animals

Be My Valentine

I’ve taken the liberty of focussing on love in general for my picture books on Valentine’s Day. That’s not to say I eschew romance – not at all! But working as a primary school librarian, Valentines are more likely passed from friend to friend or child to family member or even to pet, and this is what these three picture books celebrate.

the kissThe Kiss by Linda Sunderland, illustrated by Jessica Courtney-Tickle

In the so-called current trend for uplit (literature that’s uplifting for the soul), this picture book fits lovingly into the zeitgeist. Edwyn blows a kiss to his grandma, shown on the cover as a gold foil sprinkle of stars, like dandelion seeds released into the wind. Edwyn’s grandma shares her received kiss, almost as an act of kindness, bestowing it upon those who need it most, such as a sad old man and a cross mother. But then darkness descends in the shape of a man who steals it and wants to keep the kiss for himself, all locked up as an artefact in a cage. But this has devastating consequences for the kiss, for him, and also for the outside world. Luckily, he not only sees the error of his ways, but is granted swift forgiveness by the kind grandma, and all is resolved.

Courtney-Tickle illustrates the story with an emphasis on nature and the outdoors. Most of her large double page illustrations are populated with wildflowers, colourful leaves, animals and outdoor activities with a clear focus on weather – all emphasised by the choice of dancing leaves on the book’s endpapers. The colour is magical, reminiscent of David Litchfield, with an old-fashioned fairy tale quality, exemplified by marching bands, an abundance of Snow-White-esque wildlife, cold dark towers, a simplicity in the characters’ timeless outfits. And yet a modernity creeps in too – a wooden bin at the park, mobile phones, an abundance of balloons.

The book is about love shared, kindnesses spread, and the empathy needed to understand others. You can buy it here. 

mirabel's missing valentinesMirabel’s Missing Valentines by Janet Lawler, illustrated by Olivia Chin Mueller

More love shared in this whimsical picture book from the States, which really is about Valentine’s Day.

Mirabel, our shy and anxiety-ridden mouse, complete with large eyes, long whiskers and a penchant for hats, sets out for school to deliver her Valentine’s cards.

The reader is entreated to rhyming text to tell Mirabel’s story – the joy at creating the cards and the angst about delivering them – but it is only through ‘reading’ the pictures that we see the cards spill from her bag on her way to school. The recipients of the spilled cards (all strangers in the town) return them with smiles, touched by their heartfelt sincerity and the fleeting opportunity to see them, which makes them smile and gives them joy. The happiness she has inadvertently spread gives Mirabel the confidence to take them to school.

The illustrations are old-worldly, a cast of anthropomorphic animals fill the book, the buildings look as if they come from a playmobil playset. But if you’re after a picturebook about overcoming anxiety and shyness, and how kindness can spread, this may be one for you. Endearing. You can buy it here. 

rosie is my best friendRosie is My Best Friend by Ali Pye

A much more modern outlook in this fresh and zippy tale of friendship that relies heavily upon the reader’s visual understanding as well as narrative absorption. Rosie explores how she spends her day with her best friend – helping the adults around them, playing games, learning new tricks. There’s a delightful contradiction between the helpfulness Rosie and her friend think they are giving, and the actual consequence of some of their actions, and the illustrations not only reveal the truth but burst with friendliness, vibrancy and warmth themselves, from the stroll in the park with balloon seller, boating and games, to the make-believe play at home.

There is familiarity in this tale of an ‘everyday’, a comfort from the openness of the characters and the intense cuteness of both girl and dog. The twist at the end is both writerly and masterful – suggesting the reader thinks about point of view and perspective. Clever, witty, and completely adorable. Give it to your Valentine for Valentine’s here. 

 

It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

I don’t have a pet, which means we often play a hypothetical game: if you had to choose, which would you be – a dog family or a cat family?

the dog who saved the worldThe Dog Who Saved the World by Ross Welford
This is another cracking read from a premier storyteller of our time. Eleven-year-old Georgie befriends an eccentric scientist hiding beneath an old entertainment centre, and becomes a guinea pig in her virtual reality 3D future. But when a deadly disease threatens the life of all dogs, and Georgie’s own dog gets sick, it’s a race to find a cure – a cure which most probably lies in the future.

Welford’s writing is always clever and engaging, rattling through his plots with pace, humour and pathos, and it’s the kind of book you want to devour in one gulp. But to fully appreciate its modern sensibility and its heft as a meaty children’s book, it’s the little details that, when put together, make this an absolute belter of a book. Georgie’s friend is a refugee from ‘Nowhere-stan’ as he calls it himself, a country so decimated and of such  little interest to the people here. But he’s an upbeat boy, with a raft of funny lines, a fully developed character who’s a great friend.

The eccentric doctor is a social media billionaire technologist in hiding, who makes wonderful wisecracks about kids today;  even the bit-part owner of the corner shop is named Norman Twokids by the kids for his ‘no more than two children at a time’ policy. Add to this the moments of sweetness and empathy – the relationship between Georgie and her teen big brother, the small satisfaction that comes from a dog wagging its tail as it greets you – this is a slick, brilliant novel and even if dogs aren’t your thing, you’d be mad to miss it. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

collecting catsCollecting Cats by Lorna Scobie
When I was little I had to learn the poem Cats Sleep Anywhere by Eleanor Farjeon, and recite it in front of an audience. I still remember the first line, and it leads into a rhythmic romp through the places cats inhabit. I think if I had closed my eyes and imagined the illustrations, they would have looked like something out of Collecting Cats, a humorous riot of cat personalities. The anonymous narrator wants to collect cats, and starts with cheese. Cheese leads to mice, which leads to cats. And unfortunately for the narrator, then big cats. As well as a clowder of cats in a vast array of different colours and personalities, there is also a quirky collection of grabby mice. Scobie’s text is simple and logical with just the right amount of toned down humour, and her illustrations are flush with character, story and insight. For cat collectors, or picture book collectors, or simply readers. You can buy it here.

lulu gets a catLulu Gets a Cat by Anna McQuinn, illustrations by Rosalind Beardshaw
An exemplary first experience book in the Lulu series, which showcases the responsibility involved in owning a pet. Lulu’s appeal is not only that her adventures are embedded in the family core, but books about her also highlight those things that are important in small lives. The visit to a library to find out more, a tick list at home giving her life structure and order, a loving and caring relationship with her parents, and a grounding in real life. One or two simple sentences per page, with the main focus being on the colourful illustrations of familiar situations – sitting on a parent’s lap looking at a laptop together, everyday dressing up for the fun of it, helping with shopping, and feeling secure in one’s bedroom. This particular episode in Lulu’s life points up the preparation needed before getting a cat, and its slow integration into the family. Wonderful. You can buy it here.

danny and the dream dogDanny and the Dream Dog by Fiona Barker, illustrated by Howard Gray
Danny’s mother isn’t as easily persuaded as Lulu’s, and Danny’s only dog is a dream dog. That is, until a new neighbour moves in next door who needs help with walking her dog. This seems like a perfect solution until Danny starts walking Maximus and realises that it isn’t as wonderful as he thought it’d be. Especially when it rains, or Maximus pulls on the leash and wants to chase rabbits. Before long though, Danny comes to see that it’s the community he embraces whilst walking Maximus that makes it a dream job, and the cosy chats with his new elderly neighbour afterwards.

In essence, of course, this is a picture book about friendship, being community minded, and neighbourliness. The illustrations are warm and wholesome, creating whole immersive scenes on almost every spread – tea with the neighbour shows her life through a series of family photographs on the wall behind, scenes in the park demonstrate the diversity of the people there and the things they do. There are also many elements of humour wrapped into the book – squirrels threatened by the dogs, dog-shaped slippers. It’s a little dream of a picture book. You can buy it here. 

tiger walkTiger Walk by Dianne Hofmeyr and Jesse Hodgson
There are no domestic pets in this art-inspired picture book, but a tiger who oscillates between tame and wild in order to rid the young boy, Tom, of his fears. Tom visits an art gallery and sees the painting Surprised! by Rosseau. At home, he tries to copy the picture, and at night the tiger springs from the picture, and carrying Tom on its back, takes him on adventures through the jungle. It’s a neat conceit, in that every time the tiger suggests what to do next, Tom is scared – of swimming, of the cold, of the dark, of beasts. The tiger reassures him, and in the end Tom realises that of course he isn’t scared – he’s ridden a fearsome beast all through the night.

Brought to dramatic life by sumptuous illustrations that seem to have burst from the Rousseau painting, the colours are bold and expressive, not only traversing between fear and curiosity, wild and tame, but also real and dreamlike. This is a clever picture book with sumptuous text that bears out the artistry in the illustrations too – moonlight shines, icicles crackle, tigers have swishing tails and flashing eyes.  Aglow with natural beauty, this tiger comes close to winning a top spot in the heart, even if this one doesn’t come into the kitchen and devour all the tea. You can buy it here.

Charlie Changes Into a Chicken by Sam Copeland, illustrated by Sarah Horne

charlie changes into a chickenMassively hyped already, with marketing material yelling ‘for fans of David Walliams’, this first of a brand-new series actually does live up to the hype. 

Aimed at a young fiction readership, aged seven and up, Charlie Changes into a Chicken is a delight. A genuinely funny, pacey adventure story that has a healthy dollop of pathos and heart from a writer who obviously understands and spends time with young children.

Charlie McGuffin worries about everything. He worries about his brother, who is not very well in hospital, his parents, who are worried about his brother, and he’s worried about garnering any attention from the school bully. Then he finds another thing to worry about – when he worries, he turns into an animal. At first, he metamorphosises into a spider (and with far more anxiety about his situation than displayed by Kafka’s protagonist). Before long though, this change is happening more often, and at the most inopportune times. With the help of his three friends, Charlie must find a way to stop the transformations happening, and prevent the school bully from revealing his secret.

One of the best features of this young fiction title is Copeland’s approach to the writing. It reads as if Copeland is telling the story to the reader personally, and with this intimacy comes reassurance, which is exactly the effect wanted. This is not a new device – in fact it’s in part what made Dahl so successful in his novels.

Here, the intimacy inspires confidence in the writer as a storyteller but also as a warm, approachable understanding adult, so important when, deep down, this book is about overcoming and dealing with anxious thoughts.

On the surface though, the story’s a laugh a minute. From the footnotes in which Copeland gets to extrapolate silly facts or simply extend his jokes, to the plot structure itself which gets funnier and more enjoyable the greater variety of animals Charlie turns into and the places in which he does so. The pigeons in the playground incident is particularly amusing, as is Charlie turning into a rhinoceros in his somewhat small bedroom (and needing to go to the toilet). Indeed, there are toilet jokes a-plenty, but nicely packaged within the overwhelming anxiety Charlie feels, so that they are there for a purpose. There are nail-biting moments too – the incident in the Head’s office, for example.

But what many readers will find succour in, is the friendship group. Charlie summons the courage to share his strange ‘superpower’ with his diverse, hilarious friendship group with all their vastly different personalities. My favourite is Flora, who attempts to discover the reasons behind Charlie’s metamorphosis – her theories fail at first, but she perseveres. As well as teaching a valuable lesson, her attempts provide a raft of laughs.  

Even after the book has finished, Copeland continues to address the reader with a series of fake questions from readers and answers from himself, as well as a letter from the publishers. All induced an amused wry smile.

Copeland is certainly a writer with impeccable comic timing, but also one who understands plot structure. Coming from a literary agent (Copeland’s day job), this shouldn’t be a huge surprise, in that he understands how a book works, but what is refreshing is the intimacy formed with the reader, the light touches, and the insightful imagination. Charlie feels real, despite the ludicrousness of the plot, and his group of friends just like yours or mine.

Sarah Horne’s black and white illustrations feature throughout, and are injected with just the right amount of zaniness. Horne excels at quirky and her characters are differentiated, appealing and expressive: the step-by-step transformation into a pigeon particularly funny.

The book works thrice. Firstly, as a good read for the age group with lots of plot, a fun premise and laughs-a-plenty. Secondly, as an antidote to anxiety – it shows how problems are often entangled with embarrassment about sharing them – the fact that Charlie’s anxiety manifests as an embarrassing problem itself is the whole point – and Copeland shows that fiction can be a calming and positive way to highlight mental health issues. And thirdly, as a conversation with the author. Sometimes, under stress or needing escape, books can become friends themselves. And with such a calm and witty author hand-holding the reader’s way throughout the book, this is one novel that children will embrace again and again.

No wonder there’s hype. This is a cracking novel, brilliantly funny, warmly reassuring. You can buy it here

The Light in the Dark

It’s the time of year when the days are getting longer, and the Christmas lights at teatime are just a memory. But with January weather in London, the evenings are still very dark. For some children (and adults), the darkness of winter brings sadness and even fear – dark can be scary for many – altering shapes in the darkness, the fumbling unknown of not being able to see, shadows springing unbidden. When I was little, I took great comfort in The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, enjoying Plop’s discovery that other people like the dark for many different reasons. Dark was super, and kind, and exciting.

Four newer picture books aim to shine a light on the fear of darkness too. And they are all fantastic.

light in the night
The Light in the Night by Marie Voigt
Betty has no fear of the dark and enjoys bedtime for her bedtime stories. But when a Bear from one of her books comes to life, she must help him overcome his fear of the dark – and in turn he might help her too. On the surface, this is a simple book with adorable illustrations – a cuddly bear whose every expression shows on his face, a small intrepid child. And yet there is more depth – this is not just a book about conquering fears, making friends, or helping one another. The climax of the story draws out the notion that one has to try new things and this may entail showing incredible bravery in the face of darkness. Rewards come from adventure.

The ending is also particularly sweet and clever – the bear and Betty dance and sing back home; their fear masked by a togetherness in hope, and their shadows when they arrive home aren’t the scary shapeshifters of most fiction, but tall and proud elongated reflections. This pair have inner strength. Voigt’s illustrations feel animated – and each scene shows prescience in the story to come, as well as the character within. The pictures on Betty’s walls are of adventures, the bedtime book foreshadows the adventure she is to take, and the different illustrative perspectives of the woods show the reader when something familiar and normal can become scary and vice versa. Conquer your fears here.

the rabbit the dark and the biscuit tin
The Rabbit, the Dark and the Biscuit Tin by Nicola O’Byrne
A slightly different issue in this picture book with a lift the flap element, in that Rabbit just doesn’t want to go to bed. And if it doesn’t get dark, he won’t have to. So he traps the dark in a biscuit tin. The consequences, of course, are that Rabbit upsets a lot of other animals – the bats and owls and foxes. But the really excellent part of the book is the dialogue between Rabbit and the Dark, as the Dark tries to negotiate its way out of the tin. In the end, it’s Rabbit’s ability to empathise with others that makes him open the tin. This gradual awareness of the needs of others mirrors the development of a child – recognising others and feeling empathy for them.

O’Byrne cleverly uses her illustrations to mirror this point, highlighting Rabbit’s grumpiness and own desires with subtle use of ear positioning and body language, before the joy of doing things for others is shown all over Rabbit’s face.

The Dark is neatly personified in the illustrations too – a dark hand reaching out for a biscuit, but in the end the Dark is shown in its glory – it is necessary, and exciting, and rather wonderful. Open your own biscuit tin here.

elephant that ate the night
The Elephant that Ate the Night by Bing Bai, illustrations by Yuanyuan Shen
A not dissimilar theme in this Chinese tale of a dark mushroom forest and the night that grows over it at the end of every day. The baby animals are scared of being swallowed by the darkness, and invite Awu the elephant to swallow any lurking darkness himself. He does, and as he does, his stomach gets fuller, illustrated by a growing blackness across his grey skin. When he’s satisfied he pats his tummy and sleeps. But the animals soon realise that they need the darkness for sleeping, and they implore Awu to spit it back out.

The repetition of sounds and phrases make this a perfect bedtime read, and the quirkiness of the illustrations – the elephant’s pink toes, the colour palate of yellows and greys, the patterned trees and the animals’ teeth – make this stand out from the average picture book. It treads on the edge of fear, without being swallowed by it completely. Find your bravery in the shape of an elephant here.

king who banned the dark
The King Who Banned the Dark by Emily Haworth-Booth
This picture book came out earlier last year, and takes the premise of no darkness one step further. A prince who is afraid of the dark bans it completely upon becoming King, installing an artificial sun and enforcing anti-dark laws.

However, there is much more to this story than the fear of darkness. The King has to win over his people, persuading them why darkness is so terrible, and sustaining his argument. Manipulative marketing morphs to a slow brainwashing. But before long, the people start to revolt.

With pages that stimulate discussion on propaganda, and selling a story, as well as distortions of the truth, this is an up-to-the-minute picture book that deals with an age-old fear in a very modern way. It analyses what makes people happy, and how people can be manipulated to think they are happy with the way things are, as well as exploring freedom of speech, tyrannical rule, and of course, the power of darkness.

And the illustrations are different too – although almost all in shades of grey and yellow, there is careful thought behind light innovations – a lamp hat, the power of torches, an array of light shops, candelabra dripping with light – but also the scariness of the dark, the creeping shapes and shadows, the stealth behind cover of darkness, and also its magnificence. Buy your own princely beam of light here.

Animal Fun

anthology of intriguing animals
An Anthology of Intriguing Animals by Ben Hoare, illustrated by Daniel Long, Angela Rizza, and Daniela Terrazzini
This beautiful book looks as if it belongs in some treasured library, with its foil cover, gold edges and hefty weight, but inside it feels modern, spacey and fresh. The book aims to be encyclopedic with a twist, not only showcasing the visual image of the animal, and exploring facts about them, but also including myths and stories too. Initially, some of the animals don’t seem to be ‘intriguing’, after all there is an ant listed, which feels fairly ordinary, until you read the text about ant colonies, and honeypot ants that once sucked as sweets in Australia and North America. Written by a wildlife journalist and with huge images, this is quite a collection. The piranha looks so three-dimensional on its full page that I had to turn the page to stop it looking at me. A phenomenal book that goes beyond the ordinary facts. (Buy it just to see the adorable picture of the koala asleep). You can buy it here.

clue is in the poo
The Clue is in the Poo by Andy Seed, illustrated by Claire Almon
The title may be enticing for some children, offputting for older children, but this book is much more than a book about animal droppings. It aims to create a nature detective in the reader, teaching them how to track or tell an animal from its faeces, but also revealing the other tracks and traces animals leave in their wake, as well as exploring animal homes, animal eggs and feathers, bird pellets and more. With occasional quizzes to test knowledge, and pages that are neatly broken up into different colourful boxes, diagrams, captions and annotations, this is packed full of information. I love the ‘leafy lunch menu’ which explores how to tell if a leaf is being nibbled by a minibeast, as well as the spread entitled ‘Do Bears poo in the woods?’ to which the answer is a definitive ‘yes’ but covers other signs for bears and things they eat. This page is enhanced by the gorgeously cartoon-like illustrations, which show bears climbing trees, digging a hole, and yes, pooing. With a title like this, the text inside needs to convey humour, and matched with the witty illustrations, this is a fun animal read. You can buy it here.

we build our homes
We Build Our Homes by Laura Knowles and Chris Madden
I’ve long been a fan of Laura Knowles’ picture books, which offer information and a message in a simple yet ultimately stylish way, and this is a treat for natural architect fans everywhere, particularly when the reader realises that some of these animals build their intricate homes afresh every year – they can’t simply give it a lick of paint or hang new curtains! The book showcases a range of animals and their homes from the obvious, such as the beaver, to the more unknown such as Darwin’s Bark Spiders or Edible-Nest Swiftlets. But what’s really incredible is Knowles’ prose style, which verges into poetry as she writes, as if each animal is talking to the reader (first person narrative) and manages to rhyme in places, as well as provide perfect metaphor. The Ovenbirds build their nests out of mud so that the summer sun bakes them hard “Like pots in a kiln. Like biscuits in an oven.”  The illustrations bear a tone of softness and understanding, as if the reader is a respectful voyeur, an invited observer. There is no white space on the page – each landscape floods to the edges. The book ends with a look at humans, a world map and a fact file. You can buy it here.

who are you calling weird
Who Are You Calling Weird? By Marilyn Singer and Paul Daviz
More unusual animals in this bold vibrant collection of animal profiles, including the aye-aye, boxer crab and Mwanza flat-headed agama. Each animal is featured with a large computer-graphic style illustration in its own landscape; the platypus swims towards the reader with bubbles escaping from its mouth. A few paragraphs sum up each animal, explaining why they are ‘weird’ and explaining how the quirk serves a purpose. The proboscis monkey’s large nose is not only attractive to the female but the larger his nose, the more noise he can make, scaring away enemies. There’s lots of information here; each animal is described in terms of their behaviour, diet, and habitat. The book is colourful in aesthetics but also in language – it feels bold and outgoing, friendly and lively – asking questions of the reader, speaking in second person at times, almost in dialogue so that the reader feels they are being gently led by the hand into the animal kingdom. The last page features the human – what’s so weird about us you might ask – you’ll have to read it to find out. You can buy it here.

when the whales walked
When the Whales Walked (And Other Incredible Evolutionary Journeys) by Dougal Dixon, illustrated by Hannah Bailey
For something slightly more complex, this is a fascinating look at evolution, using 13 case studies to explore evolution of species, including the transformation of dinosaurs into birds, and documenting the earliest elephants. Each journey takes a few pages of the book – there are details that need extrapolating. Experienced author Dixon takes the reader through each journey carefully, explaining and guiding so that the reader is assured about the evidence and progress through time. Dixon references bones and fossils, and gives boxes of detailed species information including pronunciation of names, period lived and size, as the journey proceeds. The whys are also explained – Why are elephants so large? Elephants reached their large size for protection. Other data showcases large numbers too  – elephants evolved to their current size over 25 million years – but the other information is just as incredible. I love the detailed drawings of cats’ teeth, and the head shapes of birds. Each page is more fascinating than the last, and there is annotation, timeline, maps and diagrams to help the reader understand. Compelling. You can buy it here.

Cover Reveal: Good Boy by Mal Peet, illustrations by Emma Shoard

In our busy lives, it’s not often that a book arrives and sweeps everything else away – work, washing, worrying. The late Mal Peet had a way with words that was more than immersive – his stories have the power to create not only belief in the authenticity of the story, but a whirlwind of sensation and wonder, a lasting sense of intelligent thoughtfulness. Good Boy is an unsettling novella, published by Barrington Stoke in a slim yet captivating volume that features Shoard’s emotive illustrations, enhancing and emboldening Peet’s text. With content aimed squarely at the YA audience, yet a reading age of 8, this is an accessible story, an examination of fear that leaves the reader ruminating and discussing long after the final page.

Sandie has been battling it since childhood: the hulking, snarling black dog of her recurring nightmare. Although a solution is found during childhood, it is the black dog’s return in adulthood that will test Sandie’s courage to the limit…

I’m delighted to showcase the cover for Good Boy. For me, Emma Shoard’s cover bristles with both menace and vulnerability. What do you think? Read Emma’s view below:

good boy

Emma Shoard says:

Though this cover went through quite a few variations, we always wanted it to show the black dog and for the overall impression to be dark.

I wanted to make something of the juxtaposition between the image of the nightmarish black dog and the title, Good Boy. I like the way that it makes you look again and see his moon eyes and hunched shoulders in a different light, perhaps interpret the posture as protective, curious, monumental even, not just menacing. I needed this to come cross in my illustration so it took quite a few attempts to get him right. The result is a design which I hope reflects the ambiguity of Mal Peet’s story.”

Fear stalks us all in some way or another, and this is a masterful way of exploring where it comes from, how it manifests itself, how we deal with it, and if we can overcome it.

On reading the novella, the reader senses immediately the confidence of the writing, the simplicity of the story, yet the powerful insight of Peet’s observation and reflection. A girl is comforted by ‘the biscuity smell of her mother’s bed-warmth’, a dog has ‘wet black button’ eyes in a patchwork head, a building on an estate is ‘a huge slab of a place jutting rudely up into the sky’. And Shoard’s illustrations run through a gamut of feelings with just a few brushstrokes – a mother’s embrace, a pet dog’s vulnerability, the darkness that lurks in us all. A haunting, captivating, ambiguous story. Don’t miss this one. It’s published on 15th March 2019.

Younger Fiction

There have been some beautiful stories for younger children recently – books for newly independent readers (those comfortable enough to tackle chapter books by themselves).

legend of kevinThe Legend of Kevin by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Reeve and McIntyre, of Cakes in Space fame, bring their zany storytelling to this new magical tale about a rotund flying pony, blown from the outermost West to a tower block in Bumbleford. The over-riding theme is friendship but there’s a pervasive feeling of community throughout, and an understanding of providing solutions for problems, no matter how peculiar the problem (mermaid hair styling), and how outlandish the solution. There’s acceptance of difference, and an emphasis on ordinary heroes.

The success of this author/illustrator pairing, and there are those who wait ravenously for each new book, is that the text and pictures work perfectly in harmony. Gaps in the text are filled by the pictures, humour in the pictures is enhanced by the text. The pair know exactly how to pace the book, when to digress and when to pull back to the plot. With their trademark mermaids and naughty sea monkeys, this is a delight (for slightly younger audiences than their previous books), and marks a determined shift towards reality, as the Outermost West comes to a city not unlike the reader’s, complete with mundane shops, headmasters and mayors. You can buy it here.

sherlock and baker street curseSherlock and the Baker Street Curse by Sam Hearn

Super sleuthing comes to the younger fiction department in this glorious play on the trope of Sherlock Holmes. Transported into a school, the Baker Street Academy, Sherlock is just a school boy solving mysteries. But it’s the use of media that works so well here. The plot is relayed through a series of different text formats – Watson’s diary, comic strip illustrations, notice boards, webchats, emails etc. There’s a mystery to solve of course – and the reader can solve alongside Holmes, Watson and Hudson, as long as they don’t get misguided by a red herring.

In this book in the series, Sherlock and his friends have to solve a ghost mystery, dating back to when the school building was a family home. There is a great warmth that exudes from the text, and the dialogue feels authentic and friendly. A slick introduction to mysteries. You can buy it here.

ivy and beanIvy and Bean: One Big Happy Family by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

I had my favourite American characters when I was little – Ramona Quimby and Amelia Bedelia spring to mind instantly. I don’t know if it was their spunky characters or their derring-do adventures, or perhaps the setting – in a school grade system I didn’t understand, with towns boasting large white houses with sweeping driveways, and vibrant lawns with tyre swings hanging from trees. For the next generation, and slightly more down-to-earth, is Ivy and Bean. This delightful friendship between quiet Ivy and rambunctious Bean, two seven-year-olds who live in the same street, is a celebration of old-fashioned values and community America. But mainly it’s just a fun chronicle of two girls and their neighbourhood adventures. What appeals most is the amount of free time the girls have to indulge their passions and make their own fun – rather like The Secret Seven did.

Barrows seems to have an understanding of the limitless possibilities offered by the best childhoods, and she includes all the fabulous childhood obsessions from glitter, to being made to tidy up, to sharing. This eleventh book in the series celebrates being an only child, or rather not being spoiled. You can buy it here.

first prize for worst witchFirst Prize for the Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Another series that should be celebrated for its longevity is The Worst Witch. Not only bearing my favourite character names, Mildred Hubble’s and enemy Ethel Hallow’s images are burned onto my brain – those illustrious illustrations of schoolgirl witches hanging on broomsticks with plaits flailing behind them, dangling untied shoelaces, and the haughty thinness of Miss Hardbroom. The utter enjoyment of seeing Mildred learning from her mistakes continues to this day, with Mildred battling to be chosen as Head Girl, against all the odds. Although the first in the series was published in 1974, this latest (and reportedly last) lives up to the high standard set by the first, and is an utter nostalgic joy for the adult reader, and an excellent gentle introduction to chapter books for new readers – it’s humorous, accessible and still relevant. You can buy it here.

nelly and monster sitterNelly the Monster Sitter: the Grerks at No. 55 by Kes Gray, illustrated by Chris Jevons

Repackaged in August with new illustrations, although the original text was first published in 2005, these hilarious books sit comfortably between Horrid Henry and The Bolds as accessible, funny, highly illustrated chapter books just right for newly independent readers. Nelly likes monsters, and happily takes care of the little monsters in the neighbourhood after school whilst the parent monsters take some time off. She’s in high demand, but has no idea of the type of monster she’ll encounter before she arrives. Each adventure showcases Nelly’s wit and quick-thinking – she’s a brave, down-to-earth and likeable protagonist, and as one would expect from Kes Gray, there is plenty of word play, great visual description (enhanced by the illustrations), and a lively exuberance that permeates the text. The winning formula here is that the monsters’ lives are so mundane. You can buy it here.

oscar and catastropheOscar and the CATastrophe by Alan MacDonald, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Another skilled writer for this age group is the indomitable Alan MacDonald, author of the Dirty Bertie and Superhero School series, among others. His straightforward easy to understand style is great for flourishing readers, and enables them to zip through his books at speed, promoting confidence and fluency. Oscar and the CATastrophe is the third in this series about Oscar the talking dog and his owner Sam. In this latest adventure, Oscar has been shocked to silence by the appearance of a neighbourhood cat and Sam is worried about the jewel thief in town. Gentle humour and basic plotting, but perfect for growing readers. You can buy it here.

A Very Christmas Roundup

how winston delivered ChristmasThe first book on your radar for Christmas should be How Winston Delivered Christmas by Alex T Smith. This is the most sumptuous book, but a word of warning, you need to give this present early. The neat conceit is that the story has been written in 24 and a half chapters, one chapter to share every day in the lead up to Christmas – ending with a final special story time for Christmas morning. Now, I like advent calendars with chocolate windows, but a book with a story behind every window is even better. The story is about Winston, a homeless young mouse with an important mission, and a special message about the joy of little kindnesses rather than just the material side of the festivities.

But more than just a story, there are also activities throughout, such as writing a letter to Father Christmas, making Christmas cards, a recipe for mince pies and so on – all the traditional things a family might do in the run up to the holiday season, but here with a neat tie-in to the story. There are also ideas that might be new – but feel traditional: making an orange pomander, stained-glass window biscuits, and even a pompom robin.

Not only are the activities fun, easy and related to the season and story, the story itself combines all the attractive tropes of Christmas narratives – the old-fashioned department store, gingerbread men, a nativity scene, toys and snow. And of course, there’s a happy ending and the lyrics of carols at the end.

This is a perfect Christmas book, lovingly produced with a green bookmark ribbon, a fabric spine, and beautiful colour illustrations, through which the warmth of happiness radiates – a lit shop window, a kitchen all a-glow, a dolls’ house, headlights in the snow. Magical and heartwarming. You can buy it here.

pick a pine tree
If you’re looking for a picturebook, there is a glut of tie-ins but for something original, Pick a Pine Tree by Patricia Toht, illustrated by Jarvis might tick the box. It’s also suitable for the run-in to Christmas itself, being all about choosing and decorating a tree. It’s unabashedly Christmassy, with nothing held back in its glorious rhyming list of the things needed to turn a pine into a Christmas tree. The text is magical in itself, a gentle rhythm that speeds up with the excitement of Christmas, but the illustrations imbue the book with light and warmth again, whether it’s the brightness of the children’s faces around the tree, or the up-close inside tree drawing of baubles, paper angel dolls and pine needles. You can buy it here.

jingle spells
Another book that seems to fall in between the start of autumn and Christmas itself is Jingle Spells by James Brown, a rather delicious mash up of Halloween and Christmas, as Trixie the witch prefers Christmas to Halloween, although her fellow witches think that’s strange, and the Christmas Elves judge her on her appearance and reputation (fearful of tricksy witches). In the end, Trixie helps the elves and Santa get over their winter colds with a warming potion, and they help her to bring Christmas to everyone. Heartfelt, and gloriously illustrated with lots of colour – an emphasis on red and yellow against a blue background helping to bring that magical Christmas warmth again. You can buy it here.

very corgi christmas
Royalty is all the rage at the moment, with a King in waiting, a new baby on the way, and the memory of a couple of weddings this year. But, if you prefer your royalty corgi style, then A Very Corgi Christmas by Sam Hay, illustrated by Loretta Schauer will suit. It tells the simple story of the youngest corgi – enthralled with the rush and excitement of Christmas – who gets lost in London and befriended by a more worldly dog. The book works as a paean to London, showcasing an illustration of a dazzling silhouetted London skyline through a window before honing in on the corgi experiencing Piccadilly Circus (a bit too bright for her), a London bus, the London Eye, Big Ben unscaffolded and a London theatre. Even a London litter bin is given central stage. There are plenty of union jacks too – this is a London Christmas to the top of the tree. And of course a happy ending. You can buy it here.

sammy claus
From dogs to cats, Sammy Claws: The Christmas Cat by Lucy Rowland and Paula Bowles understands a cat’s life. Sammy Claws will sleep anywhere, but when he falls asleep in a box on Christmas Eve, he finds himself wrapped in a present and due for delivery with no way of telling Santa of the mix-up. Hiding in his box, Sammy hears of Bad Billy’s and Mischievous May’s plans to steal Santa’s Christmas presents, and finds that yowling fiercely and jumping out can quite seriously shock robbers. This is a delightful Christmas rhyming tale, and although it borrows heavily on other picture books in which canny animals outwit stupid robbers, there is enough dastardly action and colourful Christmassy illustrations to win over every child. At its centre sits a cat with a huge personality. Watch out for smart touches in the illustrations such as Santa’s sleigh goggles, clever rhyming in a bouncy lively text, and the neat ending too. You can buy it here.

how to hide a lion at christmas
If you do like tie-ins, How to Hide a Lion at Christmas by Helen Stephens retains the magic of the original in this Christmas story of Iris going to visit family for Christmas and being made to leave the lion behind – because he is a little large and might offend their hosts. Many parents have negotiated with children about leaving toys home when they travel, and this is a rather sweet tale of the lion deciding to follow of his own accord. With trains, snow, carol singers and Father Christmas, this also brings to mind old-fashioned Christmases. Stephens has an astute understanding of how to draw her lion to look realistic (reclining on a tree) but also to make him naturally fit within the domestic sphere too – this lion always reminds me of The Tiger Who Came to Tea – I wonder who would get all the Christmas dinner if they were sat at the same table. You can buy it here.

the snowman
If you’re revisiting classics, the key title has to be The Snowman by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Robin Shaw. Yes, this is based upon the original story and drawings from Raymond Briggs, but to mark the 40th anniversary of the original picture book, this year the publishers have released a brand new novel. At first you may ponder why such a re-imagining is necessary, but there is a simple continuity in Morpurgo’s version, a nod to modern sensibilities, and an understanding of the gentle care it needs to revisit this classic Christmas tale.

The original Snowman picture book is wordless and doesn’t feature Father Christmas as a character, but Morpurgo has merged the collective memory of the book and animation into his new story, imagining a boy named James with a stutter who takes a magical Christmas Eve flight with his Snowman to a party, where he does meet Father Christmas. In Morpurgo’s version there is the introduction of a Grandma figure, who not only reads The Snowman to James but eventually takes flight with him too. It’s an interesting dynamic to add to the tale, showing the inter-generational relationships that exist, and profiling how James and his grandmother relate to each other. Nice touches include Brussels sprout buttons for the Snowman, and the newly found confidence James develops. I would quibble that some of the Christmas gifts feel dated already, but the gentle tone sits nicely alongside the original. Extras at the back include instructions on how to make the perfect snowman. You can buy it here.

the night i met father christmas
Lastly, The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller, the comedian, is a mash up between A Christmas Carol and Elf. A small boy with avid curiosity wants to know how Father Christmas became Father Christmas. When he meets him on Christmas Eve, he hears the story from the man (or rather elf) himself – a story within a story format. The tale he recounts is about the elf Torvil, now miserly and mean, who is shown Christmas past, present and future by red-nosed reindeers and magic trees. It’s a pure spin off from Dickens, but told in a spritely jovial way with old-fashioned hot chocolate warmth. As well as the first person narration from the small boy, and the third person narration of Torvil’s story, there are also narrative asides, which seemingly may come from Torvil or the boy, but feel much more as if they come from Miller – hoping the reader never has an accident, waxing lyrical on the joys of sled-rides. It jolts the reader slightly from the narrative, but the whole is so easy to read, so joyful and formulaic (how could it not be, following past, present and future), that it feels familiar and new at the same time. I read an early proof so couldn’t see the illustrations, but the publishers promise illustrations throughout from Danielle Terrazini. Look out for an extract of the book on my blog in early December. You can buy it here. Happy Christmas shopping.

Skycircus by Peter Bunzl (Book Three of the Cogheart Series)

skycircusWhen I was reading Skycircus, I couldn’t help but think of The Greatest Showman. The success of that film wasn’t down to critics, who panned the movie on its opening weekend, and I went to see it (somewhat reluctantly and with low expectations) with the children, and now own both the DVD and the soundtrack and secretly play them when the children are at school. Is it the music, or is it perhaps the emotions that circuses inspire that proved it such a great success?

The Greatest Showman is based very loosely upon PT Barnum, remembered for his travelling circus. Ironically the film sets out to show acceptance of difference, despite Barnum being known for his exploitation and sometime racism.

Circuses have long been a source of inspiration and imagination for novelists. Many children’s book characters visit the circus at least once in their series – Pippi Longstocking, Madeline, Doctor Doolittle, Claude, Paddington Bear all went to the circus, and some of my favourite stand-alone literature is set in the circus – The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll, Circus Shoes by Noel Streatfield.

The circus arena is a great site for storytelling. As with theatre there’s the theme of appearance and reality, what’s hidden behind masks and costumes, but the circus also brings a daredevil nature to the stage – acts that seem impossible, daring and courage, excitement and danger. And an inherent subversive nature. Whether it’s the people behind the circus – seen for such a long time as ‘other’ – or the arguments over mistreatment of animals in the arena, the dichotomy of both providing entertainment but also making money, and the long history and argument of exploitative acts versus acts celebrating freedoms.

Peter Bunzl had already incorporated elements of this into his Victoriana steampunk series that  begins with Cogheart, an adventure story that subverts history and science, featuring mechanimals, penny dreadfuls, clocks and cogs, the author supposing that mechanicals were more advanced than they really were – that humans had reached a scientific equivalent to robots and AI but without computing leading the way – instead using mechanical parts.

Skycircus, the third in Bunzl’s Cogheart series, transports the characters from Cogheart – Lily, her mechanimal fox Malkin and her human friend Robert into a circus adventure. With the energy and tone of the prior books, it adds to the atmosphere a circus in which the people are treated more as prisoners, and circus acts that fuse the mechanical with the derring-do of trapeze acts and escape artists.

On Lily’s fourteenth birthday, she receives a cryptic poem inviting her to a travelling skycircus, arrived in the locale. Not being able to resist the clues, she sets off to watch the acts, little failing to realise that it’s a trap and that before long she’ll no longer be the observer in the audience, but the headline act herself.

With references to the past books, and Lily’s own past creeping forwards to haunt her, the book works both as a stand-alone read but also a continuation of the series. Never shy with words, the book is meaty and dense – an imagined world full of science and steampunk and its accompanying vocabulary.

With a keen nod to today’s preoccupations of gender stereotyping (a plot twist for which I fell cog, sprocket and gear), and liberally littered with allusions to Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and the leading thinkers of the time in which it’s set, this is a layered book with much to extrapolate. Of course, there’s much about exploitation, and of animals too, but mainly about how we see others who may seem different from us; whether it’s a seen physical manifestation (perhaps race or a disability), or whether its just about seeing things from another’s point of view. Whom do you trust and how far can science take us?

Despite all this, at its heart this is a thrilling, danger-filled adventure story. I particularly enjoy Bunzl’s small touches of humour and detail that imbue each story with depth of character and charm. The clown who speaks in spoonerisms in Skycircus, the magnificent understanding of the rolling out of the circus, and the allusions to ancient myths and the power of storytelling itself.

This is a grand book with a plot as tense as tiptoeing the tightrope, and bold narration that shouts as loudly as the red and white stripes of the circus tent. You can run away to your own circus here.

Autumn 2018 Picture Book Round-Up 2

a house for mouse
A House for Mouse by Gabby Dawnay and Alex Barrow
There’s a wonderful satisfaction in spotting literary allusions in texts, as if the author has winked at you, and you looked up to catch it. Sometimes they’re very well hidden – but for children it’s important that the literary allusions are accessible. A House for Mouse plays upon the enticing estate agent theme of looking into other people’s houses, and also the literary allusions game.

Mouse is searching for a new house, but they all seem to have negatives – clear building regulation failures (The Three Little Pigs), architectural issues (Gingerbread house), inaccessibility (Rapunzel’s tower), overcrowding (There was an Old Woman) and so on. He settles on Sleeping Beauty’s castle but realises that in the end, home is where his heart is, of course.

With humour galore, a fairy tale map at the beginning and soft pencil illustrations delineating the different landscapes, this is a comforting and appealing story book that is more about friendship than location. See if the book suits you here.

theres room for everyone
There’s Room for Everyone by Anahita Teymorian
Mouse was wise to share his castle with his friends – Teymorian uses her picture book to point out that although the library has enough space for all the books (she’s clearly never been in my house), and there’s enough room for all the stars in the sky, human beings constantly fight over space – be it on the train or in a larger context of land and war. The message is simple – that with kindness and love there’s enough room for everyone. What might come across as a little sanctimonious and simple becomes more thoughtful if the reader studies the illustrations used to make Teymorian’s point – the clever use of the boundaries of the page, the distorted long-limbed humans, the neat use of lines to create patterns and textures. A warmth oozes from the pages. There’s room for you here.

the dam
The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold
Immediately bringing to mind the beginning of Haweswater by Sarah Hall, a novel tracking the lives of dispossessed people after the flooding of a valley, this may feel like a strange topic for a picture book. Walker, pushing the boundaries, allows Almond to tell the story, based on truth, of a dam building in Northumberland, which led to the flooding of a valley and the village within it. Here, Almond and Pinfold retell the story of the musicians who played music in this lost place before the flooding.

With themes of loss, dispossession, rebirth and the power of creativity, Almond blesses his lyrical text with a deep simplicity, much repetition, and a clear placing of words within their white background. However, it is Pinfold’s brown and dreamy illustrations that provide the atmosphere and haunting quality to the text, showing both the before and after effects with deep pathos, understanding and clever use of soft muted, almost sepia colour. Pinfold brings a clarity to his study of water and structure, rendering the narrative with a distinct sense of place. And the light – the light pours through the book like water into a flooded valley. You can buy it here.

mary and frankenstein
Mary and Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Julia Sarda
Another atmospheric interpretation in this celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Bailey approaches her topic by investigating how the events of Mary’s life brought her to the moment of creativity, exploring how the story of Frankenstein festered and developed within Mary’s mind. From the death of her mother, to the animosity of her stepmother, the mood swings of her father and her travels and influences, Bailey creates a full image of Mary’s young years with just a few carefully chosen words.

Sarda’s illustrations use darkness, shadows and an almost Picasso-like angularity to illuminate Bailey’s words, creating an unforgettable aura in the people she draws and the landscapes she illustrates. The richness of the colour palette – vivid reds, oranges and browns elucidates the richness of the culture within which Mary was subsumed, but it is the clever rendering of the skies, storms, and imagination at work in dark greys that really sets the tone. Many details to look at, including the houses of the era, the interior décor, as well as gravestones and horses and carriage provide an extra thrill for readers. Like Frankenstein itself, an unforgettable book. Inspirational. (The book is titled Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein in the United States). Explore the life of Mary Shelley here.

on a magical do nothing day
On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna, translated by Jill Davis
Illustrations of a completely different order in this modern award-winning text about finding creativity and adventure out of boredom, now published in paperback. A purposefully gender ambiguous protagonist is told by the mother to put down the computer game and find something to do. The child leaves the house with the computer console in order to be out of sight, yet gradually becomes sucked into the natural environment.

At first miserable and bored, the child soon finds joy and creativity in solitude; the neon orange coat at first marking the child as separate from nature, but then seamlessly blending into the myriad of mushrooms and toadstools, and before long there is wonder to be found in the sensuous delights around – jelly snails, the aroma of fungi, the sifting of earth through fingers. The weather plays its part too, and at the end mother and child bond over quiet contemplation and hot chocolate.

This is a phenomenal book of everyday discoveries, with illustrations that make the reader draw breath. The change in perspective, the clever use of light, tone and vignettes gives the book an excitement, and yet also tender empathy. I’m longing for a Do-nothing Day of my own. You can buy the paperback here.

travels with my granny
Travels With My Granny by Juliet Rix and Christopher Corr
On the surface a vibrant picture book about destinations throughout the world, told by an adventurous Grandmother, this is actually a book about dementia, and explaining to children how to try to understand what people with dementia are going through. The grandmother believes she is really travelling, and the other adults explain that she doesn’t know where she is, but for the child, (again an ambiguous gender) he/she is happy to explore the grandmother’s mind, even if it seems confused.

The illustrations are bright and garish, depicting New York on a bright yellow background with multi-coloured skyscrapers and entertainments – as brash and brassy as Times Square. London is blue, Jerusalem orange, Rome a tender mauve. A few facts punctuate each city – in Delhi the tricycle taxis are rickshaws for example. The information at the back explains about dementia. An important, interesting addition. Buy it here.