animals

Spring Picture Book Round-Up

mole in a black and white hole
Seldom has a picture book quite embraced how I feel right now as
Mole in a Black and White Hole by Tereza Sediva. With a die-cut hole on the cover into the mole’s black and white house, it feels like the perfect lockdown book. Mole is first seen deep underground in his hole with a television and a book for comfort. He’s clearly been in lockdown for as long as I have. His consolation is a bright pink chandelier – represented here by a vivid neon orange blob – representative in fact of a root vegetable, plugging the gap between the outside world and Mole’s hole.

During the course of the book, the ‘chandelier’ tells Mole of all the wondrous (neon and brightly colourful) happenings above ground, until one day, the ‘chandelier’ disappears. Initially, it leaves a hole in Mole’s heart too, as he misses his friend and the world is blacker than ever, despite the sunbeam reaching through the gap. But then Mole ventures forth, and life becomes not so black and white.

This is a beautifully executed picture book – with Mole as the expressive centrepiece to a world that proves to be full of fascination, friendship, and of course colour. Readers will take enormous pleasure from the contrast between the world below and that above – cleverly using the centrefold horizontally to draw the difference – but also from the careful layering of colour images, which interweave and seem almost transparent in their rendering. A wonderful spring awakening, and a cheerful reminder for the light at the end of every tunnel. Available for pre-order here but not published until June, I hope I can leave my black hole before then. In the meantime…

what about me said the flea
Children have found plenty of inspiration for writing during lockdowns, despite the world essentially shrinking on them, and What About Me? Said the Flea by Lily Murray and Richard Merritt is a great antidote to the idea that stories have to be about huge, powerful forces. Sometimes, the most exquisite inspiration is in the small everyday things.

This really is one of the most exciting and endearing picture books I’ve seen in some time. It happily marries text and pictures, with the pictures expressing beyond the story most eloquently. Sophia is trying to write a story, and looking for inspiration. All sorts of things present themselves as perfect protagonists: a bear (all good books have one apparently), a lion, a unicorn, a dinosaur, but there is also one who is jumping and squeaking to make itself heard and Sophia just can’t see it. Working on both a literal and metaphorical level, this is a great idea for a picture book , allowing readers to explore the ideas of inspiration, creativity, inclusion and so much more, but it is also just extraordinarily fun.

The pictures give the game away – at first the flea is fairly well hidden, but eventually the illustrator illuminates the flea with flashing lights and arrows. And Sophia still misses it! A clever reader will also see where the flea originated!

But the pictures do more than point out the flea – they give a real testament to each animal and its personality. The animals are shown in a whole helter-skelter of scenes, from a comedy stage to a swimming pool, the ocean, a boxing ring and more. Each is also imbued with a raft of humorous elements, including a bears’ picnic, and even Sophia’s desk itself (which gives more than a clue as to where inspiration comes from…anywhere!)

The ending is great fun. Poor flea. Although you’ll be delighted to hear that this author/illustrator pairing aren’t the first to focus on a flea. Samson the Mighty Flea by Angela McAllister and Nathan Reed would make a delightful companion book. There is a use to fleas after all. And What About Me? Said the Flea, available here, is a triumph.

luna loves art
Perhaps when children do go back to school, they’ll once again go on school trips. If not, then at least they can relive one in Luna Loves Art by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers. We first met Luna in Luna Loves Library Day but this picture book nicely captures a school trip to an art gallery with our exuberant, enthusiastic protagonist.

Luna is joyful to be in the art gallery, but classmate Finn doesn’t seem sure. In fact, he seems sad. Can Luna have an excellent day out, but also make Finn smile?

The illustrations here are observational and meticulously crafted – each child with their own unique personality, each person reacting differently to each painting in the art gallery, and cleverly, the paintings are all neat picture book reproductions of real art from Malevich’s Black Square to Moore’s sculpture to Henri Rousseau. Luna feels as if the sunflowers in the Van Gogh painting are alive because the painting is so thick – and the flowers burst out of the frame in Lumbers’ rendering. Luna warns Finn not to touch, and this is a wonderful evocation of the visceral quality of the paintings, as well as the very human reaction of Luna – wanting to do no wrong.

Not only is this a wonderful introduction to the power and beauty of art, and the excitement of a school trip (although both I and my test audience were very worried that the children in the story didn’t stop for lunch or a toilet break, key features of our own school trips), but it is also a lovely story of both family and friend dynamics.

The art installation page is glorious, but full marks to Luna’s teacher, who lets the class loose in the gift shop! You can buy your own gift here.

the perfect fit
Lastly, and by no means least – all four of these picture books are worth purchasing immediately – is The Perfect Fit by Naomi and James Jones. For the youngest children, beginning to make sense of the world and their place within it, and also beginning to recognise first shapes, colours and patterns, this is a pleasing story about a winsome triangle attempting to fit in with others.

Triangle has fun with the circles, but she doesn’t roll with them. She likes the squares but stacking is hard. So, she sets off to find others more like her. By the end, of course, she realises that being in a diverse group of shapes is actually the most fun.

The Jones pairing make a fabulous fit in this book, consolidating the ideas in both text and image, placing single sentences in a variety of spaces, slanting up and down or centred in the middle of the page, to fit with the images that tell the story too. And the images are simple – shapes coloured in primary and secondary colours, either coming together, or leaving white spaces between to explore what fits and what doesn’t.

Just as children make images from geometric shapes, so does the illustrator here. My children and I used to do this with felt shapes. Here, a boat is made from two squares, a simple black line, and a triangle sail. An ice cream is formed from a hexagon on top of an upside-down triangle, the flake drawn in simple black lines.

Of course, there are various underlying messages. We might be individual shapes, but we all want to come together as a group – it’s more fun. (From lockdown, we now know how much we are missing other people in all their shapes and sizes). But also, this is about inclusion. An array of shapes makes for a more diverse and interesting set of patterns. Four yellow triangles aren’t nearly as fun to play with as a green hexagon, a blue circle, a red square and a yellow triangle. Looking and acting the same aren’t always necessary.

But also, and more subliminally, is the message of a shared sense of purpose. The different shapes need to work together to collectively create a new shape, to form an image, to play.

This is a simply executed, yet positive and clever book. A narrative story running through, personifying a shape who’s lost their tribe, but then the welcoming spirit of other tribes, and the coming together of all. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Thames and Hudson, Buster Books, OUP, and Andersen Press for the review copies. 

Sylvia Bishop on Writing Settings

I’m delighted to host author Sylvia Bishop (The Bookshop Girl, The Secret of the Night Train) on the blog today. Bishop has been hosting writing workshops, and her session on Saturday is about settings, why some are captivating and transporting in those crucial childhood years.

44 tiny acrobats

Bishop certainly puts her teaching to practise. Her current junior fiction series, 44 Tiny, illustrated by Ashley King, focuses on the exquisitely quirky and captivating Betsy Bow-Linnet as she navigates life with her 44 tiny secrets. The second in the series, 44 Tiny Acrobats, published at the beginning of this month, takes its protagonist to the circus, a wondrous backdrop for a story, with scope for magic, stagecraft, animal antics, colourful costumes and so much more. But it is in exploring this from a child’s angle that one can begin to see what matters within each setting. 

Sylvia Bishop is excellent at climbing inside the mind of a child and expressing how they feel in the way they would express it. This is not necessarily a definable or known emotion to that child, but rather a series of sensations and gradual understandings. When Betsy has a particular experience at the circus, she wants to commit it to memory, but doesn’t quite know how to express herself. So she takes in the specifics: “the flag fluttered like that. The lights twinkled like that.” It is at once totally expressive and completely beautiful.

Here, Bishop explains how she writes her settings: 

I write for children because children are the best readers. I vividly remember the utter immersion, how perfectly content I could be to stay in bed all day with a book once it had hooked me; an experience of reading which is now rare and precious. And then, of course, there were the daydreams afterwards about the world of the book, long after it was finished. 

This is the power of a good setting in children’s literature. It becomes a world that feels very real, and takes on a life of its own. But what gives some settings this power? 

Of course, every child is different. But there are certain overwhelming commonalities in how we relate to the space around us at different ages, and learning to remember and tap into this is hugely useful for successful children’s settings. There is a reason for the cupboard under the stairs and the Wardrobe; the wood between the worlds and the Place Inbetween; Sara’s attic and the little house in its wide-open prairie. I think it is a myth that children don’t want to read descriptions of setting. We just need to remember what’s interesting. 

And this doesn’t only apply when you’re writing Narnia. Some stories must take place at home, or at school; but the most ordinary house is a world full of worlds. The many corners of home are a whole kingdom in early middle childhood, and we can tap into the agency and ownership children have in that space. 

44 tiny secrets

The first book in my series 44 Tiny…, 44 Tiny Secrets, is mostly set at home, with Betsy Bow Linnet and her 44 African pygmy mice. But she has her own spaces within it… 

Betsy picked up the letter, and was about to open it, but it felt wrong to tear it open in the hall. This was clearly a special sort of letter. So she ran up the stairs to the top floor and noodled her legs through the spindles of the banister. Here, in her favourite spot, she opened the envelope. 

We return to her home in 44 Tiny Acrobats. She knows her house with the thoroughness of someone who has spent hours playing games in it, in the years when hours still feel like eons. She has paid attention to its sounds… 

The Bow-Linnet’s house was full of creaks and groans and surprising thuds 

… and has her own routes through it… 

She tore down the alley behind the gardens of her road, climbed the tree outside her own garden, dropped on to the top of Grandad’s shed and down via another tree on to the grass, and raced over to the kitchen window.  

She had learned as a small girl how to lever this open from the outside. It occurred to her halfway through the window that she was not as small any more, but it was too late for that now; she shoved and pushed and wriggled, and at last landed in the kitchen sink. 

In Acrobats, however, Betsy has to choose between home and the circus. For this to work, the circus has to have the right kind of allure – something that could convincingly tug at her heart strings. It doesn’t take much description to put across the feeling of a performer’s trailer: 

Around her was a semi-circle of trailers. They had brightly lit windows with checked curtains, and doors painted with beautiful pictures. These were the performers’ homes. 

… and then: 

Betsy said goodbye and hurried out of the trailer. The rain had begun again, and the brightly lit trailers looked cosy; you could hear talk and laughter coming from inside them, snug and content.  

Being cosy and being on the road and having your own small, personal kingdom? I know I would have gone to sleep that night dreaming of circus trailers. And it’s not just me: those are three important aspects of game-playing and fantasies in middle childhood, across cultures. Writing settings well for junior fiction is less about stunning people with the poetic quality of your writing, and more about knowing which settings will work – what will prompt your child reader to willingly and delightedly do all the imaginative filling-in for you, from the sketchiest description. 

And to know that, we have some remembering to do. 

Sylvia’s workshop on ‘Junior Fiction: Settings that Stick’ has sold out, but do hit the wait list button: she’ll run another if there’s interest. And you can always sign up for the rerun of her sold-out Character workshop, on 27th February. Details for all workshops can be found at www.speakeasy.com/speaker/sylvia-bishop 

44 Tiny Acrobats, along with the prequel, 44 Tiny Secrets! are available here, and at all other bookshops. 

44 Tiny Acrobats tells the story of when Fry’s Circus pitches its tent opposite Betsy’s house, and despite her Grandad’s reluctance because of his memories of Grandma’s circus days, Betsy can’t resist the lure of the circus. 

But when Betsy’s 44 pygmy mice escape from their box during the show, she has no choice but to join them on stage. And suddenly, running away with the circus seems like the only thing left to do. 

Illustrated in two-tone colour, this sequel beautifully encompasses all the fun of the circus, whilst also exploring how the past has a habit of catching up with you. Captivating and delightful. 

With thanks to Sylvia Bishop and Little Tiger Press. 

Christmas Picture Books

santas christmas handbookSanta’s Christmas Handbook
Buried in small print on the first page of this delightful Christmas book is the name of the author. I only discovered this after reading the book cover to cover, and rejoicing in the fact that I’d been sent a Christmas book that was entertaining, inventive, witty, and absolutely stuffed to the brim with interactivity. There are lift-the-flaps, games, puzzles and more, so that any reader will be kept preoccupied for some time. And then I saw that it is written by Christopher Edge, and so the well-thought-out contents and imaginative elements made sense – Edge is an experienced and witty writer.

The book is a Santa’s handbook that explains to Santa everything he needs to know to survive Christmas, and starts with a letter from the elves (the real authors of the book), with an enclosed to-do list. Each following page is a treasure trove of fun illustration with lift-the-flap sections. So, there is a sleigh complete with control board and storage, a guide to looking after reindeers, a map of the world with fastest routes for reindeer sleighs, an understanding of how to deliver presents, as well as instructions for navigating rooftops (even those without chimneys). A board game at the end with a ‘crimble-o-meter’ that really spins (excellent paper engineering) completes the book.

Wit triumphs throughout. I enjoyed the ‘insta-chimney’ invention, the potential pit-falls of skylights, the riskiness of large or noisy presents, the ‘SantaNav’ for directions, and first aid kits for ‘tinsellitis’ and more. Edge has all the ground covered here (including children at sea during Christmas), and this book is a packed stockingful of fun. You can buy it here.

mouses night before christmas
Mouse’s Night Before Christmas by Tracey Corderoy and Sarah Massini
Starting with the famous verse, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,’ this picturebook quickly swerves to point out that the mouse wasn’t still, but was indeed stirring. This little mouse, cutely rendered by illustrator Sarah Massini with trailing red woollen scarf, delights in Christmas but has no one to share it with. When Santa comes calling, Mouse hitches a ride and becomes the best little helper, but at the end of the night even Father Christmas has to leave, although not before gifting Mouse a present that leads to friendship and companionship.

An anti-materialistic message, in that Christmas is a festival best shared, the book’s illustrations brim with the colourful joyfulness of Christmas, an ornamentally decorated tree with a plethora of presents beneath, the magic of stars and snow, a full cohort of reindeer, and a traditional Father Christmas with twinkly bright eyes. Cute. You can buy it here.

cats christmas carol
A Cat’s Christmas Carol by Sam Hay, illustrated by Helen Shoesmith

More messages on friendship and sharing in this deliciously purr-fect tale for Christmas. Clawdia the cat looks after a department store, and loves to stick to the rules. So when mice break in looking for somewhere warm to hide, the book becomes a game of cat and mouse! Written with dexterity, Hay uses the rhythm of language to play with her plot – the chase is in rhyme, with the department store providing an awesome array of goods – excellent to run amok in. Shoesmith has fun here too – this is a modern department store with a bank of tills and electrical goods, although also with a nod to the traditional in the toy department, and in the layout of the front hall.

By the end, Clawdia gets what she most wants for Christmas, and it isn’t a mouse! The publicity boasts of this as a retelling of A Christmas Carol with whiskers and claws – I’m not sure most readers will see this parallel, other than through the title. The mice remind Clawdia of her own tawdry past, in the hope that she’ll be more generous in the present, but she is far too adorable to be a cat-in for Scrooge. Special touches include the family scene complete with children’s drawings and grandma, and the very lovely department store dining table – reminiscent of Pooh’s last supper at Pooh Corner, but this time Christmas-led with dominant red and greens, and an old-fashioned feel with candelabra, crackers and champagne. You can have a purrfect Christmas here.

follow the star
Follow the Star by Andy Mansfield
A feat of paper engineering in this pop-up Christmas journey as the traditional Christmas star journeys from Bethlehem to the top of a Christmas tree via fields, cities, and individual houses. The rhyming text does little to enhance the book, as the real attraction is the landscape portrayed on each page with intricate 3-D engineering, and a foiled star on each night sky. The yellow backdrop to the cityscape gives the buildings an interior warm glow, and the Christmas tree at the end is nicely done with coloured baubles on each frilly layer of the tree. You can buy it here.

leah's star
Leah’s Star by Margaret Bateson-Hill, illustrated by Karin Littlewood
For those harking for a traditional Christmas book complete with religious element, Leah’s Star twists viewpoint and tells the story of the birth of Jesus from the narrative perspective of Leah, the innkeeper’s daughter. She persuades her father to find room in the stable for the pregnant woman and her husband, and follows the course of the night as visitors come to see what turns out to be quite a special baby. With Bethlehem watercoloured in a hue of terracotta buildings, a warm yellow glow emitting from the stable, and characters painted with warm simpatico expressions, this is a distinctly comforting retelling of the Bible story. A tenderness infuses the illustrations, and Leah in particular is painted with a mix of wonderment, anticipation and kindness. A child’s innocence deftly portrayed. This was first published under the title Leah’s Christmas Story in 2006. You can buy it here.

Finally, very aptly for discussions about tree planting and sustainable Christmases, come three books focussed on the Christmas tree.

the tree thats meant to be
The Tree That’s Meant to Be by Yuval Zommer
A twinkly green cover points towards Christmas, and the protagonist is a small wonky fir tree in the woods, but happily this is a tree for life not just for Christmas. The landscape and scenery of the woods change as the seasons pass, and in winter people come to chop down other trees, but not this little tree, which is left all alone.

Luckily, Zommer’s trademark animals, including deer, foxes and birds with their slanted eyes come to keep the little tree company. The animals wonderfully decorate the tree ‘au naturel’ with acorns and fir cones and brown leaves, the bears standing on their hind paws, the squirrels bringing acorns. As the seasons turn again, the tree sees that it was meant to be part of nature, always in the forest, and it provides a home for birds, and a shelter for children.  Nature as intended.

Zommer’s illustrations are distinctive and beautifully textured – the leaves identifiable, the pictures nodding towards realism, whilst still lending a magical aura to the forest, and nodding to acknowledge their picture book status at the same time. A treat. You can buy it here.

oh christmas tree
Oh, Christmas Tree! By Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet
This lively full-on foiled cover picturebook also features a tree protagonist, one who doesn’t want to be trussed up with baubles and trinkets, but runs away from the decorations in order to be free. By the end, one of the decorations has come up with an idea of how to trick their tree into being more Christmassy. A fun frolicking rhyming book, and one with which children who abhor dressing up or being in the school play will identify. Lots of fun is had by Linnet, imagining the tree doing activities it actually enjoys rather than standing in a pot, such as cycling, baking, and doing science! You can buy it here.

the little fir tree
The Little Fir Tree by Christopher Corr
With a nod to Hans Christian Andersen, this tree protagonist longs to be picked for Christmas, and has to wait through the seasons to be big enough to be picked. The tree dreams of being wood for a ship, or log for a cabin, while the birds laugh at him wishing his life away. Then finally the tree is cut down, and is (in my opinion, strangely) happy as it is brought into a home and decorated with tinsel, ribbons and more, and told stories. The tree revels in its tallness and new-found importance, before being cruelly discarded. By the end though, a squirrel has given it new life. The illustrations are bright and bold, the people slightly sinister in their Picasso-esque profiles, their dress old-fashioned, but all imbued with personality – including even the sun and moon. Different, and certainly striking. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Templar, Nosy Crow, Alanna Max, Simon and Schuster, Oxford University Press, Macmillan and Frances Lincoln publishers for the review copies.

Explorers and Pioneers

From the history of exploration to the extremes of our planet, from game-changing theories to contemporary outdoor adventures, these four books take the reader on journeys of discovery and endeavour.

darwins voyage of discovery
Darwin’s Voyage of Discovery by Jake Williams
Pure, simple illustrations from upcoming illustrator Jake Williams make this new book about Darwin rather distinctive. Publishing to celebrate 160 years since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it follows Darwin’s journey on the The Beagle to Cape Verde, the Galapagos, Australia and more, paying careful attention to the discoveries Darwin made. Split into sections of the journey, with the beginning profiling Darwin’s early life and then the ship and preparations for the voyage, the rest plots the geography with basic maps and then wildlife of the region that Darwin noted.

The book goes into detail on the creatures, noting their features, but also the questions that Darwin asked about them, sparking ideas of evolution and ancestry. As the book highlights these, today’s reader will also begin to think – about exploration and discovery, but also about making connections and learning from nature – how analysis of behaviours and patterns can provoke theory. The space on the pages allows for this freedom of thought. There are no contents, no glossary…this is a book as a voyage – a linear discovery. You can buy it here.

dk explorers
DK Explorers, illustrated by Jessamy Hawke, written by Nellie Huang
This is a beautifully designed primer to exploration, with an introduction from explorer Barbara Hillary. Taking in the breadth of what exploration means – from adventuring to the furthest reaches of geography, whether it be deep sea or outer space – to understanding the commitment, determination and courage that being an explorer means, this book will open up the reader’s eyes to what has been achieved and at what cost.

Divided into sections: sea and ice, land, air and space, the book focuses on personalities – taking a double page for each explorer. There is a marvellous mix of graphics, of course maps, but also photographs of artefacts from American William Clark’s compass,  to photographs of British archaeologist Gertrude Bell on exploration, as well as full page illustrations that bring the scenes to life. There are first person accounts and quotes, as well as third person explanations and captions. Engaging and informative, this is a lovely nonfiction book, with careful nods to inclusivity, and a reflection on the darker side of exploration, all appropriate for the age group (9+yrs). You can buy it here.

adventures on earth
Adventures on Earth by Simon Tyler
This too divides the world into geographical regions, including polar, mountainous, volcanic, oceanic and more, looking at the extremes of our Earth, and noting their features, their wildlife, and the people who have discovered and explored them. With a nod to conservation issues too, this is a compelling looking book, with large shapes and blocks of colour denoting entire regions – deserts in terracotta and brown, caves in deep black, and oceans, in a nice touch, with a deep sunset beyond.

At times, the text is hard to read against its dark background, at other times stark against the polar regions, but always fascinating and packed with information. Maps and a glossary give clear guidance. Tyler’s background as a graphic designer shines through – some features look poster-like in their blockiness, and the design feels bold and sophisticated. Like some of the explorations it features, such as El Capitan and Dos Ojos, this is certainly attention-grabbing. You can buy it here.

wild girl
Wild Girl: How to have Incredible Outdoor Adventures by Helen Skelton, illustrated by Liz Kay
For those inspired by books such as those above, this may be a child’s entry point into their own exploration. Skelton has been and done many things and this book showcases her various explorations, from cycling to the South Pole to kayaking the length of the Amazon. It tracks the adventure, describes the preparation, kit and training, as well as the specific details such as going to the toilet and staying hydrated, as well as highly personal details such as cravings for apples and drying hair. Then each section attempts to give hints as to how a child can have their own adventures and explorations closer to home.

In the ‘sand’ adventure section, it suggests beach running, campfires and even sand boarding. For ‘rivers’, Skelton encourages ghyll scrambling, rafting, kite-surfing and more. These are not adventures for the garden, but certainly high-level activities that require some ‘warnings’, which are in place in the book. I particularly liked the idea of having a wild adventure in a city, making use of seeing things from a different perspective, such as going low, or going high. This is a highly personal recollection of voyages taken, but also an aspirational one for children wanting to be like Helen Skelton. The design is busy, but nicely arranged to read part-diary, part information manual, with plenty of colour, illustrations and photographs to draw the eye. An admirable non-fiction on the realities of modern exploration. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Pavilion, DK, and Walker publishers for the review copies.

The Wonders of Nature by Ben Hoare, illustrated by Angela Rizza and Daniel Long

wonders of natureThis summer I came across the sacred Datura wildflower. A poisonous perennial, it has hallucinogenic properties, the Zion park ranger told me. What’s more, it blooms at night, starting early evening and typically closing around noon, and has features that are iridescent in UV light, but hidden from human sight.

Wildlife journalist, Ben Hoare, in his latest children’s book for Dorling Kindersley, doesn’t cover hallucinogens thankfully, but does open the readers’ eyes to a host of wonders, in sections of the book neatly separated into  rocks and minerals, microorganisms, plant life and animal life.

Carefully curated to sample the spread of wonders in the natural world, the rocks and minerals section highlights key examples from hard to soft; the animal section picks a variety from simple organisms to complex animals. At first, the choice of minerals and species may seem random, but closer inspection shows Hoare attempting to showcase vastly different features and strengths across the natural world.

Aimed at a young child, age 7+, Hoare’s text reads simply but is imbued with enthusiasm and creativity. Each entry has two descriptive paragraphs and although they do give the essential facts on the item – Hoare detailing that the Iris grows from a bulb – he makes smart analogies too: comparing the lines or dots on petals to landing lights on an airport runway, giving insects a pathway into the nectar. He also branches out into myth and story – in Ancient Greece, Iris was the goddess of rainbows.

This flair for interest and creativity extends to each entry, even on the snail. A pull-out quote on this page points to the fact that a snail has ‘not one, but several tiny brains’, bringing out the author’s sense of humour. On living stones, which thrive in a desert habitat, Hoare points out that desert creatures such as tortoises often miss this source of food, as the plants are only easy to spot after rain falls.

A mix of photograph and illustration, the design of the book serves the purpose of ‘wonder’ well. In the plant section, there is often up-close photography of a flower or leaf, and an illustration of the entry at a distance, to give the reader the impression of the shape of the entire tree or plant. Zoomed in, some plant leaves can look like artworks themselves; Traveller’s tree resembling a psychedelic poster, although there are no hallucinogens here.

When the design pushes through to meet the text, the reader knows they are onto a winner. Nowhere in the book is this more blatant that the spread on the Ghost plant. This double page entry is faded to a ghostly grey, both in photograph and illustration, with a droopy look, definitely looking less than lively. But the text zings with life – this fascinating plant is almost transparent, and Hoare explains how it doesn’t need photosynthesis (explained and phonetically spelled out), using a mix of exclamation and questions to get his point across. The pulled-out fact tells the reader not to pick the plant because it turns black.

At first glance, this may seem like a book with little text on each full page picture. But reading it not only gives the reader knowledge, it inspires true wonder at the natural world.

For me, books are exquisite items in themselves. But as if to emphasises the point of the wonder of the natural world, the production of this book has been handled with a sense of elegance too – gold edges to the pages, a tough hardback with a gold foiled cover. A fantastic stand-alone title, but also a great companion to its sister title An Anthology of Intriguing Animals. You can buy The Wonders of Nature by Ben Hoare, published by DK here.

With thanks to DK for the review copy. The book is available at £20.00

Back to School September 2019

language of the universeSurprises abound in nonfiction, and my first subject of the day is Maths, but not as you know it. The Language of the Universe by Colin Stuart and Ximo Abadia is subtitled ‘a visual exploration of maths’, and I wish my maths had been this visual at school.

Bursting with colour, from the stunning peacock and gold foil on the cover, the book explores maths in four sections – the contents page colour-panelled for visual ease – maths in the natural world; physics, chemistry and engineering; space; and technology.

Chapters and topics include ‘Finding Fibonacci’ with its huge whirly flowers; to understanding prime numbers through cicadas; to ‘Getting to Grips with Geometry’ with the white-spotted pufferfish, and the book cleverly links everyday school maths to real world visuals, thus helping the brain to remember the concepts.

Levers, Pythagoras, floating, circuits, and more are covered in the Physics section, but things get really interesting in the final section on Technology, where cryptography and data are extrapolated so that the reader can draw a line from maths in the classroom to technology in today’s world. Maths is in everything and everywhere. This is for both the keen inquisitor, and the reluctant maths scholar – it definitely shows you maths in a whole new light, and colour! You can buy it here. For 8+

so you want to be a viking so you want to be a roman soldier?
I always loved History, and these handy guides will show the reader how to navigate their way into the past through a non-fiction narrative. So You Want to Be a Roman Soldier? By Philip Matyszak, And So You Want to Be a Viking? By John Haywood, are repackaged texts from prior books but now updated in a new format with wacky illustrations by cartoonist Takayo Akiyama. Of course any books like this are bound to be compared to Horrible Histories, and there is an element of that humour, but this is written as a guide rather than a history.

There are interactive quizzes, tips, destination suggestions, shopping lists for kits, and so forth, all zanily illustrated in two-tone colours. ‘Climbing the Ranks’ section in the Roman soldier book, and being the ‘Top Boss’ are particularly good pages. There is lots of modern slang mixed in with Roman jargon, and I felt more Caesar-like as the book progressed. Books include maps and glossaries. You can buy them here. For 7+ years.

why we became humans
Stepping back in time further, and reading up on Natural History, you might want to look at When We Became Humans by Michael Bright, illustrated by Hannah Bailey. This information-heavy book moves from apes through first tools, shelters, and migration to hunting, trading and cities, covering a variety of monumental firsts, including cave paintings, buildings, right through to the printing press and population boom – of huge topical discussion at the moment.

The illustrations are intelligently rendered, to sit nicely alongside the text, which doesn’t plod with data, but rather stimulates discovery and thought. There is great analysis in here, the text explaining how writing created history, among other wise words. With maps and charts, anatomy, geography and more, this is a fascinating exploration of human evolution for 8+ years. You can buy it here.

animals at night
Are you studying rainforests or habitats in Geography? Animals at Night by Katy Flint, illustrated by Cornelia Li is a follow-up to Glow-in-the-dark Voyage Through Space, but this time comes a bit closer to home. With spreads on Woodland, Rainforest, the City, Desert, and more, it thoroughly covers the different biomes at night. Colourful paragraphs caption the exquisite landscape illustrations, which themselves are created with digital technology using hand-painted textures. The porcupine’s prickles feel 3D, the rattlesnake stretches back into the desert behind it. A tear-out poster glows in the dark illuminating creatures of the deep sea. Awe-inspiring and aesthetically attractive, you’ll learn something too. You can buy it here. Age 6+.

why do we wear clothes?
Creative arts/textile management more your thing? This book sadly arrived after my blog on fashion books, but is a worthy addition to this ‘back to school’ list, particularly for those primary schools focusing on the ‘All Dressed Up’ topic from the International Primary Curriculum.

Why Do We Wear Clothes? By Helen Hancocks, in association with the V&A Museum is a treasure trove of colourful fashions with a bit of philosophy tacked on top. This isn’t a comprehensive tome on fashion, but rather a primary-school-age book of wacky facts, and an opportunity to glimpse different cultures and fashions.

Crinoline cages, whites at Wimbledon, the bicorne, icons of fashion, umbrellas and colours – it’s all within and summed up in a sentence or two. A good straightforward glossary and guide to fashion ‘people’ at the back rounds off a fascinating book. Some quirks abound – the text asks questions of the reader, and there’s a tiny print credits section, exploring items in the V&A that inspired the text.

Overall, this is a bright and vivacious book with a fun mishmash of information. For age 6+. You can buy it here.

Butterflies for the Big Butterfly Count

Ever since The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and probably even before, primary school children have been enthralled with the life cycle of the butterfly. Who could fail to be inspired by the miracle of nature that turns a wormy looking caterpillar into a beautifully coloured flying insect?

the butterfly houseKaty Flint and Alice Pattulo have captured some of the butterfly wonder in their non-fiction book, The Butterfly House.

By creating a narrative around an imaginary butterfly house, which encompasses species from all sorts of habitats – mountains, rainforests, deserts, meadows and more, the author illustrator team invite the reader to actively participate in their nonfiction adventure.

The book begins with a couple of introductory pages exploring how butterflies feed, the difference between moths and butterflies and of course, ‘the hatchery’. It then showcases families page by page, from brush-footed to swallowtails, metalmarks, and so on.

Each page has clearly labelled illustrated examples of species within each family, and an introductory paragraph with facts and identifying features to help the reader to recognise them.

The illustrations are exquisitely beautiful and detailed; they seem rather traditional, which makes sense for an illustrator who has worked for brands such as Crabtree and Evelyn and The V&A – the butterflies feel as carefully drawn as one would handle them.

The narrative is friendly as well as informative, resulting in the perfect non-fiction to pique interest on the subject. You can buy it here.

how to be a butterflyHow to be a Butterfly by Laura Knowles and Catell Ronca is aimed at an even younger audience, but neatly packs information about butterflies into a narrative that asks how we define them.

For example, to be a butterfly you need to have dazzlingly bold colours, and examples are provided, or subtle delicate colours – and then further examples are given. The book contains just a sentence or two on each page, but manages to explore the parts of the body, size, wings, camouflage, breeding and more, in a lyrical, poetic way.

Of course, in telling the text in this way, the author crafts a narrative that promotes diversity – there are many different ways to be a butterfly and all have value, giving a very subtle message about ourselves too.

Each page is set against a pale background, which feels airy and light and gives the colour wash of the butterflies plenty of contrast. These butterflies are painted rather than drawn as above, but equally well delineated, so that each shown species is clear in colour and pattern – and labelled too. You can buy it here.

Both books are well produced, support early years curriculum on mini-beasts and fit well with The Big Butterfly Count, taking place in the UK between 19 July and 11 August.

Great Guinea Pigs!

harry stevensonFleabag might seem quite a leap from children’s books, but when The Adventures of Harry Stevenson by Ali Pye arrived on my desk, I saw the link straight away. Guinea Pigs. A sometimes symbol of loneliness (guinea pigs like their buddies), the guinea pig is a great creature for children because even the name itself is a bit of a conundrum – they’re not from Guinea and they’re not pigs.

The Adventures of Harry Stevenson is a younger fiction title told from the point of view of Harry, Billy’s guinea pig. Like some other popular titles for this age group, there are two stories within the one book, both highly illustrated in neon orange as if Harry is a little radioactive or glow-in-the-dark. He isn’t a radioactive super-powered guinea pig, but he does have some remarkably outlandish adventures for a pet that mainly likes to eat and sleep.

In the first story, Billy and his family move house. Pye plays on the idea of the lost pet during a house move – a cage escapee, and the story brought back memories of Topsy and Tim Move House in which their cat escapes from the car en route to their new house (Topsy blames Tim). Here, Harry has no one to blame but his own greed, but due to some ingenuity, bravery, and the haplessness of pizza delivery drivers, he does make it back to Billy.

After the implausibility of this, story two is almost easier to believe, if you can picture Harry suspended in balloon strings and floating away from Billy’s birthday party to land in the middle of a football stadium during a cup final.

But for all the ridiculousness of his adventures, what grounds these stories is the familiarity of Billy’s worries and joys, the normality of Harry’s hunger, and the friendliness of the tone – it’s as cuddly as stroking a guinea pig.

With inclusions of a diverse family setting, and one that isn’t affluent, references to an imaginary local football team, this is certainly a zany and slightly surreal addition to the younger fiction market, but much needed and hugely enjoyable. This is, in part, because Pye makes the stories pacey and action-filled, despite some initial scene-setting.

Pye’s initial foray into the world of children’s literature was picture books, and her illustrations here represent Harry’s character well – they are scrappy and look simple, but actually manage to portray a depth of emotion and movement.

Some cute factual details at the end illuminate that guinea pigs shouldn’t really be kept as lone creatures, as they do get lonely.

And it’s this theme that pervades the book. Billy worries about making new friends on moving house, and who he should invite to his party, but he’s not lonely, and friends rally. Harry isn’t lonely because he has the committed love and loyalty of Billy. There’s a warmth that exudes here – a humorous tale that aims to show children overcoming fears of shyness and loneliness, whilst also offering the tranquility achieved by being alone with their pet – or their book! For newly independent readers, age 5-8+. You can buy it here.

Animal Picture Books

There seems to be a glut of super-talented authors and illustrators bringing a range of stories to life this summer in picture books. It’s hard to choose when there are so many good books. Themed on animals, and with some clear references to great picture books of the past, I’ve narrowed it down to seven.

a mouse called julianA Mouse Called Julian by Joe Todd-Stanton
Since the stunning views of Epping Forest inspired the illustrative detail in Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge series, a fascination with underground burrows and attention to detail has pervaded children’s illustration. Todd-Stanton’s new picture book is also about a mouse and his burrow, illustrated to near-perfection with its perspective on size – the giant matchsticks, safety pen and chiselled pencils. And as the perspective widens outside Julian’s burrow, the picturebook excels.

Julian avoids other animals, but when a fox tries to sneak into his burrow, it gets stuck in the front door. At first horror strikes both animals, but gradually a mutual friendship grows.

This plot idea may be borrowed from Winnie-the-Pooh, but Todd-Stanton’s clever vignettes of Julian on his everyday travails, through burrow and fields, plays on the reader’s expectations of country life, predator and prey. Julian is seen walking with a stick of blueberries across his shoulder, in the pose of Dick Whittington with his bindle stick. The illustrations open out to full page little animal terror, as the reader sees the eye of the fox, huge against the leaves and dandelions, which themselves tower over Julian.

This is a tale, in the end, about perspective. Perspective of size, of danger, but also of companionship and the loyalty of friendship. There are unexpected twists, a sublime amount of suspense for the young reader, and simply exquisite illustrations. A gentle rhythm to the short text amplifies the satisfactory ending. Exquisite. You can buy it here.

in the swamp by the light of the moonIn the Swamp by the Light of the Moon by Frann Preston-Gannon
More borrowing from the children’s literature cannon in this paean to The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, as Preston-Gannon uses the same rhythm to tell her tale of a frog and his orchestra of animals. Singing to himself in the swamp, his song feels incomplete until the other animals join in. It is only at the end, when even the smallest voice is heard, that the music sounds right.

With collage illustrations highlighting the different textures and bold colours of the swamp, from the flora at the front of the picture to the depth of water and colourful fish, Preston-Gannon shows an intense attention to detail, making the scene feel like the liveliest and most comfortable swamp – the frog’s legs dip into the water, the mice sing with every whisker and flick of tail.

In the end, the reader discovers that it is only with the complementary sounds of all the creatures that the song sounds good – a promotion of inclusivity, but particularly of the little bug – the smallest voice of all – showing that there must be space for the extroverts to listen to the introverts and let them in.

Young readers will find the little bug on every page, and delight in her final ‘brightness’ of song. Lyrical, accessible and bright. You can buy it here.

ducktective quack
Ducktective Quack and the Cake Crime Wave by Claire Freedman and Mike Byrne
Humour and detective skills galore in this wonderful caper by the author of Aliens Love Underpants. Someone is stealing all the cakes in town, and together with Ducktective Quack, the reader needs to work out who it is. In rhyming text, and with successful word play (‘fowl play’ at the police station), the book takes the reader through a humorous investigation of the town, from the crime scene to the portraits of suspects, questioning and solution. A yellow post-it on each page encourages the reader to find clues.

But it is the clever rhyming and busy illustrations that win an audience. A perfect read-aloud, with cute messages about sugary foods being bad for teeth and health, the illustrations of the different animals and their professional lives will make any reader chuckle, even the grownups. Look out for the incongruities too – an old-fashioned telephone, an American mailbox, an electric toothbrush, a takeaway coffee cup.

Timeless and placeless, this is one sugary treat. You can buy it here.

i am a tiger
I Am a Tiger by Karl Newson and Ross Collins
Say something with enough conviction and people will believe you? A tale for our times indeed. This bold, simple picturebook, again with a starring role for a mouse, shows that with enough confidence you can be anything you want to be. Mouse believes itself to be a tiger, and convinces others of this ‘fact’ by way of a series of strong(ish) arguments and behaviours. When a real tiger comes along, mouse has to convince tiger that the tiger himself is a mouse, before explaining what all the other animals are (with some witty surprises).

This is an excellent book, highlighting confidence, truth and debate, all the while managing to amuse. Phenomenal facial expressions take this book to another level. You can buy it here.

my dog mouse
My Dog Mouse by Eva Lindstrom
Old-school illustrations in this translated-from-Swedish slowly paced gentle book about friendship and ownership. There’s a special attention and a special relationship between the unnamed narrator who is taking an old dog for a walk, illuminated in the poetic language of the text ‘ears flap like flags’, ears that are ‘as thin as pancakes’, but mainly in the soft charming shaded illustrations that move as slowly as the child moves in his slow walk, ‘Step, pause, step pause.’

There’s a longing and poignancy to the text, a kind of nostalgia for the enduring time of childhood, and a wry sadness as the narrator proclaims that they wished the dog belonged to them, in beautiful contrast to the title of the story. Will leave children pondering. You can buy it here.

little bear's spring
Little Bear’s Spring by Elli Woollard and Briony May Smith
There is a great depth of understanding of nature in May Smith’s illustrations throughout her picture book output, and this is different only in that it concentrates on the real natural world rather than fairies. Little Bear is coming out of hibernation and Woollard and May Smith track his slow awareness of the new world and the change from winter to spring as he learns whom to trust and whom to befriend.

The use of light to show the sunshine and the passing of the days, shadows cast, and patches illuminated, as well as the textures of the landscape; tree bark, animal fur, rippling streams is magical, and particularly, of course, the double page spread of first blossoming flowers – a carpet of colour and sensory delight. The story is gently told with a good mix of descriptive vocabulary and character-driven dialogue all told in rhyme. You can buy it here.

big cat
Big Cat by Emma Lazell
A case of mistaken identity, a stylistic throwback nostalgia to the 1970s, and an acknowledgement of great picture books from the past combine in this zany intergenerational story book. Isobel and her grandma find a cat in the garden – a big cat – whilst looking for grandma’s glasses. He moves in, but like another well-known big cat, eats a lot of food. When grandma finally finds her glasses, she’s in for quite a surprise.

With a messy, scatty illustrative style, busy chaotic scenes, and a wonderful chattiness in the text, there is a huge amount of fun to discover in this lively picture book. Look at the other cats protesting, Grandma attempting to text on her mobile phone, and her overloaded kitchen (how many mugs does one person need?) A Big amount of fun. You can buy it here.

Father’s Day 2019

It’s Father’s Day today. Apparently consumers spend half as much on Father’s Day as they do on Mother’s Day. (Global Data Retail Analysis). Whether this is because consumers regard fathers as less important, or there are fewer of them, who knows. If we look to children’s books, the traditional classics tend to show women as the primary caregivers – The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Where the Wild Things Are, The Cat in the Hat. I’d argue that although fatherhood has come a long way, it’s often the woman who is still the default parent, the ‘emergency contact’ in heterosexual relationships. However, the children’s book world is changing things, and here are two picture books that neatly celebrate the father/child relationship.

the way to treasure islandThe Way to Treasure Island by Lizzy Stewart
The compelling hook of this picture book is not so much the riff on ‘Treasure Island’, that trope of children’s literature that presents an adventure and a quest for treasure, but instead it is the growing and tender relationship between the characters of Matilda and her father (seen on the front cover in their boat). Introduced Roald Dahl style: ‘This is Matilda, and this is Matilda’s dad’ the reader learns that although they have a very close relationship, they are very different types of people. (As the obsessively tidy mother of a messy daughter, empathy is easy here).

Nicely turning things around and playing with the reader’s expectations, here the child is neat and tidy, the Dad is depicted as messy and noisy. Matilda is beautifully drawn – she has a distinct personality from the beginning – her big red glasses a focus of her face, her eyebrows a mirror of her Dad’s, and the simple way they are drawn executes her mood wonderfully.

From the beach the pair set sail to follow their map to get the treasure. The journey is as important as the destination here, the quest being about the discovery of how wonderful the natural world is. The endpapers mirror this with their depiction of a shoal of fish, and some of the most splendid, colourful, detailed and interesting full page illustrations in the book are the depictions of nature – the underwater vista, the flora and fauna on the island. For those who have sampled Lizzy Stewart’s first book, There’s a Tiger in the Garden, some of the more jungley scenes will ring familiar.

Of course, in the end it is the combined strengths of the pair, their different skills and personalities, that enable Matilda and her dad to find the treasure. The treasure, of course, is not monetary – it is in fact the natural beauty surrounding them – this ‘discovery’ page is a glorious celebration of the natural world’s colour, and the reader will admire the illustrator’s ability to depict the moment of discovery and achievement.

A glorious book, vibrant with story, messages and illustrations, and a true celebration of enjoying the journey one’s on with the people one loves. Exemplary. You can buy it here.

raj and best holiday everRaj and the Best Holiday Ever by Seb Braun
Another Raj and Dad adventure book, following earlier picture book Raj and the Best Day Ever, takes a familiar theme of the Dad wanting to prove that he can really treat his son to a fantastic day, but admitting near the end that a bit of help would come in handy.

I admit that camping isn’t my thing, but Braun depicts the anticipation of a camping holiday beautifully, even the long journey with petrol stops is portrayed with humour, but it is the arrival at the campsite that makes it most appealing. Each tent a different colour against the blue/black background of night-time, and illustrated as if lit from within by torchlight. Raj and his Dad take a birds’ eye view of the campground from a high point, and it is indeed a high point in the picture book.

There are some clichéd moments to follow – Dad finds it hard to put the tent up, and to cook breakfast, he loses a paddle canoeing, takes an ambitious trek with a tired child, all the while refusing help from the annoyingly smug family of bears in the adjacent tent – who have clearly achieved camping perfection.

The ending is as expected – they join company with the bears for a jolly singsong round the campfire, and of course it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship and the end of the ‘best holiday ever’. Raj and his father are depicted as tigers, and other anthropomorphised creatures populate the landscape, in spreads that are packed with things to find – a pig paragliding, a donkey backpacking, the frog taking a dive, not to mentione concerned-looking fish. There is humour throughout, look out for the pile of books on the title page, including one entitled ‘Managing Expectations’.

A heart-warming story, bound to be a ‘best book ever’ for some youngsters on Father’s Day. You can buy it here.