animals

Storm Whale by Sarah Brennan, illustrated by Jane Tanner


There are many sorts of picture books. The ones that tickle and inspire giggles, the ones that teach a lesson on manners, those with silly monster and toilet jokes, and those that are cute and fluffy, but every so often comes one with text that reads like grand poetry, illustrations that demand to be pinned upon the wall, and an ending that calms, but also brings tears to the eyes.

Storm Whale is one of the most sumptuously illustrated, quietly intelligent, and emotional picture books I have read in some time. It tells the simple story of a beached whale and three girls’ attempts to save it. In this way it perhaps invokes memories of The Snail and the Whale, and a picture book with the same name, The Storm Whale by Benji Davies.

However, this is set apart in that it meshes together the best from each aforementioned title. The text rivals that of Donaldson’s. Sarah Brennan’s text rhymes too, and reads even more lyrically, with a lilt that gives a nod to the rhythm of the sea.

“Bleak was the day and the wind whipped down
When I and my sisters walked to town.”

It begs to be read aloud, and paints a magnificent picture of the atmosphere and the power of the wind and sea. This may be summer, but it’s a wild shoreline here, no ice creams and sandcastles, but nature – birds, unspoilt coastlines, shells and seclusion.

Brennan has carefully chosen vocabulary to illustrate the sounds of her poem, from ‘wrack and wreck’ to “the waves slip-slapped,” and the imagery is pure gold, “seaweed, high as a mermaid’s throne…” but I think it’s more than the sum of its parts. For all that the words sing, they come together in a rhythm that lulls and pulls on the emotions.

But it is also the partnering with award-winning illustrator Jane Tanner that lifts this picture book into new territory. The illustrations have a distinctive style (vastly different from Benji Davies, but with their own inimitable grace). At first the images are pencil sketched black and white, and drawn with such dexterity that the image almost makes the reader believe that the wind is rushing through the pages. The girls’ faces are expressive, betraying their delight and innocence. Then, on discovery of the whale, the colour floods in, as the sea floods into the bay, and the angle zooms out, so that the reader sees the beach from a gull’s view. Again, the movement is sweeping. Zooming in again a page later to the girls, with an intensity to their body language that implies their desperation as they try to save the whale. The illustration is so detailed and packed with emotion that the sound of the ocean’s roar is loud in the ears, the girls’ futility against nature deafening.

And then, in perhaps the most startling illustration of the book, the girls are shown warm at bedtime, home in the sanctuary of their mother’s arms. Tanner has used a mass of yellows and oranges to contrast with the blues and greens of the sea, and the page feels alive with the flicker of fire and warmth. Again, the faces of the girls are illuminated, sharp and expressive. And the ending, back on the beach, when it comes, is uplifting with hope and sunshine after the storm.

Picture book of the year. It publishes 1st August, and you can buy it here.

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.

Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth

Another new novel for children (aged approx nine years and over) that seeks to explore an immensely difficult political reality, but without making it too complicated for children to understand or too upsetting to read. Instead, it uses adventure and ongoing hope in the face of extreme adversity.

Tash lives in Tibet, where her father works for the resistance in an attempt to keep his supressed religion alive, and to get word out to the wider world about the oppression of the Tibetan people by the Chinese occupation. When a man sets fire to himself in the village as an act of protest, the Chinese soldiers step up their curfews and subjugation. Tash’s parents are taken away, so she sets off across the Himalayas to India in search of help from the exiled Dalai Lama. The majority of the book tells the account of her trek across the mountains with her friend Sam, and two yaks.

What makes the book work is that this is a depiction of an ordinary child in extraordinary circumstances. At the beginning of the novel she is shown attending school, and yet she can’t run home through the fields as she’d like because the patrolling soldiers don’t allow it. The emotions and thoughts are those of a child, with hurts, guilts and worries explored, but all the time there are small nuggets that lead the reader to believe that being small doesn’t mean that you can’t make a difference.

The prose is simple too. Short sharp sentences in short sharp chapters, with distinct character development as Tash moves across the mountains. This gives the character a clear sense of purpose, but also makes the book a swift quick read, as if the reader too is running from danger. It also lowers the age range accessibility – meaning that a young confident reader can tackle the book because the vocabulary and sentence structures are kept easy and tight. However, in its brevity, the book glosses over some of the implausibility of the journey, and the action feels a little lacking in overall cohesion – almost as if the journey dominates the overall purpose – but for children this could be read less as a flaw and more as simply a sign of a pacey read.

As with many novels for children, there is a very positive, yet dependent relationship between child and animal, (in place of family), and so the yaks become very much characters on whom the children are reliant, and so for whom the readers feel passion. There is also a huge emphasis on friendship, loyalty and courage.

And lastly, the production of the book is simply stunning. With a cover that sings of sunrise and adventure, and inside pages that hold intricate print designs and hidden yaks, this is a beautiful book to own. An eye-opening and somewhat different read. Buy yours here.

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.

 

Male Animal Picture Books

Last month a video circulated on Facebook showing a mother and daughter removing books from a bookcase according to a set of gender questions. Does the book contain a female character? (several books removed), Does the female character speak (no, so more books removed) etc. The video didn’t display a random bookcase, it was purposefully set up to represent findings from studies into gender disparity, which showed that 25% of 5,000 children’s books had no female characters.

The world is changing, though. If I assess my own bookshelf (which is made up of many recent publications) I find that although there is a bias towards male gendered picture books on my shelves, it is slight, whereas my middle grade selection is pretty even in terms of protagonists, and I can reel off many female book characters very easily. It’s something I monitor when I review books, trying to provide an equal gender offering. However, my hope is very much that children want to read a good story and don’t care too much about the gender of the protagonist. I know that when I’m reading a book for grown-ups, the gender of the protagonist doesn’t sway my choice at all, and in fact, in my writing it’s a fifty/fifty split. This does seem to bear out with the children in my library clubs too. They just don’t comment on gender. And I find, more and more, that authors are providing the opposite gender ‘sidekick’ to the main protagonist – so there’s something for everyone! Although, we need to bear in mind subliminal influence of course.

However, the study into gender bias in children’s books did pull up one point with which I still agree. Janice McCabe’s study in 2011 showed that animal characters in particular showed gender bias – 23% male as compared to 7.5% female. When we talk about animals in books, our default is to address them as male.

It just so happened that four recently published ‘animal’ picture books arrived at MinervaReads – and all have male animal protagonists. (You’re skewing my balanced bookshelves, I wanted to shout). First and foremost, though, when I’m reviewing books, and when the children listen to the narrative, we all want a good story…and these four do provide that, as well as sending out positive messages about other issues. Next time I’m going to try hard to find you four animal picture books with female animals. Publishers – feel free to send them along…

There’s a Walrus in My Bed by Ciara Flood
Flynn is going to sleep in a big bed for the first time tonight, but when bedtime arrives, he can’t get in his bed, as he tells his parents, because there’s a walrus in it. Flynn stalls bedtime with snacks for the walrus, the need for extra blankets, milk, a toilet visit, and so on, each time blaming the walrus.

It’s a great little tale for those other children who like to stall bedtime, but what makes this book stand out from other ‘bedtime books’ is the skill shown in the illustrations. Parents will love the depiction of the parents – their evening, their growing exasperation, which becomes a growing exhaustion. Children will adore the illustrations of the walrus – sneezing on Flynn, causing the bed to sag, and cuddling Flynn’s rabbit toy.

There is a wonderful amount of detail to the house too – the downstairs rooms, the bedrooms, and even the endpapers. Greatly enjoyable, with distinctive characterisation. The book feels endowed with a richness in colour – which lends a warm bedtime feel to the book. You can buy it here.

The Bear Who Stared by Duncan Beedie
A cunningly illustrated book that explains the rudeness of staring, but also provides the explanation for it – a bear who is too shy to speak. Beginning – ‘There was once a bear who liked to stare’, the book then zooms in on the bear’s eyes to show him staring out at the reader.

Before long the bear is staring at the other creatures in the book, and they don’t like it at all. It takes an encounter with a staring frog to teach Bear that smiling is a much better way to greet others. It’s a simply told tale, but highly effective because of the clarity of the illustrations – the floating expressive eyebrows, the constant zooming in to the animals’ bodies, the lines indicating fur.

Rich in vocabulary – ‘gawked’, ‘trudged’, ‘strolled’, and with many mentions of natural curiosity, this is a quiet message about politeness with an adorable bear. You can buy it here.

Superbat by Matt Carr
Pat the Bat strives to be a superhero. He even sews his own outfit, complete with eye mask and cape. But when his friends quiz him on his superpowers, it appears that all bats have the same powers – super hearing, the ability to fly, and echolocation. But when he frees a family of mice from a nasty cat, they inform him that his superpower is courage.

The illustrations are bold and bright, comic in style with lurid red or yellow backgrounds. Words are picked out graphically in the fight scene: ‘swat’ and ‘wham’, and the city landscape alludes to Marvel superhero territory with its high-rises, rooftop pools and vertical parking signs.

Superb for small children who love a superhero, but also want humour, as well as rooting for a hero to discover his own self-belief. (There’s even a non-fiction element at the back to explain about bats). You can buy it here.

Lazy Cat by Julia Woolf
Captivating from the cover, which shows lazy cat taking a selfie with a selfie stick, this is a modern book for the modern child. Inside, the endpapers show the photographs – with great humour.

The book is about the friendship between Lazy Cat and Doodle Dog; one which seems rather one-sided as Doodle Dog spends a great deal of time running after Lazy Cat. When Lazy Cat falls asleep during a game of Hide-and-Seek, Doodle Dog decides to give him his comeuppance. It’s a well-illustrated title, with great expressiveness and humour, but the crux of the plot relies upon the movement of the television aerial to achieve good reception on the TV – something which sadly seems outdated for a modern child who would more likely know what a selfie-stick is.

If that’s explained, though, the brilliant expressions of when a friendship works and when it doesn’t makes this a fun title to read. You can buy it here.

To read more about the gender issues addressed in this article, please see here for fellow blogger ‘Read it Daddy’’s take on it.

Detective Stories

“If in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns,” said Raymond Chandler on writing detective stories. But in the business of children’s books, should we really be discussing dead bodies, hardened criminals, violent crime? If, like me, your kids (at a very young age) went through a stage of playing nothing but Cluedo, then you might beg to differ. If they can spend an afternoon arguing whether it was Col Mustard or Rev Green who hit someone over the head with a candlestick in the library, then you would assume that their own library could contain a little noir.

Pigeon P. I. by Meg McLaren is a tongue-in-cheek parody of classic detective fiction, which is why, although the publisher has it as for ages 0+ in their catalogue, I rather feel it is best suited to slightly older children. The plot however, is easy to pick up.

Pigeon PI, complete with detective hat, is resting when the Kid (a blonde chirpy little thing) turns up and asks for help finding her missing friends. Her persistent nagging leads Pigeon PI to take the case, and when the Kid herself goes missing, he knows he has a real case on his hands (especially when the birdbrain police won’t take it on – they are busy with doughnuts). The mystery is solved swiftly, but it’s the expressiveness of the birds, the brilliant use of colour, lighting and shadow, and the detective and noir references that make this book so enjoyable.

There are too many in-jokes and references to mention, but my favourites include the ‘Legal Eagles’, wing-clipping, the ‘heavies’, and a hilarious number of visual illustrative jokes too.

Each spread is busy, and different, using many clever devices and effects – from the comic book style of the first few pages to split pages and the use of a red filter.

The end papers themselves are incredibly funny too – from detective thinking poses to asking tough questions – it guides the reader through being a private investigator (as a pigeon). In fact, throughout this busily illustrated book, there are numerous clues and ideas about PIs. The title page shows the private ads of the newspaper, advertising the PI, and there are quite a few bill posters and rubbish detritus throughout, strewn across the pages, but showing images of missing birds, advertisements, articles etc.

The book conjures images of Philip Marlowe, or Eddie Valiant – the PI in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It’s a book that gives a wry spin on the American detective movie, with plenty of feathers. You’ll find yourself reading it out loud with an American twang. What’s not to like? Seek it out here.

Sky Private Eye and the Case of the Runaway Biscuit by Jane Clarke and Loretta Schauer

One clever way of navigating the world of fairy tales is to re-examine them with a detective, which is exactly what Jane Clarke is doing with her new series about Sky Private Eye.

When the Little Old Man and Little Old Lady report their gingerbread boy missing, Sky must use her wits in Fairytale Town to try to find him. Using clues, and conducting interviews, as well as eventually catching the culprit, the book puts a whole new spin on the classic fairytale. There’s also a good deal of baking and mentioning of cakes, as well as the introduction of the Fairytale Olympics – after all The Gingerbread Man is about running as fast as you can.

The illustrations are bright and appealing – leaving little white space – and provide plenty of visual literacy, being busy and full of items to peruse. The idea is very much for the reader to be his or her own detective, deciphering what is different from the original fairy tale, and predicting what might happen. The book was devoured by my testers here, who definitely wanted more. You can buy it here.

Detective Gordon: A Case in Any Case by Ulf Nilsson, illustrated by Gitte Spee

This is the final book about Detective Gordon in this Swedish writer’s trilogy, and is a gentle, illustrated (in full-colour) book that suits newly independent readers, or fills the gap of a softly written story for more confident readers.

Detective Gordon is on a break, perhaps even on the cusp of retirement, leaving assistant Buffy in sole charge of the police station as the new Police Chief. Buffy is a mouse, Gordon, a frog. But Gordon misses the police station and Buffy misses having a companion. When there are strange noises at the police station one night, Buffy asks Gordon for help – after all, being a lone police mouse is dangerous and scary work. Together, the two officers are braver and cleverer.

Again, the plot here is easy to decipher and simple to detect, but there is a much greater depth to these warm stories from Ulf Nilsson. Themes of companionship, and self-discovery, tales of friendship and teamwork. The text and illustrations combine to give this book a feeling of lightness and bounce, and a quiet steady contemplation permeates the entire book – something that’s often missing from children’s fiction – it’s both insightful and yet full of charm. A great introduction to detective fiction for the very youngest – with plenty of cakes and wholesome allusions. Watch out for the slight touches of melancholy interspersed with wry humour – a perfect pitch to capture the emotions. You can buy it here.

The Great Shelby Holmes Girl Detective by Elizabeth Eulberg, illustrated by Matt Robertson

It’s glaringly obvious where the allusions lie in this new book. When John Watson moves to New York from Maryland, he’s fairly stuck for friends. Until he meets neighbour Shelby Holmes. Despite being only nine years old, Shelby is the best detective in the neighbourhood – using her inflated confidence and acute skills of observation to discover everything about everybody.

Within days of John’s arrival, there is a dog-napping of a prize poodle, and Shelby jumps straight on the case, using John as her somewhat unwilling sidekick. It’s rather less menacing than The Hound of the Baskervilles, but very modern, fresh, sassy and cute. The plot skips along at a relentless pace, at the same time showing insights into friendship and sibling rivalry.

The characters are likeable – Shelby is slightly infuriating at times, but always full of words of wisdom, and friendly and abrupt at the same time. She has low tolerance for fools. The black and white humorous illustrations throughout serve to make our protagonist and sidekick rather endearing. Continuing nods to Eulberg’s inspiration add a lightness and many wry smiles.

What’s more the landscape is well-realised. Eulberg may have transplanted Baker Street to New York City, but she paints a realistic, fully-fleshed and diverse neighbourhood, which makes the read even more up-to-date and pertinent. The first of many we presume. Detect it here.

Rose Raventhorpe Investigates: Black Cats and Butlers by Janine Beacham

Okay, so there’s been a plethora of these types of books recently. Mysteries for the 9+ age group abound on the bookshelves at the moment. From the Scarlet and Ivy Series, Murder Most Unladylike, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection – the list goes on and on. This new series, set in Victorian London, is as immersive as any of those aforementioned, and also I would suggest, pitched for a less well able reader.

Rose Raventhorpe is born into the aristocracy and ought to behave as a Victorian young lady (already, the place of women in historical society is a hook), but when her butler is murdered – the third butler in Yorke to be found dead in a week – Rose feels compelled to investigate.

With sinister grave-robbers, underground tunnels and cats with strange powers, this is a dark and twisty little tale, yet highly readable with good pace, and also packs in a good supernatural element.

Rose is a fine protagonist – smart, curious, brave. She isn’t ‘fiesty’ necessarily, seems calmer than that, and is prone to making mistakes, but is always well-intentioned. But for me, the stand-out element is the amount of humour in the story – caricatures abound from the butlers and their gloves, to Emily, Rose’s friend in mourning. A historical giggle with darkness and magic. Investigate how to buy it here.

 

 

The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker by Matilda Woods

The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker by Matilda Woods

I’ve written before about the importance of fairy tales, their cultural heritage and why they remain critical in today’s modern culture. But what about fables (stories with a moral message) or folk tales (stories stemming from an oral tradition, passed down by the ‘folk’ who told them), or legends (semi-true stories with important meaning for the culture in which they originate) or myths (stories that explain a history or occurrence)?

This novel isn’t any of the above, and yet reads like one. It borrows many of the familiar tropes from them – good versus evil, the magic of an animal (this time a bird), and the heroics of ordinary people. And throughout the story, the reader can trace glimpses of remembered tales, faint associations with stories of old. It’s a clever little book.

Alberto, the carpenter, lives in a special little town called Allora, where the fish fly out of the sea and the houses shine like brightly-coloured jewels on the hilltop. But he suffers great loss when a plague sweeps through the town, killing his entire family. He turns from making furniture to making coffins. When his food starts to go missing, he tries to discover who the food thief is, and before long befriends a boy, Tito, and a rather special bird. But there is danger ahead, and Alberto must risk everything to save the lonely boy from his brutal stepfather and the town’s rather greedy mayor.

The story unfolds in style like a long lost folk tale, both in the way it describes the town, and also in the unfolding of the plot. If you look closely, fragments will remind you of other stories. The stupidity and greed of the mayor with his desire for a huge jewel-studded coffin reminded me of the Emperor’s New Clothes; Alberto and Tito’s relationship reminded me of Geppetto and Pinocchio; Fia, the bird, reminded me of The Firebird:

“…a bright little bird flew high overhead. Each beat of its wings made a patch of stars flicker out, and another made them flicker back on.”

There is a mythical island of jewels, like the promised land of Oz, or Atlantis or the Ancient Egyptian Island of Flame; the two gossipy, mean-spirited sisters living next door to Alberto reminded me of those from Cinderella; and the near-impossible task of the mayor’s coffin reminded me of all those impossible tasks in myths – the Sisyphean Task; and of course there’s a story within the story…

But even if you strip all that away, what’s left is a beautiful everyman story of the enormity of grief being defeated by the discovery of new friendship and love, of bravery and hope in the face of evil and despair. The book flows beautifully, with enough suspense and adventure to keep the reader hooked, but also the lilting beauty of the text which matches perfectly the beauty of the setting – the small glistening town on the edge of the sea, and a cast of colourful characters.

What’s more, the book is highly illustrated – each page decorated with a raft of foliage and fish in a distinctive ink blue – the text itself also in blue. Full-page illustrations punctuate the story.

But why did I mention fairy tales and folk stories at the start? Why do the allusions in the story make it special? Of course you can read The Boy, The Bird and the Coffin Maker without knowledge of a literary history. It may even be that sometimes a reader comes away from a novel with bells ringing about another story that the author hadn’t even picked up on themselves. But it’s precisely this reader interaction with a text that makes it so interesting. The allusions add a depth to the read.

Ancient myths, fairy tales and fables were told to make moral points, to guide the reader in life, in much the same way that so many modern stories are told to teach empathy and compassion in our diverse world. Our reading will be a much richer experience if we teach the next generation the storytelling tradition – strengthening the relationship between stories of different cultures and literary canons, giving the readers tools so that they can develop an analytical understanding of narrative, deeper connections between texts, seeing bonds and similarities.

I was approached recently by a teacher raised in an extremely religious orthodox environment, who knew none of the fairy tales that we and Disney so often take for granted. She was lamenting her ignorance, until I pointed out the wealth of stories she must have from her religious texts. And these too provided guidance and a way for her to draw parallels with the texts she is now reading with the children.

Crossing barriers, reaching over the divide. Stories do this. And what better way to do it than by creating new folk stories from the old. Borrowing, alluding, and comparing.

You can buy The Boy, The Bird and the Coffin Maker here.

Earth Day Books

So, time to admit to you, I don’t normally celebrate Earth Day. I did rejoice in 2016 at the signing of the Paris Agreement on Earth Day, but hadn’t taken much notice of it until now.

As a Londoner, noticing increasing noise about air pollution, and as a human being, noticing that some politicians seem to be disregarding climate change altogether, Earth Day seems ever more important. It takes place annually on April 22nd, and aims to demonstrate support for environmental protection.

So two books for your youngsters to show them the wonders of our Earth, but in very different ways.

The Earth Book by Jonathan Litton, illustrated by Thomas Hegbrook

Aptly named for Earth Day, The Earth Book is large and comprehensive, although also of course, highly selective. In fact, this is one of the issues with children’s nonfiction. There is so much knowledge to impart to children, and only limited time to draw their attention, and limited pages within a book. So, although Litton has attempted to explore Earth in this large format illustrated book, he has had to be highly selective in his material, and in some places this shows up weaknesses.

Overall though, knowing children who love to dip into this kind of crammed information book, there is still plenty to admire.

Litton lays out the premise of the book at the beginning – to attempt to explore the physical Earth, then life on Earth, the regions, and finally the human element of the planet – yes – all this in one book.

With quotes from Carl Sagan, Mahatma Ghandi, and others introducing sections, the book shows that it is as much about dreaming and inspiration as stating fact. And Litton’s conversational tone helps to lighten the load. There are complex ideas and concepts here, which Litton delivers in an accessible way – explaining the layers of the atmosphere for example, or the layers of the Earth down to the core, and later on in the book, extremophiles and ocean zones.

Hegbrook’s graphics are a delight for the most part, the diversity of the illustrations capturing some of the diversity of the Earth, but overall, sadly they are quite dark, not perhaps as pastel-toned as they could be, and so the text (small for older eyes) is hard to read against the dark backgrounds. The animals are a little dead-eyed, although the challenge thrown to the illustrator in terms of the amount of different information he has to delineate (from volcano structures to recognisable human portraits) was clearly tough.

My main concern in terms of selecting material are the choices of influential humans – to include the maker of the windscreen wiper in such a selective group seems strange to me, but there is a wealth of information on human impact upon the planet, speculation for doom as well as hope, and a fascinating choice of interesting cities. There is a factual error (regarding New Zealand penguins), but mainly the facts seem on point.

Despite the few weaknesses, I did enjoy reading the book. There is a distinct feeling throughout that although each of us is a tiny speck on this great and awesome planet, we bear a responsibility towards the planet on which we live. A good message to carry through. You can buy it here.

If The Earth Book makes you feel small but important, this next book from Nosy Crow publishers in conjunction with the National Trust, will make children feel active, important, and part of their surroundings.

50 things to Do Before You’re 11 and ¾ (illustrated by Tom Percival) was published last year, but lasts throughout childhood. Perusing the pages with an urban-dwelling ten year old, we discovered that she had accomplished about three quarters of the activities already, and the other quarter of ideas gave her inspiration and aspiration.

It’s kind of laid out like a tick list, with a signature space for each activity accomplished – and these range from such pleasures as ‘climb a tree’ to ‘find some frogspawn’. It’s the kind of list that Topsy and Tim accomplished quite happily during my childhood, and that some parents may find condescending, and yet with statistics showing that our children are less and less likely to spend time playing and exploring outside, I can’t help but feel this is a necessary and apt guide.

The book is well-designed – with an attached elastic bookmark, a pocket pouch at the rear, and many many colourful pages inside, lots to fill in, as well as a quiz to see what type of adventurer the child is, and puzzles towards the back. If planning a day out or a road trip, it would be a perfect companion. I’m a little older than 11, but I’ve never done number 38. I think it’s time I did. Buy the book here to see what number 38 is, and tick off all 50 yourself.

 

 

Draw and Discover with Yasmeen Ismail

Mark making has long been an important part of early years education. As well as developing those all-important motor skills, (which strengthen the muscles in the hands to help children to write for significant periods of time when they are older), making drawings, scribbles and illustrations helps a child to explore their imagination. It develops hand-eye coordination, and also helps a child’s cognitive thinking – learning about the world, planning and experimenting. Confidence in drawing can lead to confidence in mathematical thinking too.

How often do we, even as adults, picture things visually? And for caregivers, marks can make a child’s thinking visible before the child can write.

So the new range of Draw and Discover books by Yasmeen Ismail are particularly appealing. The books help children to identify word meanings and express themselves. Each book is led by a different character – Rabbit, Duck and Bear – as they explore different concepts: big, small, empty, full, push, pull, inside outside, and also of course Happy, Sad, Feeling Glad, which provides space and ideas for children to learn about, give name to, and draw out their emotions.

I’m delighted to have a downloadable pdf for you today, from Happy, Sad, Feeling Glad so that you can have a taster of this marvellous new activity book. Just click here: Yasmeen Ismail Happy Sad Feeling Glad

With thanks to Yasmeen Ismail, pictured below with her real live cat! (thanks to Olivia Hemingway for the photo too).

Yasmeen Ismail in her Studio on 28.2.17

An Animal Round Up: Spring 2017

Wild Animals of the South by Dieter Braun
Braun made a huge splash with his first book, Wild Animals of the North, because of its gloriously large full-page imagery – and the fact that it was lovingly produced in a cloth-bound luscious hardback with images on uncoated paper. It felt and smelled worthy. This book serves to do the same with animals from the southern half of the globe: from the hot tropical rainforests of Brazil to the cold depths of Antarctica. The portraits dominate the information – so this is a visual treat rather than an information overload. In fact the text is pocket-sized against the largesse of the illustrations, which gives the animals themselves even more emphasis.

The illustrations look tactile, and are highly textured and highly coloured. The artistry is stunning to behold – my favourite a troop of elephants headed directly in the reader’s direction – a backdrop of brown tones, blending with the grey to tea-coloured elephants – with just a suggestion of the dust flying up from their hooves in curvy waves.

The colour is stunning – some animals blended into the background, such as the mantis, others, such as the little egret, standing out proud against its blue watery background. The scratchy illustration and reflections imply a watery feel.

Information is scant, as in the first volume – for example, there is just a picture of the little egret with a naming caption, but text does accompany some – such as the Indian rhinoceros.

Split into regions, there is also a thumbnail index at the rear. A book to inspire and delight for budding illustrators and graphic designers, and a must-buy for those stunned by the beauty of the natural world and who would appreciate that beauty mirrored in a book. You can buy it here.

Safe and Sound by Jean Roussen, pictures by Loris Lora
A book about baby animals for near babes, this is another visual treat from publisher Flying Eye. What’s stunning about these far more simplistic illustrations than those by Dieter Braun above, is that the eyes from each animal stare out of the illustration and pull the reader inside – almost like looking longingly into baby eyes yourself.

The idea is that the baby animals need some protection before they’re ready to face the world, from chipmunks burrowing underground, to kangaroo joeys in comfy pouches. There’s nothing new here, but the information is given in rhyming couplets (some work better than others), and will surprise new readers who will not be aware that baby crocodiles hide inside their mothers’ mouths – not somewhere you’d expect to be that safe.

A delightful start to learning about non-fiction, this is exactly the sort of book schools and parents want more of for their little ones who want stories, but also want facts. You can buy it here.

Neon Leon by Jane Clarke, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup
How ironic! A chameleon who stands out. All the other chameleons change colour to match their surroundings of course, in this book that explains camouflage for the very young. Neon Leon, sadly, can’t turn off his neon glare to blend in. In fact, his fluorescent brilliant orange shows up even in the dark, and Leon soon feels sad and ostracised from the other chameleons. He searches for other animals who might also be bright orange, but as soon as he finds them, they fly away. Will Leon ever find his own happy place?

This book works beautifully. Not only are the colours vivid and glowing, and the illustrations endearing and sympathetic, but the text speaks directly to the reader, provoking interactivity – helping Leon to choose the right colours, or what to do next. As with Safe and Sound, the book works wonderfully for young readers, giving non-fiction a new spin, but it also encourages massive affinity with the book, and the characters within. A great fluid read, bright and engaging. Purchase Leon here.

Bee and Me by Alison Jay
Lastly, and by no means least, a wordless picture book that encompasses a tale of friendship with an environmental message, through fascinating and busy illustrations, telling the story in an almost comic book sequence, but with traditional drawings.

A little girl in a bustling city is disturbed by a bee who accidentally flies in through her window. A natural reaction would be to swat the bee perhaps, or to capture it in a vessel so that it can be safely released. The girl does succumb to the latter, but when she sees it has drooped in its glass cage, she reads a book to work out what to do. What a clever girl! She revives the bee, and lets it go, but when bad weather drives it to her window again, a friendship is struck. Before long, the bee grows, and eventually teaches the little girl all about bees.

The pictures are captivating – both in their execution and in what they’re saying. This is a wonderful way to engage young readers to get them to ‘say what they see’ – telling the story as the narrator, engaging their analytical and storytelling capacities, as well as their empathy. And the book also holds an environmental message about the importance of bees, and pollination. By the end, a kaleidoscope of new butterflies and flowers have emerged in the city.

The book isn’t preachy though, but rather imbued with a grand sense of humour. From looking bedraggled to being pouffed with a hairdryer, our bee is full of personality. And the little girl too – she takes the bee out in her bike basket and gives it an ice-cream lolly, she measures it on a height chart, but best of all the bee enjoys a visit to the florist, and finally a day break from the city. A mellifluous read. Buy it here.