Book of the Week

Gulliver retold by Mary Webb, illustrated by Lauren O’Neill

Gulliver

There are so many versions of the classics tales out there, that it can be very difficult and confusing to pick the right one for your child. As a purist I always like to reach for the original, but for something like Gulliver’s Travels although the story can work for a much younger age group, the original text is more suited to young adults and older.

The poet John Gay wrote to Swift that “it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.” Of course the word Lilliputian even entered the dictionary, but for those who wish to read it firstly as a simple story with simplified satire, an easier version is required, one without Swift’s wordiness.

Mary Webb has retold two of Gulliver’s adventures – his time with the Lilliputians in which he is perceived as a giant, and his time in Brobdingnag where the people are giants compared to him. Mary retains much of the original humour and satire, Gulliver’s remarks on the futility of war – when the Lilliputians fight their neighbours over the correct way to crack an egg, and keeps in much of Gulliver’s disgust at the way humans behave – especially when they are magnified to the size of giants.

It’s always a pleasure for an author to depict the world seen from a different point of view – in this case either as someone very small, or someone very big. Astute observations can be made about the world when it’s viewed at a distance and from a different perspective. Webb has kept in as much as possible – from Gulliver’s perspective of power to his toileting habits.

Lauren O’Neill’s illustrations fit the story very well. A slightly muted grey/blue tinge holds sway over every page, and bold reds illuminate specific features such as flags, sails, capes and arrow tips. There is a good amount of detail, and fabulous drawings of old-fashioned clothes and sail boats, which give clues to the reader as to when the book was written.

The very small introduction to Swift’s book on the contents page is particularly excellent. It describes in the simplest and most concise language what Swift was trying to achieve, and what lessons can be extrapolated from the tales.

This is a lovely edition that can be enjoyed shared with a parent, or read alone. The red ribbon to mark page position is a well-spent printing cost, and makes the book a good gift option. Buy here from Waterstones.

Green Lizards vs Red Rectangles by Steve Antony

green lizards

I make no apologies for featuring two books by Steve Antony in one week. He burst onto the children’s picture book scene less than two years ago with The Queen’s Hat, and has been prolific since. (Last week’s blog featured The Queen’s Handbag). Green Lizards and Red Rectangles takes trademark Antony’s detailed drawings a step further. Soldiers and police officers dominated the earlier titles, this book features a colossal number of green lizards, each in a different position with a different expression. However, as the title implies, these are not passive lizards – they are in a big fight against the red rectangles. This is a fantastically clever book about conflict.

The book illustrates a war between the two factions, each page shows them fighting. When one green lizard asks what they are fighting for, he is promptly squashed by a red rectangle. Steve Antony cleverly depicts the futility of war – rectangles are inanimate objects.

The colours are well chosen – they stand out in direct contrast to each other. The page in which Antony describes the red rectangles as being smart is particularly clever. The lizards have pushed over a red rectangle, and more are toppling, but as the reader traces round the page, they discover the domino effect – in the end the last tall rectangle will fall on the lizards, crushing them.

The page in which the green lizards demonstrate their strength in numbers, managing to push back the red rectangles, is also witty and astute. Not all the lizards appear to be as gung-ho as the others – take a good look at their body posture and expressions.

When the war turns particularly bad in the middle of the book, the rectangles and lizards take to fighting each other individually. Again, there is much to notice on these pages – spot the ninja lizard, and the injured one.

There is resolution at the end though. Firstly, Antony correctly shows conflict as being exhausting – and then when a truce is called, the arrangement at the end is rather effective. Rather than resolving the fight by homogenising the differences between the two, Antony shows that the two sides may have stark differences, but they can live side by side – in a surprising way.

I noticed that the book is dedicated to Antony’s three brothers – perhaps the book shows not just the futility of war, but resolutions for sibling conflict – something about which young children are only too aware. You can buy a copy here.

Close to the Wind by Jon Walter

close to the wind

Walter’s second book, My Name’s Not Friday, may have been longlisted for The Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize this year, and nominated for the 2016 Carnegie Medal, but in case you are waiting for the paperback (July 2016), I suggest you read Jon Walter’s first book first, Close to the Wind. It was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal last year, and is a great piece of literature.

Close to the Wind tells the story of Malik, a refugee waiting with his grandfather for a ship to carry him across the sea to a promised land, where there are big houses with white picket fences and post boxes at the front gates. In order to secure them a place aboard, his grandfather makes a deal, but it’s not the one Malik imagines, and in the end, Malik must dig deep for the courage and tenacity to travel, and find a way to perfect a magic trick that might just save him.

This book works well in three different ways – keeping the reader in thrall to the very end. Cleverly conceived, although Malik is given a name, there are no clear indicators of time or place, so that the soldiers, the ship, the deserted houses, and the cast-aside animals drop clues to the reader but could belong to any war-torn country at any time. Malik becomes the everyman refugee – an everyboy.

Secondly, the plot is tightly planned so that everyday boyish incidents which seem trivial in the first part, become crucial to the second. Every action predetermines another – every thought is consequential. Saying that, it’s not a hard book to follow – the writing style weaves along simply enough so that the reader is swept along on the journey with Malik, and the plot reveal of Malik’s accomplished magic trick is breath-taking.

And thirdly, this simple story is jam-packed with emotion. From the anticipation of the journey aboard the ship at the beginning of the story, to the anger at betrayal, to a small boy’s fear of abandonment, and his bewilderment at the behaviour of others, to the abiding tension of whether he will ultimately succeed in his quest, his longing for resolution, the promise of the new and the remembrance of the old. There is no let up to the inner turmoil and conflict of the characters. In this way, it is a perfect read for our age – a perfect vehicle for empathy with those fleeing their homelands, for any child lost in an adult world. The final reconciliation brings so much joy that any reader will weep with relief and happiness. I wish there was a sequel – I was reluctant to leave Malik, even in the good hands he finally found himself.

This is Jon Walter’s debut novel. It is truly accomplished, so you won’t want to wait for the paperback of His Name’s Not Friday, you’ll want both books…as soon as possible. Recommended for 9+ years.

You can buy a copy here. Or go to http://www.davidficklingbooks.com/ for a signed copy.

I would like to thank Jake Hayes and Jon Walter for sending me a copy of the book.

National Theatre: All About Theatre

National Theatre

Collaborations between national institutions and children’s book publishers can produce some of the most exciting books for children, so I was delighted to receive Walker Books’ All About Theatre book, produced with the National Theatre.

I’m doubly delighted to bring it to you today, 1st November, for National Non-fiction November.

Drama is a key topic for children – it can boost confidence, encourage visual and spatial awareness, helps communication skills, teamwork and cooperation, empathy, and of course creativity. By providing a romp through all the various elements that go into theatre production, this book excels in its comprehensiveness as well as its stunning graphics and accompanying photography.

Each aspect of putting on a theatre production is covered in a separate chapter, and with reference to a National Theatre production. The introduction contains a very brief history of theatre, and then an explanation of what the National Theatre is, and an extended glossary of who’s who within a theatre.

The chapters range from the play itself, including different genres, playwrights, the vision (this page features glorious photographs of War Horse), directors and puppets. Then the cast – actors, rehearsals, tricks of the trade, stagecraft, stage fighting, comic timing – and this is only the first 48 pages of a 130 page book.

There is so much that goes into a production, and this book proves it. I particularly liked the graphics representing different types of staging from proscenium arches to thrust and the round; and the page on costumes depicting how to get from sketch to stage. The photos for make-up feature the play Frankenstein – a very gruesome picture here, and a lovely ‘try me at home’ section on how to apply stage make up – to create a green witch.

For those with a less audience-facing inclination, there is plenty on creating props, lighting, special effects, music, and even marketing.

There are anecdotes and tips from stars of the stage, and professionals who work behind the scenes, and an amazing variety and array of plays and tools – from Shakespeare to Treasure Island, One Man Two Guvnors to Emil and the Detectives. What’s more this is a book that can be read front to back, or dipped into for particular skillsets.

There is a bold use of colour throughout – many different colour backgrounds, but all with easy to read text. The pages contain chunks of text, captions, snippets, quotes, lists and diagrams so it’s fun, attractive and handy reference. Easy on the eye, and easy to understand.

If this doesn’t inspire you to see theatre, make theatre, enjoy and appreciate theatre, then I don’t know what will. After all, all the world’s a stage….

Age range approx. 8+ years.

You can buy it here.

Nelly and the Quest for Captain Peabody by Roland Chambers, illustrated by Ella Okstad

nelly and the quest for captain peabody

Leaping onto the bandwagon of highly illustrated texts for young readers (in the vein of Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre), comes a new title about a voyage on the seas. It’s not as wacky as Philip Reeve’s tales, but this story is told with such beautiful writing, that it had to be my book of the week.

Nelly is determined to set sail and search for her father, who promised to return after a year, but has been missing at sea for a long time. Leaving behind her mother, who seems to do little except sit and knit, Nelly roams the seas with just her pet turtle, Columbus for company.

Nelly is a plucky and resourceful heroine, just like her contemporaries, Ottoline by Chris Riddell and Violet by Harriet Whitehorn, and following in the footsteps of Pippi Longstocking. When Nelly says she is going to do something she sticks to it. She knits new sails for her ship, stocks it with provisions, and while sailing the high seas she learns to juggle china cups and eats lemons for a month. She may be a solitary child, but she is never bored.

The author’s knowledge of seas (he wrote a biography of Authur Ransome, the author of Swallows and Amazons) comes into its own here with lavish descriptions of boats and sailing, from storms at sea to the tasks of maintaining a ship. The story contains a rich vocabulary of sailing terminology. But that is not all, Chamber’s descriptions are simply sumptuous:

“When Nelly sailed into her first storm it was as though a thousand shouting mouths had opened in the water.”
and things take off spectacularly when Nelly reaches a surprising volcano in the northern seas, inside which her father might be residing:
“And all the time the drums sounded louder-lub-dub, lub-dub-like Nelly’s own heart beating, so that it was hard to tell what was inside and what was outside.”

The story veers off into fantasy (as if it wasn’t fantasy enough with a girl sailing with knitted sails across the world on her own), as she delves into a hidden volcano at the top of the world, inside which is a jungle where her father and his crew are living quite happily.

Despite being fantastical, and a delight to read, there are patches of extraordinary darkness – her parent’s inconceivable neglect, scary moments at sea, the frightening trek through the jungle, and her complicated reunion with her father.

Some critics have alluded to the lack of female characters – Nelly is the only female in the entire book (the mother is notable by her absence), but I would think there is scope for this to be rectified in further stories of Nelly. Moreover, her strength, intelligence and integrity stand out against the lack of qualities in the male characters. And it is superbly tongue-in-cheek that she is granted ‘honorary gentleman status’.

Ella Okstad’s illustrations enhance the text; there are maps, portraits, fabulous depictions of Nelly’s turtle, and great pictures of the ship to assist any reader struggling with the rich language. Although the interest level is 7+yrs, the reading level is slightly higher because of the language – but this is a treat – it means it’s ripe for reading aloud to your children – and more enjoyment for all.

I reviewed a proof copy of this book, which sadly didn’t contain all the finished illustrations. You can buy your own copy here, and enjoy all the illustrations fully.

 

Railhead by Philip Reeve

Railhead

It was apparent from the name of the book (and its author) that this was going to be one exhilarating rollercoaster ride of a book, and the content lives up to its title. Packed with action from the beginning, it’s an adrenaline ride that takes the reader through multiple emotions, with a large cast of engaging characters.

Zen Starling is a petty thief in the future, a place where interstellar locomotives run through the Great Network, passing through K portals – like wormholes – to jump from one planet to another. Mingling with the humans are drones and androids, train maintenance spiders, station angels and hive monks – the reader feels the heaving mass of transit and commuters passing through. When the mysterious Raven sends Zen on a mission to infiltrate the ruling Emperor’s train, in return for safety and riches, Zen is raring to exploit the opportunity of exploring this amazing web of worlds, riding the trains through the Great Network. But in the end Zen has to decide who is fighting for good and who is fighting for evil, and where his loyalties lie.

Philip Reeve’s imagination knows no limits. The world he has built includes trains that come alive, insects that commune together in formations to look like people, robots with whom you can fall in love. It takes a few pages to get to grips with the futuristic terminology that Reeve has created to describe systems and castes in his new world, but before long they become a part of the reader’s language. And each new technology is only a magnified version of our own – the Internet becomes a thing of the past, and the ‘datasea’ Zen’s present. There are algae colonies, breathing out oxygen “seeded in the shallows when the planet was being terraformed”; there are drones galore.

Despite this scintillating world beyond ours, there is familiarity in the age-old narrative devices of following a protagonist as he navigates through good and evil; through the clearly delineated hierarchy of this new society; and on his journey of discovery to find out whom he can trust.

Reeve’s language is chosen carefully – each word lives up to the world he is trying to create, from the ‘flutter-thud’ of rotors, to Zen’s luck, which is ‘glitchy’. But one of the most compelling characters is an android – who mirrors human emotions and reactions in order to seem more human itself:

“Nova sniffed. She had no need to sniff, but she had seen movies, and knew it was something that people did when they’d been crying.” Almost as if Reeve has taken how an author crafts a character’s reaction to things, and has stripped it bare for the reader to see. It’s fascinating, eerie, and wonderful at the same time.

Railhead is sci-fi, thriller, and romance, all neatly tucked into one fascinating book. Although marketed for children aged 12+yrs, it will be a lucky adult who gets to read it too. It’s amazingly filmic – Zen’s world is so otherworldly, and yet conversely seems so real.

You can buy it here.

With thanks to OUP for a review copy.

 

The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield

Bear and the Piano

One of the most emotional picture books I’ve read for a while, The Bear and the Piano seems a simple story, but on closer inspection there is a depth and complexity to the book. It speaks of human endeavour and success. It asks what’s important in life, and addresses what it is to belong somewhere. It tells of friendship and the power of music, and all in a story about a bear and a piano.

One day a young bear finds a piano in the woods. He has no idea what it is, and it makes an awful noise. But after years of trying out ‘noises’ on it, the bear discovers that it can make beautiful music, and the other creatures in the wood enjoy hearing him play. Then a girl comes to the woods and tells him about Broadway and the opportunities there, and he leaves for the big city. When he finally returns, he wonders if his friends will have forgotten about him – or be cross that he left.

David Litchfield’s illustrations are magical. Each picture plays with a light source: the forest floor is depicted with dappled sunlight, which throws shadows from the tall trees. The scene in which the bear leaves the wood shows the sunlight over the water illuminating the fronts of the other bears – even though their backs are to the reader as they watch the bear and the girl row away in a boat. The electric spotlights and headlamps of the cars light up the big city, and in turn the reflection of the night-time buildings light up the water. The majesty of the forest landscape and cityscape is never in doubt.

Each detail is stunningly depicted – from the fur on the bear, to the expressions of the audience when he plays the piano. The bear’s face as he listens to the music he makes is beautiful – you can even see it on the book cover.

It’s a sweet story – but the depth of narrative and illustration is what pulled me in. The reader discovers that the bear only manages to create beautiful music after practising for years. (The height and bulk of the bear in comparison to the piano changes dramatically over the years). There is complexity in the choices the bear has to make – leaving home and exploring the world, or staying and retaining the sense of belonging. In the end he discovers that his friends and family support him in his success and are proud of him. And this is the sweetest music of all.

A lovely picture book – look at the backdrop of the forest through the curtains on the cover, and see the magic that awaits inside. One of my picture books of the year, and a debut too!

To buy a copy, please click here. With thanks to Frances Lincoln Books for sending a requested review copy.

The Boy Who Drew the Future by Rhian Ivory

The Boy Who Drew the Future

Although marketed as a Young Adult book, and about two fifteen year old boys, I would be happy to recommend this for 11+ years. Ivory tells the story of two boys, 100 years apart, who both have a mysterious gift – they draw pictures that tell the future. For Noah in contemporary England this is something of a curse – his parents find his ‘gift’ troubling and try to stop it – he too finds it awkward and embarrassing, yet is compelled to draw. For Blaze, in the 1860s, his ‘gift’ is even more dangerous – the threat of being killed for witchcraft is very real.

In both her tales, Ivory depicts the conundrum of the teenager brilliantly – the dichotomy of the outsider, the teenager who wants to stand out from the crowd and be special and unique, and yet also wants to fit in and be part of the group. Alternate chapters tell the story of Noah and Blaze from the first person narrative perspective, stepping inside the teenagers’ heads. The tension builds throughout the novel as Noah is desperate to share the secret of his gift with Beth, a new friend; and Blaze moves closer to danger with every new fortune he tells. For me, the boys’ gift worked almost like a modern-day superpower – it enables the character to transcend and rebel against the constraints and powerlessness of childhood.

The two stories are linked by geography as well as the boys’ gift, and the reader is left to tie up the strands between the two. The story is sad and poignant and the characters are beautifully drawn. Noah’s burgeoning romance with Beth is told with delicacy, and his relationship with his parents and their past is stunningly depicted – I can’t give away more. Blaze is parentless and friendless, contrasting sharply with Noah, but he has an incredibly moving relationship with his dog.

This is great historical fiction for children. It drips information about the past so that the reader hardly realises how much history they are absorbing. It is subtle and fascinating. The stories of the past tie themselves to the present; remaining relevant, interesting and in some cases life-changing.

A compelling read that works across genders and up the age scale. Some of the dialogue doesn’t ring as true as it should, but the story is so gripping, you’ll be transported to another place and time with ease. To buy a copy, and I recommend you do, click here.

I reviewed an uncorrected proof version of this title.

You Can Do It, Bert by Ole Konnecke

you can do it bert

One of the joys of reviewing books for me is receiving those that don’t get much mainstream press, and aren’t necessarily championed by bookshops and libraries. You Can Do It, Bert is a laugh-out loud picture book with a great message too. Minimalist in words and pictures, the book plays with its white space cleverly, placing its cartoon like drawings and text in the middle of a huge amount of space for more emphasis. It is a motivational book – for those embarking on a new adventure or trying something for the first time. The book begins with Bert (a bird) and explains that this is Bert’s big day. The reader assumes from the picture of Bert walking along a single straight branch to the edge that it is his day to start flying. His trepidation shows in his face (with incredibly simple line strokes) – it is as if he is walking the plank. Of course, like all of us, he procrastinates. Bert stops to eat a banana before taking the plunge – the comic timing is spot on – the resonance clear. Once Bert does actually go through with his task he shows grit and determination and, most importantly, has a solid friendship support group who cheer him on, and boost his confidence. Each vignette displays a different emotion from Bert – this is an exquisite display of how to tell narrative through pictures alone. By the end Bert is fulfilling his mission with enthusiasm. It’s a great little book – made me snort my own procrastinating banana whilst reading, and is one that could be a bedtime favourite or a storytime class option. Short and sweet, it packs a punch. You can buy a copy here.

With thanks to Gecko Press for the review copy

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

goodbye stranger

Every so often a writer comes along who weaves magic with every book. Rebecca Stead’s books are insightful and compelling, her words flow off the page like cake batter into the tin. Her books are always unputdownable; and always ask questions.

So, it comes as no surprise to find that her latest follows suit. Set in New York, Goodbye Stranger tells three interlocking narratives: Bridge, a girl stepping into seventh grade (Year 7), and navigating her friendships, and pondering the question of life after miraculously living through a terrible car accident when she was eight years old; Sherm, who is coming to terms with the breakup of his grandparents’ long marriage and puzzling the meaning of love; and a third mystery strand told in the rare second-person narrative: “You paint your toenails. You don’t steal nail polish, though”. The three strands build together until all is revealed at the end of the book.

Topically dealing with internet safety, body image and of course the ever-present problems of friendship and peer pressure at this pivotal point of adolescence, Stead handles her young teens with emotional depth, wonderful empathy and adroitness. These are children with whom the reader immediately identifies, and wishes well. The reader waits on tenterhooks to see if everything will turn out alright. The dialogue sits well, and as always, New York springs to life under Stead’s pen.

All in all, this is the quintessential story for this age group – it discusses and makes you ponder what it means to be yourself – it pulls out arguments about identity. How much do we fit in with our peers or strike out on our own? How much of ourselves do we show to our parents or our friends? These are key questions of identity for this age group, and the book handles them responsibly without once becoming patronising.

As mentioned before the prose is idyllic – “Bridge woke to the sound of the cello. Her {mom’s} music reminded Bridge of picking wildflowers – she started with something thin and simple and then kept adding new sounds, all different shapes and colors, until she had something explosive. But in the mornings her mom tried to explode very quietly, so that the people downstairs didn’t get annoyed.”

Stead’s book is a pleasure to read from start to finish. I only wish I hadn’t read it so quickly! You can order your copy here.
For the 11+ years crowd.

Please note the book does contain a narrative about sending selfies of various poses by mobile phone.

Andersen Press very kindly sent me a copy of this book to review.