dinosaurs

Diggers and Dinosaurs (and Dodos)

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

The Christmasaurus by Tom Fletcher, illustrated by Shane Devries

christmasaurus

How do I choose which books to review? First and foremost it’s quality. If it’s a good book, then I want to tell the world about it. Sometimes I want to highlight a particular theme or issue, and I want to draw attention to books for all ages (5-14 years) as well as non-fiction. And also, to draw attention to books that sometimes don’t get the marketing limelight.

Quite often I’ll make a decision not to review something that my readers will already know about. I don’t review Roald Dahl books, simply because my readership tend to know about them/own them/borrow them from libraries already. Dahl books secure a lot of media coverage – they don’t need me blowing their whizzpopping trumpet. The same applies to celebrity authors.

But top and foremost in my mind is always quality. If a book is good, then I want to shout about it from the rooftops. No matter who the author is.

Tom Fletcher is one of these so-called celebrity authors. (For younger generations maybe who’ve heard of the pop group McFly – personally I wouldn’t know him if I passed him on the street, but that says more about ME than about him.) Anyway, he is a celebrity, and his book will, no doubt, get top billing/window space in many a bookshop this Christmas.

But I still want to draw your attention to it. Because you might not have heard of it yet, and it’s fabulous, and it made me laugh and cry.

William Trundle’s father loves Christmas. More than anything in the world. And William loves dinosaurs. So when a frozen dinosaur egg hatches in the North Pole right under Santa’s eyes (and bottom), a hybrid is born – the Christmasaurus. Which is just as well, because what William wants most for Christmas is a dinosaur, especially after the rotten year he’s had. But when he wakes up to find what Santa has left him as a present, an amazing adventure begins that will completely change his life.

Fletcher has liberally sprinkled Christmas magic throughout his tale. Although our hero is William Trundle, the story starts in the North Pole with Santa and his elves, who make merry and speak in rhyme and are rather reminiscent of oompa loompas – also in awe of their leader, Santa. There is an abundance of joy here, with crumpets, candy canes, toboggan runs, and a North Star-bucks. But all dominated by the hugely jolly Santa – the illustrations are like a warm hug. At times Santa even looks like Aladdin’s genie – all large and wish-awarding.

The tone of the book is appealing too – Fletcher writes with charming style, conversationally talking to the reader with asides (such as implying that everything you read in books is true). It’s not too cute, not too saccharine – but engaging and inviting, so that the child reader feels as if the author is a friend. Sparks of humour fly throughout the text – I’m no child but it made me smile more than once.

William is an endearing protagonist – sadly bullied for being in a wheelchair, and evoking pathos because he has that children’s book burden of a dead parent – yet he is not pathetic in any way. The reader sees his charm and goodness as well as his strengths, and cheers him on well before his adventure really starts. The Christmasaurus is also hugely likeable, with ambitions to fly like the reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh, and he wishes for a friend – he appears just as a child would and this is why he works as a character. It helps that every description is magical – from the colour of the dinosaur’s shiny rainbow iridescent skin to William’s shiny red dinosaur-decorated wheelchair.

The plot is paced well – much happens, which warrants the book’s fairly hefty size, and there are some great twists, but it’s the little asides and observations that give the book its winsome character.

“Brenda sniffed hard again and swallowed the snot that had frozen up her nose from sitting in the cold for so long.”

“The ropes weren’t just twisted and tangled. They were twangled.”

But also Tom Fletcher’s observations on life – those little life lessons dropped in children’s books that makes them magical:

“He knew it was the right thing to do, and sometimes the right things to do are the hardest.”

“A friend is for life, not just for Christmas.”

The text is brought to life not only by playing with fonts – bolds, italics, large type, but also the detail of snowflake page numbers, and Devries’ marvellous illustrations – fantastically emotional and fun too.

This book even made me cry at one point – Santa points out with some emotion the wonder of children themselves, and it is perhaps by getting to the very essence of this that Fletcher succeeds in his wonderful Christmas book. If children are magic, as he describes, because they can create worlds in their imaginations, because they have the power to see the best in things, and the power to believe, then children’s books are the epitome of this power. And this one harnesses it with pride. Santa’s sleigh will be a heavy one this year I think – sacks packed with luscious hardback books. For children aged… (who am I kidding? – for everyone!) You can buy it here.

Highest Mountain Deepest Ocean by Kate Baker and Zanna Davidson, illustrated by Page Tsou

highest-mountain-deepest-ocean

The introduction to this over-size book tells the reader that it is a story of superlatives. The longest this, the largest that. It’s a celebration of the natural world, exploring amazing feats of nature, wonders around us, and inspirational marvels, all illustrated in a calming and muted colour palate, with intricate pencil work and astute attention to detail.

There’s no narrative to this book, it’s just a collection of facts, which many children will adore. But some pages do hold longer explanations, for example describing lunar and solar eclipses. What’s lovely about the text though, is that as well as being told in fairly simple explanations, there is a luscious sample of descriptive vocabulary, so that eclipses are ‘eerie’ and mountains are ‘majestic’. Temperatures can be ‘scorching’ while gases ‘spew’ through space. There are also touches of folklore here and there, weaving stories with facts.

But this is a book in which visual illustrations rule, obvious from the cover where the illustrator, not the author is credited. Illustrations are not to scale, nor all scientifically accurate – this book is about visual beauty leading the reader into the book, in the same way that the visual beauty of the world can give pause for further thought. And yet it also feels rather museumy, as if the Natural History Museum has come into your house, which is no bad thing. Illustrations are all captioned, sometimes with a label, sometimes a key, but no picture is superfluous to the whole – each illustration has a reason for its placement.

The book also gives an insight into cross-references, for example under the heading ‘Burrowing Animals’, it not only explains the deepest living animal ever found and at what point, but also, on the same page, extrapolates the deepest point ever visited by humans (there’s not much difference between the two measurements), as well as the deepest tree roots – so comparisons can be easily made and wondered at.

Stunning to look at, particularly the world’s largest butterflies, and the page entitled ‘Hottest, Coldest, Driest, Wettest Places’, which takes a round intersection of the Earth with different parts of the semi-circle annotated as to the four extremes. It’s a book that immerses the reader in a compendium of facts, as well as presenting the information in a way that feels almost historical, almost classical in approach.

It is part of the new golden era of children’s non-fiction, enticing children to make discoveries about scientific facts through beautiful presentation. It certainly sucks me in every time. A perfect holiday gift. Age 8+ years.

You can buy a copy here.

National Non-Fiction November

posterlores

November is National Non-Fiction month, the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ annual celebration of all things factual. And there’s much to celebrate. Children’s non-fiction books is a growing area, with ever more stylised, intriguing, general and niche titles being offered. This year, there’s extra good news. The FCBG and World Book Day have teamed together with non-fiction publishers to give away the 100 Books featured in their ‘100 Brilliant Non-Fiction Books for Children and Young People’ for schools and public organisations, or you can win 33 books as an individual. For full details of the giveaway, see here.

In the meantime, here are some extra quirky non-fiction picks for you that didn’t quite make their list, but ended up on my desk:

pharaoh-fate

Pharaoh’s Fate
An interactive adventure that explores and teaches about Ancient Egypt at the same time as the reader solves a murder mystery. Someone is plotting to murder Pharaoh and the reader has to work out who it is. Journeying through town centres, royal palaces, the gods and goddesses, a map of Egypt and much more – the sections are tabbed for easy reference. To solve the mystery the reader will also have to decipher hieroglyphs. This is a full-colour, beautifully packaged book, the definition of teaching through play.

Not only is the book great fun, but it looks appealing from the start. With gold foil on the cover, and a black mysterious background, the inside is filled with bright, colourful illustrations. Particular highlights are the map of Egypt, the Opet festival and the depictions of the Nile in simple yet bold captioned illustrations. And because it’s so beautifully presented, a child will revisit even after solving the mystery.

Historical facts are absorbed rather than read, as the reader puzzles to solve the mystery, this is a great introduction to Ancient Egypt and good fun. You can buy it here.

very-important-things

DK Encyclopedia of Very Important Things
Fact hungry little ones will delight in this book for 4-7 year olds that doesn’t patronise, but manages to convey information in a tone that is both chatty and informative. Split into six sections, including planet, places, animals, people, me and ‘other’, there is lots to satisfy curious minds. It’s fairly unclear why some pages are placed in ‘other’, such as animal babies, birds’ eggs and beetles, and not in the animals section, but little minds will delight in seeing the large graphics and the simple labelling however they choose to read the book – dipping in, or from start to end.

In typical Dorling Kindersley style, this is a mixture of graphics, illustrations and stock photography, all put to good use. So whereas a fiery volcano, ‘Lava is very very hot’, is shown with a wonderful photographic image of a volcano (sadly unlabelled so that it could be from anywhere), blood vessels are shown as a graphic, indicating the platelets, and blood cells within.

It’s an eclectic mix of topics, and includes some interesting choices, but it’s hard to encompass the whole world and all its history for any age group, let alone this young one. However, hopefully it incorporates enough of the basics – where countries are, dinosaurs, the five senses, colours and shapes, etc. to stimulate further curiosity.

There’s a lovely green ribbon to bookmark the reader’s place, so that this really is a book for dipping into and revisiting. Highlights include common flags, simple maps, and miraculous medicines. Find out more here.

elliots-guide-to-dinosaurs

Elliot’s Guide to Dinosaurs by Elliot Seah
So for those of us still waiting for a publishing deal, this may be rather galling, but on the other hand completely inspiring for children. This book, written by an eight-year old dinosaur enthusiast, is rather interesting. It is like a factfile, firstly in the introduction examining where dinosaurs came from, what they ate, and how they lived, and then examined dinosaur by dinosaur, in chronological sections. Each colour-coded section covers a different era: Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. Each species is described by appearance and locomotion, as well as distinguishing features.

The text is rather dry, but for kids who like their facts clearly and simply presented this is an excellent resource, supported and fact-checked by an expert palaeontologist. Elliot introduces a cartoon dinosaur friend to lead the reader through the book, although this is not utilised nearly as much as it could have been.

The layout is appealing – crisp and sparing, with large amounts of white space, and short easy digestible text chunks. The identification chart bears a consistency that makes it easy to distinguish and compare the dinosaurs, and nice touches include a section on recent discoveries, as well as showing which museums have skeletons of which dinosaurs.

This book started as a school project and developed from there. The chapter divisions contain Elliot’s original artwork from the project, although the rest has been illustrated by graphic designers, and the book is highly professional in its finish – a regular published non-fiction book. It just goes to show what a school project can become if you work hard enough. Translated from the French. Please note this book goes on sale on November 15th. You can pre-order it here.

cool-mythology

Cool Mythology by Malcolm Croft
Part of the very popular cool series for children on a host of topics from art to science, this is a small book with hugely comprehensive contents. Covering world mythology from the North American myths to Hindu mythology, with everything in between.

The book starts at the very beginning with creation myths, and then embraces individual stories, mythological creatures, places, and of course the afterlife. While some stories will be somewhat familiar to today’s children, others will be completely new. But what’s really cool about the book is that it compares and contrasts them, asks why these myths are so pervasive in our modern culture, and what message they may contain. It’s an entertaining guide to how they infuse our modern morality and what lessons can be learned from the stories of history.

The language is not easy, because the book is designed as much for adults as for children but it’s not so complicated that it can’t be understood, and will certainly stimulate some hard thinking. The use of plentiful colour, diagrams, amusing illustrations, checklists and plays on words adds to the element of fun about the book as well as easing the information flow for younger readers.

There are some real gems contained within, particularly the deconstruction of the seven basic plots of myths, the beserkers of Norse mythology, and the gentle pulling apart of Gilgamesh and its teaching of what it means to be human. This is a brilliantly comprehensive look at myth, and a go-to guide for global myth making. Excellent. Buy it here.

Look out for my non-fiction animal round up next week

Two New Non-Fiction Series

Early Reader Space

Some children love to read non-fiction as narratives. They don’t necessarily want a large format book with flaps and pop-up-diagrams. They are looking for books, like fiction paperbacks, that they can take with them to school, on a journey, to waiting rooms. And two great series were published this year.

Last year Orion announced it was expanding its hugely popular Early Readers series with four non-fiction titles. The last of these to be published this year is Early Reader Space by Timothy Knapman and illustrated by Kelly Canby. This is fabulous news for newly independent readers who want to read about facts. Divided into eight snapshot sections, all of which sound enticing and entertaining, from ‘Space Ship Earth’ to ‘Aliens’ and ‘Places You Don’t Want to Go on Holiday’, it takes a comprehensive, although compact look at space.

Fun from the beginning, and easy to read, the first page says “You are a space traveller” and is accompanied by Kelly Canby’s delightful pictures of two children dressed as astronauts, looking pleased and slightly knowing. There is never too much text on the page – not more than two paragraphs, and the language is accessible for such a difficult topic, although of course the names of things are rather difficult – ‘Betelgeuse’ for one.

What’s more the style is friendly and fun at all times. Neptune is the windiest planet, and the book tells us “You’d have wanted to hold on very tightly if you wanted to fly a kite there.” Accompanied by another lovely illustration of our two space travellers struggling with a kite.

It is packed with facts as it says on the cover, but as it also says – “it’s never too early to find things out”. Fully enjoyable and informative. Let’s hope there are plenty more in the series in 2016. Age 5+. You can buy it here.

Dr Dino GreeksDr Dino Dinosaurs Dr Dino Astronauts wee

John Blake publishers are also storming ahead with their new non-fiction series called Dr Dino’s Learnatorium, for slightly older readers. The various titles ask witty questions for the age group, titles so far include How Many Greeks Can You Fit Inside a Horse? Do Dinosaurs Make Good Pets? And How Do Astronauts Wee in Space? By Chris Mitchell

The series aims to do what many non-fiction series aim for with children’s books, which is to provide the weirdest, funniest, foulest facts. Told by Dr Dino, a dinosaur scientist, the book reads as quite a dense running narrative, but dispensed in a casual way, talking to the reader, and interspersed with text boxes about certain extra elements, and rather hilarious cartoons – not unlike those seen on greetings cards. The cartoons are very funny and nicely break up the text.

There are some excellent paragraphs of solid information in each book, but also some rather lovely observations and opinions by Dr Dino, which lends the whole venture a comic light-hearted element. The Greek title was my favourite – although I expected it to be about Ancient Greece, in fact it talks about legends and myth the world over, starting with Godzilla and the Japanese, and dipping into a host of countries and their myths, including the Germans, the Aztecs, the Egyptians – yes it skips merrily round the world and through different time zones, but is all the more fascinating for this.

Each title has a quiz at the end to test the reader’s knowledge (if they wish). A thoroughly enjoyable ‘read’ and packed to the brim with information. Highly recommended. Age 9+ years. You can buy them here: How Do Astronauts Wee In Space?, How Many Greeks Can You Fit Inside a Horse? and Do Dinosaurs Make Good Pets?

Picture Book Round-Up

monster in the fridge

There’s a Monster in My Fridge by Caryl Hart and Deborah Allwright
Just in time for Halloween comes a hide-and-seek picture book with monsters. Green witches, werewolves and vampires abound behind split-pages in this messy, colourful and fun picture book. The text rhymes, the monsters are mischievous, jovial, and in some places, rather cute. The pictures are boldly coloured; monsters in green, purple, orange, blue – depicted firstly making a huge mess in the kitchen, and then moving through the other rooms of the house. There is lots to take in on each page – the fridge has monsters in its door compartments as well as in the main fridge and the surrounding shelves. The bathroom is particularly fun with the monster coming out the toilet, the toothpastes using toothbrushes to fight each other, and hidden skeletons with their bubble guns in the bath. A rollicking monster laugh, with some well-pitched vocabulary in the rhythmic text. You can buy it here.

i will love you anyway

I Will Love You Anyway by Mick and Chloe Inkpen
Mick Inkpen has long been a staple for first readers of picture books. Both Wibbly Pig and Kipper are household names. Now in a co-author and co-illustrator team with his daughter, rather like Shirley Hughes and Clara Vuillamy, I will Love you Anyway reads more like a poem than a picture book. Told from the perspective of a naughty dog, this a winsome tale of an irrepressible dog: one who cannot communicate well with his owners, who will not do as he’s told, but nevertheless one who is loved and loves back.

Even from the cover illustration, the dog is irresistible. Huge innocent eyes betray his inherent naughtiness, as he pulls at socks, makes a mess and nips and bites and licks. The rhyming and rhythm are spot on, with much repetition. This is a fast-paced story with humour and wit in abundance.

The illustrations are phenomenal – from the adorable little boy owner of the dog, to the various expressions of the dog, who always looks one moment away from mischief. As with all good partnerships between author and illustrator, both elements tell the story so that some aspects of plot and humour are only discovered by looking at the illustrations.

There’s even pathos as the parents (out the picture) debate the merits of keeping such a difficult dog, and the little boy and dog sit eavesdropping on the stairs. A delightful and funny end, this will be cherished by all readers. A fabulous picture book. You can buy it here.

The Burp that saved the world

The Burp That Saved the World by Mark Griffiths and Maxine Lee-Mackie
Irreverent and humorous, this reviewer is not usually one for bottom and burp jokes, but this book’s magnificent greens and oranges are rather irresistible. Ben and Matt are twins who are famous for doing massive burps. When aliens come to Earth and want to take all the children’s toys and books, the army and navy are useless to fight them. So Ben and Matt devise a plan to let off the largest burp in the history of the world, thereby scaring off the aliens.

Despite the shaky scansion on one or two pages, and the use of the American word ‘pop’ to help with rhyming, the text holds such fun ideas and vocabulary in other places, and the illustrations are so brightly coloured (particularly the street in which all the houses are different colours; the three-eyed red-jacketed aliens in their spaceships with flashing lights) that it makes for a fun read throughout. Children will love the naughtiness. You can buy it here.

oddsockosaurus

Oddsockosaursus by Zanib Mian and Bill Bolton
Another lovely premise for a picture book – a boy who feels that he’s not always understood and so attempts to make up a new dinosaur for every facet of his personality. There is Oddsockosaurus for when he just feels like wearing odd socks, Whyceratops for when he just can’t help asking question after question, and Hungryophus for when he gets a dinosaur roar in his tummy. It’s a lovely idea for those who are obsessed with dinosaurs, and also for exploring how we make and use words in the English language. The illustrations of the little boy depict him dressed up as different dinosaurs and are bold and engaging. Particular chuckles for Nevertiredophus and its accompanying illustration, as well as for Whyceratops’ question ‘Why can’t Grandma do cartwheels?’. Fun and funny. You can buy it here.

brian and the giant

Brian and the Giant by Chris Judge and Mark Wickham
Another household name, Chris Judge is the award-winning author of TiN and The Lonely Beast. Here pared with Mark Wickham for their second book about Brian Boru, who was the High King of Ireland about 1,000 years ago. There are not many picture books based on history, so this is an interesting addition to any picture book collection. In Brian and the Giant, catastrophe strikes the village when the river dries up, the houses are smashed, and there’s a dreadful smell. The villagers are perplexed, until Brian discovers that a huge smelly giant has built a dam and a bath out of their houses in order to create a bath for himself. The giant is not unfriendly though, so once his destruction has been pointed out, he works with Brian to restore the village and build a shower.

This is clearly taking a leap of faith with the whole history premise, but the depiction of resources and engineering in this picture book makes it stand out. Brian is hugely likeable and clever, and the tones of blue and greens make for a great rural Irish backdrop. This isn’t stocked on the Waterstones website, but order through your local bookstore or click through to Amazon.

 

 

 

Picture Book Bonanza

So many fantastic picture books have been published so far this year – I wanted to tell you about a few of my tried and tested favourites.

princess daisy and nincompoop

Princess Daisy and the Dragon and the Nincompoop Knights by Steven Lenton (5 Feb)
Any book that has nincompoop in the title is a winner for me – but subsequently I was blown away by the content inside. From an ironic beginning about how all fairy tales are the same, right to the end with our feisty heroine proving her father wrong, this is an absolute rhyming delight. When a roaring dragon disturbs the peace of the town, the king sends for some knights to tackle his problem. They turn out to be complete nincompoops, and it’s his daughter with a brain who solves the issue. So much of the text here is worth quoting because the rhyming is spot on and totally hilarious – both for children and their parents:
Then everybody cheered, “Well, that’s a turn-up for the books!
And doesn’t it just go to show you mustn’t judge on looks?”
The pictures are bold and fun and colourful. A great twist on stereotypes, and characters with impeccably drawn expressions. I had to read again and again! A storming success. You can buy it here, or purchase on the Amazon sidebar.

Beastly Pirates

The Beastly Pirates by John Kelly (12 Feb)
Another rhyming tale, but this one with extremely complex vocabulary. Don’t let that put you off though, we adored exploration of the new sounds and meanings, from colossal to rogue to halitosis! Oh yes, these are revolting pirates, but they get their comeuppance at the end, thanks to a clever child and savvy use of shadows. Many different types of pirates are depicted here, from Wicked Cass the Pirate Lass to Admiral Archibald the Angry – John Kelly plays with language with great ease – but these aren’t even the beastly pirates. The beastly pirates gobble up the others with glee, led by Captain Snapper. The pictures are as intricate as the text – packed with detail, colour and daring. Lots to look at – lots to take in. One to be savoured. You can buy it here, or purchase on the Amazon sidebar.

Follow that car

Follow That Car by Lucy Feather and Stephan Lomp (1 April)
Another one that packs in the detail, but in pictures this time, is Follow That Car. This is a completely different type of picture book – in which the idea is that the reader traces a path through the different landscapes to help the police mouse on the motorbike chase the gorilla in the yellow car. Slightly reminiscent of Richard Scarry, this is another triumph for Nosy Crow publishers. The text is merely to help the reader find a pathway through each page; the roads are as messy as spaghetti junction. The mouse has to avoid road blocks, train tracks, fallen trees, sheep and ducks on the road – there are endless dead-ends. This is another highly colourful book, bursting with animals and transport. Each page is a feast for the eyes. Loved by every reader to whom I showed it – from age 5-20!!! You can buy it here, or purchase on the Amazon sidebar.

little red and the very hungry lion

Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion by Alex T Smith (7 May)
This super twist on Little Red Riding Hood, by the clever writer and illustrator Alex T Smith, should be in every school library. Little Red Riding Hood has always been depicted as being fairly nifty and astute, from the first tellings to Roald Dahl’s protagonist who ‘whips a pistol from her knickers’. In this version, nicely transplanted into a jungle region rather than the woods, the wolf becomes a lion, and Little Red sees through his tricks immediately. Rather than conquering him, she tames him instead (after doing his hair and teeth and changing his clothes), and on the last page she is silhouetted playing skipping with the lion, her father and her poorly aunt (replacing the grandmother). Alex T Smith has had great fun depicting both Little Red’s jaunt through the jungle to reach her aunt, but also the lion’s descent into grumpiness as his plan fails and Little Red gets carried away doing his hair! It’s fun, subversive, and inspiring, showing children how to twist a tale, and use imagination to recreate old classics. Thoroughly enjoyable. You can buy it here, or purchase on the Amazon sidebar.

daddy's sandwich

Daddy’s Sandwich by Pip Jones, illustrated by Laura Hughes (7 May)
For slightly younger children, but probably one of the most adorable books I’ve spied this year. Pip Jones has captured the little girl’s language expertly, from the moment she calls ‘Daaaadddddy’ on the opening pages to her vocabulary such as ‘teeny’, and the varying sizes of text emphasising words such as ‘ages’ and ‘not’! The little girl attempts to make her Daddy a sandwich with everything in it that he likes – except this little girl is putting in EVERYTHING that Daddy likes, from his camera to his bike helmet. This is one very large sandwich! Laura Hughes’ illustrations are just the right mixture of cute and vivacious, the perfect ingredients for a picture book that any child will want to read again and again. You can buy it here, or purchase on the Amazon sidebar.

ten little dinos

Ten Little Dinosaurs by Mike Brownlow, illustrated by Simon Rickerty (7 May)
One of Huffington Post’s summer picture book picks and for good reason. This is good old fashioned fun, in a stylish and accessible book. Even the cover is great fun. It provides a rhyming poem to teach counting to anyone who has any love for dinosaurs – especially when they’re illustrated in such an endearing way. Ten fairly similar baby dinosaurs, differing in colour and the number of spikes each one has – gradually get diminished in number until the end when they are all reunited with Mummy dinosaur. It follows a similar pattern to many counting books, the ending rhyming number being always just over the page:
“Nine little dinosaurs think the world smells great!
“Slurp!” goes a hungry plant. Now there are….”
The slight apprehension that these dinosaurs might be disappearing because of some danger gives the book edge, and Simon Rickerty has plumped for simplicity in the drawings – every page is a delight of simple patterns and rainbow colours – which makes it stand out and appeal massively to the target audience. Much enjoyed…Roar! You can buy it here, or purchase on the Amazon sidebar.

 

 

Tell Me Another: Jewish Festival Storytelling

The Jewish festival of Passover is an interesting festival for me because it’s all about storytelling. Commonly, Jewish people retell the story of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt over a meal. There are many children’s books on the market for Passover, because there is quite a lot about the festival that needs explanation for children – why bread isn’t eaten, why a special meal (the seder) is held, why it lasts for eight days, and the story of the exodus itself.

And Then Another Sheep Turned Up

And Then Another Sheep Turned Up by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Amy Adele is a gem of a Passover book, published in February this year. Sheep are often associated with spring, and it being a spring festival, the characters fit in perfectly. The scene at the table is great, from the seder plate to the wine, books on the side table, and matzah. The family of sheep are all ready for their special Passover seder and just about to begin, when Grandma Sheep turns up to join in, followed by many more unexpected guests. Told in rhyme, the beautiful illustrations evoke a warmth in the scene from the tight hugs with Grandma to the dog’s and cat’s movements as the evening progresses. The little touches are great – from the children’s tiredness, to Papa sheep’s final words:
“Time to get our kids to bed.
Next year in Jerusalem!
And next year….PLEASE CALL AHEAD!”
To purchase through Waterstones, click here. Available from 28 March 2015. Ages 3+

engineer ari and the passover rush

Another new title, Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush by Deborah Bodin Cohen, and illustrated by Shahar Kober, continues the Engineer Ari series inspired by the historic rail line from Jaffa to Jerusalem. Ari has to gather everything he needs for the Passover seder on the last day of driving his train to Jerusalem and back to Jaffa before Passover begins. He watches the workers in the matzah factory in Jerusalem, and admires their speed, before heading back to Jaffa, and gathering horseradish, parsley and an egg from his friends in exchange for boxes of matzah. Fabulous illustrations of the train, the market in Jerusalem and the baking of the matzah make this a special picture book, and it ends in the same way as many seders – with someone asleep! It’s a charming little story, which captures a nostalgia for Israel, and the feelings of joyfulness and anticipation as time rolls towards a festival. To purchase, click here. Ages 5+

Dinosaur on Passover

An old favourite is Dinosaur on Passover by Diane Levin Rauchwerger. A rhyming story about a dinosaur who gets involved in the preparations for Passover and causes havoc at the seder table, especially when searching for the afikoman. It’s always good to have a more secular topic (dinosaurs) interacting with a religious festival, as for many children it helps to familiarise it in their minds. Bright colours, easy words and basic concepts make this a winning formula for the youngest at the seder table. To buy this title click here. Ages 2+

sammy spider's first passover

I have chosen Sammy Spider’s First Passover by Sylvia Rouss mainly because it contains the line, “Sammy had never seen so much food!” which makes me chuckle every time I read it. Published as long ago as 1999, Sammy Spider remains ubiquitous with the Jewish festivals for many families. Sammy Spider is alarmed by the family doing housework and sweeping away his web, but by the end of the story (and the seder meal) he has spun a new web to help point the children in the right direction of the afikomen. He also uses shapes to spin his web, in the end ‘passing over’ one shape with another. It’s a cute link to the festival. To buy this title click here. Ages 3+

Passover Around the World

Lastly, and for slightly older children is Passover Around the World by Tami Lehman-Wilzig, illustrated by Elizabeth Wolf. Many families delight in reading about the different customs that different strands of the religion or people of different nationalities bring to the seder table. Although it’s traditional to have the same format every year, it is great to learn about other ways too. This book features stories, recipes and histories of Jews in America, Gibraltar, Turkey, Ethiopia, India, Israel, Iran and Morocco. From the brick of Gibraltar to the Mimouna celebration in Morocco, these are all intriguing customs, with a great glossary at the back to help. A useful and different addition to any child’s Passover bookcase. To buy this title, click here.
Age 8+yrs

Thank you to Kar-Ben publishers for review previews of And Then Another Sheep Turned Up and Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush

Where have all the children’s non-fiction books gone?

Once upon a time I used to work for a large (mainly reference, ie. non-fiction) publisher as a children’s book editor. In that time I also contributed some writing to the process, and produced a shelf full of beautifully illustrated/photographic, valuable, information-packed exciting non-fiction books for children.

From an egotistical point of view, sadly, none of the books seems readily available, in fact the publisher (bought out by one huge media conglomerate) now focuses on educational titles and content online. (Educational titles are not the same as children’s non-fiction, for those not in publishing).

In fact, when I look for good quality children’s non-fiction titles in bookshops, I can’t find much.

There’s no media space given to it – when was the last time you read a review in a newspaper of children’s non-fiction?

Actually, you may well answer Christmas. This is the only time – it’s when a few high quality, beautifully packaged (for gifts) titles do the rounds. I can reel off the ones produced for this Christmas – some were amazing – although one bestseller had a grimace-inducing grammatical error in it.

The main argument you’ll hear is that children nowadays don’t look up stuff in books! They use the internet. Even in school, the children tell me they all look up things on websites. Excuse my scepticism – as a young editor I also trawled the internet to provide safe, quality content, ‘internet-links’ for the ‘internet-linked’ books that we published. The worthy websites were few and far between, and they certainly don’t appear at the top of the Google search results. The reason is that to produce a quality non-fiction book we had highly skilled writers explaining concepts in tight, concise, careful language. The books were fact checked by consultants, and editors, rechecked and rechecked. Then consideration was given to picture content, explanations and labels. It took time and skill.

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Not unlike a school librarian (also in sharp decline), we editors/publishers of non-fiction meticulously gathered fact-checked accurate information, and presented it in an attractive, accessible, inspiring format to stimulate children’s curiosity.

And yet I know first-hand that for many boys (and some girls) non-fiction is the essence of their love of books. In the school library the boys head for the non-fiction section. In the public library they decry the lack of modern non-fiction titles. As a reviewer, I have a lovely stream of fiction entering my house, and yet every day my son asks ‘did any non-fiction come today?’ He’s desperate for it, and he’s not alone.

As well as producing a generation of book lovers, I also want children to know that they can trust books to give them the correct information, that ‘google’ isn’t the answer, but merely the question. I want children who can analyse different types of text in front of them – fiction, information, instructive, newspaper report, review, commentary, discussion. I want children who know that they can escape into other worlds through fiction, but can also make sense of their own world through non-fiction. It is costly for publishers to produce, but with some help they can do it. Let’s celebrate it more in the general media, let’s give it airtime, newspaper columns, blogposts, shelves in bookstores. Let’s hand our children the key to the future. It starts with a few expert checked facts.

Four Fabulous Non-Fiction books

story of stars

The Story of Stars by Neal Layton

The Story of Stars uses pop-ups, cut outs and a range of devices to actively involve smaller children in the mystery of the universe. It takes one topic and runs with it in the most exciting way possible, exploring facts through creativity. Although some of the concepts are very difficult, even explaining to young children that people lived thousands of years ago, and without computers!, the book introduces basic definitions, such as supernovas, white dwarfs etc, and explains the history of humans’ relationship with space, as well as posing a whopping discussion point at the end of the book. Perfect to share with young children looking for their first interests, and slightly older children to accompany school learning. (You can’t get pop-ups and cut-outs on the internet).

lift the flap general knowledge lift flap gen know inside

Usborne Lift the Flap General Knowledge

Children adore general knowledge. They love reciting facts. They have competitions to see who knows the most facts about countries/animals. Listen to them – their knowledge can be quite astounding. Usborne books do a tremendous job producing quality non-fiction. Just published, Usborne Lift the Flap General Knowledge is an irresistible treasure trove of knowledge, with fact flaps just waiting to be lifted to find out more underneath. There are sections on entertainment, living things, science and timelines. It even labels the ends of the ship for those who aren’t sure. (The bow’s at the front, stern at the back!) It’s engrossing and illuminating, and above all, just a fun book to dip into.

DK Dinosaurs

DK Dinosaurs: a children’s encyclopedia

Dinosaurs, transport, animals and space. The coolest subjects for little boys, only to be trumped by volcanoes and earthquakes as they get older. Information on space and transport changes continuously, but dinosaurs more or less stay the same. This is an all-encompassing massive reference title with everything inside. Divided into classifications, the encyclopedia introduces prehistoric life – where life began and the timeline of life before honing down into invertebrates, early vertebrates, dinosaurs, birds and mammals. Each section introduces the type of life before breaking it down into species and giving key facts – habitat, period, size etc. The pictures are stunning – it’s visually easy to read and appealing. There’s a detailed index and glossary and the text is clear and precise.

make a universe

How to Make a Universe with 92 Ingredients by Adrian Dingle

This book isn’t newly published, but is an excellent example of how to present non-fiction in a new, interesting, and fascinating way. The book essentially talks about the periodic table – but not how you or I ever learnt the periodic table. It breaks down every day things into its core elements using illustration and fun text and educates at the same time. For example it explains what you would need to make your own human being, how fireworks work, and what makes a safety match safe. With super headings such as ‘really cool science bit’, ‘Alfie (and his brother) go boom’, and ‘who’s the daddy?’, this is a science book that’s definitely not just for geeks. Thoroughly enjoyable and refreshing.