not be wholly ‘western’ focussed. There are bound to be sensitivities when discussing explorers and their treatment of indigenous people, the use of habitats etc, but Litton has tried to be fair.

The accompanying ink drawing illustrations are varied – some full-page pictures, other annotated maps, some vignettes, all with a sense of movement, and they balance the pages well. The character sketches all depict fierce determined travellers with a sense of a faraway look in their eyes, but again, there may be sensitivities to how some peoples are depicted. Explore it here.

mapmakers raceThe Mapmakers’ Race by Eirlys Hunter
I wanted to love this book about four children entering a competition to map a rail route through uncharted mountains. It has all the makings of a great adventure story, and from a writer who brings knowledge of the amazing landscapes of the South Island of New Zealand and Snowdonia in Wales. The premise starts off well enough. The children and their mother are on board the train to take them to the start of the competition, but when the mother fails to get back on after a break, the children are left to their own devices. There’s the inevitable panic and alarm and much humour too, before the children realise too much is at stake and they must enter the competition without parental guidance – a competition against professional adult route-finders.

There’s much debate about finding food (children left alone must deal with such matters), and of course dastardly cheating from some of the other competitors, and really beautiful descriptions of the difficult pathways and encounters with nature.

My caveat to loving this novel is the magical realism evoked when one of the children develops the ability to leave her body and fly up in the air to get a birds’ eye view and map their route. It just didn’t work for me, although other readers may find this the appealing strand of the story.

For those who love journeys though, this is a good read with beautiful illustrations throughout – particularly the maps at the beginning of each chapter. I would heartily recommend Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy and The Explorer by Katherine Rundell as other ‘exploration’ novels. To purchase The Mapmakers’ Race, click here.

 

Art for Art’s Sake

Art is crucial in a child’s development. Children can improve their motor skills just by picking up a pencil, paintbrush, roller or sponge. Their first impressions of mathematics come from colours, shapes and patterns, and their first experiences of material science may be in their choice of chalk or paint or lead. In fact, the act of creativity itself gives them self-confidence. So it’s no wonder that so many picture books, activity books and non-fiction for young children use art as a basis for story, information and play.

More than ever, in a world filled with marketing logos and graphic design it’s important for children to learn discernment around pictures – what is each piece of visual information showing them? How can they interpret it, criticize it, learn from it? And what better way to teach them cultural awareness than through picture books that pick up on great art. (And there are fun references for adults too).

Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam Masterpiece
Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: The Missing Masterpiece by Tracey Corderoy and Steven Lenton
This is the latest adventure about our two endearing canines, Shifty and Sam, one time robbers who have reformed and become famous bakers. The two dogs are in Paris to bake a gingerbread Eiffel Tower in their latest rhyming picture book. But of course, there is trouble afoot in the art gallery, and when art thief Monsieur Sly the fox steals the masterpiece a chase down the Seine ensues.

With mischief galore, and Parisian images, as well as dogs taking the place of humans in familiar famous paintings, this is a light and scrumptious read. A colour palette that brings out the essence of Paris with its café awnings, trees in blossom, and busy sidewalks makes this a truly European holiday read.

As well as the French landmarks, there is great characterisation that follows through the story (as always in this series), a superbly baked plot and numerous details, including introduction to French vocabulary. C’est tres bien. You can buy it here. And I have one signed copy to give away! Just find me on twitter @minervamoan and RT the link to this article.

bobs blue period
Bob’s Blue Period by Marion Deuchars
Continuing the theme of animals and art, Bob’s Blue Period explores the emotions of feeling sad. Bob the bird’s best friend is Bat and they love to paint together. But one day Bat goes away, and Bob is left feeling sad. When he paints, everything is blue. Eventually, the other birds show Bob a beautiful world of colours in the sunset, and he begins to see how he might continue on without his friend – and then Bat returns.

As well as exploring an artist’s use of a palette to express himself, the book encourages a sense of perseverance, of seeing how important it is to recognise the good in the world even when feeling down.

And in front of this message is a huge amount of humour and expression in the illustrations. Deuchars draws Bob from beak to toe with drama and pathos, exploring all his activities and all his thoughts; from laziness and contentment whilst playing computer games, to concentration at cricket, to despair when Bob is shown slumped on a chair. The adult can spy references to famous artists too, and will bask in the beauty of the book’s illustrations. A blue period to treasure. You can buy it here.

 

art masterclassArt Masterclass with Van Gogh by Hanna Konola
This great activity book takes the young reader through all the elements needed to understand Van Gogh’s painting style, and to try to mimic some of the techniques. The book is methodical in approach, leading the reader through who the artist was, and a timeline of his life, before getting into the nitty gritty of which tools to use – how to get the feel of the pencil or brush, and then graduating to copying, making marks, looking for ways to create perspective and mood, adopting different colour palettes, and understanding Van Gogh’s own grid system. It also looks at a painting’s arrangement, and steers the reader/artist through various famous paintings and formats, including landscape and still life. There are lots of ‘extras’ at the end of the book too, including stickers and a pull-out poster, which can be used within the book to create the reader’s own masterpiece.

This is a well-thought out and informative picture book, with no activity too difficult for the reading level. There’s also plenty of stimulus for thought around the paintings: including true representation, emotion and using outside inspiration. Really fun and educational too. You can buy it here.

 

great dogGreat Dog by Davide Cali, illustrated by Miguel Tango
An intriguing picture book, with much to discern and yet also leaves the reader slightly puzzled. The book is presented as a series of portraits of familial members – the father dog – dressed in a sports coat, tells his child about the different portraits in the family hall. Behind each portrait though – of each ‘great dog’ – is an illustration that belies this truth. The ‘great police officer’ for example, a proud bulldog, is seen through the gatefold as missing the crime that is going on behind his back. Likewise the ‘great teacher’ is seen behind the portrait as letting the children run riot in the classroom. Throughout the book the child of the father dog asks ‘What About Me?’, the implication being that the child wants to know if he/she will also grow up to be great.

The twist at the end is that the child is revealed to be a cat – ‘You will be a great dog or great cat,’ according to the father, and so the book turns into a tale of unconditional love rather than familial pressure.

An odd book in some ways, but fascinating to explore the intricate line drawings behind each portrait to see the dog’s true character, and a lovely sophisticated colour palette of gold and turquoise, which adds an artistic emphasis to the book. You can buy it here.

Yuval Zommer sketches

A few weeks ago I featured the new book by Yuval Zommer, The Big Book of the Blue. Yuval’s illustrations are distinctive among today’s crop of children’s illustrators – playful and cartoonish, populating his exquisitely edited Big Book nonfiction series with a sense of fun and also knowledge. Here, Yuval gives an insight into his drawing process:

I loved working on The Big Book Of The Blue and now that the book is out I often get asked “what was your favourite animal to draw and why?” But I have so many favourites…

I’ll start by telling you that the animals I found most challenging to draw were the Dolphins, they already have a naturally friendly smiley expression and I really didn’t want them to look too cute. I first thought the Sharks would be the most challenging but when I got to draw them they became rather mischievously endearing. Many readers seem to really like the Whales in the book, as do I, but my favourite animals to draw were actually the smallest creatures in the book.

Here are a couple of examples of what I call ‘moods’ (rather than sketches) that I would do as preparation for the book:

Yuval Zommer

I loved drawing these Coral Reef Fish. Here Mother Nature really excelled herself when it comes to flair: these tiny fish who flit brightly among the corals have the most delicate features, almost transparent fins and tails, some gorgeous abstract patterns and splashes of vibrant colours. In my ‘mood boards’ I first try to capture the essence of the animals, how they move together as a fish shoal, what’s the overall colour palette, the corresponding flora etc. Even in a group in which every fish looks almost identical, if you look closely you’ll see there are subtle differences so that each of my fish is still an individual 🙂

Yuval Zommer

Not everyone likes the Crustaceans group, otherwise known as Shellfish, but to me they were some of the most interesting creatures to draw. Crabs, lobsters, shrimp and krill all belong in this ocean family; each has a hard skeleton on the outside of the body. I love how they make such intricate ‘alien like’ shapes with their claws and multi limbs. Also, if you look closely at each shellfish there are so many beautifully blended tones of orange or pink or coral. One of my favourite pages in the book turned out to be the Krill. It’s set at night time and I managed to show a swarm of tiny krill all shimmering under the surface of the sea!

With many thanks to Yuval. Take a look at the book yourself here, and see more of Yuval’s fantastic drawings. 

 

The Boy Who Grew Dragons by Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

boy who grew dragonsSo, this is not the first book about a young boy with a dragon pet. I bet you can think of a few yourself. Which begs the question, what makes this book standout from the crowd, what makes it so unique, good and worthy of the book of the week spot?

Tomas helps his grandfather with his unwieldy garden, and one day stumbles upon a strange tree growing the most peculiar looking fruit. He takes one of the fruits home, and later that evening is immensely surprised to discover a dragon hatching from it. What follows is the trials and tribulations experienced when hatching your own baby dragon.

But for me, Shepherd’s unique selling point is not her plot, although it moves with pace, but her ability to mix humour and fun with an intense pathos and understanding of human emotion. It is Tomas’ interaction with the other human characters that really pulls on the reader’s emotions – although there is plenty of fun to be had with the dragon too.

Tomas has a little sister Lolli, who although too young to talk, communicates and spars with Tomas brilliantly in her capacity as co-conspirator in hiding the dragon. Their alliance also demonstrates the uniqueness of sibling relationships – the bond that stretches from affectionate love and sharing of secrets and a helpful camaraderie at one end, to being able to blame the other for something they didn’t do at the other extreme.

The sympathetic grandparent relationship within the story also rings true, and draws the most pathos. Tomas loves spending time with his grandfather, but is torn with guilt between how much time he spends with him versus time with his friends, and Tom also shows an acute awareness, in a wondrous childlike fashion, of how delicate the relationship is as his grandfather gets older and more fragile. The feeling of not wanting to disappoint and yet also wanting to live his own best life compete beautifully within the plot structure.

This gamut of human emotion also stretches to Tomas’ new pet dragon. Feelings of responsibility compete with curiosity and awe, the knowledge of having something different and special and being the envy of one’s peers, and yet knowing that the dragon is precious and special and not merely for showing off – in fact it’s a live being with feelings of its own.

There are some lovely touches here – the timidity of the dragon at first, the portrayal of its physicality as it learns to trust Tomas, and Tomas’ inventive efforts to control the poos and treat his dragon correctly.

But none of this overshadows the sheer fun and vivacity of the novel. Shepherd brings out every flourish of her imagination in Tomas’s discovery – from the tree itself with glowing fruit, to the different types of dragons, their combustible poos, and how difficult dragons are to capture and hide.

Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations here do what they did for the characters in Phil Earle’s Storey Street series, and she brings to life the tree, the dragons and characters with limitless expression. These are warm, animated, engaging illustrations that almost seem to move across the page.

This is a sumptuous start to a new series, bursting with energy and humour, yet tinged with the darker side of life too. There’s a grumpy neighbour, aware but preoccupied parents, an eclectic group of friends, a strange gardening guide, nomenclature of dragon pets – so many facets all covered and explored. A perfect example of domesticity interrupted with a touch of magic. Dragon fruit will never look the same again! Happily for 7+ years; you can buy it here.

Spring 2018 Picture Books

Picture books is a genre that groups books together because of their format rather than their content. The books reviewed below are all strikingly different – some we may think of as traditional picture books in that they’re aimed for younger readers and impart a funny story using animals as characters, and often deliver a message while doing so. But I’ve also covered some books for the slightly older reader in my ten picture books picks of this season, in no particular order:

a bear is a bear
A Bear is a Bear (except when he’s not) by Karl Newson and Anuska Allepuz
A wonderfully simpatico book about a tired bear who forgets who and what he is until a good sleep sees him wake up refreshed and knowledgeable. He tries to be all kinds of animals, from a bird to a fox, but the other animals’ habitats, behaviours and eating habits do not suit his skills and sensibility. After hibernating, he rediscovers the truth and finds his appetite. This is a warm and humorous book with rhyming text, a delightful exploration of the seasons through illustration, and the introduction of woodland creatures, including a moose. The text is written in an invitingly read-aloud style, as if the reader is a narrator talking to the bear. Endearing, friendly and colourful. You can buy it here.

i do not like books anymore
I Do Not Like Books Anymore! by Daisy Hirst
Another one for the fairly young, this will also be a favourite among teachers trying to encourage first time readers to push through. Characters Natalie and Alphonse first appeared in Alphonse, That is Not Okay To Do, primarily about sibling relationships, but this story takes these two little monsters through the course of learning to read. Although they adore books and stories, Natalie starts to struggle to learn to read and in the process, becomes disillusioned about books. With some help from her little brother, Alphonse, Natalie comes up with a strategy to rebuild her confidence, and before long stories and books are favourites again. A fantastic tale about perseverance that is close to home for many readers. Hirst is particularly clever in portraying a familiar domestic environment, with the monsters in typical childlike poses – be it on a swing or reading with legs in the air, sitting on a bus or playing in the bathroom. Look out for the wider cast of characters – a simple but effective way of drawing our modern world. You can buy it here.

almost anything
Almost Anything by Sophy Henn
On a similar theme, although not so specifically on reading, this is Henn’s message that anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it. George is a rabbit with somewhat downcast ears. Everyone else in the woods is busy (birds who play chess, a squirrel who reads, a mouse who knits), but George doesn’t feel confident doing anything, and so does nothing. It is only when Bear comes up with a simple yet cunning plan that George finds the confidence to attempt everything and stop at nothing. Despite Bear’s scruffy looking appearance, she comes up trumps with wisdom, ensuring and inspiring self-belief in others. With Henn’s gentle colour palette, and deceptively simple plot and illustrations, this is a clever, inspirational little picture book that captures the essence of finding confidence, having a go, and importantly, enjoying oneself too (as well as, may I suggest, respecting the wisdom of elders). You can buy it here.

dinosaur juniors
Dinosaur Juniors Happy Hatchday by Rob Biddulph
Long a fan of Biddulph’s simple, almost monosyllabic, rhymes, it seems this author/illustrator can do no wrong. With this first of a brand new series, he has now turned his attention to that perennial love of pre-schoolers – dinosaurs. The illustrations are trademark Biddulph – simple shapes with almost three-dimensional texture, and a bold colour palette – dominated by green in this tree-filled landscape of our green protagonist dinosaur. Biddulph brings a range of topics to this ostensibly simple text about a group of dinosaurs hatching – from counting, to fitting in, to naming dinosaurs, to friendship. Greg is the last to hatch, but is shown to be equally loved and appreciated by the end of the book. Biddulph’s bright colours and stylish illustrations will delight a whole truckload of wannabe palaeontologists. You can buy it here.

nimesh
Nimesh the Adventurer by Ranjit Singh and Mehrdokht Amini
Taking a more complicated route with illustration is this dynamic and interesting new picture book about imagination. Nimesh is an Indian boy in London who uses his imagination to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, from crossing the road to walking through the park on his way home from school. His school corridor is fairly nondescript: a range of notices upon the wall, a few cupboards and chairs, and a wall display of a hammerhead shark as part of shark week. But the following page leads the reader into Nimesh’s imagination, as he sees the corridor as an underwater labyrinth, a school door sprouting from the sea bed, sharks, plants and fish layered upon the school floor with the staircase and fire exit in the distance. The illustrations are collage – a remarkable letting loose of the illustrator to use their imagination as they envisage what Nimesh sees in his vivid mind. The entire book is related in dialogue too – as if the voice of reason is in conversation with the voice of imagination. Children will delight in finding the clue in each ‘ordinary’ picture of the ‘extraordinary’ to come. London becomes magical in this richly layered, diverse and fascinating tale. Extraordinarily different. You can buy it here.

little mole
Little Mole is a Whirlwind by Anna Llenas
Another story revealed in collage illustrations is this interestingly busy book about a little mole with ADHD. Mole can’t stop – the book is full of distraction and interaction as Mole moves through his school day at pace, fidgeting, forgetting, and playing the fool. Unfortunately, his peers find him irritating rather than funny, and his mole parents try to find a way of helping their whirlwind son. Serena the bunny gives Mole the space to experiment and explore, to talk and to listen, and finally Mole and his classmates accept who he is. This may be an unsubtle way of dealing with an issue – Mole at one point is illustrated with luggage labels ‘labelling’ him, but the overall premise is dealt with wonderfully in the busy collage style – pencil and cardboard drawings cut out and layered on top of each other. It creates a busy landscape and shows Mole’s world well. Frenzied but enjoyable. You can buy it here.

forever or a day
Forever or a Day by Sarah Jacoby
In complete contrast, this magically calm picture book for older readers tries to explore the concept of time. Taking subtlety to an extreme, the book reads as a poetic meditation, alluding to the subject matter rather than addressing it directly. Both picture and text combine to explore the elasticity of time – the calm pictures of seaside days contrast with the rushing for a train. There is musing on ageing and how time stretches back and seems far away, as well as added humour in the time spent waiting for a bus. There is the mindfulness of being in the present and appreciating the time now. With a mixture of striking landscapes from afar and up close domestic scenes, this is a thoughtful and somewhat wistful look at how we live and what we lose as we move through life. Clever parallel images appear throughout the book, letting the reader make connections between things and people, between time when young, and time when old. A sandcastle washes away to nothing, a train recedes into the distance, days turn to night. This is a complex, powerful book about one day, and how in memory a day may last forever. You can buy it here.

red bottomed robber
The Case of the Red-Bottomed Robber by Richard Byrne
Master of the playful picture book, Byrne returns with this old-school tale about chalk who love to draw but get upset when their drawings are erased while they are out at play. In true mystery style, they investigate the ‘theft’ of their drawings, weighing up the evidence, which is chalk dust, and rounding up suspicious characters, including the scissors, glue and ruler. When they finally catch the robber red-handed, or rather ‘bottomed’, he feels unjustly accused – after all rubbing out is his raison d’etre. A funny tale, well told on black backgrounds representative of the chalkboard, children will delight in the ‘bottom’ tale, as well as the use of chalk with expressive personalities. Not too far removed from The Day the Crayons Quit, this picture book is shorter, and perfect for exploring a first mystery case, or just enjoying the colourful mess chalks can make. You can buy it here.

glassmakers daughter
The Glassmaker’s Daughter by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray
Far more long-lasting than chalk is coloured glass, in this exquisitely beautiful fairy tale of Daniela, the daughter of a 16th century Venetian glassmaker. Daniela is miserable, and her father offers a glass palace to the first person to make her smile. In true fairy tale trope, many try, including jugglers, mask makers and trumpet players, but only the last glassmaker manages, by making Daniela a mirror in which she can laugh at the sad miserable face she shows to the world. Although it feels like a classic princess tale, there is no ‘happy marriage’ at the end, and indeed those of both genders who try to make her smile are not motivated by thoughts of a wedding. This is about finding happiness within oneself rather than with another person – and how laughter is catching. But more than this, the picture book gives historical detail about glassmaking in Venice, and shows originality and immense detail in the exquisite illustrations – and a sparkle of glass when it shatters in the middle. An intriguing, historical, luxurious picture book that explores European culture. You can buy it here.

out out away from here
Out, Out, Away From Here by Rachel Woodworth and Sang Miao
A completely different illustrative style, but also in a book lavishly produced, is Woodworth’s tale of exploring emotion and escape. The red-haired narrator of this book acknowledges in very few words that sometimes she feels happy, but sometimes mad and sad, and sometimes all at once. When things are particularly overwhelming, she seeks escape in her imagination, a wild place populated by nature, with faces in the shapes, and strange creatures, with domestic objects inserted in wild landscapes, where the domestic merges with the wild. But at the end, she always comes back to her fully domestic family scene. Miao has had fun with the scant text, letting her own imagination create crazy landscapes within the mind. The fusing of the familiar with the strange and the dreamlike colours are particularly effective – from orange skies to flying fish, vivid blue seas and unidentifiable shapes in greys and greens. The domesticity is well executed too, from the yellow mac on rainy days to the zoomed in picture of the girl with her hands in her hair as she listens to the baby scream. This is another well thought out book of emotion and intensity, with just the right balance of darkness and depth to create a wonderful narrative to promote discussion of our emotions and how we respond to them. Excellent. You can buy it here.

 

 

Social Action Picture Books

I do firmly believe that starting out with an agenda is not the best way to write a book, but often a cause or an issue catches our attention because of the story behind it. The media know this all too well – putting a human face to a crime, building a narrative around Brexit, giving story examples of health crises are the way we engage with issues. We need stories.

These clever picture books may be issue-based, but they win over the reader with their subtle blend of picture and text, with their bold narratives.

Homelessness:
the old manThe Old Man by Sarah V and Claude K Dubois

A skilful mix of tender illustrations and sparse text portray this issue with pathos and intelligence. Homeless people often feel invisible, and the gentle pencil sketching and sepia tones of this picture book lend an invisibility to the homeless man, but also give the book a sophistication and elegance that makes it attractive.

The book starts with daylight and a girl rising from her bed within her house, but flits quickly to the homeless man also starting his day, in the rain and ignored. It portrays his struggle with hunger and cold, his awkwardness and shame, his loneliness.

For much of the book, the people remain faceless – shown from waist down, or blurred in the rain. It is only at the end when there is human connection between the little girl and the homeless man, that the features begin to be defined. It is one act of human kindness that gives the homeless man the warmth and humanity to go to a shelter, and be recognised for who he is.

This is a brave and touching story, and an excellent picture book for allowing children to explore an issue and see that people are more than just their outward appearance. You can buy it here.

Gender Roles:
looking after williamLooking After William by Eve Coy

This humorously illustrated story takes a look at domestic roles and the workload of a parent in a warm and engaging manner.

The little girl of the story decides to act as ‘mummy’ to William, her stay-at-home Dad. She not only performs everyday tasks, but also sees his potential to be whatever he wants to be when he grows up.

The reader will adore her attempts to look after him – making him breakfast but spilling the milk all over the table, giving him exercise by making him tow her up the hill on his bike, and generally ‘looking after’ him by making him push her in the swing, or take her round the supermarket in the trolley. Her grown up jobs include building blocks, and making tea for her toys.

It’s a gorgeous portrayal of domestic life, with immense wit and warmth. In the end, the little girl decides that her Dad only wants one job, despite all the wonderful things he could achieve – and that, of course, is being her Dad. Uplifting and cute, and dominated with shades of blue, green and yellow – like a soft lamp casting a warm hue across the page. You can buy it here.

Animal Conservation:
hello helloHello Hello by Brendan Wenzel

Wenzel’s first picture book, They All Saw A Cat, took the perspective of the animal in viewing the world and illustrated each page accordingly. Hello Hello also gives animals shape and zest, showing the animal world in amazing variety – in colour, but also in action, with animals leaping, flying, twisting, turning and dancing across the white pages. Reminiscent of Lucy Cousin’s Hooray For Fish with its similar sparsity in rhyming text; the animals address each other with descriptive greetings: ‘Hello Stripes, Hello Spots, Hello Giant, Hello Not’. But Wenzel’s sparklingly colourful exploration of animal life takes the illustrations further by using a huge range of media including cut out paper shapes, oil pastel, computer graphic.

The message is simple – that the animals all share certain traits, despite their vast differences. Many of the creatures featured are endangered and Wenzel lists the animals at the back, stating whether they are vulnerable or not. A vibrant call to action. You can buy it here.

is it a mermaidIs it a Mermaid? By Candy Gourlay and Francesca Chessa

A tale of identity and imagination, in that Benji and Bel find a strange creature on their beach, and although they know it is a dugong, Bel goes along with the dugong’s story when she claims to be a mermaid. The humour lies in the illustrations, which represents the dugong as a fairly lumpen animal, about as far removed from mythical ideas of the mermaid as possible.

When Benji’s negativity causes the dugong to cry, he realises he’s been insensitive, and plays along too. The illustrations are colourful, particularly of the undersea world, and beautifully atmospheric, especially in the change in light depending on time of day, but they also bear out a childlike simplicity. What’s more the children and the dugong are constantly active – so that the picture book feels alive and exuberant.

At the end, the authors remind the reader that both dugongs and sea grass habitats are under threat, and give resources for how to help. Save the world here.

 

Environment Conservation:
the coral kingdomThe Coral Kingdom by Laura Knowles and Jennie Webber

Through simple rhyme, this book manages to explore facts about the coral reef, portraying the colour, diversity and life cycle of the ecosystem. Each page has a simple sentence accompanied by the most detailed and colourful illustration. In this way the book both informs and inspires.

There is much to take in – the dive of the dugong, homes of polyps, sea stars and mantas, turtles and minke whales. The colours and textures are plain to see, and the interweaving of the different creatures and plants make for quite a spectacle.

The shock comes over halfway through, when the beautiful colours are gone – bleached by the warming seas. The remainder of the book explores what humans need to do to protect this environment, with a beautiful pull out spread of how it should be, accompanied by information about conservation on the reverse. From the winners of the Margaret Mallett Award for Children’s Non-Fiction, this is a perfect picture book to teach first steps to conservation. See the coral here.

when the bees buzzed offWhen the Bees Buzzed Off! By Lula Bell, illustrated by Stephen Bennett

With a die-cut front cover, and lift the flaps throughout, this is a nifty book for young children about discovering nature. The insects inside the book are frantic that the bees have disappeared – told in an array of speech bubbles, accompanied by short narrative sentences.

The authors have had fun here: the insects are imbued with personality, and pretentions of comic wit: “the search is fruit-ile” says one, a joke wasted on the very young but wry for the adult reader. Other jokes suit the readership better – the jealousy of tadpoles at different stages, the lying spider.

In the end, the insects learn that bees need certain flowers to enable pollination, and without them our world would be poorer in many ways. You can buy it here.

Riding a Donkey Backwards

riding a donkey backwardsAs we celebrate the month of Ramadan, and think about how to increase diversity and representation in the books our children are reading, this sumptuous hardback, Riding a Donkey Backwards dropped onto my doormat, and I had to share it with you. It’s a collection of 21 tales and riddles about a trickster known across Muslim culture. Mulla Nasruddin is both the wisest man and the biggest fool. Through telling some of his stories, all contained on one or two pages, Sean Taylor, the Khayaal Theatre, and Shirin Adl bring the tales to life with drama and creativity.

Each tale is only a paragraph or two long – spanning one or two pages, with full double page colour collage illustrations. The text is jaunty and chatty, as befits the subject, and some tales and riddles leave a wry smile, others pose philosophical questions. Many invite critical thinking, but there are those that are just silly – on purpose. The text feels modern, but the illustrations feel traditional – set in familiar age-old landscapes, such as a school, a kitchen table, a market place. A Nice Steam Bath is illustrated to look as if it’s a wordless comic strip or an ancient scroll, and many of the collages use domestic materials such as a child might use: cotton wool beards, glass bead rivers. They are bright and welcoming, playful and intelligent.

Below, Sean Taylor explains about the book.

How did Riding a Donkey Backwards come about?

“It came about, indirectly, because of a terror attack. Back on 7th January 2015, there was a massacre in Paris, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. That day, I could feel people in the UK were shaken by the nearness of the violence, and I sensed some ‘retreating into shells’ going on. This made me want to do the opposite. At an event at Shakespeare’s Globe about 12 years previously, I’d met Luqman Ali and he’d given me a leaflet about Khayaal Theatre. Khayaal is a theatre company founded by him and Eleanor Martin. It is dedicated to showcasing the rich traditions of story, poetry and humour in Muslim cultures, and also to building engagement between Muslim communities and the wider world. I kept the leaflet Luqman had given me. Sometimes I’d come across it, wonder if there might be some way of collaborating with Khayaal, and decide probably not. But, that day, I wrote to Luqman. Looking back, my message said, among other things:

I have no more connection with, or understanding of, the Islamic world than you would expect from a man with an interest in stories and poetry who grew up in the home counties of England. My strongest connections are, in fact, not to the east, but to the west. My wife is from, Brazil. We have lived there on and off over the past twenty years. But rather than seeing these things as obstacles, I shall, for the sake of this message, see them as reasons for making connection. Might we meet? Might we talk a bit about stories, and about theatre and about work with young people? Might something fruitful result from this impulse to reach out? ”

What happened next?

“We did meet, at the British Library, a few weeks later. And it was clear that, though we are from quite different cultural backgrounds, we had a lot in common in terms of our work around story and education, and our shared interest in the imagination, dreams and humour. So it seemed natural to try to find a way to work together. I had in mind there might be ways Khayaal could make use of my experience of writing for theatre. Actually, they expressed an interest in writing a children’s book. So the idea of retelling some of the stories of Mulla Nasruddin in a publication for young readers was born. I thought newly-founded Otter-Barry Books might show interest in the project. And I’m happy to say they did.”

Who exactly is Mulla Nasruddin?

“There’s no exact answer. Some say Nasruddin was a real man who lived in the thirteenth century. Nobody knows for sure! Many different countries claim to be his birthplace, including Turkey and Iran. In the introduction to the book we say:

He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh. If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!”

Why retell these Nasruddin stories?

“They are age-old stories, but I think they are absolutely relevant to the times we live in. Nasruddin challenges fixed ways of looking at our world, and stuck ways of behaving. So the stories about him fly in the face of fundamentalist thinking – whether it be the single-track thinking of Islamist fundamentalism or the equally narrow thinking of Islamophobia. Take a story like the one we’ve called They Can’t Both Be Right! In this, Mulla Nasruddin is asked to settle an argument between two men, in a tea house. Nasruddin listens to the first man and says, “You are right.” Then he listens to the second man and says, “You are right.” Then the owner of the tea-house says, “Well, they can’t both be right!” And Nasruddin says, “You are right!” This is a brilliant, light-hearted way of pointing out that the world cannot be seen in black and white (as more and more people seem happy to see it.) In another story, called Don’t Ask Me! the donkey Nasruddin is riding is startled by a snake. As the donkey gallops madly off, a young farmer calls out, “Where are you going, Nasruddin?” Nasruddin calls back, “Don’t ask me! Ask the donkey!” Can you feel how this has a message for anyone who thinks they have simple answers to the challenges of our times? When an out-of-control donkey is carrying you, how can you sit there stiffly certain about where you are going? At one level this tale is just a funny anecdote. But scratch its surface (or the surface of the other stories in our book) and you find wisdom. Nasruddin asks fresh questions in the face of ready-made answers. The stories in Riding a Donkey Backwards offer new ways of thinking to anyone numbed by the world, or feeling driven to recrimination and aggression. These are reasons why we wanted to bring Nasruddin, his provocations and his heartfelt laughter to life for young readers.”

How was the book created?

“Khayaal Theatre’s Eleanor Martin joined Luqman and me in the writing process. And it turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, with lots of discussion, and drafts to-ing and fro-ing as we worked out which Nasruddin stories to include and how to tell them on the page. Otter-Barry Books brought Iranian illustrator Shirin Adl on board, and Shirin came up with the wonderfully crafted illustrations which make Riding a Donkey Backwards so beautiful to look at.”

With thanks to Sean Taylor. You can buy Riding a Donkey Backwards here.

A Taste of Home: A Guest Post from Victoria Williamson

fox girl and the white gazelleVictoria Williamson’s debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, is the compelling story of two frightened girls who are dealing with traumatic circumstances within their own families, and yet through their unlikely friendship, manage to overcome and even banish some of their fears.

When the two girls discover an injured fox and her cubs hiding on their estate, they realise that a friendship between them will help the foxes. Slowly, they discover that they have much more in common than just saving foxes, and soon it is Reema (a Syrian refugee) showing Caylin (a native Scot) how to fit in and belong in their local Scottish community. The power of their friendship gives a stability and a hopefulness to both girls.

Caylin is troubled – the reader first sees her in the role of bully, taking birthday money from a school girl, but the reader is soon aware that although Caylin’s actions can’t be excused, there are reasons behind her behaviour. Williamson draws Caylin with breathtaking empathy.

In alternating chapters the reader meets Reema, a refugee fleeing her wartorn country, and coming to terms with the damage the war has inflicted upon her family and the realities of facing life in a completely different country and immersing herself within its culture:
“Here even the trees speak a different language.”

Caylin is a wonderfully drawn character – distrustful of adults around her due to past circumstances, predisposed to show a lack of effort at school, and yet remarkably likeable, and completely misunderstood. And Reema too, is shown bravely straddling her old and new lives, embracing her new culture whilst trying not to eschew the old. But it’s Williamson’s own grasp of the two cultures that makes for such an effective read.

Here, she explores how she used the sensation of taste and the meaning of food to explore the characters within her novel:

Harissa cake, mint lemonade, tangerines, pears, plums, beans, soup, fish and chips, battered sausages, tea, lamb stew, peanut butter sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, corned beef, porridge, pizza, chewing gum, toast and jam, tabouleh salad, chicken shawarma, baqlawa pastries, ma’amoul cookies, bubblegum, coffee, meatballs, yoghurt, ice cream, custard, sweet and sour pork, crisps, flatbread, chicken casserole, pancakes with whipped cream and chocolate, black pudding, haggis, Irn Bru and deep-fried Mars Bars.

This is just some of the food mentioned in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle.  It wasn’t until I was editing my novel that I realised just how many times food and drink was discussed, and how important it was to my characters. For Caylin, chips from the local chip shop are not just a necessity as her mother’s expensive alcohol habit uses up their benefits money, but a treat to be looked forward to at the end of a hard school day. In chapter three she says:

“I stuff the plastic bag with the wrapped chips down my jacket as soon as I get outside, hugging them to my chest and soaking up the warmth and delicious smell. Then I run home, the secret stash of chips protecting me from the wind and the rain like a magic charm.”

For Reema on the other hand, the chips in the school canteen are a greasy reminder that she’s in a foreign country very far from her beloved Syria. Even something as simple as a cup of tea that doesn’t taste the same makes her homesick, as she describes in chapter four:

Mama makes the tea that our neighbour has brought instead of using the packet of tea leaves the mosque gave us along with a big box of food supplies. She is afraid the old lady will not like our strong Syrian tea, and she wants our guest to feel welcome. I try not to make a face as I sip the weak brew. It tastes soft and sad, just like the Scottish rain. I long for a cup of strong black tea and the lashing rain of home.

Victoria in Cameroon

It got me thinking about the time I spent working as a teacher in Africa, particularly my two years in Cameroon. The food was so different from anything I’d eaten before – boiled fufu corn and Njama njama (a kind of fried huckleberry leaf), rice and bean stew, ‘foot cow’ pepper soup, and egusi pudding (ground seed paste with dried crayfish).

And then of course, there was achu.

I thought I would never, ever get used to the taste of achu and yellow soup. It looks about as appetising as it sounds: a grey, volcano-shaped mound of pounded coco yam with a play-doh like consistency, and thick yellow soup with a crushed limestone base. The first time I ate it the only way I could swallow it down was to take a big gulp of water with each bite, fake-smiling at the teacher who’d spent hours preparing it for me and hoping I wasn’t going to look like an ungrateful guest by throwing it up on the table. Try as I might to avoid it over the next two years, it turned up regularly at the end of each long school meeting, prepared by some of the female staff. We’d share a drink and a laugh together over our meal, and eventually I learned to tolerate and then grow strangely fond of the grey goo that I’d struggled to swallow at first.

Towards the end of my time there, I found my mind wandering in class when lunchtime approached, but it wasn’t the rice and beans I enjoyed so much at the local chop house I was thinking about. I couldn’t get the thought of my mother’s shepherd’s pie and cherry scones out of my head. There were times I’d even think longingly of the oxtail soup she used to make for lunch when my brothers and I would come running home from primary school, which was odd, as I didn’t even like oxtail soup!

This is where Reema’s homesick voice comes from, when she asks her little sister in chapter twelve:

“Remember the food Aunt Amira used to make? The tabouleh salads and chicken shawarma and baqlawa pastries? And the Eid al-Fitr feast when we would invite all our family and friends to eat Mama’s famous ma’amoul cookies?”

My mouth is watering at the very thought of my favourite dishes, but Sara is frowning at me as though I am speaking a foreign language.

In the months after I returned to the UK, I got to eat all of the food I’d missed – my mother’s homemade cooking, spaghetti Bolognese, moussaka, chille con carne and chocolate cake. But one day as I finished teaching a maths class just before lunch, I realised a strange thing. Instead of fantasising about the pasta and pizza, fish and chips or baked potatoes in the canteen, all I could think about was a big plate of achu and yellow soup. Two years of trying to avoid the stuff, and there I was missing it like a long lost friend. That was when I finally understood. It wasn’t about the food at all. It was about the people I’d shared the food with that made the memories of it so powerful.

That’s why Caylin loves her chips so much despite eating them every day until her unwashed uniform starts to smell of grease. They remind her of happy times and make her feel safe. In chapter five she describes sharing a meal from the chip shop with her mother:

I snuggle up next to her on the couch and rest my head against her fluffy dressing gown. She puts her arm round me and holds me tight as we laugh at the stupid film and the rubbish acting. This is my favourite time of day – just before bed, when Mum’s slept off the doctor’s tablets to help with her depression, and before she reaches for a bottle to help her through the night. This is when I can pretend we’re a proper family again and the accident that ruined it all didn’t ever happen.

No matter where we are in the world, our thoughts, opinions and memories of the food we eat will be shaped by the people we share it with. Even if at first we struggle with the flavour, texture or smell of a new dish, ultimately whether we come to love and miss it will depend on our willingness to connect to the people who sit with us round the table. Despite missing home so much it hurts, Reema comes to discover a fondness for Scottish food when she makes friends with Caylin and starts to feel more at home in her adopted country. Caylin describes this in chapter twenty-nine:

On the way home we stopped at Michael’s Superchippy. We had a great party eating Syrian food with the Haddads  a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to share something from Scotland with Reema and Sara. I asked Brian to get them a black pudding or haggis supper, but he said they weren’t allowed to eat meat that wasn’t halal, from their own Muslim butchers.  I was disappointed, but Brian winked at me and asked the guy serving us for a deep-fried Mars Bar each for pudding.

Now we’re sitting on our sofa, eating chips and deep-fried chocolate bars, and I can’t stop laughing at Reema’s impression of a Glaswegian accent when she says “pure dead brilliant!” and takes a swig of Irn Bru from her can.

“Does this mean I’m Scottish now?” Sara asks, licking the chocolate off her fingers. “Am I properly Scottish?”

Brian can see that Reema doesn’t like her saying that, so he says quickly, “You’re Syrian-Scottish, Sara. You get to be two things at once, which is extra special as most of us only get to be from one place, and that’s boring.” Brian’s good that way.  He knows how to say the right thing and make people feel more relaxed. I was totally wrong about him. He isn’t a bit like Mum’s old boyfriends.

“Syrian-Scottish? Yes, I like that,” Reema smiles and clinks her Irn Bru can against mine like it’s champagne we’re drinking.

So next time you’re far from home and faced with a strange dish you’re not sure you’ll like, take a look at the people you’re eating with. If you’re willing to let your guard down and make new friends despite language and cultural differences, then chances are you’ll come to miss that food just as much as the friendly faces round the dinner table when you leave.

With thanks to Victoria Williamson for writing with such passion about her novel. You can buy your own copy here