behaviour

Kevin by Rob Biddulph

Reading is so satisfying because it’s one of the closest ways we have of getting inside someone else’s brain – and I don’t mean just inside the characters’ thoughts, but also the author’s. It’s fascinating to see how someone else’s mind works, how they deal with a particular situation, or even simply the fluffy rainbows and unicorns that bounce about in their head.

One of the most striking ways some children have of utilising their imagination is in the creation of an imaginary friend. I’ve looked at this a little bit here to explore the whys of this phenomena – and trust me I think it’s something that can pervade adulthood too, especially for writers – I know my characters certainly live with me in one way or another.

Rob Biddulph’s latest picture book character explores this phenomena with a very clear motive. Sid Gibbons invents his imaginary friend as a scapegoat – someone to blame when Sid himself messes up. His mother, wisely, demands evidence of this guilty persona, and Sid draws Kevin (his imaginary friend) in quite acute detail, and his mother, wisely again, doesn’t ‘disbelieve’ in the friend – only in the premise that Kevin, not Sid, is to blame.

By the end of the story, empathy with Kevin shows Sid the error of his ways, (through a delightful little twist in the middle of the story), and before long Sid not only starts behaving, but enjoying his time with Kevin – and Biddulph sneakily lets the reader into the secret that Sid’s not the only child to have invented an imaginary friend.

Biddulph brings his distinctive rhyming style to this picture book, but has expanded upon it, so the sentences are longer, but still retain the rhythm and bounce of his previous books. The illustrations though, are exquisite. Freed from the animals of Penguin Blue, Biddulph not only portrays his humans with style and personality – from Sid’s trapper hat to his mother’s slippers – but also crafts the most appealing make-believe world, complete with a vast array of colourful flowers, spotty rainbows, and daft made-up beastie creatures. Shot through with a wide colour palate, they are nostalgic for adults used to 1970’s fashions, and vibrant for young children. Biddulph has a certain talent for images that appear simple, but are layered with detail. It’s fun to try to copy them – many children do (and for those with adults on twitter, you can follow his work on #drawwithRob).

What’s more the moral messages throughout – not blaming others, saying sorry, understanding others, cherishing friendship – aren’t spelled out in a pompous saccharine way, but carefully dripped through the story so that they are gently absorbed.

My only quibble is the portrayal of the Dad behind a newspaper and the mother with takeaway coffee and ugg boots, although in Biddulph’s defence perhaps it is just an accurate reflection of UK middle-class suburbia. Full marks though for the diversity of the children on the last pages – there’ll be much fun for children in spotting the different children, different beasties and familiar playground equipment. Watch out too for allusions to prior Biddulph picture books, and the final image, which suggests that sometimes Biddulph too escapes to his own imaginary world. You can buy your own copy here.

Male Animal Picture Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Books with A Message

Learning to Share

moonlight school

Owl Wants to Share at Moonlight School by Simon Puttock, illustrated by Ali Pye
Actually, there is much more to this book than a simple lesson about sharing – it’s about using your imagination, being kind to each other, and accepting difference. However it is not preachy at all. In fact I fell in love with Miss Moon, Moonlight School’s teacher, the most understanding teacher in literature since Miss Honey! Simon Puttock demonstrates his understanding of children’s behaviour within a classroom environment (even if they are animals here) with accuracy and skill, and Ali Pye’s phenomenal illustrations, capturing shadows, mannerisms, and expressions are a delight.

At drawing time, there aren’t enough night-time colours to go round, so after Cat, Mouse and Bat have helped themselves, Owl has to draw using bright daytime colours. What will he come up with, and will the other students learn about sharing in the process?

Silver glitter on the front, attention to detail inside (look for Mouse’s tail accessory and her body language as she puts her paw up), the clever use of perspective to stop the reader from seeing Owl’s picture before Owl is ready – there is so much to admire in this picture book.

The language too is pitched perfectly – “Owl looked clever and said nothing”, whilst Miss Moon is a shining example of every good primary school teacher, with positive reinforcement, classroom control, and of course giving out stickers at the end.

This is a sumptuous picture book. Recommended to all. Buy a copy here.

 

Owning Up

the whopper
The Whopper by Rebecca Ashdown
Perhaps slightly less subtle, The Whopper by Rebecca Ashdown is certainly comical. Percy’s grandma comes to stay, and as a gift she gives him a hand knitted jumper. Percy hates it of course, and decides to take her words literally when she says it is “just right for walking the dog in”. When the dog ruins the jumper, Percy tosses it away, but when he lies to his Mum about what happened to it, a little creature called the Whopper appears. Before long the Whopper has taken over Percy’s life, to the extent that the only way he can get rid of it is to admit the truth. He does so, and of course, Grandma shows her acceptance of his apology with a new gift!

There are some hysterical moments in this book – from the picture accompanying his lie to the baby brother’s and Percy’s classmates reaction to the whopper, and the whopper’s ultimate defeat!

The message is how a lie, no matter how small, can loom large and take over quite quickly, and it’s drawn with some relish here. Very enjoyable as a lesson in telling the truth, but not necessarily a go-to picture book for bedtime. You can purchase it here from Waterstones.

 

Trying New Things

bogtrotter
Bogtrotter by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Judith Rossell
Bogtrotter is a simple creature. Furry green, with keen eyes, lively hair and a toothy expression, he runs day after day, year after year around the bog – hence Bogtrotter! But he’s not entirely content. When the frog asks him why he doesn’t ever do anything new or different it sets in motion alarm bells, and Bogtrotter starts to take notice of the world around him, and think of possibilities for the future.

The frog’s second question makes him think even harder, and he goes on a full adventure, with surprising results – not spelled out for the reader in text, but inferred in the picture. It’s a gem of a title, exploring what can happen if a person goes outside their own comfort zone, and takes stock of other creatures and the surrounding landscape.

The illustrations are adorable – the sort of depiction of a creature that a child wants made into a soft toy, as well as endearing human touches for animal creatures – the Bogtrotter sleeps with a mug of tea beside him and pictures on his wall (presumably of himself). Even the illustrations from behind of him ‘trotting’ are quite something to behold. A great book, with humour, insight and inference. Highly recommended. Buy here from Waterstones.

 

Being Brave

brave as can be
Brave As Can Be: A Book of Courage by Jo Witek, illustrated by Christine Roussey
Another fairly unsubtle book, but so excellently produced that you’ll think seriously about buying this and referencing it over and over. Sturdy thick cardboard pages with die cut shapes cut out lend a special element to this dynamic book.

An adorable little girl depicted in black lines with red cheeks, red bow in her hair, and red spots on her dress, takes the reader through the book in first person narrative, recalling how when she was little she had many fears. Ironic of course, as the little girl is still pretty little. Firstly she introduces her huge mountain of scary things.

Two die cut eyes in the mountain turn it into a kind of monster, but on the next page those die cut holes turn into snowflakes – showing that our fears are simple shape shifters – we can choose to see things as scary or we can choose to view them as something other than that.

The little girl then goes through her fears one by one, but instead of dismissing them, she tells the reader how she dealt with them – from using a night-light in the scary dark, to her mum’s explanation that the dog’s bark is just him saying hello. She even points out that sometimes we use being scary as a way to entertain – such as Halloween and telling spooky stories.

The illustrations are very clever – not only using the die cut shapes on each page to turn into something fresh, but also the combination of pencil lines and colourful crayons, as if the little girl had drawn the illustrations very neatly – the tangle of adult legs with scary boots on the ends is very effective when the little girl describes getting lost. (She overcomes her fear by becoming a brave explorer).

I wasn’t convinced about the ending though, which I found to be a bit of a letdown, although perhaps it is apt for the target readership. Size is said to be important here. As the little girl grows up, she realises that fewer things seem scary. As she grows as a person, her fears diminish.

Certainly the things that were scary as children no longer seem scary…it’s just that for this reader, other stuff does. You can buy a copy of the book here.

Having a Bad Day?

I’m pretty much done with the toddler tantrums in my household, but I remember days of frustration with young children as if it were yesterday, and most parents would agree that there are still days in the life of a nursery and reception child where the terrible twos didn’t seem that long ago. I’ve found that an excellent way to combat a full meltdown is by holding up a mirror to a child’s behaviour. A few great picture books for children having difficult days are as follows (and older children can still benefit from the comfort these give, and as they get older recognise the embedded irony too)

PomPom gets the grumps

Published February 2015, Pom Pom Gets the Grumps by Sophy Henn is the most recent addition to our ‘behaviour’ books and leaps out from the bookshelves with its vibrant ka-pow cover. Pom Pom’s expression is immediately one of immense anger and disgruntlement all because one morning he got out of bed on the wrong side. Pom Pom is pictured in the first page with a cloud of grey rain over his head, which doesn’t lift for much of the book. Sophy Henn leads the reader through all the things that go wrong from losing his toy, to a soggy breakfast, to being irritated with his mother, all the way to Little Acorns playgroup/nursery. His nastiness to his friends results in his own-enforced isolation, and immediately his anger turns to regret and he reaches out to them again. I love the fact that Pom Pom realises his own mistake and says sorry, but I also love the twist at the end – children’s moods can swing so suddenly! The story itself is one that has been told before, but the illustrations are magnificent and universally appealing. The simplest lines indicate a brow crease frown, whether in profile or face on, and the friendly animals at the playgroup/nursery are adorable. One to be re-read for certain.

Big Shouty Day

I would recommend My Big Shouty Day by Rebecca Patterson to mothers sitting alone of an evening after a particularly tough day – the first illustration is enough to make the most frustrated parent crack a smile.
shouty dayinside

The book sums up beautifully the weariness of the parents, as well as the embarrassment felt when one’s child creates a fuss at the shops, on a play date, and even in the street. However, it’s also good for the child as the text becomes bigger and shoutier during the book, as the irrationality comes through, and the illustrations get funnier and funnier.
“Then it was time for my tea and my bath.
But those peas were
TOO HOT
And our bath was
TOO COLD”
Most children will recognise a tiny bit of themselves in it, as they see the simplicity in the overreactions of the child and her unreasonableness. The beautiful ‘sorry’ at bedtime, with the mother’s understanding, “we all have those days sometimes”, leading to a better day in the morning, is the perfect resolution to this Roald Dahl Funny Prize award winner.

Smile

Smile by Leigh Hodgkinson has a quirky design, not unlike Charlie and Lola books, with lots of font changes. Smile is about a small girl who has lost her smile (mainly, it seems, as a result of being told that she cannot have any more biscuits). She spends the day searching for it, asking her family where it might have gone. As she searches, she inadvertently does some good deeds round the house, and then when praised for her good behaviour, the smile returns. It’s a sweet story, and good for bringing a smile to a young reader’s face too. Mum’s and Dad’s solutions for finding lost things also managed to make this adult smile. The illustrations are simple and unconventional, and quite inspirational. This is one I have used with older children too to demonstrate how simple lines can create expression in a face, and that playing with text for emphasis is useful, from underlining to uppercase letters, to simple annotations – such as ‘splishy’ and ‘sploshy’ written in each of the puddles when it rains. A book brimming with imagination.

Olive and the Bad Mood

The illustration on the front of Olive and the Bad Mood by Tor Freeman is reminiscent of so many loony tunes cartoons, and raises a smile before we even start.
“Olive was in a bad mood.
This was not a good day.”
As in My Big Shouty Day, and Pom Pom Gets the Grumps, I liked that there was no reason behind Olive’s bad mood, it was just there. Younger children find it hard to articulate what it is exactly that has made them grumpy or sad. And for older children, it’s okay that sometimes mood changes without a definitive reason. However, in a new twist, Olive’s bad mood rubs off on all the friends she meets, so that when she finally cheers up, she discovers that they are all in bad moods now, and it’s her job to cheer them up. The irony in the end is that she thinks she’s the cause of the cheering up, not the bad moods. This is a good jumping off point for discussion with children about what they do that affects others without them realising, and that it’s important to have self-awareness. What was interesting in both this and Smile, was that food was a big indicator in the mood swings, unfortunately a sad but true fact for many of today’s youngsters.

elephantantrum

Elephantantrum by Gillian Shields and Cally Johnson-Isaacs is a good example of animals teaching behaviorr in picture books. Ellie is a very spoilt little girl who has everything she wants, and one day she requests an elephant. It’s promptly delivered, but it turns out that this is not quite the elephant she wished for. Ellie’s elephant is extraordinary! It’s the ultimate look in the mirror for Ellie, as the elephant usurps her and wears her clothes, plays with her toys and friends, and finally has an enormous elephantantrum. The tantrum makes Ellie realise that her prior behaviour wasn’t very nice, and as in Olive and the Bad Mood above, it’s not nice for everyone else! It’s a satisfying book with a great message, and a lovely elephant.