fiction

The More It Snows…

Snow Eastman
This December it’s not quite cold enough for snow, and set to get warmer by the day in London this week. However, for me, the magic of Christmas is still tied to a snowy landscape. There is something special about snow. No other weather creates such a magical environment for a young child. In recent years in London we’ve had on average one ‘snow day’ a year, in which the schools close and it’s free play outside all day. One book from my childhood readily sums up the delight of this day, Snow by Roy McKie and P.D. Eastman. Published in the US as part of the Dr Seuss beginners’ series to learn to read, the basic text and smile-inducing illustrations capture the excitement in a nutshell.

Snow inside Eastman
Tobogganing, skiing, snow angels, snow ball fights, snowman building, igloo building, and of course the ultimate melting are all covered. The verses are simple yet so effective:
“Snow is good
For making tracks…
And making pictures
With your backs.”

Snow is my favourite
More recent offerings also manage to convey the happiness of a snow day, and the inevitable melting. Snow is My Favourite and My Best by Lauren Child in the Charlie and Lola book series manages to express the impatience of a child in wanting to go and play immediately before it all goes away. The tradition of my children having hot chocolate after coming in from a snow day was heavily influenced by this book! There are some important lessons here though, encouraging children to think about how to make something special. Is snow so special because it doesn’t happen every day? Both of these manage to convey the fleetingness of snow.

snow by sam usher

My new favourite is Snow by Sam Usher. From the front cover, it’s already apparent that Sam can conjure an atmosphere with a few simple pen lines. In no other picture book is the tempting flat whiteness of unspoilt snow so cleverly drawn. That impatience to go out, seen earlier in Charlie and Lola, is beautifully manifested in the slapdash hurry to get dressed, brush teeth and tie shoes…all commonly hurried activities in the impatient young. Then a breathtaking spread of pure white in front of the reader, as the snow is in front of the child. However, the book doesn’t let us leap into the snow, because, like the boy in the story we have to wait for his grandpa to be ready and take him – and then when they finally go, after the agony of watching everyone and everything else trample the fresh snow – there’s a great surprise in store. Set to be a children’s classic – I can’t wait for Sam’s next book.

Snow Bears1snow bears inside

From new to old – Snow Bears by Martin Waddell is a simple tale of a mother bear who pretends not to know where her baby bears are because they are all covered in snow and so look different. They play games in the snow, until the little one says its cold and they all go home. For me it’s the page where they return home to eat their toast that really makes me want to hug this book! Sarah Fox Davies’ illustration of the bears illuminated in the warm glow spilling out from the wooden hut sums up that wonderful feeling you only get by going into the warmth after getting cold and wet and breathless in snowy activities. The new pop up version was published in September this year.

Snow Day

Snow Day by Richard Curtis is another addition to the snow canon of picture books. I was very excited about this as it is illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, one of my favourite stars in the world of children’s illustration. The pictures certainly didn’t let me down, especially the army of snowmen, and the empty classroom. The premise is that there is a ‘snow day’ but the worst schoolboy and the strictest teacher don’t get the message (despite the emails and phone calls) and turn up to school.  What could be a miserable day turns into a day of lessons in the snow, and by the end they seem to be good friends. This is definitely a picture book for slightly older children, the length of the book and references to structured lessons ensure this.

Snow Walter de la Mare

My last new book for this Christmas with snowy landscapes is Snow by Walter de la Mare, illustrated by Carolina Rabei. This is a beautiful picture book – the illustrations create a nostalgia for Christmases in peaceful sleepy snowy villages, with happy excited children and a natural landscape of trees and robin red-breasts with no cars or modern city references to spoil the footprints in the snow.
inside snow walter de la mare
The colour adds to the picture perfectness of the book – muted browns and beiges, with splashes of true red for hats and curtains and presents, which bring to life the characters within. The picture of Father Christmas on his sleigh speeding through the swirling snow against a black backdrop sky is truly stunning. However, I can’t help but think that the wonder of the illustrations detracts from the beauty of the poetic words themselves – reading it in isolation conjures more of the magic than read piecemeal sentence by sentence across a book, but if it brings the magic of a great poet into the lives of children I can’t quibble.

Little Honey Bear and the Smiley Moon1

One final mention for a book that is not strictly about snow, but contains a story in a snowy landscape. If you want a bit of glitter on your snow, this is the one for you. (tip: read under electric light). Little Honey Bear and the Smiley Moon by Gillian Lobel, illustrated by Tim Warnes is a common enough tale of friendship – Little Honey Bear sets out to reach the moon with two of his friends, gets lost in the dark, and is finally found by Mummy Bear. However, I love this book for the liberal use of glitter to highlight the illustrations on each page – it brings the magic home for Christmas.

Little Honey Bear and the Smiley Moon

Seen and Not Heard by Katie May Green

Seen and Not Heard2

Purportedly inspired by looking at portraits hanging in galleries, Katie May Green’s stunning picture book contains some of the most ‘alive’ illustrations I have seen in a while. It tells the story of the children of Shiverhawk Hall who climb out of their portraits at night and run riot in the huge house. The mischievousness of the children builds throughout the book, from their slow descent from their picture frames, and climaxing with their pillow fight in the bedroom. Each illustration is worth looking at for quite some time to pick up all the detail and nuance within, our favourite definitely being the children running down the wood-panelled corridor. The look in the children’s eyes throughout the book is quite priceless. The small children with whom I read the book found the language a little difficult and so I’m suggesting that this is a picture book aimed at slightly older children (5+). However, the language matches the imagery; the rhythm reflects the children’s race around the house, and ends with the delightful quiet of them back in their picture frames:
“They stay still and sweet and good,
just like children should.”
An exquisite book to treasure, and one which would make a beautiful gift this Christmas.

Seen and Not Heard

The Dark All Around Us

Many small children have a fear of the dark. This can be difficult to address because the dark is an abstract idea; the fear is of the unknown, which makes it hard to conjure in a picture book. However, I have found five books that I think do the job really well in different ways. I’ve listed them in a kind of youngest to oldest order (lots of quibble room here though).

can't you sleep little bear

Can’t you Sleep Little Bear by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Barbara Firth

Although not immediately apparent that this about a fear of the dark, Can’t you Sleep Little Bear displays a perfect juxtaposition of darkness and light. The book kicks off with a light-drenched illustration as the bears play in the snow in bright sunlight, but then soon retreat home for bed to the Bear Cave as the sun goes down. Immediately the illustrations move to the ‘dark’ part of the cave where Little Bear is trying (and failing) to sleep. During the course of the book, Big Bear fetches larger and larger lanterns for Little Bear in the hope of trying to disperse the “dark all around us”. There’s no magic resolution to the story, as it becomes apparent that tiredness overcomes the fear in the end, but it does try to illustrate that there is no real dark, as even outside in the dark, the moon and stars overcome it, and Little Bear ends up “warm and safe in Big Bear’s arms”. There is nothing remotely frightening in this book, no hidden shadows or shapes in the ‘darkness’, just a comforting glow of the adult space. In this way, it can comfort the smallest of children. (There’s even a touch of humour added for the impatient grown up reader).

can't you sleep little bear2

 

There’s a Dragon Downstairs by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Amanda Harvey
This book won various awards about a decade ago and tackles the darkness in a solid way by illuminating the dark’s distortion of everyday things into monstrous entities; the darkness makes the familiar appear fearsome. Even the pencil lines of the illustrations indicate the ephemeral shadiness of the darkness. There is much sympathy for our protagonist Sophie from her parents, who valiantly search the house for the dragon, although in the end it is Sophie who must fight her own demons! Of course, the end is beautifully reassuring (spoiler alert!) – the dragon is revealed to be none other than the friendly domestic cat. A great way to explore a child’s fear without stating the obvious.

 there's a dragon downstairs

The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, illustrated by Paul Howard
A beautiful picture book, which I read as a child as a chapter book – today it is published in both formats. The owl parents in this instance are ‘laissez-faire’ parents, sending the child owl ‘Plop’ to do some research on why it’s good to be a night owl! Plop interviews various humans (and a cat) about the dark to find out why they like it. Each character supplies Plop with a new adjective about the dark:
“The small boy said DARK IS EXCITING. The old lady said DARK IS KIND. The little girl said DARK IS NECESSARY. The man with the telescope said DARK IS WONDERFUL.”
Jill Tomlinson manages to convey Plop’s stubborn childlike qualities in his language;
“I still do not like it AT ALL”,
although he is persuaded in the end. The picture book, illustrated by Paul Howard, conveys the excitement of the fireworks and the magical quality of the night stars, as well providing the most exquisite owl drawings. A book that confronts the fear head on! I never tire of it.

owl who was afraid3owl who was afraid1

 

The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen

A more recent picture book that confronts the fear head on is The Dark. The pictures as much as the text in this book simulate the fear of the little boy Laszlo, who is seen only in rays of light, while the rest of the page stays in the dark. The dark is even personified here, given a voice halfway through the book, which itself is pretty frightening:
“The voice of the dark was as creaky as the roof of the house, and as smooth and cold as the windows, and even though the dark was right next to Laszlo, the voice seemed very far away.”
I’ve suggested this is for slightly older readers because although immensely powerful, during most of the book the illustrations are fairly threatening. Laszlo is a brave hero and ventures further and further into the dark, until the dark is finally explained by Snicket, in fact – explained in the same way as the little girl in The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark – as being necessary! The darkness is also generous in The Dark, giving Laszlo a lightbulb to explain how without the dark:
“you would never know if you needed a lightbulb”.
A tricky concept, adeptly handled.

Dark Lemony Snicket

Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett
This is not strictly about the dark, although there is a page about being alone or in the dark, but Emily Gravett’s book uses a different tool from the other books to conquer fears, which is perhaps worth mentioning here: art. Big Book of Fears sets out lots of things that may be frightening, from common childhood fears of dogs and getting lost, to fears that are slightly more obscure, such as fear of clocks, but each time the illustrator implores you to overcome your fears through use of art. Not such a bad idea, when for children, expressing emotions through pictures can be an illuminating task. The other undercurrent here for confronting and defeating fear is humour. The scared mouse taking us through the pages, delights parent and child alike as it recoils from ‘knives’ in a page that features newspaper cuttings on the ‘three blind mice and the farmer’s wife’. There are some excellent pull-outs here too – the page on heights features an exciting map of the Isle of Fright. A great book for starting a conversation about what’s scary and how fears can be confronted and conquered.

Little Mouse book of fears