environment

Sky Dancer by Gill Lewis

So, the Arts and Humanities Council is attempting to find the UK’s favourite book about nature. This is no easy feat. There are so many wonderful books about nature, but I think the children’s book world excels in this. My book of the week the other week was The Lost Words, and you’d be hard pushed to find a better paean to our natural world. Yet, there is another writer who is doing a great deal to draw the attention of the nation’s children to the natural world and our environment. I reviewed Gorilla Dawn by Gill Lewis a while ago – a revelatory novel that brings the world’s attention to the gorillas affected by coltan mining, but in Sky Dancer, Lewis hits a spot closer to home, basing her novel here in the UK, and returning to the style and themes that led her to write Sky Hawk in 2011.

Her latest novel for children, Sky Dancer, addresses the issue of the hen harrier, one of the most threatened birds of prey in the UK, remaining rare due to habitat loss, weather and illegal killing. It’s this last aspect that Lewis tackles in her book, but this novel is not an ‘issue’ book – it’s an incredibly insightful, emotional picture of who we are, and how we are shaping modern Britain.

Three children trek the landscape of this startlingly astute novel: Joe, reeling from his father’s death, and caught in the middle of a battle for the fate of the hen harriers who nest in the heather of the moorlands where he lives. There’s also Minty, the stylish confident daughter of landowners who use the land for grouse shooting, and for whom the hen harriers are a nuisance, and lastly Ella, who seems to be a naive and rather insecure urbanite, but who manages to think as an outsider – finding solutions to which those in the midst of the struggle are blinded.

In the end, these three unlikely friends, find their way forward, and a way forward for the hen harriers. They are each drawn terrifically authentically, with clear ideas of their roots and social class, and their struggles and difficulties. Whether it be divorced or deceased parents, or simply parents with whom one disagrees, Lewis portrays the different make-up of families, and the way in which the children deal with their different situations.

Joe, in particular, is fascinating. He is at the centre of the struggle, torn sometimes between the two girls and their different views of past and present. He also has to face up to how his father acted and the consequences of that, as well as how his older brother is currently acting – what’s morally right, what’s right for his family, and what’s right for the environment. When these things aren’t the same, he has to reconcile his conscience with how to act. Told from Joe’s point of view, the reader is privileged to see what happens in his head, particularly as he’s a quiet child, loathe to speak in many cases. Lewis has accomplished a great character here, complex, sensitive and real.

Not only is the book a gripping read, but it also sparks thoughts on a range of topics: the fate of hen harriers, and the impact, and other preoccupations of the modern world such as accepting difference, the meeting of technology and nature, town and country, and questions of heritage; which traditions should continue and what needs to adapt.

Of course the book explores life on a hunting estate, in which grouse shooting is fundamental to its past traditions and current livelihood, and although that might feel remote to many young people reading the book, Lewis cleverly explores how it is not dissimilar to anywhere a child is growing up, in that there are the same battles and choices – the intertwining of community, loyalty, family and friendship.

Lewis writes with terrific empathy, eking out the reader’s sympathy for different characters at different stages of the novel, and she also evokes an extremely visual landscape, at the same time as propelling the plot – it darts along swiftly.

A captivating read that will make you think, and also imagine that you’re striding across the moors, scanning the sky for dancers. You can buy it here.

Earth Day Books

So, time to admit to you, I don’t normally celebrate Earth Day. I did rejoice in 2016 at the signing of the Paris Agreement on Earth Day, but hadn’t taken much notice of it until now.

As a Londoner, noticing increasing noise about air pollution, and as a human being, noticing that some politicians seem to be disregarding climate change altogether, Earth Day seems ever more important. It takes place annually on April 22nd, and aims to demonstrate support for environmental protection.

So two books for your youngsters to show them the wonders of our Earth, but in very different ways.

The Earth Book by Jonathan Litton, illustrated by Thomas Hegbrook

Aptly named for Earth Day, The Earth Book is large and comprehensive, although also of course, highly selective. In fact, this is one of the issues with children’s nonfiction. There is so much knowledge to impart to children, and only limited time to draw their attention, and limited pages within a book. So, although Litton has attempted to explore Earth in this large format illustrated book, he has had to be highly selective in his material, and in some places this shows up weaknesses.

Overall though, knowing children who love to dip into this kind of crammed information book, there is still plenty to admire.

Litton lays out the premise of the book at the beginning – to attempt to explore the physical Earth, then life on Earth, the regions, and finally the human element of the planet – yes – all this in one book.

With quotes from Carl Sagan, Mahatma Ghandi, and others introducing sections, the book shows that it is as much about dreaming and inspiration as stating fact. And Litton’s conversational tone helps to lighten the load. There are complex ideas and concepts here, which Litton delivers in an accessible way – explaining the layers of the atmosphere for example, or the layers of the Earth down to the core, and later on in the book, extremophiles and ocean zones.

Hegbrook’s graphics are a delight for the most part, the diversity of the illustrations capturing some of the diversity of the Earth, but overall, sadly they are quite dark, not perhaps as pastel-toned as they could be, and so the text (small for older eyes) is hard to read against the dark backgrounds. The animals are a little dead-eyed, although the challenge thrown to the illustrator in terms of the amount of different information he has to delineate (from volcano structures to recognisable human portraits) was clearly tough.

My main concern in terms of selecting material are the choices of influential humans – to include the maker of the windscreen wiper in such a selective group seems strange to me, but there is a wealth of information on human impact upon the planet, speculation for doom as well as hope, and a fascinating choice of interesting cities. There is a factual error (regarding New Zealand penguins), but mainly the facts seem on point.

Despite the few weaknesses, I did enjoy reading the book. There is a distinct feeling throughout that although each of us is a tiny speck on this great and awesome planet, we bear a responsibility towards the planet on which we live. A good message to carry through. You can buy it here.

If The Earth Book makes you feel small but important, this next book from Nosy Crow publishers in conjunction with the National Trust, will make children feel active, important, and part of their surroundings.

50 things to Do Before You’re 11 and ¾ (illustrated by Tom Percival) was published last year, but lasts throughout childhood. Perusing the pages with an urban-dwelling ten year old, we discovered that she had accomplished about three quarters of the activities already, and the other quarter of ideas gave her inspiration and aspiration.

It’s kind of laid out like a tick list, with a signature space for each activity accomplished – and these range from such pleasures as ‘climb a tree’ to ‘find some frogspawn’. It’s the kind of list that Topsy and Tim accomplished quite happily during my childhood, and that some parents may find condescending, and yet with statistics showing that our children are less and less likely to spend time playing and exploring outside, I can’t help but feel this is a necessary and apt guide.

The book is well-designed – with an attached elastic bookmark, a pocket pouch at the rear, and many many colourful pages inside, lots to fill in, as well as a quiz to see what type of adventurer the child is, and puzzles towards the back. If planning a day out or a road trip, it would be a perfect companion. I’m a little older than 11, but I’ve never done number 38. I think it’s time I did. Buy the book here to see what number 38 is, and tick off all 50 yourself.

 

 

An Animal Round Up: Spring 2017

Wild Animals of the South by Dieter Braun
Braun made a huge splash with his first book, Wild Animals of the North, because of its gloriously large full-page imagery – and the fact that it was lovingly produced in a cloth-bound luscious hardback with images on uncoated paper. It felt and smelled worthy. This book serves to do the same with animals from the southern half of the globe: from the hot tropical rainforests of Brazil to the cold depths of Antarctica. The portraits dominate the information – so this is a visual treat rather than an information overload. In fact the text is pocket-sized against the largesse of the illustrations, which gives the animals themselves even more emphasis.

The illustrations look tactile, and are highly textured and highly coloured. The artistry is stunning to behold – my favourite a troop of elephants headed directly in the reader’s direction – a backdrop of brown tones, blending with the grey to tea-coloured elephants – with just a suggestion of the dust flying up from their hooves in curvy waves.

The colour is stunning – some animals blended into the background, such as the mantis, others, such as the little egret, standing out proud against its blue watery background. The scratchy illustration and reflections imply a watery feel.

Information is scant, as in the first volume – for example, there is just a picture of the little egret with a naming caption, but text does accompany some – such as the Indian rhinoceros.

Split into regions, there is also a thumbnail index at the rear. A book to inspire and delight for budding illustrators and graphic designers, and a must-buy for those stunned by the beauty of the natural world and who would appreciate that beauty mirrored in a book. You can buy it here.

Safe and Sound by Jean Roussen, pictures by Loris Lora
A book about baby animals for near babes, this is another visual treat from publisher Flying Eye. What’s stunning about these far more simplistic illustrations than those by Dieter Braun above, is that the eyes from each animal stare out of the illustration and pull the reader inside – almost like looking longingly into baby eyes yourself.

The idea is that the baby animals need some protection before they’re ready to face the world, from chipmunks burrowing underground, to kangaroo joeys in comfy pouches. There’s nothing new here, but the information is given in rhyming couplets (some work better than others), and will surprise new readers who will not be aware that baby crocodiles hide inside their mothers’ mouths – not somewhere you’d expect to be that safe.

A delightful start to learning about non-fiction, this is exactly the sort of book schools and parents want more of for their little ones who want stories, but also want facts. You can buy it here.

Neon Leon by Jane Clarke, illustrated by Britta Teckentrup
How ironic! A chameleon who stands out. All the other chameleons change colour to match their surroundings of course, in this book that explains camouflage for the very young. Neon Leon, sadly, can’t turn off his neon glare to blend in. In fact, his fluorescent brilliant orange shows up even in the dark, and Leon soon feels sad and ostracised from the other chameleons. He searches for other animals who might also be bright orange, but as soon as he finds them, they fly away. Will Leon ever find his own happy place?

This book works beautifully. Not only are the colours vivid and glowing, and the illustrations endearing and sympathetic, but the text speaks directly to the reader, provoking interactivity – helping Leon to choose the right colours, or what to do next. As with Safe and Sound, the book works wonderfully for young readers, giving non-fiction a new spin, but it also encourages massive affinity with the book, and the characters within. A great fluid read, bright and engaging. Purchase Leon here.

Bee and Me by Alison Jay
Lastly, and by no means least, a wordless picture book that encompasses a tale of friendship with an environmental message, through fascinating and busy illustrations, telling the story in an almost comic book sequence, but with traditional drawings.

A little girl in a bustling city is disturbed by a bee who accidentally flies in through her window. A natural reaction would be to swat the bee perhaps, or to capture it in a vessel so that it can be safely released. The girl does succumb to the latter, but when she sees it has drooped in its glass cage, she reads a book to work out what to do. What a clever girl! She revives the bee, and lets it go, but when bad weather drives it to her window again, a friendship is struck. Before long, the bee grows, and eventually teaches the little girl all about bees.

The pictures are captivating – both in their execution and in what they’re saying. This is a wonderful way to engage young readers to get them to ‘say what they see’ – telling the story as the narrator, engaging their analytical and storytelling capacities, as well as their empathy. And the book also holds an environmental message about the importance of bees, and pollination. By the end, a kaleidoscope of new butterflies and flowers have emerged in the city.

The book isn’t preachy though, but rather imbued with a grand sense of humour. From looking bedraggled to being pouffed with a hairdryer, our bee is full of personality. And the little girl too – she takes the bee out in her bike basket and gives it an ice-cream lolly, she measures it on a height chart, but best of all the bee enjoys a visit to the florist, and finally a day break from the city. A mellifluous read. Buy it here.

The Lumberjack’s Beard by Duncan Beedie

I’m often asked – what makes a good picture book? There are so many elements it’s hard to be so prescriptive, but this book certainly ticks lots of the boxes. With a stunning main character, lashings of food, fun with language, a slightly distorted silly reality and a green message, this book won me over (and my little testers).

Lumberjacks are great fodder for stories – they appear in fairy tales – from the woodcutter who saves Red Riding Hood, to, in some versions, Hansel and Gretel’s father. The idea of the lumberjack links to a shared cultural past – the history of when men cut down trees by hand rather than by machine, and also a bygone era in which they embodied ideals of masculinity – strength, solitude, and a conflicted solidity in common with the trees they were about to fell. Of course, many of you, me included, will launch into Monty Python’s Lumberjack song at about this point in my blog. “I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay….”

In The Lumberjack’s Beard, the protagonist is Jim Hickory, a lumberjack who lives in a stunning mountainous landscape populated with a plethora of triangular trees, eats a stack of pancakes each day (I’m sure Duncan Beedie knows that Lumberjack Day is synonymous with Pancake Day in the States) before venturing outside his log cabin and starting work for the day, chopping down trees.

But when the woodland creatures lose their homes, they demand a new place, and although Jim offers his beard as a new home, there comes a time when it all gets too much for him. A better solution is needed.

The language is great – not only do we hear the noise Jim makes when he fells a tree, but also this is an extremely active man. He does his limbering exercises before his lumbering job, but he also swings and cleaves and whacks and hacks. He chops and snaps…the vocabulary is pitched perfectly – it fits the story and adds to the excitement.

But as with all great picture books, it’s the illustrations that need to come up trumps. Beedie not only has the main illustrations serving his purpose well – from the colours that emphasise the woodland feel of the story, to the expressions of his characters, (an indignant porcupine, an outraged bird, and an incredulous beaver), but he also pays attention to the small details: Jim’s mug, the bird’s glasses, the variety of textures between the animals, Jim’s beard, and Jim’s comfortable dwelling – his bed cover, his shirt etc.

Of course, the message at the end is that planting trees to replace those he is cutting is the ultimate solution, and it even shows the patience taken in doing so. The reader too is encouraged to have patience – lingering over the spread in which the seasons change allowing the trees to grow – so that they can spot the animals’ various activities in the different weathers.

This is a thwumping story, full of passion, humour and heart, and sure to become a new favourite. You can buy a copy here.

A Nature Story: Bees, Fish and Foxes

Some environmental good news last week when scientists declared that thinning in the ozone layer is starting to heal. But it’s not all good. Whilst the Friends of the Earth are now calculating our bee population for 2015-2016, there has been a serious decline in bee populations over the last few years.

Bees are essential to our way of life. They pollinate plants and are a crucial part of our food cycle. In fact, 85 per cent of the UK’s apple crop relies on bees.

But how to explain this to children? Britta Teckentrup takes on the challenge in this beautifully colourful, highly visual exploration of the journey of a bee.

bee

Bee by Britta Teckentrup focuses on one bee, seen through a die cut hole on the cover, and revealed on a flower half way through, before being seen in another die cut hole, finally revealed atop a field brimming with plants and flowers.

Each spread is lovingly drawn with bursts of colour, from the poppies at dawn to the bright daisies, roses and foxgloves showing the bee alighting on different flowers. The text accentuates the bee’s journey explaining her intelligence – how she knows her route, how she navigates using the sun – but all in lush rhyming couplets. These hints about bee behaviour will inevitably lead to questions from readers afterwards, but during the reading they will be immersed and won over by the text, with lines such as:

“As she travels here and there,
A gentle thrumming fills the air.”

The vocabulary is startlingly effective in that it drops clues about the bee, but also takes on a soothing rhythm, as if the reader were lulled by the gentleness of a breeze in summer. Scientific facts are dropped like raindrops into the rhyme – including pollen carrying, and how bees leave a trace, and of course the most important denouement – that bees give life to all the plants and flowers. The double page spread shows a field teeming with colour – it’s really beautiful.

The die cut is hexagonal-shaped of course, which is just another question that the reader may want answered; reading this aloud to a group of children will demand some knowledge on behalf of the reader.

But in essence the book explores the symbiosis of bees and plants with a symphony of colour, and that’s good enough to provoke thought in any reader. You can buy it here.

the river

Look out too for The River by Hanako Clulow, with more rhyming text couplets by Patrica Hegarty. Working on a similar principle of a die cut hole with a magical swimming fish appearing throughout the book (via a hologram), the book explores the different fauna and flora that appear in the changing seasons in, and next to, a river. As the river flows through different landscapes and different times, the river follows the fish on a journey to the sea (complete with a sparkly shoal of fish). The readers who sampled this book with me were spellbound at the hologram and the glitter, and wanted re-reads for this purpose, but beneath the gloss is a nature tale worth telling, and sumptuous illustrations of wildlife scenes. You can buy it here.

the fox and the wild

Another environmental message is contained in a new picture book, The Fox and the Wild by Clive McFarland. Although experts cite that the number of urban foxes isn’t actually rising, there does appear to be a prevalence. However, this is more to do with behaviour than it is increasing populations. Foxes are becoming more used to humans, and braver. In my case, brazen, as they frolic in my garden in broad daylight. Also, of course, and more to the point of Clive’s picture book, our urban sprawl is becoming larger, so more foxes are ‘urban’ rather than dwelling in the wild.

Fred is a city fox in the book, but there are dangers and annoyances in the city. It’s polluted with smoke, there is noisy and dangerous traffic, and humans are unhappy with them. When Fred loses his pack, he longs for the freedom of the birds who can fly to the wild. But, after searching in vain, Fred wonders if ‘the wild’ truly exists.

Children will love the bold graphics of this book – the familiar city scenes, the camaraderie and conversation between different animals, and the juxtaposition of town and country. The depiction of the digger is particularly effective. McFarland cleverly plays on the different senses as he compares the noise of the city with its metal monsters to the sound of scurrying animals in the undergrowth; as well as polluted versus fresh air, and even the feel of the ground beneath the fox’s feet.

With a style reminiscent of Chris Haughton – those eyes – this is a new picture book to be cherished for content and style. You can buy it here.

Explore other websites looking at Bee on it’s blogtour.

bee blog tour

 

Alone by D J Brazier

alone

There have been many survival books about being alone in the jungle, being stranded, being a castaway. Robinson Crusoe, Kensuke’s Kingdom, Running Wild, even The Jungle Book in its own way. But DJ Brazier has written his with such raw passion, such gruesomeness, such a sense of grit and determination that it stands out as one of the most visual books for young teens this year.

Sam wakes up in hot sand near the Amazon River. The small plane that was carrying him and his father home from the holiday of a lifetime has crashed in the jungle, and Sam is left alone, and terrified. He has to recall all the survival techniques he learned watching Bear Grylls, as well as using a fair bit of common sense and instinct to survive – and as the days move past and no one comes to rescue him, Sam has to make some terrifying decisions to make it back to human civilisation alive.

Brazier’s text never lets up for a second. As if the reader too is stuck in the jungle, alert to every slight insect scratching, every rustle of leaf, every movement of the river. It is raw, and visceral and gripping. Some of the scenes are not for the faint-hearted – Brazier describes the fauna of the jungle in incredible detail – from the leeches to the ants. Popping a spot in the jungle and seeing worms crawling out is just one of the many highly memorable episodes in this gruesome tale – but it doesn’t feel superfluous – just real, and highly visual.

There is no sentimentality either – Sam has to show bravery beyond the normal to survive each day, let alone to reach human contact. There is a huge amount of detail, including how to make a fire without matches, but it never bores for a second – the reader roots for Sam as they would their favourite football team. His character grows during his adventure, as he finds incredible inner strength, but it’s also a sign of great writing strength on the part of Brazier to have just one character throughout the whole book and no dialogue with another, and yet still remain gripping and tense. Sam expresses his emotions, sometimes with swearing, which again isn’t gratuitous because I think he really would in the situation, and also with such pathos that the reader feels a real affinity with him. In fact, quite often throughout the book he fails in his attempts to do things – he can’t make fire easily (who could, without matches), and he has to learn new ways to eat – fishing isn’t as natural for humans as for a heron. What’s more this failure brings out his self-deprecating humour.

During the book he makes friends with a baby otter, and builds a relationship that gives him the comfort of contact with another living creature, and this too is not trite but handled well.

It’s a completely engrossing book, with great detail about animals and survival, which will appeal also to non-fiction fans. It’s the sort of book that you pull out the bag and wave at those students who don’t think they like reading. They won’t put this one down.

Above all, it ends in precisely the right place.

Age 12+ years. You can buy it here.

No Angry Birds Here

It’s walk to school week this week. I’m one of those smug people who walk to school every day, but although the walk is the same, what we see and hear changes from day to day, season to season. There’s traffic of course, but a field to stroll across too, and that’s where we see wildlife. We skip over the slugs, avoid squashing the snails, dart away from dogs, and flap at flies. But we see some beautiful birds, so here are five fiction books – one for each school day this week – about birds!

dave pigeon

Monday: Dave Pigeon by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Not unlike The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp, Haddow has written a riotously funny book from the point of view of a pigeon – in fact the strapline betrays the fact that the book is almost a manual for pigeons – ‘How to Deal with Bad Cats and Keep (most of) Your Feathers.’ Dempsey’s hilarious pigeon on the front, wrapped in bandages, declares in a speech bubble that this is the best book you’ll ever read. It is certainly one of the funniest.

Pigeons Dave and Skipper are friends. But their common enemy is Mean Cat, and through the book they relay (in narrative and conversational speech bubbles) their attempt to defeat the cat and oust it from its comfortable home with Human Lady – taking the cat’s place, especially because the Human Lady has the nice biscuits with jam in the middle. The text reads in part through speech bubbles, but even when there is traditional narrative, it’s interspersed by the two pigeons bantering as they attempt to tell the story.

Their plans to outwit Mean Cat grow more and more absurd, but are always extremely funny. The pigeon’s point of view and language is exceptionally rendered with silly humour and observation:

“I lay back on the lawn. The grass dazzled greener, the sky shone bluer and the washing line looked lineier. Life was cat-free and felt birdrilliant!”

With a surprising ending, and equally comical illustrations from Dempsey, this is a title for younger readers to grab and adore. Look in particular for the full page illustrations in which the pigeons wait for rain. For ages 6+. Fly to your copy here.

tufty

Tuesday: Tufty by Michael Foreman
A gentle picture book about losing one’s family but finding a mate in Michael Foreman’s new book. As with many of his illustrations, they feel traditional – rendered first as sketches and then painted.

Tufty is placed firmly in London – he’s a duck that lives in the middle of the lake near the royal palace – in a nice touch the human royalty are drawn as being rather birdlike, and are addressed by the Mother Duck as ‘The Royal Duck and Duckess.’ But the story isn’t really about royalty – it tells the tale of Tufty flying south for winter, but losing his family in the process.

Perhaps an environmental comment lies within, as Tufty flies beautifully over Hyde Park – the Albert Memorial depicted lovingly from a bird’s eye view, but then the small duck gets lost among the cranes and towering buildings of London. The orange cranes and glass buildings are distinctive by their lack of distinction from each other.

Tufty is rescued by a homeless man, and then eventually finds his own duck mate back near the palace. The scenes of nature feel homely and gentle, with a wash of colours across the sky that reflect in the lake. All in all, an uplifting story – young readers will like the homeless man’s hollow in the tree, and the tenderness of finding a home, wherever it may be. Take one home with you here.

swan boy

Wednesday: Swan Boy by Nikki Sheehan

Swans and metamorphosis have long gone together – from narrative roots in Leda and the Swan to Russian folk stories such as The White Duck, and the Grimm’s Six Swans, as well as the ballet Swan Lake, and the contemporary film Black Swan.

Nikki Sheehan infuses her latest book with magic realism. She tells of a boy grieving for his father and suffering the agonies of starting a new school, and yet weaves in subtle fantasy and magic by gradually layering swan attributes and feathers on his body at the same time as an inspirational teacher at school persuades him to dance in her production of Swan Lake.

The story works because the contemporary London setting, the character of Johnny and his mother and brother, as well as his peers around him, feel so real that long before the swan metamorphosis becomes an issue, the reader is sucked into the story. The writing is so solid and the characters so rounded that its even believable that bully Liam and his cronies, and Johnny become fully immersed in a Matthew Bourne type production of a ballet to be performed in front of the school.

If anything, Sheehan could have pushed the ‘darkness’ of Johnny’s discovery of feathers on his body a little further – but the novel wins hands down in its portrayal of his character – his rising to the responsibility of caring for his little brother Mojo (who himself is fully realised with his penchant for drawing and his own reaction to his father’s death), and also in Johnny’s realisation that friendship takes work and sacrifice. The slight shift to Liam’s point of view didn’t garner my sympathy, but the story as a whole was compelling and page-turning.

This is a good poignant study of the effects of bereavement on a family (for this audience) and a solid plot that moves quickly and effortlessly. Thoroughly enjoyable. For 10+ years. Buy a copy here.

seagull and cat

Thursday: The Story of the Seagull and the Cat who taught her to Fly by Luis Sepulveda, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura

Books in translation can be hard to get into – the rhythms and what’s suitable for children can vary country to country – but this quirky story of a seagull (and mainly a cat) is worth persevering with. A gull, stricken in an environmental oil spill, gives birth to an egg, and leaves a dying wish that the cat, Zorba (who is the last animal she sees) nurture her baby and teach it to fly.

As with all good literature, it’s the characters that forge through and make the book. And this cat, together with his gang, is no exception. Completely anthropomorphised, he shoulders the responsibility with pride and a little anxiety, using his friends the Colonel, the Secretario and Einstein – the last of which rapidly searches for answers to everything in an encyclopedia. The cats themselves are fairly eccentric, and owned by even more eccentric humans, and the book is flooded with humour because of this.

The second part is most endearing as the gull hatches and the impetus is on the cats to teach it to fly – they try to study da Vinci’s flying machine for clues. It’s for a mature reader – one who can handle the vocabulary, but underneath that is a beautiful tale of friendship, perseverance and identity, as well as age-old themes of life and death.

Kitamura’s illustrations bring the story to life, adding humour, expression and unique characteristics to each personality – and should be savoured. A classic from Chile. For age 8+ years. Buy it here.

dawn chorus

Friday: The Dawn Chorus by Suzanne Barton

From the complex to the unassuming – this picture book is beautiful by way of its simplicity. Peep hears a beautiful song upon waking and wishes to know what it is. On discovering it’s the Dawn Chorus, he is invited to join in if he can audition. Unfortunately for him, he’s just not an early bird kind of a bird, and fails to turn up on time, then fails to stay awake during the audition the following morning.

Of course it’s not his fault, it turns out he’s a nightingale – and dawn is the wrong time of day for him to sing.

Suzanne Barton has managed to express the beauty of bird song through her renderings of colour in this picture book – from the leaves on the front cover to the luscious harmony of reds, oranges and yellows of the gathered birds of the dawn chorus. Each bird is drawn to be plump with patterned wings and tails – almost collage-like in their depiction. It gives them a cuteness, and yet doesn’t completely sentimentalise them.

Young children will delight in the hanging musical notes in the air, the bird conductor with baton in hand, and the delightfully tender ending. It’s uplifting, a lovely introduction to birds and nocturnal animals, and about persevering for what you want and who you are. Take home your own dawn chorus here.

Tiger Smiles

Augustus and his smile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Springing Into Action: A guest blog by author Fiona Barker

I’m delighted today to have Fiona Barker, author of Amelie and the Great Outdoors, guest blog for me today. We’ve been talking about playing outdoors, at a time when surveys suggest that UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates (according to ‘Play in Balance’ report, 2016). A topic dear to Fiona Barker, below she outlines the ideas behind her picture book, and at the end you’ll find my review.

havingfund

Springing into Action!

It’s no coincidence that my debut picture book ‘Amelie and the Great Outdoors’ was published in the spring. What a wonderful time of year! Everything feels poised, ready to explode into exuberant life. Things are starting to warm up and it feels like a good time to be outdoors. I even went body boarding with my family in beautiful Bigbury-on-Sea in Devon at the beginning of March. I did send a little prayer of thanks to the people who invented neoprene and first turned it into boots and gloves (we did have wetsuits on too, in case anyone is imagining a family of naked nutters frolicking in the 8oC sea in nothing but boots and gloves!) It was awesome, life-affirming stuff!

It turns out that it really is. The evidence for the benefits of being outdoors is considerable. After all, 90% of the human requirement for vitamin D comes from sunlight (Hollick, 2004). And, yes, the weak, watery variety we often get in the UK still counts. Being outdoors is associated with being more active which improves cardiovascular health. And the benefits are not just physiological. In a major review, Keniger et al (2013) describe the positive psychological, cognitive and physical effects of being outside for both children and adults. Getting outdoors can improve self-esteem, mood, behaviour and cognitive function in children. The benefits of getting up and out are real.

However, there is a problem. In a large survey conducted in 2015 by the Wildlife Trusts, over a quarter of children had never played outside without an adult present, a quarter of children in the UK have never built a sandcastle and a third of children have never climbed a tree. Since the 1970s, the distance that children are able to explore unsupervised has decreased by 90% (www.wildlifetrusts.org). I am not alone in finding this incredibly sad. Sir David Attenborough, President Emeritus of The Wildlife Trusts, said:  “We will be physically, mentally and spiritually impoverished if our children are deprived of contact with the natural world. Contact with nature should not be the preserve of the privileged. It is critical to the personal development of our children.”

Of course there are many reasons why children today are playing outside less than even a generation ago. Carver et al (2007) cite perception of safety as a major factor both in terms of fear of strangers and the rise in traffic. Other activities competing for children’s attention are also big issues. In the UK, 11-15 year olds spend an average of 6.1 hours a day in front of a screen and this is rising rapidly. In the US, the figure is 7.5 hours (Sigman, 2012).

So how can we help get our children outdoors? Clearly, some of the issues are too big for us as individuals to tackle but we could all start to make small changes which could have a big impact. The Wildlife Trusts have produced a great booklet called ‘The Art of Getting Children Outdoors’. It has some fantastic practical ideas for parents who have the motivation but need some ideas for how to plan outdoor activities. Start young and develop a taste for it. There are some lovely books out there which we can read with our children to kick start a discussion around what they would like to do outside. Children who help to plan an activity are much more likely to abandon their screen-time and get outside. Fit a random act of wildness into your day. Turn over a stone to look for minibeasts, climb a tree, stop for a minute and listen for birds or feel a soft catkin. These are things that don’t cost money, they don’t require special skills and it doesn’t matter where you live. We can all help every child’s life be a bit more wild.

With thanks to Fiona Barker.

amelie and the great outdoors

Amelie and the Great Outdoors by Fiona Barker

Amelie is a girl who never goes outside. “she always stayed indoors.” Immediately the reader can see why – her room is filled with exciting things, from the computer to the toy box, doll’s house, and books. She labels what’s outside her window as the ‘Great Outdoors’ but doesn’t think it looks up to much.

One day a little bird arrives on her windowsill and implores her to experience the different parts of the outdoors with him. But she refuses. He succinctly and sweetly exhorts the beauties of the different seasons – the lambs in spring, the beach in summer, kite-flying in autumn, as well as much more, but Amelie always finds an excuse not to venture out.

The bird gives up, but when he doesn’t return to convince her, Amelie goes outside in search of him. And finds that the Great Outdoors is very pleasant after all.

Amelie’s main reason for not going outside is fear of both big things and small things, and the fear of feeling uncomfortable. And it’s exactly that which the book sets out to do – to challenge the comfort zone and to sell the virtues of being outside. By the end Amelie feels and looks healthier, and she loves being outside.

The story is very simple, but very encouraging for small children, and certainly shows the outdoors in a glorious light through the different seasons and possibilities for things to do. Rosie Brooks’s illustrations are playful, familiar, and drawn with swift pen strokes that give the feeling of movement and gaiety.

A delightful book that inspires outdoors play – even if that means just reading a book on the grass! You can buy it here.

amelie

Holick, M. F. (2004). Sunlight and vitamin D for bone health and prevention of autoimmune diseases, cancers, and cardiovascular disease. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 80(6), 1678S-1688S.

Keniger, L. E., Gaston, K. J., Irvine, K. N., & Fuller, R. A. (2013). What are the Benefits of Interacting with Nature? International journal of environmental research and public health, 10(3), 913-935.

Carver, A., Timperio, A., & Crawford, D. (2008). Playing it safe: The influence of neighbourhood safety on children’s physical activity—A review. Health & place, 14(2), 217-227.

Sigman, A. (2012). Time for a view on screen time. Archives of disease in childhood, 2012.

 

 

 

 

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.