fears

World Mental Health Day

It is World Mental Health Day today, and research from University College London shows that the number of children and young people with long-standing mental health issues is soaring, rising six fold from 1995 to 2014. Whether it’s pressure from school, social media, or the pace of our world, it’s clear that all agencies are interested in building resilience and promoting emotional and mental wellbeing in our children. There’s only so much schools can do (despite the govt promising training for teachers in dealing with mental health issues in the classroom), so much of it is left to parents.

I’ve been listening to Ester Perel’s psychology podcast, and although she’s known for her books on grown up relationships and fidelity, this particular podcast was on parenting. Her advice is stellar; insightful and sympathetic whilst being wise and objective. How do we make sure our children grow up to be happy and confident, yet also thoughtful and good citizens? How do we make sure that they come and talk when they are scared or sad and how do we listen so that we don’t show a matching fear or sadness or disappointment? I think whenever I need help with anything I turn to those closest to me, but I also receive much wisdom from books.

70 Ways to Boost Your Self Esteem70 Ways to Boost Your Self-Esteem by Jenny Alexander
I’ve started with this excellent book for two reasons. Firstly, having good self-esteem is essential to mental well-being. If you love and feel proud of yourself, you will recognise your own value and importance and consequently you will take good care of yourself, make good decisions and have a positive outlook. Don’t we all want that for our children? Secondly, self-help books can be rather worthy enterprises – for author and reader. We read the book and think, hmm that sounds good, but we never actually put it into practice. Especially when it’s an abstract concept. It’s one thing following a recipe in a diet book, quite another thing to improve one’s self esteem. But this book not only explores what self-esteem is, and why it’s good, but sets tasks at the end of each chapter to achieve good self-esteem. And the tasks are fun.

It splits the steps to gaining self-esteem into seven parts – each with its own designated chapter, example, and tasks. For example: being the hero of your own story; getting life goals; recognising weakness; and celebrating oneself. There’s also a chapter about awareness of others and respect for other people, because although this is about the individual, it’s important that each individual can operate within the real world and work in collaboration with others.

What’s more the tone is friendly – certainly not patronising, with a quirky personality shining through, so that you feel as if the author is a real person talking to you. With some quizzes, diagrams and funny cartoons, the book is set out with plenty of breaks in the information flow so that the reader doesn’t feel overwhelmed. There’s good advice on setting goals and addressing failure, but most importantly clarity and perspective on being one’s own person and getting to know oneself. Having listened extensively to Yuval Noah Harari on our changing world, one of the most important qualities a person will need is self-knowledge and awareness. Why not start them young? For 7+ years (I would add, with parental guidance too). You can buy it here or visit Jenny Alexander’s website and buy it there.

the book of no worriesThe Book of No Worries by Lizzie Cox and Tanja Stevanovic
Speaking of Yuval Noah Harari (whose adult books are excellent btw), this book starts with a section on mindfulness. If you have a child who lies awake at night worrying, or who frets like AA Milne’s old sailor: “There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew, Who had so many things which he wanted to do That, whenever he thought it was time to begin, He couldn’t because of the state he was in,” then this book might help.

With full-colour throughout and bite-size chunks of information, Q and A’s and lists, this is an interesting book that aims to dip in and cover lots of subjects with the intent of calming worries. There are so many topics though, that the advice can feel a bit fleeting, the issues skimmed. However, for short attention spans, this might serve well.

Of course the thing about worries is that they can multiply like bacteria – so honing worries is hard. The book addresses surface worries about school, stress, friends, appearance, puberty, family and love. The advice is slim, but picks out the key points – particularly on social media, by explaining that likes don’t measure worth, and when to stop looking at the phone.

I think what I like best about the book is that in almost all scenarios, one of the key pieces of advice is to talk to someone. For a snapshot of dealing with life’s worries for those approaching and going through puberty, this is a good dip-in guide. You can buy it here.

sign hereSign Here by Gabrielle Djanogly, illustrated by Adele Mildred
This intriguing new activity book is what I’d call a self-help book by stealth. Appparently inspired by playing with mini post offices when little, Djanogly has created a book of forms to fill in that encourages a child to express their emotions, albeit surreptitiously through play. Djanogly imagines a new world of bureaucracy, including The Department of Regret, Remorse and Reconciliation, the Union of Childhood Revenue, the Ministry of Dreams and so on, although this is not some Orwellian nightmare of red tape and officialdom, but a neat way for a child to express emotions and thoughts that may not be so easy to articulate. Thus, saying sorry or thank you, and even filling out the form titled ‘Declaration of Sad’ may better hone a child’s feelings and enable them to decipher where they are coming from and even what’s causing them. There is a tick box for ‘I don’t know, I just feel sad’ as well.

There are plenty of forms for happy occasions too, including the Birthday Party form issued by the Board of Celebration, which my youngest has no problem putting into words, but I’m sure she’d delight in this ‘official form’ to hand over requesting which cake etc. All the forms have authenticity stamped all over them, with logos, frames, tick boxes, signatures, a variety of fonts and so on, and each is neatly printed on good quality paper that is easily detached from the book via its perforated edging. The publisher even recommends photocopying the forms so that they can be re-used.

As well as declarations of sadness, fear and happiness, there are also forms to say sorry, to say thank you, to request a raise in pocket money, a contract with a babysitter, a Christmas present request form, a lost property form, a pet request form and a tell me a story form, as well as many more. Because the deeper emotions are sat alongside the everyday requests, it normalises the emotions and helps to make them everyday things to be shared. There are also ideas for making things better – the Acknowledgement of Anger Form includes tick boxes for requesting a hug or stomping around. Both can be ticked! Lots of asterisks in places allows the author to interject with warmth and comfort:

“**sometimes needing a hug is tricky to admit. If you want a hug, make a BIG tick in the box so that it can be spotted quickly.”

A fun way to express oneself. Apply for your forms here.

 

 

Autumn 2018 Picture Book Round-up 1


The Best Sound in the World by Cindy Wume
A debut picture book that will strike a chord with readers, it tells a simpatico tale of a lion who wants to capture the best sound in the world. He tries to imitate the sounds he hears by reproducing them on his violin – but nothing sounds quite right, particularly with annoying neighbour Jemmy dancing, clapping or singing along to the music. Roy the lion leaves on a mission to find the most beautiful sound and explore the world, but realises in the end that the most beautiful sound is back home – the music he makes with his neighbour, and now, friend.

Wume’s gouache, coloured pencil and ink illustrations are detailed and wondrous, conveying precisely the mood of each page – from the monkeys leaping in the forest to the train rumble in the city. What’s more, her vocabulary pitches perfectly when pulling out each sound – from the pling of the rain to the chitter-chatter of the market. There is much to explore and disseminate here, from the mix of rural and urban, to the clever use of movement to convey dance and sound. The message of course, is that friendship wins out, and what you’re looking for is often within rather than in the outer world, but there are also subtler issues around observation and subjectivity. If nothing else, it will make the reader appreciate the sounds around him/her in the everyday world. Aesthetically astute, intelligently observed and warm. You can buy it here.


Sing to the Moon by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and Sandra van Doorn
Even from the front cover, reality mixes with magical realism in this universally themed book of what to do on a rainy day. Ever since before The Cat in the Hat: “The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold cold wet day,” the weather has been a source of inspiration for writers. Used well, it can dictate mood, create atmosphere, and influence plot. This rainy day is during the rainy season in Uganda, and the source of inspiration for the child’s use of time is not a cat in a hat, but the child’s Jjajja – the grandfather.

This is a good introduction to Ugandan life. This child completes chores with his Jjajja, from packing peas to clearing the veranda, but all the while is engrossed with the tales his grandfather tells. The day passes quickly, and is filled with the dreams and stories of the past and the future.

Domestic detail sings from the pastel illustrations, but there are also wishes and dreams spun and illustrated as the boy thinks of the adventures he would take. The illustrative stickmen figures with large heads create a further dreamlike status, and the text rhymes in a rhythmic fashion, almost as if to the beat of the rain itself. Children will appreciate the mischievous white dog on each page – but I particularly enjoyed the descriptive language: ‘the clouds spread like a charcoal stain’, and ‘the drops…muddle the view’. Comforting and illuminating. You can buy it here.


The Dress and the Girl by Camille Andros, illustrated by Julie Morstad
We are taken back in time in this lyrical story of immigration, which begins in a slightly idyllic Greece, with donkeys, blue skies and days of freedom at sea and in the fields. But these large vistas with their white buildings and flowered landscapes are not enough and the family long for change. The family immigrate to New York, and upon arrival the girl and her beloved dress are separated. Here, the dress takes on its own persona and searches for the girl. Years later, they are reunited and the dress fits the girl’s own daughter.

Nostalgic illustrations give good period detail, and tell a tale with their muted colours at Ellis Island. At the same time there is a clarity and sharpness to the drawings, as if they have been rendered with a precision that conjures months and years in small pen strokes.

This is not a refugee story of migration, but a desire for an easy passage and a better or even just different way of life, which makes an interesting contrast to recent picture books about modern migration, such as The Journey. The Dress and the Girl is worth examining for the opening and closing spreads and their theme of separation and reunion – a complete circle if you will, as well as an examination of memory and possession. You can buy it here.


Daddy Hairdo by Francis Martin and Claire Powell
A light-hearted look at hair in this delightful picture book about overlong hair and the passing of time. Amy doesn’t have much hair when she’s born, and her Dad has plenty. But then her hair grows, and her Daddy’s seems to disappear. After considerable searching for it, they settle on dealing with the problem of Amy’s hair, which is becoming inconvenient due to its length. Amy’s Dad comes up with some incredible solutions, before reason kicks in.

This is a wonderfully amusing book for anyone who’s ever de-tangled a web of hair, and a cool nod to crazy fashions. Francis Martin lets loose his inner child with some excellent wordplay – hair-raising of course, while Powell has immense fun illustrating hairstyles with aplomb – accentuated by wonderful facial expressions. This is a fun, giggling-inducing picture book, and one which also celebrates the father/daughter relationship with zest and affection. You can buy it here.


Fearless Mirabelle by Katie Haworth and Nila Aye
Perhaps it’s the celebration of individuality, or having confidence in your own unique skill set, or looking after your sibling, but this picture book appeals on so many levels. There’s the circus element, which is always a winner, and the attention to quirky detail, such as Mirabelle balancing on a galloping horse on one leg, whilst eating a bowl of cereal.

Mirabelle and Meg are identical twins, but although Mirabelle is fearless in the circus, Meg is scared of heights. When they realise that Meg’s asset is her ability to speak in front of a crowd (which terrifies Mirabelle), the girls realise that together they can be a supreme double act.

The limited colour palette of primary colours, with black and white, makes for a distinctive look – the characters look a little like friendly Coraline’s, and children will delight in the veneer of simplicity in the scribbled illustrations – they are stylish and endearing – like sugar candy with an edge. Different typefaces explore direct speech, capitals are used for emphasis. Much to look at, just like the circus. You can buy it here.


How to be a Lion by Ed Vere
Or how not to conform to type in this fairly new picture book from Vere. Here, Leonard the Lion isn’t a roary hunter but the sort of lion who likes to ponder upon his ‘thinking hill’, and write poetry. When bullied by the pride for not devouring a duck whom he has taken as a friend, Leonard and Marianne the duck collaborate on a poem to explore individuality.

It may sound whimsical but Vere’s thick black outlines convey a ruggedness to the story, and the book publishes at an apt time as society rethinks its stereotypical view of masculinity. It’s a call to not bend to peer pressure, and the tightness of the text brings the message home without sentimentality. A celebration of creativity and words too, and of the benefits of thinking rather than being the loudest voice in the room. Bold oranges and yellows bring to mind the African Savannah, and as always with Vere, there is abundant humour tucked in with the message, wit in both text and picture, and a great understanding of the rhythm of the language. A proud and majestic picture book. You can buy it here.


Can You See a Little Bear by James Mayhew and Jackie Morris
A new gift edition for 2018 with phenomenal production quality, this much-loved picture book first published in 2006. Aimed at younger children, with its delightful premise of ‘seeing’ not only the little bear in different imaginative landscapes, but also spying patterns and colours, contrasts and opposites within Morris’s exquisitely beautiful illustrations, this also feels relevant for older children and artwork students because of the theatrical and circus settings, and the sumptuousness of the watercolours.

The text rhymes, and its intent is to pull you into the pictures, leading the reader to spy and spot certain things, but it also captures the soporific tone that has affected the bear – this is a dreamscape after all. The incredible detail of the illustrations, depicting medieval scenes, wild landscapes and exotic buildlings, before gently falling back into the more domestic sphere of bathtime and bedtime under the moon, will entrance adult and child alike. You can buy it here.

You’re Safe With Me by Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry

you're safe with meThere’s something about the physicality of a book that can’t be matched. Perhaps that’s why, as Egmont report in their Print Matters findings, 94% of children’s books bought in 2017 were purchased in their print format. If we look to history, it was the most important texts that were physically preserved – revered for the time invested in them. The Grimm Brothers saw the necessity of the oral folk tales, and therefore wrote them down. And picture books earn their place in this tradition of printed matter, with the attention to detail and care that goes into them.

Mass printed they might be, but sometimes picture books are so beautiful they appear as if they have been created with the individual reader in mind. This latest picture book, You’re Safe With Me from Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry, catches the eye with its lyrical prose, but also stands out for its stunning design, which calls up the kalamkari tradition of textiles, apt because the name derives from the Persian words for pen and craftsmanship – and this book does feel like a piece of exquisite craft.

It is a dark and stormy night, and the baby animals within the Indian forest are scared: a monkey, a loris, a tiger and a pangolin. Two familiar animals, two rather more exotic – familiarity for cosiness, and exotic for exploring and learning. Looking after them all is Mama Elephant – her size and wisdom providing solace and comfort.

A ‘Raindrops on Roses’ story for the young, this is a more in-depth and intelligent soothing of fears. Mama Elephants attempts to explain, with her scientific knowledge, the logical reason for the storm – why the wind blows, why the thunder clatters, why the river rumbles. In doing so, she explains the weather cycle – the ability of the wind to bring seeds, the rain to cause them to grow, the river to take the water back to the sea. But her language is poetic; and she speaks in a rhythm that soothes like a lullaby.

By naming each sound for the babies, and then explaining its purpose, she dispels their fear with understanding – a lesson for our times. This feels like an old fable, brought up to date with understanding and modern sensibility. An emotional attachment is formed with the animals, and a sense of relief in their comfort, much like the smell of Earth after a rainstorm.

But it is the illustrations that propel this book and make it so much more than a comforting bedtime read. The patterns on the page, the fusion of geometry and art, are drawn with a richness, almost a hypnotic quality. The reader sees the shapes of the animals, but each is so exquisitely drawn, etched with colour and design, so that the frogs are both stark against their background, but also blend into it with a riot of line and pattern. The fish swim on a background of blue circles, the lightning sparkles against a black background of shining diamonds and circles. It is absorbing, glossy and appears almost three-dimensional in its intricacy.

You’re Safe with Me is a triumph of a picture book. The rhythm of text and illustration sweep the reader into the story. I can imagine children hugging it to sleep, the physicality of this book reassuring and mesmeric. You can buy it here.

A Q&A with Bryony Thomson

It was the lampshades that frightened me. Pink, gentle tulips by day; at night after lights out, they morphed into vicious monsters with lightbulb tongues.

Many children imagine some kind of monster in the darkness while they lie in bed after lights out, and it can take parents several trips and opening and closing of wardrobes to reassure them. So what relief to find a book that helps to assuage fears.

The Wardrobe Monster by Bryony Thomson explores what makes Dora and her toy friends afraid to go to sleep, and grouchy the next morning. It actually is a monster in the wardrobe, but this monster is as scared as they, and so they all snuggle in bed together, until another bump gives them a fright.

Thomson’s book is delightful in its premise, but most particularly in its illustrations and depiction of Dora and her soft toys. They are as lifelike as Woody and Buzz, and inflected with as much personality as Pooh, Eeyore and friends. The Wardrobe Monster is Bryony Thomson’s debut picturebook, and from this superb start, it’s easy to see that she’ll go far.

A firm favourite here already – I look forward to gifting it to friends’ small children. There are so many exquisite touches, from Dora and friends stalling bedtime, to addressing the wardrobe monster as ‘Mr Wardrobe Monster’, to the play on Lion’s bravery; but my favourite is the constant affection and intimacy between Dora and her toys. Beguiling and comforting, this is an adorable and pleasurably happy read. I was lucky enough to quiz Bryony on her debut:

The Wardrobe Monster is a comfort book for those children who have a fear of the dark. How did you counteract this fear when you were young without The Wardrobe Monster to help you?

I’m not sure I had a very good system – that’s partly why I wanted to write The Wardrobe Monster. I had a very vivid imagination as a child and can remember lying in my bed at school as various pipes and bits of furniture in the enormous dormitory creaked and groaned, making up all sorts of possible scenarios for what could be causing the noise. That would usually go on until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more!

The soft toy teddies in your book all have distinctive characters, something the publisher compares to those in Winnie the Pooh. Was that an influence on you? And which other books/illustrations have influenced you?

I would definitely count Winnie the Pooh as one of the long term influences on my work. It was one of my favourite books growing up, in particular the incident where Pooh goes to visit Rabbit, eats too much honey and condensed milk and gets stuck in the rabbit hole. The characters all have such distinctive voices, I can still hear them in my head (the way my Dad used to read them) and that has had a massive influence on my storytelling.

In terms of other books and illustrations, I would say Rebecca Cobb’s books such as Lunchtime and Aunt Amelia. I love the simplicity of her stories and illustrations, there is a real sense of joy and magic to them. Laura Carlin has also been a big influence from an illustration point of view. When I began to study how her drawings are connected to reality and observation whilst at the same time incorporating a high level of stylisation it was a real revelation and opened a lot of doors. Somehow it gave me the confidence to let go of the need to make everything completely accurate and true to life.

The pictures in the book feel so warm and enticing to children because they look as if they were done in crayon. What medium did you do the book in, and which medium do you prefer?

The book is made with a combination of monoprint and pencil scanned in, layered together and then coloured in Photoshop. This process was something new I discovered while working on the early stages of this book and I feel it suits the story well.

I don’t know whether I have a favourite medium as I’m always trying to discover the best thing for a particular story. I do have a never ending love affair with screenprint but I find it rather too labour intensive for books; it is too much of a disaster when you get something wrong!

For me the choice of medium is always about creating a high enough level of uncertainty in the end result. I’m naturally a real perfectionist and so to fight against this I try to use media that I can’t fully control; often it is the mistakes or unexpected outcomes that lead to the biggest breakthrough in the artwork. I think that is why I like print techniques as you never really know how something is going to turn out until you’ve done it.

I adore the main character’s distinctive hair colour and matching slippers. Was this something that occured to you near the beginning of the process, or an inspired decision near the end?

Dora’s hair was pink right from the very first draft of the story – possibly because I’ve always wanted to have pink hair! What came later was the idea to incorporate some of the pink into the Wardrobe Monster to create a connection between the two characters. As if, even though this was an enormous scary monster, there was something in him that Dora could immediately recognise and empathise with.

You’ve avoided using gendered pronouns for the soft toys in your book. Was this a reaction to the recent survey regarding male gendered animals in picture books?

Whilst I thought that survey was incredibly interesting in terms of reflecting how we naturally tell stories, it wasn’t actually an influence on my decision; I made the choice right from the very beginning, a long time before the survey results came out. My reasoning was that I knew I wanted a female lead character in Dora – in large part because she represented me in the story – but I was very aware that I didn’t want to create a book that appealed solely to girls by designating the other characters as male or female.

I have a very clear idea in my head of the genders of the other characters because of who I have based them on in real life, but I wanted the reader to be able to see them in their own way.

You mention that you went to boarding school. Not many children are used to that concept now. Was it all midnight feasts and tuck shops?

Not really…there certainly was a tuck shop and the occasional midnight feast but mainly it was just lessons, really horrible school food and slightly old fashioned plumbing (my first school was in a very old stately home in Norfolk)! I went when I was 8 through until I left school at 17 and found it quite hard. You get used to the routine of being away from home but it doesn’t really make you miss it any less. What it does give you, however, is a fantastic education, as there are far fewer distractions and a lot of confidence in your own ability to cope with whatever life throws at you. Plus for me it gave me the inspiration for The Wardrobe Monster!

Do you have a favourite soft toy that you took/take to bed?

When I was born my grandmother made me a soft toy dog with long ears and a zip in her tummy for my pyjamas; I called her Debbie. She is now unbelievably battered and threadbare and is living out her well earned retirement at my Mum and Dad’s house.

Where do you do your illustrating? Do you have a particular desk/pen?

I have a little basement studio at our house in Surrey which I absolutely love! It is really quiet and peaceful and I can shut the door and get totally immersed in whatever I’m working on.

I don’t have a particular pen but I do have very specific tools for different jobs – for rough drawings and character development I need a Castell 9000 2B pencil and for monoprinting a Caran d’Ache Neocolor II crayon and Grafwood 3B pencil. I’d love to say that I’m really flexible and can pick up anything to draw with but if I don’t have those three things there is usually a bit of a crisis, followed by some speedy internet shopping!

Quickfire:
Favourite colour: Purple
Favourite biscuits: Dark chocolate digestives
Best TV show: Of all time? Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Most treasured childhood memory: Every year for my birthday we used to go to one of the local farms to see the new lambs, you could stroke them and pick them up, it was magical.
Best place in the world: Suffolk without a shadow of a doubt – that’s where I grew up.
Favourite childhood book: Hard to choose just one but Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, I must have read it or been read it dozens of times.

With thanks to Bryony Thomson for answering my questions. You can find her website here, and seek her on twitter here. If you want to read more about Bryony Thomson, have a look here tomorrow for more on Bryony’s blogtour, and you can buy your own copy of The Wardrobe Monster here

The Light Jar by Lisa Thompson

the light jarLisa Thompson excels at illuminating the darker, scary and more painful side of life, even when it penetrates children’s lives, and then shining a positive light on the situation and making the world glow brighter with hope.

Her first novel, The Goldfish Boy, shed some light on OCD, its effects, misunderstandings about it by peers, and the wretched humiliation it can cause (and yet all neatly tied up in a children’s mystery book). This latest, The Light Jar, enlightens the reader about even darker issues, including the effects of psychological abuse, the terror of being abandoned, and fears about darkness, but again does so in a clever and warm way, so that it never feels as if the issues highlighted overshadow the story or are so dark that they are inappropriate for the readership.

Nate and his mother run away to a tumbledown cottage, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. On the second day, Nate’s mother leaves to buy provisions, but never returns. But it turns out, he’s not completely alone, for comfort shines at him in the way of friendship from a mysterious girl called Kitty, solving a treasure hunt nearby, as well as the surprising appearance of a friend from the past.

Thompson intersperses Nate’s fear of being left alone, and worry for his missing mother, with humour in the way of a stray chicken and Nate’s Magic 8 ball, and a simply marvellous book that Nate carries round called ‘Freaky Things to Freak You Out’, a type of non-fiction mystery book. The book inspires Nate to solve Kitty’s treasure hunt, and provides humorous elements to the story. Indeed, although Nate doesn’t forget his fearful situation, Kitty’s treasure hunt propels the plot with an engrossing mystery to solve, and actively involves the reader by including rhyming clues within the text.

But with light, comes darkness too, and here Thompson crafts it in the way of Nate’s memories, which gradually show that Nate and his mother are escaping an abusive relationship with his mother’s new boyfriend. No physical violence is explored, but instead a creeping psychological abuse that’s threatening and horrifying to live through. Thompson deals with this gently, and with enormous understanding. The most interesting memory is that of Nate bringing home a friend for tea, and how the boyfriend deals with the situation. The manipulation of the play date is well handled, and the author here cleverly invokes both incredible sympathy for Nate, as well as empathy with the friend, who although he doesn’t realise what is going on, and isn’t friendly afterwards, would enable the reader to think twice in such situations before dismissing a friend so easily – there may be much going on behind closed doors, and awareness and understanding are key.

There’s no technology in the book (mobile phones/wifi etc) – characters must do away with traceable technology when they’re on the run, and the lack of it adds an extra dimension to the story, as well as intriguingly letting the plot remain highly contemporary and realistic. At first, the book reminded me of The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn by Tania Unsworth, another novel in which a child is seemingly abandoned by her mother and left within a crumbling house. And although there are similar fears and imaginings, The Light Jar soon veered off into different territory.

What both have in common though, is an expert handling of suspense, and text that flows effortlessly, engaging and enthralling the reader. Although The Light Jar has an horrific topic in the shadows, it feels both clever and warm and points to the wonder and light of friendship and hope.

There’s much light in Thompson’s writing; you’d be mad to keep it in the dark. You can purchase your copy here.

 

Halloween Round Up

Writers and publishers love cultural events upon which they can hook a theme – be it glowing Christmas scenes or the approach of a new season – windy autumns, growth in spring. Halloween seems to intensify every year in the UK – a very large percentage of the autumn books I received had a ‘spooky or witchy element’ to them, and I don’t mean that the pages turned by themselves (although that would be useful). So, to help you through the ghosts and ghoulies, here are my spooky and also witchy-themed picks:


Witch for a Week by Kaye Umansky, illustrated by Ashley King
Not unlike Sylvia Bishop’s stories, also illustrated by Ashley King, this latest from top children’s author Kaye Umansky is an absolutely charming story, which is ideal for newly independent readers. Elsie is recruited to house-sit for local witch Magenta Sharp for a week, and although promised a quiet easy week, has to contend with a host of quirky eccentric neighbours, a tower with personality, and a grumpy talking raven. Each character is well-defined, and Elsie herself is beautifully drawn as unflappable, book-loving, and kind.

The book contains some lovely touches, including hilarious customer service rules (Elsie has been schooled in retail), a love potion that goes awry, a book of instructions that seems to be blank, and a sassy witch whose business is mainly mail-order. Sumptuously modern, but with an old-fashioned fairy tale feel, this is one new witchy series which I’ll be recommending to all. Fun, memorable, touching and bubbly – a real hug of a book. Magic it here.


Spectre Collectors: Too Ghoul for School by Barry Hutchison, illustrator Rob Biddulph
Some books just scream cinema. This highly visual first-in-a-series will delight comedy fans everywhere. Opening mid-action, Denzel is in the middle of maths homework when his home appears to be invaded at first by a poltergeist, and then by two figures with a gun. Before long, he too is recruited to be part of the ‘Spectre Collectors’, a kind of cross between Ghostbusters and Men in Black, an organisation in which children use magic and technology to rid the world of ‘spectres’.

With impeccable timing on jokes, sparkling top-class humorous dialogue between Denzel and his mates, and great variety of action scenes, this is a wonderful ghostly spoof. Beware a terrifying episode in the middle in which Denzel’s two fathers don’t remember him at all – as if his existence has been scrubbed from the world – but there are enough laughs and improbabilities to combat the darkness. For age 8-12 years. Spook it here.


Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball by Laura Ellen Anderson
Vampire Amelia wants to hang out with her pet pumpkin Squashy, but her parents insist she attends their Barbaric Ball. When Squashy is captured, Amelia must plan a daring rescue. This highly illustrated read for 7-9 year olds dazzles with superb illustrations, macabre puns, (including diePhones, scream teas and daymares), and is set in a grisly Nocturnia. But Amelia is a fun, endearing and captivating protagonist, and Anderson’s energy shines through with exuberance in both the prose and the illustrations. Much of the normal landscape has been inverted of course, with the characters sleeping by day and playing by night, as well as ‘cute’ things being feared, and gruesomeness celebrated. Join the vampires here.


Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Kathryn Ourst
I’m not convinced Amelia would love Vlad, but this reader certainly did. Another vampire adventure for 7-9 year olds, Vlad isn’t keen on being a vampire. He secretly reads a rather jolly boarding school book about normal children and decides that it would be nicer to live an Enid Blyton-esque existence. Anna Wilson’s trademark humour works a treat in this rather adorable little adventure, in which Vlad tries to balance his life between human school, in which they don’t realise he’s a vampire, and home life, in which he has to hide his new friends from his family.

Added to the plot are some wonderful little touches, such as his new friends telling Vlad that he needs to get his teeth fixed, to Vlad’s relationship with his very elderly grandfather, but mainly his growing friendship with Minxie. Ourst’s illustrations are a joy – very cartoonlike with gleeful vibrancy. The final picture of Minxie and Vlad laughing is enough to bring a smile to any youngster’s face. A thoroughly enjoyable vampire adventure story, sparkling with wit and warmth. Look out on the blog to see a guest contribution from author Anna Wilson next week, and you can show Vlad some pathos by buying your own copy here.


You Can’t Make Me Go to Witch School by Em Lynas, illustrated by Jamie Littler
A slightly longer adventure story from Nosy Crow publishers for the 7+ age group, which sees the advent of another little witch. Daisy Wart wants to be an actress, more particularly she wants to star as Shakespeare’s Bottom on the stage. But when her grandmother dumps her at Witch School, she struggles to escape, despite all her dramatics. This is a strange school, with cauldrons for beds, pupil-eating plants in the school garden, and the ghost of the former headmistress stalking the corridors – a step up from the sudden appearances of Miss Hardbroom in The Worst Witch.

There are highly original touches and a fixation with hats to distinguish this from other ‘witchy school’ books, and Daisy is a protagonist who definitely fulfils the role of leading lady, with her particular brand of speech and her innermost thoughts about the other characters. First in a series, this book sets up further adventures rather nicely, when Daisy, as I’m sure you’ve all guessed, decides that maybe acting isn’t the only thing she could be good at. Littler’s illustrations work their magic here too – bringing the whole ensemble to life. Join Witch School here.


School for Little Monsters by Michelle Robinson and Sarah Horne
I do sometimes wonder where Michelle Robinson finds the time to write so many picture books, but here’s another one that ticks all the boxes. The book follows two children – Bob and Blob – one a human, one a monster – due to start their first days at school. But sadly for them, some naughty monsters have swapped signs and Bob and Blob attend the wrong schools. Rhyming text pulls the reader through this great mash-up of ‘experience’ and ‘monster’ genres, as the reader finds out about their first days at school. The rules for monsters and humans are apparently a little different. Great fun, superbly funny, colourful illustrations, with lots of mayhem. As with all great picture books, the illustrations speak louder than the words. The message is that school is good, as long as you’re at the right one…Be a little monster here.


An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings by Aidan Onn and illustrated by Rob Hodgson
Actually, this should probably be at the top of the pile, as the book very cleverly introduces and explains the different types of monsters, from aliens to zombies. Each letter takes a different ‘magical’ being, with a full double spread committed to it. There are plenty of wacky, although somewhat simply conceived, illustrations in matt, muted colours, accompanied by a small paragraph of text, which is more playful than it is informative. Learn the alphabet here.


Pretty by Canizales
A message in a book, this witchy picture book contribution to Halloween and beyond, is a story about a witch with a date, who wants to look her best. The creatures she meets on route give her hints as to how to better her appearance, but by the end of course, her date is disappointed with her new looks. Rather like wearing a little too much make up. The message is obvious – be yourself, but there’s also a rather dark twist at the end. The witch is brilliantly depicted – simplistic and rather lovingly drawn – despite her perceived failings, from hooked nose to pointy chin. Nice touches include her choice of outfits! Be pretty here. Happy Halloween!

Watch out too for my extract from Scarecrow by Danny Weston coming soon – for an ideal first horror book for your 11 year old (and up!)

Diggers and Dinosaurs (and Dodos)

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

Emotional Literacy: Books about feelings

Young children may find it difficult to identify and express their feelings, and quite often it can come out as difficult or disruptive behaviour. In others, feelings may be locked away and expressed only in silence. Key strategies for helping children to express their feelings include learning how to identify what they are feeling – naming feelings and giving them labels is vastly helpful. As is learning to identify them in others – by facial expressions for example. After naming the feelings, it helps to talk about them. And books are excellent ways to trigger an emotional response:

feelings

Feelings by Richard Jones and Libby Walden
Sometimes with children, one way to ask them to express how they are feeling about something is to ask them to draw a picture. A yellow sunshine or a black sky can give a clear indication of emotion. Richard Jones explores this with his debut picture book, Feelings. With the same boy on each spread (die-cut so that he remains the same while all around him changes), emotions are evoked throughout the book by a series of images on each page.

The illustrations cleverly surround the child – changing mood with colour, texture, shapes and illustrations, all of which convey the emotion expressed in the rhyming couplet text.

Each double page is a different emotion. Brave is expressed with a beautiful orange sky at sunrise or sunset, and acres of land below, as the boy stands atop a mountain:

“The journey might be hard and the path may not be straight,
but if you’re bold and carry on, the view below looks great!”

Angry is red, the boy halfway up an erupting volcano, whereas Happy sees him surrounded by smaller images in a variety of bright colours – mainly depicting nature, from flowers to dancing dogs, symbols of love, music, and a string of coloured lights. Jealous shows the boy atop a mountain again, but this time set in a green land, watching a girl on pink hills riding a bike with a flock of red and pink birds rising behind her.

“Your vision blurs, your mind is fixed on things you do not own
and as green steam begins to rise, you give an envious moan.”

Other emotions include Alone, Embarrassed, Excited, Afraid and even Calm – and there’s a strong call to empathy at the end of the book as other children join our boy in a beautiful orange and blue palette of child-friendly images, from swinging on a tree branch to walking a dog, and breathing in the air from a calm sunny winter’s day. A host of smaller illustrations at the bottom of the page give different scenes, and each one could be discussed by the reader – how does each picture make you feel?

This is a clever book – enabling emotions to be discussed frankly against a background of an appealing, calming and emotive collection of landscapes and illustrations. Showing that emotional literacy and visual literacy are meshed together. You can buy it here.

a-book-of-feelings

A Book of Feelings by Amanda McCardie, illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino
A more overt and explicit show of emotions is discussed in this new book from McCardie and Rubbino. Rather than filled with abstract landscapes and vignettes, this book goes to the heart of the family. Rubbino portrays two children, Sam and Kate, with their mum and dad and Fuzzy Bean, their dog. Then by illustrating everyday actions and situations, Rubbino and McCardie draw attention to the different emotions felt, and give them names.

They start with happy (a very good place to start), and Kate and Sam look directly at the reader. This is a brilliant way to invite the child reader to bond with the characters – their facial expressions and body language invite the reader right inside the book, and therefore into the emotions of Sam and Kate.

Throughout the book, the family are seen doing everyday things. Things that make them happy, such as saving a goal, reading, drawing etc. And, in a gorgeous full double page spread, showing that they are loved. In bed with their parents, sharing breakfast, amidst the clutter of their home. It feels intimate, and safe and comfortable, and again, makes the reader feel included.

But, of course, it explains over the next few pages, that everyone experiences different emotions, and although they are still loved, sometimes Mum gets cross, and Dad might get sad or angry. A raft of emotional feelings is explored and explained, including grumpiness, nervousness, feeling shy, feeling embarrassed, feeling scared and sad. What’s clever here is that not only does the author explain that sometimes saying sorry or thank you can be difficult when you’re not feeling happy and gracious, but also that sometimes you can feel mixed emotions, and that people express their emotions differently. An easy one to explain is that Mum cries when she is happy and sometimes sad people don’t cry. I particularly loved:

“Sam cries when he’s had a bad fall, or can’t explain something, or he’s tired.
Kate cries when she can’t think what she feels, or she’s downright cross.”

The author stretches the family a little to include a friend whose parents are separating. A myriad of emotions come out here, as well as a clear explanation of what she needs from Kate and Sam’s family to help her.

Death too is dealt with – the death of a pet, and even the dog’s emotions. Jealousy is first explained with Fuzzy Bean, and then goes back in time to when Kate was born, and Sam’s jealousy of his new sibling.

Bullying too is explored, as well as one of the reasons behind it.

This is a fabulously thought out book. Both entertaining, with delightful illustrations that make the reader feel part of the family, and which contain a great deal of detail of the family home, so that each picture needs intense scrutiny, as well as deciphering (very easily) which emotion is being explored. Mostly though, there is an overriding sense of understanding for each member of the family, and love, so that by the end, a young child will be able to see that emotions are in flux all the time, but as long as there’s a basic grounding of love and understanding, they will be fine. A great addition to any bookshelf. You can buy it here.

meh

Meh by Deborah Malcolm
Of course sometimes it’s a little more complicated than that. Meh is a wordless picture book that explores depression. A young boy is shown happy – he draws pictures, runs across a rainbow. But then an abstract shape of darkness appears and pulls him inside, and then he appears trapped in page after page of darkness.

Finally, he sees a way out and follows a trail to overcome the darkness. Cleverly, Malcolm has illustrated this with enormous dexterity, so that not only does the way out look glowing and illuminated, but also it looks incredibly difficult for the boy to climb out from the darkness.

There’s quite a limited pool of resources explaining depression to children. In fact, it’s a fairly difficult thing to explain to adults too. This wordless picture book shows that depression can happen to children too – and is a great starting point to talk about it – to explain that it’s something that happens and can happen to anyone and importantly, is not something that can just be shaken off by a kick about in the park etc.

The boy seems fairly age-less in the story, which is good as the book can appeal to a wider audience. His way out of the depression is through a vague, illuminated white cat, which could be a symbol for a variety of things that pull someone out of depression, and because the story is left wordless and fairly vague, the emotional literacy is left to the reader to decipher and interpret in a way that resonates with them.

Meh has questions at the end of the book for further discussion, although I feel that the illustrations themselves pose enough questions to talk through as the book is read. But it is an excellent tool for dealing with this complicated issue, and quite unique in its marketplace. You can find it here.

 

All three books were sent to me by the publishers for review. 

 

Before I Wake Up by Britta Teckentrup

Before I Wake Up cover

Britta Teckentrup has illustrated more than 80 children’s picture books, and this latest, Before I Wake Up is one of her best. It has a soothing, dream-like quality, encapsulating the essence of the idea, which is a book that portrays a child’s nighttime in the most reassuring way possible. It follows the dreamscape of a little girl, accompanied by her toy lion, and taking ideas and articles from her life with her – yet distorting everything slightly – as happens in dreams.

Like in Teckentrup’s picture book about the changing seasons, Tree, the colour palate blends and merges like a tonal rainbow, from the intensity of a dark night to the encroaching glow of morning. By using collage – layers of transparent images – the dreamlike quality escalates, the further into the book the reader goes.

Although a typical journey of a children’s book, it is the clever use of imagery that pulls. The moon transforms into a hot air balloon – pulling the child’s bed through her subconscious with a dreamy consistency. Other images are repeated and warped slightly, yet soothe and reassure; the toy lion is a companion who leads the little girl through the night. The lion grows in the dreamscape, but as a protector rather than a predator – putting his arms around the child in the storms.

There is an innate sensitivity to the images, pared with rhyming text that contains a multitude of soothing words, such as gaze, stars, song, rocking, safe, kisses.

The face of the little girl in repose both absorbs this stillness and also offers assurances. The dazzling brightness of daytime comes into play in the final pages, the yellow hue so powerful it is as if you really have opened your eyes from a dream. Wonderful stuff. For anyone who’s ever had a worrying, sleepless night.

Below, Doris Kutschback, Editor-in-Chief of the publishers, Prestel Junior, explains how the book came about.

Can you give some background information as to how the book was created?

When Britta showed me the book she had already worked on it for a long time. It was a project of the heart. I was very excited by it straight away and we sat down together and selected the spreads that would make it into the final book out of a vast selection of images.

The book is a 56pp picture book and not a typical 32pp picture book… why have you chosen a longer format?

The rhythm of the story didn’t allow for it to be cut down to 32pp. How can you travel through a whole night if you’re limited to 12 spreads?

Was the original text written in German or English (Britta was born and lives in Germany)?

It was written in English and it was not that easy to translate the English rhymes into German.

What do you love about the book?

I mainly love the soft tones and how the lion gives the girl strength with his subtle tenderness. I love the soft flow of the images as they guide you through the night. It’s all very harmonious without ever getting boring.  The mood is perfect for this subject matter. I also really like the paper and the whole look and feel of the book…it all works together very well.

Have you got a favourite page?

My personal favourite is – ‘…I wish I could stay in this wilderness…’

fav spread

Is there anything you would have done differently?

No!

What was it like working together with Britta on this book?

She’s perfect! Super professional, super relaxed and unpretentious…She is a fantastic artist and isn’t a diva but always very modest which makes working with her a great joy. I enjoy brainstorming with her and I have got the feeling that we are on the same wavelength – we always understand immediately what the other person is talking about.

Britta 1Britta in her studio

Thanks so much to Prestel for providing the interview and the book review copy. You can visit Britta’s website at www.brittateckentrup.com or find her on twitter @BTeckentrup. You can purchase a copy of Before I Wake Up… here

 

The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn by Tania Unsworth

Daisy Fitzjohn

Tania Unsworth has written a most compelling thriller for children, using a mixture of tense suspense and magical realism to tell a story of depth, mystery and adventure.

Daisy lives with her mother in a huge, crumbling mansion called Brightwood Hall. She has never left the grounds, so when her mother goes on a shopping trip and doesn’t return, Daisy is left completely alone. She has to make a crucial decision – should she venture into the wider world or wait at home in the house and surrounding gated grounds until her mother returns.

Then a stranger arrives, and secrets in her family, and those contained within Brightwood Hall, begin to be revealed and cast Daisy into more danger than she could possibly have imagined. She must decide again whether to protect the mansion and her ‘friends’ within, or whether to find help outside the gates.

As well as a weaving a spellbinding tale, Tania Unsworth has threaded immense depth into the book, with themes of memory and the power of imagination. Daisy’s mother is a hoarder – she keeps objects from each day as memories inside ‘Day Boxes’, which stack up inside the mansion. Added to this are Daisy’s own conversations with an imaginary friend, and her belief that the objects that make up the mansion are living and can talk with her – from the portraits lining the walls, to the topiary hedge shapes in the garden, to the animals roaming the grounds.

This magical realism enables her to explore her own mind and memory, and prepare her to battle the dangerous stranger who invades her space.

Of course, as with all great books about a character being alone, the protagonist has to resonate extremely strongly with the reader, and gain their sympathy – and Daisy does. She is likeable, introspective but interesting, and brave despite her increasing vulnerability. Her fears of abandonment, her anger at her mother, then her despair and loneliness, are tangible and realistic – as juxtaposed with the ‘magic’ of things around her. The two concepts spar brilliantly with each other – and the reader is left to decipher what is real and what isn’t – and what the mind does when left to its own devices, and how it deals with the world when it is fighting for survival.

The setting itself is striking and highly visual – the expansive grounds, some wild some tamed, the house with its towers of ‘Day Boxes’, old artefacts, and plentiful rooms – some shrouded and hidden – others open and comforting.

Yet despite the depth within the text, this is a thrilling adventure/mystery story that is easy to read – the plot skims along at pace, the characters are well-drawn and identifiable, and it promotes thought. It’s a highly memorable book, and one of my top reads so far this year. For age 9+. You should definitely read this book – and if you want to, you can buy it here.

 

I was sent a copy for review by Orion publishers, but also worked on some readers’ notes for this book.