diversity

Family Love

Under the Love Umbrella by Davina Bell, illustrated by Allison Colpoys
I’m not one for sentimental stuff, as those who know me will verify. And I’m not won over by simplistic declarations of love – usually in my fiction I like a little darkness too. But this is a captivating picture book, which supplies the darkness in the illustrations – by contrasting it with the effervescent light, as seen on the cover.

In short, the book is about being loved. When you’re lost in the world, the narrator speaks as if they’re the person who will be there – holding your hand, the other end of the phone, supplying your forgotten PE Kit. But that’s not what makes this book special. Firstly, although there are different characters shown within, and the idea is abstract rather than specific – the children are given names in an illustration at the start of the book – so we’re familiar with them before any story begins.

Then the use of colour – the vivid neons of the illustrations, often set against extremely pale and muted or dark and menacing backgrounds – so that the lightness of love and the kindness in the world is shown in bright brilliant colour. And the ideas within are tangible, real. The bad things in life are clearly delineated: a dog barking too loudly, an argument with a friend, feeling left out, or simply scared of the dark, against the good comforting things: a mother tucking in a child at bedtime, flying a kite, being comforted with a story, being together as a family.

The characters are a diverse mix – all cultures, all ages. Even the text comforts – the gentle rhythm, like swaying in a breeze, and the gentle rhyming – the expected falling into place. For nights when you need a hug – this is it – in a book. You can buy it here.

We Are Family by Patricia Hegarty, illustrated by Ryan Wheatcroft
Another exploration of the love that can be found in families. This book aims to show – through a series of mini illustrations on each page – the different families that exist and the comfort they can give. Again, a mix of peoples, ages and races can be found in the illustrations here – two Dads, large families, single mothers, ethnically diverse.

There’s a theme here though – each family is shown on each page in a small vignette – with a different activity, spelled out in the text. So in the first spread, the families are seen in different weathers – from playing in a paddling pool to braving the storm. The next page is the families eating – be it in front of the television, or flipping a pancake together, or sitting round a dining table.

Other pages lay out modes of travel, feeling ill, leisure pursuits, and – the page in which things go wrong: One family suffers a flood, another a lost dog, another a broken arm. It’s both slightly humorous and rather compelling. Of course the message is that together we are stronger – in our family units we can overcome.

If you can get over the rather saccharine text, this is a touching little book, and the many many illustrations will entertain for a long time, and provide first steps in visual literacy – spotting narrative and spotting differences between what each family does. You can purchase it here.

From Ant to Eagle by Alex Lyttle

Warning, this review contains spoilers.

They say write what you know. Canadian paediatric oncologist Alex Lyttle has certainly done that, but this novel is about much more than childhood cancer. It’s a tale of sibling love, and the healing power of friendship.

Eleven-year-old Calvin Sinclair is bored. It’s the summer before sixth grade, and his parents have moved from big city to a small town, leaving him with no local friends, and only his six-year-old brother Sammy to play with. To alleviate his boredom, and to express his sibling dominance, Cal comes up with a series of tests for his brother to pass in order to move up the various levels of a made-up chart – battling from lowly Ant through to the awesome Eagle Level, where Cal sits. The chart is meaningless, of course, and Cal hasn’t done anything to deserve Eagle Level, it’s just a simple display of power. The tests include everything from shooting hoops to disturbing a wasp nest.

Then Cal meets Aleta, a girl of his own age who is also new to the area, and the two of them go off on day long adventures, leaving Sammy at home. Cal gives Sammy a series of tasks to complete in his absence. As the summer progresses, so does Cal’s friendship with Aleta, but also Sammy’s number of sick days. From being unable to keep up with Cal and Aleta on a bike ride, suddenly Sammy is too ill to stray far from the house. When a collapse at school leads to a serious diagnosis, Cal has to re-evaluate whether he himself passes the test of decent big brother; does he himself even deserve the status of Eagle Level, or were the challenges he set Sammy essentially mean-spirited? For now, with a series of real tests in the hospital, Sammy has to show true bravery.

The text is beautifully readable, and the setting highly visual – from the countryside Cal and Aleta explore, to the contrasting confines of the hospital. But the main focus of the book is the sibling relationship – Cal’s feelings of annoyance at his little brother quickly turn into guilt when Sammy gets sick, but also love and protection…something that’s actually been there all along. As well as this, the reader sees how much Sammy looks up to Cal too – something that Cal comes to recognise through gradual self-awareness.

Cal’s voice is honest and direct, which at times of course, is brutal in its direct confrontation of a fatal illness, but also incredibly moving. And through this honesty, the book is admirably empathetic of all characters – doctor, parents, patients and siblings. There are some lovely touches – a fascination with the Goosebumps series of books, as well as the emotional understanding displayed by Cal in gaining the trust and friendship of new girl Aleta.

This book isn’t for everyone – with intensely adult themes, including the death of a six year old, this will be a hard book for some to swallow – yet it’s so honestly written, so tender, that for those willing to confront life’s darker side, it deserves a wide audience. For 11+ years. Please note that this book was initially published by Central Avenue Publishing in North America, and may not be as widely distributed (yet) in the UK. It is, of course, available on Amazon.

Where People Live

Two very different books that show us the different extremes of who we are and how we live

How Cities Work by James Gulliver Hancock and Jen Feroze

This glorious non-fiction book will be a winner in any primary school classroom studying homes, geography or urban spread, as well as a firm favourite in households stimulating their children’s natural curiosity about the world in which we live.

It explores cities with cartoon illustrations, which probe how cities are born (expanding villages and towns) to the infrastructure behind walls and underneath feet. Encompassing transportation links and how they weave through cities, to ever-expanding housing, communities, working life and the essential infrastructure of sewerage, as well as highlighting the importance of green spaces, emergency services and a look at the possibilities of cities in the future.

Ingeniously designed with many cutaways so that the reader can peek inside windows, behind walls and under pavements, as well as ever expanding pages as the city grows – fold outs to show skyscrapers and the differences between nighttime and daytime on the street, there is clear thought to the paper and cardboard structure of the book, with an added emphasis on civic life, culture and recreation.

This isn’t a book that sets out to show real-life dimensions or true representations, but it gives a canny insight and hardcore information about urbanisation through cartoon-style illustrations. The reader can peek at figures as one would a real person through their lit window on a dark night. There are also quirky titbits of information, such as which was the first skyscraper, and how many weddings are conducted each year in New York City Hall. The text often points out something random for the reader to count or find too (cowboy hats for example).

The use of colour is clever too, lots of green when the city is viewed from the outskirts, and a shimmery green/grey of skyscraper windows up close. But the city never gets too grey – as in real life, humans add splashes of colour with their red fire engines, their green parks, the flashes of red and green on recreation grounds and deliveries of fruit to shops. Watch out for the urban wildlife too.

The narrative is engaging, speaking to the reader in second person, as well as inviting them to open flaps and discover what’s inside. An excellent guide to city infrastructure for 7+ years. You can buy it here.

A Village is a Busy Place by Rohima Chitrakar and V Geetha

And now for something completely different.

In the traditional Bengal Patua style of scroll painting, this book opens out, scroll like, to an intricate detailed and stylistically authentic depiction of the indigenous Santhal people and the everyday world of their native village.

Fold by fold, the colourful world is revealed. But cleverly, before the reader opens the fold, there is a small amount of easy-to-read text that points out illustrations that will be revealed in the next fold, things to look out for, and questions about what they’re seeing. For example, the first fold shows a wedding feast complete with a grand chair for the bride and musical instruments. Animals intermingle with the people, and there are some incidentals that will be fairly different for the Western reader: special knives, the dress, and storage vessels. There are traditional occupations here too, a woodcutter, farmers, hunters. A water pump shows how the villagers obtain their water.

Once read through, the book opens to its fullest extent, showing all the pages as one complete picture in an illustration like that portrayed on the cover. Here, sadly, the paper production lets it down slightly, and there’s clear glue residue from the fold, but other than that, this is a vibrant, detailed and mesmerising picture showing a way of life scarcely seen any more, as well as an artist’s picture worthy of any wall.

By looking in detail, the reader can create the narrative of village life themselves, seeing the part that each person plays, and what each day entails.

This is an enthralling and colourful way to learn about aspects of Indian village life, as well as being a good exploration of a traditional style of art – showing ways of seeing with an unusual design.

For readers of all ages, particularly age 6 years and above. You can buy the village here.

 

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

It was with some trepidation that I started reading this novel, advertised for young teens, but I think appropriate for mature nine year olds, because of Laird’s introduction. The novel begins with a foreword from the author, which gives an explanation of why the war in Syria began and poses a question at the end about how history will judge our treatment of refugees.

Literature is there to pose questions and make us think, as well as imbue empathy. And good literature should teach us things too – but above all there needs to be a good story well told, otherwise readers won’t get to the crux of the book. Elizabeth Laird is an experienced writer, and has written many great, distinguished and prize-winning novels. Is this more than just another ‘issue’ book, a book that has written a story around an issue, rather than starting with a story and drawing an issue out of it? This isn’t Laird’s best book in my opinion, and yet this is way more than an issue book, and it certainly makes the reader think, and so it deserves this week’s book of the week spot.

Twelve-year-old Omar narrates the story – in past tense. He lives in Bosra, isn’t keen on school, but makes money selling postcards at a tourist site. His father also works in tourism – but for the government. When war breaks out, the family’s troubles grow – not least because Omar’s father has to move for work, but also because his older sister is being married off (having reached the marriageable age of sixteen). Omar’s older brother Musa suffers from cerebral palsy and starts getting in with a group who are anti-government. It’s a complicated situation and Laird does her best to navigate through the family’s journey. As the bombs fall on the city, they move again, and again, until eventually they have to flee Syria completely and cross the border to a refugee camp in Jordan.

Laird has done her research – she has spent time in the refugee camps and has prior knowledge of living in the Middle East as well as a presenting us with a hefty acknowledgements section that clearly names all the various experts and refugee families who have helped to share their experiences with her.

It’s not a short novel, coming in at over 360 pages in the proof copy, and is fast-paced and hugely enjoyable. Yet, even at this length, it still feels like a skeletal piece. The descriptions of places are somewhat lacking – particularly the urban settings, although there are glimpses of what was once there – the tourist areas boomed, and the ordinary society was buzzy and lively – and yet there wasn’t quite enough description to give that emotional evocation of what has been lost.

The secondary characters too – Omar’s sister is desperate to stay a scholar and not get married, Omar’s brother struggles with his illness that sets him apart as different (just as any boy would anywhere in the world), but neither are portrayed in enough depth to give complexity to their issues. However, other relationships do spring from the page – Omar’s mother’s relationship with her grandmother, and likewise her relationship with her sister – these feel alive and real – with just a light touch. Omar – our protagonist – is likeable despite having many flaws; he comes across as real – that awkward age of boyhood into adulthood that’s particularly difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone in wartime, and when he’s dealing with an absent father and a physically weaker older brother.

Written from a very British perspective, the language used will be vastly familiar to the Western reader – words such as ‘bungling’ and phrases such as ‘ratting on someone’ and ‘I beg your pardon’. Perhaps this is on purpose, to make the readership feel familiar with the family portrayed – to show the readership here that this is something that could happen to anyone. And yet, as with the lack of physical description of Syria, it takes away some of the authenticity of the book.

But overall this book ticks the boxes for me because it’s gripping and fast (the book sprints through the plot) and portrays the Syrian war and the refugee crisis so that an average ten year old in this country could gain some insight and experience some empathy.

The book extols the virtues of bravery and hopefulness. Of learning to look out for your family and put someone else first. And it makes you think – how will we welcome a family such as Omar’s in our country? Who are these people? Are they just like you and me?

You can buy it here. Fifty pence per copy of the hardback book sold will be donated to an international aid agency supporting the Syrian refugee crisis.

Women and Science and Achievement

There’s an enduring reality that women are underrepresented in fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) globally. For example, just 28 per cent of science researchers are women.

According to the Wise Campaign, the number of girls doing STEM subjects at GCSE is approaching an equal number to boys, but drops off at A Level, although those that do, tend to achieve higher grades, and the numbers are rising. In the professions though, there is still work to do – only one in ten STEM managers were female in 2014, and women only make up approx. 13 per cent of STEM occupations in the UK.

There’s positive news though – women are choosing to go into STEM at a higher rate than men. It’s something we can work on from the beginning of primary education though – with titles such as these:

ada scientist

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
Rosie Revere Engineer has been a staple in the primary school library since publication in 2013, with charming Rosie, a quiet girl who turns into a brilliant inventor, and dreams of engineering. Ada Twist, Scientist capitalises on Rosie’s success, (we girls working together!) but Ada is a winning tale in its own right. The character ‘Ada Marie Twist’ is named after Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, explains Andrea Beaty, and demonstrates the same glee as Rosie in asking the question ‘why’, and setting out to discover the answer.

As in Rosie Revere Engineer, the text has a bouncing upbeat rhythm and rhyming couplets, making it both easy to read aloud and easy to absorb. After observing life for three years, Ada’s questions begin, and then grow and grow:

“She started with Why? and then What? How? And When?
By bedtime she came back to Why? once again.”

The questions are so many that they fly off into the illustrations, which become more and more complex and intricate, mirroring Ada’s mind – which is clearly filled with the clutter of questions…and yet there is a preciseness in the detail – from the machines that Ada gathers to investigate, to the equipment that she uses for her experiments.

Ada fixes on solving the problem of a particular smell, and her curiosity leads her parents to despair. By the end though, they too, and her classmates, are helping her investigations.

Of course, the less than subtle message, for both Ada’s parents and the reader, is that curiosity fuels science, and that anyone can be a scientist if they are curious about the world around them – from the smallest smell to the biggest Why. Questions inevitably lead to questions.

There are some lovely touches. Andrea Beaty plays with the modern parenting ‘punishment’ of the Thinking Chair – exploring the idea that thinking is a great thing to sit and do. Roberts’ illustrations also add zing to the book – from the incredible detail of each drawing to the parents’ use of books for investigations, the diversity of Ada and her family and also of her classmates, Ada’s mother’s incredible sense of fashion style, and the ageing of Ada both in the illustrative depiction of her, but also in her questions. It’s fun, informative, inspirational and a beautiful companion to Rosie. Age six years and over. You can buy it here.

great women

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst
Too often biographies tend to serve older children. This marvellous piece of non-fiction is astoundingly brilliant for many reasons. It is accessible, bright, colourful, informative and quirky – making it interesting fodder for all readers. Not just focussing on science here, this is a book that explores women who have made a difference through their startling achievements in all fields.

Written and illustrated by Kate Pankhurst – yes, Emmeline’s descendant, who features in the book, Kate also features some lesser known female pioneers, including Marie Chilver, a secret agent during World War Two, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and Channel swimmer Gertrude Ederle, as well as curriculum staples such as Mary Anning, Marie Curie, Mary Seacole and Rosa Parks.

However, this is far from a dry documentation of their achievements. Each woman is attributed a double page spread, in which Pankhurst illuminates not only who they are and what they achieved, but also quirky facts and attitudes towards them at the time. Text is in small bite size paragraphs in designs that suit the person, such as in small smoke and speech bubbles for Marie Curie, in fossil shell shapes for Mary Anning, and in clouds for Amelia Earhart.

There are also bright bold cartoon-like illustrations, again suiting each illustration to the character Pankhurst is describing – loops and swirls for Coco Chanel’s patterns, to cartoon interpretations of Kahlo’s paintings. It’s fun, immensely readable and completely enjoyable.

It’s an eclectic mix, but interesting that the selection is not only global but pulls the women from completely different backgrounds and upbringings, as well as timescales.

A must-have for all school libraries, but an equally inspirational and aspirational book to have at home for all girls and boys! Age six years and over. You can buy it here.

women in science

Women in Science, written and illustrated by Rachel Ignotofsky

For slightly older children, this beautifully written and put together book features a whole host of scientists (50), most of whom the readership won’t have heard of, but all of whom are inspirational women through the ages from Hypatia (in approx 350 CE) to Maryam Mirzakhani (born in 1977) who have contributed in some way to the world of science.

As in Kate Pankhurst’s book, they come from all walks of life, all echelons of society and from all over the world. Each profile is a double page spread, with one page given over to a two-tone illustration of the woman, complete with annotations and a decorated background (on black paper). The other page features a considerable chunk of text, but has illustrated borders with extra quirky facts. The text is easy to read – fascinating and concise biographies that explain motivations and emotions as well as the hard facts of the individual woman’s achievement.

The illustrations are striking and distinct – their personalities well-encapsulated from the focussed and rather severe looking Marie Curie to a compassionate and thoughtful Mamie Phipps Clark (psychologist and civil rights activist). None of these women held themselves back – all pushed through barriers to get to where they wanted. There are some incredible stories in here. Rita Levi-Montalcini (neurologist and Italian senator) who was forbidden by the Nazis from practising medicine because of her Jewish faith, so built her own laboratory in her bedroom. Her research led her to win the Nobel Prize in 1986, and she worked until she died aged 103. Patricia Bath, the first African American woman to complete a residency in ophthalmology and obtain a medical patent, who helped restore sight to blind people and invented the Laserphaco Probe. Her mother bought Patricia her first chemistry set.

One of the loveliest features of this book is how many biographies there are – and even some more smaller ones squashed in the back – as if saying – there are loads of women scientists out there if you just look. A glossary for scientific terms, and some research sources complete the book.

The motivation for the book is clear – to inspire a future generation to aspire. The fact that it is also aesthetically pleasing means that it will be a lasting treasure on any bookshelf. For ages 8+. Definitely buy one here.

Classic Literature’s Influence over Modern Novels – a guest post by Emma Carroll

straange star

This week on MinervaReads, two blog posts that take a look at contemporary fiction that mirrors, borrows from, or is inspired by, classic literature. Today, contemporary children’s author, Emma Carroll talks about recent examples of this, following on from the publication this month of her Frankenstein inspired story, Strange Star. To read MinervaReads’ review of Strange Star, click here

Having recently had published a story with its roots in ’Frankenstein’, my view on this subject doesn’t need much explanation. Yes, Strange Star is a nod in the direction of Mary Shelley and her gothic masterpiece- maybe it’s more than a nod (Badges? Banners? I ‘Heart’ Mary t-shirts?). I’m proud to join a long line of writers who’ve been influenced by classics from the past.

Reinventing classics is a popular, tried- and tested- genre in adult fiction. From the subtle ‘echo’ of Victorian sensation novels in books such as Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox, to direct ‘spin-offs’ such as Nelly Dean by Alison Case (Wuthering Heights), Jo Baker’s Longbourn (Pride and Prejudice), Mrs De Winter by Susan Hill (Rebecca) and the classic in its own right Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Jane Eyre). There are far too many to list here: suffice to say I’ve a soft spot for a good re-invention.

With regard to sequels/prequels/spin-offs certain classics seem to attract more attention. Often it’s because they’re very well known: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Moonstone, Pride and Prejudice. Or, rather ambiguous: Rebecca, Wuthering Heights. Or, feature minor characters whose stories are bursting to be told: Lydia Bennett, Bertha Mason, Hindley Earnshaw. I had experience of this myself last year when writing a short educational version of Wuthering Heights for Collins. They requested it be from Heathcliff’s perspective: given his almost psychopathic tendencies in the original, making him age-appropriate was a challenge. I had to give him a motivation. Bronte’s gaps in the story were what triggered my own.

Which brings me on to the influence of classics in children’s literature. Many wonderful, hugely popular writers – Robin Stevens, Katherine Rundell, Katherine Woodfine – pay homage to the likes of Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and Eva Ibbotson in their work. And I can’t go any further without mentioning the spectacular Five Children On the Western Front by Kate Saunders, which is a direct sequel to Five Children and It, and executed with incredible skill.

More recently we’ve had Return to the Secret Garden by Holly Webb, my particular favourite, the up and coming  Lydia- the Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice by Natasha Farrant, and yes, my own Strange Star. I speak for myself here, but for me, writing something so directly linked to a classic was a way of exploring my relationship with that book. Frankenstein featured heavily in my teaching years: writing Strange Star helped me move on from that time in my life. The teacher in me still exists: I hope by reading something accessible, young people will go on to seek out the classics, or at the very least be aware of their cultural significance.

I’d say all of my books owe something to the classics. It’s not deliberate. Over the years I’ve read many, many books and in that time developed tastes, preferences, interests that have shaped who I am as a writer. You are what you read. Cut me open and you’d probably find a black Penguin Classics spine running through me.

With huge thanks to Emma Carroll, one of our most essential and talented contemporary children’s writers. For MinervaReads review of Strange Star, click here. To buy Emma’s latest book Strange Star, please click here.          

 

We Are Giants by Amber Lee Dodd

we are giants

Amnesty’s poll for International Children’s Book Day revealed that half of parents surveyed think reading a book is the best way to develop empathy. (YouGov 53% of 964 parents, March 2016). But to evoke empathy a character has to be fully-fledged, fully-rounded – believable.

The book doesn’t have to be ‘issue-based’ to achieve this. Amber Lee Dodd’s debut children’s book is about a girl whose mother has dwarfism. So it fits into the ‘issue’ and ‘diversity’ mould. But, actually, the book transcends this compartmentalisation, because the author has written her protagonist in quite an exceptional way.

Nine-year-old Sydney is concerned and upset that she has to move away from her home and her school and friends when her mother loses her furniture shop. They uproot to be nearer Sydney’s grandmother, and Sydney has to make new friends and fit in at her new school. She also has an older sister entering her teens – Jade, who is sparky and fractious, adding conflict and a great dynamic to the family:

“Let’s just say she no longer needs to stuff cotton wool down her bra. I catch Mum looking at her sometimes with a sad look on her face.”

Throughout the book there is the underlying message of learning to accept others, in all guises, reflected in Sydney’s mother’s dwarfism – she is particularly resilient – a favourite moment is her moment of self-control in the face of prejudice with the landlord:

“I knew I shouldn’t have let people like you have this place.” He says to her.

But essentially the book isn’t about dwarfism – partly because Sydney deals with her mum’s difference in such a matter-of-fact way that it doesn’t intrude the narrative. It’s about Sydney – a child coming to terms with change in her life.

And Amber Lee Dodd handles this so well that the reader feels they are right inside Sydney’s head. That’s why the novel flies past at such pace – it’s so easy to read and quite gripping, because it’s like reading an email from a friend about her new struggles and experiences.

Sydney has also suffered the death of her father at a young age, and so some of the book deals with her grief – as she retells stories she remembers that he told her, as well as thinking about what would have made him proud.

There are some particularly great psychological touches in that Sydney wants to stay small – to be like her parents – but also I think a universal childhood desire, which is the wish to remain the ‘baby’ and small, but also that conflict of wanting independence – and this goes to the heart of the novel – the thrust behind it. Sydney, as with most children, wants both – and Dodd manages to convey this so well with the theme of dwarfism behind it:

“I tried to do a shrinking exercise to calm myself down…imagining myself disappearing for a few seconds and coming back smaller, disappearing for a few more seconds and getting even tinier.”

Sydney also talks about her ‘wild thing’ inside – that hard to control emotion of anger, which can jump to the surface with no warning. It’s executed well:

“It wasn’t me speaking any more, it was the Wild Thing. And the Wild Thing was angry.”

Of course, the plot sings along too – there are some dramatic scenes with Sydney’s sister as she too tries to come to terms with their new circumstances, the mother’s frustration with her job, and lastly the grandmother – a wonderful character, who means well but doesn’t always fit to the primary family group!

“The thing I’ve learned about grandmas is this. They can’t resist if you ask them for help.”

There is lots to talk about within the book and lots to like about it too. It doesn’t set out to be too complex, but tells a story by wholeheartedly bringing its characters to life. The story has giant heart – although of course, size doesn’t matter. You can buy it here.

Out of Africa

Recently the journalist Ainehi Edoro wrote an interesting article in The Guardian about the bias of the book industry in terms of African novels, comparing the Western agenda when we publish, read and review African novels to the agenda applied when reviewing novels from the Western canon. We tend to attribute an imagined anthropological value to African fiction, assuming a cultural viewpoint about their issues and themes first, rather than seeing them as we would American or British books – in which we are simply guided in our reviews by characterisation, plot. Ie. Writing first and themes secondary.

bobo road

So it was with great interest that two picture books set in Africa arrived on my desk in the same week. One, published by an award-winning children’s publisher, is All Aboard for the Bobo Road, written by Stephen Davies and illustrated by Christopher Corr.

What’s extraordinary about this picture book is the colour. It is as if the African sun is shining directly out of the pages – the amount of brightness and colour detail is completely captivating – the children testers I used for this book positively beamed back at the lustre and glow.

Fatima and Galo board the bus bound for Bobo. Their father Big Ali drives the bus, and on the journey the children keep track of all the livestock, people and goods that are boarded onto the bus, as well as watching the landscape go past.

Readers can help to count cargo on and off the bus, including three bicycles, seven watermelons, five sacks of rice, nine goats and much much more. Along the way, the children see a hippo lake, a waterfall, the forest, rock domes, market stalls, and the Grand Mosque. Each page brims with detail and above all, colour.

At the waterfall for example, the water is like big slaps of blue paint against a brown rock background with a multitude of colourful patterned rugs in the foreground, plants at the summit, and people everywhere, with colourful clothes, bags and hats. The goods are stark and bold – blue and orange bicycles, colourful bundles on heads, an assortment of vehicles ferried on top of the bus. The ground itself isn’t brown or beige – but a bright purple. Each spread is differentiated in its colour, from the vibrant oranges of the rock domes to the lush green of the forest, the blue of the town.

Even the endpapers blaze with light and interest – tracking the different sites of Burkina Faso, which is where the author based his story, after his experiences there over several years. The text too shines, with the unloading and loading of cargo, the counting within, and the descriptions: the children are ‘tired and hungry’, Galo unloads watermelons ‘huffing and puffing’ and Fatima unloads rice ‘craning and straining’.

The last pages are particularly effective, subtly showing the difference between what children see and what adults see.

There are familiar traits for a bus picture book, such as the wheels of the bus turning round, and the beep beep as the bus sets off, but in other ways this is a truly original picture book, and stands out from the crowd as being the brightest I have ever seen. You can buy a copy here.

princess arabella

The other picture book is published by Cassava Republic Press, whose very ambition is to change the narrative on African books, rooting African writing in all its different experiences, be it rural or urban, past or future.  Princess Arabella’s Birthday by Mylo Freeman aims to show that not all princesses are blonde and blue-eyed, whilst also containing a clear message that princesses should be careful what they wish for.

Princess Arabella has everything she could possibly want, so her parents are stuck as to what to buy her for her birthday. The princess decides that she wants a real live elephant, and her wish is granted. The only problem – this is not a compliant elephant. The twist at the end of the book is delightful – but it’s the small illustrations throughout that endear Princess Arabella to the reader, and serve to make this a series to watch.

From the elephant-shaped balloon on the cover, to the hilariously bad parenting of the King and Queen and the size of the net used to catch the elephant – there is plenty in each illustration to make the reader giggle. The colours are vibrant, the jauntiness of facial expressions well-executed. It’s a simple story – for young readers – but conveys a vibrancy of personality and landscape, and conveys the beauty of another country – from the sandals on her feet to the sunset in the background – with ease and simplicity.

You can buy the book here.

Mothers in Modern Children’s Books

In a great deal of children’s fiction, mothers are either dead, disappeared or distant. As a mother myself, that’s always a little frustrating – although I realise that the reason my children haven’t discovered a Magic Faraway Tree in the garden, escaped to another world through the wardrobe, or fallen down a rabbit hole is because I’m always there, beating on the door, interrupting every scene, making a nuisance of myself with my rules and fussiness.

The following children’s books all feature mothers very kindly – in one even pointing to the fact that they are superheroes – so for mother’s day, I’m celebrating the mothers who feature, rather than fade into the background.

the paper dolls

The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
One of the slightly lesser known Julia Donaldson stories, this is a nostalgic ride through childhood, describing the craft activity of a small girl, and her memories of it as she grows. The mother, first labelled as ‘nice’ in the text, is portrayed with more empathy in the pictures – the reader sees her on her knees beside her daughter with a cup of tea in hand. She looks on fondly at her daughter colouring in the paper dolls. She has clearly helped to make them.

The mother disappears as the girl takes her dolls away to play, but returns to join in the make-believe at the breakfast table – donning a crocodile puppet. Unfortunately she can’t rescue her daughter’s paper dolls when a nasty boy comes to snip them to pieces. The little girl then grows into a mum herself:

“And the girl grew…into a mother”, my favourite illustrations portraying the child growing from holding a book to holding a baby – and then

“who helped her own little girl make some paper dolls”, this time at the table, but mimicking the former picture, with similar props.

The text doesn’t rhyme, as in many favourite Donaldson titles, but there is a superb sing-song rhythm to the story, which a reader can’t help but pronounce as its read aloud.

Of course I’ve picked it for the depiction of a mother who plays with her child, but actually the story is about loss – the fluidity of time, the memories of things now long gone, including people, and the inherited culture that continues from one generation to the next. Because after all, as mothers, we’re teaching children about our heritage, and giving them tools to manage and enjoy their future. Purchase it here.

polly and puffin

Polly and the Puffin: The Stormy Day by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty
Just published, this is a book that captures the relationship between mother and child in a few simple words, and with just a few pages evokes real emotion in the reader.

Polly and the Puffin: The Stormy Day is the second in the series. Polly is waiting for her father to come home in his boat, but the waiting is difficult, and even harder when it’s raining outside and a storm makes her feel anxious. With beautiful two-colour illustrations throughout, shades of orange and grey creating the perfect mix between a child’s outlook and the approach of a grey storm.

Of course, her puffin, Neil, features heavily in this series of books about the friendship between the girl and the rescued puffin – and the illustrations of Neil are also accentuated by the chosen colour palette (black and white and an orange beak). Polly is distressed when he flies off into the storm and she has to wait for him to return as well as her father.

There are some beautiful touches of interplay between mother and daughter. Polly wakes up early, the inference is that it is too early, and:

“Mummy was trying to do Busy Stuff.”

She asks Polly for five minutes – and the author turns to talk to the reader:

“Can you just give me five minutes?” said Mummy. (Does your mummy ever say that?)”

There are some real moments of emotional intelligence all the way through the book, from the illustrations of Mummy at the computer with Polly hanging round her neck, to Mummy’s comforting of Polly during the storm:
“I would come and find you. That’s what mummies do. Shelter you from storms.”

Mummy also shows Polly that she is not alone in her waiting – with a sympathetic and understanding explanation of all the other people who are waiting in the café. There is a beautifully happy uplifting ending of course – a hug of a story. At the end there is information on lighthouses, recipes and activities. Perfect for newly independent readers, and mums who want their heartstrings twanged. You can buy it here.

superhero street

Superhero Street by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
For my eagle-eyed readers, you’ll see that this is the second in Phil’s series of Storey Street books, and the first, Demolition Dad, I featured last Father’s Day, so it’s rather fitting that this second slots into my Mother’s Day post.

Mouse lives on Storey Street with his twin and triplet brothers. He is obsessed with superheroes, and knows he could be one himself, as heroes tend to come from the ordinary – just look at Clark Kent. So far though, he hasn’t been successful.

When he and his mother accidentally foil a bank robbery, his dreams of being a superhero come true. When other ‘superheroes’ arrive at his house, he and they band together to stop a dastardly villain returning to claim her missing diamond.

The story is slightly more insular than Demolition Dad – it is almost entirely focussed on Mouse’s family, with friends on the street as periphery characters only, but this is mainly because Mouse’s own family is a bit of a mess, and rather sprawling. Mouse feels overlooked at home, with five smaller brothers to look after, his parents are exhausted. Then when his Dad walks out, Mouse’s despair sinks to new levels. If children are unhappy at home, it’s hard to shift the focus away.

Because this is for younger readers than Phil Earle’s YA territory, he very cleverly weaves the silliness of the story, complete with madcap and lunatic characters such as superhero Dandruff Dan, into the mix, so that bodily function jokes mask the seriousness of a father leaving home and the burden left behind on the mother.

The underlying message is that anyone can be a superhero if they act in the correct way – Mouse’s mother is certainly a superhero in my eyes, and in illlustrator Sara Ogilvie’s eyes: her portrayal of Mum in the kitchen supervising her six boys. Mouse’s mother is also the school lollipop lady – another community superhero.

Phil’s penchant for authorial references and asides to the reader always makes me giggle, and emphasise that he’s telling a story:

“People throw parties for lots of different reasons. Birthdays, weddings, chickenpox…don’t laugh, it’s true, go and ask your mum. Well, go on! OK, are you back? Comfy? Good…”

So combined with the silliness of the plot, the hilarious illustrations, and the comedic text, this makes for a riotous book despite the underlying seriousness.

A superhero writer – showing the goodness of mothers. For readers aged 7+ years. You can buy it here.

sam and sam

The Secrets of Sam and Sam by Susie Day

What’s better than one mum? Two mums! As Susie Day puts it in The Secrets of Sam and Sam:
“One mum was good. Two mums was best.”

This novel is a spin-off title from Susie Day’s much loved series about Pea (including Pea’s Book of Best Friends). Secondary characters in Pea’s books, the twins Sam and Sammie move centre stage with their own story here, in a loveable tale about being twins, having a loving family, school trips, conquering fears, making friends and builders!

Told in a series of vignettes about Sam’s secrets, and then also third person narrative about both twins, as well as letters, annotations on the book Mum K (child psychologist) is writing, and various other documents and text messages, this is a hilarious look about finding out who you are, what you can achieve, and how to make friends.

Sam is scared of heights and wants to avoid the school trip, which sounds dangerous and risky. Sammie is delighted about the school trip, but rather worried that her best friend has a new best friend. And she needs to prove to everyone that she’s definitely the Best Twin. Meanwhile Sam and Sammie’s two mums have secrets of their own.

This is a fun story that children will whizz through, sympathising at times with both twins, and seeing the delightful irony and wit that shines through Susie Day’s writing.

The author is brilliant at conveying the messiness, stresses, and love of the family unit in all its different guises and ways – even with the peripheral characters in this novel, and that’s what makes the read heart-warming, sincere, and sharp too. She imbues her characters with a warmth and generosity – even when they’re making mistakes (the adults too), so that the reader both empathises with them, and feels a familiarity with the book too. Her settings are incredibly visual – the street is particularly well-described, so that the reader is completely immersed.

Dotted throughout with doodly illustrations by Aaron Blecha, the book feels both meaty in content and yet satisfyingly easy to fly through – highly recommended for children aged 8+ years. And it features a family with two mothers. Hard to beat on Mother’s Day. You can buy it here.

Have You Seen Elephant? by David Barrow

have you seen elephant

There are very few picture perfect picture books. Some have great illustrations, some great words, and occasionally both. This one is exquisite, for not only does it pair words and illustrations well, but it prompts the reader to think – reminiscent of I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen for its use of inference.

Barrow’s debut picture book begins with elephant asking the small boy if he would like to play hide and seek. The boy decides that elephant should hide, but in a beautiful close up on the next page elephant warns the boy “I’m very good.” The boy and his dog count to ten and shout “Coming! Ready or not!” and the game begins.

The reader’s glee comes from the boy’s apparent ineptitude to see the ‘elephant in the room’ (although he might be pretending as one reader pointed out!), but the reader’s laughter also comes from the astuteness of the dog – he sniffs elephant out every time. For the reader, it’s plain to see where the elephant is – his bulk is hard to miss and of course this is part of the joke – but Barrow has executed each page beautifully – the illustrations in hues of blues or greys or purples or oranges depending on the room, giving the elephant a chance to fade into the background.

Particular joys include the page in which the boy asks his father if he’s seen an elephant – the father answers “What elephant?”, and the picture shows the reader that the elephant is holding the television screen on which the Dad is watching football.

Barrow’s endpapers (the motif of which continues onto the first page) tell a story in themselves. They are a series of portraits of family photographs (drawn in illustration) – from relatives not even in the story, to the boy’s mother and father on their wedding day, to the dog, the boy as a toddler, and at the back of the book – the elephant’s trunk weaselling into the photos.

Watch out too for the tortoise, who offers to play a different game with the boy, the elephant and the dog at the end – also warning he’s rather good at it. It’s left to the reader to decide if a tortoise really would be good at tag. Fabulous stuff, and definitely an illustrator to watch. Buy it here.

wheres elephant

David Barrow is not the only illustrator playing hide and seek with an elephant this year. Barroux has produced a stunning book, Where’s the Elephant? which through very clever use of a Where’s Wally inspired theme, aims to shock the reader into seeing how deforestation is affecting the planet. It’s another totally exquisite picture book.

The first page explores the three creatures the author wants the reader to find within the book – an elephant, a parrot and a snake. Then the first pages show a dense forest – trees of all different colours and types swamping the page with their magnificence. Barroux has used blues, oranges, yellows, greens to depict his trees – this page alone is a lesson in illustration.

The animals are hard to find. But gradually as the reader works through the book, the trees are given less and less space, at first just logged tree trunks are shown on the left of the page, then they start to crawl across, as houses, cars, roads take over the space. By the end the creatures are easy to spot – there is no camouflage, food, shelter left for them – and they are reduced to living in one tree, then just the zoo.

It’s a fabulous illustrative demonstration of what is happening, inspired by Barroux’s trip to Brazil. The shocking difference between the first page and the page of the one tree is quite something to behold. There is some kind of salvation at the end though. Read it with children – you’ll see the impact a picture book can have. You can buy it here.