crime

Shapes, Colours, Music and Mystery

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

 

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.

Urban Outlaws: Counterstrike by Peter Jay Black

urban outlaws

When I was a kid I was obsessed with an animation on TV called Battle of the Planets. “Fearless young orphans, protecting Earth’s entire galaxy. Always five, acting as one. Dedicated! Inseparable! Invincible!”

The words came back to haunt me this week on picking up a copy of Urban Outlaws: Counterstrike, the fourth book in the series, which was published last week. The urban outlaws are five fearless young orphans (aged between ten and fifteen) who wield extraordinary skills, and work together to outsmart criminal gangs. Rather like Robin Hood and his band of merry men, they attempt to redistribute the wealth they gain among the poor and needy by carrying out random acts of kindness – RAKing.

This series is not sci-fi like Battle of the Planets though – it is firmly grounded on Earth, with no planetary references or wings in sight. In fact, London is superbly depicted through an array of landmarks, such as the Shard, and building sites, as well as references to existing suburbs, such as Harrow.

Urban Outlaws: Counterstrike is told from the point of view of Jack – the thinker and planner of the group, and at fourteen, the oldest. The main mission occurs near the end of the book, but the rest of the book is still action-packed and electric-charged as Jack and the team plot and plan and execute other small elements to prepare for the end game. They are attempting to break into the Facility and find the ultimate weapon – the Medusa – before their nemesis, baddie Hector, gets his hands on it.

The action never stops – from the first sentence to the last – which ends on a whopping cliffhanger, ready for the last book in the series (November 2016). The imagery is great, the gadgets even better, and the use of computers and hacking is current and intriguing. Readers will whizz through this book – once picked up it’s really hard to do anything else!

What’s more, the characters are all really different, and engage in banter just like in the best heist movies. There is bucket-loads of dialogue – and very little background information, so as in the TV series 24, the reader is carried along with the action with little time to think.

But there are touches of humanity and background to each character, of course to imbue empathy and affection for the five orphans – I couldn’t get enough of Jack and little Wren. And in fact it is the littleness that creates some of the most exciting scenes – Wren is only ten, and useful as a decoy in much of the action – her scene lying on a skateboard to avoid being seen at eye-level was excellent. And their giggles just reinforce that they are children.

But above all Peter Jay Black brings a lightness of touch to the prose. It’s fast, gritty and absorbing. Perfect fodder for those seeking an entertaining urban thriller, and for those who live in the moment:

“All the Outlaws had a past. Sometimes they shared. Sometimes they didn’t. But mostly they didn’t. They tended to live in the moment. Or at least they tried to.”

Buy it here for your 9+ year olds. You’ll have to bribe them to stop reading!