diversity

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.

Flying Females and Clusters of Cats

Mary Poppins blew in with her umbrella on a very strong wind, and these two new books for children breezed through the letterbox earlier this year.

miss petitfour

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Anne Michaels, with illustrations by Emma Block

This is Anne Michael’s first foray into children’s books, although she won accolades galore for Fugitive Pieces, amongst other writing. And what a book! The Adventures of Miss Petitfour is split into five separate stories about the main character, an eccentric lady who lives alone, except for her 16 cats, to which there is an illustrated guide at the beginning so that the reader can distinguish between them. Miss Petitfour also has the ability to fly when the wind takes her – merely by shaping a tablecloth into a type of hot air balloon and going where the breeze dictates.

Anne Michaels has created a world of jumble sales, grand village picnics, stamp collections and the Festival of Festooning.

But it’s the use of language that is so unique and exciting. From her orange and italicized highlighted vocabulary, explaining long and difficult but thrilling new words, such as ‘debonair’ and ‘gesticulating’; to encouraging the reader to count Michael’s authorly ‘digressions’ from the main story – the word digression also highlighted in orange – to the careful construction of each story, the use of the words ‘the end’ at the end of every story in a different context:

“…she placed especially lengthy chocolate eclairs crammed with whipping cream, which they gobbled up with great cat smiles from the beginning to THE END.”

and the simple poetic lyricism of each phrase, from “sixteen cat acrobats on a thrilling coat hanger trapeze” to the stories Miss Petitfour tells her cats:

“…stories full of rolling waves and motorcades, damp caves and last-minute saves, musketeers and mountaineers.”

It seems effortless, although of course it isn’t – it is highly thought out, and of the highest quality – and poetic in its lyricism. As a reader, you savour the words in your mouth the way you would savour the delectable treats she describes:

“currant toast squishy with butter, caramel-marshmallow squares, strawberry boats oozing custard, chocolate eclairs that exploded with cream when the cats bit into them with their little white teeth…”

She explains the construction of her stories as she writes – from ‘then one day’s’ to ‘meanwhiles’ without any condescension, as well as including the most luscious descriptions from clothes and fabrics “bolts of rustling stiff crepe paper and spools of silent velvet ribbon; there was the swish of tinsel and the jittering of plastic beads”, to the line of cats dangling in the wind, to the colour of marmalade. And Michaels does all this as well as writing interesting plots with drive, so there is never a dull moment.

The accompanying full-colour illustrations by Emma Block are sophisticated, humorous and almost as eccentric as Miss Petitfour herself – with massively differentiated cats, ear muffs, dancing, piano playing, and also simple tea. They are sharp and well matched to the text.

This is a meticulously crafted book – refined and delightful. For 7-12 years, and beyond. Buy a copy here.

harper scarlet

Harper and the Scarlet Umbrella by Cerrie Burnell, illustrated by Laura Ellen Anderson

With its irresistibly shiny cover, this tale does indeed sparkle from beginning to end. For newly independent readers, (the text is much larger, and the story shorter, than the title above) it tells the tale of Harper, a small girl who lives in the City of Clouds in a tall apartment block. Her friends come from the different flats within the building, each child having a defined personality from the start. But Harper’s best friend is her cat Midnight. When Midnight goes missing, along with all the other cats from the City of Clouds, Harper must harness her scarlet umbrella (which enables her to fly) and track down the lost cats.

Laura Ellen Anderson’s illustrations made this book for me. From the endearing portrayal of Harper on the cover with the cat perching on her head to the most incredible full page illustration of the cat orchestra inside, the artworks, despite being all in black and white, made me want to savour the book for longer. Small details abound in each illustration, from the smattering of freckles across Harper’s face to the cat licking its paws in the middle of an orchestral warm-up, to the view from the rooftops down to the trail of cats below. Each chapter starts with an illustration of Midnight in a different pose, and the book ends with her curled up comfortably asleep on the last page.

The writing is intensely lyrical, mirroring the themes of the story, which are music, adventure, care for others, all set in an imaginary world where there are different types of rain, “Summer Dew” and “Sea Mist” being just two, so that everyone owns an umbrella. The world also contains a plethora of musical instruments. Time and attention is lavished on children by grownups who really care, and the story is populated by overly exaggerated characters brimming with arty skills – they can dance, or write, or play music with incredible aptitude. It makes for magical reading, each sentence carefully honed with an abundance of adjectives and similes.

It is short and reads as sweetly as the story within, although for older children the language may seem a little cloying. For first readers, the magic of language will spring off the page, and I can happily see children revisiting the story for comfort, and definitely for those stunning illustrations. For 6+ years. You can buy a copy here.

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

Hell and High Water

Opening with a filmic scene of main character Caleb and his father staging a Punch and Judy show, this scintillating excellently-written historical novel never lets up momentum. Caleb’s father is shortly thereafter accused of theft and transported to the Colonies. But Caleb knows his father is not guilty, and so he sets off on a journey to both find his only other living family – an estranged aunt, and to prove his father’s innocence.

When a body washes up on the beach near where his aunt lives, Caleb is swept into a world of smuggling and intrigue, mystery and lies, which leads him and his new-found family into terrifying danger.

Landman captures the eighteenth century brilliantly – from the clothes and transport, to the marketplace and food, not to mention the hardships and hierarchies that penetrated society.

In fact, for all that the plot is fast-paced and exciting, Landman also deals deftly with perceptions of race, gender and wealth, and their accompanying inequalities. Caleb has dark skin, and is treated like a leper in places, and mistaken for a slave boy. Meanwhile his aunt’s stepdaughter is given a lovely gender ‘twist’, as although a girl, she takes on all the boy’s roles – rowing the boat, hefting heavy items, even adopting the role of puppeteer, despite the negativity associated with female performers. Tanya plays beautifully with perceptions here – putting a historical setting to good use in exploring how our world has progressed (or in some cases not) in how we view race and gender.

The other inequality that Landman manipulates is wealth distribution – describing the hierarchy of society, and delving into questions of morality and generosity, or the lack thereof. Her descriptions are wry and satisfying:

“Both bonnet and gown seemed designed more to scream aloud their vast cost than to show her face or figure to their best advantage.”

Her key plot hinges on the different types of thievery – the starving petty thief’s need for sustenance versus the morally corrupt landowners who claim tax and insurance in illegal circumstances.

The historical references are rife and intriguing. Set specifically in 1752, Landman has fun playing with the Act of Parliament that lost the country 12 days so as to set the country in time with the rest of Europe. She also explains in the ‘author’s note’ at the end that her tale is inspired by true events of a villainous smuggling landowner and the sinking of his ship, the Nightingale in 1752.

The sea too is a huge inspiration for Landman – her descriptions of the landscape are atmospheric and dark, using tidal rivers to great effect from the sweep of the water, to the mud flats, and water penetrating the land. With many allusions to other literature, exploration of the role of parents and family, as well as themes of loyalty, bravery, and being morally upstanding – this is a work of beauty.

It is so well-written, the words stay even when the story is concluded:

“When Letty moved, she moved quietly, but sound behaves differently in the dark. Each creak of floorboard, each rustle of cloth is magnified. A breath becomes a shout, a footfall akin to the blast of a cannon.”

With descriptions of dead bodies, and an exhumation, moral corruption, and a growing love story, this is for the upper end of my age scale – recommended for 12+ years. You can buy it here.

 

With thanks to Walker Books for sending me a requested review copy.

Picture Books with A Message

Learning to Share

moonlight school

Owl Wants to Share at Moonlight School by Simon Puttock, illustrated by Ali Pye
Actually, there is much more to this book than a simple lesson about sharing – it’s about using your imagination, being kind to each other, and accepting difference. However it is not preachy at all. In fact I fell in love with Miss Moon, Moonlight School’s teacher, the most understanding teacher in literature since Miss Honey! Simon Puttock demonstrates his understanding of children’s behaviour within a classroom environment (even if they are animals here) with accuracy and skill, and Ali Pye’s phenomenal illustrations, capturing shadows, mannerisms, and expressions are a delight.

At drawing time, there aren’t enough night-time colours to go round, so after Cat, Mouse and Bat have helped themselves, Owl has to draw using bright daytime colours. What will he come up with, and will the other students learn about sharing in the process?

Silver glitter on the front, attention to detail inside (look for Mouse’s tail accessory and her body language as she puts her paw up), the clever use of perspective to stop the reader from seeing Owl’s picture before Owl is ready – there is so much to admire in this picture book.

The language too is pitched perfectly – “Owl looked clever and said nothing”, whilst Miss Moon is a shining example of every good primary school teacher, with positive reinforcement, classroom control, and of course giving out stickers at the end.

This is a sumptuous picture book. Recommended to all. Buy a copy here.

 

Owning Up

the whopper
The Whopper by Rebecca Ashdown
Perhaps slightly less subtle, The Whopper by Rebecca Ashdown is certainly comical. Percy’s grandma comes to stay, and as a gift she gives him a hand knitted jumper. Percy hates it of course, and decides to take her words literally when she says it is “just right for walking the dog in”. When the dog ruins the jumper, Percy tosses it away, but when he lies to his Mum about what happened to it, a little creature called the Whopper appears. Before long the Whopper has taken over Percy’s life, to the extent that the only way he can get rid of it is to admit the truth. He does so, and of course, Grandma shows her acceptance of his apology with a new gift!

There are some hysterical moments in this book – from the picture accompanying his lie to the baby brother’s and Percy’s classmates reaction to the whopper, and the whopper’s ultimate defeat!

The message is how a lie, no matter how small, can loom large and take over quite quickly, and it’s drawn with some relish here. Very enjoyable as a lesson in telling the truth, but not necessarily a go-to picture book for bedtime. You can purchase it here from Waterstones.

 

Trying New Things

bogtrotter
Bogtrotter by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Judith Rossell
Bogtrotter is a simple creature. Furry green, with keen eyes, lively hair and a toothy expression, he runs day after day, year after year around the bog – hence Bogtrotter! But he’s not entirely content. When the frog asks him why he doesn’t ever do anything new or different it sets in motion alarm bells, and Bogtrotter starts to take notice of the world around him, and think of possibilities for the future.

The frog’s second question makes him think even harder, and he goes on a full adventure, with surprising results – not spelled out for the reader in text, but inferred in the picture. It’s a gem of a title, exploring what can happen if a person goes outside their own comfort zone, and takes stock of other creatures and the surrounding landscape.

The illustrations are adorable – the sort of depiction of a creature that a child wants made into a soft toy, as well as endearing human touches for animal creatures – the Bogtrotter sleeps with a mug of tea beside him and pictures on his wall (presumably of himself). Even the illustrations from behind of him ‘trotting’ are quite something to behold. A great book, with humour, insight and inference. Highly recommended. Buy here from Waterstones.

 

Being Brave

brave as can be
Brave As Can Be: A Book of Courage by Jo Witek, illustrated by Christine Roussey
Another fairly unsubtle book, but so excellently produced that you’ll think seriously about buying this and referencing it over and over. Sturdy thick cardboard pages with die cut shapes cut out lend a special element to this dynamic book.

An adorable little girl depicted in black lines with red cheeks, red bow in her hair, and red spots on her dress, takes the reader through the book in first person narrative, recalling how when she was little she had many fears. Ironic of course, as the little girl is still pretty little. Firstly she introduces her huge mountain of scary things.

Two die cut eyes in the mountain turn it into a kind of monster, but on the next page those die cut holes turn into snowflakes – showing that our fears are simple shape shifters – we can choose to see things as scary or we can choose to view them as something other than that.

The little girl then goes through her fears one by one, but instead of dismissing them, she tells the reader how she dealt with them – from using a night-light in the scary dark, to her mum’s explanation that the dog’s bark is just him saying hello. She even points out that sometimes we use being scary as a way to entertain – such as Halloween and telling spooky stories.

The illustrations are very clever – not only using the die cut shapes on each page to turn into something fresh, but also the combination of pencil lines and colourful crayons, as if the little girl had drawn the illustrations very neatly – the tangle of adult legs with scary boots on the ends is very effective when the little girl describes getting lost. (She overcomes her fear by becoming a brave explorer).

I wasn’t convinced about the ending though, which I found to be a bit of a letdown, although perhaps it is apt for the target readership. Size is said to be important here. As the little girl grows up, she realises that fewer things seem scary. As she grows as a person, her fears diminish.

Certainly the things that were scary as children no longer seem scary…it’s just that for this reader, other stuff does. You can buy a copy of the book here.

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.

 

 

 

Football Mad

Parents often regale me with their tales of despair about their children who aren’t interested in reading – they are interested only in football. To them I tell the story of one boy – so desperate to learn the football results on a Saturday afternoon that he learned to read the results ticker-tape scrolling at the bottom of the screen. He was delighted when he could read Liverpool 1-2 Tottenham, and then devastated to read Arsenal 4-1 Southampton.

From the tickertape he progressed to football magazines, then to match day programmes (personally I have yet to find much duller reading material), and finally to football books. Now to my delight, the range has widened and books on other subject matters are read too. But it all started with that football tickertape.

There is some great children’s fiction on football, but three new books that grabbed my attention recently are three biographies of famous footballers. They aren’t fiction – but tell non-fiction in a classic narrative style, so that non-fiction fans are drawn in and learn a story arc at the same time as gaining knowledge about their favourite footballer (and shhh! reading!) For all that I loathe celebrity culture, I recognise that this is a great way into reading for some children, and that emulating that famous football star is often the way to go. You only have to look at the success of the Premier League Reading Stars programme to see how one passion can lead to another.

Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale: The Boy Who Became a Galactico by Tom and Matt Oldfield tells the story of Gareth Bale’s career, from being taken to his first match aged three to watch his uncle play, to his move to and his first goal for Real Madrid. It isn’t easy to write a biography for a child readership – as Gareth gets much older than the readership some of the emotions and relationships could be hard to understand – but the authors have pitched this perfectly. There is far more emphasis on life on the pitch than off it.

In all the books, the parents and those in authority make it clear, without being patronising, that the footballers’ careers aren’t just reliant on skill. There’s an emphasis on practice, and attitude – and the importance of family and friends supporting the player. This is a team game – both on and off the pitch.

In Gareth’s story, the authors show his progression from a small skinny boy to a more bulked-out player, with nods to extensive training, the difficulties of loyalty when a player moves from one club to another, coping with the frustrations of injury, and lots of detail about specific football matches. The statistics and games are accurate – the authors have acknowledged their research at the back of the book. Even for non-football fans, it’s a good read from start to finish with a clear biographical progression (the structure is tight) and simple language. To purchase, click here.

Raheem SterlingWayne Rooney

Raheem Sterling also struggles with his size in his story: Raheem Sterling: Young Lion, but his background also plays a major role in his story, and there are some touching moments about the sacrifices his mother made in order for Raheem to have his opportunities. You can buy it here.

The third title in the series by Tom and Matt Oldfield is Wayne Rooney: Captain of England. You can buy it here.

Football Academy Boys United

If children like reading about sport, but want fiction, then I would recommend the author Tom Palmer. Tom has done amazing work with the Rugby World Cup – he has a series of books out on this – but he also wrote Football Academy: Boys United, which is for newly independent readers looking for a great story.

Tom writes with beautiful fluency, excitement and emotion, so that the characters come alive and the story seems real. The first in the Football Academy series sees Jake try out for United’s under-twelve team. He is good, but is he good enough? Tom Palmer incorporates issues with his team-mates, friendships, relationships with family, as well as what happens when you support one team and play for another. There’s plenty of football too, and plenty of emphasis on working hard for what you want. It’s enjoyable, and inclusive with a diverse range of characters. It remains my top recommendation for encouraging young football fans to read. There are four titles in this series. To buy the first, click here.

I would also recommend Frankie’s Magic Football series by Frank Lampard, and Helena Pielichaty’s Girls FC series (sadly not widely available, but it is an excellent series and reminds us that football is for girls too). All 7+ yrs. Lastly, if your child is older, leave Mal Peet’s Keeper lying around for them to find. It contains the most beautiful writing, with an amazing football/ghost story about a world-famous goalkeeper, and the importance of believing in oneself.

National Poetry Day

The Crossover

It’s National Poetry Day tomorrow. Quite often, we assume that children will be introduced to poetry at school – they will be asked to memorise a poem, write an acrostic poem of their own, or find a poem in a special poetry book. But if we ask ourselves, ‘what is poetry?’ we will discover that our introduction to poetry comes much earlier than school.

Poetry is an art form in which the language displays rhythm or verse. It’s not easy to define, and why so often children are quick to ask if poetry is something that rhymes.

Children also ask this because for some of them the earliest poetry they’re exposed to is the rhyming kind. Nursery rhymes are poems. And they’re important too – research shows that early exposure to rhymes increases a child’s ability in spatial reasoning.

Modern day nursery rhymes can be found in picture books. Whereas old nursery rhymes can be attributed to historical meanings, such as ‘Ring a Ring ‘o Roses’ representing the Black Plague, (although no factual evidence of this is available) our modern day picture books tell us stories in rhymes that can help us make sense of the world. Julia Donaldson’s Superworm is about teamwork, A Squash and a Squeeze teaches a reader to be thankful for what they have. Other picture books use free verse to weave their wonderful narratives.

For many of us, poems of our youth stay in our memory far longer than passages of prose. This may be because the predictability of some rhythm and rhyme narrows down the chances of available choices. The emotions in a poem (and I’m generalising here) are often heightened simply by the brevity of the words. And emotions and attention are linked, so we remember poetry more easily. I can certainly recite from memory many of AA Milne’s poems – particularly Disobedience, but there is much repetition and the rhythm is so perfect that even the verse written only in initials scans perfectly.

For children, poetry in the library is often shelved near the jokes section. Children love the nonsense and breaking of rules in poetry. Nonsense poems are a key entrance point into a love for poetry – I defy you to find a child who doesn’t love On The Ning Nang Nong.

But, lastly, free verse poetry is being used more and more frequently in contemporary narratives for children or young teens, particularly those which deal with difficult or sensitive subjects. I reviewed One by Sarah Crossan on this blog a few weeks ago, which deals with issues surrounding conjoined twins. Another book came my way this week, which is publishing in the UK tomorrow, and it is equally stunning and impressive in its quality and narrative content.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is about 12 year old twins, Josh and Jordan, who are stars of their school basketball team and have hopes of being professional players. The story is told through Josh’s eyes as the twins’ relationship begins to deteriorate when Jordan gets friendly with a new girl. The verse works cleverly – with pulsating bursts of fizzing energy to describe his basketball games, hip-hop in style, the words moving and using the white space on the page as a ball player would use the court:
“Be careful though
‘cause now I’m CRUNKing
CrissCROSSING
FLOSSING
flipping”
and more delicate simplified poetry without as many adjectives or movement of words to describe Josh’s feelings off the court.

It isn’t sentimental, Josh’s feelings come at you from behind the words on the page. Kwame Alexander also uses Josh’s reports of text messages and phone conversations to tell the story, as well as using his vocabulary homework – every so often Josh uses a new word from his school vocabulary test as the starting point for a poem and weaves it into his life. It is clever and effective:
“pul-chri-tu-di-nous
Having great physical
beauty and appeal…
As in : Wait a minute –
why is the pulchritudinous girl
now talking
to my brother?”

Josh is an extremely likeable character, despite his jealousy of his twin, and his family and relationships with them are expertly portrayed. Kwame Alexander also touches on the racial elements of the story – his Dad gets pulled over by the police, but it is subtle and well-handled.

For boys who are reluctant readers and only into sport or music, this may be the perfect way into reading – short bursts of text – ongoing references to basketball (even the book is divided into the four quarters of the game), and yet a crackling narrative underneath. Kwame Alexander told The Washington Post that he wrote it “to show boys and girls that poetry can be cool.” He succeeded. My only fear is that the text is so basketball-led it may put off UK readers. Not that it was a disincentive for me – I devoured it. I wish someone would write a similar one based in football. That would be my perfect children’s book. To purchase a copy, click here or ask for it at your local children’s bookshop.

 

World Book Day Offerings

World Book Day 2016

World Book Day happens every year in the UK and Ireland, and next year will be held on 3rd March 2016. Many children will take part by participating in some book-led activity in school. They may dress up as a favourite character, have an author visit, or discuss favourite books at school. This is great. As a children’s book advocate I’m delighted to have these days/weeks in our schools to promote reading. This is A GOOD THING. And for children it’s an opportunity to take their ‘£1 off’ or free book voucher to the local shops and pick one of ten exclusive books. For some children this is their only opportunity to own a book. According to the National Literacy Trust, 15.4% of children don’t have a book of their own.

What’s the aim of these ten books? Is it to put books into the hands of those 15.4%? Is it to provide a familiar landscape for children to navigate, or give them another title by their favourite author? Or is it a chance to broaden their horizons – make them reach for a book that they might not have otherwise picked – to explore the huge vista of children’s books available? Last week the ten books for next year’s World Book Day were announced. And although my heart rose at the opportunity for young adults to read a book by James Dawson or Rainbow Rowell (those lucky things), my heart sank a little for those key stage 1 and 2 children.

Because from the huge wealth of children’s literature, the ten books on offer included these three: A Star Wars book; a celebrity author book – The Boy Who Could Do What He Liked by David Baddiel; and a Roald Dahl book – The Great Mouse Plot, which is an extract from his autobiography Boy.

Firstly, if reading the Roald Dahl spurs a child into reading more Dahl at Key Stage One, I sincerely hope it’s The Enormous Crocodile or The Twits, and not Boy. I don’t want to spark a huge debate about censorship and reading ages, but frankly, I would recommend Boy as a 9yrs+ read, not for Key Stage 1. Secondly, with McDonalds giving away free Roald Dahl books with Happy Meals for the next few weeks, I wouldn’t want our children to think that the only children’s book author is Roald Dahl.

Why, when limited to just ten titles, are we going for a celebrity author, a film and merchandising brand, and a Dahl extract? If children walk into a WHSmiths on their high street, these are the authors who already get top billing. I’d love people to think beyond Roald Dahl, David Walliams, and David Baddiel when they think of children’s books. There are so many wonderful books out there.

Also, why aren’t there any ethnically diverse authors or illustrators featured? With momentum growing to portray our multi-cultural society in children’s books, and to show children that you can be a writer regardless of your background, this is the opportunity to do so. Those ten books are a wonderful chance to give attention to lesser known authors – those with equal or even higher quality narratives and illustrations. Lastly, what about non-fiction? I know plenty of children who are happily introduced to reading for pleasure through non-fiction rather than fiction, and yet none is featured within this ten.

Saying that, I applaud World Book Day for the work they do, and for including such treasures as James Dawson, and Kes Gray’s Daisy, as well as Sue Hendra’s Supertato, because no one could possibly resist Supertato: Hap-Pea Ever After.

Sister Love

“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands” Christina Rossetti

Whatever Happened to My Sister

Whatever Happened to My Sister? By Simona Ciraolo
This is a brilliantly touching picture book for any younger sibling whose older sister has started on the transition out of childhood. It portrays the shift in relationship, the changing family dynamic – and Simona Ciraolo does it with great skill. From the beauty of the front cover, in which a little sister forms camaraderie with the cat outside the perceived locked door of her older sister’s room, the narrative flows through the book visually as well as verbally. The first two pages show the younger sister alone, looking through photographs in the family album, with suspicions that “someone had replaced my sister with a girl who looked a lot like her”. The following spread erupts with sensitivity and pathos as the reader sees the younger sister staring at her older sister – the teenager now resplendent with small shorts at the top of her exceedingly long legs, her midriff bare as she stretches into a high cupboard: “My sister was never so tall. Did it happen overnight?”
The colour palate is muted – the background of the house in shades of warm beige, blues, greys, with vibrant orange for detail – a modern landscape dotted with homely paraphernalia: the younger sister’s tea party, Halloween outfit, skipping rope, scooter, set against the older sister’s secret diary, computer, phone, and guitar. But it’s the positioning of the sisters that pulls at the heartstrings – the younger child’s peeking through a doorway, or locked out completely (reminiscent of ‘Do you want to Build a Snowman?’ from Frozen), as opposed to the older sister with her feet up on a desk, lounging reading a magazine, sprawled across a sofa, painted nails, chats with friends. Simona Ciraolo has captured both a small child’s stance and a teenager’s with flair. The illustrations are in soft crayon, and beautifully accomplished.
The book resolves itself with joy – as the older notices the younger’s tears and invites her to join in with dress up and music, with beautiful phrasing on the last page, which I won’t reveal. For a younger sister there is solace in this new relationship – for a mother reading it – it’s heart-breaking. A very clever picture book. To purchase, click here.

One

One by Sarah Crossan
This is another book that tugs on the heartstrings about sisters, but aimed at a teen audience, and about a completely different type of sisterly relationship. Sixteen year olds Tippi and Grace are conjoined twins, their bodies are meshed together at their hip, although they have separate hearts, heads and each has two arms. The book tells of what happens the year they start attending main school rather than being home educated (for financial reasons), and also explores the impact as their health begins to deteriorate. Sarah Crossan’s extensive research about their situation and emotions shines through the story, but what separates this book from other teen novels about serious health issues is the author’s use of free verse to tell the story.

By being so sparing with words, and by utilising not only words themselves but their positioning and spacing on the page, Sarah creates a pacey plot alongside deep and moving emotion. No word is superfluous. She integrates the rare situation the girls are in with the normalcy of teen love, friendships, sibling relationships and school. The language is so spectacularly beautiful and well-crafted that the reader melts even before the heart-breaking ending.

“We’ll just have a smoke today
and die that way,” Jon says,
and
takes such a pleasurable drag
from his cigarette you’d think he was
sucking up gold.”

to even such simple but effective similes as describing apples after a storm lying on the grass:

“like forgotten billiard balls on green felt.”

Sarah uses the same pared down power to eke out superb character portraits with just a few simple phrases. The reader’s breath is taken away before they even reach the final denouement. Highly recommended as a heart-rending read, but also to show what can be done with poetry. To purchase click here or see the Amazon sidebar.

Both these books make it into my top ten reads so far this year. Please note that Whatever Happened to My Sister? was kindly sent for review purposes from Flying Eye Publishers.

 

Summer Reading List

I’m not going to be blogging in August. It’s my month to take stock, recharge, and just READ. So, in case you’re wondering which books to pack/download for your children or take out the library for the summer reading challenge (see here), then here are a few suggestions.

i want my hat backoliver and patchwinnie at the seasidekatie mcginty

I recently re-discovered I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. This is a modern classic and as close to picture book perfection as you can get. A bear is looking for his hat and asks a variety of creatures if they have seen it. It’s a simple concept expertly executed, with fabulous dry wit and wonderful facial expressions – the text and pictures complement each other flawlessly. It is fun to do different voices for different characters and good for all ages to discuss what happened to the rabbit and why! Oliver and Patch by Claire Freedman and Kate Hindley is a beautiful story about moving to a new place. Summer can be a transition time for lots of children, and it’s good to read a reassuring story about making new friends and settling into a new place. Phenomenal vocabulary, exquisite illustrations – it also shows the fun you can have in a city. For something more summery try Winnie the Witch at the Seaside by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul. Much loved by children everywhere, this episode takes Winnie to the beach – although will Wilbur the cat stay dry? A good story, well told, with Korky’s distinctive style of illustrations. If you don’t want to rely on old favourites, this summer watch out for Katie McGinty Wants a Pet by debut author Jenna Harrington, illustrated by Finn Simpson, publishing 13th August. Katie wants a very different kind of pet (bet you can guess from the cover!). Although she may end up with slightly more than she bargained for – the writing style is fun and quirky – and captures a small child wonderfully – ‘She wanted it more than Millie Phillips wanted to be able to stand on her head.’

oliver and the seawigsclever pollylottie liptonthe gingerbread star ted rules the worldClaude Lights

My newly independent reading choices are a mixture of old and new too. Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre is a gem of a book, which takes the reader on a seafaring voyage unlike any other. The illustrations are sensational, look out particularly for Iris the mermaid. A classic, which has just been reissued and is well worth a read is Clever Polly and the Wolf by Catherine Storr. With 13 separate stories this is a good starter read. Each story is a play on ‘wolf fairy tales’, but magically don’t seem dated at all – and Clever Polly is remarkably likeable. If you’re doing any museum visiting this summer, or just looking to solve some riddles, a great read is the new Lottie Lipton series by Dan Metcalf, released in conjunction with the British Museum. These are well written little mysteries for growing readers but they have real riddles in them, and activities at the end. I’d love to read one whilst in the British Museum to see if I could follow the trail too. A must for young historians. For new or struggling readers I’m also heartily in favour of the Little Gem series from Barrington Stoke. There are numerous titles by fabulous authors in this list, but recent releases include The Gingerbread Star by Anne Fine, illustrated by Vicki Gausden and Ted Rules the World by Frank Cottrell Boyce, illustrated by Chris Riddell and Cate James. The Gingerbread Star retains the quality of Anne Fine’s longer work, and tells a glorious story of a worm who wishes she was a gloworm (so she can read in bed after lights out). She perseveres yet retains her sense of right and wrong throughout her adventure. Beautifully illustrated too – worms have never been so attractive. Ted Rules the World by high calibre writer Cottrell Boyce also retains the writer’s style – his sense of humour and mischievousness shine through in this hilarious story about a boy whose opinions on politics have a direct line to the prime minister. Far from marking him out as special though, Ted finds that the root cause is rather more uninspiring. It’s extremely funny. This agegroup also adore the Claude series by Alex T Smith, and on the 1st August, the new title is published, Claude: Lights! Camera! Action!. As zany as ever, Claude and Sir Bobblesock discover a film set and when the two lead actors are injured, they are asked to step in. The jokes hit on all levels – both children and adults. And that’s not all…this summer is momentous for the release of the very last Horrid Henry book by Francesca Simon: Horrid Henry’s Cannibal Curse. Although I’ve yet to see a copy of this and hate to review books I haven’t read I’m told it has an answer to the perpetual parental groan that Henry is too horrid…as Henry himself starts to read an interesting book about a girl called Evil Evie…

elspeth hart dara palmerrooftoppersmurder most unladylike
Eight to 13 year olds have a huge choice for their summer reads in this golden age of children’s literature. Firstly, I’d recommend Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs by Sarah Forbes, illustrated by James Brown. The second in the series comes out in September, so wisely use the summer to read the first. It tells the tale of orphan Elspeth, working as a servant in the Pandora Pants School for Show-Offs, sweeping up mouse-droppings, and dodging the horrid students, until one day she realises why she’s there, and how she can escape. Comic fun and a school setting with a feisty heroine. Another show off is the eleven year old main character in Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah. This is a fantastic story about a young adopted girl who desperately wants to be an actress. The story highlights how, through drama, she becomes more aware of herself and her relationship with her friends and family. Dealing with so many issues, such as adoption, diversity “I looked like a chocolate bunny in a room full of snowmen”, Dara’s voice is fresh, funny, and heartfelt. The massively annotated pages (doodles and patterns) entice the reader, as well as Dara’s imagined film script running parallel to her normal life, but Emma Shevah also deals cleverly with sensitive issues. Both an enjoyable read and an enlightening one (about adoption and different cultures). If your child hasn’t yet read Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, then buy it before her new book comes out in September. Rooftoppers tells the story of Sophie’s search for her mother across the roof tops in Paris. Katherine’s gift for storytelling knows no bounds – her writing is exemplary – stylish, fresh, original, and imaginative. It’s a perfect book and I implore you read it, instilling virtues such as love and courage and morality and seeking for the possibles in life. Its timelessness and third person narrative set it apart from other titles for this age group and it is a deserving winner of the Waterstones Children’s and Blue Peter Book awards. For series fans, I would recommend the Wells and Wong Mystery series by Robin Stevens. The first in the series, called Murder Most Unladylike, tells the story of Daisy and Hazel who set up a detective agency at their boarding school to look for missing ties etc, but then discover the body of the Science Mistress lying in the gym, and suddenly have a real mystery to solve. It is Agatha Christie for 9 year olds and over. Robin Stevens captures the innocence and yet vivaciousness of the two girls with all their insecurities and complexities. The book is set in the 1930’s but feels fairly timeless. It’s fun, imaginative, and brilliant for those who love mysteries and school stories. (so most children!). Three in the series have been published so far – an addictive set to devour on the beach, or staring at the rain…once you’ve read one, you’ll want to read them all.

boy in the towerthe executioners daughterbinny for shortphoenix

For slightly older readers, a haunting but utterly absorbing book for those wishing to ignore their family whilst on holiday is Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen. A modern day Triffids, Ade lives with his mum in a tower block, but one day the other buildings start to fall down. Before long the Bluchers have overtaken the landscape – plants that feed on metal and concrete, and give off deadly spores. Suddenly Ade and his mother are trapped. Ade has to learn to survive, figure out why his tower hasn’t collapsed and help his mother through the situation. It’s a tense, exhilarating read with memorable characters. Other stories for those slightly older are The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff– a historical tale, set in the Tower of London, and focussing on the ‘basket girl’, – the child who catches the beheaded heads in her basket. Never a dull moment in Tudor times – as the tale turns supernatural too. Salter, the loveable boy protagonist, is a sparkling creation. The sequel River Daughter, came out earlier this year. Binny for Short by Hilary McKay swings back to modernity, with a coming-of-age tale of friendship that deals with loss, relocation, family dynamics and special needs all in a highly readable, compelling summertime story. Binny is an all-rounded character, with frustration, humour, sympathy and a fantastic sense of childhood adventure. A great read from a prolific author who can clearly observe and articulate what people are really like. The sequel, Binny in Secret, came out in June. For those approaching teens, Phoenix by SF Said is my final pick. It’s something completely different – science fiction superbly written by Said, and ethereally illustrated by Dave McKean. It’s a powerfully ambitious tale of age-old war between Humans and Aliens. Lucky thinks he is an ordinary human boy, but once he discovers his extraordinary power realises that he must harness it to save the galaxy, even if it comes at huge personal cost. Bixa, the alien girl who gets mixed up in his story, is one of the most awe-inspiring characters in children’s fiction: fierce, magnetic and witty. I would definitely choose to dress up as Bixa on World Book Day if I were younger. This book is quite unlike any other in its age range – an epic with clear language, scintillating scenes and huge themes of power and myth, the universe and love, war and sacrifice. It will stay with you long after the summer fades.

Lastly, if you haven’t yet worked through my books of the week from this year, my most memorable reads were Stonebird by Mike Revell, The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone, The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday and In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll.