animals

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.

Habitats, Biomes, Ecosystems

Following on from Earth Day on Monday, and my review of some Oceans books, I wanted to share a few more books that really shine with their content about Planet Earth.

wildernessWilderness: Earth’s Amazing Habitats by Mia Cassany, Marcos Navarro
This oversize book showcases sixteen amazing habitats around the world from the Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal to the Qinling Mountains of China and beyond, and yet this is not scientific discovery so much as an impressive display of the effect achieved by digital artistry. Each page is an abundance of colour and pattern, and settles on a particular species native to that habitat. For example, Bengal tigers in Sundarbans National Park, geckos in the tropical rainforests of Madagascar. In this latter case, the illustration shows their intense brown and pink patterned bodies carefully camouflaged against similarly defined leaves – even the shapes fit together. On some spreads the animals are better hidden than others, leading the reader to seek and celebrate the creature within. Very scant text on each page gives a hint of the wildlife within and the beauty of the area. There is an emphasis on conservation and protection of species, and a world map to locate each habitat.

Each page feels more exotic than the last with an intricate web of colour and pattern creating the flora and fauna – the Tehuacan-Cuicatlan Valley is a riot of colour and densely laid pattern so that the cactus plants feel as if they stretch back and back, giving depth and perspective.

At the end of the book is a find out more section – intelligently showing each double page in miniature with the creatures labelled and identified, and showing how many creatures are depicted (you’ll be amazed at how many you missed first time round). There is factual content here too. An absorbing coffee-table-like book that will keep children enthralled and inspired as much by the artwork and design as by the creatures and information within. It’ll have them clamouring to visit far-flung places. You can buy it here.

incredible ecosystemsThe Incredible Ecosystems of Planet Earth by Rachel Ignotofsky
Ignotofsky’s distinctive style is highly recognisable from the very popular Women in Science book, but here she turns her attention to ecosystems. This is indeed an ‘incredible’ book in the level of detail of information provided, but also in the detail of the illustrations, diagrams, and presentation. From the biome map in the beginning, with its bright coloured key and succinct explanation, to the graphic representation of the food web and flow of energy, in every diagram and illustration and every caption there is a wealth of information.

This is comprehensive and yet incredibly readable. Teaching so much – for example, the importance of the edges of the ecosystem, to microscopic ecosystems, a great deal of information is covered in a short space, for the examples I have mentioned so far are just the beginning. The book then branches out into the different areas of the world, pinpointing particular parts such as the ecosystem of the Alps, a redwood forest, the Mojave Desert and much more.

Aquatics are dealt with next, and then plants, carbon cycle (with a super illustration that not only informs but amuses with its distinctive personality), water cycle (check out the smiling clouds), and of course the impact of humans, positive and negative. In fact, this viewpoint informs most of the book – there is a slant in the text to the wonders of the natural world and humans’ responsibility to appreciate, protect and nurture, lending it a child-centric vision rather than purely scientific. The glossary is illustrated too – there isn’t a page that doesn’t amaze, result in further examination, or stimulate curiosity. Quite a feat. You can buy it here.

paper world planet earthPaper World: Planet Earth by Bomboland and Ruth Symons
Not always won over by clever gatefolds or pop-up designs as they can tend to be gimmicky, this book proves that used correctly, paper engineering can inform, inspire and dazzle.

Looking through Earth to see its different layers in lift-up flaps, or feeling the slits and cut outs that show oceanic crusts and oceanic ridges, or pulling up a flap to reveal an underwater volcano, the clever cutting and shaping of the pages gives literal layers of depth and perspective to the biomes the authors wish to showcase.

The newness of the book meant I had to run my hands along the pages to find the flaps, at the same time giving me a physical awareness of the lines of the book – cut out lines in the illustration that highlight the currents in the sea, the canyons in the mountains, the build up of cloud in a tornado.

This is a shrewd design, teaching geography in a physical and tactile way. The text is clear and precise too. Short sharp sentences explaining layers and processes with ease. Detailing tectonic plates, glaciers, caves, deserts, weather and more. You can buy it here.

the nature girlsThe Nature Girls by Aki
This phenomenally feminist and ultra modern exciting book portrays a group of girls exploring the world’s habitats, all in rhyming verse.

Although a collective group in their yellow outfits and hats, each is different in the colour of their hair, skin, arrangement of body language or expression on their faces.

They swim with dolphins, trek the land, ride camels across sand, explore woodland and traverse snowy tundra. The illustrations are unique and surprising, from the patterned mountains of ice to the exotic jungle and the colourful sea.

For young readers who want to start learning about habitats, this is a bright beautiful picture book, with facts about the different biomes at the back. Perfect early learning.

You can buy it here.

plastic planetPlastic Panic! By Robin Twiddy
Of course to keep our planet as wonderful as the books above describe, we need to work a little harder at looking after it.

This up-to-date non-fiction book attempts to explain the explosion of plastic usage and why it’s dangerous to our planet. Each colourful spread uses a mixture of photos and diagrams to explore why the human race started using so much plastic, and when they realised it was a problem, before ultimately explaining what the reader can do about it.

Starting with a message from the future, it carefully details the history of plastic – how great it seemed to start with – and then explains the level of toxins within plastic and its longevity. There are facts and figures – up to 2018, and a glossary at the back. Three informative double pages at the end talk through recycling, reusing and reducing, with community ideas and scientific solutions. An excellent tool for educating and responding. You can buy it here.

Oceans

ocean secrets of the deepToday is Earth Day. When we look at the Earth from space, it’s mainly blue. The oceans cover more than 70 per cent of our planet. Three sensational books take the reader up close and down into the depths of our fabulous oceans. Firstly, Oceans: Secrets of the Deep by Sabrina Weiss and Giulia De Amicis takes a comprehensive look at this largest habitat on Earth, from amazing creatures to the different zones in the sea: Twilight, Midnight, Hadal, the Abyss! And then it explores different ecosystems within, from kelp forests to coral reefs, before delving into surprising facts and creature information – the sounds of the ocean, journeys and migration, and lastly of course, how we can protect this marvellous environment.

Filled with colourful, stark illustrations and infographics, printed on high-quality paper, the book exudes a sheen.

Author Sabrina Weiss works for the British Ecological Society and the Marine Megafauna Foundation, and below she talks about her work protecting endangered ocean giants such as whale sharks and manta rays.

How much do we really know about the ocean?

By Sabrina Weiss

Mornings in Praia do Tofo usually started with a cup of coffee on our veranda watching the waves lap on the shore. Hoping to escape the hectic city life for a while and donate our professional expertise to a good cause, Giulia De Amicis and I had found ourselves sharing a thatched house in this remote fishing village in southern Mozambique while volunteering for a charity that aims to study and protect threatened sharks and rays.

View from the Marine Megafauna Foundation office, the charity Sabrina and Giulia worked for in Tofo © Sabrina Weiss

We have long been lovers of the ocean and avid scuba divers, and so here we were, sipping our freshly-brewed coffees and recounting our incredible encounters from the day before. As we were hovering midwater during our final dive, I had pointed to three manta rays which were slowly approaching the reef below us. Mantas are often observed around the ‘cleaning stations’ on these bustling coral reefs, where they have their wounds tended by small fish. By doing this the mantas stay clean and healthy and the cleaners get a free meal.

We couldn’t believe our luck. We had been reading and hearing lots about these elusive animals and had worked together on infographics and posters to share our love and fascination with the rest of the world and, yet, only now did we get to see them with our own eyes. These gentle giants, which can reach a ‘finspan’ of seven metres, are very curious and may even swim towards divers to inspect them before vanishing into the big blue.

Giant manta ray feeding near the surface, Tofo © Sabrina Weiss

Even more astonishing is that no one has seen a manta ray give birth in the wild. Ever. It is thought that pregnant females may be seeking out pupping grounds along this beautiful coastline, possibly not far from Tofo. They may be giving birth right under our noses. There is still so much to learn about the secret lives of mantas.

Giulia returned to Milan the following day, but it wasn’t a final goodbye; it was the beginning of a new friendship and an exciting book project that allowed us to tell the fascinating stories of our beautiful and mysterious ocean-dwelling friends.  

With thanks to Sabrina Weiss. Ocean: Secrets of the Deep by Sabrina Weiss, illustrated by Giulia De Amicis is available now at £14.99, published by What on Earth Books, and you can buy it here

beneath the wavesOther budding ocean enthusiasts and environmentalists will be keen to explore Helen Ahpornsiri’s Beneath the Waves: A Journey Through the World’s Oceans, text by Lily Murray. This book is something quite special – each of Ahpornsiri’s illustrations are made using real flora and foliage, which has been preserved using traditional flower pressing methods before she combines the individual pieces into a collage.

The plants are organised by species or colour before being cut out and arranged to form the patterns and colours of plant life and the animals that dwell within. Much use is made of seaweed – fronds of purple laver creating the image of a whale shark, for example.

The book is arranged into four distinct parts: coast, open ocean, tropics and polar waters, and each section explores the flora and fauna within, giving concise information. The illustrations are really quite extraordinary – the seahorse is rendered with a combination of tiny green flowers, light pink ferny leaves, and some darker pinkish brown flora to create an animated, almost fiery, expressive animal.

A simple glossary at the back gives further information. This is a stunning book that holds a gentleness and will provoke a tender wonder at the natural world.

Look closely here.

ocean helene druvertOcean by Helene Druvert, text by Emmanuelle Grundmann also plays with the reader’s expectations, this time with paper-cuts. Using laser cuts and paper folding, the book has fun conveying information in a smart way with careful paper engineering.

The depths of the oceans are shown using wavy paper cutting, the tide spread uses a large side flap to represent the tide coming in or out, the pebbles are flaps uncovering information on the sea floor, information about waves is given using a wave laser cut to look reminiscent of the famous illustration by Hokusai, the coral reef is stunningly colourful, and the food chain hidden beneath a super predator.

This is a really tactile large-format reference book, with good basic information from the water cycle to the polar regions. Explore the depths here

Look out later this week for my Earth Day Earth books!

 

 

A Q&A with New Rising Star Illustrator and Author, Fifi Kuo

the perfect sofaIt’s always exciting to discover a new illustrator, so I can imagine Boxer Books delight to find Fifi Kuo and commission four picture books from her straightaway. And it was no surprise to find that Kuo’s first picture book, I Can Fly, is longlisted for the Klaus Flugge Prize and shortlisted for the Read it Again! Picture Book Award and the Huckepack Picture Book Prize. Kuo’s second book, The Perfect Sofa, dropped through my post box just as I was looking for a new sofa – and her message that we should be grateful for what we have – sometimes the perfect fit is right in front of us all the time – couldn’t be more spot on.

Smitten with Kuo’s expressive, spirited illustrations, and the neat messages behind her books, I was delighted to be able to ask Fifi some questions. And Fifi kindly answered in English for us, even though it isn’t her first language.

The penguin features in both I Can Fly and The Perfect Sofa. What is it about the penguin that makes it such a good animal to illustrate and use to express human emotions (anthropomorphism) in picture books? 

I believe that every creature in this world has their own emotions and feelings. So I don’t really consider giving an animal human feelings because I just see that an animal has feelings! I especially love to draw animals. When I’m drawing them I feel happy. When I was making ‘I Can Fly’, I realized that somehow, and I can’t explain why, drawing a penguin made me much happier than drawing other animals. I live in a tropical climate whilst penguins live in the South- Pole, somewhere I haven’t visited, so I have to imagine the extreme cold. I’ve loved penguins since I was a little child and this may be because they are different to birds in the way that they do not build a traditional nest and because they do not fly in the sky.

An unfinished Fifi Kuo panda and penguin illustration

The panda and penguin are best friends. How do you make them interact so that they appear so well fitted together? (I’m particularly thinking of the illustration on your website that shows Panda posing as a statue, and Penguin attempting to sketch him!)

After I created the penguin, I felt that she must be a bit lonely because she didn’t have a friend. I thought that as penguins and pandas are both black and white, they would look perfect together. Never mind about where they live! I like to think about what characters have in common and why they might attract and I suppose, without thinking, I decided on an Asian animal because I live in Taiwan. But when I am drawing I don’t really think about how to do something. I just fall in love with my characters and wish they had been my friends when I was little. I was an only child so often felt lonely. I am sure that children read pictures and sometimes drawings can express feelings better than words. Children can see how close Penguin and Panda are without me repeating their feelings in words.

An illustration from I Can Fly

There is a strong element of humour in your picture books. Where do you think this comes from?

Oh! I really appreciate that you said that because I don’t consider myself to be a humorous person but I do think humour is important. Sometimes I make serious points but without preaching. I think it is much better to be kind, gentle and funny. Children can learn things effortlessly and I would rather they relaxed and enjoyed the book. It might be that they pick up what my message is first time or they may get it later. For example, in The Perfect Sofa, the message is really to appreciate and value what you have. New is not always best and, of course, friends are important. But I hope children will enjoy discovering that themselves and have fun on the way.

Do you own the perfect sofa?

Nope, unfortunately, I don’t have my own perfect sofa. But fortunately, I can always look forward to it!

I found out that I wanted a sofa when I got homesick after I had to move out from the campus accommodation when I was studying for my MA degree in Cambridge. I found it really hard, as an international student, to find a place to live. During that time, I started to think about what makes me feel at home. Then I discovered I’m totally a sofa-person.

I love to collect almost EVERYTHING … which often drives my parents crazy. These things also help me to feel at home. I collect labels, leaves, soft toys, candy papers, stamps, letters, cards … many, many things. Personally, I find it really hard to throw things away especially the things which bring back happy memories. It is funny how things can evoke memories.

i can flyWhat message do you want children to take away from your picture books?

My initial intention is to deliver the message of love. I believe there are many kinds of love. Many people love to go out shopping in a quest to find the perfect item or piece of clothing but what I think is important is shared experience and discovering that you can be happy when you are content with what you have and kind to other people. It is nice to look at familiar things with new eyes and to discover that new is not always best. Even better to have a friend by you when you make that journey. Sometimes life tells us that nothing is totally perfect but if we look we will find some tiny thing or person that could be perfect. All we need to do is to see it and cherish it. Sometimes you already have the perfect things!

Which illustrators/children’s authors influence you?

Raymond Briggs, Wolf Erlbruch and I feel passionate about Jimmy Liao (not just because he is also Taiwanese). I think he should be much better known in the UK. He is an absolute genius and shows us that picture books can be enjoyed on so many different levels and that they are for everyone. The artists also show us that children can understand difficult subjects, such as loss and death, which adults sometimes find difficult to discuss.

Did you have a favourite book as a child?

The Snowman. I still love it! I read it in Taiwan when I was very young and had never seen snow. I love the friendship between the boy and the snowman and the bird’s eye view of the world. Of course, it is a wordless picture book but I would still say that I read it and each time, I still find something new in Raymond Briggs’s fabulous pictures.

Fifi Kuo

Fifi Kuo

You’ve said you like to draw trees and houses – what is it about these that attracts you?

I studied Landscape Architecture in my BA degree, and that’s the thing I was most familiar with when I first learned ‘illustration’. When I studied illustration, I used to draw trees and houses because they were in my comfort zone. I’m the person who almost always lacks confidence. Even now, I still think I’m not a ‘good illustrator’, but I’ll always try my best to keep going and telling stories. I love what I do. I wouldn’t want to do anything else, but I still need to gain confidence.

What was your reaction upon hearing your book deal?

I couldn’t believe it. I was SO happy. One book is good – 4 is out of this world. David and Leilani at Boxer Books are so good to work with. They listen to my ideas and help me grow. I feel so lucky. It is like a dreamy journey. I am filled with thankfulness.

Can you give us an idea of your work desk/bench? Is it near a window? Do you have a special pen?

Fifi’s desk

A big table is definitely necessary. It’s near a window… I love the window! I love the light and the fact I can look out and day-dream.

I love to recycle things to make homes for my colour-pencils. Better than buying plastic storage items!

Usually, my working table is totally a mess. Sometimes I clean it up when the switch in my brain is accidentally turned on to clear-up mode!

I don’t have any special pen, but I do have a few colours I always love to grab. I like to illustrate in different ways using pens, inks, collage … I love to experiment. And I will always continue to learn, to see things as if I am looking at them for the first time and to draw from the heart.

With huge thanks to Fifi Kuo. Each of Kuo’s picture books is unique, but equally each pulses with emotion and humour, and the drawings are gentle and endearing, fierce and funny. I highly recommend a look at both I Can Fly and The Perfect Sofa. You can buy I Can Fly here and The Perfect Sofa here.

Everyone Can Draw and The Magic Hug: A Book about Emotions are published later this year.

Recent Young Fiction Titles (Age 5+ years)

hotel flamingo
Hotel Flamingo by Alex Milway
Anna Dupont inherits the now dilapidated, once sunniest hotel in town, which has a rival up the road, and is only populated by sad employees T Bear the doorman, and Mr Lemmy on the front desk. With a lot of hard work, careful ‘human’ resources, (including hiring a giraffe for handyman jobs, and a cleaner with a dust allergy), much kindness, and an emphasis on pulling together, Anna oversees the renovation of her hotel to once again become an exciting establishment.

Bursting with enthusiasm, positivity, and magnificently warm illustrations, embracing the diversity of the guests, and adding much humour, this is a great place to stay for a while. First in a series, the second is published in June. You can buy it here.

two sides
Two Sides by Polly Ho-Yen and Binny Talib
Everybody falls out with a friend at some time or another. This delightful tale plays beautifully with the different perspectives of an argument. Lula and Lenka are best friends even though they are very different from one another. Until The Day Everything Goes Wrong. The book splits into dual narrative, each differentiated by a different typeface for extra emphasis, as each tells the story of their argument from their perspective. Insightful about the lonely consequences of arguing and not forgiving, and exploring the complementary attributes a friend might have. Thought-provoking and exploring how to look at something with another’s eyes – and it was all over a pencil case! If only Brexit were so easy to solve. Most magically though, the book is colour-illustrated throughout, bridging the gap between picture books and more sparsely illustrated black and white chapter books. You can buy it here.

wizard vs lizard
Wizard vs Lizard by Simon Philip, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

The author of two phenomenal picture books, I Really Want the Cake and You Must Bring a Hat, turns to wizardry for this chapter book outing. One of the more sparsely illustrated titles here, but still populated with a decent number of Dempsey’s expressive illustrations, this is the first in a series that looks set to be rather good. Fred is a Wizard, but sadly not a very good one – certainly not as good as his siblings or schoolmates. When his siblings, and his parents expect him to fail in everything, Fred decides to prove them all wrong and finally make them proud in a Wizard competition.

With great humour and an overload of the everyday – Fred the Wizard may have a wand, but also a bus pass and a library card (which come in rather handy), this is a loveable introduction to chapter books. With messages on bravery, determination, and how using quick-thinking and inspiration can  cast just as many spells as being a wizard. Oh, and never under-estimating yourself! Buy yours here.

veronica twitch
Veronica Twitch the Fabulous Witch in Double-bubble girl-band trouble by Erica-Jane Waters
More witchiness in this two-tone (purple and black) illustrated first chapter book. Veronica is a witch journalist, Editor-in-Chief at Twitch Magazine, and due to write a feature on the band Double-Bubble. But when the band is kidnapped, Veronica has to use her investigative skills to dig deeper. Could Belinda Bullfrog from rival magazine, Nosy Toad, be behind the band’s disappearance?

With Witch City full of fun place-names such as Grand Central Broom Station, and accessories including hand-cauldrons instead of handbags, and frosted bataccinos to drink, this is a fully imagined other world, with trendy and stylish characters (each given a page profile at the start). It’s fun and fast, and slick as a tube of lip gloss. Have a witchy time here.

captain cat and the treasure map
Captain Cat and the Treasure Map by Sue Mongredien, illustrated by Kate Pankhurst
An even lighter read in this splendid tale of what happens when the animals are in charge of the pirate ship. Patch the Cat, Monty the Monkey, and Cutlass the Parrot accompany Captain Halibut and his crew on their dastardly pirate adventures, but sometimes the animals steer the way as their pirate owners can be a little hapless. When a treasure map is found, the pirates look set to cash in, but the animals sense danger. Can they save their pirate crew?

Chaos and mayhem in the plot are cunningly drawn by Pankhurst, illustrations litter the text. A fast plot, lots of terribly punning, and a brilliant message that being the quiet one who no one listens to doesn’t mean that you don’t have the best ideas! Underappreciated Patch is a new favourite character. Yo ho ho, and you can buy one here.

pirate pug
Pirate Pug: The Dog Who Rocked the Boat by Laura James, illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans
More piracy in this newest adventure from an old pug on the block. This is the fourth Pug book from Laura James, which tells the tale of our role-playing pug and his friend Lady Miranda. With large text and lots of illustrations, Pug inadvertently becomes a pirate when he suffers an eye injury and has to wear a patch.

There’s more buried treasure here, a spot marked with an X, and unfortunately, a pug who can’t swim. Ceulemans has conjured a special world for Lady Miranda and Pug, an everyday familiarity laced with aristocracy, which makes for great fun in reading and looking at the books in detail. See a pirate here.

horrid henry up up
Where would any young fiction collection be without Horrid Henry? To celebrate 25 years of the cheeky chap, Francesca Simon has penned four more stories, nicely packaged in this red-foil-covered collection, called Horrid Henry Up, Up and Away, illustrated by Tony Ross. Taking cues from the likes of Pamela Butchart, the text is now punctuated with a mass of jazzed up fonts, big and small for emphasis, but the same old Henry is in there, with his delightful sibling Perfect Peter.

The themes are familiar to young readers too – all primary school age experiences including a plane ride, a theme park outing, and a school play. Illustrated by Tony Ross, with his trademark exuberance, this is a fine outing for Henry. As always, with those parents who say he’s horrid, I say it’s children letting Henry act out for them – the best way to experiment with the world is through a book. Watch out for Henry’s creativity for his Write and Sing a Song Badge:

“Henry is the Top
Henry is the Best
You Don’t Even Need
To Put it to the Test”

You can buy it here.

When the Stars Come out by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by Lucy Cartwright

when the stars come outWhenever there’s a new topic at school, there’s a scramble from teachers and some pupils to find the library books that fit, the book that’s pitched correctly for the age group and touches on all the themes that the teacher wants to explore during that term. And rarely does a book match exactly. Probably because then it would be a textbook, rather than a book for exploring, a book for further stimulus and enquiry. When the Stars Come Out by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by Lucy Cartwright, is a refreshing piece of nonfiction that not only ticks the boxes when exploring ‘Time and Place, Earth and Space’ for example, but it also neatly stretches the mind, and causes pause for thought, and elicits pleasure at the same time.

Not just a space book, as the title might imply, When the Stars Come Out intends to explore our whole universe at night-time from the sciencey bits, such as why night occurs and the different constellations in the sky, but also the geographical element – both physical and human – and it also reaches right from the outer echelons of the universe into our very heads; what happens when we sleep?

Diagrams and illustrations begin the story of how the night works, showing the rotation of the Earth in relation to the sun. Then, before the constellations are explored, there’s some history on stargazing, and some recognition of why some people are scared of the dark. The moon and stars are investigated, and then tangents of this, including auroras, moonbows and shooting stars.

Coming down to earth, Edwards explores different landscapes at night, from the city to the desert, rainforests, mountains and many more including the sea, extrapolating which changes happen at night in the darkness. Animals are looked at in more detail in the next chapter, looking at sleep, dreams, nocturnal animals, and of course, humans. This chapter is particularly interesting as it’s rarely dealt with in children’s non-fiction. I liked the pie chart of sleep cycles, our natural rhythms, and then a look at super sleepers and world records, including the man who stayed awake for 11 days. It’s dangerous of course, as explained in the text, but fascinating information.

Lastly, the book investigates extreme days and nights – near the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, as well as clever inventions such as glow in the dark cement and what scientists are working on in terms of night-time and day-time differences in plant growth, for example. The book ends with a glorious celebration of the night – from Diwali to Walpurgisnacht.

This is a joyous and fascinating book. The illustrations are detailed and immersive – both conveying the science in the lunar cycle, but also a sense of wonder and mystery in dreams and night visitors. My only caveat is the size of the text against darkish backgrounds – not good for sleepy eyes – but perhaps the text’s smallness will keep the mind focussed and prevent daydreaming!

The book is large in size but well designed to reflect the information inside. The mountains spread reads as portrait rather than landscape – mirroring mountains of course, but also giving the different levels of mountainous terrain – the birds, the climbers, the foothills. Other pages look like landscapes – the savannah for example, with its panel of night sky at the top, but then it’s land mass stretching towards the reader. The animals are illustrated in action – grazing or in motion, but the text is chunked nicely into individual paragraphs, many in their own colourful panels. The book is extremely visual – the colours subtle rather than garish, reflecting the muted light of night times.

An exciting non-fiction title that illuminates the mysteries of our night-time and stimulates curious minds across a broad spectrum of inter-linking subjects. You can buy it here.

Picture Book Round Up Spring 2019: Animals

the big race
The Big Race by David Barrow
Never normally one to agree with awarding certificates simply for taking part, this book may have changed my mind.

Aardvark is small and doesn’t have the skillset of the other animals, the crocodile, cheetah, buffalo and African hoopoe, taking part in the race. And stamina, strength and speed are required in this ‘great race’, which involves running, cycling, diving off a waterfall, swimming, tightrope walking, rope swinging and parachuting from a hot air balloon – all in the natural African landscape.

Aardvark doesn’t give up, showing resilience all the way through – battling on her scooter against the other animals’ bikes, using armbands to swim underwater – never succumbing to her tiredness and misfortune.  She’s the only one whose parachute goes awry, for example. And she shows immense pleasure at her medal – simply being rewarded for taking part (as she should, this is one tough race!).

Barrow’s illustrations throughout are a delight. Any animal race will be reminiscent of The Hare and the Tortoise, but Barrow’s vision is modern and fresh, with relentless movement and humour in the pictures. You can buy it here.

kiss the crocodile
Kiss the Crocodile by Sean Taylor and Ben Mantle
This playful, happy book also features a group of animals, this time as friends, a monkey, a tortoise and an anteater, playing in their natural habitat, splashing in rivers, making up monsters, doing silly dancing. They are a little intimidated to play with Little Crocodile though, with his many teeth and sharp claws. The naughty Crocodile mother (and adult readers will laugh inwardly here) suggests a game of ‘Kiss the Crocodile’, a sort of daring game.

This is, in essence, a simple and oft-repeated message about letting everyone join in, but the illustrations are so impossibly endearing, the monkey so impish, the crocodile so self-assured, that it makes reading an absolute pleasure. Even more pleasure if you read it aloud (with its repetition and suspense). Well executed and great fun. Kissable. You can buy it here.

dinosaur department store
The Dinosaur Department Store by Lily Murray and Richard Merritt
Looking for something more ferocious than a crocodile – how about a dinosaur? The pictures tell the reader that Eliza Jane (a human girl) is obsessed with dinosaurs, from dressing up as one, to the shape of her cuddly toy, to the pictures adorning her walls. So when, rather delightfully, she tells her parents that now she is four she wants a real dinosaur (rhyming is throughout), there is only one place to visit – the dinosaur department store.

Here, with flourish and eccentricity, the department store owner shows Eliza Jane all the different types of dinosaurs, only to be annoyed that his time has been wasted when she declares at the end that she no longer wants a dinosaur pet. Why not? The clues have been in the pictures all along. An excellent rhyming picture book that’s vibrant, exuberant and fun, with pictures telling the other half of the story. Highly recommend. You can buy it here.

lots of frogs
Lots of Frogs by Howard Calvert and Claudia Boldt
More fun and frolics and rhymes in this jumping book about frogs. Tommy brings his box of frogs into school, and unfortunately for the staff, they don’t remain in the box for long. Calvert has great fun exploring the different places around the school that the frogs might inhabit (including the Headteacher’s hair), and also ways in which Tommy might capture them again.

What’s more Calvert, and illustrator Boldt, imbue the frogs with lots of personality – they are as cheeky as monkeys. Lots to admire here – the frogs almost seem to be like schoolchildren themselves – very human, and Calvert introduces numbers, eating habits and so on. One slightly dodgy rhyme, but on the whole a great fun read that will have the class clamouring to bring in their own pets. Or certainly to be read the story again. You can buy it here.

five more minutes
Five More Minutes by Marta Altes
Anthropomorphic foxes in this sympathetic look at how children and parents view the concept of time differently. Reminiscent of some of the Jill Murphy picture books, this representation of a sprightly family and their everyday lives is both wise and heartwarming. Five more minutes means something very different for the child or adult as they view the various moments in their lives. For Dad (the primary caregiver), five more minutes at a children’s party feels long whereas five more minutes in bed feels short.

On the way to school, fox is doubtful of his father’s protestations that there is no time – they need to hurry – but the young fox makes time for jumping in puddles, watching the birds and more. Conversely, for the young fox, waiting for a cake to bake takes ages: there is too much time. The illustrations are kind and forgiving, the Dad always attentive and loving, the house ordinary and familiar, the expressions well-articulated. Take a particular look at the little foxes’ faces when eating the cupcakes. Some things are worth waiting for. Pre-order your picture book here now.

what clara saw
What Clara Saw by Jessica Meserve
Meserve has a way with illustration. Her child characters are hugely differentiated, personalities zinging from the page, and she holds an astounding attention to detail – the shoelaces of the children like little wings, the crafting of the teacher, Mr Biggity, as condescending, before the reader has even read a word. Is it his long nose, his large nostril, the upturn of his toe, his hand positioning, the way his eye glances back at the children. He’s going to be tricky.

And thus it proves, on an outing to a wildlife park, Mr Biggity dismisses the animals as being vastly inferior, when Clara, with the red coat, notices that animals are rather good at communicating and feeling. The reader will notice how observant Clara is, and if they too are observant, they’ll witness a whole other story just by ‘reading the pictures’ rather than listening to the text. A book that encourages thought and debate about how much animals feel, and perhaps even about how much we should stand up for what we believe to be true rather than being mindlessly fed false information. Exquisite illustrations. You can buy it here.

rhino neil
Rhino Neil by Mini Goss
A simpler message in this animal book about not judging someone from the way they look. Rhino Neil is huge and the other animals stay away from him. After all, he has a huge horn that might spike, fearsome feet that trample, and a tremendous tummy that can fit lots in it, as well as a big bottom that could squash everyone.

When an even bigger animal arrives by truck, the animals are all scared – except for Rhino Neil, who accepts the new elephant as his friend – and sometimes even feels small next to him. It’s not fully explained where the animals are – a wildlife park perhaps – and it’s a shame that all the animals aren’t accepting and make friends with the rhino and elephant at the end, despite their size, but this is an interesting take on the idea of size and may entertain some. Bright images and close-ups of body parts. You can buy it here.