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Girl 38: Finding a Friend by Ewa Jozefkowicz

girl 38This is a clever novel. It’s no surprise, coming from an author shortlisted for the Waterstones Book Prize this year for her debut, The Mystery of the Colour Thief. Ewa Jozefkowicz’s new children’s novel, Girl 38, is written with the same lucid fluidity: accessible, readable, and highly immersive.

The book is set out as three distinct strands, but all come together in great storytelling fashion to illuminate the key themes of the book – friendship, courage, intergenerational relationships and the lessons learnt from history, and also, somewhat surprisingly for a novel, the power of visuals.

Twelve-year-old Kat loves to work on her comic-book heroine, Girl 38, who has traits she wishes she could emulate in real life. The comic is set in the future, as Girl 38 space-travels to new places with a calm and measured courage, even in the face of Vilks (humans with wolf-heads, yellow eyes and sharp fangs). But in her real life, Kat faces her own adversities. She feels lonely when her parents work long hours, and her best friend doesn’t always act as such – in fact, before long Kat begins to see that she’s trapped in a toxic friend relationship, and that if she could build up the courage, she might find truer, better friends.

Courage is contagious, and when Kat befriends her neighbour, Ania, an elderly Polish woman with a penchant for painting, Kat begins to hear Ania’s childhood stories, and before long, understands the meaning of true friendship – something she can put into practise in a relationship with the new boy at school, Julius.

What should feel complicated, actually reads simply and with a gentle truthful wisdom. Although we see Kat’s life through her eyes, the small distance and perspective afforded to the reader gives them the ability for objectiveness and readers can root for Kat to do the right thing, and not be consistently led astray by her mean best friend, Gem. There are particularly astute and wise signposts for the reader – Kat’s parents are busy, although not disinterested. They hover, but not like helicopter parents, so although they see the strain in the friendship, they don’t rush to interfere.

But where the reader really gets to think is in the stories of World War II that Ania tells. From jumping from a train, to deciphering which soldiers are friendly and which aren’t, to navigating through a war-torn Europe to save a dear friend who has been taken away to a ‘walled village’, persecuted simply for being different.

There’s a relevance to the book of course, in its attempt to show how empathy can teach us to be kind, how we need to look at history for its lessons. Jozefkowicz brings together the different strands to show the reader about belonging – Girl 38 finding a new planet on which to reside, people in Europe seeking safety, and even in Kat’s modern world – welcoming newcomers who may act and look different, but, of course, are human too.

The characters are painted with depth and understanding. Ania’s cultural heritage is strong in both the objects that surround her and the stories she tells. Kat and her friends are deeply ensconced in our modern world – the phone is used as a plot device – but it is the children’s modern relationships that are so well depicted. The sly toxicity that Gem promotes, whilst still remaining a rounded character with whom we have sympathy, the small differences that make Julius stand out.

But the overarching heart of the book is in the sharing of stories – of Ania’s painful memories of the friend she lost, of her attempting to express her sadness in a creative way, and the compassion and empathy it stirs in her listeners – in how the contemporary reader will see that courage begets courage, that history is so much more than dates and battles, and that comparative thinking – across generations, time periods, and methods of creative endeavour – can teach understanding and awareness.

This is strong and impactful writing packaged in a simple story with mirrored events and clever plot turns. It implores us to use our time thoughtfully. And what better way than to read this novel. You can buy it here.

International Women’s Day 2019

I’m a keen viewer of University Challenge on the BBC, a quiz show for students. Recently, I’ve noticed more and more questions creep in that refer to women in history, previously unnoticed women composers and artists, those whom the layperson in the street definitely couldn’t identify. I admit, I don’t know enough about women in history either, and my shouting ‘Beethoven’ in answer to most questions just doesn’t cut it! Luckily, on this International Women’s Day, children’s publishers are waking up to these lesser-known important historical figures too. And so today’s collection is a definite celebration of women – from famous sisters in history, to lesser-known scientists and pioneers, to modern celebrity women pushing boundaries.

the bluest of bluesThe Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs by Fiona Robinson
This extraordinarily exquisite picture book is a biography of British botanist and photographer, Anna Atkins, who lived 1799 to 1871, and used the newly-invented technology of cyanotype photography to record her catalogue of plant specimens.

What could be quite a dry biography is manipulated into an aesthetically intimate and touching portrayal of Anna, her enthusiasm and love for her craft – and a meshing of science and art, creativity hand-in-hand with discovery.

The book is cast in an illustrative shade of blue, mimicking the cyanotype’s blue and white tones – with Robinson cleverly incorporating the odd splash of red or yellow to emphasise inspiration – the first poppy Atkins examines, the roses in her marriage bouquet, the red ribbon round the gift of her first camera.

The book explores her life and works, and also the support from those around her, particularly her father, who educated his daughter in science, despite it being unusual at that time. This is good narrative non-fiction, delineating the scientific concepts of photography and botany, whilst remaining true to telling Atkins’ life. You can buy it here. 

the brontesThe Brontes by Anna Doherty
Another picture book that frames the world of important women in a single hue, this time a turquoise minty green. Of course, these sisters are well-known to many, but may be accessed for the first time by readers of this picture book, as it is squarely aimed at a young audience. Illustrations dominate the pages, as Doherty documents the girls’ life story from their childhood through to publication, illness and death.

A family tree starts the book, and individual profiles of the sisters and Branwell come near the end. The story is inflected with the author’s own perspective, clearly infused with feminist undertones as she explains how the sisters first published under male pseydonyms. The text is simplistic but clear, and the author takes the opportunity at the end of the book to articulate further social history, exploring why the Brontes were so fantastically feminist.

The book is marvellously attractive, speaking not only to the power of women, but to the power of imagination and story. An inspirational book that makes the world of the Brontes feel intimate, and fascinating. First in a series. Other titles include Ada Lovelace and Michelle Obama. You can buy it here. 

grace hopperGrace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu
With a rhyming poem on the endpapers introducing the scope of this lively picture book for youngsters, ‘Software tester. Workplace jester. Order seeker. Well-known speaker…’ the reader is immediately engrossed in this enthusiastic exploration of how Grace Hopper discovered computer code and became a trailblazing STEM advocate. What’s intriguing about this book is that it highlights that women’s involvement in computers and tech isn’t a recent phenomena  – Hopper was engaged from the beginning – she was a pioneer.

Hopper developed a ground-breaking way of writing computer code, as much from her understanding of how things work, numbers and logic, as from her intuition and creativity. The book carries that perpetually important message of determination and perseverance, especially in the face of adversity, and ends on a high hopeful note.

The full-colour, almost cartoonish illustrations provide an insight into the zest and energy that powered Hopper, from showing her as a frustrated but determined and curious little girl, to a hardworking, brave and intrepid Navy employee. Her insatiable curiosity and her ability to step away from code to find the answers in life as well, show her as a fully rounded, identifiable human. This is an informative and aspirational picture book – you’d do very well to show this to your sons and daughters. You can buy it here. 

one shotOne Shot by Tanya Landman
Ever since my parents took me to see Annie Get Your Gun in the West End as a child, I’ve had a thing about Annie Oakley. With numbers like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, and ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’, who wouldn’t be inspired by this trailblazing feminist? Landman’s novella on Annie Oakley’s childhood, One Shot, (which is completely fictionalised) is just as powerful and poignant, although in a very different way. Set in the later part of the 19th century, this sometimes disturbing, haunting book imagines Annie’s harsh upbringing – the death of her beloved father, her rejection by her mother, and her abusive treatment by adoptive parents (there are references to rape).

But mainly this is a compelling historical visualisation of the social normalities that Annie had to fight in order to prove her worth as a sharpshooter, to rebel against the constrictions imposed on her because of her gender. Powerfully dressing herself younger so her rebellion looked more excusable to outsiders, and her constant seeking of parental approval, are both markers of the nuance and depth of Annie’s character that Landman has imagined in her novella. Written for a reading age of nine, but with teen content, this is another example of a strong inspirational woman fighting for survival and recognition, and beautifully conjures the landscape and political reality of America at that time. Landman cleverly incorporates Annie’s bravery into her fight to do what feels natural, even though it is classed as unladylike, and also showing her courage in admitting her abuse to her future husband. The chapter in which she steps into the shooting competition with Frank Wilkes made me want to sing again. I’m hoping Landman will bring her own targeted eye to writing the next part of Annie’s life. You can buy it here. 

ariane grandeUltimate Superstars: Ariana Grande by Liz Gogerly
Hot on the footsteps of the wildly successful Ultimate Football Heroes, comes this new series on ‘superstars’, a loose concept, but so far comprising Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. It doesn’t matter how famous a person is for these biographies, it’s the journey to get there or the quirkier achievements that make for a decent life story.

The focus for Ariana Grande is, of course, the bombing at her Manchester Arena concert in 2017, and this is where this life story starts and ends, and is dealt with sensitively, making much of the fans, and also her shock at the time and sympathetic nature afterwards. Grande’s life story has been one of success after success from early days as part of the cast of 13, a ground-breaking all-teenage production on the Broadway stage, to Victorious on Nickelodeon, and then onward to her music career, including performing in front of President Obama at the age of 21.

Success may have heralded success, but the book documents Grande’s tough skin, her hard work and determination, her efforts and affinity with fans through social media, and her supportive family, including her much-loved grandfather. For fans, a must. For others, I’m generally of the opinion that a subject needs to be slightly older to have a truly interesting biography. Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez publications follow in May. You can buy it here. 

gloria's voiceGloria’s Voice by Aura Lewis
A good premise to showcase the influence and achievements of feminist Gloria Steinmen needs more explanation in this picture book for a young audience. Illustrated in throw-back 1970’s oranges and pinks, the text is simplistic and yet in some places rather cryptic – simplistic in the language used that explains how Gloria dreams of being famous, yet cryptic in that it fails to explain the name or influence of her magazine ‘Ms’. However, it does explore the aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and it does draw attention to global inequalities that Steinmen witnessed then, and that persist now. So this is an interesting biographical text that may stimulate further curiosity. Watercolour illustrations range from the fantastical to the strange in showing Steinmen playing unhappily with a dolls’ house, representing her care-taking role in her mother’s illness, to a rather strange portrait of Steinmen flying ‘a la Wonder Woman’ above a suburban neighbourhood. Extra information at the end gives some context, but really the text needs more explanation from the beginning so that young readers understand why Gloria was so influential. You can buy it here. 

A History of Pictures for Children by David Hockney and Martin Gayford, illustrated by Rose Blake

history of pictures for childrenThe children of today don’t seem to have the same vested need for non-fiction books as generations ago – more often than not they turn to Wiki, or use the school-provided web links to research facts for their homework.

Whatever you think of this, publishers are increasingly turning to more enticing, influential, enduring ways to present their non-fiction. And seeing as children are so tuned in to YouTube for information and entertainment, sometimes looking to a vlogger who talks directly at them about a subject, what better way to present a book than as a conversation.

The adult version of A History of Pictures published in 2016, but now there is a children’s version, A History of Pictures for Children by David Hockney and Martin Gayford, with similar text and the same reproductions, but adapted for children in a skilful and intelligent way.

This book is a conversation between artist David Hockney and art critic Martin Gayford as they attempt to explore and explain the history of art, and yet also the creation of art. Told paragraph by paragraph as dialogue between the men, reading the book is like listening to two teenagers deconstruct a game of Fortnite. There is knowledge and depth encompassed within a pacey conversation that conveys the intimacy of friends. Their lightness of tone brings amusement along with understanding.

Set into clear chapters, from ‘making marks’ to ‘light and shadows’, ‘mirrors and reflections’ and more, the abundance of full and half page reproductions of paintings lend their discussion a tone of absolute authority. For what better way to teach than by example.

But rather than a straightforward look at the picture and then an explanation, as in an art gallery with plaque beside painting, this is a definite discussion in accessible yet non-condescending language. Not only is there the explanation of a painting or style from Gayford, but also interlocutions by Hockney that attempt to explore the spark of creativity behind the art. And comparisons that really illuminate the conversation, for example the similarities in use of depth of shadow in the Mona Lisa to photographs of early Hollywood stars. There is plenty for the modern child too – the last two chapters deal with moving images, and computer images respectively – not only in their creation but an analysis of where pictures will lead us – the veracity of them, their uses and potential dangers. By posing questions to each other, and answering their own, the two experts inspire the reader to really think.

history of pictures

Each chapter focusses the reader fully on the topic in hand – I loved the pages on looking at pictures as narratives, especially Hopper’s Nighthawks, as well as the artist’s use of particular objects within a painting – Hockney’s own Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy, as well as Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, and the lasting influence of the objects within the painting as well as the paintings themselves.

The book is titled ‘A History’ for a reason, and Hockney and Gayford skillfully talk through the changes and trends that happen within an art form – whether it be the reintroduction of the brushstroke with Manet, and the example of Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets as opposed to Bouguereau’s Mignon, or the connection of art across time and place.

This is a fantastic and fascinating book, illustrated throughout by Rose Blake, whose friendly and warm cartoons add fun and understanding to the text. Owners of the adult version will be jealous, I presume, at the updated content here, including a new chapter complete with new examples, but for children this is a fresh and excellent deconstruction of the subject (with a timeline and glossary), but more importantly, a winning conveyance of excitement and enthusiasm for the topic. You can buy it here.

Art for Art’s Sake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Shapes, Colours, Music and Mystery

One of the wonders of reading is being able to sew threads through the most unlikely of book pairings, and knit them together. Intertextuality is the relationship between texts: common links and themes, references and allusions, and working out how these make the books stand together or apart.


The Cranky Caterpillar is a new picture book from artist Richard Graham and ostensibly shows a young child, Ezra, trying to cheer up a cranky caterpillar who is stuck inside a piano. Graham utilises a great deal of humour and pathos in his tale, as Ezra tries everything from introducing fresh air to concocting beautiful meals, and buying a new hat. Graham’s artistry comes to the fore here in his depiction of a little girl employing all the schemes to cheer up the caterpillar that she would enjoy herself, and this shows on her sympathetically expressive face. But there are also clues as to where the depths of the story lie in her design – her legs, for example, are shaped like musical notes, which becomes more obvious as the book continues, and there is a growing abundance of tranquility in her face when she hears music.

Because although on one level the book is about learning to articulate emotion, showing kindness to another who is unhappy, and the importance of friendship, on another level the book introduces the world of synaesthesia – how one sensory stimulation leads to automatic secondary stimulation, such as the colour of music, or the music of colour. Here, Graham takes inspiration from Kandinsky, who believed that he could hear music when he saw colours – and the illustrations halfway through the book are a paean to Kandinsky’s abstract phase. Kandinsky, who believed that colour itself is an art form, that it isn’t always necessary to show the recognisable shape of something. The Cranky Caterpillar does have a recognisable story shape of course, with a happy ending, as with most caterpillars in storybooks – but there’s a wondrous depth and craft to this picture book too – making it work on many levels. Graham’s use of colours in geometric shapes sings through the pages of the book, at the point when Ezra gathers a band to play joyful music to the caterpillar, in a moving anticipation of his eventual flight of happiness.

In the same way in which graphic shapes work as a key component to uncovering the mystery in Robin Steven’s The Guggenheim Mystery. This new middle grade novel has, at its heart, the mystery of the theft of the Kandinsky painting, ‘In the Black Square’.

The Guggenheim Mystery tells the story of Ted, a boy with a form of autism, who is visiting his aunt and cousin in New York, when a painting mysteriously disappears from the Guggenheim art gallery, of which his aunt is the curator. When the spotlight falls firmly on her as culprit, Ted and his cousins set off on an adventure to clear her name, and by doing so learn about the value of art. (Wonderfully, the author has borrowed from an episode in her own mother’s past for this – her mother worked at the Ashmolean in Oxford when a Cezanne painting was stolen.)

The book’s sense of place is vital, as Ted and his cousins move through the subway, Times Square, Brooklyn and Central Park to follow up leads to their detective work. Having been to NY many times, and most recently last month, I can attest to the accuracy and authenticity of the settings – as well as confirm that the painting is firmly in place in the museum (and there’s a wonderful children’s audio commentary which is well worth the visit!). But reading the book, whether you have been to New York or not, certainly calls to mind the excitement and uniqueness of this incredible city.

What’s more, one gets the feeling that Steven’s protagonist, Ted, sees the world more like Kandinsky than the rest of us:

“I noticed that the tilt of the Earth and the position of the sun meant that its light was passing through more air to reach ground level in New York. Each air molecule it bumped against made it scatter more and more, so that by the time it reached our eyes it was red and yellow instead of blue.”

Of course, his autism makes his senses more acute – accentuating sounds, colours, shapes. In fact, it’s Ted’s difference in seeing things that enables him to see things that others miss, and thereby solve the mystery. He wants to find patterns and logic in what he sees, which contrasts beautifully with his absorption of the chaos and noise of New York. But it also brings into play Kandinsky and the Guggenheim itself. He transforms the chaos into a theory and finally solves the jigsaw, with much help from the shapes and patterns of the Guggenheim itself – the whorls of the ramps, the triangles of the stairs, the curvature of the exterior.

This too links back to the Kandinsky painting, which shows the order and clean shapes of the weather, as well as depicting an expressiveness of the abstract.

The power of the book is in the very fact that Stevens distils this all into logical simplicity for Ted and for the reader – each chapter fastidiously traipses through the facts of the case, eliminating the impossibles. It’s easy to follow, but intriguing to read – I didn’t guess the culprit. It also follows on from Ted and his cousins’ appearance in The London Eye Mystery, and, cleverly maintains their distinctive personalities and relationships (despite having been written by a different author, the late Siobhan Dowd).

Both The Cranky Caterpillar and The Guggenheim Mystery are stellar examples of artistic endeavours coming to fruition. Richard Graham is an upcycling artist, and took his inspiration from not only Kandinsky, but from the hammers inside a cast-off piano. Look carefully at the detail in the illustrations and you’ll see how the caterpillar is crafted, as well as the most carefully crafted illustrations – taking inspiration from great artists, but also from the visuality of music. Stevens was asked to write the mystery as a sequel to late author Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery, having been left with just the title to go on. With both books there is a pattern to their work, a pattern through shapes and colours and imagination. Perfect books for exploring children’s own creative endeavours.

You can buy The Cranky Caterpillar by Richard Graham here and The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens and Siobhan Dowd here.

 

Back to School

The autumn always sees a mega haul of children’s nonfiction – the back to school collections, lists for National Non Fiction November, and of course the Christmas gift treasure troves. This year, unlike the wet harvest, has yielded a bumper crop.

We start the day with maths. Always a slog after the long summer holidays, this book aims to reverse that groan with a rather wonderful premise – from the front cover, the reader is a genius: This Book Thinks You’re a Maths Genius, by Dr Mike Goldsmith, illustrated by Harriet Russell. It aims to prove that if the reader likes patterns, colouring and puzzles, then actually they’re good at maths. Taking basic mathematical concepts, such as geometry, measurements, statistics, and number patterns, it gives the reader activities and games to enhance their knowledge. Most pages have a ‘Where’s the Math’s box’ at the bottom to explain the ‘science’ behind the activity. It feels more heavily weighted towards shapes and patterns than basic numbers, but it was certainly fun to fill in.

Geography next, with two books to explore. The first, Animazes, illustrated by Melissa Castrillon also combines the territory of activity book with non-fiction, as readers can trace the mazes on each page to learn about the migration patterns of different animals. There’s a vibrancy and exuberance to this book – set by the vivid colour palate, which lifts the knowledge from the page. Christmas Island red crabs, wildebeest of the Serengeti, Monarch butterflies, Mali elephants…There’s a wealth of phenomenal facts about these wonderful animals – for general use or project use. Maze answers are given at the back of the book.

For those wanting a more straightforward factual book, Starters: Rainforests by Nick Pierce and illustrated by Jean Claude ticks the box for little ones. Basic layouts and colourful simple illustrations lend this a modern textbook look, and it reads plainly, but overall gives information in a neat concise visual way, with glossary, and index. Great for Key Stage One, and will bring a dazzling intensity of colour to the topic.

After break, it’s biology, using Bugs by Simon Tyler for budding entomologists. With the first 32 pages devoted to dissecting insect life – from anatomy to taxonomy, life cycle to senses, and the rest given to large colourful illustrations of individual species with accompanying small details about size and habitat, this is a comprehensive look at the subject. However, it stands apart with its impressive use of blank space on the page, clean lines, and coloured backgrounds, which all give the book both a vivacity and a clinical feel. Rarely have insects looked quite so engaging, it could almost double as a coffee-table splendour. Inspirational for children, a minibeast triumph.

You can’t beat a good historical narrative for history lessons. Philip Ardagh’s new series sets out to dominate the market here with his ‘faction’ books, illustrated by Jamie Littler. The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge explores the life of a medieval knight with as much tongue-in-cheek humour as sword-in-hand fighting. Written in day-by-day diary form, with footnotes giving factual information or terminology, the next in the series is The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny, Victorian Housemaid.

The Histronauts series aims to mash activity, story and non-fiction in its first two titles, An Egyptian Adventure and A Roman Adventure by Frances Durkin and Grace Cooke. A group of children dive back in time, and through the means of a comic strip, they illuminate facets of historical life. There are activities alongside the narrative, such as learning Roman numerals and how to play merellus, as well as mazes, recipes and a host of other factual information. Packed with detail, these are fun and educational.

For a more visual look, try Unfolding Journeys: Secrets of the Nile by Stewart Ross and Vanina Starkoff. More cross-curricula than anything, this geography/history hybrid aims to explore this part of the world with a fold-out, vividly yellow map of the Nile (not to scale), highly captioned with number points, which are then extrapolated on the reverse of the fold-out. A mixture of ancient and modern facts and points of information make this a tricky landscape for a child to navigate – a few more dates might have helped, (and I’m unsure about the James Bond reference inside) but it’s certainly an intriguing way to look at a place of interest.

After lunch, younger primary school children will be delighted to get their hands on Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System by Dr Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman. A new title in this series, but firmly aimed at a younger age group, this is another gem from publishers Flying Eye. Fantastic, familiar cartoons, accompanied by Professor Astro Cat’s chatty and informative dialogue, this would be my go-to book for teaching KS1 children about space for the first time.

With our first day at school completed, we look forward to a trip out. The National Gallery have two phenomenal companion books to touring – Get Colouring with Katie by James Mayhew, and Picture This! By Paul Thurlby. The Katie books by James Mayhew have long been favourites for introducing the youngest children to art, and this is a great companion title that picks out paintings within the gallery and gives children space on the page to colour a detail in their own way. Katie gives hints and explanations along the way. Paul Thurlby’s spiral bound book explores more of the paintings by featuring a picture of them, and then a small explanation, with occasional questions to the readers. The paintings are grouped in different ways – both historical, but also those featuring children, times of day, fashions etc. It might be frustrating without a knowledge of which room each painting is in (which the book doesn’t give). But the questions it poses are pertinent and thoughtful. You can buy all these books from good local bookshops, or click the Waterstones link on the top left of the page.

 

London Days Out and Origami


Last year there was a flurry of colouring-in books for adults, with the aim of providing relaxation and mental health benefits, (and making some money for the publishing industry). Personally I prefer to just read a book, which in itself has many mental health benefits. However, I’m also going to try my hand at origami, because publisher Nosy Crow has teamed up with The British Museum to produce a new collection of books and they’ve started with something rather special.

As part of my summer series looking at places to visit in London that are children’s book related (see also Defender of the Realm and Hetty Feather), this book inspires another trip. Currently at The British Museum there is an exhibition called Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, featuring works from Katsushika Hokusai, one of Japan’s great artists. So, to link with the exhibition, Nosy Crow have published this rather beautiful book about Japanese culture, featuring haikus, pictures and origami.

The book called Origami, Poems and Pictures, is exactly that. It gives instructions for constructing 13 origami models (with 50 sheets of paper for practice), and alongside each set of instructions is a relevant painting from the museum’s exhibition, the Japanese name for the object, and a haiku – so that different elements of Japanese tradition are explored.

I love that the first offering from Nosy Crow and the British Museum isn’t based on Ancient Egypt – which tends to be the ‘go to’ theme when children visit – but instead they have focused on a culture that children may not have been taught about in such depth.

What’s more, the quality of the book is excellent – I found the pieces of paper easy to tear from the book, and each is patterned and coloured uniquely. The instructions are clear to follow, with a difficulty level chart on each page so that you can work your way up the scale, and there is something rather calming and satisfying about achieving the shape. (And I’m certainly not very adept at these sort of things usually). That’s not it though, for then there is the haiku to read and reflect upon, and also the painting to absorb.

The book and paper are bound separately so that even when all the paper is used, this remains a useful little book, with no rips, just a slightly loose cover. There’s even a tech advanced QR code to watch instructional videos if you find that easier. I can’t fault the book – and it is a lovely introduction to a new culture. What’s more, it could entice me to the British Museum to visit the actual exhibition (which runs from May 2017 to 13 August).

I have a feeling though, that I may be doing origami longer than that. Recommended for ages 5-9 years. You can buy it here.

Think and Make Like An Artist by Claudia Boldt and Eleanor Meredith

I’m not a big fan of activity books. I find that the children lose interest quite quickly and the house becomes littered with half-filled in, half destroyed books, which I feel shameful about recycling, but loathe to keep. Most of the time, a piece of paper and junk from the recycling tends to do the job just as well.

However, I do make exceptions. This book is great, and I don’t say this lightly. It not only inspires in a quietly clever way, but it also imparts the philosophy behind the idea of art, references current contemporary award-winning artists, (who are currently exhibiting round the world), and explores a multitude of different form including photography, sculpture, and costume.

But most of all, the ideas for activities are doable (mainly with materials we already have at home), and fun.

My favourite pages are definitely those in which the authors break down in a step-by-step explanation the meaning behind each artistry – such as sculpture for example. ‘Why Make Sculptures?’ they ask, and then proceed to illustrate and explain in text what sculpture is for. Each form is treated to this questioning – and the answers are both illuminating and yet incredibly simple.

For the section ‘illustrate’, we learn that illustrations show and tell people something quite quickly, but the illustrator needs to grab attention, use surprise perhaps. We had great fun creating a space landscape on a piece of black card with different fruits to illustrate our intention, (take note of our banana rocket, strawberry shooting star, and planet Earth). The process also gave us an understanding of what it means to collaborate on a piece of art.

Each activity in the book is photographed and described step-by-step, making it easy to follow – and there is a list of necessities at the top, so that you know what you need before you start.

The example given in the ‘collaboration’ section was particularly compelling. Staring at the photograph of Yayoi Kusama’s ‘The Obliteration Room’ hurt our eyes after a while, so luckily the children didn’t want to collaborate and replicate it in my house (yet).

There is lots of white space around the very colourful activities, so that the book feels aesthetically pleasing too – and the production is of a high quality – thick pages for plenty of usage. As the authors state at the beginning – the book makes you think about art, then have fun making it. It feels as fresh and modern as the artists it highlights, and provides hours of fun, sparking new ideas along the way. Highly recommended. You can buy it here.

Let’s Find Fred: A Guest Post from Steven Lenton

Was it the roving eyes on the cover (they actually move!)? The use of the word In-Fred-ible? Or simply the cuteness of his face? I can’t be sure, but I fell in love with Fred the panda instantaneously. It was love at first read.

Let’s Find Fred is the latest offering from author/illustrator Steven Lenton, illustrator of Shifty McGifty by Tracey Corderoy, various Frank Cottrell-Boyce books, and Princess Daisy and the Nincompoop Knights.

Each night Stanley the zoo keeper tucks up his animals in their beds, but by the time he reaches Fred to read him his bedtime story, Fred has escaped – on an adventure filled with dreams of candyfloss, balloons and parties. As any parent of more than one child will know, this is a common occurrence – the little rascals often escape from their beds in search of night-time adventures.

What follows is a panda chase through the town. This is where the book turns magical, for each spread is set in a different vicinity of the town, and unfortunately for Stanley, there are panda images everywhere, or things that look suspiciously like Fred, but aren’t – from black and white dogs in a limousine, to black and white footballs in the newspaper.

But most cleverly, as Steven highlights below – are the numerous adult cultural references, more often than not with a little bit of Panda involved. I’ve had the book for weeks, and still not exhausted examining each spread. It’s the kind of book you read to your child at bedtime, but then whisk out of the room so that you can peruse it yourself later, but also so that they don’t grab a torch and read it after lights out, having their own little panda-themed night-time adventure. And without further panda-monium, here is Steven to tell you about how much fun he had writing/drawing the book:

My picture books have become known for their extra details and layers of additional humour. I think it’s important that both children and the parents who read books at bedtime have fun doing so. For example in the Shifty McGifty series there is a spider on every double spread of the picture books and twenty spiders to find in each of the fiction titles. In Princess Daisy and the Dragon and the Nincompoop Knights there is a mischievous little snail to spot and in Let’s Find Fred there’s a little white butterfly…

To date, Let’s Find Fred is certainly my busiest book!  There is a fun narrative that follows the exhausting chase of Stanley and Fred, but the most fun is the re-readability, and oodles of extra characters and little relationships to spot in all the larger ‘zoomed out’ spreads.

Because there are so many characters in the book I thought it would be great fun to base some of the characters on real people, and a few characters mums and dads might know too – extra talking points for family discussion if you like!

One of the first characters I added was Kylie – there was always going to be a carousel in the funfair spread and it instantly reminded me of the hilariously juddery Carousel in the ‘Got To Be Certain’ video – watch it on YouTube with a cuppa, it’s really (quite) funny.

Other familiar faces to find include;

  • Four Beatles (not beetles!)
  • Numerous famous paintings in the art gallery spread – The Panda with the Pearl Earring and Whistler’s Panda to name but two…
  • Truly Scrumptious from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the inspiration behind my twitter name @2dscrumptious!)
  • The Panda of the Opera
  • Fred Astaire
  • A grandma reading Fifty Sheds in Grey
  • And Panda Travolta

And so many more.

I was at a wedding recently and I took along a copy of Fred for the children there – the first read through went well, but then what followed was LITERALLY HOURS of Fred-based finding!  We turned the book into a game of ‘Can you find the…’ and it entertained not only the children, but also the adults, who we encouraged to look for the tiniest of details.  My tip is to start by finding Fred, then the white butterfly, and then start finding one-off things in the book such as the veeeeeeeeeery long sausage dog (somewhere in the gallery).

I really hope that everyone gains as much enjoyment from Fred, as I and the Scholastic team had when making it!

 

With huge thanks to Steven for sending across his thoughts. You can buy Let’s Find Fred here. Please do, you’ll love the text as much as I do “He’s a panda and it’s past his bedtime!”, and you can tell me where the white butterfly is hiding…

Vincent’s Starry Night and other Stories: A Children’s History of Art by Michael Bird, illustrated by Kate Evans

vincents-starry-night

Large books can be daunting for some children, and this one, at a hefty 336 pages, is certainly a doorstopper. Even the cover looks fairly adult, with its Van Gogh styled image, reflecting both the artist himself and the starry night he is painting. But every page in this volume has earned its place, and every page is worth reading, whether it is in chronological order, or simply sampled at will.

Like those huge narrative histories – A Little History of the World by Ernst Gombrich or Our Island Story by H E Marshall, this will no doubt become a history of art classic read for children.

At a time when exam boards are ditching A Level History of Art, the book is even more important for those who believe that the study and knowledge of classics in the full sense of the word is a vital component of history and an essential lesson for modern times. Classical works of art inform our ideas of history, thread storytelling through the ages, and can give one a sense of cultural identity. They are an integral part of politics (think Elgin marbles at a very base level), and a stalwart part of our current culture, which is starkly visual.

So, to the book. This is essentially a narrative guide through art history from prehistoric to modern day, comprising 68 illustrated short stories that take either an individual artist, or a particular style of painting, or architecture, and explain not only the images and artistry, but the entire background of culture or religion, using a story structure of a person or peoples.

Each story incorporates what was going on in history at the time the artist was painting, as well as the thoughts and spaces created by that artist. For example, the chapter on Giotto explains, through Bird imagining Giotto’s thoughts to himself, how he reintroduced the technique of drawing as close to nature as possible – or in Bird’s attributed thoughts to Giotto:

‘I want to tell stories in paintings, so that people will think “That’s how it would have looked if I’d been there.”.’

This imagined speech, and chapter, not only explores Giotto’s approach to painting, but also his thought process and the effect his paintings had. It also explains fresco painting, and the link between his paintings and the ancient Greek and Roman artists, as well as immortality through fame. What’s brilliant though, is that the chapter is written in such easy, modern conversational prose that it makes Giotto and his era feel relevant and real.

Bird flits between first person, third person, past tense and present tense, depending on what’s happening in the chapter and what he’s trying to explain. This is great as he has picked well – and each chapter feels fresh and illuminates in a different way.

The chapter on Vermeer even mixes the tenses to explore a revelation in Vermeer’s career, and to explain how he uses it, what he had painted before, and what he will do in the future. It explores his discovery of a new magnifying glass and the way it makes things look. He sees the laundry sheet more clearly “whiteness like sunlight on a snowy mountain,” although Bird points out that this is his imagination. “Vermeer has never seen a real mountain. All around Delft the flat Dutch countryside stretches to the horizon.”

Vermeer goes from painting historical scenes to painting domestic subjects – the life around him, which gives modern readers a sense of the artist himself but also a glimpse of social history of that time. Bird also parallels the death of Rembrandt in this chapter, giving context of the art world, as well as exploring Vermeer’s use of colour, and makes the reader think about how to look at a painting.

Of course, this is a book about the visual arts, and so equally important to the text are the illustrations. There is a mix here of reproductions, such as Vermeer’s The Love Letter, and fresh illustrations and interpretations by Kate Evans, including artists at their easels, scenes from their windows and so on.

It’s going to be a difficult selection, narrowing down the whole of the history of art – even to 336 pages, and there is definitely a focus on Western art here, but there is also broad scope beyond the lives of famous artists. From cave paintings, ceramics, stained glass, the architects of Angkor Wat to city art maps, such as Florence and New York, to the African art and thoughts of El Anatsui and his use of adinkra.

There is also a wonderful glossary and list of artworks. A really good, thought-provoking and illuminating read. You can buy it here.