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Summer 2017 Round-Up

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

Picture Books:

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


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


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

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

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

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

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diggers and Dinosaurs (and Dodos)

My nephew is obsessed with dinosaurs. My son at that young age was obsessed with diggers. So much so, that an afternoon day out was to drive up the motorway spotting roadworks.

So when this little picture book reared its head, I thought to myself – why didn’t I think of that?


Diggersaurs by Michael Whaite
Diggersaurs was inspired by the author’s daughter, who is obsessed with both dinosaurs and diggers, leading to this ultimate mash-up. Diggersaurs are bigger than a digger, and bigger than a dinosaur, and they also roar. It’s not hard to envisage the shape and bulk of a digger as a living breathing creature – the scoop at the back its tail, the scoop at the front a large mouth. So Whaite takes each machine and anthropomorphises it into a dinosaur both in attributes and name – dumpersaurus, wreckersaurus. It’s a cute idea, although the machines all look far more like machines with mouths than they do dinosaurs to me.

The text rhymes well, and is full of exciting action verbs, as well as being chockablock with onomatopoeic digger noises, from rumbles to kerplunks and whirrs. There are even numbers to count too.

This is a huge hit with certain little friends of mine – they are particularly keen on the drillersaurus with its spike scales, pointy tail, and excavation of dinosaur bones. Watch out for the illustrations of the builders – they are exceptionally cute. It’s brightly illustrated, although I do wish they hadn’t made the ‘sweepersaurus’ pink. You can buy it here.


How Many Dinosaurs Deep? By Ben Kitchin and Vicky Fieldhouse
Perfect for the summertime as some of our lucky children embrace life by a pool for the holidays, this is an emotionally perceptive look at assuaging a child’s fears of swimming by appealing to their interests. Jim is learning to swim but is worried about progressing from the baby pool to the middle pool. So, his mother attempts to explain the depth of each pool and river by using dinosaurs as a measurement:

“I don’t think the middle-sized pool would even come up to a Stegosaurus’s knee!” she says.

The point is well-made, gradually diminishing Jim’s fears. The illustrations bear out the wisdom of the parenting well. Jim’s mother crouches down to his level and holds his hand to explain the depths, and then we see him gradually move from sitting on the bench with his mother to standing with her, tentatively holding the bench with one hand, as she leans forward encouragingly. The progress is handled sensitively and with a gradual ease. Meanwhile the dinosaurs are illustrated in a toy-friendly, colourful way, particularly when they balance on top of each other under the water.

Other points of merit include the diversity of the people around the public swimming pool and their actions, as well as Jim’s complete delight at swimming in the end. There’s even a factual dinosaur reference at the end. A lovely book for pre-schoolers and young children to see how to face down fears and take the plunge. Age 3+ years. You can buy it here.


Edward and the Great Discovery by Rebecca Mcritchie, illustrated by Celeste Hulme
It’s hard to grow up feeling that you are a disappointment. This is exactly how Edward feels, coming from a long line of important archaeologists who have all made significant discoveries. The reader first sees Edward sitting glumly on the stairs, the wall of which is hung with a plethora of portraits of the famous explorers in his family. By the end of the book, of course, Edward has made a little discovery of his own.

The overwhelmingly spelt out message of the book is that friendship is Edward’s important discovery, but for me, the redeeming features and appeal of this unusual picture book is the depiction of what discovery and exploration are – it shows what an archaeologist does, and also what a scientist does – how to investigate a discovery – learning information from museum specimens and books, as well as learning to be proud of one’s learning.

There’s a distinctive gloss and mood to the illustrations – almost like an illustrated movie, and the book is made more compelling by this – it’s a muted dark colour palate, with numerous depictions of vast bookcases, and certainly yields an unusual protagonist. These things, as well as the background detail, lend themselves well to be investigated by the reader – turning the reader into his or her own kind of explorer/decipherer. An intriguing picture book with wonderful kit list endpapers. Dig for it here.

 

King of the Sky by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Laura Carlin


An exquisitely moving picture book for an older age group that displays extraordinary depth in an ordinary tale of a boy moving to a new place and trying to make it feel like home.

Atmospheric from the start, the reader learns that the setting is a place in which the rain falls relentlessly, and the landscape is strange for the narrator – grey, and noisy:

“Little houses huddled on the humpbacked hills. Chimneys smoked and metal towers clanked.”

In fact it is Wales, and an Italian immigrant boy’s interpretation of his new surroundings.

This is a poetic reading, of a place our narrator feels is bleak. The text informs that he feels alone, and the accompanying evocative and dreamy illustrations tell the same story, with an emphasis on work and hollow spaces, faceless houses, and isolation. The boy remembers the contrast of the different smells and tones of the place he calls home – the Italian vanilla smells, yellow backgrounds, ice cream. The boy’s memory of home has been sparked by the sound of the Welsh pigeons cooing. In fact, his ensuing hope and salvation come not from new friends at school, but from a friendship with an elderly man and his hobby of pigeon racing.

This boy isn’t a toddler – again showing that this picture book isn’t for the very young, but for those who are able to fully utilise the given visuals to embellish in their own mind the narrative that is written on the page, and for those who can probe a little deeper into the emotion and meaning behind the text.

There are many layers to explore in the text, such as the boy’s ability to understand a different language through the soft speech of his new friend, the different foods he eats, and the growing friendship with the old man. But the illustrations bring out so much more, not just the contrast between the landscapes, but the change to the landscape as the boy settles; the intimacy between the man and boy that extrapolates the teaching and wisdom being imparted; the industrious town in which the boy has settled and all the different characters who populate it, from the farmer on his wagon to the mother hanging her washing; the memories of fighting in the war;  the different modes of transport and communication depicted; and finally the flight of the pigeons and the warmth that they exude.

This is an unusual story, timely indeed, although the pictures of war and the landscape make it seem historical. It is about memories of war and conflict, the settling of a newcomer in a town, as well as old age, and ultimately hope and friendship.

The depiction of the landscape’s industrialisation creates a nostalgia for a time past, as well as a nostalgia for the glowing images of Rome, as if the sun is just setting across the pages of the book with its orange and pink glow. But it ends with a look to the future, as the boy realises that home is where the heart is. You can buy it here.

Detective Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rose Raventhorpe Investigates: Black Cats and Butlers by Janine Beacham

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

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

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

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

 

 

So Good They Did It Again

Don’t we just love a good series? Box sets are all the rage. And children are no different. They love a series that gives an extra helping of the characters and adventures they liked the first time round. It makes a new book choice easier, perpetuates that reading experience, and develops character even further. Last year I highlighted four great new books, and this year each has a sequel out. And they’re just as good, if not better than the first.

Rabbit and Bear: The Pest in the Nest by Julian Gough and Jim Field

The first Rabbit and Bear book was an inspired mix of great bedtime story with subtle educational facts, dominated by wit and humour. This second in the series is no different.

Bear has woken from winter hibernation, and Rabbit is spring cleaning his burrow. But then various elements in the woods disturb Rabbit’s peace, and it is up to Bear to use his wisdom to educate Rabbit about not getting quite so het up about things, and seeing the disturbances from a different point of view. I could learn a thing or two!

Vastly reminiscent of the character of Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh for this Rabbit’s general grumpiness, but also reminiscent of the Pooh books more generally, in the ability of the characters to demonstrate the finer qualities of friendship – loyalty, kindness and gently educating each other, this is a warm story for newly developing readers.

The writing excels here. Gough has a way with words – which he transposes to Bear, of pointing things out in the most straightforward way possible. Rabbit has issues with things that are both too noisy and too quiet – Bear explains that the only thing in common with these irritations is Rabbit himself.

In this clever way, Gough gently points the reader towards learning about tolerance, and seeing things from a different perspective, but all the time through the gentle humour of Bear and the funny grumpiness of Rabbit, and with a plot that develops at pace.

There are other elements introduced, such as the usefulness of practising something, overcoming fear, and finding happiness.

The illustrations help to exemplify both the gentle message and the humour – different perspectives of the forest and the animals, but also the characters’ brilliantly expressive faces. There’s so much packed into this small book – and wonderfully the publishers have produced it to a high quality – with thick pages and hardback cover, knowing that children will want to revisit it many times. Ages 6+. You can buy it here.

King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong by Andy Riley

This series about a nine-year-old king and his hilarious adventures is suitable for the whole family and has strands that are reminiscent of The Simpsons (mimicking the stupidity of Homer and the mischievousness of Bart), but also the all-out craziness of rulers, and I’d expect nothing less from one of the writers of Veep.

When a huge monster called the Gizimoth stalks a nearby land, King Edwin (Flashypants) decides that in order to prove his kingliness he must go and fight it, but evil Emperor Nurbison has plans of his own, and they include squishing King Flashypants and his kingdom.

The book is packed with illustrations, which always convey wit, and either gently nudge on the story or give an extra emotional depth to the characters. The characters remain consistent from book one, with Nurbison’s evil laugh, Edwin’s penchant for sweet foods, and Jill’s sensibleness, but each develops further with this second book.

There’s the usual amount of silliness – things being too small, or oversized, words being overused, vomit and poo etc., but there’s also a clever wit behind it all, and twists on modern everyday references that children will recognise – such as portions of fruit and vegetables, and talking about what they’ve learned after the adventure (circle time).

In fact, the book is incredibly cartoon-like – from characters falling off cliffs, to breaking their weapons, to my absolute favourite – the illustration of the evil Emperor’s sidekick Globulus on his knees, wailing “Emperooor” as his beloved Nurbison is….(no spoilers here!)

Riley is clever – there is a joke on almost every page, either tucked into plot or character, or poking the reader right between the eyes. It’s almost as if the humour is infectious – you can tell the author must have had a huge amount of fun writing it.

All in all, a preposterous story, but utterly brilliant. Packed with great character, subtle heart, charm, and nods to the history of storytelling and modern culture. King Flashypants and the Dolls of Doom is due in the autumn. Ages 6+. You can buy King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong here.

Dave Pigeon (Nuggets!) by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Whereas in the first Dave Pigeon book humans were friends – keepers of jam biscuits and distributors of bread, in Dave Pigeon (Nuggets!) the new human is most definitely the enemy.

With their normal human and her Mean Cat away on holiday, Dave Pigeon and his friend Skipper need to find another source of food. When they stumble upon Reginald Grimster beckoning them with crumbs, they think they’ve found another patron, but would a man with mini-umbrellas on his shoulders, who keeps other pigeons in cages, really be friendly towards birds, or is he looking to make some nuggets?

This is another fabulously funny tale about Dave, our pigeon with a complete lack of self-awareness, or in fact general awareness, other than for food. Luckily he has a great friend in Skipper, who is a tad more worldly, and manages to keep them both from fatal danger.

The laughs in this story come from either Dave’s lack of self-awareness, or from the fact that all the pigeons featured are so uncompromisingly human in their thoughts and actions, such as putting up one feather in front of their beaks to keep each other quiet.

Also much of the humour comes out of misunderstandings and slapstick – a pigeon called Fienne, pronounced fine, whom none of the others realise is saying his name rather than his state of being, some nervously pooing pigeons, and a pigeon spy agency… Of course the whole premise and plot are so ridiculous that this is what makes it funny, particularly when the enemy this time is a man with a chip on his shoulder about pigeon poo.

As before, the story is punctuated with little speech bubbles from the pigeons arguing with each other about the book they are writing or talking directly to the reader, and these are all funny as well as providing interesting interludes. And because the pigeons are purporting to write the books themselves, there is an added element of self-reference in the writing too.

The illustrations are glorious – particularly as there is a fair cast of pigeons in this book as opposed to the few in the first book, and some particularly enthralling scenes in a supermarket. Never have pigeons seemed quite so appealing. Ages 6+. Buy it here.

Waiting for Callback Take Two by Perdita and Honor Cargill

Picking up more or less where the first book left off, this witty contemporary YA (although suitable for tweens) second book, Waiting for Callback Take Two, tells the tale of Elektra, a young teen wannabe actress. It can be read as a stand-alone though, as book two joins Elektra about to embark on her first film role in a dystopian thriller with some A-list stars. The book follows the trials and tribulations of filming – the delays, the stars, the arguments and the rewrites. At the same time, Elektra is just a normal teen living at home, and the reader sees her juggle her normal life of summer holidays, friendships, studying and boyfriends along with her new career.

As with the last novel, Elektra is a wonderful protagonist. Witty, somewhat self-deprecating, a little prone to peer pressure and manipulation, she is a character with whom to identify. Her supporting cast works well too – a loyal best friend, an ongoing boyfriend (will they/won’t they communicate properly?), an eccentric and loveable grandmother, and of course a home life with an over-wrought mother who struggles to make peace with her daughter’s new found passion for acting. If anything the character of the mother in this second book is slightly overdone compared to the first – less subtly witty and more full-on anxious, but she also becomes more of a minor character here.

The book feels warm and friendly throughout – mainly down to the main character, and has pace and a good evolving plot. There are interspersed gossip columns reporting on showbiz, as well as letters from Elektra’s agent, and the most winning bit for me were the text messages between Elektra and various people, but most particularly her boyfriend. Archie is a phenomenal character – a great teen boy trying to navigate his way in the world, and with women.

It’s a book that hooks the reader right from the beginning, with great dialogue, realistic inner consciousness, and oodles of heart and humour. Age 11+. Take a look here.

 

Wintry Tales for Cold Days

snowflake-in-my-pocket

Snowflake in my Pocket by Rachel Bright, illustrated by Yu Rong

A wintry picture book about a squirrel’s first experience of snow is a perfect first experience book, which also teaches that sharing a new adventure with someone we love is the most gratifying way to experience it. The personification of a squirrel to show a child’s exuberance and delight in first snow is a clever choice – the scampering and scurrying reflects a child’s enthusiasm.

There is much to be said for the beautiful language in the book, transposing the vocabulary for snow onto the language of everyday: Squirrel has a flurry of dreams. It even starts, “once upon a winter…” There is lots of sound language too – the thud of the heart, the squeedge as he wipes a paw across the hole to see outside – in fact this window circle is cut through to the next page, adding an extra element of wonder and magic for the reader.

An anticipation of snow is tensely built and then the fun really starts when it snows – told in an active vignette of images, from the crunch of footsteps, to snow angels, and the creation of a snow bear. But there is also the stillness that snow lends to a landscape.

But most of all the book shows the relationship between the two friends: his companion, the old Bear, who has seen many seasons, whereas Squirrel, has seen only three. When the snow finally comes, Bear is ill in bed, so Squirrel brings him a gift, with the innocence of one who doesn’t realise the transience of snow.

The illustrations of the characters are cute, from their black noses and whiskers to their rounded silhouettes. A bright colourful palette is lit particularly by the squirrel who is a luscious orange red colour, and wears bright clothing to distinguish him from the brown trees and snow. This accentuates his youth even more – he lifts off the page, whereas the Bear is shown more muted with age, shown on some pages from just his reflection in the pool of water, or just his back shown in an armchair, or just his arms, holding and consoling Squirrel.

This is a lovely winter book, with sneezles and snowflakes. You can buy it here.

the-snowflake-mistake

The Snowflake Mistake by Lou Treleaven and Maddie Frost

Ever since Frozen, the idea of an ice palace has been a coveted house in many young children’s minds. This ice palace is actually a factory that makes snowflakes, with the boss being The Snow Queen, a sort of Willy Wonka who insists on perfection in her flakes. Princess Ellie would rather play with the weather, riding storm clouds or sliding the rainbow.

When the Queen leaves Ellie in charge of the machine while she attends to other weather business, the snowflake machine comes to a grinding halt and the princess has to make flakes by hand.

The vocabulary here is also full of sounds, as the author explores what the machine needs to do to make snowflakes, from splatting the clouds to crashing, boings, bangs, and pops – it’s a great book to read aloud – the size of the typeface reflecting the words’ noise level.

Again the essential fun of playing in the snow is captured in a beautiful double page spread as the children below the clouds play on their ‘iced bun’ hills, shown sledging and skiing and making snow angels and rolling snowballs. The colours of the children, each in bright coats, hats and scarves mean that the twinkling of the snowflakes are a perfect background to the riot of colour.

All the illustrations are a child’s delight – lots of different shaped snowflakes falling on every scene, and a princess and her mother who look particularly picture-book friendly with small yellow crowns, rosy cheeks and shiny blue hair.

The rhyming is spot on, and it turns out that homemade snowflakes, each unique in its own way, are better than factory created ones. Perhaps a bigger moral for us is that the Queen ends up making snowflakes with her daughter. You can buy it here.

raven-child

Raven Child and the Snow Witch by Linda Sunderland and Daniel Egneus

Lastly, the Raven Child and the Snow Witch. A slightly more sinister story, although by far the glitteriest front cover. Drawing on tales of evil Ice Queens, such as the Snow Queen in Narnia, this is a tale of a stolen mother, a brave, slightly feral, child and her relationship with nature and animals.

As in Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast, in which the picking of flowers leads to danger, Anya’s mother journeys to the glacier to pick blue gentian flowers. But one year she doesn’t return, and Anya and her father must travel there too to find out what has happened. She has been trapped inside the ice by the evil Snow Witch, and Anya, with her father and the ravens, must battle to save her.

A haunting fairytale, this book excels with its dramatic artworks. Rather like the textures and colour layering used in Eric Carle books, the child is depicted as of nature, with her brown leaf dress, and her affinity with the ravens and the foxes. The illustrations are drawn from different points of view – looking through the trees towards the building that dominates the snow garden, or seeing the trees in the forest as if they are watching, or zooming in to the Raven Child’s face and her huge blue eyes as she receives a vision of where her mother is being held. Dreamlike and lyrical, the illustrations have sharp edges, which lends a darkness to the tale.

The place could be anywhere, with fragments of the Northern Americas, with Inuit overtones, and yet also, strangely, slightly European – calling up the huge expanses of Germanic forests.

Big ideas and concepts flow into the book, from the spookily shimmery elongated shapes of the Snow Witch – cascading white strips down the page as if the snow is swirling and whirling around, and language too that speaks to poetry, from the Arctic fox, “ghost of the snow”, to “the lightning that stabbed the darkening sky.”

In the end it is bravery and the power of love that conquers all. One to savour and revisit – reminiscent of Peter and the Wolf, set to music I can see this as being a long-lasting winter tale. Check it out here.

 

 

Animal Non-Fiction

I have been wondering about the ratio of children’s non-fiction books about animals, to children’s books about anything else. So many seem to feature animals – in the same way that picture books often use animals as a way of exploring human foibles, or pointing out the differences between humans and animals in a subconscious way. For children, animals can be the way into various topics – geography about where they live, how the food cycle works, our emotions and behaviour (through the differences and similarities with animals), the way we portray animals in art and photography, and the environment and how human behaviour affects it. Animals are an excellent frame of reference. After watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth 2 with children, it’s easy to see how exciting animal life can be.

lesser-spotted-animals

Martin Brown’s Lesser Spotted Animals
From the illustrator of Horrible Histories comes this adorable non-fiction approbation to all the brilliant beasts that never quite make it into your average animal encyclopedia. Who needs further facts about flamingos or information about iguanas when you can read about the Lesser Fairy Armadillo, the Dagger-Toothed Flower Bat or the Yellow-Footed Rock-Wallaby? The latter is not a pop star wannabe, just a wallaby.

Funny from the book’s dedication onwards, Brown separates the ‘celebrity animals’ we all know and love, such as the koala, from the animals featured in his book. Each creature receives a double page spread, with a large illustration and accompanying text and facts – size, eating, habitat, status etc. The text is informative, but also a cry for help – as some of them are endangered.

Brown gives each illustration its own animal personality – with rolled eyes, or sneaky smiles or in the Gaur’s case, a death stare. This makes the book wonderfully amusing at the same time as hugely memorable and informative. I can definitely picture many eight year old children entertaining me with their facts about creatures who may sound made up, but actually exist. It’s telling that this was one of my review copy books that was appropriated by a child almost immediately. I learnt that a male lesser fairy armadillo is called a lister. (if you follow me on Facebook, you’ll see why that tickled me). Buy a copy here and have a good giggle.

wilderness

Wilderness: An Interactive Atlas of Animals by Hannah Pang, illustrated by Jenny Wren
Although not purporting to do anything particularly new in the realms of children’s non-fiction, this is a particularly appealing book for the young non-fiction readership. It firmly places animals within their geography, teaching chosen facts about specific animals, as well as placing them within their habitats so that everything from common animals to more exotic, surprising species are highlighted.

Each page is a different environment, from Desert to Fresh Water, for example, and species within the latter include the common frog and the kingfisher as well as the diving bell spider, which spends its whole life underwater. What’s particularly appealing is the 3D visual interactive features of each page – in Fresh Water, the common frog is bullet-pointed with facts about the tadpole-to-frog-story, but enhanced by the visual spinning wheel which illustrates each stage, complete with matching bulleted-numbers for easy reference.

The page on the Hot Savannah features such beauties as the African thorn tree and the sociable weaver bird, but also encourages the reader to go on safari themselves, as hiding beneath the camouflaging grass illustration is information about the grass itself and the lion and zebra. One ostrich egg opens to reveal the number of hen eggs to which it is equivalent in size. Read the book to find out!

Few readers will forget which pole is where, as the Arctic sits firmly on top of the Antarctic -the latter being portrayed upside down.

The first page gives a quick guide introduction – explaining the definition of habitat, giving a key to the different types, and explaining the hemispheres, but all in very simple basic language that is easy to understand.

Each page is a hardy cardboard, allowing for the 3D visual elements – such as the pop-up mountain, but also lending a longevity to this colourful, and thoughtfully put-together animal book. You can buy a copy here.

secrets-of-the-sea

Secrets of the Sea: Discover a Hidden World by Kate Baker, illustrated by Eleanor Taylor
The sort of children’s book that doubles as a coffee table manual, or a tome that could be smuggled under the duvet and inspire future generations of marine biologists. From the publishers of Botanicum, Animalium and Historium, comes a new scientific study in illustration – life beneath water.

From rockpools along the shore, to the deepest depths of the ocean, Eleanor Taylor zooms in on fascinating sea dwellers to show the reader the intense beauty and incredible detail of a rarely photographed or illustrated world.

Each page is given over to a different species, from the wondrous pygmy seahorse, ordinarily only 2 cm in size, here magnified to over 20 times, and in a glorious illustration that shows it clinging to its host sea fan by its tail. Text details are given alongside – from its size to Latin name, behaviour, habitat and other facts. The reader can look at even more minute creatures though, such as the 2 mm in size sea butterfly – a marine snail that uses its heart-shaped muscular foot as a pair of wings.

Or perhaps, look at something larger, but under a microscope. Taylor illustrates fish gills as seen under a microscope – they look like feathers, or leaves from an exquisite tree.

The book is split into sections – swimming from the Shallows, through Sea Forests, Coral Gardens and finally into the Deep. The use of background colour throughout the book reflects this, so that by the time the reader is studying creatures in the deepest part of the ocean, the book has turned almost black, yet with a grainy bubbles feeling, a swooshy watery sensation so that the pages almost look as if they are floating in water.

The artworks are a combination of various forms including ink and charcoal, although coloured digitally, and the effect is quite mesmerising. Seeing images in such microscopic detail does make the reader think twice about what exactly it is they are looking at – zooming in at such an intensity magnifies the beauty.

The text is informative, but also fairly descriptive – definitely aimed at a confident and learned reader. However, even the youngest sibling may be enamoured by the description and picture of ‘sea sparkle’, a single-celled organism that lights up the sea at night – otherwise known as ‘sea fire’ or ‘sea ghost’. Who wouldn’t be won over? This is very stunning-looking non-fiction book to inspire future generations and delight older ones. Age 8+ years. Buy your copy here.

on-the-trail-of-the-whalewhere-is-the-bear
Supersearch Adventures: On the Trail of the Whale by Camilla de la Bedoyere and illustrated by Richard Watson, and Where is the Bear? By Camilla de la Bedoyere and illustrated by Emma Levey
Doubling as an activity book and fact book, this is another non-fiction book in which the reader learns through play and fiction narrative.

The fold out glossy cover flaps show panoramic artwork and creature spotting tick boxes to work through as the reader goes through the book. On the Trail of the Whale follows Otto the Octopus as he tries to find his best friend Hula the humpback whale, whilst Where is the Bear? follows Suki the hare looking to deliver a present to a bear called Ping.

Both books allow the reader to traverse through particular landscapes spotting animals that live there, and finding out facts about them.

The drawings are cartoon-like and colourful, appealing well to the target readership, children aged five and over. The instructions are rhyming, but the facts written clearly, as speech bubbles from the various creatures. The story nicely splits up the facts, so that there is plenty of movement on each page – the adventure doesn’t stop.

There are even some maths problems lineated inside the book, asking the reader to work out numbers of legs and suchlike. Fun, bright, and following a simple narrative. Buy On the Trail of the Whale here and Where is the Bear? here.

knowledge-animal

Knowledge Encyclopedia Animal
It may not feature the lesser fairy armadillo, but this is a fairly comprehensive look at the animals of the world, using computer-generated artworks to capture the variety of the animal world, and the details of each individual animal.

Starting with the basic question of what is an animal, the book then breaks it down into classification and explores types of animals with sections on invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals – colour-coded for ease. Fully comprehensive, there is a scale for sizing, glossary, and a section on general animal science, including parenting and migration.

As this is a DK encyclopedia, the text is accessible without being patronising. It’s not chatty but not too dry either. It feels like a hefty purchase, with a myriad of different ways of putting across information including factfiles, closeups, skeletons and diagrams.

There is lots of white space, illustrations that are sharply annotated and labelled with captions that give oodles of information. The text is concisely edited, giving the maximum amount of information in the fewest words.

The Galapagos tortoise double spread includes fact titbits such as the age it lives to, but also close up of growth rings, the armour plate, information on its bony carapace, its beak and rivalry, as well as the difference between its front and hind feet.

Fully checked by the Smithsonian Institute, the book has also been rigorously looked at to suit the national curriculum up to Key Stage 3, covering components such as habitats and ecosystems as well as senses and respiration. What an incredible way to learn. You can purchase your copy here.

 

No Angry Birds Here

It’s walk to school week this week. I’m one of those smug people who walk to school every day, but although the walk is the same, what we see and hear changes from day to day, season to season. There’s traffic of course, but a field to stroll across too, and that’s where we see wildlife. We skip over the slugs, avoid squashing the snails, dart away from dogs, and flap at flies. But we see some beautiful birds, so here are five fiction books – one for each school day this week – about birds!

dave pigeon

Monday: Dave Pigeon by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Not unlike The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp, Haddow has written a riotously funny book from the point of view of a pigeon – in fact the strapline betrays the fact that the book is almost a manual for pigeons – ‘How to Deal with Bad Cats and Keep (most of) Your Feathers.’ Dempsey’s hilarious pigeon on the front, wrapped in bandages, declares in a speech bubble that this is the best book you’ll ever read. It is certainly one of the funniest.

Pigeons Dave and Skipper are friends. But their common enemy is Mean Cat, and through the book they relay (in narrative and conversational speech bubbles) their attempt to defeat the cat and oust it from its comfortable home with Human Lady – taking the cat’s place, especially because the Human Lady has the nice biscuits with jam in the middle. The text reads in part through speech bubbles, but even when there is traditional narrative, it’s interspersed by the two pigeons bantering as they attempt to tell the story.

Their plans to outwit Mean Cat grow more and more absurd, but are always extremely funny. The pigeon’s point of view and language is exceptionally rendered with silly humour and observation:

“I lay back on the lawn. The grass dazzled greener, the sky shone bluer and the washing line looked lineier. Life was cat-free and felt birdrilliant!”

With a surprising ending, and equally comical illustrations from Dempsey, this is a title for younger readers to grab and adore. Look in particular for the full page illustrations in which the pigeons wait for rain. For ages 6+. Fly to your copy here.

tufty

Tuesday: Tufty by Michael Foreman
A gentle picture book about losing one’s family but finding a mate in Michael Foreman’s new book. As with many of his illustrations, they feel traditional – rendered first as sketches and then painted.

Tufty is placed firmly in London – he’s a duck that lives in the middle of the lake near the royal palace – in a nice touch the human royalty are drawn as being rather birdlike, and are addressed by the Mother Duck as ‘The Royal Duck and Duckess.’ But the story isn’t really about royalty – it tells the tale of Tufty flying south for winter, but losing his family in the process.

Perhaps an environmental comment lies within, as Tufty flies beautifully over Hyde Park – the Albert Memorial depicted lovingly from a bird’s eye view, but then the small duck gets lost among the cranes and towering buildings of London. The orange cranes and glass buildings are distinctive by their lack of distinction from each other.

Tufty is rescued by a homeless man, and then eventually finds his own duck mate back near the palace. The scenes of nature feel homely and gentle, with a wash of colours across the sky that reflect in the lake. All in all, an uplifting story – young readers will like the homeless man’s hollow in the tree, and the tenderness of finding a home, wherever it may be. Take one home with you here.

swan boy

Wednesday: Swan Boy by Nikki Sheehan

Swans and metamorphosis have long gone together – from narrative roots in Leda and the Swan to Russian folk stories such as The White Duck, and the Grimm’s Six Swans, as well as the ballet Swan Lake, and the contemporary film Black Swan.

Nikki Sheehan infuses her latest book with magic realism. She tells of a boy grieving for his father and suffering the agonies of starting a new school, and yet weaves in subtle fantasy and magic by gradually layering swan attributes and feathers on his body at the same time as an inspirational teacher at school persuades him to dance in her production of Swan Lake.

The story works because the contemporary London setting, the character of Johnny and his mother and brother, as well as his peers around him, feel so real that long before the swan metamorphosis becomes an issue, the reader is sucked into the story. The writing is so solid and the characters so rounded that its even believable that bully Liam and his cronies, and Johnny become fully immersed in a Matthew Bourne type production of a ballet to be performed in front of the school.

If anything, Sheehan could have pushed the ‘darkness’ of Johnny’s discovery of feathers on his body a little further – but the novel wins hands down in its portrayal of his character – his rising to the responsibility of caring for his little brother Mojo (who himself is fully realised with his penchant for drawing and his own reaction to his father’s death), and also in Johnny’s realisation that friendship takes work and sacrifice. The slight shift to Liam’s point of view didn’t garner my sympathy, but the story as a whole was compelling and page-turning.

This is a good poignant study of the effects of bereavement on a family (for this audience) and a solid plot that moves quickly and effortlessly. Thoroughly enjoyable. For 10+ years. Buy a copy here.

seagull and cat

Thursday: The Story of the Seagull and the Cat who taught her to Fly by Luis Sepulveda, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura

Books in translation can be hard to get into – the rhythms and what’s suitable for children can vary country to country – but this quirky story of a seagull (and mainly a cat) is worth persevering with. A gull, stricken in an environmental oil spill, gives birth to an egg, and leaves a dying wish that the cat, Zorba (who is the last animal she sees) nurture her baby and teach it to fly.

As with all good literature, it’s the characters that forge through and make the book. And this cat, together with his gang, is no exception. Completely anthropomorphised, he shoulders the responsibility with pride and a little anxiety, using his friends the Colonel, the Secretario and Einstein – the last of which rapidly searches for answers to everything in an encyclopedia. The cats themselves are fairly eccentric, and owned by even more eccentric humans, and the book is flooded with humour because of this.

The second part is most endearing as the gull hatches and the impetus is on the cats to teach it to fly – they try to study da Vinci’s flying machine for clues. It’s for a mature reader – one who can handle the vocabulary, but underneath that is a beautiful tale of friendship, perseverance and identity, as well as age-old themes of life and death.

Kitamura’s illustrations bring the story to life, adding humour, expression and unique characteristics to each personality – and should be savoured. A classic from Chile. For age 8+ years. Buy it here.

dawn chorus

Friday: The Dawn Chorus by Suzanne Barton

From the complex to the unassuming – this picture book is beautiful by way of its simplicity. Peep hears a beautiful song upon waking and wishes to know what it is. On discovering it’s the Dawn Chorus, he is invited to join in if he can audition. Unfortunately for him, he’s just not an early bird kind of a bird, and fails to turn up on time, then fails to stay awake during the audition the following morning.

Of course it’s not his fault, it turns out he’s a nightingale – and dawn is the wrong time of day for him to sing.

Suzanne Barton has managed to express the beauty of bird song through her renderings of colour in this picture book – from the leaves on the front cover to the luscious harmony of reds, oranges and yellows of the gathered birds of the dawn chorus. Each bird is drawn to be plump with patterned wings and tails – almost collage-like in their depiction. It gives them a cuteness, and yet doesn’t completely sentimentalise them.

Young children will delight in the hanging musical notes in the air, the bird conductor with baton in hand, and the delightfully tender ending. It’s uplifting, a lovely introduction to birds and nocturnal animals, and about persevering for what you want and who you are. Take home your own dawn chorus here.