cats

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.

The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

This book came out in 2016 and rather slipped under the radar, but despite that, has continued to haunt me since I read it – in the same way that the song from somewhere else haunts our protagonist.

Frankie (Francesca) is out distributing leaflets to try to find her lost cat. But when she is hemmed in by bullies in the park, she is rescued by school outcast Nick Underbridge (the name is a carefully chosen clue to the later events in the story). Nick is ostracised in school, and smells slightly, but Frankie finds herself accompanying him home out of a sense of duty and thanks.

At his house, Frankie is drawn by a haunting and beautiful song, but she can’t locate where it comes from. She starts to spend more time with Nick, despite the worry that she too will be cast out at school because of the friends she keeps.

Gradually, the song exerts more and more influence and pull on her, and the story dovetails into part fairytale/part fantasy other world, as it becomes clear that the song originates from the dimension of another world – a kind of fairy tale world. With fairy tales comes danger and darkness, and Frankie’s friendship with Nick is tested to extreme limits when the two worlds collide.

The duality of the story is what makes it so special. The book is set in a time in which kids get on their bikes and ride to freedom, of lego and drawing, but also the internet and mobile phones, yet Harrold makes it feel sort of timeless. The effect of the everyday objects is to ground Frankie deeply in reality, within a contemporary story about friends and bullying, yet there are clear shadows of another world that seep into this – a fairy tale dimension that echoes the heightened emotions of our main story. There are both intensely dark and frightening emotions, and yet also visionary and pure and light overtones to this ‘magical’ dimension of the story. In this way, Harrold uses the duality of his fairy tale to mirror reality and his contemporary story – we all have the darkness and purity inside us.

Pinfold echoes this in his black and white illustrations – they are realistic in what they depict – the estate, a cat at night, Frankie on a bench, Nick’s Dad opening the front door. And yet, because of the shadows cast, the point of view from which the picture is drawn, the intensity of the pencil lines, and yes, more by what is hidden than what is shown – they are deeply dark and disturbing – mysterious and haunting. They feel slippery and ethereal.

The text too – telling a compelling story of friendship in a lyrical way – there is comedy and poetry mixed with darkness. Its evocative and ghostly. Each word is carefully chosen – it’s minimal, and pure.

But most of all, all this combines to make a text that is easy to read, and scattered with illustrations. In fact, the reader devours the book – identifying with the choices Frankie makes about friendship, and her conflicts within herself – especially when she is drawn to a song but can’t quite work out what it is or what it represents. It implies a feeling of loss and absence throughout, and leaves the reader with a sense of bittersweet sadness, as well as uplifting lightness.

This is a great book for deciphering and picking apart friendships – understanding not only who we choose to be friends with, but also how we demonstrate our loyalty to our friends, and how we come to understand them. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been picked up by award lists…this is a hidden gem – perhaps it needs to come out of its own shadows.

Suitable for 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Spring 2017 Picture Book Round-up

Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory by Elys Dolan

The author of Weasels and Nuts in Space has come up trumps with her new book, which at first glance, looks simply like an Easter holiday novelty title. However, it’s much much more than that, and for me, one of the top books of the season.

The chickens in Mr Bunny’s chocolate factory are force fed chocolate, so that they can squeeze out chocolate eggs. But when holidays and breaks are cancelled to increase production, the worker chickens revolt, calling a strike. Mr Bunny thinks he can survive without them, but comes to realise in the end that having a happy workforce means a thriving business. (By the end, the workplace has turned into a start-up firm’s dream, complete with a table tennis area, salad bar and café.)

With a quality control unicorn, health and safety, conveyor belts, a call centre and an ‘image change’, this is a sumptuous indictment of greed in manufacture, and a wonderful lesson about workers’ rights and factories, and the art of persuasion and negotiation.

The plot is told through a combination of narrative, speech bubbles and illustration, at times combining to form a comic strip, and Dolan has imbued her book with subplot and much personality.

A brilliant book, with humour throughout, and a message that lasts long after you’ve consumed the final chocolate egg. Hunt it down here.

Edie by Sophy Henn

Another gem, in a completely different style. Henn’s style is distinctive (she illustrates PomPom books, and previously shone with Where Bear?) and it’s clear to see the similarity here, although this time our protagonist is a girl. The message behind Edie is both simple and complicated. In essence it’s about the dissonance between what a toddler thinks is helpful and how an adult wants toddlers to behave.

For grownups they may recognise their own impatience and frustration, and children will delight at Edie’s antics – knowing that they are usually deemed naughty. However, with a bit of philosophical distance, we can see that Edie is learning through play – and perhaps we impose too many restrictions on children’s freedom. Where’s the line between experimentation and good behaviour? A thought-provoking yet lovely little charmer in beautifully muted pastel shades. You can buy Edie here.

I Can Only Draw Worms by Will Mabbitt

An impeccably silly title, which teaches counting and numbers to the very youngest audience, whilst also showing children that simplicity is often best. Will Mabbitt may not be the best illustrator, but he can certainly use his imagination and make the reader laugh. With its neon colours – bright yellow background cover with a pink neon worm, and bold blank spaces, this is a startling book – in that it takes minimalism to a new degree.

If you want a book to make your little one laugh, then this is it. Just worms, a dreadful accident (I think you can imagine what) and some more worms. Tongue-in-cheek to the nth degree. Draw your worms here.

The Lost Kitten by Lee, illustrated by Komoko Sakai, translated by Cathy Hirano

In contrast, here is someone who can really draw. The illustrations in this book are old-fashioned, and impeccably lifelike. The Lost Kitten tells a simple story about the possibility of loss after finding something you love.

Hina and her mother find a scrawny kitten in their doorway. While they are busy, the mother showing how to take responsibility for a kitten and how to care for it, the kitten is lost. There is, ultimately, a happy ending.

The rough edge to the pencil and paint illustration gives the impression of furriness for the cat, and a slight mist to the humans, so that they feel storylike and whimsical. I was particularly taken by the view of the back of Hina in the wind, with the branches shaking, as she calls for her lost kitten. A desperation rendered from the back is quite something.

It’s these different perspectives that give the story pathos and magic – a distant view of a crowded pavement, a close up of the found kitten next to a boot, the startling shining of the cat’s blue eyes cradled in the arms of the girl (her own face looking down so that eyelashes are more prominent). Find your kitten here.

Other titles to admire include Tasso by William Papas, a re-publication of a 1966 book, but which seems ever more relevant with its fable about tradition versus change, machines taking the place of humans. Set in a Greek fishing village and illustrated with dazzling watercolours, Tasso’s music playing is no longer needed when the café buys a juke box. With deft touches of humour in the illustrations, this is a throwback to the era, and all the more wonderful for it. In the end, of course, authentic music making prevails. Pre-order Tasso here.

Another re-publication, this time a bindup of three favourite Winnie and Wilbur tales. Winnie and Wilbur: Gadgets Galore by Valerie Thomas, illustrated by Korky Paul also plays to the moment with its tales of Winnie ordering a computer, outwitting a robot and zooming to space. Trademark spiky and colourful illustrations, children never tire of witches and the magic that goes wrong. Get your copy here.

And lastly, but by no means least, a wonderful hybrid of fact and fiction in The Curious Case of the Missing Mammoth by Ellie Hattie, illustrated by Karl James Mountford. So many parents lament that their children stick to non-fiction – nothing wrong with this – but here is a book that might fit. Timothy needs to find the missing mammoth and return him to his rightful place within the museum – on the way, trekking through the various rooms, and lifting the flaps, Timothy and the reader learn an assortment of facts, including history, art, aviation, and dinosaurs.

A hodgepodge of goodies, in scintillating contrast and colour, so that the pages are busy without blaring, intriguing without intruding. An excellent introduction to the world of museums. Be inspired here.

The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King

So there’s chocolate and there’s books. Two favourite things of mine. Sylvia Bishop clearly feels the same for she has transplanted the idea of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory into a book about bookshops.

Property Jones was left in the lost property cupboard of a bookshop when she was just five. Now she lives with the owners – a mother and her son. She loves living there, with her adopted family, but as was the case with Charlie Bucket and his family, they are impoverished. And Property is impoverished in more than one way, for she is harbouring a terrible secret – she is illiterate and cannot admit it.

And then, fortunes appear to change when the family win a competition to own Montgomery’s Emporium of Reading Delights, perhaps the greatest bookshop in the world. The shop smells of books, the rooms are themed on a grand scale: a dictionaries room in which everything has a brown tag label; the room of knights and castles books with stone walls and tapestries, books of woodland tales in a room in which the floor is covered with pine needles – and so on, all operated with a series of levers and pulleys – stacks of rooms in loops.

But with more power comes more responsibility, and possibly great danger, not in terms of the grumpy cat who resides there, but the grey man who lurks mysteriously in the shop.

This is an old-fashioned adventure story, wrapped up in the fantastical delight of limitless imagination. There are forgeries and baddies, befuddled old gentlemen and oddball cats, and children seeing and doing more than the adults. But above all, a shining colourful adoration for books.

The ultimate message is one of honesty – being true to yourself and others, and seeing what’s true and what isn’t. What message could be more pertinent in this era of fakery and falsification? And most of all the text and characters feel fresh; the premise may not be new, but it has been executed as if it is – the prose reads freely, the plot moves like liquid gold. If I was seven again this is the book that would make me fall in love with reading. And bookshops.

I was sent this book to review in the early proof stages, but have been promised (and given a sneak peek) of the illustrations that will embellish the book. I have no doubt that they too will be as exquisite as the text.

Don’t miss out – this could be your child’s golden ticket to a lifelong love of books. Suitable for age 6+ years.

You can buy your own golden ticket/bookshop girl here.

Messy Cats

I am a very Clever Cat by Kasia Matyjaszek

Bold and funny even on the cover, Kasia Matyjaszek introduces the idea (in her debut picture book) of making a confident claim and sticking to it. Stockton boasts that he is a very clever cat with huge emphasis on the word very. He shows the reader his many talents over the next few pages, but his main passion and gift is for knitting. Or so he claims. It turns out that Stockton is more ‘smart’ than clever, but he does possess some rather clever friends.

Matyjaszek not only plays on the idea of boastfulness, and perhaps misplaced self-belief – we cannot be good at everything – but also creates quite a riot of fun and hilarity in her portrayal of Stockton, and his two mice friends. Throughout the book Stockton tries to knit with his fluorescent pink wool, which weaves its way in and out of the pages, making quite a mess of his house. But at the end, a rather beautiful bright pink scarf adorns his neck.

The mice are great characters, ever present and ever jolly, more often than not doing their own immaculate knitting in the background. The illustrations match the craziness of the cat – a multitude of colours and patterns, dominated always by an overlaying of the luminous pink. Text is minimal, letting the illustrations tell the tale, but with an introduction of some sophisticated vocabulary and a play on the word ‘smart’. A fun yarn, humorous, lively and bright. Purchase Stockton here.

The Messy Book by Maudie Powell-Tuck, illustrated by Richard Smythe

Another smug cat on the cover who boasts of making a mess. His dog companion has more conscience and suggests tidying the mess (presented as a collage of colourful bits of paper, as if the cat has been participating in arts and crafts for a couple of weeks). As dog seems to become slightly more anxious at the state of the mess and cat’s nonchalant attitude to tidying, more and more animals join the melee and attempt to join the dog in insisting the cat moves his mess away from them. The cat, like some children I know, is more and more reluctant to tidy, until finally the dog insists. But the cat’s tidying still isn’t so much tidying as playing. Finally, it is tidy, so they have a party to celebrate, which results in more…mess.

A book that will resonate with any parent who has remonstrated with a child to tidy up the mess they’ve made, and a book to encourage thinking about whether making a mess is worth the consequences, and that in the end it probably is, as long as each person helps to tidy up after themselves.

With funny animal expressions, and a heap of colourful scraps on each page, this is a likeable picture book with a cute message. Grab your own mess here.

Stanley the Amazing Knitting Cat by Emily MacKenzie

After Emily made a big splash with Wanted: Ralfie Rabbit Book Burglar, she wrote about Stanley. I have a feeling that Stanley could teach Stockton a thing or two. He doesn’t just think he can knit, he actually can. What’s lovely about Stanley is that he knits for all his friends – balaclavas for bunnies, even trunk tubes for the elephants.

But then he spies a competition for woolly creations (reminiscent of The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers, and Grrrrr! by Rob Biddulph, both of which also feature competitions and friendship), and he starts to knit in earnest. When Stanley runs out of wool for his grand creation, he has no option but to unravel all the knitting he’s done for his friends – leaving them cold and bare in the Great Unravelling.

Although, of course, there’s a happy ending in sight.

This story is packed with the vibrancy of knitting colours – as if MacKenzie has robbed the haberdashery department in John Lewis. Every page feels energetic, both with the liveliness of the animals, but also the vivacity of the colour palette. This is a bright book. The unravelling is illustrated as a scribble of colour – like the most intense jumble of lines in a children’s activity book in which you have to match each squiggly line to the correct object.

But the message behind is simple to detangle. Stanley strives to be the best at something, ignoring all else in his determination, but learns in the end that sharing his success and his skill with his friends is what makes him, and everyone else, happiest.

MacKenzie handles her yarn with humour and energy, the colour of her illustrations matching the pace and tempo of the book. You can buy a copy here.

 

Christmas Round Up

It’s nearly Christmas. Bring out the bells and lights, decorate the tree. Here are some new Christmas-themed book delights to wrap up for the big day. Click on the book title for a link to buy. Click here for my non-Christmas themed holiday gift selection.

queen-present

A red and green foiled cover with a host of elves is a magical way to start the Christmas season. Steve Antony’s The Queen’s Present, complete with the Queen in Santa’s sleigh on the front cover, is a magical delight of a book. Familiarly set out as the other books in the series, this one traverses the world as the Queen seeks presents for the little princes and princess. Flying through Paris, Pisa, Egypt, Japan and New York to name but a few, the book is illustrated with thousands of elves carrying presents across famous landmarks. The colour palette is restricted to Christmassy green and red, with Steve Antony’s famous massively populated spreads showing characters from previous books, and elves up to all sorts of mischief. Of course, the moral of the story is that time with family members is the biggest present of all. But this book would bring a big smile too! Fabulous Christmas entertainment.

santa-magic-key

For those worried that Santa won’t visit them because they don’t have a chimney, Little Tiger Press have come up with the perfect solution. Santa’s Magic Key by Emi Ordas and Stephanie Stansbie is a book in a box complete with golden key (a fairly sturdy piece, no plastic rubbish here). A cute story book inside explains the significance of the magic key, enabling Santa to visit even when there’s no clear access – this is one to gift to the children before Christmas Day.

nightmare-before-xmas

If you associate Christmas with watching films, then this precursor to the film might be for you. The Nightmare Before Christmas, written and illustrated by the famous Tim Burton is a brilliant accompaniment for all fans of the film, and newbies too. Containing exclusive original sketches, this is for those who want a bit of a fright with their Christmas pudding. Macabre and witty, don’t miss out.

blue-penguinonce-upon-a-northern

More gentle, and more whimsical is Blue Penguin by Petr Horacek. A beautiful tale about friendship and finding your own voice, Petr’s illustrations linger in the imagination, evoking an icy blue and green wonderland of the South Pole. The children adored this tale of belonging, which evokes strong emotions through its enchanting illustrations. The tone is one of muted sadness, a kind of dream landscape that has a happy ending but will leave the reader thinking. Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E Pendziwol and Isabelle Arsenault is a poetic lullaby, a paean to the land of wild animals, snowfall, and the northern lights. Another one in which the illustrations evoke a certain sadness or stillness, the beauty of wintry nature and the feeling of being lulled softly to sleep in a warm bed. Sensational use of language, and stunning use of illustration.

cat-who-ate-christmas

A totally different feel with The Cat Who Ate Christmas by Lil Chase and Thomas Docherty, this is a book for newly independent readers, based on a real naughty kitten. A charming story, with a fun family and a mischievous cat called Jingles, this chapter book is packed with large exquisite two-tone illustrations showing the wonderful family atmosphere at Christmas time (even if the cat makes it a little haphazard). It’s good to see diversity represented in this family, and a host of activities at the end of the book, including crafts, cooking, facts and jokes. Top choice for this age group. 5+ years.

mistletoe-and-murder

I’ve mentioned her before, but Robin Stevens definitely has the magic touch. Her Murder Most Unladylike Series (think Enid Blyton crossed with Agatha Christie) keeps getting better and better, and this Christmas themed title is no exception. Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens sets detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong a new mystery but also a deadline – when a brutal accident occurs two days before Christmas, the detectives suspect murder, but they must solve the crime before Christmas morning. Set in a beautiful snowy Cambridge, with tales of sumptuous teas, ornate buildings, and some roof climbing, this is pure joy. Hazel Wong’s narrative is emotionally astute and easy to read. Stevens manages to add her usual twists and turns, and her effortless mentions of food (this book makes you long for mince pies as well as bunbreaks). She also incorporates a darker side in this title when she touches on what it’s like to feel like an outsider in British society. With lashings of boy crushes, a hint of feminism, and perfectly exquisite 1930’s student language, this is one to be savoured with an extra helping of Christmas cake.

Check out my books of the week in November and December for other wintry reads, including The Christmasaurus and to come at the weekend, a rather special book called Winter Magic.

 

 

 

The Cat and the King by Nick Sharratt

cat and king

Probably best known for his imaginative picture books and for illustrating Jacqueline Wilson’s books, Nick Sharratt has just published his first novel, aimed at newly independent readers. This age group can be particularly hard to supply with good quality books. In the past the range has remained rooted in the Horrid Henry canon – but luckily for this new generation, there are now a whole host of beautifully illustrated great stories being produced so that the magic of reading continues from picture books into longer length novels (Mango and Bambang, Isadora Moon, Rabbit and Bear). One of the tricks with competent readers is to replenish the supply, whetting and sustaining their appetite for reading – and quickly; these enthusiastic readers can fly through books at the rate of one a day (although often coming back and re-reading to soak up the content and pore over the illustrations).

Nick Sharratt’s offering ticks all the boxes needed for this age. A well-paced enthralling story, plays-on-words, plentiful humour, great vocabulary, and of course overflowing with brilliant illustrations that enhance the story and add extra dimensions to it. The story is so well laid out that there are not only illustrations on each page, but on some pages illustrations to accentuate each phrase.

The king’s castle has burned down in an Unfortunate Incident with a dragon. Together with his cat, he must find a new home and a new way of life, seeing as all his servants took the opportunity to flee during the Unfortunate Incident. What follows is an account of a king transported from his comfort zone, and the unfailing loyalty and friendship of his most clever cat, without whom it seems, he would be truly lost.

There are so many praise-worthy elements to this book – from the easily absorbed and readable opening:

“Once upon a time there was a king who lived in a rather grand castle, with his best friend, the cat.”

to Sharratt’s constant references to the new experiences the king is having, as well as the cat attempting to provide a semblance of familiarity to their routine:

“As the bus set off, they heard a clock somewhere striking eleven. They might not have a marching band, but at least they were in a good place for the king to do some waving, which he now did most graciously to the passers-by on the pavement below.”

Sharratt is great at providing reader-impetus in his books. You cannot read the book without becoming fully involved. Drawing on previous ideas from books such as You Choose, Sharratt has provided illustrations of all the houses the king and the cat look at before they settle on the perfect fit, as well as illustrations of their possessions, and what they buy on their shopping trips.

He also plays with the idea of the king’s servants doing extra jobs, both whilst they were servants, and the jobs they do afterwards – so that the reader can spot the same person dressed differently. It’s rather good fun.

Despite having a royal person – although doubts are cast on his actual royalty – the picture book is modern and up to date – our friendly cat is often spotted with his laptop. Moreover, Sharratt plays with the idea of royalty and words – at first the king and the cat only buy items at the supermarket that seem related to them:

“frozen KING prawns, Jersey ROYAL potatoes, CORONATION chicken sandwiches…”

And added to all this interactivity and play with stories, text and illustrations, are the wonderful personalities of the cat and the king, each with their own foibles and senses of humour, and yet a great partnership – they do truly care for each other – providing a shining example of friendship.

Children can absorb the message behind the story easily – that it is best not to be so pampered that a person can’t do anything for themselves – in fact they will delight in being able to accomplish tasks that the king himself can’t.

Illustrated in two colours, this is a sweet, warm and wryly funny story. For reading together and discussing, or reading alone. You can buy it 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.

Tiger Smiles

Augustus and his smile

Ten years ago Catherine Rayner won the Book Trust Early Years Award with Augustus and His Smile. This lovely picture book about emotion and the landscape of the world captivated readers with the beauty of its ink and wash illustrations.

Augustus the Tiger is sad and has lost his smile. He sets off to find it…and searches through a multitude of landscapes, until in the end he realises that happiness is all around him – and finds his smile in his reflection in water. Of course, the story is simple enough, but the magic of the book lies in the intensity of the illustrations – apparent from the start when Augustus stretches before his search.

Rayner’s illustration of Augustus stretching reaches across a double page, and blends the ink and gentle orange toning with the wildness of the reeds and grasses in which he is stretching. It’s an image that is almost tangible – immediately apparent that Rayner took her inspiration and guidance from tigers she watched in Edinburgh zoo.

A colour wash lends a fluid feel to the images, capturing the movement of the animals, birds and insects. The images are simple, minimalistic, but created with shadow and scale to create a perspective of real animals in the wild.

The tiger’s padding and leaping is magical, as is the fact that Rayner has also managed to incorporate a human smile into the tiger’s face, without it being strange – it is as much a part of him as his tail.

Smiles are contagious – studies have found that it’s not impossible, but actually very difficult to remain frowning at someone who is smiling back. Developing babies even smile in the womb. And for children it is important for them to be shown smiles. Over a third of us smile more than 20 times a day, but for children the number of smiles a day rises to a staggering 400, and we want to keep it that way. Perhaps we can learn from this too – a study at Penn State University found that when you smile, you appear more likeable, courteous, and even more competent.

There’s another reason to smile with the 10th anniversary edition (with gold foil jacket) of Augustus and His Smile. David Shephard Wildlife Foundation are offering animal adoptions (tigers) with a special edition adoption pack including a signed edition Augustus print, the book, and a soft tiger toy.

Tigers have lost about 93 per cent of their natural range due to deforestation and climate change, among other things, and are an endangered species. But we can smile, as tiger numbers in the wild are now finally on the rise again up to 3,890 in April 2016 from 3,200 in 2010. Wildlife charities would like to double tiger numbers by 2022, giving them enhanced protection from illegal wildlife markets and compensating for, and halting, the loss of their natural habitat.

Take a look at the book, admire the tigers, find your smile and hopefully the next generation will be smiling at the doubled number of tigers in a few years’ time. You can buy the book here.

 

First Witches

What is the appeal of witches for young readers? When I started the idea for this particular blogpost, the titles of ‘witchy’ series of books for little ones kept spilling off my tongue – there are so many. And more are being produced. The main hook of featuring witches in children’s literature is of course magic – witches can wave a wand and solve a dilemma – or in a well-used twist – use their wand badly and create a bigger problem.

Unlike fairies, witches appeal because they are human. They don’t have wings – they don’t have to occupy a different world (although some do). They are also edgier than most fairies – witches can have a mean streak whereas most fairies tend to be good (other than Tinkerbell from Peter Pan).

Witches are also usually accompanied by an animal – in fact looking at my list below, they are all in a close relationship with a ‘pet’, or animal friend, and this feature is a well-used device in children’s literature. So, where to start…..

hubble bubble monkey

Hubble Bubble: The Messy Monkey Business by Tracey Corderoy and Joe Berger
This series was first published in 2011 as picture books, but then quickly morphed into a series of young fiction titles for newly independent readers. There are three picture books for aged 3+ years with rhyming text, and then a series for 6+ years, each containing three stories. New titles published last year were The Wacky Winter Wonderland and The Messy Monkey Business. Delightfully enticing covers draw the reader into the story, with two-tone illustrations inside. The stories are about Pandora, an ordinary girl, whose grandmother happens to be a witch – she’s not alone in this, in Messy Monkey Business the third story reveals that many of the children also have grandmothers with witchy powers.

Messy Monkey Business features three stories including a school trip to the zoo, a babysitting disaster, and a camping trip. With ‘trouble’ and ‘chaos’ in the titles, it’s not long before Pandora’s Granny’s magic goes wrong, but in each story she does her very best to rectify the situation. She certainly means well. The stories zing with quick dialogue, and some lovely phrases:

“the children dived into the leaves like five excited little hedgehogs.”

The zoo adventure contains all the necessary elements – smells, mess, escaping creatures and a sea lion show – but all with a touch of magic in both text and illustration.

In all the Hubble Bubble books the short stories bounce along, there’s an element of ‘fairy godmother’ about Granny – she tries to be helpful by using her magic, but her results often lead Pandora and her friends astray. With wonderful names, such as Mr Bibble the schoolteacher, and Cobweb the cat, there’s plenty for a young reader to discover. The stand-out factor about the Hubble Bubble books though is the warmth that exudes from them. Despite mishaps and mayhem, the characters are loveable – the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter delightful, the humour spritely and the text pitched perfectly – some lovely expressions and adjectives, but all easy enough for first readers. You can purchase Hubble Bubble The Messy Monkey Business here.

worst witch

The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
This series is still an absolute favourite with all – from old to young. The books remain fresh and lively. They tell the adventures of Mildred Hubble and her best friend Maud at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. It’s hard to believe that the series is over 40 years old…but when re-reading you can see Jill Murphy’s original witty inventions – lessons on flying a broomstick, potions classes, creepy corridors and invisibility spells.

Jill Murphy originally pitched Mildred as a fairy, unfortunately attending the wrong school – but then changed her to a witch who’s just not very capable. From her tabby cat instead of a black one, to her long enmity with Ethel Hallow, and her even stronger friendship with Maud, this is a school story to treasure. Names are used cunningly here too – who can forget Miss Hardbroom – a precursor to Minerva McGonagall I should think. The black and white illustrations depict the greyness of the school as well as the hilarious friendship between short round Maud and long tall Mildred. Jill Murphy is both author and illustrator. Meet Mildred Hubble here.

titchy witch

Titchy Witch by Rose Impey, illustrated by Katharine McEwen
Perhaps our least famous witch here, Titchy Witch inhabits a world in which only her family are witches – her classmates at school vary from goblins to princesses, and her teacher is an ogre. She is also looked after by a particularly grumpy Cat-a-Bogus, a sort of au-pair/nanny. Full colour illustrations throughout add to the charm of this compelling world. Titchy Witch is different from the other witches, in that she is only seven, and acts as such. She finds some witchy things hard, has difficulty keeping her temper, and is very mischevious. The text is suitable for first independent readers and these children will recognise themselves in Titchy Witch.

Titchy Witch and the Frog Fiasco is typical of the stories. When Gobby-goblin at school pokes Titchy one too many times, she has her revenge by putting a spell on him. The teacher catches her and Titchy is blamed, and decides she no longer wants to go to school. Cat-a-Bogus shows her why she should attend when it turns out she cannot read or practise magic perfectly just yet. There is an adorable twist at the end, only understood by studying the illustration. You can conjure Titchy by purchasing here.

winnie the witch

Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul
Another aging witch, Winnie is more than 25 years old. She has a beloved black cat, the prickly Wilbur. The wonderfulness of Winnie is the amount of colour Korky Paul throws at the books, in fact our standout title is the original story in which Winnie colours her world. There are some beautifully unique traits to Winnie – she has a crooked hat because Paul found that drawing it straight didn’t always fit on the page, she is not the most attractive witch to look at, and yet her personality is adorable. Wilbur’s personality is as acutely drawn as any human’s – his laziness, his addiction to a certain level of comfort, his weariness with Winnie’s adventures. The attention to detail is present in both the meticulously drawn illustrations, as well as the scope of the adventures. Each book is very different – from Winnie’s trip to the seaside, to her birthday celebrations. There is much to admire in each, and much to look at. Winnie also seamlessly moves with the times – see for example Winnie’s New Computer.

Like Hubble Bubble, there are both picture books and young readers, so that the books grow with the child. No library is complete without Winnie on a shelf somewhere. Wave your wand here.

meg and mog

Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski
Another 1970’s invention and catering for the youngest readers out of the books featured, I couldn’t write a blogpost about witches and not include my favourite. It is the simplicity of the words and pictures that is Meg and Mog’s unique selling point. The repetition, the sound effects and the rhythm make this a treat to read-aloud. The sentence describing Meg going downstairs perfectly sums up the clomping noise she makes:
“She went down the stairs to cook breakfast.”
as each word of text is positioned underneath each stair, enticing the reader to pronounce the sentence in a particular way. The drawings are iconic – each of the five witches portrayed almost as stick figurines, and yet all distinguishable by their different hair squiggles and noses. The colours are bright and bold, no white spaces in this preschool colour block delight. But the best thing about the original book is that it doesn’t conclude neatly. When Meg changes the witches into mice, she leaves them like that until the following Halloween – there is no happy ending. Edgy and mischievous. Just how witches should be. You can purchase Meg and Mog here.

Look out for my forthcoming blog on witches for slightly older children…